The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’m a fan of the artist who illustrated The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I was looking forward to becoming a fan of the book as well. Since it was originally published in 2015, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy reads like a nostalgic glimpse into the history of fandom at a critical moment when the widespread rise of accessible social media brought a new generation of female and queer fans into conversation with more established cultures.

I enjoyed most of the book until the final chapter, “Aim to Misbehave: Geek Girl Feminism.”

I consider myself to be a feminist, so I have no problem with the chapter as a whole, but it was extremely frustrating to read dozens of pages about how “feminism is intersectional” and how it’s important “not to let other people make you feel ashamed of your interests” only to encounter, in the last section of the chapter (titled “Everyone’s a Critic and So Can You”), the author’s plainly stated view that geek girls with “problematic” interests (meaning interests that fall outside of the normative straight white middle-class American view of what should and shouldn’t be represented in fiction) are responsible for perpetuating “abuse.”

The author seems to be referring specifically to people who were fans of the Twilight series of young adult paranormal romance novels. I don’t particularly care for the books myself, but it’s odd that the author would claim to support the intelligence, agency, and decision-making abilities of geek girls but then turn around and say that a certain subset of these young women are somehow not “real” geeks if they enjoy something in a way she doesn’t approve of. Part of the author’s “Geek Girl Litany for Feminism” (pictured above) is, in fact, “Buffy, not Bella.” It’s almost as if the author is saying that female characters created by straight men to be “strong female protagonists” are more valid than the more nuanced and complicated representations created and embraced by women, which is absurd. I’m not attempting to defend the Twilight series, but I want to argue that it seems contradictory for the author to be so dismissive and borderline hateful toward its fans.

(Again, I’m not a superfan of the Twilight series, but the main critical concern I have with the books is not how they handle gender and sexuality, but rather with how they handle race. Different people in different communities have responded to this issue in different ways at different points in time, so this is another topic for another day. In the end, all media has problematic elements, and elements that seem “wholesome” now may turn out to be extremely “problematic” as time passes and the culture shifts.)

If I remember correctly, in the early 2010s, female Twilight fans were coming under vocal public attack from the men who used to dominate fan conventions and didn’t like it that a bunch of young women were now “invading” their spaces. This anger rose to a fever pitch when the San Diego Comic-Con, which was long considered to be the premier comic industry convention in the United States, was forced to institute a lottery for tickets. The men who had attended this con every year, including a number of high-profile comic creators, were furious that their opportunity for professional networking and career advancement was being by jeopardized by the sudden rise in attendance from girls who loved movies and books and comics but weren’t “real fans” because they were “amateurs” and passionate about “the wrong thing.” Saying that young women don’t belong in geek-oriented communities is clearly a misogynistic act, and the pervasiveness of this conversation in 2015 makes it even stranger for the author to echo it uncritically and unironically.

The author apparently used to work with The Mary Sue, so perhaps it’s the case that she was simply following the party line of an online magazine that had, even then, started to publish editorials castigating female fans of certain characters in Star Wars and other geek media. I have to admit that I have even less of an emotional investment in Star Wars than I do in Twilight, but it was disturbing to watch as The Mary Sue took the helm of the crusade for moral purity in fandom that ended up leading to widespread instances of terrible online bullying targeted at young women, often young women in marginalized positions.

To give a personal example of what this editorial policy meant in practice, this is the response I received to a pitch about a popular webcomic that had become a major focal point of queer communities on Tumblr.

What the editor is essentially saying is that survivors of sexual abuse should not write about sexual abuse for the purpose of addressing the issue of sexual abuse. In other words, survivors of sexual abuse need to be silent about their experiences and the circumstances that surrounded these experiences, or their work will risk being seen as “problematic” by self-identified feminists.

