Fandom, Harassment, and Mistaking Criticism and Creation

We were tired of hearing the same things before, but the fatigue feels deeper now. “Vocal Minority” was cold comfort when it was used to describe the neo-reactionary movement that swept video games in 2015 and spread quickly to other other segments of niche culture, and since the neo-reactionary movement has come to define contemporary politics in the social media age, it’s become insulting to suggest, as this does, that being a minority impairs their ability to ruin lives. What happened every day to smaller people, is happening with increasing frequence to famous people as well—at the time of this writing it is Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran who has recently deleted her Instragram in the face of harassment, and yesterday it was Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters, and if and when this article circulates again it will be someone else.

This time it seems especially hard to avoid the question of what role fans and fandom itself may have in online harassment. Is harassment a problem with a few “bad apples,” or is it a problem that is inherent to fan behavior itself? You hear the former explanation more precisely summed up in a pithy statement along the lines of “people who harass aren’t REAL fans.” That doesn’t do much to describe how organized and prevalent harassment campaigns that have sprung from fan communities have been, and even more so, it shirks responsibility by defining “fan” as inherently positive. Yet the latter explanation isn’t very satisfying either; it’s patronizing and reductive, and only checks out if you nebulously define a fan of something as someone incapable of critical thinking or creative response. None of this explains why some fans harass and others don’t, or the difference between fans criticizing, for example, a lack of representation in mass media, or running a harassment campaign against women of color. If any outside observer has no reason to call either group anything but “fans of Star Wars”, then maybe an honest definition of “fan” has to allow for people capable of either of these acts. If “fans of…” have so little in common with each other that different groups of them are acting to diametrically opposed ends simultaneously, maybe “fans of…” is not a helpful categorization of any kind for predicting or understanding fan behavior, and we need to be looking at something else.

When we talk about “fans,” “fans of…” or “fandom” there’s an implication that the group acts as a monolith, but it should be plainly obvious in the internet era this isn’t the case, where it’s easy to observe media that has sharply divided fandoms with both progressive and neo-reactionary members. The Twitter cliche that the user with an anime avatar harraging your mentions is as likely to be a nazi as communist is an easy go-to example of how fans of the same or similar works might be—obviously “fans of…” don’t universally share the same politics, identities, and beliefs. At the same time, it wouldn’t be correct to say that “fans of…” are a completely unconnected spectrum of individuals, because within fandoms it’s easy to observe that, despite lots of crossover and shared interests, fandoms form smaller communities with much more in common with each other than they have with “fans of…” the same thing that don’t share those interests. Neo-reactionaries spend time in communities with other neo-reactionaries, and queer folx spend time with other queer folx.

This is certainly not a new phenomenon—when (primarily) women began writing m/m fanfiction of the original Star Trek series in the early 70s with was airing, they weren’t participating in a universally accepted activity or something entirely for themselves, but participating in a community activity with other women who shared their interest. Slash authors aren’t remembered in the same way that the ubiquitous cliche of a male Star Wars nerd is, which itself points to a tendency, even in negative depictions of fan spaces, to describe the communities as far more unified than they actually are.

Taken even further, these women had much more in common with other women writing gay slash of other shows than they did with fans of Star Trek who had no interest or were outright repulsed or uncomfortable with their creative output. Slash authors didn’t stay exclusively with Star Trek, but moved on to other series. Obviously, of course; these women were interested in something that wasn’t actually even Star Trek per se, but something suggested by the series that they realized in full themselves. If there is a true community to be named here, it is absolutely not “fans of Star Trek” but “women with an interest in gay fanfiction who watch daytime TV together.” The fandom can move from one work to another quite freely, which is not to say the works in question are merely incidental, but that they aren’t what these communities are about. “Fans of…” have nothing in common with each other; but “fans of…” have much in common with those who respond to creative work in the same way they do. Fans will pick up and discard individual works as they come; we need to understand divisions in fan communities as defined by how they respond to the work in question, not merely that they respond to some arbitrary work in particular. Fans of a work and fandoms do not exist as we think they exist—when we talk about a fandom what we’re talking about is not a community, but the conflict between peer groups clashing in their interpretation of how to respond to a creative work.

