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Geek culture isn’t ‘broken,’ but it does have a harassment problem

Entitlement isn't the same thing as constructive criticism.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Posted on May 31, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 4:47 pm CDT

In his latest thinkpiece on Birth Movies Death, geek culture critic Devin Faraci argued that “Fandom is Broken.” Bringing together the Ghostbusters reboot controversy, HYDRA Captain America, fanboy death threats, and a bizarre critique of romantic fanfiction, he describes a community ruined by the zealotry of “entitled” fans.

Except none of these examples are remotely comparable, representing different issues from different corners of fandom. Criticism is not the same as entitlement. Death threats are not the same as social media activism. And death threats aren’t purely the realm of disgruntled fans sending hate mail to creators; harassment is a broader issue of sexism and bigotry online.

Characterizing fan entitlement as a plague on geek culture, Faraci places the Ghostbusters trailer backlash on the same level as the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag and the criticism of HYDRA Captain America, a trio of social media campaigns that couldn’t be more different. While the Ghostbusters backlash is motivated by misogynist fans objecting to a female-led movie reboot, #GiveElsaAGirlfriend was a brief campaign for Disney to include queer representation in a children’s cartoon.

Meanwhile, the Captain America outrage is a response to the content of a recent comic, which revealed Captain America as a secret member of the Nazi-affiliated organization HYDRA. Some fans responded with critical blog posts about Captain America’s history as an anti-Nazi hero; others donated money to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in protest. A few sent death threats to the comic’s writer and editor.

As Faraci points out, geek culture has a harassment problem. But if this means fandom is “broken,” then so is the rest of the Internet. Harassment is everywhere, from Politics Twitter to book review sites to science vlogging. It’s also demonstrably worse for women and people of color, an issue that Faraci ignores in favor of detailing the threats received by Marvel editor Tom Brevoort and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn.

As an emblem of fan entitlement, Faraci name-checks a fictional character from a Stephen King novel, a woman who kidnaps her favorite author and forces him to write a book to her specifications. Yes, the people organizing hashtag campaigns in support of bisexual Poe Dameron are just as bad as fictional criminals, when you really think about it.

Perhaps Faraci’s strangest example of fan entitlement is his complaint about “the popularity of fan fics set in coffee shops or bakeries.” He writes:

“I had an argument with a younger fan on Twitter recently and she told me that what she wants out of a Captain America story is to see Steve Rogers be happy and get whatever he wants – ie, the exact opposite of what you want from good drama.”

It feels very odd to align this harmless fanfic trope with what he describes as the “powder keg” of entitled fandom. For one thing, coffeeshop fanfic is not demanding anything from anyone. Fans aren’t organizing Marvel boycotts because Civil War wasn’t a romcom. They enjoy both: the morally conflicted, action-heavy experience of the Captain America movies, followed by a lighthearted chaser of romantic fanfiction. And since fanfic is usually kept separate from the creators of the original source material, it’s basically the opposite of in-your-face demands from overly invested fans.

I can’t help but suspect that Faraci’s dismissal of lighthearted fanfic is rooted in sexism. Most fanfic is written by young women, and coffeeshop fic falls into the same category as Gilmore Girls or Pride & Prejudice—stories about relationships, played out on a small scale, but with satisfying emotional impact. There’s always a happy ending, but are these stories any more frivolous than your average Spider-Man movie? It certainly isn’t “the opposite of good drama.” Good drama is a well-told story; bad drama is Batman v Superman

Fans can be loud and obnoxious on social media, making it easy for people to lump valid criticism into the same category as stupid overreactions (“The new Batmobile looks so bad I’m never reading a DC comic again”) and outright harassment. For writers and creators, this can start to feel like one huge mass of negative commentary—which is probably why Faraci’s article resonated with so many people.

In a lot of ways, he’s right. He just doesn’t seem to recognize the difference between outright harassment and vocal but constructive campaigns to improve fandom for everyone. 

Fans and creators are still negotiating their boundaries online .

Fan entitlement, or something like it, can be hurtful—especially for creators who work on beloved franchises like Doctor Who or Star Wars, where fans feel a strong sense of ownership of long-running characters. But fan entitlement is an attitude problem, brought on by a lack of thoughtfulness and empathy. It’s not an umbrella term for every fandom reaction, from death threats to hashtag activism.

With social media increasing consumers’ access to producers, fans and creators are still negotiating their boundaries online. Sometimes, a handful of fans will wildly overreact to a creative decision and behave like immature dicks. Sometimes, a creator will misinterpret a piece of constructive criticism as a personal attack and freak out. Occasionally, a hashtag campaign like #OscarsSoWhite or The 100‘s lesbian death backlash will start a productive conversation that might inspire real, positive change. 

Fandom isn’t broken. It’s just going through some growing pains.

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*First Published: May 31, 2016, 2:11 pm CDT