The Pop Culture Lens: Episode on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Fandom

On a special episode of The Pop Culture Lens podcast, Christopher Olson and I discuss a subject that has been one we have debated numerous times in our private lives and has become one that I have been focusing on as a research project: fandom, is it good or bad?

We begin the conversation with a reflection on our experiences at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (aka C2E2), which we had another great experience with as we always do. From meeting wonderful artists whose work we all admire, to picking up new ideas of what to read and watch, to just people-watching, it is always a joy. Also, Chip Zdarsky is a completely lovely person.

threesome

Our discussion of C2E2 is to contextualize our discussion about contemporary fandom. I have been thinking through this fractured fandom topic lately, with an online survey meant to gather people’s stories of dealing with all the tensions and problems currently occurring across pop culture. We use this episode to explore the so-called culture wars that have lead to things like GamerGate and Sad Puppies among many other clashes. We discuss what we think is causing these problems, considering everything from the consumerist and capitalist nature of these fandoms to the problems of walled gardens in online fan communities creating insularity and the stagnation of identity formation.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom in our discussions. While we do discuss the problems, we also highlight the great things that come about because of our fandoms, such as identity formation, finding a community of like-minded individuals, and all of the passion and creativity that is expressed through our fandoms, and was on display at C2E2.

Overall, I think this was a very useful discussion to help us think through what fandom is and what we need to do to make certain it is always good and only rarely ugly or bad. So give it a listen with an open-minded, and definitely comment back here to give us your take on the topics we discussed.

37 thoughts on “The Pop Culture Lens: Episode on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Fandom

  1. The topic was interesting, but the conversation was kind of disappointing on both sides. Lots of “healthy fan” discourse, “stunted fan” if you’re not interested in everything (?), “ripping off other people’s creativity” (ever heard of postmodernism?). Missed opportunity.

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      1. I think the premises of the discussion were oddly normative. I don’t understand why fandom should be “only good and never bad” or however it was that you put it. I don’t think that there is (or IMO should be) any requirement that fans engage with the objects of their interest in a particular way; if one is only a fan of one genre or one universe, where is the harm? The question oddly reproduced the terms of the discourse it sought to criticize, the divide between “old guard geeks” and the influx of new fans who lack the same history and commitment. On the one hand you seemed to be saying “don’t take this so seriously” but at the same time “if you limit yourself to exploring only the things you are automatically drawn to, then you’re losing out” (not being serious enough about your affections?). My impression is that most people who study this topic professionally think of fandom, fan art, and especially cosplay as pastiche, which is a legitimate form of art (apart from whatever copyright laws might say about it, which is a different matter and which reflects notions of the individual artist that are more appropriate to the nineteenth century than to our mass media age).

        I don’t think you really got at all, beyond a superficial treatment, to a meaningful discussion of why fans who engage in behaviors that some observers consider problematic do so, although your blurb seemed to indicate that you wanted to do that. Your answer seemed to be that problem fans were fans who made their fandom the center of their identity. But if a fandom experience becomes the center of one’s identity, why is that any different than if anything else does (religion, gender, educational experience, political affiliation, environmental attitudes, diet, charitable intentions, etc.)? To me the really interesting questions revolve around the repositioning of fandom as a legitimate activity as opposed to a fringe one, how that process occurs, and why it is occurring precisely now in history? Why is policing (which I tend to agree is disagreeable, although I’m unwilling to go so far as to say that engaging in fan-on-fan policing is evidence tout court that one is a bad fan) entering this particular frame of human experience at just this moment? Is that really only about something internal to fandom (the displacing of “old guard” fans in part through corporate marketing campaigns that redefine the corporate vision of what a good fan is) or is it more closely related to the social atmosphere in which we live? Frankly, I’m very skeptical that it’s about the general boredom of the jobs many fans have — that is nothing new. It may be about a different kind of person who encounters the world of work than (say) a generation or two ago, or it might be about the generally limited scope of human effectiveness in the “real” (political world) — at least those are two explanations that seem more significant to me than the ones that you offered.

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      2. Thank you for your lengthy response. I will respond to parts so as to break this up into the key points you bring up.

