Introducing The New Face of Fandom: Women

The fanboy vs. fangirl struggle may already be over. Just don't call it a chick flick — it's a blockbuster

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Erica McGillivray / GeekGirlCon

The word “fan” has become an increasingly loaded one in recent years. It immediately conjures up a mental image of a specific type of person: probably a man, probably somewhere in his early-to-mid 20s, wearing a t-shirt showcasing his love of Star Wars/Green Lantern/some kind of genre fantasy franchise, who — you’d imagine — is awkward in social situations and may still live with his parents. After all, we’ve reached a point where “fanboy” is used as a pejorative for many, if not most, people familiar with the term. I can tell that you’re already lining up complaints and defenses against that particular idea, but there’s a pretty big one that you might not have considered: The majority of new fans these days aren’t actually boys at all.

The idea of a female takeover of fan culture is something that’s often met with wariness or outright hostility from what are traditionally thought of as fan communities, but even the concerned defensiveness of a number of self-appointed gatekeepers can’t change the fact that it’s been happening for some time already. Not only is genre fiction being consumed in larger numbers by women, but new stories and ideas are being targeted directly at them. Look at the genre stories that have crossover over to the mainstream to the point of phenomena over recent years and that fact becomes clear: Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games all have predominantly female audiences in both prose and movie incarnations. (The most recent Twilight movie, Breaking Dawn – Part 1 had an impressively 80% female audience according to estimates, with The Hunger Games‘ cinematic debut being met with a viewership that consisted of 61% women. By comparison, this summer’s Marvel’s The Avengers, based on a far older franchise, skewed 60% male.) Fanboy no more, it seems.

Why is this happening? In one sense, it’s nothing more complicated than studios and content creators reacting to demand. As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir pointed out back in May, “the top-grossing film for the [six weeks prior to the release of Avengers] was a female-oriented picture: Four weeks of The Hunger Games, followed by two weeks at the top for surprise hit Think Like a Man, whose principal audience was not just women but African-American women, who make up about 6 percent of the United States population. (Clearly a lot of other people went to see it too.)” He continued, “Those six weeks aren’t statistically meaningful by themselves. But when added to the big numbers rolled up last year by The Help and Bridesmaids, and the $1.7 billion taken in so far by The Twilight Saga around the world, they begin to suggest the contours of a new reality, one in which films aimed at girls and women are high-end blockbusters on an equal footing with guy-flicks.” That wasn’t an aberration, but the continuation of a trend becoming clear way back in February 2010, when Daniel Frankel noticed that “”going back to mid-November [2009] — factoring in Summit’s mega-hit Twilight Saga: New Moon (which opened to an audience that was 80 percent female) and Warner’s older skewing The Blind Side (60 percent female) — every No. 1 film at the domestic box office not called Avatar has been [a] chick movie.”

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The tipping point, perhaps, was the success of the Twilight series, which few people remember was nowhere near a sure thing before the first movie opened, despite the success of the novel that preceded it. The movie “far exceeded box office predictions, pulling in a dizzying $69.6 million over opening weekend,” reported CNN at the time, quoting an unnamed “top female studio executive” as saying that “up until this week, everyone was thinking this would be a one-quadrant movie… The men in this industry are still chasing the young boys — even after Sex and the City.” That’s definitely no longer the case, as Forbes’ Mark Hughes pointed out earlier this year. The Twilight series, he wrote, “which has grossed more than $3.6 billion worldwide with four films so far (not to mention hundreds of millions more in DVD/Blu-ray sales and other merchandising), not only established the power of youth novels at the box office, it did something else that’s VERY important to the future of movies — it showed the power of young female audiences, who were by far the largest demographic attending the franchise.”

So, is it simply that it took Twilight to wake executives up to the spending power of a female fan base that has always been there? Possibly. Novelist Karen Healey suggests that “many fandoms have been primarily female (often white, middle-class, straight, cisgendered women — but again, not exclusively) spaces for a very long time, often co-existing beside primary male fandoms for the exact same media. Women in the ’80s were trading stories and arguing about the plot arcs of Star Trek and Dr. Who, much as they do now.” That’s a point that writer and editor Rachel Edidin agrees with. “Modern fan culture has always been female-driven,” she says. “The ferocity with which people engage and identify with fictional media and build subcultures around it seems to develop in inverse proportion to their social power. There’s a case to be made for the intensity of women and girls’ engagement in fandom — especially narrative and/or direct-engagement fandom like fan fiction or cosplay — as a cultural underclass co-opting a dominant narrative in which they’re overwhelmingly underrepresented as both creators and characters.”

