I don’t read the Captain America comics. Indeed, I’ve pretty much fallen off the Marvel wagon this past year or so due to general fatigue with the oversaturation of superheroes in pop culture. It doesn’t really do much for me these days, and the recent news that Captain America in the comics would be revealed as a stealth Hydra agent exemplified my exhaustion with the genre and a particularly insidious strain of storytelling. Others have spoken more passionately and eloquently about the nastiness of this trend and the way real and incredibly painful history is used to create cheap shock value, so I’ll direct you to those pieces.
My particular focus today is with a piece Devin Faraci wrote on the issue of fan entitlement on Birth Movies Death, which you can find here. For the record, I’ve never been a Faraci fan. I’ve found many of his arguments sloppy and the ways in which he attacks people who disagree with him to be sad at best and creepy at worst. This article, which posits a generally agreeable hypothesis regarding the toxicity that has begun to pervade that vaguely defined space known as “geek culture”, draws a staggeringly inaccurate and willfully blind false equivalence to the fan opposition to Hydra Captain America and the orchestrated misogynistic hate campaign currently faced by the new Ghostbusters film, of which I’ve previously written about here.
AV Club drew similarly inaccurate lines between the Ghostbusters hate campaign – and there really is no other term for what it is – and fans of Frozen organising a Twitter hashtag to express support for Elsa getting a girlfriend. It’s important to properly define what each of these examples means, both in the context of the current entertainment industry, and in terms of geek culture and communities.
The Captain America instance relies on the audience knowing the clear Nazi parallels with the Marvel world’s Hydra, and the history of the character as a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda created by two Jewish writers. Faraci seems to find this history a baseless foundation for fans to use as criticism of recent developments, but this is also nothing new in pop culture. An upsurge of stories of Nazi redemption being seen as fun and frivolous way ignore the real pain of millions of people and doesn’t do much to fight real fascism, especially in the current political climate.
I’m disappointed that the new Captain America writer, among others received death threats over this (seriously, don’t be that shitty, it doesn’t help you or your cause and makes actual discussions on this issue impossible). I’m sad we can’t talk about the real nastiness of the issue – of the manipulative shock tactic at play here, built on an evil history that many see more as a creative playground than something that actually happened; of the way Nick Spencer’s responses to anger felt designed to troll fans; of how this plot line will inevitably be reversed – because that’s how comics work – so a cheap gimmick designed to elicit the most painful of anger from their fanbase, staggeringly unaware of the cultural and historical context it evokes, will be explained away in time for a new arc once they grow tired of it. These are all pertinent issues that need to be discussed, a continuing pop culture conversation that’s necessary to have, but will be written off as entitlement.
I take particular umbrage with the way Faraci draws a line between these concerns over Captain American and the women Ghostbusters because of the implication that bigotry is the same as anti-bigotry. It’s clearly not. There’s no accurate comparison between a Reddit & 4Chan organised mass YouTube downvoting of the Ghostbusters trailers and getting mad at a hero being turned into a Nazi. Anger over a gender-swap is nowhere near the same ballpark as making a decades long hero into the bad guy. The former is rooted in a misogynistic belief that women in positions of prominence is proof of a social justice conspiracy or political correctness gone mad. The latter is rooted in decades of history and anti-fascism, something the Marvel universe had taken great pains to embrace previously.
There’s an undeniable strain of fan entitlement growing in the increasingly irrevocably toxic circles of fandom. Every woman I know has faced the wrath of at least one creep who thinks a vaguely feminist discussion of the latest Star Wars film or Uncharted game is abhorrent to their very being. I could talk for days about the tin-hat shippers in Twilight, One Direction, Fifty Shades Of Grey and Outlander fandoms, who see spinning conspiracies about actors having secret relationships as their god-given right (which also feels like a more accurate comparison to make with female Ghostbusters if Faraci insisted on an equal opportunity comparison). However, to ignore the ways in which these attitudes are orchestrated and exacerbated by both the focuses of their adoration and the media at large does a major disservice to all involved, and paints an inaccurately one-sided view of how such entitlement is created.
