Irrational Love: Fandom Doesn’t Have to Make Sense
How does this happen to us?
I consider myself a mostly functional adult. I have a job. I attend graduate courses and write papers about academic things. I pay bills and stuff. I’m a good friend and a good kid to my parents. I’m a fairly upbeat person. I don’t like to be sad, I don’t cry a lot, and some people even think I’m funny. Why, oh, why, then am I obsessed with reading the angstiest fanfiction ever?
These are not traits that anyone would associate with me, right? Does it mean I secretly like it when my favorite characters are miserable? Do I like to be miserable? For that matter, do the people who love fic where their favorite characters get injured, sick, punched in the face, etc. actually want any of those things to happen in real life? Is my real life a sham? The answer (in most cases) is, “No.”
My life is not a sham, and of course I don’t want bad things to happen in real life to anyone! Internal flights of fancy are just that: internal. Seriously, if a real life boyfriend were as angsty and sad and injured as they often are in fanfiction, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. There’s a reason I’m neither a medical nor psychological professional. Blood makes me yak, and I water my garden with human tears. (Not really, but my cool mental image of myself is built on hoping that people THINK I do! And also, salt doesn’t really help plants much.)
I tend to divide fandom into three main phases:
I’m no kind of expert, this is just how I think about the process of falling in fandom with something. When I fall in love with a new show, book, movie, character, etc., the first stop along the way to full bananas, soul-stealing fandom crazytown is appreciation. I experience the media, the media pleases me, and I appreciate that—like when I first watched Psych and thought, “Aha! I have a new TV boyfriend! This Shawn Spencer character is as hyperactive as I am, he’s super smart, and he’s kind of a big kid at heart. I relate to this fictional fellow and lament that he’s not a real dude. 10/10, would buy him a pineapple smoothie.” Step one. Check.
After existing in the appreciation phase for a while—catching up on all of the episodes, forming opinions about the characters, and spending time thinking about it when my mind wanders—I begin to edge into phase two: participation. The heart starts to want what the heart starts to want, and I entered this phase with my Psych fandom by looking online for forums where other fans gather to talk about the show and share links to good fanfiction and fan art. Phase two could be referred to as the Sweet Summer Children phase, if that’s a thing you like to say. I kind of like to say it. *Shrug.*
Phase two culminates often in frequent visits to sites like Fanfiction.net, Archive of Our Own, and down the mildly hallucinogenic rabbit hole that is Tumblr. End-stage Phase Two often manifests in starting to understand sentiments like, “If this fic doesn’t treat Lassiter well, then screw them anyway! I’m not reading anything that treats Lassie like an a-hole!” or things like, “I swear to the Patron Saint of All Fandom, if anyone gets de-aged in this fic, we are so over!” or if, halfway through, this fic turns into a sort of kink that is not my deal … well, I try not to be judgmental. I have my things, other people have their things. One girl’s catnip is another girl’s kryptonite, so to each her own!
Phase Three often comes about when one has exhausted all readily apparent resources for new content that pushes the right buttons emotionally. You’ve been to DeviantArt and ogled the fan art, maybe even commissioned something for yourself. You’ve become an expert at getting alerts from your favorite authors on ff.net and Archive. You’ve fine-tuned your searching skills to include and exclude that which interests you and that which constitutes a deal breaker. You feel like you want more, but that no one is writing/making/etc. exactly what you want.
Something inside you starts whispering, “… well, maybe I should write it!” Or draw it. Or create it as jewelry, etc. When you’re inspired to create, you have entered phase three. You don’t have to pen epic tomes of novel-length fanfiction. Maybe you make fan vids. Maybe you create art. Maybe you work with a friend to collaborate. Maybe you write original music about your fandom. Maybe you decide to archive your favorite authors’ work and become the equivalent of an underground Peddler of Feels—recommending authors, fics, and art based on your vast knowledge and the specific quirks of the individual reader. There are tons of ways to create within a fandom.
Now, I haven’t actually gone full Phase Three for Psych yet, but I’m getting there. Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom is beckoning me from a dark alley as if to say, “Psst. Hey! You! You haven’t found exactly the sad, betrayed, Iron Man and Remorseful Cap fic you’re looking for? Write it, girl. Join us! We have candy!” It might happen. Or, I might just write another article instead. We’ll see. When I make a necklace that has a garnet, an amethyst, and a pearl and hope someone notices and asks me about Steven Universe, that’s Phase Three, too.
