Acafandom and Beyond: Will Brooker, Melissa A. Click, Suzanne Scott, and Sangita Shresthova

Will Brooker:

Why I Spoke About Myself, and Why I Shut Up

I identify as male, white, straight and middle-class. Anyone who has read my first monograph, Batman Unmasked (2000) will know that, as I helpfully pointed it out in the introduction. I also included extracts from my diary, reproductions of a story I wrote when I was seven years old, and a history of my own involvement with Batman. ‘I love that man,’ I wrote. ‘I love Batman.’

In 2011, I wrote another book about Batman, called Hunting the Dark Knight. In this new book, I have barely mentioned myself or my fandom at all. This short piece tries to explain why I spoke about myself, and why I shut up.

As a white, straight, heterosexual, middle-class man, I can’t help feeling that white, straight, heterosexual, middle-class men have enough chances to speak about themselves, and that we hear enough from them. But I’ll need to talk about myself a little more here, before shutting up again.

Why I Spoke About Myself

Batman Unmasked was originally my PhD thesis. Part of the research process was, therefore, about learning the traditions of my discipline, and situating myself within those strands and approaches: becoming aware of a heritage, demonstrating that awareness, choosing an affiliation, and identifying as a scholar.

My declaration of identity was shaped and inspired by the Cultural Studies work I particularly liked or aspired to, from the previous decades: Janice Radway with her romance readers, Paul Willis and his school-lads, John Fiske and his unembarrassed enjoyment of 1980s trash culture. I was encouraged by Fred Pfeil’s White Guys, with its Nineties-New-Man self-examination, and provoked by Andy Medhurst’s opening statement, in ‘Batman, Deviance and Camp’, that he was gay, thirty and not a particularly devoted follower of the Dark Knight. It was Medhurst’s (then) youth and his bold anti-fan position that prompted me to interrogate his work so doggedly in my own thesis: at 26, I saw him as someone I had to take on, a contender to challenge.

And that’s another reason for the foregrounding of my own identity in that book. I was 26 when I started it. With hindsight, that seems not much more than a teenager, with a potent mix of anxiety and arrogance driving me to make my own mark on the world. Batman Unmasked was my brand: it was my first, and for all I knew, my only chance to stamp my name somewhere on scholarship. So it’s not just got my name on the cover; it’s got my personality all through the text. It was my first book, and I thought it might be my best book or my last book, so it became personal: a missile of the self, carefully aimed, and designed to become a small monument.

Why I Shut Up

A few years after the publication of Batman Unmasked, I was asked to review Scott Bukatman’s book, Matters of Gravity. I knew of Scott Bukatman; he was young, smart and successful, an academic superhero. I was envious that he had a collection of his miscellaneous articles published, and while part of me was thrilled and energised by his roller-coaster writing and laser-sharp thought, another part was perversely glad to find so many self-congratulatory asides and personal confessions. No doubt I recognised in Bukatman something I disliked in myself. Grouped together in my review, and joined up through my sardonic, ungenerous commentary, his autobiographical reflections looked pretty self-indulgent. Soon afterwards, I received an email from Scott Bukatman. He wasn’t happy. He said it seemed I had liked the book, but didn’t like the person who wrote it.

It doesn’t matter now who comes out best from that exchange. I don’t think I come out well. It was a faintly pathetic spectacle: two geeks locked in superhuman combat, like Bruce Banner battling Peter Parker. ‘If I KILL YOU… I DIE!’ By squabbling with Scott, I was only knocking myself.

In Hunting the Dark Knight, I mention once, early on, that I’m a fan. I do it for much the same reason I foregrounded my fandom in my work on Star Wars audiences, and in the questionnaires I circulated for this recent book: to reassure my respondents and fan-readers that they’re in safe hands, and they – and the things they love – are going to be treated with respect. That I still feel a need to do this is, I guess, a reflection on the shoddy way that popular journalism still treats popular culture and its followers: decades after Trekkers were mocked on Saturday Night Live (Jenkins, 1992), we still have to let people know they’re not going to be satirised and belittled for enjoying something.

But the truth is, I don’t have to tell people I’m a fan, and that I love Batman. It’s there on every page. Any Dark Knight devotee reading my discussion of Red Robin, Kathy Kane, Owlman and Bat-mite will know they’re in safe hands, that I’m one of them. Just as Coleridge doesn’t have to declare ‘I love that man: I love Shakespeare’ at the start of his essays, because his devotion and understanding speak from every word of his analysis, so, arguably, our work should be steeped in respect and commitment to our objects of study. As in so many loving relationships, the bond can come across subtly as a constant presence, and doesn’t have to be shouted aloud, like a teenage crush.

