People tend not to have a great sense of scale, which isn’t the best quality when we’re so prone to making grand proclamations about entire populations of people. For example, a common refrain since the 2016 US presidential election has been variations on “we now live in a country where nearly half the people voted for Trump”. Now and then someone will point out that, with 60 percent turnout, it was more like a quarter. But that’s still not right. It was 46.1 percent (vote share) of 60.2 percent (turnout) of 71.6 percent (eligibility) of the US population in 2016, or just under 20 percent. This isn’t to minimise the horror of the election result or Trump’s presidency in any way. Every evil thing, every atrocity, that has occurred in the past two years still happened, and, if anything, it just makes it more fucked-up that it didn’t even take a majority to happen.
That’s why it bothers me when I hear this “we now live in a country…” thing, whether about Trump or Brexit or any of the other awful election results of the past several years. If your main political opponents actually comprise less than 20 percent of the country, but you react as if it was half, you can’t possibly be responding in the most effective way. Accuracy matters, especially with something as high-stake as the fate of democracy, and it’s frustrating to constantly see well-intentioned people be so sloppy with reality. Not that low stakes should let people off the hook: standards of research and fact-checking in entertainment journalism are in the gutter and it drives me up the wall. And while it’s obviously not as significant as the rising tide of fascism (though it’s often presented as comorbid with it), when it comes to misrepresenting the scale of a social problem, there’s little critics and journalists have fucked up more than their coverage of “fan boys” and their allegedly toxic effects on society.
Normally, I find articles like this difficult to write, because it requires me to cite specific examples of bad writing and I don’t enjoy going off on other writers, for the most part. But this one will be super easy, because, for once, I can shit on the writing of someone whose writing I already constantly shit on.
This is a callout post. For myself.
Fan boys are the boogeymen of the pop culture discourse, particularly as a convenient scapegoat for the giant corporations who are actually responsible for the state of modern film and television. The archetypal “fan boy” is easily summoned from the cultural imagination. He’s a fat white guy with a beard flecked with specks of food. He loves Star Wars and superhero movies, especially DC, a love that sometimes shades into a full-blown case of Nolan Bro. He hates the new Star Wars movies, and even if he says it’s for other reasons, it’s really because he hates women and people of colour. All his opinions are really because he hates women and people of colour. He still lives with his parents and he probably doesn’t have a job, but he’s implicitly middle-class, so don’t be tempted to feel any pity for him. He spends all his time online, splitting his attention evenly between masturbation and death threats directed at reviewers he doesn’t like. He’s constantly accusing critics of shilling for Marvel and shitting on DC, either because of their SJW agenda or because they’re getting paid off by Disney. He is fundamentally and permanently regressed into childhood – he’s not just a fan boy, he’s a man child, and wilfully so. He’s a monster of his own creation, and therefore he implicates no one else in whatever shitty things he might do.
Fan boys are constantly portrayed, explicitly and implicitly, as the reason why most cinemas are flooded all year with so much big-budget CGI-stuffed lowest-common-denominator nerd-soaked shit that films as consistently and punishingly mediocre as the Marvel franchise end up looking like actually good movies. Not just the quantity, but even the quality of these properties, are blamed on the nebulous fan boys, because it’s their demand that the studios are meeting, helplessly borne along by the pull of the invisible hand of the market. It’s not a fair analysis, and as someone who has made that exact analysis in the past, it’s time I corrected myself.
Once upon a time, on my old blog, I wrote a post titled “Congratulations, Nerds, You’ve Finally Ruined Everything”. It was inspired primarily by two incidents: the announcement that the third annual Arrowverse crossover event would bring together all four of its shows, and Bob Iger saying in an interview that Disney would be making more Star Wars films beyond the end of its current trilogy and the Marvel franchise would “go on forever”. Both were, and are, emblematic of the current era of film and television, in which it’s not enough for huge media conglomerates to continuously exploit the same nerd-friendly intellectual property over and over, they have to take the form of sprawling franchises with everything connected to and interacting with everything else.
Honestly, it’s been over two years and I’m still annoyed about them, even if they didn’t pan out exactly as expected. The third crossover did suck, but the fourth was actually pretty good. Disney haven’t abandoned their Star Wars plans, but they’ve definitely reconsidered them after the massive failure of Solo. James Mangold is (mercifully) no longer wasting his considerable talent on a freaking Boba Fett movie. Marvel may be going on forever, but their output seems to be slowing, with a shift to releasing new projects on Disney’s planned streaming service, which hopefully means they won’t be the cinema-going public’s problem anymore – provided cinemas survive this attempt by Disney and other corporations to completely replace them with streaming. The optimist in me says they will once the streaming bubble bursts. The pessimist says the bubble is just reality now.
