Love Beyond Reason: the consecration of fandom
Comparisons and analogies of fandom and religion aren’t new, and they have typically been quite unwelcome in fandom quarters. It’s okay to elevate your fan object —whether it be a ship, a musician, a sports team—to astronomical heights, but as soon as the conversation turns sincere the eye-rolls commence.
Some of the cited reasons are that such comparisons “pathologize” fans, that it belittles the importance of faith, that it’s offensive to suggest celebrities could be on par with deities.
Henry Jenkins, arguably one of the most influential and known fandom scholars, has opposed the analogy. In a conversation with fellow academic Matt Hills, he explained, “The fact that I was raised a Southern Baptist and so was brought up with fundamentalism leaves me with the sense that religion is about a literal truth.”
I don’t see “literal truth” as a barrier to comparisons, perhaps because of how drastically different fandom communities operate presently, as opposed to a few decades ago. My own fully secular upbringing may be part of it, too.
If I had been asked in my Roswell days, my Bandom days, or even my Queer As Folk (US) days if fandom was a surrogate for religion, I would’ve balked. But I don’t think I can balk after my foray into standom. Much of the indictment of fandom should really be directed towards the stan portion of any given fandom. But we didn’t get there on our own.
While I maintain that there is a marked difference between fans and so-called stans, even the sliding scale between the two is more easily understood through religious vernacular. Leo Braudy who wrote about the history of fame believes English royalty set the tone, “Henry VIII’s political attack on holy faces set the stage for the development of a secular iconography and potentially a secular sainthood.” Then it was up to, “the American model” of celebrity and fame to further solidify that concept, the possibility at the feet of the ambitious; “American fame is the unveiling of a self that is its own world, recognizing no other time.”
In other words, it’s been marinating for a long, long time.
[Fandom] takes the place of some of the functions of a church in a small town: A place where people come together, ostensibly to worship something. But really what's happening is you're forming a community. It's less about what you're worshiping and more about, "We have these interests in common."
— David Duchovny, LA Times: Hero Complex, 2008
The small town fandom that Duchovny refers to in his definition of fandom has grown into a metropolis and has become hyper-targeted by eager marketers. The existing emotional connection fans have to their fan object was ready-made to tap into, and perhaps there was a window of time when fans and industry existed symbiotically. At this point, the scales have firmly tipped in favour of industry.
Fan conversion—or more commonly referred to as “becoming a fan”—is often likened to falling in love, but it also bears the mark of spiritual conversion. It’s an out-of-control experience that evokes something in you, a feeling so certain the encounter might even feel predetermined; serendipitous, and undeniable.
Matt Hills describes fans’ conversion stories as “strikingly self-absent” and lacking in rational explanation.This has been echoed by fans elsewhere, plenty of it on stan Twitter, Tumblr, TikTok, etc. But this isn’t unique to present-day stans; Michael Joseph Gross documented his time with fans in the early aughts, and much of what they said is ultimately indistinguishable from what you might find on stan Twitter and Tumblr today.
That particular zealotry is reserved for the stan subsection of any (sub-)fandom; the larger the fandom, the bigger and louder the niches. These aren’t superficial feelings, as Gross observed, “Dolly’s fans do share with [Michael Jackson's] a belief that their devotion calls them to improve the world,” and regardless of my opinion, or yours, or Gross’ himself, the belief is real.
Michael Jackson fans describe their passion for the star as a moral duty. They see themselves as intermediaries to a holy innocent, representing what they perceive to be his values. [..] Their righteous pleasure in defending him is compounded by a sense of exclusivity: the world may see them as fools, but they know they are the faithful remnant.
— Michael Joseph Gross, “Starstruck: when a fan gets close to fame”
Gross’ accounts include a Dolly Parton fan who was adamant that Parton cured her high blood pressure and depression, permitting her to get off of five medications. Tai Uhlman, the documentarian who covered Parton fans, said, “The way they talk about her, she could be Our Lady of Guadelupe.” One Madonna fan claimed, “She’s not just an entertainer. She’s like a spiritual figure.” This was something mirrored by Michael Jackson fans, one describing her connection with him as spiritual, all the while acknowledging that, “it sounds weird.” These are not easy emotions to expose.
When someone says who their spiritual figure is, it should be understood as a deeply held conviction. It’s context-dependent, of course; as with everything, patterns of behaviour are relevant. A retweet or reblog doesn’t have to be an endorsement, nor does it have to be a hundred percent truthful reflection of a user’s emotional state. Fan accounts haven’t been spared the performative streak we see elsewhere online. We’re watching and being watched, and apparently, encouraged to bond intimately with brands that it’s essential we don’t see as such.
