Fan Studies: “You can do a PhD on that?!”
By Christina Wurst
Why study (Anglophone) fan cultures?
When you mention that you are writing a PhD on fan cultures, people’s first question is often “You can do a PhD on that?”. The term ‘fans’ typically calls to mind screaming girls at a boy band concert, football fans going on a rampage after a game, and unwashed men in their mother’s basement surrounded by little anime or fantasy collectibles. While ‘fandom’ is becoming more and more mainstream and we are letting go of these stereotypes, it may still be hard to see the value of studying it and how we can gain insight into American culture and its influence on the world by doing so.
What is Fan Studies?
The interdisciplinary field of Fan Studies is mostly concerned with fans of literature and visual media, to a lesser degree fans of music. Despite stereotypical associations between fandom and sports, this plays a smaller role in Fan Studies.
As Scott and Click describe in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (2018), “the definition of “fan” has become increasingly malleable”: There is scholarly debate whether a fan is “anyone who is an avid, enthusiastic consumer of a media object (be it a television series, franchise, sports team, or celebrity” (1) or whether fandom requires moving “beyond textual consumption to produce and circulate transformative fan works (such as fan fiction, fan vids or fan art)” (2).
Fan Studies focuses less on fans who merely consume media — such as those watching every football game or being able to recite the most obscure Lord of the Rings lore — and often more on those participating in transformational fan practices, such as creating stories, art, or costumes based on existing media. (Booth, A Companion 2018)
Fandom and its impact on young people
Participating in fan communities can help young people develop new skills, such as creative writing, painting, video editing, crafting, or even critical media analysis. (Booth, “Fandom“ 2015) This is of particular interest to me as a lecturer who is educating future teachers of English as a Foreign Language on how we can incorporate elements from fandom into the classroom (Fleischhack, Rose and Wurst 2022). Fans participate in so called “affinity spaces” (Gee 2017), where people are bound by a shared love for a text, in informal learning, i.e., the kind of learning we do outside of school and university. It can be interesting to ask how we can integrate this with formal education. After all, we want to create life-long learners and fandom is “one of the few places where people are encouraged to think critically, to write, and to make thoughtful and critical judgments about hegemonic culture once formal schooling is complete“ (Booth „Fandom“ 2015). Additionally, transformational fandoms often influence fans’ attitudes and may open them up to be more accepting of their own or others’ sexuality, gender identity, mental health conditions, or neurodivergence (e.g., Meggers 2012; Leetal 2019).
From fandom to fan activism
Fans can learn a lot of what we would usually find in a Cultural Studies curriculum in the informal learning spaces of fan communities — and develop a critical look at the role our gender or race play in society and media representations. Consequently, they may grow increasingly aware of injustices in the society they live in. Fandom can provide them with several tools to become politically active: By making the topic more accessible (e.g., understanding feminism in relation to their favorite female characters), by making it personally relatable to them (and thus part of their identity as a fan), and giving them a community connected by shared love (Jenkins 2015; Hincks 2019). Thus, fans may march under Star Wars-, Marvel– or Harry Potter-themed banners at events such as the Women‘s March (Knopf 2019).
Understanding fan activism contributes to understanding why and how people might become engaged in political movements (Dean 2017). We can also analyze the hype around some politicians (e.g., Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump) or even QAnon (Reinhard, Stanley and Howell 2022) through the lens of Fan Studies, as many followers engage in typical fan practices to support their favorite candidate (Reinhard and Miller 2020): From buying merchandise and attending rallies to creating fanart or sharing memes which often reference popular culture (Wurst, “Dildoshops“ 2021), this can blur the lines between media fandom and politics.
The two-way-channel of the media industry
Studying fans is of further interest in order to understand the way the contemporary media industry works. Not merely viewership numbers decide on the fate of a TV show nowadays: On social media, fans engage in backlashes that may cause storytelling choices to be rethought or rally with hashtag campaigns to save their favorite shows from cancellation.
