By William Proctor
At this point in time, it certainly seems as if the release of a new Disney Star Wars film — from here to eternity, if Kathleen Kennedy has any say — comes with a tsunami of news reports, blog posts and fan articles criticising fanboys for behaving badly. I’m not talking about reactionary chatter either, but disappointment, disagreement, and discord. Most often, entertainment commentators view fandom as a homogenous, harmonious community that is periodically assaulted by the fan-boy contingent, who really should shut up, grow up and “get a life”:
“Older fans should stop whining about it on the Internet and let Lucas do his thing […] Hollywood is the opium of the internet masses and adults are supposed to have more grown-up things to be concerned about: mortgage payments, school fees, etc. etc. Read a book instead. Take the dog for a walk. Listen to some music. Remind yourself that this is after all just movies for kids.”
Fans gush over The Force Awakens trailer on social media? “Get a grip,” instructs Martin Daubney for The Telegraph.
“Like Beliebers [Justin Bieber fans], Star Wars fans…took leave of their senses, gushed adoringly in quasi-orgasmic tones and posted wildly inappropriate tweets […] Am I the only man who finds this behavior all a bit odd? Shouldn’t grown men get over Star Wars already? […] You can forgive a small child getting overexcited about what is essentially a kids' movie franchise, but not adults. Of course, it’s a free world, I suppose, and Star Wars fans do not inflict any harm, especially if wielding a wobbly, defective light sabre. But like collecting action figures or skateboarding, shouldn't we leave Star Wars at puberty’s door?”
In Daubney’s account, the “wildly inappropriate tweets” consisted not of animus and hostility, but, instead, heady displays of affect and emotion. What really grinds his gears is not the outpouring of feelings per se, but that such displays of emotion were emanating from men – and “grown men,” at that (the horror!). Constructing an equivalency between Justin Bieber fangirls and Star Wars fanboys as 'abnormally emotional' operates to gender the affective bandwidth as “too girly,” as Kristin Busse might put it.
On the other hand, grown men ought to know better because (let’s call a Wookie a Wookie) #masculinity. We can “forgive a small child getting overexcited,” but once puberty is in the rearview mirror, fanboys – or, rather, fan-men – should put away childish things forevermore and focus on more important issues, such as raising a family and paying the mortgage (you know, like real men are supposed to do). Pulling comments from Twitter in order to satirize and deride male fans visibly demonstrates a deficit of understanding about the fannish experience while simultaneously constructing a stereotypical vision of men and masculinity. “I don’t think I’ve seen my wife this happy since our wedding day,” writes one fan, which Daubney knocks down unambiguously: “Seriously? Perhaps he needs to up his game between the sheets.”
Men that are caught red-handed showing feelings of an almost human nature, clearly will not do at all.
Over at pop culture website, Acculturated, R.J Moeller is “disturbed” by
“the infantilizing effect that even the mention of Star Wars still has on millions of American adult males. Clearly not all of us grew out of our youthful obsession with The Force. [Star Wars] continues to dominate—sometimes to an unhealthy degree—the imaginations of a generation of men […] there are an embarrassing number of men over the age of 30—and even 40—who treat Star Wars like a religion for which they are the ordained clergy. It’s one thing to nurture a fanatical devotion to a series when you are in grade school or junior high, but there comes a point in life when the Chewbacca T-shirt and metaphysical monologues about Midi-Chlorian levels goes from being slightly annoying to disconcerting. Star Wars won’t love you back. It won’t provide you with meaningful companionship or challenge you to better yourself. As a hobby, it’s not even the most rewarding way to spend your free time (or your money). It is a temporary escape, not a final destination. So to the aging male fanboys of the Star Wars franchise, I offer this advice for the New Year: Enjoy The Force Awakens, but when you’re done, go do some pushups, volunteer at a local charity, and call a girl.”
In academic studies, the tendency to view the so-called ‘mainstreaming’ of fandom as a largely positive shift for the male population, while remaining overly negative for female fans, clearly needs redressing, as Mel Standfill has argued. Historically, fangirls have certainly been constructed as unruly harlots overtaken by the fan-object, swamped by an “excess of teenage hormones and the corruption of young girl’s sexuality,” as Bethan Jones writes. Fan-men may be seen as “embarrassing,” “unhealthy,” “annoying,” “childish,” “infantilized,” “fanatical,” “aging,” “wildly inappropriate,” “disconcerting,” and behaviorally “odd” – but the distinction set up here is not that fan-men are excessively hormonal or sexually corrupted, but, rather, that they’re emphatically asexual and ‘unmanly’: “go do some pushups,” “call a girl,” “up your game between the sheets,” or focus on family, “mortgage payments and school fees.” These “narratives of enfreakment” are also narratives of emasculation. The overriding message is that male fans of a certain age need to stop “whining” about childish things, grow up, and go do “manly things,” like raise a family, walk the dog, have sexual intercourse – or at least get better at it – and head to the gym, perhaps to sweat out the nuisance child lurking within (“let the past die; kill it if you have to”).
