Fandom – understood as progressive, transformative, queer, generative, feminist, etc – is simultaneously a lawless space where anything goes or else nothing will… and a space where we have to have rigid rules to protect people from everything from actual harassment to mild complaining or criticism in someone else’s space. For the past four or five years, we’ve seen an increase in people longing for the “LiveJournal Era”, a time when people supposedly were nicer to each other and didn’t fight each other over ships.
That era they’re longing for? Never actually existed and it was moderated in ways that continue to be damaging to fans to this day.
I first talked about this longing for Fandom Past explicitly in June 2017, writing in this piece about the reaction to me being critical of fandom while Black, that:
We deserve our seat at the table – the seat we’ve had since fandom existed as a mere concept – and we shouldn’t have to fight to get to it because it has always been ours.
But fandom being like it is, a place where nostalgia for a past that never truly existed beyond curated spaces and where the desire for unquestioned pleasure are more important than the feelings of actual people of color, means that sometimes fans of color have little fighting to do in order to remind white fans that this isn’t their space alone.
Fandom has never actually been a space exclusively at the whims of White Westerners. It’s more than white-dude slash ships and feminism so transparent that it could double as tracing paper. It’s never been a complaint-free vacuum unencumbered by the real world’s societal problems.
I’ve since spent significant time since then pushing back on the way people’s nostalgia for queer/feminist fandom of ages past ignore the reality of what fandom has always been like. Especially for fans of color in fandom even when we kept our heads down. (See: Fleeting Frustrations #8: Revisionist Fandom History Strikes Again, “Fandom is supposed to be fun.”, Turning Red Shows Fandom at Its Most Unrealistic, and Fleeting Frustrations # 7: Archive Frenzy and Being (Un) Grateful To Our Fannish Foremothers (Stuck In 2002) for some examples.)
One of the things that comes up when people make their hit tweets/viral tumblr posts longing for eras of fandom long past (that never were as nice as they claim) are the three rules/laws of fandom. To hear people tell it, these rules were put into law back when the first zine was printed in Trek fandom back when you had to mail things to people. However, the first instance of these rules/laws put together is… a Tumblr post dating back to 2016 after the ship wars (actual, imagined, and misrepresented) that followed Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It’s not a “fandom old” anything except the fan in question has been around and probably seen some things.
Here are the three laws that tumblr user ozhawkauthor put together:
- Don’t Like; Don’t Read (DL;DR)
- Your Kink Is Not My Kink (YKINMK)
- Ship And Let Ship (SALS)
If you’re wondering if that post focuses on fandom behaviors unrelated to shipping, kink, or whatever, well… it doesn’t. The laws also don’t allow for nuance or critique or the understanding that the people who are using these “laws” in an attempt to control fandom… aren’t following their own rules. They’re just trying to make everyone else obey the rules. (I don’t necessarily mean ozhawkauthor here because the initial messaging of the post makes sense in its context given the nightmares of 2016 fandom spaces. However, the aftermath and how those rules are reified and interpreted as Fandom Old Doctrine… That needs to be unpacked.)
Additionally, the very idea of setting up or enforcing up these kinds of laws for fandom is concerning. Especially because none of these rules are actually approached in a nuanced way or try to protect fans outside of what they like, ship, and desire. Additionally, they’re used by many fans as a smokescreen for bigotry or harassment. Once a fan has “broken” one of those laws, that means they need to be “corrected” or punished by fans with actual power within fandom – the ones who aggressively uphold and enforce fannish status quos about content creation, criticism, and complaining.
Let’s look at those three laws and what they should mean… and how they’re often actually used in fandom spaces.
Don’t Like; Don’t Read (DL; DR)
What It Should Mean: If you don’t like something and you know it, you shouldn’t read it. Don’t like incest? Why are you reading that tagged Wincest fic? Not a fan of age-play? Why’d you read a story with that tag? Don’t like criticism of fandom behaviors or content? Why the heck are you on my website? DL; DR is supposed to be a way to self-police in the colloquial sense, a way of protecting your peace as a reader so that you don’t consume content that you find distressing, disturbing, or annoying.
What Fandom Takes It As: Unfortunately, what fandom has chosen to take from “Don’t Like; Don’t Read is… if you dislike something, you can never speak of it. Let’s say you dislike incest in fiction because of your own trauma. You can’t, for example, make a thread about the popularity of incest in fandom and how it makes you feel to see eroticized incest in fandom… because someone will decide to tell you not to read… a thing you’re already not reading. Or if you’re a fan of something, and you see someone quoting your tweet or a friend’s tweets to be insulting… you’re supposed to pretend you didn’t see it? You’re supposed to ignore harassment? Okay.
