Fans and Fandoms

Audiences

Put simply, audiences are people who give their attention to something. This might include people who congregate around an event or spectacle or the readership of a newspaper or blog. Mediated engagement with the world is not a transparent process. Audiences exist as individual people with ‘interior’ lives. As individuals, we are likely to experience media texts in a variety of ways, ways that are coloured by our emotional, physiological, social and cultural experiences of the world around us as well as by the identities that they perform in everyday life. An audience then is far from an homogenised group of passive consumers. Rather, as we learned in previous lessons on media effects theories, media audiences do not just receive information passively but are actively involved, often unconsciously, in making sense of the message within their personal and social contexts. While audience members are always agentic in their consumption of texts, being part of an audience doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a fan. The difference between consuming popular culture and becoming a fan lies in the intensity of our emotional and intellectual involvement with the cultural object. Moreover, to be and proclaim oneself as a fan of something is an act of identification and involves the negotiation of cultural capital.

In the age of digital information and networked society, web and mobile technologies have introduced new media and facilitated new forms of cultural engagement, allowing audiences to consume media texts and organise themselves around these texts in new and innovative ways. It is in the organisation and assemblage around texts that the fandom emerges.

Participatory Fandoms and Transformative Works

Fandom is a portmanteau consisting of fan plus the suffix -dom (as in kingdom). The term refers to the sub/cultural milieu constructed and inhabited by fans of a particular cultural text. Fandoms are collectively created by the fans whose shared interest in a specific cultural text engenders a communal empathy and camaraderie. People who participate in a fandom often identify as members by collectively naming themselves according to the fan world they inhabit. For example, Trekkies, Bronies, Thronies, and Whovians refer to fans of Star Trek, My Little Pony, Game of Thrones and Dr Who respectively. Fans may gather together at fan conventions or at specific fandom meet-ups and partake in cosplay (costume play) dressing in ways that pay homage to the cultural text of their fandom. This may be combined with character roleplay or the reenactment of scenes from the text. When fans aren’t congregated together, they may continue to communicate with fellow fans in other ways such as Internet forums, fan club newsletters, fanzines, and by creating and sharing their fan art via social networking platforms such as Tumblr or Pinterest.

C. S. Lewis, the author of the fantasy series Narnia, is famously quoted as saying, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” It could be argued that fandom is a means of world-making for adults: a child-like place where play, imagination and fantasy are not merely permitted, but essential. Fandoms permit adults to play in ways that other aspects of social and cultural life prohibit. They also function as collaborative spaces for other forms of identity play and subversion.

Many aspects of participatory fan culture highlight the desire for an audience to see themselves represented in the texts they consume. Fandom as a form of cultural participation plays a significant role in our ability to reimagine culture in ways that are more inclusive and transformative. While we have spoken about the tangible outcome of fan labour (e.g. fan art, fan fic etc.), fan participation may be generative in more ‘affective’ ways. The affective sensibilities of fandom and audiences generally relates to the meanings, experiences or pleasures that result from our engagement.

🎥 COMPULSORY VIEWING TASK

Watch this short video about fandom and social change. While you’re watching pay particular attention to themes of representation, imagination and social transformation.

As we saw in the video above, being a fan is not a passive or purely consumptive engagement with media. Fans generally share their mutual interests with like-minded consumers by gathering (either informally or formally) in structured groups (e.g. fan clubs). Fans also act as interpreters and producers of media content, thus they tend to have a much more meaningful experience of and attachment to their fandom than a regular member of an audience.

The social interaction among fans is not merely to spur a deeper appreciation of the original text. In theorising interactive audiences, Henry Jenkins asserts: “As the community enlarges and as reaction time shortens, fandom becomes much more effective as a platform for consumer activism. Fans can quickly mobilize grassroots efforts to save programs or protest unpopular developments”. (Jenkins, H. (2002) Interactive audiences. In D. Harries (Ed.), The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute. p. 161.)

For example, ‘Save Star Trek‘ was the fan response to threatened cancellation of the show after the second season. Culminating in one of the largest letter-writing campaigns to NBC TV producers and a student protest outside of the Burbank studios in 1968 (pictured below) their efforts to save Star Trek resulted in the renewal of the show for another season.

Participants and Producers of Culture

Fans participate in the interpretation of media texts, they congregate around media texts, and they can mobilise to save a text they love. But what is perhaps the most innovative aspect of fan culture is that they are also textually productive communities.

As Sullivan explains in the following quote and diagram: “The expansive, malleable nature of the Internet and the declining cost of computers have allowed audiences to easily extend their media experiences beyond the reception of the original text. Texts can be reinterpreted in many new and contrary ways: through connections to other audiences online, creation of new media texts based upon the source material, and—thanks to the power of inexpensive computers to achieve professional-quality video and audio editing— even alteration of the original media text” (p. 191).

Sullivan, J. L. (2013). Media Audiences: Effects, Users, Institutions and Powers. London: Sage.

