In this episode of “It’s a Thing!” I talk with Dr. Rebecca Williams about theme parks, ontological security and fandom, the ineffable pull of fan tourism, and the state of media studies in the UK. And the Tree.
Transcript (with links in lieu of notes)
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.
LM: Today I’ll be speaking with [00:00:15] Dr. Rebecca Williams, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Creative Industries at the University of South Wales. Rebecca is the author of Post-Object Fandom: Television, Identity and Self-Narrative, as well as the editor of Everybody Hurts: Transitions, Endings and Resurrections in Fan Cultures. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book, Theme Park Fandom: Spatial Transmedia, Materiality and Participatory Cultures.
Lori Morimoto: Rebecca, I’d like to thank you for joining me today.
Rebecca Williams: Thank you for inviting me. I’m really excited.
LM: Well, I wanted to get started first, just to kind of warm us up a little bit since it’s early for me, I wanted to ask you, first off, how did you get involved in fan studies?
RW: So, I did my undergraduate degree at Cardiff University in the UK, and I was lucky enough to have Matt Hills be one of my undergrad lecturers and do my dissertation with Matt, which was about looking at spoilers and shippers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom.
LM: And we should mention for, I guess, American listeners that a dissertation in the UK is an undergraduate project, right?
RW: Yeah. It’s about ten to twelve thousand words on any kind of topic that you want to do, and it counts for quite a lot of your final year as an undergraduate student.
LM: Okay. Did you go into Cardiff wanting to do that, or do you find out about it?
RW: No, I originally really thought I was going to be a journalist. The degree I went to, that I signed up for, was Journalism, Broadcast and Media, or something like that. And then about halfway through my first year I realized I did not want to be a journalist. And then as a second year then I did Matt’s “Cult Media and Fandom” module. I had that kind of light bulb moment that I think a lot of people have kind of talked about having, where it really was that, again, “I can do this, this is something that I can study.” And Matt was really encouraging about trying to apply for PhD, so I went away, did a master’s degree, and then went back and was supervised by Matt for the for the PHD that I did at Cardiff. It was a very kind of linear academic trajectory that I’ve had, and then again, I was lucky enough to basically go straight into a research post for a year and then my lectureship.
RW: So, I always feel like, in comparison to some other people, this has been a quite different sort of experience. So, I haven’t been out in industry, I haven’t had that kind of experience. So, I think that’s kind of why some of my work in fan studies as a discipline, I think, is maybe slightly different to other people’s?
LM: Uh-huh. So, you say you did your dissertation on Buffy.
LM: Does that mean that you were a fan going into it?
RW: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think without being a fan of something, I think I would have really struggled to have understood the theory, or all the things that we were working through.
RW: So, it was very much thinking I could write about things that I love and then kind of take that knowledge and think about how I can work with that. So, it was very much a kind of drawing on my fan knowledge and then thinking about how I could sort of use that to work through different ideas with it. But yeah, it was absolutely kind of being a fan of that that really made me want to study it. And then when I found out about books like, you know, Henry Jenkins‘ Textual Poachers and so on it was like, oh okay, this really just clicked for me.
LM: When you do fandom … you know, here in the US a lot of, especially women, fan scholars or genderqueer fan scholars tend to come out of women’s transformative fandom. How do you perform fandom?
RW: I, in many ways, feel sometimes like an outlier in fan studies, because that isn’t how I came to it. I’ve never written fanfiction. I’ve never made fan videos. I’ve very occasionally read fanfic, and that was really only through my fandom of Hannibal. So, for me, I’ve always felt like the way that I think about my fandom is much more about me as an individual. I feel like I kind of flirt around the periphery of fandoms.
RW: But I never really get involved in that transformative way. So, I read what other people are saying, I read analysis, but I’ve never felt like I want to create my own work. And so partly I feel like, not that fanfiction is over-represented in fan studies, because I don’t think is, but I think sometimes it’s harder to talk about the experiences of people who are outside of that kind of framework. So, especially when you think about, or I think about the transformative versus affirmational binary that we all know, I don’t think I fit in either of those. So, for me, a lot of what I’ve written about is trying to work out where people like me fit in-
LM: Oh, that’s interesting.
RW: -both in terms of fan culture, but also in terms of fan studies.
RW: And sometimes I feel like a kind of, it’s hard to do that, because sometimes I feel like I’m not really a proper fan, so it becomes very difficult. For example, I really don’t identify as an aca-fan. I don’t really like the term a great deal and I know it’s kind of probably a bit controversial.
