The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fanfic on Tumblr

I just read a brilliant post on Dreamwidth titled “State of the Migration: On fannish archival catastrophes, and what happens next” about, well, exactly what it says on the label. There has been some concern about Pillowfort, and I’ve seen a few curated lists of other alternatives to Tumblr, but I’m going to be honest and admit that what I really want for the next fandom hub is that it’s fanfic friendly. Tumblr was a great platform for visual artists, but it wasn’t such a good place to host or promote writing.

As a fic writer, I believe with all of my heart that fan artists are wonderful, which is why I support a number of them through Patreon, Ko-fi, and commissions. I reblog the work of fan artists because I love it and I want it to spread, even if my contribution to the artists’ success is limited. Almost every writer I know is supportive of artists in their own way. Artists make fantastic contributions to fandom, and they deserve love!

At the same time, I’ve sometimes felt resentful that many people in Tumblr-based fandom don’t go out of their way to support fic writers in the same way. In fact, most don’t even bother to click on the “like” button of the fic posts that appear in the tags they use on Tumblr. This may seem petty, but it’s actually a big deal. Not only does the small show of support of “liking” a post fill the hearts of writers with joy, but it also figures into the metrics of the Tumblr platform itself, which promotes posts and keeps them from disappearing from the appropriate tags based on how many notes they receive.

I recently read a great essay, Social Contract Theory and Fandom Libertarianism, whose author argues that people with a libertarian approach to fandom want “all the benefits of living in a society without any sort of responsibility for their fellow community members.” I think many fans want the “benefits of living in a society,” such as a steady stream of quality content, positive feedback, encouragement, and the occasional monetary donation – because of course they do – but they may not fully understand why it’s important to help support the community that supports them. After all, the popular fan artists have thousands of followers, and their posts get hundreds (and often thousands) of notes, so the community is doing fine, right?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of fic writers (including myself) who’ve struggled through a dark and painful space on Tumblr. The libertarian approach to this concern is that “everyone should just take care of themselves and leave everyone else alone.” In theory, this should work. The problem is that the prevailing fan culture on Tumblr has been skewed heavily in favor of artists, and what this has meant in practice is that fewer people have been posting their stories. Over the past four years, from the summer of 2014 to the end of 2018, I’ve watched the number of fic posts on about two dozen fandom tags I track dwindle down to almost nothing, even as the fandoms themselves continue to be quite active.

One might argue that the platform itself is to blame. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the layout of the site facilitates the rapid consumption of images, while writing often takes more time to process. In addition, depending on the interface, “Read More” cuts and links may not work properly. That being said, Tumblr recommends posts based on the activity of each individual user. For example, if a user likes a lot of text posts, Tumblr will recommend more text posts. This means that there doesn’t seem to be any innate programming that works against text posts, as Tumblr does not hide text posts on tracked tags, and image posts are just as likely as text posts to disappear from tags if they don’t receive enough notes.

The root of the problem is that many people on Tumblr, as individuals, do not support fic writers. They will not like fic posts, they will not reblog fic posts, and many will not even bother to look at fic posts if they don’t see them reblogged by someone else. Moreover, even though it’s relatively common for fan artists to draw fan art that celebrates the work of other artists, the vast majority of people specializing in visual art on Tumblr would never consider drawing fan art for someone’s fic. There are exceptions, of course; but, in my experience, they are extremely rare. No matter how involved a fic writer may be in the fandom community, and no matter how much support a fic writer may give to other creators, most people won’t acknowledge the existence of their writing.

In other words, the work of fic authors work may as well not exist. This is probably why I’ve seen so many writers get discouraged and leave their fandoms or quit Tumblr altogether over the past five years. Millions of stories are still being posted to Archive of Our Own, but AO3 is not a social networking site and was not designed to facilitate friendship, community-building, and collaboration. Meanwhile, the entire purpose of Tumblr is to create relationships between users, but writers rarely end up benefitting from their engagement.

The sad thing is that, again, this bias against writers is not innate to the platform itself, and the culture within fandom doesn’t have to be the way it is now. To give a personal example, when a fandom artist reblogs one of my fic posts, I can get hundreds of notes and dozens of new followers. That sort of thing means the world to me – all creators value positive feedback, after all – but it only happens about once every six months. This has been enough support to keep me going, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt that the majority of my fic posts only get seven or eight notes. I’ve tried experimenting with all sorts of variables, from the content of what I post to the length of what I post to when I post to how often I post, but nothing I’ve done has affected the reception I’ve received. What has surprised me most is that the reception of my writing is also completely unrelated to the size of my following; I currently get the same number of notes on my writing with thousands of followers as I used to get with only several hundred followers.

And this, I think, is why the culture of fanfic on Tumblr died out, while fandom culture in general seems to have gone off the deep end. Writers contribute fresh new ideas, create meta and stories that inspire people, and make high-quality shitposts. They are vital to fandom, and they keep online communities (especially communities for niche interests) healthy, friendly, and thriving. I hope that, wherever fandom ends up, the slow migration from Tumblr serves as a catalyst for a change in the culture.