By Christina Tesoro
Into every generation, a fan is born. In my case, it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Should I spawn future generations, you can bet what I’ll pass down will be a longstanding, deep-seated love of the Buffster; until then, I’ll just have to settle for recruiting all the kids I babysit to the Scoobies.
But while I have experienced the sense of enthusiastic community that fandom generates – mostly via Tumblr, fanfiction.net, and AO3 – I haven’t personally experienced what it’s like to be a second-generation fan. What is it like to grow up in a family where you inherit not only the shape of your eyes and nose and that weird preference for the combination of chocolate and orange juice, but also an allegiance to a book, a movie, a TV show?
I asked four of my friends — all parents who passed down their fandoms to their children — about what that experience is like. We talked about The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, three fandoms I’ve belonged to at some point or another in my life.
Teaching morality and passing down storytelling traditions
I spoke to Louie Tracy Coates, the mother of my friend Angharad, and Jonah Sutton-Morse from the website Book Punks about how they incorporate Lord of The Rings fandom into their lives and the lives of their children. “I talked to my kids about The Lord of the Rings from the time they were infants,” says Coates, a mother of three now-grown daughters.
She recounted summers spent in Maine, reading the stories of Bradbury and Lewis, and eventually building up to Tolkien. For Coates, fandom seemed to be a way of teaching her children about the world and morality through stories:
“I find a purpose in science fiction and fantasy – good versus evil, and in spite of many trials, goodness and love will overcome evil and hate. And that sometimes, someone (or several people) must give up something that they desperately want in order for the many to survive and continue. The Pevensey children must die in order to stay in the new creation of Narnia; Frodo (and all the Ring-bearers) have to leave Middle Earth for the Grey Havens; Captain America lives in a world that he no longer understands, and with people who really don’t get him, in order to save humanity. All of these ‘fandom’ things come out of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of mythology and the hero’s or heroine’s journey to enlightenment.”
Sutton-Morse, by contrast, introduced his kids (known as “Tadpole” and “Sprout”) to Middle Earth as a means of making long car rides bearable:
“Tadpole didn’t want to get in, didn’t want to get buckled, and fought during the ride. So out of sheer desperation & remembering Tolkien’s impulsive ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’, I repeated those words.”
The effect was, to put it simply, pretty magical. He explained to me what elements helped make the story stick for his four-year-old daughter: The structure and repetition of the entrances of the dwarves in The Hobbit; swapping out the colors of each character’s cloak as they were introduced; the hilarity of “careful, careful with the plates!” as Thorin & Co. ransacked poor Bilbo’s hobbit hole; and, of course, the songs.
For another friend, Rory D., passing down Star Wars to her son made him a second-generation fan: “I’ve always been a fan, as has my family. My sister is seven years older than I am, so basically I wanted to do and watch anything she did.”
Her son was introduced to the series when he was a newborn, and has been hooked ever since.
“He was always amazed by Star Wars. Something about it grabbed him in a way that none of the other science fiction/comic series that we enjoy did. I think it’s because, unlike a lot of these movies, Star Wars – at least the first one – is watchable at a relatively young age.”
Kristan Melo has been a Potterhead almost as long as Harry Potter has been around, and spoke to me about her efforts to engage her five-year-old son, M., in the world of witchcraft and wizardry. Melo, a school psychologist and writing consultant at the Institute of Writing Studies, described to me the gradual path toward getting M. sorted:
“I tried reading him the books, but they had no pictures so he wasn’t having it. Then I watched the first three movies with him, and he was decently interested but said it was a bit too scary for him, so I didn’t push them further. Plus, watching the movies first ruins the mystery of the books!”
Now, they’ve started reading the illustrated books at bedtime, and though his interest in the series hasn’t yet reached Potterhead levels obsession, M. is definitely interested and asking questions. “He asks a lot of questions about how they look,” Melo says. “I’ve shown him the movies, and also fan art and merchandise, and I’ve introduced him to the new Hermione,” — who, it was revealed last month, will be played by Black actress Noma Dumenzweni in the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a casting decision supported by J.K. Rowling.
“I tell him a character in a book can be pictured lots of ways and there’s no wrong way or right way to picture the person. It’s what you want the person in your head to look like. With Hermione, I explained about actors and how different actors will play the same person.”
Melo took the opportunity to talk more about representation in media, and the layers of complexity Hermione portrayed by a Black actor will add to the wizarding world.
“For M., though, I related it to our tradition of the Elf on the Shelf this past Christmas,” Melo says. This year, the Elf on the Shelf was brown skinned, like M., who is mixed race, of white and indigenous Latino heritage. “So I was like ‘You know how you were happy that your elf looked like you? This makes little girls who look like the new Hermione happy.’”
Passing down diversity in fandom
Representation is an important part of Sutton-Morse introducing fandom to his children, too. The most interesting part of his version of Middle Earth is that for Tadpole, Bilbo – along with Merry in the later books – is a girl! I asked Sutton-Morse how he address the more problematic elements of a given fandom with impressionable young minds, particularly from a feminist standpoint.
With The Lord of the Rings, the two active female characters, Galadriel and Eowyn, are the only two with anything resembling a substantial part to play in a large ensemble cast otherwise made up of male characters. Not to mention, brown people are coded as evil and corruptible, whereas every stalwart and true hero is very, very white.
Because Sutton-Morse and his child are retelling rather than reading, it’s a little easier for them to take some liberties for diversity’s sake. Their Tom Bombadil, for example, is dark skinned with tight curly hair, “though I don’t know how much Tadpole picks up on that,” Sutton-Morse admits.
