Music Features

Swifties Need to Calm Down

When "stans" attack those who criticize their heroes, why won't those heroes speak up?

It's time for us to reevaluate stan culture.

For those who somehow missed the news, Taylor Swift released her surprise eighth album, folklore, last weekend. Featuring contributions from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and the National's Aaron Dessner, it marked a notably stark sonic shift for our reigning pop princess, a noted indie fan in spite of what that one line in "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" might've suggested.

But even the extremely short notice of folklore's release didn't keep Taylor Swift's most diehard fans from, well, doing what Swifties do best.

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MUSIC

Waterparks Dive Into a Pool of Emotions On Their Latest Album

Houston native rock band continue to usher in latest era with the release of FANDOM.

Waterparks' latest album, FANDOM, is raw. Raw in its lyricism and its handling of fans, fame, friendship, and love.

FANDOM was worth the wait, delivering 15 tracks that add a new dimension to Waterparks sound. The in-your-face punch of the melodies introduces FANDOM, and it's "sour green" aesthetic in a big way, especially with the album's lead single "Watch What Happens Next," and its follow up "Dream Boy." Vocalist, Knight, who also directed the music videos for this album, is aiming at those who expect too much, reward the trio too little, and the dark side of what life post-"blow up," and post break up, has left him with. "I want fans to feel emotionally wrecked after listening to this album." shared Knight. "There are so many different feelings expressed throughout it, and I don't want to say that it's an emotional rollercoaster, but it's an 'emotional rollercoaster.'"

The band isn't holding back on FANDOM. Emotions are real and served with punching melodic riffs and guitar solos from Geoff Wigington and drummer Otto Wood, maintaining the album's vibe through consistent beats. "Obviously, with time, we've grown and have become better musicians," said Wiginton. "On this album, the guitar lines cut through, and the drums just sound so tight."

It's invigorating to hear someone speak so frankly about the pressures of fame. They, of course, aren't the first band to address those that have wronged them, but the sincere snarl and growl in Knight's vocals make it seem a bit more personal and authentic.

"War Crimes" gives a glimpse into everything that's plagued Knight and the band in the last few years. The lyric, "Behind my forehead's an assortment of things I'd like to forget," kick starts the foot-stomping beat, followed by lyrics like "my death will be the fandom / give back my halo you stole."

Another major theme on FANDOM is heartbreak and the post-relationship way of thinking. The lyrics are somehow blunt yet cryptic, showing vulnerability to Knight, especially on tracks like "High Definition" and "Never Bloom Again." Still, this thread also carries through on the higher energy "Telephone" and "Easy To Hate."

While lumped into the pop-punk category, FANDOM creates a division between Waterparks and the rest of the genre because of experimental melodies – the club classic dance break on "War Crimes" being a definite highlight as well as the electro-pop reminiscent "Telephone" and the folk-esque "IMHSBALIDWD."

Fans may never know what Friendly Reminder might have sounded like, but it seems like Waterparks made the right choice in scrapping it.

Be sure to listen to FANDOM and check out the band's latest music video for their song "Easy to Hate," directed by Knight.


Waterparks - EASY TO HATE (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com

CULTURE

The Boundaries of Consent: From One Direction Fan Fiction to the DeepNude App

Where does consent come into play when the people are real but the sex is fiction?

HBO

The DeepNude app turns any picture of a woman into a nude.

HBO's "Euphoria" publicly broadcasted an animated sex act between One Direction bandmates Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles. Currently, over 11,000 R-rated fan fiction stories about BBC's Sherlock are live on Fanfiction.net. Where does consent come into play when the people are real but the sex is fiction?

The DeepNude App

deepnude

The DeepNude App sounds like the dystopian wet dream of a horned up teenager who grew up watching nothing but Revenge of the Nerds on repeat.

The software has a simple premise: Users upload pictures of clothed women, and the app makes them naked using artificial neural networks to replace shirts with breasts and pants with vulvas. It doesn't work on men.

DeepNude's creator shut the app down within hours of being exposed by Motherboard, reasoning that "the probability that people will misuse it is too high," as if there would be any possible "legitimate" use or that the intent behind its creation wasn't blatant, unchecked sexism. Naturally, copies sprung up immediately, promising to improve upon the existing technology and also removing watermarks denoting the resulting pictures as fakes.

