The State of Fandom Studies: Lori Morimoto and Sanghita Shresthova (Part 2)


This issue of the politics of transnational (and transcultural) fandom is one that I keep coming back to, particularly for how little it tends to figure in what we might call normative fan studies. The example you give of the uncomfortable clash of fannish and state interests and imperatives in popular culture consumption seems analogous to, in the case of my own experience, the mass media discourse of an almost utopian East Asian regionalism that first arose around Hong Kong film fandom, then continued with the first wave of Korean popular culture fandom in Japan; particularly when the latter dovetailed with the Asian Economic Crisis and growing regional political tensions, provoking a harsh and unequivocally nationalistic backlash towards both South Korean media and its Japanese fans.

Your observation of the complex power dynamics of transnational fandom also puts me in mind of the ways that state and corporate-sponsored nation branding and soft power imperatives intersect with fandom. This is something I’ve been trying to suss out through two theoretical frameworks: Mary Louise Pratt’s theory of ‘contact zones’ and Anthony Giddens’s work on ontological security. Put simply, if we start from the assumption that present-day online fandoms (and, increasingly, offline fandoms as well) are emblematic of contact zones, defined by Pratt as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they lived out in many parts of the world today” (1991: 34), and that our fandoms are one way in which we create and sustain a sense of stability and meaning in our lives through “a shared - but unproven and unprovable - framework of reality, the question of what happens to one’s sense of ontological security when it’s destabilized within the contact zones of transnational and transcultural fandoms is, I think, a potent point from which to both interrogate those ‘highly asymmetrical relations of power’ and - critically - imagine how such clashes might be resolved. (As an aside, I have an essay in Paul Booth’s forthcoming A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies that looks at this in more detail.)

I’ve been frustrated in the past with work on transnational fandoms that identifies power asymmetries but does little to address them beyond warning against complicity with institutional imperatives. Not only does it replicate the moral binary of resistance/complicity we’ve seen in fan studies of the past, but it makes it too easy to overlook where changes - however incremental and incomplete - do take place. This is where I see the value of looking at micro-clashes within transcultural and transnational fandoms with an eye to theories of contact zones and ontological security. If we can recognize a transcultural conflict for what it is - a clash of different and sometimes asymmetrical cultural norms and expectations - it’s easier, I think, to imagine a way out, if we choose to do so.  

To give a brief example of what I’m talking about, there was a recent cultural clash in one of my own fandoms over a Japanese fan’s drawing of a popular character in a Nazi uniform that was posted to Twitter. This fan’s general awareness that Twitter knows no national boundaries was implicit in her note that the drawing was not intended as a realistic depiction of Nazis, but was simply focused on the aesthetics of the uniform. However, this note was posted in Japanese, making it only partly effective at best. Moreover, the European fans who objected to the artwork were clear that they understood both that Nazi uniforms are something of a common trope in some East Asian fan art (there’s a new article out about just this thing in the context of cosplay, in fact), and that Japanese fans undoubtedly had a different understanding of Naziism than Europeans. Ultimately, the tweet was taken down by the poster, presumably in response to voiced complaints.

As much as the transcultural politics of the clash, it’s this response that I’m interested in as an example of how we might imagine moving through and beyond such clashes. The calculus here is fairly generalizable: cultural norm A clashes with cultural experience B, in which the ‘norm’ often (but not always) has the upper hand in terms of power over the more specific experience that goes against it. From there, certain choices are possible: ignore the clash and continue as if the norm holds (keep the art posted); withdraw altogether from contact zone (leave the fandom; retreat to a walled community of the like-minded); rationalize the norm (as something ‘we’ do in our culture); argue against the complaint through the norm; and discuss and rethink the norm. In the case of this fan art, the poster publicly performed the last option in heeding criticism and removing the tweet (although it’s difficult to know how strongly complaints were worded, on a spectrum from vehemence to vitriol, which would further shift the power dynamics of this clash). In so doing, she recognized and acquiesced to a cultural claim that she deemed more important or valid than the naturalized cultural context within which she produced the piece - an option not only within the clash of transcultural and transnational fandoms, but in asymmetrical political and cultural clashes writ large.

Returning to the beginning of this round, I wonder what this kind of perspective on transcultural fandoms might tell us about fan studies - where it is now, and where it’s going? If there’s something we might call ‘normative’ fan studies - English language, centered on Anglo-American media and/or fan cultures, overwhelmingly white - what happens when it bumps up against non-normative scholarship in the contact zones of academic conferences and journals? My own experience is that we’ve been far too easy to overlook and ignore, on the (perceived) basis that such work isn’t relevant to the mainstream of fan studies; so I wonder what might happen if fan studies, as an ostensible community, engaged more openly and directly in discussing (and addressing) our own assumptions?


