Love or Knowledge: What Makes a Fan?

By  · Published on November 12th, 2015

A few weeks ago, one of my Twitter friends posited an interesting question: Can you be a fan of Star Wars if you’ve never seen the movies? In our fandom-driven, geek-centric culture, the “what makes a fan” debate is one that comes up often, particularly in the more hardcore fanbases whose members sometimes act less like welcoming hosts and more like hostile bouncers at an invite-only club.

Merriam-Webster defines “fandom” as such:

Definition of FANDOM (noun)

1: all the fans (as of a sport)

2: the state or attitude of being a fan

That’s it. Nothing about the type of content consumed or the quantity.

Anyone who has ever gone to a comic con, however, or started talking with a new circle of geeks about a fandom they love, whether it’s Doctor Who or DC comics, has inevitably found themselves being given an arbitrary test to “prove” their fanhood. It’s a test that you never pass, because the passing grade is always on a sliding scale and entirely dependent upon the preconceived biases of the gatekeeper doing the quizzing. You know what I’m talking about.

But this is 2015. Entertainment is no longer limited to one medium and content is constantly evolving. With the focus on expanded universes and franchises spanning multiple mediums, movies aren’t the only entry point for a fan looking to jump into a new interest. Nor does the introductory content necessarily need to be one’s building block to understand that fictional world, the mythology built, or the sprawling franchise.

Take Star Wars, for example. The franchise may have started with three simple movies, but in the decades that have passed, the universe has expanded and grown to monstrous pop culture proportions. There have been over 100 novels set in the Star Wars universe, whether canon or legend, a dozen different reference books published, and multiple roleplaying game books. Multiple radio adaptations of the movies have been released. The Star Wars comics line is extensive, with new series and stories continuing to grow the universe. MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic alone created a vast video game universe online, with other video games like Star Wars: Battlefront and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic being wildly popular. Topps’ Star Wars: Card Trader app was launched this year and fans of all ages have traded millions of Star Wars cards back and forth globally since its release in March. As far as TV series go, both Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars have gained critical and commercial success, along with growing a fervent fanbase. And at the D23 Expo in August of this year, Disney formally announced plans to expand a 14-acre Star Wars-themed section of the park at both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

In other words, one could dive into the universe of Star Wars and not surface for years and years – and never once touch the first film trilogy or prequels. There is something to be said for loving and being familiar with the original films that started it all, but can a person really look at someone who has read every single Star Wars novel or who knows the comics series like the back of their own hand, and say they’re not a fan?

Fandoms begin when a group of people fall in love with a particular pop culture property. Maybe they idolize the characters; maybe the story is what moves them. Regardless of how a fandom grows, the seed from which it sprouts is always one rooted in love. And that should be enough.

I’ll use myself as an example: I’m a self-labeled Whovian. I love Doctor Who. It brings me absolute joy, and I would defend it to the death from those who dismiss it as “cheesy,” because, as I always explain, they are focusing on the wrong things. They don’t understand the spirit of Doctor Who. It’s not about the special effects or the science making sense. It’s about the wear and tear of immortality upon a person’s soul; it’s about unwavering friendship, courage, and conviction of character; it’s about the spirit of adventure and the hope that something wonderful is around every corner; it’s about the deep and unconditional love that a time-traveling, practically omniscient, damn near immortal alien has for our plucky little species of humankind. I could tell you the NuWho timeline backward and forward and if you were to throw out the title of an episode, I’d probably be able to tell you the gist of the plot and why it was important to the mythology. I watched the entirety of spin-off, Torchwood, and I have a handful of Doctor Who comics piled on my bedside table at this very moment.

But I’ve never watched a single episode of the classic Doctor Who series. I don’t want to. And, what’s more, I don’t need to. I know what’s come before, thanks to the internet and a generally inquisitive mind that enjoys researching that which I don’t know. Because while combative fans believe that it’s knowledge, and not love of a property that defines one’s fandom, what they forget is that those who truly love that fandom will dive into it and learn in their own time. Not to win a pop culture pissing contest, but simply to spend more time in the world they love.

That’s the wonderful thing about living in the age we do. We can pick and choose our interests in a fandom and what speaks to us in a way that previous generations never could. The very first Star Wars fans had the movies, a few novels, and that’s it. We’re lucky enough to have an entire content and media universe. The longest-running and biggest properties are worlds unto themselves. Look at the transformation of Marvel in the last decade, from financially struggling comic book publisher to entertainment juggernaut and global phenomenon that is legitimately shaping the way we view the world. How lucky are we to be alive now, at a time in which there are so many stories built within the fictional universes that we love that we can tailor-make our own fan experiences without sacrificing any of that love? It’s an embarrassment of riches that, sadly, too many fans take for granted.

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Happy little nerd in a world made of words. | Editor-at-large: Moviepilot | Writer: Forbes, Marvel, and Film School Rejects | Contributor: Birth.Movies.Death.