How Toxic Fandom Ruins It For Everyone

When people accept an identity marketed to them, it’s a recipe for nothing but disaster.

Peter Coffin
Nov 20, 2015 · 9 min read

Italk about marketing and the way it uses identity all the time. It’s been a fixation of mine since I worked in marketing back in my radio days. Something bothered me very much about marketing while I worked in it: the ends justify the means. Now, it’s important to say there is (theoretically) good marketing out there because:

  1. People have ended friendships with me by simply not making it explicitly clear that #NotAllMarketing is evil and
  2. if you build it and don’t market, they won’t come

The experience, observations, and (hopefully) conclusions I am putting forth here relate solely to the bad marketing out there: the campaigns and people behind them who know the easiest way to get people to buy things is to slowly tie up their identities in the product or service.

I call it “cultivated identity.” I recently found that Rick Alverson (director of The Comedy and Entertainment; both intensely critical films of aspects of American culture and intentionally grating rather than satisfying) calls it “consumer-centric entertainment.” I assume it’s due to his familiarity with consumer-centric marketing and that he seems to consider mainstream entertainment and marketing basically the same thing (arguable, but sometimes very hard to).

The reason I use “cultivated identity” rather than “consumer-centric marketing” is that the latter sounds positive for the consumer — almost as though it is a service. I do not believe marketers attempting to define people’s identities to sell products is positive for anyone other than themselves and I most certainly do not believe it to be a service. I do, however, believe it’s the primary reason behind toxic fandom.

Recently, you may have heard about people in the Steven Universe fandom pushing a teenaged fan artist to a suicide attempt because she dared draw a “thin” version of a character who isn’t “thin.” To be as fair as I can be toward people who do this kind of thing, the character is not meant to be thin and I get that. In fact, I think most people get that. Steven Universe is one of the more lovely shows on television, and it’s certainly in no small part because it doesn’t try to gentrify its characters — by body type or in any other way.

But a teenager drawing a character different from canon is… not a big deal. If the creators suddenly shifted the character that could potentially be a pretty messed up situation (depending on why and if permanent). Also, if Cartoon Network suddenly mandated the character be thin, that would be a serious problem. Teen fans, however, do some weird stuff with characters they like.

It’s important to acknowledge why people care if a character is portrayed as bigger — there’s almost no positive representation for that in media (despite what some might say). Seeing this body type looked at without prejudice is important for people of this body type, similar to how people of color should be integrated in American television and movies more — because America isn’t white. In fact, America isn’t anything specifically. That’s kind of the point of America — or at least what it’s supposed to be.

The concerns that underpin these actions, horrific as the actions may be, are not invalid. I don’t agree with categorizing all fans’ interpretations in absolutes, though. This is so much more a nuanced issue than either side of it is going to want to acknowledge. Because there is a suicide attempt involved, folks seem to find it extremely difficult to express any nuance. It’s like when there’s a terror attack and someone gets totally ignored when they say “maybe an immediate, hastily-planned, revenge-oriented military solution isn’t the best solution.” The people who really need to hear that do not listen.

Fandom does not get to the point of abusing someone into a suicide attempt just because they were not sensitive enough to a fictional character. That is not healthy behavior and has nothing to do with liking (or disliking) a work of art. To get to the point where an individual considers this kind of behavior “acceptable” requires the the dissolution of either one’s morals or accepting the proposition that some things must be done because it’s the only way.

But how does it build to that — especially in regards to stuff a person who isn’t you created in their mind? What kind of person considers a work of fiction that important? Certainly, fiction is extremely important and can help society realize and change its faults. Though, it’s flat-out not “I hope you fucking kill yourself, die whore” important.

There are a couple things things that really make identity marketing work. First: emptiness. We don’t need to discuss to why people feel empty in our contemporary society — that’s an entirely different rabbit hole that leads in about a hundred different directions (and anyone claiming one thing does it is likely marketing something) — but marketers know that enough people out there do not feel fulfilled by their life that if they put out a message that subtly implies their product/service/creation can lead to fulfillment, they can get a lot of very dedicated responses. The other thing — denial — involves saying “no, I made that choice or had that thought. Me. Not a damn marketing department!” It depends, heavily so, on how much people absolutely refuse to acknowledge that media can influence them.

