Widgets Magazine

The geek fan-omenon: Exploring the empowerment and toxicity of fandoms

The “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” cast greets fans at the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, which attracts more than 160,000 attendees each year (Sandy Huffaker/Reuters).

I’m addicted to television. And yes, I can’t say for sure that, by a true psychology definition, I’m truly addicted, but in your general WebMD (or, quite aptly, Internet-based) search queries, I’ve exceeded obsessive behavior and have reached the point of addiction. Sometimes it’s frightening to me that I’m happy to readily admit this. At other (read: most) times, I’m secretly glad that I find myself obsessed with such a medium.

As a quick rundown, TV for the most part was discouraged when I was younger, usually due to the classic “It’ll rot your brain!” nonsense that I always heard floating around. But as I have discussed time after time with many people over the years — it’s 2017. Why is television not a valid artistic medium?

And that’s when I stumbled upon fandoms.

For those of you hoping that I’ll be answering the question in the last paragraph, you’re going to have to stop reading, because that would require a whole other story. Nevertheless, a discussion of fandoms might give you a small glance into the incredibly complex world of television and its audience.

Let’s start with the most basic of terminology: geek. The word “geek” has been, in a sense, re-appropriated from its original derogatory slang meaning, now typically used proudly to describe oneself as an enthusiast of a certain field. For those whose obsessions lie within entertainment, this field of interest is thus called a fandom, often associated with a TV show, film, comic book series or other art. Many self-described geeks also embrace the original connotation of being “different” and “eccentric,” reveling in being set apart from the average person due to their fascination of and place within these fandoms (from this point on, I’ll be using the all-encompassing but, to my knowledge, unofficial term “geek fandom” to describe this phenomenon and “fan” to describe those involved in the fandom). TV show fandoms are only one type of geek fandom, but they are a great example of how these fandoms attract so many members. Geek fandoms have a lot in common with celebrity fanbases, not unlike your stereotypical depictions of screaming teenage girls fawning over Harry Styles or whoever the new guy is the day after tomorrow. Nevertheless, the one thing that separates geek fandoms from other fanbases is the nature of the artistic medium.

To unpack this, we’ll need to start back a little farther, and I’ll use myself as an example. I often attribute a large part of my personality to how television has influenced me. When people meet me, they sometimes struggle to piece together how a cynical, sarcastic person like me could love the over-commercialized world of pop culture and mass media so much, and I typically try to defend myself and say that no, I prefer to purely indulge in television. Yet the lines between television and pop culture as a whole are so intermingled, and the spaces so connected that I no longer have the ability to make that distinction.

I would consider myself a member of a large number of geek — for me, television and movie — fandoms, which often have crossovers, especially with the advent of such “cinematic universes” such as that of Marvel Studios. Still, it’s strange to think about that up until just a few years ago, I hadn’t watched a lick of “Parks and Recreation” or heard of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But as a confused, stereotypically nerdy high school teen, I quickly found myself in need of a space where I felt like I could try to understand myself and the world and for me, that was the world of television. Rather than shy away from geek culture, I instead literally convinced myself to watch every franchise-based movie and TV show I could possibly think of. In a sense, I had forced myself to become a fan — and thus a geek.

Nevertheless, this is a little bit of a misnomer now that more and more traditionally geek material is becoming more mainstream (think “Star Wars”). Is geek culture now equivalent to pop culture? In a sense, yes. It’s hard to draw a distinction between the “Harry Potter” series, which started out as literature and transitioned into a huge film franchise, and the Marvel films and shows, which also started out as literature (albeit visual literature in the form of comics), and also transitioned into a massive franchise. “Harry Potter” is fantasy, featuring a young protagonist and often considered a children’s book but is globally revered by readers of all ages. The Marvel world, debatably a form of science fiction/fantasy, features — in the case of the now-famous protagonists — mostly adult characters, first consumed by children and adolescents during the 20th century, but currently enjoyed by many people in both comic and visual form.

