The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Liz Ellcessor & Tom Phillips (Pt. 2)

Liz Ellcessor

You raise some of what I find to be the stickiest, and most interesting, issues in studying fans and their relationships to celebrity. What kind of engagement is valued, by which participants? What is real, what is fake, and how does social media alter these descriptors?

“Authenticity” is a useful, but limited, heuristic for describing these (and related) circumstances. Much scholarship on social media and celebrity, which often bleeds into fan studies, attempts to trace the negotiation of seemingly “authentic” forms of self-presentation and communication. Limited disclosures, performances of friendship or affinity, and specific fan interactions are usually considered part of this authentic display by a celebrity. However, there’s been less attention to how being “authentic” is relevant to being a part of or participating in fan spaces.

Dyer’s notion of the star as both ordinary and extraordinary could be equally applied to the figure of the fan--and potentially the scholar--in these interactions. The fan is both engaged in normative, mainstreamed behaviors and doing something unusual; the scholar is both a fan and something more. We’re all negotiating these dynamics within the boundaries of given possibilities.

This is one reason I’ve come to enjoy fan and academic communities that center disability--they often have a much more open range of practices considered acceptable and authentic means of participation. The host of accessibility options at WisCo, and the annual dance at the Society for Disability Studies both indicate a devaluation of a performed authenticity in favor something more variable, and potentially intimate.

Tom Phillips

Fan culture and fan studies alike have been so reliant on creating or reporting on hierachies. I begin to wonder whether scholars can actually reconcile the various hierarchal relations within and between different fan culture - what may be “authentic” to one set of fans is not necessarily going to apply to another. For wrestling fans, for example, part of the appeal is the blurring of lines between real/fake, authenticity/inauthenticity. The pleasure of asking questions regarding authenticity for wrestling fans is not necessarily a pleasure that would be shared by fans of other texts. Without a clear overarching theory of how fan communities function, is fan scholarship doomed to simply present different case studies over and over?

You mention communities around disability and how they frame authenticity and performance. Your thinking around this is evocative of positive research trends we’re seeing at our annual FSN conference. In the past couple of years there has been a move away from papers which present a fandom with a framing of “that’s interesting, isn’t it?”, to a framing of “this is important.” Lori Morimoto, Rukmini Pande, and Lori Kido Lopez are among those who have, already in this blogging process, spoken about such important and worthy topics of study with a real drive to get at the heart of their value to contemporary culture. The work of these scholars is influencing my own research - I’m now trying to study that which is valuable and useful. This for me, is the future of fan studies.

Liz Ellcessor

The dilemma about case studies - and what can be difficulties in identifying “importance” within or between case studies - seems to me to be a challenge for media studies more broadly. The shifts you identify in the framing of fan studies respond to this with a commitment to choosing case studies that speak to importance, value, or utility. This is perhaps particularly helpful when speaking to people outside of fan or media studies, for whom ideas that we take for granted as both interesting and important may be novel.

Regarding my work about disability and fandom, I have actually bristled at the notion that this is (more) important than other case studies. There can be a paternalistic framing in which the study of marginalized groups is both hailed and dismissed as “important”; much as cultural ideas about disability both valorize and minimize disability through the language of “special needs” or “differently abled,” asserting that something is academically important because of its connection to a marginalized group can further distance that field of study from the mainstream.

Thus, my hope is that fan and media studies can do the hard work of taking on insights from nonwhite, disabled, non-Western, and other case studies in order to reevaluate the norms, theories, and subjects that are mainstream.

Tom Phillips

I definitely agree with you on the presence of that paternalistic framing. Here in the UK with our Research Excellence Framework - the system for assessing the excellence of research in higher education - there is an emphasis placed on the originality, rigour, and significance of the work. This latter category is that which the notion of “importance” would fall under, which perhaps explains trends I’ve seen towards more “valid” topics of study. As a result, it seems like fan studies is still having to fight for legitimacy on some fronts. On Henry’s podcast series How Do You Like it So Far? I heard William Proctor talk about the lack of fan studies expertise used in mainstream discourse for The Last Jedi. He makes an excellent point - it does seem as if the reporting of fandom and popular culture relies less on scholarly voices than other topics.

The challenge for fan studies scholars, then, is to differentiate ourselves from the swathes of pop culture commentators who exist. And we can do this in precisely the manner you suggest  - taking on insights from marginalised communities and applying elsewhere. It’s our job as researchers to challenge (often inaccurate) representations of groups both marginalised and mainstream alike.  

Liz Ellcessor

Yes, there is a challenge in participating in larger cultural conversations; the expertise of fan (and/or media) studies is easily misunderstood as analogous to any well-informed fan or audience discussion. And, really, many of the popular culture commentators do an excellent job! I regularly assign Anna Hamilton’s work to my students, for instance.

In part, I see this as a success of our field and related fields; people with undergraduate degrees in media, gender, or other forms of critical study are applying that training and producing interesting observations and analyses. This is exactly what we want our students to do in class, and afterwards!

The other side of that, however, is that I wonder to what degree we need to be explicit about the kinds of research methods and practices that are part of fan studies and related scholarship. What we teach, and see replicated in popular discourse, is not necessarily the same as the work that we do. Whether it’s copious interviews, in-depth industry or archival research, or the hard work of contextualization, scholarly expertise comes out of processes that most commentators don’t have the time (or support, or funding) to undertake.

Tom Phillips

I really love your positivity, Liz! I think sometimes scholars (and I’m speaking from experience here) may get too bogged down in their own research agendas. But you’re right - the next generation of scholars (and/or commentators) will always need that guidance to be more media literate particularly in relation to theory. One of my proudest moments as part of the FSN is seeing, year after year, new scholars and new communities grow and develop.

I think that explicitness about methods and practices is precisely the way forward. Not that journalistic approaches are not rigorous, but as a scholarly community we can demonstrate the thoroughness required of good research practice. On large scale research projects I’ve been involved with - concerning Alien, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones - a recurring motivation is to counter popular assumptions. Through thousands of survey responses we’re able to corroborate or dispel existing discourse, precisely because we have the time and resources to do so (as you mention).

So perhaps the gap for fan studies scholars will always be there. It may just be a case of our scholarly community having to be more proactive in adding to the number of voices out there. Part of me wonders whether this all comes back to the tensions of aca-fandom, but I think that’s a whole other conversation to be had!