I have never seen Mad Men. Not even a short clip. Nothing against the show, but it just never rose high enough on my priority list to really spend any time seeking it out. And yet, through some of my friends and social media, I’m familiar with the exploits of Don Draper and how he ultimately developed one of the most iconic ad campaigns of the 20th century.
I also have not seen Mad Max: Fury Road, although I am familiar with the franchise from the first three movies. I have a friend, though, who after seeing Fury Road on Friday got a copy of Beyond Thunderdome to watch that one for the first time. She was relieved to finally see the origin and context of its famous “Two men enter, one man leaves” line, a reference she herself had been known to use in the past.
Now the interesting thing here, I think, is how pieces of these cultural touchstones have permeated our culture to the point of ubiquity. Despite being not being fans of the source material, we’re still able to understand and appreciate where the fans were coming from, how they latched on certain elements of it, and how that is typified in key scenes and dialogue. Which we, as non-fans, are still able to tap into.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Phrases like “wild goose chase,” “green-eyed monster,” and “good riddance” were all coined by William Shakespeare. And while high school students may have caught “wild goose chase” when they’re forced into reading Romeo & Juliet, I suspect stumbling across “good riddance” in Troilus & Cressida does not occur nearly as often. Not everybody is a fan of Shakespeare—indeed, many people actively dislike him thanks to unfortunate experiences in school—but references to his work come up in everyday conversation. That comes from fans repeating Shakespeare’s dialogue, both audiences back in his day and latter-day actors and scholars, and other non-fans simply picking up what they’re hearing from others.
Fans often use ideas and phrases from a work as a sort of secret handshake with one another. Precisely because only a fan would be intimately familiar enough with specific lines of dialogue, knowing it well enough to repeat it identifies the speaker as a fan. But only to people also familiar enough with the material to recognize it. Others might just find it an odd turn of phrase.
Time, of course, helps to propogate ideas. The notions of “Big Brother” or “John Galt” are well known today, but only partially because more people have actually read 1984 and Atlas Shrugged. It’s people who talked about those ideas (i.e. fans) who passed them around enough until they became part of the cultural ouvre.
And that’s when you know fandom has helped move an idea beyond it’s own realm. That’s when you know It’s The Real Thing.