Communities: Beyond Traditional Horizons
15 July 2013
Every fandom I was in before online SF fandom was bursting with women.
Women have been the foundation of my fannish life since my genesis as an SF fan, even though I didn't recognize what I was doing as SF. Rather than early SF fiction, I came by way of a talking cat and a moon princess in the early 1990s. I joined the fandom for the anime/manga Sailor Moon—an SF fandom, although I wouldn't call it that for years—and it had women everywhere: running archives, running mailing lists, hosting fanwork fests, compiling fanzines, organizing conventions, editing, writing critical metaanalysis, and creating fanwork.
As I joined more fandoms, I saw the same thing: women being talented, petty, amazing, snarky, generous, rude, and creative. I saw women being human, drastically different and entirely wonderful. I grew up as an SF fan and sank into the fanwork like a comfortable chair surrounded by different types of women from all over the world. I still didn't call myself an SF fan. When I joined the Final Fantasy fandoms in the late 1990s, even with the word "fantasy" in the title and SF integral to some of their stories, I still hedged away from the label. It took the Harry Potter fandom—and the women there who loved it and recommended books like it—for me to claim the "fantasy" part. Labelling myself as an SF fan was still years away.
The spaces I had access to in those early days when the Internet was only just picking up steam, before and immediately after Google, told me SF was for men and boys. Everything I saw about the SF culture told me "women don't go here" and "boys only." Store displays did it, the groups of boys playing D&D and Magic: The Gathering at school while often refusing to let me participate did it, the film industry did it, and my school/public libraries in the rural American South which carried little to no SF by women did it. The gates were closed.
It's no surprise to me now, looking back, that I would embrace the online fandoms created by and for women. Offline I saw very little reflected of the vibrant world of women my online communities offered, even though they were there, and have always been there. They were hidden, rendered invisible, not shelved properly, not carried at all, insulted, harassed out of public spaces, and pushed beyond the horizons available to me. To dig deep you have to get past the gatekeepers. I didn't make it.
Online, I had stumbled into a community of women who created their own spaces where you could join at will and with relative safety, and didn't need to sanitize yourself or be anything but what you were, because we had created a world in which we could do our own thing, in our time, in our own ways. I could do anything, and all I would be at risk for was criticism of my words. I was young, and this was groundbreaking to me after being so coldly shut out elsewhere. I could exist there, with people like me who liked the things I liked. I could be at home there with voices similar to mine, who loved a source fiercely and shared it the same way. It was such a marked difference: to be invited, because more people meant more of everything for us to enjoy. It was a world away from not even having something offered. I felt at home. Every time I shifted fandoms, from Sailor Moon to Final Fantasy VII through XII, to Harry Potter, to Stargate, to YA book blogging, to Inception, to Teen Wolf, I was surrounded by women who were shaping their fannish culture. That was my sole fannish home for over ten years. It was sometimes frustrating, and I had to learn tough lessons about myself; and it was far from perfect, but it never froze me out. It never told me I didn't belong there because I was a girl.
I joined mainstream industry, non-transformative SF fandom via YA book blogging, by jumping from original YA review circles, which were predominantly women, to original adult SF review circles. I had hedged along the edges for years; being fannish on LiveJournal made it hard to avoid seeing the blurred lines, especially in 2009 when RaceFail shook our foundations. Even then, the shift from one book blogging community to another, not to mention the shift in overall understanding of fannish community, was a culture shock. In the beginning, I felt lost and alone, because I had moved from a community where women's voices were the default, trusted, valued, to a community where it was difficult to even find reviews of original women's work or fannish women who were considered to be important SF bloggers—they were there, but I had to dig for them. Men were still the most popular, with the most community capital.
It's better now, years later; there are more fans of SF who review and critique, especially more women. However, I still often feel sidelined, ignored, and on the whole like I don't belong for whatever reason: my unshameful claiming of my gender, my contempt for the feeling I get from older (often male) fans that how I do fandom is wrong, my anger and lack of "civility"—the Cult of Nice for the Patriarchy. Whenever a conversation about gender or SF explodes and I watch women furiously respond to whatever the debate du jour is, or when I start my own conversations, I can't get a firm grip on who I exist in this community as: a fan, a feminist, something else? I feel like an imposter, juggling my different identities.
With SF fandom, it feels as women we have to fight to be present, to be respected, to be heard. That's a seismic shift in my fannish identity. I have to carve out a space and defend it viciously against people in my community, those who think I'm unworthy to have a platform, to be listened to, to be heard on SF topics. I have to watch a man say things I've been watching women in my other side of fandom say for years and get celebrated like he's cracked the code for the universe. I have to watch men insult, degrade, derail, gaslight, and silence women. In the last few months it's been a barrage of abuse in genre culture, and I suspect that the purveyors of that filth will face little to no consequences. It's not that in my parts of fandom, we didn't hurt or undermine or attempt to silence each other out of ignorance, privilege, or the lack of intersectionality—we did, we do, and we'll continue ever onward, screwing up and learning—but from my limited, privileged perspective, yearning for a world that doesn't exist for me offline, it feels so much less maliciously gendered.
I've spent three years trying to redress the drastic differences between the home I know and the new home I'm still trying to find a voice in. There are people who still undermine the communities I grew up in; people who mock the platforms that gave me a voice and taught me to speak with conviction; people who create a culture that implicitly allows misogyny and casual sexism to run rampant with little to no comment; people who believe that I am lesser as a fan, but also as a person. There are people who will defend the oppressive cultural narrative as hard as they can to maintain the status quo, who choose to die on the hill of their own ignorance rather than embrace new people and ideas to enrich the community.
I come here from fandoms that told me and still tell me today that I am valuable and worthwhile as a fan and a person. That I matter and that I and my contributions to the community are appreciated. I never once posted a piece of fan fiction and wondered beforehand, "Is someone going to throw rape/death threats at me? Is someone going to dismiss me for just existing as a woman with an opinion?" I do that all the time if I write something about mainstream SF fandom where it crosses over with my interests: a few times this year I've waded into or started debates knowing full well the response could very well be violent and gendered, and lived through responses that were with resignation, because that's how it is here.
In this fandom, that's how it is.
SF fandom is not devoid of fannish women and their communities. When I found them, I also found that they had made a space for themselves that they fought for, and that it was as rewarding and warm and welcoming in the communities they had fostered as I was used to. But I also came to discover that they paid, and paid, and kept paying for the right to merely exist without insult to their presence. They're still paying even today. From the outside and sometimes even from the inside, SF often still looks like the closed gates of my childhood.
I am a woman and a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I belong here; everyone belongs here. Everyone deserves that first blush of belonging, without having to fight for it at every turn, without having to hunt for it, without having to be shamed for wanting it. Everyone deserves a safe fannish home that welcomes them with no qualifications, but we're not there yet. So come on, SF fandom.
Open the gates.