Tag Archives: Henry Jenkins

Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Study ALL the Fans! Use ALL the Methodologies!

Cover of Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World Title: Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World

Editors: Jonathan Gray, C. Lee Harrington and Cornel Sandvoss (authors many)

Publication Date: 2007

Library of Congress Call Number: HM 646 .F36 2007

Fandom:  Identities and Communities in a Mediated World is an edited volume on the subject of fandom. It covers a lot of ground, both in terms of the fan activities that it describes and the particular fandoms that it examines. The twenty-six articles included in this collection are divided into six sections: one about how fandom works generally, one about the treatment of more prestigious fan objects, one about fandom and physical locations, including fan tourism, one about global fandom, one about the history and contexts of fandom, and one about anti-fans. There is obviously more in this book than I can even imagine covering in a single blog post. If I were really diligent, it would have been a good idea to have blogged each chapter as I read it, but, well, I just don’t have time for that.  So first I want to offer some thoughts about the anthology as a whole, and then I’m going to discuss a few of the essays which I found particularly striking.

This anthology (entirely unlike Fan Cultures!) would be an excellent place for a person to begin thinking about fan studies.  Most of the essays are both accessible and very high in quality, and most of the topics that seem to come up again and again in fan studies are covered. If I were to pick up a book and use it as a textbook on the subject, it would be this one. It doesn’t feel like a textbook, though. As is fairly typical with collections of this type, there is an introduction about the general concerns of the collection and an afterword which tackles “The Future of Fandom” (cue ominous music), but the articles in between are, for the most part, specific without being technical and arcane.  Jonathan Gray, Cornell Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington write in the introduction:

More than merely bring together extant work on fandom, though, we hope that this collection will inspire and encourage new research on these and all other sorts of fandom, from a healthy variety of disciplinary perspectives.  (16)

And it does. These are essays written by a variety of academics,  some of whom I’d heard of because they are significant in this field, which engage seriously with actual questions rather than taking on a pedantic tone.   I also enjoyed the effort to make the book as heterogeneous as possible; to continue with my textbook comparison, this makes it less like a textbook because most textbooks are not written this way, but it also makes the book more like a good textbook because it exposes the reader to a variety of concerns, fandoms, methodologies and voices.  So on the whole, I really recommend it.

Now, to some of the highlights…

Christine Scodari’s article, “Yoko in Cyberspace with Beatles Fans” considers the hatred of Yoko Ono among many Beatles fans.  Obviously, there is an element to misogyny to the attacks on Ono, but Scodari takes it a little further. She looks at the various factions that exist in Beatles fandom and the tensions among them, pointing out that fans of John Lennon can often be found devaluing the contributions of Paul McCartney and vice versa.  Other fans are very invested in the relationship between Lennon and McCartney. In all these cases, Ono can be invoked as an interloper.  Fans of McCartney need to show that he was more important than Ono was. Fans who need McCartney and Lennon to have been very close friends stumble over the existence of a potentially more important relationship in Lennon’s life. Fans of Lennon may resent her presence—and here Scodari draws a parallel to female X-Files fans who idolized Mulder and denigrated Scully, and fans of some other shows where the same dynamic was present.   As I’ve summarized her argument here, I am making it sound as if Scodari portrays Beatles fans as a bunch of whiny infighters, but that’s not really how it seems in the article; rather, she provides an interesting look at the way that fandoms become sites for the struggle over the signifier. Who were the Beatles, what did they mean? This is an important question for fans to engage and of course they argue vigorously.  And I really like how Scodari manages to bring this out and at the same time hold fandoms accountable for the way that cultural forces originating in culture generally, such as misogyny, are used in service of these arguments.

Rebecca Tushnet’s chapter, “Copyright Law, Fan Practices, and the Rights of the Author” looks at the legality of fan creations, especially fan fiction. This has been done before, of course, but it’s quite difficult to find a good article about this that doesn’t belong in a law journal. Tushnet’s chapter is quite accessible, and it does an excellent job of showing how fair use applies to fan works and considering several other arguments that have been brought up in this context, including moral rights, attribution, transformativeness and so on.  Tushnet’s argument is that fan fiction (and fan art, etc.) are usually legal under the fair use doctrine. She invokes The Wind Done Gone, a spoof of Gone with the Wind, which always seems to come up in these arguments, I think because it’s a rare example of a court case. She makes an interesting point here that the use of a work is more likely to be considered fair when it depends more heavily on the source material.  This makes sense the way she explains it—the more heavily it depends on this source material, the more it needed to be that particular work and nothing else—but it’s a surprising argument at first glance.

