Friday, August 17, 2012

Fandom at Random

My guest bedroom also serves as my computer room and as a catch-all place for things such as my telescope (nothing fancy or expensive), microscope (also nothing fancy), and odd bits of memorabilia. On the walls are autographed 8 x 10 photographs of celebs I have met over the years at places such as Chiller Theater Conventions. I usually acquire only two or three new photos per year, but, since I’ve been doing this quite a while, the walls are getting pretty crowded.

A visitor at my house the other day asked to use the computer to check her e mail. This happens less and less as internet-linked mobile phones become the rule rather than the exception (though I presently don’t have one), but it still happens.

“Wow, you know all these people?” she asked, looking at the walls.

“No, not really. I just snare the occasional pic at conventions.”

Being decades younger than I (she wasn’t there to visit me, alas), she added “I don’t recognize any of them.”

“I probably wouldn’t recognize anyone posted on your wall either,” I responded, almost surely correctly.

“Oh, I know that one. He was in something years ago.” She was pointing at Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, which he played 2004-2009.

Battlestar Galactica,” I said.

“Yeah, I didn’t really watch that.”


I let her get on with her online activity.

Fame is not actually fleeting, though it does diminish. After all, there are sizable crowds at those conventions seeking autographs of people my guest didn’t recognize, and long dead actors have facebook pages with thousands of friends. Fashionable heartthrobs come and go, however, since youth (relative youth anyway) is always a factor in that particular status. I’m a fan of many of the occupants of my computer room walls, but of all of them I had a true schoolboy crush (yes, at the appropriate age) on only one: Britt Ekland. I was kind enough not to tell her that while she was signing her photo; it’s not something one wishes to hear from someone graying around the ears.

In the last decade there has been an increase in scholarly papers and books about fandom. It is a broad and rich topic, in part because fans vary so much. Sports fans, Harry Potter fans, and band groupies seem have little in common other than focused dedication. The degree of dedication varies a lot among fans, too, but among many it can be intense, even violent. More than a few riots have followed sports matches. There is nothing new about this. In 531 AD a riot broke out at the hippodrome in Constantinople among supporters of the Green and Blue chariot teams. (Red and White supporters evidently were a more sedate bunch.) The rioters ran amok for days, burned much of the city, and turned their uprising into a full scale revolt against the government. The Emperor Justinian (a Blue team fan) sent in the troops. According to the historian Procopius, 35,000 people were killed, making this the deadliest sports riot ever. Fortunately, fans usually are satisfied just to cheer or boo.

For fans of individuals, the whole relationship is much more personal, even romantic. Psychologists call this sort of fandom Parasocial Interaction, which seems to me a misnomer since frequently there isn’t any interaction. The relationship is entirely one-sided. This sort of fandom can occur without modern media, though I’ll nonetheless refer to a movie for an example. There is a scene City Slickers (1991) in which Curly (Jack Palance) tells Mitch (Billy Crystal) about being smitten by a woman he once espied from a distance.

Mitch: What happened?
Curly: I just turned around and rode away.
Mitch: Why?
Curly: I figured it wasn't gonna get any better than that.
Mitch: But you could have been, you know...with her.
Curly: Been with lots of women.
Mitch: Yeah, but you know, she could have been the love of your life.
Curly: She is.

It is true, though, that modern media are what make the phenomenon a mass effect. When silent film star Rudolph Valentino died in 1926 there was a rash of suicides across the nation. 100,000 people showed up at his funeral and rioted. Nothing like it had been seen before. We’ve seen plenty like it since. Now we are accustomed to millions grieving over James Dean or Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson as though they had lost personal friends. Sociologists often point out that we spend as much or more time in the “company” of favorite stars we see on the screen as we do with actual friends and family. From well-publicized crimes, we all know that some disturbed individuals are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality; a few of them become troublesome or dangerous stalkers. Most people, though, are perfectly aware of the difference between real friends and Friends; they can feel familiar with the cast of the show while knowing they really aren’t.

