When it gets too personal - The pitfalls of fandom culture



Crying girls all dressed up in merch, screaming boys in their teams’ colorful shirts, old men living in their mum’s basement. All three represent extremes that come to mind when we think of fandoms. But what if fandom is a much more complex issue? What if it can do some bad instead of just bringing people together over their favorite band, team, or movie? Can fandoms be a threat to the creativity of the fans’ favorites? What if fandoms allow their stars to fault them many times, yet once and every time forgive them, for even the worst things?


LORD, ARE YOU A SHAKESPEARE STAN?


Fandoms haven’t started with Beehive, Little Monsters, Beliebers, or Barbz. They go way back. After all, as Leo Braudy (1987) states “fame is an ancient mechanism, a point that seems obvious when one thinks about institutions like royal, religious or political office and the circulation of human faces on coinage”. Figures like Shakespeare have been famous back in their time too. The poet is a good example here - his birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon has been open for visitors since the mid- 18th century and has seen instances of fans scratching their names on windows or walls of the cottage. Fast forward to mid-19th-century stars like Sarah Bernardt or Jenny Lindt made their merchandise or toured across the country . In the 20th century, the fan culture had been reinforced by the star system imposed by Hollywood. A system that created, promoted, and essentially exploited figures like Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Dee, and Tony Curtis. As Mark Duffet writes in his book “Understanding fandoms: An introduction to the study of media fan culture”: “At the end of the 1920s, the Hollywood studios collectively received over 32 million fan letters per year for both male and female stars”. Over the next decades stars like Elvis, and the Beatles gathered millions of fans, who as the time’s public described were under some form of “hysteria”.


Literature marks certain shifts in the history of fandom. Photos, live recording, and radio greatly influenced fandoms, however, nothing fueled fan culture as much as the development of the internet.


ONE-CLICK AWAY


We have been taught to publicize our opinions. Apps like Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok generate money off of people’s takes on virtually anything. And it is not like the opinion stays out there unseen, with no interaction. The algorithms easily connect like-minded people, so the word spreads faster, easier, and with greater power. After all, we love to agree.


But this should not be a problem, right? Fans are people uniting over something they love - whether that be a person, a band, or a football team. Well, not necessarily. As Katherina Trendacosta writes: “Fandom is not simply being a fan of something. It is performing being a fan by creating transformative works, collecting knowledge, cosplaying, attending conventions, and, ever-increasingly, being vocal online”. And while that may come as surprising to some, these fans are not always vocalizing happy and positive thoughts.


“Fan armies" can make themselves into weapons of harassment and intimidation that threaten to undermine all that love and inclusion.” This is a passage from Danielle Colin-Thome’s article . At first, these words may seem a bit harsh, but once one starts diving into the world of fandom scandals, they seem just about right.


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When Kelly Marie Tran joined Star Wars in 2017 as the first woman of color in the franchise, she was met with an enormous amount of hate coming from the fandom. We cannot say that the sexist and racist remarks were a consensus among the fans, but it is safe to say that a big chunk of the group was not happy with her being present in the movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It is also worth noting that Kelly’s character, though it may come as a subjective opinion, was simply badly written. In this light the hate the actress received seems even more misguided and wrong. Nonetheless, all the hate that got to her resulted in her deleting her Instagram.


When Beyonce sang about “Becky with the good hair” on her Lemonade album in 2016, the Beehive was quick to jump to conclusions and attack the potential Becky - Rachel Roy. Again, the situation ended with Rachel making her Instagram private.


When Mac Miller sadly passed away in 2018, his ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande had to turn off comments on her Instagram page, due to the fans blaming her for Miller’s death.


Fandoms dispose of their members as being “chronically online”. Fans type, scroll and like at all times. If someone has to be up to date with the idol’s life - it’s them. This online presence, however, should not be a pipeline to a behavior that is so disconnected from the real world. Just because being a user1245 makes a fan anonymous, doesn't mean that Rachel, Ariana, or Kelly should be reading death threats on their screens.


FAN VS THE IDOL: A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP?


By definition, a fan should be the biggest supporter of their idol. With that come feelings and opinions. Somehow we assume that they should always be positive, and supportive… Well that is not always the case.


The previously mentioned Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes back in this argument. Some fans were not happy with how the movie looked and wanted to ensure that the next movie in the franchise: The Rise of Skywalker would be catered better to their liking. As Mike Worby writes some members of the fandom went as far as proposing to fund the movie. As a result, The Rise of Skywalker was “largely retooled”. And here comes Kelly Marie again, her role in the movie was rather small - a change (possibly) coming from that same group that made the actress delete her instagram. The “retool” didn’t make the movie good, on the contrary, critics were greatly underwhelmed by the product that caved to the fans’ demands.


