Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls

by Katherine Larsen, Lynn S. Zubernis


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Once upon a time not long ago, two responsible college professors, Lynn the psychologist and Kathy the literary scholar, fell in love with the television show Supernatural and turned their oh-so-practical lives upside down. Plunging headlong into the hidden realms of fandom, they scoured the Internet for pictures of stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki and secretly penned racy fan fiction. And then they hit the road—crisscrossing the country, racking up frequent flyer miles with alarming ease, standing in convention lines at 4 A.M.

They had white-knuckled encounters with overly zealous security guards one year and smiling invitations to the Supernatural set the next. Actors stripping in their trailers, fangirls sneaking onto film sets; drunken confessions, squeals of joy, tears of despair; wallets emptied and responsibilities left behind; intrigue and ecstasy and crushing disappointment—it’s all here.

And yet even as they reveled in their fandom, the authors were asking themselves whether it’s okay to be a fan, especially for grown women with careers and kids. “Crazystalkerchicks”—that’s what they heard from Supernatural crew members, security guards, airport immigration officials, even sometimes their fellow fans. But what Kathy and Lynn found was that most fans were very much like themselves: smart, capable women looking for something of their own that engages their brains and their libidos.

Fangasm pulls back the curtain on the secret worlds of fans and famous alike, revealing Supernatural behind the scenes and discovering just how much the cast and crew know about what the fans are up to. Anyone who’s been tempted to throw off the constraints of respectability and indulge a secret passion—or hit the road with a best friend—will want to come along.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609381981
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lynn S. Zubernis is associate professor of counselor education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She is also area chair for stardom and fandom for the Southwest Popular Culture Association. Katherine Larsen teaches at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is the area chair for fan theory and culture for the Popular Culture Association. Larsen and Zubernis are principal and associate editors of the Journal of Fandom Studies. Together, they have authored Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, and Fan/Producer Relationships and edited Fan Culture: Theory/Practice and Fan Phenomena: "Supernatural." They aren’t telling the names under which they write fan fiction.

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By Katherine Larsen, Lynn S. Zubernis


Copyright © 2013 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-198-1


Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

Long before we started writing about being fans, we simply lived it. And there was nothing intellectual or rational about it, as our 4 a.m. dash to Comic Con makes clear. What is it about being a fan that makes us, and so many others, push the boundaries of common sense to pursue the emotional rush of fandom? What was compelling enough to make us trade our briefcases and textbooks for autographs and plane tickets? And why are we all so ashamed of it?

Case in point: Kathy was standing in a friend's kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner. The evening had been filled with good food and good conversation. Everyone had that warm, collegial feeling that comes of having passed plates, exchanged jokes, and shared bits of their lives. After the meal Kathy stood at the kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up and ready to help with the inevitable aftermath: dishes. As she traded off washing and drying duties with her friend's sister-in-law, the talk turned to the safe ground of the latest Harry Potter film. They both admitted their fondness for the books and the films. They discussed the characters, plot twists, the increasing darkness of the novels. Finally her friend's sister-in-law hesitated then leaned toward Kathy somewhat conspiratorially and asked in a lowered voice: "Do you ever go to the fan sites?"

The sister-in-law was clearly worried that she had gone too far. From the look on her face, you would have thought that she had just asked if Kathy had ever mainlined heroin or had a penchant for rubber. Kathy smiled reassuringly. No, not Harry Potter sites, but she did know of them. And yes, she had been to others. The sister-in-law's sigh of relief was audible. And then they talked. Really talked. About finding community and kindred spirits, about fanfiction and flame wars and metacommentary (see the glossary for definitions of these and other colorful words in the fandom vocabulary). In short, they discovered that they spoke the same language, even if in slightly different dialects: the language of fandom.

