We Are All Toxic Fans
Whether we know it or not.
You know them. They take that thing they like too far and hurt others. They. Not us. They take things we are talking about in regard to some thing they like and remove context, and try to give themselves a reason to fight us or make us look bad. They. Not us. They hate criticism of something they didn’t make and when they see it, they take it personally because in their own minds, they own this thing someone else has worked hard to bring into this world. Them. Not us. They bother, troll, trick, threaten, harass, stalk and abuse because of a perceived threat to their identity, which is tied up in this one specific thing that has marketed merchandise toward them their entire lives by providing an outlet for emotions we don’t really have one for and taking advantage of that by tying that outlet to products and making them feel like they need them. They. Not us.
Except it’s not just them. It’s us, too.
Toxic fandom is something we all carry a degree of. The reason? We aren’t asked to act in a healthy way by those marketing the things we like — the amazing, inventive, fun things people create. We’re asked to pledge fealty and opt-in to a sub-economy based entirely around the thing we like. Once we believe we know enough to respond to certain questions, we often do so with hostility because they are taken as an attack on our fandom and therefore our identity. We own enough merchandise to show that we shouldn’t be questioned — and for this, we’re awarded the designation of “real fan.“
Such a title is an illusion, but something doesn’t need to be tangible to exclude people and contribute to feelings of longing. One could even say it is easier to long for something that isn’t real. My family had very little as I was growing up, and didn’t have many of the toys for things I liked — at least for the majority of my childhood. In schoolyard conversation, it would eventually come out that I didn’t have related merch, other kids would question if I actually liked that thing. The words “real fan” were used, but they don’t have to be to establish this kind of consumption-driven hierarchy. As one might expect, nothing would have made my kid brain feel better than to just have that stuff — the ultimate goal of any marketer, achieved by the means of the unsavory marketer. Having more toys would have meant I could have indisputably proven to the other children that I meant it when I said “I like this.” I could have been looked at as a peer rather than a wannabe by these kids who’s parents had more than mine. These kids who’s position was capitalistically rewarded for simply being born to parents in a better situation than mine; these kids sure didn’t earn the money for those toys — as well it should be with the child labor laws the United States of America employs.
So they were “real fans.”
It can continue this path to the point of fandom-ownership, and people then think that the fandom are who dictate what happens with something. They know better than the creators, the other fans, and especially anyone with criticism. We all know this person, we all have interacted with them, and we refuse to believe we are even capable of any of this.
The tricky part is, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying and having fandom merchandise. None of us are a wasteful monsters ruining something for others when we buy this stuff; we are people and shouldn’t be told how to like something. We have interests, passions, we love creative works, and we like things that resonate with us as a person. We feel like it’s on our wavelength. The material, the look, and the message… we get it. We love it. It reminds us of us, or at least some aspect of us. We relate. That’s not ignorance, it’s not deliberately supporting corporate greed, and it’s not abusive.
The problem with toxic fandom is that it’s built on top of things that are not toxic. The marketing that encourages it takes advantage of something normal and healthy: enjoyment. It doesn’t trick anyone and you don’t need to “fall for it.” It’s a series of many tiny pushes in a direction you already want to go in — with the intention of pushing you further than you originally wanted to go.
Somewhere in there, our enjoyment of something stops being just enjoyment. I believe there is a slow transformation that happens as pieces of us are linked with pieces of the thing that’s being advertised. Marketers find new little ways to make things in our life remind us of their current client (as well as new little things to remind you there’s someone out there trying to stop you from enjoying what you like), nursing a dependence that grows slowly. It mutates into something that I don’t think we have a word for yet, with elements of fixation, ownership, control, fragility, and — most of all — identity.
To explain with a pop culture reference: “Misery.”
It would be good to share an example of something new (at least on the left-leaning side of things) I saw that I feel can only be labelled as toxic fandom. One day recently, I talked about something J.J. Abrams said about the new Star Wars movie. He talked about how the movies have never really been made for anyone other than men and that he wanted to change that. I stated that I found it good that he wanted to make films that, from his end — the end that creates and assembles — are working to be better and more inclusive.
Both his quote and my support for it really pissed people off. The way he was interpreted is that he wanted to create a movie that not just men would want to see, implying women didn’t care about Star Wars — and women really do. My wife, to list an example who is absolutely immediate within my life — is a HUGE fan who decked herself out in a bunch of Star Wars-themed clothing to go see The Force Awakens, which we have now seen multiple times. People love Star Wars and women are people.
This was not something I was contesting (or would ever, or would assume J.J. Abrams would ever) — however the people who got angry really wanted me to be contesting that. “Look at the man telling women that they couldn’t like Star Wars until the other man said he made this one for women, too” was the argument they wanted to make against me.
So after their loud declaration of how much people other than men like Star Wars, something I would literally never argue but was made to look as if I was by removing context and heavily asserting this was my message, I realized toxic fandom can be about owning the indignation surrounding something as much as the enjoyment. More specifically, the contrarianism and righteousness associated with being “correct” (read: viewed as correct) about the thing you’re a fan of from whatever political position you take. Also, in this very specific case, because a male human being made this observation about a movie and who it has traditionally been made for and marketed to, it has to be bullshit — even after making an entire film where the underlying attitude is that of correction.
