By: Tanya Cook

Last January 21st, approximately 5 million people around the world gathered in solidarity to march together for a variety of causes from reproductive rights to protesting police violence. The Women’s March brought together people of diverse backgrounds into a visible display of support for progressive values and protest against the inauguration of President Donald Trump. What would become the largest organized protest in U.S. history, unified both specific and broad causes and grievances under a large umbrella of moral outrage and resistance. And that resistance was noticeably geeky.

I marched in Denver along with over 150,000 others. One of the first things I noticed were the preponderance of clever, geek-themed protest signs. Carrie Fisher had passed approximately a month before and I, like most geek women of my generation, felt her loss acutely. Ever the outspoken advocate for mental health and women’s rights, it seemed fitting to see Fisher in Leia’s image surrounding us.

Sign from the Denver Women’s March; photo by Adrian Puryear, used with permission

From Stranger Things to Star Trek to Harry Potter to Hamilton, the musical, geek references were everywhere.

Author’s personal photo from the Denver March

As a geek myself, of course I was thrilled to “understand those references,” to borrow a phrase from Captain America. But I had a more important reason to be excited about this movement’s use of pop culture iconography; it seemed to represent a reflection of something I’ve been studying for the past two years: fandom-based social activism.

While fandom is commonly defined as the state of being a fan, when it comes to science fiction and fantasy television programs, movies, and books, “fandom” implies interaction in a community. To paraphrase a friend of mine, fandom isn’t something that exists, fandom is [inter] action. In 2017, that interaction happens most often online via social media platforms. By this definition, then, one can be a fan of something, say Star Wars and simply enjoy the movies but never really engage in the “fandom.” Star Wars fandom immersion, on the other hand, might look like joining the 501st Legion or Rebel Legion, cosplaying at conventions, and increasingly, participating in charity work.

Fandom-based strategic, goal-oriented action is nothing new. At least as far back as the original Star Trek series, fans coordinated a letter-writing campaign to save the show from cancellation. What is new, I argue, is the charity work and political activism emerging from fandom-based groups that is not specifically about saving a beloved show. Instead, charity groups such as RandomActs.org (founded by Misha Collins of the television program, Supernatural) and The Harry Potter Alliance represent a parallel to new social movements theory in sociology. New social movements theory seeks to explain how and why people organize to help others even though they may not benefit from this action directly.

Through these fandom-based charity organizations and other less formal fan-based groups, fans are acting to benefit others in their communities and around the world. The Harry Potter Alliance has donated over 250,000 books to schools and libraries around the world through their Accio Books campaign. Along with the Family Business Beer Company (co-owned by Supernatural star Jensen Ackles) and the CW network, RandomActs.org has raised close to $500,000 for hurricane relief through the Stronger Than Storms Campaign.

Along with my research partner, Kaela Joseph, I am interviewing fans active in fandom-based charity work as well as conducting field research at fan conventions in order to better understand how and why fans are increasingly politicized and charitably-focused. Through our project, we explore the myriad ways fandoms can be understood as social movements and how pop culture fandoms can challenge and inform sociological research about community and mobilization.

The resistance is geeky and the geeks are resisting. After all: “that’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” — Rose, The Last Jedi.

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