When I was in fifth grade, our teacher assigned us the fantasy novel The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and it became the book that defined my love of literature. I didn’t know anyone else who thrilled to it like I did, so I contented myself to my own musings and solitary rereading.
As an older teen, musical theatre became my passion, particularly the musical adaption of the classic novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. This time I was not alone, as my best friend Esme was also a devotee. We dressed up as the characters, wrote fictional pieces inspired by the story, and debated the merits of its hero (the classically handsome and heroic Percy Blakeney) and its villain (the dark and conflicted French spy Chauvelin). By this time, the Internet was well into becoming the life-changing entity we now know it to be, and it was this that opened our eyes to the fans outside our small Rhode Island high school. Suddenly, Esme and I were connecting to fans living all over the globe experiencing the same love as we were, divided by miles, but inhabiting the same universe through our love of Percy, Chauvelin, and the French Revolution; We had discovered our fandom.
“Fandom” is a term that Merriam-Webster dates back to 1903. But when the Internet took over the world, fandom reached a whole new level. Generally speaking, the word fandom is used to describe a group of people all obsessed with the same thing and the community that grows around that obsession. Sports and celebrities have always had recognizable fandoms, as it’s usually been easy to find other people who are wild Beatles fans or baseball enthusiasts. But these days, fandoms can be attached not only to large pop-culture entities, but smaller cult-classics and movements. Star Wars, Disney, the Avengers, The Hunger Games, and other popular stories and series all have large fandoms, as well as other popular video games, books, movies, and TV. These fans chat on message boards, write fan fiction (fictional twists on the existing stories) or create artwork of their favorite (or imagined) scenes, show up to conventions in cosplay (costumed role-play) as their favorite characters, and flock to new screenings and releases with particular zeal. But smaller things (like singular celebrities and web comics) can even generate fandoms, if the fans are dedicated enough.
Take the star of BBC’s Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch. The show’s fans (Sherlockians) eagerly debate Holmes and Watson’s relationship, how well the series reflects the original novels, and they insert their favorite lines into every day conversation. But the show also gave Cumberbatch the Actor instant stardom. He was so obsessively adored by his fans that, well, the internet went sort of crazy. Popular things discussed among the Cumberbatch fandom include: a Tumblr dedicated to all the times the actor resembled an otter, a viral inside joke on a particularly flattering button-up deemed “The Purple Shirt of Sex,” and heated debates on whether the fandom’s self-coined name (“Cumberbitches”) is derogatory or empowering.
Fandoms generally have the following things in common.
- First, a catchy name. Some fandom names are twists on the story itself: Whovians, Potterheads, Ringers, Trekkies, and Fannibals, for example. Some fandom names are funny puns, like Pine Nuts for actor Chris Pine. Sometimes the name comes out of a reference only true fans would know, like the Taylor Gang, for rapper Wiz Khalifa’s dedication to his Chuck Taylors. Or it could be attached to a movement like the Nerdfighters, fans of teen author John Green and his internet celebrity brother Hank, who use the fandom to drive charitable events.
- Next, the most dedicated fandoms have at least one if not one thousand Tumblrs, the blog that most fans turn to for sharing art, fanfiction, memes, inside jokes, and anything else related to their fandom. It’s easy to find other fans on Tumblr –just use the hashtag search and you’ll be connected to the hilarious, the weird, and the passion connected to the fandom of your choosing.
- Another fun and frequent practice of fandoms: Shipping! Shipping is when fans pair up their favorite characters – sometimes as love interests, but also platonically (the term “ship” comes from “relationship”). Shipping usually takes place in fan fiction or fan art, where fans can create a new twist on the story through a romantic or friendship lens. Shipping characters also results in punny names (sort of like celebrity couple names), like “Harmony” which stands for fans pairing up Harry Potter and Hermione, or “Stormpilot” which covers one of the more recent popular ships, Star Wars characters Finn and Poe Dameron.
- Lastly, the heart of fandom is just that – the heart! In a world where it is all too easy for people to judge each other on their interests, fandom is the opposite: it brings people together. If your family doesn’t understand your zeal for Patrick Stewart, a whole world of people on Twitter do. If your classmates gaze quizzically at you when you discuss why the antagonism between Batman and Superman indicates a repressed romantic love for each other, don’t worry: you’re not alone. And if no one recognized my 10th grade Halloween costume of Marguerite, the beautiful and mysterious French wife of The Scarlet Pimpernel, I knew the Internet would love it. In fact, they still do. I even found my fellow The Dark is Rising fans on Facebook last year. The Internet, it doth provide!
Next week, the library is hosting “Last Fandom Standing” on Wednesday, 3/16 at 6:30 PM, where teens in grades 6-12 are invited to the library to celebrate their favorite fandoms. Fandom events in libraries are popping up more frequently these days, and it fits; libraries are great community centers, and fandoms make up great communities. Enjoy and encourage your own fandom and your teens’. Fandoms often result in life-long friendships and are highly worth celebrating.
Left: Chauvelin and Marguerite from the original Broadway production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1997
Right: Esme and Liz as Chauvelin and Marguerite, Halloween 1998