Why Do We Watch Things We Hate?
In a new book, scholars unpack the idea of anti-fandom, from ‘Star Wars’ to Martha Stewart to Hillary Clinton
In case you didn’t notice, people seem pretty angry lately. There’s the vitriol you see printed on T-shirts and chanted at Trump rallies and the “Can you believe he said that?” tweets and “I know!” replies. There was the torrent of abuse poured on Leslie Jones and the cast of Ghostbusters when the female-led remake came out and the heated resentment aimed at the Star Wars team for featuring Kelly Marie Tran, an Asian-American actor, in The Last Jedi. There are the people meme-ing Tom Brady kissing his son on the lips and the people who are still burning effigies of Roger Goodell after Brady’s suspension over Deflategate. And don’t even get us started on whatever is going on in Cardi B’s Instagram comments.
In Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age, out January 8, Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication studies at Gonzaga University, delivers a collection of 15 essays by scholars exploring the many ways there are to hate, and why we love to do it.
Medium: How did you get interested in the art of hatred?
Melissa Click: It started when I was working on my PhD dissertation, which was on Martha Stewart fans. It was pre-prison and pre-conviction, and I thought, “Why is Martha Stewart so popular with women? It seems like women have so many choices for their lives today, and [yet] there’s this real resurgence in focusing on the home.”
I started to hear a lot of people who said they loved her also say that they hated her. They hated her voice. They hated the way she dressed. They hated her drive to be perfect and that she was sort of a know-it-all. And I was really confused about why people who were answering my calls to talk about why they liked Martha Stewart were sharing all these things about why they didn’t like her.
I was still interviewing people when she was indicted, and through her trial, and when she went to prison. I watched the hate turn: People who had been really critical of her then began to feel like she was being really wronged. For example, people who self-identified as feminists used to say, “I’m really interested in the things that she does, but I feel like she’s cramming them down my throat, and it’s not very progressive.” And then, when she’s accused of insider trading, they say, “Well, all these other men did this too! Why is Martha Stewart being singled out?”
You and Holly Willson Holladay wrote an essay for “Anti-Fandom” about the “Breaking Bad” fans who hated Skyler White, a fairly reasonable woman, but adored her husband, Walter, a criminal. It felt like during the presidential campaign that Hillary was the Skylar to Trump’s Walter, and his fans were pissed off at her for being naggy and insisting they talk about policy instead of just letting Trump do his routine.
Absolutely. But Hillary Clinton isn’t the first woman to run for office who’s been painted in that way. In the introduction of Anti-Fandom, I cite the work of Sarah Ahmed, who tells us hate has patterns. The obvious pattern in the example you’ve provided is gender. We’ve never had a woman president, and I don’t know if we ever will in my lifetime. I think Trump did a really good job of capitalizing on hate. If hate is connected to power, and hate is a response to feeling threatened, and hate is a response to drawing group boundaries, what Trump did really well was to capitalize on some groups’ feelings that they were losing something. Sarah Ahmed also talks about how hate is sticky: Even when Clinton was the first lady, she was hated. It stuck to her, and it never came off, and that’s the real problem about hate.
Fandom and anti-fandom live together. If you love something intensely, and then the story takes a turn that you don’t like, that intense love is what shapes how mad you are about it.
But people loved Hillary when her book “What Happened” came out, and she got into things like wanting to say something snide to Devin Nunes at the inauguration.
But during the campaign, she was not permitted to speak the same way as Trump, and I think that’s also gendered. That’s another way that Clinton was held in her place, because once she said “the basket of deplorables,” it really upset people, even though it was mild compared to everything else that was being said. She didn’t say she’d grabbed men by the penis or anything.
There are just different rules, right? Like, on “Mad Men,” Don Draper literally grabbed Bobbie Barrett by the—
Yes, he did, and everybody forgot about that.
They didn’t forget about it! They loved it! They were like, “This is cool. This is Don Draper.” Just like Trump, we love it when Don plays his role. If you’re a bad guy and you act like a bad guy, you’re doing the right thing.
There are people who are able to turn the hate and make it productive for them.
I think she’s a rare example of women who do that. I think men are better able to be playful with hate, whereas it feels like it just piles on women for the most part. Women like Leslie Jones or [Star Wars actresses] Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley leave Instagram and Twitter because they just can’t find a way to turn it, and it’s just easier to leave than continue to deal with it.
