William Shatner Versus the Outlander Fandom

A lesson in toxic fandom and imbalance of power.
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After months upon months of Twitter backlash and fighting on two sides, many Outlander fans are accusing William Shatner of bullying them into silence. Shatner, on the other hand, views these fans’ various responses as bullying, too, citing some particularly strong responses from those within the fandom.

At the center of the fight between Shatner and the fans is one of fandom’s oldest traditions: shipping. What began as a shipping war between Outlander fans has escalated into something decidedly more hostile. Fans of Outlander understand that there exists a group of fans who ship the two lead actors, Sam Heughan and Caitrona Balfe. However—and this is where things get messy—it’s important to note that this group ships the two actors themselves, not necessarily their characters. Some parts of the fandom have taken the shipping beyond the realm of fantasy and have speculated that these two actors are in a secret relationship with one another. Despite both Heughan and Balfe’s denial of these claims, as well as the fact that they’re both in relationships with other people, those who ship the two of them refuse to acknowledge that there is nothing going on between them.

According to an incredibly thorough roundup of the ongoing Twitter war written by Vox’s AJ Romano, it’s because of this refusal that Shatner has taken it upon himself to defend not only Heughan and Balfe, but also Outlander fans who have found themselves bullied by the more extreme fringes of their fandom. There are, in effect, two sides to this shipping argument within the Outlander fandom itself: the “Truthers,” who defend the truth that Heughan and Balfe are not dating, and the “tinhatters” or super-shippers, so-called because of their belief in a conspiracy to cover up the supposed relationship between the two stars.

It would seem that nobody is completely innocent, as threats of harassment and even doxxing have been lobbed over the wall from both sides of the Outlander fandom.

All that being said, Shatner’s involvement does exacerbate the situation to some degree, and the reason for that lies in the way that he engages people online.

We’ve mentioned before that Shatner has a, shall we say… less-than-stellar reputation for dealing with controversial comments. As well, he has a reputation for being a bit abrasive when interacting with people over Twitter, and his interactions with the Outlander shippers (as they describe themselves) are no exception.

It’s likely that Shatner is responding the way he is because, well, harassment and doxxing are incredibly egregious violations of privacy and common decency. Nobody deserves to be doxxed or harassed for simply being online and disagreeing with someone else. Makes sense, right?

The thing is, while the Outlander fandom’s numbers (which includes its more toxic members) might be large, they don’t have the same kind of pull or reach that Shatner does. Consider for a moment that Shatner’s Twitter account boasts boasts some 2.36 million followers as of this writing. That number is important to remember, as therein lies the rub.

To better understand why Outlander fans feel the way they do about Shatner’s actions, take a look at the power dynamics at play between the two sides. As stated, Shatner has a pretty significant following on Twitter. And, according to multiple e-mail accounts of a few Outlander fans, there is a not insignificant number of people within Shatner’s following who have gone on to harass and otherwise bully those who find themselves the target of Shatner’s ire. One particularly egregious example includes a Shatner follower suggesting that folks should “start a crowdfund to get a very late term abortion” for a fan (i.e., raise money to have a fan killed). This tweet got the user suspended, but only for 12 hours.

Consider, as well, Paul Camuso, who remains colleagues with Shatner after working together on The Shatner Project and runs Shatner’s Facebook group and website. Camuso started the “Outlander Anti-Bullying” project, which is a website that shares resources on how to avoid cyberbullying, specifically within fandoms. One part of that project involves the establishment of the “Anti-Bullying Watchtower,” a (now-deleted) Twitter account that is “manned 24 hours a day 7 days a week with the fans from Outlander.  All groups will be represented in this Watchtower group.”

The website describes it as a secondary reporting channel, created to supplement the Twitter reporting feature, which as you and I and all of us know by now can be something of a hit-or-miss (but mostly miss) process. The account purports to provide an alternative means of delivering resources and support to people who find themselves harassed, but many fans have wondered whether the Watchtower project is truly operating in good faith or not. The type of pull that Shatner and Camuso possess carries over to the projects they create, with the Watchtower being one of these.

All this anti-bullying bullying is made easier by the fact that Shatner often replies to people in quote-tweets, which are broadcast and shared with his entire group of followers, as opposed to direct-replying, which would then only be visible to himself, the person he’s replying to, and anyone who follows them both. Direct-replying would undoubtedly would have spared many folks from becoming targets, as seeing these conversations would require a bit of digging, provided one isn’t any of those three parties.

It remains unclear whether Shatner is aware of the imbalance of power between himself and fans or not. Moreover, it remains incredibly unclear whether Shatner is aware of what this subset of his following does every time he replies to a tweet or posts screenshots like these—which, it should be noted, are themselves examples of some pretty harsh responses to Shatner and Camuso’s actions. [UPDATE]: It has been communicated to us that an example formerly introduced here wasn’t about Shatner, and we’ve removed it at their request.

Keep in mind none of this necessarily excuses the actions of the more toxic members of the Outlander community, either. As I said earlier, and as it bears repeating, nobody deserves to be threatened with harassment or doxxing on the internet. Plain and simple.

In their own ways, each party involved here has crossed the line. There are some incredibly serious problems within the Outlander fandom, earning it the dreaded label of “toxic.” Shatner, to a lesser degree, doesn’t exactly have clean hands, either, for the reasons stated above.

The entire fight between the two parties—both of whom, it should be noted, remain fans of Outlander, despite this ideological difference—has resulted in a war of escalation that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

We’ve reached out to Shatner and Starz for comment, and will update when we hear back.

(via email tips)

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Jessica Lachenal
Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (thebolditalic.com), and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters (spinningplatters.com). She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.