In the inaugural episode of “It’s a Thing!”, I talk with Suzanne Scott about cosplay, embodied fandom, and bringing Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer into the fan studies fold. I also talk with Lesley Willard about Tumblr, fan labor, working behind-the-scenes of academic conferences, and mentor/mentee relationships in fandom and academia.
Scott, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry
Romano, “McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce inspired a Rick and Morty fan meltdown“
Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
Jenkins, et. al., Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture
Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture
Romano, “Tumblr’s adult content ban is about so much more than porn“
Stanfill, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans
Terms, Concepts & the Rest
OTP (One True Pairing)
Adorno, Horkheimer, and the concerns of the Frankfurt School
Fan Studies Network North America
The Whedon Studies Association
Transformative Works and Cultures
Fan Studies Network
Lori Morimoto: Welcome to “It’s a Thing!”, the podcast where we talk about fan studies and how it’s a thing. I’m your host, Lori Morimoto.
On this episode of “It’s a Thing!”, I’ll be talking with Dr. Suzanne Scott, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio-Film-Television at the University of Texas at Austin. I’ll also be speaking with Leslie Willard, a graduate student in the Department of Radio-Film-Television at the University of Texas at Austin.
LM: My first guest is Dr. Suzanne Scott, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Suzanne has recently published the book Fake Geek Girls, which talks about how gender is configured both in fandoms and in the media industries that cater to them. She’s also a co-editor on the upcoming book Sartorial Fandom, and she’s fresh from cosplaying Doc Ock at the San Diego Comic-Con.
Suzanne, I want to thank you for joining me today. It is great to have you on the first, inaugural episode of “It’s a Thing!”
Suzanne Scott: I’m so thrilled to be here and slightly intimidated to be the first guest, but it’s really exciting what you’re doing. I’m so looking forward to it.
LM: Oh, well, thank you! I’m looking forward to it too. This has given me a little bit of confidence that I can do it, so here’s hoping.
SS: Yeah, and you’re doing it which is the thing!
LM: I am doing it, which is a thing. As is fan studies!
SS: Wow. I really tee’d you right up for the title of the podcast there.
LM: Yeah, no, I’m ready. I’m there.
So I wanted, actually … we have frivolous and serious things to talk about, but I wanted to start a little bit in the middle. One of the things that a lot of us – not everybody but a lot of us in fan studies – sort of identify as is what’s called ‘acafans’, or people who are both academics studying fan studies and fans. And I know that you have been active as a cosplayer for a very long time, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you got into that.
SS: Sure. I’ll give you my little brief kind of- yeah, I’m glad you introduced this term ‘acafan’, because I think a lot of the work that we do does stem from the fact that we see ourselves as holding hybrid identities. And so a lot of the kind of ‘fans first’ ethics or policies that we try to employ as scholars I think comes from the fact that a lot of us were fans first.
SS: So I was a fan and involved in digital fan culture and analog fan culture, well before I started studying this stuff. Cosplay I got into in about 2007, so a little over a decade now. I- it was the second year I was attending Comic-Con and I- or no, it was the first year I was attending Comic Con. And I threw together a very quick Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica cosplay, which mostly I pulled together a tank top and some cargo pants, and cut my hair which was a big commitment I felt like at the time. And I still look back on that cosplay fondly, in part because I did not have to wear a wig.
The next year we sort of upped the ante and my partner, Luke Pebler, and I decided to go as characters from Watchman, the comic book, and that was the year before the film was coming out. And so that was really fun, because we were kind of on the bleeding edge, like hipster cosplay, for that.
SS: But in this last year at Comic-Con I decided to go as Doc Ock two ways from Spider-Verse, which was far and away my favorite movie of last year, to the extent that when I was sitting in the movie theater watching the movie for the first time, Olivia Octavius came onscreen, and I leaned over and I said, “That’s what I’m going as for Comic-Con this year.” And part of it was, you know, did I- did she resonate with me as a middle-aged woman and a doctor? I don’t know, maybe. I was like, this is an age-appropriate cosplay.
And what I’m always looking for is, it’s great if it’s something you’re actually really fannish about. Sometimes it’s more about the problem-solving elements that are really attractive to people. I try to do one new fabrication tool, or learn one new trick, every time I do a new cosplay, but I really love the kind of problem solving dimensions of it. I really like scouring eBay and Amazon for weird things that I can turn into a piece of a cosplay costume.
LM: Oh, that’s so cool. So you make all of your own costumes?
SS: Yeah. I mean I buy a lot of pieces of them and then often will adapt those pieces.
LM: Y-no, the- the age thing. Yeah. I am a hundred percent there.
SS: What’s interesting is I’ve done a lot of cross-play too, and I’ve done-
LM: That’s a term I love, too.
SS: Yes. I’ve cosplayed as a lot of male characters over the years. I’ve done deleted-scenes Luke Skywalker with the bucket hat, and then there been other years where I pick characters that I absolutely love and you know zero people have recognized me. It’s been slightly devastating, but I think what’s so interesting about cosplay is there are people who are very into it for the actual fabrication and the material fandom element of it, with the challenge of crafting and constructing that stuff. And I think sometimes it’s just about, I love this character so much that I just want to embody them in a physical space and interact with people as this character.