So at this point, whether or not convincing myself that being surrounded in a world of television made me the flexible definition “geek” or not is irrelevant. Rather, because the usage of “geek” can reasonably substituted with enthusiast, I tend to call myself a TV geek. For many, TV is considered a form of relaxation and escapism from the outside world, and I’m no exception. I would say that television not only contributed to the development of my personality and general self but also contributed to helping me get through some difficult times. This is a common phenomenon for many — people have read books, watched films, seen TV shows or experienced other art that have helped them examine their their relationships, views of the world, their sexuality, life path, political preferences and so much more. Looking back, I’d say that my choice to rely on television as the sole way to cope with my own issues was relatively sketchy — but as a teenager who didn’t know what was going on, I turned to the only thing I knew might be a feeble reflection of the outside world. As stated before, because of the nature of these worlds and the saturation from all these outlets, it’s easy to get swept away. Again, I’m not an exception.

Because I have become used to watching so much television and getting swamped by all these worlds, it’s engrained itself as a part of my everyday life. I must admit that my TV-watching habit is unhealthy, yet I don’t want to stop. I’d personally prefer to not be on the side of defending television against critics of the medium, but as a lover of all things TV, I can only say that it’s my artistic medium of choice. I often pause to consider if this is destroying my academic, personal or social lives, but my only defense is that outside of sucking up time extra time when I could be reading a book or engaging in other artistic endeavors, it’s doing little to no harm in my life, and I feel like it contributes to helping me develop my own confidence in a world of mixed signals. So why stop?

For me and others, it’s first the material at the core of the geek fandom that first sucks people in. Some of the key factors in this “individual + geek fandom = fan” equation are the narrative format and the nature of the people involved. Geek fandoms are often best facilitated by plot-based, visual art forms — especially TV and movies — for a number of reasons. Similar to a book, narrative-focused mediums often draw people into these “alternate worlds” that individuals love so much, creating whole fictional characters completely defined by a few hours on a screen. TV especially encourages this world-building because of its episodic nature, providing more hours and material than films, typically week after week (or in the case of Netflix, all at once, giving a virtual tidal wave of fandom material), which promotes active participation and viewership. On top of this, unlike a book, the visual nature of TV shows and films allows viewers to put a real person behind this character. In this case, passionate viewers have now invested themselves in two worlds — one that is fictional and one that is the reality in which we live, tying together the captivating worlds of narrative-based art with the magnetic nature of celebrity power.

The Internet then allows fans to either directly interact with the individuals behind this art (actors, directors, producers and many more) or at least take part in and observe a slice of their lives (reading Tweets, seeing what they post on Instagram and going to conventions and events, among other things). This introduces us to the whole “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” deal — many individuals enjoy seeing their favorite celebrities engage in everyday activities, and being able to interact with these people on social media or through other digital or in-person outlets is — I’ll admit, to me as well — both humanizing and especially delightful. From here, fans are now empathizing and associating with fully fleshed-out fictional characters as well as real people who also play these characters, creating a complex web where it’s sometimes tough to distinguish what’s real and what’s not — but this simply contributes to the authenticity of the fictional world and the geek fandom that surrounds it.

Thus, by engaging in online platforms, fans can not only interact with creators (a general term used to refer to those involved with the conception of a TV show, film, comic book or other form of art), but they can also interact with fellow passionate fans. Individuals may then suddenly find themselves utterly surrounded by a geek fandom (often driven by a need to commercialize the art in order for it to be profitable). For any one fandom, this may include the show itself, the artists involved, other fans, events with the artists in attendance, fan-fiction and fan art, discussion forums, fan-created memes and videos, fandom apparel and merchandise, news from entertainment outlets and probably plenty more I can’t think of. By this point, people are practically drowning in material from a fandom. Who would have guessed that they’d become obsessed?

Many go so far as to transcend the traditional “fan” for a more apt term. For younger readers or those well-versed in the terminology of geek fandoms, you’ve probably heard of the concept of the “stan,” typically described as a portmanteau of “stalker” and “fan,” although the word has more nebulous origins (Eminem, anyone?). Stans (also a verb — you might also “stan” a celebrity) are typically devoted followers of particular actors, musicians, celebrities or other individuals but may also consider themselves stans of certain fictional characters or “ships” (relationships). Many celebrities respond very positively to stans, even those who go above and beyond to profess their love and admiration for them (examples include tattoos, cosplay and more). Because of the accessibility of creators and other artists involved with the making of TV shows, films and other fandom-based art, fans can choose to try to engage with actors, for example, at conventions or over the Internet. Some actors love to respond directly to their fans online, while others choose to avoid social media altogether. Unfortunately, the dangerous side of stanning is the possibility for it to turn dangerously obsessive — stalking, repeated attempts at unsolicited contact or aggressive criticism of the individual’s choices.

