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Tuesday, May 10th, 2016 09:19 pm
In which I try to tease some sort of narrative out of the ridiculously long and rambling unabridged version. It's still pretty long, and still very subjective. And I'm still open to criticism and other points of view! Especially since I'm as prone to subconsciously editing history as anyone else.

The tl;dr version is that fandom used to actively stifle discussions of social justice, and then slowly started caring about it. Unfortunately, when fandom cares about something it uses it to attack other fans with different tastes, and social justice has been no exception. I still think things are better overall.

**Contains brief mentions of rape and abuse **

So. I'm an Australian geek with a lot of very strong left wing/progressive opinions, but I have an anxiety disorder that has sometimes made actually discussing them very difficult. I'm also white, biromantic, grey asexual, genderfluid, physically disabled, a survivor of rape and abuse, and had a somewhat working class upbringing before becoming upwardly mobile. (I don't think everyone should have to give their "oppression credentials" in arguments, but feel it's relevant here)

Fandom ten years ago

I discovered online fandom social justice in 2006, when I was 26. I fell madly in love with [community profile] metafandom, which collected links to fandom (which is to say, Western media fic fandom) discussions the mods found interesting. I was a multifannish fanartist mostly into western media fandoms, with a preference for het and gen about female characters and a confused yearning for femslash and anime.

At the time I was in denial about my sexuality, gender, anxiety, and chronic illness, which was still mild enough at that point to be ignored. The only two social justice issues I really cared about were race and class, and I had already learned the pointlessness of discussing class online.

Fandom, both online and off, was much less accepting of social justice discussions than it is now. Making too much of a fuss about the unfortunate implications of canon was seen as oversensitive squee harshing, and complaining about the racist etc behaviour of fellow fans seen as oversensitive meanness. The pushback against anyone who made too much trouble could be incredibly nasty, but mostly this attitude was enforced by a passive aggressive atmosphere of "why can't we all just have fun" (and having fun via anything too "politically correct" and "non canon" like POC headcanons etc was not acceptable) Here's an essay from that time describing the dynamic.

It was much more acceptable to be openly mysogynistic towards female characters and openly homophobic towards slash. Slashers were understandably defensive, and saw themselves as a defined persecuted subculture. There was a common strain of meta explaining how much more enlightened and deep slash was than het and gen, which were conventional and immature.

Everyone in Western media fandom tended to ignore femslashers and anime/games fandoms, who had their own fandom spaces I hadn't discovered yet.

Ship wars were exactly as ubiquitous and nasty as they are now, just using different excuses to paint rival shippers as terrible people. It was much more common to gleefully kill off rival love interests in fic.

Fanworks were even more comfortably focussed on white able bodied cis people than they are now, and same gender attraction mostly only came up in (fem)slash as required by the relevant ships. I'd say the ratio of het to slash was about the same, but there may have been less femslash and more gen. I think gen was possibly more often focussed on men.

When fans wanted to attack each other, the two most common weapons were "that's not canon" and "that's poor writing". People would come up with convoluted justifications for using these weapons even when canon objectively was not on their side and the writing they were attacking was fine. There was an often very cruel subculture of mocking "bad" fic/sporking, or just mocking "stupid"/"wanky" people in general, justified with "it's for the good of fandom" (but also "it's funny"). There was a deep hatred of "Mary Sues". Of course sometimes people really were writing bad and/or canon noncompliant fic, and I can't pretend i didn't find some of the mockery amusing.

I don't remember seeing as much criticism of fanart, but while fanart existed it didn't generate much meta, and most discussions of "fandom" usually just meant fic.

Since canon was mostly about straight white able bodied men etc, "it's not canon" also worked to stifle diverse fanworks.

Slashers were very big on YKINMKATOK and assumed All Right Thinking Fans were into kinky slash in a way that felt alienating to me as a grey asexual with trauma triggers (though I wouldn't have described myself that way). Asexuality wasn't really on anyone's radar, and neither were triggers. It was assumed that everyone's sexuality should and did work much the same way and anyone who expressed a dislike of sex or porn was a repressed and probably homophobic/sexist prude. On the other hand there really was more judgemental prudishness from sexually conservative fans.

"Is het/gen homophobic" vs "Is slash sexist" arguments cycled around every now and then and went much the same as they do now, but with more homophobia, prudishness, and "but it's not canon" from the anti slash people and more "we're just deeper, more creative, and more sex positive than you" from the slashers.

There were lots of people pushing back against sporking etc, sometimes to such a degree that all criticism or differing opinions were stifled, which was called the "Cult of Nice".

