What is it to be a Fan in the 21st Century? Examining Fandom in Entertainment.
What is it to be a fan in the 21st century? That’s what a lot of people are asking not just of themselves but of their peers and the general culture at large. Right now our society is dominated on all sides by franchises of one stripe or another. Be they books, movies, TV shows, comics, etc…and all of those have thousands of permutations and subgroups within them. Take superheroes which are, for brevity, divided between Marvel and DC Comics which then divides again into the structures based around their universes that then divides all the way down to individual characters. The birth of “modern fandom” is usually given credit to George Lucas’ 1977 opus Star Wars. That was the birth of the block buster and merchandise driven marketing and franchising that has shaped the world in ways we are still comprehending today. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, begun in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, saw Marvel Comics become a global brand the world over in the last decade. Over these decades long franchises, several generations across numerous backgrounds have grown attached to these characters and stories. As a result, fandom has grown to be both a toxic force and a positive one. The question then becomes what do things that we love have to say on the subject of fandom and this push and pull between the toxic gate keeper side and the positive and sincere earnest side?
Stories about fandom are not all created equal. With the rise of social media, the creator and fan dynamic has changed drastically, especially in the world of comics. Fans can interact with the creators of their favorite stories in a way they never could previously. This has obviously led to positive feedback on both the fan side and creative side but it’s also become a doorway for the most toxic fans to vent their frustrations directly to the creative team. As a result, some stories have taken approaches to address or shoot down these fans directly. With targeted social media campaigns and general trouble makers on the web its left creators in a spot where they might not be able to tell the well-intentioned fan who has legitimate concerns about representation from the entitled fan who rages at them for changing the color of a mask or giving a character pants for their costume.
The stories discussed in this piece are meant as none of that. Both are very broad metaphors about actual positive fandom vs. different breeds of toxic fandom to the discussion of creators conflating well-meaning fans with legitimate concerns and toxic bigoted fans who feel entitled is a discussion worth having but it’s also a separate one. This is meant as an examination of two stories with similar metaphorical themes and not meant as a condemnation of people who raise legitimate concerns with creators or a discussion of how said creators respond to the concerns.
With that aside let’s talk about what is often cited as the birth of the modern pop culture fan, Star Wars.
When it exploded onto the scene in 1977 Star Wars left an immediate impact. An impact that was so big it reshaped the Hollywood business model practically overnight and left a permanent imprint on the psyche of generations of young kids. In 2015 after six movies and ten years out of the cinematic spotlight, Star Wars returned with Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Its reception was overwhelmingly positive and had everyone looking forward to more. However, one of its biggest criticisms was that the film was a modern remake of the original film. Despite this, people couldn’t wait to see more of the new characters Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren. With the film being an homage to the original the big thematic hook for the new hero and villain is that of two separate stripes of fans.
The first is that of a star struck and super earnest fan. Rey is enamored by the exploits of Luke and the Rebels having a discarded rebel pilot helmet she wears for no other reason than to just wear it, a handmade doll that looks like a rebel pilot, reacting with shock and joy at meeting Han Solo and learning the ship she’s stolen is the Millennium Falcon, as well as referring to him as a smuggler when Finn calls him a general. She is symbolically the audience in this movie in this regard. A super eager fan finally living the dream and super excited about everything happening to her. On the other end of the spectrum though we have Kylo Ren.
While both storylines are incomplete since only one movie has been released with them we can glean enough information about Rey and Kylo to see what they are meant to be symbolically. In this respect Kylo Ren is set up as fan culture gone wrong. Someone who is unhealthily obsessed with the worse parts of what’s come before. He’s seen talking to Darth Vader’s helmet throughout the film and asking for strength to ignore the call to the light. He heads up a planet sized battle station similar to, though much larger, than the Death Star and vows to finish what Vader started. To top it off when things don’t go his way, instead of processing it like an adult, he lashes out with his lightsaber almost like a child throwing a tantrum for not getting his way. Kylo Ren is representative of a toxic side of fan culture that only looks back and has latched onto the unhealthier aspects. Now most people like Darth Vader because of the tragedy that is his story and we even dress up as him but we also keenly aware he is the bad guy and one that should not be emulated, either in ideology or action.
