Lately, almost every day reveals another story that could be related to a phenomenon I have been discussing on this blog: fractured fandom. Just within the past week, we have had stories about Men’s Rights Activists being misogynists in video gaming communities (here and here), a consideration of how the generation gap is causing problems on the convention circuit, and how sexual threats against video game critic Anita Sarkeesian forced her from her house. Many stories circulate online, but how many more do we not know? How many people are being physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally threatened and abused because they dare to love something that, perhaps, was not traditionally targeted at them? And why? Why feel so threatened by others enjoying something you like, or asking for that thing to be more inclusive?
I’ve talked about how men can feel threatened by the influx of women into the various geek and nerd fandoms, and perhaps that helps us understand people like the MRA men who do not want to have to change how they do things. I’ve talked about misperception and cognitive dissonance and perhaps this psychological approach can help us to understand the mindset of those who would perpetuate tensions and problems in the fandoms. But I think we can go one step further and consider a topic that has been discussed in many places of our public discourse lately: the phenomenon of “privilege.”
According to this sociological concept, some individuals have an advantageous position in society simply because of the race, gender, class and other demographic categories to which they are born. This does not mean that such people do not work hard to succeed, only that the social, cultural, political, and economic systems are set in such a way that helps to remove barriers to their success in those systems. Advantages are built into these institutions, consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly, that give certain people a leg up on others simply due to the group they belong to due to birth.
Focusing on American society in the United States, white privilege means that people of European and Caucasian heritage have an advantage over those of other ethnic heritages. We could argue that on the level of the global society, male privilege explains the institutionalized advantage given to men in many different nations and cultures. In many places around the world, heteronormativity – the idea that a heterosexual orientation is the norm – provides privilege to such individuals and oppresses those who do not align with this norm.
Those individuals who may have privilege due to any of these reasons may not be aware they have it. Indeed, people who have privilege may not able to comprehend that their level of success, safety and security is due in part to these advantages given to them.
When a person exists in such a privileged position, then that person may not see the barriers as they exist for others who were not born into the same circumstances. Instead, the person may wonder why other people are not doing as well; not seeing it as a problem of the system — since the system was not a problem to the person — the person instead infers that it must be a problem with the other people. From a position of privilege, the other people may be seen as lazy, unintelligent, unambitious, and so forth. Rather than think that you as an individual have had advantages given to you because of your birth into a certain demographic group, which could lead you to feel guilty, you blame others when you should be working with the others to tackle the systemic problems that lead to differences in opportunities.
Any time a white person complains about a minority person by labeling that person as shiftless, unmotivated, inherently violent, or by ascribing some other trait to that individual, then the white person may be speaking from a place of privilege and may be demonstrating a misperception informed by and reinforced by cognitive dissonance. Unless that privileged person is truly a horrible person, someone with a psychopathic tendency who does not care about anyone other than his/her own self, then most likely the response is due to a feeling of shame, guilt, anger, or other negative emotion. Because, for the most part, people are good — people care for and are curious about other people and do not like to see others in pain. However, the systems of our world are structured in ways that keep us in negative emotional states because it benefits the few at the expense of the many. Some politicians, businesses, warmongers all benefit if the current system is maintained, keeping people apart rather than uniting them.
Because these systems of privilege have been in place for so long in our world, the systems have become entrenched to the point of seeming to be “reality.” To those both with and without the privilege, the systems can be seen as just the way things are. The lack of barriers for some can be seen as normal, as not to be challenged because it has been “working”.
However, such reasoning represents a logical fallacy; an appeal to tradition, to the way things have been, is not a sound logical argument by which to make a decision for what to do. Traditions can be beneficial: getting everyone together on Thanksgiving is a good example of this. However, traditions can also be detrimental, oppressive, demeaning, such as having Santa Claus be joined by a man in blackface called Black Peter. Those in the position of privilege need to recognize which traditions are beneficial to everyone and which ones are detrimental to some, and must work together to undo the systems that reinforce such demeaning traditions. Those with the privilege need to recognize the barriers in the system that creates those without the privilege.
All of this setup is to say that such issues related to privilege can also be seen in a sphere of life people may consider to be trivial, but actually matters a great deal.
