Are Fandoms Fracturing Our Communal Identity?

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In the last two decades, something interesting has happened: as a result of an explosion of representation on screen, the lesbian community has lost some of the cultural unity that it once had. Consider: in 2004, basically every lesbian or bisexual woman was watching the same thing: “The L Word.” These same women had all watched the same movies, too: “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” (1995), “Bound” (1996), “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999), “Lost and Delirious” (2001), “Tipping the Velvet” (2002), “Saving Face (2004),” “D.E.B.S.” (2004), etc. Lesbians almost uniformly had a shared viewership experience, shaped by the scarcity of available material. This common experience led to a broad sense of community, a shared cultural background that transcended differences. A butch lesbian from Alabama could walk into a room full of New York lipstick lesbians and get an immediate response from the question, “Man, how bad does Jenny suck, amIrite?”

In 2019, however, there is no longer the same monolithic viewership. With so many different lesbian and bisexual characters to watch, our community has fractured into an archipelago of fandoms. A viewer might, for example, be a “Wynonna Earp”/”RED”/”Supergirl” fan, but know little about Freya and Keelin on “The Originals” or Robin and Alice on “Once Upon a Time.” A Creampuff is likely not to have heard of Aadya and Aanchal on “The ‘Other’ Love Story,” although both “Carmilla” and “The ‘Other’ Love Story” are on YouTube. Members of Generation Z probably haven’t even seen “The L Word,” a fact that is anathema to older generations.

To be clear: there is nothing at all wrong with fandoms. Fandoms are an excellent source of community and often are a powerful force for good. Moreover, the stovepiping of viewership into fandoms is inevitable in this day and age, when there is so much content available on TV that it’s impossible to watch all of it. On the other hand, the stovepiping also means that we’re quickly losing the shared foundation that we once had. We’ve always had shipper wars (are you Team TiBette, or Sharmen?), but now the ships might not even recognize each other (how many viewers can argue the pros and cons of Kat and Adena (“The Bold Type”) vs. Nasreen and Lila (“Ackley Bridge”)?). It’s a thought-provoking but not necessarily bad evolution: rather than a single conversation about lesbian representation, we’re having dozens.

Of course, the shift from a communal identity into fandom-centric identity also means that we’re unwittingly eroding the desire on the part of fans for a centralized and authoritative authority on lesbian pop culture. Why read through sites that report on lesbian books, movies, music, and fashion if you only want to read a recap of your favorite show, “Legends of Tomorrow”? As fans engage more with each other and specific content creators through social media sites like Twitter, it’s possible that they’re becoming more culturally insular, choosing to focus their energy on a very small number of fandoms rather than keeping up with a wider landscape of lesbian content. (In a professional context, we might call this a shift towards specialization over generalization.)

At the same time, if general pop culture sites are losing their influence, it seems that influence is being picked up by individuals within the fandoms; prominent voices with sway over the fandom (I call them the ship “first mates” to the actresses who are the “ship captains”). These first mates act as cheerleaders, rallying fans to action and buoying fan spirit. However, their leadership doesn’t often transcend multiple fandoms, meaning that at a group vice individual level, the ties between fandoms may be tenuous. Described another way, the first mate for Flozmin (“Las Estrellas”) is unlikely to also be the first mate for AvaLance (“Legends of Tomorrow”), and the two fandoms are unlikely to have strong ties to each other even if some fans watch both pairings.

Although the separation into fandoms may be causing a community level fracturing, there are some positive (and one negative) side effects of it at the show and individual level:

  • Increased ability of some shows to harness the “pink dollar”: Because basically, every lesbian in the United States watched “The L Word,” Showtime could be said to have been the first to really harness the viewership of lesbians en masse. Today, catering to its lesbian and bisexual fans has reaped dividends for “Wynonna Earp,” a pink dollar success story. The dedication and intensity of fandoms are a huge boon to shows, particularly those on the bubble for renewal. Then again, the domination of a select few fandoms in the lesbian pop culture conversation may unwittingly hurt other shows by leaving them less watched (although to be fair, there’s so much content that there were always going to be some shows that got less viewership anyway).

  • New avenues for publicity: Back in the day, any new lesbian content was flagged by sites like AfterEllen and then everyone went to go look. Now, new content is often found and publicized through online word of mouth, a faster and potentially more effective transmission method. This is a big help to projects that might otherwise have flown under the radar. That said, some content—particularly foreign language content—doesn’t seem to transcend into other fandoms.

  • Less interest in extra-fandom or trans-fandom issues: Netflix canceled “Sens8,” “Gypsy,” and “Everything Sucks!”…but fans of “Black Lightning” or “Grey’s Anatomy” might not even have noticed they’re gone. As fans link their identities to specific fandoms, it shrinks the aperture of their attention.

Ultimately, it’s a good problem to have: so much representation that we can no longer all talk about just one TV show. Progress, right?