Episode 77: The Truth About Toxic Fandom
In Episode 77, “The Truth About Toxic Fandom,” Elizabeth and Flourish examine a few widely-held conceptions about “toxic fandom,” also known as “broken” or “entitled” fandom. They explore whether these behaviors are inherent to being a fan, the culpability of both social media platforms and the producers and creators of source material, and how abusive fan behavior looks depending on the demographics of a fan community.
[00:00:00] As always, our title music is “Awel” by stefsax.
[00:02:29] Devin Faraci’s article is called “Fandom is Broken” and was posted in May 2016.
[00:03:36] Give Captain America a Boyfriend and Give Elsa a Girlfriend as covered in the LA Times. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, of this parish, on the Ghostbusters harassment (among other things) in response to Devin Faraci.
[00:04:52] Constance Grady of Vox covers Kelly Marie Tran’s harassment and subsequent Instagram deletion.
[00:08:00] The responses to Devin Faraci were in The Rec Center #22, which was SO LONG AGO, folks.
[00:09:26] We’re just gonna drop this 2014 WaPo GamerGate explainer in here and leave it there if you need it.
[00:11:54] Our interstitial music is “Atlantica” by Speed Limit 35.
[00:18:31] Star Trek is the most famous pre-internet Save Our Show campaign, but there were even earlier examples!
[00:19:58] “The Deadly Incel Movement’s Absurd Pop Culture Roots” by Sady Doyle really illustrates our point.
[00:28:38] We talked about antiheroes in Episode 75, “Bad Fans.”
[00:35:51] We frequently discuss racism in transformative fandom, but it was most featured in Episode 22, “Race and Fandom.”
[00:37:14] Denise’s thread about harassment is here.
[00:37:58] Lilah Vandenburgh was featured in Episode 56, “Ships and Showrunners.”
[00:38:59] Ship It is Britta Lundin’s book and it is a DELIGHT.
[00:43:10] The episode about Szechuan sauce is Episode 70, “Our Most Passionate Fans.”
[00:48:12] We’re discussing Episode 65, “Fandom and Capitalism.”
FK: Hi, Elizabeth.
ELM: Hi, Flourish!
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: This is Episode 77, "The Truth About Toxic Fandom." Dun dun dun!
FK: [laughing] As you can probably guess from that title I think that this is going to be a little bit of a splainy episode.
ELM: Dun dun dun!
FK: Yeah, right? Doom. So normally on this podcast we go a little deep into fan culture stuff. Sometimes we even are a little bit inside baseball. But for this episode we've been seeing a lot of people talking about toxic fandom who maybe don't normally talk about fandom. We wanted to do something that was more like, hey!
ELM: That was quite eloquent. More like hey.
FK: Well you do better then! [laughing]
ELM: Something a little more accessible.
FK: There we go. That's the word I was looking for.
ELM: It's not necessarily even that we go deep, I think sometimes we're just starting from an already in fandom conversation, to the point where it makes "Fansplaining" as a title seem slightly ironic because who are we splaining to, you know. We're often not explaining but just exploring and discussing and kind of critiquing. But it might be helpful to do a little bit of both on this one, I think.
FK: I agree. OK. So you are the person who proposed that we do this episode, so why don't you set up for us the backstory to why? What are the things that have caused us to enter into this splainy attitude?
ELM: Alright, toxic fandom. Broken fandom. Can you think of any other terms that people use?
FK: Entitled fans?
ELM: Entitled fandom. So. This has been a topic of discourse in the broader...beyond cultural journalism, beyond the entertainment media, I just, I think this has been one of the biggest conversations about fans in the general discourse in the last I would say about two years. Do you think that's right?
FK: Yeah probably, but I feel like it really has come to a head recently.
ELM: Well, when was that Devin Faraci article? That was two years ago!
FK: It's true.
ELM: Devin Faraci, content warning. [laughs] Devin Faraci, who is now no longer a journalist after some abuse allegations were exposed and he kind of retreated from the public spotlight, was a film critic and a cultural critic who had a very low opinion of fans of all sorts, whether that's your classic affirmational fanboy, loves collecting facts and wikis and things, or in particular female dominated transformative fandom, people who love fanfiction and other fanworks. And he caused quite a stir in the beginning of summer 2016, I'm almost positive that's right, cause I don't think it was last year.
ELM: Where he wrote an article called "Fandom is Broken." There were a few things that were happening at the time. One was the Give Captain America A Boyfriend campaign. One was the Give Elsa a Girlfriend campaign. Those are queer fans or queer sympathetic fans wanting these unattached iconic characters to have same sex pairings in future things and then he's also drawing this false equivalency between that and the mostly white men who were harassing the women and men, but the women making Ghostbusters, the female Ghostbusters. The alt-right guys who harassed Leslie Jones.
FK: Right. So maybe saying it came to a head recently is more like, it's been an ongoing acne on the face of cultural... [laughing] Sorry, this is a really disgusting metaphor.
ELM: That's gross and also you can't help acne, Flourish.
FK: Yeah but come to a head is a thing about...
ELM: This is a bad metaphor.
FK: Sorry! OK. [laughing] It's been ongoing, let's just leave it at that. It's been ongoing.
ELM: I genuinely think it came to a head during that spring and summer and I think that what we've been seeing are just the same cycles repeating themselves. So we have the Star Wars fandom is one of the biggest ones, we saw a huge backlash against in a very confusing way to me against the Last Jedi, which came out in December. And the reason that we're talking about it now is because it's been a big point of discourse in the last few week. Kelly Marie Tran who is of Asian descent and who's one of the new cast members in the last Star Wars, she was basically harassed in what I think was an organized campaign by people who were anti-SJW.
For anyone who's missed that one, it stands for Social Justice Warrior and it's a term that is basically meaningless at this point. But for the alt-right reactionary side of things, those are people who they call you an SJW if you like diversity in any way or you are a person of any kind of marginalization....
FK: Right. But this has been, I mean, obviously it's easy to say "don't harass Kelly Marie Tran on Instagram, just don't do it folks!" which, I mean, don't do it, I support this statement, but I think that also this has gotten tied up into a conversation like what Devin Faraci was saying two years ago about the rights of creators to not have people dictate to them what they should create, etc etc, and there's sort of a lot of conversations getting rolled up into this whole thing.
