Enclaving and cultural resonance in Black Game of Thrones fandom

Sarah Florini

Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Because of the ways fandom is constructed as white, Black fans are often overlooked or marginalized. Black Game of Thrones (2011–) fans create a parallel culturally resonant fandom organized around an African American Vernacular English–inflected iteration of the show's title, Dem Thrones. Through podcast recaps and the use of nonstandard hashtags for live tweeting, these fans draw on the affordances of digital media to create enclaved fan spaces. In addition to creating parallel and sequestered fandoms, Dem Thrones fans also engage in culturally resonant fan practices that use Black cultural commonplaces and center Black experiences. Dem Thrones fans draw on vernaculars and Black cult media to interpret the show through Black cultural lenses. They also use strategies for reading otherwise absent Black cultural specificity into the text. Seizing on resemblances to Black linguistic, aesthetic, or social practices, Dem Thrones fans map Black culture onto a text, creating opportunities for identification despite a dearth of Black representation.

[0.2] Keywords—African American; African American Vernacular English; Black cult media; Dem Thrones; Live tweeting; Podcasting; Twitter

Florini, Sarah. 2019. "Enclaving and Cultural Resonance in Black Game of Thrones Fandom." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In March 2014, HBO released a mixtape inspired by Game of Thrones (2011–) entitled Catch the Throne, featuring well-known hip-hop performers like Big Boi, Common, and Wale. Lucinda Martinez, HBO's senior vice president for multicultural marketing, described the effort to the Wall Street Journal, saying, "Our multicultural audiences are a very important part of our subscribers, and we don't want to take them for granted" (Long 2014). While HBO was reaching out to fans of color, it seemed largely unaware of the thriving Black Game of Thrones fandom active online. These fans, many of whom found HBO's mixtape efforts anywhere from laughable to insulting, had been live tweeting the show for years using the hashtag #DemThrones. The use of this nonstandard hashtag effectively created a parallel fandom that was obscured even to the data-gathering mechanisms of HBO itself.

[1.2] HBO's clumsy attempt to reach Black audiences, resorting to mixtapes rather than engaging with existing fan communities as they had in other marketing campaigns, illustrates two issues. First, Black fandom largely goes unnoticed, particularly in genres, like fantasy, that are heavily associated with whiteness. Second, it illustrates the enclaved nature of much Black fandom. Because Black fans are often ignored, marginalized, or even harassed, many have built their own enclaved spaces by exploiting the affordances of digital media.

[1.3] This essay explores one such fan practice: Black Game of Thrones fans organized around an African American Vernacular English (AAVE) iteration of the show's title, Dem Thrones. Though this fandom is transplatform, making use of a range of digital and social media, I focus on two of its core elements—live tweeting and podcast recaps. These fans use Twitter to live tweet the show using the hashtag #DemThrones. Black podcasts are also a robust component of this fandom, as many Black podcasters both live tweet and do weekly episode recaps on their shows. "Dem Thrones" was created by the hosts of the FiyaStarter podcast, who began recapping Game of Thrones in season 2. The first use of the #DemThrones hashtag occurred in May 2012 (@TheREALHeemDee 2012). The hashtag was popularized by The Black Guy Who Tips (TBGWT) podcast and subsequently picked up and further popularized by other podcasts, in particular Black Girl Nerds. By the beginning of Game of Thrones season 3, in the summer of 2013, TBGWT inaugurated its regular weekly Game of Thrones recap segment. What began as a relatively short segment, clocking in at about half an hour for the first recap, has since grown into a regular in-depth discussion, lasting up to two hours. By season 5, the #DemThrones hashtag was making regular appearances in Twitter's US trending topics and was being used by high-profile Twitter users like director Ava DuVernay and Ferguson protester Netta Elzie.

[1.4] The AAVE hashtag and the affordances of podcasting allow Black fans to create enclaved networked spaces where they can engage in fandom, free from the discomforts and hostilities that come from operating in normatively white fan spaces. By using a nonstandard hashtag while live tweeting, Dem Thrones fans are able to shift their contributions to a parallel timeline, separating themselves from the fans using the official hashtags while still allowing them to utilize Twitter for synchronous coviewing. Podcasts, an audio format that is neither searchable nor easily scanned, create a deterrent for potential harassers by requiring a temporal commitment to listening (Florini 2015). Beyond merely protectively sequestering them, these enclaves allow Black fans to engage in a culturally inflected fandom that uses Black culture to interpret and celebrate their beloved media text, often reading Black cultural specificity into a text with a notable absence of Black bodies.

