The ways my life has changed since the election are endless, it seems—the level of fear I walk around with (lots), the things I make space in my life and schedule for (a lot more protests and writing, fewer long runs and lazy afternoons), how much money I give away (wow a lot), the frequency with which I wear feminist t-shirts (minimum once a week) the number of fucks I have left (none). But one thing I didn’t see coming was the way that my relationship with fandom has shifted.
I’ve been writing about fandom forever, it seems. Star Trek fans were the topic of my senior thesis in college, and my dissertation (now being revised into a book) is also about fandom. So I guess I’m an expert? But (like most academics, I suppose), I’ve used that expertise as a shield. I went to Star Trek conventions, but as an observer, collecting funny stories. I creep on the comments section, but rarely add anything to the discussion. In college, I read a bunch of slash fiction, but for scholarly purposes.
And my own experience of fandom has always been surprisingly solitary, considering how much I have praised it as a collective experience in my academic work. For instance: in suburban Minneapolis in the 1990s you could watch a three-hour block of Nerd Heaven every night on channel 23 (the original home of MST3K!): back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation followed by back-to-back episodes of the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone. I loved it so much—and if my memory is anything to go on, I never ever did my homework, because my strongest memory of that period is smoking weed alone in the parking lot of our local Blockbuster video and going home to watch three hours of this sci-fi dream. These shows felt like a way out of adolescent loneliness, but even though I was excited when I found like-minded fans, that wasn’t the point. The point was the hyper-awareness that came with being high, the total immersion in a dys- or utopian futurescape, one that was as far from Minnetonka as possible. The experience of escaping into the fictional world itself was a solitary one.
I wrote my thesis about Star Trek jumping off my high-school love of the show, but Buffy was my real entrée into communal fandom. I became obsessed with the show in a more solitary manner, when I was living with my parents and getting sober immediately post-graduation. Real life was in this weird holding pattern—I hadn’t made many real friends in AA, and I didn’t really believe that sobriety could be any kind of long-term choice. Real life was listless and unreal, but Buffy felt honest, vibrant, true. I dreamt of Sunnydale almost every night. It was when I moved to Vermont that I finally did fandom right: I was living with my best gay boyfriend from college and Tuesday nights were sacrosanct TV time. When I finally moved out of his tiny apartment (kicking and screaming) a year later, I still came over every Tuesday, or he and his boyfriend taped the show and we’d watch it later that week. As I got deeper into recovery, my life kept changing, but Buffy with my best boys was a constant. I repeated this collective viewing practice with later friend groups as well. From Buffy to Lost to Battlestar Galactica, my twenties and early thirties were oriented around appointment television with my besties.
But even then, my experience of fandom was about my individual relationships. I’d watch collectively with friends, but I didn’t form new relationships based on the shared experience of fandom, I didn’t participate (except passively) in a fannish counterpublic. But since the election, I’ve been hungry for community. I’ve always been a “joiner,” but these days solidarity feels more important than ever. At the same time, the escape into fandom has also given me a kind of comfort I haven’t needed since my nightly dreams of Buffy and Angel back in the day. Buffy isn’t a perfect text, not by a long shot, but its basic premise—feminist demon fighter—resonates for me these days in a way that is bone-deep.
It was when I discovered what has become my favorite podcast in history that I truly went off the deep end. Buffering the Vampire Slayer is some seriously deep fandom. It’s hosted by a delightful couple of queer women, one a musician and the other an activist, riffing on each episode of Buffy in order, and then every episode ends with an original song that recaps the episode they just talked about. They started the show in September of 2016, but I wasn’t introduced to it until this summer. I was transfixed immediately, and tore through one or two episodes every day, listening as I biked to work, while I walked across campus to buy lunch—pretty much any time I had a free moment, I spent it with Jenny and Kristen. While my previous forays into fandom had led to me spending my free time with fictional characters in an imaginary universe, the reality I was projecting myself into this time was the cozy basement of two funny queer hipsters, whom I like to imagine I’d be friends with if we met in real life. When I knew I was really lost is when I started listening to the songs all the time, playing them for my kids through my phone’s speaker while I biked them to school because I couldn’t bear even that long away from the Buffy-verse.
I got to the episode they released the night of the election about a week into listening, and it was brutal. I heard these voices to which I’d become so attached sound deflated, small, frightened. By summer, I had clawed my way back from that place, but hearing it happen again reminded me how much the world—and I—had changed. I was biking home from work and had to pull over to weep, heartbroken again over lost hopes, shattered illusions.
But I was also able to hear my new imaginary friends—and by extension, a whole imagined community—slowly make their way back to the world. In the wake of the post-Trump world, their railing against the patriarchy, their refusal to let Xander off the hook for being a shitty, shitty guy, their insistence on calling out and rejecting the show’s racism while still holding on to its ability to rally people together felt like a game plan for building solidarity. I listened to the episode for the finale of Season 1 just as news of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer broke. The song was (and remains) my rallying cry:
What will come, what will come
If our world belongs to them?
What will come, what will come?
Just keep fighting, just keep fighting
That’s what I’m supposed to do
Just keep fighting, just keep fighting
And maybe I’ll believe it too.
I listened to it on repeat as I went to join my friends for the counter-protest in Boston. I taught it to my daughter, and we sing it together. I sing it to myself when I’m scared walking by myself, a reminder that I’m never truly alone. There’s art and music that fuels resistance and that art and music makes more art and music, like an endless set of Russian nesting dolls, one that I can be part of too if I want to.
As an “expert,” I argued that fandom offered a model for community and for critical engagement, but I saw it as more metaphorical than anything else. “Real” fandom with all its excesses was a bit much—an object for study, a source of inspiration, but I couldn’t fully align myself with that much excess. In my dissertation, I wrote that “Fans have found a way to rally around an abject relationship, but still fully invest themselves in the experience of pleasure and love. … The shame of serial reading is, of course, that Dickens or Joss Whedon or Ron Moore never cared about you the way you cared about him, but the endlessly productive interpretive energy of fans helps us to see the possible pleasures of a love that is always unrequited.”
Typically, I’d focused all my attention on the voice at the top of the heap, obsessing over my relationship to the author, wondering how to wrest authority away from the text. But I’d missed the point—it was in the connection between the readers that mattered, and what we are able to create together. New models, new spaces, new songs. The strength and hope to just keep fighting.