From Hydra to Ghostbusters: The False Equivalences of Fan Culture

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I don’t read the Captain America comics. Indeed, I’ve pretty much fallen off the Marvel wagon this past year or so due to general fatigue with the oversaturation of superheroes in pop culture. It doesn’t really do much for me these days, and the recent news that Captain America in the comics would be revealed as a stealth Hydra agent exemplified my exhaustion with the genre and a particularly insidious strain of storytelling. Others have spoken more passionately and eloquently about the nastiness of this trend and the way real and incredibly painful history is used to create cheap shock value, so I’ll direct you to those pieces.

My particular focus today is with a piece Devin Faraci wrote on the issue of fan entitlement on Birth Movies Death, which you can find here. For the record, I’ve never been a Faraci fan. I’ve found many of his arguments sloppy and the ways in which he attacks people who disagree with him to be sad at best and creepy at worst. This article, which posits a generally agreeable hypothesis regarding the toxicity that has begun to pervade that vaguely defined space known as ‘geek culture’, draws a staggeringly inaccurate and wilfully blind false equivalence to the fan opposition to Hydra Captain America and the orchestrated misogynistic hate campaign currently faced by the new Ghostbusters film, of which I’ve previously written about here.

AV Club drew similarly inaccurate lines between the Ghostbusters hate campaign – and there really is no other term for what it is – and fans of Frozen organising a Twitter hashtag to express support for Elsa getting a girlfriend. It’s important to properly define what each of these examples means, both in the context of the current entertainment industry, and in terms of geek culture and communities.

The Captain America instance relies on the audience knowing the clear Nazi parallels with the Marvel world’s Hydra, and the history of the character as a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda created by two Jewish writers. Faraci seems to find this history a baseless foundation for fans to use as criticism of recent developments, but this is also nothing new in pop culture. An upsurge of stories of Nazi redemption being seen as fun and frivolous way ignore the real pain of millions of people and doesn’t do much to fight real fascism, especially in the current political climate.

I’m disappointed that the new Captain America writer, among others received death threats over this (seriously, don’t be that shitty, it doesn’t help you or your cause and makes actual discussions on this issue impossible). I’m sad we can’t talk about the real nastiness of the issue – of the manipulative shock tactic at play here, built on an evil history that many see more as a creative playground than something that actually happened; of the way Nick Spencer’s responses to anger felt designed to troll fans; of how this plotline will inevitably be reversed – because that’s how comics work – so a cheap gimmick designed to elicit the most painful of anger from their fanbase, staggeringly unaware of the cultural and historical context it evokes, will be explained away in time for a new arc once they grow tired of it. These are all pertinent issues that need to be discussed, a continuing pop culture conversation that’s necessary to have, but will be written off as entitlement.

I take particular umbrage with the way Faraci draws a line between these concerns over Captain American and the women Ghostbusters because of the implication that bigotry is the same as anti-bigotry. It’s clearly not. There’s no accurate comparison between a Reddit & 4Chan organised mass YouTube downvoting of the Ghostbusters trailers and getting mad at a hero being turned into a Nazi. Anger over a gender-swap is nowhere near the same ballpark as making a decades long hero into the bad guy. The former is rooted in a misogynistic belief that women in positions of prominence is proof of a social justice conspiracy or political correctness gone mad. The latter is rooted in decades of history and anti-fascism, something the Marvel universe had taken great pains to embrace previously.

There’s an undeniable strain of fan entitlement growing in the increasingly irrevocably toxic circles of fandom. Every woman I know has faced the wrath of at least one creep who thinks a vaguely feminist discussion of the latest Star Wars film or Uncharted game is abhorrent to their very being. I could talk for days about the tin-hat shippers in Twilight, 1 Direction, 50 Shades of Grey and Outlander fandoms, who see spinning conspiracies about actors having secret relationships as their god given right (which also feels like a more accurate comparison to make with female Ghostbusters if Faraci insisted on an equal opportunity comparison). However, to ignore the ways in which these attitudes are orchestrated and exacerbated by both the focuses of their adoration and the media at large does a major disservice to all involved, and paints an inaccurately one sided view of how such entitlement is created.

Faraci, while noting the Frozen Twitter campaign, said art shouldn’t be about giving into fan demands, and fans should not treat their fandoms like ordering food at a restaurant, demanding elements that fit their individual needs. That’s only half true. Of course creators are free to do as they want, but they’ve always on some level either pandered to fans or stoked the fires of their desires by baiting them with false developments. I’ve been in fandoms that have had creators who gloried in the shipping elements of their show and engaged in queerbaiting in order to build excitement for a new episode. Sherlock and Watson will never kiss or end up a couple, but that doesn’t stop the show from constantly banking on that desired queerness for humour, and the creators for subsequently sneering at fans for desiring it.