And that was what was so fun about Doc Ock, because I got to interact with a bunch of adorable little Miles Moraleses and Gwen Stacys all day. Parents would, you know, tell their kids to go fist pump Doc Ock, and they’d be like, “No we don’t want to!” and it was very fun. I think the the sort of embodiment and performance element of it is something I’m really interested in from a scholarly perspective, and part of the reason I’m so interested in it as a fan scholar is through my experience of doing it as a fan. And so that’s definitely been something that I’m looking forward to writing and researching more about in the next book project, in part because I think it’s become much more a part of my fannish identity and the way I interact with fandom over the past five or six years.
LM: Do you do stealth cosplay as well? In the classroom?
SS: Oh, I mean, so listen, I was teaching Spider-Verse this week, and I sort of jokingly on Twitter said like “Well, maybe I should show up in full Doc Ock regalia.” I did- I am wearing a dress to teach comic book design and structure today that has a bunch of old romance comics from the 1950s on it that’s pretty cute. So I like fannish outfits.
SS: I don’t do a lot of everyday cosplay, right, which is this notion that you’re putting together an outfit that evokes a character. I don’t do a lot of that just because, frankly, I haven’t gotten tenure yet.
SS: And so … and you know more than anyone, I think part of the inspiration this podcast is that we are trying to tell fans … we definitely want fans to be aware of fans studies. Academia also needs to realize that fan studies is a thing.
SS: I already spend a lot of time explaining and occasionally defending the kind of scholarship I produce, and so I don’t want to be dismissed because I’m wearing a dorky t-shirt. I will say also my experience has been that male scholars can get away with wearing a Batman t-shirt and a blazer in a way that, as women, we tend to get comments on our evaluations about how we dress, and so I’ve always been very aware of that.
LM: Well, fingers crossed that you’ll be able to be more fannish sooner than later. So you did mention that you have an upcoming project that you’re beginning work on, that has to do with embodied fandom coming out of this cosplay idea. What other things does it encompass when you when you talk about embodied fandom?
SS: Yeah, so the book right now is tentatively titled The Fan Body. No subtitle. I’m being a rogue academic and not including a long subtitle. We’ll see how that goes over.
LM: I didn’t know you could do that.
SS: I didn’t know you could do that either, but I- that’s what I’m pitching. I’m pitching simplicity. So basically as I was working on the past book, I was thinking a lot about how I want to bring in more voices of more fans, and different fans from different fan collectives than maybe I’m particularly participating in into the next book project. And so I wanted to do more ethnographic work. One of the last chapters in the current book is about fan fashion, and what I’m looking at is geek girly culture on Pinterest and through brands like Her Universe and that sort of thing. And so it’s an extension of that to some extent.
I’m always really interested in fan merchandising, and fan fashion in particular. So I have two projects coming out of that. One is a collection of essays I’m co-editing with Elizabeth Affuso. And that’s called Sartorial Fandom, and that’s all about fan fashion and beauty culture, and I’m a very excited about that. We’ve got a stellar line-up of fan scholars. That’s in the process right now. And then my book project, The Fan Body, is really going to be looking at … it will look at cosplay, so I’m planning to do a lot of interviews of people and also want to do some analysis of hashtags around body and activism around Twitter. So #chubbycosplayers and #30DaysOfBlackCosplay [correction: #28DaysOfBlackCosplay], that happens every February – that sort of thing.
I also want to look at things like tattoos and makeup, and certainly fashion as well. And I also want to look at things like sex. Some of the stereotypes we typically associate with fans are so bound up with sex. There’s the sort of failed masculinity of the fanboy, or the virgin in his parents basement; or alternately fangirls are often characterized as being excessive in this Victorian way …
LM: Like kind of hyper-sexualized?
SS: Yes, exactly. Hyper-sexualized or out of control.
SS: You know, the Beatlemaniacs screaming at concerts, or One Direction. I can do a slightly more relevant example than Beatles, I suppose at this point.
LM: But it works, you know?
SS: It does. And so I wanted to think about how fans have been pitched various objects and merchandise related to sex, or how the fan body has been imagined in terms of sex.
LM: Oh, interesting!
SS: Because I also think that part of this is, you know, there’s obviously a massive queer fan community, and I wanted to get into that as well. So I mean the the book really is sort of letting me look at things like age and size and ability and sexuality, and it’s letting me explore all these different facets of fan identity, but also thinking about what it means to be a fan in real space. Which I think is, you know … obviously a lot of fan studies started out there, but now that we’re in the digital era there’s just so much wonderful work that’s being done on digital fan culture, and I wouldn’t want to leave any of that out. But I do think that what we’re missing is a lot of deeper theorization of what it means to walk down the street in a particular type of fannish t-shirt. Something really banal, going back to studies of everyday life in the Cultural Studies tradition. And so that’s really where my thinking’s at right now.
LM: Yeah, absolutely.
SS: Oh also food, we can’t forget about food.
LM: Mm-hmm. When you say food, in what way are you thinking about it?
SS: So I’m thinking about both forms of fannish production around foods – fan recipes, fan cookbooks of fictionalized foods. I’m thinking of the entire massive licensed industry around fan food right now. So, you know, Game of Thrones wines and this sort of thing. And I’m also thinking about programs that have particular food-based elements. So I think there will be a discussion of a whole Rick and Morty Szechuan sauce toxic fandom debacle … there probably will be something on Bob’s Burgers. So I’m interested in things like that. People building recipes for fictional alien foods, in which the actual ingredients don’t exist in real life.
LM: It’s kind of like that scene in Galaxy Quest where they make the regional cuisine for all of the characters.