(Also, wildly, there’s an aspect of this where if you’re trying to talk about a bigoted thing in fandom (for hypothetical example, an erotic story about the Belgian Congo and the vile atrocities committed there), someone will actually tell you… that you have to read it to get what the story is about and that once you’ve read it and are criticizing it, that you should’ve kept away from reading it.)
No matter how you swing it, DL; DR is often used to try and silence other people by telling them they shouldn’t be talking about this thing… because they shouldn’t have read it. However, this often comes from people who actively seek out things they dislike. They’re the ones term-searching for antis to fight with and who camp in the mentions or indirects of people like me in order to screencap content to enter Fight Fandom with.
No one should read what they dislike in fandom – especially when the goal is to then turn that dislike into content that fuels Fight Fandom – but at the same time, it is hypocritical to position that as a hard rule that only some people have to adhere to. If people shouldn’t read clearly tagged erotic content that goes against their norms… people who hate criticism of fandom or media on any level need to stop being rewarded for searching it out and turning it into a whole thing.
Your Kink Is Not My Kink (YKINMK)
What It Should Mean: Often coming along with the tagline lf “And That’s Okay”, Your Kink Is Not My Kink is a fandom rule that’s often used to say that no one should talk about someone else’s kink in a critical or negative way because we all have kinks that someone finds objectionable. On the surface, I get it. Kink can be complicated. There are things I like in fiction that I wouldn’t participate in offline and vice versa. There are kinks some people find highly erotic that I would frown heavily at. The goal of this rule is to tell people “hey, you don’t have to like my kink/I don’t have to like your kink… but all of that is fine, we don’t need to harass each other”.
What Fandom Takes It As: If you have a critical thought in your mind about kink as a whole (or a specific kink) as performed in fandom… you must be a fascist out to sanitize the internet. Even if all you’re saying is that for you, a specific kink as done in fandom hits up against systemic issues or is rarely handled or written well.
Critical thinking is necessary and I wish people would pause to do more of it. Not all kinks are made or portrayed equally in fandom and it’s okay for people to say they find a kink appalling especially if they’re not bringing that to the folks who like it. If they come to you (or indirect you/your crew), they’re an asshole and you get to subtweet, block, and mute them. but people are allowed to express critical thoughts about a kink without it automatically being harmful to you, a person they don’t know and aren’t talking to. You can use your best judgment there about how to protect your peace without saying that no one gets to say “I don’t like _____” or else they’re automatically a bible thumping evangelical.
I don’t like raceplay in fiction or offline life. If this is a surprise to you… how. For me, raceplay as presented is often racists going out of their way to be racist. It’s not role reversal or a healing exploration of identity, it’s about privileged people getting to reenact bigotry with an erotic bent. Even Slave Play – which was written by a queer Black man – prioritizes whiteness in its portrayal of raceplay and erotic slavery in kink. I get to say “I don’t like this because _______” even if the blank space wasn’t actually a long-explored unpacking due to prior writing and offline experiences. Like, bro, there are some kinks I dislike for various reasons, and actually… I get to say that on my own and in my own space. So do you.
Your kink isn’t going to be everyone’s kink and they get to say that they dislike or have issues with the kink… as long as they’re not doing it in a way that is set up to hurt you (ex: quote retweeting/otherwise sharing your art to insult you, screenshotting and indirecting you on Twitter, reblogging your story with implications about your kink practices). Not everything on the internet is about you, and people get to say, “So I dislike this kink and think ______”. It’s not a rule that means you don’t get to be a part of fandom or are sucking at fandom or kink automatically.
Ship And Let Ship (SALS)
What It Should Mean: “Oh, you like _____? Well, I like _____ more so I’m gonna mute your ship name so I don’t see it! But we’re still cool, I hope?”. Ship and Let Ship is really surface level solid advice for fandom spaces especially now where we’re all on the same platforms and privacy controls are ALL LOCKED DOWN, NO OUTSIDERS and WOW THE PRESIDENT COULD POSSIBLY SEE MY TWEETS. People absolutely get to have NoTPs – the direct opposite of a One True Pairing (OTP), NoTPs are ships a person just can’t stand – and those NoTPs shouldn’t interfere with other people’s shipping.
What Fandom Takes It As:
I find Ship And Let Ship, like all of these rules, poorly enforced. Take the Star Wars fandom for example. No one was letting people Ship and Let Ship. Rey/Kylo shippers were getting dunked on for claiming they saw common villain/hero romance tropes in the first two films, and Finn/Rey shippers had Rey/Kylo shippers crowing about how Rey “friendzoned” Finn and creating/sharing meta about how toxic and gross Finn was. But even though everyone was breaking the rule – notable for a very long time was how Rey/Kylo shippers did put ship hate into the main tags without use of an anti tag on tumblr even when that worked – who gets punished exclusively by fandom at large?