The dangers inherent to DeepNude seem all too obvious. While the technology is far from perfect and many of the resulting images look wonky, some do look almost real, especially at first glance. Unfortunately, a "real-enough" nude picture is more than enough to potentially ruin someone's career, blackmail them, or otherwise damage their reputation. The fact that the breasts and genitalia in the picture are not the subject's own is irrelevant to the potential damage a DeepNude picture could cause someone.

To be clear, this is an app that could also take pictures of children and strip them naked. It's hard to say where the legality of such a thing might fall––would such pictures be considered child pornography if the actual genitals depicted didn't belong to children?––but DeepNude makes a great case study for how our legal system hasn't caught up to our technological advancements yet. Legality aside, DeepNude is so clearly wrong that one could safely assume that anyone who feels otherwise is, at best, completely morally bankrupt and drowning in sexist ideology.

If we can resolutely agree that creating nude photos of people without their consent is morally wrong, we also agree that consent is necessary for fictional, sexual depictions of real people, at least in certain cases. While the idea of real consent for fictional acts may sound silly at first, amidst our cultural reckoning with the definition and boundaries of consent, let's consider how celebrities' consent to sexualized depictions of themselves intersects with the increased virality and visibility of fictional content. The question is where that line of needing consent falls.

The Case of Louis Tomlinson

louis tomlinson euphoria HBO

On a recent episode of HBO's Euphoria, a high school girl obsesses over a fan fiction scene wherein former One Direction member Harry Styles gives his bandmate Louis Tomlinson a blowjob.

The scene plays out via over-the-top, anime-esque animation. It stops just short of depicting any actual privates, but it does show the two band members 69-ing. It's jarring and honestly pretty funny within the context of the show. But more importantly, it uses Styles' and Tomlinson's real names––and while Styles hasn't publicly commented on his unwitting Euphoria cameo yet, Tomlinson has expressed disdain. "I can categorically say that I was not contacted nor did I approve it," Tomlinson wrote on Twitter.

The scene drew a polarized response. Some viewers enjoyed the realism, relating to the exact same early sexual experience of discovering Harry/Louis (or "Larry" or "Larry Stylinson") "real person fiction" (fan fiction featuring real celebrities having sex) on Tumblr when they were younger. On the other hand, many One Direction fans were outraged over the scene and the disrespect shown to Tomlinson, specifically, who had publicly spoken about how the slash/fic fervor made him incredibly uncomfortable and damaged his friendship with Styles. They viewed Euphoria as guilty of publicizing Tomlinson in a fictional sexual act to which he did not consent and had clearly stated made him uncomfortable on prior occasions.

While some fans have suggested Tomlinson sue HBO, the truth is that Tomlinson wouldn't have a case. HBO's depiction of Tomlinson was a legal form of fair use and would qualify as "transformative" in a court of law, meaning there's a substantial artistic/creative element involved with using Tomlinson's likeness. But while the legal implications of Euphoria's exploitation of Tomlinson are cut-and-dried, the morality of the whole ordeal leaves room for interpretation.

Unlike a realistic DeepNude photo, nobody could possibly mistake Euphoria's "Larry Stylinson" scene as an actual depiction of a real sexual encounter between Styles and Tomlinson. At the same time, using the musicians' real names, as opposed to pseudonyms, draws them into a sexual scenario they didn't consent to being a part of. Somehow, morally, that seems incredibly wrong.

To compare: If a man walked up to a woman and described his sexual fantasy about her in detail, most people would consider that to be, at the very least, sexual harassment. He's allowed to have his own private sexual fantasy about her, of course, but he has no right to drag her into it publicly. So why would the morality around that scenario change just because the target in question was a celebrity, or the genders were swapped? The above scenario seems morally wrong regardless. Now imagine that the man proceeded to broadcast his fantasy on television to millions of viewers.

The Boundaries of Fan Fiction

johnlock Michi Shaw via YouTube

Fan fiction is an incredibly important medium for marginalized communities. On top of being a cross-section for fandom and erotica, fan fiction allows many LGBTQ+ youth to experiment with sexuality using avatars that make them feel safe and comfortable. As such, fan fiction communities are largely a force for positivity.

