Toxic fandom threatens to give fans a bad name, even at Comic-Con 2018

Comic-Con offers one of the biggest celebrations of fandom on Earth, but not all fandom is worth celebrating.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Morgan Little Senior Director, Audience
Morgan leads the teams managing CNET's presence and content across social media, news platforms and more after stints in the marketing world and LA Times. Eventually his last byline on the site will be about something other than Godzilla
Erin Carson
Morgan Little
7 min read

Fans flock to Comic-Con.

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In the midst of the Saturday hubbub at San Diego Comic-Con 2018, a small group of attendees gathered outside the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel to hold a rally in honor of Rose Tico, a character from Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The group included Tico cosplayers, and folks wearing shirts with her face on them, illustrated in the style of Shepard Fairey's iconic "Hope" image of President Barack Obama.

In the time since The Last Jedi came out, Tico has drawn the ire of a group of Star Wars fans, and last month the resulting vitriol drove the actor who plays her, Kelly Marie Tran, to delete her Instagram account.

"No one should be bullied off social media," the organizer of the Tico rally, Keith Chow, told CNET via email. "And this was our attempt to win the argument, not by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love, to quote Rose's line from the movie."

Fandom can generate a lot of fun and good vibes. Comic-Con is a four-day celebration of all things pop culture that takes over the San Diego Convention Center and the surrounding areas. Cosplayers toting bags, poster tubes and boxes with exclusive merchandise spill out onto every available inch of hallway and sidewalk. It's an event for fans who love to love everything from Wonder Woman and Aquaman to Funko figures. People pose for pictures, trade compliments, debate fan theories and wait for exclusive merch -- the enthusiasm is unending.

But an event like the rally is a reminder that despite all the harmless (super)hero worship, there's also a corrosive element to contend with. 

There're a few names for it. Toxic fandom. Protective fandom. When we talk about either, we're talking about behavior that includes hating on creators, celebrities, other fans or on creative decisions we disagree with. It's something that demarcates a right and wrong way to approach a piece of pop culture. Sometimes it's a matter of angry sputtering on social media. Sometimes it's death threats, rape threats and publishing personal information online for the sake of harassing someone.

At a place like Comic-Con, on one level you get the idea that people don't want to spend much time talking about the nasty side of fandom. But the fact is that many of the fandoms represented at Comic-Con -- everything from Star Wars to adult cartoons -- have had notable online blowups.

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One of the most prominent examples of this fandom in-fighting is the public back-and-forth between Star Wars fans voicing disdain for elements of The Last Jedi and those wondering what the big deal is. From sending death threats to director Rian Johnson to trying to remake the film to better suit their preferences, cliques within the world of Star Wars fandom have gone way beyond swamping message boards with complaints.

And you don't have to go too far before you start seeing a backlash that becomes more extreme than a mere quibble with the Casino subplot or how Luke's character was handled. Videos titled "Women Are Ruining Star Wars" and "Why Feminism Is Ruining Movies" can quickly take over your recommendations in YouTube. Subreddits focused on the Men's Rights movement or GamerGate remain outraged by perceived slights.

The rapid escalation of these fan backlashes isn't limited to the Star Wars franchise. The most recent Tomb Raider film was railed against because of fan expectations regarding Lara Croft's body. Pockets of Marvel Comics fans have spent years outraged over the company elevating heroes like Riri Johnson, Jane Foster and Sam Wilson over the established (white male) heroes Tony Stark, Thor and Steve Rogers in their respective superhero roles.

Even something seemingly innocuous, like a new art style applied to the Thundercats reboot, can attract untold amounts of rage.

Fans get angry

When did fandom take this turn?

Over the past decades, fandom has undergone a transformation, becoming more focused on not just the thing but the overpowering love of the thing. As author Glen Weldon wrote in his 2016 book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, "For years they have lurked in the shadowy corners of popular culture, quietly pursuing their niche interests among themselves, keeping their heads down to avoid the inquisitive, judgmental gaze of the rest of the world."

And then the internet happened.

Geek culture has gone mainstream. It's not only the 135,000 attendees who turn up but also the countless studios and networks that're vying for attention by dropping new trailers, exclusive footage and immersive experiences sometimes referred to as activations.

The term "nerd" isn't the pejorative it was decades ago, and it seemingly falls out of every other person's mouth to describe a basic interest in any given topic.

This shift has given fandom a seriousness it's never had before, said Paul Booth, an associate professor at DePaul University who focuses on media and cinema studies. And with the dawn of the internet, there are plenty of platforms to say exactly what you think.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it can get tricky for some folks, who hold their fandoms so tightly they fuse with personal identity. Then any change can feel like a personal affront.

"Those two tensions collide when fans become so insular that they think their way is the only way," Booth said.

In a Reddit AMA in 2016, Weldon described it as "eating our own," talking about the trouble with saying "you don't love the thing I love precisely in the same way, to the same extent and for precisely the same reasons that I do, therefore you are doing it wrong." 

It's hard to say exactly how big a problem toxic fandom is. Booth tends to think it involves a minority of fans.

But despite the many people who'll tell you Comic-Con is an immensely inclusive place, with good vibes to spare, the event isn't immune.

One YouTube video called "SJW's Have Taken Over Comic-Con #SDCC," mocks the five "wokest" panels of the event, including ones on Afrofuturism (a movement that goes back decades, even before the term was coined in the early '90s) and on queer comics for queer kids.

If you follow Tom King, who writes Batman for DC, you might've seen that he's attending Comic-Con with a bodyguard in tow, after receiving death threats over the 50th anniversary issue.

Granted, King might be the only writer here with a bodyguard, but such threats could give a bad name to nerds everywhere, Booth said. He even referenced how he's come across folks who don't want to admit to liking Cartoon Network's Rick and Morty because of public fiascos involving everything from its creator's treatment of women in the writer's room to how fans respond to female characters on the show.

"That's a step backwards, that's putting fans back where they were in the '70s and '80s, where it was embarrassing to be a fan," Booth said.

He sees some hope, though. If you scan the Comic-Con schedule, you'll see a variety of panels covering or highlighting topics like entitlement, gatekeeping, body positivity, and the women of Star Wars.

It's not just panels either. Prominent companies, like DC, are trying to make sure that, at least within their own walled gardens, toxicity doesn't take root.

It may've come as a surprise to see DC integrating community conversation and message boards into its DC Universe comics and video streaming platform. But in conversations with CNET, executives were loud and clear about their intention to guard against the worst actors among its fans.

Craig Hunegs, Warner Bros. Television's president of business and strategy, said simply that "we're not going to tolerate" the kinds of negative conversations that can occur on Facebook, Twitter and Discord, three platforms mentioned specifically by either Hunegs or DC Chief Creative Officer and Publisher Jim Lee.

In much the same way, Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall and executive producer Matt Strevens wanted to make it clear that the long-running BBC show is for everyone, regardless of the Doctor's gender. (For the first time, the Doctor will be played by a woman, Jodie Whittaker.)

Booth said that part of the reason for discussing the negative aspects of fandom is to show that there're more folks on the positive end.

"You don't counter it by being toxic back, you can counter it by saying, You are a small minority of people, and we are a mass that does not believe in what you believe in," he said. "You drown it out."

At a panel on geek life as a woman, writer Danika Stone said she thinks some of the spikes in anger will die out as we evolve our notions of what it means to be a fan.

Until then, though, she says, when it comes to advocating for inclusion and dealing with blowback, "We have to hold the line."

This story was first published July 21.

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