When Fan Boys and Fan Girls Meet…

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

Kansas

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,

Northwestern University

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

University-Commerce

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

College

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.

Comments

  1. Tama Leaver says:

    Henry, I think this is a great initiative and will no doubt sport some amazing debate – and highlight many points of intersection. Perhaps a useful topic for the teams to explore might be the recent heated debates amongst fans regarding the “Mary Washes Peter’s Spider-Suit” statue!

  2. Henry Jenkins says:

    Robin Reid has been having difficulty posting this response. I am not sure what is creating the obstacle but I wanted to pass this along to you. If any of you have trouble posting to my site, do let you know. I have had to set the filter pretty high because the number of links to this blog attracts an ungodly amount of porn spam and because I am often busy, I don’t want to be circulating obscene content on my academic blog. I do try to check messages multiple times during the day and get them up as quickly as humanly possible given the inhumane nature of my schedule.

    Here’s what Robin wrote:

    Thank you again for hosting this event–but a couple of small corrections, if I may.

    I’m now a full professor (not associate anymore) (though Kristina may not have known it, and my dept. web page is way out of date).

    I also am stepping off the pink team and onto the purple team: as a queer woman, and someone who grew up in a conservative small town in Idaho during the fifties and sixties, I have a deeply engrained hatred of pink. I realize you are using the terms lightheartedly, but no, please, not even jokingly will I be associated with pink.

    I also may be able to put you in touch with an scholar of color who I’ve corresponded with but have not met, also a woman. I’ll try to get an email off to the two of you tomorrow.

  3. I think this is a wonderful idea. I have been following the fangirl/fanboy discussions, but haven’t been able to jump in (finals and all that), but am so looking forward to participating in this.

  4. Personally, I’d have a lot of trouble thinking myself as part of the Pink Team, too — and the fact that Henry apparently didn’t immediately realize how “loaded” Pink is compared to Blue is itself an example of the sort of things we’re talking about. Why not the Red Team & the Blue Team — names which come without so much pre-valuation? Figure out what each “team” stands for after we’ve sorted outselves out.

  5. henry jenkins says:

    If people want me to change the names of the teams, happy to do it. I certainly don’t want discomfort over labels to get in the way of the substance of the exchange.

    I suppose what was behind my joke is my own discomfort with the essentialist terms of the debate — which keeps reverting to terms like fan boy and fan girl (which are also not exactly culturally neutral terms.) As I wrote at Kristina’s blog, I am also concerned by the way that much of the discussion so far collapses the differences between feminist scholar, female scholar, scholar of female fan culture, etc.

    I am hoping that one of the first steps in the discussion is to question all of the categories we are deploying here to talk about this question.

    Sorry, though, if I offended anyone by framing the categories this way. I am hoping that by the end of the discussion, we will be much more on the same team than in opposing camps.

  6. Cynthia W. Walker says:

    Hey Henry —

    great idea and as you know, I’ve been interested in the differences between male and female fandom experiences for over a decade.

    But if you google me, you’ll find me under Cynthia W. Walker. Only my friends call me Cindy :)

    And let me add to the voices who despise the color pink. I usually favor electric blue myself.

    Editor’s note: Fixed the name. Sorry.

  7. Just for the record: as a femme/third-wave feminist, I LOVE PINK. so I’ll still be thinking of it as the Pink Team in my head ;) . I have remarked elsewhere about how much it bothers me that blue is such an unmarked term, though.

    I’m looking forward to this project!

  8. Deborah Kaplan says:

    This nomenclature discussion amuses me particularly in that one of the points I raised in Kristina Busse’s blog was about the Boston media’s derogatory use of the terminology “the pink hat brigade” to refer to female Red Sox fans. There are many levels of sexism involved in the terminology (firstly, and most importantly, the scorn for female fans; secondly, the association of female fans with the color pink; and thirdly, and most subtly, the scorn for “girly” fans — that is, the particular female fans who wear the color pink). I see some of this particular discomfort about the color pink being played out in this comment section right here.

    I actually find this to be a fruitful, if whimsical, conversation. On the one hand, it’s reasonable for feminists of any gender to be aggravated by the associations between women and the traditional applications of the color pink (sugar and spice and everything nice). On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to ask what’s so wrong with the pink Red Sox hats? What’s so wrong with sugar and spice? In fact, one of the conversations which was raised in Kristina’s blog is about the possibility of fanboys and fangirls having different modes of interaction. Those modes of interaction, as briefly identify, do follow along traditional gender roles: more community-based and supportive among the fangirls, as opposed to more individual and aggressive among the fanboys. Whether or not those modes of interaction do exist to do follow along gender lines is up for question and investigation, but certainly they make for an interesting dichotomy to explore.

    The traditionally “female” modes of interaction get far too much scorn from certain sectors, and arguably part of our mission here is to revalue those modes of interaction and show them as powerful. I think the distaste for the color pink and its association with female scholarship is a good metaphor for that process of revaluing.

    (Personally, I’ve spent the last two years reclaiming pink, after a lifetime of hating it. But then, I encourage guys to wear it, too.)

  9. Henry Jenkins says:

    Another comment from Robin got bumped by the ever spam filter. I am working to see if we can figure out the source of the problem but meanwhile, let me repost for her:

    Thank you for the corrections (although I made an error–the rank here is just “professor” not “full professor” — it’s one of those terms that’s often used casually for any academic, and I wasn’t being accurate enough).

    The issue of academic rank is not totally off topic, since my experience

    with scholars in this field is that the majority of women I meet (I’ve met

    very few men, either at the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts, iafa.org, where we now have a division called “Communities and Cultures in the Fantastic”, or at Slash Fiction Study Day, a one-day event focusing, clearly, more on Slash Fiction). The few men I’ve met in this area of scholarship tend to focus mostly on gaming. I don’t claim my experience to be applicable to the whole–there are many scholars I’ve not met.

    However, I’ll be curious to see how much another observation I’ve made may apply to the larger group: the majority of these scholars I’ve met tend to be graduate students, independent scholars, tenure-track faculty, or in other ways not fully tenured/inside the institutional power structures.

    Women in academia still tend to be clustered in the lower ranks, from the

    statistics I’ve seen. My earlier work was in feminist sf criticism (also

    marginalized in my discipline and the university, though not as marginalized

    as fanfiction).

    You make a good point in Kristina’s blog that there is a blurring between female scholars, female fans, texts perceived as preferred by different genders, activities of fandom predominantly associated with one gender or

    the other, etc. I suspect that the blurring/shorthand in the discussions.

    I’ve heard come because of the perception that all of the above tend to be excluded/marginalized (arguably, not just in one area of academia).

    Editor’s note: Keep in mind that I was a first year assistant professor when Textual Poachers was published. I don’t know if that confirms your theory or not.

  10. Oh, this is excellent! My purely independent, almost wholly amatuer, largely anecdotal research interest in fandom is only a few years old, and I’ve been disappointed at how little attention the study of fandom has gotten. I’m quite excited to see this!

  11. What a wonderful idea! I’ll be watching the ensuing conversation with great interest.

  12. Henry Jenkins says:

    More from Robin.

    Editor’s note: Keep in mind that I was a first year assistant professor

    when Textual Poachers was published. I don’t know if that confirms your

    theory or not.

    I’m not sure I’d claim it’s a theory, more observations on the scholars I’m

    meeting in a few larger numbers at a couple of conferences, some of the

    current people. I’ve not attended any “media” identified conferences (and

    having heard from friends about them, am not likely to at the moment, with

    my other conference commitments). TP was first published in 1992 (15 years

    ago), so if you were a first year/new tenure-track faculty person, that

    would confirm my observation that the work tends (in many cases) to be done

    by newer/junior faculty. You’ve kept up your publication/research focus in

    this area over time. I don’t know at what academic stage Bacon-Smith or

    Penley were when they published the other two of what fans and aca-fans I

    know often call “the big three” (I see Penley’s book on feminist and sf was

    published in 1988; she’s really published much more on film/media and

    feminist theory than on fan studies, if the book record is accurate–I’m

    playing around on WorldCat not MLA at the moment). Bacon-Smith’s first

    book looks to be EW, also in 1992 (I see she’s also published fiction, what

    one learns in data bases). The demands on academics to publish in certain

    areas is a topic that came up recently at Kalamazoo–medievalists may write

    on Tolkien, but some are also expected to present “more” on their

    main/primary area of medieval studies. I’m lucky enough to be at a

    university that is not large enough or restrictive enough to set that sort

    of publication requirements on faculty. I know of at least one medievalist

    who felt under scrutiny by a higher administrator when she published an

    article on fan fiction.

    I’ve been seeing a steady increase in numbers of presentations and

    publications since I first heard presentations on fan fiction by two (women)

    scholars from Canada at Popular Culture during the nineties, and since the

    conferences I attend, though interdisciplinary, tend to draw more

    literature, cultural studies, history faculty with a scattering of

    film/media/communication and a few social sciences people, it’s clearly a

    limited sample. Growth is good although it also (as my experience with

    feminist literary criticism) shows leads to the inability to read everything

    and communicate with others–I once could read all the feminist theory books

    published in a year. Now, I can barely keep up with a very small

    sub-category of feminist literary criticism! The academic ideal (was it

    ever really possible) that people have read all of X in a field seems to be

    at the heart of this debate as well–there’s no possible way to read

    everything, but there are certain texts (oft cited) that seem to become the

    “scholarly canon.” The question of how often those texts tend to be by male

    scholars is one part of this discussion.