However, certain fandoms take things too far, as was the case with the "Larry Stylinson" community, which actually attempted to push their homoerotic fiction on the real-life subjects of their affection––again, one of whom has openly expressed extreme discomfort about the subject. But while Larry fans might be an extreme example, even fan fiction based on fictional characters have been known to make the actors behind them feel uncomfortable when the fandom is especially vocal.

For instance, in an interview with The Telegraph, Martin Freeman, who plays John Watson on BBC's Sherlock, bemoaned the incessant homoerotic shipping of the "Johnlock" fandom. "Me and Ben, we have literally never, never played a moment like lovers. We ain't f***ing lovers," he said. While there's certainly an argument to be made that Freeman could just ignore fan fiction, the truth is that fans have shoved their fan fiction wishes in his face on multiple occasions, both on Twitter and during live appearances.

In many ways, mediums like Twitter have broken down the relationships between fans and the talent behind their favorite fandoms. The ease of access to creators and actors, and the willingness of some fans to breach personal boundaries due to feelings of entitlement, means that for many creatives, simply ignoring the elements of fandom that make them uncomfortable isn't an option. As such, fan fiction, while largely positive, enters ethical gray area at the point that it personally involves its subjects.

Assuming the content is exactly the same, is there an ethical difference between homoerotic "Johnlock" fan fiction and homoerotic fan fiction about Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch? It depends. If the fan fiction is never shared and is intended solely for personal use, both instances are pretty okay. Unlike a DeepNude, which (even if made entirely for personal purposes) could be used as a dangerous weapon for victimization, fan fiction doesn't hold the same potential for damage.

But as soon as fan fiction reaches a wider audience, the ones using the actors' real names become morally questionable as they depict real people in a public sexual scenario that they did not consent to. The version using characters, however, is fine, because those characters are not real and have a degree of separation from real actors. In the same vein, as soon as fan fiction, regardless of which names are used, is directly pushed on an actor, it again becomes morally wrong, as it's no different from the hypothetical man describing his sexual fantasy to a non-consenting woman with whom he wants to have sex.

All things considered, fan fiction doesn't need to require consent to exist in a private capacity, but it should never be okay to involve those people without their consent in any public capacity whatsoever. While HBO's inclusion of the real One Direction boys in Euphoria might be legally fine, it's hard to justify morally; it's tantamount to a man sexually harassing a non-consenting woman with his personal fantasies. Consent should always be first and foremost in matters of sex. That doesn't change just because the sex is fictional.

The Verge

You don't know why it has to end. You were happy with the way things were. You're not ready to be alone.

Your brain is reacting like you're going through a break-up. In reality, your favorite show just ended, whether it was the latest season or the entire series just came to a close. April and May is the time for season finales, from CW's niche favorite, Supernatural, wrapping up its 14th season to Game of Thrones breaking up with America with the equivalent of a text message. But it seems that audiences are increasingly dissatisfied with endings.

With directors and showrunners now live-streaming Q&As with fans and more TV shows prioritizing fan service over quality story-telling to boost ratings, the entangled relationships between creators and cult followings challenge how we view art and whether a franchise ever truly ends. After all, the lively world of online fandom never ends, so how are fans expected to accept a show's finality? In the age of on-demand streaming, actors sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses on social media, and immersive fan experiences (have you visited your local Game of Thrones pop-up bar yet?), there's no such thing as closure.

Full Joe Russo Avengers Q&A From Duello www.youtube.com


Creators like J.K. Rowling clearly don't believe so, as the author uses her social media presence to controversially add details and socially woke spins to her Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter series ad finitum. Similarly, when a fan favorite show is finally put to rest, few writers and producers are able to rise to the challenge and kill their darlings with grace. More often than not, season finales—especially series finales— stutter to a grinding stop with dissatisfying or bizarre endings. With outspoken online fan communities (not to mention fan entitlement) at an extreme these days, bad finales go down in Internet infamy.

