Revisiting Escapism: Fandom Is Far More Than Just A Head-Empty Hobby

When my editor Claire approached me to start putting together what is now Fan Service, my column on fandom for Teen Vogue early in January 2021, I already had an idea in mind for the first column.

Days before our call, I’d watched as a few (literally like less than 20-30) members of my primary fandom (BTS’ ARMY) had rallied around the white supremacists who’d invaded the United States’ capitol. These fans – none of whom, thankfully, had any clout within the fandom as our resident Conservative BNFs had been run out months before over, among other things, their response to COVID protocols and their rage about BLM – were relentless and shameless. They used BTS’ tagline of “Speak Yourself” to argue that anything else from them (like silence) would be betraying themselves and mentioned that they just wanted to support “patriots” protecting “their” country.

Let’s also talk about the thousands of people worldwide who felt that not only were Black fans being inappropriate for wanting or celebrating idols and rappers (who utilize a performance of Blackness often in their work) to speak up about BLM and show their support… but got mad because people were bringing politics into their fandom space. Because escapism was more important than… being a decent human and supporting your fellow fans, apparently.

In the very first article, I wrote that:

Escapism has literally kept people going despite all kinds of crises, and the use of fandom as a solace will likely only continue now that we’re in 2021 and still awaiting easy access to vaccination. It allows people a reprieve, to bury their heads in the sand and pretend for a little while longer that everything isn’t so terrible.

Which is great… to an extent. But all experiences of escapism are not created equally. Escapism isn’t actually possible for everyone because of the nature of both fandom and the world around us. The best-worst example of the limits of fandom escapism? Racism.

Racism is global, and it infiltrates everything that we do; it’s close to inescapable offline, and it’s just as common online. Fandom is no exception.

The issue is that… escapism in fandom is often used as a shield that privileged fans – and fans sans privilege who think appealing to bigots will boost their fandom footprint – use to get out of engaging realistically with what fandom is actually like for many people.

So, they’re hypocrites about it.

To many people, fandom is a purely escapist space where it’s “not that deep” and it’s “just” fan fiction or fan art up until the point where it’s apparently under fire from an establishment or a man has an opinion. Then it’s the most important piece of engagement everywhere and it deserves all of the interrogation, introspection, and care possible.

The two things can’t be (and aren’t) true at the same time.

If fandom and fan fiction are purely for escapism, then things that keep everyone from escaping into those things shouldn’t be allowed in fandom. However, what we see, constantly, in fandom is the insistence on fandom as a site for escapism and fic as a space to explore identity and kink shamelessly… being used directly to defend bigotry and harassment.

Back when I was on Tumblr writing about racism in fandom, I used to have people create sockpuppet accounts to harass me or insult my work and they’d all be some variant of “fandom isn’t your safe space”. (They do it on Twitter too but I usually don’t see them!) The same people, however, continue to turn around to claim that fandom is their safe space and that seeing someone criticize any aspect of fandom is harming them directly.

If you’re a person of color in fandom, it’s very quickly made clear that many people think fandom is supposed to be a safe space for bigots (like racists!) and people who can ignore them in fandom and fanworks.

They don’t think fandom is supposed to be a safe space for all fans – something that was made clear to me when people on FFA made fun of me for wanting The Archive of Our Own to live up to the claim of being ours.

(As in, a space for everyone in fandom should be able to condemn racism and racists boldly and, almost two years after the organization’s promise to do something about it… they have not.)

These are supposed to be shared fandom spaces, but only some people have the right and room to speak in or about it. Only some people get to be seen, heard, and respected in the shared space and fans of color who are emphatically against racism? Explicitly don’t get that room.We’re told we don’t deserve escapism.

Escapism becomes this thing that is passed out to the privileged. They have the room to escape into fandom without thinking about what it means to see bigotry in fandom: body shaming narratives about fat people, slut shaming, misogyny, whitewashing, weird stereotypes about marginalized people played for kink purposes, open antiblackness up to and including slurs, and that thing fandom does where they make a Black/brown character huge and dark opposite a tiny, pale character (who isn’t tiny in canon).

