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What Rick and Morty fans’ meltdown over McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce says about geek culture

The mass revolt illustrated what increasingly toxic fandom culture looks like in real life.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What started out as an apparent marketing coup for McDonald’s has become a raging debate about toxic online communities and geek culture — all because legions of Rick and Morty fans couldn’t get packets of a limited-edition McNugget dipping sauce.

At McDonald’s locations across the nation on Saturday, fans of the animated TV series turned up in droves for a one-day-only promotion that saw the fast food chain briefly resurrect Szechuan Sauce, a short-lived promotional flavor of McNugget dipping sauce that was briefly released in 1998 as part of a marketing tie-in for the Disney movie Mulan. Earlier this year, the sauce became a huge Rick and Morty fandom meme after it was mentioned in an episode of the show. But after publicizing a limited revival of the sauce that would allow fans to get their hands on the coveted condiment, McDonald’s was unprepared to meet with the demand — and the event turned ugly

Many franchises received no shipments of the sauce, or an extremely small quantity of it. Disgruntled fans, some of whom waited in huge lines for hours, staged mass protests while toting signs and chanting “We want sauce!” Cops were called to multiple McDonald’s locations, as ironically enraged Rick and Morty fans crowded into stores, stole food, and harassed employees, all while throwing a tantrum on social media.

The outrage from fans ultimately forced an apology and a promise to do better from McDonald’s — but while many people blamed the company for not better handling the fiasco, many others found the spectacle of hordes of Rick and Morty fans staging mass protests (whether ironic or sincere) over dipping sauce to be downright alarming. And online, the incident led to a sustained conversation about toxic fan communities, while McDonald’s announced that it would roll out even more sauce for what is, essentially, a rapacious bunch of internet trolls.

Rick and Morty is a geeky comedy with some very intense — and not necessarily well-intentioned — fans

Rick and Morty is an animated sci-fi comedy, a kind of parody/mashup of Back to the Future and Futurama, created by geek cult faves Dan Harmon (Community) and Justin Roiland. It’s beloved for its high levels of satire and irony and for its many geeky inside jokes, and like many similar shows that trade in a high level of geek knowledge, it has cultivated an intense fandom.

The show’s season three premiere, which initially aired in April before the season officially kicked off in August, included an elaborate gag built around nostalgia for McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce that saw main character Rick begging McDonald’s to bring it back.

The joke ultimately became a major fandom meme, one that included bombarding McDonald’s with requests to bring back the sauce, and snapping up jars of old sauce from 1998 for outrageous prices on Ebay — including a single packet that sold for almost $15,000.

McDonald’s ate up all the free advertising, and responded by announcing that the company would bring back the sauce — for one day only — on October 7. Even though the operation wasn’t an official Rick and Morty tie-in, the company did everything it could to market the event directly to Rick and Morty fans, from sending vats of Szechuan Sauce directly to the show’s creators to designing its marketing to resemble the style of the show.

But then Sauce Day arrived. And the fast food chain was woefully unprepared to handle what came next.

When McDonald’s didn’t have nearly enough Szechuan Sauce to meet demand, fans went ballistic

McDonald’s couldn’t have handled its Szechuan Sauce revival more terribly. Rick and Morty fans had lined up outside stores hours before they even opened, only to learn that the company had barely stocked the sauce (or the promised accompanying supply of limited edition posters) and in some cases hadn’t informed individual locations that the promotion was even occurring. The result was a huge gap in supply and demand — followed by hours of Rick and Morty fans ironically wreaking havoc in protest.

“Some hooligans jumped the counter and stole all the sauce,” claimed the YouTube user who uploaded a viral video of a Los Angeles McDonald’s being overrun by chanting Rick and Morty fans.

“I have now seen three videos of angry mobs screaming at mortified service workers and I am appalled,” a horrified Rick and Morty fan wrote on Reddit. “McDonald’s workers are some of the lowest paid, poorly treated human beings in the United States ... Was it really worth torturing these poor people for some goddamn promo sauce? This is nihilism and consumerism at it's ugliest.”

Online, fans were screaming. On Reddit and Twitter, some proposed class action lawsuits against McDonald’s, while others called for boycotts. McDonald’s apologized that “not everyone could get some super-limited Szechuan,” drawing even more ire in response.

On October 8, McDonald’s promised to rectify the situation by eventually releasing more sauce.

