A documentary on paedophilia accusations against Michael Jackson has left some fans grappling with the late superstar’s tarnished legacy – but among his outraged superfans, protecting it is all that matters.
Celebrity fandom has morphed into a vicious online tool, with superfan gangs – Beyonce’s Beyhive, Justin Bieber’s Beliebers, Cardi B’s Bardi Gang, to name a few – attacking whenever their idol’s reputation is thrown into question, no matter the circumstances.
And when celebrities face accusations of grievous crimes, as is the case with Jackson, psychiatrist Sue Varma said the urge to push back grows.
The phenomenon stems from a “need to have an escape, a fantasy, someone we aspire to be,” she said.
“It’s a form of denial,” according to Varma. “They are superhuman and we want – rather, we need – to believe that they can do no wrong.”
Jackson diehards swarmed Twitter as the disturbing documentary “Leaving Neverland” aired, hijacking the film’s eponymous hashtag to smear accusers while also defending their idol under #MJInnocent.
“Shame on you for dragging an innocent man,” wrote one Twitter user with the handle @Claudia20195, calling alleged victims Wade Robson and James Safechuck “money hungry.”
“The more I read into and watch this whole #FindingNeverland documentary the angrier I get,” wrote another, @bailey_hensel. “These guys are exploiting a dead man to make a dollar … My heart is breaking for the Jackson family.”
The documentary’s director, Dan Reed, told AFP he has been receiving vitriolic messages from Jackson fans for months.
“They have a blind devotion to him,” he said. “It’s almost like it’s a religious cult.”
Superfandom – a relationship to a figure, object or ideology that often spills over into obsession – is nothing new, said media scholar Paul Booth of Chicago’s DePaul University, but social media has increased its visibility.
“Fans have always had disagreements and antagonisms,” Booth said, “but the difference today is people who aren’t fans have ready access to view it.”
The internet, he said, allows entry into “fan communities,” heightening feelings of identification and a need to defend.
“When our object of fandom, which we have associated so much with who we are, is accused of something heinous, it some ways we want to deny that because it seems to reflect on us as people,” Booth said.
Today, he said “it’s not enough to mount a defence,” as social media discourse offers a platform to “attack back.”
“The best defence is a good offence” to many superfans, Booth said, calling this attitude “the basis of toxic fandom.”
For digital media scholar Mel Stanfill of the University of Central Florida, the online venom is encouraged by “the shifting way people converse.”
“You can just fire it off,” she said. “You don’t reflect, you just react.”
“Our expectations about what is socially appropriate has changed.”
Man or mirage?
The struggle for fans to reconcile art with its maker reaches far back, Booth said, pointing to Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, both accused of paedophilia, as examples.
But the issue has become particularly prescient in the #MeToo era that has changed the way society views alleged sex abuse victims, with celebrities like R&B superstar R. Kelly facing fresh legal challenges over grave accusations of misconduct.
In terms of Jackson, that “Leaving Neverland” has revived paedophilia accusations in stark relief nearly a decade after the artist’s overdose death only exacerbates the desire to protect his legacy, said Varma.
“People can be legends in their lifetime but somehow they become angels upon death,” she said, citing Elvis and Princess Diana as examples.
“Culturally, we are taught to not speak ill of the dead – and somehow we just want to exonerate them.”
Jackson’s estate – which categorically denies all accusations and is suing HBO for US$100 million – has praised the online community passionately defending the late King of Pop.
“Thank you to all the fans that are always standing by my uncle and my family,” tweeted Jackson’s nephew Taj. “You are the backbone behind this fight. I wouldn’t have the strength if it weren’t for you.”
“I wouldn’t be armed with all the facts if it weren’t for you.”
But despite fan backlash, director Reed said: “support for the film has been a lot greater than I expected.”
“I think the fans will never accept that because the Michael Jackson that they have a relationship with is not the real Michael Jackson,” he said.
“It’s not the man, it’s the mirage; it’s the image; it’s the icon.”