Fandom’s influence and power on the internet: books by Tabitha Carvan and Kaitlyn Tiffany, reviewed.

Jun 13, 2022 3:09 AM
agency and controlfandomuse of the media

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Cumbermania was old news by the time a newspaper advertisement for a special Christmas episode of the BBC series Sherlock caught Tabitha Carvan’s eye as she stood in line in an Australian coffee shop. Carvan had watched Sherlock, and the appeal of the series’ star, Benedict Cumberbatch, had already been the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch in which a puzzled male host queried female guests (and a dismayed Cumberbatch) in a game show titled “Why Is Benedict Cumberbatch Hot?” Carvan recalled that her mother had described the actor as looking like “the underside of a stingray.”

Carvan had no particular feelings about Cumberbatch, but when she saw that ad, something just clicked. Carvan watched the special and promptly tumbled down the rabbit hole of a disconcerting celebrity crush, one that bordered on obsession. In her 30s, a working mother with two small children, Carvan was abashed. As a teenager, she’d cut photos of INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence into heart shapes and taped them to her skin, over her own heart. But she wasn’t that girl anymore. Or was she? Carvan’s winningly effervescent memoir, This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch: The Joy of Loving Something—Anything—Like Your Life Depends on It, recounts her quest to figure out what strange metamorphosis had occurred, how she had turned into a fan.

Fandom has come a long way since 1986, when William Shatner infamously told Star Trek buffs to “get a life” in another Saturday Night Live sketch. To this day, Shatner is still defending himself from charges of “demeaning” the show’s fans, despite having written a book-length apology in 1999. Now, every pop culture property that achieves any measure of success must reckon with fan communities made ever more organized and vocal thanks to the internet. Women fans in particular—long a stigmatized community within an already disdained group—have flexed their cultural power by demonstrating that the once-derided activity of writing fan fiction can produce IP juggernauts like Fifty Shades of Grey, which began as Twilight fic. People still make snotty remarks about the kinds of pop culture girls like—boy bands, romance novels, YA—but it’s a lot harder to do so without getting called out for being behind the times.

Some fandoms have developed enough clout to affect the world beyond pop culture, like the K-pop stans who sabotaged law enforcement requests for images of “illegal activity” at Black Lives Matter protests by flooding the agencies with fan content, and signed up for free tickets to a 2020 Trump rally so that the stands would be half-empty. Others, like the Johnny Depp fans whose devotion makes it somehow impossible to register that their hero is a vile, angry jerk, seem capable of swaying the court of public opinion, and perhaps even a jury.

This is the fandom in which Kaitlyn Tiffany, author of Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, came up: a fandom defined and powered by the internet, and specifically by young women. A staff writer for the Atlantic, Tiffany believes that the internet itself was shaped by fandom. Both, she asserts, by “providing structure, have also produced chaos. Both, in providing meaning, have sometimes oversupplied it.” The online community that reaffirms our deepest loves or fears by mirroring them back to us—taking what makes us feel powerless and turning it into a form of power—can also lead us to ugly extremes. If This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch seems written in the blush of first love, an aria of joyous discovery at the shedding of an obsolete inhibition, Everything I Need I Get From You more closely resembles the complex and ambivalent negotiations of a long marriage. Which is not to say that Tiffany doesn’t still love fandom—she manifestly does—but learning to live within the contemporary version of it can be vexing.

If we want to believe something badly enough, we can go online and find people who’ll join us in unearthing “clues” to back our theory up.

Tiffany’s fandom revolves around One Direction, but, remarkably, very little of Everything I Need concerns the band’s music. As Tiffany acknowledges, One Direction is a “coldly assembled consumer product.” Their songs seem less the occasion for fannishness than an excuse for it. That doesn’t mean a One Direction song can’t flood Tiffany with bliss. In one memorable anecdote, she recalls brooding at a rooftop party in Brooklyn, “suffering from the typical emotional trauma of being perpetually on Tinder,” when the host slipped “Best Song Ever” onto the sound system, just for her. She remembered some of the choreography from the 6-year-old music video, memorized in her college dorm room, and cut a rug. “Would I have started dancing, that day,” Tiffany asks, if the song hadn’t burst through her mood? “Probably not!”

No doubt Tiffany thinks “Best Song Ever” is a good song, and who am I to argue with that? But much of her pleasure also came from having a friend who knew this about her and cared enough to make it happen. In this narrative, One Direction’s music serves as a collection of souvenirs for various moments in Tiffany’s life, artifacts whose chief purpose is to resurrect memories. What both Benedict Cumberbatch and Everything I Need illuminate is the way a fan’s love often ignites during crises of identity. As Carvan mentions, she was standing in line for coffee that fateful day because “for the first time in one thousand years, I am neither pregnant nor breastfeeding,” and could finally drink it again. She tried to keep her obsession on the down low, but one night her husband suggested they watch something that didn’t star Benedict Cumberbatch, and she blew up at him. She hated that she had become subsumed in child care, that she had stopped writing. “What had my life become? I wailed. There was nothing of my own. All I had was Benedict Cumberbatch!” (Her husband, a keeper, listened, told her, “I think you actually do have something to write about,” and urged her to sit down to do it the next morning while he made the kids’ breakfast. Then he bought a robot vacuum cleaner and named it Benedict Cumbervac.)

