Fandom, Entitlement, and the Evolution of diversity in popular culture

*A research assignment written for SLIS 518 


Let me paint you a picture.

It is 1987. A little girl, five, is sitting in front of her television at noontime, eating a bowl of Kraft Dinner, while the Holograms and the Misfits battle for music supremacy on the fan favorite girl cartoon series, Jem and the Holograms.Topimage

In 1987 I fell in love with storytelling and I fell in love with science fiction.

Jem, through her holographic fairy godmother, Synergy, opened my mind to contemplating the wonders of technology and the evolution of human life, and the human possibilities in tandem with it. Since 1987, science fiction has been my favorite genre of literature, film, and television entertainment.

You can imagine, then, my rage when the live action Jem and the Holograms was released, devoid of science fiction, replacing a holographic and technological feat of empowerment with a roving projector robot and no science, simply the metaphor for masking true identities. The message might have been a good one, but to me, a lifelong fan, the soul was lost and my childhood corrupted.

I was furious. So, against my better judgment, I joined a discussion forum to complain about the movie. Instead of being an observant fan with the ability to distinctly appreciate different mediums, evolution of stories, and creative license, I grumbled (however eloquently) like an entitled fan whose childhood had been personally attacked.

I became part of the growing trend of entitled fandom.

Fandom is life

download (5)The first reported case of fandom, before it had a name, was in 1893, when Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle had his beloved detective, Sherlock Holmes, plummet to his death with his
greatest foe, Professor Moriarity. Fans were outraged and petitioned for Holmes’ return, prompting one of his most popular works, The Hound of Baskervilles.

In a post about fandom on The Mary Sue, Thomas Maluck describes fandom as “the drive to create and control the narratives and experiences that engage” (2016). It is an opportunity for fans of art (in its many forms) to share their opinions, to contemplate, to reproduce, and to play with their particular brand of art. According to research by PhD. Student, Chole Galloy, apart from watching or reading narratives, fans “engage with, appropriate, share, debate, and create through their favorite stories, [moreover,] they pre-view, and constantly re-view their texts, and seek out and exchange all possible information relating to those texts” (2012).

Fandom then, is not just a passing interest; it is a lifelong investment.

It is a way of life, often harkening back to childhood. Many fans today feel their childhoods and lifelong relationships as fans are being attacked or ruined by the contemporary diversification of stories and characters. In an interview with Joss Whedon, Todd Martens contemplates the battle cry of a suffering generation whose childhoods are lost to a new generation of fans who expect change (2016).

So it should not be a surprise that when fans are disappointed by the treatment of their favorite stories or characters, they want to be heard. And in the age of social media, fans have never been louder.

Broken boundaries, rage, and an old market

Megan Purdy, from Women Write About Comics, states that the advent of social media has collapsed both geographical and social boundaries, and as a result “made the vulnerable people more vulnerable, the powerful people more accessible” and has made communication, its pleasantries and its vitriol, more widespread (2016).

As social media connects us, it also divides us. In the world of fandom, its inhabitants are devoted to the art they worship. The Internet, a bridge that serves to connect those of us within, also pushes the boundaries to keep others out. The current outrage against the new reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise with four women carrying on the torch from the original men has sparked heated debates and vehement anger online.

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Fandom and the art that inspires it, most notably science fiction, fantasy, and the medium of comics, is taking the cultural world by storm. But before the rise of this sci-fi comic culture in the mainstream, this fandom belonged, primarily to a demographic of white, middle class men.

In 2016, the world of fandom is much more diverse, and as a result, fandom is shifting, and a lot of fans are fuming and using the Internet as their sounding board.

As Purdy notes, “Social media does not eliminate systemic, institutionalized power imbalances- it reflects them […], nor does it dissolve traditional power structures [it] amplifies, it does not imbue ” (2016). What this means in the realm of fandom is that the vocal minority that are loudly shouting and making demands of creators online are hard to ignore.

Today, when fans are let down by the “text they used to admire, they will strive to provide direct feedback” (Galloy, 2012) right away, reaching out to their favorite authors or directors through mediums such as Twitter. The result is often an opportunity for conversation with the creators, but it comes at a heavy cost when they are bombarded by hatred.

After the release of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer and director Joss Whedon quit social media after a storm of hate tweets and “polite inquiries to why [he] has not killed [himself] yet” (Martens, 2016).

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Writers at Marvel were boycotted for the changes made when Falcon took on Captain America’s shield in 2015, and when the original Captain America was written as a secret Hydra agent (his foes for decades) in 2016. Some vocal readers stopped reading altogether. Most recently, Ghostbusters actress, Leslie Jones was forced off of Twitter by a tsunami of racial and misogynist slurs, as well as death threats. Purdy captures the sentiment perfectly when she writes about the sexist and misogynist outbursts of GamerGate against female game creators and gamers. She notes, “[w]hen GamerGate trended it was a terrifying reflection of what marginalized people have always seen in the Internet: that we are not safe. That harassers and abusers too easily find support from the “reasonable”. That standing up for ourselves too often means painting a target on our backs” (2016). The Internet offers the potential to raise awareness and share ideas, but it also opens up less popular opinions to trolls.

