Curator’s note: This week we’re focusing on meta that considers the relationship of transformative fandom/fan works and canon, beginning with saathi1013’s examination of the ‘spotlight effect‘ in media and fanworks.
So imagine a crowd of people, all standing in one place. Here’s a nice “generic” image* for you:
Okay, now pretend that there’s a spotlight shining on them, like so:
Now, imagine that the little people in the center of the spotlight are how media represents people. The little figures in the middle are the focus. They get the most screen time, the most character development and plotlines and nuance and basically are granted a fuller spectrum of humanity in their depiction. Their faults have greater context, and as such, the narrative (and the audience) is more likely to be forgiving of their errors.
With me so far?
The people on the edges of the ‘spotlight’ are usually supporting characters, with less screen time, more two-dimensionality, less sympathy from the narrative unless it serves the overall plotline, less consistency in their portrayal, and so on.
The people you can barely see in the gray area? might as well be cardboard cutouts for all the attention they get within the story. These characters are the most likely to be caricatures, defined by a single characteristic or motive.
In ensemble shows, you’re likely to have more characters in the middle of the ‘spotlight,’ but there are often still ‘leader’-type characters among the group (see: Buffy Summers, Jeff Winger, many of the people surnamed ‘Shepard’/’Sheppard’/’Shepherd’ in a bunch of genre shows like Lost and SGA, and so on).
Now, here’s the tricky bit. From a narrative standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with this structure. It’s useful, it’s easy for writers to create and for audiences to understand, and it’s cheap to produce.
But from a meta standpoint, it must be pointed out that most characters given the ‘spotlight’ are white cis hetero men. Conventionally attractive white cis hetero women are probably the second ring out, and then it goes downhill from there, with people of multipleminority identities often not allowed on the ‘stage’ at all.
Which is total and complete bullshit, let’s all agree.
Now brace yourself.
In an earlier post, I talked about fanon as a fractal. Which is true, to an extent, but the majority of fandom behavior acts in a far simpler way: as a kaleidoscope. We pick a focus for our stories/art/conversations/etc, reflect a portion of canon around it, and create something new:
(why yes, I am Amused by all the little figures that look like they’re kissing. That was a happy accident.)
The products of fandom can turn out to be more interesting and colorful than canon, certainly, but nine times out of ten fandom reflects what it sees. This is not to say that fandom is not valuable: we examine everything before this reflective transformation occurs, and keep what we believe are the ‘best’ parts of canon – or the most necessary, according to our goals – and discard the chaff.
But most of the time fandom reflects the same spotlight that the media does. There is a hyperfocus on white cis het males, and while slash can add ‘queerness’ where there was none in the original text, fandom often seems remarkably uncreative when it comes to ‘shifting the spotlight’ to other characters.
There are exceptions to this rule, certainly, but the exceptions are rarer and more difficult to find, especially in Tumblr fandom, where the behemoth of SuperWhoAvengerTrekWhateverLock kind of katamaris everything into its path.
It’s not just Tumblr, either. See also: statistical analysis of AO3 with pretty charts.
During a panel called ‘Queering the Text’ at WisCon, the perennial issue of ‘why isn’t there more femmeslash’ came up. Two answers from the audience were interesting:
(1) What if we just want to use slash to ‘play’ with male sexual agency?
This confounded me, because why would a creative community whose primary purpose is (seemingly) to transform text in radical ways accept the false premise that men have a monopoly on sexual agency?
(2) What if I don’t like the female characters we’re given in popular media?
This is totally fair, on one level. But again: fandom transforms texts – we can expand the fanonical narrative for a female character as easily as we can for a male character, but rarely do with as much regularity.
Why are male characters more often ‘liked’ by fandom than female characters, even when they’re given relatively equal importance? Why is fandom more likely to ‘invent’ an elaborate and sympathetic background for a supporting male character but then dismiss a female character who is his equal (or better!) in the narrative as ‘uninteresting’?
There are statistics that show that fandom has a MUCH greater than average percentage of queer women, so it can’t just be chalked up to heterosexual ‘frustrated housewives’ and ‘hormonal teenage girls’ with raging crushes on these men. That’s oversimplistic to the point of insulting.
