Pandering: What Does it Mean Now?

Pandering has become quite the confusing thing these days hasn’t it? The phrase in the context of fandoms refers to when a writer forces something into their story in a hollow attempt to appeal to his or her fanbase. For example, if I’m writing a popular TV series and there is a one-off character that people found tremendously funny, me contriving that character back into the show and going against its natural flow solely to appeal to the fans is an example of pandering. It is compromising the story for the sake of a shallow appeal, but unfortunately that isn’t exactly a rigid definition. What constitutes as “compromising the story”? How much “compromising” is acceptable if the result is something everyone enjoys a great deal? Is there such a thing as good pandering? What exactly is the difference between that and “fanservice”? These questions are all important, and the distinction that pandering deals with something that directly effects a story’s quality is important, because if we were to consider any time a writer including something they think their fans would like pandering, then far too many things would be classified as such. It is in these questions that people find difficulty in answering that we find the main issue with the phrase. Today, the criticism of pandering is thrown around for just about any subplot featuring a fan favourite character, any pairing they don’t support, anything even vaguely alluding to a particular political affiliation, and essentially anything “I don’t like but other people do”. Due to these reasons, the once valid and important criticism of pandering has lost all weight.

The important thing here is to immediately draw a distinction between pandering and the inclusion of something writers think their fans might enjoy. As I mentioned earlier, it should all come down to quality. Toy Story 3 having subtle references to its prequels is not something that should constitute as pandering. Putting things in that long-time fans would enjoy while not interfering with the ongoing narrative is something that should be applauded and not criticized. On this level I think most people, even the generally unreasonable ones, would agree with me. Where the issue comes is when people get confused about things they personally don’t like vs. blatant pandering.
If a popular romantic subplot in a show gets explored to any extent, you better believe there will be an outcry of “pandering” from a certain section of fans. “They wouldn’t be wasting our times with this if there weren’t so many fans of it” they would say, and on some level they’re right. If something in a story is working and there are a lot of passionate fans out there that can attest to that, why not explore it? Obviously, there are some legitimately awful things that a lot of fans do want explored for all the wrong reasons, but a skilled writer should be able to make the distinction between legitimately compelling story-telling that reaches people and schlock that only the lowest common denominator can enjoy. My point is, if something is working in a story, deciding to explore it does not make it pandering, no matter how much you don’t personally enjoy it. To this day I have yet to see a homosexual couple getting screen time that isn’t received by some people as an example of “liberal pandering” or “pushing the Hollywood agenda”.
That issue is in its purest form, my problem with the term “pandering”; no one uses it to describe a shallow attempt at appeal these days. If it’s something that personally makes you uncomfortable but other people seem to enjoy, then it must be pandering. If you have an unsophisticated grievance with something happening in a story and you can’t articulate it, then it must be pandering. If you feel insecure when a show exposes a flaw in your particular ideology, then it must be pandering. Are you beginning to see the problem here? Criticizing art can only be done subjectively, and as a result, what constitutes as pandering is subjective to an extent; but before you go on to label something as “pandering”, think about its overall effect on the story you’re experiencing and ask yourself whether it is something that naturally flows into the narrative that you happen to disagree with or if it is a blatant and thoughtless attempt at appeasing fans in the same fashion a parent knows jiggling keys over a toddler gets them to giggle. If you can approach that question seriously and answer it as honestly as possible, then you have contributed to the revival of this once important (but now meaningless) criticism.

Quote of the Day:

“No, no, no! It’s the differences of which there are none that makes the sameness exceptional…. Just tell me what to say!

Seymour Skinner, The Simpsons

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