From Gamergate to “Ghostbusters” to Suicide Squad: The Problem of Fan Entitlement

Published: Salon (August 9, 2016)

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the “Suicide Squad” petition. In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss the news, fans of the new movie “Suicide Squad” have created an online movement to shut down aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes for posting predominantly negative reviews of their beloved film. Cue the inevitable jokes about how nerds need to get a life.

Is it really that simple, though? Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that fans of pop culture properties – whether movies, TV shows, books, video games, or anything else – don’t merely view them as forms of entertainment, or themselves as consumers of said media. From Comic Cons to the nostalgia craze, it is clear that millions of people deeply identify with the culture produced by others, and, as a result of this feeling of ownership, many of them have developed a deep sense of entitlement that at its most innocuous is merely silly, and at its worst manifests itself in ugly bigotries.

The brouhaha over “Suicide Squad” offers a great starting point for tracing this evolution from the absurd to the sinister. While there is a highly unflattering whininess in those “Suicide Squad” fans who assume that critics are compelled to share their views, Rotten Tomatoes hasn’t exactly been victimized by their petition (no one believes it’s going to be effective). The same can be said of Ben Affleck, who three years ago was targeted by a petition to recast him as Batman before critics and audiences had a chance to see that he’d wind up being the best thing about “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Incidents like these can be safely lumped under the “silly” category.

But what about the female film critic who received misogynistic death threats from a comic book fan incensed over her negative review for “Man of Steel”?

The same entitlement that can cause DC Comics fans to complain about unpopular actors or unfavorable movie reviews can also, if they harbor certain prejudices, come across in more harmful ways. Because only 15 percent of major movies star female characters, it was easy for fanboys with a sense of entitlement to denounce the new “Ghostbusters” reboot in viciously misogynistic language for recasting the lead roles with female performers. Similarly, because video games have traditionally targeted white men as their core audience, movements like Gamergate can spring up when reactionary gamers hear feminists call for increased gender diversity in gaming. These sexist attitudes even appear around franchises where you wouldn’t expect it; just ask Anna Gunn, who has endured years of harassment for her role as Skyler White in the TV drama, “Breaking Bad.”

Unfortunately, the problem of nerd entitlement isn’t limited to misogyny. Last year a number of racists made waves with their movement to boycott Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens because it had cast African-American actor John Boyega in one of the starring roles. A similar backlash occurred when it came out that Michael B. Jordan had been cast as The Human Torch in last year’s reboot of The Fantastic Four. Skip over to the realm of literature and things aren’t much better, as evidenced by the considerable number of Twilight fans who harassed indie pop singer FKA Twigs in vile racist language for daring to enter a relationship with the male star of their franchise’s film universe, Robert Pattinson.

These are only a handful of examples (I had to cut more than three-quarters of my research for this article just to save space), but they all underscore a common theme. It isn’t simply that consumers of popular culture often harbor ugly racist and sexist views; it’s that, because they personally identify with the properties in question, their inflated sense of entitlement over these products can make them quick to anger when that identity is challenged. This is why latent racism and sexism so often bubbles to the surface among those members of the community community that think of their identity in terms of being white and male.

The underlying logic is fundamentally irrational: It’s the belief that, because they’ve financially supported these industries their whole lives and received an embarrassing social stigma for doing so, these industries owe them. While being a fan gives you a legitimate emotional connection to a product, the underlying relationship is still that of consumer with product. Any loyalty that you feel is a personal choice you make on how to invest your time and money; any choice made by a producer, from corporations to individuals, is done to promote their own self-interest. Because that involves appealing to as broad an audience as possible, this means ignoring their fans when they insist on exclusivist attitudes.

What can be done about this? More than anything else, we need to change the conversation that we’re having about pop culture in general. For better or worse, the fact that our generation holds pop culture on such a pedestal means that the cultural has become political. As a result, when a disproportionately large number of our movies, TV shows, video games, and books feature white, straight, and male characters at the expense of other groups, this is an inherently political act (deliberately or otherwise) and needs to be confronted. Indeed, when nerds react to calls for diversity with hostility, they are only demonstrating how true this is. There is a poignant symbolic significance to including non-white, non-male, and non-straight voices in cultural roles that were traditionally reserved for members of privileged groups… and, conversely, it is terribly disheartening when the producers of entertainment refuse to recognize the cultural power they wield and utilize it in an inclusive way.

