They say that the difference between a nerd and a snob is this: A nerd wants to tell you everything about their passion, sometimes in excruciating detail. They know a lot about their chosen subject, and they want you to know, too (whether you like it or not).
A snob is different. Like a nerd, a snob knows a lot about their chosen subject, but a snob doesn’t actually want to share that knowledge with you—they just want you to know that they know. Think of the stereotype of the stuffy wine aficionado sneering over a bottle of Château Latour. They want to know more than you and make you feel bad for knowing less.
When Marvel, once best known as a comic book publisher, exploded into an entire Cinematic Universe, its fans changed with it: from nerds to snobs. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification based on what I imagine must be a loud minority. But what I, and many others, have noticed over the past decade is that the MCU’s breakthrough and then domination of mainstream pop culture has turned some of Marvel’s oldest fans into the worst kind of snobs—the kind who feel a sense of ownership that makes them hostile to even reasonable critiques and engage in gatekeeping to keep out “fake fans.” Dana Schwartz, who wrote for the Marvel TV show She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, received backlash from a faction of the fans for not having what they considered the right qualifications. “They try to establish status instead of being welcoming,” she said.
Romance fans have historically been nerds. They want to press books into your hands or zap one to your e-reader. They want to dish: Which are your favorite tropes (and why)? Who are your favorite authors (and why)? Which novels should you listen to instead of read (the ones with the Welsh accents, duh)?
This fandom is often called “Romancelandia,” especially when talking about the online space where romance writers and readers gather to tweet and chat. But romance, long considered a lucrative niche, has officially broken into the mainstream. It took two decades for someone to adapt Julia Quinn’s bestseller The Duke and I, but with Bridgerton,Netflix discovered that romance novel adaptations, once the territory of TV movies and Hallmark Channel, could be huge, record-breaking hits. In June, Prime Video announced casting for its adaptation of Casey Mcquiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue. And this is only the beginning.
It isn’t just the adaptations. Bridgerton fans are being served in unprecedented ways, from teas to balls to Mother’s Day beauty days. But the real cue to me that a major change is afoot was the announcement that a supporting character in Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte—a character who isn’t even in the original books—is getting a spinoff series of her own. Romance novels aren’t just going mainstream; I truly believe that they will be the next Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is endless IP to work with—world building, characters that cross series, opportunity for expansion, prequels, real-life experiences. Bridgerton is based on eight books about siblings, and there’s already a novella about their parents’ love story. Now Quinn is writing “pre-Bridgerton” books, a project she started before her deal with Shondaland. There is an opportunity for huge money here for streamers and studios.
There haven’t been many Avengers style series created for the female gaze, so this is very exciting. In fact, romance fans have long bemoaned that there aren’t more onscreen adaptations of the incredible stories we love. Now, we are finally getting exactly what we want.
I can suddenly understand how comic book nerds became gatekeepers. I know what it’s like to be a fan of something that has traditionally been maligned. And one consequence of romance going mainstream is that people who haven’t loved the genre since the womb will now have … opinions.
“Romance is one of the most often dismissed publishing genres despite its wide fan base and deeply engaged community. There’s a sort of protective instinct in the community,” said romance critic Brittney Winters. We are used to outsiders mocking us for our love. So new eyes on our books make us jumpy.
This is a known phenomenon in media studies. “When fandom becomes ‘mass,’ it becomes less exclusive, less able to offer special identity and connection to early or original fans,” explained Professor Joli Jensen of University of Tulsa. It’s understandable that people get upset when new members join the fandom; their identity is being taken over by people who didn’t love the thing enough to know about it before Disney co-opted it.
I want to watch the movie adaptations of romance novels. I want big budgets and beautiful dresses and for romance on-screen to get more and more diverse. I want to be able to go to the theater and see characters I’ve loved for decades on the big screen.
I am also, in a deeply ungenerous way, worried about my beloved romance novels reaching a wider audience. It’s an instinct in myself that I am not proud of, and that I fear will also be in the fandom. I suddenly have new respect for those snobs guarding the door to the MCU. This precious thing that I have held so close is going to be out in the open. And I’m scared of what the world will do to my baby.
However, I know that that feeling of protectiveness will not help anyone. Fandom cannot be about a feeling of ownership. It has to be about wanting to generate and share—to stay nerdy. The best part about the last 20 years in romance is how much more diverse it is getting. Happy endings are now available to more characters of color, fat heroines, autistic heroines, older couples, characters who are chronically ill. The previous generation of romance writers—many of them white, cis, straight, and privileged ladies—did do some gatekeeping, and thank God they didn’t win.
Jennifer Prokop, a romance reviewer and co-host of the Fated Mates podcast, said: “If I have a fear or worry, it’s that the MCU-ification of the genre will be more regressive than expansive. Publishing might abandon the little progress it has made in expanding the boundaries of romance with truly interesting and diverse stories in favor of chasing a few big blockbusters.”
Mostly, what I want for us as a fandom to do, rather than hang on tight to our beloved romance novels, is to loosen our grip as the world is taking the books from our hands. Matthew Carroll, from the MCU podcast, offered some advice about this transition, paraphrasing Captain America himself: “Compromise where you can. But where you can’t, stand firm by the tree that is the original content.”
If romance fans throw tantrums and kick new people out before they get in, we will be the ones who suffer. When a franchise becomes about “fan service,” it is patronizing and is attempting to capture something base and simple about its fandom. I want romance fandom to continue to grow and diversify—with so many voices that no loud minority can drown them all out, and studios don’t know which “us” to serve.