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.
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.
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.
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.