Fandom Racism 101: Basic Body Politics

I love a tol and a smol and if you’re in fandom… chances are that you do too.

There’s something supremely thrilling about size differences in a pairing. I know people who’ve gotten into their ship of choice specifically because of the huge height difference between the pairings. Hell, I got into Devilish Joy specifically because the lead pairing has almost a foot difference in height between them when she’s not in heels. Even before you get into macro/micro content, a lot of fandoms and different internet subcultures are pretty positive towards size differences and body differences.

Now, what does that have to do with fandom racism?

Plenty.

Unfortunately.

Years ago, I wrote about how fandom would write Black characters as “Black brutes”, exaggerating their size and stamina so that they were basically fuck machines for a non-Black character’s pleasure. In Luke Cage – Looks Like A Cinnamon Roll…, I wrote that:

The literary Black brute has existed for at least a hundred years and it is inextricably linked with fears of Black masculinity and Black male sexuality. It’s also a literary trope that is present in media to this day.

Black male bodies are objectified in a very specific way: The bigger they are, the more inherently violent and sexually accessible they’re portrayed as.

That piece focused primarily on the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe fandoms as those were the fandoms I was looking at the closest at the time. Now, almost four years later, I’m starting to realize that many people don’t actually get how pervasive this trend is or how the way we sexualize racialized bodies – the bodies of people/characters of color – often ties back into internalized racism. Yes, even when we fans of color create content for characters of color that look like us.

So, let’s talk generally about body politics largely orienting around cis male characters of color (and some cis female characters of color) and the way erotic content can be racist and racialized, how creators have messed up in the past, how we can all do better, and how we can reach out if we notice an issue with an artist who is open to constructive criticism (as well as what to do it well… they’re not.)

Let’s start with the body basics so you know what approach I’m taking here:

The size differences I’m talking about are greater than a mere inch or so between the character in canon and the character in fandom. Anyone saying that that’s what the conversations around size difference are about is likely looking at the extreme portion of folks in fandom… and choosing to take that as the way that discourse is shaped by default.

When we talk about the basics of body-based discourses in fandom, we’re talking generally about a few main things:

  • Black/brown characters written or drawn as significantly larger (height and muscle-wise) than their canon self and/or a white character or a light-skinned character of color
  • East Asian characters being written or drawn as smaller (sometimes more “feminine”) than Black/brown characters they may be paired with… as well as with white characters
  • How Black/brown characters are “gifted” with giant genitals. Primarily cis men, but in Omegaverse settings, Black/brown “alpha females” in some universes are similarly and dubiously “blessed”

(These things can apply to celebrities in a Real Person Fiction setting, but don’t actually come up that often in my experience because a) RPF for Black/brown celebrities is relatively rare in English language fandoms at least and b) RPF for East Asian celebrities usually pairs them up with each other.

So while the RPF fandom for BTS will sometimes shave inches off of Park Jimin until he’s like 5’3”, they’re putting him opposite one of the members of his group, not Ciara or Jimmy Kimmel.)

So let’s talk about how erotic content can be racist and racialized.

We still tend to think of fandom, fanworks, erotic content, and desire as things that exist in a vacuum. We tend to think – and are often told – that what turns our brains on and gets our bodies off in fandom is somehow simultaneously apolitical and extremely political.

(See the simultaneous insistence that fandom spaces and fanworks aren’t political at all so there’s no point in critiquing things in fandom like the racism afoot on purpose and accidentally in fanworks, but that the subversive nature of queerness and sex positivity is so political that you can’t comment critically on any aspect of fandom, a thing that is so important because you are automatically harming the people who like/do/want it.)

Nothing we do exists in a vacuum. Not even want.

As Chong-Suk Han and Kyung-Hee Choi point out in “Very Few People Say “No Whites” Gay Men of Color and The Racial Politics of Desire”:

More importantly, imagining erotic worlds as independent social arenas rather than a part of a larger organized social system, leads one to believe that they are self-contained erotic marketplaces where those who possess valued traits are on equal footing, regardless of larger structural factors. Yet as Green (2011) also noted, sexual fields are not isolated arenas, but are embedded within a larger society whose values are reflected in what is considered desirable within a given sexual field. Likewise, Whittier and Simon (2001) argue, sexual desires are often influenced by larger social constructions of race, ethnicity, age and class. Given that sexual fields do not actually exist in a vacuum, these constructions of race, ethnicity, age and class are likely to transverse across different sexual fields.

In fandom and other “for fun” arenas, we’re told that there’s nothing serious about what we’re doing. We’re told that we’re just playing around and so writing a Black character as a big-dicked aggressor or drawing an East Asian character as a stereotype of erotic Orientalism is fine. Because it’s just fandom. It’s not serious. It doesn’t mean anything.

Except –

It does mean more than all of us tend to think.

People think of fandom, and what we create and consume in it, as fully separated from the rest of the real world.

Of course, what you’re into in fandom doesn’t have to mean it’s what you’re into in your real or offline life – and in most cases, fandom is fully a space for people to explore things they literally can’t engage with offline at any level and that’s not a bad thing at all. But we do bring our baggage into fandom with us and that means if we haven’t unlearned – or at least, started dealing with – baggage in the form of internalized bigotry we haven’t cast off… it’s coming right there with us to fandom.

Fandom should be a place where we just… do whatever. Where we’re sexy and can get off scot-free.

But as Han and Choi point out by referencing Green in their study: “sexual fields are not isolated arenas, but are embedded within a larger society whose values are reflected in what is considered desirable within a given sexual field.”

Aside from caring about queerness and sometimes women… fandom generally reflects what society finds desirable.