ELM: Absolutely and I remember very distinctly from the creator response to Devin Faraci's article a lot of creators especially small to medium ones shared that piece in the affirmative and said "yes I've been scared to create, I was called transphobic and I've been too scared to create," and it was kind of a bad look. It was a bunch of cis hetero white men [laughing]...I like how I laugh at that, those are label categories but it's become such a stereotype to say "straight white guy" or whatever. But a lot of these creators were and they had faced criticism for the lack of diversity or the insensitivities in their work and so they said, this had a chilling effect on us, these fans are completely off the rails with their entitlement, and that was really hard to watch when actually so many creatives of color, female creators, queer creators, had been silenced to a much greater degree by this kind of reactionary bigoted response from small subsets of fans.
FK: Absolutely. I do think there's something to be said in here, which maybe we'll get to later, maybe there's a point after which any criticism...if you reach a certain volume no matter what the criticism is about, however well, however much it's...whether it's reasonable criticism or not there may be, you know what I mean, a tipping point where people completely shut down and just can't interact with it any more and that may be lower than we would imagine. Maybe lots of us are living with way more terrible people in our mentions than humans can really cope with and the white men are probably the last ones to hit that, but maybe they're legitimately hitting it too. I think there's something to be said about this as well. But yeah. It's not a good look. [laughs] We don't need to play shitty time Olympics here in order to say that there are some people who are definitely having a very much worse time than others.
ELM: Yeah. It was just really tricky to watch, and you know, there were lots of responses and I think... we actually for the Rec Center, the newsletter that I coedit, we collected a whole bunch of them in the week that followed that so maybe we can share that link cause that's a nice little roundup. Some professional responses and also some from just people writing meta on Tumblr. I wrote a meta as opposed to writing an article, just cause I didn't feel like arguing with people [laughing]
FK: I think that that would be great. I think also that something we should mention is that because it's now been two years of discussing this I think a lot of people, it's not just creators reacting to it as much anymore. I think people within fandom and also people who aren't fandom people but who are fans have started to really feel this discourse seep into their experiences of loving things. Feeling weird about loving something when other people are being jerks to a creator about it, or wanting to be a jerk to a creator and then realizing that you've contributed to something that was bad. All sorts of stuff, I think. There's now more than just here's an argument that people are making in articles, it was never just that, but now I think it's really permeated everybody's thinking about fandom.
ELM: Sure. I also think that the world looked quite different in the summer of 2016, and there's an undeniable link between some of the reactionary cultural forces starting with GamerGate. I mean, starting earlier than that, but it was the first time, that was 2014, where these kind of conversations that had been percolating in the bowels of the internet really started to brush up against people's public personas.
FK: Yeah, and where things that were trolling mean memes etc. but that were very anonymized and very...I mean they were not good, but they were very anonymized and very swathed in an "it's just for the laughs" pretext stopped being in a "just for the laughs" pretext. It was always bad, but at a certain point people stopped even pretending that it wasn't serious.
ELM: Right. So that was 2014. By 2016 a lot of that had settled in but I think for many of us despite feeling like Trump had some true fans out there on the internet amongst these demographics, it obviously looks quite different on the other side of that knowing that it's not like the alt-right or GamerGate boys singlehandedly elected Donald Trump but obviously it makes a difference. The dude they love being our terrible president.
FK: Absolutely and seeing some of those things that used to be sort of on the fringes of discourse now be normalized. When I look on Facebook and I go over to a political thread on someone's wall and I see discourse that at one time I would have expected to see only in GamerGate universe, now being shared by folks who I know have no connection to this, who are a random dude with political opinions who has no connection to those internet cultures that I think really spawned some of those forms of discourse. That are horrible. Let's be clear. [laughs] Horrible forms of discourse. Great.
ELM: Well that's cheerful.
FK: Alright but that's the reason we're talking about this and I think it's possibly even more complex than it already sounds.
ELM: [laughs] Great, let's get into it.
FK: OK should we take a break and then should we...
ELM: Yeah but let's quickly talk about the format. So we came up with five general areas of discussion that are commonly brought up when people talk about "toxic fandom" and "entitled fans" and whatever other terms we're going to use for this conversation. So we kind of wanted to do a little bit of investigation, maybe some mythbusting or sort of poke at the veracity of these, and so some that we think are kind of true and some that we think are not true. And we'll see where we wind up.
FK: Alright well let's take a break and then let's get into busting some myths or possibly upholding some...not myths.
ELM: Upholding myths! [laughing]
FK: Whatever, OK, let's move on, cut to music!
FK: Alright we're back, and we've got some myths.
ELM: OK. You have the list. You read out the first one and I'll immediately give you my gut reaction.
ELM: Even though we came up with the list together.
FK: It's gonna work great. The first proposition is, that toxic fandom is new.
FK: [laughing] OK OK let's talk about the history of this. We just said that 2014 was a big time that it started bubbling up, what happened before that?
ELM: Oh my God. So I think that we can go even farther back but there is a tweet that was making the rounds from about a month ago that I thought was really fantastic. It's two screenshots and the caption is, "two X-men fan letters from 1976." You remember this tweet?
FK: Oh yeah.
ELM: "One who thinks Chris Claremont's new run can only be saved by jettisoning the diverse cast, the other from a woman of color glad to see herself represented in her favorite comic. The more things change, the more they stay the same." I'm not going to read the former, the white man complaining about Storm in detail, but this letter...this letter is actually fascinating to look at too because the entitlement is so blatant, it's not a gentle suggestion, he [laughs] he ends it by saying "for a long time the X-men was my favorite comic magazine. Alas, this is no more." And then he proceeds to give five demands about how they can fix it. Number one is "have Colossus and Storm get married, leave the X-men and go back to Africa or some other place as long as it's far away." Yeah. I mean, that's where we're starting here, right?
And then he goes through all of his demands and they're specific, kill this character, send this character away, etc etc, and he ends by saying "I don't expect this letter to be printed but I think that many people feel the way I do and it's up to you, Stan, to do something about it. I used to end all my letters with BRING BACK THE X-MEN in capital letters, I'll say it again this time, BRING BACK THE REAL X-MEN."
