Fandom Is Broken — and It’s Not Just a ‘Fanboy’ Problem
Fiction is a mirror of the real world. Too many people treat it as an alternate reality.
“Interesting article. I find your points interesting because they have no back up to them. You call yourself a Star Wars fan, so I only have one question for you …”
This email goes on for another 768 words and concludes with the phrase “you should admit you’re not a real Star Wars fan.”
Kevin (not his real name) sent this essay to my personal email address — available to the public (by choice), but not without some searching — in response to an article I wrote responding to Frank Oz’s commentary about fulfilling fan expectations in filmmaking.
I won’t subject you to the entire thing (you’re welcome). But phrases such as “breaking canon” and “I’ve read countless Star Wars books, so I know …” were used. More than once.
His main point? I liked a Star Wars movie that he didn’t, so he felt the need to tell me how much of a “real fan” he actually was.
His favorite fictional universe upset him, so he took it out on me, a real person.
Not everyone logs into their Hotmail account and submits lengthy argumentative essays to me in emails. Most people just use Facebook or Twitter. Some version of “you’re wrong, you don’t know anything about Star Wars, you’re not a real fan” is their usual go-to.
Other people in the Star Wars fan community — other women especially — are subjected to much worse on a daily basis.
I might even consider myself lucky that I’ve never had to block a troll threatening me for liking a fairytale.
There are countless examples in the Facebook comments of my articles alone showcasing the way “fandom men” behave online. Kevin is just one of hundreds.
Would you believe me if I told you this problem — this outright display of an unwillingness, or inability, to separate fiction from reality — is not exclusive to fanboy culture?
Don’t get me wrong; men in fandom spaces have earned their tainted reputation for a reason. I’ve had men tell me I “shouldn’t” like Star Wars because … well, pick a reason and I’ve probably heard it a dozen times over.
But women in the same spaces are just as guilty of projecting their enjoyment or distaste for certain elements of fiction onto the real people who oppose their viewpoints.
Maybe they don’t attempt to shun fellow women from the community solely because of their gender or try to one-up every piece of trivia with something they know more about “because they’ve been a fan since xyz.”
But there are particular subcultures within most fandoms, mostly (but not always) made up of those who identify as female, that are just as toxic in a similarly obsessive nature.
Let’s use “ship culture” as an example. It’s the most problematic as of late, at least in the online spaces I occupy these days.
In fandom, to “ship” a couple means you root for two characters to end up together romantically whether that hope plays out in the story or not. Within the Star Wars fandom, the Reylo subcommunity “ships” Rey and Kylo/Ben Solo (yes, I know the difference).
There is nothing wrong with wanting two characters from a story you love to be together. There’s nothing wrong with being upset that a story didn’t play out the way you hoped it would.
It’s not OK, however, to project these feelings onto real people.
As a writer, reviewer, and fan of all things Star Wars, I spend a lot of time in this fandom space. I’ve seen it all. Including, but certainly not limited to:
- Insisting that two actors who play two shipped characters should be lovers in real life (even going as far as to say an actor should leave their real-life partner for said co-star)
- Calling someone a rapist for identifying as a Reylo (yep)
- Starting petitions to fire someone because the story they wrote/directed/produced/starred in killed off a beloved character.
I could go on. I won’t.
Fiction is made to be felt, whether those feelings are positive or negative. Of course you’re allowed to be happy or upset that a certain couple wasn’t endgame or that a character you identified with didn’t make it to the end of the book.
Of course you’re allowed to express those feelings in your respective spaces.
But people — men, women, etc. — take that freedom of expression too far. They deliberately seek out fans and creators they disagree with on a regular basis. Not for healthy argument, either, but instead with the intention to harm.
You’re allowed to be upset because you feel Rey and Kylo Ren’s attraction promotes rape culture, something that is deeply offensive and appalling to you. It’s your opinion, it’s the way you interpret the interpretation, these are your valid feelings, and you’re allowed to express them.
You shouldn’t be allowed — but really, who can stop you? — to turn your distaste into a personal attack on someone who doesn’t share your viewpoint.
I use the phrase “personal attack” with hesitation, because misinterpretation of arguments directed toward specific people as attacks are an additional complication in fandom discourse.
“Harassment” is a strong word, but it fits here. Comments become harassment when you continuously fire back at someone you don’t agree with when they’ve already tried to shut down the conversation (or never engaged with it in the first place). I’ve seen this happen in Facebook groups more times than I can count (between two men, between two women … it all applies).
I’ve seen men bully Kelly Marie Tran off social media … because she’s a woman? Because she’s Asian? Because she played a character in a Star Wars movie they didn’t like? All of the above?
I’ve also seen women harass a female Star Wars author for writing the adaption of a film they disliked.
At some point, somehow, we lost the ability to differentiate between stories we don’t care for and the people who associate themselves with those stories.
Stories are written for the masses, but we started taking them personally.
Almost as if, in our quest to find comfort and acceptance and joy in storytelling, we forgot that stories are just pretend.
I spent countless hours in dorm rooms and campus apartments, lecture halls and library tables practicing how to draw real-world conclusions from works of fiction. I’m no stranger to the healing properties of metaphor; people seek to find themselves in stories. We delight in feeling seen.
In some cases, we depend on it. People’s lives have been saved because of stories.
But this desire to identify with our preferred realms of fiction — to grasp onto even the smallest glimmers of hope within the stories and characters we love — has shattered our relationship with reality within our respective fandoms.
Fiction is a mirror of the world we return to when we leave it. We see ourselves in its pages, we watch our stories play out in front of us on our screens. We write it to understand human emotion. We talk about it to connect with other real people who have also spent time in the same imaginary spaces.
But there is a fine line between innocent fandom and dangerous obsession, and many people can no longer see it.
The fact that someone can receive legitimate death threats for playing a fictional character in a movie more than proves that.
Fandom is intended to exist as a supplement to our reality. When it becomes a replacement to that reality — as it so often does — the line disappears. You may still call yourself a fan. But you act like a predator.
There are people who flock to fandoms to temporarily escape the terrors of their real life. When you fill a fandom with the same kind of terror, you’re taking away what could be their only outlet for survival. At the very least, for happiness which can’t be found anywhere else.
We may never again live in a world where a member of a fan community can express love for their favorite character or draw an obscure theme from their favorite story without immediately drawing criticism.
That is, unless we change the way we criticize. Criticism not just of characters and stories, but also of the people who make and appreciate them.
Fandom is not about the individual; it is about the community. In the privacy of your own headspace, you can marinate in your hatred of a story. But if you’re going to bring that hatred into a communal fandom space, you must do so with the expectation that people will not agree with you — and that this disagreement is not personal.
If you can’t see past the lens of your own opinions — if you’re so possessive of the fiction you know that you can’t properly engage in normal conversation about it — you exemplify the problem.
Disagreeing is enlightening. Gatekeeping is toxic, regardless of who you are as a person. This is not a fault of gender. It’s a flaw of our culture. Collectively, we have the power to change it.
Be critical of the fiction you love. Let it enrich your life outside its pages. Embrace the endless opportunities it presents to connect with, learn from, and grow alongside other people. Your fandom should be a major — at the very least, important — part of your life.
But it can’t be your whole life.
It’s when we stop separating the two that everything falls apart.