Fandoms Rise: Activists and Artists Should Pay Attention to This Pop Culture Force
In 2018, Black Panther became the highest-grossing solo superhero film of all time. But the film’s fans demonstrated that the world of Wakanda could not be relegated to a simple movie night experience. From rocking stylish traditional African garb at movie theaters, to whipping out a drum and having a dance break in the middle of the cinema, to assembling a Wakanda-themed fan-fiction anthology: the Wakandan warriors showed up and showed out.
For years, conversations about the power and role of fandoms has centered on the big screen. But what about the small screen?
From Dr. Who to Steven Universe fans are generating GIFs, fan fiction, and videos; debating the storylines and rules of the world in online fan forums and in person meet-ups; and making opportunities to come together over their shared pop culture passion.
As “fanthropologist” (fan+anthropologist) Susan Kresnika wrote in Variety a few years ago: “When we became capable of consuming, connecting, and creating on our own terms, with access to multitudes of others who share our passion for a show, movie, book, story, character, sport, band, artist, video game, brand, product, hobby, etc., the power of fandom began to show. In research we conducted last September, 85% of those surveyed reported being fans of something—97% in the 18-24 age range. And when we define ourselves as fans, we do more—we watch more, share more, buy more, evangelize more, participate more, help more.”
Fandoms have also become influential organizers. Especially when they are fighting for the thing they love.
One infamous example of this is when fan favorite character Lexa was abruptly killed off of the CW’s The 100, after she finally came together with the main character, Clarke. This act was the latest in ongoing television trope the LGBTQ community refer to as “bury the gays,” where prominent LGBTQ characters are killed off, leaving a heartbroken lover in their wake. In reaction, Lexa fans organized themselves and raised tens of thousands of dollars for The Trevor Project.
Fandoms can also split into factions — and more and more — as some old school fandoms are out to “protect” the stories they love from diverse representation, while the rising number of POC, women and queer fandoms, are flexing their organizing muscles. A few years ago, Star Wars: The Last Jedi introduced Rose Tico (played by actress Kelly Marie Tran). Some (read mostly white men) Star Wars fans objected to an Asian-American woman in the canonical (see mostly white) Star Wars universe. Tran was bombarded by racist and misogynist social media messages until she deleted her social media accounts. Keith Chow, co-founder of the popular geek culture site The Nerds of Color, launched the #RallyForRose campaign in defense of Tran and all other POC Star Wars actors and fans. Fans participated online and at San Diego Comic-Con. Several messages were made clear: Your racism and misogyny will be challenged and we have the numbers and power to drown you out. (You can read more about the history and success of the campaign here.)
With all this intense but disparate activity involving hundreds of television shows and movies, fandoms represent the best—and sometimes worst—of what shared community and creativity rooted in a common passion can do. But the questions remain: What does this all add up to? Can fandoms be part of a movement to reimagine how film and television can encourage millions of people to desire a society rooted in pluralism, community, and justice?
BREAK THE STORY sat down with three experts to reflect on what fandoms mean in today’s environment: Mikhael Tara Garver, a leader in immersive and experiential storytelling and founder of the groundbreaking experiential studio 13exp; Shawn Taylor, Pop Culture Collaborative Senior Fellow on fandom and (the other) co-founder The Nerds of Color and the Black Comix Arts Festival; and Ivan Askwith, fan engagement and community building expert, who has led some of the most successful fan-supported crowdfunding campaigns ever, including reviving the Veronica Mars television show into a movie and bringing back childhood favorite Reading Rainbow.
What role do fandoms play in today’s political and entertainment environment?
Shawn Taylor: Fandom is about groups of people who self-organize and realize that pop culture is a two-way street and not just passive voyeurism and consumption. I can actually take an active part in content creation. I can contribute to the thing I love. I’ve been empowered enough that I can write a final season of a television show that I felt was canceled too soon. Also, we can engage other fans and build connections and relationships that can extend way beyond the boundaries of our chosen fandoms.
