Power as Causing Fractured Fandoms

For the 2016 Midwest PCA/ACA conference, I presented a paper on my fractured fandom project titled “‘Power is an allusion’: Referencing power as causing fractures in fandom and fan communities.” What follows is that presentation.

Nina (a pseudonym), a 16-year-old high school student in Connecticut, pondered on the following situation: “Why are people so cruel? Why are guys with the gaming community so threatened by female gamers? Why did this have to happen to me?”

Nina did what any gamer would do: she went in to a game store near her house to find something to play. While there, two boys started to hassle her. She asked them to leave her alone but the situation worsened; they grabbed her arms, held her in place, ignored her calls to be left alone, and then pushed her into a display case. According to her account, she needed eight stitches and the boys were arrested.

Well, one time I was at a local video game store when these two guys came up to me and started asking me what I was buying. I told them I wasn’t sure yet and they started hassling me and saying that I didn’t know anything about games because I was a girl. … I asked them to leave me alone and they just got meaner. I tried to leave but they kept getting in my way. Several times they grabbed my arms and held me there. I told them to leave me alone and I was trying really hard not to hurt either of them. … It got to the point where they pushed me into a display case. I had to go to the hospital for eight stitches.

Then, things got worse. Like many young people, Nina shared her story online; she recalls that no one believed her story, and then some started sending her death threats. As the harassment continued, she became afraid. She deleted online accounts and changed usernames, anything to erase her online identity. The incident and its aftermath caused her to ask the questions above: why her? Why did this have to happen to her?

I shared my story with friends, family, and the internet. No one on the internet believed my story and I was sent hate mail, death threats, and several people threatened to doxx (release my address, phone number, etc) me. Luckily, no one had enough info to do this but it was still terrifying.

Nina experienced problem in her fandom because others thought they had the power to keep her out of it, and they actively sought to do so, through physical, emotional, and mental harassment.

This story comes from study I conducted on fractured fandom.

On this blog, I have talked about fractured fandom at length. I define fractured fandom as problems, tensions, and conflict between fans within fan community or fandom or between fan communities or fandoms. Fractured fandom represents the dark side of fandom, but I am not the first to write about this dark side.

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http://www.memecenter.com/fun/1783351/stupid-twilight-fangirl

There have been discussions about this dark side in news stories around events and movements such as GamerGate, the potential chemical attack on furries, concern over Bronies, how cosplay does not equal consent, fake fan girls, attacks on movie critics, attacks on comics creators, and more.

The phenomena that lead to or result from fractured fandom have been discussed in scholarship on football hooliganism, anti-fandom, hate watching, policing, snarking and so forth. Indeed, going back to the very beginnings of fan studies, concerns over fans as being derived from “fanatics” demonstrates this perception of fandom.

Study’s Background

In the study I report on here, I used Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology to create an online self-interview asking people to recall a situation involving such a problem, tension, conflict with fans, within fan communities, or between fan communities or fandoms. From 395 attempts,  I collected 102 complete self-interviews for analysis. Their stories form the basis of analyzing the themes for why the fracture occurred and what they did to respond to it.

First, I want to present some basic demographics to demonstrate the location, gender, and ethnicity of these fans. A large number of them were Caucasian women (59.8%).

  • 78.4% North America, 16.7% European, 2.9% Asians, 2% Australians
  • 75.5% “women,” “female,” “cis female” and 18.6% men
  • 76.5% Caucasians, 7.8% Asian, 7.8% Latino/a or Hispanic, 1% African, 2% Native American

Experiencing a fractured fandom was not something only young adults dealt with. Their ages demonstrate how many different types of people have dealt with fractures, from children to senior citizens – with some people recalling stories that occurred over 20 years ago.

  • 3.9% children (ages 0-12), 2% older adults (ages 51-65), 1% senior citizen (ages 66 and above)
  • 27.5% teenagers (ages 13-19); 48% young adults (ages 20-35); 17.6% middle age adults (ages 36-50)
  • 31.4% recent experience, 19.6% year passed, 15.7% 2-3 years passed
  • 12.7% 4-6 years passed, 8.8% 7-8 years, 8.8% 10-18 years
  • 1 fan recalled 20-year-old story, 1 fan had 30-year-old story, 1 had 49-year-old story

Furthermore, they represent a range of fandoms, from sports to anime.

