Is Fandom a Subculture?

About our Communal Obsessions

Subculture by Joe Baglow

Does being a fan means being a part of a subculture? Let us debate.

By definition, fandom is about people who join together because they share a common interest in music, film, literature, comics, hobbies, or other media.

Emphasis on the enjoyment of the product. Because of such enjoyment, they are not passive consumers but active ones. Hence, they collect, celebrate, discuss, and recreate their object of pop culture affection.

For example, how Whovians (Doctor Who fans) invented “Trock” (Time Lord Rock) and dress like the Doctor when they go to conventions. Also, how they buy the Doctor Who audiobooks, novelizations, action figures, posters, and props. (Who has a Tardis coin bank? This guy!)

A subculture is when a cultural group is established within a larger group. A subculture can be a part of the larger culture or are in opposition to it.

Ian O’Brien has the Guinness record for the largest Doctor Who collection

What brings them together are common norms and values.

For example, hipsters, goths, punk rockers, otakus, gamers, surfers, hip hop, and glam rock are clearly defined subcultures with a common aesthetic, lingo, and symbols. If you are not a member you would not get the meaning. You would fill lost.

Since “fan” is short for fanatic, it clues about what makes a fan different than nonfans. Obsession. Or as I like to call it, passion.

Granted, some fans take their fanaticism a little too far. But they do it because there is something about it that speaks to them and fulfill their lives.

Therefore, we should ask not only if fandom is a subculture but, what kind of subculture?

Fan Culture is a Participatory Culture

BU’s Whovian Society

There is an excellent article written by sociologists Henry Jenkins, Juli Jensen, and Matt Hills in which they examine fandom culture. Here is the link. You should read it.

They refer to fandom as a participatory subculture. What do they mean?

They delineate five areas in which fandom becomes participatory:

  • Low barriers to artistic expression (have you read fanfiction or watched fanvids lately?)
  • Strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others (have you ever read a fanzine?)
  • Some type of informal mentorship (newcomers learning the ropes and traditions from older fans)
  • Members who believe their contributions matter (have you ever met a SMOF or joined a science fiction club?)
  • Some degree of connection with one another and care about their opinions (have you joined a Facebook or online discussion group?)

Star Trek fans cosplaying, Pinterest

In reality, despite the stereotype of the lonely nerd or antisocial geek, fans are very social. They love to share their passions with like-minded fans.

Moreover, they feel safe and accepted among those who are like them.

Fandom is a communal experience rather than a solitary one. Fans love to be around fans because there is mutual understanding.

In fact, most fans realize early the mainstream do not share the same level of enthusiasm for their favorite music, shows, and books. Hence, 0nce they find their tribe, they feel validated. They are no longer alone.

Fandom is a social experience despite the “nerd” stigma.

Besides, one or two people do not make a community much less a subculture.

Is Fandom a Subculture? Which Kind?

Gathering of Star Wars fans,

In terms of pop culture and fandom, there are several competing theories. From those who argue that pop culture is a form of hegemony to those who argue fandom is a manipulation of meaning.

Honestly, as a fan myself I can tell you, fans do not stay awake late at night debating how their love of Star Wars oppresses them or how they are going to show Hollywood how you can have both, profit and quality.

Not quite. They rather debate who shoot first, Han or Greedo, or who was the best Enterprise captain.

Fandom is a big part of their identity. And let me tell you, no, they do not need to “grow up”.

Fandom is not a phase or something to be ashamed of. Dealing drugs, being a corrupt politician, or practicing animal cruelty are things to be ashamed of.

Fandom is about enjoying something you love with friends. As long as you are supporting your hobby and you are not hurting anyone, who cares what you do in your free time?

Besides, fandom subculture has given us fanzines, fanfic, cosplay, conventions, and filk, among others. All social experiences are meant to be shared in groups. Hence, participatory culture.

Anime fans are the best. Image: Anime Expo/Otaku House

Finally, is fandom a subculture? In effect, fandom is not a subculture. It is several.

Because people’s tastes and passions are so different. And it is okay.

We are not a monolith; we are a plethora of cultural expressions. We may debate and argue among ourselves about who or what is better, but we all respect each other.

Whereas for the mainstream we may all be the same, we do recognize our tribes and come together at cons to celebrate and be entertained.

Yes, Trekkies and Jedis can get along. And yes, steampunkers and cyberpunkers can be together under the same roof.

Pardon my French but, “vive la diversité” (long live the diversities). Fandoms united among our diverse interests, as they should be.

To conclude, fandom is several subcultures that get each other–and friendly competition with each other.

Reader, are you into fandom? What is your tribe? Do you feel like a subculture? And why?

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March 2023