The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Benjamin Woo and Katie Wilson (Pt. 2)


What fields of study, specific pieces of scholarship, or even case studies do you think fan scholars should look into to help us better address the issues of Bad Fans?


Although ostensibly defined by its object of analysis, fan studies has always been a little ambiguous about just what it’s really studying. When we say we study fandom, are we referring to individual fans’ subjective feelings of attachment for media goods, to the expressions those feelings take in fan works, or to the sociocultural practices and institutions that unite these people and things together into an intelligible (if not necessarily coherent) whole. All of them have been and remain in the mix.

But, if I haven’t tipped my hand too much already, I think that the version of fan studies that will enable us to tackle the problems you’ve identified – of bad actors within fandoms and of toxic or vicious fandoms – will plant its flag as a broadly social-scientific field, the core questions of which will be about people rather than texts. I’m not calling for naïve empiricism, but for a critically engaged, interpretive and reflexive engagement with the social worlds in which Bad Fans are operating.

For me, Pierre Bourdieu is one of the most productive thinkers to bring to bear here – not for his sociology of taste, which is how he often enters into discussions in fan studies, but for his insights into how every field of social practice is defined by a struggle over its definition and its boundaries. When I look at ComicsGate or the Rabid Puppies, what I see is white men losing the power of definition to the activism and growing market power of other fans, and that seems like textbook Bourdieu to me.

What conceptual resources have you found helpful in trying to think through these cases?


Like many fan scholars out there, I find that I spend a lot of time trying to justify my research field to peers and colleges who work outside of fan and/or media studies.  Because of this, I really try to look outside of fan studies to help support the concepts and theories that are already accepted across our field. I believe being truly interdisciplinary not only allows fan theorists to back up our research to people outside of the field, it also provides new entry points for analyzing fan communities and fan work.  I've tend to approach fan studies, and in particular the study of bad fans, through a feminist theory and psychological perspective.  The rise of the "fake geek girl" phenomenon of the 2010's really pushed me towards looking at how gender politics play out in fan spaces.  I started, however, by focusing on trying to understand who fans are, at their core, relying on psychological research to help to understand how humans form their concepts of identity. 

One piece of research that really stuck with me was a study by Patricia Obst, Lucy Zinkiewicz, and Sandy G. Smith titled "Sense of Community in Science Fiction Fandom."  In the 1990's, Obst, Zinkiewicz, and Smith conducted research on young men with interest in science fiction and found that, unlike the general population who created their strongest community bonds based on their geographic proximity to others, these young men were creating their strongest community bonds with people who shared their interests, regardless of their geographic location.  While this news isn't surprising for fans or fan scholars, it provides the empirical evidence of the importance of fandom in community and identity building.  From there, I look at why some fan identities are more privileged than others, not only within fan communities, but also in our society as a whole.  Here I find I read Judith Butler, Susan Bordo, Herman Gray, Teresa De Lauretis, and other gender, race, and ability theorists. But understanding the fans and the culture they come from is only part of the field of fan studies.  I do believe in the importance of understanding and defining fan practices, and while I value the research out there about why and how fans interact with their work, I also believe we haven't, as a field, defined fan work in a way that shows the true impact it can have on society. As passionately as we shout our evidence based and theoretically sound research up to the ivory tower, many in the academy fail to see how slash fiction or meme sharing has any real impact on our greater culture. Enter translation theory.  The field of translation studies is just about as old as the field of fan studies, and like fan studies it is an interdisciplinary field that attracts many different types of scholars.  The trend in translation studies is towards an examination of how culture plays into the act of translation, and how cultures in turn are shaped through translations.  And while some work in the field of translation studies does define translation as the literal act of word for word linguistic interpretation, the field also acknowledges the ideas of adaptation or interpretation as acts of translation.  I'm finding this line of research to be very helpful in understanding the human need to interpret and share texts across cultural divides, which I believe is at the heart of why fans create fan work.  What is most appealing about translation studies is that it leans towards the high arts, something that brings with it an air of prestige or importance.  As someone who is writing a dissertation as part of a rather traditional Humanities PhD program, this high art affiliation is helpful in expressing just how important and impactful research on fans can be. (I can recommend The Translation Studies Reader edited by Larence Venuti and a good primer into the field).  I guess to sum things up, I think it is in our best interest, as fan scholars, to continue to be both interdisciplinary and intersectional to try to understand our field from every angle and to prepare ourselves in the event that we need to defend the importance of our field to the academy. 


This is a bit of a pained segue, but your comment about how translation studies helps to understand how and why people are motivated to bridge cultural and community divides reminds me of the “aca-fan” identity that has been so central to scholarly practice in fan studies. Since the 1990s, it’s been more or less axiomatic that there’s at least practical advantages and quite likely a kind of epistemic privilege that comes from sharing the fandom of the subjects you study. When particular fan activities seem to be grounded in avowed misogyny, white nationalist sentiments, or other deplorable value sets, we as scholars can no longer lean on our insider status. Many of us—women, people of colour, queer or transgender—might not even be safe approaching them.

I conducted my fieldwork on geek culture in one Canadian city in 2010 and 2011, and while it obviously did not pre-date sexism, homophobia and racism in fan communities, it was before the various major flash points of recent years made these issues inescapable. I could still, at times anyway, take comfort in that rosy, utopian picture of fandom—indeed, I call geek culture a “real utopia” (Wright 2010) in my book! My observations and conversations gave some insight into the struggles over sexism in some fandoms since then, but I wonder if they would have been that candid even a year later. Not that anyone I spoke with was a raving sexist, but how much more guarded would people have been when a PhD student came snooping around asking questions about their community’s demographic make-up at, for instance, the height of GamerGate?


That is an excellent point, and I wish I could answer it with my own research, however I know of some upcoming work that might address this gap.  I've sat on a number of panels on fan harassment both in academic circles, as well as at fan conventions with Carrie Lynn Reinhardt of Dominican University and she conducted conversations with Twitter users who were known bullies, particularly those who were involved in GamerGate, in order to come to conclusions about how problems in communication contribute to harassment and what she calls "fractured fandom".  She is currently working on a book on the topic that I think would be a very interesting companion to your book.

To your comment about the dangers of being in a demographic group that faces increased harassment in fan spaces, It is a concern that we as fan scholars need to do better about addressing.  Fan conventions and websites have stepped up, enacting strict anti-harassment policies, but we know that much of the harassment comes online in one-to-one, avatar-to-avatar situations.  These singular stories are not being told.  Much of the research coming out about fan harassment (my own work included) tends to look at the high-profile cases, such as Anita Sarkeesian, but we should be attempting to raise the concerns of the everyday fans who are being marginalized from their own fandom due to their identity.  Again, I think academic and community outreach are the solution to this issue.  Academic outreach in the form of interdisciplinary forums with psychologists, elementary and secondary educators, and coders.  I've engaged in a few of these events and found that sociologists, psychologists, and education scholars are particularly intrigued by our field. They see the trend in harassment and even violence in fan circles and are looking for solutions.

But community outreach should also be conducted, to help provide safer spaces for the public to talk about their own experiences.  Three years ago at C2E2, Chicago's popular culture convention, I was on a panel talking about fan harassment and while the event began like an academic roundtable, it quickly turned into a cathartic experience for members of the crowd to share their own stories of discrimination.  This type of open communication allowed myself and my fellow presenters to establish ourselves as aca-fans in a space that produced case studies and contacts that might otherwise be difficult to acquire because of inability to find that audience or fear as to the motivations behind gathering the information.  Sure, the barrier of a IRB still looms, but I do think it helps to break down some of the issues we face in this brave new fan frontier.  Moreover, it gave the fans a voice and permission to speak on things that many people are too afraid or too ashamed to share.  However, I do think there is a lot that can be gathered from analyzing fan comments, fan work, and fan activities.  We can look for trends in the type of fan materials being made to give us insights into experiences that fans are facing.  Whether that be protest signs that also display objects of their fandom, morphing fan works to activate political interest, or even the increased media attention around fan reactions to controversial content.


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