“Fans are, in fact, the most visible and identifiable of audiences. How is it, then, that they have been overlooked or not taken seriously as research subjects by critics and scholars? And why are they maligned and sensationalized by the popular press, mistrusted by the public?”
This quote by Lisa A. Lewis from her collection of essays ‘The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media’ is from 1992. Despite what many people might think, fandom studies are not that new. In fact, many media researchers have been putting all their efforts into not only understanding the fandom audience, but also into convincing other scholars of its importance.
For some reason, despite the fact that it could be argued that fans have existed ever since the days of Elvis Presley (and possibly even before that), fan studies are still considered something “new” in cultural and media studies. As a matter of fact, many researchers still feel somewhat shy, awkward and reluctant when studying what many people consider to be “geeks”. Personally, I still feel the need to justify myself and look for fancier words when explaining to people what I am passionate about. It really strikes me as odd because, while academics are still looking down at fandom-researchers, most entertainment and cultural marketers are already studying their target fandoms in order to understand their potential, what makes them tick and how to take advantage of that power. Some of the questions these marketers ask themselves are ‘What benefits can fandom bring us?’, ‘How should we treat fans?’, ‘Is it possible to turn a casual viewer into a fan’?, ‘How can we improve the relationship with our fanbase and make them promote our show?’. It could be said that running a show is not just about writing the script anymore. Characters, plot lines and themes are left in a secondary position, as the surroundings of the TV show such as PR, fan conventions or behaviour on social media are some of the things that fans value the most.
So why is it that so many media researchers still look down on those who study this niche audience known as fandom? We are still fighting a battle for recognition, but we are certainly no longer alone. There is no denying that the term ‘geek’ and its connotations have made a 180º degree turn in recent years. Geeks have stopped being seen as losers who locked themselves in their parents’ basements playing videogames and are now the coolest people (ask The Guild about it). This change in the perception of fandom comes accompanied with what many people around the web call ‘social justice’ but, once again, this isn’t new:
“Fandom is typically associated with cultural forms that the dominant value system denigrates – pop music, romance novels, comics, Hollywood mass-appeal stars (…). It is thus associated with the cultural tastes of subordinated formations of the people, particularly with those disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class and race“. (Fiske, 1992)
Fandom audiene research was born in culture studies as soon as media scholars realized that audience is not homogeneous and static. People will have different readings to a television text depending on their social background. Since then there have been plenty of essays on the fandom experience with television. Interested in reading about fan studies and what these authors are doing for fandom? Here are some author and essay recommendations:
“Bobo demonstrates that African-American women, as a separate interpretive community, view cultural products in a unique way. In interviews with black women, she examines their specific responses as spectators and consumers of films and novels, including Waiting to Exhale, The Color Purple, and Daughters of the Dust.”
Gray, Jonathan; Sandvoss, Cornel; Harrington, C: ‘Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World’ (2007)
“We are all fans. Whether we log on to Web sites to scrutinize the latest plot turns in Lost, “stalk” our favorite celebrities on Gawker, attend gaming conventions, or simply wait with bated breath for the newest Harry Potternovel—each of us is a fan. Fandom extends beyond television and film to literature, opera, sports, and pop music, and encompasses both high and low culture”.
A collection of essays on fandom edited by Lisa A. Lewis.
“This book re-evaluates the way we examine today’s digital media environment. By looking at how popular culture uses different digital technologies, Digital Fandom bolsters contemporary media theory by introducing new methods of analysis. Using the exemplars of alternate reality gaming and fan studies, this book takes into account a particular «philosophy of playfulness» in today’s media in order to establish a «new media studies»”.
Emphasising the contradictions of fandom, Matt Hills outlines how media fans have been conceptualised in cultural theory. Drawing on case studies of specific fan groups, from Elvis impersonators to X-Philes and Trekkers, Hills discusses a range of approaches to fandom, from the Frankfurt School to psychoanalytic readings, and asks whether the development of new media creates the possibility of new forms of fandom. Fan Cultures also explores the notion of “fan cults” or followings, considering how media fans perform the distinctions of ‘cult’ status.
Hellekson, Karen; Busse, Kristina: ‘Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays‘ (2006)
“Fans have been responding to literary works since the days of Homer’s Odyssey and Euripedes’ Medea. More recently, a number of science fiction, fantasy, media, and game works have found devoted fan followings. The advent of the Internet has brought these groups from relatively limited, face-to-face enterprises to easily accessible global communities, within which fan texts proliferate and are widely read and even more widely commented upon. New interactions between readers and writers of fan texts are possible in these new virtual communities”. (…)