Book review

Millennial fandom: Television audiences in the transmedia age, by Louisa Ellen Stein

Helena Louise Dare-Edwards

University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom

[0.1] Keywords—Fan community; Generational fandom; Social media

Dare-Edwards, Helena Louise. 2016. Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age, by Louisa Ellen Stein [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2016.0941.

Louisa Ellen Stein, Millennial fandom: Television audiences in the transmedia age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015, paperback, $24 (224p) ISBN 978-1609383558; e-book, $24, ISBN 978-1609383565.

[1] While teen shows, those directed at or populated by teens and young adults, have been a mainstay on most major television networks since at least the early 1990s, scholarship on such shows, and especially their fans, has been harder to come by. Louisa Ellen Stein's Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age is a welcome contribution that does well in beginning to address this gap in research. With Sharon Ross, Stein previously edited a collection, Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom (2008), and since then she has offered a number of articles and book chapters on millennial media fans and teen television. Yet, other than a handful of journal articles and one other edited collection, Glyn Davis and Kay Dickinson's (2004) Teen TV: Genre, Consumption and Identity, academic studies engaging with this demographic and this genre have been scarce. Indeed, summing up the genre's apparent value, status, and place within fan studies, Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington (2007) referred to teen fandoms as an "inevitably missing genre" (16). Stein thus has an inordinate amount of ground to cover, more than any one book can, but Millennial Fandom takes great strides in revaluing the genre, taking its fans seriously, and establishing a place for both within the field of fan studies. Broadly speaking, Stein locates her work within the context of a third wave of fan studies, with the intent that it may provide a model for future work in this emerging wave.

[2] Through a number of case studies, including Fox's Glee (2009–15), ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars (2010–), and the transmedia Web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012–13), Stein offers a discursive and textual analysis of commercial media texts directed at and representing millennials, and of media texts created by (millennial) fans. In doing so, she examines the complex intersection between representations of fan culture and representations of millennial fan culture, as well as that between commercial representations of millennials and millennial fans' self-representation through digital authorship. One of the book's central preoccupations is the evolving relationship, including similarities and differences, between media fans and millennials in contemporary transmedia fan culture (although, as Stein herself admits, this is an issue the book mostly "danc[es] around" [144] until the final chapter). Stein argues that millennials have made fan practices more mainstream and more acceptable, as well as that the divisions between media fans and millennials may not be as stark as some may imagine.

[3] Millennial Fandom opens with an introduction by the author that deftly outlines the analytical and conceptual framework that structures the book: the notion of the millennial generation. The millennial generation comprises those born between 1982 and 2004, thus including both teens and young adults. Both the term and the work in which it originated, Neil Howe and William Strauss's Millennials Rising (2000), are well examined, critiqued, and built on by Stein, yet it is undeniable that "millennial" comes heavily loaded with a range of (perhaps mostly negative) connotations that some readers may find distracting. Stein works hard to recuperate the term for the purposes of her study without glossing over the issues it represents, and in lieu of an alternative, it works as a catch-all term for the people within the broad age range it encompasses. While acknowledging the term's problematic status as a construct, Stein uses it as a shorthand in order to examine "millennial" as a construct and an "evolving self-defined culture" (7), as well as examining those who are both affected by and included within its construct.

[4] In her introduction, Stein also begins to discuss the two opposing discourses that circulate about millennials: what she refers to as millennial hope, a celebratory narrative, and the darker version, millennial noir. Indeed, these two concepts structure the following two sections of the book, with three chapters in part 1,"Millennial Hope," and three chapters in part 2,"Millennial Noir." "Millennial" is thus also used as a conceptual framework, since millennial hope was an ideology set forth in Millennials Rising, and millennial noir, formulated by Stein, is a discourse in direct opposition to it that can be considered to contain, highlight, critique, and in some cases reform the negative connotations of the term that continue to circulate. The final section of the book, "Millennial Transformation," contains two chapters that consider transformations in fan authorship and the performative and collective display of "feels."

[5] Over the course of part 1's three chapters, Stein uses Glee as an extended case study to explore and interrogate the ideologies of millennial hope and the idea of the millennial as a "modified fan." She suggests that the media industry sees millennials as a watered-down and more palatable version of media fans and therefore embraces them more willingly than it did their predecessors. The image of a "cleaned-up fandom" (12) is also highly constructed and sold back to millennials to court them and increase their participation (though within corporate boundaries); this is most keenly shown through the discussion of Kyle XY (2006–9) in the second part of the introduction and in part 1. While millennials are digitally connected, highly invested in their choice of media text, engaged across multiple platforms, and technologically savvy, they are perceived to be—and are often constructed as—more mainstream and less excessive, less threatening, less political, more easily contained and controlled within a corporate, commercial version of prepackaged fannishness than media fans. But Stein finds a mass of contradictions within the hopeful millennial discourse itself, exemplified through Glee's ideological unevenness and in groups of its fans (whom the industry redefines and co-opts as "Gleeks"), and these contradictions also contradict the image of the more agreeable millennial audience constructed by TV networks, media producers, and advertisers alike. For instance, Stein explores fans' negotiation (and critique) of the conservative and progressive discourses of millennial hope through a consideration of their engagement with, and championing of, the queer romance in Glee through fan activism and transformative and communal authorship.

