Having shared the syllabus for my Fandom Studies PhD seminar last week, and stressed there the importance of work that moves race to the center of our understanding of the field, I wanted to use this week to stress some other important developments in the field of fandom studies. Nicole Lamerichs’s new book, Productive Fandom: Intermediality and Affective Reception in Fan Cultures, embodies at least four key trends that seem important to me, each of which will get discussed over the next four installments,
First, she represents the greater emphasis on the national specificity of fandom. Too often, early work — my own included — reads Anglo-American fan culture as “universal” or at least was not especially interested in its cultural specificity. Lamerichs, however, introduces a specifically European (and more particularly Low Country) vantage point within fandom studies, More than that, her interest in games and anime fandom encourages her to think about transcultural exchanges. A strength of her book are a series of ethnographic observations of different fan conventions and the cultural contexts within which they operate.
This focus on local particulars grows out of a second trend she represents — a shift back towards the physical world after several decades of emphasis placed on on-ine fandom. Of course, more and more, we recognize the complex integration that occurs across our physical and virtual lives, but she’s pushing us to reconnect with what we are missing about the material aspects of fandom.
And I see this focus on materiality as leading to a third concern with bodily performance. She is part of a growing emphasis in the field on cosplay, fan fashion, and the use of textiles as a means of expressing fan identities. Some of this has to do with bringing performance studies more decisively into conversation with fandom studies and some of it has to do with connecting fan studies with interests in fashion and craft
Finally, her work points to a larger and overdue engagement with affect studies within our field. In my own early work, I pushed back against the emotional dimensions of fandom in favor of what Matt Hills called the cognitive dimensions, though I still contend that the study of meaning is linked to the idea of meaningfulness which for fans has to do with affect as well as cognition. But we lacked the rich vocabulary for thinking about affect that has emerged across disciplines in recent years. I am excited to see some of that language begin to find its ways into fandom research.
Lamerichs is not alone in any of these interests, but her work makes serious contributions on each of these levels. And I am using this interview to focus attention on these significant developments.
I want to start with a series of questions that pull to the surface some of your core methodological and theoretical choices here. In both your introduction and conclusion, you stress your focus on materially grounded -- rather than digital -- forms of fan experience. What do you feel has been lost as fandom studies, from your perspective, has placed too much emphasis on online identities and experiences?
That is an important question and at the heart of my work. By emphasizing the online spaces of fandom, often exclusively, we have painted a narrow picture of what contemporary fandom is about. In my experience, media fandom is highly affective and moves betwixt and between different online and offline spaces. Such heterogeneous groups that are best studied by a mixed method approach. Depending on what aspect of fandom we study, our methodology includes offline spaces.
In our field, there has been a heavy focus on specific practices, such as digital fan fiction, but fandom has a lot to offer. Doing research in offline spaces allows us to examine the communities and identities of fans, their art, embodiment and feelings. Material culture is an entry point to study these different creative practices, hierarchies and stories in the flesh. All kinds of creative practices can be influenced by our fan identity, from crafting, knitting and eating to fashion.
Materiality allows us to focus on objects, and through those objects, on identities. For instance, I interviewed cosplayers in costume at fan conventions. They showed me parts of their outfits and explained how they created them, and what they meant to them. But I could also focus on what the convention means to them as a place. Physical spaces such as a convention are places of imagination - they bring together locations, stories and people. Scholarship on media tourism also emphasizes this, by paying attention to spaces like theme parks or film sets. Space can be sold and marketed to fans.
That brings me to the point that material culture is not neutral, but deeply related to consumer culture as well. We live in an increasingly complex fan economy that has been unpacked by Benjamin Woo and Lincoln Geraghty, for instance, who did work around shops and collector practices. Fandom is not just a gift economy, but a neoliberal market. In this sense, the offline does not exist in a vacuum but constantly intersects with business, media and platforms. The global gig economy of Amazon and Uber is a great example. It goes beyond the digital and shapes the way we organize our cities and infrastructure. Such a rapidly changing datafied society requires constant interdisciplinary work and reflection.
