Oh, fandom. You elusive beast.
Academics study you. Mainstream journalists still — still! — struggle to figure you out. Corporations and marketing teams constantly misunderstand or underestimate you.
For those of us who’ve counted ourselves citizens of your domain for a while now, the fuss seems rather silly. What are fans, after all, other than people? That shouldn’t be too difficult a concept, right?
At its best, fandom is a diverse, often far-flung group of human beings who collectively embrace the idea that it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, who you love, who you vote for or worship, what pronouns you use, how much money you make — if you love this thing we love, you’re welcome here.
For me, there have been many fandoms but only one Fandom, only one “thing” that has so blatantly and irrevocably changed the course of my life. You can try spelling it out in numbers — seven books, eight movies, a website, a theme park, etc. — or describing it in terms of impact — a music movement, an activist group, fan musicals, PUPPETS! — but in the end it comes down to two words:
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re one of the many wonderful friends I’ve met all because of J.K. Rowling and the world she brought to life through her books. Obviously, no group of people is perfect. There have been scandals and heartbreaks in our community. Sometimes there are trolls in the dungeons (or the comments section). But there has been so much more on the opposite end of that scale: deep and lasting bonds of friendship, endlessly astonishing creativity, generosity and bravery, laughter and love.
In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata reminds us that if you live long enough you “see the same eyes in different people.” Well, I think if you stick around long enough in any fandom, you’ll spot the same faces worn by different people. So I’m here to share with you the ones I’ve seen. Since I’ll never be able to adequately capture what these past two decades have been like, or to recognize individually each remarkable person I’ve met, please consider this list a general celebration and thanks for the magic you’ve brought to my life.
FIRST FACE OF FANDOM: The Face of Rapt Wonderment
This is the face that started it all. It’s one you’ll never see in any mirror, because when you’re wearing it you’re too lost in that other place, the world within the book, to even know what’s happening anywhere else.
This is the face of someone who has discovered magic in the most impossible yet literal sense of the word.
This face looks something like love and something like longing, and like that feeling that bubbles up inside you when you’re just about to laugh.
It’s that rush of absolute perfect contentedness you feel upon returning home after having been away too long.
You know this face because you’ve worn it. You’ve felt those feelings. You’ve been there. Which is what makes fandom so special. The realization that everyone else here has been there too, exactly like you.
SECOND FACE OF FANDOM: The Face You Know Through A Screen
Much has already been made of the relationship between burgeoning technology and social media sites and the rise of the Harry Potter fandom. What that meant for us, the fans, was a new kind of personal interaction. Suddenly you could be friends with someone you’d technically never even met.
Some of our earliest portals into fandom were through our computer screens. We congregated in message boards, swapped theories on fan sites, and sought out places to share our fan art and fan fiction. Podcasts and YouTube channels caught fire faster than a dying phoenix, and we invited these new personalities into our headphones and our homepages.
In time there were blogs, Skype, Ning communities. And of course sites like MySpace became the perfect place for the average person to make music content readily available to the public, which was where most of us discovered wizard rock for the first time.
Sometimes it felt like people you’d never even been in the same room with knew you better in some ways than the ones who saw you face to face every day. And when you did finally get the chance to meet them in person, it wasn’t anything like what your family warned you about — no awkwardness, or creepy catfish scenarios — just a friend, just like before, only this time with no screen between you to keep you from giving them a huge, Weasley-style hug.
THIRD FACE OF FANDOM: The Face of Encouragement and Acceptance
The first wizard rock show I went to outside of a major fan convention was at a small library in Holly Springs, North Carolina in 2009. The friend who was supposed to come with me cancelled at the last minute, so I made the two hour drive up there myself. It could have been painfully awkward. I could have gotten there, spoken to no one, listened to some music, and left. But that’s not what happened.
I followed the signs and found my way to the library’s meeting room space, attaching myself surreptitiously to the back of the small crowd that was waiting for the show to start. Almost immediately a girl about my age dragged her two friends over to where I was standing and introduced herself. Her name was Deborah, she was one of the first “wizard” friends I met in my home state, and I am eternally grateful to her for what she did that day.
