Of Over-identification, Bad Fan Behaviors, and Choice

11 February 2021 ☼ CommentaryInteresting Things I Read

Freddie de Boer, who does not usually write about people acting poorly while being fans of pop-cultural products, has written a blog post about people acting poorly while being fans of pop-cultural products. Specifically, he’s trying to figure out how fandom leads to toxic fan behavior—why Star Wars fans might stoop to threatening Kelly Marie Tran, for example. He concludes that the overidentification comes out of a search for meaning:

Into that chaos of meaning came, of course, capitalism. If you can’t generate real meaning and psychological security in your life, Amazon would be more than happy to sell it to you. Conveniently or catastrophically, some of the products the market has been happy to sell you in the past 150 years contain what looks like meaning: stories….

I think a lot of nerds have fallen into the trap of thinking that liking Marvel movies is a personality. They have steeped themselves so fully inside these products that they have come to think of them when they think of themselves. I love it so much, it must be me.” And this is a mistake.

I made a very similar argument at the end of the Ninety One Series, so I have a lot of sympathy for de Boer’s argument, but I think there’s a catch that makes it less convincing. Namely: I suspect that the best answer for more people,” de Boer writes, would be to return to an idea that is very out of fashion: that you are what you do. You are your actions, not what you consume, what you say, or what you like.” Which is to say, he draws a distinction being doing and consuming, liking, or expressing preferences. I may be misreading de Boer, but I got the impression that he thinks of fandom as essentially passive, the fan as more acted-upon (by the corporations who stand to profit from fan love of their products) than actor.

For a contrasting approach to fandom, see Michael Hong’s review of LOONAs Star” for the Jukebox. You need to mouse-over the links to get the full effect of Hong’s approach, but essentially what he’s doing is setting up liking Star” as a series of choices. Why not just listen to the pre-debut LOONA sub-unit projects?” he asks. Why not listen to the Korean version of the song?” Moreover his critique is anchored in a fan’s level of familiarity with LOONA: Why not just watch Olivia Hye break a watermelon in half with a spoon?” (He’s got a point.) In de Boer’s portrait of fandom, the fan’s identity is so tightly intertwined with the pop-cultural stream that the fan has to accept, incorporate, and defend the bad movie, or the bad song. Hong’s implied argument is that even someone who loves LOONA still has the option of choosing between LOONA works, and thus bears moral responsibility for choosing Star” over a less fraught product.

Let’s say there are two models of fandom in tension here, and call them the choice model and the attraction model. In the choice model, the fan makes deliberate decisions in both which pop-cultural product streams to champion publicly, and which products within that stream to like or dislike. Fan love is essentially rational and controllable, and fans are capable of exercising judgment over their preferences, and should be held to account when they fail to apply their own moral codes (or their group’s agreed-upon moral codes) to their consumption. An example of a choice-making fan would be someone who says, I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it aired because it was witty and captivating and I identified hard with Willow’s bookishness and Tara’s shyness, but I can’t watch it anymore knowing that Joss Whedon was a cruel and vindictive boss.”

In the attraction model, on the other hand, the fan does not make rational choices; her identification with the pop-cultural product stream goes too deep for rationality. She might get loudly defensive about her chosen stream, or guiltily consume it in secret, or shrug off other people’s critiques, but she wouldn’t be able to calmly turn off her affection for it. Nor would she be able to construct a convincing rational argument for why her chosen stream is better than all the other available arguments, though she might try.

I think de Boer’s conception of how fandom works is closer to the attraction model than to the choice model. (I may be misreading him, in part because I’ve been reading him long enough to know he calls himself a Marxist, and the idea of the fan swept up and manipulated by corporate interests seems like a Marxist-enough reading of how pop-cultural product fandom works.) But I suspect that if he did ethnographic work among fans themselves—especially the kind of always-online fans who are more likely to produce the kinds of rants, death threats, Tumblr stupidity, and general nastiness he’s observing—he’d find that they themselves were more likely to endorse something closer to the choice model. It’s more self-flattering than the attraction model, after all. People don’t usually say, I like Product X because it happened to be available at a time when my hormones were at a particular incalculable level, but X isn’t actually all that different from Y or Z and I wouldn’t try to convince people that X is better.” We want to think of ourselves as good people who make choices according to our values, even if there’s psychological research to suggest that we choose first and come up with the justification second. And so I suspect that de Boer’s argument of putting you are what you do” as an alternative to fans would fall on deaf ears, since according to the choice model they are doing, constantly, whether that’s discerning which LOONA songs to champion or which Star Wars movies to defend.

In my own experience, for what it’s worth, both the choice and attraction models are too simple. One can experience both. I told a friend today that in the early 2000s I was so interested in Buffy that my dreams often took place in the Buffyverse, and then eventually I grew out of that phase, and now I don’t want to watch the show ever again. I also told her that I might well be a hypocrite for watching Korean idol pop despite all the evidence that in that industry Whedonesque work conditions are the norm rather than the exception. Inconvenient Truth is rancid, and I knew it was rancid pretty much immediately, and I did say it was rancid at the time but nonetheless you could not have dragged me away from my Infinite interest at the time if you’d had an industrial crane. And I couldn’t have told you at the time why that group as opposed to any other potential interest. Still can’t.

And both models have their drawbacks. The attraction model lets the fan off the hook too easily; the choice model offers the fan a righteous justification for bad behavior. I’d say the fan needs to admit to a certain amount of uncertainty, both about other people’s pop-culture-consuming decisions and her own, but that’s easier said than done. (And it’s the kind of thing I would say.)