If you search for Kevin Smith's name on YouTube, you'll see a surge of videos last week with sensational thumbnails showing Smith's face crying and overlaid with all capital letters claiming he is "EXPOSED," "DEFEATED," or experiencing a "MELTDOWN."
Smith's new He-Man animated series hasn't had a graceful landing on Netflix when it released on July 23. Amid accusations of Smith making the show too "woke" and abandoning the spirit of the original cartoon, Smith has fired back at the fans in interviews. In turn, some fans have called this "fan blaming," an emergent fandom term that signals how much ownership you think fans should have over the things they're a fan of.
That Smith is at the center of this latest controversy is convenient because he's not a director who wandered into the world of fandom as an outsider who simply adapted a beloved franchise. Fans and fandom have always been central to his work. His debut feature, Clerks, put him on the map not only as a leading director in a new wave of 90s indie movies, but for the then groundbreaking decision to allow his characters to discuss pop culture—like this conversation about the politics of blowing up the Death Star—like real fans.
His later films would emphasize his fandom for comic books, and he quickly became well known for his enthusiasm for the genre. He even wrote a few, and has critically acclaimed runs on Green Arrow and Daredevil, as well as a few Batman limited series. For years now, Smith has been creating the culture he used to be a fan of. Smith says the new He-Man show, Masters of the Universe: Revelation, is for older fans who grew up with the original show. The first five episodes are currently on Netflix. The second half of the season doesn't have a release date yet, but Smith has tweeted about working on them.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation was not unanimously received as a slam dunk. Some fans took issue with what they felt was an insufficient amount of the titular He-Man in the show. Rather than take this lying down, Smith defended his own work, telling Variety, "You really fucking think Mattel Television, who hired me and paid me money, wants to do a fucking Masters of the Universe show without He-Man? Grow the fuck up, man."
Some of the ways that Smith has defended himself have rubbed certain fans the wrong way, and they're using an emergent piece of internet terminology to describe it: fan blaming. As a term, it exists somewhere halfway between gaslighting and victim blaming. The idea is that creators who make unpopular creative decisions in legacy nerd media will blame the fans for the negative reaction, rather than taking blame for their own, presumably bad creative choices. Is it reasonable that some He-Man fans would be upset that a Masters of the Universe show doesn't have a lot of He-Man? Of course. To those fans, saying that some fans have unrealistic expectations about the media they love is denying them their god given right to dictate how that media is made, and also to complain when it misses the mark.
Although the kinds of people who use the term "fan blaming" retroactively apply it to many fandoms that have feuded with creators, the Star Wars fandom's on-going reaction to Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi is probably when the idea began to solidify. Johnson's movie did not deliver what fans expected, and some of them were and continue to be very upset about that. Probably too much ink has been spilled about that movie and the negative reaction to it, but Johnson's refusal to disavow any parts of the film, to apologize to fans, or to even consider them a part of the creative process at all, seems to bother them. When critics disliked the next movie and reviews pointed out that it seemed to, point by point, dismantle Johnson's work, Star Wars fans took umbrage at being blamed for a subpar space wizard movie.
Smith has been accused of fan blaming repeatedly because he has not been shy about talking about the negative reaction to Masters of the Universe: Revelation. He has also responded to specific fans and their specific complaints, which began a year prior to the show even airing:
Fans have taken issues with aspects of the show's marketing, which they felt didn't represent the actual show. The trailers in particular show a lot of He-Man, and they say there's just not as much He-Man in the show. Smith has been resolute in saying that people who are upset about the twists and turns in this show simply don't understand how stories are told. Only half the season is currently out, and Smith hopes that fans will give it time. Some fans, on the other hand, think that they were advertised a show about He-Man and were delivered a "woke" show about female characters.
But because of the on-going nitpicking over sequels to legacy nerd media, like the new Voltron or She-Ra shows, which have notably more diverse casts than the originals, fans began speculating that Smith's Masters of the Universe would follow suit. The speculation that He-Man would be sidelined in the new He-Man show began months prior to the premiere.
Motherboard reached out to Kevin Smith about fan blaming and the response to Masters of the Universe: Revelation and he did not immediately respond.
Before creators like Kevin Smith were accessible on Twitter, the separation between creator and fandom was something that only dissolved at fan conventions where, if you were lucky, you'd get to ask something at a Q&A Comic Con panel. (Those could be annoying as well, of course, as Smith famously satirized in this Chasing Amy scene). Complaining about bad comics and tone deaf adaptations could be as toxic as you wanted, because there was a near zero percent chance that the creator would see it.
Kevin Smith's career is a timeline of the dismantling of this fandom practice. He was always vocal about being a fan—some of the more interesting parts of Chasing Amy are Smith's imaging of what it would be like to work professionally in comics. Later in his career, when he became the creator of the kind of pop culture he was a fan of, he also imagined (humorously!) what it would be like to go door to door and kick the ass of anyone who posted negatively about you on a message board.
In the Variety interview about Masters of the Universe: Revelation, he said that he still feels like he approaches his work as a fan first, thinking of what fans want above all else.
"[Netflix executive Ted Biaselli’s] like, ‘I yearn to watch the show I thought I was watching in childhood. That’s what I’m looking for here, the same show, but people can die. Can you do that?' And I was like, 'That’s the only thing I can do,'" Smith said.
"Honestly, if it had been anything else outside of that—if they were like, 'We want you to reinvent this for the modern age'—that would have scared me off creatively, because I’m not that inventive," Smith continued. "And also, because I know what a fan base reacts like when they don’t get the thing they grew up watching. You think I’m gonna be the fall guy for that? If I’m involved in a thing, it’s going to be true to what it is. It’s gonna be true to the franchise."
Fans getting mad about cartoons for a variety of reasons, like complaining that She-Ra isn't hot enough, is nothing new at this point. As someone who still identifies as a fan himself, it's not surprising Smith would engage with the criticism in a way his critics feed on. But the existence of a new He-Man show you don't like doesn't retroactively change or destroy the versions of the show you do enjoy.
Fans pushing back against racism and sexism have, in recent years, changed the landscape of television. One of the creators of the reboot of Gossip Girl even said that their new show would not feature the characters "slut shaming" their peers, in response to the original Gossip Girl's messy sexual politics. "Fan blaming" as a term occupies the same space as some terms like "slut shaming" or "victim blaming" in some nerdy lexicons.
The term victim blaming was popularized by a 1976 book by sociologist William Ryan that used the titular framework of "blaming the victim" to explain the cycle of poverty, especially as poverty intersects with race. The idea that poor people are poor because they waste their money on frivolous things is a way of blaming the victim. You're saying that the victim of a negative circumstance is to blame for being in that circumstance. It's not difficult to draw the line between that language and the ontology of "fan blaming," but unlike the subjects of Ryan's Blaming the Victim, fans of He-Man aren't a protected class.
Fans may be being blamed, but they're not victims of anything.