Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her latest book release Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas on her blog, Peregrination.
Conversations about toxic fan culture pop up constantly. To name just a few in recent memory, there was the Twitter debacle in 2018 over an account claiming to have the funds and support to remake Star Wars: The Last Jedi due to how much fans supposedly hated it. Then there is also Gamergate and “fake geek girls,” as well as a group of Rick and Morty fans who harassed the female writers of the show because they blamed them for the flaws of the third season. But what I think we’ve yet to truly ask ourselves is: “who really owns an idea?” Especially when that idea is designed for mass consumption, mass engagement, and encourages “fandom.”
What should come as no surprise is that I follow these conversations closely. Partially due to the fact that I have been a nerd since grade school and partially out of my ongoing anthropological interest in how media and film shape the practice of religion. But what began to catch my eye in the midst of these conversations was the appearance, and the specific usage, of religious language. Certain kinds of criticism have become “blasphemy,” shooting locations have become “pilgrimage” sites, and anything that doesn’t pass the approval of a certain sub-set of self-appointed esoteric gate-keepers is quickly labeled a violation of “canon.” Canon, as I am using it here, has a dual meaning. One, in the religious sense, as a “collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine” and two, in the film and literature sense, as “official history/documentation of in-universe events.”
In fact, the links between religion and modern media fandom have been growing for some time now and today it is not at all unusual to find pop culture characters and celebrities rendered into religious art (for example, Google “Saint Carrie Fisher” or “Saint Betty White”). Or to find individuals brandishing the icons and merchandise of their favorite movies, books, and television shows in the same manner as one might don a cross pendant or a yarmulke (the overt religious themes of many of these works often making this comparison especially salient). In both cases the object publicly identifies an affiliation, and in the ever-growing pious devotion of popular culture, that affiliation is often a spiritual one.
While I could go on about the zeal and prostrations of the “real fan” (read: ardent believer) and the role of the internet in fandom and communal identity forever, what actually concerns me here is the material culture (or material religion) itself in the context of pop culture religiosity. You’ve certainly seen the merchandise: the Funko Pop figures, the printed t-shirts, the keychains, the prop reproductions and sculptures, the costumes and clothing, and everything else branded under the sun that one might purchase and display to index a personal connection to specific story worlds and characters. It might seem odd that I am drawing links here between religious commodification and the marketing and sale of toys and knick-knacks from popular movies and books, but they are not as different as they might initially appear.
The Gospel According to Capitalism
The relationship between religion and consumer culture has always been a fraught one. In many cases, globalization has accelerated the consumption of religious and ritual objects from a variety of cultures but in turn, it has also (re)introduced other goods into cultural and religious practices that did not originally include them (see also, “pizza effect”). Take, for example, the famous Tibetan Singing Bowl. According to a wide variety of websites and self-help books, Tibetan Singing Bowls date back thousands of years and have always been integral to Buddhist meditation practices and, before that, Bon (shamanic) healing in the Himalayas. It might surprise you then to learn that Tibetan Singing Bowls are really an invention of the 20th century, having gained popularity when Eastern religious traditions were introduced to the West. Martin Brauen (as quoted in Ben Joffe) even notes “that the bowls are neither ‘Tibetan’ nor ‘ritual’ in origin” and proposes that their beutiful tone “was recognized one day by a clever businessman” and that it is since then – whenever then was – that “the bowls have been marketed as Tibetan ritual objects.”
But what is even more important for my argument here is that Tibetan Singing Bowls are now, in fact, a part of Tibetan Buddhist meditation in a variety of contexts throughout South Asia and the rest of world. In short, once they became popular “religious objects” for sale, they became popular religious objects actually.
Religious commodification is an arena that has gained increasing interest among social scientists, especially where religious symbols and artefacts are being appropriated by both adherents and non-adherents in an attempt to capitalize on growing worldwide markets. In what Sophia Rose Arjana calls the “mystical marketplace,” these objects, many of which are distinctly associated with orientalist versions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, are stripped of their original contexts and then reimagined as representatives of a kind of timeless, exotic, spirituality to be consumed by economically dominant Westerners. But this short thought-piece is about those consecrated objects whose marketing and sale is what made them sacred in the first place (like the Tibetan Singing Bowls but drawn from Harry Potter and Star Wars rather than the Tripitaka and the Mahayana Sutras). This is about a growing link between religion and fandom and the “ritual objects” that the latter now produces.
