Gatekeeping ruins fandoms

Gatekeeping+within+fandoms+can+lead+to+isolation+and+alienation+of+certain+fans

Ananya Pinnamaneni

Gatekeeping within fandoms can lead to isolation and alienation of certain fans

By Anaisha Das and Mayukhi Katragadda

The word “fan” originates from the Modern Latin term fanaticus, meaning “insanely, but divinely inspired.” 

Obviously, this term doesn’t hold much ground today. Fans aren’t insane (at least we wouldn’t consider ourselves to be insane fans), but they still are inspired to support their favorite things passionately. Merriam-Webster has a more modern, accurate definition: “an ardent admirer or enthusiast (of a celebrity or a pursuit).” We’re enthusiastic and passionate about our favorites, whether it be a book, tv show, musician, celebrity, gamer…the list goes on and on. 

Junior Neela Vani is a member of a variety of fandoms, from Marvel movies to music artists, and she feels that being a part of a fandom is a crucial part of her identity.  

“Fandoms give you this world that you can explore, be in and relate to,” she explained. “It’s really interesting because when you come across someone who is in the same fandom or likes the same things as you, it’s a great opportunity to talk to people.”

However, while fandoms should be a comforting place for all types of fans, gatekeeping may prevent this from happening. 

According to Oxford Languages, “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something” blocks fans from sharing the passion that they have for their interests, leading to isolation and alienation. Excluding fans, regardless of what the reasons may be, ruins the true connectivity and bonding within a fandom. 

How gatekeeping reflects societal issues

Fandoms are a microcosm of society, as gatekeeping within fandoms is often emblematic of larger social issues that affect the globe, such as racism, sexism and xenophobia.  

Take, for example, cosplay, the embodiment of a fictional character using costume and make-up. Cosplaying is extremely common among science fiction, fantasy and anime fandoms, and in theory, should have no limitations against race, gender or disabilities. Yet, some cosplayers, especially Black women, face harassment as they may not have the same skin color as the characters that they dress up as. 

Shellanin, a Black cosplayer, spoke to I-D about the colorist vitriol that she faces when she dresses up as a non-Black character. 

“To this day, I still get abuse for cosplaying as fair-skinned characters,” Shellanin said. “I’m aware that I do not look like the majority of the characters I dress up as, but that’s the most empowering part about it.”

I’m aware that I do not look like the majority of the characters I dress up as, but that’s the most empowering part about it.”

— Shellanin

These instances of gatekeeping coupled with racial prejudice are also present in fandom communities all over social media. 

During a roundtable discussion about the cultures of fandom on Tumblr, Zina Hutton describes her experiences facing backlash from fans on Tumblr as she pointed out “problematic aspects such as racism, misogyny,and homophobia in the things they liked.”

“And when I talked about the direct impact of racism in media and in fandom on my life as a queer Black person, these things that should’ve inspired empathy really didn’t,” she said. 

These feelings of ostracization ultimately led women, especially those of color to lean towards engaging in pop culture fandoms, according to Dustin Abnet, Cal State Fullerton’s associate professor of American Studies, from an article written by The Daily Titan

“And it’s not that they weren’t interested in science fiction, or fantasy, or things like that, because they definitely were,” he explained. “It’s just they weren’t acknowledged as existing as fans, by the institutions, or by other fans themselves, and that limited their power within the pop culture world itself.”

Instances like these can shun certain groups of people from joining fandoms, despite the idea that fandoms should be inclusive, safe spaces for anyone, regardless of their identity. 

Subtle instances of gatekeeping within a fandom

While discrimination and sexism are undoubtedly harmful to fans that are excluded, there are more subtle ways that a person can gatekeep others. 

Gatekeeping has become subtly woven into the fandom experience, from Buzzfeed trivia quizzes that determine whether you are a “true fan” or being suspended from Twitter for having a different opinion from the norm. 

An example of this phenomenon is seen with the K-pop group BTS’ fans, Armys. This fandom is one of the largest in the world, with more than 59 million and 43.9 million followers on Instagram and Twitter respectively. Due to the large numbers of fans, it’s completely understandable that there will be some bad apples in the bunch who engage in gatekeeping and toxic behavior. 

DVHS senior Kaylan So, a passionate Army, described the discourse that surrounds being a true BTS fan. 

“You can be a casual Army and still be a part of the fandom,” she said. “I think people should just focus on themselves, instead of spending their time and energy thinking about who’s an Army and who isn’t.” 

The term “true fan” is also recurring in these conversations that involve gatekeeping. As an Army myself, I (Mayukhi) often encounter social media posts about the band’s newer English songs that include phrases such as “If you don’t like ‘Butter’ or ‘Permission to Dance’ (the band’s latest singles), then you aren’t a fan!” But why should someone’s personal music taste define their own identity as a fan? BTS has over 200 different songs, so one shouldn’t have to like every single one in order for them to be considered a “true fan.

Fandoms should be a place of friendly discourse, allowing people to express their opinions freely. However, when gatekeeping infects a fandom, fans may be shunned from liking certain characters or songs. 

This echo chamber is seen in other fandoms as well, such as the Marvel fandom. DVHS sophomore Leo Channa described his experiences with gatekeeping after watching “Far From Home,” a Spiderman movie released in Dec. 2021. 

“A lot of people gatekeep different characters in it and tell you that you can’t like these characters,” Channa said. 

Peer pressure causes people to only share the same opinions about topics, which may lead to toxicity. Some fans may even distance themselves from the fandom to avoid fan wars on social media, which especially impacts fans that have a personal connection to their hobbies or likings. 

Channa explains how certain interests such as BTS, Marvel movies and books have cheered him up during difficult moments of his life, which makes gatekeeping even more frustrating for him. 

“[I often feel] anger because it’s really annoying to be told that you can’t like a certain group or character,” he said. 

Why gatekeeping must stop

Despite the gatekeeping that may be present, fandoms can also unite together to become extremely powerful. Fan culture has delved into mainstream media and news, with some fandoms using their power to impact politics and advocate for social change. 

For example, Armys donated 1 million dollars together to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2021. More recently, Filipino K-pop fans on Twitter are advocating for presidential candidate Leni Robredo to prevent her opponent Bongbong Marcos, the son of a former dictator, from winning. 

And the power of fandoms can also be used to help everyday people as well. Anime for Humanity, is an organization that strives to challenge the stigma against mental health by using anime and cosplay as a medium.

In the end, we come back to the definition of a fan. It isn’t someone who is “divinely inspired,” but rather a supportive community that can help one connect to others and show love at the same time. Yet, gatekeeping can ruin this essence and only promotes division and toxicity.

This story was originally published on Wildcat Tribune on March 8, 2022.