Fandom And The Problem Of The Media Franchise

The outcry over HYDRA Captain America reveals a deeper clash between fan culture and media franchises.

Whitney Thompson

Before the Trump era, there wasn’t much that could get me to actually participate in the explosions of outrage that periodically swept social media. I usually knew they were happening, and more often than not I’d retweet people’s justified anger, but I rarely weighed in myself. But in May 2016, when the news broke that Captain America, long-time defender of the oppressed, Nazi-puncher supreme, had somehow been a deep cover HYDRA agent for his entire comics existence… that was a different story. I weighed in with abandon, tweeting almost exclusively with the hashtag #SayNoToHYDRACap for the next couple days. One of my disgruntled tweets even went a little viral. I was horrified that writer Nick Spencer and everybody else at Marvel who greenlit this “plot twist” would so flagrantly disrespect Captain America’s original creators, both of whom were Jewish, for the sake of headlines and shock value and increased comic sales.

Of course, nowadays, everything in the world feels like it’s on fire, and as a result, it’s pretty hard for me to be really, truly, gut-punch devastated by any single thing. But I found out a couple days ago that Marvel is basing an entire comics storyline on that godawful HYDRA plot twist, and I still feel sick.

Others have written, better than I ever could, about the unconscionable and specifically anti-Semitic use of Nazism as an edgy plot twist. Just a few weeks ago, I published a piece about how Captain America forced the US to confront its ambivalent relationship with Nazism. This time, though, what’s nagging at me is that this particular plot twist and the widespread Internet backlash to it highlight some of the most pressing questions of modern-day media and fandom. What does Death of the Author mean when multiplatform marketing and franchising are the order of the day and fandom can, and often does, talk back to its source material? And has the rise of participatory culture actually given any real power to fans?

It may seem like a no-brainer to say that Roland Barthes’ archetypal author is indeed dead now that participatory fan culture and transmedia narratives are common, if not de rigueur. We live in the age of franchises, rather than individual, siloed stories. Star Wars is not just an eight-movie series — it’s novels, it’s comic books, it’s the Clone Wars TV show and the Extended Universe novel collection and toys, so many toys. The Matrix, a popular go-to example of a transmedia narrative in action, isn’t just the three movies the Wachowski sisters directed, but a bunch of animated short films and video games and God knows what else. Marvel itself has established its dominance through not just its movies but the larger world it’s created around them; there’s a reason the term “Marvel Cinematic Universe” is so firmly entrenched in our pop-cultural vocabulary. The mere existence of franchises, even before you add their consumers into the picture, complicates the question of authors. When multiple people contribute to the creation and growth and maintenance of a franchise, when Nick Spencer has Captain America’s reins in the current comics run but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely write all his movies, who even is the Author of whom Barthes speaks? The answer, to me at least, seems to be the original creator, which in Captain America’s case is both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. But that still doesn’t address the bigger question here: is the Author, whoever they are, truly dead?

At this point, it’s worth looking back at Barthes’s original essay. “Death of the Author,” as a phrase, is thrown about a lot, and it seems as if its meaning should be intuitive, but there’s so much more to Barthes’s argument than this phrase alone. And frankly, in several important aspects, I think Barthes is full of crap.

One of the first assertions Barthes makes in “Death of the Author” is that literature has a unique power to nullify any and all context. He calls it “the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body who writes.” This statement presumes identity is something that can be lost in the first place, like a set of car keys or a bottle opener. It presumes identity is neutral. But of course, history has shown us time and again that when identity is lost, it almost never simply slips away in a moment of carelessness. It is wrenched from one, and that wrenching, whether it comes from shame or slavery or genocide–the annihilation of the annihilation, to paraphrase cultural theorist Alison Landsberg–is always meant to dehumanize. And oddly, it is this precise act of wrenching that makes identity impose itself all the more: it’s not incidental to one’s being, like a pair of sunglasses or an earring, but integral. To believe otherwise, as Barthes does, seems not just careless but dangerous.

