Fangasm: The Curious Case of The Supernatural Fangirl

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls © University of Iowa Press
Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls © University of Iowa Press

On November 18th 2013 I made a life changing decision: I pressed play on episode one of Supernatural. I didn’t recognize that it was a life changing moment at the time, it’s rare that you do, but it’s clear that I saw it for what it was fairly quickly. A look at my Twitter feed 45 minutes later shows me posting: “I think I’m in love already. #Supernatural.”

Six months down the line and it’s fair to say I’m already a dedicated, bordering on die-hard, fan. I’ve watched all nine seasons of the show so far, begun reading the spin-off books, have bookmarked folders filled with links to interesting articles and fanfiction, plus my Tumblr now resembles a shrine to Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles, and Jared Padalecki. I’ve even learned how to spell Padalecki. I’m subscribed to the Twitter, Instagram, and other social media feeds of every cast member. I am also finishing up cosplays of both Dean and Castiel for this summer’s convention season, and as I write this, models of Dean and Sam are sitting to my left watching curiously from their hallowed position atop an X-Files box set. It’s been a rapid descent but I’m now fully immersed in the Supernatural fandom and I don’t see a way out. Honestly, I don’t want to find one.

Nine Year Old Me Was *That* Kid © Sophie Brown
Nine Year Old Me Was *That* Kid © Sophie Brown

I found the whole process curious. I’ve been a “fan” my whole life. I remember collecting the official magazine series (complete with binders) for The Animals of Farthing Wood. Later I moved on to cult Sci-Fi shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Sapphire and Steel, devouring annuals and re-watching episodes until I wore out the VHS tapes. However it’s rare that a fandom consumes me entirely; in fact it has only happened twice. When The X-Files appeared in my life in the mid 90s it changed my world to the point where I never looked back. Since then that all consuming feeling has only happened once again, on the arrival of Supernatural. Why? What was it about these two shows that caused me to ditch my sanity so completely? Why has that not happened with other shows I love? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m not alone.

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls is the story of two university professors, Lynn S. Zubernis (associate professor of counselor education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania) and Katherine Larsen (literary scholar and teacher at George Washington University in Washington D.C.) who also happen to be devoted Supernatural fans. The book follows them as they attend multiple conventions across the US and Canada, indulging in their passion whilst researching the subject of fandom with the intention of writing a book. That book eventually became split in two. This title covers the personal story of their fandom and the other, Fandom at The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, & Fan/Producer Relationships, the more academic side of their research.*

Far from being 245 pages of fangirl flailing and nonsensical squealing, Fangasm raises many serious issues surrounding fans; specifically those faced by females. There is often an unspoken (sometimes loudly spoken) judgement aimed at female fans, especially older female fans who are told they “should know better” at their age. Who out there hasn’t seen pictures of Twimoms (female fans of Twilight who are mothers and over the age of 25—usually much older) with offensive, or at least unpleasant, captions photo-shopped on top? In fact the entry for Twimom at Urban Dictionary sums up the issues very well.

“A group of ‘adults’ who have children and/or are married, who are overly obsessed fans of the overrated ‘Twilight’ book series. They usually spend their time, neglecting their children, ie. – forgetting to feed them…”

Compared to the entry for Trekkie-–a group generally stereotyped as male—and you’ll instantly see the difference in the presentation of the two terms:

“A devoted fan of the television series Star Trek or one of its spin-off series or films. Variant: Trekker”

The Trekkie entry reads like a regular dictionary entry with no emotive language used. The Twimom entry however is almost violently emotional, calling this group of fans “overly obsessed”, accusing them of neglecting their children and even placing the word adult within inverted commas, as if somehow by choosing to display their fandom, these women are not worthy of the status.

Jensen and Jared Take a Look at Fangasm © Chris Schmelke
Jensen and Jared Take a Look at Fangasm © Chris Schmelke

Fangasm begins by raising the point that all of us are most likely fans of something—“the local football team, model railroading, Elvis Presley, Anthony Bourdain”—and that the feeling of cheering together with other fans is a bonding experience we all gain satisfaction from. It also points out that certain fans are respected to a greater extent than others, something clearly illustrated by the Urban Dictionary entries above. Being a sports fan is seen as normal, “in fact, to be male and not a fan of some team somewhere is the more questionable position,” the authors point out. Dog enthusiasts have formed the Westminster Kennel Club, while opera, ballet, and theater fans “have the weight of cultural approval on their side”. Tell someone you’re a fan of Beethoven or Placido Domingo and you’ll no doubt receive a very different reaction than if you told them you love Doctor Who or My Chemical Romance despite the fact that the fandoms are equally passionate, albeit, in different ways. I once spent over an hour standing at the stage door of Covent Garden Opera House while my mother waited to get Domingo’s autograph, so I can speak with some authority on this matter.

The authors speak at length about the ways fans are ridiculed and humiliated online simply for showing their passions. The reaction to the death of a Twilight fan at SDCC 2012 is noted for the way online commenters joked about the event. It is noted how female fans are referred to as “creepy”, “ridiculous”, “unattractive” and “horrible parents” simply for daring to show their enthusiasm. This is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1800s, fans of Lord Byron were described as being driven to a state of “hysterical excitement” and he was accused of producing in them a taste “for extreme sensation”. However despite the negativity fans may face by admitting their passions, for many the online communities fostered around television shows like Supernatural are hugely important: especially to women.

The book talks about studies that have shown the benefits gained by emotional investment in television shows and in relationships with other fans online. This is important to recall in discussions on fandom where shame is often a factor. Fans, women especially, often feel shame for “indulging in ‘frivolous’ pursuits’ like fandom”, feeling that they should instead be doing something of “value” with their time such as working to earn money or taking care of the family. It is considered entirely normal for a man to take an afternoon away from his family to attend a sports game, yet if a woman were to spend that same time visiting a filming location or attending a convention then this is often seen very differently. Guilt is a huge issue for many women. Mothers often find that they are neglecting themselves because of how guilty taking time out away from the family makes them feel. However, fandoms offer so much to those who participate: bonding experiences, relaxation, and (in the case of Supernatural but also many other TV shows) “an emotional framework upon which you can hang anything”.

Whilst this is primarily a book about Supernatural fans, it is of interest to anyone who considers themselves a “fan”— whether they admit to it in public or not. It is also a book that will interest those concerned with feminist issues. The frank discussions of sex, why for example male fans of Star Trek feel at ease discussing their appreciation of Seven of Nine’s costume while female fans are looked on as “disgusting” and “oversexed” for an equal appreciation of Jensen Ackles’ six pack, are valid and important conversations that need to be out in public. How is it that a TV network is clearly at ease casting with the intention of attracting the female gaze (Supernatural has used “Scary just got sexy” as an official tag line) yet equally uncomfortable with those same women discussing the subject?

Of course Supernatural fans will find more than others to enjoy here. The interviews with cast and crew, especially the long insights from actor Jim Beaver who plays Bobby Singer, are interesting and offer more than simple anecdotes while the stories about the conventions are of more relevance to fans of the show. However even if you have never watched an episode, (go and watch it now, it will change your life) then you will find a lot to think about and enjoy in here.

*Katherine and Lynn are also the editors of Fan Culture: Theory/Practice and the Supernatural edition of Intellect’s Fan Phenomena series.

A copy of Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls was provided for this review by the publisher.

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