I don’t like how people cling to media franchises and fandom. It enables some of the worst things happening today, from labor to legislation. There are particular reasons why I dislike it, ranging from petty irritation to horror about how limiting it is. This isn’t just limiting creatives and workers who struggle to do something different or even just pay their bills on time, it even constrains the viewers who take all of their labor for granted. Without resorting to pity or guilt-tripping (at least up to a point on the latter), I have to break down exactly why I find media fandom suffocating and bad, sympathetic as I am to the idea of just wanting to get comfortable and have fun. I will go down how three franchises in particular, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Cinematic Universe, and the “Harry Potter” franchise, contribute to a growing capture of politics under spectacle that seems to address everyday concerns only to render them into meaningless tripe.
While choices may be limited, one doesn’t have to settle for what corporations allow you to see. You’re not so helpless that you have to buy the latest product, funding another shady piece of legislation with genocidal intent or eroding the environment and civil liberties even further. If you are serious about, or at least sympathetic to, the very marginalized people these franchises and their industry both condescend to and harms, you’ll have to go beyond comfort and into discovery and action.
So what irritates me about superhero, Disney and “Harry Potter” fandom in particular is how it comes from a very human need that’s sympathetic to a point. I understand that people just want to be entertained or comforted. I like really spicy food, some don’t. I’m bisexual, others may be ace or just not into what I’m into. Its a fact of life. And when it comes to experiences, not everyone is in the mood for something complex, off-kilter or deep. Much as I urge for more art of that kind, I’m no purist in that regard. One of my favorite movies is Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”. I got the Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” trilogy on Blu-Ray from a friend the other day. If we’re going to shit-talk “Harry Potter” throughout this essay, then I’ll make a confession: I watched “The Sorcerer’s Stone” on opening weekend, rented “Prisoner of Azkaban” (the good one) from a video store and watched “The Deathly Hallows: Part 2” at a small theater near Gardena. I had online friends on DeviantArt who were obsessed over what would soon be called “Wizarding World”, and their obsession pulled me back in just as I begun to drift away from it after middle school. I didn’t begin to get out of the pull of “Harry Potter” fandom until I graduated from high school, and this was all before I began to transition. Call me a hypocrite or an opportunist if you must, but that’s my journey.
So being in “geek culture” and everything around it myself, I get wanting to indulge in things which appeal to you. Maybe you just want to unwind. Maybe life is hard for you. I get it. But if you’re going to do that, shouldn’t you be a little bit curious? What I mean is: do you think about how these things get made? Do you notice some of the cracks in the worldbuilding of these franchises, or even in the individual stories they tell? You might have noticed that there are some things that just don’t line up, not from a movie logic/”plot hole” sense, but rather in what these works choose to show, and what it means when they show what they do. Do you notice how even with all of their inspirational theming and characterization, some of it has problems? Problems which are so fundamental to the material that even if you wrote fanfiction “fixing” it, it would mean making something different? And if you do notice those cracks and problems, can’t you also see other media and conversations responding to all of this?
My point is: try as you might to fit this media to your comfort and joy, it can’t encompass everything. Captain Marvel isn’t talking people through lesbian feels. If people still take J.K. Rowling or the Harry Potter fandom at their word, and Hermonie is Black (she just had to be played by Emma Watson in the movies for some reason), Black women have been organizing and self-advocating for years without either of their endorsements. Not that we would we want it, if fandom’s general response to nonwhite characters and actors is any indication:
We’re told that the reason why white characters and celebrities have all of this content and Black ones don’t… is because the white characters and celebs have more. They have more romance, more interactions, more interest for fandom…
But all Blaise Zabini had for eight years was that name and a Hogwarts house. And that was enough to fuel thousands of fan works and a pervasive fan-canon shared widely for him… up until the moment he was revealed to be Black.