Fandom, being a fan, is an important component to every person’s life. Whether your fandom is pop cultural, or related to sports, politics, food, or religion, being a fan is about having so much love for something that you want it to be a part of your life, a part of your identity. Fandom is based on powerful emotions and relationships that are important to being alive.
Which makes it incredibly unfortunate when a person’s fandom becomes a point of contention, a problematic association, a horrible mess in his or her life. When something we love causes us to experience some of the lowest points of our lives, it can be debilitating. Experiencing a fractured fandom — either as the cause, the recipient, or the enabler — can bring an individual pain because of how much of their emotional selves are tied into the fandom.
Fandom is not a trivial matter. It is an integrated part of our everyday lives — which also means it can replicate the very same social, cultural, political, and economic systems that exist in our lives.
In considering the issue of sexism in fandom, I have previously discussed how such systems can be replicated, and how they can influence the perceptions and behaviors of fans, leading to a problem being termed geek misogyny. In that discussion, women could perceive themselves as imposters, as outsiders trying to fit in by acting in a particular way. On the flip side are the men in the fandom, who are perceived to be (by themselves and others) as the insiders. There is a presumption of men being the default fans of many fandoms, given the nature of the fandom; many media, sports, politics, and religions upon which fandoms are based are presumed to be masculine and therefore more appropriate for men than women to engage with.
Thus, male fans are able to exist in positions of privilege within many fandoms, and from their position they can determine what constitutes “normal” fan behavior. That is, they have the power to construct and/or perpetuate what would be considered legitimate fan behavior. Those who do not act in ways that align with the established norms of the fandom could be deemed and treated as outsiders, potentially even as threats to the fandom. In these instances, we see some men attempting to maintain the normalized, accepted, traditional conditions of the fandom by acting negatively – from threats to assaults – against those perceived to be outsiders, as seen in the “fake geek girl” phenomenon.
Now, to be fair, there are fandoms and thus fan communities that default to being feminine, such as for the franchise Twilight or for activities like knitting. In those instances, women would be in the position of privilege within the fandom, and thus would be in the position to police the boundaries of their fandom and determine who would be legitimate fans. And, indeed, I have heard of such cases of fractured fandoms, but such instances do not typically involve the type of negative behaviors towards “outsiders” as seen when men police the boundaries of their fandoms.
Furthermore, privilege can exist in a fandom from a perception of legitimacy due to time. People may declare themselves “true fans” because they have been with the fandom longer, and thus perceive themselves to be more knowledgeable and more faithful to the object of their affection. Such positioning can be easily seen in the fandoms that have been around longer, such as with Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars. The description of the true fan as an enduring fan could mean such fans perceive themselves in a privileged position as their superiority comes from time spent within the fandom. Their amassed knowledge, history of activity, and time-tested endurance could all be given as reasons for their superiority that newer fans can never match. Such age-based or generational differences can cause rifts within the fandom as younger fans attempt to join and be seen as equals in terms of their affection.
We have reached a point now where the fracturing that occurs in fandoms cannot be ignored. An analysis of a fandom needs to account for which fans are considered as representing the legitimate center of the fandom, and which ones are distant from this center, how distant they are, and what keeps them distant. While we can celebrate the role of the fandom in the individual’s life, and how fans’ actions can impact the world, we need to also understand how the actions of fans create and/or perpetuate this distancing. We need to understand how the fans’ discussions, behaviors, and creations perpetuate boundaries that separate “true fans” from “outsiders.” The issues of privilege, legitimacy, normalcy, correctness, rightness, all need to be addressed.
In this way, what occurs within fandoms to fracture them can be seen as similar to other spheres of life, such as a person’s political beliefs or work habits. Which makes sense, given that the different spheres of life are not mutually exclusive from one another but instead influence one another as people move in and out and through them. As we move through these spheres – as we live our lives — we shape them as we are shaped by them.
Developed by Anthony Giddens, structuration theory can help us to understand how this works. We are not completely controlled by the systems of our lives, but we are also not totally unencumbered by them. Instead, the systems and the people engage in a back-and-forth co-construction, where the system’s structure can determine the boundaries within which we act, and yet our actions and agency can modify those boundaries. Just as there are traditions that can become norms and impact how we feel, think, and act, we can also change those traditions through our behaviors. For instance, the traditions of Christmas have changed over time and across cultures, as what people do for the holiday allows new norms to emerge. Thus, as we move through the spheres of our lives (i.e. fandom, politics, work, family, school, and so forth), we are influenced by their norms, and our embodiment of these norms in what we do can reinforce the traditions of that sphere.
