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Category Archives: queer

I think most people take some joy in being right. I’ll certainly admit that I’m one of them. But as a critical academic I’m often going around making dire predictions or showing awful intended and unintended consequences of things, so when I’m right about those there’s some disappointment mixed in with the glee (as there is with all glee, Ryan Murphy).

So when Julie Levin Russo, my fan studies buddy, copied me on a tweet about a blog post she’d found, Fangirls, Stay Away From Tumblr,  it was “I am so right!” followed by “I am so right.”

In the post, the author (who @j_l_r informs me is an undergraduate and so I’ll be playing even nicer than usual this week) critiques what she considers the excesses of fangirls who use microblogging platform Tumblr.

The post is in fact quite prescriptive, telling said fangirls how they ought to behave: “they need to change how they fangirl over it. They need to stop focusing on what shoes their favorite actor is wearing, and remember why they became a fan”;  “if you want to run your blog ‘right,’ you need to make your posts about why you’re a fan of so-and-so.”

The author also parses out more specifically what it might look like to not be doin’ it wrong. Thus, she declares, “there’s nothing wrong with listening to the same band for weeks on end, or paying an absurd amount of money for a concert ticket in the nosebleed section.” (Donning the Marxist hat for a second: note that engaging in consumer capitalism is what’s a-ok.)

Moreover, she distinguishes such people from “normal fans,” even insisting that “these fangirls aren’t fans anymore; it’s a race to be the most obsessive, and it isn’t genuine or fair to actual fans on the website.”

Now, @j_l_r quipped “paging Bourdieu?” in the original tweet, and she’s not wrong about that, of course—and maybe my response is because my queer hat just fits me better than my Bourdieu hat—but I want to go a different direction here.

Because the author also noted in the blog post that the Tumblr style of fangirling “makes everyone involved uncomfortable,” and I’d like to argue that this is actually the crux.

This is to say that, as we can see from the definition given—”A fangirl is someone who takes that one thing he or she (usually a she, though) really loves — such as a celebrity, television show, or band — and loves it to the point where their life revolves around it”—fangirling is both highly gendered and an issue of large-scale affect (itself also highly gendered). It’s girls, having extravagant feelings.

But there’s another layer. She says, “Unfortunately, fangirls have taken to blogging their unhealthy obsessions on Tumblr.” Girls have long had feelings deemed extravagant by social standards (ever since rationality became gendered as masculine, in fact), but now they’re doing it in public. And that reminds me vividly of my theorization of fandom as like public sex.

Yes, the blogger’s discomfort (and that of many others) is about what is and isn’t a tasteful way to appreciate cultural objects (obligatory Distinction reference), but engaging in the wrong kind of appreciation shouldn’t produce such a strong reaction. And yet it’s a moral panic. Why? Because such fans become perverts.

The post parses the problem: “It’s a competition — who can post the most pictures, who can get a reaction from a band member or actor via Twitter, who can attend the most concerts or know the most quotes from a show, or who can make the most ridiculous comment professing their undying love,” and complains that such activity is not about the object of fandom.

But here’s the thing you learn about norms and deviants if you can look at it from a certain angle and let go of the panic about contamination: it’s never about the object of fandom.

These girls’ behaviors are scratching some itch they have, providing them some pleasure they desire, and they’re not ashamed to do that even if it does look only tenuously related to the object that is supposedly the point.

Ultimately, love is not rational, and you can write all the essays you want detailing the fine points of a band or TV show and it will always come down to a certain something that produces feelings. What these fangirls are doing openly, everyone does covertly.

And it’s desire, and its excessive feelings, and it’s femininity, and it’s not inside the confines of normative development  (the author identifies it as a “stage”). And it freaks people out.

And this blog post is exactly why it matters to bring queer theory to bear on fandom. Because the power of the norm is such that we get female youth hating on feminized youth practices because they know that having that much desire can’t possibly be right.

Posting early because it’s timely and because I’ll be traveling for the next 10 days or so. Look for my next post probably in June.

The normative trajectory of development is frequently made sense of, as so many normative things are, as “natural.” Kids “naturally” hit certain physical, mental, and experiential milestones at certain times.

