Toxic and Troubling Fandoms:  A Discussion with John Kenneth Muir

Toxic and Troubling Fandoms: A Discussion with John Kenneth Muir

February 16, 2018 0 By Jeff Fountain

While investing the negativity now oozing into fandoms, I found that Star Trek: Discovery, The X-Files and Star Wars to have the largest following of fans and their angry and entitled opinions. So, I enlisted the help of literary critic and author John Kenneth Muir, who has written over twenty reference books in the world of movies and television, to help me try and figure out just what the hell is going on here. His keen insights brought out many interesting ideas and a fascinating discussion and while we might not have all the answers we did come up with some observations that might shed some light on the subject.

The GCE: We’ve both been immersed in the world of fandoms for some time now, you obviously to a much larger degree than I, but there was a time where arguments or discussions were simply a tool to start some great dialogue. You could throw ideas out there, butt heads, learn something new sometimes and then walk away. That seems to have changed with the environment surrounding fandoms, having a small but very loud underbelly of toxicity. I want to touch on fandoms such as Star Trek Discovery, Star Wars The Last Jedi and The X-Files but generally speaking, what do you think has changed?

John: That’s a great question, Jeff. What I do think has changed is clearly our ability now to communicate now instantaneously and also have the tools at our disposal to sort of create our own versions of these things, our own entertainment. We’ve had the internet for a while now obviously but, what is more recent is social media. The X-Files originally rose because of the Internet but in the age of social media, it’s very easy to pop off a hundred and forty characters of something intensely negative before you’ve thought about it. Fans are not shy about getting online and saying something and saying it in a cruel way but I think that another piece of that is there are many fans, I just want to say this is not all fans of course, who believe that they can do it as well as the professionals. They can go and create a YouTube video and it’s going to be just as good as something made by Paramount or Chris Carter or Rian Johnson, so there’s this belief now that the professionals making these movies and television shows aren’t on a different tier than fans but fans and creators of these programs have different needs, they have to support different audiences, so what we’re seeing is sometimes fans of these programs are putting themselves on the same level and that level isn’t merited, honestly.

The GCE: I agree, obviously it’s not all fans, I’m just talking about a small offshoot of fans. I think you’re right, social media has cultivated a new kind of fan, a combination of entitlement and total lack of patience. If we talk about Star Trek: Discovery, for instance, I cannot believe the backlash from some fans, especially with this being the first season of the show. They seem to forget the struggles some of the other Star Trek series had, even The Next Generation, with all the great performances and moments over the years, there were some really rough episodes in the first couple of seasons. To me, this is a direct link to the lack of patience and how with social media if they don’t like it, they let everyone know, very quickly and in a very blunt manner.

John: You make a great point about Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is celebrating its 30th anniversary and I’m reviewing all the episodes on my blog as, at the same time, Discovery is airing its first season. I believe I’ve reviewed the first eight or nine episodes of The Next Generation and let’s be fair if you were to put those up against the first season of Discovery, it is no contest which is better, it is Discovery on every field of play you could imagine. I love Star Trek: The Next Generation, I’m not saying that to be cruel, but you have episodes that are blatant rip-offs, like ‘The Naked Now’, you have episodes that are cringe-worthy like ‘Code of Honor’, ones that are just plain uninspiring like ‘Lonely Among Us’, so imagine if that aired today with those episodes? Again, I’m not saying this because I dislike The Next Generation, I love it, it became a great show but if it was to be judged by this instantaneous standard that we have today I don’t think it would have lasted until its second season. Some fans want it to look like exactly what they feel it should look like and so there is this disconnect there but I understand it, I get it. I’m not thrilled with the redesign of the Klingons but I get it and I’m willing to see where it goes and what they do with it. So many fans, you said it I believe, the entitlement mentality, so many of them will not give the creators any leeway to tell the story the way they want. This is really crazy when you think about it because certainly Star Trek Discovery is serialized television, so it’s not the standalone that Star Trekonce was and so we really do have to get to the end and say ok, did this work, did it not work, was it a good overall story.

The GCE: I think because Star Trek Discovery is different, it’s not the same Star Trek were used to seeing, some fans have a real problem separating themselves from what was to what we have now. As you mentioned, because it is serialized, we should be waiting to the end of the season, to see where the story will take us and if we as fans are on board to follow along into season two.

John: Right, I agree and with The X-Files, people have lost their minds. Let’s talk about the point where the creator writes his or her story, the characters in that story have to go through a very serious challenge, something that is going to challenge and shake them and certainly what we’re seeing this season is that, with what has happened to Agent Scully, with Cigarette Smoking Man, who is a very unreliable narrator, being involved with her becoming pregnant with William instead of Mulder. Ok, that’s the drama, that’s the challenge of this season, that’s the creator’s right to tell that story, yet I’m hearing people say that Chris Carter is abusive, that he as abused Agent Scully. First of all, this is a fictional character, second of all, characters in a drama have to go through challenges and this could be the greatest challenge she and Mulder have ever gone through together. That’s what you want to have, that’s not abusing the character and again, can we wait and see what’s going to happen with this? Many fans obviously can but these vocal fans who don’t like this are not even waiting. It was the same story with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The people that hated the fact that Rey didn’t come from Skywalker lineage and that may be true, we might have to reckon with that but it also came from an unreliable narrator and that was Kylo Ren. We don’t have all the answers yet and I prefer drama where we don’t get all of our answers at once.