To a degree, this is true. When someone says “violent media makes people violent,” they’re full of shit. They haven’t done much reading about human psychology and they don’t care enough to. Because this absolutely isn’t true, a lot of people think media messages have no affect on them — which is also not true. Have you ever heard a Chili’s commercial for their great deals on Spotify while doing work at 11am to get home to your partner and say “hey, I had an idea! We should go to Chili’s on Friday!” and enjoyed a delicious 2 for $20 deal there with them? Have you ever cried at a movie? Have you ever laughed at a movie?

That’s not identity marketing; it’s just media affecting you and is not insidious. In fact, the Chili’s ad is actually pretty good marketing. It’s fairly information-oriented and innocuous in its influence on you (as it should be), but it did influence you. In this case, it was presenting you information that correctly meshed with how you were feeling at the time — you may have been in need of something to do, perhaps an inexpensive but nice night out with your partner. Having this extra bit of info changed your behavior and choices in a way that was mostly your choosing, but also wouldn’t have been the same had you not heard the ad. It did not try to tell you who you are or attempt to create an “other” to feel threatened by. It didn’t imply to you that the only way to stick it to those smug vegans is to buy a premium steak, and it didn’t try to tell you it’s worth it to spend that extra money to eat organic vegan so you don’t look like those red-blooded, “fatass” plebs.


This is how, to bring up controversy from recent years, video games don’t make killers but do contribute to misogynistic, transphobic, or racist culture. They market a very specific identity — a straight, white, cis male who can’t get enough AAA gaming(!) — as the general backdrop for their messages. In doing so, they allow people of this identity to feel some degree of stewardship over the medium — and falsely so. Marketing departments doing this likely see themselves as sheperds, not servants, tasked with making their customers accept some really shady business practices because “that’s just how it is for us gamers!” Therefore when women, PoC, or LGBTQ folks want some degree of representation in gaming, it’s looked at as a threat by the “core fans.”

Gaming is one of the most prominent current examples, but an alarming amount of entertainment-related marketing has been employing this mindset for a very long time. YouTubers are routinely encouraged to cultivate and name their fanbases, giving them something to call themselves — an identity. I am a YouTuber and have done this, because I didn’t get it. I hate that I have done this.

It sounds like it’s all in good fun, but I don’t know if anyone has ever actually spent time thinking about this. When someone says “oh I am a total Bro” and means “PewDiePie fan” by it, they are saying “I’ve subscribed mentally.” If PewDiePie started preaching unsavory (bigoted) things to people (in good faith, I assume that he doesn’t; I do not watch him) then the “Bros” would be the most receptive to it. Sure, he’d lose some, but there’d be more than enough left over (the most dedicated of them all) — and new ones would come in after finding out he was preaching shitty things in what I have to stress is an entirely hypothetical situation.

I have to stress it because a lot of people will respond “ugh I am a Bro and I don’t fucking think that way you dumb fuck. I think for my fucking self! FUCK YOU!” I have to stress because people have tied their identity up in PewDiePie. Because that is what this does.

So that brings us, finally, back to Steven Universe. Being so much of the show is about identity, it does attract people interested in a more fluid identity or just identity in general — this includes a segment of people who are unsatisfied with their own identity. To my knowledge (again, a good faith statement), Cartoon Network’s marketing department does not market an identity based around Steven Universe. However, this mindset is so present in all of our entertainment, it’s not really a requisite. It’s — frighteningly — becoming more and more default for “fans” to like and consume things in this way.

A “gamer” (by the standard marketing departments look at it, not “one who plays games”) is extremely likely to enjoy and consume other things in this way. A PewDiePie “Bro” is as well. People like to say “film buffs aren’t like that,” but they are. Vegans, “Meatitarians,” fashionistas, and all other sorts of people with consumption-based identities are too (even “coffee lovers”). Anyone who has experienced fandom-as-identity is likely to perpetuate it themselves — the “true fan.”

That means sussing out potential threats where there are none, attacking everyone and everything that doesn’t line up with one’s perception of a work of fiction (be it canon or headcanon), and following the pattern of abuse we are becoming extremely accustomed to speaking about here on the internet. Frankly, the combination of identity marketing and social platforms not enforcing their own rules (which most definitely encourages and normalizes the worst behaviors) is sending countless people down this spiral of totally fiction-based hatred that, if I want to get down to it, bothers me at the deepest level. People being afraid to talk objectively about something that isn’t even real is a situation that just shouldn’t exist.

Hopefully, at some point, liking stuff becomes a positive thing again.

Cultivated Identity

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