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Monthly Archives: May 2012

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.

In their 2009 piece Empire@Play: Virtual Games and Global Capitalism, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue that “digital piracy is a classic example of the criminalized social struggles that have always accompanied enclosures of common resources.”

An Act of Enclosure!By Aliesin at fr.wikipedia [Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons]

This idea of enclosing what used to be common caught my attention. There may or may not actually be a historical relationship between enclosure and poaching (and the Wikipedia article seems to not mention it), but they seem related conceptually. Lands and resources that used to be communal become single-owner, and when people continue to respond to them as if they are communal this is theft or poaching.

My brain said “poaching!”—of course—because of fans. I will be the first to admit that the relationship is not immediately apparent, but that’s just the way my thought process works these days. Bear with me, and I’ll force some sense out of this.

Over the twentieth century, storytelling got enclosed into mass culture (this may have started earlier, but I think I’m within reason to say it became ascendant then). Fans, then, as Henry Jenkins explained in his now-famous metaphor, were Textual Poachers taking storytelling back, making it communal again in a new folk culture in conversation with mass culture.

Those people weren’t exactly criminalized—though they did break intellectual property laws with varying degrees of frequency—but they were definitely considered to doing something non-normative. “Normal” people interacted with culture in a way that respected the fact that it was “owned” by media companies; fans were taking something that didn’t belong to them.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s and beyond, and we get a different structure. Fans aren’t taking things that don’t belong to them, but are instead being given more and more by the people who own stuff. They are being invited to engage.

Many scholars have identified this as doing away with the enclosure of the mass media era altogether. Culture is now once again circulating in a communal way as media companies and fans enter into a symbiotic relationship rather than an antagonistic one.

But I think there’s still more mileage to get out of the enclosure metaphor, and that it can explain this era also—albeit differently. My contention is that fan culture has, over the last few years, been subject to an ongoing process to build out the enclosure to contain it

Fan culture, like the broader folk culture before it, has traditionally been shared. It was never, of course, some utopian space anymore than there were nothing but happy peasants in ye olden times; there was conflict and inequality. But like a common piece of land, everybody had a stake in maintaining it. It was, in some sense, public.

Contemporary media organization practices around fandom, on the other hand, are a form of privatization. The invitation to fans to participate at official sites or enter official contests or have official relationships with the media companies is a production of enclosures.

Fans may or may not agree to be enclosed. They may or may not find that enclosure cramps their style. But privatized, enclosed fandom is different in at a fundamental level no matter how much it is or is not experientially different.

And what’s more is that—even if the enclosed fans themselves find that they can continue their previous practices or even find their fan experience improved—enclosure structurally produces criminalized, thieving populations.

Sometimes that’s literal, like the piracy example that started this thought process. But more often, more insidiously, and therefore to my mind more importantly, the issue is one of not doing what “normal” people do. Some people always get excluded when new norms get created, and when the new norm is more expansive but still doesn’t contain them, they become not just outside the norm but deviant and wrong.

That construction of “right” and “wrong” fans, of “seat at the table” fans from “howling at the gates” fans, is a structural outcome of enclosure, privatization, and normalization. And we’ve got to pay attention to its existence as well as who ends up in what category, as “normal” and as “deviant.”

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.