Dr Rebecca Williams and I were recently interviewed by Martin Nohms for a press story on media fandom that he wrote for the daily Danish newspaper Information. You can find the story here. With Martin’s help and permission, I have translated it from the original version. It represents a good introduction to some key issues in the study of fandom…
THE ART OF BEING A FAN
Martin Nohms – June 7, 2014
Fans are not passive spectators, but paint and draw characters from their favorite series in new contexts. The modern fan is not a member of an obscure sect, but exchanges ideas and art in an active community. Even when their series stops, such fans are still there.
The other day, BuzzFeed – one of the most significant content-aggregating sites on the web – put up a series of drawings. The artist was a Brazilian named Fernando Mendoca, but it was not so much his name that caught people’s interest as his motives. His drawings imagined characters from the blockbuster series Game of Thrones in a Disney art style. This fun mix of fictional universes was viewed over 600,000 times online. Over half a million people therefore have a thorough enough knowledge of both the TV show’s characters and Disney’s special style to be interested and to send the artist’s drawings viral.
Mendoca’s work is called ‘fan art’ and associated with fan fiction. It’s a genre that reformulates others fictional universes and has gained immense popularity. The phenomenon resulted in E. L. James’ erotic bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey, which was originally written as Twilight fan fiction. But what is it that drives the fans?
University of Chester researcher Dr Mark Duffett studies fan culture and offers a simple definition of fans: “They do not just like a certain musician or series of books, they love them. It is not necessarily an unconditional love – fans can be among the harshest critics if they are disappointed about a new album or a new movie – but they are passionate and have a huge interest in the fan object.”
Many fans use the website deviantArt, a platform where people can publish their artworks and which first showed the BuzzFeed paintings. I created a profile on the site and directly addressed the community on with a question: “Why be a fan?” Several people responded. A poster called Silverwraithh said that you cannot control what you are fan of: “I do not think you choose to be a fan. You’re just really happy to be interested in something specific and will want to do, see and read everything that is related to this particular thing.”
But it is not only individual preoccupation that appeals to fans. Silverwraithh and several others answering my thread attached great importance to the social aspects of fan culture. As the user Sachi-Pon wrote, fandom can become a way to creatively joint forces: “You speak with others who have the same feelings as you, and therefore understand you completely. It is so much better than just being a fan all alone. Along with other fans, you can create various projects and events. “
The idea of creating something together – whether it is a work of art or a convention – is precisely what keeps not just fan networks, but also fan objects, alive as phenomena.
“I think it’s the fans with their fan art and fan fiction that keep things ‘alive’ for so long. Without them, a lot of series would not be saved, and a lot of characters’ stories would end,” wrote the user Cirprius.
Fan art is something that develops in symbiosis with the media product that inspires it. The practice has value for fan communities who can use it to immerse in fictional universes and go beyond original texts. In that sense, the original is just a starting point.
Portals like deviantArt and other self-publishing sites provide a unique opportunity for create communities as places where, for example, Harry Potter and the like are kept alive.
These online networks function as a new gathering place for fans. According to University of South Wales fan researcher Dr Rebecca Williams:
“When you look at the excitement surrounding the World Cup, it is clear that it is seen as a completely ‘normal’ and acceptable fan identity to follow football. But for less accepted fan cultures, social media plays a huge role. Before sites like Twitter and Facebook, it was often hard to find places online where you could talk about one’s fandom – and being ‘online’ at all was also seen as a waste of time. The social networks have made fan activity visible to mainstream media and society. Nevertheless, certain types of fan activity – as fan art and fan fiction – are often still regarded as ‘strange’ and unusual.”
Mark Duffett supports this idea that the perception of fans has generally changed, and suggests that industrial shifts in the television industry have played a role in making fan activity no longer appear uncommon:
“There was a shift from satellite TV to cable TV. The market was split up more, and it became relevant to create niche programs that had a small but dedicated audience. Fans were targeted as the ideal media consumers. They were faithful and could be used to introduce new media platforms. At the same time the DVD boxes and streaming has emerged, and where one previously turned on the TV once a week to follow a favorite program, it is now common to see a whole series over a weekend, just to be able to speak about it to friends or colleagues. What traditionally used to be fan practice has now become practice for all of us.”
