I have started and stopped writing and deleted this post many times over the past two years. Hopefully I’ll make it to the end this time.
I started again this time because I’ve seen increasing numbers of Critters (fans of Critical Role) come forward and say “this community has not welcomed me.” There are increasingly noticeable incidents of anti-LGBTQ, sexist, and racist rhetoric throughout the fandom. Creating content for the show is getting increasingly dicey, and, of course, all of it is done under the guise of protecting the vision of the show or the cast.
Critical Role is not the only fandom with these issues. They aren’t bad at at dealing with toxicity when it crops up either. But they are a fandom where you can certainly find this issue. The cast and crew genuinely go out of their way to make the fandom open and welcoming and they obviously don’t share these toxic views themselves. I’m sure many fans appreciate that. Still, they can’t control every corner of the internet where fans post about the show. The fandom is a space where any sort of criticism or differing opinion is met with a good deal of backlash and harassment.
Critical Role is a good show. Matt Mercer is a good DM and he and the players are charismatic and likeable. They’ve created a show that doesn’t feel like you’re spying on a DnD session–it feels like you’re right there at the table with them. It’s an exemplary show, possibly the best, in the live-play tabletop RPG genre, and that’s something that should make everyone involved proud.
This does not, however, mean that the show is unable to be criticized. The show has a fair amount of fan discussion of “I don’t like that characters aren’t cis/straight,” “I don’t like that other fans don’t see these characters as cis/straight,” or “I would prefer a different style of gameplay,” which in the first two cases is hateful and not actual criticism and in the third case is simply a matter of preference that the cast likely won’t change. But there is also more nuanced criticisms of the show or fandom or simply just observations that are met with a great deal of backlash. While many pieces are genuinely met with praise or interest, there is a very real risk of opening yourself up to abuse when creating something for the fandom.
One of my own articles (at the risk of being accused of shameless self-promotion, it can be found here) traced the use of swearing in the show. This was not done as a value judgement; it was simply an analysis of who was swearing, what contexts they were swearing in, and why I thought they were swearing. The feedback was generally positive, but a good deal of fans interpreted this as a criticism of the show. None of the negative comments that I noticed actually critiqued what I wrote. They were all centered around a perception that I was passing a value judgement on the show.
I have seen many arguments that these things do not represent the fandom, but well-known Critters that many see as representatives of the fandom also got involved in the hate. It did especially suck to see people that the cast likely knows by name tear down what I worked on because they missed the point. This made it feel like even if it was just in that moment, the fandom didn’t have a place for me anymore. Any content creator knows that negative comments can often cut you down more than positive ones can lift you up. I still feel uncomfortable when I see their usernames, even though I strongly doubt that they even remember our brief interaction.
I say this not to start a witch hunt to suss out the mean people. Everyone can be mean at times, and the answer to the toxicity problem is not backlash to an individual for something rude they wrote online two years ago when there is rampant hate speech that needs to be addressed. I point out the article only to show the absurdity. It wasn’t even a criticism, yet it was treated as though I was lambasting the show. It isn’t comparable to the harassment and hate that other fans get, but even having just a taste of the community turning on you is eye opening. Other fans receive much worse for simply posting fan art. The issue is that in the fandom and other fandoms focused around positivity, positivity becomes a competition, and anything that doesn’t immediately read as positive is shut down.
Fans fail to grasp the nuance of the cast’s message to love each other because they love the show first and foremost. In a positive fandom, criticism is seen as rule-breaking because it isn’t openly accepting. Because the rules have already been broken and fans want to protect their show, they break the rules of positivity in retaliation. Interpretations of what the cast wants and rabid defense where none is needed is what tears the fandom apart. Fans will point out what’s canon when convenient and then use that to say that other opinions are not what the cast would want.
On some level, it doesn’t matter what the cast wants. Their DnD game is set up for public consumption. Every Thursday, there’s another death of the author. This shouldn’t be used to justify hate speech, but as long as people are respectful to one another, it isn’t a bad thing to apply your own interpretation to Critical Role. Every “side” espouses that the cast will be made uncomfortable by alternate interpretations or criticism, but what the cast responds to and shuts down in reality is anything anti-LGBTQ, sexism, racism, and anything else steeped in prejudice. So, if the fandom operates by any rules, let it be those.
The bigger Critical Role gets, the more these instances will pop up. I don’t know if that means it’s impossible to have a fandom that truly accepts every fan and becomes a place of positivity. Perhaps that’s too negative of a view to take. I think that the answer, if there is one, is that fans need to understand that fandom isn’t something to protect at all costs. It’s not bad to want to engage with your favorite fandom in a positive way, but it becomes toxic when everything has to be positive and right all the time. That doesn’t leave room for respectful and thoughtful criticism, or even fan creation. What’s more fair is to say that anything you don’t like as a matter of preference should be ignored, and hate speech should be actively shut down. Leaving fans to decide what is and is not positive muddies the waters and creates a toxic environment for everyone.