Faraci, while noting the Frozen Twitter campaign, said art shouldn’t be about giving into fan demands, and fans should not treat their fandoms like ordering food at a restaurant, demanding elements that fit their individual needs. That’s only half true. Of course creators are free to do as they want, but they’ve always on some level either pandered to fans or stoked the fires of their desires by baiting them with false developments. I’ve been in fandoms that have had creators who gloried in the shipping elements of their show and engaged in queerbaiting in order to build excitement for a new episode. Sherlock and Watson will never kiss or end up a couple, but that doesn’t stop the show from constantly banking on that desired queerness for humour, and the creators for subsequently sneering at fans for desiring it.
Recently, the team behind CW’s The 100 faced major backlash for killing off a gay character, which they did after months of banking on their supposed LGBTQ friendly nature and encouraging fans to invest in that particular relationship. Fans aren’t owed anything but if you continually promise them it and then deny them in the darkest way possible, a manner which has its roots in decades of homophobia and cultural smudging, the problem doesn’t lie with the fans. Nobody’s bringing a bucket of paint to the Picasso exhibition, but when we bring plates after being promised cake and get shit sandwiches in return, you shouldn’t be that shocked when people lash out.
They want that deifying devotion on some level. That weaponised nostalgia, coupled with stroking the ego of the supposed exclusivity of fan circles, is a powerful and massively profitable force, and capitalism is the name of the game. Fans tweeting about giving Steve Rogers a boyfriend or Elsa a girlfriend are expressing a consumer desire, one that reflects changing social attitudes and as such that should be celebrated. I can’t even imagine us having this discussion four years ago and now it feels normal. That’s an incredible step forward. Asking for such a thing – be it more inclusive casting, a step away from heteronormative relationships in fiction, etc – isn’t so much an entitled demand as it is a signal that we’re ready for change. I don’t think Elsa will get a girlfriend, although I’d love that because I think those young generations of queer kids deserve to see in the stories they love, but the message is out there that change is wanted, it’s needed and it’s coming.
We turn to pop culture for reflections of ourselves and a better world because they want us to, but also because it’s their job. In a world where trans people are being banned from using public toilets, women’s healthcare rights are consistently legislated against and a literal fascist could be President of the USA, can you blame us for turning to films, books, comics and TV for some light? Can you blame consumers for wanting a little more from multi-billion dollar a year corporations than the same thing we’ve been given for decades? Many may wonder what the big hubbub about women Ghostbusters is, but this is, by the standards of an incredibly risk-free and archaic industry, a major radical step in the right direction, and it’s rooted in fan culture. Go on any Tumblr page and you’ll see a story with race or gender swapped casting. We know that studios and creators are turning to fan spaces for ideas and clues as to what fans want – Rian Johnson was pretty open about this regarding the next Star Wars film – so it seems unfair to claim something like opposing Hydra Captain America or supporting queering Elsa is rooted in baseless entitlement when it’s clear there’s another hand at play. Creators like Marvel want money, they want devotion and they want the particular strain of publicity that comes with their outrage.
There are wider discussions that need to be had about the poorly defined boundaries between fans and creators, the ways marginalised communities by and large suffer the most in these circles and the commodification of social justice as a creative trend. These analyses are ongoing in any major fandom. We need to talk more about the ways in which slobbering and unflinching devotion to a concept as liminal as geek culture can only lead to bad things, and how that attitude is encouraged by those who claim to be against it. I’m not sure we can even have this discussion in mainstream circles right now, particularly if you’re from any marginalised group, because the current atmosphere is smothering. I hope we can properly talk at some point and not just go round in circles, but that requires a detailed, contextual and wider reaching understanding of the ecosystem that doesn’t exclusively focus on fans. Call it entitlement but I really feel like fans deserve more.