By Lindsay Eanet
I’m writing this to the blissful soundtrack of potatoes hissing in a cast-iron pan, the smell of caramelization beginning to permeate our apartment. My wife is preparing for a sacred day of obligation in our house — the first home match of our local soccer club. Tomorrow morning, the potatoes will fill her artfully-wrapped breakfast burritos, be stacked into a cooler, and ultimately line the Malört-addled bellies of our friends and community members at the massive pre-match tailgate. Her burritos are a display of care to friends and scarf-wearing strangers alike, all bound together by our love for (and frustration with) 11 men wearing the same crest on their chests.
That crest proved to be my conduit to the experience of being part of a fan community. In the years since I first attended a Chicago Fire match on a date and got swept up in the exhilaration of the supporters’ section, I’ve made lifelong friends (one of whom even stood up in our wedding), traveled to exotic places (like Minneapolis), and participated in service days and fundraisers (and, yes, tailgates). I’ve also watched grown adults argue with each other for days on end over years-old petty grievances and engage in intricate mental gymnastics to explain why the homophobic chant they kept using is not, in fact, homophobic. I’ve even imbibed a cocktail of Malört and mojito mix — a combination I wish on no one.
As it turns out, I love learning about other people’s experiences with fandom almost as much as I love experiencing it firsthand: the passion, the enthusiasm, the feeling of belonging to something greater, just the extremity of it all. Have I ever seen a full episode of the BBC series Sherlock? No. Have I spent half a day tumbling down a YouTube-and-Tumblr rabbit hole learning everything I possibly can about the Johnlock Conspiracy? Yes, absolutely yes.
I love talking and reading about fandom because it is the very best and worst of us. It’s joy and toxicity, pleasure and heartbreak, bond and betrayal. It gets at our most human urges: to share the things we love with others, to seek community among like-minded peers, especially at a time when we are all still too far apart. It can inspire the best and worst beyond its own confines as well — whether that’s a community food drive or a violent insurrection.
Such duality informs some of my favorite recent writings about fandom and fan communities — pieces that celebrate the curiosity, joy, and intrigue of fandom, but also illuminate what fandom can teach us about ourselves and our relationships with each other. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Slash and Burn (Amanda Hess, Tomorrow, April 2013)
Amanda Hess wasn’t the first person to write about straight women writing slash fanfic, but the insights here last long after the lads of One Direction have gone off in several different … well, you know.
Specifically, the piece focuses on “Larry shippers” — 1D fans who wanted band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson to be a romantic couple (and, in some cases, spread a conspiracy theory that the two were secretly together). Hess thoughtfully calls out a conflict at the heart of the phenomenon: a 2010s boy band that’s cut from the musical cloth of its ‘90s predecessors, but also clinging to that era’s reductive attitudes around gender and sexuality. She suggests that as society changes, writing romantic stories involving two men (in this case, “Larry”) gives young female fans an opportunity to explore an equitable, loving relationship.
But never before has the straight girl’s queer imagination so totally disrupted the intended purpose of the men marketed to her: Five straight boys designed to appeal to straight girls, heterosexually. Now, the fantasies of girls like Cassady are threatening to redefine the teeny-bopper sexual dynamic forever, one chapter at a time.
Guys in ‘Disney Social Clubs’ Are Wilding Out at the Happiest Place on Earth (EJ Dickson, MEL, January 2019)
So-called “Disney adults” have long been the subject of fascination and derision, often ridiculed for their fevered nostalgia for a large entertainment conglomerate, for waiting seven hours for a Figment popcorn bucket, or for committing that grave internet sin of being indefinably cringe. This fascination can be seen in the rash of reporting over the past few years on the Disneyland Social Clubs: groups of adults with biker-gang cosplay aesthetics and names like “Neverlanders” and “Main Street Elite” joyfully roaming the park.
EJ Dickson’s feature goes beyond the usual rubbernecking of the social clubs’ aesthetics and internecine drama. Instead, she grounds their existence within larger cultural contexts, such as the unique relationship Southern California locals have to Disneyland.
No one can really agree on who came up with the jackets, or the denim garments that differentiate social club members from your average theme park attendee. But Taylor says that the general outsider aesthetic… is very much rooted in Southern California culture… Taylor also draws parallels between the cheery recklessness of the West Coast punk and ska scene and the relentlessly sunny push toward growth and innovation embodied by Walt Disney himself: “They have an appreciation for what Disney built there — this utopia with fantastical optimism.”
Hanson is Facing a Mutiny From Its Own Fans (Ashley Spencer, Vice, November 2020)
The past few years have led to rifts in many fan communities over the harmful actions or beliefs of the creators they once loved — the betrayal felt by many devoted Harry Potter fans at J.K. Rowling’s transphobic remarks being perhaps the most discussed example.
But similar reckonings are happening in fandoms all over popular culture. In the community devoted to ‘90s pop trio Hanson, many fans are leaving after feeling alienated or betrayed by the band’s responses (or, rather, lack thereof) to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests, as well as to COVID-19 public health measures.
Spencer’s article explores another increasingly important conversation. Fan communities can be a hotbed for destructive, harmful behavior — and some of the fans Spencer interviewed expressed anger and frustration that the brothers didn’t intervene when their Black fans were being attacked. How should fans respond when a creator reinforces a toxic ingroup/outgroup dynamic?
While those marketing tactics have bred fierce loyalty, they’ve also proven exclusionary. “Hanson set up this cult mentality of either you’re in or you’re out,” said Janice, who threw her fan club CD straight in the trash when it arrived this summer before she could cancel her membership. “It’s just a bubble now. If you’re outspoken, you’re not in it — or you’re attacked by other fans.”
