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

Part II: Attack of the Fifty-Foot Fanboy

It’s not just the creators that perpetuate rape culture and misogyny. Would that it were so simple.

Yesterday, we talked about why fangirls are always fighting creators, part of a larger conversation of why female fans are such a formidable force. The other side of this, of course, is calling out the people on the internet, which primarily consists of the people who are fans of the thing, but also of the people who review the thing, and make their own podcasts, YouTube channels, and fanpages talking about the thing. There are two facets to this: the harassment of women who are just doing their job, usually in playing a fictional character, and the double standard when it comes to female characters, who must be perfectly well-written but not too capable because that would make her a Mary Sue, who have to be strong enough to be a Strong Female Character but not so strong that she raises her voice to the men around her, and have flaws that aren’t actually flaws lest creators actually devote screen time to her working on them.

Rey from Star Wars has been besieged by accusations of Mary Suedom by very annoyed portions of the Star Wars fandom. They’re very upset, guys.

Partly because of these movies and TV shows positioning white men as the centre of the universe and partly because of good, old-fashioned patriarchal bullshit, fandom has always seen itself as belonging specifically to white men, because the thing belonged to them. It was created by them for them, something they could enjoy that made them the heroes and got them the girls. They were promised an escapist fantasy where they would reign supreme, and as soon as any woman does anything to disrupt that fantasy, she must be swiftly reprimanded and reminded that she is but a guest in their realm. Which isn’t all that different how women are treated in all walks of life.

I’ve mentioned it before, but a dear friend of mine said something about a year ago that has stuck with me ever since: “People feel more strongly for characters than they do for people in real life. So, if you tell me how you feel about a character, then I know how you secretly must feel about me.” Television and movies are a kind of escapism, which means that there’s a disconnect between us and the characters. What we feel for them is more raw, and if you look closely enough, our attitudes to those characters reveal how we feel about their counterparts in the real world. Spend enough time in a fandom, and you’ll be able to recognise what the patterns are, and that’s another reason fangirls are always fighting – trolls, in this case. Their subconscious bias comes out when they unfairly lobby abuse and criticism at women, especially minority women. Yes, it’s because those things are bad and no one deserves to be harassed on the internet. And also, so that we let people know that their harassment and bullying won’t be tolerated. But, more than that, it’s because we recognise this behaviour does not merely exist on the internet.

Anna Diop is one of many women of colour playing fictional characters who receive hatred for their race, though trolls often try to hide it with nonsense about costumes and how they’re written.

We call out the people demanding the immediate and violent death of Felicity Smoak on Arrow because she stands up to Oliver Queen – who will sound curiously similar to the people who demanded the immediate and violent death of Laurel Lance because she stood up to Oliver Queen – because hating women purely because they refuse to be doormats is a dangerous attitude that literally leads to women being killed in real life. We call out the people who harassed Kelly Marie Tran and Anna Diop and countless other women off the internet because of a mixture of misogyny and racism (or, to borrow the excuse they think we’re buying, “playing a badly-written character” et cetera et cetera), because this is directly analogous to the harassment that women face at work when the men above them think they don’t belong there. And you can bet that we’re never going to stop yelling at the people who always seem to be first on the scene when a woman of colour gets a role (worse, a role that originally “belonged” to a white woman), or the whining that there are “too many gay characters,” or a trans character is announced, because it is a reminder that there are people who think we don’t belong in these spaces – and would likely be against our being allowed in certain spaces in real life.

Abbie Mills’ mistreatment is well-known among former viewers of Sleepy Hollow. #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter (Yes. I’m still bitter).

We call out the fandom creatives who allow sexism and misogyny to fester in their spaces, offering feeble explanations for why they do nothing about it – or even encourage it – because that’s something that men do all the time. We don’t frequent spaces that are rampant with that sexism and misogyny, because it is emotionally exhausting to subject ourselves to those views while trying to discuss what we enjoy. We call out the reviewers who allow male characters to be petulant, cruel, and selfish, excusing it as being “human,” while they have all the energy in the world to go after female characters for minor transgressions and vilify them when they express anything negative – especially the passive-aggressive comments that crop up when those women are a certain shade – because it’s emblematic of how women aren’t allowed to be flawed. Not to mention the ones who can suspend disbelief to almost ludicrous degrees for their favourite male heroes, but demand realism whenever a woman is doing anything more than sitting in the corner brushing her hair (a personal favourite: Rey is a Mary Sue). We call out the television networks, movie studios, and merchandisers who say they are all about diversity and inclusion, but curiously manage to be sexist in promotional materials, marginalise the female characters – sometimes treating them so badly that the actresses playing them ask to leave – or releasing little to no merchandise for them. And then when they do release merchandise for female characters, they send a pretty clear message about which kind of women they consider to be worthy of merchandise. Because that shows how little they actually respect women, and which women they think deserve visibility.

One of the most annoying things about being a female fan of something, but especially TV and film, is that you already know that your voice won’t carry the same weight. Not only because fandom has been the domain of white men for so long, but because society always values the opinions of men over women. Men are the experts, whereas women are either shrill harpies out to ruin the fun, or obsessed with turning everything into a girl power moment because we’re not real fans, and are only watching because there are girls onscreen. If creators only heard from reviewers who only empathise with the male perspective, or fanboys who resent that the women have too much agency and screentime (or are too gay or have too much melanin) – who, while accusing female fans of being obsessive, never shut up about it – they are never going to move past meagre representation of women and break the hierarchy of dominance of white men in media. And since it’s these – mostly male – creators that are still the majority of people in charge of telling women’s stories, it all goes back to how the world sees women.

It isn’t just the blatant misogyny that comes in the form of harassment and abuse that fangirls are fighting when they start yelling at trolls on the internet – it’s the power their collective voices hold when it comes to what creators think audiences want, and the analogues to very real norms that contribute to rape culture and misogyny.

Part III of this series will be published tomorrow.