Fansplaining: Purity Culture

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Podcast Episode
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Episode Title: Fansplaining: Purity Culture
Length: 1:07:37
Date: Oct 3 2018
Focus: Purity Culture
External Links: Episode at Archived link: Fansplaining—About, Archived version

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Fansplaining: Purity Culture is an episode of the podcast Fansplaining by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel.

For others in the series, see Fansplaining.


"In Episode 84, “Purity Culture,” Elizabeth and Flourish brace themselves and dive into a topic they’ve been asked about many times before. They define and deconstruct the term, along with the related “antis” and “stans”—who they are, how they behave, and what impact they have on fandom as a whole. They also address listener letters about the monetization of fanfic, new EU copyright law, and their interview with Javier Grillo-Marxuach."


Topics Discussed

  • Examples of how purity culture gets invoked in fandom spaces, and where people's definitions of 'purity culture' may vary. For instance, purity culture:
  • Assumptions which get made about the motives authors have in creating certain fanworks
  • A brief callback to Fansplaining: Shipping and Activism where structural issues, specifically around racism in fandom, are discussed
  • Stan culture and parasocial relationships
  • Tackling difficult themes and topics in fanworks and the importance of tagging or providing warnings for content
  • Whether lines of rhetoric around purity culture are getting worse over time
  • Listener letters about Special Episode 8: The Lurker, E.U. Copyright restrictions, and Fansplaining: Javier Grillo-Marxuach


ELM: Kind of the flip side? OK. So start with purity culture. How would you define that in the Year of our Lord 2018 on Tumblr dot com? [FK laughs] The blue hellscape?

FK: I think of purity culture as people becoming far overly concerned with the media that they consume or the creators of the media they consume being correct and perfect and holding good beliefs, whatever “good beliefs” mean to a person, and requiring that all of this is always the case all of the time. Or else they find that person to be bad and wrong and, or that thing. So the idea that either something is pure and good and true and it represents everything good, and it doesn’t have any problematic representation, and it uplifts the right people, and it dislikes the right people, and all of this, or that thing is totally tainted and canceled and fuck it forever.

FK: And I always say “I don’t disagree with you, but.” [ELM laughs] But I do think there’s something important, people will be like “purity culture is a problem” and they’ll use an example of, like, somebody calling out garden-variety racism or something like that. Calling out an instance of racism is not purity culture to me. To me it’s the black-or-white thinking, the complete... things are either 100% great or they’re 100% bad, that is the hallmark of purity culture.

ELM: Yeah. I see some false equivalencies and straw men get invoked when sometimes, I wanna expand on your definition a little bit. Within purity culture there’s an idea that, it’s such a broad term and it’s not... these are just our perceptions, I think we should clarify, I’m not sure that if you got 10 people in a room who spend a lot of time on Tumblr and are familiar with this term, I’m not 100% sure that we would have completely… we would have probably overlapping definitions, but I’m not sure that we would be in total agreement.

I’m also not sure that a lot of people who participate in this in the sense of instigating call-outs or cancellations as they were would embrace this term. I don’t think that people are necessarily, who are saying “the stuff you like is immoral, so you are wrong and bad,” I don’t think they like to say “I love purity culture.”

FK: ...And where does it tip over, obviously. Where does it go from being really concerned with good representation into like, you know, what I consider to be a spiral of doom into “Things must be…”

ELM: “No character of X marginalization can be depicted in A, B and C ways,” et cetera. To further expand on the way this often gets invoked, this is the thing that I think we’ve discussed at least in passing before: there’s a big, big line of rhetoric about censorship, or rather…that was a very loaded way for me to phrase it. I think there’s just a lot of discussion about what people should be allowed to write. This was, we’re talking about fanfiction, fan art. Not just allowed to write, but allowed to think about in the shipping conversation, as well. You’ll get things that are illegal. Again, not illegal—murder, I feel it’s safe to say, illegal everywhere?

FK: No one has a problem with you writing about murder!

