Friday, January 8th, 2016 01:14 pm
I feel like I almost have a grip on this idea but lack the words to express it. Let's have a go anyway.

So! Fandom discussions have become very social justice tinged of late. In some ways I think this is great, I'm old enough to remember the dark wasteland of "why are you bringing race/gender/etc into it??" fannish dicussions before about 2006, and continue to be delighted by some of the positive changes I've seen in media and fandom over the last decade or so.

But! As is increasingly obvious there are some serious issues with the way social justice is approached in fandom, beyond the unavoidable flaws created by the conversation having people in it. And part of this is the erasure of the relative power position of the people being criticised. None of this is entirely new, but it's gotten worse. Nb I am primarly talking about online female dominated Western fandom, generally on dreamwidth and tumblr, but this happens other places too.

One is the unfortunate fusion between "this is morally good" and "this is good (because I like it)". Fandom is by it's nature all about what people enjoy for largely subjective personal reasons, and unfortunately this has always led to people twisting themselves in knots to come up with justifications for why the thing they enjoy is objectively "the best" by what ever metric is most valued. And then using those justifications to attack people whose tastes are different. It used to be more about what was "really canon", what was 'well written" etc, leading to sporkings etc (for the greater good!). Now people are inspired by exactly the same gut feeling that their pairing is Good and that other pairing is Bad to accuse people of [insert whatever social justice wrong is considered most egregious]. Sometimes these accusations have merit, just like the accusations of bad writing or implausibility sometimes did, but you also get people, for example, accusing fans of the same couple of adults of being pedophiles for liking a different character as the top. We spent decades slowly persuading fandom that the social messages media puts out are important, and the moment they were persuaded fandom went "Oh, so I can use this to put down other fans" :/

Relatedly, I think social justice being used a metric of social acceptability has caused a shift from focussing on how to actually fix social injustice to coming up with supposedly objective, universal metrics of "good" and "bad" behaviour, used to reaffirm one's "goodness" and decry other's "badness". (Which again is nothing new, any group that cares about social justice tends to do this)

The most obvious example of this is sexism in media: the part of fandom I'm talking about is largely female, and we are mostly individual, relatively powerless victims of sexism trying to navigate a media landscape created by much more powerful, largely male creators. Yet time and time again, fandoms's approach to "fixing sexism in media" is to find groups of fans "supporting sexism" and attack them instead of focussing on the system they're reacting to. Instead of criticising the sexist media landscape in a thoughtful way, pick one or two creators who are The Worst and criticise anyone who likes anything they make. Instead of just promoting works by/featuring women, bash anyone who doesn't like these works, though they are not to blame for most fiction (and thus most of the fiction that happens to appeal to them) being about men. Instead of encouraging femslash and other fanworks about female characters, attack anyone who writes slash/about men, even though for many women (as well as non binary people, who are common in fandom) writing about men is a useful psycholgical escape from the experience of sexism, and again there are so many more male characters that it's not surprising that many people's favourites are male. (Or if you're a slash fan, say that het/femslash is inherently sexist/homophobic!) Make "feminist fan" mean "fan of morally pure feminist things" instead of "fan who is also feminist". Which is not to say female fans (and of course, non-female fans!) never perpetuate sexism, or that we shouldn't be criticised for it when we do, but we should not be used as punching bags for frustration with a sexist landscape, and attacking "bad fans" should not be held up as morally equivalent to, and as effective as, criticising the people who actually have power.

And of course it's not entirely clear cut: Individual fans may not have much individual power, but we have some, and it adds up to something significant when we're considered en masse. It is "fandom"'s power to attack that I am criticising myself, after all. Also, not all fans are equivalent: You have people like Naomi Novik or E L James who become very popular as fic writers and then make the jump to published fiction. At what point do they start to have a responsibility as part of the media, not just consumers of it(*)? But all power relationships are fuzzy like that. That doesn't mean they should be ignored.

This deliberate erasure of power relationships is pretty surreal given that noticing and trying to fix the effects of unequal power relationships is the whole point of social justice: it's all about prejudice plus power. And this erasure is always at it's most obnoxious when it attacks and hurts the very people it is claiming to protect. I am constantly frustrated by posts saying "don't write X type of fiction, if even one abuse survivor is hurt by your behaviour you are trash" when many abuse survivors, myself included, have talked about how this kind of rhetoric is hurtful to us.

Some posts I've seen recently exploring similar themes:
concern trolling about what ships teenage girls like
People write stories about things they don’t support in real life
This is about climate change but I can make it about fandom if I want to

Anyway! I hope I got across my point here? I am entirely open to criticism, I have a niggling feeling I've missed an important caveat or something.

EDIT: I think the caveat might be: I'm not saying we should never criticise other fans, or that the people making the kinds of criticism I dislike are motivated purely by a desire to seem Good etc. Just that I dislike the general trend.

EDIT 2: Another way people ignore relative power is by ignoring intersectionality and just focussing on whatever -ism is most convenient to their argument. See: Straight women vs gay men arguments, where "all that matters is that I'm a woman and you're a man/I'm queer and you're straight".

(*)Since I can't find anywhere else to put this: this is also an example of the important difference between what you write and how you talk about it. One of the really disquieting things about 50 Shades of Grey is not it's screwed up fictional power relationship, but the way E L James refuses to acknowledge the screwed-up-ness when discussing the book in real life.

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