I think the Spotlight Effect explains this, in part. Female characters are often considered less ‘likable’ than male ones because they aren’t given the ‘spotlight’ in the same way. See: male gaze in media portrayals, women in refrigerators, Bechdel testing, and so on. There is a smaller range of roles for female characters (how many are pretty much relegated to the role of ‘the girlfriend’?), and there is a tiny, tiny range of physical types to choose from.
And media has trained us to reflect this, so that given a male supporting character vs a female one of equal (or better) standing, fandom will prefer the male character nine times out of ten. Genocidal or cannibalistic villains will be preferred by fandom over ‘good’ or heroic female characters.
As I’ve said elsewhere:
We treat our male characters as if they are ‘real’ (not that we BELIEVE that they are real, but we treat them as if they are), but do not extend the same consideration and respect to the female characters.
Now – this is SUPER IMPORTANT – this doesn’t just go for women, but all those who don’t fit the ‘white cis het male’ mold. Characters of color get shit from media and fandom – WoC having it worse than MoC, unsurprisingly, but both get less love than white women. Canonical queer characters will go overlooked in favor of ‘queering’ het dudes. Thin women > fat women. Trans/nonbinary characters are barely allowed on the media ‘stage’ and so there are few for fandom to pick from, and even fewer who aren’t Tragic or problematically-depicted in other ways. ”Crazy”** is treated as a joke, a cardboard cutout, or an excuse for Epic Angst (not, like, an everyday reality that a ton of real actual people deal with). Same for physical disabilities – whether visible or no. And so on (I know I’ve missed a lot of minority identities like aces, aros, &tc – but an exhaustive list would be its own post. I apologize if I’ve excluded anyone)
As for characters that fit more than one or two of these categories, it’s almost impossible to find them on the stage at all, let alone given the spotlight in their own narrative. If you do find a story like that, then good fucking luck finding a fandom, because people are too busy building massive dash-eating fandoms for the shows/movies/etc that have their spotlights on white cis het dudes (which, let us not forget, get the biggest releases/budgets and more marketing and are distributed more widely, so as an audience, we’re more likely to see, say, Iron Man than Beasts of the Southern Wild).
So, this is the tangle: media projects a hierarchy where white cis het men are given primary consideration —> fandom reflects that hierarchy. And in some cases, media with strong feedback relationships with its audience/fanbase will then cater to the fanbase, creating an ‘echo chamber’ effect of white dude importance.
It’s not so surprising, then, that every now and then we’ll hear some douchecanoe spout off some line like “straight white men are the default – they’re more ‘universally relatable.’” What is surprising is how angry people in fandom will get over that sentiment while simultaneously reinforcing that same internalized hierarchy that media feeds us. (for more on internalization, read #3 on my Meta² post)
Yes, we absolutely do need more representation of minorities in the center of the media spotlight. But fandom is a place tailor-made to reinvent canon at whim – so why do our ‘whims’ all too often reinforce white male supremacy?
This, then, is our challenge:
It’s not easy – I fail more often than I succeed myself, but the goal here is to always improve. My metafandom refrain is ‘fail better’ because it acknowledges that everyone is going to fuck up at some point. But hopefully we each/all can learn from our mistakes and ‘fail better’ next time.
Here’s to next time. *raises glass*
* “generic” is in quotes for a reason. I made these images in 5 minutes. And yes, the fact that they are all blue ‘washroom dudes’ kind of works with my point.
** “crazy” is often used as a lazy catchall term in fandom to represent a lot of things – ‘neuroatypical’/’neurodivergent’ (?) &/or ‘persons with mental disabilities’ is probably the better word choice here, but I wanted to use “crazy” as a deliberate reflection of Fandom Doin It Rong. I know how damaging casually dismissive word choices can be, and am using “crazy” in quotes because I see fandom using that word incorrectly and want to call it out specifically.
“The ‘Spotlight Effect’ in Media and Fandom” ©saathi1013, originally posted on June 20, 2013