The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Rukmini Pande and Rebecca Wanzo (Part 2)


As you've also gestured to in your opening statement, I find that institutional demands/disciplinary divides (as well as timezones, geographical location etc), often make it impossible to interact/build networks within the field so I was particularly excited for the opportunity of having this exchange. I was nodding along to a most of your observations in the introductory notes but to kick this off the conversation I want to pick out two aspects that I found most intriguing and I hope to bring up some others as we go along.

1) Your thoughts on proper/improper fans and modes of fandom struck me as something very relevant to the current and future conversations in the field. The "female" fan has been consistently theorized as unruly and their consumption practices are largely seen as disruptive to how media corporations wish them to behave in terms of interacting with a text. However, this theorization has concerned mostly white women fans. You've also said in your other work that "African Americans are always already improper subjects; part of their pleasure in a text can thus be about resisting the normativity of whiteness even as they claim their own normativity." How would you see these threads interacting, especially when we look at how pleasure, desire, queerness, etc also interface with these categorizations of proper/improper fandom?

2) The second aspect I was thinking about is the concept of alienation. In my experience, non-white fans often express their experiences of loneliness and alienation from networks of squee and I've talked a little bit about the notion of being a "fandom killjoy" (in line with Sara Ahmed's formulation of feminist killjoys) in that context. I don't think anti-fandom quite covers the complexities of that position so I wondered if you had any further thoughts on that as well.


I think the place of women fans from the corporate perspective is complicated. On the one hand, the fact that women consume is something that corporations know. So they are always selling to them. But they don't consume the same things and at the same price point in some highly valued areas of popular culture. The infamous cancellation of the cartoon Young Justice was because the show had too many girl viewers and girls allegedly did not buy toys (the gender normative societal structures should also be acknowledged here—that one issue is that parents may also not buy these toys for girls). Girls and women play the most computer games, but they buy a smaller percentage of expensive FPS games or other high profile genre games. But then, women have consistently been the backbone of consumer for the publishing industry. In most recent years, Twilight and the most profitable fan fiction in history—Fifty Shades—are appealing to fans of the series. But of course, part of what I object to in some of fan studies is that a lot of people would not read "fandom" in the Fifty Shades consumer.

I think you're completely right to point to the fact that the "fandom killjoy" is completely different from anti-fandom. Part of what Ahmed argues is that the feminist and anti-racist killjoy does is disrupt spaces of pleasure and interactions in places that should be home for them (like the allegedly progressive university). By calling attention to racist or sexist representation in a representation or fan space, they can be isolated from it.

Of course, a huge irony is that people opposed to diversity in traditional fandom spaces like science fiction and superhero comics want to refuse the possibility that any pleasure can be had when people of color and feminism and queerness are at the center of any story. The sad and rabid puppies revolted against narratives about people of color and queerness finally getting mainstream attention. There is irony is in their rage at Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice win, which for all its interesting treatment of gender is a strong space opera in a classic science fiction tradition. But their decision to lock out diversity from the awards ballot arguably produced a commitment in science fiction and fantasy fans to truly look beyond the usual suspects and actually award a radically different kind of epic fantasy in NK Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy, a brilliant contribution to the field and so far from Tolkien that it opens up ideas of what people want and can count as epic fantasy.

And I feel this way about some Star Trek fans too, who are determined to hate Sonequa Martin-Green and be angry at "Social Justice Warriors" invading Trek. But as many people have noted, have these people ever watched Trek? Social justice is in its DNA. That aside, "SJW" is also just code for the idea that a show let a brown or queer person be something non-peripheral.


I'm glad that you see what I mean about the difference between anti-fandom and fandom killjoys because I struggle to articulate it sometimes! Anti-fandom still has an element of community I think—or at least a shared hate for a text...

It's also interesting that there are these conversations happening at multiple levels between different people so that you have the sad puppies et al who are very clearly anti-ALL diversity and against whom "female fandom" or "transformative fandom" is positioned explicitly. But you also have echoes of the same rhetoric very much present in those ‘liberal fandom’ spaces as well. This is especially glaring when it comes to discussions on issues like why characters of color don't get the same amount of creative fan output (fanfiction etc) around them.


I want to follow up on some of your discussion in your opening statement about your use of postcolonial theory in your work. I'm interested in how that overlaps and diverges from histories of black cultural criticism in the U.S., some of which have a relationship to the work done by Hall and Gilroy in the UK but not exclusively. How do you think colonization is being framed in relationship to fan attachments?


I'd say my use of postcolonial theory is mainly in terms of looking at how online fandom is functioning as a transnational/transcultural space where exchanges about representation, authenticity, and identity with regard to popular cultural texts that are often informed by neo-colonial narratives and power dynamics. These dynamics then structure how fans talk about ideas like heroism, queerness, etc. The MCU is one example that comes to mind where, as a fan scholar from the Global South, I am aware that one of the projects of the movies (at least the ones we've seen so far) is to naturalize US-centered imperialist ideas of who has the power to walk into other countries and engage in covert warfare etc. These narratives work alongside how fandom works with individual characters and story arcs and how "SJW" issues are discussed with respect to US white feminism, homonationalism etc. For example, in my work I've found a lot of differing opinions around terms like "fan of color" because of the US-centricity.

