Jilly’s Musings – The Hidden Effect of Fandom

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.

25 Comments:

  1. “And if your tribe doesn’t allow a voice of dissent? Find a new one.” <– amen!

    It's funny. I've seen a lot of those 'unwritten rules' in my time, and have happily flown against them by and large.

    • If I’m part of a community that has a standard of behavior that I agreed to upon entering, I’m fine with that. Like if your community doesn’t flame or author bash… that’s great if that’s what you need. There’s a place for everyone.

      I just think 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.

      Wow… that turned into a ramble that wasn’t even to your point! LOL.

  2. This is really interesting. I’ve found myself keeping silent in the face of:

    “-no kink shaming
    -except this thing we find really objectionable”

    a good bit lately. To my mind there has been a lot of that going around lately, especially the second part, and it makes me really uncomfortable.

    We’re supposed to support each other but then someone reads something that is against what they like and suddenly, they are trolling the author and encouraging others to get on the bandwagon and do the same. People say, “I don’t share your kink but I’ll defend your right to have that kink.” And “If you read something of mine and don’t like it, there is the x button in the corner or the back button.”

    But then they turn around and say, “Here’s this story where they are showing a kink I don’t like and think is wrong and evil and even though they warn for it, the author is the devil incarnate. Let’s report the story and author for being evil. Come on everyone.”

    And lots of people do it.

    I’m actually worried about posting this comment. I worry that I’ll get jumped on and trolled and harassed. It is why I’ve been wary about speaking up when the matter has appeared. But I’m going to take a chance and if I do get backlash, well, it proves my point, doesn’t it? And Jilly’s final point as well.

    (BTW, this has absolutely nothing to do with 50 Shades. I’ve not read it nor seen it and that is that. This started well before the 50 Shades brouhaha that started around recently with the imminent movie release and following its opening weekend.)

    • I promise no one is going to troll you here! I love good discussion, but asshattery? No.

      There’s an interesting thing that happens sometimes where we join a community or fandom or whatever because we like the ‘agreement reality.’ It gives us a safe place to express our joy and love of whatever our fandom is. So it can be particularly shattering when the rules you feel safe under aren’t respected. There’s a place for people in fandom for every type of expression, but not every expression belongs in every place in fandom.

      And double standards suck.

      I think my point, and I may not have made it clearly, is to be aware of how that reality and those expressions shape how you are and how you think and how you write. Particularly the ‘write.’ I want to see writers go after what they’re passionate about and interested in, not that which fits into the confines of the expectations of a segment of fandom.

      Peace and love, my dear.

  3. I never stuck to one fandom for any length of time and, like the quantum weather butterfly that starts a thunderstorm, usually went around causing trouble by ignoring all the rules ( I never was very good with social graces or regulations!) by reccing, encouraging and *gasp* writing fic that broke the rules and refusing to leave until I was done with the fandom.
    15 years later and nearly as many names in fandoms down the line I have finally decided that I shall do my own thing and read who I like without letting the few petulant little dictators who lurk in the dark corners of fandom make me change my name again.
    I have always written OC’s, female, male, trans, genderqueer, gay, straight, ace, alien… and I have always read them because let’s face it a well written OC can often be better than a canon character who was thrown into the mix for three episodes (or occasionally 3 seasons).
    I think that fandom has grown up a lot since I joined it (big multi-fandom archives and social media have done a lot), young or new writers will probably be influenced far less by the old guard but we dissidents still have a lot of work to do and sometimes, that starts with ourselves.

    • Brava! I totally admire you.

      I think back to my first incarnation in fandom and so wish it had gone differently. I resolved when I became this me that I wouldn’t let fandom again shape me in such a way that I had to run from myself.

  4. Thanks for that! That was very a succinct and accurate explanation for some of the patterns I’ve noticed. After a while, you stop wondering “why” some trends seem so dominate and just accept them. While in relation to fandom, the Spiral of Silence is an interesting side observation, I think it would be really interesting and probably a little terrifying to look at it in relation to politics and social theory! Youch!

    • Agreement reality and the Spiral of Silence in relation to politics is as fascinating as it is scary. The effect on elections and the shaping of public opinion to win elections, is particularly insidious and something that has been going on forever in this country.

  5. I’ve been in fandom for nearing 22 years and I have also seen the same thing over the years and have also suffered for it. However, I was one of those very lucky people who was introduced to fandom by an amazing author who did what she wanted and didn’t care about what other people thought of what she wrote.

    Scribe was a blessing in that way and a shock as well as finding that others were not as accepting and kind was jarring. I have no barriers when it comes to writing thanks to her and in finding new people who live by the same tenets I have regained the feeling of community and fearlessness that she gave me.

