Put Me in the Trash” is a Mick Jagger song from his third solo album, Wandering Spirit. It’s also, curiously, a phrase that superfans on the internet use to describe themselves. Such is the nature of modern fandom, which has over the centuries developed from a singular act of laborious devotion to…well, something quite similar, only exacerbated and amplified by the digital ties that now form the backbones of most fandom communities.
One of the most curious recent fandom trends to come out of Tumblr is the phrase “fandom trash” (not to be confused with “garbage person”) which first emerged on the internet in the mid-2000s but has recently undergone a renaissance. The term seems at first like an outside judgment or put-down; Urban Dictionary defines it as a fan with “an unhealthy obsession.” It may also seem like the result of backlash against the rising influence of fandom; after all, we live in a world where the comic book and YA fantasy nerds of yore have inherited the earth, or at least the highest-grossing media properties in the world.
The reality, however, is much more complicated. Mass market fandom is safe and mainstream—it’s buying a Captain America shirt or taking a trip to Universal Studios’s Harry Potter Wizarding World. But in the annals of the internet, fans are united not just by their obsessions but by their level of obsession, and have taken ownership over the term “fandom trash” to encapsulate the strength, self-deprecation, and surprisingly high stakes of fandom today.
A cursory scroll through Tumblr’s “fandom trash” tag makes it clear that fans of every stripe are now adopting the moniker. Fans of the labyrinthine webcomic Homestuck, whose inside jokes and identifying characters are legion, call each other out for tiny references to the same bizarre saga: “Seeing a Homestuck url on a non-Homestuck post like I see you, you little piece of trash,” one wrote. Harry Potter fans will confess that they’re at “a level of trashiness where I’m listening to Wizard Rock (Draco and the Malfoys) while writing Drarry fanfic. I fell deeper into the trash can.” For those in multiple fandoms, “trash” is a way of describing how ensconced in fandom they really are, or as user fxrnicariis puts it: “reblog if ur trash. all kinds of trash. doesn’t matter what kind of trash. u just know ur trash, everyone knows it. love ur trash.”
People use the term “as a preemptive way of acknowledging and dismissing themselves for being so into the thing,” fandom linguist Gretchen McCulloch explained over Skype. “They recognize that they’re into this thing that people might judge them for, so they’re going to judge themselves first.” McCulloch sees calling yourself “fandom trash” as a self-deprecating move akin to, say, captioning a selfie with “Ugh, I look so gross today.”
Daniella Lollie, who runs the Adventure Time-centered fanblog ATime Fan (its formal name: “Adventure Time Trash”), draws attention to the term’s intense self-awareness: “You’re acknowledging that someone else might judge you for this, because they should, because you’re trash.”
The fandom around the Broadway musical Hamilton is particularly trash language-inclined to the point where the joke turns literal, like this post that reads, “Allow me to present to you some actual Hamilton Trash,” along with a photo of a Hamilton, Massachusetts trashcan. It’s a phenomenon Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has publicly acknowledged. (Apparently, the Founding Fathers were ripe for fandom, if the fan blogs that existed years before Hamilton are any indication.) For fandom linguist Gretchen McCulloch, who initially associated “trash” with “lowbrow,” it’s a head-scratcher: “No one calls themselves ‘Mad Men trash’ because that’s a critically acclaimed series, but Hamilton is also very critically acclaimed. I don’t buy that theory anymore.”
Despite its ubiquity, there’s already a backlash to the term within fandom communities themselves. There are the fans who feel like the term minimizes or shames the user’s interests; other fans reject ”fandom trash” because of its potential to be misread as racist, classist, and homophobic. “The word has a lot of social, economical, and cultural baggage,” one user wrote. “I’m uncomfortable with people using it so lightly.”
But for Lollie and many other superfans, the word offers a tongue-in-cheek sense of understanding: “The nature of these fandoms is that you’re the only one there,” she says. “There are no other people in those spaces besides the trash. Nobody else is calling you trash.” It is the kind of reclamation that’s allowed marginalized groups to take back or “own” slurs. As long as the supposed insult is coming from within your group and tempered with love and understanding and community, it’s code—for seeing, and for being seen.
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The birth of modern fandom is generally attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. In 1893, he killed his titular detective and created fan uproar; more than a hundred years later, the Benedict Cumberbatch-led Sherlock has spawned its own intense fandom.
But the history of fan communities starts a little earlier than Sherlock Holmes. Many of William Shakespeare’s plays are, in modern-day parlance, fanfictions of classical myths and legends. Musicians like Johannes Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were the subject of adoring fan communities. There was the phenomenon of Lisztomania, which centered on the 19th century virtuosic pianist Franz Liszt. An episode of a fandom podcast called Fansplaining discusses literary fandom, including “commonplace books” for which philosopher John Locke advocated and which have been around since the 1400s. These books basically functioned as proto-Tumblrs—collage collections of quotes, poems, and other “highbrow” content.
But once women began creating commonplace books, men commercialized and separately “feminized” the practice by rebranding these scrapbooks as “sentiment albums,” wherein women were supposed to cultivate their wifely virtues. Instead, they were often used as multimedia fan repositories for popular male figures, particularly English poet Lord Byron. (Also noted in the podcast: The Brontë sisters, besides being novelists, also wrote Real Person Fiction of contemporaries like Duke Wellington.)
