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BTS performs in 2018.

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Fandom went mainstream in the 2010s — for better and worse

From Fifty Shades to Veronica Mars, the last decade brought major changes to fandom culture.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

At the start of this decade, “fandom” wasn’t a word most people knew, much less fully understood. Though the word has been in use since the early 1900s, for most of the last 100 years or so, it’s been known mainly to people who considered themselves to be in fandom — a relatively niche number of people who self-identified as being part of a community of fans.

That all started to change with the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe near the end of the Aughts, which kicked the gradual mainstreaming of geek culture into high gear. And alongside that mainstreaming, fandom itself changed and evolved in dramatic, significant ways.

Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, participatory fandom was something fans could only do publicly every once in a while; performative geek culture was reserved for special events like Comic-Con or the newest sci-fi or fantasy film. But because of Marvel’s steady rollout of films over the decade, fandom was suddenly, perpetually expected to be engaged in participating in the Marvel apparatus. Geek culture became a new and intense form of consumerism, and superheroes, instead of being a nerdy fringe interest, became a standard model through which a plethora of fans could relate to pop culture.

In alignment with the Marvel machine, fans became increasingly vocal about their fandom identities, partly thanks to emerging, vibrant, and visible fandom communities on social platforms like Tumblr and Twitter. For better or worse, Fifty Shades of Grey introduced much of the world to the vastness of online fanfiction, while media outlets like BuzzFeed mainstreamed fandom-based ideas like shipping and “problematic faves.” The user-built fanfiction archive AO3 gained widespread recognition and then closed out the decade by winning a Hugo award. Massive fandoms for groups like One Direction and K-pop band BTS helped evolve the cultural perception of the shrill teenage fangirl toward a more positive image of fans as active, engaged participants in the narratives they consume.

That engagement was also increasingly ideological. Throughout the 2010s, fandom found its way into politics, and politics found their way into fandom, from call-out culture to Gamergate. Fans took to social media to protest narrative developments they found offensive, like Captain America being revealed as a Nazi-esque figure in a 2016 comic, or The 100 killing off half of its popular queer couple.

And while fan backlash is nothing new, in the 2010s that backlash gained the tenor of political fervor to an unprecedented degree. Everything from fictional relationships to empowered female characters became polarized critical battlegrounds — not even criticism was immune. And “fans” themselves became divided into several more aggressive tiers, from “superfans” (really intense fans) to “stans” (really intense, possibly toxic, fans) to “antis,” fans whose identities revolved around hating other fans or even parts of their own fandom.

So where, at the end of the decade, has all this left us? Has anyone benefited from the increased politicization of fandom? Do we think of fandom differently now than we did a decade ago? And can any of these disruptive changes of the past decade help us predict what might be around the cultural corner?

To gain some insight into these questions, I asked two friendly neighborhood fans, Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff and Constance Grady, to join me, Aja Romano, in discussing fandom in the 2010s — the good, the bad, and the problematic, faves and otherwise.

From Marvel to K-pop: Fandom underwent a sea change over the decade

Aja Romano: I think when we look back at the 2010s, there are some obvious immediate tentpoles that jump out to people as fandom milestones — but first, I really want to know what the most significant fandom moments of the last decade were for both of you personally. For me, it was the part where Fifty Shades of Grey single-handedly jump-started my career. What were the moments that shaped you directly?

Constance Grady: The biggest fandom moment for me would have to be the moment that led indirectly to me writing in this roundtable today: when Gossip Girl fandom went completely fucking wild.

I started lurking in Gossip Girl fandom around 2010 out of sheer boredom. I was just out of college and trying to make it in book publishing, and I was slowly losing my mind trying to figure out Microsoft Word’s mail merge feature on starvation wages. So at night, I would go home to my crappy sublet and soothe myself with some good old-fashioned trashy teen soap opera. Then I would poke around online to see what everyone else was saying about the show — maybe check out some memes here and a fic there.

Mostly, the fanwork was low key and often gently mocking. Gossip Girl fandom was refreshingly aware that the show it was committed to was pure garbage, but everyone was having fun picking it to pieces and making something new with the detritus nonetheless.

If you know your Gossip Girl history, you know 2010 is the year the show went off the rails. That was the year season three aired, in which Chuck — by then the show’s romantic lead — sells his girlfriend Blair to his rapist uncle in exchange for a hotel.

For the fandom, this plot development was traumatic. Chuck and Blair were the biggest ship on the show. They were so big that the Tumblr tag #chair was filled exclusively with gifs of them making out, and fans used to go into the tag to yell at people for posting pictures of actual chairs. But for a lot of fans, season three was the end. They weren’t willing to keep on rooting for true love to triumph between a girl and the boy who sold her for real estate. Chair shippers started to jump ship.