The GCE: You mentioned The Last Jedi…I thought it was a good movie, I liked that Rian Johnson went places people weren’t expecting. It wasn’t perfect, there was some weird pacing and some big plot holes but on the whole, I enjoyed it. There is a very vocal part of the fanbase who will tell anyone and everyone that Rian Johnson ruined Star Wars, if you like Last Jedi you’re obviously not a Star Wars fan and so on. There is still one more movie to finish this trilogy, we are getting information from unreliable sources, these things should make people stop and think but the lack of patience, the ability to instantly react via social media, has given a growing number of people a voice that is frankly pretty disturbing at times.

John: What we are seeing here is fans overstepping their importance to these cultural myths. Everybody and their brother came up with fan theories and I love fan theories as much as the next person, they’re a lot of fun, but we are not the creators of these works and our theories are just that, theories. It’s sort of a form of fan masturbation, isn’t it? To think that you and you alone have come up with the great theory of what is going to happen and then you go into a theater and it’s oh my god, they didn’t go with my theory, I’m so disappointed, this is not my Star Wars. I mean wow, that’s just incredible. It’s like a sign of some fans failing to understand what their role in this is.

The GCE: Now again, we aren’t talking about all fans here but there are the keyboard warriors, the social media-driven fan, who somehow think this is all about them. They sit down in a theater, or in front of their TV, with an image or idea already in their head about Star Wars, Star Trek, The X-Files, whatever, and if it goes in a different direction, fifteen seconds later they are letting everyone know how they feel on social media. That aspect is bad enough but some of the things that come out of people’s heads, down to their fingertips and out into the social media world is very troubling to me. I’ve had to leave many a conversation on either Facebook or Twitter where it quickly de-evolved into something that I wanted no part of.

John: To me, this is one of the most difficult aspects of being a fan today, And I suppose it strikes me most in regards to The X-Files in Star Trek especially, and Star Wars too because there’s that whole you can’t be a black Stormtrooper thing. I guess what has come out is this xenophobia, this racism, this sexism. Homophobia, you name it, horrible stuff and in Star Trek fandom I just want to say, have you ever watched an episode of Star Trek? Did you ever see what it was about? Did you ever hear about the Vulcan concept of diversity? Did you look at the various crews, the different genders, races, even people with physical challenges or handicaps? They were all working together to solve problems and becoming stronger because they weren’t all the same. Did you get that? It just astonishes me that these people think that they were Star Trek fans and are complaining about this.

The GCE: I’ve in conversations where I became utterly shocked, not only at what thoughts were coming into people’s heads and making their way onto social media but at the large number of people who were agreeing with it. You mentioned the backlash against Chris Carter and the truth is, if you don’t like the way Carter wrote or directed something that’s fine, all the power to you, you’re a fan. But to personally attack him because of what is happening to Agent Scully this year is beyond ridiculous and very disheartening sometimes, to be quite honest.

John: It is for me as well. Chris Carter created this universe that so many people around the glove love, these stories, these ideas, and you could include Millennium in there as well which many people still love as well. He is the creator who put pen to paper, finger to keyboard and made this whole universe and now fans are essentially saying you don’t understand this universe, let me tell you what it should be. The level of personal attacks I’ve seen is astonishing, like ok, it’s time to hand The X-Files over to another writer and I hate when I see that. Do you think anyone else can do this, with the kind of poetry and style, not just on camera but on paper, that he brings to it? You want to take it away from him, call him a misogynist and anti-muslim. People are failing to understand how you use a story and how you use drama as a social vehicle and it’s getting scary to me, as someone who regularly views these things, that a portion of the audience is getting so dumb that you can’t see it. It’s like if you raise the issue of xenophobia, that’s not the same as being xenophobic. If you raise the issue of sexual harassment and Me Too, of course, that was an underlying part of My Struggle III, it was commenting on that, it’s of its time, but they don’t understand the difference between commenting on it and being the thing it’s commenting on. It’s really scary to me, it’s like we’re losing the capacity to realize that art has a responsibility, a legacy of commenting on social issues and just because those issues are raised, that doesn’t mean they’re endorsing the issues for heaven’s sake, they’re exploring them. It’s horrifying to me to read these comments on Facebook and Twitter, people just don’t get it.

The GCE: So what do you the think the solution is? I’ve been in many chat sites, commenting or just reading, whether it’s Star Trek Discovery, The X-Files, etc, and this attitude seems to be getting worse. Again, I would say ninety percent of the fans have great dialogue, don’t always agree but it’s fun and engaging, but then this other ten percent jumps in and antagonizes, bullies and thumps on its collective social media chest about how they are right and everyone else is wrong.