By slaughtering history, then, a new man will hopefully emerge from the chrysalis: red-blooded, horny, mature, and resolutely heterosexual (“call a girl”). Busse’s argument about “geek hierarchies” and the way in which fangirls and fan-objects are “negatively feminized,” seems to have shifted recently (or shifted back) as male fans are often ridiculed based on similar reasoning (heightened emotion, unruly behavior, infantilized), but with an ideological distinction: they are negatively emasculated through framing concepts of infantilization and feminisation. I would argue that such geek hierarchies between the ‘good’ fanboy and the ‘bad’ fangirl are not locked in place, but are constantly ‘on the move,’ re-arranged and re-organized at different moments for different purposes: “the media representation of fans and its slow redemption tends to be focused on fanboys rather than fangirls” might remain true, at least to some extent, but there’s been quite the shift towards the demonization of the former (as well as the latter, naturally). I am not suggesting that women and men are now ideological equals – far from it. Instead, I would argue that the cultural work of re-ascribing and re-affirming traditional gender binaries between fangirls and fanboys (and thus between men and women), is a much more complex situation than critics and fans currently recognize.
Flashback to Jenkins’ seminal Textual Poachers, which begins with a critique of William Shatner’s famous (and infamous) Saturday Night Live ‘Get a Life’ sketch, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about (if you don’t already): stereotypes of the overly, unruly obsessive fan, either sunk in mother’s basement or daring to venture into public spaces dressed in replica Starfleet uniform, complete with accessories (phaser, communicator, Vulcan ears). For Standfill, these stereotypes are so widely known that they permeate the cultural matrix and fans themselves internalize such behaviors as evidence of ‘bad’ fan practices. In so doing, some fans diligently police the “fan world,” setting up border patrols and checkpoints in order to protect “one’s own sense of fan community and ascribing positive values to it.” Fandom has quite simply “gone wrong.”
As discussed on my last essay, the ‘regime of truth’ built up around The Last Jedi is made possible by a morass of certain kinds of discourse, whereby counter-narratives are either missing or swallowed by the deluge of articles focused on, as The Mary Sue put it, “the sexist, whiny fanboy contingent of Star Wars fandom.” Fanboys are
“so sexist and whiny that they went to all the trouble of getting bots together to tank The Last Jedi’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score. (Yes, there are people who don’t like the movie, and that’s fine, but that’s not what we’re really seeing here.)”
As discussed in my last essay, the so-called 'alt-right' news story is most often given weight and brought into the limelight without any attempt to probe further, dig down and test such claims. “That’s not what we’re really seeing here” is largely speculative, and works to confirm the writer’s world-view, I would argue, as well as working positively as promotion for The Last Jedi. Fans that praise The Last Jedi from online platforms are “engaging fannishly in ways preferred and controlled by the studios,” whereas detractors, or anti-fans, need to be silenced so as not to negatively affect the public persona of the film, of fan cultures, and the box office performance. Both the pro- and anti-contingent are working to fiercely protect the fan-object (and, again, these binaries are largely unhelpful or, at least, myopic); but they’re not the same object. For the former, The Last Jedi is a 'good' object, and any perceived attack, either from within or outside the fan world, is cause for confrontation and combat. For the latter, however, much of the discourse stems from the belief that a pejorative ‘Disneyfication’ has colonized and contaminated George Lucas’ authorial vision; whereby the ‘good’ object of the original trilogy is the yardstick with which to measure and construct The Last Jedi as ‘bad.’ Here, what is remarkable is that many commenters use concepts of nostalgia, canon, and mythos as ‘bad’ ways of doing fandom, items that arguably have been a major part of geek fan cultures for decades at this point. Added to this is the notion that fans do not ‘own’ Star Wars, not even as custodians and active participants:
I am sure that readers don’t think for a second that racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other reactionary currents, are a major characteristic of the Star Wars fan world. But I would argue that the deck is inadvertently stacked to appear that way. Star Wars fanboys who dislike The Last Jedi are “hilariously dumb,” “whiny entitled fanboys,” “cry-babies,” who “ought to get over themselves. It’s just a movie, after all.”
