Symposium

Fandom and male privilege: Seven years later

Rebecca Lucy Busker

Parkland College, Champaign, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—In 2005, clashes by male comics fans entering spaces created by (predominantly female) slash fans led to an essay exploring the role of male privilege in media fandom. Despite many changes both in fandom and media texts, the essay continues to be relevant today.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Gender

Busker, Rebecca Lucy. 2013. "Fandom and Male Privilege: Seven Years Later." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0473.

1. Introduction: It was 7 years ago today (more or less)

[1.1] Like many fans, I have written long stories, carefully crafted drabbles, thoughtful journal posts, funny polls, and academic essays. It's both ironic yet somehow telling, though, that I seem to get the most attention when I lose my shit.

[1.2] Arguably the most enduring of these moments has been an essay I wrote in November 2005 called "Fandom and Male Privilege." The essay was a quick, somewhat irritated look at what happens when male fans wander into spaces created by and predominantly inhabited by female fans, particularly those spaces centered on or at least friendly to slash activities. The essay argued that many times, these male fans not only expected the women who had built these spaces to invite them in and make them welcome, but to do so by suppressing the slash discussions they had built the spaces for, as those discussions made the men uncomfortable.

[1.3] Posted on both the Fanfic Symposium and my LiveJournal, it garnered approximately 1,250 comments, and continues to get the odd comment even today, so to say that it struck a nerve is an understatement.

[1.4] I sometimes joke that the essay was dashed off in the hour between two classes, but the truth is that parts of the essay had been brewing in my head for months. My primary fandom at the time was DC comics, specifically the Batfamily, and like any good comics fan at the time, I was following a LiveJournal community called scans_daily, a place for posting comics panels and pages fans found interesting.

[1.5] In its LiveJournal incarnation, scans_daily had been founded by women fans to be friendly, but not exclusive, to slashy interpretations and discussions of these comics panels and pages. Many of the fans who initially came to post and discuss comics there approached comics as part of their larger media fandom, and also as a part of their larger slash fandom. However, for reasons that I suspect had something to do with the cross-pollination I discussed in 2008 in "On Symposia: LiveJournal and the Shape of Fannish Discourse" (doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0049), the community began attracting more mainstream comics fans, whose background was in the broader realms of geekdom, and for whom slash was either unknown or at least a very strange thing (slash being at least slightly less mainstream at the time). Not surprisingly, most of these fans were men. Also perhaps not surprisingly, many of them missed the community information that said "slash-friendly" on the way in. This led to a number of clashes, which ultimately led to "Fandom and Male Privilege."

[1.6] That was 7 years ago. In both comics and fandom, much has changed, and much has not. In comics, there are now openly gay characters making headlines. On the other hand, the tremendously popular character Oracle, an icon for disability rights and a character refreshingly valued for her smarts and computer skills, has been taken out of her wheelchair and squeezed back into her skin-tight Batgirl costume, and artists continue to thrill us with material like Catwoman's debut cover (figure 1).

Figure 1. Catwoman's debut cover. [View larger image.]

[1.7] What has changed in fandom since then? A great number of things, and not all of them expected. In particular, the notion of fannish spaces as predominantly women's spaces has become complicated. Women of color have spoken up and repeatedly said that fandom has ignored and undervalued their presence, thus prompting the question of which women we mean when we say "women's spaces." Likewise, challenges to gender binaries have necessarily challenged the very notion of predominantly women's spaces. At the same time, some communities have struggled with the question of male privilege and even sometimes misogyny versus exploitation and appropriation when it comes to gay male members.

[1.8] At the same time, judging by the occasional affirming comments the essay still receives, the issue of male privilege is obviously one that fandom still struggles with. Of course, it seems almost painfully naive to say this in a year when, in the United States at least, the issue of male privilege is foremost in real-world politics. Certainly fandom continues to have its clashes. Women are still excluded from the definition of "geek" and "fan" in the mainstream press (http://geekout.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/24/booth-babes-need-not-apply/), despite our contributions to the culture, once again leading to the very issue I discussed in "Fandom and Male Privilege": mainstream geekdom attempts to exclude us, and then when we make our own spaces, accuses us of being exclusionary.

