The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Rukmini Pande and Rebecca Wanzo (Part 1)

Rukmini Pande

I’m currently an Assistant Professor at O.P. Jindal University in New Delhi, India. In terms of fandom I’ve been a participant since around 2003 and I’ve moved through a lot of different fannish spaces. I’ve been in fandoms for Bollywood, Anime and Manga and USA/UK-based texts and also been fairly active in RPF (Real Person Fiction). I’ve also seen fandom move in terms of medium from platforms like Yahoo groups and Livejournal to Tumblr and Twitter.  I’ve been studying fandom as a scholar since 2010 and recently completed my PhD at the University of Western Australia (Perth) on the intersections of racial/cultural/ethnic identity within these spaces. Excitingly, my thesis is being published as a monograph for the University of Iowa Press and I hope that it will be out in late 2018.

My academic work is concerned with the ways in which race/racism structures fandom and fan studies’ architecture itself. As pointed out by scholars such as Rebecca Wanzo and Kirsten Warner, this gap in the field was noted early on in John Fiske’s (1992) highly influential study of fans and their affective economies, and continues to be registered as troubling in overviews, anthologies, and keynotes. However, this acknowledgement often performs the rhetorical gesture of naming the problem only to, once again, set it aside. This strategy is enabled by the continuing conceptualization of racial identity as an additional lens to be applied to the operations of fandom rather than something that structures those operations in a fundamental and foundational manner.

Part of the way forward is for fan scholars to acknowledge that the ‘go-to’ theoretical frameworks of the field when conceptualizing fan identity and its operations actively encourage the erasure of non-white fans while highlighting issues of gender and sexuality. This is, of course, a fallacious division because these categories are never not constituted in relation to race. I argue that because fan studies does not consider whiteness as a racialized identity with specific effects, its operations on fandom structures can be presented as normative.

It is also crucial to note that this footnoting of racial/cultural/ethnic identity must not be seen as an oversight but as a consistent pattern of erasure. Rebecca Wanzo’s (2015) significant intervention into the genealogy of fan studies as a field points to the glaring whiteness of its bibliographies and the excision of the theoretical apparatuses and academic histories that do take into account the influence of race on the experience and interpretation of popular culture. Crucially, she also maintains that that the field remains silent on race/ racism because it disturbs some of its most dearly held truisms.

I want to push back against this practice while also encompassing the complex and shifting identity positions and power relations at work within media fandom’s platforms as well its individual transnational/transcultural exchanges. To accomplish this, my chosen framework is that of postcolonial cybercultural theory. To expand on this approach briefly, postcolonial cybercultural theorists examine the circulation of representational power between the Global North and South—encompassing both resistance and co-optation—within digital networks (Fernández 1999; Nayar 2008).

Looking at media fandom as an example of a postcolonial cyberspace reframes its operations as a transnational/cultural dialogic networked space that interfaces with USA and UK-centric popular cultural texts influenced by neo-liberal capitalism and neo-imperialism. At the same time, this positioning also allows a more nuanced examination of how diverse interstices of identity­—racial/cultural/ethnic identity, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc.—impact the way transformative practices are popularized within these communities.

My use of this theoretical approach has several effects. Firstly, it forces a (re)examination of these communities in terms of their relationship to media objects (that are produced under the conditions that can be termed neo/colonial). Secondly, it foregrounds the importance of their demographic makeup. And thirdly, it puts a spotlight on the unevenness of internet-mediated platforms themselves as related to geopolitical issues.

By using postcolonial theory in my work I am able to talk about the complex and often ‘messy’ interactions that non-white fans have with both popular cultural texts and the fandoms that flourish around them. Such a theoretical framework not only centers race/ethnicity/national identity in considerations of gender and sexuality but also offers a whole new set of tools to consider the operations of meaning-making within fan communities. My deployment of postcolonial cyberculture has enabled me to engage with not just individual incidents of racism in fan spaces but rather theorize their underlying enabling mechanisms. It also allows me to talk about the complexity of terms such as “fans of color” or “non-white fans” and how they are often unwieldy and enmeshed in extremely fraught conversations about authenticity and representation, yet at the same time can offer points of solidarity and coalition building within a digital space still structured by whiteness.

That is not to say there is no work being done on the area at all. Indeed, some of the most interesting recent scholarship has emerged in the field of transnational/transcultural fandoms where the source text is non-Western and often in languages other than English. This is very valuable work, especially as it destabilizes the Anglophone focus of the field. However, fan studies scholars should be cautious of this impulse that seeks to displace the workings of racial identity as most relevant and ‘obvious’ to something other than traditional media fandom studies, which is then free to tread largely familiar theoretical pathways.

In my opinion, fandom studies is currently at a crossroads where it must adopt more inclusive theoretical paradigms in order to successfully reflect on the changing nature of fandom communities. Far from being irrelevant or niche audiences, media fandom spaces are more diverse, more mainstream, more vocal, more conflicted, and more articulate about these issues than ever before. While the challenge of encapsulating the complexity of these exchanges is a daunting one, it is far from insurmountable

Along these lines I believe that the most vital issue for emerging research in the field is the insistence on decolonizing our bibliographies and our theoretical frameworks. This is hard work, especially as the burden of it often falls on younger and marginalized scholars in increasingly precarious academic systems. However, I also think that it will result in much more nuanced and valuable research going forward.

