Geeks, we have a problem.
When a group of male Star Wars podcasters incite their listeners to harass a woman employed by Lucasfilm because of a few words emblazoned on a coffee mug, we know we have a problem.
When actor Ahmed Best, who played the character of Jar Jar Binks, tells us he almost committed suicide because of the hatred directed toward him, we know we have a problem.
When fans petition to fire directors, writers, producers, and studio heads who made a movie they didn’t care for or said something on Twitter they didn’t like, we know we have a problem.
When women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled fans proclaim daily on Twitter that they feel disenfranchised, unrepresented, unwelcome, and attacked, we know we have a problem.
When disgruntlement over diversity and the march of forward progress in an industry turns into a toxic movement like Comicsgate, we know we have a problem.
One might argue that these incidents are amplified, or blown out of proportion by social media, where the loudest voices are often the most noxious. Still, the fact remains. We have a problem, and it’s time we started thinking about what we can do to solve it.
I’m not naïve enough to think we’re going to change the minds of the worst and repeat offenders. The Comicsgaters, the Fanboy Tears guys, the trolls, these people (and some of them are probably bots) appear to be totally lacking in empathy. It’s obvious they aren’t going to listen to reason or pleas for kindness and respect.
So I’ve decided instead to preach to myself and the rest of us who really do want to get along. All we can do, for lack of a less cheesy way of putting it, is be the change we want to see in the geek world.
I’m not going to tell everyone to just lighten up because, hey, Star Wars, and Doctor Who, and comic books, and Marvel, and DC are silly kid’s stuff and don’t really matter. That’s just not true. Fandoms do matter. They matter deeply and that’s why every one of us has probably behaved badly toward another fan at some point in time.
We’re passionate about what we like. We have discovered a huge piece of our identities in these creations and properties, and it’s hard not to get riled up about stories and characters that provide us with so much inspiration, escape, hope, and possibility. We love nothing better than to debate, and discuss, and pontificate out loud about these matters and we don’t always go about it in the most productive, or positive, or empathetic ways.
I confess that I have, in the past and even the present, been guilty of making other fans feel bad about the things they love, of gatekeeping, of entitlement, of failing to lift up geeks who are marginalized. I think many of us have done these things at one time or another, even if it’s not our general modus operandi, which is why we must stop, reflect, and ask, “How we can coexist more peacefully as fellow fans?”
How can we foster more constructive dialogue, instead of responding to others with attacks, trolling, or defensiveness? How can we stop it with the gatekeeping? How can we criticize creators when warranted and still be respectful? How can we lift up the disenfranchised who love the same franchises we do (or even different franchises)?
In short, how can we use our geek powers for good?
Here are a few ideas:
Stop the gatekeeping.
If you’re not familiar with the term “gatekeeping,” Dictionary.com defines it as “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.” It may be tough to admit, but most geeks are guilty of this type of behavior. Gatekeeping often manifests itself in subtle, seemingly harmless ways, such as excluding or making a fellow fan feel unwelcome, or demanding proof that they are a “true fan.”
The idea that there are “true fans” and “fake fans” is patently ridiculous. The only qualification you need in order to be a fan – whether you’re into comic books, Star Wars, Doctor Who, My Little Pony, D&D, or GOT – is to really like something.
You don’t have to be able to quote a certain number of lines, have a specific number of items in your collection, win a game of Trivial Pursuit, or spend a certain amount of hours reading, or playing, or watching, to be a fan. You don’t have to cosplay, wear the T-shirt, buy the stuff, talk about it 24/7, profess a prevailing opinion, or do anything at all, in fact, to prove you’re worthy of a fandom. Every fan is a true fan.
Like the Tardis, fandom is bigger on the inside. There’s room for everyone. If, for whatever reason, we decided we did want to limit certain fandoms to a small, exclusive group of snobby VIPs, said fandoms would quickly die out. Is that what we want? To kill the fandoms we love? Of course not.
So, let’s not doubt that women, or people of color, or anyone, for that matter, really do read comics, or play video games, or watch Star Trek, or play D&D, as if these acts are the exclusive domain of one type of person (usually white and/or male). It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t fair, and it’s just so limiting and boring.