This is clearly not a healthy attitude, and it has led to a number of upsetting cases of queer, female, BIPOC, and disabled creators being harassed for telling stories that are true to their experiences but don’t meet the rigorous standards of the fandom purity police. Some of these creators, such as N.K. Jemisin, survived and thrived. Many other promising creators, who were perhaps a bit younger or a bit less established when their careers started to take off along with platforms like Twitter and Goodreads in the mid-to-late 2010s, were silenced.

In many ways, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is a snapshot of fandom culture in 2015, and most of it is indeed positive and empowering. Unfortunately, however, it concludes with the seeds of the mentality that grew into what would become known as “anti-fandom” in another two or three years after its publication. Using the terminology of social justice to violently attack and silence young women (and queer people of all genders) is not feminism, and it’s disappointing to see the author end her book about creating more inclusive spaces by advocating for a discursive tool meant to keep the “wrong” type of people out of a community that can only be “positive” and “empowering” as long as it doesn’t allow for the sort of diversity that falls outside of normative straight white middle-class American prejudices regarding what sort of stories are morally acceptable.

Wizard Karen

Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?
https://www.vulture.com/amp/article/who-did-j-k-rowling-become.html

Rowling had never been a particularly controversial figure. Her books sold hundreds of millions of copies, they inspired films that brought in billions of dollars, and she used the money she made to save children from orphanages. In 2012, she gave enough to charity and paid enough in taxes to knock herself off the Forbes billionaires list. In 2020, she was tweeting links to a store that sold pins that said F*CK YOUR PRONOUNS.

Read another way, though, the latest turn in Rowling’s story looks perhaps less perplexing than inevitable. It is the culmination of a two-decade power struggle for ownership of her fictional world — the right to say what Harry Potter means. The Harry Potter books describe a stark moral universe: Their heroes fight on behalf of all that is good to defeat the forces of absolute evil. Though the struggle may be lonely and hard, right ultimately beats wrong. For fans, when it came to the matter of trans rights, the message of Harry Potter was clear. For Rowling, this was no less the case.

“She absolutely believes that she is right, that she’s on a mission, and that history will eventually bear her out,” Anelli [the administrator of a prominent Harry Potter fansite] told me. “She thinks she’s doing good work right now.”

Yikes.

I started seeing posts attacking Rowling on Tumblr in early 2018, but none of them actually explained why people were so angry with her. When I tried asking what was going on, I’d get vague answers along the lines of “she liked the tweet of a bad person a few years ago and then said it was a mistake.” 2018 was a year of people on the internet becoming extraordinarily upset about space wizards, so I brushed the accusations against Rowling into the same category as assertions that fictional characters in Voltron and Steven Universe and Star Wars were “abusive.”

I assumed that Rowling, who is active on Twitter, had probably made a few tweets about British politics or politicians that didn’t make sense to young Americans and left it at that.

Wow was I wrong about this. I was so wrong.

This became embarrassingly obvious when Rowling made her stance on transgender rights clear toward the end of 2020 in a way that was so public and performative that it was picked up by mainstream news outlets, but plenty of signs were indeed there beforehand. The article I linked to above is quite lengthy and does an excellent job of explaining exactly what’s been going on, and I appreciate that it provides the context for this discussion in a way that isn’t centered on American culture and politics.

Art Commission Red Flags

I don’t have an exact count, but I’ve paid artists for roughly 150 commissioned comics and illustrations during the past five years. This isn’t because I make lots of money (nope) or somehow had lots of money to begin with (also nope), but rather because I’m passionate about art and comics and creative collaboration. I understand that “passionate” is a word a student might use in an application essay, but I have a hobby that I really enjoy, and I don’t do it for the sake of “advancing my career.” I do what I do primarily for selfish reasons – because it’s fun – but I also genuinely want to support the online communities whose work I enjoy.

So, to summarize: I’m not wealthy, but I love art and want to support artists.

I feel as though I have to say this as a preface because I’m afraid people will read this post (or not read it) and jump to the worst possible conclusion about who I am and what my motives are for writing this. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to share my experiences with commissioning artists, because these experiences have gotten much better as I’ve learned from my mistakes.

