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Screaming girls, costumes and conventions: Understanding fan culture

By April 9, 2021April 10th, 2021No Comments

Amelia Cullen examines how stereotypes of fans persist, and why caring a lot as a fan can, in fact, co-exist with knowledge-based critique…


When Harry Styles defended the music tastes of teenage girls in a 2017 Rolling Stone cover article, his comments received praise across the internet. Harry’s support of his fanbase is commendable, yes, but the cultural snobbery he argued against is not limited to teen girls. Despite the democratisation of culture by the internet (where you can learn just about anything on YouTube and streaming services have brought decades old TV shows to new audiences) stereotypes of fans persist.

Screaming teen girls, costumes, conventions and comic books are a few of the enduring  representations of fans. In his defence, Styles marvelled at the dependability of teenage girl fans: “If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool’. They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick”. The unapologetic fan is something to be lauded, and as Hannah Ewen’s highlights in her book Fangirls: Scenes from modern music culture, the experiences of teen fangirls reflects the value of pop culture at large, helping us to understand ourselves and the world we live in.

Fan communities often build social norms and values through interpreting the actions of their idols. This has been illustrated by the various fundraising and social justice campaigns undertaken by K-Pop fans. In June 2020 following the death of George Floyd, K-Pop group BTS tweeted support for Black Lives Matter, announcing a $1 million donation. Some of their fans decided to match their donation, raising another million dollars through a BTS fan based fundraising group ‘One In An ARMY’. This narrative of politically engaged fans utilising online tools to support social causes contradicts the media depictions of people who are hysterical and emotionally driven. The invisible connotation there is that caring that much cannot co-exist with knowledge-based critique.

The alternative recurring fan narrative, the ‘comic book/sci-fi geek’, also fails to adequately capture the vast definition of what makes a fan.

Fan narratives both in the media and academia tend to reinforce stereotypes of fandom as marginal activity due to focus on the most visible fans, those who produce DIY media, attend conventions and intensively participate in online forums. Participatory Culture is the idea captured by Henry Jenkins, where fans act not only as consumers but producers, appropriating aspects of media products which interest them and reconstructing them for their own interests. Fan fiction being a prominent example, where someone takes a character, universe or story from another scenario and writes a story about it. The characters can be real or fictional; with Harry Styles and his ex-bandmates the inspiration for many fanfic writers.

The digital age transformed the possibilities for the online production, distribution and sharing of fan content. And for the proliferation of a multitude of fan communities both within and across online platforms. But what of those outside of these communities, the dedicated fans who don’t wish to share?

Elizabeth Minkel, co-host of the podcast Fansplaining says: “For a lot of people the fandom experience is not one that’s inherently super communal and communicative.”

Minkel highlighted these ‘lurkers’, who may be absorbing a great deal of fan content and creating their own privately, are often absent from academic research or discussion. In part because you cannot study what you don’t see. Minkel and her co-host Flourish Klink also acknowledge that fan studies is an emerging field with ethical and academic constraints.

Flink also noted that corporate research also tends to deliver a skewed perspective of fandom. As researchers approach projects with “a set of specific goals… they want to achieve and just fully understanding fandom is not actually the goal, right?” The goal is customarily to maximise profit potential for the corporation.

While the stereotype of nerdy fans lingers in our collective consciousness, the economic success of geeky media properties rejects any notion their appeal is marginal. CNBC estimates the value of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be $22.59 billion with the DC extended universe significantly behind at $5.6 billion. As Hollywood mines comic books and science fiction for blockbusters, the expansion of San Diego Comic-Con reflects how fandom is being increasingly embraced in the mainstream.

The first San Diego Comic-Con took place in 1970 with approximately 300 attendees, in 2017 there were more than 150,000 and the event made $19 million in revenue. Over the years, corporate influences have broadened the scope far beyond comics and specific genres, to include panels on popular sitcoms like The Good Place and Brooklyn 99.

As commercial interests in fans grow, corporations and the media work in tandem to proliferate stereotypes of certain types of fans. Minkel described how often media stories need a main character and fandom is often very collective and how the media tends to take notice when fans are behaving badly, when it’s very visible and they often don’t have the context or rely on the same voices again and again and are not representative. While Flourish Klink spoke of their frustration with the strong narrative that fans are obsessed with Canon (the source material) and that when this is the only way hardcore fans are framed it erases so many people who are “very passionate, engaged and interested.”

Klink also conveyed the impact of commercialisation as “the entire movie industry turning its eye on a small fandom” and how the entertainment industry moves to anoint certain individuals as “big name fans” from their perspective. Which is not always based on who has historically been a fan but on commercial factors such as “this person is really great, comes across really great on video and makes wonderful YouTube videos”.

This anointing of certain fans can incentivise a level of extreme individualised fandom where fans can see real financial reward from their fan-based content creation, especially when they establish partnerships with the corporation themselves.

But not all fans have the same relationship with the corporate owners of these cultural products. Elizabeth Minkel explained that there is a huge range of behaviours that fall under fandom, that the entertainment industry is not interested in a lot of them and that this can be for the betterment of fans:

“I don’t want Disney (previously Fox) to care what I’m doing with their characters in my fan fiction. I would like that to be for me and my fellow fans only, whereas there are a lot of fans who actually really do care about what the corporation does and thinks of them,” she has said.

This huge range of fan behaviours is what makes a fan so difficult to define. Minkel uses the example of Game of Thrones, a show which had an average of 44 million viewers worldwide per episode, to demonstrate the multiplicity of fandom within a single cultural product.

“When you say GOT fan, it’s somewhat meaningless because it could mean watching every week and I have a T-shirt, it could mean you maintain a Wiki page, or host a podcast. There is a subculture of Black Game of Thrones fans who look at it from that specific lens and label that way even though it’s a very white-dominated text. All these different groups, they are literally just going in these like kind of circles all across the board.”

For Minkel this is something to be celebrated because all of these people felt they had ownership over the term ‘Game of Thrones fan’ while occupying very different spaces and practices.

Variance in fan types is not limited to one type of media product or fan object. As much as there are different types of Game of Thrones fans or Marvel fans there are different types of Harry Styles fans.

But as the entertainment industry fails to account for the many nuances of fan culture both what unites and differentiates different types of fans, negative and reductive stereotypes of fans persist. In their simplest definition fans are the people who really enjoy things but their impact on the economic and political world stage proves Harry Styles right.

“They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”

To hear more about, and from, fans listen to the latest episode of All Things Considered by Tall Tales live everywhere you get podcasts next Friday, April 16, from 4pm.