Ivan Askwith: Fandom can be used to describe two dramatically different things. Fandom is the name that we give to a community: the fandom of a given TV show or movie is all of the community that exists around it.
But fandom can also be used to describe something far more personal. My fandom of a given thing is my relationship with that thing. The personal is often overlooked because studios and entertainment marketers increasingly only see fandom as a key economic driver. One of the interesting aspects of the identity of fandom is to use pop culture to signal something about yourself and to say that what you should know about me is that I resonate with these people and I care about these things. That I want you to use them the same way as when you go to someone’s house and look at their bookshelf or their DVD collection or their game collection. I think fandom is often an act of cultural and identity expression.
Mikhael Tara Garver: For me, fandom is about an active community that wants to extend the world of an entire story. When I think about television and media that lasts over a period of time, where you get to develop a relationship with characters, fandom feels like an inherent part of that. My work has been what’s now called experiential, but is essentially about making storyworlds that fans can continue to live in and extend beyond a television episode, whether it’s in an immersive live experience or on a digital platform. The social change question: How can being part of a fandom inspire audiences to be aspirational and to want to act because of that content and experiences?
Fandoms have shown their organizing power to make or break a show. What lessons, and implications, are important for television creators, social change activists, and even fandoms to understand?
Askwith: For the industry, it would be ideal if fandom was limited to financial consumption. But when fans have shown the most agency is in moments where TV shows that they care about get canceled, or are on the border of getting canceled, and then fans are mobilizing to try and change what’s happening. They will say, “We all have to write to the network. We all have to tell them how much we care and we have to convince them to keep the show on.” And sometimes the show would get a stay of execution for a season. But the problem is that all of those things—writing letters, staging protests, and other traditional forms of activism towards influencing popular culture—it’s all symbolic, emotional gestures. It misunderstands the system that it’s trying to influence. Most television executives don’t cancel things because they hate the show. They cancel it because they can’t find a way to not lose money on it.
A few years ago, the NBC show Chuck was in perpetual risk of cancellation, and fans were organizing to try and keep it from getting canceled. Instead of writing letters, they looked at who had advertised on the national level over the previous season of the show. They found that one of the most accessible advertisers was Subway, so they organized a massive eat-in. They had everybody order foot-long subs and asked for a comment card and on every comment card they wrote “I’m here supporting you because you’ve supported something I love.” Chuck came back for a final season, underwritten by Subway, and Subway itself got into the show as a part of the plot.
Taylor: During my Senior Fellowship, I was astonished by how much of people’s fandoms had direct effects on their lives, outside of their fandom. At its best, fandoms have been able to help people to take emotional personal risks, in service of living fuller, more authentic lives. I’m not the target market for the show Steven Universe. But during my fellowship research, I saw how on National Coming Out Day many people cited Steven Universe as a reason they were coming out. I became a fan of the show based on how it positively affected other fans.
To me, this is a question of how we make the mundane, mythic. How do we take our personal experiences of the common things we all deal with: relationships, self-esteem, self-doubt, all these kinds of things and elevate them to universality? What Joss Whedon did with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body” was to take what so many of us fear, the death of a loved one, and made it so we could all feel it. It wasn’t a vampire or some other supernatural entity that killed this person. It was the banal randomness of life. Whedon took the mundanity of death and made it into an aria. This is how you make and keep your fans: Be honest with them and honor what is common to us all—the good and the not so good. [Editor’s note: The show was 20 years ago, but new audiences are discovering it every day, so we won’t spoil the episode; suffice to say there was a very tragic death.] I can’t tell you how many people have used that episode to talk about grief. The issue wasn’t sensationalized, but it was mythic. And for me that’s what’s really important.
Garver: Let’s look a The Expanse, a television space opera based on a book series. The Expanse’s fanbase, known as the “Screaming Firehawks” organized to get their show back when it was cancelled by the SyFy network last year. For a variety of reasons, including the fan response, the show was picked up by Amazon two weeks later. Shawn and I agree that fandoms need space. And I don’t mean just outer space, like The Expanse. I would argue that the mythical world of The Expanse was been built with enough space – meaning the storyworld – for an enormous number of diverse fans to imagine themselves inside of it. Not to mention the books, online forums, games, and more that extend the storyworld beyond the show and give fans the ability to connect, create and act.