SS: Yes, one of my favorites. One of my favorites. Alan Rickman just doing the deadpan, like, “Just like mother used to make,” is one of my favorite moments in film history.
LM: The idea especially of talking about fans being in physical spaces is especially relevant and salient right now. As you say we’ve been so focused on digital fandom that, except for discussions of cosplay, it really has kind of fallen by the wayside in some ways. The other day I was at the Fairfax Comic-Con, here in scenic Fairfax, North Virginia, and at least half of the participants there were black. And we have this idea of media fandom, comic fandom being overwhelmingly white, and it really wasn’t a homogeneous space. And yet when we think about it, and when we depict it in media, especially, it always tends to skew a male and white.
SS: I mean, I think- and I think this maybe gets us into the book a little bit, which is, a lot of my impulse for writing the book is, how did this imagined fan that is depicted as a white, straight man, usually in their 20s or 30s, really get entrenched, and what impacts is it possibly having? And like you’re saying, what you’re describing is my experience even at the massive San Diego Comic-Con. I’ve always had an experience in fan culture, and in even fan spaces like conventions, that has been incredibly diverse. I don’t think that is what you see when you see, say, a television show depict a comic book convention, or The Big Bang Theory depict a comic book store. Right?
LM: Right, exactly.
SS: I spend a lot of time going into The Big Bang Theory and saying, look, you know, it’s important to note that nerds and geeks are at the center of this narrative. They are the protagonist and not the funny sidekicks anymore. That’s important. It shows the kind of ascendance of the fan and the fanboy, in particular I’d say, as a kind of [unclear] consciousness in the way it’s celebrated. I think they’re more romantic and action heroes than they’ve ever been, and I would point to a bunch of different shows for that.
But what’s interesting is they’re still very pathologized, because representations are still trading on very old stereotypes about fans. But what I really wanted to get across is, look, privilege can still exist in pathologized representations. When, you know, the guys going to the comic book store and the sitcom is making fun of them for being super-into comics, that’s one thing. When the women go into the comic book store and, it’s like, the promo for that episode is literally- has a banner that says “Where no woman has gone before,” hahaha, it’s a Star Trek reference … You know, I mean, that to me is where this gets really insidious and tough, because what it does is it gives very small collectives of white straight male fans, predominantly … they’re allowed to weaponize that information in order to actively try to alienate marginalized fans within those communities. And that to me is where I- that’s where a lot of the desire to write the book was from; was to think about, well, where are all these messages coming from? How do they accumulate over time? How do they benefit industry in particular ways. And then, yeah, and then also then, how does this potentially have an impact on people who actually are populating these spaces to maybe feel unwelcome?
And, you know, I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of my local comic shops that I’ve gone through over the years, I’ve always felt really welcome and at home at. But I have many friends who don’t fit that mold of what you imagine the comic book reader to be, who have had really terrible experiences in local comic shops.
LM: Right. That actually puts me … it really puts me in mind of the criticisms that you hear from a lot of non-white fans, you know, and I’m thinking of women’s fandom in particular. But a lot of non-white women fans who say that this women’s space that supposed to be feminist is, yeah, one kind of feminism. It’s not necessarily for me.
SS: Yeah, and it’s something that I really try to get at in the book, but probably not to the degree that I could have even. What was a really important thing to me about fan studies, and one of the reasons I was initially drawn to it, was it sort of started out in the early nineties being really focused on communities of female fans and the transformative works they were producing. Fanfiction and fan art and circulating … how this was like a women’s-centric production culture. How it was a potentially feminist or politicized space.
What’s interesting about that is that, oftentimes, the fans who were getting interviewed in those early years didn’t necessarily identify as feminists. They didn’t necessarily see the work they were producing in their fanfiction as being feminist. I think that’s really important to say, like, well when is this claimed as an identity and then you’re not actually embodying feminist practice, versus “I’m not self-identifying as a feminist in my fandom.” And that’s something maybe we have to come back to again, to start thinking about a little bit more deeply. Particularly when we think about, is fandom a white feminist space? Or are parts of fandom a white feminist space, and how is that maintained and actually doing harm in particular ways?
I will say also, feminism and fan studies continues to have this very closely knit relationship. We see a lot of work that’s come out even over the past 10 years, sort of thinking about digital labor as a form of women’s work, that sort of thing. The whole book project is the interested in thinking about how particular fan identities are imagined, [how] fan identities get standardized in particular ways. And I think that the field has standardized a particular kind of female fan, as well, that I think … honestly, part of the reason I wanted to grapple with all this in the book was, I was like, this is a good moment to take stock of what feminism and fan studies actually looks like.
LM: Absolutely. We haven’t actually introduced the book yet!
SS: Oh, yeah!
LM: Let’s introduce the book!
SS: Yeah, let’s do that, you know, for promotional purposes.
LM: The book is Fake Geek Girls, which is really hard to say.
SS: I didn’t think about that when I titled it, and I’ve regretted it almost every day ever since.
LM: I still think it’s a great title.
SS: It isa good title. I don’t enjoy saying it when I give talks about the book though, you’re right.
LM: Yeah, it kinda gets stuck a little bit – fake geek girls – but it is a great title, and it was published by New York University Press. And I was lucky enough to do the index for it, which I really enjoyed. It was my first indexing job, and-
SS: I was lucky enough to have you do the index for it. I was just thrilled that someone knew all of the fannish jargon and terminology and wasn’t- and was able to handle it all.