There were also people determined to talk about social justice issues beyond ship/slash wars, which I was really glad of, and tried to support as much as my conflict anxiety would allow.

Specifically, there were POC pointing out fandom and canon's racism, and organising safe spaces for POC fans to have these conversations without being attacked. I thought this was great! But then for the first time in my life I found myself on the wrong side of anti racism discussions, feeling defensive and attacked by "oversensitive" POC.

My changing relationship with social justice

Through a lot of (sometimes very clueless) discussion, reading, and reflection, I was eventually persuded that pretty much everything I'd felt defensive about had been justified, though there were and are aspects of the US focused approach to race that I think get applied too universally. I gained a better understanding of social justice in general, and started identifying as a feminist. I started taking baby steps towards becoming an acitivist offline, and became more involved in social justice discussions online. Looking back, I was partly using this as a way to distract myself from my worsening health. Which was kind of ironic because I and other social justice fandom types largely ignored disability.

My fannish friends did not all like this change, and there were a lot of frustrating conversations on my livejournal where people said clueless or judgemental things. I gained a reputation in local fandom for being Obsessed With Social Justice, and also The Local Expert on Race, both of which bothered me for different reasons. I evetually made a separate dreamwidth account for serious topics, and pushed harder for discussions of race and ethnicity in local fandom to center POC voices eg not mine.

I started to see criticisms of "callout culture". As someone with conflict anxiety who had really appreciated the times people had explained my past cluelessness in a calm compassionate way that didn't freak me out, I had sympathy for the idea that arguments should try not to be unneccesarily cruel or vicious. I've always felt strongly that there are certain basic standards of decency that apply to everyone, and that activists can sometimes be so focussed on broader dynamics like sexism that they lose sight of the individual people in front of them. But literally every example I saw given of "callout culture going too far" was a white feminist who was absolutely fine criticising men with aggressive language but didn't like being criticised herself by WOC.

I'd also observed a pattern in fandom race discussions: a white person would do something racist, a single POC would criticise them, a white person (usually the same one but not always) would FREAK OUT, the POC would push back, more defensiveness from more white people, more POC pushing back, snowball to drama. The resulting arguments were awful for everyone, but it hardly seemed fair to blame POC for not being the first to back down. Meanwhile, when white people didn't freak out at criticism, even if they just said "Let's agree to disagree" rather than apologising, things usually didn't escalate. So I was overall very cynical about any accusations of anti-racist bullying etc.

While fandom in general pushed against social justice, I'd noticed performative outrage and bandwagon jumping within social justice minded communities. And I did feel like some people were being uneccesarily mean in ways that were both counterproductive and lacking in basic compassion. I didn't trust myself to draw that line or discuss it with anyone in case I was being One Of Those White Feminists.

Turning point

In 2008 my health got so bad I couldn't ignore it any more, and my life basically fell apart. I had to quit my job and give up any thoughts of offline activism. I became very depressed for a few years, and scaled back my involvement in online arguments while I got my life in order.

The AO3 was started. It grew out of fannish frustration with those who only cared about fandom to the extent that it affected their bottom line: Fanlib, which tried to monetise fanfic, and livejournal's repeated mistreatment of anyone posting content it thought would offend advertisers. These events disproportionately affected slashers due to homophobia, and so it was Western media slashers who started the archive. Unfortunately the archive got burdened with a bunch of fannish baggage, some of which was the creators' fault (eg they didn't do a very good job of outreach to other kinds of fans) and some of which wasn't, but one significant consequence of the archive's origins is that it's always been very heavily biased towards slash, and is in general not a representative sample of fandom.

The days of livejournal as the hub of western media fandom were beggining to draw to a close. Various similar replacements popped up, the only real survivor of which is dreamwidth, but even it couldn't fight the new wave of social media.

In 2009 came Racefail. It pretty much exactly followed the pattern I described above: white person gets criticised by one POC, freaks out, things snowball. But the snowball just kept growing, and the pushback against the POC and white antiracists who refused to shut up got nastier and nastier. Eventually things got so nasty that pretty much everyone, even most of the original freaking out white people, agreed it had gone too far. The ugly racist underbelly of fandom had been exposed, and a lot more people were forced to admit that it existed and was worth trying to fix. But many had been seriously hurt in the process.

Attitudes shift

I eventually found my way to online social groups with more of an emphasis on my interests: femslash, fanart, games and animated canons. Of course they turned out to have their own issues: femslashers can be smug and insular, fanartists aren't usually into meta, games fandoms are weirdly invested in the "real" canon of branching narratives, and Western anime fans are WEIRD about Japan. But I still felt more able to be myself, and spent less time being annoyed by western media slash fic writers.