Then he got the treatment all other Black characters get from the start.Stitch. “Who’s Afraid of a Black Blaise Zabini? Everyone in 2005 Harry Potter Fandom… Apparently.” Stitch’s Media Mix, 4 Apr. 2022 https://stitchmediamix.com/2022/04/04/whos-afraid-of-a-black-blaise-zabini/
Fandom is not the bastion of leftism that it likes to pretend it is, even as its members make pronouncements to disavow J.K. Rowling now. As Stitch observes, there is antiblackness in many fandoms, from “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter” to even “She-Ra: Princess of Power” and “Steven Universe”. Across a variety of circumstances, Black fans face more gatekeeping and harassment than whites. And while many fandoms may embrace LGBT people through proclamations and fanfiction, Black LGBT fans find ourselves rendered invisible, if we’re not outright pushed out in some cases. Antiblackness rules fandom just as it does America and most of the world.
To bring up comic book and superhero movies, there has been a trend of them making gestures at progressive politics alongside the default right-wing orientation of their American origins. But this has limits, in particular because while they may have “diverse” casting, said diversity usually goes along with a generally Western-oriented ideology, whether explicitly in the text of these works or implicitly through tokenization and/or being mostly helmed by whites. Even in cases where there are Black, indigenous and people of color at the table for these productions, they only work within the ideological and structural frameworks which privilege them. To isolate some examples of this, the costume and set design of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” is some great stuff, but their productions don’t (and can’t) encompass the whole of decolonial thought, diasporic representation (Black and Jewish-Māori) and ideas of what radical leftist politics are. Even as these elements are used underline very specific themes related to colonization and imperialism in each story, they still bump up against certain ideas of how minorities “should” behave that just so happens to line up with general American ideas of how racial and ethnic minorities are, whether for comedy or drama (“Ragnarok” has a lot of the former at least).
Meanwhile Todd Philip’s “Joker” makes an interesting initial attempt at portraying poverty and mental illness, much as it cribs from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in cinematic execution. But even its initially sympathetic look is a shadow of what actual disabled people have been going through worldwide, far worse than that movie’s version of Arthur Fleck, for years. Worse, for all of its emotional tenor in the first act, the film’s characterization and plot beats still go along with an all-too-familiar idea of mentally ill people as particularly unstable and violent. Ideas like this have stereotyped and hurt disabled people for years, becoming even worse in America through the Reagan administration’s gutting of healthcare (which “Joker” alludes to, to give it some credit). Disabled activists have had to push against these ideas to gain basic civil rights. Some activists would even hold strikes about it in conjunction with leftist organizations like the Black Panthers, as documented in a chapter by the late disabled activist Marta Russel, in the book “Capitalism & Disability”.
But even with their limits as multi-million dollar Hollywood productions or examples of “Representation Matters!”, one would think that their attempts to reference real-world peoples and problems could lead to people having conversations around whether their portrayals do these subjects justice. Said conversations should be snowballing into real activism, even, for all of the ferocity through which “Thor: Ragnarok” uses its source material to make brief commentary on imperialism, Michael B. Jordan’s famous monologue as Kilmonger in the museum in “Black Panther”, or how “Joker” blends a pastiche of different movies with grit, abuse and alienation. But that doesn’t happen. Much as fandom sidesteps racism on the way to self-aggrandizing fanaticism over media and self-discovery, these would-be political acts are just incidental details on the way to building shared universes and brands. The result is that the conversations people would normally have about these things instead gets directed towards whether or not you are a good person for liking these brands. An infamous example of this is the spectacle of news media pumping up fears of incel shootups/acts of terrorism inspired by “Joker”, initially dogging its theatrical release and critical appraisal, before propelling it to a billion dollar fortune at the box office from hype, familiarity with its source material and curious audiences.
Once this facile moralism is over with, the conversation turns to whether or not there will be sequels, crossovers and so on. All conversation and creativity is extinguished because these movies, as topical and inspirational as they try to be, are just perpetuating themselves. They are just cynically wearing the skin of sanitized-to-the-point-of-meaningless LGBT expression and similarly broad and meaningless leftist posturing.
