Book review

Understanding fandom: An introduction to the study of media fan culture, by Mark Duffett

Suzanne Scott

University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Mark Duffett. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, hardcover, $100 (360p) ISBN 978-1441158550; paperback, $29.95 (360p) ISBN 978-1441166937.

[0.2] Keywords—Celebrity; Fan pathology; Fan representation; Methodology; Music fan culture

Scott, Suzanne. 2015. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture, by Mark Duffett [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

Mark Duffett, Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, hardcover, $100 (360p) ISBN 978-1441158550; paperback, $29.95 (360p) ISBN 978-1441166937.

[1] To write a comprehensive introductory text on media fandom and fan studies is a daunting task, particularly in a cultural moment marked by rapid changes in fan culture, industry-fan relations, and fan studies as a field. Henry Jenkins's seminal 1992 Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Matt Hills's Fan Cultures, published a decade after Jenkins's text, both still perform admirably as introductions to the study of media fans. However, the fact that both were published before the proliferation of digital fan culture inevitably limits their applications to studies of contemporary fan culture. Mark Duffett's Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture endeavors to be a spiritual successor to these two books while simultaneously training its focus on two historically undertheorized components of media fandom: music fandom and celebrity.

[2] There is fascinating book within Understanding Fandom, in which Duffett's scholarly investment in music fandom (most recently as the editor of the 2013 anthology Popular Music Fandom: Identities, Roles, and Practices) is mobilized to critically reexamine and reimagine the theoretical preoccupations of fan studies through an analysis of music stars and fans. Certainly, media fan studies' historic, borderline medium-specific emphasis on television fans and fandom is something that deserves to be interrogated and expanded, and Understanding Fandom succeeds in offering a more expansive view of the field. Unfortunately, this expansive view often problematically chafes with the book's stated project. The titular framing of the book as an "Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture," coupled with Duffett's reticence to engage some of the core critical preoccupations of the field and fan culture's digital incarnations, ultimately make it difficult not to focus on the book's failings as well as—or perhaps rather than—its strengths.

[3] Understanding Fandom opens with a foreword by Matt Hills that frames Duffett's intervention and the significance of his refusal to "view or define fandom as one thing," conceptualizing it as "partly private and partly social" (viii). The book is subsequently divided into 11 chapters, each framed by a series of questions the chapter intends to address. These "Starting Points," though not overtly positioned as discussion questions, are broadly framed and would be most efficiently used to engage Duffett's own analysis in a classroom setting. The book concludes with an extensive glossary in which fannish jargon ("squick") peppers a much broader array of references to scholarly methodologies ("auto-ethnography"), theories ("uses and gratifications"), and concepts ("affect") that have informed studies of fan culture. These keywords, presented in boldface type in the text to denote their significance and parsed in simple terms, clearly mark the book's primary audience as undergraduates who are perhaps unfamiliar with fan studies specifically, and media and cultural studies broadly.

[4] As a survey of how fans have historically been understood, across disciplines and media forms, the first four chapters of Understanding Fandom are impressive in scope. In the introduction, Duffett details both the complexities of fandom as a phenomenon and the study of fans as a discipline, demarcating between "fandom research," a "multi-disciplinary body of scholarship that takes fandom as its primary focus," and "fan studies," a "much narrower" field emerging from cultural studies traditions that endeavors to portray fans in a positive light through an emphasis on fan communities and practices (2). Duffett's pointedly flexible definition of "media fandom" as "the recognition of a positive, personal, relatively deep, emotional connection with a mediated element of popular culture" (2) and his stated desire to move beyond the televisual, textual, and transformative preoccupations of fan studies suggest the book's conceptual placement in the former category of fandom research. Though the introduction draws somewhat arbitrary lines about which fan cultures will be emphasized (popular music) or excluded (sports), presumably based on Duffett's own fannish investments, it offers a concise overview of the history of fandom across media and time. Duffett then moves on to grapple with whether or not fandom can be considered a coherent object, if the fan can or should be conceptually "pinned down" (as an identity, a set of practices, a community, or a mode of performance). Duffett concludes that "there might be much to gain from exploring fan theory as a kind of template…a yardstick against which to measure interest in particular objects or in particular contexts" (19). Thus, while he cautions against generalizing, particularly in terms of identifying fans as mere consumers, Duffett also adheres to a far more generalized vision of a fan than fan studies has historically adopted.