For Melo, the problematic elements she tries to address include representation of women as well as people of color. As a single mother, Melo says, “One of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is that….well Harry Potter is a boy, obviously (so already we have another boy hero). And he’s an orphan and a good part of the dynamic in the book is him essentially looking for a father figure, and that kinda resulted in him idolizing the men around him..” Eventually, she continues, Harry realizes that none of these influential men in his life are perfect (although Snape has an opposite trajectory over the span of the series, which has been rightfully critiqued all over the place).
“But what about the women? What about Hermione? What about Luna? McGonagall? Tonks? Molly? These are fierce badass women, whom Harry has momentary feelings of admiration for, but it’s not highlighted in the way it is with the men. I mean, all the people in power, in the highest up positions, even the villains, are men. Where there’s a Tonks, there’s a Kingsley who becomes Minister for Magic. Where there’s McGonagall, there’s Dumbledore. Where there’s Molly, there’s Lupin and then Sirius. Where there’s Luna, there’s Neville. Where there’s Hermione, there’s Ron. Don’t get me wrong, I love ALL these characters, but the men are placed in a higher up position, they’re more idolized, more revered. Even with Hermione, Harry certainly admires and appreciates her usefulness and loves her dearly, but when it comes to the heart of it, Ron is his best friend. So I sorta plan to make up for that all by highlighting these women on my own. Because these women are fierce, and my son needs to know that there are women who are just as fierce or fiercer than the men. That women are heroes just as much as men are.”
Coates, by contrast, took a different approach:
“I have to say, I don’t have a real problem with the lack of female characters,” in Lord of the Rings, she says. “I think I emphasized the qualities of the characters more than their gender to my kids. Being all girls, they still loved to hear (and in the case of Alison, read) the books. And as far as racial ‘themes’ go, I don’t think that Tolkien or Lewis really gave it much thought – and I do think that we need to stop applying 21st century thinking to older literature. We can read these works, appreciate them, and acknowledge that their authors were a product of their times.”
For D., addressing the problematic elements of fandom still lies ahead for her and children. “My children are very young, and young enough for even a basic conversation about feminism to go over their heads,” she says. “As a result, I believe that the best thing for us to do for the moment is to be good role models ourselves and address questions and concerns as they arise organically.”
Luckily, Star Wars is a franchise that at least seems to be changing as the call for more diversity begins to be heard. The Force Awakens, with its self-reliant, no-nonsense female Jedi Rey, and Finn, a Black former Storm Trooper who portrays vulnerability, rather than simply being coded as aggressive and dangerous, will, for example, undoubtedly give D. plenty to talk about — and celebrate — when she and her child eventually are ready to start having critical discussions about the movie.
Passing down fan-works and con activity
Participating in fandom can be both an extremely personal, and extremely community oriented activity, and I wondered what it is like to share that among family. Do Coates, Melo, D., and Sutton-Morse take part in conventions and cosplay with their children? Do they bond over fanfiction and other fan works?
Since Tadpole and Sprout are still so young, they haven’t been part of the wider fan community yet – although Sutton-Morse, has written about incorporating the world and stories of Middle Earth into their lives.
“Tadpole doesn’t want to make up stories, but sometime she outlines bits of the plot to other people, and I think I’ve heard her telling the stories in her room when she thinks I’m not listening,” Sutton-Morse says. “It’s kinda surreal sometimes to hear my 4-year old inform a shopkeeper that her (deceased) cat has gone to Valinor, or remind me of something I had Gandalf tell Pippin at some point, that ‘it’s always important to have hope, and to keep trying and hoping’ in a non-The Lord of the Rings but contextually appropriate way.”
D.’s Padawan, by contrast, is stretching his wee-author’s fanfiction wings, and is writing a story on a blog with his mother’s assistance. The family also watches the movies together, saving the scarier parts for after her youngest daughter has gone to bed. The kids also spend hours constructing Star Wars themed Lego environments to play with with their dad. When I asked if her experience of the fandom had changed since she shared them with her kids, she said it hasn’t, at least not directly yet.
However, “I do love to watch as he plays in his imaginary world and to see what speaks to him and compare it with what spoke to me at the same age,” she says. And the excitement of watching Star Wars:The Force Awakens was only amplified by her son’s enthusiasm, “largely because we were able to share the experience with him, we did the whole thing up – even getting matching shirts and going to the fancy dinner theater.” So it sounds like for D., at least, cosplay and conventions could be in the cards for the future.
Though Coates’s daughters are grown, she’s had a similar experience over the years regarding how her children’s experience of fandom has shifted her own understanding of it. “My children’s experience of The Lord of the Rings did change slightly the way I saw it,” she says, “since I realized that not everyone loves the things I love.” Of the three, her daughter Alison is the one who took most to The Lord of the Rings: “She got into fandom completely, and was even known as Arwen at Mt. Holyoke,” Coates says.
And, along with other The Lord of the Rings fans at college, drove up to Montreal to hear Howard Shore perform the music from the movies, as well as making a trip to Hartford for a 10+ hour movie marathon of all three extended edition movies.
However, “Angharad, viewed The Lord of the Rings in a similar manner to the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings – very satirical and sarcastic,” Coates says. And The Lord of the Rings isn’t the only fandom the family is a part of:
“My youngest, Elaine, is a fan of other things, notably Harry Potter – which she got me into. We dressed up as Harry Potter characters on several occasions. I usually dress as either Professor McGonagall or Bellatrix Lestrange.” Coates even dressed up as Bellatrix for Alison’s wedding website when her daughter married in 2012, although she admits, “it did cause some talk.”