In case you hadn’t seen it, this blog post has been making the rounds lately – and like all such diatribes which call people to task people have been lining up on both sides of the equation.
The post in question is a scathing indictment of geekdom’s penchant for outrage, specifically the kind of outrage spurred when creative types make unpopular decisions regarding the things fans love. At heart is the question of whether or not fan entitlement has become an issue.
A point was raised to me yesterday regarding the degree to which we should accept the fringes of fan behavior as representative of the whole. While I’m willing to concede that it’s probably not wise to use the death-threat crowd as the yardstick by which you measure any given demographic, we need not go that far to see the degree to which fans of genre fiction feel a sense of ownership over the things they love.
Entire swathes of fandom have arisen out of a sense of entitlement regarding various intellectual properties. Fanfic is probably the one that most easily comes to mind. For decades (even longer, actually, when you think about it) fans of various genre properties have been wallowing in other people’s imaginations to spin original tales about Star Trek, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Firefly, etc. See also: Fan Films, cosplay, filking…and a myriad of other forms of artistic expression fandom use to express admiration for their various obsessions.
I have my issues with some of this stuff (which are probably more well-suited for a different blog post) – but on balance I think most of it is at best a nice playground for people to express themselves creatively and at worst a Mermaid’s lure for those who have more passion than talent. Fundamentally I think it’s healthy that these things exist.
However – I also think that as of late we’ve seen a disturbing trend towards a sense of ownership regarding the intellectual property of others. I’m not saying that this is entirely bad – it’s often wonderful to see people iterate on the ideas of others and create new things from them. However, what I find troublesome is when fans feel they should have a say in the direction of other people’s artistic expression.
The Misery example is a potent one. While the murderous rage directed at Misery‘s protagonist is certainly over the top, as an allegory of the demands fans place on creators I think it’s fairly apt (and if anyone would know, I suspect it would be Stephen King).
In a sense, I get it. As fans we pour so much of our energy and passion into enjoying the things we love that when the a creator makes a decision that doesn’t sit well with us it can feel akin to a betrayal. But it isn’t, really. We should have zero expectations that the things we love are crafted with us in mind.
I think, however, what’s really at play here is the idea of patronage. Back in the day – an artist would be lucky to find a wealthy patron who was willing to pony up sums of money and privileges to fund their bohemian lifestyle. What the patron got out of it was prestige, a filter to ‘cleanse’ their wealth by funding works of beauty, and sometimes they got a little bit of propaganda out of the deal. You know, a flattering portrait, or a commission to celebrate a specific cause or ideal.
Patronage still happens, of course. And as the commodification of art – and lets face it, nearly every single genre property or IP ever created is the result of ‘art as a commodity’ – has proliferated, those who enjoy such things view themselves as patrons in some small manner. ‘I help you put food on your table by purchasing (x), therefore you own me a little something in return…’. It’s not an explicit relationship, but when the chips are down and fans start grumbling in numbers about a thing…the petitions start flying, and people start talking about stuff like ‘voting with their wallets’. Cha-ching! ‘Give me what I want or I’m going to withdraw my patronage.’
Of course, many of these things are the products of corporate interests. Fans are something of a secondary patron…the real patron is the corporation who wants to reap the creative seed being offered by the artist in return for which they’ll peddle it to the masses and (hopefully) be rewarded for funding the right creative type.
It still boils down to the same question, though. As a fan/consumer – what right do you have to make demands of the creator in this equation? Yes, you have the power to withhold your money for things you find displeasing. That’s a straightforward consumerist choice – I don’t buy products that don’t work for me. It’s as true for Star Wars as it is for Windex. You also have the power to criticize – and you should criticize, when you feel you have something to say about a thing which you feel passionate about and want to express your ideas about what didn’t work for you.
What you don’t have the right to do – and I can’t express this harshly enough – is to tell creative types what they should do with their ideas. Seriously. You may own every fucking Star Wars toy, bedspread, and tchochke ever invented…but that investment of time and money gives you zero say in what Disney or the various creative types they’ve hired do with the stories they want to tell. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
I know that’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. You may own the Sideshow Collectibles Sixth-Scale Han Solo figure, but you have zero ownership over what Gareth Edwards wants to do with Rogue One. It ain’t your film, brah. It’s his film. And if it doesn’t do what you want, or if he kills your favorite character – too bad, so sad. Write a blog post and express your displeasure all you want – the fact is, it ain’t yours. Never was.