  • 8.8% American football, 1% soccer, 6.9% basketball
  • 23.5% Sherlock or Sherlock Holmes
  • 19.6% anime/manga
  • 17.6% Star Trek
  • 13.7% Doctor Who
  • 12.7% Star Wars
  • 7.8% Supernatural
  • 7.8% Buffy the Vampire Slayer

One of my primary analytical goals was to understand the reasons for fractured fandom — that is, what caused the fractured fandom, at least in the story being told by the fan. T understand this aspect, I inductively coded the recurring themes in people’s stories, and then used this content analysis for some basic Chi-Square analyses. What resulted indicated that fractured were not due to some type of person (i.e. demographics), fandom or fan activity. Instead, the fractured appear caused by issues involving communication and power.

  • Communication practices
    • Miscommunication
    • Difference of opinion
  • Power dynamics
    • Defensiveness
    • Power plays
    • Policing boundaries

This presentation concerns the second group of reasons, and the analysis shows that many fractures occurred because of power problems. In all, 51 situations, or 50% of the stories, in some way happened due to power dynamics. (I have also reported on the causes for these fractures at the 2017 CSCA conference.)

Because of this presence, the remainder of this presentation focuses on discussing how power is seen as causing these problems – but also how power is invoked when people deal with and overcome these problems.

“Power is an Allusion”

My analytical goal has been to see these stories from the fan’s perspectives, and then to meet their perspectives with other news stories and with scholarly research. Here I start by seeing power from the perspective of Katherine, 41-year-old white female business owner, recalled a problem in her Voltron fan community:

When first joining the Voltron fandom it was all warm and fuzzy, but quickly found out there are a few obnoxious bullies lurking around. I deal with bullies now the same way I did 25 years ago. Punch them in the face and move on.

The particular problem did effect one of my fandom friends and I had to step in and be her cheerleader. … My biggest problem was defending my friend without making it worse. She does not like conflict and just lets things blow over. I am more of a jump in the fray type.

Shipping problems. Insert eye role. The big problem is some people think you are one dimensional or stupid or something just because you only ship one pair in your fandom. Of course it’s not the pair they rabidly ship so they really are just being hypocrites.

I learned how to block people on Twitter. … Some people would be banished from the fandom. It would help because they are bullying assholes.

What really caught my eye was when she said this: “Power is an allusion.”

Since this was a self-interview, all responses were typed, and there were a number of misspellings like this one. Had this been an oral interview, I would’ve most likely heard her say “illusion” – but the mistype suggests how power underlies much of what happens in these fractures, and how power is a reference point for understanding fractures like Katherine’s.

Throughout her story, Katherine positions herself as asserting her power over people who might disparage her. She positions herself as powerful in this situation to help a friend. The cause of the fracture – difference of opinion – was not about power, but Katherine describes those who took umbrage with this different opinion as bullies, suggesting the fracture moved into harassment, which involves power.

As I will discuss more below, Katherine’s response to the fractured fandom appears to be a common response to fractures: the person experiencing the fracture attempts to control experience by silencing those seen as causing the problem – such actions are a way to regain power in the situation.

Before talking more about the responses to fractured fandoms, I want to address the main ways I am seeing power dynamics create fractures: defensiveness, power plays, and policing boundaries.

Defensiveness

Defensiveness involves people feeling that their identity, ego, and/or pride has been wounded in some way during an interaction with another fan, or even a non-fan. These involve people feeling hurt and acting out because of this feeling.

Thus, while this fracture indicates that people look inward to identify the problems in the situation, someone else’s actions most often caused their hurt feelings; as a result, the fans did not consider themselves as the main problem. Rather, the fan felt that someone else said or did something that made them feel bad and angry, and therefore they reacted in kind.

For example, Alicia, a 21-year-old Caucasian college student in the United States, experienced annoyance when someone disparaged Fifty Shades of Gray. Because she was such a fan of the series, she grew dismayed when someone who had never read the series criticized it.

I was completely appalled by what he was saying because I have read the books multiple times and he even admitted to not having read the books…

She considered this an affront to the series and her investment in it, to the point that she felt compelled to “get up and yell at him.”

A fan’s need to defend themselves against another person’s perceptions, actions, or accusations could be seen as a fundamental problem leading to fractured fandom, especially for fans of science fiction and fantasy media given decades of ridicule from mainstream culture that tended to stereotype rather than understand them.

Over the past decade, however, such fans have begun to be taken more seriously, thanks in large part to the rise of geeks in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, as well as the financial success of science fiction and fantasy products in all media forms. Being able to band together in online spaces such as discussion forums, blogs, and social media allows fans to voice their opinions and thereby establish themselves as an important marketing force. Yet, even after steadily gaining cultural capital, fans still experience marginalization and stereotyping, and the defensiveness that some exhibit could indicate an ongoing need to be taken seriously.

This defensiveness manifests in online debates between fans and critics over their differing interpretations of media texts. Fans have increasingly turned away from established media critics in favor of their own readings of these texts, claiming that the critics refuse to take fans and their preferred media seriously – even when those critics declare themselves as fans.

