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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.

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Fan Cultures: Studying Fan Studies

Cover of Fan Cultures Title: Fan Cultures

Author: Matt Hills

Year of Publication: 2002

LC Call Number: HM646 .H55

I apologize for the generalizing nature of this post; I had to turn in the book last week, so I can’t have it near me while I write, as I usually would.  It isn’t quite the right book to write about from memory, either, as it’s quite dense!

Despite its inviting cover image, Fan Cultures is a heavy, theoretical book in which Hills questions some of the prior work on fan culture while proposing different ways forward.  If the reader is up for very dense academic writing, this is actually a good way of becoming more familiar with the academic dialogue around fandom.  Hills is very interested in deconstructing what he calls the “moral dualisms” that have sprung up in the study of fans.  For this reason, each chapter is titled according to a contrast between perceptions of fandom: “Between consumerism and resistance,”  “Between knowledge and justification,” etc.  So if there is a group that sees fans, unsympathetically, as particularly enthusiastic consumers, and an aca-fan contingent which sees fan production as a site of resistance, Hills shows how each group is flattening the diversity of fan communities, privileging one group of fans over another, and reifying the concepts that they discuss. He argues for a dialectical view in which both ends of this continuum are acknowledged.  He argues pretty vigorously and attacks essentially everyone who has worked on this. This is one of the things that I like most about academic culture, actually; he can write a book about everything that is wrong with fan studies today, and Henry Jenkins, who is the king of fan studies and whose work Hills critiques in several places as defensive and naïve (while obviously still acknowledging it as important), still writes a blurb for this book.

This approach has interesting consequences. One of the moral dualisms that he is most interested in breaking  down is that between fans and academics. There’s been a lot of work on the similarities between the two groups;  although I am relatively early in my foray into fan culture research, I’ve definitely come across it. However, Hills notes that this work tends to set up a contrast between fan cultures and academic culture that either privileges academia as rational, dispassionate, and more legitimate, or to construct fans as rebellious and cool.  In either case, it allows academia to go mostly unexamined, granting it the subject position.  As I say, this gets a bit dense and theoretical. Hills suggests taking on a more sophisticated point of view in which it is acknowledged that, shockingly, academics have emotions and strong preferences and opinions; he recognizes that there is a risk of losing credibility for this but argues holding prestige based on supposed neutrality is, actually, harmful to social science research.  In a way, although there’s a critique of the likes of Henry Jenkins for building up fans as an idealized, democratic community and ignoring other aspects of fandom, this argument is a logical extension of the defense of fans mounted by such scholars, who were struggling for the legitimacy of fan cultures.  According to Hills, we need to consider not only fan-scholars (fans whose practices are similar to those of academic), but also scholar-fans (scholars who are also fans), to break down some of these distinctions.

Hills spends the first half of the book engaged in this sort of deconstruction.  He covers all the bases: the pathologizing narratives to which fans are often subject, the scholarly characterization of fans as creative and collaborative, and the problems/benefits of making fans experts on their own experiences and communities. Again, he walks through all these dichotomies in a way that illustrates what the important inquiries in this field are, which is valuable to me as something of a novice here.  By the second half of the book, he begins to demonstrate alternate ways of approaching fan scholarship.

His most important contribution in this book, or at least the one that I found most intriguing, was his use of the fan autoethnography. This is the logical outcome of his argument about scholar-fans;  he is studying, specifically, himself, and attempting to do so without justifying his choices and while at the same time understanding all the sociological factors that led into his decisions. This seems like quite an extraordinary thing to do; he’s gone into some detail about how fan accounts of their own fandoms both can and cannot be trusted, showing how there are some aspects that fans cannot really articulate and other places where they feel they must justify themselves, but he has also been adamant that self-reflection is important, because nobody else is examining academics.  So, he makes a timeline of his own fandoms and how they’ve overlapped with each other, and attempts to account for it with reference to his social position over the course of his life, including his gender, his social class, his race, and so on.  It’s probably his least dense/most engaging chapter, and I think it is an interesting and healthy exercise.  It may be a useful thing to ask students to do, even though they will not be able to achieve Hills’s rigor, because it gives them an opportunity to look at their fandom from a perspective other than “I like this” or “this is good.” Once this is done, it becomes possible to look at other fandoms with less prejudices, as well.

He covers some other important questions of fan studies as well. There were two other sections that I found especially interesting. One had to do with the texts that seem to attract cult fans; is there such a thing as a cult text? Hills identifies several aspects of a text that may help to put it in this category;  following another critic, he defines this as a “family resemblance” but it reminded me more of a DSM diagnosis—the text should have some of the characteristics from this list, but may not show all of them.  Of course, being Hills, he declines to say that the cult status of a text is based fully on the characteristics of the text and not the way that the audience uses it; for Hills, it’s always both.  In any case, the characteristics he came up with were interesting; leaving space for fan production seemed especially important, but there were several of them.  I may have to revisit this text at some point.  The other  section of the book that I found intriguing detailed Hills’s visit to Vancouver as an X-Files fan; the city of Vancouver seemed to provide little in the way of support for media tourism, but the savvy X-Files fan can find subtle reminders of the show’s presence in the city. Seeking them out like clues, the fan re-enacts the experience of watching the show.  It’s an interesting meditation on the relationship between a media product and the way that the fandom of that particular property is enacted, and I’d like to compare it to other forms of media tourism. I’m also vaguely reminded of my own visit to Hawaii; I didn’t go there as a LOST fan per se (I am a LOST fan, but when I went to Hawaii, I really just wanted to hike around and look at volcanoes and nenes and things), but I nevertheless found myself keeping an eye out for things that reminded me of LOST. The two shows are similar in their use of mysterious clues for the viewer and the protagonists to attempt to puzzle out, and so things that look like clues have a similar effect. Of course, Hills assumes it’s already been established that we lead a mediated existence, so he doesn’t present this as some kind of staggering insight—but it’s interesting how a place appears to take on characteristics from media.

Anyway, this certainly wasn’t an easy read, and I certainly can’t share it with my students, but I think I got a lot out of it and will be applying Hills’s ideas to a lot of what I read in the future.

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