Bowsette: memes and fandom culture under late capitalism
This is the edited script of a micro-presentation that I gave as part of my MA in Cultural and Critical Studies at Birkbeck, University of London on 2018–10–29.
Edit 2019–04–29: A slightly extended version of this was also presented at Fantastic! Conference 2019 in Sheffield, UK on 2019–04–26.
In September of this year, Nintendo released a trailer for New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe (2019) for the Nintendo Switch games console. (1) The trailer depicts a new feature whereby one character, Toadette, can find a special power-up, the Super Crown, which turns her into a new character, Peachette, with different jumping abilities.
One week later, Twitter user @ayyk92 posted a comic extrapolating on the powers of the Super Crown and depicting Bowser, the protagonist of the Mario games, using it to turn into an attractive princess. (2)
Exploiting the implied ability of the Super Crown, fans and enthusiasts quickly turned to imagining and drawing other Mario characters as gender-swapped versions. On Japanese Twitter, the hashtag #クッパ姫 (or Koopa hime translatable as “Princess Bowser”) went from 400,000 to over a million tweets in a span of less than 6 hours. (3) For a good week, Bowsette and other variations were the meme du jour among the communities of Twitter and Tumblr. The depictions of Bowsette in particular veered towards the extremely horny.
The half-life of memes is increasingly shrinking and so the Bowsette meme from September is now incredibly stale but I’d like to briefly explore the appeal of the Bowsette concept and what the intense but brief popularity of this meme says about fandom culture under late capitalism.
Fandom cultures are, to some extent, about a feeling of ownership. Fans seize upon certain cultural properties and characters and use fan fiction, slash fiction, and memes to assert their ability to control those characters and narratives, often in ways that the content creators did not intend. We see this fan ownership played out positively in the explicitly gay and queer slash fiction produced by fans of the TV shows Sherlock (2010-), Hannibal (2013–2015) (4), and Star Trek: The Original Series (1966–1969) and we see it negatively in the aggressive reaction of certain fans when Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) failed to meet preconceived ideas of the themes of a Star Wars film and how the characters in it would behave. (5) In their study of the backlash to The Hobbit (2012–2014) film series, Michelle and others refer to the fans’ dissatisfaction with the films and their sense of ownership over the mishandled characters as “resistance to… the capital-intensive commodification of culture.” (6). Their conclusion invokes the sense of ownership felt by fan communities and how this can function as a protest: “…the growing disaffection for The Hobbit among existing fans of the wider franchise, and among Tolkien enthusiasts in particular, might be better understood as simultaneously a protest against growing corporate ownership and control over collective cultural and creative resources by individuals who claim a stake in the representation and expansion of those shared properties.” (7)
Bowsette is an extension of the same sense of ownership on the part of fandom culture and offers further evidence of how fandom can serve as resistance to increased corporatisation of cultural products under capitalism. Bowsette is an interesting case because I speculate that the intensity of the Bowsette meme was a direct reaction to the strict control that Nintendo has historically maintained over its IPs. Nintendo ranks alongside the likes of The Walt Disney Company for retaining and controlling licensing of its characters very strictly. This was codified in the Nintendo Seal of Quality which appeared on Nintendo video games and “ensur[ed] high-caliber product and [made] software developers beholden to Nintendo’s approval.” (8). Nintendo’s third-party licensing program ensured the company’s control over their IPs while also creating artificial scarcity for its physical hardware and software to drive up demand: “Howard Lincoln’s strict licensing agreement enabled software designers to make games for the NES [Nintendo Entertainment System console] but restricted the quantity they could make (five titles per year), required full payment up front (months before revenue from a game would be seen), and charged a hefty royalty (around 10 percent). In addition to these stringent terms, all game makers needed to purchase their cartridges directly from Nintendo. This ensured peerless quality but also allowed NOA [Nintendo of America] to dictate price, schedule, and production allocation…” (9)
Fans fiercely seized upon the Super Crown and its implications for characters like Bowser to express a sense of ownership over the Mario characters and to feel control over the products of a corporation who usually holds onto control so firmly. Bowsette represents a fan reaction correlated in intensity with the lack of control that the fans have felt with regards to Nintendo characters. In its own strange way, the meme of Bowsette represents resistance to corporate-controlled media and the commodification of our shared culture.
(1) Nintendo. ‘Nintendo Direct 9.13.2018’. YouTube [online] updated 13 September 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRuHg1dv8MI> [Accessed 13 October 2018].
(2) @ayyk92. ‘The Super Crown’s some spicy new Mario lore,’ Twitter [online] updated 19 September 2018. Available from: <https://twitter.com/ayyk92/status/1042465252221181954> [Accessed 13 October 2018].
(3) Know Your Meme. ‘Bowsette,’ Know Your Meme [online] updated 1 October 2018. Available from: <https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/bowsette> [Accessed 13 October 2018].
(4) Aja Romano. ‘Gay cannibal fiction divides “Hannibal” fans’. The Daily Dot. 15 April 2013. <https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/gay-hannibal-fandom-homophobia-problem/> [Accessed 13 October 2018].
(5) Todd VanDerWerff. ‘The “backlash” against Star Wars: The Last Jedi, explained’. Vox. 19 December 2017. <https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/12/18/16791844/star-wars-last-jedi-backlash-controversy> [Accessed 13 October 2013]
(6) Carolyn Michelle, Charles H. Davis, Ann L. Hardy, and Craig Hight. Fans, Blockbusterisation, and the Transformation of Cinematic Desire: Global Receptions of The Hobbit Film Trilogy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 21.
(7) Michelle and others, p. 420.
(8) Blake J. Harris. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation (London: Atlantic Books, 2014), p. 71.
(9) Harris, p. 71.