Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
Long before we started writing about being fans, we simply lived it. Andthere was nothing intellectual or rational about it, as our 4 a.m. dash toComic Con makes clear. What is it about being a fan that makes us, and somany others, push the boundaries of common sense to pursue the emotionalrush of fandom? What was compelling enough to make us trade ourbriefcases and textbooks for autographs and plane tickets? And why are weall so ashamed of it?
Case in point: Kathy was standing in a friend's kitchen after Thanksgivingdinner. The evening had been filled with good food and good conversation.Everyone had that warm, collegial feeling that comes of havingpassed plates, exchanged jokes, and shared bits of their lives. After the mealKathy stood at the kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up and ready to help with theinevitable aftermath: dishes. As she traded off washing and drying dutieswith her friend's sister-in-law, the talk turned to the safe ground of the latestHarry Potter film. They both admitted their fondness for the books and thefilms. They discussed the characters, plot twists, the increasing darknessof the novels. Finally her friend's sister-in-law hesitated then leaned towardKathy somewhat conspiratorially and asked in a lowered voice: "Do you evergo to the fan sites?"
The sister-in-law was clearly worried that she had gone too far. From thelook on her face, you would have thought that she had just asked if Kathyhad ever mainlined heroin or had a penchant for rubber. Kathy smiled reassuringly.No, not Harry Potter sites, but she did know of them. And yes,she had been to others. The sister-in-law's sigh of relief was audible. Andthen they talked. Really talked. About finding community and kindred spirits,about fanfiction and flame wars and metacommentary (see the glossaryfor definitions of these and other colorful words in the fandom vocabulary).In short, they discovered that they spoke the same language, even if inslightly different dialects: the language of fandom.
It seems too obvious to point out that most of us are fans of something—thelocal football team, model railroading, Elvis Presley, Anthony Bourdain.We're Gleeks and XPhiles and Parrotheads. We Rock the Red (yes, WashingtonCapitals fans, we're looking at you) and root, root, root for the hometeam. And when we find something we like, we want to share our enthusiasmwith someone else who "gets it." Cheering together—or criticizingtogether—is a bonding experience. But fandoms are not all alike. Sportsfans generally get a pass. (In fact, to be male and not a fan of some teamsomewhere is the more questionable position.) Craft fans at least have somethingto show at the end of their quilting, beading, or scrapbooking day. Dogenthusiasts have the backing of no less than the Westminster Kennel Clubto validate their devotion. Opera, ballet, and theater fans (they might callthemselves aficionados) have the weight of cultural approval on their side.But fans of a television show, especially one that falls within the sci-figenre,are often viewed as a disquieting breed apart.
Attempts to validate fans inevitably come up short, falling victim to thesame attitudes that they seem to be questioning. Even the documentaryTrekkies, which at first seemed like an attempt to explain and vindicate fansof Star Trek and all its spinoffs, wound up mocking them instead. The starsof the original show actually provided thoughtful and moving commentaryon the fans that they came to know over the years. But the filmmakers choseto feature instead the fringe elements of the fandom: the Florida dentistand his family who dress in Star Trek uniforms 24/7 and run a Star Trek-themeddental practice, the couple who dress the family dog in a Starfleetuniform, the young man exhibiting what seems to be an obsession withthe stitching on his new Star Trek: First Contact uniform. The final effectwas that these people made viewers uncomfortable and then made themlaugh. The current crop of television shows that appear to celebrate nerdsand geeks sometimes perpetuate the stereotypes instead of challengingthem. Big Bang Theory's Sheldon does for geeks what Jack did for gay menon Will and Grace. We love the character in no small part because he fits ourcultural construction—and allows us to laugh.
In fact, laughter seems to be the order of the day as soon as you admitto being a fan, with everyone from newspaper editors to the local grocerystore clerk reminding us that "it's not a coincidence that 'fan' derives from'fanatic.'" But perhaps it doesn't. Merriam-Webster stands on the side of etymologicaluncertainty by saying it is "probably" short for "fanatic," and theOxford English Dictionary identifies "fan" as an American term first used bybaseball reporters. That sounds benign enough until we look at the selectionof citations that follow the definition: "trainspotters and manky fanboygeekoids" and "spikey haired, bespectacled fanboys." And it turns out thatlaughter is still better than some of the other reactions to fans.
