[ Rose Quartz as depicted in Steven Universe and in zamii070‘s fan art.]
Hey howdy hey Powerwolf Pack! Welcome back for another exciting edition of the Mailbag, where we discuss all your most pressing thoughts and questions about the world of entertainment and how it affects us. Today we discuss progressive outrage and entitlement in the nerd community, as well as the ever-changing nature of genre.
What do you think of the modern state of fandom? Media and pop culture – especially our new golden wave of television, summer blockbusters, and current horror film renaissance – seem to be pleasing every nerd’s dream with quality stuff, and with the internet you can revel in your fandom with everyone else who loves the same stuff you do. The biggest movie of the year so far is from a second-tier comic character! Fandom and nerd pop culture has won! But enjoying your pop culture “thing” seems to be having an adverse effect as well.
Recently, a Steven Universe fan artist was bullied to the point of attempted suicide because her art couldn’t please a subsection of fans that followed her on Tumblr. Film critics receive death threats for writing a negative reviews about a film that has massive hype and fandom behind it, most notably for The Dark Knight Rises and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When a film is cast, people are almost always immediately angry with the choices and even take out petitions to get it to change.
It just seems that if you don’t love something unconditionally, or follow what’s expected to the smallest letter, or if you try to institute a change to the status quo, fandom throws itself into an endless fury. Why do you think this is? There’s obviously no excuse for death threats and bullying, but do you think that fandom anger is warranted? Is it just a small amount of people raising the loudest voice? Is there any hope for being a fan without having the fandom eat itself alive?
We can dance if we want to, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave our friends behind. This question is near and dear to me, and is, in fact, the entire point of the Powerwolf entertainment blog. If I didn’t think it were possible to meaningfully and proactively discuss the value of art while simultaneously geeking out, this blog wouldn’t exist.
The way people treated Zamii for her fan art is shameful, and the subsequent fallout only got worse, but that doesn’t mean that having a discussion about the depiction of characters isn’t useful. Rose Quartz, (the character in question) is one in a very small list of full-bodied women that are depicted in our media as capable, powerful, and beautiful. I can absolutely see how fan stylized fan art giving her a petite frame might feel like “fat shaming,” but you’re correct that there are clearly more appropriate ways to express this than harassment or death threats. Especially in a community where we can provide feedback to a creator directly, it’s important to remember that despite the internet “fog-of-war,” our words are affecting real people. And crushing someone verbally over fan art? Pssshhh. That’s horrible. There are much larger and more important mountains of representation to summit, that affect far more people.
Wonder Woman is a good recent example of this. She’s appearing in a major motion picture this week for the first time ever, and a lot of women I know are angry – angry that Gal Gadot, who has the petite frame of a model, is representing a hero that has classically been depicted as broad, curvy, and muscular. Granted, there have been illustrators who have drawn Wonder Woman as more petite, and Lynda Carter wasn’t exactly a bodybuilder, but Diana has long stood as a symbol of atypically empowered womanhood in a genre typically dominated by men and their fetishes. The line of thinking is that Gal Gadot got the role because Zack Snyder thought she was hot, not because she would best embody a powerful role model for the millions of girls that will see Batman v Superman and try to derive their own strength from it.
I hope that the Wonder Woman we see this week, and then again next year in her own film, will be strong in spirit and character, and that the last thing on everyone’s minds will be that she looks like a man’s plaything and not a goddess. But if things don’t go so well, I at least hope that audiences voice their concerns respectfully. (And for god’s sake, don’t take it out on poor Gadot!)
So I think the anger can be understandable, even necessary to prompt positive changes in the media our nation consumes. But where does this unbridled (and certainly unhelpful) rage come from? Why are people, in the name of tolerance of all things, tearing people down so maliciously over such trivial misrepresentations?
Why do so many people get so obscenely bent out of shape when they are disagreed with about ANYTHING? Xbox vs Playstation. Marvel vs DC. Connery vs Craig. Edward vs Jacob. That one Sports Team vs That other Sports Team. People eviscerate each other over this shit! I’m going to posit a pretty wild thesis here about First World Problems like these, especially in their relation to the United States. Why is the U.S. the world leader in mass shootings? Why is a bully and an imbecile with nothing to say leading the GOP nomination for the American presidency?
