Fans and Fan Clubs

views updated


A fan is an audience member for any form of modern popular culture (including literature, sports, theater, music, film, and television) who has developed a sustained and meaningful attachment to that form or any of its elements, such as particular performers or works. The origin of the term is ambiguous, deriving either from "fanatic," a seventeenth-century derogatory English word for religious zealots, or from "fancy," a more benign nineteenth-century word for the followers of pastimes like pigeoning or boxing. Whether one views the attachment of fans to forms of popular culture as positive or negative, fandom implies a devotion or loyalty that challenges conventions of audience behavior. While most people participate in a performance by temporarily adopting a particular audience role that requires particular behaviors and fosters intense feelings of identification, fans permanently adopt the audience role, working to extend and sustain feelings of identification beyond performance and into everyday life.

Fans are always a minority at the margins of popular culture audiences, separating themselves as a group with their own fashion, knowledge, slang, and rituals. Specific fan activities include accounting, in which fans engage in detailed comparison, evaluation, and interpretation about performers and their works; collecting, in which fans bring together and display objects that enable them to either remember particular fan experiences or intensify their devotion; storytelling, in which fans tell complex narratives to one another about their own fan experiences as a way to shape a sense of shared experience; and socializing, in which fans regularly come together at meetings, parties, and conventions and work to create and maintain a group identity.


The phenomenon of fandom first developed during the commercialization of popular culture in the nineteenth century, when the forces of industrialization transformed informal pastimes into products to be consumed. Previously, small groups of local amateurs together created, shared, and enjoyed their own cultural activities. Commercialization, however, required people to assume new, specialized roles that had less to do with close social connections than with impersonal market forces: One group of people produced culture as paid writers, composers, actors, and players, and another much larger group of people received it as paying readers, spectators, and listeners. Fan behavior appeared in the 1840 and 1850s as a way to close the distance between producers and audiences in the market system and to minimize the perceived anonymity of commercial consumption. Fans were those who refused to accept the limited and temporary participation afforded by the purchase of cultural experiences; they sought alternative means of participating in popular culture that involved lasting personal connection and depth of feeling.

In literary history, fans emerged with the development of mass publishing and authorship in the eighteenth century and the subsequent development of silent reading, which encouraged an individualized experience of a story. Before mass publishing, authors were members of an elite class; they would write and publish their work in limited editions to share with small circles of literate friends. Most authors were not considered as important as their works; often authors' names did not even appear on books. But mass publishing and silent reading enabled large numbers of readers to intimately experience the narrative voice of someone they had never met and to feel a strong bond with his or her characters. European readers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were among the first to demonstrate this relationship to authors and books; they frequently sent Rousseau letters in which they talked about their attraction to his "spirit" and desire to meet him. In the United States, this sort of behavior continued, with readers flocking to New York City throughout the nineteenth century in order to visit the alleged gravestone of the main character in the bestselling novel Charlotte Temple (1794), and with thousands of American readers attempting to meet British novelist Charles Dickens during his visit to the United States in 1842.

In American music history, the first fans were urban "music lovers" who, after 1840, focused more on hearing public concerts than making music themselves in the home. In particular, music lovers embraced the Romantic aesthetic that valued the concept of the individually authored "musical work" and eschewed the socializing common to concerts of the day; instead of talking and meeting with friends, they gave silent and intense attention to a work's unique, emotional qualities. This focused listening was facilitated by an increasing number of concert tours by virtuoso players and singers in the 1850s, including Henry Russell, Ole Bull, Henri Vieuxtemps, Leonard De Meyer, Maria Alboni, Jenny Lind, and Maurice Gottschalk. All cultivated ecstatic and obsessive responses and created a new body of dedicated listeners, many of whom attended multiple concerts, rhapsodized in diaries about performers' character and skill, and showed keen interest in their personal lives. Jenny Lind's tour of the United States in 1850, managed by P. T. Barnum, was one of the most significant; not only did audiences fill the streets just to see and touch Lind, but Barnum effectively fed such audience interest with widespread merchandising of Jenny Lind–branded soap, boots, lamps, and hats.

New feelings of connection and loyalty exhibited by literary and music consumers in the 1830s and 1840s came more naturally to the working-class "kranks," or members of fraternal baseball clubs, in the 1850s and 1860s. Fiercely loyal to their local neighborhood, or "home," teams, kranks were known for brawling with one another and disrupting games if things were not going their way. This kind of dedication intensified when baseball became a professional league sport in the 1880s, with a roster of the best national players working under team contracts and hordes of public spectators attending games by paid admission. In fact, the term "fan" first appeared in a newspaper in 1899 as a reference to spectators for Kansas City's baseball team. By 1920, the increasing availability of public transportation for team travel, the extraordinary feats of star players like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth, and a successfully promoted connection between baseball and community pride created a wellspring of spectator interest and investment, and "rooting for one's team" became an important and organized part of the game itself.

