Lies Fandom Tells About Why Black Characters and Celebrities Don’t Get Shipped

A screenshot from Black Panther where T’challa and Nakia kissing at the end of the film. Over the image is a white overlay of lines in the top left and bottom right corner. The title “Lies Fandom Tells About Why Black Characters and Celebrities Don’t Get Shipped” is in a loopy script and then my twitter handle is underneath that.

A comment from an AO3 user on Lulu’s 2021 Top Ships on AO3 list that reads:

It’s hard to have a lot of black ships at the top when not a lot of black characters are written well and they’re not often written in romance situations in western media. The only reason why a lot of Asian ships ranked was because a lot of them are from anime, and it makes sense that anime would represent Asian people more as Japan has mostly Asian people in it. Most of the Asian or part Asian pairings are not coming from western media. I feel as a black person like it’s more of a general representation issue than an issue with shippers. It’s like how there’s often less well written female characters in shows or less female characters in general, so m/m ships dominate because there’s more well written male characters and well written male relationships, platonic or otherwise. If the media doesn’t provide well written black characters or representation of black people in romance situations, then there aren’t many options for shippers to ship.

“If the media doesn’t provide well written black characters or representation of black people in romance situations, then there aren’t many options for shippers to ship.”

This is bullshit.

If you go to a buffet and you only eat one thing, you can’t just sit there and say everything else at the buffet is nasty or gross. That’s incredibly ridiculous and I would laugh at you. You would deserve to be laughed at.

Fans in fandom – yes even Black People Too – choose publicly not to consume content about and by Black characters in fannish ways. There are well-written Black characters across genre fiction and many of them are in romantic situations or pairings, or would be if they just had a nudge or two.

But beyond that, no other kind of character has to have these hoops to jump through? Shall I gesture again at how Clint/Coulson in the MCU became super popular because white characters aren’t required to have interactions, much less chemistry to become fandom darlings. But also, white boy Minecraft YouTubers aren’t well-written. They aren’t actually romantic with each other – they don’t even really do K-pop idol levels of fanservice. So what is the excuse for their popularity in fandom to where they dominate the ship list for 2021?

The idea that Black characters or celebrities aren’t worthy of ships/aren’t being shipped because we’re not written well,  or we’re not positioned as romantic objects, or because we’re boring is just incredibly annoying… because it’s a lie. It has always been a lie that fandom tells itself in order to consume and create content that is never about Black people or characters.

Issa Rae’s Insecure, one of the best-received shows about Black womanhood in my lifetime, had hundreds of thousands of viewers per episode. It had one of the most widely watched and talked about series finales in recent history. However, where’s its fandom? Why isn’t there a treasure trove of fics about Insecure when it’s a show that is:

  • Well-written
  • Shows Black characters in romantic situations
  • Widely watched

?

There are nine stories for Insecure on AO3. One story for the series on FanFiction.Net. I can’t find more than a handful of stories on Wattpad or any other site where people drop their fic.

And before you mention how HBO is not available everywhere or that people don’t write content for series on subscription services, let me point out the ridiculous popularity of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso and its outsized fandom – which, conveniently, has its own issues with racism and antiblackness specifically.

Or… there’s Girls, a 2012 show with a similar close cast and romantic relationships and that has about 450 stories on AO3.


Fandom is all about choice.

We choose what to consume, what to create, and how we put out content in fandom.We choose what moves us, what we hate, and what we do to express ourselves in a busy digital landscape.

Consistently, endlessly, transformative or generative fandom that makes all sorts of queer or shippy content on a regular basis, chooses not to give a shit about Black characters. It chooses to highlight a wide range of white characters, white relationships, white experiences all while coming up with new reasons to specifically not care about Black media, characters, fans, and celebrities.

I have been in fandom for a full two-thirds of my life. The first half of my time in fandom – as I’ve said repeatedly – I didn’t put too much thought into the ways that people and characters of color were treated. Probably because I was a literal child at that point. But from 2008/2009, there was an open increase in how antiblack people were willing to be publicly in fandom and over Black people and characters. I watched the goalposts shift and memorized the excuses people gave to explain why they weren’t interested in these Black people or characters… and why you shouldn’t be interested in them either.

Fandom treats Black fans as if we’re… a bunch of things. Unintelligent, possessed by tunnel vision over ships, incapable of understanding fandom, new to fandom, aggressive, un-fannish, etc.

