Seeing fans: Representations of fandom in media and popular culture, edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth

Jungmin Kwon

Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan studies; Media celebrity; Media industry

Kwon, Jungmin. Seeing Fans: Representations of Fandom in Media and Popular Culture, edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth [book review]. In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth. Seeing fans: Representations of fandom in media and popular culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. Hardcover £110 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5013-1845-0; paperback £28.99 ISBN 978-1-5013-3954-7; EPUB/MOBI £31.30 ISBN 978-1-5013-1846-7; PDF £31.30 ISBN 978-1-5013-1847-4.

[1] More than ever, the image of the fan is being redefined. Once told they needed to "get a life," fans have become established in contemporary society and are being discussed in terms of their power, impact, and potential as sociocultural agents. Seeing Fans interrogates such relevance, raising an instructive question about fans as influencers in popular culture: Does the contemporary media industry recognize fans as something more than silly, overeager devotees? This anthology offers a mixed response to this question by including a variety of stories told by fans, acafans, and media professionals about how fans are seen in media and popular culture.

[2] In their introduction, editors Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth explain that the collection explores the "multifaceted, complex, and sometimes contradictory" (2) aspects of fans, emphasizing that "fandom is constantly evolving" (8). Indeed, the arguments by the collection's contributors are multifaceted, complex, and contradictory. By turns reinforcing and repudiating each other, the collection's twenty-five chapters situate authors in conversation, granting readers an understanding of where fans are positioned in the current cultural landscape.

[3] Part 1, "Documenting Fans: Shades of Reality," looks at a handful of documentary films about fans of local and global musicians. Chapter 1 pays attention to a less spotlighted fan identity: the disabled fan. Mark Duffett problematizes the illustration of disabled fans in the documentary Mission to Lars (2012) as needing the help of normal-bodied, socially successful nonfans, although he acknowledges that the film overall attempts to proffer a different reading about a fan. Also in this section is Sam Ford's "I Was Stabbed 21 Times by Crazy Fans." This is one of the most interesting and informative writings in the collection, revamping readers' biased images of combative and uncontrollable pro wrestling fans. By introducing the term kayfabe, Sam Ford informs readers that the exaggerated sporting event makes not only players but also fans into active performers in the experience. The sports arena functions "as a space for identity experimentation and performativity" (39).

[4] Despite the chapter's contribution to the anthology, it is not part of part 1's thematic stream, and its location between two chapters on documentaries illustrating music fandom is odd. Presumably the editors hoped to introduce the concept of fan performance by placing this chapter before ensuing chapters about another documentary, Crazy about One Direction (CAOD 2013). The following chapters in part 1 are indeed based on chapter 3's conceptualization of "fandom as performance" (43). They center on CAOD and on the Directioners, ardent fans of the British boy band One Direction. The film is criticized for "simplif[ying] the complexity of fan cultures" (76) in chapters 5 and 6. The book editors give CAOD director Daisy Asquith an opportunity to defend her work in chapter 7, in which Asquith discusses the industrial pressure she faced to dramatize the fandom.

[5] Part 2, "Fictional Fans: Reading between the Lines" is the largest in the collection, analyzing representations of fans in TV shows and digital content. Part 2 asks whether the media industry acknowledges and valorizes fans or whether it ignores and dismisses them. The chapters within offer an ambivalent response. The section begins positively, arguing for a repositioning of fans. "The Image of the Fan in Stargate SG-1" unpacks the ways in which Stargate SG-1 (1997–2007), a Canadian-American military sci-fi series, "pays homage to both fans and the genre of SFTV by including the coded fan experience" (114). Contributor Karen Hellekson argues that the show's nuanced and metatextual representations of fandom enable it to engage with its fans. However, the following chapters contradict the preceding assertions that fans are becoming insiders, with chapter 11 affirming the significant and enduring power of media producers over fans. Melissa A. Click and Nettie Brock point to the writers and showrunners of BBC's Doctor Who (1963–89) and Sherlock (2010–17), who describe fan messages as "insane voices" (118) and warn that "fandom is fine if you do it for fun, but obsession is unhealthy" (121). These cases of fanboy auteurs indicate that digital convergence culture does not always allow the line between producers and fans to be erased.

[6] Although subsequent chapters in part 2 echo this pessimistic view of fans' impact on the media production, they suggest that not all production processes are unilateral. For example, Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis show that some Supernatural (2005–) actors have friendly relationships with fans, unlike the show's creative teams. Kristina Busse unravels ways in which media producers also incorporate fannish activities into content. The chapter showcases ways Mary Sue, a common character trope in fan fiction, has been used in some mainstream media content. Finally, chapter 16 addresses the most contemporary and relatable example to younger readers of this book. Louisa Ellen Stein looks at cyberspace to demonstrate new perspectives of nonconformative media producers toward fans by dissecting The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012–13), a web series on YouTube. According to Stein, in the digital universe, unconventional media creators—young women in this case—are aware of the importance of fans and their (financial) support. While traditional broadcasting systems are still dominated by male producers who tend to resist fans' input, these nontraditional producers actively respond to fans' needs and avoid negative gender stereotypes.

