The Cumberbatch fatigue and fandom policing: is being a fan ever enough anymore?

Blog / Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

In “The Cultural Economy of Fandom”, John Fiske wrote that “fans discriminate fiercely: the boundaries between what falls within their fandom and what does not are sharply drawn” (1992: 34). This discriminatory trait is often used to describe how fans draw boundaries between being fans and non-fans, between insiders and outsiders (as in, the general public who holds no affiliation whatsoever to fandom). Lately, however, the policing that goes on in fandom seemingly occurs with more frequency, and with increasing animosity; especially given Tumblr’s often knee-jerk reactions and activism [1] to weed out all the wrong-doing across different fandoms. A celebrity says the wrong thing on social media – their reputation immediately takes a beating as posts are continually reblogged until kingdom come. Another celebrity makes a comment that’s read to prioritise or support a particular ship pairing or co-star, and the hate starts.

It gets even more interesting when the policing extends to fandom itself: someone says they are a fan of a text/celebrity, but doesn’t necessarily engage passionately with said text/celebrity, which then brings about the question of the “fan imposter”. I’ve previously blogged about the different levels of fandom, where some shows attract more engagement than others, and the frustration that comes with identifying as a fan and a fan studies scholar when the expectation is that you are equally passionate about each and every show you’ve taken to watching, and each and every celebrity that you do not have a bad reaction to. A few days ago, I shared a Daily Dot article on my Facebook which talks – among other things – about the Cumberbatch fatigue in light of news that he’s in negotiation to star in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. While I don’t agree with everything in the article, I felt it spoke to me about the fatigue I was feeling when faced with Cumberbatch.

Cumberbatch at a film premiere

A brief disclaimer: I actually do like his body of work, and while I have immense problems with Steven Moffat, I thought the first two seasons of Sherlock (with the exception of that clearly Orientalist episode in season one) were clever and decent. But as the ensuing discussion on that particular FB post unfolds, I professed to feeling that kind of fandom policing, both implicitly and explicitly from friends who love the show and Cumberbatch, that brought on the fatigue. Tumblr is largely Sherlock-land, even though my fandoms are very explicitly Arrow and Supernatural. It speaks of the wide reach of the show, and how Tumblr (as a platform) promotes fandom crossovers (cf. Superwholock), but on the downside, it makes the show (and Cumberbatch) extremely hard to avoid, even with numerous browser add-ons to hide topics and tags. [2] My other option was to quit Tumblr, but even then, the fatigue remains as unfortunately, Cumberbatch still seeps through on other social media platforms.

So, why the extent to which I go to avoid a decent actor? Fandom policing interests me from an academic standpoint, but more than that, discussions with fellow academics have also led to the discovery that some fandoms also turn us off a show/celebrity. This isn’t so much anti-fandom as it is apathy (especially on my part). The Daily Dot article mentions a specific type of fans that Cumberbatch is associated with that has brought about the backlash at news of his casting, specifically those who usually get a bad rep in the media. And while some of you may argue that I am perpetuating that kind of discourse, let’s stop to think as to why I have the fatigue in the first place. And why people – fan studies scholars who do understand the intricacies of fandom – are professing to being turned off by a fandom.

Case in point (and I can only present my own personal experience in this, and I feel this is absolutely crucial, of which I will go into later): I once admitted to friends that I like Sherlock and Cumberbatch. I used the word ‘fan’ to describe the like, as I am a fan. Of many things. What I did not expect was the word would come with so much policing: among my own friends, both implicitly and explicitly, on social media, and academically during a Sherlock symposium. Now fans perform a kind of “fandom shibboleth” all the time – I was once asked to prove my knowledge and fandom of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica at an academic conference (to name the actor who portrays Helo, which, for those of you who know me, would be highly amusing) – but with Sherlock and Cumberbatch, it was a constant barrage of tests and it ends up being in a constant state of me either passionately engaging with other fans, loving every. Single. Thing. That Cumberbatch has done without even a complaint. OR, I’m against the fandom because I’m just not engaging passionately enough, therefore making me an ‘inauthentic fan’ (for that matter, what is authenticity in fandom?).

So, it could be that I’m not engaging passionately enough. Therefore, I could very well say, I don’t have to put up with the constant hyper-vigilance and the anxiety that I would be called an imposter (and not just to the Sherlock/Cumberbatch fandom, mind you, but to fandom at large, and by extension, my academic field). I could retreat back to the safety of my own fandoms, being a “mainstream” fan, attending conventions, watching the show, at times engaging with other fans and producers on Twitter. But the question remains: why should my non-commitment negate others’ experience of the fandom (or any fandom)? It shouldn’t.

Fandom isn’t homogenous – that was one of the chief conclusions from my PhD dissertation. Which is why I think it’s important to remember that personal experiences do matter. But looking at the interactions on Tumblr sometimes, you forget that fandom isn’t. Shouldn’t be homogenous. That if Orlando Jones happen to tweet something by mistake, then by god, as a member of Tumblr, I HAVE TO persecute him lest I be accused of worshipping a false idol and for putting him on a pedestal. The irony is striking. It also harkens back to the post about my experience at Loncon, that as if by posting a differing opinion and experience, I have somehow disproved others’ (positive) experience. It doesn’t.

It’s also why, given the reactions to the FB post about Cumberbatch-fatigue, this will be it for me in terms of commenting about Sherlock and Cumberbatch. I look forward to reading what others have done, and will do, in observations about the fandom, but if I want to wade into the policing and the arguments, I’d frankly rather do it with a fandom I actually am not apathetic about.


[1] I’m not saying that activism is a bad thing, by the way. Fan activism is incredibly important, but as with everything, context matters! And during my brief stint on Tumblr, it’s often very difficult to find that contextualisation when it’s an angry mob of people persecuting an individual, or a group of individuals for perceived offense. And I’m at the corner, trying to scream that fandom isn’t homogenous, that rules, regulations and norms differ platform to platform even if the practice itself is similar.

[2] Lest you think I wasn’t trying hard enough, I was using two different types of browser add-ons to blacklist Cumberbatch before I quit Tumblr.

References:Fiske, J. 1992. The Cultural Economy of Fandom. In: Lewis, L. A. ed. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. London: Routledge, pp. 30–49.

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