Toxic Fandoms. I'm going to say it now -- I'm going to get a lot of shit for this post, and I already know that, but I'm fortunate to have an editor here at PopWrapped who is no-nonsense, progressive, and feminist. I'm sure she's already well aware of how fandoms work and how many of them are ready to scream out, "No, NOT ME!" in response to a constructive conversation rather than actually listen to the conversation itself and open up a dialogue about it.
But, in the wake of this election, I realize that it's my duty as a journalist to speak truth to power, no matter how people feel about it. Not liking a fact doesn't make it any less true; I don't like the fact that Trump is the president-elect, but, barring a miracle by the Electoral College, Trump's status as president-elect is still a true fact.
Here's the deal about toxic fandoms: they exist for nearly every damn show. Today, one of the most toxic fandoms (unfortunately) exists for the Starz show Outlander. The fandom isn't toxic because of the show itself -- to the contrary, the cast and crew are consummate professionals and, overall, a nice group of people -- but because of a rather noxious and odious sort of ideological war that exists between two groups. These fandom groups are the so-called "shippers" of the show, who believe that (despite all evidence to the contrary) Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are having a secret, torrid relationship, and the so-called "NST/Truthers/Non-Shippers" of the show who know, for a fact, that they are not.
I've witnessed most of this toxicity firsthand. I've been doxxed and threatened by this fandom, and someone in this fandom even went on an insane e-mail campaign demanding I be fired unless I wrote about THE REAL TRUTH of their beloved "ship." I can honestly say that what was once, clearly, bad behavior on the "shipper" side has now devolved into an all-out frenzy in the fandom. It's now to the point that any of the good work accomplished by the fandom is being drowned out by the howling, attacks, and needless drama.
And no, Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe are not dating. That is not speculation. That is a fact.
Vox wrote a great story about the nature of this toxic fandom, which you can read about here.
I also wrote extensively about the history of fandoms, which earned me some criticism from the usual suspects, and more screeching about "NOT ME! I'M NOT TOXIC!" rather than hearing out what had to be said to make a fandom better. The contention was that, as a journalist, I shouldn't have used "strong words" because it wasn't "lady-like." I question how much of that assessment had to do with the strength of the words themselves and how much of that assessment had to do with the fact that it was a woman saying them (but that's another story for another day).
And, by no means is the toxic fandom phenomenon limited to Outlander. One of the most glaring examples of a toxic fandom is found in the Steven Universe fandom, where members of the fandom literally bullied a girl to a suicide attempt, then complained when she didn't succeed. (You can read about the depths of that depravity here and here.)
Unlike other fandoms, the Outlander fandom (almost exclusively women) is mostly made up of "first time fandom" people. In other words, these are women who have never been involved in fandoms before, and, because they're also older women, they most likely thought that fandoms were reserved for nerds and sci-fi fans -- not for fans of a romance novel with historical fantasy underpinnings.
For the good people in the fandom who wish the madness would stop and that the focus could get back to the show (and in the hopes that this fandom doesn't reach the levels that the Steven Universe fandom reached), here is a list of three things that toxic fandoms can learn from non-toxic fandoms (like the ones you'll find in the Star Wars universe).
3. Artwork Is The Domain Of The Artist
It is, therefore, interpretive.
There is an old Buddhist koan that states that you can only meet people at the level which you know yourself. In terms of art, then, people of different backgrounds are going to see the same thing as you are but in a different way from you do.
This was the main crux of the argument in the Steven Universe fandom, whose fans howled about the fact that the teen artist -- a very good artist, I think -- dared to portray the characters in a way that was contrary to how the fandom claimed to view them.
Let me ask you guys something, hypothetically: have you ever wondered why Jesus Christ, by all accounts a Palestinian/Middle Eastern man, has been portrayed (alternately) as an all-American white boy rock star, a black man, and even an Asian man?
The answer is simple: because people from those regions were used to seeing humans who only looked like them. (Remember, this was in the days prior to globalization and the Internet). As an end result, if someone talked about "the Messiah/Chosen One" to a black man, he was likely to depict said Messiah as a black man. (Yes, I know this example isn't perfect, because there were political motivations behind depicting Jesus as an all-American white boy rock star, but the fact remains the same: in the Italian/Roman Catholic Church's mind, most humans they came into contact with looked like that.)
Interpretive art exists in the Star Wars universe, as well. For example, here's a fan drawing of Rey, a white woman, as a Japanimation character:
Here's a fan drawing of Poe Dameron, a man of indeterminate heritage (portrayed by LatinX actor Oscar Isaac, so for argument's sake, let's go with Poe Dameron as LatinX, even though it doesn't really matter in the Star Wars universe) as a Japanese samurai warrior:
Neither of these depictions take away from what the character, or the actors portraying them, actually look like. In fact, these depictions make the real people in question look pretty cool and add another layer to already-complex characters.
