What is an anti? Exploring a key term and contemporary debates

TWC Editor

[0.1] Abstract—The term "anti" has come into wide use in fandom over the past few years, but it has not been subject to much scholarly attention. This roundtable brings together a group of thinkers (Alexis Lothian, stitch, Anne Jamison, and Sneha Kumar) with expertise in different facets of this complex phenomenon to explore what is happening with the anti—as well as the opposite side of these debates, known as the anti-anti or proshipper—and what it all means, thereby providing some context for those unfamiliar with these debates and further spurring scholarly attention.

[0.2] Keywords—Antifan; Antishipper; Norms; Policing; Proshipper

TWC Editor. 2022. "What Is an Anti? Exploring a Key Term and Contemporary Debates." In "Fandom Histories," edited by Philipp Dominik Keidl and Abby S. Waysdorf, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 37.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The concept of the anti has gained a great deal of traction in fandom over the past few years, but it has not yet been the subject of sustained scholarly attention. What it means to be an anti, or who gets called an anti, and by whom—as well as the definition of the opposite side of these debates, known as the anti-anti or the proshipper—are at once highly contested and carry significant weight in contemporary social media debates about fandom despite the lack of consensus. These debates around the anti cover a great deal of conceptual ground, including questions of taboo sexuality, policing of sexual and ethical purity, and concerns about the harms of representation, particularly racist representation. Some argue that this range of topics, appearing as it does under the sign of the anti, conflates very different issues; others argue that there is some degree of continuity between them as instantiations of domination. This roundtable, organized by Mel Stanfill, brings together a group of thinkers (Alexis Lothian, stitch, Anne Jamison, and Sneha Kumar) with expertise in different facets of this complex phenomenon to explore what is happening and what it all means in hopes of both providing some context for those unfamiliar with these debates and helping spur further scholarly attention by tracing and extending some of the key tensions and conflicts around the anti.

2. Question 1

[2.1] Tell us about yourself.

[2.2] Alexis Lothian: I'm a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies, and one of my areas of focus is the intersection between gender and sexuality, social justice movements, and transformative fan production. I've been doing academic work in this area for about fifteen years at this point, since I was a graduate student, and during that time, my own involvement in fandom has waxed and waned from active participation to intermittent lurking. For much of the duration of the contemporary anti debates, largely as a result of a hectic off-line life, I've been something of an outsider looking in on fannish discussions—albeit one with a lot of experience and context to draw on. I wanted to take part in this roundtable because observing from this perspective has left me with a lot of thoughts that I am eager to talk about, especially regarding the ways that the anti discussion mirrors and reframes prior "wars" (a term I never feel very comfortable with) in feminist and fannish history, with new dynamics shaped by recent generational, cultural, and perhaps especially technological transformations.

[2.3] Stitch: I'm an independent academic and freelance writer (my Teen Vogue column on fandom, "Fan Service," is approaching its first anniversary) with a wide-ranging background in media and fandom studies. I have been running Stitch's Media Mix—a website and platform focusing on accessible media and fandom commentary—since 2015, but I've been actively talking about the ways that fandom has fallen short for people of color—especially Black fans, performers, and creators—since 2011–12, with the early Marvel Cinematic Universe and Sleepy Hollow (2013–17) fandoms on Tumblr. I feel strongly about this topic as someone who's been harassed by antis over ships in my past, as well as someone who's been redefined as an anti and then accused of harassment—ironically, by people who have tried to get me fired and who have harassed me over ships they think I ship. The evolution of anti across years of fandom is interesting, but it's also frustrating, and I'm glad to have room to unpack my experiences and observations.

[2.4] Anne Jamison: I'm an English professor. I am best known in fandom and fan studies circles for my 2013 book Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, but most of my scholarly work and teaching has focused on British and European languages, literatures, and critical theory. That said, I've been interested in the intellectual and literary elements of fan works for about twenty years, and I have been active as a writer or at least a lurker in a number of fandoms over that time. It's safe to say I'm more interested in texts than in people, but then, one of the really important elements of this field and this whole area of culture is that it challenges ingrained ways of thinking about the relationship between writing and people even as it revisits and reframes some old tensions. The discourse around antis is one area where I've been seeing that happen.

[2.5] Sneha Kumar: I'm a first-year PhD student in film and moving image studies at Concordia University. I can best describe my research interests as being somewhere in the intersection of queerness, platform cultures, fandom, and affect. I am particularly interested in how power, feelings, hierarchy, and citizenship function within transnational femslash fandoms. Anti debates form a critical part of how processes of inclusion, exclusion, and belonging—all of which are integral to determining positionality within fan networks—function within fandom. Learning and contributing to this roundtable has really allowed me to frame and flesh out how I would like to address (in)visibility and (dis)comfort within my own work.

[2.6] Mel Stanfill: I'm a professor in digital humanities and English, and like Alexis, I've been working in fan studies for about fifteen years, with particular focus on fandom and whiteness and queer fandom. I'm also the incoming coeditor (beginning in 2023, with Poe Johnson) of Transformative Works and Cultures. While I'm just serving as the moderator here, it seems important to contextualize where I'm coming from because I'm playing a role in shaping the conversation.