IDENTITY and ENTITLEMENT
The First World, and the United States in particular, has an obsession with asserting one’s individuality. It’s the new “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s not enough to keep up with your neighbors financially. You have to have better taste than they do. Truer opinions than they do. More twitter followers than they do. People latch onto stupid things to make them feel unique and special (clothing labels, car models, CrossFit). People latch on to really important things to make them feel unique and special (religious beliefs, political beliefs, relationships). In all cases, the assertion of one’s identity onto the subject in question taints both the person and the subject.
When I hear perfectly sane people complain about having other people’s opinions shoved down their throats, it makes me sad because what they’re usually complaining about is having people’s egos shoved down their throats. Yet it’s vitally important that we listen to each other, that we share our thoughts, interests, and concerns. But if we can’t separate our Identity from our opinion, then both are lost. We are no longer a person, we’re a label, co-dependent to something less than human. And that belief that defines us is no longer malleable, interactive, or reflective of reality. It separates us from the world around us, not as an individual, but as a stranger. This is how extremists of all kinds, shapes, and sizes, are created.
The next part of the equation is Entitlement, which is the Rage Multiplier that is even more unique to the First World. We don’t just desire to be in the right, we deserve to be! The American Dream told us that we could be whatever we want to be, and what we want to be more than anything is special. So many films, shows, and books have shown us heroes who are special because they were destined to be. While many of these stories (fortunately) dissect and critique the concept of divine self-importance… even undermine the very notion of it… I think the feeling persists because of its allure. Fantasy often relies on empowerment, and what’s more empowering than knowing knowing that The Universe has determined that you are The Hero?
On a related note, I wonder if the problem with videogames is not the level of violence, but the ease with which violence solves all one’s problems. Recently, games like Dishonored and Undertale have begun to challenge the idea that game genres defined by violence need to boil every problem down with so simple a solution – (kill a lot of people). Both games posit the theory that a peaceful solution is always present, even preferable… and that anybody can brashly power through their opponents, but a true hero seeks out the kind solution, even if it is the more difficult one.
We need our media to encourage the idea that heroism isn’t bestowed upon us, it is earned. And while heroism does require a strong will, tenacity, and persistence, it also requires us to constantly question the causes we’re fighting for and how we’re fighting for them. Otherwise, we’re nobody’s hero. We’re self-righteous, entitled monsters, with an outrageously binary, Us vs Them worldview.
As fans and consumers of popular entertainment, let’s encourage one another to remember the things worth learning from our heroes. Spider-Man may be strong, but he isn’t special because of his powers, he’s special because he always tries to do the right thing, even when he has no idea how. Harry Potter isn’t special because he is The-Boy-Who-Lived, but because he’s willing to learn from both his friends and his many mistakes and keep pressing on. And Steven Universe… of all heroes… Steven Universe loves people unconditionally… no matter how different or even misguided they might be. He may be a chubby little goofball with few adventuring skills, but he has the heart of Rose Quartz who champions the rights of the weak, no matter how different or clueless they may be. To argue her depiction as a point of harassment misses the entire point of the show in a way that is a thousand times more fundamental than her weight. It’s the same type of misguided crusading that leads churchgoers to claim that “God hates fags.” It’s the same type of entitlement that says “my pain means more than your pain” and ends in violence.
When our Identity becomes more important than our propensity to Love and when our Entitlement outweighs our will to Understand, everything we hold dear is corrupted. This goes for our Religion, our Politics, and yes… even our cartoons. So I plead to anybody who will listen… Save our fandom and the world. Be a self-made hero. Listen and Love.
First I need to let you know that I am an older fan who likes many different genres, but my favorite is a good romantic comedy. I especially enjoy the class and subtlety of older romantic comedies. Some of my favorite performances are Katherine Hepburn, in The Philadelphia Story, Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, and Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping. All these movies feature strong female archetypes whose weaknesses were subtlety exposed over time, unlike many of the female characters in newer romantic comedies such as Bridesmaids and Trainwreck who seem to smack you in the face with them. Can you give me some insight into the reason the newer romantic comedies are appealing to younger audiences?
