When Fandoms Become too Much

I myself have been involved in the fandom culture in some shape or form like so many people. I like looking up the lore behind world such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and I like watching Marvel movies and I take pride in knowing a lot about the MCU and its characters. I have even gone to Denver Comic Con for the past 4 years and enjoy buying merchandise and meeting the celebrities that come there to sign autographs.

Watching Stranger Things, Black Mirror, and End of the F*****g World, it’s easy to understand how all of these shows can gather such a cult following. Something that stood out in all of them was the sense of nostalgia. For Stranger Things it relied heavily on popular culture from the 80s. It reminds older audiences of their memories of growing up then, or it remindes other generations about classic Steven Spielberg films such as E.T.  For the episode of Black Mirror it was the same effect with the clone of Star Trek in the episode called “Star Fleet.” It reminds audiences of the times they spent watching the show growing up, and it brings back a sense of fandom in almost all of us, even if we have never seen Star Trek like myself. EOTFW has a similar feel of nostalgia even though it is based of the present time because there is a “hipster” tone to the entire series that makes the clothes they wear, the places they go to, all seem so familiar.

Another reason as to why people gravitate towards these shows and create cult fan followings is because of the character development that occurs in all of them. With Stranger Things the audience is entirely within the group of the young boys. We grow to learn their personalities and relationships towards each other. If two characters seem especially close such as Eleven and Mike, then the fanbase will most likely “ship” them together, which means that they want the characters to be together romantically. This can happen with straight or queer couples. It becomes a problem however when the fanbase starts shipping the actors of the characters with each other, crossing the line between fiction and reality. Dee Lockett explains this in her article about Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike in Stranger Things. He had to publicly call attention to the inappropriateness of shipping himself with his coworkers, saying that it was inappropriate and “ridiculous.” The stars of EOTFW also have this issue when it comes to shipping because people (including me) were rooting for the characters of James and Alyssa to finally start liking each other and get together. However, it comes to no surprise that fans also started rooting for the actors Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden to get together in real life as well.

What is it about these shows and characters that make fans want to go “beyond the text?” Like said previously, it has to do with the character development that we experience when watching these shows. In Star Trek we come to know the characters strengths and weaknesses throughout the years of the shows running, and it makes us feel like we know them personally. This could be why Daly in Black Mirror wanted his victims to act like the characters he’s known from the show so intensely. We also see the characters change over time and this makes audiences cling closer to the characters still because we can see firsthand the journey they went through such as watching James think he’s a psychopath at the beginning of the series to coming to the conclusion that he’s not a psychopath at all. Another reason that viewers go beyond the text is because these worlds are so vast and the relationships become so complex that it is easy to try to create more content that fits into this world through fan fiction. Daly’s world in Black Mirror is like a super advanced fan fiction story because everything in his world fits his favorite TV show, yet he is making it his own and is creating new storylines that best fit him personally. If the show has an ending that is not the desired one fans are looking for such as the end of EOTFW which is left ambiguous, fans can create an ending that best suits what they desire.

My general view of fandom’s is positive if people explore it in appropriate ways. Going to Comic Con for example and cosplaying as your favorite character and buying posters and meeting celebrities in this atmosphere is appropriate and it is a lot of fun as well because other fandoms collide and you get to meet new people who love the same things as you do. It becomes a problem however when fans start stalking actors or creators of their favorite TV show or movie. It becomes a problem when older people start “creeping” on younger actors such as Finn Wolfhard or Millie Bobby Brown. It also becomes a problem when your fandom starts encompassing every aspect of your life and it becomes a literal addiction. Spending too much time on the internet focusing on a fandom is unhealthy and it alienates friends and family because they cannot relate to your fandom as intensely as you can. There is a time and a place to love and express your passions in a healthy and creative way. I think that Black Mirror demonstrates this idea of “toxic fandom” in a very provocative and elegant way. We have Daly who is an outcast in reality, but is a “god” in his own personal world. Instead of trying to communicate and make good impressions with his co-workers, he recedes into this office or in his home and is always immersed in his own world. Toxic fandom as I have said previously is when a person doesn’t communicate with friends, family, or the outside world if they can. They are completely immersed in their fandom world. This makes you look like an outcast, and for Daly his negative emotions about being an outcast push him further into this world. There needs to be a line between reality and fiction, and once a person can’t distinguish from the two or prefers fiction this is when toxic fandom takes place.

When it comes to my own “hardcore” fandoms I love The Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Mad Max. I have posters of all these things in my house and have met actors from these movies at Comic Con. I enjoy the lore and storytelling. I love to communicate with people that also enjoy these things, but I know when it’s appropriate to express my inner nerd, and when it’s not. I have been self-conscious about my love for these things at times because sometimes I want to wear a Marvel shirt or talk about things from The Lord of the Rings but I am worried that people might judge me for being a “geek” or a “nerd.” Being a fan of the MCU, I can definitely see myself as becoming a fan of all the Netflix Marvel shows. I just haven’t had the time to actually watch them. 