John: It does seem to be getting worse. I want to reiterate what you said, I have a lot of friends in these fandoms and they are thoughtful, wonderful fans who totally understand what art is and how art should challenge us, surprise us and shock us and it shouldn’t just do what we desire. It shouldn’t always endeavor to please us and get our complete support, it should try to give us a different perspective, something we haven’t seen. Most fans are that way but we do have this really vocal, very twisted ten percent, with the racism, sexism, things like that. I teach and I sometimes teach film but what I mainly teach is communication and part of that is what it means to be a critical thinker. You ask what can be done, well, it’s not a fast or easy fix but we need to start raising people to be critical thinkers, to understand the difference between fact and opinion, to understand that it’s better to admit I don’t know and then try and go find out and learn than it is to come in and think you know everything. What we have now is social media has made it so anybody can come who has no critical thinking skills with people who do and they’re loud and obnoxious and they’re not going to go away or get educated, I know that. People need to be able to say, I have a different belief system but I’m willing to listen to that other belief system and then decide what I think based on that.

The GCE: After Star Trek: Discovery aired its first episode, there were many ‘fans’ who pronounced it the worst Star Trek ever. Even worse, there was a percentage of people who went out of their way to verbally bash the show while at the same time admitting they never even watched it. It is this kind of mentality, this lack of patience and ability to assess a show from different viewpoints, which tells me we have a really big problem already.

John: We do, we have a really big problem. The only way it’s going to be fixed, and some people aren’t going to like this, I understand that, but I don’t think we should ever limit people’s freedom to express themselves, as long as it’s not hate speech. What we have seen often, and this wouldn’t solve the entire problem, is anonymity, sock puppet accounts, things like that, have given people the freedom to be their worst selves. Again, I don’t want to take away the comment fields, I don’t generally feel like that but maybe we ought to eliminate anonymity. Maybe what we need is an infusion of responsibility in this culture to say if you believe that, attach your name to it because what we have right now is speech untethered from personal responsibility and that’s not good. Now that wouldn’t solve it all, but as far as it becoming an epidemic that might be the first step. I moderate comments on my blog, I have to, or it can turn into an avalanche of cursing and insults. I lay out why I like or dislike something on my blog, point by point and while that definitely doesn’t mean I’m right, I do expect people to so the same and not resort to insults and swearing. The thing that has hurt so many people is people that they know and like on social media are spouting some of this nonsense and they are like, are you kidding me? I thought I knew this person.

The GCE: I think that is all part of the social media culture. There is a difference between social media friends and real friends. You can have real friends who are on social media but people you only know on social media and they can really surprise you in instances like this.

John: You make a great point, I think that the way social media works is that we gather people around us because we want numbers or followers, maybe we’re marketing books or a website or a blog, you get say six hundred followers, aren’t you doing great but you don’t necessarily know who those people are or what they believe in. Some people have come out and said they believe in some horrible things, white supremacy, racism, those things are horrible but I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s a difference between somebody disagreeing with you and doing it honorably and someone who comes out and says these things. I mean, things that put down whole groups of people? It’s like wow, I don’t know why you were attracted to my writing in the first place. Why are you coming to my blog and following me on Facebook? I don’t know but I do think we do have to find a way to recouple personal responsibility with expression, in terms of at least websites, blogs and things like that.

The GCE: I love the fans, the fandoms in general and I just want it to be something constructive and fun again without having to look over my shoulder, so to speak.

John: It terrible and obviously we’ve both seen it and it makes people like you and I who do this, obviously we’re not doing this for the big money we’re making, but it makes us reluctant to say what we feel, to talk about what we love because who out there is going to attack us? They are a small group but they’re loud, obnoxious and vindictive and the kind of people that will go to your Amazon page and write a bad review of your book just to get back at you. It has really been scary this year because it’s been this perfect storm of Star Trek: Discovery, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The X-Files, three things that I love, sweeping like a virus through these fandoms, it’s terrible.

The GCE: I will admit, this was both a personal and professional decision to do this article/interview with you. I think both of us, as fans, as fans of fandoms, have some real concerns at the mindset of some people and the direction things are going and while I don’t think we’ve come up with any definite solutions we have thrown our hats into the ring so to speak to challenge people to become more aware of just what they are thinking before they speak.

John: Well Jeff, I think it’s great that you’re doing this, it’s something important that is happening right now in fandom and I’m not seeing enough stories about it. We’re hearing about all the fans saying stupid shit like there can’t be black Stormtroopers but we’re not hearing the other side, that not everyone feels this way and how bad this is for fandom so I think it’s really important that you decided to do this. I love that you’ve planted your flag so to speak, you’re not going to ignore it and act like it’s not there. There will be people who agree with us and of course, people who don’t but I think we knew that going in. Either way, I was really glad to be able to talk about this with you today.

I want to thank John for taking the time to talk with us