The Minneapolis-based blog Citypages ran an article identifying the"Top 7 Scariest Fandoms," presumably as a public service to the "rest ofthe world." If you're a female fan, the ridicule can be particularly scathing.The celebrity website ROFLRAZZI posted a photograph of a group of "TwilightMoms" tearfully awaiting the arrival of twenty-something actor RobertPattinson and Taylor Lautner, on the cusp of turning eighteen. The article,provocatively titled "Boo! For pedophilia double standards," insisted that "ifthis was men cheering for 17 year old girls, someone would call the cops."Fans of Brooke Shields, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus would presumablyalso have been subject to incarceration at various times. Nevertheless,hundreds of commenters referred to the women who were fans as creepy,ridiculous, and unattractive, accusing them of being horrible parents whoshould be tending hearth and home instead of lining up to see actors. Perhapsmost striking was the reaction to the death of a woman at last year'sComic Con. Crossing the street to get back to her place in line for a Twilightpanel, she was struck by a car in front of horrified fellow fans. Online commentsto news of her death ran from "Well it's not a bad start," to "She wasin her 40's and obsessed with twilight [sic] did anyone honestly think she'dbe smart enough to get out of the way of a fast moving vehicle?"
Given the culture's clear discomfort with fans, it's a wonder that any ofus admit to being one. And yet fans keep film studios profitable, televisionshows on the air, Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelves, and gossip magazinesand blogs in business. We might make fun of the guy dressed up asa Wookie at Comic Con or the co-worker who watches Here Comes HoneyBoo Boo, but odds are more people can name all the Kardashians than canname all nine Supreme Court justices. Whether we want to admit it or not,most people are aware of popular culture, if not infatuated with it. We tendto laugh (or worse) at people who can't join the water cooler conversationabout what Britney Spears did over the weekend or what happened on thelatest installment of Snookie and JWoww. Thus we mock the overinvestedand shun the underinvested.
Has it always been this way? In the early nineteenth century, the Romanticsgave us our first taste of modern celebrity culture and, with it, thefirst negative views of fans. In Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe'sSorrows of Young Werther inspired a contingent of fans, mostly young men,who imitated both the protagonist's morose mood and his sartorial sensibilities.The fans were said to be suffering from "Werther-Fieber" (WertherFever)-perhaps the precursor to the modern affliction of "Bieber Fever."Lord Byron may have spawned the first fangirls-squealing, swooning, anddesperate to get into his apartment and into his pants. As soon as fangirlswere born, of course, so were the derisive comments about their "consumingpassions." Byron was repeatedly accused of leading his readers into astate of "hysterical excitement" and producing a taste "for extreme sensation."(Sound familiar? Who knew that Stephanie Meyer was following inByron's footsteps?) Attitudes toward fans have changed little in the interveningyears-especially when it comes to those "swooning fangirls."
And if fans are not busy being oversexed, the media tell us, they are rapacious,needy, and worse. The day after the death of Michael Jackson, a writerfor the London Times proclaimed that "Fans Killed Michael Jackson." Otherjournalists who stop short of categorizing fans as murderers neverthelessaccuse them of being geeks, losers, and social rejects or hysterical, crazystalkers. Some of this is the fault of a little mind game that we all play in theinterest of not bogging ourselves down with too much heavy-duty thinking.Psychologists know this as the "availability bias." What we generally haveavailable to us are the most salient images: hysterically sobbing teenagers,fangirls fainting at Beatles concerts, the stalker who tried to break into anactor's home. These images, unfortunately, become representative of "fans"instead of just isolated examples.
If we're being honest, we all tend to shy away from those who allow theirenthusiasm slips to show (Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch, anyone?), whoare too fervent, too dedicated, too much of anything. We're uncomfortablewhen someone seems overly passionate, even about things that we clearlyneed to survive (you know, like chocolate). Even though we need food, westill have cultural rules of etiquette demanding that we eat relatively slowly,no matter how famished we are, and that we resist the temptation to steal aparticularly delectable morsel from our neighbor's plate. We're expected toeat as if eating wasn't the most important thing in the world, even if at thatmoment it is. We're expected to act detached even when we feel anythingbut. Anyone who violates these expectations can expect ridicule, whetherthey're Hobbit fans waiting impatiently for the release of the film or StarWars fans who know all the specifications of the Millenium Falcon or Supernaturalfans who watch twenty-two episodes back to back in DVD viewingmarathons. We might know a little bit about that last one.
We have yet to come across more than a handful of fans who contendthat Supernatural actor Jensen Ackles is their soulmate or have offered upthousands of dollars for the coffee cup that Jared Padalecki discarded at aSupernatural convention. But nobody can accuse fans of a lack of investmentor of not being willing to put their money where their passion is. At aconvention in Vancouver, a fan bid $8,000 for Padalecki's thirtieth birthdaygoodie bag. The money went to charity, but the fan was paying for a hugfrom the birthday boy as well as making a contribution to a good cause.
While the vast majority of fans remain sane in the midst of passion, thetendency to characterize fans-especially female fans-as "rabid," "demented,""obsessed" stalkers or just plain "batshit crazy" persists. Eventhe fans themselves can't quite decide whether to scream their glee aboutfandom from the rooftops, apologize for it, or just pretend that they're notfans at all.
