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On fandoms and the fandom

Also, on breaching the First Rule.

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls
by Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis
Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2013

Truth be told, I didn't really expect much from Fangasm. Even the cover looks like the stereotype embodied of both fandom-ness and self-publishing – very pink, very girly, very amateur. Also, over twelve bucks for two hundred forty something pages by authors you haven't really checked before? It makes you hesitate and question your common sense – a very fannish thing to do, not coincidentally. But finally I shrugged, heck, why not, maybe I'll get a few pages of fun for my twelve bucks. Grab your drug when you're high. It's what you do, being a fan, and that's typical, too.

To my astonishment, I got not just a fannish fun – yeah, that too – but the best work on fandom culture in general I have read so far. Actually, it's not self-published, though judging on the story of its making, it wasn't far from it. Not that such choice would have made it any less good, cause writing is far from amateur. And once you've read it, the cover looks more like a deliberate stylization and maybe a bit of a challenge: yes, it's girly and self-made, deal with it, these are merits in fact. Well, a good cover reflects the content, and Fangasm is all about rethinking stereotypes and taking other point of view at things being under our noses all the time. I said before it's the best work on fandom I've read, and it's often that best things grow from disappointment and need to fill a gap. I share with the authors the feeling that all academic works on anything fandom-ish I've seen before were missing the point at best, and explained things totally upside down at worst. Perhaps you had this bewilderment at some theories too, maybe the most ridiculous of them being that fandom equals alienation and isolation. In fact, the authors point, it's exactly the other way around: fandom grows of people who feel alienated and seek a supporting group. Fandom is all about community.

Isolated, we all secretly believe that we're freaks – that we're the only ones who have those feelings, that fantasy, those impulses – until we open up and somebody else says “Oh my god, that's exactly how I feel!”

No wonder it's a relief to read at last about what feels like the real fandom culture you actually know, instead vague ramblings of someone who writes rather own incomplete imaginations, like a treatise on the anatomy of frog based on a poor photo. And Fangasm grew of need to understand.

...write a book on fans, because “nobody understands us – even us!”

Why were we willing to camp out on a sidewalk before sunrise, foregoing money, sleep, and dignity just to have front-row seats at the feet of actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki?

Which, by the way, defies another stereotype, the one about fans and especially fangirls being a bunch of thoughtless squealing amoebas sharing a single brain cell and unable to self-reflection. However, the authors bring up what I don't think I've ever met in academic works (not that I've really read so many of them, admittedly), that is: fandom as a community is the underground, if ever was one. The first rule of fandom: tell no one about fandom, Kathy & Lynn say. Fandom is a place when one comes to feel safe, therefore it's safe as long as it's... well, safe. As you can see it's a self-explanatory thing: no wonder that those not really participating in fandoms can hardly write anything close to reality, and at the same time any real fan recognizes and understands the First Rule as obvious, if unspoken. Saying loudly “I'm a fan, the real deal, doing fannish things” beyond the fandom safety is dreadful and shameful, the more so, if you're supposed to be a serious, no-nonsense adult. It has an additional layer of the taboo if you're a woman at that. Irony of the fate is that what's kept unspoken beyond the fandom, says about women a lot of things that, again, defy stereotypes.

For women, the accepted norms hold that women want to be the objects of desire – that we want others to desire us. ... Young women aren't socialized to get in touch with what we want but instead to concentrate on what others want – to be objects instead of subjects. Women end up focused on how we look and who we can attract and how to make other people feel good, instead of what attracts us – hell, sometimes we don't even know!

The accepted wisdom of the culture holds that women don't like to look – fandom turns that so-called wisdom on its ear. Hell yes, we like to look!

We're used to what feminist research calls the “male gaze” turned on women; fandom turns the “female gaze” right back on men. Within the secret space of online fandom, objectifying instead of being objectified is normalized.

Another thing hardly ever mentioned before: working like this, fandom turns out an empowering force, instead of a pathology-verging weakness leeching life of its victims, as psychologists and sociologists used to view it. Indeed, it's something that many if not most of fans experienced on their own – participating in fandom develops self-awareness, but also self-confidence and social skills, not to mention the network of friends – real ones, for any given meaning of real. Still, since fandom is community, it has every features of one. Including those far from kittens and rainbows. Fandom, in spite of being a safe place by default, still is not safe itself from herd behavior. One comes to fandom to be a fan, but paradoxically, nothing earns fandom loath faster than being a fan too much, cause there's nothing that terrifies fandom more than being viewed and judged as the stereotypical den of craziness. The First Rule is there for a reason.

This sort of “you're doing it wrong” accusation runs through fandom, creating all kinds of nasty infighting.