Heck, how about the fact that you can’t tweet “I don’t like enemies to lovers relationships as fandom does it because people be shipping a hero with the villain who murdered their entire family in front of them”… without hundreds of shippers (of what? Of anything… but yes mostly Rey/Kylo, Hannigram, or Darklina, sorry) coming to tell you that you actually hate women, queers, POC, etc. because you find the dynamics disturbing or frustrating as they’re laid out by the shippers.
Ship and let ship isn’t supposed to be used to shut down random people complaining about ships or shipping tropes. It’s supposed to be a way to maintain friendships within fandoms if the ship isn’t that big a dealbreaker. I don’t have actual issues with Rey/Kylo as a ship (just with the evolution of Kylo and the racist fandom) so when my friends do ship it, I move on unless it’s omegaverse-related and then I dive in. In the same vein, when my friends see me shipping an RPF pairing, they go “lalalala” and keep it moving because they respect that I’m into this thing they can’t stand.
It’s not supposed to be a method of mass control, none of these rules truly are.
And yet –
One common note about all three of these rules is that they’re all about control. While the initial usage makes sense as a form of protection for creators and fans – because who wants a stranger or a close friend being a dick over fandom – they’ve evolved to a point where their main function is to control others.
If you comment on, for example, sexy savage TM stereotypes in the Our Flag Means Death fandom’s approach to Ed “Blackbeard” Teach… people will roll up like “uh… why are you kink shaming me”. If you comment about how omegaverse often relies on bio and gender essentialist worldbuilding that layers misogyny onto characters that are… not women or femmes, people will show up to tell you “well who told you to read the thing since you dislike it”. (Me… I’m the one who told me to read the thing.)
And of course, think about how many people who dogpile others for saying “I dislike ____ because ____” because their identity is bound up in whatever the pairing is.
It’s all about forcing others to have the same beliefs in fandom as them and to behave the same way as them in the name of protecting fandom from… other fans.
But then, only some fans are expected to behave in these ways and, like I’ve pointed out previously: pairings with Black characters are never respected across fandoms. People can and do say whatever they want about those and then turn around and call the Black fans pushing back at what is generally open antiblackness “antis”.
The thing is that rules/laws are necessary for protecting people within a shared space or fandom community. However, the three rules/laws of fandom as we’re told they exist and as they’re used, may protect some fans, but they serve solely to control others. They are utilized to silence criticism and complaining done in those people’s spaces.
Fandom is huge. Why are these rules of fandom most commonly done to shut up people who… aren’t speaking to wider fandom? People have no power and barely any presence in fandom? (I am hypervisible in fandom, but even with my column I am not as widely read as other fandom journalists because my work often challenges fandom instead of cheerfully celebrating it! I don’t have the presence people assume of me and chances are… neither do most critical people in fandom!)
Why are repeat offenders – who often break the rules to defend fandom and silence marginalized people within fandom for clout – never punished as harshly as people just… complaining on their own?
Here are some suggestions for we could do instead of those three simplistic, content-focused rules that privilege a single portion of fans weild without nuance:
- Think about how our personal boundaries and turn-ons are personal. Literally protect your space and refuse to wade into waters you haven’t tested before. If someone dis/likes something you like/dislike… block them. It doesn’t have to be a whole thing even if you hate the thing.
- Stop screenshotting people. I am absolutely guilty of this and I’m trying to pull back from it unless absolutely necessary for my documentation of racism in fandom. Sometimes, people just have hot takes. They get to have them as much as I get to block them for it. Instead of screenshotting and running to repost or deliver to a discourse account… how about muting or blocking the person and moving on?
- Make your own private spaces where you can celebrate or criticize without having to deal with people harshing whatever you’re doing. Whether that’s a private discord server with 10 of your best friends, a twitter group chat, a dreamwidth account, or a locked twitter… do what you need to in order to protect your joy and introspection.
- If someone is making a broad criticism of something in fandom (the evolution of “enemies to lovers” in fandom or racism as a fan activity, for example), measure your reaction. If you’re frothing with rage because you think fans of color are criticizing whitewashing for clout… a) you might be a racist and b) there, you have something to work on within yourself.
- Conversely, if someone likes a thing you loathe… check your response to them. Chances are that you’re strangers or barely acquaintances with this person. You can’t know why they like the thing and you can’t make them change it. If you have a problem, block them and journal about it rather than being cruel to a person on the internet that’s probably going through their own shit.
I do think fans need to be better to each other and to ourselves… I just don’t think those three rules at the very top are how we’re going to get that to happen.
What do you think are better rules/laws/practices for fandom?