I love fandom. I love having a place to connect with other people who love what I love. There is just something about joining a community of people, all of whom are invested in the same thing you’re invested in – and who won’t judge you for investing in it. Fandom – and shipping – leads to incredible art, incredible fiction, incredible friendships. But, like so many wonderful things in this world, it can have its dark side.
No fandom (that I’ve ever encountered, at least) is free of its share of fans who take things too far. Those who cross the line between fantasy and reality. Who go from disliking characters to attacking the actors who portray them. And, of course, while they may not exist in every fandom, racism, sexism, and homophobia are absolutely pervasive in others.
I’ve discussed before how misogyny exists in television and in fandom. Others have discussed the effects of racism and homophobia in fandom. In this first of undoubtedly several articles, I want to discuss other ways in which fandom can – of too often does – cross the line.
However, before I begin, I want to make one thing clear. I am a member of fandom and have been for longer than I care to admit. I am also a proud shipper in more than one fandom. Fandom as a whole can be a very positive and wonderful thing, I have no doubt. This is by no means intended as an attack on all fans or all shippers. Also, while I reference certain shows and subsects within their fandoms, these problems are not exclusive to those fandoms alone. I could reference more examples from other fandoms, but there is a limit to how long I want this article to be.
Fantasy, Bleeding Into Reality
It isn’t exactly news that fiction is, well, fictional. All but some very extreme fans are well aware that the worlds that we celebrate do not exist in reality. However, that doesn’t mean that fans never blur the line between fact and fiction.
This is probably most commonly seen when fans blur the line between their love – or hatred – for a character and their feelings for the actor. Even when it comes from a place of admiration, that inability to separate the two can be sad – or even downright terrifying.
I’ve seen fans praise one actor for playing a “smart” character with a college degree. There is certainly nothing wrong with valuing an education. But those same fans will trash another character (and, by extension, claim the actor must be stupid) for not having a degree, claiming that they have no value if they have no higher education.
In doing so, I have seen them completely ignore the fact that the actor they are praising has no college degree. Think about the impact of that, particularly on a younger actor. Their fans repeatedly tell them, “Your character is the only one with value, because your character has a college degree. And anyone without that degree is worthless and too stupid to live.” But they don’t have a college degree, so their fans are inadvertently telling them that in real life, they have no value. Imagine what impact that would have on particularly a younger or newer actor – on their self-image and their self-esteem.
Naturally, this is even worse when it comes from intense hatred. It almost seems more surprising to find a fandom that doesn’t accuse at least one actress of getting her job via the “casting couch” than to find one that does. Of course, misogyny plays a good part in this. If there are any fandoms out there that accuses a man of getting his job by sleeping his way to the top, those fandoms are rare. It seems to always be a woman so accused. And all too often, shipping is the underlying cause.
Shipping may also blur the line between actors and characters. Stick around fandom long enough, you’ll find people who ship not just the characters but the actors who play them. And while I have my reservations and concerns about shipping real people rather than fictional characters, I’m not going to pretend that it hasn’t been a staple in shipping since the phenomenon was invented. At the very least, it is hard to resist the temptation to speculate.
Anyone in The X-Files fandom back in the day will well remember the speculation that was rampant then (and recently resurrected) regarding the nature of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny’s relationship. Similar speculation arose in the Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman fandom about Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain.
As long as shipping is a thing, I have no doubt that this kind of speculation and “what if”s will exist in fandom. Honestly, speculation can be fun. And, of course, there have been times when it turned out fans were on to something. With all the speculation and theorizing that happens in fandom, it’s no surprise some have stumbled onto the truth a time or two. But it is still imperative to remember, while delving into fandom, that we are dealing with real people. These are their real lives. And while fans may welcome their favorite actors into their hearts and living rooms, that does entitle fans to information about – let alone to dictate – the actors’ lives off-screen.
Yet it is not uncommon to find fans who take speculation and shipping a step further. Lois and Clark had its share of fans who became convinced that Hatcher and Cain had engaged in an extramarital affair and he had fathered her child. Imagine when her daughter became old enough to use the internet, going online to find speculation of her paternity and family relationships by people they had never met. (Given the relative size of online fandom back then compared to now, it is thankfully unlikely she would easily find such theories today. However, such speculation in a larger fandom today would be almost impossible to eradicate from the Interweb.)
Smallville had conspiracy theorists who claimed Kristin Kruek and Tom Welling had an affair and their love led to his post-series divorce. I don’t know what led to his divorce, beyond his public statements on the matter. Nor do I wish to; it isn’t any of my business. But I doubt Kruek, Welling, or his ex-wife appreciated the public speculation about their private lives. Indeed, Arrow has fans who are convinced there is something romantic between Stephen Amell and Emily Bett Rickards and that his marriage is a sham. Reading tweets he’s sent in the past, it is clear that these theories have been brought to his attention. To say he does not seem overly appreciative of these allegations about his marriage is an understatement.