So then how does Marvel fit into this then? Starting in April of 2016 Marvel began publishing a comic titled “The Unbelievable Gwenpool.” Due to the popularity of a variant cover of the Deadpool comic and cosplay of the character, Gwenpool was given an ongoing series with the novel gimmick of her being from our real world. In the comics Gwendolyn “Gwen” Poole is a high school student transported to the Marvel universe via unknown means. Realizing this she dons a costume to avoid being an “extra” and becomes the superhero “Gwenpool,” the star of her own comic book. Gwen herself is a fan of comics and has read a vast collection of them, writes fan fiction, and has a sketchbook that she draws superheroes in. She even is knowledgeable of established tropes and rules of books such as knowing the hero won’t die and that she can’t reveal secret identities publicly because it’s her book and “they” wouldn’t allow that. Gwen, like Rey, is a positive representation of a fan. She reacts with various combinations of excitement, nervousness, awkwardness, and joy at the various superheroes she meets on her adventures. However, she is also her own worst enemy.
Gwen herself is caught in the middle of earnest fan culture and toxic fan culture. While she reacts with enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect of meeting the heroes she’s read so much about she also treats them with casual disregard. Namely, she knows she won’t die because it’s her book and she’s the star and that the people she’s meeting are indeed fictional and thus immune to being killed or hurt in any devastating way for very long. This gives rise to a future version of herself that has become a reality bending supervillain that messes around with the comics simply because she can. This is because Gwen discovers that being from our real world has granted her the ability to not just break the 4th wall but to literally escape between the pages of the books and interact with them as she sees fit.
Her future self had made life difficult in the Marvel Universe in the future because she would reveal secret identities and use her knowledge to essentially toy with the lives of the heroes. At one point she even reveals the secret identity of Miles Morales as Spider-man and results in his family being killed. Future Gwenpool is herself a commentary on the toxic route fan culture can go. Gwen treats the universe with casual disregard because she has power over it now instead of the starry-eyed admiration her younger self once had.
With the characters of Rey, Gwenpool, Kylo Ren, and future Gwenpool what you have is a push and pull of what fandom is and can become.
Future Gwen and Kylo Ren represent the toxic notions of fandom and how these toxic aspects can even dominate and overwhelm the good parts. Kylo Ren is in command of a legion dedicated to tearing down the world the heroes of the original trilogy created and rebuilding it in the image of Darth Vader to the point his only challengers seem to be a small group which are in part run by those old heroes. Future Gwenpool overwhelms the heroes of her time who are powerless to stop her. In the age of social media, toxic fandom can drown out and even overwhelm the positive aspects and these two characters are personifications of that very idea.
Gwenpool of the present and Rey on the other hand represent positive fandom and how those positive aspects can overcome the more toxic aspects. They are the uncorrupted fan. The dreamers that want to explore the universe before them and add their own names to it. Gwen is the pure enthusiasm of fan culture. As she often gets in over her head and on multiple occasions makes people’s lives harder but it is never done out of intentional malice. Rey is the more mature side of that coin having respect for the things around her. This love that is deep and sincere is also the reason that Rey and Gwen can overcome their counterparts in the end.
Both Rey and young Gwen are presented with a moment of temptation from their counterparts. Offers to either make them stronger and give them a life they could never imagine. Kylo offers to be Rey’s teacher and show her the power of the force. Future Gwen show’s her past self all the bad stuff she does with her powers has no real consequences so they should have fun while they can. In these moments, toxic fan culture is literally trying to corrupt earnest and sincere fans by saying the way they behave is the proper and better way to be a fan. In turn Rey’s respect and reverence and young Gwen’s sincere love and passion allow them to win the day. With Rey tapping into the Force herself and overcoming Kylo Ren, symbolically defeating toxic legacy obsessed fan culture. Young Gwen on the other hand is shown how she’s acting and how her earnestness has brought some real harm to people. Young Gwen in this moment literally self-examining her behavior, seeing what it leads too, and outright rejecting it because she deeply loves the world she’s gotten to know and has seen that her future self no longer loves it the way she does. Thus, Future Gwen is literally erased from existence, thereby erasing toxic dismissive fan culture.
With more fans becoming creators and getting to add their own spins and interpretations on beloved universes and characters. As such we must constantly be aware of ourselves and our behavior as fans. Looking at only the past and wanting the darker or more disturbing stuff to return will result in a culture mirrored in Kylo Ren while obsessing over fandom but treating it indifferently and with callous disregard will make us like Gwen’s future self. Rey and Gwenpool show us that fan culture can be a positive even life changing experience for us and that its ok to dream and like what we like. That these aren’t merely distractions or something we should discard. Rey and Gwen show that this can have a real positive impact on our lives. We must be aware and let it in. After all you might be the next one to add to the story.
Ryan Whorton is part of the UTD Graduating class of 2015. He has worked in the service industry for 6 while pursuing education. He writes about video games, comics, and movies in his spare time.