LM: Well, I appreciate you taking a chance on a young upstart. Neither young, well, upstart yes, but definitely not young.
LM: It did two things that really have stuck with me. One is that whole issue of, that you were just talking about, of trying to update in some ways the ways that we’re talking about women and fandom and feminism and fandom in fan studies.
SS: Yeah. I mean, yeah. I think what’s interesting is a lot of the book is focused on various boundary policing practices that we tend to associate with toxic masculinity, or toxic technocultures, and how that gets endorsed by media representations and industries when they imagine this white male version of a fan.
SS: What was interesting is there’s a similar kind of boundary policing practice that happens within fan studies, within the same decade that I’m looking at, but a lot of that’s about protecting a feminist underpinning of the field that I was sort of fascinated by, and that I think people worried, as the field got bigger and bigger, and more vast and more diverse, that we were going to lose some of those feminist politics.
I don’t think that’s necessarily happened. But I do understand … I understand where the concern is coming from, but I also understand how that concern can devalue particular work that’s coming out, and so I was interested in- and again, I don’t think I necessarily really work through it all completely, but I wanted to spend a little bit of time in the book, at least, and I think I do so most in the chapter where I kind of outline the history of feminism and fan studies, and then I come back to it in the conclusion to say, look, feminism and fan studies is still my OTP. Like, there’s a reason that gender remains, I would say, maybe the primary axis of identity that we tend to talk about within fandom. There is a reason. There’s a need to still talk about this. There’s a need for feminist fan studies, particularly in the socio-cultural climate, where anti-feminism is- has never been more rampant. There’s a need to retain this. There’s maybe also a need to just be like, okay, that was the OTP but it was like an original True Pairing, and maybe we need a true … like a new One True Pairing, and it’s like about intersection-
LM: We need the reboot.
SS: Yeah, I mean a little bit, yeah.
LM: We need new!Kirk and new!Spock.
SS: Yeah, I agree. And so we sort of end on this note of me just doing a very quick run through of a bunch of amazing intersectional work, including your own that is featured in there, that I think is really important to foreground. And I think that there’s been plenty of people making this call and doing this work already. I’m certainly not the first one, or the only one, to be saying that this is where we need to go. There’s plenty of people saying that already. I could list you a bunch right now, but I but I think-
LM: Oh hell, drop some names.
SS: Oh, yeah. I mean I’ll- so, let’s go there. Rukmini Pande. Like, Lori Morimoto, who’s currently holding his podcast. Benjamin Woo. Mel Stanfill. I mean, I could go on. I think there’s a lot of people who are … and there’s certainly many names, and I would say just mentoring upcoming fan studies scholars? I’m not worried. They’re going to do that work. We all need to be doing that work and helping to cite and promote that work as well, and that’s part of our job. But I do think that there is definitely a turn that’s happening, and I saw this book as kind of encapsulating a historical moment within both fandom and the field – one I can literally put on my shelf, but I’m also gonna put on my shelf and say, okay, we are now talking about how we actually move forward from this.
And so, while I don’t offer a ton of solutions to solve toxic masculinity in digital culture, I’m hoping at least that I’ve laid the groundwork to have a better conversation about how we actually fix some of this stuff.
LM: Well, I think the idea, and this is the other thing that really stood out to me, you know, like double-underlined, exclamation-point-next-to-it when I saw it the first time … seriously, I’m not even kidding. It was so underlined. Actually it was highlighted because it was online- you know, it was on my computer, so it was like, you know, I brought out the pink highlight for that.
SS: Nice! I’m honored.
LM: Yes. It wasn’t just yellow. The thing- one of the other things that really stood out to me was your notion – and I love the phrasing – ‘the convergence culture industry’, which you adapt from Adorno and Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School. And I was wondering, before I ask you to talk a little bit about convergence culture industry, if you could explain just a little bit about the culture industry and what the Frankfurt School was arguing at the time?
SS: Sure. So this is a theory that comes from 1944. It was responding to mass media in the early 1940s, so things like film and radio and that sort of thing. And really, Adorno and Horkheimer were … they put forward this term “the culture industry” to express concerns about how mass media offers this appearance of choice, or the abundance of choice or something new, but in actuality it’s delivering sameness that could ultimately reinforce the status quo. And so, you know, when you read it for the first time, and I have students read it all the time, and even when I read it for the first time, it feels a little paranoid. They don’t give audiences any real agency or any real individuality. They are sort of worried about ideologies being hammered into people’s heads, and then following, stepping in line.
Now, granted, these are people who have been- you know, Adorno and Horkheimer had seen propaganda work firsthand. They fled Germany. They knew what media could do, the sway that it could have.
LM: Right. There was a real clear and present danger involved in media, yeah.
SS: Absolutely. And I think that’s something that we often don’t … that our students, at least, are not taking into account when they read this old essay from 1944, often. In short, the logline here would be, you know, the culture industry attempts to produce sort of standardized and complacent audiences through standardized content. So standardization was the kind of buzzword that I really latched onto when I was thinking about this project.
I will say that fan scholars have historically really either slammed Adorno and Horkheimer and the concept of the culture industry, or avoided talking about it entirely, right? In fact, I would say the entire field of fan studies is predicated on the idea that Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory is incorrect; like fans are proof that audiences don’t just take what is given to them, no matter how standardized the content.
LM: Right, right.
