The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Ruth Deller and Lucy Bennett (Pt. 1)

Ruth Deller

I'm a Reader in Media and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I initially became involved in fan studies doing my undergraduate degree. I was studying a module on popular music with Josie Robson (whose PhD on female fans in the local music scene is well worth a read) and we were able to develop a project of our own choosing for coursework. As a fan on various mailing lists for TV shows and pop bands, I was interested in these online communities.  I analysed and compared 6 e-mailing lists for different pop acts (this was back in 1999-2000) - some artists I was fans of, some not. I forget exactly who they all were, but the two most interesting fan lists were around singer Cliff Richard and group Belle and Sebastian.

I expanded this study in my undergraduate dissertation, looking at these two communities in more detail, as they operated across various sites: email lists, official and unofficial fan forums, newsgroups, fan websites and chat rooms - and offline. I was fascinated by how the populations and community norms altered depending on the platform, the object of fandom and the age of the fans. It was through this that I came across the work of people like Nancy Baym, Lisa Lewis (and everyone in that Adoring Audience collection), John Tulloch, Henry and so on.  When I returned to academia in 2006 to do my MA and PhD (not in fan studies, though they both had audience studies elements), the field had grown substantially!

When finishing my PhD, I wanted to research other areas and was drawn back to fan studies.  It was a decade since my undergraduate dissertation, so I revisited the two fan communities to see how they had changed in the era of social media and streaming. From that, I began to look at fans from a range of different areas - primarily soap opera, games and pop music.  I've also written and presented on more general topics, such as ethics in fan studies (I am a member of the ethics committee at SHU) and the way internet fandoms have changed as social media has developed. I've also taken part as a 'talking head' in a few documentaries about fans, which is quite fun.

My research in general is very broad and I would consider myself a media scholar more than a fan studies scholar.  However, fan studies is something I get asked to write or comment on quite a lot and I love working in this area.  Coming from a British Cultural Studies background, my research and teaching have always been infused with issues of identity, representation, social justice and equality, and that's a big part of what I find interesting about fan studies, particularly as a lot of its ethos has been about de-stigmatisation.   I'm also endlessly fascinated by the ever-shifting dynamics in the relationships between fans/audiences, producers, texts, celebrities and technologies. 

I really enjoyed contributing to your recent edited collection on fan representations, Lucy.  There is still so much to be said about this area, especially as it's so often connected to wider social issues and to identity politics.  It's something I find comes up so much in my teaching - not only on explicitly 'fan' related topics, but when we consider issues such as moral panics and all of the fantastic work in the late 20th century on how panics around things like music subcultures or football violence not only stigmatised fans, but had legal, political and cultural consequences.

As has been a running theme across many of these conversations, I am glad fan studies is acknowledging its history as being incredibly white and largely restricted to a small number of nations. It's good to see more international approaches and work from, and about, people of colour, though I think there is still some way to go here. In particular, I think there's still a lack of visibility of scholars of colour as 'figureheads' in the discipline. Lucy - I'd be interested to hear how you have found handling that issue in terms of the Fan Studies Network and arranging keynotes etc.

Currently, I am thinking a lot about masculinities in fandom. I noticed with my students that, whilst they have become much more accepting of things like female fans shipping male celebrities or characters than they were even five or six years ago, they still have strongly negative reactions to phenomena such as 'Bronies', as well as to the reported male fan outrage over things like the Ghostbusters reboot or Jodie Whittaker's casting in Doctor Who. I was struck by the conversations on this blog about Star Wars recently and Billy Proctor's thoughts on some of the stereotypes of the 'butt hurt' fan boy. And then there are phenomena such as 'GamerGate' and the 'Sad Puppies' that others have mentioned in these conversations.

As has been noted many times, there have been aspects of fandom that have felt very exclusionary towards women (as well as many that have been female centric) and it's brilliant that some of this toxic behaviour is being called out and challenged. I think the wider debate around areas such as #metoo is long, long overdue, as well as there finally being at least a minimal acknowledgement of the way male characters, creatives and performers have often dominated many genres and fields. I am loving the impetus towards more women, people of colour, queer people and people with disabilities being heard and seen.

