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Fandom Conspiracy Theories Are Just as Dangerous as Others

Reality check time.

 

collage of johnlock destiel and the conspiracy guy from always sunny

It only took a week following the series finale for The CW’s Supernatural fans to make me feel embarrassed by my original fandom again. But the embarrassment and frustration I’m feeling are due to more than just fandom drama, because I’ve watched, since the finale as normal, completely understandable frustration with a story not ending the way you like has devolved, for some, into the equivalent of fandom QAnon, and it’s not only upsetting but downright scary.

Fandom conspiracy theories pop up every few years, and they are almost always about ships. The most infamous in recent years was “The Johnlock Conspiracy,” which was the (false) idea that the BBC’s Sherlock was filled with secret, intentional clues (from the music to the props and more) that the Sherlock Holm/John Watson was going to go canon in the final episodes of the series. It didn’t, and instead of being disappointed in the show for making the ship a joke and not telling that story, the fans who subscribed to the theory doubled down and, for a while, believed there was an entire secret episode that would make the ship canon. That didn’t happen, and yet, there are still Johnlocker conspiracy theorists out there.

This happened again with Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender, when the pairing of Keith/Lance (Klance) didn’t go canon, and fans rioted, scraping through old videos and putting together intricate theories about a version of the final season that was far more queer and where this ship when canon. I only know of this because I saw these theories coming from Tumblr bloggers who usually spent their time making the same claims about Dean and Castiel on Supernatural—not that the pairing should happen, which is just normal shipping fun, but that there were hints and clues about it that indicated intent to make it happen that was snuffed out by dark forces behind the scenes.

That brings us to the present. The Supernatural fandom is no stranger to wild conspiracy theories, like the undying one that Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are secretly married. That’s terrible already. But when Supernatural surprised us all by confirming Castiel was queer and in love with Dean and leaving their ending and romantic future ambiguous, that wasn’t enough for fans of the ship or for the many people that also wanted Dean Winchester to be confirmed as bisexual.

And while that frustration is totally valid and something I agree with and understand, what happened next is not. Thanks to a now-infamous, badly translated dub of the show in Latin America, some fans now believe, incorrectly, that Dean was originally intended by the show’s creative team to be confirmed as bi and explicitly reciprocating Castiel’s affection in their final scene together … and that shadowy, evil forces kept this from happening—or otherwise that The CW has muzzled the character, or that the writers or network are intentionally suppressing queer stories.

That’s simply not the case here, as Misha Collins himself confirmed in a series of Tweets last Wednesday.

But that wasn’t enough to stop the tidal wave of conspiratorial thinking, though it stemmed it. Despite Collins’ assurances, a few vocal and very persuasive fans mobilized and enlisted others to stage a sort of protest of, of all things, The CW for a non-existent act of homophobia by not confirming Dean as bi. And this is where the conspiracy became untethered from reality because fans took to social media to berate The CW, all the while ignoring the network’s variety of diverse, queer characters—the most queer characters of any broadcast network, according to GLAAD.

To see hundreds of fans flooding Twitter with accusations based on one story decision was not just maddening, but upsetting and insulting, because for the sake of Dean Winchester, a white, cis, male character, they were ignoring so much non-white, non-male, and non-cis representation to make their point. When fans demand representation but fail to even realize shows like Supergirl, Charmed, Batwoman, Legends of Tomorrow, Nancy Drew, Arrow, Black Lightning, The Flash, and Riverdale exist, it’s bad. Every single one of those shows has showcased queer characters who were leads, who were BIPOC, or part of an interracial relationship. If you call out The CW for a homophobic conspiracy and you have to ignore BIPOC and trans character to do it, the problem is not the network; it is fandom’s continued veneration of white, cis men above all else.

And I know calling out fandom’s admittedly bad history with race and gender is a whole other topic, but it’s worth mentioning here because it’s such a pernicious influence, and when it gets mixed up with calls for representation, it’s a bad look. Again I agree that everyone in media can do better, including The CW.

The problem is not with representation, though. What’s scary here is the way that fandom is encouraging people to disconnect from reality. That’s what conspiracy theory thinking, whether it’s Johnlock or QAnon, does. It conditions people to ignore objective facts because they just don’t fit their worldview.

It’s been fascinating and terrifying to watch all of this happen in fandom at the exact same time that Donald Trump is exploiting the conspiracy-addled minds of his supporters to subvert the election. Because it’s all the same. No matter how strong the evidence is that Trump lost or that the final episodes of Supernatural were just (hate to say it) poorly written and executed, that doesn’t fit with the narrative some people want to believe. And it’s thanks to Trump that we know how devastating ignoring reality can be.

And just like TrumpWorld, where Fox News and all kinds of bigotry have fomented together for years to condition a population to believe that there’s a secret cabal of deep state Democrats that drink baby blood, a sector of online fandom has spent years nursing justified anger at lack of representation and poring over every frame of television shows with such fervor that some of them can no longer see the forest for the trees.

Both the demand to get what they want and the desire to find it, however improbably, in the text is in the DNA of fandom, and it goes all the way back to, shocker, the original Sherlock Holmes. Upon the first death of Sherlock Holmes, fans were so upset by his seeming demise that they badgered Arthur Conan Doyle to bring him back, and since then, fans have engaged in “The Great Game,” where they attempt to treat the fictional exploits of Sherlock Holmes as real and resolve anomalies.

Now, decades later, fandoms on Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter treat all sorts of media this way. BBC’s Sherlock directly encouraged this by placing some “clues” in the show, but not near as many as fans actually “found.” And while it’s all well and good to analyze a text deeper than intended for fun, it’s a bridge too far to impute actual intent from the writers, and it’s even worse to imply nefarious conspiracies. Meta writers have conditioned fans to believe in secret, hidden, intentional narratives that are simply not real. Even if it’s just for fandom and even if this comes from the genuine place of just wanting more representation, it’s still a disconnect from reality, and that’s not good.

Vox’s Aja Romano put it well on Twitter.

So what do we do here? How can we talk to these people? I’ve tried, and the results are not unlike when someone speaks out against a cult. Indeed, the few fans leading these “movements” have the same charisma and draw people in with the same attention and pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook as many cult leaders. Dissenters or people who break away are vilified and become one of the “bad guys.” According to various things I’ve seen over the last few days, defending The CW means I’m being paid by the network (I am not), or I’m just an ignorant straight (I am gay) who doesn’t know the real truth (I do). But that’s what happens when you talk to people who are emotionally invested in this.

Fandom is a relationship—not just with other fans, but primarily with the piece of media itself. Sometimes, this relationship is healthy and fandom enriches your life. What you don’t get from the primary work in terms of story or ships or, let’s be honest, adult content, you can get from transformative works. But like any relationship, it can go bad, and not getting what you need or want can lead to bad decisions and behavior. And have you ever tried to tell a friend that the person they’re dating is abusive or an asshole? It takes a long time to get through to them because they are in love.

But we have to try. We have to keep presenting facts to Uncle Larry that no, there is no secret cult eating babies. We have to be firm against fandom when they go off a cliff and protest the wrong things and people because they didn’t like a mediocre finale, because it undercuts very real concerns when they do arise. We have to keep chipping away, because in the end, it’s only the truth that will set us free.

(images: The CW, BBC, TBS)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.