The Flash has fans who speculate on romantic interest between Grant Gustin and Candice Patton. There are also shippers who have speculated on romance between Gustin and Danielle Panabaker. To my understanding, since Gustin’s engagement, there have been messages sent to him and his fiancé from those who wanted him to end up with one of his coworkers. Certainly, when Panabaker became engaged to her now-husband, more than one fan tweeted in response to her that they wanted her to end up with Gustin.
Just take a moment, step away from the fandom world, and imagine that. You’re engaged to the person you’ve dated for however long. Maybe years. The person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life. You share your excitement and joy. You know you have fans, and you want them to share in your happiness. Only to have people who claim to admire and appreciate you respond, “That’s nice. But I know you and your coworker secretly want to bone, and I really think you should be marrying him right now.” Even coming from fans who supposedly claim to have your best interests at heart, imagine how that would feel. Somewhere on a scale between ludicrous and crushing on any given day, I would assume.
Going a step further, at least one blog (since deleted) created theories from so-called “insider sources” about the actors. This blog alleged that Gustin and Panabaker had engaged in – or wanted to engage in (the theories were inconsistent) – an affair. That the CW and/or the WB was forcing Panabaker to marry her fiancé to preserve their ship on the show, because the chemistry between Gustin and Panabaker was just too powerful otherwise. The blog further alleged that the WB was colluding with her fiancé to try to get her pregnant to force her into marriage. And, of course, in the Trifecta of Creepy, “insider sources” also alleged that all of this was happening because Candice Patton had slept with Geoff Johns, Andrew J. Kreisberg, and Greg Berlanti to not only gain her own prominence on the show but to reduce Panabaker’s.
Now, I certainly hope neither Gustin, nor Patton, nor Panabaker ever read those theories. I could only imagine how it would make any one of them feel to do so. But don’t fool yourselves that this blog was the first or the last of its kind. There is a blog currently active on Tumblr that is supposedly run by a popular Twitter account. Both accounts make similar allegations against Patton. The runner (or runners) of the blog hate Iris West, and they’ve transferred this hatred to Patton to a concerning degree.
You can even tell that they’ve blurred this line, because they state that Patton puts too much of herself in Iris and that’s one reason they hate her. Even if you’ve never watched The Flash, think about that. “I don’t like this character” has become “I hate this character.” Which became “I hate this actress.” Which became “I hate this character in part because there is too much of this actress I have never met and do not personally know in her.”
It’s a level of confusing fantasy and reality that is downright concerning. And fans who blur the line between fantasy and reality, character and actor, read and interpret everything that the actor does to support their world view. There no longer seems to be the cognitive awareness that all speculation – positive and negative – could well be wrong. A comment about Lysol isn’t a secret sign of an illicit affair and love that could have been, if not for those meddling television executives. A tweet about an embarrassing story isn’t a secret sign that the actress is a pedophile. An Instagram picture of a hat that was a gift by a co-worker isn’t a sign of acting out because she’s about to be fired.
Sometimes a fun photo of a hat is just fun photo of a hat. At least 99.99% of the time, actors and actresses are just doing their job. They are not spending the bulk of their days in Machiavellian plotting to ruin each other’s lives. And sometimes an engagement happens because the two people are in love and really want to spend the rest of their lives together. Not because of a fictional or speculative ship.
These fans who blur the line between Patton and Iris don’t like the character of Iris. They don’t like Iris’s role or her prominence on the show. (And, to be sure, racism and misogyny do play a part in the hate she gets. However, the commonality of arguments across fandoms suggests they aren’t the only things at play.) So they accuse Patton of sleeping her way into the job. They entertain absolutely no possibility that maybe the people in charge just don’t view the actors, the characters, or the story the way they do. Maybe she’s not blackmailing Berlanti to keep her job or to get the storyline she has. Maybe that’s just the story that Berlanti and the other Powers that Be want to tell.
Sometimes you see the world in a particular way, and sometimes… just sometimes while your friends agree with you, others don’t. Even others who have the power in the situation. People with the power to decide what characters to promote. To determine what tales to tell. And if you take a step back from the show you love and look just at the situation without fandom goggles on, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the character played by the female lead and second billed in the cast than others with lower billing. Even if you personally like those with lower billing more.
These specific examples are taken from The Flash fandom. However, The Flash fandom isn’t alone in making these allegations. I’ve seen similar kinds of allegations in fandoms for Arrow, Riverdale, and even One Direction. I remember when some Arrow fans speculated on who Katie Cassidy slept with to get her job. (The general consensus by those who participated in this discussion seemed to be “every executive. Just…all of them.”)
I’ve read theories about shows I’ve never seen. I couldn’t name a One Direction song if my life depended upon it. And yet, I’ve seen the speculation about the actors and singers involved. Speculation – from both supporters and detractors – and the blurring between fantasy and reality isn’t rare. It isn’t relegated to just one or two fandoms. So it is hard for me to imagine that the celebrities involved have never come across it.
I can only imagine how reading it must make them feel.