While growing up, never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d learn more about the world from my fandom peers than my numerous classes.
Let me preface this by saying that I couldn’t be more thankful or appreciative of my formal education. I’m lucky in that I was placed in a great school system growing up and had the opportunity to study at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for four years. I’ve had more opportunities than a lot of people and so I am humbled by them. I truly greatly value my experiences with formal education.
That being said, while I learned a lot over the years (about science, British literature, and film criticism, just to name a few), formal education (in general) did not prepare or educate me about the modern world. My modern and multicultural education has come from my interactions and experiences online with fandom.
Some people look down on fandom, seeing it as a bunch over-excited fangirls with nothing better to do than to obsess over fake characters and fictional worlds. Yes, some small areas of fandom can be frivolous or even toxic, but the majority of fandom is intelligent, inquisitive, and always pushing for media to be better.
Fandom is full of forward-thinking and open-minded people. Not only that, but they believe in justice and representation. Equal rights and transparency. Until I opened myself up to fandom, I was blind to everything that didn’t make an appearance on or warrant a mention by the mass media.
Fandom discusses and gets into the topics that the general media glosses over and ignores. Because the media directly (and greatly) affects the way we all see the world (which then affects the media we consume), those who rely solely on mass media miss out on so much. I would know because I was one of them.
I’ve always been a huge TV and movie junkie. I vividly remember the day I started 1st grade because I was up in arms about the fact that I wouldn’t be home from school in time to watch Sailor Moon on Cartoon Network. Once I hit middle school, it was always a big to-do when it came to finding magazine pages and clippings of my favorite stars and characters to fill my locker. Not only that, but I encountered my first fandom (but didn’t participate… yet). In high school, I discovered Hot Topic and the gloriousness that is midnight movie premieres, but had to beg people to enjoy these things with me.
The key word here is “enjoy.” I never really thought to discuss the things I love in ways other than “Oh my goodness, can you believe that happened?” or “Man, that Jensen Ackles is hot!” Sure, I had classes where I had to be analytical, but I never thought about applying in-depth analysis to entertainment mediums (and neither did the large majority of my K-12 teachers).
College was when everything started to change. I was surrounded by quite a few people who liked some of the same things as me. Not only that, but I was surrounded by people who knew how to and loved to have intelligent conversations about things. I soon learned, however, that these people weren’t always around to chat or up to date on their TV watching. I needed to find another outlet for my feelings and curiosities. That’s when I really turned to the internet.
Sure, when I was growing up and went through my intense Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan obsessions (the amazing 2003 live-action film, thank you very much), I read fanfic, collected cute gifs and banners, and even tried starting my own FreeWebs site. But I never used the internet fandom for analytical purposes. Not until I joined Twitter and Tumblr.
From the moment I jumped on Twitter and Tumblr, my perception of the world drastically changed. No longer were people focusing solely on the “good,” “bad,” or “hot.” Instead, I started seeing terms like “heteronormative,” “white privilege,” and “race representation” popping up frequently. It’s not that I was completely clueless as to what these sorts of terms meant (although I did have to do a bit of research for context). I had just never encountered anyone talking about media in this way. These ideas had never crossed my mind while enjoying shows, movies, and modern texts. Ever.
Thanks to my fandom education, I find myself using these sorts of terms in everyday discussions, on and off of the internet. Those who have received a similar internet/fandom education know exactly what I’m talking about when I use that kind of language. Meanwhile, those who aren’t as familiar with fandom discourse have no clue what I’m talking about and look at me like I’m speaking another language. They also look at me like my ideas and view of the world is crazy and far too complicated. (Not to mention wrong or blasphemous.)
My fandom education has been about more than just vocabulary, though. It’s been about discourse, underlying messages, and media trends. Unlike a lot of my formal education, fandom discussions and ideas transcend our beloved shows, movies, and books. Because media is a reflection of our world (or how we’d like to see it), fandom discourse and conversations enrich the way in which we all see the world. We can apply them to the society around us and use them to push for a better world just as easily as we can use them to discuss our favorite shows, books, and movies. Just because fandom discourse originates as a result of a work of fiction (most times) does not mean it has to stay there.
Whenever something huge happens in the world (anything from a shooting to the death of a character on a fan-favorite TV show), I check my fandom-heavy social feeds to see what sorts of details and ideas I failed to pick up on so that I can form an educated opinion. Small nuances that make an event more complicated and complex, such as what viewpoints are being excluded by the media’s reporting and how that affects the event.
In contrast, when major current events happened when I was in school, the most we did was discuss what the media was saying, without argument or much deconstruction. Sure, in college, some of my peers would throw out fancy (if not empty) ideas or thoughts worth exploring, but we never dug in deep. These discussions took a back seat to texts that were hundreds of years old or movies that were made during the golden age of Hollywood. Sure, doing analyses of these works is interesting and some aspects apply to today’s culture, but it’s not as much as a modern cultural goldmine as events happening today and the media’s portrayal of it.
While my fandom education has opened up the world for me in terms of discourse, it has also introduced me to the ideas of representation and voice. Before fandom, I would’ve perceived “representation” and “voice” in terms of their English literature uses (“analogy” and “speaker”) if someone used them to discuss media. I never realized that, for some cultures and lifestyles, these things are scare or pretty much non-existent. In fact, I didn’t even realize it when it was happening to me.
Growing up, a lot of the characters I idolized and thought of as my favorites were males (and not just because they were cute and dreamy). Will Turner, Peter Pan, Dean Winchester (just to name a few) were strong and smart and complex. Until I started yearning for more for female characters and seeking out nuanced ladies, I never realized how little I valued female characters for the first portion of my life. They were princesses and damsels; what was there to idolize or identify with?
It took me years to figure out that the popular portrayal of women as weak and simple is only one portrayal. Though I worked it out over time, fandom is what really locked everything into place for me.
Today, I feel lucky in that I can identify with a sizable amount of characters and situations presented in media, thanks in large part to the improvements in female characterization that has happened the last few years.
Women in media aren’t as numerous as they should be, but I’m still represented through portrayals of white working class people and can find characters to connect with (for better or worse). Though it has taken me a while to notice my own sort of representation, it took me a lot longer to realize that other groups of people aren’t so lucky. That I’m missing out on the life experiences of numerous others. Not only that, but because of the lack of representation, those who aren’t being represented are being stripped of their voices.
I didn’t grow up in a box or an isolated environment, but until participating in fandom discourse, I never really knew the sheer scope of human experiences that exists. Though my hometown is relatively diverse compared to a lot of other places, there are so many cultures and experiences that I never encountered growing up. Media was my only window to the world at this point (and it wasn’t a very clear one). Even the books I read (for both school and pleasure), as well as the shows and movies I watched, didn’t give me a clear picture of the world. I mean, it’s not like 18th and 19th century British literature was all that diverse or culturally rich. It wasn’t until I dove in to fandom that I learned more about different peoples, cultures, and even sexuality.
Sexuality isn’t something that people in the “real world” talk about often, so fandom was my first real introduction to the idea of a spectrum rather than just gay/straight/bi. The sexuality spectrum, in addition to the masculinity and femininity spectrum (something I’ve also picked up from fandom), adds so much depth to practically everything I absorb. Without interacting with and reading the thoughts of people within fandom, my knowledge and understanding of the LGBTQ community would be incomplete. I’d only know as much as what media and my formal schooling shows me (that is to say, very little).
No, I don’t know everything about sexuality and the gender spectrum (nor do I pretend to), but I’m so thankful for fandom for the chance to learn and be better equipped to interact with people in the real world. Not only that, but fandom has given me the tools I need to seek out more diverse viewpoints.
Above all, though, fandom has taught me to take action and do something after I finish analyzing texts. To not take media at face value but instead do more thorough research (which includes seeking out diverse viewpoints) and look for the human experience element of it. See how the medium or text I’m looking at affects or neglects people and demand better. Really, fandom has asked me to challenge the norms, dig deeper, and ask “Why?”
Sure, as an English major, I was taught to constantly analyze and deconstruct everything placed in front of me. That’s an English major’s bread and butter. But my fandom education adds another level to it. Instead of simply resting on my analysis and seeing something from different aspects, my fandom education has taught me to take action. To ask why things are the way they are and vocalize my opinions. From there, my ideas and the ideas of others can effect changes in media in the future.
My education through fandom now extends far beyond the internet. Thanks to fandom and my internet education, I’ve gotten to know some amazing and intelligent people, my fellow Hypable staff members included. Every time I get together with other Hypable writers for conventions or fun trips, we end up having some of the most amazing in-depth discussions. Whether I’m online or interacting with people in real life, my fandom education really never ends (and, honestly, I never want it to).
Fandom gives everyone value and a voice. General media (and even formal education) does not. I feel like I’m so much more well-rounded and well-versed because of conversations I’ve read and been a part of through fandom, whether it’s on Tumblr, Twitter, or in our little Hypable staff (and friends) circle. Not only did fandom introduce me to TV shows and characters I never knew I wanted, but it has also led me to view the world differently and demand better representation.
It’s unfortunate that formal education curriculum’s neglect to teach students about the power of representation and voice in modern day media and event coverage. So many curriculums are focused on the past and how that past can affect the future, but they don’t focus on the present. On modern issues that encompass the whole world’s population, not just that of one or two countries. Yes, I’m thankful for my formal education and I enjoyed the large majority of classes that I’ve taken over the years, but none of them taught me nearly as much as fandom has.