Ganondorf, Villainy, Race, and Fandom

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!

However:

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.

Shipping Isn’t Morality

(from the Tumblr blog Shipping Isn’t Morality)
https://shipping-isnt-morality.tumblr.com/post/183726148328/yknow-its-been-a-while-since-i-made-this

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?

The Three False Equivalencies of Anti-Fandom

(1) The False Equivalency of Representation

Even if a fanfic has hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of kudos, it is never going to achieve the same level of cultural impact as big-budget mainstream media. No matter how much wholesome fic you write about Finn, it is not going to be the same as John Boyega’s face on every movie screen everywhere in the world.

(2) The False Equivalency of “They’re Just Fictional Characters”

Because “positive representation” isn’t really a valid concern with fanwork (although, in a collective sense, it absolutely can be, but that’s a different conversation), it doesn’t matter whether your fic or art is about Naruto kissing Sakura or Naruto kissing Sasuke. In fact, those three names are probably nothing more than nonsense words to 99.999% of people on this earth. It also doesn’t matter if you, as some rando on the internet, get off (for whatever reason) on the idea of Sasuke forcing himself on Naruto, Sakura, or both at the same time. They’re just fictional characters, and it does not matter to the broader culture. What does matter is if systematic structures of inequality and discrimination are uncritically reproduced in the fictional texts embraced by fandom without commentary. It’s therefore a false equivalency to put “I don’t like this m/m ship” on the same level of critique as “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters.”

(3) The False Equivalency of GO OUTSIDE

Saying “I don’t like a particular m/m ship” is not only fine, it’s par for the course in fandom. Saying “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters” is also fine, and we could probably use more of that sort of thing in fandom, to be honest. Someone writing about the details of their disappointment regarding a work of fiction is also fine. It’s okay to not like things! What is not okay is sending death and rape threats, accusing people of pedophilia, finding someone’s personal information and threatening to contact their family or employer, and doing things like creating a [username]gokillyourself account on AO3 in order to leave comments containing concrete instructions on how to commit suicide. It is a very clear false equivalency to suggest that expressing a negative opinion about a fictional character is “just as bad” as harassing an actual human being.

Gaslighting, Therapy, and Fanfic

Gaslighting is the process of attempting to convince someone that their accurate perception of a situation is incorrect; and, moreover, that there is something wrong with them personally for having perceived the situation in this way.

Based on what I’ve seen, a lot of the disagreement over this definition has to do with how many people need to be involved in order to a situation to be “gaslighting” and not “abusive behavior” or simply “being an asshole.” For example, if Person A says “There’s a strange smell coming from the kitchen” and Person B says “No there’s not, you’re just crazy,” then that’s probably not gaslighting. I would contend, however, that there is so much atmospheric discrimination against certain groups of people that even an isolated “you’re just overreacting” contributes to a broader system of systematic gaslighting. As a result of this atmospheric gaslighting, some people from marginalized positions can feel that there’s something inherently wrong with their point of view, especially during times of stress and vulnerability.

So there’s this thing that many American therapists do, which is to try to gently lead a patient to arriving at a revelation on their own, generally over the course of several sessions. I understand the theory behind this, but I still hate it.

I’m going to give a personal example. I was in a toxic relationship for more than a year when I was in college. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to claim partial responsibility and say something like “the abuse went both ways,” but that wasn’t really what was going on. Essentially, the boy I was dating would be a disgusting assclown until I snapped and reacted, at which everything that was wrong with the relationship would be my fault because I got upset. I had never been in that sort of unhealthy relationship with anyone before, and I otherwise got along with most people really well, so I had no idea what was going on. I therefore went to a therapist and told her, in so many words, that I was “forcing” my boyfriend to abuse me verbally and physically, and that I needed her to help me figure out what it was about me that compelled him to hurt me.

If a scared teenager came to me and said this, my first response would be, in no uncertain terms, “Honey, you need to get out of there, because no one should be assaulting you for any reason. We can talk about this for as long as you want later, but you are in real danger and right now you need to get out.” What my therapist – and then another therapist – and then another therapist – said to me, however, was “Well, what do you think is wrong with you? Why do you think he hits you and calls you a dumb cunt?”