    • Scribe was amazing. I’m glad you found that in your journey. I know you’ve had a particularly hard time of it at certain times. *hugs*

  6. You’ve got my total agreement for this one, hun. Back in the ‘impressionable’ stage of fandom, I heard all about the evils of MarySu and GaryStu to the point that I have a hard time writing *any* OCs now. And when I do, they’re the waitress or janitor, with bit parts a turtle could play. The few times I’ve stretched beyond that, there’s this lingering feeling of ‘wait for it, someone’s going to make a snide comment soon’. As opinionated as I know myself to be, it’s a big pill to swallow acknowledging this. I love many of the recurring OCs in other people’s stories, but it takes a pitchfork to my ass to write my own *lol*

    • It’s sort of tragic how pervasive the ‘no OC’ thing is in many fandoms. Especially the no female OCs. Even without the overarching umbrella of a specific community to apply pressure on you, it’s very much a real thing that just general expectation can be its own stress. Even if you love something you wrote, it can be hard to to put it out for public consumption knowing you’re going to get hate mail. I certainly can understand why some writers retire from posting and just write what they want.

      *hugs*

  7. As a relative newbie to the whole shebang, I have basically missed most of what you describe. After plummeting headfirst into fandom (thinking “I wonder what this slash fic everyone’s on about is like?” proved to be a defining moment

  8. Aargh! Think my tablet ate most of my post!

  9. Ahem. Second try. Won’t be identical!

    As a relative newbie to the whole shebang, I have basically missed most of what you describe. After plummeting headfirst into fandom (thinking “I wonder what this slash fic everyone’s on about is like?” proved to be a defining moment), I rapidly happened upon AO3 and since then have flitted from story to story. Initial intentions to stick to certain fandoms or pairings fell at the hurdle of being a fast reader with possibly too much free time, and I will now read pretty much any scenario that piques my interest if it doesn’t sound too sad or angsty.

    Your post is fascinating though. Traces of the “rules” are definitely still visible, to a greater or lesser extent, even on a multi-fandom platform like AO3

  10. Thanks for this! I have often wondered why there aren’t more good female OC characters out there, but this makes perfect sense. I have definitely been turned off when reading Mary Sue stories, and it is probably very hard to write a strong female character without it turning into that sometimes.

  11. You managed to write down my thoughts and sentiments, though in a more sophisticated way. I started writing when I was young, just fourteen years old and knew nothing about the world of Fandom. When I posted my first story, I received hatemails and was flamed in such a cruel way that I resigned myself from writing for several years. The reason for those emails and hurtful words? My female minor character was featured too often and too strong. She wasn’t even an OC. The other authors and readers went so far as to tell me to erase her from my story. As a young girl, I was shocked that there seemed to be no place for females, be it young girls or women, in the world of Fandom. By no means do I see myself as a feminist. But how can a whole gender be so openly discriminated against and mostly by the same gender? I feel lost thinking about reason why writing about female characters could be considered such a sin. Therefore, you have my utmost gratitude for voicing your thoughts on the matter.

  12. Amen, sister, AMEN!!!

  13. It’s amazing how much these rules are internalized. I think where I notice it most is in pairings. There is a fandom I don’t really follow very much anymore, unless an author I really like writes in it, where the vast majority of the fics that include relationship include a specific pairing. Now I happen to dislike one part of that pairing as a character. I think the character is a horrible, badly written, badly conceived of character and has been so re-written as to be barely recognizable from the original incarnation. This character is, somehow, a fan favorite. And so is the pairing. This means that if I want to read this particular fandom, most of the time, I’ll end up reading the pairing I don’t really like because nothing else is really available. And it drives me insane that I don’t feel comfortable enough to sit up and say how much I dislike this pairing and that particular character.

    Something else that drives me insane in fandoms across the board is not just portrayal of female OCs, but the portrayal of canon female characters. They are bashed, made evil, are completely out of character, etc… for no other reason, as near as I can tell, but because they are female. Now there are fandoms that I’ve written in and I have hated a canon female character but I’ve always been conscious of my dislike of that character and have gone to extremes to make sure I don’t portray her unfairly. It saddens me though that I have to be so conscious of that so I don’t get accused of character bashing. For me, if I see a Mary or Gary Stu, it’s a sign of immaturity as a writer – either age or ability. I wish fandom writers didn’t appear to hate women so much.

  14. I have read a lot of fiction over the years and I have to agree some people take it far too seriously !!!!!
    I am just so grateful to anyone who has the courage to share their writing and imagination with strangers and for me that should be welcomed and encouraged. Going back to my mum these people should remember “if you can’t say anything nice , don’t say anything at all”.

