But the thing I am most proud of about that show is that it started off as this very small little thing and it’s grown in the right way, just by word of mouth, not by huge billboards or anyone forcing you to watch it. Our advertising was just: people liked it. It’s grown very gradually and sort of — I hate using the word — organically.
— Cillian Murphy in Harper’s Bazaar
In an earlier post, I raised questions about fandom and the responsibilities of a creator to the audience. Since then, I’ve been doing some research and thinking about this topic, and I’d like to make some suggestions.
Fandom and the Double Standard
My thinking here has been influenced by Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis’s Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls. Larsen and Zubernis are academics, middle-aged women with families, who fell madly in love with Supernatural and did the things fans do: attended conventions, wrote fanfic, obsessed over actors, did close analysis — and worried they were acting in ways deemed socially inappropriate for women of a certain age.
Their book explores what fandom is and why fandom is so marginalized while academic study is applauded — even though academic study is, really, just socially acceptable fandom. The graduate student writing her dissertation on the theory of relativity is every bit as obsessed with Einstein as the fan who does Game of Thrones cosplay and speculates about Westerosi geography. One is considered acceptable, even desirable; the other is seen as odd.
Consider this from Larsen and Zubernis:
While the vast majority of fans remain sane in the midst of passion, the tendency to characterize fans — especially female fans — as “rabid,” “demented,” “obsessed” stalkers or just plain “batshit crazy” persists. Even the fans themselves can’t quite decide whether to scream their glee about fandom from the rooftops, apologize for it, or just pretend they’re not fans at all.
Given those disparaging descriptions, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose to be a fan. The thing is, it’s never a conscious decision: we don’t choose a fandom. It chooses us.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Some fandoms are “acceptable” (the graduate student) and some fandoms aren’t (The Game of Thrones fan), but the standard is hazy. (Larsen and Zubernis argue that gender is a central issue.) I say that as an academic who has found herself utterly immersed in fandom.
I’ve wondered if I pulled out my academic credentials, used my official email, and wrote a letter to Milk Publicity if I could get answers that I can’t get as a fan blogging about Peaky Blinders. That double standard troubles me. Why privilege one kind of fandom? I’m still bothered that Evenstar297 had to attend a Writers Guild Foundation lecture — an academic forum — to get her fan questions answered because her questions are every bit as legitimate as those asked by screenwriters.
Fandom and Social Media
The history of fandom is long, but what matters are the ways in which social media accelerated fandom. Suddenly, we could communicate with each other, defying geography and time zones. And when that happened, the balance of power shifted. Before social media, communication had a mediator, and that mediator controlled the content. But with social media, that filter has been punctured as fans communicate with each other outside established (controlled) forums.
Some artists have embraced this and cultivated their relationship with fans. Here’s an example. The musician Jason Isbell is one of the most talented singer/songwriters/musicians playing today. He also has a vital social media presence: He’s a Twitter and Instagram master. Part of this is promotion — he tells you where he’s playing and thanks you for attending; part of what he writes is just funny. Making things more interesting is that his wife, Amanda Shires, an amazing musician in her own right, is also on Twitter and Instagram. Their use of social media gives fans an insight into their lives. There’s nothing Kardashianesque about it — they are making careful decisions about what they share — but it makes the art they produce richer for fans because they feel like they have a better sense of the people making it.
Jason and Amanda are unapologetic fans themselves of musicians, films, and writers. Sometimes, they ask fans for reading recommendations. (When Jason requested names of poets, I was ecstatic that he favorited my suggestion of David Baker.) He’s open in discussing his history of substance abuse, and they have shared with us pictures of their daughter, now almost a toddler. No one thinks we’re buddies, but there’s an unfiltered channel of communication. Fans have access and respect.
Peaky Blinders, Fandom, and Social Media
Peaky Blinders has tended to rely on a traditional mediated approach to fans. In other words, there are lots of magazine interviews — and I’m grateful for that, as the archive sections of this blog show. But like any fan, I’d like to have an opportunity to get my questions answered, and that’s largely missing because of the attitude Peaky Blinders takes toward social media.
Yes, they have official social media feeds — there’s @ThePeakyBlinder (where they mostly retweet folks who’ve just found the show); there’s the Facebook page; there’s Instagram. But these accounts are as curated and filtered as any magazine interview. Colm McCarthy and Annabelle Wallis were two of the smartest social media users, but neither is currently associated with Peaky Blinders.
And here’s what I don’t get: Both Cillian Murphy and Steven Knight understand that fandom has driven the growth of Peaky Blinders.
According to an interview in Rolling Stone, “Murphy has a theory about how the show eventually became a hit. ‘It didn’t happen because of a mass marketing campaign,’ he says. ‘It just happened because people liked the show and told their friends about it. That word “organic” is overused, but in this case it’s appropriate.’ Look, that’s fandom. Period. You can call it “organic,” but it has to do with fans being invested and taking to social media to communicate with each other. They use a wide range of media: GIFs, vids, meta, blogs, art, cosplay — the list is long. Discussions are detailed and insightful. Go to Reddit, and read some of the threads, or check out NomDeGuerreBlog‘s take on the art at Arrow House. This is smart commentary (dare I say “academic?”).
But there’s a reticence on the part of Peaky Blinders to participate in this “organic” growth, which involves unmediated interaction between the show and its fans, which baffles me. Fans are enthusiastic supporters, but they are also careful critics because no one has watched the series as closely as the fans. Why not engage that?
Consider these Steven Knight comments about social media to Neil Landau in TV Outside the Box:
The interesting thing for me about television is the level of loyalty that comes with it. So, people watch a film and they love it. But they won’t have that evangelical loyalty that they have with television. I still don’t know why it is, but people will watch a particular TV series, and they will become like proselytizers: “You’ve got to watch this! It’s brilliant.” . . . And I don’t quite know why that is yet.
Later in the interview, he says,
With television, people have the time to form a community of likeminded people. It’s like joining a club around a particular show. If you look at social media, my god, it goes mad! I mean, the loyalty given to a television show is because certain people who are watching it think, “There’s me, and in the whole globe, there are other people like me who like this, and we’re all friends.” That’s a unique and very different phenomenon than film.
Steven Knight is describing fandom perfectly. Clearly, he’s thought about this. He understands that film fandom is different than television fandom — though he never uses the term “fandom” — but he finds the whole thing puzzling.
Knight appreciates the benefits of fandom because it means that people get what he’s doing, and tell others. But he’s not getting that next step. And that next step involves interacting with fans and answering questions. Like it or not, he’s a member of this fandom: He fathered it.
Steven Knight has said repeatedly that he uses contemporary music in Peaky Blinders to remove barriers that stand between the audience and the story. He wants to show that even though these are historical characters, their emotions are timeless. He’s done this brilliantly. It’s one of the reasons I’m immersed in Peaky Blinders fandom.
But if you’re about eliminating barriers to your art, then perhaps consider breaking down barriers between yourself and fans. Stop relying so much on traditional (academic) media. It’s time for Peaky Blinders to embrace its fandom — and it is a rich fandom — so that we can all help this show reach the audience it deserves.
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