Given those disparaging descriptions, it's hard to imagine why anyonewould choose to be a fan. The thing is, it's never a conscious decision: wedon't get to choose a fandom. It chooses us.
2005: We could say that it was our friend Lana's fault. At first, we watched Supernatural(known within the fandom as "SPN") mostly because she beggedus to. Not that we didn't appreciate the way Sam Winchester's emo bangsfell in his oh-so-handsome face or Dean Winchester's amazing green eyeswith eyelashes that any woman would die for. We're not blind, after all.
Throughout the first season, we'd catch an episode here and there,enough to know what Lana was talking about when she described theshow's well-developed mythology or actor Jared Padalecki's well-developedbiceps, but we were still far from being fans. Lana didn't give up though.She burned soundtrack CDs and mailed them off to us. And she neverstopped talking about the intricate plot and the fascinating characters andthe brilliant directing, even when most of the conversation was embarrassinglyone-sided.
Looking back, we probably should have realized that we were teeteringon the edge of a cliff ourselves, primed for something that would distractus from the complexities of our lives. Some people buy sports cars whenthey're having a midlife crisis. Some people have affairs. Some start drinking.We fell for a television show. Fandom, for both of us, had been a refugein the past in times of crisis—from the raging hormones and constantdoubts of adolescence to the terrors of grad school statistics. It had provideda welcome respite during some rocky patches in both our lives. Now, asmidlife loomed, we were both in need of a refuge once again, as well asa place to figure ourselves out for the second time. Who were we now, afterdefining ourselves as partners and mothers for decades? What did welike, want, need, desire? What made us laugh, tugged at our heartstrings,turned us on?
At just the right time, along came Lana-and Supernatural. The samething happens to countless fans in every corner of the world on a dailybasis. It might be an obsession with The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, thelatest boy band, or the local college basketball team. It might be Star Wars orStar Trek or Twilight. For us, it was a relatively unknown sci-figenre show.
Why Supernatural? Volumes of fan-written essays explain the appeal ofthe show: solid writing, an intricate mythology, meticulously researchedurban legends, and monsters both literal and metaphorical. Classic rock.A badass 1967 Chevy Impala. Sibling rivalry, unresolved oedipal drama,reluctant heroes. A story of family ties, love, and loyalty. An emotionally intenserelationship between the two main characters that generates enoughchemistry to power a small city. Cinematography and directing that makeeach episode look more like a 42-minute feature film. Two very hot actors.
And then there's the allure of the romantic hero, which has as muchappeal today as it had two hundred years ago when Byron and Werther createdsuch mayhem. We are still drawn to the loner with a mysterious pastthat renders him both fascinating and unattainable. It's a past that hauntshim, preventing him from fully joining in "normal" life. He feels deeplyand shows little. Supernatural presented its viewers with not one but twovariations on the romantic hero in brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (andthen, in a stroke of genius, cast Ackles and Padalecki to play them).
The Winchester brothers appealed to us-and lots of other women-formultiple reasons. Yeah, they were hot. But we could also relate to them.
Supernatural writer and showrunner Sera Gamble described the inherentheroism in the two main characters, both of whom are damaged.
Dean is the more damaged of the two. He's had to put his own needs asidefor his entire life, which tends to cook up an interestingly fucked up kindof person—and in this case, has ended up making him instinctually heroic.Selflessness is a huge part of heroism. We often say in the writer's room,when the two of them are in disagreement, that as long as they're falling allover themselves to save each other they can go pretty out there with the misguidedideas; their actions will still maintain a core of heroism.
Putting your own needs aside for your entire life is something that manyof us have done too.
The Winchester brothers were also appealing to all those who have everfelt like they don't quite fit in with the rest of the world. Maybe your imaginationtakes you places where nobody else goes. Maybe you don't fall inline with society's expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman oryou've experienced difficulties that set you apart. Maybe you just happen tohave the specifications of the USS Enterprise memorized or can rattle off everydetail of the last episode of Doctor Who. Sam and Dean Winchester don'tfit in either. They're outsiders-but they're also heroes. And they're what weall recognize as family. Sera certainly understood the show's appeal. "Thetheme of being alone in the world, having lived a different life than anyoneelse-that was there from day one. It's the core of the series."
Many shows meet these general qualifications. Only once in a while doessomething grab you so completely that the word "obsession" starts to seemappropriate. Rationally, we knew that there were explanations for why wesuddenly fell down the rabbit hole of Supernatural fandom. None of thosetheories mattered to us at the time. Falling into fandom is like falling inlove. We don't always make the smartest choices or make those choices forthe best of reasons (Kathy's Keanu Reeves phase and Lynn's fling with Interviewwith the Vampire are cases in point). Decisions are made with the gut(or lower), not with the head. We were simply hooked.