HIVE MIND

Being a Cumberbitch Is Good for You

Why humans are built to binge-watch shows and become scarily devoted to their favorite band.

I like the BBC show Sherlock. I mean, I really really like it. I shame acquaintances I have no business in shaming for refusing to watch. I have deeply personal feelings about Benedict Cumberbatch. I lurk on the Reddit forum. I wear the tee. But I didn’t wear it last year, and there’s a decent chance that I’ll have lost interest by this time next year.

Moffat’s lovable sociopath was the sweet escapism that recently got me through a long, tedious project; watching the episodes over and over when I couldn’t type even one more word. For that, it has earned my completely sincere and heartfelt—but probably temporary—loyalty.

We come to our fandoms during periods of personal growth, or distress, or instability; periods when we’re casting around for the cultural tools that will help us make our way in the world. At least, so claims recent theory in academic fandom (which is an actual thing!). Current thinking says that finding a fan object, those bits of pop culture around which we build a fandom, is very much a lifecycle event. We might attach ourselves to the heavy metal music of Lamb of God in the loneliness of our early teenage years, Vera Wang wedding gowns in our hopeful twenties, the Under the Nile organic baby line as we question our parenting ability in our thirties, and The Sibley Guide to Birds as a way to keep active in retirement.

Is it wrong that our pop culture loyalties are so blatantly opportunistic? On the contrary! As humans we’re always on the lookout for bits of the world we can internalize and make part of ourselves, things that can help us become a better “us.”

In the past, questions like “where do I belong,” “how should I behave,” “what can I do to succeed,” or “how can I get through this super long awful project” were the provenance of the local community, family, religious institutions, or other organizations based on class, gender, or geography. But as the population has become more mobile, in all senses of the word, alternate bits of mythology have begun to elbow out room for themselves. The Bible contains examples of how appropriate behavior leads to reward, but so does Star Wars. Or for that matter, so does yoga apparel manufacturer Lululemon, with its feel-good associations of self-improvement and personal fulfillment.

And even though the life event that inspires them may be temporary, the benefits of fandom are certainly longer lasting. Studies show that fans who are able to interact with other fans have lower levels of depression and anxiety than the general population. In the service of a fan object we learn how to socialize, celebrate, and deal with setbacks and disappointments in a healthy way.

Many a nostalgic fortysomething still retains a pair of Top Gun-style sunglasses or an old Ghostbusters figurine; these are the symbols which may have saved them in their teenage years. So many fandoms are formed during the horrors of puberty, when we have no control over anything at all, not our relationships, our schedules, our very bodies. A franchise like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games (or Ghostbusters) may have brought with it a powerful message of specialness, community, and agency in the face of adversity back when we needed it the most.

So thank you, Sherlock, for answering the call. I beat that project, just like you beat that weird Victorian cult that one time. Maybe someday soon, a sunnier fan object will suit the goals of my post-project self better. In the meantime, I’ll wear my I AM SHERLOCKED tee with pride.

Zoe Fraade-Blanar is the is a faculty member at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and the Studio 20 program at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She is co-founder and chief design officer of the crowdsourced toy company Squishable. She is the co-author of Superfandom: How Our Obsessions Are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are (W. W. Norton).