To give a concrete example of where such work is particularly necessary, I would cite the need to complicate the simplistic fangirl/boy binary that is currently a common theme in many conceptualizations of fan activity. The view that male fans participate in more easily monetized and acceptable modes of fannishness, whereas female fans are more likely to be seen as transgressive and unmanageable from a producer/marketer point of view, has gained a fair amount of currency within the discipline in recent years (Scott 2009; Stanfill 2013; Busse 2013). While it certainly holds some truth, this binary division also completely elides the differential experience of non-white male fans within these shared spaces whether online or in physical spaces like conventions. Currently, there is almost no research on this area, which I hope will be remedied soon.

Finally, I also want to underline the need to bring specificity into our descriptors when we talk about concepts such as fan ‘pleasure.’ Again, to continually defer a consideration of the ways in which whiteness structures modes of fan pleasure is—at this stage of our knowledge about fan communities—to actively participate in furthering the operations of white privilege. Relatedly, it is vital to stop the practice of using universalizing labels such as ‘transgressive’ or ‘transformative’ pleasure without explicitly naming exactly who these definitions exclude. As I have argued in my work, the meanings of descriptors like heteronormative, heteropatriarchal, escapism, and even sexual fantasy are all extremely context specific and inflected by different historical considerations. As I look forward to more scholarship in these areas, I am eager to see what other theoretical frameworks that can be brought into the conversation about contemporary fan cultures, including those of Afro-futurism, Critical Race Studies, and of course Postcolonialism.

Rebecca Wanzo


The obligatory biographical narrative about one’s own fandom in fan studies can be made without shame (allegedly), but now may not even be obligatory. Fandom coming of age as a field may now mean that the conventions of  “confession” have been eliminated, even as one’s credentials as a fan scholar require fandom. But perhaps I am overstating the disciplining characteristic of fan studies as a field?

Of course, fan studies scholars are not gatekeepers in the way of, for example, quantitative political scientists. But as someone who is at the periphery of every field I am in I recognize that the field does discipline its participants. In the end, that may be the nature of all intellectual work. My marginalization is mostly self-produced by my intellectual promiscuity—as is the case in many sites of life, interpersonal inconstancy can make building and feeling at home a complicated enterprise. But because I am peripheral I recognize how my biographical “confession” could still make me out of place, but not because I am alone in my attachments.

Some of the first fan attachments I can remember were “ships”—I longed for Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to get together with Lyle Waggoner’s bland Steve Trevor (what now seems proof mass media’s ability to push people to desire inexplicable heteronormative couplings).  I still resist the idea that Maddie and David having sex killed Moonlighting. I loved Remington Steele and Laura. And above all, I wanted Scarecrow and Mrs. King to be spies together forever.

I begin with the obligatory/non-obligatory statement of these attachments because of the ways in which I think my identity as a little black girl who loved these shows remains undertheorized in the field of fan studies, but that such attachments are also undertheorized in black cultural studies. I loved and watched The Cosby Show and was attached to what I term “proper black love objects,” and black cultural studies wants to account for that. But the fact that my relationship to popular love objects as a black person is undertheorized  in fan studies and the idea of fan was rarely engaged in black cultural studies outside of studies of hip hop plays a large role in why my work developed as it did.

Fan Studies’ Proper Objects

As someone who began my career as a literary scholar but discovered in graduate school that popular culture could be my object of study, I came at “fan studies” through non-traditional objects. My first book had a chapter that looked at Oprah Winfrey’s book club and her reading practices, and while Oprah has many “fans” she certainly was not a figure well-integrated into fan studies. I have always taught works in fan studies—not only Henry’s work, Penleys’NASA/Trek, and texts traditionally understood as part of the field, but have wanted to think about the trajectory from Charlotte Temple to Vampire Diaries. The long history of our pleasures and the relationship between genres over time is one of my major sites of intellectual interest and pedagogy.

It wasn’t until Kristen Warner invited me to be part of a panel for SCMS on fan studies that I wrote what has been considered a work properly situated in the field of fan studies. But it was also what made realize that I had been writing and not just teaching about the fan for years. My work on Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, responses to The Princess and the Frog, and anger at white illustrator Mary Engelbreit for her pro-BLM piece of art are all about fan’s textual poaching, desires, and resistance. But the questions and ideas that emerged from this work are not the kinds of ideas traditionally addressed in fan studies as a field.

If I had had a chance earlier in my education to take classes in media studies, perhaps I would have had a different intellectual trajectory. But I don’t regret it, as I think sitting outside of the field has allowed me to see how people are often talking about the same things but not talking to each other. Moreover, part of what has shaped fan studies is imagining fans as having particular objects—scholars such as Jonathan Gray have addressed this. If only certain kinds of people are fans because of the kinds of texts they like and the kinds of activities they participate in, then we miss having a thicker analysis about what attachments to popular texts actually mean in people’s lives.

I am also now working in a field that very few people pursue if they did not grow up as fans—comics studies. A few years ago Bart Beaty asked an audience at the International Comics Art Forum how many people in the audience did not grow up reading comics. I was one of two people who raised a hand.  I often write about things I love, but more often I write about work that fills me with rage or ambivalence. Anti-fandom may get at a some percentage of that kind of affective, critical work as a scholar—but there is also something interesting to be said about doing work when you are alienated from a tradition or even other people in your field. It is something people who work in feminist theory, race or ethnic studies, or popular culture often understand. The question of what such alienation can produce in terms of the questions we ask of a work, fans, or a field is worth exploring as we continue to move beyond a binary of political celebration or condemnation and struggle with rich diversity of what popular attachments look like.