(Ir)rational Outrage: Reevaluating Fandom Criticism

In his essay for The New Republic, “You’ve Got Hate Mail,” author William Giraldi traces the history of outraged reader response from its origins in the nineteenth century to its fast-paced twenty-first-century permutation, arguing that hate mail is an inevitable consequence of public self-expression, and not just inevitable but desirable:

Part of a writer’s job should be to dishearten the happily deceived, to quash the misconceptions of the pharisaical, to lure the hermetic from whatever bolt-holes they’ve built for themselves—to unsettle and upset. If someone isn’t riled by what you write, you aren’t writing truthfully enough. Hate mail is what happens when you do.

It’s a perspective that’s shared by many writers, myself included, but in the last week I’ve come to see it as an overly simplistic perspective—one in dire need of critical examination.

See, I tried to let the HydraCap thing go. I really, really did. “Say your piece and then let it go,” I told myself. “Don’t feed the media machine any more than you have to.” And I said my piece, and then I did my best to let it go.

And over the course of the week came a barrage of smug, patronizing op-eds from the comics media establishment: if you understood how comics worked you wouldn’t be upset; and—even more infuriating—the fact that you’re upset and want to voice your opinion in a public venue means that you’re the problem. It didn’t come from everyone, but it came from enough sources to seem significant. There’s a tyranny of narrative that exists in the court of public opinion, one that depends in large part on the ability to dismiss any and all negative feedback on the basis of gatekeeping, oversimplification of the situation, and outright bullying. I could easily have let the HydraCap controversy go—I’m pleased with my articulation of the issues surrounding the narrative choice to make Steve Rogers a member of HYDRA and have nothing more to say on the matter—but I can’t let the condescending dismissal of not just legitimate criticism but the very right to engage in criticism go. I just can’t. So here we are.

As I see it, there are three main problems at work in the standard media response to the HydraCap controversy: a misdirection of ire, an age-old desire to keep certain people out of the party, and an underestimation of the value of outrage as a critical tool.

As I pointed out last week, though the lengthy list of articles that have rushed to remind everyone comic books are a wait-and-see genre would have you believe the problem lies with inexperienced fans who are all just taking this much too seriously, Nick Spencer and Tom Brevoort are the ones who made this mess. In their zeal to stir up a profitable controversy (an undertaking that was highly successful, I might add), they stopped the wait-and-see game directly in its tracks. Rather than allowing fans to indulge in potentially endless speculation about what might actually be going on, Spencer and Brevoort told us all—in no uncertain terms—that Steve Rogers was, and always had been, a member of HYDRA.(1) Consequently, the ordinary rules simply don’t apply in this instance, and its disingenuous to pretend that they do. Nick Spencer and Tom Brevoort all but demanded the fans take them at their word; it’s neither appropriate nor accurate to blame said fans for doing just that and getting upset about it.(2)

And yet that is exactly what is happening.

“It’s the modus operandi of online yokels to be outraged, every few minutes, by some trifle or another,” opines William Giraldi. It’s an elegant yet scornful putdown, predicated on a concept that is well-documented in comic book circles—that people who offer up negative criticism do so because they are uneducated and therefore unqualified to speak on the topic—and it’s a viewpoint that has been repeatedly expressed throughout the HydraCap controversy. Since this kind of thinking is calculated to protect the status quo and the old-school fans who cannot bear to see it changed, it’s not all that surprising to see it crop up here. It’s gatekeeping, pure and simple, and gatekeeping in comics is nothing new. But this is gatekeeping of a newer and more insidious sort. Where once they simply told us not to play with their toys; now they tell us we can play (they want our money, after all)—but only so long as we do it quietly and in approved-of ways.

But let’s go back to Giraldi for a minute. “Should you become a writer,” he says, “brace yourself for the analphabetic rantings of the anonymous, the frivolous, the platitudinous and crapulous. Prepare for a cataract of derision and self-righteousness should you dare pen anything perceived as too left or too right, as too pious or too profane, as possibly ageist or racist, sexist or classist, each ‘ist’ word shot like a silver bullet intended first to take you down and then to wake you from your own beastliness.”

Over and above the gatekeeping that is endemic to comic book culture, there’s a tendency—particularly in the social media era where all outrages (no matter the cause) look strangely alike—to dismiss any and every display of anger that comes down the pike as flippant, and that dismissiveness is tied to this concept of the inevitability of hate mail. No matter what you do, someone is going to hate it. Ergo, there’s no point in paying too much attention to the haters. Right?

Not so fast.