It occurs to me that when I think of identity I think of race, of gender, of class and religion and sexuality, all of which are at the center of the frothing Charybdis of modern identity politics. Barthes, I reason, must have been thinking about something more innocuous. One’s name, maybe, or network of family relations or occupation. But then even names can be far from innocuous, for one thing. For another, I Googled Barthes while writing this, and he’s a white man; although he was gay, we should all know by this point how white gay men can still prop up oppressive systems. It makes sense, then, that identity for someone like him could seem so unimportant, could be subsumed by other forces so easily. He has the luxury of ignoring his identity.

In an odd way, I think that is one sense in which Barthes is right, even if he doesn’t mean to be — the author cannot always be treated as the foremost authority on their work, because they don’t always see their influences for what they are. I speak mainly of social hierarchies, of hegemonic structures that privilege some identities over others (see, there’s that pesky word again, identity). Virginia Woolf was certainly aware of the sexism of her time, for example; her opinions on it are especially hard to ignore in “A Room Of One’s Own” but they speak through her even in The Voyage Out. But Ernest Hemingway was just as influenced by the sexist system as she was. He was just monumentally less aware of it.

On the other hand, though, sometimes authors know their identities full well. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby couldn’t escape their Jewishness in 1941, when Captain America #1 debuted. Judging by Jack Kirby’s tendency to use Nazi-killing stories as cocktail party anecdotes, I get the sense that he didn’t really want to escape it.

Captain America was literally created to punch Hitler and condemn Nazism, because his Jewish creators wanted to protest America’s at-the-very-least-milquetoast attitude towards fascism. That’s a historical fact, Barthes be damned. To ignore this is to take a dangerously shortsighted view of history, if not to discard it entirely. The George Santayana reference is perhaps too obvious a reference to make here, but in an era when the rise of neo-Nazism in the US government followed close on the heels of HYDRA Captain America, it nonetheless feels evergreen.

Barthes does, in a way, predict modern participatory culture elsewhere in his essay. He condemns the notion of the “Author-God,” saying of literature that it’s “a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” On one level, that’s perhaps the most beautiful definition of intertextuality that I’ve ever read. On another level, it perfectly describes the multivalent, contentious nature of media franchises and their fandoms. Marvel’s canon works alone are numerous, but they’ve also inspired at least 161,815 works of fanfiction on Archive of Our Own, not even counting ‘fics on other sites like Tumblr or ‘fics that aren’t specifically tagged with “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but concern Steve Rogers or Natasha Romanoff or T’Challa nonetheless. The volume of fan art is even harder to quantify. And these fans aren’t just working with the canon they’ve been given, either; one immensely popular subtype of fanfiction is “fix-it” ‘fic, in which fans take it upon themselves to right perceived wrongs in canon. Slash fiction is often born from this impulse, and slash fans have often crusaded for more, better queer representation in the works they admire (see also, the hashtag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend and the mass fan headcanon of Bisexual Steve Rogers). Sometimes, as in the case of “Johnlock,” these debates can get ugly.

And, lest it be lost on anybody, many of these slash ships are not canon, and their canon potential has often been directly shot down by show creators and writers.

Herein lies the problem with calling modern fandom “participatory culture,” as prominent transmedia scholar Henry Jenkins has defined it. The predominant model of media franchising has absolutely carved out spaces in which fans can engage with media in a deeper manner than simply watching it, but at the end of the day, there is still a canon. Even though narrative control is more decentralized in the age of the franchise, the narrative itself is still firmly in one entity’s hands. So at the end of the day, the fan’s power to participate, to shape texts along with creators, is profoundly limited.

