Rick and Morty Toxic Fandom, Explained
2017 was the year that Rick and Morty gained notoriety as housing the Internet’s most toxic fandom after two events which sent a wave of cringe over our Twitter feeds: (1) The Deplorable Doxxing, and (2) The Szechuan Sauce Fiasco. When R&M season 3 aired, fans who weren’t pleased with the show took to Twitter to blame it on the new female writers who were hired after two seasons of an all-male writing staff. Enraged fans on 4chan published the new writers’ personal information online (doxxed) in an effort to scare them out of their jobs. Other fans called them SJWs (social justice warriors), a derogatory term often used in alt-right discourse. On October 7, 2017, select USA McDonald’s locations re-released its Szechuan Sauce from its promotion of Mulan (1998) during its theatrical run as a nod to protagonist Rick Sanchez’s verbal mention of the sauce in R&M S03E01. The gesture quickly proved to be disastrous as supplies ran out, fights broke out, staff were verbally abused, riots erupted, and police arrived at multiple locations to quell the uproar.
Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland not only created a wildly popular sci-fi comedy animated TV show, but also (inadvertently) gave Internet trolls a protagonist to justify their online/public behavior: Rick Sanchez. In the show, Rick is a narcissistic scientist who sees himself as superior to others, pursues self-interest, nihilistically disregards all social expectations, and openly boasts of his intelligence. Rick is cast as an anti-hero, which comes with the same celebration and deification as Walter White (Breaking Bad) or Tony Soprano (The Sopranos). Rick’s anti-heroism exhibits all of the qualities of an Internet troll, which might serve as an endorsement for R&M fans to express their innermost prejudices on Reddit, YouTube comment sections, or Twitter. I’m attempting to delineate (1) how Rick’s character reinforces toxic behaviors such as intellectual elitism and misogyny, and (2) the manifestations of this toxicity and how it relates to fans’ attachment to Rick as a justifying icon for their innermost prejudices. My analysis is ultimately seeking to understand how these fan practices might set a precedent for The Deplorable Doxxing and The Szechuan Sauce Fiasco, and how R&M illuminates larger patterns in toxic fandoms.
Rick Sanchez: Internet Troll Extraordinaire
Rick Sanchez’s nihilism, cynicism, and narcissism are expressed through a tragic personality that copes with existential indifference by traveling across dimensions, inventing new gadgets, fighting (or fornicating with) aliens, and doing all the things that the smartest man in the universe would do. The show confronts the existentially-challenging depths of philosophy and quantum physics while having a character named Mr. Poopy Butthole. In other words, the show’s tone playfully wavers between intelligent discourse and lowbrow humor. Regardless, it’s accessible to any viewer by virtue of its lucid execution of such complex topics. Rick’s tragic personality and unmatched intelligence are thus accompanied with catchphrases such as “I’m Pickle Rick!” and “Wubba lubba dubdub!” The show’s confrontation of complex topics through an intelligent/arrogant character has generated toxic fans who often say, “you’re just not smart enough to get my show.” R&M takes this superiority complex to an egregious level because its protagonist is a genius who is condescending toward others with his intelligence. Andrea Braithwaite, an expert on Gamergate and geek masculinity, claims that toxic fans perceive their representation in Rick as an endorsement of their narcissism. Consequently, R&M is the home for a subsection of fans who seek to (1) replicate Rick’s narcissism or (2) use his character as a form of justification for their previously-held superiority complexes.
Toxic R&M fans’ online activity, (declaring intellectual superiority, gatekeeping on the basis of intelligence, using Rick’s catchphrases, etc.) could be a confrontation of their “most repressive forms of [prejudice]” and an effort to provide “alternatives to current configurations of [trolling].” (Jenkins 189–190) In the same way that certain fan practices are tactical responses to sociopolitical environments (i.e. slash), toxic R&M fans use their R&M fandom to justify their socially dismissed behaviors. This fan practice raises the implication of a dynamic that may exist between socially marginalized consumers and mainstream content that represents them, whereby the consumers appropriate the content in order to legitimize themselves by means of representation. Toxic R&M fans have found representation in a mainstream character and are tactically using the show as a means to justify their behaviors. They have “chosen the path of least resistance in borrowing ready-made figures… to express their [prejudices].” (Jenkins 196) The toxic subsection of R&M fans are likely often virtually exiled because of their trolling, but they are able to “rework or invert” (Jenkins 196) the assumptions about trolls by using Rick as a model to sustain an alternative mode of trolling based on his character. Perhaps R&M is a masturbatory source from which these fans can express their innermost prejudices under the sanctioning guise of Rick.
