Creative Destruction

July 19, 2006

How Girls Express Aggression and Online Fandom Dynamics

Filed under: Feminist Issues — Ampersand @ 1:03 am

Elkins discusses why online fights, especially within online fandom communities, can get so very nasty. She reflects on the paranoiac style of many online fandom disputes, and wonders if there’s a connection to how girls in our culture are taught to express aggression:

The other week, however, while I was at the beach, I read a book someone had recommended to me on the subject of girls’ particular modes of aggression–Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons–and it was really shocking to me just how well many of the things that this book described were things that I strongly associate with online fandom dynamics. That in turn has made me wonder to what extent much of the “paranoiac” behavior that I’ve been seeing in on-line fandom might be an artifact not only of CMC, but also of the predominantly female demographics of the fandom circles in which I’ve travelled. […]

Because of this, and also because these modes of aggression are often so very subtle, their use actively encourages people to hyper-analyze their social environments, to try to “read things into” all of their social interactions. There’s not nearly as much room for misunderstanding in a fistfight as there is in a dirty look, or in the slight turning away of bodies when a girl who has been targeted for exclusion enters a room. These are shows of aggression which already need to be ‘translated’ in order to be properly understood; if you can’t perform this act of translation, then you will have no idea what is really going on. Girls learn to spend a lot of their time and mental energy trying to analyze and to second-guess the behavior of the people around them precisely because within their social milieus, this is often a relevant social skill.

The above quote only scratches the surface of the post, so I recommend that you head over there and read the whole thing.

There’s a great deal of interesting discussion in Elkin’s comments, as well. I liked this brief discussion of how society views male vs female aggression, for instance, and this comment on the overlap between girls’ friendships, fandom, and romance:

…Another of the things that kept striking me as I read that book was just how similar, in many ways, girls’ friendships at the age at which these behaviors are most common really are to romantic relationships, so much so that I think at times it’s difficult even to avoid the language of romance when we talk about girls’ friendships. Girls get crushes on each other; they have break-ups; they seek exclusionary relationships with their best friends and then become fantastically jealous of interlopers. They write each other what are really, for all intents and purposes, love letters. They’re very passionate about each other.

And that’s something else that I see a lot of in on-line fandom, honestly, although I suspect that some might find it a somewhat uncomfortable subject. 🙂 Fandom interactions often seem to me to have strong homoerotic overtones: we express approbation by giving each other *snogs* and expressing desires to have each others’ “internet babies.” We “fangirl” each other.

I was also particularly struck by the exchange between Lyssabard and Elkins about how the structure of Livejournal encourages paranoia:

The entire ‘friending’ issue is monstrously given to fostering social paranoia, I quite agree, as is the ability not only to friendslock and screen comments, but also to use “private filters,” so that even ‘friends’ can’t really know whether they’re privy to all of each other’s interactions or not. An excellent recipe for paranoia, that – I’m not sure if they could have designed a better one if such had been their intent.

There are many more comments worth quoting, but I’d better stop before I end up summarizing the entire thing.

Although Elkins focuses on online fandom in particular, I can’t help reading Elkins’ essay and thinking about how the interactive style she describes applies to some of the feminist internet communities I’ve been involved with. The closest match I’ve been involved with are the Ms Boards (a large, now-long-defunct feminist bboard that Ms Magazine used to run), where the paranoid style – right down to wondering if parties F were plotting against parties G in private forums or instant chat, and accusations of conspiracies – happened quite a bit. (There was also an appalling amount of cliquishness, which I think encourages that sort of thought).

The Feminist Blogosphere seems to have a great deal less of that sort of thing (at least, I’ve seen it less). I think one reason for that is that there’s less feeling of privacy in blogs. In BBoards – and in LiveJournal communities, for that matter – it’s easy to fall into the illusion (sometimes true, sometimes not) that the people you think of as involved in that community are the only people reading what you write. Blogs, for some reason, feel more like public documents.

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