Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seventeen, Part Two): Melissa Click and Joshua Green

MC: How do we proceed in fan studies–what do we agree belongs in this category, and what should be left out? There seems to be an agreement (if only a reluctant one) among folks in this discussion on the idea that the category “fan” should be broadened. Concern has been expressed, however, that if we make it too broad, it will lose its meaning. Could we begin to try to nail it down by suggesting the ways “audience” and “fans” might be different?

JG: I’m really interested in this question as I think complicating the term “fan”, and its use, can help us to start to understand how ideas about the audience itself is being transformed by the participatory moment that has arisen. This discussion has offered up a good range of ways to account for fandom that run the gamut from structures of feeling to productive consumption via a spectrum of viewing intensity (and the comments even offered up “fanatic” at one point). Theoretically pragmatic personally, I drew a lot from Anne Kustritz and Derek Johnson’s deconstruction of fans as an object of study that can be generalized about, challenging the notion of the fan as necessarily determined by community, socialization, productivity, consumption, engagement, or outsider status. Their ultimate conclusion seemed to be that the fan as an object of study needs to be understood as a multiplicitous social construction and contextualized within historical and cultural specificity. That said, they also draw upon the notion of the fan as a sort of cultural logic used to describe particular categories of consumption for the purposes of patrolling ‘normal’ behavior. This is a classic position for the fan, historically positioned as atypical or anomalous in ways that permit the delimitation of acceptable media consumption and engagement habits.

In the current moment, however, where non-fan audiences (apologies for the clunky language) are bring increasingly described if not constructed through discourses of production, the fan seems to have been drawn back in somewhat from the edge. As the television industry, especially, attempts to make sense of the impact of inviting viewers to participate, losing control over the contexts of consumption, and realigns itself in an environment that seems likely to privilege multiple separate opportunities to view content, certain elements of the fandom look very tantalizing as models of audience practice worth encouraging. Of course, this is not unproblematic, and the industry seems mostly interested in promoting the depth of engagement and what I would characterize as the structures of feeling of fan engagement and hopefully not having to deal with the politics of ownership and production that emerge from fandom. But the fan as a model of a passionate consumer, a loyal consumer, a willing participant, a word-of-mouth marketer (or what Sam Ford regularly refers to as a proselytizer), an active participant in expansive storyworlds, and even a producer of additional textual elements (whatever sanctioned or tolerated form they might take), seems to be having an impact on the model of ‘regular’ audienceship, particularly as the behaviors once considered anomalous (such as archiving content, to pick up on Derek’s own example) are wrapped into revenue models or normalized through cultural practice.

MC: I should confess (in case it’s not yet obvious) that I’m in agreement with the folks who keep saying that they think there’s something useful in studying audience members who do not behave as fans have typically been defined–as communal producers of materials that “rewrite” media texts. I support this perspective because it speaks to my experiences as a fan–and I find it useful in terms of understanding the activity I have seen in my study of Martha Stewart fans.

JG: Just quickly, I have to agree. I think understanding fans however defined is a useful activity to get at particular modes of consumption, but I do wonder sometimes if studies of particular genres that engage regularly with fan audiences (as opposed to studies of fan practice) over-represent the degree of fan consumers in a way that risks generalizing from the margins. I’m personally much more interested in the way cult properties, say, exist amongst a broader range of cultural and audience practices than I am the passionate investment of some audiences in these properties. This is not to belittle that work, but if we wind back the clock a little to consider the cottage industry that emerged around Buffy, I think much good work was either undiscovered or uncompleted because of the firm grasp cult and fan studies placed on the text.

MC: In my analysis of Stewart’s fans, I found Jonathan Gray’s ideas in “New Audiences, New Textualities” (International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.1) to be really helpful–and think they are potentially really useful here (I have received no compensation for this endorsement). Jonathan writes about two categories of fans he thinks have been overlooked: anti-fans and non-fans. His discussion of anti-fans reminds us that there’s a possibility that folks who are thoroughly engaged with a text–consumptively and/or creatively–don’t always feel/act passionately because they like the text, its stories and its characters. So, anti-fans “strongly dislike a given text or genre, considering it inane, stupid, morally bankrupt and/or aesthetic drivel.” I found this kind of hatred of Stewart and her texts in my work, and found that some of the haters knew more about Stewart than those who claimed to adore her. So, for me, the reminder here is that there’s a possibility for many different kinds of involvement with a text–and maybe we haven’t thoroughly examined that yet. I think there’s a lot of value in exploring the terrain of “fan.”

And that’s of course one of the threads in this blog extravaganza. One of the responses to that call, as we all know, is how to explore a range of fan identities while still being able to talk about “fans” and “fandom” as meaningful terms. For me, that’s where non-fans come in.

