Applied Psychology OPUS

Gender in Fandom

Kaya Mendelsohn

The community that arises around a band, movie, TV show, or sports team is known as a fandom. Each fandom contains its own culture, rules, and in-jokes that facilitate community engagement involving a subject that the members of the group are passionate about (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014; Stanfill, 2013).

Participants in fandom seek out those with this common interest in order to discuss, critique, consume, and enjoy content as part of a community (Booth & Kelly, 2013; Dixon, 2013; Korobkova, 2014; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014; Stanfill, 2013). This dynamic is the thread linking all fandoms, no matter the content on which the group is focused. A group of sports fans might gather in a living room to watch Monday night football and talk about a certain athlete’s season, while a group of One Direction fans might respond to each other’s comments on the band’s new music video. These interactions give the participants a sense of belonging within the group, and keep fans engaged in the content, long after the game or music video is over (Anderson, 2012; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014; Stanfill, 2013).

For those participating in more marginalized fandoms—those celebrating content that is not accepted by mainstream society to be worthwhile or cool—shame plays a large role in their fandom participation (Bell, 2013). People seek out fandom communities in order to have a way to express their enjoyment for these forms of content  without letting their friends or family know about their involvement (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). With the emergence of the internet and internet communities, fandom has become more accessible to the average fan (Booth & Kelly, 2013; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). The existence of the internet and the increased accessibility it provides sometimes means that ashamed fans will create secret blogs that are hidden from offline friends (Anderson, 2012; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). By having this outlet, participants in these fandoms are able to contribute to discussion and engage with others in similar situations, creating a tight-knit community that bonds over offline society’s rejection of their interest (Anderson, 2012; Bell, 2013; Booth & Kelly, 2013; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014).

Interestingly, these fan-based communities are often highly segregated across gender (Jensen, 1992). Specifically, females tend to identify with many of the more marginalized fandoms, while males comprise a fair amount of the more socially accepted groups. By looking at sports fandoms and boy band fandoms, this paper will explore how gender in fandom affects the way mainstream society perceives fandom groups and how shame is felt within these communities. Additionally, this paper will examine the concept of being a real fan in regards to differences in sexual expression and fandom identity.

What it Means to be a Real Fan

Regardless of what content is being celebrated, each fandom has its own set of rules defining what makes a “true” or “real” fan (Borer, 2009, p. 2; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). While the details might be different across groups, there is a general consensus across fandom that a real fan is one who knows every statistic on the subject, knows the details of major events, and shows active loyalty toward the subject (Anderson, 2012; Borer, 2009; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014).

In a boy band fandom, a real fan does not casually consume the band’s music, but knows every lyric by heart, posts pictures on social media sites or bedroom walls, and reads fanfiction about the band (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). The stereotype of the obsessive or “crazy” boy band fan is rooted in this extreme devotion to pictures, videos, and music that seem, to an outsider, to be vapid and shallow, focusing on good looks or cliché lyrics (Anderson, 2012; Jensen, 1992). A real fan, however, has emotional ties to this content, having formed lasting and meaningful relationships as a result of fandom subscription (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014).
In a sports fandom, a real fan is not necessarily someone who goes to every game, but who experiences the game in the presence of other sports fans (Dixon, 2013). This communal experience could take place at a pub, on an online forum, with friends at a viewing party, or at the associated field or stadium (Dixon, 2013; Williams, 2007). Interaction between fans of the same team is important to build community and strengthen bonds (Dixon, 2013). Knowledge of the game is necessary in order to be considered a real fan, and women are often thought of as lacking in this knowledge, causing them to be rarely considered true sports fans (Borer, 2009).

Both groups prioritize loyalty and devotion and may allow these qualities to become more important than being friendly to outsiders or potential new members, sometimes creating unwelcoming barriers when it comes to new fans (Borer, 2009; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). While fandom might act like a home or place of comfort to those at its core, people who do not feel as strongly about the content or do not resemble the “typical fan” might encounter an icy welcome and a lack of friendly counterparts (Anderson, 2012; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). In a sports fandom, this person facing persecution might be a woman, thought to lack the necessary masculine energy and sports knowledge to truly infiltrate the fandom (Borer, 2009). In a boy band fandom, this person might be a man or gender nonconforming individual, lying outside the typical picture of what defines a fan of this kind of content (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). Sports and boy band fandoms can be resistent to legitimize those aforementioned groups to which the subject is not generally targeted (Borer, 2009; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014), contributing to stigma around the “real fans” in each respective fandom (Anderson, 2012; Dixon, 2013).

