Fans and Fandom
Fans and FandomFANDOM AS A SOCIAL ACTIVITY
"RESISTANT" AND CONSUMERIST FANDOM
STEREOTYPING FANS AND FANDOM
"FILM ART" AND FANDOM
Film fans and film fandom do not amount to quite the same thing: one can be a fan of a particular film, genre, actor, or director, but still not participate in the social organizations, interactions, and gatherings of "fandom." Being a fan is, at least in the first instance, a matter of appreciating particular films, and being affectively or emotionally invested in them. Fans are often individuals who are not in contact with other people sharing their emotional attachments to specific films or stars. Although being a "lone" fan of specific films or genres may not necessarily involve actual face-to-face communication with other fans, film buffs frequently imagine themselves as part of an extended fan community, along with absent but like-minded fans. Commercially published magazines help with this process of community building, enabling individual fans to sustain their sense of being part of a group even when they are not directly in touch with other fans.
Unlike the individual fan, whose peer group or colleagues may coincidentally include like-minded film lovers, organized fandom involves fans specifically seeking out those who share their tastes, thereby becoming involved in a range of social, cultural, and media activities that take this shared fandom as their starting point. Film fandom can involve participating in online discussion and posting to sites such as the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), joining film clubs or groups, or producing one's own fan magazine or "fanzine." Being part of organized fandom—whether for a certain film or star—is, first and foremost, linked to values of participation and production. Henry Jenkins stresses that fandom's participatory culture "is always shaped through input from other fans and motivated, at least partially, by a desire for further interaction with a larger social and cultural community" (Jenkins, 1992, p. 76). Those participating in socially organized fandom often watch their favored films in fan groups, wanting to share the experience with others who they know similarly appreciate them. And fans also tend to wait together in long lines in order to see the first showings of blockbuster releases, again knowing that the audience will be full of fans like themselves with whom they will share an emotional experience and pleasure.
These highly communal experiences, responses, and interpretations of fandom also translate into activities beyond simply viewing a highly anticipated and appreciated film. Film fans approach watching a film as just one stage within a wider process of consumption and production, with secondary texts such as promotional materials and reviews leading up to the moment of viewing, fanzine reviews and commentaries following the initial filmic encounter, and repeated viewings and the collecting of DVDs with their special features. Film fandom is never about just "going to see a movie."
Seeking to highlight the distinctiveness of fandom and its cultural practices, John Fiske has distinguished between different types of productivity, which he labels "semiotic," "enunciative," and "textual" production (Fiske, pp. 37–39). The first, semiotic, concerns producing meaning from a film text—something that all audiences necessarily do as they cognitively process and make sense of a film. "Enunciative productivity" means talking about a film. Again, this is something that most film audiences do, but that fans tend to carry out distinctively, within the community of fandom. Fiske's third type, "textual productivity," is most specific to fan cultures, since it is very rarely the case that those outside fandom are motivated to write reviews, critiques, or analyses of favorite films (unless perhaps this forms a part of their professional identity as a film critic or academic). According to David Sanjek, fanzines are the clearest example of fandom's textual productivity, being "amateur publications, which by form and content distinguish themselves from 'prozines': the commercial, mainstream magazines" (p. 316). Although there is some truth to his distinction, Sanjek presents a somewhat exaggerated contrast between fanzines and professionally published "prozines," suggesting that amateur fanzine editors have far greater freedom to write what they want, as they are not directly beholden to the movie industry and to patronage; while "prozine" editors are concerned almost exclusively with commercial cinema, amateur fanzines have little interest in "the slavish devotion to accepted formulae and conventions of the mainstream Hollywood product (p. 317). If an excessively neat and tidy opposition, it does acknowledge an important aspect of film fandom: its communities often set themselves apart from what they view as "mere" film "consumers" lacking in genre, textual, and production-history knowledge.
Fandom is, in part, about acquiring and displaying forms of expertise. Rather like scholarly "readings" of films, fandom's favored mode of interpretation involves very close examination wherein films and their surrounding secondary texts are scrutinized for every detail and nuance. This interpretive practice is very much opposed to "casual" film viewing, which is assumed by fans to constitute a less knowledgeable and less discriminating type of viewing characteristic of those who operate outside of fandom.
