By all accounts, fan studies was first established as an academic field in 1992 when four key books were published – Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth by Camille Bacon-Smith, Textual Poachers: Studies in Culture and Communication by Henry Jenkins, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture by Constance Penley, and The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media edited by Lisa A. Lewis. Since then, both the field and fandom at large have flourished, in large part thanks to the internet.
Fan scholars investigate both online and offline fan communities but largely seem to skew towards the digital sphere. Social media makes it easier for fans from all over the world to access, create, and share fan texts of their favourite fictional worlds. This, in turn, makes it easier for fan scholars to study and reach out to fans and their communities. Contrary to popular belief, fan texts don’t just comprise of fanfiction. While fanfiction represents a huge chunk of fandom, fan texts also consist of a range of multimodal creations which include art, commentary, and critiques. The act of creating fan texts implies a love for the source text. But scholars contend that another reason these fan texts exist is because fans find something important missing in their favourite fictional worlds; something they’re determined to explore themselves (Jenkins, 2012; Rosenblatt and Tushnet, 2015). Fans’ prior experiences and views shape the way in which they interpret the texts. These meanings may not have been originally intended by the author of the source text. Fans insert their own concerns, hopes, fears, and beliefs into the texts they read and the fan texts they create and share (Coker, 2012).
Fan texts reflect and respond to social, cultural, and political contexts. I studied two Facebook fan pages for my master’s dissertation and found that fans frequently use the framework of their favourite texts to explore social justice, gender, mental health, politics, and LGBTQIA themes. Alhayek (2017) describes how Arabic Game of Thrones fans interpret the fantasy text in ways which highlight their real-life political contexts. They draw connections between the conflicts in the show and the conflicts in their own geographical region. Scholars propose that debates and discussions about the fictional world and their parallels in the real world resonate with everyday audiences and can allow fans to understand and imagine alternatives to social or economic injustices (Click et al., 2017; Ito et al., 2015; Kligler-Vilenchik, 2016; Brough and Shresthova, 2012). You can find examples of this at protests where politics and fandom intersect in the form of Harry Potter signs.
What makes online fan spaces particularly empowering is that fans from groups which are under-represented or misrepresented in popular media can create fan texts which highlight their perspectives (Garcia, 2016; Rosenblatt and Tushnet, 2015). Fan texts become a way for marginalised groups to challenge dominant narratives which stereotype or erase their experiences. A majority of fanfiction writers are women and queer fans. Both groups rarely see multifaceted representations of their experiences in mainstream media. Both fans and scholars argue this is why they turn to fandom to explore issues which matter to them (Derecho, 2006; De Kosnik, 2016; McGuire, 2018; Rosenblatt and Tushnet, 2015). For example, women write fanfiction which emphasises female agency to negotiate the lack of female characters in their favourite texts like Star Wars, Supernatural or The Lord of the Rings (Handley, 2010; Viars and Coker, 2015). The fact that fanfiction is seen as a female-dominated space may also explain the derision the genre receives as compared to male-authored adaptations.
In the case of globally popular texts, the diversity of fans present in online fan communities means that fans encounter ideas which they may otherwise not have considered. Fans from both dominant and marginalised groups can learn from these new encounters and discuss issues from different viewpoints. Therefore, both fans and scholars frame fandom as a space which is open, inclusive, and respectful of diverse opinions and perspectives (Jenkins, 2006; 2012; Literat and Kligler-Vilenchik, 2018; Meggers, 2012). Online fan communities are also heralded for encouraging critical and resistant readings of source texts and of popular culture where fans discuss, critique, and debate interpretations based on their own prior experiences and knowledge (Coker, 2012; Coppa et al., 2017; Jenkins, 2012). Overall, scholars believe that fandom can be an empowering space for both young people and adults as fans gather together to talk about the worlds and characters they love.
THE FANDOM STORY
The above-mentioned version of fandom does ring true for some fans. In media fandoms of a globally popular text produced in the West [Harry Potter or Doctor Who, for example], if you’re white, Western, middle class, and able-bodied, you’re probably having a great time in fandom. For others, their relationship with online fandom and with fan studies is more complicated. Fan studies research largely emerges from – and focuses on texts which are created in – the U.S. and the UK (Busse and Gray, 2011; Chin et al., 2017; Jenkins, 2012). This lack of diversity among fan scholars also means that they’ve positioned certain fan experiences, concerns, and identities as normative of fandom as a whole. Thanks to globalisation and the internet, media fandoms are demographically diverse. But as a few fans and scholars have pointed out, fan studies largely doesn’t study this diversity. Many fan experiences are marginalised or invisible (Busse and Gray, 2011; Coker and Pande, 2018; Pande, 2017; Wanzo, 2015; Woo, 2017).
The first wave of fan studies and the scholars inspired by them [including myself while I was writing my master’s dissertation] tend to promote an overly utopian conception of fandom (Thomas, 2011). However, fans are not always critical and open-minded when it comes to their favourite texts. Sperb (2010) studies fans who nostalgically defend Disney’s controversially racist and long-out-of-distribution film Song of the South. Young (2014) investigates George R. R. Martin fans who ridicule and dismiss concerns about racism and representation in his books and television series, and position both as normatively white. In American and British media texts, whiteness is often assumed to be the default – even if the source text explicitly includes diverse characters. In The Hunger Games book series, the character Rue is described as black. But the casting of a black actress to play her in the film version caused borderline [and sometimes outright] racist outrage from many white fans online (Garcia and Haddix, 2014; Jenkins, 2017; Wanzo, 2015).