I want to end this piece with a quotation.

This dress needs to seal the deal

Make a grown man kneel

But it can’t come right out and say bride

Cant look like I’m desperate or

Like I’m waiting for it

I gotta leave Warner his pride

So bride is more implied…

Elle Woods, ‘Omigod You Guys’, Legally Blonde: The Musical (O’Keefe, Benjamin, Hach, 2007)

I can quote all of that song from memory: I can sing all the different parts, though not very well. I don’t have to tell you that I love that musical, or how many times I’ve seen it and listened to the soundtrack. I don’t have to tell you what kind of white, straight, middle-class guy I am. The fact that I can recite Legally Blonde word for word surely tells you enough.

To paraphrase Harvard scholar Elle Woods: the ‘fan’ can be more implied.

Sangita Shresthova:

I come to acafandom from a slightly tangential, yet to me, closely connected perspective. I am a dancer (one trained predominantly in Indian classical dance) and a media scholar who has spent many years studying Bollywood dance. I also boldly claim my affinity for the energizing stories and shimmies that, to me, define Bollywood dance that I have had many occasions to indulge in as an audience-dancer, dance instructor, and on the now very rare occasion, even as a performer. Mixing academic research with fannish practice has not been easy, or even welcomed, in some of the scholarly company I have kept over the past years. That said, I want to open my provocation on aca-fandom with a brief excerpt from an article I wrote for Pulse Magazine (a South Asian dance magazine published out of the United Kingdom):

“As I run towards the studio, the sound of chanting fills the early evening air. I glance at my watch and sigh. I am late again. I change into my dance sari, and hurriedly check that my pleats allow for a full Aramandhi (a classical pose). Cautiously, I pull back the sliding door and step into the a room filled with dance students stamping in unison to the driving commands of their Bharat Natyam (Indian classical dance) teacher, Viji Prakash. I settle into a position in the back of the room, rush through my salutation, and prepare to join the class. But just then, the sequence ends and the students disperse briefly. Viji-auntie, as she is deferentially called by her students, looks at me with a teasing smile. “Miss Bollywood is here,” she exclaims. Several students snicker and laugh. “No seriously, she is writing her Ph.D. on Bollywood,” Viji-auntie explains. An incredulous student in her late teens asks me, “Is that right?” I nod, suddenly very preoccupied with my sari pleats. I am angry at myself for feeling embarrassed by this superficial, playful exchange. “You should show us some Bollywood some day,” another student comments teasingly. “Well, Bollywood dance does actually have a very interesting history…” I begin to justify myself. Viji-auntie laughs as she moves her hips side to side looking to the side seductively. The class convulses in a burst of laughter. I smile but feel my throat tighten ever so slightly. I have been once again singled out as a Bollywoodized Bharat Natyam dancer. So, why would a Bharat Natyam dancer take Bollywood seriously and even (gasp) admit to enjoying some of the choreographies?” (Pulse Magazine 2010)

Re-reading this introductory paragraph as I collected my thoughts about acafandom, I was once again overcome with the profound sense of discomfort I faced in my Indian dance class that day and how that feeling really followed me throughout my research on Bollywood dance. I initially embarked on my research on Bollywood dance as a graduate student the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT where I was allowed to explore Bollywood as the natural symbiosis of my areas of interest (dance and media) and my own mixed-race South Asian background. The fact that I actually took great pleasure in watching (re-watching), discussing and choregraphing movements to Bollywood songs – to me clearly defining me as an acafan in this space – was seen as definite plus. I left MIT with a conviction that aca-fandom was a welcome breath of fresh air to the largely dismissive scholarship on Bollywood dance that pre-dated my work. Sharing my enthusiasm, my friends joined me in starting a largely fan-driven Bollywood Film Festival in Prague, Czech Republic.

In the years that followed, I have gone through a series of battles around my enthusiasm and willingness to foreground my Bollywood fandom. Very early into my dance-based doctoral program at UCLA, I was told that I would have to “put my love of Bollywood aside to write well about it.” In translation, this implicitly suggested that the best way to approach Bollywood dance was to critique it for its commercial nature and underpinnings, rather than engage with the fandoms it inspired. This stance contrasted starkly to the much more importance that was afforded to my classical Indian dance training and the ties and investments I had to that community as a result. In retrospect, it was this training in Indian dance (not my years of attention to, and experience with, Bollywood dance) that allowed me to position myself as a credible scholar in this field in the department and beyond. This is also probably why I no longer fully identify as a dance scholar. As I progressed towards completing my dissertation and sought to establish myself as a scholar in dance studies, I often found myself foregrounding my classical dance training when presenting at conferences and otherwise sharing my work. I was often silent about my own affinities towards Bollywood (unless explicitly asked).

