The Anxiety of Fan Culture

I recently started listening to the Fansplaining podcast (which is fabulous and super smart, so go listen to it) and one of the most interesting episodes featured the hosts struggling to define "fan" and "fandom." Seems like a good place to start when talking about media fan culture, right? Well... Turns out this one's a bit complicated. If you've spent any time pondering these definitions, you'll quickly learn that it can be a thankless task. You'll always miss someone, and you'll always piss someone off. 

The episode is aptly (and with intentional irony) titled "One True Fandom," which succinctly gets at the urge to pin "fan" and "fandom" down as a singular thing. I spent a lot of time in graduate school trying to write papers that approached this topic from different angles and never really produced anything very satisfying. 

I've always liked Lawrence Grossberg's theory of the "affective sensibility," which is basically the academic version of Wil Wheaton's widely-shared "being a nerd [is] not about what you love, it’s about how you love it." Grossberg argues that fans use media with an "affective sensibility" that is about emotion and identity, as opposed to a "consumer sensibility" which is primarily about being entertained. He places fandom on par with other things we deeply care about in life, as a point or many points we define on our personal "mattering maps." What that really means is that fandom is a way we define our identity. We are what we care about. Being a fan, or being part of a fandom, is, therefore, a very personal thing. 

Obviously, lots of people find this live-and-let-live approach problematic, especially now that fans (and geeks, and nerds, and whatever else you want to call obsessive lovers of genre media) have inherited the earth. You can't walk five feet at any Comic-Con without hearing, "These people aren't real nerds!" The objectors are obviously very invested in keeping fan culture (geek culture, nerd culture, etc. -- though those all probably deserve their own blog post!) at least somewhat exclusive. But what motivates these objections? And, along those same lines, what motivates the urge to come up with a definition of "fan" and "fandom" beyond "I know it when I feel it"?

From my point of view, it comes down to two issues:

1. If you're not doing fandom like I'm doing fandom, you're not in fandom

2. If you haven't lived the struggle of being a fan, you're not in fandom

The transition of a subculture into the mainstream always raises these kinds of anxieties. Anthropologically speaking, the things that make up a culture -- traditions, rituals, language, history, social organization -- serve to distinguish and protect it from outsiders. The anxiety of fan culture, then, is essentially about the fear that what makes fan culture unique, meaningful, and special to its members will be wiped out by an influx of newcomers. 

The two objections -- "doing fandom right" and "remembering the struggle" -- apply directly to this cultural transition. They're about maintaining traditions and appreciating history. 


It's utterly tempting to define fandom as a practice, as something people do. Fan scholars have, in fact, done this for decades. Henry Jenkins wrote one of the first books on the subject of fans (Textual Poachers, 1992) and emphasized that fandom is not about the stories but about "exceptional readings." This tension is still a topic of conversation in fan studies today, except now it's about "affirmational" versus "transformational" fandom: Are the fans who just want to appreciate the story as is as legitimate as the fans who want to play with it, transform it, and make it their own?

Why the obsession with "exceptional readings," you may ask. Again, it goes back to fandom history. Media fandom has always been predominantly a female space. When it started in the '60s and '70s, the sad fact was that you really didn't see a lot of women (or minorities) in interesting roles on TV and in films. It could be hard to enjoy popular narratives as they were, and Lt. Uhura only got so much screen time. So, right from the get-go, media fandom became about re-interpreting, re-telling, and re-making existing stories into something more personally meaningful. 

When fan studies first started out, these creative impulses were big news. It showed that fans were not just passive audience members, but actually highly active. Defining fans as decidedly "not just consumers" was a way to justify paying attention to them, at least academically. The idea was that consumers were "dupes" of the cultural industries. Clearly, creativity was where it's at and fan fiction, fan art, fan music, etc. became the heart of early media fandom because it showed that fans were motivated not just by a desire to check out and mindlessly consume media, but actually engage with it, transform it, share it, and make it their own. 


Even if a fan never creates or transforms anything, fandom can still fulfills its members’ needs for affiliation, friendship, and shared enthusiasm in a space apart from the stresses and pressures of the ordinary world. In Enterprising Women (1992), Camille Bacon-Smith writes about the role of fandom as a safe space that allows its members to express an identity and engage in a set of behaviors that might be ridiculed by society at large. She writes, “The community is open to anyone willing to participate, but closed to anyone who might jeer, or worse, blow the whistle."

And the sad fact is that, for most of its history, media fandom was jeered at. Fans' interests and obsessions marked them as outsiders from the social mainstream. For many people within contemporary fan culture, maintaining fandom as a safe space -- for expression, for appreciation, and just for being themselves -- is still hugely important. When fan culture goes mainstream, it often also means that fan culture goes public. And a lot of fans don't want that because many aspects of the fan experience are still very personal and very likely to be misunderstood by the public who doesn't share fan culture's language and customs. 

Within fandom, there is often a distinction between those for whom "Fandom-Is-a-Way-of-Life" and "Fandom-Is-Just-a-Goddamned-Hobby" ( The former describes fans whose status as a fan and participation in fandom is a defining feature of their identity, while the latter describes –- obviously with denigration –- those who engage in fan activities without necessarily defining themselves as part of a fan culture. The fear is that, if fan culture is overrun by hobbyists, it might make fandom unsafe again for the ones who pour their heart and soul into it.      


So, is there reason to be anxious about the state of fan culture? Is there a need to define "fan" and "fandom" in a neat, useful way? 

It's a fact that fan culture is moving from a subculture into the mainstream, and it's a fact that, in that process, some things are lost. Are other things gained? Maybe losing the stigma around being a fan, a nerd, or a geek will be beneficial in the long run. Maybe the fact that nerdy things have gone mainstream also means we'll get lots more super awesome, super nerdy things. 

I think that the need to define "fan" and "fandom" is also a by-product of this process. As the boundaries of fan culture blur, there's an urge to hold on to the edges. We hold on to remember where we came from and we hold on because it's so much of who we are. If fan culture becomes common, we fear losing something that makes us special. 

It's human nature to always try to categorize our social lives into in-groups and out-groups. Fan culture certainly isn't immune to forming its own sub-groups, its own hierarchies. It's likely that, as fandom goes more mainstream, fan culture will continue to splinter into smaller niche groups. As such, we're moving farther away from a singular definition of "fandom." And, if Grossman's "affective sensibility" is to believed, the emotional impulse behind being a "fan" is universal anyway.