It may seem innocuous, but this question is one of the most prevalent — and sometimes most damaging — when it comes to social activism. In fandom activism specifically, it can be a death knell to any campaign that seeks better and more diverse representation in its entertainment media.
This question keeps television and movies stagnant by steamrolling over legitimate, holistic critiques of visual representation. It is derived from a ‘majority rules’ mindset: a perception that if most fandomers in any one fangroup isn’t talking about representation, then representation must be irrelevant. This is a question that maintains the status quo of character casting practices. It is asked rhetorically by complacent and ignorant groups within fandom who believe that being a good fandomer must mean unquestioning faith and complete acceptance when it comes to source content and the creators. It is used to subtract very specific — often marginalized — real world contexts out of canon debates and discussions. It is demanded by anyone who wants to keep the genres of fantasy and science fiction in a bubble, fully extracted from the lived realities of diversity. This question also comes with other equally silencing addendums — ‘It’s just the way it is,’ and ‘You’re not going to change anything anyway,’ and (one of my perennial favorites) ‘You should be using your energy for actual, real world issues.’
Believe me, I know, I get it. I was one of those fandomers, too. I wanted fandom to be my happy place, my form of escapism from real life. I produced fanart, and I participated in fan conversations, and I interacted with a large circle of like–minded kindred spirits who were all interested in the same geeky things I adored. We loved the gift economy of fandom; we loved the source material even as we debated plot choices and dissected the deeper meanings behind a character’s actions and read between the lines to revel in overarching themes and concepts.
So, if fandom is already such a vibrant, engaging community, then when it comes to introducing activism into fandom, why bother? Why indeed?
Responding to this question isn’t easy, but there are answers. Complex, faceted answers backed up by a lot of research, facts, and personal anecdotes. A quick Google search of ‘visual representation diversity in movies’ will bring up a wealth of articles and statistics about the representation bias in the U.S. entertainment industry. For a specific example, Google ‘Rue Twitter comments’ to get an idea of how vocal, ugly, and violent unchecked fannish ignorance can look and how staunchly fans stand behind their ideas of what the status quo should be, even if those ideas are repugnant ones.
Overall, the representation bias is upheld by purposely fabricated defaults intended to appeal to and speak for an entire audience of consumers. Any person who does not match the media’s ‘default’ categories for their protagonists — straight, white, able–bodied, cis, male — is generally hard–pressed to find fully–developed protagonists who look or think like them. Instead, the entertainment industry has decided that pumping out film after film featuring characters with these ‘generic’ traits should adequately fulfill anyone’s need to see themselves in film.
Many people in fandom fully buy into what the entertainment industry sells them. If the story is enjoyable and the characters are engaging, then, for the most part, that is all that is required in order to elicit full devotion to a source material. If a fandomer asks ‘why bother’ when it comes to fandom activism, it is because that person believes that social critique only serves to take the fun out of something that was meant to be entertaining.
I’m going to roll back time to a point where I myself could have asked this question. It wasn’t a religious experience, but fandom did change my life. In fandom, I was a young, imaginative adult creating art that I could curate online so it could appeal to hundreds, and eventually even thousands, of viewers. And it wasn’t a passive sharing of fanwork; it was extremely active and interactive. The internet provided me with the means to communicate directly with other people from all over the world who loved the fandom as much as I did. The internet allowed any newbie in fandom to have their art, writing, videos, costume design, opinions, discussions, and feedback soak and ferment in a vast, seemingly unending pool of like–minded, usually welcoming people.
Here is where fandom progressed from snailmailed photocopied fanzines and tabletop RPGs in the backrooms of comic book stores to password–locked fanfiction archive websites and small fandom–specific, fan–run conventions, and finally what we have now — a legitimized, public form of fannishness. Fandom now is the San Diego Comic–Con needing to expand beyond a convention center to hold attendee capacity; it is primetime sitcom characters who embrace their fannishness with fondness, not ridicule; it is where actors of popular television series (see: Misha Collins or Orlando Jones) engage and interact with their fans’ creations on an unprecedented level. Fandom has finally become mainstream.
And with great power, comes great responsibility.
Fandom becoming mainstream is not a bad thing. Ideally, fandom is supposed to be a welcoming place. It is supposed to be all–inclusive to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the source material. There are any number of circles within circles of blended social and fandom realms, and they are still expanding. It’s as possible now to geek out about Game of Thrones at work as it is to publish your slash novella on a fanfic archive and then re–tweet to fanfriends and lifefriends about a pretty fanart. Fandom can reach out to people who never realized that fandom (as in, a group of fans who discuss the source and produce works based on it) existed; now, anyone with an internet connection can tap into these spheres and go beyond simple water–cooler discussion, if they want it. Fans who once felt isolated in physical space — where they felt unwelcome or intimidated by real fannish realms of conventions or comic book stores — can now have a vibrant, digital presence. They were always fans, but in theory the internet has made it possible for marginalized geeks to find a space alongside the rest of the geeks.