So this letter is real shitty, and we'll include the link to the other one which is from a woman of color who's really pleased to see Storm, a female protagonist of color, a black female protagonist, but the first letter really strikes me because I'm sure there were dudes who sent letters like these to Marvel or to whoever, Dr. Who, I don't know, I'm trying to think of longtime franchises, and they could just go into this bin of these are the annoying fans and that's that. They're not gonna print this letter. They're not gonna print your racist letter where you demand they change everything and "oh you've lost a customer." Cool, I'm sure they were not sad to see...you know what I mean?
FK: Yeah, absolutely.
ELM: It is quite different now. This dude could just publish as a blog post, that's something he could have been doing for the past 25 years, but the immediacy of Twitter in particular or Reddit is much different from a blog post. The amount of exposure if I wrote my demands up in a tweet or a shareable Facebook post or something, this could make the rounds so quickly and you could find so many other people that felt the same way and while I guess I wouldn't say it's new, I definitely think that we can't just diminish the modes of dissemination or the exposure that these ideas have to other people.
FK: Right. So in other words what you're saying is on the one hand, maybe it's new that people can share this stuff, but it's not new that people feel entitled about the thing that they're a fan of and even send demands to the creators. That part's not new at all.
ELM: I think to clarify, it's not about...this letter is not notable to me in its entitlement, it's notable to me in its racist entitlement. He's not saying "I don't like the storyline you did in comic #45" or whatever. He's saying "I hate your black characters and I want you to send them back to Africa."
FK: Well, that's one of the questions when we talk about toxic fandom, right. Sometimes people bring up this idea of, well, toxic fandom is toxic because it's demanding anything from the creators. It has demands on the creators. And the counterpoint to that is no, the reason it's toxic is because it's racist or it's sexist or it's homophobic or it's being a jerk for bad reasons.
ELM: But then we get into this weird, I think it is a false equivalency to draw a direct line between me the racist fan demanding that you have, "remove Storm from the X-men comics," me writing an angry letter to Marvel demanding they make a character queer or they create more characters of color. My intentions are good but if my methods are bad...and I'm not, this isn't tone policing. I mean, I want to clarify, I don't want to tone police and you can obviously write an angry post all you want talking about how undiverse the thing that you love is. But if you're doing it in a...it's so tricky because they can just ignore you just like they ignored this dude. I don't know.
FK: This brings us up to another one of these myths or facts.
ELM: You already want to go to the next one? I don't think we finished talking about whether this is new or not!
FK: Well I think all these things are connected to each other so maybe let's talk about the next one and then we can always go back and talk more about all the other things too.
ELM: OK, alright.
FK: OK. I think this is related to the next one which is, toxic fandom is enabled by the design of social media.
ELM: OK that is related you're right.
FK: Yeah, thank you!
ELM: It's not just social...it's media, it is communications. I don't like this kind of myopic division between digital media and networked media and what came before. So before social media, the rise of social media, in the web 1.0 era, you could also disseminate these ideas. In the era of mid-century sci fi magazines, there were specific gatekeepers with specific perspectives. Ideas kept out. People wrote in demands, people decided what to show and what not to show. It's not a democratized space like the modern internet is.
FK: Right, but people still managed to connect enough to manage to do things like, for instance, run successful save our show campaigns, which a lot of people would say "oh yeah that's possible because of social media," but people also did that in the past. It's not like it was impossible then, maybe it's not on the scale.
ELM: Right. I think the big difference between the pre-internet, and I think we lean too much on social media so I really want to clarify that it's not like the 90s didn't exist! [laughter] Which I think we...
FK: Did they really though?
ELM: Don't deny the 90s.
FK: It's all a hallucination.
ELM: The 90s were amazing don't try to trash the 90s! The big difference I think was not the exposure between creators and fans it's the exposure between fans. Like I was just saying, I could write my racist letter to whatever creator I wanted and they could just throw it in the trash. I could write my polite letter requesting they be less racist or something, and they could also throw it in the trash. And now I could find the other fans who feel the same way as me. I don't know, it makes me think a lot about, I heard this really interesting—it's a really heavy topic to just toss in to this already heavy conversation, but when there was a lot of discourse about incels, recently, the involuntarily celibate community, where they have a lot of discussion threads on Reddit and in places that are deeper in the bowels of the internet than Reddit [laughs] Reddit's the highest of them, you know, these are places of violent misogynistic discourse obviously.
I wish I could remember where I heard this cause it was a really thoughtful conversation about it where they were talking about how these guys who are in these conversations now, 5 years ago, 10 years ago even, would have felt the same way but they were doing this in relative isolation. They were talking about all of the men who have murdered people, many of them under very different circumstances, but all you could make a case for being related to this kind of violent misogyny, it takes an organized community for people to say "well, these are all connected," and then you kind of have a big ethos and a worldview.
But without that discussion, without people reinforcing each other, saying "these feelings are feelings a lot of us have so they must be real or they must be worth validating and this is a valid response is to go," you know, whereas if these various murders had just happened, you could write your own manifesto saying "I think these were all connected" but you need that communal...does that make sense?
FK: It does make sense and I think it makes even more sense if you think of it in terms of, it's impossible to separate content, in this case violent misogynist murder...
FK: Or racists arguing about X-men and format, but there's something to think about if you consider the other types of communities the internet can bring together. For instance, people who do not want to murder anybody [laughs] but who have rare illnesses, for example. We see in a lot of cases groups of people who previously were like, "I am obviously a chronically ill person but we don't know what it is, we don't know anything about it, we don't know any of this stuff so I'm just going to be living basically an isolated life dealing with the consequences of my illness," and when you're able to find other people within this space then in this case good things usually happen because you can share information, you can build up not just a support community but also even actually identify "oh gee, we all have this particular constellation of syndromes so maybe they're all related and we never knew that before because this was so rare."
Or think about identity communities also. If you don't know the terms for an identity community, or you have never met anybody else who's a part of it...
ELM: Oh, especially queer kids in small towns!
FK: Right! Right!
ELM: It's just wild to think about now, you know?