  13. I’m going to make an intentionally radical, controversial feminist statement. [Cross-posted at my LJ, where threaded discussion is possible.]

    Fanboys and fangirls tend to do different things, and the things the fangirls do are *better*. I don’t just mean “I like them better”, I mean they are *objectively* better.

    For instance, in the last 2 days, I’ve seen:

    - The latest part of In the City of Seven Walls, the Stargate:Atlantis McKay/Sheppard slavefic epic, not quite finished yet, by auburnnothenna.

    - lim’s new McKay/Sheppard vid, My Brilliant idea

    - sanyin’s “Supernatural” Dean/food story, The Taste of Apples, sequel to sevenfist’s Life As We Know It (warning: both stories feature graphic consensual incest).

    – and these are just plucked off the last few pages of my short-version LJ friends list.

    Fangirls are committing *art*. And I say “committing art” because all great art is a crime, a breaking of rules and boundaries, an expansion into the forbidden, a going where no-one has gone before.

    The important thing about fangirl-type productions (even when made by males) is not that most are bad, because that’s what Sturgeon’s Law predicts. It’s that some are *great*, among the best artistic productions of our day.

    That great art is worth doing is to me axiomatic: this is one of the things human life is for, and many many greater minds than mind have argued for it, talk to them if you don’t agree with me.

    So, one of the products of FangirlLand is Art-with-a-capital-A, that suggests that FangirlLand itself is a worthwhile use of human energy, that the things we do have or include known good ends.

    I do not see anything in Classic FanboyLand that can compare. I don’t see (though I hope to be shown) that the human energy going into FanboyLand results in something equally creative and worthwhile. FangirlLand uses art to create community, and community to create art; I don’t know what FanboyLand is doing that might be on that level.

    I don’t think the difference has to do with any kind of true difference between men and women, or boys and girls. “Making art and community” — that’s a human being thing, that’s what *we* do. Speaking as an evolutionary biologist, both art and community-formation are part of our nature, they don’t need to be explained in specific cases: we are human, and this is what we do.

    What needs to be explained, IMO, is why in this place & time most men *don’t* do this. I’m up against my time deadline, so I’ll just say briefly and radically: I think the current construction of masculinity breaks something in men, though I don’t know what. The contrast between FangirlLand and FanboyLand shows that there is something in FanboyLand that needs to be explained, because FangirlLand is the human default: sitting around the fire, telling stories.

  14. Faith says:

    Looking forward to the discussion.

    It is slightly tangential but there was a quite interesting discussion on the stereotypes associated with the terms ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ a few months ago on fanthropology a few months ago. It was short but raised a some interesting points about the underlieing assumptions that go with the labels.

  15. Beth B says:

    It was great to meet you this weekend and I enjoyed hearing your viewpoints (both one-on-one and in your sessions) about fan culture and the various fandoms. I was struck by the disproportionate number of women at the conference (85% according to one report), especially once you mentioned the preponderance of the “fanboy” in the rest of fan culture (or at least the appearance of it). What is it about Harry Potter that draws women? Is it the large number of librarians and schoolteachers who love the book? The fact that it’s a children’s book? The themes within the story? The fact that it’s a female author?

    Also, I was interested in your comment about how there are so many people who are fans of the book but have never stepped across the line into fandom. I meet many people who love the books but would never check out a fan site, attend a conference, pen a fic, don a costume, etc. What is it that drives some people into the “fanperson” realm?

    This was my first conference and it was a truly amazing experience, both from a personal and from a cultural observer perspective. I appreciated reading your reflections, which helped me put some of it in context.

  16. Beth B:

    Media (TV & movie) fandom has always been *at least* 50% female. *Always*.

    Harry Potter fandom, as Henry says, is the Perfect Storm: fanfiction.net alone has over a quarter of a million HP stories, which means that the total number of HP stories online is probably several million. The vast majority of these stories are by girls and women.

    If attendence at Phoenix Rising was 85% female, that doesn’t surprise me at all, it sounds like about par for the course for a con geared toward older, more literary fen.

    I bet there were also more slash fen than you expected. The proportion of slash fen in a fandom tends to increase with time; at a given time, slashers tend to be over-represented among the most active fen, including con-organizers and -goers.

    This is IMO because the commercial market refuses to cater to slashers, so we find fandom (where we can get the sort of thing we like) comparatively more rewarding than gen or het (conventional romance) fen do.

    In brief: there is nothing special about HP that appeals to women more than other fandoms do. HP fandom is fandom. Indeed, as Henry Henry says on the next rock, HP fandom is the world.