Self-Defining Stories: What Our Shifting Pop Culture Preferences Tell Us About Ourselves
Sometimes a movie or TV show comes along at just the right time. Whether it’s the latest comic-book movie like Venom, a heady comedy like The Good Place, or an Oscar-contender like A Star is Born, a piece of pop culture can resonate with us at any time. The stories they tell can provide us with little insights into life that help us grapple with the challenges we’re facing. And as we consider them further, sometimes these special films and shows become more than meaningful to us — they come to represent something about who we are.
However, anyone who’s loved a piece of pop culture knows that our perspectives on the movies and TV shows we adore tend to shift as we grow and change. Our understanding of the filmed stories we find profound and important evolves as we gain greater life experience, sometimes even losing their relevance to us over the years.
Becoming A Fan — and Changing Our Minds
In an article called “A Life Course Perspective on Fandom,” media fan scholars C. Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby observe that personal stories about becoming a fan often represent an important development in a person’s life, giving them new meaning. Plus, being a fan can be an anchor for long-term fans, providing stability that other parts of their lives don’t offer.
…media fan scholars C. Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby observe that personal stories about becoming a fan often represent an important development in a person’s life…
But fans aren’t born, they’re made. An individual has to decide to be a fan. Taking on a fan identity can be a transformative experience in a person’s life — and so can letting that identity go. Becoming-a-fan stories are uniformly positive, and when a fan first encounters a movie or TV show that speaks to them they are immediately aware that something in them has changed. In contrast, stories about abandoning a fan identity can be good, bad, or indifferent. If we don’t re-watch a favorite movie or show for a long time, we may not be aware that the context no longer resonates with us the way it once did.
Today, my research with popular media fans and audiences has shown me that no matter what they’re a fan of, people often change their minds about a piece of art or entertainment. For example, in one of my studies, several adolescent and young adult fans of The Twilight Saga reported that they were no longer fans of the books and movies of that series because they were “getting old” and the story no longer meant as much to them as it once did.
Similarly, multiple long-time fans of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer told me that, while they remained fans of the series, as they aged they identified with different characters. In particular, many fans initially identified with the character Willow. Willow started the series as a high school nerd, a persona many fans said they related to because they were also nerds in high school. Over time, though, these fans started to identify more with the lead character, Buffy. As adults they could relate to the weight of Buffy’s responsibilities as a vampire slayer. While these fans didn’t have to save the world like Buffy, they could metaphorically identify with the weight of her obligations.
Whenever I bring this research up at conferences or social gatherings, it often prompts people to share their own stories about how their perspective on a particular movie or TV show evolved as they got older. These shifting perceptions on the entertainment we’ve loved provide one way for us to track our personal histories.
The story hasn’t changed, we have. And our new responses to the film or series show us how much we’ve evolved in a way few things can.
We may sit down to watch an old favorite expecting our experience to be the same as we remember, only to discover it’s completely different. The story hasn’t changed, we have. And our new responses to the film or series show us how much we’ve evolved in a way few things can.
We may feel our identities are stable and consistent, so discovering we no longer value a favorite movie or show as we once did can demonstrate just how fluid our identities are. It can be surprising, even jarring, to discover that in the normal course of living something about us has changed. A new perspective on a formerly beloved story throws that change into sharp relief.
The Value of Short-Term Fandom
Our lives are a series of interactions with stories. Few will be self-defining and even fewer will be self-defining for the rest of our lives.
This is why our short-term fandoms are valuable. They can help us mark different periods in our lives. For example, the people in my research who found themselves letting go of their Twilight fandom may find in hindsight that the series represents who they were during their teen years, while their shift in perspective on the franchise in their twenties represents a point of transition and growth. This shift could become a key part of their life narratives, an important evolution in their identities as they find the Twilight fandom no longer defines them as adults.
Change can be hard, of course, and the realization that our perspective on a formerly beloved story has altered can be shocking, even sad. In particular, the revelation that we no longer find a specific text self-defining, that it no longer contributes to our lives in the way it once had, can be unsettling. It makes us re-consider what we know about ourselves and spotlights how we’ve grown while we weren’t paying attention.
Our lives are a series of interactions with stories. Few will be self-defining and even fewer will be self-defining for the rest of our lives. But the stories that were important to us at various points in our lives represent specific stops along our way. These stories helped us become who we are now. They contribute to how we understand our journey through life and help us explain that journey to others. Hopefully, we can use these stories to look back with fondness on who we were, while also being happy with the person we’ve become.