Too fat to fly: A case study of unsuccessful fan mobilization

Tom Phillips

University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—A seemingly invisible aspect of activism scholarship is the failure to act in the face of apparent suitability. Engaging with tropes of activist literature, such as the prevalence of computer-mediated communication and the factors of emotion and extremism, I will perform a case study of a specific fan community that appears to adhere to these conventions, and discuss the potential for activist practices as a result. I examine the reaction of the fan community for filmmaker Kevin Smith following Smith's ejection from a Southwest Airlines flight in 2010. He was removed from the plane for apparently breaching their "passenger of size" policy, but he ardently rebuked the company's justification. Smith's treatment at the hands of the airline would seem to be an ideal rallying point for the subject of a fan activism campaign–using a personal issue to springboard into wider debates of corporate practice, body image, and consumer rights. However, despite this potential, his fan community apparently failed to mobilize into a cohesive force. I will explore why this failure occurred, and discuss why such a failure should be examined within academia.

[0.2] Keywords—Activism; Computer-mediated communication; Emotion; Fan community

Phillips, Tom. 2012. "Too Fat to Fly: A Case Study of Unsuccessful Fan Mobilization." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0330.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In his description of fan activism surrounding Avatar (2009), Henry Jenkins notes, "The event is a reminder of how people around the world are mobilizing icons and myths from popular culture as resources for political speech" (2010). However, in establishing the term for their own use, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport note that fan activism is "not about the mix between political concerns and culture but rather action that looks like political activism but is used toward non-political ends" (2009, 221n1), and in making this distinction Earl and Kimport mark fan activism as a decidedly nonpolitical process. In further contrast, in their study of public opposition to corporate breaches of privacy–again something that Earl and Kimport would categorize as nonpolitical–Laura Gurak and John Logie (2003) note the activist steps taken by members of the public when their personal issues are at stake. Taking this into account, studies of activism do not necessarily have to be categorized in terms of the political, cultural, or personal, and in fact many activism studies forgo such classification and instead highlight recurring tropes of activist practices.

[1.2] Regardless of whether a particular study highlights the activism processes of fans or a general public, key features are frequently apparent. Firstly, the role and importance of the Internet in activism is made clear, with Kevin Gillan, Jenny Pickerill, and Frank Webster noting that there is a general conception that "it…appear[s] obvious that new media have been nothing but advantageous to today's…activists" (2008, 131). Secondly, the role that emotion and extremism play as a motivational tool for activism is frequently highlighted. Ryan Claassen notes that "extreme attitudes figure prominently in accounts of policy motivated political participation ranging from campaign activism…to protest and issue advocacy" (2007, 370), and here again Earl and Kimport's categorizations can be interrogated, as these same "extreme attitudes" can inform fan investment in particular texts. Jenkins, for example, observes that "the contemporary fan is a modern day minuteman–ready to respond at a moment's notice to information that threatens their community, whether it is a cancellation notice or a cease and desist letter" (2006b).

[1.3] Much as fan studies scholarship covers the apparently exceptional audiences who are able to come together in order to express and articulate their fandom in varying ways, studies of fan activism frequently cover the ways in which those same audiences are able to unite as one to take action against an opposing force. Whether that action is successful, such as in Doctor Who fans' efforts to get the program back on air (Hills 2010), or unsuccessful, such as the Stargate SG-1 fans who were unable to prevent the cancellation of the program (Jenkins 2006b), studies of activism generally focus on instances where the act of mobilization is successful, a process Joss Hands discusses thusly: "The move from demonstration to direct action is perhaps best captured in the process of mobilisation–the move from gathering to acting… [A] necessary element of both mobilisation and direct action is therefore speed–in the context of group mobilisation, speed of communication, decision-making and tactical shifts" (2011, 124).

[1.4] Hands' definition of mobilization is reliant on the two most commonly recurring tropes of activism scholarship identified above, which can lead one to the conclusion that studies of activism highlight processes of successful mobilization as a result of the prevalence of the communicative possibilities of the Internet and the instigative role of emotion. While I do not disagree with this conclusion, what I would like to question in this article is whether this end result of successful mobilization is always the case, irrespective of the success of the activism in question (note 1). Rather, I will critique the notion that although online fan communities–established due to their shared passion for a particular subject and able to use the Internet to allow "exigencies [to] come together quickly and [to] snowball in a matter of days or even hours," (Gurak and Logie 2003, 30)–can mobilize successfully, they do not always necessarily do so, with reference to the specific case study of the fans of filmmaker Kevin Smith.

[1.5] In February 2010, Smith was ejected from a Southwest Airlines flight for apparently breaching their "passenger of size" policy, which at the time stated that "customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel" (note 2). As a result of this incident where he felt unfairly persecuted, Smith led a tirade against Southwest via the social networking tool Twitter (2010a), his blog (2010d; 2010e; 2010f), YouTube (2010b), and podcasts (2010c; Schwalbach Smith and Smith 2010), which prompted particular support from his fans on his official forum, the View Askew Message Board. When discussing his relationship with his fans, Smith notes, "We have a symbiotic relationship, the fan base and I… I'm the tubby kid who made it good, who comes across less like an artist and more like your buddy who suddenly won the lottery of life" (Smith 2009), and it was a semblance of this symbiosis that prompted fans from the Board to register their support for Smith's opposition to and boycott of Southwest Airlines.