Non-fans aren’t really fans at all–and if we’re going to retain the value of “fans” I think we have to define the term against something, and for me, that’s the larger audience. Jonathan describes non-fans as “those viewers or readers who do view or read a text, but not with any intense involvement.” These folks do have favorite programs, but “spend the rest of their television time grazing, channel-surfing, viewing with half-interest, tuning in and out, talking while watching and so on.” Because these viewers are “the comfortable majority”–the TV audience–we should be able to use these folks to show how fans and the audience exhibit different identities, feelings and actions in relation to a text. This assumes in advance, of course, that there is in fact a difference. We’ll have to do a bit of work to figure this out. In fact, Jonathan suggests (and I agree) that fans studies are in some ways more convenient than audience studies because fans of a text are much easier to identify than the audience for a text–plus they know the text more intimately and are more likely to make for more interesting interviews.

So, the push to widen the scope of fan studies is in a way a push to help us get a better view of the audience–and this is probably why it feels a bit like “fans” could be diluted in the process. But, if, once we’ve done some of this exploration, we can look at all we’ve found and have a better sense of what’s really going on out there, I’m guessing we will have a way to talk about who’s in a text’s audience and who’s a fan of a text. We have to remember to do that last step!

JG: At the risk of this sounding like a love-in, once again I have to agree. I think Jonathan’s work on the anti-fan complicates our understandings of consumption muchly in valuable ways. If nothing else, the proposition of the anti-fan as something other than the fan-with-a-goatee works to break the binary of engagement that can too easily be (sloppily) applied to the fan/not-fan model of audienceship. I’m not entirely sure why you think this in some way dilutes ‘fans’ in the process. Doesn’t it strengthen the idea of the fan as an object (however constructed) by enriching the models for engagement that circulate around the term?

MC: Good clarification question. I wouldn’t argue per se that I think understanding fans as “multiplicitous social constructions” contextualized by the historical and cultural moments in which they were expressed will dilute the term “fan.” I was voicing what I believe others have expressed in this dialogue. And I agree to a certain point that if everyone can be a fan, there’s a possibility that then no one is not a fan–and that could lead to the term having less value or utility. Though I’m not sure that opening the term to new expressions necessarily means making everyone a fan….

PS: “fan-with-a-goatee” is fabulously funny.

JG: Not only a goatee, but driving a truck ominously across the desert! Okay, so here is my concern with where this is going, I can see two tensions in this overall discussion. One is about a desire to expand and increase the range of opinions and to have certain bodies of work and spheres of practice (and practitioners) recognized outside of what might be a marginal realm of participation. In this spirit, questions about what a fan might be and what fan studies might be constituted by are being posed with a hope to expand the functional definition and to generally share the love. The other tension, and there seems to be a defensive edge to this, is a desire from certain quarters it seems to quarantine off as ‘proper’ certain modes of studying fandom and of defining fans.

As I suggested earlier, I think one of the ways for us as a group, if we decide that we might comprise a like-minded body invested in putting on our “Gramscian hats” and moving this realm of discussion forward is to work out a way to support both these tendencies. Despite the fact I’ve placed these two positions in tension, I do think a fruitful way to advance this field of enquiry is to try and be aware of and promote specialization as well to make attempts to broaden the range of perspectives regularly brought to various tables. Does this sound like a pipe-dream or a recipe for trouble?

MC: Both–brilliant!

It seems to me that related to the topic of who counts as a fan is what kinds of media texts we are focused on as scholars. Certainly the distinction has been made that some folks are more interested in studying the texts produced by fans in relation to the “original” media text (and/or the communities in which they circulate), but some folks are interested in fans’ relationships to the “original” media texts themselves. In either case, though, it seems that we’re drawn into examining the kinds of fans that we do, at least in part, based on our own relationships to the “original” text. There a number of media texts that many folks here seem to reference repeatedly as being the important ones in terms of studying fans: Doctor Who, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. But what happens when we examine fans of texts quite different from these? What kinds of fandom might we see then?

JG: I think sometimes the fandom we see is not recognised as fandom as such. I have spent a great deal of time looking at television branding and identity spots, which I absolutely love. Fans of these artifacts seem to be more regularly constructed as archivists than fans, in part, I suspect due to the nature of the text itself, though admittedly it also has much to do with the way they practice, perform, or engage in their fandom. Many of the fans of this content actively position themselves as archivists, often aping the language, structure and form of cultural institutions as they set up online galleries of this content categorized by channel, station, country, or season. Some of these fans historicise this content, positioning it within larger pro-am projects of media history that record national broadcasting systems or the work of particular stations. I don’t think they write fanfic about television idents, though I can imagine a few possible adventures the Peacock could have on the way to letting us know NBC is broadcasting “The Place to Be.” I do know there are groups in the UK particularly who mash-up existing idents and create their own, sometimes for fictitious stations and sometimes as replacements or ‘what ifs’ for existing stations.

The question that comes to my mind, then, is whether there is a meaningful distinction between considering this as fan practice and considering it as archival practice. I’m not suggesting they’re necessarily exclusive categories, and I realise the latter is an activity most probably motivated by the former. But I do wonder whether these consumers would ever self-identify as ‘fans’ of these properties or this genre? And is that even important to the recognition of a category of fandom that might describe this behavior?