RW: -I think I’m probably more a scholar-fan rather than a fan-scholar, in that my my academic interests sometimes come first, which I know is not the experience that many, many people in fan studies have.
LM: Mm. That’s a really interesting perspective, and I appreciate it. I mean, it’s interesting to me as well that what you talk about in terms of that experience of not wanting to create was pretty much how I did fandom up through reading Textual Poachers and finding out that fanfiction was even a thing. I mean, it was very personal, it was very individual in a lot of ways. And like you say, I was sort of on the periphery of fan cultures, but not a participant per se.
RW: I think the thing that’s always really kind of highlighted it for me was, is that, as I say, Hannibal has been one of the biggest fandoms that I’ve had kind of, you know, probably ever, and I go to the conventions in the UK, I would read sort of people’s interpretations of it when the series was on, but I don’t know anybody within that fandom particularly beyond the people I already knew. I haven’t made any friends because of it. I haven’t connected with people in that way. And I think to me that’s really the point where it became clear to me that my mode of engagement with it is quite different to a lot of people’s.
LM: It seems to me that this interest in the individual experience of fandom is something that your book, Post-Object Fandom, really gets at in a very interesting way. And before we talk about it in more detail, I was wondering … a lot of what you talked about in the book is sort of predicated on an understanding of the relationship of fandom to Anthony Giddens‘ notion of ontological security, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what all that means.
RW: So basically, Giddens talks about the idea that we all have a sense of trust or security in the things that surround us every day, whether that is a trust in banks to look after our money for us, trust in pilots to fly us from one side of the world to the other safely. So, he talks very much about how, when that is shattered or when something happens to disrupt that, that impacts on this idea of what he calls our ontological security, our sense of stability. And he also talks about how that links very much to our sense of self-identity. So how we kind of understand ourselves and how we understand our relationships with other people.
And so, what I became quite interested in was thinking about how that applies to the context of fandom and fan culture, basically. So, looking at how fandom can provide that through being a constant site of affirmation for people, or a site of support, whether that’s through community, which is more important for some people as I’ve mentioned, or whether that’s through you know knowing that your program is going to be on at the same time every week. And so, then what happens when that goes, or that gets kind of complicated? So, your TV series gets cancelled, your favorite actor leaves the program. So, it was thinking about how … and again, to kind of return almost to thinking about the role of the individual, the self, within that community kind of structure. So, the book was very much an attempt to intervene in what I felt was that kind of fan studies was making this clear split between community and the collective, and individual and how that was working.
So, it was a way for me to think about how that kind of bridges between those two kind of modes of fandom, and to also take seriously the really devastating emotional impact that some of those things can have. So, I’ve never watched Supernatural, which is one of my big kind of fan studies confessions, but what I’ve been really interested in is seeing, obviously, the responses to the fact that it’s coming to an end, and particularly that for a fan text it’s been on for so long. And I saw a really interesting post, I think on Tumblr or Twitter, where somebody had made a list of all the things that didn’t exist when it started.
LM: Oh, my goodness. That’s great.
RW: So, like, most of the social media platforms that we use.
LM: Well, it spans the life of some people. I mean, that is … how many years has it been running?
RW: Sixteen? I don’t know, fifteen, sixteen? So, for, that is-
LM: You could you could literally have grown up with it.
RW: Yep! So, I’ve been really interested in looking at that, and you know thinking about how important that is to people, and the way that they’re preparing for the end of it, or how they’re kind of negotiating that, and how people are talking about carrying on afterwards with the fandom. The other thing I know about Supernatural is that, you know, the fans are very invested. There’s a lot of community work, sort of charity work, that kind of activism around it. So, it’s been really interesting to see people kind of preparing for that like, you know, preparing for the death almost of something that’s coming.
So, I continue to be quite interested in looking at endings and also at things coming back. So, we’ve got a lot of hype at the moment about the 25th anniversary of Friends, for example, which has kind of escaped fan studies’ attention.
LM: It’s not quite the kind of text that most, that we most associate with-
LM: -fan studies, I guess.
RW: Yeah. And actually, I think comedy is quite under-researched as a genre, and I’m not sure why. But this kind of the reclamation of Friends as a fan object for younger people is fascinating, because there are lots of things we can say about Friends. But the fact that there’s this kind of commemoration of it, and this kind of return to it is something that I’ve also found really interesting over the past couple of weeks or the past months as well.