What you’re seeing is not exclusive to RomComs. It is, in fact, the fate of all genre to eventually be twisted, parodied, and stretched to its limits. Genre comes into existence not yet formed, then flares into magnificent being, only to self-destruct and be reborn anew. It’s like the life of a star.
Let’s use the example of the Western. The Great Train Robbery (1903) is often called the first, but it wasn’t the first film to play around with what we would later define as Western tropes, and it lacks some of the tropes Westerns would eventually be epitomized by. This grew and manifested into a full-blown genre, with a set of expectations to fulfill for its audience. And therein lies the challenge of genre. Eventually the formula will be honed to perfection by masters of their class (like John Ford), then slightly re-imagined by later auteurs (like Sergio Leone), then self-destruct when their predictability becomes a joke (Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles), and finally be reborn in a new light once society has had some time to meditate on what made them meaningful to begin with (Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven).
It’s hard to say where the RomCom genre is right now. These trends are usually only easy to pin in hindsight. I can say that Comedy in general (romantic or not) is leaning further towards irreverent satire than ever before. It started with shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and evolved into South Park, and then Family Guy. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is the only way some young people would watch the news because they felt like the only way they would hear the truth is if it was masked as humor. (Since network executives are obviously humorless, it keeps “The Man” from meddling.) Flash-forward to today. Deadpool is one of the most successful superhero franchise starters of all time. Irreverence and satire has finally caught on in the United States, and it’s only escalating over time. Why is this? Is it because kids have no respect? I’ll fall back on the age-old adage – It’s funny because it’s true.
One thing I’d like to point out though is that both your modern examples of RomComs come from the Judd Apatow factory of heartfelt loser comedies. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Knocked Up are all the male-centric equivalents from the same brain trust that eventually brought us Bridesmaids and Trainwreck. While all of these films have romance in their plots, I’m not sure I’d necessarily call them RomComs. Speaking for my generation, however, I can agree that these movies in particular feel like “true” post-modern analogs to the genre. Why? Because we’re deeply broken, and we know it. Seeing Seth Rogen or Amy Schumer pull themselves out of self-medicating lifestyles, face the many many emotional and societal problems that overwhelm them, and learn to be barely functional adults is our fairy tale ending. We may like the pre-00’s classic RomComs, but being a Tom Hanks-styled successful businessman with a heart of gold, or a Meg Ryan styled quirky but lovable lady who just never can find the right guy feels like an unbelievable starting point.
I think that to most people who don’t understand this starting point, the crassness of modern Comedy feels like society has set a low standard for itself. I understand that. I don’t like that Seth Rogen was the everyman of my generation, but I at least take solace in the fact that he helped us process our shit enough that we’ve recently been promoted to Chris Pratt.
Speaking of the ladies specifically: comics like Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, and Mindy Kaling are meeting young women where they are right now. They’re reminding them that it’s okay not to be physically or even emotionally perfect. They’re not trying to take Meg Ryan down to their level, but they’re openly telling women that it’s okay if they’re not there yet, and that even trainwrecks like them deserve love. Most importantly, they’re not ignoring that their problems exist, or suggesting that romance is the cure to what ails them. They are, in fact, showing them healthy ways to overcome their hangups, while learning the humor and humanity of their own weaknesses.
I, for one, I’m really happy that women have earned the right to be so glaringly flawed in such a public way. Hopefully, it will set a trend of more women believing in themselves, regardless of their individual hangups, and expecting men to extend them the same courtesy.
Even though Judd Apatow-branded raunchy humor doesn’t extend to all recent comedies featuring romance, the deeply flawed characters certainly do (Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Ruby Sparks, Don Jon, Magic Mike XXL, Mei Ren Yu, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot). I’m not sure when the RomCom genre as you remember it will reappear, but I don’t think it’ll be before young people (men and women alike) begin to feel hope again.
That’s another week of the Mailbag come and gone! Be sure to share your thoughts on genre and nerd entitlement in the comments section. And keep feeding the mailbag, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.