But viewers' responses can turn surprisingly emotional when it's time to say goodbye to their favorite series. Part of that is due to the strange body chemistry involved in emotions. The human brain can't differentiate between bonds with real people and fictional characters. Danielle Forshee, psychologist, and LLC says, "When there's a character that you feel emotionally connected to...your brain recognizes the human emotion they are portraying and starts to feel connected to those characters." Since we're wired to feel empathy, "a bond begins to form."

With Game of Thrones unfolding its final season and CW's teen hits Arrow and Supernatural slated to end next year, TV history has illustrated a pattern of highs and lows when it comes to finales. From the convoluted ending of Lost to The Sopranos slamming a door in the viewer's face, endings are nearly impossible to ace. Here's a look at the most successful, most devastating, and most chaotic series finales that fans have healed from after their favorite shows broke up with them.

How I Met Your Mother

Popdust series finales Daily Beast

The eight agonizing seasons of How I Met Your Mother culminated in the most predictable ending possible, yet it still managed to shock and disappoint. We jump forward in time and see that the protagonist, Ted, does indeed meet and build a life with his children's mother. Then in the final minutes, it's revealed that she's already died of cancer, Ted is telling this incredibly long and boring story to his teenage children, and now they end up encouraging him to date "Aunt Robin," his best friend with whom a relationship had been teased since season 1.




GRADE: F

Lost

Popdust lost series finale NYTimes

ABC's Lost disappointed and confused fans with a two-episode finale that questioned whether or not the entirety of the series took place in purgatory and the stranded were dead all along. Co-creator and showrunner, Damon Lindelof, has since panned that theory, saying, "No, no, no. They were not dead the whole time." Still, fans mourned the promising show's demise, with outcry on Twitter even driving Lindelof to delete his Twitter account. His final Tweet riffed on the cut off ending of Sopranos, posting, "After much thought and deliberation, I've decided t-."



Grade: D

Breaking Bad

Popdust series finale breaking bad Bustle

Breaking Bad is arguably the best series finale to date (although the end of Game of Thrones may dethrone it soon). Season 5's final episode ranked as the third best-rated finale in cable TV history. Walter White's demise ends a victorious character arc, as he admits to his wife, "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really...I was alive."


GRADE: A

The Sopranos

Popdust Sopranos series finales

The Sopranos' infamous series finale left the viewer to decide whether or not Tony was dead. Ultimately, the finale's sudden cut to black was a divisive move that invited audience's interpretation into the series' canon. Earlier this year, in honor of the show's 20th anniversary, reporter T.J. Quinn posted a radical theory that there was a death in the final scene: ours. At the very least, the end of the show signified that the exchange between creators and fans was over. The Sopranos broke up with us.

GRADE: INCOMPLETE


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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Culture Feature

From "Rick & Morty" to BTS, Here Are All the Worst Fanbases

We ranked the worst parts of Internet fandom in no particular order—since they're all terrible.

Medium

As harmless hobbies, most fandoms are predicated on the universal ideal that most media is entertainment, liking things feels good, and you don't get to be an asshole if all don't appreciate your favorite thing.

But at the heart of every Internet dumpster fire, there's an ardent fanbase trolling forums and picking fights about their terrible opinions. While it's one thing to be overly-invested in the love lives of the Kardashians or easily excitable over Lady Gaga's burgeoning film career, some people's dedication to their fandoms can shape their identities.

An obnoxious fandom may simply take every opportunity to flood the Internet with memes, but toxic fandoms can turn into bullying communities, with some circulating intolerant, even harmful, rhetoric. From misogyny and racism to calls for violence and public doxxing, these out-of-control fan bases are some of the worst one's active today. Thanks to the return of Rick & Morty season 4 last night, we're reminded of these insufferable fanbases now more than ever.

1. "The Real Ricks" - Rick & Morty

Facebook

In 2013, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon's adult animation about an anti-hero mad scientist and his meek grandson began as an innocuous half-hour comedy. Soon, its niche appeal to speculative fiction geeks with irreverent senses of humor garnered a cult following. But a small fraction of the fanbase latched onto Rick's nihilistic and hyper-intelligent misanthropy and basically took it way too seriously. On Facebook, a private group of like-minded "Real Ricks" identified with the character so much that they focused the fandom on defending Rick's narcissism and lack of compassion. Their serious devotion is mocked by the highly circulated "copypasta" post: "To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty. The humor is extremely subtle, and without a solid grasp of theoretical physics most of the jokes will go over a typical viewer's head."

