Beyoncé's latest album, Lemonade, is a masterpiece visually and sonically — an exploration of love, betrayal, and black womanhood that's taken the world by storm. Of course, everyone loves gossip, so while the critics laud the album, the tabloid press have latched onto the seemingly personal story it tells. Not just tabloids, though: It seems like everyone wants to know who "Becky with the good hair" is. A leading contender is Rachel Roy, a fashion designer formerly married to Jay Z's business partner Damon Dash. Her Instagram has done nothing to lay the rumors to rest, and, as you might expect, it's now full of the kind of hate the internet is so good at generating.
Confession: If I were a member of the Beyhive, you'd best believe I'd be sitting on my hands right now, resisting the urge to yell at Rachel Roy (or Rachael Ray) on Twitter. I wouldn't just feel angry on Beyoncé's behalf. I'd feel angry on my own behalf. When you disrespect Bey, you disrespect me! How dare you disrespect her? And me?
I'm a fan. A "superfan," if you want to use that term. (Mostly I don't.) I co-founded the first Harry Potter fan convention series. I recently finished writing a 90,000-word fanfiction opus about One Direction. I've made my husband promise to hold me back if I try to rush the stage when I go see Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire next month. So, yeah, I'm one of those people. And I completely get why fans lash out at people who criticize or try to hurt the celebrities they love.
That time I got angry when a famous writer insulted Harry Potter
I know how the members of the Beyhive feel about Rachel Roy because I too have felt that incredible protectiveness and anger. Here's an example, something that happened to me a few years back: I'm at a party hosted by a famous writer, and somehow the topic of the Harry Potter books comes up.
"Harry Potter?" he says. "I tried to read those, but I just couldn't get past how bad the sentences were."
Again, this man is an internationally famous literary figure. If he says a book is poorly written, it probably is. In fact, I agree with him. J.K. Rowling never met an adverb she didn't love, and it gets old fast.
If I were a member of the Beyhive, you'd best believe I'd be sitting on my hands right now, resisting the urge to yell at Rachel Roy (or Rachael Ray) on Twitter
Nevertheless, when I hear him say the words "bad" and "Harry Potter" in the same breath, my stomach sinks and my blood boils. My thoughts race. I'm 40 years younger than this man and a guest in his house. I can't express how angry I feel at his casual dismissal, not in any way. I can't make a scene. I can't yell at him. I can't have a tantrum. Anything I say in this moment is going to come out sounding like a tantrum. I have to shut up. I have to be quiet now.
I can only assume that I managed it. I didn't get thrown out of the party, anyway. But why was I so angry? It took me years to figure it out.
Fandom is deeply personal
Most people like things, admire people. My mother likes flower bulbs and admires Benjamin Franklin. My father likes computers and admires James Joyce. My husband likes industrial design and admires the Oulipo. If you asked them, they'd say that I like Harry Potter, that I like the boy band One Direction, that I admire Gillian Anderson.
That's not quite true, though. I don't like things the way they like bulbs and computers and industrial design, or admire people the way they admire Benjamin Franklin and James Joyce and the Oulipo. I've gone past that.
There are many people like me out there. When I read Harry Potter for the 500th time, I'm communing with the spirits of the Sherlockians who hounded Arthur Conan Doyle into writing more mysteries long after he was bored with his detective. When I listen to Midnight Memories, my favorite One Direction album, I am one with the Beatlemaniacs of yore. If I manage to gather up the courage to wait at the stage door for Gillian (in my head, she's "Gillian"), I'll be joining the ranks of innumerable other fans at innumerable other productions waiting for the chance to connect with innumerable stars.
I call the part of my personality that propels me into obsessions the "fannish impulse." When I was a kid, I thought everybody had this impulse. As I grew up, I realized that was very far from true. Even some of the most passionate academics, people who have devoted their whole life to a single object of study, don't have it. "If you really love something that much," one of my professors once asked me, "can you ever have perspective on it? Maybe academia isn't for you, if your inquiry is always fueled by obsession."
This is an attitude I've encountered time and time again. Fans, especially female fans (so the conventional wisdom goes) are beings of pure emotion. We idolize the thing we love, whether it's Star Wars or Beyoncé or a sports hero or a movie star, and we can't bear to hear anyone critique the object of our affection. If we are #blessed to come into their presence, our emotions get the better of us and we form hysterical mobs (see: Beliebers, Directioners, Beatlemaniacs). We weep, we scream. We want to crawl into the skin of whatever it is we love, want to smush ourselves against it, want to remove all distance. By definition we can't be cool, detached, analytical.
I'll admit it: My reaction to my famous host, when he criticized J.K. Rowling's writing, feeds right into this stereotype. One more glass of wine and who knows what I might have done?
