By: Liam Jeffries | September 27, 2021
When starting a conversation about stans and stan culture, a form of internet fan culture that is actively damaging people’s lives, I feel it’s impossible to start without addressing Nicki Minaj.
To say the rapper has had a crazy few weeks would be a massive understatement, and I won’t get into too much of it here because of the coverage it has received. This is the short and sweet of it though: she spread an insanely ridiculous piece of vaccine misinformation connected to her family on Twitter and has spent the ensuing weeks bombastically defending herself. Her defenses, in turn, have resulted in her digging herself into an even bigger hole (for more information, I refer you to every late-night talk show host on air right now).
The part of this saga I will focus on in detail, however, is its most recent incident: her doxxing of several reporters attempting to contact her family in retaliation for messages she viewed as threatening. This was soon followed by her openly encouraging her fans (referred to by Minaj as “Barbz”) to harass them, a fact I bring up because of the unfortunately large number of fans who've accepted Minaj’s invitation.
After Minaj doxxed the reporters, it was reported that one of the reporters had received death threats from enraged Barbz, and even at the time of writing, a Twitter search of this story brings up an extremely depressing number of fans encouraging this abuse. Apparently, by their logic, if the reporters were aggressive towards her family (and considering Minaj only shared a snippet of their messages, that’s a ginormous if), it’s their duty to make the reporters' lives a living hell in retaliation; after all, if their idol is attacked, they must come to her defense no matter the cost.
What we have here is not a twisted anomaly but a dramatic example of Internet stan culture gone wrong. For the uninitiated, stan culture is a now prevalent form of social media fandom comprising, for lack of a better term, obsessive fans on steroids. In the words of Huffington Post writer Mat Whitehead, “[stan culture adherents] aren't just superfans, they're a community of like-minded souls coming together, unified under the banner of wanting to see their chosen celebrity flourish.”
Now, the definition of stan and stan culture here is not immediately negative, and in fact, there are examples of stan culture doing legitimately good things in the world. Probably the most prominent example of this is actions taken by K-Pop stan groups to swarm and hijack Twitter hashtags pushed by racists and members of the far-right with fancams of their favored idols. This has had the effect of diluting the intended harms of the hashtags against their victims, and as a result these groups have been celebrated for their actions by a wide array of people, from other social media users to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
That being said, there are warning signs immediately, even from a neutral definition like the one presented above, that stan culture can take extremely dark and harmful turns fast. For one, the term “stan” itself has its origins in an Eminem song that literally revolves around an Eminem fan becoming obsessive and angry to the point of committing a murder-suicide. For another, the definition admits that stans can and do view their favored artists so extremely positively that they’re beyond criticism of them. If you listen to stans describing a favored artist, the artist can come across as almost perfect and flawless, enough so for stans to pledge complete allegiance to them no matter what.
This is an extremely dangerous way to view anything, entirely because to imagine a flawless thing or person is to think of the impossible. Everything and every person, no matter how great they may be espoused to be by others or by themselves, will have flaws. Take any unquestionably celebrated person from history and you will find at least one flaw worth dissecting because, no matter how glorified a person can be, they are still human beings. As such, they will always be imperfect.
Thus, when a stan is describing their favored artist as almost immaculate to the point where even the idea of them having a flaw is akin to religious blasphemy, they are not thinking of a real person. The person behind their mental, celebratory facade will always be nuanced, sometimes glaringly so to the point where attempts at stan culture will inevitably fall apart (for example, see how quickly the creepy “cuomosexual” culture surrounding former governor Andrew Cuomo collapsed when it was revealed that he is a shameless sexual predator). And because of the toxicity lurking just under the surface of most active stan communities, when they are confronted with this type of nuanced criticism, things can turn ugly fast.
Sticking with Nicki Minaj, the example from the past week isn’t even the first time her superfans have faced scrutiny for intensely harassing someone online. In 2018, a freelance writer based in Toronto tweeted out a critique of Minaj for what she viewed as immature song lyrics. Minaj noticed the tweet, and, like any adult accused of immaturity would do, DMed her with insults, many of which are not fit to publish here. The writer made these DMs public, and in response, Barbz swarmed her social media accounts with harassment and, in several cases, death threats, to the point where the writer said she “...wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
While glaring, this case is nowhere near close to isolated, nor is it even the most ridiculous. In 2019, Beyonce fans harassed a woman off of Instagram for leaning past the singer at a Golden State Warriors game to speak with Jay-Z, an act seen, for whatever asinine reason, as a slight against her. In 2016, Normani Kordei of Fifth Harmony briefly left Twitter after intense harassment from, bafflingly, Fifth Harmony stans. And in 2018 Millie Bobby Brown, a literal teenager, deactivated her Twitter account in response to being the subject of memes within stan Twitter falsely attributing homophobic language to her. And these examples don’t account for the scores of non-famous social media users who I’m sure have also been forced off of platforms as a result of this type of abuse by stan groups.
Considering all of this, it’s no wonder people are pushing back against this behavior. Katy Perry last year openly and strongly criticized stan culture for needlessly pitting female pop artists against each other, saying, among other things, that she "...actually truly [wants] every single female in the industry to feel supported and loved and feel like they can speak their truth and deliver their message, no matter how many of us women are in the industry."
As well, in response to some of the incidents listed above, counter movements of support have arisen in support of stan culture's victims. After Nicki Minaj’s harassment of the freelance writer in Toronto, for instance, many came to the writer’s defense, including scores of Nicki Minaj’s fans. And it’s this example I’m highlighting to demonstrate that stan groups, for as much negative publicity as they can bring to an artist’s fanbase, do not represent every fan of an artist, no matter how these groups may act or self-identify.
For as much as I’ve criticized Nicki Minaj’s superfans for harassing her critics in this piece, I will happily point out the sheer number of her fans who simply aren’t like this and who have called this behavior out for just how toxic it is. These are fans who are probably just as passionate about her music as the stans they are criticizing, maybe more so. They’re separated by their avoidance of the dangerous trap of assuming she is flawless as a result of how great her music is to them, and attacking people who don’t agree as a result.
This criticism of stan culture is badly needed, and if other fans join in this chorus, it can, if not be ended, be moderated enough that this insane harassment goes away. As it stands now, stan culture is one of the most toxic things you can find on the internet when it turns ugly. This toxicity must be stopped if we want to retain our ability to appreciate artists and their work as nuanced, real, and worthy of critical dissection.