[1.6] The Board has been hosted by Smith's own View Askew Productions Web site since 1995, and so many participants in the forum are familiarly acquainted with computer-mediated communication. Furthermore, the passion of their fandom–reflected in the above opinion of Smith–appears founded on a distinctly personal level of emotion, with Board poster TheManWhoLikesSMod noting, "It is…one of the most intimate fandoms I know of. I think that Kevin's close relationship with his fans is one of the key reasons why he stands out among other fandoms" (survey response, May 14, 2010) (note 3). Yet despite this apparent online aptitude, emotional fandom, and activist intentions, the fan community was unable to effectively mobilize in response to Smith's encouragement. Therefore, through the specific case study of the actions of Kevin Smith fans, I place the actions of this fan culture in relation to previous discussions of (fan) activism and the way in which a particular activist movement, despite having the necessary components for mobilization, was unable to successfully formulate into a cohesive tactical whole. As a result, I will question the assumption that online fans will automatically be well versed in activist methods and tactics, and will seek to develop a conceptualization of a fan community that does not necessarily guarantee successful activism.

2. The Kevin Smith fan "community"

[2.1] There are VERY few celebrities who actively engage with their fans on such a regular basis. Twitter has opened up the playing field to some degree, but the number that invite fans to poker games and test screenings are still the minority, in that it's mainly one.

–Untamed Aggression Survey response, May 12, 2010

[2.2] In July 2010 the View Askew Message Board celebrated a web presence of 15 years. The Board has existed in various guises since its inception, providing an official space where fans of Smith can collect and express their fandom of films such as Clerks (1994), Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma (1999), and Clerks II (2006), as well as other aspects of Smith's media output, such as his various podcasts, comic books, and live Q&A shows. The Board has undoubtedly been the most visible and tangible interactive portal for Smith fans, as it has allowed more dialogical, communicative, and personal relationships to be formed, largely due to Smith's own participation. Furthermore, the Board is the only of Smith's Web sites that requires a fee to join (a one-time charitable donation of $2) ensuring "the assholes, trolls and flamers who populate the dark corners of the internet, armed to the teeth with bitterness, envy, and a lot of free time" generally have no opportunity to post unconstructive negative feedback, and members' "license to post, quite like [their] license to drive…is a privilege, not a right" (Anon. n.d.).

[2.3] Smith notes that keeping in touch with his fans "has made all the difference in not just my career, but my life as well" (2007, 63), which is a stark contrast to the fan relationships experienced by a producer such as George Lucas, for example, whose fans' "acceptance of the gross imbalance between the individual viewer and corporate producer" (Brooker 2002, 98) demonstrates the way in which "the relationship between fan and producer, then, is not always a happy or comfortable one and is often charged with mutual suspicion, if not open conflict" (Jenkins 1997, 512). I believe this "mutual suspicion" appears to be largely absent from the relationship between Smith and his fans, with one possible reason being his frequent articulation of himself as a fan of his own and others' work (Smith 2007), causing him to be seen as a part of the fan community hierarchy, rather than as a producer part of a cultural institution–in contrast to the opposition symbolized by Alan McKee's fan-producer binary (2004, 171).

[2.4] Smith's view that he and his fans share a close relationship via his mediation of the fan-producer binary is an opinion shared by fans, such as that seen in the above responses of TheManWhoLikesSMod and Untamed Aggression. Furthermore, Hannah notes:

[2.5] I think Kevin spoils [us] by being so available. We have become accustomed to having this man who keeps no secrets from us as far as his life goes. I've been to his house. No other star I am a fan of has ever been so gracious and welcoming to me so it's a lot more intense of a fandom of Kevin. It's more of a borderline friendship. (survey response, May 12, 2010) (note 4)

[2.6] Here Hannah identifies her own relationship with Smith as being a resolutely more personal construct, particularly in opposition to others of whom she is a fan. In contrast to this response, Ruth's Smith fandom is less about a fondness of Smith's texts, and more about the producer behind the texts: "I'm not even a crazy fan of his movies, I'm a fan of the man himself. I think because of his time online, and his open relationship with the fans, there's a bit more of a devotion from the fans, but not in a psychotic way you can see with some other fan groups" (survey response, May 14, 2010).

