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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Fandoms Are Not Your PR Department: Lexa, The 100, and Fan Exploitation

TW for antiblack and homophobic violence

Last week The 100 returned to the air with a bang. Specifically, the bang of a gun being fired point blank into the head of a handcuffed and kneeling black man.

Last week I posted my article on the death of lesbian character Lexa and its narrative failures to the subreddit for The 100. It was promptly deleted, I assume because it falls under “soapboxing,” one of the many, many apparently forbidden forms of discourse on that particular subreddit’s bafflingly extensive yet conspicuously noncomprehensive list of rules.

One of these events is, of course, far more culturally significant than the other, but what I want to argue this week is that they form, together, parts of a larger assemblage that is The 100 as cultural phenomenon. And it’s an assemblage that deserves to be looked at, because I think it can help us understand some of the major problems in fandom spaces today, and maybe offer some solutions.

The notion linking these things actually comes from the Variety article on Lexa’s death that I also referenced last week. It’s a significant article because it represents a wider cultural acknowledgment of the harmful way that writers and directors exploit vulnerable members of their fanbases.

While I appreciate what the Variety article is doing, however, I’m a little leery of the way this issue has been presented. To my mind, the presentation seems to emphasize in particular the economic cost of not making fans happy, and while I understand why it’s tempting to make the argument from that standpoint, I’m also not super comfortable with the way it positions fannish activities as existing to economically support studios--existing as a part of corporate PR divisions, essentially. It seems like the argument is that if you just understand how to make use of your fans better, you can continue making money off them.

To me, though, this doesn’t actually challenge the dynamics of exploitation. Instead, it merely asks for a kinder, gentler form of exploitation.

To understand that, though, let’s talk a little bit about cultural context.

To recap a bit from last week, a very popular lesbian character was killed off in a pretty awful way, and people were pissed off. Last week I talked about the problems with this from the simple perspective of the narrative’s content and thematic meaning, but what we’re dealing with is not merely a response to the show itself, but is also a reflection of the wider culture that The 100 exists in.

It’s… breathtaking.

Now, The 100 has a potential out. It’s a Dramatic Show where allegedly Anyone Can Die.

Except, as people are widely realizing at this point, there’s some pretty profound unfairness in who gets killed off dramatically, and how those deaths are handled, as we can see with the mindbendingly tone-deaf execution of Lincoln last week. By the same token, if anyone can die then you can’t give us just one lesbian and say, welp, that’s good, we got it covered. Because at any time that could be taken dramatically away, and suddenly there’s no queer characters at all. If you’re going to rely on this “everyone can die” excuse, you have to go much, much further with the amount of representation you’re offering, or else it’s impossible to have confidence that the representation won’t be snatched viciously away.

To an extent this is a conversation about the extent to which showrunners are willing or unwilling to give people a solid amount of representation, but it’s also a question of how interested showrunners are in paying attention to a wider culture that has done great harm, traumatizing harm, to marginalized people. You have to be cognizant of this traumatic context, and one of the big ideas emerging from the deaths of these characters seems to be that there should be more care in how these narratives are put together.

That’s the basic rundown of the cultural dynamics at work here, and I don’t feel the need to delve into too much more detail because plenty of folks have covered this contextual stuff pretty well.

But as the wider culture becomes aware of this, there’s another weird discourse emerging.

Now, my approach to media and fandom tends to prioritize fan agency and power. This is not the approach taken by some mainstream commentators.

Instead, their approach is to treat this as a cautionary tale for marketers.

For this approach, cultivating fandoms and making them happy is a way of ensuring high ratings. The Vanity Fair article for example refers to fandoms as a double edged sword. This is weird because it seems to imply that fandoms are not made up of people suffering real harm from showrunners (as, in fairness, the rest of the article suggests). Rather, it implies that fandoms are a tool which can be used, but which must be used carefully.

I’m uncomfortable with the way fan reactions against oppressive elements of narratives are, in this scheme, treated as less functionally important than the damage done to a show’s reputation and ratings. People in fandoms are important only insofar as they can be mobilized to benefit the ratings of a particular media object, in this discourse. Even within the context of people supporting the pushback here, media insiders are still by and large embracing the idea that the fundamental problem is one of poor PR management, not a problem with the entire creator/consumer dynamic. The parable is not one of a breach of ethics or violation of trust but rather a parallel about effective fandom exploitation.

The takeaway is not “rethink the way you’re constructing narratives” or “re-conceptualize fandoms to emphasize fan agency and voice” but “re-conceptualize the way we do damage control.” I worry that this pushes not for better narratives but for better ways of corralling the fandom.

