[Possible indirect spoilers for ‘The Rise of Skywalker’.]
Here we are on the Internet in the year 2020, so I’m going to take the leap that my readers do not need a primer on toxic fandom and the entitled fanbros who engage in it. We’ve seen Gamergate rise and fall and be subsumed into the Alt-Right and Trumpists; heard the howling shrieks about “Fake Geek Girls“; and seen them gatekeep everything from Sherlock Holmes to Steven Universe with weird trivia demands. They are the ones I tend to think of as the ‘acquisitive’ fans, who care immensely about canon and trivia and feel like they can take ownership of the act of liking a franchise, in contrast to the ‘creative’ fans who create art and fanfiction and tend to use their fandoms as a joyous jumping-off point for other work.
We’ve also seen them absolutely shit themselves trying to shut down any critique of the things they love (and believe therefore are Objectively Excellent). We’ve seen them scream “feminism is cancer” at Anita Sarkeesian until their throats are bloody with hate. In this respect, how they stifle critique is obvious and direct, and even outright stated as an objective. This is not the kind of stifling I’m going to talk about; instead, I want to examine the subtler stifling of critique that happens if someone in part agrees with them.
Fanbro behavior is weird to me. While I dimly understand their fury (it is what happens when you attach a fiction to your identity and then that fiction diverges from you – ideally, don’t do this), I don’t entirely understand how they get there, and the main strange thing is that their obsession winds up expressing itself as a purity test of sorts. They love not their property, but a certain specific image of it, some One True Interpretation, and they get very very angry if anything that does not fit that comes along. This has the strange result that most of their fandom winds up expressed as hate rather than love, and they behave as though the introduction of some new piece of art somehow erases what went before it from existence, or somehow renders the previous work impure.
In that vein, let’s talk about two movies that have gotten this treatment especially hard in the last few years: the 2016 “Ghostbusters” and the 2017 “The Last Jedi” – and why it has been hard as hell (for me) to talk about them.
Ghostbusters caused a giant uproar before it was even released, and while this was not itself unusual, the way the outcry was palpably and obviously made of naked misogyny was. Misogyny is practically the bricks and mortar of toxic fandom, but in this case there wasn’t even anything else it could be. It was a reboot of a franchise that had a hugely popular first entry in which all the heroes were men, and then had wildly variable success with its followups; in the reboot all the heroes were women and We Can’t Have That!
The misogynist nature of the uproar was obvious for a simple two-pronged reason. The first and more obvious prong was that the hate started from the announcements, long before it was possible in any way for the ‘critics’ to have seen any of the content. This is not by itself necessarily the case, of course, since this ‘criticism’ was only occasionally presented with anti-woman language and instead was all about ‘ruining a masterpiece’ and ‘being woke’*. The second prong was that this criticism had not appeared in response to any of the preceding Ghostbusters content after the original movie, which included a lackluster sequel, an excellent cartoon series, a tolerable cartoon series, lots of merchandise, and various video games of varying quality right up until at least 2013†. Many of these releases were much more deserving of the approbium than the new movie, especially when it hadn’t even been shown.
The complaints about The Last Jedi were almost eerily similar, though at least this time the movie had to actually be released before the hate machine really got under steam. Too “woke” they said; not enough like what went before**. They absolutely lost their minds at the audacity to add Rose Tico, a woman of color, to the central cast. They abhorred every new idea Rian Johnson’s movie brought to the franchise’s table, again, always claiming it was “too woke” in one way or another.
One quoted review said: “So caught up in being diverse and political, it forgets to tell a coherent and compelling story”, which is an interesting indictment in and of itself. ‘Caught up in being diverse’ was in response to the appearance of Rose (as opposed to that of the Black man, Finn, who was introduced in the previous movie), and implies an extraordinarily narrow view of ‘diversity’! Star Wars has, prior to the new trilogy, been painfully white in its human cast, and contains tantamount to no representation at all for disabled people‡, queer people, or any other non-privileged group. Notice I had to say ‘in its human cast’ just then: Star Wars is a space opera set in a galaxy heavily populated by aliens, and in such a setting these people are all for every shape and size and color of non-humans but blow their gaskets if the humans aren’t all able-bodied cishet white Westerners! I don’t know for sure why these same controversies were not nearly so widely communicated for Rogue One, but I suspect the reason is also in effect a ripping off of any thin veneer of plausible deniability that this wasn’t a matter of white supremacy: parts of the alt-right made a cause of trying to destroy The Last Jedi and gloated about the effect they had***. ‘Political’ is an interesting claim as well, since one ironclad consistency throughout every piece of Star Wars media is the central theme of the good guys fighting against a totalitarian fascist war machine; it tips the writer’s hand and shows us they are someone who isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the First Order.
Thing is, here’s the problem: both of these movies had some serious problems IMO – certainly at the very least there is room for honest and informed criticism of them as there should be for any piece of media – but the fanbro outcries turned criticism of these movies into a political act. I absolutely abhor misogynist fanbros and their behavior, and that goes triple for the alt-rightists, and my reasons for being critical of these films don’t sound anything like theirs, but it still sounds like supporting them when I express grudging agreement with the most superficial “They weren’t that good” responses.