Now, you might pluck away at your own Star Wars thing…and if you do it long enough, and develop some skill and get to know the right people, maybe Disney will give you money to make your own Star Wars movie. And maybe you’ll take all that passion for Star Wars, all that hard-won knowledge, and spend two or three years bringing that vision to life. And maybe a bunch of people on the internet will take issue with your thing and tell you how wrong you are and how it doesn’t represent their idea of what Star Wars is, etc. And you know what the correct response to that is?
‘Go fuck yourself.’
Seriously, you owe nobody anything on that account. But maybe Disney will get a little weak-kneed because a bunch of the fans are causing a ruckus over a decision you made…even though they haven’t even seen the fucking movie. Maybe they saw something in the trailer that sticks in their craw. And, inevitable Twitter death threats aside, the mounting criticism reaches the point where Disney comes to you and says ‘Hey, we know you’re passionate about this thing, but a bunch of the fans are screaming blue murder about it…why not take another couple million bucks and re-shoot that bit that everyone is complaining about…’
That’s bullshit, right? But that’s what happens when art is a commodity and when the people who consume it know it’s a commodity and that if they shout long and hard enough they can shape the thing to their desires, because…really…it’s all about putting asses in seats, right? It’s not about your vision, or your ideas. It’s about lining someone’s pocket. And fans can leverage that to get what they want – to protect their biased ideas about what makes good Star Wars, or Star Trek, or whatever.
The confluence of art and money is always fraught with danger, and art almost always loses in the end. That isn’t to say that nothing good ever came from patronage – I’d be straight up lying if I said that. The world is littered with amazing art, much of it because of patronage.
But we’ve moved beyond a situation where an artist creates a thing, and the people who view the thing interpret it and express their thoughts. We are now living in a culture where people feel they have the power and the privilege to vent their spleen at all stages of the creative process.
The trailer for the Ghostbusters remake is particularly telling. Misogynist subtext aside, an enormous amount of vitriol has been cast at this film – a film which hasn’t even been released yet – based on a single trailer.It’s patently silly. Especially for a franchise which consists of one beloved film and a fairly wretched sequel. I don’t care what anyone says, this new movie would have to be pretty awful to rate lower than Ghostbusters 2. But the fact remains – almost nobody knows whether or not this film is going to be good or bad. The trailer is not the film. It’s some marketing person’s idea of what they think will get people to put their ass in a theater seat. That’s it. And yet, people have been going after this movie with pitchforks and torches for months.
It’s ridiculous. And yet, it’s how the internet – and people on the internet – do everything anymore. Nobody is content to just wait until they see the finished product – they have to kvetch and bellyache about it forever and a day – and in all likelihood, it’s having a detrimental effect on the production side. There’s a reason why American cinema is littered with middle-of-the-road unambitious garbage for the most part…because film executives have learned to pitch hard for the middle-ground. That’s where they think they can make the most people happy…by producing films of low risk in the hope they can maximize their profits. The Force Awakens was a perfect example of this. It’s a weird, bloated reanimated corpse of a Star Wars film. It has the face and mannerisms of the one we love but the heart isn’t beating any longer. All our favorite characters are back, and we get some new ones – but…it’s paint-by-numbers. It hits all the narrative beats we expect from a Star Wars film, but it doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before.
Now we get word that studio executives are ‘terrified’ about Gareth Edwards’ new Star Wars film, and that Disney is calling for expensive re-shoots. Knowing what I know about Edwards, this probably means he turned in a really good film with measured pacing and Disney is freaking out because his movie doesn’t beat the audience over the head with an endless repetition of effects shots and OH FUCK moments. And probably everyone dies. Which would be awesome, and appropriate. And Disney is probably worried that the same fans that drove Abrams to turn in a shockingly vanilla (yet successful) Star Wars film will pillory Edwards’ work.
Ultimately, who knows. But if money is in the driver’s seat for these things, then fans know with alarming clarity how to get exactly what they want. The death threats aren’t the issue here. The problem is, in fact, entitlement.