Episode 14: Death and the Fangirl
After the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, Elizabeth and Flourish take some time to reflect on the way fandom mourns their idols. Featuring Casey Fiesler (professor of Information Science at CU Boulder) on the parallels between online and physical memorials, Kathleen Smith (the Fangirl Therapist) on healthy ways to cope, and a meditation on the eventual death of Paul Giamatti.
[00:06:20] Emma Watson’s Tweet about Alan Rickman.
[00:13:56] The interstitial music is “Young Americans,” by David Bowie.
[00:14:58] Casey’s website, including links to her research: http://caseyfiesler.com/
Casey also shared some references about grief:
[00:19:39] Some of the Snape memorials.
[00:29:03] The interstitial music is “Blackstar,” by David Bowie.
[00:31:22] Kathleen’s site: http://fangirltherapy.com/
[00:48:41] The interstitial music is Alan Rickman singing in Truly Madly Deeply.
[00:58:41] The outro music is “Then Again,” by Jahzzar, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
Flourish Klink: Hey, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish!
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, episode… 14?
ELM: 14. Are we not saying “the podcast by, for, and about fandom” anymore?
FK: You just said it.
ELM: I’ve noticed that you started putting it on the, like, transcript and stuff.
FK: Yeah, I did. Just this time.
ELM: It was a nice—[laughs] Just a one time deal! Anyway, this is Episode 14, which I believe we’re calling “Death and the Fangirl.”
FK: That’s what we’re calling it.
ELM: Because we, uh… If you listened last week, you may have heard us promise to talk about sports, and we had this grand plan—
FK: Yeah, that didn’t happen.
ELM: And we were gonna find some man who liked football, I was insistent that it had to be—
FK: Where are they? They’re so hard to find. So hard to find.
ELM: We’re recording this a week before the episode comes out, so it was last week that, Monday morning, we all found out about David Bowie—and then just three days later we all found out about Alan Rickman, and it really felt like a week that was dominated by people, like, fandoms grieving and fans grieving. And we both had a lot of personal feelings, and we had a lot of broader curiosities, I would say so we kind of wanted to explore that. So I kind of feel like I’m monologuing right now, but I could just go for it.
FK: No, that’s OK! It was a really intense week, I think, for everybody, between the grief at people passing and then the sort of stress and drama of having everybody all at once memorializing them, which feels really great at some moments and then feels really overwhelming at others… I think that it was a week that was full of emotions.
ELM: A lot of feels.
FK: Except not good feels.
ELM: Well, not all feels are good.
FK: Not all feels are good, which is something that I think maybe should be known? Stated?
FK: No! I mean, people talk about the feels, and sometimes it’s like, the feels are not… it’s not just an ironic thing. People say “the feels” ironically, but actually sometimes fandom involves sad feelings.
ELM: I think a lot of the time!
ELM: I think the majority of ships are going to sink, in canon, that’s just how it is, and there’s a lot of longing, and there’s a lot of disappointment. And a lot of television that we like, and movies, and books, just disappoint us in the end. And people disappoint us, everyone disappoints us.
FK: And then if you get through all of that, everybody eventually dies, and then you’re sad. [ELM laughs] Because even if they were great, in every way, even if your fandom was perfect, everybody in it is someday going to die, as was illustrated by David Bowie dying and Alan Rickman dying—
FK: Neither of whom, I have to say, if you asked me like two weeks ago whether that was even remotely possible I would have been like “fuck no,” you know?
ELM: Well, that’s because you don’t think about these things. I remember Robin Williams dying was just so—just seemed so weird, you know? It’s not like, I don’t know, it just came out of nowhere and was hard to process. I still think it’s weird.
FK: But isn’t that a really normal feeling, whether it’s a celebrity or somebody that you know? When people close to me have died, even when it’s been very clear that it was coming for a long time, it’s still been shocking and horrible. I still haven’t been able to imagine it happening.
ELM: I don’t know, I didn’t—I was sad when, so two of my grandparents died at a very old age after illness. And that wasn’t shocking. Yeah, it was strange when it finally happened, but it wasn’t the same thing as people close to me who have died suddenly at young ages.
FK: Yeah those things are different, but I just mean—yeah.
ELM: It’s weird. It’s weird.
FK: It still feels like “How can that be? How did that happen?”
ELM: This is not—this is gonna get so deep and sad here. Wait, we didn’t even say who we were gonna talk to! Cause we’re gonna talk to two people.
FK: We are, and that’s really exciting, cause this is our first two-guest podcast.
ELM: Yeah! Two unrelated—well, they’re related because it’s one topic, but we wanted to talk to a couple people briefly. One is Casey Fiesler, who is a professor in the Information Studies department at the University of Colorado. We were talking to her on Twitter the morning that Alan Rickman died, talking about digital analogs for physical memorial spaces.
FK: Right, because most of us can’t actually make it to a place where people are physically gathering to remember Alan Rickman.
ELM: Did you go—I went down to David Bowie’s apartment. Did you go?
FK: I didn’t go.
ELM: It’s still there!
FK: I was in Los Angeles, so.
ELM: Well, you should go tomorrow, because it was there on Thursday when I went. I decided I needed to go to the Ricky’s, not the Ricky’s next to my office but the Ricky’s that was—for anyone who doesn’t live in New York, Ricky’s is a place that sells, like, wigs and conditioner and fishnet stockings.
FK: And Halloween costumes! They sell Halloween costumes around Halloween. It’s a place where David Bowie would definitely—he probably shopped at that Ricky’s, actually. Except he didn’t, because he was super normcore towards the end of his life, it turns out.
ELM: Yeah, I don’t think he shopped at Ricky’s!
FK: When he was younger he would have shopped at Ricky’s!
ELM: It’s true, it’s true. Anyway, the point is, this is where I buy my curly hair shampoo.
FK: It’s beauty supply.
ELM: Yeah, beauty supply. But it’s got a lot of wigs and stuff like that. Anyway, this is not important right now, is it? You’re giving me a look right now. I passed three Ricky’s on the way to this Ricky’s, which is near his house, cause why not?
It was lovely, though. It was partly not lovely, because there was a man there trying to hawk his, some show he was doing. He was like “Yeah, man, you should come, I’m gonna start with ‘Rebel, Rebel.’” And I was like, “Get the fuck out! Are you kidding me?” And I was like… I didn’t push him into traffic and I just worked really hard to ignore him.
