This week I’ve been thinking a lot about fandoms. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be in a fandom, how being in a fandom has changed so much because of social media, and how generally thankful I am that for the most part, I’ve lurked on the fringes of many fandoms without getting personally embroiled in all the discourse and politics.
Fandoms, for those of you who maybe haven’t come across the word before, are the collective groups of fans for particular shows/books/films etc. It’s a place where you can squeal and get excited about your favourite things, and have other people squeal and get just as excited back. It’s where you share ideas, speculation, spoilers, go to cry on (virtual) shoulders when the shows do bad things, people show their art and fiction based on their favourite characters, and so on. A fandom is an amazing, welcoming, inclusive place to be for the most part, it really, honestly is.
What fandom can be, though, is toxic. People get passionate about what they believe in, and that’s beautiful, but then there’s another level of passionate that is frightening, damaging even. You get bullying – so much bullying; even more with social media than before we had it. You get possessiveness over the actors, you get people getting so into the idea that we own the actors that we can belittle their families, demand their constant attention on social media and at conventions, and get vindictive and destructive against those actors who we dislike – or whose characters we dislike.
Let’s give you some examples, in case you haven’t come across any. Just this week, Alanna Masterson (Tara/The Walking Dead) deleted her Instagram account after the detritus of the fandom bodyshamed her for putting on weight whilst pregnant. Co star Josh McDermitt (Eugene/The Walking Dead) quit social media altogether because of death threats, and some fans had the audacity to say, oh, well, the rest of the cast get death threats and they don’t quit – like he was in the wrong for quitting. And speaking of death threats, Melissa McBride (Carol/The Walking Dead) has suffered some really nasty treatment from another alleged fan of the show because, well, because her character is often shipped with Daryl, and she happens to be friends with Norman Reedus outside of the show, and some people just don’t agree with any of that at all. Guess what, if you don’t agree? It’s not your business. And you can just disagree quietly, or find a politer way to disagree with what’s happening, without being a poor excuse of a human being about it.
This example is just from The Walking Dead; this behaviour is unfortunately true of a lot of fandoms, and only seems to be spiraling. I could write chapter and verse about the truly nasty side of the fans of, say, Supernatural, but to be honest, I can’t be bothered to: these so-called fans don’t deserve any of our time, and the idea behind the SPNFamily is caring about the people in your fandom – including the actors and crew – and not being utter dicks.
On to another example of where fandoms can go wrong. Conventions are great experiences for fandoms, but can be so expensive to attend, and often out-price the average fan. I have friends who make a choice between having a yearly holiday and going to conventions; that might give you an indication of the cost involved. And generally speaking, it’s really, really rewarding being in a room full of people that maybe you’ve only ever spoken to online, but who just get your love of a show etc that your ‘real life’ friends don’t. Unfortunately, however, you’ll usually find at least a few fans amongst that group that stick out for their oddness. And by oddness, I mean that their authority on the show must not be questioned, they develop a mentality of ‘to get to the actors you’ve got to get through me’, they have insider information, and so on. You’ve also got con-goers that use it to get in contact with the actors they don’t like so they can attack them face to face with their nastiness. Honestly; sometimes you can understand why saying you’re part of a fandom is a bit like wearing a sign saying I might be a little unhinged.
Online fandom at the moment – probably always, if you go looking for it – is full of discourse. Arguments over which ship is right or will go canon, whether the actors are secretly in relationships with each other in real life, arguments about things we have no business speculating over, like the families of those actors. Yet we do it, or we see it, and sometimes it makes you wonder; does that make us complicit in those arguments when we say nothing, just as much as it does when we get involved? Or does getting involved just fan the flames of these individuals who clearly are missing something in their lives if they choose to be so hateful all of the time.
Fandom is also a place where we hold shows accountable. Fandom is where we look at all the things a lot of shows seem to glorify – sexism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, gratuitous sex and violence, for example – and talk about why shows think that should be shoved in our faces, why we need more representation; why showrunners are wrong to keep giving us these outdated ideas.
Now, what fandoms can’t seem to do a lot of, or have had little success in doing at least, is actually influencing these shows to do better. It doesn’t seem to matter how many fans stop watching, or how many emails/letters/tweets we write; nothing changes. Now, sometimes that’s good, because there’s elements of fandoms that just bitch and moan because they’re trying to get everything their own way, and that is unreasonable. But when a show consistently seems to glorify the mistreatment/dismissal of women (Game of Thrones, Supernatural; you’re two I’m staring at hard for some of your choices), where there is very limited or just token representation of the LGBTQIA+ community, where apparently, disabilities just don’t exist (or again, are nothing but token gestures to say hey look at us; we get diversity, keep watching our show), the only people in the world are white, where hey, it’s still a man’s world and there’s nothing better to watch than virile men who always get the girl – yet, you know, only to sleep with, then discard of them afterwards (Supernatural, I loved you until recently, but you tick all of these boxes)… what kind of message are you sending?
Imagine, if you aren’t in what’s considered a ‘minority’ of any kind – and I’m not too keen on the word minority because it feels like we’re alienating people just for not fitting a certain mould – imagine what it must be like. To have all of these TV shows and films and books available, but no one looks like you. No one has your hair or skin tone. No one is attracted to the same sex like you are – but everyone is attracted to someone, so if you aren’t, there’s something wrong with you. Imagine feeling alien in your own body because you identify as a different gender to what you’ve been born with, but there’s no one on your TV screen that’s like you, so it’s got to be you that’s broken. No one suffers from your ailments, no one has your beliefs; there is no one like you being portrayed. And when they are like you, they’re the characters that always, always seem to be killed off, or are half-heartedly written, or the butt of all the jokes. Or even more commonly, they’re the bad guys. What message does that send?
No one says a TV show, or a film, or even a book, is solely responsible for addressing all of the above at the same time, as much as that would be really, really good to see. But how about we stop making excuses for why we – and yes, I’m lumping all of us in here; showrunners, actors, fans, network execs etc – can’t be the start of something positive? How about we stop pretending we’re representative with our token gesture characters, and instead, flesh them out, make them living, breathing parts of what we’re reading and seeing. You know, like in real life, where we are diverse?
Real life, of course, has its problems with diversity, prejudice, and so on, we’d be stupid to think otherwise. But we can’t keep pointing the finger of blame elsewhere, or saying ‘let’s see what others do before we do it ourselves’ – and then jump on the bandwagon for it and try to take all the credit if it looks like it’s successful. We need to do something, and TV shows in particular can be such a huge catalyst for that change. We need more TV shows – and all their fandoms – to be that catalyst. How can we make anything better if we just sit here observing?