“Well if there were more well-written characters of color, I’d focus on them,” is a recurring excuse for the way content is unfairly weighted towards white characters in Western media fandoms.
I have heard it used for over a decade and it’s an excuse used to successfully argue that the thing stopping them from caring about Black/brown people in their shows is… quality and quantity.
Back when we were hearing the first rumblings of rumors for Pacific Rim Uprising’s John Boyega connection, my friend Holly over at DiverseHighFantasy posted on Tumblr that:
The post on Tumblr currently has over fourteen thousand notes and considering how from the jump people were insulting Holly, accusing her of “a homophobic microaggression”, saying “let women like things”… .it probably hasn’t gotten much better. From John Boyega’s interviews and how he talked about why he wanted to be a producer – this film was his production company’s first outing – we knew that the film was going to probably have a diverse cast of characters.
As people who’d watched the Star Wars fandom diminish John’s value in the franchise, demonize him in fandom, and write really weird racist fic about Finn for the better part of the past six months (at the time)… we knew that the fandom was going to show its ass in a major way.
We also knew that the fandom’s output wouldn’t highlight John’s character or any of the other characters of color in the film… because the fandom output for the original Pacific Rim film did not revolve around Mako Mori and her relationship with Raleigh Becket or Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost in any shipping-related capacity.
The fandom for the original Pacific Rim came out fully fucking focused on the scientists Hermann Gottlieb and Newton “Newt” Geiszler. They did not truly care about anything else in the fandom except for background Mako/Raleigh and assorted ships that exemplified Western media slash fandom’s fixation on white men and the beige blank slate in action.
So Holly made her joke and she got yelled at, insulted, and lied on for it, but… fast forward to 2020 and guess what the Pacific Rim: Uprising fandom did not ship back in 2018… anything that John Boyega’s Jake Pentecost was in even though he somehow managed to have chemistry with the stone-faced Eastwood spawn chewing the scenery opposite him in the film.
There is always an excuse that fandom gives for why they don’t care about or create for certain characters of color. Usually, like I point out at the start of this piece, it’s the excuse that the source media doesn’t treat or write its characters of color well so why should fandom try.
“If only the show/film/book were better about how it handled female characters and characters of color, we’d focus on them instead,” say fans who have decided a heterosexual canon isn’t good enough and have decided to write the queer rep they deserve… but only for white people.
I’m sorry, but I thought this was transformative fandom. Not “accept shit tier canon content and suffer in silence” fandom.
I’ve spent years in fandom seeing at its best and worst this insistence that fandom exists to change canon content for the better and to provide necessary representation for marginalized community… but only when it comes to queer white people and tepid attempts at racebending via fanart, apparently.
Why is it that people in fandom constantly try to shift the burden of fandom representation off to the source media? Why do they straight up lie rather than simply saying outright that they just don’t care about Black/brown characters as objects of shipping.
Why do I say “lie”?
Because we know – due to studies and the fact that folks just… confess to the wildest shit – things like how white audiences struggle to empathize with Black characters and that many people will just refuse to see what they view as a “Black film”. We know that folks will claim that the issue is quality when it’s actually empathy – and more specifically, an unwillingness to empathize with and be interested by the stories of Black and brown people.
In his 2011 opinion piece “Do white people watch black movies?”, Justin Moyer tackled the findings that professor Andrew J. Weaver looked into in his article “The Role of Actors’ Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure To Movies”, and quotes the professor as follows:
“It becomes a vicious cycle,” Weaver writes. “Producers are hesitant to cast minorities in race-neutral romantic roles because of a fear that the White audience will perceive the films as ‘not for them,’ but White audiences perceive romantic films with minorities as ‘not for them’ because they seldom see minorities in race-neutral romantic roles.”
Then in 2014 in “Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies”, writer Andre Seewood brings in the racial empathy gap. He talks about his experience watching a screening of the 1964 film civil rights focused film “NOTHIN’ BUT A MAN” in a theater where the audience was 75% white and many walked out before the film finished, noting that:
“I was stunned because I assumed that the older White couples in attendance, who would have been young adults during the Sixties, surely could empathize with the Civil Rights issues dramatized with the film, but the emptying out of the theatre would seem to confirm that some Whites –no matter how tolerant- are unwilling or unable to overcome their Racial Empathy Gap and watch a dramatic film with a majority Black cast.
Specifically, a film whose story does not show Blacks interacting with Whites in servitude, deference, or emotional dependence. In other words, when the fictional world within the film is exclusively under Black control and influence, as was the case with NOTHIN’ BUT A MAN, many Whites snuck out during the screening, if they dared go see it at all.”
