I can’t tell if fandom has gotten worse in terms of constant discourse fights, or if I’m falling victim to the bias of reflection. I’m fully aware that fandom has always been a shit show of abuse and harassment, and that there was never a time that everybody held hands and sang songs about peace, but I’m not sure if it was always like this.
By “this” I mean constant discourse, for lack of a better word, although that deserves a few caveats. I don’t mean critical analysis of the text or calling out racist actions of fans or anything of the sort. Discussing racism and other topics is essential and are something that can only improve fandom. What I’m thinking of is more like… bullshit, I suppose. Bullshit though that often masks itself as the former.
What I’m confused about, is whether some people know how to enjoy media anymore. Often we criticize the media we love because we love it, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m thinking of people who will consume a piece of media, enjoy it for maybe a day, and then spend their entire time in fandom not creating or indulging in any content, but either shit talking the media, fighting with other fans, or updating their DNI to “block me if you watch XYZ.”
It seems like these fans jump from fandom to fandom, and regardless of the quality of the new content or the culture of the fanbase, there’s the same energy of distaste towards the media. Fans who will watch the show or read the book and love it the entire time, and then a week later switch to hating everything about it. The parts that they do enjoy are coincidental––accidents of the creators that deserve little credit––within a show, they now view as irredeemably and entirely trash.
Or maybe they do like the media! Especially, if the creator is someone they’re still fond of who checks off enough boxes of representation that they can last a few months longer as Twitter/Tumblr’s darling. Then the focus shifts to the fandom, picking out singular interactions to blow up out of proportion and represent the entirety of the fandom. Sometimes creating hypotheticals, warnings to other fans that they “better not see people start to [blank]” until this is repeated enough that when the behavior finally occurs, it’s jumped on immediately, and the amount of harm the action causes doesn’t matter. “I knew this was going to happen” or “why can’t fandom be normal for one second?” even if the behavior itself is an abnormality.
These fans don’t write or read fic but are confident in declaring what type of fic content exists and how it’s all bad. They don’t make headcanons or meta but are quick to decontextualize and tear apart others. They pick an actor, writer, director, whichever, who they love and who they’ll fight tooth and nail for against bigotry… until they get too popular, and then they were always corny, problematic, overrated trash.
This… is a difficult differentiation to make between earnest and much needed discussion in fandom of harmful, often racist, behavior versus whatever this is. That difficulty, alongside a history of fandom purposefully stomping out any discussions of socially conscious topics, is what allows this behavior to flourish. It becomes all too easy to mask oneself with the difficult and time-consuming labor of others, to present opposition against abuse as opposition against change.
If you don’t acknowledge something as harmful then you’re part of the problem. If you take offense at the disproportionate reactions to minor transgressions then you’re tone policing. If you disagree with an opinion then you’re not listening to marginalized voices. If you want clarification then you’re demanding emotional labor. If you ask for sources then you’re not believing someone’s lived experiences. And so on and so on.
These fans aren’t all people of color either (although the way conversations are framed will suggest otherwise where any disagreements are inherently white vs poc regardless of the individual’s identities.) Race comes up more often, but the same issues are replicated through discourses on sexuality, gender, disability, and whatever the identity able to be weaponized at the moment is. White fans who partake in this behavior will often do so from a position of allyship, showcasing how much they care through verbal abuse and threats, assured that their actions will be justified as part of the necessary fight against white supremacy.
And I know shades of this have always existed in fandom, I was on Tumblr as a teen for fuck’s sake, but I’m not sure if it was always the dominant fight at any given point in time. I swear there used to be more ships wars, not based on which pairing was the most woke (or the most problematique as if that’s a badge of honor) but some other stupid criteria. People were definitely way meaner about fanfic writers, and top/bottom arguments haven’t completely disappeared, but the fights of the past were legendary.
This isn’t to romanticize old fandom or anything, which was full of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia, but it’s odd to look around and notice less classical bullshit.
