Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Fandom has gotten a Tad Strange.

Back when Gravity Falls — a stellar little show that is literally 'Disney does Twin Peaks' and that everyone needs to sit down and marathon — was still on the air, it was leaked that buttery-voiced Welcome to Night Vale host Cecil Baldwin would be appearing in the show as a character named 'Tad Strange.' Upon seeing the name and the rather conspicuous casting, fans immediately assumed that Tad would be kin to the show's main antagonist, Bill Cipher. Conspiracy theories and fanart blew up practically overnight (not helped by creator Alex Hirsch describing Tad as 'a real square'), until the fandom had pretty well decided by committee that Tad was a square purple dream demon in a bowler hat.

Then the episode 'The Stanchurian Candidate' aired, and it was revealed that Tad had approximately three lines and was there purely for a gag.

The fandom accused Hirsch of changing Tad's role in the show in response to the fandom's wild mass guessing... seemingly unaware that, unless you're talking about South Park, TV shows are in the can long before airtime. Hirsch himself spoke up about the fiasco at Amazing Houston Comic Con last year, so probably best to hear it in his words. But the tl;dr is, fans raised a stink because the show did not align with what they wanted and assumed.

This is not a new thing. There's never been a time when fans haven't made demands. Devin Faraci went into this in great detail in his editorial on Birth.Movies.Death. yesterday, drawing comparisons between modern fandom and Annie Wilkes, the antagonist of Stephen King's Misery. While he makes a few more judgment calls than I personally feel qualified to with regards to recent plot twists in recent comic books, his points are solid and sound and things I've been saying for a while now. Much of modern fandom believes that the things they love either should be created by committee, or that they already are and they can be heard by squeaking their wheels loudly on social media.

John Rogers, one of the minds behind Leverage and The Librarians, presented his own angle on this in 17 tweets, the most important of which (to me) goes a bit like this:

He raises excellent points. 21st-century creators live in an age when social media is a part of life and business, and so must be prepared to be spoken to extremely quickly about what they do. As in during the run of their creation, if not before. On occasion, people will raise good points. You'll have a chance to hear angles you never considered before that may inform what you do in future or make you stop and go 'Hmm, that didn't work the way I intended it to.'

The problem comes when it goes beyond that.

In my early days as a webcomicker, I got very immediate feedback on when people disliked something I chose to do. And people spoke to me very frankly and very coldly many times. (They still do, but on different topics.) Back when I started webcomicking, it was not as common for celebrities to be open and accessible on social media; Stephen Fry's tweeting was an exception rather than a rule. And I realised quickly that I was a 'middle ground.' I was a creator they knew of, but I was accessible. Being able to tell me what they hated, to be cold and commanding to me with regards to how I handled the characters they peeked in on three times a week, gave them a sort of 'fix' for their inability to steer the course of the large properties they followed.

Nowadays, though, that's not an issue because every property currently running and the majority of people behind them are plugged into the Matrix. Andrew Hussie, creator of the now-wrapped Homestuck, was at one point deemed unable to continue to write satisfactorily for his own creation, and a contingent of Tumblr fans began demanding that the characters be turned over to the fandom. Adult fans started a change.org petition to rid the Twelfth Doctor of his sonic sunglasses — an accessory added to Doctor Who in part to make it easier for less well-off children to pretend to be the Doctor without having to spring for pricey merchandise. Writers, their families, and even their pets receive death threats either for making creative choices or for agreeing with the creative choices of others.

The worst part is, social media feedback can be useful. No creator is infallible, and a choice being made doesn't necessarily make it 'okay.' 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is an excellent Doctor Who story and one of my favourites of the 20th century series, but the casting of John Bennett as Li H'sen Chang and the makeup job that came with it will never not make me cringe. There are some times when, yes, someone speaking up and saying 'Dude, this is sort of not great' would have made a difference.

But when a creative speaks up about not wanting to be verbally abused or have their children's lives threatened because they chose to have two characters kiss or cast this person instead of that person, suddenly they're deemed unable to take criticism. Because so many fans don't understand the line between helpful feedback and just wanting their favourite show to play out like their fanfic. Or, worse still, they bolster otherwise helpful feedback with vitriol and threats.

I disagree with a lot of choices made in properties I enjoy. Some are purely selfish reasons; some I think were genuinely poor or tasteless writing choices. I've personally never deemed my credentials solid enough to take the latter of those complaints to the source, regardless of the fact that I stand by them. But not even my least favourite creators deserve to die just because they didn't do what I wanted them to.

I've seen modern webcomickers bend immediately to abusive messages from fans telling them 'You are writing this character badly, write it this way.' Like I watched it happen. I watched that artist give a terrified heartfelt apology and promise to 'do better,' despite the fact that the objection was to the character being generally unfriendly (and in a way that was obviously leading into a character arc where they would be loosening up). They uprooted their whole storyline because one person complained.

Big companies are doing it, too. SyFy and Asylum (in)famously left the fate of Sharknado's April Wexler (played by Tara Reid) to an audience vote, which is still running. While this obviously comes out of the 'vote now on your phones' tradition of TV talent shows, it's crept into fiction. And someone in marketing knew that enough people would jump at the chance to influence the thing they watch that it would get them hits.

We're in an age where a benign photo of a Doctor Who star can be commented on with a string of people saying 'I don't like them. Next!' as though they're picking a Sweet Sixteen dress rather than engaging in someone else's creative product. It's true that, as fans, we do feel a sort of possessiveness for the things we love. That's why merchandise works. That's why we buy the latest book or tune in every week or go out to conventions to meet the people who make these things happen.

But at the end of the day, we are consumers. We are not owed the exact story we want. Because we are one of hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions. And the solipsism of assuming that what we want is what the rest of the fans want is counterproductive at best. Even if you and your bestie both want Elsa to have a girlfriend or Cap to have a boyfriend, you'll find when you compare notes that things begin to fray, and before you've even hashtagged it there are already two different stories forming.

Completely satisfying the demands of one thousand fans would require writing one thousand variations on the same story. And nobody owes us that. At all.

It's time for fandom to remember that it's all right to not see eye-to-eye with a creator. It's okay for you to only like something 95%. And it's okay to put something down when it no longer pleases you enough to keep going. There are things in this life much more deserving of ire than a person whose imagination runs down a slightly different track from your own.