If you’ve spent money on merchandise promoting your favorite sports team, logged hours discussing the summer blockbuster remake of a movie you and several other people on the same Internet message board liked when you were kids, or written a fix-it fanfiction story because what happened to your OTP (One True Pairing, aka your preferred fictional character hook-up scenario) canonically just wasn’t acceptable to you, then you’ve probably been, on some level, a member of a fandom.
In the olden days, aka before the Internet became a feature in most households, fans of
Star Trek would share handmade ‘zines’ at regional conventions, themselves predecessors for behemoth events like Comic-Con. The reach of those zines was much smaller than the potential audience for a piece of writing or visual art today on, say, Tumblr, but the role of the content produced for them had a similar bent. That is, they allowed fans to share theories with one another, and even to focus on aspects of the TV series–for instance, the relationship, such that it was, between Kirk and Spock–that may have been incidental or tangential to the creators.
Nowadays, fandom is gigantic, uncloseted and, unfortunately, argumentative. Warring factions are embittered by lack of (or an overabundance) representation of specific groups, anxiety over adaptations of previous canon into a new one, and even the nature of development with regards to brand new canon. Probably, however, what infuses modern fandom with the bulk of its toxicity is related to a sense of nostalgia-cum-entitlement. While nostalgia itself involves a wistfulness for the past (the Oxford English Dictionary specifically describes the phenomenon as “‘sentimental longing'” [University of Southampton, 2017]), implying a focus on things an individual remembers as being ‘good’ or pleasurable, often for intimate and personal reasons, the effects of nostalgia when several individuals’ longings meet and clash can be anything but nice. By being aware of the ways nostalgia might come into play, it can help to make one’s fandom experience a productive and positive one.
#1. Nostalgia can blind fans to a well-loved fandom’s flaws.
A mere two decades ago, nostalgia was treated as a disorder, a mental affliction in which sufferers (and they do suffer; the term is coined from the Greek “nostos”, meaning “homecoming”, and “algos”, or “pain”) have a predilection for the past, characterized in 1688 by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer by being “manic with longing” and melancholy for a “specific object or place” (Beck, 2013). Its renaissance and retooling did not occur until 1999, when a Greek doctor, Constantine Sedikides, felt that a diagnosis of nostalgia by a colleague, mischaracterized a sudden longing for the time he spent as a student at the University of North Carolina was that Sedikedes was simply depressed. More correctly, Sedikedes eventually surmised, his longing was an affirmation that his life “‘had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward'” (Tierney, 2013).
Today, nostalgia has a good reputation. Keying the term into Google brings up an online shop (NostalgiaElectrics.com) dedicated to selling old-fashioned-looking electronics, including popcorn poppers and cotton candy makers. Likewise, the self-proclaimed “Nostalgia Critic” at ChannelAwesome.com, and websites like the aptly-named TheNostalgiaMachine.com traffic in pontificating on the past, ostensibly in search of a sweet spot wherein nostalgia helps to maintain one’s forward-moving lifestyle, rather than causing them to lapse into “bittersweet emotion” or “discontinuity” (Tierney, 2013).
On the other hand, nostalgia can go too far. Sedikedes himself, working with Tim Wildschut, a senior researcher from the Netherlands, proffers that within nostalgic thinking, there exists strains of both “rumination” and “counterfactual thinking”, both of which can be used to reinforce specific emotions, regardless of their accuracy (Adams, 2014). While nostalgia can certainly act as a counter to “loneliness, boredom and anxiety”, it can also inculcate those who practice it in a way that causes them to withdraw to a set of mental circumstances that may be rooted stubbornly in an inaccurate past (Tierney, 2013). And many do; Sedikedes recommends that persons who are not particularly “neurotic or avoidant” would do well to engage in intentional nostalgic thinking two to three times a week.