It seems too obvious to point out that most of us are fans of something—the local football team, model railroading, Elvis Presley, Anthony Bourdain. We're Gleeks and XPhiles and Parrotheads. We Rock the Red (yes, Washington Capitals fans, we're looking at you) and root, root, root for the home team. And when we find something we like, we want to share our enthusiasm with someone else who "gets it." Cheering together—or criticizing together—is a bonding experience. But fandoms are not all alike. Sports fans generally get a pass. (In fact, to be male and not a fan of some team somewhere is the more questionable position.) Craft fans at least have something to show at the end of their quilting, beading, or scrapbooking day. Dog enthusiasts have the backing of no less than the Westminster Kennel Club to validate their devotion. Opera, ballet, and theater fans (they might call themselves aficionados) have the weight of cultural approval on their side. But fans of a television show, especially one that falls within the sci-figenre, are often viewed as a disquieting breed apart.

Attempts to validate fans inevitably come up short, falling victim to the same attitudes that they seem to be questioning. Even the documentary Trekkies, which at first seemed like an attempt to explain and vindicate fans of Star Trek and all its spinoffs, wound up mocking them instead. The stars of the original show actually provided thoughtful and moving commentary on the fans that they came to know over the years. But the filmmakers chose to feature instead the fringe elements of the fandom: the Florida dentist and his family who dress in Star Trek uniforms 24/7 and run a Star Trek-themed dental practice, the couple who dress the family dog in a Starfleet uniform, the young man exhibiting what seems to be an obsession with the stitching on his new Star Trek: First Contact uniform. The final effect was that these people made viewers uncomfortable and then made them laugh. The current crop of television shows that appear to celebrate nerds and geeks sometimes perpetuate the stereotypes instead of challenging them. Big Bang Theory's Sheldon does for geeks what Jack did for gay men on Will and Grace. We love the character in no small part because he fits our cultural construction—and allows us to laugh.

In fact, laughter seems to be the order of the day as soon as you admit to being a fan, with everyone from newspaper editors to the local grocery store clerk reminding us that "it's not a coincidence that 'fan' derives from 'fanatic.'" But perhaps it doesn't. Merriam-Webster stands on the side of etymological uncertainty by saying it is "probably" short for "fanatic," and the Oxford English Dictionary identifies "fan" as an American term first used by baseball reporters. That sounds benign enough until we look at the selection of citations that follow the definition: "trainspotters and manky fanboy geekoids" and "spikey haired, bespectacled fanboys." And it turns out that laughter is still better than some of the other reactions to fans.

The Minneapolis-based blog Citypages ran an article identifying the "Top 7 Scariest Fandoms," presumably as a public service to the "rest of the world." If you're a female fan, the ridicule can be particularly scathing. The celebrity website ROFLRAZZI posted a photograph of a group of "Twilight Moms" tearfully awaiting the arrival of twenty-something actor Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, on the cusp of turning eighteen. The article, provocatively titled "Boo! For pedophilia double standards," insisted that "if this was men cheering for 17 year old girls, someone would call the cops." Fans of Brooke Shields, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus would presumably also have been subject to incarceration at various times. Nevertheless, hundreds of commenters referred to the women who were fans as creepy, ridiculous, and unattractive, accusing them of being horrible parents who should be tending hearth and home instead of lining up to see actors. Perhaps most striking was the reaction to the death of a woman at last year's Comic Con. Crossing the street to get back to her place in line for a Twilight panel, she was struck by a car in front of horrified fellow fans. Online comments to news of her death ran from "Well it's not a bad start," to "She was in her 40's and obsessed with twilight [sic] did anyone honestly think she'd be smart enough to get out of the way of a fast moving vehicle?"

Given the culture's clear discomfort with fans, it's a wonder that any of us admit to being one. And yet fans keep film studios profitable, television shows on the air, Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelves, and gossip magazines and blogs in business. We might make fun of the guy dressed up as a Wookie at Comic Con or the co-worker who watches Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but odds are more people can name all the Kardashians than can name all nine Supreme Court justices. Whether we want to admit it or not, most people are aware of popular culture, if not infatuated with it. We tend to laugh (or worse) at people who can't join the water cooler conversation about what Britney Spears did over the weekend or what happened on the latest installment of Snookie and JWoww. Thus we mock the overinvested and shun the underinvested.