A similar thing happened with the Suicide Squad that was recut after the trailer was not well received among the fans. The result? A rather not creative, inconsistent, and messy movie. Same with Sonic the Hedgehog Movie that had to be delayed due to massive criticism from the fandom.


There is a pattern among all these examples. The fandom, so again the most invested fans, demand changes, because their vision is not fulfilled on the big screen. Then, they start a discussion online; they talk, they complain and they demand changes. Directors and producers cave, because even though the fandom is usually the minority they still generate views, talk, tweet, and generate money. But what does it leave for the normal moviegoer? Films that cater to the liking of only a subset of a population. Why? Because the directors and producers lose their creativity during the process. Since there is a group telling them how things should be done, why care and create something original and showstopping? Right?


BLINDED BY THE LIGHTS


Some fans not only make the lives of their stars problematic but also for their fellows in the fandom. An opinion that may not be agreeing with the census among the fans might be just enough to become the target of vicious attacks.


In 2018 Wanna Thompson, a journalist for Paper or Vibe, tweeted that she wished Nicki Minaj put out more mature songs. She didn’t say that her songs now are not good, only that since Nicki is approaching 40 it would be nice to see the other side of her; worth noting a side she had already shared on songs like Piano. However, for the fans, this tweet was a sign to attack Wanna. “I have been harassed and targeted online before but it hasn’t reached this level in the past. The insults I have received were not only ugly, it’s a reflection of a much larger problem”.


What Thompson might be referring to is the fact that some fans are blinded by their love and devotion. Once they see the name of their idol with an opinion that does not sit right with them; maybe someone is pointing out a problem, maybe they do not like the direction the idol is going with; best believe the fans are going to attack the person entitled to that opinion. And it does not matter whether that person is inside or outside the fandom community; an “attack” on their idol is an attack on them personally.


EYES WIDE SHUT - YES SUSAN, YOUR STAR IS PROBLEMATIC


And the issue becomes much more problematic when the idols do something bad. David Dobrik, Jake Paul, Michael Jackson, RuPaul, Kanye West, James Charles, Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, Vanessa Hudgens, Taylor Swift… all have something bad on their resume. Some have done questionable things, some had problematic opinions, and some produced a lot of CO2 while using their private jets for groceries.


No matter the damage though, the fans usually step up. As Danielle Colin-Thome writes: “One of the hallmark traits of celebrity fandom, in particular, is the staunch defense of the "faves" — figures the fandom regards as nearly infallible — against any kind of hate, criticism, or insult”. And while defending Taylor Swift, by saying that pretty much every other star uses their private jet privileges too much is still wrong, defending James Charles and trying to clear him from grooming accusations is on another level. But fans do it. They overlook the wrongs of their idols and gaslight others into thinking that their opinions are not valid and claims are false.


It is hard to understand that someone you have praised for so long may be a bad person. And especially for fans who are involved in their idol's lives on a deep level. Grasping the thought that they might have done something bad, can be a very difficult process.


The process becomes even harder when the idol tries to clear their name off of the accusations or leave the situation with no damage. But fans must remember even though their wallpapers are them, their Twitter accounts have them on their profile pictures and their TikTok For You page is filled with edits of them, they only know a small part of their idol’s lives, a part that may be catered to the liking of the public.


LAST WORDS ON FANDOMS


Even though this article mainly dealt with the problematic side of fandoms, we cannot forget that most of the time, they are collectives of people that do good things. Together, while liking the same person, band, or football team.


They gather, make groups, create edits, organize events, and much more. As a society, we overlook all the skills it takes to successively run or exist in fandom.


Fandoms can be a remarkably united community, and when they set out to achieve something, they can be a really strong force. In 2020 BTS fans managed to raise 1 million dollars in just 24 hours, which they later donated to Black Lives Matter organizations. That same fandom successfully sabotaged a Trump rally in Tulsa, by reserving tickets they never used (Lucy Blackiston, IT'S TIME TO STOP SHITTING ON STANS).


However, there is a thin, thin line between a community that is supportive of their idol and a community that is obsessed, overlooks the wrongs of their stars, and is quick to judge, hate and criticize. There is a line between praising your idol and being blind to their mistakes. There is a line between defending your star and attacking other people for having opinions. There is a line between a good fandom and a group of overly obsessed people that do more harm than good.



Iza Jabłońska

Iza is currently studying Communication Science in Amsterdam. When she is not studying or working in a busy restaurant in the center of Amsterdam, she loves sitting down with a good book, black coffee (no sugar, no milk), or going to the small cinemas scattered around the city.