The cast of “Gossip Girl” on a bed.
Gossip Girl was certainly the “best. show. ever.” to its fandom — until it wasn’t.
New York Magazine

Those who stayed committed to the ship started to panic. They needed to keep their numbers up. A fandom can’t survive without fans there to fan the fires of enthusiasm!

Luckily, the Chair shippers had a secret weapon. They had a source on the set who was willing to leak them spoilers.

What followed was way more enthralling than absolutely anything that ever happened on Gossip Girl itself. Chair shippers developed secret chatrooms in which they strategized their spin on any spoilers that looked bad for Chuck (the conversation after news leaked that Chuck would shatter a glass window over Blair’s head was a rough one). They rigged online polls, plotted Twitter campaigns, and doled out spoilers as a carrot for those who remained faithful to the ship.

Chair haters, meanwhile, fled to an anonymous community — referred to by those in the know as an anon meme — on LiveJournal, where secret sources inside those secret Chair-only chatrooms fed them screencaps of all those strategic conversations to be dissected and mocked. And eventually even the show’s writers’ room got in on the drama, too, forming secret alliances with fans to flush out the spoiler leakers and shame them.

By 2015, I was over Gossip Girl itself. Gossip Girl fandom had become my favorite nighttime soap instead. I was also over book publishing, and I was starting to think that maybe I wanted to try my hand at writing about pop culture.

And then one day on Twitter, one of my favorite critics tweeted out a link to apply to a fellowship that would teach you how to write about pop culture at Vox. “Come work with me!” wrote Emily VanDerWerff.

“What is the single biggest cultural story that nobody is covering enough right now?” asked the application.

I wrote a 500-word essay explaining the shit that was going down in secret Gossip Girl fan chatrooms these days.

That essay didn’t get me a fellowship, but it did get me an interview. And a year later, Emily emailed me and told me that Vox was hiring more fellows and I should apply again. So thanks, Gossip Girl, for being such a mess of a show that your basically chill fandom turned into a toxic wasteland of dysfunction — and in the process getting me a new job and a new career.

Emily VanDerWerff: I have had the surreal experience of mostly seeing fandom through the eyes of someone who covers the things fans adore. Particularly when I was recapping TV shows like Glee and Community, I was a person whose views fans would either engage with or outright reject. I would occasionally find myself bearing the brunt of some fandom tizzy about a shipping war I had no idea even existed. (The weirdest of these might have been when the Big Bang Theory fans who shipped Sheldon and Penny came for me.)

Lena Dunham and Donald Glover in Girls.

But this reflects to me another side of fan engagement: people who were less interested in transforming a work than in engaging with it critically. For me, that sort of engagement was most prominent in places like comment sections, an opinion that may be colored from having spent years working at the AV Club, which had a thriving comment section during my time there.

The fans of a TV show would pick it apart and reduce it down to its bones, then suck the marrow out of those bones. It was really something to see, and it often left me — me — wondering if they got any enjoyment out of the work itself or primarily found enjoyment in finding things about it that didn’t work for them.

Perhaps the strongest example of this was the TV show Girls, which began in 2012 and immediately became a show that had legions of fans and legions of anti-fans who couldn’t stop watching every single episode. The arguments and conversations around that show (a show I really, really liked, to be clear) underlined just how different our experiences of it could be — and how often fandom found itself divided in the 2010s by complicated political and social issues that the works we loved talking about weren’t always designed to bear. (Other examples: Hamilton, Game of Thrones.)

Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones as Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy Schuyler onstage in “Hamilton.”
Joan Marcus

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that fandom had a darker side in the 2010s, too. I’m sure you two are going to push back against my definition of the Star Wars fans who harassed Kelly Marie Tran off the internet or the gamers who kicked up Gamergate as “fans,” but they were. In the TV space, these sorts of fans were often dubbed “bad fans,” because they wanted, say, Walter White to win the day at the end of Breaking Bad (thus missing the show’s entire point). But it wasn’t as though these people weren’t as engaged as the more thoughtful and critical fans were. Because they were.

Aja: Believe me, I’ve been in so many toxic fandom environments that I’d never try to claim that the Gamergaters and Ghostbusters trolls and their ilk weren’t “real fans.” The truth is that fandom has always bred incredibly toxic sub-communities, both because fans often have very intense feelings and because all the cultural shame and mockery we face can make it hard to know how to be a fan and what “a good fan” looks like. I’m sure the AV Club commenters felt that their level of knowledge and personal investment also conferred upon them a level of ownership over their canon, and being hypercritical was one way of performing that ownership.

