Fans of Trump, Fans of Jesus

To start. I want to return to the original conceptionalization of fanaticism defining fandom. So, let’s do a dive back into what this word means. Merriam-Webster defines “fanaticism” as having a “fanatic outlook or behavior.” Well, that’s not helpful, because it defines the term with a different version of it; so, what is fanatic? The dictionary says “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” Now, that helps. Now we can see this idea that a person who believes in something so intensely that they do not challenge their beliefs about that thing, and will act based on those unchallenged beliefs, including silencing those who do not believe the same thing. That is fanaticism.

Duffet (2013) talked about this aspect of fans, and how fans have been seen as having an intense level of obsession about celebrities or some other object of affection at the core of their fandom. This description of fans came from concerns about religious fanaticism, primarily, but also political fanaticism. Essentially fanaticism deals with an excessive amount of unchallenged beliefs that cause extreme positions in thoughts, feelings, and related actions. When we think of religious or political fanatics, we think of terrorists (such as radical Islamic or Christian terrorists, eco-terrorists or anti-capitalists), or revolutionaries (such as the communists who caused revolutions in Russia and China), or hatemongers (such as the Westboro Baptist church or white supremacists). Fanatics are individuals whose religious or political beliefs are so extreme that they are willing to oppress, hurt, and even kill others (who are positioned as non-believers) in the name of those beliefs.

Now, we have not seen that level of hate or pain caused by sports, media, or music fandoms (or have we? That’s next week’s discussion), but we do see a connection between religious and political fanaticism and these fandoms: for fanatics, the balance seems tipped toward emotional and irrationality, and Duffet (2013) helped us see emotionality as a defining feature of fans. The idea that being a fan has a very strong, central emotional component is similar to how we think about religious or political fanatics who, we say, have lost it – it being their rational ability to appraise themselves, the world, and others, and to act accordingly.

So, if religion, politics, and these fandoms share this potential to “lose it” and tip into all-out fanaticism, then do they share other similarities? Is it possible for a person to be a fan of a specific political party or politician – or religion or religious figure? Is a Trump voter a fan of Trump? Is a Christian a fan of Jesus?

Indeed, many scholars have written about how these pop cultural fandoms have led to or replaced religious beliefs, like Lawrence and Jewett (2002) discussing Star Trek (similar discussions circle around Star Wars, The Big Lebowski, H. P. Lovecraft, and Seinfeld). But I think we can go the other way in this comparison, and say that politics and religion can result in the same level and type of fandom as sports, media, and music. I honestly think the answer to the questions above is yes because of these stories and others.

The descriptions in Badiu (2017) and Vivaldo (2011) seek to separate the fans of a religion from the devout followers of that religion, with Vivaldo interviewing an author who makes the argument about “real believers” – but this argument seems similar to others we have seen in this course about “real fans” versus “casual fans.” This language about “real believers” and “non-believers” brings back the idea of fanaticism. Minkel (2015) and Smith (2017) suggest some “play” or ironic amusement with political fandoms; but even then, there appear to be “real fans” of these politicians, which others have described as “creepy” or “extreme.” These discussions suggest that these fans have carried things too far because they are not supposed to be so emotionally attached to these politicians.

Indeed, religion and politics are seen as very serious subjects in Western civilization, and not something to be taken lightly – in may ways, they form the backbone for human societies and cultures. Thus, the idea that you could be a “fan” of something religious or political is seen as not taking that object seriously. Fandoms – especially pop cultural fandoms – are seen as being more childish because of how much irrationality is associated with being a fan. With religion and politics, one is meant to be engaging in them to make rational choices for their lives. Pop cultural fans are seen as escaping those lives.

But shouldn’t a person be passionate about their religion? Wouldn’t a politician want to inspire their base to get out and vote? Aren’t these emotions akin to the love and devotion sports, media, and music fans experience?

At their root, pop cultural fandoms, politics, and religion all seem to deal with and touch upon similar human needs, such as a sense of purpose, belonging, and devotion. Myself, and others, have argued that a core element of being a fan is repeatedly returning to some “thing” – some object of affection that people repeatedly engage with. Is there not something similar in religion or politics?

Van Zoonen (2004) compared fan communities with political constituencies that form in politics. She based her comparison on the shared performances that fans and constituents do – that is, the actions they undertake that lead to their identification as fans and constituents (such as fanfiction for the one, and voting for the other). Both groups engage in community-building that can be focused towards social and civic justice. And, finally, both groups have heavy emotional investments in their communities that relate to their identification with others in the community, as well as the object or person at the core of their fandom (think Trekkies and Bernie Bros).

