The Uncomfortable Truth About Fandom Sexism
We need to start talking about sexism in fandom.
This week, the subject has come up yet again in the Doctor Who fandom, with the convention Panopticon making some extremely dodgy comments in their ‘mission statement’, one of which references humorous upskirting (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). Understandably, they’ve come under fire for inappropriate remarks and for not providing an inclusive and safe environment for fans. All sorts of voices are coming forth to condemn the convention, as they should, and the show of solidarity against this conduct is indeed heartening.
What does surprise me, however, is the outpouring of supposed shock being expressed by those within fandom. The problem is this: a lot of fans, predominantly white men, perceive fandom as a space they have ownership of, which is already a place of perfect equality, which does not need to be fixed. In fact, any moves to attempt to make the space more inclusive to women and minorities is often met with anger and scorn.
We all know this unfortunate group of fans exist, and most are happy to condemn them. This is, however, an easy move, and not where change takes place. In my view, it is those men of power and influence in fandom, those who claim to be progressive, to support change and growth, who are currently the biggest obstacle to reaching our fandom utopia. When the ideal is a vague image of harmony and equality, it is easy for many to agree to this aim, yet when this ideal starts to become a reality, with women and minorities gaining more power in fandom, and starting to lead conversations of their own, about sexism and racism in the show and fandom, there are few of these so-called allies who don’t become uncomfortable. Many, it seems, are unused to not having control in such situations, and of them not taking place on their terms. This turns valuable conversations from the growing fandom of women and minorities into what can be easily dismissed as invalid and on the fringes, instead of at the very heart of fandom.
No matter what some might pretend, the Doctor Who fandom is absolutely dripping in sexism. And this latest Panopticon ‘scandal’ is merely the latest in a continuing trend. What we cannot do is pretend it is an isolated incident.
Panopticon’s ‘joke’ about upskirting has no place in a convention which is supposed to be a safe and inclusive place for all, and most can agree the wording was outrageous. However, as a non-white woman who’s been talking about sexism both within fandom and the show for many years now, I have to admit I am exhausted by the faux outrage. Not because I am one of those anti-political-correctness-damn-those-woke-snowflake types, but because I find it hypocritical that the very same members of fandom who are speaking out about this now it has become popular for them to do so (and because there is no risk to them or their careers by taking this view), won’t accept that the very show they love has directly perpetuated these same ideas for a long time now. They also seem perfectly happy to villainize those women and minorities who have put their necks on the line to call this out, while they retain their ‘progressive’ reputations.
On the subject of Panopticon and fan conventions, there is also an argument to be made, which was brought up by Reality Bomb podcast co-producer Joy Piedmont, that although Panopticon is one of the more loudly obnoxious examples of casual sexism, we need to scrutinise more convention spaces, look at how they deal with harassment complaints, and give that same energy to making them more inclusive. As Joy pointed out on Twitter, it is easier to condemn Panopticon’s language while that’s in vogue, than to actually check how each convention stands in terms of their stance on protecting attendees. It is less about performative outrage, more about a consistent dedication to making fandom an equal and welcoming place.
To me it is pure hypocrisy, that the people who will (rightly) condemn this heinous joke about upskirting, will not stand up and accept that the show itself has formerly been littered with this exact sort of ‘humour’, and is worthy of the same scorn and criticism.
The truth is, there is a Doctor Who mini episode written by former show runner Steven Moffat, based around the premise of a male companion looking up the female companion’s skirt, subsequently messing everything up, which ends in the Doctor not telling the usually lovely Rory Williams to get a grip, but instead telling Amy to put on some trousers.
The same people that are happy to declare this fan convention despicable, are those that believe the women and minorities that were vocal in their criticisms at the time were taking things ‘too far’, and even now dismiss their complaints. My question is this. Is it any wonder that a fan convention would make a joke about upskirting, when that very same joke appears as the premise of an official episode?
Where were these voices when Doctor Who saw fit to include such sexist tropes and ‘jokes’ regularly? When a previous show runner saw fit, in a programme aimed at children and families, to present the objectification and shaming of women, and use the Doctor himself as a mouthpiece to support the idea that women need to cover up, otherwise they’re responsible for the reactions of the men around them?
We were here, and we were making noise, yet we were dismissed as radicals, and denied our status as ‘real fans’. We were painted as a group of pesky, man-hating feminists, who had somehow infiltrated the fandom, a fandom we were not entitled to, and thus had to be bullied out again.
I don’t need to list the many reasons in which I find the Moffat era of the show distasteful from a feminist standpoint here, as my point is not that all have to agree. Despite adoring the Russell T Davies era, I do not believe that means the era is unworthy of criticism. In fact, I also think that those who criticise the current era, provided they do not use misogyny, are entirely valid in their responses. Criticism cannot be the enemy of fandom. I often see criticism of media that I do not agree with, but that is the price we must pay in order to allow those from oppressed and minority groups to speak. A member of a minority group speaking their opinion is not ‘fandom drama’, nor is it necessarily ‘toxic’ (within reason). It is merely an opinion, and it must be allowed to stand.
If it is acceptable for white male fans to critique the show, as is common, (I hear no end of complaints about the Sixth Doctor era), then it cannot be seen as an insult when minorities do the same. You see certain ‘acceptable’ complaints, which most take part in, ones which have been mutually decided upon by white male fandom, and then you see the unacceptable complaints, which, surprise surprise, are usually the ones made by minority groups about social justice issues. Many older fans relish the picking apart of classic episodes, and in many cases do so with witty aplomb, yet it is always the complaints about real world issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia which create the sudden irrational cries for an end to ‘negativity’.
If the show is entering a new, forward-thinking era, in which we have a woman in the lead role and the show is making a pointed effort to represent a more broad spectrum of people, then we have to accept what comes with that. It means the voices of women and minorities in fandom being taken seriously, and not just when they say what older male members of fandom find palatable.
I hasten to add that although in my personal perspective, I take particular issue with the Moffat era, for it’s constant sexist tone, tropes, lad banter, objectification, and what I perceive to be an era specifically aimed at boys and men, as well as his own sexist comments, all eras can and should be reassessed with our modern outlook, and stories can still be enjoyed while acknowledging that we can do better. This should not be seen, as it is by many, as some form of heresy or rebellion. In order to create an inclusive and diverse fan space, it means more than simply having us women and minorities present, it means listening to what new perspectives our identities have shaped, and what the show might mean to us. Whether we agree with them or not. The outrage at some fans describing The Talons of Weng-Chiang as racist in their view, speaks volumes about the real intolerance within fandom spaces.
On this subject, I have an interesting personal experience to share. I am a YouTuber who first gained a following among the Doctor Who fandom for writing a number of critiques of Steven Moffat’s sexism, and the Moffat era in general, as well as making videos on the subject, along with other videos which discussed feminist and social justice issues in popular media and beyond. I was not looking for a following, but I felt I could be silent no longer as I watched my favourite show become the home of lad banter, where the women were objectified and only defined by the Doctor, the characters were overwhelmingly white, and LGBT people were simply passing jokes. (The fat gay married Anglican marines, anyone?)
Of course harassment followed, but as a woman with an opinion in a popular fandom, I quickly grew to accept it. The misogynistic harassment set a clear message: put up with things as they are, or go.
Unluckily for those charming people, they only made me more determined to speak my truth, and demonstrated to me quite how far the fandom still had to go.
When I was asked to be on the revamped Doctor Who Magazine Time Team feature some years later by Benjamin Cook, I was thrilled. I was excited to see a diverse lineup (although admittedly not in age), and was surprised and rather impressed that as someone so vocal about sexism within the show (my brother Dan and I have made several YouTube videos touching on these subjects and our disgust at Moffat’s repeated sexism), we had been chosen. As a teenager I had emailed Doctor Who Magazine, during Steven Moffat’s tenure, pitching a feminist analysis feature, which I was not surprised received no response. To be scouted personally by Benjamin for the feature was a dream come true for my young self. The fact he delighted in our Moffat critique and enjoyed our videos on the subject made me hope that perhaps things really might be changing, and new voices might well be rising in fandom, where after so long they had been ignored.
