“Headcanon” is an interesting term to unpack. It’s essentially an oxymoron that says, “I want to believe in how I interpret a given story over whatever the official narrative says,” making it a contradiction with a strongly postmodern bent. Headcanon, by meaning, lies outside of “canon,” but it’s also a different beast from “fanon,” which often carries a communal element.
As it has gained traction, headcanon increasingly butts heads with the other two. But while the battle of headcanon vs. canon might appear to be the more prominent fight for fans, I think what really defines much of the fandom divisions of the current age is the struggle of headcanon vs. fanon, and how this conflict plays out contributes to the extreme reactions seen in fandom online.
The creation of fanons requires two elements. First, much like headcanon, fans need to prefer some aspect of their own interpretations over something that is unsatisfying in canon by way of quality or omission. If Pokemon fanfic writers prefer a grittier world, it’s because the franchise is geared towards a kinder vision and they want something else. Second, there needs to be some kind of consensus. Not every fan needs to agree about a pairing, but enough fans must exist for a romantic coupling to gain traction, especially if it’s a dominant part of the fan discourse.
Headcanon, however, obviates the need for mutual agreement. The use of the term, though not inherently confrontational, carries with it a notion of the individual over the group. While fans might cross-pollinate ideas, it comes down to each and every fan, instead of what a community thinks.
This potentially leads not just to differing views of a work’s value, but also a disparity between what it means to be a fan and what it means to be in a fandom. Speaking from personal experience, over the years, I’ve gradually moved away from large, online communities to a closer circle of friends. Now, when I encounter “the fandom” of something, it can be like stepping into a foreign country, even down to being exposed to unfamiliar lingo. I wonder how my interpretations, headcanon or not, can differ so much from the dominant ideas in a given fandom collective.
In hindsight, this is rarely surprising. It’s uncommon for a single person to arrive at the same conclusion as a group, and even one group’s ideas will not align with another’s. A person who is truly alone, in the sense of not having others to talk to, would only have themselves to debate with. Moreover, when people form communities around a hobby, they have a high chance of bringing in like-minded peers; all the more so when fandom is a catered experience via Twitter or Tumblr.
Fanon isn’t some monolithic creature. There are multiple fanons, much like how it’s impossible to have every headcanon be exactly the same. One can even argue that a single property can have multiple canons, as long as it never fully defines which version is “official.” But the conflict between fanon and canon is generally old and fairly easy to understand. There’s what the creators say, there’s what the fans say, and even the most tightly controlled work will have moments left to interpretation. Moreover, because the Word of God, so to speak, carries a kind of authority, fanon is positioned as a kind of rebel entity.
But when the fight is headcanon vs. fanon, it’s the fanon that turns into the empire. If a lone fan wants to be accepted, they’ll have to take on enough of the assumed truths of the group, or be willing to encourage debate and disagreement. Because of how fans are so capable of tying their fandom to their personal identity and values, disagreements can hit close to home, or be seen as an affront to one’s beliefs. This is why a focus on social consciousness and progress, even though those concepts aren’t bad ones, can lead to a kind of zealousness that can create a negative image. The way a fandom thinks, even if it’s ultimately in a positive and beneficial direction, can become very hostile to outsiders, i.e. those who have not been baptized in the fires of fanon.
I think one of the major factors contributing to the ways in which headcanon, canon, and fanon clash is, likely to no one’s surprise, social media. It simultaneously allows people to connect while also in a sense isolating them from each other, while the internet itself has long been a space where beliefs, no matter how big or small, are defended seemingly to the death; one set of words vs. another. There’s no sign of it stopping any time soon, but I hope to see a greater awareness of the value of both individual and group mindsets in fandom.