SS: They create new things. They create things that speak more to their identities. They resist the reading that the author wanted to inject into the text. And so I think a lot of people, and certainly I have to shout out Matt Hills here, who’s one of the only fan scholars I know who really did very early on say, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t just throw out Adorno and Horkheimer, just because they seem like they’re elitists who hate mass media and certainly don’t think a lot about audiences and their ability to understand, or be critical about, media.” Matt Hills was saying, you know, we should maybe re-evaluate and think about what that concept and what their work has to offer fan studies.
LM: Right, right. And that’s sort of the way that I think it’s more productive be thinking about it. Not in terms of, is it right? Is it wrong? But, what can we productively take from this?
SS: Yes. Use value is always the key and, frankly, if you had told me five or ten years ago your book will have a subtitle that references Adorno and Horkheimer, I would have laughed in your face. Both because it would have been very odd for the field that I’m in, right?
SS: But also just because , you know, I’ve been teaching that essay for a decade, now.
SS: Well over a decade now. My students used to just utterly discount it out of hand and say like, this is stupid and these people are paranoid and blah blah blah. And now, I have to say, I assign it now and they kind of go well, maybe they have a point.
LM: Well, we’re back to sort of a clear and present danger, aren’t we?
SS: Yeah, I think so. And so part of the reason that it very much came back into my thinking, I don’t doubt, was the fact that I was writing this particular book at this particular moment in history. But also this notion of, beyond the kind of manipulating-audiences angle, which is why fan scholars tend to dismiss it, this notion about standardization is actually really important. And so basically what I was interested in is thinking about attempts to standardize fan identities and practices from a bunch of different angles. How media industries attempt to do that … so this is classic culture industry stuff. But also how fans try to do it to other fans, and then how fan scholars are trying to standardize, you know, maybe a feminist kind of politics of fan studies.
LM: So do you think that it may be when you’re introducing it to an audience that might not be familiar with Adorno and Horkheimer and the whole history of that, if you frame it in terms of policing does that change anything, or does that make it more understandable? Or does that move us away from what it is that you’re trying to get to?
SS: Well, I think there’s something interesting there, because to me policing is very active, right? It’s this notion of you are actively trying to create a response in a subject.
SS: Right? You are telling them they are not welcome. You are telling them how to act and behave.
SS: What was useful to me, and then part of the reason why I focus less in the book on organized campaigns of harassment – say things like Gamergate or Comicsgate or even the Ghostbusters … I mean, I know all this is promoted on the back of the book, but I kind of also in the middle of the book, in the middle of the intro I say, hey everyone. I know we all want to focus on these spectacular examples that are that are really important to study.
SS: I’m more interested in the book about how all of these systems produce information that sort of accrues over time and conveys particular messages. And that’s why I like this notion of standardization. If the same message is delivered to fans over and over and over again – here are the kind of fan practices we value, here are the kind of fans that are represented on your TV, you know, here’s the kind of fan art you can submit to this contest – all of these things. I wanted to think about how that standardization over time might potentially impact our understanding of who can more or less easily occupy the category of fan in this moment.
LM: Yeah, it sort of hones your focus on the structures rather than the incident, to sort of riff off of Rukmini Pande.
SS: Yes. It’s, yeah-
LM: We’re looking at institutions that are fundamentally standardized in this direction, to the extent that we can often not see what’s going on.
SS: Yeah, and I think, honestly, that’s why so, you know … like any good fan, I love a good mashup. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve mashed up two terms to create a new one and it won’t be the last. The other- the other half of this term is obviously coming from Henry Jenkins’ 2006 book, Convergence Culture, right, which was all about this potential for this paradigm shift that was both facilitated by this industrial change that’s happening at the time, technological change, cultural change. Fans are very much at the center of that narrative in a lot of ways, both as early adopters and thought leaders in terms of how digital participatory culture works, but also in terms of the ways in which fans have always strived, I think, to democratize media production cultures to a certain degree. And there’s all this potential in that notion of convergence culture, and I really want to be clear that I think Henry often gets painted as being very utopian, or critical utopian, to use his own term, about these sorts of changes in the potential of participatory culture as a sort of democratizing force or an activist force.
I think that people often don’t acknowledge the fact that he really does take time in Convergence Culture at various points to say, well, industry’s only going to allow participation to a degree, or in ways that economically benefit them. Or, you know, thinking about like, this could all go badly in these sorts of ways, and so a lot of the book is definitely … in some ways it’s kind of like the dark mirror, goateed version of Convergence Culture and Spreadable Media, which is another book by Henry Jenkins and also Josh Green and Sam Ford.
Like the culture industry, what I’ve presented here is kind of a worst case scenario, but I do try to inject moments where I make a point of saying, and here’s how fans are thinking back to these attempts, creating activist movements around these things. I don’t want it to seem like it’s all gloom and doom, but I do tend to focus more on the ways in which fan culture, and particularly historically feminized or female-dominated modes of fan engagement in production and identity, are being shut down in this system, rather than being celebrated or held up as a sort of power demographic.
LM: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think that comes across really clearly in the book, actually.
SS: Good. There’s a couple of key concepts in the book that I really hope people take and make their own, and do cool things with. I mean, like, I’m a fan; like, I’m all about, take this thing and make it better. Right? You know, like, please take this thing and make it relevant to you and what you want to talk about.
So the terms that I would say come out of this book that I hope people really run with … convergence culture industry as a sort of analytic is one of them. The chapter in which I most actively talk about gender gatekeeping practices, I talk about spreadable misogyny through memes and that sort of thing, which is a play on spreadable media that I think is going to be, hopefully, something people find productive. And then the final thing I would probably say, and it’s something that I only get to in the conclusion, is thinking about fan fragility drawing on Robin DiAngelo’s concept of white fragility, and that’s something that even I’d like to return to and revisit and think about a little bit more, because I arrived it a little late in the process. You know, there’s probably an alternate version of this book where that’s in the subtitle potentially. But yeah, it was something that I came to a little bit later. I think it’s great because the notion of white fragility can range and capture both racist white pushback, but also- or white supremacist pushback, but it also can capture liberal pushback, progressive pushback, out of a sense of defensiveness or kind of a knee-jerk response to feeling judged.
LM: I did want ask you a couple of other things, and they’re a little bit more wide-reaching. I’m wondering how you got into fan studies in the first place?
SS: Oh, this is a good story. So … I don’t know if it’s a great story. I shouldn’t I shouldn’t oversell it. It’s a good story for me. It’s a happy story for me. So I I got into fan studies, I was at NYU as an undergrad, I was doing cinema studies, and I took a television studies class with Anna McCarthy. That was very transformative for me personally and it certainly helped solidify my love of media studies as a profession. So in that class we read part of Henry Jenkins’ 1992 book, Textual Poachers, at the exact same time as I am a freshman and sophomore at NYU in like 97-98. I’m getting very … I was already very involved in Buffy fandom online. It was the first fandom in that I was really actively involved in online. I had been involved in offline fandoms and meetups in that sort of thing. But this was the first time I was online and I was you know, writing fanfiction and participating in IRC roleplay groups …
But yeah, so I was- so I posted, I was in this class, I’m reading this book that’s about fan studies, and I was just like, wait, what, like, people are doing research on this stuff that I’m currently staying up till 4:00 in the morning in my dorm room participating in? And then I went out to LA and worked in the industry for a couple of years after I graduated from college, and I worked in publicity for a film studio. And I have to say that really also shaped the way that I think about fan studies, because I got a sort of front row seat to the ways in which industry and media creators often imagine and think about their audiences, which I found really fascinating but also a little, as a fan, I often found it a little bit confounding and potentially disturbing at times.
And so when I went back to grad school, I definitely- at that point the field had sort of grown exponentially. This is early to mid-2000s. It still hadn’t boomed in the way it boomed 2006 onwards, I would say, or 2007 onwards. But I think, yeah, it was definitely the thing that was on my mind as I applied to grad school, was that I wanted to think about fans and fan audiences and definitely gender, and that’s what brought me to fan studies, and then back to fan studies.
LM: Since this is a podcast called “It’s a Thing!”, where we’re trying to show the world that fan studies is a thing and that they can talk to us if they would like to, among other things, or study. If you could say anything to listeners of the podcast who may not be familiar with fan studies, what would you like them to know?
SS: That’s an excellent question. I would well, okay. Some of this is like it’s going to sound like I’m dodging your question. I’m going to loop back around to it, I promise. Part of this is like, I think often fans … there are a lot of fans who do read fan scholarship. Frankly, I wish all fans would read all fan scholarship, because I think it would only be stronger for having that feedback and that perspective. And so that’s what- I guess that is that is directly answering your question. That is one thing. So I I love that this podcast exists in part because I think that fan scholars overwhelmingly would love to have more input from fans and more feedback from fans. Like more casually, outside of the kind of confines of ethnographic research and qualitative analysis, and all of this work would be better-
SS: Yes, conversations. Exactly. I think our work would be better for having more of a dialogue that is sustained and over time. But I think, frankly, fans are not necessarily the biggest issue. So I hope this podcast doesn’t just get listened to by fans. I hope it gets listened to … journalists, who often are sort of discovering and then rediscovering elements of fandom every day, it seems like, and writing often very out- of-date and/or misguided articles about what they imagine fandom to be. I would love all those journalists to talk to fans. I would also definitely love all those journalists to understand there’s an entire field of literature and group of people they can draw on as resources for what they’re talking about.
LM: Who generally very accessible.
SS: Yes. We love talking to people, we love talking about this stuff. We will use any excuse to talk about this stuff. So, please give us some opportunities. I also would just say that I think one of the most interesting things that I have seen emerge in fan studies, that I think people should be interested in or aware of, is I think fan studies is often using fandom or a fan community or some sort of incident within fandom as a lens to discuss much broader cultural shifts and issues, and I think the field does that incredibly well.
So, I’m thinking I’m thinking back to, you know, Abigail De Kosnik gave this absolutely incredible keynote at FSN North America – the Fan Studies Network Conference North America – in 2018, which was all about detailing sort of our current socio-political climate, and looking at how maybe, when we’re talking about these kind of polarized fights between the left and the right, anyone who’s existed through a flame war in fandom both intimately knows how these conversations begin and evolve, and end.
And similarly we’ve seen a lot of really great work on fan activism that is really just mostly about how both fans learn from activists, and the strategies and tactics of activists, and how activists could learn a lot from fans, and how fans network and organize and build communities and rally around particular issues. And so for me, it’s not just that fan studies is the thing. Fan studies is talking about a lot of much bigger things frequently. And I think that’s the one thing I hope people take away from this podcast.
And also yeah just come talk to us. We’re nice people.
LM: If you had to give sort of, this is what I’m here to talk about, what would you be especially interested in talking about with somebody?
