Last week, The Mary Sue published a very important and nuanced think-piece about the controversial issue of Jessica Jones fans shipping Jessica with her mind-controlling former rapist/abuser Kilgrave. Why this is a controversial issue should be fairly apparent, and while I am not here to make unilateral condemnations of the practice, or formalized prescriptions about shipping as such, I do think it is worth teasing out some of the broader fandom politics illuminated by this particular debate.
Maddy Myers’ piece explored the issue from a more psychological perspective – why do individual people feel inclined to ship them, and how might patriarchal conditioning be at work in this? While this is a worthy angle of interrogation, I would like to approach the issue more from a perspective of fandom as a liminal space hovering between “the public” and “the private.”
There has never been consensus either in individual fandoms, or in fandom more broadly, as to whether fan activities ought to be held to the same kind of political scrutiny as we hold mainstream media. There is significant spectrum of attitudes ranging from, at one end, an almost pure laissez faire politick of any kind of fantasy goes: bestiality, noncon/dubcon/rape, pedophilia, you name it. If you can think it, it can legitimately be part of fandom practice. This attitude is contrasted by a highly critical disposition which treats fan product and discourse as indiscriminate from mainstream media, requiring comparable political dissection and policing.
Although the following assertion is merely an observational inference, I gather that most fans place themselves somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, most leaning a bit more towards the laissez faire end. Again, I am not here to take a definitive side, or prescribe one to others; I have a tendency to approach the politics of fan doings on very case-by-case basis, for a variety of reasons. But I do want to suggest that whether you think certain ships (or other kinds of fan fantasies) deserve to be “shamed” or not, there are ethics inherent to how shipping and other fan practices circulate in fandom public spheres – Tumblr, Twitter, AO3, etc.
The Public/Private Fanundrum
A significant amount of modern political philosophy relies on a fairly precarious analytic distinction between “the public” and “the private,” often attempting to break down spheres of existence into ever more nuanced delineations between those two poles. We generally accept that domains that are more public are more subject to collective policing and mandatory conformity to societal norms, while the more private a domain is, the less it is subject to such policing. We do not consider a letter shared between two individuals to be open to the same kind of societal scrutiny as a published letter to the editor of the New York Times. The politics of stories that people write and keep totally to themselves are substantially different from those that air on prime-time TV.
Obviously there are exceptions to this, but the general consensus is that the more public something is, the more it becomes subject to collective societal review. Most people accept that mainstream media is fair game for public criticism, and even a certain amount of formal censorship (hello FCC), because it has a substantial impact on the ideologies which circulate in the public sphere.
Fandom product and discourse is not analogous to mainstream media in terms of its reach or impact on society as a whole, and so I concede that the level of scrutiny to which it ought to be rightly subjected is probably less. But fandom is also frankly by definition, a public/communal activity. What makes a fandom a fandom is people sharing with they think and feel and make and do with other fans. Yes you can do certain fan activities alone in your room. You can write fanfic that never goes on AO3, fanart that never goes on DeviantArt, meta that never goes on Tumblr, fanvids that never get uploaded to Youtube. You can be a fan, even a transformative fan, all by your onsie. But you cannot do fandom unless you engage in some kind of communal participation/exchange with other fans (even if it is just as a ‘lurker’).
Fan activity becomes fandom when you put what you are doing into some kind of public sphere, and enable other fans (or just random people on the internet) to come into contact with it. However, by that very same token, what you put into fandom becomes politically loaded by virtue of its publicness. Thus, I would suggest, it is subject to some level of community review and critique.
Now, there are a decent number of fans who believe everyone should be able to do in fandom whatever floats their boat, and if other fans have a problem with it, it is their obligation to unfollow the blog, not read the fic, stay out of the tag, blacklist the thing, etc. I’m going to suggest that perhaps that attitude is a bit excessively libertarian, and try to introduce a distinction that parses out whose “problem” a controversial fandom activity is in any given circumstance.
A great deal of fandom strife is often fundamentally rooted in questions of taste. I prefer this pairing, and I HATE that pairing. I adore this character, but I can’t stand THAT one. Disagreements that are rooted in disparities of personal taste do not contain much in the way of a political charge, and are thus primarily the problem of the people who don’t like the thing. For example, because there is nothing inherently deeply objectionable about Johnlock as a ship, if I don’t like it, it is primarily my responsibility to avoid it in fandom. The onus is on me to unfollow blogs that ship it, stay out of the tags, blacklist the ship name, and so on. When what you dislike is objectionable to you primarily on the basis of personal taste, you are the one who ought to alter your behavior to avoid it, and deal with it when you cannot avoid it.
