me + the richard armitage religion: the emergence of denominations
I’m not a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, but off and on, I have been observing the activities of a small sub-segment of the Cumberbatch fandom: the so-called “skeptics.” I’m writing about them today because they helped me understand something about the way that fandom discourse within the Richard Armitage fandom affects my own fandom position over time.
I’ll have to tell you the story about the Cumberbatch fandom first, though.
The skeptics have their origins in a response to Cumberbatch’s 2014 engagement and 2015 marriage to Sophie Hunter, and the subsequent birth of the couple’s son in 2015. At that point, as far as I can tell, a division arose in response to these events: between the vast majority of fans, who accept that Cumberbatch’s marriage to Hunter is “real” (i.e., with origins in a true companionate relationship) — and the minority of fans, who are skeptical. The skeptics call the acceptors “nannies.” In the interval since the engagement and marriage, further groups have emerged. For instance, those who seek to combat or deride the beliefs of the skeptics are called “antis.”
But the skeptics interest me the most, as they seem to have split into several subgroups, ranging from moderate to more full-blown skepticism:
- those who believe that the marriage originated in some awkward or unplanned circumstance (a one-night stand between friends that led to an unexpected pregnancy, for instance), the pregnancy was real and the baby is theirs;
- those who believe that the marriage was contracted primarily out of Cumberbatch’s professional needs, but that the pregnancy was real and the baby is theirs;
- those who believe that the marriage is solely a performance and the pregnancy was faked, but the couple either used a surrogate or adopted and are now caring for an actual child;
- and those who believe the marriage is solely a performance, the pregnancy was faked, and the child is a prop that is rented or borrowed as needed for photo ops.
It’s been interesting to watch the emergence of these skeptic sub-groups, because as skeptics have come under criticism both from “nannies” and “antis,” as well as disagreed with each other, they have started to feud within their own ranks. Sometimes, when one skeptic is not as strict in her thinking as another, the less strict skeptic will be accused of being “a nan in disguise,” or a plant from Cumberbatch’s or even Hunter’s PR team sent to undermine the skeptic case. The result of such accusations are often a block, so that each subgroup becomes increasingly encapsulated and unaware of the ways in which other opinions are developing. As a consequences, divergences of opinion have pushed the divisions of the skeptic camp gradually further into more rigid, uncompromising versions of their own thinking over time. These positions are represented on various tumblrs and blogs, and manifestations of them occasionally erupt on Twitter. The convictions lead from making claims that are fallacious but harmless to activities that can be considered harmful, or at least inconvenient to, Cumberbatch and Hunter, and at least once to innocent bystanders. Skeptics sometimes espouse various bolstering beliefs (e.g., the idea that Cumberbatch was in drug rehab while rehearsing Hamlet). All of these claims have various degrees of evidence offered to support them, sometimes quite detailed edifices of evidence. (Indeed: while I’ve always been suspicious of how GIFs represent video, reading these blogs has made me think a great deal about how I understand and use photo and video evidence in my own arguments.)
Given that most of the skeptics seem to be well-educated, intelligent, adult women, one may legitimately ask what motivates them to abandon the grounds of rationality for ever more unconventional theories about their crush. I will now offer a few (potentially not universal) generalizations. Skeptics are frequently accused of being unable to accept Cumberbatch’s relationship with Hunter because they are jealous or want him for themselves. While I can’t say that this is never the pattern, I will say that it is an explanation that doesn’t come from the mouths of skeptics themselves — and since fans feel free to say almost anything these days, and many fans who are not skeptics say they would like to be together with Cumberbatch, I find it a not very useful explanation. The explanation that comes most often from the skeptics (of all stripes) themselves, is that Cumberbatch has changed since his engagement. He used to be “Dorkybatch,” a funny, quirky guy, but in their view, he has become grumpy and unhappy, focused primarily on fame rather than art, alienated from former friends such as his Sherlock costars Amanda Abbington and Martin Freeman, and is becoming unattractive to potential employers. Rejecting the possibility that the real Cumberbatch has changed or is changing due to fatherhood, they conclude that what they see as his increasingly public misery in the last two years is due to the incompatibility of “Dorkybatch” with Hunter (who may have been pushed on him by Harvey Weinstein as part of an Oscar campaign, or may have coerced Cumberbatch into marriage with him for her own reasons) and predict the imminent demise of his failed “showmance.” In this sense, we might postulate that skeptics have simply built a particularly durable tulpa of Cumberbatch, one that withstands an increasing amount of evidence, when read in a common-sense way, to suggest that with an Oscar nomination, a marriage, and a child, he has entered a different, more serious life stage.
