In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle had enough of writing countless Sherlock Holmes stories. Despite being paid well by the publisher, Doyle grew tired of the format and trappings of writing about one particular character. So he did the unthinkable: he killed him. Outraged fans wrote countless letters to the publisher and Doyle himself, begging, pleading, and sometimes even threatening! But fans across the world realized they could keep Holmes alive by writing their own stories with the character. Fandom was born.
Fandom is a community of people sharing the love of a common interest. While most are built upon fellowship, fandoms are capable of a dark side.
Recently I wrote an article professing my love of the Misfits. In that piece, I praised the band for creating a community who often felt out of place among other music fans. They brought people together to share their love of horror movies and rock n’ roll and empowering them in the process. Camaraderie is the perfect example of fandom being used in a positive manner.
However, somewhere within the last ten or twenty years, fandoms have revealed an ugly side. Sometimes far more sinister than the occasional knuckle-dragging fan. These days, it seems like fandoms are an entire subculture dedicated to mental subscription. One that caters to a much more toxic demographic.
In order to understand the toxicity of fandoms, we need to take a look at how and why they are created in the first place. Marketing.
Whether you care to admit it or not, marketing plays an integral part in the consumer deciding if something is right for them. In most cases, this is a commercial or internet advertisement displaying a product or service. Be it a catchy song, a visual gag, or even the promise of sexual validation. These ads are the most important tools in getting the product to its rightful audience. We’re all aware of how it works. If you want to feel cool, General Motors has a car for that. Want to feel sexy? Wear this perfume. But there’s also a type of marketing that caters to the individual on a personal level. Enter identity marketing.
Identity marketing is a little more shady in nature because it not only singles out a specific type of person but also encourages entitlement. Where most advertisers rarely acknowledge those overlooking their product, identity marketing suggests those who don’t get the fandom are inferior people.
Making a fan feel more deserving of the fandom is where the toxicity comes in. When entitlement becomes the driving force, it never ends well.
This is where fandoms go horribly wrong. Department stores are no longer selling action figures to children, they’ve come to realize fan-boy collectors is where the money is. When this mentality is used by artists or celebrities, things get a bit more dangerous. Every artist wants a dedicated fanbase, but when does a group of fans become a cult?
Have you ever noticed how the most dedicated fans of a specific artist have a name? Taylor Swift’s Swifties, Beyonce’s BeyHive, Twenty One Pilots‘ Skeleton Clique. etc. Cultivating a name for a fanbase is identity marketing in full effect. Recognizing yourself as part of a labeled fandom means you have mentally subscribed. You are now part of an exclusive community of like-minded individuals and anyone not in that community isn’t a real fan.
No thanks to social media, toxic fandom has not only been normalized but celebrated. Maybe even encouraged.
Mentally subscribing to a fandom is a means to showboat legitimacy. The most common scenario is a metal fan being upset when they see Kim Kardashian wearing a Slayer t-shirt. “I bet she can’t even name three Slayer songs!” While it’s unlikely Kim could tell Reign In Blood from Repentless, the only reason why anyone would assume she isn’t a fan is due to the entitlement of the fandom. “She doesn’t look like us, so she can’t be one of us.” I’m sure you can already see where this is going and how its problematic.
In the past, fandoms were mostly exclusive to a small set of people. It’s not only safer to express your love of something unpopular in the mainstream while in small numbers, but it’s simply more appealing. After all, if everyone loved Neon Genesis: Evangelion, it wouldn’t feel as cool right? This also lends to the idea of social status.
The battle of Us vs Them will never go out of style seeing as being considered a nerd is far more prestigious than being considered popular.
Unfortunately, social status feeds narcissism. Most fandoms have become vitriolic internet trolls seeking out threats to their circles where there are none. Hardcore Star Wars fans were so upset with Kelly Marie Tran’s character in The Last Jedi, she was forced to leave social media due to constant bullying. An angry mob of Rick & Morty fans once terrorized a McDonald’s because they didn’t have enough Szechuan sauce. These incidents might sound petty but property damage and mental instability say otherwise!
As stated in my Where Are The Negative Album Reviews? article, even I find myself passing on certain reviews because I don’t want to deal with fandom backlash. While it may be easy to ignore fandom trolls, sometimes taking the high road is the only option.
That’s not to say ALL fandoms are toxic. If every dedicated fan was a garbage person, the world would be in complete chaos.
If you identify yourself as being part of a fandom, it might be a good idea to take a look at yourself and see what kind of fan you are. Do you get angry when someone begins to enjoy something you’ve enjoyed for years? Does a sub-par franchise installment change the love you have for previous releases? Are you projecting an image of bigotry or entitlement? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might be perpetuating the toxicity without even knowing it.
If fandoms are communities, it’s inevitable there will be a few insufferable douche-bags. Taking the time to see where you stand may be key to recognizing and calling out those who are ruining the fandom for everyone else. After all, if you’re not part of the problem, maybe you can be part of the solution? Or at least become a better human being in the process.
Original artwork by Ricky Vigil. For more original art, please check out Super Cool and Stuff!
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.