FK: But you looked at him, like, “If my eyes could push you into traffic they would”?
ELM: Well, to be fair, there’s definitely tons of digital analogs to that, right? There’s always people seemingly trying to capitalize on, when someone beloved dies, to get clicks.
FK: This is something that—when the internet dogpiled Emma Watson for talking, for posting a picture of Alan Rickman with something lovely he said about feminism, right. Like, of course the internet was very angry about that. But then there’s also people doing it in a more gross way, in my opinion.
ELM: I missed this. So you’ll have to share this with me.
FK: Oh yeah! Emma Watson posted an image of Alan Rickman basically saying something in support of feminism. As part of her talking about his death. And the internet totally dogpiled her.
FK: For doing that.
ELM: Cause she was trying to take advantage.
FK: Because it’s taking advantage to remember somebody who was a major male influence in your life, I’m sure, who was supportive of you and feminism. Cause that’s terrible. Somehow.
ELM: It’s just not gonna get any more cheerful! And the second guest we should say is Kathleen Smith, who is known as “the fangirl therapist.” She’s a real therapist. She has a website where she kind of talks about, people write to her, it’s called fangirltherapy, I believe, dot com.
FK: Yeah, I think so.
ELM: And people write to her with issues around how they’re feeling as fangirls, and she answers it from a psychological perspective. And she’s got a book coming out this summer, so I was actually, we were thinking we would talk to her then, but this seemed like a good time to talk to her.
FK: I’m really excited for us to get to talk to her, because I think that, like many other people I’ve been kind of doubting my sanity around this a little bit, you know? Just like, such a weird time.
ELM: You seem really glum!
FK: I feel pretty glum!
ELM: I feel like, because it’s been a little while now, I’ve had time to process and I’ve started to do things.
FK: Yeah, I think I thought that it would be… I think I thought that I would process it and I would feel better, but actually I didn’t feel that bad at the moment—but I’ve been at a sort of [mumbles], you know?
ELM: Yeah. You OK?
FK: Yeah, I’m fine, it’s just funny, cause I feel like I didn’t have a moment where I burst into tears and had a terrible time or anything, but I’ve been kind of down since then.
ELM: Hmm. That happened to me a lot the day that David Bowie died—and actually it was further complicated by the fact that I was literally weeping sitting in my chair at like 10 AM, it was like 10:30 Monday morning, I was on Twitter just watching people, remembrances roll in—and then I started to see people, journalists retweeting about The New Republic going up for sale. In case our listeners don’t know, that’s one of the places that I work.
ELM: And I was like what? And I was like, that is not what I need right now. I did not need this in this space at this moment. And then it was just a very strange rest of the day for that.
ELM: No, I don’t know what’s going on with The New Republic, in case anyone’s wondering. Perhaps by the time this airs I will have more information. But I’m going to say literally nothing else on the topic. I told you what happened the night of the day that David Bowie died, right? When I went to that bar? Did I not tell you about this?
FK: No. Oh wait! Yes you did.
ELM: Aw, I don’t get to tell the story again? Can I tell the listeners?
FK: You can tell the listeners.
ELM: It’s so weird! OK. So I go to work and I get off the subway, oh, I’m half an hour late to meet my friend because I’m a trash person. So I get off the subway and I put on the Ziggy Stardust album, I’m walking through the streets and it’s really cold out because it’s New York and it’s awful. And I’m, like, weeping, because I’m like, whatever, I’ve been at work all day and I’m sad and I’m just gonna cry right now, and my friend can deal with it, and I look at my phone and he’s texted me and he said, he’s like, “OK, so at this bar are me, a guy watching the game, the bartender, Paul Giamatti, and some woman that he’s with.” And that was it!
FK: [laughs] You shared your grief with Paul Giamatti.
ELM: So we get to this bar, and it’s this really amazing dive bar around the corner from my house which you should totally come over to sometime, they have cheap drinks and literally it’s only ever three people in there plus a celebrity. [Flourish laughs] Cause last time I was in there Aziz Ansari was karaoke-ing.
ELM: And as I was leaving the bar that night, I said to the bartender, you know, I live around the corner, I really should come in here more often, but you know, I think it’s kind of weird for like—cause I’ll walk by and there’ll be just like one guy sitting at the bar. It’s like a real dive. And I’ll be like “Oh, I wish that was me!” But I’ll feel weird because I’m a lady, just to sit at the bar alone. You don’t see women doing that much. I guess it depends on the bar. But not this kind of bar, you know?
ELM: And I don’t want to watch a game. Anyway, and so then he goes, I go “It’s weird for me being a lady.” And the bartender goes, “Oh no, Lauren Ambrose used to do that all the time.” You know Lauren Ambrose, who was the daughter in Six Feet Under?
FK: Yeah! What?
ELM: And I was like, what is going on in this bar? How is that your example was like a well-known actress? I don’t understand.
FK: It’s apparently the bar, the bar where no one recognizes you or bothers you.
ELM: I won’t tell anyone who it is, so all these celebrities can come here in peace. So it was super weird, because it was literally just the six of us, the bartender, the other guy, Paul Giamatti and his date, me and my friend—my friend who loves music more than anyone I know and apparently spent most of his weekend listening to the new Bowie album, and just sitting… Oh, Flourish, you’ll love this. He’s so thoughtful, you should meet him, he’s really great. I hope he doesn’t mind me talking about him on the podcast. He likes to be very contem—contemplative? Is that how you say that word?
ELM: When he read Deathly Hallows, he sat on the steps of the Met and just read until it got too dark. He just sat there and read it. Right?
FK: That’s kinda lovely!
ELM: So I like to imagine that he also listens to Bowie albums this way, where he just sits somewhere—
FK: and listens—
ELM: —until it gets dark. Yeah. And so it was like he had this whole thing, and he was telling me this whole story, and it was beautiful and moving. And Paul Giamatti is two feet away mansplaining something, and I was like, “This is the strangest experience.” [laughing]
FK: You know, you know when you’re really gonna feel weird about this? When Paul Giamatti dies.
ELM: Do you know, Flourish, before I moved to New York, I went to Veselka, which is near your house.
FK: Yes, I’ve been to Veselka many times.