Being a Fan or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Inner Geek

At least we have reached a topic I can weigh in on with a (short) lifetime of experience. Since the 6th grade (if not before) I have been involved in a number of fandoms that make up an important part of my identity — for better or for worse. I grew up engrossed in everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to the DC comic universe. One wonders why I chose to watch The End of the F***ing World; I have to maintain brand loyalty. (Actually I’ve seen every Marvel movie and all of Jessica Jones, really I just wanted a change of pace). I have 3 tattoos, all from various fandoms I am a part of, and am very aware of my status as a social misfit overly invested in media. While it is something I greatly enjoy and will continue to do so, I recognize there are some potentially debilitating effects of my commitment. One need look no further than the disastrous re-release of the szechuan dipping sauce at McDonalds in honor of the Rick & Morty episode featuring it. Fans flooded the restaurants, jumping on tables, reenacting scenes from the show, and screaming obscenities at workers when the sauce packets ran out. This is NEVER acceptable behavior and I am ashamed to admit I am a fan of the show now after this ludicrous display. When someone’s life is defined entirely by fandoms and not belief systems or interpersonal relationships, it is incredibly harmful both to them and those around them. They seek to emulate the characters in the show and live their life by the imaginary rules the show follows; those rules often don’t translate to real life. Perhaps the best example of this concept is the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”.

Black Mirror is a superb show and “USS Callister” is, alongside “San Junipero”, my favorite episode of the series. It is a punishing look at the world of one of the most famous shows of all time as well as perhaps the most famous fandom of all time, Star Trek and its fandom the Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever I like Star Wars). It takes a look at the real-world consequences of trying to emulate the characters of the famous 1960s television show. Its main character is a programmer named Robert Daly who creates a virtual world where he can inhabit the persona of Star Trek protagonist Captain Kirk in all but name. In Star Trek he is an effortless womanizer, sleeping with any woman he pleases, is cool, calm, and collected, and orders his crew around with efficiency. For these very same reason he is a prime example of toxic masculinity, and this is what “USS Callister” outlines so effectively. In his desire to live the fictional life of Captain Kirk he creates a world of real people and then tries to force them to invest in the fantasy the way he does. He sexually assaults his female coworkers and threatens violence on anyone who disobeys him. While this type of behavior is played as manly and suave in the show, in real life is is creepy and unacceptable. In Jenna Scherer’s article for Rolling Stone, “‘Black Mirror’: How the New Season’s Breakout Episode Guts Toxic Fandom”, the episode rails against the possessiveness of toxic fandom, with fans in this category believing they own everything about the property they obsess over and trying to recreate that possession in their daily lives. He, like so many other “disaffected nerd-bro” tries to hook up with his coworker and when she isn’t interested, he “finds a way to possess her the same way he meticulously collects his complete set of Space Fleet DVDs.” Fandom should be about enjoyment, not possession and exclusivity, and CERTAINLY not about coercion and abuse. I sat here for awhile and couldn’t think of a good segue so let’s talk about cult fandom.

As I mentioned before I watched the first four episodes of The End of the F***ing World and I can certainly see why it would attract a cult following. It has all the staples of a cult classic: low budget appearance, disaffected youth, a very dark sense of humor, flashes of extreme violence, and general anti-establishment sentiment taken to its almost comical extreme. Main character James is a self-proclaimed psychopath who has killed many animals and is looking for his first human victim. He finds it in Alyssa, a petulant child who delights in raging at anyone and everyone around her. All of these things lead up to a following not of mainstream appeal, but of those disillusioned by the world around them who look for people seemingly like them who are willing to live a completely atypical life. While I struggled a bit to get into the show (I didn’t find either of the characters relatable so I wasn’t really invested in their struggle; James’s dad seemed nice enough, if a little banal) it did have a very distinct appeal and aesthetic, and the later episodes involving James’s first kill were quite tense. However, without a doubt the best example of a cult classic show on our viewing list this week is the Netflix original series Stranger Things.

Stranger Things is such a perfect example of cult television because it features the hottest thing to be a fan over: the 1980s. Everyone is in love with the 80’s right now; I am, and in 1989 I wasn’t even a twinkle in my daddy’s eye. My parents graduated high school in 1991! Stranger Things hold a nostalgic appeal that encourages people to go beyond the text to explore the 80’s more thoroughly. Increased interest in classic 80’s staples like Rubik’s Cubes and Back to the Future abound (those bomb Nike shoes from the second movie that lace themselves were released a couple of years ago!) And the 80’s maestro himself, Steven Spielberg, just cashed in big on the 1980s appeal with his movie Ready Player One. Stranger Things features a ton of this 80’s nostalgia, inviting people to go get retro movie posters and toys and the like. Even Netflix is cashing in on this further with other 80’s themed shows like GLOW. But once again, fan obsession rears its ugly head even in the idyllic world of 80’s nostalgia. Dee Lockett writes a depressing piece for Vulture.com in which she chronicles the struggles of fan v star, where 15-year old actor Finn Wolfhard was being endlessly harassed by Stranger Things fans to hook up with his 14-year old costar Millie Bobby Brown. This is obviously not ok and he once again links to the disconnect between reality and the world of the show; he said on Twitch “people don’t understand that we’re people who aren’t the characters in the show … and then they attack my friends.”

