Freedom of Fandom

One of the most noticeable trends in pop culture for the past 15 years has been the normalization of “geek culture.” While this trend has merited its fair share of think pieces, it has served to drag a little brother of sorts into the mainstream — fandom. Like any good millennial phenomenon, fandom and its growth has been measurably influenced by the internet. Specifically, the internet has allowed fandom to become a unique space for members of the LGBT community.

Since the first fandoms emerged out of 19th century literature, they’ve been hubs for fans to talk and theorize about their favorite books, plays, radio dramas, movies, and TV shows. Having been around for so long and having adapted to new forms of media, fandoms have built up very definite and identifiable cultures around themselves, and each specific fandom has its own recognizable features and stereotypes. For instance, fandoms built up around sports teams are thought to be mostly made up of straight men. This isn’t a blanket statement that can be applied to every sports fan, obviously, but straight males tend to be the dominant voices in those fandoms. In a general sense, every fandom has a stereotypical “Fan X” that’s representative of the fandom, whether it is based in truth or not.

If every fandom has a different membership, then every fandom obviously has a different set of ideals, behaviors, and group makeup; by quite a few measures, the differences between fandoms can be as great the differences between cultures. This sea of contrast makes studying fandoms as a whole challenging yet interesting. It is difficult to make blanket statements about all fandoms, but in-depth commentary on a few that are similar is possible, yet infrequent.

There are fandoms for almost anything, be it literature (Where are the Potterheads and Lord of the Rings fans?), bands and musicians (The Super Bowl probably made some Little Monsters very rowdy), live-action television (Hey there, Supernatural fans! Say hi to the Game of Thrones and Parks and Recreation fans for me), cartoons (I hear that the Crystal Gems really rock…), anime (there might be over 9000 of these fans here at UTD), theater, comics, internet stars, celebrities, and more! If you know at least one person who likes a thing, chances are that thing has a fandom attached to it.

The concurrent rise of fandom and internet-enabled social media has tied the two together, for better or worse. Becoming part of a fandom isn’t just enhanced by being online; it’s practically a requirement. News will break on Twitter, and then you’ll have to check the commentary on Tumblr before taking a break to read some… literature… on Archive of Our Own, which you’ll share on the “official” subreddit for whatever work you’ve inadvertently spent all day obsessing over. Now that the internet has been established as the main vehicle for fandom engagement, what does that mean for the state of fandom? The answer to that lies with the way the internet has been used by marginalized communities.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion about the power of the internet to give refuge and voice to minority communities already, but how do the ideas behind that intersect with fandom and its unique dynamics? First, it is necessary to identify what exactly makes the internet so appealing to marginalized peoples. For the most part, it’s the interconnectedness offered by the platform; when people who’ve been ostracized by society are given the power to connect freely and (mostly) without fear of being judged, they can create unique spaces for and by themselves. This was first observed with sexual, gender, and racial minorities in the 1990s, and with the advent of social media, has only grown more powerful as a force. And because members of all these groups are still “normal” people, with lives and interests, they become part of fandoms. This intersection is interesting since the dynamics of people groups and fandoms blend together, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

Contrary to what one might think, fandoms had a slight head start on intersectionality in that a great deal of heavy lifting in some fandoms was done (and is still done) by women. This positioned fandom to be in direct opposition with male-dominated society and to cast a wide net of people and ideas from the get-go. The most telling bit of evidence is probably the apparent overrepresentation of same-sex male couples in fandom works like art and fanfiction. It started with the explosion of works about Captain Kirk and Spock from Star Trek (which was the first fandom to go near-mainstream, but that’s another topic), and has only become more and more common in fandom since then. A survey conducted in 2016 by the Three Patch Podcast with over 2000 responses showed that, across multiple fandoms, 87% of fans said that they had consumed works that focused on a relationship between two men on either a daily or weekly basis, compared to 28% for heterosexual relationships and 27% for relationships between two women.

Modern fandom’s proclivity for these kinds of relationships can be seen as a result of a few different factors. The most direct is the sexuality of fandom members, and the survey asked about that. Out of options that included but weren’t limited to asexual, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and queer, the most common response was bisexual (34.8%), followed by heterosexual (24.0%) and queer (18.8%). In other words, in the breadth of fandom captured by this survey, more than three-fourths of members aren’t straight. This would cause an obvious bias toward same-sex content, and when combined with media’s bias toward writing male lead characters, explains the huge sexual orientation gap in fan-made content.

While the depictions of characters and situations aren’t without problems, many of those are too unwieldy to tackle in this article, as they require unpacking layers of cultural context and social phenomena. However, one problem that absolutely merits attention is the fetishization of same-sex characters. This can be observed in multiple fandoms, but is probably most common amongst the anime fandom, as a result of an abundance of canonical LGBT romances. However, the works themselves, by and large, present overly heteronormative stories that force characters into “male” and “female” roles. And because fandom culture mirrors the culture of the source material, some members of the anime fandom take those dynamics and push them onto other characters, and even onto real people, as a result of seeing it and being exposed to it so much.

With that and a few other caveats in mind, it’s important to remember the positive effects of having fan communities made up of mostly LGBT people who are creating LGBT content. One of those is the fact that consuming this kind of content is helping more and more people understand their own sexualities; in the Three Patch Podcast survey, over 75% of fans reported that their activities reading fan fiction had “influenced [their] understanding of [their] own sexual orientation.” And that statistic isn’t surprising, because for all the bad, online fandoms’ heightened influence on LGBT pairings and content serves to normalize it. In communities driven mostly by LGBT people who are creating that kind of content, it’s almost easy to forget that the world at large doesn’t work in the same way.

In a way, fandom’s time in the mainstream has put it at a crossroads; it can either continue to be a force for the normalization of LGBT themes and characters and a hub for content creators, or it can keep perpetuating old stereotypes. It’s up to fans to take control of their spaces and make them deserving of another 15 years in the spotlight.