In my view, the issue should not be that a group of people have the temerity to have a problem with something, the issue should be who it is that has the problem. The question who? needs to become the go-to concern when these waves of outrage hit. Who exactly is angry with you over what you’ve said or done? Is it a group of people who you (right or wrong) find repugnant? Or is it a group of people who you generally respect (and whose respect you crave)? This question of who, and how you respond to it, constitutes the difference between standing firm for something you believe in and checking your goddamn privilege. Because if you find yourself dismissing the outrage of groups of people who you thought would align themselves with you, then you probably don’t really hold the ideals that you have told yourself you do.

So who’s really upset about HydraCap? On the whole, the majority of people who are truly hurt by this plot twist are Jewish, a traditionally- and still-marginalized community who have a particular stake in the hero who was created by two Jewish men to be a symbol of the fight against antisemitism. Given that the lion’s share of criticism is coming from this marginalized community, what does it say about the ideals of Nick Spencer, Tom Brevoort, and the many other members of the comics media establishment who have dismissed their concerns outright and painted them as an uninformed or inappropriately entitled mob to boot?

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.


Notes
1) For an excellent breakdown of how Spencer and Brevoort’s handling of the Captain America: Steve Rogers PR directly contributed to fan outrage, check out this excellent post by Tea Berry-Blue.
2) It should go without saying that I am not, in any way, suggesting that harassment, online abuse, and death threats should go uncensured. Such behavior is never acceptable, but neither is it acceptable to lump legitimate criticism in with such behavior for the purposes of ignoring it. .

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2 thoughts on “(Ir)rational Outrage: Reevaluating Fandom Criticism

  1. THANK YOU.

    I said it elsewhere on here recently, but when I voiced my displeasure with Marvelat the checkout desk of an actual comic shop, for pulling such a stunt – and predicated my criticism on it being stupid, nonsensical, poorly-executed, insulting, and obviously *manipulative* (and not in a good way!) *publicity stunt* writing, done only to take advantage of sensationalism instead of actual, you know, good writing that actually made sense for the character that I liked?

    I was first told that “it’s only people on tumblr who don’t buy comics that are really upset” – and when I pointed out that I MYSELF was upset about it and was, in fact, LITERALLY RIGHT THERE buying comics, I was told that well, okay, I’m some sort of rare unicorn exception, but also that I was wrong to be actually upset about it because “it’ll be a fake out or retconned”. Except, as you noted here, they were very explicit about it NOT being a ‘fake out’, and why should the fact it MIGHT be retconned later alter the fact that it was stupid, insulting, shameless stunt writing that didn’t really do service to the character in the ACTUAL STORY that was being told at the time??

    The answer is that it shouldn’t; the answer is that a good story is a good story and a bad story is a bad story, and HydraCap was upsetting BECAUSE it was a bad story, which made no sense for the character and was insulting to the very intent and origins of the character, let alone the character’s biggest fans, who had a deep and understandably emotional investment in him BECAUSE of how he had been previously built up over the course of the past 75 goddamn years. You’d think the notoriously conservative comics community would appreciate the idea of sticking with the basic template for the character that had worked for three quarters of a century without deeply violating it just to get attention, but apparently not! Perhaps they’ll be okay with it too then if we spontaneously reveal he’s been transgender the whole time too, or gay, or both??

    (Which I would be fine with but what do you want to bet THAT sort of change, which would be relatively minor compared to changing his entire worldview and moral system, would get the straight white cisgender fanboys up in arms? And of course, THEY would have a right to complain, but WE don’t…tch.)

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    • Yes, yes, yes!

      I think I made it pretty clear in the article, but the examples you give here of the general dismissiveness of some people in the face of those who voiced concerned was the main impetus behind my writing this. (I saw that dismissiveness online and, like you, at my local comic book store.) Foz Meadows has a really good post about criticism and harassment that raises some points that are really applicable here, even though the topic is fanfic rather than professional comics. Essentially: while criticism directed at (that is to say, sent directly to) a creator is harassment, criticism that’s expressed in public where a creator might happen to see it is not. The way the critical backlash to HydraCap was framed as nothing but harassment by clueless newbies was absolutely infuriating.

      As was the argument against “pandering.” You know, if I never heard a fanboy say the word pandering again, it would be too damn soon. Pandering is the number one go to expression for writing off any and all criticism while hypocritically benefiting from exactly what is being denounced. As I noted in an earlier reply, comic book companies do, in fact, bow to fan pressure. Not all the time certainly, but it does happen when revenue is on the line. There was no reason to treat fans upset by HydraCap as simply ignorant about the way comics work—particularly since that was exactly the reaction they were hoping for and fan criticism is, in fact, one of the way comic book makers determine what kinds of stories to tell.

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