If you’ve spent more than five minutes on the internet, you’ve probably stumbled across the fandom community – and promptly retreated, hands raised in submission. A fandom is, according to Urban Dictionary, “The community that surrounds a tv show/movie/book etc. Fanfiction writers, artists, poets, and cosplayers are all members of that fandom. Fandoms often consist of message boards, livejournal communities, and people.” It’s essentially a microcosm of people who are all fans of the same piece of media.
The rough concept of fandom is far older than the internet. You could argue that the first organised fan following was that of Sherlock Holmes. When Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off in the short story The Final Problem, he received enormous pressure from avid readers who were – shall we say – less than content at the loss of their favourite fictional detective. When I say “enormous pressure”, I mean “so much pressure that he brought Holmes back to life just so he could get some peace”. Sweet, isn’t it?
Engaging in the fandom community can be a very valuable experience. It feels immensely validating, and it certainly enhanced my love of certain TV programmes. It also enabled me to become more critical of the media I was consuming, but also of fandom itself. This article is about that.
Being in a fandom is a very personal thing. It’s totally reasonable to see it as part of your identity and it can help people to find likeminded friends. However, there’s a tendency for fans to perceive non-fans in a sort of “us and them” light. Their participation in fandom is seen by some people as a mark of their “otherness” and, whilst that’s fine, it sometimes culminates in something much more problematic. I’ve often come across people who compare being in a fandom to having a mental illness, which is A) ridiculous and B) incredibly ableist. Take this image, for example, from a Facebook fanpage for a well-known sci-fi series (I won’t name and shame them):
I get the sentiment – fans support other fans. But there are ways to go about it without invoking the demonic rites of casual ableism. Images and statements like this perpetuate the idea that people with mental health problems are violent/aggressive/dangerous and that they deserve to be locked up. They’re not and they don’t. Mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence than to be the perpetrators. Plenty of people find fandom life a source of great comfort if they’re dealing with depression or other mental health problems, and it saddens me to think that there are large parts of the community appropriating their struggles.
Another concern of mine is how fetishized same-sex relationships are in fandom. You may have heard of “slash” – the act of producing art and fiction featuring characters from various forms of media in gay relationships – or its female equivalent “femslash”. You do find male-female pairings, or “ships”, but the majority of “shipping” is directed at same-sex male relationships. It may not be indicated that the characters involved are interested in the same gender.
I firmly believe that fans should be able to interpret characters as they wish. I also believe that there is NOWHERE NEAR enough representation of LGBTQ+ people in mainstream media. However, if you’re choosing to interpret a character a certain way for your own sexual satisfaction and then you claim it’s “representation”, you can piss right off. You’re no better than heterosexual blokes who “love lesbians, because girl-on-girl is totally hot” or radical conservatives who want to involve themselves in the lives and futures of LGBTQ+ people. The worst kind of shippers are the pseudo-intellectuals who think man-on-man sex is “symbolic” and “meaningful”. It’s not. You sound like a straight actor trying to rationalise his gay sex scene in a talk show interview. Chill out.
My final problem – and this is the one that really effin’ bugs me – is the erasure of female characters. Now, this links to my previous point. If there’s a canon heterosexual relationship that interferes with a gay ship, you can bet your boots that the fandom at large will loathe the lady in question. The example that springs to mind for me is Mary Watson, John’s wife in Sherlock. It’s truly horrendous how many people hate her for “getting in the way of Johnlock”.
This had better be a joke.
Sherlock in general does its female characters a great disservice. I’ve resolved to adore and value every single one of them in retaliation. Molly Hooper is reduced to a doormat, despite being an INCREDIBLY INTELLIGENT AND TALENTED young woman. Irene Adler has her identity as a gay woman erased and fetishised, because she’s a woman and the only reason women like watching Sherlock is because they fancy Benedict Cumberbatch, riiiiiiight ladies??? Kitty Riley is verbally abused by Holmes. Mrs Hudson is an absolute legend and deserves far more than an occasional background appearance. Sally Donovan is a woman of colour in a demanding job who has her affair with Anderson outed and is humiliated in front of her colleagues by Holmes. And we’re supposed to root for Sherlock, who is – let’s be real – a right arsehole.
Yet the fandom lap this shit up.
Sorry, folks, but I think we can do ten times better than this. Sort it out.