Critics argue the fans’ defensive behavior has resulted in communities that no longer represent the best of what fandom has to offer. These critiques have led others to urge fans to stop trying to control that which they profess to love, while still others hope that fan culture comes to an end before things get worse. Such critical reflections, of course, seem to cause more defensiveness among the various fan communities and fandoms they target, and thus goes the cycle of critique, stereotype, and defensiveness.

Power Plays and Policing Boundaries

Power plays occur when fans perceive people enforcing their will in the situation. The fan felt as though other fans held the most power and dominated the fandom in some way, to the extent that these powerful fans prevented others from expressing themselves. The power seemingly resulted from popularity, administration, or privilege.

For example, Zelda, a 41-year-old white European female, reported that some fans used their assigned power as a forum administrator to dictate what happened within that forum, thereby abusing this assigned power to silence voices.

A certain group of women was bullied in a fan-forum by the admins, because they were outspoken and questioned their behaviour. … Our group tried to discuss our point of view how things should be handled in the forum and the discussion was oppressed by the admins. What gives them the right to forbid a discussion, to forbid me to express my opinion?

Sometimes these power plays involve underlying ideological issues of sexism, racism, and other divisions or positions of privilege, which can then become activated in policing boundaries regarding proper or improper behavior within that particular fandom and/or fan community.

Such policing often seems to occur because some fans take it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers for that fan community or fandom. A fan may feel imbued with power due to their gender, racial, ethnic, generational or other identity, or they may feel entitled because they have been a member of the fan community or fandom for a long time and therefore have done much and know many people.

Several news stories and critical pieces have considered how white, heterosexual men tend to operate as gatekeepers in fan communities and fandoms, operating out of a sense of privilege as the intended or “normal” fans. Such gatekeeping, however, need not be explicitly or implicitly associated with such identity politics.

For example, the film The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) was met with such a fractured response by horror fans who felt it was not a true horror film. Similarly, Japanese metal group Babymetal experienced gatekeeping when metal fans derided the group as inauthentic.

Policing boundaries, then, involves someone who wields perceived or actual power attempting to aggressively control the activity of that fandom and/or fan community. This fracture relates to the idea that a line separates good, appropriate behavior from and bad, in appropriate behavior, and that some fans act to maintain these distinctions. At a basic level, this type of policing develops a hierarchy designed to position some fans as better or superior to others, based on some predetermined and usually arbitrary criteria.

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For example, the criteria can be based on stereotypes regarding gender identities, racial identities, sexual identities, and more. They can also be based on fan activities, such as trivia, fan fiction, cosplay, etc.

Illeana, a Doctor Who fan, reflected on this type of experience when “über-fans” at Comic-Con bullied her about her cosplay.

I think it essentially came down to other fans thinking they were “better” or more fanatical in their fandom than the rest of us.

She was only 22 years old at the time, and this experience stayed with her until she recalled it for the self-interview thirteen years later. The construction of such hierarchies result in the idea that the most fanatical or “true” fan(s) deserve a spot at the top and have the power to dictate “proper” behavior or actions.

The action of policing boundaries can also involve negotiating new definitions for what is or is not acceptable for fans. For example, the cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is intended primarily for little girls, but a large and vocal adult male fanbase calling themselves “Bronies” soon emerged. These Bronies were met with public scorn for enjoying a cartoon aimed at young girls, and thus they experienced this policing of boundaries on a societal level. Over time, the boundaries were renegotiated to allow for and promote this specific subset of the fandom.

Much of this policing appears to relate to gender issues, particularly with regard to what constitutes appropriate or traditional behavior for one gender compared to another. For example, male fans sometimes label female fans as “fake fan girls” or “fake geek girls.”

Such policing does not just happen around stereotypical “geek” fandoms: Yasmin, a white, female college student and Chicago Blackhawks fan, described her experience with male fans when she tried to express her hockey fandom and saw it relating to this fake geek girl identification.

A lot of male fans would tell me I’m a “puck slut,” or a girl who only watches hockey to see the “hot guys” play a “manly sport.”

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While many of these self-interviews were completed by people who felt other fans policed their activities, others indicated that they did the policing. Opal, a white graduate student from Texas, recalled meeting a person who said they loved all of the Star Wars movies, including the prequels, which she did not like.

I felt like they had deceived me and lied about their love of Star Wars. I think of myself as a true fan, and this person was an impostor.

Throughout this self-interview, Opal did not express any remorse about engaging in such policing action against another Star Wars fan. Such lack of awareness indicates that these policing behaviors have possibly become more acceptable, and that this acceptability may result from a conscious or unconscious desire to gain the power that comes with the identification of a “true fan.”

