Why Gatekeeping Fandoms Doesn’t Really Work.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

For me, “polyamory” is a big, sloppy, gloriously inclusive wrestling match of a word. Do you only see your sweetie only once a year and never text outside of that? Well, if you say that’s polyamory, I’ll agree with you! Do you go mostly to sex clubs and mostly boink and rarely talk? I might say that’s a more swinger-flavored polyamory, but sure! Welcome to the club.

Others, however, would rather classify.

“That’s not polyamory,” they sniff at the once-a-year person, “That’s more of a ‘friends with benefits’ situation. And the other people? They’re clearly swingers! And I’m not judging people: we simply need to ensure everyone’s on the same page so we can speak a common language.”

And that classification mentality seeps into a lot of places – is this person a true fan, or just someone who likes the albums? Is this person someone who actually knows how to manipulate code, or just some hacker? It’s not a judgment, I’m just trying to be precise.

Problem is, that effort fails on both goals. You do wind up judging people, and language is inherently imprecise so you’re gonna fail there. And even if it did work – which, remember, it doesn’t – I’m opposed to that kind of classification because it’s got two hidden agendas buried in it: covering up errors and attaining superiority.

Basically, any attempt to break down what counts as a “true” polyamorist – or a “true” comics fan, or a “true” programmer – and then sorts the people into other buckets is a system that’s inevitably designed to fuck other people over.

So how’s that work?

Well, for someone who’s trying not to be judgmental, the classifier is invariably comparing someone to their ideal of whatever this perfect fandom is. “Yeah, okay, these people say they’re polyamorous, but I have a definition, and I don’t think they have enough love as I’ve defined it to match. So I’m gonna kick them down into a different category.”

Literally the first thing you do when you classify is to judge. So you’re being judgmental.

And you can say “I’m not kicking them down! This isn’t a hierarchy! One isn’t better than the others” – but that doesn’t work, really, because this isn’t an exhaustive taxonomy where we have a specific word for every possible configuration. Casual usage of language doesn’t work that way. Unless we’re birdwatchers, most people have a couple of specific birds – “robin,” “bluejay,” “crow” – and then all the other birds that just aren’t interesting or unique enough to remember specifically.

(Actually, my wife – a former birdwatcher – informs me that some birdwatchers have a term called “LBB,” which means “little brown bird” because there’s a zillion of them.)

Eventually, you wind up with the “whatever” bucket, for the people who don’t fit all your other standards. And no matter how good your intentions, assuming you have good intentions, that bucket eventually becomes the butt of jokes. Because everyone assumes that that bucket is the castoffs.

And I’m guilty of that. I’ve mocked a few Hufflepuffs in my time, which is why I still laugh at this Tweet:

FOUNDER OF HOGWARTS: okay, so we all know there are four types of kid. brave, smart, evil and miscellaneous.
SCHOOL BOARD: yes, continue.

But Hufflepuffs aren’t bad – they just weren’t given a lot of focus. And yet because that focus was taken off them, a lot of people assume they’re the joke school. Which is not an unusual reaction to a catchall classification.

So basically, even if you don’t mean to, you wind up categorizing people as lesser simply by excluding them from a more specific definition.

But wait, there’s more! Because the other thing that invariably happens there is the “No true Scotsman” fallacy at play, wherein the act of classification starts to idealize the definition.

Are those people polyamorous, but in a way that make you look bad? Well, it’s time to exclude those people from the definition. You keep refining the definition to make it better – and unsurprisingly, the “better” that definition refers to almost always prioritizes your preferred method of this action!

I mean, hardly anyone defines a “true fan” of their own fandoms as something they don’t do. Oh, they might admit they’re not a “true fan” of some TV show they’re casual about, but if they’re seriously into Supernatural and trying to categorize fans? Oh, they’re gonna be on top.

But once you’ve actually placed yourself into a group, then comes the pressure of not wanting to look bad. If a bunch of dorks are embarrassing you, it’s a lot easier to refine the model of “true fan” to exclude the dorks than it is to wrestle with the fact that a lot of people can love the same show as you and yet be repellent.

So you create another category of “bad fan” or relegate them to the catchall category or whatever – but in any case, eventually you’re very much adding a judgment now of “good” or “bad,” even if that’s as simple as “Has the good kind of deep love we should treasure in a polyamorous relationship” and “They don’t.”

In that way, new classifications are added to cover up errors. There’s no bad fans, just fans and people who aren’t fans. There’s no bad polyamory, just true polyamory and the catchall.

And every layer of definition you provide to erase these errors adds another hoop for people to jump through to get to the most specific, most flattering definition.

Eventually, that definition of “true” becomes not a definition, but a coping mechanism. You’ve conveniently defined yourself at the top of the hierarchy and are emotionally invested in it, so your goal becomes excluding people to ensure that only people you like share your most-specific definition.

Congratulations. You’re a gatekeeper. Whether you meant to be or not.

And it’s not at all about clarity. It’s about ego.

And mayhaps you’re all like, “What does language exist for if not to provide clear definitions?” To which I say, “A tomato is technically a fruit, but most people also call it a vegetable. A penguin’s technically a bird. Take fifty people who are called liberals, and you’ll find so much variation that it becomes hard to find a central point.”

Life is inherently unclear. Language is sloppy. Don’t believe me? One of the most common phrases in English is “I love you,” and yet we have yet to agree on what that means aside from in the most general sentiment. Does it mean romantic love? Platonic? Does it mean deep commitment, or just warm fuzzies?

If someone says “I love you,” you’re always going to have to investigate what that means to them.

Except in the most scientific of circumstances, which hardly ever apply to day-to-day living, someone citing a term is never the end of an identification – it’s the start of a larger conversation where, yes, “I’m a fan” means some level of enthusiasm, but you have to investigate what valence and depth and meaning that enthusiasm takes for them.

Attempting to remove that investigation by creating universally agreed-upon terms to determine who’s a “true” polyamory or a “true” swinger or a “true” Tony Stark fan does not add clarity – it removes it. It creates a barrier to understanding designed to prioritize your own specific preferences.

Which is why, yeah, polyamory is a big term for me. There’s people in relationships I wouldn’t be in, but if they wanna call themselves polyamorous, I’ll agree. I may think they’re terrible polyamory, a kind of polyamory you should never be in – and if that happens, I’ll say that.

That’s part of the conversation.

That’s part of the value of allowing things outside the taxonomy to thrive.


  1. Sarah
    Mar 14, 2019

    I’ve gone the other way. The majority of people who call themselves “polyamorous” have relationship structures that are incompatible with mine, since I won’t be in relationships that someone outside of the relationship is given the power to control. So I never use the term for myself anymore.

  2. Anonymous Alex
    Mar 14, 2019

    Without denying any of the entirely valid points you’ve made, you do that while giving short shrift to the other side of this problem. For example, people will (in earnest or otherwise) try to expand definitions beyond all recognition, to the point where the original meaning is lost and the next thing you know “polyamory” is used to describe someone who has and wants only one sexual/romantic/etc. partner.

    This is the tension of all definitions in a living language, and nobody, really, is in control. Rather, the collective “us” sometimes expands and sometimes narrows definitions, and that’s the way it goes. Some of the individuals lean one way and some the other, and if you’re generally in favor of expansiveness, that’s not a bad thing.

    But a “bagel” is a toroidal bread product that is first boiled then baked, not one-step steam baked. I will die on that hill if necessary.


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