Equating fandom with objectification isn’t just wrong, it’s creepy.
So last night I was…I guess you can call it a witness to a conversation where someone was trying to defend the use of a term I’m not going to type here. I don’t really care about his arguments in favor of/against the use of the term as such. It’s not a term I would use, but the term is irrelevant to what I’m writing about. I had to think for a while about how to write this entry because I don’t particularly want to “call the person out.” I just want to talk about why something they said is dangerous and creepy.
Before I can do that, though, we have to get through a quick primer on psychology and feminist theory.
What is objectification? That’s a good place to start.
Google’s definition is: “Objectification is a notion central to feminist theory. It can be roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object.” Generally when it’s used in discourse, it’s accepted to mean “sexual object.” We can all agree that this is a pretty gross thing to do, right? Unfortunately, we’re enculturated to do it to some extent. Western society promotes objectification with such bullshit mottoes as “sex sells.”1
Now, of course, human beings are wired to have sexual fantasies. So this is where I want to draw some lines and talk about psychology, even though it’s all really messy in reality. Since we’re talking conceptually, we’re going to pretend we can, at least somewhat, compartmentalize these ideas. So we’re going to put “objectification” on the gross side of the line. We’re going to put “sexual fantasy” on the awesome side.
Still uncategorized then, we have “fantasies that objectify.” This one’s tricky, so we’re going to have to make a third section for it. This is one of those things that can go into either “awesome” or “gross” depending on what you do with it. It’s totally a normal act. People have fantasies where they objectify others for the sake of getting off all the goddamned time. I’ve had them. You’ve probably had them too. Ever had a dream where your favorite movie star was at your beck and call for sexual service? That’s one of these and it’s totally healthy.
The problem with these kinds of fantasies isn’t that people have them. It’s that people occasionally act on them in gross ways.
In this conversation I was in2 a participant said basically that the objectification of fictitious characters is totally fine. Paragraphs were spent basically defending every kind of fandom as some form of objectification. That makes fandom sound pretty fucking sketchy.
I’m a fan of lots of things. As a very tiny sample: I’m a fan of Metroid, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a band called BΔSTILLE, and the book Gone Girl. I’ve written some fan fiction about Iron Man, so I’m going to use that as the example here.
I participate, loosely, in the fan community around the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I know people who do elaborate cosplays, people who’ve written epic novel-length fan fiction, and people who’ve cut fan vids that make me wish music companies would hire them to make official videos. I wrote a few hundred words about one of Tony Stark’s shirts.3 The one thing in common, about everyone I know in the community, is that we don’t go around all day talking about how instead of saving the world, Pepper Potts should come service our genitals.
Never have I engaged with a non-creeper member of this fandom who would say such a thing. We might joke, occasionally, about how we’d like Tony to build a particle accelerator in our basements (wink wink nudge nudge ya know what I mean), but that’s it. Sure. Fan fic is quite explicit, but it tends to follow established narrative histories of the characters and usually works to tell a story about them (that includes some hot sex, because sexual fantasy is awesome remember). In fact, every non-creeper member of a fandom I’ve ever encountered, across the board, when asked has told me that being part of fandom is about appreciation and creativity. About the opportunity to be a part of this thing that inspires them or makes them feel something intense and wonderful.
Unfortunately, I’ve met a few creeper members of MCU fandom too. These are the people who start by talking about how Pepper’s strawberry blonde hair really gets them going. The problem? The people who tend to go on at length about that sort of thing in public also tend to be the people who will grab your ass when they walk past you in a crowded vendor’s hall, and if you say anything brush it off as an “accident.” These are the kind of people who “costumes aren’t consent” signs are generally aimed at. One person who gave me a fifteen minute monologue on how he wanted to see Pepper and Natasha throw down in that boxing ring, did it the whole time while staring at my boobs like they were made of grilled cheese sandwiches.
(An aside: I tried to think of a Tony Stark objectification story I could tell up there and I couldn’t. That’s part of what makes this behavior so fucking creepy. Because it is once again comprised of a majority who have institutional privilege thinking of a group that doesn’t as for their use and service.)
It wasn’t until last night that I’d seen someone say, however, that that is the point of fandom. I’d never heard someone say before that the point of fandom is to sit around and obsess publicly about what you want to masturbate to/over/about. I’d never heard someone trivialize the idea that objectification was bad in quite that way before.
As if the rabbit hole didn’t go deep enough, the argument tried to paper over the very real issues with objectification by arguing that since most people are doing it about fake characters, it’s totally fine. No one’s actually being hurt, so we’re cool, right?
Well, no. We’re not cool. We’re not cool because saying that fandom’s main purpose is to objectify characters is flying a creeper flag. It’s telling me that if you’re willing to objectify this fake person, I am probably also being objectified in your head and it is only a matter of time before that expresses itself in your actions. We’re not cool because when you say that you make it clear that it isn’t safe for me to encourage other women and girls to become fans of this thing because you’ll be objectifying them too.
Let’s be cool again, though. Let’s push back when people say things like that and tell them no, fans aren’t creepers and we don’t appreciate it when people try to paint us with that brush. Let’s tell the creepers hiding in our fandoms we don’t want that any more.
And then let’s go write some awesome fanfic where Pepper saves the world. Again.
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