As a fan myself, it’s depressing to see fellow fans taking properties so seriously that affects their daily lives and the lives of those around them. Being a fan is fun; you can gush about shows, books, movies, and games with people who love those things too, can make inside jokes and memes, and perhaps the most valuable geek currency of all: references. But you need a healthy dose of life outside your fandoms; I like to go camping, drive ATVs, play board and card games with my family. I’m learning to cook, working, and going to school. Being a fan is an important part of my life but it doesn’t define it; for me being a fan is a positive and progressive form of cultural engagement where I can bond with people who would otherwise be strangers over Harry Potter because of my dark mark tattoo or Star Wars because of my many, many t-shirts. But for people whose lives revolve solely around shipping unwilling teenagers and screaming “Wubba-Lubba-Dub-Dub” on the counter of a McDonalds, it is a negative form of engagement indeed, and sets the widespread acceptance of fandom back immeasurably.

Fandom Makes You Want More

Fandom is a section of media that creates social interactions outside of the show itself. Fandom can be cosplay, books, merchandise, viewing parties, or anything else that relates to the show, but is outside of the show and in real life. This obviously only generates more excitement about the show, and brings a connection to the viewer’s real life. Due to this, show makers like Netflix love this. A show like Stranger Things, gives off the 80’s teen/tween fan boys and girls who love sci-fi and would love this show. Aside from that, it also attracts adult audiences as well. It could be considered that it attracts a cult following, because the genre is very specific- sci-fi, comedy, drama, and coming of age all in one. However, as the show grew even to be more popular, its reach expanded outside of just its cult followers and it became very mainstream. Fandom reached to the point where viewers would reference certain lines from the show (including myself). Referencing “the upside down” was frequent. However, Fandom can go overboard and become dangerous as well. As mentioned in the Vulture Article by Dee Lockett, “Here’s Why Stranger Things Star Finn Wolfhard Was Forced to Speak Out Against Inappropriate Fans,” Vulture (November 9, 2017), she references a quote  from Finn Wolfhard when she says, “On Wednesday night, 14-year-old star Finn Wolfhard tweeted a plea to fans not to “harass” him and his co-stars, writing that while he doesn’t want to “ex-communicate” people who love the show, “anyone who calls themselves a ‘fan’ and actively goes after someone for literally acting and doing their job is ridiculous.” Obsessions are real, and can be creepy as well especially when the cast are kids and the obsessors are 55 years old. This can be unavoidable though, because if they actors are great and the show is great, what is stopping fans from loving everything about it? It may also be argued that the fans are in love with the characters themselves and not the actors who play the characters.

As for Black Mirror, fandom is much different, especially because each epiosde is very different from each other with different characters in each show. However, fandom can still exist by ways of t-shirts and fan viewing meet up groups. Fandom can be so intense and a passion by a viewer that it may be a reason why they date someone else who shares their obsession. With a show like this though, following a story plot as it progresses across episodes does not happen, so I would expect fandom to be far less intense than Stranger Things. Nevertheless, the show is still very addicting, and on a person note, sometimes I wish certain episodes would continue and have their own series around that particular storyline with the same characters and cast in it.

Fandom can have a big affect on a viewer’s life outside of the show. Addiction to the show can be so harsh that it could cause a lack in their lives in other departments such as work or school. However, it can also provide a great escape, and they can make friends along the way who are just as obsessed as they are. It is up to the show makers to make a good show though, for fandom to exist and for viewers to want more.

Cult Shows and Fandom

Spaceships, transportation, space suits, strange aliens, rebellious children, and murder, what all do they have in common? They all are characteristics of cult favorites of film and Netflix Original shows such as Stranger Things, Black Mirror, and The End of the F***ing World. All three shows provide viewers with Sci-Fi, comedy, or horror while bringing a new light and perspective to the always-same characteristics of the genres until now.

When you look at cult fandom of these or any cult shows, audience member become extremely attached which can be a positive outcome or a negative outcome. Cult classics lie near and dear to fans hearts and they fall in love with a film or show and go to worlds end to keep the program alive. Toys, posters, lunch boxes, and props are a way for cult members to “take home” a piece of the show and start collections of remembrance. The different shows perform certain character quotes, characters wear certain clothing and even location of shows can effect how hardcore fans interact with the show. By purchasing fandom items, people can showcase their interest, fascination and loyalty to the show. Also by wearing or displaying these items and products in public, other fans can recognize this fandom’s to interact with one another. Thanks to social media outlets such as blogs or chat groups, Facebook pages, Instagram and comic-on, it is easier than ever to hardcore fans to connect with one another, along with staying connected with show updates and press releases. I personally have films and shows that I have purchased, which only fans will understand. For example I have t-shirts from the film clueless, scale model cars from Knight Rider, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to hairspray from Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I believe fandom is a great way to express who you are by showcasing what you enjoy to watch. I agree with media scholars who argue that fandom is a positive progressive, however there needs to be some kind of line a fan needs to not cross. I understand hardcore fans of cult productions feel an “ownership” of characters, plot or setting, but people need to keep in mind, at the end of the day its all Hollywood. In an article called Here’s Why Stranger Things Star Finn Wolfhard Was Forced to Speak Out Against Inappropriate Fans, written by Dee Lockett, claims “ On Wednesday night, 14-year-old star Finn Wolfhard tweeted a pleas to fans not to “harass” him and his co-stars, writing that while he doesn’t want to “ex-communicate” people who love the show, “anyone who calls themselves a ‘fan’ and actively goes after someone for literally acting and doing their job is ridiculous.”

When it comes to the show Black Mirror episode “USS Callister,” the show communicates a forward thinking progression of diversity in characters and changing the game in fandom. Unlike regular Sci-Fi shows, Black Mirror places a white female in the captions chair. Most fans are not happy about the modern changes taken place. Members of the show feels as if the show is taken too far off course when looking at older Sci-Fi shows which paved the way for this current series. In an article called ‘Black Mirror’: How the New Season’s Breakout Episode Guts Toxic Fandom, written by Jenna Scherer, tells “Their complaint, broadly, is founded on the deeply limiting idea that all narratives should center on straight, white men, who have been the unquestioned default protagonists up until very recently. This is an idea that’s particularly ironic in the world of sci-fi, which is all about imagining potential futures in which anything is possible.” Toxic fandom followers will be disappointed in the new look of this show, because the show doesn’t follow the “rules” of sticking to past standards and brings in a fresh new look.

Dee Lockett, “Here’s Why Stranger Things Star Finn Wolfhard Was Forced to Speak Out Against Inappropriate Fans,” Vulture (November 9, 2017): http://www.vulture.com/2017/11/why-a-stranger-things-star-spoke-out-against-fans.html

Jenna Scherer, “Black Mirror: How the New Season’s Breakout Episode Guts Toxic Fandom,” Rolling Stone (January 3, 2018): https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/how- instant-black-mirror-classic-uss-callister-guts-toxic-fandom-w514853

 

Why Going “Beyond the Text” Should be Encouraged… to an Extent

Shows like Stranger Things and End of the F***ing World may attract cult fandom followings because of their uniqueness and allure. For example Stranger Things takes what looks like normal, everyday people at first glance and toss those characters into a bizarre situation. In the case of End of the F***ing World, based on my viewing of the first few episodes, it romanticizes running away and murder, something the average person normally would never consider, but in the realm of a television show, the viewer can fantasize it just as much as the characters do. The idea of being able to take a break from your day to day life, or imagine your dull in comparison life could be turned upside down in a similar way to the characters’ lives, could be what draws viewers in to this cult fandom. Also, the shows much be well written, have interesting characters, and a compelling plot in order for this fandom to grow, otherwise it never lose steam and quickly die off.

When it comes to my personal take on fandom, I believe media, be that television shows, movies, books, comics, even YouTubers, etc. can be a form of escape for many viewers. The lives of the characters and the worlds depicted in these forms of media are often seen as better than reality, and through this media consumption, viewers can escape from their lives even if only temporarily. This is what fuels fandom culture as a whole, specifically going “beyond the text” and the use of things like fanfiction, cosplay, fan made photo edits and fandom merchandise such as t-shirts, look alike props, posters, and many more. I strongly think this can be healthy and should be encouraged, to an extent. Liking something and wearing it on a shirt, or having a replica prop from a form of media you enjoy, shows your devotion to the media as well as what the media means to you. My personal opinion is that media should carry emotional weight, and have, to some degree, the capacity for the viewers to relate on a more intimate level. For example, a character may struggle with similar issues such as mental health as a viewer which prompts them to care more for that character and their world than the average passive, “mindless” viewer might, or it can be as simple as someone believing they belong to a certain Harry Potter house due to their character traits. This can lead to smaller involvement within a fandom when it comes to owning clothing or merchandise. When it comes to more involved forms of fandom such as fanfiction, it can be a good creative outlet for the viewer to think of themselves as a writer for the media which they consume, and add onto the media in a way which the real writers did not consider. I am of the belief that good production and storylines should leave holes. Not plot holes, of course, but holes where not every single second from beginning to end is told in detail to the viewer, and this goes for script writing, book writing, directing of films and television. This leaves gaps where the media consumer is not certain of every moment within a characters’ life prior to or after the events of the main media, which leaves more interpretation and room for viewers to draw their own conclusions. These holes are a good example of where fanfiction or other fan produced content could fit in.

