'Stan' culture needs to stop – or at least radically change. Here's why.
Swifties. Barbs. Army. Lambs.
These names correspond to celebrity fandoms. Swifties subsist on all things Taylor Swift. Barbs say "bottoms up" to anything Nicki Minaj. Army go full-on militant for BTS, and Lambs live by Mariah Carey.
Members of these groups may also be referred to as "stans" – ultrafans that will go to any length to prove their devotion to the celebrities of their choosing. But such culture can lead to everything from "addictive tendencies" to "stalking behavior," according to research – and experts say such volatility should be reevaluated.
"It's important to not hold celebrities to impossible standards because these are fallible humans with inevitable flaws and shortcomings, just like the rest of us," says Shana Redmond, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. "What we see on social media is a small slice of who they are – we can't substitute that glamour for the whole."
"Stan" comes from the Eminem song of the same name, about a dangerous super-fan of the rapper. "Stan" is also an amalgamation of "stalker" and "fan," notes Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at the Newhouse School of Public Communications Syracuse University.
Colloquially, the term doesn't immediately invoke a violent connotation.
"Today's use of 'stan' is slightly less sinister than the (original) Stan," says Kadian Pow, a lecturer in sociology and Black studies at Birmingham City University in England. "Today's usage is more along the lines of unreasonable obsession, but not necessarily crazed stalker."
Fan culture, Thompson says, can be traced back much further, even to the gladiators in ancient Rome. In more recent history, look no further than the iconic shots of women screaming and crying over The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Back then, they'd go home and write fan letters or read fan magazines – but it was mostly one-way communication. Now, celebrities and fellow stans are more accessible.
And the viral nature of social media means platforms can become powder kegs for radicalization.
"'Stan culture' has a different intensity when a celebrity can be virtually accessed any time of day, any day of the year," Redmond says.
Fans can quickly mobilize to get an artist's music climbing on the charts – think Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." But they can also make even bigger waves, like when the K-pop community may have inflated expected turnout to one of former President Donald Trump's rallies last year. Or worse, go after anyone who they perceive insulted their favorite star (see: Lady Gaga fans and Ed Sheeran).
Is there a psychological component?
Yes – though it's specific to the idea of "celebrity worship."
Research by Dr. Randy A. Sansone Dr. Lori A. Sansone, published in 2014 in "Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience," found that so-called "celebrity worshippers" might "harbor concerns about body image (particularly young adolescents), be more prone to cosmetic surgery" and could display "narcissistic features, dissociation, addictive tendencies, stalking behavior, and compulsive buying." Studies revealed that those with intense celebrity worship levels were more likely to struggle with their mental health.
Gayle Stever says three types of celebrity worship exist:
- Entertainment/social: This pertains to the everyday fan. "The items on their scale that indicate this type of celebrity worship are 'talking with my friends about my favorite celebrity is a good time,'" Stever says.
- Intense, personal: Stever adds phrases like, "'my favorite celebrity is my soul mate' and 'if my favorite celebrity were to die, I wouldn't want to live' .... this is where celebrity worship becomes troubling."
- Borderline pathological: This is someone "who says that if their favorite celebrity asked them to do something illegal, they would do it," Stever says.
"From my own observations, most persons who engage in celebrity worship at the borderline pathological level were probably already suffering from some sort of mental illness before they became so engaged in celebrity worship," says Stever, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at SUNY Empire State College.
The saturation of celebrity culture in media provides some explanation for public interest.
"We as human beings are 'hardwired' from birth to be attracted to familiar faces and voices. So, what happens when an individual watches constantly the faces and voices of attractive celebrities on a daily basis?" Stever says. "One theory is that attachment forms that is much like the attachment one might form to any familiar person, such as a friend or family member."
Some level of celebrity worship, then, is inevitable. But that doesn't mean it will always reach the "stan" level.
The negatives of 'stan' culture
Stan culture is flawed because people are flawed. How can you expect someone who is talented at singing, for example, to be great at everything?
"I really, really admire my urologist because he was able to get kidney stones out of my body," Thompson says. "I do not also, therefore, think my urologist is completely free and perfect in every other way."
While "stan" does imply unwavering support that doesn't mean such affection is indestructible.
"If the object of adoration does the wrong thing, that iteration can very quickly shift to hostility," says David Schmid, associate professor of English at the
University at Buffalo. Some fans stood by R. Kelly and Michael Jackson after sexual abuse allegations surfaced, for example. But other fans were crushed.
Such let downs aren't unexpected.
"When (figures) show themselves to be something other than what you imagine, disappointment is expected," Redmond says. "And it can happen often as we're constantly inundated with new media meant to hook us and make us fall for someone."
Schmid says some celebrities don't get involved more directly with their fans in an effort to not bite the hand that feeds them.
We've always demanded a lot from celebrities – for them to be absolutely unlike us but also relatable – a confounding contradiction.
"A celebrity cannot possibly satisfy both of those requirements at the same time," Schmid says.
Still, celebrities could do more to rein their fans in. For example, anyone who talks negatively about Taylor Swift can expect to get skewered by her Swifties.
"We talk a lot about the power that the stans have. But we're not talking enough about the power that the celebrities have over those stans," Schmid says. "And I think that needs to be more front-and-center going forward."
Such "dragging" can be "destructive," says Pow.
"To keep the image unsullied, they have to target those who malign that image," Pow adds.
Plus, not all "stan" culture is necessarily bad.
Stanning also fuels social media appreciation for entertainment: "Without our need to talk about the things we love (and hate) what would there be on many of these platforms? So, stanning can give meaning to our lives that we don't derive from the obligations we have to meet."
Schmid thinks stan culture need not be demonized, but used as a force for good. Think about how many people Ariana Grande and Swift have inspired politically, for example.
Plus, it's ludicrous to imagines stans will ever not stan.
"A big part of the pleasure is the purity of the obsession, and the purity of the extremity," Schmid says.