Watching the Birth of a Fandom

Header image description: A promotional photo for the FX on Hulu series The Bear. Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) is in the foreground, with Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson), Marcus (Lionel Boyce), Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), and Richard “Richie” Jeremovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) in the background. All characters are standing except Richie, who is sitting on a counter. They are in a commercial kitchen. Credit: FX on Hulu

This post contains some spoilers for Season 1 of The Bear.

Like any air sign with ADHD (I’m a Libra 💅), I’m generally unable to shut up about my interests. Lately, I’ve been particularly fixated on the series The Bear — I’m pretty sure the members of my Close Friends list on Instagram would pay actual money for me to stop posting about it. However, I’m not the only person obsessed with this show; I only started watching it in the first place because it was literally impossible to escape discussion of it on my Twitter timeline. I just wanted to see what all the hype was about; by the time I finished the series, I was infatuated.

The Bear, which follows renowned chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto as he comes home to Chicago to run his late brother’s sandwich shop, premiered via FX on Hulu on June 23rd. Three weeks later, on the morning of July 14th, it was announced that the series had been renewed for a second season. Many people are crediting its prompt renewal with the enthusiastic reaction to the series.

All eight episodes of the season dropped at once, making it perfect for binge-watching. I began watching the show on a Tuesday and finished it by the following Sunday — five days later. I was also on a road trip within that time where I did most of the driving. I’m not much of a binge-watcher at all, but I was so deep into that show that I couldn’t stay away from it for long. I’ve seen posts where people have reported watching the season multiple times already, though it came out less than a month ago, so I’m far from the only one who feels that way.

This isn’t like Tiger King, where people are bored and this is just wild enough to capture the public’s fleeting fancy. No, people love this show, so much so that there is already a genuine, avid, and most of all productive fandom forming around The Bear.

A still from The Bear which shows Carmy and Richie standing and facing each other in the walk-in freezer with Marcus opening the door to look in. Richie wears a shirt that reads “THE ORIGINAL BEEF OF CIHCAGOLAND,” which is the name of the restaurant.
Image description: A still from The Bear which shows Carmy and Richie standing and facing each other in the walk-in freezer with Marcus opening the door to look in. Richie wears a shirt that reads “THE ORIGINAL BEEF OF CHICAGOLAND,” which is the name of the restaurant. Credit: FX on Hulu

A fandom, for the chronically offline, is a community of super-fans. Fandoms are often considered to be primarily digital affairs, with activity taking place on sites such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Archive of Our Own (a fanfiction host site, affectionately known as “AO3”). However, fandoms can also gather IRL: think anime conventions or a midnight premiere for a new movie in a popular series. There are fandoms for just about everything, from books and video games to Studio Ghibli and TV shows.

As I wrote in my last blog post, I’m something of a fandom veteran. I’ve participated in ship wars and hostile clashes over fandom behavior, fought in Tumblr inboxes and targeted callout posts. I was even relatively popular (or at least, well-known) in some of my fan communities on Tumblr. My main fandoms were: One Direction from 2012-2014; bandom (the fan community for pop punk bands such as My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy) from 2013ish-2015; and Hamilton from 2016-2017. (I’ve written about my time in that last one, particularly its racism and anti-Blackness.)

In between, I was less active in the fandoms for The Hunger Games and the AMC series Turn: Washington’s Spies among other things. I’ve also engaged in fannish activity (such as reading fanfiction and reblogging fanart on Tumblr) for media like NBC’s Hannibal, the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and BBC’s Sherlock. However, engaging with the burgeoning fandom for The Bear is a new experience for me because I have never been in a fandom from the time of its nascency.

It usually takes a while for fandoms to build up. Sometimes, especially when it comes to television series, fandoms don’t crop up until after they’ve been cancelled — think cult classic shows popular with Gen-Zers and younger millennials like Doctor Who or The X Files. Keep in mind, The Bear got a streaming-only release in the middle of the summer on Hulu — not a bigger platform like Netflix or Disney+ or even HBOMax. It had no connection to a larger franchise such as the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) or as a spinoff of a beloved series or film. And yet, less than a month after its release, The Bear already has all the hallmarks of a proper and prolific modern fandom: gifsets and fanart on Tumblr, multiple fancams on Twitter, and over two dozen works of fanfiction on AO3.

a Tweet which reads “I just checked. The bear got fanfiction on a03. Season two on LOCK!” This was posted on July 6th, over a week before the series’ renewal was announced.
Image description: a Tweet which reads “I just checked. The bear got fanfiction on a03. Season two on LOCK!” This was posted on July 6th, over a week before the series’ renewal was announced. Credit: @1bighairedbitch on Twitter

For well-established pieces of media, like a book in a popular series or a show on its fifth season, fanfiction (“fics”) can serve to let new fans know about the state of the fandom. By looking on AO3, one can learn what the popular ships are (I’ll explain what “shipping” is in just a moment), what are the most frequent alternate universe (AU) scenarios, and what kinks/sexual situations are common for certain ships. (A quick note: fanfiction is not necessarily sexually explicit and it doesn’t even have to involve any romantic content at all! Much of it does, but it’s not a requirement for fanfic.)

In fandom, “ship” is a shortened version of the word “relationship.” Similar to how the word “queer” can act as multiple parts of speech, “ship” is both a noun and a verb. The verb, “to ship,” means that a fan believes that two or more people — whether real people or fictional characters — are, were, or should be in a romantic/sexual relationship. (E.g., “I ship Pete Wentz and Mikey Way.”) The noun, “a ship,” refers to the people that you believe are/were/should be in a relationship; this often takes the form of a “ship name,” which is usually a portmanteau, but can also be a pun or a reference to the source material. (E.g., “I ship Petekey [Pete x Mikey].”) People who ship a certain pairing are known as “shippers.” (E.g., “I am a Petekey shipper.”)

For new media, fanfiction can be a pretty accurate barometer for its popularity. In the two weeks following the release of The Bear, there were already fourteen fics under the show’s fandom tag on AO3 — averaging out to one per day the show had been out. As I’m writing, twenty-three days after the show’s release, there are now twenty-eight fics for it on the site. It’s not just one ardent fan writing most/all of the fic, and neither is it all basically the same fic over and over; the library of fic reflects the diversity of the fandom’s desires for the show moving forward.

There’s already many kinds of fanfiction for The Bear: het (heterosexual), slash (queer M/M), gen (no sexual/romantic content), poly (a ship of more than two people), and reader-insert and headcanons. There are even tropes popping up in the fic for this show.

(Side note: People have also already written incest fic about Carmy and his brother Mikey. For some reason, incestuous ships are very popular in fandoms of various kinds, which has been a problem in fandom life for decades. Unfortunately, the presence of this type of fic means that the fandom for The Bear is, in all honesty, a bonafide fandom.)

a still from The Bear which shows Carmy looking at Sydney as she looks away. Many Sydney x Carmy shippers have used this image as evidence for their ship.
There are already ship wars for the show — Sydney x Carmy shippers argue with Sydney x Marcus shippers all over Twitter on the daily. In addition to this dispute, many people maintain that there is no reason at all to ship any of the characters (at least not yet). Image description: a still from The Bear which shows Carmy looking at Sydney as she looks away. Many Sydney x Carmy shippers have used this image as evidence for their ship. Credit: FX on Hulu

On AO3 and Tumblr, one ship clearly dominates: Sydney x Carmy. (They don’t have an agreed-upon ship name yet, but there are a few suggestions: “SydCarm,” “Carmney,” as well as the pun “Chef’s Kiss.”) The most popular fanwork in the entire fandom by far, both in terms of AO3 stats and word-of-mouth (or rather, word-of-online-post), is “gotta get up to get down,” a Sydney x Carmy fic.

However, Twitter is a different story. Many people there believe that there is no reason to ship any characters from that show together, especially not Sydney and Carmy. And, while all the shipping-based fancams I’ve seen thus far are for Sydney x Carmy (like this one and this one), many people on Twitter also ship Sydney with Marcus. There have been some minor ship wars on the TL over who fans think Sydney should end up with — if anyone.