        To your first point, I agree that there should be no legitimate, right/wrong, true way to say what a fan is. I think we made that point in the episode. I think what happens is that some fans do do that, which is why we wanted to address it. And the harm is in the policing of legitimacy, of saying fan girls who are in to slash or in to cosplaying are not real fans, that kind of thing.

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      3. Policing is something I try to avoid doing myself, as I’ve been the object of quite a bit of it and I don’t enjoy it. I don’t allow fans to do it to me or each other on my blog. However, I am not sure that I would go so far as to say that policing is not a legitimate fan activity or that engaging in policing makes one a “bad fan.” Semantically, if I abandon the “good fan / bad fan” dichotomy, it doesn’t make sense to argue that. On that score, what a fan chooses to do as a fan is simply part of fandom; moral categories don’t really apply then.

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      4. It seems to me that there is a difference between “keeping people out” and harassment. There are people I wish were not in my fan community, for instance, and I suspect this is true for most of us — we can think of people we’d rather not be around or have around us. If that were so important to me that I couldn’t accept those people around me, I’d start a fandom venue that formally excluded some people and had very high barriers to entry. In practice, I’ve instituted rules on my own blog that have led to the blocking of some fans and heavily discourage fans with particular sorts of sentiments from being there. I have zero problem with that. No one has a right to post on my blog except me. And as unsympathetic as I am to 95% of what I have read about GamerGate, I understand where people are coming from who say, we’re being overwhelmed by people who insist on taking over our space and changing features of the thing we love that are central to our love of it. This does not mitigate the corresponding sentiment of those fans who fall in love with something and find certain aspects of if problematic and want to change them. Both are legitimate sentiments and legitimate motivators. Wanting to “keep people out,” even for reasons that I personally find either distasteful or unethical, is a legitimate standpoint and excluding certain people may be necessary to the functioning of a fan venue (check out some of the imdb discussion boards if you don’t believe me).

        If fandom is to work as a concept, for me, anyway, we need to get away from the idea that a fandom is really a universal community or even a potentially universal community, something like a public institution. Obviously, a body like the government has an interest in keeping certain institutions and services (roads, schools, hospitals, etc.) equally open and accessible to all, but it’s not clear to me that fandom is organized in the same way. First of all, we don’t all share an equivalent interest in fandoms. Rather than being a single community or public, they are more (as I’ve read lately in a few places) a node of contact between people who share differing versions of a particular interest. They are not constituted by public entities but rather by entities that are by definition private (fans and fan groups themselves, or corporations) and thus can make different rules for their participants. So it’s fair for particular venues (cons, for instance) to invite all comers (it’s in their financial interest to do so) if they are willing to enforce existing laws an make the cons a reasonably safe place for everyone who wants to attend, but they are not obligated to make those spaces safe in the same sense that a government would be or should see its interest in doing. There seems to be this idea that fandom should be a space in which no one is critical of anyone else or if they are they should never say anything about it. The problem isn’t (IMO) that a fanboy doesn’t like something that a fangirl is doing in a shared fandom; it’s not even that he expresses that, either by saying it or writing about it; or that he creates a legally constituted institution that excludes fangirls from participating (however juvenile that might be). Those are all honest sentiments (however distasteful) and they are not going to change if I preach against them. The problem is when the sentiment and the expression turn into harassment, which is a separate matter.

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      5. To your second point, I do think that perhaps a concern over the focus on fan activities, as my co-host points out, does perhaps reify the discourse of the “old guard” as you put it, and perhaps undercuts the feminist critique inherent in fan studies that does try to normalize fan activities as integral to fandom. But, again, it may be that pendulum has swung too far in the celebration of these activities, to the detriment of understanding the more casual fans.

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      6. I do not think saying “do not take your fandom so seriously that you cannot accept criticism of it” is diametrically opposed to saying “keep open to other things or you might lose out.” Even if you are open to other things, you still need to not take it so seriously that you cannot accept criticism of it. And by being open to more things, then perhaps you are more open to the criticism of any one thing.

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      7. I just don’t understand this argument. In particular, I don’t see how it is compatible with abandoning the “good fan / bad fan” dichotomy. As a fan, why should one be interested in anything one is not interested in? If fandom is so heavily about pleasure, why should one not limit oneself to engaging myself with things that one finds pleasurable? “Saying I like A to the exclusion of everything that is not A” is not the same as saying “I can’t accept it when someone criticizes A.”

