How Fandom Destroyed and Protected Me

How Fandom Destroyed and Protected Me
Illustration: Angelica Alzona (Photo: Shutterstock)

If you love something to the point of unhealthy obsession, it feels like there’s only one place you can really go. The internet.

Once upon a time, I really, really, really loved Les Misérables. The book, movie, or musical, you ask? Yes. I own several copies of the book and have read it cover-to-cover multiple times, including Victor Hugo’s lengthy 9,000-word aside about argot — a type of archaic French slang used by thieves — and its role in literature, as well as his 5,000-word rant about why convents suck. I watched Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation of the musical three times in theatres, even though Russell Crowe’s Javert made my ears bleed and I never understood why Hooper needed every close-up shot to be just off-centre. After my 15th show, I stopped counting how many times I’d seen the musical live, in two languages mind you. (This is not including the number of times I’ve watched the 10th and 25th-anniversary concerts. I truly don’t want to think about that number.) Can I still sing both parts of The Confrontation? Also yes. I was the person my friends asked how to pronounce Enjolras, the iconic character in the red vest who asks if you can hear the people sing and dies dramatically waving the revolutionary flag. (It’s ohn-jol-ras, by the way.)

Very reasonably, most people in my life wouldn’t tolerate my obsessive love for a story about a melancholy buff dude who spent 19 years as prisoner 24601 for stealing a loaf of bread. Online though? Tumblr, Fanfiction.net, and AO3 are where I found my fellow weirdos.

It was exhilarating. Memes of Les Mis? Be still my nerdy heart. On my long-since abandoned Tumblr, I may have had a viral meme about the various members of the Les Amis de l’ABC — the pretty boyband students who die on the barricade after Paris fails to rise during the June 1832 Rebellion. (Les Mis, I say pushing my eyeglasses up my nose, does not take place during the French Revolution, which occurred from 1789 to 1799.) Normal people don’t care about this esoteric shit but in my little Les Mis groups, we could gush over our favourite characters, favourite film adaptations, trade bootleg videos of various revivals, discuss the Best Valjeans (Colm Wilkinson and Alfie Boe, personally), the Best Javerts (Philip Quast or bust you heathens), and every other role in between. There was glorious fan art, and of course, there was the fanfiction.

The fanfiction is where it all went wrong. It triggered what I call the Great Shipping War of 2013. While I had loved all forms of Les Mis since seeing the 10th-anniversary concert on PBS at the tender age of nine, there was a new influx of fans following Tom Hooper’s 2012 film version. I could spend the rest of this blog recounting the war, but it’s honestly embarrassing and some details are fuzzy after eight years. The gist was there were two factions of fans. The first believed that Enjolras and Grantaire were doomed lovers, and anyone who disagreed was a raging homophobe. It was the most popular Les Mis ship by far, even though the main story wasn’t even about them. The other was a much smaller group who shipped Enjolras with Eponine, despite the fact they have next to zero interaction in the book, movies, and musical. (Such a pairing is often referred to as a “crack” ship, as there’s no real canonical evidence to justify it.) There was a lot of discourse about homophobia, and how if you liked the latter ship in any capacity, you were a queerphobic bigot. Death threats were sent. Online stalking ensued. Private forum groups were made and infiltrated. Big Name Fans posted clap backs to insults, which then triggered another deluge of death threats until your feed was just a never-ending scroll of people trying to destroy each other over a musical that was at that time 28 years old.

I was a bit player in this war, but a casualty nonetheless. Once in a while, when my good sense left me, I jumped into the discourse using reason and found that logic had no power on Tumblr.

The only solution was to aggressively repeat the mantra of “This is fictional and nobody gives two shits in real life,” over and over again; to remind myself that it was absurd for this many dorks to be so hateful over minor characters who appear for less than a third of the original source material.

Adding my two cents into the whirling maelstrom of Les Mis discourse on Tumblr never ended well for me. Hours were wasted over arguing about which fictional characters were allowed to bone, and which ones weren’t. After a while, I kept my opinions in drafts that were promptly deleted once completed. I began muting toxic tags, scrolling past posts I knew would be upsetting, and whittling down who I followed to generally pleasant accounts. But for me, the most effective trick was to imagine myself recounting petty fandom drama to my meanest friend in person. If she ever knew how I spent my time online, she’d mercilessly roast me for getting invested in something so stupid.

Several months later, my feed cleared and the shipping war ended. They always do because every fandom has a shelf life. Series end. New movies and books come out. People move on to the next fandom and the next great shipping war. All it cost me was my nerdy love of Les Mis. While I still love everything Les Mis, it’s not something I return to often. Remembering that time feels like sticking my hand into an open flame. I cringe looking back on it but there was one silver lining from the experience.

It shielded me from the toxicity of the Star Wars fandom.

