- Fandom is just as vulnerable as the rest of the internet to the issues plaguing Web 2.0
- Certain fannish activities have taken on the pitch of political action (e.g., polls)
- Those activities, in context, are neither political action, nor are they particularly effective (for instance, those polls are actually a marketing tool used to generate attention leading up to a major event like SDCC)
- In fact, those activities are one way in which fandom is commodified by social media platforms and media corporations
This time around: The drawbacks of viewing fannish activities as political action.
The Professionalization of Fandom
Especially with the recent review of ClexaCon, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are people who do end up making certain connections in fandom—intentionally or otherwise—that put them in a position either to support creators of queer content, become creators themselves, or otherwise advocate for better representation in media—and that this is to the good. Likewise, there are instances where Twitter trends and fan outcry have led directly to things like ClexaCon. And, on a personal level, I have at least one close friend who’s been motivated because of fandom to pursue a career path that would allow her to tell queer stories.
Equally important, I think, is acknowledging that not everyone comes to fandom with political or cultural action in mind, or the idea that this is a deep expression of their political or queer identity. Like I mentioned above, it’s important (and exciting) to hear about, but sometimes, fans aren’t here in that mindset or capacity. They may not view this as their primary space for interacting with other queer people. They may not even view this as their primary space for being creative, or for political action. Nor do they necessarily want to be “On” all the time when it comes to media criticism and the nitty-gritty of fandom drama. Further, treating things like shipping as primarily an expression of a political or queer identity leads to all kinds of wank.
And I don’t mean that they see themselves as passive consumers, either—that’s still within a model of professional creator/content consumer. That model is, likely, something that’s bled over from Web 2.0, and in this iteration of fandom, that comes with certain assumptions about what being a “good consumer” in fandom means (supporting certain types of content, and so on). But, because of recent events, online fandom, particularly femslash fandom, is primed to interpret participation (or interrogate it) along lines of identity, cultural influence, and personal politics.
I bring this up because there’s a growing sentiment in some parts of fandom that fan creators should be held to the same “standards” as mass media creators—after all, you are creating content for the fandom, right? You can make money off it, right? There is, however, a difference between trying to change the mass media we consume, that influences our culture at large, and treating fandom content producers like they are the media that needs to be changed.
I don’t know exactly why this attitude has proliferated; maybe it’s because of the sudden (relative) proximity of fandoms to creators. Maybe it’s the fact that people want an excuse to pick on authors for not producing work that’s up to the “quality” that they want. Maybe it’s because, in Web 2.0, we are simultaneously the consumer, the product, and the person doing the work. There’s been a fair amount of discussion about how fandom, where the dynamic was previously one of sharing, has become increasingly transactional, and expectations have shifted towards a creator/consumer model.
But whatever the reason, the difference between fandom for-profit and fandom not for profit is muddled. Everything on the social platforms I discussed previously is, ultimately, for someone’s profit—and is assumed to be intended for the creator’s profit by other fans, whether they assume that a fic author wants to become a published author, an artist wants to get internet famous and quit their day job, or a fan wants to become a big-name fan and then (in their wildest dreams) go on to influence the industry somehow.
Professionalization and commodification go hand in hand. Regardless of the success of our “work”, or its relevance or even truthfulness, we look around us, we see what’s out there—and we tailor our content output to the world reflected back at us. And, sooner or later, we start to forget that fandom could ever be about anything else: Could be about living in this fictional world you fell in love with, could be about sharing—could be about community. Not just with people who share an identity (although there is that, too), but with people who share a passion for something that we care about deeply.
We forget that there are communities in fandom that serve the purpose of a lot of non-commercial art—art for art’s sake, or art as a form of healing. Does it make sense to treat those communities as professional creators? To treat them and what they do as commodities, as intended for a marketplace?
I’d like to remind everyone here that not everyone is in fandom, any fandom, for the same things. Even within particular fandoms, not everyone showed up because they wanted to participate in a time-consuming, emotionally-draining effort to change deeply entrenched institutions that propagate various forms of oppression. That doesn’t mean they don’t care. It just means that this is not the forum they chose to do it in. So, turning fandom into this primarily-political identity—which it has not always been, even for femslashers—and conflating an individual’s politics, identity, and fandom activities—that’s actually going to miss quite a few people.
But then, that may be exactly why some people do it.
This leads into my other concern in this piece, one that might seem tangentially related at best, but it exists squarely at the intersection of fannish activity and identity in a femslash setting: Fans policing their behavior (and other fans’ behavior) based on whether or not they think that behavior makes an outcome that they find desirable (for whatever reason) more or less likely. This especially gets confused by shipping—which, in femslash fandom, the interplay between shipping, calls for representation, and ship wank can be extremely difficult to unpack. But I’ll try to do it justice without publishing a whole thesis on it.
If you’re familiar with queer studies, queer history, or the history of gay rights in general, some of this might sound familiar to you. I think it applies here, as well. It’s a concern that any group who thinks of what they’re doing as political action needs to weigh when they’re considering what impact their actions have on their community.
