We are at an unprecedented stage in content delivery. There are a lot of great shows on the air right now (The new Golden Age of Television, yadda, yadda), and with the help of an Internet connection, most anyone can watch them instantly.
There is a dark side to this gratification, however. For every city helping a child become Batman, there are tirades about scheduling, riots at McDonald’s, and the cyber and real-life bullying of (mostly) female creators. Some “fans” not only believe that they are entitled to consume content in a certain way, but that they, alone, understand how to consume this content correctly. These fans think they are the arbiters of these cultural products and tend to feel enraged when they perceive these properties to be in jeopardy.
The outcomes of this sense of entitlement can be terrifying, and rarely do we see these fans reprimanded.
If anything, this destructive worship is an encouraged and ingrained aspect of nerd culture that needs to stop, and here’s why:
Act One — A Great Disturbance in The Force
“Nerds are passionate about a lot of things, but there is something they love above all else, and that is correcting people. “
— Mike Trapp, CollegeHumor
This is the tagline for DropoutTV’s show Um, Actually, the game show where contestants are read incorrect facts about geeky properties like Star Wars, and then have to buzz in with the correct answer. In a Jeopardy-esque fashion, they have to start their answer with the phrase “Um, actually,” or they get no points.
The reason this game show works is that we all know nerds love correcting people. It’s such a meme at this point that no one even needs to explain it; a simple YouTube search of any popular property will reveal a limitless number of hours devoted to a property’s “canon,” which is Internet slang for all works considered to be under the original author or brand.
As a well-known example, Star Wars began as a series of movies, but over the years has spawned many books and games once known by fans as the Expanded Universe (EU). Many things originated here, from popular favorites like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn series, to smuggler Mara Jade, to the Yuuzhan Von’s galaxy-spanning invasion. Hundreds of nerdy stories are in the EU, and for years now, nerds have read, cosplayed, and played these characters.
When the Disney corporation acquired Lucas Arts in 2012 it “decided” that most of the Expanded Universe wasn’t canon, and therefore, would not be included in the universe it would elaborate on going forward.
This is fine, of course. Disney is not obligated to tell any story in the EU, but it’s caused quite a rift among nerds in how they interpret their own beloved property. The Expanded Universe, no longer “valid” from Disney’s viewpoint, has been rebranded as Star Wars Legends. You can still buy these works, Disney just doesn’t consider them part of the primary reality.
There is a lot of the Internet devoted to distinguishing the differences between the Star Wars Universe and Star Wars Legends, between what is canon, and what is unsanctioned work.
There are many active campaigns devoted to bringing Star Wars Legends back. Fans famously put up a billboard asking for the EU to continue when Disney’s decision was first made.
But ultimately, most fans appear to want to adhere to the curators of the Star Wars reality. In an open letter that asked Disney to bring the EU back, writer Kyle Malone admitted that he would continue with the franchise regardless of the company’s decision:
“I love Star Wars. I always have and always will. There will be ups and downs, good and bad, and I will be there through it all.”
For Kyle and many others, fandom is an all-in mentality. It is about accepting the property, warts and all.
This is why a show like ‘Um, Actually” works. Nerds spend a lot of time absorbing what is, to them, true, and they love talking about and spreading that “truth” to others.
If you prescribe to the “Death of the Author” framework of literary interpretation — which is the theory that the author holds no bearing over how you should interpret a work — then canon is irrelevant. Disney’s version of Star Wars is no more or less real than your steamy fanfic with Princess Leia and Mon Mothma.
Death of the Author, however, is not how many nerds want to consume a work. They want to focus on what is “true” from the author’s, or in Disney’s case, evil megacorporation’s point of view. This framework of valuing what the author intends over other viewpoints is called “authorial intent,” and it’s increasingly complicated in a world where anyone can add to anyone else’s story with the click of a button.
The Internet is filled with people that don’t respect nerd truth. It’s filled with people that write fan fiction, and make theories, and choose to value one interpretation of text over another, even if that’s an interpretation the owner of the intellectual property has decided is blasphemy.
It’s also filled with talented directors and producers that don’t want to tell the story the same way audiences are used to.
What happens when these dissenters challenge nerd truth and alter the products that fans adore?
Well, when change happens, many fans tend to get angry and resentful. The change doesn’t even need to involve redefining what’s canon: it can happen even with a schedule alteration.
Act Two — Steven Universe and Its Disappointing Schedule
Steven Universe is a cartoon show beloved by children and adults alike for its inclusivity of queer and empathetic characters. If you aren’t familiar with it, in a nutshell, it’s about the eponymous Steven as he battles bad aliens with the help of good aliens called the Crystal Gems.