It is wholly unoriginal to be a Star Wars fan. There’s nothing inherently unique about it. Half the world loves Star Wars. Nevertheless, I am a gigantic dork who’s loved Star Wars for over 25 years now.

After The Force Awakens, I could smell a war brewing. The credits hadn’t even finished rolling before the Discourse began echoing through the far corners of Tumblr. Stormpilot, the ship where fans latched onto the idea that Finn and Poe Dameron were gay lovers, emerged. So, too, did the Reylos–fans of emo space trash Kylo Ren hooking up with desert scavenger Rey. And with the Reylos, rose the Anti-Reylos who argued that the ship was indicative of racism and perpetuated abusive relationship tropes. I had flashbacks to the Great Shipping War of 2013. I broke out in a cold sweat. This, I thought, could get ugly. Star Wars wasn’t Les Mis, a mostly contained fandom relegated to theatre nerds and Victor Hugo dweebs. Star Wars was a mainstream cultural phenomenon that was about to get its first real taste of modern, internet fandom.

This was a powderkeg and the last thing I wanted was to be in the blast radius. This wouldn’t be a “safe” fandom to go full nerd. This, I thought, was something to observe from afar, to keep participation light and casual.

While things were relatively tame after the first movie, by the time The Last Jedi came out, the toxic fandom wars had already begun. For most people, you either loved The Last Jedi for breaking new ground in the franchise or hated it for failing to scratch a nostalgic itch. But in a very specific corner of Star Wars fandom, it boiled down to whether you liked or disliked Reylo. It would’ve been one thing if the shipping wars were contained to the world inside our computers. But for the first time ever, it spilled over into my real life and the real world.

I’m not going to name names, but after an acquaintance noticed my Reylo-themed phone case — a gift from a friend — they proceeded to launch into a public tirade of how I was “cancelled.” Several friends, and some complete strangers, happened to witness the verbal haranguing. I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. Later, that person sent me multiple lengthy blogs about how having a Reylo phone case signalled to the world that I implicitly supported rape, domestic abuse, and toxic relationships. It felt like being told if I shipped more ethically pure pairings, that would somehow translate to me having better morals.

To be clear, this person wasn’t a bad person. Their actions were meant earnestly in an attempt to engage me in fandom discourse about valid topics. The irony was I was being lectured about enabling rape and abuse, while also being a rape and abuse survivor, at a time when I didn’t feel comfortable discussing it. This person didn’t know that. How could they? I wasn’t mad at that person — I really do believe they were coming at me with the intent to “educate.” It’s just that the whole Les Mis fandom debacle made it clear to me that the fictional characters you like aren’t a moral litmus test. People are more than their fandoms. Fandoms aren’t real.

It would be too simple to say that person was a jerk who should’ve minded their own business. I recognise from my own experiences that the most hardcore fans often turn to fandom because it fills a void in that person’s life. It’s escapism at its purest. In moderate doses, it can be fun, foster community, and be a creative outlet. There is a point, though, where it’s no longer celebrating a thing you enjoy with other fans. It morphs into an unhinged quest to prove that your interpretation of a fictional work is the correct one. To fandom zealots, it’s not about expressing an opinion. It’s tearing someone else down for theirs, because it threatens yours. In my instance, I was someone who was to be shamed and then enlightened to the “correct” way of interpreting a sci-fi movie where people wave laser swords.

Not liking The Last Jedi snowballs into bullying Kelly Marie Tran off social media. Because in twisted fandom logic, succeeding at that somehow proves you were right that her character wasn’t good and single-handedly ruined the entire movie. Spoiler: It doesn’t. Mark Hamill relating how he initially struggled with Luke’s characterization in The Last Jedi somehow proves his character was terrible in that film, which then warps into an open licence to hurl insults in Rian Johnson’s Twitter mentions. Again, it doesn’t. John Boyega’s honest criticism of the Star Wars franchise somehow becomes a dogpile where he’s excoriated on social media as a sexist who’s jealous of his white co-stars. Nope. At the root of it, it’s fans behaving badly on social media because they want to be “right.” Fandom doesn’t have to be like this. And yet, here we are, celebrities and ordinary people alike, exhausted by these petty fandom wars, rapidly growing to hate something that once brought joy.

As a veteran of the Les Mis shipping wars, it was easy to nope out of the internet Star Wars discourse. Once that IRL incident happened, I disengaged from Star Wars on social media. I liked fan art friends sent me, read fanfic once in a blue moon, read interesting critiques and reviews by my colleagues at Gizmodo, but interacting with other fans on social media? Strictly verboten. If I saw people chatting Star Wars for more than 10 minutes, I did my best to leave those channels, mute threads, and block those hashtags. Is it less fun? Not at all. Actually, it’s enabled me to enjoy shows like The Mandolorian and enjoy (or dislike) them for what they are. I get to enjoy Star Wars (and other fandoms) on my terms, if and when I’m feeling up to it. It’s no longer an obsession, and you know what? That’s a good thing.