However, it seems to me that there is a moment of confusion in the media imagining of male fans that I think fan studies could probably speak to.  There are many long-standing stereotypes around male fans: as violent (living in Sheffield, the Hillsborough disaster is never far from my thoughts); as pasty 'sad' bespectacled trainspotters; as weirdos with presumed bizarre sexual fetishes - and now this very familiar idea of the 'butt-hurt fanboy' as these basement-dwelling, ugly and overweight dorks who can't get a girl, have failed at life and want to ruin things for everyone else.

I don't really know what the 'answer' is here, or even if there is one - but I keep thinking about it as I teach and research.  I've been working on a few things recently about social justice and the ways women and LGBTQ+ people have been represented in particular in these areas - but challenging patriarchy and heteronormativity has to be about dismantling and reformulating masculinities as much as making different forms of womanhood or queerness visible.

I'm certainly not suggesting that male fans have it harder than women (look at the number of self-confessed fan boys who are major film directors, screenwriters and show runners, for example), nor that sexist, racist and other forms of toxic behaviour within fandoms should not be called out - it's essential to repeatedly raise these issues until we see systemic change.  However, I think there is also work to be done on really interrogating existing notions of male fandom. And, with no disrespect to my straight, white, male (and often bespectacled!) acafan colleagues, I suspect the voices of gay/queer men and men of colour are vital here in broadening these horizons. 

Oh, and I'm aware I'm raising race, nationality and masculinity in a discussion between two white British women, but this is where my thoughts are taking me lately!

Lucy Bennett

Like you, Ruth, I also had my interest in fan studies sparked when I was an undergraduate student. I was lucky enough to have been taught by Will Brooker, who was then a PhD student, writing his thesis on Batman. Having that exposure to a popular culture text being examined in such a way really set the course for me, and my understandings of what was possible. Initially, my ambition was to become a music journalist. I had become a big fan of music when I was six years old (Madonna and Wham! were my clear favourites), and even back then I was an avid reader of music magazines, such as Smash Hits.  However, through studying my BA and Masters degrees, I realised that academic writing was the path that resonated most strongly with me. It also helped that for my Masters I was supervised by Matt Hills, who was then about to publish his book, Fan Cultures. This also led me to Henry’s Textual Poachers, which also opened up a wonderful whole new world for me. I haven’t looked back since!

It was during my Masters in Journalism Studies (and doing my dissertation on R.E.M.) in the early 00’s, that I realised that I could still write about music, my biggest passion, but from an academic angle. And the convergence between music fandom and digital culture in particular was something that really captivated me. There was such an exciting feeling that the new technology, and the Internet in particular, was having quite a curious and largely unknown impact upon both musicians and fans. Undertaking my PhD a few years later, I chose to expand some of the areas that I had explored during my Masters dissertation, and focus my thesis on the band R.E.M. and their digital fandom. They were (and still are) my favourite band, and I was already a crew member/moderator of their unofficial forum, Murmurs. I wanted to examine in particular how the community maintained normative standards online, and how members who did not fit these standards (in other words, the “right” way to be a fan in the community) were approached and regarded. I really enjoyed doing this, and was hugely inspired by work from Nancy Baym, Mark Duffett, and Daniel Cavicchi. All three writers still impress and excited me with their scholarship on music fans.

After my PhD I consciously made the decision to study a fan subject and culture that I was not a fan of. Although it was beneficial in many respects studying a band I had an emotional connection to and deep knowledge of (and also had met many occasions personally), I wanted to be free from this affective pull, which had arose for me in particular during the publication process. In 2012 I decided to undertake a study on Lady Gaga fans and political and activist engagement, which I found extremely interesting. Entering a fan culture as an outsider was not without its difficulties and limitations, but was still a refreshing change! Since then, I have furthered my music fandom studies, focusing on the use (and rejection) of digital technology during live concerts, the use of Twitter by musicians and fans, and collective remembering via social media. My next steps within fan studies will aim to continue the focus on music fandom, and also political engagement and fandom.

