At least we have reached a topic I can weigh in on with a (short) lifetime of experience. Since the 6th grade (if not before) I have been involved in a number of fandoms that make up an important part of my identity — for better or for worse. I grew up engrossed in everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to the DC comic universe. One wonders why I chose to watch The End of the F***ing World; I have to maintain brand loyalty. (Actually I’ve seen every Marvel movie and all of Jessica Jones, really I just wanted a change of pace). I have 3 tattoos, all from various fandoms I am a part of, and am very aware of my status as a social misfit overly invested in media. While it is something I greatly enjoy and will continue to do so, I recognize there are some potentially debilitating effects of my commitment. One need look no further than the disastrous re-release of the szechuan dipping sauce at McDonalds in honor of the Rick & Morty episode featuring it. Fans flooded the restaurants, jumping on tables, reenacting scenes from the show, and screaming obscenities at workers when the sauce packets ran out. This is NEVER acceptable behavior and I am ashamed to admit I am a fan of the show now after this ludicrous display. When someone’s life is defined entirely by fandoms and not belief systems or interpersonal relationships, it is incredibly harmful both to them and those around them. They seek to emulate the characters in the show and live their life by the imaginary rules the show follows; those rules often don’t translate to real life. Perhaps the best example of this concept is the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”.
Black Mirror is a superb show and “USS Callister” is, alongside “San Junipero”, my favorite episode of the series. It is a punishing look at the world of one of the most famous shows of all time as well as perhaps the most famous fandom of all time, Star Trek and its fandom the Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever I like Star Wars). It takes a look at the real-world consequences of trying to emulate the characters of the famous 1960s television show. Its main character is a programmer named Robert Daly who creates a virtual world where he can inhabit the persona of Star Trek protagonist Captain Kirk in all but name. In Star Trek he is an effortless womanizer, sleeping with any woman he pleases, is cool, calm, and collected, and orders his crew around with efficiency. For these very same reason he is a prime example of toxic masculinity, and this is what “USS Callister” outlines so effectively. In his desire to live the fictional life of Captain Kirk he creates a world of real people and then tries to force them to invest in the fantasy the way he does. He sexually assaults his female coworkers and threatens violence on anyone who disobeys him. While this type of behavior is played as manly and suave in the show, in real life is is creepy and unacceptable. In Jenna Scherer’s article for Rolling Stone, “‘Black Mirror’: How the New Season’s Breakout Episode Guts Toxic Fandom”, the episode rails against the possessiveness of toxic fandom, with fans in this category believing they own everything about the property they obsess over and trying to recreate that possession in their daily lives. He, like so many other “disaffected nerd-bro” tries to hook up with his coworker and when she isn’t interested, he “finds a way to possess her the same way he meticulously collects his complete set of Space Fleet DVDs.” Fandom should be about enjoyment, not possession and exclusivity, and CERTAINLY not about coercion and abuse. I sat here for awhile and couldn’t think of a good segue so let’s talk about cult fandom.
As I mentioned before I watched the first four episodes of The End of the F***ing World and I can certainly see why it would attract a cult following. It has all the staples of a cult classic: low budget appearance, disaffected youth, a very dark sense of humor, flashes of extreme violence, and general anti-establishment sentiment taken to its almost comical extreme. Main character James is a self-proclaimed psychopath who has killed many animals and is looking for his first human victim. He finds it in Alyssa, a petulant child who delights in raging at anyone and everyone around her. All of these things lead up to a following not of mainstream appeal, but of those disillusioned by the world around them who look for people seemingly like them who are willing to live a completely atypical life. While I struggled a bit to get into the show (I didn’t find either of the characters relatable so I wasn’t really invested in their struggle; James’s dad seemed nice enough, if a little banal) it did have a very distinct appeal and aesthetic, and the later episodes involving James’s first kill were quite tense. However, without a doubt the best example of a cult classic show on our viewing list this week is the Netflix original series Stranger Things.
Stranger Things is such a perfect example of cult television because it features the hottest thing to be a fan over: the 1980s. Everyone is in love with the 80’s right now; I am, and in 1989 I wasn’t even a twinkle in my daddy’s eye. My parents graduated high school in 1991! Stranger Things hold a nostalgic appeal that encourages people to go beyond the text to explore the 80’s more thoroughly. Increased interest in classic 80’s staples like Rubik’s Cubes and Back to the Future abound (those bomb Nike shoes from the second movie that lace themselves were released a couple of years ago!) And the 80’s maestro himself, Steven Spielberg, just cashed in big on the 1980s appeal with his movie Ready Player One. Stranger Things features a ton of this 80’s nostalgia, inviting people to go get retro movie posters and toys and the like. Even Netflix is cashing in on this further with other 80’s themed shows like GLOW. But once again, fan obsession rears its ugly head even in the idyllic world of 80’s nostalgia. Dee Lockett writes a depressing piece for Vulture.com in which she chronicles the struggles of fan v star, where 15-year old actor Finn Wolfhard was being endlessly harassed by Stranger Things fans to hook up with his 14-year old costar Millie Bobby Brown. This is obviously not ok and he once again links to the disconnect between reality and the world of the show; he said on Twitch “people don’t understand that we’re people who aren’t the characters in the show … and then they attack my friends.”
As a fan myself, it’s depressing to see fellow fans taking properties so seriously that affects their daily lives and the lives of those around them. Being a fan is fun; you can gush about shows, books, movies, and games with people who love those things too, can make inside jokes and memes, and perhaps the most valuable geek currency of all: references. But you need a healthy dose of life outside your fandoms; I like to go camping, drive ATVs, play board and card games with my family. I’m learning to cook, working, and going to school. Being a fan is an important part of my life but it doesn’t define it; for me being a fan is a positive and progressive form of cultural engagement where I can bond with people who would otherwise be strangers over Harry Potter because of my dark mark tattoo or Star Wars because of my many, many t-shirts. But for people whose lives revolve solely around shipping unwilling teenagers and screaming “Wubba-Lubba-Dub-Dub” on the counter of a McDonalds, it is a negative form of engagement indeed, and sets the widespread acceptance of fandom back immeasurably.