Granted, some articles include explanations about the way in which angry fanboys are but a vocal minority, yet by largely centering attention on the more controversial aspects -- of fanboy rage, of racism and misogyny, of fan entitlement -- the overarching meta-narrative becomes less complex and less heterogeneous. There certainly seems to be a requirement to demonstrate that the Star Wars fan world is a utopian continent, except for a few rebels engaged in a coup d’état.
“Thankfully, this is not most of Star Wars fandom. Whatever fans think of The Last Jedi, most fans don’t think of Rey as inherently awful because she’s a girl with girl-cooties, and don’t see the addition of nuanced men of color or an evolved legacy character as inherently bad things.”
Indeed. But one would be forgiven for thinking differently, I would say, given the discursive decibels ratcheted up to a Spinal-Tap-eleven on the amplifier dial.
I want to finish this series of provocations by briefly exploring the ‘fan-bashing’ that occurred around the launch of a fan petition to strike The Last Jedi from official canon. As I have written elsewhere in relation to the Ghostbusters reboot, fans that complain about the ruination of an idealized childhood often marshal their dissatisfaction through metaphor, usually attached to self-narratives of nostalgia connected to a treasured fan-object. As a scholar, I think it’s more valuable to analyze what is being said and what this means to whomever is speaking, rather than summon moral judgments about fan behavior and practices.
Shortly after the release of The Last Jedi, Star Wars fan Henry Walsh turned to the affordances of change.org to express his chagrin. Now, Walsh clearly understood that a massive media conglomerate like Disney would not actually consider removing the largest box office hit of 2017 from Star Wars canon and he said as much from the off: “now, I know Disney won't care, and this won't do much, but let’s show them our annoyance.” As with protestations about one’s childhood being ruined, such a petition operates as a symbolic act of resistance, and one of the ways that Walsh (and the 90,000-plus fans who signed the document in solidarity) aimed to address disappointment and dismay. Naturally, news media outlets and fan-blogs turned on Walsh for being “a hater,” and his petitioners are “butthurt,” “irate and ludicrous,” “ignorant man-babies,” “asshole, idiot cry-babies,” “a few nit-picking babies” and so on and so forth. “One thing that needs to stop,” writes Marykate Jasper for The Mary Sue: “fanboy rage” ('fangirl rage' about Game of Thrones is 'good' fan performance though).
For the petition to be a noxious act of toxic fan practice, any utterances from female fans need to be silenced or ignored altogether. Here are a few select comments from women who signed the petition — or, more accurately, digital avatars and user-names that appear female – which I include here to show that the inclusion of even a few female voices would significantly spoil the “fanboy rage” arc, which obviously doesn’t fit the popular narrative:
At the time of writing (January 25th, 2017), people are still signing the petition. Many commenters mocked Walsh and his petitioners when it has between 2,000 and 7,000 signatures — figures that were viewed as negligible — but no one covered the story as it approached 100,000. That may be a minority of the audience, perhaps even the fan-base, but it’s an incredible figure, nonetheless.
As the discourse surrounding the petition gathered apace and grew legs, galloping around news outlets and websites en masse, Walsh reportedly started receiving death threats on social media and, as a consequence, responded by asking participants to tap into their energetic abundance to donate funds to Force for Change instead. He explained his reasoning in detail, although never backing down on the reasons why he hates The Last Jedi, and this was taken as a positive step towards healing the public perception of fandom by fan-critics: “it's refreshing to see him turn something negative into something positive.”