That’s what makes most of these movie’s attempts at topicality and empowerment even more insidious and condescending. Sure you can have girl power, as long as you’re in the military like Carol Danvers (but hey, at least she punches Thanos really good while rocking that sweet dyke haircut). Gayness is but a flavor in the next live action Disney remake of that animated movie you probably watched as a kid. You’ll get Black Power, all right…with the help of that one nice white FBI agent in “Black Panther”‘s case, or a whole military apparatus backing one of the protagonists of the Disney+ Marvel series “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier”. Arthur Fleck in “Joker” gets a Wayne Manor-sized justification for his crimes, undercutting whatever thematic depth it could have had as an individual story just to lay groundwork for yet another version of Batman. By many reports the actual Batman movie released this year is apparently an atmospheric neo-noir, with its thematic hook of a vaguely leftist, gritty deconstruction of itself and its protagonist…up to the moment where more movies need to happen (a foregone conclusion because of how much Warner Brothers telegraphs said plan for more movies at corporate events before they’ve even released one). Whatever discovery of other media and interrogation of politics there could have been instead gets corralled into just more media of its kind, helped in no small part by fandoms eager to recycle said content while shutting out any real critical appraisal of it or how it lines up with reality.
But these gestures at topicality and a little bit of grit to go with them are enough to make all of this stuff good, right? Never mind the labor abuses, increasing monopolization of resources or even what people do with all of this money and fame. J.K. Rowling’s support of transmisogynist and even downright homophobic organizations is well-documented, publicized and denounced by dozens of trans women writers and journalists, particularly by Jessie Earl of Gamespot on the release of the video game “Hogwarts Legacy”:
First and foremost, Rowling pointed toward the concept of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), which postulates that there has been a sudden influx in young girls suddenly identifying as transgender, seeing it as fashionable due to trans influencers on social media or in popular culture…While ROGD has been credibly debunked in numerous studies after the fact, many prominent GCFs [Gender Critical Feminists] continually cite Litman’s work, such as in the 2020 book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier.
Shrier’s book, alongside Rowling’s essay and other GCFs discourse, use ROGD to inform their next concern: the detransitioner narrative. The argument is that many young girls who experience ROGD will pursue surgical intervention, such as breast reductions, only to later learn they are not transgender and regret making irreversible changes to their body, leading to depression or even suicidal thoughts. While this can happen, it is not common. First, children are rarely if ever given surgeries until they are of the age to consent, typically 18 or older, and often these surgeries require doctor and therapist authorization and one year of consideration before being performed…Additionally, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that only 0.4% of trans people detransitioned due to believing transition wasn’t right for them, with most never having had surgical intervention; several other studies have found similar results. In fact, most detransitions were due to trans people facing discrimination, not a lack of desire to transition…Many GCFs disingenuously frame detransitions as the most important issue in trans-related health care, presenting it as active and intentional child abuse, and using it to justify the removal of all access to trans health care.Earl, Jessie. “JK Rowling’s Anti-Transgender Stance and Hogwarts Legacy.” GameSpot, 31 Dec. 2022, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/jk-rowlings-anti-transgender-stance-and-hogwarts-legacy/1100-6501632/
This is happening in tandem with the continuing fallout from Disney backing, and having its CEO later condemn, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. But with all of this political posturing, left or right, from creators and CEOs, what dominates the conversation around these works is the question of individual (dis)comfort over whether their favorite brand, or enjoyment thereof, is good. Its like Disney, Warner Brothers and “Harry Potter” have connected to a lot of people, most likely from childhood and in some cases even in their teen years. To defend their younger selves and the fuzzy feelings associated with them, people have taken upon defending these brands and continuing to center them in their lives. All while still believing that they have earned the self-applied title of “leftist” or “progressive”.