The definition of an obsessed fan? Apparently anyone to the left of exactly where you are on the fan continuum.

Interestingly, it's only one of features that fandom and religion have in common. How about worshipping idols? Pilgrimages to holy sites, er, that is, filming locations? Mass meetings? I’d say also: symbols, amulets and costumes for recognizing fellow worshippers, and special days with their rituals.

One music fan who had seen her favorite pop group forty-four times described it as an almost religious experience – pounding heart, tears, no words that could convey the emotion.

In fact, part of the fun of being a fan is knowing in the rational part of your brain that celebrities are just people but hoisting them up onto a pedestal anyway, against your better judgment. Then crossing your fingers that they can keep their precarious balance up there.

[Being a fan is] almost like a religious experience, a need to believe in something, to project all your aspirations and beliefs onto someone bigger than life.

All above-mentioned would be enough to make the book more than worth reading, but there’s also one recurring theme: the other side’s perspective. What do the objects of worship think about fandom? Actually, what do they know about fandom in the first place? Turns out, more than fandom thinks. Yikes! The First Rule isn’t as leakproof as fandom would like it. Then again, looks like fandom deems itself more hideous than anyone on the other side thinks it really is. Apparently, the interest is mutual, and the other side is as much fascinated by fandom as vice versa.

What did surprise us, then [at Comic Con 2007] and on so many occasions afterward, was how taken the other side is with us. … Jensen [Ackles] and Eric [Kripke] both whipped out their own cameras to take pictures of the crowd, looking a bit blown away by all the attention.

Kathy & Lynn put a lot of effort and first class fannish stubbornness in actually talking with the people ‘at the celebrity side of the fence’, including but not limited to Eric Kripke, Sera Gamble, Serge Ladouceur, Jim Beaver, Samantha Ferris, Fred Lehne, Chad Lindberg, Gabriel Tigerman, Richard Speight Jr., Charles Malik Whitfield, Misha Collins, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Among the all interviewed, no one fainted when confronted with the fandom’s most gleeful (or darkest, depending on your view) creativity, no one ran away screaming, and no one even really tried to evade the subject. All were more or less interested; all had already their own thoughts; many jumped eagerly at the opportunity of the firsthand learning and asked their own questions. Most of them pointed by the way they themselves are fans of many things and persons as well, and know this quasi-religious state of mind fine. Come to think of it, should we really be surprised with their openness and interest? Emotions and practical psychology is all those people’s job, and every artist worth his or her salt, especially of the storytelling sort, is curious about other people’s minds. (Though I think it’s advisable to watch recordings of described incidents, if available. It happened once or twice I disagreed in my impressions and interpretations with the authors and their choices of words, so it’s good to see on one’s own as much as possible.) Maybe the biggest discover of Kathy & Lynn was that ‘the fence’ runs not as much between fandom and the creative side, but rather between all of them together and those wielding the financial power, TV networks and film studios. I must say I’d like to hear also the voice of that side, the only that remains fully shrouded and mysterious in the book, and the only that apparently prefers unclear actions over clear communication. The authors many times mention their puzzlement about doings of The Powers That Be.

Photo by Chris Schmelke; source

Um, did I write it all to this place with not even a word on Supernatural? Sorry. The book is all about SPN and one can happily squee to one’s heart content, I can assure. It’s just that besides that it also is much more than that. It’s not only about the fandom, but also about fandom, all fandoms sharing fandom culture. Which also makes Fangasm a book in the middle, too personal to be granted the name of scientific literature, and apparently not enough simplistic for what publishers think an average fangirl is willing to buy. Even though it haz pics! ^^

We were repeatedly told that there was no clear market for our hybrid story. Academics would not take it seriously and fans would think it too academic. “Who would buy it?” was the question we heard over and over.

Well, I did, and somehow I’m sure many other fangirls will, too. Actually, I’d love to read also Fandom at the Crossroads being the more ‘serious’ version of Fangasm, which I guess involves more charts and such, but at the moment there’s no e-book available… *sigh* OK, I’ll wait here, I’ll keep Cas company.


Fan Phenomena: Supernatural
edited by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen
Bristol, Intellect Books, 2014

Fan Phenomena is a series of anthologies taking on another fandom in every book. FP: Supernatural contains of nine essays plus two interviews. The first text is by Paul Booth, telling about his experiences as teacher using Supernatural in Media and Culture Studies classes. While not uninteresting, it's a rather dry, technical thing, feeling exactly like a syllabus, and more useful (providing you're a teacher) than enjoyable. Next one, Monstrous Male Body by Bridget Kies, in spite of the fascinating subject (ahem) was a little disappointing and felt like a piece of something that should be much longer. Is crossing the male/female border really the only or even the most important perspective when pondering on the concept of monstrosity? What about human/inhuman, or wild/civilized, or natural/artificial, and before all, pure/spoiled and innocent/guilty, which are addressed in the show more often and more directly?

