Creative dissonance: Fans and their favourites

If there are two things that we can rely on to serve as endless fodder for journalistic analysis, it’s Donald Trump’s rise to Republican candidacy and the internet’s capacity to be whipped up into a fit of rage. The latter is one that I’ve dipped into a few times before in an attempt to diagnose the consumer entitlement that pervades fan culture. This entitlement seemingly results in death threats being hurled weekly toward some creator on Twitter, Tumblr, or some other social network.

I wrote earlier this week about the silos of the internet that incubate a validation of certain community’s “feelings” and an individual “spitting fire” is really them communicating a point in a language that a member of an out-group is unable to understand. I’ve written a few months ago about the claims to ownership of a cultural product these communities implicitly make with their entitlement-filled vitriol. In trying to unpack the “ruining my childhood” infantilism that underpins a lot of online hate directed at creators of cultural products, I concluded that perhaps the commoditisation of movies, television, and comics specifically through merchandise sold to children might actually bolster claims to some genuine sort of ownership. With a recent piece by Devin Faraci “Fandom Is Broken” making the rounds this week, the status of the fan is again brought into critical evaluation.

Faraci’s piece highlights the petulance of angrily-vocal fan circles as drawn from a sense of ownership that the corporatisation of movies, television, and comics yields. Where I located this in merchandise, Faraci locates it in the abstraction of a product away from its original author. The Captain America example Faraci draws out is rooted in a dispute between some new creators and some old fans. When the property is fundamentally bigger than a single creator or single creative team, claims of ownership on the parts of the creators are strong only through the holding of copyright. What Faraci’s account suggests, especially given parallels between the functioning of expanded universe properties and ancient mythology, is that claims of ownership on the parts of the fans are spiritual.

This spiritual ownership is a tide that raises (or sinks?) all ships. Once one pop cultural property is abstracted from its original creators and becomes a stage upon which the tension between technical or legal ownership and spiritual ownership plays out, fans are emboldened to claim spiritual ownership of properties that remain within the custody of their original creators. The Mass Effect 3 furore that Faraci points to played out over a decision the property’s original creators made, suggesting a fan-base making claims to spiritual ownership that they saw as trumping the ownership of an authentic creator. Similarly with the second Star Wars trilogy which saw fans turning on the man for whom they were, in large part, to thank for the original movies they loved so much.

However, diagnosing fan entitlement as born from spiritual ownership does run counter to the assertion that Faraci makes when he says that fans “see these stories as products”. There is a glib equation of entitlement to a “customer is always right” mentality that undermines what is really going on. If, as I contend, we ought to delineate kinds of ownership, attributing fans with spiritual ownership, we get a better account of exactly what these cultural properties are to fans. Even if Faraci might want to draw parallels to a difficult customer at a restaurant, chefs surely aren’t subject to death threats with the tenacity nor frequency as creators of cultural products. If the letter from a veteran speaking out against the Captain America decision under contention is any indication, there’s got to be more going on here.

For fans, the stories they consume aren’t products, they’re safe spaces. Institutional religion and other forms of spirituality offer something very similar: protection. These spaces are safe for interpersonal connections to be made, for personal expression to be freed, for identity to be forged. None of these are being challenged by the legal owners of a property. However, what these properties-as-safe-spaces also offer, with their richly detailed but not fully realised worlds is a space for fans to create. Fan fiction is creation. Shipping, the practice of inventing romantic relationships for characters of a property, is creation. Headcanon, which I’ve touched on before regarding Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is creation. Sure, one might dispute the worth of these as creative practices (as I did in the aforementioned piece) but the status of these practices as creative should be obvious. This is what creators endowed with legal ownership are challenging when they “upset the applecart”. The kicking-and-screaming is an attempt to patch the chasm that just opened up before a fan’s very eyes: a chasm between what they and their community create as spiritual owners and what movie studios and filmmakers create as legal owners.

I’m mostly in agreement with Faraci regarding the future of this issue. To echo his sentiments, it’s probably only going to get worse. Though, I do have some sense of where hope might be found. If we acknowledge this issue as a symptom of creative dissonance that occurs around two groups with distinct claims to ownership of existing properties, championing the creation of genuinely original properties — or, you know, like just killer one-off movies like Inside OutIt FollowsThe RevenantStraight Outta Compton — would delegitimise the creative acts that surround franchised and expanded universe properties. Basically, kneecapping the reboot/remake/sequel impulse and putting faith back into an original features market, that has notoriously slowed in recent years, is conceivably our only way out.

Originally published to Medium on June 2nd, 2016.