Tiffany first fell for One Direction when her younger sisters dragged her to see a documentary about the band the summer after her freshman year at college. She hated “the event of college” and couldn’t find a place in the social world of the campus. The documentary, with its larking pretty boys who pause occasionally to reveal their tenderest thoughts, got under her skin. In it, the band members sit around a campfire and talk about being friends forever. To a sentimental young woman whose life had become gritty with unwelcome change, the idea was soothing. Best of all, Louis Tomlinson talks in the documentary of eventually being forgotten by the world except, he hopes, for “a mom telling her daughter” about the band she loved once, when she was young.

But sweet as that scene is, it’s not the one with which Tiffany chooses to open her book. Instead, she sheepishly tries to describe an in-joke among One Direction fandom that spun off a scrap of cellphone video recorded during a concert a few months before the band broke up in 2015. One of the band members mispronounces the word chance as “chonce,” and a fan can be heard screaming “What the fuck is a chonce?” The clip was reblogged endlessly on Tumblr—the fandom’s epicenter—became one of many inexplicable touchstones shared by fans, and was eventually acknowledged by the band themselves. “The joke is not funny,” Tiffany writes, and really, it isn’t even a joke. But if you know, you know, and references to it are a kind of glue, providing the connection that Tiffany often struggled to find at college and later, when she moved to New York, where she didn’t know anybody. Watching the clip, she writes, “even now, smacks me with a lingering hit of dopamine,” although “even now” might better be rendered as “especially now.” The further back an in-joke goes, the deeper the satisfaction and sense of belonging that come with getting it.

That is to say, the longer a fandom persists, the more people become invested in the fandom for its own sake. And, as a corollary, the more likely that fandom is to become plagued by schisms. Fans fight with the creators of the canon (Sherlock fandom is particularly notorious for this), but above all, fans fight about ships. As Tiffany recounts, One Direction fandom is bitterly split between those who believe in “Larry Stylinson”—the conviction that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are secretly in love and married to each other—and those who insist this is not the case. Part of Tiffany’s argument that fandom, specifically fangirls, have determined the character of the internet derives from the mad conspiratorial analysis Larry Stylinson fans have devoted to various bits and pieces of One Direction ephemera: tweets, glances, lyrics, numerical “references” too arcane to get into here, etc. Fannish imagination, when diligently applied, transforms all this detritus into shiny clues pointing to a hidden love story.

And the process ends up looking unsettlingly like the fever dreams of QAnon, complete with the shadowy authority figures dedicated to making sure the truth never gets out. Fandom has taught us that if we want to believe something badly enough, we can go online and find people who will not only agree but also join us in unearthing “clues” to back our theory up, even if the theory is as wild as Amber Heard concocting a yearslong scam reminiscent of Gone Girl. They’ll assemble to fight off the skeptics, creating the illusion that “everybody” finds nothing especially objectionable in, say, a Hollywood star texting a buddy about his desire to rape his girlfriend’s burned corpse. “Fanning is the dominant mode of online speech,” Tiffany asserts, “and the vitriol of defensive fans is the dominant mode of shouting people down on social platforms.”

Yet certainly some of that defensiveness comes from the still-common attitude that there’s something embarrassing and unseemly about the desirous imaginations of female fans in particular. As Carvan notes in This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch, she is not any more obsessed with Cumberbatch than one of her colleagues is with his favorite sports team. If anything, he has more branded gear than she does, yet no one at work quizzes him about it the way they do her. His fandom is “so normal that no one is going to question” it, she writes, so he doesn’t question himself. He is, in her eyes, enviably free of the self-doubt that afflicts her. It’s his hobby, and it’s fun. End of story.

On the other hand, this uncomplicated breed of fandom is also boring. It’s impossible to imagine a basic sports fan doing anything so clever and self-satirizing as the Southern Californian One Direction fan who recognized a metal barrier along the 101 freeway near her house as the spot where Harry Styles, after overdoing it on a long hike, had been photographed getting out by the side of the road to vomit. The fan went out and taped a poster board sign to the barrier reading “Harry Styles threw up here 10-12-14” and took a picture of it to post online. This “shrine” was covered in the media as if it were sincere, but the then–18-year-old—stuck living at home and going to community college after most of her friends had moved away—regarded it, Tiffany writes, more as “a comedy routine she was performing, primarily with herself as the audience.”

This is a funny joke, partly because, as the fan put it, “it was more of a joke about my life than his.” Being ambivalent about their fandom, Carvan and Tiffany get a lot more out of their relationship to it. To read This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch is to follow Carvan on a path to overcoming her shame and reveling in the sheer frivolity of her love for the Sherlock star alongside the women (many of them middle-age and older) who share it with her. Once she does, she proclaims, “it felt so good—you would not believe how good!—that I didn’t mind if it made me the biggest weirdo in the world.” She almost makes you feel as good as that when she gets there.

As for the more tortuous mentality of the fans like Tiffany, those who describe themselves as “One Direction trash,” who ironically claim that the band “ruined” their lives—well, those girls are on the bleeding edge of fandom. They know how absurd they are, and they find it funny. But they also understand and embrace the way the silliest things can be the most life-affirming, as long as you avoid the pitfalls of taking them too seriously, because the lack of seriousness is the whole point. What you get is a reason to dance on a rooftop, and a friend who knew that was what you needed. Theirs is a fandom that almost—almost—doesn’t need a band or a movie or a TV show around which to organize. Canon is merely the sand; they make the pearl, together.

By Tabitha Carvan. G.P. Putman’s Sons.