Taking fandom out of the box


For the past two years I taught a course on Fandom and Geek Culture in the Film and Digital Media department at UC Santa Cruz.  You can check out the syllabus above, but generally the class was designed to grapple with many of the tensions outlined in my dissertation, which focuses on the demographic, representational, and authorial “revenge” of the fanboy within convergence culture, and the marginalizing effect this potentially has on fangirls.  Centrally, the course is designed to offer some context for the evolving field of fan studies, and get students thinking about the politics of participation in our contemporary mediascape.  We begin the course reading Joli Jensen’s 1992 essay “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization,” and discussing which modes of fan participation have been incorporated, and which remain stigmatized.  Throughout the quarter, I came back to this quote from Francesca Coppa, which is worth repeating here, as it eloquently summarizes many of the course concerns:

“What’s been striking to me over the course of this debate is the extent to which the gender issues reflect general problems of convergence culture–that is, the mainstreaming of fannish practice as well as the as growing respectability of ‘fandom studies’. Fandom is a subculture well on its way to becoming culture, and while that has many benefits, it also raises the risk of re-marginalizing the groups that the subculture once represented.  I worry about women becoming, yet again, a minority voice in a mixed gender fannish culture in which the makers of Chad Vader get a movie deal and the makers of the K/S vid Closer flee the internet when their vids go viral. The media–especially the genre media which has been the center of so much fannish activity–has typically courted a male demographic, despite (or perhaps because of) their female-dominated audiences. And female fans have typically made lemonade from these lemons; it’s no accident that so much ‘remix’ culture happens in the context of minority communities: women, blacks, and the disabled. But in the end, my lovingly crafted fanwork is not your marketing team’s ‘user-generated content.'”

In our final class of the term, while discussing Matt Hills’ conception of “new hegemonic fandom,” my students got into a rousing debate around which modes of fandom are more/less stigmatized today, and where certain fan practices might be placed on a subculture-culture continuum.  Below is a picture of the end result, hastily scribbled by yours truly, and a few thoughts on what this might tell us about the state of the fandom (as seen through the eyes of about 40 college students, in March 2011):

So, from left to right (or from least acceptable/most subcultural to most acceptable/mainstreamed fan practices or modes of fannish engagement):

– Cosplay in daily life (e.g. Barbara Adams in Trekkies)

– Creating slash vids (I simply wrote in “Closer” here, which was the example given by a student, but within our discussion this included slash fiction, art, etc.)

– Waiting 15 hours for a panel at Comic-con (we discussed that this might also be extended to movie premieres, video game releases, etc.)

– Cosplay at Comic-Con (several students made a hierarchical distinction here between dressing up as one’s World of Warcraft avatar and a Jedi, with the latter being marginally more acceptable)

NOTE: Students saw this side of the continuum, featuring fan activities that were considered stigmatized and/or subcultural, as being more labor intensive, skewing younger, and being viewed as more “feminized”

You’ll also note that there’s a gap here, before we head into the modes of fan engagement and performances of fannish affect that compromise the “middle ground.”  Back to the continuum…

– Card based competition games (Magic, Pokemon, et. al.)

– Collecting action figures in box

– Attending/participating in Rocky Horror Picture Show (or interactive theater)

– Collecting action figures out of box

– Routinely editing a wikipedia page for a media text/star/band you are a fan of

– Creating Brokeback Mountain parodies (or parody mash-ups generally) for YouTube

– Playing an MMORPG

– Collecting comics

– Attending a midnight show of Harry Potter (not in costume)

– Contributing to a message board

– Playing fantasy football

– Buying DVDs of all seasons of a TV show

– Following celebrities you like on Twitter

– Voting for American Idol

– Playing video games/identifying as a “gamer”

NOTE: Students observed that most of these “happy medium” examples featured affirmational modes of fan engagement, and involved expressing one’s affect through purchasing commodities/consumer loyalty, rather than through one’s own creative expression.  The arrow below this section indicates that all of these activities are in the process of shifting towards the “normative” end of the spectrum.

Again, there was a fairly large gap  between the overpopulated “middle ground” constructed by my students, and those practices they felt were completely assimilated and acceptable displays of fandom.

– Being a fan of a particular sports franchise

– Watching the Superbowl

– [This one just says AB and, sadly, I can’t remember what that was code for…any 187 students lurking here who remember?]  **One of my students just helpfully reminded me via twitter that this stands for “Angry Birds.”

– Dressing in a fandom-specific costume on Halloween

– Talking with friends about a TV series week-to-week (or “water cooler” conversations)

– Looking up info on a media text/star/band on Wikipedia

NOTE: Students observed that these activities tend to be intergenerational, or communal on a broad cultural scale (they made a distinction here vs. the subcultural communities fanworks tend to circulate in), and tend to require minimal financial investment and/or creative labor.

Some thoughts on this…

The pedagogical exercise of collaboratively creating this continuum resulted in a fantastic conversation about which modes of fandom are normalized within our “participatory culture,” and why.  I’d be curious to hear what others think this conveys (or, perhaps more importantly, what it fails to consider) about the ways in which fan culture has been mainstreamed within convergence culture, and how those shifts are perceived.  Stepping back to glance at the finished product at the end of class, my gut response was “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but I do think there are more nuanced claims to be made here about visibility, labor, etc.

One student in particular kept coming back around to “collecting action figures in box,” using it as an axial entry when deciding to place modes of fan engagement on the “unacceptable” or “acceptable” sides of the spectrum.  When I asked him why he had fixated on this one entry, he (if memory serves) chalked it up to how they are used as a signifier in media texts such as The 40 Year Old Virgin to mark forms of fandom that are “inappropriate.”  Within the context of the film, Andy’s action figures are unquestionably infantilizing objects, only rendered “acceptable” when their monetary value is discovered.  Moreover, their eventual sale is narratively necessary to complete his transition from fanboy to functioning adult…marked, as always, by heterosexual coupling and consummation.

I suggested another possible interpretation: The in/out of box dichotomy is a wonderful analogy to consider two very distinct models of fandom.  The first is one deeply embedded in questions of capital and what is considered valuable, more focused on collecting and curating (in this case, action figures, but I think we could extend this fairly easily to canonical data of a media text/franchise) than creating.  The second proposes that fandom is steeped in a sense of play (either textual or ideological, or both), and intimately tied to its transformative potential.

Increasingly, we live in an “out of the box” mediascape, in which we expect to be able to play freely with the toys/texts we’ve invested in, emotionally and financially.  The media industry might be slowly acknowledging these desires and demands, but on the whole I think they harbor anxieties that letting fans play with their toys/IP will ultimately result in this:

[Side note: Yeah, that’s right.  I just referenced Small Soldiers.  It’s that kind of blog.   Joe Dante FTW.  There’s a great scholarly paper to be written, comparing Barbie’s agency in this film vs. Toy Story 3.  Though, for copyright purposes, I believe the above is referred to in the film as a “Gwendy” doll.]

While the students in my class all vocally defended their right to play and participate with their cultural toys and artifacts, their rankings consistently revealed the continued anxiety of transformativity run amok, and the lingering relevance of Joli Jensen’s article.

I’m currently thinking about the most effective ways I might visualize this continuum, and/or create a more multimodal representation of it to use in future classes.  Suggestions, particularly for tools that you’ve found useful working on multimodal projects (or when creating these assignments for students), are always welcome!

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10 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this – In my Audiences/Users/Producers class I too have students create a continuum of fan practices, and will find yours interesting to compare. I also ask my students to re-order them based on different texts; Star Wars activities usually rank as more acceptable than Star Trek; last semester Dr Who outranked Lord Byron :-)

  2. suzannescott says:

    Hey Michele,

    Thanks for commenting, and I’m happy to hear that others are engaging in similar exercises. I’d love to hear more about your class and their take on this. There was some ranking of media franchises implicit in this list (and some explicit in the conversations that surrounded its creation). I found the fact that students felt the need to demarcate between dressing up as a Jedi vs. one’s WoW character/avatar really interesting in the ways that it subtly invoked the lingering anxieties about fans being unable to demarcate between fantasy and reality. Jedi cosplay was deemed marginally more acceptable because of the mainstream popularity of the franchise.

    I’m totally fascinated by the Lord Byron/Dr. Who ranking- perhaps a generational shift in the fan/aficionado, low cult/high cult valuation? Or perhaps we can simply all agree that Dr. Who rules…

  3. suzannescott says:

    Also, one of my wonderful students from this class just reminded me that “AB” above was code for “Angry Birds.” (Which, in retrospect, I should have figured out given its positioning). Huzzah for former students and casual gaming!