That’s why Lulu’s overall Top 100 ships for 2020 list is predominantly populated by white characters with some East Asian characters/celebrities in the ranking because everyone got into different anime series, The Untamed, and BTS in 2020… but then Finn from Star Wars is the only Black character on the list. Because society doesn’t find value or interest in Black characters… and neither does fandom at large.

Which explains the focus on white male characters, yes?

But think about what fandom content looks like when folks create it for characters of color? Often, we see a reliance on both sexual and nonsexual stereotypes, a lack of research into what people of color can be like in relationships and our communities, and a refusal to do and be better in fandom.

One thing to keep in mind is that people don’t even think about the way that racial fetishization can fuel the way they do write and draw some characters of color along stereotypes linked to their race and assumed sexuality. They don’t see it as a bad thing because it’s “just” a preference: As Griffin Wayne points out in “Racial Fetishization Is A Big Problem Online. Here’s What Dating Apps & Users Can Do.”:

Unlike other types of discrimination, fetishization capitalizes on the idea of “positive bias” by positioning someone’s race, body size, gender, or another attribute as something to be sought after.

Fetishization is why fans of color are expected to be satisfied with the fact that characters that look like us are being drawn/written in erotic situations at all. It’s why we’re expected to ignore racist fanworks and not talk about the fact that it can be dehumanizing to come across them and see all the comments and notes be celebratory.

It’s also often entirely unconscious.

Sometimes, the mistakes we see creators make in fandom are just that: accidental.

No one is born a level 100 Social Justice Scribe and folks just do mess up when they don’t know any better.

But sometimes the racism is on purpose. Sometimes it’s the author’s id on overdrive, and they really do think that they have a divinity-given right to get their (metaphorical) freak on even if that means doing it in a racist way.

Other times, it is absolutely on purpose when a writer or artist can only conceive of people of color along the lines of sexual objectification written for us by whiteness and white supremacy and they really don’t care that we can see it right in front of our salads. (And yes, queer people can and do buy into that crap hardcore. Look into “homonationalism” one of these days if you ever want to get grouchy because the bigotry that fuels that is absolutely present in fandom.)

When we’re talking about creators messing up… here’s how that can look:

The main way that creators in fandom mess up,is in the way that we have lots of fanworks where a Black/brown character is somehow significantly larger than the non-Black person that is their partner in said fanworks… even when canon doesn’t match up.

Finn from Star Wars is a given, but there’s also John Boyega’s Jake Pentecost, Korra from The Legend of Korra series, Pharah from Overwatch, and Sam Wilson and T’challa from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

None of these characters are particularly massive – yes Pharah is 5’11” but she’s not the tallest character in that universe by far – but when put opposite a character in their source media (Nathan Lambert, Asami Sato, Mercy, and Bucky Barnes and Tony Stark respectively)… they get inflated.

They’re drawn and written as huge and hulking in a way they truly aren’t in canon and they’re overtly made into caretakers and bodyguard figures who are strict tops. (Please look through this collection of different pieces unpacking what we’re calling Top!Joe discourse from The Old Guard fandom which seems to frequently lean into this particular pattern way too often!)

Then there are larger characters like Marvel’s Luke Cage or Overwatch’s Akande “Doomfist” Ogundimu. These are characters who are large and in charge in canon so fandom doesn’t have to make them bigger… it just leans into the size difference in a way that goes past “mere” canon-informed kink and right on to an antiblack obsession with the Black Brute.

In addition to this: Black/brown characters are often exclusively alphas in Omegaverse fiction (in and out of werewolf universes). They’re written as tops – the more service-y the better – who are rarely given emotional exploration the way other (often whiter) characters are. They don’t really get to have feelings… unless they’re about the non-Black POC or white character they’re about to plow like they’re a field in the Fertile Crescent.

Want to know how we can all do better?

  • Resources like Writing With Color do exist and while I’m reasonably sure most of their content is oriented around worksafe stuff, I’m sure they have advice for NSFW content! (They also have anon on so you can ask directly for help even if you’re feeling shy!)
  • Read romance writers by and about people of color. For example: if you’re going to write Black Panther fan fiction without writing anyone Black before… crack open Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series because that franchise’s influence on her own work is very obvious.
  • Read erotica by and about people of color. There are so many series worth recommending, but Solace Ames’s books stuck with me for years and she’s a great starting point for writing fully fleshed out characters of color who are queer and messy on main.
  • Go through the books at WOC In Romance because the best way to get used to writing characters of color is to read books about them in general.
  • Do your own research into things like fetishization – outside of how some people redefine it in fandom. Look up sexual racism and see how it’s portrayed in media and how it plays out in the dating world – so you can understand what to avoid in your own work. Check out The Erotic Life of Racism!

So what do you do if an artist or writer insists on creating content where characters of color are given exaggerated physical features that smack of sexual racism? 99% of the time, there’s nothing you can do.

If the creator is your friend or has said they’re open to constructive criticism, you can try speaking to them privately about their creation and hope for the best, but as we covered in “On Fanfiction, Fandom, and Why Criticism Is Healthyand my response to the disproportionate and racist backlash I got from perfect strangers for it… people don’t like criticism and are willing to be very unhealthy about their response to it.

If it distresses you that much: Mute the creator’s name and unfollow them on social media if that was your main point of contact with them. If they’re a regular feature on your fandom’s AO3 page and you know that content will show up often, exclude them from the searches.

And most importantly: recommit yourself to consuming and creating the kind of NSFW content you want to see in the world for characters of color.

When Omegaverse has let me down in how Black characters are portrayed and I don’t get a single Black or brown omega? I write my own and put that content on my Dreamwidth account. Werewolf stories where Black and brown werewolves are knotheads? I fix it for myself in my own stories. I support writers in and out of fandom creating the content I want to read and imprint on my eyeballs… so they feel like they should make more of it!

About Stitch

Stitch writes about what needs to be written.
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