There’s something remarkable about fan theories. I doubt that when an author puts his pen to paper, he is conscious of what a potential fanbase may add to the story. Indeed, many argue that fan theories are pointless, simply because they do not derive from the original writer. However, fan theories became widely accepted after the release of an infamous essay known as "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex." This essay details the sexual life of popular DC Comics character Superman.
Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex
First published in 1969 by Larry Niven, "Man Of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" concerns itself primarily with Superman’s capability to have children and his sexual relationships with humans. While this may seem an insignificant area of study, the beauty of such fan theories is that the ideas matter to the essayists. Therefore, they go to great intellectual lengths to prove their hypotheses. Niven uses theories on biology, physics, and the natures of the Kryptonians in the comics to construct his arguments. The issues discussed include Superman's loss of physical control during intercourse, the presumed "super powers" of Superman's sperm cells, genetic incompatibility between humans and Kryptonians, and the dangers to the woman during gestation.
Perhaps most interesting is the fact that this came at a time when comics were seen as a family-friendly medium in the so called "silver age" of comic books. Rather than exploring dark, controversial, or gritty themes, they were focused on instilling “good American values.” Niven, ironically, humanized Superman by discussing what the very medium in which he exists could not discuss—sex.
The Birth of Fan Theories
And so begins one of the entertainment industry’s longest standing trends—fan theories. In essence, it’s not much more than a fan coming up with a wacky hypothesis and trying to find evidence to support his or her theory. But it’s so much more when you delve into the culture. PBS Idea Channel posits that fan theories are "critical thinking popcorn." Channel host Mike Rugnetta explains that it’s interesting to come up with tangential plot lines or character motivations that significantly shift the perspective and meaning of the show. Fan theories rest primarily in the realm of viewer interpretation.
Take the Tommy Westphall Universe theory for example. This is perhaps one of the most popular fan theories ever created. Dwayne McDuffie, a writer for Slush Factory, theorized in his essay, “Six Degrees of Saint Elsewhere,” that the entire show of Saint Elsewhere may have taken place in the mind of an autistic boy. McDuffie continues this train of thought into uncharted waters. If Tommy Westphall dreamt the entire six-season show of Saint Elsewhere, then all the characters wouldn't exist outside of his mind.
This theory became complicated when some of the characters entered crossovers and spinoffs of Saint Elsewhere. Avid theorists have mapped out almost every connection linking Sabrina the Teenage Witch to Breaking Bad. All of these shows, due to a single shot at the end of Saint Elsewhere, can be theorized to exist solely in the mind of Tommy Westphall.
Now, I can feel your skepticism from here. You don’t necessarily have to believe the theory at all. It does, however, highlight the symbiotic, creative nature of TV and the audience that consumes it.
Fans Assert Their Control Through Theories
By creating a fan theory, you are temporarily taking narrative control away from the original writer and exhibiting some of your own. Theorists will then share the idea for more theorists to break down, scrutinize, or add upon. Fan theories demonstrate the ambiguous nature between creator and consumer.
If nothing else, they’re a whole load of fun. I don’t believe that theorists indulge in their favorite activity with malicious intent. Rather than challenging original work to destroy creator-consumer relationships, they hypothesize to intellectualize pop culture.
If you use YouTube frequently, you may even be aware of Game Theory, a channel with over six million subscribers. This channel is dedicated to creating theories about video games and supporting them in ten to 15-minute long essays using biology, physics, math, and rules from the game universe that is being deconstructed.
Although most fan theories have at least a bit of an intellectual basis, some verge on the absurd. A quick trip over to the subreddit r/fantheories can reaffirm this idea. However, the more absurd the theory, the more interesting it is when the theorist actually finds evidence that supports his or her claim. But the very fact that we can care so much about Superman’s sex life shows that the writers have done a superb job with characterization.
If anything, the rampant amount of theorizing is a direct demonstration of how attached we are to the characters that populate our comic books, TV shows, films, and video games.