Even if this sort of thing isn’t technically gaslighting, it still feeds into the pervasive social narrative that teenage girls are crazy and irrational and deserve whatever happens to them if they don’t follow all of the contradictory “rules” about dating and relationships. Between one thing and another, I had never found a safe space where I could talk to other people my age about real relationships without being judged or losing face, which is why I didn’t immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the reason why a boy would want to physically strike anyone is a conversation that needs to happen between him and his therapist.

Around this time I got on LiveJournal and discovered fic. What this meant is that suddenly I was exposed to all sorts of models of romantic and sexual relationships, and this was when I started to understand what was going on in my life. It’s not so much that the fic I was reading was explicitly like “this is what a healthy relationship looks like” or “this is what abuse looks like,” because Lord knows the BDSM Sailor Moon and Trigun femslash I was reading did not get even remotely close to that sort of thing. Rather, what I got from reading and discussing and eventually writing fic was that women’s stories are valid, and young women’s stories are valid, and queer women’s stories are valid, and nonbinary female-presenting people’s stories are valid. No matter how transgressive the fic or meta you wrote may have been, it was no less worthy of being taken seriously because you specifically wrote it.

That sense of “being valid” and “being taken seriously” is, in my opinion, an effective antidote to gaslighting. I don’t think fandom is or ever was inherently an activist space or even a safe space, but I do think it’s a place where a lot of female and transgender and nonbinary people first get the sense that it’s okay for them to exist in the world as themselves, no matter how weird or strange or non-normative or queer they might be.

I think this is one of the main reasons why the purity culture of anti-fandom bothers me so much. If people are only supposed to write “pure” relationships – or even, to take this a step farther, if they’re supposed to be so pre-enlightened about social justice that they need to tag everything they write with all applicable content warnings – then that’s tantamount to being told that they need to police themselves at all times in fandom, just as in real life. In addition, because the rules about “safe shipping” are so arbitrary and contradictory, this feels very much like the same sort of “Well, what do you think is wrong with you?” nonsense I got in therapy as a teenager (and then later, when I tried therapy again at several points as an adult).

If we can call fandom a safe space, and if we can think of fandom as an activist space, I think that’s because it’s a space where the voices of people who are so often silenced, marginalized, and discounted in the real world are allowed free expression. In this sense, a sentiment such as “don’t like, don’t read” can be a powerful and almost politically transformative expression of tolerance and empathy.

By the way, I get that not all therapists are incompetent jerks. Many of them are, though, and finding one of the good ones (who also happens to be a good fit for any given client) is not just a difficult and time-consuming process but also a community effort in many cases. I don’t want to suggest that fanfic is an alternative to therapy… but it sure is a hell of a lot cheaper.

Tumblr Drama Annotated Reading List

I ended up doing a fair amount of research for my essays Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom and Censorship in Fandom, and I’d like to share a short annotated list of some of the online sources that were useful to me.

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens
https://newrepublic.com/article/129002/secret-lives-tumblr-teens

A long article from 2016 about the culture of shitposting on Tumblr and the rocky relationship between the site’s corporate owners and its userbase.

When Tumblr Bans Porn, Who Loses?
https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/4/18126112/tumblr-porn-ban-verizon-ad-goals-sex-work-fandom

An in-depth article about Tumblr’s December 2018 ban on “adult” material with a focus on how the new policy adversely affects minority communities.

Why Monetizing Social Media Through Advertising Is Doomed to Failure
https://synecdochic.dreamwidth.org/234496.html

A three-part blog post written by a tech insider about why it’s so difficult to actually make money from social media websites like Tumblr. This was originally written in 2008, back when people in fandom were starting to think about alternatives to LiveJournal in the wake of the Strikethrough and Boldthrough deletion of a number of prominent fandom-related accounts and communities.

The Rise of Anti-Fandom Fandom
https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/tumblr-anti-fandom-your-fave-problematic/

An article from 2013 about a Tumblr blog called Your Fave Is Problematic, which was dedicated to posting receipts on the weird, problematic, and downright shitty behavior of actors, musicians, writers, and other celebrities in the entertainment industry.

