The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Benjamin Woo & Katie Wilson (Pt. 1)

The following is a conversation between Benjamin Woo, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism at Carleton University and author of the book Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018) and Katie Wilson, Adjunct Professor of film at Harry S. Truman College, PhD Candidate from University of Louisville, and author of “Red Pillers, Sad Puppies, and Gamergaters: The State of Male Privilege in Internet Fan Communities” from A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies.  Benjamin and Katie both have an interest in what they call “bad fans,” particularly fans who are bullies, conduct harassment, and partake in violent activities.  After reading selections of each other’s works they exchanged the following.

Benjamin Woo:

For those of us raised on a previous generation’s fandom studies, the last few years have been a rude awakening. We were promised utopian communities that create and sustain alternative values and practices that evade and subvert the power of dominant social groups. Instead, as Katie argues in her chapter from the recent Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies (Wilson 2018), online fan communities have become breeding grounds for a particularly virulent anti-feminist backlash and, more recently, for the white supremacist and neo-fascist movements associated with the so-called alt-right.

Although these problems have been clearest in stereotypically male “geek” communities of gamers, comic book fans, and readers of sci-fi literature (rather than viewers of sci-fi television), it would be a mistake to retreat into the comfort of the No True Scotsman fallacy, using normative definitions of fandom to disavow these angry white men as something other than fans or safely quarantine them in the category of merely “affirmational” fandom. This is the kind of hand-waving that got us into trouble in the first place.

I stumbled into fandom studies when I wanted to explore the social contexts of comic-book consumption, which eventually led me to the larger geek media ecosystem. It often feels as though my work falls in between the two fields – too focused on people for comics studies, but interested in the wrong people for fandom studies. Indeed, one of the anonymous readers who reviewed my latest book, Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture, commented that its focus on principally “in real life” spaces like comic book and game stores that are conventionally associated with male fandoms was unusual and novel. The review was, I hasten to add, constructive, and the book benefited from it immensely. Yet the idea that we should be surprised that fan studies theory had something to say about geek culture – or vice versa – is itself surprising.

Suffice it to say that a great deal of fan activity sits uncomfortably with what Cornell Sandvoss (2005) has called fan studies’ “dominant discourse of resistance” and the presumptions it has tended to make about who fans are. For example, my students often find the theoretically derived conceptions of fan and fandom bewildering and alienating because they seem so distant from the universe of media-oriented practices that those words name in ordinary language. Similarly, we can see in Gamergate and Comicsgate, in the “fake geek girl” debacle, and in the packs of Sad and Rabid Puppies hounding the Hugo Awards, other forms of community-making around media, if ones with which many of us are personally uncomfortable for obvious reasons.

Understanding these cases of “bad fans” seems to me the most pressing and immediate task for our community. They represent both a productive challenge to received theories and paradigms and an opportunity to conclusively answer the “so what?” questions that have dogged the field by speaking into a genuine societal crisis. A quarter century of fandom studies have taught us important lessons about people’s relationships with media, but the slippage between certain fan communities and practices and fandom writ large has produced significant exclusions. For instance, as media companies increasingly adopt the surface appearance of progressive politics and celebrities court fan artists’ attention, the reactionary and regressive fans that produced a “de-feminized” cut of The Last Jedi are arguably the ones taking up a transformative posture. So, as Sandvoss (2005, 15) argues, there is a pressing “need to explore under which circumstances, and against whom, fandom constitutes a form of resistance,” a need for – to paraphrase Stuart Hall (1983) – a fandom studies without guarantees.