I feel this is how many people who are involved with social justice (which would technically be the area I occupy, though the number of people in these circles I would ever want to be associated with is rapidly shrinking) are approaching their fandom: as if they are able to dictate what creators are thinking as they create, who it’s for, and who is allowed to talk about it.
I’m not asserting “it’s now finally okay to like it for anyone who isn’t male.” I can’t say with certainty that isn’t what J.J. Abrams meant, but I sincerely doubt he meant “women haven’t liked Star Wars until this one I’ve made just now!” I showed support to another male individual for at least recognizing the issues in a very non-diverse industry, trying to be diverse on the filmmaking side (while critically asserting he hasn’t truly succeeded, which I stand by), and trying to progress a franchise that has not cared enough about the absolute ton of people who aren’t male and love it. In fact, that is specifically why I showed support; it’s fantastic that my wife and mother, Star Wars fans, are finally being ascknowledged by the people and companies making Star Wars, which was very much like gaming prior to The Force Awakens. The mainstream stuff is all geared toward guys, yet half of people who love it are not guys.
I’m not the least upset when my opinion as a man is ignored or not agreed with. That’s perfectly fine, in fact. What makes me upset is when my statements are misrepresented to create conflict.
What bothers me so badly is saying “it’s really good they realized they could do more on the filmmaking side, even if they still legitimately need to do a lot more” was responded to as if I was shouting down anyone who isn’t a man. Since there are many who aren’t men and already love it, I should have nothing to say about the construction of a series with literally one (arguably) three-dimensional female character that is in every film following her introduction and (arguably) stays that way for the duration of her existence, never becoming simply a plot device but remaining a character that feels like a person. One.
And no human NB or trans characters (droid, please).
If one says that isn’t enough, then the previously mentioned logic dictates that they’re erasing all women’s fandom of Star Wars because of the assertion that Star Wars has always had a problem with on-screen representation. Obviously “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” was made for extremely entitled adult men, by that logic. They like it so it’s made specifically for them. Automatically.
Many have fought against examples of this very issue, specifically GamerGate. One of that ridiculous hate mob’s main arguments is that since women already love video games, the gaming community and developers do not need to act. They supposedly don’t need to attempt to inject diversity in the material because the diversity is in the audience. This is the very attitude I couldn’t help but recall when this particular incident took place. How diverse a work is isn’t derived from who consumes it. It can’t be. That would set us in a cyclic stagnation that could never be broken, because all kinds of people like Star Wars and up until Episode 7, they were made with a male demographic in mind.
Most marginalized people out there flat-out do not have a choice for something they enjoy that includes them, so they have to settle for something that represents a more “mainstream” kind of person (which is a disgusting sentiment when you actually see it spelled out in such a way, but it means cis, white male). The Force Awakens isn’t truly diverse itself — race and binary gender are represented in what seems fairly well to my cis, male, able-bodied eyes, but anyone who pays even a small bit of attention to the world outside their own sphere should be able to tell that isn’t how the human race is. There’s so much more beyond the binary and most of it is not shown in our entertainment.
Toxic fandom is not a mythic status that only some other person who acts in ways we cannot understand can have. It’s not some incredibly specific set of behaviors, either. In fact, I would say now that we are actually talking more deeply about “toxic fandom,” it’s near-impossible that our focus will not unveil strange, new ways people are acting unhealthily thanks to their fandom.
One of my main focuses when I write something like this is on identity marketing, a term I use for a kind of marketing that creates a demographic similar to a real one, but significant in how reductive it is. It has tenants, enemies, requirements, and not much else. It does what it can to put someone into a position that is fragile — really, how could a superhero franchise, titty anime, video games or a space opera function as a full identity — and makes it their responsibility to hold everything together; to defend themselves and, by proxy, consume much more. The marketed work becomes more pervasive, occupying spaces normally held by everyday, functional things.
It’s something you’ll find in reactionaries a great deal, whether it be video games they cling to, “offensive humor,” or masculinity (which is not a franchise but treated like one). That’s been covered extensively this last year under various guises, some about marketing and some not. Many people have many perspectives on that issue. But you’ll also find it in progressive spaces, where people will intentionally try to push someone into attempting suicide because they drew a Steven Universe character “wrong.” Yes, there are a host of issues that led to someone drawing a “thin” version of a character who isn’t, but it’s a teenager who just happens to love something. She’s wasn’t a media company or a celebrity — she is a young fan artist. Yes, all of us have some responsibility to attempt to help progress culture, but I promise a young woman who’s drawing stuff she likes in different ways — for whatever reasons, even if bad ones — isn’t negatively influencing culture enough to warrant the kind of response she got from an entire social network.
None of us are above this. It doesn’t matter who we are, socially, economically, or politically speaking; we are all toxic fans in some way. I try to maintain some kind of detachment from most of what I like, but that doesn’t mean it happens 100% of the time. As I brought up in this article, I’ve gotten in my fair share internet arguments about The Force Awakens, obviously. That has to tell you something.
This is all a result of the culture we live in and a consequence of the economic system we employ. One could even call it one of the logical conclusions of American Capitalism and not be off-base. We are all, by nature, very complex, amazing, wonderful, mysterious, strange, foolish, intelligent hypocrites — and that’s not a bad thing. Standing by and allowing the gradual reduction of our identities to a single-purpose reason for consumption is.