The "Fan" Label: Weirdos or Mainstream?

Are you a fan? What is a fan anyway? The word is an identity label that means different things for different people over different time periods. When it comes to fans of popular media such as books, films, TV, games, you might embrace being a fan or you might recoil at the idea of being counted among what you think of as crowds screeching for the glimpse of a celebrity. Most of us are fans of something a TV series we never miss, an author whose books we keep rereading, a video game franchise we replay, a sports team we don't get tired of talking about. But whether we would openly describe ourself as a fan of something depends on what characteristics we associate with the word fan and whether we want and can take part in them.

Being a fan boils down to strong investment and affect: the sentiments of becoming invested in a story, in a famous person, in a historical event… these are nothing new, and plenty of famous stories – such as Sherlock Holmes' or Jane Austen’s novels, not to mention traditional fairy-tales – have spawned retellings or sequels akin to fan fiction. But for long, concepts like fan, fan community and fandom outside of sports were strongly associated with the science-fiction and fantasy scene and thus separated from more “mainstream” interests and from “high culture” in particular. In a way, science-fiction and fantasy is where things started. In a cultural setting where publications by amateur press associations were nothing unusual, likeminded people could share their thoughts about the popular genre through fan-magazines and meet each other at conventions: year 1939 saw the first Worldcon, organized by the World Science Fiction Society. The era of Star Trek and other science-fiction from the 1960s increased the visibility of fans and strengthened the connotation between fans and science fiction.

Being a fan allows one to find friends in fellow fans. Fans theorize about the fictional worlds and maybe engage in fan art and fan fiction, which allow them not only to delve deeper into the fictional worlds but to also reinterpret its stories. Fan fiction, is a way a subversive and empowering activity, and a way to engage in the story, not to fix it but to delve deeper in it. Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts and Education, writes: “Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn't fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn't frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.”

Yet being a fan was long seen as an abnormality and subject to alarmist media coverage. Fans were characterized as overweight, socially inept men and women with child-like interest in collectible toys. Fans were pathologized as or society's misfits playing make-belief to make up for their lack of success or crazed individuals who exaggerate the relationship they have with their celebrity crush. This was not limited to scifi and fantasy. “[Since the 1950s], crowds of teen music fans have been depicted as animalistic and depraved, under the spell of their chosen musical form”, Professor of Media Studies Joli Jensen criticised the press coverage of fans. Self-identifying fans might use the label out of pride, to separate themselves from the average consumer, but it was not necessarily respectable in wider society. It wasn't until the 1990s that academia started establishing that there is nothing wrong with being a fan. In academia, the discussion started to shift towards fans being a community with subversive power to challenge the mainstream interests and the mainstream interpretation.

assorted movies on bookshelf Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels

Practically everyone is a fan, whether of pop culture or high culture, even though genteel “high culture” has been disassociated from the fan connotations. Yet the comic book geek who collects and remembers every issue of a series is not really different from the Wagner enthusiast who participates in annual Ring cycle marathons, or the researcher who can quote anything by Shakespeare. It helps that science-fiction and fantasy and other previously “geeky” genres have in the last decade shifted strongly towards the mainstream and are scoring points in popularity and box office rankings (think Game of Thrones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or more recently The Witcher, and The Mandalorian). Fans have become louder and more prominent, with more and more high-profile names being “outed” as fans. So calling oneself a fan might be kind of easy, right?

Being a fan might be easy, but the social participation aspect that has been such an important part is another story. With so many fans, there are inevitably bad examples and divide within fan communities. Gatekeeping practices fence out “wrong kinds of fans”, both those who lack sufficient knowledge and investment and those who express their investment in the "wrong" way. In particular, women (a.k.a. “fake geek girls”) and minorities may be marginalized from participating in a fan community, whereas female-majority fandoms are infantilized. Many fandoms include discourses about “butthurt” fanboys or “obsessive” fangirls who “ruin” the community. Some people who in theory might be interested in joining in a new fandom, might have a brief look at the relevant fan forum, subreddit, Tumblr hashtag or other… and just decide “Nope, this is not something I want to be involved in”.

Is that then a reason to stop being a fan, to reject the very label of “fan” just to disassociate yourself from toxic who delight in making others uncomfortable? Well, no. Because it is so commonplace to be a fan of a series, the academic discussion has shifted to describing the ways a person can be a fan, shifting away from the idea of subcultural fan communities.

Thinking about a “true” fandom or a prototypical way of being a fan is a disservice for fans outside of the communities. Maybe even for academics studying fans. As Professor of Journalism and Media Matt Hills writes, “continuing to prioritize fan culture (especially by treating this explicitly or implicitly as “true” fandom) fails to […] address the diverse and individualized ways in which fandom can now be performed.” Some people prefer to be fans privately, simply engaging in the interest they like and be good with that. Others make it social, consider the fan community important, attending conventions or communicating with other fans on social media. Similarly, some do fan art or fan fiction, others do not.

The characteristics of fans are being renegotiated. The negative connotations of today emphasis more on the toxicity than the sociability. But the positive connotations of companionship and co-creation with likeminded people has not changed.

The essence of being a fan – loving a book, film, game or artist – has not changed. There are still a lot of amazing compassionate, creative fans making content. Most fan communities have their own niches devoid of the drama in some other parts. Yet participation in a fandom is not necessary for being a fan. A fan identity – even as a “real” fan – does not need to be validated by others. It is just a matter of going where one is comfortable with one’s own way of expressing fandom, whether participating in a subculture, lurking in the hashtag, or just alone and with close friends.



Selected bibliography:

Matt Hills. 2017. “From fan culture/community to the fan world: Possible pathways and ways of having done fandom.” Palabra Clave Vol. 20 Iss. 4. 856-883.

Henry Jenkins. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press

Joli Jensen. 1992. “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization”. In L. Lewis (ed) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Routledge