However, I would also suggest that when a fandom ship or other product/activity contains content that is highly politically objectionable, it is the people producing that fandom content who have more of a responsibility to keep it out of wide fandom circulation, and what might be considered fandom “public” space. Perhaps instead of putting such content on a publically accessible, multi-fandom or multi-ship blog, you ought to create a separate blog just for that stuff; perhaps even keep it private and allow access only to others in the fan sub-community who specifically request access. Perhaps you ought to not tag it with any of the generic tags with which it might be associated, such as the show/book/movie name, or the individual characters. That way even fans who blacklist are relieved of having to see the blacklisting notification in those tags.
I also think perhaps fandom institutions like AO3 ought to create more structural devices to blacklist content, and allow writers to archive content with less general visibility. Perhaps there should be a way to keep fics out of all general listings unless a fan directly searches for a certain tag. Yes, there are warnings, which help, and a search function that allows you to proactively eliminate certain results. But a) the latter isn’t obvious or well-publicized b) things can still get through due to spelling errors or improper tagging and c) that still puts the onus on the fandom ‘general public’ to work at avoiding this type of content.
Due to the structural nature of many fandom institutions, individual fans of Jessica Jones are currently forced to encounter public displays of people shipping an abused, raped woman with her abuser/rapist when going about their regular fandom activities. And I do think enabling casual fan exposure to even the idea of something that radically controversial is ethically questionable, in the Jessica Jones fandom, and beyond.
I would not go so far as to suggest fans should unilaterally refrain from producing content that is extremely controversial, for a number of reasons. First, because fandom work is by definition transformative to some degree, and sometimes fans are actively rewriting the negative or politically objectionable aspects of a ship, or a character, or storyline, to create reparative kinds of content that defuses what was objectionable about the original. Second, because what counts as “controversial” or “objectionable” is also subject to contest and debate and historical reformation. When slash was first created, many people believed it should not have been part of fandom at all and that its presence in the fandom public sphere was extremely objectionable. Nevertheless, I think most modern fans would agree that being able to create and circulate slash in fandom was (and is) an extremely valuable kind of practice that deserves a place in fandom. (For the record, I am not comparing homosexuality to rape in the slightest. I am merely pointing out that what gets classified as “objectionable” in any given circumstance can just as easily be the product of societal forces that are unjustly oppressive as they are, at times, righteously benevolent)
And lastly, because I agree with the assertion that having and creating a fantasy about something is not necessarily the same as condoning it, or being in favor of it happening in real life. The relationship between fantasy and reality is an immensely politically fraught one, and social critics have been (unsuccessfully) debating how much our cultural fantasy realm ought to conform to the politics of our real world for centuries, if not millennia. On the one hand, I think we can all appreciate that publically articulated fantasies do shape the communal sphere, and impact people’s ideological dispositions. We are affected by the stories that populate our cultural milieu. On the other hand, that dynamic of influence is highly mediated by huge variety of other factors, and it is almost never is reducible to a monkey-see-monkey-do trajectory of events. In other words, it’s complicated.
But I would still defend the notion that adult human beings are capable of maintaining enough conscious, critical distance from a fantasy narrative to be able to understand what is politically objectionable about it, while still being able to explore it as a mental exercise. However, adult human beings also should be able to understand why the exploration of such fantasies, and even displays of their mere existence, might need to be actively cordoned off from the general population within larger communities, like fandoms in aggregate. Also, it is important to remember that adult human beings are not the only ones who populate fandoms; because so many people in fandom are underage, or are very young adults, there is, I think, a need to be very careful about how we all circulate and publicize certain kinds of fan-made content.
People often like to say, with a certain amount of sassy disaffection, “It’s my blog/twitter/AO3, I’ll do what I want.” But that logic only holds in so far as what you are doing in fandom is an expression of personal taste or preference, and is not genuinely potentially harmful to other fans in some way. Visibilizing a romanticized narrative about a rapist and rape victim could reasonably be argued to be harmful to other fans in a culture which so often trivializes rape, and dismisses it as desired in many cases. (And in which women, who are disproportionately likely to populate transformative fandom, are also disproportionately likely to be survivors of rape and sexual assault)
I would suggest this dynamic is rather politically analogous to smoking. Smoking has serious risks, just like circulating fantasy narratives about things like pedophilia or rapist/rape-victim love stories has risks. I am not going to go so far as to tell people they cannot smoke, or cannot indulge in those fantasies, alone or with others. But we do place a societal onus on smokers not to put public health at risk with their personal choice to smoke. I think we ought to perhaps have the same norms of behavior in fandom around fan products that are deemed genuinely toxic to the larger community. It is not about telling people WHAT they should do, but rather about policing WHERE they do it, and making sure involuntary second-hand exposure is eliminated, or at least radically minimized.
There are some things fans just should not have to see or have knowledge of, unless they actively seek it out on their own, and I think rapist/rape-victim shipping is probably one of those things.