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).
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