As a giant Star Wars fan, it is inevitable that I’ll come into contact with people claiming to know what a “true fan” looks like. In the last year, that argument has become more prominent than ever. In the wake of The Force Awakens, hundreds of people flocked to the Star Wars franchise to declare themselves fans. And old school Star Wars fandom wasn’t happy. Those new folks didn’t understand Star Wars. They didn’t really love it; they were just in it for the exciting new ride. They were just half-assed fake fans.
None of this is particularly new to the fan world. People have been calling other people out for being fake fans longer than I’ve been alive.1 But as an argument, the “true fan” reasoning is, at best, bullshit.
There are a couple reasons for this:
- The definition of fan doesn’t need to match to your personal method of engagement.
- Creating a limiting definition of “fan” is fundamentally exclusionary and selfish.
To the first of these: the definition of fandom is and should be as varied as possible. I have no business telling someone they are not a real fan of something simply because they don’t engage as I do. Someone can be a Star Wars fan and only pay attention to the movies. You can be a Star Wars fan and dress up as the characters OR spend hours reading about the expanded universe OR writing your own fan fiction (slash or otherwise). You can be a Star Wars fan and only love The Force Awakens (or Rogue One). Hell, you don’t even have to agree on which Star Wars movies are the best or whether Han shot first.2
There just isn’t such a thing as “true fan.” There are just fans. And that’s a good thing.
To the second: Part of the reason the “true fan” debate occurs is as a mechanism of exclusion. When someone says “you aren’t a real fan,” they’re doing so as a way to universalize their own method of engagement. It’s akin to calling someone a liar because they disagree. And all too often, this argument is used to exclude women and people of color, especially when these groups lodge criticism against a fan property.
As a fan of many things, I can understand the feelings that go along with fandom. It’s easy to become defensive of your favorite fan property, to want to defend it from criticism. But it’s also necessary to be open to the reality that nothing is perfect, and even criticism that hurts can help us make things better. The lack of diversity in Star Wars, for example, is slowly being rectified in the new films, in no small part because a whole lot of fans of sf/f at large have helped shape the discourse on diversity so that even Hollywood cannot completely ignore it.3 These are good things. Fandom should be open to everyone, and making the franchise itself more open makes it a lot easier for different people to find their own place within a created world. Ghostbusters did something very similar, and the adorable pictures of little girls dressed up as the movie characters was a wonderful reminder of how important representation is.
I also think that the more diverse a fandom is, the more healthy it is. It opens up the door to new methods of engaging and to new ideas for expanding. I mean “diverse” in the loosest sense (diverse types, diverse peoples, diverse engagements). Fandoms cannot survive by pushing people away; they survive by finding ways to include more people and by recognizing and validating different types of fans. After all, most of the major sf/f fandoms will eventually be made up entirely of people who weren’t alive when the original creator was around, and keeping business “as is” will likely have the effect of pushing younger fans away. We see this over and over in general sf/f fandom, with younger fans moving away from literary conventions to more media-centered conventions. The only way to correct this is to find new ways of connecting different types of fans.
Get people talking to one another. Get people to hear one another. Empathy, in other words, goes a long way.
What all this comes down to is quite simple: the “true fan” argument needs to die. Where it arises, it should be called out for what it is: exclusionary and divisive. Instead, we should aim for a better fandom, one that is as inclusive as possible and self-correcting.
We just need to figure out how to do that…
- Hell, the term “trufan” dates back to 1954, though it probably appeared much sooner than that.
- For the sake of argument: Han shot first. The Special Editions are Hollywood propaganda designed to lure us into a false sense of security so we can be easily abducted and experimented on by aliens.
- The whitewashing of Doctor Strange, however, tells us that we’ve still got a long way to go.