The scars of old injuries have also disappeared, so Dean assumes experiences don't carry over from one life to the next. Consequently, he proclaims he has been 'rehymenated' and attempts to mitigate the double monstrosity of having a hymen (a body part belonging to a woman) and having years of sexual conquests erased (along with proof of his virility).

Huh? In such case, shouldn't his word of choice be ‘hymenated’ rather than ‘rehymenated’? Not to mention he looks gleeful, not annoyed – apparently he finds it more opportunity than tragedy. I'm sorry, but I can't really see here any 'feminization', monstrous or not, unwanted or not. The only cases I agree about with the author as more or less fitting the trope were Meg!Sam and Leviathans-mpreg!Castiel (and the feminization thing was really addressed in the show only in the first case).

Next goes Lisa Macklem's essay on Supernatural canon's winks toward the audience, easter eggs and the whole fourth-wall-poking. Lots and lots of detailed info, reads nicely after the two previous being much heavier on interpretation (and over-interpretation at times, IMHO). Interestingly, the author mentions about the canon Dean as a fanboy (Dr. Sexy show, Eliot Ness, Clint Eastwood, Hollywood Babylon's star actress), and points that his fannish passion helps find a hint for the Trickster's identity by noticing a canon error (Changing Channels). Hey, Dear Fandom, stop picking at poor Becky, she wasn’t really that different! :)

[Becky's] discomfiture is typical of fans meeting the object of their fannish passions and is similar to the way Dean acts when he meets Dr. Sexy. ... Dean's fannish behaviour is usually a bit over the top and given comic overtones, but in an endearing way. In most encounters, Dean is faced with a disparity between the reality and the illusion, much as any fan must deal with a disparity between character and actor.

Then, the admin of Supernatural Wiki, Jules Wilkinson, tells about the online history of the fandom. Nice, informative, and for many fans undoubtedly nostalgic.

These fans knew that it takes a (cyber) village to raise a fandom. ... LJ has made changes in recent years to mimic the utility of the newer sites, but it is the existing fannish infrastructure and relationships that keeps fans on LJ, more than the ability to scroll through a friends list or click a button to share a post.

You'd better listen to that, LJ. *glares*

Next goes the first interview: Sarah House aka ash48 tells about her inspirations and the creative process on her fanvids, with great insight and not without fascinating technical details.

I often wonder what drives me to spend hours and hours working on a vid. A lot comes down to the addictive nature of editing – I love the process so much. It's immensely satisfying laying down clips and finding the best way to make them work. It's also frustrating, but I think that's part of the 'addiction'. It's like working on a huge jigsaw puzzle – a process of trial and error. It's frustrating when you can't find the right piece but when you do there's a wonderful feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

Next are two essays on SPN fandom as the support group and its charity achievements. Informative, again. One of the authors, Mary F. Dominiak aka Bardicvoice, points at possible reasons as to why SPN fandom is particularly inclined to charity activism.

While characters in such mainstream television dramas as doctor, lawyer, firefighter and police/investigator shows routinely do solve problems and help people, their focus tends to be on the immediate problem, the specific case. Genre programs such as Supernatural, Buffy, Firefly, Star Trek (Gene Roderberry, CBS, 1966-1968) Battlestar Galactica and Revolution (Eric Kripke, NBC, 2012- ), on the other hand, often tend to paint their individual stories against a broader canvas of social obligation to a greater cause, whether that cause is saving the world, fighting for ethical principles, or trying to preserve or restore a society. By its nature, then, this type of genre programming encourages social activism precisely because that concept is integral to the show, its stories and its characters, and is part of the message fans take away from watching it.

This part is not coincidentally completed with Misha Collins' view on the fandom in general and its life-and-world influencing force.

It was astonishing to me how talented and hard-working people were. It is stunning how much money, time and creative energy go into being a fan. ... Fans are ... people who are more thoughtful than your average person and also a little more devoted.

The second interview is with SPN Director of Photography, Serge Ladouceur. Bliss for any graphic nerd, even though Serge seems more a man of work than words, and the interviewing fans, Lynn and Ash48, tell often more about visual meanings they find in the canon's frames than the cinematographer himself, heh. Still, he adds details from the set you won't get elsewhere.

