If you’re like me, the word “fandom” makes you cringe just a little. It conjures images of screaming teens clawing their way toward the stage at a Harry Styles concert – or adults in costumes, exchanging blows over the correct timeline of House Targaryen. And that’s exactly the problem. The language that currently exists around “fandom” culture is almost feral. At best, it depicts fans as blissfully unaware nerds that can’t quite grow up. At worst, the language around fan culture depicts a wild herd mentality, where fans are crazed and entirely out of control with their emotions. It’s a cultural Catch-22: one that really wants to shame you out of getting excited for something you love. The irony here is that fandom-shamers imagines fans as outsiders that can’t fit in or grow up. As it turns out though, the kind of emotional release that comes with fandom culture is actually a major asset to our mental health.
And with the series finale of Game of Thrones on the horizon, this is low-key critical information. I’ve never been one publicly flaunt my love of the series outside what is considered a “normal” (ugh) level of appreciation, but in this instance, I totally get it. I get the hype, I get the conventions, I get the choosing-the-house-you’d-belong-to. Westeros is such a complete, immersive world with such complex characters that it’s really difficult not to get sucked in. I get it. So why do I still have this gut-reaction when I see people get a little too into it in a public setting?
One useful theory is our cultural discomfort with expressing straightforward emotions. A few years ago, Harry Styles himself famously told Rolling Stone “Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.” What Styles gets at here is revealing: teenage girls – the usual pillars of a fandom – have been unfairly attached to the “feral” fan image, simply because they don’t care about being too cool to conceal their emotions. It seems that this applies the same way to all fandoms. We’re not inherently embarrassed by seeing teens crying in excitement or adults cosplaying; we’re embarrassed by their apparent lack of embarrassment. They’re amped, and they’re not making an effort to hide or repress it.
According to psychologists, this genuine connection between people that aren’t trying to hide their passions “is good for mental and emotional health because it helps to create a fraternity-like or family-like sense of security.” There’s a deeper sense of belonging when we feel like we can be our full selves, and that’s a critical component to good mental health. According to Teen Vogue, research demonstrates that “a weak sense of belonging is correlated with depression,” and when we imagine the stereotypical “cool” circles, aren’t those the people constantly battling for belonging within a group? Usually hiding parts of themselves to try to fit in? Ironically, research shows that fandoms – where we imagine the misfits reside – are far more healthy and socially adjusted.
Increasingly, it seems like young people are embracing the quirks of fandom more readily than past generations. If you’ve ever been to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, you’ll know that nearly half (if not more) of the visitors in costume are adults, and that’s pretty celebrated. If you are in fact a huge Thrones fan, you might know that HBO just released an unofficial album for the final season, featuring the likes of hip hop superstars Travis Scott and The Weeknd. I mean, hip hop has started embracing anime as an ultra-trendy aesthetic, so pretty much anything is fair game now.
While the long-reigning opinion that fandom is, in the words of Fuse contributor Maria Sherman, “uncool, unhealthy, excessive, and something for only young women to enjoy (and if you are not a young woman and enjoying it, something must be diagnosably wrong with you),” there do appear to be small cultural shifts toward progress – and better mental health. Where belonging to fantasy fandoms used to be worn as a sort of scarlet letter, its embrace by celebs like Drake and even President Obama demonstrate that when content is really good, it’s truly just not worth it to hide your enthusiasm. So please, throw on your full-length Sansa Stark costume, get your friends together, and enjoy the series finale with gusto. It’s only good for you.