Acting Like A Rick
Fans who seek to replicate Rick’s intelligence and personality view an informed understanding of the show as a means to “accumulate and assert cultural capital.” (Duffett 183) This dynamic constructs a stark hierarchy based on an imaginative translation of Rick’s character into “real” fans. The Real Ricks Facebook group exemplifies this meritocracy, which is an application-based group for “people who are similar to rick with intelligence and personality.” The application questions include: What specific areas of academia have you mastered? Do you believe politics and intellect are inherently intertwined? The Real Ricks reflects a unique implication of R&M toxic fandom’s practice of appropriating Rick’s qualities (i.e. intelligence and personality) as part of one’s identity. The real-world accessibility of Rick’s intelligence/personality (unlike his portal gun or butter-passing robot) gives rise to a fan practice that is concerned with one’s very identity. Perhaps the psychological intimacy of this practice exacerbates the toxic fandom, because a fan’s entire identity is under scrutiny, not their collection of action figures or knowledge of a fictional language. The result is a vehemently defensive fandom that takes refuge in an identification with Rick in personality and intelligence.
You may have heard, either online or in public, “I’m pickle Rick!” “Wubba lubba dubdub!” “I’m tiny Rick!” “Rikitikitavi, bitch!” These are just a few of Rick’s catchphrases. Toxic R&M fans incessantly repeat them in YouTube comments or shout them in public with a Rick-like lack of self-awareness. This practice is an “adaptive form of counter-performance,” (Duffett 179) of Rick’s character, though it isn’t as psychologically concerned as The Real Ricks. The various reenactments of Rick “involve the fan being active in suspending disbelief, making meaning and participating.” (Duffett 179) The pleasure in engagement might be due to the practice’s conformity to Rick’s character, who showcases a nihilistic self-forgetfulness that has no regard for social expectations. Rick introduces a “realm of meaning” that toxic fans can use as a “social resource” (Duffett 179) to unite around the provocation of outsiders and acknowledgement of keen insiders. Although this practice is more facetious than The Real Ricks, it exemplifies the view that it is a “narcissistic pleasure” whereby the fans seek to become the “loved object,” which, in this case, is Rick himself (Duffett 188).
The Deplorable Doxxing & The Szechuan Sauce Fiasco
Before R&M season 3, Dan Harmon sought to hire more female writers to balance out the all-male writing staff who wrote the first two seasons. The new writers worked on season 3, which has been lauded as a remarkable artistic achievement, contributing towards R&M’s Outstanding Animated Program Emmy at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in 2018. Nonetheless, during the season’s airing dates, toxic R&M fans who perceived a decline in the new episodes’ performance blamed the new female writers and accused them of ruining the show. Fans on 4chan doxxed the writers, which allowed people to send hate mail, make death threats, and harass them. Fans on Reddit claimed that the series was forced to hire “SJW female writers,” revealing an attachment to alt-right sentiments. The addition of female writers for season 3 spurred the emergence of alt-right, misogynistic R&M fans.
“There appears to be this exclusionary tendency based around gender — it’s a boy’s club, and girls can’t come into our treehouse, which then overlooks fans who don’t think that way.” — Andrea Braithwaite
The R&M fans who were outraged over the new female writers exemplified a traditional form of masculinity that “naturalizes gender as difference and difference as hierarchy.” (Duffett 191) Their perception of the gender difference was steeped in a hierarchical understanding that attributed the quality of R&M to the gendered contribution of male writers. Moreover, Rick’s character embodies a form of masculinity that “promotes particular traits such as independence, rivalry, rationality, and self-mastery.” (Duffett 192) Rick’s masculinity seems to have neatly fused with the alt-right discourse that perceived Harmon’s addition of female writers as a politically-motivated decision. It’s worth noting that The Real Ricks also reportedly serves as a forum for fans to express racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic sentiments. R&M’s attraction of alt-right trolls may be attributed to the show existing on a network (Adult Swim) that broadcasts content with misogynistic tones as well as an alt-right comedy show. Or, as pondered earlier, it may be due to Rick himself, who is a desirable embodiment of the Internet troll worthy of replication. The addition of female writers may have merely exposed a pre-existing subsection of alt-right, misogynistic fans who delighted in R&M for its embrace of their online behaviors via Rick’s character. Perhaps Harmon’s hiring of female writers after two seasons of an all-male writing staff was perceived as a progressive decision that compromised the apolitical integrity of the show. Prior to the gender-balanced writers’ room, the show may have served as a canvas upon which alt-right fans could project their innermost prejudices onto Rick.
The generation of toxic fan culture characterized by a provocative entitlement to gatekeep on the basis of intelligence and gender might have set a precedent for the Szechuan Sauce Fiasco, which occurred after season 3 aired.
