As the pop culture we love becomes increasingly dominated by vast franchises of interconnected worlds and stories, so does it become dominated by one, singular question from diehard fans: Is the thing we’re about to consume canon to everything else we’ve consumed before? It’s an attitude that’s turning our love of stories into some bizarre, archival competition.
Canon is not inherently a bad thing, of course—it can provide structure to chaos and it can provide a sense of not just continuity, but stakes as that continuity progresses. The idea lets characters bear the impact of events on their journeys across not just one narrative, but many, allowing them to grow and change to the point that they might even be entirely different kinds of people compared to where we first met them.
There’s still plenty of room for variety and interpretation in even a relatively strictly defined canon—just look at Star Wars, and the kinds of stories it can still tell despite the mandate from upon high that anything told must fit into what’s been established since Disney took over the franchise. But those stories benefit from the added weight of being definitive interpretations and events that flesh out an entire galaxy’s worth of stories. But where canon—or, rather, our hunger for it—goes terribly wrong is when whether Something Matters or Not becomes the base standard for how we consider a piece of media.
It’s an attitude that has become predominant not just within fandom circles itself, but in the media commentary that has developed around these fandoms and the blockbuster franchises that dominate our popular culture. Critics and fans alike are now less interested in actually interpreting a piece of media thematically or to engage with why they liked or disliked it, but instead to pick it apart and break it down to the base components of what are, essentially, its pure, unflinching facts. Google Star Wars or the Marvel movies and you will likely see as many articles and videos with headlines like “X Confirms Y is Canon,” “X Questions Answered By [New Media],” or “X Things We Learned About Character Z in This New Book/Movie/TV Show” as you will critical essays about these stories, if not more. And before someone accuses me of throwing stones in glass houses: Yes, io9 totally does this too. Like I said, discussing canon can be fun, it can add a lot to a series!
But this craving for it above all else is a toxic attitude, not just to the way we talk about pieces of media from a critical perspective, but in fan circles as well. The hunger for facts above all else leads to things like “filler episode” becoming a derogatory term for stories that don’t advance the larger ongoing plot of a narrative or don’t include some shocking new revelation that someone can add to a list. It predicates the gatekeeping act of being a fan that is built on how much you know about a thing over whether you actually enjoy that thing or not. It’s an attitude that in turn feeds the equally unruly and constantly growing spoiler culture because a fandom that values pure details above all else puts weight in the knowledge of those details. The need robs discussions about the stories we get of nuance and interpretation, because who cares what you think happened when there’s an answer from the Word of God to that question you might have had? And more sinisterly, beyond the way it shapes our discourse, it’s a craving that further enmeshes our love of a world not to the world itself, but to the masters behind that world. To twist a lit-crit turn of phrase, there cannot be the death of the author, if the author’s got their own fandom wiki.
It’s fine if you want something to matter to a world and characters you care about, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all to your investment in them, either. Fandom is such a wide, shareable passion, full of different opinions and interpretations about a thing, united by a shared, vested interest and love for storytelling. Valuing the sterile facts of those stories more than the things about them that make us think or feel is a sad thing indeed.
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