Disclaimer: I’ll be honest: Overall, I’ve grown rather jaded with fandoms, so take any of my opinions with a grain of salt. That being said, I’ll still try to give you a fair and balanced account!
If you have spent any amount of time interested in something with mass appeal, be it fiction, sports, cars, My Little Pony, or even medieval-age combat (arming swords for the win, by the way), you’re bound to be familiar with fandoms.
However, what is a fandom? There’s groups for everything, all behaving in very different ways. You’ll hear all sorts of horror stories or awesomeness about them, from the crafty cosplayers making cardboard armour to the folks who wish to wed animated characters of various species, so what exactly are they?
Pictured above: What every fan-directed Star Wars/Marvel crossover would look like.
Well, first, I’ll give you the tl;dr answer: Fans and fandoms are perfectly ordinary humans. Before we get into anything else, I’d like to emphasise this point. Contrary to various jokes at their expense, for the most part, they’re no different than the rest of humanity when it comes to passions, and have their saints, monsters, and idiots like everyone else. In all honesty, most of them are just there to share, debate and discuss their passions with likeminded folks (or folks who disagree but have similar attitudes and knowledge).
Any outrageous behaviour you can think of for one fandom will more than likely have an equivalent in another. Or is dressing up as a Space Marine any different from going topless at a sports event and wearing body paint?
More specifically, this would be the layman’s definition and elaboration of a fandom: It’s a group of fans of any particular topic or media. They vary greatly in size and scope; some fandoms are limited to a handful of people, though in the age of the internet, fandoms are more connected and thus more numerous nowadays. Even if they weren’t, that wouldn’t stop even two to five especially determined otaku from making a website for their waifu.
The key defining trait of any fandom, however, is passion. Whatever they love, however they love it, the thing all fans share is that this thing is a huge part of their lives and influences them to a degree. A personal degree from fan to fan, but a degree nonetheless. It is what makes them welcome or attack complete strangers, the tonic that emboldens a large number of otherwise socially awkward people to blast out their unsolicited opinions. Some do it for the sense of having the superior opinion, but mostly it’s that very human feeling of wanting to share something precious and to belong to a group. And, less nobly, to CRUSH those puny, inferior groups that oppose our GLORIOUS MASTER FANDOM.
Fandoms organise and categorise themselves using their own terms, and are capable of splitting into any number of factions and subtypes. Because let’s be frank, as long as there’s SOME demand for it, it’ll have a fandom. An outsider might lump all fans into “fans of the series”, but might not be aware of the inner groups. And so, I’ll walk you through a top-down look at fandoms, each level accompanied with the general impressions and foibles of the inside and outside.
First: The Subject
This is where we start, at the very top, going entirely by series. Here, fandoms are about the franchise as a whole, whether it’s Star Wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, True Blood, Manchester United, Top Gear, Gordon Ramsay, Hideo Kojima, whatever.You even have fandoms for specific concepts or genres, like detective stories, vampires, or even sports anime.
This is how most outsiders understand fandoms, but fans often do go by this as well! I can’t speak for all fandoms, but if the love is strong, it’s usually enough to unite a large number of people under the same banner. Though admittedly, as in the case of Marvel and their Distinguished Competition (get it, because it’s DC, look I didn’t make that up, Marvel did), or Star Wars and Star Trek, that banner might fill them with the fire to go to war with another fandom.
So certainly, there are all sorts of conventions that bring these fans together. There are MULTIPLE celebrations for Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, Harry Potter. But for a good idea of how simply the BIG idea can unite different groups, I’d suggest looking into Comic Cons and the like. There, different fandoms get together under one identity: fans of all things nerdy. How big the umbrella gets is only limited to their imagination.
Then: The Products
Of course, most franchises aren’t standalone. They have spinoffs, different series, even different writers within the same continuity (or the equivalent for a non-fiction fandom, like a coach or a host). Heck, you can even have entirely different divisions about the episodes in a series. If there’s something, ANYTHING written in the franchise, whether it’s directly or indirectly connected to the main portion, there are going to be fandoms about them too, sharing their enthusiasm and/or fighting over it.
