I’m on my flight back to New York (pro tip: American Airlines may have in-flight Internet, but it doesn’t have power outlets in coach), and thought I’d take time that’s unlikely to be productive in any other way to respond and follow up on the Buffy singalong situation of the other day.
First, I don’t care if you like Dawn or not. No, really. I’m pretty ambivalent about her myself. And, I recognize that being late to the fandom (that’s one of the things my essay in Whedonistas is about) means that I experienced the show differently — I wasn’t waiting a week between episodes, and I wasn’t in that discussion hothouse that happens when shows are aired for the first time.
I’m actually totally okay with the fact that many, possibly even most, of the commenters on my first post about this got (and gosh, there sure were a lot of you — this blog had previously gotten about 1,000 hits on its busiest day; thanks to Whedonesque it was over 5,500) side-tracked on how they feel about Dawn. I actually often like digressive conversations, and it was interesting.
However, my post really, really wasn’t about Dawn, and it felt like a lot of people missed that. It was about someone who may well have fit the legal definition of a child being bullied by a room full of adults because she stuck up for a character based both around her own affection for that character and the wishes of the show’s creator. This wasn’t, despite the fact that I am someone who often feels the need to defend the honor and memory of characters, about bullying Dawn. This was about bullying a fan, in the room, who was at a power disadvantage to those doing that bullying.
Character hate and character bashing can be weird. We get it a lot in Doctor Who and Torchwood fandom too, where, I suspect, the most common targets are Rose (DW) and Gwen (TW).
What’s character bashing? Lots of things qualify, but I can think of two easy, obvious and common examples: when fans, for no narrative reason, hold characters to a higher standard than other characters with comparable storytelling purposes; and when characters are portrayed in transformative work (e.g., fanfiction) in a way that exaggerates their perceived negative qualities in a way that’s aggressive, punishing, shaming and non-satirical (i.e., a character who has an extramarital affair appears in fanfiction as sleeping with a different person every night, being abusive to their spouse, and being relentlessly mocked for their sexual behavior by their colleagues in a story with A- and B- plots related to none of these things. It’s just the bullying of a fictional character as filler).
Character bashing is one of those things I really don’t get, and I don’t really study it, and so hesitate to make any sweeping conclusions about it. Certainly, there’s got to be a certain level of catharsis in getting out one’s irritation about a character that drives you mad (I, certainly, am not above shouting at the TV when I find Connor particularly irritating on Angel — I loathe that character, and often resented having to watch him, even as his presence was necessary to facilitate what’s one of my favorite arcs in all of television).
But one thing I have noticed is the way in which gender tends to be central to character bashing and the way in which character bashing often seems to provide a framework for bullying (i.e., of other fans who disagree), or, somewhat more subtly, a surrogate target for bullying.
Now, you’d think I could get behind at least the surrogate target thing. That at least prevents real people from getting bullied, right? Wrong. When people are shouting out things like “I hope you get raped” at group screening events (something I’ve now heard happens at some OMWF screenings, but at least did not happen at the one I reported on), that has an impact on real people. As does when female characters are vilified for being sexual, flawed, attractive, popular and/or successful. Or, when male characters are aggressively and relentlessly ridiculed for their performance (or rather non-performance) of masculinity.
So did gender come into play with what happened at the OMWF singalong at Gallifrey One? You bet. And it was as vivid and fascinating as it was awful.
The people yelling “Shut up, Dawn!” which is what started the whole thing, seemed to be mostly women. Women showing disdain for a young female character for speaking. And what was Dawn saying? Oh, just the truth that revealed the awful crap that Willow was doing to Tara at that point in the narrative. So what was that about? Willow/Tara love? Hatred of a snitch? Contempt for Dawn indirectly calling Willow out on her bad and arguably bullying behavior? Or just resentment for another pretty girl the audience is supposed to have some modicum of sympathy for?
Meanwhile, the people who then started yelling, by insisting both the upset fan and Michelle Trachtenberg “toughen up,” at the girl who spoke up about the anti-Dawn outbursts, seemed to be mostly men.
At this point, a few people yelled out trying to get everyone to knock it off. Which is when the hostility at the young fan escalated (and again, let me remind you — very possibly underage and expressing the wishes of the show creator), and I shouted, “Stop bullying other fans.” That worked (to my relief and surprise), and to me seems to indicate that people knew they were behaving badly.
Which is why when I went up to the fan after the screening and saw her surrounded by several people (somewhere in the 6 – 10 range), I assumed they were there to offer her support or apologies. Nope, they (and again, here, mostly men) were explaining to her why they were correct both in silencing Dawn and in telling this fan that Dawn deserved this and that she is required to “toughen up.”
What was perhaps most remarkable here is that the fan continued at this point, not to defend herself, but to defend Dawn. This is stories mattering in action. There have been so many times in my life where I protected fictional people when I didn’t yet feel ready to openly protect myself. I don’t know this fan, or her internal framework, but I was moved by what seemed like an honorable defense of joy from the moment this mess started.
So let’s recap:
- Women bashed a female character for telling the truth;
- Men then enforced the ability of those women to do that and while mocking a young fan who may have been legally a child;
- Afterward, instead of going to see if the kid was all right (because this is our con, our fandom, our community — Gally is a small con (this is the first year it broke 2,000 people) with a legendarily family atmosphere), people went up to her to reinforce their perception that she and her feelings were wrong and used their status (age and gender) to do so.
After this experience, I think we perhaps need fewer OMWF singalongs and more group showings of “The Pack.”
And if you’re the fan whose defense of Dawn ultimately necessitated this post and the previous one on this subject? I’m so sorry. I’ve been the subject of big discussions on the Internet because I’ve had the audacity to stick up for people or express my opinion. It sucks, and it’s stressful, and the last thing I EVER wanted to do here is contribute to your bad day. Because I didn’t get to watch Buffy until I was 38, it didn’t really get a chance to change my life or make me brave. But among other things, I’m a woman who fights, and I am so glad this show and the community that should exist around it means so much to you. I hope this hasn’t put you off either Buffy fandom or the Whoniverse. Despite what happened on Saturday night, I promise you, most of us do believe that intellect and romance should trump brute force and cynicism.
Thank you for helping fight that fight.
ETA 2/23/2010: A few final thoughts about the discussion this has engendered.