FK: Or let's even talk about intersex people of whom there are a lot but who, I think, struggled to organize. So it's not to say that this tendency of the internet in general, I do think social media in particular maybe more to the point the widespread adoption of social media. Not so much the format of social media but the fact that it got a lot of people on there. It's not something that leads inevitably, in every case, to a murderous community, but it is something that I think enables it. So I think it is enabled, toxic fandom is enabled by the design of social media. Bad things aren't the only things that are enabled by it, but I think it's true.
ELM: This brings up, I have been struggling...one of the things that's been frustrating me the most about people outside of fan communities making these blanket statements about what fandom is, is the idea that it is something, this is something specific about fandom when all the examples we just gave are not about fandom at all. Whether it's finding someone else with your rare disease or being a violent incel, so cool examples, but you know, there is so much about...not just finding community but also kind of identity formation on the internet and coming to embody that, I think the political discourse right now has gotten...is the most extreme that we've known, probably, in living memory of that...
We're recording this in a week of really horrific news about the children in these camps. One thing that's been very frustrating to me is, it's obviously a deeply political issue, but it seems like there's some people who are so invested in either identifying as...the kneejerk response of being like "Trump's doing this" and people are like "Obama did it too!" and it's like OK, cool, they both did, and how are we gonna fix this? That kind of thing is sort of...well, I'm going to decry something because I've taken this political identity on board, who I am and who I support and what I think of them, that it leaves me incapable of actually addressing...
FK: Considering the possibility. Considering that this may be a more complicated thing than a political football. It's horrific. I think that we all agree that it is wrong to put children into detention camps and take them away from their parents. Maybe we don't all agree. I don't know. But it's more complicated than any single political take. Purely tribalistic take.
ELM: Yeah. I just think there's this kneejerk reaction, yeah. I think when I think about the people that I have, well, very little contact at this point with, but people who are super super partisan Trump type fans from high school or distant relatives or thing, the idea of owning the libs, it literally doesn't matter what the topic is. It doesn't even matter if it's good news for Trump or not, they'll be like "own the libs!" OK! You have taken this persona on board so much of someone who hates this group that this is now part of your identity. This is an integral part of your identity, it can't be excised, depending on the situation and how it calls to you to respond to it.
FK: There's also a need for everybody to be very performative about it which, I mean, this is nothing new. People are talking about this, but...I'm not talking about just one side of the aisle either. The conversations in which people are like "if you're not doing X about this then..."
ELM: "Don't call yourself a liberal" or a leftist or whatever.
FK: It's a very difficult space to be in, the online consistently performing tribal identities space.
ELM: Whenever I hear people being like, "well, this is something specific to fandom and fans get so wrapped up in their...I am a Star Wars fan and to me that means something specific and if you change what Star Wars means in my view then..." This is stuff that's so hard for me to relate to, probably coming from transformative fandom and specifically slash fandom, fandom that was queering the text, deliberately reading against the text for decades...yes you're raising your hand to make a point!
FK: I think this is getting into one of our other myths or facts!
ELM: Oh really?
FK: We wrote down, "toxic fandom is inherent to being a fan"!
ELM: OH!!! OK this is exactly where I was going!
FK: FALSE, FALSE!
ELM: Right! This is exactly what I was saying. Sure, alright, so I'm this person and I'm like, I'm a Star Wars fan, and that means something really specific to me, and you come back at me with a new movie that I don't like and it's what...it's like your wounding me personally? Sure. People definitely have that response. They feel betrayed. You wrote a piece about this once, about internalizing yourself as a fan of something and what that means in your relationship to it.
That is NOT unique to fandom. We were just talking about these political identities, and I think we could come up with plenty of other examples too. The fannish expression of this that gets decried doesn't usually cover sports fandom. When I think about, and obviously a lot of this behavior is really bad too, when I think about all the teams with Native American names and people crying at the suggestion that you're gonna change the name of your team. Oh my God! I cannot wrap my head around that.
FK: Right. There's all sorts of stuff. We could list so many different ways that people get really really focused on their identity as a sports person. It's funny, I was just having a conversation with somebody about how to me when you think about, for instance, people who are hating on The Last Jedi, a lot of guys I think, many people say "well Luke just wouldn't do that, Luke just wouldn't behave those ways, that was not my Luke," etc. It's very clear to me, that was a person that they based part of their identity off of, maybe at a very important time in their lives. That person was, the Luke they imagined, was incredibly important to them.
Now they feel like that's being taken away. and on the one hand I don't have a lot of sympathy for them, but on the other hand I do see that that's...that is an identity forming piece and the question is then how do we react when, as inevitably happens, these things change, if we put our identity into a hero that we have who's a real person when they are revealed to have feet of clay or when a story goes a way we don't like, how do we respond to that.
ELM: Yeah. I think also inherent in this is the multiple readings of every character and every text and this comes back to our conversation about redemption and antiheroes and stuff too. All the clashes that come when my reading on a character differs from yours and we both internalized that character and you saying that thing about the character is a personal attack on me, how dare you? You know what I mean.
So it's especially apparent with these, a lot of the reactionary, somewhat bigoted fans...I don't know if you remember when I went, just before the 2016 presidential election to New York Comic Con and had a miserable time.
FK: I do remember this.
ELM: I was trying to give out these fandom oriented Hillary buttons and this was just before the election, I think we were at a point where you kinda...it was desperate times and it was, oh, just thinking about it upsets me. Our friend Heidi tweeted at me today and said "I'm thinking today about that person who," cause I think a lot of people have been thinking about all the people who said "both the candidates are the same to me," or "it doesn't matter," it's like OK is this really...you know. At this point, when we're seeing really abhorrent behavior, are you still gonna say that?
And Heidi tweeted at us today and said "I'm thinking about that woman who said no to your Hillary button at New York Comic Con," and I was like "oh that was multiple people and it was a very dispiriting experience."
FK: Because they said that they were the same. Or that it didn't matter. Fuck Hillary, fuck Trump.
ELM: Yeah, and some people were like, "Ugh! Get away from me with that!" And I was like "OK cool." And I'm sure people have different political opinions, obviously they might have been Trump fans or they might have been whatever, Gary Johnson...there were probably a lot of Gary Johnson fans.
FK: Oh my God.
ELM: But, I said to her, the one that set me off, the one that I will never forget, was the woman who looked kind of horrified and then said to me "Oh, I don't do real politics." In a sea of Captain Americas and Batmans and characters that...I mean Batman's kind of conservative. But Captain Americas and other...