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      8. Then I am confused by the original point you made. Because we were not saying people should like everything, only that they should not shut out the possibility to exploring other things. And we were saying a problem is when people like something so much they do not think they can also criticize it or are unwilling to accept criticism of it. Those were the points we made. Please restate your argument in relation to those points so I can see where our disagreement is.

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      9. Why shouldn’t they shut out the possibility of exploring other things? In fact, we do this all the time in all areas of our lives. Life is short. I have decided I am not going to spend my time learning to read Asian languages in the original so I can truly appreciate those works in the form in which their authors created them, for instance. That doesn’t make me a bad human or even a bad scholar, just self-aware and a realist, and I suppose, focused to some extent on things that give me greater pleasure than language learning. I also don’t see why one should be obliged to criticize what one loves. One could do that, if one wanted to, but why is it necessary? It seems to me that there we’re back on the territory of “health.” It could be “healthy” to be critical of the thing one loves, at least in a certain measure, but health itself is a culturally determined standard, hardly an absolute. I also don’t know why one has to accept criticism of the thing one loves. On an ethical view, I can see an argument for not hurting others on the basis of the fact that they are criticizing something one loves, but I don’t think that that necessarily involves any stance about how one relates to the object of affection itself. I could love something, be uncritical of it and unwilling to accept criticism of it by others and still not engage in policing or more harmful behaviors.

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      10. I do agree that much of these fan activities can be read as pomo pastiche, and I did say that I think much of it is also the working through of one’s own creative skills. But we are also seeing such a dearth of originality coming out o Hollywood right now, which fuels so much of this pop culture fandom, that I do worry how too much pomo, nostaligia, adaptation culture can stifle truly original voices.

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      11. I wonder if we can consider originality on a spectrum; a dimensional rather than categorical variable. On one pole would be 100% original and the other would be 100% plagiarized. And then along this dimension would be things like remix, reboot, adaptation, appropriation, and so forth. I have a feeling few thing would approach the 100% original end, because of how important socially constructed knowledge is, but I would still say it is important to strive for that originality end so as to have something to feed back into the more crowded end.

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      12. I’m still skeptical. Okay, a one to one copy of something you could call unoriginal. But otherwise, we’re all just recycling on some level. I didn’t make up the letters with which I write the English language or constitute the grammar of the language. I don’t see any problem with that. If people want more “originality,” they should vote with their feet.

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      13. You seem to be conflating “more original” with “more interesting to me.” Presumably the reasons the corporations are creating material that is “less interesting” is because it sells well.

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      14. The conversation was intended to be conversational; a much more in-depth and academic analysis of what causes such problems is coming. This was just out attempt to talk through some things. So if you have any reasons for the problematic behavior, then I would love to hear it.

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      15. I agree, the issue about identity and fandom is exactly the same as with religion and politics and so forth. In fact, I hope to make that my next big research project. I think the same problems occurring in politics and religion are occurring in fandom because at the heart of all of it are humans struggling to cope with reality and their lives. It just that here it is being express in the context of fandom.

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      16. I don’t think it’s exactly the same. But that’s given my own perspective as someone who’s been heavily involved in religion her entire life. There are a lot of similarities but it’s not quite the same thing. w/r/t politics, I think that there is something in the problem of self-efficacy. I think fandom lends people a lot of that in a world in which the spheres for actual activity seem to be narrowing every day. But that’s only in terms of the parts of fandom that I observe, which is, of course, not all of fandom everywhere.

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      17. I’m a member of a celebrity fandom (that because of the actor’s projects occasionally intersects other fandoms that are pop-cultural/corporate that I watch more superficially).

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      18. As for the last point about boredom on the job – who is to say it isn’t that for some people? Who is to say it isn’t what you discussed for other people? Different people, different contexts, may result in different gratifications sought and behaviors undertaken to obtain those gratifications. That is why I am currently collecting stories, and while I will always collect stories. I prefer to go forward based on empiricism than theorize from my privileged position. The podcast was meant as a conversation between the two of us to generate more conversation — and it is doing just that between us. I hope more conversation can occur to gather these stories to truly understand what is happening.

