I am grateful to fan studies scholars for giving me a name for what I’d been doing before I ever knew that fan studies was a thing. I love fan studies as an academic discipline and I wish that it wasn’t seen as that slight a niche. Fandom is huge and fans are everywhere, so the fact that fan studies as we know it isn’t a bigger and more popular discipline – and that’s the fault of the general academic powers that be crawling slowly towards recognizing it as a wide-reaching discipline that can mesh with other academic avenues, I’d say – is ridiculous.
I could literally go on for ages talking about my favorite aspects of fan studies or the fan scholars that inspire my own work because there’s a lot to love about this discipline. However, this is the second installment of Fleeting Frustrations so let’s save the love-in for a later post. Right now, it’s time to air my biggest grievance with fan studies as a whole – but specifically the parts of fan studies that focus on the identity of fans and their favorite characters or ships.
Fan studies, despite frequently focusing on or having texts written by marginalized people, isn’t exactly great at intersectionality or recognizing that intersectional feminism is a must especially when your fan studies focus lands on gender and sexuality.
I own a ton of fan studies texts and the only thing keeping me from owning more is the fact that these books tend to be way out of my price range for the most part. Many of the books I own are essay collections dedicated to an aspect of fandom (a trope, ship, or subculture), a specific fandom community, or just the idea of fandom itself. Many of them are by marginalized members of fandom or about marginalized identities explored (or under-explored) in media or the fandoms it spawns.
These tend to be pretty common topics in fan studies circles.
What doesn’t tend to be common?
Work on race.
Oh, I know that there’s work being done on race. Obviously. That’s my specific field of study in the discipline so I’m always adjacent to whatever’s being written about/published on race and racism in fandom. That’s why I know enough to get grouchy.
There are two main ways that fan studies books that aren’t about race and racism tend to handle those topics in fandom spaces.
First, there are the books that take a colorblind approach to fandom. They don’t see color, don’t see race, so… the essay collection or book they’re putting out just don’t have any focus on race or racism. They’re the books where, when you look in the index, has maybe two references to race/racism and one of them might well be a sentence from an author that dismisses the very potential for racism in fandom spaces.
Then there are the books that either have a single essay about race and racism… or a section of essays about race tucked neatly inside its own handy segment away from all the other essays. It’s never possible to include, for example, an essay about Iris West and toxic (racist) fandom reactions towards her in a section devoted to toxic fandom. No, it has to go in with all the other essays about race and racism.
(It’s quite reminiscent of the way many bookstores lump books by Black authors together regardless of their actual genres. Even though the only thing that many of these essays tend to have in common are the fact that they’re about race in some way, they tend to be pulled together.)
Talk about a major bummer. I think that two things that more fan studies collection editors should think of as they work to get the perfect set of essays. One, they need to think about how they’re framing the few essays that they do choose that on race – or any other marginalized identity. Sure, you could lump all of the essays about a particular topic together and it’s not like that doesn’t do the barebones basics, but…
If an essay is about race and something else?
Why not see if it can go in one of the other sections so you’re not pigeonholing the author or the content they’re talking about. I live for conversations about race and sexuality in fandom spaces. How we talk and think about characters of color and how fandom tends to assume that Black characters are desexualized mammy figures or hypersexualized beyond belief. It’s infuriating, but it’s interesting.
Fan studies as a field suffers from many of the problems that fandom in general does when it comes time to talk about race and racism alongside the erasure and further marginalization of fans of color. Fandom is seen as this homogenous and frankly binary space neatly divided with everything and everyone in their respective places.
Fandom and fans get split between curatorial/transformative spaces. We’re told that men are more invested in curatorial spaces while women are interested in transformative spaces. We’re told that the ideal, real fan, especially in transformative spaces, is one that complains about the source material and wants to change it but… not too much. (Look at how fandom’s general response to fighting for queer representation in media is a lot more welcoming than the response to fans of color asking for anything close to positive representation for people of color in Western fandom. It’s… a lot.)
As a queer fan of color who’s in fandom and whose current main contribution to fandom is in the form of critical commentary, it’s never been more obvious how little commentary on what these areas can do better/what they’re doing flat out wrong is appreciated.
The other day, I made a tweet about how it was weird to me that folks whose contribution to fandom is in the form of critical – for multiple meanings of the word – commentary isn’t valued and that they aren’t seen as “real fans” and some absolute rando needed to let me know that “maybe it’s the judgement that fans don’t like” like that isn’t part of the problem I’m trying to point out.
Fandom is all about criticism and judgement. It’s all about us looking at a flawed piece of media and going “I like this anyway, now let’s look at how we can change it/make it gayer”. There are folks out here writing hundreds of thousands of words worth of fanfiction to fix the flaws they see in their respective fandoms, meta about how the creators are wrong and certain ships are canon.
But when it comes time for people of color to carve out our own spaces in fandom and talk about the issues we see and how we’d like to see them changed… suddenly we’re outsiders. Suddenly, judgement, which is something that fuels much of fandom, becomes an unwanted and unnecessary aspect. It becomes something that marks us as not belonging to fandom spaces.
And the fact that the fan studies discipline tends to set such pieces about race and racism in fandom apart from all the other takes on fandom about marginalized people/by marginalized writers is not helpful. I like fan studies as a discipline. The same way that I like fandom as a thing. But the way that both of these areas make it clear that I – people like me – aren’t necessarily welcome to do fandom our way and point out the issues that are present in fandom and fan studies…
Well, it’s not great.
And I mean, it’s not all bad: we’ve got books like Dr. Rukmini Pande’s upcoming Squee From The Margins (out December 1, 2018) and Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy. Books that should be must-reads for fan studies scholars and anyone interested in understanding why the current way fan studies scholars and fans in fandom basically don’t talk about race isn’t acceptable.
But fandom (and fan studies) needs to do better.