Explaining Fandoms: Celebrity Culture and Conspiracy Theories

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It’s an old story: a large number of people collectively fall in love with a male act, create a fandom, and over a series of logical leaps conclude that his wife is a criminal who is forcing him to stay in a sham marriage with her. Also, their babies are fake.

Here’s the twist: this story is not about the act; it’s about the fandom. Fandoms are interesting objects of study because unlike acts they never perform; they react. They react with love and they react with hate and you can be absolutely certain that they mean every single grin and scowl they send your way. The anonymity which fandoms offer to individuals provides fans with a unique opportunity to indulge themselves; and these indulgences range from full-out sobbing in the middle of a concert to vicariously living more luxurious lives. The combination of these high levels of affection and obsession with their favourite acts inevitably results in a sense of ownership; and in fandoms, this possessiveness and need for control can sometimes manifest itself in a strange form: conspiracy theories.

In the summer of 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch and his now wife Sophie Hunter were spotted together for the first time. By November, they were engaged. This sent the entire Cumberbatch fandom into a meltdown. Sides were quickly chosen, and there emerged a small group of skeptics of this quick engagement. At this point, the first of the many theories surrounding Cumberbatch’s marriage started popping up: fans started believing that Hunter was a criminal who sold drugs and was utilising Cumberbatch’s wealth to further her own means. However, fast-forward eight years and they are still together with three children. And yet, the frenzy surrounding this theory has only grown. Social media platforms are saturated with “evidence” corroborating the conspiracy and explaining exactly why fans believe that Hunter is a criminal and their babies are “fake”. 

Obviously, it’s all lies, but what’s fascinating here is why people buy into these conspiracies. Cumberbatch’s fans have convinced themselves that Hunter is forcing him to be with her. This cruelty stems from a response to the shifting social status of women recently. The slow march of women towards a more equal status has given rise to a trend in which they become subjected to seemingly similar standards to those of men (or, the old “Feminism isn’t real because I can slap a man but I can’t slap a woman”). This makes it convenient to crack lewd jokes objectifying other women in their presence, pushing them to give up time with their children to invest more in their jobs, and arguing that they do not need special conveniences like extra sick leaves or half-days because, “it’s not “equal” then, right?” And when a woman actually manages to overcome these disadvantages and carve a niche in her chosen industry—the demonisation of her self and barbs directed at her personal life begin. Consequently, concerns like Hunter’s role as a wife and a mother become subjects for public scrutiny; and fans find it acceptable to posit that her babies are a PR stunt.

The ”Babygate” conspiracy is an old one. In 2016, One Direction singer Louis Tomlinson’s son was also declared “fake” by some of his fans. However, the Tomlinson Babygate ties into an even larger conspiracy theory which has been alive and kicking since 2011: Larry Stylinson. ‘Larry Stylinson’ started off as mere shipping by the band’s fans, and was collectively understood to be a form of sexual expression. However, it eventually snowballed into the pervasive idea that Tomlinson and his bandmate Harry Styles are actually in a relationship. This move from imagination to reality also reflects a social shift: the visible rise of pro-LGBTQ+ movements in the past decade across the world both on-ground and on social media. The reason almost 60% of the fandom still believes this theory is possibly because they want it to be true: fans crave idols who can represent them (i.e., who also identify as queer), and provide a wishful template for their own lives. This want, alongside the presence of a dense evidentiary archive surrounding the band in an interpretive community like the One Direction fandom, has resulted in a collective loss of perspective. Any contrary evidence is treated like deliberately created inconsistencies whose presence only testifies to the forced closeting of Tomlinson and Styles by their “management”; and any suggestion of closeness between the two only serves to fuel the alleged non-platonic fire. This has resulted in the creation of a different (and more favourable) internal reality for these fans, one in which Tomlinson and Styles’ romantic relationship is a foregone fact. 

Conspiracies are deceptive yet attractive because they represent a reality in which random coincidences don’t exist and everything has a meaning. They provide fans with a sense of control since celebrities become cherished objects over whom fans exert control by having them act in line with their collective fantastical stories. Today, social media provides fans with illusory unfettered access to their idols’ lives and consequently, makes it easy to translate this collective possessiveness into a sense of ownership. However, many times, the sheer influence of fandoms as social groups on the internet creates pockets of actual access, through which fans gain power over celebrities’ real-life events. The Cumberbatch conspiracy hurt both Cumberbatch and Hunter, and the Larry Stylinson conspiracy imposed norms of rigid masculinity, suggesting that casual intimacy between two men always implies a romantic relationship, and eventually (according to Tomlinson) led to the breakdown of their close friendship. 

Despite their harsh effects, such conspiracies are sometimes shrugged off as whimsical yearnings of young teenagers. However, it becomes hard to shrug off conspiracies like the recent Sushant Singh Rajput suicide which took on a life of their own and eventually (and evidentially) enchanted a dangerously large number of people. Besides abject misogyny, the SSR conspiracy reflected the increasing tendency towards mythologisation in India. This inclination led to cherry-picking of facts by Rajput’s fandom to finally arrive at a flattened product which conveniently fit the prevailing overarching, national narrative: a rich, extremely adored male actor died in India; he was a self-made man who had worked his way up the ladder in big, bad Bollywood; he was a hero, and consequently, when he died, it could not have been a suicide. Heroes do not commit suicide. Heroes are murdered, and the story is firmly closed off as a tragedy. Therefore, the person to blame for his death is obviously his girlfriend; a woman who’s a brilliant artist, and who occasionally likes a cigarette. However, in the myth of today’s India, when all our heroes are broad-chested men who endorse the women-are-distractions party line, a woman who is self-sufficient, and occasionally likes a cigarette immediately becomes a temptress; and is hence, seen, and regarded as a threat. Here, the urge to indulge conspiracies becomes a cause for much more harm than the relatively mild effects of internet trolling. 

Conspiracies have always existed (‘Paul McCartney is dead’) and chances are, will always continue to exist. The feeling of superiority and satisfaction that fans experience by believing that they are privy to some information which the rest of the world isn’t, is golden. However, today it seems more pivotal than ever to analyse conspiracies in fandoms because, over the past few years, the relationship between fans and artists has changed significantly. Fans have moved on from the thought that they owe artists gratitude for providing them with gorgeous art and entertainment. Instead, they argue that artists owe them their gratitude for their continued devotion and efforts to keep them “relevant”. This shift in power, compounded by conspiracy theories, can become dangerous when fans encourage artists to live the lives that they want them to live. 

And that is one story with no happy ending on the horizon.