ELM: And I was at a party of many people at my table and we see at the next table a large party, including Paul Giamatti. And my friend didn’t know who he was, and she looked at him, and she was like, “He’s famous? I bet pretty girls never talk to him. I’m gonna go say hello.” And I was like “No! Stop, please don’t!” [laughing] So that was my first Paul Giamatti experience.
FK: So what you’re saying is that you’re really gonna feel weird when Paul Giamatti dies, because you’re gonna be like, this is so bizarre. And everybody is gonna die. Everybody.
ELM: Stop it, Flourish!
FK: You, me, J.K. Rowling…
ELM: Oh, why would you—
ELM: Why? No. No. He’s immortal. No. Don’t just name people who are gonna die! I don’t wanna hear about it.
FK: I’m trying to think of somebody that you would care about. Yo Yo Ma? [ELM laughs] I don’t know. You were just playing me string quartets. So I think we should face up to it, because if there’s one thing this week has taught me, it’s that being in denial doesn’t work, because people will die at surprising times and then you’ll be really sad. So you should just accept their deaths already.
ELM: [in a tiny voice] Oh. All right. Well, this is the fatalism podcast. That’s lovely.
FK: [laughs] Should we talk to some other people and stop being so fatalistic?
ELM: You’re the one who’s so morbid. I’m just trying to tell stories about Paul Giamatti!
FK: And I’m just trying to bring us back to the topic of the podcast, which is depressing, because we made it that way!
ELM: Well, I’m talking about Paul Giamatti, it’s a little depressing.
FK: All right. Well, shall we call Casey?
ELM: Yes, let’s call Casey. So, we’ll talk to Casey first and then Kathleen. Let’s call them.
FK: All right.
FK: So, we’d like to welcome Casey Fiesler to the podcast. Welcome, Casey!
Casey Fiesler: Thank you! Thank you very much.
ELM: Do you want to tell us a little bit about what your job is, very briefly, and how it relates to fandom, to give context for our listeners?
CF: Sure. So, I am a professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado—which still sounds super cool to say, because this time last year I was still a PhD student.
CF: Aw, thank you! So my research area, broadly, is online communities and how people interact online, but I’ve used fan communities as a context for that for a very long time. My dissertation, for example, is about copyright and social norms and fan communities, and I’ve been looking at some things recently about fandom—I’ve done a study of Archive of our Own, and of course I’m a fangirl. I’m also on the legal committee for OTW, so I have some involvement with them. Unfortunately I don’t write fanfiction anymore, but I was prolific quite a long time ago.
FK: Life got in the way?
CF: Yeah! It’s amazing how when you’re writing a dissertation, you’re not writing fanfiction.
ELM: Look, I have deadlines on several different things right now, but today all I did was write fanfiction. And I hadn’t written in years! So I’m saying you can jump back on that wagon! Horse? Metaphor!
CF: Yeah. I wasn’t really that inspired until I saw the new Star Wars movie, and suddenly I really wanted to write fanfiction about a character working at Hot Topic. [FK & ELM laugh] Stay tuned!
FK: Oh, man.
ELM: So we already explained in the intro what our initial conversation was about. Cause we were initially talking about digital spaces, I believe it was the morning that Alan Rickman passed away, and Tumblr was a really interesting space. It was very different to when David Bowie died, I felt, just in terms of the kind of conflation of fandom and the actor and all this stuff. You were saying some really interesting things, so I’m wondering—not to throw out too broad a question, but if you could speak to the kind of work that you’ve done, or you said that your colleagues do, around the digital spaces, the memorial digital spaces.
CF: So, I haven’t personally done a lot of work on death on social media but one of my colleagues in my department, Jed Brubaker—that’s his major research area. So we spend a lot of time talking about it, and I’ve thought about it in the context of fandom before, because it’s this really interesting community of people coming together.
So what happens when people that you know die, a lot of times, is suddenly their social media presence becomes a memorial space. Right? So a Facebook account, for example, people will use it to share memories or to talk amongst themselves, and so suddenly this space that was made for someone who’s now gone is a way for people around them to connect. And when a celebrity dies, that same thing happens. Right? So it’s not necessarily about your relationship with the celebrity, but there’s a community of people around you where you’re either forming a new relationship or you’re with a group of people who understand your grief in a way that the people around you IRL is not gonna happen.
ELM: Sure. That’s interesting. I mean it’s, it feels like, I don’t know… It feels very analogous to fandom at large to me, that’s something that I wrote about last week too. It doesn’t feel that different. When Alan Rickman was alive, people shared a ton of pictures of him and expressed their admiration. It just gives people kind of a singular moment to gravitate toward that part of their fannish space, I guess? Does that make sense? Flourish, you’re makin’ a face.
FK: Well, I’m making a face a little bit because I’m not sure that that’s true. I felt like, um—
ELM: You didn’t see any Alan Rickman on your dash prior to Thursday? Cause I did.
FK: Sure I saw Alan Rickman on my dash. [ELM laughs] But it wasn’t, it wasn’t quite the same.
FK: I saw Alan Rickman from the same few people, but when he died, all of a sudden everybody was posting about it, including people who had fallen out of the fandom, right? I don’t think I’d posted much about Snape in the past few months. I’ve got other stuff that I’m posting about, generally speaking. But then all of a sudden it was like everybody who had been in Snape fandom and Alan Rickman fandom, everybody who’d been part of that came out of the woodwork.
ELM: Sure. I feel like there’s a lot of people memorializing also their relationship with these people at a certain time in their lives, too. I saw a lot of people talking about how the relationship now, they hadn’t really thought of this person, but they were vitally important to them when they were like 15, or something like that.
FK: I guess that this might be outside your normal research area, but do you think that that’s much different from the way that people function with personal memorial spaces?
CF: I actually think it’s very similar. Particularly with celebrities—so we saw examples of physical memorial spaces. With David Bowie there was his Walk of Fame star, I think, became a physical memorial space; I remember when Robin Williams died people were leaving notes and flowers outside the Mrs. Doubtfire house, and the bench in Good Will Hunting.
FK: People have also left stuff outside David Bowie’s house in LES.
CF: Yeah, and for Alan Rickman I saw pictures of Snape’s office door at the Wizarding World had flowers in front of it. And apparently people were leaving notes and things in front of the 9¾ platform.
