Attack of the Fanpeople!

I was recently having a conversation with Annaham about the role of very aggressive fans in pop culture, and in how people talk about and engage with the creators of pop culture. The fans I speak of are the ones who believe their creators can do no wrong. Who consume every piece of content from that creator uncritically, and who will fly up in a rage at anyone who dares to criticise The Great Creator, even if it is a fellow fan. This is a relatively uncomplicated approach to cultural texts, and it’s not really one that interests me; as a fan, what I enjoy is the criticism and the ability to engage deeply with a creator’s work. If I want to consume something without really thinking about it, I can always order some fries at Jenny’s Giant Burger[1. Which, truly, people, if your platonic ideal of the French fry is a perfectly crisp and golden thing with a crunchy, almost caramelised exterior and a light, crisp core, go to Jenny’s.].

These fans make it fundamentally difficult for critics to engage, of course, especially smaller critics who may not be prepared for the deluge if they unwisely opine on the wrong creator. Bloggers who want to comment on texts they find interesting must be prepared for an onslaught, and definitely shouldn’t read the Reddit threads about their work unless they are wearing asbestos underpants. Confronted with criticism, fanpeople can turn extremely nasty; I’m not the only critic who has received rape and death threats over my work from people who were just that angry that I dared to take to my keyboard to discuss some topics of interest[2. I’ve even been descended upon by hordes of angry screenwriters!].

This phenomenon is documented and widely discussed; I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you are familiar with the issue. What I’m more interested in is the gendering that happens here, because the dynamic is unmistakably gendered, and it’s also heavily racialised. The creators who tend to attract this kind of intense following tend to be white and male. Almost overwhelmingly so, although of course there are exceptions, as there always are. I am hesitant to name specific examples for fear of being descended upon by angry fanpeople when I already have enough to do this week, but, again, if you are familiar with the issue, you can probably think of a few all on your own.

So we have a situation where people occupying a position of power, people who traditionally dominate pop culture texts anyway, attract a following that reinforces that dominance by soundly trouncing any critics who dare to speak up. Those critics may be marginalised people who are displeased with the way they are depicted, or they may be fans who actually share some of that power, but in either case, they are going against the accepted grain by wanting to talk about issues they identify with works they love, and they are severely punished for it in a way that maintains hierarchies.

Because it’s notable that some really vicious criticism is reserved for female creators, and for creators of colour as well. Last year I wrote at Feministe about the scapegoating of female creators and one thing I brought up was the tendency for women associated with male creators to take all the blame for any mistakes, without getting any of the praise for success:

When mixed-gender collaboration does happen, assessment tends to follow a road we’ve gone down before; everything great must have been the men, and everything bad must have been the women. It’s not uncommon to see male creators absolved of culpability if there’s a woman around to blame things on; ‘well, it’s obvious where the idea for that came from!’

Some of those same female creators get attacked by the same angry fans who go after critics, which can put them in an extremely uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous position. Creators who choose to partner with people known for very vocal and aggressive fans are taking a serious gamble because if something goes wrong with the project, it will categorically be framed as their fault, while the beloved creator escapes without any blame and is reassured by fans that it’s all the fault of the new person, with whom the creator should never work again to prevent a repeat of the situation.

I note that the only time aggressive fans will accept any criticism of projects associated with their creator is when the criticism places the blame where it obviously belongs, on someone else associated with the production. It’s ok to say you didn’t like the production, as long as you make sure to make people aware that you know where the blame should be assigned. Not with the creator, but with the partners, who may well be people in positions of less power. People who could, potentially, experience career setbacks after being publicly and abusively blamed for the failure of a project, while the creator goes on to other projects and will be followed by adoring fans.

There’s an embedded reinforcement of power in the way that fans react to work that is truly fascinating to me, as a person who doesn’t feel that way about any creators. Sure, there are some I love, but none that I love so much that I become convinced they cannot do anything wrong, and will happily march into other spaces to tell people who criticise them all about how wrong they are, and how really they ought to be ashamed of themselves, and did they even read the obscure interview in that one Swedish magazine, because if they didn’t, they aren’t really qualified to talk.