How Fanbros Stifle Critique

A screenshot of The Simpsons in which Comic Book Guy stands behind his shop counter telling Bart "Without a doubt the worst episode ever"[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.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Best most honest critique of these things I’ve read, thank you. Agree with pretty much all of that, although I do forgive Holdo just a little because her character was responsible for the single most arresting moment in all of SW, made all the more so for happening in startling silence and black and white.

    I’m unclear why you think “Rogue One” didn’t get the hate tsunami “Last Jedi” did. It “deserved” it – female lead, diverse supporting cast, Chirrut and Baze coded gay (too subtle?) – not to mention troubled production with late reshoots. It should have been a turkey shoot for neckbeards.

    “No amount of whining was going to cause an actual box-office failure”

    That’s why it’s a bit disappointing they rowed back so much on the promise of TLJ with RoS. They could have doubled down on everything that caused the wailing and you KNOW that the thing would still have made a billion dollars. Biggest missed opportunity ever. They could have made something legendary, and what we got instead was…. fine. Just… fine.

    One positive thing : it’s reached a point where I honestly wouldn’t mind if they just stopped making Star Wars now. Never thought I’d say that.

  2. says

    @1 sonofrojblake

    Bear in mind this blog post was meta-commentary. I only laid out a brief precis of the things I think about these films, and if I were to do a serious critique of them the first thing I’d do is go back and watch them to make sure things were fresh in my mind. For example, I only barely mentioned Holdo here, while my opinion of her is quite nontrivial – I thought she was awesome in many ways, deficient in others, is a character type I personally badly want to see more of in all media (badass older woman), would have been better if her relationship with other characters (esp. Leia) was explored more, etc etc.

    Regarding Rogue One, that’s a matter of degree rather than kind, and I freely admit based on an anecdotal experience rather than any sort of research. To wit, while I’m reasonably connected online and follow a lot of social justice type issues, I don’t follow a lot of entertainment ‘news’ and the like; so I heard only vague complaints about the “SJW-ness” of Rogue One while the absolute global pampers-pooping that followed The Last Jedi was something I could not avoid at all, for ages, and even was forced to deal with a little in person. I’m not saying R1 didn’t get hate, but rather that it seemed not to get the unavoidable galactic shrieking that TLJ got. It is entirely possible I’m wrong here.

    I could write another whole post on what happened with The Rise of Skywalker undoing TLJ, and TLJ recontextualizing – undoing – The Force Awakens, the fact that the last trilogy was practically ruined and the thing that did it was the game of “retcon tennis” as a friend of mine put it taking place between Abrams and Johnson’s visions. In a nutshell, I think Abrams can film a Star Wars experience but he’s pants at creating a story (to an alarming extent, TFA recapitulated A New Hope and RoS recapitulated Return of the Jedi); meanwhile Johnson’s vision brought all kinds of fascinating new and needed ideas and representations and setting elements to the franchise, but he tried to jam too much into one movie and broke the style, then the pacing, and finally the suspension of disbelief. IF you want to dream with me a moment, imagine if the two visions had been put together, and we’d managed to get Abrams’ filming of a story made in Johnson’s style.

    Ah. THAT would have been legendary.

    Oh well, back to the ol’ fanfictions…

  3. sarah00 says

    I’m not a Star Wars fan but somehow have seen a couple of the new ones at the cinema and enjoyed them. Not enough to see them again or anything, but they weren’t as terrible as I’d expected given how bad the previous films are (and yes, I include the originals in that, sorry).

    The Last Jedi was ok but the real highlight for me was Rose – she was a wonderful character and I was totally invested in her character. I was considering seeing the new film but when I heard she’d been all but cut out I decided not to bother. One thing I really don’t get is the love for Kylo Ren. He was a whiny arrogant arse and I wanted nothing more than for someone to give him a slap. His woe-is-me schtick drove me crazy.

    As for Ghostbusters, I really enjoyed it. I get all your criticisms and think they’re valid but I found it funny and just the simple fact of seeing a group of women doing science (even if it was made-up science) was so fucking refreshing. I hate the way it’s described as a ‘failure’ when it never had a chance to be anything else.

  4. says

    @3 Sarah00

    I like Star Wars. That’s it, though, only like. I like lots of geek things, and only have love for a couple; I could hardly say why SW gets the love it does. I tend to refer to George Lucas as “the most wildly successful talentless hack in the history of talentless hackdom”, heh.

    I completely love Rose Tico too. Kylo… I don’t know. I guess the cliché that some people will always fall for a handsome dark brooding guy, hoping to save him or see his good side holds up, or…? No idea, really. I love him as a character, as an interesting and to date unusual take on what it means to be a Bad Guy in a film.

    You don’t have to defend your love of Ghostbusters to me. I stand by my critique, but it is only a critique and I don’t set myself up as the arbiter of what people ‘should’ like. Quite the opposite, in fact; if you get joy from that movie, by all means ignore this and take all the joy you can get from it.

  5. Cass says

    Love this post because it’s so true.

    Enjoyed TLJ but the pacing… GhostBusters had some funny parts but wasn’t cohesive for me. I hesitate to say I liked Alita Battle Angel (for the most part) because the Bros were saying something positive about it.

    Looking forward to reading more from you:)

  6. says

    “Acquisitive fans” — is that your term, or a common term? It sounds a bit like what I’ve heard called “curative fans”. Although, TBH, I don’t really like the curative/creative fan dichotomy. I usually relate to fiction through analysis of themes, which doesn’t fit on either end of the dichotomy.

