By Allie Volpe
The Jonas Brothers made me jump in front of a bus. Or, more specifically, my unchecked emotion for the Jonas Brothers inspired me to jump in front of a bus.
The summer of 2008 was an intense time for many Jonas Brothers fans like myself: The trio had just appeared in the Disney Channel Original Movie Camp Rock, was gearing up for the release of their third album, and was in the midst of their Burnin’ Up tour. By the time the brothers came to my city in late August, my personal fan buildup had reached a head. The anticipatory glee I’d stifled for months, between the Camp Rock re-watches and sing-alongs, was finally going to result in a socially sanctioned freakout moment — a concert — a place where it’s acceptable to scream about how much you love the Jonas Brothers.
Fans spray paint and post signs to the Jonas Brothers’ tour bus outside of Madison Square Garden in 2008
I knew Kevin, Nick, and Joe had a habit of bidding fans farewell from the front of their tour bus after each show. So when I saw the towering vehicle approaching, my carnal instincts took over: I body-checked a security guard and hurled myself into the bus’s path, needing the band to notice me, failing to plan beyond the moment at hand.
Fandom — and the one-sided emotional connection involved with fandom, called a parasocial relationship — inspires people to behave in curious ways. From rioting after your favorite sports team wins a championship to stans encouraging their favorite stars to inflict bodily harm upon them via Twitter, we’ve become increasingly performative in showcasing our enthusiasm. But why?
As early as the mid-1990s, academics began to question whether humans could relate to media in the same way we do to other humans. In the book The Media Equation, the authors concluded that humans “not only can but do treat computers, televisions, and new media as real people and places” — and the emotions inspired by media feel the same as feelings spurred by real world events. By 2017, researchers concluded that it’s only natural that humans develop intense feelings toward certain celebs, shows, and other media — and it’s not a behavior that should be considered deviant or irrational.
However, more than a decade later, I still don’t have a logical explanation for why I’d throw myself in front of a moving vehicle as an expression of my devotion. Why does stanning sometimes inspire an intensely performative response? Fan researcher Paul Booth, Ph.D., associate professor of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University, says my reaction likely stemmed from a need for emotional release. “When we feel something strongly, we want to let that emotion out,” Booth explains. “We don’t want to bottle it up. It can come out in all sorts of ways. Most often, it’s this spontaneous reaction to our strong emotions, which our society is not good at dealing with.”
Alas, strong fan reactions have historically been relegated as a phenomenon unique to manic teenage girls, from Beatlemania to the boy band craze of the late 1990s. “A lot of this has to do with the fear of female sexuality, that we are uncomfortable when teenage girls are acting out and talking about sexual things with celebrities,” says Booth.
Cops were deafened by screaming fans as they waited outside the Beatles’ hotel in August 1964
Justin Bieber fans waiting outside his Mexico City hotel in June 2012
Yet, fans of more “masculine” media, like professional sports, still exhibit outward displays of emotion when it comes to their devotions. (Take both the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Cavaliers fans who ate horse feces when their teams won respective championships.) “We know that sport fans don’t act rationally in so many regards,” says Greg Greenhalgh, Ph.D., associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. In a 2015 study, Greenhalgh and his research team found that fans who reported high emotional investment in a team placed more (and more irrational) value on the team’s success, meaning “that your emotional attachment is what’s going to end up leading to your level of fan identification… how much in your personal identity is wrapped up in being a fan,” Greenhalgh continues. “Once you get to a certain level, fans try to outdo certain fans: I’d eat horse poop to show you what a great fan I am.”
In all facets of fandom, being a devotee ties into your identity. Whether you stan the Jonas Brothers or the works of Shakespeare, the media and the people involved in such media touch a part of our psyche — like relating to a lyric or a character in a TV show. “Because our identities are central to how we relate to the world, it makes sense that our fandom, the thing that is part of that identity, is this external representation of that,” Booth says.
Before the internet and social media gave rise to the performative nature of fandom, people could express their fannish identities by hanging posters in their room, discussing with friends, and, if you had the means, going to a concert or convention, says Elizabeth Minkel, fan culture journalist, co-host of the Fansplaining podcast, and co-curator of The Rec Center newsletter. Because of the access social platforms provide in communicating with musicians, actors, and creators, there is an inherent pressure to be the loudest, most exaggerated fan in order to prompt a reply.
However, within the Marvel Universe, for example, fans don’t necessarily have a central person to direct their affections — there isn’t a Mr. Marvel reading fan tweets, after all, Minkel explains. In such cases, the drive to be publicly associated with a fan group is enough to outwardly express intense feelings. Other times, the motivation to act stems from an inherently personal place. “I think the majority of fannish capital is being seen as a fan,” Minkel says. “Sometimes, people get their fannish capital from being the most. You are the most torn up about this, you have the most dramatic reaction to this, you feel like you have the most ownership over it. And I think that’s a hard thing to navigate in fandom: It feels, inside, like it does matter most to you. There’s a performative way to do this by being the biggest mess about it.”
When fans tweet their faves begging them to punch them in the face or run them over with their car, it’s a way of building community, a secret fan-to-fan code, says Louisa Stein, Ph.D., author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age and associate professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College. The tweets themselves are performative, an outward display of over-the-top emotion truly showing how important this element of devotion is to the fan. “It’s both performative, silly, fun, and ridiculous,” Stein says, “and it really matters to people and how people shape their sense of self and maybe get through difficult times and make sense of the world.”
Fan associations can help people of any age work through feelings of vulnerability in real life. Studies have shown that people turn to music, sports, and movies, to cope with emotional challenges. Thus, the figures in those media come to represent a comforting image. By relating with characters — from Marvel superheroes to Chuck and Blair’s relationship on Gossip Girl — musicians — like the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift — and actors or sports players, we’re able to use these figures as a guide when interpreting the events of our own lives, Stein explains, further entwining our emotions with our fan identities.
These fannish emotions can be negatively depicted — “The more emotional you are about your fandom, the weirder people think you are,” Booth says — but actions fueled by fan feelings can be used for both personal and social good. A shy kid, for example, may find solace in a community of cosplayers; Supernatural fans can exercise their creative muscles by creating fanvids or writing fanfic. On an even larger scale, some fandoms inspire activism. The Harry Potter Alliance builds on the franchise’s do-good themes to enlist fans to serve the community through book drives, voter registration, and anti-hate campaigns.
Of course, with any level of fandom, there are bad actors who cross lines: stalking, creating deepfakes, jumping in front of a bus. The term “toxic fandom” frequently describes when fans go too far, like bullying celebrities and critics whom they believe have “wronged” the object of their affection into deserting social platforms. However, sometimes the results are even more dangerous. In 2017, a Call Of Duty player was shot and killed by a local police officer after another player made a bogus 911 call that led the SWAT team to the man’s house. And the anonymity of the internet allows for nameless and faceless shitposting (and legitimate harassment) with little repercussions.
“Ten years ago there wasn’t the platforms for people to perform their stannishness,” Minkel says. “There weren’t places to shout at the person you’re into at all times. And that heightens the stakes for people.” Now, instead of managing the physical safety of a teen who flails in front of moving vehicles, fans must consider the other tangible ways their attachments impact other humans.
So long as fan associations inspire true emotions — and they will — harnessing such feelings into physical manifestations will persist. So the next time I feel inclined to throw myself in front of a tour bus for a band I love, I’ll remember it’s just a part of human nature.
“Asking why are there deep emotions in fandom is asking why are there deep emotions in life, both negative and positive,” Stein says. “It’s part of our world experience. We will have that range of emotions, and they will feel quite deep.”