I’ve talked a little before at about fandom, and in particular about the way a fandom can either become a very bullying or very supportive place. If you’ve been following my Twitter account the last couple days, you probably won’t be surprised I’m going to talk about fandom again right now. Everything I’m going to say is from a personal point of view; I don’t pretend I’m speaking for anyone but myself, and I certainly can’t comment about anyone else’s experiences, goals, desires, dislikes, etc.
Okay, disclaimer over, now for the backstory. I’ve never really been a “group” sort of person. Even among close friends, I tend to keep to the edges, watching and listening more than talking and participating. I generally go with the flow, and tend to form strong opinions only after much thought and comparison to other opinions, and only once they seem to make sense. I’m certainly not very vocally, and when I am, I try to be pretty fair and balanced about it. Even on my own personal soap box of this blog, I still try to use positive language to try and educate rather than alienate. When interacting with other people, I look at things from as many sides as possible and keep my observations to myself except for a few occasional pointed comments if I think they are warranted or if I’m particularly passionate about the subject.
Make no mistake, I DO have loyalties and preferences, and in the right environment I’m as susceptible to “fan-flailing” as the next excited and passionate person. But more often than not, I simply don’t want to get dragged into arguments if someone disagrees with me. I have very little patience for that sort of thing, having been constantly exposed to it growing up. Those kinds of things very often have little to do with actually sharing different points of view for mutual education and enlightenment, and more to do with “THIS IS WHY YOU’RE SO WRONG AND SUCK AS A PERSON”, especially when they happen in most places on the internet. I’d much rather have conversations that go more like “YOU ARE AN AWESOME PERSON AND I’M SO GLAD WE GOT TO SHARE THESE THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS”.
So usually, my fandom interaction goes something like this: there will be a thing I like, and I’ll see some other people liking that same thing, and they might have different things to say about it, and I’ll listen and go “oh, cool, I totally see that now” or “oh, cool, never thought of that before” and I may or may not actually agree with those things, but it doesn’t matter because we’re all enjoying this things and learning from each other and sharing our passions. I love that kind of stuff. And if I really like you, I might even start ranting about cinematography or something!
And then sometimes someone will come along and tell all the people sharing and liking this one thing why that thing is a X Y or Z bad thing, and it will escalate back and forth, and sometimes the cool people rally, and something the not-cool people will make death threats, and it’s all just very unpleasant and nasty and often enabled by a lot of the cultural problems we’re dealing with more and more these days. I’ve talked about some of those problems before on the blog. Check the archives.
In fandom, these two scenarios are pretty frequently played out. However, I’m relatively new to being active enough to observe it happening in the moment. I’ve been a fan of various things all my life, but due to the aforementioned “sticking to the edges”, I never really interacted with other fans all that much. I might read articles, but would skip the discussion boards and comment sections due to all the arguing and insulting and hating and bullying it often seemed to degrade into. I’d rather just enjoy the thing I loved on my own and keep all the excitement and theories to myself, rather than risk being attacked online. I had enough going on my life already, and made the choice not to add more stress.
That all started to change a year or two ago, with the oh-so-excellent Snark Squad, who run a website with one of the most polite, intelligent, respectful comments sections I’ve ever heard of. To be sure, they’re had their difficulties with hate and threats and insults and bullies too, but the Snark Ladies are some truly classy women, and they — with the help of the regulars — would always address the problems and bring the discussion back from the explosive potential.
I finally had a place where I could venture out of my shell and leave comments, without the fear of attack from all sides. It was a revelation. I created a Twitter account solely to be able to interact more with these incredibly awesome people. I started a blog because they had shown me how meaningful someone can make their own little corner of the internet, and how supportive an online community can be. They inspired me, and helped me feel safe putting myself out there. Even if I was attacked or threatened, I knew they would have my back.
I’ve branched out a bit since then; the last few days on Twitter, as I mentioned, have been full of fandom posts for a particular ‘shipper corner of the internet connected to the TV show Supernatural. Actually, my semi-involvement with them has been going on a bit longer. It started with the earlier blog post here (linked above in the intro to this post), when I talked about how divided and hurt the fandom was, and how irresponsible some of the actors had been about the issues causing it.
Things flared up again more recently when an online journalist was falsely flagged as a security threat and escorted from the convention she was reporting at, all without any investigation into the matter. Turns out, a bully with an agenda and a friendship with the actors’ bodyguard had sent an out-of-context screencap of the journalist tweeting a quote from a different show. Some “threat”, huh?
Some fans rallied to her defense, and others continued to attack. Look for the hashtags #IStandWithEmily and #EmilyDeservesAnswers for those who support her. The matter still hasn’t been fully settled; the convention apologized and refunded her, but their hands had been tied anyway during the whole thing. The show, the network, the stars and the bodyguard involved all still have yet to address the incident, apart from some vicious tweets from the bodyguard immediately after that he’s since erased.
To add insult to injury, the same journalist had been organizing and fundraising commemorative mugs and gift baskets for the cast and crew, to celebrate their tenth season and 200th episode (aired earlier this week).