I think what we’re seeing in this particular cultural moment is a clash of two media models. Henry Jenkins has espoused the value of participatory culture and spreadable media in democratizing media franchises, and fandom in general seems to be operating in that spirit. Fans want to feel listened to, in a nutshell, especially when their grievances with source material are based in notions of social (in)justice. But media companies like Lucasfilm and Disney and Marvel are still largely, fundamentally operating with the same top-down Author-God model they’ve used for ages, creating their canon and feeding it to fans and expecting them to eat their vegetables rather than spit them up and demand something other than canned green beans for a damn change. I’d even go so far as to say these two models of media production and consumption are incompatible.

I don’t have a ready solution to that particular problem. I’ve been pondering it for a long time, and I have a feeling I’ll keep pondering it. But to provide an answer to the second question I posed at the outset of this piece: fans don’t have nearly as much power as modern media’s participatory culture would have them believe, and they know it.

I’ve been reading a lot about superheroes lately; my Master’s dissertation project will be all about them, in news that should surprise no one who knows me or has read my previous work here. A few days ago, I was perusing an article by Kelli Stanley on Wonder Woman and femininity throughout history, and this excerpt jumped out at me:

“During the late 1990s, DC abandoned any attempt to diversify its audience, content to pander to a segment of the already minuscule comic-book market, and ignoring and even cheapening its character’s standing as a cultural icon. This marketing strategy reflects the increasingly marginalized economic role of the comic book itself. Once a money-making adventure for [William Moulton] Marston and his fellow pioneers, the comic-book narrative is no longer a profitable enterprise; rather, it is the licensing of the serialized characters to other media that earns corporate revenue. It is licensed product that now carries the iconic message to consumers that the comic-book narrative once did, and as long as Wonder Woman remains an identifiable product on mugs, t-shirts, and calendars, comic-book creators are given free reign to contradict and even pervert Marston’s professed intentions in creating the character.”

– “‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” page 159

Stanley argues a little later in this article that not just film and television but licensing as well have done far more to maintain the cultural-icon status of superheroes than comics, at least in recent years. Marvel, for example, pulled itself out of bankruptcy in the early 2000s by licensing its comic-book characters. We see the effects of this in stores everywhere, the Disney Store and Macy’s and Target, alike. Over the two days I’ve spent writing this article, I’ve worn two different Captain America shirts, both in the colors of the bisexual pride flag (and sites like this are another way in which fans can exercise some measure of power, it should be noted). Merchandise, in Stanley’s words, “inspire[s] individual identification and storylines of their own.” So it’s hardly a surprise, then, that when characters in a franchise do things that are wildly out of character, that go against everything fans believed about them, they don’t wike it.

The thing about transmedia narratives, the big thing that makes them work, is that they bring to life one overarching, unified world. Technically, comic books are not by default part of this world. They actually have the opposite structure of transmedia stories, by virtue of their many, many universes and reboots and continuity errors; they’re multinarrative platforms, rather than multiplatform narratives. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that that doesn’t matter to consumers. As far as fans are concerned, even the most casual of them, Captain America is Captain America, whether they’re seeing him in a movie or in a comic book or on a birthday card. That’s kind of how cultural icons work. So to do what DC did in the ‘90s and what I’d venture to say Marvel is doing now with Captain America, to write stories exclusively for the seeming cash-cow audience of straight white men who don’t give a fig about social justice, is to undermine the whole franchise, to fly in the face of the entire rest of your marketing strategy. It’s dangerous to ignore these issues of social justice, as I established earlier, especially given that superheroes are by definition purveyors of justice, but it’s also just bad marketing and bad storytelling.

The answer to the first question I posed, therefore, is something of a paradox. A cultural mainstay like Captain America has a plethora of different authors, not to mention consumers who identify with, interrogate, and transform the canon texts in which they encounter him. In spite of all that, though, the author is not dead. Though Captain America is the most profound example, superheroes in general are largely products of their historical context. They can’t be divorced from it, or at the very least they shouldn’t be — and when somebody tries to ignore historical context, no matter who that someone is, there will always be cultural critics and thinkpiece writers and fans-as-intellectuals and just plain fans ready to challenge him.

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