This is part one of a hybrid essay-rant series focusing on fandom (the collective community) and its intense race/racism problems. If you’re new to my blog and to this project, start here with the introduction post. Make sure to click the links and read the content because they’ll add further nuance to the essay here.
In addition to talking about race and racism, this post also mentions incest (with regard to how fandom interprets familial relationships to suit their shipping needs).
One thing that becomes overwhelmingly clear when it comes to the treatment of characters of color is the lengths that fandom is willing to go to in order to get them out of the way of their favorite white character ships. There are so many techniques that we could tackle, many of them framed subtly enough that it’s difficult to combat them, but for the purposes of this post we’re going to look at five of the most popular:
- Willful misinterpretation of relationships
- Theorizing that a character of color is really evil (and therefore shouldn’t be shipped/the relationship should be placed under suspicion)
- Deciding that a character of color in a POC/White Fandom Darling ship is actually asexual and/or a “strong [race/ethnicity] man/woman/non-binary person that don’t need no significant other”
- POC reduced to an agony aunt character to get white characters together
This refers to looking at a relationship between a character of color and fandom’s white darling (canonically platonic or romantic), and then pulling the character of color away from that relationship. Fandom does this in two ways.
First, they literally keep the character of color out of fanworks. Rhodey is cut out of comic panels or movie screenshots where he’s next to Tony Stark. Joan Watson gets endless posts about how she’s a strong Chinese woman who doesn’t need a man. Other characters of color aren’t put in fandom’s biggest photosets. Meta about characters skims over them. These characters of color are given less time and focus when compared to fandom faves right up until the point where fandom has to reaffirm that they’re not racist.
The second aspect of distancing revolves around what they write/draw/vid and how they do it. I’m talking about breaking canonical ties between a character of color and a white character in order to justify erasing the character of color in fanworks.
It’s Teen Wolf fan fiction without Scott McCall as Stiles Stilinski’s childhood best friend. (Scott being the biracial Latino main character of the show). It’s Teen Wolf fanworks that erase Scott’s relationship with Derek or play it off as if it hasn’t changed at all in five seasons.
It’s the Marvel Big Bang so far not having more than one or two stories that focus on characters of color in romantic or platonic relationships. Despite the fact that Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are in many of the stories up so far, Sam Wilson and James “Rhodey” Rhodes are in like three stories. Maybe.
What distancing does is insert space between characters of color that effectively pushes them out of the narrative spotlight. Fandom is one of those spaces where imagination takes precedence over reality and in the event of racebending and LBGTQUIA headcanons, that’s awesome. When it comes to how fandom (as in all fandoms) tend to take headcanons as fact after they’ve been around the block a couple of times, it’s not as amazing.
When characters of color are distanced from their triumphs and relationships in canon via headcanon, photo manipulations/edits, or simply not being written or drawn into fanworks, it’s an attempt to minimize the importance of the character. Whether or not it’s a subconscious or conscious distancing, the fact of the matter is that fandom does this on the regular and it usually only benefits white characters (and largely white fans) because it takes importance away from the few characters of color that the canon gives us.
Next we’re going to talk about the willful misinterpretation of relationships starring a POC:
Stop me if you’ve heard these before:
“Abbie and Ichabod have such a grandfather-granddaughter relationship –”
“Coulson thinks of Fury as his boss –”
“Iris and Barry are like siblings –”
“The Avengers look at Nick Fury like a father figure –”
“Rick doesn’t really see Michonne as a woman –”
All of these sentences are things I’ve seen in fandom in one form or another. They all focus on yes, distancing, characters of color in some way but there’s also a focus on redefining their relationships. The most common of this is having the white fandom favorites supposedly see characters of color as family members even when the canon has them showing non-platonic interest in one another.
Take the Abbie/Ichabod relationship on Sleepy Hollow. Sure, no one knows what the hell is going on there in terms of their relationship status, but from the start, we’ve seen problems with how white fans approach both the ship and Nicole Beharie in the leading role.