Now, that is politics. And it makes sense that this has happened in politics, especially within the last decade given the impact of Web 2.0 on politics. Just as social media has impacted the relationship between fans, producers and celebrities, these technologies have been changing the relationships between politicians and their constituencies. Politicians are using social media more and more to organize their constituencies and encourage voting and support for politicians and parties. Politicians rely on the same viral processes as companies to spread their advertisements and campaign messages. Thus, politicians want their “fans” to help them campaign and get elected – if the politician wins, so do the fans, after all.

At the same time, this relationship relies on the same power dynamics as sports, media and music fans, since the politician controls the relationship and the fans do the work of campaigning for free. Turow (2013) describes this process for media audiences and producers. This same process can be applied to politicians; indeed, as with any business, a politician needs the support of the people to have a job. In a democracy, a politician’s livelihood is in the hands of the people. In a sense, so is a company’s, since a company with no customers is not long for this world.

The same could be said for any organized religion: a religion cannot exist without followers. As with politicians, celebrities, musicians, and media producers, a religion then would negotiate its relationship with its followers so that the followers help to spread the religion’s message. The religion uses its followers, or fans, to help further the goals of “the creators and distributors of content” (Turow, 2013, p. 6), whomever those creators be in that religion. A difference could be in how tailored the messages are; according to Turow, digital communication technologies allow media producers to tailor their messages to specific audiences, based on the preferences of those audiences. Such personalization allows companies to go after people who would be most likely to engage in their products. Politicians are infamous for making promises to specific audiences, even if those promises contradict one another. Religions do not have to cater to specific interests in this way – or do they? Is that perhaps why one religion can have different denominations?

If we can see politics and religions having the same type of power dynamics and these fandoms, then that means the theories and methods related to political economic analysis apply to these institutions. Doing so would help us to understand “how the popular becomes popular” (Meehan, 2013, p. 161) in politics and religion, as well as to understand the “critical consciousness” of political and religious “fans” (p. 168) that leads them to be agents of change in the world. If we can understand how religious and political fans come to be and relate to their political and religious organizations, then we could better understand what leads them to support specific causes and politicians, or engage in charity and activism. If we can understand how political and religious fans come to view themselves, their fandoms, and other fans (as well as non-fans), then we could better understand how and why people engage in activities to change the world.

All of this is to say that there appears to be several ways to compare sports, media and music fandoms with politics and religion that allow us to see politics and religions as being or involving fandoms. Some similarities they have involve the centrality of emotions (even to the point of fanaticism), the importance of community, the repeatedly returning nature of engaging with some object of affection, and the power dynamics between fans and content creators.

Now these commonalities all lead back to an important issue I raised earlier: should we see these more serious aspects of life as fandoms? Does doing so trivialize these important topics? Or does it indicate just how serious we should see sports, media, and music fandoms?

For me, I believe in the later – the comparisons make all fandoms important, because those fandoms are important to the fans in them.

 

Sources

Badiu, A. (2017, May 3). “Indian expats and Buddha fans can win more than 400 international calling minutes to India on PhoneIndia’s Facebook page.” PR Web, retrieved from http://www.prweb.com/releases/2017/05/prweb14298971.htm

Duffet, M. (2013). Understanding Fandom: An introduction to the study of media fan culture. New York: Bloomsbury.

Lawrence, J. S. & Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Meehan, E. R. (2007). “Understanding how the popular becomes popular: The role of political economy in the study of popular communication.” Popular Communication, 5(3) p. 161-170.

Minkel, E. (2015, April 23). “From Nate Silver to #Milifans: Welcome to the age of political fandom.” NewStatesman, retrieved from http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/04/nate-silver-milifans-welcome-age-political-fandom

Smith, P. (2017, May 10). “The ‘Mayllennials’ are young women who love Theresa May and it’s the most unlikely fandom of 2017.” BuzzFeed, retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/patricksmith/the-maylennials-are-young-women-who-love-theresa-may-and?utm_term=.yyqMzp0kV#.qs7LE3mDn

Turow, J. (2013). “How should we think about audience power in the digital age?” In A. V. Valdivia & E. Scharrer (Eds). The International Encyclopedia of media Studies: Media Effects/Media Psychology (1st Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Van Zoonen, L. (2004). “Imagining the fan democracy.” European Journal of Communication, 19(1), p. 39-52.

Vivaldo, J. (2011, May 17). “Are you a follower or fan of Jesus?” The Christian Post, retrieved from http://www.christianpost.com/news/are-you-a-fan-or-follower-of-jesus-50267/

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