You probably caught something last week of the story of Chewbacca Mom. Candace Payne stumbled across a Wookie mask as she was returning some clothes at Kohl’s. She thought it was cool, bought it for herself, and was so excited that she made a video of herself trying it on in her car in the parking lot. She was so thrilled that she started laughing seemingly uncontrollable when she tried it on. The video went viral literally overnight, and she’s already started making the talk show circuit with her unabashed enthusiasm.
I’ll get back to her in a bit.
It should come as no surprise that fandom is a reflection of the larger culture it’s in, in much the same way that art itself is a reflection of society. The concept of vampires, for example, have been around for centuries, but precisely how they’re depicted at any given time speaks to the fears society collectively has at that time. Bram Stroker’s Dracula from 1897 is a vastly different character, for example, than the one Christopher Lee depicted in various films throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The characters and stories were holding a mirror up to their respective cultures, and showing their fears back to them.
Likewise, fandom mirrors larger society. A desire to get away from the horrors of World War II led to the forced notion of “wholesomeness” that was prevalent in the 1950s, and clearly manifested in the classic Mickey Mouse Club. The club looked a lot different in its 1970s revival, with a more obviously diverse cast and a seemingly less constrained notion of fun.
So by looking at fandoms—how they function and are organized, how much and what kind of influence they have, etc.—you can read back to see what’s going on in society. Obviously, this open to some amount of interpretation, but let’s use that idea to look back at Candace Payne.
Payne’s a seemingly typical contemporary mom. She does nothing extraordinary in her video; it’s mostly just her laughing while wearing a Chewbacca mask. So what does the video’s popularity tell us? Well, first it says that historically “geeky” fandoms like science fiction are mainstream and broadly acceptable now, even in people’s overly ebullient enthusiasm. Second, that people are applauding and responding to Payne’s unrestrained joy suggests that’s not something they themselves have. Payne’s genuine and sincere happiness is seen as uncommon, if not unique, and something to aspire towards. Something many people have not experienced, and do not expect to.
There’s nothing particularly special about that Chewbacca mask. It made Payne happy to come across it. Really happy. She’s taken the idea of enjoying the simple things in life to heart, and there are apparently a lot of people out there who wish they could do the same.