LM: That seems to lead into the book that you recently edited, which is Everybody Hurts. Is that sort of a kind of continuation of some of these ideas?
RW: Yeah. Absolutely. I think I was very conscious when I finished writing the monograph that there was a lot more I wanted to do, and there were lots of other kind of things I want to look at, but I was just kind of out of gas almost with it.
RW: So …
LM: Well, you know, it’s just a book.
RW: Yeah. So, it was very much about kind of saying, okay, I’ve made these arguments, and I think we can think of them through … outside of television, because my book was only about TV. And it’s actually kind of odd, apart from a little bit towards the end it’s very much moment-in-time, where it’s still very much about broadcast television. There’s a little bit where it talks about the impact of things like Netflix, you know, very early. So, it’s this moment in time. So, it was very much about thinking about, you know, scholars who are working on music fandom, film fandom, different modes of thinking about it.
So, it was really a chance to get people together who I knew were kind of touching on this and start to work through some of these things, and kind of challenge some of them as well. And the one thing that I really wanted to try and get in the book that I couldn’t, or I didn’t, was looking at sport fandom, because the book is kind of broader. It’s about endings, but it’s also about transitions, resurrections. So, I really wanted to try and broaden it out into sport, and I just couldn’t get somebody who wanted to write about it, which I thought was interesting in itself, in that this is a kind of wider disciplinary thing, and I think we keep coming back to this, about there seems to be some really interesting work being done around sports fans, but fan studies and sport fan studies sometimes don’t quite meet. And I think that’s something that maybe we can reflect on a bit more, but … as a discipline almost. So that book and the special issue of Journal of Fandom Studies that I edited last year as well, which was around the same topic, was another way to try and push that on into other examples. So, looking at games, looking at sort of theater fandom and kind of a range of other things as well.
LM: That one is an area that’s really started to burgeon with great work. I’m thinking of Kirsty Sedgman’s recent book on theater fans. I think what you talk about in terms of the sort of many permutations of fan studies … when we talk about it in media fans studies, we do have a tendency to read media fan studies as the whole of fan studies. But, as you say, there’s a lot of interesting work going on in a variety of fields that deserve our attention.
RW: Yeah. I mean, I think the interest in the intersection between theater and fandom is … I’m so excited to see it, because it’s always been something, it’s … one of my other kind of fandoms is musicals. So, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, you know. It’s always been really interesting to me that I’ve been, I think I’ve seen them like 12 times each or something like that, and to me that’s fandom. But there nothing that I was reading, that I’ve come across that was really getting at that experience with a very kind of fan studies sort of angle. So, I’m really, really excited to see that that’s kind of taking off and that people are starting to look at that in a lot more depth, because I think there’s so much that we can kind of learn from that, and equally, hopefully, people who are working it outside of audience, fan or media studies sort of learn from us, too. So, it’s a development that I’m really, really excited about. Really excited.
LM: One of the things that you … well, you have a project that is currently in progress, and that is a book on theme parks, yes?
LM: The notion of theme parks, you know, that’s one of those that seems slightly ancillary to fan studies and yet not, especially when you think about the vast numbers of self-described Disney fans which includes the theme parks and everything. How did you get into … how did you become interested in theme parks as an object of scholarly interest?
RW: Again, like with most things it started off as being a fan of it. So it’s very much that I like going to theme parks, that it is something that I have done for, you know, since I was about 16, which is the first time I went to Disneyworld in Florida. And it was very much, this project is very much a kind of a passion project really for me, in that it kind of came out of starting to get really annoyed with people who would be really quite sniffy and quite dismissive when they asked me where I was going on holiday.
RW: And it really was this kind of looking at that, and then looking at wider cultural dismissal of those kind of spaces and the who people go to them.
RW: But also, because it just kept coming through in the academic stuff that I was starting to read around it. So …
LM: Well, you do have this kind of carry-over of a sort of Baudrillard, you know, it’s an ersatz space and you know-
RW: Yeah. Absolutely.
LM: – it’s all fake-
LM: -authenticity is dead.
RW: Yeah, it’s, so it was really just getting quite cranky about people, you know, being so dismissive. And particularly people who are also scholars within media and cultural studies, because I think we should be better than that.
