It’s easy enough to criticize social trends and the self-defeating behaviors of other people. This also puts one into the familiar role of the grumpy old (white) guy complaining about how much better things used to be (and it’s uncomfortably close to the idea that we can “make America great again”). Indeed, many mythological traditions did exactly that. The ancient Greek notion of the Five Ages of Man, for example, lamented that in each stage, humanity had devolved further and further from its nearly divine original state.
But it’s also true that we live in the age of the cult of celebrity. Along with total war, literalistic fundamentalism and consumerism, this is one of the most flagrant examples of what Joseph Campbell called our demythologized world. Michael Schulman notes that we have many earlier examples of celebrity worship dating as far back as the 1840s. But it began in earnest with the astonishingly rapid rise of the movies, and it essentially defined the entire course of 20th popular culture. I write about it in three essays, here, here and here:
The losses of meaningful stories, effective ritual and divine images have resulted in our cult of celebrity. Instead of developing relationships with Aphrodite or Zeus, we adore each in a succession of actresses, athletes or politicians, who inevitably betray us by proving to be all too human…If we only knew: The soul grows through an endlessly repeating cycle of innocence, projection, disillusionment, grief and expanded awareness, followed inevitably by new innocence or denial. In that process, those who cannot acknowledge or manifest their own creativity or nobility are likely to perceive those features in public personalities. We personify a grand, transcendent cause – the cosmos itself – as the King.
“Fan”, of course, is short for “fanatic,” a term which long ago was associated with orgiastic rites and demonic possession. This may explain why we often describe fan behavior in religious terms, such as “worship” and “idol.”
For several generations we have idolized stage, film and TV actors, a few politicians and plenty of Rock musicians. For a detailed discussion of Elvis and his mythic implications, see Chapter Eleven of my book. We all grew up with the cult of celebrity as the ongoing background of our daily lives and our nighttime dreams. But, as William Shatner told the Star Trek conventioneers in a Saturday Night Live skit way back in 1986,
Get a life, will you, people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!…You, you must be almost 30. Have you ever kissed a girl?…When I was your age, I didn’t watch television…I lived. So, move out of your parents’ basements and get your own apartments—and grow the hell up!
At least the Trekkers (who at the time could actually afford to rent their own apartments) were getting out of the house and interacting. And so were the crowds attending Comic-Con International, which had begun in 1970, with 300 attendees (it’s now a four-day bonanza attracting 135,000 fans, many of whom wear elaborate cosplay costumes).
By 2005, teenagers were being exposed to over 3,000 advertisements daily, and ten million by the age of eighteen. Very soon, however, smart phone technology drove the cult of celebrity in ways no one could have foreseen. Now, the dominant influence on all our lives is screens, and the screens direct us inevitably toward the rich and famous.
Schulman’s article “Superfans: A Love Story” is essential reading on this subject. He begins by recounting how a music writer who tweeted some mild criticism of rapper Nicki Minaj received startlingly nasty tweets and texts within two hours from hundreds of Minaj’s twenty-one million Twitter followers. Schulman continues:
Like most music idols, Minaj has a hardcore fan base with a collective name, the Barbz; Beyoncé has the Beyhive, Justin Bieber the Beliebers, and Lady Gaga the Little Monsters. The most fervent among them are called “stans.” The term derives from a 2000 track by Eminem, in which he raps about a fictitious fan named Stan (short for “stalker fan”), who becomes so furious that Eminem hasn’t responded to his letters that he drives himself off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk. Unlike regular fans, stans see themselves as crusaders, pledging loyalty and rushing to their idol’s defense against dissenters…A glance around the pop-culture landscape gives the impression that fans have gone mad. In May, viewers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” revolted against the show’s final two episodes…More than 1.7 million people signed a petition on Change.org to “remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers.”
The language evolves quickly. Another term – “shippers” – refers to fans who, often disregarding narrative logic, advocate for certain characters to couple up. Schulman lists other examples of the current madness, such as a lawsuit against the producers of a documentary about Michael Jackson, which
…gets at the heart of modern fandom: an attack against a celebrity or a beloved character is an attack against the fans, and it is their duty to retaliate…(and) nerd culture has become mainstream. Now that couch potatoes have social media, they have risen up and become active, opinionated participants. As a result, movie studios and TV showrunners have to cater to subsets of diehard devotees, who expect to have a say in how their favorite properties are handled. The producer I spoke to said, “The question we always ask ourselves in the room is: Is the fan base so strong and such an important part of the box office that we have to change something to keep them happy?”
This business has long preceded smart phones. Schulman gives an example from 1893, when Arthur Conan Doyle, sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, finally killed him off in a magazine story. However, when thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions and formed “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs, Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect him.
Another aspect of the new landscape is that fan disputes are nearly indistinguishable from partisan politics, and both have thrived in the new technological landscape. Schulman writes that the rise of Trumpus (my term), “…who was a pop-culture icon before he was a politician, neatly overlaps with the rise of toxic fandom…” It’s well known that his most enthusiastic fans – white supremacists and gun crazies – have organized over the same Facebook/Twitterverse that he manipulates.
