New Yorker tv critic Emily Nussbaum coined the term “bad fan” to refer to viewers who watch shows about morally compromised people primarily to revel in those moral compromises, and who subsequently attack those characters and critics who seem to stand in the way. Think of Skyler-hating Team Walt for Breaking Bad, the “who got whacked?!?!” crowd for The Sopranos, the people who watch the early seasons of Mad Men and go “man, those were the days!” And speaking of “those were the days,” Nussbaum’s latest article traces the phenomenon back to Norman Lear’s All in the Family, which intended Archie Bunker to be an obvious buffoon but wound up the vehicle for an unironically appreciated icon.
It got me to thinking: Do any female characters have Bad Fans? The only one I can think of is Arya Stark. Arya’s an incredible character, and Maisie Williams is a brilliant actor, in the vein of Walter White and Bryan Cranston, Don Draper and Jon Hamm, Tony Soprano and James Gandolfini, Stringer Bell and Idris Elba, etc. But you don’t need me to tell you there are both readers and viewers who justify her every action (Walt did everything for the family, remember?) and pillory anyone who takes issue with her in any way. (One guess as to which characters’ fans have been the most vicious about my Rolling Stone Top 40 Characters list — over a placement in the top 10, no less! ShowCat fans have been the model of gentility by comparison.)
And the logic employed is often protean to the point of incoherence — it’s not so much that specific arguments are being taken issue with as it is the notion that there can be any argument at all. Indeed, the Bad Fan phenomenon is closely related to something critics like Matt Zoller Seitz have pointed out about recent pop-cultural discourse, which is that everything must either be talked about as The Greatest Ever or Hot Garbage. An even slightly mixed review of a show or an episode people love will call down the fanhammer as swiftly and mercilessly as an out-and-out pan. Characters who generate Bad Fans are simply in micro what that larger inability to process mixed information is in macro.
The interesting thing about Arya is that unlike most of the male Bad Fan icons, she doesn’t have a wife to embody her Bad Fans’ frustrations and serve as an outlet for their ire — no Betty Draper, no Skyler White, no Carmela Soprano. Instead, she has a sister, Sansa, who winds up serving the same function. Much of Bad Fandom is a gendered phenomenon, pulling for he-man figures against shrewish wives who just don’t understand them. It’s fascinating to see how the phenomenon can alter itself to accommodate a female-female pairing while still targeting characteristics we typically gender female. The Bad Fan is nothing if not durable.
I just typed out a whole terrible rant about Arya being a murderer, and then I remembered that my three favorite characters in the entire series are Sandor Clegane, Jaime Lannister, and Barristan Selmy, so, whoops!