Every single time we bring up the way that Black people specifically are treated by fandom and Black characters/celebrities aren’t seen within fandom, people act as if we’re newly hatched fandom eggs and we just “don’t understand” what fandom is like.

It’s to the point where even other Black people get in on the game to let the rest of us know that of course we can’t expect fandom to care about Black people – real or fictional – because we’re just not well-written or interesting enough… or romantic enough, apparently.

Again, I call bullshit.

Remember, I saw the way MCU fandom talked about its Black characters – who aren’t written enough, but are written well enough – evolve from 2009 to now. We were subject to cycles of “I can’t ship [Rhodey/Sam/T’challa] with [white male character] because he’s [just a friend/like a brother/got a power imbalance/their therapist/actually mean to them]”.

And that last thing, the way that all of the Black characters in the MCU were cycled through “male mammy” to threat to background character without really even getting shipped half of the time?

(Except… who else remembers how Sam/Bucky was originally a jokey, “crack” ship pushed by Black fans playing off their mild antagonism in Civil War… but then white fandom got into our side of the fandom, realized the ship was a thing, and proceeded to write racist content where Sam was abusive to Bucky. Including one story where Sam “tricked” a Jewish Bucky into being baptized which is… deeply antisemetic.)

I watched people say they didn’t realize Black men could be attractive until they saw Anthony Mackie’s tiny-mouthed self playing Sam Wilson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I watched people say that Black writers writing Black self inserts/not writing about the white MCU characters were alienating white fans – or worse, that we were racist.

T’challa and Nakia have a sweet romance in Black Panther and yet, what was the fandom focus there? Who became the focus after a film almost entirely about Black excellence, family, and love?

White characters like Bucky and Steve.

I got a message from one of my readers a month or so ago about how, despite how CW show All American focuses on Black characters and experiences on their football team and with their family… the fandom for the show centered around the white guy with like sixth-level billing on the show. Someone who follows me on Twitter just told me about how the fandom for Arcane, on Netflix, has come up with reasons to claim Black characters like Mel aren’t worthy of their interest or fannish creative drive. (Mel, by the way, is a pretty integral character to the show, I believe.)

The thing is that there is interesting Black media. Beyond Insecure, we have Pose and Blood and Water. We have a bunch of awesome Young Adult fantasy series by authors like Jordan Ifueko, L.L. McKinney, and Tracey Deonn. There are Black celebrities engaging with their fans and other celebrities in kinda shippy ways – like where are my Megan Thee Stallion/Namjoon or Lil Nas X/Namjoon RPF stories because they sure did have some interactions.

Black people exist in genre media. Martha was one of the best Companions on Doctor Who… and she was subject to so much criticism from the supposedly progressive fandom that really missed Rose that her actress Freema Ageyman was harmed by the fandom response. If you’re wondering what her fandom content looked like it was… bleak to say the least. There’s a lot of performative Martha love now, but it doesn’t translate to fanworks.

Despite the fact that Abbie Mills was the female lead of Sleepy Hollow and yet from day one of that show, she was desexualized, treated as “just” a bro, and removed her from her ship with Ichabod Crane. This was done by white women in fandom that couldn’t see themselves within her. Black (female) fans were the ones trying to create content for her while pushing back against the racist fandom and a clear lack of care from the showrunners… and we were called bullies, accused of being what many people would now call “antis”, and had our sexuality or gender identities erased by white fandom who preferred other ships and publicly hated on Abbie.

Over the years, the MCU fandom went above and beyond – even outside of Hydra Trash Party – to make white male villains the center of their headcanons and stories with the rebooted version of Baron Zemo and Brock Rumlow featuring in plenty of stories as sympathetic heroes or darkly attractive thirst-objects. However, then with Luke Cage – a show with well-written Black characters (literally written to be inoffensive to neoliberal lwhite audiences) and romantic subplots – the immediatefandom output was basically… nonexistent? There was no focus on Luke’s relationships with Black women like Misty Knight or Claire Temple – and no attempt to even give those women a relationship with each other.

From back in 2016, I have been covering how badly the Star Wars fandom dropped the ball on John Boyega’s Finn when it came to creating respectful and/or shippy content for him. But let’s just bring it back: Finn is the blank slate of fandom’s dreams and has instant, amazing chemistry with Poe Dameron (and, if you’re into that, a lil something-something with Kylo in that first scene where Kylo clearly recognizes something in Finn).