3. Question 2

[3.1] How would you define an anti? Or, in what might be a different question, how do you see the word "anti" getting used in fan conversations?

[3.2] Stitch: I've been talking about this for a while (stitch 2021), but for me an anti is someone who hates something so much that their fandom activity revolves exclusively around fighting it or mocking it. It could be an idol group, a movie, or a pairing, but the focus of the anti's fannish energy is about tearing down the thing. Sometimes that expresses itself in digital or even physical violence. There's a Genshin Impact (miHoYo, 2020) fan artist currently being stalked off-line by anti shippers coming from TikTok because of her ship (Luna 2021), and antifans of idols have been responsible for bomb threats, death threats, poisonings, and more (Koreaboo 2019). Part of why "anti" keeps being linked with "harassment" is because of how fandom spaces with antifans or shippers gained a reputation for doing harm.

[3.3] However, the way fandom uses "anti" now doesn't just include those people who harass others over fandom but has also successfully redefined people criticizing fandom or the source media as antis. In idol fandoms, people who talk about issues of cultural appropriation or even idols using racial slurs in covers are redefined as antis even though they may be die-hard fans of the group themselves. Additionally, people are being labeled as antis in transformative fandom for things like criticizing tropes, disliking a pairing (on their own, no harassment needed), saying they dislike a celebrity or a fandom, or even for something as minor as citing someone whom fandom at large has deemed an anti. Not only does there no longer need to be proof of harassment in how a person expresses dislike but also people will make up said proof in order to claim that people talking about racism in a given fandom are antifans/shippers to then excuse harassing them. (Ask me how I know this.)

[3.4] Alexis: As someone who attempts to follow anti debates at some distance, I appreciate the trajectory of the changing use of the term that you offer in your article, stitch! I have tended to think of fannish antis as somewhat distinct from the antifan definition that Jonathan Gray (2003, 2005) provides (that is, a fannish identity that's defined by dislike, antipathy, or hatred) because the fannish anti identity seems to be directed toward other fans, rather than toward a fannish object per se.

[3.5] Mel: To link Alexis and stitch's ideas, one thing that is interesting to me here is exactly that tension between on the one hand the academic use of "antifan" as it comes out of Gray's work and has been picked up in scholarship, and on the other hand the term's popular use. What does the muddle around the term in fandom itself mean for how we use (or don't) the term in fan studies?

[3.6] Alexis: I think the muddle points at the larger set of complications and contradictions that the overlap between fandom and fan studies can produce. Scholars are often writing from embedded positions in which they have a stake, while also doing the academic work of tracking genealogies, naming contexts, and developing theoretical frameworks. I think that's a generative mix, but it's important to be clear about audiences. Conversations like this one, where we pick apart who is actually being talked about when references to antis happen, seem to me to be very important.

[3.7] Anne: Exactly. And academia tends to move at a glacial pace compared to fan culture or internet culture in general, as anyone who has ever tried to publish anything on contemporary online culture in an academic venue can attest. I think if I were writing about anti culture—which I am unlikely to do because I don't tend to focus on social behavior—then I would have to clarify with wording like, "in the sense of people who are opposed to fan fiction representing couples that don't appear in canon," or whatever meaning I was writing about. In normal conversation, that kind of clarification is clunky.

[3.8] Stitch: As pop culture critics Princess Weekes (Melina Pendulum 2021) and Sarah Z (2021) point out in their respective videos about antifandom (and proshipping), the term "anti" may have had useful points when it was used to refer to a specific group of people or type of fandom subculture, but too many people are using it to mean "a person that doesn't like the thing I like the way I like it" without acknowledging that antifandom is a specific type of fandom and that dislike or criticism alone isn't antifandom, especially when it comes to conversations about racist behavior or fan works in fandom spaces.

[3.9] Sneha: My entry point into fandom is very much through femslash/wlw fandom, where "anti" is a label that, as stitch mentioned, is used for people who don't like the same ships you like or have the same interpretations of a couple that you have. Of course the term is also used against fans who are critical of certain story lines as they seem to reinforce systems of oppression. But as a lurker on Desi (South Asian) Tumblr for a while, I'm also interested in the ways in which anticaste, anticolonial, and antiheterosexist modes of thought are used within fandom. I'm thinking about this specifically in relation to how many queer Desi people on Tumblr end up rewriting the plots of major 1990s-era Bollywood films by putting a trans oppressed caste character at the center rather than a variation of Raj/Rahul. All of this is to say that I agree with everyone: "anti" seems to be a slippery term in which various kinds of fandom and different responses to fandom coalesce.

[3.10] Alexis: "Anti" is one of those terms whose referent becomes dizzyingly difficult to track when you're not actively part of the conversations where it is being defined and redefined—and where many participants in the same conversation probably don't even have the same reference points. That's especially true given that so much of the debate is currently taking place on Twitter, where different contexts collapse into each other and subtweeting is rife, even as what gets said and shared can have really significant material impacts on people's lives.