But when you can’t get to a physical space, you might do the same sorts of things in a virtual space. So on Tumblr people were leaving—I mean, it wasn’t even just sharing your favorite photographs or Snape moments. It was letters about him, stories of people remembering when they met him or their favorite moments about him, and it’s the same sort of thing that you see in these physical spaces. And then they’re not interacting with that person, obviously, they’re interacting with other people who are sharing their grief. And so it becomes a support community.
ELM: It’s interesting, I wonder if you’ve observed this, watching what happens on Facebook when someone who is more of an acquaintance to a lot of people dies. It’s not the same thing. Having experienced someone very close to me dying versus someone I knew in college, you know what I mean? And it feels a little bit like a celebrity, because people… because it’s not someone you’ve thought of in a few years. You know? And you’re posting some memory and it feels like—I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s empty, it’s just, it’s different. You know what I mean?
CF: Also, people’s memories… Something that happens when people die is, you tend to go back through your memories as a way of dealing it, and sometimes that’s sharing them with other people. And usually what happens is that the good memories bubble to the top and the bad memories get pushed away, which makes sense, because “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
CF: And I think the same thing happens with celebrities, too, right. So your acquaintance on Facebook who you haven’t thought about in ten years—suddenly much more important to you for just that moment. And I think the same thing might happen for a celebrity, where you’re remembering all the things that you loved about them and not the things that you didn’t love, which is completely appropriate.
ELM: What about when that turns, though? Because I saw pretty quickly that, like, “David Bowie’s real problematic” going around on Tumblr.
ELM: I was like, “I’m gonna set all of you on fire right now.” Maybe that’s problematic too, but.
CF: I suspect that the “Bowie’s problematic” thing came about because, as a reaction to the fact that people tend to put the recently deceased up on a pedestal.
ELM: The one that I saw a lot of was it seems like a lot of younger, very Tumblr-esque approaches to gender and sexuality kind of criticizing the way that… That’s an interesting question, but his sexuality and the way he presented it in the media over the years. But they did it in a, like, in a call-out kind of way, and I was just like, “Not now.”
FK: So that’s interesting, because what I saw most was a lot of my friends talking about how they loved a lot of things about Bowie but they couldn’t deal, they just couldn’t stand the song “China Girl” because—
ELM: Ha! I didn’t see anyone criticizing that, but that’s good.
FK: Yeah. I saw a lot of people criticizing that, and also mentioning that he had had some problematic sexual encounters with underage groupies when he was younger? But I felt a little bit like, “OK, yes, so you’re just mad about this now. Congrats. It’s not like that didn’t happen like forty years ago or—”
ELM: Yeah, and I think that that speaks to what Casey was saying: that people may even get a little bit annoyed, if they actually didn’t like the person.
FK: Completely. But I think the “China Girl” thing is a little more personal. Some of my friends were talking about how they really wanted to love him but, like—and they knew the song was probably intended to be a parody, but they couldn’t listen to it or watch the video because they felt so bad, because it was so racist.
ELM: Right, well. I’m not trying to diminish that.
FK: You know, even though they thought it was probably intended to be a parody.
CF: Interestingly, I don’t think we saw a lot of similar things about Alan Rickman, partly because I think people were focusing more on his characters—so you can talk about how Snape is problematic, right, that’s OK.
ELM: Sure. We could.
CF: He isn’t a person. Or, perhaps more appropriately, we could talk about how the Sheriff of Nottingham is problematic.
FK: [laughs] Hans Gruber! That son of a bitch was real problematic, guys!
CF: Actually, because we all dealt with our grief over Snape years ago, right, and then again with the movies, so this is like the third time that we’ve mourned Snape, so I think that that actually is an interesting thing to add to it, because a lot of people don’t really separate Alan Rickman from his most iconic character.
ELM: That’s one thing I found very interesting, I think I said it earlier. There were moments I felt where it felt a little weird to me, that people seemed to be sadder about Snape—again—than about Alan Rickman. So that’s something I think about fandom, and grief in particular. There were times when I sort of felt like, it’s like... “No, no, no, it’s not about Snape,” you know? But then for a lot of people it really, really was. You know what I mean? And I wonder, like, it just felt weird and conflated to me at times.
I don’t know if this is something you’ve observed. I guess with someone like Robin Williams, he had so many roles that I don’t think anyone said “Oh no, the Genie is gone,” or whatever. Like, maybe not that one. But you know what I mean?
CF: I noticed it being very different in different social media spaces, which makes total sense, right. So on Facebook, I saw a lot more people talking about GalaxyQuest and Die Hard and this sort of thing, whereas I was in Harry Potter fandom—so I go to Tumblr and I mostly see Snape. Which makes total sense, because that’s the group of people in that particular network.
ELM: Right, right.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the way that we grieve in social media spaces? Like, it feels a little unsustainable to me. I don’t know whether either of you have ever encountered that.
CF: So, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think it’s going away. One thing that’s happened is that a lot of people who are working on designs of these social media spaces are actually incorporating what happens to the deceased into what they’re doing, which is important because for a long time we didn’t really think about that, right? So years ago, when someone close to me died, there wasn’t anything on Facebook to deal with memorializing their page, so all of these terrible things happened. Like, you’re getting birthday notifications and friends requests and these sorts of things.
ELM: This still happens to me! Facebook hasn’t dealt with it. Facebook keeps suggesting—my best friend died in 2008, and they keep suggesting pictures of us. You know, when they do that “memory from your past!” and I’m like, haven’t you noticed that every year for the past, what, how many years has it been, I can’t do math. Eight years? People say “Oh, I miss you” on that certain day? I don’t know. I feel like they should have an algorithm for that. But that’s fine.
FK: But what if the algorithm said that you were dead, and you weren’t dead?
FK: What if the algorithm thought you were dead, and you weren’t dead? How would that be?
ELM: You just tell them that it’s not! I’d rather err on the side of, like, you know? I think they could figure it out.
CF: That’s really tricky.
FK: Because then people would think you were dead! After Facebook said you were dead, no, it’s terrible. This is terrible.
ELM: No, I think Facebook should be able to figure it out.
CF: There’s this concept called algorithmic cruelty, which is when Facebook did things like the On This Day thing, and your post with the most people commenting on it might be something terrible happened to you, and it’s very difficult for an algorithm to sort that out. So it’s tricky.