One thing is abundantly clear: protesting Disney is 'bad,' and doing so makes one a 'bad' fan. Corporate resistance is “hilariously dumb,” whereas cheerleading is what 'good' fans do, unintentionally and inadvertently employed as (free) labourers on Disney behalf (or perhaps on Star Wars' behalf). I had to gawp at one article that slammed Walsh in one paragraph, and then provided a hyperlink below to 'Star Wars Merch.' Of course, we are all aware that fans are, in many ways, “ideal consumers,” as Matt Hills put it in Fan Cultures. But it is interesting that consumption and celebration is accepted so unequivocally as 'good' behavior while symbolically protesting a corporate leviathan like Disney is 'bad.' The situation becomes even more complicated should one consider what is thought to be ‘healthy’ protest, such as kicking up a stink about the lack of Rey or Black Widow merchandise as evidence of institutional sexism (which it is, of course). But that’s only the beginning of a more complex situation; asking for merchandise is also asking to purchase such merchandise, so there’s a kind of tug-of-war between “exchange-value” (economic/ profit) and “use-value” (pleasure/ affect). The notion that fandom being 'mainstreamed,' thus leading to a more democratic dialogue between audiences and producers, is only partially true. These days, fans may indeed be courted by producers, but only if certain criteria are met; that is, fans-as-champions-and-advocates. Kristina Busse argues that media professionals seek only certain kinds of ('good') fan practices and behaviors, usually “because of viewer loyalty, free advertisement, and increased purchase of connected products.” Hence, “affirmational fans” are what a 'good' fan looks like to industry and, more interestingly, to a lot of fans as well. I agree wholeheartedly with Mark Duffett who, in an interview conducted by our learned host on this very blog, explained it thus:
“because our academic traditions work to ignore or reject a focus on the enjoyment of commercial culture, we are in danger of forgetting that win-win situations are part of this spectrum of relationships. Rather than searching for the dramatic moments where fans contest media producers, to understand fandom it seemed a greater challenge to me to start providing non-generalizing, non-reductionist frameworks within which we might explain why fans are sometimes complicit in doing what they do.”
I will admit to feeling empathy for Walsh, not least because I was also disappointed with The Last Jedi, as well as being aggrieved at the way in which critics, and especially fans, worked so hard to police the petitioners as evincing toxic fan practice. But I believe there’s been a shift, or a misunderstanding, about what actually constitutes toxicity: racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, ad hominem aggression, and so forth. Generally, fan cultures are often sites of quarrel and contestation (as well as solidarity and “community,” of course), and arguments about canon, continuity, representation, narrative, plot, etc., in no way should be viewed as toxicity, at least according to Bridget Kies and I. Yet Walsh’s petition was described in such terms:
“This is precisely the sort of nonsense that epitomizes toxic fandom. There are, obviously, plenty of legitimate criticisms and questions to lob at The Last Jedi, but this sort of overreaction and hyperbole, with its emphasis on the past and rage against change, isn’t the way to go.”
As well as gatekeeping (“nonsense,” “this isn’t the way to go”) and “Othering” what is viewed as 'bad' fandom (“overreaction and hyperbole”), the idea that Walsh’s petition “epitomizes toxic fandom” is worth exploring further, I think, as well as the evocation of traditional stereotypes of being overly emotional and highly invested but emanating from a feminist website. If argument, debate and protest (the 'normal' operations of contemporary fandom, I would say) are viewed as ‘toxic,’ then what becomes of the fan world? By working to disavow and discipline certain fan practices allows for an idealized vision of the fan world to be constructed, as it should really be: homogenous, harmonious, and cleansed of negative affect. It is “another example of fandom gone wrong” “when passion turns to possessiveness that fandom turns toxic,” a sentiment that symptomatically disciplines other fans simultaneously.
As for Walsh, even a cursory skim of his Twitter feed demonstrates not that “this petition reeks of cough*sexism*cough”, but quite the contrary: rather, Walsh is undoubtedly a politically-engaged progressive, an anti-Trump protestor, who has also kicked started petitions to “stop cultural genocide at Muscrat Falls, Laborador” (4141 signed) and another to help with his medical bills. Walsh was in a horrendous car accident last year and desperately needs a prosthetic brace for his leg although, alas, he was unable to raise the $50,000 needed for treatment (18 people contributed $486), which is all the more tragic given that the people who filled out his Star Wars petition could have raised double the amount with only a dollar contribution per petitioner. Perhaps readers would be willing to head across to donate a dollar and help give Henry Walsh some much-needed hope; maybe we can demonstrate fan power in productive ways and support a fellow geek.
Incidentally, a petition that petitions Walsh’s petition has managed to obtain 19 signatures, with the following advice attached:
Thanks to all readers who have taken the time to read my saga trilogy. The next instalment is a virtual round-table discussion with fellow scholars, Will Brooker, Megen de Bruin-Molé, Lincoln Geraghty, Mar Guerrero-Pico, Rebecca Harrison, William Proctor and Suzanne Scott. In the meantime, I leave you with a poem written by Henry Walsh and posted on Twitter:
Trump’s Twitter was down, it was such bliss,
No more of that clown, who we’d never miss,
Then it came back, once more online,
I wanted to scream, I wanted to whine,
Why can’t we get rid of the Cheeto-In-Chief,
Who seems to take joy in causing us grief,
Now don’t get me wrong, Clinton wasn’t much better,
They’re both corrupt as heck, just birds of a feather,
So in a few years, ignore anyone who panders,
Do the right thing, and vote Bernie Sanders.
Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018).