What Is the Effect of Long-Term Fandom?

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While being a fan of pop culture was once considered strange or immature, today it’s common to hear people declare they are fans of movies, TV, music, celebrities, and other popular culture well into adulthood.

The increased acceptance of being a fan throughout the lifespan has also led to people’s fan objects holding a more important place in their lives. This means people are more likely to turn to media to fulfill their psychological needs during all stages of development, including adulthood, and the media of which one is a fan can play a role in defining an individual's identity.

This article will explore how fandom impacts adults where norms marking the traditional milestones of this part of life have rapidly shifted. It will then discuss how fandom can help meet psychological needs during adolescent and adult stages of development.

History of Fans

The word fan is an abbreviation of the word fanatic and was first used by journalists in the late nineteenth century to describe sports aficionados. The meaning of the term quickly expanded to include enthusiastic followers of other forms of entertainment, including female theater-goers.

In the early twentieth century, devotees of science fiction literature magazines embraced the term as they developed the first modern fandom in the letter pages of these publications. Around 1966, the first television fandom emerged, although there is debate as to whether it was built around the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the original version of the television series Star Trek.

What the Term "Fan" Means Today

Today, the term fan has come to mean an individual who is a loyal enthusiast of an interest, from sports to celebrities to movies to video games.

Fans derive both a personal and social identity from their fandom, defining themselves in terms of both the individual reasons they were attracted to a movie, show, or other fan object and as a member of the fan group for that fan object, whether or not they participate in online or in-person fan activities, such as attending fan conventions or posting to internet fan groups.

Interestingly, while scholars have studied both sports fans and pop culture fans for decades, they often treated pop culture fans as odd, deviant, or even pathological.

For example, some scholars questioned fans' ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. As a result, pop culture fandom was often stigmatized in the eyes of the public, until the last 20 years or so, when being a fan of a particular TV show, movie, or other piece of pop culture has become more widely accepted.

What Is Long-Term Fandom?

Fan scholars C. Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby have argued that, in Western cultures, traditional timetables for adult roles are no longer applicable. While there used to be cultural conventions for the approximate years that adults were expected to work, retire, get married, and have children, that’s no longer the case.

Today, people may get married multiple times, switch jobs regularly, return to school or make career changes in middle age, and have children well into adulthood.

Without a standard trajectory to look to for how to navigate their adult years, people turn to other reference points to anchor their identities, particularly fan objects.

In fact, Harrington and Bielby suggests it’s no accident that the increased acceptance of fandom has happened in conjunction with the increased flexibility of adulthood, pointing out that the ambiguity of the adult life course leaves a void that adults are increasingly filling with fan objects.

How Long-Term Fandom May Influence Your Life

Long-term fandom entails defining oneself as a fan of a fan object or objects over an elongated period of time during the lifespan, often resulting in a fan using their fan object or objects to create meaning and inform the evolution of their sense of self throughout adulthood. This can happen in several ways:

  • A favorite show may remind you of fond memories: Some people may see a particular long-running TV show, such as the sci-fi series Doctor Who or a soap opera, as an anchor for continuity throughout their lives. For instance, a study of soap-opera fans found that soap-opera fandom and family narratives were frequently tied together because participants’ mothers often introduced them to their favorite soap operas. Thus, the stories of soap operas became the source of shared family memories. As a result, soap operas and the familial memories they evoke provided long-term soap fans’ life stories with unity and continuity, helping them construct a coherent identity in dialogue with their favorite soap opera.
  • You may realize your personal growth: Long-term fandom may also encompass a movie or TV series that unfolded over several years and then concluded. A fan continues to watch shows repeatedly, using their changing perspectives on the characters and stories to mark shifts in their identities. For example, a study of Gilmore Girls fans found that fans’ identification with the show's characters changed over time as they gained new life experiences and adopted new roles as they aged.
  • Your interests may shift over time: Finally, fans favored objects may shift over time enabling them to use different fan objects to mark different phases of their adult lives. Studies have shown that stories about becoming a fan can be central to an individual’s life stories, serving as milestones that give new meaning to a particular life stage.

In each of these instances, fan objects serve as an extension of the self, into which fans place their understanding of who they are, including their attributes, their values and beliefs, and their identities. Consequently, as the fan grows and ages, their sense of self evolves in dialogue with their fan object or objects.

The Effects of Fandom On Different Life Stages

Media psychologist Gayle Stever has noted that because Western societies are largely exposed to the world through mass media, including movies, TV, and the internet, it’s become increasingly common for fans to look to their favorite media to meet their psychological needs throughout the different stages of development.

Using Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development, Stever built on her years of extensive research on fans of TV shows, movies, and celebrities, to demonstrate how this happens during adolescence and adulthood.

Erikson’s stage theory specifies eight life stages from birth to death that each require the individual to resolve a particular developmental crisis.

This is how fandom can help resolve the developmental crisis at several stages:

  • Adolescence: In the stage of adolescence, the media of which one is a fan can offer role models that can guide one through the crisis of identity versus role confusion. These role models provide examples of the possible selves available to an individual, giving them ideas about who they might want to be as adults and also, importantly, who they may not want to be, including careers they may or may not want to pursue, whether they’d like to get married, and whether they want to be parents.
  • Young Adulthood: In the stage of young adulthood, the crisis of intimacy versus isolation can be negotiated by turning to media and celebrities for intimacy. For example, young adult fans who have not yet found a real romantic relationship can turn to their objects of fandom to engage in a vicarious romantic relationship. Stever found that all the fans in her research who did this made a conscious choice to deal with their need for intimacy in this way. In fact, given the transient nature of modern life, where divorce and moving are normal occurrences, these young adults’ reliance on media and celebrities for the intimacy they couldn't acquire otherwise could be considered adaptive.
  • Middle Adulthood: In the stage of middle adulthood, fandom can be used to resolve the crisis of generativity versus stagnation. As Stever found in her research of celebrities, fans in this stage were the most likely to become involved in charity work inspired or sponsored by their favorite celebrities, enabling these fans to make a positive difference in the world.
  • Late Adulthood: Finally in the stage of late adulthood, fandom can help the individual through the crisis of integrity versus despair by enabling them to acquire a sense of what one theorist calls gerotranscendence, a worldly and wise perspective that tends to have a contemplative dimension, which may be considered essential to the successful navigation of this stage. To do so, fans in late adulthood can use their fandom from across their life span and their position within it to bring coherence to their understanding of their life and their sense of self.

While turning to fandom throughout the lifespan to meet psychological needs may seem strange to some, it is likely a natural byproduct of a society where media is a major source of information and traditional trajectories for adult lives no longer apply.

Research has not yet shown whether this increase in dependence on fandom to define one’s self throughout the lifespan has a positive or negative impact.

However, Stever points out that, just like other cultural touchstones or real-life relationships, the effect of long-term fandom is probably a continuum from positive to negative, with different people falling at different places along it.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.