Why fans of different celebrities behave in such similar ways? The 1999 documentary feature film A Conversation with Gregory Peck contained footage of the classic screen icon’s retirement tour of America. For much of the film, Peck recounts tales from his working life as an actor to live audiences of his now-middle aged fans. One woman that came all the way from England finally manages to meet her Hollywood icon backstage. The result is a loving exchange that can be found at about 7:13 within the above Youtube clip…
Gregory Peck: Hello there. You came all the way from London for this evening, did you now?
Peck fan: Absolutely. I’m speechless – I don’t know quite what to say.
Gregory Peck: So tell me about yourself?
Peck fan: Well, I’ve admired you for many years. I wanted to see for myself whether you really are what you appear to be on screen.
Peck fan: Tonight has proved to me that you are what you appear to be.
Gregory Peck (chuckling): Well I hope so. I hope it isn’t a put on for all these years.
Peck fan: No. That’s what I wanted to find out for myself. I thought, “The hell with it: I’m going to blow all my savings and I’m going to going to come here and see for myself what you are like.” And I’m so glad I did; it’s been the experience of a lifetime.
Gregory Peck (shaking hands): God bless you. Thank you for coming.
… What is evident from the conversation is how the power relation between star and fan eclipses to the fan’s other senses of personal and social identity for the specific purpose of the forwarding her role in the exchange.
While their encounter was obviously selected by the camera crew and chosen by the editor for inclusion, it is evidently more than the sort of shallow critique of fandom that might have been concocted by some media hack. The female fan is not young, crazy, screaming or hysterical. Uncharitable commentators might lament her “dumb enthusiasm” as evidence of a lack in her life, psychology or worldview. However, to approach this star-fan exchange like that is both disrespectful, reductionist and myopic. Nevertheless, Peck’s British admirer is not quite the kind of “active audience” rescued by the last two decades of cultural study, at least from what we can see here. Although she may well pursue the various strategies, tactics and practices outline by Henry Jenkins et al, rather than “textual poaching” Gregory Peck’s fan here is placing herself as a fan – colluding with her aging idol to get the most she can out of the encounter. She does not want to treat Peck on equal terms. She does not want to discuss the details of her life with him. Instead she wants to represent herself as a fan, to perform her identity in such a way that Peck acknowledges her fandom itself as form of dedication and commitment. In this sense Peck and his fan are colluding; sharing different sides of a unequal but consented social relationship to unlock its potential power.
As a fan, Peck’s admirer’s quest began in seeing something in his screen image (creativity, a fragment of an ideal identity, something that was innately for her) and has then gone on a mission to verify its reality. Of course her version of his screen image may be a unique personal construction. We do not know how differently or similar it is from that of other fans, or how her perspective on Peck’s image compares to the ideas of Peck might hold about himself on screen. Indeed, while themes, perceptions and interpretations might be shared, Peck’s image – like any other star image – is inherently unstable as shared social phenonemon.
Fan studies needs to start asking how we can theorize fandom as a set of power relations while recognizing the agency and humanity of all participants. While active audience theory has represented an advance in that area, there is still an undiscovered continent here, a territory marked out by the role-based collaborations between stars and their followers – collaborations that circulate the power of the stardom even as they reinforce its premise.