WHY FANDOM HAS A DARK SIDE
by Michelle Erica Green
The relationship [of celebrities to fans] is based on an illusion of intimacy which is, in turn, the creation of an ever-tightening, ever more finely spun media mesh. In effect, it cancels the traditional etiquette that formerly governed not merely relationships between the powerful and the powerless, but, at the simplest level, the politesse that formerly pertained between strangers. Most of us retain, in most of our private and professional dealings with people we don't actually know, a sense of their otherness: a decent wariness that protects both ourselves and the stranger from intrusion. But the shyness, if that term may be permitted, is not operative when we are dealing with celebrities. Thanks to television and the rest of the media, we know them, or think we do. To a greater or lesser degree we have internalized them, unconsciously made them a part of our consciousness-just as if they were, in fact, friends.
The stars who command our greatest interest are, for the most part, performers who appear as themselves, or what we are gratified to think of as themselves. It grows increasingly clear that we live now in an age rife with such falsities. Regal graciousness is not the response you want from old, good friends. What you want is to be able to tell them what they mean to you, and in turn how sympathetic you have felt when you've heard about their troubles. The power of television lies in its ability to create the illusion of intimacy that we have been discussing here."
--Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity
I don't like the book I quote above; Intimate Strangers is a dark, judgemental text which parallels all of fandom with people like John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman. I disagree thoroughly with Schickel's premise, but as a media researcher I find his book useful because he distinguishes between the way film and television stars are treated by their fans. Film stars, whom we encounter in dark theaters and to whom we have virtually no access outside, maintain an aura of mystery and distance no matter how many interviews or tabloid articles we may read about them. Television stars are different. We invite them into our own living rooms once a week-or, in the case of soap operas, every day. They're not quite larger than life, not as universally recognized. It's easier to get proprietary about them-to believe that we, the elite fans, are the only ones who really understand and appreciate them.
Schickel doesn't specifically talk about Star Trek, but I think that in the case of Trekkers, there's an even more complicated relationship between the celebrities and the audience. Most of the actors attend conventions and events like Star Trek: The Experience, so there's a strong sense that these people really are accessible to us. At cons, they often talk about their families, their oeuvre, their goals. Virtually every actor (including those who play very minor recurring characters) has a fan club; in most cases, the clubs were founded and are run by fans who have semi-regular communication with the actors, thus creating the appearance of closeness between the performers and their followers. Despite the hundreds of thousands of Trekkies, the vast amounts of fan mail, the gulf between those who can get onto the Paramount lot and those who can't, there's a definite impression among serious fans that they have a unique relationship to the celebrities they adore.
And lines get crossed. Some people fail to understand the difference between the public personas of the performers and the real people underneath. Fans start to feel not only that they want to know all about these actors, but that they have a right to know. If a star is reputed to wear a toupee, if an actress who had a baby boy with one of her co-stars starts sporting a diamond ring, if an actor has gained a great deal of weight and reportedly has a heart problem, people feel that it's acceptable to ask them about these matters. (All of these actually have been asked of Trek stars; I was there.) The idea that such topics are none of the audience's business doesn't seem to register with some fans. Ironically, it's often the people who claim to be an actor's "biggest fan," the most passionate and informed, who do the prying.
We live in a time when it's hard to avoid thinking about celebrities. If you ever watch television, if you shop in stores which carry People and Entertainment Weekly, if you leave on the radio in the car, you're likely to pick up more than you want to know. I'm speaking not just a fan, but a reporter and a scholar of fandom; I wrote papers on it in graduate school, I examined the way entertainment journalists' own fan biases affect their reporting. We all do it, we can't help it-reporters and fans together. I'm sure I'm not the only one who grabs The National Enquirer while waiting in grocery store lines. I know I'm not the only one who reads Movieline's "Guess Who-Don't Sue" column. I'm positive I'm not the only one who's ever speculated about the rumors of nanny abuse plaguing a famous celebrity couple, or made jokes about the stories concerning a gerbil and the famous actor ex-husband of a supermodel. In addition to Schickel's studious tract on fandom, I own books like Starlust-an anthology of fans' sexual fantasies about celebrities-and I Dream of Madonna-a collection of dreams about the pop icon (mostly awesome feminist visions which I found very empowering). I am the last person to condemn anyone for watching and wondering.
