On Fandom

The release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which I haven’t seen and am feeling little-to-no temptation to see, got me thinking about my relationship with the things I claim to be a fan of. Of course, we identify ourselves to others (and to ourselves) through our fandoms. The cultural products we consume are synecdoche for who we are. We do that. We know we do that. What I’m noodling on, and what I haven’t decided about yet, are what our obligations are to the objects of our fandom, and what their obligations are to us.

To process this, I’ll lay out four things I’m a fan of, three media properties and a sports team: Star TrekStar Wars, James Bond movies, and the Oakland Raiders. Why these four? Because they’re my oldest fan connections. I became a Star Trek fan before I have reliable memories of becoming a Star Trek fan. I must have been three or four when it first caught my attention. I remember getting a bridge of the Enterprise play set when I was five, which I recall being thrilled about because it gave me a place to put my action figures, which I must have had before then. My Star Wars fandom came a bit later. I remember seeing the original film when I was six. It didn’t blow me away, but I liked it. I was more excited about The Empire Strikes Back, and I remember arguing with classmates on the playground before I saw it about whether Darth Vader’s fathering Luke Skywalker was possible. (I said no, because he was a machine. Silly me.) About the same time I started getting into James Bond, played then by Roger Moore. Though it’s popular in some fan quarters to slag on Moore, he was the guy who introduced me to the world of 007, and because of that I tried to copy his walk, his voice, his raised eyebrow (easy for me because copying Leonard Nimoy’s eyebrow lift limbered those muscles up), and his ability to remain impossibly cool whatever the situation. Oakland Raiders fandom came to me in 1976, when my Dad brought home a Raiders pennant from a business trip he’d taken. Though I also liked the Houston Oilers–we were living in Houston then–the boys in blue never won the Super Bowl. The Raiders did, twice, before I was in double digits, and they looked so damned cool doing it.

Over the years, my level of interest in these properties varied. I always loved the original Star Trek, but I slept through the first movie. The second one broke my heart when it killed Spock, but the story of his resurrection and revival hooked me through III and IVStar Trek V, well, the less said about it the better, but Star Trek VI redeemed everything, just around the same time that Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had gone through a painful first season and an uneven second, started finding its voice. Deep Space 9 followed, but somewhere along the line I got distracted and lost the plot. Star Trek Voyager was a more promising series idea than a series, and Enterprise, well, let’s just say the thrills of boldly going to places we already know about are limited. Star Wars ended for me after the credits of Return of the Jedi rolled, and I was fine with its being over. I watched them on home video every so often, but over time, I revisited them less. They were like friends from school who, when we got together, wanted to do nothing but talk about old times. I still liked them, but they had less of interest to say to me. The prequels didn’t help, because while I get and can even admire what Lucas was trying accomplish–the story of Anakin’s fall, and of how his love for those closet to him ends in his moral ruin and their destruction, reminds me more than anything of the story of Michael Corleone–his telling of that story had lots of problems. James Bond remained a constant for me, interrupted only by those long periods when the producers had some sort of intellectual property battle to fight. I liked some Bonds more than others: Dalton took a while to grow on me, and I thought Craig was undermined by the scripts before Skyfall, but I was always pleased to hear the music and see Bond in the gun barrel. I agree with Roger Ebert that the best way to look at a Bond movie is to see it as Noh drama. The stories don’t change, so what’s important is how the artists execute their various roles. Some Bonds are transcendently good: From Russia With LoveThe Spy Who Loved MeGoldeneyeSkyfall. Some are ordinary but fun, and some are messy and dumb but still kind of amusing if viewed in the right frame of mind. As for my beloved Raiders, they’ve changed cities a couple of times (and tried again, recently). The patriarch who owned the team, presided over its rise and fall and second rise, has died. They’ve won titles. They’ve lost one Tuck Rule game. For the last thirteen years they’ve been mostly frustrating with occasional moments of brightness. But even through the darkest times, I remember that Al Davis not just as the guy who coached and managed a team and ran a league, but also as an antiestablishment force in a white-bread league and one of the few owners committed to racial and gender equality. (It was once joked that if life were discovered on Mars, Al Davis would draft the first Martian player and hire the first Martian coach. I’d like to think that’s true.)

