The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Bertha Chin & Aswin Punathambekar (Pt. 1)


My current interest in fan studies relates to two broader topics in media and cultural studies: first, how fan activities connect with and at times remake political culture, and second, fan communities that cohere around cultural productions that are spatially and culturally distant (think K-Pop fan communities in Chile or Bollywood fans in Nigeria). It’s wonderful to see more academic work on these topics, but we still have a long way to go.

Let me begin with the fandom, popular culture, and politics issue. When I first wrote about film music fans in south India (2001), I wanted to steer clear of situating fandom solely in relation to the political domain. Indeed, when one raises the topic of participatory culture in the Indian context, the standard response is to point to Tamil and Telugu film cultures where fan associations continue to play pivotal roles in many film stars’ political careers. This narrative of cine-politics has been so dominant that other sites, modes, and dimensions of participation have not been considered, leave alone studied in systematic fashion, for no apparent reason other than their seemingly “non-political” character. We have had precious little to say about fan practices in the vast and diverse South Asian diaspora, for instance, or transcultural fandom (Rukmini Pande and Lori Morimoto’s work, among others, is crucial in this regard).

My move away from the film-fan-politics framework also coincided with my interest in mapping industry practices and specifically, exploring how Mumbai-based industry professionals had begun courting fans and co-opting fandom into marketing logics that fit neatly with the ongoing remaking of Bollywood as a global cultural industry. However, while there is no denying the thoroughgoing corporatization of fandom that marked the 2000s, there were signs that something else was afoot. Fannish modes of engaging with media - not just popular cultural forms but crucially, the news as well - began shaping political culture across Asia and the Middle East-North Africa regions. Reality TV, as scholars including Marwan Kraidy (link), Sean Jacobs, and Fabienne Darling-Wolf have shown, often sparked contentious debates around religion, gender, and sexuality in fraught political contexts. This phase of media convergence marked by blogging and SMS cultures transforming TV fandom was, we now know, just the beginning. Since the mid-2000s, as states and telecom providers across the postcolonial world have invested in and transformed communications infrastructures, we have seen how media practices honed through everyday engagement with popular culture - parodies, remixes, humorous memes and gifs, and so on - have become the cultural foundations for protest, resistance, and at times, insurgency.

I’m eager to see more fan studies scholars contribute to this broader debate on everyday life, popular culture, sentiment/affect, and politics - we have a lot to say about these issues, and we should make our voices heard well beyond academic spaces. And even as we hone our arguments about fandom and progressive political imaginaries, it would be good to see more engagement from fan studies scholars on the reactionary end of the political spectrum as well.

The second topic - what we could gloss as transcultural fandom - is the other area that I think fan studies ought to engage with much more in the next decade or two. As Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott put it in their recent book, The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, race and transcultural fandom remain an underdeveloped area of study.

In addition to the question of language and performativity that Bertha Chin and Sangita Shresthova among others have written about, I would point to citational practices as a major problem for fan studies even in 2018. To this day, those of us in the north Atlantic and Anglophone academic worlds simply do not take up theoretical insights developed from studies of fans (and more generally, audiences) in non-Western contexts. Consider, for instance, S. V. Srinivas’ pathbreaking work on fan cultures, performance, and political culture(s) in south India. There is much we can learn about links between stardom and the mediatization of politics from Srinivas’ work that would help make sense of, for instance, populist figures like Trump, Putin, and Erdogan. The only way to push for change on this front is by reflecting on our reading and writing practices, by making a concerted effort to seek scholarship from well outside the immediate context(s) we live and operate in, and incorporating scholarly voices that are too often relegated to the margins.

Moreover, given the multi-polar media world we inhabit today, it is crucial to learn more about new circuits of media production and circulation that by-pass and de-center the U.S. There are two cases I would point to here: the circulation of Hindi-language Bollywood films and film music in, for example, Nigeria; and the trans-national circulation of Korean popular culture over the past decade. The Bollywood case is fascinating, as Brian Larkin has so richly detailed, because it defies any ideas about “cultural proximity” that we might, retrospectively, read into the Nigerian social context. For what is far more interesting is the ways in which films and film music from a particular era seemed to offer a “parallel modernity” – one that wasn’t defined by the ‘West’ – that was both alluring and meaningful for Nigerian audiences. In a similar vein, the K-Pop case makes it clear that a global phenomenon does not have to go through Western media capitals anymore. Moving forward, paying attention to the formation of fan communities that are Inter-Asian (Korea-India or Korea-Japan), for instance, is critical if we are to move out of the ‘methodological nationalism’ that has h aunted fan studies (and certainly media studies writ large).


Like many in fan studies, my introduction to the field came with being handed a copy of Textual Poachers – in my case, it was my MA supervisor, which prompted my entry into fan studies. Suddenly, all the things I was doing while growing up in Borneo: dressing up as my favourite characters, the stories I had written based on these characters started to make sense. Those practices had a name, and it was fandom. More importantly, I discovered I wasn’t alone in being fascinated by fictional characters and plotlines on TV shows to write stories about them, to inhabit their universes.

But I had a different experience of fandom from the academic accounts I was reading. Instead of the absence of a concrete hierarchical structure that impinges on a lot of early fan scholarly works, I was witnessing clear division of roles, access (including who is on the inside and outside of the fandom and the community), and voice, which affected the formation of fan community structures. Those who had access and specific skills (such as technical skills, language, cultural knowledge) would be celebrated, and would often be elected (or elect themselves) to community leadership roles. These fan community leaders would deem what are appropriate and inappropriate topics of discussions in fandom, at times extending to who is and isn’t welcomed in their communities.

