This begins, as it often does, with a tumblr post.
Tumblr user allofthefeelings made a quick little post about power fantasies, framing them as the reason why fandom is the way it is with all these aggressive, fighty people. And I agree and disagree simultaneously. The entire post is so small that I am going to paste it below:
I think it’s really important to talk about how different people have different power fantasies.
- For some people, the idea of someone redeeming a villain is a power fantasy.
- For other people, the idea of a villain being defeated is a power fantasy.
- And for other people, the idea of a character owning their villainy is a power fantasy.
I would argue a lot of fandom conflicts re: villains come from people being unable to see that their fantasies, which put them in control of a narrative (and all three of these are designed to give the author or reader control of the narrative in different ways) are someone else’s horror stories.
Let’s get into it!
Allofthefeelings is correct that different people’s power fantasies contribute to an environment of fandom that’s hostile to people who don’t have that specific fantasy. The thing is, I think that we should build this out broadly to look beyond villains (which I think isn’t an incorrect approach but very limited despite that) to the ways people have, want, and grab for power within fandom spaces.
At the heart of it, a power fantasy is what makes you [creator and/or consumer] feel powerful. In fiction, it’s the overpowered hero or the really clever protagonist. However, I think there are application beyond fanworks where it can be applied to behavior and motivations within fandom. To me, it’s important to look at all the ways that comes across and how it shapes fandom interactions.
Tumblr user allofthefeelings taps into the villain discourse – something we see play out with Kylo Ren, Loki, Snape, and their respective fans – to give examples of the different ways people vibe with villains and how conflict develops.
For some people, they feel powerful when the narrative (which allows them to either “become” the villain or someone attached to them) gives the villain a hasty redemption arc where they can become the hero. For them, it’s the power in taming a beast and returning them to normalcy and peace. For others, the power fantasy comes in vanquishing the villain. From watching the bad guy get what’s coming to them in the storyline. For others still, the power fantasy comes from watching the villain embrace their dark side and becoming their best worst self. Because it’s powerful, to them, to become the monster that terrorizes the inept hero.
But let’s think beyond heroes and villains to how fans spend their time on social media. What is the power fantasy in fandom? What makes fans feel powerful? Of course, as allofthefeelings shows with villains, it’s a widely different set of data points with one main goal: feeling in control.
Fandom is a refuge for many people who don’t have power in their daily lives or who don’t have the power they want in the lives that they have. Social capital is one of the major currencies in fandom – more so than actual financial capital – because it grants fans power within their respective fandoms. Think about what we know about Big Name Fans (BNFs). These are people who have outsized power within different fandoms because they have access to cast/crew or because they create the “best” fanworks or because their headcanons are on point or because they have a popular discourse blog they use to fight strangers. They’ve scrambled for ounces of power within fandom and once a BNF gets it, they don’t let it go.
But how do they use that power?
Attributed to Lord Acton, the quote “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” kind of… speaks to fandom. What do people do with the power they get in fandom? Their power fantasy needs to be maintained. Their absolute control over the/ir fandom space has to continue.
They will do anything to make sure that nothing ruins what they have or gets in the way of what they want. Power in fandom is absolutely a corrupting influence because fandom doesn’t actually offer any checks and balances to keep people from gaining incredible power in fandom spaces, building cults of personality, and leveraging that power against people without power in fandom – primarily other queer fans or Black/brown fans in a given space.
Think about the discourse blogs that became super popular across the past five or six years of fandom. The ones who gain and wield power in fandom are primarily presenting themselves as pro fandom/fiction/shipping. They can gain thousands of followers in months just for screenshotting and/or dunking on “antis” in fandom, no measurable fanwork output in sight. They can influence the minds of many in fandom primarily because their engagement is based on positioning other queer fans (including fans of color talking solely about racism) as threats to fandom akin to the GOP or other fascists like TERFs or Nazis.
This devolves to the point of convincing people in fandom – including other people in power in fandom like actors or showrunners or the board of the AO3 – that being against racism in fandom is being against fandom as a whole. People are openly defending racism in fandom – racist stereotypes in fanworks and whitewashing – and they’re collecting clout (capital) for doing so.
Conversely, one of the things fans of color are always accused of when we talk about racism in fandom is… “playing the race card” because we want the power to control fandom.
Beyond being accused of doing this for clout, we’re accused of talking about different kinds of racism in fandom in a desperate bid or grab for power. However, fans of color do not have or get power in fandom through criticizing fandom. The only ways for fans of color to have or maintain power in fandom when it comes to talking about racism in fandom are through not questioning the status quo (creating fanworks without complaining about or even acknowledging the racism in fandom) or by actively reinforcing the status quo (POC TOO claiming racism doesn’t exist in fandom or that the ONLY racism is from “antis” or from POC criticizing racism).
If you’ve followed me on social media or on this site, you’ll know that within fandom I don’t… have power. I don’t want it either. What I have gotten is harassment from racists.
A power fantasy involves feeling powerful.
Fans of color do not feel powerful when we speak on racism. We feel isolated, at risk, and in danger from white fans and other fans of color. It doesn’t feel very powerful when we’re dealing with stalking, eying our inboxes and mentions for someone to call us slurs or insist that, somehow, we are the Real Racists ™ and making fandom worse… worse than the racists are.
And so, there’s a clear discrepancy here between what a power fantasy is, what people understand power fantasies to be, and who has access to bring their power to life even in these spaces. Fans of color are always accused of weaponizing our identities and the identities of people/characters of color to control others… but despite what Tumblr-style social justice would have you think… it doesn’t actually work like that? Not unless you’re supporting some wild shit that doesn’t make sense (like claiming being one kind of POC lets you speak for/over another because of similar pasts or… claiming that POC talking about whitewashing is colorism).
It’s important to ask yourself:
- Who has power in fandom?
- Who can wield power in fandom and how do they use it?
- What are ways people in fandom use to try to control others in fandom?
- Are people misrepresenting criticism (like of racism in a fandom) as a bid for control?
At the end of the day, power fantasies aren’t bad.
Not by default.
Not unless they lock-in and reinforce the fantasies of the already powerful or chase that specific kind of systemic or societal power. (Note the ideal fandom dream of being just as bad as white men/authors who supposedly don’t get criticized over their problematic content. That’s a power fantasy too and it’s a bad one.)
The thing is that power fantasies start being hard to manage when they go beyond an individual building their own space and their own rich inner world. When the power fantasy becomes reality and what makes you strong or what makes you feel powerful is… making another person feel small.
Screenshotting children to make fun of their concerns about a relationship in a popular anime or webtoon.
Private quoting an artist until they get anxious and then lock over “problematic” art.
Sending abuse to people through CuriousCat just because they feel differently about your thing.
Spreading rumors about a fan of color because you’re mad anyone would listen to them
Harassment, for many people in fandom, is a power fantasy in action. It provides them the space to control what other people do or how they do it. It makes them feel powerful to influence others’ perception of fandom, media, or how we interact with either thing.
And anything that gets in the way is to be met with a strong condemnation or a cruel abuse that silences them from people who have actual (social) power in the space and the numbers to shut down and silence others.
Overall, what makes power fantasies into a problem is when someone tries to enforce or weaponize their power fantasy [again, my most familiar brush with this is people who want to be “just as bad” as white men creatives] against other people to control how they can move or create in fandom. When their desire to be the most popular and powerful person in the space leads to them harming other vulnerable people for liking the “wrong” thing or criticizing racism in fandom. Unfortunately, that is the norm in fandom: where people try to protect their power fantasies by trying to control other people.