Defining fans by how they consume, react, or create in relation to artistic work is more difficult than defining what it is they engage with, and requires a bit more ground floor empathy and understanding, which is likely why this work is rarely done. These definitions are more nebulous, as well; a spectrum of fan communities may seem to be unanimous in excitement over the release of a new entry in their favorite series, but look closer, and you can see how different what specifically about that work they are excited for is. Categorizing fans by these criteria opens the way for understanding how it is the ways in which they react to media that helps us understand how these communities end up as benign, creative, toxic, or some combination.

When neo-reactionaries asserted that they represented a unified group around the common interest of playing video games, this obviously rang hollow to most due to how diverse the group of people who played games actually had become—Leigh Alexander’s article pointing this out being one of the movement’s catalysts precisely because her assertion shattered the notion that everyone who played games shared similar values. To neo-reactionary gamers, to be a fan of games was synonymous with consuming them in the same manner they did, and everyone else was, of course, an imposter, “not a REAL gamer” a “fake gamer girl”. Similar neo-reactionary movements are indicative of a certain sort of behavior common to fans but also peer groups in general: a desire to bring in or exile anyone who doesn’t satisfy their definition of a “fan” and similarly, a demand that games be developed in accordance with those values or not be defined as games at all. Reactionaries make this clear when they say things like “get politics and SJWs out of games” and make good on that promise when they organize harassment campaigns against creators and community members alike. They believe fully that they are simply making good on what games already are, and are supposed to be.

Fandoms have a name for their own orthodoxy, but attribute it to the things they are fans of: this is called “canon.” Fans believe that canon comes from a creator’s word of mouth, but in actual practice, fandoms are always interpreting that canon in a way that is in line with the fan group’s values than it is about the actual canon, which is itself generally a meaningless series of events and laws for a fictional universe. “Video games” couldn’t possibly have a canon, but the idea that they are “fun” “worth a certain time money investment” and “free from politics” are a canon, completely invented from whole cloth. Fandoms of particular works with their own complex self-refferential fictional universes might have internal rules decided by the author, but it’s the fans who choose how they react to it. This is how you get neo-reactionary Star Wars fans insisting that the latest Star Wars movie needs to be edited to be more Star Wars. Star Wars is literally whatever its copyright holder wants it to be, so when fans say it isn’t, citing its own internal canon which is subject to change without notice from Disney at any moment, they are in fact arguing instead for the creative work to explicitly reflect the values they have decide that it has. Making a cut of Star Wars that removes all the women and their contributions isn’t a critical response, it’s fanfic. If creators and rights holders acknowledge their opinion, and decide to make it part of the series’ malleable canon, that is seen as endorsement. If they don’t, then the creators themselves can be called betrayers of the canon, as if there was a higher authority that existed that they could be called to be accountable to.

Generally, this is the place a true harassment campaign starts from, but it is worth noting that it is coming from a different place than criticism. Insistence that a work be changed to fit an invented canon isn’t an analysis, discussion, or explanation of the the work itself as it exists. What it does instead is demand that the work be undone and replaced with a different kind of creative work, one that is in line with a set of values that the fans believe to be more “canonical.” Demands of this nature have much more in common with fanfiction than they do with criticism, because they’re a response that is in a way creative, in a sense, just one that those insisting on can’t realize themselves, and instead seek to make it real by instance or violence.

The distinction between criticism and creation isn’t just splitting hairs. Criticism looks at what exists in a work and shows it from new angles. It’s not a demand for change, it’s a story of what is, even if what the critic sees is loathsome. Ultimately, it’s up to the creators to listen and respond, to make further choices with their own responses and consequences. Creators can’t be forced to change the same way real personal growth can’t be forced; change has to come from within, and people have the right to not listen, even if they’re wrong. There isn’t a higher power to hold them accountable to, and if there is, it’s certainly not the arbitrary canon of a fictional work, but something like real human empathy, love, shared values, and a sense of right and wrong. In a social media landscape in which it is trivially easy to make fan demands known, the line between criticism and demand for creation is easy to blur, but it’s a line that does damage to art and artists if it’s crossed. You can make criticism in line with your values, and art in line with your values, but you can’t make someone else make it for you.

