Who Owns Cartoon Characters in the Age of Fandom?

When I was a little kid, the toys I played with were my first taste of story-telling. I created elaborate narratives, plot-lines, and soap opera levels of drama within the confines of playsets and plastic figurines based on cartoons. All that mattered was that I had my own agency over the stories, how they were told, and how I got to finish them. They might have been popular cartoon heroes and villains, but when I was playing they were my characters, in my world, and most importantly, it was all under my rules.

Much like I made my own stories with toys, online fandoms tend to treat their favorite characters and series as though they were dollhouses full of interchangeable parts. In fandom, this sense of interactivity is conveyed through shipping (pairing characters up) and AUs (alternate universes) where the rules of canon don’t strictly apply. This behavior is of course, nothing new to fandom — ever since Diane Marchant published one of the first Kirk/Spock fanfictions in 1974, fans haven’t looked back since when it comes to arranging their favorite characters however they like. 

But fandom is different now than it was back then. when you mix fans who are perpetually online with franchises meant to sell power fantasies, you end up with a chaotic dollhouse of entitlement and escapism gone astray.

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Fitting the Plastic Mould

In 2016 DreamWorks began streaming Voltron: Legendary Defender on Netflix, launching an eight season run which concluded last year. The series, a re-imagining of the 1984 animated show, was produced by Studio Mir and brought with it a dramatic change to the classic Voltron characters. Also last year, DreamWorks launched yet another title following a similar formula — She-Ra and the Princesses of Power — a reboot based on a popular eighties property meant to sell He-Man spin-off toys.

As amazing as these projects seemed, as a fan of both I worried about the possibility that their  origins as, essentially, toy commercials might hinder the new work. The new Voltron and She-Ra both inherit their characters and stories from the eighties, a time where brands needed to fit the plastic mould just as much as their merchandise. These shows had to be fresh, but still honor the spirit of the originals — even if that spirit was buried deep inside a kernel of watered down concepts meant to be “safe” for young audiences. Voltron and She-Ra, although both led by entirely different teams, were both up against this expectation to be “safe” toy-franchise reboots.

But it’s not always the show-runners who get to call the shots. For example, in initial talks regarding the 2016 Voltron, one of the main characters, Shiro, was supposed to reveal he had a boyfriend in season two. However, this revelation didn’t come until season six, long after internal debates as to whether or not Shiro should be kept alive to sell toys. Fandom controversies exploded regarding the treatment of Shiro’s boyfriend “reveal” and whether or not it should’ve been done at all. But they rarely discussed the role marketing played in these decisions. Ironically, thanks to the promise of selling action figures, we actually got a prominient gay character in a kids’ show.

Now You’re Playing With Power

Shows like Voltron and She-Ra were always about selling toys. But there seems to be something about the combination of nostalgia and fresh ideas in their reboots that captivates thousands of fans eager to make their own fanworks. I’d argue it isn’t much of a stretch to adopt these characters as your own, make them fit whatever mould you’d like in your head, into whichever version of “canon” is most convenient for you. 

But this doesn’t make Voltron or She-Ra any more special than any other merch-driven kids franchise. Yet once the metaphorical AU and shipping dollhouse gets cramped, it’s harder for over-involved fans to discern what is and isn’t “theirs” to play with. If we see other people playing with our toys the “wrong” way — shipping the “wrong” thing for example — shouldn’t we feel upset? Well, no. 

Technically, we don’t even own the dollhouse. Fandom is just perpetually playing with borrowed and pricey, carefully watched toys. With market value. And investors. It’s all about the money, what sells, what stories companies ultimately profit from.

Let’s go back to the dollhouse analogy. Modern online fandoms, through platforms like Tumblr, are incredibly quick on the draw when it comes to reimagining and reproducing their favorite characters and stories in thousands of different ways. It seems only natural that franchises based off a toy brand would be the most open to this kind of reflexive “play.”

It’s easier than ever to participate in fandom thanks to social media. And fandom becomes increasingly visible the more people participate. If fandom is the dollhouse, then our favorite characters and pairings are the plastic leads in our power fantasies meant to sell more merchandise. But it’s important to remember that fans are — and always have been — consumers rather than mutual partners in top-down, mass media-broadcasted storytelling.

Amidst a recent trend of harassing voice actors, show-runners, and artists, the term “fan entitlement” seems almost quaint nowadays. When a line is crossed — whether it be in the real-world or the online world — it’s important to remember that people themselves are ultimately responsible for their individual actions. Fans need to be reflective, step back, and ask themselves whether getting this overinterested is worth their time and energy. The fantasy of telling our perfect story with somebody else’s toys is just that, a fantasy. By the end of the day, it’s all just plastic, flashy, trend-following product slapped with a sticker and made to sell.

“My Coffeeshop AU is Better Than Your Series Finale”

The fandom dollhouse is a living, breathing organism. Your toy-franchise favorites will always be who they are — give or take some creative liberties — but they’re still solid plastic. They’re plastic, two-dimensional, in every sense of the word, but that’s also what makes them such great fodder for an over-active fan imagination. Even when they “break” in canon, it’s easy for us to pick up the pieces and start over again.

The sheer playability of characters from toy-driven franchises isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. But it’s not always easy to reconcile the ease of picking up a giant robot pilot and sticking him in a slice-of-life coffeeshop fic on the one hand with a major studio’s master plans for him on the other. These franchises are built, by design, to make a cast of characters as relatable as possible, to keep them culturally relevant until the next reboot rolls up. If it doesn’t work, well, there’s always the live-action remake.

As someone who perpetually keeps one toe cautiously dipped in fandom, I know that fantasies are still, in part, our original work. They’re transformative works that take original concepts in new, unexpected, and thrilling directions. And yet, they’re always rooted in products that we are encouraged to feel a sense of ownership over, but for better and worse have no true claim to. Navigating that contradiction is the ultimate task of any healthy fandom.