[1.9] That said, certainly other voices, like John Scalzi's (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/07/26/who-gets-to-be-a-geek-anyone-who-wants-to-be/), have spoken in welcome. However, the valorization that men like Scalzi and Jim Hines receive for speaking positively on women's issues does point to the way fandom still struggles with male privilege: men's voices are valorized at the same time that frustration builds over the usual expectation by men (and women) that they will be.

[1.10] "Fandom and Male Privilege" is a glimpse into a specific historical fannish moment, yet its underlying issues remain relevant. All told, while I would certainly write a very different essay today, it has done me very proud. You know, for something I dashed off in the 50 minutes between classes.

2. When worlds collide: Fandom and male privilege

[2.1] [This essay originally appeared in November 2005, posted at the Fanfic Symposium (http://www.trickster.org/symposium/symp181.htm) and my own LiveJournal blog. It has been revised for publication in Transformative Works and Cultures.]

[2.2] I'm going to start here with the kind of metastatement I usually avoid like the plague, but I think in this case it's necessary. Here goes.

[2.3] I know not all men are like this. I know not all men in fandom are like this. I know there are exceptions to everything I am talking about here. Having said that, I am going to try to avoid tripping all over myself to hedge everything I discuss. I am talking about larger patterns, and I think it's possible to do so without hedging every word.

[2.4] There. Metastatement done.

[2.5] A number of years ago, in my early BBS days, I got into an argument with a (much older) man about whether the US medical establishment was gender biased. His argument was that US medicine was not only not gender biased in favor of men, but it was gender biased in favor of women. His support for this was that as many men get prostate cancer as women get breast cancer, and yet breast cancer receives much more funding and research than prostate cancer.

[2.6] Without being able to verify either of these facts easily (this was before such information was available with a couple of mouse clicks), I responded thusly: the reason breast cancer has the research and funding it has is because women (and a few men, most of whom had lost women to breast cancer) had gotten off their asses and gotten it. They had raised money and lobbied and dragged what was once a vaguely shameful disease into the public eye.

[2.7] I don't actually remember how the debate ended, but the gist of it was this: the idea that men as a group might actually have to do something to get their interests represented was totally and completely foreign to him. The "fact" that they weren't represented already was just proof of bias and oppression.

[2.8] Flash forward a few years to my active gaming days, when the majority of my social life was either gaming or hanging out with my gaming-geek friends. As should be no surprise, the majority of those friends were men. In a group of, oh, about 30 or so people in various concentric circles, there were about four women who regularly showed up at parties and other functions.

[2.9] After a while, we began organizing chick nights—gatherings of just the four of us, and maybe some other women we knew from outside the group. Some of the men in the group took exception to this. They never organized nights at which we were excluded. When we pointed out that by the law of averages, a good half of the various social outings ended up being guy only, they replied that it was not the same thing.

[2.10] "Look," I finally said to one of them, "when we get together Saturday night, we're going to paint our nails and put goop on our faces and play with each others' hair and watch movies with really hot guys and talk about how hot the guys are and probably talk about sex and periods and all that fun stuff. Do you really have any interest in that?"

[2.11] "No," he replied, "but we could do other stuff instead."

[2.12] At which point I walked away, because otherwise things would have ended either with a rant on how it was not only more socially accepted but socially expected for women to be interested in stereotypically guy things than for guys to get into stereotypically female things (which I didn't want to do, because really, we all did love gaming and horror movies and science fiction all that fun stuff), or else with me banging my head on the table.

[2.13] We live in a culture of male privilege.

[2.14] I mean, you all do know that, right? I'm not breaking anything to you? Cool.

[2.15] Male privilege may be more obvious in other cultures, but in so-called Western culture, it's still ubiquitous. In fact, it's so ubiquitous that it's invisible. It is so pervasive as to be normalized, and so normalized as to be visible only in its absence. As John Scalzi points out in his attempt to find a new terminology for the default status that is straight, white, able-bodied male (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/), the vast, vast, vast majority of institutions, spaces, and subcultures privilege male interests, but because male is the default in this culture, such interests are often considered ungendered. As a result, we only really notice when something privileges female interests.

[2.16] This results in, well, lots of things, but two that I want to talk about here. The first is that true gender equality is actually perceived as inequality. A group that is made up of 50% women is perceived as being mostly women. A situation that is perfectly equal between men and women is perceived as being biased in favor of women.

