Defining Fractured Fandom
According to the discipline of fan studies, at this point in history, being a fan is considered a positive for any individual. Being a fan helps people discover their identities, and to determine what they like and do not like. Being a fan helps people find friends, establish communities, and develop a sense of belonging. Being a fan allows people to express themselves creatively, whether through theories, writing, art works, or costumes. Being a fan represents a means for everyday people to establish themselves as active and powerful creators and participants in a capitalistic system that otherwise sees them as nothing more than passive consumers. In other words, being a fan, especially since the advent of the Internet, is considered a positive aspect of life.
There are times, however, when being a fan presents a problem: a problem for the fan; for others the fan engages with either inside or outside of any fan community; or for entire fan communities that clash with one another, whether from the same fandom, from different fandoms, or outside the context of any fandom. Sometimes, what one fan considers good another might consider bad. These differences hold the potential to cause problems in how individuals treat one another, and can impact people’s behaviors in such a way that what once seemed brilliant and fun becomes unwelcoming or even threatening. When an individual’s sense of self depends too much on identifying as a fan, or when a fan questions the legitimacy of another group of fans, then fandom becomes problematic. Such instances can lead to what I call fractured fandom.
In defense of fans and fandom, I want to make clear that I would not argue that fractured fandom happens all the time or involves a majority of the population of any particular fandom. What I would say about fractured fandom is that it reflects a larger social and cultural issue, in the United States at least. An issue that involves a problem of an increasing inability to “listen first, talk second” when people interact with one another — especially with someone to whom they are opposed for some reason, be it ideological, value, or behavior. An issue that involves the collapsing of traditional identities and identity boundaries, which can be seen by some as an opportunity while others will see it as causing confusion and uncertainty and even fear. These are very real, very serious issues about the human condition in our post-modern, 21st century world, and they are issues reflected in our very human interactions in our fandoms.
So, to me, as a fan of many things for as long as I can remember — I must remember to tell you my stuffed Ewok toy story — I am not saying that the presence of fractured fandom means a fandom, and its fans, are wrong in some way, that they are poor reflections of the human condition. Indeed, they are just human, just as much flawed and wonderful as everyone.
But the issue of fractured fandom is about a need to be aware of such issues and problems at work within a fandom, amongst fans. Only with awareness can we work out what we are doing good, what we are doing poorly, and what we could do to make things better. Only with awareness of the fractures within a fandom, and what is happening to create and/or perpetuate them, can fans work together to address the problems they experience.
And I do think this has to be about fans working together within a fandom to address their own fractures. It cannot be about people outside of the fandom trying to impose new values, codes, and behaviors within the fandom. I do believe that fans may be more likely to listen to other fans than to anyone else. Because I believe that, it means we need to start a focus on dialogue, on communication, on respectful listening there. We as fans need to improve our social literacy skills and focus first on understanding a situation, on understanding others, and from there work together to address problems.
Hopefully, by doing so within any fandom, what is learned about addressing a fractured fandom could be applied to other areas of life. Hopefully by addressing fractured fandom, we could better address how these issues and problems are impacting the various public arenas of U.S. society and culture.
Day 2: Sunday, June 22nd
On the topic of mass…
I am still uncomfortable joining in on the spiritual sessions and Catholic Eucharist ceremonies that are scheduled for this colloquium. I feel like an intruder, an interloper, a negative presence. There is nothing that anyone here has said or done that has made me feel this way. In fact, I appreciate their willingness and desire to offer a blessing to those who beseech it, such as those other other religious affiliations who would like to experience the ritual. And they offer many different spiritual discussions that I am sure can be seen as less denomination than the sacramental rituals. But I would feel disingenuous in being blessed, as it would have no impact on me. I do not believe, that is the simple truth of it all. Perhaps before the end of this week, I will venture into one session, just to listen, which appears to be my main goal here, as I cannot partake in conversations about religion.
We are now full swing into the summer blockbuster season for Hollywood, and let’s take a tally of movies that are currently out or soon to arrive that originate from the pages of comic books. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Amazing Spider-Man 2. X-Men: Days of Future Past. Hercules. Guardians of the Galaxy. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Kingsman: The Secret Service. Big Hero 6.
All of this, without mentioning the big hitters coming soon, such as the second Avengers movie, or the one that finally brings Wonder Woman to the screen while pitting Batman v. Superman. All of this, a range of titles for the young to the mature. And these are only Hollywood films. Consider all of the movies made from comic books around the world, and the numbers are staggering. The top ten comic book adaptation movies have grossed around $4.05 billion dollars in just over a decade, proving their dominance at the box office in the United States and around the world.