ELM: Bad news.
CF: I’m not sure how that relates to fandom…
FK: Well, it does feel a bit like a sort of cruelty when, OK, so Alan Rickman died on my birthday, and the first thing that I woke up to was a million pictures of my favorite character and one of my favorite actors and, like, that was great but also it was terrible, right, there was no way to get away from it.
ELM: Flourish, that’s not algorithmic cruelty—
FK: It’s not algorithmic, that’s what I’m saying—
ELM: It’s just ironic.
FK: It’s about the overwhelmingness of having a million people on social media. It was just amplified for me, but it’s overwhelming to see everyone at the same time being like “BLEH” with their feelings—
FK:—which are totally valid individual feelings that everybody should share, but like…
ELM: That’s what I mean about it feeling unsustainable. It’s like, every time… And sometimes people mean more to more people and sometimes they don’t, and that can feel weird in the contrast too. Like, do we have to flip out every time? But people seem to get mad when not enough people are upset, because it’s their fave, and it’s not everyone else’s fave—you know what I mean? I don’t know. Sad stuff.
CF: At least—the other side of that is, you care so deeply and no one else cares and they don’t understand why you’re sad. The nice thing about social media and about fandom is that you can find the other people who care as much as you do.
CF: Which with Alan Rickman was super easy.
CF: But if someone more obscure passes away, no one else knows why you’re sad, you can probably find the other people who are sad.
ELM: That’s a heartwarming twist to end this conversation. That’s lovely. Thank you so much for coming on, and we need to have you back in the future to talk for a full episode about a topic that’s not death-related.
FK: Thank you for coming!
CF: Thank you for having me!
ELM: OK, so we are excited to welcome Kathleen Smith, the Fangirl Therapist, to the show! Thanks so much for coming on!
Kathleen Smith: Thanks so much for having me! I’m excited to be here, talk about fangirl stuff.
FK: We’re excited to have you.
ELM: We have burning questions. I think the first one that is the most burning is—[laughs] Flourish!
FK: ARE WE NORMAL?!
ELM: So say we get, like, really, really sad about fictional characters or about real people that we don’t know, celebrities, dying.
FK: Not that this has happened recently.
ELM: Or ever. Is that normal. Is that OK?
KS: Well, I mean, as a therapist I’m supposed to say that “normal” is not a good word to use, obviously, but as a fangirl I would say it’s completely normal. So. Because, I’m sort of the person, I sign up for death, I want it, and then it happens and I don’t know what to do with myself. So I’m kind of caught in this perpetual thing where I’m always grieving, but I’m always wanting the grief too. So to me, personally, it feels very normal. But I think as a therapist I’d say it’s totally normal and expected as well.
ELM: That’s interesting, I think I do that too. I was just talking with a friend of mine about a ship that I like, and I was like “Well, it’s all doom and gloom because canonically neither of them make it in the end, and you know they have this specter looming over them.” And he was like, “You know, you just helped me realize what’s important to me—I really need to see, like, a ship where I know there’s going to be a happy ending.” Why am I signing up for sadness and death, in the sense that you are, too?
ELM: What are we doing, why are we doing this? Is there a psychological explanation for this?
KS: There’s a lot of stuff out there sort of explaining why we get obsessed or why we get attached to fictional people or to celebrities—even though it’s sort of this one way street of a relationship. But to me, the more important question is sort of “What do you do about it?”And I think we don’t really have a good answer, because it kind of gets pushed away or people get reactive to it.
In psychology there’s this term called “disenfranchised grief,” types of grief that aren’t really accepted by society or kind of pushed away as not being as serious, and I think that this falls under that category. We turn it into a competition, right? So if I am mourning a celebrity, then someone else is gonna say, “Well, that’s not as big a deal as a relative of mine dying.” Or if I’m mourning a fictional character, “Well, they didn’t even exist in the first place.” So we kind of turn it into a competition, which I think makes people less able to kind of come out and express that as grief. Does that make sense?
ELM: Yeah. That makes total sense.
FK: It absolutely—yeah. But it sort of makes me think about, what is the grief, in that sense? Because when somebody who we know dies, it feels like the thing that we’re mourning is that person, but if you’ve never known that person… Certainly I’ve grieved fictional characters and celebrities, and have been recently grieving them, and it still feels like real grief, but then what are we grieving?
KS: You know, I was talking to my Dad earlier this week about David Bowie, and he said something to me that I felt was really true. He said that when you lose someone who was influential in your life especially earlier in your life, it sort of makes you mourn your own youth. I’m a little bit older than girls who grew up with Harry Potter, but I think this last week, especially with Alan Rickman… When you lose someone who was influential in your childhood, that’s sort of a bookmark in your own life. Maybe it’s not a relationship that you’re grieving, but sort of this chapter that’s coming to an end, or this plot in your own life that isn’t around anymore.
ELM: If you listened to the last episode, we were sort of talking about this, and Flourish already made fun of me for it, but how I—my favorite character in Harry Potter died and I read the book right before I graduated from high school, and I was so sad. And the last book came out right after I graduated from college, too, that didn’t make me as sad as much as it made me angry. But like, they were all wrapped up together. I was sad about something that was ending as well as genuinely being sad that my character was gone.
But I don’t know, it’s interesting, I don’t think I saw the last couple of weeks people trying to diminish anyone’s grief on the internet. It’s different when it’s a fictional character for sure. But if anything, if there was a competition, it was to see like, who David Bowie was the most important to.
ELM: Or how formative [he] was. And it’s curious to also see what kinds of things are sanctioned for people to get sad about. What one-way streets people can get sad about.
KS: Definitely. I saw a little bit of that on Twitter as well, sort of the Alan Rickman filmography competition. [All laugh] I definitely went through that phase a few years ago, watching almost everything he had been in, and just because you can name more movies or someone has only known him in one role… Again, that’s turning it into a competition, and I don’t know how helpful that is.
FK: Yeah, when in reality people can have equally important experiences, right? Like one of my business partners, her memory of him was from Truly Madly Deeply—the really important one—and she’d worked in the UK film world for a long time, so she didn’t know him, but she knew people around him and so forth—and that’s no more or less real than Snape.