And because they have escaped into fandom and don’t have to deal with the issues in fandom that plague other people and keep us from escapism, they view our comments and complaints negatively. Instead of viewing bigotry as an impediment to our escapism in fandom, the new thing they do is portray us as Sensitive Shanikas trying to control fandom. Since there are supposedly “no problematic ships” in the media we’re talking about… we must be reaching to find a way to harass others.

At no point do these fans sit with or think about the fact that racism and other forms of bigotry in fandom hurts other fans. It stops us from being able to engage in fandom the same way as other fans…

This isn’t even guaranteed to be about ships. Currently, the reason we’re all being accused of being “antis” in the Our Flag Means Death fandom is because we’re talking about the way Migratory Slash Fandom and artists who’ve clearly never made brown-skinned characters of color a focus in their work before treat the show’s characters of color.

We were talking about something that stops us from being able to escape into fandom because “fandom is supposed to be fun” and yet… it was not. Between the Sexy Savage ™ content and people vacillating between pasty and minstrelsy for their Ed art… this fandom started off at a point that was instantly alienating to many fans of color.

And it was white fans who kicked this off with instant hostility and accusations that fans of color speaking about any of this stuff are doing this for clout, want to control fandom, are moving in “bad faith”, or are “antis” who don’t have a problematic ship to complain about so we’re just “choosing” to make racism our “issue du jour”…

But if an anti is, as I was assured, “someone in fandom who harasses, threatens, and cyberbullies other fans because of what characters they like, what pairings they ship and what content they write/read”… what does that have to do with racism in fandom? What does that have to do with “hey be careful about how you portray or talk about the characters of color in Our Flag Means Death”? Why does a fan of color making a palette set as a jumping off point have to do with policing fandom or anti behavior?

Why are people purposefully conflating “harasses people over ‘problematic’ ships or kinks” with people of color talking about racism and offering suggestions? They are not the same things!

Caring about racism in fandom and media isn’t “anti behavior”.

It’s not anti fandom.

It’s nothing more than wanting the space that’s supposed to be for all of us to actually be for all of us.

Fandom isn’t a hive-mind and we’re allow to dislike things, complain, and even say “hey I think you did this thing and while it wasn’t on purpose, here’s how it can be better/less racist”. (Except not me. I don’t do that. I refuse.)

But beyond that, why are people (especially POC talking about racism on any level) being called “antis” for talking about incidents of racism or other forms of bigotry in fandom that bother them? Or about harassment they’re getting from other fans (including and especially “anti harassment” proshippers, another ill-defined term in fandom)? Why are people saying explicitly that we’re doing this because we have nothing else to talk or complain about and we need one.

Here’s a forgotten fun fact for y’all: fans of color who talk about racism in fandom or media don’t actually want to do this. I don’t actually want to talk about any of this. I would like to talk about the manga I’m reading, the video games I’m sucking at playing, and my ult group BTS. I do talk about them. But the racism in fandom, from media… doesn’t go away? I, unlike racist fans of pallor, cannot ignore racism. I am literally subject to it. Beyond seeing it in the occasional fanwork, I’m literally subject to racist harassment from fandom.

Anyway, fans of color can’t escape the racism (whether on purpose or accidentally) in fandom or a piece of media because the thing that upsets or hurts us… is often supported by our co-fans. As a result, when we talk about it especially as an obstacle to our escapism into fandom, our upset is turned into harassment, aggression, and infringement on other people’s escapism… by outsiders.

But it’s not like we want to talk about this crap.

When viral fan art that is (accidentally, I always assume) racist comes across my timeline, I don’t think “oh great, I’m so excited to talk about this and get yelled at”. When a Korean idol walks out with the cultural appropriation fit, I don’t call my friends like “hey isn’t this exciting? I get to yell about this and get harassed”. And when I see fandom doing something, broadly, that I understand to be racist – not just because I’m a Black person, but because I literally worked on this shit in and out of college over a decade – I don’t get giddy. I enjoy the act of researching and writing because I am a nerd, but so much of my work needing to be about racism in fandom or media specifically?