After the event of this weekend, where normally we are only needing to remember our veterans but must now also remember those young men and women who died at the whim of a terrorist — of a misogynist extremist — I need to take a break from discussing fractured fandom and the sexist, and misogynist, tensions in geekdom to talk about something else.
We could argue that professional wrestling does its part to reflect and affirm the sexism of the world. Many have written about this topic, from the way the female wrestlers are portrayed to the overtly dominating and violent masculinities that are presented as ideal, as role models for young boys to emulate. And while it is hard to see a lingerie match and not think about this problem, or to watch the painful submissions wrestlers force each other into and wonder if the fans believe such is the way of life — while those are the very reasons I avoided and even derided professional wrestling for most of my life — I am not here to discuss such matters.
I am here because last year I saw the documentary For All Mankind: The Life and Career of Mick Foley and I decided I needed to get off my judgmental high horse and give this sports entertainment a chance. I decided to watch this documentary because I had seen Mick Foley on The Daily Show with John Stewart (such as here) and found him to be far more articulate and sensitive than I had considered possible of professional wrestlers, having grown up during the Hulk Hogan era. In the documentary, I was amazed to learn how much charity work Foley has done, and I further felt that he possessed the type of soul that I had not thought likely in those of his profession. Going further, learning about how he supports and advocates for women’s rights, gays’ rights, and a whole slew of causes important to me, just further endeared him to me. So much so that the highlight of my recent C2E2 convention was to have my picture taken with him.
And it is not just Foley who displays these rather progressive stances — especially given the stereotyped nature of the sport and its fans over the years. Both former superstar (and I am talking mega superstar) Stone Cold Steve Austin and current contender (and soon-to-be Marvel star) Dave “The Animal” Bautista have come out recently in support of gay marriage. Learning these things, learning about the men behind the masks and the hyper-muscularity, helped me turn around my thoughts on professional wrestling, to be willing to give it a chance. And my partner has been helping me learn the lingo (heels, faces, over, etc) while we discuss the hyperreal and socially constructive nature of the entertainment. I have found it to be a fun learning experience, and I no longer hold the judgments I once did.
All of that is to say that I come to this world relatively fresh, a wrestling newbie, with perhaps more of a scholarship angle than most wrestling viewers. And it was with this scholarship angle that I attended a panel at C2E2 featuring my man Foley discussing the overlaps between comic books and professional wrestling. He was joined on the panel by illustrator Jill Thompson, who has worked with Foley on his children’s books, and publisher Jim Salicrup of Papercutz.
One of the main overlaps the panel discussed was the focus on hyper-muscular characters in colorful costumes. This overlap was one my partner and I had repeatedly discussed (one the profession is quick to point out), and wrestlers have even utilized it in their performances, such as ECW’s Raven. There is the same focus in both media on very muscular — almost to the point of ludicrous – bodies that are covered, primarily, in skin-tight clothes emblazoned with colors and emblems that serve to identify the wrestlers to their fans in the same the way the superhero’s costume identifies the hero to its readers.
Beyond these basic aesthetic similarities, there are also overlaps in the narratives — or, more to the point, in the way narratives are utilized in the serial storytelling of both media. In essence, Foley and the others remarked how the same storylines happen over and over — that if you wait long enough, the audience will have forgotten a storyline, and it can be recycled. But as they are recycling storylines, the wrestlers on the one hand and the comic book writers on the other need to find ways to make them seem new, fresh, and compelling. So stories of sudden betrayal can take on a different feel depending on who is betraying who or what cause — whether it is in the ring or in the panels.
Another overlap includes the centrality of characters to the storytelling and entertainment. Fans fall in love with characters, have certain wrestlers or heroes that they look up to or despise, and then base much of their reaction to the stories on those characters, what happens to them, and how the characters handle themselves. Thus, for both wrestling and comics, the introduction or origin story for the characters are tremendously important to form those first impressions in the audience. And as the story progresses, having the right amount and kind of heat on the character, providing logical and emotional arcs of conflict and resolution, are necessary for sustaining audience interest. In both media, then, the storylines need to be good at character development.
