This may not be what someone would expect from me, and it’s not about reader entitlement or author entitlement; though they both can play a role. Rather it’s about the agreement reality that fandom – or more specifically, segments of individual fandoms – operate under and how that can affect us.
I’m going to use the term agreement reality in a sort of twisted way. If you’re not familiar with agreement reality as it pertains to modern society, I’d highly recommend further reading on the subject.
There’s a theory in political silence called the Spiral of Silence. Here’s a brief summary: “one opinion becomes dominant, as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation.” There are all kinds of articles about how agreement (or consensus) reality and the Spiral of Silence manipulate our views, and ultimately influence our actions. For me, it’s pretty interesting social and political theory. But you don’t need to know anything about either for my rambling musings.
So what does that have to do with fandom?
Let me take you back to some earlier days of fandom; before we had big multi-fandom archives – but after everything was on tenth-hand printed copies. Fandoms were isolated little entities, and each of those entities developed its own mode of operation.
Some entities were as big as an entire fandom, though I’d say that was rare. More likely, it was at least divided down the het, gen, slash lines; and possibly even down a more granular line of an individual ship. And let’s be real, most of this was on newsgroups or mailing lists way back when; though things didn’t change much with the advent of individual fandom archives.
To me, the multi-fandom archive was a bit of a game changer for many writers and readers, but I’ll come back to that.
So, you wanted to read or write in [insert name] fandom, and there’s no doubt part of the allure of fandom is the sense of community and love of the subject matter shared with other. This is where agreement reality comes into play. As communities evolve, they develop a set of expectations and behavioral norms that people are expected to unblinkingly accept. And if you don’t, you’re chastised, or possibly even ostracized by your beloved community.
As with everything, there’s good and bad.
Let’s look at some common tenets we see in fandom communities:
- no reader entitlement
- character-X can only top
- you must warn for character death
- no author bashing
- character-X must be characterized is only this way
- character-X is unredeemable
- no underage characters
- no Mary Sue / Gary Stu
- no author entitlement
- any OTP argument you’ve ever heard
- no fandom shaming
- no self-insertions
- but it’s okay to shame fandom X
- no kink shaming
- except this thing we find really objectionable
- everything is fine except mpreg
- no slash
- no het
- no OCs
As you read the list, you’re evaluating which are good/bad, right/wrong. That’s human nature. We’re judgey bitches even when we’re saying “hey, no judgment!” You automatically know which things you’d be comfortable with, and which you’d run screaming from.
I have yet to encounter a fandom community that has not developed a reality under which they operate. And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Or a good thing. But it is a thing. A thing to be aware of, lest it affect you in ways you don’t expect and are completely oblivious to.
So, here’s my story.
In the very early days of fandom for me, which is probably when you’re the most impressionable, I was involved in several tight-knit communities that lived primarily on mailing lists. In some cases, the community had a set of “rules”; usually something benign along the order of; no flames, slash only, het only, etcetera. But it’s the unwritten rules that are the insidious ones. The rules everyone knows about and “enforces” and no one will flat out say.
In my fandom, and my communities, one of the greatest sins you could commit was to self-insert, or write a Mary Sue. (Please note that I recognize there is overlap between the two terms, but not every Mary Sue is a self-insertion). Gary Stus weren’t liked, but they didn’t get the backlash of the dreaded Mary Sue.
It got to the point you couldn’t have a female OC who did more than take an order at a diner without people making snotty remarks about your Mary Sue / self-insertion. (Which sound sort of pervy, now that I read it.)
So, I’m a reader at the time, and new to fandom, new to several slash communities, and I see authors getting slammed (albeit, often politely to avoid the “no flames” rule) for their female OCs. It didn’t seem to matter what the OC’s role was, if it was a female in a slash story, it was BAD.
Until recently, I don’t think I realized how much I internalized what I read on-list during those years, and how much it would later come to effect my writing.
The other day, someone rather innocently asked me why I didn’t have more female OCs in my stories. Normally I’d ignore a question like that, because I don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of thing, but the question brought me up short.
Why don’t I have more female OCs?
I’m not an author who’s afraid of original characters, so why are they almost 100 percent men? I love reading well-rounded, multi-dimensional women characters. So, why don’t I write them?
I noodled on this for quite a while. Not consciously; but in the back of my head, it was like a hamster on a wheel. And then I realized how much of those early days of fandom had been internalized and expressed in my writing process.
I don’t care much for reading Mary Sues, personally, so I doubt I’d write one, but since when does that mean no female OCs? Well, that’s pretty much what I inferred from the agreement reality of my community. The thing I wanted so much to be a part of, and would have done anything to not have them think poorly of me.
A lot of time has passed since then, and I have my own code under which I operate where no one tells me what I can write. But I find myself oddly saddened that this skewed perspective has been lurking around my psyche all this time, influencing me and I wasn’t even aware of it.
So, why did I mention that multi-fandom archives were a bit of a game changer? Well, it allows people to read or write in fandom without getting immersed in a community’s expectations. The upside is other than the odd troll who passes your way, you can flit through fandom and not experience the pressures I mentioned here. On the other hand, you’ll miss out on what can be a grand experience.
Online communities are a blessing in so many ways, but I throw this out there in the hopes that perhaps someone will be able to hold on to their voice rather than succumb to the Spiral of Silence. If you find a place you belong, if you’ve found your tribe, you should still be able to be you. Test your reality… don’t accept things just because that’s the prevailing public opinion.
And if your tribe doesn’t allow a voice of dissent? Find a new one.
– – – –
Post publication update: I’ve gotten some private pings asking or assuming that this was a subtle dig at a particular fandom or community. No. This is my experience in fandom over the course of 16-odd years. Every one of the examples I gave, I’ve seen or experienced.
I said the following in one of my comment responses: … it’s important to know what you’re agreeing to, and to test what it is you need from the experience. And if it’s not working for you, or you feel stifled or judged, to move on. So maybe people on site X lose their minds over who bottoms? Rather than changing the story to appeal to the community at site X, I’d hope that authors will make a more conscious choice. Go somewhere else, or stand proudly in the face of the opposition. Either way, don’t short change your writing because of other’s intolerance, or a need to appease or belong.