Back when Captain America: Winter Soldier first came out in 2014, I noticed something… strange about many members of the MCU fandom and how they would talk about Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson. Many of them honestly saw no shame in how they treated Sam Wilson as if he was the first Black character they’d ever engaged with.
Not only did some people (sorry scifigrl47, but I’m incapable of letting go of this) go above and beyond to posit that it’d make “more” sense for Sam to be a member of Hydra than Tony Stark at a time when Marvel wasn’t trying to make Hydra an equal opportunity employer for all marginalized people –
But you had folks who literally made and shared posts that outright said things along the vein of “[Sam Wilson] is the first time I’ve ever been attracted to a Black man before.”
No one should feel that comfortable with expressing their racist preference thatthey were outright comfortable with confessing that a Black actor in 2014 is the first time they realized that Black people could be attractive.
(Especially not Anthony Mackie who is honestly only “alright” in the looks department.)
The thing is that the word “preference” allows folks in fandom to feel as though they’re just expressing their totally neutral preference for white male characters above everyone else when they’re practically playing into literal centuries of sexual racism and the complicated politics of desire and race.
Preference isn’t neutral.
Neither is whiteness.
In 2019, it’s time we sat down and accepted that fandom’s overwhelming preference for white male characters in and out of slash ships/fandom isn’t neutral.
Neither is the way that we (don’t actually) talk about characters of color and desire.
In this installment of “What Fandom Racism Looks Like” we’re talking about how using “preference” to excuse disinterest in or dehumanizing objectification of a whole group of marginalized people in fandom truly stems from the racism of dating sites and centuries of sexual racism.
We’ll be talking about the queer (in)visibility of people of color in Western slash shipping spaces, and why we need to move beyond simply celebrating fandom as a site for desire.
It’s time that we start unpacking what the implicit and explicit ideas bandied about around desire/desirability in fandom spaces tells fans of color about the way fellow fans see us/people like us.
First, let’s talk about preference.
Many times, when fans of color talk about the nigh unbroken whiteness of fandom’s favorite ships (usually after a fandom statistician drops an updated post on what the year’s most popular ships on AO3 have been and the majority of them are once again… white dude slash ships), the word “preference” gets thrown around a ton.
Usually to try and shut us up, because it’s “just” a preference.
“Preference” is used as a way to excuse the way that so much of the fandom spaces we know and love, don’t have much love for characters of color.
Outside of the fandoms for Japanese media (anime and manga primarily) or the powerhouse Korean pop music Real Person Fiction (RPF) fandoms, most fandom spaces overwhelmingly focus on the love and sex lives of white people.
While many Western fandoms do revolve around media properties that also overwhelmingly focus on the lives of white characters, there’s definitely something to be said about the audience’s single-minded focus.
Even in fandoms and fanbases where there are main characters of color in the source media, they get glossed over or ignored in favor of the nearest white character.
And of course, side characters of color are rarely popular in their fandoms.
I think I can count all of Supernatural’s significant recurring characters of color on my two hands. Most of them are dead in the show. Hannibal’s few characters of color were explicitly unimportant to the narrative as the series’ main focus was on the Hannibal/Will relationship.
It’s not that hard to understand why those two fandoms aren’t going gaga for the slight handful of characters of color – who are frequently killed off, humiliated, or otherwise mistreated by the narrative.
(But let’s be clear here: I will always question why these fandoms can reinvent or develop one-dimensional white characters to fandom darling status, but then balk at doing the same for characters of color with similar depth or screentime.)
Teen Wolf may have had biracial Mexican-American actor Tyler Posey being golden brown and beautiful on the show as well as a handful of other recurring characters of color, but the fandom kind of only paid attention to Stiles and Derek, two white characters that never said a kind thing to one another.
Sure, Wynonna Earp definitely dropped the ball with that lopsided Dolls/Wynonna/Doc Holliday love triangle, but the fandom never actually even pretended that he was a contender for Wynonna’s affections or an interesting character worthy of being rewritten by fandom.
And of course, there’s the Star Wars fandom who have somehow managed to make Armitage “My Main Personality Trait Is My Fascism” Hux the most popular character in the franchise during the most diverse trilogy in the entire franchise.
That’s not even getting into the complete lack of fan attention from Western fans when a show centering characters of color comes out. Kim’s Convenience and Black Lightning are two shows that should be way more popular in fandom than they are.
