The crumbling of the fourth wall: Why fandom shouldn't hide anymore

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News Media Commentary
Title: The crumbling of the fourth wall: Why fandom shouldn't hide anymore
Commentator: Aja Romano
Date(s): January 8, 2013
Venue: online article, posted at The Daily Dot
External Links: The crumbling of the fourth wall: Why fandom shouldn't hide anymore, Archived version
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The crumbling of the fourth wall: Why fandom shouldn't hide anymore is a 2013 article by Aja Romano at The Daily Dot.

Fan Commentary

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Article

In the world of theater, the term "fourth wall" refers to the invisible wall that divides the characters from the audience. In the untamed, sprawling, creative world of fandom, the fourth wall refers to the invisible line of cover that shields fans from the outside world. The fourth wall is what we think of as our security: a battlement of protection keeping our wild, pioneering settlement safe—right up until it fails to protect us.

Even after four decades of steady production, the idea of fanfiction, fan-art, slash, and fans otherwise doing whatever they/we want with other people’s characters still shocks and scandalizes many. The fourth wall is what insulates us, protecting us from their often harsh judgment, and sometimes even from real-life repercussions. A mix of Fight Club-like codes of silence (the first rule of fandom: do not talk about fandom) and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell-level feigned ignorance, this imaginary wall is what creates an impregnable barrier between fandom and everybody else.

Except that it doesn’t. Not even a little bit.
Four months ago, I was very politely, but very firmly, refused entry to Vividcon. “It’s not that you’re not fannish,” one of the con organizers told me. “It’s that we don’t want press around.” They had every right to be leery. The track record of fandom portrayals in the media is abysmal. From 2002 to 2012, most articles on fandom still sound distressingly alike: the media discovers us, zeroes in on something potentially shocking about us, then focuses on that —usually with a tone of schadenfreude or even revelry—to the exclusion of everything else. The prevailing feeling is that, when the media comes calling, it’s better to hide behind the fourth wall than to speak out. The logic, of course, is if they don’t see us, they can’t hurt us. But already they can see us, and they do hurt us.
I bumped headlong into the fourth wall even as I was editing this piece about the fourth wall. While finishing an article dealing with a particular community, members of that fandom panicked at the intrusion of media into their online world. They began locking their fanfiction, which was previously public, so that if my article brought other members of the press to their door, they would be “safe.” I watched the panic from outraged fans with dismay, and I listened. I chose not to publish the article. I'm still not certain that was the right decision for me as a journalist—but it was the right decision for me as a fan, understanding all too well the possible fallout.

The fandom referred to is Hockey RPF. See: Aja's Unpublished Article for more about the backlash.

I'm absolutely not suggesting that we should all start posting tentacle porn under our real names *cough* and I emphatically support the right to create fanwork under a safe alias that can never be connected to your real life identity. The freedom to create without fear of judgment or real-life repercussions is a huge and important part of fandom that should always remain intact. And part of why the fourth wall is in place is that it helps us feel comfortable and safe to write about whatever we want, knowing that our boss, our relatives, our friends, our students, or our students' parents, will never google our names and find all the explicit Superman/Lex Luthor male pregnancy fic we've written. What I am suggesting is that if we're ever to get to a point where, in the event someone does get outed as a writer of fanfic, the reaction from outsiders is, "Oh, that's no big deal," instead of shock and horror or even damaging real life repercussions, then a number of things have to change, starting with the way we as fans act about our own creative output.
Fifty Shades changed everything we knew about publishing and fandom. It took the "wink-wink-nod-nod" status of fandom within the media and made fandom almost passe instead of shocking. It dragged fans and fanfiction into the spotlight. Before 2012, trying to publish your fanfiction was a certain path to a lawsuit; in 2012, many people, including publishers, seemed to suddenly view it as a shortcut to success. Wherever Fifty Shades was mentioned, fanfiction was sure to follow. Forty million copies later, you can wring your hands as much as you want, but the truth is that fandom is mainstream.

And it wasn’t just Fifty Shades. Bronies, Teen Wolf, One Direction, Homestuck, The Hunger Games — this was the year fandom’s interaction with the outside world changed, dramatically. Members of mainstream media do now routinely interact with us. They camp outside Twilight premieres with movie fans, interview fans of One Direction, send hordes of press to Comic Con. It’s common for TPTB to make decisions with their fanbases in mind. Avengers fandom is so big it influences entire policy decisions at Marvel. Last year, the producers of Community asked a fan’s permission before parodying a fanvid she made on the show itself. Fandom is an active part of Internet culture and an active concern for the entertainment industry.

And yet the lie of the fourth wall persists.
Fans rely on the fourth wall to try and minimize the damage that people outside of fandom can do when they look in on us. But my own experience in fandom is one of constantly learning that it’s just not possible. Especially on the Internet, if our actions are public at all, then we can’t keep outsiders from peering in on fandom, seeing what we do, and then making their own judgments. Pretending like we can only makes us more vulnerable.
When fans hide behind the fourth wall, we internalize shame about fan practices, and that shame keeps us from learning about fandom as a tradition and as a culture. We don’t learn about our history. We don’t learn how to defend ourselves against tirades like Gabaldon’s or Robin Hobb’s. Even less do we learn how to legally protect ourselves, or about fan-run campaigns to help us do it, like the OTW, a fan-run non-profit group set up to help represent fandom in the media and defend fans legally against restrictive copyright laws.
I fervently believe that if we want fandom to be represented well in the media, we have to represent ourselves. It’s a pipe dream to think that fans can keep their head in the sand while the world discovers every other fandom but their own. At this point in the evolution of fandom, hiding behind the illusion of the fourth wall is the quickest way for us to be misunderstood, misrepresented, and mocked. Stepping forward and speaking up about how awesome fandom is, though? That can make people see fandom, and fans, differently. The more fandom/creator interaction becomes the norm, the less threatened we make each other feel, and the safer fans are to do what we love without fear of harmful repercussions.

I’ve often been criticized from within fandom for attempting to forcibly drag fandom into the limelight—as if any one fan could. The reality is that I haven’t sought out any interaction with the media or TPTB. All I’ve done is wake up to the fact that the media is already here.

Perhaps because I have had so many personal experiences with the fourth wall being broken, I feel very strongly about the ways in which fandom, today, still crouches behind it in fear of what will happen when the mainstream finds out about us. Guys? Seriously? They already know.

The fourth wall crumbled long ago. It’s time for us, as fans, to try building bridges instead.