On Shame in Fandom
(This rant springs from a discussion of shame sparked by perceived judgments on fans by the creators of Sherlock. I’m not going to talk about that wank—I actually don’t think they were casting much shame. But so many people are feeling shamed that I just can’t stand it. So I want to lay out some ideas drawn from my own experience, my reading, and fifteen years of therapy. These may or may not be clear or thoroughly thought out; fact of the matter is, I’m just pissed, deeply pissed, that anyone would cast shame on fandom, or feel shame in it. Feedback, critique, and correction are very welcome.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately, because I’m coming out a bit farther professionally as a fangirl, and every time I search my trepidation, I find—no shame. I refuse it.
I refuse it.
Yes, you can refuse shame. I know, you might say it’s a feeling that crops up without your control, it’s imposed on you from the outside, but you can refuse. Because it’s not about you. It’s about the one shaming, who is usually consolidating their own sense of their moral identity by shaming you.
It’s said that guilt is about what one does, and shame is about who one is. Shame takes guilt—which may or may not be well-founded—and internalizes it into one’s self-definition, one’s sense of oneself. That’s the fuckery of it: you can change what you do, so (well-founded) guilt can be undone. But you can’t change who you are very easily at all, so if you get stuck in shame you’re stuck in someone else’s idea of who you are, which is usually based in their idea of who they are. But I have the right to decide who I am. In this, what other people think of me is none of my business.
Here’s a description of shame that is particularly apropos of fandom, from the psychologist Silvan Tompkins:
"Like disgust, [shame] operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both. The innate activator of shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy. Hence any barrier to further exploration which partially reduces interest…will reduce further exploration or self-exposure….Such a barrier might be because one is suddenly looked at by one who is strange, or because one wishes to look at or commune with another person but suddenly cannot because he is strange…”
Let me break this down: “Like disgust, [shame] operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both.” People see you taking pleasure in something they don’t get, and judge you for it by their own standards. But just because they don’t get it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to get. You can’t let them forbid your interest or your pleasure. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, they don’t have that right.
"The innate activator of shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy." That is, you find you just don’t want to stop taking pleasure in the thing they don’t get, which makes you feel the shaming is legit, because the enjoyment of your fandom has become part of yourself, and you keep being slapped with the idea that it’s wrong.
"Hence any barrier to further exploration which partially reduces interest…will reduce further exploration or self-exposure." Here’s where my anger starts: shame shuts down exploration. Shame shuts down learning. Shame shuts down pleasure. And worst of all, shame shuts down connection to other people: “Such a barrier might be because one is suddenly looked at by one who is strange, or because one wishes to look at or commune with another person but suddenly cannot because he is strange.”
When those who shame us say that we’re strange, they destroy our connections to the people who share our pleasure. We are not strange. Our pleasures are not strange. Strange means alien, means impossible to understand, means wrong, means illegitimate. Our pleasures are not strange. They may be unusual, but they’re not strange.
Our pleasures are legit. They don’t hurt anyone. They produce creativity, joy, and connection to other people. No one can or should forbid our pleasures.
There is a word that always comes back to me when I think about my joy in fandom, when I wonder why it’s so deep, when I ask myself what it’s doing for me: innocence. From the time I was ten years old, I never got to be innocent. Having been forced into sexuality too early, I incorporated my abuser’s definition of who I was: a dirty little girl and a precocious sexpot. I didn’t get to learn desire for myself, didn’t get to have those teenage crushes on actors or musicians, didn’t get any of the naive fumbling explorations that come with discovering one’s own sexuality on one’s own terms. And I was isolated, so horribly isolated.
In fandom I have found an innocent, unselfconscious, joyful pleasure in desire for and adoration of men. I’ve connected with other women over it in profound ways. (My partner said of 221B Con, “It was such a beautiful thing, because I’ve never seen you so happy and comfortable around other women before. You got to have so much love, and that was just great.”) I deserve this innocence. I deserve this joy, and this connection. What I’m doing in fandom is fine, no, better than fine, better than okay—it’s right. What I’m doing here is right, and good, and true.
Nobody shames me.
Important note: just because I come to fandom from a painful place and found healing here, does not mean that fandom is for damaged people, or that fans are more likely to be damaged. Far from it. Very far.
I want to thank all the people—36 so far—who voiced their support for me and made me feel safe writing and posting this. I love you.
Sources for further reading:
Silvan Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, vol. 2, The Negative Affects (New York: Springer, 1963), p. 123.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Shame and Mourning: a Dossier,” www.duke.edu/~Sedgwic/writing/shame.htm
Sedgwick, A Dialogue on Love (New York: Beacon Press, 2000).
Sedgwick, “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), pp. 35-65.