[5] Chapters 2 and 4 both address fan representations, and the stereotypical or pathologized nature of these representations and theorizations of the fan as a cultural subject. Though Duffett should be commended for devoting all of chapter 4 to the "Pathological Tradition" that accompanies the fan's representation within popular culture, he does so at the expense of developing meaningful interconnections with chapter 2's focus on stereotypical representations of fans. Because chapter 4's discursive analysis of this pathologic tradition is in many ways foundational to chapter 2's discussion of "Fan Stereotypes and Representations," which helped promulgate the fandom-as-pathology trope, the structure of the book as a whole suffers from both the ordering and gap between these two related chapters. The pathologic tradition is also essential to an understanding of why so many first-wave fan scholars framed fans as textual poachers and resistant readers, a tendency discussed in chapter 3 as part of a broader effort by Duffett to move studies of fandom "Beyond the Text." Chapter 4's discussion of this pathologic tradition could have been more productively situated to frame chapter 2's discussion of fans as other, their delineation from ordinary audiences, and how internal hierarchies within fan culture are established and maintained. Likewise, rooting chapter 3's historical survey of audience research as either enabling or speaking back to this pathologic tradition would have helped support Duffett's critique of academics' emphasis on textuality and its ongoing connection to concepts of passive or active audiencehood. Thus, though chapter 4 offers some thoughtful insights into the slippery-slope metaphor of fannish obsession (particularly as applied to celebrity culture) and closes with a wonderful close reading of Mark David Chapman's tenuous status as a fan, its placement often makes it feel redundant to previous chapters.

[6] If the first four chapters of Understanding Fandom offer a thorough history of audience studies and overview of the core conceptual preoccupations of fan studies, then chapter 5 ("How Do People Become Fans?"), chapter 8 ("Myths, Cults, and Places"), and chapter 10 ("Researching Fandom") are more successful in their call for a renewed interrogation of key questions for the future expansion of the field. Chapter 5 critically works through the lingering analogies to describe fandom (contagion and religion) in an effort to answer the question that too few fan scholars pose, namely, "How Do People Become Fans?" In doing so, Duffett places emergent and evolving theories within fan studies (particularly surrounding affect) in conversation with canonical texts that have long informed scholarly work on fans, such as Bourdieu's work on taste as a social system and Gramsci on hegemony. Chapter 8 also takes up discursive significance of fan pilgrimages and the cult connotations of fans and fan objects. The chapter's most interesting contribution to studying fans is Duffet's repurposing of the concept of "imagined memory" to discuss "the product of a fan's desire to have experienced one of the early performances of their favourite star" (229). Here, as elsewhere, Duffet's language binds this theory explicitly to musical performances, but the concept of these necessarily contradictory instances of emotional investment could be productively applied to fannish memory or nostalgia broadly, as well as to a range of specific fannish encounters, events, texts, and paratexts.

[7] In particular, graduate students or fan scholars will find several concepts from chapters 5 and 8 generative for future work, and chapter 10 poses important questions for debate, particularly about methodologies for the study of fans and fan cultures. Duffett suggests that neither the situated knowledge of insider accounts, nor the presumed objectivity of outsider accounts is optimal, suggesting that the various liminal scholarly identities taken up by acafans or scholar-fans and their often autoethnographic approaches may present too limited a perspective. Moreover, he calls for a renewed investment in (or at least a need to interrogate the lack of) data gathered from actual fans within these studies. Along these lines, Duffett positions digital ethnographies and the reliance on unsolicited data (such as online fan forums) as especially problematic. The book's conclusion, addressing "The Frontiers of Fan Research," expands on some of these issues, in particular the need to consider marginalized audience segments within fan studies (lapsed fans, fans of regressive objects), the life cycle of the fan, their connections to family and society, and a call for more historical research.

[8] Given their historical place of prominence within fan studies and their centrality to our evolving fan culture and academic accounts of it, the chapters addressing "Fan Practices" (chapter 6), "Fandom, Gender, and Sexual Orientation" (chapter 7), and "The Fan Community: Online and Offline" (chapter 9) are simultaneously some of the shortest chapters in the book—and those that most directly call into question the book's titular promise to function as an introduction to the study of media fan culture. Chapter 6 taxonomically sorts fan practices within three broad categories of pleasure that Duffett associates with fandom. Specifically, Duffett demarcates between pleasures of connection (autograph hunting, star encounters), appropriation (spoiling, fan fic, slash), and performance (participating, collecting, zines/blogging, fan vids, filking, cosplay). Duffett's effort to comprehensively address such a wide array of fan practices in such limited space means that the discussion of each of them is inevitably cursory. This limited discussion of fan production and appropriation would be less problematic if fans' transformative works, and their place within fan studies, didn't present a structuring absence throughout many earlier chapters. This erasure is compounded by Duffett's introductions to the various sections on slash, which begin with disclaimers about its "controversial reputation" (173), noting that "not everyone is comfortable with it" (174) and that fan scholars have historically "overplayed the importance of" (178) these fan texts that are "consumed by only a fraction of the fan audience" (176). Although some fan scholars have issued similar critiques of first-wave fan studies, these statements belie the significance of this subgenre of textual production to both fandom and fan studies as they have been historically conceived and studied.