“Engagement in a devotee world isn't inherently harmful,” according to Jeff Rudski, a psychologist  specializing in fandom, Harry Potter fandom in particular. “But for some, the object of devotion begins to substitute for other rewards in life.” Perhaps, but for most folks fandom is not only harmless but life-enhancing. If you wish to see a lot of happy playful people enjoying each other’s company, go to a Star Trek Convention or to Comic-Con. More often than not, we are richer for such enthusiasms. As for our adolescent “parasocial” attachments, long after we have taken down the posters from our bedroom walls they continue to influence our tastes and values in subtle and often unconscious ways. As a possible example, it may be pure coincidence that my first serious romantic attachment was to someone (hi Angela) who bore a distinct resemblance to Britt. Then again, maybe not.     


  1. With teen and pre-teen neighbors, I often receive lessons on who's currently hip, but manage to amaze them with my acumen of knowing who "The Neon Trees" are and that Pink" isn't merely a color. Thoroughly enjoying their presence, it's a boost to my own spirit when they share their fresh point of view with me and literally feel their rush toward life.

    The simple act of watching late night talk shows such as Leno or Letterman makes me sharply feel the passage of time. Why? Beccause 90% of their guests are unknown to me! I find myself longing for the days of Johnny Carson. There in the dark, I lie in bed watching the program and say (to cite a Neil Diamond lyric)"to no one there", "Where are those stars I knew? I'm NOT THAT old!!"

    Since no answer materializes and my dog refuses to reply, I resign myself to keep an open mind and watch the interviews with a few unknowns. However, the well known featured star tonight is the lovely Kristen Stewart of "Twilight" fame. Although she's had an enviable career for one so young and a high school grad, watching her interviews is much like the agony of pulling teeth or a difficult case of constipation. She can't seem to speak a complete sentence without drifting away. It's as if her train of thought flies away on bat wings. Looking at the floor, shuffling her feet, it's as though she's visably shrinking into a fetal position. Clearly, she's uncomfortable even when the questions are generic. Just as the studio system used to do, retaining speech teachers on payroll would benefit some young stars today. Talented as she is, oddly, observing her in films and interviews, there is little difference between her characters and her real life persona.

    Deciding to wind down after a particularly rough day, I recently watched Letterman. This night, he interviewed the bubblegum mega star, Justin Bieber. A new high school grad, he CAN sing and rap, but also has difficulty with interviews. Often copping an attitude (whether he realizes it or not) and speaking in a condescending manner, he should be thankful he can carry a tune. Dave does his best wishing Bieber a happy birthday and asks, "You're not going to get tatoos covering yourself all over--like the Sistine Chapel, are you?" To which Bieber aptly replied, "I don't wanna look like the...uh..Sixteen Chapel....whatever it is."

    Ah, the gaffes of youth!! Not one to feel "schadenfreude", I have to admit, it was the best laugh I've had in a long time! When his faux pas fell from his lips, the crowd roared and clearly he didn't understand why.

    Hopefully, his mega millions will afford him the luxury of a college education and a reality check on how to speak to others. After all, the race is on between Bieber's fleeting fame and his maturing voice.

    1. I don't know most of the late night talk show guests either. I'd be willing to bet the gap is more than a generational one (though there doubtless is that too). Once upon a time viewer choice was limited to three TV networks and a few local channels. There were some niche radio stations, it is true,(e.g. classical or oldies), but most radios were tuned to the local top-40 stations; these played top-40, regardless of genre. It was normal to hear, say, Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Temptations, and Tammy Wynette in a row. Viewers/listeners were exposed to the full popular gamut whether they wanted to be or not. Nowadays, precisely because you can pick and choose as you please among endless internet posts and hundreds of niche stations/channels, entertainment has been fractured into many discrete audiences. The stars of one genre are likely to be completely unknown to the audience of another. Result: "Who is that on Letterman?" Only a relative handful of artists successfully reach out beyond their core audiences.

      Why so many young stars are painful to watch when they are unscripted is another question. I don't have a good hypothesis for that one.