I have mixed feelings about the discourse that inevitably surrounds election seasons. Though I enjoy a good Scheer-centric takedown as much as the next person, I find myself unnerved by the surface level engagement on social media where stan culture intermingles with politics.
Stan is shorthand for ‘stalker fan’ and is named aptly after the Eminem song. To be a stan, or to stan someone, is to obsess over a celebrity and provide nearly unequivocal support, regardless of their behaviours or values. Stan culture is heightened on social media, where interactions between celebrities and their fans, as well as fan communities that arise, can create echo chambers of preoccupation. While stan culture remains mostly harmless, involving real world actors into this lore becomes morally tricky: It is fine to write erotic fanfiction involving Gilmore Girls characters, but it is invasive, inappropriate, and above all, really weird to write about Donald Trump, Vladmir Putin, and Hillary Clinton having a threesome. It is crucial to recognize that by treating politicians, and politics, as fictional characters and narratives, we remove the ability to see them as whole beings capable of failure.
In 2015, shortly after Justin Trudeau was elected as Prime Minister, there was no shortage of thirst articles. An unofficial calendar entitled “Justin Trudeau, My Canadian Boyfriend 2018 Wall Calendar” was sold on Amazon. In light of current criticisms against Trudeau for his lack of climate action and the resurfacing of multiple photos of him in blackface, these posts expressing undying adoration have not aged well.
This hyper-sexualization of politicians taps into another weird aspect of this “stan” culture — the infamous horny tweet about Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke for instance, shows how lusting typically reserved for Bachelor in Paradise contestants emerges in this new political discourse. This vantage point positions politicians as objects of admiration to be fawned over, not elected officials with agendas.
Similarly, there is a concurrent trend were politicians are equated to protagonists from popular media: A uniquely bizarre tweet that photoshopped O’Rourke, along with other Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg as the main characters from Harry Potter circulated earlier this month. Framing politics within theses imaginary worlds, and placing politicians as protagonists fated to triumph over “evil” shows a stark disconnect with the realities of federal bureaucracies.
Conceptualizing politicians as virtuous saviours is also an unsound way of expressing admiration. Because of the incredibly high standard admirers hold them to, when these public figures inevitably misstep, their error is fundamentally incompatible with the conception of forgiveness, or growth.
People’s disengagement from the unglamorous, mundane realities of political systems is vapid, entirely self-serving, and irresponsible. Of course, popular culture offers useful vehicles for critiquing political structures: Satirization of Trudeau’s blackface scandal, Amazon’s mistreatment of workers, and the rise of the conservative right may prove to be insightful. However, it is important to accept the fact that, not every aspect of our lives exists as an item of consumption, and instead we should meaningfully engage in political discourse and hold ourselves and others accountable for the real world effects of political actions. It seems redundant to say, but a politician is not an entertainer. They are an elected official who is supposed to serve your interests.