Beyond simply calling for diversity, though, we also must infuse our debate with an awareness that being a fanboy doesn’t entitle you to anything. The common thread linking the “Suicide Squad” petition to other nerd-based racist and misogynist incidents this decade is that, at their core, all of them betray an assumption that producers of popular entertainment are beholden to the nerd community. This misunderstands a basic principle of a free market society – while consumers have the right to invest or not invest their time and money as they see fit, they don’t have the right to demand that producers act as obedient servants to their will. It’s certainly nice when an author or actor or critic or film studio shows deference to the wishes of fans, but they are in no way ethically obligated to do so. Indeed, because many fans (like many people from all walks of life) harbor terrible social views, it is very often necessary for producers to disregard the will of the more vocal segments of their fanbases. Just because a lot of gamers don’t want increased diversity doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen; just because a lot of moviegoers liked “Suicide Squad” (myself included) doesn’t mean the critics on Rotten Tomatoes should feel likewise.

At the same time, it’s also necessary for progressives to maintain an even keel about the greater significance of these cultural properties. The sexist backlash against the “Ghostbusters” reboot was certainly despicable, but that doesn’t justify alleging misogyny in every moviegoer who disliked the film (I personally thought it was good and worth seeing). It’s important to oppose racism, but that doesn’t mean we should start hashtags like #CancelColbert that willfully ignore the difference between satire and bigotry. While it’s important for progressives to stand up to problematic trends and tropes in cultural products, we still need to remember that they are ultimately just that – products. When we lose sight of this, we risk overreacting against those whose opinions and actions are based on an awareness of the fact that we too are acting first and foremost as consumers of entertainment.

I suspect that, years from now, future cultural historians will love to mine incidents like Gamergate and the “Ghostbusters” controversy for deeper meaning. There is a great deal to be said about a society that loves its popular culture so fervently that they will turn them into platforms on which greater social justice causes are fought. For right now, though, it behooves all of us to take a step back and recognize that there is an air of entitlement which makes all of this possible… and none of us look good so long as it remains unaddressed.

Chief & I

Published: The Good Men Project (July 19, 2016)

The following article was first written on my personal blog more than six years ago. Upon rediscovering it, I knew I had to publish it here.

If there was ever a moment when I wished I had a camera, it was last Friday, when I found myself emotionally bonding with an unkempt bovine named Chief at the Turtleback Zoo in Livingston, NJ.

My affinity for animals has caused some of my friends to express surprise. One saw fit to comment on my tendency to put pictures of interesting critters on my Facebook profile; others have marveled at the trivia I can spout off on zoological specimens from canines and bears to elephants and pangolins. On those occasions when someone inquires as to the origin of my interest, I find myself in an uncommon position – i.e, one in which I have no idea what to say.

What I do know is that, when I reached my arm into that pen and saw Chief – a massive, unkempt, black-and-white bovine – shamble up to me, a tiny part of my soul giggled with joy. When he tentatively leaned his massive mug against my hand, and had his eyes loll to one side as I scratched him on just the right spot of his chin, I felt an unmitigated joy that exists without parallel elsewhere in my life. The copious quantities of drool that poured onto my sweater and the scratchy feeling of his tongue against my arm were not merely rendered acceptable, but made all the more worth it from the experience. The fact that logical explanations eluded me then – and still elude me now – was irrelevant. I was happy.

Perhaps, despite my earlier reservations about offering an explanation for my feelings, one can be found in this anecdote from a biography of Senator Daniel Webster. Although the political views of the legendary orator were in many respects vastly different from my own, we certainly would have seen eye-to-eye on the unique pleasures to be had in relating to the animal kingdom.

A friend who was often with him tells how he enjoyed his cattle, and how, on one occasion, after each animal was secured in his place, Mr. Webster amused himself by feeding them with ears of corn from an unhusked pile lying on the barn floor. As his son was trying to keep warm by playing with the dog, he said:

“You do not seem, my son, to take much interest in this; but, for my part” (and here he broke an ear and fed the pieces to the oxen on his right and left, and watched them as they crunched it), “I like it. I would rather be here than in the Senate,” adding, with a smile which showed all his white teeth, “I think it better company.”

Why do we have ‘fish sandwiches,’ but no ‘bird sandwiches’ or ‘mammal sandwiches

Published: Good Men Project (June 9, 2015)

Why don’t we care what kind of fish we eat?

As the title of this article indicates, I have a very simple question:

If we wouldn’t be okay with eating a “mammal sandwich” or a “bird sandwich,” then why do we acquiesce in being fed something simply known as a “fish sandwich”?

