Toxic Fandom: When Criticism and Entitlement Go Too Far

Image: Dreamworks / Netflix, used with permission

Many parents and their kids are becoming more and more immersed in the fandoms surrounding their favorite shows, movies, and books. The below article by guest contributor Sean Z. is an in-depth look at the recent history of fandom and some of the pitfalls we should all be aware of and be discussing with our kids.

How a group of internet fans known as antis transformed shipping in fandom from ‘Don’t Like, Don’t Read’ to discourse and death threats

By Sean Z, with additional reporting by Aria C.

In March of this year, a voice actor on the popular animated show Voltron: Legendary Defender reported they and their family had received death threats in response to an interview question over shipping. Another voice actor on Voltron commented on Twitter they were considering canceling appearances at conventions, due to death threats from angry shippers. When one of the show’s executive producers announced their appearance at San Diego Comic Con, angry shippers threatened to break her hands at the event so she couldn’t write anymore. What the hell is going on here?

“Shipping,” or the practice of romantically pairing off fictional characters in a work of media, has historically been harmless.

Like most people in fandom, I ship quite happily and I have yet to send a single death threat, because… well, sending threats of physical harm over a fictional relationship involving cartoon characters seems nonsensical to me (plus, it’s a crime in most jurisdictions).

And yet, it’s happening. People are taking these ships seriously, especially on Voltron, where fans of the ship “Klance” (pairing Keith and Lance) reposted leaked storyboards online and attempted to blackmail the studio by refusing to take them down unless the studio agreed to make the ship happen in the show.

But the problem isn’t limited to the Voltron fandom. Other shows like Steven Universe, Yuri!!! on Ice, and Sherlock all have large sections of militant shippers, but the most aggressive of the bunch is a new subset of shippers collectively known as “antis” (from the practice of tagging things “anti-[ship name]” on social media).

It’s a term these toxic members of fandom wear proudly, despite its association with combative behavior. Antis appear to be a response to, among other factors, changes in how fans interact online. As fans moved from sites like LiveJournal, where content was opt-in, to Tumblr, where content is opt-out, the method in which fans consumed content changed. Thanks to antis, the old adage of early fandom, “don’t like, don’t read” (or the idea that consumers are responsible for avoiding content they don’t like) has been replaced with “discourse,” death threats, and violence.

Hardcore fans of any media will likely have deep, passionate opinions about who gets shipped with whom – it’s part of what makes them fans. Star Trek shippers have been finding new ways to pair off Kirk and Spock for decades. Shipping can refer to either supporting a pairing in the original work (the canon media), or fan works (fanon media). The term came into use in the early ’90s, when fans of the X-Files who wanted to see characters Mulder and Scully paired up were called “relationshippers,” or “shippers.”

Shipping was seen as a fun activity for fans – the idea of threatening the creator of a book, or movie, or show by saying “pair these two characters off, or else” was (and still is) ludicrous.

But, let me be clear, while antis as a group are a recent development, shipping toxicity is not. Harry Potter was one of the first major online fandoms, and it saw significant ship wars. Fans of Harry Potter debated at length whether Hermione should be paired with Ron or Harry. These two ships coexisted peacefully until 2005, when JK Rowling said in an interview she dropped “anvil-sized” hints that Ron and Hermione were going to be together, and the interviewer commented that Harry/Hermione shippers were “delusional.” Fans did not react well. As Clare McBride wrote for SciFi, “because they’d invested so heavily in this one ship, to the detriment of making wider connections in fandom and developing a diverse interest in the series, Rowling’s revelation threatened to invalidate not only their ship, but their fandom.”

Though there were some fans who threatened JK Rowling over her decision, it was on a much smaller scale compared to the constant, detailed threats of physical harm that production staff and talent get on modern shows. But how did we get here? How did we get to the point where some fans feel so strongly about fictional pairings that they’ve decided death threats are acceptable online conduct?

In the early 2000s, LiveJournal rose to prominence as the home for most online fan activity. LiveJournal offered anyone the ability to easily create a free blog in a time when hosting was expensive and technical knowledge was often required to have a web presence. Beyond that, it offered communities, or the ability to create shared blogs where multiple users could share content. This replaced mailing lists and usenet groups as one of the primary ways to distribute fanfiction and other fan works.