However, because a) Kylo/Hux existed as same age-y white guys who could be shipped together, and b) Black and Latine fans called out the racism in Finn/Poe fanworks/fandom at the time… fandom decided that Finn wasn’t interesting enough to be in things.

Don’t get me started on how people made up in-depth and sympathetic backstories for Hux and random white male First Order members while saying this… Finn wasn’t interesting but Hux, a character who at that point was a fascist minor character, got the lion’s share of fanworks? Based on word of god about him having a cat, fanon about his childhood, and his whiteness.

Okay.

(Finn/Rey has different issues and the lack of fandom focus is both a product of racists in Rey/Kylo fandom and the fact that even without that ship or if you shoved down the racism component… M/F ships are not actually super popular in most fandoms.)

Remember how the BBC Sherlock fandom invented Sebastian Moran? Sebastian Moran is a character who isn’t in the BBC Sherlock adaptation but is in the books and that gap of content meant that fans could fill in his blanks. Not only did the fandom “make up a guy” but they made up a guy that was almost universally deemed white, scarred, and into BDSM – to ship with another white guy.

There’s also how some of Hannibal fandom’s Hannigram shippers have made an “extended universe” where Mads and Hugh’s characters from different pieces of media get shipped together as long as the media is structurally similar, even if it’s not the same media.

And there was a point where, I believe, where all of Tumblr slash fandom’s favorite white men from X-Men: First Class, Inception, Hannibal, and Sherlock all knew each other and were often put together using gif sets that pulled from different pieces of media they were in – with subtitles that were not from said media and that facilitated shippy shit.

How about Rise of the Brave Tangled Dragons?

That was a multi-fandom crossover between characters who didn’t exist in the same piece of media and that could not have ever interacted and yet… they dominated parts of Tumblr shipping fandom for a hefty chunk. They didn’t have to interact and the romance in their films wasn’t with the characters they were shipped with in the crossovers…

Oh and remember the Onceler? People were so desperate for white men to make into Tumblr sexymen when they watched The Lorax that they came up with different incarnations of the Onceler to ship with each other. (Oh! And Bill Cipher! He also got this treatment!)

Fandom does not do any of this for Black characters or characters coded as Black/assumed to be Black in some way. It never has and it never will. In fact, as we saw with Blaise Zabini, when a fandom favorite sexyman is revealed to be Black after all, fandom simply puts that character on a shelf and stops playing with them… after copious amounts of racism, of course.


The comment I introduced this piece with ignores that there’s actually plenty of accessible, trope-laden media focused on Black people. The OP is acting like East Asian media is automatically more relatable and interesting – to them, a Black person too, but also all of fandom – and that Black characters in media are… non-existent, poorly created, and/or not already romantically aligned.

These are all things that literally do not matter when it comes to fandom being fannish over media about white characters or over white celebrity interactions. The rules are different for Black characters and celebrities in fandom.

Despite the claims that we, Black people, are too afraid of seeing Black characters as imperfect or that we hate the idea of Black characters topping or bottoming with white characters and celebrities –

The real people actually sitting here saying that they can’t do x, y, and z for Black characters and people at every turn are… non-Black people. (And I mean, a few tokens pointing out that they’re Black Too, but we know how I feel about them at this point, I’m sure.)

They’re the ones sitting here and saying that every Black female character is a bro, a bitch, a mammy, or something new they’ve just thought up to excuse shoving them off to the side as a sassy singleista. They’re the ones who aren’t watching Black Panther for the characters, but for figuring out how Wakanda can become theirs – or how it can belong to their white faves. They’re the ones doing media purity tests to decide Fringella is too much of a baddie to be shipped with anyone in The Witcher or deciding that Vivienne from Dragon Age: Inquisition is a huge bitch that should die.

The comment up there does not engage with the reality that fandom does not seek out Black media or support Black characters and celebrities the way they do other characters/celebrities of color (who are, as we see on Lulu’s 2021 list, largely East Asian) or, to a far greater extent, white celebs and characters.

The reality of fandom is that Black people and characters are only seen as interesting and valuable to fandom when they can be used by fandom.

When John Boyega was seen to support Kylo Ren, he was claimed as a fan of Reylo. The second he clowned the ship because the fandom was harassing him? He became an “anti” and therefore “deserved” the harassment that escalated. T’challa was treated, by MCU fandom, like a potential sugar daddy to replace Tony Stark as the Avengers’ walking wallet. Once people actually saw Black Panther? They vilified him and frequently had him be killed off so their white faves could rule unimpeded.