[2.7] Babydoll forgoes discussion of being a fan of Smith or his texts altogether and instead focuses on what she feels is a distinctive aspect of Kevin Smith fandom–the community that has arisen from the fan culture, by noting that "Kevin Smith fans have created a community based on a mutual love of him and his work. If it weren't for that, many people in this community would have never met or have any reason to be friends" (survey response, May 12, 2010). Although at times ideologically problematic (Bell and Valentine 1997, 93), the notion of community is seemingly accepted and embraced as a method to describe the Kevin Smith fan culture by the fans themselves (note 5), so in opposition to Marc Eaton's conceptualization of community as a "rhetorical construct rather than an experience or a definable population," (2010, 175), here I refer to the Smith fan culture as a definable population of individuals whose experience is integral to understanding the extent of their activist participation. In doing this I believe we can begin to take a step back from the apparent utopian view of online participatory practices, as summarized here by Greg Elmer, Fenwick McKelvey, and Zachary Devereaux:

[2.8] Much hype has surrounded the democratic potential of Web 2.0 platforms as social production tools…to harness collective intelligence, allow users to express themselves bypassing traditional media…and enable access to a wealth of information about public issues. The rise of blogs, wikis, and other user-generated content and collaborative platforms has been seen as fundamentally changing the relationships between citizens, politics, and the media. (2009, 418)

[2.9] The emotions, relationships, and connections that the Smith fan community feel are present between themselves–and also Smith–are important in contextualizing the supportive structure that Smith could rely on in times of crisis or instability. It is arguably because of these connections that the fans would be more likely to have an emotional investment in Smith's welfare, and why one might assume that the necessary criteria for successful mobilization were available, for as Claassen notes:

[2.10] The extreme preference model of participation posits citizens with more extreme attitudes are more predisposed to emotion-driven expressions of their attitudes than those with more moderate attitudes. The psychological under-pinnings of the extreme preference motivation derive from the relationship between attitude salience and attitude extremity. Individuals tend to think more frequently about issues they consider important and frequent, conscious thought about an issue leads to more extreme attitudes. (2007, 373)

[2.11] Because of the visible parameters and implicit hierarchies present in communal structures such as the Board, it is here I look to in order to gauge the extent of mobilization toward the Southwest incident. Jenkins notes that "today, consumption assumes a more public and collective dimension–no longer a matter of individual choices and preferences, consumption becomes a topic of public discussion and collective deliberation; shared interests often lead to shared knowledge, shared vision, and shared actions" (2006a, 233). However, I believe in regards to the Southwest incident, the actions of the Kevin Smith fan community challenge this notion of collective deliberation and apparently shared actions. Although the fans categorize themselves as a community, it does not necessarily mean that their activist actions are communal. Particularly in light of the highly personal nature of the Southwest incident, the reaction of Smith's fans questions the extent to which their community is capable of mobilization. However, in order to establish how successful the mobilization can be considered, it is first necessary to detail Smith's reaction, and the manner in which he broadcast the incident.

3. Too fat to fly?

[3.1] Detailing his recollection of the Southwest incident in a specially recorded podcast later the same day (Schwalbach Smith and Smith 2010), Smith reported that he had booked two tickets for himself for a flight from Oakland to Burbank, an act he claimed was more for his comfort and a step only taken as he was able to afford to do so (Schwalbach Smith and Smith 2010). However, upon arriving at Oakland Airport, Smith opted to take an earlier flight, meaning he was placed as a standby passenger on a flight already heavily crowded, with just one seat available. Upon sitting down, Smith was approached by a member of Southwest staff and was asked to leave the plane, as he was deemed to be too large for a single seat (McNeill 2010; Rutherford 2010). As a result of this incident, Smith led a tirade against Southwest via the social networking tool Twitter, firing a barrage of abuse at the Southwest Twitter account detailing his side of the story. This communication occurred predominantly in the immediate aftermath of the incident, when his anger was clearly on display:

[3.2] I know I'm fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?

Dear @SouthwestAir, I flew out in one seat, but right after issuing me a standby ticket, Oakland Southwest attendant Suzanne (wouldn't give…last name) told me Captain Leysath deemed me a "safety risk." Again: I'm way fat… But I'm not THERE just yet. But if I am, why wait til my…bag is up, and I'm seated WITH ARM RESTS DOWN. In front of a packed plane with a bunch of folks who'd already I.d.ed me as "Silent Bob."

So, @SouthwestAir, go fuck yourself. I broke no regulation, offered no "safety risk" (what, was I gonna roll on a fellow passenger?). I was…wrongly ejected from the flight (even Suzanne eventually agreed). And fuck your apologetic $100 voucher, @ SouthwestAir. Thank God I don't…embarrass easily (bless you, JERSEY GIRL training). But I don't sulk off either: so everyday, some new fuck-you Tweets for @SouthwestAir (2010a)

[3.3] Joss Hands defines activism as taking into account dissent, resistance, and rebellion, with the term as he uses it containing "all of these elements in a looser configuration, and highlights the fact that activism…is thus directed against prevailing authority as domination and exploitation, whether in personal relations of micro-power, or in the form of institutional domination" (2011, 5). Even at this early retaliatory stage, one can categorize Smith's reaction in terms of activism: Noting that every day there will be new "fuck-you" tweets for Southwest marks his activist position in relation to a personal slight from Southwest. Following his initial ejection, Smith was then placed on a later flight home, where his Twitter outburst continued:

[3.4] Dear @SouthwestAir, I'm on another one of your planes, safely seated & buckled-in again, waiting to be dragged off in front of the normies… And, hey? @SouthwestAir? I didn't even need a seat belt extender to buckle up. Somehow, that shit fit over my "safety concern"-creating gut.

