Fandom has truly come into its own.
That's according to a couple of guys who should know: GLT's Psych Geeks. Where it was once supremely geeky and social unacceptable to be a Trekki, now it's accepted and even considered cool. Fandom has moved centerstage.
This golden age of fandom rose in tandem with technology, allowing the isolated fan sitting in the shadows to come forward and meet and mingle with other fans, either in person or via our dear friend, the internet.
That’s according to Psych Geeks Eric Wesselmann and Scott Jordan, both psychology professors at Illinois State University and unabashed fans of quite a lot themselves: Marvel, Star Trek, Star Wars, D&D, Game of Thrones – it's quite a long list. It’s the abundance of entertainment choices and the tech that so neatly delivers it to us that gives us the opportunity to indulge in fan behavior, observed the Geeks.
“The reason that it’s cool now is the same reason it was uncool thirty years ago,” said Jordan. “And that’s normativity. Thirty years ago, most people who were expressing fandom were expressing it in sports arenas, where bodies are present, bodies are doing games and there’s a group of spectators that are observing. That’s a little different from being a fan of a TV show or a book series. There was no place where everyone went to watch TV together or read 'Harry Potter' together.”
“But with the advent of the internet, now there are these places where people can go be with each other around the fan content. It’s become normative because there’s a space for it now.”
The internet is a boon for the social aspect of fandom, agreed Wesselmann. “But also for access to the object itself, too.”
Back in the fan dark ages, round about the 1980s, fans relied on low tech paper fanzines to indulge their fascination with a particular movie or TV show. They also swapped videos with each other.
“Now they can stream what they want, whenever they want it,” said Wesselmann.
Fandom isn’t just about the characters or TV shows that we love. Research shows fandom at its core is about identity.
“There’s something within that object that resonates with you, you attach to it, you bring it in to your self-concept,” explained Wesselmann. “It helps give you meaning, maybe nostalgia if it’s something you connected with when you were a kid.”
“And then the social aspect of it is you find others to belong with, which is also a part of identity. And it also distinguishes you and your group from others”
Insert Star Wars/Star Trek rivalry here. It’s the geeky version of Harvard versus Yale. That kind of rivalry is part of the appeal of belonging to a fandom, said Jordan.
“It’s not just what I like and who else likes it, it’s also what we jointly dislike. And it’s fun, a fun in group/out group space. Part of your identity is that definition against some other group.”
“That’s called anti-fans,” Wesselmann put in. “It’s supposed to be kind of hipster-ish. Like, ‘I’m defined by what I don’t like.'"
The Psych Geeks agree that fandom is fun and a great way to unite people. But sometimes there is a darker side to fandom, such as when fans hurl furious tweets and snarky hashtags at writers and producers when the fans don’t care for the turn a character or storyline takes. One "Star Wars" fan was so disgusted by “The Last Jedi” that he edited out all the women from the film, creating his own 46-minute cut of the movie.
“Lots of things are parts of people’s identities that we may or may not agree with,” said Wesselmann. “Individuals we might identify as racist, or sexist or whatever, certain perspectives of their world view are part of their identity. When we get a story that we connect to, that becomes part of our expectations. And when the next installment of that story violates our expectations in some way, whether it’s socially accepted or not, we respond in kind.”
“So, if I don’t like a particular set of characters in a movie, and that violates my worldview, I will try to make it what I want it to be.”
“I’m always defining the self in terms of borders,” Jordan said. “And borders are always about what you’re not. In that sense, we can call it a dark side, but for me, if you’re in fandom, there’s always going to be an other. And that’s part of what we’re relishing in.”
“People are experiencing text and textuality differently now. Because now they can jointly create in ways that they just couldn’t, even ten years ago. And if it is part of your identity, and someone messes up the story that’s part of your identity, you just write it over. And you get a few people to read it to resonate with you.”
Which leads us to fanfiction. Yes, it’s one word.
Fanfiction allows fans to feel greater agency with the works they admire. It’s a part of participatory fandom, which has also given rise to cosplay, where fans intricately recreate and wear costumes of their favorite characters. Fans, said Wesselmann, are not passive consumers.
“Fans take what they like from the text and they work with it, they make it part of their identity, part of the way they see the world, and then they are continuing to produce. Cosplay is like embodied fandom.”
“I find fandom very life affirming,” admitted Wesselmann. “If somebody can find something that they find honest joy in, that helps give them meaning or even if it’s just this positive feeling of living – go for it!”
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