ELM: That's interesting, right? Yeah. Things I think get zeroed in on, and the definitions of which get warped a lot are pedophilia, underage... incest...

ELM: Right. But that’s the one that gets fixated on. Incest gets fixated on. Even when you have stuff like Wincest, right, the Supernatural brothers, when you have people writing AUs where they’re no longer brothers, the fact that they’re canonically brothers, et cetera.

FK: Heck, look, I’ve been having a front seat to this because of all the Reylo stuff, even though for a while they weren’t canonically known to be related to each other or not, and now that they’re known not to be related to each other, there’s still people going “it’s still incestuous!” How? I don’t know! Apparently.

ELM: I have seen people argue “Well, they’re such good friends they’re like brothers, so it’s basically incest.”

FK: Yeah it’s weird. Things get real…

ELM: Language has no meaning any more. I really don’t understand. And to be clear, that kind of thing gets invoked when you don’t like that ship, right? Because if there’s two characters and they’re friends, close close friends…

FK: And you like the ship…they’re obviously boinking.

ELM: Right? Yes. But if it’s made quite clear, they show their different sets of parents on the show…I don’t know how to make it any more clear to you, they are not actually related. And so you can spin up whatever headcanon you want, but you could also say “In my head, that guy is a murderer, so that’s not a good relationship.” Sure, you could do whatever you want to try to say…but it’s just this idea of, it’s not enough…it’s the flip side of the shipping and activism thing, saying “My ship is good because it’s great for gay representation.” The flip side of it is to say “Your ship is bad, because.”

FK: This is where we get into anti culture, right? Which to me is people who become really obsessed with hating, usually a particular pairing or ship, and then it’s not just that they don’t like that pairing or ship and want to talk about not liking it, or make fun of it or whatever. That’s been a long-standing thing. But going beyond this into “…and by the way, people who like this pairing or ship are in support of incest and they’re racists and they’re…” listing all these moral failures that attach to anyone who likes or thinks about this ship. In addition to critiquing the ship for being bad for whatever reason and so on. Really going all the way to that extreme. To me a lot of anti culture is related to purity culture because it’s like, “Obviously every instance of this ship existing must be evil, and you’re evil too for liking it.”

ELM: You’ll see people saying I was the victim of abuse, I was the victim of this traumatic thing, so you can’t write about it. Despite all of the, I think fandom is much better than the rest of the world at labeling content and being quite sensitive. Obviously there’s, in AO3 there’s “choose not to warn,” and you literally have to broadcast that you’re actively opting out of that choice. And then if you have triggers…

FK: Right. Not every depiction is in itself a sensitive depiction for everyone, but it is at least labeled so you know what you’re embarking on.

ELM: Right. So then you get in response, people saying “Well, I write about trauma, I write about abuse, because I was the victim of abuse and I wanna process it that way.” And it’s like, you so rarely then have people coming back and saying “Oh, if that’s what works for you.” There’s so little empathy involved there. Or the idea of, that could actually be a way for someone to process something. The assumption that writing about it means that you want to enact it? As opposed to maybe you’re writing about something that happened to you?

FK: Stanning is like, “My precious baby, can do no wrong,” and it’s idolization. It’s idolizing in this very very classic way, which I know everyone hates to use because we’re all enlightened people who do more complex things. But also sometimes we just idolize someone! And that’s delightful, but…

ELM: NO! I’m not gonna sit here and stan for stan culture, as they say, because I feel like it’s just…I have a hard time finding a lot of good in a collective group of people who will defend a person in power at the expense of people with less power, which is what you see happening a lot. So…

FK: Ultimately yeah. What I mean is delightful is the feeling of…I mean, I think we all psychologically, maybe this goes back to back when our parents ideally took care of us, if we had a healthy childhood and we trusted them, or whatever. But I think everybody would love to have someone who you really can trust, who can do no wrong, who is genuinely and 100% there for you. I think a lot of people would love to have that, and for a lot of people their vision of their favorite celebrity or character or author or whoever it is becomes that, which is the classic putting-someone-on-a-pedestal. And they eventually fall off. But in that moment I think it’s very psychologically normal for people to want that and to do that individually. When people come en masse and start doing that? It becomes a big issue, especially if the…idolee? Idolized person? Is fucking up and none of their fans can see it.

