Science Fiction Fandom: A Look at the “Why”

by Nick Barks

Every other Saturday night in a rural Missouri town, a diverse group of people gathers in the storefront of End of the Universe Comics. They assemble to watch movies and discuss their favorite stories, with texts that translate across several mediums: comic book, novel, film, and television, to name a few. Age, economic status, and education don’t matter here. Everyone is equal. What brings them together is the love of stories that stretch the fabric of our reality as thin as possible. They love science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy fans are not like any other type of genre fan; the love of this entertainment can quickly turn into a lifestyle molded by the genre, or even specific texts. The question can be asked, though, why does this audience develop such a rabid appetite and devotion? This can happen because science fiction fandom fulfills specific psychological needs. Firstly, devotion is cultivated from a young age as a result of exposure to the genre in childhood. By continuing to follow the genre as one grows older, a person continues those positive experiences into adulthood. Interest also perseveres due to a high level of identification with fan groups, satisfying social needs by developing a healthy social identity. Furthermore, giving oneself over to fantastical texts and imaginations can let us play with ‘realities’, which allows for a level of escapism not readily found within other genres.

Continuation of Childhood Experiences

As Sigmund Freud claims, the associations we make with things early in our childhood (including, but not limited to, our parental influences) affect us in our later years and throughout our lives (Weinert 196). Keeping this in mind, many children’s television shows are science fiction or fantasy oriented. A simple scan through the past and present offerings of major children’s television producers will show that there are an ample number of science fiction and fantasy programs available for kids to watch (List of Children’s Television Shows by Country).

To understand why we are motivated by our early experiences, one must be familiar with Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory. Psychoanalytic Theory refers to the attempt to understand the causes and reasoning behind human motivations and personality development. Freud initiated this realm of thought in the early 1900s with the release of a book entitled A General Introduction of Psychoanalysis.

Freud contends that our wants, actions, and personalities as our adult selves are born out of the experiences and relationships we have in our early lives, and much of the basis of Freud’s theory is built on parent-child relationships, and emphasizes (though some say over emphasizes) pre-pubescent sexual development as a major causative agent in the creation of an individual’s personality (NewSchool.edu 4).

Either way, there is quite a bit to be said on this topic, so let’s specialize. The important players here are the Id and the Ego. Freud believed that the Id, the most instinctual level of our mind, supremely governs our wants and actions, but has no organization and can be called “…a powerful, seething cauldron of desire” (Sommers-Flanagan 40). It operates on a drive known as the Pleasure Principle, basically a drive that demands anything and everything that brings one pleasure, or helps to avoid pain. We are unconscious of this force. The Ego, however, is a construct within the human mind that develops when the Id comes in contact with reality, and “the Ego has potent resources of its own. Specifically, ego functions include memory, problem-solving ability, and rational or logical thought processes” (Sommers-Flanagan 40). As the Ego is the part of the psyche that attempts to realistically satisfy the Id’s urge to avoid pain or bring pleasure, it could possibly be the force that is driving the viewer back to that ‘happy place’, translating the id’s urges into an action.

Sure, many children’s television shows may have these themes, but how does that impact future viewing choices? Did adults who enjoy science fiction really watch these types of shows as a kid? I took this question to the streets…or at least to a local group of science fiction and anime fans, with ages ranging from ten to fifty-five. The general consensus is that they all had contact with science fiction at a young age.

Robert McDonald, a forty-six year old cognitive therapist and pastor, was present at the End Of the Universe meet up and discussed his early connections to science fiction with the group:

“Star Wars holds a real special place for me, because it framed almost all of my adolescence. The first movie was released when I was in junior high. When I went from junior high into high school the second movie was released, and the last movie was released when I graduated from high school. It framed my seven through twelfth grade years perfectly” (McDonald).

Then, from out of a corner of the room, a ten-year-old girl named Riana piped up with the comment, “I still like Star Trek better!”

Though maybe not as big of a force in prior generations as it is now, television and media consumption is a factor to consider when studying or analyzing patterns in childhood development. Though I have many issues with the specifics in Freudian theory, I believe the general ideas behind his claims are valid.

