Why Is the Fetishization of Queer People So Prevalent in Fan Spaces?
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When discussing queer representation in media, the word fetishization comes up quite often. The subject has been a source of major tension and discourse in fandoms across the internet, especially among queer people. But what is fetishization, and how does it manifest in media and fan spaces?
Fetishization is the hypersexualization and objectification of some aspect of a person’s identity. This can be someone’s race, religion, or, in many cases, sexuality. One example currently causing a lot of discussion is the fetishization of queer relationships between two men, particularly in fan spaces. These are by far some of the most popular “ships” for almost any piece of mainstream media content, even when the characters themselves are widely considered to be straight. In fact, a majority of the most popular pairings on fanfiction websites are between two men. The problem is that this content frequently contains abuse, incest, and a plethora of other graphic sexual content which depict queer relationships in an unrealistic, negative, and disturbing way. This, and the fact that these fan spaces are notoriously made up of mostly women, specifically straight women, is enough to make many queer fans uncomfortable.
A straight person using queer relationships to explore sexual fantasies is not inherently harmful, but it comes at great detriment to queer people when it contributes to or uplifts homophobic assumptions and stereotypes.
But why is this fetishization so prevalent? A large reason why ‘shipping’ male characters has grown so popular is because male characters and relationships between them are just better written, usually due to the male-dominated writing and production of most mainstream media. On top of this, there is a long history of homophobia that contributes to the tokenization and fetishization of queer people and their relationships. Obviously, every instance of fetishization and every queer ship has its own specific context and is affected by its own set of intersectional factors. The fetishization of a relationship between two white male characters is influenced by a completely different set of factors than that of an interracial lesbian couple. However, an analysis of the differences between straight and queer shipping fanbases may provide at least one reason. In the cultural status quo of today, there is a hyperfixation on the sexual aspect of relationships in straight fan spaces, and it is through this lens that many fans consume all relationships.
One example that perfectly illustrates the receptive differences between straight and queer fan spaces occurred with the show “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (2021). Viewers quickly picked up on the fact that the dynamic between the two main characters Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) seemed a less like a “couple of guys” and more like a couple, and the pairing became extremely popular within the fandom over the duration of the series.
However, the rise in popularity of the queer ship also led to a loud outcry from straight fans, who used fetishization as a pillar of their argument against why people should not even speculate on the relationship. Many cited the idea that men couldn’t be friends anymore without being shipped—as if male friendships haven’t been the center of almost every piece of media in recent history—to intimidate and invalidate the queer reading of the story by queer fans.
It didn’t help that several people who worked on the series came forward and basically denounced the queer reading as delusional, which enabled homophobic rhetoric to continue in fanspaces and invalidated the experiences of queer audience members. Fetishization is certainly a problem in the fandom, however, it is not a reason to dismiss the valid opinions and interpretations of queer people.
Interestingly enough, worse content from the same show, only for a straight ship, was normalized and even praised by the media. A large fanbase popped up almost instantaneously for the pairing of Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) and Bucky. Many of the memes and other kinds of fan content surrounding this ship were hypersexual and dehumanizing. However, this wasn’t questioned or denounced at all, and was in fact encouraged by the mainstream media. TV Guide made a post on Twitter almost immediately after the series ended demanding to see all the deleted scenes of Sarah and Bucky “flirting.” Despite the fact that the fanbase produces content far more disrespectful and gross than anything in queer fan spaces, they have yet to be criticized.
This all begs the question: if the roles were reversed, and Sam and Bucky were a heterosexual couple while Sarah and Bucky were not, would there be the same reaction? Would there be the same levels of outrage and backlash for one, and apathy and praise toward the other? Since Sam and Bucky are the main characters, would creators insist that two leads of the opposite sex with the same amount of chemistry being interpreted as romantic rather than platonic change the whole meaning of the series? There are plenty of examples of heterosexual ships being made canon against the original intent of the creators out of fan popularity. Han and Leia, for example, may not have ended up together in George Lucas’s original vision of Star Wars had it not been for how much fans loved the relationship.
In short, mainstream media in the status quo invites and encourages hypersexualization of straight relationships by fans. Meanwhile, while more queer relationships are getting popular both in media and fan spaces, straight fans are often the ones with the most influence over how a fanbase reacts to these relationships. Queer people have been fighting against stereotypes of being hypersexual and predatory for decades, and this kind of fetishization only works against the progress being made. Hence, queer people in these fan spaces need to speak out and police straight fans who create overly sexual content about queer relationships.