Sanjek's depiction of fanzines also stresses the anti-commercial nature of film fandom, and the manner in which it can be opposed to mechanisms of promotion and publicity. This resonates both with the "underground" and anticommercial/antimainstream value systems of many fan cultures, and with other scholarly work on film fandom that has viewed fans as "resistant" to capitalism and consumerism. For Greg Taylor, "fans are not true cultists unless they pose their fandom as a resistant activity," a position that keeps fan-cultists "one step ahead of those forces which would try to market their resistant taste back to them" in what seems to amount to an ongoing struggle between fandom and the forces of film commerce (p. 161).
However, given this confluence of fan and academic values—where both groups may seek to keep their distance from "the commercial"—it is possible that fandom's "resistant" qualities may be overstated. Many film fans are in fact dedicated fans of blockbuster films, and may fully embrace the commerciality of Hollywood "product" even while reading texts closely and analyzing them in a community of like-minded spectators. It cannot be assumed that fans are necessarily "outside" mechanisms of film promotion, publicity, and commerce, nor that their distinctive fan practices are inherently transgressive or resistant to film commerce. Indeed, fans are of great value to media conglomerates as "reliable consumers" for their product lines, and that subcultures do indeed have a place within capitalism (Meehan, pp. 85–89). This means taking a more complex approach than that of contrasting fan "culture" and the "commerce" of media conglomerates. While Sanjek is certainly right to argue that mainstream magazines are dependent on good will and supplies of material from the film industry, it does not follow that fandom is wholly "independent" of commercial forces, pressures, and interests.
If much work in film and cultural studies from Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers (1992) onwards has tended to take an overly celebratory stance on the participatory and productive cultures of film fandom, some writers have been excessively negative and dismissive of fandom. For example, Barbara Klinger has suggested that a crucial part of how contemporary films work as commodities, and so are sold to audiences, is their "fragmentation into a series of specialized or 'starred' elements" (p. 126), referring to the way films are promoted by focusing on elements extracted from their overall narrative, production, and mise-en-scène. Publicity texts can then focus on specific saleable items such as the star, the director, state-of-the-art special effects, or controversial issues or themes raised in the narrative. This means that any given film can be sold to different audiences by stressing different elements, whether matters of romance, special effects, or directorial "art." Klinger argues that fans' expertise is therefore not at all independent of promotional and publicity mechanisms, since their behind-the-scenes knowledge, far from testifying to fans' autonomy, instead frequently indicates "the achieved strategies" of commercial, publicity material (p. 132).
However, just as the argument that film fans are wholly opposed to, or outside of, capitalist forces seems strained, so too does the alternative viewpoint representing fans wholly as the dupes or slaves of the Hollywood dream factory. This debate over the "resistant" or commercially "incorporated" nature of fandom has underpinned an entire paradigm of study, but recent approaches to fandom have begun to pose new questions. Film historian Janet Staiger has pointed out that many studies of fandom have emphasized the positive social aspects of fans' community-building activities, arguing for approaches to fandom that do not singularly celebrate or decry it (2000, p. 54).
Indeed, it also may be difficult to "balance" representations of fans as "good" (resistant) and "bad" (incorporated into the industry). Matt Hills argues that any such balanced or "multiperspectival" approach to fandom is fraught with problems insofar as it seeks to resolve what may be inherent contradictions within fandom and audience identities. Against such attempts to resolve fandoms into clearly definable binaries, a more general, dialectical model of fandom is called for, one capable of dealing with actual contradictions within cultural phenomena (see Hills, pp. 27–45). Fans may be simultaneously inside and outside market forces, resisting economic pressures in some ways and behaving as "reliable consumers" in others. In defense of media studies' work seeking to ascertain fans' resistance to commercial forces, it could be argued that such resistance can still be clearly identified, whether it is resistance to the commodification of film culture via a kind of "underground" film appreciation, or whether it is a reaction against specific types of film such as the blockbuster. But this assertion relies on a zero-sum view of power as something that fans either do or do not possess, as well as assuming that resistance can be critically isolated by scholars. Such an academic approach returns us to a type of fan studies premised on identifying "good" and "bad" objects, thereby claiming the moral authority to label fan practices as either "progressive" or "reactionary" (see Fan Cultures).