I think Taylor Swift has done a good job of coming back. But I hear my students saying, “She’s not on Spotify ’cause she’s gotta have every last penny.” I think, other stars do that too—why is her interest in protecting her property so offensive? It has more to do with who Taylor Swift is perceived to be than the actual practice.
She just renegotiated her contract with her record label, ensuring that not only will she get payouts from any of the company’s sales of Spotify shares, but all of the label’s other artists will too. But then the theme of her last album, “Reputation,” was playing on the bad girl/snake imagery that came out of her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Taylor was trying to combat some negative feedback and co-opt other negative feedback. I think Martha Stewart does that too. How do you feel about her personally?
I was a subscriber to the magazine. I ate up every page. But I also I felt the pressure that a lot of the fans I talked to felt, like, “Oh, gosh. I need to make sure my house looks good.” And I’m like, “I’m in the middle of writing a PhD dissertation. I shouldn’t care about how my house looks.” Or, “I’m going to a party. I need to make sure I bring something that’s really beautiful and delicious,” and thinking, “Why do I feel that way? Why does it matter if I bring store-bought cookies?” That’s why I say fandom and anti-fandom live together always. If you love something so intensely, you’re watching the storyline unfold. You really care about your character. And then the story takes a turn that you don’t like, and that intense love is what shapes how mad you are about it.
What kind of hate are you most interested in?
The way in which there’s a lot of hate going on around politics might be my biggest focus now. The Kavanaugh-Ford hearing was something that gave me lot of feelings of frustration and disgust.
You dealt with your own moment of being the center of a lot of negative attention. [In 2015, students and faculty at the University of Missouri held a celebration over the resignation of the university president, who left after mishandling multiple incidents surrounding race at the school. Click called for “muscle” to help keep an aggressive student photographer away from the participants and was terminated from her position. This became a national story and inspired the hashtag #FireMelissaClick.]
It is not something I’d recommend that other folks go through. But as somebody who was studying hate at the moment, it certainly gave me an insider’s view.
What did you learn from your brush with hate?
It really just gave me a sense of what I’m assuming other people feel when they go through it. Both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford have talked about how they received death threats. And as much as I may not have identified with Kavanaugh during the hearing, I do identify with that part. There’s nobody who deserves that, and there’s no way to be ready for it.
It’s almost like the person becomes a symbol, and then you get to feel good about being part of a group that knows “this person is wrong and bad, and we are righteous and good.”
That is what anti-fandom’s about.
Taking a TV show you like and establishing what it is about the show that you like or what character you like is automatically positioning you against something else.
Cornel Sandvoss’ essay for your book explores how politics is sort of the least appropriate place to take pleasure in hating someone, because it’s actually important — but it’s no wonder people have such strong feelings when it actually affects their lives.
Academics have separated studying politics from studying entertainment media. It felt like for politics to be “legitimate” was to suggest it’s never entertainment.
But we have a president who wrestled in the WWE. When you’re combatting an anti-fan hero like Trump, do you run a presidential candidate who’s also an asshole, like Michael Avenatti or Ted Cruz, or do you go to someone who’s delivering a message of positivity, like Beto O’Rourke?
I wish I knew the answer to that. One of the things that’s really important is we used to think that anti-fans and fans were separate people and separate practices. But they exist in the same person, and sometimes they exist in the same practice. Inherent in fandom is anti-fandom. The rivalry among different groups is part of what’s at the core of anti-fandom and fandom. Taking a TV show you like and establishing what it is about the show you like or what character you like is automatically positioning you against something else. And I think that’s also true in politics.
Anti-fandom may not be new, but hasn’t it grown more intense in recent years?
Social media makes the anti-fan experience more intense: It lets us recognize other people who feel the same thing across geography. Now I can look at Twitter and see that thousands of people hate something, and it becomes something I want to focus on and that I’m talking to other people about. Maybe I’m more emboldened to reach out to the celebrity at the center of it because I know it’s not just me.
Are there any other hate-related topics you want to talk about?
It feels like anti-fandom’s everywhere, but it’s important to remember that there are a lot people who are “meh” about things. And so it feels like anti-fandom is overrepresented in our world, because the people who don’t really care (and are probably the majority of people) don’t really have any visibility around it — you don’t see the mainstream “meh” behavior demonstrated.