When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege

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Title: When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege
Creator: Lucy Gillam
Date(s): November 7, 2005
Medium: online
Topic: Fandom
External Links: When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege, Archived version
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When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege is an essay by Lucy Gillam.

Publication History

In November 2005, it was posted as part of the Fanfic Symposium series. It was also cross-posted to Lucy's Livejournal where it generated 1200 comments.

In May 2013 in the 13th issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, the author comments on her original essay. See Fandom and Male Privilege: Seven Years Later." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books.

It "was 1) cited all over LJ; 2) got nearly 1200 comments; 3) was listed on a number of "blogs to look at" like boingboing and MSNBC's blog report; and 4) stirred up more fannish politics than you can shake a stick at." [1]


A number of years ago, in my early BBS days, I got into an argument with a (much older) man about whether the U.S. medical establishment was gender-biased. His argument was that not only was U.S. medicine not gender-biased in favor of men, it was gender-biased in favor of women. His support for this was that as many men get prostate cancer as women get breast cancer, and yet breast cancer receives much more funding and research than prostate cancer.

Without being able to verify either of these facts easily (this was before such information was available with a couple of mouse clicks), I responded thusly: the reason breast cancer has the research and funding it has is because women (and a few men, most of whom had lost women to breast cancer) had gotten off their asses and gotten it. They had raised money and lobbied and dragged what was once a vaguely shameful disease into the public eye.

I don't actually remember how the debate ended (knowing this guy, I suspect he blew me off), but the gist of it was this: the idea that men as a group might actually have to do something to get their interests represented was totally and completely foreign to him. The "fact" that they weren't represented already was just proof of bias and oppression.

Flash forward a few years to my active gaming days, when the majority of my social life was either gaming or hanging out with my gaming-geek friends. As should be no surprise, the majority of those friends were men. In a group of, oh, about 30 or so people in various concentric circles, there were about four women who regularly showed up at parties and other functions.

After a while, we began organizing "chick nights," gatherings of just the four of us and maybe some other women we knew from outside the group. For reasons that were often kind of bizarre, some of the men in the group took exception to this. They never organized nights at which we were excluded. When we pointed out that by the law of averages, a good half of the various social outings ended up being guy-only, they replied that it was not the same thing.

Male privilege may be more obvious in other cultures, but in so-called Western culture it's still ubiquitous. In fact, it's so ubiquitous that it's invisible. It is so pervasive as to be normalized, and so normalized as to be visible only in its absence. The vast, vast, vast majority of institutions, spaces, and subcultures privilege male interests, but because male is the default in this culture, such interests are very often considered ungendered. As a result, we only really notice when something privileges female interests.

This results in, well, lots of things, but two that I want to talk about here. The first is that true gender equality is actually perceived as inequality. A group that is made up of 50% women is perceived as being mostly women. A situation that is perfectly equal between men and women is perceived as being biased in favor of women.

And if you don't believe me, you've never been a married woman who kept her family name. I have had students hold that up as proof of my "sexism." My own brother told me that he could never marry a woman who kept her name because "everyone would know who ruled that relationship." Perfect equality - my husband keeps his name and I keep mine – is held as a statement of superiority on my part.

Or back to the first point there. Think for a minute about any show that isn't a sitcom (for some reason, they're the exception) or a Lifetime series. I'll bet you anything the opening credits have more male names than female. And if there are more female names, odds are the series is about women, as opposed to being about lawyers or doctors or people living in another galaxy. I mean, I love Stargate: Atlantis, but, well, let's consider, shall we? For that matter, I remember noticing and being pleased by how many women there seemed to be on the Daedelus. How many is how many? Two. And if it's realistic that there would be fewer women on an Air Force ship, the more telling point is that the presence of two visible female background characters caused me to take notice.

The second result of the invisibility of male privilege is that a lack of male privilege is taken as active oppression, as male-bashing or bias towards women. It is not enough that the mere presence of something which actively aims at women and women's interests is taken as oppressing men; simply not catering to men's interests is perceived as oppression. And I mean, by the way, honestly perceived that way.

So, what does this have to do with fandom?

Media fandom as most of us know it is often largely a female space. By that I mean, many of the circles we run in are made up mostly of women. Women write stories for other women, make vids for other women, talk with other women, go to cons with other women, and while few of us actively want to exclude men, we're not really invested in drawing them in, either. Fandom is one of the few places where you'll actually hear, "Wait, so-and-so's a guy?" And you know, we're kind of used to that.