Fans and fandom have been subjected to moral surveillance, and a powerfully moralizing gaze, throughout film history. In common-sense terms, the fan audience (whether socially organized into fandom or not) has typically been represented as a bit weird, excessively emotional in relation to favored stars, too interested in the trivia of films' production and the miniscule details of close reading, or too obsessed with the world of film to live successfully in the real world. Film fans sometimes have to defend themselves against accusations that they are losers or maladjusted geeks. Even the notion that film is an art with its own visionary auteurs has not been enough to dispel the image of the pathological movie fan, and neither has the term cinephilia, with its high-cultural overtones. For example, the US documentary Cinemania (2002) portrays a group of self-professed cinephiles as variously dysfunctional: unable to hold down jobs or have sex lives, instead they obsessively devote their time to attending art-house cinemas in New York. Movie fandom is an object of ridicule in such media portrayals, however affectionate or highbrow they are. It is against this background of negative stereotyping of fans as losers and geeks that much scholarly work on fans and fandom has sought to positively reevaluate fandom as instead indicating participation in a like-minded community and involving healthy audience creativity.
The importance of stardom within film culture also has led to fans being morally devalued and stereotypically represented as hysterical obsessives. Analyzing the beginnings of movie fan culture from the 1910s onward, as regional variations in film exhibition were supplanted by a national popular culture through a wide range of films, books, plays, and popular songs from the early twentieth century, movie fans were depicted as celebrity-obsessed female daydreamers, the archetypal image of the fan being that of a hysterical, starstruck teenage girl (see Fuller, p. 116). This feminizing of film fans—including males—was powerfully reinforced by the film industry in the wake of the development of the star system. Once the star system began to take hold, and stars' names were promoted and publicized, it then became possible for fans to be represented as feminized, celebrity-obsessed consumers.
Academic work on movie fans has sometimes assumed that their fandom can be equated with being a fan of a specific celebrity. Jackie Stacey offers a sensitive study of female fans that challenges negative stereotypes surrounding the subject and argues that fans do not simply "identify" with film stars (that is, perceive stars as sharing qualities with themselves, or wish to "be like them") or desire them as idealized fantasy figures. Instead, the ways in which fans—and organized fandoms—relate to film stars are far more complicated, involving a range of cinematic and extracinematic practices. Again, fans and fandom are linked to activities that go beyond just watching a star's movies. Stacey analyzes fans' feelings of devotion, worship, and even transcendence: appreciating a particular film star allows them to tune out everyday worries, disappointments, and stresses (p. 145). Stacey highlights a range of fan practices that occur outside the moment of film viewing, such as self-consciously pretending to be a favorite star or otherwise imitating and copying them. These imitations do not mean that such fans have "lost touch with reality," nor that they really want to be someone else; instead, their fandom is merely expressed and displayed through specific cultural activities (p. 171).
Other work on star–fan relationships has stressed the role of organized fandom in communally shaping audiences' reactions to, and appreciations of, movie stars. For example, Richard Dyer observes how Judy Garland became an icon for gay audiences, who interpreted her career and personal struggles as "representing the situation and experience of being gay in a homophobic society" (p. 153). It can be argued that Garland's star text still is widely perceived as the special province of a gay male fandom. Other types of subcultural fandom may also be linked to the revaluation of particular stars. For example, fans of classic horror may especially appreciate movie stars from the silent era, such as Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), whose appearances in films such as Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) and Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, 1924) linked him to stylized acting performances and representations of the sinister. Far from being a mainstream "leading man," Veidt nevertheless has become a focal point for a specific horror fan and cinephile community who can interpret his "monstrous" and marginal characters in relation to the antimainstream difference of their own fan culture. Rather than suggesting that particular types of fandom may be especially linked to certain stars, the case of gay male fandom shows that mainstream male stars such as Keanu Reeves can also be revalued or reinterpreted, especially stars whose publicity images represent their sexuality in an ambiguous manner.
