Dana Kaufhold | Contributor
I am four years old and I am sitting in front of the TV. I am watching Star Wars for the first time. My life is changing, but I don’t know it yet.
Actually, it’s disingenuous to start the story like this; I don’t remember when I first watched Star Wars. I just remember loving it in a way that was different from how I liked the cartoons I watched or the books I read. Suddenly, it was everything to both me and my brother. We ran around the house with plastic telescoping lightsabers and sat on the bed trying to use the Force. We built countless Lego sets, from X-wings and Dagobah to moisture farms on Tatooine. It was my first fandom, and I never stopped finding things and latching onto them with a ferocity unlike anything I’d experienced before.
The concept of fandom is something that a lot of people are probably familiar with if they’ve spend any time on the Internet. It’s a group of people who consider themselves fans of something and actively communicate about that thing with other fans, usually online. To be part of a fandom is to be part of a cohesive body; you may have different opinions on varying parts of the media you all like, but you are united by the love for what brought you together in the first place. It’s different than casually being a fan of something; interaction with others is essential to keep the community alive. Whether it’s writing fanfiction, drawing art, making a podcast, or simply giving the content of others a boost, everyone ends up contributing something to the fandom and making it a better, more interesting place.
Star Wars was my first love, but what really brought me into fandom culture were the BBC America TV shows Doctor Who and Sherlock. I was hitting the age when I was actually allowed to have accounts on websites like Tumblr and Instagram, and I sought out and found people to talk with who were just as obsessed with British TV as I was. At the time, this was not a common subject of knowledge, especially among twelve-year-olds in suburban Pennsylvania. Most of them were older than me, an overwhelming majority of them were women, and many were LGBTQ+. Exposure to viewpoints and discussions that were different from anything I’d usually see in my fairly isolated suburban community kickstarted my growth at a time when I was learning my place in the world, becoming a teenager and trying to understand issues I’d never had to deal with before. The people I met taught me about concepts I wasn’t familiar with at the time: feminism, queer history, social justice. Without having a community in which I could ask questions, I doubt I would be nearly as educated in social issues as I am now.
It’s ironic that despite my positive association with them, I feel a flash of embarrassment when talking about my history with fandoms. Maybe it’s due to my age at the time; I dare you to find anyone who doesn’t slightly regret things they said, did, or wore (ugh) in middle school. However, it doesn’t stop with my personal experiences. Society looks down on fandoms as something exclusively for women who fit a particular stereotype of being excitable, nerdy, and awkward. The trope is better known as a fangirl. A popular term in modern media, it conjures up images of girls crying in the front row of a boy band concert or dressed up in cosplay at a convention. Used by someone outside of the realm of fandom, it’s decidedly negative.
Yet men are not subjected to the same rules of conduct. Every week, it’s considered socially acceptable for them to gather around a TV with food and watch any number of sports games, become emotionally invested in the results, and even yell at the screen regardless of whether they approve of the outcome or not. Now replace the men with women and sports with The Bachelor, and you’ve got a completely different scene. Media that is coded by society as appealing to masculine interests is considered more acceptable for people to enthusiastically enjoy. I doubt you’d find a single person who would call enjoying athletic events “the sports fandom,” but in truth it’s not that different. There are countless places online to share predictions for next season or talk about your favorite players. Fans even build their own “alternate universes” in activities like fantasy football.
This is not to say that the only fan culture men participate in is sports, but it is to show an example that traditionally male-dominated fandoms are much less accepting to women than other fandoms. When women try to enter those spaces, their credentials are questioned as though they’re trying to infiltrate the community, even though there’s nothing to be lost if less-involved fans join. Women are asked to prove their knowledge by naming batting statistics, explaining their points of view on plot points from novel adaptations, or describing scenes from a movie in detail. Men act as gatekeepers, which makes these spaces hostile instead of welcoming.
Despite society’s disparaging attitude, I’ve always felt welcomed among “fangirls.” Not only could I share theories, content, and ideas about the things I fiercely loved, but I also was able to learn about social justice issues and the world outside my town. I might be a bit embarrassed by my twelve-year-old self’s lack of social awareness, but I don’t regret the friends I’ve made or the time I’ve spent participating in fandoms. For many people, it’s not just a space to be excited about a TV show, movie, musical artist or game — it’s an opportunity to grow as a person. That growth means more to me than derision ever could.