But those kinds of performances changed radically over the decade. On one level, this had a lot to do with platform cultures. In 2010, fans started migrating away from the closed, niche culture of LiveJournal and moving toward the more mainstream Tumblr, which came to dominate fandom culture for the rest of the decade. Largely as a result of this migration, fandom culture became vastly more accessible to huge swaths of the population — including the creators of the properties around which these fandoms cohered. As fan culture became more accessible to the creators themselves, they started to expect fans to be visibly, enthusiastically participatory in specific ways.

The 2013 Veronica Mars Kickstarter fundamentally changed the way many creators and fans saw their relationship, evolving it almost instantly from a top-down, worshipful artistic hierarchy to something like an equal partner investment. Before the Veronica Mars fandom kickstarted an entire movie sequel to the cult show, Kickstarter itself was mostly the domain of niche geek culture and indie creators. But this campaign showed Hollywood that fandom culture at large could be channeled to act as an early investor for projects the industry might deem too risky — and as a result of its record-breaking success, industry attitudes toward fandom rapidly changed.

That shift, in turn, meant that fans started to see themselves as investors in the works they consumed, and creators were eager to exploit collective fan engagement. I’m thinking of a broad range here, from cult faves like webcomic Homestuck and YouTube series Lizzie Bennet that profited from deep fan investment, to prestige dramas like True Detective and Westworld that benefited from self-aware fandoms who saw their interactivity as part of the “game” of the show. You can argue that the entire modern entertainment complex now builds participatory fandom into its business model. But when fans ask for things in return, they’re seen as demanding. How do we reconcile all these things? What makes performative fan engagement empowering rather than toxic — and why does all of this tend to get framed by the media and by creators as fan entitlement?

Constance: Ooh, this is tricky, and actually, Veronica Mars is a good case study here.

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars and Jason Dohring as Logan cuddling on a couch.
Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars and Jason Dohring as Logan.
Michael Desmond/Hulu

Veronica Mars went on as long as it did entirely because of its fandom. In the ’00s, fan mail-in campaigns got it renewed for a second and third season despite low ratings. In 2013, the fan Kickstarter campaign raised over $5 million to pay for the movie’s production budget. This year, the show’s history of intense fan engagement is an enormous part of what led to the Veronica Mars Hulu revival — and in that revival, Veronica’s love interest Logan dies, destroying the ship that large swaths of the fandom were hugely invested in and, with it, their fannish investment in the show.

My impulse when Logan died was to think, “Well, that sucks, but certainly showrunner Rob Thomas is entitled to do whatever he wants with his characters. He doesn’t owe me or his fans anything.” But a number of fans disagreed: Rob Thomas, they said, had taken advantage of their desire to see Veronica and Logan together, using their investment as shippers to leverage not just their time and attention, but the literal dollars out of their pockets. In that case, didn’t he owe them something? Wasn’t killing Logan a betrayal of the contract Thomas had made with the fandom?

To be honest, I can see the argument. When a show’s survival depends this heavily on its fans, the power dynamic between creator and fandom does change dramatically. The Veronica Mars fandom went above and beyond to keep that show coming back again and again, and the showrunner responded by destroying the piece of the show that a huge part of the fandom cared about most. Emotionally, that does feel like a betrayal.

The 100 offers a more politically-charged example. The CW teen sci-fi show built up a huge amount of fandom support for its queer central pairing of Clarke and Lexa (a.k.a. Clexa). The showrunners tweeted supportively to fans about how everyone deserved love, and they published pictures on Twitter of the two actresses eating rainbow candy together. In a world in which TV’s queer characters and especially lesbians are killed off so frequently that the trope has a name (“Bury your gays”), Clexa seemed like a safe haven. Fans, understandably, felt that they had finally found a safe queer romance to root for, and they turned out in droves for the show.

Then The 100 killed Lexa off. On a certain level, that’s just the kind of thing The 100 does, because it’s a show that built its reputation on shocking and brutal onscreen deaths. But this time, fans went wild. The showrunners responded with bewilderment: Didn’t fans know that The 100, where a dwindling number of teens try to survive on a post-apocalyptic Earth, was a show on which no one was safe? And the fans replied in outrage: Didn’t the showrunners know that there were too few queer romances on TV for them to be treated so cavalierly, and that killing the lesbian had become a gross and harmful cliché? What had the writers’ room been thinking, drafting off fan enthusiasm for Clexa while knowing that Lexa, like so many of TV’s lesbians, was doomed? That argument also feels more than fair to me.

