Problems with Perceptions in Fandom

Part of the process of understanding the phenomenon of fractured fandom is to gather stories that thematically reveal its nature, such as my ongoing analysis of how My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans reacted to the feature film Equestria Girls and its soon-to-be sequel Rainbow RocksThe more stories we can gather, then the more we can learn (tweet your stories with #fracturedfandom, whether the fandom is pop culture, sport, literary, religious, political or otherwise). 

Another part of the process is to theorize from these stories the reasons for the fractures.  The session I attended at C2E2 on sexist tensions in geekdom is only one of a multitude of places in which we can have such discussions.  In my post responding to that session, I focused on answering this “why” question by examining what we could consider to be masculine anxieties about their fandom including women and feminine fan activities.  In this post, I want to add upon what was discussed at that session by bringing in a more psychological approach to attempting to answer the “why” question.

Essentially, I want to consider the issue of perceptions — and misperceptions — people have as fans, about fans, about themselves, and how these views of the world can impact how they make sense of it and act within it.

If we consider the idea broadly, then we can think of a perception as a layer between our inner self and the outer world.  We have a range of bodily sensations (i.e. touch, taste, sight, sound, smell) that are our way of knowing what is outside of use (and sometimes what is happening inside of us, such as a growling and rumbling hungry stomach or a sweaty palm of embarrassment).  However, we do not just take in these sensations to know the world unfiltered.  If you were not able to filter out what you were listening to while walking down the street, then you would not be able to listen to music and talk to someone simultaneously.  We can select what we attend to, what we filter out, in order for our sensations to not overwhelm us and thus allow us to cope in the world.

Found via
Found via

Sometimes we consciously choose what we want to attend to — i.e. your lover’s declaration of love over the football game on the television — while at other times such attention is more unconsciously determined.  I think the only reason I do not bump into more students on campus with their eyes glued to their smart phones is because, unconsciously, they are attentive enough to their surroundings so as to look up mere moments before such a collision would occur.  All of this means is that sometimes we are aware of the reasons we have for directing attention as we do, while at other times that reason may not be directly available for us to recall.  There can be a multitude of reasons for our selective attention (seriously, see all the psychological studies).  And beyond just determining what we may attend to, these reasons can also impact how we attend to them.

That is to say, the reasons can impact how we perceive of these sensations, of what is happening in the world around us or even in our own bodies.  We may perceive a sensation in such a way that it helps us to make sense of ourselves, of others, of the world.  We can interpret this thing we are attending to in a certain way given some way of thinking or feeling — some attitude — we have about that thing.  If we believe the thing to be good, then our perception will be different than if we believe it to be bad.  How we attend, perceive, interpret, make-sense of that thing will impact what we do about it.  If we perceive grilled meat to be a good thing, then the smell of it could make us hungry; if we perceive eating meat as being ethically wrong, then the smell will turn us off.

All of which is to say that, psychologically speaking, how a fan perceives other fans, the fandom, and even the object of affection can impact how they act with other fans, and thus could be implicated in causing fractured fandom.

Not exactly a positive perception of fans at work here.
Not exactly a positive perception of fans at work here.

According to the panel discussion at C2E2, there remains a misperception by those in fandom that the identities of “geek” and “women” are not compatible.  Apparently the perception in fandom, which perhaps reflects the larger social and cultural perception, is that being geeky is unfeminine, or that more feminine you are the less of true geek you are because fandom is a guy thing.  And this is not just occurring within pop culture fandoms — this assumption has long been the perception in sports fandoms, which have been positioned traditionally as areas of masculinity.  So based on this perception of fandoms as masculine, women assume that to fit in they have to diminish their femininity so as to not get shit for participating in it.  And based on this perception of the larger culture/society that fandom is feminine, that might be why we have male nerds/geeks pushing back by asserting their masculinity so as not to feel threatened by the influx of female nerds/geeks (see previous post).

Additionally, perception can come in through this concept that was discussed called “imposter syndrome,” a term to describe the feeling a person will get if he or she does not feel that she is worthy of the position s/he is in.  It is the fear of being “found out” that one is not as smart or as creative or as tough etc etc as the people with whom we are working.  Which means it is a perception about ourselves and about others, and about how others are better than ourselves.  Since we perceive ourselves as not as good as those around us, we may set a higher bar for ourselves to achieve the goal because we feel we are not as worthy as those around us.

How this relates to fandom goes back to the perception that the fandom is intended as a masculine space, and that the texts and activities that constitute the fandom are directed at men.  A women then might perceive that is not like these men, is not part of the target community of the fandom, and thus may feel like an imposter in their midst.  This could mean that she is afraid of doing more in the fandom because she is afraid of being found out as an imposter.  As discussed at the panel, this perception that is the imposter syndrome can also involve and/or lead to internalized sexism, racism, etc, as the perceive perceives the difference and comes to accept it as “normal.”  Overall, this perception results in a potential shutting down of dialogue on the problems that can lead to a fractured fandom, which thereby leads to a perpetuation of the sexism, racism, and other -isms that fracture fandoms.