You describe yourself as coming from a European perspective. What are some of the ways that this vantage point informs your choices and conclusions here? For example, you did a case study of Dutch fans of Sherlock. Many of the fans you discuss seem to possess strong cross-cultural competencies, which are consistent with claims about how the internet has led to new forms of pop cosmopolitanisms. In what ways did local knowledge come into play here? Would some of these findings have been different in, say, a country like Turkey which has a more influential local media industry and greater forces seeking to isolate local fans from transnational and transcultural currents?
I am happy that you bring up culture, and cross/trans-cultural competences. Cultural dynamics is one of my favorite topics. I am happy that it is increasingly getting attention in fan studies. The work of Lori Morimoto and Bertha Chin stands out in this regard, for instance.
You refer to the Sherlock case-study, which was a reception study of the text, based on a focus group and interviews. Questions about the text itself, the context and characters were key here. What I found was that fans mobilize their Dutch competences and repertoires when interpreting BBC Sherlock. Their interpretation of the canon and corpus cuts across cultures, but also heavily draws from their local culture as well. Sherlock is compared to different Dutch detective shows and genres, to other European detective shows such as Tatort, to tease out what makes it essentially English and foreign.
Countries have unique fan practices, interpretations, and ways of communicating in fandom. If we’d launch a similar study in Turkey, we’d find different forms of communication, creativity and activism, shaped by, for instance, its political landscape and media landscape. Sometimes there are legal and social restrictions as well. Think about Russia, where some of the fan fiction scene takes place underground, as our colleague Natalia Samutina once pointed out to me.
Fandom is far from global, even though some concepts travel and spread widely. We need to be specific about cultural practices, including politics. Participatory culture can be a force for change, as you showed us, but can also lead to toxic messages spreading fast. As fan studies scholars, I feel we need to share our insights especially in these difficult times.
You describe your approach as grounded in “geek feminism” in contrast to the aca-fan perspective. What are some of the defining traits of “geek feminism” and how do they manifest themselves in your work?
The viewpoint of “geek feminism” promotes critical online and offline activity that supports women and brings about change. The term was coined by Mary Bucholtz to outline a theoretical and socially engaged stance informed by the legacy of feminism while retaining geek identity. She defined it as a “social practice”, continuously influenced by different social spheres. I felt that “geek” fitted me and the people that I study. The cosplayers in my book, for instance, were not always hardcore fans of one particular genre, but rather interested in Japanese pop-culture as a whole. Geek connotes enthusiasts and hobbyists, and even suggests a particular life-style that swirls around internet or gaming capital.
Geek feminism requires a specific research stance as well – for me, it’s about seeing research as a constant dialogue, and being inclusive and specific in your studies. It also points to the affective relationships between me and my informants. I see my research as a dialogue to bring European voices to this field. This stance is innately tied up with my identity as a woman and “geek girl”, a type of fan that is often discredited in the industry and by male gate-keepers. Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls discusses the identity of the geek girl in a very clear and accessible way, I really recommend her work in this sense. The identity of the female geek is re-invented through these commercial paradigms. She is often overlooked or excluded as a creative fan that operates outside of the media industry.
Working as a geek feminist also means that I give back to fandom in different ways. I chaired the LGBTQ+ convention YaYCon in The Netherlands for the past ten years, and took care of critical panels and content as well. Each year we do critical and informative panels on what it means to be asexual, trans or a fan of color in fandom. I was also part of an expertise team for an inclusive exhibition on cosplay (Character Building) in Rotterdam last year at MAMA. We arranged this exhibition as live creative space where non-white, non-binary and queer cosplayers made their costumes. Inclusivity and love are key values of MAMA. That’s the kind of work I do on the side and I believe it matters.
In other words, being a geek feminist mean that you are committed to making change in a constructive and positive way.
Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.