Lady Gaga, 'Venom' and When Fandom Is Weaponized

Being a fan once was a tool to give people voices and a more expansive perspective, but now those voices are being lost in the mire.
Warner Bros. Pictures; Sony Pictures Entertainment
'A Star Is Born'; 'Venom'

It's the battle of the monsters this weekend.

In one corner we have the alien symbiote Venom, who could very well launch a cinematic universe for Sony. In the other we have the "Little Monsters," Lady Gaga's fanbase fighting for audiences to show up for her awards-worthy performance in A Star Is Born.

Tuesday, it was discovered that a group of Lady Gaga fans were attempting to sabotage Venom's opening-weekend box office by writing negative reviews of Venom on Twitter once the social media embargo lifted. Twitter users noticed that a significant number of reactions to Venom following Monday's premiere contained the same content right down to the punctuation, and one of them told BuzzFeed it was a coordinated attack on Venom.

The most prominent faux offenders were "I am the biggest marvel fan but I just watched #Venom and I don't know what to say. Easily the worst movie this year. I expected so much better and now I'm just disappointed" and "Just got out of a #Venom preview.. Thankfully it was free. Worst two hours of my life. I will be taking my wife to see Lady GaGa's new movie #AStarisBorn with Bradley Cooper on Friday. Their song Shallow is great.."

Welcome to the last days of the second decade in the 21st century, where the battle for dominant pop culture is fought through alternate accounts and falsified reviews for films that the vast majority of would-be audiences have yet to see.

The thing is, outside certain circles of fandom, Venom vs. A Star Is Born isn't a fight worth investing in, let alone placing bets on. For the most part, the fates of these movies were sealed weeks ago. The fact that each film is seeking different things in terms of audience and recognition doesn't make for an even, or exciting, match. While Venom is expected to top the box office with around $65 million, A Star Is Born is tracking for $28 million-30 million launch. The chances of the R-rated musical beating a superhero movie are slim, even though Bradley Cooper's film has earned exceptional reviews while the comic book film is in the exact opposite camp. Never mind that willing audiences who want to see both films will make the effort to do so, but the Little Monsters have nothing at stake.

A Star Is Born is already a success — it has been since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 31. It's an Oscar contender that seals the future of both Lady Gaga as an actress and Bradley Cooper as a director, and an album with a single that's topping the charts. A No. 1 opening at the box office means very little in terms of the film's success at this point. A Star Is Born is guaranteed to be a hit, and it's not like the film's box office will be a deciding factor in launching a franchise. So what is this particular circle of Lady Gaga's "Little Monsters" fighting for? Who are they fighting against? And perhaps most important, what percentage of the fandom do they actually represent? The fabricated conflict is inherently silly, but it speaks to a larger phenomenon: the weaponization of fandom.

Although fandom in most cases is a tool that brings like-minded people together to enjoy and support the properties they care about, we've begun to see those notions of community taken to new extremes in which fandom is used as a weapon to destabilize potential competitors, film entries that don't fit within the good graces of certain fans, and even people associated with the films.

A recent academic paper suggested that a number of The Last Jedi's negative reactions were amplified by trolls. The paper, Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the Strategic Politicization of Pop Culture Through Social Media Manipulation by researcher Morten Bay, suggests that social media has made Rian Johnson's film appear far more controversial and divisive than it is. There is little doubt that some of the negative response to The Last Jedi is genuine, but the idea that it's being boosted by political or personal agendas that have little to do with the movie itself seems like a valid theory. This raises the question of when is fandom no longer fandom?

Fans, perhaps now more than ever, are often held responsible for the actions of a few. If you've spent enough time on the internet, there's little doubt you've seen toxic fandom up close. But how much of this toxicity is really a defining part of a fanbase, and how much is the work of outliers?

Take DC film fans, for example, who are perhaps the most frequently fixated on for being volatile and spiteful. Those temperamental DC fans exist certainly, as they do in any fandom. But so much of the negative labels placed on DC fans stems from the fact that a number of vocal critics and bloggers care too much that these fans found meaning in films they didn't care for. There is often an antagonizing of these fans, to the point where their inside jokes and responses are radicalized and used as weapons against them by those who can't accept that there are fans who loved something they didn't. Fandoms have weaponized themselves in some cases, but the very concept of fandom has become something of a slur by those who regard their position outside of it as a higher, more honest perspective.

It feels as though fandom, at least as we've thought of it, is on the verge of collapse. The weaponization of it, the way it's used against others, against films and against nonexistent threats, seems to be leading toward an inevitable explosion in which many of the once self-titled fanboys and fangirls begin shying away from the label, lest they fall prey to mob mentality or categories that never defined them.

Fandom originally came about as a tool to give people voices and a more expansive perspective, but now that those voices are being lost in the mire, perhaps it's time to find new avenues through which to assert the multitudes of our pop cultural identities. Perhaps that begins with a double feature of Venom and A Star Is Born or perhaps it's as grand as extracting our own stake in fandom from the mad chorus of social media.