Captain America and Iron Man Civil War meme. Cap says "transformative," while Tony argues for "curative," types of fandom.

What Really Divides the Two Sides of Fandom?

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I’ve been a part of some sort of fan community pretty much from the time I got online as a kid, and had always been warned of the typical “stranger danger” of the internet, as well as the horror stories of harassment women tended to experience in these communities. As such, I grew up hearing all about the toxicity of certain groups of men towards women on the internet.

I guess I was lucky, because it wasn’t until my early adult years that I actually experienced some semblance of it myself. And in some ways I remained lucky, because I’ve rarely been sexually harassed or directly discredited due to being a woman, and when I have, it’s never escalated into anything particularly serious or threatening.

My issues don’t tend to be about receiving unwanted attention so much as they are about receiving little-to-no attention at all. Mind you, this doesn’t apply to every space, but I find there are some similarities in the ones that it does. The biggest and most obvious is that they’re male-dominated and can have a bit of a “boys club” vibe (often a white boys club). This didn’t surprise me, given what I’d grown up hearing on harassment of girls and women in online spaces largely occupied by men, but what did surprise me is that this sort of brushing aside doesn’t just happen in the more hostile communities; it exists in even the “nice ones.”

I expected to be pushed aside in communities that were more upfront about the frat boy vibe (which, in my case, was mostly for various online creators whose work I enjoyed but community wasn’t particularly inclusive), and I was relatively okay with being “put in the corner,” so to speak, because I just wanted to share the content and make a meme or two. But there were others that I wanted to be part of because the vibe felt so friendly and welcoming, but there was a “glass wall” of sorts that always seemed to stop me from feeling like a full part of those worlds.

Let me be clear: While I don’t think those in the latter fandoms are excluding certain kinds of people (namely, women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, or any marginalized group) on purpose, they’re likely the product of a sort of phenomenon in fandom that often results in a gender (and often racial) split: curative fandom versus transformative fandom. Explained in a nutshell, the difference between the two is that the former group of fans tends to focus on trying to learn everything about a certain piece of media, and the latter tends to focus on making that piece of media “their own” by way of cosplay, fanart, and fanfiction.

And in general, curative fandom tends to lean straight, white, and male, while transformative fandom tends to attract more women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, which makes sense when you think about it. The latter fans don’t get as many opportunities to see themselves represented the way they’d like to in most actual media, and transformative fandom is a way for them to sort of take control of that. Cis, heterosexual white men don’t exactly have that need.

The thing is, I’m not actually referring to the typically preferred activities of curative vs. transformative fandom, because honestly, a lot of fans—regardless of identity or which of the two categories their fandom generally leans toward—usually at least dabble in both. What I personally view as the true differences between the two lie in the kinds of discussions they tend to have.

Both groups celebrate, critique, and theorize about their media of choice, but generally speaking, curative fandom tends to lean into quantitative discussion (think along the lines of ranked lists, deciding on most anticipated shows and movies, and the classic “who would win in a fight?” debate) while transformative fandom is more about meta-analysis of the work (think along the lines of shipping, character development, and the messages stories send).

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being in curative fandom, transformative fandom, or some combination of both; the problem is how hostility between the two often rears its ugly head, and, let’s be real, it’s usually people in curative fandom looking down upon people in transformative fandom, rather than the other way around. (And sometimes this shows from creators of a piece of media as well, who are often more open to interacting with curative fans than transformative ones, at least when it comes to answering questions about the story.)

Whether it be because of disdain for the idea of trying to reimagine the text of a story they love and have deemed themselves experts on the official version of, a dislike of shipping in fandom, or just a case of plain old bigotry (keeping in mind who generally makes up the bulk of each type of fandom), people in curative fandom don’t always appreciate the existence of transformative fandom.

Fortunately, I have almost never experienced straight-up disdain for my transformative fandom tendencies. I keep most of my fanfiction private or anonymous, and most of the negativity towards my meta-rants has come from a place of disagreement with my points, not disdain for my desire to discuss the material in that way in the first place.

What I have come across, however, is people misunderstanding why I want to participate in fandom through a transformative lens. They don’t treat me badly for it; they just don’t know how to react to character development breakdowns, or get why I would be just as interested in talking about why a ship is important to a show as world-building, mystery-solving, and the “rules” of the environment the show takes place in.

I find this to be such a shame, because I’m such a sponge for information on my favorite fandoms and putting it all together, but I also love looking at their meanings and the messages they send. In fact, it’s often when both are combined that the best ideas and insight occur. It’s so sad that not only does being in transformative fandom alienate me from certain fans who I think I would get along well with, but the misunderstanding and closing off of that side of fandom has people missing out.

I’m not saying everyone needs to start creating fanart and fic, but the ideas and conversations curative fandom and transformative fandom produce can actually complement each other pretty darn well, and make for an even more fun and enriching fandom experience for everyone.

(featured image: Marvel Entertainment)

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Author
Julia Delbel
Julia Delbel (she/her) is a contributing writer at The Mary Sue and has been doing freelance entertainment coverage for five years. She loves diving into film, television, and theater, especially Marvel, DC Disney, and animated content, particularly taking a hard look at their character development, storyline weaving, and place in the pop culture pantheon.