What’s there to enjoy?

Seeing racism and having to document it?

The private quote tweets of all of my tweets?

The insults?

The rude ass indirects and quote retweets?

The stalking?

The one person who said they filed a police report against me?

The speculation about my personal (and sometimes sexual) life?

All the lies about my fandom behavior by people who cannot tell you what I actually like and currently create in fandom?

The attempts to get me fired by people who claim to be anti harassment?

Where’s the fucking fun about talking about racism in fandom?

The only people of color I know who have some level of fun and can benefit from talking about racism are the ones who actively leverage their identities as people of color (we’re still calling them POC TOO) against us fans of color who speak about it. And that’s it. Sure, they get clout and followers for pretending they’re being abused by a different POC saying a fandom is white or calling a fanbase racist, but they actually still get harassed when they try to speak in-community about racism.

None of us are ever able to escape into fandom and away from racism – not even the ones bootlicking as hard as they can. Because racist fans won’t even let their precious POC TOO inhabit spaces that are free of racism. They don’t even protect them… except from “antis” – both people being racist over ships (which happens, Genshin Impact fandom is proof of that) and… people like me talking about racism in fandom.

Anyway, I would love to escape into fandom because my offline life is currently very scary and stressful. But then I come to fandom and bitches are openly racist for no reason.

They refuse to stop being racist to the point where there’s clearly a Migratory Racist Fandom that moves from fandom conflagration to fandom conflagration, inserting itself into situations to insist that any issue a POC takes with a part of their fandom is the real racism, not the thing we’re actually talking about. They’re claiming fans of color talking about racism at any level are “antis” and akin to Nazis or TERFs and fandom at large… just lets them get away with it.

So far, I’ve seen these people bounce from fandom to fandom in order to defend cultural appropriation, whitewashing, and racist sexual stereotypes from “antis”.

Hell, half of the people going “and so antis have colonized OFMD fandom with their fake anti racism” don’t even go here. They haven’t watched the show and/or they’re not even making fan works.

They, unlike us fans of color talking about what they’re seeing in fandom spaces we’re actually in, are literally just here because defending racism in fandom is a fan activity like streaming for BTS or cosplaying your favorite character is.

They are enjoying getting to be racist for clout in fandom. They are rewarded for dismissing us. They are celebrated for contributing to the toxic, hostile, and racist conditions in fandom that make it impossible for fans of color to have the same kinds of escapism into fandom.

All while accusing us of being “anti fandom” for… complaining on our own time and in our own spaces about racism in fandom, a thing we cannot escape. We can’t tap out of “discourse” about racism in fandom because it’s not “discourse” to us? I’ve seen people be like “the only discourse I want to hear about in ___ fandom is [thing not about racism/barely even discourse]” as a “joke” but that’s the thing?

It’s not very funny.

Fans of color can’t escape into fandom. We can’t dodge “discourse” about racism in fandom. We can’t ignore the racism that slips into fanworks or is present in fan behaviors. We don’t have the luxury of “missing” racism in fandom and that’s why we talk about it amongst ourselves or to fandom.

But so many people pretend that we’re doing this for fun or for clout when it’s really… out of a hope that finally people will at least try to give a shit about how they make fandom hostile and horrible for fans of color.

Time and time again, tons of people in fandom claim that “fandom is supposed to be fun” at the same time that they snatch the fun away from fans of color who want to escape into fandom… but will settle for some kind of pause or self-reflection when it comes to the racism of fandom in the meanwhile. They claim that fans of color talking about racism are ruining fandom for them… even as they go out of their way to harass us for wanting a comparable positive fandom experience to theirs.

Why are they gatekeeping escapism this way?

And in defense of racism in fandom or media, very often…

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