[3.11] Anne: I think these kinds of shifts in meaning and connotation for key or flash point terms are fascinating, but they can also be really damaging. These shifts happen at a much, much faster pace than they used to because of the way language evolves on the internet. I remember the first time I called a position "problematic," by which I meant "difficult to resolve or posing further problems," I had no idea the word had come to have such negative connotations and was likely to be understood as a condemnation or insult. It's always difficult when different groups of people use the same word to mean different things, and then talk to each other. From a linguistic perspective—when words like "anti" that are used by a group of people to mean one thing and by another group of people to mean another thing—both are correct in that people are successfully using the word to communicate, but when the two groups speak to each other, it's the cause of no end of misunderstanding, and often terrible hurt and upset. I think in the case of anti, it's causing more confusion than anything else, but it does make it difficult to know what's being referred to. If you step back from the conversation, as I do every time I finish teaching my fan fic course, for mental health reasons, when you check back in a few months later, the meanings could have completely shifted. A case in point: I was going to use the word "discourse," because, you know, academic, and then I realized that "The Discourse" sense of the word could be too loud in this context.

4. Question 3

[4.1] This set of responses raises some important points about different subcommunities and terminological differences, and the speed of change online. Can we talk more about that?

[4.2] Alexis: I think that one of the things that most defines the shift between those of my era and before, and those who have come up in the 2010s, is the capacity for any given post or statement to travel far beyond the context in which it originated. There's also, I think increasingly in recent years, a pressure to publicly assert one's side in any given conflict—which, in the case of the debates we're talking about here, means a concern that if you don't denounce something as harmful, then you become part of the harm yourself. This is certainly not only a fandom issue—far from it—but it plays out intensely in fandom discussions.

[4.3] Anne: That idea of "if you don't denounce something as harmful, then you become part of the harm yourself" is important. Obviously this can be true, and historically has been true, about the greatest harms. The word "harm" is difficult, because again, it seems to name as one thing an entire range of effects, from mild discomfort to irrevocable damage. That kind of conflation of meaningful distinctions does lead to those vast pronouncements we've been discussing.

[4.4] Stitch: I agree that the concept of harm is hard to define in these conversations—and it's become yet another word used in public discourses instead of what people really mean—because we all have different thresholds for content. There are things I have looked at and laughed away that are fandom-ruining experiences for another Black fan. There are things that bother me deeply that are integral to other Black fans' experiences in fandom. I think we should have more room to talk about things that tie back to issues on a systemic level, like why all of these fandoms, across decades, write Black characters as uber tops or assign a performative blaccent even to characters like Pete Ross of Smallville (2001–11) (teland 2002). But there are also things I've seen labeled rigidly as harm, like aging up characters, or writing them in alternate universes or real-person fiction, that are far harder to label.

5. Question 4

[5.1] Another area of terminological slippage is about whether pushing back on fan works that antis find harmful constitutes censorship. What do you think?

[5.2] Alexis: Social media has completely transformed public speech—in particular the capacity for harassment and the way that we talk and think about censorship. People are encountering a lot of different ideas and opinions, and often strongly worded ideas and opinions, because those kinds of statements travel most widely, given social media's structural feature of amplifying the posts that provoke the greatest response.

[5.3] Anne: "That escalated quickly" is a permanent state of affairs. The word "denounce" we discussed earlier is important too, I think. If you look historically where public denunciations have been popular, they don't tend to be historical contexts most of us would probably like to inhabit—times when the denunciations could bring down state power on someone. Of course it's different on the internet. Internet power is not state power. (Except when it is! But that's a different question.)

[5.4] Stitch: As someone who is accused of censorship while actually being (nongovernmentally) censored by antis and conservatives, my thoughts on how people react to criticism in fandom are…complicated. People have written to potential and actual employers, asking them to fire me, claiming that I've done awful things I didn't do. One person publicly claimed to have filed a police report against me despite stalking me. They've absolutely cost me career opportunities. In transformative fandom alone, I can name a number of fan studies scholars and fandom journalists (largely people of color) who have been harassed by people for unpacking an aspect of fandom or shipping culture, and who have even had their jobs threatened or damaged as a result, sometimes for something as trivial as linking to or citing a person that a given fandom has deemed an anti because of criticism. The Star Wars (1977–) fandom and assorted idol fandoms are notorious for this. I have a lengthy list of people who've had books review bombed, who've been doxed, who've had attempts to cost them contracts, and who've had fans and shippers directly contact their employers to try and punish them for having critical thoughts—not even always in response to articles; sometimes it's just a tweet—about the fandom object.

[5.5] Sneha: I find the kinds of critical thought encouraged and discouraged within fandom to be interesting: you can have a deep discussion about how Taylor Swift is a feminist, but you can't possibly mention how her feminism is a product of her whiteness, wealth, supposed heterosexuality, and cisness. I think the kinds of censorship that fandom practices, which stitch sheds light on, comes from fandom thinking that it's this inherently liberatory and utopian space that cannot possibly be embedded in systems of power even as it replicates those very systems, which is why it's okay to speak of feminism but not its nuances.

6. Question 5

[6.1] As stitch's comments suggest, another recurring argument is about tactics, including accusations of harassment, threats, doxing, and more, both by antis and anti-antis/proshippers. Are these common, or just highly visible? How does the (perceived) hostility of the situation matter to how we understand this conversation?

