A Fan Need Not Always Be Positive

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. Norman Vincent Peale.png

We’ve talked about fandoms, criticism, cynicism and hype so today let’s wrap up the discussion with a little chat about forced positivity, totem culture and why criticism again does not negate enjoyment.

In all honesty, I thought I was finished with this topic. I got my feelings out of my system. I was done talking about how delicate modern fandom is. Oh, I was wrong. I was so so wrong. It started with a friendly little talk about Harry Potter. I was talking about the popular magical franchise with my coworkers. We’re all sorted into different houses. We have different opinions of the movies versus the books. And then I mentioned that I felt the series was still a bit tired. I brought up points that it despite what the novels do well still continue to perpetuate biblical-esque oversimplifications of good and evil. I said that it continues to shun a diverse cast to focus more on the homogenous main cast. I said that while I loved the movies and read most of the books that it still was like so many other young adults novels, slinging a storied narrative with unilaterally good and unilaterally evil characters except for Snape but we don’t talk about Snape. And after listing the valid complaints that I had, my coworker went on to say rather simply:

Well, I still like it. It sounds like you’re a hater.

Dear reader, how I clutched my pearls.

Me? A hater?

Now, I’ve always prided myself on being the type of fan that never hates something senselessly. I always give something at least 3 episodes (if it’s a tv show or anime), the first 3 chapters (in the case of manga and comic books or novels) and at least the first 30 minutes or so of a movie. I always give something a chance. I research voice actors, writers, directors, intention and all. If I’m going to comment on anything: positive or negative, I try my best to speak to the topic with some ethos.

A hater to me has always been someone who needlessly is critical to the point of being obtuse. And since I pride myself on being an informed fan hurt my ego to the core. And it brought up a more important question. Even though I said I liked this series, can I apparently have no negative opinions on it? When did liking a thing mean that is has to be perfect in every way?

In the last post I mentioned more than once that the shows I care about the most I am the most critical of. I can see the cracks in Fullmetal Alchemist even though that anime got me through one of the most difficult times in my life. I can admit that Axis Powers:Hetalia is a silly totem anime to had but it kept me and my friends close during a time when we were all so far away. I can admit that. But Harry Potter is one especially that seems almost too big to discuss. So many people have had their lives changed by a story about wizards, magic and a world that provided a home away from home for so many. Even in my darkest of hours, Hogwarts was a place that I could escape to when my own home was just as bad as the Dursleys. But just because I enjoy something, doesn’t mean that I can’t see its flaws. Unfortunately, this totem culture with Harry Potter and other media artifacts are frustrating. I love deep conversations and you can’t have a conversation when someone cannot or will not see their beloved body of work complexly. But because so many escaped with Harry Potter, coped with Harry Potter, made friends, families and memories with Harry Potter but that does not mean that it’s perfect: even if it was immensely important to you personally.

Now, here’s where I put some of my own personal flaws on the board. I admit that just because I find totem culture exhausting, that does not give me the right to be disrespectful and I’m willing to admit that if there’s a series I don’t like (looking at you, Yuri on Ice and Attack on Titan) that my opinions can be harsh, unyielding and overbearing. So, call a spade a spade, if I’m mean, I’m mean. However, if I have valid criticisms and present them well, it’s just as rude to be dismissive just because a piece of media means a lot to you.

Speaking of valid criticism, let’s talk about forced positivity. I’ve talked a few times about Internet critics and the juggernauts of fan culture and their either hyperbolic hatred of all things (Looking at you, CinemaSins and Nostalgia Chick) or their emphatic love of all things (Looking at you, Kevin Smith and Chris Hardwick). I take particular umbrage with Chris Hardwick. I’ve been a fan of his since he was the only true nerd on G4 and his particular brand of nerd comedy and at the time obscure references to Neon Genesis Evangelion and Doctor Who were welcomed to a nerd like me who ended up making similar references only to find them falling flat upon my usual familial audience. And then he became popular. Suddenly Nerdist wasn’t just a blog or a screenname: it was a brand. And now as he partners with The Walking Dead and other big studio productions, Chris Hardwick suddenly could not comment on anything negative about the shows he mentioned or reviewed for fear of alienating fans and advertisers. And while sure, plenty of things are better than ever before when it comes to movies, comics, books and games but certainly something can be not as good. Certainly, some of these properties have flaws. Nope, not if you watch The Talking Dead, a show Hardwick hosts with help from AMC. So of course, each episode of The Walking Dead is a monolithic wonder. Each one perfect, special and magical. Even the episode where it’s literally just an hour of walking in the woods. Or even a more recent movie like Suicide Squad. Anyone who loves comics, movies or comic book movies can admit that at best this movie had flaws and at worst was an acid-spitting neon death trap but if you hear from Kevin Smith (the unappointed patron saint of nerd culture) it was a damn masterpiece. I’d like to know which movie he saw. The film I saw was far from a masterpiece. I think the idea of forced positivity is actually quite interesting and many Youtubers have discussed it as well as more than one very well-written article on the subject. There is a feeling that you must if you are online, be positive. And for many of us that struggle with mental illness, faking happiness or joy for a property or product just doesn’t help. If you show me an anime while I’m not in a great head space, it’s unfair then to say that it’s my fault for just not enjoying it or not enjoying it to your level.

But I have some ideas of where totem culture and being too defensive came from. Fan culture has a history of being far from kind. While the outside world was mean to nerds, geeks and fans for years, we also became quite mean to each other. The early years of fan culture created strong ships and massive canons to guard those ships. I have lost plenty of ships, destroyed headcanons and even changed my opinions on shows by weathering the storm of early fan culture. But not every fan took that struggle as a positive. Some took those constant fan battles and bullying and it has made them defensive and afraid of criticism. I’ve heard this time and time again:

Don’t attack my ship.

It’s an admittance of weakness. It’s saying that you don’t want to engage in war. It’s saying you much rather sail the seas of fan culture without incident. You take down your canons, your masts and sail on.

But what so many of those who say “don’t attack my ship” miss out on is the ability to harden your fleet. Sure, sometimes a ship get destroyed. Canons are wrecked. Dreams are dashed upon the cold hard rocks of fandoms, true canon and battles over OTPs. I lost so many ships, Internet and forum battles and came out of that a hardened, knowledge and worldly fan. I resisted the urge to simply revel in echo chambers and I have surrounded myself with people that not only most of the time disagree with me but people who I actually share little in common with.

From that proving ground, I was able to discuss what I like effectively, criticize without cruelty and discuss without hurting others. And while I can respect that some saw a battleground of lost fan ships and decided it was best not to participate in the war, I encourage every fan to at least try and have a discussion about a series or property they like a lot. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been effectively fruitless. I can’t always get someone to see my side and I can’t always get someone to change my mind. That however doesn’t mean I wasn’t thankful for the conversation.

Stay kind, fandom. Stay open. Have conversations. Embrace other opinions. And most importantly, have fun.