Aca-fandom and Beyond: John Edward Campbell, Lee Harrington, and Catherine Tossenberger (Part Two)

John: I can’t help thinking my provocation is an odd fit in this larger discussion. Although I once belonged to a gay Sci-Fi fan group (the Gaylaxians), have attended Sci-Fi conventions, and love speculative literature, films, and television shows, I’ve never been comfortable with identifying myself simply as a “fan.” I have always used the term in relation to a particular cultural text or practice. I also find I don’t identify with many people who do declare themselves “fans” in the general sense.

Furthermore, I’m not comfortable with the fixed sense of identity the term “fan” suggests to me. On a personal level, claiming to be a “fan” feels like committing to a particular model of identity that denies both my individuality and the diverse and changing nature of my tastes and pleasures. Today I enjoy watching True Blood, but I may not in ten years. When I was in my 20s I belonged to a Sci-Fi fan group and attended Sci-Fi conventions, but I don’t anymore. Those activities fulfilled a particular need at a particular moment in my life, but they hardly define who I am now. Thus for me, “fandom” is something fluid that one may move in and out of over the course of one’s life.

In some respects, my experiences of “fandom” converge with those of Lee Harrington. My expressions of fan behavior have also largely occurred in private. I would include in this private experience of fandom, intimate gatherings of friends to share the enjoyment of a particular media text, such as weekly get-togethers over a friend’s house to watch True Blood or Project Runway or Heroes. (What can I say; we all had a crush on the telepathic cop played by Greg Grunberg. Greg, if you’re reading this, call me.)

As with Harrington, I have not had to grapple with my own fan practices when studying various media fan communities. This is not to suggest that I fail to acknowledge how key axes of my identity shape both how I approach a particular subject and even what subjects I find worthy of study. However, that struggle has been in terms of gender, race, class background, and sexuality, and all those other social categories I was essentially assigned to at birth and I did not simply choose for myself. I have only ever known the world through the eyes of a white man who has felt different as far back as I can recall. Thus, in being reflexivity, I qualify my observations as coming from this very particular vantage point and that things may look very different indeed from another vantage point.

Unlike my gender, race, and sexuality, my tastes and those cultural artifacts from which I derive pleasure have changed over the course of my life. I was not (nor was anyone else) born into a particular vantage point on fandom. In fact, I currently occupy a very different vantage point on media fandom then I did in my 20s. Given fluid nature of tastes, it would be useful to explore how race, gender, sexuality, and class background all shape one’s desire to identify as a fan or “acafan.” Unfortunately, some of the fan scholarship I’ve read does not extend self-reflexivity beyond a claim to fan status. It is important to keep in mind that a claim to a shared fan identity, does not erase power inequalities between the researcher and the subject, nor does it negate the influence of race, gender, sexuality, and class not only on our analyses, but also on what cultural activities we deem worthy of analysis in the first place.

To clarify, by lack of fluidity surrounding social constructs such as sexuality, I am not suggesting our erotic desires and sexual impulses are fixed or that our sexual identity doesn’t change over the course of our lives. Rather, I’m referring to the way society seeks to lock our sexual identities into rigid and often binary categories: gay/straight, homosexual/heterosexual, deviant/normal. Basically, once you step over a certain line in our society, you’re no longer straight you’re “Other” and it’s wroth noting how invested our society is in policing that line. Obviously, sexual appetites and erotic desires do not fit comfortably within the gay/straight or any other binary model of sexuality. Even opening a space for such other categories of sexual identity as bisexual, pansexual, queer, or questioning, still does not adequately reflect the vastness and variability of the erotic universe.

Even though I do not identify myself as an “acafan,” it is not to say that I have not drawn from my passions in my work. For instance, while in graduate school I wrote an article on The X-Files. I was an avid fan of the series (well, OK, the first four seasons of the series) and discussed it extensively with those friends who also followed the show. I drew upon this cultural capital in writing my analysis of the text and what I saw as its complex ideological function. Indeed, researching and writing the article was a pleasurable practice in itself. In this sense, my understanding of a fan is much in line with Nancy Baym’s and Sam Ford’s – a fan is someone with an extensive amount of knowledge about and deep appreciation for a particular type of text (whether that be soap operas, Sci-Fi shows, sporting events, modern art, Broadway musicals, etc.). Here we can understand a fan as type of connoisseur; an individual with refined taste and specialized knowledge in some particular area. Arguably, it is this refined taste and specialized knowledge that underlies much of the enjoyment a fan experiences in consuming a particular text, what Barthes would identify as plaisir as opposed to jouissance.

I do have to agree with Catherine Tosenberger regarding the importance of “thinking through” our positionality in relation to the communities we study and representations we construct. This is certainly an issue that has been wrestled with extensively in LGBT studies and queer theory. Gay scholars have a professional responsibility not to present a sanitized or idealized image of the communities or individuals they study. For this reason, I am careful to note in my work on gay male communities how hierarchies of race, gender, and even beauty are (re)constructed in online environments. My goal as a critical scholar is to neither celebrate nor condemn the communities I study, but rather to understand them. My primary concern is constructing a representation that shows my subjects in all their complexities as individuals – individuals who are as flawed and noble as the rest of humanity.

It goes without saying that I have the added responsibility of considering the very real social, political, and economic ramifications of the representations I provide in my scholarship. Here the stakes are high indeed. Many of the individuals I interact with in the course of my research must conceal their sexual identity for fear of losing their employment, their families, and perhaps even their lives. Some of the individuals I have interviewed over the years have been victims of violent hate crimes and still carry the psychological scars from those attacks. And the majority of the individuals I’ve encountered in my research live in locations where there are no legal defenses against blatant forms of discrimination.

I would also ask that those who do identify as “acafans” be a bit more reflexive about comparisons of fans to sexual minorities. Would a LGBT individual be as ready use the language of “coming out” to describe identifying oneself as a fan? There is a way that sexual minorities growing up in this society must constantly police their behavior, their tastes, their gestures, even their subtlest glances to conceal their difference from mainstream society. If they fail to sufficiently conceal their difference, the consequences can be severe. As I write this, a trial is underway in the Los Angeles district of Chatsworth. The trail involves a 14-year-old boy, Brandon McInerney, who has already confessed to shooting one of his peers, Larry Fobes King, twice in the back of the head execution style in front of his teacher and a classroom full of students. The motivation for the shooting was the victim’s openness about his (homo)sexuality and his non-normative gender expression, which included wearing dresses and make-up to school. This story as well as those of Matthew Shepard and far too many others, remind me of how terrified I was in high school that someone would even suspect I was different. I didn’t yet have a name for this difference, but I knew nonetheless that it was something horrible which had to be hidden away from everyone. While I was very open about my love for all things Star Wars since seeing the first film, I was utterly silent about my love for men even to myself. Being a fan of Star Wars was cool. Being different was dangerous.

Catherine: Throughout this whole discussion, I’ve found it interesting how comfort levels with the term “acafan” seem to be correlated to different experiences of fannishness: the impression I have, listening to John and Lee and reading the previous postings, is that those fans who have the easiest time with the term are those whose fannish experience has been primarily transformational, rather than affirmational. If you’re a humanities/cultural studies scholar, especially, then the basic premise of transformational fandom — the source text is a springboard for your own creative and analytical work to share with others — dovetails with academia in many ways, as Joli Jensen pointed out ages ago; moreover, many transformational fan practices (like fanfiction) have obvious analogues with “respectable” mainstream practices (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, etc.), as John mentioned. If those types of fannishness, and those types of texts, are the ones that you as a fan and academic are working with, then the category of the “acafan” goes down easier.

But those fans whose experiences have primarily tended to follow affirmational patterns , or what Lee called “as-is” fans, I think understandably have been having more trouble with the idea. This is why I think we need to have these discussions, because the unmarked term “fan” covers so much ground.

I love those terms, affirmational/transformational, because they’re not setting up a hierarchy of “true fans” or whatever, but just describing general patterns of participation, ways of “doing” fandom; granted, they’re still talking about fans who are interacting in some kind of social way with other fans, as opposed to a wholly private experience, but I think it’s a good way of conceptualizing participatory fannishness.

And building on that, I think that it’s also important to talk about how these different forms of fannishness (and therefore conceptions of acafannishness) interact with existing systems of privilege and power. The original discussion of affirmational vs. transformational arose in fandom because of these observed culture clashes. Affirmational fannishness (and I’d include mainstream sports fandom here) generally fits more comfortably within existing cultural hierarchies, since it tends to reiterate the primacy of the official creator/institution; affirmational fannish spaces are also often (not always, but often) majority male. Transformational fannish spaces, as Kristina and others have pointed out, are more likely to be majority-female, and overtly queer or queer-friendly. Transformational fans were also likely to be treated as an even more pathological form of the pathologized fan: those fan boys fighting about the engines on the Enterprise might be hopeless geeks, but at least they’re not perverts writing gay porn about Kirk and Spock!, etc. The initial constructions of the acafan were responding to those larger issues just as much as to the construction of fans specifically, which is why there was so much focus upon female fans doing the most arguably “subversive” stuff (like writing erotic and homoerotic stories). I think for the term aca-fandom to continue to be useful, we need to really think through that history, and our own positions within that history.

John, some of my thinking overlaps with yours (and not just on the hotness of Greg Grunberg!), but I think it’s really important to point out that particularly in transformational fandom, sexuality, and fan production as a means of exploring and articulating sexuality, is a big deal — this is especially true for younger fans, whose expressions of sexuality are so heavily policed in institutional settings. While not every fan, transformational or otherwise, is focused upon sexuality or eroticism by any means, sexuality and sexual enjoyment is a major part of the discourse in all the fandoms I’ve been involved in, and a lot of discussion centers around the topic — especially in slash fandom, where, according to recent research by Anne Kustritz and others, the majority of slashers identify as somewhere on the queer spectrum, myself included.

Kristina, Robin Anne Reid, and Alexis Lothian wrote a fabulous article called “Yearning Void and Infinite Potential: Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space,” on just these issues of sexuality and fannishness, and the potential for fluidity of sexual desire and categorization of that desire. These are conversations that are important to have, and are being had both within fandom and within academia. A lot of this is centered around slash fandom though, so if you’re not plugged into that corner, or transformational fandom in general, it might fly under your radar. There are a lot of things that can be said about fandom and queerness in spaces beyond specific consideration of slash, of course, and I’d love to see that conversation spread.

It’s funny; I know I’m coming across as a bit “Rah Rah Acafandom!,” but I’m actually having something of a crisis — not so much about the concept itself, but all those issues of identification and “overinvestment” and such that go hand-in-hand with it. I’m working on an article on the tv show Glee right now; I’ve always joked that I overidentified (I was in show choir! In Ohio! It was just like the show, really!), but then Santana, who has been struggling with identifying her sexuality and coming out, happened. I basically was Santana in high school (though instead of a Brittany, I had a Quinn, which is a recipe for horror), complete with attitude problem and her methods of (not) dealing with her desires and their implications; I sometimes feel like, watching the show, that the writers somehow got hold of my teenage diary.

