In defence of gatekeeping

Unfairly maligned, sandwiched between 'girlboss' and 'gaslight', 'gatekeep' never got to show us the good it could do.

by Barry Pierce
22 July 2022, 7:00am

Will any phrase come to define our current era more than “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss”? The alliterative triplet, as hilarious as it is depressing, works because it so clearly synthesises the tone and voice of the turn of the 20s internet. Each word has had its time in the sun, with discourse cycles subsequently mangling and distorting their origins, uses and definitions beyond all recognition. Think of poor gaslighting — what was once a colloquial term used to describe a very serious form of emotional manipulation and abuse is now regularly evoked within the context of gaudy dating shows or when trying to figure out who is sat on the remote.

None of them, however, have had a worse time than gatekeeping. Gatekeeping has become a malicious act. To be called a gatekeeper is to be painted as some sort of tyrannical arbiter of culture, someone who decries the tastes of mass audiences and chortles at the thought of ever consuming mainstream media. Gatekeepers are despotic, anti-culture elitists, though accusations of cultural gatekeeping being elitist — because having a wide cultural knowledge is automatically seen as a result of having the education and upbringing that fostered it — feels like an elitist argument in itself.

Gatekeeping, as a concept, is far from new, and its actual definition is surprisingly broad. A gatekeeper has historically (and unsurprisingly) been someone who has literally kept a gate. They were the equivalent of an ostiary or a guard who deemed who gets to enter into a town, building or otherworldly realm. The term broadened in more recent history to describe someone who controls the access to something or decides the path a piece of information takes. An obvious modern-day example of a gatekeeper, by the pre-Twitter definition, is a club bouncer or a security guard, a more oblique example would be an editor — their job being to decide what words are fit to make their way out into the world.

It was sometime around the spring of 2020 (according to Google Trends) that usage of the term first started picking up parlance within the gaming and anime communities online, it then grew exponentially throughout the rest of the year. Gatekeep’s inclusion in the lexicon was cemented in January 2021 when it became the central tenet of “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss”. Interestingly, it is the only term out of the three whose inclusion seems to have actually helped popularise it, gaslight and girlboss had both already seen significant popularity and discourse by this time. It is also because of its sandwiching between these two loaded and controversial terms that gatekeeping never stood a chance in showing us what good it could do.

Would greater art be produced, at a more consistent rate, if we simply gatekept more?

We are all familiar with the malicious, online definition of gatekeeping, but what happens if you approach the concept from another angle? How about instead of viewing it as someone deciding who has access to different facets of popular culture, we see it as someone actively preventing something from becoming mainstream. Rarely do people gatekeep already mainstream objects, it is usually reserved for more niche and specialist areas that garner much smaller, and much more protective, audiences.

Even though it is often cast as an arrogant position to take, there are plenty of examples in popular culture where going mainstream has directly led to the detriment and death of something. We see it in music with the concept of the one-hit wonder, where an act has a mainstream crossover hit but they fail to ever strike gold again, usually leading to the band’s demise (see: The Knack, Soft Cell, 4 Non Blondes). Mainstream popularity also brings with it greater scrutiny about upcoming projects, often to the point where it is practically impossible for the artist to ever live up to the hype that surrounds them. We just saw this with the release of Sally Rooney’s book Beautiful World, Where Are You and Lorde’s album Solar Power. It is arguable that both works would have fared better critically if they both didn’t carry with them all the hopes and dreams of their huge mainstream audiences. Would greater art be produced, at a more consistent rate, if we simply gatekept more? Possibly.

A character who has received a lot of bad press online recently is the film bro, that gatekeeper par excellence. Often cast as a white male, perhaps goateed, perhaps sandal-wearing, the film bro was once a castigated character who gatekept films that had, ironically, already achieved fairly major mainstream success, such as Fight Club and Pulp Fiction. Recently, however, the film bro has expanded his oeuvre into essentially any film not made in English. Apart from the obvious (and worrying) anti-intellectualism at play in this trend, it is interesting to witness what the film bro has become — a solitary gatekeeper and champion of world cinema, protecting it from the comic book conglomerate masses. In the midst of a summer of sequels, the film bro may be our only hope.

The gatekeeper continues to be unfairly maligned online even though, oftentimes, the criticisms levelled at him are something that many people would arguably find themselves guilty of. For example, the idea that the gatekeeper builds a brick wall around their interests and decries media that goes mainstream. Is this not something we all do? Surely, at some point, we’ve all discovered some fairly niche artist or television show before it became hugely mainstream and, as a direct effect of that, our interest in it plateaued. For me it was RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show I discovered as it was entering its fifth season and hadn’t yet crossed the Atlantic. To witness what it has since become, considering how much of a fan I was of its earliest seasons, was an experience akin to witnessing the Hindenburg going down.

If we just slightly shifted our view of what gatekeepers actually do — protect rather than guard — then suddenly gatekeeping becomes less like an iron fist and more like a safety blanket, a shield between the object and the potential harm of external forces. In this regard, gatekeepers are anti-gentrifiers. They strive to make sure popular culture belongs to the people who it was actually made for. Gatekeeping is how we keep culture alive.

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