The nerd Super Bowl (aka San Diego Comic-Con) begins today. Although I'll be missing it for the first time in nearly a decade due to my comedy tour in South Africa, it's a community that holds a dear place in my heart.
In the midst of the seemingly endless barrage of BS we're dealing with in society at large, fandom has always served as a much needed respit for me. Like everything else, it's a microcosm of the larger world so I'm not naive to its problems. That said, I've met artists and fan fiction writers who could easily go toe-to-toe with the best and brightest in the entertainment industry. I've read thoughtful meta and analysis about how stories and representation in media not only matter but can lift spirits and save lives. I've laughed, I've cried, I've trolled and have been inspired that people care enough about projects I'm a part of to passionately express a point of view, even if I don't necessarily agree with it or it's critical of me personally.
Our differences matter, but it's our shared experiences that bring us together.
Regardless of your politics, race or gender identity, we're all fans. Whether we love our local sports team, or there's a show that we'll binge watch the first chance we get, fandom can (more often than not) bond people together who might otherwise never give each other the time of day. Lifelong friendships are made, romantic relationships blossom and copious amounts of shipping abound. But strong opinions about fandom have recently put people on the defensive. Depending on who you ask, fans are either petulant and entitled or the old guard is desperately clinging on to a past that does not reflect the diversity of today's audiences.
Last year, Lucy Bennett, the co-founder of the Fan Studies Network and Paul Booth, a professor at DePaul University invited me to write the forward to their new book Seeing Fans: Representations of Fandom in Media and Popular Culture. They have generously allowed me to reprint what I wrote here. I hope you enjoy it.
It was Friday May 27th. The year was 1977. I was a latchkey kid on a mission.
After school, I returned home to an empty house. Both my parents worked. I wasn't allowed to play outside until an adult got home. I'd recently gotten a canary yellow skateboard for my birthday in April and I could not wait to rocket down the steep hill at the end of the block before the sun disappeared behind the trees. Nearly every kid on my street had suffered a broken arm or wrist trying to dismount the death ride while the wheels wobbled out of control from pure speed. If I could successfully tame the mountain without breaking my neck, neighborhood bragging rights would be mine forever. The only thing standing in my way was my mother.
After work she wanted me to go see a film called Star Wars. This wasn't the first time my mom had abused her parental powers and forced me to be her movie date. My dad had patently refused to watch a giant ape fall in love with a teeny tiny white lady in the jungle and be transported in the belly of a ship to America only to be hunted and killed by every able-bodied New Yorker. While my mother cried over the King Kong love story I surreptitiously slid deeper into my seat hoping none of my friends saw me. To a nerdy basketball loving skater kid who listened to Kraftwerk and regularly referred to REO Speedwagon as Oreo Speedwagon without a hint of irony, Star Wars was the lamest sounding movie ever. I didn't know any of the actors and to make matters worse, one of the main characters looked like a runt from King Kong's litter. Not even CinemaScope 4-track stereo could save this picture. And yes, I knew what that was as a kid. I wasn't allowed to touch my Dad's Marantz 4300 Quadrophonic receiver but I knew way more about it than he did. Even then, my nerd game was on point. I remember walking as slowly as humanly possible into the theatre on North Pleasantburg Drive in Greenville, South Carolina, running my hand along the maroon colored walls as my mother chided, "You better put a pep in your step before I smack the black off you. We're going to miss the previews." The previews? When would this nightmare end?
Two hours and five minutes later it was over. Before Mrs. Jones could ask my critique, I stood on the tips of my toes to make myself taller and used all the bass my pre-pubescent voice could muster. "I need a light saber RIGHT NOW!!! The force is strong with me mom, I swear it is." That's the moment I became a fan.
A few years later, the next entry in the Star Wars saga would represent yet another significant milestone in my understanding of the role that media plays in shaping our views of ourselves and the world around us. In The Empire Strikes Back I saw a representation of myself in the form of Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian, the smuggler who became a hero. It was transcendent. I never forgot the feeling of self-worth that I experienced as a young person when I saw faces of color in movies and television as inventors, leaders and heroes rather than the more common tropes that minority actors were regularly subjected to.
A decade later I was working in the entertainment business, first as a writer and producer on shows like A Different World, Martin, Roc Live and others and then launching News Corp's fledgling cable network FX as one of its first hosts alongside Jeff Probst, Phil Keoghan and Tom Bergeron. Once my career as a performer began taking off I was asked by Quincy Jones to join the original cast members on MadTV. I became acutely aware that I had a responsibility to do for the current generation of young people what Billy Dee Williams had done for me.
My career continued to evolve in exciting and unexpected ways; as the spokesperson for 7-Up in a series of commercial spots that are still ranked on various advertising industry websites as one of the "Top 100 Most Recognizable Ad Campaigns of All Time", then as the co-star in a number of fan-favorite feature films that continue to play in a seemingly endless rotation on cable television including Drumline, The Replacements, Evolution, The Time Machine and many more. Like any working professional I had my share of missteps along the way; jobs I took for the money, or because I followed someone else's advice against my better judgement. Since my goal was never to be famous, I found a consistent groove as a working actor, producer and entrepreneur; winning awards for my work on stage, launching my own talk show, creating a successful fashion line. Each of these career pivots represented a larger canvas through which to tell stories and build experiences that would connect, promote and inspire creative and intellectual curiosity in myself and others.
Even as I continued to pursue my passions and achieve my dreams, I never lost sight of being a fan; geeking out on the latest sci-fi/fantasy film or television show, eagerly waiting for the release of my favorite video game, trying to use my connections to get an advance copy of a new comic book or graphic novel. I devoured content that titillated and inspired my creative muse wherever I could find it. I lurked in the digital shadows of fan forums and online communities to read fan fiction (and maybe try my hand at writing some which I can neither confirm nor deny) and scroll through galleries of fan art. I always kept a respectful distance however, careful to honor the theoretical integrity of the imaginary fourth wall which protected audiences and creators from the vicissitudes of fandom.
By the time I joined the cast of Fox's Sleepy Hollow as Captain Frank Irving in 2013 the mainstream media landscape had changed considerably. YouTube, Vine, Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat competed and won for the hearts and minds of millennials who rejected the conventions and constrains of "traditional media" en masse. For those still watching TV in real time, audiences now had numerous platforms through which to engage with creators more directly than they ever had before. This allowed for a steady stream of both adulation and derision. It also meant that historically marginalized groups, who still weren't seeing multi-faceted representations of themselves in media with any regularity, had a platform by which to demand accountability and change.
Sleepy Hollow's creative team running the show took great pride in our status as one of the most multicultural shows on television with 3 African American leads (star Nicole Beharie, me and co-star Lyndie Greenwood), and recurring characters who were Asian and Latino. I felt both a sense of pride and responsibility by being a part of this unique and special ensemble and gleefully (and some might say foolishly) took on the role of social media provocateur by interacting directly with the fans. As I made clear to those who questioned my motives and expressed discomfort at my methods of engagement, I would have been a fan of the show even if I were not one of its lead actors. Admittedly, I was not fully prepared for the level of intimacy and expectation that my activities would garner. Taking on the moniker of "Trollando", I trolled the show and attempted to playfully mock both the show itself as well as some of its more ardent fans. In the vernacular of social media, a troll is usually an individual with malicious intent but the response I was seeking out was laughter but humor is subjective. Despite no ill intent, I often caused considerable offense and experienced considerable backlash. Those reactions would have likely driven a sane person to hit the pause button but it actually emboldened me to stay the course and develop the navigational tools to communicate with the audience on their terms.
Eventually, my consistency and candor earned considerable good will and I was accepted as a genuine fan who was, in the words of the fandom, "one of us". It also give me substantial insights into the essential importance of intersectional diversity and representation. As I sought to understand this further, I discovered the work of Henry Jenkins, author of the seminal book Convergence Culture about participatory fan practices and their role in transforming the media ecosystem. I quickly devoured more books; Anne Jamison's Fic: Why Fan Fiction Is Taking Over The World, Jenkins' Textual Poachers, Understand Fandom by Mark Duffett and many more. I befriended "Aca-Fans" on Twitter and spoke to Fan Studies students at various universities across the country and overseas. I befriended actor Misha Collins, one of the stars of the hugely successful series Supernatural who himself had been recognized in academic circles as a pioneering innovator in the realm of fan/creator interaction. Most importantly, I forged an identity that reflected the arc of my lived experiences thus far; from being that pre-teen boy watching Star Wars for the first time to creating stories that would entertain current and future generations. I was Trollando; actor, writer, producer, troll, fan.
So here I stand before you, an unabashed and unafraid fangirl. I tried being a fanboy but it was too limiting. Fanboys are exclusionary. Fanboys are guarded. They don't scream loud and refuse to have all the feels. And although I've had female fans express concern with my co-opting of this chosen fan persona and the implication that I am contributing to gender stereotypes, the exact opposite is true. I understand that I don't fit the commonly understand description of a fangirl and that's OK. It's a role I will continue to embrace as I passionately interact in a community that explores and challenges the role that media plays in all facets of our connected lives and pursues a version of what the world can be. It's an adventure as exciting today as it was for my 9 year old self to ride my skateboard down that steep hill at the end of my block.