There are some very blatant “red… lines” which should not be crossed when it comes to fandom, particularly what is touched on within the articles for this week. Being unable to separate the actor from their character is one of those things. The fact that Stranger Things actors Finn Wolfard and Millie Bobby Brown have to deal with fans “shipping” them as people, despite their ages and their characters ages, is simply not alright. Stalking actors due to one’s “devotion” to their content is also not alright, in fact, it borders on creepy and possessive. It definitely is unhealthy. This separation between what is real and what is not is crucial especially within a society where actors are put up on this almost perfect pedestal.

In regards to the toxicity of fandom in relation to toxic masculinity, Black Mirror’s USS Callister is a prime example. The main character, Daly, embodies what many would view as a hard-core fan of Star Trek parallel Space Fleet, and this fandom turns horribly toxic very quickly to the point of it entirely taking over Daly’s life as he abuses others into helping him fully immerse himself in the world. Once more, having action figures and collecting the media and hanging posters is all well and good, but there is a point, and Daly crossed it long ago. It is a satirical example of how so many popular forms of media both historically and in modern day are dominated by white male leads—Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, largely Marvel and DC’s biggest films prior to a few years ago, etc. Anything depicting characters other than this white male lead means, in their eyes, and in the words of Rolling Stones’ writer Jenna Scherer, that something is “being taken from them.” In the case of Black Mirror, however, this white male lead turns into the very antagonist that so many fandom members love to hate because of how they obstruct the protagonist from achieving their goal. Overall, fandom can be very beneficial—it can be an even greater escape from reality, a creative outlet, and a way of expressing one’s self when they can relate to a particular media. Or fandom can be toxic and unhealthy, for both those involved in the fandom and those responsible for the creation of the media the fandom is based off of.

Are fandoms the new breeding ground for toxic masculinity?

Listen, I hate things that are popular. Game of Thrones? Yep, I hate just because a lot of people like it. Hating popular things makes me cool and interesting to talk to at parties, I’m just sure of it. I love to be the “edgy” one in my friend group and cut my friends off when they start talking to me about how cool the new Marvel movie is going to be. Sorry, Branden, it’s actually not going be cool at all. Wake up. Being insufferable to the people you care most about it is pretty much the coolest thing you can do nowadays.

 

But in all seriousness, fandom has always been kind of an odd thing for me, especially as a Star Wars fan in recovery as I tend to call it. I just can’t do the constant debating about whether the next iteration of Star Wars is good or not. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m done reading think pieces on why Luke Skywalker drank blue milk from a sea monster. So when I see how Marvel capitalized on “nerd culture,” and nearly adapted every bankable superhero imaginable and then some (because who asked for a Cloak and Dagger show?), I’m skeptical, to say the least. And then there’s toxic fandom, which seems to have become more rampant in the digital age. I remember seeing the outrage surrounding the video of Stranger Things star, Finn Wolfhard not stopping to sign autographs for a group of adults that were staked outside his hotel. The woman in the video exclaims multiple times, “I haven’t met you before, Finn” and “this is so rude,” as Finn passes by. The idea that an actor owes anyone anything has always been a bit preposterous and this immediately stuck out to me as an incident of toxic fandom. Then there come all the cases of people online “shipping” Millie Bobby Brown and Wolfhard, even going as far to Photoshop their faces on the bodies of the Joker and Harley Quinn from the God awful, Suicide Squad movie. Besides having terrible taste, it’s just creepy. What unsettles me most is that in late-stage capitalism, fandom seems to grant individuals the right to claim ownership of anything and this means human beings as well. When everything is for sale, it seems fans miss the connection between the characters on screen and the real people that play them, believing that they too owe them something in return for their undying service to the franchise. It’s also why it’s hard for me to get behind Marvel today when it all just reads as nothing more than deeply entrenched marketing. It seems like there’s just nothing quite as profitable appealing to and establishing new fan bases for IPs. The whole thing just reeks of inauthenticity, as the neoliberal marketing tool is to make people think they are ones in the captain’s chair, so to speak.

