Explaining Fandoms: Celebrity Culture and Conspiracy Theories

Image Source

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.

McLennon: A Beginner’s Guide

first published in The Teatles Book, Book 12 (2021)

image source

I should begin by clarifying that McLennon is not the same as ‘John and Paul’ or ‘Lennon/McCartney’. It is often interchangeably used with ‘John/Paul’, which does come pretty close to capturing it; but not quite. For where ‘John and Paul’ is used to refer to the personal relationship between John and Paul; and ‘Lennon/McCartney’ is used to refer to the professional relationship between John and Paul; and ‘John/Paul’ is used to refer to the potentially romantic relationship—McLennon is the referent for both: (1) the John/Paul relationship, and (2) the fandom community surrounding the John/Paul relationship. These lines definitely often blur into each other; but I think it’s still useful to begin this conversation by delineating McLennon. 

Despite popular belief, the fandom community McLennon did not spring up out of the blue in 2013 with the advent of Tumblr and “fanatic” “teenage” “fangirls.” According to Fanlore (a wiki about fanworks and fan communities), the McLennon fandom has been around for almost as long as the Beatles themselves. Just like other fandoms, McLennon fans also used to indulge in writing stories (fanfiction), creating fan art, and publishing their creative and critical pieces in fanzines. Today, you can find pockets of this community on pretty much every social media blogging platform like Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. The fan practices of this community often slightly vary on each platform: while people on Twitter lean more towards curating sources, facts, and photographs; people on Tumblr are slightly more interested in critically (analysis pieces) and creatively (fanfiction) interpreting the original source material (John/Paul photographs, interviews, songs, letters, stories, books, etc.). This variation is nothing more than an indirect effect of the different features each platform offers; and even then, all these practices can often extend across platforms. 

Like all fandom communities, McLennon has a particular object of fascination; and that’s the John/Paul relationship. Fans in this community are particularly interested in reading and analysing the not-quite platonic aspects of this relationship. These readings can range across locating a certain eroticism in their photographs, discovering hidden emotional layers in their songs, plotting similar points of emphasis and diversion over multiple interviews, to digging up sources to further nuance their understanding of this relationship. This fascination often works against the orthodox narrative about the John/Paul relationship, which usually posits that even though Paul might have been “in love” (in awe, devoted, dependent) with John, John was just too cool for him. There are other groups within Beatledom who are also interested in this relationship. However, what separates McLennon from these groups is: (1) the visible non-platonic slant in their critical interpretations, and (2) the creative endeavours like fanfiction, fanart, and fanvideos which this community regularly undertakes. 

Two of Us

When I write ‘non-platonic’, I do not necessarily mean sexual or romantic. That is a part of it, yes, but it’s not the whole meaning. Non-platonic within the McLennon community usually means erotic; and that is a popular interpretation heavily backed by comments like making music with each other turned us on, and admiring each other’s physical attributes, and often John and Paul comparing their relationship to a marriage themselves. Hence, the non-platonic slant in the community’s critical interpretations is a minor concession to the various nuances and facets of John and Paul’s relationship; a quality of passion which does fascinate everyone within Beatledom alike. 

However, yes, the rumours are true: a section of the community does prop up and heavily endorse the idea that John and Paul were romantically involved with each other. And this, folks, is what we call a conspiracy. This slice of the McLennon fandom believes that John and Paul really, truly had a romantic relationship in the ‘60s (which might have extended into the ‘70s); but had to hide their love away because of period-typical concerns like homophobia, a female-dominated fanbase, and John and Paul’s images as straight, masculine, virile sex fiends. This conclusion is based upon a reading of the same shared source material; only, the process of interpretation and meaning-making is influenced more by certain source materials than others, like claims of John being bisexual, stories of people at Apple HQ referring to Paul as “John’s Princess,” Paul’s bizarre inability to give a straight answer to the question was John in love with you, the sheer ambiguity of the happenings of the Rishikesh trip, etc. Again, it’s not a completely incorrect method of interpretation; it only—like we all are prone to do, to a certain extent—privileges certain source materials over others and arrives at a far-fetched conclusion. 

The Lovers That Never Were 

I love fan works; and the McLennon community is particularly good at them. Creative works like fanfiction, fanart, and fan videos offer fans the chance to imagine and reinterpret the John/Paul relationship in their own unique ways—which is an absolute treat. I am aware that fan works often get a bad rep for “sullying the sanctity of the holy John and Paul relationship” (whatever that means!) but I think they are quite cool. Fan creators are (almost always) very careful about adding disclaimers, clarifying the completely fictional nature of their works; and beyond that, I think it becomes the responsibility of the reader to be discerning enough. 

However, there is always the potential tendency within every fan community for stereotypes and rumours to be perpetuated through fan works. Creators can sometimes fail to add clear disclaimers; or audiences’ memories can fail and they can create similar associations with both verified stories and fanfiction, and both can then get afforded a similar level of veracity. It happens. Especially within a fandom as large and old as the Beatles; the tendency for the lines between apocryphal stories, fanfiction, and verified tales to blur into each other is even higher.

With that said, I still think fan works are really awesome and, if consumed with a keen eye, can be a source for great pleasure. Here are some of my favourite fanfics:

  • “Stand by Me” by Penny Lane and Jenny Wren | Summary: John survives.
  • “Widow” by abromeds | Summary: If Paul had died in 1980 instead of John; and how John deals with that. 
  • “I said something wrong” by frogchorus [work in progress] | Summary: In 1965, The Beatles performed on the ‘Blackpool Night Out’. It’s fairly well recorded that John and Paul had an argument pre-show, and this fic explores that. 
  • “new york woman” by peculiar_mademoiselle [work in progress] | Summary: A series of loosely related one shots about Yoko Ono.

I think that brings us to a close of this guide. For further reading, you should definitely check out: