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How ‘Anti‑fandoms’ Become a Tool To Scrutinize, Harass Women

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Aug 26, 2022

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Image Credit: Vanity Fair

Olivia Wilde is the locus of a tidal wave of ire. Her offence? Being Harry Styles’ girlfriend, it would seem. And while she may be the latest, she’s not the only woman to suffer a barrage of hatred, harassment, and negativity for seemingly no reason.

Increasingly, this fixation is directed at women — they are scrutinized, harassed, and policed inordinately, often in connection with another personality that their anti-fans are fans of. Reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany observed just this during the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial: ardent, devoted fans of male celebrities become anti-fans of said celebrities’ partners.

Fan studies scholars have begun to pay attention. While fandoms create communities based on mutual love, admiration, and solidarity for a text (which includes celebrities), “anti-fan discourse is increasingly being used as a sort of metaphorical fig leaf for preexisting prejudice and bigotry,” notes one study.

Online communities are increasingly becoming spaces of directing targeted aggression toward celebrities, and name-calling is a characteristic feature driving the aggression. The emotional investment that anti-fans have towards celebrities is akin to that of fans themselves — except that anti-fandoms carry deep negativity in their foundation.


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Anti-fandoms then become a tool to discipline women — especially those who are seen to “have it all” or generally enjoy a degree of success that’s not easily attainable. The worst part? Women themselves may be driving this. A study on influencer anti-fandoms earlier this year, found that women-dominated online communities that hate on influencers purport to do so to call out “fake femininity” — but the project is ultimately undermined by a failure to advance a structural critique of gender. Instead, the anti-fandom spaces become yet another vehicle to advance misogyny and cyberbullying.

Sometimes, anti-fandom is leveraged through plain old gate-keeping and sexism. Consider the #NotMyDoctor moment in response to actor Jodie Whittaker taking over as Doctor Who. The backlash against a woman as Doctor Who played on resentments against “woke” media — while straight, white, male anti-fans became the loudest voices in proclaiming their alleged marginalization by the show and BBC.

What makes anti-fandoms such potent mediums for misogyny is their being cloaked in the garb of legitimate critique. Tiffany noted of anti-fans of Amber Heard following a certain playbook common to other anti-fans: they “subject the women they hate to body-shaming and wild criminal accusations, and skewer them using sexist tropes. The targets of their anti-fandom are manipulative and ambitious, as a rule, but also stupid. They are glamorous and seductive, but also secretly disgusting.” But these blatantly misogynistic narratives are justified using progressive stances — many self-proclaimed feminist fans of Johnny Depp said that Amber Heard took feminism back, and thus claimed to be doing a service to feminism by calling her out.

Anti-fandoms then inadvertently represent a reactionary undercurrent in fan cultures — one that valorizes a status quo or a past where bigotry, prejudice, and conservative norms around gender prevailed. As one scholar notes, “… anti-fans are driven by a moral economy concerning notions of authenticity, celebrity, and performance of gender,” further analyzing how anti-fans end up as voices for moral policing.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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