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Student Blog: Fandom Purity Culture on Broadway and Beyond

How "Problematic" Has Become Problematic

Student Blog: Fandom Purity Culture on Broadway and Beyond

Those of us who grew up on the internet in fan spaces have come of age in an era where media has been consumed more and more critically by increasingly vast audiences. As Broadway fans in particular, the online age has granted us unprecedented access to shows that most of us would never be able to see (another blog for another time) and unfettered availability of discourse, commentary, and analysis pertaining to the shows we love. It should feel amazing, right?

Lately, I'm not so sure.

Anyone who exists in fan spaces has surely noticed the meteoric rise of self-assured "hot takes" debating the morality of every and any show, film, play, musical, and novel available. In convoluted terms, these exhaustive Twitter threads and Tumblr posts nitpick every facet of the show, often zeroing in on character portrayal and thematic elements, ending their arguments with a wholehearted condemnation of this poisonous, detrimental entertainment.

Like most things on the internet, this is a case of extreme snowballing. What was once a healthy and reasonable expectation in online spaces-- that we view our media critically and thoughtfully-- has nosedived down the slippery slope of internet discourse and morphed into its own antithesis. Memes like "your fave is problematic," which began its life as a half-joke/half-callout tool on Tumblr in the mid-2010s, solidified themselves in the popular lexicon as a legitimate form of online criticism, while cancel culture gained traction during the Trump administration.

Now, much like the school of thought that I just mentioned, my argument, too, can lead into unsavory rhetorical territory if taken too far. I am not going to yell at a cloud about how cancel culture is ruining America. In fact, I think it can be a useful tool when it comes to bringing attention to the truly egregious misdeeds of people that depend on public support-people like J.K. Rowling, Sia, and those ousted by the Me Too Movement who dig their heels in and refuse to learn or apologize. But, when co-opted by professional reactionaries and internet stans, cancel culture becomes the nightmarish strawman that haunts the dreams of pundits.

Fandom purity culture, which is directly linked to the warped cousin of cancel culture that pervades Twitter, asserts that everything is black and white. It finds morally grey characters unsettling and demands that every hero must remain noble and faultless while every villain must have an explicit reason for their evilness and receive punishment rather than redemption or, god forbid, success. It subscribes to the logical fallacy that anything an author writes about is a belief or practice they personally subscribe to, an assumption that quickly leads to vitriolic backlash and online dog-piling. Moreover, purity culture concerns itself in a supplementary manner to historical accuracy-slavishly demanding that every historical narrative must remain nailed to the facts with no room for interpretation or expression.

There are purists lurking in the corners of every fandom, and one of the places that I have noticed it more recently is surrounding Hamilton. Hamilton represents the apogee of that which purity culture despises-- the hero commits morally grey acts like infidelity; the villain(s) are not pure evil and often defy categorization; the book is full of inaccurate historical references; and the staging, while retaining a flavor of history, is undoubtedly full of artistic license. To me, all of these elements make for a revolutionary, if you'll pardon the pun, theatrical experience. Art is meant to push boundaries. It's meant to exist out of time. If artists are not allowed to make creative decisions with their scripts, lyrics, and costumes, then where, pray tell, would they be allowed? Fiction is fiction for a reason-- it is a venue for artistic and intellectual exploration and thematic curiosity. As a creative writing major and a history minor, all of my work reckons with the coexistence of fact and fiction. I pay fealty to both. But, anybody who enters a clearly fictional experience demanding nothing but fact would, I think, find their needs better met by a biography or documentary. (Though, they will quickly find that bias is inherent everywhere.)

To demand rigid accuracy and black-and-white characterization from entertainment is to lose its whole purpose. Anyone who has studied writing will be the first to tell you that story is nothing without so-called problematic characters. Heroes must have flaws. Protagonists are not always good. Conflict must arise and, much like life, it may not always be tied up in a neat bow by the end of the act. Humanity exists in the grey area; to ignore the spectrum of shades in which we live our lives is reductive and juvenile.

Furthermore, when purity culture devotees suggest that the author must spoon-feed the moral status of every single character to the audience, they undermine both the intelligence of the viewers as well as the skill of the author. Imagine the morally grey stories we love if the authors were not granted any subtlety-Sweeney Todd with an eleven o'clock number entitled "Don't Kill and Cook People (It's Gross and Illegal)" or Phantom of the Opera ending on a high note with "Thou Shalt Not Live In The Basement and Kidnap Young Sopranos While Threatening The Safety of Theatergoers." It's bad entertainment, and what's more, we can already discern these messages-- which, I might add, are not the main themes of the shows-- with just a shred of critical-thinking skills.

Your faves will always be problematic. If they're real people, they will mess up on occasion. They're people like the rest of us, and you can be the judge if they are worthy of your support or not. If they're fictional, they must mess up on occasion. It is what drives the plot forward and makes stories worth watching and reading. To demand that every piece of media must be morally pure and impeccably accurate is to ignore the mission of fiction-to entertain (and, yes, to sometimes moralize) with full creative license.

Life is about duality. Critical viewing and entertainment go hand-in-hand; they are not enemies. If fandom is ever to healthily persist, we need to come to an understanding that problematic media can still be enjoyed-and fast.

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