In a post for the AV Club, Jesse Hassenger contends that “fan culture becomes dangerously anti-art, promoting a form of conservative stasis rather than active engagement” when entitlement affects creative choices (2016).

The immediate connection of social media that inspired communication between fans and creators has become a mine field for creators, companies, and fans who still enjoy the art.

Where fans used to raise their voices to save beloved characters (like Sherlock), cancelled shows (Firefly, please come back!!!), or support niche publications, now fans not only cry out to save the art, they make demands on how they want the art to be, and if it does not meet these demands, rage ensues (Faraci, 2016).

Entitlement and the corporatization of art

As science fiction comic culture becomes popular mainstream culture, it also becomes popular corporatization.

Marvel is no longer the publisher of comics, but also the production company behind movies, toys and clothing lines, same for DC. Therefore, these corporations must heed the call of the masses consuming their products.


If fans are outraged over changes made to a character, they need to listen. If they are up in arms about the direction of a story, they must pay attention. The fans are not just fans, they are consumers, often rabid consumers buying scores more than just the book or film, but all of the extended merchandise associated with it. Dolls, action figures, books, bed sheets, lunch boxes, collectibles, all exist to further a brand that grew out a hardcore fan base. Despite this, however, there exists a fine line between what fans want and what fans demand. Devin Faraci believes that this corporatized nature of stories as a product to consume makes it hard for fans to appreciate the distinction between creative license and fan entitlement, taking on the “customer is always right model” and infusing it with art (2016).

But the final product does not have to be one of entitlement, and as 2016 moves forward, the companies most closely associated with fandom are starting to listen to the vocal minority who are asking for changes to better reflect the current diverse cultural climate, regardless of what the angry mob decries.

A ray-blast of hope

One of the most popular areas of contention, with regards to fandom and comics, stems from a growing female readership who buy comics and engage with the greater comic culture. While the perception of the white-middle class man is the reigning one for comic fans, sales figures indicate that in 2015, 46.67% of comics’ readers were women. It seems, then, that a vast majority of women are just as involved with the world of comics as men are. The corporations cannot ignore these figures if they want to be profitable.

While the vitriol continues about a female cast of Ghostbusters, or grumblings about a female Thor, it is evident, by the numbers, that women have a place in fandom. Stephen Wecker and Kelly Sue DeConnick, editor and writer of the new iteration of Captain Marvel recently made changes to an old overtly sexualized representation of the character. Wecker notes that the reason for the change comes from the vocal minority asking for better representation of women superheroes. His response,

Like Wecker’s daughter, more young girls are asking for better female representation in comics. A fifth grader in Illinois championed for more female merchandise and women in mainstream shows and films by DC comics. The response she received from DC was a promise to work toward those goals and a personalized drawing of her as a superhero.

Over at Marvel, diversity in its comics, its films, and its editorial staff have been in the works for the last few years. Newly created heroes like Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), Cindy Moon (Silk), and Miles Morales (Spider-Man) are appearing in their own popular and successful runs. Wolverine is now a teenage girl named X-23, Thor is worthy again, but this time it is a woman who wields the hammer, the A-Force is the all women avenging team fighting to save the earth. Carol Danvers is finally a Captain, a title she has long been deserving, and most excitingly Lunella Lafayette (Moon Girl), a nine year old, African American Inhuman girl is officially the smartest member of the Marvel Universe, more intelligent than fan favorites and old staples like (the Caucasian) Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, and Tony Stark.

Changes are coming to fandom whether the old fandom wants them to or not. Fandom is growing, is becoming more inclusive, and is asking to challenge the norm.

As Siddant Adlakha notes, “On the one hand, we can engage with opinions in our own clear and concise ways, and we can learn to disagree while keeping art and entertainment squarely in focus. On the other, we can presume ulterior motive in order to discredit people whose opinions we don’t like” (2016).

I’d like to think we, as a collective fandom celebrating the mediums and art we love can embrace the ideas of those we have trusted to tend to our beloved narratives and characters in the past.

When I think back to how appalled I was when the Jem live action film was released, I shudder a little. The truth is, I haven’t even seen the movie. I was too arrogant to even deign to deny my childhood its perfect memories of my favorite cartoon character. The result is that I was acting like an entitled fan. One who would not give a new medium a chance to engage and speak to a new generation. In the end, this movie has not dulled my love of the original television cartoon. I still get excited to watch it. But in retrospect, I am not sure it sends the message I want my daughter to take away about love, honesty, and relationships. I suppose I should consider something else entirely for her. Maybe the Jem movie is exactly what she needs, and maybe I will watch it after all. After all, it could be truly outrageous.


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