My first hypothesis was that, on a cultural level, Americans simply don’t care to distinguish between different types of fish, at least not to the extent that we do higher animals. While we’re likely to encounter many of our fellow mammals in our day-to-day lives—to say nothing of various birds and insects—most of us can go an entire day without seeing (or at least paying attention to) a single fish if we so chose. Inevitably those fish that are commonly kept as household pets are not viewed as tantalizing potential food; the goldfish may outrank his domesticated counterparts in the mammalian and avian worlds (e.g., dogs, cats, parrots), but it’s doubtful most Americans would choose to eat one if other culinary options were readily available. As a rule, however, fish that aren’t specifically protected by our cultural mores are generally lumped in together.

On a cultural level, Americans simply don’t care to distinguish between different types of fish, at least not to the extent that we do higher animals.

While this speculation has some merit, it is hindered by one fact—namely that, under the right circumstances, Americans will disregard the specific identities of the mammals and/or birds that they eat. All you have to do is call your product a sausage or hot dog, or sell your burger from a fast-food restaurant chain, and we can be pretty blase about which animals we stuff into our gaping maws. Federal standards only require ostensibly beef products to contain 70% real cow, which leaves the rest open to rather creative interpretation. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Americans would be as outraged as Europeans if it was revealed that they’d been flat-out tricked into eating horsemeat (as happened on the other side of the pond in 2013), but that’s only because horses have acquired a large amount of cultural protection (see the paragraph before this one)… and, of course, because now we know that our meat is gross, whereas before we had merely assumed it.

Regardless of why we don’t care about which fish we eat, however, this indifference has undeniable real-world consequences.

For instance, in the same year that Europe went into an uproar over the discovery they’d been fed mislabeled horsemeat, Americans shrugged off the revelation that roughly one-in-three fish sold in supermarkets and restaurants were fake—i.e., they may have been fish, but they weren’t the type of fish you thought you were being sold. The statistics are shocking: Fish fraudulence spanned from snapper (87% of which was tested negative for snapper DNA) and white tuna (59% negative) to halibut, grouper, cod, and Chilean sea bass (all testing between one-third and one-fifth negative). 74% of sushi restaurants, 38% of regular restaurants, and 18% of grocery stores reported at least one case of a wrongly labeled fish.

I suspect that this apathy, more than our cultural biases or preference for being kept in ignorant bliss, likely accounts for why people rarely question being fed a fish sandwich.

When it comes to major restaurant chains, I can report that McDonald’s fish sandwiches include Hoki and Whitefish, that Wendy’s uses North Pacific Cod, and that Long John Silver’s uses various combinations of Alaskan Pollock, Hoki, Hake, and Haddock. None of these fish strike me as particularly unappetizing, but then again, I wouldn’t know the difference if they were. It says a great deal about American culinary culture that I have found all of these fish sandwiches to be roughly the same in terms of taste, despite their multitude of sources. Indeed, I find virtually all mainstream fish products to be comparable in taste, a quirk I chalked up to a poor seafood palate… at least until I learned that even the more discriminating seafood enthusiasts are apparently easily fooled by corporate chicanery (again, see above paragraph).

In the grand scheme of things, of course, it probably doesn’t matter very much whether the catfish, red snapper, or flounder you ordered is actually ponga (a popular substitution fish), or whether McDonald’s would make less money if their iconic Filet-O-Fish was instead known by the admittedly less catchy Filet-O-Whitefish-and-Hoki. I suspect that this apathy, more than our cultural biases or preference for being kept in ignorant bliss, likely accounts for why people rarely question being fed a fish sandwich.

This may be convenient, but it’s also a recipe for catastrophe… or, at best, a public humiliation for fish consumers that will rival the European horsemeat scandal from not-so-long ago.

A Man and His Dog: The Story of Bixby

Published: Good Men Project (May 14, 2015)

The Good Men Project interviews Mike Minnick, who has been cycling across America with his dog Bixby.

Have you heard about the cyclist who’s been crisscrossing America with his dog in tow?

His name is Mike Minnick, and four years ago he was in a very different place, both literally and figuratively. As he describes it, he was “stuck in a tiresome job in Austin, TX, overweight, a chain smoker and bored with life.”

… Four years ago he was in a very different place, both literally and figuratively. As he describes it, he was ‘stuck in a tiresome job in Austin, TX, overweight, a chain smoker and bored with life.’

No one would think to call Minnick’s life tiresome or boring now. “When a friend offered me a Burning Man ticket I jumped at the opportunity for a change,” he writes. “I quit my job, sold everything that owned me and decided to live my life like an adventure and less like a chore.” After a complicated chain of events (the curious can learn more from the aforementioned hyperlink), he eventually found himself cycling across the country with his dog Bixby, who accompanied him in a dog crate Minnick attached to his vehicle. Since then, Mike and Bixby have jointly traveled to over 31 states over two years, raising eyebrows and winning hearts along the way. Thanks to the considerable media attention garnered by their wanderings,  Minnick has even been able to draw increased attention to a cause very near to his heart – the importance of animals shelters as an alternative to puppy mills.

