Why does female-leaning fandom come in for such criticism?

News Simon Brew 9/25/2013 at 8:42AM

Fans of female-focused properties like Twilight are often subjected to aggressive criticism. Simon explains why it should stop...

Regular tolerators of Den Of Geek may well know of the existence of a 3000 word feature on One Direction that I somehow managed to stumble into having to write, courtesy of an ill-founded bet on Twitter. In said feature, I argued that while I was hardly bowled over by the work of One Direction, I didn't feel I had the right to gleefully urinate over the fandom of someone else.

I could criticise their music, I could vow never to buy anything they ever did. But slag off those who do love One Direction, and are dedicated fans? That's over the line for me.

Yet it was in the comments field of that article that one point stuck in my head, where it's firmly resided since. As one commenter put it, "it does seem that fandoms that can be 'female' learning (such as One Direction) do get a lot of stick, but if it's male skewering (e.g. football) then it gets a free pass".

A further commenter picked up the baton: "anything with a fanbase mainly composed of teenage girls - One Direction, Bieber, Twilight etc - gets tons of these uber-macho comments from people desperate to prove that they don't like this sissy garbage". As such you get "homophobic slurs aimed at the artists and misogynistic ones aimed at the fans".

That's put it far better than I ever could.

All of this has stayed with me, primarily because it has so many rings of truth about it. And you don't have to look much further than that Twilight saga for a whole clutch of evidence.

Putting aside the merits of the Twilight films for a minute - whether you love, hate or put up with them - the core demographic was female, and primarily teenagers. I don't think that's much of a secret. That was reflected in the casting, the publicity and the material itself, and the box office rewarded the choices that were made.

Let's assume for a minute (and this isn't the biggest leap I'll ever take) that there's a big bunch of people who don't like Twilight movies, as many of you don't. There's also a big bunch of people who don't like the staggeringly successful Rush Hour trilogy. But look at how the tone of the comments both franchises attract differs. You get vilified for liking one, and nobody seems to mind either way if you like the other. 

Mark Kermode infamously wrote a piece at The Guardian back in November 2012, entitled 'Move over, Luke Skywalker... I'm a Twilight man'. He's made little secret of the fact that he's enjoyed the Twilight movies, and in the article he put across his reasons why. Granted, an introduction saying he preferred the movie to Star Wars stirred things up, but as he related in his upcoming book, Hatchet Job, the strength of feeling he encountered in the comments field was something to behold. And he's not alone. I visited a breadth of movie sites, as well as the likes of Amazon and the IMDB, to see what user feedback articles on Twilight were getting.

It was depressing, and a sizeable number of comments had a really nasty, sexist twinge to them. Twilight fans, apparently, are "all so stupid", "get pregnant at 16" (I wish I was making these up), and generally "dumb girls".

Apparently, the "only reason a guy should see this is to get layed (sic)", and the alternative name for the series is "Twatlight". Meanwhile, "if there was a movie of guy on guy full penetration porno Jacob on Edward that movie would not be as gay as Twilight".

You don't have to look far to find even less savoury comments elsewhere online. I've not pulled a few out of context here. There are thousands, if not more, comments like those I've quoted.

But it doesn't just stay online. At the Los Angeles premiere of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, the queuing fans were jeered by passers-by. Jeered! Just for waiting to see the stars of a movie series you happen to like. Not even jeering the performers, or the people who made the movie. Instead, it's become sport to jeer the people who want to watch it.

The people jeering were reportedly coming out or going to a basketball game, and the jeerers were, it seems, male. And doesn't that encapsulate it a little? Were the fans at said basketball game female, and were a male crowd waiting to watch the stars arrive for the premiere, would the women jeer the men? I'd argue not. So why is it acceptable here? Why is it okay to use the cover of a movie that people want to see to effectively bully human beings?

Some people hate Twilight because of what it does with the vampire genre. Some Twilight fans do themselves no favours (and let's be truthful, that's putting it mildly). Few would have quarrel with debating either of those switch. But the rampaging sexism that surrounds the franchise is depressing, and yet alarmingly tolerated.

