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It was Saturday afternoon, March 4. Reuters had just posted a video of a bewildered Emma Watson defending her decision to pose semi-topless for Vanity Fair in an interview promoting Beauty and the Beast: “Feminism is about giving women choice,” she said. Within the hour, the 26-year-old was being slammed again, this time by an unexpected source: Beyoncé fans.
It was only minutes before members of the “Beyhive” resurfaced a 2014 Wonderland Magazine quote of Watson admitting she felt conflicted about whether or not the singer could be a feminist and still provide a “very male, voyeuristic” experience in her music videos. That evening, a scroll through Watson’s Instagram comments revealed a slew of bee emoji, the words “Emma Watson is a hypocrite” and the hashtag “#WhiteFeminism.”
On the morning of March 7, Watson took to Twitter to defend herself again, this time with two screenshots of her original Wonderland quote in full to illustrate how out of context her comments had been taken. Less than six hours later, the entire Emma Watson vs. Beyoncé debacle was a major headline for outlets like E! News , Us Weekly, Variety, and this very site. While members of the Beyhive were busy lauding their idol online (who, for the record, had just attended the March 2 premiere of Beauty and the Beast with her daughter, Blue Ivy), they were inadvertently pitting two outspokenly feminist women against one another — who, offline, actually have zero problems with each other.
These intense fans are not just fans, but stans: a portmanteau of the words “stalker” and “fan” that denotes someone who is so passionate about their fandom, they’ll stop at nothing to defend their favorite celebrity (or “fave,” as they’re often called in the stan community) against anyone who appears to criticize them. This is different than the superfan, an enthusiastic person who may mail off photographs in the hopes of an autograph, or line up outside of concerts and movie premieres in hopes of a tiny bit of star contact.
Stans are much more fervent — and much more rabid. And thanks to social media, a medium that's given anyone, anywhere access to celebrities at their fingertips, they’re becoming much more rampant. “Stanning” has created a precarious and often hostile world where fans can create nonexistent feuds, cyberbully celebrities off social media, and influence both popular culture and the news cycle. This is more than celebrity love. This is obsession — and more and more, it’s creating a cultural toxicity that borders on dangerous.
Stans are a classic example of what I call ‘soft cults'...The Internet has provided a great place for fans to come together, yes, but it also channels their rage, despair, and resentment."
“Stans are a classic example of what I call 'soft cults,'” says Derek Thompson, author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. “In sociology, cults are groups that self-organize around the principle that the mainstream is bad in some way, and then offer a positive rebellion against it. The internet makes it easier for them, not only because you can self-organize around a single positive idea like Beyoncé is awesome, but also because you can organize around an opposition, like Rihanna fans are trash. The internet has provided a great place for fans to come together, yes, but it also channels their rage, despair, and resentment.”
Anyone who’s ever watched old videos of teenage Elvis Presley fans inexplicably crying at the rock-'n'-roll star’s concerts in the 1950s can tell you that fanatical fans aren’t new. Even the term “stan” dates back to the pre-social media era, coined in a 2000 hit song by Eminem. That song, which features Dido, is a dark, melancholy rap about a fan named Stan who turns out to be not just maniacal, but suicidal. Celebrity worship was on the rise back then, and the song touches on the dark side of fame. In 2003, a study in the Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease found that a third of the population suffered from “borderline-pathological” levels of a disorder actually called Celebrity Worship Syndrome. And that was before Twitter and Instagram.
With social media, celebrity worship only grew more intense. By 2009, the term “stan” had emerged as a badge of pride — and the stars embraced it. That year, Lady Gaga declared her fan base her “Little Monsters.” Then followed dozens of devoted stan bases: Beyoncé’s Beyhive (which launched as an official website in 2012, and is now undisputed as both the most massive and most powerful stan base), Rihanna’s Navy, Justin Bieber’s Beliebers, Gomez’s Selenators, Katy Perry’s KatyCats, Demi Lovato’s Lovatics, Jennifer Lopez’s JLovers, the Directioners (who are still holding on to hope that the group hasn’t disbanded for good), and many more. Each is an army millions strong who don’t hesitate to devote a large chunk of their time — hours, days, weeks — to revering their “fave,” whether that means regularly listing their many accolades on Twitter, creating fan Instagrams, or taking it upon themselves to fight their beloved’s presumed battles on social media.
Oftentimes it works to a star's benefit: Why fight your own battles when you have an army to do it for you? After a botched New Year’s Eve performance, Mariah Carey’s “Lambly” was at the ready, prepared to tear down anyone who dared to criticize her. ("She was hacked, maybe Putin is tryin' to hate, but it's ok we will save her because she can't do it alone!") When Remy Ma released a dis track against Nicki Minaj in February, Minaj’s “Barbs” spent the day defending their head Barb on Twitter. ("Name five Remy Ma songs...you cant! Nicki is the Queen Of Rap, hands down!!!!)
