Fandom has become a great space to discuss discrimination. Fans not only debate the topic, but control their own practices and police representations. This is very inspiring stuff, but since I am not currently active in any of my fandoms, I find myself wondering about the individual fan attachment, and whether it can harbour biases like racism.
The thought came to me when I re-read Fans: The Mirror of Consumption, by Cornell Sandvoss. He describes the fan attachment as an appropriation. He posits that the fan subconsciously projects themselves on, and extends themselves through, their object of fandom. This logic of assimilation put me in mind of cultural appropriation. I am no psychologist, but it seems to me that the forces behind cultural appropriation (hegemony, white privilege…) operate on the same level as the fan attachment; somewhere below the level of consciousness, as naturalized and automatic behaviours that help the individual make sense of the world and as a result are not often questioned. I wondered about the ramifications of Sandvoss’ theory when a fan in a position of privilege chooses a fan object belonging to an oppressed group. Could the process of fan appropriation then result in cultural appropriation?
The questions were really directed at myself, as I am a white fan whose oldest and most enduring fan attachment is for a black Kenyan character, Storm of the X-Men. To me she isn’t fictional; as Sandvoss explains, she is a part of me, and the idea that I could have assimilated her in the colonialist as well as in the fan sense is very disturbing. Also, objectively speaking, cultural appropriation is a thought process (or lack thereof, as it happens) that I don’t want to practice, even on fictional characters. So I decided it was time for a bit of introspection. I asked myself which of Ororo’s characteristics I had fallen for and taken for myself. If any of these had to do with a stereotypical or simplified notion of African-ness, then I could call myself a cultural appropriator.
Right off the bat, a thought jumped in the way. It was impossible that my connection to her could have perpetuated white supremacy. I had first encountered her in early childhood, at a time when race and ethnicity are arguably off your radar, and I had followed her antics even after I had realised our racial difference. If anything, the attachment had made me a more racially tolerant person, as I had grown up loving a black woman, however fictional. Mm. Was that lazy thinking? Yes. Of the kind that supports cultural appropriation, actually. It was cultural appropriation; I had made Storm a token of my goodness. This didn’t bode well. I ploughed on.
In essence, I was trying to figure out the reasons for my fan attachment, and this is an infamously difficult exercise. You need to apply honesty and objectivity to something that is pure emotion, and you also need to
weed out the socially acceptable reasons you’ve given non-fans over the years, and the ones you have acquired from fandom. The reflection took over two years, and I’m not sure I succeeded, but some of
Storm’s characteristics did recur in my analysis: her wisdom, her composure, her charisma, her beauty, and her motherly behaviour. She was unreachable, but she cared for others. She was a powerhouse contained by sage words. A picture was beginning to emerge in my consciousness, so I asked myself a last question. Physically speaking, which “version” of Ororo did I prefer? It was 1990’s Storm, as she had been in my childhood, but I was open to all images of her with long, straight hair.
For those of you who are not Storm fans, the character I just described is Goddess Ororo. This is how she was represented at the beginning of her career, in the 90’s cartoon (or at least, in the version with French dubbing I devoured as a child), and in many other instances along the way.
As I understand, a lot of people are attached to this version of her, but by my own account, it is not the most progressive. I remember writing undergraduate essays that denounced it as both a stereotypical representation and a colonialist fantasy: the motherly African woman in on the secrets of nature and Man, made palatable and beautiful to the white (male) gaze with long straight white hair. All in all, I hadn’t so much created a racist image of her to assimilate; I had simply selected and appropriated the most racist representation of her available. I had even denied my investment in this representation as I criticized it.
At this point, if I wanted to stay true to my convictions, I had two options: either learn how to appropriate Storm differently (ie, dissociate cultural appropriation from fan appropriation), or give up on my attachment entirely. Needless to say, turning my back on Ororo was inconceivable (once again: she is a part of me) and rejecting her on the basis of her African-ness would have amounted to a racist move anyway. So I set myself the task of weeding out cultural appropriation from fan appropriation. I began correcting my fantasies, changing her hair or her behaviour. I took inspiration from fellow fans who assimilated her differently. Fortunately for me, Greg Pak’s Storm solo comic came out at around that time, and his very human vision of her was like a confirmation of my efforts. At a time when I was trying to chase Goddess Ororo out of my head, he gave me images of Storm eating junk food, playing hooky and addressing a mold problem. He even debunked her canonical time being worshipped as an actual goddess.
Now, intervening on your fantasies kinda takes the fun out of the activity. What is meant to be escapism or comfort becomes work, and for a while, my relationship to Storm changed as a result, downgrading to a form of socially acceptable admiration. Before I knew it, my unrestrained fan affections had turned elsewhere – not so strangely, to her ex. I kept reading her book and following her adventures nonetheless, desperate to rekindle the fire. And I couldn’t tell you how or why, but one day, I realized that my corrected fantasies of her had become natural, and pleasurable. I realized that I had once again been drawing from her strength in difficult times, and imagined her making my decisions. I had fan-appropriated her again, so I once more asked myself the question: which aspects of Storm do you assimilate? My answer was her leadership skills, her assertiveness, and her sense of social responsibility. My favourite version of her? As she was under Greg Pak’s pen and Victor Ibañez’s pencil, with her mowhawk, her khaki slacks and her comfy boots.
This isn’t a happy ending though. This new form of affection I have for Storm is still quite self-conscious, and I don’t have enough insight into it to be certain it is devoid of cultural appropriation. I guess I am putting this reflection in words as a reminder to myself, and maybe a warning to others. Representations matter – because they influence how various communities are perceived, because they influence how various communities perceive themselves, and also because they guide fan appropriations. As such, they can encourage privileged fans to absorb discriminatory images on the most personal of levels. Of course, the form fan appropriations take depends on the fan, so it follows that white fans should inspect their own fan attachments for people (fictional or not) of colour. I might carry more unconscious conceits than the average fan, but if racial appropriation can infect a fan love as strong as the one I had for Storm, then all fan attachments are at risk.
Next step: analysing my attachment to Forge. That should keep me busy for a while.