The Fanfic Symposium
Home | Columns | Columns by Year | Columns by Topic | Discussion LJ | Submission Guidelines | Contact

When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege
 by Lucy Gillam

I'm going to start off this essay with the kind of meta-statement I usually avoid like the plague, but I think in this case it's necessary. Here goes.

I know not all men are like this. I know not all men in fandom are like this. I know there are exceptions to everything I am talking about here. Having said that, I am going to try to avoid tripping all over myself to hedge everything I discuss. I am talking about larger patterns, and I think it's possible to do so without hedging every word.

There. Meta-statement done.

A number of years ago, in my early BBS days, I got into an argument with a (much older) man about whether the U.S. medical establishment was gender-biased. His argument was that not only was U.S. medicine not gender-biased in favor of men, it was gender-biased in favor of women. His support for this was that as many men get prostate cancer as women get breast cancer, and yet breast cancer receives much more funding and research than prostate cancer.

Without being able to verify either of these facts easily (this was before such information was available with a couple of mouse clicks), I responded thusly: the reason breast cancer has the research and funding it has is because women (and a few men, most of whom had lost women to breast cancer) had gotten off their asses and gotten it. They had raised money and lobbied and dragged what was once a vaguely shameful disease into the public eye.

I don't actually remember how the debate ended (knowing this guy, I suspect he blew me off), but the gist of it was this: the idea that men as a group might actually have to do something to get their interests represented was totally and completely foreign to him. The "fact" that they weren't represented already was just proof of bias and oppression.

Flash forward a few years to my active gaming days, when the majority of my social life was either gaming or hanging out with my gaming-geek friends. As should be no surprise, the majority of those friends were men. In a group of, oh, about 30 or so people in various concentric circles, there were about four women who regularly showed up at parties and other functions.

After a while, we began organizing "chick nights," gatherings of just the four of us and maybe some other women we knew from outside the group. For reasons that were often kind of bizarre, some of the men in the group took exception to this. They never organized nights at which we were excluded. When we pointed out that by the law of averages, a good half of the various social outings ended up being guy-only, they replied that it was not the same thing.

"Look," I finally said to one of them, "when we get together Saturday night, we're going to paint our nails and put goop on our faces and play with each others' hair and watch movies with really hot guys and talk about how hot the guys are and probably talk about sex and periods and all that fun stuff. Do you really have any interest in that?"

"No," he replied, "but we could do other stuff instead."

At which point I walked away, because otherwise things would have ended either with a rant on how it was not only more socially accepted but socially expected for women to be interested in stereotypically guy things than for guys to get into stereotypically female things (which I didn't want to do, because really, we all did love gaming and horror movies and science fiction all that fun stuff), or else with me banging my head on the table.

We live in a culture of male privilege.

I mean, you all do know that, right? I'm not breaking anything to you? Cool.

Male privilege may be more obvious in other cultures, but in so-called Western culture it's still ubiquitous. In fact, it's so ubiquitous that it's invisible. It is so pervasive as to be normalized, and so normalized as to be visible only in its absence. The vast, vast, vast majority of institutions, spaces, and subcultures privilege male interests, but because male is the default in this culture, such interests are very often considered ungendered. As a result, we only really notice when something privileges female interests.

This results in, well, lots of things, but two that I want to talk about here. The first is that true gender equality is actually perceived as inequality. A group that is made up of 50% women is perceived as being mostly women. A situation that is perfectly equal between men and women is perceived as being biased in favor of women.

And if you don't believe me, you've never been a married woman who kept her family name. I have had students hold that up as proof of my "sexism." My own brother told me that he could never marry a woman who kept her name because "everyone would know who ruled that relationship." Perfect equality - my husband keeps his name and I keep mine – is held as a statement of superiority on my part.

Or back to the first point there. Think for a minute about any show that isn't a sitcom (for some reason, they're the exception) or a Lifetime series. I'll bet you anything the opening credits have more male names than female. And if there are more female names, odds are the series is about women, as opposed to being about lawyers or doctors or people living in another galaxy. I mean, I love Stargate: Atlantis, but, well, let's consider, shall we? For that matter, I remember noticing and being pleased by how many women there seemed to be on the Daedelus. How many is how many? Two. And if it's realistic that there would be fewer women on an Air Force ship, the more telling point is that the presence of two visible female background characters caused me to take notice.

The second result of the invisibility of male privilege is that a lack of male privilege is taken as active oppression, as male-bashing or bias towards women. It is not enough that the mere presence of something which actively aims at women and women's interests is taken as oppressing men; simply not catering to men's interests is perceived as oppression. And I mean, by the way, honestly perceived that way.