But this isn't just about Twilight. Most recently, it's been seen with the One Direction movie, where the bashing of the movie and its fans was out in force. Again, I'm not blind: I see some of the comments coming from One Direction fans to those who criticise the band, and they're sometimes no better. I'm not defending those at all. Two wrongs certainly don't come close to making a right there. 

What about, though, the ire aimed at some female teenage Doctor Who fans for being unhappy with the casting of Peter Capaldi in the show, which again was in marked contrast to that that male fan would get?

But then, in a really good piece at Whovian Feminism, they argue there that "I’ve seen more people complaining about how heterosexual teenage girls are complaining about Peter Capaldi’s casting because he isn’t a young man onto which they can project their sexual fantasies then I’ve actually seen heterosexual teenage girls making that complaint. It seems to me that this ‘problem’ has been widely blown out of proportion". I can only add anecdotal evidence to that, but my findings - save for one YouTube video - are the same.

Let's pick another example. Sherlock has attracted an enthusiastic and sizeable female fandom too. The outside assumption is that every woman who loves Sherlock instantly wants to have wild and passionate sex with Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman/Una Stubbs. And they may well do. But that they might just really love the show seems an alien concept in some quarters.

A Den Of Geek correspondent went along to a Sherlock press event earlier in the year, where she found herself talking to a journalist from a respected (well, less respected by us now) daily newspaper. "You must be a Cumberbitch", said the male journalist in question, pretty much his opening line. Our correspondent, as it turned out, has read all of the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories many times, has always loved the material, and now has her fandom denigrated down to three syllables that trivialise just what she's got out of the stories. Mind you, even if she hadn't, does that make it right that someone can call her a 'Cumberbitch' within a sentence of meeting her? Is it inconceivable that not every human being is comfortable with that phrase?

It's all a bit depressing. 

Look too at the recent filming of Sherlock around London. Our same correspondent walked passed the assembled crowd, and she noted that it was almost entirely female. Sherlock's fervent female support has already resulted in the aforementioned 'Cumberbitches' term (a word that some are happy to adopt as their own), but it still tends to be approached more negatively. Contrast that with the queue for the launch of a new Apple product on launch day. That queue is mainly male, still comes in for some stick, yet is seen as more 'acceptable'.

But why?

Let's go for another quick example - I'm using lots, because I don't want this to be about the individual films and show. It's about the broader underlying point.

I got talking to another colleague about the recent box office disappointment, The Mortal Instruments, another movie roundly dismissed as "for teenage girls". If it is for teenage girls firstly, does that make it any lesser a project? Does the fact that it's aimed at teenage girls suddenly make it bad? 

My colleague's argument that The Mortal Instruments was a movie based in and around female-centric fantasy. And that's seen, again in some quarters, as a bad thing. Star Wars, meanwhile, even the weaker films, is centred around a more male-driven fantasy. That's one of the biggest movie franchises of all time. 

That's not quite comparing like with like certainly (I don't intend to take any kind of bullet for The Mortal Instruments), but then what female-targeted franchises are amongst the biggest in the world? That's perhaps a question for another time, because I want to finish on the main point: that this is about the fans, rather than what they happen to be fans of.

You may or may not agree with the individual examples, but there still seems to be a general instant dismissal of films and shows targeted at women, and teenage girls in particular, that overrides the actual content and just attacks the people who like it.

How miserable and depressing is that? That online mob rule attacks you simply for what you like. Didn't we leave all that behind in the school playground?

Films are targeted and marketed at different genders, and different demographic audiences are generally receptive to different material. But isn't the bottom line this? If you pay your money to see something, and hate it, then you've every right to slag it off. But that doesn't anyone any right to slag off the people who feel differently, and to dismiss and denigrate their fandom.

Fandom is supposed to be a positive thing, about celebrating something you enjoy, are entertained by and are passionate about. It's not about sending up flares to attract a crowd of bullies who should know better. Sadly, that's just what some female-leaning fandoms in particular tend to do at the moment, and it can't just be me who's pig sick of it.