Fandom is also becoming a space where voices previously unheard or silenced in the fantasy and science fiction circles have finally gotten a platform where their thoughts could be widely disseminated. These voices are from fandomers who can love a source material, even while they critique it, voices from people who find it an artificial disconnect to advocate for equality in their lives but ignore it in their entertainment. These voices are adding new terminology into the general fandom discussion soup —
Whitewashing. Queerbaiting. Fake geek girl. Inspirational disability porn. Problematic. Privilege. Intersectionality.
As a young person immersing myself in the online fandom world, at first I didn’t have much understanding of these terms, nor did I want to find out. To put it colloquially, I didn’t want these serious meta–level discussions about representation in visual media to ‘harsh my squee.’ I accepted that the protagonists usually just happened to be straight white males; the female characters were all love interests or one–dimensional foils; the characters of color were sidekicks or villains; and queer characters were punished for their sexuality. Disabled characters usually only appeared in Special Episodes, or were written off as evil lunatics. And I accepted it because that was just the way movies were written. That was just the way TV shows were cast. That was just the way it was.
To assume that the messages presented by the entertainment industry have absolutely no influence on a person’s self–esteem and psyche is naïve and ignorant. There is only one group who can feel this way — a group who believes they are already amply represented in visual media. And from the way that this group responds with violence and vociferous protest (see: the Rue Tweets) when any part of their privilege is threatened, clearly they also are influenced by knowing that they can see themselves represented in positive and varied fashions in media. And not just knowing it, but expecting it. Feeling that it is their due to the point where they are enraged that a black character should be portrayed as important, brave, innocent.
I am a woman of colour, but the majority of my fanart focused heavily on white male characters. Even though I was hard–pressed to find even a single character who looked like me — and wasn’t some sort of stereotype — in movies or television shows, I was fooled into thinking there wasn’t any other option other than the media’s concept of ‘default.’ Everyone can easily identify with the life and story and world of a straight, white, male protagonist, right? Because there are no other stories to tell.
Except that in fandom, there was.
That was the point of fandom — to read between the lines of source material and extrapolate. Writing fanfiction and creating fanart and other methods of fandom interaction is, in itself, a form of activism. It isn’t content to merely consume the canon and wait for the sequel or the next episode — fandom wants to explore and interact and pull apart and reconstruct that canon. It seeks to dismantle and build. It creates its own stories from worlds already created.
As a young adult, participating in fandom — even if I didn’t yet challenge myself to dream a little bigger — allowed me to feel a sense of ownership and control over the extensions of the source material. I couldn’t control the canon, but I could take that universe and reconstruct it to my preferences and my tastes. I could take side characters and make them the main focus. I could take that female character who was murdered for the sake of male protagonist motivation and make the story about her life instead of her death. I could look at the sidekick stereotyped character of colour and draw him as the focus of a comic strip where he resented that time the protagonist laughed at his accent. Fandom was my vehicle to tell my stories and make it about my worldview and then share it with like–minded folk.
Instead of shrugging and saying ‘why bother?,’ this opportunity for the blossoming of creative freedom should encourage fandom to instead ask a bigger, wilder, more exciting question — ‘why not more?’
And for many fandomers, it does. It is incredible to see the influence that fandom can have on the entertainment industry. It is amazing to see fandom call out casting directors, producers, networks, and movie companies on social media forums like Twitter and Tumblr. The power of the screencap key: it can preserve words of bigotry that are thoughtlessly posted publicly online by members of the entertainment industry. The bigger fandom gets, the more voices get added to the call for change, the more influence it can have on the media we consume.
If network executives can cram fandom into the feedlot they prefer, that of the complacent, unquestioning mass public, they would be very happy. After all, catering to a homogenous whole is a lot easier than taking into account the rich diversity of their audience; telling one story, over and over, that does not represent the audience it is aimed at, is a useful conditioning tool. Advertising has been scrutinized for its harmful messages used to sell products, but creative media is not so closely analyzed, despite its ability to teach us as the consumers how we should view the people around us, how we should view ourselves. What we are capable or incapable of. What we are entitled to or what we are not allowed. The corporate owners of our storytelling avenues are the ones who profit from this flattened reality, from this single story.
Fandom, on the other hand, is not complacent. As an entity, it is already taking source materials to new and complex levels, carving out places for our voices and our images. Why not take it a bit further?
‘Why bother’ with fandom activism?
Because nobody in the source materials that we love ever gained our interest by shrugging and taking the easy road. Because there is nothing admirable about mindlessly accepting the status quo as chosen for us by rich men in boardrooms. Because the people wanting to see themselves reflected in our shows and books and movies and art are legion, and they are determined, and they are ready.
Why bother accepting the challenge that fandom issues, to create fully–fleshed and coloured alternate stories? Why bother looking beyond the margins and the lines to the unpredictable and thrilling possibilities that exist out there? Why bother? Why bother?