Such an idea — that women are drawn to stories in spite of their lack of representation both in the stories and in the creation of same — may run contrary to much contemporary theorizing about female fandoms. Isn’t Twilight supposed to be a gamechanger because its female hero and central love story make the genre trappings more appealing to a female audience, after all? It’s possible that where it actually acts as gamechanger is in its narrative’s “femininity” removing the assumption of overwhelming male patronage from executives, allowing the female fan base to be accepted as present and dominant in the first place.

What really changed between the female-led fandom of yore and today’s more recognized female fans, Healey suggests, is the method of communication. “My personal theory is that over the last decade or so, lots of people got Internet access and it became a more integral part of many people’s homes,” she says. “As a direct result, fandom has become both more visible and more accessible to women who perhaps didn’t realize there were other women out there who liked the same things they did. In the ’80s, it was all underground zines or enthusiastic meetings at conventions, which were mostly either tiny, or dominated by men (except for the notable exception of WisCon). Women were using the Internet to facilitate fandom as soon as they got their hands on it — with the rise of social media, it is no surprise to me that women in fandom are making their voices heard.”

The idea that the Internet can provide a safe space for those outside of cultural norms is nowhere near a new one, but that doesn’t make it any less potent. The anonymity of online discussion can act as buffer against existing social exclusionary practices, and allow participation that would be less likely — or even impossible — in physical situations. Jill Pantozzi, associate editor of female-centric genre site The Mary Sue, agrees. “It’s easier [online] for people to see others getting excited about something and realize it’s ok to be excited too,” she explains. “Many fandoms have been thought of as geeky, which always had a stigma attached to it. People didn’t want to be thought of as a geek but, thanks to pop-culture properties gaining a lot of traction in the last few years, it’s actually cool to be a geek. Lots of women have always been interested in fan culture but they feel more comfortable admitting it now that they don’t feel they’ll be ridiculed for it. And once you’re comfortable with something it’s much easier to go all in.”

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That comfort may not last long when new female fans see the kinds of reactions they can expect from the Internet, whether it’s accusations that they’re “fake” because they’re not geeky enough or trying to co-opt others’ cultures to “satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street.” While male geeks are allowed into the clubhouse quietly and without much concern, women expressing their fandom are being increasingly treated with suspicion about their interests. “I think it’s definitely at least partly a response to the feminization of fandom, and to the popularization of more typically feminine expressions and avenues of fan engagement — stuff like cosplay and crafting, which are overwhelmingly female-majority communities — in a larger culture where feminization is almost universally seen as deprecation of value,” says Edidin, who created an amazing response to one of sadly many fandom gatekeeper memes online that itself went viral last month. “It was transgressive but still sort of okay for girls to get into this stuff if they engaged in it in the same ways as the boys, but when the fundamental masculinity of ‘geek’ as an identity started getting called into question, there was this violent backlash.”

“I cannot even begin to explain to you the amount of times that I have been at a comic shop or a video game store and men have asked me things like ‘Are you shopping for your boyfriend?'” reports iFanboy contributor and freelance writer Molly McIsaac. “It immediately makes me feel threatened, and feel the need to express my ‘nerd cred,’ which I think is why women are so ridiculously vocal about their fandoms.” Pantozzi agrees, saying that “There is an unfortunate mindset some men have about keeping what’s considered a ‘geek’ to a very small fraction of humanity,” although she points out that “they aren’t the only ones calling women out, other women are as well,” something McIsaac describes as “an aspect of the mean girls club, [but] done more intellectually and passive aggressively.” Such attacks may take the position of centering around fandom credentials, but often have their roots in other social expectations, apparently. “The amount of vitriol I have heard spouted from the female geek community towards other female geeks who don’t have enough ‘cred’ — meaning, too hot to be geeky, or so they think, though they would never say it — is ridiculous,” she says.

With various communities rejecting their newest recruits and fastest growing audience, what is the future for fangirls — and fandom as a whole? “I think we’ve hit, or are in the process of hitting, a breaking point: something has to give, or the whole thing’s going to tumble down,” Edidin says, talking about the tensions surrounding a vocal female presence in today’s fandoms. “The majority of the people I know in geek culture are absolutely amazing, and I really, really want to believe that they can step up and be a driving force toward redefining it [to be more inclusionary].” For McIsaac, an obvious part of the solution is for female fans to stop treating themselves as an “other” to be considered outside of the norm. “Can you imagine the uproar if there was a Geek Dude Con?” she asks, referring to Seattle’s Geek Girl Con. “By separating ourselves in this manner, we are merely allowing the rift to continue to grow — rather than closing it.” That’s something that Pantozzi goes along with. “In the long run, gender doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter when it comes to fandom,” she argues. “No matter what gender you identify with, you’re a fan, end of story.” Such common sense thinking may not be the dominant mindset today, but give it time: Soon, even the most misogynist of old-school fans will look around and realize that female fandom has grown into something equal to, if not greater than, the traditional male model ever managed.