Certainly, I think the archival mode adopted by many of these fans (and the more I think about it, the more I’m sure they are actually fans) is related to the short form nature of the content and its intimate ties to both its historical context and its origin. It seems to make some systematic or structural sense to adopt an approach that ties idents to their era of production, especially as this is a genre of content that is regularly updated, often by iteration, so comparison and contrast is a meaningful way to engage with the content. So too, the place specificity of this content, particularly where idents come from individual stations rather than networks or national broadcasters, makes the construction of an archive a particularly meaningful way to engage with the significance of the text.

Constructing an archive, however, also easily enables a form of display that demonstrates your wiliness or dedication to the task. Idents are essentially disposable television content. Not programming, not advertising, they’re content that may not last very long and which is regularly overlooked by most viewers. This certainly is not true in the case of the BBC, which quite gloriously has public launches for new ident campaigns, but especially in the US and in the case of the commercial networks in Australia, idents are programming that often doesn’t warrant a second glance. While the DVR has made obtaining copies of more recent idents easier, older idents, particularly those from the 1970s and 1980s can be especially difficult to come by. The fan archive, then, would seem a particularly sensible way to publicly demonstrate your prowess as a television ident fan, as much as other productive modes of fandom might demonstrate textual mastery or inventiveness with the property (please don’t slam me fan fic people – I know it’s more complex than that).

MC: Joshua, that’s a fabulous example for what I was trying to say. Thanks!

JG: You’re welcome.

MC: Alan McKee’s comment about his anger with Adorno’s and Habermas’ scorn of non-academics’ interest in popular culture resonated with me, and I wondered if we are making a similar mistake by assuming that only folks who relate to texts in particular ways are worthy of being called “fans” without really exploring the issue. While I appreciate and respect the reasons why the fan-fic scholars want to hold on to their definition of “fan,” I think that until we’ve ventured out into mainstream territory to find out what’s going on out there, we can’t really speculate.

There was an article by Susan Douglas in The Nation (25 August 1997) that has always stuck with me. Douglas relays her feelings about her pre-teen daughter enjoying the Spice Girls. She discusses her own reactions to the group’s lyrics and images (many of which are negative) and then takes a step back to consider how her daughter and her friends might read/use The Spice Girls. What she concludes, of course, is that her own evaluation of the group matters much less than what the group means to her daughter and her friends.

Jonathan Gray joked that “we are the cool kids, right?” While it was clearly meant as a joke, I think there’s a reason to take this comment more seriously. Much like the fans we study, we make judgments about what texts are worth our time and attention. This was never more clear to me than it was at Flow, when I (admittedly out of the loop because of the aforementioned baby) sat through conversations that referenced programs I had barely even heard of–and because of my lack of knowledge about the “cool shows,” I kept quiet (and just as an aside, the repeated references to the “cool shows” could work to exclude others from a range of important discussions–here and elsewhere).

JG: And some of the cultural biases that appeared at Flow were interrogated there and elsewhere subsequently (not all, I know). I have to ask, however, isn’t that somewhat the nature of academic practice? And isn’t it useful sometimes to be the one who doesn’t get it, or doesn’t know what the text is, in order to either prod or interrogate the perceived significance of texts or to take an alternative track? Am I missing a point here?

MC: Maybe we’re talking on two different planes? Sure, that’s the nature of academic practice, but I guess I wanted to challenge that a bit. My point is that it sometimes feels like we tend to focus on particular texts to the exclusion of others–and while that may be “normal” (especially given the ebb and flow of TV texts in the context of the industry), I think it keeps us from looking at the range of texts out there (just like we’ve been talking about the current limits of “fan”), and looking at a limited range of texts (I think) will inevitably limit the range of fans and fan practices we see. And btw, thanks for suggesting “not getting it” is a useful position–now I feel “cool” instead of out of the loop.

So, in this discussion, many folks have called for more of a focus on the mainstream–and I guess here I’d like to underscore that. Will Brooker suggested that:

if we just concentrated on those people who fit the type of “fan” [meaning the productive and communal fan] … we might just end up studying an unrepresentative group at the margins of a broad range of behaviour, much of which is less recognizable, less immediately visible, less striking, perhaps less exciting.

My point, is this: if we don’t explore what else is out there, there’s potentially a whole range of fan identification and participation that we could be missing–and since we are “the cool kids” shouldn’t we be doing that important work to find out what’s there?

JG: To finish on a note that’s underscored this discussion, I think I agree. Melissa, it’s been a pleasure.

MC: The pleasure was all mine. Take care!

Comments

  1. Josh wrote: “At the risk of this sounding like a love-in…”

    What’s the risk? ;-) Seriously, Melissa and Josh, thanks for the shout-out, and it’s nice to see that the gist of the paper and its rhetorical aim is shared by others. Nice, too, to see that I have been elevated to being a judge of cool, though I really like your comments, Melissa, on how that “coolness” of us could/should be strategically used to ensure an inclusion of other *texts* into the pantheon of cool. I’ve often been taken aback when people insist, for instance, that The Simpsons doesn’t have “fans” in the “true” sense, which seems an odd form of fan snobbery/policing of genre … yet if The Simpsons is subjected to that, I’m sure many programs have it much worse.