The past few weeks have seen a lot of popular attention being directed towards fans and fandoms: the reactions of some men to the upcoming release of the Feig-helmed female-driven Ghostbusters, the calls for Disney to include a queer character coalescing around #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, the death of an LGBT character on The 100 being a final straw for many fans who are sick of lesbian characters being denied healthy relationships and happy endings, and the decision by the writers of the Captain America comics to suggest in a cliffhanger ending that Steve Rogers has been working for Hydra. All of these have led to significant discussion online, including, frequently, outrage and hurt.
The pushback to these has been seen from several sectors. The AV Club ran an article about ‘modern fan entitlement’, suggesting that fans now felt that they have the right to demand that stories go the way that they want, and Devin Faraci of BirthsMoviesDeath evoked a previous suggestion of his that Annie Wilkes of Misery was the patron saint of fandom, a woman driven to kidnap and threaten an author in order to force him to resurrect a dead character. A good friend of mine bemoaned the current visibility of fandom, harking back to the days when fandom was hidden in its own corners of Livejournal and AO3, and shipping wars and earnest fan discussion was limited to those who had sought them out.
What I am seeing in these discussions is a concerning elision of multiple ideas, one which could lead to a silencing of groups who deserve their voice to be heard. Fandom is not a mythical paradise for people of colour, for LGBTQI people, for otherwise marginalised and disregarded people, but it has been a space where people could find expression, comfort, and depictions which felt more like their own lived experience. I do not want to see ‘mainstream’ fans (white, middle-class, cis-het) pushing back against marginalised communities who speak out, in order to attempt to conform to some idea of how fandom should behave. There are pluralities and differences in the campaigns mentioned above. There is a difference. And in that difference, lies everything.
There is a difference between fans trying to guide the course of a narrative, and pointing out offensive narrative tropes. While I’m sure it wasn’t at all shocking to many LGBT viewers, I have been shocked by the running total of #DeadLesbians. Authors may point to the narrative imperative that they felt drove them to kill off a particular character (and there may, in some very rare circumstances, be industrial rationales around contracts etc), but that does not account for the sheer number of lesbian characters denied healthy relationships, or simply killed off. An awareness is needed from writers that this is something that happens far too much, and that they need to take active steps to not contribute to the problem.
Pointing out offensive behaviour is not the same as trying to change a story to “what fans want”. I do not know enough of the backstory of Steve Rogers and Captain America to weigh in with my own opinion as to whether the “Hail Hydra” moment was anti-Semitic or not. However, when it comes down to it, my opinion doesn’t matter very much. Jewish people have been saying, loudly and clearly, that they feel it is anti-Semitic, and their voice is going to carry more weight than any of the non-Jewish voices speaking against it. This is not a ‘fan behaviour’, nor is it entitlement. It is pointing out, once again, an offensive narrative misstep.
I would also argue that the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend movement is not really about ‘demanding’ a certain narrative take. This is people saying “we are sick of not being represented by a major studio”, pointing out that there are significant voices who would love to see a gay character finally appear in an animated Disney film, and that by continuing to not do so, the lived experiences of many are being erased. This isn’t fans demanding that a character take a different narrative path, but instead is a call for visibility, for recognition, in a text which has become important to a great number of people, and whose main song speaks to queer experience on multiple levels.
Speaking out about offensive representations, about the lack of representations, about stereotyped representations, is absolutely crucial. As audiences, we demand more from our creatives, not because we are more demanding, but because for too long the narratives we have been presented with have been narrow, singular, conservative, and only representative of a small portion of the mainstream community. If we look back at the texts that we hold up as iconic over the past 20-30 years, so many of them spoke to us because they provided representations of some segment of the population that we didn’t see elsewhere: Roseanne’s depiction of blue-collar family life, Sex and the City’s depiction of open female sexuality, My So-Called Life’s depiction of the reality of being a teenage girl, and in spite of the horrific behaviour of its creator, The Cosby Show provided people of colour with a visual representation of African-American culture on television in ways that it had not been seen before.
Representation is important. It shapes and guides how we behave. It provides cultural touchstones, and we look to it for representations of our own lived experience. Pointing out to creatives that they are narrowing their representations, adhering to tropes which are harmful, or simply being offensive: that is not being demanding. That is not ‘entitlement’. That is trying to create a cultural landscape that is better and healthier for all of us, that gives viewers and fans the sort of content of which they can be proud.
We need to assess these pushbacks carefully, and need to look at the movements they are challenging. Are the movements pointing out offensive, pointing out harmful tropes, pointing out a lack of expression or representation? Or are they strictly proclaiming upset at the way a narrative has gone, or a creative decision? Are they pushing for greater inclusivity, or for less? Are they aimed at broadening our experiences, or narrowing them?
There is a difference.