Fan Appropriations

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.

This was my favourite picture of Storm for a very long time. Note the caucasian features (art by John Romita Jr).

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.

Goddess Ororo: just a crazy girl (art by Scott Hepburn with David Baldeon)

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.

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8 thoughts on “Fan Appropriations

  1. Oh, absolutely. Art experts are fans, only with more prestige. Regarding reappropriation: yes, I would say that the widespread practice of cultural appropriation makes it all the more necessary. Only in its manifestations (protests, events that exclude whiteness…) it’s often labelled something nonsensical like “reverse racism”.
    Thanks for chatting 🙂

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  2. That’s really interesting. I don’t know very much about fandom, but it does seem to be a very good way of approaching discrimination, like you say. I’m understanding cultural appropriation more as the theft and use for own gain of a cultural element now. Hence the need for reappropriation? An element I really recognise from art is the influence of representation. I think art has been guilty of perpetuation misrepresentations of certain concepts, such as beauty, which influences how people think about this and can result in discrimination. Art is of course, a recognised tool of propaganda. I would say it has relied on a certain fandom?

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  3. I think I see what you mean. I’d say that art appropriation is very different from cultural appropriation, because it deals with abstract categories, when cultural appropriation deals with concrete ones. No, race and culture are not absolute categories (in the sense that they include a potentially infinite number of experiences), but they have enough real world consequences to be considered as such. If enough appropriations in art can lead to the breaking down of, I don’t know, the concept of beauty, all the cultural appropriations in the world can never hope to solve, say, low employment rates. This is also because the appropriator, unlike the artist with the concept of beauty, is in a position of privilege vis-a-vis the culture, and in the absence of true collaboration, can only use it for their own advancement. If the artist’s appropriation leads to the creation of something new, cultural appropriation perpetuates the status quo. Am I making sense?
    Please keep in mind that I have no background in art, so if I am misunderstanding or simplifying art appropriation, do let me know.

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  4. I think I was coming from an art appropriation angle, where the act of integrating something in your own work breaks down the absolute categories around it. A stereotype can highlight stereotypical thinking, and thereby lead to a nuanced understanding. By regarding race and culture as spectrums and continuums, in a way standing outside the box, it means you have to keep entering the discourse. Maybe appropriation is never a finished act?

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  5. Great article! Depictions of the human form reflect the consciousness of the maker and the fan. What if we don’t treat categories of culture and race as absolute?

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