 

So that brings us to The “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror, which quite masterfully depicts the crossroads between fandom and toxic masculinity. Jesse Plemon’s Captain Daly exhibits the unsettling truth behind men and their perceived ownership of intellectual property, which seems to always suggest a far unhealthier obsession towards controlling the women involved within and outside of their fandom. When we meet Daly he seems like the type of jovial starship captain many viewers are probably familiar with but as the episode progresses he basically turns into the Travis Bickle of Star Trek, when we see how alone and unconnected he is from the real world. What makes Daly the monster he truly comes from how he commodifies the women around him in his digital world to act the way he wants and says the things he wants to hear. It’s also in these moments that the connection between brand ownership and the male ownership of woman’s sexuality becomes more and more apparent. In 2018, if I’ve seen real conscious efforts from individuals confronting toxic masculinity in all the spaces it shows up in but as the digital age advances and brands become ever so encapsulating, I fear that men will be allowed to further isolate themselves from society and create new spaces for toxic masculinity to thrive. If you’ve ever visited 4Chan, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Daly here serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when men seclude themselves from the real world and instead take refuge in their fantasy worlds. Fandom itself isn’t the lone gateway to this type of misogyny but in a world built on these power structures, it would be ridiculous to think they won’t show up in these cultural spaces as well.

The Voice of Multiculturalism: Is it Better to Preach or Immerse in a Non-White America?

The most compelling example of multiculturalism in the three episodes that I watched was the examples in On My Block. While the show did at times uphold some of the stereotypical representations of ethnic minorities (there are heavily tattooed Latino gang members throughout) these representations are there to draw attention to the very real problem of gang violence that exists within extremely poor neighborhoods that tend to have high minority populations. I got a very Boyz n the Hood vibe from this film, and found myself becoming extremely nervous about the group of academic misfits and hoping they wouldn’t meet the same fate as Ricky Baker from that film. The show takes an unflinching look at gang culture and watching Cesar try and at the end of the episode fail to escape his gangland roots was heart-wrenching. The show does suffer from a number of regressive stereotypes that may bring down its strong message to an extent; Olivia, played with passion by Ronni Hawk, ends up coming across mostly as the sassy latina stereotype that has been built up in the past by actresses like Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez. Jason Genao’s Ruby Martinez is attempting to fulfill the stereotype of the suave, sexual latino hearthrob like Ricky Martin or Antonio Banderas, although the show does an excellent job of subverting this stereotype by making him bunk with his grandmother (herself an extremely Catholic hispanic old lady stereotype, something we’ve seen before in this class in One Day at a Time), being forced to try on a gaudy pink dress, and generally making him an awkward dweeb.

The most divisive show by far is the Netflix Original Dear White People. I myself have mixed feelings on the show; as a white person I often felt like I was being attacked and preached at by the show. This was a double-edged sword; while the pointed and blunt nature of the commentary on race relations (and the powerfully uncomfortable scene of the blackface party) was a great tool for provoking thought and a change in perspective, the condescending tone the show often took (providing the same generalizing stereotypes of white people that black people have so long been subjected to) would occasionally make me feel defensive and therefore less receptive to the ideas they were putting forth. I find it very unlikely that the show would change the minds or worldviews of bigoted members. I try my very hardest to put myself in other people’s shoes and understand what they are going through, and even I was struggling to accept some of Sam’s more biting commentary; a bigot who has no desire to understand others will merely see it as an attack on their belief and dismiss it out-of-hand.

Justin Simien, the creator of the show, says in his interview on the KCRW podcast of The Business that it can be challenging for minorities to tell their stories because they face opposition from largely anonymous groups like the alt-right. He mentions that in a later episode Sam engages with an online troll and it causes her to lose her snarky commentary because she’s so disheartened. She so badly wants to beat him, but by engaging with him he’s already winning. Simien points out something similar happening in his own life where his show was being attacked by an alt-right member on the internet. He messaged the member, saying he was misrepresenting Simien’s show and the member said he knew that, but it was to appeal to his base. How are minority members supposed to effectively combat such a ridiculous movement? There is no person to talk to, Simien points out that most of them are either Russian bots or only identified by random images or stock photos of people, and they don’t even care about the content, just that it’s about a minority group.

Luke Cage on the other hand is far more subtle in its challenge of white people. The show is set in a predominantly black neighborhood in New York and according to a Salon.com article titled “‘Luke Cage’ and the racial empathy gap: ‘Why do they talk about being black all the time?’” only features two white characters who “recur often enough to appear in six or more episodes of the freshman season.” The lack of white people in the show sparked a lot of controversy on Twitter with many white users calling Luke Cage racist because of its lack of white representation, even though it was an accurate representation of the racial diversity in the area it took place in (Harlem is an overwhelmingly black neighborhood and it should shock no-one that black people are featured so heavily throughout). It is a powerful message to white people, who feel while watching Luke Cage the way many African-Americans feel while watching anything from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. Luke Cage and its “commitment to blackness” face an uphill battle according to the Salon.com article; it points out that “while it’s easy to single out [Tim] Burton, whose movies are whiter than a three-day-old corpse, he’s one of many directors who almost never casts people of color. Woody Allen hasn’t featured a black man in a consequential part since Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Melinda and Melinda,” which was released in 2004. He’s directed 12 films since then. Filmmakers ranging from the Coen brothers to Wes Anderson have been called out for the lack of black faces in their expansive ensembles.” It also says that lines spoken by people of color in a major motion picture, the total time they speak usually adds up to less than a minute. It’s a serious problem in the industry and one that needs to be addressed. Time will tell if the cocky, in-your-face style of Dear White People or the more quiet but natural tone of Luke Cage will be more effective at changing both people’s minds and the conventions of the industry.