For a very recent example, check out the hashtag #SaveWarriorNun on Twitter. You will notice that many popular posts make direct reference to the show’s queer love story between characters Ava and Beatrice (hence #Avatrice).
This kind of show-saving activism is particularly often the case concerning shows with queer representation (Navar-Gill and Stanfill 2018). Fans may interact with writers and producers personally through social media in various ways, such as by pushing for the support of a specific fictional relationship (‘shipping’) or against it. Showrunners may make use of this by engaging in advertising and storytelling practices that fans have come to describe as ‘queerbait’ (Ng 2017): This involves hinting at queer characters or relationships but then killing off the character or never following through on the relationship, thus profiting from the ensuing media hype by (queer) fans while not having to change the heteronormative stories they have been intending to tell. Studying the interactions between fans and producers and the resulting changes to a TV show (or less often film) is fascinating because all of us in Cultural Studies know that representation on screen can have a huge impact on audiences and yet a small but vocal group of fans on social media can impact what is put on our screens.
Useful hatred: Anti-fandom and politics
Since the inception of the field, Fan Studies had often been concerned with analyzing the positive qualities of fandom — after all, there used to be a huge stigma against fans as people who need to “get a life“ (Hills 2005). However, more recently the destructive qualities of fans have come into focus: Those who bully others for enjoying something they hate or enjoying it in what they consider the wrong way. Many a celebrity has deleted their social media presence in response to hateful messages, including Leslie Jones (starring in the remake of Ghostbusters) and Kelly Marie Tran ( starring in the Star Wars sequel) trilogy, two actresses of color cast in new versions of beloved franchises that some fans deemed too progressive and thus attacked particularly marginalized cast members on social media (Blodgett 2020).
What I find particularly interesting about anti-fandom is that it is not, as one might expect, random which content or characters are more likely to be hated. There are clear pattern which types of actors, roles or plot lines frequently result in the mistreatment of fans, actors, or writers. Anti-fandom can for example be closely tied to reactionary or alt-right-leaning ideology (Stanfill 2020): Fans may hate more progressive plotlines featuring women, PoC or LGBTQ characters, particularly in texts previously dominated by straight white men, such as superhero franchises, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings. However, following the content of those who spend a lot of energy voicing their hatred of “badly written“ female characters that “ruin a franchise“ may easily introduce users to “red-pilled“ (Bezio 2018) content, an internet subculture closely linked to the alt-right and often concerned with what they see as men’s apparent marginalization in modern society and popular culture. Similarly, those who sharply criticize the introduction of characters of color may discredit the writing of a character, such as Rey, the first female Star Wars lead character, or Michael Burnham, the first Black female Star Trek lead, but also while doing so refer to alt-right ideas. They may for example name-drop or allude to such ideas as the “woke agenda” of a “global elite“ to “brainwash“ audiences with things such as “Critical Race Theory“, which all imply that more diverse representation is put into media franchises with the intention of politically influencing audiences towards the (radical) left. However, such creators tend to claim their videos are apolitical and simply concerned with the (in their eyes) objectively bad quality of a franchise (Wurst “Bread” 2022).
On the other hand, merely disliking a specific character, relationship, or movie does of course not mean that someone is reactionary — yet overzealous progressive fans may for example bully those that do not support a specific queer couple and accuse anti-fans of homophobia. As this shows, ‘fandom wars’ are not merely about personal taste but can be either instrumentalized to further a political ideology and legitimize mistreatment in the name of “protecting“ the “good writing“ of a franchise, or a political ideology can be used as an excuse to turn those performing fandom differently into an out-group that deserves mistreatment. In any case: Anti-fandom conflicts are lively negotiations of political ideologies.
As we can see, fandom can both be a tool to shape American politics and the American media landscape through fan activism or by participating in political fandom, but also a tool to spread ideas closely connected to American culture (wars) and politics — such as alt-right sentiments about progressive media being part of an intentional “woke agenda” — globally to unsuspecting audiences not actively looking for political content.