I’m going to say that about 19 out of 20 commissions go well, by which I mean there’s good communication with the artist and the final product is delivered as expected. There are key commonalities between the projects that don’t go well, by which I mean (both or either) communication fails or no art is ever created. Here are the five major red flags:

– The artist says they’re open for commissions, but they have no examples or prices listed. Even someone taking commissions for the first time should have, at the very least, a formal commissions post (or comparable online form).

– The artist approaches you to commission them, or a mutual acquaintance asks you to commission them on their behalf. “Doing a favor” for an online stranger rarely ends well, especially if there’s money involved.

– The artist is misrepresenting their age and is actually under 18. It’s important to support young artists, but it’s illegal (and more than a bit creepy) to pay them if they can’t legally use PayPal or Venmo. Some young artists have technically polished and creatively sophisticated styles, so how can you tell? Well…

– The artist’s main social media feed gives you a bad feeling. Many creative people are socially and politically engaged, and this isn’t about white-coded “professionalism” or “tone policing.” Rather, if someone’s entire social media feed is intensely negative and filled with strong language, they might not be in the proper headspace to work on a creative project with a stranger. Also, it’s important to trust your gut instinct when it comes to certain dog whistles. (One of the most bizarre failed commission experiences I’ve had culminated in the artist sending me a long chain of angry DMs filled with homophobic and ethnic slurs, that was wild.)

– The artist insists that you sign a commercial contract for a private commission. You should not be entering into a commercial contract unless you’re commissioning an image for commercial purposes. In the case of fandom commissions, a contract like this is blatantly illegal, and the party who bears the legal guilt is the one who offers money for the theft of someone else’s intellectual property – you, in other words.

Regarding that last red flag, it’s my understanding that many professional “fine artists” require contracts for private commissions, generally due to the amount of money and labor involved. And if you have the means to pay a professional painter $5000 to create an oil portrait of your D&D character, then you should absolutely live your best life. Still, the contract you’re signing won’t be commercial, with the main difference between “private” and “commercial” contracts being a matter of usage rights. Generally the sort of people who advertise for commissions on social media aren’t going to be expecting this, but I’ve had few surprises. What the request for a contract means is that you’re probably not the sort of client the artist is looking for, and it’s best to respect that.

If a commission fails, for whatever reason, I think it’s important for both parties to walk away with no hard feelings. For me, this means not badgering the artist, not badmouthing them within the community, and not asking for the commission fee to be returned. In the end, commissioning art is supposed to be fun, and the ultimate goal is to support artists, especially early-career artists who are willing to create custom illustrations that even someone like me can afford.

Still, as I said, I’m not wealthy. I love art, and I love working with artists, but I’m only able to do so through very careful budgeting and corner-cutting in other aspects of my life. I assume that most people who commission art projects can sympathize, and it doesn’t benefit anyone to throw money into a hole. You can support an artist by contributing to their Ko-fi or Patreon, or simply by sharing their work. Failed commissions are tough on both you and the artist, however, so it’s best to avoid trouble before it begins.

It’s always a good idea to be careful with giving money to online strangers, even if they’re very talented online strangers. Still, I want to emphasize that the vast majority of my experiences commissioning art and comics have been overwhelmingly positive. If you’re interested in commissioning art, please allow me to encourage you to go for it!

