ARTS & CULTURE

Are Fans Getting Too Entitled? Nah.

Having opinions on art and entertainment isn’t a privilege, and being insulated from feedback isn’t a right.

04/06/2016 12:19 AM AEST
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In the beginning, there were the creators. The creators made movies, TV shows, and even actual comic books and novels. Audiences paid money and silently watched the movies, read the books. A few professional reviews appeared; some ardent fans wrote letters to the directors and authors. The creators rested in the comfortable knowledge that they’d produced a piece of art. And then they began again.

Back then, audiences voted primarily with their dollars. If a movie or a comic book were enough of a disaster, the message -- something went wrong here -- would get through. Art or no, studios and publishers intend to turn a profit by creating entertainment that audiences will happily pay to consume. But frankly, “we didn’t want to pay to see this” is not that much information, not enough to tailor the next attempt around the audience’s previously unmet desires. So the creators (historically, mostly white men of a certain privileged background) would just get another swing to do something similar, maybe with certain tweaks publishers or studio execs thought would appeal to the masses. Heyo, artistic freedom. 

Then, something happened to this Eden. Let’s say the internet was the serpent in the garden, and social media the apple of knowledge of good and evil. We all took an enormous bite, then another, and another, and the creators woke up the next morning to find we’d left a bunch of angry tweets in their mentions and launched innumerable earnest fan Tumblrs shipping Sherlock and Loki.

The internet has broken fandom. Or such is the claim of two articles, from the A.V. Club and Birth Movies Death, recently published on said Internet. 

Both the A.V. Club piece, by Jesse Hasenger, and Devin Faraci's screed at Birth Movies Death arise from and contain nuggets of truth: Fandom's access to social media means that filmmakers and writers are constantly flooded with feedback on their work, and not all of it is calm and reasonable -- some fans lash out with nasty insults, demands and violent threats when they disagree with certain artistic choices.

"In a lot of ways fandom has always been a powder keg just waiting for the right moment to explode, and that moment is the ubiquity of social media," wrote Faraci. "[C]reators are no longer working in a void. Instead they're working in some kind of a chamber of screams, where people can and do voice their immediate and often personal displeasure directly and horribly." Seriously: It's extremely troubling to hear about video game designers being barraged with death threats over the delayed release of a new game or comic book writers facing the same for conjuring up a controversial plot twist in a beloved series. 

It's also a fringe of fan reactions, and a fringe that was bound to surface, not because fans are sick, entitled assholes but because some people are. Both pieces attribute this misbehavior to an overall epidemic of fan entitlement -- a sense of consumerist-driven ownership over the art that they should rightly only enjoy quietly, but harassment isn't a problem unique to superhero comic creators. Women, especially women of color, and other marginalized people have long spoken out about the emotional toll of sustaining hate speech and threats of rape and murder as the cost of having a writing career, a popular Twitter presence, or any other public visibility. The harassment enabled by the internet is a problem, but it's not clear that it's one that is specific to "fandom."

There's a strain of contempt for fans in these denouncements of modern fandom that runs far deeper than an unquestionably justified repudiation of threats and aggressive demands. Both articles nitpick over far more innocuous and even progressive fan campaigns and critiques, lumping them in with regressive tantrums and death threats under the label "fan entitlement."

In a follow-up article to his original, Faraci clarified that he supports social justice activism that encourages more inclusive entertainment, but still sees entitlement in its execution. "The line is crossed when you go from 'Disney, I would really like to have a queer princess in one of your cartoons' to 'I demand that the writers and directors of "Frozen 2" make Elsa canonically queer," he wrote. "You can -- and should! -- let the higher ups know the kinds of stories you want told. You should not demand that storytellers tell their stories in the ways that you want."

The irony of instructing fans on how they may and may not express their opinions about the entertainment they consume, in the name of protecting artists from ever being told how they should express themselves, is rather amusing.  

Because, well, yes -- fans are entitled to express that they hate the new reboot of their favorite franchise or to sign a petition requesting that their favorite ship be made canon. The expression of those specific opinions and desires is not a privilege. It is a right.

Even Hasenger conceded, "Of course, the things fans are actually entitled to are their own opinions and feelings, even petty or deeply stupid ones," though he doesn't go so far as to say that they're entitled to express them as they choose.

