You’re spot on — it is ahistorical to see the diversification of fandoms as solely a contemporary trend. In my most recent work, a chapter in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, I contend superhero comic publishers’ recent awareness of female readers is a historical rewrite...female fans of Marvel Comics have been practicing since Stan Lee wrote and published Fantastic Four #1. And they’ve been vocal. But, due to gatekeeping and the entrenched concept of the male fan, they’ve been, according to Suzanne Scott, made invisible (in her excellent piece “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (in)Visibility in Comic Book Culture”).
Your own fan interests introduced you to an “immensely creative community of women,” and mine did too...but it also introduced me to a community that often devalued women as fans. What initially started as a project regarding superhero adaptations quickly became one rooted in exploring the repeated disenfranchisement of female fans by the comic industry and other fans. This tension between meaningful fan production AND vitriolic online diatribes meant to exclude fans from engaging their interests compelled me to think about intrafandom dynamics as a model for approaching digital communication. Essentially, I saw all these people engaging in consistent, smart analysis of texts who themselves begged to be analyzed.
Thinking through fandoms to approach rhetorical strategies across digital spaces is one of many avenues of inquiry that sit under the broad umbrella of fan studies. As the opening to Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandoval, and C. Lee Harrington’s Fandom: Identities and and Communities in a Mediated World reminds us, fan studies furthers “our understanding of how we form emotional bonds with ourselves and others in a modern, mediated world.” Exploring fan audiences means exploring people’s engagement with multiple texts, in multiple forms, across multiple communities, made up of multiple constituents. No fandom is a monolith; it is a complex web of interests, productions, language, and so on. Understanding these layered dynamics is what makes fan scholarship so vital and vibrant. I’m struck just thinking about your focus on the historical ‘absence’ of female fans. How complex! It seems invested not just in securing female fans’ relationship to given objects, but it is also a study of power and the social dynamics which left their contributions unrecorded. And, likely, a lot more.
Orienting fannish activity as a model of digital expression speaks to the questions you raised regarding the right to produce or remember. I tend to see fan subcultures gaining more capacity to etch their own story (and history). The female fans who spearheaded meaningful fan-driven events like The Hawkeye Initiative (a Tumblr using genderbent images to call out the blatantly sexist art of superhero comics) cannot easily be overlooked. They circulate. Gain traction. And, they move across communities in which official producers often see them. They are ignored at the ignorer’s peril, and they can no longer be deemed invisible. The exclusion of certain fans, in this case of my work--female comic readers, has positioned them as resistors to the very fan subcultures they sometimes engage in. Moreover, if they cannot be overlooked, can they be forgotten? These fans leave a permanent mark--a tattoo. The internet is a tool of accretion...every fan fiction, every tumblr blog, every meme is a potential building block to be used by the next fan.
I see in my own, and many of my students’, consumer practices an increased intake of fan-created/curated content. But, what does this suggest? While I am hesitant to go back to the early framing of fans as evasive or resistant to dominant ideologies, I’m also eager to think of how we might position fan studies as being deeply political. I reference superhero fan cultures, but I see it in more obviously meaningful venues. The modes and practices of fan communities are evident in other social movements. The way fans organize members, facilitate discourse, seek better representation, and circulate content isn’t dissimilar from how many other online organizations operate. The tactics of fans are often the tactics of significant cultural trends and messages. I sincerely hope this doesn’t come across as flippant, but, for example, I’m becoming deeply intrigued to see if examining fan rhetoric might open up avenues of exploring social movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo.
Even setting aside my desire to lay models of fandom communication over other digital activities, what do you make of this? How might we synthesize the seemingly powerful presence of the fan in this era of spreadable media with the issue of power? We cannot argue that fans aren’t creating, producing, and circulating...but is their work meaningful?
You seem very optimistic about contemporary female (and I want to add non-binary and gender non-conforming) fans becoming un-ignorable! I could probably use a little more optimism, tbh, but my work on the "deep history" of fandom makes that difficult. And maybe this also has to do with me being trained in English departments, which tend to be very conservative with regards to issues of canonicity and the value of marginalized texts.
