Imagine, for a moment, that you are a detective and your assignment is to investigate an elite club where you suspect illicit activities are being held. First, you stake out the building from your car, noticing right away there is only one entrance and no windows. Armed with stale coffee and your trusty notepad, you bide your time waiting, watching as a people who differ in age, race, and gender file in and out of the building at all hours of the day. Finally, the time comes to make your move. You approach the door only to realize that you don’t know the secret password. Your access to the building is denied; you can hear the lock clicking into place on the other side of the door. You are left staring up at the’ members only’ sign that hangs above the entrance. Your investigation has reached a dead end.
I provided this rather colorful analogy to describe the inherent paradox of fandom discourse, to expose the difficulty of examining a subject while remaining separated from that subject. Rather than constructing a dialogue between fans and non-fans, scholars have adopted a rhetoric that reinforces the fans’ status as other (Booth; Hills 38). Fans are described as “weird, obsessive, and even crazed” (Hills 31). As a fan myself, I’m deeply offended by this type of language. I don’t appreciate that my interests are dismissed by scholars who believe that I should be channeling my energy into something more productive like politics or sports.
Sadly. I’m not surprised by the classification of fans as abnormal. I remember well when I first ventured into fandom due to my love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My parents rolled their eyes when I plastered my walls with posters, read Buffy tie-in novels, and dyed my hair blonde, which to be fair looked awful on me, to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar. “It’s just a TV show,” my mother would say in her condescending tone. She simply didn’t understand. “We all have idols,” I tried to explain. Buffy Summers was mine, and I wanted to be just like her – strong, resourceful, and…special. Every time I turned on the television, I could feel their judgmental glares even without seeing them. They spoke volumes, telling me that this was just a phase I was going through, telling me I should grow up and reconnect with reality.
The effect of their judgment completely alienated me. I started keeping my fan-girl behavior to myself, hiding away my adoration for the show. I didn’t tell my friends at school. I defended my change in fashion as my attempt to try something new, and all the while I re-watched episodes whenever possible. I secretly started writing fanfiction, but I was too afraid to share it with anyone, worried about what others would think and say. Eventually, I sought refuge online – seeking desperately to find others who shared my interests. I needed to know that there were others out there like me. I joined fan message boards and engaged with other fans about the meaning of individual episodes. Indeed, I was just thrilled to find out that I was not alone; thus, my immersion into fandom began with Joss Whedon’s supernatural adolescent drama.
In many ways fan scholars remind me of my parents, judging something that they don’t understand – assuming fans constitute a minority of the population. To understand the errors of fandom discourse, let me begin with a very basic question: What is a fan? It should be noted that there is no concrete definition of a fan; when discussing fan culture, scholars typically isolate a specific fandom to serve as a case study in their analysis of the text-audience relationship ((Booth; Hebdige 586; Hills 35; Hodkinson 599-601). This method of focusing on one case study is too narrow and more general definition must be applied.
A fan is an individual who actively derives pleasure from engaging with a source text over a period; this engagement can be as simple as enjoying a film, cheering for a sports team, re-reading a favorite novel, or even playing a video game more than once. Though my study of fandom concentrates on the interaction between viewers and visual texts, i.e. film and television, a source text can be anything: a book, a video-game, a comic, a sports team, a music group, a political ideology, a celebrity, even a historical figure (yes – believe it or not there is fanfiction devoted to Thomas Jefferson) and the list continues. Essentially, everyone is a fan of something. Some fans simply enjoy a given text and move on while others immerse themselves in fan culture.
In the internet age, online fan sites and forums have become the most prominent method of fan communication where fans negotiate and recreate meanings within the source text (Hills, 30). These fan sites allow for a wide variety of fandom representation and provide a sense of validation for fans, proving that their interests are normal, healthy expressions of identity and pleasure. Fans identify with a given text, using the characters and narratives given to serve as a road-map for navigating issues that may feel too big to tackle along, issues such as family dysfunction, death, sexuality, adolescence, bullying, and this list continues. Fans also incorporate aspects of the text into their own identity, buying merchandise to support their fandom or adopting speech patterns of characters within a text.
Furthermore, fandom is both a social and personal phenomenon. Fans connect with each other, using merchandise consumption and the sharing of fan-based material as a means of separating themselves from non-fans. Fans gather at the keyboards to create and share para-texts such as fan fiction and fan videos, seeking to prolong the pleasure derived from the initial moment of captivation. The basic premise of most fandom para-texts centers on the phenomenon of shipping which refers to the fan practice of encouraging a romance between certain characters of the source text at the expense of other characters.