Lift up fellow geeks who need support.
If we stop the gatekeeping, it will go a long way toward accomplishing the goal above. However, in order to support fans who are on the fringes of geek culture – including people of color, LGBTQ+ fans, women, and disabled fans — we must first acknowledge their very real concerns and feeling of disenfranchisement.
The first step is to listen to these fans. Ask meaningful and thoughtful questions. Hear what they have to say about their experience without arguing or dismissing or denigrating them. Once we’ve done this, we can think about what we might do to stand alongside, promote, lift up, and offer solidarity to these fans. Then we do what we can, and this might look different for each individual.
I write a blog with the goal of amplifying women’s voices in geek culture, but as a white woman I acknowledge my social bubble is limited, so I’ve decided to push beyond that and actively work to include more diverse voices.
Another person might use their professional platform to support marginalized geeks or create more opportunities for them. Convention panelists might use their clout to insist more diverse speakers be included. Other efforts might be as simple as sending an encouraging message to a cosplayer you admire or supporting a geek creator or business owner by buying from them. The possibilities are endless, and so are the benefits.
Listen to and believe women and victims.
With the rise of the MeToo movement and a groundswell of women coming forward to publicly report harassment and abuse, you’d think society would be rapidly learning and changing, but sadly these events have raised as much nasty backlash as they have awareness.
The geek community is not immune to this, as we’ve seen in the case of Chloe Dykstra’s appalling treatment by fans of “The Talking Dead” host Chris Hardwick. Disturbing allegations have been made against men in various industries, from comics to television, and many of their rabid fan bases have either ignored the implications of the accusations or responded with defensive outrage and devastating harassment campaigns.
Observing this behavior, it’s not difficult to surmise why women and other victims of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment are afraid to come forward. We geeks can do better. We can encourage victims by listening to what they have to say and giving them the benefit of the doubt as we calmly wait for facts and evidence to come to light.
This leads to my next two points …
Men, call out misogyny.
Historically, the world of fandom has been a harsh, demoralizing place for women and, unfortunately, progress in this department continues to be slow. Women may now be more visible and enjoy more opportunities within geek culture, but we’re doing so while warily navigating a minefield of sexism and double standards.
On an almost daily basis in geekdom, women are labeled “fake geek girls,” called offensive names and met with death threats for expressing their opinions on social media, targeted for harassment by hostile male fans and their followers, and subjected to creepy behavior while cosplaying.
Don’t get me wrong, guys. We realize most of you are lovely and supportive and secure in your manhood, but until more of you start calling out the douchebags in your midst, nothing will change. Women will to have to keep dealing with this behavior as best as we can, in the most bad-ass ways we can manage. It’s exhausting, but we like it here and we’re here to stay.
Be willing to reevaluate your heroes when they screw up.
Geeks are famously protective of the men and women who create the fandoms we love. We’re passionate about these people. We feel as if we know them because we’ve become so intimately familiar with their creations. We put these artists on pedestals so high, many of them are destined to topple off them. But we must remember that we don’t know them. Not personally. Not at all, really.
When allegations or facts become known that challenge our perception of our geek heroes, we must be willing to think carefully and critically about what this means. This process of reckoning and reevaluating will not be easy and it will probably look different for everyone.
When I read that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon had potentially abused his position of power to take advantage of young women on his sets, I was disappointed. I resolved to more carefully evaluate his work going forward. I’m still processing how I feel about this information. It will be an ongoing thing for me. I probably won’t ever feel the same about him and I will most definitely listen to and support any women who may come forward with new information about him.
A re-evaluation of your attitude toward a personal hero, such as an artist or filmmaker, may not result in a boycott, but you may choose to think more critically about the work he or she produces. Or you may decide you’re done supporting this person entirely. Whatever you decide, it should come after careful consideration and weighing of options. It makes no sense to blindly defend or continue to worship someone who doesn’t deserve your admiration or support.
Lose the entitlement.
I mentioned that fans tend to be proprietary about their favorite franchises and possessive of the creators who conjured them up. However, we have also been known to turn on our favorite creators with a speed and brutality that boggles the mind.