"Real Ricks" radicalize Rick's tongue-in-cheek quips ("I don't do adventures with chicks") into actual misogyny (including harassing the show's female writers). They elevate Rick's worldview as a guiding pseudo-philosophy that recognizes and even pities "superior" men for their lonely existences as the smartest and most capable humans alive. Although it's a small fraction of the fanbase, it's among the loudest online, which is enough to sour the show's actual merits of unique comedic timing and sharp commentary.

Despite the Internet "canceling" Dan Harmon every few years, it seems that Rick & Morty and its fans will never die.

2. "BTS Army" - BTS

bts army toxic

Twitter User: JooniesBoop

Aside from the fact that BTS is not a unique pop group and have no appeal if you're not a fan of K-pop, the fan base's zealotry is annoying, at best, and alarming, at worst. People's most common interactions with the "BTS Army" involve their obsessive gate-keeping of how the Internet talks about its members. The value of its boys (if we dare to speak their names), Namjoon, Hoseok, Jimin, Yoongi, Jungkook, Jin and Taehyung, knows no bounds. But that over-protective doting on the band results in vicious bullying of anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion, from name-calling to racially charged abuse.

Many black BTS fans have shared their experiences with racism from the BTS community. Some fans have received comments on their user pictures that black people aren't "worthy" to be fans of BTS, while another shared, "I've been called ni**** and also told to go pick cotton and it's always anonymous. But they always let me know that they're Armys because they always end the message [with] 'we don't claim you in Army.'" While the Internet always hosts hateful posts, toxic fandoms can unite bullies under a common cause and attempt to justify the harassment of others with their love for their idols.

3. Elon Musk

worst fan base

Medium

The cult of personality surrounding Elon Musk is a mix of celebrity worship, self-righteousness, and buying into the man's own savior complex. His core fanbase clings to the notion that Musk's tech-savvy can save humanity. While the group's moral superiority and defensiveness make them insufferable, their willful ignorance of his companies' environmental downsides and disregard for worker safety makes them stubbornly blind. To justify (if not outright deny) Musk's unsound, erratic behavior, many claim that journalists are actively sabotaging his vision of the future. Again, not every supporter of Elon Musk is a devout fan, bordering on worshipper, but those who elevate the problematic billionaire to icon status just muddy the waters of progressive change.

Musk's acolytes were even named the "Worst Dedicated Fan Base" in a March-Madness-style tournament, cynically hosted by The Onion's Michelle Spies. "Elon Musk is their masculine technologic messiah, sent to bring them into a new era," she explained. "They will defend their billionaire Lord to the death."

4. Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson fans

Reddit

As a clinical psychology professor-turned-YouTuber philosopher, Jordan Peterson appeals to mostly male, disaffected twenty-something-year-olds who cling to his paternalistic self-help advice in place of real guidance. His best-selling nonfiction book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos matches the interests of his 1.9 million YouTube subscribers.

Namely, Peterson offers rudimentary tips for self-improvement and a sympathetic attitude that claims progressivism and Leftist politics have made it harder for young men to reach their full potential. His insular fanbase clings to Peterson's theories that "the masculine spirit is under assault" and feminists have "an unconscious wish for brutal male domination." The mix of personal insecurities and finding scapegoats for one's dissatisfaction with life leads a faction of fans to circulate misogynist and transphobic ideas couched in conservative politics.

5. "Bro Army" - PewDiePie

Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a PewDiePie) tops the YouTube playground with 106 million subscribers to his gaming vlog, but his controversial satire of Nazi salutes, racial slurs, and alt-right beliefs attracts a loyal fan base that has no clear understanding of irony. With a majority of his followers skewing younger than 24-years-old (11% being younger than 17), PewDiePie's fanbase is active in the meme-culture of recycled imagery that blurs whether the intention is satirical or genuine. When the shooter of two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand quoted a popular meme about the YouTuber before opening fire, Kjellberg publicly clarified that he was "absolutely sickened having [his] name uttered by this person" and in no way condoned the action. Still, PewDiePie's blunt, unsophisticated riffing on anti-Semitic and alt-right sentiments risks "normalizing hatred" rather than mocking it.

