Fandom as Pathology: “Us” vs “Them”

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Media Scholar, Joli Jensen, in her essay “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization” highlights the academic characterization of fans as the other. Jensen notes the classist and elitist depiction of the fan and questions the illustration of the aficionado in contrast to the representation of the fan. Furthermore, Jensen proposes, the academic representation of Fandom is rooted in a critique of modern life, via the social decay of modern society as illustrated by mass and popular culture.

The majority of the literature on fandom is characterized by ‘deviant’ fringe cultural groups. Fans are characterized as excessive and often participating in deranged behavior. Jensen notes two common characterizations of fans; the obsessed individual and the hysterical crowd. Fans as ‘them’ are distinguished from ‘people like us’, referring to students, professors, and social critics (Jensen 11).

Jensen notes that the majority of literature concerning fans discusses fans in relation to celebrities or fame. These critiques blame media influences on the irrationality and obsession of fans. In this mode of thought celebrities are constructed to function as role models for fans. Fans engage in “artificial relations” with celebrities to compensate for the lack of authentic social relations in the isolated modern day society (Jensen 14).

In this vein, iconic fans are depicted as crazed and frenzied. The pathological fan is described as an obsessed loner who engages in fantasy relations with a celebrity figure. Examples of obsessive fans killing the object of their desire, such as the murder of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman serve to further the dangerous and irrational characterization of fans.

The second common characterization of a fan consists of fans as members of crazed mobs. Images of hysterical teens at rock concerts or animalistic sports fans form the frenzied fandom perception. Furthermore, stories perpetuated by the media about the trampling of fans at concerts function to construct the ruthlessness and depraved behavior of fans.

In both the characterization of the fan as the obsessed loner and the fan as a member of a hysterical crowd, fans are described as victims of their fandom (Jensen 13). Fans become irrational because of the external corrupting forces of the media and the modern narcissistic society.

Jensen poses that the sensationalized characterizations of the fan are rooted in a scholarly desire to critique modern society. “The pathological portrayals tell more about what we want to believe about modern society and our connection to it, than about actual fan-celebrity relations” (Jensen 18). Thus these extremist representations of fans as deranged and marginalized ‘others’ stems from an academic critique of the present as “materially advanced” but “spiritually threatened” (Jensen 15). Fans are depicted as fragile self-esteem, weak, and without social alliances. Thus fandom is described as a consequence of the decline of community and the increasing power of the mass media, instead of reflecting upon fandom as newly constructed modern communities which serve as sources of joy and pleasure for the community members.

In contrast to the extremist, emotional fan, suffering from psychological inadequacy, there is the rational, intellectual aficionado. Jensen notes there are two factors serving to differentiate fans from aficionados; the modes of enactment and the objects of desire (Jensen 16). This differentiation stems back to the ‘minority culture’ theorist critique of popular culture in contrast to intellectually engaging, ‘high culture’.

This “cultural hierarchy” rests on the ‘high culture’ product denotation as wealthy, well educated, and rare, in contrast to ‘low brow’ cultural objects as inexpensive and widely available. These ‘low brow’ interests are characterized as fandoms, while the ‘high culture’ interests are noted as intellectual.

Jensen compares fan activities to academic activities and finds striking similarities between the two cultural groups (Jensen 19-22). A fan letter can be found in academia in the form of essay reviews. A fanzine can take the form of footnoted bibliographies and critical appreciations of academic work. Furthermore memorabilia in academia are collected as bibliographies, reviews, and commentaries of a subject or author of interest. Thus there are inherent similarities between fandoms and academic community interests, however fandoms are viewed as irrational and academia interest groups are depicted as rational and genteel. Jensen believes that the “ascription of dysfunction of fandoms is misguided and insulting” (Jensen 23). Furthermore the negative portrayal of fandoms falls victim to class and status stereotypes that overwhelm the modern societal landscape.

Jensen closes her essay by warning that the stigmatization of fans as the deviant ‘other’ only serves to hinder us from understanding how “value and meaning are enacted and shared in contemporary life” (Jensen 24). Jensen proposes looking at fandom in terms of the larger question of what it means to cherish, long, and admire within modern society. Furthermore, Jensen proposes that fandom should be viewed as a piece of how we understand our environment in relation to mass media and should be researched within the context of cultural location and social landscape of the era.

Jensen’s essay shed light on the modernist critique roots of fandom analysis and how the limited view of fandoms as a cultural extreme and cultural ‘other’ only serves to damage the modern understanding of sub cultural groups and the exploration of group fascinations. Her ability to draw upon the similarities between aficionados and fans is particularly insightful and highlights the classist elements of the academic critique of fans. I agree with Jensen that instead of depicting fans as the ‘other’ we can gain far more by viewing fans as ‘us’ and attempting to understand how value and meaning are constructed and experienced in the present.

(Lewis, Lisa, and Joli Jensen. Adoring audience fan culture and popular media. London: Routledge, 1992.)

Click on this link to view Jensen’s lecture, Picasso’s Fame: Art, Celebrity and Becoming a Fan. http://channel.walkerart.org/detail.wac?id=3970

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