Recently, the team behind CW’s The 100 faced major backlash for killing off a gay character, which they did after months of banking on their supposed LGBTQ friendly nature and encouraging fans to invest in that particular relationship. Fans aren’t owed anything but if you continually promise them it and then deny them in the darkest way possible, a manner which has its roots in decades of homophobia and cultural smudging, the problem doesn’t lie with the fans. Nobody’s bringing a bucket of paint to the Picasso exhibition, but when we bring plates after being promised cake and get shit sandwiches in return, you shouldn’t be that shocked when people lash out.

They want that deifying devotion on some level. That weaponised nostalgia, coupled with stroking the ego of the supposed exclusivity of fan circles, is a powerful and massively profitable force, and capitalism is the name of the game. Fans tweeting about giving Steve Rogers a boyfriend or Elsa a girlfriend are expressing a consumer desire, one that reflects changing social attitudes and as such that should be celebrated. I can’t even imagine us having this discussion four years ago and now it feels normal. That’s an incredible step forward. Asking for such a thing – be it more inclusive casting, a step away from heteronormative relationships in fiction, etc – isn’t so much an entitled demand as it is a signal that we’re ready for change. I don’t think Elsa will get a girlfriend, although I’d love that because I think those young generations of queer kids deserve to see in the stories they love, but the message is out there that change is wanted, it’s needed and it’s coming.

We turn to pop culture for reflections of ourselves and a better world because they want us to, but also because it’s their job. In a world where trans people are being banned from using public toilets, women’s healthcare rights are consistently legislated against and a literal fascist could be President of the USA, can you blame us for turning to films, books, comics and TV for some light? Can you blame consumers for wanting a little more from multi-billion dollar a year corporations than the same thing we’ve been given for decades? Many may wonder what the big hubbub about women Ghostbusters is, but this is, by the standards of an incredibly risk-free and archaic industry, a major radical step in the right direction, and it’s rooted in fan culture. Go on any Tumblr page and you’ll see a story with race or gender swapped casting. We know that studios and creators are turning to fan spaces for ideas and clues as to what fans want – Rian Johnson was pretty open about this regarding the next Star Wars film – so it seems unfair to claim something like opposing Hydra Captain America or supporting queering Elsa is rooted in baseless entitlement when it’s clear there’s another hand at play. Creators like Marvel want money, they want devotion and they want the particular strain of publicity that comes with their outrage.

There are wider discussions that need to be had about the poorly defined boundaries between fans and creators, the ways marginalised communities by and large suffer the most in these circles and the commodification of social justice as a creative trend. These analyses are ongoing in any major fandom. We need to talk more about the ways in which slobbering and unflinching devotion to a concept as liminal as geek culture can only lead to bad things, and how that attitude is encouraged by those who claim to be against it. I’m not sure we can even have this discussion in mainstream circles right now, particularly if you’re from any marginalised group, because the current atmosphere is smothering. I hope we can properly talk at some point and not just go round in circles, but that requires a detailed, contextual and wider reaching understanding of the ecosystem that doesn’t exclusively focus on fans. Call it entitlement but I really feel like fans deserve more.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Faraci has now followed up with a piece claiming that “[Hydra] are not and never were [Nazis] in the Marvel comics universe, and even the movies went through a lot of effort to show that Hydra was aiming to fight the Nazis as well)”

    So now Faraci is just straight up lying to dismiss the reactions of those upset by the Captain America twist. The entire POINT of Hydra in the comics and film universes is that they are Nazis that the heroes can fight long after Nazi Germany’s defeat. That’s why they were founded by Nazis and are still lead by Nazis.

    And his claim that MCU Hydra was “aiming to fight the Nazis as well” is a deliberate misreading of what was clearly a power grab by the Red Skull. He wasn’t trying to destroy the Nazis, he was trying to destroy their leadership so that he could take over. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has actually gone to “a lot of effort” to establish that for all the protestations of people like Grant Ward, Hydra are still Nazis.

    • Also, the “Hydra aren’t Nazis” argument strikes me as a distinction without much of a difference. Even if they happen to not be Nazis, they’re still Nazi allegories. It means that Cap basically threw in with one evil empire instead of another.

