Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seven, Part One): Kristina Busse and Cornell Sandvoss



I have a PhD in English from Tulane University and teach as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of South Alabama. I have been reading and writing on fan fiction since 1999 and have published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture, including on Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction, popslash, and fandom as queer female space. I coedited with Karen Hellekson, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland 2006) and am currently coauthoring a book-length study with Louisa Stein on fan artifacts and new media. I write about fan fiction and fandom and fan communities incessantly on my fannish LiveJournal.

The fact that I am an independent scholar is, in many ways, central to my work, because I have specific and quite personal reasons to be interested in the line between professional and amateur, fan writing and pro writing, and the way these get defined in various communities. Despite my disciplinary training and record of publication, I am not paid for my work, which makes me an adjunct--in my academic work of teaching as well as research. In a way, then, my academic work functions like fan work: I do not receive any financial recompense nor does its ideal value (line in CV) contribute to my gaining material benefit.

So, I straddle the line between amateur and professional in a keener way than most. Also, my central mode of fannish engagement is through meta, the grass-roots version of academic criticism, where I am seen as an academic outsider by many fans. By contrast, I cannot quite partake in the proper academic channels and thus feel fannish outsider within academia. This ambiguous position makes me keenly aware of the way my academic work replicates the contested relationship to capitalism and professionalism that fan work (and the fans creating it) exemplifies.


Cornel: Hello, I should briefly introduce myself as well at this point. I have published on fan audiences in a number of articles and three books, A Game of Two Halves (Routledge, 2003) which focuses solely on football (soccer) fandom - a possibly rather alien topic to most readers of this blog, Fans: The Mirror of Consumption (Polity Press, 2005) and more recently had the good fortune to be asked by Jonathan Gray and Lee Harrington to co-edit an anthology previously mentioned here and entitled Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (NYU Press, 2007) which features a wide range of, I think, important contributions by many scholars in the field. In fact Lee, Jonathan and I enjoyed the experience so much that we have gone on to follow in the footsteps of Sharon Mazzarella and Norma Pecora as the editors of Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture. I mention this here as we initially thought that we might attract a greater number of papers dedicated to the study of fans and fan cultures given our own backgrounds, but this hasn't quite materialised yet. So please see this an invitation to all scholars out there to consider the journal as a potential publication outlet for their research in the field - needless to say, whichever side of this debate they are on (if indeed there are sides...)!

I am also Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Surrey (UK), but, like Kristina, I am a German exile. I'm not sure this actually matters at all - or rather hope it doesn't (though that is admittedly a rather German thing to say) other than in two respects: a.) in terms of the conceptual and theoretical foundations which in my case tend to draw fairly heavily on German literary, cultural and social theory such as the Frankfurt School and Constance School and b.) in giving us an outsider perspectives on many of the dominant Anglo-American (and let's add Australian) discourses in the field. There are of course always differences in personal taste and genre preferences but I am always struck at how certain instances of popular American television are assumed to be universally known and appreciated. I say this not to complain about a lack of intercultural awareness of fan scholars to whom English is their native language, but because it has shaped my interest and journey through the field. Over the years I have read many studies of fan cultures whose central texts I were and sometimes continue to be been unfamiliar with. This may be a rather heretical admission, but I have to out myself as someone who had read Matt Hills's or John Tulloch's work on Dr Who, long before I had ever seen a single episode. And just to offend the American crowd here as well, when reading the earlier rounds of this discussion, I had to google 'Firefly' - I simply had never seen it. I would like to plea that none of this is ignorance - indeed it would not deter me in the least from enthusiastically reading a study on, say, Firefly fans. But it does mean that my interest in this study and others is not one in particular fan audiences or cultures in and for themselves, but about what these studies tell us about the micro and macro conditions and parameters of (everyday) life in a mediated world and the interplay between structure and agency that takes place within such frames. Anyway, we can return to this kind of Sinnfrage of fan studies later, if you like.

Before we kick start this week's debate, I should say a word or two about the format, however. Owing to my own unavailability earlier this month (the usual excuses are other publication deadlines, exam boards, etc.) and the fact that Kristina was much more organised in writing up her thoughts an earlier stage (and is currently travelling in Europe) the following takes the shape of Kristina outlining her thoughts on the debate and my post hoc replies. Kristina is thus left with the power of agenda setting whereas I enjoyed the right of the last reply.


Kristina: I feel on some level like we are the exemplar of what I've been shorthanding as the fanboy/fangirl split, and I think it might be useful to both articulate what those differences might be but also to complicate them once we've done so. One of the complaints I've heard most about trying to divvy up fan studies along gender lines (or even daring to suggest that gender might be an issue!) is that that there are too many exceptions to even try to establish categories or definitions. Moreover, I'll start by making a quite enormous collapse that we may have to discuss down the line, namely, I sketch behavior onto gender. In a way, when I personally talk about fanboys and fangirls, it's much less about actual biobodies than it is about certain ways of engaging with source texts and certain ways of theorizing and studying fans. And I may be totally wrong when actually looking at demographics!

But in my home, fannish behavior looks as follows: my husband watches Doctor Who quite passionately. He taped every episode when younger, bought all the tapes, and now owns all the DVDs. Most evenings more or less as long as I've known him, he will sit and watch a couple of episodes--in recent years with our kids. When my older one turned 4, he wanted a Doctor Who birthday party, and it was hard to explain to him that the doctor and Buzz Lightyear weren't quite the same *g* My husband also collects D&D material, less for playing and more as a collector's item. He certainly is quite invested in these texts, both emotionally and financially, but it is the texts and objects rather than other fans that are the center of his focus. Meanwhile, I started defining myself years ago as "a fan of fans," i.e., while I have fallen for a number of media texts over the years, most recently, Stargate Atlantis and Supernatural, my primary fannish engagement is the community and its products, my primary investment time and my primary reward friendships and fannish creative and intellectual artifacts. Or, said differently, when I answer the often voiced question of what I'd take on the proverbial island, it's always the fan creations, never the TV show.

Now, clearly the dynamic in our household is neither universal nor generalizable, but reading Textual Poachers and Fan Fiction and Fan Communities on the one hand and Fan Cultures and Fans on the other, I do begin to wonder whether my family's gendering is not that unusual after all. Now, fanfiction communities are particularly invested in community and fan-created artifacts, so that using that as my measuring stick might be unfair and methodologically problematic. After all, what about the many communities that are predominantly male? What about the lonely fangirl reading her favorite book over and over again all by herself? And even dividing it into a blunt collecting/analyzing versus creating might leave out entire communities of women who debate technical details and men who create emotionally involved works of art.

Cornel: Yes, I think these are very valid points. I actually struggle with the usefulness of introducing gender here as the key dividing line between fans and fan scholars alike and can only echo Will Brooker's earlier comments. I think there are two different questions: The first one is whether we can distinguish between types of either male and female fan behaviour or, secondly, between types of male and female approaches to the study of fandom. Both, in my eyes, are unsustainably essentialist suggestions which I outright reject. You already mentioned a few examples as far as fan behaviour is concerned and we could compile an almost endless list here: consider for example Vermorel and Vermorel's (1985) distinctly private fan fantasies written more often that not by female fans (or indeed fan girls given their age!); conversely, communal consumption contexts are at the heart of many distinctly male fan cultures in, say, sports fandom. Very much the same applies to the academic study of fans and fandom: if there are distinctly male and female approaches these would not correspond with respective foci on individual fans on the one hand and fan communities on the other - let's not forget that Henry has of course laid the foundations and established the canon in the study of fandom as an interpretive community. Even if there was a correlation between these positions and the gender of particular scholars, it would be a yet greater challenge to argue that this is not a coincidental correlation but grounded in quintessential gender differences.

In the earlier rounds of this discussion, the question of gender and fandom was linked to race by one contributor who remarked that however commendable it may be not wanting to distinguish on the grounds of race, it nevertheless constitutes a very real barrier in people's lives. This is of course true, and I think the analogy is interesting, but the conclusion is ultimately erroneous. Let's think this analogy through for and imagine we would suggest that there are forms of 'white' and 'black' fandom. This would be nothing short of utterly racist! However, this doesn't mean that race and ethnicity are not one of the many socio-demographic lines that structure given fan cultures, impact upon audiences' choices of objects of fandom and inform cultural and cultural hierarchies associated with fandom (remember Thornton's revealing documentation and analysis of the discrimination faced by black adolescent males in 1990s UK club culture). Equally, gender (alongside class and other vectors of social stratification) is one of various important social and cultural parameter that structure fandom, as it is indeed a faultline in the divisions of power in contemporary society and hence naturally constitutes a key concern of fan studies. Yet, this is a far cry from overburdening gender by making it the organising principle of a fundamental and essentialist dichotomy of fan audiences.


Kristina: And yet I can't shake this (possibly mistaken) belief that there *is* a gendered tendency--if not in the fans then maybe in the academics? Given that you and I probably fit into both categories, it seems like we should maybe begin by defining our terms, because that's where for me the first (and possibly biggest) disconnect and differentiation takes place. You define *fandom* as "the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text" (8). In so doing, you clearly shift the emphasis from community to individual: "this focus on communities and tightly networked fans fails to conceptualize important aspects of the relationship between the modern self, identity and popular culture which forms my particular concern here" (5).

To me, on the other hand, the terms mean quite different things. Fandom, to me, requires a community and participation in that community--and possibly self identification with that community. [And I feel the need to insert here that when I talk about "community" I clearly do not think of it as a monolithic entity but rather as always a collection of different and differing, complex and contradictory communities, where fans may be members of many communities over time and even simultaneously.] I'll just cite myself here since I think my short essay Fandom-is-a-Way-of-Life versus Watercooler Discussion; or, The Geek Hierarchy as Fannish Identity Politics articulates my very objection:

I want to suggest that we distinguish between fan and fandom as well as acknowledge that there are different trajectories that combine into levels of fannishness. In other words, an intense emotional investment in a media text that is wholly singular may create a fan but does not make the individual part of a larger fandom, whereas a person enacting fannish behavior may not define him- or herself as a fan. It thus might be useful to consider the overlapping but not interdependent axes of investment and involvement as two factors that can define fannish engagement. Moreover, we need to consider models that can differentiate between people who are fans of a specific text, those that define themselves as fans per se, and those that are members of fandom.

Cornel: I actually don't agree that I shift the emphasis from communities to the individual. I tried to broaden our definition of what we call fandom and who we call fans, yet in doing so I do not exclude the established body of work focusing on fan communities which is in particular associated with what Jonathan, Lee and I have described as the 'first wave of fan studies'. Rather I, as have indeed others, included fields of audience studies which, to my mind, are also of importance and warrant further study. And I think there is a certain logic in accepting to recognise those people who call themselves fans - whether they meaningfully participate in interpretive communities or not - as fans, as indeed others who may shun the label but display very similar forms of textual attachment, communal engagement or textual activity.

I think while widely used, Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst's (Audiences, Sage 1998) highly useful taxonomy of different fan audiences deserves yet greater attention in this context, particularly on the other side of the Atlantic (from a UK vantage point that is). While Matt Hills has rightly pointed to some issues concerning the terminology Abercrombie and Longhurst employed, they provide a very useful map of the last field of popular audiences which helps us to juxtapose and position various studies of different fan groups and cultures meaningfully in relation to each other. In some of these studies, in particular those focusing on whom Abercrombie and Longhurst describe as 'enthusiasts', the emphasis will be very much on community, in others it won't. I think both are about fans, both are engaging in different forms of fandom, but at the same time, they are different forms of engagement with different social and cultural consequences. I think this only underlines the significance of studying fandom across the spectrum of audiences or popular media.

Kristina: On the other hand, there is also a spectrum between the individual fan who has a deep investment in the beloved text and the people with a more casual enjoyment, and it is that distinction that seems crucial to me. As a result, I do wonder whether just liking a show, following a sports team, or listening to a band isn't a type of activity that is so universal that the category of fan becomes emptied out. I don't want to border police and define who gets to be called a fan and who doesn't, but I fear that an all-too-inclusive definition would become useless for any study or categorization if the definition were so wide that noone would *not* be included. If fan simply denotes someone liking something, then there's really no need to create a separate category.

Cornel: I am not sure why the fact that many of us, maybe all, are fans in one form or another "empties out" the term. I would make a similar point here as in my discussion of Fiske's (1992) essay that moves towards a normative definition of fans: I can't see any benefit in using a definition that corresponds with pre-formulated expectations. Put more crudely than you are suggesting (but it illustrates the point), if we define fans as "good consumers', then naturally only "good consumers" are fans!

I think this is not so much a question of who is a fan but when we are a fan. Saying that most of us are fans doesn't mean we are all fans all the time, but rather that being a fan describes a particular segment of our engagement with media and those around us - an engagement that I would argue derives its significance not least from the fact that it spills over into other social and cultural fields, in the way the reading position of the fan is more and more evident (or maybe we just more and more realise it is) in other fields of cultural and political engagement (see Jonathan's essay in Fandom for example).