Whenever I look to fandom for a better understanding of a franchise, I still find myself returning to my roots. To that handful of old LiveJournal groups still around, and to my favorite fan Tumblrs. Fan theories are fine. They have their place, and I enjoy them for what they are. But I would trade a hundred theory videos for one compelling meta post.
Fan theories have always had their place in online fandoms. There are many roles to fill within any given community, from the more ubiquitous fan artist to fanfiction writer, to the more niche functions of meta writer and fan theorist. Several usernames ago, when I was still a regular fixture in numerous LiveJournal fan groups, the duties of meta writers, fanfiction writers, and fan theorists often intertwined.
A meta writer is what most would understand as a fandom critic. They write detailed blog posts and essays about the latest installment of their favorite TV, film, book, or video game series. These posts guide community discussion, inform fanfiction, and serve as the starting point for many theories. From the height of LiveJournal’s relevance as a fandom hub to Tumblr’s recent claim of that title, meta writers have largely held an important place.
The Harry Potter fan theory of Ron Weasley’s secret identity as a time-traveling Dumbledore is an example meta-theory-fanfiction overlap. Originating as a discussion topic in fan forums as early as 2004, fanfiction about Ron’s time-traveling adventures appeared around the same time. The theory has steadily gained traction since, thanks to coverage by outlets including Bustle and The Toast, to the point that J.K. Rowling officially responded to it in 2015. While the theory lives on in many fan theory videos and listicles, there seems to be very little left of the fanfiction or the meta posts surrounding it.
Like fanfiction writers, meta writers are often students, educators, or hobbyist writers, using fandom as a vehicle for their craft. And like fanfiction writers, at least in my personal experience, this role has been filled by women. There was a time, following the release of Star Trek XI in 2009, that my own meta posts were passed around as required reading for incoming fans new to the franchise. In my (albeit less involved) fandom experiences today, such as Hannibal and Yuri!!! on ICE, meta writers are still highly respected.
In recent months, fan theories have enjoyed rising popularity in the realm of pop culture journalism. Round-ups and listicles of the latest Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or Westworld fan theories have gone beyond the margins of fandom to mainstream coverage. Recent theories that have gained mainstream attention speculate on the evidence supporting Westworld’s multiple timelines and the prophetic meaning of the dream sequences in The Walking Dead’s season seven premiere. Booming theorist communities have sprung up on platforms, such as Reddit and YouTube, becoming an increasingly large part of how average viewers engage with popular media.
Westworld theories, in particular, have enjoyed mainstream coverage from outlets such as Forbes, The Vulture, and Time. The rise of theorists in pop culture journalism has given these fans even greater prominence, but on a much larger stage. Every week there’s a new fan theory promising to change how you think about your favorite TV show or video game. Some fandoms have become so famous for their prolific theory-crafting The Guardian has recently called them the future of television storytelling. They are diligent, thoughtful communities, hoping to predict the next chapter of their favorite franchises and unravel the lore’s mysteries. They can also just be fun to read.
As it stands today, however, the fan theorist communities that have gained public attention are a different creature from those I’ve come to know in my years in fandom. From Reddit to YouTube, the communities, and the notable theorists they cultivate around, are very often overwhelmingly male. A brief trek into theorist communities shows what a male-dominated domain it has become. Channels, such as Kmack Time, Jon Solo, Lockstin & Gnoggin, and many others, have sizable followings, covering a wide range of TV, video game, and film franchises. They are also very prolific, to the point of saturation, as communities work on a weekly basis to theorize around the latest installment of any given major series.
Some communities do their due diligence, of course. YouTuber MatPat (of Game Theory and Film Theory fame) is one of the more well-researched theory-crafters I’ve encountered. While his shows cover narrow topics in various fandoms, such Watchdogs or Game of Thrones, their research delves into the disparate fields of art history, religion, mythology, and psychology to make compelling arguments. Mike Rugnetta from PBS Idea Channel has even covered fan theories, doing so with sincerity and depth. However, this attention to detail isn’t the norm.
Evidenced by the constant aggregation of theory videos and listicles, most fan theories are flimsy conjecture. Theorists grasp at straws of random trivia or passing observation, turning anything into a video or a blog post. Is Rey the daughter of Jyn Erso?, for example, was a popular theory in early 2016, based largely on the fact that both Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones have brown hair. And, depending on the size of the franchise, these vague speculations are considered newsworthy.
But why fan theories? Why do The Vulture, The Guardian, and others reward theorists over other forms of fandom labor and analysis? It has much to do with the veneer of objectivity associated with theorizing and theory-crafting as a predominantly men’s pursuit. Theory and hypothesis are rooted in scientific language. Science is rational, logical, and orderly. It stands in opposition to the soft feelings associated with the humanities.
On the same token, fanfiction, meta-writing, and other forms of “fangirl” pursuits are derided and dismissed. These are the domains of teenage girls. There’s no shortage of authors who denounce fanfiction or media outlets willing to debate its merits. Recently, writers, such as Andy Krouse of Odyssey and Liz Burke of Tor.com, have defended the value of fanfiction. It’s an important creative outlet for marginalized voices underserved in or outrightly ignored by mainstream media. Nevertheless, the click-bait headlines of pop culture news sites are solely preoccupied with lending credence to fan theorists. Fan theorist communities are contributing something to the conversation; fanfiction and meta are not.
The reality, however, isn’t so stark. Fanfiction and meta writing, for all their derision, aren’t far removed from fan theory. All three rework and re-contextualize elements of media, with varying degrees of canon evidence. All three attempt to reconcile disparate story threads or conflicting timelines to better understand and explore a fictional world. All three are a means of engaging with media, and are important to their respective communities. And, at the end of the day, they’re just fun.
We’ll likely never see weekly listicles on the latest meta posts. The Vulture and The Guardian aren’t inclined to begin elevating fanfiction to the same status as weekly television reviews. To me, this is a wasted opportunity to engage with our most popular media spent on what too often amounts to vague speculation. As long as the male-dominated domain of fan theories are considered more valuable than the contributions of female fans, the full breadth of fandom won’t be explored.