[2.17] If you don't believe me, then you've never been a married woman who kept her family name. I have had students hold that up as proof of my sexism. My own brother told me that he could never marry a woman who kept her name because then everyone would know who ruled that relationship. Perfect equality—my husband keeps his name and I keep mine—is held as a statement of superiority on my part.

[2.18] Back to the first point there. Think for a minute about any show that isn't a sitcom (for some reason, they're the exception) or a Lifetime series. I'll bet you anything the opening credits have more male names than female. If there are more female names, odds are the series is about women, as opposed to being about lawyers or doctors or people living in another galaxy, like Stargate: Atlantis (2004–9). And as much as I love the show, the main cast was a tad lopsided. For that matter, I remember noticing and being pleased by how many women there seemed to be on the Atlantis starship Daedelus. How many is how many? Two. If it's realistic that there would be fewer women on an air force ship, the more telling point is that the presence of two visible female background characters caused me to take notice.

[2.19] The second result of the invisibility of male privilege is that a lack of male privilege is taken as active oppression, as male bashing or bias toward women. It is not enough that the mere presence of something that actively aims at women and women's interests is taken as oppressing men; simply not catering to men's interests is perceived as oppression—honestly perceived that way.

[2.20] Let's talk about Spike TV (http://www.spike.com/) for a moment—television for men. Leaving aside for the moment that their idea of what television for men is kind of interesting, there was no question that the network label was in part a response to Lifetime. Leaving aside what Lifetime thinks television for women is or should be (we live to rant another day), it sounds fair enough, right? One network that's television for women and one that's television for men.

[2.21] Except is there anyone out there who doesn't know that pretty much every other network on television is courting the male viewer? The W-fricking-B is trying to attract more male viewers. I'm not saying they're actively excluding female viewers, unless they're the sort of network that cancels their second-highest rated show because the only people watching it are women, and no, I am never letting that one go, but is it any secret that male viewers are the holy grail of television?

[2.22] This is, in essence, the television corollary of the men who point to women's studies programs/classes and ask where the men's studies are, at which point I flail in the direction of the history, literature, art, and social studies classes. Does anyone actually think men are underrepresented there? Again, something that is not predominantly about men is perceived as oppression even though it is actually an attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in the mainstream.

[2.23] What does this have to do with fandom?

[2.24] Media fandom as most of us know it is often largely a female space, by which I mean that many of the circles we run in are made up mostly of women. Women write stories for other women, make vids for other women, talk with other women, and go to cons with other women. Although few of us actively want to exclude men, we're not really invested in drawing them in either. Fandom is one of the few places where you'll actually hear, "Wait, so-and-so's a guy?" We're kind of used to that.

[2.25] Except lately, these fairly small spaces have been expanding, and intersecting with spaces where there are more men. Often, everything is fine and dandy. It's just that sometimes, it's not.

[2.26] Let's take a post at LiveJournal community fanficrants as an example (figure 2). Allowing for the moment that the guy was being obnoxious as all shit in his phrasing, there was still a rather disturbing amount of agreement to what was, in essence, a classic example of male privilege.

Males

I'm male. I love being male.

And I'm annoyed at parts of the female fan fiction population, especially the quasi-academic, use-big-word female crowd. I'm annoyed at female who put down men in discussions regarding fan fiction. I'm annoyed at the portrayal of men in fan fiction.

If you're going to discuss men, INVITE THEM TO THE TABLE. If you look through some of the conversations on the big meta and fic journals that discuss gender, slash, & reading habits of the fan fiction writing community, you frequently see a lot of women, females, girls. Rarely do you see any men. These women, you know who I mean, will talk and talk about men. And they subtlely bash my wonderful gender. They'll say that isn't it wonderful that women can identify with characters regardless of gender and men can't do that. Shove it female fans with your elitist feminine attitudes! Men can relate to female characters just as well as women can relate to male characters. Some men can. Some women can't. And your brother, husband, lover, gay male friend, father do not represent all males. Get a larger pool. Men can do romance. Straight men can watch two gay guys viewing on a screen with out going all homophobic on people's asses. There are some wonderful anime shows with two guys in a relationship that have male audiences. Your female bashing of men as being uninterested in romance is hurtful to men because it reinforces negative stereotypes.

