I think the idea of being a fan of fandom itself is a really interesting one and it certainly resonates with me. I’m an admirer of those who are able to get involved in communities and make those connections, but always from a slight distance. I also think your point about the importance of considering hierarchies here is crucial - there is as you point out a tendency for people to frequently distance themselves from ‘other’ fans, people who are more invested or more involved can easily be positioned as distinct from us. But sites like Comic Cons offer some fascinating opportunities to consider how this works. There’s been a great deal of debate about how far fandom has been ‘mainstreamed’ and it’s clear that companies like Disney and their use of Marvel and Star Wars, for example, have really targeted fans in recent years. But I think we run the risk sometimes of making the argument that everyone is a fan or ‘fannish’ and so I wonder whether this is a potential issue too? If we start to look at people who may not identify as fans per se, but who are clearly behaving in fannish ways, then how can Fan Studies draw a line? Or should we even try? Does defining who fans are and what they do even matter as much any more?
I do think we run the risk of allowing fan studies (and cultural sentiment) to move toward a generalized “everyone is a fan!” perspective, and the inevitable fallout from that – if everyone is a fan, then no one is. But at the same time, I am uncomfortable ascribing an identity to someone who resists it, even when their behaviors indicate otherwise. I don’t have a solid answer, unfortunately, but it is why I try to be clear in my language: I tend to study fan practices or behaviors and I approach the constructs of fannish identities, rather than explore embodied identity. This makes me appreciate even more the research that does explore the experience of a fan identity, and to be sure I think that people who practice fandom but who explicitly resist the title are not necessarily the norm, but this is why I think there is a need for fan studies scholarship to be more explicit when we study practice and when we study the person.
Place is perhaps particularly useful (or challenging?) for this, too, because the behaviors in highly constructed places, like Comic-Con as well as theme parks, are deliberately structured to make everyone behave in fan-like ways. And of course, like you mention, this raises the inevitable specter of Disney. As they add Marvel and Star Wars areas to their parks (to do even more of that targeting of existing fans that you are talking about), it structures behaviors that are “appropriate” for Star Wars and Marvel fans to enact. So how do you distinguish longstanding Marvel fans from ones who were enticed, like you were with Harry Potter, by the visit? How do you distinguish Marvel fans in line at the park from Disney fans in those same lines, or from tired parents who just want their kids to stop begging already? Or do those distinctions matter, from a research standpoint?
I think looking at those spaces like Comic Cons or theme parks is really important. Fan Studies has long tended to explore place in terms of pilgrimage to sites that have importance for specific fandoms (or more than one, as Will Brooker discusses in relation to Vancouver). But places and sites that are deliberately designed to appeal to multiple fan bases and fandoms are clear challenges to this kind of approach. For me, my research into theme parks has been especially interesting precisely because there is such a mix of people in those spaces from parents and children to regular tourists through to dedicated fans of Disney or even the parks themselves. In a forthcoming piece I’ve written about how Disney has worked to marshall fan practices and behaviours in the parks (in some cases moving from specific fan events more in line with typical conventions towards an everyday fannish-ness) in relation to Star Wars and I’m really interested to see how fans of Marvel and Star Wars start to occupy spaces alongside ordinary tourists and fans of Disney itself. I think there’s a lot of potential for dischord especially since fans are not shy in letting people know when physical immersive experiences don’t live up to expectation. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out in the theme park space and how it complicates further some of our ideas about fan practices, identities and hierarchies.
I do think there is a lot to be discovered in the mixing of fan groups within physical spaces of fan practice, and I am delighted that more of fan studies seems to be moving in that direction. Another way that I think spaces like those we are discussing can trouble the notion of pilgrimage is as a result of the deliberate design that went into them. When fans tour sites in a city that were locations in a beloved TV show, they are able to ascribe meaning and forge a path that resonates with them, to some degree. Theme parks and conventions, on the other hand, are such heavily constructed spaces that the experiences they offer are likewise deliberate constructs. I fully admit that I am not always comfortable with the degree to which the space, experience, and ideal fan identity at SDCC is first and foremost that of a consumer. However, I think it can be as beneficial to consider how fans move through spaces that may afford them less agency as it is to analyze how fans construct their own practices, communities, and spaces in relation to media texts.
Given your point here about the constructedness of certain spaces, I think one of the questions I’d like to leave us with is whether the existing frameworks for understanding fans’ engagement with place are sufficient. Can approaches built on the concept of pilgrimage really account for examples like Comic Cons? I don’t think so, but I’m not convinced that the notion of tourism works here either (in a way that it might for thinking about theme park spaces, for example). It’s a big question to pose but I wonder whether, if both approaches that draw on concepts of pilgrimage and/or fan tourism prove lacking, what might the future be for expanding our understanding of fan’s relationships with places that are meaningful to them?
It’s a good question, one I think worth grappling with within the discipline. I would also like to link it back to what we addressed at the beginning, the issue of methodology and the unaffiliated fans who may be forming relationships with place but not with other fans. How do we approach a study of a fan’s meaning-making of place that is, methodologically speaking, able to address and include those who bear some affiliation with fandom, but who may not adopt recognizable aspects of fan practice or identity?