Acafandom and Beyond: Will Brooker, Melissa A. Click, Suzanne Scott, and Sangita Shreshtova (Part Two)

Will Brooker:

Here’s the problem, for me. I like reading about Sangita’s sari pleats and Suzanne’s Nerf battleaxe, and recognising similar fan experiences from different fan communities, but those enjoyable moments, those connections and those stories don’t make me feel more able to answer the broader questions posed by Melissa. I don’t feel entitled to, and I don’t feel inclined to.

Somehow, in the last ten years, I’ve gone from being a kid who couldn’t believe he was actually writing a book about Star Wars to some middle-aged man of fandom who gets reverently approached by PhD students, telling me they were inspired by that book I couldn’t believe I was getting away with. I’m happy to give advice, but I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone what to do, except: do what you want to do, do what you love.

I have my own answers to Melissa’s questions — I feel entirely open-minded about different types of media fandom, I feel anti-fandom is a love-hate variation on traditional fandom, and I have few hang-ups about ‘quality’ versus ‘camp’ — I studied 1960s Batman in the 1990s, and got over those snobberies a long time ago. But these are just personal opinions, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t like the words ‘geek’ or ”nerd’ because I feel they describe what would be simply called scholarship, expertise or ability in most other areas of life; I don’t like the word ”fen’ (why are we adopting this twee, sub-Elven term when we have the word ‘fans’?), and ‘squee’ makes me squick. ‘Squick’ makes me squick, too. I don’t feel we’re helping our cause, such as it is, by using baby-talk and sleepover squealing. But then, for all my love of Legally Blonde, I’m a straight white guy, and as enough of our official vocabulary is decided by straight white guys, I don’t want to make any rules for fandom’s vocabulary based on my own preferences.

I don’t feel it’s for me to make rules or recommendations about anything in fandom or aca-fandom. To be frank, I don’t know if any of us should be deciding what ‘we’ should do. Are we even a coherent community? For all our pleasurable connections — the recognition of love for a text, a story and character, and the recognition of having that love mocked or derided — I think the differences between us are more obvious, and perhaps more interesting, than the similarities. Deciding on labels, rules and titles risks making something that was always inherently a lot of fun, born out of passion and enthusiasm, into just another departmental committee meeting.

So, drawing up an agenda and writing the minutes of aca-fandom isn’t for me. But if that was what everyone else wanted to do, I’d book a room, bring the coffee and offer my advice.

Melissa Click:

I think I know where Will is coming from. We were both on the 2011 SCMS panel organized by Louisa Stein on “Acafandom and the future of fan studies.” Some on the panel (and some in the audience) were taken aback by the idea that some “fan scholars” don’t particularly identify with and/or use the term “acafan” when describing their own work. That panel spawned this blog series and though I have found the discussions invigorating, I feel most of the entries in this series have raised more questions than they’ve answered–and given the minimal comments on each entry, it doesn’t seem like many feel as though they wish to engage with this topic (which I think itself is interesting). While these questions can be productive, they can also leave one wondering what use or relevance “acafan” has in fan studies, especially when its boundaries aren’t particularly clear.

That said, we did agree to discuss the term and its relevance in this forum–and I think the variety in our responses suggests the difficulty (or perhaps futility?) in pinning “acafan” down. However, it seems that despite wanting to make proclamations about acafans and what “we” should be doing, Will’s made quite a few, particularly gendered, proclamations here, for example, calling some scholars’ use of fan slang in academic discourse “baby talk and fan squealing.” It strikes me that it’s this dismissal of the melding of the fannish and the academic (also in conjunction with gender) that gave rise to acafan identity–so while Will suggests the term is unnecessary for him, he also demonstrates why it might be useful for others.

The questions I raised in my provocation were not intended to have us decide what others should do, they were intended to provoke discussion about the application and relevance of a term. I am under no illusion that we’ve been asked to tell everyone else to do–instead we’ve been asked to join a conversation about work that we all do. Though the questions raised in this entry of a bigger conversation about acafandom may feel like a departmental meeting to Will, I do believe that some feel it is an important conversation to have. I still think there’s a lot for us to learn about the work we do and what we bring to that work–and I’d like to focus on that discussion, if possible!

Will Brooker:

I don’t really see a contradiction in what I say above, Melissa. It’s because I know I have personal preferences and prejudices that I don’t want to make any broader proclamations. You’re right that the behaviour I mentioned tends to be gendered, but I feel equally, if not more alienated, by the codes and conventions of male sports fans: I could have railed against those, but the truth is, they’re further from my experience and feel alien to me, whereas my resistance to squeeing, shipping and geeking out is more complex, and more bound up with trying to deny that aspect of my own fandom.

This wasn’t meant to be a dismissal of certain types of expression; more a demonstration of why I’m in no position to suggest rules for other people, because fan studies is so bound up in the personal, and I (like all of us, I expect) have irrational likes and dislikes. A lot of mine, I’m sure, are a complex love-hate dynamic that, despite my attempts at honesty, I haven’t fully admitted to myself: I was in happy, secret, silent tears during the first act of Legally Blonde, which no doubt counts as a kind of squeeing.

I’m under no illusions that what works for me will work for anyone else, which is why I hope I made it plain that I welcome and support the continuation of these discussions, for what my support is worth. And you’re right to suggest that I was unfair to compare it to a committee meeting. I was just getting bored of my own voice in monologue. Your response and your challenges make it into a conversation, and remind me that it can still be fun, as it should be.

I should also admit to myself that I’m very bad at shutting up.