Consider The Last Jedi again. The bros hated Rose. They hated the sequence set in a casino in a place called Canto Bight. They hated Admiral Holdo. They severely hated the reveal that Rey’s family was nobody of significance. They even spared some time to hate the scene where Luke harvested and drank green milk. I absolutely loved every one of these things! Rose Tico was practically a representation of the good side of the fandom, someone who loved what she loved but without putting them on a pedestal or compromising her principles, in specific oppostion to the whiny entitled rage junkie Kylo Ren. The casino scene was about war profiteering and was an important character development moment for Finn as he starts to really understand what the Resistance fights against. Rey having no dynastic connection would have been a wonderful storyline and message that the Force does not follow families but can vest in anyone (sadly JJ Abrams was having none of this and did away with it in The Rise of Skywalker). Luke became a curmudgeon but even more than that a troll like his master Yoda, the green milk was a character moment where he was trying to drive Rey off by being extra weird.
But it did drag. The pacing in TLJ was inconsistent at best, and notably had three separate moments when the movie seemed to be over but just kept trundling. It lacked the high energy feel of Star Wars, which The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker DID have (despite other pacing problems with the latter). In-world, Holdo’s plan might have been the necessary way to keep the Resistance from being wiped out entirely but her refusal to give any information or even support to her underlings who were being picked off by the First Order provoked a mutiny in a way that was so obvious it was a failure of leadership on her part.
Similarly with Ghostbusters. I wanted to love it, I really did. I was right there with the rest of the non-asshole fandom gleefully drinking up every spilled fanbro tear. “Women? In my Ghostbusters!? It’s more likely than you might think.” Folks, one of the heroes was a hyperintelligent fat girl named Abby, I promise you this was very much something I wanted to see written across the sky forever. But then… the writing was awful. The main characters were basically a who’s who of Poorly Written Female Characters, consisting seemingly of the Prissy Wet Blanket, the Belligerent Bitch, the Manic Pixie Dream
GirlMad Scientist, and the Strong Black Woman(tm). Most of the dialogue was forced, the jokes sweaty, the character interactions largely watered-down SNL content. It was enough to make me go back and wonder if the 1984 original (which WAS an SNL comedian vehicle) committed these same sins, and AFAICT it doesn’t. It’s definitely not completely innocent of them, and has plenty of problems, but doesn’t have the flat hollow feel of this. The new film had some fun setpieces and some good moments, but ultimately it felt like a parody of the original rather than its own thing; it even went so far as to have the climactic battle that saves the city end with a giant multi-laser nut shot.
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that comparing these two things to each other contains a fascinating example of how much execution matters. The big bad in both Ghostbusters and The Last Jedi (as with the others in the trilogy) have a lot of similarities. They are both ‘bad fan boys’ in a way; entitled, complaining, demanding jerks with a hugely over-inflated ego and serious rage issues. Archetypically, I am definitely here for this and I hope we see more of it. But while Kylo Ren managed to be portrayed as dangerous, twisted, and just identifiable enough to be compelling, Rowan North was ineffectual and hugely annoying and I kept hoping someone would punch him to make the noise stop.
I suppose that might be the main difference in a nutshell. The douchebros hated what these movies fundamentally were and how they weren’t getting the 100% representation they felt entitled to, while I instead take issue with the specific execution, the timing, the writing, “come on guys do it better!” sort of thing.
But how hard it was to say this! I felt for years like I was required to support these films (and occasional others like them) because of the politicization applied to critiques of them by the fanbros. I’m not arrogant enough to assume I must be 100% right about these things, but it’s such a strange position too be in to be faced with the choice of “silence your opinion or else you are supporting the enemy”. To be clear, I never encountered anyone that actually accused me of this; rather, this was the political climate surrounding these films and was so intense that any critical opinion often was dismissed out-of-hand as being douchebroey without being considered in detail – for the simple reason that the douchebro “critiques” were so thick on the ground that anyone interested in these films swiftly burnt out from the sheer volume and vitriol of them.
They stifled critique, but even more so, they stifled what would have otherwise seem to agree with them. Funny how they’re always the ones shrieking about freeze peech, innit?
* Keep an eye on ‘being woke’; it is the 2010’s implementation of ‘being PC’ and is identical in its usage being to mock someone the speaker believes is being too respectful to an oppressed group.
† Beeline Interactive released a free-to-play mobile Ghostbusters game in 2013. This was the most recent GB game I found, but I did not do in-depth research here.
** As opposed to The Force Awakens, which was so similar to what went before it was practically a remake of (what came to be called) A New Hope. Despite which I loved it. I’m not immune to these things (and wouldn’t want to be).
‡ No, Darth Vader the magical space wizard triple amputee who spent the entire original trilogy never being identified as such is not a good example of disabled representation.
*** Which wasn’t really much. Star Wars is one of the biggest juggernaut franchises in the world, and Disney has more money than God. No amount of whining was going to cause an actual box-office failure.
I was away for a while, as a result of traveling and dealing with difficult personal things over this holiday. But I have no intentions of leaving this blog any time soon, and I will try to keep the post rate up closer to like my first week as much as I reasonably can.