I recently published a post about the striking similarities between a fangirl and the definition of major mental disorders. I didn’t mean to make fun of these serious conditions. It was just my way of mocking myself for being so influenced by what it essentially fiction. The post had its critics. I get it. No one who’s never seen me can know how devoted I am to my fandoms. Some of them have literally changed my life. Still, I want to share some ideas on how fandoms are strikingly like cults. This is for those of you who have never been in one (fandom OR cult). Brace yourselves!
Fandoms are essentially closed communities. They are mostly online, on websites where only the members can actively participate. They are centered around content that all the members are familiar with and that they build upon. Based on that (be it a TV show, a music band, a book series), fans create their own bubble of fan content and a very distinct language, which most people outside of the fandom don’t understand. They use ideas, quotes, names and moments from the original content to share powerful memes (bits of ideas that can spread rapidly). This is how they create their ‘Us vs Them’ mentality – a state, in which they can only meaningfully communicate with the members of their own fandom.
This might be a bit difficult to understand at first. After all, every generation has its slang and we still manage to understand each other fairly well. Let me give you a few examples of the kind of words used by most fandoms right now:
Ship – short from ‘relationship’: when we talk about a particular pair of characters that might or might not be related in any way in the original show. A more precise kind of ship is ‘slash’ – meaning basically a gay romantic pair (usually not present in the original). And, of course, the ultimate OTP – One True Pairing, describing the user’s favourite pair from all the characters in the series, irrespective of their relationship in the original.
Canon/AU – describes events and facts that are either consistent with the existing original content (canon), or that are set in an Alternative Universe, where the rules are different and all events and relationships might be changed depending on the fan creating the AU.
GIF – we all know that GIF is an image format, right? Wrong. GIF in a fandom is a lot more than simply an image. It is a moving image with a very concise message, usually including text and a short scene from a series. It describes the mood, feelings or attitude of the member of the fandom and is a very powerful tool when creating relationships in a fandom. Of all the things I’ve created, my gifs are the most re-blogged on my Tumblr account.
These are only some of the things that make a fandom self-sufficient. But in order to create all these memes, a fandom needs fans. So who does a fandom target? We already discussed that the ‘real’ fans of a TV show are usually those with the most free time and energy. Fandoms go a step further. Not only do they target young, idealistic people with less responsibilities, they are a huge magnet for people who want to escape from reality, either because they don’t like their environment or because they have issues with themselves. This is, in my opinion, how it starts. With time a lot of the members find themselves and later attribute it to their belonging to the fandom. I am certainly one of those people. And while I cannot be sure what my life would have been without my fandoms, I definitely know that this sense of belonging has helped me through some rough patches in the RL (real life).
So what do fandoms promise their members? Fandoms offer a sense of security, belonging and understanding. Like most online communities, they are not interested in their members’ real lives. They don’t care what you look like or how much money you makes. The members of a fandom are like-minded people who provide each other support and comfort and often refer to each other as ‘friends’, despite never having actually met.
So far everything sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? So why do I liken fandoms to cults? Aren’t cults a dangerous, dark places that, once entered, can never be safely left behind? So are fandoms, at least in some respects, and that makes choosing your fandoms wisely quite important.
Fandoms feel amazing. So amazing that the real world pales by comparison. Reading fanfiction is suddenly a lot more interesting than reading ‘normal’ fiction. I once spent more than 2 months listening only to Shrock music. The term comes from “Sherlock rock” and describes fan-made music that has to do with the BBC Sherlock TV series. It is neither supreme in quality, nor exceptionally intelligent. Still, it is an essential part of the Sherlock fandom and listening to it helps you stay in his world even when trying to live your ‘real life’. This can have consequences for our relationships as well. I have heard more than one woman say that Colin Firth’s performance of Mr Darcy has spoiled them and they expect that no real man will ever fulfill their expectations of how a gentleman should look and behave. And, even worse, belonging to a fandom makes this obsessive behavior seem like the norm. Members of a fandom no longer feel ‘weird’ for having feeling for a fictional character. On the contrary, they now belong to a world of equally deluded other people.
I hope I have made it clear that I am a fangirl and expect always to remain one. Fandom is a wonderful place to escape from real life from time to time. However, relying on fandom to solve our problems can have disastrous consequences.
To understand fandoms better, watch Dan’s YouTube video on the topic.
For more context into cults, check out this TED video by Diane Benscoter.
If you’re interested to read how TV series contributed to my education, there you go.