Using Freud’s understanding of the Id and Ego relationship, it stands to reason that positive experiences with science fiction at a young age not only holds the potential to make someone more accepting of its sometimes-difficult subject matter, but it can also create an emotional connection that lasts into adulthood, allowing a young audience member to effectively make the jump from consuming children’s entertainment to more adult-oriented fare.

Fandom and Social Identity

Within the world of science fiction and fantasy consumption, fandom reigns supreme. The shared connection between people over this genre can create an even deeper, insatiable hunger for more content to connect around. Many people consciously identify with the fan groups they are members of. In 2002, a poll of science fiction conventioneers was conducted and published by the Journal of Community Psychology. The study shows respondents as connected to one another through many factors that created their Psychological Sense of Community (PSOC), and one of those items was called ‘Shared Emotional Connection’, or “…collective memories…in which the community shapes in common experiences that represent the community’s values and traditions” (Obst 90). This conscious identification helps to create a person’s adult identity.

The psychological importance of belonging to a social group is described in Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, introduced in 1959 as a part of the study Quantitative Judgment in Social Perception. This theory attempts to explain why we find it so important to identify with, and behave as part of social groups. First of all, the theory hypothesizes that we organize our social stimuli into categories,

and those categories are based on the similarities and differences we see between others and ourselves. In fact, Freud (yes, going back to Freud!) states in his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, “Identification is known to psycho-analysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person” (105).

On the same token, identification is also an expression of recognizing your distinct ‘otherness’ from the people around you, so that one’s identity as an individual is reliant on one’s identity in a social context. Basically, there is no ‘other’ without exposure to said ‘other’. Jan Stets and Peter Burke put it very plainly in Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory:

In identity theory, self-categorization is equally relevant to the formation of one’s identity, in which categorization depends upon a named and classified world…In Social Identity Theory, a social identity is a person’s knowledge that he or she belongs to a social category or group (225).

What this means is a group by its very nature has a level of exclusivity to it. That delineation of in-group vs. out-group is where we find our social identity, the in-group representing those who are similar to us, and the out-group representing those who are different from us. These similarities and differences can be based in many things, but a shared meaning of some sort must connect us (Davis 127). This brings us full circle to the discussion of PSOC and shared emotional connection.

For science fiction and fantasy fans, many of those shared meanings, memories, and emotional connections are based in the texts the fandom communities center around. To continue to create new memories, and thus connections, there must be more and more content. This content doesn’t necessarily need to be from the original content creators, though. There are thriving communities that expand, retool, and create within the mythos they ascribe to, whether by writing fan-fiction or creating other works of art. In her book, Enterprising Women, Camille Bacon-Smith analyzes a women’s ‘fanzine’ community; a group of people dedicated to publishing other’s fic-fiction works in an underground print format.

Thousands of women have written or created visual art about their favorite media characters. The movement has no head, no center, no focus at which to strike. It has an almost limitless supply of ingenuity and a capacity to maintain a secrecy that again can only be compared to the poetry movement in Russia (Bacon-Smith 5).

There is a thriving community around many popular texts, and without this constant stream of ‘newness’, any community would stagnate and eventually die.

But it is not dying! Fandom and fan activity is ever expanding in our current age. Part of this expansion is due to the newly discovered marketing utility of fans. It is important to note that many television and film studios work very hard to understand fan groups for monetary gain, and the content creator’s interaction with the audience can create an even more solidified Psychological Sense of Community and help ensure the continuation of the fan activity (Murray). As the Internet continues to break down age-old barriers of geographic location, and thus time, it is now almost expected for science fiction and fantasy content creators to be in regular contact with fan groups, as Joanne Morreale describes in her article Lost, The Prisoner, and the End of the Story. This industry input endorses fandom activity, and as a result can grow the community even more, which benefits the creators of the text and the group as a whole.

Escapist Entertainment

“[Science fiction fans are] made up of dreamers…We live in a world that is micro-examined and relatively stoic, and your life might be, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ but for a few hours each night you can live in whatever world you want to” (McDonald).

