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Tagging the archive of entries made me realize I have a lot fewer blogs about fandom—you know, my primary academic interest—than just about anything else. Now, the fact that I often blog on the basis of current events that catch my attention (next week, Herman Cain and sexual harassment) has something to do with this, of course, but it’s still an unfortunate situation.

And then, just as I was thinking this and wracking my brains for something not only timely but interesting to say about fans, a fan-related blog topic fell into my lap. And that would be awesome if it weren’t for what it was.

To start, I love fans. I am a fan. I’m totally aware that fans are often misrepresented through a focus on the fan practices that are most nonnormative in relation to non-fan culture, and it makes me want to protect them. But sometimes fans do something awful and indefensible—and, in this case, racist—and it makes me feel terrible but I have to call them out on it.

One of the posters, via

It all started when I saw something about the “We’re a culture, not a costume” project. I feel like it was on Twitter, but I can’t find it now so maybe I saw it on Google News. (If I got it from you, tell me so I can give you credit!)

In this campaign, the Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) organization at Ohio University produced a series of posters urging people to rethink their Halloween costume choices. Each had a student who’s a member of a particular racial or ethnic group holding up a picture of a Halloween costume that purports to allow people to pretend to be a member of that group.

Predictably, we see Asian woman = geisha, Middle Eastern or Muslim man = terrorist, and a “gangsta” white girl in blackface (or black-body, as all of her visible skin is brown-ed). The captions say, “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

Bonus: @BobbyBigWheel made a handy flowchart to help you decide whether to wear blackface on Halloween (via the ever-fabulous @Halfrican_One)

The STARS campaign is a really powerful statement about the harm done by stereotyping and reducing an entire group of people to the most offensive denominator. (There is, a typo showed me, revealing wordplay in there somewhere about demon-inator.) I think one of these posters should be made and distributed at my campus to jolt the student body out of their largely unreflexive support of the retired Chief Illiniwek mascot.

And then, some science fiction fans turned around and made a “This is not who I am and this is not okay” poster showing a Dr. Who dalek and some women dressed as “sexy daleks.”

To suggest that “misrepresenting” a fictitious species of villains is equivalent to misrepresenting an actual group that has materially suffered as a result of white supremacy, as tumblr user tarynaria notes, “undermines the impact of the original campaign: namely pointing out racist Halloween costumes (or costume party costumes) as racist.”

She adds, “it’s rude and disrespectful to those involved in the campaign,” because to make this joke is to “tell them that their voices don’t matter.”This poster, as a response to the STARS set, indicates that its maker doesn’t care about the message the original was trying to get across. It frames the racism of the costumes as either as trivial or as made up by people who are overly sensitive.

(Also, bonus awfulness points for reinforcing the idea that women’s science fiction costuming is always insincere or “pandering” and attempting to be sexy. I don’t think the these things are unrelated.)

Implying that racism is trivial or a product of excessive sensitivity are classic tactics of white dismissal of race as a relevant category. They’re even on the Fantasy and Science Fiction Bingo, No Racism in Fiction edition card! And the fact that this poster as a response to an important argument about racism in costuming made sense not only to produce but to reblog across fandom (it got to me via a tweet by a scifi fan) makes the assumption of default whiteness within fandom glaring.

This, of course, is at odds with the way that fandom is frequently characterized as a space where the culturally downtrodden can make media work for them. Though there have certainly been critiques of the argument and attempts to nuance it, mostly what we hear is that fandom is resistant to norms. Fans are the heroic underdog rebels struggling against the Evil Corporate Empire.

And there’s a certain amount of truth to this. Fans are actually perpetually under threat of legal challenge from corporate media capital.

In addition, the fans who engage in the kind of fandom most often noticed in fan studies are mostly women. Fairly often (at least, out of proportion with the rest of the population), they’re queer, either in the sense of having same-sex desire or by breaking norms of sexuality more generally. Fans do absolutely resist and rework norms of gender and sexuality from a subordinate position in the schema of normativity.

In these ways, yes, fans are underdogs and resistant and available to champion. The problem comes when we have an insufficiently intersectional understanding of what constitutes oppression. Yes, fans are downtrodden in some ways, but that doesn’t excuse them from treading on others by other criteria.

That is, if Glee creator Ryan Murphy has a case of Gay White Man Syndrome, lots of fans and fan scholars have White Fan Syndrome, and we need to call it out.

Here’s where the Myth of Oppressed People Points comes in. There’s a pervasive sense that if a person is her- or himself oppressed in any way, they get a pass for oppressing others. As I put it when discussing Glee, this is like saying “I understand what it’s like to be discriminated against as a woman because I’m gay” or “I can’t be racist, I’m gay!”

Those statements are patently absurd, but so is it absurd to claim “I can’t be racist, I’m downtrodden as a fan!” Because clearly people can.

There’s fairly widespread awareness and critique of the default maleness of fandom in the popular and industrial imaginary and the ways in which that’s exclusionary for women. I raised it in my blog about Comic-Con 2011’s “Sexy Geek” Panel. Suzanne Scott pointed it out when blogging about that incident before me as well as in her excellent dissertation Revenge of the Fanboy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation (especially the conclusion).

You can also see this in Henry Jenkins‘s discussion of fan viding vs. fan films in Convergence Culture and in Julie Levin Russo‘s careful articulation of the specificity of femslash fandom in her Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities. The point (besides a chance to show off that I’ve been reading a lot lately), is that people get that gender is a factor in fandom.

However, race has not received anything like the same attention. I actually had to put down a fan studies article recently lest I fling it across the room because it so totally ignored the obvious role race played in the phenomenon it was discussing.

In fact, so far the only academic attention to this that I’ve seen is a 2009 Symposium section in Transformative Works and Cultures called Pattern Recognition: A Dialogue on Racism in Fan Communities, though I know that there’s a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom coming out later this month because I’m published in it.

The dalek poster reemphasizes why this work is necessary. We can love fans and celebrate the way that they are resistant, sure. What we can’t do is get so caught up in our love and our underdog narrative that we can’t see when they aren’t so lovable or downtrodden. It’s our responsibility to critique fan practices when that’s necessary. There are no Oppressed People Points, just intersecting systems of privilege.

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  1. […] perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “Wait, weren’t you just calling out fans the other week for being racist, and now you’re defending them against being called violent?” (I’m going to […]

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