What was interesting to me was to hear how much the wrestlers themselves have to be good at building and sustaining this character development. I had assumed, hearing how “wrestling is fake,” that the bouts inside the ring and everything outside of the ring were completely scripted. But in learning more about this world, you come to learn that the overarching storylines may be determined, and the winners of the bouts are known ahead of time behind the scenes (and sometimes in the online fan discussions). However, what happens in the ring to get to the end of the bout, and what the wrestlers may have to say and do to further the storyline, can be greatly up to the wrestlers to determine. This agency was seen dramatized in the film The Wrestler and has been discussed elsewhere, such as in this clip:
Foley grew up as a Hulk fan. He loved comics growing up and told us how he had a need to create heroes, which may be why he became a professional wrestler, although he did not realize the overlap until later. For Foley, until 1996, there was no scripting, no writers, that he had to listen to or rely upon to help him develop his characters and his wrestling style. There was just bookers, who helped him get from match to match. So he created and developed the characters, these heroes, on his own and always had to think for himself on the spot — and this need to be able to think quick and improvise continues to be a skill that the superstars have to rely upon. As he said on the panel, if a wrestler is not thinking for himself or herself, then that person will have less of a connection with the audience because he or she will not be good at sustaining characters and performances. Wrestlers who cannot improvise and perform lack the ability of negotiating and building authenticity with the audience — many of whom are very aware of the scripted aspects of the sport. Perhaps this ability to quickly think on his feet also explains why Foley currently tours the country with a stand-up comedy show.
Another interesting overlap between professional wrestling and comic books are the times when they literally overlap — when comics are made about or feature wrestlers. We can see this phenomenon going back to the early 1990s, when Valiant and Marvel comics had different deals with the then WWF (now WWE) to feature the WWF wrestlers in established or new series, with some being more successful than others. Currently, Super Genius, a subset of Papercutz, is releasing WWE Superstars, an alternate universe comic where the wrestlers are all versions of themselves, just not wrestlers (even though they know wrestling moves). The series is being written by Foley with his writing partner Shane Riches — hence the reason Foley was at C2E2. Another current title is independently produced Headlocked, which we also picked up at C2E2. Not focusing on any specific WWE superstar but on the art of professional wrestling, the comic does feature stories and art contributed from real wrestlers, such as Jerry “The King” Lawler — we totally got Lawler to autograph our copy.
What’s interesting is how these overlaps between wrestling and comics show not just a blending or crossover of media, but also a mashing of different genres and generic sensibilities. For example, Foley’s comic utilizes genre conventions from film noir while still showcasing these larger than life characters that are central to professional wrestling. And, in a sense, this completely works and is completely understandable, because on the basic level, that is what professional wrestling is all about — mashing genres together.
In the documentary released by the WWE for its 50th anniversary, some of the wrestlers and promoters interviewed discussed professional wrestling as combination of comedy, action, and suspense given how the characters and the storylines were constructed and presented — but we could also add superhero and melodrama to this mixture by commenting on the larger than life characters whose stories unfold in serialized, rather overly dramatic fashion in the course of days, months, and even years. In the special features for the film The Wrestler, there is a roundtable discussion interviewing former superstars like Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, and Diamond Dallas Page. And while they promoted the film’s ability to show the reality through the construction, they likewise discussed the various genre elements that come into the production not just of a single bout but of an entire, years long feud.
Professional wrestling then is more than a sport — it is an entertainment form that layers onto the sport of wrestling the elements from fictional genres. Considering it from a reception theory perspective, professional wrestling is perhaps the most polysemic text in modern pop culture. With so many different layers of meaning due to the mashing of genres, the text offers audience members with highly variable preferences for their entertainment the possibility to find something of value. Additionally, the fans of the text have a different interaction, a different status, than the fans of “real sports.”
In other professional sports, the interaction between the fans and the athletes is there, but it is rarely seen and rarely important to the progression of the sporting matches except in key moments. For example, in American football, a home team can have advantage for its defense through crowd noise. In baseball, the fans can aid their teams by psyching out the umpire and the batter, thereby potentially giving their team an advantage in hits. However, this is no where near the same amount or type of interaction between individual athletes and fans as seen in WWE, and professional wrestling at large.
As mentioned, the wrestlers’ on the spot performance helps to determine whether or not they can connect with the fan and develop a successful character arc. If the fans are behind the wrestler — if the wrestler is over with them, in other words — then it can help to secure not only the storyline but the wrestler’s tenure within the industry. In the documentary on the history of the WWE, Chairman Vince McMahon basically said that they attend to the fans’ reactions to know what to do with a character and a storyline. In this way, the wrestling fan has input over the sporting and the entertainment aspects — if a wrestler is over with a crowd, then that wrestler may suddenly begin to win more matches, or to switch from heel to face.
All of this is to say that professional wrestling mashes together genres, reaches out to its fans, because it has to. There is no need to negotiate authenticity and legitimacy in “real sports” given its non-predetermined nature. Except for the rare cases when a match has been rigged, there is no way to know with 100% certainty what the outcome will be — even a sure win could be suddenly undone by an unforeseen injury. Such sports do not need to have layers of genre conventions or outreach and empowerment of fans because the main entertainment comes in the not knowing, in the unscripted competition, in the realness. In such sports, the art of the game or the match is in the athleticism and competition of the players, not in the narrative and aesthetics of the characters.
