I wrote before about how fandom can become a negative place when fans confuse the fictional story with behind-the-scenes reality. This week, I want to write about another dark side of fandom: fan entitlement. This tends to rear its ugly head in two ways: fandom gate-keeping and attempts to dictate the stories.
Fandom Gatekeeping: You Shall Not Pass!
Everyone’s heard about fandom gatekeepers. Many have faced them. You aren’t a “real” fan if you weren’t involved in fandom from the beginning. Or you aren’t a “real” fan if you don’t know the name of the key grip’s sister’s dog’s veterinarian. Maybe you aren’t a real fan if you don’t like a certain character. Or if you do. If you like a certain episode. A certain arc. A certain moment. A certain line.
Then there are the interfandom (and intrafandom) wars. If you like the Marvel universe, you can’t possibly like the DCEU movies. And if you didn’t like the DCEU movies, you’re nothing but a “Marvel fanboy.” Or vice versa. There can be no discussion of what worked and what didn’t; if you liked the other universe of films, your opinion is entirely dismissed. I find this kind of gate-keeping both aggravating and somewhat baffling. Of the hundreds of comic fans I’ve met over the years, there have only been a handful – tops – that were so dedicated to one company that they genuinely eschewed the other just on principle.
Though I suppose it shouldn’t be such a surprise, given the gatekeeping that happens between fans of different iterations of even the same characters. If you liked the Richard Donner Superman movie but you didn’t like Man of Steel, then I guess you just aren’t a real Superman fan. Then again, for others, if you liked Man of Steel at all, you’re definitely not a real Superman fan.
And, even more recently, gatekeeping has become prevalent even within fandoms. Fans of Olicity on Arrow and Westallen on The Flash seem to frequently be at odds. If you like one, you cannot be a true fan of the other. Sometimes fans of Karamel on Supergirl get in on the action, and – somewhat recently – I’ve seen various fandoms try to drag fans of certain Black Lightning characters or ships into the mix.
It seems fandom is subscribing to the Highlander edict: There can be only one! These are three different ships on three different shows – shows that may exist in the same universe (and occasionally cross over) but ultimately have little impact on each other. If Olicity were to get divorced tomorrow – which they won’t – it wouldn’t be so Oliver could date Kara. Nor would it be because Westallen exists on another show.
But since the Arrowverse shows do exist in the same universe, I suppose it isn’t entirely surprising that there should be rivalry that leads to gatekeeping between them. With the crossovers, the shipping lines do occasionally intersect, as they did with the recent double wedding. However, there have been increasing online rivalries – or even anticipated rivalries – between fandoms on entirely different shows. While I do not watch the shows or follow the ships, I have seen fans of SwanQueen on Once Upon a Time and fans of Malec on Shadowhunters in similar rivalries. And, of course, it doesn’t just come down to a matter of debate about which show or ship is better. If you like one, fandom gatekeepers simply refuse to accept that you might also like the other. (Or, if you don’t like it, it cannot simply be because of your preferences on writing tropes and character development arcs. As with Marvel v. DC, it is assumed that your criticisms are the ravings of a rivaling property fanboy.)
“Love the thing I love in exactly the same way I love it, or you aren’t a real fan” is the mantra of these fandom gatekeepers. One would think the size of these Internet fandoms today would make gatekeepers easier to avoid – or at least ignore. Instead, it too often seems that the Internet has simply given those with such predilections even greater opportunity to define what is and is not acceptable for a “true fan.”
Fandom vs Writers: I Love, Therefore I Own
But perhaps the most prevalent form of fandom entitlement comes when fans think that their appreciation for a thing means that they own the thing. If you’ve never come across that sentiment before, then let me introduce you to the Internet.
Like most people, I think Hollywood’s propensity to reboot popular shows and drive sequels into the ground is more often than not unnecessary and exhausting. But so is all the indignation and resounding cries of, “They’re ruined my childhood!”