Regardless, at the time, I was tired and exhausted and sad at the prospect of infinity more years of this, so I wrote this exasperated screed, in which I laid the majority of the blame at the feet of fans. Though I didn’t use the term “fan boys”, other works of a similar vein constantly conflate any fans of DC, Marvel or Star Wars the author doesn’t like with men, as if there are no women with bad taste or opinions. This is just one expression of a pervasive trend in liberal discourse of people attributing opinions, interests and traits they don’t like to straight white men and then casting anyone who isn’t a straight white man but nonetheless holds these opinions, interests or traits as, at best, an apologist for straight white men and all their racism and misogyny, or, at worst, literally straight white men in disguise. Ciara has written about this before, as a woman who hates the Ghostbusters reboot, and has been called a man as a result (literally, people have attributed that piece to me, even though her gender is referenced throughout). It’s mostly, I think, a way to criticise things without doing criticism – in certain circles, calling something “some straight white guy bullshit” is all the condemnation you need, so it saves you the effort of real critique and makes you look woke in the bargain. I may not have done that in my old post, but it otherwise follows the same pattern of tired apologetics and scapegoating for corporations.
Anyway, here’s the meat of my critique, and why it’s stupid and wrong:
“I felt sad not at what Bob Iger or anyone else at Disney had done. They’re just responding to demand, after all, and I’m not naive enough to pretend they haven’t done their best to cultivate this demand, but I also don’t think so little of the average person’s intelligence to suppose we’re not all aware that businesses try to make us want their products, and that we don’t have a choice in how we respond to their efforts.”
We actually don’t have that much of a choice, because the entertainment industry is increasingly monopolised. There’s a certain extent to which the major studios’ media strategy has been insanely effective at cultivating sincere demand, but a lot more of their box office comes from a lack of choice than they’d like to admit. If I went to my local cinema tomorrow, my only choices would be movies from major studios: Warner Bros. (A Star Is Born, Smallfoot), Universal (Johnny English Strikes Again, Halloween), Sony (Goosebumps 2, Venom) or 20th Century Fox (Bohemian Rhapsody). Most of them are sequels or remakes, most of them are targeted at children and teens. I want to see two of those movies, which is an uncommon abundance because we’re entering Oscar season. Most of this year, there’s been literally nothing I wanted to see, but I wanted to go the cinema, so I ended up paying to see an awful lot of shit. I’ve seen Truth or Dare and Blockers and The Spy Who Dumped Me because they seemed like the least awful of my choices, but the money I paid to see them goes into the same pot as the money of people who really wanted to see them. Given that, you can’t possibly infer a genuine thirst for the kind of movies that are financially successful from their success. Consumer choice is too constrained, and even if it wasn’t, it’s not like spending money is a particularly nuanced way to gather information on preferences.
But let’s say the vast majority of people who pay to watch a movie do actually want to watch it. And let’s say we completely ignore how market forces actually work and credit/blame the cinema-going public with creating demand that huge conglomerates must helplessly fulfil. How many of those people are “fan boys”? People constantly portray fan boys as dominating the audiences of these properties, but it doesn’t seem to be based on any data and probably can’t be, since it doesn’t exist. We don’t really track admissions, as opposed to box office, worldwide, and since ticket prices – and currencies – vary from place to place, you can’t calculate them from the box office. We don’t even know how many people go to see a given film, let alone the demographics of the audience.
What data does exist is held proprietarily by massive marketing companies, like Movio, who released a super interesting analysis of how the demographics of blockbuster film audiences in the US change over the course of their release a couple of years ago. Some of the big takeaways – which may partially explain why so many film critics think fan boys are the dominant force in these audiences – were that “Avid young male moviegoers are overrepresented on opening night by a factor of 2” and “Young men are always overrepresented on opening weekend whether or not a movie is targeted at them, and their share of the audience declines over time”, while “The share of female audience grows in season”. In other words, young men who go to the cinema a lot – which is, I suppose, something like “fan boys” – tend to make up a larger proportion of film audiences in the first two to three days of a movie’s theatrical run, but the audience becomes consistently and continuously older and more female thereafter. As these graphs demonstrate, young men as a whole – regardless of their “avidness” – peak at around thirty percent of the audience then fall consistently.
Moreover, that dataset doesn’t account for people below the age of fifteen, because the population below fifteen who buy their own tickets, as opposed to their parents, is negligible, so these young men actually make up even less of the audience than this analysis suggests. But they make up more of it precisely when film critics are most likely to see it, so the discourse suggests otherwise. This is only compounded by the fact that the loudest, most obnoxious fans of these properties on social media – or, at least, people who claim to be fans of these properties – are generally male (or presumed to be), and direct a lot of ire and outright abuse at critics and journalists. But here, again, I’d suggest the picture is different from what’s presented in the discourse, both in terms of scale and in terms of the actual makeup of people who abuse and harass people.
