Beth Sawdon
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The Origins of Fandom: Past, Present, or Future?

Fan culture and fandom have come a long way in 100 years...

Photo by Muhd Asyraaf on Unsplash

‘Ello lovely readers! Today I thought I’d write about a topic that I’m sure all of us will be aware of one way or another: fandom! We are all fans of something, whether it be music, films, books, sport, or (heaven forbid) reality TV. We are all, in some way, part of a fandom. But what is a fandom? Where did it come from? What can we learn from being in a fandom, or being on the outside? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself recently, so I thought I’d do a bit of digging.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve often wondered where on Earth all these ‘Beliebers’, ‘Directioners’ and ‘weeboos’ came from, yet fandom and fan culture has actually been around for decades, way before I was even born. Through social media, fandom has moved into the public eye after so many years of it being hidden away in ‘bedroom culture’. As some of you may know, fandom involves an intense love and passion for a certain subject. For example, I consider myself to be a part of various fandoms: Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Sherlock, just to name a few. Fans like you and me connect deeply with this subject and it’s the contributions we make to the fandom community that keep it alive and make it so important to our lives. With this in mind, I wanted to find out where this passion came from, and what it was that so deeply connected us with certain subjects.

I imagine the first instances of fan culture arose after World War I in the 1920s. Sounds morbid I know, but I find it quite interesting. After the War, people wanted to embrace modern ideas and were eager to be creative. Without technology, this creativity was limited to the arts. Writing was a normal everyday occurrence, but this became a hobby for some people who turned their work into novels. With authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Edith Wharton, reading was a hobby that many shared. Music also became popular with the rise of jazz music and the huge following it gained. Louis Armstrong, Bessi Smith, and Duke Ellington are just a few of the musicians who created a brand-new style of music and, with the introduction of modern radio, it was heard by people all over the world, creating a growing fanbase for the musicians and the genre itself. Not only can you find this in history, but it’s represented in many films and TV shows: Downton Abbey, The Great Gatsby, and Peaky Blinders, for example. When I hear ‘1920s’ I immediately think jazz music, swing dancing, and 20s fashion.

Similarly, following World War II, sport, music and Hollywood became an important part of our culture. Rock n’ Roll was and still is the sound of the fifties with the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Ray Charles developing a well-deserved following of fans. Elvis’ fans in particular have now been named as a fandom due to their undying love and passion for ‘The King’. Elvis fans were incredibly committed and passionate about the artist, much like the fans of the Beatles who came on to the scene in the 1960s. It’s not called Beatlemania for nothing, let me tell you! Reports from the 60s collectively say how The Beatles’ concerts involved masses of teenage girls screaming, crying and putting themselves in harm’s way just to get close to their favourite rock stars. The power of the media gave Beatlemania a whole new meaning; it cemented what it meant to be a Beatles fan. The baby boom of the 1950s meant that there were more teenagers than there had been for Elvis, who were filled with a powerful sense that society was changing.

Photo by Umberto Cofini on Unsplash

This kind of obsession over music artists has been seen right through to today with the likes of One Direction and their ‘Directioners’. *Eye roll*, sorry — I’m not judging. This fandom has actually been through some very dangerous times, purely because of the use of social media. Some of you may remember the ‘#Cut4Zayn’ crisis that flooded Twitter back in 2015. For those of you who haven’t, let me fill you in. One Direction fans became very upset over the possibility of a band break-up when Zayn Malik left the band. Social media blew up over the news, and there were over 90,000 tweets about it, with the hashtags; ‘#OneDirectionNeedZayn’, ‘#ZaynMalik’ and ‘#Cut4Zayn’. Fans believed that if enough of them self-harmed, Zayn would retract his decision to leave the band. Fans as young as 12 were encouraged to commit an act of self-harm in the name of their favourite pop stars. In a way, if you didn’t join in with the hashtag or even the act itself, you weren’t truly part of the fandom. This is an awful and extreme consequence of being a part of a fandom, particularly one whose majority is so young and impressionable.

Back onto a happier note, fandom communities love contributions from fans that make the fandom stronger, such as fanfiction. ‘Fanfic’ is basically creative writing that fans produce based on their original subject, such as Harry Potter or Sherlock. These are often ‘spin-off’ stories or are an extension of the original work which are created for personal enjoyment. Usually concerning fictional books, films and television, fans are often dissatisfied or are not finished with a subject when it ends, or when a plotline concludes. Fanfiction is a great way for fans to further enjoy the subject they are passionate about, even if the original author or creator will no longer be creating.