Netflix diversifies for the better?

Over the course of the summer, I’ve been coming to understand just how deep Netflix’s marketing strategies go in terms of gaining new audiences. If we truly are in late-stage capitalism, what better market is there for Netflix than the people of color mainstream television has avoided representing for decades? While this sounds callous of me, I believe that Netflix’s devotion to diverse programming should be met with skepticism before any type of praise. My skepticism also stems from last week’s reading of scholar Brittany Farr’s criticism of Orange is the New Black and her thoughts on identity politics and the neoliberal market. When it comes to the representation of people of color, it’s always my worst fear that it’s nothing more than a marketing ploy as systems of inequality are further perpetuated in this country.

 

So where do Netflix’s Luke Cage, On My Block, and Dear White People lie on the representation-o-meter? Well, pretty good…I think. Before continuing, it’s worth asking who these programs directed are towards. Are they for an audience of people of color who have been underserved by traditional programming or are these for primarily white audiences that have always been catered too? In Luke Cage, we meet Luke in Pop’s Barbershop, a black-owned business serving a black community. My gut tells me this is how many white people, myself included, already perceive blackness in America as it’s been canonized in pop culture (Barbershop anyone?). While it might not particularly bad, I would say it’s a tad stereotypically but I can also see how this would be a good tactic to invite a diverse audience into the story as the barbershop serves as the meeting place for black masculinity in the neighborhood and introduces us to some key characters. As for Luke himself, he’s the strong, silent type that one would equate with someone with super strength. His struggles to do the right thing and serve his community are immediately understandable and I found him to be an appropriate main character for the show. When it comes to other characters I have mixed feelings. Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth is a hyper-masculine and vicious crime lord with a penchant for inducing physical violence on those that fail him. While we’re seeing a black man in power, it’s ultimately founded on the violence that white America seems to already associate with black men and why this role could be questionable. On the flip side, Alfre Woodard’s conniving counselor is a welcomed change to the white man we would usually see in this role. Perhaps slightly catered to the white gaze, Luke Cage constructs a world where black people can be their own heroes and villains and that’s truly something different than the traditional superhero formula.

 

I was particularly fond of On My Block, even with some of its initial cheesiness. While it relies heavily on the tropes of Latin Americans, with its depiction of gangs, the show represents a neighborhood that most white Americans aren’t used to. It’s also a little reminiscent of the movie, Dope, which I found pretty refreshing stylistically and character wise. I wouldn’t be surprised if that movie didn’t serve as a bit of an influence to this show. Watching leads navigate their environment, societal pressures and interpersonal relationships was a complicated and often funny endeavor. I loved how well the humor landed here in the face of larger societal issues facing each one of the protagonists. Seeing Jamal deal with not disappointing his masculine father while trying to stay true to himself made a huge impact on me in terms of how it made me think of the other ways in which black masculinity has been constructed in media.

 

Looking through some of my classmate’s blog postings, I’m not shocked to see how Dear White People struck a bit of nerve with them, with a title that seems to call out rather than call in. However, I would like to argue that’s the entire premise of the show: to call out problematic behavior in a society that has been constructed from said behavior. I believe that the truly uncomfortable aspect of the show resides in the fact that it requests the viewer to come to terms with how they’ve perpetuated racist power structures in America, even if we’ve thought we were just telling jokes or being funny. For my classmate that called the show “blatantly racist,” “divisive,” as well as saying that the black anger directed at white people was “generally unrealistic,” I would encourage them to actually listen to the show’s creator, Justin Simien’s interview with KCRW as it’s particularly revealing to how white audiences where outraged by the show. Simien in the interview talks about how much of a struggle the movie and the show were to create as studios and audiences alike intentionally misunderstood it. I have a feeling this might be happening with this classmate. I think it’s always uncomfortable to have your behavior called out and it’s why I can understand how another white person would be put on the offensive while watching Dear White People. However, I think watching programs like these should be a chance to reflect and listen instead of speaking when white people have already done so much of that throughout history as well as today, mind you.

