I remember the first time I overheard being described as “weird”; seventh grade social studies class. During some downtime after I excitedly went on a diatribe about the latest goings-on about that television series Melrose Place with a classmate, whom  I soon discovered that she only, kinda, somewhat, sorta watched the show, shifted her spatial position to a group of girls whom I guessed seemed more “normal”. Certainly not out of earshot, I got one of the many painful reminders that kids are freaking cruel.

It was simply my attempt to connect with another person about a television show I loved. What I learned from that isolating moment is that being a fan and fandom was an exuberant beast that didn’t Taun Taun its warmth into everyone. The enthusiastic ones got wrapped in the intrigue and characters of the ‘treacherous white folk’ TV series of the 90s and desired lengthy conversations about every detail down to the executive producer’s resume to see if it stood up to the competency of the show.

To balance out the lonely-sad, a dear friend who remained so well into adulthood wasn’t a fan nor a viewer, but picked up the Melrose Place Companion I bought at a used bookstore downtown from my desk one day during free period and thought it would be fun to quiz me with the questions about the series in the back of the book. Now that’s friendship; accepting the love your buddy has for something and indulging in a related activity with mutual amusement.

She was the bridge of support I needed prior to discovering the home-run that are online fan communities. From The X-Files to Afropunk, my experiences with these communities were joyous, headaches, and bonding sessions that materialized into social outings from local meet-up’s to world field trips. Fan cultures are like discovering extended families you feared for a time did not exist. And yet still, with those outside of that village, there was this relentless need to be Clark Kent.

There’s a twinge of shame that surrounds the notion of being “too much” of a fan or “too into” a text (book series, television shows, movies and the like for my purposes for explanation here). The introduction to the anthology, The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media notes the complicity “the popular press” has in constructing notions of fandom, “by emphasizing danger, abnormality, and silliness. And the public deny their own fandom, carry on secret lives as fans or risk the stigma that comes from being a fan.”

One of the most well-known scholars on fandom is Henry Jenkins. In one of my favorite articles he’s written on the subject, “Television Fans, Poachers, Nomads,” he addresses the idea that the term ‘fan’ at its heart, is connoted by excess and tainted by a vision of “brainless consumers, trivia buffs, social misfits, desexualized and infantilized  geeks and nerds, and people confused about the line between fantasy and reality.”

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Ouch.

From its inception to our current day uses of media that invite fandom into our consciousness more than ever, the concept of the fan remains misunderstood and unusual to those separate from its practices and how fandom can shape identity. More thoughtful descriptions of fans and fandom make the case that we’re are all fans of something. But being a fan has its ranges and variations that are worth considering.

Ranges such as the passive fan, one who for example may regularly watch a TV program but contently “lack social connections to a larger network of fans and [do] not participate” in the fan culture that surrounds the program and simply in it to enjoy it for what it is. They do not necessarily desire to learn more about the series beyond its air time nor find a group of people who enjoy the show as much as they do.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is what Joli Jenson conceptualizes to be “Fandom as Psychological Compensation” where “fandom is conceived of a chronic attempt to compensate for a perceived personal lack of autonomy, absence of community, incomplete identity, lack of power and lack or recognition” due to societal modernity that can, at times, isolate us from “the virtues of face-to-face interaction.” When being a fan of a text feels needed in order to function as a mentally whole person and the distinction between fantasy and reality is completely suspended, the pathology of being a fan is something to view as a concern.

But there is a happy medium on the scale that me and most others occupy. From Gen Xer’s to Millenials, we have witnessed practices of access (and excess remaining) within fan cultures explode since the advent of the internet. Jenkins identifies active fans as the ones who produce. They create numerous meanings as critical thinkers from the texts they’re passionate about through YouTube videos, visual or written essays, screen captions, drawings, fan fiction, etc.

Active fans “draw strength and courage from their ability to identify themselves as members of a group of other fans who share common interests and confront common problems,” likely grappling with mainstream ideas of fandom and gaining a sense of peace from finding a space where their activities as fans are embraced and celebrated. In a sense, active fans come to terms with accepting “an identity constantly belittled or criticized by institutional authority” but “speak from a position of collective identity, to forge an alliance with a community of others in defense of tastes which, as a result, cannot be read as totally aberrant or idiosyncratic” for the reasons mentioned above.

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A few things important to note about the active fan is that they “transform the experience of watching television [for example] into a rich and complex participatory culture.” One need look no further than what the merger of ABC’s Scandal and Twitter has exemplified for participatory fan culture as one recent, well known example.

In addition, “fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within dominant media.” Just as critical to giving meaning to a text that may go unnoticed by a passive fan or someone who challenges the merit of said text, community building is important in the trajectory of a fan culture that many times permeates the nature of its production.

You say you’re making a Veronica Mars movie? Your fans aren’t kidding!

After a lackluster third season, Veronica Mars fans never got a satisfying closure after the series was cancelled. But through a Kickstarter campaign organized by series creator Rob Thomas with the support of all original cast members and Warner Bros. double-dog-daring him into asking marshmallows to chip in, was able break all kinds of records in crowdfunding for what would eventually be a major motion picture. What Veronica Mars fans have proven is that fandom is a powerful force in keeping a series along with its meanings very much alive. It is a hope and belief that something great is allowed to continue and active fans are responsible for these shifts.

Active fandom is where I’ve witnessed and have been a part of some of the most intelligent, hysterical, and insightful discourses about particular interests and how they help us understand the universe, within and outside of ourselves. I feel there has been a consistent shift in the ways we view fandom removed from the more antiquated ideas which I’m happy to see. Understanding that fandom is not foreign or “weird” is crucial to the development of us all as constantly evolving individuals. We should encourage youth to cultivate that interest that makes them critical thinkers and creative producers, demonstrating the force that mass media is in our lives; embracing both the silly and the deconstructive.

Ashlee Blackwell is a sociocultural media writer from Philadelphia. She’s the founder of Philly Loves Women In Horror, a film screening event that showcases films by women horror filmmakers and Graveyard Shift Sisters, a site aimed at celebrating the experiences and achievements of Black women and women of color in the horror community. She spends her free time battling lactose intolerance, knitting, and listening to podcasts.
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Ashlee consumes media and popular culture through a critical lens and an academic background in Liberal Arts. Her particular love for horror films has translated into panels and presentations at conferences throughout the US, curating film screenings, work with the Viscera Film Festival, Women in Horror Month, and published work in Paracinema magazine. Saddened by the lack of visible representation and celebration of women of color in her beloved genre, she created Graveyard Shift Sisters, a community blog/website that highlights Black women horror fans, filmmakers, writers, artists, and the actresses in these macabre cinema staples that often go unsung.