Twelve minutes into Turning Red, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh) finds her tween daughter Meilin’s notebook, hidden away under Meilin’s bed, and sees Meilin’s steamy art of herself with Devon, the boy who works part time at a local corner store. Pages and pages show Meilin’s illustrations of the young man without a shirt, holding Meilin, and living up to fantasies Meilin literally doesn’t have words to express. Meilin’s “self-shipping”—imagining herself in a relationship with Devon, but also with the members of the boy band 4*Town that she and her friends adore—is part of her early awakening as a teenager, her first brushes with desire. Ming Lee, rather than speaking with her daughter and trying to understand her, chooses instead to confront Devon at his job and embarrass the hell out of her child in front of everyone.
This throughline rang true for me. When I was Meilin’s age—around the same time the film is set, in 2002—my mom found my incredibly age-inappropriate fanfiction, which was not as well hidden as Meilin’s. Instead of respecting my privacy or asking for clarification, my mom read them. When I say “read them,” I mean all of them: She read everything from the slash fiction with Digimon characters to the Harry Potter stories with Slytherin OCs getting up to NSFW chaos. My mom called a family meeting where she went over, in excruciating detail, everything that I’d written and explained why it was “bad.” Years later, she also panicked over and then threw away my Fruits Basket fanfiction (printed at the library and smuggled home in a folder) and my initial collection of Boys Love manga. The main difference between what my mother put me through and what Ming Lee put Meilin through was that no one from my school was around to witness any of it. However, the repeated invasions of privacy? The judgment? Those still feel familiar, 20 years later.
For many people in fandom, especially young female or queer fans like myself, Meilin’s mom’s reactions to both her first forays into self-shipping with the neighborhood boy and her fixation on five-member boy band 4*Town are relatable. Traumatizing and perhaps triggering, but relatable. Many of us had or have notebooks and sketchbooks filled with art and stories shipping themselves—or a handy reader insert (a character that served as a stand-in for ourselves and allowing us to immerse ourselves in romantic stories)—with everyone from Tuxedo Mask in Sailor Moon to celebrities like Rain or the members of Backstreet Boys.
With Turning Red showing early modern fandom in a very positive light, the message is clear: Fandom is for us too. Watching Meilin doodle wistfully, viewers said it reminded them of their own entries into a new fandom, or having their fandom urges activated by a new blorbo or the latest Korean idol group to pop onto their radar. It’s a portrait that is rare in mainstream media, which suggests that there are limits and levels to liking something. That’s especially the case when the people in question aren’t straight, white, and/or male.
A significant part of nerd and fandom culture, regardless of gender, is about the way these spaces position nerds as an oppressed class. There’s an entire genre of films and television shows—like Freaks and Geeks, Stranger Things, and The Breakfast Club, for some examples—where the “uncool” main characters are mistreated or alienated because they’re into Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, or some other stereotypically geeky franchise. For decades, though, most of this type of media has refused to acknowledge that people other than teenage white boys can be nerds and into fandom as well. And for those without the blanket of whiteness or maleness protecting them, the bullying that comes with the territory can be a whole lot tougher to overcome.
Turning Red is perhaps the closest that the mainstream has come to showing how women and other marginalized folks both participate in and are mistreated for their interest in fandom too. And it does so without also making them the butt of the joke. At first, the school bully Tyler and his friends make fun of Meilin for her art; later, when Meilin and her friends capitalize upon her ability to turn into an adorable, giant red panda in order to fund their concert dreams, Tyler is one of the people who line up to hang with the cute panda. (Tyler eventually also proves to be a 4*Town fan.) Meilin’s transformation sparks a form of fandom among the students in their school, who come to be downright obsessed with Meilin’s red panda form. Some of the same people who mocked Meilin’s group for its intense fixations, it turns out, are now experiencing fixations of their own.
This angle and its turn of events are both the triumphs and the failings of the film. Turning Red hits on relatable highs—and lows—for people who think back fondly on their own first obsessions or passions. A big part of fandom involves nostalgia, whether it’s reminiscing about your beloved media’s best episodes, moments, or eras, or your bygone fondness for said media. Nostalgia for fandom past fuels a ton of conversations in different fandom communities, where people long for fandom like it was “back in our days” or act out on social media because Middle-earth “can’t” have people of color. Turning Red’s older viewers are expressing similar sentiments, using the film’s 2002 setting and portrayal of pre-internet fandom as evidence of fandom having played a safe, positive role in their lives too. Turning Red’s vision of fandom suggests a time when chasing your passions was safe and communal—offline and online.