This essay is not a call to stop advocating for change, but to recognize there can be problems with crossing this line. In recent years, marginalized creators have caught increasing harassment within their own communities, often for complicated and messy narratives that don’t fit into shared notions of body positivity, sex positivity, and other concepts that get so taken for granted as universal good that it can be seen as problematic to not prescribe to them. I have written about this before, when I talk about how I am against a certain interpretation of “representation” because this will never give us the stories we really need, just imitations without heart. As mainstream adoption of simplistic interpretations of body positivity, sex positivity, and self care have put a stranglehold on marginalized folx and our ability to talk about our pain, frustration, and negative feelings. As if there was a correct, “canonical” way to for us to talk about ourselves that needs to be corrected rather than actually discussed if we step outside it. I think of some of the disturbingly hateful reactions I’ve seen over the past few years to the work of queer women who are exploring difficult, messy, incomplete feelings, as if they had done real harm by not being sufficiently perfect in their processing, depicting situations that didn’t slot neatly into the positive and self-loving way we demand that women embody.

Even so, in certain ways, I can understand. In a world in which mass media is inescapable and tightly controlled, creating for oneself can feel impossible and insignificant. We operate in the lines drawn by media giants even if we don’t participate in fan communities, so it’s no wonder that acknowledgement through canon is considered such a big deal that fans will go so far for it. I’m not an outsider looking in to fan communities, and I hope acknowledging such doesn’t disqualify me from talking critically about them. To me, experimenting and reacting to artistic work in creative ways is a way to understand and make art your own (art is theft is just another way of saying art is fanfic). What I fear is an unhealthy, dependent relationship with creative work, and similarly unhealthy relationships between creators and fans.

We can help escape that by making our distinctions clear: are we talking about how we feel about the work itself, or are we talking about figuring out what kind of work we want to see in the world? The former is critical, the latter is creative. To confuse the two is to no longer hold hegemony accountable, but to be dependent on its approval; bad for criticism and creation alike. Creators and artists have the power to say no, which is the power to be wrong, but also the power to be right. That the power rests with the artist, in the end, is the only way it can really be. No matter how heartbreaking it is to “lose” art and artists you thought were important to you, it’s the artist’s choice to open up or close off—or at least it would be, if social networks were not structured in such a way as to make this virtually impossible.

Attributing problems to either fans as a whole or as problematic individuals fails to describe the problem, but the more picture that emerges from seeing fans as expressive of communities with shared values doesn’t suggest any easy solutions for solving the problems of fan-sourced harassment. Vocal minorities are much more powerful than individuals, and can’t necessarily be argued with or navigated in the same way. Treating this as an individual problem means saying a few ineffective platitudes about individuals needing to be better; treating it as a fan problem is virtually the same. If there is a solution here, it will not be found by abstractly demanding better behavior.

Fans harassed artists and actors before the internet, but social media has exacerbated the problem rather than given any hope for a solution, or even a way to strike a balance between engagement and listening and opening oneself up to harassment. At the end of almost anything I write these days, I feel the need to express that community-wide problems need structural solutions, and tech is giving us the opposite. The corporations who own the way I communicate with my friends power their ad revenue by spinning my anxiety like a dynamo until I refresh Twitter enough for them to break even on ad revenue. Social networks feed and accelerate these unhealthy relationships; the products they sell are interaction with artists and celebrities and the ability to garner an audience. To give either side the ability to control their experiences might hamper the availability of either product, and the ensuing eyeballs on ads. No insistence or scolding or demand for better behavior from “fans of…” will solve this problem. The problems of contemporary social media are irreconcilable with their revenue, and we will not even begin to stop suffering until that changes. Maybe there are healthy, sustainable ways of engaging on both the fan and artist side that we will begin to learn now that we’re in a world in which almost everyone is famous—but without structural solutions, the battle is worse than uphill.

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