Hating on James Cameron: Avatar’s Anti-Fans

Jonathan Gray's picture

Everyone has an opinion on Avatar, or so a browse through my Google Reader, Facebook feed, and trips to public spaces seem to suggest. Moreover, opinions seem remarkably unified within two central camps – either it’s a great ride and a cinematic breakthrough, or it’s all hype and a piece of crap. But these positions develop before people watch. I’d pose that pretty much everyone is getting what they think they’re going to get out of Avatar: either you expect a wonderful visual feast and you get it, or you expect to find a stupid story (“Dances with Wolves on another planet”) with visuals that are either ho-hum or excessive, and you get that.

This latter camp fascinates me, as do their counterparts with most critically and/or popularly loved films or television shows. We know they won’t like the film. They know they won’t like the film. Yet they insist on watching it. Why? What are they paying for? After the fold …

One theory is that they’re paying for the right to complain louder and more vociferously: they’re invested in disliking Avatar, and their dislike – their anti-fandom – is important enough to them that they want more fuel for their fire and specific scenes or character information to throw out when they hold court on its ills. But they also want to lay claim to the authenticity of having been an “actual” audience member – they might be wary of complaining about the film when others could dismiss their complaints as coming from one who hadn’t even seen the film. Seeing the film also allows the alibi that they really were interested and open-minded, but that the movie failed them (when in truth the mind was made up before they went to see it).

Another, complementary theory is that they find pleasure in dislike. We can at times foolishly suppose that people always go to see movies that they want to like, whereas we should be honest that there is at times a pleasure in disliking. Such viewers may offer a catalogue of things they disliked about the movie after they’ve watched it, but they watch because it’s enjoyable to create that catalogue. A bad acting performance, a silly bit of dialogue, and offensive character – these all become pleasurable. I’m not talking about camp – though that is of course another way that one might enjoy the film – or about relishing badness; I’m talking about the pleasures of knowing that one can distinguish good from bad.

Certainly, just as fandom can have a pronounced performative element to it, so too is anti-fandom often heavily performative. The pleasures of fandom can often come from the communal discussions that follow, not simply from the experience of watching alone, and many fans would quickly disavow a beloved text if they weren’t allowed a community around it. So too with anti-fandom, where many of these people hating Avatar are only too keen to pronounce their hatred, and to engage in discussions with others about how crappy it is. In doing so, they aim to perform a level of sophistication, to themselves and to others, but they are also making a pitch to community – they know that there are communities that will dislike Avatar, and the anti-fandom provides the password into said communities.

Let me be clear in pointing out that I’m not saying that people should like Avatar, nor that dislike of it is only a sign of snobbishness. There are many good reasons not to like the film, its noble savage theme key amongst them. This post is not a defense of the film. But first I want to distinguish between disliking it (going to the film and being disappointed), and being someone who is invested in disliking it (i.e., being a bona fide anti-fan), especially if that investment preceded the act of watching the film (whether one is honest with oneself about whether that anti-fandom was there already or not). And second, my point is not to wag a finger at Avatar anti-fans; rather, it’s to make the case that anti-fandom is pervasive, and the pleasures of disliking are still so radically under-theorised and under-studied.

Anti-fandom will always be more visible and will always come out in stronger suit when a film enjoys the type of hype that Avatar has. As this blog has continually argued, after all, and as my new book Show Sold Separately discusses, we don’t just judge films based on the film – we judge them based on the extratextuals. So when a film such as Avatar is surrounded by hype, we all have opinions on it already, and it becomes impossible for any of us to enter the cinema without having already consumed a fair deal of the film, without already having a pretty good idea of how we’ll feel about it. And since anti-fandom’s level of investment in dislike usually requires that dislike to have preceded the film, extratextuals are key to creating a vibrant anti-fandom.

Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Sat, 09 Jan 2010 23:08:06 +0000