In “The Fans of Cultural Theory,” Alan McKee is really making a point more about the way that fans are studied than about a particular group of fans.  He intentionally chooses a group of texts to which he suspects many of his readers will feel some strong attachment—that is, theory texts such as those by Marx, Foucault, Baudrillard (and I think the invocation of Baudrillard, whose work has certainly had a strong influence on all fields of cultural studies, is very deliberate here) and discusses devotees of these texts in terms of their practices, turning a skeptical eye to their self-concept as oppositional, anti-capitalist, etc.  McKee’s tone becomes increasingly tongue-in-cheek, (it is kind of a tip-off when he describes Marx’s ideas as “surprisingly anticapitalist”) until he stops the essay entirely, with the words:

Game over.

OK. (94)

He describes his essay as a scherzo, which pokes fun while making a serious point.  His point here is that fan studies scholars often look at fan culture in a way that doesn’t really do it justice; rather, such studies often hold fans to impossible standards and demanding that they somehow escape capitalism while not taking seriously their real intellectual work. This is really close to the point that Matt Hills made in Fan Cultures, but McKee makes it without producing hundreds of pages of dense academic language, so, you know, bonus. This is really clever and well done, but I’m a little sad that I take McKee’s critique of the academic publishing industry more seriously than he does. There are some actual problems there.

John Tulloch’s chapter, “Fans of Chekhov: Re-Approaching ‘High Culture’” looks at theatergoers who attended different plays in the city of Bath: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull and another play based on Chekhov.  I enjoyed this chapter a lot because it makes the case that there are different kinds of fans who may be interested in the same text. In this case, he compares fans of Chekhov to fans of the actors who starred in the play, and finds real differences between them. Fans of the actors have different criteria from fans of the play, and one group liked the play much more than the other.  The difference in the ways that the different fans talk about the plays is quite striking.

In “On the Set of The Sopranos: ‘Inside’ a Fan’s Construction of Nearness,” Nick Couldry describes a tour of New Jersey for Sopranos fans.  The chapter is really about Couldry’s disappointment with his visit to the strip club that doubles as a set for the show. He discusses the “negative aura” of the room he surveys, but what really happened here was the removal of mediation.  The show, which I haven’t seen, had apparently imbued this space with some significance which disappeared when he Couldry stood in the actual space, thus removing it from the fiction. This makes an interesting contrast to Matt Hills’s experience in Vancouver, which I briefly described in my post on Fan Cultures; Hills went to a city in which fan pilgrimages are not formally supported and sought out clues which seemed to have a special, hidden meaning—more or less the same meaning that Couldry failed to find.

Lawrence B. McBride and S. Elizabeth Bird’s contribution, “From Smart Fan to Backyard Wrestler: Performance, Context and Aesthetic Violence,” is one of the strongest and most interesting pieces in the collection. It covers the world of professional wrestling in a way that I certainly didn’t expect.  One of several major points made here is that fans approach a text with different levels of savvy and irony.  The fans discussed here are certainly not under the impression that professional wrestling is “real;” they understand it as a performance and are most interested to see, not how the constructed narrative plays out, but how things are done.  It’s to this end that they create backyard wrestling federations, which many fans consider superior to the more “mainstream” wrestling performances.  Backyard wrestlers create a performance in which they can enact a particular type of showmanship and to encapsulate their understanding of the aesthetic that informs this type of wrestling.  In many ways, this essay is intended to rehabilitate these fans from perceptions of them as violent, thoughtless fools, and in fact, it does make them much more interesting than I may initially have assumed they’d be.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby’s “Global Fandom/Global Fan Studies” because it’s really just a survey (and because this is starting to get long), but it was very good in its attempt to quantify some of the practices of those who study fandom, particularly in terms of whether they are fans themselves, and especially in putting these practices into cultural context. By “culture” here, I mean both the specific geographical culture in which these scholars exist and the culture of the scholarly disciplines within which they work (turns out the business management folks are really different from everyone else).

Anne Ciecko and Hunju Lee look at the career of a Korean movie star in “Han Suk-kyu and the Gendered Cultural Economy of Stardom and Fandom.”  It seems that Han took a hiatus at the height of his career, claiming that he wanted to study and become a better actor, but his return film was disappointing and he was never really able to come back.  In this chapter, though, it becomes clear that this isn’t entirely Han’s fault. He embodied a particular type of masculinity which was culturally popular at the time, especially among his female fans.  His gender performance was rather traditional and drew on subtle acting, stoicism in the face of adversity, and loyalty to beloved women (sometimes conflicting with his political loyalties). During Han’s hiatus, however, this particular ideal of masculinity was replaced by, in essence, the action hero.  This change was driven by a perception that the audience had changed; the notional typical moviegoer during much of Han’s career had been a middle-aged woman, but during his hiatus, this perception changed, and studios started making films aimed at young men, whom they believed wanted more action and less feeling. Han’s attempt to adapt to this genre failed.  This is an interesting case study of the relationship between fan behaviors and studio perceptions, and how this changes the sorts of cultural products that get made.

In “Loving Music: Listeners, Entertainments, and the Origins of Music Fandom in Nineteenth-Century America,” Daniel Cavicchi shows that fandom actually predates mass media and uses fascinating archival materials to show how fans expressed their attachment to texts in the nineteenth century.  Again, I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but it’s quite striking how all the same concerns can be studied from a historical perspective.

Derek Johnson’s “Fan-tagonism: Factions, Institutions and Constitutive Hegemonies of Fandom” does indeed study antagonistic factions in fan communities; as you can see from some of the chapters I’ve mentioned above, this is a pretty common theme.  However, Johnson’s chapter is interesting because it discusses the way that producers might push back.  The chapter is about Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is apparently reviled by most fans but beloved by Buffy/Spike shippers. The interesting thing here, though, is not the way that some fans manage to achieve dominance in saying which seasons are good and which are bad, but the producers’ use of fan surrogates to snipe back at the fans who would dictate which way they think the series should go.  These characters are not portrayed especially sympathetically and are seen as an obstacle to the goals of the main characters.  So, on the one hand this in one case in which the relationship between fans and producers is, after all, reciprocal, as they acknowledge and criticize one another, but then again, fans are still in the more vulnerable position because the producers can fall back on stereotypes of the-fan-as-loser, which will of course be consumed not only by those who are in the know.

Melissa A. Click’s chapter, “Untidy: Fan Response to the Soiling of Martha Stewart’s Spotless Image,” makes Martha Stewart much more interesting than I ever thought she’d be.  Click distinguishes between fans of Stewart’s various media products and anti-fans of Stewart herself, who like to mock her ultra-feminine, perfectionist, arbiter-of-taste persona.  To Click, this is in part a conflict between feminism and femininity, although she notes that self-identified feminists are equally represented in both groups; I’d argue that the criticisms of Stewart as presented here (that she concerns herself with supposedly frivolous matters such as interior decorating and that she is pushy and difficult to get along with) are actually misogynist, but Click doesn’t go there.  In any case, Click’s research was rendered more interesting than she expected when Stewart was imprisoned for insider trading.  Click has the very interesting finding that neither group of fans seemed to have a more negative view of Stewart because of this incident. Instead, those who enjoyed her media products shrugged it off (they were not interested in her personal life), while those who enjoyed mocking Stewart’s persona actually became more sympathetic to her because they were bothered by the media’s attacks on Stewart, which they found sexist.  This surprised me; I always thought going to jail was bad, but in some cases it can increase support for a public figure, I suppose.

Vivi Theodoropoulou looks at Greek soccer fans (he calls them football fans, but I’m American) in “The Anti-Fan within the Fan: Awe and Envy in Sport Fandom.”  Of course, many of his insights into the way that sports fandom encourages participants not only to be fans of one team but also to be fans of another have applications in many other sports in many other contexts.  But what he also covers here is the way that fans of sports teams are constructed according to class (and gender).  He discusses two teams based in Athens, one of which is seen as a blue-collar, rowdy team, while the other is a “classy” team with less demonstrative fans. Theodoropoulou looks into the history behind these two teams to explain how each of them came to be associated with a particular class status; although the specific factors that led the teams to be perceived in that way may no longer be quite as relevant, this aura has stuck to the teams in question.  Much of the essay focuses on the antagonist relationships and name-calling between these two groups of fans; the insults themselves are fairly predictable, but I like how Theodoropoulou shows that different constructions of masculinity have a lot to do with the way  these fans perceive themselves and each other.  Of course, he also uses the notion of Sassurean linguistic binaries, but that much is obvious, right?

Jeffrey Sconce’s “A Vacancy at the Paris Hilton” isn’t the last chapter of the collection, but it’s the last one I’ll discuss in detail here.  Sconce’s writing style is brilliant; the essay is scathingly funny and manages to build up the antics of Paris Hilton into a harbinger of the destruction of Western culture in such an over-the-top way that he doesn’t even sound like a crank. However, I did feel a little uncomfortable with it because, while I find nothing especially endearing about Paris Hilton, I don’t really approve of forgetting that she is a human being.  He writes:

But herein lies the evil genius of this object we have come to know as the Paris Hilton, and why only the theoretical armature developed by Baudrillard over the past twenty-five years is equal to the task of “explaining” her continuing presence on the contemporary mediascape. For years, Baudrillard’s work has been facilely dismissed as ignoring the real world, overvaluing sign and stimulation, and thus avoiding meaningful intervention into some leftist fantasy of a nonexistent public sphere. But honestly, what model of political economy, psychoanalytic demystification, or reception analysis is up to the challenge of explaining Paris Hilton? (330)

Sorry for the long quotation, but I think this is a decent illustration of Sconce’s writing.  It’s really a pleasure to read. He goes on to consider the role of what he calls the meta/meta-famous, who achieve notoriety without talent or hard work, and the resentment that that public at large feels when confronted with someone like Hilton.  To Sconce, this is a larger cultural trend and the logical endpoint of hyperrealism.  If we keep spinning off metatexts and meta-metatexts and meta-meta-metatexts, with the understanding that everything that we experience is mediated and constructed and fake in one way or another, we’re bound to end up with Paris Hilton at some point, and at this point, culture is essentially completely devoid of content (hence the title).  He’s funny enough to sound tongue-in cheek rather than alarmed at this prospect, but I do think the mean-spiritedness stems from a certain fear that this is what has become of our culture.

In any case. Those are the highlights. At some point I began to wonder what the difference is, really, between fan studies and media studies generally; as we become more and more aware of the many different ways that people interact with texts, it becomes harder and harder to nail down what a fan, and what a fan text, and even what a text is.  I was amused that just as I started thinking about this, the Afterword came along, where Henry Jenkins himself appeared just to make that same point. So, I guess I was on the right track.

Anyway, I know this isn’t always the case with collections of this type, but all the essays in this collection were good, and many of them were useful insofar as I think I’ll be able to use them in my class.


Leave a comment

Filed under Professional or Philosophical

Convergence Culture: Getting Started


Title: Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
Author: Henry Jenkins
Publication Date: 2006
LC Call Number: P 94.65 .U6 J46 2006

I’ve been thinking about teaching a college writing class with a popular culture theme and am trying to give myself a good background before I do. To that end, I read Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, and you can probably expect more posts about books on this subject in the future.

Jenkins, a very well known scholar in popular culture and fandom in particular, divides the book up into six chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, in which he addresses many different aspects of popular culture, from the perspectives of producers, fans, advertisers, and others who are perhaps less directly involved in his subject matter but still interested in it (teachers, critics, etc.). Throughout the book, he is so engaging that I’m tempted to assign some chapters in my class, although the language is somewhat academic and I’m aware I have to be careful about this. He is also not limited to one specific fandom and uses examples from both science fiction/fantasy properties like Star Wars and less-nerdy properties such as reality shows. In part, this is because each of these communities has different characteristics and is interesting for different reasons, but I also find that, given students’ tendency not to realize that, for instance, they don’t have to like Star Wars to find Jenkins’s insights into the ways that fans remix it interesting, it’s useful to have diversity among the properties. It’s also been my experience that they are more likely to be fans of American Idol than of any of the nerdy things that I tend to like. (If you mention Doctor Who, they stare at you blankly because they have never heard of it. Sadness. Of course, I hadn’t either when I was their age.)

In any case, Jenkins is very insightful about a lot of things that I wanted to consider. His chapters on Survivor and Harry Potter cover how information is sought, understood to be valid, and used to establish membership within a group. One central concept he introduces is that of “knowledge communities,” which come into being when fans come together in virtual spaces and pool their information, allowing them to take advantage of what any of them knows instead of needing each of them to know these things individually. Jenkins, following Pierre Levy, notes that, “these new communities are defined through voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations, reaffirmed through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments. … These communities, however, are held together through the mutual production and reciprocal exchange of knowledge” (27). There is a lot more about how knowledge communities form online and around specific fan properties; his first example is about fans who spoil Survivor by trying to find out who the contestants are, who wins, when others are eliminated, where the season will be filmed and so on. It is (as the witches of Prydain said about the magic sword) quite astonishing the lengths to which some will go.

Jenkins points out that this creates an adversarial relationship between the show’s producer, who wants to keep all this information secret until the show airs, and this specific group of fans, who seek to reveal as much as possible before the season even begins. This has a real effect on the show because the producers make an effort to keep the information hidden and create red herrings to throw fans off the trail. Over time, though, this community has become less egalitarian because of the ways that knowledge is ferreted out. The game was once about guessing the winner based on contestants’ weight loss and other clues that could be available to anyone, but as spoilers began using more sophisticated techniques to which most did not have access, such as using GPS cameras to identify the location from space, it became more about evaluating the claims made by those who had somehow obtained privileged information. However, Jenkins’s article on Harry Potter fandom shows that not all such communities become less egalitarian over time. He shows how online HP communities help fans–especially young fans, and largely female ones–to establish authority for themselves as writers in a supportive environment in which they can interact with adults on an equal footing. This is a very rare opportunity and Jenkins does an excellent job of showing its value and enumerating the various literacy skills, not taught (or not taught well) in schools that young people can acquire in this way. He quotes the guidelines that one group establishes for beta readers of fan fiction, and it is striking how closely they resemble things I would like students to be able to do in peer workshops. Engagement with this community can sometimes reach into what I’d consider political engagement, as Harry Potter fans banded together to defend the books against those who wanted to ban them from schools and libraries. Fan communities can be really powerful for their participants, and I find the fact that school usually fails at creating such deep engagement disappointing.

Jenkins is also interested in how producers, advertisers, and others of their ilk affect/are affected by the engagement of fans, and he notes that this is an asymmetrical relationship in which power for fans comes at a price. The chapter on American Idol convinces me that reality shows explain a lot about, say, Facebook, and he articulates the terms of the privacy bargain better than anyone I have ever read on the subject:

“Here’s the paradox: to be desired by the networks is to have your tastes commodified. On the one hand, to be commodified expands a group’s cultural visibility. Those groups that have no economic value get ignored. That said, commodification is also a form of exploitation. Those groups that are commodified find themselves targeted more aggressively by marketers and often feel they have lost control over their own culture, since it is mass produced and mass marketed. One cannot help but have conflicted feelings because one doesn’t want to go unrepresented–but one doesn’t want to be exploited, either” (62-63).

Jenkins is sympathetic to the fans who face this dilemma. He argues that convergence is a double-edged sword; it means that the power of fan communities can be exploited by commercial interests, but it also gives the fans the ability to influence the culture that they care about; he likens it to a “collective bargaining structure that they can use to challenge corporate decisions” (63). He points out that a similar problem exists for those who control these cultural products as well, since they may need to give up some control in order to engage their fans. This interplay is covered very well in the chapter on Star Wars, in which Jenkins describes in some detail the attempts of Lucasfilm to encourage fans to make Star Wars their own while discouraging them from criticizing the franchise or violating their copyrights. To Jenkins, this is a conflict between mass culture, which is produced and owned by corporations and consumed by an audience distinct from those groups, and something like a new folk culture, in which fans can appropriate and retell stories that they feel they own communally.

It’s clear that Jenkins is excited by the possibilities that convergence culture offers, but he’s also cautious about the effects of the appropriation discussed above and is well aware of the limitations of the culture he describes. He is not a cheerleader for fan cultures, then, but he does advocate for their interests, and he takes them seriously. Throughout the book, he is insightful, engaging, compelling and well-documented. This is an excellent look at fan cultures and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding the communities that arise around media and the interplay between these communities and the producers of the media that inspired them.


Filed under Professional or Philosophical