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.


  1. A) "my 23-chapter h/c dub-con AU about her teenage alien pregnancy" - if you write this I will worship your genius more than I already do.

    2) "Joss Whedon is smart" - yes, this explains why people (including me) are still writing AtS fic after the show's been off the air for ten years

    iii) If you make those chum-cakes gluten-free, I'm not eating them.

    Good day, sir. I SAID GOOD DAY!

    1. Writing, reading, or imagining anything remotely to do with Mrs. Hudson and sex would kill more ovarian cells than even I have left.

    2. Yeah. I'm with you there.

      But I still don't get the Avengers thing. Lots of pretty boys, and none of them gave me any slashy ~feels~.

      However, I did fill two filthy SPN comment-fic memes tonight. I think I just have limited fandom potential. Three seems to be my max.

  2. I gave up on Merlin because it was so moronic. I enjoyed a few bits, like Uther in love with the pig, but couldn't handle it in the long run. I'm old, I guess.

  3. Yeah, well, to be honest, I think I watched a total of fifteen minutes of it, and then only because Amanuensis made me so we could laugh at it together. So when I say I "enjoyed" it, that is perhaps rearranging the truth. Of course, if David Sedaris can make up entire lifetime events that never happened when he writes about his life, I think I am allowed some leeway, even if I'm not on NPR.

  4. "Because fans are overwhelmingly straight females, or gay men."

    Most modern surveys find it's majority queer but often plurality straight--more lesbians+bi/pan women combined than straight women, though more straight women than either one of those groups individually. (Sometimes the bi/pan folks win.) (I don't remember where men fit in this, but it's a small enough group not to tip the scales one way or another.)

    That being said, I agree with your point about maleness--I just think it's a combination of having enough straight women, though not an overwhelming majority, plus the fact that we're inspired by each other. Fans tend to write what other fans are writing. So if you have, you know, half the fandom who'd happily write slash or femmeslash, and half the fandom who will only write slash, you're going to get much more than 75% slash because it spurs more creation. Or, at least, that's my suspicion!

    1. Well, I haven't seen any of the surveys, so I'm basing my sense of that on my corner of the internet, and my experience at cons. Acknowledging that data is not the plural of anecdote, I would still speculate that a self-reporting survey among fen is perhaps not terribly accurate. Fandom is a world that values queerness, and I would imagine plenty of fen might stretch the truth about their sexual identity in a community that places such high value on queerness. Just my gut feeling there.

      And hells yeah, writing follows the applause! We are all whores, no matter our sexual identities. :)

    2. Ah, that's entirely possible! My experience has been somewhat different than yours--I'd say more of my fannish friends are queer than not, though it's not a large majority, and even though we have some overlap in terms of folks we know. But I've never sat down to actually count, so I could be wrong in that perception.

      And I wouldn't say necessarily even the applause--but we're all people who are inspired by the things we read, maybe more than the average, and so if we're reading m/m stuff we're more likely to write it regardless of comments. But the applause TOTALLY HELPS TOO. :D :D :D

  5. "Because fans are overwhelmingly straight females, or gay men."

    Fandom really *has* shifted, then. In the days when "fandom" was, to me, either my tiny circle of friends in the basement watching DR. WHO on PBS, or going to conventions once a year, the overwhelming majority of fans I met were straight male geeks, like me. But then, I'm in my 40s now.

    1. Oh, I think sci-fi fandom is still overwhelmingly male! There are huge areas of overlap between geek fandom and other areas, I think. And it all depends on who's defining fandom. When I use the term, I am thinking of the people who write fanfiction, who populate places like livejournal and dreamwidth, and who are largely female. Fanart I can't speak to as much -- I think that is much more evenly split between male and female producers. I would tentatively venture that female models of fandom are going to be much more. . . eh, "creative" sounds like I'm making some sort of value judgment. Manipulative, maybe? Female fans tend to take the stories and reweave them to fit their imagining; male fans tend to take the story-verse as given and play within that by exploring, gaming, etc.

      And hey, I'm in my 40s too! So from a younger fan's perspective, everything I'm saying might be a load of hooey.

  6. I adore Merlin, but I do only take it at face value; the nice thing about canon being not-so-well written is the opportunity to make it better. Not that that actually happens in 95% of fic, but the potential is there to take the characters and give them something real (and hopefully very, very sexy).

    I like your Unified Theory of Fandom and would like your permission to take it to bed with me.

    1. So granted. *waves scepter*

      I like that idea, and have wondered about it too -- about well-writtenness being in some cases a hindrance to fandom. I thought about that with West Wing; who is really going to be driven to improve on Sorkin's writing, or even be able to echo it? When a story has holes, as fanwriters we often feel inspired to mortar up those chinks.

  7. Is this where you live now? *looks around alien blogspot environment* Ah well, I must needs respond here.

    Fun post et cetera but a few points:
    a) When, in your view, does a fandom become an FGE? How many members does it take? Was bandom an FGE?

    b) And what if in the neck of the woods where I hang out there is what I take to be a tidal wave but actually, it's perhaps not one but just a huge wave in the tiny pond I'm in? How will I know?

    c) Also I am unsure about the statistics. Gay men? 0.001 percent perhaps?? Straight women: tons but also: tons of non-straight women. And what does straight mean, anyway? Nobody is 100 percent straight, and fans foremost among those. So, I am just quibbling with the notion that men are for heterosexual women and homosexual men only. I always thought that slash queered and topsy-turned that particular notion particularly deliciously.

    But Fab! Come back to the fold!!!! :-)

    P.S. I am not anonymous. I am Lobelia.

    1. You are always Lobelia! And don't let anyone tell you differently.

      I think you raise an excellent point, one that Cordelia over on LJ was raising as well, about who defines and FGE and how can we tell. I think the answer is, we can't any more. Fandom has become so huge that that sort of unity is not physically possible -- we are all off in our own galaxies, and only converging occasionally, and it is possible to live your whole life in a thriving well-populated galaxy and never venture beyond. So as pret-a-porter as my neat theories are, they really only apply to my particular galaxy, and not to the universe in general, of which, it pains me to share my recent discovery, I am not the center.

      And I am in the fold, sorta! It's just these days, I like to sit and CONTEMPLATE the fold. But as proof of my foldness, I have something I'm posting on LJ in the next two days, maybe sooner. See, my bona fides are still. . . bona, I guess.

  8. Made virtually no splash at all in femslash fandom, as you'd pretty much expect of a movie that fails to Bechdel. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but I could not care less about being fannish about it, and I've only been peripherally aware of people's responses to it, I nearly didn't go see it. (disclaimer, I'm also an outsider to Marvel fandom, I'd probably be a bit more fannish if it was DC, just because that's the canon I happen to know).