What Makes Fandom So Great/Terrible?


How do you feel about labeling/defining yourself as a dedicated “fan” of a show or creator? How about the preaching of shows, or the nature of hype/anti-hype?


Oh, fandom. The easy answer here would be “I think defining yourself as a fan of a show is a terrible idea, and a form of identity politics that leads to generally uncritical us-versus-them attitudes. If you define a part of yourself as your love of and attachment to a show, a common next step is to define any criticism of that show as a criticism of you personally, and to respond accordingly. Your identity should be more than what you consume, and defining yourself according to any arbitrary, external text, group, or belief generally leads to arbitrary conflict.”

That’s the easy answer, and for what it’s worth, all of that is true. You really should be more than what you consume, you really shouldn’t take it personally when people criticize shows you like, and you really do need to accept that the things which may seem valuable to you are not necessarily valuable according to any general metric.


But the thing is, the instincts that lead people to fandom – art’s ability to inspire, to illuminate, to challenge, to foster self-understanding and emotional connection – are why we make art. People become fans because art works. Yes, if you take your favorite shows and sew a full identity out of them, you are basically denying the self – but pretty much everyone is partially reflective of the art that has inspired them. And far be it from me to say our experience with art should be either fully cerebral or visceral, and not emotional – my favorite shows are the ones that connect to me, that make me cry for characters and pump my fist at themes that resonate with me. I certainly enjoy things that are well-constructed even if they don’t necessarily resonate with me – for example, I gave Gatchaman Crowds a 9/10 even though I largely disagree with its ultimate view of human nature. On the other hand, I’d rate Urobuchi’s shows highly just because they’re smart and interesting, but his shows actually resonate with me because the contradictions he struggles with are ones I can completely empathize with. So I’m a “fan” of his shows, for sure, and I continuously seek other shows and writers to be “fans” of – finding like-minded artists is an incredibly rewarding experience for me.

So how do I square these two things?

I try to keep conscious of the fact that the feeling of being a “fan” of a show, that actual emotional connection, is almost always a personal thing. I recommend Urobuchi’s shows because they’re interesting and take place in compelling worlds and generally have solid dramatic structure, but I won’t recommend them because they speak to the inspiring contradiction of the human condition – that’s my experience of them. There are things I think are generally well-crafted, and things that really speak to me either idea-wise or just artistically, and as a rule of thumb if I start to get blubbery describing why a show is good then I am probably veering into why that show is Good For Me. I don’t recommend preaching shows – preaching shows creates expectations, and unless the person you’re preaching to exactly mirrors your own values, life experiences, and artistic priorities, that show is not going to match those expectations for them. And hype/anti-hype fall into this area as well – if a show has a large, rabid fanbase, then that means it probably speaks to some instinct common to a large group of people. That’s great, but it doesn’t mean the show will be great for you – ten thousand strangers can’t offer a more valuable recommendation than one person whose instincts you know and trust. And getting “mad” at the show for failing to speak to you is just silly – that doesn’t mean all those people were “wrong,” it just means different things speak to you. Artistic quality doesn’t even really have to come into it – yeah, if you watch or read many things you will generally come to desire certain qualities in prose, direction, characterization, or whatever, but that is basically a secondary line of evaluation from the Does It Speak to You evaluation. Quality’s a tricky thing, anyway – as I’ve said before, evaluating a show means evaluating it relative to its own goals.


So I guess I’d ultimately say being a fan is a wonderful feeling, but we should all be more than fans. People come online to share that feeling, and that’s also great, but a group should be more than a fandom. Great art works because it speaks to universal instincts, but our experience of those works is always going to be personal. I’m proud to be a fan of the works I love, but they don’t define me, and if other people hate those works, good – that means those works at least got a reaction out of them, and maybe that can inspire an actual conversation. Because my own understanding doesn’t have to end at defending the works I love – art is a platform for engagement, not a defense against it.

13 thoughts on “What Makes Fandom So Great/Terrible?

  1. I think that Devin Faraci over at Badass Digest pretty much *nailed* the distinction of being a “fan” of something a while back. When it comes down to it, there’s no problem with liking things–no matter how weird or embarassing those things might be. The problem comes when you start to define yourself by that thing to the point where it becomes part of your identity. That I think is the line drawn between, say, 20-year-olds watching and enjoying Friendship is Magic while still enjoying any number of other cartoons and fictional works, versus 20-year-olds who choose to define themselves by their adoration of a show aimed at 8-year-old girls. Same with any other fandom (whether for children, adults or otherwise) and people identifying to the point where they lose all sense of perspective. Loving something is fine, making that thing your identity can be very unhealthy.

    It’s funny, because while I watch anime pretty regularly and read a lot of manga I do a lot of other things too? I think that when it comes down to it, it’s a bit much to define any one person as solely an “anime fan” or something similar when everyone is a mix of different experiences and traits rather than one sole monolithic thing. Of course that doesn’t stop people from labeling themselves, and all it takes is to realize that you’ve watched and enjoyed a show called Princess Tutu (which in all fairness is really, really good) to realize that you’ve crossed the line a bit. At what point is there no going back? Or is that a distinction you’re allowed to make yourself?

    As for Urobuchi, I think I’m becoming gradually more and more apathetic to his stuff. I really enjoyed Madoka and liked Fate/Zero quite a bit, but nothing he’s really made since Madoka has been any good (Psycho Pass was a mess of half-baked writing and contradictory direction and tone, Gargantia started off interesting but fell apart fairly quickly) and from what I’ve heard the upcoming Madoka movie essentially reverses the series’s original message so that the staff can continue to make more Madoka things in the future. I definitely respect him for grappling with ideas that are clearly very important for him and trying to consciously buck the status quo with each series he makes, but as an artist, I see choosing to take back your own message for the purpose of further commercial gain as one of the most disingenuous things you can do. That said, we’ll see if he redeems himself in the future (maybe unlikely) or just burns out entirely (possibly likely considering he appears to be constrained to writing Kamen Rider and Psycho Pass sequels for the near future.)

    • Did Devin make a full post related to that? I do remember a post Hulk made regarding The New Girl, which had a minor footnote regarding MLP which ended up attracting some truly terrifying comments, with Devin shaking his head and Hulk just being baffled by the degree to which people were internalizing the discussion.

      It’s largely a self-esteem thing, I think. Your identity needs to stand alone, and if it doesn’t, you can easily fall into this pattern of finding safety within a group.

      I’m not too worried about the Madoka sequel, personally. When it was announced, my first thought was, “jeez, could any show need a sequel less? Well, business is business.” It’ll be nice to see the characters again, but I’m pretty much expecting it to bastardize the themes of the first one, and am not gonna let it color my impression of the original.

  2. Do a lot of people really believe that being a fan of something means subsuming that particular piece of art as part of their personal identity? I equate being a fan as merely having a preference or predilection. Maybe the Capital F Fandom gets offended if someone criticizes their idolized show/series/person but I am not really aware of any individual person in real life who internalizes the art to the degree that you describe.

    • I don’t think that many people would articulate it in that way (outside of fringe cases, like the MLP business discussed above), but I’d say that virtually any time someone gets angry because you said a show is bad, it’s because they have to some degree bonded that art to their identity. Which I don’t actually think is uncommon or to be entirely discouraged – it might seem odd in the context of anime or whatnot, but I’ve known many, many people who feel a deep personal connection with some book or piece of music. Music might actually be where this is most common – most people I know who are passionate about music will have albums or bands they strongly identify with.

      That said, the full identity thing is certainly the rare case, and the main things I’m discouraging here are the consequences of the less extreme identification many people experience. While I don’t think most people construct their identity wholly out of their media, I do think many people unconsciously underplay the degree to which their personal connection/identification with a piece of media influences their experience of it, which leads to a whole bunch of unproductive squabbling.

  3. I don’t really have anything of significance to add to what you’ve already written, and normally I don’t comment if I feel I have nothing of value to say. I just wanted to quickly stop by to let you know how much I enjoy/agree wholeheartedly with your post though – sorry if I’m sounding like a broken record, but as always, great job.

    • Thank you! I actually normally do the same thing, which I probably shouldn’t, because I really appreciate comments like this. It’s nice to know my thoughts make sense to someone.

  4. People are confusing causes and consequences.
    The shows you watch doesn’t define who you are, it’s who you are who defines which shows you watch.

    • I don’t think it’s that quite simple, though. Though no one show/idea/interest should be your entire identity, we’re all partially composed of the things we consume. If I read a great essay that influences my thoughts on some subject, that essay is now a part of me. If I watch a show that moves me, that show is now a part of me.

      Granted, that’s separate from our taste in media being more reflective of our existing feelings than the nature of the media in question, which I certainly agree with.

  5. I don’t like the term fan because of the identity aspect it imply. My idea of it is exactly what you described at the beginning of your post thus I just don’t use the term.

    Sure I love shows and there are things I will talk a lot about and that I can’t wait for the next episode (Kill La Kill is amazing yo!). But that’s called having preference and an opinion not being a fan. I see fans has something akin to bronys. A religion people form because they need a sense of belonging. And that’s just weak man.

    Oh seems like the dictionary says that I’m wrong.. a fan is :a person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular sport, art form, or famous person

    Damn it. wtv. I guess I have no good reason to hate the word then. I still do so that’s a problem..

    • > A religion people form because they need a sense of belonging

      Yep! In fact, that instinct is definitely what causes a lot of internet squabbling – people will come online looking for a group to confirm their new-found sense of identity/belonging (“DAE love _____?”), and then someone will say “YOUR SHOW IS SHIIIIT” (or even just “I have a number of issues with your show”), and things will go downhill from there

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