But, of course, we know from those other normative things that “nature” takes work. People “fail” by having a gender presentation that, oops, it turns out doesn’t “naturally” follow from having a certain sort of body. They don’t “naturally” find that their desires fall into a monogamous heterosexual configuration. Being outside the norm, far from requiring deviance, is the more common condition, showing that compliance with the norm doesn’t just spontaneously arise after all.

As Kathryn Bond Stockton explains in The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, it takes work to regulate growing up so that kids learn things at the “proper” intervals and don’t “grow up too fast” and “lose their innocence.”  This is, moreover, a particular kind of work, because this is understood only ever as “premature” exposure to sexuality or violence. We’re oddly unconcerned with precocious entry into other things associated with adulthood like business ownership. Providing kids with a computer game about lemonade stand ownership is a-ok; the kid with the lawn care business is cute.

Not so the incipient trans child, who is imagined not to be capable of thinking about their gender in the way an adult is.  So youth have access to some “grownup” decisions or activities and not others.

Stockton notes that “gay” or “homosexual” are “categories culturally deemed too adult, since they are sexual, though we do presume every child to be straight” (p. 6). Thus, a (sex-free) storybook about a penguin same-sex relationship is unsuitable for young children, but those endless Disney movies constructing heterosexual marriage as the one and only happily ever after  aren’t too grown up or sexual.

At the same time that we want to keep kids from getting involved in things imagined to be too advanced for them, there is a point at which the narrative flips. Beyond a certain age, one becomes eligible to be told to “grow up already” and move on to adult things.

This is not a major point for Stockton, interested as she is in examining the figure of the child. She does point to the idea of homosexuality as arrested development (p. 22-3)—and the irony that this is paired with thinking of homosexuality as incompatible with childhood doesn’t escape either of us. Stockton also notes that for Freud “perverts are ‘diverts, one could say, who extend themselves or linger” instead of following normative trajectory of sex (p. 25).

But the idea of not growing up fast enough was the part that most interested me, particularly in relation to my work on the ways that fans are represented: they’re not white enough and not straight enough, that is, because they’re not grown up enough—because they haven’t “grown out of” their fandom into the measured appreciation characteristic of normative adulthood.

So given that

a)      growing up normatively requires carefully calibrated work to enforce that normativity, to make sure it’s not too fast or too slow, and

b)      like other queer theorists I tend to want to expose and disrupt the enforcement of norms,

I was particularly drawn to Stockton’s proposal that we consider what alternative, nonlinear, nonnormative trajectories of growth might look like, that we “prick (deflate, or just delay) the vertical, forward-motion metaphor of growing up” through “sideways growth” (p. 11).

Granted, this is probably because I’m in the “everything relates to my dissertation!” stage, but this seems like a pretty important insight for fan studies.

So much of the field has been founded on being normal—with early work insisting that fans weren’t crazy, honest, and later work interpreting increased visibility and encouragement of fans as showing they had succeeded in becoming normal. But what if we started from the premise other than getting access to normativity?  What if we refused the legitimacy of the norm of upward, straight line, normative “growing up”?

I’d like to argue something more like: Kids engage in certain sorts of fandom, and adults can too, and if that’s considered unacceptable it’s the norm that’s the problem, not the fans.

Because, the rush to be “normal and normaller,”  (as Michael Warner termed it in 1999 with respect to same-sex marriage) is, I argued in my own discussion of gay marriage,  something we ought to approach much more critically, because these sorts of moves inevitably only allow access to the norm for the people who already look mostly like it—white (+), male (+), gender-normative (+), middle-class (+), heterosexual (+) fans (-).

Instead of trying to change the definition of being normatively grownup so they’ll let fans in, or prove that we were always properly adult but not recognized as such, I think fan studies ought to embrace and celebrate growing sideways and slantways and curlicue-ways and fractured-ways and queerly.

This week’s post is a recap of an event in which I participated on Monday, April 2. It’s housed over at the blog of the organization that hosted the event, the venerable Unit for Criticism at the University of Illinois.

So please do head over there and check it out: Hack This Post! Contesting Technological Neutrality at Technology in Theory and Practice


I recently had a relatively epiphanic week with regard to my dissertation. As I spend more time inhabiting diss-space, such weeks (and the blog posts they generate) may get more frequent, as I suspect that this is a common stage in dissertating, when things suddenly become clear in batches.