Has it always been this way? In the early nineteenth century, the Romantics gave us our first taste of modern celebrity culture and, with it, the first negative views of fans. In Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a contingent of fans, mostly young men, who imitated both the protagonist's morose mood and his sartorial sensibilities. The fans were said to be suffering from "Werther-Fieber" (Werther Fever)-perhaps the precursor to the modern affliction of "Bieber Fever." Lord Byron may have spawned the first fangirls-squealing, swooning, and desperate to get into his apartment and into his pants. As soon as fangirls were born, of course, so were the derisive comments about their "consuming passions." Byron was repeatedly accused of leading his readers into a state of "hysterical excitement" and producing a taste "for extreme sensation." (Sound familiar? Who knew that Stephanie Meyer was following in Byron's footsteps?) Attitudes toward fans have changed little in the intervening years-especially when it comes to those "swooning fangirls."

And if fans are not busy being oversexed, the media tell us, they are rapacious, needy, and worse. The day after the death of Michael Jackson, a writer for the London Times proclaimed that "Fans Killed Michael Jackson." Other journalists who stop short of categorizing fans as murderers nevertheless accuse them of being geeks, losers, and social rejects or hysterical, crazy stalkers. Some of this is the fault of a little mind game that we all play in the interest of not bogging ourselves down with too much heavy-duty thinking. Psychologists know this as the "availability bias." What we generally have available to us are the most salient images: hysterically sobbing teenagers, fangirls fainting at Beatles concerts, the stalker who tried to break into an actor's home. These images, unfortunately, become representative of "fans" instead of just isolated examples.

If we're being honest, we all tend to shy away from those who allow their enthusiasm slips to show (Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch, anyone?), who are too fervent, too dedicated, too much of anything. We're uncomfortable when someone seems overly passionate, even about things that we clearly need to survive (you know, like chocolate). Even though we need food, we still have cultural rules of etiquette demanding that we eat relatively slowly, no matter how famished we are, and that we resist the temptation to steal a particularly delectable morsel from our neighbor's plate. We're expected to eat as if eating wasn't the most important thing in the world, even if at that moment it is. We're expected to act detached even when we feel anything but. Anyone who violates these expectations can expect ridicule, whether they're Hobbit fans waiting impatiently for the release of the film or Star Wars fans who know all the specifications of the Millenium Falcon or Supernatural fans who watch twenty-two episodes back to back in DVD viewing marathons. We might know a little bit about that last one.

We have yet to come across more than a handful of fans who contend that Supernatural actor Jensen Ackles is their soulmate or have offered up thousands of dollars for the coffee cup that Jared Padalecki discarded at a Supernatural convention. But nobody can accuse fans of a lack of investment or of not being willing to put their money where their passion is. At a convention in Vancouver, a fan bid $8,000 for Padalecki's thirtieth birthday goodie bag. The money went to charity, but the fan was paying for a hug from the birthday boy as well as making a contribution to a good cause.

While the vast majority of fans remain sane in the midst of passion, the tendency to characterize fans-especially female fans-as "rabid," "demented," "obsessed" stalkers or just plain "batshit crazy" persists. Even the fans themselves can't quite decide whether to scream their glee about fandom from the rooftops, apologize for it, or just pretend that they're not fans at all.

Given those disparaging descriptions, it's hard to imagine why anyone would choose to be a fan. The thing is, it's never a conscious decision: we don't get to choose a fandom. It chooses us.

2005: We could say that it was our friend Lana's fault. At first, we watched Supernatural (known within the fandom as "SPN") mostly because she begged us to. Not that we didn't appreciate the way Sam Winchester's emo bangs fell in his oh-so-handsome face or Dean Winchester's amazing green eyes with eyelashes that any woman would die for. We're not blind, after all.

Throughout the first season, we'd catch an episode here and there, enough to know what Lana was talking about when she described the show's well-developed mythology or actor Jared Padalecki's well-developed biceps, but we were still far from being fans. Lana didn't give up though. She burned soundtrack CDs and mailed them off to us. And she never stopped talking about the intricate plot and the fascinating characters and the brilliant directing, even when most of the conversation was embarrassingly one-sided.