And, look. I’m going to throw this out there, knowing not everyone will agree with me. (Which is actually kind of the point.) I think the Star Wars prequels were pretty bad. I’m leery of how Solo: A Star Wars Story will turn out. So are the Michael Bay Transformers movies, as well as his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The most recent X-Files seasons have had a few fun episodes amidst several to regret. I didn’t like The Amazing Spider-Man movies on the whole. And, no, I haven’t enjoyed the vast majority of the DCEU.
But so what?
The original Star Wars trilogy still exists. Even without the Special Edition changes (which I also didn’t like). And, granted, the original version may not have been released in the shiny updated 4K edition I would like to get. But Disney likes money. Heaven knows that they like re-releasing various versions of their properties. Does anybody really think they won’t at some point re-release the original trilogy in order to get the sweet, sweet Star Wars fan money? Come on.
Likewise, the original Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons still exist. I still have the full box set of the original X-Files series that I can pop in any time I want to relive the glory days. And, of course, while I didn’t enjoy Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, that hasn’t erased everything I have loved that existed before. I still have all the various Superman series I’ve enjoyed – from the 1948 – 1950 Theatrical Serials to Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to Superman: The Animated Series to Smallville. And I still have my Tim Burton Batman movies, Batman: The Animated Series, and both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
If I didn’t like the Snyder DCEU movies? (I tried. I wanted to. I watched Man of Steel three times, trying to find something I could really love. Sadly, I didn’t.) So what? They’re just movies I didn’t like. Movies that other people clearly did like. I may not understand what they love about them or see what they see about them. But none of that ruins my childhood. Everything I loved still exists! As I write this article, I’m watching old Justice League cartoons and loving them every bit as much as I did before the Snyderverse existed.
More, as I sighed my way through the movies, I remembered that the very fact that Hollywood reboots things so often means that I will one day get another iteration of it that I will love. Absolutely nothing lasts forever – certainly not in Hollywood. And every time they inevitably reboot a franchise, there will be cries that They have ruined this forever and ever and how dare they????
Fandom entitlement means watching something nobody is forcing you to watch – something that is often an attempt to get a younger generation to love the property as much as you do – and pretending that you have not only been forced to watch it, but that those who put it on are intentionally doing it just to destroy your happy memories of it. When the reality is that 1) not all reboots, sequels, and adaptations are bad, and 2) nobody is forcing you to watch.
If you don’t like a reboot, sequel, or adaptation…you don’t have to watch. It’s as simple as that.
And yet that’s a message the dark side of fandom has a difficult time accepting. It isn’t just in outrage over so-called unnecessary sequels and reboots. It’s a kind of entitlement that becomes increasingly pronounced as fans – and shippers – don’t get the story they want.
My first experience with this kind of entitlement – though almost certainly not the first recorded example of it – was in the Smallville fandom. As the show went on and characters left the show, their fans announced that the series should just get cancelled rather than exist without them. When Lana left the show and it was clear Clark wouldn’t spend the remaining years pining over her, Clana fans expressed outrage that it hadn’t just been taken off the air. They were owed a certain story, and if that wasn’t the story they were going to get, then the show needed to end.
Similarly, Chlark (and Chlois) fans were emphatic that they deserved the ending they wanted. After all, they’d been watching the show for years. Chloe had always stood by Clark’s side and been his friend and confidante. She was entitled to her hero at the end, and they were owed the ending they had rooted for all along.
While it may have been my first experience with this mentality, it has been far from my last. I’ve seen it in various factions of the Supernatural fandom. Harry Potter. Once Upon a Time. Vampire Diaries. And, of course, The Flash, Supergirl, and Arrow.
Does being a fan – even a fan for several years – mean you are automatically entitled to the story you want? Well, there’s few problems with that. First: the story doesn’t belong to the fandom.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love it if I owned the DC properties and got to dictate what happened in them. It would be fantastic if I could always be happy with every story they told. There are a lot of things I would have done differently over the years. And when they tell stories that are insulting, offensive, or just plain bad, I’m more than happy to call them out on it.
