Face to face with a killer stan
Does Donald Glover's new Amazon Prime horror about a murderous superfan ask the right questions?
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What does a killer ‘stan’ look like? I once thought I might come face to face with one in 2018, having written a throwaway line about Nicki Minaj in a piece about then-rising rap star Cardi B. A throwaway line I came to hugely regret: it led me to the Barbz, Minaj’s fervent and at times vicious fanbase, named after the singer’s ‘Barbie’ alter-ego.
Their talisman being the Unicorn emoji, I soon found my social media platforms, my email, my LinkedIn, and my friends’ accounts, littered with them, alongside expletive-ridden and horribly violent threats typed out in ALL CAPS.
Some of them announced that they had my address, and, since the Barbz had form for doxing (publishing private information about an individual on the internet), I spent one memorably miserable Saturday night alone in my flat in Stockwell, peering out from behind the curtains at the street below, desperately thankful that I lived on the second floor as I sobbed into a large glass of Chardonnay.
Thankfully, no killer stan turned up at my door that night, though as I’ve written about here before, the Barbz once prompted a mental breakdown from one writer after posting pictures of her daughter alongside threats online. And only last September another writer, Kimberly Nicole Foster, threatened legal action against the Barbz after they harassed her for criticising Minaj’s behaviour towards critics of her work on Twitter – often encouraging her own fans to go after them. “I will mvrder your whole family” and “can’t wait to see your face when I shoot your building up”, were some of the (mercifully empty) threats she received.
But Donald Glover, the creator of hit show Atlanta, has had some fun imagining a stan taking their murderous intentions out from behind their Twitter avatar and into the real world. Streaming now on Amazon Prime, Swarm (co-created by writer Janine Nabers) stars an excellent Dominique Fishback as Dre, a superfan of Ni’Jah, a fictional superstar closely modelled on Beyoncé (which Glover apparently got legal clearance for).
But instead of the Beyhive, her fans are called the Swarm (bees can become aggressive and dangerous when together, particularly when defending their Queen). Dre, lonely without friends or family, finds solace and purpose in her obsession with Ni’Jah, and, reeling from a tragic personal loss in the first episode, goes on a killing spree in Ni’Jah’s name.
It’s an interesting idea for a show: fandoms are fascinating psychologically. While most fandoms are wonderful entities that bring friendship and joy to so many people, corners of them can become toxic. They mimic cult behaviours and, as we know, individual accountability can be conveniently forgotten once you are part of a crowd. (Although it is interesting how much bad press mostly female fandoms get, versus arguably much nastier male fandoms in… football. And, as I speak about on a recent podcast episode about Elvis, ‘crazy’ female fans run the music industry – they are not to be dismissed.)
Only the other day I was asked by an aspiring journalist whether I thought celebrities were afraid of their own fans sometimes. Surely, I replied. You only have to recall the actor Chris Evans’s fans writing him an open letter last year demanding why he did not notify them that he had a girlfriend, or the cruel abuse directed at Olivia Wilde by Harry Styles fans, to see how unhealthily possessive a fandom can become, even if it hurts the very person they are supposed to worship. Often their devotion has very little to do with the star at all.
Perhaps Evans didn’t even see the letter, or didn’t care even if he did, but for vulnerable stars, this intense pressure to “answer” to the fans that keep you in business, and such unnerving erosion of privacy can’t be fun. Superstars from Selena Gomez to Ariana Grande have repeatedly called on their fans to “be kind” when they get nasty on their behalf – though without their blessing – suggesting how little control they really have over their enormous mass of devotees. And if you think this all just confined to an internet bubble, look at how the Swifties are taking Ticketmaster to court.
While highly watchable, Swarm has so far (three episodes in) left me cold. The first episode sets up a somewhat credible psychological root to Dre's first bout of violence, while I’ve read that the second to last episode adds a little more backstory that gives some context to the rest.
But, having been desperate to understand what a stan is really like behind their avatar, I was disappointed to find an avatar is exactly how Dre appears to me: blank. Her devotion to Ni’Jah is shown plainly, and without imagination: expensive concert tickets, rehearsed choreography, a fan account. So far, so super fan starter kit. But there is no apparent depth to her obsession to make sense of the gory lengths she will go to. What is she actually thinking? What does she need?
In one memorable scene, Dre commits her first murder and then, immediately, as if by reflex, opens her victim’s fridge and gorges herself on leftover pie, stuffing handfuls of pastry and blood into her mouth, crying and laughing hysterically. But this unnerving and compelling combination of emotions is not explored further as she goes on, somewhat robotically, to take her second life.
Interestingly, while preparing for Swarm, Fishback was similarly puzzled by Dre’s lack of interiority. She told Vulture: “When I was first reading the script, I was frustrated because I was like, Girl, I don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I kept asking them, ‘So, is she this? Is she this?’ ” Glover, she says, remained vague, instead telling her to stop searching for Dre’s “humanity” (a comment which has drawn ire from those who think Glover consistently fails black female characters by giving them little to work with, something he almost addressed when he interviewed himself last year).
“Actors in general, they want to get layered performances. And I don’t think Dre is that layered,” Glover told Vulture. “I wanted her performance to be brutal. It’s a raw thing. It reminds me of how I have a fear with dogs because I’m like, ‘You’re not looking at me in the eye, I don’t know what you’re capable of.’ ”
I understand that this kind of terrifying, bestial viscerality works for the horror medium. And, maybe Glover wasn’t interested in a psychological portrait of a stan pushed to extremes – in which case, fair enough. But I would have loved to Dre to have been more layered, to be more believable. What intrigues me about stans is that their obsession is often so secretive – I know of a woman my age who has a bedroom shrine to a certain male pop star, operates a very busy stan account and regularly meets with her other stans around the world. But she has a regular job, and most of her friends don’t know about it.
And, considering he told Dre to watch The Piano Teacher in preparation – a brilliant, nuanced psychological study of an unravelling, masochistic piano teacher played by Isabelle Huppert – I expected more depth. I would say there is a hell of a lot more in Eminem's brilliant 2000 song, Stan, which coined the word. I remember listening to it in the car when it came out and the final twist still feels like a gut-punch.
I have yet to read a so-called stan’s take on Swarm. I doubt they would find much to relate to. And, as it has been pointed out, the violence of the Swarm actually has very little to do with the Beyhive, and a lot more in common with the Barbz…
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I just stumbled upon this substack today, and found this piece incredibly interesting probably because I myself feel like an insider - though those days are mostly behind me, I engaged with 'stan twitter' for about 6 years (between 2014 and 2020). Even though it served as my main social sphere, I found it pretty frightening - I saw two seperate people fake their deaths to avoid online drama, as well as one legitimate suicide attempt after a callout post. Online and personal reputations could be smeared overnight for stuff said offhand in group chats months before; frankly, it was rare to meet someone who hadn't received at least one horrible message, and because we all constantly overshared about our home lives and insecurities, the hate was often quite personal. The idea that someone embroiled in this culture could snap, so to speak, does not seem so far outside the realm of possibility when you consider the very graphic and violent nature of the tweets my peers and I were receiving. I'm really intrigued to watch this show having been part of obsessive fandom for such a long time.
So good 👌🏼