Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Do You Belong to a Cult? Fandom and the American Monomyth

In my last article, I discussed the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in light of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, as discussed in their book The Myth of the American Superhero. If you are unfamiliar with their theory, that article might be a good place to start. In this article, I would like to reflect on Lawrence and Jewett's discussion of implications of the American monomyth (for the entire entertainment industry, not only American) and the religious fervor that surrounds certain stories employing it.

Secularization of the Redemption Story

In stories featuring the American monomyth, the hero stands as a Christ figure. He is chosen, either by fate or by a guru-like figure. He controls powers beyond those of ordinary men. Through this anointing and superior ability, he is uniquely qualified to battle evil and redeem Eden’s people. Lawrence and Jewett write that the secularization of the Redeemer, “did not eliminate the need for redemption, as the Enlightenment had attempted to do, but rather displaces it with superhuman agencies” (44). This religious heritage encourages audiences to view the monomyth as possessing the same power religion levies. As a result, “fandom began to emerge as a new form of religious community” (Lawrence 47).

Fandom as Religion

“Religion is taking one’s stories seriously.” I cannot remember where I heard this, but it came to mind as I was reading The Myth of the American Superhero. Lawrence and Jewett wrote in 2002, relying heavily on the fandoms of Star Trek and Star Wars for their examples of this phenomenon, but we can see it everywhere today, as belonging to a fandom has gained popularity. They write of fandoms: “In content, mood, and motifs, this is indistinguishable from what is commonly called ‘religion’” (Lawrence 251).

Rituals

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Dressing up isn’t just for kids on Halloween anymore. Fans dress for conferences, where they buy merchandise and listen to the latest news about their passion and the people behind it. They dress up for parties and important release dates. They follow on social media their heroes’ real-life alter-egos (actors, directors, authors, etc.). Lawrence and Jewett associate these actions with “the Christian imitation ethic” and the “desire to be like one’s redeemer, to achieve union with him or her, or to gain self-identity by copying the redeemer’s appearance or actions” (258-259). These actions are very similar to religious rituals.

Discipleship and Religious Outpourings

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Over and over fans confess their “redemptive experiences” to one another online or to their heroes via email and letters. “My fandom changed my life.” A favorite story of the Harry Potter fandom involves the actress Evanna Lynch. While she was battling anorexia, she wrote to author J.K. Rowling, who promised her she could be in the movies if she beat her eating disorder. Lynch then went on to do so and play Luna Lovegood. Although the story has been repeatedly corrected (J.K. Rowling certainly encouraged Lynch, but attributing her with the actress’ redemption is exaggerating.), it persists among the faithful.

Similarly, lists of “my fandom taught me…” appear on the internet repeatedly, sometimes claiming superiority to other fandoms. Fans also write what Lawrence and Jewett dub “apocryphal literature,” but we know better as “Fan Fiction,” which “answer essentially theological questions, amplifying and illustrating the belief system” or depict the actions like those of “mystery religions” in which worshipers experience sex with their gods (Lawrence 256).

Dangerous Suspension of Disbelief

Few fans are likely to associate their passion for a story with a religious movement. Lawrence and Jewett admit, “The mocking rejoinder to this earnest question is, of course, that we should ‘lighten up’” (220). However, the content of our fandoms—both the original and fan-produced materials—“remain significantly indebted to the American monomyth—with all of its narcissistic, violent, and undemocratic tendencies” (Lawrence 264). One can add racist and sexist to this list.

I am loath to call for the renunciation of our fantasy affiliations, but I wish to second Lawrence and Jewett’s concerns: “These disturbing echoes indicate that, consciously or unconsciously, Americans are willing to relax and enthusiastically enjoy values contrary to those embodied in its religious and political institutions” (278). We must, as a culture, be more willing to subject our passions to critical examination to see how they affect our nation and our daily lives. I only request for more thought on the deeper values and underlying assumptions on which our stories rely. If, after such reflection, a need for abstinence from these stories becomes evident, then I hope we are strong enough to admit it and follow through.


Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Print.

All images used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license and do not indicate the endorsement of me or my work.

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