Not every show has the same kind of fan base. But if you give fandoms something to fight for – like a loss of the world they love – they will. I see a future that when a fanbase rallies behind their show, they are also prepared to rally for a larger social issue.
And for social impact leaders, the starter question is: what fanbases are already passionate about a world that contains an underlying narrative connected with your values and issues? The Expanse has a particular underlying political narrative and set of values. I wonder how the power of that fandom could point their passion towards our own political narratives. I don’t want to pretend that this does not take time, thoughtfulness, and organization between show creators and organizers. But it is clearly possible. For me, the major learning is to consider what would happen if we were to work together from the beginning in building these storyworlds. And within that creative and design process, architect fan experiences that organically move them collaboratively participate in actions towards change. Then we are building an aspirational fandom, one which is not only seeing the world the care about, but making it as well.
What’s the future of fandoms and television?
Garver: Many of us working in the experiential world are obsessed with audience interaction. When I look at the future, I think there is a deepening connection between our cultural binge-watching and our desire for live experiences. When we binge watch, it is because we want to live in the world longer, know the characters more, and escape into the story. Think about how obsessively hungry people are for the next series and will commit five to ten hours of their lives to that show. And when we crave a physically live experience like a concert, it’s because it lets us feel something very human and get physically closer to the thing we want to be a part of. Look at the lines outside of live, immersive experiences and the growth in the festival industry — this desire for human in-person interaction is only getting bigger.
I know that I’m biased because this is what I’m building, but I believe our future is building an ecosystem for a story that has binge-worthy television content matched with audience interactivity as a core aspect the show’s creation, such as an interconnected video game, a live physical extension of the show and more. Through all of this we can build and support deep, passionate fandoms. Fans will have gone with us from binge-watching a show, to a game, to a live experience and if we craft it right, it’s not such a leap for them to go to the social action next — they will trust us enough to go. Television can not only carry narrative change in its story-structure, but move fandoms to values-based actions and behaviors.
Taylor: I think that people are craving community in ways that they’re not getting from television anymore. If you look at Twitter, people are live tweeting almost constantly. I think Bandersnatch, the interactive “Black Mirror” episode, was part one of a new trend in television. I believe augmented reality is the future for the relationship between fans and television. I think we’re going to eventually reach a point where I can go outside with my device over a certain GPS coordinate, and affect a given scripted storyline with other people. I don’t think I’m saying we’re going to reach Pokemon Go for television, but I’m thinking that’s the direction. It’s great to talk about a show, but people are really craving that immersive one-on-one contact.
Showrunners, especially those who run sci-fi, fantasy, or horror franchises, need to include a director of fan relations as part of their show’s architecture. Fans will make or break a show, so engaging them early on (not with the goal of exploiting their fan labor, but with the goal of giving them the best experience possible) is a great way to gauge the successes, or failures, of your production.
Askwith: I have complicated feelings about this question partly because I, in the work I do, certainly am an advocate for giving the audience more voice—shifting the nature of pop culture from primarily an act of consumption to an act of participation, expression, and exploration. But at the same time I think one of the mistakes that a lot of people made in looking at fandom over the years is thinking that fans were ever waiting for that permission from creators to do things, that fans needed to be told “okay.”
Fandom has always been about doing what was needed whether or not it’s sanctioned, and connecting with other people around it. That kind of appropriation and using the material of pop culture in whatever way makes it most meaningful to you. When I think about the future, I foresee these practices continuing to deepen and broaden.
Timothy DuWhite is a Black, queer, writer/artist based out of Brooklyn, NY. He is the Deputy Editor at Racebaitr.com, Program Director at NY Writers Coalition, and his website is TimothyDuWhite.com.