by Maggie McAteer
“In an otherwise mediocre existence, we choose to feel passion.” These are the words of Fereshteh “Angel” Rahimi, the fandom-obsessed protagonist of Alice Oseman’s I Was Born For This. The 2018 book focuses on Angel and her obsession with the boy band Ark, and is told from two perspectives: Angel’s, and Jimmy Kaga-Ricci’s, the Ark’s guitar/keys player. This dual perspective format allows readers to watch events unfold from two very different vantage points as Oseman’s book explores the idea of fandoms, as well as the delicate relationship between celebrities and their fans. Often, Angel will comment on what she thinks Jimmy is thinking or feeling, but when we see his point of view it’s quite the opposite, leading us to interesting conclusions on the negative impacts of fame at a young age. But before we delve into the specifics of the plot and what the book is attempting to do, let’s take a step back and explain what some of you might not know: What exactly is a fandom in the first place?
The internet offers several definitions: Oxford Languages puts it as “the fans of a particular person, team, fictional series, etc. regarded collectively as a community or subculture,” while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts it more simply as just “all the fans.” Wikipedia gives us the definition that seems the most true in practice; they write that a fandom is “a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of empathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest.” It’s these feelings of “empathy and camaraderie with others” that usually draw people in and are the reason people remain part of fandoms. Through them, you can meet people who have the same interests or obsessions as you, and this can lead to lifelong relationships. Many fandoms are formed around books or movies, like the Game of Thrones or Harry Potter fandoms, television shows such as Doctor Who or Supernatural, or, as in I Was Born For This, around bands and celebrities, like the Swifties - the Taylor Swift fandom.
One fandom in particular bears a striking resemblance to the Ark, and that is the One Direction fandom. Even though the boy band broke up over seven years ago, their fan base, known as the Directioners, is still quite large and are gaining new members. One Direction and the Ark are both comprised of groups of young men who were thrust into the public spotlight unexpectedly. Other parallels emerge too, especially in the conspiracies surrounding the groups, the most obvious being the Larry and Jowan conspiracies. In the One Direction fandom, “Larry Stylinson,” is the name for the imagined romantic relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles, and in I Was Born For This, fans do much the same thing, creating a relationship between Jimmy Kaga-Ricci and Rowan Omondi called “Jowan.” In both scenarios, the fans search interviews, music videos, and basically any public appearance the two make together to find proof of the relationship.
I Was Born For This allows us to see how the Jowan conspiracy affects the members of the band, causing Jimmy to have panic attacks about fans stalking him. In fact, throughout the entire book, fandoms are portrayed rather negatively through Jimmy’s perspective. He feels isolated by the fandom, surrounded by people who say they love him but don’t really know him. His bandmates, especially Rowan, see the fandom as predatory, only wanting something from them but not really caring about them. Angel’s perspective provides a sharp 180, portraying the fandom as her entire life, something beautiful and to be revered. She’s met her closest friends through it, and it's the reason she gets up in the morning. When the two meet, which serves as the catalyst for the rest of the book, both of their beliefs come crumbling down. Jimmy discovers that not everyone in the fandom is a psycho stalker girl who wants to sleep with him, and Angel finds out how much the stress of constantly performing a certain persona negatively impacted Jimmy and the rest of the Ark.
Because that’s what they’re doing, really: performing. Not only on stage with their songs, but also every time they make an appearance anywhere or post anything. Each band member has created a certain character that they play, and everyone in the fandom grabs onto that and magnifies it tenfold, creating a persona for who this person is based only off of certain remarks or facial expressions that they make. The fans don’t really know the people behind the performance at all, but they’ve convinced themselves that they do. And that’s the main problem with fandoms surrounding real people: the version of a person that a fandom loves isn’t real. It’s the same as with fandoms surrounding books or movies; at the end of the day, those characters aren’t real. The difference between fandoms based on fictional worlds and those stemming from things in the real world is that fans who are part of the latter are able to convince themselves that their characters are real. Part of what makes I Was Born For This so good is that Oseman shows what happens when fans finally see behind the facade. Angel meets Jimmy and he’s nothing like she could have imagined. People try to picture what the people who they worship would be like in real life, but all they do is add to the cyclone of myths already surrounding the person.
Fandoms can be wonderful, yes, but we have to understand that we don’t actually know the people involved, that all we’re doing is loving a version of them which we’ve created. Of course, it’s okay to love a story, but realizing that it isn’t part of the real world is more than necessary. Once again, take the Larry and Jowan conspiracies. Angel says repeatedly how the idea of Jimmy and Rowan being together lets her believe that love is still real, that the world is still good; many people who believe in Larry feel the same way. Some of them, like Angel, have made it so much a part of their lives that they wouldn’t know what to do without it. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a popular tendency in the same way that religion is, as humans naturally long for something to believe in. It gives us something to hold onto when things get rough, but at the end of the day, they’re all only stories we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night.
For the most part, fandoms are good things. Like Angel says, they can help people come together and be a part of something engaging and powerful. Fandoms can also bring out the worst in people, though, when they stop seeing the subject of their love as a person and just as a dehumanized, objectified thing to be loved or hated. In order for fandoms to thrive, we have to accept that what we’re loving is just a story, and keep loving it regardless. Because, at their core, love is all a fandom is. Love for whatever you’re a fan of, love for the people you find there, love for what you can create together - beautiful stories and a wonderful community of friends. As Angel puts it, “Being a fan isn’t always about the thing you’re a fan of….Being a fan has made me better friends online than I’ve ever encountered in real life; it has entered me into a community where people are joined in love and passion and hope and joy and escape.” Let’s just make sure that this escape doesn’t become oblivion that hurts what’s real.