Fan Studies at the Crossroads: An Interview with Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen (Part Two)

What you call "fan shame" is a central issue running through the book. What factors make fans feel shame about their passions and what strategies have fans adopted to deal with that shame?

Kathy: I think on one level the factors that excite fan shame in both men and women still stem from our own discomfort with championing anything that smacks of mass culture. I began my career in 18th century studies, looking closely at the beginnings of mass/popular culture as we know it today, so this debate is all too familiar.  And it hasn't changed all that much.  Mass=crass and we try to distance ourselves or to find some way of rehabilitating our own interests.  We used to do this ourselves, framing discussions of what we were doing - going to fan conventions, interviewing actors, watching the show - as "research". And I don't think it's limited to people who purportedly make their living studying "serious" texts.

I'm often amazed at the pushback I get from students who sign up for a class on fan culture and then spend the better part of the semester denigrating the topic.  I got one particularly harsh comment last semester from a student who complained that she felt ashamed that she was not getting an A in a class whose topic she felt was "not impressive" (The title of the course was Geeks, Fanboys and Stalker Chicks).   It was the topic more that the grade that she felt reflected badly on her.  I was also struck by an article I read recently about the Swedish couple who wrote The Hypnotist.  They each had careers as “serious” authors before teaming up to write crime thrillers under a pseudonym.  Their outing caused something of a scandal in Sweden. As one of them said, “it was like we broke the biggest taboo” by crossing the cultural divide.

On another level there is the explicitly female brand of fan shame that grows out of the cultural push back against women's pleasures.  This hasn’t changed all that much and I think evidence of this can be found in the resonance a film like Hysteria has with audiences, and the fact that it's a comedy, as if that is the only way we can even discuss female (sexual) pleasure.  And "deviant" or unchecked sexuality almost inevitably comes into discussions of female fans, still.  An article on the death of a fan at Comic Con   includes a description of the woman as a 53 year old  Twilight fan.  The first comment left on the article describing her death was "It's a good start." and many of the others question what a woman her age was doing at Comic Con, and why she wasn't home with her kids.  I have my doubts whether this would have been the reaction if we were talking about a 53 year old man running to get back on the line to buy playoff tickets.  Combine this with the fact that popular culture has traditionally been coded female and marginalized from its inception in the eighteenth century, and shame becomes the natural reaction. It doesn't help that mainstream media continues to report on fans in a sniggering, derogatory fashion, and that shame is only reinforced. I'm surprised at how often the media that exists to report on entertainment, as an arm of the industry itself, engages in this sort of rhetoric.  An example would be the piece by Eric McCormack in a recent Entertainment Weekly.  He was asked to write about crazy things fans have said to him over the years.  And right now IMDB has a collection of photos of fans taken at Comic con titled Photos from Comic-Con 2012: The Cute, The Crazy and The Creepy. This is on a website that is read predominantly by fans.

Lynn: I think fan shame is multiply determined, and plays out differently depending on type of fandom (sports, media, literary, sci fi, etc.) and gender. I had an interesting conversation recently with Dan Wann, who researches sports fandom – we’re both psychologists with similar backgrounds, but he researches a fandom that skews male and is probably the least shamed type of fan behavior, while I research a fandom that skews female and seems to encounter shaming at every turn, including a whopping dose of internalized shame. While we both recognized these differences, we were also able to identify many common motivations and challenges across fandoms and genders. Nevertheless, the degree of ridicule that a male sports fan experiences – even if he paints himself half green and half white and goes to an Eagles game half naked – is vastly different than the potential ridicule tossed at a male media fan who paints himself green and white and goes to Comic Con half naked as an alien something-or-other. Eagles fans, no matter how extreme their presentation and participation in their chosen object of affection, are rarely described as “creepy.”

The strategies fans adopt (both consciously and unconsciously) to deal with internalized shame mirror the ways all humans react to shame. Fans sometimes construct impenetrable boundaries around the perceived shameful behavior, thoughts and feelings, attempting to avoid outside ridicule by keeping their fannishness secret and hidden. For female fans, this seems to be a primary strategy – thus the emphasis on the “safe space” of fandom and the stringent policing of those boundaries. The first rule of fandom is “Tell no one about fandom,” after all. Bacon-Smith recognized the ‘conservation of risk’ inherent in female fandom twenty years ago, locating both the risk and the reward in the need to express forbidden emotions (rage, revenge, fear, sexuality) and rewrite cultural scripts that challenge the status quo in a dangerous manner.

Io9 recently ran an article describing the behavior of "self-hating" fans. To what degree do the behaviors described here represent a male counterpart to the kinds of female "fan shame" you discuss throughout the book?