First, in terms of scale, it’s worth considering a few facts. Twitter has around 326 million monthly active users as of the third quarter of 2018 (i.e. post-the Great Bot Purge, which definitely didn’t get rid of all the bots, but whatever). The world population is seven and a half billion, so, at most, less than five percent of the world population uses Twitter. I don’t have statistics on how many people are actively involved in spewing venom about blockbusters at people on Twitter, but even if it was some crazy huge number, like fifty thousand, that would be less than one fifth of one tenth of one percent of people on Twitter, or just over one fifth of one percent of the people in just the United States who went to the cinema at least once last year, or 0.00066666666… of the population of the world. This isn’t to diminish how annoying or outright scary those people can be, but even if they tweet way, way above their weight class, they’re barely a significant force on Twitter, let alone the real world.
Second, in terms of makeup, let’s just take it for granted they’re mostly men, even though people’s gender on social media – particularly Twitter – is often ambiguous. Let’s take it for granted even though it would require us to ignore all the fandoms dominated by women that are full of nasty abusive people, like the Drag Race fandom, which leans increasingly female, and is also a toxic cesspool of racist abuse and death threats. Let’s take it for granted even though we’d have to ignore all the women who like superheroes and Star Wars, and though we must be careful to never point out or acknowledge they can’t possibly all be straight white men, not least of all because, at least in the US, white people trail other ethnicities in cinema attendance, as that Movio study demonstrated. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that their makeup is broadly similar to the presumed background of the archetypal fan boy.
Why are we taking it at face value when abusive social media users present themselves as angry fans? We know for a fact that reactionary forces, including neo-Nazis, are actively infiltrating and co-opting online fandom to spread their ideology. We’ve seen it in GamerGate and its successor movement, ComicsGate. We’ve seen it in the furry community, which, to their credit, has steadfastly rejected them. We’ve seen it on YouTube, where far-right figures like Stefan Molyneux will put out videos criticising basically any blockbuster with a prominent woman or person of colour in it because he knows YouTube’s fucked-up algorithm will drive people looking for negative reviews of films they didn’t like toward him, so they can persuade them that feminazis and neo-Marxists and Jews are to blame.
When the person behind a now-deleted Facebook page called “Down with Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys” took credit for the torrent of abuse that allegedly drove The Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran off Instagram, I was really confused that people referred to it as a problem of rabid Star Wars fans. This article in the Guardian, typical of the coverage, takes it on faith that the page represented a group of people, not just some guy, and that anyone involved in it actually gave a shit about Disney, when it was so clearly a problem of some alt-right asshole trying to co-opt distaste for the recent Star Wars films, particularly The Last Jedi, to promote racism and anti-feminism. It’s an issue that entertainment journalists totally biff over and over again, with a particularly stark example being the reported “fan backlash” against Star Trek: Discovery for having an ethnically diverse cast when literally ever Star Trek series has had an ethnically diverse cast, it’s like, half the point of the entire franchise. Many people covering the “backlash” pointed this out in mocking the “fan boys”, but rarely stopped to consider it might imply it was less a “fan backlash” than a concerted effort by racists to infiltrate and exploit online fan networks towards their own ends. This isn’t to say that all online abuse about franchise blockbusters and the like is just a front for neo-Nazis, but the number of people involved in sustained harassment campaigns because they’re actually way too into movies or TV shows, rather than as a thinly-veiled proxy for their political beliefs, is vanishingly small, like, in the tens of people at most.
The reality is that the “fan boy” is mostly a spectre conjured into being by the discourse about it. He is somehow both the monster whose voracious appetite for content forces media conglomerates to churn out hollow blockbuster after hollow blockbuster and the reactionary wuss who lashes out at the world because blockbusters no longer revolve around him. He can only be one or the other, but my best guess is that he’s actually neither, and we only think or act otherwise because presenting him as such is very convenient for lots of different people. For corporations and the entertainment websites too beholden to them to ever make a substantial critique of the industry, he deflects criticism of how the concentration of media ownership is tearing the heart out of popular culture – they’re only responding to the fan boy’s all-powerful demand, after all. He’s a perfect disguise for neo-Nazis and other reactionaries to wage harassment campaigns in, because every time someone takes a swing at fan boys for being toxic and abusive, it makes those fan boys all the more receptive to overtures from the right. And, for an awful lot of people, he’s just a permissible punching bag. If you’re too woke to shit on fan girls, but you still want to shit on young people for being enthusiastic – and God knows you do – the fan boy is a palatable alternative, and you even get extra woke points for doing it.
So, yeah, sometimes young men who like things too much can be annoying, even cruel, but no more so than people in general. Fan boys have been given a place in pop culture discourse far out of proportion with their presence in the real world and their effect on society. It’s time to take a reality check and pay more attention to the actual threats, both to culture and the world at large: giant evil corporations and literal fucking fascists.