In an interview with Minnick, The Good Men Project discussed why his adventures with Bixby offered him a perfect opportunity to help needy dogs, as well as what advice he would give other young men seeking their way in the world. Here is what he had to say:

On animal shelters:

Bixby is a rescue dog from a shelter in Austin, TX. I adopted her shortly after a breakup when I felt like I wanted a best friend. She walked over, put her chin on my knee, and I knew that I was going to feed this animal. I started bringing her with me everywhere and we quickly became almost inseparable… She doesn’t care if I’m rich or poor, if we sleep in a king-sized bed or down some path off the side of the road. She just wants to be with me. It’s the most unconditional bond one can have. (I don’t have kids)…

At some point, someone decided that they couldn’t care for this pup and dumped her off at a shelter. A kill shelter at that. There are literally millions of dogs just like her, that get put down every year in this country, and it’s a 100 percent human made problem. It’s irresponsible – humans not spaying and neutering, then not taking responsibility for the offspring they helped bring into this world… I have nothing against a labrador or a pit bull, but rescue one. There are rescues for most any breed. I do not understand how anyone would pay $1200 for a dog, when there are so many dogs that could be saved for $1200…”

On Bixby’s role:

“Bixby is a wonderful ambassador for shelter dogs. People ask me all the time ‘What is she?’ I say a dog. ‘What kind?’ She’s a shelter dog. They come in all shapes and sizes, and every single one of them just wants to bond with a human. If they’re allowed, they will take their humans on an amazing adventure in the time they have together.”

Bixby is a wonderful ambassador for shelter dogs. People ask me all the time ‘What is she?’ I say a dog. ‘What kind?’ She’s a shelter dog.

On the deeper social message he has learned from his experience:

“What I realize is that what’s expected of you, from the time you’re in school to the time you enter the workforce, is that you have some obligation to follow a set path: Go to high school, then immediately college without ever really finding your passion, get a degree, buy a car, buy a house have a family, now your in debt and you realize that you never really took the opportunity to explore your place in the world. Suddenly, life is a chore…”

What he has learned about society from his journeys:

“We largely live in a fear based society if you go by the news. Everything is scary and dangerous. Strangers might hurt you. The news is mostly so horrible and a lot of people buy into it. Roll up your windows and lock your doors. Put up a privacy fence, stay out of my dirt. What is refreshing for me, is that as I got out on the road, and people can tell I’m on adventure, especially with an adorable rescue dog on the back of my bike and our website written in huge letters down the side, that barrier gets broken down.”

On his message for other men:

“I say it all the time now and it sounds so cliche. If you don’t chase after your dreams, they will never come true. If you never chase what you’re passionate about and what you love, then how will you ever be truly happy?”

Be sure to check out wheresbixby.com keep up with their adventures as well as their Facebook page.

Bixby 2

Photographs courtesy of Mike Minnick

Pennsylvania Desperately Needs Rick Santorum Right Now

Published: mic (April 15, 2013)

Here are eight words that I doubt have ever come from the pen of a liberal columnist:

“Where is Rick Santorum when we need him?”

This thought comes to mind as soon as one looks at PA HB683, a new bill introduced in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania that would outlaw whistleblowing on factory farm cruelty. Sponsored by Representative Gary Haluska (D-Cambria) as a companion to a similar measure proposed by Senator Michael Brubaker (R-Lancaster), the potential new law is careful to include every conceivable scenario in which a concerned citizen, journalist, or employee could record and publicize animal abuse on agricultural operations — and then criminalizes such actions, placing them under the same title of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes that covers “arson, criminal mischief, and other property destruction.”

The Keystone State is hardly alone in the movement to clamp down on free speech. As Big Agribusiness becomes increasingly concerned that public backlash against its inhumane treatment of livestock will ultimately result in government regulations, it has thrown its immense clout behind so-called “ag-gag” bills all over the nation. Anti-whistleblower laws have already been codified in Iowa and Utah, while similar statutes have been introduced in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Vermont. While the particulars of these measures vary from state to state, all of them make it illegal to take a photograph or video of a factory farm without permission, obtain work on a factory farm for the purpose of investigating malpractice, or report potential abuses without abiding by unrealistically short timelines.The ultimate goal is clear — to make it practically impossible for the profits of Big Agribusiness to be compromised by unflattering public exposure. Had laws like these already been in place, the Tennessee horse breeding company Whittier Stables would never have faced legal trouble for burning the ankles of its show horses to “improve” their gait; Sparboe Farms, one of America’s largest egg suppliers (including to McDonald’s), wouldn’t have had the world discover its practice of leaving rotting bird corpses in the same cages as its live hens and snapping off the beaks of chicks; and Wyoming Premium Farms, a meat supplier to Tyson Foods, would have avoided the firestorm that erupted when its employees were taped punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air. Needless to say, businesses that are capable of allowing and/or encouraging such conduct have an undeniable interest in clamping down on efforts to shed light on these types of incidents.

