The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Jessica Seymour & Mélanie Bourdaa (Pt. 1)


Jessica Seymour

Harry Potter was my first fandom. It was a Christmas present from my parents; something to while away the hours at the Ballina Beachside Caravan Park while my more able-bodied cousins and brother went kayaking and body boarding. I was welcome to join them, of course, but past experience had taught me that kayaking and body boarding would not end well for me. It would usually end with me crumpled on the beach with a mouthful of sand. I was happier (and safer) sitting in the shade beside Grandma with a towel wrapped around my middle and Harry Potter open in my lap.

In High School, Harry Potter became a way for me to make friends. I would approach the students who were reading the books and introduce myself, hoping that we would have something in common besides the same fandom. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. I made friends who introduced me to fan fiction, LiveJournal communities, and Wizard Rock. My world got infinitely bigger. When I went to university, Harry Potter became the core of my honours thesis, my PhD, and my academic career.

It’s not just Harry Potter. I have based most of my articles, book chapters, and conference papers on fandoms that I am a part of. I’ve written about the mining philosophies of dwarves in The Lord of the Rings, the nature of memory in Doctor Who, and representations of toxic masculinity in YA dystopian fiction. I came to fan studies as a discipline after I watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and fell into a blackhole of obsession watching the way that creators and fans interacted. I went to the 2013’s ‘Fan Studies: Researching Popular Audiences’ conference in Oxford, met some of the most interesting scholars in the world, and have been exploring fandom and fan/creator experience ever since.

Lately, I’ve gotten interested in the way that creators react to fans’ expectations of representation. There have been many portrayals of LGBTQ characters in mainstream fiction that have erred on the side of negative and problematic. There is a tendency, for example, to kill off LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream media. This ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope has done much to discredit and delegitimise representation that the media tries to develop. As Emma Dibdin (2017) writes in an article for Marie Claire (itself not necessarily an LGBTQ+ space, which indicates how prevalent the problem has become) “Just since the beginning of 2015, we’ve lost more than 50 queer women on television—often in violent ways that benefit somebody else’s story rather than anything contributing to that character's own arc”. Similarly, TV Tropes (2017) writes that: “Often... gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple... has to die at the end”.

Mélanie Bourdaa

For as long as I remember I have been a fan, and my fandoms have been diverse and multiple. When I was young I used to play tennis and followed closely the carrier of Steffi Graf. My bedroom was full of posters of her shots, I recorded her matches (I still have them on DVDs and cassettes) and bought her championship outfits because I wanted “to play like her”. But like others in this series of posts, I was living in an isolated place in France, I didn’t have the Internet and felt kind of alone in my fannishness. My bedroom was the place of my fandoms, from tennis, to movies (Jodie Foster, Science-Fiction) to TV shows.

Then The X-Files was a turning point, my very first fandom in the sense of a community. I was a member of the French fanclub, I received the fanzines which I read carefully and was doing some collages of Mulder and Scully together (yes I was on the shipping side). With The X-Files, I discovered that they were other fans like me, that I was not the only one caring for the characters. When I got a computer and the Internet, quite late in my life (I was 20) after a year spent studying at Oxford in England, I discovered new ways to dive into fandoms, to read fan written materials, search for information and share them in virtual communities.

When I went to College I studied languages (English and Spanish) because I didn’t know that it was possible, in France, to study fans and their activities and practices. I academically fell into fan studies during my dissertation. I was then a fan of Battlestar Galactica and I took part in the debates in the community to know who the Final Five were, if the Battlestar was going to finally reach and inhabitable planet, and so on. At that time, I discovered Henry’s work, which was not translated in French and was only used by a few colleagues. Textual Poachers was a revelation for me. I could be a fan and studied my own fandom, giving me a justification for what I was working on at the time. My official field in France is Sciences of Communication and Information, and fan studies were non-existent 10 years ago, except in some researched in sociology.

in my field, it is now an emerging field with young scholars engaging in discussions and researches around fan practices, fan fictions and fan activism.

Since my dissertation, I divided my researches into two main areas that are linked : Transmedia Storytelling (production side) and fan studies (reception side). I have been advocating to bring fan studies to the spotlight in France, proposing special issues and books on the subject (for example the first book anthology on Fan and Gender Studies in France, co-edited with Arnaud Alessandrin). I am preparing the dissertation for my professorship in this very subject. But there are still grounds to cover. For example, students are quite ashamed to define themselves as fans, because they see the practices as non-legitimate and especially in academia. Three weeks ago, I was giving a lecture on fan studies (an introduction mainly to the field) and askes, as I always do, if they were fans in the class and in which fandoms they are involved. Nobody answered and one of the student explained that they are definitely not fans because “they are not crazy and psychologically marginalized”. Part of my day to day work, is really a pedagogical one, in order to explain why fans are a special audience, and why it is important to study their practices and communities.

My most recent work focus on fan activism and issues of representation in TV series. More specifically, I deal with how the Bury Your Gays trope can have an impact on fan communities, and how fan communities organize themselves and engage in forms of activism to bring awareness on positive representations. I found it fascinating how fans can advocate both for their shows and characters and for their communities and values and be vocal on these issues in the public sphere. Of course, social networks and new technologies facilitate this activism and the organization of the fandoms. But we need to address these issues from a historical point of view and see how fans did before the Internet to be socially and politically active.

As far as my own fan attitude, I am still a fan of various texts and have different activities and practices depending on the fandoms : collecting action figures and memorabilia and collector texts (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Film Noir), participating in social activities (like tweeting for example for Wynonna Earp, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl), going to conventions and sharing off line with other fans.