Consumers and Creators
Recently I've been wondering: When exactly did I become a fangurl?
Was it at the Multiple Alternative Realities Convention last month, when my friends and I found ourselves whispering answers to "Buffy/Angel Jeopardy" questions during a game session, or later that evening, when I was dressed up as Darth!Willow, dancing with a group of vampires for the evening, to a set dj'd by Dr. Demento?
Or was it last fall, when I obsessed about what to wear to see filmmaker Jim Jarmusch speak at our local contemporary arts center? Or last summer, when my drag king friends and I danced onstage at a club in New Orleans, lip-synching and busting boyband-style moves during a homoerotic performance of 'NSync's "Bye Bye Bye"?
I don't know when it happened exactly, just that it did, and now I've found myself, at 26, involved in more fandoms than I care to count.
In a recent New York Times article about potential copyright violation by Star Wars fans who digitally revise George Lucas' films, Jim Ward, Lucasfilm's vice president for marketing, offered his company's take on fandom: "We've been very clear all along on where we draw the line," he said. "We love our fans. We want them to have fun. But if in fact somebody is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that's not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is."
Ward was referring to fan edits of Star Wars circulating online, and about which of these the company deems appropriate and which violate Lucasfilm's copyright. The sort of fan behavior Ward supports is the fandom of appreciation and consumption. It's a fandom that's pleasurable for many, one that's accessible if you can afford a movie ticket or CD or a cable hookup.
While this definition makes sense for Lucasfilm -- or for just about any large corporate production unit interested in selling its film, featured celebrity, band or television show and then protecting its interest by controlling use and distribution of the product -- it's a limiting interpretation for most of the popcult-obsessed fans I know.
The definition of fandom is a tricky one. If you regularly watch a particular TV show each week, does that make you a fan? Or is it more than that (taping the show, discussing it with others, re-viewing it, quoting dialogue, taking screencap photos to post on your Web site, which will then be the basis for others' bad fan art?) Is it standing in line for a ridiculous length of time to see a film's opening, or working with digital technology to create a version of the same film other fans may enjoy more?
It's my belief that fandom exists along a broad spectrum -- including, but not limited to, fans whose idea of participation is sitting back and enjoying a show's broadcast, to those who read spoilers and speculate a series' plots in online forums weeks in advance, or to those who put their creative energies to work writing fan fiction. These writings, which are based on a show/band/movie/etc. and introduce alternate storylines and/or character relations, are then posted online (or, if you're old-school, distributed via fanzines).
While I don't want to create a hierarchy of fan behavior by suggesting that it's better to be one sort of fan than another, I do believe that those on the further-out end of the fan spectrum are the most interesting, because while they're actively consuming popcult product, they're also creating it. Instead of solely behaving in the appropriate, good-Lucasfilm-fan-way (consuming, collecting, appreciating), these fans are putting their consumption to work, making their preferred cultural product meaningful in different contexts and mediums.
If being a bad, obsessive fan means learning how to use various technologies in new ways for your own ends, such as digitally editing videos and manipulating images in Photoshop, creating and maintaining fan Web sites, building virtual communities around shared interests, or exerting creative agency in any number of other ways, then there are millions of "bad fans," operating online and off -- and they're all the more informed and engaged because of it.
At present, I'm somewhere in the middle of the fandom-spectrum, operating as a purely appreciative consumer in some cases, and demonstrating a more rabid obsession in others. There are TV shows I sit and watch each week like a normal person (watching "Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska" counts as research for a cultural critic!), but then there's also "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Three years ago, I started watching the show, alone in my apartment, and didn't tell friends about my viewing. I was a cultural studies grad student curious about the representation of the show's young lesbian couple, Willow and Tara. I didn't realize I was a BTVS addict until the next fall, when I found myself living in New Orleans without cable TV, begging a Tulane University faculty member who I'd heard was doing scholarly work on the show to lend me her tapes of the episodes I'd missed during the first few weeks of the new season.
Then came the cable subscription I couldn't really afford on my salary. And then, a few months later, I was at Tower Records, scooping out the BTVS official fan magazine and the BTVS lunchboxes and memorabilia. Shortly thereafter, I got together with a college friend whose devotion to BTVS fandom inspired and amazed me: She was co-writing and co-presenting her scholarly work about BTVS's biggest online fan forum, The Bronze (here's the original forum, started during the WB days, and the new UPN forum). She was writing her own fanfic. She was a co-editor at a hip, snarky, girlie pop culture site. She and her cohort introduced me to the world of spoilers and online discussion about the show. And she made me understand that what had seemed like crazy-obsessive fan behavior was really OK, because while it is obsessive, it's also intellectually and socially engaging, and a whole lot of fun.
I still have moments of shame. When I found myself searching online for Spike/Giles "slash," fanfic in which characters are re-written in a romantic or sexual way, usually in same-sex pairs (see cultural critic Constance Penley's book Nasa/Trek for some of the best slash theorizing around), or when I do things like derail my household's Thanksgiving plans so that we can tape the episodes of an FX BTVS marathon, I've had to pause and ask myself at what point fandom becomes extreme. But there have also been moments of pride.
I love that this past Christmas all of my roommates exchanged gifts that were BTVS-related. Some of them we bought (the boardgame, the Sunnydale High Yearbook, several volumes of Buffy-inspired comics), but others we made (bedazzled t-shirts with "Slayerette" and "Spike" ironed and glittered across their fronts, CDs of this season's musical episode, games we've devised to play around our burgeoning vampire obsession). Fandom became a way to express our collective participation and to acknowledge each other's relationship to the show and its characters.
In our house, BTVS is the only show we all watch together; it's the only weekly event guaranteed to bring us all together on the couch to watch, critique, squeal and moan, and then later take what we've seen and interpret it, write about it, co-opt it and appropriate it for our own use. And this is the part of fandom that I think is the most valuable, the part that Ward misses in his definition: In this particular mode, it's more fun to admit our obsession and put it to some creative use than it is to watch passively from our spot on the couch.
Alana Kumbier is the television critic for PopPolitics.com, where this article originally appeared.