Kim’s Convenience, a half-hour sitcom revolving around a family of Korean Canadians, should appeal to the same people that rioted at the mere idea of Netflix getting rid of Friends or who watched all of Gilmore Girls. It has not. Where’s the fic? Where’s the meta?
At the same time that Black Lightning is one of The CW’s biggest and most acclaimed superhero shows (because of the show’s portrayal of an upper-middle-class Black family, a main romance featuring queer women of color in Anissa and Grace, frank discussions of issues that face Black people on the regular), it’s… not really a fandom darling.
Aside from photosets and fan fiction made by the same sets of fans, there’s no real presence in fandom spaces for the show. Often, it feels as though the folks that claimed to want a show like Black Lightning or canon relationships like Anissa/Grace are ignoring it entirely.
Killjoys, on the Syfy channel, is a widely loved series with an actually diverse cast, captivating characters, and really pretty people making bad decisions about everything. There are multiple canonical queer characters as well as scenes of queer love on the show. It’s actually amazing and yet, even though it’s preparing for its fifth and final season, Killjoys has under 400 stories between The Archive of Our Own (313) and FanFiction.Net (63).
All of the shows and fandoms I’ve mentioned so far have wide fanbases that undoubtedly see themselves if not their source material as diverse. They’re primarily populated by people who’ll swear up and down that they just love one or more characters of color but then come up with endless reasons to tear these characters down or not write them
(Seriously, in the post I linked up top, scifigrl47 literally made a point of pausing to let folks know that she wants Sam in the MCU even as she devotes a post to being annoyed that he’s in a Captain America movie instead of Tony Stark).
Supernatural fans love Osric Chau’s Kevin Tran, Teen Wolf fans like Keiko Yukimura and Boyd, and Star Wars fans claim that they love Finn every single time folks try to talk about the racism fandom aims his way… even though a ton of people in fandom either argue for Finn to die a fiery death (to “redeem” his character) or that he’s really not that special.
When folks bring up racism towards fans of color across multiple fandoms – either in the form of erasure and minimized presence in fanworks or in the hatred directed at them in fannish discourse and some fanworks – people rush out of the woodwork to inform us that they do actually like these characters of color.
But then, if they really love these characters of color or media centering them…
What’s with the lack of fanworks for them?
Let’s return to the myth of preference.
In fandom, as with online dating, folks think “preference” is a neutral word that shields them from the mere potential of having to interrogate why they seem to “prefer” white people as their faves. The thing is that this “preference” for white dudes isn’t all that neutral.
A “preference” for white men is tied into centuries of racist propaganda that portrays whiteness as an ideal to the point where even people of color have trouble finding themselves or other people of color attractive.
Like Dylan Marron points out in an MTV Decoded video on sexual discrimination and dating:
“We actually learn how to define what is attractive from those around us. And because we’re raised within a framework of Western beauty standards, society often characterizes non-white features as ‘different’ or ‘unattractive.'”
Sexual racism is a thing.
We’re not just making it up as an excuse for why we’re still single.
In particular, it’s been documented that Black women and Asian men suffer the most from it in the United States, and we get the least responses from dating websites. We’re also two groups that get mocked for even wanting relationships, that have people getting mocked for being in relationships with us, and who don’t get to see ourselves in fully fleshed out relationships in Western media as often as other groups of people.
We’re viewed and treated as both disposable and unlovable.
Of course, that translates to fandom because fandom isn’t born in a vacuum.
We don’t leave our ingrained prejudices in “the real world” when we log on to Tumblr or go for a scroll on the AO3.
In fact, because many people in fandom curate their timelines to only show them their like-minded faves, they’re more likely to surround themselves with fans who think like they do and fanworks that reinforce the validity of their interests.
(For example, no one that calls discussions about racism in fandom “wank” or thinks that fans of color who talk critically about racism are “antis” is likely to follow my blog to learn from it because they won’t care about learning about it/don’t think it’s an actual thing. They’ll surround themselves by their friends and other like-minded people in an echo chamber they’ve created to keep criticism out.)
And if you’ve got a preference for white guys, all the BNFs in your fandom have a preference for white guys, all the shows you watch or books you read center white guys, and all the fan creators you follow religiously all create content about white guys…
What exactly is the fandom’s output going to look like?
