The Social-Psychology of the DC Fandom

By: Chris

Who’s ready for a science lesson? This will hopefully be a cool insight into film fandom, it will contain a bit of sociology and psychology, but at its core it is just another look at how we interact as a film community, specifically the DCEU community. I will try to meld some science with information that we are all aware of, keeping it simple, and ultimately the idea is that we gain an insight into ourselves and each other when it comes to the films we love.

 

So before we look at the community, let us take a look at ourselves. Why do we like the things we do? Why do we go out and watch the films we do? These “behaviours” are how we present ourselves to the outside world. These are the things about us that others can see and identify what kind of people we are. The reason why you and I enjoy Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, or any other DCEU film and others do not, ultimately comes down to what we “value”. In the diagram below, I have provided a simplified version of Belief System Theory (Rokeach, 1973), which is just a framework of how our values govern our attitudes towards things, and ultimately our actions, and also how our actions inform our future opinions.

 

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So for example, you may value the sanctity of life under all circumstances, which may lead to the attitude that superheroes should never kill, the behaviour would then be to dislike Superman snapping Zod’s neck in Man of Steel. This is a completely acceptable position to hold (more on this later). However, someone with these values and attitudes, having seen Man of Steel may think that actually Superman’s actions made sense in that scenario. This information feeds back and has an influence on that person’s future values and attitudes, leading to a change in future behaviour. Cool right?

 

So now we have the individual out of the way, what about fandoms? Well, simply put a fandom is just a large collection of people with something in common. The DCEU fandom is a social group of people from all walks of life that enjoy DCEU films. What makes a social group unique is what is known as its “culture”. The most updated definition of culture is provided by Spencer-Oatey (2008) who states that it is:

 

“a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each member’s behaviour.” (p. 3)

 

It leads to what Hofstede (2001, p. 9) refers to as “collective programming of the mind”. Sounds a little bit scary! This is why fandoms sometimes expel or punish voices that may have a differing view on a particular situation. For example a DCEU fan that may rank Suicide Squad higher than Wonder Woman, or Justice League above Batman V Superman may be publicly ridiculed.

 

Being aware of the social norms and the faux pas of any fandom are very important if you want to get by unscathed. This leads us in to what is known as Social Adaptation Theory by Kahle and Homer (1985). In simple terms, people have to adjust their values and attitudes in order to adapt to their surroundings… or in this case their fandom.

 

So if you remember our first example of Superman snapping Zod’s neck… if the fandom was ok with Superman snapping Zod’s neck but an individual was not ok with it, one of two things might happen. Either the individual would adapt to the culture of the fandom and change their values in order to find the neck snap acceptable, or they would not change their values and most likely be ostracized by the fandom. It ultimately boils down to how attached the individual is to their values, and this is what is known as Value-Self Confrontation (Rokeach and Cochrane, 1972).

 

This theory goes on to suggest that people are likely to modify their values and future behaviour (ie the films they like or dislike) because the positive emotion of self-satisfaction gained from social acceptance is much more palatable than the negative emotion of self-dissatisfaction. Think about that for a moment. This suggests that people within a fandom will be inclined to change the very core of what makes them who they are, just to fit in and not be rejected by a fandom that they want to be a part of. For example if the fandom hates Justice League, a person is likely to make themselves hate it just so they are not rejected by the fandom.

 

“This isn’t anything we didn’t already know!” I hear you cry. And perhaps it isn’t. We are all confronted with and aware of the hive mentality, but being aware that we as individuals are not immune to it is quite interesting. The most interesting point is HOW we compromise ourselves, and this is through what is known as Cognitive Dissonance.

 

The theory of Cognitive Dissonance, was introduced to the world by Leon Festinger (1957).  It tells us that people are psychologically uncomfortable when there is a conflict between their values and their behaviour. A fandom is often confronted with truths that they do not like, so people in the fandom come up with ways to reduce those conflicts. Often this is referred to as a narrative, but there are actually scientific terms for this. Cognitive dissonance theory tells us we can reduce this conflict (or dissonance) in any of three ways.

 

Modification – We can modify the truth.

Trivialization – We can make the truth less important.

Addition – We can add new information to make the original truth seem less uncomfortable.

 

So in layman’s terms, let us think of a smoker who is aware of the fact that smoking is bad for them and leads to cancer. To ease this internal conflict they will say “I don’t really smoke that much” (1. Modification); or “the evidence that smoking causes cancer is actually quite weak” (2. Trivialization); or “I exercise so much that it doesn’t matter that I smoke” (3. Addition). They will tell themselves ANYTHING to make themselves feel better about performing a behaviour that they know does not align with the truth and/or their values.

 

I have personally seen the effects of cognitive dissonance on multiple occasions in film fandom. Harkening back to the Zod neck snap, it has been highlighted many times that this action was wrong because Superman never kills, but it is seemingly not a problem when Captain America kills. So we hear things like “Superman has a no-kill rule and Captain America doesn’t” (1. Modification). This is factually incorrect, as in the comics neither have a no-kill rule, but they both only kill as a last resort. They say “it is ok for Captain America to overlook his kill as a last resort mantra because he kills Nazis” (2. Trivialization). I have even heard “well the film isn’t depressing so it’s ok” (3. Addition).

 

While this is cognitive dissonance that members of the DCEU fandom will identify with, the DCEU fandom itself isn’t immune to the effects of cognitive dissonance, most notably when it comes to Aquaman and also Zack Snyder’s original vision of the DCEU. There is no reason to rehash the history of Zack Snyder and Justice League, but the DCEU fandom for almost an entire year rallied around and supported Zack Snyder. There was a strong anti-Warner Bros/DC sentiment and a demand for justice.