Again, because of the very visual nature of geek fandoms, many fans will follow actors (most specifically) on social media platforms, create fan accounts or character role-play accounts. Pages upon pages of forums, discussion boards and online databases litter the Internet, filled with fan and canon (the “official” storyline used in a geek fandom, as opposed to a fan-created story based on the original) material. Interviews with actors and clips from shows and films are watched again and again, commented on, made into fan-edited videos and used to make memes and gifs for all to see. This thus marks the tip of the iceberg into the truly magical — and sometimes rather overwhelming — world of a geek fandom.

So why do people really love fandoms so much? A fandom can be so incredibly powerful, both for good and bad reasons. It can become a community of supportive individuals who love what you do — somewhere you can find acceptance in your own beliefs, your likes and dislikes and engage with it for hours on end and never get tired because there’s always going to be someone else out there waiting to contribute to the discussion. For me as well as many others, characters often embody moral values, personality traits and other either admirable — or unlikable — distinguishing characteristics. By seeing them onscreen, it’s an extension of the power of art, especially visual mediums like television, theater and film. In this case, when you’re experiencing these deep feelings and emotions of confusion, self-discovery, self-acceptance, empathy, understanding and everything in between, you’re not there alone — there’s a whole army of people who are probably going through a very similar experience. Unlike real life, you’re immersed in a world where people know what you’re talking about because the art form creates a baseline level of understanding. Even when people do differ in their preferences on, say, something as simple as who their favorite character is — they’re in it together and have mutual respect for a piece of magnificent art that they both love. Some people are inspired to make massive life changes, push them towards a personal goal, or help them work through physical sickness or mental illness. There are thousands of fan stories that you can read about, and each one is different, but each one is also so poignant. To those outside a fandom, sometimes it’s a ridiculous mystery why a character and person you’ve never interacted with can push someone to improve themselves or make such a drastic change. But to those in the fandom, it’s simple: the fandom is something that they love and cherish, and seeing someone they love and respect inspires people to do amazing things. It’s a different experience for everyone but almost always a positive one (it’s art and social entertainment tied into one — who could resist?).

Fandoms can act as a form of small, welcoming refuge from the outside world. Many (often adolescents or younger fandom members) who feel disenfranchised or not represented in the world often turn to geek fandoms, and when viewers are portrayed in their own likeness on screen, plenty of fans treasure these characters with all of their hearts. Many follow and even go on to stan these specific characters, seeing these characters’ lives as a version they’d love to be living, especially if it’s one filled with adventure and excitement and within a world without bigotry, hatred or discrimination. I prefer to liken geek fandoms to less of a self-medication and more of a sounding chamber. Once these feelings and situations have been worked through, they can be translated to interactions in the outside world, serving not purely as a place to hide but a space to grow emotionally for the sake of bettering one’s own personal life. For many, it quickly is no longer a fictional world — it’s an entirely new and 100% real one.

Nevertheless, this empowering world can turn that same seemingly innocuous difference in choice and preference into harmful consequences for all parties involved. Because people value these worlds so much, an attack on one’s fandom or, more often, within a fandom can seem like an attack on one’s personal character. Some fans begin spewing hate at those who don’t share their opinions on the material in a fandom, and then suddenly, we’re back where we started, defeating the point of having a positive fandom environment. People start to devolve into a form of obsessive madness, protecting their views as if the world depended on it — and to many, sometimes it feels like it does.