Like Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, they’re definitely playing up the “will they/won’t they” angle in their relationship and that includes a ton of sexual tension. Abbie and Ichabod flirt. They have intimate banter. They have the sort of relationship that’d launch a thousand slash ships if only ‘Abbie’ had been an ‘Aiden’ or an ‘Ashleigh’.
But with Abbie being played by Nicole Beharie, fans of that dynamic balk. They’re uncomfortable with the idea of interracial relationships in their media (probably also in their real lives, but they won’t admit to that) and so to fix things, they reinterpret and misinterpret the relationship not only as 100% platonic, but also as familial.
Better yet, let’s talk about Iris West and Barry Allen and The CW’s The Flash series.
If you know nothing about the show or the comics, the most important thing is that Barry and Iris will get together.
It doesn’t matter if the show gets cancelled or if they don’t get together in the series: Barry and Iris are legit responsible for much of the population of speedsters in the DC Universe.
Wally West is Iris’ nephew.
Bart Allen is her and Barry’s grandchild.
Irey West is their niece.
Jenni Ognats is their great-great something.
You literally lose a huge chunk of speedsters in the DC universe if there’s no Barry and Iris relationship in the DCU.
Okay. So in the television series, Barry and Iris were best friends who grew up together. After Barry’s dad was framed for the murder of his wife, Barry actually moved in with them. So then they literally grew up together. While Iris’ feelings for Barry have up until recently tended towards the platonic (although subconsciously, we know that Iris has been feeling those good feelings okay), Barry has never thought of Iris as his sister.
Because she’s not.
She’s his best friend and the daughter of his boss. She’s been the love of his life since the moment that he figured out what love was. One of the show’s strongest subplots is about how he is in love with her. The CW’s a bit experimental at times, but they wouldn’t go with a ‘Flowers in the Attic’ type shtick in a mostly generic superhero show.
You have fans crawling out of the woodwork to inform everyone that they read that relationship as familial now that Iris is black and played by Candice Patton. Because racebending breaks tiny racist minds.
That’s where the willful misinterpretation comes in. They’re looking for reasons to discredit the ship so they turn to the relationships that the POC have and remove the sexual tension or even the actual and canonical sexual relationship so that they can say that there’s no way that you can ship these two characters.
You know, because they’re family.
As if fandom isn’t incredibly guilty of shipping stuff despite family-like bonds or actual biological and genetic relationships between characters in the ship. Seriously, there are more incestual Pacific Rim Chuck Hansen/Herc Hansen stories out there than Rhodey/Tony stories – to say nothing of Mako Mori/Raleigh Beckett stories and they’re the main freaking characters.
There are people who saw Crimson Peak and still left the theater shipping the Sharpe siblings. Fandom only really cares about respecting familial bonds when it means that they can cut out a character of color.
This misinterpretation of relationships between characters of color and white characters hinges on decentralizing the character of color. If fandom can claim a relationship is “really” platonic or familial, then they have nothing stopping them from shipping two otherwise unsuitable white characters.
Look at how people were shipping Ichabod with the Headless Horseman or Shaun with Detective Lassiter instead of Gus on Psych. Fandom kind of acts as if you can make the canon relationships something with no tension in it and possibly throw in the squick/trigger of implied incest, it validates your not-so-diverse ship as the only valid one.
Next, fandom loves to make the POC in canon/fanon interracial relationships evil. They just LOVE it. And they really love to do it to Black characters above all else (because of preexisting stereotypes about violence and masculinity in the Black community, perhaps).
So let’s talk about how theorizing that a character of color is really evil (and therefore a character that shouldn’t be shipped/a relationship that should be placed under suspicion) is one of the most messed up things I’ve ever seen fandom do.
Let’s look at the Teen Wolf and Marvel Cinematic Universe fandoms for this one.