We know this.
We know that people literally will flood the review sections for books by and about characters of color to let others know they didn’t finish reading because they “just couldn’t connect” with the authors’ voices or with the characters they’re writing.
They tell Black authors that they just don’t get why a character “had” to be Black. They complain that there’s not enough Orientalism on the page in books by East Asian writers – especially now with the wave of K-pop/K-pop fandom focused books by writers from the Korean diaspora.
They pick-pick-pick at works by creators of color reaching for reasons to dismiss it (lately, it’s been that the work is in some way “problematic”) all while salivating over whatever work a Cassandra Clare/Rainbow Rowell type slams together with shit-tier writing and representation.
It is tiring to see.
Think about how, despite the very loud buzz over Tomi Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orïsha book series, it… doesn’t have a foothold in transformative fandom the way that other epic fantasy young adult series have managed to get. Think about how there are probably more To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before alternate universe stories where the series/films’ plots are used for other characters… than fanworks for the original thing.
The people who wrote stories focusing on Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and other white characters traipsing all over Wakanda back in 2018 following Black Panther didn’t do so because the characters in that film weren’t fleshed out or well written.
They did it because they wanted to essentially colonize Wakanda in fandom and because they didn’t want to write Black characters well or respectfully.
The people who create fan content where Danielle Panabaker’s Caitlin Snow replaces Candice Patton’s Iris West as Barry Allen’s love interest aren’t actually doing it because Iris isn’t written well.
It’s a CW superhero show… no one is written well.
Of the 303 stories AO3 for BlacKkKlansman (2018), 203 focus on Adam Drivers’ character in a relationship with a reader insert.
The number of stories with Kylo Ren and/or Rey in that fandom, I believe, outnumber the number of stories where John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth is centered. The film is based on real-life events and is about anti-racism and activism and fandom chose to make it about… Adam Driver being Romancelandia’s “tall, dark, and handsome”.
If quality of source material content matters to fandom, why is it that shows like Pose don’t have giant fanbases? Why is it that only relatively recently with The Untamed and Guardian have Chinese dramas picked up powerhouse international fandoms?
Why is it that folks aren’t seeking out and writing about existing quality source media or focusing on Black/brown celebrities?
In 2020, it takes work to miss the quality content created by, for, and about Black/brown people worldwide and there should be some attempts by wider fandom to honestly unpack why these pieces of media aren’t activating their fannish urges… rather than simply passing the buck to blame fandoms’ failures on media not doing enough and returning to their staple source media time and time again.
(Source media like Supernatural, mind you, that has queer antagonism baked into it but a massive queer fanbase that chooses to fix that, but not the racism and misogyny that’s also layered into it.)
Across the years, I’ve seen tons of folks claiming that fandom would be better about diversity if mainstream (Western) media were better about diversity…
However, transformative fandom actively doesn’t engage with the characters of color in mainstream media. Transformative fandom and the folks that inhabit it do not consume things like Black Panther, Empire, Black Lightning, One Day At A Time, Kim’s Convenience, Lovecraft Country, and the Watchmen mini-series and leave it creating content for the characters of color.
These pieces of media do NOT get the same (or any) fandom response when compared to shows and films involving primarily white casts and that is important to note.
The ones that do get fandom content get the setting turned into AUs, get rewritten to focus on white characters, have their settings turned into backdrops for white characters –
But most of the western media that does numbers in terms of viewership… don’t have fandom content.
Not meaningful numbers of it at least.
People would rather beg for new seasons of Hannibal, rewatch old seasons of Merlin, racebend Harry Potter like that makes their Drarry fan content less problematic (if you find Draco/Harry problematic),or continue to beat the dead corpse of Teen Wolf for Sterek content… than consume existing content with main characters of color in it on the way to creating good content for it and them.
And I understand that in these pandemic times, it’s hard to break away from what’s been known.
I’ve been rewatching a bunch of stuff from my younger days in fandom including Sherlock and Smallville – two shows not even remotely known for their diversity. So, I get that a lot of people in 2020 specifically are not consuming anything new because they are too stressed out to risk the frustration of starting something that may let them down.
What I don’t get is transformative fandom’s ongoing unwillingness to even acknowledge that you put in is what comes out. If your input is the Western slash fandom standard, your output of course will be more of the same.
It’s not new or news.
The real issue I see is that folks will exclusively consume that standard fare – of media with no or limited queer rep, secondary characters of color at best, mediocre to just plain poor writing – and then turn around and say that the reason why they’re not interested in the characters of color in the thing they insist on watching is because of quality… Something that doesn’t stop them from fixing anti queer narratives, plot holes, etc… For white dude characters.
