Fandom as a Safe Space

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Safe space is a social justice concept that many fans have adapted to use as a term to discuss what fandom is or should be (or shouldn't be). In a safe space, people should feel free to express themselves however they choose. Not all fandoms and not all parts of individual fandoms can be considered safe spaces, but there are many that can.

Origin of "Safe Space"

Originally, a safe space was a zone in an educational setting that was explicitly designated as not tolerating homophobia or anti-LGBT harassment. The idea spread and was used to create safe spaces for other marginalized groups to discuss their marginalization. In the wider culture, the concept has become diluted and been criticized by free-speech advocates, conservatives, and others (similar to trigger warnings). It has also been appropriated by social conservatives who think that being called bigots makes them persecuted minorities. See Wikipedia:Safe-space.

What Constitutes a Fan Space

Some fans feel that LiveJournal is not a safe space for fandom thanks to events like Strikethrough; Dreamwidth is more fan-friendly because one of its founders is a fan.

A fan during Strikethrough had this comment:
Dear LJ, Thanks for the good times, but I’m seriously considering saying goodbye to you. Yes, even with some seven or eight months left on my PAID ACCOUNT. I have always felt safe here... right up until some no-name, non-government-supported, vigilante group tried to make it even “safer”. I don’t feel that sense of safety and homeliness any more. Now I feel as though I should watch what I say; that I should be looking over my shoulder nervously every time I write a post or a comment. I’ve even removed some of my interests out of paranoia. Oh, I added one, too: free speech. I’m so sorry you felt pressured into doing what you’ve done and I’m sorry you made mistakes in doing that. I’m sorry that an organisation with an essentially admirable aim has potentially alienated some thirteen million people across the globe. I’m sorry that I just made a GJ account in case this all gets out of hand... Yours in frustration, Katie. [1]

Yes, Fandom is a Safe Space

The thing is, though, I always felt like fandom was basically the foundation of transformative works. Of critical (and transformative) thinking. We read or watch or enjoy or play something; and then in fandom, we talk back to it.

Mainstream culture benefits from our pocketbooks and time and energy. We respond to it in fandom.

And of course this happens through fanfiction, fanart, fanvids, meta, edits, the list goes on as technology advances and new fandoms pop up. Through fandom, we grab onto subtext in source material and don’t make it subtext anymore - we make these two people of the same gender who we doubt will become canon (but really, really should be), and we “make then canon” in our own way. (Obviously I don’t actually mean that we make them canon, but we devote our time and creative energy and work to them so it can feel like it.)

But beyond that, we care. We respond.

We talk about misogyny in the source material. Racism. Homophobia/biphobia/etc. Transphobia. We talk about what we want to see; we get angry when lesbians get killed off, women of color, black men. We talk about ableism, classism, white feminism, or just general shitty writing in the source material. Because this is the space where we can do it. This is where we talk back.

But when it comes to fandom itself, we are also self-critical. We talk about white cock or rampant misogyny within fandoms and just all the other bullshit we see in mainstream media. We criticize people who fetishize abuse and other unhealthy relationships within the mainstream media; we talk about what is allowed and what isn’t allowed, for us as fans.

And then we respond to that. We say “ship whatever you want!” and “be nice to everyone else in fandom!” and other things along those lines. We criticize people for criticizing, we criticize people for being passive, we are critical of our own response - because in fandom, there is this nature of talking back, and once we are done talking back to those who benefit from us, we talk back to ourselves.

Then in comes the argument that “fandom is not a safe space.”

Which, no, I don’t agree with. At all.

Because fandom is rooted in creating a safe space for those who don’t have it, I think. For those whose tragedies and weaknesses and backgrounds are exploited by mainstream media; fetishized; mocked; gimmicked. We cannot control the assholes who will always economically benefit from portraying their homophobia, or racism, or misogyny, or anti-Semitism.

But we can control ourselves. And we can talk about it, make it a safer place for those who need it and want it.