I initially found people’s tendencies to be so theatrical over wizards, superheroes and other merchandised characters more irritating than terrifying, especially in what passes for “discourse” around this media and their incidental topics on most of social media. But I’ve been leaning towards the latter the longer I think about, and observe, how this limits the imagination, down to the ability to even grasp wider circumstances beyond the latest installment or product. Under these multi-million/multi-billion dollar franchises and the world they are part of, pithy acknowledgement of some parts of this outside world are all that’s possible. As they and their fandom are happy to tell us, we should be grateful for this. When I see people argue about the state of the movies, television or other media, it isn’t about the state of these industries since COVID, or how media conglomerates are affecting our relationships to art and its history. It’s not even about how last year’s IATSE strike was thwarted by its leaders, or about the many documented acts of opportunism and abuse in nominal “social justice” spaces, and the far worse abuse from the default right-wing politics of the West. It’s about MCU or DC movies deserving Oscars. It’s about standing up to “the snobs” who see other “boring”, “disgusting”, lesser-known/classic movies, or getting mad about how we critique specific box office hits. It’s about whether this media is on some list of “irredeemable” or bad media, and deciding who should be harassed and doxxed over it. It’s about a whiff of a suggestion of a gay relationship in a fucking “Fantastic Beasts” sequel being the sign of progress not just for gay rights, but for gay cinema all together. Arriving with this aggressive self-pat on the back for consumption of these franchises is a hostility to history, or even any method of self-expression that isn’t deemed “family friendly” by the same systems branding LGBT people as “pedophiles” and “groomers”.
With how all-encompassing this is, I could just quote Walter Benjamin and call it a day, smug with the idea that I’m above it all, like many other self-professed cinephiles/movie enthusiasts do in what people call “Film Twitter” or whatever. But as someone who’s a part of this, and who had to exert no small amount of effort to grow outside of it after high school, I’m gonna give some tough love instead. To give it to the fan straight: these franchises, and the corporations behind them, should not be your world or how you understand yourself. That it has for so many people, to the point where they’ll demand living marginalized people like me excuse away all of the material consequences of supporting this bullshit for them, hurts me. Yes, I do side with the snobs and their snarky takedowns of the latest Marvel movie on social media. I happily reblog that one Tumblr post dissecting the ridiculousness of the idea that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is somehow “queerbaiting” you (yes people are still on there). A person on Mastodon (yes, people are on there too) with a Garfield avatar talking about gay sex, art house movies and dunking on the self-importance of the early DC Snyderverse? I love that shit. I delight seeing an actual working cinematographer break down how bland the lighting in the latest MCU Spider-Man movie is, with screenshots probably scribbled on with the marker in the Apple Photo app*. I get angry at fandom people on their behalf when they have to delete said thread because hundreds of quote tweets from people going, “Its not that deep” give them anxiety. Fuck that. It is that deep. We should be tearing this media apart, frame-by-frame and line-by-line, exposing their poisonous ideology for what it is. They’re not so goddamn special that they can’t be taken seriously, even if they do make kids and the young at heart happy. Because here’s the thing: childhood and adolescence can’t last forever. The least you can do in the face of that is go outside and do something else.
Your default action in the face of all the institutional harm this media enables shouldn’t be to rationalize it through fanfiction or headcannons. Your specific self-discovery through this media should not be an endpoint while you justify, perpetuate or ignore inequalities everywhere else. Your love for these franchises are no more a fix for the problem of them hurting real people than carbon tax credits “fix” the climate crisis caused by fossil fuel industries and their global exploitation. Instead of justifying your self-infantilization or asking marginalized people to absolve you for consuming the latest installment while their creators donate to bigoted causes, go beyond what they tell you is possible. That may mean having to encounter works that can be alienating, yes, but you should be thinking about what it means for you to even feel alienated by this difference in the first place. That’s not a neutral feeling to have, and those feelings aren’t fixing anything.
So let’s talk about how you can do better. Simply saying, “Just organize” is a smug, patronizing thing to do. I’ve been guilty of that. I’ve been in an org, it is hard more than it is rewarding, however much it makes you feel that you’re a part of something. Whether all of that effort amounts to anything is a different topic beyond even me, much as I still believe in principled, Communist organizing as the best course of action and education. So if you have an org near you, ask them, do your research and work it out with their members and leadership. If you don’t have an org near you, or at least are not ready for that kind of work yet, you can start by looking beyond corporate media and see what is getting erased for yourself. But don’t just look at the movies or whatever medium you like the most, see what else is out in different mediums. Whether its at your local museum or a bar with an open mic night, see how real art gets made and unmade, remembered or forgotten. Notice what your hobbyist friends might be up to. Should you need to go even deeper into the movies, look up film studies books at your library and check them out. Jonathan Rosenbaum has written a handful of books about how studios and theaters limit what we see, particularly in his book “Movie Wars”. As it turns out, none of the problems with domination of certain kinds of movies are new, things just got more consolidated:
There are a lot of complaints these days about the declining quality of movie fare, and the worsening taste of the public is typically asked to shoulder a good part of the blame.