[7] Part 3, "Cultural Perspectives on Fan Representations," delves into identity issues in descriptions of fans in the mainstream media and suggests that tropes about fans like "danger, violence, and pathology or just loneliness, alienation, and loserdom" persist (188). Mel Stanfill opens this section with an important yet less discussed argument. Stanfill suggests that popular cultural representations operate as a site in which the straight white male body—almost always the norm—is exceptionally pathologized. In popular shows and films, fans with such bodies are feminized and infantilized, lacking "proper masculinity" (190). It's only when these characters "straighten up and fly white" (195) that the characters are allowed to claim their normalcy. Accordingly, Stanfill laments that fans in popular culture are still cast as deviant identities. This argument is echoed in chapter 20, in which Rukmini Pande directs readers' attention to fan scholarship: How does the discipline see fans? She emphasizes the importance of using postcolonial cyberculture theory in order to have unbiased perspectives. Pande discusses the tension between an idealized view of the internet as a liberated space and the reality of the internet mirroring off-line power hierarchies between the Global North and the Global South. Pande surveys fans and concludes that fan studies scholarship "has failed to adequately interrogate the racial demographic makeup of these communities, which has led to significant erasures and biases in their representation" (209).

[8] Part 4, "Global Perspectives on Fan Representation," claims to achieve what "fan studies scholarship has failed to" do—that is, include diverse racial groups (209). It includes chapters investigating representations of East Asian (female) fans—Chinese fans of BBC's Sherlock (2010–), Japanese fans of Hong Kong pop stars in the 1990s, and otaku and fujoshi in Japanese anime and manga. Lori Hitchcock Morimoto examines Japanese women who engaged with Hong Kong pop culture in the 1990s, a period known in Japan as the lost decade. Morimoto outlines the "social, gender, and professional constraints" (248) Japanese women struggled with during the period and connects it to women's choices to overcome or escape that reality through "Japanese 'Asianization'" (257). The analysis of 1990s-era Hong Kong films in connection to the mentality of Japanese women during the period is outstanding; however, contemporary readers might appreciate an investigation of newer fandom. As the editors assert, "fandom is constantly evolving" (8). Even the Yon-sama fandom (that is, fans of South Korean actor Bae Yong-joon) in the early 2000s does not represent what is happening in East Asia today, and the chapter is not a timely example of how East Asian identities can be conceptualized.

[9] Beyond these academic essays, this volume boasts six interviews with media professionals, ranging from film directors to a fan vidder. These chapters let readers peek behind the media content. They offer readers production perspectives so that they can better understand how media industries see fans. Nonetheless, readers might find that questions are not challenging enough, and accordingly that the answers are not as fresh or critical as they hoped.

[10] This collection of short essays foregoes dense academic jargon. This certainly helps the book be more approachable and diverse. However, (academic) readers may wish chapters were longer and offered clearer theoretical frameworks and more in-depth analysis. The short chapters do not allow their authors to pursue multilayered and multidimensional discussions about their perspectives on fandom. Some chapters are devoid of a critical engagement, comprising only case studies, or they lack full discussion of important concepts. Others are primarily descriptive, summarizing what fans and/or the media industry are doing in a particular context. These limitations may lead readers to ask why some players in the media industry inevitably repeat existing paradigms for how they see fans. In particular, how can we conceptualize the ways contemporary media industries see fans? The editors leave these questions unanswered and do not provide readers with a critical framework to address them. These shortcomings comprise a limitation of the collection. This anthology is therefore not really about presenting academic and theoretical arguments. However, perhaps as a result, it proves to be readable and gratifying, evincing a varied assemblage of what is happening on the ground.

[11] The idea of fandom that is addressed in this collection is wide-ranging in terms of media genre and fan identity. It examines films, TV shows, newspaper, web content, music, and sport, and it includes fans with different identity markers such as ableness, age, gender, and race. The editors therefore claim that the edition attempts to present "how we understand the current landscape" (2). However, readers may still wish for an exploration of more diversity—as can be found with fans of online and video games—instead of finding chapters devoted to familiar subjects as in CAOD or Supernatural. Yet the decision to showcase popular mainstream media texts may be understandable because they may offer more points to discuss. Nonetheless, I found it discouraging that the claim to examine "the diversity of fan demographics" (211) was not better realized. The fans represented in this book are mostly from the United States, Great Britain, or Japan. Conspicuously excluded are fans in Latin America, Africa, and other parts of Asia and Europe. Racially marginalized and queer fans within the United States are also bypassed, despite the growing representation of such identities in the media market. In this sense, this collection speaks more to traditional fans and misses ways the media industry is working to address a range of underrepresented fans at local and global levels.

[12] Despite these weaknesses, Seeing Fans faithfully achieves its goal. The anthology unpacks representations of media fans on the bases of historical approaches to media fandom and extensive research on various topics. Seeing Fans is a meaningful contribution to fan studies scholarship in which some writings reinforce and others tackle rosy perspectives on the power of fans in the contemporary media industry. The collection will complicate readers' perspectives on what industry and fans do. As such, this anthology presents fan scholars with useful frameworks for viewing and approaching fan studies, and it offers fans a glimpse at ways they are framed in the culture industry.