[1.5] I begin with a discussion of how Black fans have been erased from industry, academic, and popular understandings of fandom, and the ways this erasure has necessitated the creation of Black fan spaces. I then examine how Dem Thrones fans exploit or subvert digital media affordances to create an enclaved parallel fandom. Next, I analyze the ways Dem Thrones fans engage in a culturally inflected fandom, deploying Black cultural commonplaces and intertextualities with Black popular culture as the language and interpretive lens of their fandom. Finally, I demonstrate how, despite the dearth of Black bodies, Dem Thrones fans read Black cultural specificity into the show by seizing on stylistic, linguistic, or aesthetic elements of the text that resemble Black cultural practices and reimagining them as such.

2. Black fandom

[2.1] The very phenomenon of fandom is itself constructed as white (Stanfill 2011; Wanzo 2015). Consequently, Black fans are often overlooked by fan communities, media industries, and academics alike. Though understudied, like many fans in the digital age, Black fans have availed themselves of digital media technologies to engage in fan practices. Furthermore, faced with the normative whiteness of fan culture, many Black fans create parallel culturally resonant fan practices that mitigate their erasure not only from fandom but also from many of their beloved media texts.

[2.2] Fandom has long played an important role in Black communities. Wanzo (2015) argues that fandom of athletes, celebrities, film, and television has historically been "a mechanism to make claims about black equality and black pride and to bond over black success" (¶ 1.5), leading to fandom often being "treated as an act of resistance necessary for the progress of the race" (¶ 2.16). She further notes that part of the pleasure of Black fandom can be in "resisting the normativity of whiteness even as they claim their own normativity" (¶ 2.16). Kristen Warner (2015a, 34) argues, "Producing content is a necessary act of agency for women of color, who strive for visibility in a landscape that favors a more normative (read: White) fan identity and that often dismisses and diminishes the desires of its diverse body to see themselves equally represented not only on screen but in the fan community at large."

[2.3] This is particularly true for Black fans of nerd culture, such as video games, comic books, and science fiction and fantasy movies and TV shows. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of content created by and for Black nerds, some of whom refer to themselves as blerds. There are many podcasts and websites devoted to Black nerds—Nerdgasm Noire Network, Black Girl Nerds, Black Tribbles, We Nerd Hard, and The Fan Bros Show, to name a few. In the dominant culture, such nerd identity is often constructed in opposition to coolness, making participation in nerd culture complex for Black fans whose racial identity has long been coded as cool. This sense of alienation is intensified for Black women engaging with nerd culture, as nerdiness is not only coded as white but also as masculine (Bucholtz 2001; Eglash 2002; Kendall 2011). Beyond this, many nerd culture fandoms are deeply invested in remaining normatively white spaces. Wanzo (2015, ¶ 1.4) argues, "High-profile racist and misogynist speech and bullying demonstrate that some fans of speculative works depend on the centrality of whiteness or masculinity to take pleasure in the text. Sexism, racism, and xenophobia are routinely visible in fan communities."

[2.4] If, as Hampton (2010, 32) argues, "fannish consumption[s are] a process through which individual fans use media texts as mirrors to reflect their own concerns, values, and ideological subject positions back to themselves," Black fans are faced with challenges because of the relative lack of Black representation, the high percentage of problematic representations, and the normative whiteness of fan spaces where they could engage in such reflection. In response, many Black fans have developed strategies for circumventing this erasure.

[2.5] In her study of Black women fans of the television show Scandal (2012–), Warner (2015a) describes Black women's make-do fan practices, explaining how, given a dearth of representations, they reinscribe themselves into media texts. One strategy for this is "pulling a Black supporting character from the margins" of the text and transforming them from a supporting to central character (40). Warner also discusses how Black women's fan practices serve to reinscribe themselves in the text by reracializing Olivia Pope, despite Scandal's color-blind approach. She notes how the character of Olivia Pope, though a Black woman, is crafted in a color-blind way designed not to alienate mainstream (i.e., white) viewers. Beyond a few key moments, Pope's race is treated as incidental, existing only at the level of phenotype and devoid of cultural specificity or racialized perspectives. Black woman fans fill in "racially specific gaps to make Olivia Pope a more culturally specific Black woman." This strategy includes the use of AAVE and "reinterpretations of her dialogue to 'Black lady'–speak" (35).

[2.6] Because of the complex relationship Black fans have with fandom, many Black fans have created digitally enabled enclaves. These spaces do much more than create a place to engage in fan practices without the disciplining gaze of whiteness. They serve as an arena in which fandom becomes part of the social and communal processes of Black enclaved spaces. Vorris L. Nunely (2011, 9) asserts that in Black social spaces, "beneath the vernacular banter is a biopolitics that does not merely resist…but, more importantly, produces distinctive subjectivities." He argues that Black cultural commonplaces can exude "massive concentrations of Black symbolic energy. This symbolic energy moves African American audiences because it taps deeply into African American terministic screens, experiences, memories, and meaning" (47). When Black fans engage in fannish practices in such enclaved Black spaces, deploying Black cultural commonplaces and AAVE not only generates opportunities for Black fans to identify with the text, as Warner (2015a) demonstrates. It also allows fans to invoke Black epistemologies and interpretive frameworks, transforming what would be an alienating experience created from lack of representation and erasure into one that instead produces and maintains Black subjectivities.

