Monday, September 16, 2013

Fangirl 101: The Fourth Wall

Fandom’s fourth wall is a term that has been thrown around a lot lately, and everyone seems confused about what is it and how and why it gets broken. In theatre the fourth wall is the imaginary wall at the front of the stage. It is the window through which the audience is allowed to glimpse the character’s lives. The fandom fourth wall is a little bit different but follows the same principles. It is the imaginary barrier that divides (and protects) fandom from everyone else.  The key word in both these concepts is imaginary, because boys and girls and everything in between, the fourth wall does not exist.

This is not a confusing philosophical debate, I am no way trying to make you question existence but the fact is that the fourth wall is an illusion. It’s a comforting illusion that is quite often useful in helping people understand appropriate behavior but it’s still an illusion.

In fandom the fourth wall is our protector, it creates the illusion of a safe space. It’s sometimes referred to as “fandom is fight club” theory – in that the first rule of fandom is that you don’t talk about fandom. We hide behind the idea that as long as we don’t tell anyone about it, fandom will remain hidden and as such free from judgment and RL consequences. As Aja Romano from The Daily Dot put it: “if they don’t see us, they can’t hurt us.”

Considering the fact that nowadays most fandom practices –fan fiction, fan art and meta discussion – happen in public spaces – namely social networking sites like Twitter and Tumblr – the idea that fandom is hidden or invisible is kind of absurd. It’s similar to when a young child covers their eyes and says: “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me.”

Even before social networking fandom was hardly invisible. Aja lists a number of examples of TPTB (the powers that be) interacting with – and insulting – fandom long before the Internet was a thing. Proving that while it was harder to stumble upon fandom accidentally, it was still possible to do so. Since the migration online fandom has become easily accessible and a hell of a lot more visible. As a result the already flimsy foundations of the imaginary fourth wall are quickly crumbling.

The increasing visibility of fandom coupled with the direct connection to creators and performers that Twitter (and other social networking sites) provides has made maintaining the illusion of the fourth wall incredibly difficult. But that hasn’t stopped fandom from trying.

Despite utopian ideals fandom is essentially a community of exclusion. Membership requires understanding of an invisible set of rules that vary depending on who you are talking to but generally begin with the “fandom is fight club” idea. These unnamed rules are strictly self-policed (there is no impartial entity willing to step in and enforce the rules, in fact there are no rules we just think there are). Fandom is ready to vilify and ostracize anyone that deigns to share our secrets with the enemy, and the enemy is anyone that isn’t us.

This fear of the other, and wariness of outsiders is somewhat understandable considering the stigma surrounding the community. Even though fandom has become mainstream, there are still certain negative stereotypes that are hard to shake. Being ‘outed’ as a member of fandom – especially those who create fan works – can and does have serious real world consequences (I am not exaggerating, I have experienced and witnessed some horrific responses to being ‘outed’ as a fangirl). Secrecy is often necessary, so it makes a certain amount of sense that fans insist on maintaining the fourth wall.  

Here’s the thing though, the illusion of the fourth wall and fandom’s enforcement of it actually does more harm than good. The cone of secrecy within fandom doesn’t stop people from talking about fandom, it just stops fans from talking about fandom.

It’s true, outsiders, media, TPTB often rely on and perpetuate negative stereotypes of fandom but if you think about it this is the only depiction of fandom they are aware of. Fandom won’t let them inside, they won’t talk to them, so they are left to make their own conclusions based on the people that are willing to break the first rule of fandom.

The problem is that the people who are willing to break rules (even though the rules don’t really exist) and risk exclusion from the community tend that fandom doesn’t really want to be associated with. They don’t really care about their fellow fans so why would they care about the comfort of writers and performers. If those on the outside looking in only see the creepy assholes then it’s no wonder they continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes.

As I said above, the fandom fourth wall creates the illusion of a safe space, where we are free from judgment. But it’s a lie, because people are still judging us but because of our self-enforced silence they are not getting the whole picture. It’s a catch 22 of course because in order to defeat the negative stereotype we need to be more open with fan practices, which puts us at risk of being associated with those negative stereotypes and judged accordingly.

Sometimes secrecy is not only necessary but also nice. It’s nice to have something just for yourself and it’s nice not to have to explain the hows and whys to people that are probably never going to get it (trust me this is an excruciating experience). But we do need to get rid of the idea that fandom is invisible. There is no barrier protecting us from the outside world. We cannot hide behind the fourth wall because it does not exist.

When you chose to engage with fandom you put yourself at risk of being judged because of it. Anything that is online on a public forum – like Tumblr – can be accessed by anyone not just fellow fans. Fandom is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s awesome – but it’s still important to recognize that just because you don’t want someone to see something doesn’t mean that they can’t see it.

When I began research for my thesis the few people I talked to were shocked by how little ethical consideration was necessary in order to use Tumblr blogs. Because of my own involvement and understanding of fandom I decided to maintain a certain level of anonymity but there was nothing stopping me from using any Tumblr blog, because it was published online and it was open access. Contrary to popular belief Tumblr is not a secret society, and it’s kind of scary that it’s treated that way.

The stigma surrounding fandom is not fun, but enforcing a code of silence in order to maintain the illusion of the fourth wall doesn’t help anyone. In theatre the fourth wall allows the audience a glimpse into a fictional world but it doesn’t allow them to be part of it. The same goes for the fandom fourth wall, it doesn’t deny outsiders access to our community it just prevents them from fully understanding it.

Basically the fourth wall does not exist and it is an illusion that prevents us from having our own voice. The fourth wall is not going to break just because someone says shipping at a convention or tweets a piece of fan art to a celebrity because there is no fourth wall. The fourth wall is essentially a fairytale we tell ourselves so we don’t have to think about someone we don’t want discovering what we’re doing.

Fandom is mainstream and more and more people are taking notice. People are looking at us and no matter how tightly we close our eyes it doesn’t stop them from seeing.

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