A Woman Scorned (by Fans)

Internet fandom has done a lot of good since early geeks were chatting about Twin Peaks on newsgroup servers. It has increased public interest in textual analysis in ways English departments may dream about (if they were responsible for recruiting undergrads). It has given an outlet for people with niche interests separated by vast stretches of land and sea to form communities based on the imagination. It has given us slash fiction and the term Wincest. Cool.

Another cool thing it has brought is the rise of fan-based activism that stretches beyond reviving cult shows or fulfilling erotic fantasy. Take for instance when Joss Whedon called everyone to arms in a blog post on WhedonESQUE called “Let’s watch a girl get beaten to death,” decrying our complicity to misogyny after the video of an Iraqi woman, Du’a Khalil Aswad, being stoned to death went viral. Whedon fans, who probably first heard of the man through the feminist friendly Buffy the Vampire Slayer, began writing letters, donating money to Equality Now, and further spreading the message that we should no longer support by our silence violence against women. In the previously linked to article, you can see more examples of how fans rallied to real life causes through fantasy material that created a space where people can become empowered.

Unfortunately, there is a more sinister side to falling in love with certain fictional worlds. Take for example fan reaction to the new NBC show Grimm. If you aren’t familiar with the show, here’s a primer. All the fairytales are real (aren’t they always?). Nick, a cop in Portland, finds out he’s a Grimm, a sort of slayer/policeman of fairytale creatures called Wesen. The Wesen, by the way, can pass for human, though Nick can see them. He has a werewolf buddy (a “blutbad,” meaning blood bath in real German), a partner on the police force, a mysterious captain who’s probably a villain, and a girlfriend. Out of the main characters, you have a single female character, Juliette, and she serves as the foil to Nick’s crusading (she doesn’t know fairytales are all true). My wife and I started watching Grimm, because we like fantasy and it was cocreated by David Greenwalt, Joss’s partner for Angel. The plot about Juliette not knowing was aggravating for me, because I hate that storyline (the concealing the secret identity from the person you “love” to protect them or whatever). It’s cliché and usually condescending to the romantic interest. I also thought that it made Nick out to be a coward, especially since several times in the series, Juliette would have been spared harm if she knew she was in a fantasy show.

Apparently, the Internet disagrees. Responding to a blog post about the upcoming season 2 of Grimm, Livejournal user lovedhurtlost expressed hope that the show would get better, suggesting, “Kill Juliet! Kill Juliet! Kill Juliet!” Several users, including homicidalslayer and aprettybinding went on to discuss the spelling of Juliette as well as mocking the name of the actress (Bitsie Tulloch) who plays her. Why do people hate Juliette? chiroro makes the following point, “I just want them to kill off Juliette because she honestly contributes like nothing to the show.” Well, I’d like to point out that much of the narrative tension in the mytharc hinges on her being in the dark about the strange fantasy creatures that exist. That, and she’s almost the ONLY WOMAN ON THE SHOW. There’s a witch character who makes a reappearance but she’s evil. And to the show’s credit, there’s another woman regular now, though so far she is just a love interest to the comedic werewolf sidekick. A couple of users, kawaiiairbender and sihaya09, gently reminded fans that they were basically advocating throwing women in the refrigerator.

“Go back to the kitchen, where you belong (in the refrigerator),” said fans of the show. “You know, so you can contribute to the emotional arc of the male protagonist.”

I had the suspicion that what kawaiiairbender said (one reason people were hating on Juliette is that it “impedes their Nick/Monroe ship”) is partly right, but I think it might go a little deeper. Is it a need to put oneself in the position of the love interest of the main character? I took a look at other shows with fan discussion on the Internet. According to Uproxx, everyone hates Lori from The Walking Dead. Why? The Internet thinks she is manipulative, a bad parent, and just all around annoying. I’ve watched both seasons of The Walking Dead, and I fail to see how her husband Rick is a better parent, or how Rick and Shane (the dudes she’s in a love triangle with, pictured below) are both less manipulative. Annoying seems to be the go-to word for when we don’t like a female character. Lori, like Juliette, is the major love interest of the show, and is actually berated online for being cruel to a man who tried to rape her. Some posters, who seem a bit peeved with their own misogyny, try to accuse her character of misogyny (Lori criticizes Andrea, another female character, for working on a tan when there are chores to do) or call out the writers for writing her poorly. Another example, then, of the female love interest getting wildly overzealous hate.