The Teen Wolf fandom is rife with issues. They even have their own tag for it.
One big issue is the way that characters of color are immediately deemed evil and how the show’s Black characters get the biggest and baddest rap. From episode one Alan Deaton – the series’ Giles-figure – was fandom’s go-to for suspicious evil characters. The tags were rife with stories, headcanon, and meta about him being evil and trying to hurt Stiles or Derek (never Scott because that would require looking at the way that Scott and Deaton interacted with one another).
Need a suspicious Black guy out to get the fandom’s “spark” in side-character Stiles Stilinski?
Deaton was it for the longest time.
Then we got Boyd. Boyd was misused and mistreated by canon and fandom. That doesn’t make it right. Boyd was literally reduced to stereotype of Black masculine violence and the only time that fandom ever really looks at him is to write him in conjunction with white characters. (Something that even I am guilty of.) But Boyd, because of the fact that we know next to nothing about him, becomes the sort of character it’s easy to villainize even in small ways. He’s the high school bully. The jock that Derek has to protect Stiles or Isaac from. He’s a big black guy so he’s scary.
Then with Marin Morell and Braeden, you got the “oh this character is OBVIOUSLY evil” with a double dose of racialized misogyny. Despite the fact that she’s Deaton’s sister (or maybe because of that fact), Morell isn’t seen as trustworthy or as a character that gets to have relationships within fandom. Braeden, a gun-toting mercenary that wins Derek Hale’s heart and saves the day, was the frequent topic of discussion that framed her as evil, cruel, and unworthy of Derek Hale’s sexy wolf love.
We see this same problem in the MCU fandom, most specifically and frequently about Nick Fury.
In the MCU fandom, Nick Fury is typically categorized as a liar.
If you pay attention to the fandom’s characterization, you’d wind up thinking that he’s actually a bigger villain Loki. That’s how he’s treated.
As the lying liar that:
- Bullied Tony in Iron Man 2.
- Lied to Steve after waking him up at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger.
- Lied to the Avengers about Coulson in The Avengers.
- Didn’t tell anyone about HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Okay. So a lot of people really don’t seem to understand what it takes to run a government agency. He’s not required to hold superheroes’ hands when debriefing them. As it stands, he’s already plenty nice to the Avengers.
Tony Stark was engaging in destructive behavior (to himself and in a way that could have hurt other people) in Iron Man 2. Nick was trying to help him and keep him from killing himself.
Why would anyone blurt out that Steve was magically in 2011 after going to sleep/”dying” in the 1930s? That was so the right thing to do.
Did you miss The Avengers? You know the two hour mess of all of those jerks fighting with one another until they’re bound together by a common goal? And let’s be real: even with the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. retcon, Coulson was still dead. Like D-E-D. Dead. And he did die in the line of duty. Like… they needed that death to spur them onward.
What exactly was Nick supposed to do?
Let them destroy the carrier and half-ass their way through the battle in New York? Nick Fury is an incredibly complex character who has been developed decently by the MCU (but not as much as he could’ve been) only to have fandom drop the ball with one dimensional characterization that either makes him evil (or a force of negativity in the Avengers’ lives) or reduce him to the Avengers’ nanny.
Which brings me to my main issue with fandom’s hate-on for Nick Fury (when they’re not defanging him as a hero in his own right and a clever investigator): there are so many people in fandom that came out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier with the idea that after the folks in HYDRA, Nick Fury was our next villain or the second worst character because he didn’t spill his plans to Steve and Natasha from the get-go.
Despite the fact that CATWS is literally about not being able to trust the people around you and the surveillance state, people continue to this day to blame Nick Fury for not immediately spilling his secrets to Steve. Okay. Because that’s how espionage works? Really?
I think that what really pissed me off about the Marvel fandom was this event that happened in May 2014 when popular fan scifigrl47 decided that that was the perfect time to ponder about what would happen if Sam Wilson — you know one of like five black men in the MCU film franchise — happened to be an undercover HYDRA agent.