Wow, you gave me  a lot to think about. Your use of Giddens’s “ontological zones” and Pratt’s theory of "contact zones” is extremely helpful in peeling back the layers of transnational fandom to reveal how structures of power collide with the affective and interpersonal experiences of being a fan. Given my focus on Bollywood, I have also found applying the work of post-colonial scholars (Edward Said, Partha Chatterjea, Stuart Hall, Franz Fanon in particular) to be also extremely helpful in understanding how the pleasures of content worlds can map onto, but also up end, transnational media flows and how these dynamics yield complicated remappings of power distribution.

In the past, I looked at how Bollywood dance, a dance genre that emerged out a fannish engagement with song-and-dance sequences in Hindi films, became a globally recognizable dance form. I was particularly interested in how dancers used the films as source material in localized contexts and how the meanings created through their performances shifted from site to site.

More recently, I have started to pursue two interconnected strands of research that focus on transnational “clashes” (borrowing your phrasing here) more explicitly. The first strand grapples with how Bollywood flashmobs (created locally for online/transnational circulation) expand my earlier understanding of Bollywood as a localized practice and complicate the meanings and communities supported through such performances. In particular, I am interested in whether the creation performance for circulation through social media supports imagining Bollywood dance communities and if so how this imagination is negotiated.

The second strand engages with, what has long been the “elephant in the room” in my work on transnational Bollywood dance, namely: how the content world of Hindi cinema affect contestation around Bollywood inspired performances as normative and resistant interpretations of song-and-dance sequences collide, particularly as these performances move towards more explicit engagement with civic and political issues.

A case in point was Jennifer Davis’s Bollywood themed performance at the 2018 Miss America Contest. Though she is not ethnically Indian (or South Asian), Davis chose to perform a Bollywood dance during the competition because she saw it as symbolic of her commitment to diversity (an understanding that would be consistent with how Bollywood dance is often performed in spaces celebrating American multiculturalism). Her performance was immediately criticized by viewers who felt her performance was “cultural appropriation” and insulting to Indian traditions. To me the debate that ensued, and the limits it sought to place on what is or isn’t appropriate when it comes to Bollywood dance in performance, drove home how contested Bollywood dance has become in the United States in the current political moment. I feel the discussion we have been having here will actually be very helpful to me as I continue to unpack this, and other similar, instances in Bollywood dance fandom.

In a roundabout way, this brings me back to the questions you raise about fan studies, as an evolving field. As someone who focuses on a fannish practice that is largely performative and rooted in an Indian (through very transnational) content worlds, I have generally felt marginalized within the mainstream of this field, where the conversations always felt relevant, but not fully connected to the work I do. This has been compounded by the fact that the (largely) young people I study do not self identify as fans, they often identify first and foremost as dancers. As such my analysis necessarily has to draw heavily on dance scholarship to understand how meaning is created through inter-cultural choreography and performance. I actually think that performance and dance analysis has a lot to offer when it comes to understanding transnational fandom that is not text based and is not premised on a particular verbal literacy.

I also feel that the questions we have discussed here in the context of transnational fandom have a lot to offer to the mainstream of fan studies, and it is my hope that there will be a broader recognition of this as the field continues to expand and grow.


Reading this, I feel like the questions you're working through intersect with mine in really productive ways; that is, we're circling around certain ideas that might be constitutive of transnational and transcultural fan studies as a sub (sub?) discipline. Your interest the localization (and associated politics) of Bollywood dance overlaps in some ways with the role of what Bertha Chin and I (borrowing from Matt Hills) have talked about as "transcultural homology" (99) in the formation and localization of border-crossing fandoms. It's interesting to me that both our approaches to localization and the various tensions it sometimes provokes or gets implicated in seem almost like a counter-current to long-standing (if evolving) fan studies explorations of fandoms as coherent, discrete, and communal phenomena.

Similarly, I feel like the transdisciplinary approach you take towards Bollywood dance is emblematic of the methodological concerns specific to transnational and transcultural fan studies - one that I'd be interested to see taken up in 'normative' fan studies. When you're talking about practices that don't map neatly onto existing theoretical and methodological paradigms, the researcher herself must assume what we might (probably painfully) call a trans-scholarly perspective. I would tentatively argue that such a perspective eschews linear progression and associations for the more lateral work of seeking out affinities across academic disciplines and practices, as a means of stepping outside existing paradigms and frameworks in trying to make visible what's often relegated to the periphery of fan studies.

I really appreciate being able to read about your experiences as someone who has both lived and conducts research in the liminal cultural spaces of nation and ethnicity, scholarship, and fandom. And thanks so much to Henry for this opportunity to talk about stuff that spends most of its time just rattling around in my head!


I agree. This has been great. I really learned a lot and look forward to continuing to think through this material. I am happy to have met you, Lori!