When people say that this shipping list of almost entirely white characters is normal or that of course there are only one or two Black characters at a time worth shipping in English language fandom, they’re lying. They’re lying and trying to say all of the others are so bad, so poorly written, so incapable of romance. They never engage with the fact that white characters don’t have to do anything but be white and mildly attractive from as far back as the blurry background of a scene in order for fandom to thirst over them and give them big backstories.

This has been going on for years and no one realizes that we’re in fandom too seeing people dismiss Black main characters for basic background white boys. We have watched white fandom lie about what it does to Black characters and celebrities this entire time. And yet, the lie continues to be spread that Black characters simply aren’t valuable, sexy, or interesting enough as a whole to be shipped.

There are mediocre Black characters. There are bad Black characters. However, to write off all Black characters in genre media you’re not even consuming to say “this doesn’t  and could never activate my fannish urges” is wrong. It’s wrong because white/white aligned fandom will always move the goalposts to find reasons to exclude Black characters or to excuse a historical disinterest in them. This never happens to white characters.

And at the end of the day, they make it our fault as Black fans or creators or theirs as Black celebs or characters for why they just don’t get activated to be fannish over us. Because if the content were good, they say as they thirst after two white guys in the back of a BBC genre series who have just touched hands but never interact otherwise, they’d ship them regardless.

Black characters, celebs, and media worldwide must be doing something wrong… It couldn’t be that fandom is shamelessly and openly antiblack in its expressions of thirst —

Right?

6 thoughts on “Lies Fandom Tells About Why Black Characters and Celebrities Don’t Get Shipped

  1. Gods, I’ve only heard about how shitty the Doctor Who fandom was to Freema Ageyman and I loved her. I thought she was great and it was awesome how she didn’t take any of the Doctor’s BS.

    And then there was NuTrek… I’ve read some funny, great fanfic about Uhura from that, and even one where Martha served on the Enterprise, but again, the fandom hated Uhura far ‘daring’ to break up the OT3 of Bones, Kirk, and Spock.

    And I remember, clearly remember, that Tumblr post that called Abbie Mills a bro which, as a friend pointed out to me, was their active attempt to strip her of her femininity. Because in the gaze of white fandom, black women don’t deserve kindness, affection, or love.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoy your writing and it’s made me think a lot about my own consumption of fandom and ships. Specifically, this led me to question why I wasn’t reading more Black Panther fanfic when I loved the world and the characters and felt there was a lot there to play with. Honestly if I didn’t suspect/know the reason, I’d be surprised that T’Challa/M’Baku never took off as a ship because there were a lot of shippable dynamics there. To speak further to your point I want to the Black Panther page on ao3 to see about reading some fanfic and the first page was filled with stories with white marvel characters’ stories with Black Panther as a tag because I guess T’Challa or Wakanda show up at some point (will probably try again with excluding tags, but now I’m too annoyed). All this to say, that your writing in general has been really helpful in giving me language to critically look at my own consumption and experience of fandom and I really appreciate you and your work, also you reminded of how much I liked Finn/Poe which is also great.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Riiiiiiight, re: T’Challa/M’Baku?? (I mean, I saw BP with two of my oldest fandom friends the night it released in theaters, and we walked out and one of us looked at the others and said, “You know the main pairing is gonna be Hobbit dude and…Bucky? Maybe?” and both of us nodded, because it is a truth universally effing acknowledged by people who have been around long enough and bother to pay attention that fandom will ALWAYS find two white dudes to ship. And I’m white, and I’ve shipped many a white dude pairing, I’m not suggesting I’m somehow exempt, I just know how this cookie crumbles.) But it was FRUSTRATING, because literally my ONLY consideration with that pairing is that I have this weird thing where I go “okay, but M’Baku’s wife is a person,” (no, she’s not, she doesn’t even have a name, self, and also, polyamory is a thing, you WRITE IT ALL THE DAMN TIME), otherwise, PUT ME RIGHT ON THAT TRAIN. And you KNOW in any other movie there would have been a JUGGERNAUT fandom in that pairing (that…mostly would have killed off M’Baku’s wife in a blaze of misogyny, but, you know, different issue), but here we are, because, well, see all of stitch’s work. Ever. ::screams with renewed frustration with how much she wants more fic for this pairing::

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is really interesting to me because my fandom experience is almost exclusively Reader-Inserts and has been since I was, like, young. Over two decades at this point. Those websites were all websites dedicated specifically to Reader-Inserts as, for a long time, they were banned from fanfic sites for “depicting real people” (back when RPF was a bannable offense on big sites like Fanfiction.net and the like). I was on websites owned and moderated mostly by teenagers and the lot of us were very insulated due to only making Reader-Inserts for various fandoms and nothing else. When I think about it, even there I didn’t see many fics that included black characters. Back then, most of my fandoms were anime and there were few black characters from those animes to begin with, but even in fandoms were there WERE I am having trouble remembering any for black characters.

