There’s never been a better time to be a fan than right now. Pop culture references have become an almost universal language, fandoms once thought of as niche are gaining more and more mainstream acceptability, our favorite creators are a mere Tweet away, and a fantasy romance film about a woman having sex with a fish-man just won the Best Picture Oscar.
But in a golden age of fandom and community, theorizing and speculating has come to take up more space than ever before in our conversations about the things we love. Unfortunately, it’s a practice that could be doing more harm than good.
Our culture of theorizing has been cultivated by four contributing factors. The first is the continuing dominance — mainly in Hollywood — of adaptations, reboots, remakes and series continuations over original works, induced by a climate of financial and political instability and a general nostalgia for times we think of as being more “innocent.” This means that, for most major releases, we have source materials available as road maps to navigate our expectations and predictions before the destination is even in sight.
The second factor (and it’s a big one) is the very thing you’re using to read this article right now: the Internet. The ubiquity and ease of access to the Internet not only intensifies our need to be close to creators as the lines of communication become more instant and intimate, but to others like us. It means that ideas had by fans can spread faster than ever within networks that are bigger than ever.
For fan theories to exist, fans have to exist. A fan is more than just passive viewer. A fan is someone who is invested in a story, property or franchise. Investment is a double-edged sword, however; it can create a sense of belonging, but also of false ownership. Caring enough about a work to want to contribute to it in some small way is incredibly flattering to a creator. But the problem with a sense of ownership is that it’s exactly that: a sense. False entitlement can end up souring love into resentment if a story doesn’t go the way you want it to. You only have to look at the 90% approval rate for The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, compared to the 48% approval from the audience to see the fallout from two years worth of obsessive speculation not being satisfied.
It’s not that fan opinions and feelings don’t or shouldn’t matter — they absolutely do and should. But, when we invest more in fan theories about a film or show or comic than the work itself, it becomes nearly impossible for that work to ever succeed. We can end up holding it to a very specific set of expectations that are usually more restrictive than they are progressive. Our natural preciousness and possessiveness over things as fans means that most of our hopes and theories about a work depend on a familiar status quo being maintained rather than a bold, new path being forged ahead. We’re much more interested with connecting the dots backwards than forwards.
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