[2.7] In many ways, Dem Thrones fandom functions similarly to Scandal fandom. Fans focus heavily on the handful of Black supporting characters, particularly Gray Worm and Missandei. They also frequently discuss Missandei's hair in culturally specific ways, a strategy used by Warner's (2015a) Scandal fans to racialize Olivia Pope. However, while Warner points to the ways that fans maximize Black characters and racial elements in media texts, Dem Thrones fandom goes one step further. Rather than filling cognitive gaps to undermine color blindness, Dem Thrones fans culturally inflect the show as a whole. While Scandal features a Black woman lead around which fans' strategies center, Dem Thrones fans take a show coded as white, featuring all white leads, and recode it in culturally specific ways. Dem Thrones fans actively graft Black culture onto Game of Thrones, discussing characters and scenarios to write Blackness into the show.

3. Digitally networked Black fandom

[3.1] Like other fans, Dem Thrones fans make ample use of digital media technologies, in particular Twitter and podcasting. I explore how these are used in conjunction by participants who exploit the affordances of each. Much scholarship on digital media bounds studies by platform or medium, focusing on practices or uses associated with that specific platform or medium. This makes sense both pragmatically and intellectually; it draws the parameters of studies in a logical way and allows for deep engagement with the specific affordances of a platform or medium. However, despite what this approach reveals, it leaves us with an unexamined blind spot because these technologies are not used in isolation but in conjunction.

[3.2] Twitter and podcasting constitute two core elements of the Dem Thrones fandom, and these technologies are deployed in a manner that allows the fan practice to be both enclaved and culturally specific. Each offers a specific benefit to the users. Twitter allows for synchronous engagement, yet potentially makes Black fan practice highly visible to outside gaze. Podcasts are ideal for enclaving and have no length limitations, allowing podcasters to review or fully recap episodes in as much depth as they desire.

[3.3] Live tweeting makes up a core element of the Dem Thrones fandom. Twitter allows for networked coviewing, creating a synchronous but not physically copresent viewing experience (Pittman and Tefertiller 2015). Allowing users to connect with one another in real time, Twitter creates what Harrington (2014) terms a virtual lounge room where they can engage in communal discussion as they watch. However, Twitter is easily searchable and public unless a user sets their account to private, which few do because it limits interaction and makes it difficult to participate in live tweeting effectively. Further, the use of hashtags aggregates tweets, allowing those who look at the search results of a hashtag to see tweets from users that they do not follow and might not even be aware of. Partly for these reasons, harassment has become a central issue on Twitter, particularly for users from marginalized social groups (Gandy 2014b). Thus, Black Game of Thrones fans using the official hashtag would be made visible to the broader fandom that asserts white normativity on a platform known for harassment.

[3.4] Black Twitter users have developed a range of alternative hashtags that allow them to avail themselves of Twitter's synchronicity while mitigating the vulnerability to the mainstream gaze created by the platform. They create hashtags that are AAVE-inflected versions of shows' titles and that essentially shift their live tweeting to a parallel timeline, separate from the broader stream of tweets using the official hashtag. Such hashtags have become popular since 2012. There are many variations, often using AAVE iterations of "them," "that," and "they"—"dem," "dat," and "dey," respectively. For example, The Walking Dead (2010–) has two AAVE-inflected versions: #DeyWalking and #DemDeadz. FX's vampire horror show The Strain (2014–17) is #DatStrain while the CW's superhero show Arrow (2012–) is #DatArrow. During the 2016 miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson, participants used the hashtag #DatJuice.

[3.5] Through the use of AAVE-inflected hashtags, Black Twitter users translate one of the long-standing functions of AAVE to the digital environment: the ability to obscure Black communicative practices to outsiders. However, the use of these hashtags does more than deter outsiders from participating; it also marks the fan space as explicitly Black, in which Blackness, not whiteness, is taken as normative. In online contexts, in the absence of corporeal signifiers of race, language can be a potent means of performing racial identity online (Brock 2012; Florini 2014). It allows Black participants (and other users comfortable participating in Black milieus) to engage in fan practice in ways that call upon the symbolic energy Nunely (2011) identifies.

[3.6] This strategy is imperfect, however. Digital media that are easily searchable and have algorithms, such as Twitter's trending topics, make Black discourses more visible to the mainstream gaze (Brock 2009). In fact, as of season 5 of Game of Thrones, the #DemThrones hashtag has garnered enough popularity to appear regularly in the US trending topics, increasing the likelihood that those outside the fandom will take note. This in fact did happen in 2016, as evidenced by Business Insider's article, "If You're Using the Game of Thrones Hashtag, You're Missing Out on the Show's Best Commentary," which quoted a number of tweets using the #DemThrones hashtag, including one by Black Girl Nerds, and noted the existence of many other "Black Twitter offshoots of mainstream tags" (Fussell 2016). The visibility of the #DemThrones hashtag has led to some low-level harassment as users deploy the hashtag as a convenient means of targeting Black users. For example, just a week prior to the Business Insider article, Twitter user @Wes_St_Clair, who has the Gadsden flag for an avatar, in a now-deleted tweet from May 8, 2016, posted an image of a Black Lives Matter march overlaid with the text, "Has it occurred to anyone that if you're able to organize this many people for a protest you can organize this many people to clean up your community and get rid of the criminal element causing the problem?" (note 1). He tagged the image with #DemThrones, the account's only use of the hashtag, obviously intended to insert the tweet into a timeline dominated by Black users. However, nonstandard AAVE-inflected hashtags continue to be popular with Black Twitter users, and most such hashtags do not have enough traffic to appear in the trending topics, allowing them to mitigate visibility.

[3.7] This visibility is less likely with podcasts. The podcast recaps, such as the popular #DemThrones recap segment on TBGWT, are less accessible to those outside the networks in which the podcasters and their listeners participate. Podcasts also form a useful sequestered space for Black fandom. There exists a large network of independent Black podcasters, some of whom once referred to themselves as the podcast Chitlin' Circuit, a term for the venues that allowed Black musicians, comedians, and actors to perform during the era of segregation and that has continued to be used by some comedy clubs and theaters that target Black audiences (Florini 2015). These podcasters and their fans devote a large percentage of their time to engaging with popular culture and fan practices. Many of the shows discuss movies, television, comic books, and gaming, often offering movie reviews and television show recaps. For example, the podcast Whiskey, Wine, and Moonshine regularly recaps Being Mary Jane (2014–). Where's My 40 Acres? has a show called "TheBoobeTube" where they recap and discuss television shows, including Love and Hip Hop, Catfish (2012–), Orange Is the New Black (2013–), and Girls (2011–17). TBGWT has popular recap segments for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.

[3.8] Podcasts offer fans a long-form space for their fan practice, where they can discuss at length and engage in full recaps of each episode. Unlike Twitter, the affordances of podcasts make them resistant to easy intrusion from those outside the group. Podcasts require a temporal commitment that far exceeds Twitter or other text-based digital media. One must seek out content and commit time to listening. There is no easy way to scan or search audio. Additionally, much like the AAVE-inflected hashtags, the podcasts construct the space of fandom as one in which Blackness is normative. Elsewhere I have argued that the talk radio–style audio of many independent Black podcasts allows for performative elements that invoke Black social spaces like barbershops and beauty shops, churches, and family gatherings (2015). Thus, these podcasts are able to recreate the sonic milieu of enclaved Black sociality.

4. Culturally resonant fan practices

[4.1] Dem Thrones fans use the affordances of digital technologies—in particular Twitter and podcasting—to create sequestered spaces. Here they engage in fandom in culturally resonant ways that eschew processes that make whiteness normative and instead tap into the symbolic energy of Black cultural commonplaces that resonate with Black audiences, invoking Black epistemologies and interpretive frames. Dem Thrones fans do this through the use of AAVE and through references to what Warner (2012a, 2012b, 2012c) calls Black cult media, both of which require significant cultural competencies to interpret. This occurs simultaneously on multiple levels, including grammar, terminology, cultural commonplaces, and intertextualities.

[4.2] The use of AAVE includes both grammatical constructions and word choice, particularly the use of slang, governed by rules that may be unknown to those without sufficient cultural knowledge. One such example is the frequent use of a grammatical construction referred to by linguists as the "invariant be" (Labov 1998, 120–24). This form of the verb "to be" is deployed to indicate ongoing or persistent action and is a semantic construction that does not exist in Standard English. To those unfamiliar with this element of AAVE, this layer of meaning will be opaque. An example of the use of invariant be can be seen in the TBGWT episode "967: The Roast of Shireen," where husband-and-wife cohosts Rod and Karen Morrow (2015b), along with guests Justin and Rae Sanni, cohost of the podcast Misandry with Marcia and Rae, discuss a scene in which the character Jon Snow returns to the castle where he and other members of the Night's Watch guard the Wall, a massive wall that forms the northernmost border of the land of Westeros. Describing a character named Olly, a young boy who dislikes and feels betrayed by Jon Snow, they say,

[4.3] Rod: Yo, Olly be making the best faces. He just show up and ice grill the shit outta Jon…It's like every episode, once an episode he just show up and be like "I don' like this shit."

Rae Sanni: He really do be lookin' like Cookie in Empire when she's talkin' to Boo Boo Kitty.

[4.4] Both Rod and Rae Sanni use the invariant "be" to describe Olly's recurrent and ongoing faces of disdain for Snow, pointing to it as a persistent feature of that character.

[4.5] Additionally, tweets containing the #DemThrones hashtag make heavy use of Black vernacular constructions and commonplaces. This often involves summarizing the actions or sentiments of a character using AAVE, similar to Scandal fans' rephrasing of Olivia Pope's dialogue in Black lady speak. For example, referring to the biting dialogue delivered by the character Tyrion Lannister in a situation where his life was threatened, #DemThrones Twitter user @inomallday noted in a now-deleted tweet from May 11, 2014, "Tyrion: If I'm gonna get murked I'm gonna at least get these bars off." The tweet combines the term "murked" to refer to defeat in a way that implies violence or even death, and the phrase "get these bars off," which draws on hip-hop culture, referring to musical bars, plays on hip-hop's emphasis on verbal dexterity and heavy use of braggadocio. Thus, the tweet restates Tyrion's motivations and attitudes deploying culturally specific lenses and language.

[4.6] At times, Dem Thrones fandom will reference not only Black culture but also the cultural commonplaces of the Black digital networks they are a part of. One such example is the use of the phrase "clap back." The phrase is a vernacular construction that refers to seeking vengeance or justice via a counterattack and is often used by Dem Thrones fans in their discussion of the show. Retaliation from a character, whether verbal or through physical force, is often referred to using the term "clap back." For example, when character Arya Stark created a list of other characters she intended to kill out of vengeance, @ProfessLCH (2014) tweeted referring to it as "Arya's ClapBack List." The term "clap back" has taken on additional layers of meaning in relation to the character Arya Stark after the circulation of a viral video from YouTube video blogger Krissychula (2013), who recorded her reaction after a particularly violent episode of Game of Thrones entitled "The Red Wedding." In her video, she exclaims, "Arya, CLAP BACK, BITCH. CLAP BACK. I hope she fuck up eeeer'ybody. I hope she burns down the muthafuckin' earth." The video went viral on the network of primarily Black Twitter users who have come to be called "Black Twitter." Thus, participation in Dem Thrones fandom requires layers of cultural competencies, not simply in broader Black culture but also in the norms of the specific Black digital networks.

[4.7] References to such memetic content is part of how vernaculars are used as a component of culturally specific fandom. Limor Shifman (2014) has argued that memes function as a digital vernacular and play an important role in the construction of group identity and social boundaries. Much in the same way that AAVE has served a crucial sociocultural function in Black American communities, Black memetic content operates as a Black digital vernacular. Dem Thrones fans make heavy use of Black memetic content, referencing viral media that circulated through Black Twitter and other Black digital networks and using images and reaction GIFs drawn from Black popular culture featuring Black bodies. An example of memes as Black digital vernacular in Dem Thrones fandom is the recurrent use of the phrase "caps, caps, caps." The phrase comes from a now-deleted Vine video posted by Nathaniel Tenenbaum on November 2, 2013. The Vine was captioned with the hashtag #RnBFacebookfights. In the six-second Vine video, Tenenbaum sings in the style of R&B, "Who you finna try? I bet it ain't me. Ooh, bitch, it ain't me. Caps. Caps. Caps," over the sound of furious typing on a keyboard. The words include Black vernacular constructions like "finna," an iteration of the phrase "fixin' to," which means preparing or intending to engage in a given action, along with the verb "try," which indicates an attempt to transgress acceptable boundaries. Thus, Tenenbaum asks the equivalent of, "Who do you think you're messing with?" and then answers the question with disbelief that it would be him. The song concludes with the sound of heavy keystrokes as Tenenbaum sings, "Caps, caps, caps," implying that he is typing in all caps—that is, capital letters, generally understood as shouting on social media platforms. Tenenbaum's Vine circulated widely in Black digital networks, and the phrase "caps, caps, caps," often in the form of the hashtag #capscapscaps, has become a shorthand for the expression of anger. Tenenbaum's Vine is often referenced during the #DemThrones live tweet. For example, in response to the season 4 premiere, Imani Gandy (2014a) paraphrased the attitude of the character Arya Stark as "'Who you finna try?'—Arya Stark," translating the character's motivations into Black digital vernacular. Later in the same season, @Nicju (2014), cohost of the What's the Tea? podcast, tweeted, "If Jon Snow dies I'm writing a strongly worded letter to @HBO The Double D's George RR Obama Jesus, everybody. #CAPSCAPSCAPS."