Back in the day, I wrote Smallville fanfiction, and there are other fandoms I’ve dabbled in creatively. One of my oldest fandoms, The Magnificent Seven (the 2001 TV show version) fandom, I have never written for, but I did archive most of the fic by author and title from the dying Geocities sites before they went away and then shared my archive with others in the fandom who have more time to post, contact authors, and directly deal with the potentially “lost” fan lore. I consider that Phase Three-level activity.
Fandom is as specific as you want it to be—as public or as private. Need to read about Harry Potter characters in space? There’s a fic for that. Do you want to genderswap all of the Avengers? That’s totally a thing. Do you want to take the cast of Star Trek and place them in a non-holodeck version of the American Wild West? Do you use your fandom to explore sexual fantasies? Do you specifically seek out fandom materials that are entirely nonsexual? Do you want to write yourself into your favorite fandoms? Do you prefer materials that are canon-compliant? There is a place for all of this and more within nearly every conceivable fandom. Your OTP, brOTP, OT3, and many other abbreviations as well all have a home in online fandom. Fandom is as complex as the humans that comprise it, and it should be no surprise that it is as diverse as well.
We as a society are mostly past the days when being seen as a “geek” got you beaten up by the jocks after school. Most of us are no longer surprised to discover that the band people, theater people, sports people, and the popular people all enjoy video games, use computers well, and have favorite superheroes. We’re to a nuanced point within fan culture where we have started to look inward and scrutinize each other.
I’m far more likely to be judged for my tastes in fandom by other fans than I am to be ridiculed by strangers for participating in fandom at all. It’s possible that someone might read this article and think, “Seriously? She used to write Smallville fic? Why would you ever?” I’m not saying that I’ve never run across a piece of fan work that gave me pause. It happens. Fandom is made of humans (so if we “consume” it, are we cannibals?), and some of the worst humans create terrible things. The terrible things that exist in the world unfortunately have representation within fandom as well, but this should not discourage the rest of us from creating, participating, and appreciating, and refraining from making judgments about what makes others tick.
I go out of my way to avoid fan-shaming others. If I don’t enjoy reading crossover fic between Newsies and Space Jam, then I simply don’t read it. Making fun of other fans publicly is a jerk move, and I try not to do it. If you’re reading this and you wrote a crossover fic between Newsies and Space Jam, this was completely pulled out of my butt, and not meant to mock you, I promise!
So, if what we read and make does not equal who we are, what purpose does it serve? What is it doing for us emotionally? If reading fic about a character taking care of another character who is sad and/or injured speaks to my soul, but I would rather give myself a facial with a cheese grater than do any of it in real life … what does it mean?
If I had a degree in psychology, I could come up with any number of (possibly valid) theories, but the point I wanted to make with this article is that it doesn’t actually have to matter. We can theorize all day long about whether or not we’re emotionally healthy, leading a reasonable life outside of fandom, in a relationship, commitment-phobic, hypersexual, asexual, using fandom as a means of escape, or riding the Slashfic Unicorn sidesaddle over the rainbow and to the Moon. What it boils down to is that I am not my fandom. My fandom is a part of me.
It is a part of me that sees characters I love and wonders if they were really okay after that really traumatic scene and wishes that Dean and Sam would have a real, actual conversation and consider each other’s feelings for once. It’s the part of me that likes to think about Natasha and Steve hanging out and being really good friends. It’s the part that worries about grumpy Detective Lassiter and is just sure that he actually does secretly respect Shawn. The part that wrote about a teenage Clark Kent and how his powers and fears kept him lonely and isolated at times. The part that takes a line a character says to heart and an entire fic is born.
The one thing that seems to be true of fandom is that there’s no predicting it. I know people who lead truly non-vanilla lifestyles who read canon-compliant fic only. I know asexual people who read a lot of sexy material. I know people who prefer friendfic only, people who aren’t happy until everyone in the fic is sad, and people who just aren’t going to be satisfied until someone writes that damn Space Jam/Newsies fic. My theory is that in a lot of ways, fandom gives us the space to experiment socially, and depending on what your regular life is like, this can take infinite forms. Fandom is my emotional and social playground, and a way to interact with others who share my passion. What is it for you? Let me know in the comments!
Sara Goodwin has a B.A. in Classical Civilization and an M.A. in Library Science from Indiana University. Once she went on an archaeological dig and found awesome ancient stuff. Sara enjoys a smorgasbord of pan-nerd entertainment such as Renaissance faires, anime conventions, steampunk, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. In her free time, she writes things like fairy tale haiku, fantasy novels, and terrible poetry about being stalked by one-eyed opossums. In her other spare time, she sells nerdware as With a Grain of Salt Designs, Tweets, and Tumbls.
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