Fandom is all about choices and freedom.
Folks fight for the freedom to write, watch, and draw whatever the hell they want, and they are proud of the choices they’ve made in fandom. But that also means that Western media fandom and fans are choosing to orbit the media and characters they do.
Take the Psych fandom.
I know it’s 2020 and despite the fact that the fandom had its last piece of content – the film Psych 2: Lassie Come Home – in July, most people see it as a dead fandom in part because it was primarily a pre-AO3 based fandom that did not seem to carry over to the site once folks stopped using LiveJournal and FanFiction.Net for their content hosting.
We covered this back in What Fandom Racism Looks Like: Migratory Slash Fandom’s Focus, but the Psych fandom’s continuing focus on Shawn/Lassiter over Shawn/Gus – to the point of completely disregarding their intimate canon relationship and saying that it is solely a sibling relationship is a sign of fandom choosing whiteness.
What excuse does fandom actually have for disliking – or rather, disregarding – Shawn/Gus?
Almost a solid third of the stories on AO3 for Psych revolve around Shawn and Lassiter, characters who are frenemies at best. Shawn/Gus – who are practically living in each other’s armpits and love each other deeply – gets less than a third of their total.
You can’t tell me that everyone who ships Shawn/Lassiter only likes enemies-to-lovers.
You can’t tell me that they all dislike the childhood friends-to-lovers trope and that’s why they push aside Shawn/Gus as a viable ship.
Because this happens in multiple fandoms and a wide variety of tropes.
The issues fans of color clocked in the Psych fandom, that they note in the Star Wars, Teen Wolf, and Marvel Cinematic Universe fandoms have been going on for decades. Decades before the social media usage that lets us blast someone’s bad take on racism in fandom or a screenshot of something frustrating to hundreds or thousands of people. We just… didn’t talk about it publicly then and increasingly, have trouble talking about it publicly now.
But choice has always featured heavily in what ships blow up and what characters folks are even able to become fannish about. Black/brown characters have always been the characters that whiteness orbiting Western media fandom never can get in the mood to be fannish over – because folks really just don’t try.
In Squee From The Margins, Dr. Rukmini Pande spoke to Te (a Black fan active in multiple fandoms since the mid-nineties) and then quoted Te’s 2006 LiveJournal post “My Other Problem with Recent DC Events” where she wrote in part that:
“Because there’s a difference between *having* cool characters of color and having *fannish* cool characters of color. There’s an objective difference— yes, even now, Virginia—between the way we as fans (*especially* slash fans) treat characters of color. Why, in some respects . . . In some respects, it’s as if these admittedly awesome characters of color simply aren’t on the same *shows*. Alternately, it’s as if these characters only exist on those parts of the show that we, as fans, are not capable of being fannish about.”
Dr. Pande followed up Te’s quote by mentioning that:
“This recognition—that even when media that fan writers gravitate toward do have well-written nonwhite characters that fit fannish archetypes, these characters fail to gain the same traction in fannish spaces—continues to remain largely unacknowledged when popular character or pairing trends in fan work are discussed.” (page 31)
I’ve said this a ton of times in a ton of different ways, but here’s a fact of fandom folks just don’t like acknowledging: East Asian media fandoms are the only times you’ll see Western fans (and by that I primarily mean white people from the North America, various European countries, and/or Australia) pay significant positive attention to non-white characters…
And then it’s only across Chinese danmei series (characters in novels/manhua/webtoons as well as performers and characters in the TV or films based off of them), Korean idols like the members of BTS or Monsta X, and anime characters dating back decades.
Black and brown characters are not seen as relatable to the majority of fandom.
At least, they’re not relatable in the same way that those East Asian characters and celebrities have become across the past few years. Possibly because of how whiteness works to center itself even here.
(Just think of how so many white American anime fans insist that anime is full of white characters and is for white people to the point of reacting with violent antiblackness and harassment to things like last month’s Blacktober twitter hashtag trend.)
So people see these things – the number of folks on their timeline getting into The Untamed in 2020, how many folks are now loud and proud BTS fans, the fact that Black Panther grossed $1.3 billion dollars, and the fact that Finn is tagged in thousands of stories on AO3 – and take them as proof that fandom isn’t racist.
They take those things and warp them into a fact that Western fandom’s shipping trends don’t actually lean towards white characters… and ignore that Black/brown characters are rarely given the same prioritization as white characters in the same dang thing they’re in.