First, as already blogged, those Sassen readings helped me realize it may not be so useful to think in terms of the nation.

To explain the second epiphany, I have to back up some distance. It all started because my department is somewhat anarchic. This suits most of us very well, because it gives us a lot of freedom, but it does contribute to a feeling of isolation. Particularly as students complete coursework, we all sort of lose touch with each other, to greater or lesser degree.

(Though, the way a speaker at a departmental reunion this weekend spoke about her cohort as an intellectual sounding-board to this day suggests there are ways around this.)

Consequently, when some university administrator types reviewed us, they said we needed more cohesion. The department administrators looked around at other graduate programs and decided the way to do that was to start a graduate student organization, and they tasked the representatives from each cohort with this. And so, as the unlucky soul elected to represent the 4th years, I found myself in a pub co-hosting a grad student meetup a couple of weeks ago.

This is a long story, but it was necessary to explain how I found myself seated at a table with a bunch of first and second years, who sought out my advice as a more advanced student—and particularly, one familiar with queer theory. Ultimately, it was the question “How is LGBT studies different from queer theory?” that resulted in me understanding my dissertation in a whole new way.

I said, “It’s like the difference between ethnic studies and critical race studies”—and got a blank look. I tried again “No, okay, here’s a better example: the difference between women’s studies and gender studies.” That landed more, and I went on to explain how I saw the distinctions between these categories.

Later, it hit me. That’s the move I am making in fan studies. The queer studies or critical race studies or gender studies move. (Or, since I just taught Robert McRuer, the disability studies to crip theory move.)

That is, fan studies has, to this point, been operating in a women’s studies or ethnic studies or disability studies or LGBT studies mode. It has said, “There are people called fans, who have a particular experience—to some extent, an oppressed experience—and we should document what it’s like to be this sort of person.”

This work has been and continues to be important, for fans as much as for any of the other categories of people that are researched in this way. This work absolutely should and must be done, because there are, in fact, groups of people out there that we don’t know very much about yet and we should know about them if we’re going to better our sense of what’s going on in the world. I am, emphatically, not disputing that.

But that’s not the work that I want to do in my dissertation. I’m out to queer fandom.

Now, I’m not queering fan studies in the way Julie Levin Russo does (Seriously! Can’t blog without Julie!) in her insistence that it’s important to focus on queer female fandom in Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities.

Perhaps most vitally, like I insisted in my academic telephone piece, I’m not saying all fans are queer in the sense of having same-sex sex or queer in the sense of sexually oppressed, because either of those contentions would be patently absurd, although some fans surely are queer in one or both of those ways. And actually I think it’s sometimes productive to think of fandom as a sexual orientation. See my Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom

What I’m doing, instead, is making the move queer theory makes (and critical race theory and gender theory and crip theory all make) to not just take fans as self-evident but rigorously interrogate the process by which this category is produced.

I don’t want to look at fans out in the world as just existing, as if they just sprang up, fully-formed, not shaped in their practice by the social sense of what a fan is, as if the ability of anyone to even identify a fan or fannish behavior isn’t shaped by the social sense of what a fan is. Because, no matter what Lady GaGa says, neither fans nor queers are “born this way.”

Instead, I want to know: What are the processes by which we come to understand that there is such a thing as a fan? And what do we then understand that thing to be? What are the consequences of that construction process and constructed outcome for the norms of media audiencing in the Internet era?

This is a pretty different set of concerns from much of fan studies to this point, but I’m convinced that it’s an approach that’s vital. Just as looking at gender and race and sexuality and ability as categories has enriched work that looks at women and racial minority people and gays and the disabled, I think that queering fandom can really provide a stronger theoretical base for the LGBT-style work.

Now if only I could coin a catchy name.

You remember the game of Telephone from your childhood: kids whisper a message from ear to ear along a group of people, and when it gets to the end of the chain the last person says it out loud, hilariously garbled.

I had not, until this academic year as I’m starting to be less of an apprentice and more of an academic-proper, appreciated how much being in my line of work is quite a lot like being permanently engaged in Telephone.