I made increasing amounts of fanworks, including fic, and tried to do so in a diverse and thoughtful way. I was worried about screwing up, especially since being beta-ed set off my anxiety, but more worried about getting crap for being too "politically correct". And I did indeed get pushback from homophobic and racist fans and those who didn't like me using image descriptions, though I got the most flack from fans who didn't like my choice of pairing/art style/opinions on canon etc.

Fans with triggers started pushing more and more for warnings. They were, predictably, accused of being prudish/oversensitive etc, and a vicious argument started with lots of deliberately cruel attempts to silence the fans calling for warnings by triggering them. Fans with strong personal reasons for not using warnings, such as their own triggers, were used as excuses by the anti warnings people and ignored by most pro warnings people. Eventually the pro warnings people won, but with the compromise of a "Choose not to warn" option.

The increasing discussion about the nature of abuse and trauma helped me realise I had been abused myself, and had trauma from it. But it also inspired shippers, and ship wars became less about which pairing was more canonical, and more about which rival pairing was most abusive/problematic. It was massively triggering to be told my taste in ships made me an abuse apologist.

It slowly became more common for media to contain canonical same sex couples, and less acceptable to be homophobic. This was obviously good news for the overlapping sets of queer fans and (fem)slashers, and bad news for anti-slashers wanting to use the "it's not canon" argument. Another consequence was increasing campaigns to make popular same sex pairings canon, claiming to be lgbt activism. I'm all for queer representation but get annoyed when these campaigns obviously only care about their OTP. One of the more obnoxious examples was with the 2009 movie Star Trek movie, where Kirk/Spock shippers attacked the newly canonical Spock/Uhura romance, and Uhura in particular, in racist and sexist ways.

The term "whitecock" became popular for describing the way fandom values white men over women and POC. It was immedietely sized on by het shippers as a way of accusing slashers not only of sexism but of racism, even when their m/f ship was white, or the m/m ship they were attacking wasn't. I even saw it used against f/f and f/m ships, using typical shipwar convoluted logic.

Mockery communities started to care more about social justice. This mostly took the form of more mockery, now with the added justification that it was for great justice. Thus anyone who thought the mockery was too mean was using the tone argument and so was a bigotry enabler who deserved to be mocked just as mercilessly.

Fandom-wide social justice arguments, or "imbroglio"s, were documented at places like [community profile] linkspam and [community profile] metafandom, and became their own topic of discussion: What counted as part of the conversation? How much responsibility did people have to give context, and think about the effects their posts would have on the wider conversation? What bias did the documenters have? Was it ethical to send so many opinionated people into the journals of people who might have just intended to discuss it with their friendslist?

I got therapy for my anxiety and thus started to see, and be able to express myself, much more clearly (I don't mean to imply that therapy works that way for everyone! (and therapy has not entirely cured me of my need to add caveats to everything)). I also realised I was bi, and started poking at sexuality discussions from this new angle. I got involved with the increasingly vocal disabled fans pushing back against fandom's ableism.

Fail fandom

Now that social justice was no longer able to be swept under the rug, the new norm was: Obviously all decent people care about racism, sexism and homophobia. These are valid topics of discussion, and anyone who disagrees is a bigot worthy of mockery. But there are limits, and beyond those limits is Fail Fandom: people whose "fandom" is to oversensitively criticise things, rather than sensible people who are in fandom to have fun but try to do so in a socially aware way. The idea of "Fail fandom" later morphed into the concept of a Social Justice Warrior or SJW.

Some things I saw given as unambiguous examples of being in "fail fandom": being irrationally and dogmatically angry about pretty much anything, social justice related or not. Talking "too much" about being trans, or identifying as non binary. Identifying as asexual or aromantic, or as any more specific ace/aro orientation like demisexual. Creating fanworks whose characters have "too many weird identities". Saying there was such a thing as ableism. Using terms like "privilege", "kyriarchy" or "social justice". Having a social justice opinion that person disagreed with, no matter how mildly expressed. Expressing uncontroversial social justice opinions in an aggressive way.

Any inconsistencies between different members of this supposedly homogenous "fandom" were proof of all of us being hypocrites. Once a person was classified as being in fail fandom they were responsible for anything bad anyone in the "fandom" had done, and thus it was ok to attack or harass them in retribution, even though a supposed defining characterisatic of fail fandom was our willingness to dismiss or harass people based on broader oppressive patterns beyond their control, or the use of the wrong language. Not everyone criticising the social justice dynamics of the time used this rhetoric, but it sometimes felt like it.