The plot doesn’t deviate too much from the typical Hero’s Journey but is unique in its positive portrayal of queer characters and an emotionally-sensitive, male, main character. For a cartoon show geared towards children, this has been darn near revolutionary and has consequently garnered widespread critical acclaim.
Many people love Steven Universe.
Many former fans, however, utterly despise it.
If you type Steven Universe into YouTube right now, one of the most popular videos is titled Steven Universe is Garbage and Here’s Why by social critic Lilly Orchard. The Internet is littered with these critiques right now — a reasonably levelheaded one is The Roundtable’s Cartoon Network is Killing Steven Universe.
The most common critique has to do with the inconsistency of Steven Universe’s release schedule, for which the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar, is often blamed.
“Steven Universe spent so much time on a hiatus that the waiting just continued to wear people down…as the waiting dragged on, and on and on, people started getting angry…Sugar should have caught on to this a while ago and written her episodes accordingly.”
— Lilly Orchard
If you were to watch Lilly Orchard’s video, you would walk away with the idea that A.) you are entitled to more episodes of Steven Universe and; B.) Rebecca Sugar is to blame for the lack of those episodes.
The problem is that this assertion isn’t grounded in actual evidence.
Steven Universe’s pilot aired in July of 2013, but it would not be until November of that same year that the show would air more regularly every Monday (and later every Thursday).
Even in these early days, though, the show, like many cartoons, was known to take moderate to long breaks during the holidays and summertime. The longest one during this initial period was 99 days between the episodes of Rose’s Room and Coach Steven.
This long delay is caused, in part, because cartoons require a lot of work to make.
For example, each episode of Adventure Time took about nine months to produce; for a single episode of The Simpsons, creators have noted that story layouts alone take a month to a month and a half to develop.
From storyboarding, to voices acting, to animating, it takes a LONG time to create cartoons.
Starting in the summer of 2016, Cartoon Network released the entirety of what is now referred to as ‘Season 3’ in a single summer. This move was for an event called the Summer of Steven. They released 24 episodes in just 90 days, which arguably burned through almost six months of content in a single summer.
Notice I didn’t say Rebecca Sugar released the entirety of these episodes in a single summer, but Cartoon Network, whose parent corporation is the Turner Broadcasting System. This isn’t YouTube. Creators of properties do not have control over where, when, or even how their content is distributed — a reality we see in how some of the show’s LGBTQ+ scenes where censored in some countries abroad (a decision Rebecca Sugar does not appear to agree with).
Since the Summer of Steven event, Cartoon Network has packaged three or more episodes together in a thing called ‘Steven Bombs,’ which are then released sporadically every couple of months (or longer).
The effect of this change was almost immediate in how thoroughly it enraged fans. If you look at Internet takedowns of the show from former fans, nearly all of them are after the Summer of Steven.
In the minds of some fans, this show has gone from a beloved franchise to garbage because the episodes aren’t coming in as fast as fans believe they are entitled to consume them, and Rebecca Sugar is often blamed for this situation.
Again, few, if any, creators of network shows have a say in when their content airs.
Cartoons are also timesucks to make.
But despite being wrong here, these “fans” think they know the truth about these shows, and they are angry that people aren’t respecting that perspective.
“Steven Universe hints at something interesting…The fandom picks up and speculates. Concocts elaborate theories that delve into layers and intrigue. And then concludes that because of all the speculation that Steven Universe is an amazing show. Do you see what just happened though? Rebecca Sugar is getting all the credit and praise but the fans are the ones doing all the real work.”
The fans do the “real work” except, for you know, creating the actual show.
When someone is essentially ranting, like Lilly Orchard is doing here, because a show they like isn’t airing as quickly as they want it to, they have come to some pretty absurd conclusions to continue feeding that rage. This is a common reaction we see among dissatisfied fandoms, and as we shall observe later, the results can sometimes be quite violent.
In this instance, we are talking about something relatively minor — a scheduling change — and, yet, look at all the hatred it has generated (a hatred I have yet to see Cartoon Network respond to directly). Millions of people have consumed, shared, and have even been swayed by these videos.
Shockingly, Steven Universe is a relatively tame example of this phenomenon. Some of the fans might be hyperbolic on the Internet, but as of right now, this hatred over the new schedule hasn’t (yet) spewed over to the real world.
Some fandoms are far more toxic.