 

Since 2013 DCEU fans have defended against criticisms of their beloved films, one of the earliest of which was that they lacked colour. It was a constant criticism that originated from the grainy desaturated look of Man of Steel, but the fandom often defended the look and on many occasions criticized how oversaturated and overtly coloured MCU films were. It was clear that Snyder was going for a more realistic world view, and his departure triggered a brightening up of the forthcoming DCEU films. Once the first Aquaman trailer was released and we saw bright, popping, oversaturated colours it was a clear indication that Snyders universe was over. Members of the DCEU fandom however attempted to reconcile this cognitive dissonance. Colours were suddenly not a problem because “not all DC films have to be dark” (1. Modification). Colours were now ok because Zack Snyder made one Vero post in May about Aquaman and he supports James Wan’s vision (3. Addition)

 

Similar was observed with the jokey nature of the trailers. This conflicts greatly with the position that the fandom had long held about humour, citing it as one of the reasons why the DCEU was better than the MCU. The inclusion of toilet humour and one line wise-cracks is a staple of the MCU. But suddenly jokes became acceptable. Some members of the fandom have even had the audacity to claim that there aren’t even that many jokes in Aquaman, stating that there are only 4 or 5 (1, Modification). Others have completely separated themselves from the past stating that having terrible jokes in a film isn’t really a bad thing (2. Trivialization). Others stated that it is acceptable if there is toilet humour in Aquaman because there was also “toilet humour” in Man of Steel (3. Addition), even though that was not a comedic moment but an instruction to Lois to stay in indoors.

 

We are all entitled to our own opinions, and if these are the things we like, we should not have to attempt to justify them in any way. This need for justification by the fandom grew ever more with the idea that the Snyder Cut is aligned with Aquaman even though not a single member of the DCEU fandom has ever seen the Snyder Cut. Cognitive dissonance here is mainly centred on “Addition”, using trivial things such as concept art and uncorroborated “insider information” that James Wan went behind the studios back to consult Zack Snyder on the film, as a way to distract from the simple truth that we do not have the Snyder Cut and Warner Bros have moved on from it. This includes James Wan.

 

During the production of Aquaman in the summer of 2017, the departure of Snyder was taken advantage of and a new path was forged for Aquaman. This is not my personal opinion, it comes from the words of Jason Momoa himself, where he states that James Wan began to rewrite the script to add more jokes and humour. I actually tweeted about Momoa’s interview in this thread:

 

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In spite of reaching a critical mass, the number of likes, replies, and retweets is very low as you can see from the statistical information.

How can it be that factual information from first hand members of the cast can be so flippantly disregarded, while at the same time rumour and supposition is shared readily?

 

Another recent example of the effects of cognitive dissonance in the DCEU fandom is the recent case of an uncorroborated “insider” saying that it was always Zack Snyder’s plan to concentrate on solo movies for the DCEU (2. Trivialisation). This came to the fore after Executive Chairman of WB Toby Emmerich stated that the DC way is to concentrate on individual characters and place less emphasis on a shared universe. Suddenly, the fandom who were aware of and championed Zack Snyder’s original vision of a self-contained five film story arc for a long time had seemingly forgotten all about it.

 

When Patty Jenkins weighed in on the idea that DC should concentrate on letting their individual characters shine, the fandom’s cognitive dissonance was on display again. Rather than highlight that this is inconsistent with a view the fandom held that the five film arc is different from the MCU… the fandom now championed the idea of solo movies for precisely the same reason! Honestly even I struggle to categorize which of the three elements of easing cognitive dissonance this falls into! Maybe we need a fourth?! Here are Zack Snyder’s quotes from an interview with Empire Magazine in 2015.

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Incidentally, these quotes (as well as those from Charles Rovan) were also conveniently cast aside when when members of the fandom insisted that Zack Snyder wanted to give full creative freedom of the characters in his universe to each of the filmmakers, incredibly an example of Modification, Trivialization and Addition all rolled into one!

 

Where was I? Oh yes… Once again in order to oppose the false narrative about Zack’s original vision being to concentrate on solo films, I shared the first-hand factual statements by Zack Snyder on Twitter. As before, in spite of this information reaching a critical mass, the number of likes, replies, and retweets was mediocre. How can it be that factual information is being so willingly discarded whereas uncorroborated rumour is readily accepted?

 

At the time of writing, Ben Affleck announced that he is hanging up the cape as Batman. For 2 years the fandom has been in denial as to the fact that he wouldn’t be interested in partaking in a DCEU that diverted from Zack Snyder’s vision. Let us now hope that the cognitive dissonance within the fandom ends and it’s members can move on, enjoying what they want to enjoy or not without feeling the need to ease it with Modification, Trivialization or Addition.

 

Viewed through a scientific lens the behaviour of fandoms and individuals within them is incredibly interesting. And though some people will take this article as it was intended, I am also certain some sections of the fandom will react aggressively. Having read this article it should now be obvious to you why.

 

By presenting the fandom and our shared experiences within it through a social and psychological lens, it will help highlight to individuals why it seemingly changes its collective values (or culture) at the drop of a hat, and why members of fandoms act in aggressive and protectionist ways. My ultimate hope however is that it will help people understand their relationship with their own values and the behaviours they wish to exhibit, allowing them to break free of the social expectations and norms, move beyond them, and be free to enjoy the films they want without a constant need for justification.

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