Boy Band Fandoms (Female-Dominated)
 
Indeed, boy band content is aimed at and often consumed by a very specific demographic (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). A boy band is a product marketed to the heterosexual pre-teen or teenage girl (Jensen, 1992; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). Because of the nature of the boy band—the bubblegum-pink packaging and the youth of its fan base—this content is not considered highbrow or sophisticated (Jensen, 1992). While boy bands are most often mainstream entities, there is a level of shame involved in liking boy bands because of how the content is perceived as being frivolous and inappropriate for anyone over the age of about twelve (Anderson, 2012; Jensen, 1992; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). The modern-day boy band fan is dismissed and ignored for liking something as silly as a boy band (Anderson, 2012). Girls are made to feel guilty about their involvement in boy band fandom by friends, family, and acquaintances, therefore, forced to hide or justify their music choices when the subject is brought up in conversation (Anderson, 2012; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014).

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” (Korobkova, 2013, p. 9). This negative stereotype of the average boy band fan leads the group as a whole to be dismissed as unintelligent and driven by sexual attraction (Anderson, 2012; Korobkova, 2013). Because of these negative connotations attached to boy band fandom, mainstream society’s views of this group cause the members to disaffiliate with their fandom “family” when they are at risk of being ostracized or mocked (Anderson, 2012; Stanfill, 2013). Specifically, negative connotations around fandom can cause fans to feel shame because these individuals are simultaneously (a) put down and made to feel guilty for their interests, and (b) perceived as disrespecting their fandom community by not defending their interests (Stanfill, 2013). Because a “real fan” is one who stands up for his or her content, regardless of persecution, this dynamic makes it difficult for an individual to uphold his or her fandom identity (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014).

Sports Fandoms (Male-Dominated)

Contrary to boy-band fandom, the dominate group in sports band fandoms face fewer challenges to fandom identity. While a fair amount of females might identify as sports fans, society still views the sports fan pastime as a male-dominated one, as sports are heavily affiliated with masculine culture (Dixon, 2013; Williams, 2007). Sports are marketed toward masculine audiences through the aggressiveness of the game, the muscled and stoic nature of the athletes, and the sexual objectification of the cheerleaders (Borer, 2009; Dixon, 2013). There is a culture of alcohol consumption and aggressive behavior that goes hand in hand with sports fandom (Dixon, 2014). A desire to assert masculinity and interact with other men is a large part of sports fandom culture, creating tight-knit groups of men bonding over athletics and alcohol (Dixon, 2014).

Being a sports fan is considered “normal” by mainstream society (as long as the fans adhere to standards of masculinity; Borer, 2009; Williams, 2007). 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 (Dixon, 2013). 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—male sports fans are not punished or shamed for their fandom involvement, while female boy band fans are shamed (Borer, 2009). Reactions to wins or losses often become over-the-top and dramatic, ranging from dancing in the streets to drunken fights (Dixon, 2013). These methods of celebration or mourning are perceived by society as something to be encouraged as a hallmark of mainstream masculine culture (Dixon, 2013; Williams, 2007).

A key difference other than gender that influences the way sports fandom is seen by mainstream society is its lasting nature. Certain sports teams such as the soccer team, Manchester United, or the football team, the Arizona Cardinals, have existed for over a hundred years, while the average boy band has a career expectancy of about six years (Anderson, 2012). This difference in longevity fosters the idea that a sports fandom is rooted in history, while a boy band fandom is a fleeting fad, adding to the perceived frivolousness of the female-dominated fandom while giving credibility and legitimacy to the sports fandom (Anderson, 2012; Dixon, 2013).

