Falling down the rabbit hole of a fandom is so easy that, before one even realizes it, one’s feet are no longer on the ground. Exploring the whimsical world of a fandom may be easy enough, but feeling accepted by the community might prove to be a bigger challenge. Especially for newcomers in fandoms, where wading through the previous works or creations of an artist can prove to be overwhelming, there comes an underlying pressure when an array of expectations are set up by the fandom.
As Gandalf once vehemently declared when blocking the Balrog, “You shall not pass!” is the often rallying cry of those who assume the role of gatekeepers—proverbial wardens who “lock” the gates of a fanbase.
But beyond the decision of gatekeepers to preserve and protect the sanctity of their communities, it pays to look at the inevitability of fanbases—where everyone is encouraged to express their own individualities—to have conflict and discord within the community.
Who is a fan?
“You have to earn it. There’s a perception that you need to earn the name [of being a fan],” says Dr. Erik Paolo Capistrano, a professor from the University of the Philippines-Diliman. In the Kpop industry, there used to be an official application process to be a fan. For instance, being an ELF—the official fanclub name for fans of Super Junior—is often considered a title you have to work hard to earn and maintain. There are long-held expectations and standards for what it means to show one’s perpetual love and support for one’s idols, such as by promoting them through social media, constantly streaming their music, or buying official merchandise.
In most communities, there is a tendency that a fan’s devotion to their fandom can be easily exploited by materialism—something Anne Frances Sangil, a professor in the University, highlighted. “There is a classist nature to it. It has something to do with money. But not everyone has access to such merch or such an experience,” she says, alluding to the fact that people often measure a fan’s devotion by the amount of “support” they give their idols.
Dr. Kristine Michelle Santos, a professor from Ateneo de Manila University, explains that like in any other communities, a hunger for control is one of the reasons to gatekeep—looking at social structures, the hierarchy of control is inevitable, which gives them the sense of entitlement to regulate the community and commit to the certain standards that they impose.
In the Harry Potter fandom, Sangil mentions hierarchies the fans give people depending on the content they consume in their community. For example, a “pureblood” is someone who has read the books and seen the movies, a “halfblood” is someone who has only read the books, and so forth. Hierarchies and labels that exist in fandoms tend to serve as determinants for who is a “better” fan, however, our ability to consume franchise material has nothing to do with its measurement.
Capistrano says, “It’s hard to be inclusive or exclusive because these days, unfortunately, we don’t agree on what it means to be a fan.” Because of the accessibility to acquire content beyond the constraints of our limited exposure, the distinction between being a consumer and a fan gets quite blurry.
Of culture and restricted accessibility
The wide-range of online platforms to consume various content has created a space where individuals from different cultures can come together, freely access content and participate actively within fandom communities. However, it is inevitable then that a clash of cultures will lead some fans to misunderstand one another. To have fans debate on certain fan and idol behavior, then, is not unthinkable—being united as one whole fandom is difficult when different individuals are expected to adhere to one image. Any fandom consists of individuals who have their own unique upbringings and personal beliefs, which influence how they express support for a certain fandom.
Foreign content has its own set of parameters that make up the structure of its culture. Learning the language can be an expected behavior that subtly applies added pressure for a fan that did not grow up in the same culture as the fandom. “Cultural barriers between fans can also be seen through the fan screening process conducted by various fandoms,” Capistrano elaborates. Being unable to speak the native language of the culture creates a notion that one must earn their rightful place within the community.
Our ability to consume global content is mostly fueled by online streaming. Santos believes that this kind of availability to be accessed by the people not only rests upon the parameters set by media companies, but is also influenced by the content’s capability to potentially garner profit. This in and of itself is a mechanism of gatekeeping due to the geopolitical state of these media corporations and how they choose to filter their content. “The impact of licensing alone has so many rich ties to gatekeeping and control thereof of fan expression,” Santos expresses.
Given the current circumstances, fan expression and support has been limited exclusively to online avenues. However, Sangil mentions that this still has a positive impact within fandoms because it removes the stigma in fan culture that only the privileged are able to access and enjoy the culture. The wide-range of online platforms to consume various content has created a level-playing field of which all people can enjoy.
Sangil, Santos, and Capistrano all believe that gatekeeping is inevitable in any fandom or community. Santos states that though fandoms should supposedly be a “liberating space for these like-minded individuals”, they are still composed of different people with unique backgrounds leading to contrasting forms of fan expression. Because although content should be enjoyed by everyone, there are fans that are so devoted to a fandom, they treat their bond to their fandom religiously and gatekeep it as a means to protect its sanctity.
While gatekeeping is something that is typically viewed in an antagonistic light, it is also something that cannot be prevented in a fandom. As Sangil mentions, “You have a multitude of members with different expectations from the group and different ways of approaching their fanaticism.”
Because of our differences, the tendency to gatekeep will likely always be present, but this is certainly one hurdle that can be surmounted if we can find ways to reconcile our definitions of what it truly means to be a fan. “Let them in, and let’s share the magic,” Sangil expresses.