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“Your Fave Is Problematic”—Callout Culture, Cyberbullying and Toxic Activism in Fandom

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Internet “callout culture” and the now widely parodied notion of “your fave is problematic” highlight instances when celebrities or creators of the popular media we consume use pejorative language or engage with issues in a manner which further marginalizes underserved identities. If people in the public eye make facile statements or give their support to completely tone deaf advertising campaigns like Kendall Jenner’s recent Pepsi debacle, they can expect to feature in memes and become the hot topic of scathing opinion pieces—and rightly so.

I fully support engaging with the information we’re being fed and interrogating flaccid platitudes as opposed to just passively accepting what we’re told. It’s a post-truth, alternative facts era, folks. Challenging “official” lines and mainstream narratives is part and parcel of resisting, a feature of dismantling the things our society normalizes, all of which disenfranchise marginalized groups. Even when I see challenges being made that I don’t agree with, the fact that the debate is happening at all tends to give me pause for thought and leads me to examine my own privilege. Anger that drives the most heated confrontations often comes from a place of seeing multiple examples of the same sort of issue and being sick and tired of it.

However, there’s a different kind of callout culture within fan communities that claims to come from the same place as the examples above, but is a toxic kind of activism enforced by a small but vocal minority. This is the culture of fans calling people out within their own communities for the content they produce creatively, the romantic pairings they ship or the characters they like. It’s often less about constructive debate and more about who can shout the loudest. Utilizing hate speech and slurs through anonymous ask functions, direct messaging and subtweets is, to put it simply, cyberbullying.

Of course, calling out problematic things can’t just be a one-way dialogue between fans and celebrities or creators. I’m not of the school of thought that suggests fandom spaces should be entirely free from interrogation and critique. I’m a big fan of the podcasts and meta posts that engage with polarising issues like diversity, queer activism and misogyny in fandom through a careful, critical lens. There’s clear hypocrisy in calling out those in the public eye for problematic statements before going on to post something racist, homophobic, misogynistic or otherwise, engaging in persistent harassment, invading celebrity or creator privacy and so on. I’m a believer in ‘you do you’ in fandom spaces, but the general rule of thumb (don’t be a dick) still applies.

What I find more insidious and worrisome is when the importance of identifying and pointing out systemic fractures within society becomes a stick with which one can beat on fandom participants, wielded by a few who have appointed themselves the moral voice of fandom at large. There’s the content policing which suggests that certain restrictions should be enforced on fic archiving sites, beyond the warning system and content tags which exist precisely to help people avoid triggering content. Then there’s the bullying which masks itself through the appropriation of social justice movements and a callout culture which affords no scope for learning from past mistakes.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2015, a fanartist in the Steven Universe fandom attempted suicide after repeated attacks over fanart which was deemed problematic. In the same year, a small number of fans targeted certain Sherlock convention panelists and attendees with online harassment and doxxing campaigns. Multiple fandoms with real people as the focus of fannish attention have been guilty of celebrity harassment and the understandable desire to discourage such harassment can create toxicity on both sides, which manifests itself within fandom in hate-filled anonymous asks and twitter threads. Fandom wank and ship wars have been around for a long time. Issues can become divisive and the inevitable descent from constructive debate to name-calling seems cyclical. As old fandoms move into new spaces and new fandoms gain traction, the same debates reappear and the fandom old guard end up having the same conversations.

I accept there’s an uneasy balance between the desire to encourage respectful interaction and becoming the tone police—a tension between advocating for kindness and creating an oppressive culture of nice where nobody can disagree with anything and everybody is rendered silent. Acknowledging those tensions exist is important, but not sufficient to justify bullying. There’s a clear distinction between exploring objects of fandom and considered meta and character analysis on the one hand, and attempting to force people to ship, write, and like people deemed worthy of attention on the other. The latter is often combined with the toxic use of social justice activism to coerce fans to agree with a particularly vocal group. When disagreement results in gleeful celebrations over deleted accounts and the disappearance of one or more people into the ether, it leaves something of a bitter taste.

I’ve seen people driven out of fandoms because of persistent flaming of their work and ship wars. I’ve seen het shippers labelled gross and homophobic and shippers of enemy slash pairings called abusive because of the relationships they portray creatively. At this juncture, people often find themselves forced to share personal information about their own experiences with abuse or identity in order to explain why they should be allowed to have a voice in the debate—a complicated trend towards details of identity, life experience and socio-economic status being required to validate opinion or justify a place at the table. When the language used to attack other fans involves slurs and hate as opposed to doing anything meaningful to advance conversations around fandom spaces and the works produced within them, I would suggest that identity doesn’t give anyone a free pass. Engaging with discussions around a lack of diversity, ships, content restrictions and respectful interaction with celebrities and creators is a debate. Telling someone to kill themselves because you don’t like their ship is not.

In a predominantly female-gendered and queer community, the ability to strike a balance between a degree of critical introspection and providing a safe space for freedom of expression is so important. I heave a sigh when I see people criticized for producing content that represents relationships which are “unhealthy” or “damaging,” as if fiction should be didactic. Kink shaming is loud and vitriolic and the line between fiction and reality seems to have become increasingly blurred and ill-defined, with outlandish claims made about the moral compass of individual fandom participants, based on the material they produce.

There’s a thin line between critical interrogation of transformative works and policing female fantasy and creative output. As I’ve expanded beyond LiveJournal and spent more time on other platforms, the same debates we were having years ago about darkfic, freedom of expression and policing transformative works are prevalent. I don’t want to see women’s voices stifled and marginalized when fandom has long offered an unfettered and safe creative outlet for female creators. I particularly don’t want to see this happen on grounds of morality, as if fiction is duty bound to adhere to some kind of highly subjective moral code established by a vocal few. This kind of puritanical policing all comes from a place of misogyny, tied up with moral panic around what women might be reading or writing. It’s exactly these sort of arguments that have historically suppressed and silenced art created by women, and in our communities–those online spaces of our own–we should be fighting to resist any kind of suggestion that the people within them aren’t free to create something on grounds of virtuosity.

I don’t advocate silence or believe we have to tip-toe around one another constantly. We live in an era of Donald Trump, and with right-wing nationalist rhetoric finding increasing support, we should be angry. However, there’s a way of balancing the pressing need to call out those politicians and public voices who should rightly be held accountable with the treatment of individual fans; a way of avoiding putting a target on a fan’s back and yelling ‘shoot.’ Bullying is insidious and it does nothing to advance dialogue. It leads to significant individual harm and makes fan communities unsafe for the very people whose voices are so rarely amplified in public discourse.

Although interrogating fictional works and fandom itself is an important part of being a fan, there’s nothing socially progressive about toxic callouts hidingt beneath the guise of social justice.

(image: Shutterstock/Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley)

Emily is post-graduate student at the University of York and a freelance writer. Her research focuses primarily on post-Stonewall American LGBT fiction, LGBT young adult fiction, trans performance poetry, fanfiction and fan communities.  She blogs regularly about queering popular culture and bierasure in mainstream narratives. She is an avid writer in several fandoms. After leaving employment to return to academia full time, she is also actively involved in local community LGBT activism and volunteer work. You can find her on Twitter @dustlesslibrary.

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