A classic 1986 skit on Saturday Night Live featured guest host William Shatner (a.k.a. "Captain Kirk") attending a Star Trek convention, held at a generic Holiday Inn in Rye, New York. He grows increasingly frustrated by the obsessively detailed questions about long-forgotten episodes posed by socially inept young men sporting Spock ears and probably still living in their parents' basements. Finally, Shatner lambastes them from the podium for participating in such a "colossal waste of time," memorably urging them to "Get a life, you people!" That skit epitomizes the iconic pop-culture image of a hard-core TV fan.
Allyson Beatrice knocks the stereotypes for a loop in her book, Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? And Other True Adventures from a Life Online (Source Books), now available at your local bookstore. True, she was a hardcore fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which continues to spawn spinoffs like Tribbles: novels, "Fanfic", computer games, and comic books, as well as nation-wide singalong screenings of the musical episode, "One More With Feeling." She's attended gatherings at Holiday Inns in Nowhere, USA, and has been known to debate the hidden meaning of Buffy's fashion choices. But she never showed up wearing fangs or brandishing a wooden stake, and she's moved on to other interests in the wake of the show's demise. She's smart, savvy, independent, and professionally employed by a high-tech start-up company in southern California - the antithesis of the fans mercilessly satirized by SNL.
Beatrice got involved with the (now defunct) online BtVS fandom forum, The Bronze, primarily as a means of coping during a particularly rough patch in her life. She unflinchingly describes herself at the time as "a morose, self-involved, boring wreck of a person" - with itchy, flaky skin to boot - who would welcome a random carjacking simply because it might test her will to live. But then something amazing happened. Online, her natural social and leadership skills emerged and flourished. She became a Big-Name Fan (BNF), organizing posting board parties, lobbying to snag BtVS an Emmy nomination and save the doomed Firefly series from cancellation, even finding a new home for BtVS creator Joss Whedon's cat. (And does he even remember her name? He does not.)
She also earned an online reputation as an "astute observer with the white-hot caustic wit to point out when bullshit stinks," in the words of one of her fellow Bronzers. Beatrice brings that same tart sensibility to her first book, a collection of essays detailing her experiences as a BNF and the lifelong friends she made along the way. But anyone expecting a fawning accolade is in for a rude awakening. That's just not Beatrice's style; she's not prone to sappy sentimentality. "As much as I love my fandom," she writes, "I have no illusions about the fact that some of them are batshit crazy." Just not any crazier than the rabid sports fan who paints his bare chest and sits for hours in the bleachers in freezing rain with a giant wedge of fake cheese on his head.
There is much to love about Beatrice's debut collection of essays, and I often found myself snickering or reading the best lines aloud to anyone in the room, including my long-suffering cat. At her best, Beatrice's acidic, snarky wit rivals that of David Sedaris (whom she admits to admiring greatly, as who would not?). Those "on the outside" will be less interested in the essays describing the minutiae of the backstage hijinks of the BtVS fandom; the weakest relies on quoting an extensive online discussion thread from the Bronze - an odd editorial decision, because it is Beatrice's own distinctive voice that makes these essays work.
Her prose is sharply on-point when she trains her unforgiving eye on human foibles at large, skewering scholarly attempts to legitimize the series ("You Hold Your Gun Like a Sissy Girl: Firearms and Anxious Masculinity in BtVs" was one memorable academic paper title); the unwritten rules of "netiquette"; and the persistent irritation of online "trolls." Nor does she spare herself from ridicule, cheerfully copping to her own neurotic struggles with what she terms "Imposter Syndrome": the secret fear of high-achieving people that their success has all been a terrible mistake, and any day now, someone will find them out and reveal them as a fraud.
In one essay, Beatrice gently points out to fans still bitter about the series cancellation that the networks aren't seeking to entertain the masses out of the goodness of their shriveled hearts. Show them the money! Producing TV shows is incredibly expensive, and they offset those costs by (duh) selling advertising spots. The most desirable demographic is eighteen- to forty-year-old males, who are believed by marketers to have the most disposable income, and advertising rates reflect this bias. "For example, a 30-second spot during the 2004 Super Bowl cost $2.25 million," Beatrice elaborates. "This provided drug companies with a key demographic in order to pitch Viagra and Cialis to the largest audience of limp dicks ever assembled."
A week-long series on Good Morning America about the perils of the Internet inspired this piquant observation:
"The lesson Charlie, Diane and Robin taught me is that the Internet runs solely on the blood of virgin teenage girls. Oh yes, parents: The Internet Wants Your Daughters. Every blue-eyed girl with extra shiny hair who has ever gone missing will not be found in a shallow grave or weirdo comet-worshipping cult. They likely have been swallowed whole by MySpace.com in order to make the site load faster."
Beatrice acknowledges that there are charlatans, hucksters, and dangerous sexual predators prowling about on the Internet - indeed, she alludes to a few horror stories within the self-policing Bronze community -- but she hammers home the point that the Internet is just another technological tool and is not intrinsically evil. It all depends on how people choose to use it. And parents, ultimately, are responsible for monitoring their children's online activities. Beatrice sincerely offers several helpful suggestions, but true to form, can't resist adding, "While you're doing all of that, it would be super awesome if you corrected their spelling. Chatspeak is nauseating, lol lol"
Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? is ultimately less about fandom, and more about the many different ways human beings can foster a sense of community, both on- and offline. As Beatrice says, "Using the Internet to connect with one's peers around the world is a truly amazing technological gift." I've never joined an online fandom, but I formed some strong, lasting friendships through my involvement with a martial arts newsgroup in the 1990s, and I met my cosmologist fiancé through our respective blogs. I'm sure the 8.5 million people on Second Life would say that while the environment might be virtual, the community is very real. It's all about finding your tribe. Fandom ended up giving Beatrice back her life, launching her into a promising writing career to boot. Maybe now Whedon will remember her name.
Earlier this year, Joss Whedon posted an impassioned denunciation of the "honor killing" of Du'a Khalil Aswad and Hollywood "torture porn" on the fan-run site Whedonesque.com, ending with a call to action. His fans have responded by announcing plans for an anthology of literary and visual arts - titled Nothing But Red - addressing Aswad's murder and related issues. The anthology will be self-published (via Lulu.com) in April 2008, with all proceeds going to benefit the international human rights organization Equality Now. The organizers are currently accepting submissions of essays, short stories, poems, photographs, drawings and other forms for inclusion, through November 1, 2007. It's one more example of the power of fandom at fostering a sense of community - in this case, on a global scale.