Diehard fans are everywhere. Of TV shows, books, movies -- all manner of cultural product. That's fine: we're all DVR season pass-sporting fans of something. But why is a certain group so darn aggressive?
This is not meant to condemn or shame people who feel ardently about something -- whatever you're into you're into, no problem, in fact it's maybe a good thing, an enviable thing, to feel so much about something. It's just puzzling to me, as someone who's never been able to muster up the same level of care, how that fandom progresses to the next plane, one of anger. Sure I was bummed when My So-Called Life was tragically canceled, and I still grumble about it to this day. And I've adored Buffy and Harry Potter and Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Wars and all that other stuff that seems to engender involved, all-consuming devotion. I get the active involvement in a Thing, in a niche, in a cultural parcel that comes to somehow define a part of oneself. (Helloooo, Rent.) But I've never taken it much further than that, none of it has spurned me to heroically and vociferously defend something I like against its detractors. And yet so many cult phenomena do stoke that kind of urgency in many people.
Take Twilight fans. They're a gang of dreamers and mooners who love to dwell in a world of love whom lots of people kinda make fun of. But it's not really because they're fans of something -- I mean, don't all of them, camping outside theaters for days leading up to one of the movies' premieres and waving handmade signs while shrieking at Eddie Cullen as he and his hair pass by them on the red carpet, seem to be having a hell of a lot of fun? (Maybe fun isn't quite strong enough a word, but you know what I mean.) That's a fulfilling experience! It's good, it's positive. That's great. Good for them! That's not really why people find them a little strange. The real trouble is that their ardency is a positive force only until any kind of criticism wafts past their ears. When that happens, well, whoo boy, watch out.
As another example: Community, the defiantly offbeat NBC sitcom that has a small but ferociously devoted army of followers, is in trouble. It's been pulled from the midseason schedule and hopes for a renewal grow dimmer. It's an unfortunate thing -- a network landscape where a show like Community can survive implies one that allows for heady, ambitious stuff -- but it is not news that, as some seem to be treating it, heralds the end of quality television as we know it. And yet the show's fans keen on, lashing out in strange ways.
Liking Community makes sense. There are plenty of reasons to root for the show. It's an empirically good series, witty and inventive and a healthy level of weird (or unhealthy, as the case may be). What I don't understand is, as witnessed in the comment threads of certain posts which point out a few of the show's flaws (ahem), the defensive, wounded animal rage. It's just a TV show, isn't it? It sucks that (potentially) a bunch of hardworking folks might be out of a job, but look, even some of those folks are taking this in stride. As are devoted fans of the show, like self-described oddball Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker. It's sad for sure, it's a bummer and a let down. But also, c'est la vie. Life muddles on. That feeling makes sense; disappointment is one thing. A whipped-up frenzy of outrage is another, and it's confusing.
Ardor, however, does not have to imply ownership, that complete unwillingness to brook any criticism of one's beloved. It's not the loving that confuses per se, it's the way that that positive fandom, the "I like this" of it, can so quickly turn inside-out and outward. Is that a necessary part of the fandom experience? Is it not enough to like a thing, there must also be the war against those that don't? (Or even those that like the thing but don't mind poking at it a bit.) The demographics of that particular kind of fan are fuzzy -- maybe they're all just uncritically thinking teenagers roaming the internet -- but it does seem fairly widespread. Is that part of the fun too? Is there something extra fulfilling there? I'm honestly asking! I've just never felt that extra bit of burn. Am I dead inside? Maybe I should try it. Nobody say anything bad about Game of Thrones for a while, lest you get an e-rap on the knuckles from me.
The closest comparison to all this might be found in the world of sports, but there this kind of thing makes a little more sense. Not because sports are realer or cooler or whatever -- the difference between people throwing a ball and people writing about lovesick vampires is almost semantic -- but because there is a specific geography to it, and there is the core struggle of winning and losing, aggressive sports fandom just seems more understandable. Hunger Games isn't going into weekly battle with True Blood, they're separate and autonomous entities. Don't get me wrong, a howling Steelers fan who might punch you if you touch his Terrible Towel is still an oddball, but he's also a little more figure-outable in a basic way.
It makes sense that, as much as these objects of idolatry provide some sense of personal definition (after all, what are we in this world but creatures who like and dislike things), they could then also be used as bludgeons. Someone sauntering onto the internet and pissing all over Community, or Supernatural, or Glee, or whatever else might be the equivalent of the cafeteria bully smooshing their victim's face into their own mashed potatoes. That psychology adds up. It's just befuddling that people ever let it get to the point where the injury to something cultural might become personal in the first place. Sending peanuts and light bulbs and whatever other curios to various decision makers in the hopes of rescuing one's favorite thing is a bit nutty (heh), but sure, whatever. (After all, such campaigns have been effective in the past.) But what is that next step, that move into prickly hardcore devotion? And is it something hardwired in and either you have that capacity or you don't? Might I one day find the passion to care about a thing as much? Maybe it is just youth, maybe it is just the anonymous swirl of the internet goading people into histrionics. But something tells me there's something more, that there might actually be something real and maybe even valuable there. Are those like me who don't throw themselves full-tilt into a cultural phenomenon to the point of taking up (verbal) arms to protect it missing the party?
I'm going to see the new Twilight movie tonight (for work, for work) and am bringing along a friend who is, shall we say, a fan of the series. And even if I hate the movie, I'll be careful to bite my tongue afterwards. Though, to be honest, I'm not quite sure I'll understand why. And that seems too bad.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.