Fans have become so important, so influential that the iHeartRadio Awards even gives them an award. This year Fifth Harmony accepted the award for Best Fan Army; their faithful Harmonizers had clocked in 39 million votes to earn them the nod. “For our girls!!!!!” thousands of Twitter users retweeted alongside crying GIFs and memes of Kermit the Frog clutching his heart.
You’d be mistaken to think such stans are immature high schoolers or aimless adults living on the fringes of society. They aren’t. Take the college student behind the Instagram account Bound2West, which has 441,000 followers. She’s a 21-year-old Kimye Stan (that would be Kim Kardashian and Kanye West) majoring in finance who also has a part time job in her family’s business. Each day she posts about a handful of photos capturing the couple’s day-to-day lives: There’s a Kanye-Kim date night, with both wearing fur; there’s Kanye carrying son Saint around town while running errands; there’s Kim and her assistant loading North and Saint in the car. Every day Bound2West (who wishes to remain anonymous) scours Twitter, photo agency websites, and celebrity websites and blogs for the latest and greatest photos of the West family.
Last year, her dedication paid off: Kardashian invited Bound2West and a handful of other Kim stans to a fan lunch in Los Angeles. “When Kim’s assistant direct messaged me and invited me to a special lunch for fans, it was the most surreal experience of my life,” she says. “She is the sweetest person I have ever met, and Kanye is a brilliant, genuinely nice guy. It shows how deeply Kim and Kanye care about their fans and I'm proud to admire such thoughtful people.”
Bound2West says she receives tons of nasty comments from Kimye haters — hundreds every day, she estimates — which she says she either ignores or blocks the users, rather than engaging. “It's pretty pointless, in my opinion, to argue with such hateful, sad, and jealous people,” she says. “I mean, who has the time to sit and talk badly about celebrities they’ve never met?”
In its best worst-case scenario, the zealousness of stanning creates public relations messes that the celebrity idols themselves need to clean up. In December, after Rihanna liked a photo on Instagram without reading the caption — it claimed her album Anti deserved more album nominations than Bey’s Lemonade — stans from her “Navy” fanbase screenshotted and reposted the moment so many times that the Bajan singer had to address the issue: “I never actually read your caption, thought the pic [sic] was funny and moved right along!” she commented on the Instagram. “We don't need to be putting black women against each other!"
But it was too late. “Rihanna Denies Feud With Beyoncé Over Grammys 2017,” proclaimed The International Business Times; “Rihanna Puts An End To Those Beyoncé Feud Rumors,” came from The Huffington Post. and “Rihanna Would Like Everyone To Please Stop Pitting Her Against Beyoncé,” was Vogue ’s take.
“When Kim’s assistant direct messaged me and invited me to a special lunch for fans, it was the most surreal experience of my life... It shows how deeply Kim and Kanye care about their fans and I'm proud to admire such thoughtful people.”
No doubt the so-called feud led to millions of clicks, perpetuating a cycle that only encourages stans to try to create more controversy as they try to get recognition for this celeb-defending tweet or that hilarious meme that was retweeted thousands of times.
In its worst form, though, stanning can devolve into violent expressions via social media. Last August, for example, Justin Bieber posted photos with model Sofia Richie. The then 17-year-old Richie received so many death threats from fans of Bieber’s ex, Selena Gomez, that Bieber deactivated his Instagram page. In 2015, R & B singer Kehlani tried to commit suicide after fans allegedly cyberbullied and slut-shamed her for supposedly cheating on her then-current boyfriend with her ex.
“The regular person has more of a voice now — they get as much coverage as the actual celebrity,” says Cooper Lawrence, author of Cult of Celebrity: What Our Fascination With the Stars Reveals About Us. “The stan is now a part of the story. Beyoncé announces her pregnancy, and the story is ‘The Top 10 Tweets From The Beyhive.’ Thanks to the rise of stans, when the media covers pop culture, they no longer just cover the news. They cover our reaction to it.”
Those reactions have transformed stans into a potent cultural force: The outrage they express, the faux scandals they gin up, the underlying tensions they create between the artists they speak for, have spawned a simmering hostility beneath the seemingly harmless frivolity of celebrity worship. The tension is constant. The stans have, in effect, turned the lives of our stars into one long-running and tense reality show, one that the rest of fans are all forced to tune into. In fact, it’s a reality show that’s not unlike the one playing out on our president’s Twitter feed right now.
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