Gender and Fan Culture (Round Ten, Part Two): Jonathan Gray and Roberta Pearson

“Bardies and Bachmaniacs”

Fans vs. Elitist Bastards

JG: Roberta’s chapter in Fandom is in our “high culture fandom” section, and is a polemic calling for more studies of “middlebrow” and “highbrow” fans. This was a section that I really wanted in the book, since I think that fan studies could really get a lot out of studying a broader range of fandoms. So we’ll kick off this second part by discussing why we think it’s time to go looking for such fandoms.

My first two degrees were in English and Postcolonial Lit, but when I moved into media and cultural studies, I was somewhat shocked to see that the field had apparently negotiated a binding divorce settlement with English Lit. English took the Lit, and media and cultural studies took audience studies, and a court had clearly enforced the lack of visitation rights quite firmly. I wonder though why we can’t do more to examine the audiences, and in particular, the fans, of Lit. To run with my divorce analogy, it’s as if I’ve now grown up with media and cultural studies, but would like to know a bit more about my birth father (I’ll gender Lit male since high culture is often seen as the more proper and masculine, and popular culture as peripheral and feminine). This springs from no animosity to my mother – I love television – but I don’t know why I need to choose between them. Why is it, do you think, Roberta, that the move to popular culture has often by nature enforced a separation from Lit, classical music, opera, and other elements of supposed “high culture”? We’ve used this conversation to discuss boundaries around fandom, and this one seems to me one of the big barriers, yet one that has limited how we think of fans, and of how popular culture works in general.

RP: Now there’s a huge question. You and I have a Polonius-like tendency to ramble on a bit so as Hamlet’s dad says (speaking of birth fathers) ‘brief let me be.’ I think there are two reasons for the divorce between lit crit and its high culture siblings, one ideological and the other structural. As with fan studies, cultural studies started as a polemic, an attack on all things high culture that were seen as complicit with dominant hegemony. Now even to suggest that high culture might be worthy of study is seen as treasonous. This, coupled with the weakening of high culture as the central repository of a culture’s identity and knowledge, means that fewer scholars are ever exposed to high culture, but are saturated with the popular. I think today’s young scholars simply feel uncomfortable studying high culture because then they’d have to consume it and they don’t have either the intertextual frame or the proper register in which to do so. It would mean attending a concert where you weren’t supposed to get to your feet, hold a lighter aloft and rock gently to the music.

This is of course a bit of a polemic itself, but you get the point. What really bothers me though, is how short sighted this is. We know full well that you can’t study ‘blackness’ without studying ‘whiteness’ or ‘femininity’ without ‘masculinity.’ You have to interrogate the dominant that structures the subordinate. While high culture is no longer dominant it’s still a structuring force in a marketplace that increasingly blurs the lines between high and low culture in terms of production and marketing, or at least that uses the same tactics of marketing with the one as with the other. There are lots of potentially fascinating case studies out there, such as Britain’s Classic FM, or classical radio lite as opposed to the more traditional BBC Radio Three (which has itself just gone through another redraft to make it more ‘accessible’). I get into cabs where the drivers are listening to Classic FM and always attempt to strike up a conversation about why. Then there’s the weirdness of the traditional Last Night of the Proms in which classical music (and some not so classical) gets appropriated in an orgiastic nationalist frenzy. And of course Shakespeare’s all over the place, something that the lit crit types are indeed writing about. But I think that many cultural studies scholars, among them the fan studies set, would prefer to cling to their stereotypes of high culture consumers as remote and elite because it makes life easier.


Unitary Fandoms vs. Multi-Fandoms

RP: You ask why you have to chose between the high and the low. Of course you don’t and I suspect that many other people don’t as well. Most people undoubtedly range across media and cultural forms, intense fans of some and casual consumers of others. I’d like to see fan studies address the issue of multiple or serial consumption, if you will.

JG: Yes, perhaps this lack of discussion of multiple or serial consumption has also helped keep high culture fandoms “under wraps.” If I accounted for all of my fandoms, I’d have to get to some Lit, art, classical music, etc. sooner or later, and I suspect many of us would. Heck, somewhere down the road, this may even be a good way to ensure that Lit and so forth still are engaged with by “those young people today.” Both in the academy and outside, fandoms often demand corresponding anti-fandoms (I’m glossing Vivi Theodoropoulou here, by the way), as is most evident in sports fandom: you could never really be a fan of both Arsenal and Man U, the Yankees and the Red Sox, etc., right? But why not? Of course, sports teams actually compete, but how about Star Wars fans who are asked to dislike Trek, or Pullman fans who feel the need to establish his “excellence” on the back of J.K. Rowling’s “mediocrity”? And this goes for media more generally, since being a fan of television, for instance, is often assumed to require a suspicion of, if not outright anti-fandom of, Literature and other high culture. We’re asked to pick our team, so to speak. However, if bridges and continuums between fandoms were established, this may be more possible, less problematic. Hard methodologically, but a worthy goal. (Matt Hills has a neat piece on “cyclical fandom,” though, in American Behavioral Scientist, and I’m sure others have done some work on this too?)

And, of course, Girls vs. Boys

JG: To return to gender, there are some fascinating questions to be asked of high cultural fandoms, seeing that high cultural genres like Lit, Art, and classical music have historically been considerably more male-dominated than the still very male-dominated fields of popular culture. So we’ve seen, for instance, how female fans co-opt or read around romance, soap opera, science fiction, or teen dramas, but how does this happen when the object of fandom is Milton, or Wagner, or Brueghel? And so on.

RP: You’re absolutely right about ‘team picking’, athough Pullman is simply better than Rowling and there’s no question to me of Star Trek‘s superiority to Star Wars. I’m being a bit facetious here, but one of the reasons I dislike Star Wars so much, as well as Bored of the Rings, for that matter, is because I see them as very masculinist. All those endless battles and so few girls! And of course, Pullman’s hero is a girl. So my choice of fandoms is gendered. And certainly my reading strategies in some of my other fandoms are gendered. I value the Holmes canon for the friendship between Holmes and Watson and read Patrick O’Brien for the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin, skipping all the technical naval stuff. Really interesting question, then, about gendered reading strategies around Milton, Wagner or Brueghel, maybe even a question that might inspire some within the fan studies community to look at high culture.

Not sure you’re right, however, about high culture always being constructed as masculine. In American popular culture, I think high culture is often constructed as other, the realm of the female, the effeminate male, and even the evil foreigner. There are of course certain exceptions, like my beloved Captain Picard whose fondness for high culture makes him the consummate civilized European, but against him there are numerous suave, slightly sexually suspect males who revel in their art collections or listen to classical music. But of course popular culture too has been stigmatized as female. There are real complexities here that need to be explored, not only in terms of the contemporary but of the historical.

To wrap this up (for now), I think the central theme in our discussion has been about boundary blurring – between fans and academics, fans and producers, fans and non-fans, fans of high culture and fans of low culture and, getting back to the inspiration for this whole exercise, boys and girls. Personally I’m always more interested in blurred boundaries than in binary oppositions (despite having staked some claims above to one or the other sides of those boundaries). It would be great if these debates could set a new agenda for fan studies more sensitive to these blurrings.