It has taken me quite a long time to get past this disconnect, but its resolution finally came last year when I was invited to curate and speak at a Hindi film dance symposium convened by Akademi, one of, if not the most, prestigious Indian dance institutions in the United Kingdom. Speaking there, I took a bold step and decided to starkly differentiate Bollywood from Indian dance, positioning Bollywood as a hybrid rather than Indian dance form. To do this, I drew on my own early experiences with Bollywood, once again, best summarized by an excerpt:

My first introduction to Hindi cinema took place many years ago at my cousin’s pirated video rental store in Kathmandu (Nepal) where I would, on occasion, watch anything that was playing on the VCR. Most of the time, it was some Hindi movie. As the plots and stars slipped by me, it was the dances that were etched in my memory. As the product of a Czech/Nepali mixed marriage, my childhood was defined by a constant, at times painful, cultural negotiation. Born in an era that preceded the current more tolerant approaches to interculturalism, my life was littered with constant reminders of my outsider status in both Nepali and Czech societies. Strangely, it was in watching Hindi film songs and dances that a world of cultural mixing first welcomed me into its midst. In the remorseless blending of movement sources and costume-styles, I found a messy, yet appealing, reflection of my own scattered cultural identity. (Pulse 2010)

To my surprise, my approach to Bollywood dance as a hybrid dance form struck a cord among a generation of younger scholars and dancers, who have felt constrained by the restrictions of Indian classical dance practice and discourse. But it was really my position as both a scholar and a fan, as someone who both studied and experienced Bollywood dance, that allowed me to get to this moment. Clearly my research on Bollywood dance would not have been possible without the personal connections I was able to form with dancers around our shared experiences in this space. At the same time, it was my ability to downplay my fandom as foreground my training in Indian classical dance that allowed me to get to where I am now. So to me, the term acafan is at times a support, and at other times a challenge. It is, however, always relevant.

Melissa Click:

I’m a bit ambivalent about whether I’d use “aca-fan” to describe myself. If I were to use the term, it would be only in the most limited of applications to denote that I am an academic who studies fans. To be clear, my ambivalence stems from the ways comparison to transformative cultures diminishes my fan practices. I am what Anne Kustritz describes as an “as-is” fan, not a “creative fan,” and I usually study “as-is” fans as well. Because of this distinction, I often feel (in both aca and fan circles) as though my interests and behaviors are too vanilla to signify “true fandom.” Indeed, Kustritz’s distinctions, though instructive, demonstrate the value normally given to (or removed from) particular fan practices–who wants to be the “as-is” fan?

My work on Martha Stewart and Twilight fans further separates me from my fellow fan scholars. I don’t study “quality” media texts or groups of people deemed particularly interesting. My topic choices, as a result, offer me little credibility in academic or fan circles–adult women obsessed with Stewart’s homekeeping advice and teenage girls who debate the merits of vampires and werewolves are seen as dupes who waste their time on lowbrow (and feminine) texts, and my interest in studying them, as a result, is dismissed as inconsequential and uninteresting.

That said, my ambivalence about the term should not signal that I am not doing many of the things this discussion has pointed out that aca-fen do. What I find most useful about “aca-fan” is the focus on self-reflexivity and the insistence on maintaining a dialogue between our aca and fan selves and communities. I think a discussion about the role of value and taste in our work is long overdue. In this spirit, I wish to reflect upon some areas I hope we can discuss about the ongoing application and function of “aca-fan”:

* Is there a way we can recognize the distinctions among fans as differences of kind and not value? If we can agree that there are different kinds of fans, might we too have different kinds of aca-fen?

* How can we (should we?) expand our work to incorporate different kinds of fans? How might anti-fan studies and anti-aca-fen contribute to the study of fans?

* How do taste and value affect the kinds of texts and fans we study and the terrain of the field? What might be gained from studying fans of texts that aren’t viewed as “quality” (or at least campy/ironic)?

Our field began in defense of fans ridiculed in mainstream culture, and to support our arguments about fans’ value and activity, fan scholarship has focused on fan creativity and invention–but it seems that by selecting the fans we deem most interesting for study, we have created hierarchy a new, leaving fans we deem uninteresting to be derided as too ordinary, too dim-witted to appreciate quality texts, and too uninteresting to be worthy of study. Underscoring our dedication to reflexivity, I think we need to ask ourselves how aca-fan identity impacts the scholarship we produce and value, and what is lost when our scholarship overlooks fans who are not like us.