RW: Be able to …
LM: Or more open-minded? I mean…
RW: I know, but yeah. So, it came from that, but it also came from the fact that the other thing that I’ve always been quite interested in, and have written about quite a bit, is about place and the relationship between media, tourism, mediated places, mediated spaces. So, it was kind of those two things coming together, in that I wanted to make this argument that if we’re going to look at pop culture, if we’re gonna look at fans, take all fans, all elements of that seriously, even if we think they’re, you know, mindless idiots. And so, we need to be better than that. But also, because I’m interested particularly in how fan attachments, how fandom plays out in particular places and sites. So, location visits, for example, going to sites that are important, having done that quite a bit.
LM: [laughing] I’m just thinking of, with FannibalFest, the fan-run convention for Hannibal that has taken place twice in Toronto, where the show was shot, one of the real highlights of the convention is that they offer bus tours to – and this is very meticulously planned – to a number of the shooting sites. You know, all permission and everything, including you know personal homes, and the people are gracious. But I think one of the best things I’ve ever seen is a line of mostly women in front of a tree on the side of the road. It’s just a tree, and we all know the Tree, and it’s like, the tree has meaning.
Tree, with fans
RW: Oh yeah.
LM: It’s like, you see the tree and you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s the tree!” Anybody else looking at that would be like, why is there a line of women, you know, taking pictures with a tree? Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s just a tree and yet when you see it …
RW: I know which tree you’re talking about.
Tree, in Hannibal
LM: I know, exactly, right? I mean there’s only one tree.
RW: It’s the Tree, yeah.
LM: It’s like, “Oh my God, the tree looks the same! Little bit bigger, but you know, it’s the same tree.” If they cut down the tree, we’re going to be devastated, right?
LM: I mean I, and I … that was really the first time that I had engaged in any kind of meaningful fan tourism, and so up until I saw it, I was sort of, “Well, this is silly, we’re going to look at a tree.” And as soon as I saw the tree, I’m like, “Oh my God,” you know. And it is interesting that place has such a pull when it has those associations.
RW: Mmm. I think, I mean I went on holiday to Toronto and Florence purely because I wanted to see the locations in Hannibal. So, you know, this is something that I’ve done for a while. And I think also, just a little bit away from Hannibal, is living in Cardiff and seeing the impact of Doctor Who fan tourism, and not so much, but to a point Sherlock as well.
LM: I’m not sure … that was, yeah, the first time I went – well, the only time I went – to Cardiff was … I hadn’t really watched Doctor Who but I was a big Sherlock fan at the time. And yeah, that was, “Oh my God, it’s the locked up … you know.” I guess it wasn’t the first time when I saw the tree, because I had seen these other things.
Actual shooting location for Sherlock, Cardiff
RW: It’s so that’s-
LM: It’s an intensely, you know, sort of affective experience.
RW: It’s been really interesting kind of seeing that just walking past places and, again, seeing people taking photos of things, and going that’s just … But, you know, that tension between, it’s the ordinary city that I walk through all the time, and people coming here still, now, and taking photos of things. So, it’s that, and then as I say it’s that kind of move towards kind of traveling specifically to look at locations.
RW: But I think, to come back to the theme park stuff, it’s this kind of … the idea that these places aren’t real in the first place. So, there’s a difference, I think, in kind of traveling to Toronto and taking photos in front of a location from Hannibal and traveling to a theme park and seeing something that you’ve only seen in an animated, you know, an animation or something that you’ve only seen in fiction. So, these aren’t real spaces in a sense.
LM: It’s not like quote-unquote …
LM: Yeah, exactly, the real space, because it’s already construct- yeah.
RW: So, I think …
LM: And yet.
RW: And yet. It’s extremely- and, again, Harry Potter, which people have started to write about the experience of kind of going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the story that I’ve told people quite a few times is that I didn’t care about Harry Potter at all until I went to Florida in 2013-14. And I went to The Wizarding World, and it was so mind-blowing that kind of kick-started my interest in it in a way that nothing had done before.
LM: Yeah. It really is a very immersive sort of experience, I mean …
RW: It’s … and I can only imagine how that must have been for somebody who was a huge fan-
LM: Oh God, yes.
RW: -who had grown up with the books, the films, and walking into that space for the first time. I can imagine that must have been you know … and I’ve seen people in there crying, and I’ve been … who are just so overwhelmed by being in that world, and Universal are pretty good actually with the fan … they respect the fannish engagement. They’re selling you very expensive robes and all that.