When dudes cry, it’s hella evocative, yo.

How about True Blood, a show with an actual female lead? In my own life, I have progressive friends who have accused Anna Paquin of being a terrible actor (an opinion I disagree with, especially considering that the whole show is a fantasy melodrama and is written in a borderline camp style and still manages some genuinely poignant moments with Paquin’s character Sookie as the centerpiece). A big part of the story in True Blood is the 2 dudes/1 chick love triangle that seems to inspire the Team (insert moody dude here) type of fandom, so Sookie’s immune from some of the vitriol. It seems fans recognize that the show is about her (though ample people hate her too, and for the same reasons as Lori plus some sex-shaming). When we get to the midcard female characters of the show, fans attack. Check out this Facebook page. That’s right, a whole Facebook page dedicated to hoping for the death of Tara Thornton, Sookie’s best friend and the only black female character in a popular dramatic show (okay, so maybe there are three others). In the show, we see Tara get kidnapped, tortured, raped, and forced into the original version of 50 Shades of Grey, but we think it’s annoying when she complains about it. The language fans use to denigrate characters like Tara and Sookie are filled with the same gendered tropes used to shame and harass women for ages. They’re sluts. They’re annoying and overemotional. They’re (stereotype, stereotype).

Although Buffy is not always the favorite character in Buffy fandom, there’s nowhere near the same intensity of hatred from fans (though the little there is still repeats the same things as for the others: whiny, annoying, sort of implying that women should not complain about anything bad happening to them, such as being paid 77% of a man’s salary in 2010). In fact, the most universally hated Buffy character was probably Riley, who was basically Captain America in The Avengers, but less witty. How did this show escape from the anti-woman rhetoric that plagues every corner of fandom? We could argue that it’s because Buffy was a fantastic show, but Walking Dead’s first season was also very good, and both it and Grimm could turn into mature, well-developed shows (like BtVS) in time. True Blood, with its flashy production values and titillation, doesn’t aim to be the most literary of television shows, but it holds its own as a popular, entertaining summer show. I don’t think, if we’re honest with ourselves, that the women called out on these shows are the least ethical characters, the least interesting characters, or even the most poorly written characters.

It’s not just nerds like these who hate women.

The examples I’ve given are far from representative of how widespread this phenomenon is. Though there are some people who do defend these characters in message boards and forums, they’re fighting against a larger trend of fans despising female leads. It could be just the need to position oneself into a fantasy love triangle. It could also be the unhappy consequence of a generation of fans raised to take ownership of narratives in a world where it’s ok to invade women’s bodies, attack them, shame them for expressing sexuality, and deny them the license we give men to do what they will. This hate isn’t even just coming from lonely geeks in the basement, pining after girls. It’s not even coming from just dudes. And that rhetoric used demonstrates that it has nothing to do with fans wanting stronger female characters. If anything, it shows that they’d prefer the opposite, sinking us into the good old days where women were but arm candy for the hero, blank slates on which they can write themselves or their fantasies. Now that fanlike engagement with texts is becoming normal, the hate is coming from everyone. And that sucks.

4 thoughts on “A Woman Scorned (by Fans)

  1. While I agree with your general premise, and I do run into a lot of what you present in terms of fans treat female characters for the Internet fandoms can be a very gross place when discussing characters who happen to be women, I do have to disagree about your point on True Blood.