SS: I would say, based on my research, I’m most interested in any kind of fan-industry relations. I’m interested in gendered gatekeeping practices in fandom, or any kind of gatekeeping practices and fandom, quite frankly. And like, frankly, fannishly I’m, you know, if it’s about Star Wars you can get me talking about Star Wars forever.
Also, you know, my Twitter feed is not just an academic Twitter feed. I post interesting things, and I occasionally talk about my work or do threads about issues and fan studies. But I also am on there as a fan so, you know, I’m posting stuff about what I’m watching on TV, and how excited I am that Dark Crystal is back, and all of that as well. So I mean, I would just say that, you know, part of the fun of also speaking to fan scholars is you don’t need to necessarily engage our research. You can just engage us as fans, because we often are fans, and we we will be happy to have long conversations about the things that we care passionately about.
LM: Oh God, yes. Well, I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. This is actually our second conversation because the first one did not record well, so I especially appreciate you taking the time to talk to me again.
SS: Are you kidding? This is a true honor. I genuinely am super touched that you asked me to do this, and I was happy to do it a second time. If any of my answers are unclear or not brilliant, it’s just ’cause I- the first time was really great.
LM: It was. It was good. It’s that- there’s this phrase from a TV show in Japan, “maboroshi no ippin.” Like, a lost treasure kind of thing. It’s sort of the thing that- the one that got away. And that conversation was the one that got away. But, but I think this one is pretty good.
SS: I think the second one was also good. Yeah, I agree. I agree. I’m feeling good about it. I’m glad you are too.
LM: I am. So, thanks very much for talking with me today.
SS: It was absolutely my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
LM: My next guest is Leslie Willard, a PhD candidate in the Department of Radio, Film and Television at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to her research, Leslie has been actively involved behind the scenes in both the Fan Studies Network North America conference, and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Special Interest Group for Fan and Audience Studies.
Thanks for joining me today Leslie. It’s good to talk to you again.
Lesley Willard: Thanks for having me. I’m excited for a fan studies podcast.
LM: So I wanted to get started asking you first how you ended up doing fan studies.
LW: I was active in fandom since I’ve been, like, 14. Back in the fan forum days, the Wild West online. And it was always just something that was absolutely separate from work and from academic pursuits. And then I was working on my MA thesis, and I was writing about the post-representational politics in Teen Wolf, because I was trying to find some way to make it more engaging for myself, and I was really big into Teen Wolf fandom at the time. And the more I dug into that research, the more I realized that there were people who were doing fan studies in a legitimate academic field, and I lost my mind. I was like, you couldn’t, wait, I can combine this thing that I love and my academic pursuits, and like do them together? And it was just like a galaxy brain moment.
And then I got into UT for my PhD program, and my first semester Suzanne Scott had a fan studies grad seminar, and I have never been so excited to go to a class in my life. And I don’t think I’ve ever been such a teacher’s pet. I was like, oh I know what all these words are, I’ve been doing this since I was 14. Can we please talk about it?
LM: I think that’s an origin story that a lot of people have coming into fan studies. Like, I didn’t even know you could do this.
LW: I legitimately didn’t. I knew that people would pick test cases. Like I was aware of Whedon Studies and things like that, right? Where-
LW: -people doing lit studies would use Joss Whedon or films that they were interested in. And I knew film studies was a specific iteration, but I didn’t realize you could do that about television, and I didn’t realize that you could do it about things that happen off the screen, which is what has always been the most interesting to me.
And then it was just a couple years of me just furiously reading through everything that’s been published on fans studies, and just joyous that it was a thing that I could now do.
LM: Oh, that’s terrific. So, what’s your- I know you’re wrapping up your dissertation?
LW: I’m working on it this year. It’ll be done this year, uh-huh.
LM: Great. What is … what’s your elevator pitch? What’s your dissertation about?
LW: Oh good. Let’s see if I can get this elevator pitch in. In short form, it’s about the ways in which the television industry, specifically in the US, courts, co-opts, and professionalizes fans, especially fan artists, as promotional labor. So the industrialization of fandom in general, and how they can use fan art as promotional material, either intentionally or unintentionally on the part of the artist, and the various ways that has changed in the last decade. So, in the post-network, post-recessional period, and what agency fans and fandom are operating in.
LM: What case study do you think is especially relevant right now?
LW: Case study … so, I generally try to look at longer trends than specific case studies, but I think Tumblr as a ecosystem is really evocative of what I’m talking about here, because it’s a historical moment. It’s a very specific iteration that’s happening right now with fan artists and the ways in which Tumblr and Twitter and all these social networking platforms play into this. But it’s also, it’s just the newest iteration of a very long historical trend of the ways in which fans, and especially fan labor, is used to promote things. It goes back to Patty Duke and soap operas on the radio, and all the way back.
But I think ecosystems online like Tumblr put into practice and into a visual, trackable space all the connections that I’m tracking. So it’s not just like a monolithic industry, right? There are people that are making strategic decisions on their promotional side. There are people that are fans of their own right, but they work the social media accounts for companies like Viacom, you know. And then you have the fans who are doing the art and posting that, who some of them are very interested in using that as a way to move into the industry, much like happens in video games and comics and animation. And then there are people that are, you know, more on the traditionally resistant side of it. And just tracking how all of the different elements interact together in that ecosystem, especially with the various changes from the platform affordances and the platform intermediaries, I think it’s just really evocative of how complicated this system is, and how, you know, it’s not a monolithic audience and not a monolithic industry, but it’s a series of players and decisions and subjectivities that are all kind of mixed together. And I think that’s a really interesting Gordian Knot to pull at.
