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overfed on fandom

12 min

or what's the point of loving things?

I think one of my favorite bits of internet language right now is the idea of being “fed” by your fandom. To be fed is to be provided for, satiated by some album release or tv show or maybe even a particularly generous photo dump on Instagram. Used in a sentence, in the style of an adult coopting the language of the youths: “during the pandemic, Taylor Swift fans were fed with the release of folklore and evermore.”

Right now, however, I am overfed. I let sports become a part of my life and am now contending with an Arsenal team that has been extremely successful this season, so much so that we’re all now stressed about the possibility of being the most successful. I am dealing with Taylor Swift and the Eras Tour and a fandom that cannot handle a breakup between two people whose relationship we don’t actually know that much about. And most consuming of all right now, I am a Vanderpump Rules fan. And I’ll probably write a whole bunch of words soon about the very unsettling experience of scandoval, but it’s just too much right now.

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Fandom is a collective emotional experience, which means that especially with the internet, it is not a place to turn to if you want to be soothed. And yet, the combination of these three of the most obsessive fandoms in my life (one of which I inherited after more than a decade of watching my husband be an Arsenal fan) having their most heightened moment at the same time feels borderline cosmic. It’s not. It’s just spring. A soccer season ends and a tour starts and a reality tv show airs at the same time.

Anyway, I’ve thinking about this nonfiction essay writing class I took during lockdown, and this essay I wrote about the experience of being a fan, told (of course) through the lens experience of being a Vanderpump Rules fan who is married to an Arsenal fan, and who has recently read Nick Hornby’s book Fever Pitch about being an Arsenal fan. I had this whole idea to try and do something with it after the class, but I got lazy and now half of it feels out of date (I’m emotionally yoked to the sport now too, everything on Vanderpump Rules is completely different). But being so out of date makes the feelings in it more relevant to me, like a contrast that emphasizes the original point. So I wanted to put it here so that I can hopefully revisit it in the future when some of this settles down.

I originally titled this essay “On Being a Fan,” but now I call it “What’s the point of loving things?”

What’s the point of loving things?

One of the worst meals I’ve ever paid for was at a restaurant in West Hollywood. I love food, but not enough to have a discerning palate. So it takes effort for me to find a meal miserable. But the goat cheeses were too small to accommodate much goat cheese, the lobster ravioli was too bland for any further adjective or thought, and the cocktails tasted like the splashes of alcohol and back-of-the-fridge juice that gets thrown together at the point in the night where everyone is too drunk to care.

The restaurant was called SUR, and it remains open because it is the setting of the reality tv show Vanderpump Rules, which airs on the Bravo network. The series follows the staff of the restaurant through the trials and tribulations of being young, beautiful, and awful in LA. Relationships have been broken, faces have been slapped, and scathing internet pieces about SUR’s menu have been written.

I went to SUR to reunite with my college roommates. We had gone to school together in Pasadena, living just across the street from our campus. We walked to organic chemistry lectures in the morning, caught up on homework and reality tv in the evening, and drove off to whatever restaurant captured our interest on the weekend. LA is a great place to eat when you have a car, and our plan for the reunion trip was to enjoy some dumplings and tacos. The one glaring exception to that itinerary was the centerpiece of the whole weekend: SUR.

We weren’t the friends who gathered around the TV to watch every episode of Vanderpump Rules together. Our schedules were dictated by problem sets and the needs of our different majors, and so we watched on our own time. But inevitably, the show would become a topic of conversation—a passing “did you watch the episode last night?” while making lunch would lead to impromptu recaps and a comparison of opinions. It would have been impossible to consume the show otherwise.

The first three seasons are a true masterpiece. People often bemoan the manufactured nature of reality TV, and they aren’t wrong to do so. But the narrative arcs of those early seasons are satisfying because they seem to defy reality. They have a neatness borne out of the willingness of the cast to be tremendously messy. How else to describe the trilogy borne out of our anti-heroine who must prove her boyfriend cheated on her in the first season, prove again that he slept with her best friend in the second season, and then reconcile with that best friend out of misbegotten desire for relevancy in the third season?

And even that greatly simplifies the show. You can rewrite the show centering almost any of the other castmates as its protagonist, and you’ll end up with interlocking stories off betrayal and redemption and love told through debauched couches and crop top wedding dresses. In the background is SUR, more a character than a setting at that point, illuminated as she is by the California sun and passive aggressive glass washing. It’s simply too much for any one audience member to bear on their own. At some point, you will need someone to help you process what you’ve seen. The risk you run is that you and your friends lose all sense of perspective and find yourselves booking a flight and an Airbnb just to eat at a restaurant you know will disappoint you.