LiveJournal “communities” operated on an opt-in model. There were no tags, and searching was limited (full text search was nonexistent). So, if you wanted to see fanfic for a specific show, you’d join several communities for that show. If you liked a specific ship, you’d join communities for that ship. This meant content discovery was more challenging than it is on modern sites like Tumblr, because there could be hundreds of communities for the same interest group, but it offered something critical – moderation.

I may be idealizing LiveJournal fandom more than I should. Nostalgia is powerful, and the site did have harassment problems. In fact, there were entire communities built around harassing fellow fans. That said, while the moderators weren’t always perfect, and could be prone to their own petty power trips and stirring drama, good moderators could keep a community healthy and largely harassment-free by deleting attack posts and banning toxic users.

And because the only way to see content of a community on your feed was to join it, users only saw content they opted in to. There were no “recommended for you” posts to break you out of your self-curated content bubble, and this kept users largely isolated in their own spaces. LiveJournal wasn’t perfect, but I never felt unsafe there. There was no threat that the wrong person would see one of my posts, reblog it, and trigger a hate mob if I said the ‘”wrong thing” or I liked the “wrong pairing.” That’s more than I can say for Tumblr fandom.

In the late 2000s, internet fandom began migrating away from LiveJournal in favor of a new home, Tumblr. Tumblr offered users significantly better search and content discovery, as well as the ability to host images directly on your blog (something LiveJournal lacked). Additionally, changes in LiveJournal management and a mass purge of accounts with nsfw-fanfiction in 2007 (referred to as Strikethrough) pushed many users off the platform.

Unlike LiveJournal’s communities, Tumblr’s fandoms rely on tagging. Instead of joining a group for your interest, you simply search for #show or #movie. This is where problems begin. A user on tumblr can tag a post with whatever tag they wish. Let’s say I was a shipper who wanted to pair off Alice and Bob on the show Great Adventures. I might tag a post “#AliceBob #GreatAdventures #ThisShowIsAmazing.” Unfortunately, until December of 2017, Tumblr did not have any built-in filtering mechanism, so every user who wanted to see posts using the #GreatAdventures tag would see my posts about Alice/Bob, as well as other pairings, like Bob/Eve, Alice/Eve, etc.

Though there are browser extensions for the site that can filter tags (XKit and Tumblr Savior are the most popular ones), users see all content by default, including content they may find objectionable.

Early Tumblr fandom attempted to work around this problem with the simple etiquette “don’t tag your hate.” If you were passionate that Bob and Alice should never be together and you wanted to write an essay on why it was a horrible pairing, it would be inappropriate to use the #AliceBob tag, since that’s used by all the people who want to find content for the pairing. Instead, the early solution was to use #anti-AliceBob when arguing against something. The idea was to replicate the communities of LiveJournal by separating users who objected to a pairing to those who favored it. The term anti, or anti-shipper, comes from this tagging practice, and entered common use in 2015.

Unfortunately, this plan to help fandom police itself backfired. By creating the #anti-AliceBob tag, the fandom created a community joined together by their hatred for something. And, over time, these anti communities radicalized other members.

Discussions shifted from “I don’t like this” to “no one should like this.” An account from a user on the anonymous fandom meta site fail_fandomanon described the process: “Antis became a social group, a hatedom. And once impressing their fellow clique of antis became more important than being accepted by the fandom at large, it metastasized into harassing shippers to impress their little bully clique. It became about the social aspect of being accepted by the ‘cool kids,’ i.e., the other antis–and like fandom drama groups in the past, often motivated early on by the fear that they might come after you if you weren’t on their side.”

Simply saying “other fans shouldn’t create fan content for the thing I don’t like” isn’t a compelling argument, so antis began adopting the language of the social justice movement that is active on Tumblr. Antis generally argue that the fictional pairing they dislike is morally “problematic,” that it promotes some broadly objectionable thing like pedophilia, abuse, or incest, and that content for that pairing should not be allowed on the internet.

To be clear, critiquing media for its larger social impact is fine and healthy. However, in these cases, antis would disingenuously put forth these claims to provide a basis for their hatred. For example, in the video game Overwatch, antis claim pairing Gabriel Reyes with McCree (known as McReyes) promotes pedophilia. (It doesn’t. McCree, the younger character, is 37.) They also claim pairing Rey and Kylo Ren from Star Wars supports incest, because there’s a chance they could be related (they’re not). Pairing Hank and his android partner Connor together from the video game Detroit: Become Human also supports incest by their logic (Connor is an android assigned to Hank, a human, to be his partner on the police force).

