What Does It Mean To Be A Fan?
Everyone is a fan. It’s human nature for us to seek out enjoyment in various areas of life, and to turn that show we watch every week or artist whose every album we own into a private or public passion. You can be a fan of pretty much anything, be it pop culture, sports, politics, or wonderful websites jam packed with valuable content that improves your day. Being a fan denotes a level of enthusiasm that some find off-putting: It can make you loud and stubborn and prone to painting your body strange colours as you sit in zero degree weather and watch your team be slaughtered by the opposition; it can make you lose that crucial sense of perspective that separates reality from desire; it can define you along lines of gender, race, sexuality and class that leave you further open to dismissal and attacks.
Being a fan is different for men than it is for women. Fanboys of sports are often ridiculed but their stalwart dedication isn’t coded in terms of the pathetic quite like the passions of women. Both are still open to shaming about their intellect, their mental capacities, their sex life or lack thereof, but women’s fan focuses are seldom given the weight of creative or financial investment that men’s are, partly because they’re seen as niche interests rather than having a universal appeal. Men face their own problems being fans. Sports fandom, for instance, comes with a heavy dose of toxic masculinity, teaching boys from an early age that aggression and a distinct lack of compassion are key tools to being ‘real men’, and don’t think of being a boy who likes ‘girly’ things, because any show of emotion must be stamped out immediately. Depending on the thing you’re a fan of, people’s judgements can range from embarrassing to dangerous: Think of the women who have lost their jobs for reading and writing romance novels, or the racism black fans of their own music face.
If you’re a woman who’s a fan of anything, the chances are you’ve been referred to dismissively as a ‘fangirl’. Most of us have reclaimed the moniker with pride - why not wear your enthusiasm on your sleeve for a change? - but we still encounter the sneering use of it against everything we do. Being a woman in fandom of any kind, even the stuff aimed specifically at our demographic, shifts how you’re viewed as a fan. ‘Oh, you only like that show because some sexy dude’s in it.’ ‘You claim to love sci-fi, but what about all these books you’ve never read so how can you be a real fan?’ ‘We don’t want women in this space because they’ll ruin it.’ Even now, there are some fandoms where women feel unsafe or unwanted. We’re never fans to some: We’re fake geek girls or groupies or starfuckers. We’re eye candy or token chicks or problems to be erased. Women of colour face it even harder, as do trans women and genderqueer fans, who just want a safe space to enjoy the things they do. Sometimes it ends in an entire hate movement that legitimises the rise of the far-right.
Being a fan means seeing history repeat itself. Every person treating the screaming throngs of One Direction fans suddenly forget the Take That and Backstreet Boys fans of the 90s, or a little thing called Beatlemania, and they’ll use the same sexist slurs in reference to them all. Your adolescent fandom is seen as a teenage fancy you’ll pack away once you’re older, because once you’re past a certain age and still enjoying that stuff, suddenly it’s open season on declaring you a pathetic housewife with no friends. While discussing Beatlemania, writers Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Heiss, and Gloria Jacobs talked about how the ‘only cure’ for what was at the time considered serious problem was growing up, and that similarly to “the girls who had screamed for Frank Sinatra,” the Beatles fangirls would “[grow] up to be responsible, settled housewives.” We aren’t quite screaming at Bieber fans to get on with making babies already, but the assumption is the same: Once you start hanging out with boys, all these frivolities will pass and you’ll be a proper grown-up. If you don’t, then there’s no hope for you.
Nowadays, the business of pop culture has its foundations on the thoroughly geeky, but being a fan of such things a few decades ago was its own walking punchline. For many, that mentality still exists, perhaps because it’s convenient to believe the not-so-humble nerd is still oppressed. Billions of dollars are spent on making Marvel movies and we’re now lucky enough to live in the age of a new Star Wars movie every year, but some desperately hold onto the gatekeeping because they yearn for the fandom days where their tight-knit community had that sheen of exclusivity. They can’t believe that the things that made them happy as children made millions of others happy too, or maybe they do but they refuse to accept that those shows or films or songs meant as much to others as it did to them. Nobody else got it like they do and they want to hold onto that.
It’s a little harder to do that now when those people are having their passions suitably pandered to by every major studio in Hollywood. It’s big business to be a geek, to be a fan, because everyone is now. Everyone’s a superhero fan, whether they’ve read every Batman comic or just like watching the movies; everyone with Angry Birds on their phone is a gamer; everyone who binge-watched Stranger Things on Netflix is privy to the supposed sanctity of ’80s nostalgia. Being a fan is not something one must pass a test to be initiated into. Really, being a fan is as much about being a consumer, and under capitalism, that’s all of us.
Still, there’s much solace and joy to be found in being a fan: The communities you find, the friendships you create, the ideas you expose yourself to and creative passions you strive to accomplish, and the drive it instills in you to do and be better. I still greatly cherish the friends I made as a teenager during the torrid heights of LiveJournal groups and the IMDb message boards. Years spent in the wilderness of fandom helped me hone my writing skills enough to make a full-time gig out of it. When you’re lonely or isolated or struggle to make friends in your day-to-day life, getting online and bonding over your hobbies or interests can be a necessary lifeline. Fandom can provide solidarity and amplify your voice in ways it’s never been before. Done right - although honestly, who does it all right? - fandom is formative and inspiring and a home away from home. Being a fan is one of many layers to your life. The problem comes when we see it as the sole defining feature of our existence. The stuff you like isn’t the only thing that makes you who you are, nor does being a fan of something make you a better person than someone who isn’t. Being a fan is for everyone because we are all fans, and that could be enriching for us all if we let it.
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