But that portrait is one that either forgets or ignores what fandom was really like then and now. Participating in fandom of any kind was never an experience where everything was nice and fans all bonded over their shared love—especially for people of color. Nostalgia reimagines the way that fans remember early online fandom, suggesting it was a place where no one fought, where everyone minded their business, and where no one was a bigot. It’s a sunny contrast to what many agree is the situation now: Online hate mobs, browbeating, and social media–facilitated backlash are publicly acknowledged. Yet the early 2000s, around the same time that Meilin and her friends were getting into 4*Town, were full of now-legendary tales of discriminatory fandom drama. From the story of fanfic author msscribe (and her legion of sock-puppet accounts) wreaking havoc across the Harry Potter fandom by exploiting marginalized people; to the legacy of cult leader thanfiction, who perpetuated both misogyny and allegedly even a murder (!) in the Lord of the Rings, Marvel Cinematic Universe, and myriad other fan bases; the drama of RaceFail ’09, a multifandom blowout over racism in media that led to many fans of color leaving public fandom spaces; and the infamous fanfic that set a Supernatural story in a natural disaster–strewn Haiti, fandom has long been full of outright prejudiced bad actors who strung all kinds of people along.
People of color’s roles in helping define fandom spaces are often whitewashed too. Fans of color are erased from fandom histories, treated as strangers or outsiders—especially when we’re critical of fandom. The dismissive, bullying comments about what we were into because we were people of color or liked in media? Those weren’t solely coming from our classmates and parents. Plenty of the criticism, harassment, and all-around awful behavior toward fans of color came from other fans themselves. And many of them weren’t just mean, but also racist as hell.
Pretending that the problems in fandom, like toxicity, harassment, and bigotry, are because of anti-fans or outsiders ultimately whitewashes the reality of being in these communities. “If we do say that fandom was so integral to the development of people’s identities, and that is what people say all the time, then isn’t it important for us to understand what the larger dynamics were?” Rukmini Pande, author of Squee From the Margins: Fandom and Race, tells Slate. Pande’s research, which combines her personal experience as an Indian woman in white community spaces with anthropological dives into other fandoms, belongs to a growing body of academia about the relationship between race and fandom communities. “We do remember that there were LiveJournal communities that were just dedicated to bashing female characters. There were Tumblr [blogs] that were consciously editing certain characters out of pictures. There was and continues to be fanfiction that portrays certain characters in certain ways. That is as much a part of that space, but once you see that, it [feels like] a personal attack, because people identify so much with those spaces.”
Nostalgia often involves softening the edges of the racism and harassment that’s appeared in fandom for decades, positioning the “bad stuff” as something older (female or queer) fans didn’t have to deal with. The “real” problem, per this line of thinking, is usually male entitlement: One common refrain is that racism or prejudice is the provenance of male fans who are angry about diversity—an exception to the supposed rule that fans welcome other fans into their circles. This maxim, though, makes it difficult to talk about online fandom as existing in spaces where participants can be and often are aggressive toward others, as a means of protecting the things they love the most. What does this aggression look like? In some cases, it’s people dog-piling fans having a different opinion on a popular romantic pairing. It can be callout posts accusing fans of crimes based solely on the content they create or consume. Or it can be spending years harassing people of color and saying you’re doing it for fandom. And because fandom is generally preserved in sources like wikis that anyone can edit (even maliciously), we are left with fan texts that gloss over intersections of identity in fandom and a culture of longing for better days that never actually existed.
Places like Tumblr, Archive of Our Own, and LiveJournal are fondly remembered for allowing numerous fandom niches to blossom, but they can look much different in hindsight. “I remember LiveJournal differently from other people who remember LiveJournal. LiveJournal wasn’t a utopian space where everybody was coming to terms with facets of their personality in this hugely supportive way,” says Pande. “I have found many posts and many threads of people talking about how they have faced different kinds of discrimination. … This is something that has been a part of fandom spaces ever since fandom has been a thing. It’s just whether you saw it or not, or whether you experienced it or not.”
Fandom spaces aren’t all bad. Indeed, they are often very important, protecting, and nurturing. Fandoms are responsible for incredible social connections that can last years and change lives for the better. The characters in Turning Red, after all, become closer friends thanks to their 4*Town fandom. They support one another as the rest of their classmates look at them differently—not just because they love a goofy band, but also because they don’t look like the typical kid at their school. It’s easy to assume that Meilin and her group of fellow outcasts would remain friends for years after the end of the film; members of fandoms often do migrate to new obsessions together. Friendships can break down just as often, though, due to something as simple as stanning different ships. Best pals one day could join opposing mobs of harassing, hateful, defensive fans the next.
While watching Turning Red with my nieces, I kept pausing the film at key moments to point out the similarities I saw between Meilin’s life and mine. Two decades have passed since I first hopped online and realized that people also wanted to kiss Orlando Bloom or that they weren’t happy with some of the pairings on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Fruits Basket. Some things have changed. For starters, my mother isn’t throwing out my BL manga and “dirty” fanfiction anymore. Other things, like attitudes in fandom that make these spaces continuously hostile to fans of color? Not so much. Fandom 10, 20 years ago is seen as a better time where the worst thing about it was how slow everyone’s internet was. However, when we get nostalgic about fandom, it’s important to ask ourselves: What are we glossing over in the process?