Going Rotten – The Rise and Weaponizing of Toxic Fandom

Last week, Disney held it’s bi-annual D23 Expo, a fan driven convention held to celebrate all things Disney, as well showcase the upcoming projects that the company has in the works for the future.  I myself was there, as you can read in my report here, and I can say that there was a general positive feeling of community across the entire convention; something that represents the best of fandom in society.  But, once the convention concluded, and Disney’s many announcements were made available to the public at large, other elements of fandom began to emerge.  In particular, sectors of internet discourse began to pick apart all of the news to come out of D23 Expo, and one particular thing really became a lightning rod for many opinionated reactions.  During the D23 Expo, the Disney company released the first look of their “live action” remake of The Little Mermaid.  Those of us who were in the convention center for the premiere were treated to an exclusive presentation of an entire scene from the movie, while the trailer was released worldwide online at the same time.  The reactions ranged from positive to indifferent at the convention itself, but online, the story was very different.  A firestorm erupted immediately about the movie not because of how the film looked, nor the fact that we were getting yet another remake of a beloved animated classic that probably would pale compared to it’s predecessor.  No, the uproar was over the fact that Ariel, the little mermaid at the heart of the movie, was being played by an actress of color named Halle Bailey.  For some reason, this was too much for people to handle, and it led to a furious response from YouTubers, to bloggers, to even political pundits to voice their displeasure at nothing more than a movie trailer.  It’s not the first time a firestorm like this has erupted over a piece of media, and it certainly won’t be the last, but what I find so particularly insidious about this particular level of outrage over the premiere of a trailer is how much it appears coordinated and done on purpose for what seems to be a larger agenda.  What the backlash against The Little Mermaid remake trailer reveals is a way in which fandom has turned into a weaponized tool for division in our polarized society.

Fandom, for the most part, is not a toxic thing in society.  There are a lot of examples of people from varying backgrounds being able to come together and put aside their difference over a shared love of something that matters to them, whether it be a sports team, a favorite film or TV series, or public figure that inspires them.  Fan conventions are a great place where you see the best of fandom on display, such as D23 Expo, or San Diego Comic Con, or Wondercon, and countless other fan gatherings across the globe.  In particular, you see fan creativity come out in these places, with attendees often putting in a lot of work into dressing up in cosplay.  Free expression of one’s fandom is not a bad thing to have in any case.  But, there are areas in which fandom can be a negative, and in many cases, it can turn quite ugly.  The worst kind of fandom, in my opinion, is what can be called “gate-keeping.”  The gate-keeping side of fandom is one way in which fandom can turn toxic, because it leads individuals to discriminate within the fanbase itself.  For some, they believe that true fanhood is it’s own hierarchy, and if you don’t achieve a certain level of minimum appreciation of their particular beloved piece of media or esteemed public figure, than you are in their eyes not a “true fan.”  Now, gate-keeping fans largely are not reflective of the majority of most fanbases, but in the age of the internet, more and more gate-keepers are putting themselves into positions of power where they can become arbiters of the discourse around any particular subject in the pop culture.  And this has in more recent years led to a toxicity within the culture that has percolated into much more than just fandoms.  We are now in a time when pop culture and politics are becoming more intertwined and that’s having a very scary effect on how the outrage over particular types of media are being used to push forward an agenda of a different kind.

This is mainly what makes the outrage over the release of the Little Mermaid trailer so alarming.  The focus is not on the look of the film, nor the purpose of why it needed to be made.  It’s entirely on the skin color of it’s main character.  In the original animated movie, Ariel is white skinned, but in this remake, she is being played by a woman of color.  For many people, this change in skin color is a cinematic sin, but I have to ask, why?  Mermaids are fictional creatures, so it shouldn’t matter what their skin color should be.  There are legit critiques to be made about the movie.  I for one am not particularly looking forward to the film, and that’s mainly because of my own feelings about past Disney remakes like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Lion King (2019).  Like those, I worry that the movie is going to be another soulless remake that is going to greatly pale in comparison to the original classic.  But, that’s a worry, not a conviction.  I’m not going to pass final judgment on the film until I actually see it, and I may end up being surprised in the end.  The movie has to overcome past disappointment that is on my mind, but it still must be judged on it’s own merits.  That is how film criticism works.  What we see in the discourse over the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel based on the trailer is not fair criticism at all, but rather an orchestration of an insidious agenda being pushed in the guise of film criticism.  It can’t be said in any other way; the outrage stirred up over the reaction to seeing a woman of color in the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid is not over any artistic integrity, but purely because of racism.  It upsets a certain segment of people that a role predominately played by white performers in the past, is not being filled by someone who is not 100% white.  This isn’t a complaint levied against The Little Mermaid alone.  Diversity in casting has been greatly scrutinized as of late in the social media age and it is more and more revealing how fan discourse has been turned into a tool of sowing bigotry into the larger culture.