At this point, most of the original cast barely works at SUR. The model-actors seeking fame in the first season have achieved some version of that, eclipsing the restaurant itself. And yet the show is designed in part to advertise SUR, and so there have been a series of cheap tricks to keep the cast and the restaurant in the same frame, even as fans can see the seams of the plot stretching. But we were fortunate that the night of our reservation just happened to be same night that Bravo was filming the fourth season reunion, which meant that the cast was working at the restaurant—though in their actual capacity as reality TV stars. So throughout the night, we kept a lookout for them as they passed through the restaurant. It was like a less fantastical version of Disneyland: you know you’re not actually in a fantasy world, but for a moment, you can pretend. Our meal was terrible, but the night was great. Five years later, I still talk about it.


When you are as prone to making everything about reality tv as I am, you end up in conversations with others who say things like, “Top Chef is my guilty pleasure.” These are not my people. I don’t understand the guilt, particularly for a show like Top Chef that attempts to showcase actual skill or talent. You may also end up talking to people express that reality tv is a thing they love to hate (I suppose its inverse—hate to love—drive those who think of reality tv as a guilty pleasure). These phrases are true for other people, but they are not true for me. The mistake, I think, is grammatical. The “to” should be an “and.” I hate, and I love. Sometimes my love looks like hate, and my hate looks like love, but one does not drive the other.

Obsession has an internal logic that survives by hiding its faults in the emotion it has made you feel and the community it breeds. The only way I’ve come to see that is by watching other fandoms whose absurdities start to reveal something about my own. I think about this every time my husband wakes up early on a Saturday to watch Arsenal, his favorite English Premiere League team. I have known this man for more than a decade and have generally considered him to be someone who makes good choices, except for this decision to yoke himself emotionally to a soccer team that wields its few moments of brilliance as a tool to sharpen the sting of their many failures and loses.

I have no personal objection to sports. I’ve played sports, and I’ve enjoyed watching sports. But I have never been consumed by it, and I have certainly never identified with a team. It seems stressful. But I wanted to understand it better, so I read Nick Hornby’s memoir of Arsenal fandom Fever Pitch, only to find that the book was much more about me than expected.

The first line of the book is “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” That first meeting between fan and sport takes place in 1968, and the rest of the book follows Hornby through several decades as he documents the Arsenal matches that serve as tentpoles in his memory (which is all of them). His relationship with his father, his professional aimlessness, his attempts at romantic relationships: they all become intertwined with the occasional highs and many, many lows of Arsenal over the years, as do the collective violence and racism that is as much a part of soccer fandom as soccer itself.

I don’t know if Hornby would use the word “contempt” to describe his relationship to Arsenal, but it’s the word I kept coming back to while reading the book. Of course, I might just be projecting my own feelings of fandom onto him. It’s hard not to when he writes, “But unfortunately (and this is one reason why football has gotten itself Ito so many messes without having to clear any of them up) there are many fans like me. For us, the consumption is all; the quality of the project is immaterial.”


As I said, the first three seasons of Vanderpump Rules are a masterpiece. As of this writing, there have been eight seasons in total, and the consensus among many longterm fans is that the show now is a shadow of what it once was. It is over-produced and preoccupied with the wrong members of the cast, who are also too famous to be the mess that was necessary to their fame to become with. And so now the show is the one thing a reality tv show should not be: boring.

At one point in Fever Pitch, Hornby writes, “One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary, and those that say they would rather do than watch are missing the point. Football is a context where watching becomes doing…”

I think the same is true for a certain type of reality tv fan (or at least the kind of fan I am, the kind of fan I often find myself among). Vanderpump Rules airs on Bravo, a network that built much of its current offerings on the Real Housewives franchise (Vanderpump Rules is itself a spinoff of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills). And at first glance, shows like Vanderpump Rules and Real Housewives seem to have little in common with a soccer team. There’s an obvious place for armchair coaching and judging in other reality tv shows like Survivor or Project Runway. You can scream at nonsensical feedback and poor strategic choices. But there isn’t an obvious game component to Vanderpump Rules and Real Housewives.

And yet, they are secretly a competition show. Every year, the cast lines up to be the most camera worthy, to ensure that through their on-screen antics and off-screen presence, fans will respond to them with the kind of vigor that mandates their return. Most arguments on these shows are about the show itself, and about what the cast members expose about themselves and each other to a national audience. For fans who have watched enough, the off-season is filled with debates about who will be asked back, and Twitter bios and Instagram follows are carefully tracked to fuel speculation about what the next season will look like.

I know that I would be terrible at reality tv. I am too boring to be in front of the camera and too uncomfortable asking others to be messy to be behind it. And yet when I finish an episode, the conversations I have with friends and fellow fans inevitably boils down to the strategy of how to cast, produce, or edit these shows. And when we break down fights on tropical islands, it’s usually done with the sense that we’re not picking sides, we’re picking players.

And so even as Vanderpump Rules becomes harder to watch with each season, it becomes even harder to stop watching. I’m invested in a meta-narrative that the show rarely acknowledges but constantly feeds. I need to know how the players will fare, and I need to constantly express my disappointment that the show refuses to yield to my very specific demands. In doing so, I know that my fellow fans and I have come to resemble sports fans whose loyalty starts to look more like entitlement. And I get it. How could you not become a little bit arrogant when you know that the thing you watch is built on the fact that you are watching it? How could you not come to expect that your love is the most important part of this exchange? And how could you not experience contempt when you find that love underestimated?


“Football teams are extraordinarily inventive in the ways they find to cause their supporters sorrow.” Hornby wrote this line about a 1980 match between Arsenal and Valencia, 31 years before 12 of Europe’s most well-known teams announced a plan to form the European Super League. Contrary to the somewhat meritocratic structure of European football divisions, where poorly performing teams can be relegated out of divisions or leagues, the European Super League adopted a more cartel approach. These were teams that already had a large fanbase built in, no matter their performance. And the profits from the league would allow them to grow even further.

The inequalities of soccer are—as inequalities often are—economic. Many of the teams at the top have either billionaire owners or histories long enough to ensure their riches. They can invest in the most expensive players, but relegation ensures those teams still need to perform. And the Champions League in particular, which pits the top teams from different countries against each other, has had plenty of those notable teams fall in and out of the league. The European Super League as conceived would have removed that concern—an American structure where the worst team can play the best, but lacking even our salary caps and draft constraints that attempt to level those teams out in the long term.

The outcry from fans was immense, especially for fans of the teams who had signed up for the European Super League. Some of those complaints were petty—ask an Arsenal fan about their response, and they would probably shake their head at the sheer stupidity of signing up to be the worst team in a league where they were so clearly outclassed. But mostly fans were angry at what the European Super League would do to the sport they loved, deepening its inequalities and undermining the philosophies that had guided the structures of the game. As a fan of reality tv, I was well-suited to appreciate the drama. Billionaire owners were forced to contend with angry managers, players, and fans. Within days of its rushed announcement, club after club began to drop out until finally, the English Super League was compelled to end.

Much of the coverage of the European Super League has focused on the power of the fan. And there’s no doubt that fan outrage played a key role in ending the European Super League. But I wonder how much we emphasize the fans because of our own wishful thinking? The European Super League was like a sloppily constructed bridge that buckled under the weight of the outrage it generated. While it had financial support and the right teams attached, the implementation was rushed, secretive, and vulnerable. But what will it look like when something more sleek and durable replaces it?

Fans will be outraged, but they’ve been outraged before—at bad calls and new technologies and changed rules. I don’t doubt that there exists some threshold out there where any entertainment begins to demand too much of its audience, where the conditions of the loyalty given them become too strained for creator and consumer alike. But I think the longer you love something, the more outrageous those thresholds become until you cannot imagine them anymore.


One last poignant quote from Fever Pitch:

But what else can we do when we're so weak? We invest hours each day, months each year, years each lifetime in something over which we have no control; it is any wonder then, that we are reduced to creating ingenious but bizarre liturgies designed to give us the illusion that we are powerful after all, just as every other primitive community has done when faced with a deep and apparently impenetrable mystery?

I don’t know what Vanderpump Rules has to do to get me to stop watching. At this point, I have watched several summers worth of boring fights and boring engagements and boring cast members. And every sneak preview makes me expect more of the same. But at this point, the contempt I have for the show and the contempt I’ve decided the show has for me feels too real for me to look away. I am drawn to drama after all.

When I first wrote that paragraph, I wrote that the contempt is too real for either of us to look away, but of course that’s not true. The show has an identity and substance that is important to me, but I have no identity or substance to the show. My identity and substance do not matter to the show, nor do I want it to. What I want is to be shocked and surprised and entertained, and powerlessness provides that. If my love for show now looks like mutual contempt, that is my own choice, even if I resent the show for it.

But that does not mean I won’t express my dissatisfaction, whether in group texts or this essay. Arrogance and entitlement is a language shared by both the provider of the entertainment and its consumer. A show is filmed, a book is written, a game is played. Once that’s done, the fight is over who it belongs to: the person who made it, or the person for whom it was made. And like two waiters screaming in the back alley of SUR, surrounded by gravel and apathetic coworkers scrolling through their phones, I’m not sure any of us is right.

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