The best illustration for this, of course, is Star Wars. Not just because near EVERYONE knows Star Wars, but because it illustrates these different fandoms at all tiers.
- You’ve got fans comparing the Original Trilogy to the Prequel Trilogy (also, hating on the Prequel Trilogy, which I personally find to be an obnoxious and lazy gag as represented by Mr. Deadpool up there)
- Even within each trilogy alone, you have people comparing the episodes. You’ve got fans who say Empire Strikes Back is the greatest, and others believing that Return of the Jedi was great because the story should end with a triumph.
- And of course, the big bantha in the room, the whole matter of the EU, or Legends as they are now known. Nowadays, you might consider it a matter of “Canon EU vs. Non-Canon EU” and fans being mad all their material was thrown out the window (short answer, I disagree, but I understand their salt). But even BEFORE then, there were factions of which EU was to be considered canon, which wasn’t and which was just plain good or bad.
- Heck, even when it’s not between trilogies, episodes, or canonicity, you get different fandoms. You’ve got fandoms who are into certain periods like After The Movies, During The Movies, Between The Movies, Before The Movies, and Waaaaaaay Before The Movies. You’ve got fans of the Jedi, fans of the smugglers, fans of the Mandalorians, and fans of the bizarre adventures of Lando Calrissian (he fought a magic space slug, I am not making this up).
You can apply this to most franchises, but it starts to propagate especially deeply in things with deep, DEEP mythology, or the potential for such a thing.
All of these carry on their business in their circles, sometimes content to mind their own business, at other times fervently defending their passions if they feel it’s under attack. Some, however, go on the offensive altogether, whether motivated by the way their subject was written or whether they were like that all along.
And Finally: The Stuff Beyond
As with all things, franchises have unique quirks based on how they’re written. You’ve got people asking who’s the best Doctor in Doctor Who (“What do you mean? Isn’t it the same character? What do you mean there’s different actors?”), what’s the best Starfleet crew (“What? It’s uh, the one with Spock, right? May the Force prosper? There’s others?”), or bizarre intellectual exercises like “Is there a fight Batman could not win even with prep time?”
There are all sorts of fandoms arising from unique elements of a series, or just naturally as a result of fans mixing and matching ideas. This manifests in things like “Which group do I belong to in this world” or “What would I be in this universe”, but perhaps the most (in)famous example of all this is: Shipping.
Shipping is basically the art of pairing characters together, regardless of whether they’re together in the material or not. It’s done for reasons ranging from “They’re a cute couple”, “I think it would be a great story”, “I think they match”, and perhaps less high-mindedly, “I really just want to see them smooch.” It, like other organic ideas born from the horror that is the human mind, is just an example of how projecting thoughts and desires unrelated to something can create either wonder or terror.
So what’s it all about?
Though I’ve distanced myself from the path of fandoms, I’m still very much a fan myself. And even during my time as part of fandoms, I did see the best and worst they had to offer.
I can’t and won’t presume to guess or state what moved my fellow fans. I won’t name them as ‘real fans’, ‘fakers’ or ‘jerks’ just because I happened to agree or disagree with them. So instead, I’ll leave you with what moved me, and what I saw moved them.
Essentially, we’re all there because we love what we follow. And the more we learned, the more we decided which parts of it we loved best. We shared what knowledge we had. Some hated anything that threatened it, others were fairminded and civil.
Now, loving something is one thing. But fans took their love and made it mean something more to them. I won’t speculate why it mattered so much to them, but the fact remained: It did. And that’s probably why most fans feel so protective and invested in their chosen fandoms.
So yes, I’ve seen the horror stories. I’ve seen complete and utter arseholes shut down conversations in their echo chambers, feeling utterly entitled to some form of privilege, as if the creators owed them. But I’ve also felt that same protectiveness towards the things I loved, and the hopes that they would get the treatment I felt they deserved.
Very differently phrased, very differently pursued, but born from the same root: wanting to see more of what you love in the right way. And hey, it’s always great to hear you’re not the only one who wanted more Plo Koon episodes in The Clone Wars.