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Why Geek Culture Isn’t Responsible For the Leslie Jones Hate

By on July 20, 2016

Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan in Ghostbusters. Image © Frank Ockenfels/2016 CTMG

Did you know that geek culture is killing itself?

Or is it just broken? Or wait, is it dead already?

It’s hard to keep track of whether or not people think the community is on the cusp of some new state. There’s so much discussion about fandom’s climate and mainstream integration as of late that parsing out what’s well-informed analysis and what’s that good old, hot-take fire is proving difficult.

What hasn’t been hard to keep track of though is a weird building consensus that modern fandom is in just about every way completely and utterly toxic. It’s a notion that’s resulted in a barrage of cultural criticism and finger pointing that has made even the most casual of fangirls and boys prickle.

The kindle for the heated debate came back in May, after The A.V. Club ran a piece on Ghostbusters, Frozen and what it determined was a sense of fandom entitlement. That was followed up by BirthMoviesDeath.com’s Devin Faraci piece “Fandom Is Broken,” in which he attempts to break down why modern day fan culture passion and critique have somehow cast a shadow over the golden age of the sub-culture. Those were of course followed up by a dozen more supportive and not so supportive takes, but then things went quiet, and all seemed okay.

What we perceived as a steady permanent calm, however, was just what comes before another storm. A storm that hit full force yesterday, after yet another incident involving Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones made entertainment critics, like The Guardian’s Ben Child, jump at the chance to tell us all just what’s wrong with fandom culture. Except that, like most of the criticism that came before it, it fails to address one very pertinent thing: fan culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

I’ll be honest, ever since that trailer backlash over Leslie Jones portrayal of Patty Tolan in Sony’s all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, I’ve been excessively attentive to the conversations surrounding the film. The biggest of which has been about the handful of two-minute sneak peeks released by Sony. In them, Patty was deemed a loud, sassy, MTA worker (read: undereducated) black woman who made all the race jokes and did all the physical comedy. For many, the character reeked of everything people hated about Hollywood’s enduring legacy of racist comedy. This racialized controversy was on top of the firestorm of criticisms already lobbed at the film, first for gender-bending its leads and then for the sheer audacity of Paul Feig to reboot a “classic.” This barrage of criticism didn’t let up with time either. In fact, it got worse with each passing day, turning the entire conversation about this movie into a giant circle jerk of negativity.

Then the film came out and low and behold, some people liked it. In fact, some people loved it. That modicum of success was apparently too much for an internet eager to foam at the mouth with their inexplicable hate. Which is how we ended up with Leslie Jones once again having to address social media harassment and critics once again feeling the need to point their finger at fandom culture. In a steady stream of tweets, Jones revealed how “trolls” had berated her with racist and sexist slurs and imagery, going so far as to create fake tweets of her using homophobic slurs, in an effort to make her a target of attack. While celebrities came out in hashtag support of Jones, writers like Child took it upon themselves to tell us that an entitled fandom was back at it again.

Child argued that Hollywood’s decision to constantly please geek culture was why actresses like Leslie Jones were having such a vitriolic experience. Creators’ inability to disengage with their over passionate audience was why bizarre controversy firestorms like the one following Ghostbusters were allowed to happen. The industry was conditioning geeks to believe that they had a right to express their opinions. More importantly, that creators were obligated to listen. And if you didn’t know anything about being in fandom as a woman, a person of color, an LGBTQ identifying person, or any other marginalization that deviates you from the perceived norm, you’d believe him.

The Guardian’s recent article has marked the second time this year a writer has come out and pointed a finger at fans, claiming their vocalization and criticism of anything is somehow overreaching. And while I’ll be the first to agree with Child’s point that it wasn’t just the trolls getting caught up in that Ghostbusters negativity circle jerk, let’s get something straight. The harassment that’s a problem for people like Jones — the harassment that’s not critique but unadulterated blistering maliciousness and needs to stop —  is deeper than whatever “geek culture entitlement” creators think some fans have about how they write their characters.