Other causes are cited as well. The collapse of the old studio system meant the loss of studio heads who lent their distinctive stamp to each of their pictures — often vulgar and overblown, to be sure, but also personal and engaged — to be replaced largely by cost accountants and corporate executives with little ﬂair, imagination, or passion. The exponential growth of video has made home viewing more popular than theatrical moviegoing and has therefore helped to diminish everyone’s sense of what a movie is, so that the size and deﬁnition of the image, a clear sense of its borders, the quality and direction of light, and the notions of ﬁlm as community event, theatrical experience, or “something special,” have all suffered terrible losses. More simply and immediately, there’s the preference for loud explosions and frenetic comic-book action over drama and character, escalating violence over tenderness, torrents of profanity over well-crafted dialogue.
But most of the blame falls on the overall coarsening of the audience…Let’s concede that there’s some measure of truth in all these assertions — as there is in most assertions, at least if one bothers to look for it. But focusing on the last statement for a moment, might not the industry commentators have their cause and effect reversed? Couldn’t the movies, rather than their designated spectators, be spearheading as well as deﬁning this decline — or don’t they need to share at least part of the responsibility for this overall dumbing down? Given the uncritical promotion of the major studio releases, one might even posit that the press, in order to justify its own priorities, maintains a vested interest in viewing the audience as brain-dead. After all, if it showered most of its free publicity on more thoughtful and interesting movies, it would run the risk of being branded elitist. How much easier it becomes to wallow in the slime if you and your editor or producer are persuaded that it’s the audience’s natural habitat — that the audience, not the press working in collaboration with the studios’ massive publicity departments, calls all the shots.Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Introduction to MOVIE WARS: Is the Producer Always Right?” Jonathan Rosenbaum, 24 Dec. 2021, https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2021/12/introduction-to-movie-wars-is-the-producer-always-right/
The question of whether audiences have bad taste has been answered with a resounding “Yes” by major studios, and so what people got to see followed. But as Rosenbaum argues, not only is that an incomplete opinion, its a condescending and self-serving one. Throughout the book he makes the case that audiences are not only yearning for something more, they would even receive in enthusiastically if its given to them. The recent ascension of Guillermo Del Toro from a Mexican, award-winning director of art house films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” to a mainstream force making probably one of the best Mecha/Kaiju movies ever made through “Pacific Rim” proves that. Of course, you probably won’t agree with everything Rosenbaum (an old, white gay man) says or how he says it. That’s fine. Differences are a fact of life. Acknowledging the differences of others can lead to you understanding your position and tastes even better, if not change them.
If you would prefer to watch YouTube video essays instead…fine. As long as its not Cinemasins, BUT understand that your favorite leftist personality on YouTube who happens to do media commentary is not exempt from the racism conversation in fandom. In a 1 hour, 40 minute long video titled “Break Bread” (you sat through movies longer than that and you know it), Black YouTube content creator F.D Signifier makes the case that there is a systemic, racial and gender bias around whose content gets seen on YouTube. Beyond the simple matter of being seen, this even affects people’s creative careers and the potential for growth thereof. If Stitch has the receipts on how racist media fandom is, F.D. Signifier has proof that being an online content creator means bumping up against some of the very same kinds of antiblackness you’d find elsewhere, just institutional and seemingly invisible.