Suzanne Scott:

I come to this conversation at an interesting professional juncture, but a fitting one considering the topic. Last year, I completed my dissertation, which broadly focuses on the demographic, representational, professional and academic “revenge” of the fanboy within convergence culture, and the potentially marginalizing effects this has on fangirls. I also braved my first pass at the academic job market. Suffice it to say, I have spent the bulk of the past two years contemplating, writing about, marketing, explaining, and (occasionally) defending my scholarly identity.

“Acafan” is a label that I embrace, and one that I will always remain deeply indebted to professionally, pedagogically, and personally. It has granted me access to a network of brilliant scholars I’m lucky to also call my friends. Acafandom has allowed me to connect with my students and assure them that affect is not the arch nemesis of critical thought and compelling analysis. I think it has helped my work embody the qualities of immediacy, accessibility, particularity, and situationalism that Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc called for in their manifesto for a new cultural studies. Perhaps most importantly, it has helped that work travel outside of the walls of the academy and attract a wider readership whose feedback I’ve found invaluable.

It also helped me get a job (and may have lost me a few along the way…a Nerf battleaxe did make a regrettable appearance in the background of a video conference interview).

This July, I began a two-year appointment as a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow at Occidental College’s Center for Digital Learning and Research. This was not a conventional tenure track position, and accordingly the interview process was far more transparent. I was given a list of questions to consider for my Skype interview, so that we might have a more substantive dialogue about what I would bring to the position. In addition to the usual suspects (tell us about your teaching, research, etc.), I was asked to consider the “possibilities for hybrid academic careers.” The question stuck out because I hadn’t ever heard anyone ask it before, but also because hybridity was already so deeply embedded in my scholarly identity. I had, for better or for worse, approached prior interview questions about acafandom with Admiral Ackbar echoing in my head. I recognized immediately that, this time, it was not a trap; it was a call to think about acafandom in more expansive terms.

Henry wondered in his post whether the term “acafan” is still useful, and the contributors to this series have been thoughtfully tackling that question. But I have to wonder if that question ultimately misses the point. I personally consider the term to be useful, but I’m ultimately more interested in developing and discussing new uses. Instead of calling for the discontinuation of the term, shouldn’t we be discussing how we might deploy it in new ways? If, as Karen Hellekson has argued here, the term’s “power lies in the academic’s power; the fan gains little or nothing from its deployment,” then shouldn’t we begin thinking about how to empower fans (or our students, or other scholars) though its use?

Sam Ford noted that he longed to “see the insights of media studies academics reach audiences outside journal readership and media studies conference attendees.” In my experience, acafandom has facilitated this sort of outreach. In 2007, I served as the chair of programming for Phoenix Rising, a massive Harry Potter symposium designed to draw in a mix of academics, professionals, and fans. We offered both academic and exploratory (fan creativity oriented) programming tracks, and I found the conversations and collaborations that emerged out of that space to be richer and more rewarding than the bulk of academic conferences I’ve attended. In 2009, I joined the symposium editorial team of Transformative Works and Cultures, a section of the open access, peer-reviewed online journal designed to promote a dialogue between academic and fans. Has my involvement and labor in these participatory, acafannish spaces made me more attractive on the tenure track job market? Would they count towards tenure once I landed a job? The answer at most institutions might still be a resounding no on both counts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

In my current corner of #alt-academia, a hybrid identity is no longer something to be defended, but desired. A fannish sensibility isn’t a quirk that must be concealed, but something that can be wielded strategically to think about how to model transformative scholarship, or design more participatory pedagogical models. Am I being naïve? Will I ultimately have to cautiously explain or subtly veil the “fan” component of my acafan identity when I go back out on the tenure track market in a few years? Perhaps, on both counts. But I also get to spend the next two years in a place that actively expects my aca-fan identity to shape my work and how I share it. So, while I completely agree with Will that we don’t need to continually pronounce our fan credentials, and instead allow them to permeate our work, I also feel lucky to be in a position where I’m not expected to shut up about it.

Melissa A. Click is an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Missouri. She is co-editor of Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise. Her work on media audiences and messages can be found in Popular Communication, Women’s Studies in Communication, Transformative Works & Cultures, and in NYU’s anthology Fandom.

Will Brooker is Director of Research at Kingston University, London. His work on popular culture and audience includes Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, The Audience Studies Reader and The Blade Runner Experience. His next book is Hunting the Dark Knight.

Sangita Shresthova is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths Project at USC. A Czech/Nepali dancer/choreographer and media scholar, she holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, and a MSc. degree from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Sangita’s book on Bollywood dance (Is It All About the Hips? Bollywood Dance Around the World) has just been released.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College. She currently serves as a symposium editor for the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, and her work has been published in the anthologies Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica and The Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures (forthcoming). She blogs on fandom, the politics of participatory culture, and teaching fan studies at suzannescott.wordpress.com.

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