Interspectional Rewind: Celebrity, Social Media and the Responsibility of Fandom Leadership

Building Communities in Fandom, part 2 Interspectional

So you’ve answered the call to be an active fan. You’ve fought the trolls and won. You’ve stood by your friends when they fought their own battles and together you are all standing strong. But now, they come to you, saying that they need last thing from you. As these are the friends that have become your family, of course you reply, “Anything.” And then they say one of the scariest things you have ever heard.

“We need you to lead us.” I, myself, have never answered that call, although I do trying to be responsible with how I use my voice and share my opinion. In the last episode of my first season, I wanted to interview people who had answered that call and built fandom spaces that were open to difficult conversations around mental health and social justice as well as explicitly sought to protect its members of marginalized identities.

In part 2 of the episode, “Building Communities in Fandom” to Bianca Hernandez-Knight of The Jane Austen Universe and Virtual Jane ConJaycee Dubyuh of GAPOC: Gaymer Allied People of Color and Neisha Mulchan, MPH of Diversely Geek discuss the dark side of fandom and what exactly does it mean to be a leader in the fandom space. It’s a role that is both hard to define and incredibly important. A position can be extremely powerful and yet easily dismissed. Those of us who have been members of those communities know that its not an easy job. Between moderating people, creating your own content and possibly being contacted by the corporate media machine yourself, it’s a lot to take on.

One of the most interesting things about fandom leadership is that it’s a job that many have had, from ages as young as 12 or 13 and yet it is a responsibility no one expects and a job few can prepare you for. One minute you are nerding out with your best friends, the next minute you are building a website, creating community guidelines, handling interpersonal conflicts and someone asked you to be the moderator at a con. You are no longer just a fan, you’re a Big Name Fan (BNF). And being apart of the fandom is no longer just about seeing the movie, buying the merch and scouring the internet for sneak previews. Now people are LISTENING to you, your opinions have lasting consequences and there is a pressure to protect those who have sought safety in the community you built as well as the power to unleash your fans and followers at a target if necessary. And as any comic book fan knows:

It can be hard for people outside if the fandom community to understand the power that one can hold in a fandom. But it would be foolish to ignore the lasting impact that a person can have in the online space. In fact, it can be argued that one of the watershed moments of our modern era, Gamergate, is an example of the destructive dark side fandom and fandom leadership.

In this world of influencers, social media gurus and viral TikTok stars, it seems like a person can gain a platform and an audience nearly overnight. But unlike actors, directors and professional writers, the personalities on interactive platforms have a more intimate relationship with their audience. Traditional celebrities have never really had to ask themselves about their responsibility to the public or the image they create until very recently. As a child of the 90’s, I have vivid memories of celebrities often claiming that they “weren’t role models” in an attempt to distance themselves from the impact of their influence. Corporations like Disney, Paramount or Warner Bros. have largely stayed out of the communities that have evolved from the content that they have put out the public. But those aren’t the rules in the fandom space. As the public has grown more accustom to having a level of intimacy with the people that create their entertainment, the lines of separation have blurred in the traditional media space as well, especially with celebrities and creators becoming a presence on social media platforms themselves. So the questions becomes when a community is built around yourself or something you create, are you responsible for leading them?

On the TikTok and Twitter-verse, I’ve seen two responses to this. One response is that as people starting gaining followers, they put out a PSA or community guidelines along the lines of “Hey. This is what I talk about. This is what I expect from your engagement. This is how I expect you to engage with each other. Violate this and you will be blocked/dismissed from the conversation.” While this response is responsible in my opinion, time and experience have shown that this is not the way to get a million followers overnight. It seems like gaining an audience while trying to maintain a level of integrity is a quick way to a slow trickle of notoriety. To be fair, it can be done as shown by the creators such as TheBlerdGurl, Women At Warp and Angry Asian Man. But as the algorithms of social media sites tend thrive on controversy, the content creators that get a large platform fairly quickly tend to sound more like, “Do what you want. I don’t care. Wanna watch me start a fight?!!”, when they address their community.

Celebrities seems to be torn these days about what the proper response is. Some have thrown caution to the wind and let the fallout, be the fallout. It would be foolish to ignore that fact that there is a vocal section of the internet that will embrace every hateful thing that a person could put out there. And what someone loses in respect, they can gain in notoriety and to some, that’s a fair exchange. For others, being or standing up for an underrepresented or marginalize communities comes with its own challenges. In a career where your viability is often based on how “likable” you are; it can be difficult to make a decision to maintain your affable distance or make a statement that could turn the dark side of fandom against you.

Both the hesitation and baptism by fire of celebrities dealing with the dark side of fandom are exemplified by Flash‘s Grant Gustin and Candice Patton. Grant Gustin plays the superhero, Barry Allen aka Flash, and Candice Patton plays his main love interest-now wife in the show, Iris West-Allen. In 2014, when Candace Patton, an African-American actress, was cast to play Iris, a traditionally white character in the comics, the online backlash was loud, abusive and unabating. While much of it has cooled in the subsequent years, the negative and racist messages sent to both Grant and Candice were frequent enough that blocking trolls and defending themselves against people online has become a constant in their lives. For Candice, this experience put her in a leadership position by default because she was the first in what is now a long line of Black women to be cast in television and movie comic book adaptations. She has been the guide both in her industry and to the women of color who have watched her and been inspired by her strength and tenacity if the face of vitriol and prejudice.

Grant Gustin, on the other hand, took a long time to be vocal about his support of his castmate. He’s previously stated that he blocks these problematic folks, but they are not worth additional energy. He has since evolved to attack some of these issues head on, but it took time. This can also be seen as a question of leadership. Fans have pointed out that an earlier and vocal defense of Candice Patton could have lessened the racist remarks that she received. Was it his role as an actor to push the fandom that had been built around his character into a more positive, less hateful space? Many would say “yes”, some would say “no”, but the fact is Candice Patton had no choice in the matter. So it would make sense for the leading man to take on the leadership role even if he never asked for it.

Grant has stated that him being an introvert was part of his reason for not getting into the fray, but I also think that part of it is his image of being a fun, likable and non-threatening actor. Standing up for other people requires that you break the image that people project on to you and suddenly you are standing there as person with principles. And these principles might be the reason that some fans turn against you. One only needs to look at some of the comments in Grant Gustin’s Instagram post below to see some problematic people making themselves known.

And finally you have the leaders that created a community purposefully. Those who saw a need, saw people yearning to have a place to belong and took it upon themselves to make that place a reality. The kind of leadership doesn’t necessarily get notoriety, but a leader can get a level of power and influence that can be used for good or for ill. Sometimes those communities have a leader who is focused on service to the people themselves and others times a cult of personality evolve. There’s also added level of intensity that occurs when when BNFs and fandom leadership feel a responsibility to call out the prejudice, racism, sexism, transphobia, fatphobia etc. that shows up in both the media that created the fandom and within the fandom itself.

The road of responsibility and leadership is not an easy one. It can be full of peril and strife, of making mistakes and causing accidental harm. It can also be one of beauty, love and putting something out there in the world that can help another person and make them feel seen. Positive leadership is challenging, complex and I respect everyone who tries to do it. We all have our role to play in making our corner of the world just a little bit better, brighter and humane. And to those of you who answer that call in the fandom space that is both highly overexposed and still massively misunderstood: I salute you.

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