Except lately, these fairly small spaces have been expanding, and intersecting with spaces where there are more men. And often, everything is fine and dandy. It's just that sometimes, it's not...

It is not enough, you see, not to exclude men. We have to actively get them involved. I'm not sure what's more insidious, there: the notion that we must find it not only desirable that men get involved in fandom but also some kind of imperative, or the notion that it is our, women's, responsibility to get them involved in fandom. That we are the ones who must act, in other words. That even though we carved these spaces out for ourselves (didn't nobody create those lists and cons and archives and communities for us, darlin'), we must take the further step to get men involved in them. And if you are going to argue that these couple of guys are in no way representative of male privilege at work in fandom, you might want to talk to the vidders who've been told that vidding can't be an "art" because no men are involved. Instead, it can only be a "hobby."

And further, as implied in this response, we must do so by actively suppressing our own interests. It is not enough to make things more appealing to men; we must stop the things that appeal to us. And that, really, is where things can get ugly. Because men can stand longingly at the window waiting for us to coax them in all they want, and ultimately, it doesn't affect us. What does affect us is the attempt to reshape the spaces we have set up for ourselves to better reflect their interests.

Reactions and Reviews: From The Fanfic Symposium Live Journal Site

Hmm. I'm not completely convinced that I buy that. Possibly this is because I've recently been on the receiving end of someone whose idea of feminism was that slash fiction ought to have more strong female characters in it, but there you go.

I concur that there is almost certainly too much male privilege going around. However if all you're proposing to do is create ghettos of female privilege, then I believe you've missed the point. Surely such activity only goes to convince the priviliged male that women are strange, when what you should be doing is making his priviliged state a conscious thing so that he has some hope of realising what he's doing?

I'm not suggesting that you give up painting your collective nails and go out for a beer with the boys, any more than I'm suggesting the boys should give up their sports nights in favour of face-packs (personally I'd rather curl up with a good book than either). What we should all be doing is educating each other into a mutual tolerance. So what if I don't care for femmeslash? No one's saying I have to read it. So what if Mr "I Don't Understand" doesn't get the act of imagination necessary for the appreciation of the scans? Explain, and encourage him to either take the leap or skip the post as the mood takes him.

It's not nice, getting intolerance thrown in your face. The trouble is, reacting to intolerance with intolerance only perpetuates the cycle. [2]

Hmn. I don't know about ghettos of female privilege, but really, what else would you have us do? Do I fight male privilege when I see it? Sure. I do that just by existing as me, and by a hundred other things up to and including my job.

And really, I don't see how I'm being intolerant. I'm not hanging up "no boyz allowed" signs on my LJ. I like each and every one of the guys I interact with in fandom, or I wouldn't interact with them. What I'm not going to do is change the one place where I get to metaphorically paint my nails in peace in order to make them feel more welcome. If they want to be there and paint their nails with me? Great! Peachy! Chances are we can talk baseball here and there, too. But I'm not going to stop painting my nails if it makes them uncomfortable.

And while I'd argue that there's a limit to how much explaining I'm willing to do anymore (slash fans have rightfully gotten kind of sick of explaining ourselves), really, did you read the comment in question? That wasn't just "I don't understand this!" It was "I don't understand this so stop it!" And it was "I don't understand this so stop it!" in the space we had created for doing it. I think that's worth more than an "eh" and moving on, especially since the "eh" and moving on has largely resulted in slash fans feeling less and less welcome in their own spaces. [3]

Sorry, I was allowing poetry to overcome precision. I was talking (mostly non-specifically) about the nature of reaction to the problem, how straightforwardly confronting people over something tends to make people more defensive and positions more entrenched. Our conversation here being a classic example :-) No, you shouldn't stop painting your nails because it makes someone uncomfortable. Equally, you shouldn't throw a hissy fit and throw bottles of nail varnish at them until they go away -- not that you do, it's just an example of the opposite example of the opposite extreme. There's a whole spectrum of responses in between, whether it be bouncing up and proclaiming that nail-painting is fun, or pointing out that this is where the nail polish is and do you think this colour suits me, or even making distracted "That's nice for you" noises and asking them to pass the bottle of sparkly blue. [4]

I guess I should probably apologize on behalf of my gender for some of that behavior, although to be fair, being an asshole seems to be pretty well distriubted between the genders. You do say not all men are like this . . . are you implying the majority are? Is this a very common occurance in your experience? Was the person in question banned from the board or community?