Now, longtime readers will be aware that for a while now I’ve been skeptical of super lovey-dovey relationships between high level creators (and corporations) and their fan bases. I’ve written before about ways of doing fandom stuff that are contrary to the aims of media producers, because I think there’s something important in the idea of laboring in fandoms for our own sake rather than for the improvement of the bottom line of companies that we’re already paying for media. I’m interested in this because I’m leery of the way in which leisure and labor become weirdly merged in late capitalism.

Like, to give an example, I saw a post on tumblr the other day that really related to this. It was something about a French cartoon about some superhero… that’s a ladybug or something… whatever, not important. But the post was this lengthy description of the optimal way of participating in the fandom in order to maximize the ratings of the show.

And it struck me as at once ridiculous and horrifying that we’ve reached a point in fandom now where we need to go through this incredibly complicated array of decisions in order to benefit people that we’re giving our money to. There seems to be an expectation that we will optimize our habits of consumption in order to support advertisers.

Make no mistake, we are doing labor here. We are selling our labor in exchange for… more television, which is just bizarre and fucked up. As soon as we start talking about promoting a show, we’re in unpaid labor territory. There’s just… I mean… there’s just not really any other accurate way of looking at it. If a creator is saying, as Jason Rothenberg and other members of The 100’s staff did, that marginalized fans need to get out there and promote the show, they are asking the fandom to do labor, for free, on behalf, ultimately, of a big television network.

Now, look, I’m not necessarily saying that if you promote a thing you like you’re a bad person or a bad fan. That seems kind of silly and ultimately counter to how we interact with art.

But what I want to parse out here is the way in which the current dynamic encourages abusive and exploitative practices generally aimed at the most vulnerable parts of the fanbase.

The most notable problem with this relationship between corporate creators and fans is that it’s actually counterproductive if you’re interested in making progress with issues of representation. I understand that this isn’t necessarily intuitive. Make your case for representation by increasing the bottom line of shows that include diverse casts, and showrunners will surely see the simple utility in treating fans better, right? We’ll get the representation we want that way!

And that works just fine, until it comes time to cash in.

The problem fundamentally is that if there is an economic incentive to continue exploiting, that’s what will be done. It’s naive to think that without an actual more radical sustained pressure people won’t continue to capitalize on queer fans, fans of color, &c, while ultimately creating narratives that treat us like shit. Once you reach a certain level, once you’ve exploited your fanbase in order to grow, how many million lesbians can you traumatize before it actually matters, before their drop off in viewership starts affecting the bottom line again? Most of the people we’re talking about are, effectively, unassailable, at least not without the kind of widespread organized campaign that we've seen from queer 100 fans. Even if The 100 fails, will it actually affect Jason Rothenberg? Will it affect the CW? Given how many movies Zack Snyder has produced for DC/WB, I’m thinking no, probably not. Hollywood isn’t super into accountability when it comes to cishet white dudes.

And ultimately, a character death will result in big press. That’ll result in major attention. So at some point it’s always going to make economic sense to cash in. It’s going to always make sense for the Bury Your Gays trope to come back. Not only are creators insulated from backlash, not only are they in an ideal position to blow people off entirely, they are also economically incentivized to give marginalized fans what they want for a while, and then take it away from them in order to get even wider media attention. Everyone wants to chase that shitty Game of Thrones dollar!

So the problem with the hype engine that fandoms are supposed to be now is that it enables and encourages bad behavior by creating an army of people willing to sell their labor for free in order to support something that’s “good” in the short term… and then, in the long term, the most vulnerable members of the community can be pushed aside in order to get even more attention from the hype engine.

What media insiders are missing is that we need to stop thinking in terms of “how do we play nice with fandoms.” We, the fans, need to think in terms of how we can structure our communities in ways that make this kind of exploitation impossible, or at least to truly break through the layers of insulation around creators to punish them when they use and abuse us in this way.

How does all this tie in with The 100’s subreddit?

Well, I think this is actually a good example of a whole raft of problems in contemporary fandom spaces. Broadly speaking, what we’re seeing there is a lack of criticality, an unwillingness to challenge creators, an obsessive emphasis on adhering to a particular media narrative, and an absolute disavowal of marginalized fans when it no longer becomes convenient to support them.

The problem with this idea of fandom as a double edged sword, this notion of fandom as a tool that can be, with care, shaped into a better PR wing, is that it suggests that the blade of fandom spaces should be used to cut out dissenting members of the fandom, to carve out a leaner, more efficient promotional machine. As far as I can tell, it in practice encourages fans to be complicit in the further victimization and marginalization of other fans.

That’s just not anything I want to be a part of.