In August 2020, PewDiePie's playlist was leaked, and his fans began leaving transphobic and homophobic comments en masse on some of the artists' pages. Some music artists have even openly asked, "Pewdiepie please don’t listen to my music" because his fans are so toxic.














Culture Feature

Fandom for the Faithless: How Pop Culture Is Replacing Religion

From Star Wars and Harry Potter to My Little Pony and Supernatural, fan communities develop their own ethos, codes of behavior, and networks of peer-mentoring that turn art appreciation into worship.

New York Post

In January 2019, President Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military was approved by the Supreme Court, which meant the worst had happened: Albus Dumbledore would be ashamed of us.

It gets worse. In England, Europe's fourth most LGBTQ-friendly nation, there are 175,000 self-professed Jedis who are appalled at America's anti-trans legislation. As "instruments of peace," Jedis believe "in a society that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or circumstances of birth such as gender, ethnicity and national origin."

Temple of the Jedi Order

If you're not moved to action by framing today's socio-political turmoil in terms of fictional characters, then you are not a true Jedi or diehard Potterhead. You may just be a fan of the franchises, which is not what fandom is about anymore. Nowadays, these active communities create full-on belief systems, leading the most dedicated fans to see the real world through the lens of their favorite franchise. When fandoms replace religion, fan communities develop their own ethos, codes of behavior, and a network of peer-mentoring that turns art appreciation into worship.

According to census surveys from England, Australia, and Czech Republic, over 250,000 Jedis currently roam the earth, which is definitively too many followers for a brand of fictionalized metaphysics solely designed to earn Lucasfilm $4 billion. But the Temple of the Jedi Order (a.k.a the Church of Jediism) touts on its website, "Jediism is not based in fiction, but we accept myth as a sometimes more practical mean of conveying philosophies applicable to real life."

John Henry Phelan is a Jedi through the Temple of the Jedi Order, which means he helps run the most trafficked website on Jediism in the U.S. He told Details magazine in 2013, "I think we're heading to a point where we're going to see a physical Jedi temple sometime in the next 10 years...probably something like a monastery, where Jedi monks will live and where other Jedi can visit. I'd be surprised if that didn't happen." To date, it sadly hasn't (but there are a good four years left for this runaway train called reality to fly completely off the tracks, resulting in a Jedi monastery next to your local mosque and synagogue).

To be fair, the distinctions between a fandom and a religion are surprisingly blurry as far as sociologists are concerned. With social media building bridges between like-minded individuals, fandoms aren't just online subcultures; they're "participatory cultures." If we're looking at patterns of human behavior, so are religions. Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communications at University of Southern California and professional super nerd, breaks down the facets of participatory culture:

1. Relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.

2. Strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others.

3. Some type of informal mentorship in which the most experienced members pass along their knowledge to novices.

4. Members who believe their contributions matter.

5. Members who feel some degree of social connection with one another and care about other members' opinions about their contributions.

Among Jediism's official 16 teachings and 21 maxims is dedication to civic engagement ("each Jedi improves the world with each deed they perform") and support of their community ("have faith in your Jedi brothers and sisters" and "defend the way of Jediism"). When the Pacific Standard's Ben Rowen interviewed self-professed Jedis, he acknowledged the easy ridicule of the "faith" but sought to understand its appeal: "Beneath the surface—once the lightsabers are stowed away in their protective cases and the business of spiritual belief begins—Jediism is quite paradigmatic of trends in modern religious practice. Jedis have a strong argument that their fictional, pop-culture-inspired canon, with its aliens and futuristic technology, has given rise to a religion worthy of recognition here in reality."

Berlin Church Holds Star Wars Service Getty Images

Of course the Jedi order is not the first or even the loudest fandom community waving its flag on the Internet (no one's ranking fandoms here; please don't @ us). In 1997, J.K. Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and proceeded to print herself $650 million over the next 20 years. Global readers of all ages have turned the Potter fandom into a life philosophy originally dictated by an elderly homosexual wizard who mentored an orphan boy by giving him cryptic advice that read like slam poetry.