Legend of Haiku Zine

I’ve been spending a lot of time this past week sitting on my couch and riding out waves of bad feelings (this is the world we live in right now, what can you do) while hunting for Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild. I just finished a second completionist run on the Switch version, and I didn’t want to delete everything and start a new game, so I dug my Wii U out of my closet and picked up where I left off in that version of the game in 2017. Along the way, I’ve been coming up with all sorts of silly haiku, like this:

a star fragment falls
as the lone hero watches
from a mountaintop

Haiku are a lot of fun and relatively stress-free, so I think it might be cool to make a Legend of Zelda-themed haiku zine. I put together a similar project for the class I taught about The Wind Waker in Spring 2019, so I already have the basic format set up and ready to go. If I were doing this by myself, I’d probably write something like 26 haiku and make three small illustrations (along with the cover page, front colophon, and back bio section) for a total of 32 pages (plus another four for the front and back covers). If I did the interior pages in black and white and used the same small format I used for the class zine, it wouldn’t be expensive to print.

I don’t have much of a following on social media, but it might be interesting to open the zine to contributions. I don’t have the time or energy to put together a big project, so this would be a super casual “email me your haiku and I’ll send you a copy of the zine” sort of deal, as well as a no-pressure “post your work whenever and wherever you like” sort of approach. I might also open artist submissions, with the encouragement that anyone of any skill level is welcome to contribute. I’d use Gumroad to host a free digital copy of the zine once it’s finished, and I might use Etsy to open preorders for at-cost physical copies of the zine (to be printed in addition to the contributor copies) if there’s any interest.

I’d post the announcement on October 1 and close submissions on November 30. I’d try to put the zine together a bit at a time so that I could send it to the printer during the first week of December, and I could spend the rest of the month getting everything ready to go before mailing out the physical zines during the first week of January.

If I were going to open submissions, what I’d need to do in advance would be to:

– find and commission a cover artist
– put together an information sheet
– create a graphic to use for the information sheet
– plan a series of three additional images to use for promotion
– create an account on Tumblr
– create an account on Twitter
– create an account on Gmail

And of course I’d have to write my own contributions in advance so that I don’t get stressed out.

I’ll take the rest of the month of August to see how I feel, and then I’ll make a decision in September.

Theme Park Fandom

It’s Not ‘Weird’ to Be an Adult Woman Who Loves Disney
https://www.glamour.com/story/its-not-weird-to-be-an-adult-woman-who-loves-disney

The trio say they don’t go to the parks to relive their youth, though. Smith, Puga, and Walker all have successful careers in creative industries and approach Disneyland like a city’s downtown rather than a family-friendly vacation resort. They’re not alone: With a rotating offering of seasonal Instagram-ready treats, celebrity chef partnerships, and a record for being the single largest employer of sommeliers, Disney’s Parks & Resorts have a lot to entice adults with money to spend. To Internet savvy, culturally involved guests like these three, Disneyland provides the same experiences they’d have elsewhere, only better.

When asked about the stigma attached to adult women visiting the parks, they shut it down. As these three see it, everyone’s a fan of something—why should enjoying a roller coaster through space in an intergalactic Tomorrowland be so different? “People are always going to judge no matter what,” says Walker. “You just have to sort of own what you love and be proud of that. Maybe they’ll never understand, but they’re missing out on something pretty special, and that’s okay. More for us in the long run.”

I’ve been slowly making my way through Rebecca Williams’s monograph Theme Park Fandom, and it’s one of the best academic books I’ve read in years. In the Introduction, Williams opens the discussion by referencing a cringe-inducing opinion piece written by a gross older man saying that adult fans of Disney are creepy, which was picked up by College Humor and adapted into an even more cringe-inducing video.

I’m not personally a fan of Disney (or Marvel, or Star Wars), and I have no real desire to go to a theme park. (Maybe when Universal opens its Super Nintendo World attraction? But probably not, honestly.) Still, I don’t get why people think fans who go to theme parks are weird, aside from the obvious misogyny and homophobia. It sounds like the people who are into this sort of thing have a lot of fun, and they’re not hurting anyone. I mean, sure, Disney is a giant evil corporation, but we’re not going to get meaningful anti-trust legislation by harassing people on Instagram.