What I hope to see emerge from the Lexa fallout is a consciousness of the fact that fans can have power, and we can push this further into a conversation about agency and power within fandom spaces.

With that in mind, there’s several things I’d like to see more commonly in fandom spaces:

  1. We gotta ditch spoiler culture. Seriously, it’s a fucking disaster. A culture terrified of spoilers is a culture terrified of in-depth analysis. Look, I’m sorry, but spoilers just aren’t real, or at least they aren’t in the vast majority of cases people freak out over, and ultimately tiptoeing endlessly and desperately around spoilers makes it impossible for reviewers to address oppressive dynamics within media, or to warn people of potential actual triggers.
  2. Alongside this, we need to ditch this idea that creators know the “optimal” way for their stuff to be read. I could pick a really obvious example here and talk about the fan reconstruction of George RR Martin’s A Dance of Dragons and A Feast for Crows into a combined single book--that certainly challenges the idea that there’s one “right” way to read a thing!--but instead I’ll reference the absolutely ridiculous case recently where a toy “”””spoiled”””” an apparently major part of the new Star Wars movie: namely, that the main character gets a lightsaber. Yes, the main character… of a Star Wars movie… gets a lightsaber.

    Disney filed a DMCA takedown of the image of the fucking toy, it was ludicrous.

    Anyway, it’s this environment in which Jroth and others were able to manipulate, lie to, and exploit The 100’s queer fanbase. All this enabling shit, all this “mystery box” twee nonsense, has gotta go.
  3. We might need to start thinking about whether or not the whole idea of supermassive fanbases is viable anymore if we want there to be an equitable relationship between creators and fans. This is tough for me because, like, covering stuff like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is literally my job. I’m paying fucking taxes this year on my Patreon income, this is serious now, and I do, functionally, have to keep writing about super popular shit if I want to make bank. But I think maybe it’s worth considering whether we might, as fans, focus on forming smaller groups around smaller works, where the layers of insulation between creators and fans aren’t so thick.
  4. On that note, moving towards a distributed model for fandoms seems like a pretty good idea. I know that’s going to be a tough, long term series of experiments but the most positive fandoms seem to be ones where the boundary line between fan and creator is blurry and fans feed into the production not of the promotional material for a thing, but the production of the media object itself.
  5. The fifth thing I want to note here is a little bit more nebulous but I’ll try to explain by example. After Lincoln’s death on The 100 I looked at fan reactions, and one of the things I quickly noticed was a whole lot of black and white slow motion shots of this black man getting graphically shot through the head. And that was kind of sickening to me, because it represented a kind of aestheticization of a very real, very present and contemporary trauma. Challenging the aestheticization of trauma is something I think maybe fans need to do a little more, whether it be this event, or the defenses of extreme violence against women in Game of Thrones as part of the show’s “daring” or whatever. Let’s… I don’t know, let’s at least be a little bit more self-reflexive about this stuff maybe?
  6. And on that note, let’s stop being such simpering fucking suckups, let’s stop treating showrunners like golden gods blessing us with their presence on this mortal plane. I mean, I’m sorry, but like this article for example? This isn’t journalism. Protip for all the obsequious little hacks out there: if you talk about how there’s “no winning on twitter” it’s really obvious that all you give a shit about is your own byline. It’s time we called this behavior out, both when professional journalists do it, and when fan communities make rules (No non-official sources! It’s junk!) that enshrine this creator hero worship.
  7. If there’s anyone we should be treating well, it’s the marginalized members of our communities. If we see marginalized people being treated like shit then yeah, I do think that it’s important for us to speak out and even walk out. Look, no one’s saying you can’t watch The 100. The Pirate Bay still exists last time I checked, folks. Enjoy whatever you like, but if a major part of the fanbase says “this narrative and these showrunners have personally victimized me,” don’t keep giving the show your money, your ratings, and ultimately your labor power.

None of this is a kind of absolutist decree. But I think it’s clear that the way we think about fandoms is largely a failure. Too often I’ve seen fandoms turn nasty when marginalized voices critique their media object of choice. With the 100 we might see a model for better behavior, a model where the fanbase as a whole says enough is enough, we’re not going to continue supporting practices that exploit our most marginal members.

It’s really, really heartening to see this kind of response, but we need to carry it forward, and we need to be conscious of the deeper level discourses and behaviors that made the exploitation of The 100’s fanbase--both its wlw fanbase and its fans of color--possible in the first place.

If you want to listen to the audio version of this post and last post as a big double-length podcast, you can as a $3 backer. Next week, if I can survive the next few days of absolute mayhem, I'll be writing something on the fabled anime Homestuck. If you're a Patreon backer you can currently vote on just what I have to say about Homestuck

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