On the Fandom-Industrial Complex and Moving Forward from Back to the Future
The day Back to the Future fans have waited for is finally here. The thirty-year countdown to October 21, 2015, one of the most well-known dates in movie history (despite how often it has been incorrectly reported on the interwebs), is over1. There’s been an ongoing celebration of the trilogy on the internet and in real life: this Wired dispatch by Jason Tanz, “Fandom Eats Itself at New York Comic Con,” spotlights the kind of reception a widely loved favorite like BTTF gets in the more insular (yet quickly expanding) world of nerd culture:
The rowdiest panel I attended was about the film Back In Time, a documentary about Back to the Future fans. The documentarians presented themselves as Back to the Future fans, but also as fans of other Back to the Future fans, like the guy who spent more than $500,000 to buy the original DeLorean time machine. The audience greeted the documentarians as celebrities too, making them fans of fans of fans of Back to the Future.
Fandom is eating itself, but from the tone of the article and the culture at large you wouldn’t think this is a bad thing. Tanz describes the end of the panel, when the documentary filmmakers give away replicas of the specially produced Pepsi Perfect bottles featured in Part II to everyone in the audience. “Before the event,” he writes, “I had rolled my eyes at the promotion, a two-decade long-con of corporate sponsorship. But here, surrounded by red-vested Marties, whooping and stampeding toward the back of the hall, I couldn’t help but feel a begrudging thrill as I grabbed my goddamn bottle of Pepsi Perfect. What can I say? I guess I’m a fan.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say Back to the Future has been a foundational element of my life. I don’t remember when exactly I watched the trilogy, but middle school was when it caught on with a fury. Since then it’s embedded itself into my identity so thoroughly that I’ve heard from several friends and acquaintances that I’m the first person they think of to send BTTF-related articles, parodies, fake product announcements, and news bites of every stripe. It’s a distinction I’ve willingly cultivated over the years, what with my effusive writings on the subject, my collection of homemade and gifted memorabilia, my eager attendance at meet-and-greets with cast members, and my delight at two separate encounters (both arranged by my very accommodating father) with cosplaying Doc Browns.
So when I read articles like this, at the tail end of decades of brand-sponsored fandom, I’m conflicted. The incipient parade of new Star Wars films and its adjacent subculture has helped me see this phenomenon of superfandom from the outside. I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan. This might be due to not watching them at an impressionable young age as I think was the case with many of its proponents. But, separating my impression of it from its iconic place in film history, I also don’t like them all that much. So when every scrap of news from the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm universe is alternately drooled over and dissected, I get that “uncanny valley” feeling of seeing another version of my BTTF-loving self that doesn’t quite feel right, that I’m prone to criticize or roll my eyes at without realizing how much it looks like me.
In a now-deleted post called “Withdraw Into Yourself Forever,” Fredrik deBoer criticizes what I’ll call the fandom-industrial complex, the natural outgrowth of a cultural landscape littered with infinitely rebooted Superhero Brand franchises and their surrounding ecosystems that encourage you to keep on loving and buying it in perpetuity, and blur the lines between those two things. “It’s the creation,” deBoer writes, “of an economic, social, cultural, and even political infrastructure to convince you that your urge to dive deeper into the stuff you already like is always the correct feeling. It’s an ideology of taste that is totally unfettered by anachronistic compulsions to be more widely read, or to try new things, or to acquire a cultural literacy other than the stuff that you have always loved.” And it’s a phenomenon perfectly encapsulated in Wired’s dispatch from Comic Con.
I’m not advocating for consuming only new things or for abandoning the things you love simply because other people like them (nor do I think deBoer is). Rewatching favorite movies, or going back to an album that perfectly scores a moment or mood is a unique thrill—and that in our time is unbelievably easy to do. But I still try to subscribe to the tenets Alan Jacobs lays down in his great book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I’ve adapted for moviegoing here:
- Whim: Watch what you want, when you want to, without shame.
- Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck watching the same stuff—branch out and seek to be a better watcher.
- Upstream: Seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream.” It might be challenging sometimes but the rewards will be greater than just coasting downstream.
- Responsiveness: Don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to what you’re watching—make moviegoing matter.
- Slow: You’ll miss the little things if you view moviegoing as simply uploading information. Slow down and you’ll absorb more.
Jacobs meant for these to be an approach to reading books, but taken together they work just as well for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to consumption of whatever culture you’re into. They’re also a challenge for myself, and a reminder of what other good I could be missing every time I return to Hill Valley, however weirdly charming it is.
I’m not breaking up with BTTF. I married a Jennifer, for Doc’s sake. In 2015 no less.2 Our first dance was to the movie version of “Earth Angel,” which was immediately followed by a group dance with our bridal party to “Power of Love.” I think I’ve fulfilled my density. The trilogy will always be there for me to enjoy. But the hegemony it has enjoyed over my identity has begun to wane. I don’t want to withdraw into Back to the Future forever. I’m so grateful for its place in my cultural biography and for its fraternity of enthusiastic fans, but I’ve got the same blank page Marty and Jennifer got at the end of the trilogy when Doc says their future hasn’t been written yet, that it would be whatever they made it.
It’s time to explore a new future, and today is as good a time as any to begin doing so.