Let Yourself Be Seen: Vulnerability and Fandom

Navigating fandom is a vulnerable experience, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. We become attached to characters, relationships, and shows because they resonate with us in someway. Sometimes it’s a theme that speaks strongly to us. Other times, a character or relationship provides an example we wish to follow. More often still, at least in my experience, we find a character with whom we are able to relate on some level.

I love this quality of fiction. I love that each person brings their own set of experiences and biases to a work and interprets it in their own unique way. There are certainly overlaps in the way we see things, but no two people will ever see every aspect of fiction in exactly the same way. And that’s exciting! But this quality of fiction that I love so much is also the quality that seems to cause the most hurt.

There are very few people who are naturally comfortable with being vulnerable. It’s an important component to connection but it’s not without risks. Vulnerability opens us up to hurt and that is especially true when we aren’t aware we’re doing it. So when someone views a favorite character in a way that is contrary to our own thoughts, it can make us mad. It can make us want to jump to defend them. I spent a lot of energy in high school arguing with a classmate about Sara Sidle from CSI because I related to her so strongly but wasn’t able to identify or articulate those feelings.

When we jump to anger first instead of introspection, we put up a barrier between ourselves and others to prevent any potential hurt. It’s not inherently a bad reflex. There will always be people who aren’t willing to listen and accept our vulnerability and we never have any obligation to be vulnerable around such people. We don’t have to open ourselves up to people who only intend to criticize or dismiss our emotions. But using that same anger as a weapon to strike out against others neither serves our own personal growth nor contributes to the fandom experience, for ourselves or others. It creates a cycle of attack and defense that quickly leads to a fractured and negative fandom environment. It creates a culture where the act of loving something is seen as an attempt to undermine the feelings of others who disagree at best or an act of hate toward others.

But when we use our emotional reactions as an opportunity to look more closely at ourselves and learn what’s driving that reaction, we are then better equipped to share our insights and a piece of ourselves with positive results. This planned and intentional vulnerability is given the opportunity to lead to something truly beautiful. It is through this shared vulnerability that we are able to form connections that go far deeper than a mutual appreciation for a show or character and lead to profound and long-lasting friendships. Through the filter of our favorite things, we share details about ourselves that we might be hesitant to bring up on our own. We may not talk about the walls we put up to protect ourselves when talking solely about ourselves, but we feel more free to bring it up when talking about the ways Kate Beckett or Emma Swan or Maya Hart inspire us. We don’t always talk about the self-doubt that plagues us despite our best masks, but we can talk about what it meant to us when Raven confided her worries of being broken to Sinclair.

It’s nice when it this happens between friends and has undeniably led to some of the best friendships of my life. It’s becomes even more powerful when it happens on a larger scale. On Sunday night, after what felt like a particularly trying week in The 100 fandom as a whole, @kaneandgriffin asked her Twitter followers to share which character on the show represented them. She then spent the night retweeting all the answers she received and the results were nothing short of inspiring. People mentioned a lot of things that we typically think of when we think about representation. They mentioned Clarke’s bisexuality, Raven’s disability, and Bellamy and Monty’s race. All of these things are so important to see reflected in fiction. It makes us believe in new possibilities for ourselves and it helps change the cultural schema surrounding the groups you belong to. But it didn’t stop there. They began sharing how the arcs these characters have been through represent their own journeys and similarities in personality that have made them feel less alone. It was a truly incredible thing to be a part of and to see so many people willing to share their own struggles and how this show helped them.

Seeing the love my fellow fans have for these characters made me even more happy to be a part of an upcoming fandom project with similar goals. A little over a year ago, Katie from Nerdy Girl Notes launched The Fan Mail Project as a way to showcase the benefits of diverse, positive female representation in the media. Fans were encouraged to submit thank you letters to the characters who have inspired them and helped them in their journeys and along with Katie’s own letters, they will be made into a book and submitted for publishing. Like the representation tweets, these letters required a willingness to be vulnerable and to tell your story. Once all the letters are collected and organized, it is Katie’s hope (and my own) that these letters will make future fans feel less alone in their attachments to fictional characters and the struggles and challenges they may be going through. They will be a tangible example of the power fiction has to change our lives and inspire us. They will be a testament to the uniting powers of vulnerability, so long as the courage it took to write and share the letters is respected by the readers.

Writing my own letters for submission were some of the most rewarding pieces of writing I have ever done. I’m proud of the actual writing I was able to do but I’m happier with the introspection and healing that came with the process of writing them. It is this spirit of sharing myself that The Fan Mail Project and the representation thread encourage that I would love to see more of in fandom. Let’s create more of this behavior. Not only is it incredibly personally fulfilling but the cumulative effect of collective vulnerability brings people together and that is what fandom is about at its core. When we focus on and share the things that touch us deeply instead of messy ship wars and angry differences in character interpretation, we create a better culture. We create communities that make us better as individuals and center around compassionate, empathetic responses to the lives of others. I sincerely hope that this is the direction fandom chooses to move and I look forward to taking part in it for years to come.

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2 thoughts on “Let Yourself Be Seen: Vulnerability and Fandom

  1. I love this, and I love you. It’s like you took everything I feel about vulnerability and fandom and put it in one post.

    It’s so much easier to express vulnerability when talking about fictional characters than it is when talking about yourself. I have found that my deepest connections and relationships have all been formed in some way because I’ve talked to people about why something I love means something to me. It’s the easiest way for me to feel comfortable sharing parts of myself. And that’s why I work so hard to protect that kind of vulnerability in fandom dialogue. Fandom should be a safe space for people to express why things move them or mean something to them. Because when we are able to talk about that, we are better able to understand ourselves. Writing my letters for The Fan Mail Project helped me discover things about myself I never would have admitted without taking the time to understand why I care so much about certain fictional women.

    I also really love what you said about people who don’t respect your vulnerability: “There will always be people who aren’t willing to listen and accept our vulnerability and we never have any obligation to be vulnerable around such people. We don’t have to open ourselves up to people who only intend to criticize or dismiss our emotions.” – That’s something I know I struggle with, especially in fandom discourse. I always want to connect with people on an emotional level, and it’s been a tough lesson to learn that sometimes it’s better to not engage at all, because there are some people who don’t deserve your vulnerability. It’s okay to walk away, and that’s much better than getting angry. Fandom should always be a space where you can feel comfortable being vulnerable, and sometimes it’s up to us to create our own environment where we feel safe and respected enough to share such special and deep things about ourselves. It’s why I feel so lucky to have found the friends and community I’ve found. You guys make it easy for me to be vulnerable, and that has led to more personal growth than I ever could have expected.

  2. This is such a great post Heather, I love it! Being vulnerable is such a difficult thing to do, but fandom can make it easier sometimes. I am so happy to have made some great friends through bonding over characters and shows, and I love that it’s given so many fans a way to explore themselves and talk about big important things.

    I loved kaneandgriffin’s The 100 idea, and I hope more people are inspired to do something like that with their fandoms. It’s so wonderful to see how people connect with fiction in different ways but all find something important to them in it, and that is also why I’m so excited for Katie’s The Fan Mail Project. Seeing so many people willing to share something about themselves so openly is inspiring, and heart-warming.

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