It’s always amused me that Ocarina of Time is essentially a game about how two ten-year-old kids plot to murder a grown man, bless their hearts.
(1) Fandom has always been a relatively noncommercial space, and I hate the feeling that it’s starting to become filled with advertisements and corporate-style messaging. It always makes me cringe when fandom accounts on Tumblr or Twitter affix messages such as “subscribe to my Patreon for bonus content” to all of their posts on social media; it feels sort of like I’m watching an infomercial.
(2) I hate feeling like I’m constantly bombarded with messages that I should be spending more money, and I hate feeling guilty for not supporting artists. Monthly Patreon payments can add up, especially if you follow several dozen (or several hundred) artists. It’s not a big deal to give one person a few dollars every month, but even small expenditures can add up quickly, and I hate having to choose between equally deserving people.
(3) I hate feeling as though fandom should cost money and that, as a result, people without money are barred from accessing certain parts of fandom. This is especially true of Patreon-only Discord servers and locked communities on public servers. Putting up a paywall around access to community spaces feels really gross to me. I also don’t like it when creators use Patreon to restrict access to process videos, guides, tutorials, and other instructional materials that would be especially beneficial to younger artists and other members of the community who lack access to traditional resources.
(4) Your friendship with someone shouldn’t be dependent on how much you pay them each month. Loaning money to friends is almost never a good idea, nor is sending them a monthly paycheck. This has the potential to create awkward situations both with people you know in real life and with people you know through fandom. For example, what if Friend A finds out that you’re donating to Friend B’s Patreon but not to theirs? Will a fandom artist you support on Patreon still be friendly with you if you cancel your monthly pledge?
(5) There’s no way to filter content on Patreon, either for subscribers or creators. Let’s say, for example, that there’s someone who’s into a certain fetish that many people might not be comfortable with, such as explicit age gaps in sexual relationships, and that this person makes repeated requests to the artists they’re supporting on Patreon to draw content of their fetish. I’m a firm believer in “don’t like, don’t read,” and I stand behind the idea that everyone’s fantasies involving fictional characters are valid, but I also don’t particularly want to see an impish ten-year-old cartoon character being happily molested by a forty-year-old if I can help it, nor do I want to see a soft version of the same concept while knowing why that specific person requested it. I feel bad for the creators who rely on Patreon for financial support and have to deal with these types of requests. For example, how comfortable would they be turning down a request for fetish porn if it meant possibly losing a long-term supporter?
All that being said, I like when people use Patreon as a tip jar.
Some of the most talented and prolific webcomic artists and indie game developers I know do this. All of their content is free and open to everyone, and they use Patreon as a development blog. Some creators – especially people who run popular podcasts and YouTube channels – still make thousands of dollars a month through Patreon despite the fact that all of their content is unlocked.
Although I understand that Patreon creators who make a decent monthly salary are exceptions, the fact that they can be so successful despite not creating paywalls makes me wonder if limiting access to content on Patreon is really all that effective. Even though a creator may get a bit of extra revenue in this way, I’m not sure it’s worth the trade-off in terms of integrity and goodwill. To put it bluntly, using reward tiers to incentivize the people who want to support you into giving you a few extra dollars each month is repellent capitalist bullshit. For me personally, it also makes scrolling through my feed on Patreon distinctly unpleasant, like, YOU AREN’T RICH ENOUGH TO SEE THIS POST LOL.
What I’m trying to explain is that, although I think Patreon can be a great platform to help people finance their creative work, the incursion of profit-driven language, practices, and ideologies into a space built on support, communication, and goodwill is troubling and offensive.
Basically, I hate capitalism. It’s not that I think independent creators don’t deserve support; rather, I think it’s disgusting how Patreon normalizes using exploitative methods to extract as much money as possible from people who want to support their friends and other independent creators. I also dislike how Patreon encourages creators to rely on these methods, thereby steering them into a mindset in which they treat their engagement with Patreon like an actual job and their friends like clients. This type of engagement has a clear potential to become uncomfortable and unsustainable, especially for people in economically precarious positions.