The Ghostbusters Cast (L-R) Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones

The Ghostbusters Cast (L-R) Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones

An editor recently explained that it was incorrect to claim art belongs to its creator. He argued that once art is released into the world, it belongs to those who consume it. Art is not meant to sit in museums, is not meant to live without question, criticism or praise. In fact, that’s the entire goal of art — to incite those exact responses. Social media has given people unprecedented access to creators and them unprecedented access to us. For the first time,  they can now come in direct contact with how viewers feel about their work. With that choice — and it is a choice — comes the realization that people are not going to like your art.

When Child writes, “And it seems that the old respect for the film-making process that once ran through geek culture, at least in the blogosphere, has been ripped away in a whirlwind of hostility,” what he’s saying is: the good old days of geek culture are gone because modern internet communication has spoiled it. Maybe it’s because he’s a dude. Maybe it’s because he’s older. Or maybe it’s because he believes in the pile of propagated fodder we’ve been fed about the “good old days of fandom.”  But as someone who navigates modern fandom, that “old respect for the film-making process” he’s claiming has been ripped away in the blogosphere, it’s still there. We are still critiquing the art the way it was always critiqued. It’s just that you get to read it and more voices get to be a part of that conversation.

In the latter of those two things lies the real issue. See, the only thing that’s majorly changed between old and new fandom is represented directly in the existence of Feig’s reboot. It’s the perfect internet hate storm because it represents the progress geek culture has made. Feig’s movie dares to say that the classics don’t just belong to one specific demographic. That geek culture can belong to a diverse array of people and that they have the right to claim to it just as much as anyone else. By going mainstream, geek culture can no longer be gate kept.

And that’s pissing some parts of geek culture off. It’s angering the parts of fandom that are racist and are sexist, and miss the good old days when “classics” and heroes and geek narratives only belonged to them. The days when these media properties were never touched, casted, or re-imagined with people who don’t look like them in mind. Fandom — especially as a woman, as a person of color, as a person with disabilities, as a queer identifying individual — can be a hostile space. I know how alienating and disgusting and depressing it can be to see racist, sexist, homophobic vitriol hanging around the Tumblr tags and in Twitter search results. I know what it’s like to be harassed and constantly tweeted at until the release of the block button only serves to remind me of how I’m still not always welcome. I know what it’s like to be attacked for simply being, for daring to claim space here, too. For saying that I deserve to be a hero, a love interest, a team member, too.

Patty (Leslie Jones) joins the Ghostbusters team.

Patty (Leslie Jones) joins the Ghostbusters team.

But all that vitriol and all that hate, that isn’t because fan culture as a whole is entitled. That isn’t a critique problem. It’s not even this ominous intangible threat Hollywood has supposedly opened itself up to by dipping its toe into geek culture. I know that because I live in a world where as a black, queer woman I can experience the same levels of vitriol daily and never have to mention Star Wars or Dungeons and Dragons. Critics like Child separate the sub-culture from its parent culture because they can’t acknowledge that geek culture isn’t so different from the “normal” culture it springs from. A culture he and every other geek culture critic playing the blame game belongs to. Geek culture can be toxic, but it’s not toxic because geeky fans are entitled. It’s toxic because our society has allowed certain members of that subculture to feel entitled. Entitled to their opinions, entitled to their visibility, entitled to their space.

So enough with arguing that every time someone gets attacked on twitter that it’s “fan entitlement.” Fandom isn’t some separate entity that exists outside of the frame of our larger cultural consciousness. Fans are people, too. When I’m attacked in fandom, when I watch Leslie Jones get attacked on twitter, I realize that that “fan culture” is really just a bunch of people in the culture we all share attacking a black woman for simply existing. And how dare she. How dare she be funny how she wants to be funny. And how dare she tell us that our opinions of her don’t matter. How dare she not acknowledge the rules of our “real world” culture. How dare she be successful. And how dare some of us like it.

The audacity for us to claim ownership in the culture is new, but the refusal to make space for us isn’t. The parts of geek culture that are changing — like Feig’s very own movie — aren’t spoiling it. Geek culture isn’t killing itself, and fan entitlement isn’t destroying it. It’s our own larger culture — of unchecked harassment, of gatekeeping and of privilege — that is. And that’s a culture as old as time.

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