This kind of performative outrage enables anti-shippers to harass others by providing a moral shield for their attacks. Antis justify sending death threats to fellow fans and creators because they claim people who support “bad” ships promote those broadly objectionable things. Therefore, antis claim they are simply trying to protect their community from creating, engaging, and spreading inappropriate content (regardless if the content is actually inappropriate).

To see how this kind of hatred develops over time, and leads to problems in fan spaces, let’s take a closer look at the Voltron fandom. The fandom, unfortunately, has a large anti presence, and therefore a constant stream of harassment cases.

The two most popular pairings in the Voltron fandom are Keith and Lance, commonly known as Klance, and Keith and Shiro, or Sheith. Because both pairings involve Keith, there’s contention for the character, triggering a “ship war” in the fandom. Fans of both pairings often write Tumblr posts about why their pairing is better.

In the LiveJournal days, these “my ship is better than yours” posts would be referred to as “fan wank,” where wank is slang for nonsense. This wouldn’t be a problem – fan creators would be siloed into their respective communities and would only see content for their ship. But on Tumblr, because a post can have multiple tags and anyone can tag any post with any tag, simply looking at #Voltron means fans see content from #sheith and #klance shippers, as well as other pairings and “gen” or “general” posts, which don’t have pairings, in addition to all the wank.

Though the majority of Voltron fans who ship Klance aren’t antis, the majority of antis gravitate to Klance. Antis in the Voltron fandom began adopting the language of the social justice movement on Tumblr to justify their dislike for Sheith and other “shaladin” ships (Shiro/Paladin), and vehemently argue creators shouldn’t write or draw it. “Sheith is problematic, and you shouldn’t support it” replaces the simpler “this squicks me” from LiveJournal. The term “fan wank” is replaced with the more loaded term “fandom discourse.” As Tumblr user owl-song defined the term: “don’t call it wank, I am wanking about Very Serious Issues, you guys!”

In almost all cases, the reason a pairing is problematic is usually contrived – antis claim anyone who likes Sheith is supporting pedophilia (even though Shiro and Keith are both over 18), and incest (even though the characters are not related – a fact the show staff have repeatedly said).

They make these claims based on Shiro’s role as a mentor figure to younger Keith, and Keith comparing Shiro to a brother figure, respectively. Antis further argue that because the pairing is “problematic,” depicting it normalizes and endorses child abuse. Anti arguments may shift over time, but the critical thing to note is 1) competing popular pairings (pairings that share characters with the anti-favored pairing) are always problematic, and 2) the anti-preferred pairing is never problematic. If you take nothing else from this article, please take this: all this outrage isn’t about protecting children, or about morality, or about critiquing media. It’s about people wanting their favorite characters to kiss.

Even though it’s a false argument, the antis, armed with the cause of protecting the children from seeing abusive relationships, threaten any visible Sheith shipper in the fandom, such as popular fan artists and authors. Paul Booth, a professor of media studies at DePaul University, spoke to Polygon about this issue. He explained, “I’ve researched toxic fan activity, which I call ‘protective fandom.’ These groups are not merely forming around a particular text or a particular medium. They see themselves as the protector of it. They see themselves as the line between what they want it to be and what other people want it to be.”

Antis will also try to reach outside of the fandom to poison other people to the ship, which is ultimately what drove me to write this article. I saw a tweet saying “I hope the Dragon Prince fandom doesn’t become Voltron 2.0.” I expected them to discuss the rampant death threats to fans and voice actors on Voltron, and how they were concerned the new Netflix animated show might suffer the same fate. Instead, they followed up with, “Voltron fandom is really toxic, there are all these people who like this pedo content…” This is a common anti-strategy – the goal is to convince people who don’t have fandom context to think a pairing (or the people that support it) is harmful. This effectively gives the antis proxy fighters on Twitter and Tumblr – users who don’t watch the show but will write call-out posts when they see people ship the target pairing. You can see a user attempting to modify a wiki article on Sheith to make it read as incest here. Their screen name should give you a hint that they might be biased.