I’m not trying to say that Patreon is inherently bad, or that people shouldn’t use Patreon. I’ve actually supported a decent number of creative people on Patreon for years, and it makes me happy to do so. What I’m trying to figure out is how Patreon can be used in a way that doesn’t mirror the emotional violence and sheer obnoxiousness of capitalism. I also want to push back against the trend of every interaction on social media becoming a microtransaction, because it’s exhausting.
Despite a few occasional bouts of drama, I love the Legend of Zelda fandom, and the only real unpleasantness I’ve encountered has had to do with Ganondorf. I want to talk about this briefly, because I think it’s representative of an alarming tendency in fandom as a whole.
The United States is in a strange and difficult place right now. It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember, but the current presidential administration has brought some very ugly sentiments right out in the open. It was never particularly easy to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country, but since 2015 or so the violence of the rhetoric of prejudice has been omnipresent and overwhelming. We now have, for example, black women whose children were effectively lynched being subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse for speaking out against police violence even as a mainstream presidential candidate won voters by belittling the Muslim family of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.
This is just one of the myriad reasons why many of us are very sensitive to expressions of hatred against ethnic and racial minorities. Some people may feel confident in saying that ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason and that they don’t understand why people get upset over certain depictions of fictional characters, and I think it’s important to point out that not everyone who feels this way is (or identifies as) white. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all, and no one wants to feel as if they’re being given a lecture when all they want to do is talk about video games.
I completely understand the desire to make fandom a politics-free zone, but I also think fandom should be large enough to accommodate multiple views and approaches. When it comes to Ganondorf specifically, I think there should be room for both silly jokes and serious analysis. On one hand, how ridiculous is the fact that Ganondorf built himself a giant murder castle in Ocarina of Time? On the other hand, how is Ganondorf’s intense love/hate relationship with Hyrule representative of the legacy of colonial ideologies both within the game and in the real world?
Ganondorf is clearly a villain in the Legend of Zelda universe. There are people in the Zelda fandom who love Ganondorf because he’s a charismatic and fascinating character, and there are also people in the Zelda fandom who hate Ganondorf because he’s just not a very nice person, to put it mildly. Both receptions of the character are totally understandable and valid.
The complication that arises with Ganondorf is that he is demonized according to real-world patterns of white supremacy, one of which is the common narrative that holds that “the Evil Barbaric Dark-Skinned Oriental Other” must be defeated by the virtuous heroes of a holy empire. Accordingly, the trouble I’ve experienced with fandom is that it can be easy for people to inadvertently slip into projecting negative racial and ethnic stereotypes onto the fictional world of the games.
Like men of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent in the real world, Ganondorf is portrayed in a number of fanworks as unintelligent, bestial, violent, and incapable of human emotion. This is a gross oversimplification of how Ganondorf is canonically characterized in the games, but there are powerful cultural forces in our own societies that attempt to ensure that many of us become invested in the narrative of “the Brutal Evil Dark Man” to such an extent that we replicate it without intending to. Because of the nature of the narratives of the Zelda games themselves, in which Ganondorf is portrayed with very little sympathy, dealing with the character is always going to be tricky. This is why there needs to be a multiplicity of voices addressing these issues. For example, what does it mean that Ganondorf is imprisoned without a trial in Twilight Princess? Meanwhile, it’s equally worthwhile to make silly jokes and shitposts about the character; because let’s be real, you can bounce a quarter off that man’s leotard-clad ass. In other words, there needs to be room in fandom for humor and smut and serious analytical meta essays and silliness.
Unfortunately, Tumblr-based fandom has become so polarized that this sort of exchange is almost impossible. On one side of Tumblr are people who insist on ideological purity, and on the other side are people with good intentions who nevertheless feel alienated by “The Discourse,” an expression that refers to an incendiary argument that something or someone is “problematic.” What this means in practical terms is that, while one side of Tumblr is quick to attack anyone who engages with a “problematic” character like Ganondorf, the other side of Tumblr has come to ostracize anyone who’s interested in a more nuanced critique of popular media.