The majority of fanfiction can be found online, with Tumblr being well- known for its fanfiction blogs. It’s not something that every fan enjoys, but many who do write fanfics are usually budding writers or authors and use it as a way of practicing their writing, as well as continuing the original work that they love. Fanfiction and creative writing is one way for a fandom’s favourite story to live on once it has ended. For example, the Harry Potter series continues to be one of Britain’s national treasures, despite J.K. Rowling concluding the books in 2007 and the films ending in 2011. Fan participation is the main reason for Harry Potter and similar fan favourites continuing past their finale. (I’m still not over Tonks and Lupin — it’s been 11 years.) Fanfics that continue past the books, or that engage further in earlier novels and expand on plotlines or characters, encourage other fans to re-read or re-watch the series, in order for them to also delve deeper into the story and become more deeply connected.

In recent cases, some fanfiction has been so well written and well received that it has been published. The famous erotic romance novels, Fifty Shades of Grey written by E. L. James, is loved by mums across the world. This actually started out as fanfiction for the famous book and film series, Twilight. Originally named Master of the Universe, James’ fanfic put Twilight’s Edward and Bella in an alternate universe and changed their names to Anastasia and Christian Grey. The incredible reception of the Fifty Shades series is a prime example of how important fanfiction is to a fandom and demonstrates how the use of the Internet has further bridged the relationship between fandom and the media.

Photo by James & Carol Lee on Unsplash

As well as fanfiction, fans often participate in cosplay and attend worldwide conventions as a way of showing their passion for their chosen subject. Cosplay, or costume-play, involves fans dressing up as their favourite fictional characters, either individually or as a group. Usually seen at conventions such as Comic Con, Cosplay Con and Anime Con, cosplaying is something that many fandom members thoroughly enjoy. It’s not known exactly what the origins of cosplay are, but similar activities have been seen in history with masquerade balls and even fancy-dress parties. Cosplay goes one step further than mere fancy dress and usually involves fans creating costumes by hand and spending months producing the perfect outfit. For some cosplayers, it is just about dressing up and having fun, but for some it is a lifestyle. Not only are they in the costume, but they are playing the character in every essence; some may even practice it in their spare time alongside their attendance at conventions and events. Cosplayers may adopt the entire identity of their character, in voice and actions as well as looks, and let this other personality completely take over. For some, cosplay is an escape, an escape from reality and a gateway to their chosen fictional world. Cosplay is simply another way of living, something that for a short period can take one to the fantasy world they have engrossed themselves in through varying media outlets. The world of cosplay is a non-conforming, non-judgemental community, hence why so many find comfort and feel at home when in character.

Before social media, fandom would not have been such a huge part of society like it is now. With the Beatles and Elvis for example, news would be spread through newspapers and TV, but no-one wants to know about a 14-year-old writing a fanfic about George Harrison and Paul McCartney. With the growing use of social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, fandoms have been able to grow and reach new levels that wouldn’t have been seen 50 years ago. For example, many fans use YouTube to ‘vlog’ about their trips to conventions, which allows other fans to connect with them and help them feel as though they are there if they could not attend themselves. Then there’s bloggers like me who may post about their trips to conventions, or update readers on their cosplay. Instagram appears to be the top platform to use, especially for conventions. Photos are a big help and encourager for people wanting to attend conventions, start cosplaying, or even join a fandom. This is a huge inspiration for other fans to attend and participate in cosplay and meet others in their fandom. Moreover, it is great for the fandom community and brings the fans together. Members of fandoms often use conventions as a meeting place when encountering other fans for the first time, as they often speak over the Internet. This assists fans in making new friends and being a bigger part of their community. Many fans consider themselves to be social outcasts, hence why some fans relate more to a specific, perhaps hard-done-by character in their favourite series. The availability of online fandom communities, like Tumblr, allows these fans to engage with others and gain confidence. To be honest, you could say that this is the reason why some fans say they can’t live without a show, or without their fandom; it is the cause of their confidence and social identity.

Since the concept of fandom arose in the 1920s, the introduction of the Internet and the media have given fandoms new platforms to showcase their passions and creativity around their subject and have brought the idea of fandoms into the light from days where it had been considered bedroom culture. The notion of fanfiction, cosplay, fan art and other media content that continues the message of TV shows, books, games and anything geek culture entails; gives some fans something to feel a part of, a family in some ways. Although it has encouraged change and growth, a world of technology often shuns away creativity, invention and imagination. These forms of media are not only useful for fandoms and creators, but also for society, as they encourage and praise individuality. I’ve learned quite a lot from looking at the history of fandom and I hope you guys have enjoyed reading and discovering with me.

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