      • Exactly. If they weren’t born from Nazis in the comic universe, they were clearly born from experiences and ideas of Nazis in our universe. Super Nazis that Cap just keeps on fighting.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I was actually starting to feel bad about my strong negative reaction to Nazi Cap. We really need to look at issues like these from more perspectives, without demonizing huge groups of people in the process.

  3. Thank you! I read the other article and although he had some valid points, I thought he was way off on the Captain America thing. There is a problem with serialized entertainment that doesn’t exist in stand-alone movies and books. The creators often must jump through hoops to continue the serialized format and avoid that kiss of death: the happy ending. If they manage to do it organically, true to the fictional world and the character they’ve created, it can be brilliant art. But often, when fandom erupts in anger, it’s a reaction to crappy, manipulative storytelling and/or a complete disregard of the entire history of a character.

  4. I absolutely agree with you. Fans and creators have never been closer, and the richness of all these perspectives is so valuable for creating good work.

    I do have a criticism for you. I think a lot of people involved in the discourse are fond of basing opinions on their Facebook feeds and not on material they’ve actually experienced. These articles usually start like this one: “I’ve never read / seen / listened to this, but I think …”

    This is a big issue with the 100 backlash, a case in which a group of talented and thoughtful creators had face a lot of vitriol from people who’d never seen the show. I’m not going to post spoilers because it’s a great show and I think everyone should watch it. But as any 100 fan knows, every time a character finds happiness, you just know something horrible is going to happen to them, and despite the many, many times I’ve seen this happen on the show, I was genuinely shocked by that death because the show invested so much time in fleshing out that character and making her crucial to the story. I think it’s sad that ignorant people are dismissing the entire work as homophobic. It’s actually one of the most queer-positive shows I’ve ever seen.

    So I agree with you on not dismissing the fans. But I think we should remember to not dismiss the creators as well.

  5. This is a really great article. I came here feeling upset that fans would feel so self-entitled as to demand change from content creators, and you helped me understand both their outrage and also why both sides are missing many of the larger issues involved.

    I’m out of the loop about the Ghostbusters thing, but I am pretty upset about the film. I hope you’ll hear out my opinion here: if the exact same film came out, with the same cast, the same characters, and the same plot, but with a different name and with none of the Ghostbusters “branding” (the green ghost thing, the character names, et cetera), then it would be my most anticipated film of the year. It would promise to be a film that could break up a lot of the bullshit surrounding women in Hollywood and just be something fun and different, at least by Hollywood standards.

    The fact that it’s a direct remake/reboot of some established, beloved, nostalgia-inspiring franchise is what ruins it for me. Yeah, the trailer was kind of ugly, but there have been fantastic films with awful trailers before. No, what gets me is that every single aspect of the film and its release is happening under an umbrella of cashing in: cashing in on feminists rightly wanting a female-centric, stereotype-defying film, cashing in on Ghostbusters fans, cashing in on the gender controversy that they KNEW would happen as a result of its production, and–most damning, to me–cashing in on the woman card. That is, cashing in on just the NOVELTY that these characters that we’re already familiar with are women now. Women are not a novelty. If the producers really cared about women and representation, they would have called as little attention to it as possible, presenting it as something that’s normal. Which it is. Which would basically rule out the possibility of any kind of gender-swapping aspect, which would necessitate a new IP instead of an old, easily-bankable one.

    I don’t identify as a feminist, but egalitarianism is very important to me. And from that point of view, it is simply gross to me that somebody would take something as important as minority representation (e.g. women in Hollywood) and try to make a quick buck off of it without caring for the consequences. The fact that this is “Ghostbusters” immediately informs me that anything that happens in, around, and because of this film is engineered to make the producers lots of money, and is not done in the name of social progress, artistic integrity, or even in the name of making an entertaining film.

    I don’t even care about Ghostbusters, and I do not believe I am a sexist; but I oppose the film most simply because it is “the female Ghostbusters”, rather than a new, interesting film with only its own merits to rely on. Progress does not happen when people rely on the same old paradigms.

  6. I’m tired of fans being called entitled. Whether it’s gamers or comic book fans. They are entitled. They are the people who support the industry. When a mom takes her kid to see MCU films and buys them Cap posters to hang on their walls, Marvel has an OBLIGATION to not turn that carachter into a Nazi avatar. They are betraying the trust of their fans for ham-fisted political commentary and shock publicity. The “hydra aren’t Nazi” apologists have been pathetic and cringe inducing.

    And pardon me, but this is an outgrowth of an ideological echo chamber in the creative team at marvel. That’s the problem with an echo chamber. No one can have a bad idea.

