Performative badass—fannish or otherwise
There once was a fan artist whose schtick at conventions was to viciously attack and destroy plushies. He had a particular hatred for plush toys based on animated characters from programs that he disliked: Smurfs, for example. People would intentionally bring such plushies to his table in dealer dens or artist alleys and watch him scream and shout and foam at the mouth (not always figuratively)… and tear the thing to shreds.
A lot of people thought this was funny. Not just a teeny bit funny, but funniest thing ever in the history of funny things.
The first time I saw it, I was horrified. I was on the other side of the room, looking at some artwork in an artist’s portfolio, when I heard an angry shout. I barely got turned around to see what was happening before this man was standing up, screaming angry insults at what looked like a cowering young man. He lunged across the table, grabbed something (I couldn’t tell if it was a teddy bear, or what), screamed more angry insults punctuated with the phrase “Die! Die! Die!” and proceeded to shred the thing.
This was in the late 1990s, so I didn’t have a cell phone. If I had, I would have been calling 911. I thought this stranger had literally lost his mind. I thought someone was being assaulted.
And half the room (it was a dealer’s den at a smallish/medium-sized convention, so maybe 35-40 dealer’s tables, maybe a couple hundred people in the room) started laughing. “What the heck?” I said aloud. A fan I didn’t know standing next to me said, “Oh, that’s just so-and-so killing another Smurf.”
It was his schtick or signature move. Something he was known for. Everyone knew it was just an act. Several people assured me that he was really quite a sweet guy. He only did it when he knew the person wanted the plushie destroyed. It was all in good fun.
Unless, of course, you weren’t in on the joke. Like me. My heart was pounding like a trip hammer during the display. I was trying to figure out how to get over there and pull the person whose toy was being attacked out of danger. I was wondering why the hell no one else was doing anything. And I bet I wasn’t the only person in the room who didn’t know about this guy and his act.
Over the next few years I had other interactions with the same guy. Online he tended to be a curmudgeon and a crank. If he knew who you were and considered you an established person in fandom, and you happened to disagree with him, his arguments would be snarky, but he’d concede that you had the right to an opinion. If you weren’t in that category, he was a full-fledged asshole.
In person at conventions where I was staff, he behaved in a civil if gruff manner in our exchanges as long as things were going his way. He groused and grumbled and sometimes threatened if things weren’t. When I wasn’t staff, or when I wasn’t clearly identified as such, how polite he acted depended on whether there was an audience, and how big. If the dealer’s den was relatively quiet and he was browsing at my table or the table next to mine, he was soft spoken and almost friendly. If there was a crowd around, he would find reasons to declaim opinions, usually negative opinions, loudly and with colorful language.
I had a very hard time believing that he really was a sweetheart. Yes, some of his behavior was an act. The destroying plushies thing, once you had witnessed it a few times, had a rhythm and repeated sequence of phrases. He was performing. It was part of his brand. Exactly how behaving like a deranged ax murderer toward harmless toys was a brand worth perpetuating I wasn’t very clear about, but that’s what it was.
Performance or not, that doesn’t mean that everyone who witnesses the performance enjoys the experience. Particularly, like me the first time, if you aren’t in on the joke. Even once I was in on the joke, it was still upsetting. I’m a collector, and one of the things I collect is plushies. Anyone who has been to our house has seen that we have otters and tigers and teddy bears and other cute plush animals lined up on top of the bookcases and stashed in other locations. Some of those plushies have a lot of sentimental value. There’s a particular floppy tiger plush that was one late husband’s, for instance. There is a particular mouse in a Christmas scarf that my late husband gave me one Christmas that I have an incredibly strong emotional attachment to. Every time I have witnessed the performance of the destroy the plushie routine at a convention, part of me has wondered how does he know that the person carrying that thing past his table was in on the joke and wanted it to happen?
Call me a softy, but thinking of that happening to an unsuspecting person’s possession by mistake is almost as upsetting as seeing the act without warning was the first time.
If you’ve been involved in any fandom for any significant length of time, you’ve met or seen someone like kill-the-plushies guy. He or she has a schtick, whether it be:
- partially disrobing in public spaces, declaiming loudly about body positivity, and daring people to be offended;
- or making sexual gestures and comments at anyone and everyone while commenting to the significant other of said person about how lucky they are to have “that”;
- or pontificating loudly about people who don’t have respect for the classics while denigrating some new popular thing;
- or spinning long humorous tales about how clueless some people are;
- or being exaggeratedly offended at something and going on long, grandiloquent rants;
…and so forth.
I’ve been thinking about that guy (and many other fans and pros I’ve known who have a reputation that their badass or angry or asshole behavior is just a schtick or a joke they do), while reading reactions and continued attempts at defending the things that happened to Mike Oshiro at ConQuesT.
Many of the defenders are using variations of the “it’s just a joke” excuse, of course. But there are other similar elements, as well. The fellow panelist who briefly defended himself (then deleted his comments) on the original post by saying, “We’ve been on panels together at conventions before” and “I thought we were friends” is essentially saying, “You should have known it was just an act. I’m really a sweetheart.”
But I think that the notion that he or she is really a sweetheart once you get to know him was also part of the brand. It is just as much a performance as the outrageous behavior. The outrageous behavior is only accepted by some of the audience because they know it’s only an act. They are making a choice when to treat someone with respect, and when to be a badass.
And the fact that often their attempt at apology is to simply say, “But I didn’t mean it that way. I thought you were in on the joke” is all the proof you need that the “sweetheart” part of the act is the least accurate representation of their true nature.