    The language fans use to denigrate characters like Tara and Sookie are filled with the same gendered tropes used to shame and harass women for ages. They’re sluts. They’re annoying and overemotional. They’re (stereotype, stereotype).

    I think this is too simple and ignores the real problem with the female characters on TB: they are stereotypes. It’s not just fans making them out to be, the show does it first.

    TB’s depiction of women is poor, -they majority of the time they cry, scream, act ‘hysterical,’ or do something stupid- and a lot of ‘hatred’ of the female characters is really criticism of their depiction gone sour. Now fan behavior after that point is often ugly, but look at where it stems from: in S3 the show, via Tara, calls the main heroine, Sookie, “a dumb country bitch.” (Please excuse my French, but those are the show’s own words, not mine). Subsequently, how so are the fans not supposed to follow suit when she continually acts like one? The writers write her that way, it’s not the fans (initial) fault for hating that depiction, especially when the source material this show is supposed to be based on runs counter. -Take S4, Sookie runs blindly runs into a witchshop to rescue Tara with no plan. None. And we’re supposed to call her smart? *headscratching.* In the books, at least her actions made sense and they were brave.

    Or dare I even mention Sookie apologizing to the guy that had her beaten within an inch of her life so he could seduce her more easily? But she’s sorry to hurt his feelings by turning him down?

    About Tara, the majority of people I know who hate Tara, hate her wasted potential based on her portrayal in S1. Those that don’t, well it is just my general impression they respond badly to the Angry Black Woman stereotype which Tara most often falls under. She hasn’t been treated as much more than that in S2, S3, and S4 and it’s a terrible shame. Did she even have a storyline in S4? She yelled a lot, I remember that much. I honestly don’t think Tara would be as hated if she were written for better, but more often than not she gets pushed to the side or is screaming her head off.

    As for the slut-shaming, yes this often a knee-jerk reaction to the romance not going someone’s way, (which unlike the books is a forced triangle on the show for dramatic reasons of which I will never understand). And the show does go out of it’s way to troll the audience in the “romance” department, as they have put so much focus on it. And I’m not excusing the slut-shaming, it is never, ever acceptable, just that I see how it comes about so easily in the TB fandom as the show is more interested in WHO WILL SOOKIE CHOOSE instead of, you know, Sookie’s growth as a person.

    Anywho,.. there are some very valid gripes there in the TB fandom based on how the show has treated its female characters, is my point. :)

    1. I get what you’re saying, and I agree that there are valid gripes for the way characters are written/portrayed. But those arguments do get to the “very gross place.” That’s my problem. And that it doesn’t happen with the male characters. In TB, Alcide is overbearing, paternalistic, and macho, but he doesn’t get adjectives like “annoying” placed onto him. He’s a stereotype too, but we don’t call him out on it.

      Also, I agree that Sookie’s character (I would say in the books as well, though) is not the brightest and fits into many stereotypes. But I think that a big narrative arc is her overcoming her own stereotypical/narcissistic behavior. And in the last few episodes, I think it’s becoming clear to her how her crappy actions and attitudes have been affecting others, which could lead to self-awareness. The problem is that this same storyline is considered charming and awesome when it is Jason’s storyline, but not when it is Sookie’s. It’s fine for Tara to call Sookie a bitch, but that shouldn’t give us permission to use the same language to describe her.

      Although I don’t consider TB to be a perfect portrayal of women at all, I don’t believe the way fans talk about the characters of Sookie and Tara are at all fair, or at least it’s particularly hostile in an out of proportion way. And, I hope, that most fans are not either consciously or unconsciously using sexist language to “call out” characters they have a problem with for whatever reason, but I suspect they do. The actual analysis of the characters and whether they’re honest and fully fledged portrayals of women is the subject for a later blog post.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I think there are valid points to be made that the texts aren’t living up to nuanced portrayals of gender we’d like to see (I feel the bar was set pretty high by Buffy)–maybe I’ll do a close reading of True Blood while this season’s still relevant!

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