Act Three — Rick & Morty and The Dark Side of Fandom
Rick & Morty is a show about a mad scientist named Rick galavanting across the multiverse with his idiot grandson Morty. Rick is a cosmic nihilist that doesn’t give two shits about humanity, the universe, or anything in-between. He is intensely ambivalent and to many, that’s his appeal. There is no taboo he won’t cross to satisfy his boredom, and the audience is along for the ride, voyeuristically reveling in his destruction of every norm that, for better or worse, society considers “good” (more on this later).
The show has been immensely popular. A typical episode can garner a Nielson rating of over 1.5 million viewers, and a surprise airing of their season three premiere, on April Fool’s no less, had over 11 million viewers.
Rick & Morty, however, is also prone to very long hiatuses. There was over a year (468 days) between the first and second season and nearly two years (615 days) between the second and third one.
Again, cartoons take a long time to produce, and, as with Steven Universe, fans have been extremely dissatisfied with the show’s chaotic scheduling.
The creator of the show, Dan Harmon, accidentally created widespread fears of cancellation, when he tweeted that the show had not been renewed for a fourth season due to contract renegotiations (it has since been renewed for a fourth and fifth season). The reason Harmon did this was that some fans had been “harassing” him on Twitter, and he wanted to shift the blame to Cartoon Network where it arguably belongs.
It’s more than scheduling, however. Rick & Morty is a show that is liked, to put it bluntly, by (some) assholes. There is literally a meme from fans, which claims that “…you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty’s” sense of humor, and this sense of smug superiority has occasionally, and regretfully, spilled over to the real world.
For example, some “fans” of the show very publically disliked two episodes of the third season. These episodes were Rickmancing the Stone and Pickle Rick, and they were coincidentally written by women writers Jane Becker and Jessica Gao respectively. Each episode currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making this hatred a minority opinion — but whatever, people are allowed to be contrarian.
So what did these super intelligent fans do in response to disliking a piece of content that most people seem to enjoy? Fueled by false allegations that Harmon had hired these women because of SJW-stuff, they harassed the writers on Twitter and released their personal information online (a bullying tactic known as doxing).
Similar to the hatred of Rebecca Sugar, fans are rationalizing their gut reaction with erroneous conspiracy theories.
But again, if you believe that you represent actual nerd truth, then it’s easy to see how these fans could conflate their own anti-progressivism with the actual text of the show. They are “real” Rick & Morty fans. They also aren’t progressive, ergo, this attempt to add women writers has to be a liberal plot.
In all fairness, creator of the show Dan Harmon rightfully disavowed these trolls for their sexist behavior, but his reprimand hasn’t dulled the more schwifty corners of the Internet from being awful.
Perhaps the most infamous example of Rick & Morty dickery was when McDonald’s decided to do a limited re-release of Szechuan Sauce. Originally a promotional tie-in for Disney’s 1998 film Mulan, it enjoyed brief popularity again after being featured on the third season premiere The Rickshank Redemption.
On October 7th of 2017, McDonald’s sold the sauce for one day only, and fans went wild. The event was poorly organized, and this, coupled with massive turnout, meant that some poor, unfortunate souls never got their Szechuan sauce. Disgruntled fans became so enraged in some locations that they began to stage protests. There were even reports of looting, and yelling at underpaid McDonald’s workers.
It would be easy to simply chalk this behavior up to toxic masculinity — a lot of this behavior was perpetrated by men, after all — but while boys-being-trash certainly was a factor here, the show’s hiatus between the second and third season also played a role in fan expectations.
Talk of hiatuses is in the actual text of the show. Season two ended with Rick & Morty character Mr. Poopybutthole (yes, an actual character’s name for the discerning R&M viewers), telling viewers that season three would take a very long time. Later, the brand pretended to release a trailer for season three in February of 2017, and it turned out to be a Rickroll (which, for those that don’t know, is when you promise to show a piece of content and instead play the song Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley).
If fan expectations about the hiatuses were and continue to be high, then it’s not entirely unfair to suggest that creators (or at the very least their PR team) have been maintaining those expectations through such stunts. As one person affiliated with the show wrote on Reddit:
“When all the hype and attention was focused on a more typical second episode, it gave the appearance of throwing off the momentum. If they were all aired weekly, one after the other, I doubt there’d be this much criticism. Just a theory.”
When expectations weren’t met, whether due to perceived inadequacies or delays, well then, we got doxing and riots at McDonald’s.
That is an insane expectation, but it’s the expectation nonetheless, and entities like McDonald’s are certainly leaning into it.
In the wake of the Szechuan fiasco, I have yet to find a public apology that McDonald’s issued to their employees about the harassment they received from zealous fans. It’s interesting that the people McDonald’s chose to validate in that moment were the destructive Rick & Morty fans.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that fandoms are inherently bad. There are also positive examples of people using fandoms for good. A classic example is the Harry Potter Alliance that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable causes and lobbied for policies such as net neutrality and reducing wealth inequality.
