Okay, it’s a little bit about Beyoncé. But it’s mostly about her fans.
Here’s the thing: the Bey Hive is passionate and smart and dedicated. Some factions of the fandom can also be terrifying.
As Adrie Rose pointed out in her February 2020 piece on the pointlessness of
celebrity fandom, “any time a hint of criticism levelled at Beyoncé surfaces on the internet, her fans descend on the hapless originator with all the energy of junior high students on winter break.”
I’d argue that Rose is referring to Beyoncé’s stans, which are a particularly dedicated subset of her fandom, but aside from that? Accurate. In 2019, stans attacked Nicole Curran, the wife of Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob, after a video of her leaning over Beyoncé to talk to Jay-Z went viral. They left nasty comments—and many bee emojis—on her Instagram posts, and even sent her death threats. It got so bad that Bey’s publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, had to post a reminder to the Hive not to “spew hate.”
In fact, these stans have earned enough of a reputation for ruthlessness that when Bey’s mom, Tina Knowles-Lawson, went on a posting spree in early July defending her daughter after some critics accused the singer of cultural appropriation and straight-up lifting imagery from La Maison Noir: The Gift and the Curse, a 2018 visual album by Congolese-Angolan artist Petite Noir, I was hesitant to post about it. Not because there’s nothing to the critique—a side-by-side comparison of the two projects reveals what writer Kuba Shand-Baptiste described as “an uncomfortable amount of similarities.”
It’s more that I was worried the stans would get me. And honestly, that doesn’t have as much to do with Beyoncé, or Black is King, as you might think.
The Origins of Stan Culture
Forgive the nerdy aside, but I wrote my undergrad thesis on the Harry Potter fandom, and I have shockingly few opportunities to reference what I learned. So: the word “fan” comes from the word “fanatic,” and for a long time, academics allowed that linguistic relationship to shape their understanding of these folks. Modern fan culture grew out of Star Trek fandom in the 1960s, but quickly grew to encompass sports fans, video game fans, book fans and, yes, music fans. According to media scholar Henry Jenkins, who wrote one of the most influential books on fan culture to date, early academic research tended to pathologize fans, framing them as either obsessed loners who have “intense fantasy relationship with a celebrity figure” or frenzied devotees who scream and cry in the presence of their favourite band/riot at sporting events, depending on their gender. In both cases, though, they were understood to be deviant.
Jenkins helped to broaden our understanding of fandom. He argued that fans aren’t passive consumers of content; they’re active participants who “poach” from mass culture to create their own communities, an example of a participatory culture. “Rather than being ‘cultural dupes, social misfits, and mindless consumers,’ media fans can be understood as ‘active producers and manipulators of meaning,’” write students in the Deviance and Youth Subcultures course at Grinnell University. “Fan interaction with media becomes a social activity, and this process allows fans to build their own communities in which they can express themselves. In doing so, they create spaces where they can critique prescriptive ideas of gender, sexuality, and other norms promoted in part by the media industry.”
Pre-internet fandom meant writing fan fiction, creating fan art, cosplaying and maybe meeting up with other fans IRL. The internet has made it much easier to do all of those things and connect with other fans from all over the world—connect with other fans from all over the world to build an online community around the object of their admiration—and to become hyper-immersed in those communities. And that’s what has allowed for the rise of stan culture.
Stans vs. Fans
The term ‘stan’ comes from Eminem’s song of the same name, which is about an obsessed fan who, believing his favourite rapper is ignoring him, becomes enraged and drives off a bridge, killing himself and his pregnant girlfriend. According to NPR, “the word used to be synonymous with overzealous or obsessed. But nearly 20 years later, it’s become a badge of honor for fans committed enough to show up and go all out for their favorite star on the Internet… Stans that congregate on social media actually can change the trajectory of their artist’s path—and the life of anyone who stands in the way.”
Beyoncé is definitely not the only celebrity with a hardcore fanbase. Ariana Grande’s Arianators, Nicki Minaj’s Barbz and Taylor Swift’s Swifties are all known for their passionate defense of their idols, as are One Directioners and the BTS Army. In December 2018, Grande’s ex Pete Davidson posted what looked like a suicide note on his Instagram—and some of the singer’s stans, who had disapproved of their relationship, encouraged him to kill himself. Earlier that same year, Toronto writer Wanna Thompson tweeted that she’d like to see Minaj go in a more mature direction with her music, and the rapper’s stans (and Minaj herself) flooded her Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, email and cellphone with mean messages, threats and calls for her to—you guessed it—kill herself.
And just last week, the stan contingent of the Swifties shared Pitchfork senior editor Jillian Mapes’ phone number and address on Twitter as punishment for giving Swift an eight out of 10 rating for her surprise album, Folklore.