What exactly did she do? She danced. When the music started up, she and her friends went crazy. They waved their arms and wiggled their hips and had a grand old time. I’d been doing the standard shimmy-sway, hoping not to make a fool out of myself, but when she gestured at me to join their hopping flailing circle, I said, “Why not?” and jumped right in.
One of the things I’ve loved most about my experience in this fandom is all the times I’ve met people who wore this face. The face that said, “It’s okay. You’re welcome here.” Or, “You’re cool. I like you just the way you are.” Or, “Come on, don’t be afraid! Go for it!” The cheerleaders and champions.
I firmly believe that’s why this fandom is bursting to the seams with creativity. When you wear the face of acceptance and encouragement, you foster an environment where people aren’t afraid to try things, or to share their gifts and talents. It’s exciting and electrifying to behold.
Which brings us to…
FOURTH FACE OF FANDOM: The Face of Joy Without Shame or Fear
When fandom works the way it should, you can wear this face openly. Geek out! No judgment here.
When fandom is a safe place, you feel the freedom to be your true self. Rock those radish earrings. Believe in Nargles. Read The Quibbler upside down.
If you want to dance, dance.
No, seriously. Let loose!
It doesn’t matter what the Malfoys of the world have to say. We’re your wizard family. We’ve got your back.
One of my favorite memories of this particular face of fandom happened during LeakyCon 2009. Toward the end of Harry and the Potters’ wizard rock set, they invited us all to form a giant circle around the dance floor as they sang their song “Dumbledore.” We twined our arms together, and rocked and swayed to the music.
Though the lights were dim, I looked around and won’t ever forget that sight: the glowing faces of these beautiful people, some of them known to me, many of them not, but all of them friends in this moment. We sang along with the words, and as the song reached its crescendo we broke free of our embrace and ran screaming, full-tilt into the circle’s center, jumping and dancing, arms and wands to the sky.
Our joy was so fierce and our hearts were so full in that moment, do you know what there was no room for? Shame. Fear. Cynicism. Doubt. No boggarts or dementors could even come close.
And isn’t that how it should be?
FIFTH FACE OF FANDOM: The Face of Fond Farewell and Joyous Reunion
(I know, I know. Technically that’s two faces. But they kind of go together. Think of it as… two for the price of one?)
Because fandom friends are often spread out around the country and the globe, face-to-face meetings can be few and far between. Local meet-up groups and touring bands or attractions help fill some of these gaps, but you can go weeks, months, or even years sometimes without seeing some of your wizard people — which makes goodbyes all the harder, and reunions that much sweeter.
Arrive early at any Potter-related event, and you’ll see it. Gleeful shouts across hotel lobbies or airport terminals. “You’re HERE!!!!” People flinging aside luggage to dash headlong into a hug. Or sitting on someone’s living room couch before a wrock house show, when the room erupts into hearty cheers as a familiar face walks through the front door.
But for every hello, there must be a goodbye. That “face on the back the head,” if you will—not nearly as pretty, and you wish it didn’t have to be there, so you hide it away under a turban and try to pretend it doesn’t exist…but it totally does. And it always surfaces way sooner than you thought it would. The end of evening, the last day of the convention, the final farewell before heading back out into the Muggle world — it hits hard.
The main consolation at such times is the realization that it’s not truly the end. It’s just an excuse to look forward to the next new beginning.
SIXTH FACE OF FANDOM: The Face of Empathy in Action
The thing about fans is that we care deeply.
We care when the film actor’s eye color doesn’t match the protagonist’s in the books.
We care about the detailing on the sleeve of that robe that one character wore in a thirty second scene, and will obsessively rewind and pause until we get it just right because it has to be absolutely perfect for our cosplay.
And often we find ourselves caring about more universal things, too. The themes in these stories ring true to us. Defeating the forces of evil. Righting wrongs. Making the world a better place. We root for these fictional people. We care about them. It’s “just a story,” yes, but it’s not really. It’s real for us. We fist pump at their victories and mourn their losses like we would with flesh-and-blood friends.
And at the end of it all it’s hard not to see parallels between our own lives and the universe of the story. Maybe there’s no literal Dark Lord to fight, no real-life Horcruxes to destroy, but evil is alive and well in our world, and often all the harder to defeat for being so insidious.