While there has been toxicity in cultural discourse for a long time, it has very much intensified in recent years thanks to the internet and social media.  Before movies even come out, there has to be a million thought pieces about who’s getting cast in the movie, who’s making the movie, and ultimately why you should or should not see the movie.  We are engaged in a never ending stream of fan discourse that often can turn nasty when certain avenues of the internet becomes fixated on something.  In the era of internet discourse, there has been a rise in new media that is determined to shape the narrative of a cultural event in the way that they want.  If there is an objection to a type of casting or a story point that challenges a so-called “fan’s” stringent expectations, then they will then use their platform to complain.  Now, making a lot of noise on one’s YouTube channel or blog is not unethical and perfectly within one’s freedom of expression, even if it comes from a toxic place.  But, as we are seeing more and more lately, these toxic fans are organizing their own audiences to sabotage the very tools used to gauge audience responses to all types of media.  Certain websites like RottenTomatoes.com and IMDb have open forums on their pages that allow everyday users to rate movies and TV shows on a scale, and then that is averaged into a grade for that property.  YouTube likewise includes up and down votes to gauge responses to their videos.  But, these open forums have been victims lately of a practice known as review-bombing.  Basically, a movie or TV show that is seen to have a have a socially conscious message or features a bit of diverse casting will experience a deluge of negative reviews, sometimes from newly created accounts, right at the point when the movie or show is released, with the sole purpose of driving down the audience score.  That’s why you often see Rottentomatoes scores from critics and audiences that are wildly divergent.  The fact that some recent shows like Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series and Disney+ She Hulk: Attorney at Law have nearly identical negative audience ratings with almost the same number of user accounts involved, which coincidently outnumber all other show reactions by quite a margin in total reviews submitted, kind of tells you that these audience ratings were probably fixed by a manipulation of system itself.

What this practice of review bombing essentially does is that it allows the people behind the campaigns, mainly fire brand agitators with blogs and YouTube channels, to point at the negative reviews on Rottentomatoes.com and other sites and have it confirm the narrative that they are trying to push.  And the narrative that many of them have built their reputations around is the specter of “wokeness” that they say has corrupted fan culture.  The definition of “woke” is described as an alert to injustice in society, especially racism, according to the Dictionary.  It’s a term that has created a lot of fervor in the cultural discourse, and in particular, it has riled up a lot of reactionaries who see “wokeness” as a threat.  Because of the loose meaning that “woke” still has for many people, it can be interpreted as many different things, and for those who consider themselves anti-woke, like the agitators behind the review bombing of popular movies and shows, the term can be applied to pretty much anything they don’t like.  For some, being anti-woke is a crusade, and they must use their time and effort to push forward an agenda that they hope can pressure the powers that be in media to stray away from anything they deem as “woke.”  Unfortunately, this is where a lot of bad things can happen, as fandom and politics end up colliding in this atmosphere, and dissatisfaction over a piece of media can end up shaping the worldview of those caught up in this anti-woke rabbit hole.  Of course, the agitators don’t care about the negative effects that their toxic fan discourse has on the society at large nor the negative effects it puts on the psyche of their followers.  Negative discourse creates more engagement, which the algorithms of social media rewards greatly, and the more it gets people interacting with their channels, the better it is for them and they’ll continue to use their platform to spread more bitterness into the world.

There are consequences to this, as we have seen many times.  The toxicity within the Star Wars fandom in particular has had a troubled history.  It is argued that the kind of fandom that we see today across all avenues of society, began with Star Wars in 1977.  The monumental success of that film changed the culture of fandom and spurned a fan base that achieved cult like fanaticism that runs across all avenues of society.  Eventually, the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, decided to revisit the franchise after 20 years, and expand the universe of his franchise with a whole new trilogy of prequel movies.  However, many people were not satisfied with the results once they finally got to see the new films.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) was so derided in fact by the fanbase, that some people were complaining that George Lucas “ruined their childhood” by making the movie.  Though George Lucas took much of the brunt of the fan backlash, there were other attacks made at members of the cast.  The most heartbreaking example of this was young actor Jake Lloyd who play Young Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace, a character who grows up to be Darth Vader in continuity.  The backlash from fans haunted Lloyd through much of his childhood and even led to him having a hard time adjusting to growing up; eventually leading him to turning his back to the industry despite having the promising beginning he had as a child actor.  Ironically today, the prequel trilogy is now celebrated by a Star Wars fan base that grew up with them, and elements of that fan base now attack the sequel trilogy for the same petty reasons that their fore-bearers in their fanbase did for the prequels; because it was doing something different.  The anti-woke element in particular really was unkind to the new wave of Star Wars movies, as many of them complained how the series was being take over by “forced diversity” because the main characters were a woman and a black man.  This too has led to some negative consequences, as Daisy Ridley who play Rey in the sequel trilogy has largely abandoned social media since playing the part to avoid harassments, and John Boyega who plays Finn in the movies no longer wants to be involved in the franchise, despite growing up as a big fan.  It can be argued that toxic fandom even led to the uneven mess that the final film in the saga, The Rise of Skywalker (2019), turned out to be as parent company Disney took too much stock in trying to appeal to all fanbases; even the negative ones.  Outrage is an easy emotion to express, and it is often how we display our feelings about things that matter a lot to us.  But, outrage can bring a lot of raw and hurtful things to the forefront, and it especially can have a negative effect on people whose job it is to entertain.  Harassments in the guise film criticism and cultural discourse is not something that should define fandom at all.  You may not like a person’s performance, fine, but personal attacks are beyond the pale and reveal a side of fandom that should never be encouraged.

