I’ve been working lately on a piece about managing mental ill health in fandom, but as I’ve been noting down my thoughts on the subject, I’ve come to realise that a lot of what I want to say extends beyond this one issue. Whenever I see examples of people struggling in fandom, turning away from something that used to help them, I also see examples of other people being utter shits to each other, in ways that are undeniably damaging to other people’s well-being. So where at one time it might have been straightforward to write an exploration of how one’s own actions affect one’s mental state, now any advice I might have is negated by the simple fact that the only way to have a good time in fandom is to avoid half the people in it.
We tend to think of fandom, like a lot of online pastimes, as an escape from ‘real’ life. As if our online activities (whether they’re about creating, role-playing, gaming or talking to other fans) are somehow separate from everything we do offline. Part of that is a long-standing belief that comes from largely older commentators who view the Internet and fandom as frivolous or irrelevant, but it’s also partly due to many of us having viewed fandom as an escape from the stresses of our offline lives. Online fandom is the fun thing we do to get away from serious stuff like work, politics or family pressures.
But I don’t think that’s the case anymore. In so many ways, our online spaces, including fandom, have become such an integral part of our daily lives that they affect us just as much as anything that happens offline or outside of fandom. Why else would anyone need to write about self-care in fandom in the first place?
A lot of what I write about here comes down to opposing ideas about entitlement to fandom, and who has the right to do what in fan spaces. In our offline lives, we (mostly) expect there to be restrictions on what we can and can’t do in various public spaces. Drive on the correct side of the road. Don’t open supermarket food until you’ve paid for it. Don’t have sex in public. We accept that these restrictions exist for good reasons, and most of us are appropriately outraged or worried when someone breaks the rules.
One would expect similar restrictions in online spaces too, but those spaces are harder to govern, because it’s much less clear what those spaces are. Are they public services? Are they private businesses? Are they open to all ages, or are they made for adults? Tumblr and Twitter seem like public services because they provide a platform for people to communicate, but operate like businesses because they require users to agree to terms and conditions, and often seem to vary how effectively they enforce those conditions depending who is breaking the rules and who is reporting the infringements. They largely operate on the assumption that users will self-moderate and self-censor, which we know is not the case for a lot of people. If it’s possible to post porn, then someone will, and if porn is postable, someone will want to view it. Most adults who regularly use the Internet ought to be savvy enough to remember that if it’s possible, some idiot will do it, and some bigger idiot will do even worse.
So where does this leave us with fan spaces? Well, it leaves us with some very extreme behaviours and viewpoints with most reasonable people stuck somewhere in the middle, trying to ignore the shouting from both sides.
There are two particular viewpoints that I’ve been struggling to navigate between for a while now. One is the view that all fan spaces should be safe spaces for minors. The other is that all creators should be free to create and share whatever they want, up to and including depictions of underage fictional characters engaging in sexual activities.
My honest opinion? Both sides should shut up and take a time-out. You’re both wrong, and you both need to think about what you’re actually saying and doing.
It’s a problem because so many people still treat online fan spaces as somehow ‘not real’, as being totally different from offline spaces. As if shouting, bullying and harassing people online doesn’t count because it’s not like it’s being done in real life. (The thought that more and more people actually do behave like this offline too is rarely commented on in these arguments, as if the ongoing Jeremy Kyle-isation of day-to-day life doesn’t matter.)
What goes ignored is the fact that it’s not the spaces (or the fictional nature of the characters) that counts, but the behaviour. The insults, the threats, the delight some people take in other people’s discomfort and pain, the glorification of distasteful content. What counts is what we present of ourselves and what we do to others.
It’s tough to try to stay moderate in the middle of all this. When both sides of an argument have a valid point to make but are so fixated on proving the other side wrong to be any kind of rational, it’s easier to switch off and hide than to attempt to mediate. Besides, I don’t want my fandom experience to be about arguments!
Fandom was my escapism; from real-life trauma, from isolation, from stressful jobs, from the news. It gave me solace and peace when offline problems got to be too much. But lately, it’s harder and harder to find those quiet, peaceful spaces when every fan space has become a platform for arguments. I can’t even call them ‘debates’ or ‘discussions’, because people are literally threatening each other, resorting to verbal abuse, basing their ‘concerns’ on prejudice and stereotypes, and generally behaving like spoiled, entitled brats. And now even offline fan spaces like cons are seeing the same sort of thoughtless behaviour, whether it’s kids harassing stall owners or grown adults wearing porn on their clothes.So the theory that people treat online spaces as less ‘real’ seems like it doesn’t entirely hold true. Which suggests that it’s not just an online problem, but a problem with behaviour and standards in fandom generally.
Every generation feels like the one that comes after them is somehow worse, that standards are falling and ‘things ain’t what they used to be’. I feel it, both as an older fan and an adult generally – as a former teacher and youth worker, I saw and still see increasing levels of poor behaviour in young people, resulting largely from parents who don’t know how to teach good behaviour, and also from popular media which encourages conflict as a form of entertainment – the Jeremy Kyle-ification of culture (or insert your American daytime talkshow host of choice). It doesn’t help that young people now expect access to any and all public spaces, be they online (Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube and the rest) or offline (children in coffee shops are bad enough; seeing parents bring their children into pubs still makes me feel icky).