I'm just asking because I've never seen much if it in the mostly female fandoms I usually hang in. In fact, my experience is usually being discriminated against, the most recent being that "yaoi is for girls" and males who write slash are somehow un-empowering women. Hmmm.

My main response to this essay is that it feels somehow incomplete. You have outlined the problem (males treated females badly in female-owned places). I think to complete it you should outline some strategies which females can take to educate males who do this, and to handle the problems when they do arise. [5]

Oh, women can be assholes in lots of ways, too, sure. But we live to rant another day. This is what happens to be on my mind now.

As for how common, well..."more common than it used to be" is about as well as i can answer that. The thing is, the kind of fannish spaces I'm talking about here used to be pretty well isolated. I run the Fanfiction Critics Association List, and there's usually maybe one guy on it. That's not because we keep them out. They just...aren't interested. And for a while, every year or so, some guy would show up, get all condescending and "let me tell you how's it's done" in very, very gendered ways (something that still happens on a vidding list I belong to), and he'd mostly get chewed up and spit out and that was it. With LJ, and with the slash/not-slash divide getting less and less pronounced, it certainly is happening more often.

And I can't speak to majority/minority because I don't have numbers. I know some great guys in fandom. I think as a pattern, most men are accustomed to male privilege, and the really, really good ones fight against that (as several guys said to me when I discussed this essay with them).

You know, really, I think my point overall is just that women need to stop fucking apologizing for having places where men aren't catered to. If I could get men to be more aware of male privilege, I'd be happy happy. Right now, I'll settle for women not apologizing for not catering to it.

And wow, that sounded a lot more high-flown than I meant. I want women to post more slash to scans_daily, how's that? ;) [6]

Your analogy is flawed. This essay does point out the mistakes men are making in this particular arena, which is all you claim you want. Yet you're not satisfied with that. By saying that the essay (and essayist) should present solutions as well as pointing out the problems, you are, in fact, saying, "drop everything and attend to my needs." You don't want to go to the effort of finding solutions yourself, though the fault lies with you (and your strawman arguments about women making mistakes and women of your acquaintance being more accommodating than us do not negate the fact that the fault lies with you). This reading of your arguments here is further reinforced by these patently ridiculous statements:

"Why should anyone who is steeped in an admittedly male-dominated culture be expected to have these resources at their disposal? Did you ever consider that, being programmed since birth to behave in this way, being encourged by society to behave this way, that a guy might not realize he was offending you?"

The essay addresses your second rhetorical question. Lucy is pointing out you are offending us. As for the first, this essay is directed specifically toward men with the ability and inclination to interact in online fannish spaces. This means men with access to search engines, which means men who do indeed have the resources at their disposal to educate themselves about feminism. If, after having their offensive behavior pointed out to them, they do not make use of these resources and persist in their sexist behavior, then it is clear they have no true interest in respecting women, women's voices, or women's spaces, regardless of what they claim. And it is certainly not our responsibility to convince them otherwise. [7]

Really, the thing is, women shouldn't have to even point out this kind of error in the first place. That we do, and on a regularly basis, only underscores the point of the essay; men are so privileged they don't even tend to realize how privileged they are, and their proposed solution, rather than being vigilant about their own behavior, is that everyone else should point out when their behavior is unacceptable and then walk them through what would be acceptable. Again, though, this essay wasn't addressed to men as a whole, it was about fannish men in fannish online spaces. These are men who, by the very fact of having access to the 'net and leisure time to engage in fannish activities, are overwhelmingly likely to already know what behaviors read as sexist, as condescending, as patronizing, as privileged. They are men who are overwhelmingly likely to already know at least two acceptable codes of behavior for dealing with spaces and cultures not their own, and specifically for dealing with female spaces and cultures. That they choose not to follow these codes is not the fault of the women involved in said spaces and cultures, nor is it our responsibility to re-educate them, re-justify ourselves, re-argue all the old arguments. If a man truly doesn't know, and is truly interested in learning, he can always sit down and keep his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open. He's coming into someone else's space; to introduce himself by blithely demanding everyone explain themselves to him and change these things he doesn't like and make sure he feels especially welcome is so entitled as to be mindboggling.