My project focuses specifically on such arguments as described above and looks at popular franchises, such as Star Wars, and the ways characters – be they particularly celebrated or disliked – become symbols of political ideologies and the rhetoric used by fans who are using conflicts about popular culture to negotiate political ideologies: What political stances do they support through engagement with which aspects of the franchise and with which arguments? Or in other words: When does “Rey is a badly written character and ruins Star Wars” actually mean “I hate feminism”?
If you want to talk about Fan Studies, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://twitter.com/azeriartiko !
References and Further Reading
Bezio, Kristin MS. “Ctrl-Alt-Del: GamerGate as a precursor to the rise of the alt-right.” Leadership 14 (2018): 556-566.
Blodgett, Bridget M. “Media in the post# GamerGate Era: Coverage of reactionary fan anger and the terrorism of the privileged.” Television & New Media 21.2 (2020): 184-200.
Booth, Paul. “Fandom: The classroom of the future.” Transformative Works and Cultures
Booth, Paul, ed. A companion to media fandom and fan studies. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
Click, Melissa A., and Suzanne Scott, eds. The Routledge companion to media fandom. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Dean, Jonathan. “Politicising fandom.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19.2 (2017): 408-424.
Fleischhack, Maria, Jonathan Rose, and Christina Wurst. “Teaching (and) Fandom: A Conversation.” Anglistik Jahrgang 33, Ausgabe 2 (2022): 225-237.
Gee, James Paul. “Affinity spaces and 21st century learning.” Educational Technology (2017): 27-31.
Hills, Matt. “Negative Fan Stereotypes (“Get a Life!”) and Positive Fan Injunctions (“Everyone’s Got To Be a Fan of Something!”): Returning.” Spectator 25:1 (Spring 2005): 35-47.
Hincks, Ashley. Politics for the love of fandom: Fan-based citizenship in a digital world. LSU Press, 2019.
Jenkins, Henry. “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” In
Popular Media Cultures, edited by Lincoln Geraghty, 206-229.London: Palgrave
Knopf, Christina M. “‘Carrie Fisher Sent Me’: Princess Leia as an avatar of resistance in the Women’s March.” Unbound: A Journal of Digital Scholarship 1.1 (2019).
Leetal, Dean Barnes. “Those crazy fangirls on the internet: Activism of care, disability and fan fiction.” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 8.2 (2019): 45-72.
Meggers, Heather J. “Discovering the authentic sexual self: The role of fandom in the transformation of fan’s sexual attitudes.” Fan culture: Theory/practice (2012): 57-80.
Navar-Gill, Annemarie, and Mel Stanfill. “’We shouldn’t have to trend to make you listen’: Queer Fan Hashtag Campaigns as Production Interventions.” Journal of Film and Video 70. 3-4 (2018): 85-100.
Ng, Eve. “Between text, paratext, and context: Queerbaiting and the contemporary media landscape.” Transformative Works and Cultures 24 (2017).
Reinhard, CarrieLynn D., and Joan Miller. “Academic dialogue: Why study politics and fandom?.” Transformative Works and Cultures 32 (2020).
Reinhard, CarrieLynn D., David Stanley, and Linda Howell. “Fans of Q: the stakes of QAnon’s functioning as political fandom.” American Behavioral Scientist 66.8 (2022): 1152-1172.
Stanfill, Mel. “Introduction: The Reactionary in the Fan and the Fan in the Reactionary.” Television & new media 21.2 (2020): 123-134.
Wurst, Christina. “Dildoshops, Gritty, and Bernie’s Mittens: The Framing of American
Politics Through Pop Cultural Memes.” New Horizons in English Studies 6.1 (2021): 111-129.
Wurst, Christina. “Bread and Plots: Conspiracy Theories and the Rhetorical Style of Political Influencer Communities on YouTube.” Media and Communication 10.4 (2022): 213-223.