Masses of fans, mostly 12–24 year-old males, expressed a variation of this toxic fan culture by rioting over the small supply of sauces. The fans who exhibited these behaviors revealed an entrenched sense of entitlement to a sauce which Rick savored in S03E01. McDonald’s effectively provided a space for hardcore R&M fans to gather and express their virtual currencies of Rick’s personality and catchphrases in-person. The gathering yielded a Rick-like response to the shortage of sauces: rioting, verbally abusing employees, fighting, and shouting “I’m pickle Rick.” The fan gathering functioned as a space to enact “virtual community in physical space.” (Duffett 190) The presence of other hardcore R&M fans who waited in line for the sauce offered a temporary incubator for socially inappropriate (Rick-like) behaviors over a sauce. The dynamic of a fan congregation exacerbating problematic behaviors can also be seen in The Real Ricks, as it is another cesspool of toxic fans who reinforce one another’s obsession with Rick Sanchez and alt-right discourses.
The ingrained fan practice of replicating Rick in speech or intelligence may have fundamentally contributed to the Szechuan Sauce Fiasco. Although it certainly wasn’t a platform upon which toxic fans could assert their intellectual superiority, it operated as a collective space in which hundreds of fans could react to the shortage of sauces in the same manner as Rick (nihilistic recklessness). Perhaps the Szechuan Sauce Fiasco revealed another subsection of R&M fans who seek the thrill of reenacting Rick’s inappropriate behaviors in public/online settings. The allure of replicating the socially obvious aspects of Rick’s character (i.e. catchphrases) may serve as an impetus for fans to reenact them in pursuit of becoming the “loved object.” (Duffett 188) The value of this fan practice’s social currency may be in the acquisition and reproduction of a beloved character’s defining traits. The R&M fans behind the Szechuan Sauce Fiasco excitedly exchanged this social currency with one another by uniting against McDonald’s in the style of Rick’s nihilistic recklessness. In other words, as the New York Stock Exchange is to stockbrokers, so was McDonald’s to R&M fans on October 7th, 2017.
The Bigger Picture
The cultural product of toxic fandom may have a systemic origin that goes all the way up to Adult Swim, the Turner-owned TV network for R&M. The network is mostly comprised of short-form, experimental animated and sketch comedies, and it’s noted for its raunchy humor. Adult Swim’s 2016 roster of new and returning TV shows had zero female creators (47 male, 0 female), and SEVP Mike Lazzo has reportedly said that when women are in the writers’ room, “you don’t get comedy, you get conflict.” Former employees have detailed a toxic workplace with limited opportunities for advancement that deters female executives from speaking up and risk (1) upsetting the balance, or (2) losing their jobs. Perhaps Adult Swim‘s exclusively male-created roster attracts and reinforces oppressive masculinities, and it goes unchecked because of (1) the lack of female representation in creative roles, and (2) the limited upward mobility for women in executive roles to oversee content creation.
“There are women there doing tons of work. But it’s pretty much like, ‘Oh, you’re a woman? You’re a producer. You do budgets, you do scheduling. You’re not a creative.’” — former Adult Swim employee.
In January 2018, Dan Harmon came under fire after a former female employee made allegations of harassment against him during his time as creator of Community. Harmon apologized, to which his former employee responded by publicly forgiving him. It’s worth noting that Adult Swim issued no response at the time (at least that I could find online). A few months later, in July 2018, a 2009 parody video of Harmon simulating a sexual assault on a child doll resurfaced. Harmon apologized, and Adult Swim stood by him, saying:
“At Adult Swim, we seek out and encourage creative freedom and look to push the envelope in many ways, particularly around comedy. The offensive content of Dan’s 2009 video that recently surfaced demonstrates poor judgement and does not reflect the type of content we seek out. Dan recognized his mistake at the time and has apologized. He understands there is no place for this type of content here at Adult Swim.”
The Adult Swim spokesperson said that the network is no place for the type of content Harmon produced in 2009, though multiple series have employed jokes about sexual violence against women, including: stalking, rape, grotesque violence against exotic dancers, decapitation of female love interests, and threatening female characters into performing sexual acts. One can’t help but notice (1) an egregious level of hypocrisy in this statement, and (2) a severe blindness to the systemic issue of irresponsible creative representation resulting in problematic content. It’s worth speculating that Adult Swim has a level of passivity that lets troublesome content go unchecked, which might attract toxic fandoms such as the misogynistic, elitist, alt-right subsection of R&M fans. The result of such fandoms is an inflammatory polemic in popular discourse that exacerbates the acrimony between opposing ideologies. Adult Swim’s systemic birthing of a toxic fandom via R&M raises larger questions about the discursive relationship between fans and producers and the consequences of irresponsible representation. The toxic R&M fandom is not exclusively a result of Rick Sanchez himself; rather, it might be a result of pre-existing systemic shortages of creative female representation at Adult Swim. In any case, this toxic fandom serves to elucidate larger issues in entertainment and media industries that have been complacent in their support for female creators to propagate balanced discourses.
Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: an Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
“Welcome to Bisexuality: Captain Kirk and Slash.” Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Routledge, 2013.