Status and Cultural Capital in Fandom

I've never been into cosplay, but I'm currently fighting the urge to go out and buy a Regency era gown and do some country dancing. It's all thanks to Deborah Yaffe's delightful account of Jane Austen fandom, Among the Janeites (2013). But then, I've only read Pride and Prejudice once and I've probably seen the 2005 film version way too often to be the "right" kind of Jane Austen fan. That might seem like a shocking sentiment coming from me, considering that I tend to take a "kumbaya" approach to fandom (the more the merrier). But status and hierarchy are very real issues in fandom.

One of the key principles of my work on fan culture is that, while fandoms share a lot of traits and behaviors, each fandom also has its own way of doing things, and its own issues to grapple with. In reading Among the Janeites, it struck me that one of the main concerns of Jane Austen fandom is the perceived divide between those who see Jane Austen as a serious literary figure and those who have come to the fandom through the more contemporary film and TV adaptations.

In one scene illustrates that illustrates this tension, Yaffe is perusing the merchandise room at the annual Jane Austen Society of North America meeting. The conference was once a place for literature scholars, critical readers, and Regency era aficionados to discuss their favorite author and perhaps allow themselves a bit of enthusiasm from time to time. When Yaffe visits, it's a very different place. She writes,

"I am alternately charmed and repelled by the merchandise on display. For every apron or tea towel or mirrored compact bearing a genuine Jane Austen quote, there seems to be a key chain or plaque or note card adorned with a line found only in an Austen movie. ... Hasn't anyone around here READ THE BOOKS? I find myself wondering. The movies have made Jane Austen more accessible than ever, broadening the base of her fandom and diversifying her appeal, and even as I register my silent squawk of protest, I feel a bit churlish, like some Alpha Girl patrolling the boundaries of the high school clique. ... Once again, I'm face to face with the contradictions of fandom: I've come to a Jane Austen conference to enjoy the company of other Janeites, but I can't help turning up my nose, just a little, at the gross ignorance -- the sheer bad taste! -- of people whose idea of Pride and Prejudice owes more to Keria Knightley than to Jane Austen." (206, emphasis in original)

It's not a surprise, when you consider that Janeties are 200 years in the making, that the fandom is struggling with a clash between highbrow and lowbrow culture.

Usage of the terms highbrow and lowbrow go back to the early 1900s. Broadly speaking, highbrow refers to those cultural products that we think of as "serious" culture: classical music, literature, poetry, opera, etc. Lowbrow is generally synonymous with popular culture, and includes music, film, television, and various other "pulp" products produced for the masses. It's easy to see the socio-economic undertones of these categories: highbrow is for the wealthy and scholarly, lowbrow for the uneducated and undiscerning.  

Fandom has long been associated with popular/lowbrow culture. In her article "Fandom as Pathology" (1992) Jolie Jensen explains that the popular understanding of fans throughout the 20th century as obsessive and socially deviant actually reflects two essential modernist anxieties: the disintegration of community and subsequent isolation of individuals, and mass media control. While those who enjoyed highbrow culture were seen as deliberate and thoughtful "aficionados," fans were seen as overly emotional, unable to distinguish between fiction and reality, and "dupes" of the mass media industry. 

Of course, fans have come a long way from this characterization but the scars remain (see The Anxiety of Fan Culture). The original conception of the "fanatic" has shifted in two ways:

  1. Fans are no longer seen as mindless consumers of media but are, in many ways, the poster children for active, engaged, and highly sophisticated media use.
  2. Highbrow/lowbrow distinctions are less clear-cut and society is increasingly seeing the value in popular culture as art in its own right.

However, this shift is by no means absolute and many fandoms have created have their own internal hierarchies.

In “The Cultural Economy of Fandom” (1992) John Fiske agrees that fans are active and involved media users -- he calls them “excessive readers” -- and argues that popular culture appeals to fans because it is more open and accessible. Pop culture products “stimulate popular productivity” and allow fans to gain cultural capital through their knowledge and involvement. Fan culture is a route to cultural capital for those groups of people that don't have access to highbrow culture and, more generally, the socio-economic opportunities to gain status. 

This idea that fandom is an alternate route to cultural capital is perhaps a bit outdated. The implication is that, if fans had access to highbrow culture, they would abandon Star Trek for Shakespeare in a heartbeat. However, issues of cultural capital are still extremely prominent within fandom and often present as internal hierarchies within fandom. Cultural capital in fan culture is all about "cred" -- who knows more, who was there first, who writes the best fan fiction or makes the best fan art, who's been to the most conventions, who has the most impressive connections. Meet: the "big name fan" (BNF).

That being said, for most of us, the frustrations of dealing with issues of cultural capital and status within fandom are far outweighed by the joys: the love of great stories, the opportunities to use those stories as a jumping-off point for exploring human nature, history, relationships, and ourselves, and the sense of excitement and belonging of sharing something that matters so much to us with a community of like-minded people.

"As [the conference] concludes, we all rise and clink champagne glasses. Tears spring to my eyes because suddenly none of the bad stuff -- the faulty corset or the unflattering dress or the cheesy commercialization -- matters as much as being part of a community of people bound together by a love of books." (222)