Hey @SouthwestAir! Look how fat I am on your plane! Quick! Throw me off!

Hey @SouthwestAir! Sometimes, the arm rests are up because THE PEOPLE SITTING THERE ALREADY PUT THEM UP; NOT BECAUSE THEY "CAN'T GO DOWN." (2010a)

[3.5] In addition to the outrage expressed here, Smith's activist intentions are again visible, as he explicitly engages with–and then downplays–the idea that he could establish support for a Southwest backlash, as he noted in response to Twitter user bogo_lode's suggestion of organizing a boycott: "A boycott of one. This is my last Southwest flight. Hopefully by choice" (2010a). At this stage it is notable that Smith's activist intentions are solitary, and that his goal in attacking Southwest is apparently a simple matter of clearing his name–his oft-stated defense stemming from the incident was that "I am fat, yes; but not Too Fat To Fly (yet)" (2010d). Smith's initial response to Southwest does not therefore indicate a desired response or call-to-action of fans on his behalf, instead appearing to be a solitary crusade.

[3.6] In contrast however, 4 days after the event, a blog post from Smith detailed why he took such a vociferous stance against the airline, highlighting that the issue at hand was not simply poor customer service to a passenger of size:

[3.7] I'm sorry–I gotta bitch about this Southwest Air thing because it's how I was raised: if someone fucks you, and you don't wanna be fucked, start screaming. So I screamed about getting fucked against my will, and a bunch of people–even an entire [airline]–said "You brought this on yourself!" without realizing they're championing not a fat guy being thrown off a plane, but a big corporation fucking over a customer…. I am both fat and financially comfortable. But I don't care if you're Bill Gates: if ANY sort of customer-service-based business with far more means than you…fucks you over and then lies about it to make themselves look better, as a consumer, you have a right to make noise–REGARDLESS OF THE SIZE OF YOUR BANK ACCOUNT. (2010f, emphasis in original)

[3.8] In drawing the distinction between consumer and corporation, Smith indicates to his fans that the issue at hand is not regarding personal relations of micropower, but instead concerns an institutional domination applicable to all (Hands 2011, 5). With the observation "you have a right to make noise," Smith–in opposition to his initial response–explicitly demonstrates an indication to his supporters that protest is a viable form of action in response to feelings of persecution or having been wronged, and as such constitutes a direction for fan activism. This attitude of encouraging a similar shared response was echoed later in the same post:

[3.9] I'll get thinner, but you'll [Southwest] always be an untrustworthy company with zero character and integrity in the personal responsibility department. And while "personal responsibility" may sound really ironic coming from a fat guy, just because I like to eat and not exercise, that doesn't mean I have zero sense of personal responsibility…

It means I'm the average American (2 in 3 Americans are obese/overweight). And as you've repeatedly let me and everyone else know via your blogs, your planes are not made for the average American anymore. (Smith 2010f)

[3.10] By noting that two in three Americans are obese, and linking to a CBS news report which notes "more than 190 million Americans are overweight or obese… Obesity-related diseases are a $147 billion dollar medical burden every year… Childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years" (Doane 2010), Smith signals that the Southwest issue should be part of wider cultural concerns for his fans, and that far from being simply a reaction to his treatment as a customer (or because of the fact that he has an established fan community), activism towards Southwest should draw emotional power from its engagement with an issue that should matter to consumers beyond the Kevin Smith fan community (Duncombe, cited in Jenkins 2010).

[3.11] In his study of protest Web site, Eaton notes that "when combined with personal vilification, categorical vilification allowed MoveOn to claim the moral high ground and helped members clarify their own ideological positions by giving them an enemy against which to react" (2010, 179). Applying this observation to Smith's handling of the Southwest incident, one can see how his attitude to Southwest alters from the personal vilification of poor customer service, to the broader categorical vilification of attitudes towards obesity and body image, to be embraced by a wider supportive group. In making clear that the Southwest issue should be classified beyond just a personal attack, Smith makes clear the ideological positions expected of his fans. Taking this into account, the extent to which fans were willing or able to mobilize should be placed relative to the degree in which Smith encouraged them to do so, regardless of the fact support may be considered expected behavior.

