Stan culture is hilarious and entertaining. And of course, downright terrifying. Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ new Amazon Prime Video series, Swarm, digs into the murky mind of a deluded stan. “This is not a work of fiction,” the show’s opening credits read. “Any similarities to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” Quite the statement to make – but honestly, fair enough. The show draws from some true events, and at the very least, from real sentiments. Does it stretch reality to an extreme? Of course, it does. But it taps into the unnerving side of parasocial relationships with some success.
Dre (Dominique Fishback) is a fan of fictional popstar Ni’Jah to the point of obsession. Like any stan, she’s chronically online and constantly interacting with others like her on social media. Her sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey) used to be the same, but she makes it clear she’s grown out of that phase. Dre, on the other hand, would go to any lengths (read: murder) to defend her idol from the haters. While the show talks about fan culture as a whole, it mainly draws inspiration from Beyoncé fans (‘Beyhive’, ergo ‘Swarm’). R&B singer Ni’Jah’s aesthetics also parallel Beyoncé’s, down to a rapper husband and her entering a new era of music on a horse.
Dre experiences a personal tragedy in the very first episode, which all the more forces her to seek refuge in Ni’Jah. She embarks on a cross-country killing spree, targeting those who insulted Ni’Jah online, but also those who personally get in Dre’s way. In the online space, this kind of witch hunt is common (and, well, a lot easier).
Fans online have turned to ‘doxxing’ as a sinister revenge tactic. It means revealing the personal information, such as name, contact details or address of a person online. One can easily become a victim of doxxing if they dare to post a criticism of a celebrity with a dedicated fan army online. We’ve reached a point where enraged stans will actively ‘hunt down’ hate comments (or simple opinions) in an attempt to defend their idol’s honour. Even journalists and critics who aren’t just being spiteful have been harassed and bullied by superfans. They’re willing to make death threats without a second thought.
One of the most interesting ways the show comments on stan culture is by revealing very little about Ni’Jah herself. Dre eclipses Ni’Jah completely, despite making her entire life about her. Much like Dre, stans often forget that the celebrity exists outside of what they can see in their work and on social media. They idolise celebrities, in doing do, also dismiss the fact that they are real people with real lives. Throughout the show, various people try to remind Dre of this, but she is unconvinced.
Swarm also gives us a black, teenage serial killer – stiff competition to the Joe Goldbergs and Patrick Batemans of television and cinema. There’s something incredibly refreshing about that. Dominique Fishback’s character is not a tortured victim, but she’s not a brave hero either. Glover previously received criticism for creating one-dimensional black female characters in Atlanta. Dre, however, is deeply complex and enjoyable to watch.
We’ve almost forgotten that the word ‘stan’ originates from an Eminem song about an obsessive fan. It’s a combination of the words ‘stalker’ and ‘fan’. Today, we use it neutrally, even honourably. Fans take pride in using the term to describe themselves, and not everyone who identifies as a stan is necessarily toxic. Online fandoms can be places of comfort and solace, and we see that with Dre too. Swarm takes viewers down a morbidly funny spiral into the mind of a troubled fan, and makes some keen observations about the culture we live in.