To be clear: This is absolutely, definitely, just about femslash. I can’t speak to the dynamics in M/M or F/M shipping communities, as I haven’t been active in them for a few years now.
Representation is all well and good. What femslashers seem to continue to “stick” on is the welfare of their ships; specifically, that they make it onscreen, and that they aren’t disposed of–in a manner that varies from “disrespectfully” to “at all”. Individual characters may or may not get the same treatment, particularly if the character in question is bisexual or pansexual. For instance, the Supergirl femslash fandom is generally a lot more willing to throw Kara Danvers under the bus than they are Lena Luthor–current example, but you could substitute in Bo Dennis and Lauren Lewis, respectively, or any number of other “popular” femslash ships that pair up a character commonly held to be bi and a character commonly held to be a lesbian.
Representation is all well and good. But there are compromises that get made in order to make whatever the majority of the fandom have decided is “the ship” more palatable (as they perceive it) to networks and showrunners. As a result, ships have to be repackaged as “good enough” and “healthy enough”; not just “representation”, but the best representation—so nuanced discussion of the characters in a way that doesn’t focus on them as “good representation” is stripped away, shut down, or ignored entirely. Spare characters are paired, and ships that “rival” that main ship are usually chased out of the fandom. The result is a very short, familiar-looking (and white-looking) list of options.
Readings of individual characters with a more negative leaning are ignored or shut down, even if those readings are based in real-life experiences—unless a “rival” ship catches wind of it, in which case, that’s all you’ll ever hear about again, even if there are a dozen other interesting, productive, or relevant readings out there.
Queers of color are expected to fall in line and support white queers in their efforts (e.g., boycott CW shows), while white queers fail to support queers of color when there’s something relevant to them (Black Lightning). Simultaneously, white queers fail to uphold the ban that they’ve tried to impose on queers of color (for example, by hate-watching Supergirl—legally or otherwise—and continuing to generate social media buzz and fandom content for the show). White queers make excuse after excuse as to why they’re allowed to do this (“the CW treats lesbian characters and viewers terribly; I just like Katie McGrath”), and reiterate their demand that queers of color support them (…in liking Katie McGrath?).
Fights start over which ships represent a given identity “more accurately”, or should even be allowed to “represent” an identity at all, as if that was the main criterion for why a person ships anything. And in the end, since those identities are in no way monolithic, what major ships come to represent is a reductionist, prettified ideal of what “being gay” is like–an ideal often tightly policed by the people willing to fight the dirtiest in order to get their way.
The fandom communities with a more internal, non-commercial focus (mentioned earlier) tend to be derided or devalued because they don’t “contribute” to the goals of ship lobbyists. Or, they’re assumed to have the same goals and desires as shippers and ship lobbyists, when really, they serve entirely different functions for the participants. Ship wank usually ensues.
In general, rarepairs are also devalued, because they’re seen as “less likely to become canon”, and therefore not worth the time in fandom. People who ship smaller ships are often told that they should ship something else, because that has more chance of becoming canon, and larger ships view smaller ships as something to put down because they’re “competition”. Where in some settings, rarepairs and rarepair shipping are a way to engage in entirely fandom-specific transformative content, in dialogue with the canon material, in this iteration of shipping, it’s viewed as a distraction. Non-ship-related content also disappears.
This drive for “inclusion” in the very barest sense, at any cost, also brings with it a desire to sweep the weird, messy bits of fandom under the rug—places where fandom serves the purpose of a lot of art: Giving people healing, giving people a place to put their experiences into perspective, to process them, and to make something out of them. I would argue that none of that is created with the intent to put it on a TV screen, and shouldn’t be treated like it is. It is, above all, personally created and shared with a community of like-minded people.
And that is one core understanding of what fandom is—a group of people sharing their thoughts on a given piece of media, and how it affected them and what it made them think and feel. And that’s being overlooked—with good intentions, maybe, but still damaging in the end.
There’s a lot to be said for changing the way queer stories are told. Taking action to make creators aware of that need is part of it. But the commodification of fandom, and the resulting focus on “making things canon”, doesn’t operate on the level of “creating change”. It operates on the level of “winning an argument on Twitter”. And it has all but obscured the thing that made fandom so useful in the first place: It can go places that canon can’t, because it isn’t a business. And historically? That’s been a very good thing, for queer viewers. Focusing on interacting with creators and industry representatives to the exclusion of everything else removes that—and it directly benefits the institutions we’re struggling to change, because now, the spotlight and conversation is directed at them, and fandom polices itself—cleans up, de-queers, professionalizes, and offers only what it thinks it can get away with.
And, two, fandom is a community. Even within a fandom (unless it’s a very small fandom), you have groups of people who gravitate towards each other because they have similar interests. But the above dynamics make it very difficult for that to happen, because things like personal interests get flattened. We lose the depth that fandom is capable of—especially once it brings a critical lens to the media it consumes—by turning fandom (particularly shipping) into an exercise in identity politics.
And, frankly, it sucks all the fun out of fandom if it’s just one long battle.