One of the most significant forces in the development of modern fandom was the elaborate star system of theater and, later, film, which actively capitalized on audiences' desire for a deeper, more personal connection with performers. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, any play was always done by the local theater company in the local theater for a local audience. But after the Civil War, plays were generally staged by national traveling acting troupes, which put on plays night after night in various cities. In order to attract audiences, such troupes often touted their roster of particular and unique actors. The ploy soon took on a life of its own when people came to recognize actors regardless of their troupes. Audiences began demanding to see specific actors outside of character in "curtain speeches" and eventually developed a taste for realism on the stage in which actors did not present the heroic stereotypes of melodrama but rather what audiences thought were the actors' own traits and emotions.

Such individual star promotion was taken to another level in Hollywood in 1910, when film producer Carl Laemmle, in a Barnum-like stunt, floated a rumor that one of his actresses, Florence Lawrence, had died, and then arranged for her to miraculously appear in St. Louis. By the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood had developed a process by which all actors were transformed by marketing departments into recognizable and individual "personalities" with whom audiences could identify. In particular, studios collaborated closely with the many movie magazines of the era, which often featured old, new, and up-and-coming stars in them. The magazines—including Photoplay, Modern Screen, Screenland, Movie Stories, and Screen Album—reviewed every single film released and also included recipes, advice columns, beauty and fashion tips, and product endorsements from stars, as well as opportunities for fans to write in and ask questions of their favorite players. In the 1920s, the Hollywood star system was so successful that many fans across the country adopted stars' looks and lifestyles; some even went to Hollywood hoping to become stars themselves.

Twentieth-Century Transformations

The development of mass mediated communications in the twentieth century significantly transformed the earlier conditions that produced fan behavior. Producers and audiences continued to be separated not only by distinct roles but also by complex processes of communication in which the production of cultural products took place physically and temporally apart from an audience's reception of them. Such separation fostered greater mystery about performers and a desire to connect directly with them. At the same time, communication technologies, like the radio, phonograph, and television, enabled audiences to experience popular culture in the intimacy of their own homes and to incorporate it into their daily lives like never before. The phonograph, and subsequent recording devices like audio- and videocassette recorders also encouraged obsessive repetition and study, which further enhanced fans' feelings of connection to performers and works.

Not surprisingly, given the contradictions of separation and intimacy set up by modern communications, fan behavior in the twentieth century became far more visible and intense than it was in the nineteenth century. The first hint of the role the media would play in fandom was the 1927 funeral of silent film star Rudolph Valentino, at which an unexpected crowd of 50,000 grieving fans showed up and rioted when they were unable to view the actor's body. Such spectacles continued in the late 1930s when swing dancers, known as bobby soxers or jitterbugs, screamed and rushed the stage at the sight of big-band performers like Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra. Music fan behavior reached its pinnacle during the rock-and-roll era with the near riotous hysteria created by mobs of young teenage fans at concerts by Elvis Presley and the Beatles in the 1950s and 1960s.

Accompanying this new fan visibility was an organized effort by fans to publicly symbolize their devotion by grouping together into regional and national clubs. Such clubs were begun by fans of particular movie stars in the 1920s and 1930s and quickly became popular; by the early 1930s, for example, the Shirley Temple Fan Club had 384 branches with nearly 4 million members (Barbas, p. 113). Later, clubs appeared in all forms of popular culture, dedicated to film styles, film stars, music groups, singers, and television personalities, genres, and shows. Each club typically featured membership dues, membership cards, regular meetings or conventions, and newsletters. Fan clubs generally operated without any help or support from entertainment corporations; in fact, clubs were known for their distrust of the executives for which stars worked and often campaigned against corporations on stars' behalf. Early movie fan clubs, for example, practiced "boosting," in which they flooded studio executives with letters of support of their favorite stars in order to help them land better roles; many clubs also responded with angry petitions and letters to any perceived slights of their stars by the studios or the press. Such activity waned with the decline of the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s, but since the 1960s, TV fan clubs—for shows like Star Trek, Cagney & Lacey, and Beauty and the Beast—have similarly organized write-in campaigns to force producers to correct undesired plot developments or reverse series cancellations.

One of the most important distinctions between fan clubs was whether one was "official," operating with a star's blessing and endorsement, or "unofficial," not known or condoned by a star. The bonus of belonging to an official fan club was often some form of direct contact with the star, usually in the form of a signed photograph or letter. Official fans club members also had the benefit of exclusive access to information about a star's personal and professional life. Some fans, however, came to see such membership as inauthentic and manufactured, especially as studios and record companies, over time, started to pay increasingly close attention to fan clubs in an effort to assess the market and tap into a steady base of paying customers. Thus arose a "do-it-yourself" ethic among some fans as a way to avoid corporate manipulation. Punk fans in the 1970s, for example, adopted many of the activities of official fan clubs, such as writing and distributing magazines and adopting distinctive fashions, but they did so for their own purposes, many of which directly mocked or challenged the mainstream entertainment industry. For example, instead of registering with nationally organized clubs, complete with badges and stationery, punk fans congregated in local "scenes," put together by word of mouth and celebrated in homemade publications called "zines," which were passed out at shows. Science-fiction television fans in the 1970s and 1980s were especially notorious for skirting issues of copyright and circulating their own fiction and art that featured established television characters in alternative (including erotic) plots and situations never intended by producers.