That said, I don’t want us to enter into an era in which fans end up dictating canon, and I think a lot of fans feel similarly. And again, Veronica Mars is a good example here: That crowdfunded 2014 movie was explicitly built to be fanservice, designed to give fans exactly what they wanted, and it was not very good. I, a fan, did not enjoy being serviced in that way.

I guess my question is, how do we find a balance here? What would it look like for creative teams to be aware of what they owe to their fans, without feeling pressured to make mediocre and unchallenging work in an attempt to satisfy everyone?

Emily: I was going to say something along the lines of, “I have always felt like creative teams don’t owe fans anything, even as fans don’t owe those creative teams their allegiance,” but that feels too harsh at this point in time. It’s pretty clear that in the late 2010s and heading into the 2020s, an engaged fandom can be the difference between life and death for a lot of cultural properties. But it’s also clear that engaged fandoms don’t always want to be pushed out of their comfort zones. And yet the best storytelling often does take place outside of those comfort zones.

I think a lot about a quote from Joss Whedon that I heard when I was a teenager and decided was accurate without a ton of reflection: “Don’t give people what they want; give them what they need.” Of the many bits of storytelling wisdom Whedon has dispensed in interviews over the years, this is the one that has most taken on a life beyond his fandom, because it speaks to something that I think we’re all a little wary of in 2019: anesthetizing art against the horrors of the world so much that it becomes a sort of safe space.

Here’s a for-instance: The season four finale of The Magicians made a huge, bold storytelling choice, killing off the show’s protagonist. In the first season — when he was just another whiny white guy heading up a TV show — fans might have rejoiced. But by the end of season four, when we had lived through four years of his struggles with mental illness and learned he was bisexual (one of the few bisexual men on TV, period), he had come to stand in for a whole host of other ideas. The audience revolted. To this day, the showrunners can’t so much as tweet without a bunch of angry responses. And season five is just around the corner.

Three actors in “The Magicians” kneel on the floor and look at a glowing blue light.
The Magicians cultivated a devoted fanbase — but did that limit its ability to take chances?

The Magicians is exactly the sort of show that requires its engaged fanbase to stay alive. And in interviews around the finale, it was clear that the show’s writers had thought about how much the character meant to fans on a variety of levels, both pertaining to the narrative and pertaining to TV representation of bisexuality and of those struggling with mental illness. But it was also clear they felt the story turn was too interesting not to do.

Truth be told, I agree with them. I found the final stretch of Magicians episodes in season four shattering for the way they told a story about trauma and friendship and self-sacrifice. But I also love grim, epic tragedy as a general rule. I’m not averse to the idea that maybe people from underrepresented groups on TV deserve any little bit of anything they can get — after all, it wasn’t so long ago that the only people like me on TV were presented as jokes or murdered sex workers — but I also don’t want to ever suggest that whole classes of human beings aren’t allowed the emotional outpouring of great tragedy simply because the world is a dark place for too many of us.

What I am saying, I think, is that I don’t think it’s that far of a walk from the folks who hated Last Jedi because it violated some element of Star Wars canon they were deeply passionate about (who were mostly mocked) and the folks who were mad at the death of Logan on Veronica Mars (who were mostly easy to sympathize with). I get why the latter is more sympathetic. The folks behind Veronica Mars came off as blinkered and callous with their show’s big death, and they had far less of a justification for that big death than the Magicians producers did. But at the same time, there has to be room for storytellers to expand and experiment, lest we end up in a world where everything is protected by bulletproof canon.

And yet that callousness rankles me all the same. There has to be some sort of demilitarized zone where fans allow artists the grace of trying new things, while artists make sure they’re not doing things just to do them (or, worse, just to piss off the audience). I still largely agree with the Joss Whedon quote from above — but I also think his predilection for killing characters off got kind of old about 10 years ago. Sometimes what you think the audience needs is what you think you need, and the better choice is to try to find another path to the story you want to tell.

Aja: The hard part about this “better path” is that I think a lot of times, creators think they’re already on that better path. But the fans simply don’t trust that they are, especially if they’re marginalized people who have a real-life stake in the outcomes of stories. It’s one thing for the writers to ask their audiences for trust and patience and a willingness to follow them into some difficult places. It’s another thing when those difficult places intersect with real marginalization — when they have the potential to reinforce regressive and harmful social norms.

Take, for example, queerbaiting, one of the most frustrating fandom-related phenomenons of the decade. It’s present in everything from Sherlock, Supernatural, and Teen Wolf to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Frozen, and still going strong as we head into the next decade. Queerbaiting tends to happen because writers and/or actors with initially good intentions — to seed the idea of characters maybe being more than straight — realize that now they’ve gone too far, and what was once light subtextual teasing has become a whole thing. So what do they inevitably do? They rapidly backtrack, overemphasizing how straight the queerbaited couple or character is.

