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Increasingly Hostile Environments in Fandoms

By David T. Valentin

After eight weeks, nine episodes, and countless amounts of fan theories flooding the internet and having its grip on everyone globally, WandaVision came to an end with a decent ending, but with an incredibly emotional commentary on grief of losing a loved one. Still, despite COVID lockdowns forcing WandaVision to cut storylines and important scenes, collectively it seemed everybody loved the show for finally giving Wanda Maximoff the long overdue character development that she deserved.

As Scarlet Witch went from a name that only comic book fans knew to a household name and a character that everyone adored, it was only inevitable countless amounts of cosplay, fan edited videos, and comic book sales featuring the character would go up. Being a huge comic book fan of Scarlet Witch, I was just happy to see such a complicated character finally be given the love that she deserved and be brought to life. Of course, the portrayal of Scarlet Witch in the MCU is not without complications—the erasure of her Jewish and Romani heritage and what it means to her character—but I was happy, nonetheless.

And as fans got all excited to cosplay Scarlet Witch and talk about their new favorite superhero, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of misogyny flooding the comment sections of any video that talked about the character. Comments like, “Characters like Thor and Dr. Strange can body Wanda!” or the infamous, “She’s the most powerful Avenger, but not the strongest.”

Um, read that one back to me again, please.

On the surface, it seemed to be fun, lighthearted debates that almost every fandom participates in as they pit their favorite, strongest, most strategic characters against other characters and imagine incredible fights where the debate of who might win spans endless amounts of comment threads.

Soon, the fun, lighthearted debates turned into full on arguments in many comment sections and internet threads. The massive amount of love for the Scarlet Witch was soon equal to the amount of hate the character was now receiving, and many of these fun debates turned into nasty comments; comments like, “Everyone thinks they know comic books now that Marvel has gone mainstream and it’s just a fad now!”

Not an unusual comment to hear from a toxic comic book fan, but then it was always pushed a step further.

I started noticing these comments were being left on women comic book creators, channels and creators dedicated to analyzing and discussing media as a whole; creators who’ve been doing what they do far before WandaVision even came out.

Those comments were accompanied by none other than the infamous, “Every girl is going to be Scarlet Witch for Halloween, but they don’t really get the MCU.” As if a mass of Deadpools and Jokers didn’t flood the streets during Halloween or the halls of conventions for two, three years.

What started off as lighthearted discussions on which superheroes would win in a fight against each other finally showed its true colors as plain old fashion misogyny and a deep, irrational anger that phase four of the MCU was becoming increasingly diverse. Because of this anger some of the more complicated themes of WandaVision were lost, and shortly after there was a sudden flood of hate toward the show and anger towards the popularity of Wanda Maximoff’s character.

But this is nothing new in the MCU fandom, or much of nerdom fandom as a whole.

Recall fan’s critiques of the introduction of Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel in 2019. Despite the movie being a mediocre origin story film, like many of the origin story films in the MCU, and the introduction of a pretty kick-ass protagonist, fans didn’t quite take to the way the character was written, an attitude that quickly spread from the portrayal of the character to the actress, Brie Larson, herself.

Fans, mostly men, complained the character was too “cocky,” too “stubborn,” too “strong,” and all these over-the-top character traits made the character unlikeable. Now, queue up any Avengers movie with Tony Stark and watch Robert Downy Jr. cockily insist he’s the solution to every problem despite him being the source of every bit of trouble the Avengers encounter, but I digress.

That’s not to say there aren’t valid critiques of Captain Marvel and Carol Danvers as a character which boil down to poor writing decisions and Disney refusing to put a woman superhero as a lead to her own story until it was proven it wouldn’t hurt sales. But when you take those specific complaints that Carol Danvers is too cocky, too stubborn and too strong and apply them to any male lead, like Tony Stark and Thor, suddenly there are a slew of hypocritical excuses that just don’t hold, and suddenly portraying a strong, female character is something “woke” or “political.”

At first, I wanted to chalk it up to plain old misogyny, but I feel like this kind of toxic behavior runs deeper than men just being mad at women for existing in the same spaces as them, as if these media spaces were made for them.

As writing teams become more and more diverse and audiences push for more diversity in media, it is inevitable that the stories being written are going to challenge tropes that may be normal to one audience member, but harmful to another. And it goes without saying many of these stories are challenging their white, male western centered perspectives, which they see as the default, and thus showing a more well-rounded, more inclusive representation of the human experience.

Because white-male, western centered perspectives are seen as the default, any deviation and any challenge to that perspective is seen as “woke” or “being made political,” as if people’s lived experiences are a threat to their existence. And in a way it is for them. As stories become more diverse, the hold that these writers and audience members have in controlling the narrative slips and the way they perceive the world and their views are challenged. And whatever power they might have held in their pre-conceived idea of the world is thrown into question.

Suddenly, they feel lost, forgotten and in need of a voice. And that’s how you get the misunderstood comic bro to incel pipeline.

This also isn’t just something that happens in comic book fandoms, but anime fandoms as well. Heavily political animes like Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist are reduced to something fun to watch and all anybody ever cares about is pitting characters against each other in imaginary battles, as if the character’s story and their history to the setting around them just don’t exist.

And the political messages of these shows are never once applied to the real world, never once seen as cautionary tales against war, fascism, poverty, etc. that might challenge the audiences’ views. Instead, these stories are removed from the political reality that influenced these works and are then crammed into a vacuum just to be reduced to big flashy boom booms simply because the work of art is fiction and it's suddenly "Just a story."

The lack of critical media analysis isn’t just alarming, but it’s also scary too. People see liberal arts as a fun, artsy thing where you can bullshit your way through every class by spewing wordy paragraphs of nonsense, but it’s so much more than that. Critical media analysis allows us to pick apart the way our narratives influence the way we view the real world and by extension it allows us to critically analyze and point out misinformation and propaganda when we see it. If we choose to reject anything that may challenge our views through media, we are refusing to exercise empathy to our neighbors for the sake of comfort and deny and erase lived experiences that may be different than our own.

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