After all, their friends all ship those Ancient Chinese Gays (Lán Wàngjī/ Wèi Wúxiàn from The Untamed) and have a favorite BTS member… doesn’t that excuse the fact that Black/brown characters and performers don’t activate their fannish urges outside of wildly racist stereotypes in fan content and performances of fannish pro-Blackness that go nowhere? Doesn’t that mean that fandom is more open to diverse media now?
Early in October, I got around to checking out centreoftheselights’ 2020 AO3 ship stats and several things stood out to me about the overall top 100 list and the 2020 top 100 list:
First for the Overall Top 100 List:
Of the top 25 pairings here, 16 are romantic pairings involving two white people with a clear majority focusing on male/male relationships. You see some pairings with Asian characters/performers (Yoongi/Jimin and Jimin/Jungkook from BTS as well as Magnus Bane/Alec Lightwood from Shadowhunters), but that’s it. There are no Black people in the top 25 pairings on AO3 as a whole and aside from that, very limited shipping representation of other people of color.
Now, looking at the pairings that growth at all, there are a lot more purple marks, yes? This is where you get into the “oh but fandom can’t be racist because look at all of those people of color getting shipped in 2020 so far” ish…
It is great that East Asian characters and celebrities feature quite heavily in the Top 100 and that’s neat. But once again, it helps point out that people are choosing what to get into and what to ship and media centering Black/brown people is not on their radar.
But it’s not because they’re in things that are not good.
Another issue I’ve clocked is that the word “POC” – like how centreoftheselights uses the term “POC” to mark the racial characteristics of the pairings on the lists when you look at them off mobile – is limiting. It’s both accidentally and purposefully used to erase realities and blur lines.
Let’s get one thing very straight here: folks in fandom/on the AO3 aren’t shipping “people of color” … they’re shipping Japanese anime characters, Korean idol group members, and characters from Chinese series. They’re shipping people/characters shouldn’t have their identities mashed down to that oft-unhelpful umbrella term anyway and who aren’t shipped the same way as Black/brown people/characters are (obvious by the fact that they are shipped in the first place.)
(And these are all things I’m into on some level, all fandoms I’m adjacent to or in! Liking these things alone isn’t a bad thing… but being into them also does not mean that overarching fandom doesn’t have a racism problem and doesn’t disprove the way things like antiblackness and colorism do rear their heads in transformative fandom on the regular.)
Back in 2016, I made a post about how criticizing slash shipping culture for the racism and misogyny clearly on display from fans wasn’t homophobic and that we do get to talk about how the only folks fandom ever seems interested in queering and creating for are white dudes.
One response that I did respond to came out swinging with a defense of fandom that laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the source… not the fans determined to keep on shipping their great white way:
While this is a very good point, it’s worth considering that one reason most popular queer ships are white men is because the most well developed characters in television/film tend to be white men and the most well developed fictional relationships tend to be between white men.
People usually ship the relationships that are most prioritized in the canon (ie. the friendship and/or rivalry between two white guys). And where there is more diversity in canon, there tends to be more diverse shipping (Finn/Poe is the best example that comes to mind – if you build it, the shippers will come!).
Fandom needs to be held accountable for the racism and misogyny that is rampant, but the canon itself is as much responsible for the problem as the fans are.
This was about four months after Franzeska’s goofy racist ass had all the old guard in fandom giving her props for whitesplaining away the turn away from Finn/Poe towards Hux/Kylo in the Star Wars fandom – the very example that that user tried to use to say fandom was actually diverse.
Four years later, folks in fandom still insist on claiming that the reason why there’s not a lot of content for characters of color is because, essentially, the quality just isn’t there. They insist that mainstream media is what’s failing them without ever once pausing to think that they’re the ones choosing at every step of the way.
Fandom is choosing:
- to consume media that does not have main Black/brown characters.
- not to become fannish about media that centers Black/brown characters.
- choosing to flesh out everyone but main and minor Black/brown characters.
- to turn main Black/brown characters into sidekicks for their white favorites.
Every single time.
Mainstream media is not perfect, true.
We know that folks working in media will say “Representation Matters” out one side of their mouths while using the other to whisper about how they don’t think audiences should be expected to empathize with Black and brown heroes in action films.
We know that there are many mainstream media fails that lead to the lack of visible and meaningful representation for minorities across Western media – we’re only just hitting some major film and television firsts for so many things and we’re in 2020.
But why is it that this is the realm where transformative fandom gives up?
Why is it that this is where the transformative magic stops working?
Why is it that caring about characters of color – primarily but not only Black and brown characters – isn’t something that transformative fandom at large seems willing to… transform into a driving goal in the same way that creating queer representation is?