As brought to our attention by
As brought to our attention by

Many potential solutions to the issues of sexism in fandom were discussed at the panel, from the need to get members of target community, allies, to step in with their voice and power to having these allies help make marginalized voices louder by moderating online spaces to become dialogic discursive places (such as this mentioned example). The idea being that there needs to be improved empathy, identification, and perspective-taking among those of the target community who may be unwittingly perceiving the women as imposters and treating them as such.  At the same time, the panel discussed the need for more and better enforcement of anti-harrassment policies at conventions.

However, as was mentioned, push-back to such policies does exist as people don’t think the policies are necessary — perhaps because do not perceive that there is a problem, or they do not want to perceive there is a problem.  Those pushing back may not not like to think that their favorite spaces need such policing.  Fans do not want to see other fans as problematic because we are all fans, which has been increasingly positioned as a positive, as something to celebrate.  And then there is also a defensiveness as people perceive themselves as the target while they do not perceive themselves that way: “I am not that guy, so why imposing on me?”

Which brings up another perception that could be causing push-back — the perception that proving harassment could be entirely one-sided, “he-said she-said,” meaning that a woman could perceive harassment where none was intended, making the case be one of his word versus her word.  We see the same argument, the same perception, in the public discourse over rape.  And while I would never say it all comes down to misperceptions, it may be possible for such misperceptions to play a role — and if men in particular perceive the role of misperceptions, well, then they could play a big role in the push-back to these policies, and indeed to the way they treat women in fandom in general.

In the paper I heard at PCA on fake geek girls, one reason for why it occurs mentioned the idea of a compulsory heterosexual discourse.  In a sense, men see women engaging, particularly, in cosplay where they wear revealing costumes and perceive these women as wanting sexual attention from men.  The men would then believe the actions of these women allows them to objectify the women and not take their interest in the fandom seriously.  Therefore, the men may be misperceiving the reason the women cosplay, and this misperception could be impacting how the men view female fans and thus how they act towards them.  It is that old standard of “she was asking for it” that permeates and perpetuates rape culture and misogynistic extremism.

Thanks to for the discussion.
Thanks to for the discussion.

Finally, perception can work in a trickier way than what I have already discussed.  In psychology, there is a concept called cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is the idea that sometimes a person will have an attitude — a belief and a feeling — about something but then act in a way that completely contradicts what they believe and feel.  Say you know that eating too much bacon is bad for your health, but you still order bacon every chance that you get.  Well, there is the chance then that you might feel cognitive dissonance — you may feel guilty about ordering and eating so much bacon.  That negative feeling of guilt is the dissonance — it’s the feeling bad that could also manifest in shame, embarrassment, sadness.  It is a negative state of being that we humans do not like being in.

Because cognitive dissonance is not a nice state to be in, we will find ways to alleviate it.  If you keep order and eating that bacon, then you may do an activity to alleviate the guilt, such as going to the gym every day you eat bacon.  Or you might change your beliefs and rationalize how the amount of bacon you eat is not actually all that bad for your health given how young you are.  There are a number of strategies you could employ to help you feel better about your guilt, such as stopping eating pork bacon all together.  All of this is to say that while we do not like feeling bad when our behaviors do not match our attitudes, we humans have developed many ways of changing how we perceive things in order to deal with the dissonance.

And this concept of cognitive dissonance could be applied to explain the sexist tensions in geekdom.

For example, consider how men react to women who cosplay.  The men may be attracted to the women but may think that the women do not want them so the men will objectify and belittle the women.  The contradiction is in wanting to be near the women but then acting in a way that ensures such closeness will not occur.  The resulting dissonance could then be handled by rationalizing the women ultimately do not matter or that the women are asking for such demeaning treatment.


For another example, consider how men react when women, especially, demonstrate the sexist representations of women in the texts of the fandom.  The men may be (one can hope) agreeing that sexualization and sexist representations are bad, but then they also like the sexualization because they find it attractive, meaning they also like the text with the sexualization and want to continue to engage with text.  The contradiction is in how they view the sexualization and how they want to engage with it.  Ultimately, to deal with this dissonance, they may vehemently disagree that the sexualization is bad (that is, change their belief) or they may attack and belittle those arguing it is bad to sexualize (that is, enact a specific behavior) in order to belittle the argument itself, so as to not have to consider it any more.

Overall, I want to reiterate that these are just theories and ideas for how psychology and the science of perception could be causing the types of sexist tensions in geekdom that in some way cause fractures in fandoms.  Whether it is just basic misperceptions or more complicated cognitive dissonance, I do not think the psychological angle is enough to explain everything that is happening.  I think a social and cultural psychological angle could help, as we look to understand how the society and culture in which the fans exist are determining how they are making sense of their fandom.  Because the perceptions we have about ourselves and each other are often informed by what our society and culture says our beliefs and feelings should be.  They are inextricably woven together.  And in order to fully address the “why” question of fractured fandom, we will need to be able to look at this woven tapestry of, for example, cultural and social messages about gender appropriateness and our own sexist perceptions of people.

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