More fan debate: what’s “traditional fan behavior” anyway?

Will Brooker and Ksenia Prasolova have a great discussion in this week’s Fan Debate offering, querying not only the limits of the category “fan,” but what does all these gendered distinctions offer to the discussion. I’m particularly in agreement with Ksenia’s points about how the construction of fandom in academia and in particular fan communities has itself structured what “counts” as “fandom.” To wit, here she wonders whether, in all the current focus on LiveJournal-centered fandom (in academic writing, at least), we’ve lost contact with other, more mundane, and more numerous, venues and practices:

That’s one of the striking things about sites like Livejournal for me – the way it places personal thoughts and conversation into a semi-public, semi-permanent arena – and the accessibility of blogs and discussion boards is obviously a gift for fan-scholars. But obviously, if we rely on those easily-accessible forms of fan discourse, we’re also overlooking all the more elusive discussion that goes on every day in the living room or the staff canteen, and perhaps we risk taking the part as representative of the whole. Again, let’s bear in mind that there are a lot of people, male and female, like myself – who enjoyed Serenity and Firefly but don’t create anything about it or engage in any communities about it. A lot of people who value a specific cultural text and for whom that text is an important part of their lives don’t engage in easily-recognisable, visible, traditional fan behaviour.

It’s this notion of “traditional fan behaviour” that really nails it. What’s “traditional” in one venue may be an outlier in another. Part of the problem the whole endeavor of fan studies has is that the parameters of fandom are simultaneously crucial and indefinite. The identification and observation of myriad borders, boundaries, territories, and the like (e.g,. public vs. private message boards, friendslists, official vs. un-official sites, gen vs. slash, etc.) are what seemingly fuels much fan studies…and yet there is no map of the entire fan “universe” (nor could there ever be*). The debate about fandom being either a matter of degree or kind in the past few weeks’ discussion at fandebate and elsewhere points to this missing whole: is it totally distinct (from “regular” reading/viewing), or is it “regular” readingviewing, only amped up the scale?

Moreover, what is it exactly that separates these territories? Gender has been the default marker of this entire discussion, but I’ve always had the nagging feeling that what we’ve really been talking about was more particular practices (and within that, particular kinds of “progressive” creative output and/or reading strategies) than anything as unwieldy as “gender” per se. I’m more interested in understanding these practices first, and understanding how they’re deployed and managed, than in starting from a label of “male” or “female” or “fangirl” or “fanboy.” I hope Will and Ksenia have helped move this discussion forward this week.

* That said, the notion (spectre?) of quantitative analysis and demographics keeps surfacing in these discussions like a kind of epistemological whale in a sea of theorizing, with most acknowledging that it just hasn’t been done enough (but few volunteering to do it!).

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4 Responses to “More fan debate: what’s “traditional fan behavior” anyway?”

  1. kbusse Says:

    Well, since I’ve come down on the “degree becomes kind” side before and do want to retain a sense of awareness that liking something very much and being in fandom are not quite the same thing, I thought I’d offer myself as a critical interlocutor 🙂

    Thing is: there clearly is a the matter of degree, and there are multiple lines along which people can express their fannishness and along which people can feel their fannish affect (and I really hope that Cornel and I will get to talk about that some more, since we are interested and invested in quite different aspects of fannishness, I think). However, my major caveat is that a focus on the more acceptable behavior might further endanger the more out there attitudes.

    Now, Jonathan’s argued pretty much the opposite, and I think he certainly has a point that we are all too eager to look at extreme cases only, since it makes our research much easier (as the recent LJ debates showed again, we talk fast and a lot and often not too stupidly either about ourselves :). Not everyone lives fannish life 24/7, and scholars need to be aware of the spectrum in attitudes, behaviors, and intensities that audiences display.

    At the same time, fans themselves often have difficulties not falling into the geek hierarchy of looking down on those farther down the geekish/fannish spectrum (Franscesca’s essay in our book is a brilliant reading of the hierarchy and its professional/amateur and gendered components), and I’d hate to replicate that in scholarship.

    I guess my question might be, what serves as a better model to explore outward: watercooler or FIAWOL?

  2. dkompare Says:

    That’s certainly the question, though is either necessarily “better” than the other, let alone other models besides?

    There’s no clear answer to this, and I’m not sure there ever can be. That said, what I fear is that analysis of texts and practices may get too mired in political affinity with particular terms and models (as has all-too-often been the case in the humanities in general). The very labels fangirl and fanboy may be deployed as easy shorthand in these debates (and I’m certainly as guilty as anyone in this regard), but their discursive pull is so powerful that it obscures other forms and practices.

    Anyway, I need to talk with Cindy about this in preparation for our piece, so you’ll see more of it there! 🙂

  3. Jonathan Gray Says:

    Yeah, as Kristina said, I want a broader definition of fandom. I think there are two key impulses behind this:
    1. Quite simply, when an average person on the street (why are average people always on the street, by the way? anyways…) asks “are you a fan of X?” they don’t necessarily mean all the things that fan studies has often set as the passcode into being a “fan.” So it’s somewhat problematic to use the term “fan” against common usage.
    2. I’m not so sure that studying those forms of “acceptable” fandom will marginalize fandom. They certainly could, if done poorly, and if that’s *all* that fan studies does, but if fan studies itself, and those affiliated with it, has a contingent who examine such fandoms, we might be able to fill in what is often quite a big gap in media studies’ knowledge of audiences, and in the process may be able to contextualize fandom in Krsitina’s sense of the word more fully and as less of a foreign entity to some readers, students, and colleagues.
    I’m sort of spoiling my conversation with Roberta for Henry’s blog, though, so I’ll shut up now 🙂

  4. dkompare Says:

    Great points, Jonathan. As with so much, it boils down to semantics, which then boils over into discourses (propelling particular versions of “fan” attributes).

    Your second point is particularly important. Time and again, audience studies (broadly) has posited various dichotomies which have analyzed one category (e.g., “women,” “children,” etc.) and left others to theory (e.g., “men,” “adults,” etc.). Surely there’s room in the field to explore all these categories and constructions. But the realities of academic production have, as they always have, pulled the field in particular directions, and away from others. So there’s a dominant academic version of fandom, just as there’s a dominant academic version of production, of genre, of media technology, etc.

    Moreover, depending on whose banner you work under, these dominant versions may be different. A stereotypical political economist, media effects scholar, and cultural studies scholar will all have very different dominant versions of these categories in their fields (as have been well documented and debated for years).

    Anyway, I’m glad to see this discussion start to pick at these assumptions more and more. This shouldn’t result in a re-marginalization of particular forms of fandom (e.g., slash), but should ideally map these practices in more intricate and useful networks of meaning, affect, and practices (among other categories).


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