What has been true is that I’ve let all but one of these fandoms go for at least a few years at a time. I stopped watching Star Trek Voyager after a couple of seasons, and I barely watched Enterprise at all. I watched J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek, but I declined to repeat the experience with Star Trek Into Darkness. After Revenge of the Sith, I was pretty much done with Star Wars. I did try out the animated Clone Wars series, but I didn’t stick with it. As for the Raiders, I’ve got established rules for finding them interesting: if after the first month of the season, they’re 2-2 or better, I’m in. If not, I find something else to fill my Sunday afternoons.

It used to bother me that I called myself a fan of these things while frequently letting them go. It felt embarrassing to think of myself as a fair weather fan, to think that I was less of a real fan than people who watched every game or sat through every episode, however shitty, and boasted about it as a sign of character. It’s only recently that I’ve realized what utter bullshit this is. The only person who cares about my fandom is me. It’s not like Mark Davis or J.J. Abrams or the Disney Corporation stays up nights worrying about losing me as a fan. It’s not like my friends concern themselves with my particular passions, unless they’re mutual, and even then they’re just one more or less topic of conversation. We have others. Whatever embarrassment I feel is just me thinking about myself, and why should I be embarrassed because I don’t want to sit through a boring movie or an incompetently played football game? Why is it a sign of character to feel shitty about something you used to like back when it was good? Aren’t the things we like supposed to make us feel good? Movies, books and sports teams aren’t a spouse with schizophrenia or a child with cancer whom we’re supposed to be committed to loving unconditionally. They’re cultural products, which’ll keep on keeping on whether we watch them or not or enjoy them or not. They don’t need us, and they don’t love us back.

George Carlin put it best (as he often did):

I decided it’s not necessary to suffer and feel crappy just because my teams suck. What I do now is cut ’em loose for awhile. I simply let them go about losing, as I go about living my life. Then, when they’ve improved, and are doing well once again, I get back on board and enjoy their success. Yeah, I know, I can hear it: diehard, asshole loyal sports fans screaming, “Front runner!” Goddamn right! Don’t be so fuckin’ juvenile. Teams are supposed to provide pleasure and entertainment, not depression and disappointment.

I read that passage years ago, but it wasn’t until J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek came out that I really got it. When Abrams talked about not being a fan of Star Trek, and how this Star Trek was going to be “not your father’s Star Trek“, he pissed me the fuck off. He pissed me off way out of proportion, honestly. Before the picture came out, I hated it and I hated Abrams with a seething passion, and for three weeks I refused to watch Star Trek out of pure spite. But after a time I realized how unhealthy this feeling was. His attitude had me feeling rejected, but that was ridiculous. Abrams is a stranger, and his movie is a thing I have no control over. He didn’t ruin Star Trek, and he can’t. It’s still all there. Feeling calmer, I went to the theater, saw the picture, and reacted. I didn’t like it, but my anger had largely subsided. And I thought, You know something, Paramount and J.J. Abrams? It’s fine. You want a new audience for Star Trek, and that audience doesn’t include me. From your perspective, that’s business. For my own part, my time as a breathing human being is finite, so I refuse to invest my attention in work that doesn’t hold my interest. If you don’t want to make art that speaks to me, someone else willIf you ever do make something that sounds worthwhile to me–unlikely but, since you’re not Michael Bay, not impossible–I’ll check back in.

This feels like a healthier way of being a fan, and it’s spared me considerable pain. I’ve given myself permission not to care. I feel freer. I’ve found new interests: Cam Newton, the 2015 Chicago Cubs, Battlestar Galactica (The Ronald D. Moore version), Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ll be delving into The Wire soon. There’ve been, and will be, plenty of books as well. And I’ve renewed my interest in backyard astronomy (though a friend of mine has custody of the actual backyard). I’ll probably skip The Force Awakens because, from what I’ve read, I saw it already in 1977 when it was called Star Wars, and my entertainment budget is limited. Maybe I’ll catch it on home video sometime. I don’t know. I doubt Star Wars has anything new to say to me, and I find nostalgia a bore. And besides, as I’ve been saying, one of the lovely things about letting an old fandom go is that it clears space for new discoveries.

So what do I think my obligations to things I’m a fan of are? I’m obliged to follow them for as long as I find them interesting. When they stop, so does my obligation. That’s it.

What do you think, fans of mine?

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