When it comes to modern pop culture, few words more aptly describe it than “fandom.” It’s possible that some people have interacted with fandoms before without knowing it. There are many mainstream fandoms such as the “Harry Potter” fandom, which often refers to themselves as Potterheads, the “Doctor Who” fandom, nicknamed Whovians, and many more which focus on media such as DC Comics, BBC’s “Sherlock,” “Supernatural,” Starkid Productions, and even sitcoms like “Friends.”
According to an article from the Grinnell College discussing subcultures and sociology, “Fan culture, or fandom, is a term which describes communities built around a shared enjoyment of an aspect of popular culture.” What makes fandoms so distinctive is the way in which fans act not only as a consumer of media, but also as creators.
You don’t have to go far online to see examples of this, from video edits and cosplay photos on Instagram pages dedicated to the owner’s favorite character, to websites which host thousands of pieces of fan fiction. When it comes to fandoms though, you also don’t have to look far to find examples of gatekeeping.
According to Jessie Earl, a writer and content creator for Pride, gatekeeping is, “Placing arbitrary limits on what it means to be part of a group.”
Gatekeeping is present in nearly every fandom, but it appears especially prevalent in “geek” and “nerd” culture.
According to Swapna Krishna of SYFY Wire, a science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror media online publication an increase in gatekeeping within the Star Trek fandom occurred after the release of the TV show “Star Trek: Discovery.”
“There’s been a disturbing trend among the ranks of Star Trek fandom that has turned its back on the show,” Krishna wrote, “It’s not enough that they don’t like it; they’ve decreed that anyone who enjoys the show isn’t a real Star Trek fan.”
“Star Trek: Discovery” received various backlash due to seeming continuity errors, as well as having what some believed to be an overly inclusive cast of characters. I saw a similar backlash occur after the release of Captain Marvel. While the movie had flaws in its storytelling it seemed that the hate it received focused not on the writers or the story, but instead on the character and Brie Larson who played her. Although it is understandable to dislike a piece of media it is alarming that often the source of that dislike in fandom culture is an irritation with diversity. If you enjoy that diversity as a female fan and are excited to see inclusivity brought to your fandom then often you are labeled as a fake fan by those who don’t want that diversity.
The idea of real versus fake fans comes up often in relation to fandom gatekeeping.
“Anytime I bring up liking Marvel or X-Men to my male cousins, they always bombard me with trivia questions about it, just to see if I really am a fan,” Kara Oldham, an undeclared freshman at Missouri State University, said. “When it comes to theater, if you show any sign of preferring newer musicals and plays to the older then you are immediately labeled as not actually being a proper fan of theater.”
I have experienced this myself many times. One memory that has stuck with me clearly is that of a boy I didn’t know approaching me while I was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the symbol of one of the Winter Soldier. Unprompted, he told me I only liked Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier because I must be attracted to the actor, before calling me a “fake geek girl” and walking away before I even had time to respond.
As someone who spent their childhood reading comic books and watching every superhero movie and TV show I could get my hands on, I found this irritating to say the least. But what concerned me more than anything were the words “fake geek girl.” While many fans have experienced gatekeeping in fandoms, regardless of gender, it is difficult to deny that femme fans face the brunt of fandom gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping and the femme fan
Oldham suggested she thinks much of the gatekeeping she experiences is on the basis of gender.
“If you are a female fan in a male dominated fandom, then they will do everything to try and make it seem that you don’t know anything about the fandom,” Oldham said.
In a 2012 blog post for Geek Out Blogs, a blog page associated with CNN Lifestyle, author Joe Peacock writes about several instances of gatekeeping specifically targeted at femme fans.
“There is a growing chorus of frustration in the geek community with — and there's no other way to put this — pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention,” Peacock said. “San Diego Comic-Con is the largest vehicle, but it's hardly the only convention populated with ‘hot chicks’ wearing skimpy outfits simply to get a bunch of gawking geeks’ heads to turn, just to satisfy their hollow egos.”
While Peacock does go on to clarify that he does believe not all female fans are taking interest in geek culture to draw attention from their male counterparts, a large portion of his blog post dismisses the legitimateness of women as fans of geek and nerd culture.
This response to women in fandoms strikes me as incredibly misogynistic, largely because Peacock seems to connect how pretty he thinks a woman is to his idea of how legitimate of a fan they are. Rather than accepting that geek culture was finding its way to a new audience, something that certainly was happening in 2012 as the first Avengers movie was released, he suggests these female fans are seeking out conventions to receive attention. Although he doles out numerous platitudes assuring his readers in defense of women he knows in pop culture, he just as quickly dismisses mass amounts of women he has likely never met, saying they are attending conventions to satisfy their egos.
This is far from the only instance of gatekeeping aimed directly at femme fans. In an article for Fandom Spotlight, a fandom-focused editorial website, author Yali Perez suggests that as nerd culture has become more mainstream, female fans, as well as non-binary femme presenting fans, have found themselves being cast out of fandoms.
But just because gatekeeping is woven into society as we know it does not mean that it is here to stay.
In an interview with Rewire, a non-profit publication, feminist writer and pop culture historian Jennifer K. Stuller said, “Women have been claiming space, establishing space and setting a tone for that space.”
One way in which femme fans have been working to make fandom culture safer for femme fans is through the nonprofit organization Geeks for CONsent. Geeks for CONsent fights to eliminate harassment of femme fans at cons, especially cosplayers.
According to the organization’s Facebook page, “[Geeks for CONsent] are committed to our goal of achieving a world free from harassment, whether it be based on our genders, the fact that we’re in costume, or that we like things like wearing pointy ears in public as we make the Vulcan Salute to one another.” They do so through urging conventions to take a stand against harassment and provide a safer convention experience for femme fans.
Geeks for CONsent issued a petition on change.org urging San Diego Comic Con to create a formal anti-harassment policy for their 2014 convention, a petition which garnered over 3,000 signatures before it was closed. The petition’s description notably mentions that other conventions were already making strides towards preventing harassment at their conventions, specifically Awesome Con, held in Washington DC, which has an anti-harassment team and an advertised zero-tolerance policy for harassment.
“When more conventions start taking this matter seriously, others will feel pressure to follow suit.” the organization’s Facebook states, “Every voice has the power to help transform a culture that is permissive of harassment into a culture that equally values and respects all con-goers.”
This page and much of the organization’s social media has been inactive since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I believe this movement was just the start of femme fans everywhere fighting for their place in fandoms.
Everyday I see more femme fans willing to stand up for themselves in the face of gatekeeping. It thrills me to see people fight for the things they enjoy and to defend their right to embrace their interests and identities. While I have spent much of my life being called a “fake geek girl” and pushed out of fandoms of things I enjoy, I can honestly say that if femme fans petitioning for safer atmospheres at conventions and fighting for their passion are fake fans too, then I’m in wonderful company. If that is what makes a fake fan, then I’m a fake fan, and proud to be one.
Follow Lillian Durr on Twitter, @weird_wondurr
Subscribe to The Standard's free weekly newsletter here.