The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Jillian Baez & Kristen Warner (Pt. 1)


It is such a delight to be in conversation with Kristen Warner after crossing paths with her various intersections in our career. We were introduced to each other and our work at the Race and Media Conference in Madison, Wisconsin in 2014. Since then both us have contributed to several of the same anthologies.

I enter into fan studies through a background in feminist audience studies and Latina/o media studies. I am not formally trained as a fandom scholar, and although when  I did learn about fan studies in graduate school it was solely through the pathbreaking work of Henry Jenkins. While I certainly was trained in the “active” camp of the passive/active audience debate, in my graduate training in the mid 2000 aughts, fan studies was presented as on the margins of audience studies, and field of media studies as a whole. was largely viewed as a less rigorous field largely because the scholars that studied fandom tended to be fans themselves. While feminist audience studies has included germinal studies of fandom (here I am thinking of the work of Angela McRobbie, Janice Radway, and Constance Penley, for example), formal fandom studies are only beginning to emerge in Latina/o Studies.

One of the major reasons why fan studies of Latina/os or Latina/o media are so rare is that Latina/o audiences tend to have an ambivalent relationship to mainstream English-language media and transnational Spanish-language media. Instead of experiencing pleasure in the form of escapism or fantasy, scholars like Viviana Rojas and Angharad Valdivia argue that Latina/o audiences more often feel anger, disappointment, and frustration due to in/visibility in media. Rebecca Wanzo also noted that African American audiences have a similar relationship to media, making it difficult to identify African American fans. Like other marginalized groups, Latina/os encounter what Gaye Tuchman coined 'symbolic annihilation' which includes underrepresentation and misrepresentation in media. What complicates this further is that Latina/os not only experience symbolic annihilation in English-language, mainstream media, but also in Spanish-language media. Although Latina/os are the target audience, Spanish-language media tends to privilege whiteness and neutral Spanish and in doing so marginalizes most of its audience in the U.S.

In order for Latina/os to enjoy a media text they have to deploy what Stuart Hall calls a negotiated reading—an interpretation that understands its dominant reading, but also reads it somewhat against the grain. bell hooks argues that this is primary way that Black audiences engage with mainstream media. Otherwise, there would be no pleasure in media consumption since it is not produced by or for Blacks and supports white patriarchal capitalism. In my book, In Search of Belonging: Latinas, Media, and Citizenship I build on this idea and argue that Latina audiences deploy a distinct “Latina gaze” when encountering images of Latinas. This gaze is a negotiated reading that understands how they are situated in the eyes of mainstream media and audiences, but also seeks pleasure wherever possible in a text. It also takes into account how they interpret Spanish-language media; texts which the Spanish-language industries claim is for them, but does not capture the dynamic reality of their identities and daily lives. For example, some Latinas audiences might engage in “self-tropicalization” where they embody and play with stereotypes of Latinas, such as the spitfire.


I am glad to be talking with you as well, Jillian! It’s really just been a matter of time that we talk about fandom together because we always end up in the same sections of fandom anthologies! So it was bound to happen because part of the reason that we often end up in trailing one another is because our work connects fandom to explicit questions of marginalized groups--an area of fan studies that has been overlooked since its very inception. But I didn’t realize the dearth of work on race and fandom until I began researching for the article I wrote on Scandal and Black women fans. It surprised me as a researcher but not necessarily as a member of a fandom. Having participated in online fandoms since the glory days of General Hospital’s Sonny and Brenda ship sailed in 1997 I was accustomed to feeling that the spaces I obsessed about my love objects were populated with people who did not look like me. In those days it was something you navigated and managed. I loved my ships and didn’t think about my own identity in relation to them. But then came graduate school and coursework on race and identity and the space to actually consider how such a defining area of my life like fandom that taught me so much about ethics and gender and affect could also be so tone deaf on conversations about how those markers intersect with race.

Fast forward to the article I wrote for Elana Levine’s Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century. I had so many assumptions about the field of identity being covered in the research that I was stunned to see it had not. And that is why the first half of my article is pretty much trying to establish that race and fandom, and more specifically, Black women and fandom, is deserving of being made visible and understood. Fan studies had done itself a great disservice in its haste to run past identity in its search to flatten fandom to the space where everyone could be a fan. That the last extensive project on Black women as fans was Jacqueline Bobo’s 1995 classic Black Women as Cultural Readers indicated So I’m extremely proud of the Scandal article because I was given an opportunity to showcase the beauty and complexity and specificity of Black lady fandom and explore how savvily obsessed these women, who may have often been fans in normative fan spaces like me were able to find a text imperfect as it was, latch on to it with all their might, and transform it into something that felt recognizable and resonant.

That quest to make Black women unknowingly shaped the core of my research to this point. Writing about The Flash’s Iris West and The Vampire Diaries’ Bonnie Bennett’s defense squads  as well as Black women fan communities around reality television Love and Hip Hop and Real Housewives of Atlanta opens fan studies back up to consider that there is still much to be understood and explored about race and identity in these consumptive areas. Black women being seen as agents who desire, who discipline, who obsess, and who angst over their love objects is still so new in fan studies so I look forward to seeing how it will progress--assuming that it will progress. Of course, the work done contemporarily in fan studies around participatory cultures and fan economies is excellent and so important. Tethering that research with the a reconsideration of how raced fan communities negotiate those spaces can serve as really insightful case studies on the ways these concepts impact groups and sub-groups.