And, frankly speaking, if you can't draw something better than what an artist chose to draw, you have no right to complain about the art itself. You may not like the art in question -- everyone has the right to their opinion -- but you have no right to invalidate the art or the artist in question.
2. Inspiration Is Creative Fuel
If the work really inspires you, use it to fuel your own creativity. Don't bite off the original creation. Self-explanatory. But worth stating.
1. Don't Conflate Fantasy With Reality
This, right here, is the crux of the toxicity in the Outlander fandom, and it isn't just limited to "shipping." It's also the tendency of many people to conflate the traits of Sam Heughan, an actor, with Jamie Fraser, the character he portrays on television.
We'll get to the latter issue in a minute, but first, let me address something about shipping very quickly.
Shipping exists in the Star Wars fandom, as well. The current "ship" that exists amongst the younger crowd is the ship between Rey and Kylo Ren, played by Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, respectively.
Here are just a few examples of the ReyLo ship, as depicted in fan art:
Us "oldheads" really can't get behind a Reylo ship, if only because the last time we shipped a Force-sensitive couple, they turned out to be brother and sister. (That's a reference to Luke and Leia, for the benefit of those who didn't get the reference. We were traumatized, kids; you had to be there to understand.) So we're playing a "wait and see" game before we decide if Rey and Kylo Ren would be cute together; this is Star Wars, not Deliverance. But, either way, it makes for some really great art, and, as an oldhead Star Wars fan, I'm really enthralled by the younger generation of creatives.
So, you ask, why am I okay with a Star Wars ship but not with an Outlander ship?
Simple: the current Star Wars ship revolves around two fictional characters, not the actors who play them. The artwork depicts Rey and Kylo Ren engaged in intimacy, not Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver doing so. More to the point: Daisy is dating someone, and Adam is married. Star Wars fans accept this as fact, and they leave it as such.
They don't dedicate Tumblr screed after Tumblr screed screeching abuse at Adam's significant other. They don't scour the Internet looking for "breadcrumbs" of Adam leaving "hints of true love" for his secret lover, Daisy, who he cannot address as his lover because of a conspiracy that Lucasfilm or Disney is trying to perpetuate on the public. They don't threaten other fans, journalists, friends, or cast family members. They don't insist that Adam and Daisy are dating and pelt their social media accounts (Adam doesn't have social media, and he's perhaps all the wiser for it.) with inane questions begging them to "come out" about their relationship. And they certainly don't howl at either Adam or Daisy about how they're solely actors and their only job is to entertain us like trained seals if either dare to have a new opinion.
However, these are all things that members of the Outlander fandom have done (again, NOT ALL MEMBERS, but enough that it's become toxic).
The Star Wars fans in question are much younger than I am (I'm in my mid-30s; my best guess-timate is that the younger fans are in their late teens or early 20s). The Outlander fans in question are much older than I am (they're closer to my mother's cohort; she's a baby boomer and came of age in the late 1960s/early 1970s).
In other words, the Star Wars younger fandom isn't old enough to know better yet comports themselves respectfully. The Outlander fandom, on the other hand, is clearly old enough to know better ... by orders of magnitude. That alone should give them cause to pause. How can Outlander fans -- as mothers, as grandmothers -- teach their children and grandchildren to be decent human beings when they get on social media and behave in this inhuman way? Is this how their mothers raised them?
Furthermore, the Star Wars fandom doesn't confuse fantasy with reality. Daisy Ridley is not Rey. Adam Driver is not Kylo Ren. John Boyega isn't Finn. Oscar Isaac isn't Poe Dameron. For the oldheads: Harrison Ford is not Han Solo. Mark Hamill isn't Luke Skywalker. Carrie Fisher is not Princess Leia. James Earl Jones is not Darth Vader (and don't give me that "David Prowse IS, though" shit, oldheads. I'm making a point here).
Now, there may be a trait or two that the actors share with their characters. But to equate Adam Driver with Kylo Ren because Adam Driver has a conflicted soul -- and to go as far as to say that Adam Driver IS Kylo Ren -- is nothing short of insanity. It also cheapens Adam as a person and reduces his humanity to a fictional character.
And this is something that Star Wars fans know almost intrinsically and something that Outlander fans need to know. Because, while I'm sure that Sam Heughan is a nice guy whose mother raised him right, he is still Not. Jamie. Fraser. He is a human being. He is his own man. He has brought a fictional character to life on a television screen, but he has not become the character himself.
And to continue to conflate him with the character is not only wrong, it not only cheapens him as a person and reduces his humanity to a fictional character. It bleeds into other areas of his life, it hurts people around him, and it's completely unfair.
Stop being a toxic fandom. And to those of you who are not toxic, take your fandom back!