Sangita Shresthova:

As I have not tended to think of my work as based in fan studies, I come to this debate with less knowledge about the acafandom discourse. I do, however, find it extremely useful as I consider current work being done on Bollywood audiences and fans. I am, in particular, struck by the unintentional hierarchies of fandom that Melissa brought up. When does a dance choreographed by a Bollywood fan become “worthy” of study (as opposed to many, many others) and what expectation does this place on other fans who may encounter the scholarly analysis of this fan production? As my work connects Bollywood dancers in disparate parts of the world, who may or may not have encountered each other otherwise, I am especially conscious of the power dynamics that are associated with my role as a researcher of cultural practices. In fact, I would dare say that being an acafan becomes akin to a research method – one that allows a researcher to establish a subjectivity based on rapport without compromising academic integrity.

Suzanne Scott:

I don’t think that any of us are interested in codifying acafandom to the extent that it sucks the fun out of the term, or to the point that it alienates some modes of fan scholarship and canonizes others. I’m certainly not interested in policing language, or methodology, or taste. Still, my gut response to some of the gendered language in your response, Will, echoed Melissa’s, particularly the bits on “baby talk and sleepover squealing.” We all have our personal “squicks” and “squees” when it comes to fan discourse and scholarship, but from where I’m standing what will really hurt our cause is a failure to embrace the inherent diversity and subjectivity of the term, or consider its applications beyond classifying a body of literature. The expansions that Melissa initially proposed are just one possibility.

To attempt to tie some of these threads together, and to root this in a quick anecdote, one of the chapters of my dissertation focuses on the 2009 “Twilight ruined comic-con” protests. Full fannish disclosure, I absolutely loathe Twilight. Attending comic-con as a fan that year, I was alternately annoyed by the frequent conflation of “fangirl” and “Twi-hard,” horrified by the thinly veiled sexism that underpinned the protests, and disappointed that I, too, felt compelled to distance myself from those genres and texts that comprise our cultural “pink ghetto.”

As a scholar, my autoethnographic reflection on these anxieties openly informed my analysis of comic-con as a microcosmic reflection of the fanboy’s place of privilege in this industrialized space, and the re-marginalization of the fangirl within media convergence. My initial resistance towards writing about Twilight was equally indebted to both sides of my acafan identity. I was terrified of having one of those closed-throat moments Sangita describes. I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of the “squealers,” and I didn’t want my work (especially as a scholar fresh on the market) to be dismissed or trivialized. Just as Sangita rightly notes the need to be aware of the power that accompanies our roles as cultural researchers, I became acutely aware as I wrote that chapter of the residual power that my fan identity affords me (as someone with more stereotypically “masculine” taste in media texts, modes of engagement, and so on).

All of that said, it was important for me to write that chapter, both as a fan and a scholar, and I bring it up because it (hopefully) speaks to these intersecting issues of taste, shame, professionalism, and power that accompany the “unintentional hierarchies” that exist within our field and beyond it. I’m an avid reader of aca-fannish work on Twilight precisely because work like Melissa’s forces me to confront my own anti-fan biases and interrogate them. I may hate the franchise, but I will defend its fans to the bitter end. I recognize their affect, even if I don’t always understand what motivates it. Collectively, I can acknowledge their importance, even if their individual expressions of fandom don’t resonate with my own.

I think a similar logic motivates my staunch defense of the term “acafan.” I have always viewed acafandom as an extension of the mentorship and communal support that we’ve always celebrated in fans. And, just as in fandom, tensions and fissures, debates about the canon or about codifying a scholarly identity, will always be a part of that. We might find that we’re no longer interested in a media property, or a piece of terminology, and move on to a new one. But I, for one, am still shipping aca/fan, and will always be happy to debate its significance, its boundaries, and its limitations.

Will Brooker:

I feel like I’ve been duly schooled, which is good and how it should be — thanks Suzanne. I may have taken ‘provocation’ a bit too literally above, and I could have tempered my language, although again, it was meant as an example of why I don’t think I’m in a position to make any broader recommendations. This is a good example, like your Twilight story, of why it’s more helpful to try to engage with the tensions in our fannish identities (that is, I’m probably embarrassed by shipping because I recognise it in my own approach to narrative and character, and snobbish about squeeing because I’m jealous of it as a shared emotional response that I find it hard to admit to) than to go with initial and more superficial, perhaps defensive reactions, as I did above.

Suzanne Scott:

To briefly contextualize my own moments of defensiveness here, I think how we approached the provocations says a great deal about the stages we’re at in our respective careers. I feel like I’m still cementing what sort of acafan I want to be, or coming to terms with the fluidity of that identity and its applications outside of fan studies. Part of my excitement about how we might realize the participatory and transformative ethos of fandom in our own work, or apply those ideas to an interdisciplinary discussion about pedagogy and scholarly communication, is because I’m just starting out. And, I know that in a year I’ll be back on the market, where my acafan identity will intrigue some institutions and alienate others, and I’m personally and professionally invested in proving its worth. Reading Sangita’s provocation, it’s clear that there are spaces where that work still needs to be done, and without question part of the reason I refuse to shut up is because I’m not in a position to do so yet.

Melissa Click:

Perhaps without meaning to, we’ve just performed one form of utility “acafan” holds for fan scholars as our field of study grows and shifts. One important component/use of the term is to understand how our fan identities/preferences inform our scholarship. Will, Sangita, and Suzanne have all demonstrated how our affiliations and preferences can inform our work and the positions we take in relation to others’ work. I think it’s really important to try to find linkages/overlaps in our work as well as noting where our differences lie. Will’s initial response suggested a feeling that our work and positions were too disparate to warrant further discussion, but I think that the ensuing discussion has pointed out that in fact it is our differences that fed our discussion and (hopefully) helped us come to a more complex sense of how our own positions affect what we study and how we evaluate others’ work.

Will Brooker:

I thought I knew where I stood, and what I felt, but this discussion has challenged me in a very interesting and valuable way — as a scholar and as a fan. So, thanks very much to the three of you.

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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