[9] Chapter 6's reticence to fully account for the roles that texts produced predominantly by and for marginalized audiences have played within fandom and fan studies carries over into the following chapter. Chapter 7's discussion of "Fandom, Gender, and Sexual Orientation" focuses on concerns around textual essentialism and fan scholars essentializing audiences. Duffet's point that personal fandom might function similarly for people of different genders, and that the "focus on gender as difference is in danger of hiding this similarity" (193), is a good one. Again, though, this emphasis elides a more nuanced discussion of how these differences have often been structured both in fan culture and fan studies. Duffett's choice of test cases for this chapter, such as exploitation films, horror movies, and other highly "masculine" genres, along with his emphasis on more "feminine" fannish expressions like "squee" and "shipping," falls short of his own call to address how these "socially coded" "male" and "female" fan spaces are "historically contingent" (197). Problematically, Duffett's discussion of sexuality in the chapter almost universally focuses on gay men, taking a more classical cinema studies approach to address instances of queering representation and stardom.

[10] Considering the previous chapters' emphasis on analog or lived/experiential instances of fandom, chapter 10's focus on "Fan Communities: Online and Offline" could have reasonably chosen to focus on the former exclusively. Though Duffett discusses the significance of sites like YouTube to the development of digital fan culture, the emphasis is placed on its capacity as an archive rather than a distribution platform for fan works. Duffett suggests that ultimately the emergent "intimacy" with celebrities that social media purports to produce differs little from the small collective of fans who were able to encounter their celebrity object in a predigital age (239). What has changed is the visibility and temporalities of fandom itself, and its propensity toward self-commodification or self-branding within convergence culture. Though Duffett's subsequent discussion of fan communities within the context of sociological studies of alienation in modern society raises important points about what's overlooked when we focus on fan communities (for example, closet fans, its distinction from a fan base, discord and hierarchies within those communities), further discussion of the place of the fan and fan studies in a post–convergence culture era, and an overview of the key platforms fans coalesce around, would have been necessary for the book to become a meaningful successor to Textual Poachers and Fan Cultures as an introductory reader for fan studies courses.

[11] Understanding Fandom's most significant contributions and claims, predominantly about the need to expand our conception of the fan and fan studies as a field, serve to explain but do not wholly excuse Duffett's reticence to engage transformative fan texts in detail and the roles that gender has played in fan studies. Nor does this emphasis fully explain Duffett's failure to engage the impact of digital technologies and platforms on fan culture, or how the accordant shifts (in industry-fan relations, modes of celebrity performance, and fans' textual production and social engagement) are affecting study of fan culture. If anything, Duffett's focus on music fandom and celebrity as historically undertheorized corners within media fan studies is tailor made for a sustained engagement of these issues. Likewise, Duffett's radical suggestion at the end of chapter 10 that there is increasingly a "crucial role for researchers who do not proclaim their own fandom" (275), and that one's own fandom or fannish identity should be incidental to the study of fans, provided they treat the object respectfully, is undercut by his own highly selective, and decidedly fannish, understanding of fan culture as an object of study.

[12] By Duffett's own admission, Understanding Fandom does not (as its title would suggest) claim to be "a comprehensive survey of the field," but rather has "a more modest aim: introducing some key themes and thinkers and exploring commonalities that connect the different kinds of fandom for various media objects" (34). Though the book's bibliography features a healthy array of key writers within fan studies, the citational burden placed on work by Jenkins, Hills, and Bruce Springsteen fan scholar Daniel Cavicci throughout is jarring at times. This is especially the case in the chapters addressing fan production and studies of gender and sexuality within fan culture, which would have benefited from a more diverse array of voices, from canonical scholarship to emergent work on these topics. Jenkins's and Hills's undisputed positioning as two of the most influential and prolific scholars in the field makes their prominence understandable, but when coupled with Duffett's own acafannish agreement with nearly all of Hills's perspectives on the subject, it occasionally reads as overly indebted to, and ultimately somewhat redundant with, Hills's own work. Duffett's own intervention and critical voice comes through most forcefully in his discussions of music fandom, and I look forward to reading more from him on this topic.

[13] For fan scholars, Duffett's book will be most useful as a tool to interrogate the shifting space of the field itself, to contemplate what fan studies has historically overlooked or oversimplified, to its detriment, and to assess which of the field's core concerns and values it is important to reassert or reconsider. We might consider a similar approach to Understanding Fandom's implementation in undergraduate courses on media fans and fan studies. Though it would require much supplementation around the topics of fans' transformative works, identity politics within fan studies, and how digital media has impacted fan culture to serve as a primary introductory text, selections will function ably to productively broaden conversations around what fandom is and how it is studied. In particular, the chapters concerning fan stereotypes and representations (chapter 2) and researching fandom (chapter 10) productively survey fan studies' past, and the chapters on how people become fans (chapter 5) and fan myths, cults, and places offer potential road maps for its future.

License URL:

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works. TWC is a member of DOAJ. Contact the Editor with questions.