Fandom is not another place for bigots to be bigots. It occurs, and we cannot stop them, no. But from what I’ve seen in fandom, that’s not what we’re about. In source material that rarely has well-written gay couples, we write the well-written gay couples ourselves. In source material that treats women like shit, we redeem them; we defend them; we raise them from the ashes and give them the treatment we deserve. We are the ones who do not overlook bigotry within creations and ourselves, because transformative works cause perspectives to transform, as well as our opinions and attitude towards the source material.

Fandom deserves to be a safe space. Fandom deserves to be the place where we can criticize, make a better world than the one exists. Fandom is not another place for people to make light of misogyny or pedophilia or ethnocentrism or abuse.

Fandom is where we try to be better people - and we are.[2]

No, Fandom is Not a Safe Space

[It may be] .... disingenuous to call fandom a safe space because it is not safe. Because everyone’s definition of safe space is different, and it may be impossible to ever truly create safe spaces for everybody, because the Internet is not a safe space.... it might even be dangerous to call fandom a safe space, because that makes it hard to have productive discussions. What we should do instead, as a community, is aim to make fandom a respectful space, where we try our best to respect each other and each other’s safe spaces. [3]

Fandom is No More, No Less a Safe Space Than Anywhere Else

I would tentatively hypothesize that there are areas of human endeavor that are more susceptible to con artists, cults, and abuse -- religion is one. "Formal" art might be another. Venture capital/startups is another. I think fandom is one as well. I would guess that limited availability of objective truth, strong evangelization for the product which does not have obvious objective superiority over other similar products, a large group of young people from which to recruit (there's a reason religious cults target college campuses), and ways for charismatic leaders to avoid responsibility for prior actions, are major contributors to the unusual success of cult-type organizations in those areas. (One cult scholar identifies "epistemological individualism [which has] clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member" as a key characteristic.)

Fandom, being based on fictional universes, lends itself to this sort of "epistemological individualism" where interpretations of the fictional universe are pretty much equally valid (as long as they fall within certain norms for the fandom) and objectively untestable (as the universe is fictional). People (in general, not just fandom) also frequently have passionate opinions on fiction and like to fight about it. Those two characteristics mean it's pretty easy for a charismatic individual to set himself up as a tin-pot prophet who has the One True Interpretation of the fictional universe, and it doesn't (at first) look all that deviant because people get in knock-down, drag-out fights over the proper interpretation of fiction ALL THE TIME. (Real grown ups with multiple degrees get tenure for being good at it!)

Fandom also makes it elite/splinter groups easy -- because it's totally normal to want to write and create with a smaller group of people you trust, and to indicate that members of that group are better writers, better thinkers, or just plain more fun than other people. Fandom also lends itself to the CLOSING of those groups to outsiders, both from internal pressures (other groups of fans attacking your interpretation as wrong) and external pressures (non-fandom people making fun of fandom as trivial), which is analogous to why religious cults typically cut themselves off from co-religionist criticism in splitting off from their origin group, and then shielding itself from secular criticism as well, by closing.

It's also an activity full of teenaged girls and young women, who are often preferred cult targets, not just because creepy dudes like to have sex with young women, but because they're often highly emotional and open to emotional appeals, have limited experience of the world (and therefore limited suspicion of manipulative tactics), and, as women, are less likely to be taken seriously both when they become over-involved in something (teenaged girls are passionate about things! it's normal!) and when they tentatively suggest to authority figures that they might be in over their heads in interpersonal relationships ("Oh, you know teenaged drama!"). Women are also socialized not to outright reject things they don't want to do ("soft no") and that gives a lot more maneuvering room for a manipulator than they have with a young man who's more used to having his "No" respected.

