The strange story of how internet superfans reclaimed the insult 'trash'

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News Media Commentary
Title: The strange story of how internet superfans reclaimed the insult 'trash'
Commentator: Lilian Min
Date(s): May 19, 2016
Venue: online
Fandom: online fandom
External Links: original article, archive link
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.
The strange story of how internet superfans reclaimed the insult 'trash' is a 2016 article by Lilian Min for Fusion (now Splinter News). The article tracks evolving usages of and attitudes toward the term trash in digital fannish spaces and online communities, particularly on Tumblr.

Some Topics Discussed

  • usages of "trash" or related terms in specific fandoms (including Hamilton and Homestuck)
  • fandom linguistics
  • history of fandom and its literary antecedents

Excerpts

One of the most curious recent fandom trends to come out of Tumblr is the phrase “fandom trash” (not to be confused with “garbage person”) which first emerged on the internet in the mid-2000s but has recently undergone a renaissance. The term seems at first like an outside judgment or put-down; Urban Dictionary defines it as a fan with “an unhealthy obsession.” It may also seem like the result of backlash against the rising influence of fandom; after all, we live in a world where the comic book and YA fantasy nerds of yore have inherited the earth, or at least the highest-grossing media properties in the world.

The reality, however, is much more complicated. Mass market fandom is safe and mainstream—it’s buying a Captain America shirt or taking a trip to Universal Studios’s Harry Potter Wizarding World. But in the annals of the internet, fans are united not just by their obsessions but by their level of obsession, and have taken ownership over the term “fandom trash” to encapsulate the strength, self-deprecation, and surprisingly high stakes of fandom today.[1]

Despite its ubiquity, there’s already a backlash to the term within fandom communities themselves. There are the fans who feel like the term minimizes or shames the user’s interests; other fans reject ”fandom trash” because of its potential to be misread as racist, classist, and homophobic. “The word has a lot of social, economical, and cultural baggage,” one user wrote. “I’m uncomfortable with people using it so lightly.”[2]

But for [Daniella] Lollie and many other superfans, the word offers a tongue-in-cheek sense of understanding: “The nature of these fandoms is that you’re the only one there,” she says. “There are no other people in those spaces besides the trash. Nobody else is calling you trash.” It is the kind of reclamation that’s allowed marginalized groups to take back or “own” slurs. As long as the supposed insult is coming from within your group and tempered with love and understanding and community, it’s code—for seeing, and for being seen.[3]

Nowadays, Tumblr continues to shape the way that fans connect and communicate with each other; the rise of “portmanteau” ship names within fandom communities corresponds to when Tumblr became the fandom gathering space of choice in 2006 (though portmanteau names were already in use, particularly for celebrity pairings/IRL “ships” like Bennifer, TomKat, and Brangelina). Previous platforms like Livejournal had supported “/” characters, e.g. Draco/Harry. Tumblr’s inability to read “/” characters in their tags forced fans to come up with different ways of referring to those pairings—hence, “Drarry.”

Portmanteaus aren’t just cute monikers—they can bring a whole new level of cultural significance to the original artwork. Many popular fandom properties have canonical straight, cis, white, male heroes—much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, or the Harry Potter franchises. On Tumblr, those fandoms explode open with new interpretations of characters, relationships, and creator intentions, with fans creating “slash”—homoerotic fanfiction—about same-sex or -gender pairings like Finn/Poe from Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Harry and Louis (Larry) from One Direction.[4][5]

And yet, there’s still a disconnect between how fandom is perceived from the outside and how fans themselves in the thick of it feel—thus, the confusion over “fandom trash.” This disconnect feels like a relic from fandoms past, says [Gretchen] McCulloch. The fanzines of the 90s and the message boards of the early aughts were “fandom as this really undercover thing that you didn’t necessarily tell your friends and family about,” she says. Warner Bros. was sending cease and desist letters to people who were writing Harry Potter slash. That doesn’t happen nowadays. And yet there’s still lingering embarrassment over being a fan.

For many, these internet pockets of insular fandom are still the only places offering up true diversity regarding race, sexuality, gender, and just about every other kind of marginalized representation. The passion generated in those spaces provides a way to fully explore and test identity, desire, and human connection in ways that still aren’t possible or safe to do in the public-facing world. And, well, there’s nothing trash about that.[6]

References

  1. The strange story of how internet superfans reclaimed the insult 'trash' by Lilian Min. Published on May 19, 2016. Accessed on October 1, 2018.
  2. Both external links were in the original article. They link to fan commentary in reblogs of Maggie Stiefvater's untitled [{Tumblr]] post, referred to on Fanlore by its first line: Petition for people on the internet to stop referring to themselves as trash..
  3. The strange story of how internet superfans reclaimed the insult 'trash' by Lilian Min. Published on May 19, 2016. Accessed on October 1, 2018.
  4. All external links were in the original article.
  5. The strange story of how internet superfans reclaimed the insult 'trash' by Lilian Min. Published on May 19, 2016. Accessed on October 1, 2018.
  6. The strange story of how internet superfans reclaimed the insult 'trash' by Lilian Min. Published on May 19, 2016. Accessed on October 1, 2018.