For example, I think there's a fascinating antecedent to fannish endeavors like The Hawkeye Initiative (and female fandom more broadly) in the women's club movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, where women were getting together in their houses to read and critique literature and art, dress up as characters, perform skits and plays, write and evaluate each other's writing. And this wasn't just middle class white women--there were African American women's clubs, indigenous women's clubs, and clubs for working class women, and they would host mixed events where women from different communities could meet each other. Anne Ruggles Gere has written a terrific book on these clubs, and I'm indebted to her research, but again--this is a place where I think fan studies scholars and literature scholars should be looking more closely, and no one really is! These clubs sound exactly like pre-digital fan communities--and they were a huge cultural influence on their time and place, even directly on some of the most famous American writers--but they have been rendered invisible over the past hundred years. I've found artifacts from these clubs in basically every special collections library I've ever been in, so the evidence of their widespread existence is available. But the "gatekeeping" you rightly refer to has so powerfully shaped literary culture that it's as if these millions of women never so much as read a book. So it's hard for me not to worry that, even if The Hawkeye Initiative has made substantive changes to superhero comics culture (and I absolutely agree that it has), these women and their work won't be all but forgotten by 2118.
Then again, there are so many other fandom events and issues that are likewise forgotten, often involving bad behavior and toxic fandom. Here I think of something like The Shaver Mystery, which was this wild proto-ARG (alternate reality game) that played out in the letter columns of Amazing Stories in the 1940s, about a race of subhuman men called "deroes" who lived underground and secretly controlled the world. It tapped into some really nasty anti-Semitic and white supremacist tendencies in readers/participants, who wrote letters about slaughtering deroes with submachine guns--again, my pattern-recognition brain can't help but notice that this sounds a lot like contemporary conspiracy theories about "globalists" like George Soros, but there's not a lot of analysis available on how current digitally-networked conspiracy theory rings might be doing the same thing as these 1940s scifi fans, just with updated communications technology.
The above example seems like a fascinating counterpoint to #MeToo and BLM, which are movements that I actually don't see as having much to do with fandom, other than that we're all sharing the same tools and platforms. But maybe this is where the potential for fan studies to be deeply political comes in--with our responsibility to do the historical remembrance and recovery work, both in celebration of the fans who work to dismantle the cishet capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, and in critique of the fans who uphold it?
And if that's the case (and this responsibility certainly shapes my own work), then I have to wonder how the politics of fan studies fits into the university as we know it today and/or as it will exist in the future?
Admittedly, my optimism stems from very recent changes in particular media I’ve focused on. While I do believe we are seeing fans help redefine particular, problematic fannish subcultures, I’m not sure those efforts are mappable on any historic scale. In 5-10 years the credit for changes in comic book representation will likely be given to Marvel instead of the fans. My optimism only focuses on some of the changes being wrought, not the recognition.
But, those changes tie directly to fan studies’ ‘responsibility,’ as you put it. Fan studies does, and should, celebrate the fan communities oppositional to the systems of a white capitalist patriarchy. In a sense, fan studies has always been examining modes of resistance. De Certeau’s “tactics and strategies”, a clear forebearer of fan studies, was concerned with how power manifests in the hands of consumers instead of the systems they navigate. Joli Jensen’s “Fandom as Pathology” opposed stereotypical representation of fans by the media. Etc. Many contemporary fan works, including, it seems, your own forthcoming book, are examining fan practices that are often mired in forms of resistance.
When I suggest the study of fandoms might help us consider other social movements, it is not just this legacy I’m tapping, however. I suppose I’m thinking broadly. Our content is mediated--our entertainment, our news, our discourse. Fan studies is very engaged in understanding how humans negotiate relationships to mediated cultural content. It doesn’t matter if it is My Little Pony or Fox News. So too, the social changes of the world are not purely dictated by logic and empiricism. Political races, the rise and spread of the Alt-Right or the Women’s March, etc. are comprised of multi-faceted digital fronts that seek to form connections between people and ideas. Is the internal attachment one fosters for a candidate or social campaign of a markedly different structure than the one they form with an author, television show, or hobby? Especially, considering everyone’s reliance, and thus initial encountering of said ideas, on shared platforms?
For me, the study of fans looks at how people willfully subscribe to content, how they circulate it, build on it, use it, and how they engage with their community. This not only makes it inherently political, it makes it inherently interdisciplinary. It shares with English Departments a focus on readers, reading, and texts. It shares with Media Studies an emphasis on curation, circulation, and creation of media objects. It shares with Anthropology a focus on ethnographies of cultural practices. It shares with Sociology an attempt to articulate how humans interact and form communities...
Considering its politics and interdisciplinary form, I’m not convinced it will ever be codified or comfortable in most universities. But, at the risk of punting, could I turn this back around on you. Where as I’m tracing a historic agreement with this responsibility, you seem to be really manifesting it. Could you speak more to this sense of responsibility and its place in the university? I’m energized by this conceptualization of fan studies, and I am wondering if it might help us address the purpose of studying fans going forward.