    Theme-wise, TLJ was a relatively good movie. I just keep thinking about that shaggy dog subplot wherein Finn and Rose completely fail at their mission. I discovered that some fans didn’t like that, because it didn’t make any progress in the star war and therefore seemed pointless. I understand that, but to me, a bunch of fictional good guys defeating a bunch of fictional bad guys is by itself pointless, and the only thing that matters is what we the audience get out of it.

    I saw the GhostBusters film too. Outside of the fanhate it received, I thought it was unremarkable.

  7. says

    @5 Cass

    Thank you!

    @6 Siggy

    My term. yeah, ‘curative’ sounds like the same thing. It’s not really a dichotomy, all categories are fuzzy, though that raises a question: Would you consider yourself a Fan of anything in specific? Fandom necessitates some sort of emotional connection to a franchise or work, inherently a level of caring that in the case of Star Wars definitely outstrips my “Oh, this is kind of fun.” and sounds like it probably outstrips your “I shall dissect and analyze this content.”

    Not, to be clear, that I think there’s anything wrong with how you prefer to consume media. Just I wouldn’t be inclined to think that’s the high level of emotional connection that I would normally associate with being a Fan of something. Are you a fan of another thing, and if so, does your interaction with that thing differ? For me, for example, I like SW but am not a fan per se, whereas I am a fan of Undertale and Steven Universe.

  8. says

    @7 abbey,
    I am a fan of a few things but not comfortable sharing in this context. I’m just really interested in different ways of fanning, so the bit about acquisitive fandom stood out to me. Hope I didn’t go too off-topic.

    One of the issues that got rolled up into gamergate, was the supposed plague of games reviewers expressing personal opinions rather than stating an “objective” measure of game quality. I suppose that makes sense, if you believe game reviews are entirely about optimizing the allocation of your gaming budget, and if you believe gamers are an undifferentiated monolith. But I’m interested in an adjacent genre of article, the games criticism article, which does not make recommendations but analyzes themes and mechanics. So, it was interesting to see gamergate deny the possibility of analytically engaging in games, in favor of engaging with games on a purely transactional level.

  9. says

    @8 Siggy

    Fascinating. I have never encountered the notion of wanting to keep one’s fandom secret before. That must be caused by some interesting pressures.

    It’s not off-topic, but you said “I usually relate to fiction through analysis of themes, which doesn’t fit on either end of the dichotomy.” which strikes me as of course it doesn’t fit in that gradient, because that sounds to me like a different behavior.

    Gamergaters with their famous lack of empathy never seemed to grasp the notion that different games are better for different people wanting different things, and that therefore there is no such thing as Objective Measure of Game Quality.

  10. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    If they cared about free speech, they would actually defend it. But you’re right that even within their weird, myopic grabbag of free speech, the hyperbolic criticism has been self-defeating. The right can argue that the people on the left who don’t want to discuss how the Ghostbusters remake wasn’t funny or The Last Jedi has pacing problems and probably could use a deeper message than “Mistakes can teach us stuff” because it can signify agreement with the misogynists could argue that that’s the left’s fault for political correctness, but they sure as heck can’t argue that anyone who may like these films or other pieces of verboten entertainment won’t be yelled down by the right, even if they’re otherwise conservative.

    I do think it goes way beyond caring about canon, though. I’m a more creative fan who definitely thinks the point of a story is in its themes rather than its details, but not everyone who prefers a focus on the details becomes a fascist or misogynist. All it takes is either

    a) Some empathy to recognize that other people disagree and while one may prefer one’s “pure” canon that doesn’t make alternatives wrong
    b) Some perspective to recognize that this is fictional and that pretending that this is a battle for Western civilization is childish; and/or
    c) Some perspective to recognize that one’s original canon is still real and intact, but now there’s a new canon as well (which plenty of Star Wars fans have done with the original Expanded Universe, viewing the new Expanded Universe as an alternative timeline)

    After all, some of the most detail and canon-obsessed fans ever, to the point of parody, have been Star Trek fans, and while it would be silly to deny that that community has had its serious problems about gatekeeping and sexism and so forth, that’s a liberal show that has tended to maintain a liberal commentariat.

    And, of course, the fascists and misogynists only care about canon and fan work in the loosest sense. It’s one thing to be annoyed if Ghostbusters gets ostensibly hijacked for liberal causes, given that the original work was firmly within Reaganite small-business ideology (even if told by usually-liberal New Yorkers). But these cretins will really try to argue that Star Wars, the story where hippie teens and their dog defeat fascism with the power of Space Buddhism, was always reactionary or conservative and only the new movies have made it into “SJW propaganda”. The same people angry about Star Wars canon will also insist on Releasing The Snyder Cut(TM) and defend the DCEU’s take on the material, which practically defines revisionism and has taken characters like New Deal-era Superman and reimagined them through the lens of an Objectivist.

    The same applies to the Gamergate folks. No one complained when IGN trashed on the Extreme game series or anything else for reasons going beyond low frame rates. Ugly graphics, unfun gameplay loops, and lots of subjective stuff was always there. They flipped their lid over a *particular kind* of subjectivity.

    So more is going on. I do agree, though, that a particular kind of exclusionism does come into play. I personally have always had the perspective that if I like something I want to share it with people because it’s rad. But for some people, their own little safe space comes from their obscure fandom. They liked it before it was cool. Other people are poseurs, late fans, and they’re bringing in their concerns. It’s certainly possible that if one is already predisposed to reactionary politics one can react to what one perceives, *erroneously*, as an intrusion into a space one previously cherished and viewed as one’s own (e.g. Star Wars and video games), one is vulnerable to having the intruders be framed as political opportunists and not sincere fellow travelers. But that still hinges on having crap politics in the first place as well as a lack of empathy and honesty to recognize that actually some other people are really authentically excited by what they’re seeing, not just the gatekeeper-prone canon focus.

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