[6.2] Stitch: I think that the majority of fandom is entirely outside the anti/proshipper binary because binaries are incredibly reductive and miss a lot of what's going on in any case. However, I would say that instances of harassment from antis are seen as more common because people don't talk about the harassment they get or witness from the people who claim to be antiharassment in fandom. It all ties into how we are made to understand what the two sides—antifandom/shippers and proshipper/fandom—are capable of. Proshippers are supposed to be the people who will do whatever it takes to protect fandom from the encroaching hordes of extremely online conservatives like evangelicals or TERFs; antis are people associated with those communities. One group, off the jump and for various reasons, is already linked with harassment, so people then don't look deeper at what fandom as a whole has become across the past four or five years, where practically everyone is capable of and interested in unleashing harassment for (im)moral reasons in defense of their specific fandom thing. Because the conversation is front-loaded with "antis are bad and love harassment," there's no room to understand that it's not a binary problem; these spaces breed really polarized opinions and harassment that only shows up as part of the story.

[6.3] Because the scenario is set up where one group harasses minors, survivors, and POC while the other supposedly doesn't, it balances the scales in a way that completely obscures the real machinations going on behind the scenes. There are antifans/shippers who do harass people of color, out and harass queer people, and mistreat survivors, and there are also proshippers or anti-antis who do the same thing in defense of fandom. (I've seen many proshipper/anti-anti accounts harass scholars like Rukmini Pande—including trying to use clear right-wing tactics to get her fired—and support accounts defending white supremacist violence like that committed by Kyle Rittenhouse.) This is on top of the harassment aimed at people of color and teenagers in these fandom spaces on the regular, just for talking about issues that upset or offend them as vulnerable people in online fandom spaces. What's clearly understood as wrong and harassment from one portion of fandom is seen as acceptable when done by another, because it's supposedly done as defense from harassment.

[6.4] I think the harassment from antis is seen as common because of who has power in fandom. But consider that proshipper/anti-anti accounts can have thousands of followers on Twitter alone, and that they regularly misrepresent and blow up in-group issues to indicate a systemic problem while dismissing or silencing issues from their own group. It may be common, but in a way, it's also elevated racism and other forms of bigotry from the profandom/fiction side.

[6.5] Anne: As Alexis was saying earlier, the internet's power to decontextualize and spread and target on a mass scale is very real, and it can be enormous in a way that people invoking that power don't always take into account. The psychological damage that can be inflicted is real, even when the person targeted has done something problematic or wrong!

[6.6] People don't think of themselves as using their own power to inflict harm, I think, especially when they are people who are themselves vulnerable, as most people in fandom likely are, or at least see themselves. This makes for some complicated power dynamics. Everyone seems to assume they are always punching up.

[6.7] There are instances in which fan fiction gets actually weaponized—when people are naming characters after a real person, then having them raped, or implicating them in such stories and then alerting their employer or the government. Fiction might do harm, in a general sense, as in, say, normalizing abuse, but that's different from having it actually, literally be abuse, targeted against a person, seeking them out in nonfictional real-world ways. I don't think that a site that hosts fiction could or should claim to provide protection from the first kind of harm overall, but it should be able to provide protection from the other kind.

[6.8] Alexis: I think it's a question of context and audience. The risk of harm that stitch describes, when speaking in a public forum and anticipating that your words will be quoted, shared, and likely decontextualized, is very real.

[6.9] Anne: The kinds of abuse stitch describes are more widespread now, and more viciously targeted against people speaking out about racism—at least so it seems to me. But most are old fandom practices and have historically been deployed over what seem like minor issues, at least when compared to something like systemic racism. Still, early instances of doxing and other kinds of outing around shipping wars or around explicit or queer fan fic did happen, and people's livelihoods were threatened. The opportunity cost is also real.

[6.10] But those costs are not equally distributed! I had people target me when Fic came out, mostly because of things I said or didn't say about E. L. James and publishing fan fic, or about Cassandra Clare and plagiarism. People tried to get me fired, made up things about me, ran organized campaigns on Goodreads, all of it. These efforts in my case were completely ineffectual. I'm tenured, so I have robust protections, and from the perspective of anyone around me outside of fandom, it all seemed absurd. The review bombing probably had a negative effect—but not on me! Where the impact would have been felt was in opportunities for other future books with that publisher, or possibly for other writers in Fic.

[6.11] On the one hand, yay, tenure, but on the other hand, almost no one has that kind of protection any more. Furthermore, the people who were trying to damage me had a limited understanding of academic structures. For all they knew, their efforts could have gotten me fired. I don't rely on book sales for my income, but they didn't know that. For most people, the damage could have been very real.

[6.12] One thing that experience really brought home to me, ironically, was the power differential. It wasn't a level playing field—but it was tilted toward me. Their behavior was destructive, but maybe that's how people thought they could have an impact when I was playing in a field they couldn't access. I didn't see myself as someone in a position of particular power; I was newly tenured and publishing a weird book of nonacademic essays with a small press on a topic no one in my discipline had anything but contempt for. But it was an unequal situation. It made me step back for a while from doing work in fan studies. It also made me extremely cautious about wading into fandom controversies or ever saying anything negative about individual fans or fan works in any public forum, as a professor—not because I was afraid of the blowback, but because of the power differential.