FK: Batman does have politics. He's kind of conservative but he definitely has politics.
ELM: But I'm thinking of characters that were created with explicitly liberal politics. Explicitly tolerant politics, anti-fascist politics, these comic book characters were all made in a very specific time by a lot of Jewish cartoonists during or in the wake of the Second World War, and I said to, when I was talking to Heidi today, I was like I feel like these original comics creators would be rolling over in their graves to hear people being like "oh I don't want anything to do with real politics." That's explicitly what they were doing.
FK: I think that you're right. I think that maybe where we're coming to with this is "toxic fandom," I'm not sure it's inherent to being a fan, it might be inherent to being a human in some ways, or rather having these reactions, these identity based reactions, it may not be about toxic fandom. It may be about human toxicity. We are fundamentally kinda broken about stuff.
But also it's possible to be in fandom and not have those toxic reactions around the things in fandom. I think it's possible to be a human and not have toxic reactions to things but like...the identity politics bits of it I think people do get very wrapped up in and I think that may just be life. [laughs] People are jerks in predictable ways.
ELM: Yeah, and obviously I don't think every topic is something that we internalize at a really personal level. I think the art that we love, I think politics for a lot of people. Obviously a lot of people are apolitical, but a lot of people are very eh on...
FK: But sports, I mean.
ELM: And obviously some of these apply to some and not others.
FK: But there's all sorts of stuff. You find out weird things. One thing that I've discovered now that I have a dog is that there's a category of people who truly hate dogs and actually want them all to die. I didn't know this, I didn't know that people identified this way and felt this strongly about it, but it turns out there are. They're bad. I don't like them. [laughs] But OK, I'm just saying, even things like preferences of I think this animal is, I don't like this animal. That can become a thing too!
ELM: Sure, or nationalism.
FK: Or I like this animal also by the way let's say there are people who like dogs too much! [laughing]
ELM: Yeah...that's true...she says as she...
FK: You're like "nationalism," I'm like "dogs." [ELM laughing] I'm just trying to keep us from having an all the time...these are serious issues but I think that they have precedents and antecedents and relationships to all sorts of things that don't seem very serious as well.
ELM: Yeah, I just think there are some things that a lot of people are...your job. If I was like, "all people who work in Hollywood suck," would you get really mad? You'd be like "no I think you're kinda dumb."
FK: I don't know, I think some people would get really mad.
ELM: That's true.
FK: That's not the thing for me but I do think there are people. Some people really really identify with their job. REALLY identify with their job.
ELM: That's true. Working in the media, the media is comically self-critical, the media loves to write about the media and how it's bad and should be better, so. I mean the media industry is a lot like the fan cultures that we're a part of where people seem to take more pleasure in critiquing everything to death so that's cool. Alright. Well I feel like we have a couple more points on our list, should we take another break?
FK: Let's take a quick break.
ELM: OK we're back!
FK: We are back! And we have two more points here. OK. Can I sock one to you?
ELM: I genuinely have forgotten what's on this list so this is all new to me.
FK: Alright the next point is one that I think maybe gets back to what we were just talking about before the break, which is "Only straight white men indulge in toxic fandom."
ELM: OK, this, this was quite a frustrating thread on my feeds when the Kelly Marie Tran thing was going on. People from the fannish corners that we're from, which is female dominated transformative fanfiction fanart meta critical...
FK: A lot of people are very queer in this space...
ELM: Yes, but, but, one of the worst parts of our corner of fandom is it's...race tends to be the elephant in the room. It tends to be underdiscussed, brushed aside, fans of color who do try to address it head on often face a lot of pushback from people who generally think of themselves as pretty liberal.
ELM: So I saw a lot of people in my feed saying "fanfiction fandom never does this." It's like yeah, fanfiction fandom doesn't harass Kelly Marie Tran off Instagram, but fanfiction fandom or transformative fandom or whatever big category, critical media fandom, whatever categories we use, harasses fellow fans of color into silence or off platforms when they bring up racial discourse.
There's so many, we've discussed this at length and obviously we can put notes in the show notes but I really want us to stop saying this because it's demonstratably not true and it's just, you know, UGH.
FK: It's not even not true just on the racial dimension. It's definitely not true in the racial dimension, transformative corners of fandom that are mostly queer white women do this to people of color, but also people do it to each other. Look at the entirety of Johnlock and the way that the Sherlock fandom ended up going down and how difficult that was for everybody involved, I'm sorry to bring it up to you.
ELM: You thought it was OK to talk about it now cause there was that Slate podcast episode?
FK: I just thought it would be OK to bring it up and we can link to the Slate podcast episode and not talk about it more. So we're gonna do that so that Elizabeth doesn't have a traumatic experience right now.
ELM: If anyone missed it there's an I thought really well done episode of the Slate podcast Decoder Ring which does a kind of one off deep dive into a cultural topic once a month. Willa Paskin was the journalist and I spoke to her for this episode though not about Sherlock or Johnlock, I talked to her before she came to that specific focus. But I talked to her about shipping and I really think she did her research cause you can tell she listened to me and a few other shipping experts really, you know. You listened to it, you heard it, so.
FK: Yeah. Denise Paolucci, the CEO of Dreamwidth, had a really interesting and good thread on this in which she said basically, look, there's two different sort of groups of people we're talking about here, and one group of people tend to be—this is the straight white men category probably but not just straight men, not just white men etc., but they're people who sort of feel comfortable taking on the really big creators and who tend to be, tend to be sort of very public facing in this way.
And then there's lady fandom, broadly speaking, which sort of eats its own. And can be intensely horrible to other people in that space but it doesn't ever tend to bubble up into public consciousness. And I think Lilah Vandenberg talked about this a little bit also when we had her on.
ELM: Yeah, we know that's not quite true though because we've seen definitely from the...I think it was Gav's phrase was critical media fandom which I thought was a good one. Transformative fandom, I think there's a lot of people in this "lady fandom"...
FK: Yeah, this is the worst term, I'm just trying to figure out whatever this sort of envisioned construct we have or... many people have.