Katie Wilson:

As fan scholars, we have fought hard over the past decades to make the case that fan activity and fan work is an important field of study.  In the 1990’s scholars helped to define the activities and motivations of fan communities (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Jenkins, 1992; Lewis, 1992; Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998).  In the 2000’s, the rise of participatory media allowed fan scholars to examine the effect that fan work can have on the media industry and popular culture as a whole (Hills, 2002; Sandvoss, 2005; Booth, 2010; Ito et al., 2012; Hellekson and Busse, 2014).  Now, as fan studies enters into adulthood, we look to see how fandom transcends the media it revolves around.  Harry Potter fans are famous for taking inspiration from the Harry Potter story and raising money and awareness for charities and causes in line with the ethics of the series (Hamilton and Sefel, 2015).  Political demonstrations like the Woman’s March on Washington in 2017 and 2018 are flooded with images of Princess Leia, Hermione Granger, and Wonder Woman linking these fictional characters to larger issues of equality and progress.  And while many, many fans are translating the objects of their fandom and fan communities into the real world in order to make the world a better place, there are others who are using the objects of the fandom and their fan communities to bring about discord and hate. As Benjamin said in his opening statement, we can no longer ignore this trend in fan studies.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve noticed that more and more fan scholars are turning their research to the topic of “bad fans.” There is infighting within fan communities that leads to harassment and abuse (see CarrieLynn Reinhard’s work on Fractured Fandom), most notably in the form of the GamerGate controversy and the Sad Puppies of the Hugo Awards.  But I believe that fan scholars also need to look outside of fan communities, looking for the places in which fans are being commodified for social or political purposes. 

We are familiar with the idea that fans are turned into commodities; Mark Duffett gives examples of that in Understanding Fans:

In an internet age, businesses rely on fans’ social exchanges and amateur production to create the content that attracts audiences for the advertisers who sponsor Websites.  Fans also make attempts – sometimes welcome or invited – to directly intervene in the production process of broadcast media. Personally and collectively, they are used as part of many cultural events, for example, as crowds at rock concerts or film premiers, so they have become an essential part of the show” (22).

We’ve tended to look at how fans are being used as commodities to sell a product like a film, video game, television show, sports team, music group, or work of fiction. I believe it is time to look at how fan communities, organized around media products, are now being used as commodities to sell something else: ideology. 

By now it is widely reported that right wing talking heads like Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos specifically targeted video game fans in order to gain momentum for their political agendas (Bernstein 2017; Snider, 2017).  Monopolizing on the connection and comradery of online fan communities allowed Bannon and Yiannopoulos to spread their ideology quickly and effectively through certain communities, playing on the trust and shared identity of these fans.  As a discipline, we celebrate the fact that fans can have an impact on world, that their activities help to create added meaning or interpretation of media texts.  Both Benjamin and I seem to share the same belief when it comes to fan works, that they are not necessarily secondary or lesser than the source material that inspires them. As Benjamin said, “it is a relatively short move from imaginatively re-writing to just plain writing” (182). 

There is a theory in the field of translation studies that elevates the act of translation from an afterthought to an important and transformative step in the initial production of written text (Simon, 1996). It is my belief that fan activities are a form of translation, a way of interpreting and expressing a text so that it is culturally and linguistically relevant to a specific audience.  I believe it is time for fan scholars to start looking at fan works not as their own insular piece of media, but rather as the final step of the writing process, the translation of the original text.  Through this translation, fans are able to imbue new meaning into the source material, sometimes changing the original meaning of that material.  Take, for instance, the meme Pepe The Frog, once used as a benign reaction meme, shared and repurposed across the internet. However, the image is now listed as a symbol of hate by the Anti-Defamation League thanks to the prolonged use of the image by Alt-Right internet groups.  The creator of Pepe, Matt Furie, did not intend for this new meaning to be placed upon his work, and is even suing media companies that help sell this new translated meaning of Pepe.  Whatever the outcome, Pepe will never be what it once was, and all because it was translated by a community. To paraphrase Benjamin, it is a relatively short move from Matt Furie’s Pepe to Alex Jones’s Pepe. As fan scholars, we must always remember that as much as fans can use their powers for good, fans also have the power to permanently change the meanings of source material to reflect an unintended ideology of hate. 

And just as I believe that we need to start looking at how fans and fan work are being commodified outside of the media field, I also believe we as fan scholars need to move outside of the academic field.  I take inspiration from academics like Todd Gitlin and his call in The Intellectuals and the Flag when I say that we as fan scholars need to move beyond just studying “bad fans” and work towards addressing their actions in the real world using our research and our creative brains to attempt to create positive change.