4. Fan reaction and response

[4.1] Anne-Marie Oostveen notes that "scholars…point to [the] rise of alternative or new forms of political action and explain that the public is now more willing to support single issue campaigns and engage in unconventional forms of protest activity" (2010, 794), and as noted earlier, this rise in participatory activism is most commonly attributed to either the utopian properties of the Internet or the role that emotion plays as a motivational tool. Again, I do not believe this conclusion to be entirely false, but I believe it depicts a one-sided view of the ease and success of mobilization, suggesting that even though activism is not always successful, the efforts to create a united force are. If one were to follow the lead of previous fan activism studies, it would be tempting to flatter the Kevin Smith fan community by depicting all participants as "modern day minute[men]" (Jenkins 2006b). However, because of the active role Smith himself plays in the fandom, exemplified in this instance by his very vocal self-defensive demeanor, I believe the agency of the fans to mobilize is undermined.

[4.2] However, this is not to suggest that fans did not attempt to engage in a degree of activism, as many individuals did actively support Smith in his dispute with Southwest. For example, Board user Darth Predator notes that:

[4.3] I have continued to [boycott] and will until the day I die. I will also dissuade everyone looking to fly for any reason from using the airlines. It may not make a difference on the bottom line as far as Southwest is concerned, but I do sleep better at night knowing I did all I could do to keep Southwest from treating other passengers as they did Kevin Smith. If I can dissuade one person, that is one less seat, that is one less chance they have to humiliate someone. (e-mail interview, March 15, 2011)

[4.4] Here Darth Predator feels that even if ultimately his contribution is ineffective to affect Southwest's economic state, ultimately his conscience could be clear in knowing that he had participated in some manner. He is therefore making a significant moral decision in choosing whether or not to engage in activism. Similarly, Dianae compares her activist practices to recent political events, remarking, "I've decided not to take them ever again. I rarely fly so probably no big difference made but I think grass roots actions CAN be effective. Just look what happened in Egypt!" (e-mail interview, March 16, 2011). Furthermore, Ruth notes, "I'm not in the US, but do fly there fairly regularly…and will not ever fly [Southwest]" (e-mail interview, March 21, 2011). What is perhaps most notable about these responses is that they define their action in terms of "I," rather than "we." In opposition to the strong sense of community previously articulated by fans, here activism becomes an isolated and individual activity devoid of a communal direction that can lead to mobilization: there is no noticeable "move from gathering to acting" (Hands 2011, 124, my emphasis).

[4.5] However, similar to Dianae and Darth Predator's observation that their activism would have little impact, others within the fan community made the tactical decision that any action would be a fruitless task. In opposition to Smith's rallying cry against institutional domination–that "if ANY sort of customer-service-based business with far more means than you…fucks you over…you have a right to make noise" (2010f)–the respondents here believe that their efforts would largely have little to no effect on Southwest's practices. For example, Customer4352 notes, "In regards to the entire…incident…I have never [boycotted] the airline. Nor do I intend to. I followed up on the entire thing by reading anything that came across my path. I did not feel that any action I take would bear any notice from the airline, being as I fly so little" (e-mail interview, March 15, 2011).

[4.6] Similarly, babydoll opted out of any activist participation, noting that "if I have a problem with a company I am more likely to get a response and potential compensation by contacting customer service. Large corporations aren't going to notice the boycotts of one person" (e-mail interview, March 15, 2011). Again, it is noticeable here that even those fans who opted out of anti-Southwest action conceive of activism as an individual process, despite babydoll's earlier lauding of the fan community and Customer4352's observation that "the website and [the] fans helped me through a dark period in my life" (survey response, June 27, 2010). Oostveen would categorize this response as weak support, comprised of a "group of supporters who endorse the campaign goals and objectives, but who do not participate in its behalf or give only minimal support" (2010, 795).

[4.7] This notion problematizes the view that "a social movement is more than just an interest group and will be comprised of more than a single organisation: it incorporates a whole range of networks into a specific social dynamic" (Pickerill 2003, 16). The specific social dynamic of the Board–previously thought to embody community and togetherness–now takes on a different form in light of the failure to mobilize around an issue that the object of their fandom believes should be part of fans' wider cultural concerns. Instead (and in opposition to Darth Predator) babydoll believes that other cultural concerns can supersede moral decisions: "I know many boardies who dislike Southwest and think what they did to Kevin was horrible but will still fly them because they are the cheapest and for many people saving money trumps principles. That's no surprise in this economy" (e-mail interview, March 15, 2011).

[4.8] The response of the fans here demonstrates that the consumption of Kevin Smith in this instance does not conform to the assumption of "collective deliberation" and shared actions (Jenkins 2006a, 233), and instead relies on individual circumstance regardless of moral (and emotional) position. As Eaton notes, there is a presumption that "participants will have member-to-member, non-hierarchical communication channels through which to negotiate the meaning of their communities" (2010, 176). However, this is clearly not the case in this instance.

[4.9] In relation to the (in)action of his fan community, Smith's own action against Southwest seemingly constitutes a one-man crusade against the airline, with the fan response–although supportive and emulative–unable to mobilize into an organized collective because of Smith's role as spokesperson and figurehead for his own fan culture. Smith's provocation of Southwest through various media outlets warranted multiple replies from the airline's Twitter account:

[4.10] @ThatKevinSmith hey Kevin! I'm so sorry for your experience tonight! Hopefully we can make things right, please follow so we may DM!

@ThatKevinSmith Again, I'm very sorry for the experience you had tonight. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do.

I've read the tweets all night from @thatkevinsmith–He'll be getting a call at home from our Customer Relations VP tonight. (2010)

[4.11] So, there is perhaps a sense that because of Smith's hierarchal status–not just within his own fan community, but in cultural terms as well–he was afforded special treatment (note 6). Although the author of the Southwest Twitter feed claimed "I read every single tweet that comes into this account, and take every tweet seriously. We'll handle @thatkevinsmith issue asap" (2010), a personal phone call from the Vice-President of Customer Relations to resolve a simple issue of an "average American" being "fucked over" by a large corporation (Smith 2010f) would arguably not be a privilege afforded to all. In contrast, Ruth notes that she "wrote [Southwest] a formal letter, sent an email and twittered them that I felt their policy was discriminatory and unfair and that myself and my 'fat' boyfriend would not fly their airline, nor would any of our friends or family. I didn't get a reply in any format" (e-mail interview, March 21, 2011).

[4.12] By not responding to Ruth's activism, yet directly engaging with Smith, Southwest demonstrates that Smith's encouragement of activism was ultimately not warranted, because of the cultural capital afforded to him as a producer of texts with not only an established fan base, but also multiple media outlets. Because Smith is the apparent wronged party in the incident–not just the figurehead for a movement–the Southwest response is directed at their disgruntled customer, rather than a wider (im)mobilized force. So despite Smith's claims that the issue should be pertinent to the average American, it is precisely his public presence and very vocal self-defensive demeanor that prevented fan mobilization: Rather than acting as a single fan organization, the Kevin Smith community in this instance largely let economics reign over emotion, and conceded participation to a more vocal and influential orator. In this instance, Smith's attempt to "engage with and draw opinion from a body of citizens" (Hands 2011, 5) appears to have been unsuccessful.

5. "I am fat, yes…"

[5.1] However, despite this apparent unsuccessful mobilization on a more widely recognizable scale, the Kevin Smith fan community did respond in a manner that could be considered appropriate to the discourses of producer-fan relations experienced prior to the Southwest incident. As previously noted, Smith's frequent defensive statement in regards to the incident was "I am fat, yes; but not Too Fat To Fly (yet)" (2010d), and an acknowledgement and awareness of his size has been part of his comedic discourse for many years; the DVD sleeve for Sold Out: A Threevening with Kevin Smith (2008), for example, describes Smith as "a big, fat, pop culture geek," and Smith's positioning of himself in this persona does appear to have had a marked effect on fan response to the Southwest incident.

[5.2] Across his media output, Smith has frequently made comedic reference to his size, from sharing his medical diagnosis of morbid obesity (Smith 2002) to detailing his dieting habits (Smith 2007). Following this lead, a tangible aspect of response from both Smith's fan community and Smith himself was that of a collective comedic reaction, and an apparent use of humor to own the situation in lieu of a victory against Southwest. Avner Ziv has noted that people frequently use humor as a means to cope with difficult situations in life (1988, 109), and Smith himself noted the role that humor played in his own perceived ownership of the situation (Schwalbach Smith and Smith 2010).

[5.3] Thus far this article has attempted to demonstrate an absence of action with regards to fan mobilization against Southwest. However, this is not to suggest that there was no response from the Smith fan community whatsoever. Rather, it is possible to examine the way in which fans did react, using comedy as a unifying response, demonstrating that although there was a failure of mobilization in traditional activist terms, a community-appropriate reaction did occur. Gary Alan Fine and Michaela De Soucey have explored the way a joking culture can emerge within social groups, noting that a collective's "comic discourse comes to characterize the group to its members and can subsequently be used to identify the group," (2005, 2) and it is the comic discourse between Smith and his fans that I believe signals the fans' most successful (indirect) response to Southwest, instead of an explicit activist approach.

[5.4] Fine and De Soucey note that "joking is embedded; it occurs within the context of an on-going relationship," (2005, 2) and in mapping Smith's comedic, rather than vitriolic, response to Southwest, it is important to note the context of the media he used to communicate information to his fans. For instance, the reactionary podcast recorded (Schwalbach Smith and Smith 2010) was produced as an episode of Smith's ongoing SModcast series, and was titled #106: Go Fuck Yourself, Southwest Airlines. However, despite Smith's apparent anger, humiliation, and embarrassment displayed during the episode, the comedic nature of SModcast places Smith's rant within a similar context by association, and thus becomes part of Smith's produced comedic discourse.