So I’m not planning on visiting Florida or California, but it’s been interesting to learn about the different subcultures surrounding the Disney and Universal theme parks, as well as how the fans participating in these subcultures have made use of social media to connect with each other while actually influencing the objects of their fandom at a surprisingly high corporate level.

I know “serious scholars” like to mock Fan Studies as an illegitimate subdiscipline of Media Studies, but I’m getting tired of “serious scholarship” about How Disney Is Anti-Feminist And Poisoning Our Children™. To me, it’s much more meaningful to learn about how this culture is created, who is creating it, and how it’s not just Rich White Men producing media that’s consumed passively. If nothing else, I feel that good scholarship should be like a documentary that shows you a part of the world you only vaguely knew existed and then explains how it influences its broader cultural context. Theme Park Fandom is really enjoyable to read, and it’s been helping me make sense of all sorts of aspects of contemporary American culture that I’ve always found a bit mystifying.

I’ve also been reading Carlye Wisel’s various bits of theme park journalism, and I’m a fan. I wonder, how does someone get a job like this?

Born to Be Bound

I was intrigued by the description of the novel Born to Be Bound in the New York Times article that I read last month about professionally published Omegaverse romance novels. ABO Batman fic with the serial numbers filed off? Sign me up!

I didn’t realize just how intense it would be. I can’t imagine being a literary agent and being like, Yes! This is absolutely the sort of thing that needs to be on the shelves at Barnes and Noble!!

(Content warning for everything there is to be warned for, probably.)

Starting with the Brontë sisters and moving on from there, the vast majority of het romance involves the subversion of patriarchal power structures by means of the domestication of decent and sensitive straight men who have been socialized to embrace toxic masculinity. What this means is that, at least at the beginning of the story, there is always some amount of bad behavior on the part of the male lead. Depending on how kinky the novel is, sometimes the bad behavior is indeed very bad, but at some point the man realizes that he’s wrong, changes accordingly, and is rewarded with affection.

In Born to Be Bound, the man doesn’t change. He’s an alpha, so he can’t change; that’s just who he is. It’s actually the female lead who needs to change by accepting her biological destiny as an omega. The title of this novel is just about as literal as it gets.

Basically, the male lead drugs the woman, imprisons her, and repeatedly rapes her with the intention of impregnating her against her will. When she resists him, he drugs and rapes her more. She still resists him, so he begins beating her, biting and hitting her in order to punish and mark her. This is the entire novel: drugging, beating, and rape until the woman eventually stops considering suicide as her only means of exerting her agency.

In addition, the author doesn’t come out and say that the female protagonist is fifteen or sixteen years old and “mated” to someone in his forties, but it’s strongly implied. Her youth and vulnerability make it difficult for her to cultivate allies and escape, and this is very sexy, apparently.

There’s an attempt at a plot, but it doesn’t go anywhere that isn’t a justification of why the woman deserves to be imprisoned and raped for her hubris in thinking she’s a full human being. Humans are slaves to their biology, after all, and she should have known that being claimed by the top alpha was the best she could hope for as an omega. The story’s catharsis comes when the woman “learns” to be grateful. There’s a lot of talk about how omegas exist to be dominated and bred, but no real exploration of how this has impacted society – just a lot of the female lead expressing her abject misery, trying desperately to get away from the male lead, and being drugged and beaten for her efforts.

I’m mostly indifferent to romance as a genre, and I’ve never read the giant novels about sexy cavepeople that everyone keeps telling me about, but I’ve always enjoyed the work of authors like Jacqueline Carey who write dark fantasy with strong erotic elements. That being said, Born to Be Bound is on a different level altogether.

I’m not wringing my hands in moral panic like someone whose first encounter with female-authored erotica was Fifty Shades of Grey, and I actually appreciate certain Omegaverse elements like pair bonding and same-sex parenting. Hell, I’ve had to respond to people’s comments on my own stories on AO3 in order to explain that the characters do not deliver academic lectures on safe sex because this is fiction, not a manual intended for educational instruction in the current best practices for whatever community exists to serve a particular fantasy.

