Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 24, 2020

Fandoms can be like family. They can also be toxic.

By BRANDT MATTHEWS | December 5, 2019

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The Come Up Show/CC By-S.A-2.0 Drake was boo’ed off stage at Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Naw festival by Frank Ocean fans.

Thanksgiving Day was marked by a rare occurrence this year — a Lil Uzi Vert tweet storm. Addressing his long delayed sophomore album Eternal Atake, Uzi began: “I wanna let My Family know… and I say Family because all the fans left a long time ago. Only Family Stays so if you stayed I’m Thankful for U.” 

In thanking his fans for sticking by him through familial struggles, label drama and unusually long gaps between projects, Uzi touches on something we all can relate to: fandom as a form of family. 

In the internet age, people everywhere are able to rally around the things they love in ways previously unimaginable, whether that be a sports team, a TV show or a musician. I can still remember the first time I lined up at an Adidas store to buy Yeezy 350s (they sold out before I got them) and being ecstatic not just by the prospect of buying shoes, but by being surrounded by people who cared about the same things as me. 

But this type of fan base interaction can be rare; people mainly express their loyalty to their fandom by talking with others online or broadcasting their interests through what they wear. In examining these things, we can diagnose the size and relative health of a fandom. 

In 2016 and 2017, Chance the Rapper became a craze. High off the success and critical acclaim of his third project Coloring Book, Chance had secured headlining slots at nearly all major music festivals in the U.S. and a slew of televised performances from Saturday Night Live to Ellen, even going on to perform at the White House. 

Throughout all of this, the branding of the number “3” central to Coloring Book’s marketing was ever-present, a symbol that his growing fan base could rally around through hats, laptop stickers and t-shirts. This made it possible to see his fandom grow, as well as deteriorate. 

Following the poor critical reception of his debut album The Big Day this past summer, the disappointment among fans was perceptible not necessarily in a spirit of vitriol but rather as a lack of enthusiasm — a community that had been thriving just two years earlier now seeming all but abandoned. 

While the type of family that Uzi referred to still surely exists for Chance, it can be disheartening to watch a fan base you once cherished shrink in size with fewer people openly excited about the things you care about.

While engaging with the things we love is a large part of the fan experience, fandoms also tend to take on a life of their own, leading to awkward or toxic situations. In early November of this year, Odd Future fans at Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival were so dismayed that the surprise headliner was Drake rather than Frank Ocean, that they booed one of the biggest musicians on the planet off stage. 

I found myself asking if being a Frank fan was now going to be considered embarrassing, a titanic feat for a fandom united by phrases like “yea I cried in the shower to this song last night.” 

The next day, Tyler tweeted out his dismay with those in attendance, but this is only the latest chapter for someone who seems to be constantly struggling with an unruly fan base. At all the Tyler shows I’ve been to supporting his last two albums, which were clear departures from his earlier works, he has said something along the lines of “don’t let anybody here give you shit if you’ve only heard my newest album.” 

While in these instances it may be easier to brush off what could be considered radical fans and just enjoy the things we like, in other times vocal support of a fandom may carry an unintended double meaning that fans need to be wary of. 

The premiere of the fourth season of the popular Adult Swim show Rick and Morty brought with it an uncomfortable reckoning for me; I actually enjoy that show. 

While that may have been a harmless thing to publicly project in past, recent years have seen Rick and Morty fans angrily mobbing McDonalds for special sauces tied to the show as well as constantly harassing the show’s female writers on social media. 

To me, this represents a clear shift from embarrassing to toxic behavior that ultimately changes my perception of anyone who calls themselves a fan of the show. I remember hanging out with one of my new roommates (who, I must note, is a totally regular guy) and launching a compulsory character reassessment when he suggested we turn the show on. Was he one of those fans?

Now of course none of this stops me from watching the show, but it makes navigating the fan experience far more difficult. Unable to openly broadcast my fandom, I instead have to delicately scout out those who share the same just-casual fervor for the show. Is this how Chance the Rapper fans who enjoyed The Big Day feel, having had their fandom circle shrink immensely in a matter of years? 

Decades of toxicity in fandoms for franchises like Star Wars can also bring counter fan cultures celebrating things that were once invisible or attacked. Would the diversity of newer Star Wars films exist if the franchise hadn’t been viewed as a toxic boy’s club for so many years? 

While the same will surely occur for Rick and Morty, looking at how older fan bases handled their toxicity problem may help us find solutions in the present day. The creative team behind the show has already taken steps in hiring their first female staff writers for season four — why don’t fans help bolster this same diversity?

Passively participating in toxic fandom may play a role here. I still cringe thinking about the time I told a friend not to come with us to see Avengers: Endgame because she hadn’t seen the other 20 something Marvel movies. What I felt was a way of protecting myself from embarrassment (I wanted to nerd out free of judgement!) was at best gatekeeping and at worst being a dick. 

If we don’t actively examine why we enjoy the things that we do, we risk turning fandoms into exclusive communities that monger over intellectual properties rather than celebrate them. 

Marvel movies are fun to watch and therefore we should take our friends to see them; Tyler, the Creator’s discography has rapidly evolved and his concerts celebrate exactly that; Rick and Morty, for a show about two white guys, explores diversity and popular media in surprising ways. 

When we fail to consider why things appeal to us, we and our fandoms risk falling into toxic ranks. Not only this, but we also lose out on the opportunity to share what excites us and to expand our communities. After all, if a fan base doesn’t have any people in it, what’s the point?

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