The good news is that people are getting wise to the fact that people are manipulating fan culture for dubious reasons and are beginning to push back.  In many ways, these elements are in no way reflective of fan communities as a whole, and they’ve only garnered attention because the nature of social media has given negative voices a blow horn within the discourse.  But, people are getting wise to the grifting that is going on.  If you see a YouTube channel that continues to reuse the same talking point week after week, like say posting the word “woke” on their video thumbnail over 100 times in their feed, it will be pretty easy to spot what kind of agenda they are trying to push in their commentary.  Studios are also no longer taking stock in review bombs like they may have in the past.  Case in point, the Marvel movie Captain Marvel (2019) was review bombed upon it’s release, and even to this day the movie still has a rotten audience score on Rottentomatoes.com, despite a positive critical score.  The reason Disney has not been troubled by this is because the movie performed extremely well at the box office, making over a billion worldwide, and it has led to the follow-up sequel coming out next year.  I’ve seen first hand audience reactions at the theater and at D23, everyday people love Captain Marvel, as seen by cheering audiences at the screening, and people dressed up as the character at the Expo.  The fact that so many young girls are inspired by the character and have become more interested in comic book stories likewise is something that I feel is a strong net positive about the movie.  It’s also becoming apparent that the anti-woke crowd’s pre-emptive strategy of review bombing movies and shows is starting to blow up in their face.  This was evident in the reaction to the movie Prey (2022) this summer, as that movie proved to be a massive hit and the review bombers revealed themselves to be the racist bigots that they mostly are for attacking the movie too early solely for the reason of diverse casting.  The same has again happened with HBO’s new hit series House of the Dragon from the Game of Thrones franchise, as the show has been embraced by the fandom, and the agenda driven anti-woke agitators have had to embarrassingly roll back their criticism after giving up their blatant agenda.  Amazon certainly saw the firestorm coming for it’s Lord of the Rings series, and they dismantled their ratings system pre-emptively before it could be misused.  It is unfortunate that these bad apples have made it difficult to differentiate fair criticism from bad faith criticism, but too much abuse of the discourse has led to these extreme measures and led to studios taking less stock in what the fans have to say.  It’s honestly upon the fan culture itself to call out those who are leading bad faith arguments against popular media and hold them accountable for the bad takes that they make which poison the discourse of fandom as a whole.

The reaction to Halle Bailey as Ariel, the little mermaid, is just another sad chapter in what seems like a never ending culture war.  The sad thing is, toxic fandom is sometimes seen as a desirable path for people who want to hold the contrarian position in the public discourse of pop culture.  And it’s usually the grifters within the toxic fandom media that prey upon these contrarian opinions to serve their own agendas.  Politics and culture are not far divided and appealing towards an individuals intense feelings towards a particular part of fan culture is an effective way of recruiting them for another extreme position.  There is a lot of cross-over appeal between intense fandom gate-keeping and anti-democratic authoritarianism, which is seeping more and more into the political discourse.  How many people have we seen in recent years go into the ballot box because they want to stop a “woke” agenda?  When pressed to define their anti-woke positions, it often stems from them disliking the perceived political message they saw on TV or in a movie.  Fandom can be weaponized to push a larger political agenda that can definitely have some dire consequences for society in general.  What I hope is that none of that noise made from segments of the internet dissuades anyone’s artistic expression.  As I have experienced consuming media of all kinds (movies, television, internet videos) diversity in voices is a good thing and makes for a more interesting and ultimately entertaining experience overall.  And as I have seen, fandoms are for the most part welcoming of all kinds of diverse voices.  It’s those that try to close off fandoms and manipulate it for their own ends that are not representative of fandoms as a whole.  The only reason why they get so much attention is because they are often the loudest voices in the room thanks to algorithms that govern the social media space.  But, when you watch a movie with other fans in a theater or attend a fan convention, you see the other side and how broad and welcoming it can be.  It’s up to that side of fan culture to stand up for the things they love, encourage and not harass those who work in the creative arts, and help critical discourse move things forward and not backward.  I understand that my role as a critic is to give judgment, but my wish is to allow everyone a fair chance to prove my worries wrong and stand on their own merits.  I can’t say how Halle Bailey’s turn as Ariel may turn out, but just on the basis of what her casting means I think it is bold and a worthwhile change that could indeed serve the movie well.  Just take a fair, objective look at what you are seeing and not the implications of what it means for the culture as a whole.  In other words, leave your individual prejudices at the door.  That’s what constructive criticism should be and judging a performance based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or creed of the actors or filmmakers involved with the movie is the kind of criticism that gives fandom a bad name.