What’s happened within the specific context of Zelda fandom, then, is that many people will only draw and write about and reblog work featuring the light-skinned protagonists, while many of the people who are interested in the darker-skinned antagonists are surprisingly tolerant of what would generally be considered borderline racist representations in any other context. It’s not that any one approach to a character like Ganondorf is upsetting in and of itself, as it’s only natural that different people participate in fandom for different reasons, but rather that the aggressive refusal to consider or even acknowledge the validity of alternative opinions and perspectives can make the Zelda fandom a very weird and uncomfortable place to be sometimes.
To minimize potential confusion, I’d like to clarify the points I’m making about race and villainy:
IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are not good people.
IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who do bad things and make mistakes and gradually grow and change.
IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are irredeemably evil.
Let racial and ethnic minorities be villains! While you’re at it, let women and LGBTQ+ people and neuordivergent people and differently abled people be villains! Villains are great!
IT IS NOT OKAY for a large multinational corporation to tell stories about how everything that is or has ever been bad in the world is the fault of one person whom we are supposed to know is evil because he is the only person in the story with dark skin.
Likewise, IT IS NOT OKAY for fans to tell stories that purposefully reproduce overt white supremacy in their portrayal of dark-skinned characters. For example, it’s not okay for fans to tell stories about how a dark-skinned character is “saved” by light-skinned people who teach him that his cultural heritage is bad so that he can be fully integrated into the “good” culture of the light-skinned majority ethnicity, or for a dark-skinned character to redeem himself by learning to apologize to representatives of the light-skinned ethnicity for his anger regarding the slavery and genocide of his people.
In other words, it’s totally normal to have a character who is a villain with dark skin, because expecting characters with dark skin to be perfect while denying them the full range of human experience and emotion is a ridiculous and counterproductive way to approach representations of racial and ethnic difference. That being said, it’s weird and gross to have a character who is a villain BECAUSE he has dark skin.
I’m excited that the recent Breath of the Wild sequel trailer has inspired a renewed appreciation for Ganondorf. It’s my hope that, while fans are enjoying the design and storytelling potential of a fun and interesting character, they’re also able to engage in critical discussions of the politics and ideology of the Zelda series without the conversation devolving into an exclusionary black-and-white mentality. The real-world implications of video game ideologies are multifaceted and complicated, and it’s important for these issues to be discussed outside of academia. Transnational fandom cultures are a perfect place for a wealth of diverse perspectives to come together, which is why I’d like to advocate for a better tolerance of a multiplicity of fanworks and opinions, as well as gentle and nuanced pushback that doesn’t take the form of death threats, bullying, or other forms of harassment.
“The Linux of social media” — How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging
But perhaps there’s no better microcosm for LiveJournal’s epic journey than the blog that belonged to the man behind Game of Thrones. Even though George R.R. Martin managed to hang out for a decade after the site’s initial downfall, nothing in particular seemed to trigger his 2018 move to a personal site. No fanfare accompanied it, just a brief message from one of the fantasist’s “minions.” Such is the nature of the erosion of our once-beloved digital spaces: there’s none of the collapsed majesty of a physical space like an abandoned castle, ivy threading its way through the crumbling latticework. Instead, LiveJournal moves forward as an aging pile of code, one day potentially rendered obsolete by something newer and better and remembered by those who lost countless hours to rigging it up in the first place.
The passage I quoted above is the conclusion to a wonderful essay about the rise and fall of LiveJournal and the creation of Dreamwidth. This is a bit narcissistic, but it always makes me happy to see people writing substantial articles about things that actually mean something to me personally. LiveJournal used to be a big deal to a lot of people, but I often get the impression that not even that many professional Media Studies scholars know what it was or how it nourished and enabled online cultures that have since become mainstream. Then again, the platform died almost ten years ago, and perhaps there are always going to cultural black holes like LiveJournal that exert a huge gravitational influence even though most people can’t see or measure them.