My experience from inside this "fandom" was quite different: There was an increasingly large, if loose, community of fans who cared about social justice, and like any community it had social norms. I am generally inclined to think I'm on the brink of saying something unforgivable and having Everyone Hate Me Forever, so I definitely worried about that with being Problematic. But I had said problematic things, to both friends and strangers, and while I'd been criticised I'd always been given the chance to explain myself and aplogise, or even suddenly bow out of the conversation entirely if my illnesses made it neccesary.

There were discussions amongst us about how to deal with the excesses of callout culture, which at this point we did all agree in principle could be taken too far. Unfortunately, it was still the case that most specific examples given were the same old "cheerfully aggressive white feminist suddenly cares about aggression when accused of racism by WOC" scenario.

A more unambiguous example to my mind was people angrily attacking certain kinds of inaccessibility in ways that made the conversation inaccessible to anyone with my kind of conflict anxiety. Like an argument I saw which descended into two people shouting "You triggered my conflict anxiety, thus you're ableist" at each other over and over.

Because of my conflict anxiety, I was afraid of getting into arguments with pretty much anyone, though I'm opinionated enough that I did it sometimes anyway. When I had problems with other people's approach to social justice the situation was generally more complicated then when I thought someone was being racist etc, and I was worried about being Problematic, so it could be hard to get up the courage to say anything. But I often did manage to express my misgivings, albeit in a flailing way with lots of caveats, and even when I didn't I was mostly just afraid of grumpy but reasonable criticism and some resulting embarassment.

However there were certain people in my social circle who terrified me with the viciousness with which they pursued arguments, and I felt unable to criticise them at all, even in private conversation with other people. I couldn't tell if it was a problem with me or them, especially if they were POC or otherwise someone I had some privilege over, since I'd been unneccesarily scared of people who turned out to be perfectly nice in the past. And the only times I saw them criticised was by the anti-fail-fandom people, where criticism came with a side serving of racism etc. One of these people was the white trans woman Kynn/[personal profile] keeva, who recieved a lot of unambiguously transphobic harassment, but also made me very uncomfortable, for example with the way she sought out random clueless racists to viciously attack.

In 2010 [community profile] fail_fandomanon (ffa) was created to mock fail fandom, part of a trend at the time for anonymous discussion memes on livejournal. These memes had a bad reputation to start with, and while ffa wasn't as generically hate filled as some it wallowed in all the anti-fail-fandom attitudes that pissed me off.

Over time it got less aggressively racist, transphobic, and ableist, and with the increasing slowdown of fandom on lj and dreamwidth I found myself mostly enoying the general fandom discussion and sometimes even the social justice discussion. I've even made friends there, and got some significant help when setting up an exchange. But my mixed feelings remain.

Kynn was accused of rape. Most people I knew were horrified and immediately believed the victim. But some people used the same arguments they'd always used to defend Kynn from accusations of bullying: sure, this superfically seems like bad behaviour, but given how much trans women suffer is it really right to trust these accusations and drag a trans woman through the mud? This apalled me, and for a while the only place I felt safe from such rhetoric was ffa, who did a good job of summarising things. This experience made me think seriously about a lot of things.

Unfortunately some people do use this kind of (incredibly rare and unusual) situation as "proof" that trans women are all dangerous, and that's awful. But the bigger picture doesn't erase the here and now.


By 2012, the bulk of fandom had moved to tumblr (and also twitter, but I don't do fandom there so much myself). Because of the lack of friends lock, and with people following tags instead of communities, fans with different tastes and opinions were thrown into each other's path whether they wanted to be or not, which encouraged even more arguing than fandom was already prone to and made it harder to avoid drama while still engaging with fandom.

It became more common for the usual fandom imbroglios to end up with everyone recieving anonymous death threats, which didn't exactly help create an atmosphere of understanding and communication.

Speaking of anonymous harassment, along came Gamergate . I've not been involved directly, but as a female game developer who explores themes like disability and sexuality etc it's not exactly fun knowing I risk being the victim of these kinds of attacks.

On the other hand: Gamergate was roundly condemned in every part of fandom I frequent. It is now socially acceptable to care about social justice (even disability!), and socially unacceptable to attack people for caring about it.

One of the other things tumblr encourages is fanart, and there's a huge trend of interpreting popular characters to be race/gender presentation/body type etc diverse. I must admit my reaction when I first encountered this in Homestuck fandom was "BUT THAT'S NOT CANON", even though Homestuck is deliberately vague about "canon", but I got over it and now find this approach really inspiring.

