Much of the news coverage discussing the disappointing turnout at President Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20th, 2020 has (often bemusedly) referenced the role of K-Pop stans and TikTok users. The Trump campaign announced that one million people had registered for the rally, but only 19,000 attendees actually showed up. K-Pop stans and TikTok users reserved thousands of tickets for the rally, inflating the Trump Campaign’s projected attendance numbers, and have claimed responsibility for the disparity.
Trump’s rally was initially scheduled for June 19th, 2020—a date coinciding with the holiday, Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The decision to host a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the site of a racist massacre that resulted in the deaths of 300 and burned the prosperous Black community of Greenwood to the ground in 1921—on Juneteenth, sent a clear message welcoming white supremacists into the Trump fold while excluding Black Americans. (For more on the history of the Tulsa massacre and so-called “race riots” in the United States, read Spire’s Words You Don’t Know: Race Riot.)
Although the Trump campaign rescheduled the rally to take place June 20th, Trump critics and antiracists did not forget the president’s dog whistle, or his history of racist statements and actions, both in office and as a private individual. When the campaign announced that attendees could RSVP for tickets online, K-Pop fan accounts shared information about how to register for tickets with their followers, “encouraging them to register for the rally — and then not show.”
Meanwhile, on TikTok, “videos with millions of views instructed viewers to do the same.” Many accounts even deleted their posts calling for users to RSVP for tickets within 24 to 48 hours of the rally, hoping to keep their plan quiet. This online campaign involved thousands and required immense coordination and discipline. It is clearly a form of activism, and yet, the New York Times referred to it as “a prank.”
For those familiar with fandom, the Times’ condescension towards K-Pop stans and TikTok users probably will not come as a surprise. Although participants in online fandom compromise all ages, genders, and demographics, in mainstream culture fandom is usually equated with teenage girls. Mockery and dismissal directed towards fandom are therefore indicative of our culture’s pervasive misogyny, especially as it manifests in the form of contempt directed towards teenage girls and their interests.
In mainstream culture’s rush to trivialize fandom— as too feminine, too frivolous, too cringe-worthy, too weird— they have failed to recognize its capacity to mobilize young people and direct them towards evoking positive social change. Much of fandom is about celebrating narratives of resistance and heroism while forging connections between thousands of fans all across the globe. The result is a readymade network of activists and organizers.
One of my first experiences with online activism came after the TV show “Agent Carter” was cancelled. As part of the show’s small, yet-passionate, fanbase, I campaigned for its return— posting on social media to get #SaveAgentCarter trending, signing petitions, sending emails and messages, talking to friends and family about why I loved the show and encouraging them to participate in campaigning for it. When I later became politically involved, I recognized many of the same strategies that my fellow fans and I had used at work in grassroots organizing and activism. Being a fan helped prepare me to be an activist.
My experience is far from unique; fandom and activism have long overlapped. Fan artists and writers often create “charity zines,” selling fanzines and then donating the proceeds to charity. Recent charity zines have raised money for causes such as COVID-19 relief and relief from the Australian wildfires. Creators and celebrities sometimes use their platforms to encourage their fans to take action and donate to support causes.
Mass uprisings for racial justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by the police have raised the consciousness of the entire nation, including fandoms. As Minneapolis erupted in protests, many fan artists began to take “donation commissioners” creating art for people who sent them screenshots of donations to organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Reclaim the Block. A group of over 50 fanartists and cosplayers formed Creators for BLM, an online store selling prints of fanart and cosplay photos, with all proceeds donated to Black Lives Matter and other groups supporting Black Americans.
Moreover, The Tulsa rally was not the first time that K-Pop stans became politically involved. When the Dallas Police Department urged citizens to share videos of “illegal activity” at protests using the iWatch app, K-Pop stans downloaded the app and spammed it with videos and GIFs of K-Pop idols, causing iWatch to crash. They also took over the “White Lives Matter” hashtag using similar spamming techniques.
All this is not to say that fandom is free of bigotry or harassment. Like other online spaces, it is often plagued by racism and misogyny, and many fans will be quick to complain about cultures of toxicity and entitlement. Ageism is also a pernicious issue; older women are often pushed out of fandom in keeping with the narrative that fan communities are only for children and teenagers. Fandom is a contradictory form of community that can simultaneously be toxic and inclusive, espacist and activating. Above all else, fandom is powerful, and those who would dismiss it because of its mainstream connotation with teenage femininity do so at their own risk. Teenage girls have grown up consuming and obsessing over stories where characters overthrow evil empires and save the world, and now they just might do it.