Amazon’s massive series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, finally had its premiere recently. And after a year or more of negative, mean and too often toxic takes from various members of the Tolkien fan community, and elsewhere, the dam finally broke. It seems like a deluge of bile has washed over certain parts of the internet, and those of us who stand knee-deep in the muck to keep the light of positivity shining, often have to endure sarcastic insults and personal attacks that seem to say more about the sender than anything else.
Having studied fandom in both positive and toxic varieties, I often have an almost academic interest (some have called it a morbid curiosity) in how toxic fans react to various pieces of entertainment and franchises. The psychology at work here is as fascinating as it is sad, and it is relatively easy to pick apart and analyze these toxic arguments and see them for what they really are: a paper-thin veil to hide other, more ideological issues.
Let’s take a look at the basics of toxic fandom. I touched upon this in my review of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. I’ll put the link to that below. This is one of the most common theories and the one I’m leaning most towards. First, we have to learn what a “fan” really is. The word fan, as many knows, comes from the word fanatic and has been in use for quite some time now. A fan is a person who enjoys something so much that the thing in question has affected and changed the fan’s understanding of their own identity.
We usually don’t think about identity too much when it comes to fandom, but let’s do a thought experiment. If you’re a fan of something, think about that now, and try to imagine how your life would be if that thing did not exist. Would you be a different person in any way? Most likely.
But what happens when something you’re a fan of changes or comes out in a new package? It is still a part of you, right? That Doctor Who actor you love so much who went on to other projects, for example. What happens when another actor takes on the role? One that is very different from the one you loved, one that has no place in your perceptions of the franchise. That small piece of you that was shaped by Doctor Who is moved and twisted. This might hurt. You try to defend yourself, but the pain of seeing your beloved franchise change and evolve makes you want to attack. Galvanized by others who feel the same way, you lash out against anyone who disagrees with you. The internet is a useful weapon in your endeavor to inflict as much pain as possible. It allows you to dehumanize your perceived enemies from a position of anonymity afforded by the keyboard and computer screen, and from this position, the worst in you seeps through.
To rephrase what a friend from the American film industry said recently: There is something very Trumpian about these people. These people have an intrinsic need to hate, and no matter how The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power turned out, they had already decided they would hate it long before it was released and to scream and shout about how much. Pride would never change their minds after actually watching it. It didn’t even have to be Middle-earth. Create anything new for a beloved franchise, and a significant portion of so-called fans will hate it and, most likely, you for making it.
Let’s consider one of the reactions to The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. It saw, of course, the whole cavalcade of usual suspects from the sad world of toxic fandom: misogyny, politics, gatekeeping, general bigotry and a new one, in my experience: the accusations of corruption on the part of reviewers. In short, giving a good review of the series would quickly result in sarcastic and hateful accusations that you’re “on the take” from Amazon.
But one of the saddest reactions was the blatant racism on display by toxic fans shoving Tolkien’s books in front of them with the argument that “Middle-earth is supposed to be a mythology for England and therefore there should be no colored actors in the series”. To be clear, JRR Tolkien never said or wrote that his fantasy world was meant to replace anything. This is an interpretation lifted up by other writers, and using it as an argument that Middle-earth should be completely caucasian might just hint at deeper ideological issues.
I recently did a small Twitter experiment about this. Tolkien describes the proto-Hobbits known as the Harfoots (who appears in The Rings of Power) as having “browner skin”. I posted a photo from my copy of The Lord of the Rings on Twitter with the argument that “a dark-skinned Hobbit is not against the lore” and as expected, the response was swift and toxic. “Browner skin doesn’t mean black skin!” was shouted back at me.
JRR Tolkien rarely described how his characters looked, and when he did, he often used metaphors. Legolas, for instance, is described as “tall as a young tree”, but his skin tone or hair color are not mentioned. And in the novels, this works very well, resulting in a language that is both poetic and beautiful. But let’s take a look at what he wrote about the Harfoots, which we meet in The Lord of theRings: The Rings of Power.
As you can see, the Harfoots were described as having “browner skin”. How much browner? I would expect that there were variations. But I have no trouble at all with brown or black actors playing these diminutive proto-Hobbits. And would I have any trouble with it even if Tolkien didn’t write this passage? Not at all. And that goes for anyone in this or any other franchise. Remember, acting skills and the ability to embody the mythical qualities of Middle-earth have nothing to do with skin pigmentations.
Shouting and screaming (which is basically what the toxic fans are doing) about people having the “wrong skin color” in an adaptation of an almost 70-year-old fantasy novel is not only sad and laughable but also slightly disturbing. It is one of many hints that this ship we’re all sailing in might not be on the right course and that there are sharp rocks and bad weather on the horizon.
And to the toxic fans out there, choose to be better.