Fandom is also a place where people can safely try on a series of identities (as does, for example, rapidly switching religions or running through six start-up ideas in a row), which give a manipulator more room to hide in a culture that accepts this chimerality as part of a search for self-knowledge. That also may tempt participants into things they might not otherwise do, because they see it as a safe place to TRY things, to step right up to the brink of their comfort zone -- which, again, is largely a good thing and helps people grow, but when it's NOT a safe space and that manipulation of boundaries is being used not for growth but abuse, that's a cult. [4]

Some Comments about Safe Space

  • "One of the things that came up at Con.txt [2008] was the issue of creating safe space for fen of colour, Jews, and their allies. I offered to set up a space for Jews...So here is the place (the post) where we can start hammering out some basics for a safe space community for Jewish fen.[5]
  • "Maybe it’s a shortcoming of fandom culture that there is no safe space for readers to talk about how they experience a story."[6]
  • "...to many Goodreads readers, interaction with the author is seen as an unwanted intrusion into their "safe space." [7]
  • "Tensions are increasing. The corner of the fannish vidding community where I sit has been grappling with some of the most fundamental concerns of media fandom: the need for safe spaces, the need to avoid legal reprisals, the need for pleasure, and the need for respect. So we have a basic problem here: we simultaneously lambaste the people (both inside and outside of fandom) who are ignorant of our culture and its origins, and scramble to keep ourselves below the radar. How can we "keep it secret, keep it safe" and then expect to be known and respected for our work?" [8]
  • "Let's Talk About Kink, Baby. Whatever you're into, this is a safe space. Ask the panel your questions or come with fics you'd like to discuss. People do it wrong and people do it right, discuss." [9]
  • "Fandom erected the fourth wall out of self-defense. But now, it is time for it to come down. Fandom is a place that provides safe space and exploration (and often education) to fans of all ages and sexual identities. It is hypocritical for fandom to perpetuate a practice that encourages the shaming and silencing of non-het sexual and romantic desires and practices..... While I would never ever suggest that we should force individual fans into outing themselves (or out them ourselves), nor that we should subject the actors or creators to harassing behavior, I have come to the conclusion that the more general existence of the fourth wall in fandom has become hurtful to fandom, and beneficial to those who would like to exploit us. It is ridiculous in this day and age that we are not only still being treated as inferior and shameful, but that we are now having our safe spaces and carefully curated desires exploited and used against us. We have just as much right to be present and recognized as anyone else at this table, and it is past time that it was acknowledged." [10]
  • "I think you made a really interesting point about safe spaces and the anonmemes, and I really wanted to think about it. Your point about posting in known areas - or protected areas - and thus providing a space space for fiction which might not be so well received outside the norms of the community is really well made, and I see exactly what you mean about the supportive, public structures for anyone creating fanworks. In a way, it's part of the fandom contract between creator and consumer, and much appreciated." [11]
  • "In its userinfo, Scans Daily 2.0 provides an updated version of the original community's primer, stating, Scans Daily was founded by girl geeks, and members of slash fandom but now strives to provide an atmosphere which is LGBT-friendly, anti-racist, anti-ableist, woman-friendly and otherwise discrimination and harrassment free. The moderation team is always striving to make it a safer space for all fans, but this is not a safe space." [12]
  • "A subgroup of ASCEM, TSU, developed in 1998 as a response to the students (now known as aca-fans) who were part of fandom to study it for their college theses, etc. The Star Trek fandom came down hard on both sides of the issue, with many fans annoyed by the academics' "intrusion" into the safe space of fan community, and others excited about the prospect of academizing -- and to a degree legitimizing -- fannish practice." [13]
  • "Anyone who thinks that male assumptions of privilege and sexual objectification don't exist any more, and female safe spaces are not necessary, can just take a gander at The Open Source Boobs Project (which as someone said, is more like "The Public Domain Boobs Project" as in: women's breasts should be usable by anyone, ewwwwwww.)"[14]
  • "We believe the people of Tumblr deserve a space of their own. A safe space where they can meet their friends, learn about what interests them, and have as much fun as humanly possible in a weekend. We love the people of Tumblr, and we want them to have this, they deserve it. As a community so full of love, support, and creativity, we want them to have a place where they can really connect, give them chances to collaborate and connect outside of their laptops." [15]
  • "Oh it’s so true. Slash has long been a safe space for women to explore sensuality. I feel like writing slash as made me far more confident and comfortable as a person."[16]
  • Regarding Xena/Gabrielle shippers: Given the fact that for many subtexters, it wasn't a random favorite pairing that was under attack, but their own sexuality, they needed a safe space to discuss the pairing and connected lesbian issues. Thus, a secret women only, invitation only mailing list was created that became the invisible driving force behind the scenes of X/G fandom. [17]
  • "Writing fic has given me a safe space in which to hide from the world during some pretty craptastic times in my life, but it's also brought me friends who are fantastic people both online and IRL. And it's helped me realize I have a dirtier mind than I ever knew. o_O." [18]
  • "I have no control over the films I watch in school classes, or the scripts/stories I read there. So I have to save up all my 'dealing with triggers' energy for that - fanfic is my safe space because of the warnings and because for most stories I can go to a fellow fan and say 'hey, is this going to trip this issue for me?'" [19]
  • "Fandom is the safe haven for so many of us that it's jarring to realize some members have very little regard for their fellow fans." [20]