One Ring to Buy Them All
Let’s look at another example – The One Ring, from The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). Grant Major, one of the movies’ production designers described the creation of the original prop thusly:
“Tolkien’s idea of the ring, though highly descriptive in its origin and the terrible power it has over its wearer, was described physically as being a simple golden band. This band is able to expand and shrink to fit the hand that wears it and when heated reveals a phrase in Black Speech: ‘One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.’ “When first tasked with the design of this most important prop for The Fellowship of the Ring, I thought it would probably take forever to agree on its look with the director, producers, the studio, LOTR experts, and fans all weighing in. You can imagine the visual significance to the film, the marketing, and other spin-offs, and how this iconic object would have to endure all sorts of ongoing scrutiny and re-production.”
“It’s interesting to understand that, at this phase of development in late 1998, the film project was completely under the radar, with none of the hype that surrounds it now. And Peter Jackson had the last word in all these design decisions. As it transpired, the overall design concept was quick and easy, one of the producers, Rick Porras, was about to be married and the ring he had chosen was identified as a good starting point for ‘The One Ring.’ Its profile was perfectly bulbous and ‘weighty’ and had a significant ‘historic’ look, was well proportioned and simple enough to carry the phrase on its internal and external surfaces. Alan Lee produced some additional sketches of the ring but it didn’t change significantly from this first idea. A local jeweler from Nelson, New Zealand, Jens Hansen, was chosen to make these ring props. After various prototypes were produced, a final version was chosen and then multiples were made for the actors and doubles in various units, many more were made latterly for publicity and gifts.”
“There were also versions made for specific moments in the story; an extra-large one was used for a super close-up when placed on a table in Bag End to achieve a forced perspective effect. Another version was made from a magnetic metal so that when dropped onto the floor inside the front door of Bag End it would appear heavy and not bounce. From memory, there was never a version with the glowing lettering — this became a visual effect. The lettering itself was a direct copy of that found in the book. But it was such a privilege to help bring this iconic prop to life and see how it has now become the definitive version for this movie phenomenon.”
And there, in the last line, is the clue; “the definitive version for this movie phenomenon.” There isn’t just One Ring in Lord of the Rings, there’s only One Ring for the fans as well. In short, the movie ring, itself drawn from “canonical” texts, has gone on to become fandom canon. There are no other versions of it, at least, not if one is being “faithful” to the work (see also, the term “screen accurate”). This is how material representation in movies comes to dominate the representation of fictional narratives overall. And in a context where fictional worlds are blending with a kind of religious ideology and cultural structure, it is the objects themselves that have come to embody the believer’s aesthetic. In a sense, it’s a new and colorful take on Capitalism’s old tenet that “you are what you buy” or, perhaps in this case, fandom is how much money you’ve tithed into the right kinds of accessories.
It’s also really another way of saying that there is a tremendous amount of identity signaling, community belonging, and emotional weight and personal investiture hiding behind those mundane plastic exteriors. In the end, very much the same can also be said of the objects created for Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sherlock, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones. The book-to-movie adaptation (or original movie, as the case may be) made the story visual. Once the story became visual, the representation became canon (right along with the images of the actors who play the characters). And once the objects become canon, the consequent marketing and dissemination endeavors to make them sacred. It solidifies their iconic status, directly links them to the new mythology, entitles them to respect and protection, and makes them worthy of veneration. Now sacred, the swag of fandom has become the ultimate Fetish, both religious and economic. Marx and Freud would be turning in their graves.
But you know what? The thing is, I love my nerd stuff. I have a lot of it. In fact, my constant companion for nearly two years of fieldwork in the high Himalayas of Nepal (where I study material ritual objects of the more traditional kind) was a TARDIS necklace I’ve had since the beginning of graduate school. I also own my fair share of Mystery Science Theater 3000 merchandise (I will even admit to a full-sized, fully-functional, Tom Servo), Harry Potter wands and books purchased during a Universal Studios vacation, and a box of Star Trek memorabilia I’ve had since childhood. I had always thought of these things as touchstones to my favorite stories but my work since has demonstrated that they are much more than that. And in the world of ever-increasing pop culture orthodoxy, I may yet find myself a heretic after all.
If you are interested, also check out:
1. “Tripping On Good Vibrations: Cultural Commodification and Tibetan Singing Bowls” by Ben Joffe. 2015.
2. “The Lord of the Rings and Christian Symbolism.” 2020.
3. Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace by Sophia Rose Arjana. 2020.
4. “Star Trek Fandom as Religious Phenomenon” by Michael Jindra. 1994.
5. “Could Harry Potter Give Rise to a New Religion?” by Cristela Guerra.
6. “Star Wars is Becoming a Religion, and May 4th is its Spring Festival” by Adam Rogers. 2018.
[All images in this blog are provided by the author.]