That having been said, there is at least one decent white guy out there trying to champion art outside of the MCU/DCU/”Harry Potter” brigade, and who has also shared his own personal misgivings with fandom on Twitter. His name is Kyle Kallgren. By many accounts, he’s a cool guy, and his film buff persona is probably one of the only worthwhile things from the smoldering collapse of Channel Awesome worth talking about. He has recently wrote about his very specific misgivings with fandom from his experiences working for Channel Awesome, citing the demands of its fans to change his aesthetic and even his approach to suit their tastes. Its a depressing account. But outside of that, his video essays are excellent. They look at individual movies you may not have heard of, examining how they’re made along with their style, the environment they were made in, and their politics. Even the way he spells out his raw hatred of certain media is illuminating, and unlike Doug Walker and his sycophants actually funny. I think about his takedown of Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” a lot (yes, the same white gay male director of “Independence Day” and that “Stonewall” movie everybody hated). Find it and watch it, its about 23 minutes long.
On that note, a true remedy to our cultural malaise and political myopia could lie in looking closely at the history of cinema, and how it contains some of the very marginalized “leftism” fandoms fail to uphold. Look at how representations of queerness have changed, evolved and regressed over time. For example, aside from race, there’s a massive chasm between how crossdressing gets portrayed as a comedic device in historical “race films” like Arthur H. Leonard’s “Boy! What A Girl” and then-contemporary, even later white-led efforts like the late Robin William’s turn in Chris Columbus’ “Mrs. Doubtfire”. Neither is particularly leftist in their politic or are even shining examples of gay representation as people would like to call it (you could, and others have, make the case that “Mrs. Doubtfire” set trans rights back at least a decade). But on their own merits, each has different race, class and cultural contexts affecting how each approaches their central crossdressing gags. And assessing the earliest parts of this history, whether you like it or not, can help you to understand how trans women like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera would first define themselves, while diverging in their politics in ways which form the very idea of transgender/transsexual identity as it is defined today, at least in the West.
While people seem to prefer to cite more recent movies like Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” or the Ryan Murphy TV production “Pose” as “good”, even GLADD-approved, examples of transness in media, their best efforts don’t even scratch the surface of what living Black trans women go through today, or even the historical/cultural contexts each work mines for drama. Even with the wave of trans representation in media, the ways in which they portray our historical, living circumstances are compromised by a predominantly cis, white perspective which is given the privilege to helm these works. Actual trans filmmakers like Isabel Sandoval (“Lingua Franca”) and addison (known as @EXPENSIVE_HOE on Twitter) both have to detail their working lives and craft with more effort than their cis counterparts, and each brings a unique approach in their fields worthy of something like a “One Perfect Shot” tweet (hopefully without the reductive emphasis on what can be screenshot and cherry-picked by film bros).
Look, I’m not saying all this to look down on people who engage in the franchise fandom hype circle, not even if they do it exclusively or act like total assholes over it (ask me about my high school anti-war libertarian phase sometime). I’m saying this because these mediums have consequences beyond whether or not you personally like them, and these consequences matter more than even the most radically leftist fanfiction you could possibly write. I’m saying that how you spend your money and time matters. You don’t have to chain yourself to corporate ideas of progress, you can go wider and deeper than even the grittiest Batman movie can manage. “She-Ra” and “Steven Universe”, as good as they can be, are just kids stuff. Meaning that how they talk about lesbian sexuality and other topics is fundamentally limited, even with the by-all-accounts passionate talent behind them. Its ok to admit that there are flaws and gaps in some media that just can’t be made up for, not necessarily because of the politics of their creators but because these works and their fandoms can’t (and shouldn’t) babysit you for the rest of your life. And even if J.K. Rowling happens to single-handedly stop the Russia-Ukraine war before you watch the latest “Fantastic Beasts”, the very negative effects she has had on many over the years through her conspiratorial rants and endorsements are not yours to forgive or excuse. Either fandom cares about the world beyond what it loves, or it doesn’t. Don’t shut your eyes and ears to the consequences of these franchises and talk about how much you care. Show me you care. You can start by simply watching something else, from the margins, no many how many second-long gay kisses the next Disney movie shoves in.
*Correction: turns out that thread, by DoP Devan Scott, is still up and it is brilliant. Basically a day of film class in a tweet thread, its so good: