There are a number of roles to play in the realm of pop culture, but it’s rare that we give much thought to what is, perhaps, the most important one. Entertainment media is nothing without the fan. The fan is the one who allows a work to succeed. If you have no fan base, your efforts will most certainly fail.
Yet even that idea isn’t so simple: there are your standard fans — the people who make an effort to tune in to a TV show every week, or those who make sure they get every album by their favorite band — and then there are the super-fans. For super-fans, mere spectatorship isn’t enough. They are driven by an unseen, unknown force to become involved with their popular culture poision of choice, and, frankly, there isn’t anything wrong with this. It is these people who help get out the latest word to the rest of us with their fanzines and moderated message boards. There are even those who try to keep their characters alive through the widespread creation of fan-fiction, or its slutty half-cousin “slash.”* In short, the super fan is important in helping to create and solidify otherwise distant fan-based-communities, be they digital or physical. Such social networks have become an important sphere in our modern, media-based world.
Take, for example, Kevin Buckstiegel: the creator of “Bea Arthur in The Limelight,” a fan site devoted to that star of the stage and the small screen, Beatrice Arthur. While best known for her role of Dorothy on the hit 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls, as well as Maude Findley of All in the Family and the subsequent spinoff, Maude, Arthur has had a long and distinguised career, spanning both the early days of television and the New York theatre scene.
Buckstiegel’s site offers a biography section that features not only a lengthy and informative piece on Arthur, re-printed from a 1973 magazine publication, but also mini-bios, pulled from other sources on the web, of many of her former co-stars and collaborators, including the rest of the Golden Girls cast. This is not, however, the limit to the site’s information. It is a treasure trove of Bea Arthur data. There is a news section, which is fairly well updated and does a good job of publicizing her frequent live appearances, as well as an area that attempts to debunk Bea Arthur myths and rumors. For fans, as well as internet users with passing curiosities, this website is the only place to go for the hard details on the life and career of one of the entertainment industry’s few remaining romantic figures.
Beyond all this, Buckstiegel’s site includes a vast collection of Arthur materials that would make any hardcore fan giddy. This includes a massive bounty of full digitized video clips of television interviews and performances, as well as live appearances. On top of this, there is a wide variety of audio samples, photos, scanned press clippings, images of Bea memorabilia, and a re-published 1998 interview from A and U – America’s AIDS Magazine. The website is no less than a virtual Bea Arthur archive.
Buckstiegel has done far more than this, however. He has merged this ease of information access with the other unique quality of the internet: instant world-wide communication. He has created a Bea Arthur message board, as well as a Yahoo Group devoted to the actress. In this way, “Limelight” has been able to bring together fans and establish a community where none had existed before. He has truly perfected the role of the super fan.
There is a dark side to this coin, however. While some super-fans have been able to find creative or useful outlets to their love of a work, others have taken this same energy and put it into something that is…well…worthless. The comparison between the two types is well exhibited by Thank You for Being a Friend: A Golden Girls Trivia Book, written by Michael D. Craig and published by Five Apples Press (a company which seems to be little more than Craig himself). The first, and most obvious question to ask is, “What is the purpose of such a publication?” If it is for fans of the show to learn lots of neat little facts about the four elderly characters, that seems fine enough, but who would pay $13.95 for information that is readily available on fan pages across the internet, especially when they could use that money to purchase the DVD collections of the program?
If we ignore this notion, however, and assume that there is a market for an item like Thank You for Being a Friend, this doesn’t change the fact that it is, simply put, very poorly done. The one possible positive quality of such a book is that it could be used for fans to gather together, quiz each other, and essentially just enjoy a common interest – as well as each other’s company. This is difficult with Craig’s structure. The book is divided into several different sections offering different types of quizzes. There’s the general multiple choice questions, the true and false statements, and the far-too esoteric “Who Said It?!”, where the reader must identify the speaker and listener of a specific quote.
The problem is, the answers to all of these questions are buried deep within the back of a book and blank spaces are provided for the reader to fill in the answers themselves. By doing this, Craig has clearly attempted to create a personal trivia book. And let’s face it, when quizzing friends, nobody wants to spend time filling in blanks and flipping to the back of a book. It is less a fun trivia book, and more of a Golden Girls work book. Of course, this is great if you happen to be taking American Culture 462: Introduction to Geriatric Sitcoms, but somewhat less enjoyable for the average fan.
The poor quality digital cover picture, and complete lack of Golden Girls imagery — clearly due to rights issues — further implies that this was not a sanctioned work, but rather only the work of a lone, diehard fan. In addition to this, the selection of “Classic Quotes” which ends the piece lacks the sharp wit and sassy humor Bea Arthur and the show in general are so well-known for. They lean more towards the obscure and uninteresting, if not just confusing. As a whole, the book seems to lack any redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s just another unnecessary piece of material in an period already suffering from information overload.
The lesson in all of this is that the super-fan should not be dismissed as an eccentric loon, as society tends to label them. They play an important role in fan culture, and without them, pop culture communities could not exist in the manner that they do. Yet while they can be constructive in establishing such communities, they can at the same time be little more than obsessive devotees trying to find an outlet for their interests that will only serve their interests. This is the distinction that can determine whether or not a super-fan is doing something worthwhile, if not completely needed, or if they are just an irritant for society as a whole. Of course, do you know the name of Dorothy’s pompous and bigoted novelist friend? I do. It was Barbara Thorndyke. That episode was a classic.
* While the Modern Pea Pod in no way condones the creation of fan-fiction or slash, we do not judge or condemn those who use it as a creative outlet.
Reviewed by Aaron Kahn