No wonder folks get so upset when you point out their hyperfocus on white dudes in fandom –
Changing it would mean disrupting the very nature of how they move through fandom and would require fans to actively interrogate their own desires instead of taking a “that’s how it works” approach to things and churning out more of the same content.
I get it: it’s scary to not only have to do a bit of self-reflection, but also to have to urge your fellow fans to do the same.
Considering the way other Black members of fandom and I have been harassed and maligned for talking about racism and shipping, it’s not hard to see why other people might not want to dip their toes into what is essentially shark-infested water.
But think about what this preference (and the culture of silence/niceness) means for fans of color.
Whenever a new show or film is announced with a vaguely diverse cast, it’s easy to possibly pinpoint what ship will wind up being the most popular because of the trend for fandom up until this point: the whitest, most random ship possible.
A “preference” for white dudes that moves across what our fellow fans consume, create, and criticize means that as fans of color, the characters that look like us tend not to get top billing in fandom unless we’re talking about East Asian media fandoms.
(And even then, think about all the people that insist anime characters are actually white because they don’t “look” Japanese.)
This “preference” means that we get to watch shows like Black Lightning ignored by fans that claimed they wanted more queer representation in media. It means characters like Finn or Elektra get treated way differently from the Kylo Rens and Punishers of their respective fandoms.
This “preference” means that time and time again, we get to see other members of our fandoms tell us that the reason why the characters that look like us aren’t getting much play in fandom outside of side rolls is because of the fans’ powerful preference.
Much of the time, what gets popular in fandom are ships between white characters with mediocre chemistry, who hate each other, or who don’t even interact once in the piece of media they’re in.
Sometimes, fandom even goes for characters who are biologically related or see their relationship as parental or sibling-y rather than ship something with one or more characters of color in it.
Back in “What Fandom Racism Looks Like: Beige Blank Slates” I brought up the freakish popularity of famous white dude scientist slash ship Newton Geiszler/Hermann Gottlieb.
Another popular white dude slash ship in the small fandom – the third most popular of its kind with just about 387 stories on the AO3?
Features an incestuous father-son relationship between Hercules Hansen and his son Chuck.
Meanwhile, the other Hercules Hansen ship, the one that pairs him up with fellow Hot Dad Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba) only has 304 stories. And that’s before you take out the Chuck/Hercules stories. Then it drops by twelve.
It’s a small number of stories either way because it’s a small fandom, but it’s part of the problem with preference.
We’re looking at shippers that couldn’t think of any other ship with chemistry to lean into outside of one involving a father and his son – in a franchise that has two really awesome main characters of color that have chemistry with everyone in their respective films.
What the shit?
One of the other major problems with the way “preferences” is used in fandom – particularly in shipping discussions – is that it’s become a way to dodge criticism and reframe it as potential authoritarianism.
You know, something that isn’t a major dog whistle when it’s attached to/layered over marginalized fans criticizing harmful and/or problematic aspects of fandom.
Oh, wait –
Rather than engaging with like… any of the actual criticism folks are making, preference is being used as a way to not just deflect criticism of issues in fandom, but paint critics and critical comments as attacks on other marginalized and vulnerable members of fandom.
Back in early 2018, after the success of Black Panther, fandom started cutting up in a real way, creating fanworks that didn’t just center the white characters in the film over the Wakandans but centered white characters from other MCU properties in their headcanons and fanworks.
Characters like Darcy Lewis, a character that hasn’t shown up in the MCU since 201X’s Thor: The Dark World.
In one memorable post, a Tumblr user that roleplayed as Darcy on the site wrote a headcanon post that obviously used her as a self-insert that got with the Jabari ruler M’baku. (While I no longer have access to the original post, I have links to where I talked about it here and here.)
Aside from the fact that the one interaction M’baku has with a white character (Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross) has him barking at him to silence his presumptuousness and keep him from speaking and therefore he’s highly unlikely to fall for a white girl from Brooklyn –
The whole post was a masterclass in how objectification and fetishization work in fandom spaces.
And multiple people defended it – and her follow-up responses where she talks about her Jewish heritage and family history of being oppressed specifically to distract from what Black MCU fans were saying – because… it’s just her personal preference.