In 2012 I started the Fan Studies Network, together with my co-chair, Tom Phillips, and receive support from board members Bertha Chin, Bethan Jones, Richard McCulloch, and Rebecca Williams. I really like to help people as much as I can, and I had had a dream for many years to start a network that would forge connections between people around the world, and somehow make people feel less alone.  We’re having our sixth annual conference this summer in Cardiff, and it’s an academic environment I’m so happy and fortunate to be a part of.

I’m currently working as a lecturer at the school of Journalism, Media, and Culture at Cardiff University, Wales, UK. I started in this permanent position October last year, after seven years of being hourly paid and on very short-term contracts. It was very difficult at times, but focusing on something like the Fan Studies Network, and being inspired by so much fantastic work being produced in the field, really helped keep my spirits up.

Like you, Ruth, I also view myself as a media scholar, rather than just fan studies. Fan studies will always remain hugely important to me, but In the last couple of years, my work has expanded to focus not just on fans, but also citizens and the media, and how they engage with public opinion, and are represented – for example, through letters to the editor pages in newspapers. To me, it is not such a huge leap from fans to citizens, since very often there is a key issue or person there being discussed (for example, in letters – which could be about issues such as elections or politics) that can provoke affective responses.  Thinking more squarely about fans and the media, there have not been many studies that explore how fans are represented, especially in the newspaper media. This is what sparked the interest of myself and Paul Booth to edit Seeing Fans. I found your chapter in the collection so compelling, Ruth. I’d not read a study like this before, which not only documented media coverage of fans, but of older female fans. It really interests to me to see how certain discourses and images become circulated in the media, as they can often give some compelling insights into society. I recently did a study for Paul Booth’s forthcoming Wiley Blackwell companion, examining ten years of coverage of fans in the British newspapers. Sports fandom dominated and it fascinated me to see how this form of fandom was covered, as the fans in those instances were portrayed as quite powerful individuals – being able to express their anger physically at events, and often discussed by managers and players as individuals they did not want to let down. It definitely opened up a new area of fandom that I had not considered so strongly before, and I do wish there was more dialogue between sports and media forms of fandom. 

Moving on from, but still connect to my above point, the insular aspects of fan studies has been something that has been on my mind very much. I agree that it is critically important, and much needed, to see more work from and about people of colour, and I’m utterly with you on the factor that much more needs to be done here. We do need more scholars of colour, and more diverse voices, as figureheads. To me, it is concerning that many of the fan studies figureheads are white males (however brilliant they are!), when that does not accurately reflect the overall, and growing, dynamics of the field.

It is something that the Fan Studies Network is conscious of, as we want to give opportunities to those that would really benefit from it, especially in a keynote slot, and try to help broaden who is seen as a figurehead. Most years we have had two keynotes, with one always being female. For us, the main issue is funding, since we have none! The event each year funds itself and covering international travel is not possible. However, it is something that we seek to address. That is one of the beauties of running a yearly conference -  a new crop of voices and keynotes each year.

Finally, your thoughts about masculinities and fandom I found very interesting. This is something that has been on my mind lately also. Last semester I taught a module called Media and Gender, that touched upon these issues, mainly from a feminism and media standpoint. I was lucky to have really excellent students who engaged with the material well, and we had some fascinating discussions about the convergence of gender and the media. Although there is much obviously to be said about femininity and the media, I do agree that masculinity is also compelling and needs more unravelling, especially in the current landscape we are in. Just as female fans are placed into their rigid confines, we can often view similarly restrictive representations of male fans. I find it fascinating. In the media content analysis that I mentioned above that I undertook, male fans were portrayed with a stronger negative slant that female fans, who were presented as more dimensional. However, the female fans were simultaneously more invisible and absent. So we have an interesting landscape where gender is quite restrictive across a breadth of areas. Whether it’s invisibility, or a one-dimensional voice. I think either factor does not help. Consequently, I would like to see more research in this area. More interrogation of our restricted understandings or notions of gender, race, and perhaps even what are constituted as fan objects worthy of analysis (I think it could be much broader). Overall, I think fan studies is producing some amazing work, and has come so far, but there is still so much yet that demands exploring. And this makes me very excited.