Sep 21, 2012 - Social Studies    9 Comments

How Not to Be a Fan

I’ve been open about parts of my identity on this blog that I haven’t felt comfortable “coming out” about almost anywhere else in my life, certainly not all at the same time. And everyone’s been so wonderfully welcoming and encouraging–you’re only making my general lack of brain filter worse! But what I’m about to admit may bring down the flaming hordes of trolls upon me in force.

I’m not sure how to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it (like taking off a band-aid, right?)…

I don’t get fandom. I utterly fail to understand it, on both individual and sociological levels. I am a Bad Fan.

What do I mean by “fandom”? I’m talking about that state of being in which a person enjoys spending time thinking, talking, reading, gathering, and making things about a particular piece of intellectual property, beyond just the time spent engaging with that medium. Those properties might include books, movies, music, sports, collectors’ items, games (video and otherwise), crafts, hobbies, or pastimes.

I truly believe in the broadest, most inclusive definition of ideas such as “fan” and “geek,” and I think the cultural behaviors that characterize traditional “geek culture” appear in a lot more “non-geeky” domains than any of those enthusiasts would expect to find. I also don’t judge among the various sources or expressions of fandom–I’m an equalist in this, as in just about everything else. Don’t try to tell me someone’s doing it wrong, or that something doesn’t “really count.” That just doesn’t hold water with me.

Of course, this is not to say I don’t enjoy and get enthusiastic about things that give me intellectual, creative, or aesthetic pleasure. I clearly do–I’ve enthused about books and music and movies and games and a dozen other things, sometimes with the fervor of a revival-tent preacher. But there’s an uncloseable distance between where I am and the distant shore of fandom.

I love what these ladies created. I even know some of them. And I’d proudly wear one of these costumes. But I can’t imagine ever making one myself.

I am fundamentally boggled by fan behaviors. I don’t understand re-watching or re-reading for the purpose of picking apart, or putting together, or harvesting quotes, or answering questions. I’ve never felt the urge to search or contribute to a wiki, beyond the most basic of research needs. I probably wouldn’t have the patience to wait for hours on end for the chance to see someone I admire. I can’t imagine following a band, performer, author, or artist from tour date to tour date. If I have the occasion to meet one of the people or groups I truly enjoy, I get a little fluttery but I’m conversationally functional, and I’m interested in them as people, not as characters or icons. I love dressing up for the sake of dressing up, but I could never conscience spending the dozens of hours and hundreds (if not thousands!) of dollars it takes to make a quality cosplay costume. Even if I could, there’s no one person I identify with so strongly for whom I’d be willing to pass myself off as a decent representation (this also has a lot to do with the absence of plus-size role archetypes, and my unwillingness to be a “fat” so-and-so).

Like this, but much, much simpler

All of this makes me feel like I’m carrying a shameful secret when someone hails me as a geek. A big circle of the geeky Venn diagram overlaps with the fan circle, and geeks are often graded on their proofs of fan-level devotion. Like any outsider, I have ways of “passing.” I have an excellent memory, which helps, but nothing like my Darling Husband’s capacity for encyclopedic knowledge available for immediate recall. And, more importantly, I empathize and enthuse well. If you’re excited about something you’re sharing, I can be excited for you and with you, and for most people, that’s all the engagement they’re really looking for when they share their fandom. But I also use my abilities to divert conversation from minutiae I know/care nothing for, and when that fails, my considerable skill at turning into a mirror.

Occasionally, this also makes me a Bad Friend. People hear that Jim Butcher introduced me to the Darling Husband, and they immediately launch into deep machinations within the Dresden universe, leaving me far behind. I’ve played some of the games my friends have written or designed, but there are many more I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying–hell, I haven’t even played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying yet. Many more of these paradoxes litter the landscape of my relationships, and they don’t mean a thing for my dedication to those loved ones. When they need me or something I can do to brighten their day or lighten their load, I am all in. But they’ll have to settle for a good friend, because I can’t be a good fan.

And this must also mean I’m a Bad Autistic. Aren’t all autistics supposed to perseverate, or focus to an uncommon extent on a very specific thing, to the exclusion of everything else? I certainly did so to a greater extent as a kid–I had books and books about the First Ladies and American History, and my very own Presidents of the United States trashcan. But there was never a world I fell into that I couldn’t fall right back out of when something else grabbed my interest. And I always preferred to make up my own stories and characters in my favorite settings, rather than retread the same classics over and over.

I’m not waiting for that evangelical moment, when I find something that “finally” turns me into a full-fledged fan. I don’t think it’s going to happen. If it hasn’t already, with the abundance of amazing media to which I’ve been exposed in my life, it seems unlikely that something so radically new will come along to change that. And most of the time, I’m not even looking for that experience. But I do steam up the window glass sometimes, peering in at all the people who seem to be getting so much more fulfillment from the things I merely enjoy. As I used to (and sometimes still) feel about the LGBT community, I’m a strong, vociferous ally and advocate to fandom, but I often feel I’m missing some extra dimension in life because of these limits to my senses, boundaries, or imagination.

So here I sit, on this awkward fence. I speak the language of fans, and I understand and appreciate their culture, but I can never fully participate. I’m far from a “fan widow”–I don’t reject or feel left behind by the enthusiasms of my friends and family. But I can’t understand prioritizing those things above more basic obligations and engagements. I can’t even really explain what I mean, and I’m worried this sounds condescending or judgmental. (If I have come off this way, please accept my apology and my vow that I intend neither of these things.)

