The Outer Culture Is You

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be dated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet


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 re-debating) 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.

Sexism, just like racism, isn’t usually the overt, “Heh heh heh, now I will be biased against you because you are Black/female.” It comes in invisible packages. It comes in a scene in the pilot of Torchwood, where Owen sprays a woman with a date rape drug and the showrunner says on a message board that it doesn’t make Owen a rapist, and then is astonished and defensive when some female fans disagree. It comes in writing staffs, like for The Real Ghostbusters, when J. Michael Straczynski was told that Winston drives the car and Janine needed to be more “nurturing.”  It comes in Doctor Who when fans forget that Mickey was a companion (and when the Doctor doesn’t thank Martha for all she gives up for him, though I’m still holding out hope for that one). It comes in characters who don’t get spotlight episodes, or whose character arcs deal entirely with their romantic aspirations.  (Pop question: in TNG canon, what are Deanna Troi’s hobbies and interests outside her job?)

Our shows reflect the world seen by the writers and producers, and we see the shows that reflect the world we want to see, and those of us who find ourselves in the majority at some juncture have the luxury of not seeing what we don’t want to see, at least in part, and even those of us who aren’t the majority at any juncture have to regularly stand back and take stock.

Who shows up in your fanfic? Who gets the plotlines? Whom do you find interesting, and whom do you hand-wave into the background, or out of existence entirely? The answer tends to be: “I write about my OTP/OT3/OT6,” and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. (Um. If it’s the last one, send me a copy … ) We write the characters we enjoy. We do it for the love and the lulz and that’s why it’s called a hobby.

No one’s trying to take away your hobby. (Well, there’s Six Apart, but whatever.) No one’s trying to rain on your squee. No one’s saying you shouldn’t write the story that’s blazed across the insides of your eyelids, screaming for time and attention and only lacking the ability of your fingers to type fast enough to keep up with the words.


What I’m saying is that as you go along your merry way and write your epics and squee at your pretties and meta to your heart’s content, take a minute every so often and ask yourself if the thing you’re writing/squeeing over/metaing about reflects a cultural view that you share. If it does, then you’ve found a grand fit. If it doesn’t, if the source you love does in fact carry in the racism, sexism and/or heteronormisn that you’d like to eschew from the rest of your daily life, spend a little time thinking about what you can do to be a part of the solution.

Write a drabble from the POV of a character who doesn’t get much attention on the show or in the fandom. Write several. No, you probably won’t get as many cookies as you would writing the primary OTP in your fandom, and hey, no one’s stopping you from writing that as well.

However, just putting out stories about neglected characters makes a magical thing happen: more people start seeing the character as someone cool to write about, and then they write their own. For s starting point, find out where you intersect with the character.  Is s/he geeky about something that you like?  Does s/he have a crush on a character you have a crush on?  Start small.  If you’re afraid of “getting it wrong,” then ask someone who knows more than you do and listen to the response. (I have found this technique works wonders, mainly because by the time I’ve managed to fill in enough backstory to ask what I want to know, I’ve usually answered my own question.)
Drop a line to the writers of the show and bring up the things that disquiet you and if you can articulate them, why. Note that the first impulse of the people who receive the letter will be to get as defensive as any fan writer who thinks she’s just been called a racist, so you’ll want to explain things as gently and politely as possible.
If someone says they see racism or sexism in your current squee, actually look at the information presented and don’t assume you’re being called a sexist or a racist because you like the show. Ask yourself if the things that are being pointed out are valid. Also ask how much of the problems are an integral part of the show, how much came in with the current writing staff, and how much reflect the inertia of ideas in the world at large.

When you go to post a story, read through and ask yourself who among your readers is going to be excluded just by the basic assumptions and language you use. What are you emphasizing and what are you assuming that your audience will assume when you describe your characters?

Here’s a secret: we created this space, and we recreate it every day that we show up with fic to share and meta to squee over. Fandom today is not what fandom was five years ago is not what fandom was fifteen years ago is not what fandom was thirty years ago. The faces change, and the stories change, and what was taboo last year is all the rage this summer. Fandom is a great big democracy, where every fan has exactly one vote, and that vote is for whatever s/he wants to talk about today.

You can cast your vote for Teh Pretteh, and for things that are deep, and for manips that make you happy, and for stories that make you cry, and you can also cast your vote to say there are aspects of Teh Pretteh and the squeeful and the !Shiny! that could use some improvements, and you can step outside your comfort zone, and you can ask before you post if something you’re unsure of could cause offense to someone who might have liked you otherwise, and you can say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. I’ll make an effort not to do that again,” and you can make that effort. Or you can say, “It’s just my hobby, I didn’t mean anything bad by it, why does it matter?” and that’s your choice, but keep in mind that in doing so, you’ve just said that other person’s opinions have no weight for you and that s/he is worth neither an apology nor a change on your part, and thus s/he will probably not like you after that.

Cultural baggage is hard to divest, and it’s hardest to unload when you don’t realize or acknowledge you’re carrying it. Turn around and see what you’re bringing in with you, then try to make tomorrow’s load a little lighter than today’s. Remember that it’s not just a question of who people think you are, it’s a question of who you want to be, or as the button says, “I’d rather have a bigot think I was a lesbian than a lesbian think I was a bigot.”

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