Sunday, May 6, 2012
CLEANING LEXICAL HOUSE: A FAREWELL TO "FANBOY"
On Saturday, Roger Ebert tweeted “Removing the word 'fanboy' from my vocabulary.” I know the feeling: last year I made this argument to retire the phrase 'chick flick' from the vernacular, and I've made a conscious effort to stop using words like “retard” and “fag” ironically, the former because if I can't find a better word than “retard” I'm, well, a retard (Ed. Note: this one's a work in progress, clearly), and the latter because even though I'd probably put out for Michael Fassbender or Hrithik Roshan, there's a difference between having a shortlist and being family. But this raises the question, with regards to the word “fanboy”: is it really on that same level? Actually, yes.
It's no n-word. That's still the big boy on the epithet block. The silver medalist is the c-word, which is only acceptable under extremely rare, extremely intimate conditions (or in the UK or Ireland). Then, to paraphrase Brad Pitt (speaking of the above-mentioned shortlist) in Moneyball, there's fifty layers of crap, and then there's the field, your retards and fags and, per the focus of this discussion, your fanboys. “Fanboy” is actually a matched pair with “hipster,” in that the hateful fuckface in question is always some other hateful fuckface, it's never you. But, where cracking on someone for being a hipster is essentially saying “That person is thin, dresses fashionably, lives on the first couple Brooklyn stops on the L train, and listens to music I very well may claim I always liked in five years,” because even though there's a lot to be annoyed by with that vague genus of urbanite, there is a sliver of class envy there. Sometimes.
The “fanboy,” though, everyone pictures roughly as being like this guy (the guy this guy in the video is making fun of, to be clear):
The Simpsons has been fucking with that guy—not specifically him; “that guy” in the cosmic sense—for decades. And it's not like “that guy” is always just benignly bitching about Bioware's avarice or confronting William Shatner about the fact that he was holding his phaser wrong on some episode or other of TOS. Sometimes shit gets ugly. The week or so leading up to the release of The Avengers when the reviews started coming out, there were a couple nasty incidents of guys telling female critics who committed the unpardonable sin of not fawning over the picture to “stick to rom-coms, bitch” and accusing them of having to check with their boyfriends because girls clearly know nothing about comics, don'tcha know.
Almost as bad was the return volley of sneering about “fanboys” after all that shit. Heaven forfuckingfend we get deep on the origins of this kind of stupid misogynistic bullshit. The problem was not “fanboys” taking comics too seriously, or even the way Samuel L. Jackson impulsively tossed a lit match onto the gassed-up mob mentality of Avengers movie fans (n.b., before anyone other than critics had actually seen it), siccing them on A.O. Scott for his lukewarm review in the New York Times. Fandom, much like the Chinaman (why not just get all the offensive nomenclature into this post, amirite) in The Big Lebowski, is not the issue here.
The problem with the condescension and hostility toward women critics is with a warped variety of hetero male privilege, and an inability to assume responsibility for personal inadequacies. It goes like this: sometime after the onset of puberty, boy meets girl, boy wants to make sex with girl, girl does not reciprocate but due to there being other things in the world besides coitus maintains polite interaction with boy, boy interprets girl's politeness as an indication that she wants to sex his penis, girl meets other boy to whom she actually is sexually attracted and becomes boyfriend-girlfriend with him, first boy interprets this as meaning that girl has been manipulating him and that second boy is ipso facto a douchebag for making sex to first boy's beloved, with said sexmaking being entirely assumed by first boy. The end result is an abiding belief that any time a girl does not make sex with one, the girl has “friend-zoned” one, and that all girls like douchebags, and that nice guys (because one always perceives oneself as being a nice guy) are prey for manipulative, scheming villainesses who will weaponize nice guys' niceness against them. One awesome side effect of this avalanche of paranoia is a bitterness toward women that makes it impossible for the guy in question to get laid. This feedback loop has other byproducts, such as regarding women as the enemy and ascribing all kinds of weird, occasionally baseless characteristics to them a la the commies in the Cold War. Meanwhile women—with their own massive array of shit to worry about—are sitting there going “what the fuck did I do?”
But, the next chapter in this story is not “Frustrated by sexlessness, boys turn to all-male fandoms and become that supervillain . . . THE FANBOY!” Fandom has nothing to do with gender or how often one gets laid, it has to do with consuming, uncritical enthusiasm. One will note, the term “fangirl” is usually self-applied, by girls who are fans of things, i.e. “I'm a huge Buffy fangirl,” and there isn't the pejorative, always-the-other-never-me taint of “fanboy.” That's because the shit that pisses people off about so-called “fanboys” has nothing to do with fandom, and everything to do with a lot of bullshit repressed dysfunction, and denial of privilege and agency. Fandom is fandom, though, and doesn't have to do with penises and vaginas (unless you're in a really fun fandom), it has to do with the heart. Y'know, in the gooshy sappy emotional sense.
Fandom and criticism exist on a polarity, since fandom is an a priori, uncritical state of being, and criticism is concerned with rationalism, observation, and leaving one's own tastes at the door. This is why people like Roger Ebert occasionally toss around the term “fanboy” derisively, because to a critic, someone who reacts as a fan actually is the other. Until now, though, as—while I obviously don't know what his actual motivation was for deciding to purge his vocabulary of the word “fanboy,” I'll take the risk of guessing—it would appear Ebert realized that “fanboy” is a reductive term at best and, to my eyes per the above, not even really a thing.
I'll take it a step farther and say that fans and critics could do well to consider the other, or at least not dismiss the other out of hand. There's something to be said both for an emotional, visceral, experiential approach to the arts, and for understanding what in the given work of art creates that reaction. And, at the very least, we all need to remember that the world is not an extension of the self. So fare thee well, fanboy. And for fuck's sake get laid.