Fans frequently produce ‘alternative’ close readings of primary texts as well as spin-offs, mash ups and other material productions of creative texts, ultimately creating brand new character narratives and extended worlds. We call this a transformative work.

“A transformative work takes something extant and turns it into something with a new purpose, sensibility, or mode of expression” (transformativeworks.org). Transformative works include but are not limited to fanfiction, real person fiction, fan vids, and fan art. Transformative works incorporate and build upon characters or settings of an existing creative work. And so long as a fanwork is considered ‘transformative’ enough, the fan does not need permission from the original creator of that work to transform it. Here are two examples:

The transformative use of an existing text is required by copyright law to add something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the source with new expression, meaning, or message otherwise it may be considered plagiarism and thus a breach of copyright. Advice on fair use of pre-existing work provided by Australian copyright authorities notes transformative use as involving the creation of new works that “draw upon pre-existing works and transform expression from them in creating new works that criticize, comment upon, or offer new insights about those works and the social significance of others’ expressions’, including parody and satire” (Samuelson cited in Copyright and the Digital Economy. Australian Law Reform Commission. Available at alrc.gov.au) Watch the video below to help you get a clearer understanding of the value and influence of fanworks and some for the copyright issues and the legal implications of textual transformation.

A Sociological Perspective on Fan Participation

Below are a series of stills from a 2009 silent video installation entitled Rapture (silent anthem) by Angelica Mesiti.

► What do you think this work is about?
► Why do you think it’s called Rapture?

The larger work from which these stills derive was the winner of the prestigious Blake Prize for Religious Art in 2009. Would it surprise you then to know that the subject in the photos were actually attending a music festival and not a religious gathering?

In his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) French sociologist Émile Durkheim analyzes religion as a social phenomenon. Durkheim attributes the development of religion to the emotional security attained through communal living. The essence of religion, Durkheim finds, is the concept of the sacred, that being the only phenomenon which unites all religions. “A religion,” writes Durkheim, “is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things … which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” In modern societies, the individual and individual rights evolve to become the new sacred phenomena, and hence these may be called “religious” from Durkheim’s perspective.

By the way this is Durkheim ⬇︎

The following images are both generic photos from a google image search for ‘music festival audiences’. After the images there are two quotes which elaborate on Durkheim’s ideas.

📢 HAVE YOUR SAY

Read these quotes and post a comment in the comments box located on the right side of the Campus Online page in response to the following questions.

Do you think Durkheim’s theories have any relevance in today’s society?

If less people are participating in formal communities of worship, are more people finding their need for communitas via fandom?

1. “It is in communitarian rituals that communitas, often excited, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes achieving the extreme states called ‘trance,’ is most frequently experienced. One of the fundamental properties of communitas is the blurring of distinction between self and other… The revelation of the hidden oneness of all things and of one’s participation in such a great oneness may be the core meaning of communitas.” (Rappaport, 1999, pp. 380-381)

Rappaport, R. A. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. “Collective effervescence”: those moments of intense social unity and reaffirmed group ideals that interrupt the prosaic goings-on of anonymous everyday life in a big city: “The very fact of assembling is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are assembled, their proximity generates a kind of electricity that quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation… There are violent gestures, shouts, even howls, deafening noises of all sorts from all sides that intensify even more the state they express (Durkheim, pp. 162-163)”

Durkheim, E. (2001). The elementary forms of religious life (C. Cosman, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1912)

Was Durkheim right?

In addition to Dr. Who, we can see elements of Durkheimian theory in additional and varied parts of popular culture. For example, the rave culture has frequently drawn upon religious concepts in its self-articulation. For example, “God Is a DJ” is the title of a track by the electronic dance music ensemble Faithless. And check out the similarities in staging, gesture and lighting below.

Pro sports teams also share similarity with what religion and sociology scholars call “totems”—symbols of greater entities that communities gather around for identity and unity.

For Durkheim (1912), the totem functioned as a symbol of both the mystic or spiritual and the familial or physical worlds we inhabit. As he wrote, “On the one hand, [the totem] is the external and tangible form of what we have called … god. But on the other, it is the symbol of that particular society we call the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from others, the visible mark of its personality.”

In other words, our religious totems, while “officially” symbolizing deities, also implicitly offer vessels for fellowship; licenses to congregate together. As social creatures, there is something universal—and still enduring—in that tribal yearning. Yet community is often more abstract and imagined than concrete and identifiable.

The totem, then, gives believers a physical representation of that need for identity and unity: a Star of David hung from the neck; a Ganesh figurine placed on the dashboard; a St. Christopher medal tucked in the wallet. Theological justifications are really just incidental; what matters is that through our faith in these common artifacts, community is forged.

[Full text of this article available at Serazio, M. (2013). Just How Much Is Sports Fandom Like Religion? The Atlantic. Retrieved 7 April 2015, from theatlantic.com]

Unifying ritualistic gestures provide yet another correlation. The Sign of the Horns is a hand gesture with a variety of meanings and uses in various cultures. But for fans of heavy metal music, this is likely most recognisable as a symbolic gesture of communitas frequently displayed by fellow audience members at concerts.