Although this is not exclusive to fandoms, the extremes of empowerment and toxicity are particularly polarizing because of the overwhelming passion of fans and the complete over-saturation of fandom-based content. Much of the time, it’s so much easier to fight and defend one’s right to an opinion than tolerate a different opinion and admit a form of defeat, but when you’ve voluntarily joined a world so often built to block out the world’s outside hate, this turns deadly. The sounding chamber of well-crafted thoughts and carefully formulated opinions becomes a sealed, soundproof room in which insults and hatred ricochet through the depths of every single social media platform on the Internet yet are still only seen by geek fandom members because of the obscurity and specificity of these artistic mediums. It would be easy to chalk it up to something like cyberbullying, but when fans are defending their views within a fandom, it’s more than just preying on weaker individuals for a thrill. Oftentimes, the hatred and sending of threats and messages is mutual, and this only serves to escalate the situation. People begin to spiral downward into hateful, arguably useless spats that they believe are necessary because of what they love, and it begins to consume their experience of the fandom and even their daily lives, going from a positive takeaway to a poisonous, all-enveloping fight ring. They’re no longer just hurting others but themselves as well.

Now, this is where things get tricky. I could spend hours detailing the most recent Comic-Con controversies, debates and fan meltdowns surrounding certain geek fandoms, but let’s be honest — you can probably find that yourself on the Internet, and you can formulate your own hot take (for the intrepid reader, Google “TV fandom controversy” or “Comic-Con fans angry”). Each one is different and has various parties involved with their individual nuances, which is why I believe that if you are interested in these particular fandom disputes, you should go in equipped with a framework of how geek fandoms function and then come out with your own opinion. I’ve personally spent hours — sometimes I wonder why — reading rants and complaints from fans that litter Twitter, Reddit and Tumblr, all a simple hashtag search away. It’s fascinating, and admittedly, almost a guilty pleasure, to read and see what people are discussing — and sometimes yelling at each other about.

For a lot of younger viewers, when their idols or favorite celebrities make a mistake or say something controversial, they can either come to the individual’s defense or blame them outright. A lot of times, it’s the latter choice. The gray area also appears when it’s tough to tell whether an apology is sincere or whether it’s simply a media stunt to regain fans. Because there are so many artists involved in the creation of a geek fandom, unlike a boyband fanbase when fans will rush to a singer’s defense until their dying breath, a lot of geek fandom members can afford to blame those they can and move on to a new favorite within mere seconds. When these young viewers are still struggling to be heard in their households, in their schools and in their communities, they want to voice their opinions. They want their opinion to matter. Some of these television shows are whole alternate realities they look forward to every day after school or think about when they are upset or disheartened by what they see around us. When someone — whether that be a creator, an artist or a fan — disrespects this, it feels terrible. I will not defend or justify malevolent behavior because there’s no truly no defense for hateful opinions, but I will say I can understand the root of where it is coming from. Unfortunately, the emotion and the resulting action are two completely different things, and when the response to a debate is to start sending threatening and hateful messages, that’s where things become toxic.

Because of the all-encompassing nature of the fandom, fans can also get carried away with their own personal visions of the artistic material (for example, in the form of fan-fiction or ships). But when creators don’t choose to match these fan preferences for what really happens in the fictional universes, fans also lash out — and who else to lash out at but the people who are in control of these worlds? Situations like these become even more complicated when a creator makes a decision about beloved characters, relationships and plot lines. Creators have varied opinions on reading and responding to criticism and fan feedback, some preferring to avoid it altogether for the sake of preserving their own vision for the art. Many creators still enjoy interacting with fans and seeing the impact that their work has on others. Nevertheless, while creators like to see fans enjoy their work, it’s another thing to say that all creators truly want to — or can — please all fans all the time.

There’s never going to be a situation in which a creative choice is going to please everybody, and creators are going to have to make an artistic decision one way or another. A creator’s work is just that — the art of a creator and no one else’s. The lines also become blurred when fans are directly supporting an artist’s work such as financially through Kickstarter. Fans often become very possessive of fandom material, and whether or not they are directly supporting the creators, many demand a certain outcome. The question still remains whether creators are indebted to their fans. For many artists, the consensus is that no, creators have the capacity to make anything they want. For many fans, however, they feel that their investment in a show gives them a say in the matter. I do not have the jurisdiction to say one way or another, but that’s not the point — the line between disagreeing with a creator’s choice (as well as voicing this) and sending or posting spiteful content against a creator is the fine line between critique and simple hatred.