Netflix and the Advance of Multiculturalism

Times are changing for the better in a lot of ways. As modern thinking develops and flourishes, a lot of steps have been taken towards removing the inequality that has undeniably permeated western society for many generations. Part of the process of lessening the divide between cultures includes introducing people to different perspectives on racial identity. Luckily, Netflix, among other platforms, has recently taken great strides to offer diverse programming that provides these perspectives in entertaining ways. Dear White PeopleOn My Block, and Luke Cage all address issues of racial identity and tension in different ways and often challenge preconceived notions the audience may have about the characters and the lives they lead.

Luke Cage present’s it’s story from the perspective of a man with many powerful positive qualities. The titular character is noble, intelligent, and pensive, fighting crime while withholding many of the bombastic qualities superheroes tend to have. This makes his character come across as wise and easy to respect while also still maintaining a heroic sense of justice that he is not afraid to back up with force. But even though his character contains so many positive traits, he still has to put up with negative opinions and uncalled for discrimination in his quest to fight crime and corruption. In Luke Cage’s backstory, he was a simple city cop before being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. With all of the recent news stories regarding unjust racial profiling from law enforcement, it becomes easy to see how the law could turn against the honest Cage so bluntly, and how this racial perspective factors in to his complex character. In other words, his character becomes much more sympathetic and understandable once you take into account his racial identity and how it has affected his life, for better or worse.

In contrast to the superhero action presented by Luke CageOn My Block takes a more intimate look at the lives of four kids from different backgrounds in a coming-of-age sort of storytelling way. In the first episode of the show, it becomes clear that all four of the main characters are facing their own unique challenges regarding their race, class, and/or background. Cesar, for example, finds himself being dragged into a gang due to his family history despite the fact that wants nothing to due with it. The feeling of being trapped and stuck within a situation that you have no control over I imagine feels very familiar to anyone dealing with their own racial injustices, and the show does a great job of making sure his story is presented sympathetically. Another character, Jamal, seems to be struggling with similar issues regarding the differences between himself and his father, and I look forward to watching more of the show and seeing where that story arc goes. Overall, On My Block does a great job of addressing the frustration many people, especially teenagers, feel regarding the injustices they face due to factors they have no control over.

Finally we have Dear White People, which takes a much more direct approach in its view on racial relationships and perspective. Dear White People addresses the concept of modern racism very shamelessly, starring a group of black students attending a college made up of mostly white ones. In the first episode, a girl named Sam goes up against a ‘blackface’ party that has begun to take root within her college campus. The premise and its execution are definitely powerful and bring up issues that I believe a lot of people would often prefer to ignore, and I found its direct, blunt approach to be refreshing in a lot of ways. However, there are drawbacks to this way of confronting issues. In its attempt to be unapologetically clear about racial injustice, there are times when the show begins to display and even promote an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality between white people and minorities. Even the title of the show evokes a focus on separation, and while I can see why they chose such an evocative name, challenging racial issues by directly calling out certain groups can lead to members of those groups closing their minds and hearts entirely. They do this because they feel personally blamed and attacked, and no matter where the fault actually lies, tact must be utilized to ensure that real communication can occur.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Multi- Cultures on Netflix

Netflix has become a great space to watch entertainment involving many different demographics, cultures, and people. Shows like Dear White People, On My Block, and Luke Cage are great examples of this. In particular, Dear White People is a very current perspective on how African American people may feel about white people. To be even more specific, it comes from the angle of college students at an almost completely white based population at a prestigious Ivy League School. In many ways, what these characters go through, is what is seen on TV and in the news in real life. These issues range from social aggressions, to feeling left out in social settings because of skin color. It shows ‘modern segregation’ in a very 21st century feeling.

On My Block, is another example of minorities, and minority issues in the US being the focus of the show. It is also another example of the lens being from the side of young people, this time high school instead of college. In addition to African American young people in Dear White People, this show also showcases hispanics in Los Angeles. In traditional coming of age shows, a lot of the struggles are from the point of view of white students. So, to see other groups other than white people in the same type of show, brings up similar but also very different issues as these students try to figure out how to grow up and how to deal with high schools. Many traditional teenager shows are featuring rich white kids, while this show, is opposite, completely.

Luke Cage, again breaks the traditional trend of white protagonists, however this show is much different than the above, with it being a superhero show. Aside from the racial trends being altered in this series, it is also interesting to see Marvel produce a series about a superhero, instead of a feature film. Aside from that, it is one of the only new superhero productions featuring African Americans aside from the film Black Panther. As far as it being relatable or not for other audiences such as white people, it probably is not, but not because of race, more so because a superhero is a fantasy. Therefore, it really does not matter who is the hero- black, white, asian, etc, it is a fantasy. With that said, there are minor relatable factors in superhero films/shows that may be directed towards a certain demographic when the hero is humanized.

The relatable elements of the other two shows can be consistent to audiences outside of the featured demographic. However, drama and comedy that is directed to the problems of being a minority in an all white school for example, it probably only relatable to a small group of people, but others may be able to relate through discrimination they witness through other students in real life.