LM: I was wondering, actually, since you mentioned Tumblr, how has it been for you as a researcher dealing with all of these new developments over the past couple of years?
LW: Yeah. Absolutely. I definitely had a very dark day last December when Tumblr changed their art policy specifically, because I was like, oh no, all my data is going to be corrupted. But after talking to the great people that are on my committee, I just realized that’s the end point for my dissertation. But yeah, it’s been interesting. One of my chapters is specifically about the role of platforms in this system, and whether they’re more aligned with a fandom user-base, because you know, it’s so much of their traffic, or if they’re more aligned with political-economic partnerships with media companies, since a lot of them are owned by media companies in one way or another. And just being able to watch these shifts and see what an important role they’re playing.
LM: Oh, that’s really interesting. What work are you drawing on in fan studies to work with in advancing your own argument?
LW: So the whole project, I’m really working to combine traditional labor theory, and gender and work studies, especially in the media sector. A media industries perspective, where we’re breaking out the different levels of power and agency in the different roles. And then a lot of fan studies work. More recently, Suzanne has a chapter in her most recent book about professionalizing fanboy auteurs. Mel Stanfill’s new book about exploiting fandom has been really helpful. A lot of Abigail De Kosnik’s work on the archives and the ways in which platform spaces are interacting with and changing a lot of fan practices, and things like that.
And then there’s a whole TWC issue on agency and fans, and sort of how they deal with labor and compensation, and what they consider to be compensation or work, right? And just the various perspectives taken in there has been really informative for how I set this up.
LM: And when you say TWC, you mean Transformative Works and Cultures.
LM: One thing I wanted to ask you about is well, and this is a little bit off the topic of fan studies per se, but you are unusually active behind the scenes at a lot of conferences. How did you start doing that?
LW: Well, at UT we have, for the last decade or so, run the FLOW conference every other year. So I got started with that, and I helped behind the scenes on the last two of those. So 2016 and 2018. And during an off-year from FLOW, I was the SCMS grad rep for the Fan Studies SIG. I was just interested in doing a lot of the same work that we did with FLOW, bringing these conversations together. And it’s a good way to meet people and kind of test the waters about what kind of topics are the scholarly community engaging in?
And then through our year of being at SCMS, we had conversations both there and outside of SCMS about opening up a Fan Studies Network chapter in the United States, since it’s a little prohibitive for some people to be able to fly to the UK, or to the Australasia Conference, and likewise for them as well.
LM: And let me just interrupt and mention that, for people who aren’t familiar with it, FSN, or Fan Studies Network is an organization in the United Kingdom. I think they just had their sixth? Seventh? Conference recently at Portsmouth, and what you’re talking about now is something that we’re both involved in, which is Fan Studies Network North America.
LW: So we moved into expanding the conversations were able to have at SCMS into a space that’s dedicated just for fans studies, which allows us to be a little bit more specific. The audience changes, right? I don’t need to start a conversation with, here’s what fan art is, or, here’s what Tumblr is.
LM: And then one of the projects that you’ve been, I think you spearheaded and you’re still pretty intimately involved with is, both at SCMS, which is the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and at FSN North America, you’ve been involved in establishing mentoring programs. Can you talk a little bit about those?
LW: Yeah. Absolutely. It just seems to be something that I’m really focused on. I created a mentorship program at UT Austin in the RTF Department – Radio-Television-Film Department. I started one at UT Austin just broadly for grad students and undergrads to have conversations. Same I tried to get it started at SCMS which Mel and Suzanne have taken up and really made into a great program that I am participating in. And then I started one at FSN North America. And I’m just really interested in it, especially in a fan studies space. The idea that fandom has operated on for so long has been an apprenticeship model, right? You come in and you learn from people who’ve been there longer, you learn the norms, you learn the resources, the tools. You get all of that institutional and communal knowledge passed down to you, and I wanted to see that process replicated in fan studies.
LM: And then finally, if you could tell people who aren’t familiar with fan studies any one thing about it, you know, why fan studies, or make a pitch for why it is useful, which I do think it is, what would you say?
LW: I think, I mean, fan studies is just an ideal arena, an ecosystem for all of the things that matter to media scholars, right? The foundations of Cultural Studies. All of my work is engaged in agency, literacy, structure and power. That all comes to a head here in whatever variation that is, whether you’re looking at the power of the text and authors, whether you’re looking at audience-side and the hierarchies and exchange there, within the industry and the ways in which they use fans as a marketing segment. It’s a really complicated, but at the same time accessible, crucible of all of these things that we put value in. And just because it’s popular, or it’s popular with a demographic that has historically not been taken seriously, doesn’t mean it’s not trafficking in really important issues.
LM: Yeah. Oh, that’s wonderful. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. It’s been really great.
LW: Thank you for having me.
LM: This has been “It’s a Thing!”, the podcast where we talk about fan studies and how it’s a thing. Join me next time when I’ll be talking with Dr. Rebecca Williams of the University of South Wales, and the author of Post-Object Fandom: Television, Identity and Self-Narrative.
This is Lori Morimoto for “It’s a Thing!”
Music: “Neck Pillow,” by Silent Partner
To cite (Chicago): Morimoto, Lori. 16 Sep 2019. “Suzanne Scott & Lesley Willard.” Podcast audio. It’s a Thing! MP3, 1.1. [Accessed date]. https://itsathing.net/suzanne-scott-lesley-willard