The term “fan service” is frequently used in a pejorative capacity, in derisive descriptions of remakes and reboots that attempt self-consciously to “satisfy” fans of their source texts (by, say, deploying members of original casts in fleeting cameos, offering direct references to source texts and their sociocultural impact, or responding to perceived fan demand by romantically uniting characters long believed to be ideally suited to each other). The term could easily be understood, however, in relation to the services that fans themselves provide, demonstrating the viability of proposed remakes and reboots through their active fandom, offering unofficial blueprints for official screenplays through their prolific fan fictions, and even, in some cases, directly contributing to production.
There have been countless instances of major corporations soliciting “expert” fans. In his essay “Screen Studies and Industrial ‘Theorizing,’” John T. Caldwell offers several examples of the growing corporate tendency to co-opt fans as tastemakers, knowledge producers, and “active collaborators,” in the process hijacking that which, in other hands, might seem a mode of resistance—a “negotiated” reading strategy: the production of paratexts. Caldwell suggests that “fake blogs and websites”—those created by corporations masquerading as “everyday users”—have been ceding ground to less “obvious” strategies for the corporate shaping of media reception. After all, basic digital literacy makes it reasonably easy to tell a fake, corporate-authored “fan blog” from a genuinely user-generated one.
Less likely to be recognized are the instances in which major corporations effectively ventriloquize through “ordinary consumers,” since the latter are often contractually barred from exposing their corporate connections, and obliged to emphasize their “amateur” status even when working with proprietary content. (Consider, for instance, any number of “lifestyle” vloggers who take to YouTube to tout new corporate products, including films and television programs.) “All of these producer-as-audience initiatives,” writes Caldwell, “work to merge audience identification with industrial identity.” Perhaps the most conspicuous method through which corporations seek to conceal the carefully engineered labor of the “ordinary” fans on whose behalf they purport to speak is the employment of the so-called “professional fan”—the celebrated auteur whose creativity is said to spring from a “typical,” vernacular fandom.
Take the case of J. J. Abrams, the filmmaker who, according to conventional accounts, successfully “rebooted” the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. A dissenting (albeit satirical) view of Abrams’s status as “professional fan” and savior of two beloved franchises has arrived in the form of the new season of Comedy Central’s South Park (1997 – ), which views the desire for remakes and reboots as an indication not of benign nostalgia but of reactionary fervor. “We all want something new but that makes us remember the things we love,” says one character, having traveled all the way to Abrams’s mansion in order to beg the director to “reboot” the national anthem in the wake of protests.
This seemingly innocuous statement soon reveals its fascist underpinnings, as various characters begin to encounter so-called “’member berries”—“a new super fruit that helps you mellow out and relax.” Named for their coercive invocation of the past, these berries become reactionary mouthpieces, spouting such lines as “’member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?” and “’member when marriage was just between a man and a woman?” (along with obligatory references to Chewbacca and other beloved pop-culture characters). Offering a trenchant critique of the way remakes and reboots often function to inflame racism, misogyny, and queerphobia online, precisely through their perceived deviations from popular memory, South Park alludes to the online bullying of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. Yet even Jones’s version of Ghostbusters, with its laudable emphasis on women in STEM, comes in for abuse in South Park, as one character proclaims, “It may seem fun to go back and recycle the past we love, but we end up with no sustenance.” Wanting to recreate one’s past—to service the fans who apparently live in that past—is perilously close to the kind of empty, reactionary nostalgia being peddled by Donald Trump. South Park recognizes this, and its darkly humorous political critique is among the most provocative accounts of fandom that we have.