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.

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.