They also might try to force the show itself to change content by manufacturing enough outrage, as one former anti wrote about on Twitter:

Sadly, creators and staff of the original media are not exempt from this fury – in an interview with Afterbuzz TV, one voice actor said he thought fans should be able to ship what they want without being harassed. He later would disengage from fandom significantly after receiving death threats in response to his answer on shipping.

That’s where Voltron fandom stands – there are lots of amazing fan artists, talented fan writers, and a great show staff, but the fandom is scary, and I say that as someone who loves this show and this fandom. During the first season and before antis became a prominent voice, the show’s staff and voice actors used to share and reblog fan art, joke about ship names, and even responded to messages in private chats. Now, not a single main cast member still has direct/private messages enabled on Twitter. I mourn the show we could have had if we all weren’t scared.

Even though antis are usually a small fraction of the people who are part of a fandom, they have power to do significant damage. Toxicity drives people out of ships, and out of fandom, regardless of their pairing. In Voltron, some non-anti Klance shippers adopted the term “Laith shipper” (swapping the names in the ship), in an attempt to separate themselves from the Klance anti-shippers (“klanti”). Despite that, in several cases, artists and authors who created content for Klance either switched to other ships or chose to exit the fandom entirely to avoid the toxicity associated with the pairing.

Once again, this is not just a Voltron-specific problem. At a fan event last year, an artist drawing fan art for the game Undertale was gifted cookies by someone at the event, only to discover they were filled with needles when they pierced the artist’s tongue, all because an anti didn’t approve of the artist’s ship. Antis in the Sherlock fandom drove a rape survivor to tears at a Sherlock fan convention panel after she said she believed it was acceptable for authors to write works with non-consensual sex (antis called her “rape apologist filth” and posted video of the exchange online).

Members of that panel were specifically targeted not based on their preferred pairing, but on their preference of who tops between Sherlock and John Watson (yes, people will harass over who tops in a fictional pairing). Antis in the Steven Universe fandom forced an artist working on the show to quit Twitter after harassing her for drawing ship art they didn’t like and posting it to her personal account.

Despite all of this negativity, I believe fandom is an incredibly positive thing. I’m gay, and the first time I ever saw a gay character in a story was in fanfiction. Fanfiction gave me stories about people like me when I couldn’t find them anywhere else. That is the power of transformative media like fanfic and fanart: in a world where so many people don’t get to see themselves on TV, fandom can offer them a place where they can be the hero of a story they know and love. Fandom enables anyone to create with an established world – it enables writers to create stories that go beyond the canon media, and gives artists the power to explore new scenes and what-ifs. There are thousands of people right now creating this content for free, simply because they enjoy it.

That world is open to anyone, but due to antis, fans need to work a bit harder to enjoy it. Thankfully, there are tools available on most platforms to help keep antis in check. Tumblr added tag blocking in late 2017, which means you can avoid fandoms or pairings that are toxic for you without installing browser extensions. Both Twitter and Tumblr have user blocking functions which can be used to avoid specific users, and, if a specific user is inciting their followers to attack you, tools like Block Chain on Twitter can block them, and all the people that follow them. Many fandoms also have Discord servers with moderators, which are becoming modern replacements for the old moderated communities of LiveJournal.

Ultimately, fandom is what we make of it, and we all can make it better. If you’re a parent, speak to your children about proper online conduct, and talk to them about the repercussions of harassment online. If you’re a convention organizer, take caution when someone proposes a panel on ethical shipping, and investigate if the people proposing this are speaking in good faith, or are they trying to gain a platform for inciting harassment. If you’re a member of popular show or movie’s staff, take a moment and remind your fans and followers that you don’t support harassment, especially over ships. And finally, if you’re a fan, be decent to people. Scroll past stuff that isn’t for you. Make the content that you’re passionate about. If we all work together, we can bring back the golden days of “don’t like, don’t read.”

The authors would like to thank the many Voltron fans, Tumblr users, and LiveJournal users who spoke with us while writing this piece. This is a sensitive topic, and we appreciate you sharing your experiences with us.

Sean Z. stumbled upon internet fandom in the early 2000s, and has been reading fanfic and liking fanart ever since. When he’s not researching fandom, he enjoys listening to video game music, playing boardgames, and writing code. If you’d like to discuss fandom history, you can find the author on Twitter at @Sean_Z_Writes

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