Why Study Fans?

Feb 17, 2013 by

Why Study Fans?
[The following consists of my thoughts as informed by the Introduction to Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, by Gray, et. al. (2007, NYU Press).]

In the last post, I addressed some of my reasons for focusing on popular culture as a subset of my academic life. In this post, I’d like to examine the reasons that I study fans of popular culture, as well.

Fandom seems trivial to a lot of people, and fans themselves are often objects of ridicule. People who do not identify themselves as fans often identify fans with the etymology of the term and cast them as “fanatics.” Fans are those other people over there, the strange ones who cannot tell reality from fantasy, who spend their time and money on frivolous pursuits and “weird” hobbies like dressing up in costumes or stealing other people’s characters to write stories because they aren’t creative enough to come up with their own.

As scholars of fan studies, we come up against these biases often in explaining (justifying) our work. But fandom is not merely an aberration, something on the fringes of our culture. Instead, fandom offers a microcosm of our culture and a way to begin inquiry into movements and constructions that affect the world as a whole.

The first wave of fan studies focused on all of the positives of fandom, celebrating it as the resistant movement of the disempowered. The second wave explored how fan hierarchies mirrored those in the larger social and cultural world. The third wave, which (as with feminism) we are now in, chooses to examine fandom through the lens of modernity to capture “fundamental insights into modern life” (Gray, et al. 9).

Everyone is a fan of something. However, focusing on the triviality of which some accuse fandom, Jonathan Gray and his coauthors ask

“How can a focus on pleasure and entertainment be justified at the end of what will enter history books as a century of violence, driven by rapid social, cultural, economic and technological change, and with the twenty-first century set to follow the same trajectory? What contribution can the study of fandom make to a world faced with war, ethnic conflicts, widening inequality, political and religious violence, and irreversible climate change, among other disasters?” (Gray, et. al., 1.)

As a cultural scholar working within a paradigm of critical theory, these are important questions to me, as I suspect they are to most cultural and fan scholars. The answer, ultimately, is a simple one: what studying fandom can give us is a deeper understanding about the way in which we relate to others and how we read the texts that make up our worlds. Fandom studies offers insight into connections between fan social structures and overarching social and cultural transformations in the world.

Fandom is becoming an integral part of modern life–it directly affects global patterns of consumption, communication, identification and creation. This integral site–the way everyone knows what fans do and probably knows at least a couple of people engaged in fandom practices–means we should look at fandom more closely. Critical studies requires us to question ourselves and our world, and fans offer us an avenue into that questioning.

Modern life moves through mediated spaces, and everyone has something to which they find themselves reacting with emotional engagement–a favorite show or book, the news, politics, sports, a theoretical approach, a faith. Rational discourse is not what often draws people to a cause–mass mediation forces far quicker reactions than that. We, as a society, are looking for something to which we can emotionally relate, something to which we can bond, others with whom we can form connections whether the basis is a cause or a public or a community. By giving us a concrete object of study, then, fandom offers us a window into the “mediated world at the heart of our social, political and cultural realities and identities” (Gray, et al, 12).

And that is not trivial at all.

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