Whenever I dip my toe (and inevitable fall face first into) a fandom, I enjoy seeing how they work from the inside and how people work together. Do people write fanfiction? Real-person fanfiction? Do they make fan-vids or other fanworks? What are the popular hashtags, inside jokes and memes? Do Big Name Fans (BNF) exist? Are people generally good to each other or has the fandom divided itself and started labelling based on ‘ships, and opinions? Do ‘right and wrong’ fans exist? As an example: blink-182 used to have Tom Delonge on guitar and now has Matt Skiba. There are fans that believe it is no longer blink-182 without Tom.
The first question that comes up inevitably, is how do these fandoms treat newcomers? It varies of course, no two fandoms are the same and some fandoms are exceedingly welcoming. One trend I have seen throughout my travels is that the longer a media exists the more opportunities for gatekeeping. There are of course exceptions to prove the rule.
This post was brought about by my recent slide into the Queen fandom after seeing Bohemian Rhapsody. The movie side of the fandom is still quite new, but they like their gifs.
It’s interesting how deeply the “I’m a real fan” complex goes. At the moment mine goes to the point where it’s internalized gatekeeping. Even as I write this I feel the need to clarify to you that I was a fan of the band BEFORE the movie. Not a huge fan but I’ve heard a lot of their songs. That fact doesn’t matter, but I have to write it. It’s like a reflex that I think others will think less of me if this movie is what made me interested in such a great band. The movie is fantastic by the way, in case you were wondering.
This fandom (the movie and the over-arching Queen fandom) surprised me, I was expecting something completely different. On tumblr, youtube comments, and twitter there are a lot of people making general posts reminding the “old school” fans of the band that there are going to be a lot of new Queen fans thanks to the movie and that this should be seen as a great thing. After all they love the band too, they’re excited to hear new music so they should be welcomed. I’ve seen more of this than of the negative to be honest and it’s refreshing to see. Of course, it helps that two members of the band are executive producers on the project and have given their blessing and I’m not looking in all the dark recesses. There could be plenty of people spilling vitriol, for now all I’m seeing are the positives.
If we get down to the obvious facts: Gatekeeping is wrong, and it’s such a weird thing to do. It’s actively trying to keep people away from the thing you love (that they also love) that you share with many other people based on made up criteria.
Gatekeeping: an Urbandictionary Definition – When someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity. This is also known in fandoms as someone saying, “Oh, sure you’re a fan, but you’re not a proper fan.”
Why does anyone want fewer people enjoying the thing they love? That’s fewer people contributing to the fanworks and fewer people to talk to about the love you have for the media. Oh, and I’m going to use the term ‘media’ and ‘property’ to avoid repeating movie/book/band etc. to which a fandom belongs.
In my experiences finding and entering a new-to-you fandom can be distilled down in three different ways. Each way is treated differently by different groups and all are perfectly acceptable. Hopefully all end up with you enjoying all the wealth a fandom and its community can offer. I won’t speak for everyone, that would be rude of me but the problem as I see it is, two of the ways involve the fan and active effort and one, while it does require the fan to act, is more passive. The passive example may also be seen by others as “less” or “not proper” because an outside source that is benefiting from the new fan is brought into the picture.
To better illustrate, let’s relate getting into a fandom with getting over a high fence.
- One person climbing a fence – ACTIVE:The “Old School fans”. You find a property yourself * often when it’s just starting and “suffer” through the early days when it is not popular and doesn’t seem to have much of a following. You may be teased for liking it. Every change to the fandom AFTER you join may lend you a sort of reputation as you were a fan BEFORE. *Being introduced to a show as a child is seen as finding it yourself.
Examples are: Classic Doctor Who, 1st run comics, bands before they “got big”.
- Help from a friend – ACTIVE:A friend who is currently an established fan belonging to category 1 or 2 in the fandom shares the foundation knowledge of the media with you. Perhaps you have a marathon watch together or they talk about it so much you have practically watched it yourself and decide to check it out. Even if the fandom has evolved and changed due to a remake/reboot, people who arebrought in by established fans are generally regarded positively if they know the beginning stuff. They’ve seen some classic Doctor Who, they know facts from early in the property’s history. The person bringing them in will surely have schooled them with the basics. Newer properties may have less of these and more Category 1 people. Although a friend brought them to the fandom there’s a good chance they discovered the show on their own.
New property examples might be: Brooklyn 99, The Good Place etc.
Important to remember that: Female fans are often assumed to be in this category even if they fall into number 1. These fans are sometimes quizzed/assessed and regarded with suspicion.
3. “The Hollywood Effect” – Considered PASSIVE:
We are in a time of reboots, biopics, and remakes. With the Marvel and DC movies making comics more accessible, Doctor Who rebooting in 2005 and bands like Queen having biopics Hollywood is acting like the friend does in category 2. Except they’re taking money for it.These movies, books, and TV shows are making the introductions to the people who may have no previous relationship to the property. The “problem” is these introductions are thought of as lesser and not as “proper” as finding the show yourself or having a friend bring you in. Hollywood has a wide reach, they may summarize or making artistic choices. They bring a certain amount of authority, and may show only the “good” parts of a property.
Examples include: Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, long running bands, the Simpsons and anything else that was remade or additional properties licensed.
Hollywood gets you over the fence by “official” means and they just hand you the history of a property without all the digging, saving and spending other fans might do.
That being said, you may ask: why is not being a part of a fandom such a big deal? After all that doesn’t stop you from consuming the media.
True. I can still watch Doctor Who even if I only started watching last week and someone online upon hearing this says I’m not a “proper fan”. In the internet age almost anyone can reach out and consume a media property, but it does make it less than palatable, or less rude if you want to make connections to other fans but can’t because someone is in your way.
Gatekeeping often keeps people from fully enjoying a fandom, even if it doesn’t really keep people out/away from the property they enjoy. People naturally want to belong and make connections. (Of course there are exceptions) We want community, we want relationships, but we also want those relationships to be with people that enjoy the same things. If I write fanfiction I may want to be around people who also like to write and read fanfiction, or ditto for fanvids or graphic makers.
In a smaller fandom that may be the same people for all those things and everyone participates in different fanworks. Large fandoms may lean towards subcategorization to make these relationships easier to find. A great example comes from Doctor Who with labels like “Classic Who fans” vs “New Who Fans”. Labels can be wonderful and horrible things at the same time, use them with care and only if the person being labelled is OK with it.
How someone enters into a fandom is a perfect way to subcategorize, I’ve just done it in this post. Identifying as a new fan is great as long as we remember that less time with a property doesn’t make them any LESS of a fan. Yes, they’re new, but before they came here they listened to every album in the span of a week. Yes, they’re new and… nothing, they’re just new. How much of a fan can only be quantified by that person if they even choose to quantify it.
I haven’t been around any one fandom for a super long time with the exception of maybe Doctor Who, so I can’t say be more like one fandom over another. I do think that being aware of the gatekeeping/labelling can open a dialogue between fans and that’s a dialogue every good community should have.
What experiences have you had with gatekeeping and labeling in fandom? Were any fandoms particularly kind to you when you became interested in the associated property? Leave a comment. Dialogue people, dialogue!