LM: Oh yeah.
RW: Let’s not overlook that.
LM: We bought one for my son, yeah.
This picture made it worth it, though
RW: They get it. I think they understand what people want to do in that particular space, and the cast members will talk to you about … if you’re wearing a different house they will, you know, give you a bit of you know … So, it’s there’s a lot of different ways, as well, in which the kind of the theme parks work. So that you’ve got something like Harry Potter which – and now Star Wars – which are both pre-existing universes, we’re about to get a lot of Marvel immersive as well. But you’ve also got the kind of the spaces, the attractions that have built up their own fandoms around them. So, Pirates of the Caribbean, which has become this huge transmedia franchise, Haunted Mansion, which is my personal favorite, which has a huge fan base, I mean absolutely huge.
So, there’s a lot of different things happening in the themed spaces that I find interesting from a fan studies perspective, but also just from a wider media studies viewpoint, which is why do- why are people going to these places that they know aren’t “real,” that they know are designed to sell them stuff? They know that these are corporate commercial spaces, they’re aware of that, but yet they still engage and it still has meaning for them. And so that was kind of where I came at the project from, which was all these things in my head together and thought, let’s go and find out what is happening with that. So.
LM: Yeah, no, that’s great. You know, when I was a kid, I was really into Star Wars, and when I say Star Wars, I mean, you know the real first one not the fake first one. And we went to Disneyland for the first time, and you know, there was no association between Disney and Star Wars at the time. But when I would go to Tomorrowland, in my head I was, you know, if I wasn’t exactly in a Star Wars world I was in a sort of Star Wars-adjacent world, where everything that was possible in the movie was possible in that space. And I mean, I spent the entire time, as a child, you know going through there sort of both physically and mentally or emotionally stealth … I don’t know what you would even call it. Not cosplay. But I mean that was really how I sort of perceived it, you know, so I’d get- this is when they- this is in Los Angeles, this is when they had the – or Orange County – this is when they had the PeopleMover still, which is long since gone. You know, so we’re taking the PeopleMover and I’m like, “Ah, I’m in a big space town,” you know, and I mean, I would really get into it in my head, but I certainly wasn’t telling my family that this is going on.
RW: That’s so interesting! That’s really interesting, though. But I think that thing about imagination is also something that I think the theme park space really sparks, and I think that’s what a lot of people who have go there frequently talk about. It is that, just, you can overlay different experiences or different versions of things that you’ve seen. It doesn’t have to be exactly it, but if it’s almost right and you can kind of do that work to sort of fill in … fill it in a little bit, and it’s-
LM: Well, it’s almost a fanfiction, sort of-
RW: Yeah, absolutely.
LM: -function. You know, I’m filling in the gaps, right?
Terry Jeffords, fanfiction hero
RW: Yeah. It’s a spatial kind of scribbling in the margins or-
LM: Oh, that’s interesting.
RW: And I think what is interesting, since you’ve talked about reading Star Wars over a place that wasn’t explicitly Star Wars, is that there’s been so much discussion since the Star Wars lands opened about how immersive or not immersive they have been for people. So, a lot of people are really disappointed, because it isn’t what they imagined-
RW: -and what they thought in their head-
RW: -that Star Wars land was going to be. So, there’s a lot of discussion about, actually it hasn’t – for Star Wars fans, particularly – it hasn’t really lived up to what they want in their imagination, because it’s-
LM: Oh, that’s interesting.
RW: -it’s not something … that it’s not a land, it’s not a place they’ve seen in the films, so it isn’t one of those very recognizable locations.
LM: Right, right.
RW: And so, there’s been a lot of kickback against it from some people who’ve said, actually this isn’t what I imagined, this isn’t what I wanted.
LM: Do you find that there’s any overlap between the people who are critical in that way and elements of, in this case Star Wars fandom, who are generally a bit more reactionary when it comes to change? Or is that not really related?
RW: Some of them are. So, what I have found, again, really interesting, and I haven’t touched on this in the book really, is the kind of creeping into Disney theme park fandom of some of that more negative discourse around Star Wars. So, you know, the backlash against The Last Jedi, for example, that’s very much framed in particular ways as around sort of being misogynistic, potentially, or you know. So, some of these people are people who have argued that this is because Star Wars has become too liberal that it’s been taken over by, you know, the Social Justice Warrior Brigade. So, there is some of that-
LM: That’s a great big missed-the-point.
