I sat down at my desk this evening to do some research for a fic. But as sometimes tends to happen, I got briefly distracted by Twitter, and ended up falling down the perpetual rabbit hole that is the ‘older fans in fandom’ debate.
Look. My opinion, like anyone else’s opinion, is not a definitive answer here. But since this blog is supposed to focus on the actual experience of being an older fan, I at least want to get my thoughts out. Because I have a lot of them. They’re Thoughts with a capital ‘T’.
On one hand, young people absolutely should be able to look up their favourite show without unintentionally stumbling across NSFW art or fiction. No matter the age of the characters in question, anything that is sexual or gory or potentially disturbing should be tagged as such and flagged as such upon access, for the purposes of protecting young people from inappropriate content.
On the other hand, it is not my place or anyone else’s place to tell another adult what they can and cannot read/write/draw/fantasise about.
On yet another hand, things like depictions of sex involving minors, when created by adults, isn’t the kind of thing you can excuse. I honestly cannot come up with any justification for adults to create sexually explicit or titillating content focused on minors.
There’s a lot going on here – several issues that have become tangled together, making it hard to pick out clear definitive truths. Arguments about who has the right to exist in certain spaces can be complex and emotional. It doesn’t help that fandom is currently dominated by a lot of works which are primarily aimed at younger fans but which have enormous nostalgic value for older fans, giving both sides a sense of ownership of the works in question.
But isn’t it possible that different viewpoints can co-exist and be equally valid? Rather than one ‘side’ outright dismissing the other as wrong, can we just take a minute to consider that maybe both sides have valid points that need consideration?
I’m an older fan. So I’m seeing this debate through the lens of someone who’s been in fandom a long time and who doesn’t take kindly to anyone telling me that, simply because of my age, I don’t belong anymore and this isn’t my space. Yes, fandom spaces were built by people even older than me, and ageism in fandom is a serious issue. When adults have invested time and effort and money over decades to create fandom spaces, it is not okay for younger fans who are relatively new to these spaces to demand that anyone old enough to be a parent is no longer allowed in fandom.
This is especially prevalent with older women fans – although I don’t like to generalise, female fans tend to make up the majority of ‘creative’ fans, responsible for more fanfiction, art, geek crafting and other transformative works. Notice that there is little issue with ‘curator’ fans or archivists who create wikis or similar resources, or fandom reviewers – traditionally more the domain of male fans. I don’t see many arguments against gravure models of anime characters, or streaming site reviewers who openly hate anything that isn’t about big-breasted women or gratuitous violence. Where people have issues with these things, they seem more likely to walk away and not engage.
Fandom, for many, is a hobby, just like following a sports team or learning a craft. We don’t give up our hobbies the instant we turn 30. Our tastes regarding that hobby might change – an older football fan might choose to stop buying replica kits, for example – but our interest and our enjoyment are still valid. Some of us make friends and find relationships through fandom, and those connections can stay with us for life, giving us another incentive to remain in fandom even as our daily lives become more preoccupied with work or family commitments. Indeed, our fandom hobbies could be the one fun thing that helps us bear the strain of ‘real world’ concerns. It is not okay to demand that we give that up simply because someone who’s just recently discovered our hobby doesn’t want adults around.
But as adults, we have a collective responsibility to safe-guard young people in public spaces. Just as we might keep a watchful eye on an unsupervised young person who has strayed into an adult space, or as we might be protective of a very young adult joining our workforce, we have some degree of responsibility for young people who venture into fandom spaces.
True, there should be some degree of parental supervision for any young person using the Internet or attending a con. But we have no idea whether a teenager with a Tumblr account has parental permission or supervision. We, as adults in fandom, cannot assume that everyone we encounter online is there with appropriate permission and monitoring.
So it is our responsibility to tag and label and content-warn anything we produce and share online. We cannot hand-hold young people through a fandom initiation, and we cannot tell young fans to get off our lawn, just as young people cannot demand that older fans vacate fan spaces and hand them over to the under-25 crowd.
