Gendering Fandom: why women are expected to put their toys away while the men keep playing

For a while now, I’ve had two separate essay ideas rattling around in my brain, making it to different planning stages as I tried to figure out how to develop my arguments. Today, those two ideas crossed paths and amalgamated into one gelatinous cube of fandom theory.

Idea number one was a deconstruction of the ways in which fandom experiences are gendered, based on the theory that media aimed at boys tends to have a different focus than media aimed at girls, resulting in teenage/adult fans who expect different things from their fandom journeys.

Idea number two was to explore reasons why older female fans seem to be pushed out of fandom in ways that older male fans are not.

Let’s outline the theory of gendered fan experiences first of all, as it does seem to lead into the second idea later on.

Think back to the types of cartoons, books or toys you were exposed to as a child. Sure, there were plenty of non-gendered examples (or there were if you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s), but at a certain point story-driven media for kids did frequently split into ‘girls’ stuff’ and ‘boys’ stuff’. Think My Little Pony versus G.I. Joe, Jem and the Holograms versus Transformers, Bratz versus Ben 10. There were and most definitely now are shows that are coded as ‘for girls’ and ‘for boys’ and woe betide any child, especially any boy, who shows an interest in the ‘wrong’ stories for their gender.

Because that gender policing comes not just from the people marketing those stories, but from the parents, families and friends of those kids, which I’ve seen firsthand more times than I can count; parents or grandparents in shops literally telling their child, “You don’t want that toy, it’s for [other gender]”. I watched a frustrated mother trying to explain to her little boy why he couldn’t have a My Little Pony toothbrush and ought to want a Batman one or Toy Story one instead. I’ve seen it happen in my own family (the male cousin who wasn’t allowed to have a toy vacuum cleaner in case it made him gay, or even all the times I wanted cars and construction kits for birthdays and had to pretend to be happy to get dolls instead). It happens.

The stories that are coded ‘for boys’ seem to have a lot of emphasis on things like competition, ranking, leadership, and aiming to be the best. They might not all be violent, but there are lots of stories about physical conflicts or about becoming the best in a physical field such as sport. There’s often clear-cut morality with definite good guys and bad guys, and the goal is to be the best, the first, the leader.

Contrast that with stories coded ‘for girls’. Those stories are more likely to have a focus on friendships or other relationships – family, or romance. They prepare girls for adult relationships by giving them spaces to fantasise about their own relationships, and conflicts are likely to be emotional, solved through talking, kindness and love. Even very recent examples such as the rebooted She-Ra or Steven Universe, while having physical conflict elements, have strong relationships as their focus or as their established base for understanding and solving those conflicts.

So how do these gendered shows prepare boys and girls for fandom?

Let’s say you’ve grown up mostly watching and reading stories with a focus on competition. Chances are, if you are active in fandom as an adult, you’re going to favour adult stories with a similar focus – fight scenes, battle plot arcs, lone male characters striving to be the best. Your fandom journey is likely to involve speculation about which characters are ‘best’. Who would win in a fight? Which captain was the most badass? Which villain is the strongest? And, unfortunately, which female character is the most fuckable? Because the few women in the stories you’ve grown up with have mostly either been eye-candy or ugly and therefore evil. Your media consumption has conditioned you to view stories through a male-coded lens, largely focusing on status and how to achieve it.

Conversely, if the stories you’ve grown up watching have been centred on relationships, it’s more likely that your fandom experience is viewed through the lens of relationships as well. Who do you ship? How would those two characters get together? What if those characters weren’t officers on a starship but staff in a coffee shop with different factors controlling their interactions? Your media consumption has shaped you to view stories from the perspective of the relationships at their heart, prioritising romance, friendship and happy endings.

My theory is that, having grown up with stories focused on conflict and status, collecting and competition, men view fandom in those same terms – gaining status, ranking and analysing, collecting artefacts and rejecting romance-related activities because those are ‘for girls’.

Conversely, growing up with stories about relationships and solving problems with love and understanding leads women to explore fandom from a similar perspective, focusing on relationships between characters, on creativity and exploring alternatives rather than adhering to one hard-and-fast version of canon.