This essay doesn't offer any solutions in part because the solutions are so blindingly obvious to women who have had to deal with this kind of behavior our entire lives: if the guy is genuinely trying, offer him a clue. If, as is clear in the posts to which the essay linked, the guy is just waving his dick around and demanding you kiss it, apply a smackdown on whatever body part you see fit. If you moderate one of these spaces, you have the choice of ignoring the guy or kicking him out. As someone who has had my fill of men coming into women's spaces, remaking them, and then excluding us again, my approach is to ban the asshats when it's my comm at stake.

I'm replying to you because you do seem genuinely confused by the purpose of the essay, and also genuinely determined to be part of the solution. The thing is, I don't think you see how some of your statements come across, as you keep putting the onus back on female fans to "fix" things. We wouldn't have to fix them if male fans didn't keep trying to break them. It's especially irksome because the vast majority of creator-approved fannish spaces are male-oriented, so it's not like men have no place else to go but the spaces women have carved out for ourselves, frequently forcibly under the radar [8]

I rarely see fiction written by men or males.

But wasn't that the point of the essay? Most fanfiction appears to be written by females. Some males complain that the women should "let the men in" when, in reality, they are not being "kept out"; if they want to write fanfiction, they can get off their duffs and write fanfiction.

But for the complaining males, it is not enough for the females to say, "Sure, you can play in our sandbox; have fun." A subset of men (large or small - we don't know for sure) seems to want women to say, "Oh, thank you for gracing us with your presence; here's a cushion to sit on, and do you like what we've done with the place? Should we fix it up or change it in some way? Tell us what *you* want us to do." (Exaggerated for effect, but sometimes, it seems, not in the male mind.)

If a male seems to expect the second reaction, I feel there is justification for digging in the heels with a firm, "NO!" He's welcome to play, but why should we change our space to suit him? If he doesn't like it, he can go elsewhere, and form his own space. It's still - mostly - a free country. [9]

For the past several months, I've been working on a rant in my origfic LJ about how (white) males prefer stories in which the protagonists are (white) males because they are conditioned to prefer them, and non-white non-males have wider tastes in protagonists because we're conditioned to have wider tastes. White male is not only the default, but the universal, particularly in the sf/f genre (which is what I write). Strides forward are being made, but it's still believed to be a legitimate critique in many workshops that you can only make a character non-white or non-male if their non-whiteness or non-maleness has a direct impact on your plot.

You can't make a character female, or Chinese, just because you feel like it; there must be a purpose beyond that. If there's not, you're being gimmicky, or provocative. You're subtly (or not so subtly) bashing whiteness or maleness, because you're putting forward a character who is not these things, and since the reason they are not these things is not because the Chosen One must be Chinese, or female, then clearly the reason they are not these things is because you look down on these things and wish to disclude/oppress them. Yet a white male protagonist is not a snub toward non-whites or non-males, and if you see it that way, you clearly suffer from a persecution complex.

I would say something about pots and kettles, but it's more like pots and washtubs. Not catering to someone is not the same as snubbing them. Enjoying your own interests is not the same as bashing someone else's. Not inviting you to the table is not the same as actively blocking you from sitting at it. Though really, if I did actively block you from sitting at my table? You've got the whole rest of the cafeteria to choose from, boyo, and there are even people at many of those tables waving "Welcome" signs at you. The only reason you want to sit at my table anyway is because I'm not holding up such a sign and that might just mean there's something you can't have. Cope. The rest of us have been conditioned to do so. Your turn. [10]

Reactions and Reviews: From Lucy's Live Journal Site

There are 1200 comments at this site. They are archived here:


  1. ^ comment by elynross How to Win Friends and Influence People. Sorta. , June 8, 2006
  2. ^ from ci5rod, LiveJournal comment, Archived version, posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.
  3. ^ from cerata, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.
  4. ^ from ci5rod, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.
  5. ^ from ghostgecko, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.
  6. ^ from cerata, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.
  7. ^ from ranalore, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.
  8. ^ from ranalore, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 9, 2005.
  9. ^ from starwatcher307, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.
  10. ^ from ranalore, LiveJournal comment posted to Fanfic Symposium Discussion Site community, November 8, 2005.