I first saw it when I went to the Association of Internet Researchers conference this October. As any good Internet or media conference does in this day and age, AoIR had a hashtag (#ir12) and extensive livetweeting. And, I’ll admit that when I followed that stream, I paid particularly close attention to the tweets about my presentation—don’t pretend y’all don’t do that too.

The result was that, for the first time, I got to see my meaning escape my control as it happened. For someone who operates from somewhere in the Active Audience realm and is very committed to the idea that the author does not decide her own meaning, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was decidedly uncomfortable to have it happen to my own statements.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to record the tweets in their entirety as they happened, but fortunately Fabio Giglietto of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo put together a Storify collection for the conference that features some of the discussion about my talk. It went something like this:

After my clarification, which was retweeted by @drst (whose real identity I know but she seems to not have it attached to her account), this reply came back:

This was, of course, a joking response, but it shows why it is that my statement, reduced to “fans are livestock” rather than “livestock is a useful metaphor,” was odd to people who got it second hand. Fans aren’t really livestock in a lot of senses—nutritional uses being one of them—but when it got retold the way it did people potentially got the idea that I’d said something far wackier than in fact I did.

Something similar happened after my article, Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures in November, though I didn’t see it until I Googled myself on a lark in January.

In TWC’s Symposium blog, Lisa Schmidt wrote an entirely appreciative post responding to my piece (called it “a really wonderful essay” and everything) in which—as in the AoIR example—she picked up on one of my points and did something with it that I didn’t intend.

Schmidt said: “The pressure of ‘normal’ is intense and maddening, which is why Stanfill’s section on fandom as a kind of queerness or sexual deviance resonated so powerfully for me. Supposedly fandom is becoming increasingly accepted by the mainstream yet, in many contexts, it remains a dirty little secret. It is a kind of closet, even for some who are in long-term relationships with persons of the opposite sex.”

Okay—so far that’s fine—”sexual deviance” isn’t that deviant from what I was trying to say, “closet” is right. But then things take a turn for the dead author: “More than ever, I feel that fandom, even when not explicitly having anything to do with anything sexual, is queer.”

This was the alarm-bells or record-scratch moment, because I was actually very careful NOT to say that fans were queer. In earlier drafts I had said so, but by this point I felt like it didn’t really capture what I was after. Instead, the terminology I was using was “nonheteronormative.”

The real trouble for my ability to control what people think I’ve said comes when people responded to Schmidt, for though she says “Of course, this is not really the point of Stanfill’s article,” this still becomes what is picked up on in the comments to her post.

User Havoc replied:

I feel like making everything queer dilutes the problems that actual queer folk can go through. Fans don’t need laws changed to be married to fans of the opposite gender, so long as they meet the gender binary. I feel that to list all fans as queer is appropriative of actual queer identity.

Yes, let’s avoid the idea of whiteness as the norm for fans (and elsewhere). But let’s also try not to appropriate one group’s struggles and make them universal to fandom, because LGBTQ struggles aren’t fandom struggles (unless they’re intersectional and both a fan and LGBTQ), and it’s not fair to those who identify as LGBTQ.

And Dana Sterling added: “I tend to agree with havoc about feeling like using queerness in this way in regard to fandom borders on appropriative.”

It was these responses that really distressed me. First, there was the suggestion that sexuality is only “LGBTQ” people’s problem (the phrase “unless they’re intersectional,” the identification of struggles as the essential property of “actual queer folk”). Then there was the reduction of sexuality-based inequality to the denial of state-sanctioned marriage. Moreover, I am heartily sick of reducing queerness to pain.

However, the biggest source of frustration for me was largely because all of these positions I find so problematic are actually incompatible with what the article is trying to do.

Queer, as an analytical apparatus, doesn’t actually describe the way fans work in culture, and so I didn’t use it. It also carried the danger of exactly the interpretation of fandom-as-oppressed-sexual-minority that these retellings and responses produced, something I would never want to argue because it’s patently absurd—though not because I’m worried about “appropriating” any oppression supposedly endemic to queers.

I suppose I’m going to have to get used to this—I’m going to continue to publish, and I really want to be that bigshot academic everybody talks about. Unlike the Twitter example, I can’t always go rushing in to correct those misperceptions as they occur. So I guess we’ll have to add “telephone distortion” to the occupational hazards of being an academic like eyestrain, carpal tunnel, and atrophy of the social life.