On this episode of “It’s a Thing!” I talk to Dr. Mel Stanfill about how media industry exploits fans, “reactionary fandom,” and fanboy auteurs.
Stanfill, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans
Stanfill & Condis, eds., Special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures: Fandom and/as Labor
Noble, Algorithms of Oppression
Stanfill, “Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom“
Franks, The Cult of the Constitution
Stanfill, ed., Special issue of Television & New Media: Reactionary Fandom
Salter & Stanfill, A Portrait of the Auteur as a Fanboy: The Construction of Authorship in Transmedia Franchises
Terms, Concepts & the Rest
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: On this week’s episode of “It’s a Thing!” I’ll be speaking with Mel Stanfill, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida and author of Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans. So, stick around!
LM: Before we get started, I just need to mention that, in my interview with Mel, I had a bit of a microphone snafu. I think I’ve gotten it taken care of going forward, but you’ll notice that the sound quality of my voice in this interview is not particularly good. I apologize for that and beg your indulgence.
So, on with the show!
I’d like to thank you for being with me today.
Mel Stanfill: Thanks for having me.
LM: You have a recently published book, Exploiting Fandom, that I’m looking forward to talking about with you, but before we get there I just wanted to ask, since I actually have no idea about this, how did you become a fan scholar? What brought you into fan studies?
MS: So, Adorno and Horkheimer, weirdly. So, for folks who don’t know, Adorno and Horkheimer were these guys from this group of scholars called The Frankfurt School, and they were in Frankfurt, Germany prior to World War II, and they were all Jewish, and so they fled and they came to the US. But basically, their idea … they had seen the way the Nazis were using mass media to indoctrinate people. And so, they had this sense that media would control you and would get the masses, you know, quote/unquote, to participate in and support atrocities.
MS: And so, I was in undergrad and I took a course called “Literature and Popular Culture,” and we read this piece, this selection from Adorno and Horkheimer. And I was like, “Well, okay, but the media doesn’t tell you what to think. What about fans?” And specifically, in my context it was what about Xena fans? That, you know because fans were so invested in the Xena/Gabrielle relationship, the show got gayer over time. And so that-
LM: Were you a fan?
MS: I was, yeah. That was where I first discovered fanfiction, actually, was in Xena fandom.
MS: When I was- when we had dial-up. I mean that’s that’s…
LM: Yeah, yeah.
MS: …how old I am. But, so that just sort of, it was, you know, it was toward the end of my undergrad career, and I wasn’t really able to get into it. But that sense of, “This is something I want to study” … and I became aware that people were already studying it. So then when I started my Master’s Degree, I actually, you know got into it. But yeah, it really started with these guys, you know, who were very concerned about the media controlling people’s minds.
LM: Okay. This is actually the second time in a very short podcast, so far, that Adorno and Horkheimer have come up, so I really like that.
LM: The first was Suzanne Scott.
LM: So, um, I also wanted to ask you something that I haven’t actually asked anybody yet, but it’s been coming up a little bit on Twitter, and that is … you’re employed at a university. You have a tenure track job. I’ll just tell you this. And I’m wondering how much of your academic career involves fan studies, or is it more sort of ancillary to your kind of everyday work?
MS: Well, I mean I did teach a PhD seminar on fan studies.
MS: I have two PhD students who are interested in fan studies.
LM: Oh, that’s great.
MS: So, there’s, I think there’s some, but because of the particular department I’m in now, my department where I teach undergraduates, is Games and Interactive Media.
MS: And it’s a production degree. So, they have web design students and game design students.
MS: So, the sort of cultural, structural stuff that is what I do is just one class, and they’re great. And it’s actually a Media Industries class.
MS: So, I do, I did, the article got a little old now and I’m not teaching it, but I was teaching some of the fandom and labor work from my 2014 special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures–
MS: -as a way to sort of bring fan studies in, but it’s mostly not what I’m doing these days, you know, except with the graduate students.
LM: Yeah, because since I’m outside of that particular circle-
LM: -I really have a hard time sort of conceptualizing how much, how far fan studies has actually made it into mainstream academia. So…
LM: That’s really interesting. So, I would like to turn to the book again. It’s called Exploiting Fandom, and as with a lot of first books – I believe this is your first book?
MS: It is yeah.
LM: Okay. It really does a nice job of encapsulating the work that you’ve been doing up until this point, and one of the things that I’m really interested about it, this does come pretty early on, but your discussion of normativity and kind of the effects of normativity, the way it’s constructed, is particularly interesting to me. And I’m wondering, well, where does that, where does that interest in kind of the structures of institutional normativity, or however you might frame it, where does that come from for you?