...a catwalk was installed on top of the set so we could access easily the lighting that was set around the small opening where there was a fan with a propeller-style blade. ... The shot involved the use of a crane installed outside the set with the remote head reaching inside, close to Jared and pulling back to the overhead shot. Lighting was not going to be an easy task because the arm of the crane and the remote head are quite big and take a lot of room, so the potential for camera shadow or rig shadow is important. ... When we start any scene, we usually start with the wide shot because all the elements are there, and then go tighter and tighter and you end up with the close-up. But in that scene [at the end of 4.10 Heaven and Hell], Jensen asked us to start with the close-up and take our way back.

As the last one, Richard Speight, Jr. tells about SPN conventions, mostly the karaoke nights and how they came to being what they are now.

First thing I noticed [at the ChiCon 2008] that really threw me: the fans were almost all women. No fat guys in Star Fleet uniforms. There goes myth #1. The second thing I figured over the course of that weekend: the fans weren't scary, creepy, socially inept or dangerous. (Or men.) Adios, myth #2. ... the karaoke party was notoriously lame, hardly anyone was there, but those who were there were still in the assigned seats. Random heads dotting row after row of empty chairs. The huge hall had the sad, empty feel of a porno theatre on Easter Sunday and the freewheeling energy of DMV waiting room. ... In my opinion, when Matt [Cohen] and I broke down the performer/audience 'barrier' and insisted everyone get involved at the same level, we at the same time elevated the fans from observers to participants. They were no longer sitting in their seats watching the show – they were the show. And a direct correlation evolved between their commitment to the concept and the success of the party. They had control. If they wanted the night to rock, they now had the power to make it so with their passion and imagination. And this power ignited a fire in the fandom.

I think I liked both Ash48 and Ladouceur interviews, and Richard's piece, the best. As the whole anthology, I didn't enjoy it as much as Fangasm, but Fan Phenomena: Supernatural wasn't a waste of time and money either.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 2nd, 2015 12:09 am (UTC)
Okay, I'm not a Supernatural fan so my attention drifted once you brought the show up, but there is something in what I did read I'd like to comment on--

...but rather between all of them together and those wielding the financial power, TV networks and film studios.

That is so true! Joss Whedon's battling with "the money men" over Buffy and Firefly is one relatively recent example, but I believe Gene Rodenberry had his own issues with them over Star Trek in its younger years. There is a real fence there. I think a big part of the problem comes down to how copyright law is still more 19th century than even 20th much less 21st. I mean while Gene Rodenberry, Joss Whedon, and Eric Kripke might be the ones who had the Big Ideas, and as such should be the ones that ultimately control them, that's not how the system works. I mean the academic quote I saved when I first learned it, and repeat whenever I get the chance, that really addresses the problem is, "Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk."

In the system--as it works right now--the people who control the Big Ideas aren't the ones who had them, or the folk. It's the ones that make their money off of them, and they make decisions based in financial interest, not creative or civic.
Jan. 2nd, 2015 05:50 pm (UTC)
Funny thing is, they make their decisions based on want to make money, but usually it turns out things making most money were hampered and often crippled in the process rather than supported. They want things that earn, but they want them nice and safe, and above all, controlled. But you can't plan and control novelty and creativity; it's unexpected by definition. This is why fandom culture is so lively and creative - it's wild, untamed and asking no one for permission.

I read somewhere this quote, I think it's very apt, indeed.
Jan. 2nd, 2015 06:06 pm (UTC)
These are awesome reviews! Thank you so much for sharing. I have another friend who really enjoyed Fangasm too. Look forward to reading that one of these days :D
Jan. 2nd, 2015 07:40 pm (UTC)
I totally recommend it! I'd be glad to read your opinion, when you get it. :)

Edited at 2015-01-02 07:41 pm (UTC)
Jan. 2nd, 2015 10:48 pm (UTC)
I didn't even know such books existed! lol Both of these sound awesome and very interesting. I'm definitely adding them to my reading list for the next- this! year :)
Jan. 2nd, 2015 11:34 pm (UTC)
Have a nice time! :)
Jan. 3rd, 2015 01:30 am (UTC)
Good reviews! I'll have to look these up;)

It's interesting how producers/actors etc are becoming more aware of fandom as a culture and that fanfic is a serious business with a lot of quality writers out there taking their concepts and running with them. It means more acknowledgement, but of course it also remains to be seen if that is a good thing in the long run with all the copyright issues involved.
Jan. 3rd, 2015 03:26 pm (UTC)
Very much worth it! :)

It's interesting how producers/actors etc are becoming more aware of fandom as a culture
Yes, this. I'm both anxious and excited to see what future brings. And my head hurts at the thought of what it means for copyright law. It's going to be, hm, complicated. As if it wasn't enough already... BTW, the books don't really bother with this subject. They're mostly on the sociological side, which is even more fascinating.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )