Okay but: "I'm not gay," fourteen year old me says as they read Buffy/Willow/Tara fanfiction in the middle of year 9 art class.
“My English teacher is one of those lesbians,” 11-year-old me said in a hushed and disapproving tone to my friends, eyeing said lesbian from the corner of the room. “Cathy told me.”
Later, at 21 when I, too am ‘one of those lesbians’, I am at a queer festival with my tongue down some women’s throat and my hand up her top. Over the woman’s shoulder I catch sight of someone watching me with a smirk.
Every few months I feel sad about the loss of fannish culture as I’ve known it in the past. Every few months I make an effort to be more active on Livejournal/Dreamwidth/Tumblr, and every few months without fail that effort gets lost again in what just feels wrong somehow.
I’ve been wondering for years now what’s happened. And I think it’s that fandom, as a whole, has changed drastically.
We’ve lost our sense of wonder.
There’s so little pure excitement and joy about new things, it seems as if we’ve forgotten how to simply be happy and enjoy something. Everything gets taken apart and studied under a microscope of proper representation, privilege and artistic merit. And when it’s found wanting, which inevitably happens to almost all things, it’s torn apart with a viciousness that no friendly group will gather for fear of being included.
We’ve gone from celebrating each bit of progress in opening up mainstream culture to complaining that each step taken is not yet enough, and this creates a feedback loop of criticism and negativity. You’re only supposed to enjoy the perfect gems, while all other offerings must be discarded because they’re flawed in some way.
Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example. I remember watching this when it first aired, and I remember the sheer amazement of having Willow in a homosexual, loving relationship. Sure there was criticism, but in plenty of fannish circles, Joss Whedon got praised to the high heavens for including this and for portraying Willow and Tara as no different than their hetero and/or demon-loving counterparts.
Today I think he’d get torn apart for sending Willow back to Oz at the end (bi-erasure) (brain-fart on my part, of course she later was in a relationship with Kennedy, not wolfie), for killing off Tara (of course the lesbian had to die), for appropriating artifacts of various cultures, for turning Willow evil only after she’d entered a same sex relationship, for so many other reasons. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of criticism for this at the time, but we didn’t focus on the bad things so much that we overlooked the massive progress it meant to have two complex female characters in love in a mainstream tv series, and have it drawn just like a “regular” relationship. Today, I fear, the joy over this progress would get lost. It would be seen as a step forward but flawed, and thus not worth anything.
I’ve seen this happening in the Hobbit fandom in the past few years, and in the overall reception of the movie trilogy. Is it perfect? Dear god, no. Is it as good as the LotR movie trilogy was? Absolutely not. The trilogy has flaws, it has bloat, and it has moments that really shouldn’t have been included. But the criticism sometimes feels deliberately hostile and harsh because the movies aren’t perfect. There are plenty of wonderful moments in there, plenty of characters who’ve been given depth they never had in the book.
We got considerably more female representation than before with the Hobbit, in what I think really was the only way to do it without gender-bending an existing character (which would never have flown with the studio or large parts of the book-based fanbase). And yet Tauriel as a character gets massive amounts of backlash. She’s considered the “token female character”, she’s a Mary Sue, she’s too privileged, she’s only there as a love interest… the list can go on for ages. A lot more people find redeeming points with the Necromancer than with Tauriel.
There was a similar reaction to Arwen’s role in the LotR movies, back in the day. At the time, the backlash came from the mostly male gatekeeper fans who considered her not pure enough and not enough of a canon warrior to be allowed to play a bigger role. With Tauriel, Peter Jackson pushed past that and ignored the purist complaints to make the trilogy a less “bloke-ish movie” (to paraphrase from Martin Freeman). He essentially delivered on what we might have wished for in LotR, and in my opinion did fairly well given the studio constraints and their demands for her to be a love interest or scrapped. And yet he gets derision and negativity without acknowledgment that it’s a step forward again to have a new female character with considerable screentime in a movie where the canon material doesn’t make room for her.
I just wish we could go back to praising progress without demanding perfection at the same time. There will never be perfection, so all this attitude achieves is that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you watch/read/hear something you like. Let yourself enjoy something, see the good bits without the flaws. See the growth and progress. Hold the content creators accountable for steadily improving, but don’t just tear them apart for not getting it completely right when they’re already pushing the boundaries. They’ll push again next time and gain a little more ground, and it’s in that way that growth happens for us to enjoy.
And that joy and wonder is what I wish we’d all get back.