I’ve been open about my distaste for “call-out” and “canceling” culture within left-leaning spaces on social media. My overarching point is that people shouldn’t be harassed online, especially not for stupid shit that doesn’t matter.
I’m going to put it out there, however, that sometimes people do in fact need to be shut down. Figuring out where to draw the line between “something you don’t like that isn’t hurting anyone” and “a toxic asshole who can just be blocked and ignored” and “a serious problem that is affecting far more than a tiny online community” isn’t always easy, however. There’s a lot of moral gray area here, and I think it’s worth talking about.
In my experience, one of the main issues that comes up during these discussions is something I’m going to call “the Captain-Planet-Official Problem” after an ecofascist blog on Tumblr that was extremely popular in relatively mainstream circles before it got shut down. The problem is this, basically: A lot of alt-right gateway accounts are popular because they’re funny, relatable, friendly, kind, and filled with memes that most reasonable people will find silly and inoffensive.
If you’re unfamiliar with ecofascism, its message is more or less “save the planet by getting rid of all the brown people.” This is often couched in terms of “controlling invasive species that are threatening native plants and wildlife,” and it’s connected to the tendency of various “European identity movements” to celebrate the natural beauty and “environmental heritage” of places like Germany and England. There’s often a superficial level of anti-capitalism accompanying this messaging, like, “What if this beautiful landscape were bought and destroyed by global capitalists?” In this case, “global capitalists” usually means “Jewish people,” but I’ve also seen it applied to “Asian people” with no attempt to differentiate between people from various East Asian and South Asian countries.
Left-leaning communities in social media spaces love the environment and hate capitalism, which is fair. What this means is that, if some well-meaning person sees a random post from a blog with a catchy username like Captain-Planet-Official about how capitalism destroys the environment, they probably won’t think twice about reblogging it. Maybe they, or one of their followers, might even go to the Captain-Planet-Official blog, which (based on the screencaps I’ve seen) had a lot of clever shitposts and a charming and active moderator. If they decide to subscribe to this blog, they’ll probably realize soon enough that there’s a disturbing current of white supremacy underlying the memes.
At this point, one of three things will happen. Some people will unfollow the blog and resolve to be more careful in the future. Some people might have gotten a taste of the Kool-Aid (or red pill, or whatever) and decide that they like it and want to pursue it farther into some of the more overtly right-wing blogs that regularly interact with Captain-Planet-Official. Most people, however, will decide that it’s just Tumblr or Twitter or Reddit or Imgur and therefore doesn’t really matter. This latter group of people is willing to put up with occasional messaging about “invasive species,” which they might not understand or even see if they’re not familiar with that specific type of coded dog-whistle political language or just don’t spend that much time on social media.
The people who are interested in the white supremacist messaging will probably only be a tiny minority, but those people are out there, and I’m willing to bet that there are actually a lot of them in the left-wing spaces occupied by their peers. They feel increasingly alienated, but they’re also like, “I’m not a literal Nazi,” so they won’t enter clearly marked right-wing spaces directly. For people like this, something like Captain-Planet-Official is a gateway; and, the wider the gateway – the more people who promote it by reblogging its more inoffensive posts – the more people who will end up passing through it.
(By the way, this is a post with screencaps of a good collection of tweets about how these gateways work.)
Obviously there’s something unpleasant going on with left-wing spaces that alienate certain subsets of people so much that they’re driven to white supremacy or men’s rights activism or whatever Breitbart is going on about these days, but that’s an unpopular conversation to have for many (extremely valid) reasons. It’s also highly likely that a baby cryptofascist would have found their way into the alt-right anyway, even if they didn’t encounter Captain-Planet-Official on Tumblr. So why bother doing or saying anything about Captain-Planet-Official? They’re not aggressively hurting anyone, and they’re probably doing more good than harm in the way by spreading awareness of environmental issues and helping vocalize resistance against capitalism. Right?
