Rhiannon, I very much enjoyed reading your thoughtful post, especially since you come to this topic from a very different background than I do. You say that earlier in your academic career you identified as a feminist but also say that you don’t consider yourself an acafan because you resist labels. Assuming that you still identify as a feminist, this suggests that in academia we remain very much invested in labels that carry a certain cache, diminishing the potential value of other labels.
Yes, any label will to some degree homogenize but they remain a necessary mode of understanding ourselves and engaging with the world (and certainly “feminism” as a label has had a long history of homogenizing and excluding). And this is not pick on feminism, as I identify as a feminist. I don’t see this identification as allowing me a certain privileged position with women, any more than being queer-friendly allows me to fully affectively understand the experience of being queer. But both labels define who I am, both inside and outside of academia. So the label is important to me as a means of overcoming the schisms produced by the public/private divide
Love the Shatner SNL reference. I remember laughing hysterically with my Trekkie friend Mike in college when that first aired. It allowed some easy disavowal but also identification. For me, since then, I’ve grown increasingly invested in making meaning out of and between the things that move me, which have always been good ideas, whether they come in the form of a smart science fiction film or a really good cultural theory book.
All the various labels indicate the composite nature of my larger understanding of self, which is always in conversation with a larger public sphere. That hybridity of self is very important to acknowledge, I think, because it helps us engage with the complexities and contradictions of other individuals and the public sphere.
Good on you Matt for calling me out on my own contradictory use of labels, specifically my troubling of ‘acafan’ just after my seemingly straightforward embrace of ‘feminist’. Of course the latter has been questioned, challenged and critiqued since the early 1990s by anti-racist and postmodern and postcolonial scholars for privileging the issues and experiences of white, western, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied women. And yet while I recognize the importance of an intersectional analysis and the incommensurable differences among women, the identification of feminist’ is still meaningful and necessary to me at a time when women’s rights are being continuously eroded by neoliberal and globalization agendas.
I found compelling your honest discussion of academic work and affect. (I am a Buffy fan but fear not; I do not hold your dislike of the series against you!) Affect is a dirty word in the academy, with pressure continuing to be exerted on those who study popular texts and fans regardless of whether they label themselves acafans or not. I recall one (former) colleague’s facial expression change from puzzlement to relief when I answered his inquiry about whether I wrote fan fiction in the negative. Yet to be a writer in an English Department is a creative pursuit that is highly valued.
If I am totally honest, I distance myself, in part, with the acafan identification because of my desire to be taken seriously not only by my direct colleagues but by the feminist scholarly community where the study of female fan communities seems rather trivial when measured up against the more “pressing” issues of violence against women or other oppressions and resistances.
I agree that in many circles within academia, the kinds of study scholars such as you and I engage is placed at the margins, making for a oftentimes uncomfortable sense of our own value as academics. I too have sometimes felt the need to somehow gloss over what exactly it is that I study. I have taken this up as a challenge to more explicitly engage with the political capacity of fandom in my work (for example,
considering the progressive interventions made by fans via their fan object – a recent piece I did looks at fans’ use of Wonder Woman as a vehicle for supporting womens’ shelters and for promoting gay rights). Perhaps the old saw, ‘the personal is the political’ is ultimately what I’m on about here but I think the notion has real value in considering why I am affectively and professionally invested in fandom.
It is interesting how we adjust our rationales depending on the discipline. With colleagues in English, it is a matter of demonstrating that we have not lost our “objectivity” and our ability to distinguish “quality” texts from “popular” texts. In feminist, Marxist and/or or queer scholarly communities we justify our work, consciously or not, by emphasizing its political relevance– in your case the progressiveness of Wonder Woman fans and in one of mine, the heterosexism and homophobia of Six Feet Under fans.
The essential liminality of the acafan label works for me because of this need (and desire) to exercise mobile identity formations. But those moments in which the aca and the fan more directly intersect (as at the recent conference where I presented my work on Wonder Woman) are the most affectively satisfying. I only wish I had those moments when I am engaged with a non-academic fan community. In those situations I often feel that underlying suspicion and hostility that others have commented on here. I suppose that utopia I was speaking of would be characterized strongly by a real dissolution of that wall between academics and non-academics.
You draw an interesting connection between your fandom and utopian ideals. I have never thought of fan spaces in this way as a fan and/ or as a scholar. In Cyberspaces of Their Own, I conceptualized female fan spaces as potentially heterotopic. Foucault specifically states that the heterotopia is not a utopia but a space of inversion or reversal of normative spaces.
Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia works for me but really as a means of thinking about the processes of utopian desire, as opposed to utopian plans. I think that this desire is instrumental to the affect of a lot of fandom, the process of becoming someone better while acknowledging that such a project can never be completed and is suffused with contradiction. In this way I certainly see the value of considering fan spaces and fan subjectivity as, at their best, working out the meaning of and working toward a notion of the utopian. It is this which gives me a sense of home, in that it is a space that allows me the freedoms to be a fully contradictory, ever-striving person.
Interesting. When I think about it, I did feel “at home” with members of the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades who joined the listserv I set up for my first ethnographic case study. As one of the participants noted, it was like “hanging around someone’s kitchen shooting the breeze.” So this home was a very much a domestic, gendered space.
I would like to go back to the earlier comment you made about the parallels between academic communities and fan communities. I’d go a step further and say that scholarly communities are the ultimate fan communities, with deep emotional investments in their particular objects of study that are hidden under the veneer of objectivity. While I do not study the fan practices that surround every text that I am a fan of, it is unlikely that I would study those surrounding texts in which I have no interest or actively dislike. For instance, I think the study of reality tv is important on an intellectual level in terms of the representations and performances of race, class and gender as well as the pleasures it produces. When I was in a Communications Department, I would never dream of not including a discussion of it in a television or media class. But like you said Matt, my heart is really not in it enough to pursue anything further.
I couldn’t agree more regarding scholarly communities as fan communities. I find it difficult to understand the desire to study a text if one does not already have some degree of appreciation for it. I do think we get too hung up in academia being apologetic about actually having an emotional investment in what we study. For me it simply carries over into my affective investment in teaching and when I teach I’m not really being objective at all – I think the media texts that we study in my classes all matter because representation matters and we should care about their consequences.
Rhiannon Bury is an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University, Canada’s Open University. Her book, Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online was published by Peter Lang in 2005. She is currently analyzing survey and interview data collected for her current research project, Television 2.0: Shifting Patterns of Audience Reception and Participatory Culture. Updates coming soon via www.twitter.com/television2pt0.
Matt Yockey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Toledo. He has published articles in Transformative Works and Cultures, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, CineAction, and The Velvet Light Trap. His book on the Batman TV series is forthcoming from Wayne State University Press.