    I wrote a fantasy Reader-Insert that was an original story, I remember asking for people to make art for how people imagined their Reader character to look and realizing most of the art I was getting was of black women. I remember then realizing that my story on that website was one of the only ones that had love interests that weren’t 1) just men, and 2) just white or Asian. I’m not black so, at the time, I just thought “Oh well, I mean, maybe it’s just because most people don’t really think about it.” and literally just moved on without a second thought. Reading this has really made me kind of re-evaluate a lot of the things that went on in those spaces in general.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Whew. Reading this reminded me why stopped interacting with fandom on any level beyond gifs, and the occasional drive-by commentary. The fandom anti-Blackness of 2013-2016 truly just burned me out of the whole song and dance of it all. The fact that you (and others) are keeping track like this, making historical records of it all, is truly commendable. I’d sooner forget (not that I can), but I hate that forgetting feels like or means reinforcement that kind of fandom racism.

    The “not everyone has HBO” argument would never work on principle given how many people had access to Game of Thrones back in 2010. You could make the argument “not everyone had access to DirectTV or Comcast or Torrenting” and it would still be a weak argument for why Insecure has zero fandom presence beyond reaction videos and watch parties.

    I think the ‘fannish’ history of older shows, books, or movies with Black characters/lead actors set the tone for how things would turn out presently. Even if we didn’t have the kind of connectivity we have now, or even mildly back in the early 2000s, if things like Moesha, the Proud Family, or (Showtime’s) Soul Food didn’t (and still aren’t) get any level of a massive fandom outpouring, then the pattern was only likely to become more entrenched later when shows like Insecure could actually achieve reaction videos and watch parties like GOT.

    I’m a pessimist, so my default belief is that this has been going on for too long for me to believe that ‘no one realizes’ what’s going on in fandom spaces as anti-Blackness becomes the rote response to critiques of ‘the unbearable whiteness of fandom’ (so to speak). But I’ve seen enough commentary at the end of your articles to know that, yeah, a lot of folks probably just aren’t attentive enough to their environment to notice the patterns. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, but, it took until 2009 for me to finally put words to what I noticed but couldn’t say in words (so everyone starts somewhere, right?).

    Asian Drama fandom’s boom could be easily explained with how fandom chooses to approximate fair-skinned leads (or singers) to whiteness (plus fetisihizing non-US based media). The same thing is still happening in the anime fandom. The thing that stands out to me is the commentary about this. I’ve seen Asian-American or Asian fans of said media (fandom is currently consuming) mourn the loss of their favorite media or fandom space’s identities or safety as a result. They lost something.

    I absolutely dread the day that Black media or characters hit that level of ‘accessibility’ in white fandom. And it’s to that point that, sometimes, I ask “do I really want to see that level attention/’support’ happen with Black media/characters?” Given the aforementioned fandom’s dedication to twisting non-white media into something ‘more palatable’ (the complete opposite of what the media is) for them? That’s a downright nightmare.

    Even if that’s what we’re hoping won’t happen, I feel like that’s the end point anyway. And the moment Black folks are critical of negative dividends (like we’ve been on smaller levels ah-la Sam/Bucky, Sam/Steve, Finn/Poe, or everything about Black Panther and Sleepy Hollow), the immediate mission will be to further demonize Black spaces, fans, creatives, and media because we’re ‘ungrateful’.

    Again, great article. Apologies for getting long-winded. I really enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I actually think there’s a second step. In that it is OFTEN a rule that the WORSE a character is written/more open to interpretation, the more attractive that character is to fandom. Presuming that character is a white cismale. (Or, at the very least, white-adjacent.) But aside from that, yes.

    One of these days I am going to have the HILARIOUS conversation with you that is My Shipping List for T’Challa and All of My Overwrought Emotions About It, Beginning With, Storm IS HIS WIFE, DMIT, ELEVEN YEAR OLD ME SEZ SO. Or I could just write a freaking fic. ponders

    Liked by 1 person

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