I've been told before that pop-culture fandoms contribute to an infantilization of our culture—but I don't think that's the case. To me, that argument sounds like it comes from someone who hasn't quite seen the potential for how fandom can transform the world. There is a debate to be had that fandom is inherently not serious, but I think that's a position that can be easily dismissed.
You've heard many times that comic-book heroes and sci-fi and fantasy epics are our modern myths. I don't disagree with this. I learned more about how to live my life watching Star Wars and Star Trek, reading Batman and consuming science-fiction and fantasy books than I ever did at church. But how does a fan take that inspiration and those life lessons, and turn them into something positive and actionable?
For all their great storytelling, the makers of all of our modern myths don't generally include explicit calls to action to be better people, or to help others. For the most part, the companies behind those storytellers want that call to action to exist as a request that we send them more money. Wait ... maybe fandom doesn't differ from some religions after all.
The fact that someone doesn't come out at the end of the book or movie and explain to us exactly how we could use the lessons learned and change the world is probably why someone could watch a movie like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and think its fans are infantile, rather than see it as a cutting critique of government surveillance and the Patriot Act as something we should fight against. After all, it's just a comic-book movie about a bunch of guys in tights throwing shields and punching each other.
The question remains, though: How do fans take the lessons from their fandom and apply them to the real world to make a difference? There are certainly examples of fans using their hobbies to raise money for charity. The 501st Legion and other Star Wars costuming clubs raise millions of dollars a year. As part of the publicity campaign for The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm lobbied fans to donate to Unicef. Fans of Firefly like Utah Browncoats have spent a decade holding screenings of Serenity (one is scheduled for May 21 at Brewvies), using the proceeds to support Equality Now. Star Trek veteran George Takei has taken a lead in promoting activism and equality for that group of fans.
But donating money to charity or soliciting those funds for those charities isn't exactly direct action or activism. How can that enthusiasm for fandom be bent into something that does even more good?
Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, I don't think you can argue that Steve Rogers would be a passive participant and consumer if he lived in our world. Would Luke Skywalker turn his back on fighting against the unnecessary use of the Force? Would Harry Potter ignore calls to combat sexism? Would Bruce Wayne ignore the rampant abuses of Wall Street or the prison system? These are all characters who have been defined by how they set out to change the world. Is wearing their faces on our T-shirts and underwear while giving money to charity really the best way to honor the lessons they taught us? I don't think so.
There are definitely organizations out there trying to rally fans of genre fiction to switch from consumers to activists, the most successful of which might be the Harry Potter Alliance. It was launched by Andrew Slack in 2005, when he set his sights on rallying Harry Potter fans with campaigns to combat the unfair labor practices of Walmart and to raise awareness about the atrocities happening in Darfur (atrocities still occurring). Over the past decade, their ranks have swollen to more than 85 chapters around the world, which have tackled everything from LGBT rights and sexism to immigration reform and literacy.
That organization is doing untold amounts of good on its own, wielding the enthusiasm of genre fans in a way that transcends the inherent consumerism one would normally associate with fandom. Slack has since moved on to create the U.S. Rebel Alliance, hoping to activate Star Wars fans in the same way. Their first target was getting dark money out of politics.
This is something that's increasingly interesting to me. I'm a fan who happens to have a platform for his opinion, and I can try to do some good that way, but that platform is not accessible to all fans. That's why I'm grateful to people like Andrew Slack who can organize around something so exciting. Organizations like that are helping fans realize that they can love their hobbies and change the world while they do it.
Can being a fan be trivial? Sure. Does it have to be? Absolutely not. That's a hero's journey we should all strive to take.