Kathleen Smith Combines Fangirling With Mental Health Issues

The author of "The Fangirl Life" talks about where fandom intersects with mental health. 

As fandom becomes a more pervasive cultural force, fangirls and fanboys are more empowered than ever. Thanks to Twitter, they can engage with the creators of their favorite books, films, or shows, and thanks to sites like Tumblr, they have the power to meet more like-minded people than ever. But, of course, the idea of fandom is intimately tied with mental health. Depending on your approach, it can provide you with a touchstone that gets you through difficult life experiences or an obsession that prompts unhealthy behavior. After all, the word “fanatic” is at its root. But how does one distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fandom?

Kathleen Smith knows. Smith is a licensed therapist and a self-proclaimed fangirl whose book, The Fangirl Life, combines her knowledge of both areas. Smith spoke with Inverse about how fandom and mental health collide, how fandom transcends age, and more.

What’s your own background in fandom?

I actually came to fangirling a little later in life. I was very fortunate in the sense that I always had friends around who were willing to cry about Star Wars with me. So I didn’t really feel the impulse to search for broader communities online. I didn’t become involved in internet fandom until after college.

What prompted your involvement?

I was big into the Glee fandom. I got interested in the fashion of the show, and I was like, “Are there people who catalog and keep up with this sort of thing?” It turns out that there were. I had always known about fan fiction and fan culture and other things like that, but that spurred a higher level of involvement for me.

How do you tie your therapy background into this?

I also teach as an adjunct professor. I teach people who are becoming counselors, so I get a lot of experience learning and thinking about all the different techniques and theories that are used in psychotherapy. So I tried to pull basic strength-focused things that are easy for people to practice on their own and cloak them in fangirl language and apply them. So instead of a technique that somebody might use to motivate themselves to stop smoking, you can use those same techniques to motivate yourself not to check Instagram 370 times a day.

Where do you draw the line between a healthy and an unhealthy level of fandom?

I don’t think it’s the fangirling, itself, necessarily that’s harmful, it’s when I’m using it too much to distract myself from opportunities for growth in my own life. So if I’m feeling anxious about something, then I might be thinking about fictional people more or engaging in a Netflix binge. Of course, if you do anything too much it can be bad for you — fangirling is not an exception. But if I’m distracting myself too much, then I’m not really getting the most out of life. And I’m not getting the most out of fangirling either because it doesn’t have to be a distraction from your worries. It can be a really positive thing as well.

What do you think are the benefits fandom has for mental health?

There is a community that is intimately available to you to be supportive. Of course, the flip side of that is there’s all kinds of misinformation floating around the internet in any setting, and fandom isn’t an exception. I make myself follow the rule that it’s not my place to correct people about things like that. It’s unethical for me as a clinician to correct every person on Tumblr who says something about depression I don’t think is correct, because that would be a neverending task.

Fandom has this organizing power that naturally happens and sometimes it’s for good and sometimes for bad. But for mental health, it’s usually a good thing. There’s always people who want to point people in the right direction to getting help if they need it.

Did you have to do any research for your book? Were there any parts of fandom you weren’t as familiar with?

I wasn’t setting out to explain or research every aspect of fandom. I’m very involved with television shows and there’s plenty of other types of fangirling, be it boy bands or anime or all sorts of other things that people gravitate to. Those are things I don’t necessarily have experience with. So I collected a few polls asking questions like, “How out are you about your fangirling? Is it something you do secretly?” I wanted to get a sense of how comfortable people are talking about it with anybody or only a few people.

Did you find that a lot of people are still in the closet about it? Or do you think most people are out?

I think it’s a generational thing. I had been explaining to my dissertation chair why I hadn’t been working on it — “I’ve been writing a book on crying while fangirling.” She didn’t know what that was, I had to explain it. People my age have a little bit of a harder time, but for teenagers today, it’s just part of the culture. There’s definitely some stigma, but that’s changing. If you like something and you really enjoy it, then it’s just sort of assumed that you’re a fangirl.

What are the shows that you’re currently most into?

I’ve been on this kick lately of being into shows that don’t really have big fandoms, or I just haven’t discovered them yet. I am watching The 100. It’s a CW show, so some weeks it’s going to be great, some weeks it’s going to be iffy, but it’s pure entertainment. I just started watching The Path on Hulu, and I was really into Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

When you first get into a show, what’s your process of discovery like for its fandom?

If you don’t know someone online you automatically assume they’re cooler than you, which isn’t always the case. But I usually just send out a message saying, “What do you have to do to be in this fandom?” And people respond with funny answers, like, “You have to do these three challenges.” If you approach it with humor, people are really responsive versus the power games of: “What’s the hierarchy in the fandom? Who are the gate keepers?” I don’t pay attention to anything like that.

Most fandoms come with conflicts. For example, if it’s a TV show adapted from a book, some will say, “You’re not a real fan if you didn’t read the book.” What are your thoughts on fandom drama?

Any time you have humans involved in something, there’s going to be conflict and hierarchy. When you take away that in-person interaction, it’s easier to make assumptions about people you’ve never met. It’s something that I’m sure going to encounter even with this book, because I’m not a big fan person who’s written tons about it. I write about mental health mainly. So I’m sure there are plenty of people who are going to say that I’m not famous or established enough to have written something. Gate-keeping never ends. That’s just a part of life.

Do you subscribe to aspects of fandom like shipping? Or is it also something you kind of stay out of?

I get invested in a lot of shows where I don’t ship any characters — but when I’m in, that’s that’s what I’m talking to my friends about.

What are your most major ships over the years?

I was a big Battlestar Galactica fan and I sort of always ship the older couples on shows — I don’t know what in my development led to that. So I really liked Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell who played President Laura Roslin. They were a big ship for me.

Cons have happened in the past, but they’ve become a much more prevalent part of fandom in recent years. What are your thoughts on them?

I think it’s wonderful. I’ve been to some and I’m going to go to a bunch this year promoting the book. I’m a big sci-fi fan, but I’m not really into a lot of the Marvel and DC superhero stuff a lot of people are drawn to at conventions. So, I haven’t been engaged in that way. But one of the things that I loved when I was at C2E2 was just how diverse the crowd was. Literally every person you can imagine can be a fan. It was cool to see because it’s not necessarily represented on our screens or in books. Fans are everywhere, it’s families, it’s parents, and their kids. It’s everyone of any age.

Do you discuss fandom with your patients at all in your therapy work?

What I have found useful is a type of therapy called “narrative therapy.” It lends itself to fangirling because it’s built on creating your own narrative; refusing to subscribe to the stories that society says about who you should be and how you should act. One of the cool things in it is called externalizing your problem. Rather than thinking that you’re the source of all your problems, it’s taking it outside and giving it a name. In the book I talk about how you can think of this villain that you hate, like, Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter or Joffrey from Game of Thrones. If you say, “I got stood up on a date so I’m going to die alone with 57 cats,” that feels really negative. But if you say, “Dolores Umbridge thinks I’m going to die alone with 57 cats,” all of a sudden that’s a ridiculous statement. What does she know?

What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about fangirling?

I don’t think people understand all of the non-superficial stuff that happens with fangirling and the wonderful relationships that are built. I’m getting married next year and there’s going to be a table of people at my wedding that I met on the internet who are some of the most important people in my life. Even though we might not be crying about the same fictional ladies at the same time anymore, it’s not just a passing thing. We’re going to be in each other’s lives a long time. I met one of my best friends because we both cried about the same character’s hair. It’s silly, right? But actually being able to find people who can see that level of silliness in you, but also see personal things that you’ve written or thought about — those make for good friendships.

What excites you most about the future of fandom?

I like how stories that are really popular are able to be developed that may have not had an audience 20 years ago. Not that I want every book to be turned into a movie, but just the fact that fans being engaged and encouraging, like, “These are characters and stories that we really enjoy” — people listen, and that’s wonderful. The flip side of that is I don’t want a reboot of every show I love. I want to see new stories and new people applauded for their writing and effort. Fandom is a very big voice and allows for paths open up that weren’t able to exist without the internet.