Censorship in Fandom

There’s been a lot of talk this past week about Tumblr being removed from the Apple App Store. It turns out that the cause was the site’s failure to filter and remove child pornography, which makes sense.

The prevalence of explicit and often disturbing pornography has been a problem with Tumblr for some time. Tumblr maintains a generally permissive attitude regarding adult content, but the nature of the platform facilitates of the unwelcome spread of this content, as well as unwelcome solicitations. As I tweeted just last week, “Every morning I wake up early, brew a pot of tea, do some stretches, water my houseplants, and then report and block all the pornbots that started following me on Tumblr during the night.”

If this has been a problem with Tumblr for years, why have the people who own and manage the site only started to take action now? The recent and specific concern with child pornography – while absolutely valid! – runs distressingly parallel to the accusations of anti-fandom communities that have dedicated themselves to circulating inflammatory “discourse” regarding fictional characters and romantic pairings between these characters. As I discussed at length in an earlier post, “child abuse” is one of the more common labels applied to something that fandom antis don’t approve of. To be clear, anti-fandom communities are not protesting the treatment of actual minors, but the depiction of characters from animated entertainment media such as the Netflix show Voltron: Legendary Defender or the anime My Hero Academia. Within this context, a high school age character in a relationship with a college age character is construed as “pedophilia” regardless of how the characters and their relationships are presented. The motives behind such accusations are complicated and diverse, but they often boil down to a strong preference for another romantic pairing.

For fandom antis, romantically shipping the “wrong” two characters occupies the same category as actual child pornography, and communities of antis are frequently mobilized by a strong and charismatic leader to report someone in a character or pairing fandom that they don’t like for “child abuse” or “child pornography.” The way I’ve seen this work is that a popular anti-fandom blog will reblog a “problematic” post and add tags attacking the original poster, which prompts the anti-fandom blog’s followers to send in abuse reports and directly harass the original poster. (As an example of how absurd this can be in practice, I was recently harassed about “animal abuse” after posting an anime-style drawing of a man holding a cartoon pig.) If the reblogged post contains links to other social media sites, the harassers will often follow the original poster and try to report them for “abuse” on that site as well.

Although I’m sure the situation is complicated, I strongly suspect that the Tumblr app itself was reported to the Apple App Store for containing “child pornography” by these highly mobilized communities of fandom antis. As a result, Tumblr does seem to have made a greater effort to clean itself up, which is fantastic (and, quite frankly, should have happened years ago). Unfortunately, there have also been substantiated reports circulated within fandom communities about the blogs of popular fan artists and writers being deleted by Tumblr, along with at least two prominent blogs of people who write critical essays about fandom as a subculture. I don’t think this is a coincidence, and I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tumblr has just added “contains depictions of fictional minors” to its form for reporting violations of the site guidelines.

Fandom antis tend to be authoritarian in their worldview and behavior, as demonstrated by their insistence on ideological purity and their clearly stated justifications for using any means necessary to ferret out and then attack perceived dissidents. People who have embraced this authoritarian mindset often call for censorship and villainize platforms that do not practice censorship, an example of which is illustrated by the screencap of the widely circulated Tumblr post at the beginning of this essay. I’m wary of censorship in any situation, but I think it’s an especially dangerous policy within the context of fandom.

Although fandom can and has influenced mainstream culture, fandom communities exist at the edges and within the gaps of mainstream culture. Free speech – especially free speech at the margins of any given society – is absolutely necessary for liberty and equality, especially for people who occupy minority positions. Words like “liberty” and “equality” are frustratingly abstract, so let me offer a concrete example of the effects of censorship with a brief bit of background.

Throughout the 1970s, female intellectuals in the United States staged a vigorous critique against sexist and violent imagery in their media and culture, and in 1979 a New York based organization called Women Against Pornography started to gain traction. Partially because of the outreach efforts of this organization, in 1983 two law professors named Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted an antipornography law that ended up being passed by the Minneapolis City Council. The twin problems with this law were that it was both hopelessly vague regarding the nature of “pornography” and extremely specific regarding its focus on denying the depiction of women’s pleasure. Dworkin and MacKinnon wrote extensively and published prolifically, and in the next few years versions of their law were enacted elsewhere, including Los Angeles County and the state of Massachusetts. Although Dworkin and MacKinnon identified as feminists, local and national feminist groups wanted nothing to do with them, and their support came from conservative Christian interest groups, the same people who were also campaigning to take sex education out of American schools.

In the United States, the Supreme Court eventually struck these laws down as being unconstitutional as a result of court cases filed largely by lesbian and gay rights organizations. Canada was even more conservative than America during the 1980s, however, and the Meese Pornography Commission that informed and influenced the Canadian Supreme Court’s deliberations on antipornography laws was utterly dominated by right-wing opponents of women’s rights. According to the court’s eventual decision in 1992, such laws were upheld, and the first “pornographers” targeted by police were feminist and lesbian bookstores (remember that, since these laws only targeted depictions of women’s pleasure, gay men were largely off the hook). Ironically, because Andrea Dworkin’s 1989 book Pornography contained samples of the sort of imagery she argued should be banned by law, the actual passage of such laws resulted her own book being banned in Canada.

Let’s return to the ostensible issue at hand – child abuse and “protecting the children.”

A good case study of how censorship denies resources to children on the margins, such as children with queer genders and sexualities and children who experience abuse, is the reception of Bryan Talbot’s 1995 graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat, which chronicles a young woman’s flight from home after being abused by a male relative, her struggles living as a homeless minor, and the uneasy peace she is finally able to make with her trauma. According to Talbot, he could have written the story of a homeless girl finding a home without the depiction of abuse, but, as he says himself, “the issue was far too important to marginalize.”

Due to the inclusion of this depiction, however, The Tale of One Bad Rat has been successfully removed from schools, libraries, and bookstores in Canada, with challengers citing local and national antipornography laws. The graphic novel is nothing that any sane person would consider “pornography,” and it was expressly intended to serve as a source of strength and comfort. Because it was challenged so relentlessly, however, multiple writers and artists from across the Commonwealth (including, most famously, Neil Gaiman) were continually called on to help defend it in the ten years after its release. The situation concerning banned and blacklisted books in Canada has recently gotten better, but throughout the 1990s and 2000s multiple people were charged, fined, and literally imprisoned on account of the comics they owned, imported, or ordered for their libraries.

Fiction and art can be extremely powerful tools with far-ranging effects, but censorship never hurts people who are already in a position of power. The victims of censorship have historically been the young, the queer, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and other people on the margins. Demanding that AO3 remove works with “problematic” content is a slippery slope, and I promise that fandom, as a collective community, does not want to go down that road.

This is precisely why it’s so upsetting to see fandom antis attacking communities of left-leaning young queer people, who are more likely to be survivors of assault or suffering from mental health-related illnesses. Antis are punching down, and they direct the blunt of their attacks toward those who are most vulnerable, not entrenched systems of inequality or, in this particular scenario, the social, political, and digital structures facilitating child abuse. If people posting actual child pornography are kicked off of Tumblr (as we can all agree they should be), they will undoubtedly post that material elsewhere. For people trying to understand the abuse they have experienced themselves, however, there may not be anywhere else to go.

The recent purge on Tumblr might seem like a victory in the fight to create safer online spaces, but the authoritarian impulse toward censorship that I suspect triggered this event deserves investigation and a careful application of critical thinking.