MS: You know when I, you know, you sent the questions in advance to think about and I was looking at them this morning and I’m like, well, when did I start doing that? So, I went into my file cabinet and I got, I was like, I was already doing it by the end of my Master’s degree. So, it must have been some time at that point. And I looked, and I took an ethnographic methods course my second quarter, I was on the quarter system, and I was doing interviews with fans. And the idea of some fans are normal and fine, but those people over there are weird-
MS: -which subsequently became an article I published in 2013, was already there. And so that, you know, led me to, in that Master’s degree I didn’t just interview fans about their experience, but I looked at how they were represented, and I looked at how the makers of the show – and that was a Master’s thesis that was about Xena – how they were treating this representational question or-
MS: -those sorts of things? And so, that, I think it was probably those early interviews that led me to care about that. As to why I was sort of sensitized toward it, I did, after undergrad, undertake to read the collected works of Judith Butler. I’m not [unclear], but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had taken a class with her. I mean, I knew enough to know that she was famous and somebody I care about, because I went to Berkeley and she teaches at Berkeley.
LM: Oh, okay.
MS: So, I took a class with her in my senior year. So, I think that engagement with queer theory had really sensitized me to thinking about, you know, norms as locations of power. But I hadn’t formally studied queer theory, you know, more comprehensively until later.
LM: Do you identify as a queer scholar?
MS: I do. I mean, I think I, being someone who is occupying this sort of queer studies, queer theory perspective. I’m hesitant to say I am things, I don’t like identity as a framework, but I definitely use queer theory as an analytic and in the way that I participate in things, and I have a sort of commitment to contesting and destroying norms wherever possible.
LM: There you go. One of the things that you bring into the book from some previous work, in the context of normativity, is your discussion of whiteness and fandom. What sort of keyed you into that?
MS: Also. I took a class my second year in grad school that was something like “Race, Sex and Deviance,” or something. And it was a sort of a queer-of-color critique-grounded class that was a sort of thinking about norms through a queer theory lens, but recognizing that race had to be part of the conversation in a way that mainline queer theory has not always recognized, that that matters, and recognized its own position of whiteness as default. And so, I wrote this paper, and I don’t remember much about it except that there was a section about whiteness. And then the subsequent semester, when I took my queer theory class, I’m like this, this two pages, I want to expand this and I want to write about this. So actually, that then became my 2011 Transformative Works and Cultures article. My first article really came out of this… taking this class that was demanding that I think this way, and because I was already in a queer theory space, it was an easy addition or an easy, “Oh, this is a lens I have to use, too, or else I don’t really understand what’s going on.”
LM: Sure. Sure. I’m curious, you know, there’s – especially this past year – there’s been quite a lot of ancillary discussion of structural whiteness in fan studies itself, and I’m wondering first, what is your take on that as an issue that we’re confronting in fan studies, and if you have anything that you attempt to do to attend to critiques of structural whiteness in fan studies, like in your own work?
MS: Right. That sort of, there’s two answers to that in a way. One is… I want to say it was at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference last year, Safiya Noble, who wrote Algorithms of Oppression, who’s an Internet studies scholar and is one of my good friends from grad school, because I went to grad school with apparently like all the famous people somehow-
MS: I don’t know! It was like that cohort of us that all went through together all the like at this position where we’re making a lot of noise. I don’t know.
MS: She said, you know if white people who are studying white people would just name that that’s what they’re doing, we would be so far ahead. And so, to some extent that’s part of what I’m doing is just sort of to mark that like, this is a description of a community or a theoretical perspective or something that comes from a position of whiteness, and not to allow that to go unmarked. But then the other piece of it is, I have a special issue that is forthcoming on what I’m calling “reactionary fandom.” And so, you know, there’s been all this conversation about toxic fandom, and I don’t think that’s as useful because I think it’s too, it covers too many things.
MS: So, I think toxic, like, toxicity can happen anywhere and that might, you know, I guess it’s important to look at but it’s not as interesting to me as what are the structural toxicities rather than the interpersonal toxicities.
MS: So, structural toxicities leads me to think about reactionary fandoms, that thinks about reactionary politics as integrated into media fandoms that we often don’t think of, and also the ways that reactionary politics can be understood as itself a form of fandom.
LM: So, what would be an example of what you’re describing as reactionary fandom?
