Welcome to another chapter of lessons on Geek Anthropology. This time we’ll talk about how fans have been seen traditionally by the mainstream and academia. Let’s face it, traditional fan stereotypes have been especially negative and diminishing. Fans have been seen as brainless consumers, social misfits and even been accused as people unable to separate fantasy from reality. But, from where does this terrible image come from? Why has fandom been represented in such a negative light? Why does media still insists in characterizing fandom as a group that makes meaning of trivial subjects?
Let’s discover it!
Let’s travel back in time till the 1940s. It was then when the critics started to passionately write about movie stars as marketing products that had few real cultural value. Their audiences, they said, were like religious zealots with few to no brains. While Hollywood stars were creating their path towards stardom mainstream media was qualifying the new cultural product as worthless or totally trivial. But why?
Traditionally culture has been divided in two main groups:
- High Culture: that pertaining of the elite. Here we would find activities like the opera, ballet and fine arts.
- Popular Culture: that pertaining of the masses. Here we can find movies, graffiti, comics, etc.
This division is a flexible one. Granted that some activities still are considered as pertaining to the high culture like the opera, however certain types of movies have been elevated to a high status, while others are relegated to a lower one.
So, according to this starting point, we see that critics considered fandom as the product of the masses, and thus, not as respectable as opera fans or ballet fans. Being a movie star fan was to be a member of an irrational mob!!
Fandom is the challenge that brought technology and capitalism into play within the cultural arena, creating a forever changing and more compelling pop culture. Even if fandom has been considered as a marginal group till the mid-1990s, reality is that technology has opened the fannish Pandora’s box. We cannot ignore the direct relationship among technology, economy and fans. As capitalism advanced and new technologies were introduced, fandoms started to gain terrain worldwide. However, those pertaining on the top of the social pyramid, the elite who were used to egoboo themselves by enjoying exquisite high culture activities is the one controlling the media that represents what high culture and popular culture is. And in doing so, they keep on old stereotypes that were born back in the 1940s.
It is no surprising, then, that we keep on spreading negative stereotypes on fans. Let’s take the Big Bang Theory as an example. The characters of this sitcom are just stereotypes of what geeks/fans are in reality. Even if the situations are funny, reality is that their depiction is still far from what fanboys really are. As fans, they are portrayed as:
- Emotionally and intellectually immature individuals. Howard Wolowitz lives with his mom till very old, and has a relationship with his wife Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz that remembers more and more a mother with a child.
- They cultivate worthless knowledge. All male characters in the show tend to memorize all types of information about their favorite fandoms, like Star Trek, comics, etc. These cultural choices are still seen as low rated by the mainstream media.
- They are social misfits. Granted that Sheldon Cooper might have a degree of autism, but as a whole, all male in the show are awkward and have problems in socializing with others.
- They are brainless consumers. They tend to buy “toys for children” and tons of merchandise of their favorite shows. Especially Howard Wolowitz (using mainly his wife’s money on eBay), and Raj Koothrappali using his parents’ money to buy all type of techie devices.
- They are either presented as feminized or desexualized creatures. Sheldon hates to be touched, and the rest of guys are presented with lots of behaviors that are usually attached to a female stereotype.
Who is in control of deciding what is and not a normal cultural fannish pursuit is what dictates what is worthless or not. Media controls representation of fandom, and thus, establishes that, for example, sports are normal fannish interests for mainstream to pursue, while Star Wars as a fannish interest is a waste of time because it is deemed as a worthless pursuit.
What media wants is to normalize the audience, and in doing so it is creating a normal audience and a weird audience that enjoys fandoms. Doing that media is differentiating their ordinary audience (high culture) and othering their weird audience (pop culture). Then, there is no surprise when these two groups collide. Fortunately, things are changing little by little and nowadays, being a geek or to pertain to a fandom such as Supernatural is to be cool. Ordinary is becoming boring and the extraordinary that before was negative is becoming the standard to achieve.
What do you think? Do we still have a long road to walk before we can say that fans are not seen under a negative light?