But here, we mythologists have to ask what new order might be trying to be born out of this particular vacation in chaos. We can begin to reframe the current loony environment by observing that technology now allows fans, for better or for worse, to (figuratively) rise up off their couches and get involved. Henry Jenkins, a self-described “Aca-fan” (part academic, part fan) and author of Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, one of the founding texts of fan studies, seems to be our best guide. Early on, he was struck by…
…how impoverished the academic framework for thinking about media spectatorship was – basically, though everyone framed it differently, consumers were assumed to be passive, brainless, inarticulate, and brainwashed. None of this jelled well with my own robust experience of being a fan of popular culture.
He sees fandom as
…a source of creativity and expression for massive numbers of people who would be otherwise excluded from the commercial sector…(it) is born out of a mix of fascination and frustration. If you weren’t drawn to it on some level, you wouldn’t be a fan. But, if it fully satisfies you, you wouldn’t need to rewrite it, remake it, re-perform it.
Jenkins introduced the concept of “poaching,” the idea that fans construct their own culture – fiction, artwork, costumes, music and videos – from content appropriated from the mass media and reshape it to serve their own needs and interests. Now, he points out, surveys indicate that over 60% of American teens have produced some forms of media, and large numbers of them have distributed that media content online. He proposes a “Civic Imagination”:
We believe that imaginative acts shape many elements of our understanding of the political realm helping us to: model what a better world might look like; identify ourselves as civic agents, map the process for change; build solidarity with others within our imagined/imagining community; develop empathy with those whose experiences differ from our own, and for the oppressed, imagine equality and freedom before we directly experience it.
This is mythological language; may it be so. For more on his ideas and related concepts, read about Participatory culture, the Fan Studies Network, Archive of Our Own, (which hosts more than 33,000 fan communities), Transformative Works and Cultures, New Media Literacies, Civic Imagination, and Mark Duffett.
Political and cultural reactionaries seem to be motivated by the fear that their long-cultivated identities may be in question. But should we be surprised that such anxiety actually masks its opposite? Deeper down, the hunger we feel is not simply to be entertained (see below), but to be drawn out of ourselves, and this includes our notions of gender.
An early and profoundly important version of participatory culture began in the 1950s. The Elvis craze and Beatlemania crystallized the image of the “screaming teen” stereotype, which has often inspired a certain contempt, a way of policing adolescent-female libido. But Duffett has suggested that “fan screaming may be a form of ‘affective citizenship,’” a communal defiance of ladylike behavior.
We are back in the realm of myth and ritual. I have heard accounts of African boys dancing before the huts of their elders, demanding to be initiated. Similarly, perhaps, young white girls (who might have been timid and obedient as individuals) formed mobs, breaking through police lines to approach their Dionysian priests, and sometimes to “dismember” them as the Maenads had done with Pentheus. One of Elvis’ bandmembers
…heard feet like a thundering herd, and the next thing I knew I heard this voice from the shower area…by the time we got there several hundred must have crawled in…Elvis was on top of one of the showers…his shirt was shredded and his coat was torn to pieces. Somebody had even gotten the belt and his socks…he was up there with nothing but his pants on and they were trying to pull at them up on the shower.
Elvis beckoned to women, inviting them into Dionysian ritual – the madness, the pharmakon – that is both cause and cure of itself (later, the publishers of a 1998 translation of The Bacchae would acknowledge the connection by putting a mug shot of Elvis in his army uniform on the cover), as I write in Chapter Eleven:
Recall that Dionysus descended to Hades and raised Semele to Heaven. Similarly, while the spirit of feminism was veiled in America’s collective unconscious, young Elvis descended to America’s underworld, Memphis’s black ghetto. The blues had power (and danger) because it tapped into the soul’s depth, where extremes of joy and grief meet each other. Having become a conduit for that dark and terrible beauty, he emerged into the light – the national spotlight of show business – precisely at America’s initiatory moment. And in some profound yet inarticulate way, he brought guests with him – the Goddess and the beginning of the long memory. His eroticism, writes Doss, encouraged girls “to cross the line from voyeur to participant…from gazing at a body they desired to being that body.” Abandoning control – screaming and fainting, and eventually choosing to be sexual on their own terms, to desire their own orgasms – was the beginning of their revolution. One woman writes that Elvis “made it OK for women of my generation to be sexual beings.”
It became apparent that millions of girls had deep longings and deep pockets. Quickly, the music industry responded with “girl groups.” By the early sixties, this music was the one area in popular culture that gave voice to their contradictory experiences of oppression and possibility. It encouraged girls to become active agents in their own love lives. By allying themselves romantically and morally with rebel heroes, they could proclaim their independence from society’s expectations about their inevitable domestication. And even when the lyrics spoke of heartbreak and victimization, the beat and euphoria of the music contradicted them.
And the music was made by groups of girls. It was, writes Susan Douglas, “a pop culture harbinger in which girl groups, however innocent and commercial, anticipate women’s groups, and girl talk anticipates a future kind of women’s talk.” If young women could define their own sexual sensibility through popular music, couldn’t they define themselves in other areas of life? Another woman claims, “Rock provided…women with a channel for saying ‘want’…that was a useful step for liberation. Eventually, their desires crystallized as the quest for the authentic in all areas. Decades later, Douglas argues that “…singing certain songs with a group of friends at the top of your lungs sometimes helps you say things, later, at the top of your heart”…Cynthia Eller writes that feminism began by asking why little girls had to wear pink and big girls had to wear high heels, but it “…segued naturally into one that asked why God was a man and women’s religious experiences went unnoticed.”
Continue to Part Five of this essay here.