Merlin Missy has been active in online fandom since 1994. She likes fanfics with plots and happy endings.View all articles by Merlin Missy
The current debate over on Metafandom is revolving around those semi-annual fannish topics of racism and sexism in fandom. These are important discussions to have, because as insular as we sometimes seem, fans and fandom are involved in and reflect the views of the wider culture. As we are debating (and redebating) this, there is an important point that everyone needs to keep in mind. You, little fanthing, are part of and reflect the views and biases of the culture around you, and so am I.
Now, I can hear you already. You are a biracial, observantly Jewish, disabled lesbian with friends all over the racial, social and sexual orientation spectra. How can I accuse you of being biased? Well, here's the thing. I'm not. I am saying that as a person who has interacted with culture in any fashion, you are part of that culture and it's a part of how you view the world. And I know this, because that's me, too.
Culture is like air. We breathe it, take it into ourselves, and whether we want to or not, we make it a part of our existence and experience. What is considered "normal" in the broader culture gets reflected as "normal" to us. In discussions of slash, this gets brought up regularly via mentions of what is and isn't heteronormative. (See recent discussion regarding whether or not femslash is more heteronormative than m/m slash for an example.) The ongoing race discussion was sparked this time from a post in daily_deviant, and has continued through International Blog Against Racism Week, incorporating the points of view of fans of color with Indian backgrounds, as well as another discussion about the visibility of Jewish fans and characters. This discussion can be oversimplified to: we're here, so why aren't we on-screen and in fanfiction?
There are no good answers to that question, nor the related question of why, in a group of writers that at last census came out at about ninety percent female, are female characters so underrepresented in the media we consume and the stories we write.
The simplest answer, though, is one no one likes to discuss: we are a part of the problem.
Fandom is a microculture. We exist within the very group from which we distance ourselves via our activities and code-speak. To put it more bluntly, while you may go online to discuss your OTP with your 'shipper friends, if you said those words to your coworkers, they'd stare at you blankly. Unless you live in a fantopia, you're likely to get the same stares at home. That's part of the charm of fandom, really, that we have found, revel in, and help recreate daily this space where we can chat about the things that matter to us.
But that wider culture? It's still there, informing our choices and our thought patterns, even while we're scurrying away to our keyboards to flee it. How do I know this? Because we are discussing pop culture, and even when the popular culture is made by fans themselves, it still reflects what enough people think to believe in the central conceit of the show.
Let's try this another way, because I think I just lost several of you. What we choose to watch or read for our fannish consumption is what we want to see. You're nodding your head and thinking "Duh." Okay, stay with me. In the days of yore, if what you wanted to see involved aliens, robots, and so on, your choices were limited. You had Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Blake's 7, Dark Shadows, and classic Doctor Who. Now, do a quick nose count on regular cast members who were characters of color (I'm willing to define this as anyone who isn't portrayed by a Caucasian for the purposes of making a tally, though please put aliens on a separate list), female characters, and/or, canonically queer characters. Now, of the rather short list you just wrote down, how many episodes of each series revolved around those characters rather than their male, Caucasian, ostensibly straight counterparts?
All right, you say, but those were the bad old days. Now we have a boatload of genre fiction from which to choose. And you're right, we do. Now, you can't throw a rock on television without hitting a strong female character or a broody vampire. Actually, let's talk vampires for a sec. Show of hands on who has watched Angel. Forever Knight. Blood Ties. What about Dark Shadows, the one that got the ball rolling. Who's planning on watching Moonlight? Okay, now those of you who answered in the affirmative and are into the whole emo vampire thing, how many of you watched Blade: the Series?
Well, I didn't. I'm pretty sure you didn't either, gentle reader.
Am I saying we're all racist pigs who need to buy a white hood already and be done with it? No. I'm saying that evaluating your own choices from a critical standpoint is difficult but worthwhile. For example, you might have tuned into Blade a couple of times, decided it was a crappy show, and stopped watching. Of course, the question then becomes have you watched other crappy shows anyway? (Me, I watched The Thundercats. In reruns on Cartoon Network when I was twenty-seven. I taped episodes and still have those tapes. Any time I think I have an evolved media palate, I stick "The Trouble With Thunderkittens" in my VCR to remind myself that standards are things that happen to other people.)
What about the shows we love? Well, they have problems. Sometimes they address them, and sometimes they scoot them under the rug. The Whedonverse was awfully pale until Gunn came aboard Angel Investigations. Sunnydale was where characters of color went to die (unless they were Hispanic, in which case they apparently weren't allowed inside the city limits to begin with). As for sexism (I do appreciate Joss's commitment to feminism, even when it's skewed, because he is actually trying), while Buffy has been a role model for millions, I couldn't help but notice that before the series ended, one of the strongest female characters ever presented in media barely survived a rape attempt by her ex-boyfriend. Yes, it happens. Every day. No woman is "safe" from the threat, no matter how protected she thinks she might be. I'm glad beyond belief that Buffy managed to fight him off. But why in the name of all that's holy does it seem like every single strong female character in genre media have to come from an abusive background and/or get (nearly) raped?
Not that I happen to think the folks at Women in Refrigerators have a point or anything. Oh wait, I do.
(Continued in Part Two)