Needless to say, she got so much flack from the post that she deleted it from her blog (but never apologized for writing it or seemed to understand why it was such a big deal).
But here’s a choice clip from the post that shows just why what she said was so wrong:
So Tony could’ve been Hydra, but Sam couldn’t have been? They guy who just HAPPENS to be on Steve’s run? The guy with a military background who just HAPPENS to know exactly what Steve is going through? That doesn’t seem a little too coincidental to you?
I love Sam. I want Sam. But the writing is awfully convenient. ”I just met you, now you are the lynchpin in my plan to save the world!”
A black man.
One of two Black men in this film set in DC which has a fair amount of them. And scifigrl47 thinks that he’d be a Hydra agent because that’s more plausible that the son of a billionaire whose shown to not think things through and who has proven to be easily led before —
Scifigrl47 is a Steve Rogers/Tony Stark shipper. Like a HUGE one. And she’s an even bigger Tony Stark fan. This whole post basically just exists to complain that this “new” diverse character was brought into the MCU when Tony Stark is there waiting to be shoehorned into plots he’s not a part of. And because this person’s a BNF (or ‘Big Named Fan’) in the Marvel fandom, it blew up and not everyone was responding negatively towards it.
There are people a year later still reblogging her post and using tags like “the mcu is a gift” and “mcu truths” to describe a post that not only essentially asks the question “what if this MOC wasn’t in the movie but Tony Stark was” but that also posits that the one new character of color we get in the film was more likely to be a secret Hydra agent. (And too few people called out that post like you can be complicit with your silence in situations like this, you know…)
Let’s talk about that: To scifigrl47, Sam Wilson (who has been Steve Roger’s close friend in comics since 1966 to Tony’s creation in 1963) is more believable as a member of a fictional RACIST hate-group that thought the horrors of World War II that the Germans perpetuated weren’t strong enough. Never mind that it literally doesn’t make sense (no matter how Marvel’s rebranding of Hydra goes) to have people of color in racist hate groups.
At the same time, Tony is more likely to be a member of Hydra despite them killing his parents because he’s a rich white man with tons of power who has shown to be easily led by his desire for knowledge. Tony doesn’t know that Hydra killed his parents and with Marvel pushing for them to make Hydra slightly less horrific, who’s to say that in a few years we won’t get a retcon pinning Tony as a junior developer for the company?
Seriously, that was the ultimate misstep there because it shows the extent to which fandom will go to demonize characters of color. There are people to this day who watched CATWS, read scifigrl47’s mediocre meta and went “this makes sense, why didn’t I think of it before”. And when a BNF uses coded language to try and soften the sting of their racism, people latch on to it like whoa.
Because it’s so easy to theorize that characters of color are out to hurt your white guy faves.
Let’s make something very clear here: You don’t love characters of color like Sam Wilson if you’re trying to imagine a world where they’re less important — or in fact detrimental — to the narrative.
Theorizing that a character of color is really evil revolves around removing them from a right to decent portrayals in fanon and in canon. If they’re evil characters, then we don’t have to humanize them and they don’t require relationships.
Never mind that the Hannibal fandom is focused on serial killers fucking. Never mind that the glorification of white crime in pop culture is an easily charted and analyzed thing (Hollywood makes bank off of shows that showcase white serial killers, rapists, and murders in the sympathetic view. Don’t act like I’m wrong.)
Never mind that one of the MCU fandom’s grossest contributions is the “Hydra trash party” which focuses on explicit (and not always consensual) sex between Hydra agents like Brock Rumlow, Steve, and/or Bucky.
Fandom was pretty cool with disregarding everything Sam did in the film when it comes time to write fan fiction or meta and draw fan art. Sam is reduced to an ex, to a therapist, to some guy that’s in the way of your Steve/Tony or Steve/Bucky ship. Meanwhile, the villains of the film have been given more than their fair share of time between Steve and Bucky’s sheets because what –
The actor that plays Rumlow is relatively attractive?