As mentioned at the C2E2 panel, there is an appreciation of both professional wrestling and comics as an art form in spite of their artifice. While we know someone writes and illustrates the battles of superheroes and supervillains, we do not base the comic book’s artistic value on its authenticity versus its artifice — there is no authenticity in superpowered beings battling for supremacy, no matter how realistically depicted (sorry, Christopher Nolan). We negotiate the meaning of such stories through what they do to us — how they make us think and feel — based on how we react to the narrative and aesthetics developed by the writers and the illustrators.
In professional wrestling, we negotiate meaning, and thus authenticity and legitimacy, in the say way. Once you realize that a match is predetermined, then you need to see the art of the match in terms of its narrative, aesthetics, and athletics. We come to love certain wrestlers over others through their stories, through their appearance, through their interaction with us, both inside and outside of the ring (many of these superstars are adept at Twitter and Facebook). Moreso, since these bouts and stories can be comic books brought to life, we can also appreciate the sport as we do other sports, through the athleticism of the wrestlers, which is for the most part very real (except sometimes less so, John Cena).
Once we learn and understand how the artifice produces professional wrestling, then we are left to negotiate what is authentic, legitimate, and meaningful about it by making these appraisals on the narrative, aesthetic, and athletic layers. How we determine what is the art of professional wrestling is a negotiation of the producer’s intention, what is in the text, and how the audience responds. And given the importance of those three layers, and the variety within each, there are many entry points and many points at which fans can defend professional wrestling as “yeah, it’s fake, but the story/appearance/ability of the wrestlers isn’t”. Once you have reached that point — once you have found the aspect of professional wrestling that aligns with your preferences for entertainment — then this genre mashing spectacle can be very compelling.
Take it from a new convert, and perhaps a new addict as well.
Back in 2007, I attended Comic-Con. At the time, I presented a paper on comics adaptations into films and the roles of “true believers” at the Comics Arts Conference. However, it was while I was at that venerable convention, surrounded by the fans and true believers Hollywood was hoping to capture (their energy, their money, their time) by making these adaptations, that I really pondered the ideas I was espousing in the presentation.
What follows are my thoughts on these ideas from then. I write them down as I am transcribing from my notebook to a source of more, in all honesty, security and longevity. And because I want to get myself into the habit of writing my thoughts on the research process down as they come to me. So to get into the habit for the future, I turn to remembering what I’ve done in the past.
And so, it began…
I’m late in putting this out there, but it’s worth watching. This is a video from a Star Trek convention from 1973: that’s before the motion picture that reignited the franchise. So these are the true believers, those who followed the television series, and perhaps were starting with the short lived animated series.
These were the precursors for all the conventions that would come, and the conventions that would become the mega-merchandising and marketing affairs of Comic-Con in San Diego.
But what struck me most about this video was not the way people discussed how they related Star Trek to their everyday lives. This is something we find all the time in fandom — and perhaps is a primary reason in why fans, especially scifi/fantasy fans, are marginalized in society and pop culture (until recently, due to how much money Hollywood can make off them).
No, what I found amazing was the presence of women at the convention, engaging in cosplaying and discussing the significance of the series in their lives. Growing up in the 1980s, I thought I was abnormal for being a female geek/nerd. I grew up isolated in the country, in the era before the Internet. I remember a love for Star Wars when the first movies were out — I should tell you the story of my Ewok stuffed doll some time, don’t let me forget — and I even dressed up at Princess Leia once for school (1st grade, get that image out of your head). But I don’t remember any of the kids I went to school with sharing my love. There were only 17 kids in my class, and by the time I got to a bigger school in 6th grade, Star Wars had receded in my mind, and I didn’t really find anyone to talk to about my other loves of The Turtles, The Ghostbusters or The Thundercats outside of my two younger brothers.
And the idea of a girl to talk to about any of this? In elementary school, there were only five other girls in my class. My best friend was the girl who lived closest to me, and we definitely did not share that interest. Even when I did find my re-love of all things science fiction in high school, it was boys that I hung out with, not girls (although I did try D&D once with some girls, and that was interesting). Whenever I saw nerds/geeks in the pop culture, they were boys.
Maybe I just had my head in the sand. Maybe I just wanted to think I was special for being a female nerd/geek, so I could curry favors from the boys around me. But I just did not think women were that prevalent in fandom, and for that long.
Of course, maybe this film is showing the women because they were outliers in the sampling: that they were as uncommon as I thought they would be, and thus were special people to interview.
What I do know is — I’m a fan of fan studies, because as a geek I find all of these questions interesting and fun to investigate.