This isn’t about the inherent good or evil of fandoms. There are as many fandom norms and subcultures as there are people.
This is about the fans that believe they know how to consume a cultural product “correctly,” and the damage that occurs when people “get in their way.”
Act Four — Who You Gonna Call?
In 2016, a female actress of color appeared in a reboot of a beloved classic. The movie was controversial from the initial release of its trailer for starring only women. For all the ire directed at it, the black costar got the worst of it.
If you’ve yet to guess, I am of course referring to 2016’s Ghostbusters — an alright comedy that’s more famous for the hatred surrounding it than anything within the text itself.
The hatred of the film started months before the movie even released. The film’s trailer, which dropped on YouTube in March of 2016, is one of the most disliked YouTube videos of all time.
In May of 2016, YouTuber James Rolfe released a video titled “No Review. I Refuse.” on his channel Cinemassacre, where he claimed that, based on the trailer, he would not see the film. He claimed this was not because of sexism, but due to the film taking the namesake of the original without involving the original cast (which it actually did). That’s, of course, fine — although it is ironic that he had no problem reviewing 2017’s The Mummy.
Mr. Rolfe, who sometimes plays the character “the Angry Video Game Nerd,” has a large fanbase on the Internet. Intentionally or not, this video fanned the flames of sexist hatred for the film. Within its first day, the video racked up hundreds of thousands of views, and not all of those viewers were calm, rational moviegoers.
Following the film’s release in July of 2016, Actress Leslie Jones began to retweet screenshots of some of her attacks. Most notably (and terribly) she was compared to the gorilla Harambe from the Cincinnati Zoo. There is a long, awful history of comparing black people to monkeys, and these attacks were no different in their racist vitriol.
One participator in the harassment campaign was conservative troll Milo Yiannopoulos who infamously was banned from Twitter, an organization hesitant to ban anyone, for his involvement.
Leslie Jones then took a brief hiatus from Twitter.
A month later in August of 2016, her iCloud account was hacked, and some of her personal information was lifted. Perpetrators took over her website and posted IDs, phone numbers, passwords, nude photographs and sadly, a picture of Harambe. The information also made the rounds on 4chan and other dark corners of the Internet.
She, like so many before her, had been doxed.
The reason Leslie Jones was targeted remains sadly apparent. She was a black woman trying to subvert a holy text in nerdom, which, to many self-appointed protectors of nerd truth, was, and should always be, about men.
“They’re making Ghostbusters with only women! What’s going on?”
That wasn’t an offhanded complaint from a now-disgraced YouTuber. It was a remark from former presidential nominee Donald Trump ranting on Instagram about the plight of society.
This ultimately is not about a film. It’s about how fans, even ones as powerful as Donald Trump, think the world should be. They “know” how things should work, and people that stand in the way of that vision are, to them, the problem.
These attacks are common for fans that are dissatisfied with how their favorite work is being portrayed in the media.
In another example, Director Rian Johnson of the Star Wars film The Last Jedi received death threats because some fans did not like certain progressive elements in the film.
Everywhere you look there are “fans” hurting creators, critics, and even random bystanders for not meeting perceived expectations. It begins with an “um, actually,” and ends with, well, bullying.
Act Five — Fixing This Hot Mess?
Nerdom has increasingly become more diverse over the years, and that’s a good thing. There should be more diversity in how we consume, interpret, and create popular culture.
A vocal contingent of nerdom, however, is fighting this challenge to their authority with harassment, and in rare cases, real-life violence. They have a nerd truth — whether it be “Star Wars was fine just the way it was,” “Steven Universe should air more,” or “I know what’s best for Rick & Morty, you stupid women” — and they are willing to fight and hurt anyone to preserve that truth, even the creators of the stories they purport to love.
This sense of entitlement leads to too many acts of violence for us to pretend like it is a fringe aspect of nerd culture. These “truth-seekers” have a lot of power, and in order to truly change things, it’s important that we continue to push against their authority.
I propose that fighting these self-anointed “protectors of nerd truth” requires a shift in how we, as non-terrible fans, love our favorite properties.
We need to accept other nerd truths as valid.
We need to let people alter what has come before us.
We need to let people remix our favorite properties into something new.
And yes, some of these remixed properties will be terrible. And some of them will just be okay. But occasionally, we will get retellings that are truly amazing, and, um, actually I think that’s what makes being a fan worthwhile.
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