  7. “I don’t even care about Ghostbusters, and I do not believe I am a sexist; but I oppose the film most simply because it is “the female Ghostbusters”, rather than a new, interesting film with only its own merits to rely on. Progress does not happen when people rely on the same old paradigms.”

    As opposed to Star Trek, the Batman franchises, the Superman franchises, the Spiderman franchises – all of which you opposed because they were not “interesting film(s) with only (their) own merits to rely own” but relied on “the same old paradigms”.

    Yup. I’m absolutely certain you oppose the new Ghostbusters (and all reboots in the past 20 years) because you hate reboots on principle.

    Not.

    • I actually don’t really like any of those franchises, though. With the possible exception of Star Trek, which has an air of freshness now and then (though not so much in the recent films.) They’re all brutally tired ideas almost incapable of newness at this point. More on topic, I believe that’s why the Captain America writers did this, same way they made Thor a lady: they finally realized that they’ve been out of ideas for decades, and did something big and stupid to try desperately, but in vein, to shake up the status quo and garner quick, cheap interest.

      You’re right that I dislike reboots, but what I am really against, at the core of everything here, is artistic homogeneity. I have so little faith that this film will ADD anything worthwhile to the original. I just want something REALLY new. Not “the same thing you’ve come to know and love, but with a BIG TWIST OOOOOO”. No, I want real newness. I want experimentation and exploration.

      All that said, I WAS into the new Star Wars, and that was largely a rehashing of the original. Maybe nostalgia really is that powerful… I’ve decided I’m just gonna see how it goes and not worry too much about it till then.

  8. Wonderful article, with many salient points. Thank you for pointing out that there’s a difference between bigotry and constructive criticism of a text, and between opening up possibilities and veering completely out of character.

    Also, as an aside, if you do the briefest search for “Johnlock” or “TJLC,” you will find quite literally millions of words of meta analysis demonstrating in stupefying detail how Mofftiss are not queerbaiting at all, but have planned on getting Sherlock and John together from the beginning. But that’s a discussion for another day. 🙂

  9. I’m amused that people are so upset about the Ghostbusters reboot. I was equally dismayed and disgusted by the Star Trek “re-imaginings.” We are huge Trekkies in my house, and one son stood up in the theater after watching the first reboot, shook his fist at the screen, and cursed J.J Abrams. I’ve never seen any of the reboots on purpose. I have no problem at all with creating new Star Trek movies, but use different character names! Don’t try to remake the old movies, adding a “new” twist here and there. Don’t mess with the lore that Trekkies have all memorized. By all means play in the Star Trek universe, but do it in a new and original way. NOT as a “reboot.” Bleah.

    So I guess I can see your point, Tycho. I’ll probably see the new Ghostbusters movie, possibly at the local drive-in. I love action movies and monster movies, so this will be right up my alley. I’m sure the characters won’t have the same names as those in the original movie, so at least that much has changed. And I’ll want to form my own opinion, before the masses disgorge theirs all over the internet.

    But I’m sure it won’t get any fair treatment, since the blogosphere went nuts with trolls demanding to know why Star Wars hates white men after the new movie came out. Really? I saw a whole lot of white men in that movie, both young and old. What I did see, however, that had always been missing in the previous 6 movies, was a main character who was a black man (must mention Lando Calrissian, but he was only a supporting character.) There was also the main lead being a woman, which I totally loved. Tossing a bone to the huge contingent of fan girls who love sci-fi as much as guys do, is a wise move…even though it caused the movie to be pilloried by whiny white men who cry foul any time a person of color and/or a female stars in a movie they might have liked if not for that. There’s room enough in the fictional world for all of us to have heroes/heroines that look just like us.

  10. I hope they have the new Ghostbusters be ladies starting a new franchise of the original Ghostbusters. The idea at one point from what I heard years ago was that the original guys would be liscencing out franchises to other people, who then would start their own Ghostbusters shops in new cities. I actually wrote a fan fic many years ago about such a franchise shop in the Washington DC area (whose leader was a woman, but half the crew were guys and they had day and night shifts.) And one of the change ups was that a lot of their business was going to historic buildings and certifying that the ghosts there were real – so the landlords, hotel owners, etc could advertise that their properties boasted real ghosts, as certified by the Ghostbusters. I am hoping that the new movie isn’t mostly a rehash of the original, just with the gender roles reversed. More because there are so many more, creative ways to continue the Ghostbusters universe stories.

  11. “Rian Johnson was pretty open about this regarding the next Star Wars film”. Do you have the link to this interview ?

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