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      19. I’m not saying that it isn’t that for some people (it could be), just that that is not a factor that has changed between now and at least 1848 or so. The question is more, why turn to fandom (and, since there were fan-like experiences occurring in the nineteenth century at least) why turn to a particular kind of corporate-sponsored fandom, now in particular?

        As as who’s privileged or not — I also have a story that is as legitimate as anyone else. As a fan, I’m on the same playing field as any other fan. I’m an ex-professor, but I was never a scholar of fandom. I’m a fan, I’ve been out as a fan for five years, I’ve had a very wide range of wonderful and horrible fan experiences, and given the number of fans whom I’ve come into contact with, I also collect, and ponder, the stories I am told, which I read, which I encounter, which I experience, which I also write about, from my position as a fan.

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      20. If you look on the blog you might enter “fan showcase” where I occasionally interview other fans about their experiences. I think though that as with most fandoms it can be a bit hard to “get it” if you’re not really immersed in the fandom. I’ve also been writing about my own fan stuff, but those posts are interspersed here and there. And I’m not that into comics so it might not be applicable to you.

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      21. Ah, the emic/etic argument. I think as a communication scholar, what I am more interested in is how people present themselves and position others. And then as a scholar with more of a psychology bend (given my training) I am also interested in how they make sense of their fandom in relation to their lives. So I do wonder to what extent have to be a part of a fandom to “get” those aspects of the person’s fandom.

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      22. I don’t think anyone really understands stories “as they are meant,” but I also think that it is hard to even make the step toward trying to do that without understanding their vocabulary. To understand the stories fans tell about themselves who dress up as (say) Tauriel, you have to know who Tauriel “is,” both in the sense of who she was intended to be by her creators, how she was executed in end effect, and who the fan understands Tauriel to be. Certain aspects of fan stories are certainly universal, but others are extremely particularistic.

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      23. True, that type of interaction effect of producer/text/audience is very important, but from the fan I can only get their story, and I can dig down into their answers to understand how they make sense of it all, and then I would have to place it into context. But the question is do I have to understand the context before I talk to the fan or would it be better to get at the context after such a conversation? Or maybe the better consideration would be for how bias can come in whether you understand the context before or after, and that as the researcher one must be aware of this bias when doing the research.

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      24. I think most people have a hard time sustaining their interest reading this sort of thing, frankly, if they don’t have some idea of what the terms of the conversation are. I’ve read a lot of stuff lately written by people who doubt the integrity / veracity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s marriage and his wife’s pregnancy, to cite an example, and the discussion is very insider, to the point that even someone like me (trained to be interested in the detail) tunes out some of it because of what interests me, and when I do that, I risk missing the point for the author. At the very least, if it’s not articulated by the informant, it might not be entirely clear to the interviewer why a particular issue is at stake. I don’t see how we can have conversation before language, which is why I think that a lot of people sort of tune out of fan conversations. They don’t have the vocabulary and they aren’t interested enough to obtain it.

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      25. I have been working with a methodology that I hope would be applicable to any context, whether I am insider or outsider. I do not think my status has to be a detriment to my engaging with people as long as I go in empowering the other person to speak their mind and to give them the time/space to do so.

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      26. don’t you worry you would misunderstand them? I did a lot of research in a field that required me to master an archaic form of a modern language. I was constantly asking myself about the extent to which I really understood the sources. Of course, one’s own subject position always interferes, but I think there are things one can do to try to mitigate that. I’d be worried that I would miss something fundamental.

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      27. I don’t think there’s much difference. Living people, and texts, are simply impenetrable in different ways. I can ask a lot of questions of texts (and get answers) that I could never ask (or at least would never ask, for reasons of ethics or manners) a person sitting in front of me. I can be critical of a text in a way that would be damaging to a human, which means that it can be much easier to get answers. I have to accept certain kinds of answers from a human that I wouldn’t accept from a text.

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      28. And perhaps, for the first point about corporate sponsored fandom, it is an issue of how abundant/prevalent it is these days compared to the 19th or even much of the 20th century. What do you think explains it?

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      29. No, because there are anecdotal reports from at least since the generation after the popularation of the movable type printing press in the West that people felt overwhelmed by media in their lives. I think it has more to do with the social structure of our society and the ways in which these huge corporations shape our political and day to day experiences. Media is an effect of that relationship, and it may shape it, but I think our experience of capitalism is changing.

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