Obviously this is a generalisation – I don’t mean to say that all men or all women have the same experiences – and I certainly don’t believe that one particular experience is superior to the other. My point here is simply that I can see differences in fandom journeys which seem to relate to the different ways in which stories are coded for girls or for boys.

Where this becomes a problem is when one faction feels the other isn’t doing fandom correctly. Shipping is silly. Obsessing over trivia is pointless. That show shouldn’t have won that award.

It leads to gatekeeping. People who don’t feel that another fan is a ‘true’ fan because they don’t know the lore, they haven’t collected the merchandise or the history, or they like the character for the wrong reasons.

It leads to certain stories being valued less, because they’re coded for a gender which is valued less. Think back to Yuri On Ice winning at the Crunchyroll anime awards, and the number of fans who were outraged because they felt a show about relationships wasn’t worthy of winning. Yuri On Ice took a lot of hate from male-dominated fanbases because it was both aimed at women and featured a same-sex relationship. It wasn’t ‘doing anime right’.

Think about which franchises get attention at conventions; which ones have the most representation, either through cosplay or guest appearances. My Hero Academia cosplayers outnumbered everyone else at the cons I went to last year – a shounen story with an apparent focus on conflict and status. MCU films are likewise over-represented, with blockbuster films about fighting and largely male casts .

Think about how male-dominated franchises and their fandoms respond to relationship-focused storylines or to fans who choose to focus on shipping and transformative works. They’re ‘doing fandom wrong’. Those fandoms, it seems, are for ranking characters, speculating about battle outcomes, and learning and reciting the lore.

All of which leads me into essay idea number two: why are male fans allowed to continue their fandom journey beyond the age of 30, while female fans are told so frequently to “go pay your taxes, mom”?

What prompted me to pull these two essay ideas together was a number of videos that have crossed my path lately which feature men in their 30s and 40s, either in groups or alone, wearing fandom T-shirts and baseball caps, sitting around and talking about their stories. They’re often sitting in front of shelves of fandom merchandise to show their status as top-tier fans. Many of them are ‘pro’ YouTubers, making a living from giving their opinions.

It led me to think about these two essays I’ve been planning for a while. What would be the reaction to videos featuring groups of women in their 30s, wearing fandom T-shirts and sitting in front of a wall of fan-art, talking about their opinions on fandom, on anime, on transformative content?

My first thought was, it would take a lot of bravery to put such content out into the public sphere because I’ve seen how dudebro fans react to female fandom and I don’t like it. I’ve read the comments from those particular men about how shows coded for women suck. I’ve seen the looks on the faces of the male staff in my local branch of Forbidden Planet when I’ve asked if they stock certain manga coded for women. I’ve seen the way women over 25 are told their fandom opinions don’t count, that they shouldn’t even be in fandom at all because they’re too old.

No one is telling these dudebro fans and YouTubers to get off the internet and go pay their taxes. No one is telling them they’re too old to be wearing T-shirts to work or that their near-naked anime girl figurines are skeevy and gross. No one is telling them that they’re fake fans if they can’t explain the difference between alternate universe and alternate timeline or if they’ve never even read a single coffee shop au.

My point here is not to diminish anyone’s fandom experience or to say that there are right and wrong ways to do fandom.

Fandom is supposed to be for fun. How many of us geeks have been told, regardless of gender, that the stuff we like is actually a bit childish when you think about it? That we all ought to put our toys away and watch some proper grown-up TV?

My point is to highlight that, as in many other walks of life, men are set up to view fandom experiences and hierarchy differently from women, and men are given much more freedom to be involved in these actually a bit childish activities for much longer than women and that their opinions are allowed to count for more. Their fandoms are more likely to be front and centre – even the smallest manga section in a bookshop will include the big shounen titles like My Hero Academia, One Piece, Naruto – while fandoms coded ‘for women’ are still niche interests.

Even as an agender adult, I know that my fandom preferences are shaped in no small part by having been socialised as a girl, given stories about relationships and having been expected to avoid conflict and look for the best in everyone rather than enjoying fights and striving to be the best.

I would love to watch a YouTube channel in which women and non-binary fans talk about their favourite fanfiction, their shipping opinions, or this season’s best couples. But first we need to make women feel comfortable enough to put their fandom experiences on the same platform as those dudebro fans in their baseball caps without worrying that they’ll just be told to get off the Internet and go feed their kids.

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