Oh and white?
Fandom loves evil characters, just not characters of color that happen to be evil or that they perceive as evil due to their own ingrained and unaddressed racism.
Next, we have the occurrence where fandom (primarily white fans in fandom which is the problem) takes it upon themselves to decide that a character of color in a POC/White Fandom Darling ship is actually asexual and/or a “strong [race/ethnicity] man/woman/non-binary person that don’t need no significant other”.
Hi, I’m asexual and I’m here to tell you that asexuals of color don’t always feel gratified when fandom at large takes a character of color that is typically shipped with the main (white) lead and decides that that character is totes asexual.
In fact, chances are that we’ve seen you for what you are and what you’re trying to do and it’s not cool.
One main issue is that there’s no balance in fandom.
People and characters of color are either desexualized (removed from being seen as a viable romantic/sexual partner within fandom) or hypersexuailized (targets of intense speculation, lewd imagery and comments, or harassment based on stereotypes about POC being differently and sometimes overly sexual when compared to white people). Fandom tends to cling to desexualization.
The best way to get away with that: labeling characters of color as asexual across the board.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being on the asexual spectrum. There’s nothing wrong with being aromantic. There’s nothing wrong with headcanoning characters of color to fit those identities.
What is an issue is how fandom tends to ignore asexuality and aromanticism as valid identities until they need to pry a character of color away from their white faves.
Right around the same time that we were dealing with the “Sam is a Hydra agent” mess, a post came across my dashboard that demanded that fandom not ship Sam because “The Falcon rocks and he’s a strong, independent black woman who don’t need no man (or girl), okay?“ (Seriously, that whole meme is racist and based on dehumanizing Black women. It’s not funny. It’s not cute. Quit it.)
It’s probably pretty obvious that this was also during a period where Sam/Steve and Sam/Bucky were gaining traction among shippers.
You rarely see white fandom faves get asexual headcanons in droves. The reaction to shipping a popular white character s rarely to churn out endless asexual/aromantic headcanons and essentially put him away from shippy material.
Meanwhile, the second that a character of color is shipped with a popular male character who also happens to be white, you get endless asexual and aromantic headcanons that are obviously connected to that increase in shipping.
Abbie/Ichabod spawned asexual!Abbie headcanons.
Minority Report got tons of asexual!Lara Vega headcanons before its second episode aired.
Dorian in Almost Human was immediately deemed an asexual android.
I literally had to shut friends down because when Elementary‘s previews started back in 2012, people were falling over themselves not only to declare Joan Watson asexual, but to decide that Lucy Liu looked too cold/mean/disinterested in sex and relationships to even think about shipping her with Sherlock.
(Meanwhile, the actual show is so far from that. Joan/Sherlock have a platonic relationship that I absolutely respect butthey’re both shown in relationship and they aren’t cut off from one another at the same time.)
When fandom goes “[this character of color] is asexual and/or aromantic” they’re not usually doing it because they want asexual and/or aromantic representation in fandom. Many times, they’re doing it because it’s a way to remove characters of color from the shipping playing field without appearing outwardly bigoted.
They’re not being racist, you see: they’re looking at alternative sexual and romantic identities and diversifying fandom that way. By criticizing fandom’s leap to decide that all characters of color everywhere are actually secretly asexual and/or aromantic, you’re really the bigoted one. Cool, right?
Automatically, when you go on and on about how x is a “strong Black/Chinese/Puerto Rican person that doesn’t need a significant other” you are not championing asexuals. You are not being progressive. What you are doing is erasing the fact that POC — and especially black women — are typed as unwanted, ugly, and less desirable for romance.
Erasure is not empowering no matter how you swing it.
Lastly, we’re going to look at fandom’s propensity to turn characters of color into agony aunts/helpers in order to get two white characters together in fandom.