So this is the problem: How do you explain that what a blog like Captain-Planet-Official is doing is a completely different type and level of “problematic” than a blog that celebrates an imagined romantic relationship between two fictional characters? And are you going to send a message to everyone you follow who reblogs a popular post from that blog? And if one of these people tells you that they don’t care, because it’s just a stupid meme on Tumblr and doesn’t matter, are you going to unfollow them? And if you unfollow them, what are you going to say to the other people in your fandom who still follow them? That they shouldn’t interact with them because they don’t take white supremacy seriously? Because they reblogged a Captain Planet meme about protecting the environment by fighting capitalism?
I should mention that this goes for radical left-wing messaging as well, especially when it comes to TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who use catchy feminist slogans to promote homophobic and exclusionary rhetoric and ideology. “How dare you say that protecting women’s rights and reblogging pride flags is bad” works in exactly the same way as “How dare you say that protecting the environment and reblogging cute animal pictures is bad.”
In any case, I don’t think the answer is necessarily to appeal to the powers that be to shut down a particular blog. As the Tumblr “flagged posts” debacle proved last December, there’s a lot of potential for abuse and basic ignorance when distant authorities are invoked, so it’s in the best interests of a community to figure out how to handle problems like Captain-Planet-Official on their own. Deciding where the line is between the normal stupid bullshit that happens on social media and something that’s genuinely scary isn’t always as easy as it is with Captain-Planet-Official, nor is it always easy to tell when someone has crossed that line and isn’t coming back. This is why I wish left-leaning communities would stop devoting so much energy to asinine ship wars (Will Rey and Kylo Ren kiss? Who cares??) and start using the principles of social justice to figure out what to do about the promotion of dangerous ideologies that’s happening in the real world right in front of them.
I take content warnings seriously. Really, I do.
I teach upper-level college classes in women’s fiction, queer fiction, and horror fiction, which collectively contain all manner of gendered violence. I also teach non-Western fiction, which can sometimes contain depictions of politicized issues (such as race) that some Americans might find difficult or offensive. I don’t give my students a written list of content warnings, as such a list can be triggering in and of itself, but I do give them specific warnings in advance of a reading as part of the “housekeeping” announcements I usually make before I start class; and, like all announcements, I repeat content warnings in staggered intervals to make sure the message has a chance to reach everyone who needs it. I also try to be sensitive to the specific needs of individual students, who have disclosed a range of personal triggers from “portrayals of self-harm” to “vivid descriptions of the color red.” Making sure that no one in my classes is exposed to triggering content without reasonable warning is the easiest and least awkward thing in the world, and I genuinely don’t understand why there is or ever was a debate about it.
So, when I say this, I say it as someone who has devoted a great deal of thought to the issue and accumulated several years of relevant experience dealing with it:
I don’t think fanfiction needs to be tagged with appropriate content warnings in order for the author to have the “right” to post it.
I’ve certainly found my way into stories that I had to back-button out of, and I appreciate when fic writers tag the obvious content warnings (which I suspect actually helps readers find these stories, especially when it comes to niche interests). That being said, I don’t think it makes any sense to treat the people who read sexually explicit fanfic on AO3 like innocent children whose hands need to be held at all times. Like, if a story description reads “Bowser pounds Peach with his monster cock in front of an audience,” then the reader should be expected to understand what they’re getting into.
It’s also frustrating that many of the content warnings I’ve started to see in the past two years reflect puritanical American standards regarding the “protected status” of children, who must never be exposed to “bad” things until they’re 21. A good example of this is the recent insistence on tagging things like “underage drinking,” because it’s apparently “abusive” if an anime catboy from a Japanese video game set in a fantasy world so much as mentions having had wine with dinner. This is especially distressing because a “Mature” or “Explicit” rating on a story clearly indicates that it’s adult content that an adult has written for the amusement of other adults. If someone is still too young to be comfortable with adult themes and depictions of the adult world, then they shouldn’t be reading that story in the first place.
