Women and Power (Meta on BNFs, Hate, and Anonymity)

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Title: Women and Power (Meta on BNFs, Hate, and Anonymity)
Creator: Miriam Heddy
Date(s): December 28, 2006
Medium: online
Topic: Fanfiction
External Links: Women and Power (Meta on BNFs, Hate, and Anonymity), Archived version
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Women and Power (Meta on BNFs, Hate, and Anonymity) is an essay by Miriam Heddy.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.


In fandom, one of the unwritten rules has long been that if you acknowledge that BNFs exist, you must also subscribe to the notion that fandom is a meritocracy in which those who have power deserve it and wield it well, and further that anyone can become powerful if they only want it enough and want to work for it. Anything else is sour grapes--a dismissal that doesn't engage any of the questions raised by the criticism, but just turns it back around on the speaker.

Leaving aside the dubious claim that fandom (or any political/social system) is truly meritocratic (let's just pretend that it is) it seems to me that what's often elided from these discussions is just what that work really entails. Can anyone do the work? How can we tell if, as a community, we're not altogether sure we want to admit that "BNF" is really a position at all? What would it look like if we posted it as a job listing? What would we look for if we were hiring? What if we were hiring for the other positions in fandom? It's just easier to play with porn, which, like BNFs, is something we know when we see it.

We say things like, "She's a BNF because she works hard" and "She writes better than anyone." But we know--I'm sure we know--that power is held and kept by more than this "hard work" we gesture vaguely at, and that it takes more than verbal skills, even in a realm in which words seem most valued. Stories are recced (or not), writers are discussed (or not), writers are friended (or not) by different people--people with more power and less power. Alongside all powerful people are others with power who exist in a mutually beneficial relationship that is always threatened by power jockeying, because all power is not equal (and maybe we wouldn't want it if it were so). Behind all powerful people, and working under them, are plenty of people working their asses off, usually in quieter ways, and with less name recognition, but working in different ways.

So with this "BNF" phenomenon, we're talking about people who want to be known. Let's not pretend that being known happens accidentally, events conspiring in mysterious ways and all that. We may all get our 15 minutes, but to hold the spotlight for longer than that? What does that entail?

Powerful people are often incredibly seductive, charming, manipulative, self-centered people who get a charge from being in charge. Those may, in fact, be necessary character traits for anyone whose power depends on others and is not simply inherited (and even in cases where power is inherited, there is the small matter of getting enough allies to keep from being beheaded). Powerful people are risk-takers, but what makes risk possible is a certain amount of confidence--something more than simple bravado. It takes something that we might call ego. And if the risk is taken and it goes badly? Being able to walk away from a failure (of a story, an attempt at pimping a fandom, a recs page, a fandom where you didn't become a BNF) takes a lack of investment in the story, the readers, the fandom, and in the people, and that requires the belief that you can easily live without them because they are replaceable.

Fandom is a largely female community, and there's something deeply taboo about admitting that BNFs are different, not simply because they may write better, or throw really great parties (the things we appreciate), but also because they embody things we may not really admire even if we benefit from their acquaintance, and their friendship, and even if we think that, in many respects, they are nice people.