There’s an old joke that by the time a phenomenon gets the attention of one of the major national news magazines, it is probably already over. A few weeks ago, Time ran a story on the rising influence of “fan boy culture” and then this week, Entertainment Weekly used this same angle to talk about the success of the new Spider-Man movie. I’ve been so busy trying to wrap up the term that I haven’t had a chance to comment before now.
Time’s article, in particular, was explicit about the gender-dimensions of its claims, titling the article, “Boys Who Like Toys,” and opening with the following description:
He’s one of the most powerful taste-makers in Hollywood, the guy behind the record-breaking success of 300, the hit status of NBC’s Heroes and the reign of the Xbox 360 gaming console. He enjoys invitations to the Skywalker Ranch and hangs out with guys like Nicolas Cage and Quentin Tarantino at conventions. He’s zealously loyal, notoriously finicky and often aggressive with those who dare to disagree with him.
Oh, and occasionally he likes to dress up as Spider-Man.
He is the fanboy, the typically geeky 16-to-34-year-old male (though there are some fangirls) whose slavish devotion to a pop-culture subject, like a comic-book character or a video game, drives him to blog, podcast, chat, share YouTube videos, go to comic-book conventions and, once in a while, see a movie on the subject of his obsession. And he’s having his way with Hollywood.
Nope, there’s no accident that all of the pronouns here are masculine. In part, this is because the article is focused on the San Diego Comic-Con, superhero comics, and their media spinoffs, not to mention a number of high profile fanboys — Tarantino, Sam Raimi, Kevin Smith, and the like — who are exerting power and influence within the Hollywood establishment. The article can’t avoid the usually cliches — coming back in the end to the idea that “fanboys” are “outsiders” who may not adequately predict box office revenues except in the case of those films which are already targeted at niche or cult audiences. The other governing myth here is that fans are fickle and unpredictable; that one can go crazy trying to understand their tastes or listening to their criticism.
Entertainment Weekly hits that second point especially hard. (Sorry but that article is only accessible to subscribers to the magazine and I bought my copy on the newstand, so no links.) EW writes about Spider-Man III:
The opening also proves the studio can successfully premiere a movie that was scrutinized and dissected on the Internet throughout its entire production, probably more so than any other film in history. Such is the new reality for filmmakers behind high-profile comic-book adaptations and blockbuster sequels, who increasing depend on the Net as a vital marketing tool — but must also contend with fans who rabidly pick apart, analyze, and leak early peeks at upcoming projects online. “I’m at a loss to know how to deal with that,” says Spider-Man 3 director Sam Raimi, “But it’s the world we live in. I just have to adapt.”
The article describes how studios have made their peace with the spoiling community, actively courting influential fans as grassroots intermediaries the way they once courted powerful gossip columnists in the Golden Age of Hollywood — because they can help you if they like you and destroy you if they don’t. EW calls it “befriending the enemy,” a phrase which preserves the separation between consumers and producers, even as it describes the process by which that distinction is starting to break down.
It’s interesting, though, that EW describes fan culture entirely in terms of the consumption and circulation of information about commercially produced works and has nothing to say about the things that fans themselves create through their appropriation of the raw materials that commercial culture provides them. At least Time wrote about fans who “blog, podcast, chat, share YouTube videos.”
This media attention on “fan boy” culture comes at a moment of increasing debate within the aca-fan community about the gender dimensions of fan research. I wrote briefly about this topic a while back in response to some comments which got made at the Flow conference about the segregation of fan boy and fan girl scholars who are writing on similar topics but through different language, around different topics, and more often than not, on different panels. And I followed up a few days later with a second post on this topic. The discussion of topics such as the complexity of cult media narratives, transmedia storytelling, engagement, and convergence are being discussed seperately from long-standing work around fan fiction and fan culture more generally. There is some risk of taking up the industry’s own atomistic conception of the fan rather than embracing the more collective vision represented by the concept of fandom. More generally, as I have written here before, phrases like “the architecture of participation” that surround web 2.0 suggest the degree to which network culture is really fan culture without the stigma.
At the same time, some of these shifts may reflect growing pains in the ways fan culture gets studied as more men begin to write about their own experiences and interests as fans. We certainly do not want to lose the important insights which feminist scholarship contributed to our early understanding of fan culture — and indeed, the consciousness-raising tradition of feminist scholarship made it possible for us to write about our own experiences as fans. Yet, if fan studies is going to remain a viable area of research, we necessarily need to broaden the range of theoretical and methodological perspectives which get brought to bear upon it. We need to expand the range of fan cultures we study and the kinds of fan productivity we talk about.
It is also worth noting that this work is being produced in a larger context, one where at least some aspects of fan culture are gaining real visibility and influence, while others remain largely hidden from view. This is in part why I opened this post with a nod to Time and Entertainment Weekly, both of whom seem to understand the rise of fan influence in Hollywood along gender specific lines. Fan scholars may simply be reproducing, unconsciously in many cases, the dividing lines which structure the general culture’s response to fan culture.
A heated and yet highly productive discussion of these issues has been raging over at Kristina Busse’s blog, where her somewhat angry response to the discussions of these issues at the Media in Transition conference has so far generated 83 responses from a range of leading fan girl and fan boy academics. I can’t begin to do justice to this multi-layered discussion here. If you haven’t been following it yourself, you should check it out.