I no longer feel as much at odds with the default fannish approach to social justice. I continue to be massively frustrated by many people's simplistic and self serving approaches to it, but simplistic and self serving thinking is a fannish constant. Disability is unfortunately one of the worst things for this, with many people thinking all you have to do is remove a few words from your vocabulary and then shout at anyone who still uses them, disabled or not.

Alas, another constant is that if fandom values something, it will repurpose it for ship wars. Even more unfortunately for me and many other survivors, this means being accused of being abuse apologists or even pedophiles for liking the wrong ships and then being told this is being done "to help survivors". I don't feel able to argue against this rhetoric as much as I would like because I find it so triggering, but it makes me incredibly angry.

Slash vs het has the same core arguments, but now both sides remember the existence of femslash long enough to argue that it is also more sexist, homophobic and maybe even racist than their preferred fic type. Femslashers respond by arguing that actually we are the most enlightened and deep and anti racist. Anti porn people are aware of asexuals and use them as a weapon to attack people who make fic they don't like. And so on. (note I am in no way criticising legitimate attempts to criticise racism in fanworks, or fandom's clear trend of ignoring POC characters. I'm just mocking white people who only write about white characters using "racist" and "white" as generic insults)

Shipping is just the most common example of how terrible fandom is at distinguishing between objective harm and matters of taste. Another example is tropes, especially anything that can be argued as being bad in real life, which is most of them. And there are and always have always been fashions in fic. It's very easy for people to decide that the old/new way of doing things is Objectively Better because it's more enjoyable for them. That said it's certainly arguable that, say, WNGWJLEO is generally rooted in homophobia and it's good that it's not as popular any more.

Where I'm at in 2016

I'm still not good at deciding the difference between "someone who sets off my conflict anxiety" and "someone who is genuinely dangerous and/or overly mean". But I've realised I should worry less about whether my reasons for not wanting to be around someone are "reasonable" and just accept that friendship is irrational. I now surround myself with people who make me happy, and with whom I can have productive conversations even when we disagree. And having done that, and having gotten a whole bunch of therapy, I feel happier and more able to discuss scary topics without worrying so much that all my friends will hate me forever if I misstep.

I haven't encountered any bullying or extreme viciousness personally for a while, but I feel like I'd recognise and handle it better than I used to. Bullying is absolutely going on in the name of social justice, see for example The Sherlock 221b Con Wank. And there's lots more people who are largely sincere and less nasty but still lacking in nuance or understanding for other people's point of view.

In around a decade of creating many diverse fanworks I have not once gotten harassed for being racist/transphobic etc in any of those works. I have had friends and betas (when I've felt up to having one) politely express reservations to me privately, but I was glad of it and followed their advice. I have gotten crap for making a character look "too gay", using image descriptions, and undoing whitewashing. Also for using photo references, not having enough sex, and leaving WIPs unfinished. Obviously my experience is not universal, and other fans HAVE been criticised for problematic depictions of marginalised characters, sometimes unfairly (but often not). My point is that it's not GUARANTEED the way some people say it is, and that you're much more likely to experience criticism for choice of ships etc. If you can handle the danger of posting publicly at all, you should be able to handle creating diverse fanworks.

I still have a lot of friends who don't talk much about social justice, and that's fine, as long as they're ok with me bringing it up every now and then.

I try to draw a clear line between my fannish response to canon and a more rational social justice analysis, which includes less fannishly interesting things like hiring practices. It's impossible to be entirely objective, but I think it's worth trying, and hate any erosion of the distinction between the kinds of narratives you enjoy and what you value in real life.

For all that fandom cares more about social justice these days overall, there's still plenty of people who jump too quickly to labelling criticism as oversensitive or mean. For example I'm sure there's people who, if they encounter this post, will stop reading the moment they see the words asexual and genderfluid. But they no longer control the narrative as much.

The new narrative absolutely has it's flaws, and I try and push back against them. But I do feel like things have changed for the better.
Saturday, May 14th, 2016 09:17 am (UTC)
I agree with a lot of this. I would add (as a white British person who tries to be anti-racist) that when it first started ffa had a specific bad reputation, which was definitely deserved, as a place for racist white European fans to reassure one another that all race-based critique of European works was ignorant self-righteous US fans being culturally imperialistic. Not to say that there aren't major differences in how race and ethnic bigotry and conflicts work in Europe, and that US anti-racists do sometimes seriously misinterpret situations as a result. But I'm talking about things like claiming that there's nothing racist about blackface characters in European cultures, when the cultures in question were deeply involved in slavery/colonialism, and when sources from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries make it quite clear that those characters were, indeed, intended as racial caricature. Or claiming that there really were no black people in Britain before the Empire Windrush and that any historical series that has black people in it is making things up to be politically correct.