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State of the Fandom: Where we've been and where we can go in 2020
Greetings, WIRE readers, and welcome to the future. We're about to head into a new year and a new decade, Blade Runner is now a period piece, and given all of that, I figured it was a good time to take stock of where things are when it comes to the world of fandom – who we are, what we're about, and where we can go. This is particularly of note after the kind of year we've had, which, if you're a follower of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror material we traffic in here, has been, simply put, staggering.
Of the top 20 grossing movies of the year, all of them but one fit into one of those aforementioned categories. The two most talked-about TV shows of the year were a swords-and-dragons fantasy epic and a masterful adaptation/continuation of what many consider the best graphic novel about superheroes ever written. Literally every network, studio, or streaming service has multiple science fiction, fantasy, or horror shows in the works. Celebrities are playing Dungeons & Dragons in front of huge audiences online. It is very likely that your mom knows who Thanos the Mad Titan is.
We've won. It's that simple. In fact, what might characterize 2019 best is how unnecessary it's become to talk about "fandom" as a general thing separate from mainstream pop culture consumption. Sure, there are legion specific fandoms, all burrowing through the mountain of content being heaped on us across various forms of media. But the idea of just not being into this stuff at all, the line that used to divide "geeks" from the rest of the zeitgeist, has become irrelevant. Everyone saw Avengers: Endgame and the final season of Game of Thrones. We're all fans now.
It's certainly a triumph for the true believers, but it's come with a certain amount of baggage. It's my proposal that this new reality is something with which we – by which I especially mean those of us who grew up in a time when the pop culture world was a far, far different place – need to come to grips. I can't help but feel that a not-insignificant portion of the toxicity we see in fandom today is rooted in the fact that a lot of us are having a hard time letting go of the sort of us-v-them mentality that used to define how we moved through the pop culture landscape. I'm not talking, of course, about things like racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and the other awful, dark detritus of the human condition we're seeing seemingly resurgent everywhere, with fandom, sadly, no exception. No, this is something different, more benign but perhaps deeper-rooted and harder to shake.
To understand it, we need to understand the way things used to be. And it goes back farther than even the decade on which many are reflecting as we gear up to enter a new one. Back in the day, being a fanperson was challenging. Connecting with other fans wasn't always easy. The mainstream pop culture world tended to still look down its nose at geeky stuff, and when it portrayed geekdom, the picture was almost always the same: usually male, usually white, usually of a certain size and shape and background. And, sadly, while the mainstream seemed content to box us in that way, the call was also coming from inside the house, as it were, with a lot of gatekeeping and exclusionary behavior born out of this bunker mentality.
When we did get film or television adaptations of the stuff we loved, it often came watered down, or infused with incongruous stylistic touches that a business executive with no connection to the source material believed would make it more palatable to people who generally weren't into that sort of thing. And boy, howdy, was the success and failure of every effort, every piece of sci-fi or fantasy that made it to screens big and small important, because, if it was a failure, it carried with it the possibility that it would be interpreted as a sign that this kind of thing wasn't viable, and we'd never see it again.
I say this not to be an old man yelling at a cloud, or to tell you crazy kids how lucky you have it in this day and age, and also get off my lawn. And since I'm hardly the first person to draw a then-now comparison in the world of geeky stuff, you may very well have heard all this before, and feel that you know what it was like. But while it may be easy to grok *what it was like*, it's more important to understand *how it felt*. There was a desperation to it. We were the Rebel Alliance, the crew of the TARDIS, the Fellowship, scrappy and battling against the insignificance the rest of the world told us came with the stuff we loved. If it was going to survive, or maybe even thrive, it was up to us – to evangelize, to cajole, to support in every way we could, to live and die with box-office returns and viewership numbers and critical consensus. We were so very desperate to be taken seriously.
And, yes, we had successes, but there were also plenty of failures, dead ends, and disappointments. And we felt that, all of it, on a tremendously personal level. The need to be not only the consumer of a certain type of content, but the emotional engine that powered its continued viability in the marketplace, engendered a degree of personal investment that came from a very organic place – I love these things and want them to survive – but that could very easily veer into rabidity, and often did. It's the reason fan rivalries like Marvel vs. DC could get so heated; given the state of pop culture, whether people embraced one or the other could have a very real impact on the continued viability of the content those companies put out.
It all sounds very melodramatic, but that's how it was. You fought for the things you loved because you had to if you wanted more of them. And I simply can't understate how much it is not like that today. Avengers: Endgame stuffed literally dozens of comic book characters into a three-hour movie that millions and millions of people saw in the theater. Joker, love it or hate it, is going to thrust comic book movies once again into the prestige awards conversation, which would have been laughable 20 years ago. There are new TV adaptations of properties across the fantasy, sci-fi, and horror spectrum dropping almost monthly. I mean, one need look no further than the explosion of con culture as an indicator of just how far we've come. Cons used to be intimate affairs, attended by the die-hard, with only San Diego standing out as the biggest fan event of the year. Now, major cons take place all throughout the year, all across the country, with hundreds of thousands of attendees gathering together not only to rub elbows with those who create the stories we all love, but to join as a community in celebration of each other.