Unfortunately, situations like this are still more complicated than they appear. Because the continued existence of art — especially commercial art — including shows and films ride on their economic success, many creators are pressured by networks or studios to appease viewers. This is sometimes a way for fans to “justify” their attacks — gathering a large group and demanding that a certain storyline pan out otherwise they will refuse to watch, attend events or participate in the geek fandom. This method typically has little effect other than stirring up drama on the Internet, but it often gets the attention of a large portion, if not all, of the fandom. When your love of a fandom forces you to begin to hate, this is much less of a “free speech” issue and rather an issue of turning this empowering passion into one that is toxic.

As an artist myself, I see how difficult to deal with and how distracting it is to have unwanted opinions and critique thrown at you, let alone a massive fandom army scrutinizing every second of your work. As a devoted supporter of many creators and fandoms, I have my own opinions and would love to see certain possible storylines pan out. Nevertheless, after seeing so many people getting completely and unnecessarily bashed about their opinions and personal lives, I tend to stay away from engaging too much on the Internet let alone voice my opinion to a creator. For some, it might be easy to steer away from participating in this geek fandom-driven tossing of insults and novel-length forums filled with digital screaming matches. For others, a desire to voice one’s opinion as a form of building self-confidence and self-expression can quickly tip itself over into a extremely harmful wormhole.

Nonetheless, especially today, it’s hard to brush off a fan’s criticism of an artist without deeper investigation. If an actor plays a supervillain on a TV show, and this character engages in violent activity, does this mean the actor clearly encourages this behavior? Not necessarily (and I certainly hope not). If this actor defends this character’s actions in an interview and talks about how the character’s troubled childhood may explain the violence, is the actor endorsing this behavior? Not necessarily. If a creator decides to kill off a certain character who embodies certain values or has certain traits, does this mean the creator is bigoted in a certain way? Not necessarily — but this is not blanket encouragement to blindly follow your favorite public figures. If an artist does in fact condone inappropriate and hateful behavior or support harmful stereotypes and tropes, this is a much deeper issue to be discussed. Nevertheless, directly targeting an artist — or fan — simply because you disagree with a decision or opinion not based in hateful thinking is toxic and instills the idea that fans have the privilege to be hateful because they support a piece of art.

For those who don’t engage with fandoms, much of this may seem like common sense, but when you’re so involved in something, it’s hard to pull your head out of the sand. Instead of outright condemning this behavior, anger and frustration should be channeled elsewhere. Many creators also become disheartened by fans’ purely hateful responses to something that was simply a choice rather than something that warranted thoughtful criticism. Remember — just as fans love the art they consume, the creators probably love their art just as much.

As I sit and write this, I find that this is sparking in me something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. As an aspiring artist, I want people to enjoy, agree with, critique, criticize and disagree with my work, but I’m frightened that I will, too, be on the receiving end of unwarranted hate targeted towards me as an individual, especially for a creative decision that I made thoughtfully. It won’t stop me from making my art, but it’s something many creators consider when they do. If you believe in me as an artist, then I hope you will respect my artistic choices as well. Therefore, let this be encouragement to people to cherish their fandoms (or go find one!) and let themselves feel empowered by art. Let this also be a call to all fans out there who love their geek fandoms just as much as I do with the plea to give back to the creators and art what you take from it: something meaningful. This message is unfortunately much more optimistic (and cheesy) than is probably realistic, but I stand by my point, especially with regards to these beloved fandoms.

So as long as the art I consume still empowers me but doesn’t convince me that I have the privilege to tear down the artists I love and the fans I respect, find me obsessively watching TV and engaging in the fascinating worlds of my favorite geek fandoms until I die or the world comes to a fiery end — whichever occurs first.

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Olivia Popp

Olivia Popp '20 is a self-proclaimed TV junkie who has an eternal love-hate relationship with the entertainment industry and her home state of Michigan. Contact Olivia at oliviapopp 'at' stanford.edu with TV recommendations or musings about barbecue sauce.