In just a few weeks, the fourth season of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones will premiere, and the internet is already buzzing about it. And for the first time, I’m one of the fans waiting eagerly for the next installment; I’ve also purchased the first book so I can start catching up on the stuff that the show glossed over. But if you’d asked me a year ago about Game of Thrones, I probably would have rolled my eyes; in fact, it took multiple conversations with my sixty-year-old mother to convince me to watch the show, and even then I only promised I’d sit through the pilot to see what all the fuss was about.
It’s a little crazy, in retrospect, because Game of Thrones is completely up my alley. It’s complex, it’s gory, it’s well written, and it’s the perfect example of the modern television revolution. But I resisted Game of Thrones for three years, because everywhere I looked I saw friends and fans that got the same sort of glazed look in their eyes when they talked about House Stark or the Mother of Dragons. “It’s SO good!” they’d gush. “You have to see it. The Wire, too. And oh my god, how have you NOT seen Breaking Bad? It’s the best show ever!”
Why did I wait so long, and hold out so stubbornly? My mom said I was a snob, but I like to call it hype aversion: an admittedly irrational pushback that occurs in the face of a magnetic, overwhelmingly powerful piece of popular culture and its devoted fans. Just as Newton wrote, every action has an equal and opposite reaction; for every fan who drooled over Game of Thrones’ perfection, I felt exhausted by the franchise—and I’d never seen a minute of it. At roughly the same time as Ned Stark memes began populating the internet, I began distancing myself from Doctor Who. It was a show that once ranked at the top of my list, but the overwhelming presence of the Whovian fandom made it difficult to discuss the show in a critical manner. I felt like Doctor Who sold out at around the same time that David Tennant action figures began rolling onto store shelves and teenybopper girls started cooing over how cute the Tenth Doctor was when clearly the Ninth (Christopher Eccleston) had the better-written season.
Was this behavior petty of me? Probably. Did it make me a snob? It might have. But the push and pull of fandoms and fanatics is now a significant part of our culture, and the clashes are only going to get weirder before they settle down. In the past few years, geek has definitely become chic; for proof, look at the very fact that Doctor Who and Game of Thrones are such monumental hits. But for decades, geeks defined themselves by their outsider status; fandoms sprang up, in part, because like-minded losers found solidarity in their small communities. They escaped the frustrations of daily life by disappearing into the vivid, powerful escapist scenarios exemplified by high fantasy and science fiction, and they formed tight-knit bonds with the few others who shared their passions. Perhaps it’s due to our primal instinct to form tribes, but fandoms have been around since at least 1887, when Sherlock Holmes first made an appearance in print. Sherlockians of today are actually descendants of one of the longest-running fandoms on record; when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off the detective in 1893, the public mourned the character en masse and demanded his return, flooding the author with letters until Doyle reluctantly gave in.
With the rise of geek culture into the mainstream, fandoms have had to deal with the switch from being shadowy minorities to commercially successful majorities. The San Diego Comic-Con is now one of the most profitable trade shows on the planet; Doctor Who TARDIS mugs are being sold in department stores; and video games are now a multi-billion dollar industry on par with the Hollywood system. After generations of being outcasts and developing a lot of emotional defence systems against perceived intrusion by the mainstream, fandoms are suddenly finding that they are the mainstream.
Most of us are reasonable people; we know that it’s totally immature to feel betrayed because ‘too many’ people like the stuff we like. Commercial success actually helps to extend the life of beloved franchises, which would otherwise have been cancelled too soon; series like Game of Thrones and The Avengers are being made with budgets that are able to do justice to the source material. Furthermore, our shared popular culture makes for easy shorthand when getting to know new people; if you know that a person has seen Firefly, denies the existence of the Star Wars prequels, and prefers Kirk to Picard, then you already have tons of things in common that you can discuss. But with the increase in visibility comes the nagging feeling of homogeny; the original Doctor Who and Star Trek series gained cult followings as a result of organic interest and growth, and their newer incarnations are designed from the ground up for mass appeal, to gain new fandom members and occasionally stroke the nostalgia of the old guard. We’ve spent years fiercely protecting our tribes, regarding any outsiders with wary distrust, and now it seems that we’ll let just anyone in; the cognitive dissonance seems petty, but it’s absolutely real and should be acknowledged as such.
Does this mean that fandoms are useless, or that any one group should be regarded with scorn? Absolutely not. Fandoms help make fiction feel like a version of reality; they fuel our imagination and provide us with communities of like-minded friends, lovers, and peers. It’s nice to be able to console a friend who’s recently experienced the Red Wedding or the death of Dumbledore; you feel like survivors of a shared (albeit fictional) trauma. So next time you feel that hype aversion, or find yourself growling at the perceived intrusion of phonies into your beloved franchise, don’t fret too much; in the end, we’re all equally blessed to live in a time when such powerful and appealing stories are being told so well.