That sounds inherently homophobic, but often it’s not — often it’s queer creators doing the queerbaiting. In fact, queerbaiting is often just down to a kind of major, reactionary obstinance from creators toward fan engagement, of a kind we’ve seen more and more often. Remember when Sherlock resolved its giant season 2 cliffhanger by presenting a montage of fan theories about what could have happened and then never actually telling us what happened? Remember when Westworld creators panicked and rewrote the show after fans guessed the big twist? That’s not giving the audience what it needs, nor is it giving creators what they need as artists. That’s just reacting to fannish obsession. It’s creators failing to fully understand the pact they’ve made with their fanbase and then blaming their fanbases for it. And homophobic or otherwise regressive plot points can become side effects of that reactionary feeling because the creators privilege their desire to shape or control the narrative over all these other factors.

If only Sherlock had been able to maintain its cool.
BBC / Tumblr

Of course, the flip side of this is when, for example, the Star Wars creators’ reactionary response to misogynistic Star Wars fans is to double down on making Rey the most awesome badass in the galaxy. Turns out I’m totally fine with that kind of reactionary obstinance. Then again, the backlash to the transformative elements of The Last Jedi arguably paved the way for the rote, disappointing trilogy conclusion that Rise of Skywalker turned out to be, because J.J. Abrams and company apparently felt the ideas Rian Johnson worked with in the middle film were too radical. It was a compromise to the worst parts of the Star Wars fandom that ended up pleasing very few people.

Which brings me to my last question: What are some of our favorite examples of fans and creators getting things right and doing fandom well in the last decade? And can they tell us anything about what’s next?

Constance: I’m an old-fashioned kind of fan who generally likes my fourth wall to remain intact, I guess, because when I try to think of fan/creator interactions I like, I can’t think of that many. Most of the major interactions I’ve seen have seemed to lead to a sense of betrayal and promises broken on one or both sides.

Probably the closest thing I can think of to a creative “doing fandom well” would be Bryan Fuller, the showrunner behind Hannibal and Pushing Daisies and the first season of American Gods. Fuller always seems to react to his fandoms with delight: He tweets out fanart and uses hashtags with abandon; when offered a flower crown at a panel, he will absolutely wear that flower crown; and when asked if Hannibal Lector and Will Graham were in love, he responded philosophically, “What is love?”

But at the same time, Fuller rarely seems to be deeply involved in his fandoms. I never see him weighing in on fandom controversies or fights, and he never seems to be lecturing fans about giving them what they need rather than what they want. He just promises that he will make good television, goes on to make really good television, and then gets out of the way.

Now, maybe that’s just because Fuller tends to either leave his shows after one really good season or see his shows get canceled after a few really good seasons, so he hasn’t had the opportunity to get all that messy with a fandom. But even if it’s just sheer luck that’s protecting him so far, that’s the kind of fandom involvement I like to see from a creative: benign and supportive lack of interest.

Aja: I greatly appreciate this approach. Another group that I’d say has a relatively healthy approach to their subject matter and their creators is the recently revived Good Omens fandom, which is basically just beautiful fanart of its OTP and lots of Michael Sheen love.

I’d give a shout-out to the creative team of Supernatural for the massive sea change it underwent in its approach to its predominantly female fandom this decade, from overt mockery and misogyny to loving respect and celebration. (And a shout-out to SuperwWhoLock, just because!) I’d also toss in the mighty Disney fandom generally, because for all that Disney itself has endless issues, fans have done a lot of work in the Tumblr era especially to make the canon more progressive, while showcasing the kind of excellent fan engagement that’s slowly dragging Disney into a slightly less restrictive mode when it comes to cracking down on transformative fanwork. And the K-pop fandom as a whole deserves massive amounts of credit for mainstreaming an entire genre over the decade, based heavily on the strength of their love.

While Gamergate has overshadowed just about all other aspects of gaming culture throughout the decade, gaming fandom has had a huge and outsized influence on the culture in other positive, collaborative ways over the decade, in everything from Twitch playing Pokémon to Drake playing Fortnite, and much more. We also found moments of fandom unity in unexpected ways throughout the decade, like when we all fell back in love with Keanu Reeves.

Still, most of these fandoms remain regressively white and patriarchal, and my best hope for the future is that fandom continues to diversify and gain new cultural ground — while losing some of the more toxic elements that still too often keep marginalized fans at bay.