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Women and Power (Meta on BNFs, Hate, and Anonymity)
 by Miriam Heddy

An opinion column in the humor paper The Onion begins,
I think it's about time we had a female president of the United States. I don't care what anyone says: Women can be just as smart and qualified as men—especially the clowns we've had in Washington lately. But Hillary Clinton? She's just a little too ambitious to do what no woman before her has ever done.

Hillary seems to think she knows what our country needs better than anyone else, and believes that she, among the hundreds or thousands of qualified politicians, is the only one who can do it. Is that really the sort of person we want at the helm of our federal government?

Not to mention that she's extremely self-promoting.... I don't want to use the B word, but she seems awfully bossy to head an executive branch that employs 450,000 people.

In fandom, one of the unwritten rules has long been that if you acknowledge that BNFs exist, you must also subscribe to the notion that fandom is a meritocracy in which those who have power deserve it and wield it well, and further that anyone can become powerful if they only want it enough and want to work for it. Anything else is sour grapes--a dismissal that doesn't engage any of the questions raised by the criticism, but just turns it back around on the speaker.

Leaving aside the dubious claim that fandom (or any political/social system) is truly meritocratic (let's just pretend that it is) it seems to me that what's often elided from these discussions is just what that work really entails. Can anyone do the work? How can we tell if, as a community, we're not altogether sure we want to admit that "BNF" is really a position at all? What would it look like if we posted it as a job listing? What would we look for if we were hiring? What if we were hiring for the other positions in fandom? It's just easier to play with porn, which, like BNFs, is something we know when we see it.

We say things like, "She's a BNF because she works hard" and "She writes better than anyone." But we know--I'm sure we know--that power is held and kept by more than this "hard work" we gesture vaguely at, and that it takes more than verbal skills, even in a realm in which words seem most valued. Stories are recced (or not), writers are discussed (or not), writers are friended (or not) by different people--people with more power and less power. Alongside all powerful people are others with power who exist in a mutually beneficial relationship that is always threatened by power jockeying, because all power is not equal (and maybe we wouldn't want it if it were so). Behind all powerful people, and working under them, are plenty of people working their asses off, usually in quieter ways, and with less name recognition, but working in different ways.

So with this "BNF" phenomenon, we're talking about people who want to be known. Let's not pretend that being known happens accidentally, events conspiring in mysterious ways and all that. We may all get our 15 minutes, but to hold the spotlight for longer than that? What does that entail?

Powerful people are often incredibly seductive, charming, manipulative, self-centered people who get a charge from being in charge. Those may, in fact, be necessary character traits for anyone whose power depends on others and is not simply inherited (and even in cases where power is inherited, there is the small matter of getting enough allies to keep from being beheaded). Powerful people are risk-takers, but what makes risk possible is a certain amount of confidence--something more than simple bravado. It takes something that we might call ego. And if the risk is taken and it goes badly? Being able to walk away from a failure (of a story, an attempt at pimping a fandom, a recs page, a fandom where you didn't become a BNF) takes a lack of investment in the story, the readers, the fandom, and in the people, and that requires the belief that you can easily live without them because they are replaceable.

Fandom is a largely female community, and there's something deeply taboo about admitting that BNFs are different, not simply because they may write better, or throw really great parties (the things we appreciate), but also because they embody things we may not really admire even if we benefit from their acquaintance, and their friendship, and even if we think that, in many respects, they are nice people.

There is the problem of how unladylike it is to admit you want to boss people around (or, to put it more delicately, that you would like to be responsible for directing the work of others). There is the fact that admitting that the powerful manipulate the affections of others and engage in premeditated and often superficial courtships of others for their own purposes implicates us at all levels of the game.

If we are a FoBNF, have we been manipulated? Have we helped manipulate others in some way? Have we tried to curry favor lately? Did it make us feel strange when we noticed it, or is it okay as long as nobody calls us out on it? If we intentionally steer clear of BNFs, is it really by choice or have we been subtly or not so subtly kept out, and why? If we keep clear of BNFs or spend time in smaller fandoms where there are fewer of them, do we want to take responsibility for our silence and the repercussions of not speaking or being involved? Do we feel okay if we don't vote, lay low, and maybe sometimes don't speak out against perceived injustice because we believe it's simply not worth it?

As with all things taboo, we have our jokes... about minions, for instance. We use these jokes to distance ourselves from engaging with what could turn ugly (and what might already seem ugly to us, if we looked at it hard enough, or with the same critical eyes we look at other political and social systems with which we have some distance, or want some).

Fandom sometimes feels large, but it's a pretty small world, and you can lose a helluva lot by pissing off the wrong person. Sure, it's all voluntary, all extracurricular, all amusement, but... Fandom is also part of how many fans define themselves, and the locus of a support system that, for many, simply doesn't exist anywhere else (and maybe can't exist anywhere else). So no, I don't believe that there are no risks to asking any of these questions. It would be easier to do so anonymously, because of that risk. It is a real risk to admit that power exists in its sometimes uglier forms, and to pretend that risk isn't real is also to pretend that power isn't real, and that the risk feels more or less risky depending on how much power you have.

Perhaps the big problem is that, at present in fandom, we don't have any way to address any of this that feels safe except through expressions marked "hate"--in part because we really do, I think, rightly believe that some aspects of BNFs are hateful, and injurious, and fraught, and make us hate power, and the people that wield it, and ourselves (wherever we are on the scale). We aren't quite sure we like the way power looks on us or other women. We aren't always sure we like the way that it feels to be whoever we are, at the moment.

In a democracy, we can still criticize any public person, with our names attached, and say that they are undeserving of their power, that they misuse their power, or that they screwed someone over to get it, or that behind the great smile there's something else. We can say pretty much whatever we want short of lying about them or calling for their death.

But in fandom? We cannot even talk about what it might take for a woman to get into a position of power without eliding almost everything , because we are always insiders to it, always looking at ourselves.

I've noticed a trend in recent responses to the hate, and that's to condemn it, with rhetorical moves designed to set the writer (who would never post anonymously and who just doesn't understand the need) outside of it, above it. And yeah, that feels good--maybe good in the very same way that writing anonymously feels good. But I'm not altogether sure either response is unproblematic.

These hate threads and wanks come up cyclically, always the same, and then they go away. And why is that? The easy (too easy) answer is that there are always bad people out there causing trouble, and even if they post anonymously, we all know who they are.

The harder answer might be that the expression of hate acts as a temporary catharsis for those writing anonymously, and the attributed expressions of hate for the hate threads act as a similar catharsis, also temporary and mostly ineffectual. And in the end, we all feel a little cleaner, even when getting there required that we label other people (the anonymous, the BNFs) as dirty.

And nothing really changes. The anonymous are disenfranchised even as they would likely also be if they put their names to their words. And those who dismiss the haters dismiss everything they say because it is ugly (and yes, it is, no doubt). So inevitably, the pressure builds again, and we all find ourselves here again, in this not-so-nice place, wishing feebly (if with good intentions) that everyone could just get along, even as we mostly do that, most of the time, simply by keeping a smiling public face on for as long as it will hold before finally cracking.

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