MS: So, in the special issue, one of the articles is from my colleague, Anastasia Salter, and she’s writing about Harley Quinn/Joker shipping and the ways that it’s about excusing his abusivness-
MS: -and the sort of recapitulation of like really standard conservative discourses about what’s appropriate.
MS: So, it’s living in a reactionary politics space, even though it’s a standard, you know, shipping media fandom. And then the other side of it is, so, Bridget Blodgett, who is another collaborator, she’s writing about like GamerGate and the tactics they use to get coverage in the press were then picked up and used by the alt-right.
LM: So, this kind of touches then on, well, on Twitter I’m both in sort of academic Twitter and fandom Twitter.
LM: My fandom Twitter currently is sort of aflame with discussions of what the kids are calling fandomentalism. Does this-
LM: -sort of – Right?
MS: I like that.
LM: I do too, but there are people like who really don’t, and I don’t know what to do with it. But I think that’s a great term.
MS: Well, I’ve seen some people calling TERFs – so, trans-exclusionary radical feminists – sex fundamentalists.
MS: Because there’s this, so, Mary Anne Franks, who is a constitutional law scholar, wrote this book called The Cult of the Constitution, and in it she talks about First Amendment fundamentalists and Second Amendment fundamentalists. And so, the idea of these sort of fundamentalist is this sort of unfounded sense of persecution and there are certain features that really, you know, so thinking about fandoms and fundamentalism. I think her model would be really helpful.
LM: Yeah, absolutely. But what is the special issue of it is?
MS: It is in… what is that thing called that has been my whole life for two years? Television & New Media.
LM: Oh, okay.
MS: I am through copy-editing, so my introduction to the special issue should be up like any day now and I’ll have two free ones. So, people should you know keep an eye out for that on Twitter.
LM: Definitely. So, we’re kind of sliding into my next question, which is about Foucault and power. For people listening who might not be familiar with Foucault, or who took Camille Paglia seriously and have just sort of eschewed all French theorists, what does Foucault have to say about power and how do you mobilize that in your own work?
MS: So, we usually tend to think about power is coercive as stopping people from doing things, and you know. And in the sort of Foucault model that gets talked about repressive power, but one of the things that Foucault called attention to is that power doesn’t just say no. It also says yes.
MS: And so, instead of saying don’t do that, it says do this, or it says this is the right thing to do. And so, if you’re thinking about a cultural formation that produces a message of, “this is the right thing to do and not that,” that’s a norm right? That’s what the mechanism is of that. And so, the other thing that is really helpful about Foucault is that, in a productive power framework, it’s pervasive, it’s not a single person enacting power, or like it’s… particularly in Discipline and Punish, which is one of the first books that he does this move from his earlier work, is moving away from the idea of a sovereign. So, it’s not like there’s a king somewhere deciding what happens, but that it’s these things we don’t even realize we have collectively agreed to and are enforcing anyway.
LM: Uh-huh. Does that relate to issues of hegemony?
MS: Yes, it does. So, the distinction I think between that and hegemony is that hegemony assumes a ruling class, because Gramsci was a Marxist, right? So that still has more hierarchy than Foucault’s version, but the ways that people are consenting to this thing that often disadvantages them is definitely common between the two different ideas. Yeah.
LM: Okay. That’s interesting, yeah.
MS: I mean that’s one of the things that was really important for me to do about the book, is that there was this narrative, especially when I first started to research the book, because the book took about 10 years to write. Because I mean the first pieces of it I wrote you know in that class, like the one I was telling you about and other classes I took that same semester my second year of grad school, and I’m now, you know five years out. So that’s, you know. But that there was this excitement of like, “Oh media industries, media companies, people who make TV and film like fans now, they’re embracing them, they’re including them. Everything is awesome.” And I was like, “No.” And so, part of that is asking, you know, to sort of point back to our whiteness conversation, awesome for who?
LM: Right right.
MS: But then, also, awesome under what circumstances, with what restrictions like what’re… when, you know, one of the ways that I’ve summed up the book as like a couple of sentences is, when media industry say they love our fans, we love our fans, what do they mean? Who do they mean? What practices do they mean, and how does that then construct a sense of, this is the right way to be a fan and not that?
LM: No, absolutely, I… yeah, I mean and it is hard to know, especially if a creator is particularly beloved, it can be difficult to see where that sort of exercise of power or normativity is coming from.
MS: Absolutely, and one of the things that’s really great about normativity as a model is that it doesn’t require the anybody be evil. Right? There aren’t nefarious people in some back room smoking cigars. It’s just common sense. But common sense is an exercise of inclusion and exclusion.