But I am concerned about the prospect that male and female scholars may be talking past each other rather than engaging with each other’s work. The past few years have seen a range of new books on fan culture, including several important anthologies, that reflect the work of a new generation of fan scholars.
So, earlier this week, I wrote to nearly 30 of the key researchers in this field and ask them if they would be willing to participate in what I am jokingly calling “Fan Boy/Fan Girl Detante.” Throughout the summer, this blog will be hosting a series of conversations among male and female researchers doing work on fan productivity, participatory culture, cult media, transmedia narratives, and so forth, designed to try to better understand the common ground and gender differences in the ways they are approaching their topic. Kristina and I have been working together to select researchers from a range of disciplines and national contexts, whose research spans not simply science fiction and fantasy, but also soap operas, Bollywood, popular music, games, and a range of other forms of media.
The entertainment industry loves big summer events: well, consider this to be a big summer event for those of us who are studying popular culture. While I will be spotlighting two scholars each week, many of the scholars have agreed to jump in both through the comments section here and through their own blogs to expand the conversation. I certainly hope that other fan researchers who have not been contacted about this first phase of the project will get in touch and let us know about the work they may be doing on these topics.
Earlier this week, Sibauchi, a media studies graduate student from South Korea, wrote to ask us about the value of fan studies. I am hoping that this series of exchanges will provide many valuable answers for Sibauchi and anyone else who wants to enter into this thriving area of research.
I am still hearing back from the scholars I contacted (so some of your favorite scholars may not be included here), but so far, the following folks who agreed to participate.
For the Red Team:
Nancy Baym, Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies, University of
Rhiannon Bury, Assistant Professor, Women’s Studies, University of Waterloo
Kristina Busse (PhD) Independent Scholar
Melissa Click, Assistant Professor, Communications, University of Missouri-Columbia
Francesca Coppa, Associate Professor, English, Muhlenberg College
Abigail Derecho, Ph.D. Candidate, Comparative Literary Studies and Radio/Television/Film,
Catherine Driscoll, Chair, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies
Karen Hellekson, (Ph.D.) Independent Scholar
Lee Harrington, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Miami University in Ohio.
Deborah Kaplan, (M.A.) Independent Scholar
Anne Kustritz Ph.D. Candidate, American Culture, University of Michigan
Lisa Morimoto, Ph.D. Candidate, Indiana University
Roberta Pearson Chair, Institute of Film and Television Studies, University of Nottingham
Ksenia Prassolova Ph.D. Candidate, University of Kaliningrad
Julie Levin Russo Ph.D. Candidate, Brown
Robin Anne Reid, Professor, Department of Literature and Languages, Texas A&M
Louisa Stein, Assistant Professor, San Diego
Rebecca Tushnet, Assistant Professor, Georgetown University Law Center
Alicia “Kestrell” Verlager disability and media technology blogger
Cynthia W. Walker Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, St. Peter’s College
Editor’s Note: I originally identified this as the Pink team but have changed it by popular demand.
For the Blue Team:
Will Brooker, Senior Lecturer, Film Studies, Kingston University
Sam Ford M.A. CMS, MIT
Jonathan Gray, Assistant Professor, Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University
Sean Griffin, Assistant Professor, Cinema-Television Studies, Southern Methodist University
Matt Hills Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies Cardiff University
Mark Jancovich, Professor, Film and Television Studies, University of East Anglia
Derek Johnson, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Robert Jones, Ph.D. NYU
Dereck Kompare, Assistant Professor, Cinema-Television, Southern Methodist University
Robert Kozinets, Associate Professor, Marketing, York University
Christian McCrea, Lecturer in Games and Interactivity, Swinburne University
Jason Mittell, Assistant Professor, American Studies and Film & Media Culture, Middlebury
Martyn Pedler, Independent Scholar
Aswin Punathambekar, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan
Bob Rehak, Assistant Professor, Film and Media Studies, Swarthmore College
All joking about Pink/Red and Blue teams, aside, my hope is that we will discover that there’s more common ground and shared interest here than might first seem apparent to those reading this work in isolation. I hope we all learn things that will inform our work and pushes us in new directions. By pairing scholars on the basis of gender, we insure two things that are often missing from this discussion: we insure that gender remains central to the discussion throughout and we insure absolute equal numbers of male and female participants. I am personally hoping that one of the things which will come out of the discussion, however, is some challenge to the essentialism which can run through discussions of this kind. I don’t think all of the work here is going to break down clearly into Red and Blue Teams at all.
I welcome further suggestions about people who should participate actively in this discussion. I note, for example, that while this list is very inclusive in terms of gender, it does not yet feel very inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity. I’d love to find some more scholars of color who would like to join this conversation and am very open to suggestions.
We will start the conversations here in a few weeks. I will post more details once they are known.
By the way, I am posting this tonight from my hotel room in New Orleans where I am attending Phoenix Rising, a major conference of fans and academics who love Harry Potter. I hope to write more about the conference in my post later in the day tomorrow. If you happen to be here at the conference, say hey! I’d love to meet you.