To understand how so much rage grew out of a single joke about McNugget sauce, you need to understand two things:

First, McDonald’s made the classic mistake of a corporation that suddenly finds itself engaging with a large fandom: When fans began to interact with its branding, it signed up for the free publicity and easy marketing, but didn’t do the work of understanding just what kind of fandom it had on its hands. McDonald’s clearly miscalculated both the intensity of Rick and Morty fan base and the potential rewards (and consequences) of sincerely engaging with the show’s fans. Instead, it appeared to approach the “limited” promotion as a slapdash attempt to piggyback on a random joke, with little idea of what it was getting itself into.

And second, Rick and Morty fans were never going to go quietly once they’d committed to playing out their beloved Szechuan Sauce meme in real life. That’s because the fan base Rick and Morty has bred has a dark underbelly — a nihilistic, toxic subset of fans who have made the show a linchpin for a particular type of noxious behavior.

One especially vocal subset of the Rick and Morty fan base comprises a perfect storm of insular geek culture and trolling

Rick and Morty is a popular show with a vocal, dedicated fan base, some members of which have frequently come under criticism for their toxicity and misogyny, which Vice’s Tom Usher recently characterized as “the kind of pseudo-intellectuals who fit within the Venn diagram sweet spot of GamerGate agitators, vape expo attendees, and people who read Nietzsche on the train.”

This criticism has intensified in season three, after some Rick and Morty fans began to viciously troll, harass, and doxx the show’s newly hired female writers. They were apparently fueled by false rumors that the female writers had replaced stronger male writers due to political correctness and were inherently robbing those male writers of their rightful place on the show’s staff.

Harmon laid into this subset of fans in an interview with Entertainment Weekly about their behavior, pointing out that “part of it is a testosterone-based subculture patting themselves on the back for trolling these women.” In other words, it’s illustrative of many of the dangerous sentiments and themes that have emerged in geek spaces in recent years, from Elevatorgate (harassment of women in the skeptics corner of online geekdom) to Gamergate (harassment of women in the gaming corner) to the Sad Puppies (harassment of women in the science fiction and fantasy corner) to the Ghostbusters backlash (harassment of women in the fandom corner).

And as the Guardian pointed out, this type of fandom is also “a new weaponised form of bad fandom.” That is, it employs the same mobilized tactics of organizing strategic harassment and bombardment that we’ve seen again and again in certain internet communities, by using social media, orchestrated reactions, and memes to spread a message and harass women, both online and off.

Understanding this backstory is crucial context for understanding how McDonald’s low supply of one specific flavor of McNugget sauce resulted in police being summoned to fast-food restaurants across our great nation. In essence, McDonald’s didn’t just host a publicity stunt — it also essentially invited the same Rick and Morty fans who have become known for online trolling to congregate in a real-life space, and then gave them a reason and an opportunity to troll in real time.

Their aggressive response helps explain why, in the Twitter discourse that followed, a particular observational thread emerged: Many of the Rick and Morty fans who threw a fit over not receiving packets of Szechuan Sauce are part of the same male-dominated geek subcultures that have systematically harassed women, denigrated women’s fandom hobbies, and/or demonized feminism as made up of women who are overly sensitive.

The aftermath even saw one of Rick and Morty’s creators taking pains to distance the show yet again from its most virulent fans. This time it was Roiland, who tweeted that he was “not happy w/how this was handled.”

But as Roiland and Harmon — and to an extent Rick and Morty itself, which clearly aims to portray its characters, including its antihero Rick, with empathy and clarity — try to separate Rick and Morty from certain Rick and Morty fans, incidents like this McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce dustup will only make it harder.

“Because of those fans,” wrote the AV Club’s Clayton Purdom last month in response to the doxxing of the show’s female screenwriters, “the show is becoming easy to hate, derided by those who are sick of encountering them as some sort of bastard hybrid of South Park’s equal-opportunity offensiveness and Ready Player One’s nerd-culture wish fulfillment.”

And as Rick and Morty goes, so goes geekdom — an increasingly polarized culture in which more and more previously marginalized individuals are participating openly in geek spaces even as their gatekeepers seem to nurture more malcontent. It has undeniably gotten more difficult, in recent years, to detangle modern geek culture and fandom from the toxic substrains of nihilism, entitlement, trolling, misogyny, and often a general lack of empathy that fuel its darkest corners. Watching fandoms like these devolve into toxicity and trolling, and then watching that trolling spill over into the real world, is a reminder that even the most entertaining kinds of media we consume, and the online spaces we build to (ostensibly) champion and appreciate them, can have real-life implications that aren’t always pleasant.

It’s a problem that releasing additional vats of promotional dipping sauce won’t fix.

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