In a lot of figurations of fannishness and acafannishness, this should be my way into producing reams of material on Santana, but it hasn’t been the case. I have a hard time reading Santana fanfic, much less writing it, because I find myself going “That’s not right, that’s not how it was!”, projecting my own experiences on to her. And of course, Santana isn’t entirely me, not then and not now — I’m bisexual and white, among other important differences. But I struggle a lot with thinking and writing about her, because it’s too close, and too exposing; even talking about it here, I’m squirming a little (I’ve confessed to being a mean girl, omg). Fandom is so often treated as if it’s about uncritical adoration, but I find that I can only be a productive fan if I can maintain some distance, enough to be able to consider aesthetic issues and the like — if I can’t adopt a stance of critical engagement with a character, I have nowhere to move, no conflicting feelings to mine.

That, for me, gets at the heart of “what it means to be an “acafan” — it’s not some kind of binary between rational disengagement on one hand and slobbering emotion on the other, but about the ways we make different parts of the spectrum work productively in a variety of spaces.

Lee: Very interesting observation, Catherine, I hadn’t noticed a correlation between comfort level with the term “acafan” and types of fannishness (transformational vs. affirmational)….and I’m still mulling through how this might intersect with the “doing” vs. “being” distinction that John explores. When Denise Bielby and I wrote Soap Fans we were explicitly arguing FOR fandom-as-identity (“being”), as it seemed to be absent or downplayed in the emergent fan studies of the early 1990s.

I appreciate John’s discomfort with the generalized term “fan” (rather than fan of something) and what it potentially implies, though I guess I think of most identities, fan included, as fluid rather than fixed. I’m not overlooking the power of ascription (a nice old-fashioned sociological term) but rather highlighting the extent to which our multiple identities are visibilized and invisibilized in different interactional and social contexts…though not always a result of our own agentic choices, of course. In my undergraduate sociology courses I spend a lot of time exploring implications of the distinction John emphasizes – a person who engages in certain activities vs. a certain type of person – though admittedly I’ve never questioned fandom in quite the same way.

For me personally, fandom is both an identity (that we can claim or not, or have imposed on us or not, or express or not) and an activity (manifested in any number of ways including some not visible to others). I have no problem sharing my fan identity – the naming of it – with students and colleagues and even strangers, etc., but they’re sure as hell not going to “see” it very often. Or, rather, they might see (some of) the activity but the emotional basis of fandom for me, the sheer pleasure of fandom, is mine and mine alone.

I laughed when I read Catherine’s description of her squirminess and admire her both for having a teenage diary and for apparently keeping the damn thing (I prefer my 16-year old self to be as repressed as possible). And perhaps this is ultimately why I don’t consider myself an acafan – as I mentioned earlier I’ve never written from within my own fandom (see Catherine, above) and the claiming/naming of it has been minimally useful to me both personally or professionally.

I’ve been thinking of what Jack Halberstam wrote in an earlier post, that it’s hard to be a fan. For me it’s not hard, it’s just nobody’s business but my own – the emotional content of it, I mean. The “fan” Lee Harrington that exists publicly is about as real as the “teacher” Lee Harrington. There’s some authenticity to it but it’s also mighty partial and mighty varnished.

C. Lee Harrington is Professor of Sociology and Affiliate of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University. She has published on fans and fandom since the early 1990s and is currently exploring aging audiences/fans. Her fan interests as of today include Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, General Hospital, all things cheese-related (since gifted a cheese-of-the-month-club, it’s fantastic!), Las Vegas, and – inexplicably to those who know her – Kate and William.

John Edward Campbell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Broadcasting, Telecommunications, and Mass Media in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University. He teaches media theory, cultural studies, and popular culture. His current book project – Selling Belonging: When Online Communities Become Big Business – examines the cultural and political implications of the commercialization of online communities. His first book – Getting It On Online: Cyberspace and Gay Male Sexuality – represents an ethnographic exploration of the cultural practices of online gay communities.

Catherine Tosenberger is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she is attached to the Centre for Young People’s Texts and Cultures. She teaches children’s and YA literature, folklore, and cultural studies, and has been involved in the Harry Potter, Supernatural, and Glee fandoms. Her publications include articles on the Grimms’ tales, Harry Potter slash, and Supernatural fanfiction.

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