Can you think of an object, trend, or activity that girls are predominantly interested in, but are not made fun of for? Is there anything that girls can enjoy and talk about without facing some flavour of backlash?
If you can think of something, that is news to me. But if you can’t, then you’ve just come face-to-face with a deeply confusing question — why is it that girls can’t safely have interests?
No matter which gender something is marketed toward, women and feminine-presenting people are often the butt end of jokes, snide remarks, and even outright hostility. And, from my perspective, the problem isn’t getting better. In fact, not only is this problem not being solved, but many people are reinforcing it — whether they know it or not.
From my interest in hockey to my love of Young Adult (YA) fiction to my involvement in the gaming community, here are stories of my encounters with sexism in fandoms.
The word ‘fan’ was first used in the context of baseball. Originally, if you told someone you were a fan, they would immediately assume you were referring to your passion for sports. Although the word soon outgrew the baseball diamond, its association with straight, cisgender masculinity remains.
I was 13 when I first joined an online hockey discussion forum on Reddit. I could barely contain my excitement at the time. My first post was about how well Canada had done in the recent Women’s World Championship. Having an outlet to talk about hockey felt like a dream come true — that is, until I saw the first reply: “Who cares? Women’s hockey is boring as hell.”
I started replying to every rude comment with the fervour of a 13-year-old who didn’t know when to quit. This would become a recurring theme in my interactions with fandom. In my experience, sports fans constantly accuse women of being ‘posers’ and subject women fans to incessant questions to prove themselves as ‘true fans.’ Once, during my crusade, an internet user asked me to list all the winners of the Stanley Cup, from first to latest. This was a ridiculous question that none of the men in the same thread had to answer. But when I refused, the user mocked me for being a ‘puck bunny,’ a derogatory term for a girl who only watches hockey to pursue or crush on the players.
I got tired from trying to change so many minds that didn’t want to listen. I gave up. I unfollowed the NHL on Instagram, deleted all my Reddit posts, and deleted Twitter altogether. When my dad turned on the Canucks game on Saturday nights, I didn’t want to watch. I thought, “If hockey doesn’t care about me, why should I care about it?”
Eventually, though, I managed to find my way back into hockey — but I consider myself one of the lucky ones, for not many girls do. And if you consider the broader patterns in sports fandoms, it’s easy to see why.
Major sports leagues cultivate a space that’s not welcoming to women, either. From what I see, official league accounts very rarely condemn sexist comments that are made on their posts. At the same time, I feel that they run an overwhelming amount of features and advertisements that spotlight and target men. In the rare instances that sports features and advertisements do spotlight and target women, they often reference weight loss or beauty. Instead of focusing on the challenge of playing sports, such women-targeted advertisements portray sports as ‘just for fun.’
To me, these stark differences in sports advertisements imply that most advertisers don’t believe that women want to compete at the same level as professional men’s sports. This culture ultimately diminishes the work of women athletes who devote themselves to competitive, high-caliber sports.
This pervasive double standard is problematic in many ways, and it also doesn’t make financial sense. Major sports leagues are extremely competitive with each other for airtime and viewership — yet they leave entire demographics largely untapped and continue to cater toward their well-worn fanbases.
Then there are the superfans. We know who they are — the guys with dedicated Twitter accounts that paint their faces before every game day and craft the perfect basement suite decked out with paraphernalia of their favourite team. Not only are they considered acceptable, but they’re even commended — I’ve noticed that leagues and teams often repost the most dedicated fans. Half the time, I think they’re cool.
Women, however, don’t receive the same treatment, admiration, or even acceptance. Plaster a three-foot-tall poster of Connor McDavid in a room full of Oilers merch and it’s no big deal. A girl does the same with a Harry Styles poster in a room full of One Direction merch and suddenly it’s cringy or creepy.
Functionally, both rooms are the same. But we see the stereotypically masculine one as an admirable show of deep interest and knowledge, while the stereotypically feminine one is treated as an embarrassing bid for attention.
In my opinion, there is probably no fandom more toxic or openly misogynistic than gamers. From mistreating women streamers to accusing women gamers that they are posers and disregarding games that become popular among women, there is seemingly no safe haven for women players.
Video games have a reputation for being an activity dominated by men. But, in reality, women have always played games. In fact, a 2014 study by the Internet Advertising Bureau found that women made up 52 per cent of gamers in the UK.
Many gamers, however, revolt when games start to cater to demographics that are not cisgender men. In 2020, Call of Duty: Black Ops revealed that their new release, Cold War, would have a third, gender-neutral option for character customization. In response, some fans revolted, and retaliated mostly against the traditional punching bags of “left-wing propaganda.”
It’s not just Call of Duty taking the hit. I’ve noticed that other games that have recently been gaining popularity among women and girls, such as Minecraft, are starting to get a bad reputation in the gaming community for becoming ‘soft,’ or for not counting as ‘real gaming’ anymore.
When Minecraft became popular in the early 2010s, most Minecraft streamers and YouTubers, along with their viewers, were not women. I remember that, back then, it was cool to play Minecraft and call yourself a gamer. Now, new streamers seem to be ridiculed by older users for many reasons.
For example, when I first started watching the new generation of Minecraft YouTubers over quarantine, I was shocked by how many older men have taken to Twitter to air their grievances about how streaming has gone “downhill.” A few commented that the more effeminate nature of today’s streaming, caused by streamers accounting for women and nonbinary viewers, was ruining their experience of the game.
