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META: Totemism in fandom

While replying rather incoherently to [personal profile] vieralynn about fandom reactions to fic that deconstructs characters, I casually mentioned something that has been central to my understanding of fandom for years, including my own: totemism.

I first brought this up with my therapist while trying to articulate why I'd latch onto particular characters with whom I self-identified, or who inspired me. Our modern culture is fragmented and has no unifying mythology, religion, belief or symbol system, so we're left flailing for symbols that give us psychological satisfaction, a prop for meaning, and a sense of significance, identity, and, yes, love.

People love totems. They love their gods. They love their symbols. These things are familiar and provide a sense of belonging, identity, coherence, stability.

So nowadays we have Uhura and Yoda and Nightfall/Redlance and Lady Gaga and [insert favorite character or ship here]. And as Vieralynn put it, fans get upset and lash out when you "chop down their sacred tree."

So a lot of fanfic is celebrating, communing with that sacred tree, whether it's a ship or a particular character. The fic is trying to get at the essence of the totem. Story is secondary; it's the resonance with and reaffirmation of the beloved totem that's paramount, like the Pharaoh having to run through the same heb sed ceremony every year to re-establish and maintain his reign, Egypt, and the universe. (As a child, I was drawn to ancient Egypt, and instinctively understood that culture's emphasis on cycles, repetition, and writing/drawing the same thing over and over to keep reality renewed, as if it might crumble and fall apart if you didn't keep defining it.)

Whereas there is an entirely different approach to fanfic which is deconstruction, gap-filling, grappling with the world and politics and unanswered questions, character flaws and problematic subtexts and things that canon didn't cover or explicate or justify adequately.

Totemic fandom is all about repeating what's loved, what's obvious, what's accepted by fandom consensus. Meta fandom is about exploring what's inchoate, unresolved, uncomfortable, or ambiguous.

I'm oversimplifying here and setting up a false dichotomy. But I wanted to throw the idea of fandom as totemism out there. There's probably a better word than totemism -- I am afraid I'm invoking the specter of bad anthropology by using the term -- but I can't think of a better word to express it.


ETA: I think fanart lends itself particularly well to totemic fandom; people love seeing the characters they love portrayed in a way that romanticizes/epitomizes them, whereas fanart that challenges accepted depictions is rare and usually does not get many favorable responses. Also, my first impression of Tumblr is that there's a high degree of totemic fandom, largely because of the focus on images (icons).


This entry was originally posted at http://auronlu.dreamwidth.org/222979.html, where it has comment count unavailablecomments.
 

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
mintywolf
Feb. 23rd, 2013 10:52 pm (UTC)
I think totemic is a good way to put it, actually. We like to sanctify the symbols of the things that are important to us, and in a situation where fandom takes the place of a unifying mythology the objects of reverence and worship are the characters we love and relate to and (perhaps especially) our ships.

(I once got in a tumblr argument with a hardcore Tuna shipper who demanded an explanation for a comment I had made about how I prefer the "sad" ending to FFX-2 because I feel the miraculous return of Tidus and the "best" ending weakens Yuna's character and undermines some of the themes of FFX, so I wrote a lengthy reply backing up my reasoning - which is, mind you, my own opinion - and she kind of had a hissy fit and was just like "NO, YOU'RE WRONG." So I guess that was my axe in her sacred tree.)

Personally though I like fanfic that is challenging and falls outside the familiar boundaries, in the deconstruction category you described. All of the "gap-filling, grappling with the world and politics and unanswered questions, character flaws and problematic subtexts and things that canon didn't cover or explicate or justify adequately." I love all of that. But I have stories like that (for FFX) still rattling around in my head that I have planned out and then thought, I can't write this; people will get mad at me.

When I was still active in the Phantom of the Opera fandom (which was my major fandom for years) there was one very good writer who was dissatisfied with the turn the overall tone the majority of fanfic had taken from gothic horror to romantic mush, so she set up the Morbidity Contests where people could only submit darkfics and things true to the spirit of the spirit of the original novel and everyone would vote on the best ones and it was a lot of fun. Some of my stuff did quite well and I still consider some of those stories to be examples of my best writing. But some of those same stories - stories that had won awards! - were featured and lambasted on fanfic "wank" comms by people who just didn't get it, and didn't like seeing the boat rocked.
auronlu
Feb. 24th, 2013 02:43 am (UTC)
Wow. I'm not sure I'd have the stamina to deal with that kind of lambasting -- more power to ya. (Although come to think of it, I got blasted a number of years ago by someone who seemed to think I must be a horny male who'd never gotten laid because I wrote a beboobed character having sex. Said article illustrated with lots and lots of hentai boobs suited to male tastes.)

I think the people around here wouldn't get mad at you. The community is too quiet by far, but all the folks I've read/written for here are willing to go beyond "quick scene for touching base with our favorite characters" and dive into the meat and underpinnings of the world, characters and npcs.

Especially the NPCs. Can I say again how much I love what you're doing with Ginnem?