This concept can be extrapolated to the habits and thought processes of long-time fandom members. Consider the person for whom decades of cheering on their favorite sports team metaphorically blinds them to the flaws and faults of that team’s politics, perhaps even a scandal involving steroid use or the controversy surrounding its mascot having racist origins. Perhaps its star player was recently apprehended for domestic abuse. The fan in question may well acknowledge that cheating or abuse are unequivocally wrong, while simultaneously attempting sometimes incredibly complicated mental gymnastics to deflect blame away from their precious team, even going so far as to demonize the persons or institutions responsible for tarnishing its good name, and the fan’s good memories.
Particularly in media-based fandoms, fans of TV shows, movies, and the like often acknowledge the existence of ‘problematic faves’, aspects of said TV shows and movies that should not be ignored, but that are able to be acknowledged and perhaps even smoothed over symbolically with ‘what if?’ alternate universe fanfiction. Then fans can continue to be fans with a clear moral conscience. Such acknowledgment on a group level can also aid in the development of warm feelings towards other like-minded folks, one of nostalgia’s positive traits, according to Sedikedes (Tierney, 2013).
#2. Wistful fandom gatekeepers may be hostile to newcomers.
Sedikedes eventually created a seven-question battery called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale, which aims to determine via self-reported survey how much and how often nostalgia may affect one’s life. On the University of Southampton website housing a .PDF copy of the entire survey, it is noted that nostalgia has the potential to offer those who practice it, consciously or otherwise, “a stronger sense of belongingness, affiliation, or sociality” (2017).
Of course, the previously acknowledged aspects of nostalgia can also cause the opposite to occur. A Star Wars fan myself, I picked up a copy of Tony Pacitti’s 2010 memoir, My Best Friend Is a Wookiee, nearly as soon as it was published. The book has a reputation for being an endearing look into the rapidly socially acceptable zeitgeist that was being a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’, words that, like nostalgia, once came with significantly more social flack than they do currently.
A large portion of this memoir is Pacitti establishing himself as a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan, his salvation even through humiliation at the hands of elementary school bullies, accidentally urinating in his pants at school, and acne. Alas, what struck me as disappointing was Pacitti’s embittered gatekeeping, a term that in fandom refers to one who metaphorically discourages people from accessing fandom materials or spaces, under the notion that the person in question is not an “authentic” enough fan. Even more damning for a ‘fangirl’ is how gender-based Pacitti’s own gatekeeping seems to be:
‘Suddenly the popular girls were swooning over the dashing Han Solo, and guys with their hormones about to go supernova were drooling over Princess Leia’s metal slave bikini like it was something new. It wasn’t! I’d been drooling over it for years! This was my galaxy, damn it, and I didn’t want the cool kids to have any fun in it. They had hogged everything else, and now they were peeking into my little world? No, they weren’t just peeking, they were staking their claims and suddenly they all thought they were experts on the galaxy I had spent countless hours ensconcing myself in.” (2010, pp. 81-2)
Pacitti goes on in the same chapter to describe an interaction with (horrors!) a female classmate who calls him out regarding an incorrect fact on a poster he has made about Star Wars ships. (For what it’s worth, her assessment ends up being incorrect.) Pacitti describes feeling angry enough to fantasize about “grabbing her by the ponytail and shaking the life out of her” (pp. 83). The passage ends with Pacitti contenting himself with the notion that, when he dies, he can be eulogized with the statement that “‘he knew more about Star Wars than some stupid girl who only started liking it way after he did'” (pp. 84).
Of course, Pacitti is welcome to validate his status as a ‘true’ Star Wars fan with bittersweet memories of his childhood. However, as Sedikedes and Wildschut point out, intentionally ruminating on negative memories “to remind oneself of how poorly one has been treated or to reinforce regret” (Adams, 2014) may be counterproductive in the long run. In Pacitti’s case, focusing on how being a Star Wars fan in an era when being a nerd could be cause for ridicule gives him power as an adult in the modern age, where his social status is reversed.