ELM: I hate, I say female dominated all the time but obviously there's people of all genders. But it is female dominated and I just, I think people so often default saying "female fandom" which they really shouldn't do.
ELM: So this side of fandom that we're talking about, the kind of fandom we come from, yeah, definitely eats our own but also I think especially in recent years totally comes at the creators. Look at, if we're gonna talk about Johnlock...but you know, some of what Lilah's talking about too. Or Britta's Ship It is definitely about people from our kind of fandom...
FK: Yeah. I think that's happening more and more. But I think it usually is smaller...I think it is one of the things Lilah said, it tends to be smaller targets.
ELM: There's levels, right? So I agree, and Lilah was saying it would be like, the queer indie comics creator, you come at their Tumblr. Totally, I also think there's a medium level where people feel comfortable, like a CW showrunner.
FK: Yeah, it's true it's true. I'm also not trying to say... point is though...
ELM: But am I going to yell at Rian Johnson because Finn/Poe hasn't become canon yet? I'm sure people are doing it but it's not the same way that there are very organized groups of dude-oriented fans in that kind of fandom doing organized campaigns to get their demands out there.
FK: I think that we're clear that we don't think that only straight white men indulge in toxic fandom. That's not how...that's not the case.
ELM: I do wanna highlight too the different ways that it manifests, so I feel like with some of these male dominated reactionary fan campaigns it's literally about seeing actors of color at all. Or female leads. With our corner of fandom, I think it's not necessarily that there's a female lead or a woman of color, whatever. I'm thinking about the Spock/Uhura vs.
FK: Oh man those wars.
ELM: What if I said "Spirk"? Would you...
FK: I would stab you with a spork! [ELM laughing] If you said Spirk. Yes. We don't use that term on this podcast.
FK: OK thank you.
ELM: That's a famous example, and I think that the goal is not "Uhura shouldn't exist." But it is definitely, it's interesting because the way those kind of manifest illustrate what the different kinds of fandom value. For a dude oriented fandom, for an affirmational fandom, a curative...curitative? I can't speak words. For a whatever this kind of fandom is, it's literally about the existence of these characters in a film because it's about what's canon, what's in the film.
Then for fanfiction fandom, transformative fandom, it's what are we investing our emotional energy and fannish time into. And I think it's really interesting.
FK: What are we imagining.
ELM: What's worth our imaginations. So for transformative fans it's not about whether these people make it into the movie at all. So that's why I think it can look really different and I think that that kind of behavior in transformative fandom is probably masked from the general view of fans. Because the goal is not to get, it's not "you shouldn't have this woman be in charge," "you shouldn't have a female protagonist," it's "I'm just going to ship these two dudes in the corner and ignore this woman," or say she's great but she's too strong for a relationship, etc etc. So. I think it's worth noting because I think that there's a lot of assumptions that are made that are false.
FK: Yeah, and those ships and so forth do actually bubble up into creators but also into other fans' lives. That's the corollary. It's not I'm just gonna ship these two dudes in a corner, it's I'm gonna do that and then go into the Kirk/Uhura tag and then...
ELM: Wow, that's my new ship.
FK: Well, I WOULD go into the Kirk/Uhura tag too. Actually they're more canonical than...never mind. [ELM laughing] THEY KISS ON THE ORIGINAL SERIES!
ELM: I know!
FK: Anyway. I'm gonna go into the Spock/Uhura tag and send hate and it's gonna make things very very hard for people to coexist in this space. So.
ELM: But again it's intrafandom, it's not...that kind of conversation doesn't reach the creators.
FK: But it can be incredibly bad, like, incredibly bad. So.
ELM: Obviously, so.
FK: Yeah. So we've got one last myth slash fact to cover.
ELM: Hit me.
FK: And that is, "Toxic fandom is fostered by the creators of the original thing, the producers of the original thing," the people who do it, because they're paying attention to fandom and so they're enabling this.
ELM: Alright. Well, yes and no. So I think we touched on some of this when we talked about the McDonalds Szechuan Sauce incident and the Rick & Morty fandom. So the basic summary of that, do you want me to very quickly summarize it?
FK: Do it.
ELM: There's this sauce in this cartoon show that McDonalds made some of the sauce for the fans, they didn't make enough. There were riots.
FK: Actual riots, this is not a figure of speech.
ELM: Actual riots, McDonalds employees hid in freezers because they didn't want to be murdered by people who wanted sauce. Because they love a television show, a cartoon show. OK. The main critique we had...we had many critiques in that episode. But I think we were both in agreement that obviously the rioting fans, rioting over sauce, not that there is any good reason to threaten another person's life but that is an especially stupid reason, they are to blame. Sauce, Flourish, Sauce.
FK: Apparently not even very good sauce. [ELM laughing] Just sayin'!
ELM: Yeah, if it was delicious sauce it would be totally different!
ELM: But, one of the groups we had the biggest critique for in this was McDonalds. We called that episode "Our Most Passionate Fans" in quotes because this is the kind of response you get from brands, creators, IP holders, showrunners, what have you, this kind of "all publicity is good publicity, these people are the people that care the most, we're gonna sweep their bad behavior under the rug because they are so passionate."
FK: First they create a situation that leads to this problem in ways that probably could have been a little bit better foreseen, but then instead of saying "wow, y'all really fucked up here! What are you doing guys, rioting over sauce?" it is like "Oh! We didn't understand how much you loved it. Our bad! You guys are so great."
ELM: That was literally their response.
FK: It's like yeah, it's not that you didn't do something bad, you could have done that better. But also, no one makes you, no one makes you intimidate an employee getting into a refrigerator. That wasn't forced on anyone. People made those choices that led them to riot.
ELM: I think you see this in less extreme examples constantly. I think that when you see social media account for a television show say, on the CW, kind of boosting a ship war, and definitely there's this attitude of "you're all our passionate fans and you are the most engaged, look at this engagement," the propping up of internal fandom conversation and saying that all engagement is good.
FK: And we've talked about this before, how this actually comes down often to the way that people's jobs are structured. The fundamental ways that they are assessed. Their employment. Are you being assessed on how much conversation there is around it? If so, and you're just worried about this next quarter, then why do you care? You can be fostering an incredibly bad dynamic.