On the whole, the fact that creators can now hear what fans really feel about their work has the potential to make art better, not worse, despite all the hysteria about crowdsourcing fiction and writing by committee. Hasenger tsk tsks fans for not knowing what's good for them, for trying to take over artistic jobs they're simply unable to understand: "Fans don’t need to get what they want, and much of the time, they probably shouldn’t. [...] the more often movies can assert themselves as creative works made by directors and writers and editors and actors and cinematographers, not in service of fans -- the better."

But... why, exactly? Just because fans don't deserve to see what they want happen? Because the things that they ask for, such as Elsa having a lesbian relationship in a possible sequel to "Frozen," are inherently bad for the art? Because the creatives just know better and shouldn't be questioned, just listened to? Yes, eat your carrots, fellow fans; I swear, you'll thank the creator someday. (Maybe one day he'll spontaneously give us cake! But don't count on it.)

It's dismissive and condescending to write fan feedback off as consumerist pressure when criticism has a long-standing role in the artistic ecosystem. Art has never existed in a vacuum. Besides, let's get real: The creators of blockbuster superhero movies aren't unworldly artistes who care not what audiences will pay to watch. Movies are consumer products; that's exactly why a film like the "Ghostbusters" reboot exists. 

Now, fortunately for the fans at large, you don't have to be granted column inches by a predominantly white male media system to poke holes in how a film or TV show is working for you. You dislike that an opportunity for an overt lesbian coming-out narrative was sanitized into something more uncontroversial? That's a valid criticism. The racial stereotypes or whitewashed casting detracted from your enjoyment of the film? It's a critique of the art, not consumerist whining or, as Faraci might put it, "throw[ing] down a social justice bomb," to point that out. (You can also use your platform to argue that the Ghostbusters shouldn't be women, but bigotry does not tend to stand up well against arguments for equality and inclusiveness in the marketplace of ideas.)

The democratization of criticism, in aggregate, has meant pressuring studios to produce more diverse works that don't rely on stereotypes or tokenism, and that's all been to the good as far as quality movies and TV. Turning around and lumping those efforts in with collective tantrums about the incursion of women and people of color into previously white male-dominated entertainment undermines the powerful work being done to help creators make their art more skillfully reflect the realities of the world around them. We can and should pay attention to the content of what fandoms are advocating, not just how passionately they're advocating for it. As Ceilidh at Bibliodaze put it, "I take particular umbrage with the way Faraci draws a line between these concerns over Captain American and the women Ghostbusters because of the implication that bigotry is the same as anti-bigotry. It’s clearly not."

Creators might not want to hear the stream of requests, directives, and critiques -- it's probably exhausting! -- but they don't have a right to demand silence from their audiences. The good news for them is, as Megan Purdy put it on Women Write About Comics, "social media does not give over the means of production to fans." Creators do get to ignore petitions and brush off critiques. No one is actually crowdsourcing the next "Frozen"; the only people who can make that decision are the same people who have always had that power -- the creatives and executives at the studio. Hasenger calls the prospect of the "Frozen 2" lesbian relationship petition succeeding "a little chilling," but given that the fans have no actual power to make this happen, it's unclear why we should fear the possibility of creators being inspired by the feedback of their own fans.

And the amazing news, as far as creators are concerned, is that the explosion of social media might have opened up communication between the artists and their fans, but it's by no means equalized it. Major studios and publishers, and the creators they've chosen to invest in, still have a bigger megaphone than any of their fans on Twitter. They just have less privilege, less complete protection from a dialogue with their audience, than before. Some still find ways to choose not to have that dialogue. That's fine; it's their right.

Not having dialogue, ignoring fan response, and stubbornly sticking to "a vision" isn't necessarily the only true way to create great and pure art, though. Art doesn't have to be conceived of as such an asymmetrical concept, a gift passed from all-knowing creators to receptive and docile audiences. It can be the product of collaboration, symbiosis between different parts of a community, and a healthy dialogue. That doesn't sound like the kind of art we've seen in mainstream America for the past several hundred years, but that doesn't make a more inclusive paradigm for art any less fruitful and thought-provoking. It just means acknowledging the power for creativity and insight in everyone (yes, even the fans), not setting up a divide; being more welcoming than elitist. 

Building walls, if we're being honest, has never made art any more pure and real. It's taking down the walls that lets the light in.

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