me + Richard Armitage + politics, or: What a difference a week makes
This post is a rambling response to Esther’s post about Richard Armitage’s recent spate of tweets. I’ve already commented on the upsides to his decision to maintain his recent political tweets in his timeline. Now I want to comment more specifically on my relationship to the political tweets. The relationship between actors, their politics, and their fandoms has been on my mind recently. I was surprised but pleased that Armitage spoke so clearly about his position on the question, and I’ve been even more floored by this stream of engaged political opinion that he’s exposed us to for the last week. To my own astonishment, I am hugely energized by this move and, on top of the Berlin Station previews, re-attracted with an intensity that’s been away for awhile. I wouldn’t have guessed this happened, but it should surprise me. Below I offer a trajectory; if the history of this problem doesn’t interest you, skip to the end of the post.
A good celebrity is a quiet celebrity: initial steps
In my initial phase as a fan, the common wisdom in the fandom was that Armitage should not talk about politics, and I tended to agree. I think my agreement had to do with a lot of things. First of all, I was aware that the fandom at that time was overwhelmingly centrist to conservative, at least culturally if not politically, and it was also clear to me that odds were, even given lack of concrete information, that given his life and professional experiences, Richard Armitage was likely to be centrist to liberal, even if he had his moments of cultural conservatism. Second, I was operating very much under the image of Armitage created by the press in those years, which is that he was shy and retiring — I hoped he would not do anything against his own inclination. Additionally, outing his political opinions had the potential to make him controversial to his fans. North & South was said to appeal to “middle England,” a politically traditional crowd, even that was not true of every fan of the first hour, as many of them were also professional and academic women, who shade a little more liberal. Still each of us builds the Armitage she wants from the scraps of information available, and I saw versions of him in the writings of other fans that surprised me when I read them. A few made him into a devout Christian, for example, which I thought was doubtful. I’d also add to this that at the point I became a fan, I was in a job where it was unwise to express anything more than general political opinions in public, and so I was myself more sensitive to the interest of public figures in concealing any strong or radical opinion and the professional-political factors that impacted that decision. Finally, the initial fandom locations for discussing Armitage were all moderated forums and so certain kinds of disagreement were either not permitted or moderated when they erupted, but I really didn’t want political argument to be part of fandom anyway, so I avoided more than very general political content on this blog.
Who is Richard Armitage? Developments
Over the years, new fans came in with each new project Armitage participated in, with tensions here and there, as a celebrity fandom focused on a single actor negotiated the encounter with television series fandoms, where the rules about what may be discussed or how the object of interest must be treated are different, and then a comic book fandom. It was finally The Hobbit, I think, that brought in the at times uncomfortable encounter with LOTR fans, pushed the average age of the fandom down slightly, and made us more liberal culturally and politically in the aggregate. This not to say there aren’t still many conservative fans, but the mood has definitely changed and one saw that trajectory in the intra-fandom battles about what kind of statements about Armitage are acceptable. Just as moderated forums affected the range of things expressed, new platforms also affected the dynamics of segments of the fandom, so that the tumblr tendency to be concerned with “social justice” issues definitely impinged upon the shape of that part of the fandom. Certain things that were huge points of contention in 2010 go largely uncommented upon when they manifest today. Moreover, the drastic increase in the number of interviews available after the fall of 2012 meant that we started to be able to fill in holes in our picture of the man. In particular, we learned a great deal more about his sense of humor. Sometimes this information was helpful and welcomed; at other times (“dog vs. cat”) it drew uncomfortable lines among us. New information sometimes made older pictures of Armitage no longer tenable for fans who had held them. Depending on his context, Armitage sometimes seemed more forthcoming than he had in the past. Some fans enjoyed this transformation, while for others, it became harder to sustain the portrait of his diffidence that many of us had painted for ourselves over the years.
Armitage and politics: Could we handle it?
The first big fan eruption around Armitage’s politics that I’m aware of came in response to his statements in New York Moves in the fall of 2013, in which he was asked about the U.S. government shutdown and expressed opinions about gun control, universal health care, and church / state separation. Some of the more conservative U.S. fans were offended by this interview, to the point of recapitulating a frequent fan discursive move when we don’t like what Armitage says: blaming the interviewer for either misquoting him or leading him astray, something she denied on Twitter, after which she protected her tweets for a while. I happened to agree politically with the mood of much of what he said (if not the details), but the crucial issue for me was really that he spoke out and said what he thought. At the time I thought of that as a response to my own struggle to express certain kinds of opinions — which had been ill-advised in my previous position. And at the same time, from my perspective, he seemed to make his statements in such an earnest way that it seemed impossible to credit him with any kind of ill will — so that some fans were able to excuse his statements and uphold their pictures of him by stating that he didn’t understand the situation well enough to be commenting, or was naive. (This is a tulpa-preserving strategy that’s fallen from my lips as well when I disagree with things he says, as with CyberSmile, or when I tell myself with regard to statements about refugees that he feels before he thinks and so he shouldn’t be criticized on the details.) And my own attitude was changing — as my position had changed, I had begun expressing my political opinion more openly in public, and that experience had defused the entire theme for me at least somewhat, even if I didn’t want to turn this blog into a political blog.
