It’s lessons on Geek Anthropology’s day! This time we’ll talk about fans and anti-fans. But before diving into it, let’s have some concepts clear. Fandom is a subculture composed by fans who share same interest towards a fannish object, same focal vocabulary and who feel cammaderie towards other fans of their same fandom.
In Anthropology, a subculture is a group of people who belong to a certain culture (or across cultures thanks to the internet) that differentiates itself from its parent culture. In the case of geek subcultures these tend to revolve around a fannish object. Think about Star Trek fandom, for example.
Focal vocabulary are those words and expressions used by a group of people. These words and expressions help explain their identities, as well as let other fans know to which fandom the speaker belongs to.
Media fandom is that related to media objects, like TV shows and comic books. Trying to study what fandom is might be challenging, basically because it is a very broad notion and it can get even worse if you take into account the anti-fandom-verse. So, academics from different areas like psychology, anthropology and sociology; have focused themselves to a narrower area: Fan studies.
Fan studies focus on fans and their different subcultures. Media fandoms are the ground for many academics to explore people’s behaviors, feelings and relationships. Not only they’re a deep pool for understanding people’s identities, behaviors and ways of living, it also helps marketing. (Yes, you can use anthropology for marketing purposes.)
So, what is a fan? Though the word might have its origins rooted in the word ‘fanaticus’ (from Latin), it originally didn’t mean someone who was a fanatic or zealot, it just meant “the one of or pertaining to a temple.” It also meant “divinely inspired, enthusiastic, fanatic and mad”. So, in its origins, a fan was someone related with religion, someone enthusiastic or inspired by a certain God. Romans, like the Ancient Greeks, were polytheistic peoples. They worshiped different Gods. You could choose the God or Goddess you liked the most, and dedicate your enthusiasm to him/her. Some people though, arrived to madness, becoming real fanatics of the God/Goddess of their choice. Because this, fans have been traditionally seen as no more than religious followers of ‘non-important’ activities, which basically came from the notion that fans were devoted to popular culture activities and those who pursued higher culture activities were regarded as normal by the mainstream power.
In Mark Duffet’s Understanding Fandom we find several definitions of what a fan is, depending on the academics who studied fans and fandom. One of them defines a fan as “a person with a relatively deep, positive emotional conviction about someone or something famous, usually expressed through a recognition of style or creativity. He/she is also a person driven to explore and participate in fannish practices. Fans find their identities wrapped up with the pleasures connected to popular culture. They inhabit social roles market out as fandom.” (Hills 2002).
An anti-fan is, then, someone who defines their identity by negatively asserting what they are not, defining themselves in negative terms towards the fannish object they’re anti-fans of. For example, Whovians (Dr.Who fans) might be anti-fans of Star Trek. Trekkers might also be anti-fans of Dr.Who.
Some fandoms are more respected by mainstream media than others. For example, sports fans are better seen by mainstream media than media geek fans (like Star Wars fanboys and fangirls or Trekkers). This comes from traditionally accepting some fandoms as better than others, specially if we put these in connection with history. Hollywood started by trying to reaching out to their female audiences from the 1920s. However, the Valentino Riot, in which a crowd of 75,000+ fans marched along his family for his funeral, and later shattering the family’s home windows to crash. It was here when fans started to be seen as dangerous people who could arrive to mass hysteria in seconds. (Duffett)
Because of this, the media has portrayed fans through stereotypes by which they are presented as dumb social misfits, who enjoy their time on worthless endeavors harboring and specializing themselves on worthless knowledge. Fans have also been portrayed as childish, immature and people who are unable to differentiate fantasy from reality.
Despite this stereotypes, media goes hand in hand with media fandoms, creating new celebrities, and incredibly successful shows. It can be a love-hate relationship since producers can see with suspicion their own fanbase and fans can see producers as destroyers of their fannish object. This can be seen with Dr.Who, where fans saved the show by becoming themselves its producers, by afterwards entering into discussions on what is or not official canon.
Thus, we can see that fans who belong to certain fandoms see themselves marginalized. Think about comic book fans, or Trekkers and how they might be seen by mainstream media. Stereotypes on certain fans can be very unpleasant, forcing fans to enjoy their fannish objects in private. While some will display their fannish object, others will enjoy it completely in the dark. However, not all closet fans are so because of mainstream media stereotypes, some are so because of choice, or because their social environment doesn’t approve.
Thanks to internet, fans can meet other fans online, and enjoy their fannish objects with people around the world. Subcultures based on a certain fandom now cross borders digitally in a blink of an eye. Fans create their own alternate universes based on the official (canon) stories revolving around their favorite fannish object and challenge copyright along the way. The notion that fans consume media productions as-is is flawed. They are creative and can engage in interpreting their fannish object with other fans. Thus, the traditional view in which fans will take what producers give them is no longer valid. Besides, their closures of their favorite fannish object can produce interesting by-products, like fan art or become inspirations to create other fannish objects for other fans to enjoy.
Traditional explanations of what a fan and an anti-fan are come way too short to explain nowadays reality. Fans create complicated and compelling subcultures that cross borders digitally, creating worldwide spaces in which academics and fan-academics can explore pop culture and changes within society. We no longer live in small communities in which everybody knows everybody. Nowadays we live in an atomized world in which technology puts us apart and connects us with other people who share the same tastes, attitudes and behaviors with us. Subcultures around a fannish object can no longer be seen as a local phenomenon alone, but as a global phenomenon in which fans share speech with other fans who belong to other cultures. Fans identities are, thus, shaped by the speech shared with other fans and their parasocial interactions with their chosen fannish object. Today’s social currency is the speech that surrounds fannish objects. Said in other words, we use fannish objects to expand our social circles, start conversations, refine our own identity and polish our values.
Sources and recommended readings:
- Mark Duffet, “Understanding Fandom: an introduction to the study of media fan culture,” Bloomsbury 2013.
- Ellis Cashmore, “Celebrity/Culture,” Routledge 2006.
- Robert H. Lavenda and Emily A. Schultz, “Core concepts in Cultural Anthropology”, McGraw Hill 2010.
- Art Silverblatt, “Media Literacy. Keys to Interpreting Media Messages,” Praeger 2008