Early fandom was mostly literary-based, and as McCulloch explains, “Novels were a lowbrow, female thing.” One of the biggest early novelists, Ann Radcliffe, wrote what are known as “horrid” novels; she and fellow female novelists, writing for a female audience, were shunted into a separate categorization from the men who read history and non-fiction.
These splits—between male/female, highbrow/lowbrow, serious/amateur—continue to this day. You’re a man creating work? You can have fans of all genders and sexes. You’re a woman creating work? Your work and legacy will be downplayed. You’re a male fan? You’re legit. You’re a female fan? You’ll be policed both by your peers and by trolls. When it comes to expressing fandom, people often use the loaded, gendered word “hysteria.” And as Alexis Chaney pointed out in Vox, young women of color are essentially written out of most fandom narratives.
From the publishing world to the music industry, women and other marginalized groups still struggle to be seen as owners or arbiters of their own tastes. Last fall, former Rookie editor Jessica Hopper tweeted: “Suggestion: replace the word "fan girl" with "expert" and see what happens.” It’s been retweeted 753 times to date.
If you think all of this unnecessarily elevates the importance of fandom, consider Lollie’s two examples of the most powerful patriarchal fan communities: professional sports and organized religion. If you dispute the latter, consider the Pope. As for the former, Lollie proffers this verbal side-eye: “I’ve seen y’all at football games… y’all are trash.”
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If there’s any place where marginalized fandom communities can flourish, it’s on the internet: Digital spaces like Tumblr allow those fans to not just connect with each other, but to parse source fandom material for new, perhaps unintentional, meanings. It’s a stark contrast to the way fandom used to function.
Lollie’s parents, both avid Star Trek fans, would know. Her mom, Teresa Lollie, was introduced to the original series by her brother in the ‘60s, but it wasn’t until the show started airing as reruns that she came back to it. Teresa and her husband Gerard would buy cash-only tickets at midnight showings and meet fans there, in the workplace, or at random out in public. For their generation of fans, fandom was something that worked in linear movement: You met, commiserated, and connected with fans over the thing you all loved.
Eventually, fandom evolved to be something far amorphous and subversive. The early internet is where fandom jargon all started, the place where fans first started to use an exclamation point to denote different iterations of the same character, e.g. Alison!Sarah, for Orphan Black fans. (McCulloch attributes this to the technical aspect of early fandom: After all, it took a certain amount of capital and know-how to access Usenet or even have a computer.)
Nowadays, Tumblr continues to shape the way that fans connect and communicate with each other; the rise of “portmanteau” ship names within fandom communities corresponds to when Tumblr became the fandom gathering space of choice in 2006 (though portmanteau names were already in use, particularly for celebrity pairings/IRL “ships” like Bennifer, TomKat, and Brangelina). Previous platforms like Livejournal had supported “/” characters, e.g. Draco/Harry. Tumblr’s inability to read “/” characters in their tags forced fans to come up with different ways of referring to those pairings—hence, “Drarry.”
Portmanteaus aren’t just cute monikers—they can bring a whole new level of cultural significance to the original artwork. Many popular fandom properties have canonical straight, cis, white, male heroes—much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, or the Harry Potter franchises. On Tumblr, those fandoms explode open with new interpretations of characters, relationships, and creator intentions, with fans creating “slash”—homoerotic fanfiction—about same-sex or -gender pairings like Finn/Poe from Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Harry and Louis (Larry) from One Direction.
Fans apply this corrective casting/rewriting of mainstream narratives to not just sexuality, but also race (in the form of POC-centric race-bending and diverse fan casts for literary properties), and trans identity. It makes total sense that fans of Hamilton, itself revisionary, would recast Thomas Jefferson as a Heelys-wearing asshole and Alexander Hamilton as a pugnacious bisexual workaholic. Some mainstream creators, like Captain America's Russo brothers, humor these fandom interpretations. Lin-Manuel Miranda takes the next step of sharing and engaging with fan works directly.)
Other fandom-specific phrases come out of different and varied cultural contexts. The fanfiction terms “beta” (to proofread another fanfiction writer’s draft) and “drabble” (generally, a short piece of writing) come from the publishing world and, as McCulloch discovered, Monty Python, respectively. Fandom has co-opted and popularized everything from BROT3 to “it me.” It’s no wonder that Tumblr is the most-plundered social network for Buzzfeed stories, or that Tumblr’s fandoms have become a cultural force so huge that they merit its own formal cultural rankings.
And yet, there’s still a disconnect between how fandom is perceived from the outside and how fans themselves in the thick of it feel—thus, the confusion over “fandom trash.” This disconnect feels like a relic from fandoms past, says McColloch. The fanzines of the 90s and the message boards of the early aughts were “fandom as this really undercover thing that you didn’t necessarily tell your friends and family about,” she says. Warner Bros. was sending cease and desist letters to people who were writing Harry Potter slash. That doesn’t happen nowadays. And yet there’s still lingering embarrassment over being a fan.
For many, these internet pockets of insular fandom are still the only places offering up true diversity regarding race, sexuality, gender, and just about every other kind of marginalized representation. The passion generated in those spaces provides a way to fully explore and test identity, desire, and human connection in ways that still aren’t possible or safe to do in the public-facing world. And, well, there’s nothing trash about that.
Lilian Min is a culture writer, photographer, and fangirl. Follow her on Twitter @llnmn.