Fandom has always been a hot mess, and it has always been filled with drama and fights. The frequency of such hasn’t changed, but the way it has taken shape feels as if it has. People can’t just hate a ship and spam the tags from that alone, they need a justification for why this is the morally right response. Conversely, people can’t just like their silly ships in peace, they need to explain why others disliking it is an indicator of oppressive behavior and puritanism.
It feels too simplistic to reduce this to shipping alone, especially since it seems like many people aren’t even interested in any of the ships beyond a passing “that’s the correct one to like.” It’s less so that people are utilizing discourse as a way of justifying their fandom behavior, and more that this is some people’s fandom. The complaining, dogpiling, harassment, and righteous signaling are the way they interact with media. The transformative element isn’t fanfiction or headcanons, but a reordering of the right words and the correct concepts to follow predisposed beats of asserting dominance and superiority.
And again, this isn’t a criticism of criticizing fandom, and it isn’t a call to stop engaging with topics of race, gender. sexuality, or ability. Partially because none of this behavior impacts a positive change, but mostly because this behavior often targets specific marginalized groups to replicate that abuse.
That tends to get left out of the conversation. Where arguments over “callout culture” is often presented as a “does the means justify the ends” as if all this is a misguided attempt to assert change. “Yes, people are sending death threats, but only to bigots so what does it matter?”
When you dig into the discourse, often you can uncover a toxic, hateful pattern of abuses that are themselves racist, antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and the whole nine yards. This abuse is then most often leveraged against marginalized identities. Where those identities are minimized based on what is convenient. Where suddenly we are not dragging a queer Black fan who misspoke, we’re calling out someone maliciously using their class and able-body privilege to be lesbophobic against whomever.
It’s just… odd how often these fights will be made at the expense of mocking a character’s mental health, with an extra emphasis on characters who showcase psychotic symptoms or PTSD. It’s not enough to be like “Bucky Barnes is pissing me off” you have to also throw in “Bucky Barnes is pissing me off because he thinks he can get away with his annoying behavior just because he has a small amount of trauma but trauma is no excuse for him being so cagey and people making sad headcanons about him are woobifying him and romanticizing mental illness and––“ or whatever. You can’t say you don’t like a ship! You gotta say “Dimitri Fire Emblem would be an emotional drain on anyone he dates because of his mental illness and therefore shouldn’t be in a romantic relationship.”
It’s the same thing as picking on a male character for being boring, but being sure to emphasize how much they dislike him because he’s too feminine, a stupid twink, and an annoying fruit. Where as long as you add in the right language to preface it you can say as much mean shit you want about disliking gay men, and if you object to this then that means you are siding with cis white men over poc, regardless of your own identity.
The crux of these arguments is never truly about critiquing a specific social issue but instead are used as vehicles to punch down on other marginalized identities. This is different from criticizing a character for their actual flaws or pointing out bigotry where people assume that they’re absolved of accountability because of the axis of oppression they represent. “Just because this character is gay doesn’t mean they can’t be racist” is a different statement than “This character is racist and that’s why I’m justified in mocking their gay mannerisms and posting ‘ironic’ homophobic memes about them.”
The previous spiteful, cruel, and mocking behavior of fandom has just been allowed to take a new shape. You’re free to complain about forced diversity as long as you lead with how antis are trying to police what characters we like. You can be as ignorant and regressive about mental illness as you want if you make sure to call the character a sad white boy first and explain that you’re fighting against woobies. Dislike someone’s ship because it interferes with your favorite gay pairing? Don’t worry, it’s m/f! So spam them tags, perpetuate misogynistic viewpoints, and send as many death threats as you want! If anyone complains, just roll your eyes and ask “So, we’re gonna pretend that het ships are oppressed for being het then?”
Fandom harassment has always been a group bonding experience. As social media develops and the language around discourse perfected, harassment is able to enter a new realm of legitimacy, not just as a funny thing to do, but as a moral necessity. Regressive views can thrive, hidden behind the right language, and allowed to become normalized on a mass scale.