RW: Yep. So, I think some of it is that there is just a general negativity towards anything- and there are also some people who are still really quite angry that Disney bought Star Wars in the first place.
RW: So, this is, Disney has ruined Star Wars. So, there is some of that that is coming through with it. There’s almost a clash between the Star Wars fans who were angry, or not satisfied, but also the theme park fans who aren’t satisfied, who are saying, actually we didn’t want Star Wars land anyway. So, there is a really- it’s a really kind of weird anti-, almost anti-fandom going on-
LM: Right, right.
RW: -with this group saying, well, actually we didn’t want this, neither did we, so nobody’s happy.
LM: Mm-hmm. I feel like that almost goes all the way back to Ien Ang’s Dallas book, you know, and the different ways that people interact with the text that reflect very similar sort of concerns about corporate overtake or, you know, in this case Americanization versus, you know, a very kind of un-ironic enjoyment of a … yeah.
RW: It’s, I think it’s also because so much of this now is just … social media is very much about, I think, getting people to react to things.
RW: So, it’s, what’s been interesting is, I always felt partly like theme park world was like this little bubble which was kind of exempt from a lot of the hierarchies and the … sort of the trolling and all those kind of things. And what is also really interesting was that a few months ago, there was a big debate again about gun control in the States after-
LM: Our sort of weekly … yeah.
RW: Yeah, after one of the mass shootings that has happened this year, which is horrible to have to say that way but-
LM: Nope, it’s just what it is.
RW: Yeah. But because a lot of the people who are very kind of active are people who live in Florida, because that’s where the parks are-
RW: -and it was real kind of eye opener, in that a lot of the people that I followed or people whose kind of opinions I really respected about the parks were actually not very nice people-
RW: -and had very different political views to what I had about certain things. So, a lot of it, it’s been quite interesting to think about. Say, not everyone who likes Disney is a nice person.
RW: And there was a real kind of moment where … actually it’s like, yeah, not everyone is … you can like the same thing, you can be in a fan culture or part of that fan culture, but actually, you know, if some of these people have very different kind of viewpoints or are very kind of right wing or a down the other end of the political spectrum, how do you kind of reconcile all that? That, I think, is also- to come back to sort of what we were talking about at the beginning, this idea about being outside of community. So, we think about fan cultures as being this transformative space that’s quite utopian, almost, so you wouldn’t expect us to come up against that kind of tension in a lot of spaces.
So, it was really quite interesting to me to see that, actually, there are a lot people who are part of something that I really enjoy, that I think is really, you know, is really important to me, that are actually part of that, but who are actually completely at the other end of the spectrum of belief and political kind of allegiance to me. And that was really interesting, and I’m thinking about how to write about it. It was kind of interesting, and this is what is … this is what I’m trying to think through and think, is there any way that I can meaningfully talk about it? Because I think the more that we look at these moments of clashing, or the reasons why we do and don’t kind of connect with each other, I think there’s a lot more to be done actually around the ideas around anti-fandom and toxic fandom where actually there’s so much overlap between those ideas, and again, this broader shift that we’re seeing in kind of digital media, particularly towards things like trolling, this kind of overwhelming negativity that we see, that it really is one of those areas where I think if we’re going to put our hands up and say, and try and defend what fan studies does, this seems like a really clear site for some of those wider concerns to be something that we’re, you know, a lot of us are kind of working on.
And I know we all talk a lot about you know, we’re here, the title of this, but I think so much of the stuff that I’ve been thinking around this has been informed by people who would not say at all that their fan studies scholars, who you know who are in digital media or digital humanities. And I think that there are so many ways to come back to that, and I think the idea about kind of contact zones and how they work in these different contexts I think is a really, really interesting way of thinking about it.
LM: Mm-hmm. That actually … well, I mean, you know, the sort of institutional issues that we have with recognition makes me wonder … you’ve talked a little bit on Twitter, and we’ve talked a little bit personally, about some of your frustrations with criticism in the UK, and it seems particularly pointed there as opposed to the US, of even the existence of media studies. I mean, I can’t even imagine that fan studies would be on the radar at that point. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about what kind of criticisms are lodged against it.