All of this activity was further transformed with the development of the Internet. Before the widespread adoption of the personal computer in the early 1980s, both official and unofficial fan clubs existed thanks to publications and regular face-to-face contact at concerts or conventions (known as "cons" in the science fiction fan world). While useful in building a sense of community, such publications and events were fleeting, sporadic, and costly. But the advent of the Internet in the 1970s provided a cheap, effective alternative. In particular, the development of computer bulletin boards or discussion lists in the early 1980s provided an instant medium for fans to come together, discuss events, and trade stories, tapes, and knowledge, and fans quickly adopted it as a means to create community.

Fans who first embraced the Internet were generally established groups who used it to supplement extensive communal networks and institutions that already existed offline; Deadheads (fans of the rock group Grateful Dead), for instance, were among the earliest users of the WELL, a San Francisco–based computer network (Rheingold, p. 49). By the mid-1990s, however, with the development of the World Wide Web, online activity went from peripherally supporting fandom to becoming a central manifestation of fandom itself. Today, many fan communities have moved toward an exclusive online existence, jettisoning the fanzines and conventions that used to be part and parcel of fan culture. The most significant symbol of this transformation was the disbanding of the National Association of Fan Clubs in 2002; after twenty-five years of publishing a national directory and providing support for fan clubs across the United States, the association determined that it was impossible to compete with the immediacy of the Internet and keep up with the sheer amount of celebrity information on the World Wide Web.

Assessing Fandom

While fandom has existed in the United States for nearly 200 years, its value and meaning remain highly disputed. Images of fans as obsessive loners who stalk stars, for example, continue to be prevalent in fiction, movies, and music; real-life cases of celebrity stalkers lend proof to alleged connections between fandom and antisocial behavior. Indeed, several media critics have branded fandom a pathology, worrying about the psychological effects of fans' feelings of personal connection with media figures they have never actually met and the ways in which such attachments might replace meaningful relationships with real people. On the other hand, ethnographic studies of fandom have shown fans to be quite concerned with connections not simply to stars but also with other fans, something that engenders strong feelings of community and goodwill; the majority of fans seem to be well adjusted and otherwise "normal" individuals, with healthy relationships with spouses, families, and friends.

In such debates about fandom's psychological effect, issues of power and control are central. Some scholars see fans as oblivious to the market relations involved in the buying and selling of cultural expression; fans are alleged to be engaging in an unnatural and ultimately passive enthusiasm that naively supports corporate power. Others, however, see fan activities (particularly write-in campaigns and fan fiction writing) as examples of social power. Feminist critics, for example, have interpreted the screaming, shaking, seat wetting, and trancelike states exhibited by young women rock-and-roll fans in the 1960s as a kind of protofeminism, a moment in which women, unable to participate fully in a patriarchal society, could for the first time exert some form of power uncontrolled by men. Fandom clearly has a complicated relationship to the entertainment business; while fans are, in many ways, ideal consumers, devoted to the purchase of particular types of products and feeding a profit-oriented entertainment industry, their focus is entirely on maintaining their connection to performers and works. Sometimes fans spend as much time and energy subverting common business practices (through illegal trading and copying of products, setting up information networks apart from industry advertising, and developing their own means of accessing stars outside of "official" marketed venues) as they do supporting them.

In the end, fans' participation in popular culture appears more religious than anything else; like many religions, fandom involves a feeling of connection with an unattainable "other," highly ritualized devotional activities, shared moments of conversion, regular textual interpretation, and reverence for significant places and sites. Some scholars have even characterized various fan groups as modern "cults." Others, however, have emphasized that, while fandom shares a number of characteristics with practices of religious devotion, fans themselves resist literal interpretations of fandom as religion; such interpretations usually have a negative connotation and denigrate fans' own participation in traditional religious denominations. Instead, religious discourse can be seen as the only discourse available in society that adequately describes the intensity of feeling inherent in devotion. Whether it constitutes a form of religion or not, the important point is that fandom, like religion, has served as a potent source for creating identity, meaning, and community in daily life. From its beginnings in letter writing and public spectacles to its current existence online, fandom has been a valuable means for thinking about how we understand ourselves and our relationships to others in an increasingly commercialized and mediated society.

See also: Fads; Fashions


Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Barbas, Samantha. Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Braudy, Leo. The Frenzy of Renown. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Cavicchi, Daniel. Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Doss, Erika. Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999.

Gledhill, Christine, ed. Stardom: Industry of Desire. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Gorn, Elliott J., and Warren Goldstein. A Brief History of American Sports. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lewis, Lisa. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Revised edition. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.

Schickel, Richard. Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Daniel Cavicchi