Sexual Expression in Fandom

Because fandom has the potential to become a large part of someone’s identity, it filters into many aspects of life (Anderson, 2012; Bettis & Adams, 2006). When teenagers are heavily involved in fandom culture, this community can shape their views of sexual identity (Anderson, 2012; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). For some adolescents involved in sports fandoms, cheerleaders are the first examples of sexualized women that they see (Bettis & Adams, 2006). For some adolescents involved in boy band fandoms, the members of the band become the objects of their sexual desires (Anderson, 2012; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). Both fandoms deal with these forms of sexual expression in different ways, allowing for different societal interpretations of the sexualizing dynamic.

Sexualizing women in the world of sports—be it in lingerie football or cheerleading—is considered normal and appropriate (Bettis & Adams, 2006). Part of the masculine nature of sports fandoms is asserting heterosexuality and dominance over women (Borer, 2009). Cheerleaders are the wholesome-but-sexy, girl next-door male fantasy—a projection of masculine desire (Bettis & Adams, 2006). The women who are sports fans themselves are marginalized further, often forced to either ditch their femininity in favor of masculine, tomboy attitudes or become an “accessory fan,” at the game for the attractive athletes or pink, “girl-appropriate” t-shirts (Borer, 2009, p. 2). There is an inability to allow empowered female sexuality to exist in tandem with something as masculine as athletics, forcing women to become defensive when questioned about their sports fandom subscription (Borer, 2009; Dixon, 2014).

Unlike in sports fandom, where the sexualizing of the athletes is not necessarily a part of fan culture, sexual exploration and feelings of attraction are a large factor in the type of audiences drawn into boy band fandoms (Anderson, 2012). The boys in the band become the subject of sexual desire and an outlet for feelings of sexual energy (Anderson, 2012; Jensen, 1992). One of the most common ways sexual expression manifests is in fanfiction: stories written by members of the fandom, usually with romantic plot lines, featuring the members of the boy band. It is common for fan fiction to contain sexual undertones or vivid sexual scenes, especially when written by the older members of the fandom. Sometimes, the subject of the boy band member’s affection is the author or a third party who commissioned or prompted the work, but other times, fanfiction will feature two members of the boy band, resulting in homoerotic creative writing (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014).

Because the commonly held stereotype is that men are more sexually expressive and involved than women, sexual expression within a male-dominated fandom is much more accepted and acknowledged as valid (Anderson, 2012; Bettis & Adams, 2006). Sexual expression within a female-dominated fandom, however, is less accepted and often met with confusion or disgust (Anderson, 2012). Perhaps it is because of the nontraditional manifestation of this female sexuality—fan fiction—that makes it difficult for mainstream society to understand (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014). In order to explain her fascination with homoerotic fan fiction, one member of the One Direction fandom said that, “Just like men like to watch pornography with two women, girls like to read about two handsome men” (Sesek & Pusnik, 2014, p. 119). The difference between these two mediums—watching girls dance together or reading about boys falling in love—do not seem at odds with one another, but are met with very different reactions from society (Bettis & Adams, 2006; Sesek & Pusnik, 2014)

Conclusion

Society’s perceptions of the two fandoms examined in this paper are very different. Sports fandoms are normalized and incorporated into mainstream society, while boy band fandoms are thought to be frivolous and childish (Anderson, 2012; Dixon, 2013). Perceptions aside, these two fandoms share a lot of similarities when it comes to dynamics, such as the criteria for what makes a true fan, and the community bonding aspect of the group as a whole. In both male and female dominated fandom, sexual expression is addressed and, although it manifests in different ways, how the fandom deals with it has the potential to shape the sexual identities and attitudes of individual fandom members. Acting as a community and safe place for many, fandom facilitates meaningful relationships for people and content.
This paper is limited by the number of specific fandoms it examines. By bringing in fandoms centered around fictional content, which contain a larger mix of both males and females such as the Doctor Who fandom or the My Little Pony fandom, there are more dynamics to analyze in regard to gender in fandom (Bell, 2013; Booth & Kelly, 2013). Because of the nature of online fandom as a new phenomenon, there is much more to explore about this subject.

References

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