  15. I’ve been in fandom since 1971. Not a typo: I’m hardcore old school. I bought fanzines at conventions and, for a couple of years, at a small Trek fan-serving shop with a wall of zines in midtown Manhattan that I still can’t believe existed in the early 70s. I took to the computer like a duck to water because of fandom: free stories and art, good friends, and an audience for my own stories were all incredibly easy to find online.

    The first wave of SG-1 online & hardcopy fandom initially grew out of Sentinal fandom, and those bitches on the main SG-1 mailing list hated my guts for reasons to this day I know not. I had to leave because I couldn’t pop my head up to make the tiniest comment that didn’t cause a firestorm of “how dare you say that” posts, and I stopped reading SG-1 fic because of the shocking “Mean Girls” awfulness shown to me by a good number of the people who wrote many of the popular stories of that era. I can honestly say in retrospect that, despite my immense love of the show, I was run out of that wave of SG-1 fandom! Fortunately for me, SG: Atlantis fandom grew, not out of SG-1 fandom, but out of Smallville fandom (the fandom that taught me to love slash), at about the third season mark when SV turned really, really awful, and pretty much the entire fandom segued over neatly to Atlantis on LJ. It was amazing to watch literally dozens of fabulous, lovely, generous writers (who were being made unhappy by SV) suddenly discovering the new show. This is why Atlantis got so many great writers right out of the ‘Gate (heh, heh; I made a pun!) I only started reading SG-1 fanfic after the show went off the air and a new crop of online writers discovered it (many of them Atlantis fans who overcame their prejudice against the older show because they wanted to see select episodes with old-school Rodney in them and decided they liked SG-1, too), and the first-wave SG-1 writers drifted off to some other fandom. Turnover can be terrible as you watch your fandom fade out, but new writers can revive interest a fandom; because fandoms come in waves wherein the attitudes, beliefs and fic do not match the previous wave of attitudes, beliefs and fic.

    I will share with you another thing I learned early-on on the subject you’re writing about: GREAT WRITING NEGATES ALL COMPLAINTS.

    The original Lt. Marysue writers in Trek (the term “Marysue” came from Trek fanfic in the early-to-mid 70s, it’s that old of a term) weren’t writing great stories with a Marysue in them: the stories they were writing were poorly-written to the point of being just god-awful. Immature, childish, hilariously awful. There were also stories with OC characters with obvious Marysue characteristics that were well-written and nobody said a word about it; just off the top of my head, The Landing Party 6 stories had multiple Marysue and Garystu characters, but the stories were effin’ hilarious and well-written so not a word was spoken against them. Before Lucas decided the match up Princess Leia and Han Solo (and make Luke & Leia siblings), Solo had a Corellian pirate girlfriend named Cori that fandom adored despite being an obvious Marysue. The stories were amazing so nobody cared: nobody today seems to remember this! It is a fact that if you can sell your Marysue with a great plot and great characterization, NOBODY WILL CARE THAT YOU SELF-INSERTED A BETTER “YOU” IN THE STORY. (Hell, a lot of great writing in Supernatural fandom joyously sold incest (!) as a perfectly acceptable kink, and I didn’t think that would ever be accepted.)

    Thanks for writing this excellent essay, I really enjoyed reading it. Hope you get lots of really good discussion posts!

  16. I love this post Jill and I agree with you my friend and I run an insane journal challenge and we have a no spamming no basing rule. On the other hand, not all um mm. … kicks, shall we say are embraced. However, our short sneaked out list is clearly marked and you know it going in. I believe that is as b it should be. If someone posts something there that does not violet the list, but fails to appeal to another member, said member should not read. I fail to understand how people lack fifth grade maturity in FandomShe.

  17. I think I was introduced to the Spiral of Silence as an aspect of the Hostile Media Effect. And I agree a hundred percent with what your saying. I happen to also believe that fandom takes this attitude about female characters that limits the gray area of good characterization. If it’s a female character, and not a beloved from the original fandom, than they have to be a bitch/whore/villain or flat. It’s almost like this expectation in reading and writing is absolute. Thanks for reminding everyone that it isn’t.

  18. I just wanted you to know this article has given me the support I needed to continue with something I was afraid I would never post, as most (if not all) would condemn the process if not the story(s). See I was reconnecting with my Grandson and he asked what I was doing now I was retired. I told him I was writing more slash and beginning a novel. He asked what slash was, I told him and there began a 15 hour chat. The upshot is he wants to co-write some slash with me, the first to be a BDSM threesome. He told me he felt safe enough to share his deepest secret, which I didn’t even question other than to reinforce the idea to go for it and I would help him. Now we are establishing a relationship that is what we want it to be, not looking for judgement or asking for forgiveness. If I can’t find a group to post it maybe I’ll just set up my own blog. Thanks for the support you gave, even when you didn’t know you were speaking straight to my heart.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.