Hurting Your Fans
CW: Discussion of sexual assault.
“As a fan, this really hurt me.”
I grew up before the Internet was an ever-present thing in our lives. When I was in early high school, it was limited to dial-up and social media was another ten years off being invented. The best we had were self-hosted blogs, anonymous message boards, Usenet groups. Most of the people you knew were your local friends and celebrities were confined to the people you saw on the screen. Unless you were part of something that existed in the middle, like I was — the local music scene.
Much like how people have favorite Youtubers, I used to have favorite college radio DJs. I was a college radio fan when I was 15 and 16. We lived in a place with multiple colleges in broadcasting range, but also my parents had also gotten me a huge new boombox. I used this precious luxury to tune in at night to punk and rock shows hosted by people who seemed so much older and cool. I felt cool by proxy, staying up late and getting to listen to music that wasn’t played on Top 40 at the time, real old scratchy punk rock deep dives and emo rock before the term came to be a joke. I idolized them all so much that I started tuning in to specific shows every week and would even call in very quietly on the phone I had gotten in my room.
Some of the DJs at a particular college used to recognize me at certain point and I even became “friends” with a handful because they were dating someone in the punk scene or took pity on a lowly high school student who would be the only person to call at 3 AM during their hour block. Eventually I struck up conversations with one in particular, a dude. He was extremely nice, had good taste in music and I remember the suffocating heat of trying to talk to him under blankets with the phone receiver held up to my ear. I don’t know why I did this at all — I had a long-distance boyfriend at the time, I had friends at school but I can only guess that I was lonely or enamored. It was something out of the very tightly defined circle of school-and-work that was my world other than getting to go to punk rock shows. He listened, he made jokes and I thought he genuinely cared about my terrible teen ideas.
Eventually he cajoled me into going to the campus after work to visit him, since he was within walking distance. I knew this was deeply forbidden by my parents, but I covered it up with a feasible lie, saying my friend at the time (who knew I was meeting him) would be hanging out with me and driving me home. The gut reaction I was having was surely because I was disobeying my parents, and not that this was a less-than-friendly overture. It never even occurred to me at the time that this guy wasn’t my friend.
I won’t give any more details here about what occurred when I hung out with him — I only barely remember snippets, the few snapshots and Powerpoint slides that stick in my brain are too personal to delve into here but the pain is real still, 20 years later. It’s not for public consumption. Let me be completely clear here though: he was a college senior who was trawling for a young high school girl.
This sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
When it was made public that inveterate faux-soft boy and video editor Nick Robinson had a long history of creeping and sex pesting a number of colleagues, I felt vindicated on some level that people on the Internet would finally would stop thinking he was a good person. It was 3 seconds later, when it was revealed that he had been doing this for years to younger fans of his, that my stomach turned completely over on itself.
A lot of people were expressing surprise, as if this was a new playbook or an isolated phenomenon. Just because we’re in an instant era of the Internet doesn’t mean that this hasn’t been happening for years already. It is just a far more complicated topic now, when anyone can become a minor celebrity from a Tweet, a Youtube video, a meme and reaching out to speak with the people you idolize is as easy as popping open a message box. But celebrities, male ones in particular, have been using this power dynamic between creator and fan for a very long time; it’s just e-sports athletes and content creators now instead of rock stars or film directors.
Nick’s apology (if you could call it that) was rife with recognition that he used his position to flirt with people who looked up to him, but lacked the full intentionality that I’ve come to know in my own life and in the experiences in others; you don’t fall into it, you get off on it. It’s not just something that happens, it’s enjoying the attention from someone who feels excited to just be able to talk to you and then using that dynamic to groom them. It doesn’t hurt that many of the people who are given the most power of celebrity have historically been the same to use that power to hurt people (white men). What comes with that is instant visibility, being told you are owed something in life, that your opinions matter, and that women’s autonomy is negotiable.
We have created the perfect environment to breed a thousand men like Nick, who all help each other survive, much like mold in a damp shower stall. This not only protects abusers, but also creates an equally fertile space for people to be victims. The situation with Robinson cut deep with familiarity for this reason.
I was a lonely, uncool 16–year-old girl who deeply loved things — people, rock bands, TV shows. I desperately wanted someone to tell me that things I liked mattered, that I mattered. The complication here is that we tell young girls that in order to matter, they have to please men and boys — it has been a struggle all my life to reject that idea, that men’s validation is crucial to my well-being. In some amounts, seeking validation is a typical way that humans interact with each other, but in a society that values men and their ideas in so many ways, it’s like giving them a grenade to toss straight into your self-esteem. All of these factors make it hard as a young person to turn down anyone taking an interest in you and your ideas, but especially when they are cool dudes, who say all the right things, who’ve read books we’ve never heard of, who present a playful but safe version of sexiness. We are told adults are supposed to be trustworthy and experienced, so we trust them to carry us forward, to usher something in ourselves. For me, they (including my assaulter) represented a world that I desperately wanted access to — sex, freedom and most importantly, respect.
Giving respect is often the last thing we do for teen girls. On top of the latent misogyny that we have towards women, we keep a special place in our malice for the essential nature of teen girls. Not only are they seen as ditzy as well as a laundry list of other negative attributes, but their passion is registered as ultimately fanatical and worthless, despite it being huge business that has been capitalized on from everyone in the publishing industry to bath products. They are also simultaneously sexualized in our culture in a manner that is disgusting and speaks heavily to a fetish based around youth and control. We’ve normalized “barely legal”, and we’ve made a business of teen girl’s bodies and ideas for adults to profit off of.
Like a wide trawling net, we scoop all of these kids up and we keep them silent. We tell them they are mistaken about their experiences, that they were asking for it, and that the people who took advantage of their trust, their adoration, are great people who do great things. This goes doubly so if their abusers are known, beloved figures in the public spotlight. We ignore the misgivings, we constantly reinforce creepy behavior as normal and enjoyable and we ultimately leave behind adolescences broken and traumatic. We litter communities with remnants of a misguided optimism that someone’s work we enjoy won’t ultimately be tainted by disgust.
We already live in a society that fuels violations on every level — personal and structural — but we’ve additionally commodified fans ideas and bodies, enacted additional power structures to lech on the most vulnerable and cloistered abusers behind unearned credibility because they make shit we like to watch. Fandom should be safe space for all of us but instead it is continually being used as hunting ground. Adults should always be the responsible ones in a situation. However, there’s always more of us than there are of them, and the more we support and believe each other, the better off we will be. I wish calls to action didn’t feel so much like taking us all to task for not knowing better, for not being born skeptical, so I will just say this: make them known, make them pay, and make them never feel comfortable to harm others again.
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