Further Reading/Meta

References

  1. comments by katiefoolery, correspondence, May 30, 2007
  2. Okay, I was going to call this “fandom isn’t a safe space (except when it is)” but that’s kind of a click bait-y title by aroceu
  3. 2015 (?) post at M I C H I, Archived version
  4. The Strange Lives of Andrew Blake; Archive, excerpted comments regarding fandom, with a focus on thanfiction at MetaFilter by Eyebrows Magee, March 2015
  5. let's get this show on the road, accessed November 3, 2008.
  6. 'i do not believe in safe spaces there's a big world around us you can't control culture once you put something out there it's out there for better or worse', Archived version
  7. Goodreads Librarians Group - Book Issues: Fanfiction Deletion (showing1-50of59), Archived version
  8. It looks like someone put the Star Trek/Monty Python vid up on Youtube dated July 19, 2006; Wayback Machine link.
  9. from a panel at 2014 Wincon
  10. from Fandom And The Fourth Wall (aka women reading about gay sex gives people cooties)
  11. from Ask the Author: tryfanstone (2011)
  12. 2009
  13. from Alt.startrek.creative.erotica.moderated (1998)
  14. msilverstar post on LiveJournal, referring to Open Source Boob Project, dated 2008-04-23, accessed 2011-07-01
  15. from the 2014 DashCon welcome page
  16. comment to Why do fangirls always make them gay? schreberpants; tumblr post dated July 8, 2014; WebCite reference link.
  17. Being a secret, there is only the occasional reference behind friendslock by ex-members who confirm the existence and importance of the list, but there is not much else. Bat Morda referred to it as "a super secret mailing list that rhymes with soft-core porn" in Inside the Head of Bat Morda, later named it as Saddlehorn in a blog entry from May 2008, and gave a bit more background in her November 2000 Whoosh article The Online Life and Adventures of Bat Morda: A friend of mine from the Star Trek boards on America Online invited me to join a secret, exclusive online mailing list full of Xena fans who were female (or, um, at least said they were), subtext friendly, and hard core into Xena. [...] Not knowing what to expect, I joined this list where a subtextual view of the show was the norm. This mailing list was heaven. One of those rare places that you stumble onto where everyone assumes you are a lesbian until you inform people differently. For someone who has to live on the other side of the mirror the rest of the time, this was quite a treat." (Accessed 30 November 2008.)
  18. from Ask the author: zubeneschamali (2012)
  19. comment by quiet000001 to a post by iamtheenemy Warnings and such; page 2; archive link page 1, , archive link page 2, , June 2009
  20. comment by iamtheenemy Warnings and such; page 2; archive link page 1, , archive link page 2, , June 2009