In this way, what we learn about life and other people from one sphere can be transferred to another sphere; for example, what we think about others in a political sphere can be brought into our fandom sphere. No sphere is more or less important than another in terms of how the sphere influences the individual, as an individual’s being is determined by their engaging in all of the spheres.
Structuration theory also helps us understand that changes in one sphere could result in changes in another because of the individual; if the individual changes, and gets more individuals to change as well, over time the spheres will change because of how people are acting. So if enough people begin acting differently in a fandom sphere, or any other sphere, then the individual will change, and the change can spread to other spheres. Which is a long winded way of saying that if we can change enough people, reaching a critical mass, then change will happen exponentially, and what had been “normal” will no longer be seen as such.
I like structuration theory because it gives me hope. The idea that structure can respond to agency means that if there is enough action by the people, then the system can be changed. And what is great is that we are seeing this beginning to happen in fandom, as awareness of the problems of privilege are leading to boycotts, sexual harassment policies, and more and more online discussion. As discussion and action spreads, then hopefully those who are in the positions of privilege may become aware of that which has been hidden by the curtains of tradition, legitimacy, and normalcy. Maybe once they are aware of the issues caused by insiders, perpetuating boundaries that oppress, discriminate, and hurt others, maybe then we can see change.
But it also requires that we engage in communal discussion and activity not just with those who agree with us, but also those who disagree. Too often we get into communities because the people there share something with us, whether it be beliefs, ideas, or actions. We like to be in communities where we feel we fit in, where we do not feel like outsiders. But by in staying within such communities, what began as being about the best fit becomes exclusionary as the focus becomes only on those already inside the community and ignores those who may want to be inside. What happens within a community can become the norm for the insiders thus legitimizing those members while simultaneously becoming barriers to others who may wish to join the group.
This, of course, is what has been happening throughout human history around the world. And, unfortunately, this happens online, as people tend towards those online communities that reinforce their ways of feeling, thinking, and doing. We are increasingly segregating ourselves online, hiding behind digital walled gardens to only be with those who are like us, and refusing to be challenged by the outsiders, the others.
But if we want to solve the problems in our world, including in our fandoms, then we need to stop only engaging with those like-minded individuals in our communities; we need to communicate with those who disagree with us. Only in talking to them could we come to an understanding that could resolve our differences and actually enact the type of change needed to rework the spheres of our lives.
Such communicating across gaps, with differences in feeling/thinking/doing, is possible, but it is a skill set that needs to be taught and practiced. It is a skill set that requires dialogue; listening and questioning with respect and a true desire to understand the other. When talking to another person with whom you disagree, the goal is to start with questions as a way to see what you do not see, to know what you do not know. Starting with questions is to start with a desire to know and not just a desire to do, to win, or be right. The importance in listening is so the person to whom you are listening truly feels listened to, as this is how you show respect to that person. These fundamental communication activities provide a foundation for creating a dialogue that will help everyone feel included within the discussion and the community.
And that is the goal of life, after all. We want to feel included, to be a part of something larger than just ourselves. We have families, friends, colleagues, peers, and communities in order to feel like we belong. Privilege and its related issues of legitimacy and normalization work against this desire by creating boundaries of exclusion and requirements for inclusion that involve hurdling barriers. While we have the agency, the power, to change the system, we cannot do it as individuals or as small communities – it will take bringing different people together to recognize the need for change and to embody the change they wish to see in the system. Better communication and social literacy skills will help to ensure we can bring different people together.
Only then can we mend the fractures in fandoms that replicate the tensions and problems that exist elsewhere in our lives. And if we can do that in fandoms – in what seems to be these trivial spheres of life – then perhaps the ripple effect will help address the tensions and problems elsewhere. By understanding the issue of fan privilege, and the problems it causes, we can better address other types of privilege, and work together to undo the barriers to participation and success that needlessly separate people.