But the properties don’t belong to me. So when they write a story that is insulting, offensive, bad, or that I simply don’t enjoy, I stop buying it. I stop watching it. I stop reading it. And when enough people do that? They reboot – as they have a hundred times before and will a hundred times again. They course correct. And maybe – maybe – I like the new story, and they start getting my money again.
Because ultimately, when fandoms scream that they are entitled to their ending because they’ve watched for so long, other groups have, too. Chlark watched Smallville from the beginning, but so did Clana fans. And so did a number of Clois fans, knowing Clois was his future, even if we didn’t see it on the show. I have no doubt that Clana fans rooted for their endgame every bit as much as Chlark fans rooted for theirs. That they mourned the heartache and drama their couple went through as much as every other fan did. And, as a fan of Clark’s relationship with Lois for a good decade before the show even started, I certainly wanted to see my OTP get their Happily Ever After.
So which fans deserved the ending they wanted? If we go by sheer passion alone…all of them. But not every fandom could get their ending, and The Powers that Be told the story they wanted to tell.
The same could be said of the television shows today. Arrow has fans that want the story to end with Laurel Lance in her iconic role as Black Canary (and possibly by Oliver’s side, though I’ve seen far more that are less invested in the romance than her iconic destiny). There are those who want Laurel Lance off the show completely. There are those who want Oliver and Felicity to ride off into the sunset together and those who don’t care where Felicity goes as long as it’s somewhere far away.
In Supergirl, there are those who feel they are entitled to their endgame between Kara and Mon-El. Just as there are those who would rather chew off their own arms than watch another minute of that couple together. Or apart and wishing they were together. Or together and wondering if they should be apart.
In The Flash fandom, there are fans who think they’ve earned a love story between Barry and Caitlin because they’ve wanted it since the beginning. Or because they simply want it a lot. Or even because it’s the kind of story that shows often tell.
Do any of these things mean that Snowbarry fans are entitled to their preferred story? No. I don’t know that it is entitlement that leads one to anticipate an adaptation might follow the source material. Neither do I think it should be a surprise to anyone when and if they do. After all, it’s generally the popularity of the source material that warrants the monetary investment in an adaptation. (And that doesn’t even go into other issues that may restrict how much an adaptation can deviate from its source.)
Also, to be fair, there are probably Westallen fans who think they are owed their iconic couple because of their dedication and passion – or longevity. Or because it’s an important part of the comics and they want that to be respected.
But are any of the above fandoms entitled to their story? And if so, who deserves it? And why? Because they’ve watched since the beginning? If all competing fandom factions have, that’s hardly a persuasive argument. Because they want it as much as they do? Every other fan taking the time and energy to post online about it is just as passionate.
Frankly, even as a Westallen fan myself, I don’t know that I would even say we are entitled to their ending because we’re shippers, or on the basis of being fans. I advocate for story-lines on The Flash because I want to see the characters and relationships that are so important in the comics. I want to see them respected. And, yes, I think that Iris West on the show is an important role model for so many who watch, and if the CW is going to applaud itself for having broken barriers in casting an African American woman in such an important role, then they must also accept the responsibility that comes with it. Part of that responsibility is showing the actress and the character the respect of continuing to recognize them as important. Of telling the story they would have told if another (white) actress were in the role.
We’ve all see shows where a person of color was cast or an LGBTQ+ story-line pursued so the show runners could claim progressiveness and diversity. Only to see those characters sidelined. Made into caricatures. And, often, ultimately killed off. It is well past time for shows to recognize if they are going to do the former (and more shows damn well should embrace the world as it really is and reflect it accurately on-screen), they have a responsibility not to do the latter. Or people will stop watching.
And that is really what I am entitled to, as a fan. What we are all entitled to. Fans are not entitled to the story we want in exactly the way we want it told. Some of the worst things in fandom come when people think they are entitled to the story, that they own it, because they are fans of it. “We’ve earned this. We deserve our endgame! They owe us!” This kind of mentality is all too prevalent and leads to fans sending endless amounts of hate to show runners, writers, and each other.
It’s also utterly ridiculous.