Ritualized Anxiety: Making Photo Ops Sacred

by: Tanya Cook and Kaela Joseph

Tanya’s Story

The woman in line next to me was virtually vibrating with excitement. After a three-day build up, in mere moments we would be face to face with Jensen Ackles, one of the lead stars of the CW drama “Supernatural.” The anticipation in line was palpable, and I was far from immune to it. I tend to overthink celebrity interactions and let my nerves get the best of me. When I end up finally facing the star all I can usually think is, “don’t burp, don’t fart, don’t giggle,” like a mantra, inducing what I’ve come to call “Fan Tourette’s” in which I inevitably do something awkward that I’ll never forget, but I’m certain is utterly unremarkable for the celebrity. Upon reflection, I wondered if the format of the photo ops and autographs at cons was part of what fueled my anxiety. I’m generally adequate if not adept at conversation. I’m a teacher in my daily life so I’m familiar with public speaking and getting to know people. Something goes haywire in a photo op or autograph context, though, and I end up feeling awkward and embarrassed. It could be me, and that’s okay. I’m in my 40s and have accepted that I can be generally awkward. I got to thinking, however, does the ritualization of this process itself produce the awkwardness?

What follows in this essay is an auto-ethnographic analysis of the photo op/autograph process. We argue that, in addition to being structured to maximize efficiency and minimize trouble, the way photo ops and autographs are conducted at comic and science fiction/fantasy fan cons contributes to a heightened state of emotion and reifies the distinction between what sociological theorist Emile Durkheim called the sacred and the profane (Durkheim, 1995). Ultimately this distinction fuels the production of collective effervescence (i.e. like-mindedness), which in turn leads to collective consciousness. This group like-mindedness, or collective consciousness, contributes to the development of values and norms that end up being foundational for a society’s morality (Durkheim, 1984). Fandom in this sense, is no different. Given that the very structure of fan activities at conventions amplify collective effervescence, it’s no surprise that in recent years fans have channeled that group morality into fandom-situated charitable work. From GISHWHES to Jared Padalecki’s Always Keep Fighting t-shirt campaigns to NerdFighteria’s Project For Awesome to the Harry Potter Alliance’s Accio Books project, fans are generously donating time and money to enact the values they find most salient in the fandoms they belong to. Collective effervescence experienced at in-person events fuels that engagement. But it was my latest experience with autographs at Supernatural Con Las Vegas that made me question whether the very structure of the photo op/autograph didn’t itself ritualize and reify the experience as a “sacred” one?

Tanya’s Story Continued

My first celebrity photo op experience took place a few weeks before my 40th birthday at Supernatural Con Denver in November of 2015. I recall being shocked at the price tag for the famous “sandwich” photo with Jared and Jensen. “For that much, they’d better come and move furniture around my house or deliver an appliance,” I quipped. I justified the expense by making the con tickets and photos a birthday/Christmas gift for myself and my teenaged son. For the newbie, which I was, the photo op process can be intimidating. Con organizers, in this case Creation Entertainment, take pains to socialize fans in the norms of photo op procedure both on their website before the con and in the convention brochure handed out at registration. The rules include: no long personal stories, if you want a hug, you must ask for a hug during your photo, not before or after, no picking up the stars, and no attempting to kiss the stars.

At the appointed time, my son and I joined a long line of people and waited our turn. We entered a small room and placed our belongings, including our lanyards and convention passes on a table set up near the entrance for this purpose. Loud funk music blared out of twin speakers while the official con photographer danced around, taking photos, and aggressively chewing gum. Adjacent to the professional photography equipment, which included flood lighting, was another long table of snacks and drinks including all manner of adult beverages for the “guests” (read: celebrities). We turned a corner and fell silent as our nerves got the better of us. Soon that would be us hugging Misha Collins!

My son stepped up to the taped “X” on the floor which indicated the next in line for the photo. I stood slightly behind him, which ended up being a mistake. He went up first and I followed confusing Misha as to why this weird middle-aged woman was crashing this poor kid’s picture. I said something like “I’m joining you!” and proceeded to squeeze-hug him a little too hard. (see Exhibit A for Misha’s slightly scared looking face). We turned toward the camera and then it was over — in under 15 seconds. I managed to retrieve my purse and maintain my dignity until we exited the photo room at which point my knees finally gave into my nerves and I sort of half-slid down the hotel wall and “rested” for a minute. I swore to myself that at the next con I would be “cool.”

Tanya (cosplaying as Jody Mills)& Son with Misha Collins, Denver Con 2015

Fast forward to Vegas Con 2017. I was most definitely not cool. While I had thought about my first photo op experience and reflected on the awkwardness of the encounter; it was after an awkward autograph encounter with Jared Padalecki that I fully made the in-the-moment connection between the ritualized aspects of the photo op/autograph encounters and collective emotion. After all, one does not simply take a photo with a star or ask for their autograph (or walk into Mordor). The transactions are structured and ritualized to such a degree that they seem to offer a personalized encounter while simultaneously reinforcing the status difference between fan and celebrity (Zubernis and Larsen 2012, pg. 22) As Zubernis and Larsen (2012: 22) explain: “The physical space of the convention might bring the audience and performer together — performers can be spoken to and touched (during photo ops)…but the social space remains separate.” In addition to this excellent point, we argue the ritualization also separates and sanctifies the Con Interaction from the profane (or we might say mundane) everyday experiences of normal life. Through ritualization of photo ops and autographs, then, cons become akin to religious holidays for fans — special times that are set apart and celebrated and contain their own specific rules for observation.