Toxic Fandom: When Criticism and Entitlement Go Too Far
https://geekdad.com/2018/10/toxic-fandom-when-criticism-and-entitlement-go-too-far

A short essay on the evolution of anti-fandom that uses the online unpleasantness associated with the Netflix cartoon Voltron: Legendary Defender as a starting point.

Towards a Working Definition of “Anti”
https://shinelikethunder.tumblr.com/post/154454617111/towards-a-working-definition-of-anti

A point-by-point breakdown of what anti-fandom is and how it’s different from simply critiquing a piece of media or an aspect of fandom culture.

The Boundary Between Critique, Purity Culture, and Censorship
https://lines-and-edges.tumblr.com/post/167426659087/imo-the-boundary-between-critique-purity-culture

A short Tumblr post on the ideological connection between the purity culture of religious fundamentalism and the purity culture of anti-fandom.

How Good People and Well-Intentioned Groups Go Bad
http://www.springhole.net/writing/how-good-people-and-well-intentioned-groups-can-go-bad.htm

An essay about cult mentality that was written by someone familiar with online fandom and concerned about bullying and purity culture. When people joke about Tumblr being “just like a cult,” this is what they mean.

An Unfunny Joke about Antis
https://freedom-of-fanfic.tumblr.com/post/170096625464/an-unfunny-joke-about-antis

A detailed and beautifully written post about how members of anti-fandom are in fact engaging in patterns of abusive behavior. This entire blog is brilliant, and two other posts I found particularly interesting are on the topics of Exclusionary Radical Feminism and Why Shipping Is Not Activism.

Taming Femslash
http://smallswingshoes.tumblr.com/post/158010358049/hi-i-wanted-to-address-an-ask-you-answered-a-few

A conversation between several Tumblr users that illustrates how sexism masquerading as social justice has been used to silence the voices and stories of queer women in fandom.

The Mixon Report
http://failfandomanon.wikia.com/wiki/The_Mixon_Report

A wiki entry about a toxic fan who successfully used social justice as an excuse to bully people in fandom and professional SF writers’ communities on LiveJournal. All evidence points to a disproportionate number of her victims being young women, queer, and people of color. This rabbithole goes down deep, so be warned.

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.

Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom

I’ve been a fan of video games and fantasy novels since I was at least ten years old, but I entered “fandom” as a subculture when I joined DeviantArt in 2006. I had been on LiveJournal for a few years before that, but I only started using my account to interact with fan communities in 2009. I was quite happy with LiveJournal-based fandom until around 2013 or so, when activity on the forums I frequented started to die down. By that point, however, I had already become more engrossed in Tumblr, where I’d had an account since 2011.

I consider myself to belong to the generation of people who made the transition from LiveJournal to Tumblr. I’m not claiming to be one of the pioneers of this transition, but I do remember what LiveJournal was like, and I’ve also been able to witness the rise of fandom on Tumblr. This transition occurred relatively recently, as the switch from longform blogging and fic writing to microblogging on Tumblr and Twitter has only really happened during the past six or seven years.

As a slightly older fan, I’m disturbed by what’s commonly known as “call out culture” in fandom communities on Tumblr and Twitter. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s difficult to explain what I mean to people outside of fandom. When I say that “I’m disturbed by the violence of call out culture in fandom,” people often interpret this to mean that I don’t support #MeToo or other social justice movements, which could not be further from the truth. What I’m saying is that, within the context of fandom, call out culture as it currently exists prevents the accurate identification of predators, abusers, and other creeps by making accusations so commonplace as to be meaningless. The rhetorical violence of call out culture has also resulted in online bullying, which is purposefully intended to cause real harm to real people, usually people occupying disadvantaged positions in the real world.

The culture of publicly “calling out” people who were causing harm within a community existed on LiveJournal, and I strongly believe that this culture was instrumental in the evolution of fandom from what could sometimes be an extremely sexist, racist, and homophobic space into a more progressive and inclusive set of communities. RaceFail 2009, in which a number of popular science fiction and fantasy writers were called out for their racist depictions of difference, is a good example of how this worked.