But I have worked in schools and youth groups and I have seen first-hand the increasing reliance a lot of young people have on adults to protect them from inappropriate things. Where my generation were still largely free-range kids, growing up without the Internet and having only the Green Cross Code man and Charlie the animated cat to warn us about things like Stranger Danger, younger people have grown up in a world where child protection issues are in the news almost daily, and where adult responsibilities regarding safeguarding are always explicit. There aren’t many public places that are strictly off-limits to under-18s, barring nightclubs, sex-shops and certain workplaces. We have a TV watershed to keep young people from viewing inappropriate content, and radio stations play clean versions of songs. So much of our offline life exists in spaces that are made safe for young people. So there are plenty of young people who view the Internet in much the same way. As a kid, I did not expect to be allowed into pubs (on my 16th birthday, some friends took me to a pub – we stayed for one drink, and I was petrified the whole time that we would be found out and kicked out for lying about our ages). I was taught to respect adult spaces and understand that I was only allowed there on the proviso that I was well-behaved and did not demand the same privileges that adults in those spaces have. Now, almost any UK pub will have at least one child in there during opening hours – supervised, yes, but it means that adults in that place must monitor their conversation to keep that child from overhearing anything inappropriate, even though it was created as an adults-only space.
So how do we find a balance that works for everyone?
Imagine fandom as a bookshop. The owners and managers are most likely older fans – 35+, with a lot of knowledge and experience of how to run a successful bookshop. The shop is open to everyone – customers of all ages are free to visit and shop.
Knowing that there will be young customers, the owners create an age-appropriate department. It’s easily accessible, clearly labelled as ‘for children’, and the staff expect it to be visited by children, possibly without adult supervision. An adult in the kids’ section alone might be simply purchasing for a child, but if they interact with someone else’s child, especially an unsupervised child, that would arouse suspicion.
For slightly older, but not adult, customers, there’s the YA section. It’s labelled as such. The managers know that the YA section will have content that is age-appropriate – we wouldn’t expect any sexually explicit or graphically gory or disturbing materials in there, although perhaps some content might have slightly more mature overtones.
The adult fiction section is separate. Perhaps it’s upstairs, where children are less likely to wander in unsupervised. Anyone in that section is expected to know, due to labelling and signage, that they are in the section meant for adults. Any content that is potentially disturbing, sexually or violently explicit, is labelled as such and occasionally even kept under wraps.
Taking the adult content and putting it in the kids’ section is not okay.
Letting children wander freely in the adult section is not okay.
Not labelling or wrapping something that is potentially disturbing is not okay.
Unwrapping something that is protected and labelled as potentially disturbing, when you know you are not of the target age-range, is not okay.
Demanding that the managers leave and hand over the whole space to younger people is not okay.
Both ‘sides’ have good points, and some people on both sides are jerks.
It is not my place, or anyone else’s, to dictate someone else’s fandom experience. But at the same time, we can directly or indirectly shape someone else’s fandom experience, by not flagging certain content, by venturing into inappropriate spaces, or simply by being jerks.
Writing or reading about a thing does not necessarily mean you condone or are aroused by that thing. If that were the case, there would be no crime fiction genre because every writer would have been accused of murder and every reader would be viewed with disgust and fear.
But creating a thing with potentially disturbing content and not warning that it is potentially disturbing is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. You might not be responsible for who can physically access your content, but you are responsible for content-warnings.
I feel like the censorship debate sometimes isn’t fully understood. At least, some people are so focused on protecting certain people from inappropriate content (with perfectly good intentions) that they forget what happens when someone takes it upon themself to dictate what other people can and cannot create.
When someone says, for example, “no one should be allowed to write fiction in which two teenagers have sex,” it sounds perfectly rational. But it opens the door, just a fraction, for someone else to say “and no one should be allowed to write fiction in which unmarried people have sex” or “fiction in which gay people have sex”. If we censor art or fiction on moral grounds, the question is, whose morals? Why are your morals more valid than mine? Why Christian morals as opposed to non-religious morals?
Yes, depictions of underage characters engaging in sex for the purposes of titillation are outlawed, to protect young people from potential abuse. But there are still professionally produced works which feature underage sex which are not pornographic. There is also a difference between an eighteen-year-old fic writer creating stories about 17-year-old characters, and a 40-year-old creator producing sexualised imagery or content of 17-year-old characters.
But it is not my place, or anyone else’s, to dictate what someone else can or cannot create.
I can disapprove. I can report inappropriate or unflagged content. I can post negative reviews. I could, if I was less polite than I am, directly message that content creator and tell them I don’t like their work. But then that creator would also be free to reply and tell me they don’t care about my opinion. I can also walk away from content that I find disturbing.
I have a responsibility to navigate fandom according to my own preferences. But I can only do this if content creators exercise their responsibility to tag, label and content-warn their content. I cannot navigate without appropriate signposts.
I also will not stay home and avoid fandom altogether because someone else feels I am too old to be here. I have built some of these roads. I have created some of these signposts that are helping fans who come after me.
Fandom is a bookshop – it needs age-appropriate departments. Fandom is a road – it needs signposts to navigate. And fandom is an open space where no one who behaves appropriately should be made to feel unwelcome.