I hadn’t really thought about the tracing versus manifesting dynamic before, so thank you for that! What’s becoming clear to me from this conversation is that—for some of us, myself included—the experience of being in the university is functionally identical to being “in” any Western media fandom. We’re given a set of parameters which simultaneously excite and disappoint us, dictated by a large, complicated, and risk-averse organizational structure, and our love and frustration prompt us to forage amongst all of that and build something better, more meaningful, and definitely weirder than we were meant to. For me, that means working to open up the early 20th century literary landscape to include not only more women writers and writers of color but also the non-professional, unsanctioned, teenaged, and/or queer writers who were doing stuff with literature and who have been, as I said at length above, erased from our literary history. And it means supporting my students, especially those from at-risk and marginalized communities, and trying to make space in the university for them where they can not just fit but thrive. And I’ll probably fail at these tasks, in the long run, and I’m trying to find value in that failure (Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure is hugely important to my thinking here, as is Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life).
So if politically-engaged fan studies scholars are to the university as fans are to, say, Marvel Studios/Disney, then I have to agree with your suggestion above, that we won’t ever truly fit comfortably into “the university” (by which I mean the generalized monolithic structure of higher education as we currently know it).
To reverse your reversal above, then, as we get to the end of this conversation, can you say more about what you see as the purpose of studying fans as we move (inexorably) into the future?
First off, your comparison of being in the university to being in any Western media fandom is so wonderful and apt. Horrible pun fully intended — I’m a fan of that statement.
Moving on to the future of fan studies...
Last week, I was fortunate enough to watch three of my students present their senior theses. Each student carefully examined issues in very different media, but, in each, a certain throughline manifested: Change in Western media seems to start bottom-up. Where else would the impetus for media properties to change come from besides the audience actively engaged with it?
For this reason, I think fan studies will become increasingly vital. If you survey fans’ demands of producers, a great many emphasize an argument centered on inclusion. Across social media platforms, there is a sustained insistence that today’s media establish more diverse protagonists and themes — protagonists and themes that acknowledge, represent, and give voice to the diverse array of media consumers. When I linked online fan movements with other social movements, this is the reason. We are using the same communication tools to demand change in certain systems. Are we all on the same page or are all fans seeking some form of progress? No, of course not. Yet, while the level of immediate impact might be on a different scale, the impetus and, in some sense, the demands are not.
I hope that the future of fan studies continues the work we’ve discussed here. Reclaiming marginalized groups place in the history of fan communities serves as a reminder for how long said groups have engaged with, and likely been resistant to, a problematic media hegemony. Acknowledging this past should invigorate fan scholars examining how contemporary communities seek progress, change, or inclusion.
At least I hope so.
I too came into Fan Studies via an English Department grad program, too. I found myself, a self-identified geek, sort of revolted by how comic fans at San Diego Comic Con, circa 2008, were bashing and harassing female fans of the Twilight series. I had to know why, and that analysis became my first foray into fan studies. It was driven by a question of exclusion. But, I was naive because I thought that and my later work was exploring the interplay of fan rhetoric and producers’ strategies. While true, almost all of writing examines some element of inclusion/exclusion — female fans in the comic shop, issues of gender and race-bent cosplay, traditional comic fans relation with fans of comic book film adaptations, etc.
Fan studies should continuing exploring these elements because they are products of our consumer culture. We’ve created media hegemonies and fan hierarchies, and groups that resist these structures, however subtly, deserve to be examined.
Hmm. Am I getting too optimistic again? Let me cede the floor to you, Alex, for a closing statement. You thoughtfully acknowledged the potential for failure while passionately arguing what fan studies is for you? Is it vital, though? Can it validate its practice?
Your students' presentations sound really fruitful and interesting! And I think they point to how vital fan studies is and will continue to be. While I'm not such an English department heretic that I think we should throw out courses on "the classics," I do think we have a responsibility to meet our students where they are, and to try to engage them via the cultural products they interact with on a daily basis. Not all of our students are fans, but they all exist in our heavily mediated cultural landscape, and it's crucial to help them understand and build the skills they (and we) need to navigate it.
At the end of the day (and the end of our conversation, which I have really enjoyed!), I'm okay with positing that this project--fan studies; corrective history-telling; making space in our cultural products and our universities for the marginal, the invisible, the neglected — will forever be a work in progress.
So, with the power vested in me as a lifelong fangirl, I hereby declare WIP amnesty for fan studies. Though we may never finish, what we do is worth sharing.