I mean, don’t like, don’t read. Your kink is not my kink, and that’s okay. Born to Be Bound isn’t for me, but I’m happy it exists for the people who enjoy it. But just, wow. This is not “soft” Omegaverse by any means. Instead, the author has dialed all the genre’s tropes up to eleven without any sort of explanation, reflection, or analysis. How in the world did this sort of thing become mainstream romance fiction?

Social Media Self-Care

During the past few days, I deleted about four hundred posts on Tumblr:

Posts where I reblogged people’s stories, meta, and art with supportive comments and tags, posts of original art and stories and jokes I made for people’s ideas and headcanons, and reblogs of people’s creative projects and commission info.

I applied the same level of attention to weeding my blog on Tumblr that I’ve devoted to developing my island on Animal Crossing, and it was incredibly cathartic.

I don’t need to see a snapshot of myself going out of my way to be kind and friendly to someone who thought it would be a good idea to send me a message asking if they could commission me to drink an entire bottle of NyQuil and pass out with a plastic trash bag over my head, for example.

I was never friends with any of these creeps. It never happened.

For me, the purpose of Tumblr is and always has been to create a small garden of things that make me happy. I scroll through my own Tumblr when I’m stuck in a waiting room, or during some impossibly long train or car ride, or when I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. “Interesting but relaxing” is the vibe I’m going for, and I think I’ve gone a decent job, for the most part. After all, I’m fairly skilled at catering to myself as an audience of one.

I’ve never been comfortable with the expectation to behave like a brand; and, regardless, activity on Tumblr has declined rapidly during the past month or so. I’ve gone from getting well over a thousand notes a day at the beginning of the year to getting less than a hundred a day during the past three weeks, and it only takes me about fifteen minutes to scroll through an entire day’s feed – if I even bother, which I mostly don’t.

What has ultimately come out of my social experience of fandom on Tumblr are lowkey but lasting friendships with professional artists and writers who have mostly moved to Twitter. I understand the value of online anonymity, but I think there are benefits to allowing yourself to be a real and fully-rounded person online. There are also benefits to being able to mute people, as well as being able to choose never to see certain tags and keywords. I’m not saying that Twitter is a good platform, because it’s objectively awful, but it’s become a much easier place to manage the social aspects of fandom.

To be honest, it’s because of Twitter that I no longer think of “fandom” as a discrete area of my life that needs to be contained and concealed as a shameful waste of time. I am a writer who writes reviews and critical essays about media. Sometimes I write fiction and draw comics. This is who I am, and I’ve found it much easier to interact with people when I don’t have to hide aspects of myself. I’ve also found it much easier to pick up the sort of high-quality freelance assignments that enabled me to quit the soul-crushing job that was making me sick.

Maybe it took me a little longer than other people to find my voice and surround myself with a supportive community, but I’m happy I’m here now.

Toxic Fandom Culture

Waking Up: Neil Gaiman and Toxic Fandom
https://thelearnedfangirl.com/2018/07/waking-up-neil-gaiman-and-toxic-fandom/

There is no shortage of examples [of toxic fandom]. Much of this behavior is based in misogyny and racism, some of it is not, and all of it seems to shriek, “You did not do what I want, therefore you are bad, and I am going to tell the world.”

This is not love. It is not even fandom. It is a mob.

Preach.

I should mention two things about this short essay. First, it’s about the author being a fan of Neil Gaiman, not about Neil Gaiman himself. Second, it was written in July 2018. I was going through an intense online experience at the time and wondering what in the world I had done to deserve what was happening, and reading this essay then would have helped me a lot, I think. It’s definitely worth saying that, outside of a genuine #MeToo (or similar) situation, no artist or writer deserves this. I’m tentatively hopeful that this sort of culture has started to fade, not in the least because we all have much better things to devote our time and energy to.