Sixteen Candles, and Why Fangirls Are Always Fighting, Part III

Part III: Hoofbeats and Horses

At this point I have to apologise, because if you are a person who understands representation, the point that I’m making – that having positive representation for women of all backgrounds isn’t just to meet a quota and it’s not just to give people the warm and fuzzies, it’s to change harmful perceptions that have dominated media in the past – is very obvious. But it’s occurred to me recently that sometimes, both creators and fans sort of miss the point. Some creators talk about it or implement it for the sake of appearing socially conscious, to meet a quota, or to guarantee fans who are starved for representation.

The Charmed reboot marketed itself as a Latina reboot, though only 1 of the actresses is Latina.

That might seem cynical, and I don’t doubt that they’re well-meaning, but even as recently as the Charmed reboot, we can see that the best of intentions can fall short. And even that is nothing compared to the fans who look upon any attempt to be more women-positive in casting with derision, sneering at attempts to “pander” to female fans. As if female characters cannot possibly be of any genuine quality, and are only here to make women feel good about themselves – which, of course, is a laughable concept and an unworthy endeavour to those fans.

Look, I understand the realities of Hollywood as a business, so of course the people in charge are going to jump on the diversity train because it’s lucrative both in terms of revenue and buzz. And I have nothing against the warm and fuzzies. I love the warm and fuzzies! Bring on more things that make everyone feel warm and fuzzy, I say. But positive representation for women of all races, sexualities, gender identities, and backgrounds actually has implications for us in real life. Thinking of women-positive representation as little more than a chance to grab exposure or dismissing it as pandering is an indicator of privilege. Because if you don’t have to think about the implications of representation, chances are that you already have it, you don’t have to worry about it going away because of some executive worried about his bottom line, and your place in society isn’t directly affected by people believing what they see of people who look like you on TV.

The other thing I know people will point out is that tying representation to social issues is a double-edged sword, as creators will automatically be in the wrong since you can’t really defend sexism, or the other “-isms.” To some extent, I agree. I am no stranger to disgruntled fans using social issues to bully creators and fellow fans, draping their ire with their favourite TV show in a cloak of moral superiority. As someone who has studied these terms, it is intensely aggravating to see people use it for woke points or to justify their own awful behaviour because the two people they want to kiss aren’t kissing. Like, for example, hounding creators for not making a homosexual fanon (as in, in the minds of the fans) relationship canon, while not supporting shows that actually do have that representation.

Like Gamergate, the story of the “sad Spider-Man proposal” resulted in targeted harassment of a woman that was fueled by misplaced male geek rage.

…but that doesn’t always work. Because here’s the thing: if you have even elemental knowledge about feminism or critical race theory, you will be able to tell the difference. You’ll be able to tell when people are making a valid point, and when they’re mad at a creative decision and think that “social justice” is the best way to clobber you with it. Dismissing the message entirely because it’s packaged in a less than ideal way is as irresponsible as dismissing feminism as a whole because of the few “radical” feminists you might have come across. We all know that female fans have a reputation for crossing boundaries, becoming obsessive, and developing a weird sense of entitlement. It’s just funny that this is what we automatically assume about them, to the point where people will even commission documentaries that paint them as shallow and obsessive, but nobody is rushing to document the entitlement and abuse from male nerds that drive women off the internet, spawn targeted campaigns of abuse of women who didn’t do what a man wanted, and grown men attacking small girls in public because she needs to prove she knows enough about Doctor Who before she can call herself a fan.

This last example, especially, brings me to my last point. I know that there are people who will say that I should stop complaining, and that this is just how the world is, and that I’m overreacting. I’m a Black woman, so I’m used to being told that I’m overreacting. Let’s circle back to the point of positive representation and what it means. Like I mentioned, one of the reasons we’re always fighting isn’t to berate people, it’s because we don’t know where that bigotry will stop, if at all. And also, we don’t know how much subconscious bias you’ll take into other areas of your life. Really think about that: when you see harassment and ignorance online, women don’t know where that will stop.

And that’s terrifying.

It’s not a stretch to think that the people who hate representation onscreen will hate those people in real life.

How do we know that the fans demanding the deaths of Felicity, and Laurel, and whichever female character has too much agency for their liking, won’t treat women in real life the exact same way? Who’s to say that the racist fans of The Flash – who have been spreading vitriol for five years because Barry Allen loving a Black woman instead of a white one makes them feel inadequate – won’t grow up to be the people spreading vitriol because Prince Harry marrying Meghan Markle instead of a white woman…is making them feel inadequate? Or that the fans who create memes making fun of Black women won’t grow up to be the men who draw racist cartoons about Serena Williams – and then whine incessantly when people point out that the racist thing they did was racist? Do we think the people who are first on the scene to whinge about there being “too many gay characters” onscreen will vote for anything that protects the rights of LGBT people? Or that the people who disparaged Nicole Maines as the first transgender superhero on Supergirl – or any representation for trans men or women, really – have a different attitude to the ones who abandoned a transgender teenager during a safety drill because they didn’t know where to put her?

