In early March, Ava DuVernay tweeted a link to a Vulture essay by critic Craig Jenkins about re-evaluating Michael Jackson’s legacy in the wake of Leaving Neverland. The reaction — a swarm of comments telling her to “be ashamed” of herself and to “do actual research” — shocked the director. “Michael Jackson super fans are really going hard in my comments for simply sharing an article,” she wrote. She then highlighted what she called “one of the kindler” comments she received: “Sellouts like you don’t deserve our respect you can kindly go to the trash.”
Perhaps DuVernay should have seen this coming. Opposition to the film is a reminder that, despite Jackson’s heyday preceding the internet, his superfans are just like any other stans: They will aggressively defend their star online. Stans can do this over the smallest slights. In 2016, some Camila Cabello fans targeted her then-Fifth Harmony bandmate Normani with racist harassment after she described Cabello in an interview as “very quirky.” Yet the gravity of the claims against Jackson and the intense pushback from some of his stans show that it goes the other way too: When a fan’s identity is wrapped up in that of an artist, any attack on the artist seems to be taken as a personal attack — one worth fighting at all costs.
That was as true in the 1980s as it is today, even with the advent of social media. “I don’t see a lot of difference in the way fans behave now as opposed to pre-Internet fans,” says Katherine Larsen, a George Washington University professor who edits the Journal of Fandom Studies. “It really is the same culture but with different tools.” And despite all the progress the #MeToo movement has brought, Larsen also notes that Jackson defenders can be seen as part of a larger “cultural resistance” to believing sexual abuse claims: “We’re still on some level conditioned to say, ‘How do we know they’re telling the truth?’”
Still, there are aspects of Jackson’s life that set his devotees apart from those of other 20th-century icons. “The fact that he was a child star and, according to his own story, so mistreated — that engenders this empathy for him that’s quite distinctive,” says Susan Fast, a professor at McMaster University who wrote a 33? book about Jackson’s Dangerous. “And then, as he gets older, he was so quickly considered a freak and pounced on in all directions for his gender [expression] differences, for his racialized differences, all kinds of differences.”
Jackson was always someone people felt needed protecting. “He was literally a celebrity forever,” says Damien Shields, a longtime fan who has written a book about Jackson’s music and criticized Neverland. The fact that the deceased can’t sue for defamation further motivates fans, even when the threat to his legacy is child molestation allegations. Says Shields: “The harder people try to push him out, the harder fans are pushing to keep him in.”
Some artists have occasionally expressed concern over how their followers defend them, but Jackson experts say he riled up fans through his music. His 1995 album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, seemingly responded to his 1993 child molestation case with songs like “D.S.,” about a character named “Dom Sheldon,” purportedly inspired by prosecutor Tom Sneddon. “Fans reference those songs and reference how angry he was, during that time period,” says Fast. Often, the music was all fans had to go on: “He didn’t give many interviews,” Shields notes.
There’s another resource that informs Jackson supporters’ response: legal documents. Thanks to Internet, there’s hardly a limit to what fans can access or uncover, from intel about upcoming projects to an artist’s physical location based on Instagram clues. In the case of Jackson, this also extends to his legal history. “We’re the ones who will sit down and read court transcripts, the FBI files, findings the LAPD had,” says Shields.
The idea that Jackson fans know certain facts, and that Neverland and the media do not address them, is central to the opposition to the film. (Leaving Neverland doesn’t feature expert talking heads or Jackson supporters, which director Dan Reed has said was a choice: he wanted to focus on the experiences of alleged victims.) In a post on his website titled “What the Media Refuses to Tell You About Michael Jackson, Leaving Neverland & the Allegations of Child Molestation,” Shields lays out a lot of information from the 1993 case and previous accusers, though he doesn’t disprove anything in the film; he just suggests that past accusers were extorting Jackson for his money and extrapolates that Wade Robson and James Safechuck might be doing the same. This kind of approach led one Slate article to compare Jackson defenders to “conspiracy theorists” and “9/11 truthers.” (Shields disagrees with the characterization.)
Fanbases, of course, are not monolithic — every community has some followers who are more zealous than others. Shields doesn’t condone the online harassment some fans have sent, and he doesn’t identify with the thinking of the #MJInnocent community. “I don’t agree that you can guarantee somebody is something,” he says. “But we’re the ones who thought, ‘Geez, if that’s true, we probably don’t want to be onboard.’ That’s why we’ve put hours into researching those things, to figure out if this is a ship we really want to be on.”
Certain fans’ hesitance to believe Jackson’s accusers may speak to the power that Jackson’s pop-icon status still holds over many. “All you have to do is look at the people who covered their bodies in [Jackson] tattoos or whose homes are plastered with posters,” says Shields. It’s not just Jackson’s legacy that’s on the line, he adds: “It’s their sanities on the line, their mental health is on the line, their reputations are on the line with their friends and family. Even the thought that some might believe [Leaving Neverland] creates — there’s no other word for it — an identity crisis.”