It’s never been a better time to be a fan. This golden age of entertainment, defined by a deluge of available content and social media platforms, has allowed fans to more easily connect both to other fans and to the creators of the works they love. The word “fandom” is really fitting for many of these devoted groups. Just as “kingdom” signifies that authority within a state’s borders lies with the king, “fandom” conveys the new power that fans hold in the world of entertainment.
Fans have always had some power to take the object of their love into their own hands. That is what fan fiction, art, role-plays, and conventions are for. But increasingly, fans can do more than create alternatives and supplements. They can affect the works themselves.
Fandoms can use their collective voice to help save what they love. For example, after Fox canceled the TV comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” in early May, many fans—including celebrities who have inspired their own fandoms, like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Hamill—took to Twitter in outrage, making the show trend worldwide. The fandom’s efforts paid off just one day later, when NBC announced that it was picking “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” up for a sixth season.
Fandoms can also inspire great storylines that otherwise would not have been explored. For years, fans of the show “Jane the Virgin” have speculated that a main character, Petra, is queer. This spring, their wishes were met—and the fan fulfillment was no coincidence. Showrunner Jennie S. Urman said that the writers knew the storyline would please the show’s fans.
These fandoms’ effects, whether on a show’s storyline or its very existence, represent a welcome power shift in the relationship between fans and creators. Fans are rewarding creators who don’t default to the same old tropes and are pushing for historically underrepresented populations. They are making entertainment more egalitarian.
Unfortunately, the power of fandom can be used to very different ends. Greater access to entertainment, creators, and actors also increases the amount of harassment and vitriol directed towards those people. It is disheartening to see fandoms pursuing forms of crude mob suppression and ruining the fun of the very things they love.
The “Star Wars” fandom has recently been deluged by this negativity. Many members revolted against the most recent movie, “The Last Jedi,” for its supposed political correctness and undermining of what the original movies stood for. Alarmingly low fan ratings and angry comments, beyond the range of healthy discourse, have exemplified the challenge for creators, especially rebooters: Do you follow your own creative vision and risk alienating the fans that sustain your franchise, or do you stick to what you know the fans will like? The second path is dangerous—and fans themselves should resist asking for it. A fandom that tries to close its borders and cling to the past sacrifices the opportunity to become even greater.
Even worse, some members of the “Star Wars” fandom have used their power to insult and harass actors and creators. Hateful comments targeting their looks and characters turned two lead actresses from the new trilogy, Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran, away from Instagram.
No wonder fandoms like these are being labeled toxic. The fans at fault do not just hurt the people responsible for sustaining the fictional universes that they all love; they also poison the fan experience and name for other devotees. Their lack of respect is at odds with the very point of being a fan.
The etymological trail of the word “fan” leads back to the Latin word “fanum,” which means a temple or sacred place. This makes sense—the things we love are sacred to us. So we should also keep a healthy level of respect, even reverence, for those things. Yes, their creators, the so-called powers that be, are no longer the only powers around. But fans’ assertions of their own power should not include indulging in mob rule and suppressing dissent. Let fandoms not be realms of stagnation and toxicity. To quote from another work with a large and devoted fandom, “with great power there must also come—great responsibility!”
Michelle I. Gao ’21 is a Crimson editorial editor in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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