Ableism in Fandom

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Related terms: Access Fandom, Disability Fic
See also: Misogyny in Fandom, Race and Fandom, Judaism and Fandom, Social Justice, Autism and Fandom
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Ableism refers to prejudice or discrimination against people with disabilities or perceived disabilites. In a fannish context, the person may be a character in canon or in a fanwork, or a fan herself. Fans discuss the exclusion of disabled characters, the depiction of them when they do appear, the ways other fans write about them or transform able-bodied characters into disabled characters, and they also talk about their own experiences as fans who are disabled.

Ableism in Source Texts

Sasha_feather. 2010. From the edges to the center: Disability, Battlestar Galactica, and fan fiction. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5.

  • See also: GateFail 2009 for more information about depiction of disability in SGU.
  • Fandom depictions of the character Joker from the Mass Effect franchise, who canonically has osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease).
  • Controversy surrounding fandoms where major characters have "ambiguous PTSD" or other ambiguous, usually mental or cognitive, conditions.[1]
  • Canon and fanon depictions in Homestuck fandom, which contains a large number of disabled characters. In particular, the character Tavros Nitram is a wheelchair-using paraplegic. Canon and fandom both derive humor from his impending euthenasia ("culling"), his inability to climb stairs, and his ablist interactions with other characters.
  • Disability Superpower, in which a superpower not only compensates for a character's disability but it elevates the character above able-bodied abilities. See Matt Murdock or Bucky Barnes.

Ableism in Fanworks

The June 2010 discussion of hurt/comfort on Metafandom and the 2009 Warning debate. The linkspam Dreamwidth community also covered some of the issues.

Ableism in Fan Interactions

Autistic Fans and "Cringe Culture"

Fandoms as a whole are often mocked for being "cringey" or weird by the general public, and this seems to be especially the case when they are perceived as having many neurodivergent (especially autistic) members. This reaction is similar to the stigmatising of "geeks", or shaming people merely for being aware of or enjoying things outside social norms, or knowing obscure facts, making others uncomfortable. Autistics are particularly singled out for harassment in fandom and may have their fanworks used without permission in cringe compilations. In one case, an autistic fan has attracted a hatedom that has obsessively cyberstalked her for years, documenting every aspect of her life and harassing her and her family offline.[2] Fans have called out such bullying as an example of ableism.

As fans have also noted, fandom and special interests are often a source of connection and refuge for autistics, who can often find non-fannish spaces overwhelming and may have difficulty making friends in them:

One of the major characteristics of autism is having “special interests,” that is really specific/narrow subjects you’re interested in to an “abnormal” degree. That’s the textbook sort of way of putting it.

in my personal experience, special interests kind of help you interact with the world. You connect everything to your special interest, and when you talk to other people, you usually talk about your special interest because that’s a reliable thing you know how to navigate. for example, Star Wars used to be one of my special interests. lots of people like Star Wars, but I knew the names of ALL the aliens and even minor background characters and insane amounts of lore and I thought about Star Wars all the time. I could hold a really animated, enthusiastic conversation with you about Star Wars, but couldn’t do small talk or very much else. but telling people facts about Star Wars was a way of connecting, and connecting conversations to my special interest helped me with them! it’s also kind of something you can retreat into when the world gets stressful, like, when everything is bewildering and you don’t understand, you can just think about all the stuff you know and love about your special interest and it’s familiar and it belongs to you.

the thing about special interests is that they’re often one of our first experiences with social shame, because people get annoyed with you when you talk about the same thing all the time, and sometimes can be very nasty. Special interests mark you out as “weird” and “different,” and that often sticks with you.

special interests can be kind of odd…for example one of mine was Lewis and Clark, and though it was very intense and I brought up Lewis and Clark in nearly every conversation, there’s not exactly a fandom for very many 19th century explorers. They can also be considered “age-inappropriate” for example if an autistic adult liked a children’s tv show that would be considered shameful.

autistics generally hate cringe culture because it targets people who are interested in things “wrongly” whether they’re interested in something “uncool,” something they’re “too old” for, something they’re “too obsessed with” or something they use as a coping mechanism.

It’s considered acceptable to make fun of people for being “too” involved in a fandom, using it for emotional support, or just being a big fan of something that’s getting dragged online right now for whatever reason.

Cringe culture also extends in general to a lot of “weird” or “socially awkward” behaviors, which is…also a major trait of autism.


I’ve seen so many posts on my dash about “cringe culture” and while I like how these posts talk about how we should stop saying certain fandoms and interests are “cringe-y”, and to stop adults from being awful and mean towards the stories and art children make, but they all seem to forget something: a lot of the stuff that is commonly considered “cringe culture” tends to have a large, or highly visible, autistic fanbase.

Autistic folks usually have our interests mocked on a regular basis by allistic folks, be it online or offline. I’ve seen how certain fanbases and interests have been mocked by explicitly being called “autistic”,[note 1] and I’ve had bullies, both in my childhood and adult life, mocking me for the stuff I find interesting.

So seeing all this talk about “cringe culture” and not examining how it is interconnected to how allistics mock and belittle autistic folks interests, is getting more than a little frustrating.


Mental Illness

Issues surrounding mental illness include both its depiction in source works (as mentioned in the example above about "ambiguous PTSD") and fan diagnoses of characters in fic and meta. While all of the above can be handled respectfully, it is not uncommon to see psychological disorders and terms being used inaccurately.

Perhaps most notoriously is the memetic Sherlock line, "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath! Do your research!"; had Steven Moffatt done his research, he would have discovered that psychopathy and sociopathy are virtually synonymous, and neither are officially recognized diagnoses.

Fan diagnoses of villains is especially controversial because of the greater potential to demonize real-life people with a given disorder and perpetuate the societal stigma on mental illness in general.

A major mental health issue in fan interaction is clearly labeling potentially triggering material in fanworks (such as rape, self-harm, and blood) for fans with PTSD and other psychological disorders.


Some conventions have attempted to make their spaces and events more accessible for disabled fans.


Fans suffering from photosensitivity related conditions, such as epilepsy and migraines, have criticised the way fandom treats their disability and the lack of care given in regards to their ability to access fan culture. Though efforts have been made to encourage users on sites such as Tumblr to tag gifsets with appropriate safety tags for things like flashing gifs and motion blur, many fans have either ignored this or tagged them with a counter-productive example, such as #epilepsy tw - which will show up in the epilepsy tag.

Notes and References


  1. ^ Since the word "retarded" has been reclassified as hate speech, "autistic" seems to be the go-to online insult.


  1. ^ Ambiguous Disorder on TV Tropes, formerly "PDD Not Overtly So".
  2. ^ "Cringe" by ContraPoints on YouTube
  3. ^ Post on headspace-hotel's blog
  4. ^ Post on grrlofswirls's blog