My personal position on the Cumberbatch question? On the whole, I reflexively employ a vulgar version of Occam’s Razor — the idea that the best argument in any situation is the one that involves embracing the fewest unproven or unprovable assumptions. This doesn’t mean I never prefer more complicated explanations, or never complicate explanations myself — simply that the need for additional assumptions in an argument must be proven. So I tend to think that the Cumberbatches are in some kind of companionate marriage, Hunter was pregnant with Cumberbatch’s baby, and the child is real. I agree with the skeptics that they often look unenthused to be with each other in public (or as if their smiles are pasted on), but I attribute that to (a) British restraint; (b) Cumberbatch’s well-known hostility toward the hullabaloo around his person, which preceded his marriage by years; (c) Hunter’s relatively unpracticed status in the spotlight; (d) the fact that he really is subject to constant attention and his privacy has been invaded in the past; and (e) my feeling that I — and others who are dependent on the entertainment press for their data — don’t have enough information to make a definitive judgment on the emotional status of a stranger’s marriage. At the same time, entertainment news provides fertile ground for the development of conspiracy theories. The entertainment press is widely acknowledged to be in bed with marketers, and thus dishonest and worthy of severe skepticism, and fan consumers of it may frequently experience the feelings of powerlessness that conspiracy theories so often arise to counteract. So, I suppose, mostly I don’t think further because life is complex; people have all kinds of relationships; and the truth of the situation doesn’t matter to me as I am not vulnerable to the Cumberbatch juggernaut. I know what it’s like to be infatuated with an idea that has the power to betray me, but I am not in hock to this particular idea.
But I am in hock to my idea, my tulpa, of Richard Armitage. So I can’t leave Cumberbatch skepticism solely within the realms either of especially persistent tulpa or conspiracy theory, because it parallels something that goes on in my own experience and in our fandom, that contributes to my own stance in continuing to write this blog after so many years.
It occurred to me because of reading the “anti” blogs and thinking about my reaction to this particular celebrity marriage, which is to say, although I don’t care, I also find the public narrative of the relationship and the wedding, in combination with their public restraint, less than compelling. I can see an argument for the possibility that old friends produced an “oops” baby and decided to “do the right thing.” However, I don’t see any place in the Cumberbatch fandom where that opinion could be easily expressed. It’s not so much that the “nannies” are devoted to the cult of the Cumberbatch / Hunter romance, although some of them are, but that they do hold an allegiance to a positive image of Cumberbatch and a resistance to criticisms of him. The real question, though, is why the skeptics, in turn, have mostly moved well beyond their initial inability to credit the moderate version of what they are thinking about the “showmance.”
I sometimes wonder if something similar is happening to me. I don’t think that I hold any strongly counterfactual beliefs about Richard Armitage at the level being a “skeptic,” even if I sometimes tear my hair over things I don’t know or can’t explain. However, I do hold a stance strongly counter to many parts of the fandom, which is that I’m willing to be critical of Armitage in a way that the more typical fan at this moment might not be. This position used to be less of an outlier than it is now, but the place where criticism of Armitage was mostly likely to be found in fandom — the blogosphere — has been shrinking over the last few years. It used to be that if I wrote about something I didn’t care for, I was never in complete isolation. The likelihood that my response to anything Armitage does — no matter the response — is thus proportionally higher. That means that posts that criticize or interrogate him rather than primarily praising him get more attention, and that as a result there is a greater incentive to be critical, if I’m not careful. I don’t want to be pushed into the corner of the anti-fan when I don’t really feel that way. (Then again, most of my fellow bloggers who became really frustrated with Armitage have more or less quit blogging — which separates me from them on yet another axis. I can’t totally explain why I stick with this even when I get so exasperated. In the end, I’m still “caught.”)
Even more, though, however, I sometimes find my reaction to the pressure of having a minority opinion causes me to build rhetorical walls higher than I might otherwise. The more regularly I have to maintain my right to be critical, the more frustrated I become in doing so, and the more vehement I am likely to become in defense of my position. This isn’t to say that those who disagree with me are responsible for what I say; at my age I should know well enough how not to be provoked, even if I am not always as successful at restraint as Benedict Cumberbatch. But I sometimes see this blog as a place of refuge for people who, like me, like to make certain kinds of jokes, or don’t especially like audiobooks or Hannibal or David Copperfield. And when I think that, I think of two things. First, I think about the emergence of confessions (what we call denominations today) in the sixteenth century during the Reformation, and the way that arguments created walls that ended up much higher than they need to be. But second, and just as importantly, I look at those skeptical blogs with a little more compassion. I think about the fellow fans who got in touch to say that they didn’t like Armitage’s outfit at TCA last weekend, who felt they could say it to me but not in public. I want to maintain my position insofar as it’s authentically my own position. But what skepticism demonstrates to me is that sometimes the rhetorical work to maintain that position ends up creating consequences for myself that harden my position when I don’t initially intend to do that, when all I want to do is create a safe place.