Reichenbach Falls reenactment by the London Sherlock Holmes Society (Photo by Bettmann / Contributor)

In defence of fandoms

One of the Internet’s villains has a brighter side

Artillery Row

On 17 March 2023, AO Scott announced his retirement as the film critic for The New York Times. When asked whether he likes contemporary films, he said, “I’m not a fan of modern fandom”:

This isn’t only because I’ve been swarmed on Twitter by angry devotees of Marvel and DC and (more recently) “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It’s more that the behaviour of these social media hordes represents an anti-democratic, anti-intellectual mind-set that is harmful to the cause of art and antithetical to the spirit of movies. Fan culture is rooted in conformity, obedience, group identity and mob behaviour, and its rise mirrors and models the spread of intolerant, authoritarian, aggressive tendencies in our politics and our communal life.

This was partly inspired by the backlash Scott received for not including Top Gun Maverick and Everything Everywhere All At Once in his “Best Films of 2022” list. One should sympathise with him for being harassed by overzealous fanatics — but he is fundamentally wrong when he says that fandoms need art and enforce conformity.

Fans remain a crucial aspect of popular culture. For better or worse, they serve an innate part of moulding art. From Trekkies to Swifties, these enthusiastic blocs serve as a driving force for its relevance. They come, because they think you have something unique to offer, and go, once it expires. It’s not uncommon for fandoms to have a vocal minority of people who go over the line with this rationale and hassle a critic because they think otherwise. These folks are often scorned by culture and media writers, who complain that they read the thing they adore wrongly — from the New Yorker finger-wagging at men who enjoy Fight Club, because it will lead them to practise and preach a “toxic” kind of masculinity to numerous articles bemoaning that Rick and Morty’s fans are self-satisfied smarms. Often these are centred around cautionary tales that approach the bleakness of their protagonist’s world.

Such negative coverage doesn’t change the quality of the product. It’s more of a problem for the critic if their perception is moulded by what people think, rather than its inherent merits. 

There are instances where modern fans have actually succeeded in reviving beloved properties. The “Snyder Cut” of the Justice League is a famous example of fans recovering Zack Snyder’s grand vision, after its botched release with Joss Whedon. However you feel about the film or Snyder, it’s telling that its initial and original cut was restored by the passion of its fans. They spent years directly campaigning for Warner Bros through hashtags and crowdfunding to restore the vision of someone well known for his grand, if incoherent, contribution to the medium. 

This endeavour is nothing new. Beginning with Sherlock Holmes, who was resurrected after Sir Conan Doyle faced a massive backlash from readers when he killed off the main character for “The Final Problem”. By bringing the detective back, Holmes didn’t compromise the storytelling, after it was initially cut short. From 2011, fans saved the sitcom Community numerous times from getting cancelled or being removed from its mid-slot by NBC. This was one example, amongst many, that proved that a small show under a large corporate umbrella could be saved by its supporters. Isn’t this democracy?

Fanbases can carve profundity from surprising products

Even the most eccentric communities can make or break beloved properties. A prime example is Sonic the Hedgehog, whose followers cooked up fan fictions and fan art out of their frustration with the character becoming a self-parody of itself in the 2000s and up to the release of the initial trailer of the Sonic The Hedgehog film, which was universally panned for its ugly character design. Months later, Tyson Hesse, responsible for one of the character’s notorious fanfic Sonic’s Big Fat Adventure went on to improve its features, immensely resembling the original character that they once loved. 

Fanbases can carve profundity from surprising products. The comic strip Garfield has been remoulded into horror fan fiction and parodies that take the cynical relationship between the world’s most famous cat and his owner Jon Arbuckle to its logical extreme. Whilst this does not mean it’s now the official interpretation, it adds to the repertoire. Some people prefer Garfield because he’s a lazy fat cat to aspire to. For others, it’s a brutally honest cautionary tale of human loneliness, embodied by the patheticness of his owner.

Most importantly, the nature of fandoms continues to evolve. No longer are we living in an era of bags of letters and parcels that are sent to boy bands and type-A personality influencers. Fanbases can interact with artists on an unprecedented level through social media, with the latter being incentivised to maintain such connections by platforms that offer the opportunity for patronage and subscription services. The autonomy of fandoms is also being questioned by the emergence of AI chatbots, adding to the gamification of being an aficionado, allowing them to talk to fictional characters as if they are in real life. You aren’t just creating your own very own fiction, based on your attachment to your favourite show. You play an active part in being your very own avatar. 

That is probably the biggest fear that cultural elites have about fanbases going too far. Because some demonstrate little manners, AO Scott doesn’t see that this minority is worth communicating to. For all the coarseness and intolerance of a minority, others speak in the way that democracy wants them to. They are open-minded, knowledgeable and intellectually diverse about their passion for their favourite things — and they are here to stay. 

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