This blog post contains my presentation at MPCA/ACA 2019 from our panel on mental health and fandom. This presentation is the first step in a deeper analysis of my fractured fandom work to understand the traumatic experiences fans expressed in their self-interviews.
“fear fearfearfearfear feeling hella unsafe”: The Trauma of Fractured Fandoms
As a brief review, when I am talking about “fractured fandom,” I am referencing the idea that fans experience problems, tensions, and conflict with other fans, within a fan community or fandom, between different fan communities or fandoms, or with non-fans and anti-fans. In my initial research, I argued that these fractures were due to combinations of communication practices and power dynamics. Chiefly, these fractures appear due to miscommunication, difference of opinion, defensiveness, power plays, and policing boundaries.
These conclusions come from the study analyzing 101 fans’ recollections through online self-interviews that were designed using Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology. While the book Fractured Fandoms analyzes various aspects of these experiences, including the prevalence of harassment.
Of the 101 fans, 21 indicated experiencing some type of harassment, whether online or offline. I also analyzed the negative impacts of these fractures, which happened in situations with and without harassment. These negative impacts included the most common, emotional, as well as mental, social, physical, and behavioral. Trauma appears to exist as mental and emotional negative impacts.
Many fans discussed mental and emotional anguish, and sometimes it took days, weeks, months, even years to come to terms with what happened to them.
Fannie experienced physical and emotional trauma following encounter with a racist fan: “The feelings of the situation stick in my mind. It took a long time for me to calm down from the event, days to get it out of my head. I was depressed afterward.”
Rebecca experienced depression and anxiety after an online encounter with a fan:
“I can’t even describe how that felt. It felt so unsafe I am still shaken by it now and it happened months ago. that she could be so cruel. and so shaken that the fandom community didn’t see this as wrong, that people still think she is an amazing kind person, when it felt like she spat in our faces for asking her to take ten seconds to label her work so we could protect ourselves. […] I remember the stress leaking in. It was a while ago, but I remember not being able to sleep or do other things because I was thinking about this shit storm.”
Jiao tried to protect a friend “from a BNF (big name fan) who was trying to do the same shit to her.” Their friend told them to drop it once it was clear Jiao was “panicking and having anxiety attacks.” Jiao described it as:
“FUCK YOU ALL. FUCK EVERYTHING. Life isn’t fucking fair and I’m gonna get hurt no matter what. I hate this fandom. They don’t give a shit about me. They don’t give a shit about each other. And they won’t even bother to try. They’re too busy laughing over in their little corner fear anxiety trauma paranoia. hypervigilance withdrawal depression fear fear fear fear fear feeling hella unsafe. Ignoring fandom spaces for a while and sticking to reading just fanfiction instead of going on Tumblr. Tumblr saviour, you can blacklist things so you won’t see them on your dashboard. Also deleting my previous identity and changing my blog to a different place.”
To explore further, I searched for keywords associated with mental health issues. I found a total of 83 keyword references that utilized these keywords:
- Anxiety: 10 instances
- Anxious: 5 instances
- Panic attack: 3 instances
- Stress: 8 instances
- Stressed: 7 instances
- Stressful: 2 instances
- Depression: 11 instances
- Depressed: 5 instances
- Depressing: 1 instance
- Insecure: 6 instances
- Insecurity: 1 instance
- Worthless: 5 instances
- Distrust: 1 instance
- Withdrawn: 2 instances
- Sleeping problems: 4 instances
- Self-injury: 1 instance
- Suicidal: 1 instance (even attempted)
- Trauma: 3 instances
- Traumatic: 3 instances
- Traumatized: 2 instance
- Mental health issues: 2 instances
In considering this initial analysis, it appears that fans discussed anxiety the most frequently; stress and depression the second most frequently; seeing themselves as insecure or worthless third.
Another way of reading these references is to consider who is the subject of the discussion about trauma and mental health. More often than not, the fans were describing themselves and the trauma they experienced. However, sometimes the fans dismissed other fans as being mentally ill as the rationale for the fracture.
- “everyone else was acting crazy not me”
- “The trollish behaviour was crazy and all the other pairings hated the popular canon pair.”
- “it’s just a TV show, and people are crazy to blow it out of proportion and attack others”
- “I really just thought he was crazy, bipolar.”
- “People like that are obviously wired wrong”
- “People are crazy, especially online because of the added anonymity factor”
- “I learned that adults are immature and fans get too crazy sometimes.”
- “it just made my fandom look like a bunch of crazy people”
- “I was living in a roommate situation with the shared friends of a game with a mentally ill older woman who began to talk shit about me while I lived with her”
Such rationalizations perpetuates stigmas about fans and mental health. Rationalizing a person they are having problems with as “crazy” both dismisses and dehumanizes the other person by relying on the fanatical, stereotyped view of fans, while simultaneously alleviating any guilt, regret or other negative state they might feel for not trying harder to get along with the other person in that situation.
From this initial examination of the issue of trauma in fractured fandoms, it appears that when fans were discussing their own experience, they used keywords more aligned with discourses around mental health awareness and treatment. When they were explaining the cause of the fracture, especially if they saw someone else as the cause, then they used keywords more aligned with the stigmatization of mental health and fans as fanatics.
Overall, this discussion of mental health issues did not occur with all the fans. As with harassment, only a small subgroup discussed experiencing negative impacts that involve mental health. However, the numbers shouldn’t matter: occurrences creating/exacerbating mental health problems should be taken seriously, especially given the longevity of the effects.
This focused analysis demonstrates the need to take fractured fandom experiences seriously, to work towards reducing them and their impacts, and to recognize the significance of the fandom in people’s lives.