However, by reinforcing such an imbalance of power, Pacitti seems, at best, oblivious and at worst, even glad that in the future, other people are going to associate their fandom experiences with social isolation and an extreme dichotomy between nerds and the ‘popular kids’. His tale also does not necessarily account for what could have been general social awkwardness as a larger explanation behind why he may have had trouble making friends at a young age, or the presumption that girls being fans of traditionally nerdy things is a recent development–a topic on which an entirely separate article could be written, to be sure–to be met with irritation and scorn.
In short, Pacitti’s gatekeeping does little besides reinforce his and others’ bitterness, alongside memories that could and should be overwhelmingly pleasurable, in order to achieve maximum nostalgic effectiveness. He loses a sense of communal nostalgia, which Sedikedes and Wildschut acknowledge has the double-edged sword of both allowing persons to bond with strangers over a shared experience (a love for the Star Wars movies, for instance), while also increasing the potential for one group to develop negative feelings or biases against another (Adams, 2014).
Indeed, if a ‘true’ Star Wars fan can only be measured by the amount of social isolation he (or she) undergoes with relation, however loosely, to an overt love for the franchise, a group of ‘true’ fans can be easily led to question the authenticity of affection from anyone who does not appear to have had that precise experience. In Pacitti’s case, both girls who like Star Wars and boys more athletic and socially inclined than he was as a child are to be kept out of ‘his’ fandom, leaving only those fans for whom embittered entitlement must be frequently fed with counterfactual reminiscing. This only serves to ensnare such fans’ shared universe in the past.
#3. Nostalgia creates unyielding and unrealistic expectations for new canon.
Nostalgia can also predispose fans towards a very specific opinion of what the nature of the movie or TV series or album or game they love ‘should’ be. This wars against an incredibly popular trend in the past few years to ‘reboot’ or ‘update’ older media. Lauren Duca, in a passionate 2015 op-ed for the Huffington Post, laments that the movie industry in Hollywood is “bankrupt of original ideas”, while simultaneously acknowledging that “More than half of the top 25 highest-grossing films of 2014 were sequels, remakes or reboots.” These two ideas appear to dovetail. However, if the nostalgia induced by said sequels, et al, leads to a guaranteed hit, there does not seem to be much need for ‘original ideas’.
Even here, however, nostalgia’s effects are nuanced. For fans prone to gatekeeping their beloved franchises, the idea that a reboot or remake may well bring in fledgling, inauthentic fans who will assuredly overrun ‘their’ Internet message boards with newbie pap, is a worst-case scenario. Being predisposed towards bitter ruminating can lead and has, in fact, led to fan revolt. When an all-female remake of the popular Ghostbusters franchise from the 1980s was announced in 2016, fans angered by the idea that, for whatever reason, the franchise did not need updating (in spite of the fact that it had already spun off numerous cartoon series and such, without nearly so much fanfare), down-voted the reboot’s trailer on YouTube over 600,000 times, ostensibly out of spite. It is even rumored that said down-voting was a concentrated group effort, another nod to the potentially negative consequences of communal nostalgia.
In response, director Paul Feig, who postulates a large aspect of the hatred is indeed because the four Ghostbuster characters are now women, noted that “‘It’s very easy once you’re predisposed to be pissed about something, to watch it and find fault.'” Notably, the film company’s marketing and distribution chief, Josh Greenstein, acknowledged that the film did well enough to warrant a sequel or two, in spite of what Feig termed “‘false controversy'” (Boboltz, 2016). Even so, Feig, a self-proclaimed nerd, tiredly acknowledged that, while he was “‘sympathetic'” to the idea of leaving cherished “‘old property'” untouched, he found it exhausting that the controversy surrounding the film, however ‘fake’. was inescapable (Shoard, 2016). Regardless of the quality of the movie, the notion that fan animosity is an ever-present participant in any future conversation about it is a depressing reality, one mired in misaimed nostalgia.
#4. Nostalgic fans can focus unnecessary animosity on fandom creators.
Related to embittered fans gatekeeping updated canon for something they love, nostalgia can also be an impetus for fan animosity towards those who create and produce said canon. Regarding Ghostbusters, along with Feig, actress Leslie Jones was attacked on Twitter with racial slurs due to her involvement in the film (Boboltz, 2016), because she’s not only not a man, Jones’ Ghostbuster would also not be Caucasian. (Never mind that one of the original Ghostbusters was Ernie Hudson, a Black man.)