ELM: Right. I did my Alan Rickman phase in like 2002, so obviously I missed the later stuff, but it was because of Snape. There was a brief moment in time, Flourish, I don’t know if you know this, but we were very briefly on the same page, before I left Team Snape. Sorry!
FK: You were on Team Snape at any point?!
ELM: Yeah, when I was—when I was reading Snape/Harry! Don’t judge me.
FK: Oh! Oh, that’s lovely, Snarry—
ELM: No, that’s not lovely! That’s a problematic ship. That was a problematic ship. I would be, like, people on Tumblr would murder me right now.
FK: OK, people on Tumblr already like want to murder me just for the—we know this. I embody the problematic ship.
ELM: Yeah you are, really.
FK: Context, Kathleen: I married my professor after being in Snape/Hermione fandom. So that happened. And I became a legend.
ELM: Wait, did you marry him while he was your professor?!
FK: We started dating while I was still in the grad program but no longer taking classes from him.
ELM: So like the school couldn’t—
FK: And we don’t work in the same field. I mean, we were in the same grad program, but we don’t work on the same things. So it was less skeevy than it sounds. Sort of. Not fully.
ELM: Yeah, but it represents you, so that’s all that matters! It’s your problem. You are literally the problematic ship. Right? You’re not shipping something problematic. You are the problematic ship.
FK: Yeah. I am the problematic ship, so it’s OK for me to ship it because it’s about my problems. “What, are you saying that I can’t ship something that represents me?!”
ELM: The reason I brought this up is because when I went through my phase where I watched all of them, I loved Truly Madly Deeply, I love how this became the one that people are like “Oh, you’re a real fan if you’ve seen this one.” But it was also because I came to it through Snape, and I saw all these people being like—especially I had a bunch of people who are like scholars or whatever on Twitter, and they were like, mad that he was being eulogized as Harry Potter and Die Hard and I was like, “Whatever,” you know?
KS: When you sign up to be an actor, you sign up to be memorialized on what people know you best in, and that just sort of goes along with the job, I guess.
ELM: And also, I feel like he seemed to have a lot of respect for Harry Potter. They all do. So.
ELM: So screw those people.
FK: One of the things that we know about life is that death is inevitable for us, for everybody, for celebrities we love, for everything else. I’m really depressing right now. But it’s true. When this happens, how would you recommend dealing with—especially the sort of deluge of responses when you’re grieving a celebrity online and everybody else is talking about it and it seems like really overwhelming? How do you cope with that? What’s some therapist approved strategies?
KS: Well, there are the traditional fangirl things, right. Like you, if it’s a fictional character you reblog all the death scene gifs, or you buy some jewelry on Etsy to remember them by, or you read a lot of fanfic, or you call in sick to work the next day. Personally I take things called Eeyore showers where you just stand under the shower like it’s a raincloud, and personally I find that helpful.
ELM: Aww! That’s so lovely!
FK: Eeyore showers!
KS: Eeyore showers, I love them! They work so well. I would definitely recommend that. But I think what’s important to remember is that it’s actually OK to kinda take breaks from the grieving. Like, previously in the field of psychology we followed this idea that you have the five stages of grief, and if you don’t move through them, then it’s gonna kick you in the butt later on—but it’s actually not true. A lot of research tells us that we’re actually kinda resilient, and I don’t think fangirls or fans are an exception to that.
So it’s OK to laugh at something stupid the same day, or to not think about it for awhile. Those are actually good things. They’re not signs that you are pushing it away or you’re in denial. So the more positive emotions you can have about it, you’re probably gonna be the better for it. So it’s OK to kinda be selfish about it and think “What is this gonna mean for my own life? What’s one thing I can do for myself? Or honor this character, the celebrity, in a way that’s actually useful to me.” I think the more positive you can take with it the better. You don’t have to just, you know, listen to sad panda fanmixes or take tons of Eeyore showers.
FK: That’s really interesting advice given the—I feel like there’s almost a grieving competition that happens sometimes. You know? I think that we touched on this a little bit earlier but the idea of “Did you see all the movies, did you care as much.”
ELM: Well, it’s the same thing as “Are you a true fan.” Like, it’s the same gatekeeping thing. You don’t like this person enough—and now it really counts because this is the moment, the last chance you have to prove that you’re the biggest fan of this person.
KS: And I think that that’s just people taking the reactivity or the anxiety they might be experiencing and putting it in a different direction. That’s not necessarily the best way to deal with it. But that’s what we do!
ELM: It’s interesting cause I feel like one thing that I have noticed when people close to me have died is you get the same thing. You get people kind of jockeying to say “oh well I was a better friend,” or “I remember more memories,” or “I deserve a more important role in this grief process.” So maybe that’s just a natural human reaction. Maybe we’re trying to justify the depth of our feeling by saying “I feel it the deepest”? I don’t know. That was some armchair psychology. I’m sorry.
KS: Well, one way we manage tension around anxiety is conflict. So. And you can find that wherever you look on the internet, so.
FK: Conflict everywhere!
ELM: One thing that Flourish and I talk about a lot, and Flourish is gonna get mad at me for bringing it up, we kind of fall on different ends of the spectrum in terms of how communal we want our fan experience to be. And so one thing that I found a little confusing in the past week is, especially for David Bowie in particular I feel like I have a pretty personal—like I didn’t actually write anything about this because I felt everyone was doing it, and in fact in a way that made me feel kind of embarrassed to talk about my own experiences even though they were just as deep as everyone else’s half-assed “This was important to me when I was fifteen.”
And I wonder if you have any insight in how to balance that, because for me sometimes I loved seeing that everyone really loved someone that I loved, but also I wanted it to be mine, you know? And the only way to do that was to literally turn the internet off and go away, but then I don’t get to be around other people who felt the same way, and so it’s a weird paradox. Does that make sense?
KS: Yeah, definitely. And I, actually on my blog, have a lot of people who write in about that a lot, sort of cherishing something as your own or special to you, and then when you go on the internet you find out that everyone else is a unicorn too. So what does that mean about the identity that I’ve carved out for myself?
ELM: So what do you tell them? Help me!
KS: So there are two ways of looking at it. One is sort of that self-preservation instinct: if you need to turn your computer off, if you need to not look at the internet, I think that’s a wonderful thing. But then the flipside is when we feel uncomfortable, when we feel anxious about something, that might be a clue to look closer at it and not move away from it. And so—
ELM: What do you mean by that?