LM: One of the things that you mentioned in your book, and I will confess right now that I have not gotten to this point yet, so, I don’t know what you said but I was really intrigued when I read it, was that sometimes as fans we sort of willingly acquiesce to this. Could you talk a little bit about that?
MS: Well people get stuff, right? That there is a benefit to cultivating a positive relationship with someone who’s going to, some media maker who’s going to then give you insider information. There is a benefit to being… there’s like tone policing that happens in fandom. Like, “Don’t be a hater, or else they’ll stop doing stuff for us,” right? That we want to sort of keep a positive relationship with media makers so that they continue to potentially listen to our desires for whatever that media is.
MS: And I think that that’s valid, like-
MS: But it comes at a cost, and it comes at the cost of abandoning or being asked to abandon, whether people actually do it, but some of the critical traditions of fandom. The transformative traditions of fandom that say, “This media object doesn’t succeed at what I’m looking for, pushing it to do better. Like, a lot of those things become much harder to do when the norm of fandom shifts.
LM: Okay. So, that leads me to my next question then, in terms of transformative fandom and in particular sort of the… what fans, the hopes, expectations, criticisms that fans bring to, in particular, representations or depictions of queerness. How it should play out on screen. And I was working with this in the context of an essay on Yuri!!! on Ice and transnational fandom of that, and there I sort of split it between a kind of unspoken desire for – well, it’s not an unspoken is pretty well spoken – issues of representation, on the one side, and a more, and this is especially visible in scholarship, a more sort of Alexander Doty, you know, queerness as a sensibility sort of divide between ways people were thinking about queerness in media and criticisms of queerness and media or lack thereof. And particularly in the context of what fans call queerbaiting, I’m wondering, well, actually, I’m just wondering what’s your take on fandom understandings of queerbaiting and this divide, if it’s even such a thing?
MS: I mean, I have so many different perspectives depending which of my hats I’m wearing. So, if I think about it as a sort of media studies scholar who’s interested and race and gender and sexuality as subject positions and representations, then I think it’s really important to have publicly visible, intelligible queer folks on TV or in whatever media, so that both the queer kid in Kansas who doesn’t know anyone else can see someone like them in their media, but also that their parent who has no idea how to deal with their kid can see that too.
But then the part of me that is a queer theorist is deeply skeptical of incorporation into norms, because again, as I’ve been suggesting, it comes at a cost. And so, the idea that you need to appeal to this, you know to the media to acknowledge you and to grant you that legitimacy is dangerous in some ways. And then thinking about it as like a fan studies person, and also to some extent as a fan myself, the idea that it’s not legitimate or it’s not good unless it’s in the text totally devalues all of this sort of work that fans have done to take texts and break them and reassemble them the way they want them for decades, right? And sort of like saying, well the, okay, sure, sure, you can write fanfiction but you know, this thing is canon and therefore… And so I see all the sides at once.
MS: There’s no definitive answers. It just sort of depends on which thing you’re prioritizing.
LM: Does it, is that something, is that sort of mutual incompatibility or just the contradictions of those different ways of thinking about it, is that something that maybe we should just get used to?
MS: I mean, yeah.
LM: I mean there’s like no one answer, right?
MS: Yeah. And I think I’m also skeptical of the desire for simple answers to complicated questions that… I always like to ask, “Who benefits from this?” Because sometimes both media industries and fans can benefit at the same time and then it’s fine. But usually it’s one of the other and usually it’s industries, you know, at the expense of fans. And so, that’s where I would be concerned, and particularly if we think about something like queerbaiting as like deliberate manipulation and we’re going to get your eyeballs for our ratings, or we’re going to get you to buy movie tickets or whatever it happens to be, and we have no intention of actually giving you what you want, feels very different from, you know, this is not what we’re representing but we are happy for everyone to see themselves in our show.
MS: It’s, there’s different approaches to it.
LM: Sure. Is there any, just out of curiosity, is there any media sort of fandom text right now that you think has sort of finessed that well?
MS: You know, I pick up a new TV show about once every 10 years. I don’t know.
LM: Yeah. Okay.
MS: I’m still in my love hate relationship with Once Upon a Time.
LM: Is that still on?
MS: And in fact, I stopped watching a several years before it went off the air, but I stayed in the fandom.
LM: Did you finish the see the series or did you just kind of have enough?
MS: I consumed it through gif sets.
LM: Yes, that’s a lot of my, yeah. It’s amazing how well you can follow something through gifs.
