How Disappointment Became Part of Fandom

As Americans ask ever more of their celebrities, let-down is being woven into the fabric of fan culture.

Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Late last month, Amy Schumer released her own video version of Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

Whether the video was a wacky homage to Lemonade and its themes, as Schumer has said, or whether it was instead an extremely tone-deaf parody of an already canonical piece of art, as many of its viewers concluded, making it in the first place was, all in all, a very bad decision. Here was Schumer, a white woman who’s been on the receiving end of very legitimate questions about her stand-up act’s treatment of race, taking it upon herself to remake a video that is, on top of so much else, a celebration of black womanhood. The whole thing was actually pretty baffling. It was also, for many of Schumer’s fans, extremely disappointing.

It was not, however, fully surprising. Schumer, engaged every day in the work of being human in public, has made missteps before. And she has had many chances to do that: While she is, yes, a creator of TV and film and literature, she is also a creator of tweets and posts and grams. She is constantly making stuff, in part because the laws of celebrity relevance demand that she constantly be making stuff. And: She is making stuff that is designed, specifically, to be talked about. There’s a lot that could go wrong in that basic premise—not just for Schumer, as a star, but also for the people who have followed her, and who have wrapped their appreciation of her work into their own identities. Being a celebrity may be more demanding than ever; so, though, is being a fan.

We still call them “stars”; contemporary celebrities, however, are decidedly earth-bound. They may still, as they did for so long in the past, populate the pages of flimsy supermarket rags and dominate the chatter of those soda-sucking journalists on TMZ. But, now, enabled in large part by their platforms on social media, they also talk. And talk back. And opine. And sell. On screens that are no longer silver, there is Kylie, selling her lip plumper. There is Beyoncé, selling her yoga pants. There is Gwyneth, selling her sex dust. There is Jessica Alba, founding a billion-dollar business empire. They sell ideas, too: There is Kanye, remixing Obama. There is Sarah Silverman, stanning for Bernie. There are Louis and Lena and America and Cher and many, many more, proudly declaring that “I’m with her.”

It’s a cliché, at this point, that celebrities double as brands. But one consequence of that doubling is the constancy of the effort that goes into the brand-building itself. The commercial pressures on stars mean that they’re engaged not just in being people in a complex world, but also in a great cycle of creation and distribution, one that incorporates not just celebrities’ artistic output, but also their views of the world.

And fans are trained, product by product, to approach them not just as “celebrities”—bundles of aspiration and ideals—but rather as full, complicated people. Take Beyoncé’s (self-written, directed, and produced) autobiographical documentary. Take Justin Bieber’s extended mash note to himself. Take the fact that being a fan of Angelina Jolie, at this point, may involve appreciating her movie work, but will also likely involve an appreciation of her humanitarian efforts. Or that Jennifer Aniston is beloved not just because of her acting, but also because of Angelina Jolie. Opinions about skin serums, thoughts about immigration, convictions about equal pay, preferences about chocolate, indignation about the refugee crisis—they’re all entangled, now, into the concept of celebrity. In public as well as in private, stars, just like us, contain multitudes. And they are weaving those complexities into our lives. There they are, in feeds and streams, their humanity converted, via the soft alchemy of the internet, into media.

In that environment—as will happen, really, in most any relationship that is both intimate and prolonged—disappointment becomes almost inevitable. Schumer (who, in addition to everything else, lobbies for gun safety, campaigns for Hillary, gives inspiring talks about body positivity, and stars in politics-themed Bud ads) is not fully alone in making an artistic decision that has made people mad. Most celebrities will, at some point in their long public lives, say something that annoys people on Twitter. Or perhaps they will share an icky anecdote in their weekly newsletter. Or publicly defend a friend who is not, all things considered, worth defending. Or star in an ad that makes fun of the gendered wage gap. Perhaps they will make a comment that reveals their ignorance about Hollywood’s diversity problem. Perhaps they will be revealed to have posted tweets, before they got famous, that were really pretty cringey and sexist. Perhaps they will make light of rape. Perhaps they will go around wearing a t-shirt that unthinkingly equates women’s right to vote with African Americans’ right to live.

The likelihood of them doing any of those things—or one of the approximately 65,000 iterations of those things that might, in the end, let down at least some of their fans—is much greater than it is for most of us, purely because celebrities are operating in a commercial environment that rewards volume. The more Schumer tweets, the likelier it is that bloggers will analyze—and amplify—those tweets. The more weird videos she makes, the more she will remain in “the conversation,” and the likelier it is that she will stay relevant. “The only thing worse than being talked about,” Oscar Wilde observed, not about Hollywood but also totally about Hollywood, “is not being talked about.”

Oh, but it’s hard. Not just for celebrities, but for fans—us mortals who want, so desperately, to have heroes. Fandom, in this brave new age of commercialized identity, isn’t (usually) just about liking someone. It is also about embracing someone as part of who you are. One may like Amy Schumer, but the more salient thing is that one is an Amy Schumer fan. And a Beyoncé fan. And a Kanye fan. In exchange for feeding their fame, celebrities give people a sharper sense of who they are, helping to etch, just a little bit, the contours of their own identity. But then: When they do something you don’t agree with—when they support a different candidate, or make a comment you don’t agree with, or break the law, or make a video that manages to be both extremely silly and extremely offensive—what then? Do you ignore it, and focus on the good stuff? Do you abandon your longstanding fandom? Do you, deflated by Deflategate, un-fan Tom Brady? What about when he reveals that he is supporting Donald Trump?

And then: How do you deal with stars’ mistakes when the dynamics of contemporary celebrity make them seem—just a little bit, but still—like your own mistakes? If you’re a fan of Schumer but definitely not a fan of her take on “Formation,” do you remove Trainwreck from your Facebook list of favorite movies, or Inside Amy Schumer from your list of favorite TV shows, or The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo from your list of favorite books? Do you delete the approving tweets you’d posted about that “12 Angry Men” sketch? Or do you give her a pass, appreciating her in all her complex and inconvenient humanity?

One of the big and open questions in pop culture right now is how we should, collectively, treat great—or, at least, perfectly good—works of art that are created by people who are in varying and urgent ways … un-great. Should we, in the wake of everything that emerged about Nate Parker earlier this year, boycott The Birth of a Nation? Should we stop watching The Cosby Show? Should we abandon the Patriots, or choose a new binge-watch other than Crisis in Six Scenes, or click away to Fallon when we realize it’s Mel Gibson who is, after all this time, sitting on the Late Show’s cushy easy chair?

We haven’t come up with satisfying answers to any of those questions, really, and that frustration has a corollary: Just as we’re not quite sure how to resolve the immorality and criminality of celebrities, when they are brought to light, it’s also very hard to know how to treat stars’ relatively small, relatively quotidian offenses. What if we don’t like their politics? What if they say something hurtful? What if they just, as people are so wont to do, screw up?

Amy Schumer is on the one hand an icon of contemporary feminism, celebrated for her ability both to point out and to puncture the ways American culture punishes women for their failure to be men. But she is also, it seems ever more obvious, a person who is grappling, publicly and extremely awkwardly, with her own status as a white woman within that culture. And so it’s hard to know, as a fan, how to think about her at this point. It’s hard to know how—whether—to appreciate her. What is clear, though, is that Schumer is demanding a lot of her fans, just as they are demanding a lot of her: She is asking not just for commercial support, and not even just for love, but for a come-what-may kind of loyalty. Fandom, in the world of the multidimensional celebrity, requires not just admiration; all too often, it also requires forgiveness.