Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #3: Canon’s Dark Side

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As I wrote in the previous two posts, I am sharing some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version via a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the dark side of canon used as an exclusionary tactic and gatekeeping mechanism to separate out “real” fans from the rest of us.

One thing that became clear for me while doing the research for The Science Fiction Reboot is that fans do not always wield the power of canon with an accompanying level of responsibility (or even common decency in some cases). Canon has been employed in much less joyful ways, particularly with long-running stories such as those in the comics universes and Star Trek. All one has to do is Google “Star Trek in Name Only” or “fake geek girls” to see this dark side in action (though I would add significant content warnings to those searches for abuse of all kinds, especially misogynistic).

One particular manifestation of this dark side (pun intended) that I encounter anytime I talk about Star Wars is those who declare that the prequels “do not exist” (as if they somehow live in a parallel universe where the movies were not made and released), which has also led to the social media meme/trend where “real” fan-parents pledge to only show their children Episodes IV-VI, “as it should be.” I covered my personal frustration with this attitude in the Afterword of The Science Fiction Reboot but, the TL;DR of my take on the prequels versus original trilogy “debate” would be that it was never going to be possible for anyone, let alone a mere mortal like George Lucas, to recapture the magic fans associate with those original three movies for those who saw them between 1977 and 1999. What can be indisputably observed, however, is the magical effect the prequel trilogy and related television series (Clone Wars and now Rebels) has on the children born after 2000, who encounter all six episodes. The magic lives.

There are also those who have expressed similar indignation at the canon “trim” to the Star Wars universe currently in process at Lucasfilm/Disney Studios. Some fans who enjoyed the extended universe (primarily the novel series that continued the story post-Return of the Jedi) are quite distressed that the events and characters in those stories will not be part of the ongoing canon. And they have been quite vocal, even vulgar, about it online.

To use the cliche, it seems we are either damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Not all changes to canon in reboots work for all fans. And when we write it that directly, it seems so obvious. Yet, there are those who seem to believe that their self-proclaimed status in a particular fandom endows them with the authority to pass judgment over what is “allowed” in canon and what is not. Such “authority” also seems to include deciding who may identify as a fan and who may not. I’m not talking about criticism or critique; I mean outright rejection of a text’s existence as part of the canon. I have said to my students several times over various genre courses that when you reject a text, whether it is a reboot or a sequel or even just a story arc you didn’t like, you are also rejecting the fans of that text at the same time.

That is not the fandom community I want to be a part of. Rather, I can illustrate what fandom community can be with a brief story about the first time I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron on its opening weekend this past May. I was attending the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Toronto and so went to a screening with a few fellow scholars. During our dinner after the movie, I spent most of my time answering questions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for these three friends who were much more well-versed in the comics canon than I can ever hope to be. It could have become a competition at that point, and at other times in fan spaces it has, but we didn’t let it go there.

The competing levels of canon, and differing experiences with these stories, don’t have to be barriers to community or gates keeping the “unworthy” out of the realm. I’ve heard several times at conventions that the great thing about fandom is that when someone learns you haven’t read/watched/played a particular genre favorite, the response is not judgment or disdain but, in the vernacular, a “squee” of “Oh my God, you have to see/read/play it! Let me see if I have a copy with me I can lend you.” I’ve experienced both the dark and the light side of fandom and have seen canon employed for both good and evil (as it were).
Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: the phenomenon known as “head canon.”

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