This observation would go on to influence the majority of my academic work, which continues to look at how the accumulation of fan social and cultural capitals determine the fan’s position and ‘celebrity’ status in the online community. As fans move from closed and moderated platforms like Yahoo Groups and LiveJournal to open, rhizomatic social media platforms, the accumulation of social and cultural capitals shift too, often to include attention capital (van Krieken, 2012; Rojek, 2016). At the same time, the relationship between fans and media producers continues to be negotiated, as social media now facilitates this interaction to occur on public platforms such as Twitter. As such, we’re seeing fans raise their concerns over social issues like representations of minorities on screen, pay equality for female actors and treatment of female characters, as well as echoing calls with celebrities to call out and expose sexual harassment in Hollywood directly to media producers active on social media (for example, fans’ pressure on Warner Bros. Television in 2017 to fire Andrew Kreisberg, a producer on DC Comics’ Arrowverse, when multiple claims of sexual harassment were filed by crew members).

Social media not only continues to change the ways in which media producers and fans interact, it is also giving rise to attention on participation from fans who don’t hail from geographical areas traditionally observed in fan studies, namely the US, UK and Europe. This is enabling more engagement with fans and fan practices on a global scale, but at the same time, heightening different complexities. Fan scholars now have to consider fandom from, among others, transcultural (Morimoto and Chin, 2013; 2017) and postcolonial (Pande, 2016; forthcoming) perspectives. As Aswin Punathambekar, Sangita Shrestova and myself (2017) recently reflected, as fan and media scholars, we similarly need to re-consider the ways we engage with academic literature ourselves despite potential language and cultural barriers in order to widen the scope of our understanding, particularly of fan practices that adhere to different cultural understandings.

Social media platforms aren’t merely making fan practices more accessible or visible to the general public; the ways in which fans are utilising Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and Facebook are making the media industry more aware that these platforms offer easy and immediate access to niche, loyal audiences and consumers -- another avenue for creating the ‘perfect’ fan-consumer that may conform to industry standards. Indeed, we can witness not only the media industry trying to create the perfect fan-consumer, but fans similarly policing other fans in deeming what is and isn’t appropriate fan behaviour and practice in order to accumulate the proper attention capital from media producers and celebrities on social media – work that Mark Stewart and myself are currently doing.

The focus on the media industry, particularly the fan-media producer interaction on social media and in offline spaces like San Diego Comic Con and other commercial-focused fan conventions has led some scholars in fan studies to voice concerns that this mainstreaming of fans is diluting the resistant and activist origins of fandom. While I am not denying the importance of critically engaging with the media industry’s increasing infringement on fan space, I would also like to offer another view beyond the ‘either…or’ arguments: the role and expectations of the institution the fan studies scholar might be working in. This is particularly crucial given the increasing global interest in fan studies, and instability in institutionalized academia means that fan scholars may be working in institutions where fan – or media and cultural – studies is not only necessarily accepted or recognised, but the network and support of fellow scholars are also absent or geographically distant.

Here, I’m thinking of my own experience when two years ago, I uprooted my life from the UK and accepted a position in a branch campus of an Australian university in Southeast Asia. In comparison, the research culture along with the student body was more conservative than the home campus, and the branch campus’s focus on engineering, business and the teaching of English as a Second Language meant that there was little space for what is considered to be more frivolous research, but also research that may be too political. This meant having to position and frame fan studies along more ‘acceptable’ lines within the branch campus’s constraints; in my case, it was to create value around the notion of “audience / market engagement” rather than blatantly fan studies. In doing so, the research – and the field – becomes more acceptable for those in the business school, but it leads to questions of integrity; and whether in creating value around “audience engagement research” meant that I was also depoliticising my own identity as a fan studies scholar.

However, I also begin to see alternative ways in which I can apply fan studies concepts and frameworks into my everyday existence: students’ reluctance to admit to being fans for fear of being othered, ridiculed and infantilized; the ways in which the barista at my favourite coffee shop has attracted fans, and access to him (and fellow baristas) meant accumulation of social, cultural and attention capitals within the microcosm of the coffee shop space; the local cinema industry’s gifting of movie collectibles via competitions that encourage fans of superhero films to consume more tickets and themed cinema snacks; the acceptance of Funko Pop figures as a declaration of one’s fandom while transformational fan practices are still derided as “abnormal” fan engagement. Even right down to the ways in which university management guides and fosters research interests are deemed along appropriate and inappropriate research fields in order to mould into being, the ideal, neoliberal researcher.

My point being, as much as we need to acknowledge fan studies along transcultural and postcolonial frameworks, to read and introduce literature beyond the specific go-to pieces that inform and reaffirm Western conceptualisation of fan practices, we also need to move beyond the either/or argument of what fan studies is or isn’t. In my case, the need to frame my research within institutional constraints and to remain valuable to the institution lead to creative ways of engaging with fan studies’ theoretical frameworks. I’m not sure if this is indeed the future of fan studies, but in light of the crisis in higher education and academia in the UK and the US, perhaps this is but one way fan studies can continue to grow, adapt and develop while we equally acknowledge the growing importance of examining fandom along transcultural and postcolonial frameworks.