That said, even people who are indifferent to the cause of animal rights should be concerned about these bills. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented growth in the power of Big Agribusiness, with corporations like Monsanto flouting antitrust laws (to say nothing of Jeffersonian ideals) in ways that push family farms out of business and endangering public health through their use of genetically modified organisms and dangerous chemicals and pesticides. Indeed, President Obama himself continued this trend last month when he signed into law HR 933, a bill that protects large biotech agricultural corporations from litigation. With the new “ag-gag” bills, however, Big Agribusiness is finding ways to inure itself even to the stipulations of the Constitution, which — for those who need reminding — declares in the First Amendment that government shall in no way abridge “freedom of speech, or of the press.” These laws are symptomatic of the ominous national trend of Big Agribusiness gaining too much power in this country, to the point that seemingly common sense approaches toward controlling them suddenly become front-and-center political issues.

This brings us back to Rick Santorum. As Republican voters learned to their surprise during last year’s presidential election, Santorum developed a reputation in the Senate as a staunch proponent of animal rights, from fighting to end (and, when that failed, regulate) puppy mills and working to establish a “three strikes” system for violators of the Animal Welfare Act to voting for the defunding of inspections of facilities that butchered horses, de facto eliminating horse slaughtering altogether. As he explained when confronted about his views, “I am a pet owner who believes they (animals) should be treated humanely, not someone who ties them to the top of a car.” After dispensing with his obligatory swipe at Mitt Romney, Santorum then elaborated that he had “always believed that a commitment to the humane treatment of animals must be balanced with strong protections for licensed small animal breeders and large animal agriculture operators who function ethically to do so without onerous and unreasonable government regulations.”

The key phrase in that sentence is “who function ethically.” After all, one doesn’t need to support large-scale regulation of our farming sector (to say nothing of the excesses of outright state control) in order to believe that stronger protections for animal rights should be implemented. If these companies were willing to behave ethically, there wouldn’t be any need for journalists and whistleblowers to shame them for engaging in animal cruelty. Unfortunately, the very fact that Big Agribusiness wishes to suppress public information about their activities is proof that unethical practices are rampant within the industry today. This is all the more reason why we need to stand behind the First Amendment rights of those who have fought to spread truth so far — and why animal rights supporters everywhere can lament, perhaps to their surprise, that Rick Santorum isn’t here when we need him.

“Gay Dog” in Tennessee Might be Killed Because Owner Doesn’t Want Him

Published: mic (January 31, 2013)

A dog in Tennessee is going to lose his life today because of suspicions that he is gay.

As explained by Examiner.com, “According to the prior owner, the dog was seen ‘hunched over,’ another male dog, therefore, in this owner’s mind, the dog must be gay.”

One could respond to this by pointing out that dogs “hump” each other as a way of asserting dominance, thus undermining the entire basis of the erstwhile owner’s decision to drop his animal off at a “high kill” animal control center. Of course, homophobes already display a pathetically poor understanding of human biology (e.g., insisting that homosexuality is a choice rather than epigenetic, despite scientific evidence to the contrary). In light of this tendency, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that their knowledge of canine biology is equally sub-par.

That said, this isn’t at its core an intellectual issue, one that can be resolved by appeals to reason and logic. It is an emotional one, bringing to my mind one of my favorite essays by the great philosopher Voltaire:

Bring the same judgment to bear on this dog which has lost its master, which has sought him on every road with sorrowful cries, which enters the house agitated, uneasy, which goes down the stairs, up the stairs, from room to room, which at last finds in his study the master it loves, and which shows him its joy by its cries of delight, by its leaps, by its caresses.

Barbarians seize this dog, which in friendship surpasses man so prodigiously; they nail it on a table, and they dissect it alive in order to show the mesenteric veins. You discover in it all the same organs of feeling that are in yourself. Answer me, machinist, has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal, so that it may not feel? Has it nerves in order to be impassible? Do not suppose this impertinent contradiction in nature.

The dog is sentenced to die at 1 PM today. If you wish to visit the Facebook page chronicling his plight, you can do so here.