[4.8] In addition to AAVE and memetic content, Dem Thrones fans make heavy use of intertextual references to Black popular culture, particularly the kind of iconic media texts Warner (2012a, 2012b, 2012c) has referred to as Black cult objects. This can be seen in the example above in which Rae Sanni references the television show Empire (2015–). In this case, the reference is to the character Cookie, ex-wife of record mogul Lucious Lyon. Cookie spent seventeen years in prison for crimes she and Lyon committed together. After returning from her incarceration, she finds Lyon engaged to another woman, whom Cookie begins derisively referring to as "Boo Boo Kitty." Such intertextualities with Black popular culture are common throughout Dem Thrones fandom.

[4.9] Warner termed iconic Black media texts that possess particularly intense cultural resonances as Black cult objects. They can include a range of media but are heavily film and television. The objects function similarly to other forms of cult media, but in ways that reflect the specificity of Black experience. While definitions of cult media vary, such media are often understood through their relationship to mainstream media. Jancovich and Hunt (2004, 27) argue that cult media texts are defined through processes by which they are "positioned in opposition to the mainstream," while Sconce (1995) asserts that cult media function to validate a counteraesthetic that challenges mainstream media. However, Wanzo (2015, ¶ 2.16) points out that Black audience members and fans are already "improper subjects" who occupy a position outside of mainstream white hegemony. Black media, like Black people, are marginalized, existing outside of the mainstream and being relegated to niche audiences. Warner (2014a, 2015b) argues that because the media industry has developed in an uneven manner, marginalizing Black media producers and consumers, almost all Black-cast film and television are, by default, cult media, because of their subordinate position to the mainstream. She places television shows like The Game (2006–15) or Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta (2012–) in the category of Black cult media, along with films like The Color Purple (1985) and Coming to America (1998) (Warner 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2014b). In addition to emerging from unequal development, she defines Black cult as media that "share cultural resonance within community," make use of mimicry and quotability, and "position the black subject in some measure of dominant position" (Warner, pers. comm.).

[4.10] Scholarship on cult media has focused heavily on the relationship of the text to identity. Thompson (1995, 224) asserts that fandom in general is inherently a symbolic project of the self, in which "the deep personal and emotional involvement of individuals in the fan community is also a testimony to the fact that being a fan is an integral part of a project of self-formation." Building on Thompson, Hills (2008, 134) argues that fan engagement with cult media is similarly a "project of the self" in which "cult fans create cultural identities out of the significance which certain texts assume for them." For Black fans, who are so rarely offered the opportunity for identification, the identity work of Black cult is deeply tied to the construction of racial identity. Thus, it is Black cultural identity that causes Black cult texts to take on significance for Black audiences and, as cult, in turn functions as a mechanism for constructing Black cultural identity.

[4.11] Facility with Black cult objects can function as an important cultural competency in Black communities. For example, Black cult objects played a central role in the articulation of Black identity during the #AskRachel hashtag. The hashtag is a reference to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who was living as a Black woman and serving as the president of the NAACP chapter of Spokane, Washington. The hashtag contained questions designed to test Dolezal's cultural competencies, and thereby the authenticity of her claim to Blackness. Questions included references to television shows such as Good Times (1974–79) and A Different World (1987–93) and movies like House Party (1990) and The Color Purple. For example, one #AskRachel tweet featured a picture of Oprah Winfrey's character Sofia from The Color Purple, with the question, "How long has this woman had to fight?"

[4.12] Dem Thrones fandom makes heavy use of Black cult objects. Not only does this give the fan practice deep cultural resonance but it also draws on the identity work associated with Black cult. If Black cult media serve as resources for constructing and performing Black cultural identity, invoking them in the fandom of non-Black media texts deploys those identity construction mechanisms in the fan space.

[4.13] For example, in seasons 3 and 4 of Game of Thrones, interactions between two characters, Theon Greyjoy and Ramsay Snow, were characterized using references to Black cult media texts like Roots (1977) and The Color Purple. In season 3, Snow kidnaps, tortures, and enslaves Greyjoy, breaking him psychologically and forcing him to take on the name Reek. In the final episode of the season, Snow repeatedly asks Greyjoy his name until finally the latter breaks and proclaims himself to be Reek. The scene was reminiscent of the iconic scene from the miniseries Roots in which enslaved African Kunta Kinte is mercilessly whipped and repeatedly commanded to take the name Toby. The similarity was not lost on those live tweeting using the #DemThones hashtag, who offered commentary highlighting the parallel. Rod, cohost of TBGWT podcast, posted a now-deleted tweet on June 9, 2013, as @rodimusprime: "He making Theon change his name!?!?!?! OMG! Roots Westeros!" Leonard Brothers, host of the Look and Listen podcast, tweeted, "Theon Kinte aka Kunta Theon aka Toby Reek," mixing together the names of the characters from both television programs (@LBrothersMedia 2013).

