It was hardly a flattering portrayal of the fictional persona named “Stan,” describing him as a deranged maniac whose obsession with Eminem drives him to violent tendencies. “Stan” can also be a verb, describing the action of being a star’s passionate follower. “I stan Harry Styles,” you might hear any teen girl say, or “I’m Kylie Jenner’s biggest stan.” But what does being a stan actually mean? What does it entail?
The stans of today aren’t suicidal killers; they’re the bloggers behind fan accounts for their favorite celebrity on sites like Instagram and Twitter, and they can typically be spotted by their creatively edited profile pictures depicting their muse. They keep up with this muse’s every move, post updates, and reliably show up every time there’s a controversy to make sure their idol emerges unscathed. If the cost of doing so is harassing other public figures or spreading malicious gossip under the guise of “spilling the tea”…well, so be it. The stan’s allegiance belongs only to one.
The Modern Stan
The stan thrives in 2023, in an age where the internet has made it easier than ever to live vicariously through other people. It makes us feel all too involved in the lives of those who, in all reality, are complete strangers. Celebrities like Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber, who have repeatedly explained to the public that they have no issue with one another, continue to be pitted against each other by their stans. Jennifer Lawrence was randomly accused of having an affair with a married Liam Hemsworth, and thousands decided that she must be an evil, scheming home-wrecker. Joe Alwyn was once venerated by Taylor Swift’s stans as the best boyfriend she’d ever had, but once the couple split, they accused him of being a controlling, jealous partner. How impressionable have we become that swathes of people have judged the character of someone they’ve never met based on tabloid gossip?
Though the internet didn’t create the stan, it has definitely given stans a heightened hostility. Anyone can sit at home and bully anyone else now, out of spite or jealousy. Stans never bother discerning between what may just be hearsay and what’s actually true, but that won’t stop them from taking an unconfirmed story and using it as an excuse to tyrannize someone. After Mac Miller passed away in 2018, his ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande was forced to disable her Instagram comments after Miller’s stans flooded her page, blaming her for his death. At the 2021 Met Gala, diehard stans of Selena Gomez took online rumors to heart and heckled Hailey Bieber on the red carpet. What begins as indulgent gossip quickly becomes a widespread harassment campaign with little to no basis in reality.
While the dehumanization of certain celebrities is one pitfall of stan culture, the deification of other celebrities is just as toxic. Certain stars, talented and enduring enough to amass a huge fanbase, are able to do absolutely no wrong. Nicki Minaj, who heads one of the most dedicated stan armies in the world, married a man convicted of attempted rape and first-degree manslaughter. Subsequently, in a 2019 Instagram post, she compared the two of them to Bonnie and Clyde, the infamous 20th-century criminals. It’s hard to believe that anyone else could do this without being canceled, but Minaj’s fans remain steadfast in their devotion. They can’t, it appears, simultaneously enjoy her music but also acknowledge when she missteps. After all, stans don’t have nuanced views of anyone.
Why Do We Stan?
When it comes down to it, stan culture is born from modern America’s total obsession with celebrities and the details of their lives. Very little of this obsession, however, has to do with the actual celebrities, but with boredom. Boredom drives us to worship at the phony altar of TMZ leaks and subtweets, analyzing the lives of strangers as if they’re characters in a TV show, existing solely for our viewing pleasure.
Oftentimes, the side-taking that happens when two celebs are suspected of feuding is a consequence of people projecting their own identities into the archetypal roles that they’ve cast a certain public figure into. In the case of Hailey Bieber and Selena Gomez, Bieber was cast as the snide mean girl and Gomez was cast as her innocent victim. Both women have denied that this dynamic exists, but many of Gomez’s stans continue to perpetuate it passionately because they have personally experienced being a mean girl’s victim, and see their harassment of Bieber as punishment for mean girls everywhere. Bieber asserted this in a 2023 interview with The Circuit’s Emily Chang, saying, “I don’t think that this is about me … and Selena Gomez — this pitting between two women and division between two women. It’s about the vile, disgusting hatred that can come from completely made-up … narratives. That can be really dangerous.”
Of course, doom-scrolling is a trap that many of us inevitably fall into. I’ll be the first to admit that a clickbait-y headline has grabbed me before, luring me into a deep dive of details about someone else’s life. It’s a sort of escape: watching other people’s messy drama unfold distracts us from our own messy drama, and might even make us feel closer to the pop culture personas who our society often hails as untouchable. After all, if Khloe Kardashian can also struggle with the decision to leave a toxic relationship, or if Meghan Markle can also find herself embroiled in a feud with her in-laws, then we feel like it’s more acceptable for us to deal with this turmoil in our own lives. In this way, those we stan can almost become allies – people to prop up and look to as proof that the hiccups of real life are normal, or even glamorous.
The stan who dedicates hours of every day to posting about their idol could instead put their own interests before those of a stranger.
The Way Forward from Stan Culture
Can our society ever recover from the stan? If it wants a fighting chance, the parasocial relationships that too many of us have with our favorite celebs need to go. Of course, it’s normal to admire someone you look up to, or to be inspired by someone who is impressive. But the total investment in every facet of a stranger’s existence is something that shouldn’t be nearly as normalized as it is. A hundred years ago, people rightfully would’ve called us crazy for memorizing things like LeBron James’ shoe size or Kendall Jenner’s list of ex-boyfriends.
Even if stan culture’s overtly harmful characteristics died away, stanning anyone would still be a colossal waste of time. The stan who dedicates hours of every day to posting about their idol could instead put their own interests before those of a stranger, using that time to invest in their own dreams, rather than “stanning” someone they may never even meet. Life is too short, and the possibilities are too endless to spend them watching someone else live, rather than living for ourselves. If we get the blessing of one day finding ourselves surrounded by children and grandchildren, let’s try to live in a way that we can tell them about all the life we’ve seen, and not all the life that someone else in Hollywood got to see.
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