Toxic Fandom

Toxic Fandom

Reviews for the new Amazon Prime series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power have been delayed by Amazon for up to 72 hours amid concerns of review bombing and trolling. Reports of racist and sexist attacks against the cast has ignited the usual Twitter foray of “forced diversity”, “wokeism”, and other tired generalisations pertaining to modern entertainment, with no nuance to be spared. But while these remarks have thankfully been denounced, a broader discourse on the nature of “toxic fandom” has emerged which adds an unfortunate but very much discernible crinkle to what one might expect of this subject.

This idea of “toxic fandom” has become prevalent in recent years, mostly due to the nature of social media amplifying the voice of disturbed passionate fans. Where the extremist fans were once left to toil away with their posters and toy collections, they now have an avenue for embracing their fellow comrades in arms and turning on them at the slightest criticism of the IP they love. We’ve seen this most notably with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the fandom has become divided over the old era output and more recent Phase 4 material. Perhaps a brief list of talking points will illustrate where the fandom gets imbued with toxicity:

  • Yeah, I love Marvel but these new series (She Hulk, Ms Marvel) aren’t doing it for me.
  • Your sexism is showing.
  • Well, the stories just aren’t as good.
  • It’s them building up to another Avengers. You’ve gotta give them time.
  • That twerking scene with Megan Thee Stallion was such a low.
  • I bet if it was Tony Stark doing it you’d love it.
  • Why is Harry Styles in the MCU? He can’t act.
  • Harry’s talented. You’re just jelly.
  • Ugh… Marvel’s gone so woke.
  • Tell me you’re sexist without telling me you’re sexist.
  • That election was stolen off Trump! F- the MCU.
  • Wait, what?

These idiots kind of fans can usually be found on Twitter, where vitriol runs rampant more than any other social media but the discourse feeds into entertainment news too and colours the greater picture of toxic fandom. Now, to be fair, there are actual bigots criticising these shows and movies (as evidenced by the comments on Rings of Power and House of the Dragon) but in the chaos of the comments’ section, it becomes a lot easier to paint any criticism of these IPs with the broad stroke of toxicity, which brings us back to Tolkien.

Having watched three episodes of The Rings of Power, I deem it decent without being exceptional. The nature of my criticism may raise an eyebrow or two though because while I feel it is visually stunning, the characters are mostly dull and without personality. Especially the Elves. Now, because one of the leads is a female and because people on social media refuse context and reading beyond click bait headlines, this crictism could be rejected with a comment like “oh of course the man doesn’t like Galadriel doing everything Aragorn could” or something akin to that. It would even give me pause for thought because let’s face it, bigotry is embedded deep within our subconscious from an early age, in one way or another. Maybe there is a case to be made for traditional fans of fantasy (men, mostly white) having a blind-spot and actively trying to gate-keep a genre, without even releasing the extent of what they’re doing. It is genuinely a valid concern.

The question then arises as to where that leaves us however. We shouldn’t accept inferior art just because it promotes diversity or a particular ideology. That’s woefully condescending and allows any creators to invalidate criticisms without anything more than the label of “toxic fandom”. But we must also acknowledge that while not all modern criticisms lean towards toxicity, a fair number still do. We’ve seen this through review bombing of movies, books, and TV shows yet to even be released, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (when the trailer showed a Black stormtrooper), Captain Marvel and She Hulk. We’ve seen this in the way fans of certain singers (Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Harry Styles) react whenever someone criticises them in the mildest fashion (e.g. 24 writers credited to a recent Beyoncé song- you just don’t get it- Queen B knows what she’s doing). We see this through cult of personalities springing up around certain celebrities like Johnny Depp (and yes I know, Amber Heard was toxic but fans were willing to overlook every single dodgy thing Johnny did or sad with freakish devotion).

Toxic fandom is a thing; it’s just not everything though. And by denouncing large portions of a fan base, I don’t think Marvel or Disney or Prime will be doing themselves any favours. Rather, an open discussion is needed in order to articulate where valid criticisms differ from petty, tribalistic ones. Amazon can continue spending all the money in the world but it can’t buy the respect and devotion deservedly earned by JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson before. (But look, I’ll keep watching.)

Online Convenience

The quarantine has yanked the rope sharply in the tug of war between online convenience and retail industry. As the likes of Amazon and Walmart thrive in the current climate, many other major vendors have suffered remarkably, knocked flat in an already losing battle. In the US, J.Crew, Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, and more have filed for bankruptcy; a most disturbing development since these are nationwide chains. What hope can there be for local businesses if they fail?

Perhaps this is just the nature of our capitalist, economic model. Perhaps, the truly innovative and adaptable industries will emerge stronger than ever when things get back on track. Perhaps, this quarantine has even just sped things up that were bound to happen.

It’s true that Amazon offers a much faster, reliable, and convenient service than most stores can afford to but are we really serving our greater interests in investing all our purchases through them? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve used this site many times, have a Kindle, and think Audible is great! It’s also much cheaper and that’s in Ireland, where it’s not even at the height of its powers! In America with Prime, you can get your treadmill or shelf or box of Sour Patch Kids sent to you in two days! Why would you go through the hassle of a trip to a supermarket or independent retailer when you know that you’ll have to pay more and even expose yourself to the virus?

That’s a hard thing to argue against. After all, we should be social distancing and with uncertain economic times ahead, we should all be saving as much as we can. Indeed, there’s very little room for some high-minded rhetoric. Or at least there would be, if this kind of thinking wasn’t so short-sighted and narrow-minded.

Monopolies are not good. They’re not even in the spirit of capitalism. They pave the way for uniformity and sheer blandness in the products we buy, effectively reduce employment opportunities, and discourage trade unions and workers’ rights. After all, what real incentive is there for benefits, sick leave, and other amenities when there’s little to no alternative options for your employee?

Amazon’s record on employee treatment is, in this regard, exceptionally bad but I don’t want to focus on the titans of modern industry purely because really, we (or the growing majority of us) are also to blame. We simply can’t expect new businesses to flourish or even some of the older ones if we demand this level of convenience. Yes, customer service is important and sometimes we’re on a budget but even for the pure sake of imagination, how about we exhibit a little patience and try to help the little guy out for once? Our world would be a lot better for it and in time, many of our towns might even lose those tumbleweeds soundtracked by slide guitars.

At present, this seems like an almost irresponsible message to spread given that aforementioned pandemic. With a little common sense though, I think most people can visit their corner shop, local supermarket, or bookstore with reasonable peace of mind. They might not be able to prevent a recession from occurring but they can make things so much better by keeping these local industries afloat. Even, the other major retailers in competition with Amazon and Walmart deserve our business. It’s better to have five titans than two!

The choice is yours… for now. I will, personally, be making an effort to shop locally as much as possible when businesses attempt to reopen this summer. Will I buy anything online? Of course. Sometimes I need to for presents if they’re not available nearby and have a date to order by. But if you can’t resist that urge to splurge while browsing then at least have the decency to not buy your Sour Patch Kids through Amazon.