That said, I also think that there's a point at which we are stuck with people being in this space. It's not like...if social media exists, producers/creators are gonna be there. Official accounts are gonna be there. I don't think there's any world in which they just go away. Then not being there, not having a stance, not being involved, is worse. I think.
ELM: Yes. But. When you're saying that, I start to think about the media as I do, and this kind of era of journalism in which all clicks were good. And you can just go to the story quickly, maybe not even verify it, and we can print a retraction don't worry about it. I honestly think those media producers still exist and there's a lot of big bad actors in this space, but I do think a lot of the biggest players have moved past this and have realized that telling the truth and double checking things and, you know, getting the right story out there even if it's not the flashiest story, is of value. And I think it really could only take some of the biggest people doing that.
Obviously I think there's even some big media producers who think they're doing it and are not doing a good job with it, say the New York Times [laughs] which needs to reassess itself and rehire a public editor. But I do think I've seen a shift over the last five years moving away from this idea of we just want as much traffic as possible and that it'll all sort out in the wash, because I think people were seeing that it's really dangerous to just build your brand only on traffic numbers, you know?
FK: Well, you know, God send you to the entertainment industry.
ELM: What do you mean?
FK: May God send you to bring this gospel to the entertainment industry.
ELM: Yeah, alright, sure! [FK laughing] This gets back to our themes of fandom.
FK: I'm just saying I don't think it's moved forward. I think people think about ticket sales, they care about...you know, they care about eyeballs, they care about Nielsen ratings and ticket sales.
ELM: OK first of all, Nielsen ratings, don't get me started on how outdated that seems to me. But we talked about this in "Fandom and Capitalism," our Fandom and Capitalism episode, and you said you felt like the needle was moving!
FK: I do! I just think that it's like, moving slowly.
ELM: OK. Yeah. I'm not, the media still sucks. Right? But I do think that we've seen change on this front.
FK: Yeah...and I think that people are trying to, I do genuinely think that people are trying to assess, in the wake of Kelly Marie Tran I think people are trying to assess this, taking it seriously. I hear conversations is all I'm saying.
ELM: Can I say, I'm curious, one last thing before we wrap this up, one of the articles that was shared widely around the Kelly Marie Tran incident was in IO9, it was by Charles Moore, and it was talking about the responsibility of creators and studios in the situations like the one we saw with Kelly Marie Tran. I shared it in the affirmative, so did you, but definitely some people on my feed and I think yours as well took it as...basically suggesting that they need to have a more hands on approach. Some people were suggesting, especially coming from transformative fandom, where historically you've wanted a firm division between creator and fan and the fannish fourth wall where they can't see you and they can't see any of your activity and you're just doing it for each other.
So the idea that a studio or Rian Johnson or whatever, or Kathleen Kennedy, anyone involved in Star Wars, would be in fan spaces, as the moderator, I think stressed some people out. And rightly so! But I also, I didn't necessarily read that argument that way. I don't know. How did you read it?
FK: I agree completely. Personally, I think people need to keep the hell out of fan spaces as a moderator, but I think fan spaces are not the same thing as public Twitter.
FK: Sorry! It's just when you as a fan choose to share your fandom on public Twitter, then you are taking part in public discourse. And when you do that, I don't think that you can assume in any way shape or form that people aren't looking at this. Hell, guys, if you don't already know it, Twitter makes available every tweet ever. I literally can go and demand that Twitter regurgitate every Tweet that used a hashtag and it'll give it to me. You have to pay for it but with my job, I can get this. I can look at it and I can sort out and I can see who's tweeted these things publicly, and everyone is.
I'm not saying that that's, "oh, that's ideal," but I am saying that there are lots of opportunities that people can meet in spaces that are not this sort of public forum that has been adopted in so many other spaces other than fandom. And they should. People should have boundaries around those. I agree.
ELM: OK, but, by those metrics, unless it's a locked space or an email chain or something, what is not public? And this is the thing that we're constantly running up against with fanfiction and the AO3. Is people's RPF private, is anyone's fanfiction private? Tons of fans think it should be but it's there.
FK: You can post things to the AO3 that require people to log in in order to see them.
ELM: And as we know from an early episode with DestinationToast's stats, RPF is more likely to have the "you need to log in." So it's not locked but you need that extra step.
FK: To be honest I've seen this as a trend. When I look at the way that people are connecting in fan spaces I see much much more activity on Discord, in Slacks, in other spaces that are more significantly private than before and I think that that's a good thing. I mean, I'm not saying that I want things to go back to being undiscoverable but I do think that having even a very small gate in front of it does help make it clear where a private fandom space is that you don't really want people to be nosing around in versus "Hey guys over here!" Cause the fact remains that there's a lot of fans who do want that interaction and who are inviting it at all times.
ELM: Yeah. If I was trying to be a sneaky journalist I could join your One Direction slack with a different name, be like "hey guys I'm just a One Direction fan!" Should I do that? Should I do an expose on all of you?
FK: You would have to get a couple of people to nominate you into it and that would be...
ELM: It would be a long game.
FK: It'd be a long game.
ELM: I'd create a pseud and I'd create a persona and I'd very carefully target a few of you.
FK: You could do it, you would do it, but it would take a long game of sneakiness and real ethical questioning and frankly I don't think most people are either dedicated enough to do it nor have the time in the entertainment industry to do that kind of infiltration [laughing]
ELM: To get this story, I'm gonna make this happen. I know I'm giving away the game right now.
FK: But also people have ethical concerns. I would not do that in a fan space, god no never.
ELM: That's good.
FK: It's not a completely ethics free zone. My point being though I think when there are public spaces like that and there are people seeking to interact, if people are seeking to interact with the Star Wars Twitter handle, with Kelly Marie Tran, with Rian Johnson, yeah obviously they're allowed to respond and even take a kind of moderator-y role. If people are talking to them, they're allowed to block people just like everyone else in the world is. And that may be good behavior or bad behavior, but I think that they have to actually have a theory around how to interact in that way.
ELM: Just to clarify, I'm not sure you saw that decision, I believe it was in the Court of Appeals, but Donald Trump is not allowed to block us.
FK: Donald Trump is not allowed to block us, that's true. He is the one person who is not allowed to block us.
ELM: Probably other governments, they could make the same rule.