I think postcolonial frameworks, particularly those that tackle cyberculture, give a useful tool to talk about these multiple issues and also ask scholars to foreground issues of racial/cultural/ethnic/religious identity along with gender and sexuality when talking about how fan attachments are formed and sometimes come into conflict.

Also of course with practices like racebending I've found Said's work on contrapuntal reading to be very useful when trying to talk about both the possibilities and the limitations of such fan practice.


I totally see how discussions of fandoms can be very U.S.-centric, and also see the how the framing of fans of color can be problematic in that context. The discussion of imperialism is so essential (both content and in terms of understanding media industries). But I am also interested in intra-group framing or regulation or treatment of fandom. In other words, because of varied kinds of limited representations in the Global South and minority populations in non-western nations, do you see a call for certain groups to be fans of something because of the political stakes of doing so?


Yes, I do actually! I was thinking about your work on that aspect where you've talked about instances where identity groups are called on to become fans or support a text as an act of politics. That can be very powerful of course but it also leads to some interesting conflicts around differing intersections of identity. I see this reflected in a lot of conversations around queer ships in fandom where it is often white queerness that is elevated above all other considerations which can lead to feelings of alienation amongst queer fans of color. Do you think that these faultlines also run within the models of interpretation that you've talked about?


As a number of people have argued, one challenge in fan studies and cultural studies criticism as it stands more broadly is the way in which recuperation and recognition can cross the line into uncritical celebration. Thus problematic treatments of identity are acknowledged in a pro forma way but it may not explore how the erasure of race or queer or non-western subjects can be part of what makes the text pleasurable. Scholarship on Twilight fandom is an interesting example of this. On the one hand, it is important to understand why Twilight is so popular with adolescent girls (and many women) in ways that speak to the Janice Radway-inflected discussion of women's consumption as a negotiation with patriarchy and traditional roles while also acknowledging the problematic nature of the texts. At the same time, people understandably will reject a psychoanalytic approach that slightly pathologizes women fans. However, the desire to recuperate fans can slide into lack of critique, and the ways in which a text like Twilight totally depends on whiteness to construct romantic ideals can be elided in the recuperation of the (white) fan girl. This is certainly not the case with all scholarship, but there is an interesting divide, for example, between people who make a case for the books as anti-racist and others who see racism within it. One of the challenges is trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that some of the fans take pleasure in the racial logic of the texts, which might serve to indict some of the fans who are particularly invested in Edward as white Byronic ideal and contrast to literally animalistic Indigenous rival. One of the things the rise in paranormal romance has increased is the frequency that "racism" is discussed in romance fiction, but it is by allowing species to serve as a proxy-for-race. I think we still struggle with how to deal with the non-idealized fan in ways that don't fall into false consciousness arguments. I've been thinking about that recently with the Black Panther debates as well.


I've been reading so much around the movie as well. I think it, along with Thor: Ragnarok, makes for a really interesting intervention into the possibilities and limitations of "representation" within franchises like the MCU. Especially since the burden of being all things AND interrupting the larger neo-colonial/colonizing structures of these franchises is put on individual projects.

I also struggle with the tendency of fan studies to be simultaneously very careful about not pathologizing or infantilizing female-identified fandom but not extending that same care to issues outside of gender and sometimes sexuality. There are, of course, continual media framings of (mainly white) female fans as irrational etc but I feel like we need to do more than continue to combat that cycle because it isn't moving the field forward. I remember I attended a talk once where the presenter stressed that due to their background in anthropology they wanted to be careful about not treating fandom as a terrain to be colonized by researchers. I understood the impulse but I also had to put my hand up and point out that you can't just map out the same logics of colonial exploitation onto spaces that have been dominated by white fans!

I also want to add on to your comment that it is important to recognize that some fans "take pleasure in the racial logic of the texts" because I think that's really key too. The term "pleasure" is thrown around in fandom studies as if it is a neutral descriptor but that's quite misleading. The idea of a "fandom killjoy" also ties into that because when issues of race are raised they are often framed as "ruining the fun" for white fans who "just want to enjoy themselves." This then puts non-white fans in an uncomfortable position of being anti-pleasure, even when they are in many cases pointing out that fandom's insistence on elevating white characters is driven by structural racism. I think that bringing specificity to our descriptions of pleasure and how it functions (taking into account multiple aspects of fan identity) could help with producing better analyses of these negotiations.


I think it is fair to say that people from lots of perspectives feel like people who talk about popular culture kill their joy. I have noted many suggestions that people should stop talking about politics in Black Panther because it is just a movie. At the same time, part of what is so pleasurable for some people is that the articulated politics are so overt that to avoid talking about them is to reduce the film to black people looking beautiful (and admittedly, that’s a huge pleasure of the film)! I think those of us who work on the popular still have so much work to do to convince other scholars and the broader public that the popular is a place where “real world” issues are articulated and fought over.  The nature of genre, form, medium, and reception should make us think long and hard over claims about what the work does, but one of the reasons I think fan studies is so interesting as a field is that it helps unpack what gives people joy and why. That joy can’t be mapped simplistically and transparently onto a subject’s desire for anything is a given, but it is a still an interesting site for understanding love in the public sphere.


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