[5.5] Via its presentation on the SModcast Web site (, the podcast was embedded within a comedic context. When listed, all episodes feature a descriptive tagline of the subject matter being discussed by Smith and his co-presenter; SModcast #71 (Mosier and Smith 2009), for example, is followed by "In which our heroes take it easy and forget to be funny." In comparison, SModcast #106 featured the tagline "In which, surely, our hero is Too Fat To Fly. And don't call me Shirley." Further explicit references to comedy disaster film Airplane! (1980) continued with a liberal use of the film's soundtrack embedded throughout the episode–the appearance of romantic and tense themes adding humor to Smith's contrasting words. The use of Airplane! references help to mark this episode as a similarly humorous addition to the SModcast catalogue, making it part of the ongoing SModcast/Smith-audience relationship, and implicitly adding a joking context to the material.

[5.6] This SModcast/Smith-audience relationship–the aforementioned perceived "borderline friendship and "symbiotic relationship" that Smith and his fans share–fits further into Fine and De Soucey's categorization, for they note that "joking is interactive; it is part of on-going interaction, and demands a response from other group members" (2005, 2). The two-way nature of the producer-fan relationship allows Smith's fans to similarly joke about his size in an inclusive manner, taking their direction from the comedic context of SModcast. For example, previous episodes have inspired fan art, labeled "SMart," which has been posted on the Board, as well as being part of a dedicated art show in 2009. In a familiar practice of tribute and textual poaching (Jenkins 1992), fans take their favorite moments from the podcast and recreate them via artistic depictions–an act Smith publically appreciated during SModcast #89 (Mosier and Smith 2009), where he and co-host Scott Mosier browsed and discussed the online art during recording.

[5.7] As such, demonstrating the comedic context of Smith's reaction in SModcast #106, fans were quick to follow Smith's comedic lead, and began posting art that dealt with Smith's ejection from the Southwest plane–feeling comfortable enough to use imagery that highlighted Smith's weight. For example, in a parody of Passenger 57 (1992), malicore produced a mock film poster ("Passenger 37") featuring Smith's image and the tagline "Always Bet on FAT." Similarly, JonathanCoit featured an image of a grotesquely large Smith eyeing his co-passengers suspiciously, with the caption "Did you fucking bitches sell me out?"

[5.8] In addition to the art taking obvious comedic barbs at Smith, at times the art produced also demonstrated the way in which the relationship between Smith and his fans (and references specific to that relationship) became prevalent in the shared comedic reaction to the incident. For example, art from poster alienmastermind depicted an orangutan in a flight attendant uniform–a reference to Smith's films Mallrats (1995) and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), which both featured an orangutan named Suzanne; this is also the name of the Southwest employee who ejected Smith from the flight, as noted in Smith's Twitter feed above (2010a). This piece of art would therefore only make sense to those aware of Smith's work as a filmmaker–that is, his pre-existing fan base–meaning that those only aware of Smith because of the Southwest incident would be unaware of the significance of the art to Smith's joking culture. (In a similar manner, the number for "Passenger 37" was chosen because of the frequent recurrence of the number in Smith's work, beginning with Clerks.). It is not insignificant that the Board–usually a forum open for nonregistered users to read–became a private space at the time of the media storm, closed off to those without a username and password. In this instance, the Board became a symbolic refuge for Smith and his fans, representing a core space of Kevin Smith fandom, apparently welcoming of Smith's position as spokesperson and figurehead for his own fan culture.

[5.9] In addition to his previous comedic discourse, Smith's position as a celebrity, with access to a mass audience, seems to be important to understanding his use of humor to deal with the situation. John Nezlek and Peter Derks note that "one might expect that popularity (and by implication amount of social contact) is positively related to the use of humor as a means of coping. Individuals who deal with adversity by trying to make light of it or by cheering people up might be more popular than those who do not" (2001, 397).

[5.10] When applied to the Southwest incident, Nezlek and Derks' research suggests that Smith possibly used humor as an expected response–a reaction required of Smith because of the discourse of his celebrity persona, and the contact he has with a fan group trained to engage with a consistently maintained joking culture. The reaction to the event could be described as particularly Smithian because of the manner in which it fits with Smith's pre-established celebrity discourse–allowing him the right to joke about his size in order to preempt others doing so. This Smithian reaction has persisted in the shape of the Southwest incident being fully integrated into his comedic discourse: His Q&A show celebrating his birthday in August 2010, for example, was titled Kevin Smith: Too Fat for Forty. Although fan support may be expected in other scenarios, the specificities of the Southwest incident–pertaining to Smith's size and body image–would seem to suggest that the reaction of the fans was wholly appropriate to this particular culture (note 7).

[5.11] In forgoing the gathering process of activism and instead embracing comedy, Smith's fans demonstrate their response via a method more familiar to their fan experience, despite an apparent suitability for mobilization agency. The relationship between Smith and his fans, touted by both as somewhat closer than other fandoms, would appear to be apt for a defensive, retaliatory activist campaign. However, the fact that Smith seemingly addressed the situation himself apparently led the community's demonstration of identification to be informed by the preexisting discourses in the relationship between producer and fan, resulting in a comedic fan reaction more appropriate to the fandom, rather than a more readily recognizable form of activism.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] At the beginning of this article, I noted the recurring tropes of activism scholarship: the role and importance of the Internet, and the role that emotion and extremism play as a motivational tool. What is clear from the Smith fan response to the Southwest incident is that while these two factors are important and pertinent in discussions of fan mobilization, their presence does not always guarantee success. Despite a fan community that is quick to reference the strong emotional ties that bind it together, there are instances when the apparent interests of the fandom fall second to personal experience–whether that involves political, cultural, or economic factors.