If you've never been, it's a pretty spectacular sight to see. And it can feel like a balm in a time when so much of the interaction we see online and in social media can veer into the poisonous. Fandom is hardly alone in experiencing this symptom of the evolution in human communication, but for those of us who wade into it every day, it can certainly have a deleterious effect on our view of the whole situation. Everyone just seems so angry, all the time, about everything. Spend enough time there and it's easy to start to come to the conclusion that there is something irredeemably broken about fandom, about our ability as different cultures to coexist, even if those cultures just basically boil down to whether you're into one space-based story or another.
As we head into a new year and a new decade, the challenge I want to put out there to all of us is to battle all of this with the greatest two weapons we have at our disposal: perspective and inclusion. Take a look around. The great war is over. We won. We don't have to fight for the things we love anymore. They're doing really well on their own. Which means it's time to turn our focus on ourselves, and how we live as fans in the year 2020 and beyond. And it's safe to say we have some work to do. There's a reason the term "toxic fandom" has entered the lexicon in the past few years, and while it's easy enough to point fingers at various people, parties, or points of view to place blame for the rise of this kind of thing, I'm of the opinion that we could all stand to turn that finger a bit on ourselves, and take a long look at how we move, operate, and interact with others who share this space with us.
Does this mean I think we shouldn't love those things as intensely as we have up to now? No, of course not! I still won't shut up about a new book that grips me, or a movie that really blows my mind with how well it brings an imaginary world to life. None of that has to change. But it'd be great if we could approach that kind of experience without the need to automatically have our fists up about it, because here's the truth: None of this is going away anytime soon. Sure, not every show is going to be a hit, and things we, personally, think are amazing will fall by the wayside (R.I.P. The OA). And when that happens to something that speaks to you, I understand how painful that can feel. But the good news is, there will be others. There will be literally dozens of other shows, comics, games, and movies to experience and fall in love with and become addicted to. So, yes, push for the things you want to do well, and to continue to exist … just know that you'll be OK if they don't.
And this most needs to manifest in how we treat each other. It should go without saying that the hate and intolerance we've seen bubble up in certain pockets of fandom has no place in this golden age, and should, if it can't be eradicated completely, be chased into the darkest possible corners. Joining it in the bin should be the kind of gatekeeping and stereotype-driven behavior that has left various communities feeling unwelcome in a space that, from its earliest inception, has been about acceptance of differences – one need look no further than the classic episodes of The Twilight Zone currently airing on SYFY to see how long sci-fi has had ideas like compassion for fellow humans, acceptance of differences, and empathy on its mind. The idea that fans have to look a certain way or conform to certain behavioral expectations was tired when the world at large was foisting it on us two decades ago, and it's even more so now, when it comes from the very people who once resented being boxed in that way. In 2020 and beyond, we need to put those notions to rest and embrace the very ideals proffered by the great creators whose work we've all embraced.
But this need for perspective and for tolerance extends further, even to differences of opinion about whether something is quote-unquote good or not. Believe me, I know firsthand how frustrating it can be when you love something so deeply that it feels like a part of who you are and someone else just doesn't get it. It sucks. But what we all need to accept is that, barring some technical details, appreciation of any of this is entirely subjective. And that's OK. Someone else's lack of enjoyment of a movie or show I really think is the best thing I've ever seen doesn't change or diminish my experience of it in the slightest. And someone's loving something I think is lame doesn't mean there's something wrong with them. We all take away different things from art, and it's time that we as a collective fandom culture come to accept that.
I'm certainly not saying there shouldn't be debates, discussions, and maybe even arguments. That type of discourse has been a part of being a fan as long as the term has meant anything at all, and I don't want or expect it to stop. My hope for the next year, however, is that we'll find a way to do it that comes from a place of shared perspective, an understanding that we're all in this because we love it, and the knowledge that, at least for the foreseeable future, fandom will always be there for us. We can disagree about whether, say, The Rise of Skywalker was a perfect capper to a decades-long epic saga or a disappointment, without believing there's an absolute answer and with the knowledge that, no matter how someone chooses to answer that question, it has no bearing on me personally.
It could be that hoping for this kind of thing in the fraught era in which we live is something of a pipe dream … but, hey, if sci-fi and fantasy are fueled by anything, it's the power of imagination, so I'm just going to run with it. Rejoice, fanpeople: We have just about everything we've ever wanted. There are so many great things going on in our communities, from fanfiction archives to cosplay gatherings to fans reaching out and making a real difference in each other's lives. The tent is bigger than it's ever been, and I can't stress enough, having come from a time when it was microscopic, what a wonderful thing that is. If we can focus on that, on each other, we can all move forward into this new decade buoyed by the knowledge that the passion that unites all of us has an even brighter and more inclusive future.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.