[6.13] Sneha: I don't have much to add here, but it seems to me that the tactics mentioned in the question, the complexities of harassment that stitch speaks of, the decontextualization that Alexis talks about, and the experiences that Anne delves into all suggest that fandom possibly has a policing problem.

7. Question 6

[7.1] The word "anti" is used to describe multiple different kinds of objection to fiction, but two of the big ones are taboo sexuality (like underage, incest, and rape) and racist representations. Is there a relationship between these two conversations?

[7.2] Alexis: This is where the conversation gets especially interesting to me, because there's certainly an impulse that I also feel to say "these things are very different"—not just between the categories suggested here but also between individual works that may be being challenged. I do think that sexual fantasy and other modes of representation have to each be understood on their own terms, within the specific contexts and power dynamics that are at play, and that antis' or anyone else's desire to create universalizing categories that can then be policed with broad strokes is not useful at best, and actively harmful at worst.

[7.3] But it's also not that easy to hold clear distinctions, especially between sexuality and race. Racist representations are part of a lot of people's sexual landscape, in ways that are normalized as well as ways that are taboo. Some books I'd suggest to anyone who wants to think this through further include Sharon P. Holland's The Erotic Life of Racism (2012), Celine Parreñas Shimuzu's The Hypersexuality of Race (2007), and Juana María Rodríguez's Sexual Futures (2014). The power dynamics implied by underage, incest, and rape as sexual representations have a lot of overlaps but can also be interpreted in different ways.

[7.4] Stitch: In my work, I make an effort not to talk about things that I don't feel are related to racism in fandom, or that I feel would be straying out of my lane even if I have personal experience with them. If I talk about sexual violence in fan fiction or mainstream media, it's in the context of "why is [character of color] written like this across this fandom/trope?" I personally do not like to put the conversations about underage characters, incest, abuse, and rape on the same stage as the conversations about bigotry in fandom because talking through the former can (and frequently does) harm trauma survivors at every level, while the latter is often about somewhat more clear-cut practices and perceptions. Other people clearly feel differently, which is why those conversations get connected, but over the years, I've tried to make it clear that for me, those are separate conversation spaces unless I'm making a point about racism, like who is placed into those stories to be sympathized with, and how characters of color are treated in these stories.

[7.5] Alexis: The question of age and power dynamics is something I work through a lot with my own students. I often teach introductory LGBTQ+ studies, and one of the themes we come back to again and again is how the common senses of identity, acceptability, power, and consent have changed over time. The fact that age-differentiated sexuality is such a big part of queer history is usually one of the most challenging conversations. The reflexive assertion that some things are never okay, which is something young people now surely have to learn for their own safety, makes it difficult to see how differently "okay" might be defined by people in other times and places, and how recent some of our most widely naturalized ideas about sexuality are. Kadji Amin's wonderful 2017 book Disturbing Attachments talks in depth about how this has shaped the academic sphere of queer studies.

[7.6] To bring this back to antis and social media, it seems to be a given within some of the most vociferous anti arguments that we can make universalizing claims about morality, desire, and harm in which context is irrelevant—which then elicits equally broad counterarguments that risk dismissing the question of harm altogether. I suspect that part of the issue is that more nuanced arguments and conversations just don't get that much traffic and so don't shape the discourse as much.

[7.7] Anne: I run into similar issues with queer history. Regarding teaching Oscar Wilde: "if you teach Wilde you are basically endorsing pedophilia" doesn't seem that far away sometimes, and it makes me sad because the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is as poisonous as it is established. Or, to give another example, a class discussion board erupted into loud pronouncements about how much worse rape was than murder—which, historically, "a fate worse than death" is not exactly a feminist position! The fictional context that prompted this discussion was…sex pollen.

[7.8] My point is that the speed at which equivalences are made is dizzying. This isn't true just of fandom, but I think that in fandom, it's particularly noticeable if you take a step back. Sex pollen—the absurdist fictional trope about completely unreal conditions—is not the equivalent of actual bodily rape. Even if you think fiction is the most powerful force in the world, those aren't the same thing. "I don't like sex pollen because it trivializes nonconsensual sex" sounds like a tenable position. There's a ready response to that formulation: "Nonconsensual sex is a euphemism; it's rape"—to which one could answer, "Not if it's pollen?" In all seriousness, Milena Popova's recent book, Dubcon (2021), is a fascinating analysis of the way fan fiction figures gray areas around diverse experiences of sexual consent and wantedness, offering the kind of nuance that the totalizing polarities we've been talking about fail to leave space for.

[7.9] Stitch: I think it's important to note when the criticism is in bad faith. A good example is how in Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016–18) fandom anti shippers of Shiro/Keith claimed the pairing were brothers or even father and son, but then the same people went on to ship Catra/Adora in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018–20), where the two characters were raised together and initially seemed to view each other as sisters. (Or how VLD antifans ignored other characters saying they were all like brothers.)

