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Fandom can be weird and alienating. But it’s driving the conversation in crucial ways.

"Fandementalists" are bad, yes. But they shouldn't define our entire picture of fandom.

The "give Elsa a girlfriend" movement isn't an example of entitled fandom; it's an example of fandom pushing the conversation in new directions.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This article is part of a series on fan culture and its many related topics. Start with our primer on fandom and follow along with the series throughout the week.

Todd VanDerWerff: As a professional critic, I am naturally a little suspicious of fandom. It seems, at times, diametrically opposed to the sort of analysis that is my stock in trade.

Even when fandom is being critical, it ultimately comes from a place of optimism and devotion, one that centers on the hope that a beloved property might stop fucking everything up and start being good again. Critics might feel this way from time to time, but we imagine ourselves to have more distance, or at least adopt the posture of having it.

This suspicion from critics has only increased in the age of social media — somewhat unfairly, I might add — due to the fact that fandom is now seemingly everywhere.

The rise of the fandementalists

As my colleague Caroline Framke pointed out, more and more creators are growing more and more unnerved by the amount of power their fan bases have on social media, and I was just talking about a completely unrelated topic with an executive at a major cable channel, who handed me a leaflet (produced by an outside research firm) that was all about common fandom terms, like "OTP" and "Mary Sue." (I promise you I am not making this up.) Twitter, especially, has made fans more visible than ever, and they will let you know when they aren't happy with how things are going.

This has led to a lot of grouchy grumbling from us critic types, who have worried about whether fan consumerism, or the demands of what some say is "fan entitlement," will ruin artistic integrity. I don’t really think either of these concerns is a big deal, but I did think the uproar that led to a different ending for the video game Mass Effect 3 was pretty stupid, to give you a sense of where I’m coming from.

But I think there’s something else going on here, which is that fandom — a large, sometimes unruly place, with lots of individual subgroups — is being defined by many of its very worst members. A 14-year-old in Kansas City posting her first Supernatural fic to isn’t hurting anybody, but those who rail against fandom often lump her in with the angry hordes of entitled (mostly) men behind movements like Gamergate and all the anger surrounding the new all-female Ghostbusters.

I've been thinking a lot about how often these sorts of zealous movements are defined by the bad apples in their midst, from religious fundamentalists to Bernie Bros. It doesn’t matter how fair it is; it only matters that the squeakiest wheel tends to get all the media coverage. And angry nerd bros are very squeaky wheels.

In fact, let’s call them fandementalists. (Yes, I hate myself a little right now.)

If we think of fandom as a large religion, containing many denominations (and why not?), then the fandementalists are those who insist there are very strict codes for who can or cannot be a fan, and for how you must behave if you are to live within this space. It doesn’t matter how many non-fandementalist fans are out there; to too many in the media, the worst fans are all we can see, and we leap too easily to painting with the broadest brush possible.

Is fandom "broken"? It really depends on whom you're looking at.

In Devin Faraci’s hugely discussed piece "Fandom Is Broken," for instance, Faraci primarily argues that fandom is broken via the prism of the Ghostbusters pushback and people who sent angry death threats to the people at Marvel who crafted the "Captain America goes Hydra" storyline.

But he goes beyond that to pull in everything from fanfiction to the "Give Elsa a girlfriend" movement, which refers to the popular (love interest–less) princess from Frozen.

I think I know why Faraci feels the way he does, because I’ve experienced the same feeling myself. When you are a dude of a certain age, writing on the internet, your primary filter for understanding fandom is almost always set to a certain volume, which might as well be "Ain’t It Cool News comments section in 2002."

The fans who populated that seminal geek movie news and discussion site, on the cusp of finding the entertainment industry catering to their every whim, really were entitled, and they really did react angrily to a great many things, and they often really did get their way.

They were the original online fandementalists, and it’s easy to identify the elements of their discussions that would grow into the negative aspects of fandom we see today.

Don't define all of fandom by its worst elements

But the internet of 2016 is a very different place from the internet of 2002, to say the least. And the more I see campaigns like, say, "Give Elsa a girlfriend," the more I realize that while there are some people out there who will literally think it’s somehow anti-progressive if Frozen 2 ends without Elsa having a female love interest (when so much of the original film's freshness came from not giving her a love interest at all), the actual goal of a campaign like this is to have conversations about how terrible Hollywood is at telling stories about the world as it actually looks.

Put another way, the Ghostbusters kerfuffle is driven by the idea of drawing a bright line in the sand that nobody can cross. Certain things are not to be done. Certain people are not to be the stars of certain properties. There are deeply important traditions to be upheld and never questioned.

But "give Elsa a girlfriend" is driven by asking why there are lines in the sand in the first place. It’s not saying, "Why isn’t Elsa queer?" It’s saying, "Why is the idea of a queer princess so hard for Hollywood to wrap its head around in the first place?"

But I’m still learning about all of this stuff. I’ll confess that writing and reading fanfic will just never be my cup of tea (I have too much TV to watch!), but I’m annoyed by the idea that fandom should only be defined by its worst adherents, by those who seek to tear down any cultural artifact not constructed to appeal only to them.

Because at its core, fandom is a movement about building new antechambers onto old spaces, to make room for more and more people. It can be chaotic and rude and even a little intolerable, but one of its central ideals is to make entertainment better.

And, hey, that sounds a lot like criticism to me.

Previously: Creators of popular media are becoming increasingly wary of their fans. That's a problem for everyone.