[4.14] The following season, Greyjoy and Snow were featured in a scene that was similarly interpreted by invoking the intertextual connections to another Black cult text, The Color Purple. In the second episode of season 4, Theon, aka Reek, shaves his captor and abuser Snow, and tension builds as the audience is unsure if Greyjoy will slit Snow's throat. The scene is reminiscent of a scene in The Color Purple, when the character Celie shaves her abusive husband, whom she calls Mister, as tensions mounts and the audience becomes uncertain if she might kill him. The Game of Thrones scene prompted comments such as, "Theon bout to shave mister" (@cubicle_bc 2014) and "This Color Purple scene tho. 'He fixin to shaaaave Mista!'" (@BlackGirlNerds 2015).

5. Racializing the text

[5.1] In addition to deploying Black vernacular, both linguistic and digital, and making references to Black culture, particularly Black cult media, Dem Thrones fans have developed strategies for reading Blackness into a text that has a dearth of both Black bodies and Black cultural perspectives. Similar to how Scandal fans read Black cultural specificity onto the largely color-blind character of Olivia Pope, Dem Thrones fans read Blackness into Game of Thrones. However, they do this not only with the Black bodies on the show but also with a wide variety of white appearing characters. Fans seize on upon character names, linguistic practices, and imagery that bare stylistic similarities to Black American cultural expressions, emphasizing these resemblances and using them to reread elements of the text as culturally Black, thereby inserting Black culture into the predominantly white series.

[5.2] For example, on several of the TBGWT recaps, Rod, Karen, and their guests discuss how they believe many of the characters' names sound like Black names. Though none of the characters in question are played by people of color, their names bear stylistic and aesthetic similarities to Black American naming traditions. For example, on one recap, Rod, Karen, cohost Justin, and guest Nina Perez from the Project Fandom podcast use this strategy. The exchange begins with Nina commenting that the way Rod pronounces the character Tormund's name makes it seem as if the character is Black. Rod responds, "First of all, Nina, all these names sound Black." He elaborates, "That's the only reason I started fuckin' with this show. 'Cause, first of all, Jon ain't got no H in it, right? They got a nigga named Bronn wit two Ns." At which point, they began listing names they believed to sound like Black names, including Tyrion, Brienne, Tywin, Cersie, Qyburn, and Shireen. Rod continues,

[5.3] All dese Black names, dog. C'mon. Tormund? I prolly play ball at the Y[MCA] with a nigga named Tormund…All these names sound Black. They be tryin' to pronounce it with that English accent like we don't know…All these names would not pass the résumé test. You put these names on a résumé, they be like, "No, no, no, no. We are not gonna be hiring any Aryas. I think we know what that applicant gonna look like." (Morrow and Morrow 2017)

[5.4] Here Rod not only maps cultural naming practices onto Game of Thrones characters but also extends it even further to invoke how the resultant real-world stigmatization of such cultural practices blocks Black applicants out of employment opportunities.

[5.5] Additionally, Dem Thrones fans highlight the personality traits and behaviors of certain characters they see as bearing similarities to Black culture. One such character is the Lady Olena, an older white woman who is the matriarch of one of the most powerful noble houses on the show and who is known for her sharp tongue and no-nonsense approach. Across Dem Thrones fandom, Lady Olena is reread as a culturally Black. Ba of FiyaStarter described Lady Olena saying,

[5.6] I think she my favorite character right now. 'Cause she not Black. But she remind me so much of a typical old black lady sittin' on the porch talkin' shit…She got all that wisdom…She just remind me of so many old ladies I done seen on the porch talkin' shit. (Fiyastarter 2014)

[5.7] Lady Olena is often referred to as Miss Olena or Auntie, honorifics used in many Black communities to refer to older women who possess similar character traits. Because of her communicative style, she is often described by Dem Thrones fans as having "bars," or as "throwing shade," a term referring a technique of delivering a subtle yet biting insult.

[5.8] It is not just Lady Olena who is reimagined as culturally Black; it can be any character displaying traits that resonate with Black cultural experience. For example, in one season 5 recap, TBGWT hosts Rod and Karen and their guest host Phenom Blak, from Where's My 40 Acres?, interpreted the character Jaqen H'ghar, an assassin who can change his appearances but is most often played by a white man, as a Southern Black grandmother.