[7.10] Alexis: What all of these categories have in common is that they're examples where representation is being perceived to cause harm, because the depiction of something in fiction is being perceived as advocacy for its perpetuation in the real world. An underlying question that brings them all together would be something like this: if our fantasy lives are shaped by the unequal and oppressive power dynamics that operate in the real world, such that we are often turned on by things that are kind of fucked up, then what happens when we express those fantasies and share them with others?

[7.11] Sneha: I think the question that Alexis poses about our fantasy lives being shaped by the fucked up structures of the real world and what happens when we share in that fucked up–ness really gets to the core of fandom and how it can be simultaneously transformative and oppressive.

8. Question 7

[8.1] So in some ways we can't peel these topics apart, and in other ways they raise really different issues. Can we talk more about that?

[8.2] Alexis: Antis, in my understanding of the position that they profess, would argue that if we do happen to have fucked up fantasies, then we should keep them out of the public view, and we're probably also fucked up people for having them in the first place. The anti-anti or proshipper position would say that fiction and reality are not so straightforwardly connected, and they would perhaps also argue that fannish norms such as warnings and content notes have developed in order to set boundaries around potentially harmful representations (though only in the realm of taboo sexuality; there's no such infrastructure as of yet to mitigate fannish racism). The distinction highlighted by question 6 calls attention to the differences in kind that exist between the sorts of harm that can be done—say, a depiction of dubious consent with carefully crafted warnings versus a character written in egregiously stereotyped ways that an author may not even realize is placing the unconsciously racist structures of their desire on display. How and in what ways can and should those distinctions be recognized—and by whom, in a context where it's pretty much possible for anyone to post anything on the internet?

[8.3] When I see discussion around antis, one thing I see again and again is a restaging of the debates from feminist movements in the 1980s that are often called the sex wars. In the sex wars, feminist academics, organizers, and cultural producers staked out pro and anti positions with regard to porn and BDSM in which antiporn/anti-BDSM feminists (most famously Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon) argued that explicit sexual representations of these kinds were violent reinforcements of patriarchy, and pro-porn/pro-BDSM feminists (most famously Gayle Rubin) argued that liberation must include the ability to freely explore sexual expression, including play with power. Within the feminist and queer circles that I occupy, the general consensus is that pro-sex feminists had the right idea—not least because the antiporn feminists ended up working with conservative legislatures to police and punish the distribution of sexually explicit materials, paving the way for collaborations with the prison-industrial complex. When antiporn arguments pop up on social media, as they do, they're often made by the same people who push TERF ideologies, and they're just as easy to dismiss.

[8.4] However, the general consensus on the feminist sex wars often leaves out the ways that discussion intersected with other conversations within feminism that were happening at the same time—specifically discussions about the whiteness of the mainstream feminist movement in the United States and the insights that Black feminist and women of color feminist thought could bring. Audre Lorde, for example, whose work circulates on social media most often in a hagiographic meme mode that doesn't allow the complexities of her thought much space, published in one of the antiporn feminist anthologies. For her, arguments about the violence of some forms of sexual representation could comfortably coexist with the openness to authentic sexual expression called for by "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" (1993). Jennifer Nash writes that antipornography feminism shows that "hierarchy often wears the mask of pleasure" (2014, 15).

[8.5] Sneha: I just wanted to add here that fandom is a really productive space to think through the entanglements between pleasure and policing and how often our desire, attraction, and love of a thing can be quite violent.

[8.6] Anne: I confess these debates are more likely to take me back to the 1790s than the 1990s, but that's just because that's my century. There's recurring concern about the harm literary texts can do. These debates ebb and flow, coming to a head in say, England in the eighteenth century (novels are dangerous for women and girls) or nineteenth century (poison books help create homosexuality), or in Soviet Russia (literature can support or undermine the revolution).

[8.7] A kind of true-believer passion and a belief in the tremendous transformative power of literature for good or ill are what unite these really disparate and culturally distinct instances. The cultural concerns (girls can be harmed by novels; we should keep them from our little Janie) are not completely distinct from the motivations behind government censorship, but the consequences are different in kind. Janie's reading is getting censored, but no one is going to prison about it. That's a line that often gets lost when people call "censorship" because they or works they love are being criticized, or even if their expression is being removed or restricted by some nongovernmental force.

[8.8] Criticism isn't censorship! But if we think that book is really harmful for Janie, it isn't so far of a leap to think that we should restrict the reading of all the Janies. For example, right now in my community, parent groups are mobilizing to try and remove LGBTQ+-positive and critical race theory (misconstrued as about race or by Black authors) books from our school libraries. Any kind of sexual content is one tool they can use to do that, especially if any of the people represented are minors. These true-believing parents are calling the police claiming child abuse and child pornography, putting up videos to encourage people to call the police on libraries. Some librarians and teachers, worried, start removing the books themselves or not ordering them, even if no one has called the police or even complained. That's the way that criticism becomes censorship—that classic chilling effect.

[8.9] I think it is telling that in this cultural moment, both race-critical books and LGBTQ+-positive books are being targeted, both often on the grounds of sexual content. It's as if the knowledge of racist history and white privilege and the knowledge of positive outcomes for LGBT+ kids are both detrimental to a childhood innocence that is conflated with sexual innocence.