I’ll show my cards here: while I don’t ship Sydney and Carmy right now, that ship makes the most sense to me. That scene in the finale where Sydney cooks for Marcus? I didn’t read it as romantic at all and was very surprised to learn that many people did read it as such. I viewed it as two (Black) people commiserating about being in a hostile (white-led) work environment. Honestly, I didn’t see any romantic chemistry between Sydney and Carmy until the finale. (Like, c’mon, you don’t just text any ol’ coworker right before opening what you thought would be your own brother’s suicide note.) Also, I’m not shipping Sydney with Carmy because I think they’re cute together or some shit — any romantic/sexual relationship those two might have would definitely be unhealthy, at least at first. If anything, I want them to end up together because it’ll make for a really juicy plot.

There’s another reason I’d rather ship Sydney with Carmy instead of Marcus. First off, people tend to ship two Black characters (from shows that aren’t targeted towards Black viewers) together simply because they’re two Black characters. I’m tired of that shit. Black people in white-dominated industries don’t have to end up together (let niggas have friends, damn!).

The main thing, though, is that fandom — specifically, non-Black and especially white fans — can never see a white man experiencing sexual/romantic attraction towards a Black woman. Like, it’s a big problem. Some people — namely, Black women — have taken note that this phenomenon appears to be happening in the budding fandom for The Bear. While I cannot stand the BWWM Brigade, I really hate how fandom circumscribes the romantic/sexual possibilities for Black women. It’s some bullshit that needs to be left behind.

A mounted sign that reads “THE ORIGINAL BEEF OF CHICAGOLAND.”
Image description: A mounted sign that reads “THE ORIGINAL BEEF OF CHICAGOLAND.” Credit: FX on Hulu

No matter which ship becomes canon (if any), I’m excited to see where this show and fandom will go. The fanworks coming out are painstakingly and beautifully done, and I can’t wait to see/read/reblog/retweet more of it. (I cannot emphasize this enough: read “gotta get up to get down!” Even if you don’t ship Sydney x Carmy! It’s a work of art! I made a fanmix to go along with it. If you’re like me and don’t listen to music while reading, give it a listen after — I’m very proud of it.)

Watching a new, original, and truly amazing show get such a warm and enthusiastic welcome on social media has been encouraging, especially in a time where we’re seeing endless reboots, MCU productions, and immediately-greenlit sequels (see: Knives Out and the televisual adaptation of Bridgerton). It’s been fun to see a fandom form like this with no major scuffles — except for the Twitter ship wars — or problematic behavior. (Apparently, though, the Reddit bros hate Sydney’s character. Ima have to keep an eye on that.)

As many problems as I’ve experienced in this world, I still have a soft spot for fandom life. Except for about a year-and-a-half break from 2017-2019, I’ve been in or adjacent to at least one fandom ever since I was thirteen. (I turn twenty-four in a couple months.) I spent my most formative, turbulent years on Tumblr and Twitter in formal and informal fan communities, discussing everything from Larry Stylinson theories (chill, it was middle school) to the Tony Awards, at all times of day and night. I can’t wait to see how community continues to form around The Bear and what that community will produce.

My first prediction is that this fandom will have some fire AUs; I can just feel it.

2 responses to “Watching the Birth of a Fandom”

  1. I really enjoyed your article. I first saw the icon for The Bear on Hulu before I heard any talk abt it. Decided I might give it a try because Ik I like Jeremy Allen White from Shameless. I was caught up in Abbott Elementary and Bob’s Burger so I kept putting off beginning The Bear. Outta now where there became a influx of The Bear discourse on my timeline so I’m like fuck it let’s start. I was hooooked. I think it’s a very well written show. I’m invested in the characters. It’s been a while since I watched it so I don’t remember events in chronological order. I’m due for a rewatch but I love me some Carmy. The episode where he spoke at his meeting had my absolute heart. Marcus is sweet, I love that he’s really diving into his baking. I accidentally binged the last three episodes bc I couldn’t stop watching and was so sad it was over. But it was more than worth it. I can’t wait for season two and for the community to grow.

    Liked by 1 person

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