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Defending fandom is exhausting. Let's start celebrating it instead.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

This article is part of a series on fan culture and its many related topics. Start with our primer on fandom and follow along with the series every day this week.

Aja Romano: Recently, a spate of anti-fandom articles have made broad generalizations about fan culture. Last week, while outlining the most popular misconceptions about fandom, Vox's Constance Grady pointed out that the majority of male-dominated "curative" fandom, which is generally focused on factual knowledge, tends to align with mainstream media and society in ridiculing and being perpetually baffled by its "transformative" counterpart: web-based, female-dominated, fanworks-based fandom, which is generally focused on analysis and creation of new works around the original source.

There are plenty of reasons for this bafflement, largely boiling down to the marginalization of women's literature and society's frequent cultural shaming of the hobbies of women and teen girls.

I have been hearing arguments against online fandom since 1998, when I typed "Jane Austen" into a pre-Google search engine and discovered the web's huge repository of Pride and Prejudice fanfiction. I have participated in every conceivable kind of fandom since. I have been patiently (and often impatiently) correcting misconceptions about fanfiction and fan culture for nearly two decades. I have even written what I hoped would be definitive responses to various dumb arguments made against fandom, but in vain.

In 2012, while I was volunteering for a fandom-run nonprofit group, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), an anonymous convention attendee let me and the organization know exactly what they thought about fanfiction:

At the time I was amazed by the longevity of such deep and pervasive myths around fanfiction and fandom culture: that it was, as my anonymous commenter was quick to tell me, "stolen merchandise," "90% gay porn," unoriginal piggybacking off someone else's creativity, and, of course, "the devil's work."

Surely, I was convinced, the mainstreaming and growing awareness of fan culture would change those misconceptions.

Spoiler alert: I was wrong.

I am tired of this fight. So for once, instead of talking about what fandom isn't, I'm going to talk about what fandom is:

  • Fandom is knowing most of your online friends longer than anyone you've known in real life. Fandom is meeting someone on a mailing list in 1999 and discovering in 2016 that your roommate for an upcoming fandom con knows the longtime friend from 1999 IRL, because the world of fandom is incredibly small. Fandom is meeting someone on a mailing list in 2001 who offers to beta-read your first fanfic, and congratulating them in 2016 on the film-editing gig they just landed in Hollywood. Fandom is not having to question for a moment that most of your fandom friendships are as valid and real as real-life friendships, or every other kind of lasting online friendship.
  • Fandom is reading fiction so good, not just good but soul-activatingly amazing, that when you're done you instantly feel sad because you can't have the experience of reading it again for the first time. Fandom is having that experience often, because fanfiction is very often just that good, just that brilliant, just that subversive or canny or hot or emotional or funny or perfect as any other fictional work.
  • Fandom is spending weeks and months painstakingly researching information for backstory that affects but never actually appears in your fic. Subjects I know an obsessive amount about because of fanfic include but are not limited to: Buckminster Fuller, lens aperture, the difference between swizzles and twizzles, Lisztomania, Beau Brummell's syphilis, and Asian pop music idol contracts.
  • Fandom is being able to reflexively draw a 100-by-100-pixel square with a mouse because I taught myself how to use Photoshop so that I could manually make LiveJournal icons for all my fanfic journals and role-play characters. My coding skills, GIF-making skills, audio-and video-editing skills, social media skills — easily half the skills I now put on my résumé, I acquired to more fully participate in fandom and make more stuff for more people.
  • Fandom is finally getting to see Hamilton last month with two fandom friends who flew into New York just so the three of us could see the show together. I met C online in Harry Potter fandom when she was in high school and I was in college. Years later we both met N in the small, wonderful fandom that sprang up around Obama's White House staff after the 2008 election. In 2010, after drifting apart, the three of us all wound up in the same fandom again, this time for the movie Inception. The day I realized all three of us were together again was September 11; it was the first time I had ever cried on that day out of happiness.
  • Fandom is spending hours in a coffee shop one day crying while writing a letter to a creator to tell her how much a character meant to me. Fandom is crying the day the same creator liked something I made on social media. Fandom is crying again years later because the creator has sanctioned an all-white main cast for her next film, when I was hoping against hope she'd been listening to fandom's deep longing for diverse representation.
  • Fandom is the recent Memorial Day party where the email invitation consisted entirely of Prince GIFs; where his albums played on loop all day; where we drank purple rain lemonade, because our host was still mourning. Fandom is the group of women who gathered at that party and had never met before but who stood around the kitchen island excitedly babbling about slash, queerbaiting, kink shaming, and diverse representation in fanfic.

Fandom is the collective experience of fans, mainly women and genderqueer individuals, who build things together, support each other, and learn from each other. Fandom is making every one of us sharper, smarter, more talented, more deeply creative, more subversive, and more politically and culturally aware, with every moment we're in it.

Fandom is full of flaws, and full of problems, and often deeply regressive, but it's also so much more than mainstream culture has ever given it credit for. Fandom is huge. It should be taken as a given that fan culture is not a monolith.

Of course fandom is full of thoughtful, smart people who are creating incredible fanworks and making deeply substantive contributions to the cultural conversation. Of course fandom isn't populated solely by shallow, screeching preteen girls and angry "social justice warriors" — but more power to those fangirls and those socially progressive fans. Scream your hearts out; every woman in fandom is one of you, and our throats are hoarse from defending ourselves and the way we love the things we love.

It's 2016. There is plenty of smart, sophisticated writing by fans to disabuse you of your misconceptions about fandom. If you'd rather make superficial, cheap generalizations about what it isn't instead of celebrating what it is, go ahead. But you won't be diminishing fandom. Ultimately, the only person who will look superficial and cheap is you.

Previous entry: Fanfiction isn't about muting the original stories. It's about heightening them.