From fan fiction to fan videos and fan art to entire sites dedicated to character romance, the practice of shipping which originated as a mere channel for fan creativity has taken center stage in all fandoms. However, fandom has been ignored as a largely female phenomenon, citing, in somewhat condescending terms, that shipping is just another avenue for wish fulfillment – allowing women to fantasy about both the ideal partner and relationship that they will never have. The possibilities of fan-shipping to change the national conversation regarding female sexuality, providing female fans an outlet to voice their sexual desires has been completely ignored.
Much like the detective whose investigation ends at the ‘members only’ sign, fan studies are dominated by scholars who write about the phenomenon of fan behavior from the outside, effectively creating a barrier between those who have incorporated fandom practices into their collective sense of identity and those who remain detached from fandom activity. Unfortunately, this divide is only strengthened by fandom discourse. Fandom participation is treated as a phenomenon that is simply not normal. Even Matt Hills, a scholar that is credited with bringing internet fandom into the limelight of academic study, compares fandom communities to subcultures (Hills 30-51); relying heavily on the works of Dick Hebdige and Paul Hodkinson, Hills describes fandom practices a means of “expressing dissatisfaction with daily life” (Booth; Hebdige 586; Hills 35; Hodkinson 599-601).
Though escapism is undoubtedly a factor underlying fan behavior, Hills’ claim that escapism is sole motivation behind fandom participation is condescending at best, giving readers the impression that fans are incapable of coping with the mundane aspects of life. Hills’ diagnosis of fans is offensive, and his rhetoric does not improve as his argument deepens as he defines fandom as an “unnatural break, a disorderly rupture from the social and aesthetic conventions of the dominant, mainstream society” (Hebdige 587). I believe this language alienates fans from the dominant society and vice-versa, creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality. This approach is counterproductive to the study of fandom as it alienates fans from the outside world and, by extension, from the scholars of the discourse, itself.
Like many fans, my initiation into fandom culture began in adolescence. While Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not the first text that I had gravitated toward, the show was the first example of text that I connected with on a personal level. I was thirteen when I began watching the show, it provided an outlet for me – a way to escape my dysfunctional family situation. When my mother would fall into alcoholic stupors, I would simply turn up the volume on the television, forcing myself to focus on every aspect of the show – its characters, narratives, and themes. Lacking any form of a positive female role model in my life, I began to identify with Buffy Summers, sharing in her pain and joys.
With Buffy, I saw a strong woman who struggled with fitting in at school, navigating the murky waters of dating, and dealing with questions on who I am and who I will become. As a teenager, all these themes deeply resonated with me. In taking to the internet, I found a community of other fans who shared my passion to the text; my alienation ended as I connected with teenagers all over the world, sharing ideas about creative writing, feminism, and philosophy. I made friends via role-playing sites, friends that I still have to this day. I feel like fandom’s ability to form a community amongst those who may feel estranged by their interests is severely overlooked as it the participatory culture that fans create.
As I’ve grown older, my fandom interests have changed, moving from film and television texts to books to even comics and video games. With the advent of social media, fandom practices have increased. Unfortunately, the discourse surrounding fandom has not. I believe scholars’ approach to treating fandom as a subculture, ultimately, do more harm than good – encouraging fans to hide their activity away from the prying eyes of the dominant society. Fan practices are conveyed through language that marks them as different, even inferior when compared to the so-called ordinary viewer. Fans should not feel demonized for their interests because it minimizes the significance of the participatory culture in which fans are involved. If this trend continues, studying fan activity will remain difficult. One obvious solution is to change the very language scholars use to discuss fan practices. If scholars continue to distance themselves from fans, fandom discourse will remain elusive.
Fandom discourse must move in a new direction. Analyzing a fandom should be treated like learning a new culture; it should be studied through immersion theory. Scholars need to walk a mile in the fans’ shoes so to speak. Instead of relegating fan engagement to the unhealthy adoration of a few individuals,” (Booth) fan scholars must leave the sidelines and clamor to the keyboards; they must participate in the forum discussions, the Tumblr blogs, the Twitter feeds, the fan-art posts and the fanfiction websites to truly capture the essence of what it means to be a fan. Scholars need to listen rather than judge as fans shared their interpretation of a text and what the text meant to them, allowing their voice to be heard instead of analyzing them from a distance. More participation from scholars will encourage fans to be more open about their activities and more welcoming of outsiders – effectively transforming the ‘members only’ sign into a welcome mat.