From 'Justice League' to 'Star Wars,' Studios Reckon With "Toxic" Fandom
When Zack Snyder's Justice League hit HBO Max on March 18, it marked the culmination of a years-long effort by a devoted group of DC fans to allow the director to finish a film he left in 2017. Along the way, Snyder's fans raised $500,000 for suicide prevention in honor of the filmmaker's late daughter, Autumn.
Despite the positives, a small but vocal segment of that fandom used social media to threaten and harass fellow fans, as well as WarnerMedia executives they perceived as standing in the way of the cut. WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff made waves March 22 when she condemned such behavior in an interview with Variety, saying: “I’m very disappointed in the fans that have chosen to go to that negative place with regard to DC, with regard to some of our executives."
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Those comments represented a break from the norm of studios publicly ignoring unsavory elements within fan bases even as they seek to find new ways to monetize those audiences. In years past, Sony watched trolls attack its 2016, female-led Ghostbusters reboot, Marvel Studios saw Captain Marvel's Rotten Tomatoes scores sandbagged, and Lucasfilm was silent as Star Wars stars John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran endured racist abuse.
But Hollywood majors are now learning that they can’t always remain silent about what happens on social media. Disney’s Lucasfilm has been at the forefront of this conversation. In January, cosplayer and host Krystina Arielle faced racist attacks and threats after the studio named her host of The High Republic Show, a bimonthly show on StarWars.com and YouTube giving an inside look at a galaxy far, far away. Ahead of the show's debut, previous tweets from Arielle denouncing systemic racism — essentially, calling upon white people to own their role in it — were resurfaced. She received numerous threats via social media. Rather than remain silent, Lucasfilm swiftly backed Arielle, stating on Twitter on Jan. 22, "Our Star Wars community is one of hope and inclusivity. We support @KrystinaArielle." The hashtag #IStandWithKrystina sprung up to support Arielle.
For Moya Bailey, a scholar who has studied harassment of Black women online, Lucasfilm's statement felt noteworthy.
"A lot of people had been on their own, managing the backlash of long and deep-seated racist stereotypes alone, and so having [the entertainment] industry understand that it makes a difference when they come forward and support you, it's a huge turning point," says Bailey, assistant professor at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance.
Weeks after backing Arielle, the studio parted ways with The Mandalorian actor Gina Carano, who had shared a series of controversial social posts over several months, including one that likened the plight of conservatives in America in 2021 to that of Jews before the Holocaust. Lucasfilm said upon her firing that the "social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable."
For years, Lucasfilm did not address attacks against its talent, at least publicly. Boyega and fellow Star Wars sequel trilogy star Tran have been open about facing racist harassment, with Tran largely leaving social media in 2018. At the time, the studio did not publicly intervene on either's behalf.
One rep of a lower-profile Disney actor, who has faced racist social media harassment, notes they in recent months asked the studio to intercede publicly, to no avail. The rep acknowledges it’s a tough situation for any studio, particularly given how vitriolic the internet can be.
"You can only do so much," says the rep. "But if you’re speaking out, you have to speak out for everyone."
Still, many industry observers are more interested in marking the current moment, rather than criticizing studios for actions not taken in the past.
"It's necessary to have that tone set in order to make it manageable to ignore those trolls and to put defamatory and hostile attitudes at the margins," says André Carrington, author of Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction and associate professor of English at the University of California, Riverside.
While so-called toxic fans take up an oversized place in the media's and the public's imaginations, CinemaBlend journalist Sean O'Connell suspects it’s a relatively small contingent of fandom. O'Connell, who studies Snyder fandom closely, notes that Sarnoff's comments about toxic fandom received little pushback from the community. Instead, it was Sarnoff's comments about Snyder's Justice League universe not continuing on after the Snyder Cut that received the most disappointment.
"If you ignore them, you are silently condoning what they do. I understand the need to have a zero-tolerance policy," says O'Connell, author of Release the Snyder Cut: The Crazy True Story Behind the Fight That Saved Zack Snyder's Justice League.
In theory, the idea of toxic fandom is paradoxical. Fandoms are supposed to be places where people find a community, a place of inclusion. In practice, it has often been a different story. The same day that Lucasfilm shared its statement supporting Arielle, John Rogers, the screenwriter behind Halle Berry's Catwoman, resurfaced a blog post he penned in 2004, which he noted still applied today.
In the post, he cheekily coined the term Fandamentalists, noting that the behaviors of some fans mirrored that of Fundamentalist religions, such as men being dominant and the spurning of the modern in favor of "a return to a nostalgic vision of a golden age that never really existed." After explaining how each of these rules apply to fandom, Rogers defined Fandamentalists this way: "fans who violently believe the only valid interpretation of any entertainment source is a dogmatic adherence to their favorite version of that source. Any change to the smallest detail is inherently unacceptable (see also 'heresy') and met with frantic scorn."
Carrington has studied fandom in the 1950s, a time when zines and other correspondence communities sprung up around sci-fi properties. Those communities were presumed to be white spaces. He notes one of the differences between that era and today is that people of all backgrounds are visible on social media and at conventions participating in fan cultures. "It really matters when Black members of a mostly white fan community can speak back to people's beliefs or attitudes toward them," says Carrington.
In 2012, Jamie Broadnax was looking for a community of her own, noting that in fan sites of the day, there were few people of color represented. She googled the term "Black Girl Nerds" and was served up images of white women wearing black-framed glasses. "That's what Google thought Black girl nerds were," says Broadnax. Today, her site Black Girl Nerds is one of many online communities that reflect the full breadth of fandom. Despite toxicity among some corners of social media, on the whole, she sees things moving in the right direction. "I look at it as, 'This is going to be the future. This is the lay of the land.' You have to deal with it no matter what. Let's celebrate it," Broadnax says when she sees toxicity. "Let's not be vitriolic with the way things are going, because this is the future.'"
For years, Hollywood has spoken about inclusion in front of and behind the camera, with that conversation taking on renewed focus during last summer's rallies for racial justice. But part of that consideration must not only be in hiring, but also in doing the work to support your employees, say activists. On March 11, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. released a report concluding that Hollywood is forgoing $10 billion annually by not resolving its inequity issues when it comes to Black inclusion. The report highlighted the "Black tax," the time and energy used to deal with situations that non-Black colleagues don't face. That's why publicly supporting someone, as Lucasfilm did with Arielle, is key. But perhaps even more meaningful are behind-the-scenes changes that can help people thrive in a position.
"It's not only about hiring Black people or people of color, it's also about letting people know their employer has their back if something goes down," says Kristen Marston, culture & entertainment advocacy director for Color of Change. "They hire people, and then they don't have their back. That can be really detrimental to health and careers."
As for the future, Carrington notes he's more excited than ever for what's in store for Star Wars, because of Lucasfilm's strides in creating a more inclusive environment in front of and behind the camera.
Says Carrington: "I'm a much bigger fan of more recent Star Wars stuff than the original trilogy or the prequels. In part that's because there is more of it and there are so many more points of entry, but also, I can see so many more people who have interests like mine – actors from different backgrounds, cosplayers who have been so creative over the years — getting to play on big stages like Krystina Arielle does."
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