RW: I think it’s, there’s a general agenda, I think, in the UK which has always, and continues to privilege science, technology, mathematics, those kinds of subjects over humanities. That’s kind of always been there. And even the place of something like sociology, philosophy, at the moment is really being fought, in that a lot of institutions are shutting down those degrees, that those, you know, entire departments are under threat. So, I think media studies is seen as almost like, you know, the greatest example of this pointless, wishy-washy subject. I don’t know if this translates to the US, but here it’s Mickey Mouse studies. Basically, it’s a Mickey Mouse subject, yeah?
LM: Yeah, you hear that. I don’t think with as much virulence as you see in the UK.
RW: Yeah, it’s, I mean here it’s just almost constant. So, there was a really interesting article that came out a few years ago, which was co-written by Lucy Bennett from the Fan Studies Network UK, and Jenny Kidd at Cardiff University, and they did an analysis of the way that media studies has been talked about in the press and the UK. And they found that it was overwhelmingly negative. There was nothing good to say about it. And I think a lot of it here comes from the fact that the media doesn’t want people to become too media literate, because then they become too critical of it. And we’re seeing this – without getting too political about what’s happening in the UK at the moment – we are seeing this at the moment about there is so much … what the government is doing in terms of Brexit, for example, is not really being challenged by the media in any meaningful sense. And so, there’s a real sense that the, particularly the newspaper, the press, doesn’t want people to be equipped with the skills to criticize what they’re doing.
So, there’s real debate here about media literacy, what that means, what does … you know. And again, if only we could be able to see through fake news, says the press bemoaning it, whilst equally writing before the A-Level results day, where our graduating high school students get their grades, about how much of a waste of time, you know, a qualification in media studies would be. So, there was a particular incident the day before that where, on the BBC – so our public service broadcaster – that was like a, you know, a huge section about how pointless it is and, you know, what is the point of a degree in media studies? So, this is almost constant, in that it comes from a lot of different quarters, and it’s not something that you would expect from the national, you know, the national public service broadcaster like the BBC.
So, I think it becomes wearing on a lot of academics here. It’s hard to constantly defend that discipline. And so, the idea that you might take fan studies as a sub-discipline, or as a discipline, seriously is even more difficult. So, it’s hard to a get great deal of visibility. That said, I’ve always been very lucky in that the university that I work in has never questioned what I do, never suggested that I do something different, but I know that isn’t the case for everybody.
LM: Mm-hmm. So, leading off from that and into basically my final question, and this seems to be something that I’ve decided I’m going to ask everyone. This is, you know, the second episode, so I can’t say it’s, I do this every time, because I’ve only done it once or twice. Since, as we both know, this is a podcast that’s intended to proselytize the existence of fan studies, if you could say to listeners who may not be familiar with fan studies, who may question the need for it, anything, what would you say?
RW: I think I would say that, if you want to know about a lot of the big important debates, or the really kind of crucial developments that are happening in the media at the moment, I think fans studies is probably dealing with all of them. I think issues around kind of privacy or how we use certain platforms differently, we’re talking about that. Issues around, you know, emotional connections to each other and to different forms of media, were talking, you know, talking about that. The blurring of politics with popular culture and media, which is getting scarier and scarier, some scholars have been talking about that for years.
So, I think if you have a look at what’s happening under the umbrella term of ‘fan studies’, you will find that a lot of these debates, that some people are just kind of finding out about now, have actually got a much longer history and can kind of shed light on some of these in a different way that maybe you haven’t thought about before.
LM: Mmm. Yeah. Yeah. I agree 100 percent. Um, if somebody were looking for an expert on one of your specialties, what would those specialties be, do you think? How would you describe it?
RW: Um, I would say if you’re looking for somebody to talk about media, place, media tourism and fans, that would be one. Theme parks, always, and any time there’s a media text or an object that’s kind of ending or coming back or getting resurrected, I would say they’re probably the main areas of expertise that I’ve been talking about.
LM: And I would agree with you. I want to thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a terrific conversation.
RW: Thank you very much for the invite.
LM: You’re welcome!
LM: That’s “It’s a Thing!” for this week. Next time, I’ll be speaking with Dr. Kavita Mudan Finn and E.J. Nielsen, the co-editors of the recently published book, Becoming: Genre, Queerness and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal. We’ll be talking about fanfiction, aca-fandom and, of course, Hannibal. I hope you’ll join me next time.
Music: “Neck Pillow,” by Silent Partner
To cite (Chicago): Morimoto, Lori. 30 Sep 2019. “Rebecca Williams.” Podcast audio. It’s a Thing! MP3, 1.2. [Accessed date]. https://itsathing.net/?p=522