The reaction to the new Time Team was exactly what I had anticipated. In a show about a time travelling alien who tries to do good and promote equality, it is baffling that there is such a huge group of fandom that so completely misses the point. People complained about how ‘woke’ it was, how it was simply ‘diversity for show’, and despite later coming to a similar conclusion myself, it was for utterly different reasons. Many are quick to forget the likes of Verity Lambert and Warris Hussein, a woman and British-Indian man, without whom the show would not exist.
My experience on the Time Team, although enjoyable while it lasted, began to go sour as I found myself repeatedly given taps on the wrist for comments about the sexism in Steven Moffat’s work. My continuing instance that as a woman I had a right to be vocal, and even angry about this, without being restricted by the men around me, was something that became something of a battle, and ultimately led to me being blacklisted from the team without my knowledge. Initially, (after considerable radio silence), I was informed this exclusion was due to my mental health issues, something with alarmed me for entirely different reasons. Quite clearly, this was not the appropriate or adequate response to a person with mental illness, and ableism is not befitting of the magazine, nor condoned by it. When I put this to Ben, the real reason quickly came to light. It was indeed my refusal to stop talking about the sexism in previous eras of the show that was making me rather too much of a wildcard. In fact, I was even accused of ‘putting people in danger’ by refusing to back down on this particular issue, not to mention informed that I needed to pipe down or else the dreaded Daily Mail were going to target me. Here lies the problem. Instead of supporting a woman against this, it was far easier to put pressure on me to be silent.
I was informed that Steven Moffat was an important man in terms of the magazine, and that although speaking truth to power was apparently supported, it wasn’t when calling out particular men. Sadly, I was unsurprised by this reaction, which included describing me as ‘slagging off the production team’ and ‘publicly sh*tting on Steven Moffat’. Presumably the more palatable thing to do was make such criticisms in private, where nobody might hear me, and where the delusional ideal of total equality in fandom and the show could continue. Certainly I was hearing these same criticisms from certain individuals privately, and actually some I found distasteful, but there was an acceptable fandom face we clearly had to put on. Yes, we all agreed the sexism was bad, but heaven forfend we come out and say so. In fact, when I explained that I could not possibly censor myself to be more palatable, I was informed that ‘representing the show with dignity, diplomacy, and class shouldn’t be an imposition’ which rather speaks for itself.
It is important for me to note that in spite of this, it was a great privilege to be in the feature, and that the editor, Marcus Hearn was unaware of this, and when made aware, treated me with admirable respect. I cannot say if Doctor Who Magazine itself is at fault here, or if the blame lies with those in charge of individual features, but what it does confirm is that uncomfortable bias we still have in a society, a desire to protect the powerful. A fear of being dismissed for expressing discomfort. And I am not the only person to have experienced such an incident within this particular fandom.
When criticism is perceived as a personal attack, as ‘classless’ or lacking in ‘dignity’ this leaves women and minorities in a very sticky situation indeed. It is of course the white men of fandom who are allowed to determine what constitutes valid critique, and what they believe is simply taking things too far and making a scene. My opinions about said sexism were described as ‘mean spirited’, which of course implies that keeping quiet is what makes a minority ‘nice’ and valuable. We have heard these attitudes time and time again. The oppressed and marginalised must be dignified, which means don’t rock the boat, and those in power can in turn reward them for this, while retaining a progressive exterior. Too many of us hear these same complaints daily, being told that it is cruel to point out what is our own dehumanisation.
To this day, we, as women and minorities, have an uncertain place within fandom. It is not a space in which we are believed to belong. We are outsiders who need to toe the line and go along with established thought in order to be respected. Otherwise, we are merely troublemakers, snowflakes, and figures of ridicule.
It is also notable in my personal circumstances that my brother was kept on the team in spite of his own comments about Moffat’s misogyny, as we all know that when a man dares to voice such an opinion, it is far more palatable than those awful shrieking, overdramatic women. It was also interesting to see that the backlash to the team as a whole, was almost exclusively aimed at the female members, with a few of us picked out for extra special scorn. Some of the women on the team found this constant level of harassment extremely difficult to handle, and it caused a great deal of stress.
I applaud Chris Chibnall and his team for pushing for better representation and diversity, and am delighted by his choice to have a woman play the Doctor, but progress is still slow. While the show itself is leaping forward, fandom is at a standstill. The same white male figures are still in charge of attitudes and narratives, with opinions being deemed as acceptable or disgraceful based on the validation of these men.
In fact, I worry that as in society, sexism in fandom is increasing rather than dying out, perhaps as a panicked response by those who preferred a time of inequality. True ‘toxic fandom’ is rising, and it looks nothing like impassioned critiques. We now have the #NotMyDoctor lot, who apparently cannot accept that a time travelling alien who can completely regenerate their body might at some point not be a white man. You cannot go on YouTube to find good Doctor Who fan content without having some sexist video essay pop up, in which a faceless person describes how Doctor Who has gone to the dogs due to a ‘PC agenda’, and bizarrely, Jodie Whittaker herself.
My theory is that this hotbed of sexism has been allowed to grow and flourish, and has become ever more emboldened, because so many in fandom, and indeed the so called ‘progressives’ have decided to stand by and say nothing when faced with the growing sexism of both show and fandom in recent times. What we see is an explosion of pure misogyny, a sneering, seething hatred of anyone who isn’t a white male in fandom, and this group is unfortunately going nowhere fast.
So what can we do to change things? Sadly, it isn’t something I can see happening overnight.
The first is issue is that instead of this being a rogue group of particularly misogynistic fans, their attitudes are seen within the source material itself. As I have previously touched on, when the show itself has, at times, been accused of having a ‘women problem’, and has been known to use sexist tropes and jokes with no real consequences, how can we possibly eliminate sexism from our fandom? It is my belief that the repeated sexist jokes and themes of the Moffat era only emboldened many disgruntled fans, who were starting to worry about the growing numbers of women and people of colour making themselves heard in fandom. Many Doctor Who fan forums were full of posts discussing the so-called ‘gay agenda’ of the RTD era (aka representing non-straight people), and relishing the fact that they, white men, were the most important type of fan again. This entitlement is a poison in any fandom.
The second issue, is that many supposed progressives in the Doctor Who fandom are happy to talk the talk, but when it comes to actually doing something about it, we see a very different story.
Having been told while on the Time Team that I needed to choose what was important to me, being on the team or continuing to call Moffat’s work sexist, and that calling out said sexism wasn’t ‘classy’, as well as others being routinely told off for not quite toeing the line, it was startling to see some of the same figures publicly posting about their support of women in fandom. It would still seem that in 2019, the preferred feminists in fandom are those that are a) white men, and b) charmingly silent when it comes to those in power.
What I am saying is that diversity cannot just be for show. Fandom needs to make a choice, do we make an effort to be progressive, or are we not brave enough? That doesn’t mean just seeing more brown faces and women, (which I might add have been here all along), but listening to those people. It means accepting criticisms from those people that might seem radical to a fandom so predominantly ruled by white men. It does not mean total agreement, of course, as fandom is a space for discussion and debate, and always, respect. But it does mean that these white men need to relinquish control of our narratives and conversations. Listening is key.
The lie of criticism ‘feeding toxic fandom’, is as ridiculous as it is insulting. Surely the nature of said criticism must be taken into account? What we see here is a new and insidious form of silencing. What on the surface seems to be all about positivity and love, is really an unspoken ultimatum to minorities that speak out. Be positive constantly, no matter the content, or be dismissed. Clever manipulation is taking place to retain the status quo. The lie that all criticism is automatically toxic, and that the sexist #NotMyDoctor brigade, and those who oppose them and other forms of sexism are equally at fault, is a dangerous precedent to set. In a situation of misogyny, there is no middle ground.
Those more extreme misogynistic voices are easy to focus on, but the point Joy Piedmont made in reference to the Panopticon convention is, I believe, relevant to the state of fandom, and social justice as a whole. As the saying goes, talk is cheap. And there are a lot of people talking who really ought to be practicing such ideals in their everyday interactions with fandom and the show.
While the validity of criticism depends on the acceptance of white male faces in fandom, there is no progression. It is not for the Doctor Who fandom to graciously open itself up to minorities and women, it is for those popular voices to step back instead of taking ownership, to amplify our voices, to listen, to respect, and accept that we are not intruders. We may be louder now, but I promise you, we have been here all along.