By Ariel Pang
Blood is thicker than water, the proverb goes.
But author-historian Albert Jack, who studies the origins of common English phrases, says that it refers to “blood pacts” between friends being stronger than those connections made in the “water of the womb”.
These two ideas are direct opposites of each other. Yet, I would argue that both familial bonds and bonds forged out of friendship have important and unique roles in shaping our identity.
I believe that the bonds formed within fandoms are no less important than those in an actual family.
Fandoms are communities brought together through common interests, ranging from comics to music bands to sports.
They can theorise about the next twist (read: death) in Game of Thrones, engage in online debates over whether Severus Snape was a hero or villain, or rally to support a scandal-hit idol.
To fans who share similar passions for an idol or a fictional universe, a fandom can transform an individualistic interest into a communal one that becomes part of their everyday life.
Somewhere to belong
All of us have a group of friends that we view as a second family. It might be a secondary school clique, or a sports team, or an orchestra. There are experiences we share in these groups that we do not share with anyone else — vacations, tournaments, or performances.
Similarly, fans look to like-minded people for emotional support and growth. In fandom, “one is oneself, but also one is part of a larger group”, writes DePaul University communications professor Paul Booth.
Having a common interest allows fans to strike up friendships with each other quickly. After prolonged interaction, their relationships can move beyond the online sphere to become a support system that has very real impacts on their lives.
In late December last year, Korean singer Jonghyun committed suicide, taking many by shock and sparking an outpouring of grief worldwide.
Online, fans banded together to mourn him and provide emotional support for each other. In Singapore, fans organised a memorial service for him at Hong Lim Park that saw a turnout of over 1,000 mourners.
Much like a family in mourning, they found solace in each other as they understood and appreciated the significance of their shared loss.
The hidden self
But why not turn to one’s own family to seek understanding?
There is a certain level of shame associated with being part of a fandom, University of New South Wales senior lecturer Rebecca Williams writes. Fans are conscious that their interests might be seen as a waste of time by others.
Stereotypes surrounding fandoms do not help either. As an anime fan, I often hesitate in revealing my interests due to the otaku stereotype, which has connotations of being obsessive and socially inept.
Other activities such as figurine collecting, or creating fan works such as fan art can also be seen as an improper use of time that could be better spent on other things like schoolwork.
Hence, many fans do not share their interests with their families, and they take care to remove all associations between their online pseudonyms and their real identity, according to the editors of the academic journal Transformative Works and Cultures.
In turn, the fan’s family and friends find themselves alienated when it comes to fandom. Some are bemused at the fan’s behaviour, and others are disapproving. Fans then find themselves drawn closer to their second family for solace.
We fight, we make up
As expected, conflict is ever-present in fandom. But just like in real families, conflicts can bring fans closer together and be a source of learning, by exposing them to new viewpoints.
Conflicts commonly arise as fans with strong opinions clash over issues within the fandom.
One common cause of conflict would be the romantic pairing of two characters in a story, also known as “shipping”. Differing opinions over these relationships can result in heated debates in fandoms, with some fans writing long essays to argue their case. Should Hermione Granger should have ended up with Ron or Harry? Some argue for Draco.
The researchers behind the paper How a Conflict Changes the Way How (sic) People Behave on Fandoms say this is because “(the fan’s) shipping choice becomes part of their identity, (and) it becomes important to defend it”.
Fan disputes are not easily resolved or set aside, if ever, University of Wisconsin-Madison media studies professor Derek Johnson says. Instead, the fans learn to accept differing opinions, though the tension is never really resolved.
Despite this, such tensions can push fans to consider other perspectives and refine their own arguments. This constant exchange opens up new windows for learning from each other, especially when fans hail from a variety of backgrounds.
In an entry on fandom news site Hypable, writer Danielle Zimmerman said: “I didn’t grow up in a box or an isolated environment, but until participating in fandom discourse, I never really knew the sheer scope of human experiences that exists.”
This sentiment resonates deeply with me. Debates within fandoms have taught me many things beyond my formal education or my immediate social circle, such as issues revolving around gender identity, mental illnesses, and politics.
Even events such as the Orlando nightclub shootings in June 2016 hit closer to home, as a fandom friend of mine was in close proximity to the tragedy.
If my family has taught me values and expectations of the world, then fandom has taught me to challenge them and consider new ones.
Indeed, fandom is where like-minded individuals come together for each other, a sanctuary where they can be free to embrace their passions, and a place for them to learn from one another.
No fandom is perfect. They will always have their conflicts and disagreements.
But then again, no family is.
My fandom is my family, and I’m proud to call it home.