KS: Cutting off is not always the most effective solution. It might be a temporary relief to kind of anxieties or jealousies or other things that we’re feeling, but often if you move towards someone and, say, validate what they’re feeling or what they’re expressing about the loss, it can actually help you feel better about having your own experiences challenged. Does that make sense?
ELM: Yeah, that does make sense.
KS: Moving toward someone and saying “It seems like you’re taking this really hard. I hope you have a good week,” or “He meant something to me too, thank you for sharing,” that can actually help you feel a little bit better about that tug of “This was mine, this was important to me,” you know? That’s helped me.
ELM: You know, actually, to be fair, I had this exact experience on Monday evening the day that David Bowie died with a friend of mine who I know has a very deep and long history with his music. He told his whole story and I just let him go, cause that’s just kind of the way—he’s not gonna listen to this. But he, you know, tells his own stories and you just usually let him go, and it made me feel, it takes you out of yourself, I guess, too. You know? And helps you get perspective, I suppose. So I think we have time for one more question. Flourish, do you wanna go for it?
FK: OK, well…
ELM: You do, I can tell. I can see it in your eyes.
FK: I do. So, um, I found out about Alan Rickman dying in a really weird way which is, well—it wasn’t a weird way, but it was weird because it was my 29th birthday. And I woke up and Snape was the most important thing to me in Harry Potter, and the first thing I saw was Elizabeth talking about Alan Rickman in my gchat. And I thought it was, like, the continuation of a discussion we’d been having earlier about the casting of Snape, so I just responded in this completely normal way and she was like “Wait, you haven’t heard” and I was like “Fuuuuuuck.”
ELM: I felt really bad. Like really, really bad afterwards. I’m sorry.
FK: What’s funny is it turned out that like five of my friends all texted me birthday messages without mentioning Alan Rickman dying?
KS: Oh, my God!
FK: Because they didn’t want to be person to tell me.
ELM: I didn’t think it was possible you wouldn’t have known! It was like 11 AM EST.
FK: Yeah, but I was on Pacific time!
ELM: I thought you were up already.
FK: It was, like, seven in the morning and I’d just been out for a birthday dinner the night before!
ELM: I’m sorry. OK. What’s your dilemma?
FK: My dilemma is this. I feel like the whole thing is really weirdly mixed up in my head now? Like: Alan Rickman dying is something that is a communal experience, it’s something that everybody shares, but I feel weird because it feels—actually this is sort of like Elizabeth’s question: it feels like something that particularly happened to me. Like the universe hated me so much that Alan Rickman died on my birthday. “Fuck you, Flourish!” Right? And, like, that’s obviously stupid! Alan Rickman dying was way more important than me. I mean it was important to him, among other things! [laughs]
FK: And his family and, like, everybody, right? Why should I take it so personally? What’s up with that? Fix me!
KS: Well, I don’t—we’ve just met—[all laugh] So I don’t know if I can explain your entire life story—
FK: Wait, wait, you mean you’re not magic?
KS: No! Sadly, no. I am a Muggle therapist. But what I would say is rather than trying to pull it outside of yourself, just try to take it and run with it. This did happen to you. This is very personal to you. What are you going to do with that? How is that going to influence your own narrative and living 29 versus living 28 and having Alan Rickman, or—Snape’s gonna be in your life for forever, but Alan Rickman is no longer with us so what does that mean? How does that inform your own story? But most importantly not being hard on yourself about it either. So trying to fight it or feel like it’s wrong or dysfunctional or negative is definitely not gonna get—you’re never gonna win a fight with yourself, right? So just saying “OK, this happened to me, what happens next.”
FK: That made me feel so much better, actually. That made me feel validated.
ELM: You have tears in your eyes! Oh.
FK: That’s a wonderful—that’s such a magical thing. Thank you!
KS: Thank you!
ELM: As Flourish goes to cry [all laugh] I think we have to say goodbye, because we’re out of time. I think we’ve already said it, but your book is coming out this summer, so we will have you back to talk about all the fangirl therapy things, if that’s OK with you.
KS: Yes, absolutely. And anyone who has their own dilemmas this week for other things can always write to me at fangirltherapy.com.
ELM: Perfect, thanks so much!
FK: Thanks so much!
ELM: So, do you feel better?
FK: I do feel better. I feel extremely validated.
ELM: That’s good!
FK: I guess I didn’t know that I needed to see the fangirl therapist, but it turns out I kinda did.
ELM: C’mon, I totally know I need to see the fandom therapist.
FK: You know when I do? You, like, keep a temperature of my feelings and you’re like, “All right”?
ELM: No, I’m talking about me! I’m taking time for myself and talking about [how] I need to see the fandom therapist.
FK: Yeah. You do. [both laugh]
ELM: You know, one thing that I feel like—I’m doing things right, because I feel like I have been doing things with my feelings. In the last week, kind of channeling them into fanfiction, that’s slightly embarrassing. That’s fine.
FK: No, that’s not embarrassing! That’s wonderful!
ELM: Slightly embarrassing.
FK: Is it the fanfiction that’s slightly embarrassing in specific, or in general?
ELM: Well, it’s gonna seem, like, if I didn’t tell you “Oh, I was thinking about David Bowie and then I decided to write some fanfiction”—it’s not about David Bowie. It’s about Harry Potter. But, like, you know what I mean? I guess there’s a stigma against, when you were fifteen did you write—no offense to anyone who’s fifteen—did you write cheesy songfic, kinda, you know, where you wallowed in a song…
FK: Yeah, of course, everybody does! But I still do that, I just don’t admit it.
ELM: Right! So when does that become not cool, and why not, you know? I don’t know.
FK: I don’t know. You know that my most recent fanfic literally features the characters singing along to songs, so.
ELM: I heard you sing when you read it out loud.
FK: Yeah so I’m obviously in the pro-songfic category. And embarrassing songs at that.
ELM: OK, it’s not a songfic, it’s more like… also, on the recommendation of my newsletter partner I watched Velvet Goldmine, which I had never seen before.
ELM: I thought it was simultaneously wonderful and incredibly sad.
FK: Yeah. That’s true. That’s accurate.
ELM: It made me feel sad afterwards.
FK: I know.
