Superfans: A Love Story

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News Media Commentary
Title: Superfans: A Love Story
Commentator: Michael Schulman
Date(s): September 9, 2019
Venue: article
Fandom: Panfandom
External Links: Article Archived
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Superfans: A Love Story (The Force Is with Them in the print edition) is a New Yorker article by Michael Schulman. Schulman describes some fan history and instances of fan backlash against TPTB. The article's strapline is "From “Star Wars” to “Game of Thrones,” fans have more power than ever to push back. But is fandom becoming as toxic as politics?"


Most people are fans of something, whether it’s the Red Sox, “Hamilton,” or Agatha Christie. But the nature of fandom seems to have morphed in the past decade. In the old days of sci-fi conventions and Bobby Sherman fan clubs, fandom was a subculture reserved for the very young or the very obsessed—or, in the case of the Grateful Dead, the very stoned. As fantasy and comic-book franchises have taken over the entertainment industry, nerd culture has become mainstream. Now that couch potatoes have social media, they have risen up and become active, opinionated participants. As a result, movie studios and TV showrunners have to cater to subsets of diehard devotees, who expect to have a say in how their favorite properties are handled.

The ramifications can be loud and, occasionally, expensive. This spring, Paramount released the trailer for “Sonic the Hedgehog,” a movie based on the vintage Sega character, featuring live action and C.G.I. Fans were so disturbed by the title character’s creepy human teeth that Paramount postponed the release date three months to give him a dental makeover, at great cost. (One person wrote on Twitter, “I’ve thought about Sonic the Hedgehog’s creepy lipless mouth and his horrible human teeth more times today than I want to in my entire life.”) “That’s the power of fandom,” a producer who worked on the 2014 reboot of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” told me. That film weathered its own fan blowback, when Michael Bay, another producer on the movie, implied, in an interview, that the turtles were aliens (every fan knows they were mutated by toxic ooze) and then had to walk back his comments. For the sequel, the producers incorporated everything the fans said they wanted—among other things, making the villain Krang, a talking brain—but the movie earned less money than the first one. The producer I spoke to said, “The question we always ask ourselves in the room is: Is the fan base so strong and such an important part of the box office that we have to change something to keep them happy?”

Textual Poachers” became one of the founding texts of fan studies, a field that now surveys everything from adult Lego enthusiasts to Black Twitter’s relationship with “Scandal.” Since the book’s publication, the Internet has magnified what Jenkins calls “participatory culture.” At the site An Archive of Our Own, which hosts more than thirty-three thousand fan communities, you can read fan fiction inspired by “The Hobbit,” One Direction, and “All About Eve.” Many of these stories are “slash fic”—erotic fantasies, often teasing out homoerotic subtext between the likes of, say, Kirk and Spock—but there’s a wide variety of genres, including “curtain fic,” which imagines characters going about everyday domestic activities. (Kirk and Spock go appliance shopping.) Fan fiction reached a high-water mark in 2011, when the writer E. L. James took her erotic “Twilight” fiction, changed the characters’ names, and published it as “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Fandom, Jenkins told me, is “born out of a mix of fascination and frustration. If you weren’t drawn to it on some level, you wouldn’t be a fan. But, if it fully satisfies you, you wouldn’t need to rewrite it, remake it, re-perform it.” Nowhere is Jenkins’s constructive view of fandom more evident than at Comic-Con International, in San Diego. Comic-Con started as the Golden State Comic Book Convention, in 1970, attracting some three hundred people. It’s now a four-day bonanza attended by a hundred and thirty-five thousand fans of all stripes, many of whom show up in elaborate cosplay. When I arrived at this year’s edition, in July, I started seeing Spider-Men five blocks from the convention center. Near the entrance, a group of Christian protesters—the oldest fandom, really—was yelling, “The Syfy channel cannot save your soul!” I turned around and saw a guy dressed as Lumière, from “Beauty and the Beast,” shrugging at me with candlestick hands.

“Lisztomania,” coined in 1844, described the mass frenzy that occurred at Franz Liszt’s concerts, where audience members fought over the composer’s gloves or broken piano strings. Charles Dickens’s readers in New York were so anxious for the final installment of “The Old Curiosity Shop,” in 1841, that they stormed the wharf where it was arriving by ship and cried out, “Is Nell dead?” In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle, sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, flung the detective off a cliff in “The Final Problem,” which ran in the magazine The Strand. (“Killed Holmes,” Conan Doyle wrote in his diary.) After readers cancelled their Strand subscriptions by the thousands and formed “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs, Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect him. Sherlock fandom persists today, thanks to the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, whose admirers, sometimes known as the Cumberbitches, have swarmed location shoots in London and filled the Internet with Sherlock-Watson slash fiction.

Like television, the Internet broadened and intensified fandom. When Jenkins published “Textual Poachers,” digital fandom was “mostly guys at M.I.T. and military bases typing ‘Star Trek’ into computers while at work,” he said. Nineties shows such as “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spawned passionate fan communities that used the Web to gather, complain, or hunt for romantic subtext. (“Shippers” are fans who, often disregarding narrative logic, advocate for certain characters to couple up.) But stronger fandoms meant a stronger sense of ownership, which could put writers and producers on the defensive. The ABC show “Lost,” which ran from 2004 to 2010, inspired elaborate theorizing about its mysteries, and fans revolted when the finale didn’t deliver answers. One of the showrunners, Damon Lindelof, later lamented the conflicting demands of viewers: “There were things that they wanted, but they also wanted to be surprised.” Millions of dollars ride on the contradiction.

As I walked through the hall, I found myself thinking less about the negative side of fandom than about its benefits. At its core, fandom is a love story, like something out of Greek myth; it’s Pygmalion falling in love with someone else’s statue. Like romantic love, it can range from gentle companionship—cosplay and curtain fic—to deranged obsession. The psycho stalker fan is its own archetype—Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, in “The King of Comedy,” or Kathy Bates in “Misery,” based on the 1987 Stephen King thriller, about a romance-novel fanatic named Annie Wilkes, who kidnaps her favorite author and makes him tailor his latest novel to her liking.

Many of the people I met at Comic-Con spoke about how fandom had helped them overcome adversity. One woman, dressed as Thanos, the Marvelsupervillain, told me that she got into comics after her parents died, since fantasy heroes are often orphans. An I.B.M. art director said that she became a “Lost” superfan after falling out of touch with college friends; at Comic-Con, she met people who have “become part of my family.” Michael Asuncion, an aspiring psychotherapist, told me, gesturing to the crowds, “There are three needs that all people have: they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.” That he was dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants did not dilute the insight.