But-and this is a BIG but-there's a difference between wondering and intruding. It's easy to get confused: if we buy tabloids, for instance, we are tacitly condoning the practice of sticking cameras into celebrity windows and spying on their friends, just as surely as if we were stalking them ourselves. There's a widespread suggestion by the media that celebrities forfeit their right to privacy when they get famous, legitimized by big-name interviewers who get invited into the stars' homes to do tell-all exposes (which of course only tell what the star and the star reporter together concoct to present). Again, I want to make clear that I understand WHY people think it's all right to ask celebrities about their families, their sex lives, their medical histories, their cosmetics...all sorts of things that we'd probably think twice about asking our own friends and family. It happens all the time.
But that does NOT make it acceptable. It's something that shouldn't have to be tolerated by any actor, including Kate. And it won't be tolerated in this fan club."
Going out in public is not the same thing as a public appearance. A charity event is not a convention. Kate does not get paid around the clock to entertain people. She is always extremely appreciative when people support her and her causes, but she hopes that everyone understands that her charity work should be the focus, rather than her celebrity status. At the same time, the fact that she is at an event as a contributor rather than a star does not give people license to collapse the usual boundaries between strangers, and ask intrusive questions. At some charity fundraisers, Kate will not be the only celebrity guest present; when she is, she often attends such events with family or colleagues. While Kate is almost always sociable and friendly, that doesn't mean she wants to spend all evening being followed around by fans. It is not appropriate to seek autographs or take photographs of her unless the hosts schedule a specific time to do so. And it is outrageous to assume that she would wish to discuss the private details of her life with fans who are total strangers to her, no matter how familiar she may seem to us from one-sided contact through the media. She is entitled to her privacy.
This column was triggered by an event: the behavior of a couple of fans at a charity event who first asked Kate questions which were none of their business, then took her polite but curt responses and posted them on the internet, extrapolating on what she said by including "facts" which Kate didn't offer and in some cases aren't true. I've heard Kate field questions before which I considered nosy-I thought it was intrusive to ask her about whether she smoked and whether she colored her hair, let alone the kinds of stuff these people were asking. Kate is an extremely gracious celebrity who never scoffs at questioners and rarely even refuses to answer; some people have taken that politesse as a willingness to put her entire life on display for her fans. And that's absurd. How would anyone here feel if total strangers approached them, professed adoration, then proceeded to ask questions about things which were never meant for public discussion? You can imagine how Kate feels when people behave in such a way toward her. And anyone who can't accept that is part of the reason fandom has a bad name in many quarters.
Schickel thinks fans have an inherent undertone of anger and resentment against celebrities for not understanding the roles they play in our lives, and for refusing to let us into their lives. I don't believe this is true of all fans, but I've seen it to be true of some. I think the kind of aggression which makes fans think it's okay to ask an actor about his private life ties into other issues than star-worship. There's a common belief that if one could just afford to go to all of an actor's appearances, or buy him expensive gifts, or find a way to work in his studio, he'd have to pay attention. And in most cases it's true that fans from privileged backgrounds, who already have money or fame, will be able to get closer to celebrities than those who aren't as materially forthcoming. But what kind of a fan is someone who's willing to invest great time and expense just to attract a celebrity's attention? How will such a fan react to the inevitable realization that the beloved celebrity is as much fan projection as genuine article, and that for all the investment, the celebrity is just as distant?
I wonder about that sense of ownership, that need to be recognized and singled out, which seems so common to fandom-and I'm not exempting myself. But even if my distress at the way people treat Kate is a sign that I'm overinvolved-an accusation I've gotten by fan club members whom I have chastized for behaving inappropriately towards Kate-it doesn't change the fact that intruding into her private life is unacceptable by any standards. This isn't about what I want; this is about what is fair and reasonable to her.
I don't claim to know Kate any better than anyone else in this fan club, but I do know that she hopes people are here out of affection rather than greed for autographs, photos, etc., that she expects to be treated with respect, that she wants fans to support her charities not as a way to get close to her and start making demands but out of a genuine appreciation for the work she does for these worthy causes. Yes, I know there are bigger clubs in Trek fandom and that if we offered more autographs, more merchandise, more little pieces of Kate, we'd be a bigger club. You know what? It's not worth it. People should join this club for the privilege of exploring Kate's work, her charities, her public interests, her fans. Membership is a privilege, not a right, and anyone who can't follow the rules-particularly the rules concerning Kate herself-should not be here.