James Bond, Fan Theories, and the Fragile Online Fan

I’ve lost track of three things: how many times I’ve seen Skyfall, how many times I’ve seen someone reference my James Bond fan theory on the internet, and how many times I’ve started writing the article you’re currently reading.

On rewatching Skyfall

Let’s begin with the easy one: I’ve seen Skyfall a lot. I watched it most recently while writing the final draft of this blog post. I watched it many times in 2015, while working on a blog post that presents my version of the James Bond code name theory.

The premise of the article is simple, if controversial: James Bond is a codename used by the MI6 for their perpetual 007 agent—an agent brainwashed into not knowing the name he believes to be his codename is a codename, thinking instead that his name is, indeed, James Bond. Skyfall is the name not of his childhood home, but the station of his brainwashing and reprogramming. The graves of his parents are set pieces; the villain played by Javier Bardem is a previous Bond.

When I say the article has proven to be controversial, I mean it. It has 59 comments, many of which include swearing directed at me. It has been cited across social media, fan forums, and websites of varying levels of repute.

Here’s one of my favorite comments:

The thoughtful dialogue of the Fragile Online Fan.

On seeing my James Bond fan theory referenced in internet arguments

The article is one of the most-read things I’ve written for the internet—up there with a Ross Geller fan theory and some takes about a Hemingway/Cohen misquote—because it currently ranks on the first page of Google for several james bond search terms and gets dragged into various online fights whenever someone suggests that “james bond is a codename”.

is james bond a code name is a search query that picks up dramatically in volume whenever James Bond is in the news—and especially when a new Bond film is about to be released, as happened in the case of SPECTRE in 2015.

Google can’t decide which side of the debate it’s on.

The latest iteration of this online fight has been by far the most dramatic and wide-sweeping. It began in the summer of 2019, when it was announced that the next James Bond film—known simply as Bond 25 at the time, and now No Time to Die—will be the first official James Bond film in which someone other than James Bond will possess the codename 007.

Oh, and the new 007 in question is a Black woman.

The theory has taken on new lives since I handed it to the internet almost six year ago. Some of those lives bring me pleasure and joy, seeing it discussed on places like Kotaku, Insider dot com, Screenrant, Loaded dot UK, Grunge dot com, and some of the Reddit forums where it continually reappears.

To say that my fan theory has displeased many people is no exaggeration. I don’t want to screenshot or quote their responses to it. You can easily find them, just about anywhere angry fans gather.

But there is another use this fan theory has found. One that I’m not particularly happy about.

On the Rise of the Fragile Online Fan

At some point in the last few years, we have seen the emergence and ascension of the Fragile Online Fan. If you have not heard of a Fragile Online Fan—or, as they’re also known, an FOF—that’s okay, because I made it up.

The Fragile Online Fan is ubiquitous and obnoxious. They’re often racist and sexist. They’re mad about the movie where women fight ghosts, because they liked it better when the men fought ghosts. They want a remake of their dragon show’s final season. They demanded to see their blue hedgehog’s face redrawn and they got their wish. They didn’t like the space movie where the old space wizard lived on an island and trained a young space wizard woman. They didn’t like the movie where the dead flying man was resurrected to fight a space monster, so a studio released a longer version for them, which they mostly liked. They have said mean things to a lot of people on the internet because of all these things they do and don’t like. They also, most of the time, are a he.

The Fragile Online Fan is unhappy about something else: the idea that a black woman will assume the 007 label in the next Bond film, postponed several times but on the cusp of being released as I write this.

The trailer for the new Bond. (I haven’t watched the trailer yet, so no spoilers please.)

On seeing my version of the Bond codename theory invoked by FOFs

I am not surprised that the Bond fans line up on two sides regarding my theory, and that many of them argue the absurdity of it. And truth be told, I don’t mind that, when it’s done politely and in good fun. I think fan theories have the potential be one of the least toxic corners of the internet, through their very nature.

Let’s recall, if you don’t mind, my definition of fan theory:

a form of contemporary critical theory, in which the audience analyzes the text and creates a new interpretation that explains “what really happened,” creating a separate narrative aside from or within the narrative.

When approached with an open mind and a zeal for polite rhetoric, a fan theory should and can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of fandom. The good news it that anyone open to hearing a fan theory has typically already shed themselves of the anger and iron will found in most Fragile Online Fans.

One of the earliest acknowledgements of toxic fans that I can find occurs in a 2004 blog post on the blog Kung Fu Monkey, in which we are given the concept Fandamentalists, alongside this definition:

Fans who violently believe the only valid interpretation of any entertainment source is a dogmatic adherence to their favorite version of that source. Any change to the smallest detail is inherently unacceptable (see also “heresy”) and met with frantic scorn.

Ah, but here we have a problem. There are first the FOFs who go wild in their furor over the codename theory, angered and disgusted by this threat to their dear James Bond. They are mostly the same one who cannot handle the idea of a Black woman as the next 007.

But just as bad and to my dismay, the FOFs have taken to my version of the James Bond codename theory in a most toxic way. I’ve seen a certain trend emerge: my theory is cited as an exception of when colorblind casting or changing the race or gender of a character is appropriate, because one can make an argument for it. Something along the lines of: “I’m okay with James Bond being black, because this fan theory allows for it. But that doesn’t mean Captain Kirk could ever be black!”

Again, I’m not going to link to these particular examples of people debating the codename theory, regardless of which side they’re on.

My Own Complicity in Fragile Online Fandom

There is a deeper reckoning happening here. While I’ve pushed for the embracing of fan theories and a dissolution of canon in various things I’ve written, I’ve also done some of the FOF behavior I’m now disgusted by.

In particular, I wrote a blog post in 2015 called “Why Tim Burton’s Batman is the Worst Batman Movie Ever”. The article is what it sounds like, and was once called “the worst words I have ever read” by a guy on Twitter:

We later had a good conversation about it, via Twitter, and it drove a revelation for me. I had come across as a toxic fan in my stubborn resistance to an interpretation of Batman that did not align with my own interpretation of Batman. I didn’t intend to be a toxic fan, but my words had the air of toxicity around them. We have to make room in our fandoms for those who might view a text differently.

And yes, I still don’t like Tim Burton’s interpretation of Batman. But I’m more inclined now to call it “my least favorite”, rather than ascribe hard, ostensibly objective adjectives like best or worst or right or wrong.

In defense of the fan theory

Of course, this brings me back to why I like fan theories. In their very nature, they dissolve and challenge the idea of canon and dogma in fandom. They are not the canon. They are a suggested alternative. And if there’s one way to fight the FOFs, it’s to dismantle their canon and try to return to the root of the elements that make someone a fan: good stories and compelling characters.

I’m also brought back to this great line from a recent Hollywood Reporter article on toxic fans:

​​“In theory, the idea of toxic fandom is paradoxical. Fandoms are supposed to be places where people find a community, a place of inclusion. In practice, it has often been a different story.”

Perhaps some time soon, fandoms can find their way back to this idea. In the meantime, the debate will continue to rage and the toxic fans will remain huddled together in their fragility.

And yes, I liked No Time to Die.


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