As I left San Diego Comic-Con this past Sunday, I was left with Steven Moffat’s words ringing in my ears from the Doctor Who panel, where he railed against the “backlash” that erupted from the show casting its first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. When you add that inexplicable backlash to those surrounding Star Trek: Discovery and Marvel’s Black Panther, I’m compelled to ask a question that has hit critical mass in my mind — are we as inclusive in our geek culture as we like to think we are?
There’s clearly a serious problem in fan culture right now, and the media isn’t helping by dining out on “controversy” they’ve helped manufacture by amplifying the voices of hateful trolls.
In the case of Doctor Who, Moffat tried to downplay the budding backlash at Comic-Con. “There’s endless stories about the ‘huge’ backlash against the new Doctor. Not true,” said Moffat, though his statement conflicts with that of the BBC, which confirmed that it did receive a number of complaints in an online statement. Clearly there was enough of a backlash brewing to warrant the network issuing this statement with a defense of its decision. The BBC said that “The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey and it has been established in the show that Time Lords can switch gender.” We’ve seen that already with the Master character played by Michelle Gomez for the past three seasons, so it’s a completely valid explanation, not that fans are really owed one.
Meanwhile, when the first Star Trek: Discovery trailer dropped a few months ago, I was stoked to see Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh prominently featured. As an avid Star Trek fan, it’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show and its universe was one that focused on inclusion and acceptance. The original series, which aired during the Cold War, had an Asian actor and a Russian actor as series regulars. It had the first ever onscreen interracial kiss between Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk, which came at a time when race relations were combustible. It also constantly addressed the social issues of the time in numerous episodes, and subsequent shows, from Star Trek: The Next Generation to Enterprise, continued this tradition.
So I was surprised to see a backlash swell online among some Trek fans that there weren’t enough strong white males in the cast. Some fans on Twitter complained that the only white males are “a Vulcan a-hole and a wimpy helmsman.” The Vulcans not having a “white” race aside, the accusation is even more confusing as I don’t remember many muscly helmsman! Some even accused Discovery‘s casting as being an example of #whitegenocide. Others nicknamed it “SJW: The Next Generation” and called it a prequel “lacquered in feminist political correctness.” These fans seem to have missed the point that Roddenberry always made about his franchise, one that Akiva Goldsman stressed during the Discovery press conference: “Star Trek is built around empathy. Its primary grammar is that we see how we are the same, and we accept each other’s differences.”
In another corner of the fanboy universe, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has started to become a target of even more vitriolic response online, where the N-word is being bandied about inexcusably. The Black Panther poster that shows Chadwick Boseman sitting on his throne in costume is even being compared to a famous photo of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Some of the comments on Twitter and other social media platforms are calling the superhero film “too black” or “too militant.” These haters use irresponsible rhetoric to push back against what they seem to think is a systematic attempt to show a more diverse and accepting world, as if that would be some kind of crime.
While Black Panther is probably the most diverse superhero movie ever made, its critics are twisting the definition of the d-word, arguing that the film itself can’t be considered “diverse” because it has a mostly black cast, and it’s a story about an African superhero directed by a black filmmaker. Of course, this ignores how the film is one small piece of the larger MCU puzzle, and how much more diverse it is in comparison to other Marvel movies. Once again, we are seeing certain fans have selective memories when it comes to the topic of diversity in geek culture.
As I look at these three examples of misplaced backlash and numerous others that have erupted since Trump took office, what keeps occurring to me is the willful amnesia regarding the tenets of inclusion that geek culture was built upon in the first place. Do those Doctor Who fans crying foul over Whittaker’s casting not remember the judgment and ridicule they (likely) received from others growing up, simply for liking nerdy things such as Doctor Who?
Those of us of a certain age remember getting beat up or being ridiculed for liking things such as Dungeons & Dragons and comic books or role playing games. We had no choice but to seek out others who shared our geeky interests, and we created a community together, one that gave us the sense of acceptance and inclusion that we’d been seeking from the “cool kids” for years. But guess what? We won!
Take a look around. The explosion of the fanboy culture over the last few years has made those former “geek” properties become mainstream, giving those of us who suffered through our awkward teenage years a feeling of acceptance and most importantly, vindication. Unfortunately, some of these online fans are becoming the very judgmental bullies we were desperate to escape in our formative years. Like Kevin Costner said in The Untouchables, it seems they have “become what (they) beheld.”
Certain casting decisions will always be met with derision, but racist and misogynistic banter should be unacceptable, same as bullying actors and creators on social media or in person at panels. There’s a feeling of entitlement spreading throughout fandom that creators must meet our creative needs and pre-conceived perceptions of beloved characters instead of fulfilling their own creative visions. We make writers, directors and producers beholden to us, and then bully them into resigned submission, exasperated anger or exhausted surprise. Look at how many people quietly celebrated Zack Snyder’s exit from Justice League under the most horrible of circumstances. Nothing seems to matter beyond our desire for these creatives to get “our” favorite properties right, but often lost in that desire are things like respect and common decency.
It leaves me to wonder what fuels this anger. Is it a hidden fear that if creators don’t get these fanboy properties right, us geeks might lose our hold on the mainstream? Is it the all-consuming love that some fans have for these pop culture mainstays that makes them give in to their baser instincts online? Or has there always been this abundance of racist, misogynistic, vitriolic banter lurking beneath the surface within our communities, with social media just providing a platform for those hateful voices?
I can’t agree with Moffat that the Comments Section is “where the lonely go to die. They don’t matter.” Those people do matter because they are causing people who want to make entertainment for the rest of us — entertainment that we so desperately need in our world right now — to question whether they should even bother. All of us lose in that scenario, and that may be the true crime here.
John Steven Rocha is a host, actor and voiceover artist in LA. He currently hosts the Outlaw Nation and The Top 10 podcasts on the SK Plus channel and The Cine-Files podcast on iTunes. When he’s not doing that, he’s winning and losing belts as The Outlaw on the Movie Trivia Schmoedown. Feel free to send him a tweet or Instagram post at @TheRochaSays.