But that reaction doesn't tell the whole story. Remember: I agreed with my host's critique. I don't think J.K. Rowling is a great prose stylist. In fact, I don't like the last Harry Potter book at all — in my opinion, it more or less betrayed the entire moral universe the first six books set up, and I'll never forgive her for it.
One Direction? Even I can see that their music, while super fun, is no Lemonade. Gillian Anderson? I've sworn a public oath that I'll never speak to her. She can't possibly be as wonderful as I imagine her to be, and I don't want to find out the precise way my idol has feet of clay.
Henry Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California who founded the academic field of fan studies, once said that fandom comes from the mix of fascination and frustration. It's not just loving something or someone. It's loving them and wanting them to be better, to be more interesting, to be more perfect.
I feel about the objects of fandom very much like I feel about myself. I love and value myself. I also find myself endlessly frustrating. Saint Augustine would know what I'm talking about. In the Confessions he bemoans the human condition: "I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate!" Buddy, I know what you mean, I mutter, as I binge-watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians instead of going running. I simultaneously think I'm awesome and that I'm the worst.
Just don't try to tell me that I suck, that I should get my butt off the couch, that only morons watch reality TV and that running is a noble sport that has been practiced by every generation of mankind since the dawn of history. I will fight you tooth and nail. You don't have standing to criticize me! You don't know anything about me!
I think this is pretty much how everyone feels about themselves and their foibles.
Here's the trick: It's also how I feel about Harry Potter, how I feel about One Direction and Gillian Anderson. They're awesome! They're also the worst. But nobody else is allowed to say they're the worst, or I'll fight them.
I feel about the objects of fandom very much like I feel about myself. I love and value myself. I also find myself endlessly frustrating.
As far as I can tell, this is because I've incorporated my fandoms into my sense of self. When I was a kid, my mother and I connected over feminism in the form of Gillian Anderson's Scully; her Lily in The House of Mirth caught me just as I grew into questions about adulthood and what it means to live in a world that's fundamentally unfair. Offscreen, her fight for pay equity helped me understand the challenges I'd be facing in the working world.
When I was a teenager, the Harry Potter books taught me how to read against a text, how it's possible to identify with both the heroes and the villains — and the Harry Potter fandom taught me how to have adult friendships, how to handle internet drama, and how to run a business.
And it's not just that I like One Direction's music. It's that One Direction came to me at a moment when I was struggling with feelings about adulthood, about marriage and relationships, about what's "trashy" and what's "classy." Through participating in the One Direction fandom, I figured out so much about the world, about writing, and about myself that I'm inextricably tied to it. For better or for worse, when I die and my life flashes before my eyes, One Direction is going to be part of the montage.
When someone makes a joke about "Wrong Direction," I can't just let it go. Even though I know why they're doing it (things teen girls like are devalued in our culture; manufactured bands aren't cool; "Steal My Girl" is a kind of sexist song). Even though I know that reacting will only make me look bad. It's like someone insulted my mother. You can't say that about her! Only I get to say that about her!
The internet is a great enabler. It's enabled people all over the world to find their flock, their tribe. If you're a fan of obscure 1980s hip-hop, you can meet up with your people online. If you're still holding on to seapunk, there's a corner of Tumblr just for you. If you're sexually attracted to people wearing furry suits, congrats: You're not alone!
Without the internet, trapped in suburbia and bored out of my skull, I probably would have dropped out of high school. I'd never have met some of my best friends. I probably would never have met my husband. My life would be radically different and probably worse. I, like many other weirdos the world over, needed message boards in order to find my proper context.
The internet has also enabled greater access to celebrity than the average person has ever had before. If I tweet at Niall Horan enough times, there's a sliver of a chance that he might tweet back. And if I want to know where in LA he's going to brunch, I can probably find out, because there's another Directioner who just saw him at Café Gratitude. And if I'm in town, I can go there and drive past 50 times in hopes of getting a glimpse without actually crossing that line into stalking.
I may or may not have actually done this.
When someone insults your fave, they're hurting you too
I don't say that it's "good behavior" to vent your feelings on someone you've never met, whether you do it by sending 500 fan letters or by flooding Rob Kardashian's Instagram with rage for hurting his family's feelings by dating Blac Chyna. But I know why people do it, or why some people do it, anyway. It's because when someone hurts or insults your fave, they're hurting you too. At that disastrous party, my host thought he was critiquing Harry Potter. He didn't know he was critiquing a part of my identity.
I'm willing to bet that even if you've never sent a mean tweet to someone you didn't like, you know why people do it too, in your gut. Even if you don't have the fannish impulse. Even if you've never loved a book or a movie or a singer or a star so much you've let them into your heart and incorporated them into your identity. If you've ever lost your shit on someone who insulted your home state — or someone who was cruel to your best friend — you've been there.
Flourish Klink is the co-host of Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom. Find the podcast at SoundCloud, Tumblr, or @fansplaining; find Flourish at flourishklink.com, on Tumblr, or @flourish.