Once again, we’ve got people behaving badly, and numerous think pieces popping up stating that people are behaving badly. Here’s a reasonably good example with a good summary of the problem that somehow doesn’t resolve anything: Why are (some) Star Wars fans so toxic?
I don’t know about you, but when I see a question posed as a headline, I expect that somewhere in the body there will be an answer proposed and argued. We do get a good description of the problem, at least.
It’s a poisonous tributary of fanboyism that appears again and again. Earlier this week, Kelly Marie Tran, the Vietnamese-American actor who plays Rose (and the first WoC in a lead role in the saga) deleted all her Instagram posts. While Tran hasn’t specifically stated that online trolling is the reason she left social media, since the release of The Last Jedi in December she’s been on the receiving end of a torrent of online abuse. Some comments voiced dissatisfaction with the character of Rose itself, or deemed it necessary to attack Tran personally about her performance. Others were more concerned about her gender and her race. For an idea of what she’s been dealing with, one individual even went so far as to amend Rose’s entry on the Wookiepedia Star Wars wiki to read, “Ching Chong Wing Tong is a dumbass fucking character Disney made and is a stupid, retarded, and autistic love interest for Finn. She better die in the coma because she is a dumbass bitch.” If constant invective like this is the reason for Tran leaving social media – if she thought it best to sever the unbroken line of communication between her and the type of person who thinks sending this to a stranger is the right thing to do – then you can hardly blame her.
That individual? Total asshole. An embarrassment to his mother and his entire family line. Someone who ought to be fired from his job, his girlfriend ought to leave him, his computer and his phone thrown in a dumpster, and who should be quarantined until he gets extensive retraining in how to be a human being. But what is the problem with Star Wars fandom? (And note that we could substitute lots of different things for the words “Star Wars”: atheism/skepticism, veganism, Unix, beanie babies, science, whatever). The question is “WHY?”, not “WHO?”
I am so goddamn familiar with this ongoing problem that it doesn’t help to see another turd bobbing about in yet another genre punchbowl. I’m cynical enough to expect the situation to arise everywhere, and I don’t think it contributes to a solution to try to analyze the punch, rather than the turd.
Anyone who followed GamerGate is probably already drawing parallels between the misogyny of that sorry affair and these hissy fits in reaction to harmless pieces of family entertainment. The most vocal offenders in Tran’s case, as always, are an infinitesimal minority of the millions around the world who enjoy the films, or at least don’t feel the need to harass those they perceive as being to blame if they don’t. These males – and it is males – feel they have ownership over a piece of entertainment: that geekdom is their safe space, theirs alone, and the newfound mass popularity of the genre is bringing a lot of casuals into their hitherto predominantly straight, white, male dojo. Diversity isn’t what some of them want. Which is bizarre, considering the benefits of diversity are what quite a lot of sci-fi is actually about. But it’s not what these people believe they paid for, and therefore see themselves of having part-ownership of. The sense of entitlement is staggering.
OK, there’s something odd going on here. I know about fandoms, I’ve participated in a few. At their purest, they’re easy to describe: it’s people meeting and saying “You like this thing, too? I love this thing!” and jumping up and down while simultaneously gushing about their favorite part. I’ve seen it at science fiction conventions, and at evolutionary biology meetings. It’s beautiful. It’s community. It isn’t flawless, because there are always those annoying human problems: there’s always someone competitive who has to show that they love that thing more, and there are bad attempts to gloss over misbehavior, like that Big Name fondles young fans, because they love the thing so much that we mustn’t mention anything that might taint it, but this feels like something different. This isn’t the usual clumsy, socially maladroit behavior of overly-enthusiastic geeks, or the fumbling efforts to willfully avoid seeing bad behavior.
This feels like something intentional and malicious.
You know you can belong to multiple fandoms at once, right? When you talk about the people in Star Wars fandom, you’re actually talking about a collection of very different overlapping interests. There are the cosplayers who see it as a target-rich environment with many exotic costumes, but they may also view Final Fantasy fandom as another fine place to play. There are cinemaphiles who just adore the approach to technology of the movies, and look at other science fiction movies through the same lens. This is not a problem. It’s actually a plus when people with different perspectives on the same thing interact.
Except…I think there’s another kind of fandom that has been growing for decades now. Let’s call it the Dark Fandom, or DF for short, just to pin a label on it. This is a fandom that celebrates snideness, jeering, crudity, and taking a dump in the punchbowl. It’s 4chan/8chan. It’s a substantial chunk of Reddit. It’s YouTube comment sections. It’s community, too. It’s people coming together and saying, “You hate feminism? I hate feminism even more! High five!” or “Hey, you like trashing parties? Let’s invade rec.pets.cats and piss off some normies!” (Yeah, this has been a phenomenon since the early days of usenet).
This isn’t necessarily a problem with Star Wars fandom. It’s a problem with that segment of Star Wars fandom that overlaps with the DF. Or the atheists who are card-carrying members of the DF. Or the gamers who enjoy a particular video game, but think the game culture could use some more DF. Just as cosplayers might want to participate in a fandom with cool costumes, these people want to join in with more cool shitposting.
That’s the real problem. The question is what are we going to do about it?
We need ways to identify DF members, first of all. I’ve generally found that anyone who is proud to have participated in 4chan, for instance, is almost always pure poison. Anti-feminism isn’t a coherent position, it’s simply a pathology of bros, so that’s a useful marker. But 4chan was anonymous, not every discussion is about feminism, and people can use DF tactics for all kinds of causes.
We need to ostracize the DF. We all sort of do this already: someone who is disruptive and who contributes nothing but complaints and bitterness tends to be unwelcome at meetings and in any kind of productive interaction. But all too often we let them linger on, maintaining an association. We usually think of a synthesis of overlapping fandoms as a good thing, and we like to consider a diversity of interests to be a strength. But the DF is a cancer that weakens us when we allow it to persist.
We need to help people get out of the DF. It’s only a first step to kick out members of the DF — we also need a way to let them back in if they change. We need standards of behavior for our own fandoms, so people understand what it takes to be a respectable member of the Star Wars fan club, or whatever.
The bottom line is that we need to recognize that not all fandoms are good, not all are compatible, and take steps to deny associations with shitposting Dark Fandoms, like the ones flourishing in various media right now.