I bring this up a little sheepishly because I am guilty of this. For most of the years I’ve loved Star Wars, I’ve alternately gushed over and trashed George Lucas. I was not kind to M. Night Shyamalan in the years following “The Happening,” until “Split” put him back in my good graces.
Where did we geeks get the idea that the writers, directors, producers, and artists we revere are beholden to us and must satisfy our every whim, fantasy, longing, and desire, lest they face our wrath?
Sure, it was kinda hilarious when earlier this year a bunch of disgruntled haters of “The Last Jedi” banded together to petition for the removal of director Rian Johnson, then waged a campaign to remake the film shot-by-shot.
When you think about it more deeply, though, it’s sad and more than a little disturbing. If we really wanted the fans to dictate every particular of our favorite franchises, we’d be doing nothing but watch poorly made home movies on YouTube.
Of course, we will sometimes be disappointed or be let down by the creative choices the keepers of our favorite franchises make. There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, or with discussing, debating, or even criticizing these choices. And, as always, seriously problematic content or behavior should always be called out. It is possible, however, to do all this respectfully, without silly boycotts, trolling, harassing, or acting like big babies.
Think before you post.
One only has to look at recent events involving “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn or “Rick and Morty” creator Dan Harmon to be reminded that ill-advised or reckless posts, comments, or interactions on social media can come back to haunt us in the worst way. It’s too easy to fire off a careless joke or an ill-advised rambling or get caught up in a heated exchange quickly turns nasty.
In the age of online fandom, it’s crucial that I consider each post or comment before I make it public. I must ask myself:
“Is what I’ve written kind, fair, and worth saying?”
“Is it going to make someone feel bullied or belittled?”
“Will I regret saying this later?”
“Could this be used against me in the future?”
If I’m a careful editor of every statement I make on social media, not only will I avoid getting into trouble, I won’t fall into the category of those who are making online fandoms a toxic place to be.
We are often drawn to other fans when we discover we like the same things. We bond over our shared love of Bob’s Burgers, or Stranger Things, or the novels of Jane Austen. The beauty of fandom, however, is that there are endless worlds to discover and endless means of expressing our enthusiasm for them.
I’ll admit that at least 25% of the reason my marriage works is because my husband and I are both crazy about Star Wars, but he’s into video games in a way I can’t remotely begin to fathom and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t get why I geek out over YA novels. Still, it works.
I was recently struck by the liberating realization that not everyTHING in geek culture has to be for everyONE. And that’s OK.
Geeks obviously enjoy vigorous debate and dialogue over controversial fandom issues. We like to get worked up about stuff and we can do that constructively, without crushing the dreams of people who love Ewoks, and Attack of the Clones, and George Clooney’s Batman.
Maybe we sometimes feel we have to prove we’re good fans by making other fans feel bad about the things they like. How sad and messed up is that? If there’s something we don’t get or feel drawn to about a particular fandom, we might consider that we could be missing something. Or that this thing wasn’t made for us. It doesn’t necessarily make the thing in question bad.
One of my friends is a horror movie fanatic. Me? Not as much. But I admire her passion and how it makes her happy. It’s a blast watching her dive deep into this genre I don’t always fully appreciate. Many of the people I hang out with also happen to be Doctor Who devotees. I could never get into the series, but there is nothing more fun than listening to them loudly debate the merits of certain episodes and actors.
When we berate and belittle others for the titles, characters, sequels, prequels, and plot points they’re passionate about, we’re being unnecessarily petty and cynical. Let’s celebrate each other for our wildly diverse fandom tastes and fancies. Our geekiness should inspire us to embrace the geekiness in others, even if it looks very different from our own.
It’s futile for fans to reject diversity because the beauty of fandom is found in exactly that. The differences of history, perspective, taste, and opinion that each person brings to the table make the geek experience richer, more vibrant, more valuable, and more fun.
The toxic trolls don’t believe this, but they are so wrong. Let’s prove them wrong.
Vinyl Coexist decal by Etsy shop FandomDecalDesigns.
“Costume is not consent” meme: Aloysius Fox, The Pandora Society.
Photos: BBC, Anime Expo, IMDb, Yahoo, Lucasfilm.