Back in the Star Wars galaxy, the highly anticipated live-action seventh episode of the film saga, The Force Awakens, drew ire upon release because of its apparent similarities to Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. While Episode VII‘s director, J.J. Abrams, argued that The Force Awakens served as a “‘bridge'” between the previous source material and what was to come in Episode VIII and IX (Anderton, 2016), the defense was only necessary after the viral success of the release of a side-by-side comparison video of the two movies. Once again, the rationale of having (horrors!) parallel characters and events in a film franchise spanning roughly 70 years (to say nothing of the expanded universe of books and comics that expand well beyond that into the past and future of the movies) is irrelevant when faced with fandom anger.
#5. Nostalgia can lead to unwarranted fan entitlement.
Alas, the The Force Awakens controversy is hardly the first for Star Wars. The accusations lobbed at George Lucas, the creator of the franchise, are so numerous and commonly, monolithically expressed that a 2011 documentary, The People vs. George Lucas was created as a summation of all of them. (The title of the documentary satirizes the court case, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, centered around the murder of Simpson’s wife and her friend, Ron Goldman, and ruefully implies the severity in the minds of fans of Lucas’ so-called offenses.) Highlights include Lucas’ refusal to remaster the original three films from the ’70s and ’80s with the original content intact, rather than cutting it with additional material and updating many of the special effects. Likewise, many fans vehemently despised the Prequel Trilogy, the three-movie backstory made in 1999 through 2005 that proffered a backstory for big bad Darth Vader and company.
Though Lucas is still respected enough to have attended the recent 2017 Star Wars Celebration weekend in Orlando as a guest during the 40th anniversary festivities, and though he has spoken candidly on several occasions about his motives behind the choices he made regarding the films, ultimately, he left the Sequel Trilogy to be made by other people and sold the franchise rights to Disney. Fan entitlement drove these decisions. On a 2016 episode of CBS This Morning, Lucas acknowledged that his vision, to tell “‘a soap opera … all about family problems'” ran counter to Disney’s wish to “‘make something for the fans'” (Libbey, 2016).
In essence, his notion to only be involved in a project if his artistic vision is respected is outdated. Today fan campaigns will organize to “mass demonize” movie trailers and documentaries that mythologize and popularize the lore surrounding the making of Star Wars. Even Feig, while complaining about the Ghostbusters reboot backlash, had already accepted, seemingly without protest, that his product, whatever it ended up being, was ‘property’ to which fans would inevitably lay claim. While it is respectable that Lucas gracefully walked away, rather than refusing to allow the Star Wars franchise to expand in his absence, it is not a stretch to assume that he felt at least somewhat driven away by the fans who love the original movies as much as they appear to hate him.
Overall, while nostalgia has the ability to bring about positive feelings, we don’t want our fan nostalgia to overtake reality, or discolor our rosey memories with bitterness. Tierney encapsulates this admonishment by quoting song lyrics by Stephen Stills from “Judy Blue Eyes”: “‘Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now'” (2013). For his part, Sedikedes would likely acknowledge that music holds its own keys to nostalgic reminiscing, particularly songs one becomes attached to during ones teenage years (Stern, 2014).
He would almost certainly stress the importance of wielding nostalgia as a tool for existentially squaring one’s past with the present, rather than allowing whoever one once was to imbalance who they are now. “‘Experience [nostalgia] as a prized possession,'” Sedikedes encourages. “‘When Humphrey Bogart says, ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ that’s nostalgia for you. We have it, and nobody can take it away from us. It’s our diamond'” (Tierney, 2013).
Notably, the film in which this iconic line is uttered, Casablanca, suffered a controversy in the 1980s regarding a colorized version of the originally black-and-white movie being aired on television (Krauthammer, 1987). One can only hope someone reading this does not still hold a grudge against MGM/UA for that.