ELM: I know, right? And I’m thinking back to Lilah’s letter in our anniversary episode, too. The behavior that you see around fictional characters, obviously it’s all proxies for people’s individual issues, whether it’s truly in bad faith, where you know what you’re doing and you know deep down that you just hate the idea of these characters together, and much like you might be all for…where you equate shipping and activism, you say “Well, I love them because it’s so politically important,” and that’s your public answer for what deep down is just this id based “THEM. THEM TOGETHER.”

So the flip side of that is “OH GOD, THEM, I HATE THEM.” And so then, you know. There are definitely people out there who are feeling that deeply, but you know you can’t just say “Ugh! I just hate it, it’s gross!” You feel like that’s an unserious reaction. So instead, you need to kind of frame it in a way that says, “Actually, here’s why you’re a monster for liking them.”

I think that that is less rare, though, than people who…again, on the other side of the coin, where it genuinely is super jumbled and people don’t know how to separate stuff out. So.

FK: I think that the most pervasive thing about this, something that I only just realized as we were talking about this, is that whether it’s a fictional character or a person who you’ll never really personally know, there’s no way to resolve that. So for instance, if I say “I would have forgiven Cassie by now if she had doxed me when I was 13,” I have the power to do that because I know Cassie. Well, I knew her better then than I do now, but regardless, we have a personal relationship, I can say “I forgive you for something you did to me.” Which she didn't do, but regardless. I would have the power in that situation to make those choices.

But if I’ve never met her, and I’m angry with her for something that she’s done that’s not to me specifically, and we will never have a conversation, there’s no resolution there. I have to find my own resolution to that, whatever reactions I’m having to her. That can only come from me, it’s not a two-way street. It’s nothing that can really be resolved without my own changing. And similarly with a fictional character: if I have strong feelings about the way fictional characters are, I just have to live with that. Or change my thoughts!

FK: Your point is that you like tragedy, lots of other people do too, purity culture — wait, I’m wrapping this up — purity culture means you can’t write about tragedy because tragedy is about bad things and if you write about bad things you are bad…

ELM: That’s what I was going for! First of all I think there is great value—again, no one should be forced to read anything they don’t want to or watch anything they don’t want to. I think that it should be, I think it’s polite and decent to label things. Especially if there’s gonna be power imbalances or people being cruel to each other. Sure. Maybe make that clear to people, if that’s not their cup of tea then they shouldn’t be…don’t spring it on them! Don’t be like “This is a really happy time!” and then “Ahh!” Cause that’s cruel.

So first of all, that can be depicted. Second of all, one beautiful thing about fanfiction is you truly have the space to do the work, to actually fix what might be a canonically problematic relationship. Right? So you can have people atone. We talked about this at length in the Reylo episode, the “Humanizing Turn” episode. It doesn’t have to be about shipping. You can show how someone can regret their actions, you can show how someone might not, but still works to be a better person. You can do all this work, you have so much space to do whatever you want, and I feel like some of the purity culture is the same thing we get with this kind of context collapse between different kinds of fan cultures.

So I can say “I ship Reylo”—not me. You can say you ship Reylo, and one thing you love about it is you can really use fanfiction to explore how Kylo Ren can atone. Right? And you can acknowledge that, oh, sure, contextualizing it in broader fandom trends, it is problematic when you just wanna save the white pretty Dark Fuck Prince kind of thing. [FK laughs] Not that I think Kylo Ren is pretty, though I do find Adam Driver compelling. You know what I mean? [FK laughing riotously] This is just a stream of consciousness, I think my medicine might be wearing off. But. But! You could say that! And a person can see Reylo and they won’t be from the kind of culture at all. They might not have anything to do with fanfiction, and they might be like—they only see what’s on screen, they’re very realistic, they’re very literal, and for them it’s just gonna be like “fuck you.”