What Is Toxic Fandom?

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What Is Toxic Fandom?

Toxic Fandom

Toxic fandom is a buzzword that has been used in recent years by journalists, news outlets, and others to identify popular culture fans who engage in behaviors that are considered negative and unacceptable.

These behaviors can range from impassioned negative responses to a reboot of a particular pop-culture property to bullying other members of a fandom or those involved with the creation of a movie, TV show, video game, song, or book, to antisocial behaviors such as making death threats, rape threats, or doxing (publishing a person's private information).

Most toxic fandom activities take place via online community websites or social media, especially Twitter, although they can also be seen in other places, such as fan events and conventions.

Historical Perspectives on Fandom

Fan scholar Cornel Sandvoss defines fandom as "the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text." While it's reasonable to believe that everyone is probably a fan of something, whether it's sports, music, movies, a celebrity, or another interest or activity, popular culture fans have historically been stigmatized by mainstream media and even psychology scholars, whose research has tended to focus on how media contributes to antisocial behaviors.

Early fan research focused on whether fans could distinguish between fantasy and reality, which contributed to the popular conception of fans as "odd" or "deviant."

These negative stereotypes of fans have never gone away even as fandom has become more visible and socially acceptable with the rise of the internet. In fact, fan researcher Matt Hills has observed that today fan identities have been both normalized, and contradictorily, stigmatized.

This has led many fans to internalize acceptable and unacceptable ways of being a fan, something that seems to have led certain fans to police their fandoms, and as a result, bully other fans with abuse, purity tests, and at the most extreme, antisocial behaviors like threats.

Fandom and Identity

While fans who bully other fans are often labeled "toxic," it's important to avoid painting with too broad a brush when describing the phenomenon of toxic fandom. There is a big difference, for example, between the group of fans who lobbied for Elsa from the movie "Frozen" to be the first Disney princess to have a girlfriend and those who harassed "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" actor Kelly Marie Tran with racist and sexist abuse until she left social media. However, the psychological processes that led both groups to engage in their respective activities are the same.

People Often Adopt a Fan Identity

Fandom starts with the adoption of a fan identity. Becoming a fan can be a powerful way to define the self, and when a fan acts on their fandom, they are expressing an identity they have chosen for themselves. As a result, the passionate emotional investment fans make in their favorite fan object may lead them to see that object as an extension of themselves.

Fandom Makes People Feel Connected

Fandom is rarely engaged in alone. Fans usually form a connection not just to their favorite fan object but also to other fans of that fan object. In fact, studies indicate that even when fans don't directly interact with other members of a fan community, they still perceive themselves as part of that community.

Social psychologist Henri Tajfel's social identity theory suggests that people become deeply invested in their social groups. So fans not only become personally invested in a fan object, they become socially invested in a fan community.

Fans Will Defend the Object of Their Fandom and Other Fans

When people adopt personal and social identities, they also want to defend them against threats. In the case of fans, this means both defending the fan object that is seen as part of the self and the fan community.

Research has shown that when participants read a negative editorial about a brand they are a fan of such as Starbucks or Facebook, they react defensively as if they had been personally threatened.

Similarly, another study demonstrated that when fans of "Harry Potter" had incorporated their fandom into their self-concept, they were more sensitive to both affirmations and threats to this part of their identity.

It follows then that fans feel a sense of personal investment and even ownership of a fan object. This doesn't mean that they believe they own the intellectual property, however, it does mean they feel they can and even should use the open communication provided by social media to actively and collectively express their preferences and desires about a certain property.

This can lead to constructive fan campaigns that champion inclusivity and representation, such as the previously mentioned campaign for Disney to show "Frozen's" Elsa in a same-sex relationship. On the other hand, when fans feel threatened, either by other fans or the owners and creators of a piece of intellectual property, they may lash out in defensive and so-called toxic ways.

Fan Entitlement

Fans who claim a reboot or remake of a particular piece of intellectual property will "ruin their childhood" are often seen as toxic. For example, when director Paul Feig remade "Ghostbusters" in 2016 with a group of female comedians as the leads, the backlash was swift, vitriolic, and led some fans to bully and act antagonistically toward Feig and the movie's stars online.

Many people believe that fans who act this way feel they're entitled to have their fan object preserved and treated in only the ways they deem acceptable. This is considered not only toxic but inappropriate and immature.

However, if a fan sees their fan object as part of their self-concept, their reaction is likely less about entitlement and more about the threat to their identity. In the case of fans who claim that a remake or reboot of a piece of popular culture will "ruin their childhood," their connection to the fan object goes beyond their current fan identity and extends back to their formative years, which means they've made a connection between the fan object and their personal history and memory.

If the fan object is remade or revived in ways the fan finds objectionable, it leads them to feel a psychological disconnect between the past and present self. Consequently, while the fan behavior resulting from this response may be objectionable, it is arising not out of entitlement but out of a desire to protect one's sense of self and its continuity.

Misogyny and Racism in Fandom

On the other hand, a subsection of the "Ghostbusters" fandom that objected to the 2016 reboot targeted star Leslie Jones with racist and misogynist tweets.

This behavior speaks to the darkest side of toxic fandom, which is perhaps best exemplified by 2014's Gamergate controversy, in which a former boyfriend of a game designer claimed the designer had slept with a journalist in exchange for a positive review of her upcoming game. This led to a backlash by male videogame fans in which they harassed and threatened the accused designer as well as female gamers in general.

While the male gamers' desire to protect the videogame space is rooted in the same impulses of personal and social identity, it is also a result of their feelings of disempowerment as women and other marginalized groups who formerly didn't garner much attention in gaming culture have not only joined its ranks but pushed into its mainstream.

Instead of embracing gamings' diversity, these fans' impulse was to protect this part of their extended self by defending gaming's status quo as a white, cis-male space. This led them to attempt to push the newcomers back to the margins and regain their privileged position, usually with abuse and threats issued via social media.

The Future of Toxic Fandom

Unfortunately, just like many other parts of American and other societies today, fandom has become increasingly polarized by issues like diversity and representation. As a result, it seems likely that a percentage of fans will continue to denounce and antagonize anyone, including fellow fans and media creators, who champion inclusion, derisively branding them as "SJW"s or "social justice warriors."

However, it's important to keep in mind that although bad actors tend to scream the loudest on social media and the news coverage of these bad actors amplifies their negative behavior further, most fans are not toxic.

Most fans are kind, open, and generous and fan communities are places of genuine acceptance, social support, and belonging. While this is the lesser noticed part of fandom, it's also what continues to make fandom worthwhile and a force for good for most people who love a particular piece of popular culture.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.