New women streamers have it particularly bad. I’ve heard many men players say that women streamers must have it so easy, because all they have to do is smile sweetly and show skin and they’re guaranteed views. Not only does this logic discount the numerous hours of work that women streamers put into their content, but it also objectifies them as clueless and unskilled.
This logic doesn’t reflect reality, either. If just looking pretty is the only qualifier for being a successful woman streamer, then women would easily dominate Twitch popularity charts. But this isn’t the case. Women make up 35 per cent of Twitch users, but only one woman has cracked the top 20 most followed streamers. There are fewer than 10 women in the top 100.
Similar to hockey, gamers accuse women fans of being posers, unless these women fans have encyclopedic knowledge and are ready to whip that information out like they’re in a neverending game of Jeopardy.
I recently became interested in League of Legends. Like most people would, I turned to an online forum to ask about the lore behind a few characters I was interested in. While some people were helpful, others scorned my questions. One even insinuated that I was only learning these things in order to talk about them with a man.
Evidently, casual fans get the short end of this particular stick. That makes it difficult for more enthusiastic women fans to bring friends into their fandoms without those friends taking a few hits along the way.
YA novels and fanfiction
YA fiction is one of the biggest feminine-coded industries in the world. Despite the expectation that this industry mainly produces commodities by women for women, YA fiction is still not immune from patronizing derision.
Because YA mainly caters to younger populations — mainly preteen and teenage girls — many adults seem to consider it a fluff genre. Even YA novels that do carry literary and thematic legitimacy seem to be boiled down to their most basic and marketable bones, erasing the nuance that the stories are meant to communicate.
Take The Hunger Games as an example. A sharp examination of class divide, media conglomerates, and mental health struggles, Suzanne Collins’ trilogy was a groundbreaking series for dystopian YA fiction. For many young girls — and boys — it may have been a first introduction into adult issues like classism, propaganda, and PTSD, spearheaded by a flawed, realistic woman protagonist. Yet public discourse about The Hunger Games focused on a single subject: should Katniss choose Gale or Peeta as her boyfriend? When I wanted to discuss the novel’s narrative choices or symbolism, many peers shook me off and just wanted to know whether I liked the kind blonde or the disillusioned brunette better.
Compared to YA novels with similar themes and men protagonists, like The Maze Runner series, I believe that The Hunger Games has been infantilized and dismissed as a fad for teenage girls rather than a well-written and socially relevant piece of literature.
When literary works get infantilized, so do their readers. Adults often criticized me when I read women-centric YA novels and then prodded me to read ‘more complicated’ books. In high school, my teachers declared YA novels written by women as off-limits in their classrooms for being “not literary enough.” At the same time, they allowed passes for YA novels written by men, such as James Patterson’s ghostwritten novels.
The infantilization of women readers extends to fanmade works. Fanfiction has always been a relatively feminine-coded endeavour: some of the first fanfiction was written by women in the Star Trek fandom. In 2010, 78 per cent of users on Fanfiction.net — the world’s largest fanfiction website — identified as women.
However, for fear of being labelled obsessed or weird, many women readers and writers feel compelled to keep their fanfiction a secret. I have a friend who once submitted a chapter of her fanfiction during a summer creative writing camp. When she read her chapter out loud, she did so proudly — at first. Eventually, she had to shout over shrieks of laughter and was mercilessly mocked to the point of tears. Since then, she kept her fanfiction a closely kept secret. Terrified of mockery myself, I kept looking over my shoulder as I wrote and researched about fanfiction for this article.
People even mock literary works that got their start as fanfictions, focusing more on their roots rather than actual valid criticisms of the works’ flaws. The Fifty Shades of Grey series comes to my mind as an example. While I personally don’t like these books because of their lazy plotlines and uncomfortable prose, the most common critique I hear that’s waged against the series is that it began as Twilight fanfiction — not that the book itself is bad.
What can women like?
Some of you may be thinking, “I’ve never been sexist to women fans, and even if I had, I didn’t mean to be.” Indeed, people aren’t often consciously sexist with regards to fandom — sexism is just so deeply ingrained in our culture that we often don’t consider anything less than blatant sexism to be a problem.
Sometimes, I feel like women are criticized for everything they do and don’t do. There seems to be no right answer for what a young girl can like.
When young girls can’t find a safe space to indulge in their interests, it’s damaging. Growing up, the internet’s cruel treatment of women hockey players nearly threw me off loving the game for good. The constant, harsh criticisms of my well-loved YA books compelled me to struggle through classic novels that I hated just for that extra drop of validation. But when I started liking classics, I was labeled pretentious.
I’m exhausted. There are things I loved in grade 9 that I would never say aloud — even now — for fear of ridicule, and I know a lot of people who feel the same. Young girls — and young people in general — are vulnerable, and this kind of constant backlash, ranging from harsh to subtle, can affect everything from mental health to relationships years down the line.
There will always be valid criticisms of anything worth being excited about, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of someone’s happiness or self-esteem. It’s everyone’s job to start thinking about what they say, and how they react to the interests of girls and women. Half the time, the disparagement comes from the people around us — our friends, classmates, teachers, and parents. We’re all guilty of it, and it’s hard to stop.
But the next time a friend tells you about their interests, I encourage you to bask in their excitement, smile, and listen. That would be more than enough.