The Vulcan salute is a hand gesture popularized by the 1960s television series Star Trek and regularly used by fans of the show who are referred to as ‘Trekkies’.

Lady Gaga’s fans are referred to as ‘Little Monsters’. The Monster Paw is used by Lady Gaga and her Little Monsters. Gaga will ask her audiences “Monster paws Up” or “Paws Up” to show that they agree with something, and the audience will often make the sign spontaneously as ritualistic display of collective solidarity.

Fans, Fanatics and Moral Panics

By now it may come as no surprise that the term ‘fan’ is thought to be derived from the adjective fanatic, from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “of a temple”. A fan is someone who is excessively enthusiastic or filled with the kind of zeal usually associated with religious fervor. [See Cashmore, E. (2006). Celebrity Culture. Oxon: Taylor & Francis. p. 79.]

In a time before people like us studied the media and celebrity culture, overzealous fandom was often regarded as a type of mania or hysteria. One of the earliest examples of the frenzied fan that we are familiar with today originated in the 1840s and was directed towards a popular composer of the time, Franz Liszt. Lisztomania as it was known, was considered to be a type of illness or mental condition characterized by intense levels of hysteria demonstrated by fans, akin to the treatment of celebrities today.

Watch this video for an interesting social psychological insight into mass hysteria and fan frenzies.

One of the most notable examples of this was the fan response to UK pop band The Beatles that manifested in the 1960s called Beatlemania.

7 February 1964: fans are held back by the police as the Beatles arrive at Kennedy airport. Photograph: Hal Mathewson/Getty Images

Policemen struggle to restrain young Beatles fans outside Buckingham Palace as The Beatles receive their MBEs (Member of the British Empire) in 1965. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images

As Lynskey (2013) reminds us in her Beatlemania retrospective, the media’s attempts to explain this wild new development to bewildered adults were at best comically square: “Beatles Reaction Puzzles Even Psychologists,” reported one science journal. At worst they were venomous and misogynistic, like this quote from Paul Johnson’s New Statesman essay: “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.” And sadly little has changed with regards to society’s perception of the teenage girl fan. As Grant says, “Teenage girls are perceived as a mindless horde: one huge, undifferentiated emerging hormone.” In Fandom as Pathology, Joli Jensen observed: “Fandom is seen as a psychological symptom of a presumed social dysfunction… Once fans are characterised as a deviant, they can be treated as disreputable, even dangerous ‘others’.”

The broad social response to Beatlemania is an excellent example of what is called a moral panic. In this instance, moral panic is a kind of societal response to extreme or mass forms of fandom. In general terms, it is defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive, exaggerated and misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order. Next trimester we explore this in greater detail with regards to violent and sexualised media content.

False Idols?

“Celebrity culture has the ability to supply experiences that, for fans, are every bit as meaningful as religious experiences.“ Cashmore, E. (2006). Celebrity Culture. Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

“They are also symbols of belonging and recognition that distract us in positive ways from the terrifying meaninglessness of life in a post-God world.” Rojek, C. (2001). Celebrity. London: Reaktion Books.

Link to below image source: image 1 (left) image 2 (right)

“Celebrity worship first emerged in the 1880s when the notion of ‘cultural hero’ began to shift from a serious, duty-driven upholder of standards and virtues (scholars, inventors, great political leaders, ‘captains of industry’) to a person celebrated primarily for being well known. According to Smithsonian Institute historian Amy Henderson, this was spurred on by new mass communication technologies of the 1920s and 1930s as well as by ‘a staggering machine of desire’ created by the ballooning entertainment industry. All this formed part of a wider consciousness shift from character to personality, substance to image, and community to narcissism. The decline of organized religion has also played a role – as the level of religiousness decreases, the tendency to celebrity worship increases. One 42-year-old, born-again Barry Manilow disciple summed up her experience this way: ‘It’s the same kind of thing people get out of religion. They obviously get something from God and Barry is the same sort of thing. He helps me get through my life.'” John F. Schumaker, New Internationalist, Dec, 2003.

With our postmodern mediascape pervading almost every aspect of our daily lives, it might not be surprising that sometimes fans can become obsessed and mental unwellness may result from a fan’s over-investment in a character or celebrity identity. According to psychologists, in some cases, the illusionary experience of fans may develop into a one-sided parasocial relationship with a celebrity or fictional character (see Giles, 2002).

Similarly problematic is the behavioural problem often called celebrity worship syndrome, which can be described as an obsessive-addictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (i.e., completely obsessed) with a celebrity. The short article featured below gives us some insight into these more extreme fan behaviours.

📚 READING TASK

Hills, M. (2002). Between culture and culture. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.
OR
Hills, M. (2002). Between consumerism and resistance. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

📌 VERY PINTERESTING

Be sure to make use of the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.

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