The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’m a fan of the artist who illustrated The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I was looking forward to becoming a fan of the book as well. Since it was originally published in 2015, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy reads like a nostalgic glimpse into the history of fandom at a critical moment when the widespread rise of accessible social media brought a new generation of female and queer fans into conversation with more established cultures.

I enjoyed most of the book until the final chapter, “Aim to Misbehave: Geek Girl Feminism.”

I consider myself to be a feminist, so I have no problem with the chapter as a whole, but it was extremely frustrating to read dozens of pages about how “feminism is intersectional” and how it’s important “not to let other people make you feel ashamed of your interests” only to encounter, in the last section of the chapter (titled “Everyone’s a Critic and So Can You”), the author’s plainly stated view that geek girls with “problematic” interests (meaning interests that fall outside of the normative straight white middle-class American view of what should and shouldn’t be represented in fiction) are responsible for perpetuating “abuse.”

The author seems to be referring specifically to people who were fans of the Twilight series of young adult paranormal romance novels. I don’t particularly care for the books myself, but it’s odd that the author would claim to support the intelligence, agency, and decision-making abilities of geek girls but then turn around and say that a certain subset of these young women are somehow not “real” geeks if they enjoy something in a way she doesn’t approve of. Part of the author’s “Geek Girl Litany for Feminism” (pictured above) is, in fact, “Buffy, not Bella.” It’s almost as if the author is saying that female characters created by straight men to be “strong female protagonists” are more valid than the more nuanced and complicated representations created and embraced by women, which is absurd. I’m not attempting to defend the Twilight series, but I want to argue that it seems contradictory for the author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy to be so dismissive and borderline hateful toward its fans.

(Again, I’m not a superfan of the Twilight series, but the main critical concern I have with the books is not how they handle gender and sexuality, but rather with how they handle race. Different people in different communities have responded to this issue in different ways at different points in time, so this is another topic for another day. In the end, all media has problematic elements, and elements that seem “wholesome” now may turn out to be extremely “problematic” as time passes and the culture shifts.)

If I remember correctly, in the early 2010s, female Twilight fans were coming under vocal public attack from the men who used to dominate fan conventions and didn’t like it that a bunch of young women were now “invading” their spaces. This anger rose to a fever pitch when the San Diego Comic-Con, which was long considered to be the premier comic industry convention in the United States, was forced to institute a lottery for tickets. The men who had attended this con every year, including a number of high-profile comic creators, were furious that their opportunity for professional networking and career advancement was being by jeopardized by the sudden rise in attendance from girls who loved movies and books and comics but weren’t “real fans” because they were “amateurs” and passionate about “the wrong thing.” Saying that young women don’t belong in geek-oriented communities is clearly a misogynistic act, and the pervasiveness of this conversation in 2015 makes it even stranger for the author of to echo it uncritically and unironically.

The author apparently used to work with The Mary Sue, so perhaps it’s the case that she was simply following the party line of an online magazine that had, even then, started to publish editorials castigating female fans of certain characters in Star Wars and other geek media. I have to admit that I have even less of an emotional investment in Star Wars than I do in Twilight, but it was disturbing to watch as The Mary Sue took the helm of the crusade for moral purity in fandom that ended up leading to widespread instances of terrible online bullying targeted at young women, often young women in marginalized positions.

To give a personal example of what this editorial policy meant in practice, this is the response I received to a pitch about a popular webcomic that had become a major focal point of queer communities on Tumblr.

What the editor is essentially saying is that survivors of sexual abuse should not write about sexual abuse for the purpose of addressing the issue of sexual abuse. In other words, survivors of sexual abuse need to be silent about their experiences and the circumstances that surrounded these experiences, or their work will risk being seen as “problematic” by self-identified feminists.

This is clearly not a healthy attitude, and it has led to a number of upsetting cases of queer, female, BIPOC, and disabled creators being harassed for telling stories that are true to their experiences but don’t meet the rigorous standards of the fandom purity police. Some of these creators, such as N.K. Jemisin and Roxane Gay, survived and thrived. Many other promising creators, who were perhaps a bit younger or a bit less established when their careers started to take off along with platforms like Twitter and Goodreads in the mid-to-late 2010s, were silenced.

In many ways, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is a snapshot of fandom culture in 2015, and most of it is indeed positive and empowering. Unfortunately, however, it concludes with the seeds of the mentality that grew into what would become known as “anti-fandom” in another two or three years after its publication. Using the terminology of social justice to violently attack and silence young women (and queer people of all genders) is not feminism, and it’s disappointing to see the author end her book about creating more inclusive spaces by advocating for a discursive tool meant to keep the “wrong” type of people out of a community that can only be “positive” and “empowering” as long as it doesn’t allow for the sort of diversity that falls outside of normative straight white middle-class American prejudices regarding what sort of stories are morally acceptable.

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.

Gaslighting, Therapy, and Fanfic

Gaslighting is the process of attempting to convince someone that their accurate perception of a situation is incorrect; and, moreover, that there is something wrong with them personally for having perceived the situation in this way.

Based on what I’ve seen, a lot of the disagreement over this definition has to do with how many people need to be involved in order to a situation to be “gaslighting” and not “abusive behavior” or simply “being an asshole.” For example, if Person A says “There’s a strange smell coming from the kitchen” and Person B says “No there’s not, you’re just crazy,” then that’s probably not gaslighting. I would contend, however, that there is so much atmospheric discrimination against certain groups of people that even an isolated “you’re just overreacting” contributes to a broader system of systematic gaslighting. As a result of this atmospheric gaslighting, some people from marginalized positions can feel that there’s something inherently wrong with their point of view, especially during times of stress and vulnerability.

So there’s this thing that many American therapists do, which is to try to gently lead a patient to arriving at a revelation on their own, generally over the course of several sessions. I understand the theory behind this, but I still hate it.

I’m going to give a personal example. I was in a toxic relationship for more than a year when I was in college. I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to claim partial responsibility and say something like “the abuse went both ways,” but that wasn’t really what was going on. Essentially, the boy I was dating would be a disgusting assclown until I snapped and reacted, at which everything that was wrong with the relationship would be my fault because I got upset. I had never been in that sort of unhealthy relationship with anyone before, and I otherwise got along with most people really well, so I had no idea what was going on. I therefore went to a therapist and told her, in so many words, that I was “forcing” my boyfriend to abuse me verbally and physically, and that I needed her to help me figure out what it was about me that compelled him to hurt me.

If a scared teenager came to me and said this, my first response would be, in no uncertain terms, “Honey, you need to get out of there, because no one should be assaulting you for any reason. We can talk about this for as long as you want later, but you are in real danger and right now you need to get out.” What my therapist – and then another therapist – and then another therapist – said to me, however, was “Well, what do you think is wrong with you? Why do you think he hits you and calls you a dumb cunt?”

Even if this sort of thing isn’t technically gaslighting, it still feeds into the pervasive social narrative that teenage girls are crazy and irrational and deserve whatever happens to them if they don’t follow all of the contradictory “rules” about dating and relationships. Between one thing and another, I had never found a safe space where I could talk to other people my age about real relationships without being judged or losing face, which is why I didn’t immediately jump to the obvious conclusion that the reason why a boy would want to physically strike anyone is a conversation that needs to happen between him and his therapist.

Around this time I got on LiveJournal and discovered fic. What this meant is that suddenly I was exposed to all sorts of models of romantic and sexual relationships, and this was when I started to understand what was going on in my life. It’s not so much that the fic I was reading was explicitly like “this is what a healthy relationship looks like” or “this is what abuse looks like,” because Lord knows the BDSM Sailor Moon and Trigun femslash I was reading did not get even remotely close to that sort of thing. Rather, what I got from reading and discussing and eventually writing fic was that women’s stories are valid, and young women’s stories are valid, and queer women’s stories are valid, and nonbinary female-presenting people’s stories are valid. No matter how transgressive the fic or meta you wrote may have been, it was no less worthy of being taken seriously because you specifically wrote it.

That sense of “being valid” and “being taken seriously” is, in my opinion, an effective antidote to gaslighting. I don’t think fandom is or ever was inherently an activist space or even a safe space, but I do think it’s a place where a lot of female and transgender and nonbinary people first get the sense that it’s okay for them to exist in the world as themselves, no matter how weird or strange or non-normative or queer they might be.

I think this is one of the main reasons why the purity culture of anti-fandom bothers me so much. If people are only supposed to write “pure” relationships – or even, to take this a step farther, if they’re supposed to be so pre-enlightened about social justice that they need to tag everything they write with all applicable content warnings – then that’s tantamount to being told that they need to police themselves at all times in fandom, just as in real life. In addition, because the rules about “safe shipping” are so arbitrary and contradictory, this feels very much like the same sort of “Well, what do you think is wrong with you?” nonsense I got in therapy as a teenager (and then later, when I tried therapy again at several points as an adult).

If we can call fandom a safe space, and if we can think of fandom as an activist space, I think that’s because it’s a space where the voices of people who are so often silenced, marginalized, and discounted in the real world are allowed free expression. In this sense, a sentiment such as “don’t like, don’t read” can be a powerful and almost politically transformative expression of tolerance and empathy.

By the way, I get that not all therapists are incompetent jerks. Many of them are, though, and finding one of the good ones (who also happens to be a good fit for any given client) is not just a difficult and time-consuming process but also a community effort in many cases. I don’t want to suggest that fanfic is an alternative to therapy… but it sure is a hell of a lot cheaper.

Tumblr Drama Annotated Reading List

I ended up doing a fair amount of research for my essays Call Out Culture in Tumblr Fandom and Censorship in Fandom, and I’d like to share a short annotated list of some of the online sources that were useful to me.

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens
https://newrepublic.com/article/129002/secret-lives-tumblr-teens

A long article from 2016 about the culture of shitposting on Tumblr and the rocky relationship between the site’s corporate owners and its userbase.

When Tumblr Bans Porn, Who Loses?
https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/4/18126112/tumblr-porn-ban-verizon-ad-goals-sex-work-fandom

An in-depth article about Tumblr’s December 2018 ban on “adult” material with a focus on how the new policy adversely affects minority communities.

Why Monetizing Social Media Through Advertising Is Doomed to Failure
https://synecdochic.dreamwidth.org/234496.html

A three-part blog post written by a tech insider about why it’s so difficult to actually make money from social media websites like Tumblr. This was originally written in 2008, back when people in fandom were starting to think about alternatives to LiveJournal in the wake of the Strikethrough and Boldthrough deletion of a number of prominent fandom-related accounts and communities.

The Rise of Anti-Fandom Fandom
https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/tumblr-anti-fandom-your-fave-problematic/

An article from 2013 about a Tumblr blog called Your Fave Is Problematic, which was dedicated to posting receipts on the weird, problematic, and downright shitty behavior of actors, musicians, writers, and other celebrities in the entertainment industry.

Toxic Fandom: When Criticism and Entitlement Go Too Far
https://geekdad.com/2018/10/toxic-fandom-when-criticism-and-entitlement-go-too-far

A short essay on the evolution of anti-fandom that uses the online unpleasantness associated with the Netflix cartoon Voltron: Legendary Defender as a starting point.

Towards a Working Definition of “Anti”
https://shinelikethunder.tumblr.com/post/154454617111/towards-a-working-definition-of-anti

A point-by-point breakdown of what anti-fandom is and how it’s different from simply critiquing a piece of media or an aspect of fandom culture.

The Boundary Between Critique, Purity Culture, and Censorship
https://lines-and-edges.tumblr.com/post/167426659087/imo-the-boundary-between-critique-purity-culture

A short Tumblr post on the ideological connection between the purity culture of religious fundamentalism and the purity culture of anti-fandom.

How Good People and Well-Intentioned Groups Go Bad
http://www.springhole.net/writing/how-good-people-and-well-intentioned-groups-can-go-bad.htm

An essay about cult mentality that was written by someone familiar with online fandom and concerned about bullying and purity culture. When people joke about Tumblr being “just like a cult,” this is what they mean.

An Unfunny Joke about Antis
https://freedom-of-fanfic.tumblr.com/post/170096625464/an-unfunny-joke-about-antis

A detailed and beautifully written post about how members of anti-fandom are in fact engaging in patterns of abusive behavior. This entire blog is brilliant, and two other posts I found particularly interesting are on the topics of Exclusionary Radical Feminism and Why Shipping Is Not Activism.

Taming Femslash
http://smallswingshoes.tumblr.com/post/158010358049/hi-i-wanted-to-address-an-ask-you-answered-a-few

A conversation between several Tumblr users that illustrates how sexism masquerading as social justice has been used to silence the voices and stories of queer women in fandom.

The Mixon Report
http://failfandomanon.wikia.com/wiki/The_Mixon_Report

A wiki entry about a toxic fan who successfully used social justice as an excuse to bully people in fandom and professional SF writers’ communities on LiveJournal. All evidence points to a disproportionate number of her victims being young women, queer, and people of color. This rabbithole goes down deep, so be warned.

A Woman of a Certain Age

It’s so strange how Tumblr culture fetishizes youth, like, it’s all about promoting creativity and social justice until a woman is older than 21, at which she should really get a life and stop messing around in fandom. And this is especially bizarre because most of the content creators I know on Tumblr are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

Instead of trying to fight this attitude, I’ve decided to embrace its weirdness wholeheartedly and start hardcore lying about my age.

From now on I am going to tell people that I am 57 years old and got into fandom when I retired.

…But actually, though. About a year ago I commissioned a drawing from an artist whose character designs I admire, and when I found out (from her profile on Paypal, of all places) that she has an online portfolio, I visited her site and realized that she had worked as a successful commercial artist for decades and decided to only draw self-indulgent fan art once she retired.

That woman is awesome, and I aspire to be exactly like her one day.

#MeToo Four Months Later

I’m currently reading a book called All These Wonders, which is a collection of transcripts from The Moth podcast. The idea behind The Moth, which began as a sort of curated open mic event, is that people with interesting stories to tell stand up in front of a live audience and speak for about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Louis C.K. has a piece in the collection in which he talks about taking a break from television writing to visit Russia in 1994. At the beginning of the story, he says that, he used to love reading Russian literature when he was a kid, and that he would open the window while he read so that he could feel cold like the characters did. This is such a lovely idea that I almost forgot what a piece of human garbage Louis C.K. is.

I was never a big fan of Louis C.K., but I was casually invested enough in his career to go see one of his live shows, which I think displays a certain level of commitment – especially from someone like me who would rather play video games than leave the house for any reason. I never thought his signature jokes about masturbation were funny, but I always figured that, you know, he’s a male stand-up comedian, and at least he wasn’t making jokes about rape.

When the #MeToo movement gave several women the immense courage it must have taken to come forward and say that he did what he did, though, I wasn’t surprised. With a lot of the men who got called out in the conversations surrounding the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter, I think we all always sort of knew that there was something weird going on.

I say this not only about public figures who got called out but also people in my own life. I was included in a number of Facebook group conversations that were started for women (and a few men and nonbinary people) to share their bad experiences with mutual male acquaintances; and, while I was extremely upset to hear about what my friends had had to suffer through, nothing I learned came as a surprise. We all knew that these men were rude and condescending and a bit creepy, but we had never had anything to point to and say, “This is why I can no longer tolerate your behavior.”

My circle of connections has never been that wide, but I still ended up cutting all ties with about a dozen men, and I regret nothing. There has been so much less noise in my life since then, and I’m much happier.

What does hurt me is cutting ties with the women who stood up to defend these men. If I’m being honest, though, I always knew that there was something a bit off about these women as well, but again, I never had something concrete that I could point to and say “this is why we can’t be friends.” It’s one thing, for example, if a female colleague has been consistently rude and condescending to me. It’s another thing entirely if she’s presented with a wall of undergraduate comments on the website Rate My Professors that all say that a male professor sexually harasses his female students, and she responds by saying, “Kids just use that website to say mean things about instructors they don’t like, and all of those girls are lying.”

Or rather, I say these two attitudes are two separate things, but are they really? After all, you don’t need to have a penis to be affected by our culture’s insistence that women are less worthy of empathy and respect than men.

In any case, my life looks radically different now than it did last October, and four months later I’m still trying to process what happened and how I personally can continue moving forward.

To return to the Louis C.K. story, his punchline is that, no matter how bad his life in New York seemed, at least he didn’t live in Moscow. Because Russia sucks, I guess? What an asshole. In retrospect, maybe it’s better that there’s now less of his bullshit in the world.

( Header image by Melanie Westfall )