Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Fandom Fringe

"Supernatural" is one of those genre shows that has been recommended to me a few times, because it's similar to other things I watch. I've seen a couple of episodes, but I wasn't impressed. I like plenty of the people who work on the show, particularly showrunner Ben Edlund, but I've decided it's just not for me. But maybe I would have been willing to give the show more of a chance if it weren't for the horrible, horrible reputation of the "Supernatural" fandom. I'm not talking about the randy fanfiction and the wonky photomanipulated fanart, which are pretty par for the course for most media fandoms these days. No, I'm talking about the stalkers and the inappropriate fan encounters and the disturbingly large group of deluded nutters who insist that some of the happily married actors are in sham relationships. I'm talking about the very real death threats. And within the fandom itself is a long history of vicious infighting, spectacular overreaction to perceived slights, and drama queens gone haywire. I'm surprised MTV hasn't built a reality show around these people yet.

Now I fully understand that 95% of the people who watch and enjoy "Supernatural" aren't involved in its fandom, and 95% of those who are involved don't act like this. There are plenty of self-aware, reasonable "Supernatural" fans who are just as horrified with the extreme behavior and entitlement of the fandom fringe as anyone watching from the outside. I was a part of various media fandoms for a long time, and I've had my experiences with the crazies. I think everyone has. They exist in pretty much every group built around a common interest, be it sports or politics or your religion of choice. The problem with the media fandom fringe is that the general fandom is pretty far out there on the continuum of acceptable activities already. There are still plenty of people who think the Comic-Con cosplayers are all freaks, and as much as I truly sympathize with the Bronies, I couldn't watch the trailer for their new documentary without getting a major dose of second-hand embarrassment. So the crazy tends to get magnified. And unfortunately for the sane "Supernantural" fans, they're inevitably going to be lumped together with the real nuts.

At this point I should talk about Becky, the "Supernatural" character who the writers added to the show as a commentary on their unusually avid fanbase. In the show, the main characters' adventures have been novelized in a popular book series, and Becky is their biggest fan. She runs an internet fan site, writes incestuous fanfiction of the two main characters, and is portrayed as an overzealous oddball. Compared to the portrayals of other fictional media fans we've seen in shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Community," she's much more extreme. She's not a bad person, but she can be trouble. "Supernatural" fans are generally split about the existence and treatment of Becky, but the meta commentary and light mockery that the show uses her for are fairly tame. Nonetheless, she's a good reflection of how the "Supernatural" creators view a particular section of their fandom. And thanks to her multiple appearances on the show, it's how much of their audience views that section of fandom too. And it's contributing to a pretty unflattering protrait of certain female internet-based media fans overall.

Of course this isn't fair, but it's important to remember that fandom isn't just the fans, but the interactions and the relationships of the fans as a group. As well meaning as all the participants may be, you can still end up with toxic fandoms that fight about everything, that make you choose sides in silly disputes, and that take themselves much, much too seriously. Especially online, normally socially unacceptable behavior is tolerated more, or can even be reinforced, so there's often a lack of awareness about crossing lines. Genre shows like "Supernatural" will attract a lot of kids and people who aren't very well socialized, who retreat into media as an escape. It's not rare at all to find that the fans who display the most extreme obsessive behavior do so as an expression of deeper personal problems. These are the people who tend to be the loudest and most visible in fandom conversations, who attract all the attention. These are the people who everyone in fandom knows, if only for their notoriety.

And that's how the fringe can take over, and normal, unassuming fans ends up on the sidelines, wondering if they really want to be associated with so much insanity. The fringe is not a new problem, of course. There have been extreme fans around for ages, inspiring restraining orders, sleepless nights, and Stephen King's "Misery." The dynamics of these big organized fandoms, however, and how they interact with that fringe, are still changing and evolving. And thanks to the internet, that process is a lot more visible. It's been fascinating to watch fandoms like "Harry Potter" self-police and oust troublemakers, and "My Little Pony" fight against being unfairly branded as a bunch of perverts and nogoodniks. As for "Supernatural," they remain the fandom that other fandoms point to as the worst case scenario, the cautionary tale of what happens if you get too carried away with being a fan.

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