I have a huge bone to pick with how fandom constantly reduces characters of color to support staff for white characters. I’m not talking about how Moneypenny is actually M’s secretary in Skyfall and Spectre or how Nick Fury, while in charge of the Avengers, previously coordinated the team and gave them assistance or advice.
I’m talking about how fandom literally looks at relatively fleshed out characters of color and decides that the only value that they have resides in getting two white characters together.
Nick Fury engineering Clint Barton and Phil Coulson’s fanon relationship or serving as the nanny/principle/watchdog for the avengers.
Diggle on Arrow as the main Ollie/Felicity cheerleader in fandom.
Sam as a cheerleader or even psychologist for the Avengers.
Or my biggest pet peeve in the universe: the James Bond fandom’s absolute ignorance when it comes to Eve Moneypenny and how on the rare occasions she shows up in fandom’s fanworks, it’s to cheer on the Bond/Q relationship, facilitate it because they’re both “morons” that she’s supposedly too good for, or to be one of their respective ex-lovers.
Seriously, how do you come from watching Skyfall and decide that the person with the most sexual tension with Bond is Q?
I need to know this. I’ve been trying to understand this now for three years and it’s still not computing. There’s one thing about having a ship but there’s another to completely disregard a canonical sexual interest between a WOC and James Bond to pump your fanon ship up.
I’ve written about this trend before:
If the reasons for not shipping Eve Moneypenny and James Bond didn’t mainly boil down to two really transparent reasons, maybe I could be understanding, but they don’t hold a bit of weight. It’s the same two reasons we see whenever women of color are erased in favor of a slash ship all the time in fandom:
- That [dude a] and[dude b] have more chemistry despite barely interacting in the source media or outright hating one another
- and that [woman of color] is sassy, badass and all around too independent to need or want a man so of course she’s too good for this guy that shippers feel fine about throwing everyone else at (as long as they too are white and male)
When you reduce characters of color to nanny-types, you’re saying that’s all you think we’re good for. I don’t care if it’s not a conscious decision (much of these things aren’t conscious decisions as few of these people are actively campaigning against diversity), but you’re putting us and characters who look like us in roles that make you feel comfortable.
We’re not competition, we’re caretakers.
We’re not love interests, we’re friends.
We’re not attractive, we’re adorable.
Never forget that people of color don’t exist to cheerlead your love life. We’re not around to make sure that Becky and Bobby wind up together. So why does fandom constantly decide that POC in media exist to prop up their ships?
There’s nothing wrong with a little support or even matchmaking coming from characters of color in your fanworks. There’s something wrong though with how across the board in fandom, characters of color get stuck in the background of other people’s ships and stories as the proverbial (and sometimes literal) help. Characters that represent us and our peers are reduced to helping white characters that fandom likes get ahead. Rarely do they get to shine on their own in fandom and get the same amount of respect and adoration.
Erasure of POC in ships and in fandom isn’t okay. It’s not empowering and it doesn’t provide a look at anything other than how fandom latches on to racist ideals and clings to them even when the canon is more actively diverse. To you, it might not be very important. After all, it’s easy to say that this is just the internet or that this is just fandom or that we’re just talking about fictional characters.
However, to people of color it’s another reminder that the safe space fandom promises only applies to a certain type of person. Fandom is part of the real world which means it also comes with real world issues like racism and prejudice that show themselves in how fans interact with fans and characters of color.
Next month: We talk about Co-Opted Experiences in Fandom including fanfiction that uses the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and experiences of enslaved Africans/their descendants as background/scenery for their ships, the X-Men and Inception fandoms with their Civil Rights Movement appropriation thing, and of course, Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics in fandom and how the trope tends to focus on erasing women and people of color with fandom’s focus on manufactured forms of oppression.
Do you have comments, concerns, or questions? Comments are ON but moderated for this post and all others on this blog. You can also reach me on twitter for the most prompt responses.