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Fans of fandom: Psychology faculty break down the passion and persecution of fans

two people standing in the snow

Image of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen from the TV show Game of Thrones. Image from HBO.

Fans have a language all their own, one that can celebrate or dissect their passions, and identify fellow members.

Onside kick. Take it to the chain. Horse collar tackle.*
Tardis. Wibbly-wobbly. Dalek.**
Gruul. Eldrazi. Dominaria.***

Three faculty members in the School of Psychology at Illinois State University—and all proud fans of popular culture—break down the rise, revolution, and reverence associated with fandom.

three people seated at a table with the Wizard World logo in the background

(From left) Eric Wesselmann, Leandra Parris, and J. Scott Jordan at a 2017 panel at the Chicago ComicCon.

The very idea of being called a fan was once closer to an insult. “You have to remember that fan is derivative of fanatic, so a lot of early fan studies were done in communication with people who could be considered fanatics or extreme fans,” said Associate Professor Eric Wesselmann, who studies social inclusion and ostracism. Wesselmann said that negative connotation associated with fans has lessened over the last 15 or so years. “These days, people embrace being called ‘fans’ a lot more.”

Fandom itself experienced a mini-revolution beginning about 15 years ago. Once reserved as the domain of the sports arena, fandom has expanded with a greater social acceptance of popular culture. “Essentially, the nerds won,” said Professor J. Scott Jordan. “Silicon Valley—which, according to HBO’s Silicon Valley, is run by nerds—created a system by which fandom and nerddom has been able to persist and grow.”

The long-time domination of sports fandom stemmed from a key advantage—a physical location. “Sports were easier to organize. You take part by moving your body, or watching others move theirs,” said Jordan, who explores the psychology of the “self” in his scholarly work. “That became normative, meaning people grew up thinking that’s the way they should be fueling dreams.”

It’s okay to create an imaginary team in fantasy football, but not okay to create an imaginary fellowship of adventurers in a fantasy game like D&D? — Eric Wesselmann

The social distinction between fandoms intrigues Assistant Professor Leandra Parris. “Society might look strangely at Trekkers (Star Trek fans) walking around saying ‘Live long and prosper,’ but wouldn’t for people who were tailgating with all their swag for their favorite team,” said Parris, a school psychologist who studies school violence and prevention. “While sports fandom was considered socially appropriate, everything else was a little more fringe, atypical, or nerdy.”

Wesselmann pointed out the irony of the social acceptance of one fandom over another. “It’s okay to create an imaginary team in fantasy football, but not okay to create an imaginary fellowship of adventurers in a fantasy game like D&D (Dungeons and Dragons)?” he asked.

Jordan explained it was much harder for non-sports-associated fandoms to be normalized because fans of areas such as popular culture, science fiction, and fantasy are ultimately dealing with ideas. “When you’re a fan of stories you don’t need a building. You need words and the ability to spread words to create the forum necessary for sports-level equivalent groups to emerge,” said Jordan.

three people dressed as characters from movie and TVfrom

Conventions are appealing to more people across the gender spectrum, but hierarchies still exist within fandom, noted Parris.

That ability came with the rise of the Internet, which provided a forum of connecting for pop culture fans. The Internet also gave a boost to cultural conventions, known as the “Con” (such as Comic Con in San Diego, though there are multiple Cons across the nation each year). “The Con facilitated the idea people can gather in a physical space that is dedicated to them and free from ridicule,” said Parris, who has presented at Cons across the Midwest with Wesselmann and Jordan on the psychology behind heroes, villains, and fandom.

Within fandom, rivalries and hierarchies can emerge. Think Cubs vs. Cardinals or Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Hierarchies are again based on social acceptance. Fandoms can be subjected to gendered expectations that exist in the rest of society. “Think Bronies,” said Wesselmann, speaking of the fandom of men who show an appreciation for the TV show My Little Pony. “That’s heavily looked down upon even in the nerd community because of societal gender norms.”

Many fandoms have been criticized for upholding unobtainable masculine ideals—from sports to science fiction. Yet just as fandoms can evolve to be more accepted, hierarchies can be rearranged with fandoms. Parris noted that she’s seen more acceptance of women attending Cons over the years. “What I’ve noticed is that younger men are more accepting of me showing up at a Con. They don’t question,” she said, adding that changes tend to present similarly across society. “That’s more of a culture thing than a fandom thing.”

Cartoon horses

Fandom hierarchies are based on social acceptance, evidenced by the fandom of Bronies, or men who celebrate My Little Pony.

Jordan agreed that acceptance depends upon whether enough people agree to accept an idea. “It’s all normative,” he said. “The more anyone shows up doing anything, the more normalized it becomes. It just takes those brave souls to take the crap and keep showing up, and suddenly expectations change.”

Expectations can be high for tried and true fans. Whether it is a missed basket at the buzzer, or a TV show with dragons, ardent fans are often accused of being the most critical when it comes to their passions. “Fans care a lot and feel heavily invested in a story,” said Parris. “They spent a lot of time in that world, and when it doesn’t go the way they think it should, they feel violated.” Anger is generally the first reaction to unexpected consequences, she added. “Anger is an emotion that covers a wide span of other emotions, so it’s generally the easiest one to conjure.”

Some fans take to social media to decry their passions, others will attempt to redraw the outcome. “You had people demanding they redo the final season of Game of Thrones,” said Wesselmann. “Or people write fan fiction to change the ending or continue a story they cannot stand to see be over. We don’t want to see our friends go.”

There is a limit to how far fandom should go, noted Wesselmann. “Whether or not a fandom becomes addictive is to ask if this gets in the way of a person’s ability to function—to pay bills, to have shelter, to eat, to maintain healthy relationships.” Parris added that fandom can veer into dangerous territory. “If a person has so much memorabilia that it threatens to collapse on the apartment beneath it, that is a problem,” she said. Both agreed that rarely is someone turned on fandom alone. “The extreme fandom is usually the symptom as opposed to the problem,” said Wesselmann.

No matter the fandom, as long as it gives people a healthy outlet for passions, Wesselmann said he is all for it. “If you are fortunate and blessed enough to be in a situation in life where you’re not worried about dying and starving and you can find fulfillment in these pastimes, that’s something to celebrate,” he said. “I’m a fan of fandom.”

*Onside kick. Take it to the chain. Horse collar tackle. – Terms used in football
**Tardis. Wibbly-wobbly. Dalek. – Words from Doctor Who television show
***Gruul. Eldrazi. Dominaria. – Terms from Magic: The Gathering fantasy card game

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