Where does the line between fandom and serious escapism lie and what risks do fans undertake by crossing over it? The Brony phenomenon and its popularity brings a contemporary focus to this topic.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
When it comes to fandoms and the properties on which they are based, there is always a range of levels when it comes to deovtion. There is the casual fan who watches occasionally, the more serious fan who will watch devotedly and may/may not buy the DVDs when they come out. From there, it’s a pretty quick graduation into serious fandom, where watching is not only considered mandatory, it is considered the gateway into further show discussion, which can consists of much more than just character and plot theories, but expand into philosophical musings on things like the deeper meanings behind the show to backstories for the characters. Fanfiction also comes under this grouping.
Even those top level of fans are capable of separating their fandom from their daily lives however. From there, we slide into a degree of fandom where the distinction between the universe within a show and the real world become quite blurred.
Just to note, cosplay doesn’t fall under this; it’s a method of expression and an outlet for creativity that resides either within the confines of conventions or photo shoots. That said, there exists fans for whom it is considered acceptable to either replicate, or mimic many characteristics of a show of character in their daily appearance who would.
So if regular fandom is one side of the coin, what is on the other?
Again, I need to emphasise that the line is a blurry one, and it’s easy to mistake an escapist fan for a very serious one. Escapist fans operate on a much deep psychological and physiological level. For them, their chosen show/film, is so much more than a source of entertainment, it is, in effect, a potent source for some, most or all their morals, decision-making and outlooks in life.
Escapist fans engage in much more than simple roleplay, cosplay (see above) and displays of their affection. Rather, they act and behave in ways that display heavy degrees of influence by the show(s) in question. They respond (or fail to respond) to problems and conflicts in ways that are based upon characters in the show. Again, this can occur in varying degrees/levels and even the vast majority of fans engage in a “what would X do if…” discussion. What this post is concerned with are the fans who base every dilemma on what a character would or would not do.
The Blurry Borderline Between Normality and Escapism
So where exactly does the borderline lie, and how can we tell when it’s been crossed? In the case of bronies (just to pick an example, but plenty of others exist out there), escapism would be somewhere in and around the point where My Little Pony becomes more than just a show. When we cross into looking at the show for advice and guidance, that’s when we’re either very near or over the line.
The influence of shows on kids and younger people in general has been known about for decades. Kids reenacting scenes, quoting characters and creating their own adventures has been part and parcel of televised entertainment and toys since the dawn of television. The introduction of various educational and informational programming (what it’s called in the US, but similar programmes exist around the world) were intended to ensure that kids not only took away the correct meaning from a show, but were also able to make a connection between the show and real life but still be able to draw a line of distinction between the two.
Where escapist fans inhabit is an area where there is little if any distinction between a show and reality. Sure the characters do not exist in real life, but they may as well given their influence.
Where Escapism Becomes a Concern
Escapsim itself can be a concern on many levels, but for most people escapism is temporary. It lasts only as long as they watch TV, play videogames or read a book. Temporary escapism can be beneficial; helping people relax and whatnot. It can be social too, in the case of Dungeons and Dragons. Where it becomes a concern is when it infiltrates real life and potentially affects a fan’s ability to function in it.
Coming across this Mashable post by Jessica Goodman, I read these few paragraphs:
“Our generation has a lot to deal with in life,” Marlow said, “We’ve had to deal with the cruddy-ness of progress, the changing economy. The early two-Ks have a gutter of pop cultural gross-ness. It’s post-9/11. Everyone’s been diagnosed with chronic depression, ADD, an eating disorder.” She paused and touched an emerald streak that stood out against her dark hair. “We like to pick up and go to a different world.”
With the growing popularity of Pixar movies and adult-oriented cartoons, it’s become easy for people her age to “extend our adolescence,” said Marlow, especially online. Her first fandom love was Harry Potter. A tattoo on her left forearm pays homage to Severus Snape, one of the series’ main characters.
While the part about escapism as a method of dealing with reality is a concern, her declaration that Pixar films and cartoons are a method for ‘extending adolescence’.
Look, the lure of youth and its presence in animation is as old as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (look up Michael Barrier’s excellent Hollywood Cartoons if you are in any doubt) and the emphasis on youth within the wider [American] culture is almost overwhelming. However, using animation as a tool to extend the immature and quite frankly, suffocating period known as adolescence is certainly an example of the kind of escapism mentioned above.
Anyone looking to extend their adolescence should realise that succeeding in the real world demands that you leave that period of your life behind. Sure you can keep your hobbies and interests (on a different level of course) but if you are relying on an animated show to sustain whatever exuberance you feel into adulthood, you will be in for a rude awakening.
One cannot but worry that escapist fans (especially younger ones) will face an even tougher time getting to grips with life than others. Plenty of geeks already inhabit their parents’ basements (and I’ve met plenty of them) and it is always sad to see a person invest more in an entertainment property than with real people.
Escapism at its deepest level certainly does permit a fan to withdraw from reality and inhabit a world that is comfortable and friendly (this includes online forums by the way) but it does so at the expense of their social responsibilities and connections. Conventions only come around so often and last for so long. Online forums and message boards provide communication and friendliness, but there remains the physical disconnect that will never be able to be replicated over a telephone line. Content itself is only so much and lasts for so long and one can only extract a finite amount of meaning from it.
Where Creators Play a Role
Needless to say, without creators, there is no content and without content, there are no fans or fandoms. The question is, what, if anything, can creators (individual and otherwise) do to either assist and promote social interaction by fans and ensure that escapism retains an undesirable taint?
Personally, it comes down to emphasising the temporary nature of entertainment and how it is certainly capable of playing a role within a fan’s life, but should remain a relatively small one. When content starts to dominate someone’s life, they are in trouble not matter what age they are.
Escapist fans who define who and what they are by a singular TV show have essentially sold themselves to whatever corporation creates it. Such people and those who tolerate it, contribute, in a meaningful way once they are numerous enough, to a degradation in overall society and a decline in overall quality of life, including their own.