When I was in middle school, I became obsessed with the TV show Glee. Along with millions of other “Gleeks,” the common nickname for “stans” of the show, I tuned in every week to watch a group of high school misfits perform over-the-top musical numbers and deal with issues such as body image, alcohol, and sexuality.
Luckily for me, I was able to share my passion for the show with a thriving online community. I created an account on a website called the Glee Wiki, which currently contains over 1,700 pages of information describing the characters, episodes, and songs of Glee. One of the many features of the website is a chat room which, at any given point during Glee’s run, hosted dozens of users of all ages and nationalities. For a year, nearly every day after school, I would log on to the Glee Wiki, enter the chat room, and Gleek out with other users. Each week, I spent hours talking to my newfound Internet friends about Rachel’s new boyfriend or Blaine’s most recent solo. We would often participate in group video chat sessions; every Friday afternoon, it became my routine to Skype with one of my Glee Wiki friends for hours and chat about the most recent episode or events in our personal lives. Although I continued to spend time with “real life” friends and family, I sometimes felt as if I lived a second life, a secret one, spent entirely on the Internet with my fellow Gleeks.
As a collective, Gleeks were notorious on the Internet. The fandom was divided into several factions, each revolving around a certain character or “ship”—a term short for “relationship” that is used to describe a romantic pairing of characters. As the show continued, the fandom became more and more polarized along party lines. In a 2017 post, Tumblr user twelveclara described the Glee fandom as “hell.” She wrote, “we turned on each other… character vs. character, ship vs. ship, blogger vs. blogger, we all fucking hated each other.” In an interview with Slate, the author of the Tumblr post described a typical day in the Glee fandom.
“We would watch the episode. Something inevitably would piss off some subsection, or some character would fight with a different character,” she recalled. “Because of that, it would just be a bombardment of their fans on Tumblr yelling at each other… just non-stop harassment from every side.”
When I entered the online Glee community, these arguments were everyday occurrences. It was not unusual for users to be banned from the Glee Wiki website for using hateful language during fights with rival factions of the fandom. At the time, I was deeply invested in these debates and felt genuinely hurt when someone insulted my favorite character or ship. Looking back, I agree with Tumblr user twelveclara’s statement that there is “no history [of the Glee fandom], only rage and pain and regret.”
In an interview, Tufts Film and Media Studies professor Tasha Oren gave insight as to why she believes so many people are drawn to fandom, as well as why its cultures sometimes turn ugly. “[M]uch of fandom, at its base, is simply the connection and community of people who share some cultural aspect that they love… and feel like-minded and connected through it,” she said. At the same time, “like any other social interaction, the current online culture seems to facilitate hostility and argument as much as connection and support,” she continued. “[A]nd anonymity [on the Internet]… makes such interactions easier to engage in with less repercussion.”
Although fandom culture has certainly evolved since its invention, fandoms themselves existed long before the Internet. The earliest modern fandom was actually one that was popular during the late 1800s—the Sherlock Holmes fandom. Fans of the detective series eagerly devoured each new Holmes story that Arthur Conan Doyle published, and some even wrote spin off stories about Holmes and Watson—early versions of what we call fanfiction today.
Although fandom culture thrived throughout the 20th century, it became even more modern in the 1960s with the airing of the now-iconic sci-fi TV show Star Trek. When the series was cancelled in 1968 after just two seasons, fans started a letter-writing campaign that incentivized the network to renew the show. The fandom only continued to grow from there, spawning fan conventions, homemade zines, and lots of fanfiction. The Star Trek fandom paved the way for the growth of new fandoms, and later in the century, with the ever-increasing integration of the Internet into everyday life, members of fandoms were able to communicate more easily, as well as share their fanfiction and fanart. Online discussion boards and forums also began to pop up within TV fandoms. Within these mediums, fans could discuss at length their favorite characters, episodes, and ships in addition to airing their grievances about particular storylines or plot points. Producers and writers of TV shows began to peruse these online forums to gauge how their fans were reacting to new developments in their series. Fans were starting to influence the content of the media they were ravenously consuming.
Professor Oren also spoke about the connection between the TV industry and fandom. “[T]he industry itself has been working hard to facilitate fandom,” she said. “[T]o me, that’s been the most problematic aspect of fandom, not only because it skews towards celebrity-centered practices, but also as it tends to support certain, majority kinds of fandom that become their own orthodoxy.”
Glee was notoriously influenced by its very large and extremely vocal fandom. Especially in the later seasons, its staff wrote in several storylines to appease fans—most notably, the double wedding of two queer couples in the final season was written partially to mitigate tensions between fans of each ship. Glee even broke the fourth wall on multiple occasions to directly address its fandom. For example, after one much-maligned fourth season episode featured the breakup of a beloved lesbian couple, Brittany and Santana, the writers had Brittany mention that “angry lesbian bloggers” were upset about her breakup with Santana a few episodes later. This was a direct reference to the real-life Glee fandom. This comment offended many queer fans, who were upset at being reduced to an unflattering stereotype.
In other cases, fandoms have pointed out harmful trends in the TV industry, particularly relating to queer representation on TV. For example, in 2016, fans of the dystopian sci-fi show The 100 drew attention to a media trope referred to as “Bury Your Gays,” in which queer characters die at rates disproportionate to their straight counterparts. In The 100, a lesbian character, Lexa, was shot by a stray bullet intended for her female lover and died in a scene that almost exactly mirrored an equally controversial scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer from almost 15 years earlier. The fandom was outraged and in response, organized a fundraiser for the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention services for queer teenagers. In the end, The 100 fandom raised over $170,000. They also inspired several TV show writers and producers to sign The Lexa Pledge, promising the LGBTQ+ community that they would make a conscious effort to improve queer representation on TV.
As a queer woman, fandom played a big role in my coming-out journey. When I started watching Glee at age 11, I had never seen queer characters portrayed in the media before, and I didn’t know any gay people in real life. So as I began to question my sexuality over the next couple years, Brittany and Santana were the only examples of queer women in my life up until that point. In middle school, the thought that I could be gay terrified me; on most nights I cried myself to sleep because I worried that liking girls was wrong. But when I watched Glee, for the first time, I saw characters on TV who were like me. Whenever I was sad or scared, I thought of Brittany and Santana and remembered that I wasn’t alone.
During my time as an active member of the Glee fandom, I spoke to many people online who were experiencing similar struggles with their sexualities. My Glee Wiki friends were the first people that I came out to—the anonymity of the Internet allowed me to feel safe enough to finally tell people that I was a lesbian. And because of the affirmation I received from my Internet friends, I eventually worked up the courage to come out to people in real life. By 15, I was out of the closet completely.
Today, at age 19, looking back on my middle-school era gay-panic is amusing. I am now very vocal about my queerness. I have a giant sticker on my laptop that reads “useless lesbian.” So it’s easy to laugh at my middle school self and be embarrassed about the time and energy I devoted to Glee. Still, Professor Oren validated my former Glee obsession, saying, “[A]ll of us know the experience, the enormous pleasure of finding stories or characters or worlds or artists that speak to us, that make us feel something, that click and resonate, and our natural next impulse is to share that pleasure with someone else, connect over it and enjoy it as part of a community of like-minded people. At heart, that, is what fandom is.” With Glee and with Brittany and Santana, I had found a story that spoke to me. I will always be grateful for that story and for the people I was able to share it with.