Privilege Goggles, Fandom, and Why This All Matters
Merlin Missy has been active in online fandom since 1994. She likes fanfics with plots and happy endings.View all articles by Merlin Missy
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This means doing your homework. This means researching, and not just with books describing a sterile past. This means getting out of your comfort zone and talking to people. Then talking to more people. It means not making your one Black (or trans, or Irish, or what have you) friend responsible for your education, nor for becoming your single source for the One True *insert life here* Experience. Being human means having a plethora of experiences, and no one person can or should have to speak for everyone in their group. But do try to listen, and do pay attention when told "UR DOIN IT WRONG," even if you disagree, and do learn from your mistakes.
It's important. Yes, even when it's "just fanfic" and not, say, the plot arc of a successful television or book series. The latter is contributing to the culture at large, and can make people think new things, or can reinforce stereotypes and old opinions for a whole new generation to absorb. The former doesn't travel nearly as far, but it's much more personal. That story you write over the weekend, the one about that show you like, it'll go live sometime next week, assuming your beta gets back to you soon. It will be read by all sorts of people. Some of them will be from backgrounds different from yours, and believe it or not, they're NOT going through the fanfic archives with a mind towards complaining about how authors screw up female/queer/poly/Black/Asian/Vulcan/etc/etc characters. (Well, maybe the Vulcan characters.) They're us, and we're all here to read the 'fic and meta the shows and have our squee. When we write it wrong, when we stick the characters we don't have as much in common with into roles that don't fit them, when we let poor canon choices dictate our own poor uses of characters, when we use our own experiences of being outsiders from the "acceptable" mainstream (and we're all geeks here – ain't none of us who hasn't felt like the kid from Mars from time to time) as an excuse rather than a means of empathizing with our characters, well, then we fail our friends and we fail ourselves. We fall into the trap of taking the easier, lazier path, and we teach ourselves nothing by our own prose except new synonyms for sexual organs. It matters because when we fall to the default, when we exclude and minimize and play to norms we tell everyone, whether we intend to or not, that anyone outside of those norms does not matter, does not count as much, is not as important. You don't want to be that fan, young fanthing.
When we take things from other cultures without making the effort to understand what those sparklies (and sometimes those horrors – again see the Krystallnacht wank) mean to the people who owned them before us, we tell those people, those fellow fans, that their experience isn't as important as ours. That we, as tourists on a fanficcing holiday, get exactly what it's like to live every day in, for another example, a society that was established based on the imprisonment, slavery, rape and near-annihilation of one's family. That we get to tell this story, not to bring it into the light, but to use it as a backdrop for something else, and pretend our work is more relevant this way. (see: Mary Sue Holocaust 'fic where Mary has a romance with Hitler -- FF.net is one of the circles of Hell, really.) That it doesn't matter anyway, because we're just having fun and people who complain are just being spoilsports.
This is hard. It's easy to throw up one's hands in frustration and say one will never write women/minorities/gays/Vulcans again. Given our chosen genre, that is in fact sadly very easy to accomplish. (Except for the Vulcans. Those guys are EVERYWHERE, omg.) It's much harder to learn, to do the research and make the effort and make the mistakes and learn from them and not assume that complaints are kneejerk and to hear the difference between "this thing so-and-so wrote reinforces this stereotype" and "so-and-so is a raving bigot/misogynist/homophobe/Vulcan-hater," to acknowledge the strange and glorious variety of human and non-human existence we have to choose from around here and celebrate that. But it's worth the journey and the effort. The story, the one you as a writer must always bow down to or your Muse will kick your sorry butt, will get better in the telling. Really it will.
Think of it like family stories, that one where your mom did that crazy thing with her best friend when you were a kid, maybe. Someone heard about it from the best friend's cousin, and starts telling people who've never even met your mom or you. It's your family story they're telling, and worse, since they don't know that one thing your mom said was actually talking about her uncle and that car trip she took as a kid, the new person is getting it wrong. Worse, when you go to explain the background, the person telling the story says it doesn't matter, because it's her/his story to tell now. Even though your mom is still recovering from part of it. Even though it shaped her relationship with you and thus shaped how you grew up. After all, s/he is smarter than you (doncha know) and a better storyteller, adding the duck makes it funnier, and anyway, it's just a story and you're oversensitive.
Don't be that fan. Be instead the fan who does the work and makes the effort and researches and edits and learns from criticism and takes off the goggles to see the world from someone else's perspective and tells her/his friends when their goggles are tied on too tightly. Treat others' family stories with the same respect you'd want your family's stories to be treated. Take the time to look at other cultures (even those within your own outer culture), not with a tourist's gaze but with the gaze of a friend who wants to learn even when the things you learn are hard to hear. Treat your characters like people, not as metaphors, idealized fantasies or dolls dressed in the cultural attire of the week. Treat them as people who come from their particular backgrounds, not as solely defined by those backgrounds. Treat your fellow fans as people, and listen to them when they critique your work; every single person you meet online or off is coming from a different place than you are, and you can only benefit from more perspectives on your work, especially if you want that work to ring true and reach a wide audience. Apologize when you screw up and try not to make those particular mistakes again. Recognize the difference between making a mistake and getting caught doing something you know is uncool; "I'm sorry I got caught" is not the same thing as "I'm sorry what I did hurt you."
Don't be a jerk.
(On an related fandom note, outing fans is also STILL NOT COOL.)
Spread The Word
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