The Power Of Unabashedly Nerdy Female Passion In Online Fandom

We’ve yet to learn how to suspend our cynicism in the face of naked enthusiasm that isn’t synonymous with men.

O n a normal night in January of 2014, my family received the worst possible news. My sister, Helen, and her boyfriend had been killed in a car accident in Aiken, South Carolina. The driver, who had been going 90 mph in a 30 mph zone around a curve, survived. He was held directly accountable for what happened, and yet my sister’s best friend told reporters that she forgave him, because she knew that’s what Helen would have wanted . . .

. . . and I agree.

There’s a reason why this is the case — and it’s the same reason why so many people showed up to Helen’s funeral, that a crowd had to stand on the sidewalk outside because the church was filled past capacity. And no, my sister was not famous, at least not outside a small community in Augusta, Georgia, where we lived. This community, however, united behind her when they heard of her passing. I could not count how many young people I saw in that church with tears streaming down their faces. Faces I had never seen before, but who had clearly been devastated by my sister’s passing. I wondered why there were so many, until I suddenly realized what it was.

Community.

We hear the word tossed around a lot, by teachers, professors, and politicians. Anyone with a voice and a platform seems to have very particular thoughts on what makes a loving community, or a wealthy community, or a “thriving” community. I think it might surprise some to learn what kind of community it was that showed such real-world love and support for my sister; and if it is surprising, that’s likely because of negative stereotypes associated with the very thing that forged their connection: Tumblr.

Negative stereotypes about the microblogging platform abound, touting things like this:

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and like this:

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I think my sister might have re-blogged a hundred or so posts every day on her Tumblr. The majority of these posts were related to the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who, which I would argue was more than just her favorite television show. It was a significant part of her life, a pastime involving tens of hours a week that were devoted to more than simply re-watching old episodes. She shared this obsession — and it was certainly an obsession — with her friends, and it was something that drew them closer.

The best way I can describe this phenomenon is that I believe that she loved how the show dealt with love and tragedy in a very human way. The show’s most famous mechanism is built around a perpetual sense of loss for the ever-changing lead actor; even though he hasn’t died, it feels like something has been decidedly lost. In time, though, you begin to realize that this new person is just as wonderful and lovely as the old one, not better or worse, just different, and that’s okay. I think this helped her deal with how life seemed to change so quickly; perhaps understanding that life’s transience is ultimately okay is what made her so good at helping other people through difficult life situations.

The truth is, I may never know why my sister’s love for a BBC show endeared her to so many — but as someone firmly entrenched in Doctor Who fandom myself, I can guarantee that if any the other young men and women who gathered for my sister’s funeral had passed away, they would have displayed the same love and support and sorrow that they showed for Helen.

Online fan groups are about more than the cultural entity being discussed; they often promote both community and profound selflessness. The Tumblr blog The Whovian Down Baker Street, for instance, not only focuses on Dr. Who, but also reposts myriad links, blogs, websites, and videos catering to all kinds of self-care surrounding mental-health issues, from anxiety and eating disorders to suicidal thoughts, grief, and trauma.

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I think in our eagerness to dismiss such posts as oversensitive and narcissistic, many of us have forgotten how recently it was that being cruel was cool; bullying was barely acknowledged as a problem at all. If you were different by any standard, you kept your head down and plowed through school with barely a peep, unless you had a death wish.

Today, there are still plenty of problems, but the power dynamic among kids, teens, and young adults has shifted dramatically, from one of terror to one of unconditional support and zero tolerance for hatred or bullying. (At least in lip service.)

Doctor Who and Tumblr play into this in small but important ways; for Helen, they were the conduits that allowed her to care for people, and to cultivate an environment of acceptance and community, an experience that is especially powerful for those who feel ostracized and alone in “real life.”

Online fan groups are about more than the cultural entity being discussed; they often promote both community and profound selflessness.

Growing up, I remember having so many friends who had the potential to be very loving, but who had those inclinations smashed or sublimated because others said it made them weak or sensitive. If my sister and her friends had not found ways to uplift one another in ways that did not involve empty platitudes or non-committal social gestures solely involving “acceptable mediums,” then their community would never have flourished the way it did.

With the rise of social media and the inexorable march of globalization facilitating widespread dissemination of knowledge and resources, children and teens can gain autonomy and acceptance — albeit virtually — where they have none in real life. Having the freedom of purpose to pursue the things they love, so early, seems to make them more honest about that love. This in turn allows them to forge connections with like-minded people where once there was just isolation.

And while we see the fandom phenomenon just about everywhere — from sports to music to literature — there is no realm more heavily stigmatized than the ardent love associated with Tumblr and other online fandoms. It seems the intersection of the type of passion with the medium in which it’s being shared rather arbitrarily disqualifies those involved from their authenticity.

In Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis, the authors describe the intricacies of the ubiquitous shame that accompanies much of fandom:

“Much has been written over the last three decades about fans, often in an attempt to rehabilitate the image of the fan, to validate fan practices, to celebrate and defend fandom, to declare certain battles won. But for all the declarations about the positive force of fandom, a pervasive sense of shame perpetuates both fan spaces and academic approaches to the subject. There is shame about being a fan at all, shame over the extremity of “some” fans, shame over “certain” fan practices, over having those practices revealed to the rest of the world . . .”

Meanwhile, the genderization of fandom-based shame complicates things even further, reminding us that even virtually, even in our supposed realms of fantasy, of openly unhinged love for strangers or fiction or celebrities, we still exalt masculinity above all. The hierarchy that dictates whether or not fans and their behaviors are “acceptable” is still largely determined by whether or not males are the dominant participants in said fandom:

“Interestingly, these fan-based communities are often highly segregated across gender. Specifically, females tend to identify with many of the more marginalized fandoms, while males comprise a fair amount of the more socially accepted groups . . . Being a sports fan is considered “normal” by mainstream society (as long as the fans adhere to standards of masculinity.) Rooting for a sports team is not strange or abnormal, and having large amounts of sports team paraphernalia is not odd or excessive. Sports fandoms are an example of a normalized and unashamed fandom. The same yelling and enthusiasm one might see at a One Direction concert is paralleled at any sports game, but the pitch of the shrieks makes all the difference . . . Reactions to wins or losses often become over-the-top and dramatic, ranging from dancing in the streets to drunken fights . . . Because of the stigma attached to the fan bases of the average boy band, mainstream society views these fandoms as vicious, histrionic groupies who, as was said by a member of the One Direction fandom in a documentary, “can kill you if they wanted.” — “Gender in Fandom” by Kaya Mendelsohn.

I think that we as a society have yet to learn how to suspend our cynicism in the face of such naked enthusiasm, love, and hand-flapping nerdom that isn’t accompanied by a bone-crushing pummeling, or the roar of an engine, synonymous with sports and their ardent supporters. While this eye-rolling or aversion to earnestness is understandable — cynicism can sometimes be an effective and necessary way to cope with a hostile world — I also don’t think it’s excusable. The gendered component makes it perfectly clear that this cynicism does not come from a need to cope with external forces, but from a bias based in a preconception that female passion is not equal to that of a man; it is devalued, stigmatized, maligned, and mocked.

Perhaps once we learn not to rob people like my sister of the earnestness of their passion, then we may begin to understand how society can change so suddenly, creating communities of loving youth where few before existed.