I spent the past weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, one of the largest gatherings of fans in the world. SDCC is a big, complicated scene, a vast sea of vendors and queues and what feels like all of Hollywood popping down the California coast to plug the next instalments of their franchises.
The dialogue between fans and creators varies at Comic-Con and similar conventions (SDCC, it should be noted, is a professional event for many, so the fan/creator line can get blurry). But with the biggest media properties, the general tone was best described as reverential. Actors, writers, and directors thanked fans for their dedication and their passion; fans asked creators the gentlest questions and heaped on the praise.
As the convention wore on, I was struck by how disconnected the conversations I was hearing were from the fannish world I encounter online. Every day on the internet, I watch fans critically engage with pop culture. Fans read deeply and watch closely, and they simultaneously create new works around the stuff they love while interrogating it rigorously. They squee over Marvel releases while calling out the whitewashing in Doctor Strange. They continue to celebrate Harry Potter while pushing back against the racism and appropriation of the “Magic in North America”.
Comic-Con hasn’t historically been a space for this sort direct discourse with creators – but whether it could or should be is an open question. The way fans and creators talk to each other is shifting, and these days, it’s arguably under more scrutiny than ever before.
For the past few months, people have been debating whether fandom is “broken”. The instigating article, by critic Devin Faraci, suggested that we live in an age of unparalleled fan entitlement: people who aren’t satisfied with their media, and don’t hesitate to be vocal about it.
The men who lashed out about an all-female Ghostbusters were one example; the Twitter hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend – which urged Disney to consider making the Frozen protagonist its first queer princess – somehow wound up in the same breath.
He even took a bizarre swipe at fanfiction, suggesting that fans’ desires to spend time in fictional worlds, writing explicitly for other fans, was the height of entitlement.
If you spot a false equivalency here, you’re not alone – and plenty of fans and critics pushed back. Despite its messiness, the article contained some truths: threats and harassment of any kind are never OK, no matter what your cause. But it pinned the massive problem of online harassment on fan culture, and in the weeks that followed, others followed suit.
And in a breathtakingly irresponsible piece in the Guardian, another journalist ascribed the vile racist and misogynistic Twitter attacks on Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones – a deliberate swarm that had little, if anything, to do with the film itself, and led to the platform banning notorious conservative troll Milo Yiannopoulos – to angry “fans”.
What’s going on here? It’s true that fans on both ends of the spectrum, from hate-speech harassers to progressive activists, are speaking out using the same channels. But why do some people think they sound the same?
When I remember Comic-Con, all smiles and cheers, I can’t help but speculate that it’s down to the fact that fans are speaking at all. Fans have always talked back, but prior to social media they weren’t even a fraction as visible as they are today.
We’re witnessing the destruction of the fannish fourth wall in real-time: fans and creators are now seeing each other clearly on a massive scale, and creators are unsure how to – or if they even should – listen to fans.
To the creator, especially one who isn’t well-versed in online exchanges, any fan/creator dialogue can look like an attack. The traditional portrait of the fan as slavish consumer, treating a creator as god and cataloging their every word, was only ever one sort of fan. But for decades, it’s been the one that was easy for the entertainment industry to see.
Much has been written about the opening up of geek culture to people who aren’t straight, white, and male (not to mention the mainstream exposure of fan practices – like fanfiction – which have historically been the province of women).
In the democratised spaces of social media, marginalised fans are amplifying their voices just as marginalised non-fans are. For decades, our screens and pages have suffered from a lack of diversity, even if they didn’t actively peddle harmful stereotypes. Now that fans can talk back and potentially be heard, is it any wonder that they’re asking for more?