  4. I love this continuum and it seems to also fall in line with the central issue of my dissertation–which is the role of gender in determining the cultural legitimacy of fannish practices. My own sense is that the resistive or subcultural power of fandom lies mostly in what Giddens describes as the “radicalizing potential” of intimacy. The further to the mainstream these practices go, the less intimate they become (compare fandoms for the same media texts on LJ vs. Facebook, for example). Stripping fandom of intimacy and focusing instead on profit generation and ‘user generated content’ seems to me to be doing precisely what Coppa points out: re-marginalizing the populations that have been at the center of fandom from the beginning. You have it spot on. My own work looks at how this plays out in the different ways that this gendering plays out in how vids and machinima are received within convergence culture. Just my two cents. It is great work you are doing and I love your syllabi. I would love to hear how you get your students engaged in thinking about these ideas. In my intro to film/media courses I can only devote a couple of weeks to fandom/new media and I have tried comparing ‘political remix’ to vidding but I find that the students are very resistant to discussing differences–especially in terms of gender. I need a new approach!

  5. bah, sorry for the poor editing!

  6. suzannescott says:

    Darlene, I feel like your dissertation and my dissertation should form some sort of diss!Voltron, it seems like they share similar concerns, albeit from slightly different perspectives. I’d absolutely love to read more about the work you’ve done on intimacy (especially as my own work tends to deal with this in terms of visibility, which might just be the other side of the coin here).

    The vids/machinima is great go-to example, and one I’ve found that clearly articulates these differences for students. I almost always assign the Louisa Stein/Robert Jones debate on the relative “transformativity” of the two (http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/06/gender_and_fan_studies_round_t.html) and get the students to select which “side” they would take in the debate and why, then ask how much of their responses is based on a familiarity (or lack thereof) with the respective visual “languages” of machinima and vids, the genres they tend to favor, their respective visibility and sanctioning by the media industry, etc. I also think Louisa’s point re: how the history of women playing with technology and producing similar fantexts tends to get obscured within discussions/celebrations of machinima is an important one.

    First and foremost, I was insanely blessed to have two batches of incredible students two years in a row- they were engaged, open-minded, critical, etc. So, a large chunk of the credit here for what “worked” here goes to them. In terms of my own strategies, I always begin this course by asking them what they think of when I say the word “fan,” “geek,” etc. The same responses/sterotypes tend to come up (Comic Book Guy, D&D basement dwelling, etc.), and while there tends to be one student who will invoke Twihards (usually amid groans and eyerolling), for the most part these images of the fan tend to be of fanBOYS, specifically. So, that’s where I begin, by posing the question of why fandom tends to be coded as a masculine enterprise in our popular consciousness. I then move into a bit of a historical overview of the first wave of fan studies, its emphasis on both female fans and feminist counter-readings of pop culture texts, and so on.

    I try to keep these tensions at the fore of most class discussions, so whether we’re discussion something that is pointedly gendered (e.g. Twilight fandom), or something general that can be read as having a gendered component (e.g. fannish gift economies), questions of who is being courted to participate, and which modes of participation are being more heavily regulated and/or marginalized, are always implicit in those discussions.

    More on this class in future blog entires…much to be learned from these two experiences, and my students from both years still send me relevant links/clips on occasion, so it’s good to know some of them are still keeping an eye on these developments!

  7. I would love to see a diss-Voltron. That would be epic. Thank you for the link to the Stein/Jones debate. One chapter of my dissertation is basically focused on arguing against Jones’ claims regarding machinima’s potential to be “more transformative” (and etc.) than vids or fan fiction by showing how the two genres (vids and machinima) are both doing very similar work (even in terms of intimacy in some ways) but are discussed and critiqued in different ways due to constructions of gender. The “From Shooting Monsters” article really got me riled up in some ways. I am working on a syllabus specifically on fan cultures right now to propose for the coming year. We shall see. Thank you! This gives me some great resources. I am working on two articles in tandem right now with the goal of having them submitted by the of the summer. One looks specifically at intimacy in the context of vidding, and the other examines the different ways in which intimacy functions in corporate-sponsored fandom vs. fan-driven culture. I would be happy to send them your way when they are finished. I look forward to more updates on your teaching!

  8. ethan says:

    Thanks for this post (and your post on FB’s Teaching Media). I’m doing this activity in class today.

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