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28 December 2023

2023: the year fandom went feral

“Stan culture” has reached new heights of invasive obsession, delusion and misogyny.

By Sarah Manavis

When the actor Timothée Chalamet and the reality TV star Kylie Jenner confirmed their relationship in September after six months of speculation – at a star-studded Beyoncé concert in Los Angeles no less – the tabloid and social media frenzy was predictable. New celebrity couples always generate a feverish media cycle, especially A-list ones.

Among this chorus, one voice rose above the rest: a popular Chalamet fan account run by a woman called Simone in support of the 27-year-old actor. In a series of tweets and Instagram posts, the fan claimed that Chalamet was being blackmailed into the relationship by the Kardashian-Jenner family and that Kylie Jenner herself was his stalker. The fan referred to Chalamet as “Timmy” and to Jenner as “Slurpee” – a derogatory slang term for someone artificial and unhealthy – and claimed she was protecting Chalamet’s “welfare”. These posts were liked by hundreds of fans that echoed her reasoning, who she told to “step away from social media” and to “take care” if the footage of Chalamet and Jenner together was making them “distressed” (in the replies, Simone implied she had inside information that Chalamet and Jenner had never been sexually involved). These posts were also mocked by thousands, even receiving mainstream press coverage, which the account implied was also orchestrated by Jenner. “This is what happens when a mere fan account expresses an unpopular opinion about a powerful media family,” she wrote.

This may feel like an extreme example of internet “standom”, or obsessive fandom. But this type of response has become emblematic of stan culture: 2023 has been a year in which online fandom has reached new heights of invasive obsession, delusion and misogyny, where fans treat idols with unprecedented levels of cruelty and over-familiarity. Earlier this year, Selena Gomez had to plead with her fans to stop sending death threats to Hailey Bieber, the now-wife of her ex-boyfriend Justin. Meanwhile, the singer Phoebe Bridgers claimed her own fans “bullied”, “shamed” and “dehumanised” her when she was photographed travelling to her father’s funeral with her new boyfriend, the comedian Bo Burnham. Taylor Swift fans obsess over her break-ups and new relationships, circulating doctored images of the musician to try to push conspiracies about Swift’s life (whether it be that Swift was cheated on or even that she’s secretly gay). In a year of several high-profile celebrity break-ups, we have seen fans obsessively posting photos, videos and theories about the separations.

To most of us, this is disturbing behaviour. But for a militant niche of fans, it is considered normal. This is the natural next stage of an online fan culture that rewards those who are the loudest and the most extreme and who, in the name of “supporting” an artist, feed their parasocial relationship at any cost – even in a way that may hurt their allegedly beloved celebrity.

The difference that has emerged in 2023 is the speed at which this modern fandom has led to outright misogyny. Because more often than not, the victims of this trend are female celebrities. Sexist comments are thrown around under the guise of affectionate familiarity and celebrities personal lives are trawled endlessly. Even when claiming to support their idols, fans often lean on sexist tropes that emphasise chivalry and female disempowerment, such as in the case of Swift fans criticising Swift’s former boyfriends and heralding her new ones, regularly framing her as weak and heartbroken and/or swooning now that she’s being “properly” pursued by a gallant man. These fans may defend themselves by saying they are just voicing that they’re happy for her, or being protective and supportive of her in a challenging personal moment – evidence of their loyalty.

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This dissolving of social boundaries is also indicative of a wider social media-influenced culture that refuses to respect the right to privacy. As the former New York Times film critic, AO Scott, wrote in a farewell letter to his job earlier this year: “[Modern] fan culture is rooted in conformity, obedience, group identity and mob behaviour, and its rise mirrors and models the spread of intolerant, authoritarian, aggressive tendencies in our politics and our communal life.” In other words, this extreme fan culture has shifted what we consider permissible, and what the appropriate way to treat other human beings is.

Standom has long been moving in this direction. A future in which that gets worse feels unfathomably awful. Whether it plumbs even more rotten depths or not, no one will gain anything from the persistence of these attitudes: not art, not artists, not even the fans themselves. It will lead only to the wider spread of misogynistic stereotypes and an inhumanity that punishes everyone, not just celebrities.

[See also: The grim return of Alex Jones]

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