Passing Judgment, Part 2: Readers, Viewers & Fandom

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There have been several instances lately of works of art and media being torn down or otherwise endangered because of association with an artist who did or said something negative. I’ve decided to explore this issue in two parts, first looking at the production side with those who create or perform the media, and then looking at the consumers of that media, a.k.a. fandoms.

Background image by TPHeinz on Pixabay

While there have been many news stories about artists being slammed for their personal views or lives that had a negative impact on the work itself, there is another just as insidious and pervasive negativity radiating from the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m talking about the consumers of media: the readers, viewers, and fans.

We lay a lot of responsibility for the perception of art at the feet of the creators. But such reactions form a two-way street. There’s the art as envisioned by the creators, and there’s the art as perceived by the fans. It’s a symbiotic relationship, each supporting and renewing the other, so I understand that fans often feel a deep, personal connection to the art. I feel it myself with regards to many fictional universes. So how much of that art is “owned” by those who consume it? And what happens when those same fans are the ones creating the negative association?

I cannot tell you how many books or movies or TV shows or manga/anime I either don’t like as much as I could have or decided to avoid entirely because I couldn’t stand or didn’t want to be associated with the fans. The people purporting to love that piece of media. Not only do you have the problem of gatekeeping, which creates a bad impression for new or potential fans, but even if you get into the media, it’s very easy to form bad connotations when you inevitably hear about how the fandom itself behaves. Sometimes this bad behavior appears when the fandom lashes out towards the creators. The Star Wars fandom has gotten in hot water for the sexist and/or racist trolling of female and minority actors. Other times it appears internally with the snake eating its own tail. Steven Universe has had its positive diversity of body type and sexual orientation turned into a weapon against artists who, rightly or wrongly, decided to draw the characters differently. And sometimes it’s just plain uncomfortable, both for people inside and outside the fandom. The prominent incest shipping of Sam and Dean Winchester means that I’m pretty sure I will not be picking up Supernatural anytime soon.

This kind of behavior not only destroys the integrity and appeal of preexisting work, but can affect art that is ongoing or a work in progress. I recently learned that the fandom surrounding the 2018 reboot of Voltron is notoriously toxic, to the point that actors received death threats when characters were not forming relationships according to the desires of shippers. And it makes me wonder how the show may have gone or if it would have continued longer if the fans had kept their ships on the AO3 or Reddit forums instead of trying to impose their personal preferences on an external reality.

You’ll notice that all of this stuff is fan-generated; there is nothing in the art itself that suggests these outcomes or interpretations were the intent of the creators. But the entitled screaming of a small but vocal subset of fans has drowned out the good aspects of this art, leaving a bad taste in a lot of mouths. This is not to say that people can’t have opinions about art, especially art that they love, or that they shouldn’t voice those opinions (although I think there could be more tasteful ways of forming and sharing those expressions). It’s fine to have your own headcanon. It’s fine to be upset that a storyline didn’t go the way you wanted. Or to be frustrated by a lack of diversity or get annoyed by lazy writing. It’s fine to want to explore alternative realities and relationships between characters. (That’s what fan fiction is for!) But is the outrage justified? Should we boycott art we don’t feel properly represents us or send threats to the creators if a fictional relationship isn’t playing out the way we want?

In my opinion, no. If you don’t like something, be it an entire work or even just an aspect of it, you do not need to watch it, read it, or give it any kind of support. That is your call. But threatening or harassing creators, other fans, or people who might become fans, is just uncouth and uncalled for. It drives casual or would-be fans away. It makes sane people who are passionate about the art look crazy. And it makes creators less likely to bother making any new art at all.

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