[8.10] It's different but not unrelated to the way that criticisms about things such as racist depictions or unexamined white privilege are getting conflated with criticisms of underage sexual content in fandom contexts, and both are being tarred with the same brush of censorship. I wish this meant that racism was just as widely reviled and unacceptable as child pornography or abuse, but I don't think that's how that works. What I actually see is more people being anxious to protect the interests and innocence of fictional characters than to protect real people from targeted racism.

[8.11] Stitch: Anne, you bring up how criticism becomes censorship and link to what's going on in fandom, and while I understand how you get that, I also see so much directly where fandom is so anti criticism that they choose to try and censor that.

[8.12] Fandom—all fandoms—treat all criticism of both fandom and media as if it's in bad faith and punishes people for making any level of criticism. Talking on your own about an issue with a specific fandom or pairing, even if you're not a public figure or professional, is enough for people to destroy you on social media for months or even years.

[8.13] However, people have decided all criticism of any aspect of fandom or a thing fandom likes—including a celebrity—is entirely the result of antifans trying to destroy the celebrity/source media, or even to destroy real fans' porn in fandom. A thing someone literally said to excuse stalking and harassing me for over a year is that they had to do this to protect fandom's NSFW output from me—a person who largely only writes about racism in fandom spaces. Criticism, especially coming from queer people of color, becomes something that is also being censored and shut down within fandom. People view criticism of open racism in fandom—including purposeful racist stereotypes, slurs, and hate symbols in fan works on top of harassing celebrities or fans of color—as antifandom, as inappropriate, and we need to push back against that belief as well. In my case, even though it was news in online media platform Oh No They Didn't (aangorithm 2021), people still don't get that the harassment I've been getting for two years isn't from antis but from people who are claiming to fight them—which apparently includes anti racists.

[8.14] Alexis: One of the reasons that the proshipper position can slide into an excuse to shut down critiques of racism in fandom (as in the experiences stitch describes) is that the surge to defend pleasure against policing doesn't leave space for the very real possibility that pleasures can be harmful without being so evil they have to be moralized out of existence.

[8.15] I think it's vitally important to recognize the ways that racial and sexual violence inform one another on every level, but in order to do that, there has to be a grounding of shared understanding and shared analysis of what race, gender, and sexuality are and how they work that simply doesn't exist in the public sphere. The censorship campaigns Anne described are quite purposefully aimed at making sure it doesn't and can't exist—though thankfully they are not yet wholly successful. Until we can get closer to that, it will continue to be important to think through the implications of how, where, and to whom we articulate those connections.

9. Question 8

[9.1] How can we think about moving forward, beyond the dichotomies of anti versus proshipper, or censorship and hostility versus valid concerns about harmful representation that the conversation seems to be stuck in?

[9.2] Anne: I would like to see more awareness that any representation can be harmful in the sense of distorting. It's all flawed. Any representation accentuates some aspects at the expense of others, whether emphasizing positives and thereby drawing attention away from real flaws or vice versa. Any representation reinscribes some social ills even if it's trying to critique and disrupt others. That's not to say all representations are equally harmful; that's absurd. But "harmless" is also not typically a word of praise. Sometimes the ethical consequences of a representation are completely different from what it would seem; awful distortions can end up paradoxically having a good effect because of the conversations they engender. We know representation can have positive effects; it helps people imagine different outcomes, see themselves in new ways, build empathy, approach pain and pleasure from different perspectives, do the impossible, and so on. This dichotomy between harm and benefit is why criticism is so important and is a form of love (says the professional critic). It helps us see what our own blinders won't let us see.

[9.3] In terms of fan fic, "concrit is love" was in fact a common invitation in fan fic authors' notes in the fandom circles I started in, and robust discussions about all kinds of flaws in canon, actors, and fan fic were basically the norm. It is true, though, that criticism and fan fic are difficult together. Amateur writers, people who have often been excluded or shamed (by the kind of education system I represent, for example) or who are putting their raw trauma and fantasy out for free in the shape of superheroes—these can be some pretty vulnerable people, and criticism of what is already raw can really hurt. That doesn't mean that they should be immune from criticism! But it does mean that public denunciation might not be the way to go.

[9.4] Alexis: I think my answers throughout have hinted at my overall sense of this: that we need more nuance, more complexity, more recognition of and education about the structures through which power operates. By structures, I mean both the systemic social analysis of race, gender, capitalism, and so forth, and also the technological systems through which we are having these debates. I do think that social media, Twitter in particular, has a lot to answer for when it comes to the way that critique gets shut down on the one hand (with fans popping up in force to defend their object) and weaponized on the other (where arguments about justice and violence get deployed disingenuously in ship wars). The weaponization of systemic analysis for the sake of harassment—including, sometimes, people making a good-faith critique that ends up having the same effect, as appears to me to be what happened to science fiction writer Isabel Fall last year (VanDerWerff 2021)—is not new, but it gets amplified by the algorithm.