LM: Or jifs if that makes some people happy, but it’s wrong.
MS: It is wrong.
LM: I know!
MS: Like, not even though the creator says that that way, that doesn’t make it right. It stands for graphical.
LM: A gift!
LM: If it’s gonna sound… anyway.
MS: It’s a good Germanic word. It’s not one of your French words.
LM: That’s right. That’s right. I like that. I really like that way of framing it, because that’s exactly how I feel about it. But yeah, no, it is really interesting how that how you can follow something entirely on Tumblr.
LM: I’m curious actually, what having finished the book what are you looking at going forward in terms of research?
MS: So, I’ve got this reactionary fandom special issue. I have a book that the manuscript was just submitted which I wrote with my colleague Anastasia Salter, A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy.
LM: Oh, interesting.
MS: So, looking at media figures who use their fannishness as a branding tactic or don’t. So, it comes out of, obviously, Suzanne Scott’s idea of the fanboy auteur, but she never did a lot with it. So, we’re like we’re going to run with it. And she said she was fine with that. So, we did. She’s been very supportive of the project. She’s awesome. But so, we look at Steven Moffat and how he uses his Who fandom and Sherlock fandom to authorize what he’s doing. And we look at E.L. James, right? And Fifty Shades. And so we have a whole series of case studies, you know, and there’s a whole, there’s a section where we talk about Patty Jenkins, Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi, and how they are always suspicious as fans.
LM: Oh, that’s interesting. I really oh, wow. I am really looking forward to that.
MS: Coming in 2020 from University of Mississippi Press.
LM: Excellent. I yeah, that’s right up my alley. I love that.
MS: And then I have this book I keep trying to write, even though it’s not the book I’m supposed to be writing, that’s sort of tentatively titled Fandom is Ugly. So, there was this sense, when there was this review of the field in 2007, that ‘fandom is beautiful’ was the first phase right? And so, one of the arguments I make, actually, in the “reactionary fandom” issue introduction is, to what extent did we get that argument that fandom is beautiful and open and welcoming because the people who were looking were the people it was open to? And so, I’m sort- it’s a series of case studies I keep you know, giving conference papers, and I’m going to give one at Fan Studies Network [North America conference] about ‘anti’ as a term and its circulation. So, I keep writing little bits of that book without really intending to.
LM: That’s probably the easiest way to do it. Just sort of, you just kind of slide into the book rather than starting. So, if I was, you know, if somebody were looking for someone to speak on something about fan studies and you had certain specializations that you could talk to, what would you, how would you describe those specializations?
MS: So, I definitely have this queer studies perspective. I have a whiteness studies perspective. But I’m also at the side of fan studies that touches media industry studies, and that’s actually, you know, what I’m teaching at the undergrad level is Media Industries. It’s what my next book that I’m writing on purpose is about, is not a fan studies book, it’s about media industries in the context of music.
LM: Oh, cool.
MS: But it has a fan studies sensibility, because I’m like, why shouldn’t we just freely remix all the things, and then it’s like well because racism so.
LM: Yeah, that’s actually something that Zina Hutton is doing a lot of discussion about in the context of K-pop fandom and K-pop and appropriations of blackness.
LM: Well then finally, this is usually my last question: if you could tell anyone who is unfamiliar with fans studies anything about it, what would you want them to know?
MS: That fandom is kind of baked into how media industries are operating at this end of history. That it’s something that’s in, as I mentioned, it’s used as a self-branding tactic from people who are trying to get authority through their authenticity. It’s used… there is an assumption that you can rely on fans to promote your products, that you can rely on fans to continue to show up and buy things in the sequels. And so, so much of how our media is structured works through fandom. And even there’s this thing, you know, I just saw the other day the Elizabeth Warren versus Bernie Sanders stan wars, right? This idea that politics is a fandom is true and disturbing, but you need to be in fan studies to understand what’s going on, right?
LM: Absolutely. I agree completely. Well, I want to thank you very much for joining me today. This has been a really interesting conversation, and I am looking forward to your forthcoming work!
LM: That’s all for this week’s episode of “It’s a Thing!” Next time I’ll be talking with Dr. Louisa Stein, an associate professor at Middlebury College. So, I hope you’ll join in.
Music: “Neck Pillow,” by Silent Partner
To cite (Chicago): Morimoto, Lori. 29 Oct 2019. “Mel Stanfill.” Podcast audio. It’s a Thing! MP3, 1.4. [Accessed date]. https://itsathing.net/2019/10/29/episode-4:-mel-stanfill