Science fiction and fantasy tales can take us beyond the stars, into times past, and times yet to come. A major component of this genre is the emphasis on a new and curious world, where a newcomer is usually thrown into an alienating and strange new place with a task at hand. As Robert McDonald so eloquently put it, our lives can be routine and boring…and some people may not be satisfied in their current reality, or they could be disturbed by it and just need to take a ‘vacation’ of sorts into a brave, new world.

‘In down times, escapism is more important and necessary than ever,’ says Diana Gill, executive editor of the Eos imprint at HarperCollins, ‘and genre sales reflect that. We saw this after 9/11, and it continues to be true now.’…Seale Ballenger, group publicity director for Eos, concurs: ‘We are seeing the trend toward escapism across the board in all areas of publishing right now due to the faltering economy people really want to focus on something other than the nonstop woes of the world.  The escapist nature of SF and fantasy gives readers a doorway into a world very different from their own’ (Publisher’s Weekly).

Even at it’s worst; science fiction transports us to other worlds, letting us experience situations we can never find ourselves in. “But at their best, these are stories that liberate the mind, which of course is what escapism is all about” (Jones).

Conclusion

So, what does this all mean? At the end of the day, these topics may never be fully understood. This discussion is simply speculation on based on theories, which, honestly, are speculations in themselves. Either way, it is hard to deny the impact that science fiction fandom has had all over the world. More than anything, it is important to understand that we are all searching or have searched for something to define ourselves by, and as content creators, our audiences have a deep capacity for loving our texts. Freudian theory may be highly controversial in its purest form, but it can certainly be used as a roadmap to find satisfying answers about why people make the choices they do. Social Identity Theory, in all its complexities, offers great insight into our need to connect socially. Science fiction and fantasy is just one more avenue for people to connect, and that is a great thing. So, turn on your favorite episode of Star Trek and join a community of millions who, just like all of us, simply want to enjoy, connect, and escape.

Works Cited

“A Brief Introduction to Psychoanalytic Theory: Freudian, Lacanian and Object Relations Theory.” NewSchool.edu. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <homepage.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/psychoanalysis intro.pdf>.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992. Print.

Bailey, Ronald. “Escape from Recession: Sci-Fi Sales Up -Hit & Run.” Reason Magazine. 19 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 May 2011. <http://reason.com/blog/2009/04/15/escape-from-recession sci-fi-s>.

Davis, Diane. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly38.2 (2008): 123-47. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

“Good Worlds and Bad.” Editorial. Publisher’s Weekly 13 Apr. 2009. Publisher’s Weekly. 13 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 May 2011.

Jonas, Gerald. “Science Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Sept. 1992. Web. 10 May 2011.

“List of Children’s Television Series by Country.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 9 May 2011.

McDonald, Robert. Personal Interview. 26 March 2011.

Morreale, Joanne. “Lost, The Prisoner, and the End of the Story.” Journal of Popular Film and Television (2010): 17685. Print.

Murray, Simone. “Celebrating the Story the Way It Is: Cultural Studies, Corporate Media, and the Contested Utility of Fandom.” Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 18.1 (2004): 725. Web.

Obst, Patricia, Lucy Zinkiewicz, and Sandy G. Smith. “Sense of Community in Science Fiction Fandom, Part 1: Understanding Sense of Community in an International Community of Interest.” Journal of Community Psycology 30.1 (2002): 87103. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.

Sommers-Flanagan, John, and Rita Sommers-Flanagan. Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills, Strategies, and Techniques. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, 2004. Print.

Stets, Jan E., and Peter J. Burke. “Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory.” Social Psychology Quarterly 63.3 (2000): 224-37. Print.

Weinert, Friedel. Copernicus, Darwin, & Freud: Revolutions in the History and Philosophy of Science. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

One thought on “Science Fiction Fandom: A Look at the “Why”

  1. I think this article is brilliantly written. I was a Star Wars fan when I was younger, although I was not around for the original releases. This article compares Freud theroy to why and how fans identify themselves with characters, in this case Science fiction. Though I have one question I don’t believe was asked and answered in the above article. Do fans possibly use science fiction as a form of escape from abusive childhoods Or Neglected Childhoods, due to living unsatisfactory lives in this “world”?

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