How Furries Are Making Virtual Reality Worth Visiting (Matt Baume, Input, July 2021)
Remember back when the internet was fun, before “doomscrolling” was a word and strangers with “.eth” in their screennames would start talking at you about crypto? That’s how the burgeoning world of virtual reality is now, thanks in part to the generosity, creativity, and technological know-how of one fan community in particular: furries. “You look up some old internet thing, there was always a furry running it,” Changa, a VR creator and longtime member of the furry community, tells Matt Baume.
Baume’s cinematic, whirlwind journey into the furry VR world takes us from Kentucky to Tuscany to a giant replica of the 20th Century Studios logo — all simulacra, of course. Along the way, we learn about the history of the furry fandom as an internet vanguard, and how VR served as a lifeline for this community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout our voyage, we make new friends and take in the sites.
My evening with the furries that began in a Louisville basement concludes at a bowling alley dance party — the batteries on my Quest 2 are nearly depleted. As my new friends hasten off to the colorful dance floor, I take one more look around: A gaggle of anthropomorphic animals are throwing each other down bowling lanes; a man with the head of a Fiji water bottle draws flowers in the air; and a trio of dogs are rollerskating in a circle, laughing and barking.
Just Write It! (Laura Miller, The New Yorker, April 2011)
What do creators and fans owe to each other? Social media and convention culture have made creators more accessible than ever — especially in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy — and with that comes the pressure for creators to stay in constant conversation with their fans and produce and maintain a supplemental “brand.”
Miller goes deep on the impassioned fanbase of author George R.R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire series (this article originally dropped a week before Game of Thrones premiered on HBO), the joy of building community and the pressure of maintaining it, and the frustration and hostility directed at Martin when fans had to wait years for him to finish the latest installment of the series. It’s an incisive look at the pull between fan and customer, and what happens when fans base their expectations of a creator based on what came before.
Martin told me that many of his fans assume that he is as meticulous a world-builder as Tolkien was. “They write to say, ‘I’m fascinated by the languages. I would like to do a study of High Valyrian’” — an ancient tongue. ‘Could you send me a glossary and a dictionary and the syntax?’ I have to write back and say, ‘I’ve invented seven words of High Valyrian.’”
Kamala Harris Dropped Out, But The #KHive And Stan Culture Aren’t Leaving Politics (Ryan Brooks, Buzzfeed, December 2019)
Fandom dynamics can have consequences beyond merely propelling one’s faves up the streaming charts: in one famed recent example, Twitter-using K-pop stans were credited with sabotaging a Trump rally in Tulsa. And in the exhausting 2020 Democratic presidential primary, stan culture and impassioned communities coalesced around their favorite candidates and forged online communities to try to push their candidate forward. While the current political moment makes the 2020 Democratic primary already feel almost quaint, Brooks chronicles the relationship between candidates’ campaigns and their most fervent, most Online, supporters, and contexualizes why and how their support manifests in this particular manner.
The relationship has become symbiotic. When I talked to stans, they told me about their interactions with campaign staffers who solicited their feedback. When I talked to campaign staffers, they sometimes spoke warily about off-the-rails grassroots campaigns and urged that they couldn’t control everything their fans do online. But everyone is watching what happens on Twitter, where press narratives take shape.
Lifelong Quests! Lawsuits! Feuds! A Super-Serious Story About Cereal (Hallie Lieberman, Narratively, March 2020)
When the world is a nightmare, there are few things more satisfying to read about than low-stakes beef in an ultra-niche hobby that you would otherwise know nothing about. But this colorful deep dive into the sugary frenzy of vintage cereal box collecting is about far more than highly specific enthusiast scuffles. After the initial gleeful haze of remembering the Ghostbusters cereal comes a nutritionally dense and satisfying feature touching on the dynamics of communities forged by nostalgia, sense memory, and the corporate symbiosis between fandom “influencers” and the companies that make the products they love. All part of a balanced breakfast read.
The intensity of the Dimock-Bruce feud may seem odd to outsiders, but it begins to make sense when you consider how much of this subculture is built around nostalgia. Cereal can be a connection to the past. Eating a bowl of a decades-old classic, like Lucky Charms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, can be a Proustian experience, with one bite of a sugary square mixed with milk bringing back a rush of happy childhood emotions.
The Last Fanfiction I Ever Wrote (Hannah Cohen, The Offing, November 2020)
There is a large gap in my reading life between being a Very Online Child who browsed fanfiction.net for Redwall-inspired epics — wherein bright-eyed young writers conjured brawny otter original characters to fight alongside Martin the Warrior — and quarantine, when I began spending inordinate amounts of time on the sprawling fanfiction repository known as Archive of Our Own, or AO3. My interim dalliances with fanfic were mostly for irony’s sake (think giving dramatic readings of My Immortal), but in seeking a rabbit hole to escape down while the world was going to shit, I learned to stop worrying and love fanfiction.
There’s a lot I love about this piece by Hannah Cohen, but in particular I love her assertion that fanfiction is fiction at its core. On AO3, writers write hundreds of thousands of words — the equivalent of multiple novels — and share them with the world, simply for the love of writing and engaging with a work they adore.
I never want to forget the feeling of writing for the sake of creative freedom. I want a release from the productivity mill. No more racing to the top of the pyramid writing scheme. We are living during a fucking pandemic in a world on fire, so if I want to write self-indulgent bullshit, I’ll write self-indulgent bullshit.
Lindsay Eanet is a Chicago-based writer and editor whose work has been featured in Broccoli Magazine, Autostraddle, Serious Eats, Block Club Chicago, and others. She once wrote and ran a Dungeons & Dragons adventure based on the episode of Making the Band where Diddy made the band walk across New York to buy cheesecake. But enough about her, let’s talk about you.
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