Fandom’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it?
It’s been years since I’ve been involved (former Lord of the Rings geek here), but I still remember my fandom days surprisingly clearly. As with so many things, this particular experience really looks different when I reflect on it now with a feminist perspective.
And after doing that, I have a theory, half-baked and rooted mostly in my own experiences though it may be. And I doubt it’s particularly original, either. So, here, have some caveats, I guess? At any rate, my theory is this: female-dominated fandoms have the potential to contribute to the subversion of gender roles and the weakening of patriarchy, while simultaneously reinforcing other forms of hierarchy and certain ugly social dynamics. (I also have this theory that Jared Padalecki is much hotter than Jensen Ackles, but that’s hard to prove, statistically.)
So, first off, a claim which I’m (fairly) sure will be uncontroversial: many of the popular female-heavy fandoms coalesce around movies or TV shows starring attractive male actors. Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Lost, Supernatural, even Harry Potter (creepy though it is to acknowledge this given the age of the fandom and the ages of the actors): there’s a common thread here, and that thread is the pretty, pretty boys.*
This, in itself, is subversive. Women motivated by their desire for men (as opposed to men’s desire for them)? Unpossible! So straight off you’re seeing a rejection of the typical feminine role. If you’ve never spent a day or two poking around female fandom, it can be quite enlightening, because lady behavior in online communities can be unbelievably dirty. Yes, it’s often objectifying. No, I’m not obligated to complain about it. I might be if female desire were catered to in society such that men were viewed primarily as objects rather than as full human beings—you know, the current situation in reverse—but until then, I just can’t be bothered to care about the plight of hot male actors. Come talk to me again after the revolution.
The second element of subversion in fandom is the creation of strong female friendships. Online communities often lend themselves to the formation of relationships that persist far beyond whatever shared interest drew participants together, and certainly fandom’s no different, though I think it has the potential to be more influential in this regard than other, more narrowly-targeted communities. Pop culture has a broad reach, after all. And anything that draws women into each others’ orbits and connects them in a supportive way is a threat to patriarchy.
The third element of subversion is the inspiration to creativity. Fandom has spurred many a non-writer to pen fanfic, many a non-artist to create fanart. MST3Ks** and satire abound. Some women cut their writerly teeth on fandom and become very influential bloggers or authors outside of it (cleolinda being the most famous example). And fangirls produce some of the best material you’ll ever read on the analysis and criticism of pop culture. It’s not that I think creativity, itself, is intrinsically subversive of femininity (in fact, I think creativity is gendered as feminine in many ways, at least to the degree that it remains unthreatening and unmonetized). But fandom gives women a way to find their voices, to realize that their talents and opinions matter. And the communities it creates are places to receive feedback and encouragement. These are the necessary ingredients for empowerment. They don’t guarantee it, but the potential is there.
These elements combine to become particularly powerful in the context of fandom because it can be deceiving at first, in that it feels reassuringly conventional. In the end, fandom is still centered on 1) male actors (“actor” used here in both senses of the word), and 2) pop culture, considered a “safe” interest for women in its triviality. Because feminism and political consciousness in our society are demonized, people will often reject them as concepts simply out of a desire not to be tarred with an unflattering brush. Fandom is a gateway drug. Even the most feminism-shy among us probably won’t see the danger in giggling with our girlfriends over a celebrity crush. And if we stumble over some type of awareness in the process, well, who could have predicted that?
But fandom’s not all sunshine and rainbows and picspam. For one thing, it’s far from a haven from misogyny. “Comprised of women” doesn’t necessarily imply “not sexist”. This can sometimes be seen in the way that certain female characters are treated. Call it the Hermione Effect; the amount of hatred she engenders is, I would argue, completely excessive given her flaws as a character. This dynamic sometimes extends to female actresses, too: the treatment of Evangeline Lily by the Lost fandom when it was first discovered that she was dating Dominic Monaghan was jaw-droppingly vicious. I won’t say that all female characters or actresses are hated by female fans—that wouldn’t be even remotely accurate (Eowyn, Bellatrix, and Professor McGonagall are a few examples of widely-beloved female characters). But I do think that when a female character or actress is designated as a target, the amount of vitriol directed at her is excessive, and I believe the explanation is sexism. (I also have a theory about why certain characters are designated as targets while others escape unscathed, but it’s still somewhat inchoate at this point and I’m not sure I have the evidence to back it up yet.)
Beyond that, fandom also reproduces other unpleasant social dynamics. There’s certainly a noticeable hierarchy in every online community, female or no. Not just in terms of snobbishness or cliquishness (though those are sadly common and, I think, probably more common in female-heavy spaces due to social conditioning), but also in terms of privileging certain voices over others. RaceFail ’09 is a great example of the kind of gigantic privilege clusterfuck fandom is susceptible to, though I suppose this example doesn’t support my point all that well, as I really don’t know what the gender makeup of the sci-fi/fantasy fandom is. I do think, though, that one would be hard-pressed to argue that male fandom is more prone to privilege blindness than female fandom (in areas other than gender, anyway).
To illustrate, here’s a mea culpa that’s long overdue: I played a non-trivial role, in the LotR fandom, in creating and sustaining an environment that was not queer-friendly (always a sore spot in fandoms dominated mostly by straight women). It’s too long of a story to even think about summarizing here and there’s no handy link to provide, but I need to say it all the same: I fucked up. I thought that because I read and wrote slash, I couldn’t be homophobic. I thought that presuming a person straight until proven otherwise was an assumption rooted in statistics, rather than heteronormativity. I dismissed the legitimacy of genderqueer identification and perpetuated transphobia. I didn’t understand that slash, itself, is fetishizing and that it repurposes queer sexuality for consumption by straight women.
I was wrong. I’m not doing this for cookies—I recognize that it’s easy to admit fault long after the events have occurred, and without directly facing the people you harmed—but because it just needs to be said. And I might as well use myself as an example to prove my point. Interesting that fandom, which played a non-trivial role in my own evolution as a feminist, was also where I fucked up so blatantly and publically. But to acknowledge this evolution, I have to own my mistakes.
At any rate, those are my hypotheses. I’m sure there are people doing proper scholarly work on fandom, and I might try to dig some of it up—I’m curious about how accurate my guesses are. If anyone reading this has anything they’d like to point me to, please do. I’d be just as interested in seeing where I’m wrong as seeing where I’m right.
*Apologies for the heteronormativity; I’m trying to make a larger point about the reversal of gender roles, but I don’t want to seem dismissive of the fact that female fandom does have a sizable queer contingent. Though from what I remember about my time in fandom, many of the most fanatical M/M slashers were queer women, so I think my point probably stands.
**Totally just dated myself here. I doubt anyone still writes these.