The Purpose of Fan Studies, or, On the Importance of Studying Fan Shame

I find that it’s very easy to lose sight of the purpose of Fan Studies. All it takes is a perceived insult from someone perceived to be a non-fan, and you’re ready to use academia as your personal army in the righteous Crusade for the Acceptance of Fandom.

The last time this happened to me was about a year ago. Describing the present blog to a blogging class, I received a resounding “what?” from a fellow student, followed by an echoing “why?” from two others when attempting to present the field of Fan Studies. It struck me that fandom scholars might have been wrong in announcing that digital technologies and the increasingly participatory nature of entertainment had made fans more socially acceptable in their new visibility. I began fantasizing about finding out the truth of the matter through research. A Fan Studies scholar would put together a little pile of students, divide it into two smaller piles of students, and assign a task to each. Pile Number 1 would compile the media representations of fandom over the past five years[1], and draw a general picture through qualitative research. Pile Number 2 would take a sample of the general population, conduct surveys, polls and interviews until it could report a public opinion on fans. Put together, the two results would summarize the current Public Understanding of Fandom. Ta-daaa!

And what do you do with these results? Well, if they demonstrate an overwhelmingly negative view of fandom, you have the knowledge necessary to start a campaign for the acceptance of fans. If they demonstrate a mixed opinion of fandom, you focus your efforts on tipping the scales in the favour of a positive opinion. Finally, if the results demonstrate an overwhelmingly positive view of fandom, your work here is done, have a good life, everyone. You can go offer your services to the folks over in Gender Studies.

In all fairness, in a black-or-white sort of world -where concepts such as “fan”, “non-fan”, and “general population” are clearly defined, where a widespread acceptance of fandom would not decrease its appeal as a community of identification, and also where discussions of fandom and gender are not so closely intertwined- this might work. Academic research could limit itself to fulfilling a political agenda. But no matter how strongly our human need for categorization tries to convince us otherwise, this reality is full of grey areas. And the purpose of academic research in the Humanities is to explore these grey areas.

Of course, grey areas being uncomfortable, they tend to be politically charged, and therefore a field such as Fan Studies cannot help but take a stance. But resorting to a strictly political speech prevents it from doing its thing: studying fans, their practices, their role in society, and so on. This is the reason why Henry Jenkins is so keen on putting his seminal work Textual Poachers in context whenever it is mentioned; as a cornerstone of the field of Fan Studies, this work felt obliged to defend fandom to academia and to the world at large. Had the field limited itself to this political goal, it would have tarried pretty quickly- further invalidating the fan subculture as a result.

It is therefore a good thing that Fan Studies moved on from this “obligation of defensiveness”[2]. Nevertheless, recurrent clashes with non-fans, such as the one described above, make me wonder whether the exclusion of non-fans from discussions doesn’t leave a big gap in the general conversation on fandom. Yes, it makes sense that the fans’ relationship to the outside world should no longer be the chief concern of the field, and yes, the focus on certain relevant groups (objects of fandom/media producers, academia, copyright enforcers, and educators for the most part, with the occasional ominous mention of “the press”) leads to more targeted observations, but are we not ignoring a crucial part of the fan experience by leaving out “the outside world”? After all, before interacting with a producer, a scholar, a lawyer, or even each other, fans interact with the guy who sells them their magazine, the usher who leads them to their seat, and the household with whom they live.

And this is why I am so excited about the discussion on fan shame, especially as led by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen in their Fandom at the Crossroads. Not only is this topic essential to understanding fandom and to controlling the reliability of research into fandom (for shame gets in the way of understanding fannish attachment, if only by prompting fans to resort to defence mechanisms when interviewed, thus leading to the creation of what Matt Hills calls “discursive mantras”[3]), but it is the only constructive way of involving the outside world into the fold. For the concern of Fan Studies isn’t what the non-fans think of the fans, but indeed what the fans perceive the non-fans’ opinion of them to be. And at the moment, this perceived opinion is so negative as to manifest itself as an internalized, omnipresent sense of shame:

“There is shame about being a fan at all, shame over the extremity of “some” fans, shame over ‘certain’ fan practices, over having those practices revealed to the rest of the world, or to the fannish object themselves (…). There is also shame about studying something as ‘frivolous’ as fandom (…).”[4]

Perhaps a more constructive and realistic research project would consist in assessing this sense of shame with the fans themselves, determining whether or not it has decreased in the past few years, and what its consequences are on the fans’ practices, relationships and mental health today.

 

[1] Little did I know that there already was such an ongoing project online, http://as-others-see-us.dreamwidth.org

[2] Jenkins, Henry and Hills, Matt. Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media. Issue 2. ‘Intensities interviews Henry Jenkins @Console-ing Passions, University of Bristol, July 7th, 2001’. http://intensitiescultmedia.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/intensities-interviews-jenkins.pdf . Accessed 6th May, 2014.

[3] Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. London and New York: Routledge. 2002. p 67.

[4] Larsen, Katherine and Zubernis, Lynn. Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2012. p 1.

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