Armitage’s decision to join Twitter in August of 2014 energized all of the major trajectories that I’ve traced here in the fandom. It changed the fandom by adding a platform, one in which the political distribution fans was altered yet again; more importantly, the rules of discourse were drastically different in that any fan who wanted to could tweet Richard Armitage directly and enjoy the illusion of personally reaching him. Due to Twitter Q&As it increased both the actual and potential information available about him, in a form that looked like it was personally authorized, and his follows offered interesting, occasionally contradictory, information about him, although it was often hard to say just what. For me, Armitage’s presence on Twitter made it difficult to argue that he wanted to continue the pattern of hiding his opinions (if, indeed, he had ever wanted to do so). For me, it very much increased my power to disagree because someone who can speak for himself is not someone who’s in danger of being run over — and at the same time, it made the impression of the precious man who avoided open statements on principle fully untenable, as did some of the press of the summer of 2014. Most fans have been overwhelmingly positive about Armitage’s presence on the platform. In contrast, while I enjoy his selfies as much as anyone else, I’ve been in the ambivalent camp for three reasons: first, because of the effect his statements often have on fans’ treatment of each other; second, because of his frequent tendency to delete; and finally, because of the impression of advocating wishy-washiness and passive aggression that so much of his Twitter behavior since 2014 has created for me.
Brexit: Armitage tweets up a storm
And here we are, in 2016, and I find myself thrilled! Thrilled! about these tweets. Not because I agree with everything he’s said (this was a dumb link to retweet, in my opinion), or even because I am generally in agreement (I am). Not even because I am deeply informed about politics and like to talk about them — because I could always have put more politics on this blog, and because while I am incredibly interested, I don’t feel the essential need to know the content of Armitage’s political opinions and would have died happy without knowing them. In fact, that development still leaves me a bit ambivalent, in that I talk about politics a lot in my real life and in my RL social media (by the way, as you might have guessed, the politics half of this resolution has fallen completely by the wayside). I had seen fandom as my place without traditional politics, and if Armitage persists in talking about politics, I am not sure how that will fall out. The glimpse into some of the details of his political mind is fascinating, but after all, I (unfortunately) don’t get to discuss them with him — I simply receive. What he says naturally triggers discussions, as it should, and I have a hard time staying out of them. I have given in a few times. I have this firm resolution not to talk politics with people I don’t know well or who don’t have the same level of information as I do, and I broke with that this week. If the Armitage fandom becomes friendlier to political discussion, it’s not going to leave me unscathed forever.
It was my reaction to Mulubinba’s post on the political tweets that helped me figure out why these posts have me so happy. Really for the last year I’ve had a hard time reconciling the picture of Armitage that was developing on Twitter with the performances I was seeing and the praise of caution was killing my tulpa. How could someone who was so insistent on not rocking the boat put together these amazingly moving, even thrilling performances? The frustration was hard on me — so often after a tweet I’d find myself rewatching The Crucible, looking for clues. How could this person be this actor? Was I going to have to resign myself to a much less potent, inspiring form of the fandom that has energized me for so long?
The political tweets close up a hole that a lot of Richard Armitage on Twitter had opened up for me. They offer a clue about the potential intensity of Armitage’s interior life, even when he’s not acting: “focused, determined, opinionated” in a way that is recognizable to me as a personal style. Someone who — in contradiction to the smarmy positivity message of the charity he’s supporting, the urging to cheer up, avoid negativity, get on with it — doesn’t just calm down about distressing real life situations. Someone who seemed slightly beside himself, trying to put a lid on outrage over the circumstances in which the UK finds itself. Passionate about perceived injustice in an emotionally active way. Someone who might occasionally get into an argument he isn’t anticipating, or find himself shaking while reading the news. I’ve said before that I don’t really understand people who can’t get interested in politics or political debate. These tweets have brought him nearer in my mind again. I can understand. As risky as it is, the “wholeness” project of this blog has been reinvigorated in that an essential piece of my personality is integratable in my fandom.
For the first time in a while, I’ve felt like I identify with Armitage again as opposed to thinking he’s pretty or sweet or being moved by a performance. Neither of those things were negligible, but in comparison to earlier, they left me feeling incomplete.
Richard Armitage feels human to me again. It is only an impression of sincerity or genuinity; we never know for sure what’s real. Still, I’ll take it. Because I’ve missed this. So much.