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Power as Response to Fractured Fandom

Along with defensiveness, power plays, and policing boundaries seen as leading to fractured fandom experiences, power was also brought up when fans discussed how they responded to such experiences. While fractured fandoms often led to fans having negative experiences, some did also report having positive results come about because of what they went through and what they did about it. For these fans, there were attempts to regain power in situations because doing so was seen as way to respond to any type of fracture – doing so helped people empower them selves to for positive results

Some fans reported gaining a sense of control in their lives because of how they acted in the situation. For example, while many fans discussed withdrawing from their fan community, doing so does not necessarily mean the fan will experience a negative impact on their life. Indeed, withdrawing from the community may have been the right thing to do in that particular communication situation. Sometimes, the best way to resolve a bad communication situation is to stop communicating.

Across these stories, I have seen fans learning something about the power they have.

For example: Fiona, a 16-year-old white female high school student recalled an experience at a football game when a fight broke out among the fans of the opposing teams. While a tense and scary situation, Fiona felt good later when she realized something about herself and her ability to be in control.

I reaffirmed my belief that I can remain calm in bad situations and take control to help everyone.

For example: Cesar, a 17-year-old Hispanic high school student, said he saw fans of the same team fighting with one another and couldn’t understand why. But seeing these two fans being so out of control led him to ponder the topic and realize that being in control of oneself is a great power.

It helped me because I know I can avoid conflicts like that now. Made me realize that I have more patience and understanding than I thought I previously had. Some people abuse power when they can. I believe controlling it shows true strength. I was a 17, made me realize that I don’t have to be looking for trouble. Nothing wrong with just sitting back and watching the game. … Reminded me that I have more patience to deal with conflict. Getting physical is a last resort. Showing control is a true display of power.

For example: Sabrina, a 42-year-old self-employed white woman, dealt with a heated argument and rudeness – including coming from her – by taking control over her communication practices. It helped her find her voice, in other words.

I learned who to avoid, and worked on controlling my temper and just ignoring things more often when they bothered me. I never thought of myself as someone who would ever get involved in “fandom wank,” so getting pulled into it, center stage, complete with long lists of “receipts” and recaps, made me pretty much stop contributing to that fandom for a while. It also made me more likely to defend others in similar situations. Feeling powerless was the absolute worst part of the entire situation. I was/am a fairly well-known person in this fandom, and didn’t realize that put a target on my back. However, on the flip side, I’ve used what “power” I have, for lack of a better word, to speak out against fandom bullying and particularly the group of bullies who came after me.

For example: Susan, a middle-aged artist in San Francisco, recalled the tensions caused in her family because of her interest in geek culture. Rather than continue to put herself in those situations, she sought power to change the dynamics.

We decided to start going on a mini-vacation over Thanksgiving. There were some efforts to get us to keep hosting, and then to attend at other people’s homes. We started seeing much less of the family, and concentrated on our friends. We also got much more focused on our own work and interests. We started going to more conventions.

Some of the resolution activities could be considered as more positive than others, but that is only from an external and objective position; to the fans experiencing the tensions and problems of fractures, anything that helps to end the situation probably seemed like a positive activity at the time.

In any situation, our agency becomes actualized through what we choose or choose not to communicate. Thus, even the decision to withdraw from a communication situation is a way to assert agency, or power, over it. As such, the fan could learn a valuable lesson about who to engage with and how that determination could be considered a positive outcome of the entire experience.

Conclusion

I am still analyzing these stories to find both the ugly and the uplifting. Whether ugly or uplifting, it is clear that power has role in fractured fandom. By causing it. By making things worse. By resolving it. By hurting people in the short or long term. By giving people a positive life lesson.

The focus of book I am writing is how communication impacts these situations, for better or worse.

Essentially, the analysis being presented in the book considers the roles communication practices play in the creation and maintenance of fractured fandom, as well as the possible resolution of it. The analysis has thus far demonstrated a range of practices that involve good and bad communication in these fractured fandoms — but even the conception of “good and bad communication” depends on one’s perspective.

This book focuses on the discussion of these communication practices as experienced by the fans, with additional thoughts as to how these communication practices are not unique to just fans, fan communities, and fandoms. Indeed, the same “good and bad” communication practices occur across different areas of life, especially when different ideologies clash, such as in discussions about politics and religions. It is the hope of this project, this book, and this presentation that by better understanding communication practices in fractured fandoms, we can also better understand other communication situations that involve conflict, so as to better prevent or alleviate the problems associated with them.

Thus, one of the questions this book will more thoroughly investigate is: How can people speak back to, with, through power issues to prevent or alleviate fractured fandom?

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