Kleefeld’s ‘Fanthropology’ #6: From Superman To Strawberry Shortcake

By Sean Kleefeld

One of the interesting aspects about studying fans is that you’re able to apply many of the basic precepts across many different fandoms. I know I’ve found this particularly useful when I’m looking back at some groups and thinking, “I don’t get it.” I should get it, and I can apply what I’ve learned from examining fandoms as a whole to a specific fan group.

My earliest fannish interests were tied to a couple of things. Primarily Star Wars and comic book heroes like Superman. Like many kids, I often felt somewhat powerless and superheroes were, generally speaking, the embodiment of power. Even the heroes who were physically weaker could stop giant robots and space aliens who had come to conquer the planet. And with Star Wars, that was a series that I grew up with and exposed me to any number of new ideas.

As I grew older, I got into other subjects to varying degrees and appreciated them at different levels. I took to the classic Universal horror movies, and Dungeons & Dragons, and Star Trek, and G.I.Joe, and Warner Brothers’ cartoons, and all sorts of other aspects of pop culture. Some were more engrossing than others, and held my interest for varying periods of time.

There were fandoms out there that I understood, but just couldn’t get into for one reason or another. Planet of the Apes, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Files… I could sit down and enjoy them. I could appreciate why people would flock to them. But they just didn’t quite strike a chord with me personally.

Then there were any number of other things that were completely lost on me. Many of them by design. Barbie, Hello Kitty, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears… I didn’t see anything at all appealing in them or, for that matter, why anyone would find anything appealing in them.

The first issue there is that those properties were specifically with a certain demographic in mind. One that I’m not a part of, despite said demographic still being very widely defined. We live in a culture that largely defines things in terms of sex and, to a lesser extent, age. Disney’s purchase of Marvel, for example, was widely seen as a way that company could quickly appeal to boys and young men. While Disney had a great deal of success promoting their “princesses” to girls, they had trouble catching the attention of boys, something that Marvel had become quite adept at. This is, in part, because we’re living in a culture that defines “boys” and “girls” in very simplistic terms and we’re surreptitiously indoctrinated into that notion from such a young age that it seems quite natural.

The second issue is that, since I was taught by our culture what was “right” and “wrong” for boys to like, I was preconditioned to dislike anything that wasn’t targeted towards boys. Of course I didn’t like Barbie — everything in my culture from the time I was born told me that a boy liking all the things that define and identify Barbie was “wrong.” Not only was it wrong, but it was incomprehensible. The very values inherent in Barbie and Hello Kitty and the rest were so anathema to being a boy that I refused to even consider them.

But as I’ve noted before, when I began studying fandoms, I was struck by how amazingly similar science fiction and comic book fandoms were in their geneses. How the structures and themes seen in one were very closely echoed in the other. Once I started getting into some of the sociology of fandoms and start applying those ideas to real world experiences, I was able to see how they ALSO applied to other groups and situations.

Even though I’m getting a different message from Star Wars than someone else is getting out the Care Bears, and how we choose to embrace those messages might take on a different forms, the basic notions of why we embrace them aren’t so different. And I think that goes a long way towards having an appreciation of those fandoms that you don’t necessarily like. I don’t really have to like — or even understand — the appeal of Strawberry Shortcake to appreciate that others might respond to that in the same way I respond to a superhero.

Whether you get more out of Superman or Hello Kitty, it really doesn’t take much of a mind-flip to see how another character might be liked by someone else. Especially when you put it in the light of how your culture has shaped your very perceptions of what types of things you should and shouldn’t like!

Related Posts:
Kleefeld’s ’Fanthropology’ #5: Who Is Mary Sue?
Kleefeld’s ’Fanthropology’ #4: Boldly Going Where FanFic Has Gone Before

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