What was generally being called out, however, was real-world behavior, not the depictions of fictional characters. Within my own circle of fandom, there was a popular fic writer who attempted to befriend young fans in order to invite them to conventions and pressure them into unwanted sexual activity. This person’s actions eventually resulted in a connected set of call out posts on LiveJournal, the collective purpose of which was to protect younger fans from predatory behavior. (Since this person had made attempts to target me, I directly benefited from these call out posts.) There were also occasional warning posts about the abusive tendencies of certain creative professionals, whether they were skeezy male comic book artists or white female romance novelists who were prone to making racist comments.

Because most of us only existed as screen names and avatars, this sort of unpleasantness was considered to be necessary to maintaining a reasonably safe space. People who made unfounded or ridiculous accusations regarding creative professionals or fellow fans were perceived as creating needless drama and mocked accordingly, most notably on a sadly defunct forum called, appropriately enough, Fandom Wank. The source of this mockery was the consensus that fandom is not, in fact, serious business. According to this worldview, it really doesn’t matter which fictional characters you want to kiss, and it’s only when someone’s behavior has truly serious consequences in the real world does calling them out become necessary.

What this meant is that is that people tended to pay close attention when an accusation was made. The community shunned predators and abusers, who were tracked through new fandoms, new usernames, and various dummy and burner accounts so that they wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone else.

(This also happened to a certain extent on artistic social networking sites such as DeviantArt and Fur Affinity. For example, artists would warn each other about genuinely creepy people, such as users who would request a seemingly innocent commission of a cute anime girl but then send the artist gory reference pictures without warning. I wasn’t on the inside of any of these communities, however, so I don’t what to make generalizations concerning how they operated.)

I strongly support a healthy culture of calling out predators and other abusive people, whether in fandom or real life. I believe accusations regarding abusive behavior should be taken seriously by the accuser, by the accused, and by the larger community.

Unfortunately, what’s happened on Tumblr is that it’s no longer real-world behavior that’s being called out. Instead, certain fans known as “antis” (a term stemming from people self-identifying as being anti-[a certain character] or anti-[a certain ship between characters] in the tags of their posts) have begun calling out fictional representations of behaviors or relationships that they believe promote abuse. This is troublesome not only because different people write stories for different reasons, but also because fiction is often open to multiple interpretations. While one person may find a depiction of a fictional relationship therapeutic, another might find it triggering. As a literature professor, I hold that stories can be culturally influential and are thus worthy of critique. When a community devotes targeted and deadly serious attention to fictional abuse, however, it runs the risk of marginalizing and misrepresenting real abuse.

As of October 2018, the most recent and relevant example involves pedophilia, which – just to make the meaning of the term clear – is the attraction of an adult toward a prepubescent child. This is often associated with predatory behavior, and – again – it’s in the best interests of a community to call out this behavior when it arises. Although the understanding of what it means to be an “adult” differs from culture to culture, as do the age of majority and the age of consent, I think most people would be comfortable opposing pedophilia-oriented behavior and representation.

On Tumblr, however, “pedophilia” has become something of a codeword among antis to describe any ship between fictional characters that they don’t like, and the definition of pedophilia can be stretched to accommodate just about anything. If “pedophilia” doesn’t fit, then “incest,” “rape,” or general “abuse” might be applied as an alternative. It’s difficult to fight against this line of reasoning, because obviously, no one wants to say that they support pedophilia, incest, rape, or abuse.

The problem with the application of these terms lies in their looseness, especially concerning fictional stories that can be interpreted in multiple ways or, in the case of ongoing television series, are still developing. An example that I haven’t been able to escape despite my total noninvolvement with the fandom involves a popular ship between characters in a cartoon on Netflix called Voltron: Legendary Defender. As far as I can tell, the show is about a group of teenagers fighting evil in space, and the target audience seems to fall into the same market demographic as the Harry Potter books, namely, younger teens who presumably age along with the characters as the series continues. The show therefore has a lot of teenage fans who imagine one teenage character to be in love with another teenage character. At the beginning of the series, none of these characters had actual ages beyond “they’re all teenagers,” but the showrunners have since implied that some of the characters were as young as 16 at the beginning while some were as old as 25 during the then-current season. According to antis, a popular male/male ship involving one of the 16-year-olds is “pedophilia” because this character was below the (American) age of consent when the series first began airing.

Although this argument makes a certain degree of sense, the real reason this ship is labeled as “pedophilia” is because the anti-shippers prefer any number of other ships, some with a comparative age gap. These fans become emotionally attached to their preferred ship, and the intensity of this affect manifests in the violence of their reaction to any depiction of their favorite characters in a different relationship. They only want to see fan-made content of their preferred ship, not anything else.

The followers of some of the most influential antis are drawn to them because of the pro-ship art or stories they create, which makes them more willing to tolerate and spread the anti-ship content as well. It’s been my experience that, within the isolated context of a certain artist or writer’s blog, there’s often a clear connection between “I like a ship between two characters of equal social status” and “I don’t like a rival ship because its fans emphasize the uneven power dynamic.” In other words, an anti-ship argument may make perfect sense within its specific context. Unfortunately, this argument starts to break down when its more incendiary aspects spread through reblogs (or retweets). What most people see, then, are reblogs of posts saying things like “Anyone who ships [ship name] is a pedophile!” or “Unfollow me right now if you’re a disgusting [ship name] pedophile!” These posts then spread even farther from their original context, and they can pick up thousands of notes because, after all, nobody wants to be associated with pedophiles, right?

As I stated at the beginning of this essay, this is a troubling trend in fandom for three main reasons.

First, misinformation regarding abuse leaves people (especially younger people) ill-prepared to identify warning signs of real abuse when they encounter it. If the vast majority of a fandom’s conversations about “abuse” concern “shipping the wrong pairing,” then there’s no room for conversations about what actual creepy people have done in the past or may still be doing.

Second, overexposure decreases the severity of the accusation. Accusations of abuse are now so commonplace that it’s become almost impossible to differentiate between a post calling out a genuinely abusive person and a post calling out someone as “abusive” because they posted a picture of a fictional character that someone doesn’t like. This is essentially a “boy who cried wolf” scenario in action.

I want to emphasize that this is not mere conjecture. Because this is the internet, creepy people are out there, and creepy things do happen. Along with the aforementioned misinformation and overexposure, I’m afraid that the tribalism created by the intensity of this discourse may discourage people from reporting predators whom they perceive to be “on their side.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it’s worth saying that engaging in abusive behavior is, in fact, abuse. The romanticization of certain relationships may potentially make people vulnerable to abuse in the real world or trigger panic attacks and other negative experiences, which is why most content creators go out of their way to tag their work appropriately and preface it with content warnings. Still, this harm is hypothetical. Meanwhile, antis engage in actual harm by sending death threats, engaging in suicide baiting, and engineering social ostracization from a supportive community.

(For reference, I described my most recent experience with this sort of abuse in my post Bullying on Tumblr. After someone called me out for “animal abuse” when I posted a cute anime-style drawing of a cute cartoon character holding a cute cartoon pig, I was sent more than a dozen graphic images and videos of extreme violence against real animals and actual humans. These images were so disturbing that I wouldn’t be comfortable describing them even in the most general and abstract language.)

This rhetorical violence is often accompanied by gaslighting, or attempting to convince the person being bullied that they’re at fault, that they deserve what’s happening to them, or that they’re being neurotic and simply need to go outside. Although this hurts everyone, it has the potential to hurt people with minority identities to an exponential degree. For many younger fans with queer genders and sexualities, Tumblr fandom may have been the only “outside” they had within a homophobic family, high school, or religious community. In many parts of the world (including the United States), there is still a strong association between queerness and predatory sexuality, so a gay teenager who is “called out” for “pedophilia” is much more likely to experience severe emotional distress because of the violence of this accusation than a heterosexual adult.

When I say “I’m concerned by the rhetorical violence on Tumblr,” people outside of fandom tend to assume that I’m saying “I don’t think identity politics are a valid form of social justice,” but what I’m actually trying to say is “I don’t think sending death threats to gay teenagers is a valid form of social justice.” Calling people out for bad behavior is absolutely necessary in any community, but call out culture in its current state on Tumblr is facilitating abuse, not preventing it. Discussions about fictional representation are also important, but casual accusations of serious abuse are shutting people out and shutting conversations down, often to the detriment of people occupying minority or marginal positions.