Celebrities in the Firing Line: When Fan Backlash Turns Toxic

One should never underestimate the power of a frustrated fan with an active internet connection. Sonic the Hedgehog director Jeff Fowler experienced this first-hand, when the wrath of Sonic fans worldwide descended upon his head the second the first trailer for his film hit the web. Slammed for the strangely human-like design of the much beloved gaming character, it took Fowler and Paramount Pictures all of two days to decide to respond to the backlash by going right back to the drawing board and redesigning the CGI for their film’s lead character from scratch.

Ultimately, this case of fan outrage resulted in a much better film, and hopefully next year’s release of Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of the critically maligned Justice League will see similar success come straight off the back of years of online feedback.

Unfortunately though, not every case of fan backlash ends with a good news story, and for every #SaveSonic and #ReleasetheSynderCut movement, there are many more stories of actors, writers and content creators who have been driven to the brink by hordes of angry fans.

When Fan Backlash Turns Nasty

Earlier this year, following the gaming release of the much anticipated The Last of Us Part 2, co-director Neil Druckmann revealed just a taste of the vitriolic fan responses he began receiving off the back of the game’s inclusion of LGBT themes and what many considered “social justice warrior” politics. Much of the worst online behaviour, however, was also aimed directly at voice actress Laura Bailey whose participation in the project led to incensed fans sending her messages like “I’m going to find where you live and slaughter you”.

This certainly is not a new phenomenon, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran also knows all too well the personal pressures that come when a fandom turns toxic. After months of racist and sexist fan commentary due to her role in what many consider the most divisive film in the Star Wars franchise, she eventually removed herself from social media and wiped her entire Instagram presence in June 2018 in a bid to protect her own mental health. “It wasn’t their words,” she later explained in an opinion piece she wrote for the New York Times, “it’s that I started to believe them.”

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Tran’s Star Wars co-stars, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, also received similar backlash when their original casting was revealed for 2015’s The Force Awakens, but it was the inclusion of the comic relief character of Jar Jar Binks in 1999’s The Phantom Menace which really highlighted the damage toxic fans can have on their targets. Actor Ahmed Best, who provided the voice and motion capture for Jar Jar’s character in the prequels, also spoke out at the time of The Last Jedi backlash to concede that the fan reception pushed him to the brink of suicide.

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Why Does it Happen?

This phenomena can partly be explained by what modern psychology is now beginning to describe as the ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’, where the anonymity of cyberspace, coupled with the lack of empathy which comes with the distance of screen-based communication, makes it easy to hurl insults.

Another driving factor is the large emotional investment that fans make when they find themselves drawn into a fandom. In some ways, being a devout fan of a film, gaming, or comic franchise, is much like entering into a relationship, where much of that person’s sense of identity and wellbeing is inherently tied to the things that they love. And whilst for many those relationships operate within healthy and clearly defined boundaries, for a small few those boundaries can be all to easily crossed when that love affair sours. 

It’s perfectly natural to feel disappointed when a film you’ve been looking forward to doesn’t quite hit the mark, or when the writers of your favourite TV show kill off your most beloved character, but it is another thing entirely to begin hurling abuse and death threats toward the actors and writers you feel are responsible for those transgressions.

The unfortunate fact is that as social media makes our favourite celebrities and creative professionals easier to contact than ever before, so too is it simpler for disgruntled fans to cross from healthy criticism into unrestrained harassment. And there’s little doubt that those responsible for working in some of our most beloved pop-culture franchises will continue to have to deal with the growing issue of toxic fans.

September 14, 2020




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