Fandom: my brain is swamped with theory and questions of what our celebrity culture means and how this affects readings of Sherlock Holmes. My research has been centered on what it means to be a fan and the ways in which this manifests itself. This is not limited to Sherlock; there’s Doctor Who, Elvis, One Direction, The Beatles, The Avengers – you name it and there’s probably a group of fans that follow it/them. This got me thinking, are some forms of fandom more legitimate than others?
The media and academics have a tended to split fandom into the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fandom (explored in Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures) and I believe that this is most clearly seen between the fans of BBC’s Sherlock and the fans of One Direction.
When speaking of fans, there are many aspects you can delve into: fan fiction, fan art, blogs, discussion forums, Twitter accounts etc. Most, if not all, of these aspects are duplicated in ‘Directioner’s’ (One Direction fans) fandom and Sherlockian fandom. Even down to the prolific fan fiction that involves homosexuality – Holmes & Watson and Liam & Harry (1D) in particular. Then if you scour the internet a little more there is a deluge of information that would perhaps lead you to believe that there are aspects of both fandoms that might be seen as ‘unhinged’. Example: Buzzfeed wrote an article called ‘Tumblr Explains Why Sherlock Needs To Come Back On The Air’, which pokes fun at the insanity of Sherlock fans; it’s quite amusing, if not bizarre.
So if both fandoms have similar attributes, why do Directioners have such a bad reputation in comparison to Sherlockians?
I believe this comes down to a few things:
1. Media Portrayal – recently Channel 4 released a documentary on One Direction fans called ‘Crazy for One Direction’ (on 4OD here) which followed the lives of (all female) fans of 1D and did not paint them in a particularly favourable light. They admit to stalking the band member’s family houses, hotel rooms, restaurants, just for the chance of meeting the boys; Channel 4 show how fans abuse each other and celebrities out of jealousy, as much as they support each other in their fandom. It portrays the fans as obsessed at best and crazy at worst; in fact the title suggests the latter is the norm.
Ironically the backlash from Directioners only added fuel to the fire. Most headlines went along the line of ‘One Direction fans react angrily to Channel 4 documentary: ‘This is not us” as Digital Spy did [emphasis added]. So at the same time as fans are saying ‘This is Not Us’ the media are saying the fans are ‘angry’ – i.e. they’re emotional, unstable and unable to combat Channel 4’s portrayal using logic and proof. Predictably, Channel 4’s report of the backlash concentrated on the extreme claims made by fans that many of them had committed suicide in response (here). Yet, most of the tweets by fans are a genuine argument against Channel 4 stereotyping the most extreme side of fandom, thereby creating a stigma around being a Directioner.
Sherlockian fandom, on the other hand, gets very little media coverage; only in relation to the new release of new series and in serious discussion of the themes that are portrayed within the programme itself.
2. Sex Appeal
The One Direction boys are attractive, as is Benedict Cumberbatch. A lot of their fans concentrate on this fact and fantasize about a relationship with them (sexual or not), but they represent very different aspects of masculinity.
The 1D boys were hand picked for their looks and their voices; music bosses knew that their boyish looks would appeal to a younger audience. They knew boys and girls would either fancy them or want to be like them: one female fan in the Channel 4 documentary admitted to getting braces just because Niall has braces. The boys are universally appealing and chosen for that reason.
Benedict Cumberbatch on the other hand represents a less conventional sexuality: he’s not conventionally good looking but he embodies the up and coming ideal of masculinity based on intelligence. This is an important difference – his sex appeal is not based purely on looks and is therefore more acceptable to an older female audience because it is not ‘shallow’.
3. Perceived Intelligence
As the blog ‘Baker Babes’ state in their ‘About Me’ page:
‘The Baker Street Babes are an all-female group of Sherlock Holmes fans who talk about everything from canon to Cumberbatch, Charles Augustus Milverton to Jude Law, and dancing men to Jeremy Brett. We love Sherlock Holmes and we love having well informed, but also quite fun discussions about it. We’re all young and we’re all females, but we’re all die hard Sherlockians/Holmesian. It’s a demographic within the Sherlock Holmes fandom that is new and growing and doesn’t yet have a voice. We hope to become that voice and we want to prove that we’re not just going to coo over Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch, as lovely as they are, but that we know the canon and want to have discussions about it as well.’
This group of females are keen to demonstrate that by being a part of the Sherlock fandom they are engaging with their minds. They want to be seen as literate, articulate and engaging in a larger discussion of the Sherlock canon, not just being obsessed with the sexual appeal of the character/actor(s). As far as I have seen, both male and female fans of Sherlock have swathes of knowledge at their fingertips and discuss aspects and interpretations of the Sherlock canon with shrewd insight.
This is not to say that Directioners do not engage in similar discussions, but the intellectual analysis of 1D’s songs and work are not necessarily the central point to their fandom. There is also a pervading perception in our culture that literature (and by association, TV that interprets literature) is high-brow compared to the mass-marketed music industry (especially boybands). Because being a ‘geek’ is niche, programming aimed at this market appears more genuine; boybands are manufactured to appeal and are regenerated when their appeal runs out.
As an academic, I am biased towards the Sherlock fandom and am fast becoming a fan myself. My preconceptions of Directioners are personal to me, and of course it’s always easy to understand being a fan when your own interests relate. However, I do not think this means One Direction fans are an illegitimate fandom; they are given a bad name in the press because the media want to make comparisons between 1D fans and other similar phenomenon like The Beatles to increase their popularity. Celebration of what we enjoy is part of what makes us feel a part of a community, so let’s celebrate, whatever your tastes may be.