What Fandom's "Found Families" Tell Us About Our Hunger for Community
Plus: The Sunday Extended Links & Recs
Welcome to Sunday Issue of Culture Study! Every other week, I put together an extended version of recs, links — and, of course, the Just Trust Me. If this is the sort of thing you’d like to fill your Sunday, subscribe today and get full access. (And for a look at what subscribers get, check out this edition from last month).
But first, we’re going to do something slightly different: a midi-length Q&A with culture writer Aja Romano (if our usual Q&As are maxi-length, and a Q&A in a mainstream publication is generally mini-length, then this is somewhere in-between) about the desire to live close to friends (and its increased difficulty) and the prevalence of so-called “found families” in transformative fandom. If those words make no sense to you, don’t worry, we define it all below. And if that’s not your thing, scroll down to enjoy the usual linkstravaganza.
AHP: First off, I’m so happy that you agreed to do this Q&A, because you poked at a corner of the newsletter on living-close-to-friends that I feel like had been hanging out in the back of my mind (I mean, there’s a reason people love Friends!) but I hadn’t really fully processed. On Twitter, you wrote that the piece helped you figure out something you “think about a lot re: fandom and why transformative fandom has such a fixation on found families.”
Before we get into the found families element of this, can you explain what transformative fandom is for readers who might not be familiar? [Don’t be afraid of going very basic here, we have a lot of readers who are very deep in various fandoms but we have a whole lot of readers might be starting at square one]
Aja: Sure! So basically fandom is just a community of fans, and the word “fandom” can refer to the whole concept of fan community, or to specific communities, aka fandoms. This concept was codified by early 20th-c. sci-fi/fantasy/horror fans who saw “fandom” as a space for discussion and camaraderie over literature and media. But those early 20th-c. fans tended to be mainly straight cis white men. As more women and queer and genderqueer fans became visible and active in fandom, around the ’60s–’70s, they often participated in fandom differently: They wrote fanfiction and shipped characters and created fanvids and fanart and fan songs and so forth.
Gradually this idea of “transformative” fandom emerged, partly to stress that in legal terms, fanfiction et. al. are fair use of copyright because they’re transformative rather than derivative. But “transformative fandom” also emphasizes that this is an intentionally proactive way of performing fandom. It’s not just about reifying and deifying what an authorial voice tells you, but about taking ownership of that content and then adding your own ideas and desires, often by creating something new.
Transformative fandom is also often engaging with media not simply to enjoy it but to critique it, subvert it, be mad at it, challenge it, or place it in conversation with other pieces of media. So for example, a more traditional fan might debate the meaning of the book they like on a forum or a subreddit, etc. But a transformative fan might go write fanfic of that book and then cross it over with another book. You can obviously do both kinds of fandom! But transformative fans also tend to flock together in the same general online spaces, so their discussion and debate gets infused with that same spirit of transformative call and response.
(I should also add that “transformativity” makes it sound like all of this is a radical concept, but there are profound limits to all this subversion. Transformative fandom can be messy, and it has just as many problems with racism, xenophobia, and unexamined privilege as every other corner of the internet.)
AHP: So transformative fandom and found families — I want to hear some of your favorites, or ones that have proven extremely popular within transformative fandom communities.
I love that you asked! You know, this trope is honestly so ubiquitous in popular fandoms that it almost feels like a requirement for a fandom to become popular — you need a beloved ensemble cast that people want to play around with and feel feelings about. Undoubtedly the juggernaut found family here is probably the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]: just a giant cast of superheroes who banter and bicker and save one another’s lives, often while living and working together in giant secret domains. And you have this huge fandom who loves all these characters, so obviously there are an endless amount of fanworks devoted to showcasing them interacting and becoming an interdependent community. Same with fandoms like Star Wars — the Force Awakens spawned innumerable fics that explored the friendship dynamic between Rey and Finn and Poe.
Actually, what The Force Awakens has in common with other popular fandoms like Harry Potter, The Last Airbender, and Buffy is that you often have this solid unshakeable trio of friends, die-hard besties, who then often have to assimilate a newly reformed outsider into their midst, whether it’s Kylo, Draco, Zuko (idk why they all rhyme) or Spike (there we go!). There’s often a real tension between the values of the core trio and the destabilized worldview that this new outsider brings to the group, and so there’s often a cathartic effect established simply by watching this person become accepted into the group by degrees, and watching them realize that yes, they have a home here, they have a support system, they have a family. (This trope I’ve identified seems to focus on reforming a hot bad guy, which is clearly also part of the appeal. Or, like, any Katie McGrath character, in which case reforming a hot bad guy still applies.)