I’m an adult. I have a healthy amount of self-confidence. And yet, whenever I see those kinds of comments, I can’t help but feel a pit in my stomach. Because even though we’re encouraged to write off these comments as happening in a vacuum, or just being a joke, women can’t see them that way. We see people who will take their sexism, and racism, and homophobia, and all the other little bits of subconscious bias they’re carrying around in their heads and turn it into action, and those actions make up our society. These are attitudes that carry. They are not outliers, and as much as everyone likes to act like they’re basement-dwelling nobodies whose hatred is confined to anonymous attacks from internet chatrooms, we would do well to remember that they are real people with real power, and they will use that power to make decisions that will reinforce harmful aspects of society.

They’re the men who will grow up to be the university administrators who prioritise the male student’s career over the female victim’s pain, or the police officers who don’t believe a woman who said she was raped, or the prosecutors who won’t take her seriously, or the judges who will blame her because of what she was wearing. They’ll be the bosses of companies who secretly resent all the “female privilege” that women are getting in terms of hiring quotas, and do whatever they can to keep the executive group a boys club. They’ll be the HR people who dismiss complaints from women about a hostile work environment, calling sexual innuendos and advances casual flirting, or a symptom of everyone’s favourite phrase, “boys will be boys.” And it won’t stop there.

They’ll be the people who vote for the anti-transgender bathroom bill – or the people who harm transgender women in particular. They’re that bakery who won’t make the wedding cake for the gay couple. They’ll be the hospital worker who assumes that Black women can withstand more pain than everyone else and won’t take her complaints seriously. They’re the hiring manager who has always felt “uncomfortable” with hijabs and that’s why she won’t hire the Muslim girl – but all the girl will hear is that she isn’t right for the job. They’re the teachers who subconsciously think that children of colour are naturally less intelligent and/or more disruptive, discouraging their progress and punishing them more harshly than their white classmates. They’re the white women who have taken to using the police as a personal slave-catching service. Some day, they just might be the men who will shoot up a yoga studio, or grocery store, or synagogue.  And it goes on and on and on.

The reason you will see all of these women constantly shouting about things is because it is but one of the ways we have to fight the institutional sexism that manifests at all levels of our lives. Because we recognise how one can very easily lead to the other.

Having men like Bryan Singer in charge of women’s stories – ANYONE’S stories – is so terrifying that it defies reason.

Being a woman is exhausting. Relentlessly, crushingly, tired-in-the-bones exhausting. Being a woman of colour, moreso – and speaking as a Black woman, the mere enterprise of existing has become so exhausting that it’s starting to become morbidly entertaining. But, like, Pennywise the Dancing Clown entertaining, not laugh out loud entertaining. Navigating rape culture, misogyny, and (in my case) racialised sexism, without screaming at the top of our lungs everyday, is exhausting. Watching Hollywood clap for Louis C.K. after he’s masturbated in front of women and give Bryan Singer more movies to direct after years of allegations, is exhausting. Reliving my own assault every time I saw Brett Kavanaugh’s face or his horde of defenders demeaning Dr. Ford, was exhausting. We are exhausted. Because we are constantly reminded that our word, or value, or pain isn’t worth that of a man’s. That they can abuse us, over and over, and still everyone will fawn over their feelings, their careers, their lives. The women you see on the internet writing articles like this one or tweeting creators for better representation or calling out the ridiculous abuse that women get for daring to exist in these spaces aren’t doing it because they have nothing better to do, or because “raging misogynist” is what makes them swipe right on Tinder. They are doing so from a place of exhaustion, because it is 2018 and we still have to explain why we deserve humanity, onscreen and online, and the ridiculously easy ways in which that humanity can be granted, yet we’re still moving along at a snail’s pace.

Everyone dismisses female fans as angry, and a lot of the time we are – that is the point. That low-level, constantly leashed anger that’s always in the background, that we’ve learned to live with and keep under control because being angry all the time is just as exhausting as the thing that made us angry in the first place. We are forced into the position of constant defense, not out of desire, but out of necessity. We have to articulate the ways we’re oppressed to people who have no obligation and no desire to learn about it themselves, and that makes us so breathtakingly angry that I’m grateful I’m the kind of person who can comfortably exist on rage. But this is it, this is all we can do, because years and years of Hollywood treating both the women onscreen and the women they entertain as afterthoughts has shown us that the people in charge simply are not going to change on their own. The alternative – to remain silent – is unspeakably terrifying.

Chris Hardwick – who, let’s face it, is basically a professional ass-kisser at this point – upholds a culture of male geek dominance. Which is a problem.

It is unspeakably terrifying to know that, from the outset, it’s male fans that Hollywood caters to over female ones – which is how so many of the female characters are written for the male gaze. And that even when they do things like, oh, I don’t know, throw tantrums at real people because McDonald’s doesn’t have the sauce they want, they will get praised for their “passion.” It is unspeakably terrifying that some of these fans will become Big Name Fans, elevated by the creators themselves, and will remain in those positions despite sexual abuse allegations and racism. It is unspeakably terrifying that the majority of entertainment reviewers are male and white, not just because they’re bringing their subconscious bias to the table, or because it’s yet another example of gender and racial disparity. It’s also because they’re the ones who get to decide whether audiences will see movies starring women, whether executives will bankroll movies written by or directed by women, and how fans see female characters and their stories. And it’s unspeakably terrifying that male creators can start up asinine bleating about “reverse sexism” at the mere suggestion of women in power, but will still be awarded control of big-budget franchise events. It is unspeakably terrifying because at every level, these are the people who decide how women are seen, how they’re received, and whether our stories get told at all. They’re shaping how boys will see us, and how girls will see themselves. Yet, they aren’t required to have more than a basic understanding on sexism and misogyny, and many have no desire to learn. And unless we say something, nothing changes.

Let me keep it 100: I have never given and will never give a shit whether someone else likes my favourite female character or not. The absolute most obnoxious I’ll be about it is maybe tell you that I think you have bad taste. But when I’m in a male reviewer’s comments section pointing out that his view towards the female characters is a little misogynistic, I’m not doing it to change your mind. I’m doing it so that you might perhaps examine your reasoning behind why Sansa Stark is the absolute worst and think about whether you might be employing some sexism in the way you think about her. Because implicit bias has a first-class ticket to every decision you make and every interaction you have. It is laughably unfathomable to me that there are people who think that female fans have nothing better to do than to write articles begging creators to treat their female characters better. That we rove about in internet gangs accusing people of misogyny, not because we care about the representation of women in media or because we’re “real” fans, because we’re women and whenever we don’t like something, the only criticism our feeble, feminine minds are capable of articulating is sexism. The fact that we’re doing it is exhausting, but that people think we enjoy it is insulting.

There’s a saying that I’m fond of – and, like a lot of my feel-good life lessons, I first heard it on Grey’s Anatomy – “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” It’s a medical aphorism coined by Dr. Theodore Woodward that basically means when you see a collection of symptoms, look for the more common malady instead of the exotic disease. But it can also be used outside of medicine (it’s also known as Occam’s razor); as in, don’t jump to wild conclusions when the more obvious conclusion is probably true. I’ve been on this planet for a couple of decades, which means that I’ve spent a long time being told that I shouldn’t assume that something is sexist just because it negatively targets a woman. Maybe they’re just targeting that particular woman, but it’s not because she’s a woman. Not everything is sexist. Hoofbeats and horses, right? Except that the people who more often than not leap to the defense of whoever did the sexist thing have a very juvenile understanding of what sexism looks like. They take up their magnifying glasses and look for the caveman beating his chest and bellowing “I don’t like x because female,” and dismiss anything that doesn’t fit this narrow view of the term. Because if they ever had to give sexism more than a cursory analysis, they might discover that the TV/movie, celebrity, or internet personality they like is sexist. Worse still, they might recognise some of that sexism in themselves – and that they’ve seen no problem in it before, or even like that kind of behaviour. The horrifying conclusion? That they might have to change.

What do Gamergate and the Incel movement have in common? Both found homes on Reddit. (Bonus, also 4chan.)

Women, however, do not have this luxury. Our entire existence depends on being able to recognise the warning signs, no matter how innocuous they are. Fangirls are always fighting because the media we consume and the opinions of the fans who like that media all have consequences. The thing with patriarchy is that it forces women to connect the dots, to recognise all the ways sexism manifests so that we can actively combat it, and more often than not it’s usually the same, tired story. The fans defending their misogyny and harassment with “they’re badly-written characters” or equally paltry excuses come from the same assembly line as “she was drunk/out late/wearing a short skirt.” The fans who complain that diverse characters “don’t look right” in their favourite franchise don’t sound all that different from the racists who will call the police on people of colour minding their business in their university common rooms, shopping centres, and neighbourhoods because they “don’t look right.” And the executives who marginalise the female characters on their TV shows? Yeah, you can bet they’re doing that to the women who work for them, too. You can say that I’m exaggerating, but it’s not some unknowable mystery that Gamergate and the “De-Feminised” version of Star Wars are from the same sites that birthed the incel movement and became a hotbed for white supremacy during the 2016 elections. The arena may be bigger, the players may punch harder, and the stakes may be higher, but at the end of the day the game is still the same, and women and girls don’t have the option to stop playing. We’ve been to the zoo enough times to know when it’s horses.

And when it isn’t.

This series will conclude tomorrow.