Looking back, we probably should have realized that we were teetering on the edge of a cliff ourselves, primed for something that would distract us from the complexities of our lives. Some people buy sports cars when they're having a midlife crisis. Some people have affairs. Some start drinking. We fell for a television show. Fandom, for both of us, had been a refuge in the past in times of crisis—from the raging hormones and constant doubts of adolescence to the terrors of grad school statistics. It had provided a welcome respite during some rocky patches in both our lives. Now, as midlife loomed, we were both in need of a refuge once again, as well as a place to figure ourselves out for the second time. Who were we now, after defining ourselves as partners and mothers for decades? What did we like, want, need, desire? What made us laugh, tugged at our heartstrings, turned us on?

At just the right time, along came Lana-and Supernatural. The same thing happens to countless fans in every corner of the world on a daily basis. It might be an obsession with The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, the latest boy band, or the local college basketball team. It might be Star Wars or Star Trek or Twilight. For us, it was a relatively unknown sci-figenre show.

Why Supernatural? Volumes of fan-written essays explain the appeal of the show: solid writing, an intricate mythology, meticulously researched urban legends, and monsters both literal and metaphorical. Classic rock. A badass 1967 Chevy Impala. Sibling rivalry, unresolved oedipal drama, reluctant heroes. A story of family ties, love, and loyalty. An emotionally intense relationship between the two main characters that generates enough chemistry to power a small city. Cinematography and directing that make each episode look more like a 42-minute feature film. Two very hot actors.

And then there's the allure of the romantic hero, which has as much appeal today as it had two hundred years ago when Byron and Werther created such mayhem. We are still drawn to the loner with a mysterious past that renders him both fascinating and unattainable. It's a past that haunts him, preventing him from fully joining in "normal" life. He feels deeply and shows little. Supernatural presented its viewers with not one but two variations on the romantic hero in brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (and then, in a stroke of genius, cast Ackles and Padalecki to play them).

The Winchester brothers appealed to us-and lots of other women-for multiple reasons. Yeah, they were hot. But we could also relate to them.

Supernatural writer and showrunner Sera Gamble described the inherent heroism in the two main characters, both of whom are damaged.

Dean is the more damaged of the two. He's had to put his own needs aside for his entire life, which tends to cook up an interestingly fucked up kind of person—and in this case, has ended up making him instinctually heroic. Selflessness is a huge part of heroism. We often say in the writer's room, when the two of them are in disagreement, that as long as they're falling all over themselves to save each other they can go pretty out there with the misguided ideas; their actions will still maintain a core of heroism.

Putting your own needs aside for your entire life is something that many of us have done too.

The Winchester brothers were also appealing to all those who have ever felt like they don't quite fit in with the rest of the world. Maybe your imagination takes you places where nobody else goes. Maybe you don't fall in line with society's expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman or you've experienced difficulties that set you apart. Maybe you just happen to have the specifications of the USS Enterprise memorized or can rattle off every detail of the last episode of Doctor Who. Sam and Dean Winchester don't fit in either. They're outsiders-but they're also heroes. And they're what we all recognize as family. Sera certainly understood the show's appeal. "The theme of being alone in the world, having lived a different life than anyone else-that was there from day one. It's the core of the series."

Many shows meet these general qualifications. Only once in a while does something grab you so completely that the word "obsession" starts to seem appropriate. Rationally, we knew that there were explanations for why we suddenly fell down the rabbit hole of Supernatural fandom. None of those theories mattered to us at the time. Falling into fandom is like falling in love. We don't always make the smartest choices or make those choices for the best of reasons (Kathy's Keanu Reeves phase and Lynn's fling with Interview with the Vampire are cases in point). Decisions are made with the gut (or lower), not with the head. We were simply hooked.

Excerpted from FANGASM by Katherine Larsen, Lynn S. Zubernis. Copyright © 2013 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Prologue ix

1 Falling Down the Rabbit Hole 1

2 Seeking Asylum 19

3 Get a (Sex) Life 38

4 Hollywood Babylon 59

5 Fear and Loathing in Vancouver 76

6 Don't Ask, Don't Tell 95

7 Coming Out in LA 116

8 Playing the Fame Game 141

9 Stuck in the Middle (with You) 167

10 Working for the Man 185

11 The Sweet Spot 203

12 The Monster at the End of This Book 228

Glossary 241

Index 247

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