[6] After three chapters focusing on one case study, part 2 then draws on four others to examine millennial noir. Although Stein acknowledges that these chapters "offer a snapshot of millennial noir discourses across a cluster of associated series" (13), I found myself craving more sustained attention to three of these four. Millennial as a conceptual framework also seemed slightly constraining at times. For example, chapter 6, "An Invitation to Transgress," examines how these texts invite fans to participate, transgress, and intervene, and in turn how fans exceed these invitations in their creative output. I was surprised that Stein chose Gossip Girl (2007–12) as her primary case study here rather than Pretty Little Liars, given the latter's fandom and use of transmedia extensions. Pretty Little Liars has been hailed as a TV show at the forefront of transmedia storytelling (Edelsburg 2012) and celebrated for its precedent-setting social media engagement (Ge and Hod 2015). Through spin-off webisodes, apps, multiple social media channels, an online scavenger hunt, and a second screen Halloween party (to name just some examples of its transmedia extensions), Pretty Little Liars' transmedia campaign to invite fan participation has arguably extended beyond that of Gossip Girl and its world-building games and intertextual references to film history that Stein discusses. In turn, opportunities for Pretty Little Liars fans to transgress and intervene would also seem to be more plentiful than those offered to Gossip Girl fans. At least Pretty Little Liars would make for a rich case study in terms of examining millennial fans' engagement with multiple and connecting transmedia extensions and the different, even contradictory, ways they may exceed invitations to participate (across and between extensions) in their creative output. Nevertheless, the discussion of the ways in which all four shows examined in part 2 draw on and rework themes, tropes, and aesthetics derived from film noir (such as the voice-over, which in millennial TV offers insight into female characters' interiority, helping audiences connect to and identify with them) offers Stein a valuable opportunity to broach issues of gender and, more specifically, examine the tensions and contradictions at the heart of millennial female subjectivity.

[7] Stein argues that female-led shows such as Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Veronica Mars (2004–7), and Revenge (2011–15) embrace and capitalize on the more negative visions of millennials. In particular, she suggests that they negotiate anxieties about millennials' digital prowess and moral ambiguity, as well as exploring (female) sexual and emotional power. In addition, bringing together the representation of millennials with millennial fandom and then extending that representation to the imagined audience of these shows, Stein argues that the "filles fatales" of these four series reflect, build on, transform, and rehabilitate the gendered vision of fandom distilled in the usually negative figure of the fangirl. Again, there's a lot of ground to cover, ground that remains largely underdiscussed in fan studies, and I wish these three chapters could have gone further. (The discussion could be expanded into a whole book, which I would very happily read.) Still, they are novel and insightful as well as significant in their offering of a solid foundation for future studies of fangirls, especially young female fans of teen media.

[8] The final part of the book, "Millennial Transformation," focuses more directly on fandom, fan works, community building, and fans' use of digital media. Its first chapter examines audience-celebrity interactions, focusing on fans of Misha Collins. Through a study of GISHWHES, an annual international scavenger hunt organized by Collins, Stein highlights how millennial fandom has moved from understanding authorship and creativity as belonging to privileged individuals to seeing them as attributes of a decentered collective. She explores the theme further in the following chapter, "Collective Authorship and the Culture of Feels," through a discussion of the performance of high emotion and affect in fan spaces such as the hugely popular, but somewhat under-theorized, Tumblr. Once more she uncovers a slew of contradictions in millennial fans' engagement and practices, this time in the combination of intimate emotion and high performativity, which serves to highlight how nuanced and uneven is this terrain. Stein argues that in the millennial "culture of feels," the perception of fandom is transformed from "marginal to mainstream and from liminal or taboo to shared, popular ethos" (134) and that Tumblr in particular is well suited to the highly visual performance of collective emotion. But this suitability is not limited to Tumblr; it extends outward to digital culture more broadly. To illustrate this, Stein examines the ways in which feels culture informs and is reflected in the transmedia series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

[9] Stein's book offers some important insights into contemporary fan culture, and its discussions of gender in part 2 and of emotion in part 3 are particularly strong. Indeed, this book opens up many interesting pathways that can be, and I hope will be, built on in future research as we continue to move into the third wave. As the first book-length study dedicated to an unfortunately much maligned genre and a much overlooked demographic, it will be valuable to fan studies researchers in particular but also media researchers more broadly, as well as youth scholars and fan readers interested in millennial culture. For fan studies researchers, one of the great strengths of the book lies in its engagement with the mainstreaming of fandom and fan identities, the ways in which the industry perceives and constructs fans, and fans' relations with text and industry in participatory culture. Whether you like or loathe the term "millennial" and the idea of generational categories, they are unlikely to disappear any time soon, and a sustained focus on millennial fans (who are prime targets of the media industry) is not only welcome, but long overdue. Stein's book offers an overview of the millennial audience and their media/fan practices and succeeds in balancing and interrogating both the optimistic and pessimistic images of, and discourses associated with, the millennial.

Works cited

Davis, Glyn, and Kay Dickinson, eds. 2004. Teen TV: Genre, Consumption and Identity. London: BFI.

Edelsburg, Natan. 2012. "How Pretty Little Liars Used Social TV for Their Halloween Special." LostRemote, November 2. http://www.adweek.com/lostremote/how-pretty-little-liars-used-social-tv-for-their-halloween-special/35837.

Ge, Linda, and Itay Hod. 2015. "The Secrets to ABC Family's Success: How Pretty Little Liars and Siblings Played Social Media and Won." The Wrap, July 21. http://www.thewrap.com/the-secrets-to-abc-familys-success-how-the-networks-tv-shows-played-social-media-and-won/.

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. 2007. "Introduction: Why Study Fans?" In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, 1–16. New York: New York University Press.

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage.

Ross, Sharon Marie, and Louisa Ellen Stein, eds. 2008. Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

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