Her personal preference involved:
- Black characters decentered in their own narrative
- Black female characters squished into the Mammy trope after being in a film that largely REJECTED Black women doing that sort of emotional labor
- Black male characters set up as aggressive and threatening to fragile white femininity
- white female character set up to be basically a 2018 version of Jungle Queen characters like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Greta Vanderhorn, the Jungle Goddess.
Her personal preference?
Is racist as shit.
A lot of people’s personal preferences are racist – in and out of fandom.
The way that many people talk about desire and preference tries to frame it as this apolitical and absolutely neutral thing even while, at the same time, desire and the right to have a preference is part of their sex-positive feminism.
Here’s the problem with that: personal preference, fantasies, and desire itself are never apolitical or neutral.
On top of that, these things move on from “simply” being political and non-neutral, actually becoming harmful when they manage to infringe on other people’s personhood.
Fantasies are just that – fantasies.
On their own and in our heads, they can’t directly hurt people, and they provide the pleasure of partaking in the forbidden or the denied. For many people – especially marginalized people in unsafe or unhealthy positions in their daily lives – fantasies are all they have, and that’s important.
However, in fandom spaces, fantasies don’t stay in people’s head, and they’re never on their own no matter what nonsense we fed about fandom and fiction not influencing/being influenced by reality.
These fantasies come loaded with expectations, prior knowledge, stereotypes, trauma, politics, and a whole bunch of other stuff from the person fantasizing as well as other people who are aware of the fantasy. They get turned into fanworks that get thousands of views and hundreds of readers.
After all, nothing we do or like or create is formed in a vacuum.
In fandom spaces, fantasies that either exclude people of color entirely or reformat them as stereotypes for easy consumption (erotic and otherwise), are harmful because they are put forward without any awareness to a potential audience of thousands.
Not only that, but despite the wide reach many racist headcanons and stereotypes have, no one is actually allowed to comment on the problem of how fandom prefers to portray people of color because that is more problematic than the racist preference.
And then, once this work is out there, once these fantasies and that BNF’s preferences are out there, a new set of people pick them up, move them along, and keep the problem going because preference – for white dudes, for stereotypical portrayals of character of color, for never talking about what the actual problems are – is sacrosanct.
When I say that we need to move beyond celebrating fandom as a site for desire, I’m talking about the way that there’s no actual nuance into where the progressive aspects of fandom stop and who gets to experience desire or be desired in a non-dehumanizing way.
While I will always be grateful to fandom for the way that fandom spaces gave a bunch of us – including me – the room to experiment and experience ourselves in a safer space than meatspace, I think it’s time that we also took some time to reflect.
Because it’s time that folks in fandom stopped trying to pretend that there’s not an actual problem with how fandom/fans handle criticism of the gross, problematic, and/or questionable things we say are okay to create and consume in fandom – especially about characters of color – because it gets us off or lets us sink into a fantasy.
Straight up, we need to move beyond simply celebrating fandom as a site for desire and start unpacking what the implicit and explicit ideas tossed around about desire/desirability in fandom spaces tell fans of color about the way fellow fans see us/people like us.
I’ve been in fandom long enough to notice some odd discrepancies between when fandom is allowed to be political/politicized and when it’s not.
In conversations about desire, fandom, sexuality, and empowerment, fandom is this important site for understanding our bodies or identities and anything that threatens it gets shouted down.
The thing is that comments from people who aren’t well-represented in these conversations or in fandom’s media are always lumped in with misogyny-laden critiques of fandom. Our criticism of racist approaches to desire is literally treated as if outsiders are coming into fandom and trying to disrupt something they don’t know anything about.
When the reason why we criticize fandom for racism is because we’ve been in fandom for ages.
Conveniently, fandom’s push to privilege preference and treat criticism as controling includes commentary on fandom from fans that tries to talk critically about the way that nuance-free takes on desire that refuse to acknowledge that one person’s empowering desire-riffic experience might just be built off of the past or present suffering of actual people.
What we like, what we create, and what we consume, what we prefer in the context of fandom of media –
These things are not free from politics.
They’re not free from burdens or from biases.
If we’re going to make fandom a better and safer place for marginalized people, we need to get comfortable with acknowledging the fact that preference in fandom and about media has become a stinky smokescreen for people to hide their bigotry behind.