According to the same logic, I believe an adult reader should be expected to understand that a fictional depiction of something is not intended to condone or promote it. Fanfic in which two Overwatch characters take turns pegging each other is not a Disney movie intended to teach life lessons to children. If one of the characters has a mental illness or a tragic past that isn’t properly addressed within the narrative according to current standards of political correctness, this is not “erasure” or “bad representation.” Representation is achieved by people from marginalized positions having a platform to give voice to their stories and perspectives, and making these people afraid to use this platform because they’ve watched people like them being violently harassed for not tagging their smutfic with “romanticized depiction of a disability” (or what have you) isn’t conducive to actual representation.
An argument I see with disturbing frequency on fandom discourse blogs is something along the lines of “it’s okay to write fanfic with dark themes if it’s properly tagged, because this helps people understand that what they’re reading is problematic.” If you compare this to a similar statement meant to promote inclusive representation, such as “it’s okay to write fanfic because your voice is important and you deserve a chance to speak,” it becomes clear how stressful and confining moral prescriptivism is. Why does fiction – especially fanfiction, which is subcultural and countercultural – need to have to have some sort of moral in order to be allowed to exist?
It’s obvious to me that this whole mess is caught up in the sexist expectation that adult women should be the keepers of public morality. According to Tumblr-based fandom, which reflects the near-constant messaging present in many societies across the world, a woman stops being her own person and starts being a mother at around the age of 25. Once she’s crossed this threshold, her main purpose in life is to THINK OF THE CHIDLERN!!1! at all times. As a genderqueer nonbinary person, I understand that not everyone who writes and reads fanfic is “a woman,” but this doesn’t change the fact that fandom policing mirrors the purity politics that many women have to deal with in real life, according to which they’re only “allowed” to do something “selfish” if they can justify it as morally wholesome.
In any case, I still stand behind my main principle when it comes to fandom, which is that fictional characters are not real. Actual human beings, on the other hand, deserve not to be harassed for what they do for fun on the internet in their spare time.
When I say “abuse is the fault of the abuser,” I don’t mean in just a pure metaphysical, “everyone’s responsible for their own actions” kind of way. I mean that abusers start with their abusive behavior, and then fill in whatever behavior and excuses they have to to justify it to themselves and their victims. Maybe it’s media. Maybe it’s substance abuse. Maybe it’s past abuse that they suffered. Maybe it’s some psychology mumbo-jumbo about projecting past trauma onto you. Maybe it’s mental illness. Maybe it’s anything. […]
Abusers choose to hurt you. They know that their actions will hurt you, and they choose to do it anyways.
Everything after that is an excuse.
This is a good post in the ongoing pushback against fandom purity discourse and respectability politics. I ended up reading through almost two dozen pages of this blog last week, and it was an enlightening experience. This person also runs an anti-fandom receipt blog (that posts screenshots of harassment, rape threats, and so on), and I admire that they’re so good-natured despite having seen and experienced so much garbage.
I also found another good chain [here] about how, basically, “if I was eight years younger and wandering into fandom for the first time, I can guarantee that the culture right now would’ve fucked me up and ground me down and taken away all my healthy outlets.”
I still haven’t found much of anything that addresses some of the particular problems I’ve experienced in the Legend of Zelda fandom, which are much more intersectional than most of the issues I see discussed on fandom positivity blogs. I will keep looking, but it’s been a journey.
I should qualify all of this by saying that I’m not a huge fan of the idea that fandom has to be therapeutic or serve some purpose in order to be valid. There’s another good chain [here] that highlights the misogyny and homophobia of the assumption that female and queer fantasies need to be “productive” in order to be allowed to exist.
I’m glad that smart people are out there doing the work of unpacking the absurdity of insisting on sexual purity in subcultural queer spaces, because even the act of reading these conversations is exhausting to me personally. I briefly considered starting a fandom discourse blog myself, but then I thought about it for two seconds and realized how time-consuming and emotionally draining it would be. Something I’ve noticed about the pro-fandom blogs I encounter on Tumblr is that they devote an extraordinary amount of care and attention to research and maintaining ethical standards. That’s admirable, of course, but this level of effort also feels a bit strange and uncomfortable. Like, how did we get to a place where this level of background reading and moral self-reflection is necessary to make the point that it’s not okay to send death threats because of fandom ship wars?