This is also a huge core part of just about every shounen anime ever (anime aimed at pre-teen boys), where you have a plucky main character whose entire arc is about learning to become part of a team. These can have hundreds of ensemble characters and are often wildly popular in fandom also. But you can also have this trope in a fandom for a really small cast as well. The found family of thieves concept is entirely what made Leverage such a cult hit and a big fandom mainstay.
I should also add that every K-pop fandom ever is about this. All those girl groups and boy groups are carefully engineered to appeal to fans as surrogate families, and you’ll often see fans in those fandoms with hashtags emphasizing that no member of the band gets left behind. The K-pop industry practically depends on the found family trope.
Oh and the Supernatural fandom would come for me if I don’t throw in SPN, whose actual unofficial motto is “family don’t end in blood.”
AHP: Connect the dots a bit for me here — how does the creation of these found families function as a sort of de facto stress testing of friendship, the sort that is actually really difficult to create in our everyday lives?
Aja: What really jumped out at me about your post was the idea that we graduate into independence in adulthood that really often means isolation, because I think that’s probably true for a lot of fans who turn to these fandoms for simulacra of healthy interconnected friendship networks. We all know what the dream of that kind of community is supposed to look like. Yet it’s so hard to achieve that when, like, here in New York you can barely get three friends to settle on a time for grabbing coffee together, much less coordinate ways to more fully intermingle in each other’s lives. Logistically, too, as you point out, we’re spread apart and communes are hard to build.
These fandoms, however, are often built around characters who by necessity have already been thrust into a networked collective. For example, Stargate: Atlantis is infamous in fandom for being a pretty mediocre TV show that spawned a hugely influential and respected transformative fandom. It’s probably not a coincidence that that show isolates its entire cast by trapping them in a giant glass-domed sky city in a galaxy far away for years, forcing them to deal with every cataclysmic element imaginable, pretty much living in a permanent state of emergency. Of course the fandom was interested in the bonds of those teammates; the whole concept is like a found family petri dish.
Similar concept: Many K-pop bands live together in dormitories for years at a time, under strict rules and contract limitations, which naturally causes them to bond over a highly specialized and isolated experience. This sounds like a nightmare, but there are also cameras frequently turned on these living arrangements and they become romanticized. I think fans see these dorm room setups as real-life versions of what a lot of us want found family to be: no parents around, just a constant party with 7 or 13 of your beautiful best friends. That’s quite a shallow fantasy, but fanworks also complicate this idea by allowing these relationships to fracture and be messy and complex while still ultimately staying forged together.
And that is the real fantasy, isn’t it? That you can subject yourself to the mortifying ordeal of being known, not just by one soulmate but by a whole group of kindred spirits, and you’ll still get to keep them all when the damage is done.
What’s really striking, to me, is that typically these characters do not have high emotional intelligence — they’re just as broken and scared and insecure as the rest of us, even though they have superpowers, or extraordinary levels of empathy, courage, or wisdom, by virtue of having been through their respective extraordinary plots. You might think, of course these characters can ask one another for help, or show a level of sensitivity and compassion, or be innately skilled at caretaking one another. When the stakes are high and you have to depend on one another for your literal survival, surely you can summon the maturity to depend on one another for emotional support.
But fanfiction tends to paint these characters as just as terrified of this as the rest of us. This obviously makes the character more relatable to us, but it also, I think, makes the universal fear of human connection seem a little more bearable. If they can manage to fumble their way into forging these relationships, then maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. And by writing/imagining them going through that process, maybe we better position ourselves to find our own families.
You can find more of Aja’s thinking at Vox, where they focus on the ethics of culture, as well as criticism and commentary on internet culture, pop culture, and media. They're a 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute and a frequent guest on podcasts, panels, and news media, probably explaining whatever you’re arguing about on social media this week.
And now, onto this week’s DEEP AND WIDE AND NEVER-ENDING EXPANSE OF LINKS & RECS: