Dr. Geek: Batfans, Putting the Fanatic Back in Fan

The theory goes that the term “fan” originated as a shortened form of fanatic.  Fanatic comes from long, long ago, when the only fanatics were of the religious type, as a way to describe such people with excessive zeal, enthusiasm and passion, as if driven mad and consumed by the madness.  Due to its etymological origin, the term fan, when it arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often had a rather negative connotation.

And the recent actions of some “Batfans” is not doing a lot to dissuade this view.

Calling someone a fan has had a history of being derogatory.  The fan was seen as putting too much passion into something not related to wage-earning labor of the industrialized age.  In the industrial age — which we here in the U.S. are firmly out of — people were expected to work hard to earn money for themselves and their family.  In the late 1800s, people began to abandon their farms and rural communities to move to the urban centers that housed the new factories.  You worked, you ate, you slept, and you repeated the cycle — a cycle essentially built on the agricultural production model.

However, time changed, and with it technology — of two sorts.  One technology improved the factory, improving production and freeing up people from having to work as much.  The other technology improved communication, creating the first true mass media in cinema and then radio.  Add in the impact of unions to reduce working time, and the free time of weeknights and weekends was created.  The media was poised to sweep in and fill that void people felt from needing to be working by giving people things to read, to watch, to listen, and even to play.  Sports fans, movie fans, book fans were all born — people using what had been work-for-pay time to follow a passion that they had, sometimes involving work-as-hobby time when people built crystal radios, joined community sports leagues, started movie clubs.

Time’s progression only increased the ability for people to become fans, and the types of things they could become fans of.  And all the while there was a tension.  On the one hand, it was good that there were fans: it meant people had leisure time, that they were not forced to work themselves to exhaustion, and that the industries that sprung up to feed their passions could reap the benefits of their work-as-hobby time.  But on the other hand, you have the people who are continuing to do a lot of work-for-pay time and who value the notion of hard work looking at these fans and wondering, perhaps with a tinge of envy, why they are wasting their time and money on such pursuits rather than contributing to their society.  For some, the fan was seen as lazy, as immature, especially when their fandom pursuits lead to what was deemed to be excessive expenditures in time and money.

Today this negative view of the fan has moderated — especially because of how much money the industries are able to make off of them (see the just ended Comic-Con, which I’ll talk about later this week), in direct sales and indirectly via marketing (which I’ll also get to later this week).  However, the excessive fan, the overly-enthusiastic and passionate fan, still brings the term fanatic to mind, and can continue to give fan that negative connotation.  Consider the view on so-called “soccer hooligans,” those fans of what others call football who may either applaud a victory or decry a loss by torching the neighborhood surrounding a stadium.  These are fans of the most excessive type — and they are seen around the world.

And then there are fans of Batman who have sent death threats to movie critics for seeing the upcoming release The Dark Knight Rises not receive the glowingly positive reviews they believe it deserves.

On Monday, July 16, the first official reviews of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s end to his Batman trilogy began to hit the Web.  For a movie that follows up on the critically and financially successful The Dark Knight, it is expected to be another darling on both counts — perhaps even passing The Avengers, which had managed to top The Dark Knight in all time box office success.  The fans of The Dark Knight are passionate about their love of the film, and particularly their love of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, almost making the man a martyr in their fandom.  His lines of “Why so serious?” and “And here we go!” have become something of anthems for this fan community, which is comprised largely of teenagers and young adults, those perhaps most disenfranchised with the current state of the country and the world and have thus taken up with the Joker as something of a role model.

And some of these fans have been acting like the Joker’s henchmen in how they have reacted to the critics.

Now, overall, the view on the movie is positive — with some coming out and calling it the best superhero movie ever, making anything Marvel has put out as simply “silly and childish”.  On Monday, as the reviews came in, review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes rated the movie as 91% fresh (it has since fallen as more reviews, including more negative ones, go live). However, rather than just be rapturous about the praise coming from the majority of critics, the Batfans, especially those who truly loved The Dark Knight, decided to play dirty.

In the comment fields of both the original review and Rotten Tomatoes, Batfans lambasted the critics for having the gall to see the latest Nolan film as anything other than the masterpiece is must surely be.  For example, Christy Lemire’s review for AP as run by The Washington Post for a time was receiving death threats while she was being called all manner of derogatory things.  Comments that violate TWP’s terms of use agreement are removed by a moderator, but other sexist comments get through, as seen in this part of the thread when I read it Monday night.

On Rotten Tomatoes, those critics who are shown as giving the film a “rotten” review were slammed by hundreds of comments, while those who praised the film as “ripe” saw nary but a trickle of comments.  Case in point, Marshall Fine of Hollywood and Fine, with his reaction to what happened here.

In some cases they were attacking the critic for not liking this movie but liking others they did not consider worthy of liking.  In other cases they appear to have been picking up on one thing the critic said and taking it out of context, perhaps not even reading the entirety of the review but only the quote Rotten Tomatoes provides.

However, as can also be seen in these snippets, there are those who fight against such fans, who bring up the arguments of “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” or “how can you judge a movie you haven’t seen?”.  There are also those fans who try to shame the others, although such shame probably will not work against the most rabid of Batfans, for reasons I will discuss below.  And then there are the attacks amongst the fans, such as long arguments or name-calling, as seen in the above snippet from Rotten Tomato involving an amazingly derogatory attack that somehow did not get taken down by the site’s moderators.

So why do they do this?  As Devin Faraci suggested in his article for Badass Digest (and you can see his review here), a lot of their vitriol is due to identity issues.  For these Batfans, The Dark Knight was a seminal film, perhaps the impetus for their Batman fandom, and, as I mentioned, perhaps there was a great amount of identification with the Joker.  There are a multitude of reasons why a person may have been personally drawn to the film, but whatever the reason, the film stirred something inside its fans, and they took this stirring to indicate that it was important to them.  Everyone has had such an interpretation of a stirring — when we direct it towards others, it is friendship or love; when we direct it towards an object or an activity, its fandom.  Feeling it as important, the fan comes to see himself or herself as needing this thing to know himself or herself: the fandom becomes a way of identifying oneself to oneself and to others.

And what do you do when something you think is important to you is under attack?  If someone makes fun of someone you love, then you have a perceived need to defend that person.  This knee-jerk response is the same when a fan believes his or her object deemed as important is criticized by others.  It’s a primal response in us to attack that which harms something we love, something we have deemed important to our sense of self and our sense of self-worth.  For many people, we can temper this knee-jerkiness by not reacting in that split second defensiveness — by not leveling death threats to those who do not agree with us that a movie is the best of all time.  Some people cannot — and the ability of the Internet to provide the outlet to such responses in an anonymous and timely manner does not help to dissipate the knee-jerkiness.  Such fans may be less likely to snap back at a friend, but to a stranger, without fear of direct reprisal, there is nothing to stop the passion from overtaking the person who feels his or her self is being personally attacked.

Thus does this (apparently one day, as its more silent on Rotten Tomatoes now) outburst from Batfans hearken back to where the term came from: that idea of overt enthusiasm, perhaps misplaced passion.  Passion is a good thing, and passion properly focused and directed is perhaps greatly needed in our world — but knee-jerkiness is not.  Now, we can blame the fan, who should know better.  And we can blame the Internet, for making it easier.  But we can also blame our society and culture for not providing better outlets for such passion.

When life is full of humdrum work-for-pay time that seems either increasingly hard to find or is not fulfilling our need for self-worth, and our fandoms are more engaging and more able to make us feel important, then putting too much investment in the latter and not the former is an indication of being dissatisfied with life.  The anomie of the 19th and 20th centuries has only intensified with the rise of pop culture and the formation of communities — clans or tribes — based on shared passions with fellow fans and not on geophysical needs with neighbors.

It is all well and good to care about something, but when caring contorts into an us versus them mentality, of feeling threatened when the “them” doesn’t agree with the “us”, then we have a problem, one that should go beyond the knee-jerk response of “well, it’s just some stupid fanboys”.

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About CarrieLynn Reinhard

I've been a scifi fan all my life, so I figured I should actually make money being so. And since I've always wanted to be a scientist -- at one point I was convinced I knew how to clone dinosaurs from their hollow bones -- the career path of being a scientist who studies fans and their media obsessions made the most sense for a woman obviously way too influenced by Jurassic Park. I've been all around the world studying fans, superheroes, virtual worlds, digital games, the media industry, and various media technologies. Now I'm an assistant professor in new media studies and audience reception studies at Dominican University just outside of Chicago, and discuss my research and other issues in the world of geekdom at my blog, www.playingwithresearch.com.