Geek Wars

Adam Serwer discusses the absurdity of the recent backlash to nonwhite casting in The Rings of Power, House of the Dragon, and other pop culture.

A still from "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power"
A still from "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power" (Amazon Studios)

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Pop-culture franchises such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones—which grew this year to include Amazon’s The Rings of Power and HBO’s House of the Dragon, respectively—have recently begun diversifying their casts. Some fans are not happy about this development, and have taken pains to make their objections known. I chatted with our staff writer Adam Serwer, who wrote last week about these “reactionary geeks” and their aims.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Final Frontier

Isabel Fattal: In your article, you explain why online disputes over nonwhite casting aren’t as “silly and superficial” as observers might think. Can you talk through some of the deeper consequences?

Adam Serwer: The portrayals of Black people and Native Americans in American film were hugely significant in justifying mistreatment of those groups under law, and conversely, these kinds of portrayals can also be significant in ending discrimination under the law. Films shape popular imagination, for good or for ill. And I think the people who are turning every single casting decision into a culture-war controversy recognize that, and are seeking to use that power for themselves.

Isabel: Do some of these critiques of nonwhite casting come from Trumpist or MAGA internet communities?

Adam: A lot of the people who are complaining about it are from conservative media sites. And as I wrote in the piece, I think they see these kinds of reactionary backlashes as fertile political ground for finding converts and for getting people to feel victimized and aggrieved over things like casting decisions or political themes in well-established genre properties like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.

This happens so often that it’s easy to lose sight of how absurd it is to say, Oh, I’m mad that a Black person got cast as an elf. What people are doing here is: They are trying to feed off the energy of these controversies and say, If you vote for us, if you support this political movement, then we can put a stop to things like this. They can’t, because that’s not really how this stuff works. That’s not how the market works. It’s not how art works.

Isabel: Do you see parallels between this movement and Gamergate, the campaign of anti-progressive backlash and harassment that targeted women in the video-game world?

Adam: There’s a piece in Deadspin by Kyle Wagner from 2014 about Gamergate that’s titled “The Future of the Culture Wars Is Here.” Rarely has a piece been proven quite as prescient as that one, in terms of explaining how the online dynamics of these controversies work.

I don’t think the backlash to, say, casting Black elves in Lord of the Rings is actually that large, but there is a way online to make a drip feel like a tsunami. If you go back and read Wagner’s piece, you can see it as a blueprint, not only for this particular controversy, but a lot of other incidents in which online harassment has been used as a tool to silence or go after someone on the basis of the belief that their artistic product is insufficiently conservative or reactionary. And the people who engage in those campaigns would deny that that’s what they’re doing. They would say that they’re focused on something else, like the integrity of the art. But that, too, is something that Wagner discusses as part of the blueprint for making what are essentially harassment campaigns sound respectable. As the piece argues, Gamergate was a blueprint for how to leverage a certain kind of influence on the internet.

Isabel: You note that part of this trend is “an aging audience used to seeing themselves as the protagonists of these stories,” but a lot of the backlash seems to come from younger, internet-dwelling fans too, right?

Adam: I don’t think reactionary fandom is something exclusive to older people, though I was addressing a particular kind of nostalgia that I understand because I also feel it. I just turned 40 and I love this stuff. My contempt is not for people who love genre fiction. It’s for people who feel assaulted by the presence of women protagonists or people of color in their genre fiction. I don’t consider that a reasonable or substantive complaint about the quality of the work.

Isabel: You write that older fans’ nostalgia “is ultimately insatiable because they cannot look upon novel material with the same emotional intensity they felt as children.” Do you fall into that category?

Adam: Yeah, of course. The first time you ever saw Luke Skywalker crash his speeder behind an AT-AT Walker in The Empire Strikes Back and then use his lightsaber to cut an opening in its belly and throw bombs in there to bring it down—when you first see that as a kid, that’s incredible. You can never recapture that sense of childlike wonder. These reboots are attempting to both get new fans and profit off the nostalgia of older fans. And sometimes older fans do not appreciate that this stuff is also for kids. We can sometimes forget about the silliness that’s inherent in some of these properties, because it felt so serious to us as children.

Isabel: Did you get any responses to your story that you found particularly interesting or useful?

Adam: My favorite responses were from people who, like me, love this stuff and get really tired of these temper tantrums that flare up whenever an actor is cast who is not what someone wants them to look like. Some of the criticisms about the quality of the work get mixed in with these more prejudiced complaints, and that’s unfair to the people who really are making substantive critiques about the art, because some of these shows and movies are just not good.

When you are making this much material, it’s not all going to be gold. And I do think people try to use accusations of prejudice to deflect from substantive criticism of this kind of work. But I like having those conversations about whether a show works or doesn’t work and why. I don’t want to have to argue with people about whether Black people can be in a dragon show or space movie.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Following companies’ complaints over Russia’s new military draft, the country has narrowed the scope of the draft to exempt some workers.
  2. Hilary Mantel, the British author best known for the acclaimed Wolf Hall trilogy, has died at 70.
  3. Hurricane Fiona is heading toward Canada’s Atlantic coast. The region has not seen a storm of this magnitude for about half a century.

Dispatches

Evening Read
A dog stares up in black-and-white.
(Millennium Images / Gallery Stock)

Take It Easy on Your Dog

By Ula Chrobak

Three years ago, Valli Fraser-Celin adopted a blond husky-mix puppy, whom she named Husk. Fraser-Celin soon looked for ways to curb Husk’s “totally wild” behavior, she says, which included stealing food from the kitchen counter and barking incessantly at strangers. Based on the advice of a YouTube trainer, Fraser-Celin started using an electronic collar, or e-collar, that delivered a small shock when Husk misbehaved, but she says she felt “yucky” about it.

Fraser-Celin rethought her approach after hearing about an animal trainer who taught a grizzly bear to cooperate with medical treatment using only positive reinforcement. If that hulking animal could learn with treats and praise, she thought, why were dog trainers using prong and shock collars?

Read the full article.

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Culture Break
Florence Pugh and Harry Styles smiling softly in "Don't Worry Darling"
(Warner Bros via Everett)

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P.S.

I asked Adam which new genre-fiction reboot has his heart. His pick: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a Paramount+ series that debuted this year. “It’s probably the show that most resembles the old Star Trek original series, in terms of its episodic structure and wandering focus,” he said. “So it just goes to show you, you know, I’m not immune to nostalgia either.”

— Isabel


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