It is important to note here that different celebrity interactions also come with different norms and expectations. While there are general rules set forth by con organizers like Creation Entertainment regarding photo ops, there are also unspoken norms that get passed down through observation and fan communication alike. There are factors like the physical presence of a body guard at Jared and Jensen’s photo ops that creates a greater feeling of them as something sacred, important people to be protected, than other celebrities who may have one or two volunteer handlers. Word goes around about who will play along if you give them props, and who will almost certainly say no. In fact, at Supernatural Con San Francisco 2015, actor Misha Collins recounted a time in which he had gotten so into his role as the “yes” man in photo ops with his co-star Mark Sheppard, who was better known for saying “no” to props and other requests, that he allowed a fan to lick his abdomen- something that would typically considered an overstep within the photo op setting. Even in his recounting of the event, Misha discusses photo ops in a way that recognizes the shared understanding of the ritual, hinting that we already know he is the “yes” man to Mark’s “no,” and letting us know that he knows the more than occasional graze of a hand near his butt is an intentional move. In a way, he gets that he is the sacred object, and he is communicating this to the fans in an almost real world, fourth wall break.

Kaela’s Story

This acknowledgement of the ritual by the celebrities who are viewed as sacred by fans is not uncommon. Take for example Torchwood and Arrow actor John Barrowman. At conventions where all other photo ops are handled with the same ritualistic precision as any other fan event, John’s handlers deliver a very different message. The short version of that message- anything goes below the neck so long as you are over 18 and so long as you ask first. When I learned this in line at Heroes and Villains Fan Fest San Jose 2016, the ritualized anxiety I would typically feel at a photo op was abruptly replaced with a fear I have not felt before or since- how was I going to ask this amazing queer/nerd icon from my television, who I don’t actually know and will likely never interact with outside this socially constructed space, to grab my breast, because I was definitely going to ask him to grab my breast. Watching others before me do the same slowly eased my anxiety. I got through the ask and I got a great photo op out of it. All of that, however, was ritual. John still embodied the sacred, but in a more jovial way- like worshiping Dionysus, the Greek god of wine instead of Zeus.

Kaela and John Barrowman at Heros and Villains Fest 2016, Note: all breast grabbing was consensual.

Then, there is the sacred that has no idea it is sacred- I give you Garry Fisher, the beloved French bulldog who once belonged to the late Star Wars actress and acclaimed author, Carrie Fisher. Garry made his first public appearance since Carrie’s passing at Silicon Valley Comic Con 2017. Of course, Gary is a dog, so he did not know the gravity of the situation. Waiting in line for this photo op, there was a shared sense that, while we were all excited to meet Garry, we were, at the end of the day, a group of people who had paid a good amount of money to pet a dog who was sacred by way of his iconic owner. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of that photo op from Gary’s inability to keep his overgrown tongue in his mouth to the glittery backpack he wore, and the way he leaned expectantly into a head pet in the same way my own bulldog does. That’s just it though- I have a bulldog at home, and I would never otherwise pay $50 to pet a bulldog. I did on that day because Garry was an extension of Carrie. Petting him was like saying goodbye to a sacred figure whose work had both helped me in rough times, and helped me find community via my first fandom experiences as a child reading and writing Star Wars fan fic about her character. This, combined with the typical quick moving line and handler situation that I have become accustomed to in photo ops, led to similar feelings of ritualized anxiety- what if I pet him wrong? What if he growls at me? What if I do something weird? What even is weird to do with a dog? All things I don’t typically think of when engaging with man’s best friend.

As social spaces, fan conventions are no less shaped by social norms and values than any other enclaves of the social world. Through interactions like photo ops and autographs, however, conventions also create meaning and generate behavioral norms. The social construction goes both ways: the roles of fans and celebrities, as well as their statuses, are both constructed and reaffirmed through these interactions. Additionally, the divide between the two is boundary policed by con management (and sometimes other fans). Stories of what are considered non-normative fan behaviors rely on shame to sanction boundary transgressors (Zubernis and Larsen, 2012). Shame, as an emotion, however, has to come from somewhere. Fears of overstepping one’s authority as a fan are only motivational if we, as individuals, accept that those norms are appropriate for maintaining said fan/celebrity boundaries and agree to abide by them. We are unlikely to agree those norms and their enforcement are important if we do not fundamentally view the con as a sacred space — set apart from mundane, profane daily life and therefore subject to special behavioral expectations. Finally, to bring it full circle back to collective effervescence, if we experience a heightened emotional state at cons and feel for all intents and purposes as though we’re having a spiritual experience, we will, in order to adopt the “good fan” identity, agree to abide by the rules of photo ops, even if the rules make the transaction awkward. In fact, the very awkwardness of this transaction sets it apart as special. It reinforces the collective emotional experience, inscribes the fan/celebrity identities, and socially constructs what the photo op/autograph means. The threat of shame and the reward of an emotional high are both products and ingredients of the fan/celebrity encounter.

We (Tanya and Kaela) are two fans and academics who study how fans help and support each other and their communities.