At its worst, well-meaning Potterheads discuss the most fraught and divisive issues of our time in terms of Harry Potter references in an attempt to enlighten others. Aside from presupposing that the Harry Potter series is an unproblematic, universal touchstone (which it definitely isn't), doing this is annoying. So much so that the phrase "read another book" has entered online lexicon as shorthand for, "Please take the Harry Potter series 75% less seriously than you currently do."

UrbanDictionary

For example, some inappropriate uses of Harry Potter references include: protesting those who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the LGBTQ community by comparing it to the imaginary community of muggles...

...leading the fight for gun control with illiteracy...

...and incisive political commentary on the persecution of journalists.

As Patton Oswalt points out, books featuring elaborate fantasy worlds are excellent for escapism and even light-handed allegories, but they're not conducive to interpreting world politics: "It's a cool book with some wonderful passages but it also has ghost sex & giants & super babies & demons. It's why we don't make laws based on Game of Thrones, My Little Pony or Legend of Zelda."


So why are some treating fandom like a faith? One twentieth century sociologist whose knowledge about people was as voluminous as his facial hair was Émile Durkheim. He defined religion as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."

In the same way, sacred objects are the pillars of fandom. In Star Wars, the lightsabers and hooded robes are just symbols of the civic duty, compassion, and self-awareness promoted by Jedi creed (which, to its credit, is said to be adapted from the actual Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi). Harry Potter merchandise is rife with the Deathly Hallow symbols and the house crests of Hogwarts because they represent the hero's journey – with the poignant twist that unassuming heroes are everywhere (Hufflepuffs are just as strong as Gryffindors, we get it).

Is there danger in conflating fandoms with religion? To society as a whole, no – aside from causing mass annoyance on Twitter, consumers aren't generally at risk from neurotic people taking fandoms too seriously. In fact, as far as public sentiment goes, the people who pose the most danger are those who don't believe in anything.

In Casey Cep's article in the New Yorker, "Why Are Americans Still Uncomfortable with Atheism," she recounts how identifying as "faithless" has been a source of social shame throughout history and still remains so, to some degree, today. So much so that stigma against atheists can overshadow stigmas against other religious beliefs. According to 2018 surveys, "Americans, in large numbers, still do not want atheists teaching their children, or marrying them." She continues, "They would...prefer a female, gay, Mormon, or Muslim President to having an atheist in the White House, and some of them do not object to attempts to keep nonbelievers from holding other offices, even when the office is that of notary public."

Cep adds, "Such is the slippery label of 'atheist' in the American context: slapped on those who explicitly reject it, eschewed by unbelievers who wish to avoid its stigma. Both atheists and their critics often make a hopeless muddle of the category, sometimes because it is genuinely complicated to assess belief, but often for other reasons."

Fans play real-life version of Quidditch in London Evening Express

In Britain (where Jediism was the seventh-largest religion in 2015), "atheism" was on the decline in 2018. However, the number of self-reported Christians hasn't risen; rather, more people are reporting to believe in "some sort of spiritual greater power." In fact, according to a 2017 poll by WIN/Gallup International, the U.K. and Czech Republic (with 15,000 self-identified Jedis) are among the ten least religious countries. As Cep describes, Americans' reluctance to identify as "atheist" has always resulted in dubious polls, but recent surveys note an upward trend in U.S. atheism overall.

And as psychologists like to remind us, "higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as 'religiosity') is associated with better mental health." But what it actually comes down to are the basic benefits of any "participatory culture," be it religion or a fandom subculture, from Star Wars and Harry Potter to My Little Pony and Supernatural. The social benefits that Jenkins describes include the simple but crucial element of social validation: "Members who feel some degree of social connection with one another and care about other members' opinions about their contributions." But as Cep points out, "Atheism, however, is not a single identity, ideology, or set of practices." It's just nonbelief.

So according to the data collected by nerds who specialize in the the random, chaotic patterns of human behavior, we're living in increasingly faithless times. But when that outlook is still stigmatized–not to mention statistically correlated with higher rates of depression and anxiety–it almost seems natural to look for an alternative belief system. For some, that's the Force. For others, it's WWDD ("What Would Dumbledore Do?"). And because reality is so much odder than fiction, they're both technically good for you.

Medium


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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