The Case for Gatekeepers

We build too many walls and not enough bridges. (1).png

I come from a darker era for comic book fandom and really, general nerd-kind. I remember being told over and over again that I wasn’t a real fan because I was biologically female. I was told that I couldn’t be that into comics. I was clearly just doing it for attention. I was clearly just there because I only thought the covers were pretty. And psychologically, that’s really hecking damaging. It’s frustrating having to constantly prove that you are a fan of something. I was quizzed, questioned and dismissed so many times that I just came to accept it and now that we are in a halcyon era of comic book movies and nerd acceptance but maybe… just maybe gatekeeping wasn’t so bad in places.

Let’s take a minute to go over some vocabulary. Gatekeeping is a sociology and recently appropriated fan term that essentially means more “experienced” fans act as, well, gatekeepers and use their knowledge in a certain property or fandom to keep novice or newer fans out. We see this sort of phenomena in a lot in the cringe-inducing comic book guy in most television shows. Think The Simpsons or the literal entire cast of The Big Bang Theory or literally any other popular thing. They all have the same comic book dude who can’t hold a conversation about anything real but will be mad at you if you don’t know exactly what shade of pantone pink the Star Sapphire uniforms are. The normal avatar for this sort of person is usually a white, cis, hetero male and because of that, the view of any other fan that is of color, queer, or female (or a combination of any of those things) is somehow immediately less of a fan. This is also sometimes called fan-gating but that term makes me giggle so I’m just going to use gatekeeping.

The problem is that Gatekeepers think they’re doing a good thing. They think they are protecting their beloved media and often times, they are. Comic books were not always as mainstream as they are now and the knowledge so many comic book fans had (have) was not always valued and was often a source of ridicule and persecution. I was often teased for being able to recite Etrigan’s spell from memory. (I still can, don’t judge me.)

Now, let’s be clear. I am in no way advocating for the gatekeeping of ye olden days. That gatekeeping meant to keep women, queer folks, POCs and others out of comic books, videos games and the like because it was a white man’s hobby. And while, no, that isn’t the view of every comic book fan or generalized nerd human it certainly was the driving force for many of them in the comic world in the 90s and early 2000s (when I was a young impressionable comic book reader). To this day, there are still men who insist that girls only read comics for cosplay and that POCs simply don’t read comic books (It’s almost like black people didn’t make their own comic book line or anything like that…).

Here is also where I’ll pause for all the folks who think that me being quizzed over the canonical order of the Robins in Batman is a valid thing to do as I try to purchase a comic book from a store. (Real thing that happened: ask Carlos.).

I’ll wait.

Glad to have you back. This chapter in Moon Knight was getting a little intense.

So after all that talk about how dehumanizing, exhausting, racist, sexist and miserable gatekeeping was and is…why would I possibly ever say that maybe it isn’t so bad?

Remember that statement I made about comic books and other geeky, nerdy things now coming into mainstream popularity? That was not a thing even 10 years ago (back when the first Avengers movie was barely a concept and we were all still angry at Joel Schumacher for ruining Batman.). And there were plenty of people (me included) who have now found themselves in a curious place. Suddenly, the things we love(d) are now very popular. And that means those folks that teased many of us (me included) now suddenly very en vogue. I’ve had old high school friends suddenly claim that it’s so cool they know a cosplayer: the same folks that 10 long years ago was a sore subject and the butt of many jokes towards me. Now the jock that used to make fun of me for liking The Green Lantern is very excited about Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Now, can people change? Sure. Am I being a little petty? Always. But I think it brings up a valid point. With the influx of new fans, the conversations can be a little strained now. Now we have plenty of folks who say they know comics based on the movies but likely couldn’t tell you much beyond that. Now, casual fans are fine and I love them but most casual fans don’t claim to be experts. It’s the folks that will step to other fans and say they know comics but only do because they’ve seen Captain America: Civil War three times. In so many other fields, I am a dirty casual. I’m a casual gamer, pretty novice with RPGs and while I used to be a strong tournament contender in a few things, I’m by no means as good at Street Fighter as I used to be.

“Stay in your lane.” is a shorthand for that kind of thing I use a lot and a few of my friends have picked it up, too. When Carlos and Ricky are talking stats in Tekken, I tend to shut up and let them. If they ask about stitches, well, it’s my time to shine then.

Another aspect of gatekeeping is one close to my heart and a topic we’ve tackled before. It’s the topic of having convictions, discussions and not being reduced to name-calling when someone doesn’t agree with your ship. During many a gatekeeper’s conversation, I’ve had to defend which Lantern Corps I was in. Which Harry Potter house I was sorted into. I had to explain why I liked a comic and had to prove my knowledge of it frequently. And sure, it was demoralizing and exhausting but it made a fan with iron-clad convictions. When I was on my dear friend Heather’s show ( seriously, listen to it and enjoy several minutes of us fangirling over each other. ) we discussed this sort of phenomena and it comes down to attachment styles. Because I had to constantly fight and prove what I loved an why I was a fan: I have now been able to form secure attachments to my fandoms. Newer fans that have not had to constantly prove themselves have formed insecure attachments often times because they are not being challenged. Because of that, any challenge is perceived as a threat on their person rather than an often times valid criticism of the piece of media they wish to defend.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I wish for the same horrible experience I had as a fan to happen to newer and casual fans. No, not at all. But there is something to be said about challenging a fan. I have this problem a lot with recent film criticism where Internet critics will bash a thing from a comic book movie even though it is likely the most authentic part of the film.

There’s something to be said about being challenged from time to time. There’s something to be said about having to defend your ship. There’s something to be said about being proven right or wrong. And there’s always room for a good, spirited conversation that doesn’t devolve into racial slurs and casually calling someone a homophobe.

In the comments: I’ll be answering questions and ranting about how amazing Damien Wayne is.

Thanks for reading!