[5.9] Karen: Ol' faceless dude?…Is his feet made out of cotton? 'Cause he just walk around that bitch and you don't never know when—you be like "Goddamn! Where you come from? I didn't hear you. I didn't feel nothin'."

Rod: I'm tellin' you, he got the same gift that my grandmomma got, man…I bet that nigga make a mean ass salmon and grits in the morning, dog. He got Black grandmomma skills, bruh. He got a switch. He quiet as shit. He can sense when you 'bout to do somethin' fucked up without you even sayin' it. Like when Arya tried to open that door two weeks ago, he just showed up like, "What is a girl doing?" (Morrow and Morrow 2015a)

[5.10] Here the "Black grandmomma" characteristics of strict discipline and an uncanny ability to know what her grandchildren are up to are imputed to H'ghar, providing the base for extrapolating other skills he would then also surely possesses—including culinary and domestic capabilities the podcasters associate with their grandmothers.

[5.11] Finally, fans have read Black cultural specificity into the text by imagining how Black people and culture would translate into the world of the show. One such example is the creation of "House Jackson of Detroitland." Using a name and a region associated with Black Americans, the fans comically imagine how Black people would fit into the world of the Westeros. House Jackson first appeared the TBGWT recap of season 6, episode 7 (Morrow and Morrow 2016). Near the beginning of the episode, Rod, Karen, and guest Mel from the Good and Terrible podcast imagine House Jackson into being after Rod comments that the only thing the series needs is more Black people. Rob begins, "If we just had one Black house. We just need one Black house, man. The Dorne people cool, but they barely in the show anyway. I need some niiiiiggaaas." To which Mel adds, "We need a dead-ass niggerish house. We need a house where your boy, Omar Little is like, like a knight or whatever the fuck." The reference to Omar Little, the iconic character from The Wire (2002–9), begins a list of Black actors from various Black cult media that could play the characters, including Bokeem Woodbine, who appeared in Juice (1992), Crooklyn (1994), and Dead Presidents (1995), and Vanessa Bell Calloway, who is known for her supporting role in Coming to America, as well as her roles in The Inkwell (1994) and What's Love Got to Do with It? (1993). Thus, Black cult media, which positions Black subjects as dominant, serves as the reservoir of symbolic resources through which they imagine the inclusion of Black characters into the Game of Thrones world.

[5.12] Later in the recap of the same episode, the hosts highlight the appearance of what would eventually come to be House Jackson's sigil. Rod sets the scene in which some of the main characters, the Starks, meet with House Glover. He then drew attention to the sigil of House Glover, a clenched fist, strongly resembles the iconic Black power fist, saying, "Lowkey, they got the best sigil in d' game." The clenched fist was eventually appropriated to serve as the sigil of House Jackson, adapting existing imagery in the show to bolster the insertion of Blackness into the text.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Black fans face two persistent challenges: racial hostility in normative (i.e., white) fan spaces and a dearth of representations in their beloved media texts. Creating parallel and sequestered fandoms, Dem Thrones fans engage in culturally resonant fan practices that use Black cultural commonplaces and center Black experiences. This allows them to read the show through Black cultural lenses, deploying vernaculars and Black cult media objects. Beyond this, Dem Thrones fandom allows fans to read Black cultural specificity into the text. Seizing on resemblances to Black linguistic, aesthetic, or social practices, Dem Thrones fans graft Black culture into a text where it is lacking, creating opportunities for identification despite a lack of representation.

[6.2] If fandom is a project of self-formation, then the stigmatization or erasure of their racial identities combined with limited points of identification in media texts foreclose this possibility for Black fans. However, as they historically have, Black people make do. Black Game of Thrones fans have negotiated these constraints through the use of alternative hashtags for live tweeting and podcast recaps, removing or mitigating these impediments. This allows the access to the processes of identity formation available to white fans in normative fandoms.

[6.3] By constructing sequestered fan spaces, Black fans can freely participate in culturally resonant fan practices that draw on Black vernaculars, cultural commonplaces, and intertextualities. This is more than a strategy for self-expression or to ameliorate the lack of representation; it is a project of identity construction. Wanzo (2015) illuminates how Black fandom can be a political project and a form of resistance to normative whiteness. Dem Thrones fandom reveals an additional layer of possibility in Black fandoms. They combine the self-formation mechanisms of fandom with the "Black symbolic energy" Nunely (2011, 47) describes as producing distinct Black subjectivities. This makes Black fandom a potent space for constructing and maintaining Black individual and collective identities.

7. Note

1. The Gadsden flag is the iconic yellow flag depicting a coiled snake inscribed with the phrase "Don't Tread on Me." It gets its name from Christopher Gadsden, who designed it during the American Revolutionary War.

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