It’s this general and pervasive sense of entitlement that’s most distressing. The ‘I’ll do what I want so fuck you’ attitude. The idea that holding someone accountable for their actions is actually a bad thing, a personal attack or a challenge that must be responded to with anger and outrage: what writer Lynne Truss called ‘the f- you response’. The ‘me first and sod anyone else’ mentality.
As a teacher, I worked with a lot of kids with behavioural issues, who often adopted the ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks of me’ line as a defence mechanism to handwave their rude or disruptive behaviour. It was always painfully clear that they actually did care what people thought of them, but couldn’t make the link between their challenging behaviour and the way others (peers and adults) treated them. They caused havoc in classrooms and youth spaces, were rude and aggressive to staff, but still expected everyone to want them around and be pleased to see them, then dismissed objections by claiming not to care.
I think of those kids when I see people in fandom, young and old alike, kicking off because someone called them out on their poor behaviour. I see these people, on both sides of an argument, and think, “I get why people don’t want you in their space – you’re nasty and rude and unpleasant to be around”.
It doesn’t matter which side of an argument you’re on: whether you’re the kid who wants a safe fandom experience or the adult who wants to defend freedom of creativity. If you make your stand by throwing insults and bullying people and resorting to threats and abusive behaviour, you make fandom an unpleasant place to be.
Content can be and sometimes is problematic, if not potentially dangerous. Some things, like marking sexually explicit material involving minors, are taboo for a good reason. Questioning that content isn’t inherently a bad thing, and maybe you should stop for a second and listen to other people’s concerns. “It’s hot” is not a valid reason for making or enjoying that content, and neither is “fictional characters don’t have rights”. No one’s trying to safeguard the purity of anime characters. What we’re worried about is the fact that you, a grown adult, get off to thoughts of children having sex.
At the same time, I’m not in favour of outright censorship, because that road leads to bad things. Once you start censoring other people’s art, you’re on a slippery slope to all kinds of wrong.
But also at the same time, we can’t rely on everyone in fandom to self-censor, because we know that there are fans making pornographic content involving children and teenagers, and we know that there are fans making content that is racist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or harmful to marginalised minorities.
And also, we should know that we won’t get anywhere in addressing this harmful content by screaming and threatening and harassing. No one ever changed their mind because they were insulted enough.
So what can we do? We few, we sensible few, we band of bothered. The fans old enough to know better and decent enough to be concerned about problematic fan works. Those of us trying to find the middle ground between kids bullying adults out of fandom, and adults gleefully defending their ‘right’ to sexualise children. How can we navigate fandom and strive for better things?
I don’t think we can change many people’s minds. If someone really thinks it’s okay to post paedophilic or ephebophilic content and isn’t deterred by someone calling them out, then no kind of logical debate will work because they’re not operating from the same logical perspective as you. If someone knows it’s wrong and does it anyway, nothing you can say will stop them because they want you to be outraged. Likewise, if a young person throwing insults and bullying other fans is active enough in fandom spaces to have a following and content of their own, they’ve already developed their habits and behaviours, and it’s not your responsibility or mine to parent them.
Honestly, I think the best we can do is to set good examples. To set standards and boundaries.
(This is where I miss LiveJournal’s community-based structure, where it was possible for people to easily create their own communities and for moderators to remove people who behaved poorly.)
Be the responsible adult who doesn’t get drawn into arguments. Be the one who refuses to respond to threats and insults, and who doesn’t boast about being blocked. Be the one who tags your work, flags other people’s problematic content, and stays away from the stuff you don’t like. More importantly, be the one who spreads fandom joy, sharing the good stuff and leaving nice comments on the work you like. Foster positive relationships with the younger fans you know, and be the best fan you can be. You don’t have to be anyone’s fandom nagging parent, but you can be the cool fandom aunt/uncle/non-binary older relative.
Fandom doesn’t have to be a dumping ground for all this aggro. Making yourself the Chief of Fandom Police is tiring, and taking on that responsibility makes your fandom experience less about the fun escapism and all about you and your ideas. Fandom also isn’t your therapist – writing about abuse or incest or whatever might genuinely help you cope with your trauma, but no one said you had to post that stuff online for likes and follows. That’s not coping, that’s enabling others who enjoy that stuff.
I want fandom to be fun for everyone. There’ll always be someone who tries to spoil things – if it’s possible to be stupid, then some idiot will be stupid, and on levels you can’t even imagine – but they should be the minority, not every other person on your Twitter feed. If that’s turning out to be the case, make good use of the ‘block’ button and free yourself from all that stress.
Set the standards. Set them high, and walk away from anyone who doesn’t live up to them.
I am currently without Internet at home, hence fewer posts this week than usual (and I can’t watch any anime, which is just the worst!). Writing essays in coffee shops is expensive. Hopefully I’ll be back online properly by the weekend, in time for Sunday’s Weekly Watch post. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter and Tumblr for more up-to-date fandom ramblings.