b. Potsdam, Germany, 22 January 1893, d. 3 April 1943
Conrad Veidt appeared in such classic German expressionist films as Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), in which he played somnambulist Cesare; Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, 1924); and Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926). In Caligari, Veidt's androgynous sleepwalker elicits fear and dread from everyone else in the film while being both the instrument and victim of Dr. Caligari (Emil Jannings). Some have seen Veidt as a forerunner of later movie monsters that elicit some degree of sympathy, such as Boris Karloff's creature in Frankenstein (1933).
A star of silent film who was strongly linked to the German expressionist movement in the initial phases of his career, Veidt went on to play evil Nazi characters in later sound films such as Escape (1940). He was typecast in sinister, creepy, or just plain monstrous roles, often representing the "bad German" partly as a result of the historical and cultural context in which he was working, and partly because of his own looks and acting style. The role of Major Strasser in the classic cult film Casablanca (1942) was one of Veidt's final Hollywood roles, coming after he had taken a break from working in the United States to act in Britain from 1932 to 1940. Veidt's performances were frequently highly stylized, in line with the calculated distortions typical of German expressionism.
Being an unusual star, and given his appearances in classic and cult films such as Casablanca and Caligari, Veidt himself has been embraced as a cult icon, particularly by cinephiles who have an awareness of film history. The Conrad Veidt Society was formed in 1990 by James Rathlesberger, and its members commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Veidt's death (and the one hundredth anniversary of his birth) in 1993. According to its Internet homepage, the society is dedicated to promoting "classic" films, working to place "Veidt in the context of his times—Germany during the fame of the Expressionist film, England after the rise of Hitler, and America gearing up to fight WWII." Its members particularly value Veidt for his anti-Nazi humanism and his career-long fight against intolerance and prejudice. Onscreen, though, Veidt ended his career playing a Nazi in the escapist Above Suspicion (1943), his last film.
Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, 1924), Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926), The Man Who Laughs (1928), Jew Süss (1934), Under the Red Robe (1937), The Thief of Baghdad (1940), All Through the Night (1942), Casablanca (1942)
Allen, Jerry C. Conrad Veidt: From Caligari to Casablanca. Revised ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Boxwood, 1993.
Brosnan, John. The Horror People. New York: St. Martin's Press, and London: MacDonald and Jane's, 1976.
Budd, Mike, ed. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Texts, Contexts, Histories. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Conrad Veidt Society Official Home Page, available online at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Studio/7624/Official.html.
Telotte, J. P. "Beyond All Reason: The Nature of the Cult." In The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason, edited by J. P. Telotte, 5–17. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Organized fandom can thus sustain different readings of ubiquitous star images as well as especially valuing certain stars as a badge of distinction and marker of distance from "the mainstream."
In comparison with the early twentieth-century creation of movie fandom, the figure of the movie fan is perhaps less clearly gendered as feminine/feminized today, but this is because of a much changed cultural context, wherein both men and women are frequently targeted and imaged as consumers. In addition to the star system, with its "picture personalities," directors and those involved in the technical craft of filmmaking are now also increasingly publicized celebrities in their own right. This shift means that film fans can align themselves more clearly with notions of film as art—and partly avoid negative stereotypes of celebrity obsession—by indicating their fandom of film directors.
This aspect of fandom moves closer to the scholarly appreciation of film, since treating film as art and dignifying certain directors with "authorial" or auteurist status is a strategy that has historically characterized film studies, and that still retains more than a foothold today. So-called "auteur theory" was initially employed solely by intellectuals and cinephiles seeking to value film as a medium, and although it carried cultural cachet, it was also accessible enough for nonacademic audiences to appreciate (Taylor, p. 87). Moving from being an exclusive/elitist view of film held by French cinéastes, auteurism entered the US scene and became popularized to the extent that Hollywood incorporated its discourse into its own publicity. Auteurism is no longer just a critical approach, but also a commercial strategy for organizing how audiences may respond to film texts. Uniting filmmakers, scholars, publicists, and fans, the notion that certain privileged directors are artists has tended to create and sustain aesthetic personality cults around them. This type of "personality cult" also has been significant to certain organized fandoms, such as those surrounding offbeat, sleeper, quirky, and classical Hollywood films labeled "cult movies." These organized fandoms have tended to use auteur theory as a means of claiming to find artistic value within the terrain of independent film.