Fan studies also tends to promote the idea of media fandom exceptionalism where media fans [as opposed to sports fans or video game fans] are universally progressive and create extraordinary fan texts (Pande; 2017; Pearson, 2010). While this is patently untrue, as seen above, this also results in a lack of studies examining other kinds of fan engagement and participation. Scholars are more reluctant to study toxic fandoms and platforms which feature hatred, misogyny, racism, and other reactionary attitudes; although as Click and colleagues (2017) observe, reporting on topics like Gamergate is likely to make researchers a target for online abuse. Nonfiction fan texts in the form of commentary and critiques are severely under-researched. Not much is known about the way casual fans and individual fans engage with their favourite media texts (Bury et al., 2013; Busse and Gray, 2011). As Bury (2017) points out, some fans may not interact with others but may still consider themselves a part of the fan community.
The belief that fandom is progressive, inclusive, and subversive is usually perceived only through the lenses of gender, sexual orientation, and whiteness (De Kosnik and carrington, 2019; Pande and Moitra, 2017; Russo, 2017). However, there are hierarchies within both fan spaces and fan studies where some fan experiences and identities are privileged over others (Annett, 2011; Pande, 2017; Stein, 2011). The idea of fandom as a safe space only applies to a certain kind of fan. Jenkins (2017) acknowledges that early fan scholars – including himself – overlooked racial analysis within fandom. In recent years, fandom has been replete with discussions about race, racism, and representation, but this isn’t proportionately reflected in fan studies (Coker and Pande, 2018). Scholars have also advocated for more research on older fans and disabled fans (Harrington and Bielby, 2017; Ellcessor, 2017).
The perception of fandom as resistant doesn’t need to be completely tossed out. These spaces do offer an empowering potential for readings which critique dominant culture. Fan critiques about issues like race and social justice have acted as consciousness-raising tools which allow other fans to develop more nuanced interpretations of their favourite texts (De Kosnik, 2016; Pande, 2017). There are now more conversations about the need for improved and diverse representations within both fandom and fan studies, thereby challenging the normative notion of a fan (Busse and Gray, 2011; Chin and Morimoto, 2013; Pande, 2017). As Woo (2017) contends, feminist and anti-racist conversations which are becoming increasingly visible online have also made their appearance within fandom and fan studies. Earlier this year, De Kosnik and carrington (2019) edited an issue of the online fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures dedicated to fans and fandoms of colour. However, they caution researchers that while there has been a flurry of conversations about race, it is important to draw on multiple intersections of oppression. To complement the significant focus on race, fan researchers also need to analyse other aspects of social inequalities.
“An intersectional analysis of power compels us to ask why, when we invoke the notion of female fandoms, all the women are presumptively white; why, when a single Black, Indigenous, Asian/Pacific Islander, Muslim, or Latinx presence enters a predominantly white audience or cast of characters, are the avatars of diversity so likely to be men? As representations of LGBT/queer and trans* lives emerge in more and more popular texts, we should also question the one-dimensional nature (Ferguson 2018) of these variations from cisgender, heteronormative scripts.”(De Kosnik and carrington, 2019)
Henry Jenkins’ oeuvre has hugely influenced my own work, ever since I discovered his books and articles while studying for my master’s degree. His theories went on to undergird my master’s dissertation on online fan communities. Jenkins frequently interviews scholars, fans, and creators on his blog, which is a great resource for anybody within and outside academia who’s interested in learning about fandom and fan studies. [He also identified as a proud Ravenclaw in one of his books and that was the first time I realised, wait … academic writing can be fun?!]
When I first discovered these theories about fandom, they really resonated with me. When I was younger, nobody in my life seemed to love reading and Harry Potter as much as I did. It was only when I discovered fan communities on the internet as a thirteen-year-old that my mind opened up to all the possibilities. I used to read and write Harry Potter fanfiction as a teenager [mine was a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters]. The conversations around my favourite fictional texts, both then and now, reshaped my interpretations and the ways in which I engage with culture and the world. I’m a less active fan now – the extent of my fandom is lurking on Facebook fan pages and talking to my friends about books, TV shows, and movies we’ve fallen in love with. However, these conversations and encounters with fan texts significantly influence my interpretations and opinions.
While I began by recognising my own experiences in the arguments which positioned online fandom as semi-utopian spaces, I now realise my experiences also reflect the theories about marginalised fans. Fans and researchers discuss how many fans of colour assume that online fandoms of Western media texts are largely populated with white fans. I realised I had the same irrational assumption. I also noticed that my favourite kinds of fan texts – critiques, commentary, and podcasts – are generally absent in fan studies discourse. This project is an attempt to decolonise my own brain and to investigate the experiences and perceptions of those fans whose views are frequently missing within fandom and within fan studies.