So stop your discriminating. Stop your talking about our gender without actually asking our opinions or getting us involved in those discussions. Stop putting down our gender in order to put yours up.

You'd think fan fiction writers and slash writers, would know better than to do this but it just isn't so. Learn and stop the playa hating male bashing that exists in too many fan fiction communities. We see you even if we're not saying it.

ETA: Seriously, though, gender stereotyping is wrong. Very true, revelinsanity. I think I just needed to rant/vent for a while.

306 comments

Figure 2. Screen cap of October 11, 2005, post to LiveJournal community fanficrants. [View larger image.]

[2.27] It is not enough, you see, not to exclude men. We have to actively get them involved. I'm not sure what's more insidious: the notion that we must find it not only desirable that men get involved in fandom, but also some kind of imperative, or the notion that it is our, women's, responsibility to get them involved in fandom—in other words, that we are the ones who must act. Even though we carved these spaces out for ourselves (didn't nobody create those lists and cons and archives and communities for us, darlin'), we must take the further step to get men involved in them. If you are going to argue that these couple of guys are in no way representative of male privilege at work in fandom, you might want to talk to the vidders who've been told that vidding can't be an art because no men are involved. Instead, it can only be a hobby.

[2.28] Further, as implied in a response to the fanficrants post cited above (figure 3), we must do so by actively suppressing our own interests. It is not enough to make things more appealing to men; we must stop doing the things that appeal to us. That is where things can get ugly. Men can stand longingly at the window waiting for us to coax them in all they want, and ultimately it doesn't affect us. What does affect us is the attempt to reshape the spaces we have set up for ourselves to better reflect their interests.

LJ Comment Thread:

peace_piper 
October 12 2005
Word. I'd like to see more men in fandom. I get a bit sick of dealing with many women and the things they talk about as described above.

Kannaophelia
October 12 2005
I know, and I understand your pain. It must be so hard for you, having to deal with women and women talking about things and everything. If you're really unlucky, they might even talk about your period.

Spiderflower
October 13, 2005
I had such a heavy flow yesterday that it washed all the men out of the room!

Jennem
November 8, 2005

BAD MENTAL IMAGE!
BAD MENTAL IMAGE!

You mean they didn't grab onto any of the clotted rafts in order to safe themselves?

Figure 3. Screen cap of comments in response to a post at LiveJournal community fanficrants, October–November 2005. [View larger image.]

[2.29] Let's talk about the LiveJournal community scans_daily. This was a community set up to be friendly to, if not exclusively about, slash, which is, let's face it, mostly a female activity. There was in essence a situation of perfect equality. No one was stopping men from posting things that interested them—and indeed, they did so (how many scans of Power Girl have been posted?) Perfect equality: everyone gets to post what interests them.

[2.30] Except that wasn't enough. Instead, some men (not all, of course) felt it necessary to actively try to stop the posts that were of interest to women, the slash and "ooh, pretty man" posts. Instead, we get "I don't understand this kind of fandom" in response to slashy commentary on DC comics scans. We get long essays on why we should not post slashy commentary on a particular set of scans. And no matter how many times we point out that the male fans have the whole rest of comics fandom on the Internet, this one space that does not actively cater to their interests by preventing us from asserting ours has become the object of contention.

[2.31] Tempers have frayed as a result. It's all well and good to try to be understanding, to try to remember that larger comics fandom is a male space, and thus that guys see us as the intruder, and so on. But in a culture of male privilege, when even the spaces we create for ourselves become sites of struggle, it can get frustrating.

[2.32] I feel the need to reiterate: I've met some great guys in fandom, guys who've joined fannish spaces and embraced fannish ways and just been, well, great. I always think of them with a bit of a squirm when I say that I'm mostly writing for women like myself. I'm happy when men like my stories or other work because I'm happy when anyone likes my work, but I'm not actively seeking them as an audience.

[2.33] But you know, that should not be a problem. It should not be seen as antimale to admit that I'm mostly writing for other women. We shouldn't have to keep fighting for the spaces that we made for ourselves. We shouldn't feel any need to apologize for having made those spaces for our interests, and having made them to reflect our interests. Seriously, can we stop that? This is not oppression. It is not male bashing. It is simply a lack of male privilege, and that is not a bad thing.



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