One of the most significant cultural activities undertaken by film fans, then, is the way in which they seek to invest the work of their preferred performers and directors with cultural capital, setting their tastes against what they perceive and construct as mainstream cinema. However, such an apparent detachment from "the commercial" is itself commercial, since these fans are still placed within a specific market. Though this is related to the debate over fandom's resistant capability, it can also be viewed as a matter of film fans' cultural practices. Cult-film fans seek to defend and value their favored texts, but by doing so they also hope to reflect their own aesthetic taste, for they can see "true" artistic worth where general audiences cannot. Such fan audiences' bids for distinction are especially clear in relation to genres that are frequently devalued in "dominant" film criticism, such as "trash" and exploitation cinema. Mark Kermode argues that horror fans actively perceive the genre's aesthetic value, whereas nonfans passively consume horror as if its representations are actual rather than aestheticized images of gore; he offers a convincing opposition between "active" fans who read horror films in relation to surreal genre precedents and "passive" nonfans who are characterized as reading horror films more naively.
In Kermode's account, horror fans are, crucially, "genre literate." Like fans of other genres or specific movie stars, they are expert consumers, able to trace generic histories and interpret new films in relation to countless preceding examples. This type of movie fan has a keen sense of intertextuality; thus, boundaries around "the text itself" tend to be partly dissolved by fans who, even while they carry out close readings of certain films, relate texts to others, either by generic category, in auteurist terms, or by focusing on a favored star. Organized fandoms, like those for cult movies or the horror genre, therefore challenge the idea that any film's meaning and significance are inherent. Rather, it is by reading films in relation to, and through, other texts that fans can convert "the film" into those meanings and values that characterize their fandom as a kind of interpretive community. Fans read films not only through official publicity texts such as DVD extras, but also in relation to fan-produced texts (fan fiction). Henry Jenkins proffers the example of one fan who wrote an alternative ending to the film Thelma and Louise (1991) in which these female characters transform themselves into bats (Jenkins, 2000, p. 177). Recontextualizing the film as a lesbian vampire tale, this creative fan interpretation (and production) of meaning indicates how generic identities and textual boundaries can be reinscribed by film fans, sometimes working against what producers, and other audiences, may view as the obvious categories, boundaries, and identities of a film. Thus, whether it is the interpretive activities of individual fans, or the socially organized, communal practices of fandom, fans and fandom have been as important to film studies as to the film industry. They demonstrate how loyal audiences can be a part of film commerce and also set themselves apart from commercial processes.
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Barker, Martin, and Kate Brooks. Knowing Audiences: Judge Dredd—Its Friends, Fans, and Foes. Luton, UK: University of Luton Press, 1998.
Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. London: British Film Institute, 1986.
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Fuller, Kathryn H. At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Jenkins, Henry. "Reception Theory and Audience Research: The Mystery of the Vampire's Kiss." In Reinventing Film Studies, edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, 165–182. London: Arnold, 2000.
——. Textual Poachers. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
Kermode, Mark. "I Was a Teenage Horror Fan, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Linda Blair." In Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate, edited by Martin Barker and Julian Petley, 57–66. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Klinger, Barbara. "Digressions at the Cinema: Commodification and Reception in Mass Culture." In Modernity and Mass Culture, edited by James Naremore and Patrick Brantlinger, 117–134. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Meehan, Eileen R. "Leisure or Labor?: Fan Ethnography and Political Economy." In Consuming Audiences?: Production and Reception in Media Research, edited by Ingunn Hagen and Janet Wasko, 71–92. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000.
Sanjek, David. "Fans' Notes: The Horror Film Fanzine." In The Horror Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, 314–323. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Staiger, Janet. Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Taylor, Greg. Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.