My primary interest in fan studies is its connection to media activism. As a scholar of race/ethnicity and media, my research has centered around the question of how communities of color have used media in the fight for social justice, as well as how entertainment media has been a site of injustice that needs to be remedied. This intersects with studies of race/ethnicity when communities of color are able to deploy their passionate engagement with media or the strength of their fan communities as a mechanism for improving the way they are represented or addressing other manifestations of racism in media.
When I was a doctoral student at USC, Henry was just starting up the Civic Paths research group that developed a research project on fan activism. At that point I was primarily studying Asian American media activists in the Los Angeles area who were fighting to improve their treatment in Hollywood. This included a group of Asian Americans who were fans of The Last Airbender, and were angry that the live action film was set to star white actors even though the source material seemed to clearly depict Asian peoples and cultures. I studied them as they developed into the organization Racebending.com, which took on all sorts of casting issues where people of color were being denied roles in major motion pictures.
I have followed this topic with interest in the years since then, as the intertwined practices of whitewashing and yellowface have continued unabated even amongst a growing chorus of opposition. Indeed, we have seen what Foucault might call a “veritable discursive explosion” surrounding the racist casting practices of movies like Ghost in the Shell (2017), Aloha (2015), Doctor Strange(2016), Dragonball Evolution (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and the Netflix show Iron Fist. These are the kinds of issues that traditional grassroots media advocacy organizations and watchdog groups for Asian Americans in media have worked to address since the early 1970s, using the same language and tactics. Yet we have seen a move away from the centrality of these kinds of organizations to the surfacing of ad hoc fan collectives that use Twitter to coordinate hashtag campaigns in order to make their outrage and their demands visible.
Another aspect of fan studies that has intersected with racial politics has been the engagement of sports fans in the fight to change the mascot of the Washington professional football team, which remains a painfully racist slur to this day. Although there has not been a particularly robust contingent of Washington’s own football fans who have taken up this cause, I noticed that sports fans were still being engaged by name-change activists—specifically, that Native American activist groups had been strategically targeting Washington’s opponents. Deploying what I call “oppositional fandom,” name-change activists were able to gain support for their cause through using the positioning of football fans in opposition to their opponents. That is, those who were already emotionally invested in seeing Washington lose could more easily be convinced that they were also engaged in practices that were harmful to Native Americans. The sports arena may not necessarily be the most productive space for engaging in the kind of political education and building of racial empathy that might actually engender sympathy for changing the team’s name. But I continue to be interested in the way the different strategies and tactics that activists identify and utilize in order to call attention to their cause and work to change hearts and minds. The heightened emotions surrounding fan cultures, objects, and communities can provide a potent opportunity for such work.
Moving forward, I think it will be important for scholars of race and fan studies to continue to interrogate the ethical dimensions of these kinds of thorny issues. Fans of all kinds have always needed to negotiate their fandom alongside their political inclinations, but some of these issues are coming to the foreground in ways that are even more difficult to ignore. For instance, how are fans of football negotiating their endorsement of a sport that is known to cause irreparable physical damage, and where the majority of players are Black men? In the midst of the #MeToo movement, how should Asian American fans of Aziz Ansari respond to stories about his shady behavior? Rather than merely feeling uncomfortable cognitive dissonance about the confluence of these issues, fans must negotiate their affective responses and consumer choices in the face of broad activist movements. I would be excited to see how fan studies scholars would position themselves amidst these debates, and how scholars of media activism are assessing the deployment of fans in these emerging conversations.
My primary areas of interest within fan studies are Black American fans' practices, meaning making, and methods for navigating conflict within fandoms. I did not initially set out to study fans or fandom; instead, my research trajectory grew organically from frustration with conventional approaches used by Black feminist media scholars to explore Black women's representation in media. I found myself limited by interrogating media images from the lens of stereotypes and archetypes, which left little room to speak of the interpretive "gray area"— a space in which meanings are not concrete, are myriad and continuously negotiated. I decided that it was time to shift from my own interpretive readings s to exploration of fans’ grappling with the gray areas of media artifacts.
I immediately discovered that, historically, traditional audience reception research and fandom scholarship has failed to address the diversity of media consumers, thus taking for granted the unique ways non-white audiences and fans make sense of and engage with various media. Inspired by works by Black women scholars, including Jacqueline Bobo (1995), Robin Means Coleman (2000), and Rebecca Wanzo, I embarked on new research for my dissertation project at the University of Southern California.
My dissertation explored the production of and fan engagement around television series with Black women protagonists in the post-broadcasting era, and the drama Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes, was the central case study. As a fan of the program--who often live-tweeted during broadcasts--I was invested in examining Black American fans' conversation around the show. Consequently, I proposed a study of live-tweeting Scandal for the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center's Social Media Impact Project. Through the data collected during the third season of Scandal, I contributed a chapter to the second edition of Fandom: Identities and communities in a mediated world (2017). My essay, titled “Black Twitter and the politics of viewing Scandal,” focuses on fan and anti-fans’ discussion of the program.
One of the aspects I flesh out in my essay is the concept of "politics of viewing," which I pose as a theoretical model for thinking about Black fans' engagement with, reception and discussion of contemporary television in the age of digital and social media. I argue that social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook afford Black fans' spaces they can transform into Black counter-publics. Black counter-publics have been historically constituted within Black institutions such as Black churches, activist organizations, and press and their purpose has been to provide spaces in which to engage in everyday discussion of Black experience outside the purview of out-group members and serves as the foundation for the formation of Black political thought and collective identities. The critical difference between traditional Black counter-publics and the new ones that are facilitated by new media is that they are not hidden from view of non-Blacks. In the context of new media, I contend, Black fans carve out a Black counter-public in which they utilize the written word, images, and audio-visuals to express and make visible their pleasures and to engage in debates about and critiques of specific media texts and their consumers. It is a process whereby Black fans are cognizant of and attempt to negotiate their relationship to a given media text and reconcile that with perceptions of how others can potentially view the media text. The politics of viewing manifests as what Stuart Hall calls a "critical politics" that goes beyond an evaluation of whether a particular image is "positive" or "negative" and therefore either "good" or "bad" for Blacks.
It is my view that because media travels globally, and fans experience and participate in fandom not just locally, fan/fandom studies must emphasize not only race but also cross-cultural/racial encounters. In forthcoming projects, I examine Black women fans' participatory engagement online with fan communities around Korean popular music (K-pop). K-pop music has grown in popularity in the United States over the last decade due to YouTube and social media platforms. K-pop draws influence from Western pop, R&B and hip-hop music, dance, and aesthetics. Founders of the three major K-pop companies--SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment--have explicitly stated that "Black music" during the 1980s and '90s influenced the type of music they wanted to manufacture in South Korea. As a K-pop fan, I have personally observed the popularity of the genre amongst other Black women both at concerts and in various online spaces. My work will address topics such as the global flow of signs of blackness, confrontation and struggle within fandoms, and Black women fans' strategies of resistance in digital spaces.