The stronger one’s attachment to a brand, the more ideal a customer, at least if the literature is to be believed. Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi coined the term “lovemarks” and wrote the book on the concept, concluding that, “Emotion is an unlimited resource. It’s always there, waiting to be tapped.”He urged marketers to induce “Loyalty beyond reason” among their customer base as these would be the people who stick it out. His reasoning closely echoed that of the “customer evangelist” checklist that I’ve discussed before. It may be a lot of work to foster emotional attachments, but love comes with long-term commitment. Slow and steady wins the race.
In the time since lovemarks were rolled out, Susan Kresnicka, a cultural anthropologist, not only honed in on fandom but also pivoted towards the spiritual fulfillment of customers, fans, followers. If fandom fulfills a need and “creates value” there’s no reason for it not to be monetized.
I often remind clients that all we do in business is transform value. When our products, services, experiences, brands, and stories create value for people, we have the chance to transform that value into our bank accounts, paychecks, stock prices, etc. While seemingly obvious, we often forget that this process begins with people, and fundamentally rests on understanding what value we can create for them.
Ultimately, Roberts speculated that “life is taking over brands,” as if the integration of branded content into our existence, identities, and belief systems was a benign development that benefits everyone.
Maybe it is benign, and I’m just being alarmist, still reeling from my own emotional trauma. Setting a budget, building a team, and executing plans to romance customers into a committed parasocial affair to benefit corporate EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) is not only one-sided but also ignorant. These passionate customer love affairs are being stoked by multiple competing brands, all existing in the same sphere. The zero-sum game that corporations normally engage in that fandom ignores has become center stage for stans.
What happens when clashes occur? When groups of devotees chafe against one another, fighting for the same accolades and epithets? Add in the expectation of ridicule and mockery for caring too much, or reading too much into things, it’s no wonder fandom communities become so tightly-knit and insulated. Fandom mythology and hagiographies age into unequivocal scripture, regardless of how far it might stray from reality or the official narrative.
Is it any surprise that stans have slowly become a feared online subculture? From flooded Twitter notifications and DMs, gifs on the TL and discourse to— well, to journalists and critics being harassed for insufficient reviews? To fellow fans with the Wrong Opinions being ousted and ostracized? Is it any surprise that stans whose interests—whose deeply felt moral obligation—lie in shielding and heralding their fan object cause a ruckus online? Could this have been predicted?
Love is abstract, people are not. People with strong emotional connections do not exist in a vacuum, neither does their relationship, parasocial or not. The communities that form around fan objects are real, and the people in them will all have different perspectives, each firmly held. It’s easy to forget that fandom isn’t just an amalgamation of individuals who love a branded entity and allow the dollars and yens to keep rolling in. In one way, lovemarks have succeeded; ride or die fans are proud of their devotion and their impact. They’ve exceeded the documented expectations.
“Fandom is less like being in love, than being in love with love,” Gross concludes in “Starstruck.” Braudy went a bit further in his description of what is being sold, “not the objects but the sense of what it is like to be the person who has such objects.”
It doesn’t sound like love, where reciprocity is at the very least an option, it sounds like limerance, where the inequality and worship are baked in. Like a crush, in stricter, drier terms; the intense obsessive fixation on something or someone, the fantasies it includes, and the idolatry, where flaws become defensible attractions.
Which is it that marketers are trying to evoke in us? Love or limerance? Love or obsession? Love or worship?
“Fans, Bloggers and Gamers, Essays on Participatory Culture” Henry Jenkins, 2006
“The Frenzy of renown: fame & its history” Leo Braudy, 1986
“Exactly at the point where we might—in the terms of an academic imagined subjectivity—expect a rational explanation of the self’s devotion and fandom, we are instead presented with a moment of self-suspension and radical hesitation. We are confronted by a moment where the subject cannot discursively and ‘rationally’ account for its own fan experience, and where no discourse seems to be available which can meaningfully capture the fan’s ‘opening of oneself to another’s experience’, or, indeed, to a mediated text.”
“Fan Cultures” Matt Hills, 2002
“Starstruck: when a fan gets close to fame” Michael Joseph Gross, 2006
“Lovemarks the future beyond brands” Kevin Roberts, 2004
Your analogy in "converting" to a fandom is so apt. I definitely had that experience with regards to various fandoms participated in over the years, even recently with my dive into 90sBandom (Backstreet in particular for some reason). I even still remember particular moments I got "converted" and the kind of emotional highs I was riding afterwards. The limerence is also very apt since I definitely noticed the parallels with certain figures I ended up latching onto throughout my different fandoms and my actual experience with limerence irl.
I cannot help but feel a little worried about myself and also other people in similar scenarios. I definitely am "in love with love" and seem to latch myself onto people/things that fulfil certain fantastical ideals in my head about the kind of person I want to be with. It's one thing if people grow out of it or find a healthy way to deal with those feelings, but it's another thing when people are actively encouraged to sink deeper into these kind of feelings and emotions, especially by a larger "community" of individuals who are the same type of person. It's a little scary, NGL.