ELM: I’m so descriptive. “It made me feel sad.” It made me feel like, hollowed out and regretful about something I had nothing to do with, about the way society went after. You know what I mean?
FK: Yeah. I do know. I know exactly what you mean.
ELM: I gave, like, a drunken speech about this to my friend at the bar the other day, but he was off his face too so I’m sure he doesn’t remember. But, um… [both laugh]
FK: That’s one thing you’re doing with your feelings: you’re drinking. Hey fangirls, one thing you can do with your feelings: drink them!
ELM: Flourish is not a licensed fangirl therapist, don’t listen to her. Alcohol is fine in moderation—
FK: Always works for me!
ELM: —but don’t use it to solve your feels.
FK: Anyway, we’re clearly feeling better, because we’re having this upbeat and joking conversation as opposed to wallowing in despair as I felt like I was.
ELM: Yeah so, being productive about these things really does help. And I guess that’s also why I really like fanfiction, because all of the source material that I’m drawn to, all my characters die or wind up in horrible situations. Or, like, are constantly pining or whatever. Sherlock is the first one where no one is permanently dead that I care about, you know? Permanently canonically dead, let’s just say. So yeah, my way of dealing with these things that happen in these texts is to kind of do the fannish thing about them, you know? So, that makes sense. You know what I’m saying.
FK: I know exactly what you’re saying.
ELM: Alright, well, we should probably wrap up, but next week, we are as promised going to talk to Gretchen McCulloch—
FK: Ugh, I’m so excited! Especially because I just came up with… All right, so she’s a linguist, and she’s written a wonderful article—as I think we’ve talked about before—about smash ship names, among many other wonderful articles, and I’m especially excited because Elizabeth just emailed me—[Elizabeth laughs]—about her new ship!
ELM: It’s kind of not my real ship but—I saw Star Wars again, and for the second time, yesterday, and I was really struck by some chemistry between a certain First Order general and the master of the Knights of Ren, is that his title?
FK: And when she said that she was really into Hux/Ren, I was like, oh, you mean you’re really into HEN?
FK: Bwrawk, brawk, awk! That’s my making hen noises if you didn’t know. Anyway, so Hen!
ELM: We can talk about Hen, what a majestic pairing it is.
FK: The majestic bird. BWAK!
ELM: Adam Driver and Bill Weasley. Fine. That’s fine. So we’ll be talking to Gretchen, and yeah! Anyway, as always thank you so much for listening, and if you want to get in touch, don’t hesitate: Fansplaining on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook…
FK: Yeah, it would be particularly great if any of you have questions for a linguist, like, about weird things that people say in fandom, terms, whatever—anything that we should talk about that you think would be interesting!
ELM: Totally. One thing that I think you and I are interested in is the historical shifts. I feel like when we started talking to Gretchen it was… I think we both still do it, like, I still, I’m not willing to do these smush names.
FK: I do it more than I used to. But there’s some that I just can’t even look at.
ELM: That’s because as we know you live for the kind of feedback that is, and I quote, “Larry”—do I even say “as fuck,” or do I just say “AF”? How do the kids say it?
FK: I don’t know how the kids say it. I would say that you should be guided by your own feelings.
ELM: Larry AF, as fuck as it stands for—Flourish, that’s the valuable feedback that she turns to Wattpad for.
FK: It was an interstitial comment, and it was about someone really liking the part of my story—
ELM: That’s amazing.
FK: —where Louis and Harry finally get it on!
ELM: This is why—spoilers!
FK: In a character’s imagination!
ELM: I think you like smush ship names because of that kind of feedback.
FK: Well, probably. Definitely I like smush ship names more since before I became 1D.
ELM: Became a Larryite?
FK: I’m not a Larryite per se. I’m a little bit a Larryite.
ELM: I don’t mean a canonical Larryite.
FK: OK. That’s fair.
ELM: I mean you ship them. Perhaps you saw my article about how shipping and representation are not the same things.
FK: Thank you, thank you. It’s so true. You’re right, you’re right. It’s true I’ve come around to smush ship names a little bit, but you’ll never get me onto Snermione. Or Mully or Sculder? Like, those are not things. I’m sorry.
FK: Those are not things! No one calls it that. It’s MSR. Deal with it. It’s the original ship.
ELM: MSR is so old school sounding, though. It’s not even Mulder/Scully. It’s like, a term from the ancient past.
FK: Mulder Scully Relationship. MSR. Which is literally where “shippers” come from.
ELM: What do you mean?
FK: Shippers was the term for people—it was just a term for people who were into Mulder and Scully. It was shippers versus noromos, No Romantic Moments. Relationshippers—
ELM: Wait, so the term shipper was not used to talk about Kirk/Spock?
FK: Not that I know of!
ELM: I’d be curious if you could fact-check that for me.
FK: I will try to fact-check it for you.
ELM: Go out there and do it.
FK: We’ll find out. Maybe for next time? Because I don’t think I can do it right now.
ELM: Yeah, for next time! Actually. Because it’s related to our conversation. I'd be curious to know.
FK: Just a second. “Shipping.” OK. Hold up.
ELM: Are you on Fanlore?
FK: The actual term shipping originated—this is actually on Wikipedia so I’m not sure it’s right. But, um, Wikipedia believes that the term “shipping” was coined in the 1990s by fans of The X-files Mulder/Scully Relationshippers, then Shippers, as compared to NoRoMos. The oldest uses of the nouns “ship” and “shipper” as recorded by the OED are in 1996 on alt.tv.x-files.
ELM: That’s fascinating! So no one used it before then, that’s crazy to me.
FK: I mean it seems—yeah! That’s why people are so into the term MSR, because that’s truly the first, like, you know, it’s from before even—obviously people referred to Kirk/Spock and K/S, and people used those terms—
ELM: Like slash! The word slash must predate that.
FK: Oh no, slash totally predates that. Slash comes from Kirk/Spock. It definitely predates that. But.
ELM: I hope Gretchen’s listening. I bet she can’t wait to jump in here.
FK: [laughs] I look forward to talking about it with her!
ELM: Well, we should say goodbye, but, um, I’ll talk to you next time?
FK: Talk to you next time!
FK: The opinions expressed in this podcast are not those of Stratus Media Ventures, Chimera Media Group, Chaotic Good, or our clients, or our employers, or anyone’s except our own.