The 200th episode itself was another touchy subject. Supernatural seems to have no qualms about meta commentary and breaking the fourth wall on occasion, and has multiple entire episodes pretty much centered around doing just that. The results are…mixed, to put it diplomatically. Reception among the fans depends greatly on who you talk to.
It’s not surprising; the show has a history of not understanding fandom, of not handling PR well, and of inadvertently condoning or deliberately ignoring bullying behavior of some of the fans towards many others. Of course they’re going to be a little “off” when it comes to trying to break the fourth wall on the show and have meta commentary on something they don’t actually seem to understand all that well. They give us broad strokes, and the reality is very nuanced. It’s an obvious and understandable mistake, but one they could have handled much better in the past if they’d not been so blind to their own privileges and the damage they were causing.
It’s understandable that fans who have had a painful experience at the hands of the people in charge of a thing they love, and at the hands of other people proclaiming to love that thing, might be a bit wary, a little mistrustful, and just too tired to keep hoping and fighting for what they love. It’s understandable they might not feel safe in the general fandom. It’s understandable they might decide they need a break, or some reassurance from people like them, before they risk exposing themselves again.
If the thing you love has been a cause of pain, betrayal, attacks, threats, and all manner of not feeling welcome or safe, and if the people perpetuating that behavior feel vindicated doing so due to comments made by the people who are ACTUALLY in charge of that thing, then yes, taking a break or even leaving it forever are totally legit options. That’s kind of obvious.
I’m new to this fandom, and while I do already have some pretty strong loyalties, I haven’t been on the front lines of this fight. I haven’t been attacked for years, as some have. I haven’t had to go through the roller-coaster of hints and hopes and disappointment. I went into this thing pretty late in the run, and I was pretty heavily aware of exactly what to expect from it. I went in, but I did it with my eyes open and my guard up. The fans I’ve paid attention to are fabulous people. I avoid the ones who aren’t adding to my experience of the show, the ones who are attacking those things I feel loyalty towards, the ones who are bullies. It’s a survival method. I get to bask in the good stuff, while aware enough of the bad to try and avoid stepping in it. I stick to the edges still, but now there’s some interaction going on, too.
Back to the 200th episode. It was promoted as a “love letter to the fans”, which made some of those fans very nervous. Not only is the fandom heavily divided and antagonistic with a history of bullying, but the show itself has a track record during some of those meta episodes AND in the real world of belittling and insulting many of the very fans who’ve supported it and kept it on the air for those ten years. There was a very strong and skeptical “wait and see” vibe on my Twitter feed.
Then people started live-tweeting as they watched the episode.
Reports trickled in that sounded more hopeful, and then some started doing that “fan-flailing” sort of excited all-caps tweets that are probably about half the reason I love being around fandoms. The show had actually given the fans something they could enjoy, to various degrees. Not everyone loved it, of course, and like everything in life it could have been even better. Yes, all those other issues still existed. Yes, there is still all the baggage and bullying to contend with. But the 200th was far better than a lot of us had feared, and it gave those who analyze the meta a lot of new material to work with (which is probably another quarter of the reason I love fandom — meta analysis is addictive when you’re already an over-thinking geek who loves mythos and the process and ideas behind storytelling).
I’m not holding my breath for things to get any better in the fandom or the show. Despite what all my positivity may suggest, I’m much more pragmatic than optimistic. But because I stick to the edges, because I went in with my eyes open and never had to have the painful process of disappointment and attacks, I can set all the politics and social issues and bigger picture to one side for a moment, and just enjoy the ride of the 200th as a stand-alone, isolating it for the moment from this history attached to it and enjoying it at face-value only. From that point of view, it was a pretty fantastic episode; full of giggles and nods and surprisingly insightful yet utterly ridiculous songs. There were plenty of things to flail over, even if they turn out not to be as meaningful in that bigger picture in the future. For one hour, I could just enjoy being a fangirl.
The episode is called Fan Fiction, and I think what I want to take away from it as the moral of the story is this: the story belongs to anyone who loves it enough to care about it, to anyone with the passion to fight for it and believe in it, even if the story they’re focused on is slightly (or very) different than someone else’s. It’s not about what’s “canon” and what isn’t. It’s about the heart of storytelling — drawing people together, taking them into someone else’s life and bringing them on a journey, letting them experience emotions and situations they wouldn’t otherwise, and leave them feeling a little more connected to the people around them afterwards. Fanfic or canon doesn’t matter; at this level, all good storytelling becomes equal. It’s the story that’s valid, not the origins. And good storytellers are valuable, whatever they’re credentials, because they’re how stories stay alive and relevant and able to grow.
In that respect, I’d say the little corner of fandom I’ve been on the edges of is doing things exactly right. Storytelling and fiction exist to be shared. Studies show that people who are exposed to fiction develop more empathy for others, because it helps them understand who are different than them, people whose lives look nothing like their own but whose emotions and struggles are just as real. Clearly it isn’t a magic cure, or else no one in a fandom would be bullying anyone else, but it’s a good starting place. The friendships and support that can come out of shared storytelling and fandom can last a lifetime, and are the foundation of a functioning society of any size. We need empathy to survive as a people, and we certainly need it to thrive and grow ourselves.
Be kind to each other, and read more. Both acts are good for you.