Duffett also notes that changes in language indicate shifts in the perception of fan culture, a concept like that of the ‘fan-girl’ being one example:
“Originally, ‘fan-girls’ were female science fiction fans who displayed ‘inappropriate’ emotions. They brought elements from the culture of celebrity fandom into fan bases that primarily defined themselves through textual appreciation. But now the concept has been rescued, and ‘fan-girling’ has gotten a positive ring to it. “
One of women who rescued the ‘fan-girl’ concept is Tavi Gevinson. She was known from as early as age 11 for her fashion blog, where she followed the trends in the industry and was later invited to the big shows. Gevinson has, however, shifted gear and since invested her energy in founding the online magazine Rookie, where the articles are aimed at young girls. Its writers are rarely older than their readers, and it offers a place where fan culture and fan activity are valued.
Last year, Gevinson was invited to give a speech at the Sydney Opera House on ‘Her World’, which more than anything else resulted in her defense for being a fan. “Fan-girling is not so much about the subject of your fandom, it’s actually almost entirely a reflection of yourself,” she said, explaining shortly afterwards why she was more interested in One Direction’s fans than the band: “I am interested in their enthusiasm and refusal to try to be cool, and how they love something almost as a religion.”
For Tavi Gevinson, fan-girling is a way to create identity, but it requires us to see ourselves from a different perspective.
“It dawned on me that when we think of personal identity, when we imagine ourselves, we see ourselves from the outside. You see your face and your body through the eyes of the outside world, instead of – what in my view is a more accurate representation of who you are – how you see the world through your own eyes. (…) I look at everything else, and that is who I am.”
During the talk, Gevinson showed more pictures from her diaries; there is no simple description of her daily life, but instead a hodgepodge of references and quotes from Beyoncé, books, and whatever else she encounters. It’s like a very personal scrapbook.
Fans are therefore not just engaged in a perpetual search for knowledge about their idols. They also aim to understand themselves. Being a fan-girl is a creative process in which one sews together one’s own patchwork of people, texts and video clips, and used it to define oneself. It means using icons from popular culture to define ones own identity.
Post-Object Fan Interest
Fan art is maintained as part of a living fan culture even when a popular TV series stops or a musician dies. Fans continue to be fans, even when there are no new works from the original source. In recent years, active fan culture led to Netflix reviving the comedy series Arrested Development after seven years off air, while the series Veronica Mars was filmed after crowdfunding from over 90,000 people. Star Warsfans have even made their own remake of the classic.
Rebecca Williams specializes in this phenomenon, which she calls “post-object fandom,” arguing that fans often find ways to keep their fan cultures alive, despite the release of more recent cultural products:
“For many fans, fandom an important part of how they define their identity. When the television series ends after many years on the air, it can be an emotional experience. There are many who do not stop being a fan, despite the lack of new product. They respond by discussing old episodes, following the actors, or asking script writers to make new projects, and also making fan art and fan fiction. Many carry on their friendships with other fans online or in other places such as fan conventions too.”
Fans are therefore not passive spectators, but instead a creative community that finds new ways to understand and interpret original works. Their creative urge even challenges the idea of ‘originality’ itself and has proven enormously powerful in helping fans to form lasting collectives and demonstrate a fighting spirit.
So is there any expiry date for the fandom? According to Dr Williams:
“I think it can continue without end. There are still very strong fan cultures about old science fiction series. And fan phenomena for musicians like Elvis and Michael Jackson suggest that a fan culture can exist as long as there are fans with an emotional connection to the object. Some fans even attach important memories – such as divorces, falling in love and bereavements – that become strongly interwoven with their fandom. Post-object fandom also allows fans to create new connections and memories, and I think that’s an important part of the enduring appeal.”