[6.2] This prevalence of personal over fan experience is further highlighted by the later emergence of a successfully mobilized activist cause originated by the Smith fan community–the UnfollowCharlie campaign. Founded in March 2011, UnfollowCharlie is a drive to raise awareness regarding domestic violence against women, and grew from a concern surrounding "the media coverage around Charlie Sheen, and his growing fanbase, despite the fact that he has a history of violence towards women" (Anon. 2011). (Due to the spreading interests of the activists involved in UnfollowCharlie, the cause will soon be changing its name to reflect concerns other than those regarding Charlie Sheen.) Arising from connections made on the Board (where an UnfollowCharlie thread has remained active since February 2011), UnfollowCharlie has spawned a dedicated blog that strives to keep followers informed of the activist efforts such as educational events, related campaigns, charitable merchandise, and news reports. What is perhaps most notable, however, is that while activism in the face of the personal affront to Smith may have been anticipated (and was ultimately unsuccessful), UnfollowCharlie–despite having its roots on the Board–has nothing explicitly to do with Kevin Smith, demonstrating that although the Internet, emotion, and extremism have all played a part in its inception, the success of the activists' mobilization is not founded within the overriding fandom.

[6.3] In contrast, the Southwest case study of unsuccessful mobilization demonstrates the invisible facets of scholarship. While many fascinating studies cover newsworthy activism, or particularly esoteric fan cultures, I presented an exception to these apparent rules, although another iteration of this article could have covered UnfollowCharlie. While researchers are quick to demonstrate their subjects as particularly special, I charted a fan community in terms of its relative normality (note 8), and suggest that although one can attempt to repeatedly assert instances of exceptional behavior, this cannot always be the case.

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] This article would not have been possible without the continued help and support of members of the View Askew Message Board. I would also like to thank Keith Johnston and Brett Mills for their comments and feedback on earlier drafts.

8. Notes

1. Henry Jenkins and John Tulloch, for example, note how the activist efforts of Gaylaxians–Star Trek fans seeking equality in representation of homosexuals–did not succeed, yet the success of mobilization is never an issue (1995, 250).

2. The wording has since been slightly changed, now highlighting encroachment on neighboring seats, with the armrest "considered to be" the definitive boundary between seats (Southwest Airlines n.d.).

3. The qualitative data from fan responses in this article are taken from a questionnaire completed in May 2010 and e-mail correspondence in early 2011. Taken from my wider doctoral project examining the Smith fan culture and the boundaries and nature of community, my chosen methodological practice of qualitative participation and autoethnography closely follows Robert Kozinets' model of netnography, at the core of which he notes "is a participative approach to the study of online culture and communities" (2010, 74). Following this, I have placed myself as a scholar-fan within the Kevin Smith fan community, and my thesis derives its conclusions from qualitative data collected from the initial questionnaire, e-mail interviews, and face-to-face interviews conducted in July-August 2010. Ethical approval for research derived for the PhD and associated projects has been granted by the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia.

4. All respondents were given the opportunity to provide an alternate username for my research. "Hannah" is the only name that has been changed.

5. The fandom was described in these terms via survey responses by Board users yzzie (May 12, 2010), frick (June 27, 2010), Ruth (May 12, 2010), and slithybill (May 12, 2010).

6. Diane Negra and Su Holmes have noted the manner in which "dignity and privacy are increasingly gendered in the context of celebrity representation" (2008, [2]), and I think it is worth questioning here the extent to which Smith's treatment by Southwest was a gendered motivation. In considering whether the airline would have been less accommodating–or Smith less vocal–had he been a woman in a similar situation is an interesting prospect, particularly when one considers that on his second Southwest flight a woman was marginalized because of her size (an incident witnessed by Smith). Smith later reached out to the woman and provided her a platform (SModcast #107) to air her views on Southwest and female body image (Smith 2010c).

7. The fan culture's familiarity with Smith's attitude toward his size was noted when Smith acknowledged Southwest's apprehension in using the term fat, noting they "were so fucking scared when I brought up [the word] 'fat'…'fat,' 'black,' 'the n-word,' 'Jew'…you can tell there are buzz words like, 'We didn't say that!'" (Schwalbach Smith and Smith 2010). One can question here the extent to which fat can now be considered an offensive label, and whether Smith (and his fans') use of the word is an act of reclamation.

8. That's not to say I do not think the Kevin Smith fan community is special–I am an active participant in the fandom myself (Phillips 2010).

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