When you care like this and you see what’s going on all around, you don’t want to just sit idly by and let it happen. You want to raise your voice, to make a stand. But how? Where can you even start?
It’s impossible to talk about this face within Harry Potter fandom without mentioning the Harry Potter Alliance. I first heard of this group in an episode of Pottercast in late 2005. For any of you Muggles out there, the HPA is a group that was born out of a shared love of fandom and desire for social change, and whose goal is to “turn fans into heroes.” It offers a place for people to come together who want to make a positive impact on their world but may not know where to start. Later in 2009, I was able to work on staff with them over the course of a year and was bowled over by what I witnessed.
One person, all alone, may not seem like much.
(Though you’d be surprised…)
But hordes of fans with a shared love, powerful imagination, and thirst for change? Woe to those who underestimate them or try to stand in their way.
Wearing the face of empathy in action sometimes means putting aside what is expected of you by family or society.
It might not always win you a lot of friends.
But when you wear this face, it’s because you understand that some things are far more important. Like doing what’s right instead of what’s easy.
SEVENTH FACE OF FANDOM: The Face of Shared Experience
The other day a little girl came to the desk at the library where I work and asked me to help her find the Harry Potter books.
“My dad says I’m old enough to start reading them now!” she beamed.
I showed her to the shelf and made sure she knew which book to start with first. And just before she walked away, she looked up at me and said, “They’re good, right? I mean, do you think I’ll like them?”
I paused. It was only for a second. I doubt she even noticed. But I felt an eternity of feelings in that instant.
“Yeah,” I finally told her, smiling. “They’re really good.”
New people are discovering these stories all the time. This little girl and others like her are reading the books, watching the movies, falling in love with these characters and this world for the first time. Our fandom is shifting, changing, growing. It’s been happening for a while.
Some fans won’t ever be able to separate their internal images of characters from the actors who played those roles. They will only ever remember a time when J.K. Rowling answered questions regularly through her Twitter account. All seven books and all eight movies will have been readily available for their entire tenure as a fan, with no midnight release parties or long, excruciating waits in between.
And you know what? That’s okay. That’s really cool. We’re glad they’re here. This Room of Requirement is more than big enough. It will stretch to fit all who would come inside.
But for those of us who were around at the beginning, there will always be a special understanding. Like soldiers who survive the same battle, you look at each other and realize — “Yes. You were there. You know what it was like.”
Back in 2007 I attended the Prophecy fan convention up in Toronto. In those days I kept journals of everything, recording every blink or sneeze, so it was fun to go back to those notebooks and read some of what I wrote that weekend. Toward the end of the convention, I was waiting on a friend to get out of a panel, sitting in the Common Room where we’d agreed to meet, watching everything going on around me and scrawling it all down.
“It feels weird,” I wrote, “to realize you’re a part of history. Being here, you can’t help but know this is special. This thing that’s happening. It’s never going to happen again. And here I am, lucky enough to be a part of it.”
The early days of Harry Potter fandom may not be “history” like Washington-crossing-the-Delaware history, or fall-of-the-Roman-Empire history. But it was a singular moment in time, never to be repeated, and those of us who got to be a part of it count those memories more precious than the most costly treasures stored away in any Gringotts high security vault.
We’re never going to be able to get back there. No Time Turner can transport us. No Pensieve will fully recapture the way things were. But that’s okay. Because the face of shared experience isn’t all about the past tense. It’s such a hopeful thing. Looking back with fondness, and forward with excitement about all that remains ahead.
There’s so much yet to enjoy, create, discover, and experience together. There’s a new play and a spin-off movie on the horizon. A new theme park. Other global wizarding schools to obsess about! And who knows what talents and ideas these new fans will bring to the table? It’s thrilling to think about what the future holds.
With time comes change. We grow up. Sometimes we grow apart. We find new fandoms. Maybe we start families, and experience the joy of introducing the stories we love to our children. We become different people.
But some things will never change. Look around fandom, and you’ll keep seeing these faces. And that makes me glad.
So no matter what the future holds, thanks for everything, my fellow wizards. I’m grateful for you, and this thing we’ve been a part of, and will think of our times together with great fondness…