And yeah, hardcore shippers are scary. The Aurikku crowd has torn me to ribbons.

I can get people saying, "Your ship, I just don't see it." But the aggression was a little terrifying.

I felt extremely let down by FFX-2's ending for the very reasons you said. In fact, Love Her and Despair was written in large part to recapture that element of bittersweet tragedy which is the lifeblood of FFX. The characters lost at the end of the game — that had meaning, and it actually made me yelp at the screen when X-2 Yuna took back all of it, took back the rightness of how she'd gotten rid of the Aeons at the end of FFX (hadn't they asked to be freed?!). X-2 turned epic and mythic and tragic into a reality show with factions and politics and girl stuff and ... yeah, once it starts touching on the real world, it's not fair that Yuna Lost Her Boy. But day-um, the ending of the original game made me cry! How dare you retcon that?

I've since become reconciled to X-2,even the happy endings, but it took a long, long time.
mintywolf
Feb. 24th, 2013 06:46 pm (UTC)
I really do not get the Aurikku ship or the fanaticism over it, but it's their ship and I respect their right to have it. I have my own ship that I am sailing, out of everybody's way. (That said, I am the worst when it comes to ship teasing in whatever I'm writing. If I know there's a ship out there that people like, I will sneak in hints about it, so if you come wearing your shipping goggles you can find evidence for pretty much anything you want.)

And yeah I think X-2 could have (and should have) been a lot darker than it was. I made a few posts about this on tumblr awhile ago. There are a lot of in-universe problems and questions raised at the end of X that could have set up a much deeper sequel. I appreciate what you're doing with Love Her and Despair; it feels a lot truer to the spirit and themes of the original game than X-2 does.
auronlu
Feb. 24th, 2013 10:41 pm (UTC)
Hm, reblogging isn't working on the second comment.

RE: X2: I really like your take on it. All this. The church of Yevon fell to pieces, and they did a little with the factioning, but it wasn't messy enough; it should've been handled by whomever did the shifting politics and constant clusterfuck of Byzantine mechanations that was XII.

Also, on top of the fact that the central authority collapsed, creating a power vacuum -- which X-2 attempted to deal with, but only managed to do messily -- there is, as you say, the very real problem that it appears people were no longer sending. What happened to the fiends? The pyreflies? All that side of Spira's metaphysical makeup? Some of it was still functional, or should've been, so why didn't Summoners become Senders and Pyrefly Weavers?

I felt very indignant that Lulu was shoved off as preggers (without even the decency of a new character model -- what, pregnant woman can't be shown in video games? FUCK THAT, scuze my French) -- without much explanation as to why she changed her mind. I hate the trope of the flighty woman who says no when she means yes and doesn't know her own mind, and she was too strong a character to have that done to her -- merely, it seemed to me, to get her out of the way so Yuna could go on an adventure without her Gandalf chaperone. (An exaggeration of Lulu's abilities, but same idea). On more recent playthroughs I've begun to see that yeah, okay, maybe she was suppressing feelings for Wakka after all, but I'm very suspicious of Tidus being more right than she is about her own heart. ("What, Wakka, with me? You've got a lot to learn about women!")

Finally, it infuriated me that the Crimson Squad plot was largely shown through optional cutscenes and spheres. It was more compelling, to me, than the Gullwings plot. Here were real, new characters with some interesting characteristics -- we see flashbacks of Baralai the Yevonite priest swearing allegiance to SEYMOUR (!), Gippal was one of the Al Bhed in the desert when the Guado attacked home, and Nooj was a disillusioned Crusader. So much more could've been done with all three to represent what Spira was going through. And Paine was their linchpin -- with Lucil being Nooj's prop and taking over when he vanished. I wish that plot had been more in the fore.

The style of X-2 is all wrong. All of those pieces could've had potential -- heck, even the Guado-Ronso war with Kimahri caught in the middle -- but they just weren't given enough respect, so instead we had Hypello air drops and gambling on the Calm Lands and matchmaking quests. SO frustrating.
mintywolf
Feb. 25th, 2013 06:03 pm (UTC)
Urgh tumblr yeah for some reason you can't reblog replies either. I can make a rebloggable version for you though for tumblr discussion.

And yes I really unhappy with Lulu's treatment in X-2 too. I wrote a long and angry diatribe about it once that I don't really need to repeat here but my frustration with that was one of the driving influences behind Guardian. They could have at least given her a more interesting subplot of her own, doing research on all the covered-up secrets of Yevon in Bevelle, or sifting through the pieces of her past in the Calm Lands, or seriously just about anything else than hanging around Besaid being pregnant and depressed about it. I also rather resent the implication that apparently 24 is too old to be gallivanting about on adventures and it's time for her to settle down and start raising a family, regardless of whether she wanted one or not.

I wish more focus had been given to the Crimson Squad, too! There was an entire plot there that just gets buried unless you are extremely diligent. They could have left out a lot of the silliness with Leblanc and the rival sphere hunters and focused more on that.

::sigh::
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