Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Unified Theory of Fandom

Most of my fannish interaction is at a remove these days, so I’ve been fascinated to see the sharkswarm around The Avengers. It’s like Seal Island, that place off the coast of South Africa where all the seals go to breed and eat and do whatever sealy things they want to, and then all the sharks converge and create a Ring of Death around the island. This is fandom. (Man, I can’t wait for Shark Week. Shark Week is like, the High Holy Days of my family. It’s the last hurrah of summer, and we bake chum cakes every day to celebrate, which are basically gushy cream cakes with red and gray icing painted on top to look like bleeding limbs. We are a tasteful bunch.)

So, why The Avengers? Because fandom is my fandom, I naturally have a Theory about this. After much highly scientific research, most of it carried out on my couch or while having a meditative leg-shave in the shower, I have come to the conclusion that four conditions must be met in order to precipitate a Fandom Global Event. A Fandom Global Event (henceforth to be abbreviated as FGE) is when fandom becomes so huge that basically, the entire universe is a fan, and by fan I of course mean fans, not normals who saw the movie once and liked it and went on with their lives. Harry Potter is an FGE. The sort of fandom that is EVERYWHERE, and there’s no escaping it, and every one crawls out of their own individual fandom cells to come to the light of the FGE. You might want to ignore the FGE, but you cannot. The FGE rules fandom. An FGE draws every awesome fandom writer and artist. An FGE has its own conferences and meet-ups and jabillions of websites and its own vernacular and hey, maybe even its own theme park. And it sure seems to me that Avengers (and now, the previous Marvel movies that are its backstory) is poised to become the next FGE.

But why? Why Avengers and not, say, any of the other smart, sexy, interesting books/movies/TV shows of the past ten years? Because Avengers meets the Four Perfect Conditions of Fandom:

  1. Lots of Characters
This is the first and probably the most crucial condition. A story that revolves around only two characters is going to necessarily limit the number of fan stories that can be written off that. A deep bench of characters just means, basically, more food on the buffet. Even a book like Twilight, that seems to be about just two people, really has a pretty good number of supporting characters that can star in their own stories, and they can’t all be as stupid as the two main characters appear to be. (Can they???) Or what about BBC Sherlock, which never has broken out to become a large-scale fandom phenomenon, despite a passionately devoted fandom cell? Because it’s really just the two of them in that universe. We might all love Mrs. Hudson, but come on, no one’s gonna read my 23-chapter h/c dub-con AU about her teenage alien pregnancy. (Would you? If so, message me.)

Fandom needs characters to breath, and in the end, it’s all about the number of toys you scatter on the floor. Harry Potter upended the whole box of Tinker Toys onto the floor, and we all went nuts.

  1. MAGIC!!
Strange, but true. A book/TV show/movie that involves supernatural elements is going to mean a lot more stories available to fanwriters. It’s a matter of multiplying the possibilities. Fandom has a strong bias to fantasy, anyway; gritty reality is, well, depressing. We might have all loved The Wire, but come on, how many Wire fanfics in a row are you really going to be able to sit down and read? And if you did, how fun would that be? I loved The West Wing with a fiery unholy love, and have done some writing I am proud of in that fandom, but despite a really impressive bench of characters to write, at the end of the day it was just too close to home for fans to enjoy that kind of immersion. Magic equals fun, and magic equals an infinity of possible outcomes.

  1. Cleverness
Why Avengers and not, say Merlin, which meets the two conditions above in spades? Because Merlin is stupid. Sorry if I’m offending you, but I’m betting that if you enjoy Merlin (as I have been known to), you’re perfectly aware that it’s not great writing. It’s campy fun, but it’s dreck. Same with Supernatural, which has developed a pretty rich cast of characters and God knows has magic to spare. The writing is just not clever enough to cause an FGE. Plenty of genius fanwriters have played around in Supernatural, but again, we’re talking about what creates a fandom tidal wave, not what piques the interest of a few writers or even what creates its own cell, as Supernatural has.

Avengers is smart, because Joss Whedon is smart. The dialogue is clever, and occasionally witty, and self-referential and wry and all the things that makes fandom shiver in delight. Be smart, or go home.

  1. Maleness
You’re not gonna like this one, but it’s nonetheless true.

If you think I’m lying, consider, if you will, another Joss Whedon venture you are maybe familiar with: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Think. Which of the above conditions does it NOT meet? It was chock-a-block with fun characters, it had fantasy/magic bleeding out the earholes, it was clever and to spare. But it revolved around a young woman—in fact, several young women. And sure, there’s a substantial Buffy fandom, but it was never an FGE. Why? Because fans are overwhelmingly straight females, or gay men. And they want to make stories about pretty, pretty men. Preferably lots of them to choose from.

To sum up: Lots of Magically Clever Males. This is what fans want. And since that’s basically the entire plot summary of The Avengers, it was perfectly calculated to rake a broadside blast in the heaving estrogen ship-of-the-line that is Fandom.

There, all of fandom explained for you, in less than a thousand words! You are welcome.