[9.5] I do also see ongoing conversations in those same social media spaces that are doing precisely what I hope for, though, thinking through dynamics contextually and reflecting on harms caused and how to mitigate them. The most generative and exciting spaces for me are always abolitionist ones, where thinkers within racial, gender, and disability justice movements are trying to imagine and create a world without policing or prisons; I'd recommend the work of Mariame Kaba (2020) and adrienne maree brown (2020) as starting points for this body of knowledge. The concept of the anti relies heavily on a punishment-based, policing-based model (the term "carceral" describes this): it assumes that when what people are writing, thinking, saying, or doing is perceived to be harmful, then the appropriate response is to denounce, demonize, and punish in order to stop them from doing it again. Abolitionists would argue that these responses rarely mitigate harm, and in fact usually make it worse. So there have to be other approaches—ways to recognize harm and create accountability that don't rely on carceral models, which is not at all the same thing as denying the reality of harm. How can we simultaneously recognize the value of fannish pleasures, acknowledge their embeddedness in structural violence and systemic inequality, and be accountable for the effects that our ideas and expressions have on others inside and outside our communities? These are the question I'd like to see this conversation take up.

[9.6] Stitch: As it stands, I believe that anti/proshipper is an unhelpful, conversation-ending binary in fandom where people are either proshippers or antis on the basis of some arbitrary, ill-defined criteria. People have told me they've seen me described as both a proshipper (because of Omegaverse and RPF content) and an anti (because I've talked in detail about racism in fandom and from specific fandoms). I think people need to embrace being specific, and they need to say what is actually bothering them. They also need to stop redefining terms to excuse harassing other people in fandom—not just with how I've detailed the redefinition of anti to include anti racism, but the way people will openly call folks predators for having less than conventional taste in ships or a love of dark content.

[9.7] The goal of discourse should be…discourse. It should be for people to have conversations with one another and learn more to help settle or shift their own worldview. If someone goes "this specific thing is racist because x," then people should be able to sit with their thoughts and unpack why this conversation is starting up. We shouldn't have that entire thing wiped from the internet, and we shouldn't have conversations about it stopped in their tracks, because what happens is people who are actually affected are never centered. If you don't want to see a conversation, mute or block the person having it and go back to consuming your thing; but that doesn't mean those conversations don't deserve room of their own and space to be unpacked.

[9.8] Sneha: Wendy Chun, in "Queerying Homophily" (2018) and in a recent discussion (Chun and Steyerl 2021) on her new book Discriminating Data (2021), talks about how social media creates or clusters segregated imaginary neighborhoods according to liking the same things, and I think online fandom can be characterized in much the same way. I wonder, is it possible to imagine fandom as existing outside of this attachment to sameness? What kinds of networks would such fandom encourage? I hope it would look something like stitch and Alexis describe: fannish networks that engage with the nuances of power structures, that consider that solidarity need not be hinged on legibility, and that provide space for multiple kinds of discourse to flourish.

10. Acknowledgment

[10.1] We thank Hanna Hacker for logistical help in organizing this session.

11. References

aangorithm. 2021. "Reylo Fans Attempt to Get Black Writer Fired from Teen Vogue." Oh No They Didn't, LiveJournal, June 1, 2021.

Amin, Kadji. 2017. Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

brown, adrienne maree. 2020. We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. 2018. "Queerying Homophily." In Pattern Discrimination, by Clemens Apprich, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl, 59–96. Minneapolis, MN: Meson Press.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. 2021. Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, and Hito Steyerl. 2021. "Discriminating Data." Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Berlin, December 15, 2021.

Gray, Jonathan. 2003. "New Audiences, New Textualities." International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (1): 64–81.

Gray, Jonathan. 2005. "Antifandom and the Moral Text." American Behavioral Scientist 48 (7): 840–58.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. 2012. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Jamison, Anne. 2013. Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop.

Kaba, Mariame. 2020. "So You're Thinking About Becoming an Abolitionist." Medium, October 30, 2020.

Koreaboo. 2019. "12 Times Anti-Fans Have Conspired to Kill Idols." Koreaboo (blog), January 28, 2019.

Lorde, Audre. 1993. "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power." In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, 339–43. New York: Routledge.

Luna (@iamlunasol). 2021. "You know what's infuriating about this bullshit? Firstly, no one deserves to be harassed like this. This mentality that vigilante mass-harassment is okay is going to cause deep and lasting harm to innocent people. That said, I'm being harassed for shit I did not even do." Twitter, October 31, 2021, 4:14 p.m.

Nash, Jennifer C. 2014. The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography. Illustrated edition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Popova, Milena. 2021. Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, and Sexual Consent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rodríguez, Juana María. 2014. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York: New York University Press.

Sarah Z. 2021. "Fandom's Biggest Controversy: The Story of Proshippers vs Antis." YouTube, August 17, 2021. Video, 1:45:01.

Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. 2007. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Illustrated edition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

stitch. 2021. "The Evolution of Anti-critical Consumption/Thinking 'Anti-Anti' Fandom." Stitch's Media Mix (blog), December 1, 2021.

stitch. n.d. "Stitch's Fan Service." Teen Vogue, accessed December 21, 2021.

teland. 2002. "My. Fucking. God." Dreamwidth, October 3, 2002.

VanDerWerff, Emily. 2021. "How Twitter Can Ruin a Life." Vox, June 21, 2021.

Weekes, Princess (Melina Pendulum). 2021. "Purity Culture and Fandom…Issa Mess." YouTube, May 28, 2021. Video, 1:26:41.