FK: Yeah but Rian Johnson is allowed to block people. It may not be a good idea for him to do that, or it might be, I don't know. But the point is that there should be an...he should have some policies. Right?
ELM: Would you say from your perspective in the entertainment industry that someone like Rian Johnson, not to pinpoint him too much but we were talking about Star Wars, if he didn't like fans being racist, does he have the freedom to just say that? Does he have the freedom to say "hey guys I think this is pretty racist you should knock it off."
FK: I think it is potentially something that has political ramifications for him in his workplace to say that. Because there are a lot of other people who are dealing with Star Wars and who have questions about how he represents himself and Star Wars etc., and I think that there could be someone who would say "don't say that! We need to," you know what I mean, "we want men 18-24 who are white and you're just poking this," and I don't think that would be the right attitude to take, I think that would be the very wrong attitude to take, but I think there is a larger...there's a reason why people aren't just doing this that's beyond they don't care.
ELM: Right. Or they are also racist or, you know what I mean. But they are complicit, then, but that's the system they're working in. But...
FK: I'm not saying there's no blame that attaches.
ELM: Absolutely. It's just talking about what's realistic and I think this goes hand in hand, that's exactly what we were just talking about, "our most passionate fans," it's not just our most passionate fans, it's our white males 18-24, we don't want to make them mad. Whatever they think the right fans they want to have are, whether that's a demographic they've always seen as profitable or the people who are most vocal about loving them then I would see why they wouldn't want to anger them. But that's so cynical and so frustrating and chases everyone who's not in those demographics right out of the conversation and right out of the fandom, you know?
FK: You're not gonna get any argument from me! It's one of the problems of living in our capitalist society when we have people seeking to make a buck and maybe not, uh, using that to justify their bad opinions, and sometimes using that to make morally bad decisions that...they maybe personally disagree with but they're allowing themselves to be complicit in this way. I think it's a systemic problem. I think a lot of this is a systemic problem. There's multiple systems interacting here that are creating this toxic fandom situation.
And yet we each have individual autonomy and we can choose just not to send something racist to Kelly Marie Tran. And I hope everyone listening to this made that choice. Good for us.
ELM: [laughing] What a takeaway.
FK: That's the takeaway, that's my takeaway, I don't know what to say!
ELM: I think this has been a really interesting conversation. I think that it's kind of depressed me but I was already a little depressed about this topic.
FK: You know it actually weirdly has depressed me a little less because I think that I feel...it's not that things are good but I think that putting in context the systems that influence us, I think that's really important. And I think it helps me feel better about making as many small good choices as possible. If you know what I mean. Instead of feeling like "oh, there's all of this stuff here that I need to fix all of it personally," and I've failed if I don't, feeling like, there's this system that maybe I personally can't fix. There are small things that I can do and I'm going to do all of them that I can and hope that if enough people do that then that's going to change the system.
ELM: OK! That's nice and hopeful.
FK: It may be Pollyannaish but.
ELM: What are you gonna do otherwise, just give up?
ELM: I think for me too one of my takeaways is, it's very hard for me to hold these ideas in my head. I have this instinct and I've discussed this in the past to defend fans and fandom. Because I've spent so much time being in this position of doing that. But there's a lot of fannish behavior I can't defend, and I guess talking about this is really helpful for me to articulate, basically to help articulate what is actually happening, because people are painting with such stupid broad brushes. "All fans are like this, all fandom is like this," and I think that it's really hard to not wanna kneejerk back and say "no fandom's never like that!" You really wanna defend it, and every time you say "except..." you undercut the force of your response.
FK: I think that the accurate thing to say is yes, fandom is often like this. Lots of other things are also often like this. That doesn't make it any less bad.
FK: But it does mean that maybe instead of picking fandom as our particular punching bag, we could choose to do that but we could also choose to say "well how are we gonna fix this thing that's within our sphere."
ELM: It's tricky to balance. It's fine. We're not gonna solve anything right now.
FK: Well, I think we did a good job of at least trying to explore it or explain it.
FK: Do you think that we came to the truth about toxic fandom?
ELM: I think that we uncovered some truths. I think that we busted some myths.
FK: Excellent. That's what we set out to do!
ELM: Perfect. OK. Good. Alright. So obviously I think people have a lot of feelings about this topic and so if you want to share them with us I'd say the #1 way to do that is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, calling the phone number on our Tumblr, fansplaining.tumblr.com, and leaving us a voicemail. We would love more voicemails because otherwise you have to hear us try to read your words in a dopey way and it's nice to not hear from us probably for a few minutes out of these 60.
ELM: That's too self defeating I'm sorry.
FK: No it's OK. Other things to note, you can also reach us on Twitter @fansplaining, Facebook @fansplaining, and if you would like to support us by not giving us money...well, you can do that by rating us on iTunes!
ELM: Why would you say that one first? [laughing]
FK: Just shake it up right! You don't have to give us money to support us! You can rate us on iTunes, leave us a review. But a really good way to support us IS to give us money through Patreon, patreon.com/fansplaining. You get the episodes early, some of you get tiny zines if you pledge enough per month and we're going to have a summer tiny zine coming out fairly soon so get on that if you want to take part.
ELM: But if you weren't already a $10 pledger then you did not receive the last tiny zine, which is really a loss for you because it featured an original double drabble, in the purest definition of drabble that's 200 words exactly, by earlgreytea68 one of fandom's beloved authors, and it was a Klinkel story.
FK: Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Klink. Yes.
ELM: Would you say Flourish/Elizabeth or Elizabeth/Flourish? What has a better ring to it? Klinkel's gotta be it, it can't be Florizabeth or something.
FK: I think people have proposed Florizabeth. I think my name comes first it sounds better. Usually your name comes first in other things that we do, your full name sounds better first but my first name alone sounds better first.
ELM: You've been giving this some thought while you write your Klinkel Regency arranged marriage fic. OH FLOURISH [laughing]
FK: GOODBYE ELIZABETH. I THINK THAT WE'RE DONE.
ELM: This is such a good idea, I'll have 10,000 a year!! [laughing]
FK: I'LL TALK TO YOU LATER ELIZABETH
ELM: [still laughing] Bye, Flourish!
[Outro music, thank yous and disclaimers]