The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Bethan Jones and Melanie Kohnen (Pt. 1)

Bethan Jones

I talked recently, in an article I co-wrote with Simone Driessen, about my early fannishness and my efforts to actively become-a-fan in the same way my friends at school were. I loved music, but it was the wrong sort of music - Elton John and Meatloaf while the girls at school were talking about Take That or New Kids on The Block. I tried forcing that fannish affect by putting Take That posters on my walls but I felt no connection to them. Try as I might I couldn’t make myself be a fan. In 1993/94, though, I fell into fandom in a big way. 1993 saw Boyzone hit the pop scene and all of a sudden this was the band I’d been waiting for! I fell completely and utterly in love with them and soon I was collecting merchandise, knowledge and experiences.

Then, a year later, The X-Files aired in the UK and I found my second fandom. One of my friends in school also watched the show, and my English teacher loved it, so suddenly I had two fandoms, both shared with other people. In the same way as I had with Boyzone I collected X-Files posters and books, taped the episodes off the telly and made detailed notes about episode titles and air dates. But unlike my music fandom, the engagement I had with The X-Files was somehow more. It was my first acafandom, and certainly the first fandom that introduced me to new ways of thinking about the text. One of my teachers introduced me to fan fiction as part of an English class. When I first used the internet, on a school trip in 1998, the first thing I looked up, on AOL, was The X-Files. There I found groups dedicated to the show and other people, around the world, talking about my favourite FBI agents. When we got the internet at home I joined the BBC cult messageboards where I talked about the series and wrote and posted fanfiction. My fandom waned, to an extent, when I moved away to university although I worked The X-Files into my third year philosophy dissertation. It was when I joined Facebook I really rediscovered my love for the show, and an enthusiastic online fandom. I joined numerous groups, which led me to LiveJournal where I began writing and posting fanfic as well as meta. I went to the London premiere of I Want To Believe in 2008 with friends I’d met on Facebook because of the show, and my involvement in the fandom on LiveJournal – especially writing meta and discussing why fans reacted to characters in certain ways – led me to apply for a PhD.

Initially, like a lot of people who are new to fan studies I think, I was interested in fanfic. In particular I wanted to know why fans treated Diana Fowley one way, and Scully another, when both were treated badly on the show. Fans’ hatred of Fowley led to my growing interest in anti-fandom, and my research has moved away from fanfic, though I’ve published a fair amount on it. Looking at my research over the last 8 years I think anti-fandom, hatred and toxicity have featured predominantly in one way or another. I talk about anti-fandom and links to #gamergate in Paul Booth’s A Companion to Fandom and Fan Studies; Fifty Shades of Grey and anti-fandom as subcultural gatekeeping in Melissa Click’s Hate and Anti-Fandom in the Digital Age; and fanagement of unhappy Walking Dead fans in an upcoming issue of Participations. Increasingly I’m interested in fan/producer relationships and the power struggles that occur between and amongst fans, fans and producers, and fans and other fans. Although I completely understand the need for initial work in fan studies to focus on the positive aspects of fandom, it’s the darker side that really interests me. And I think work on this continues to be necessary. Fandom isn’t all community and sharing. These are a key aspect of it, of course, and on a personal level I’ve made amazing friendships through X-Files fandom and met some of the most generous people. But I’ve also seen the arguments, the breakdowns, the aggression and it’s important for us as researchers to engage in this. I think given the current political climate we also have a responsibility to situate fan studies within a larger social and cultural context. Fans don’t exist in a vacuum and I don’t think fan studies can – or should – either.

Melanie Kohnen

My interest in Fan Studies is Laura Mulvey’s fault. As a grad student, reading “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” left me frustrated because it didn’t seem to have room for queer spectators and “seeing queerly.” I began working on an essay about “seeing queerly” and a friend pointed me toward Television Without Pity’s Smallville board—the rest, as they say, is history. My first-ever publication addressed queer spectatorship in Smallville fandom, and the topic of queer media visibility became the focus of my first book. I’ve remained interested in the intersection of Queer and Fan Studies since then. Currently, I investigate this intersection through a Media Industries Studies lens to better understand how fans and industry wrestle with often divergent ideas about queerness (and gender and race) in the media. I have written about fan-industry relationships from a variety of angles, including the gendered appeals of transmedia marketing campaigns (in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom), the possibilities of “Tumblr pedagogies” in which fans on Tumblr teach each other about social justice and diverse representations in the media (in A Companion to Fandom and Fan Studies), and the parallels in the informal and formal distribution of queer Australian sitcom Please Like Me, which circulated via fans on Tumblr and on the now-defunct U.S. digital cable channel Pivot (in Transformative Works and Cultures). I have also spent the last five years researching San Diego Comic-Con, specifically the blogging culture around SDCC. “Con-bloggers” provide advice on how to gain access to tickets, hotels, and panels. Con-bloggers’ intense focus on strategies for mastering SDCC’s spaces and schedules challenges the idea that fans’ only interest at SDCC is the promotional material provided by the media industry.

Based on my SDCC research in particular, I want to spend more time parsing the normalization of fan identities in/by the media industry and the performance of fan and industry identities. As others have discussed, “being a fan” has been mainstreamed and championed by the media industry in a way that makes previously subcultural fan practices widely available yet also underlines hegemonic identities (white, male, affirmational, consumerist). As this normalization develops, both industry and fans perform specific identities for the other to achieve certain goals: the industry performs a celebration of fans with the end goal of brand loyalty and profit while fans perform affirmational identities in exchange for access and recognition. Yet the fan part of this performance always strikes me as partial and potentially calculated: especially in spaces like SDCC, fans may perform in the way the industry desires, but outside of them, they may engage in practices that are not in alignment with industry goals (refusing the incentive to consume more, for example). I have only begun to think about this, but it strikes me as important avenue for further investigation.