When the history books are written — provided, of course, that we are on a timeline in which history continues to be recorded in written form and not simply recounted in wistful grunts by roaming nomads huddled around the sacred warmth of the trash fires — the Rick and Morty Szechuan Sauce Riots of 2017 likely won’t even warrant a footnote.
The YouTube video of a grown man leaping on top of a McDonald’s counter screaming “I’m Pickle Rick!” and demanding a novelty McNugget dipping sauce from a cowering minimum-wage employee will be forgotten. The spectacle of a multinational burger-shilling conglomerate brought to its knees by the very nerds it had cynically hoped to exploit will seem like some quaint oddity. The catchphrase “wubba lubba dub dub” will fade from our collective memory. But make no mistake: the nerd tantrums of 2017 are not just some quirky distraction in a year of more serious awfulness; they are a defining feature of our post-Gamergate, Trump-era culture and a harbinger of awfulness to come.
If you are fortunate enough not to know about any of this, let me briefly disillusion you. Rick and Morty is a very funny, often filthy cartoon with twin streaks of nihilism and soulfulness and enough self-referential, rapid-fire jokes to convince its fans that they alone are clever enough to understand the true soul of a TV program about an alcoholic scientist who occasionally turns himself into a pickle. It’s a good show — funny and boundlessly creative and often moving. And its fans, or at least some of them, are monsters.
When a throwaway joke about a dipping sauce last seen in 1998 became an inside joke among Rick and Morty devotees, McDonald’s barged in with all the misplaced confidence of Pandora opening a very chill looking container, announcing it would reissue the sauce in limited supplies for just one day. The result was pandemonium. Fans lined up for hours for a woefully inadequate supply of novelty sauce. When the condiment ran out, they went berserk. The police were called to a McDonald’s in California after fans jumped over the counter to steal the precious Szechuan packets. Across America, angry fans (mostly young men) chanted “We want sauce!”
McDonald’s released a statement written in the kind of nervous, faux-jolly tone you might use when coaxing a dangerous animal away from your child. “The best fans in the multiverse showed us what they got today,” they tweeted. “We hear you & we’re sorry not everyone could get some super-limited Szechuan.”
The best fans in the multiverse showed us what they got today. We hear you & we're sorry not everyone could get some super-limited Szechuan.
— McDonald's (@McDonalds) October 7, 2017
The fracas followed a season of shitty behaviour from the show’s fans. Earlier, a mob had taken to the Internet in rage, furious that a few episodes from this latest season did not, in their minds, meet the standard of seasons past. And the problem, they decided, was the new female writers — surely hired out of a misplaced sense of PC guilt at the expense of the irreverent dudes who had made the show they loved. “Some people have been threatening and harassing the female writers of R&M all because they didn’t particularly care for the past few episodes,” the moderator of a popular Rick and Morty subreddit wrote, forced to intervene. “They’ve been receiving threats and hate mail all based on the fact that they’re women.”
The show’s co-creator, Dan Harmon, denounced the rogue fans. “These knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own — and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I’ve made no bones about the fact that I loathe these people.”
The tantrums were just the latest appearance of a strain of fandom that has been growing like some noxious fungus in the dank sub-basement of the culture. In a much-shared article from last year, critic Devin Faraci delved into the idea of fan entitlement. The man-children screaming that an all-female Ghostbusters had retroactively ruined their childhood and sending death threats to the writers of Captain America for creating a twist they hated were cut from the same cloth. They were the descendents of Annie Wilkes, the monstrous fan in Stephen King’s Misery who holds the author of her favourite romance series hostage and forces him to bring her favourite heroine back from the dead. Today’s versions of Annie Wilkes are sitting behind keyboards, bullying the creators of their favourite TV shows and movies into doing their bidding.
“The worst fan freakouts display stunted masculinity coupled with a jokey refusal to acknowledge the consequences of one’s actions. Trolls aren’t engaging in protest — they’re just doing it for the LOLs.”
But the idea of entitlement only captures some of what’s going on. In the worst fan freakouts of the last few years, the most prominent features have been a stunted masculinity coupled with a kind of jokey refusal to acknowledge the consequences of their actions. The man who jumped on the McDonald’s counter, screaming “wubba lubba dub dub” while pulling his shirt over his head, Beavis-style, wasn’t engaging in an angry protest. He was doing it for the LOLs. The trolls who harassed the show’s female writers were surely acting in the same spirit — because they were pissed, sure, but mostly because it’s fun to watch people freak out. The defining characteristic of this kind of tantrum is cruelty without any deep-seated maliciousness. Trolling is only fun if the person on the other end feels the consequences more than you do — if you’re just joking around while they’re losing their mind.
In 2017, that mindset feels depressingly ubiquitous. It is the signature of the president of the United States, whose most hurtful, dangerous declarations are always couched in the form of a joke. It’s the mindset that fueled the Gamergate movement, where any pretense of arguing about “ethics in video game journalism” was quickly disregarded as kids had gonzo fun pwning social justice warriors and generally ruining the lives of anyone who deigned to suggest that designers remove a single dead prostitute from their favourite video game. A Szechuan sauce riot — in which fans justified ruining a fast-food employee’s day out of some ill-defined grievance — captures all the casual stupidity of this culture war in miniature.
In a video from Charlottesville that went viral a few months ago, a polo shirt–wearing white supremacist becomes separated from the herd by angry counter-protesters. Terrified, the racist tears off his uniform, revealing just another young, slightly tubby kid with bleached blond hair, clutching a Monster energy drink. “I’m not really white power, man. I just came here for the fun,” he says, panic in his eyes. The cameraman follows him, demanding a better explanation. “To be quite honest, I love to be offensive,” he says. “It’s fun.”
The Rick and Morty tantrums of 2017 are dumb and unserious and probably the beginning of the end of the world — portents of a future in which the only comfort we can hope for is the warmth of the trash fire. Wubba lubba dub dub.