How do you experience being a “fan”? Images of cheering for your favorite sports team or getting way too invested in the fates of fictional characters are probably filling your head right now. And you would think that, as someone who loves something so much that you will swear at the television screen when your team does poorly or camp out for days on end outside a cinema to get tickets to see a film, you would do everything possible to encourage others to enjoy the object of your affection. However, this isn’t always the case. I’ve written before about the negative effects of gendering culture. But I did not address how people can react when someone not of the “correct” gender expresses her fandom. From bewilderment to attempts at exclusion, many women are finding that the greatest barriers to fully enjoying their passions are other so-called fans.
I am going to focus on two areas of fandom, both of which are “traditionally” associated with men: sports and genre fiction. Both of these areas of interest have long attracted women as well as men (in fact, many areas within genre fiction tend to be considered “female” by our society, such as fantasy, fairy tales, and Sailor Moon-esque anime series), but the prevailing perception of sports fans and fans of genre fiction is male. The two fandoms present very different ideas of masculinity, and yet both have a very hard time accepting women as fans.
Let’s start with sports, which is among the most masculine institutions in our society. Most professional sports leagues in the United States only allow men to compete, and leagues for female athletes are clearly marked as “other”: there is the National Basketball Association and the Women’s National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the (now-defunct) National Women’s Hockey League, the Professional Golfers’ Association and the Ladies Professional Golf Association. On the spectator side, the prevailing image of a sports fan is a big, red-blooded dude who wants to drink beer and eat nachos with his buddies while watching the Big Game. Very often, women are depicted as killjoys who would dare to ask their men to do something with them other than watch the big game.
In a recent article in the Canadian general interest magazine The Walrus, Stacey May Fowles examines what it’s like to be a female fan in a male-dominated fandom. She begins by telling a story about the time a Rogers Centre usher gave her an unsolicited lesson in how the game of baseball works (three strikes make an out, four balls make a walk), then proceeded to detail how she is forced to use caution in deciding where to sit or what days to attend games, and how male sportswriters treat fans who are women as a strange other.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Fowles’ article is when she states that she has had to determine which seating sections of the Rogers Centre she can sit in with the lowest likelihood of being harassed. She even tells female readers what days of the week to avoid going to games. Because she is a woman, Fowles is prevented from fully enjoying watching a game she loves because she must take precautions to minimize (not eliminate) harassment from male fans.
Fowles also addresses why she believes women have yet to be accepted as baseball fans. Fowles analyzes an article written by a male sportswriter who expresses quaint surprise that a growing number of young women are interested in “ ‘dad’s game.’ ” Fowles notes that the sportswriter selectively chooses quotes that emphasize that women don’t really like baseball, they’re just there because the patio is nice or they can people watch. The writer uses two quotes that explicitly state that the women are not there to watch the game, but no quotes from women who express a love or deep understanding of the game. Fowles explains that this type of reporting further ingrains in people’s minds that women are not “real” fans of baseball, which goes toward keeping women out of sportswriting/sportscasting roles and puts the burden on women to “prove” that they are true fans.
The idea that women must prove themselves as fans has been at the forefront of a recent idea pervading genre fiction conventions. Recently, the term “fake geek girl” has been coined to describe (often attractive) women who are not true fans of science fiction/fantasy/anime, but attend conventions in skimpy outfits for the purpose of meeting guys. No really, enough men who are part of a subculture that is stereotypically associated with social awkwardness believed that attractive women were so desperate to hook up with them that they would pretend to be fans of the subculture and dress in revealing clothes that the term became a meme. Fortunately, by the time of this writing, the term has been all but discredited. But the fact remains that fans and creators alike were afraid that their clubhouse was being invaded by women who didn’t belong. (Yes, Tony Harris, creator of Starman and artist to Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina, wrote a Facebook post railing against the scourge of the fake geek girl, in which he accused women who attend cons of being sluts and attention seekers. Although because I brought up Vaughan, I feel I must plug two of his comic book series, which have great feminist themes and characters: Y: The Last Man, the story of the last male human on the planet, and Runaways, which features a majority-female superhero team.) Check out this great video by the Doubleclicks responding to the concept (still images from the video can be found here):
The “fake geek girl” concept is just the tip the sexist iceberg present in the genre fiction community. There is no shortage of tales of sexual harassment occurring at cons, in spite of very strict anti-harassment policies. Not even the women who appear at cons as panelists are immune from the sexism running through the fan community. In a Grantland article, A.V. Club TV editor Todd VanDerWerff tells the story of attending a panel at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con entitled “Women Who Kick Ass.” Panelists included Katee Sackhoff, Michelle Rodriguez, and Tatiana Maslany, who discussed what it’s like to be female action heroes and their experience with sexism in Hollywood. VanDerWerff states that the crowd started out respectful, but soon became hostile after Rodriguez used the term “destructive male culture” to illustrate an answer to “how women need to take more agency in telling their own stories.” The crowd began to heckle and jeer the panelists, and it became so bad that instead of posing for photographs after the panel was completed, which is standard operating procedure for Comic Con panels, the panelists hurriedly left the stage. These people, who stood in Comic Con’s famously long lines to see a panel specifically about women, became so angry and afraid of the role of kick-ass women that they would verbally abuse the very people they came to see.
Why are people who love genre fiction and attend cons so afraid of women showing their fandom? Rachel Edidin, an associate editor at Dark Horse Comics, argues that unlike sports, which our culture has deemed masculine, the love of science fiction, fantasy, and other types of genre fiction has been declared less-than-masculine, and those who would choose to identify themselves through this fandom must find some way to assert their masculinity. As Edidin says:
Geek culture is a haven for guys who can’t or don’t want to fall in step with the set of cultural trappings and priorities of traditional manhood in America. At least in theory, geek culture fosters a more cerebral and less violent model of masculinity, supported by a complementary range of alternative values. But the social cost of that alternative model—chosen or imposed—is high, and it’s often extorted violently—socially or physically. The fringe is a scary place to live, and it leaves you raw and defensive, eager to create your own approximation of a center. Instead of rejecting the rigid duality of the culture they’re nominally breaking from, geek communities intensify it, distilled through the defensive bitterness that comes with marginalization. And so masculinity is policed incredibly aggressively in geek communities, as much as in any locker room or frat house.
These sorts of reactions further emphasize why assigning gender to culture is pointless and negative. Declaring sports or science fiction to be masculine may tell women that they should not enjoy those things, but it will not prevent women from enjoying them. Nor should it, as people should be free to pursue their fandoms without pressure from social stigma. There is nothing gained by excluding 50% of the population from participating in certain aspects of our society’s culture. No one benefits through these exclusionary practices: male fans are denied the companionship of their female counterparts; all fans are denied women’s perspectives on the fandom; team owners and content creators are denied revenue from female consumers; and female fans must fight to be accepted while simultaneously carrying the burden of learning how best to minimize harassment and other negative showings of “masculinity.” Like with society as a whole, we have created subcultures in which women are not only mistreated, it is up to women to learn what parts of the stadium/convention to avoid and how to put up with harassment. So I leave you with this question: if we cannot make stadiums or convention halls, which are densely attended, brightly lit, and crawling with security guards, safe and respectful places for women, how can we possibly make the world at large safer and more respectful?