That’s Problematic: How Critical Discussion in Fandom is Going Wrong

Has fandom become a toxic space? | © hobbitfoot | © hobbitfoot

At the end of last year, I left Tumblr for good. I then deleted my account a month or so later, when I realized I was happier and more mentally well than I had been when I was spending several hours a day—most of my free time—there.

For me, that was a huge shift. For a long time, Tumblr had been the only thing holding my mental health together—I went there to find validation that my feelings and experiences were real, to be reassured that I wasn’t alone, and to enjoy the media I was consuming at the time with other, like-minded people. Fandom has long been my sanctuary, so to abandon the platform where I had the greatest amount of access to it was an extremely scary step.

Here’s something I didn’t mention: I deleted my account out of the genuine, and not, I feel, unreasonable fear that someone would decide to dig back through my tens of thousands of posts and find something I’d said that they would deem problematic.

That’s a word you hear a lot in critical discussion. It’s a useful word for conveying that there’s something about a viewpoint being put forward that is potentially harmful and needs to be teased out and discussed. Or rather, that’s how it’s supposed to be used—to facilitate discussion. Not to start witch hunts which is how it’s being used in fandom circles now.

You don’t even have to say anything to be under attack. Something as simple as having watched a TV show or paid to see a film in the cinema can potentially make you worse than a war criminal, according to that one post that’s been reblogged onto your dashboard by fifteen different sources. If you enjoyed it, at all, on any level, you’re an actual monster, not fit for decent society.

Here’s a fun fact: that is genuinely problematic. That’s a thing that needs to be looked at and discussed, and the root of the problem is this: the assumption that because a person enjoyed something that is distasteful or indeed problematic in itself, that person is unable to form a critical appreciation of it and therefore must only have enjoyed it because they’re a terrible person.

To put it mildly, assuming everyone else is unable to think critically is a bit not good. To imagine that “good person” status can be achieved through the consumption of media which is not problematic (which does not exist), and only media that is deemed “not problematic” by your preferred authority, is even more not good.

Worse still, the people who get the brunt of this misplaced aggression tend to be the people who are already being hurt by the elements of media that other people are demonizing. The fact that the new media available at any given time heavily influences the pet cause of the week in wider fandom circles directly hurts people who are affected by that cause. Firstly, because they’re shouted over and interrogated by people who can’t be bothered doing the barest scrap of research, and secondly, because the current critical cycle looks something like this:

Issue is raised > issue is discussed by parties with no personal interest > issue becomes common knowledge > people affected by issue are perceived as lying for attention.

Visibility in a space where personal boundaries are ill-defined and difficult for the individual to control is the opposite of a good thing, and social media, where fandom lives, is a space like that.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what happens to people who are, for whatever reason, not “out” about various things, be that their queer/trans status, their disabilities, or their race. Not being allowed to speak from your own experience because you don’t speak about it all the time, unprompted, is the opposite of facilitating discourse. It silences people who already feel as though they are not generally entitled to a voice.

What applies to popular media does not necessarily apply to real life, and people are not characters. The pressure to be a “good” [insert identity here], as if one were representative of the whole, is damaging to the most vulnerable fans.

Fandom’s seismic shift toward race-to-the-bottom callout culture has made it a toxic space, one where instead of genuine critical discussion, the main purpose of pointing out the flaws in a piece of media is to find a target for the pitchfork-and-torch wielding mob whose motivation is soothing their guilt over the fact that the world sucks.

I get this. It’s uncomfortable to realize that you benefit from the pain of others. That is a terrible reason to go in search of others to inflict pain on though, regardless of what good you imagine you might be doing.

It might be worth a mention here that privilege, like BMI, is best applied to groups not individuals, and is by no means a perfect theory for explaining power differentials. It’s sociology 101 which is a good start, but not the final, definitive answer to the world’s problems.

The point here is basically this: No one is served by the intellectual dishonesty of shutting down discussion over a very basic understanding of privilege, marginalization, and power. Not marginalized people, not allies, and definitely not fandom as a whole.

If you must argue (and sometimes, you must), argue from a place of good faith—assume that people you’re talking to are also fully-realized, intelligent human beings capable of critical thought. Start discussions in a way that furthers them, not dismisses whole swaths of people who might have an opinion different to yours.

Fandom as a whole has a history of being a sanctuary for misfits and weirdoes and while we’ve had some spectacular feuds and blowups over the years, it’s always been somewhere for people like me—people like us—to come together and enjoy ourselves.

I’d like that back. I want to walk into a fandom space like I would a familiar pub rather than a newly-discovered minefield. I don’t want to have stress-induced nightmares about having my inbox flooded with angry anons.

I’m not the only one, either. People are leaving fandom in droves because they don’t feel safe there anymore, people who once upon a time fantasized about having their own fandom are now afraid of getting to that point. We can’t go on like this.

It’s on all of us to make fandom into a space that’s less packs of roving mobs and more extended friendship networks. Be kind to each other. You don’t need to be nice nor do you need to take crap but be kind. Forgive or at least forget. That’s all it takes.

About Cecil Wilde (5 Articles)
Cecil Wilde is a professional bisexual villain, procrastination enthusiast, full-time huge nerd, and secret robot. When not plotting the downfall of humanity from their volcano lair, they write romance novels.

1 Comment on That’s Problematic: How Critical Discussion in Fandom is Going Wrong

  1. Andrea Weidel // April 13, 2016 at 6:16 pm // Reply

    I was on Tumblr for two years and just deleted my account about three months ago. It was hard to do because I enjoyed the connection and access to fandom, but couldn’t deal with the attitudes that pervaded nearly any near-critical or critical conversation. Basically everything you wrote is exactly how I felt/feel about my experience on there so I don’t need to elaborate. I really, honestly worry about how some people that are the “problematic finders” will function once they’re out of high school/college (I know they’re not all that young but most are). As wonderful as “safe spaces” (most of them weren’t safe by the time I left anyway) are, the real world doesn’t usually work that way.

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