But I think it’s important to differentiate between fans, who might call themselves stans but would never send someone death threats for not valuing a celebrity enough, and stans, who, well, would.
When People Critiqued Black is King, Bey’s Stans Went Off
Because fandom is understandable. There are still so few celebratory, diverse, beautiful images of Black women, and of Blackness in general, but in Black is King, Beyoncé provides. And that’s why she means so much to so many of us: we not only see ourselves in her work, we are also portrayed in a uniquely loving, celebratory way. (And I say “we” intentionally, because while Bey’s recent work is undeniably for Black women, her decision to include a dark-skinned Tamil woman in the video for “Brown Skin Girl” feels like a gracious acknowledgment of the colourism that exists in so many cultures.)
Standom, though? That’s much harder to understand.
On July 31, Black is King dropped and rapper Noname referenced it in what I thought was a pretty measured tweet.
we love an african aesthetic draped in capitalism. hope we remember the blk folks on the continent whose daily lives are impacted by u.s imperialism. if we can uplift the imagery i hope we can uplift those who will never be able to access it. black liberation is a global struggle
July 31, 2020, 2:43 p.m.
“We love an african aesthetic draped in capitalism,” she said. “hope we remember the blk folks on the continent whose daily lives are impacted by u.s imperialism. if we can uplift the imagery i hope we can uplift those who will never be able to access it. black liberation is a global struggle.”
She didn’t even mention Black is King or Beyoncé, but the Bey Hive to responded:
“Who are you speaking for? I hope you didn’t fix your fingers to tweet for US, cause I can tell you what we don’t need is your voice. we don’t need a no hit wonder American trying to ruin a moment that we’re currently enjoying.”
“Not trying to be an a-hole but, in comparison to Beyoncé, what have you done to help liberate black folks around the globe? If you’ve done good work, great, love to learn more about it and if I can assist.”
“you don’t even have furniture so we know you didn’t have the $7 for the Disney+ subscription. you still stuck on the trailers sis?”
Noname’s point wasn’t that Black is King is bad, or even that she didn’t like. Her point was that we shouldn’t conflate imagery of Black liberation with actual Black liberation. But for some members of the Bey Hive, the only explanation for her critique was bitterness. It truly did not occur to them that there might be valid criticism of Black is King or Beyoncé.
The Case for Holding Two Thoughts in our Heads at the Same Damn Time
But… there is. Or at least, there are nuanced conversations to be had here: Beyoncé is a light-skinned Black woman who benefits from colourism. As writer Timmhotep Aku acknowledges in Teen Vogue, “she is a pop star and business leader, whose creative output is designed to make us feel and consume.” She may have taken inspiration from Petite Noir without adequately crediting him.
She definitely focused on West African imagery and aesthetics, which left some East Africans feeling underrepresented. And as Judicaelle Irakoze argues in Essence, Black is King’s thematic focus on monarchy actually perpetuates a troubling idea. “When she willingly, through her art, participates in telling romanticized African royalty stories, rooted in glamorizing Africa, she indirectly dehumanizes our Africanness,” Irakoze writes. “She validates neo-colonialism, entrenched in negotiating and proving our humanity by pretending we’re superhuman. One could wonder are Africans humans with dignity if they are not kings and queens, draped in gold and diamonds? Are we saying our ancestors shouldn’t have been enslaved because they were kings and queens and not simply because they were humans?”
Stan culture is so fascinating because it highlights an impulse that we all have: to categorize things, and people, as good or bad. We may not go to the lengths that Bey’s, or any celebrity’s, stans would, but we still want others to love what we love, even if that means forgoing nuance. But that’s a mistake. We should pay close attention to the things (and people) we love. We should ask ourselves, and them, hard questions. And we should stop equating critique with hate.
Because all of these things—valuing representation, appreciating Beyoncé’s efforts to uplift Blackness and acknowledging that she isn’t perfect—can be true at the same time. Stans would have us believe that it’s insulting to acknowledge that. But I don’t think it’s disrespectful to engage deeply with the work Beyoncé is producing. I think it’s disrespectful not to.
And Did You Hear About…
Lifetime diversifying their Christmas movie offerings this year.
White TikTok users going viral for what amounts to digital blackface, while Black TikTok users who talk about their actual Blackness get muted.
Nylon’s oral history of “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” a song that might still be stuck in my head, a full two decades after it was in Coyote Ugly.
This addition to the I May Destroy You discourse, about the way Michaela Coel showcased Black British culture in the show. (And, big picture, how she balanced universal experiences with deeply specific cultural representation.)
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