I’m not sure what this coming-out story accomplishes, not the way I have with the others I’ve told. I still love the things I love, but I love them differently than so many of the other people in my life. Mostly, I hope this just explains why I never seem to get particularly flustered or anxious when everyone around me is freaking out about The Wait, or The Trailer, or The Leaked Detail, or The Brush With Fame. And I hope it doesn’t make anyone more hesitant to share their enthusiasm with me. Please know that it finds a safe, welcoming harbor with me, as do all the other pieces of you. Because what I’m really a fan of is people, in all their exuberant difference and intricate detail. That’s what I’m willing to invest in, and I don’t have to go to a con to wallow in the wonderful world that creates.


  • I was a pretty serious fan of the harry potter books. So much so that I read them all a few times and can’t stand any of the movies beyond the first (and parts of the second and third). I felt a real sadness at the end of the final book, knowing that it was over.

    • See, I would probably say you’re a fan like I’m a fan. I’ve read them (out loud, no less!) all the way through, two times now, and I had to stop reading because I was crying at various points; I have real affection for the characters. I do enjoy the movies, even as it became harder and harder to condense the story into a movie format; I like them as their own thing now. I’d probably be able to answer fairly detailed trivia questions about the series, but that’s a function of my dumb memory trapping things like that instead of useful things like what’s happening this weekend. But I see people who make incredibly elaborate costumes and replicas, and spend hours forming intermural Quidditch leagues, and pay thousands of dollars on special guided tours of the UK for the “real Harry Potter experience.” And I know that’s not me.

  • I think calling yourself a “bad fan” is a disservice to yourself. And in this post, you are also pretty much describing me to a tee. I like sports, music, history, movies, comic books, role playing games, science fiction, fantasy, and a handful of other things. All of them I would consider myself a fan of all those things to varying degrees. Just because I don’t remember a detail from panel 3, page 7 of a Marvel comic from 12 years ago doesn’t make me a bad fan. I can’t remember quotes from movies to save my life, even though others can recite entire scenes with each other. I don’t always notice the minute details of a prop in the background on a book shelf of a tv show, and how that relates to something that happens 3 episodes from now. Some if it could be my brain just doesn’t work that way. I know some of it (or so I think) is that I have so many varied interests that I don’t put enough time or effort to reach the level of “focused fandom” that some people do in any one thing. And that is not a knock on them for being that single minded and focused on something. If they enjoy it and it works for them, then good for them. But, what’s that old saying I find myself identifying with….”jack of all trades, master of none”? And I am fine with that for myself, it works for me. But if you are feeling excluded, or on the outside looking in, because you are not as “into” something as someone else is, I don’t think that makes you a “bad fan”. I think it makes them.

    • I’m not willing to say anyone else is a bad fan, I just think there’s a level I’ll never inhabit. Part of that, as I’m thinking about this, represents a financial investment I’ve never been in the position to make, when daily needs are still a juggling act. But part of it is that, if I’m stuck with a bunch of unexpected free time, there are so many more things I can think to do that directly improve life for myself (self-improvement thru reading, sleep, creative outlets that produce something for others) or other people (activism, philanthropy, volunteering, time with friends), I can’t imagine prioritizing something that only I enjoy to that degree. That’s probably not entirely healthy, but I feel like it’s a piece of the explanation for me.

  • I will readily admit I dive pretty deep into the fandom pool on certain subjects. You don’t want to get me started on Transformers (Seriously, don’t. It often doesn’t end well), but I think I understand where you’re coming from.

    It seems to be the same relationship I have with sports. I enjoy watching baseball or football (the real kind the rest of the world enjoys ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) but I couldn’t tell you the names of any players, don’t have a favorite team, or have any clue about the standings going into what ever championship.

    The rest of my family are avid fans of the Atlanta Braves, so when they start talking to me about it I do more or less what you describe. I engage as much as I can or just try to reflect their enthusiasm back.

    • So it sounds like you have the capacity to access the level I’m talking about, but only do it on “geeky” subjects. I guess part of my argument is that fandom is fandom, whether it’s about Transformers or the Milwaukee (ahem, excuse me, Atlanta) Braves or Longabarger baskets–they play out in so much the same way. I definitely understand that “left behind” feeling, though, and reflection is definitely the best strategy. It might be interesting to ask why they feel such a strong emotional connection–I always act on my impulses to feel like an anthropologist when I’m surrounded by รผber-fans. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • No, I totally agree with you about fandom being fandom regardless of subject. It’s one reason I usually reach for sports analogies when I’m explaining “geeky” stuff to folks who have no connection to it, or try to crash on me or a friend about it.

  • I so relate. That part of my DNA is missing. I really liked the Harry Potter series and really liked Lord of the Rings, but I can’t even begin to fathom the level of enthusiasm others show for these created worlds. The truth is I really like lots of things, but I miss out on the fan thing altogether because of the total absence of affinity I have for repetition, cliquiness and costuming. This is what not only makes me NOT a geek but a lousy American. I don’t get what others call patriotism in the same way I don’t get why I am supposed to get all excited and single-minded about one sports team, one book, one movie, one author or one star, as if it’s my only natural-born child. It is a basic part of the human experience that just leaves me scratching my head.

  • I’m actually very much like you in this regard, Jess. I have plenty of geeky hobbies and interests that I love. I just don’t relate to the super-obsessive side of fandom.

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