Let's talk about Spike TV for a moment. You know, television for men? Leaving aside for the moment that their idea of what "television for men" is is kind of interesting, there was no question that the network label was in part a response to Lifetime. Again leaving aside what Lifetime thinks "television for women" is or should be (we live to rant another day), it sounds fair enough, right? One network that's "television for women" and on that's "television for men."

Except is there anyone out there who doesn't know that pretty much every other network on television is courting the male viewer? The W-fricking-B is trying to attract more male viewers. I'm not saying they're actively excluding female viewers, unless they're the sort of network that cancels their second-highest rated show because the only people watching it are women, and no, I am never letting that one go, but is it any secret that male viewers are the Holy Grail of television?

This is, in essence, the television corollary of the men who point to Women's Studies programs/classes and ask where the Men's Studies are, at which point I flail in the direction of the history, literature, art, and social studies classes. I mean, is there anyone who actually thinks men are underrepresented there? But again, something which is not predominantly about men is perceived as oppression even though it is actually an attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in the mainstream.

So, what does this have to do with fandom?

Media fandom as most of us know it is often largely a female space. By that I mean, many of the circles we run in are made up mostly of women. Women write stories for other women, make vids for other women, talk with other women, go to cons with other women, and while few of us actively want to exclude men, we're not really invested in drawing them in, either. Fandom is one of the few places where you'll actually hear, "Wait, so-and-so's a guy?" And you know, we're kind of used to that.

Except lately, these fairly small spaces have been expanding, and intersecting with spaces where there are more men. And often, everything is fine and dandy. It's just that sometimes, it's not.

Let's take this post for example. Allowing for the moment that the guy was being obnoxious as all shit in his phrasing, there was still a rather disturbing amount of agreement to what was, in essence, a classic example of male privilege.

It is not enough, you see, not to exclude men. We have to actively get them involved. I'm not sure what's more insidious, there: the notion that we must find it not only desirable that men get involved in fandom but also some kind of imperative, or the notion that it is our, women's, responsibility to get them involved in fandom. That we are the ones who must act, in other words. That even though we carved these spaces out for ourselves (didn't nobody create those lists and cons and archives and communities for us, darlin'), we must take the further step to get men involved in them. And if you are going to argue that these couple of guys are in no way representative of male privilege at work in fandom, you might want to talk to the vidders who've been told that vidding can't be an "art" because no men are involved. Instead, it can only be a "hobby."

And further, as implied in this response, we must do so by actively suppressing our own interests. It is not enough to make things more appealing to men; we must stop the things that appeal to us. And that, really, is where things can get ugly. Because men can stand longingly at the window waiting for us to coax them in all they want, and ultimately, it doesn't affect us. What does affect us is the attempt to reshape the spaces we have set up for ourselves to better reflect their interests.

So let's talk scans_daily, shall we? This was a community set up to be friendly to, if not exclusively about, slash, which is, let's face it, mostly a female activity. And again, there was in essence a situation of perfect equality. No one was stopping men from posting things that interested them. And indeed, they did so (how many scans of Power Girl have been posted?). Perfect equality: everyone gets to post what interests them.

Except that wasn't enough. Instead, some men (some, not all, and I do feel the need to say that here) felt it necessary to actively try to stop the posts that were of interest to women, the slash and "ooh, pretty man" posts. Instead, we get "I don't understand this kind of fandom." We get long essays on why we should not post slashy commentary on a particular set of scans. We get reminders that Bruce and Dick are "father and son" before a scan that really doesn't have much to do with it. And no matter how many times we point out that, to paraphrase liviapenn, the male fans have the whole rest of comics fandom on the internet, this one space that does not actively cater to their interests by preventing us from asserting ours has become the object of contention.

And you know, tempers have frayed as a result. It's all well and good to try to be understanding, to try to remember that larger comics fandom is a male space, and thus that guys see us as the intruder, etc, etc. But in a culture of male privilege, when even the spaces we create for ourselves become sites of struggle, it can get really, really frustrating.

And again, I feel the need to reiterate: I've met some great guys in fandom, guys who've joined fannish spaces and embraced fannish ways and just been, well, great. And I always think of them with a bit of a squirm when I say that I'm mostly writing for women like myself. I'm happy when men like my stories or other work because I'm happy when anyone likes my work, but I'm not actively seeking them as an audience.

But you know, that should not be a problem. It should not be seen as "anti-male" to admit that I'm mostly writing for other women. And we shouldn't have to keep fighting for the spaces that, I have to say yet again, we made for ourselves. And we really, really shouldn't feel any need to apologize for having made those spaces for our interests, and made them to reflect our interests. Seriously, can we stop that? This is not oppression. It is not male-bashing. It is simply a lack of male privilege, and that? Is not a bad thing.

Home | Columns | Columns by Year | Columns by Topic | Discussion LJ | Submission Guidelines | Contact