Kathy: Well, you read enough articles like the ones on IMDB and Entertainment Weekly and the logical response is to differentiate yourself from "those" fans.  If you follow the links back through that article you arrive at a New York Times book review that sneers at sci-fi fans throughout, beginning by saying  "Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, Zone One, features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy."  The sympathy comes from having essentially stupid people reading his work.  Glen Duncan, the author of the review, bemoans the mass market reader: "Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up ‘cathected’or ‘brisant’ isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront."  He’s at pains to establish himself as an intelligent cultured reader and that is done at the expense of all those he deems as less discerning.  This kind of treatment of fans might be expected from the New York Times (and they certainly live up to the expectation) but it's everywhere. Even the things that seem to celebrate male fandom/geekdom have to show fans as laughable (I'm thinking here of things like Big Bang Theory, Community, The IT Crowd, etc.). This isn't male fan shame so much as it's a response to our rejection of any sort of investment in mass culture.  It's not deviant female behavior, it's "just" mass culture.

Lynn: Some of this is the shame that crosses gender boundaries – of liking something popular, because ‘popular’ is still overtly devalued (and covertly consumed voraciously) in our culture. Some of it is the result of being passionate about something, which tends to result in rants and nitpicking and what one commenter to that article calls “snobbishness”. Being an “angry nerd”, as another commenter puts it, is sometimes the corollary of passion. When we love something, we’re invested in keeping it just the way we like it. It’s meeting our needs, so god forbid someone (producers, writers, networks, other fans, etc) changes it – then, we fear, it won’t meet our needs any longer. And that, frankly, is terrifying when you’re passionate about something and invested in the emotional pay-off that it’s providing.


Some of this is the (also cross-gendered) wank that comes from internalized shame – the criticism that others are ‘doing fandom wrong’ is usually a fear that someone else is liking something even ‘more’ shameful, or engaging in a fan practice that’s even ‘more’ embarrassing – often one that reiterates the stereotypes that fans are constantly trying to challenge. “They’re weird, but I’m normal” is the underlying projection.


The part that might be more common for female fans is the desire to keep a particular fandom community small, selective, and insulated – and secret. That secrecy is difficult to maintain if everyone and their brother and sister has suddenly discovered your particular little corner of fandom. This desire intersects with the dislike and mistrust of anything that’s ‘too popular’, so fans often have a love/hate relationship with their fannish object going ‘mainstream’. On the one hand, it keeps the band/show/film/book/whatever on the air or on the shelves or in the concert venues; on the other hand, it expands the audience and makes the fandom less intimate, and perhaps less safe. The desire to be part of something ‘special’ – selective and exclusive – is a basic human one, not unique to fandom certainly. But it plays out in fandom in obvious ways, creating wank when it does.



Early on, you describe the ways that the underground status of fan fiction has provided some protection for the women who participate. What do you see as the consequences of the amount of publicity which 50 Shades of Gray has received as a commercial best-seller which originated as Twilight fanfic?

Kathy: It certainly furthers the image of deviant female behavior, as well as reigniting the criticism of fan productions as bad, poorly executed and lacking in value, pandering to the masses. It's conjured the worst stereotypes and then been used as proof that all those stereotypes are actually true.

Lynn: Fandom – or at least the fan spaces that I tend to inhabit – has had a relatively strong negative reaction to 50 Shades and its runaway success and mainstream media coverage. A recent post in LiveJournal asked fellow fans the blunt question – “Why do fans hate 50 Shades of Grey?” Fans responded that they don’t like having what is widely reputed to be badly written fiction representing the entire genre of fanfic. The derision and bad-writing ridicule leveled at 50 Shades seems to reiterate the already condescending “oh, it’s fanfic, it’s not real writing” attitude that fans struggle against. Fans also don’t appreciate the glare of mainstream attention focused on the safe (and secret) space of fandom, as non-fans who heasr about 50 Shades’ origins go online to investigate this “new thing” called fanfic.

Much of the media coverage of 50 Shades includes derogatory comments about fanfiction, including this tidbit:"Fan-fiction is the written word equivalent of taking two naked dolls and mashing them together to make what you think sex looks like when you’re 10 years old. And it’s written at that level…..The book has been called “mommy porn,” a label that denotes that grown women can’t enjoy pornography unless it’s poorly written garbage re-purposed as more poorly written garbage. But also it makes us think our mom likes fan-fic, and I respect my mom too much to believe this."

That article also makes some of the same points that we touched on in Crossroads – that discovering fandom is, for some women, also a discovery of an alternative discourse on sexuality that is freeing and liberating and normalizing.  It may not be well-written, but 50 Shades has provided some of the same for non-fans.

And so it’s no surprise that 50 Shades of Grey has become so wildly popular with women of all ages because we’ve been made to feel repressed and believe that porn is just this primitive, icky thing guys watch. If porn is a cave-drawing and 50 Shades is Monet, I think we need to invent fire already so we can burn this thing down.

Lynn Zubernis is a clinical psychologist and teaches in the Counselor Education program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Katherine Larsen teaches courses on fame, celebrity and fandom in the University Writing Program at George Washington University. She is the principal editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies.

Dr Zubernis and Dr Larsen are co-editors of the forthcoming Fan Culture: Theory and Practice. They have also published four articles in Supernatural Magazine.