Squee from the margins: Fandom and race by Rukmini Pande

Regina Yung Lee

University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Feminism; Media fandom

Lee, Regina Yung. 2019. Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race by Rukmini Pande [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.

Rukmini Pande. Squee from the margins: Fandom and race. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018. Paperback $67.50 (256p) ISBN 9781609386184.

[1] Squee from the Margins aims to rectify the dearth of scholarly monographs on fan studies focused directly on the tangle of race, ethnicity, nationality, and their interactions with a centralizing but unnamed whiteness. Rukmini Pande argues persuasively that fan studies must forego the assumption of a white Anglo-American norm to accurately account for what participatory online communities do. Using philosopher Sara Ahmed's (2010) concept of the feminist killjoy, Pande frames her approach as a disruption: her fandom killjoy manifests as a response to both accusations of incivility within fandom communities and the critical silence surrounding these insurrections from fandom scholars. Pande demonstrates the pressing need for transnational and intersectional addresses from within fan studies (note 1).

[2] Chapter 1 opens with a history of extant scholarship on media fandoms. Pande's deep knowledge of fan studies is immediately evident through citations of familiar names, works, and events, allowing easy entry to the text by fans and academics. Pande's avowed goal, a "rehistoriz[ing] of these narratives" (22), retraces scholarly discourse on fandom as women's work online, then identifies the collective effects of this history as an often inadvertent, but no less critical, erasure of the differences in women's identities, whether through focus on homogenized fan populations or through analyses that center an uncomplicated Anglophone relation with a canonical text. Instead, Pande acknowledges the diversity in fan presence and identity already present within fan studies' originary texts and historical narratives, while indexing how that diversity has been stifled by the default whiteness of fandom spaces. When Pande undergirds this argument through a sustained examination of specific instances of fandom unrest as the location of unease around raced presence, Squee from the Margins presents an abridged reconstruction of fan wank as border skirmish between these contested forms of fan identities. In this context, RaceFail '09 emerges as an argumentative touchstone: "In terms of my argument, it is significant because it marked the first time in online fandom's history when SF/F's racist and imperialist characterizations were debated in a forum where authors and editors of SF/F magazines and journals had to engage with those questions, and the first time that alliances between non-white fans were made across forums and platforms" (33). The focus in fandom histories on the broken communal ties resulting from RaceFail '09 obscure this pertinent observation. By shifting her analytical lens to the lasting transformations in the experiences of fans of color, Pande's scholarship recuperates their understanding of this pivotal fandom event.

[3] Chapters 2 and 3 hold much of interest for sociologists and ethnographers of fandom, as well as for media historians interested in fandom platform use. Chapter 2 pairs foundational new media theory with interrogations of race, gender, and class. While Pande's brief mention of Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1991) does not detail its contested claims regarding cyborg and race, the ghost of this concept persists throughout the chapter's critiques of the ways in which much digital humanities work has staged a "'retreat' from the clutter of identity articulation" (Pande 49). In so doing, Pande notes, the digital humanities also disavow ties to colonial histories of media use and dispersal. Pande further argues for an address of diasporic fan communities, specifically their entrées into fandom, through anime's multilingual and transnational histories. The very plurality of Pande's ethnographic results convincingly articulates the necessity of multiple analytics, questioning the elision of diasporic and transnational fans through their clashing and partial accounts.

[4] The ethnographic data is powerful stuff, and the book is particularly strong when it appears. (Reading Te's articulate and thoughtful responses across several chapters is a delight.) Pande quotes respondents extensively to examine the affordances and restrictions of several online platforms as fandom mediums, arguing that the dialogical processes needed to launch that discussion beyond the gravity wells of individual erasure were better enacted through social media platforms like Tumblr than through the single-voiced primacy of journal sites such as LiveJournal or Dreamwidth. Chapter 3 extends this platform analysis into a larger discussion of the legacy of white feminism, evident through a lack of intersectional analyses within fan studies, which Pande reiterates through her discussion of Racebending (100–101), its practical purposes, potential essentialisms, and reception by fans of color (note 2). The interplay between intersectionality and transnational analysis appears multiple times in the chapter as fans from Southeast and South Asia reject, question, or cautiously accept race categories applied to them and their fandom production.

[5] In chapter 4, the previous discussions come to a head. This theoretically oriented chapter concatenates the book's analytic threads into a single lens, establishing what Pande calls a "fandom algorithm." This algorithm, a multipart cascading logic, summatively diagnoses the processes that comprehensively muffle, isolate, and shunt aside fans' discussions of race. To illustrate this logic, Pande relies on media scholar Lisa Nakamura's (2013) formulation of the glitch, which argues that what looks like scattered instances of racist interaction are integrated components of online experience. This analytic approach mirrors feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins's 1993 analysis of racist oppression, which has four interlocking levels: the internalized, the interpersonal, the symbolic, and the institutional. These last two levels, which name the role of preconceived concepts as building blocks for the creation and maintenance of systems and structures of oppression, are crucial to understanding Nakamura's concept of the glitch's actual imbrication into the fabric of online interaction itself. Together, these feminist analytics form penumbral foundations for Pande's theoretical formulation.

[6] Pande presents this fandom algorithm in five parts, bolstering each with a specific case study. These build up to a deceptively simple claim: experiencing fandom as a liberatory escape into worlds of fantastic wish fulfillment is more possible for some fans than for others; this gradient runs along axes of race. Fan reconstructions of Marvel's Captain America through a queer history of the United States produce an intensely researched vision of the Marvel hero as concatenating figure for radical queer imaginaries—which simultaneously requires turning away from fellow hero Sam Wilson's canonical participation in activist struggle. Pande's description of searching for Sam Wilson through Tumblr and AO3 tags presents a quantifiable erasure, which provokes recognition of systemic whiteness expressed through a turning away from race, instead of a damaging address (note 3). The subversiveness of slash has already been troubled in later scholarship on the topic (Jones 2002); Pande extends this analysis to argue that maintaining such an uncomplicated claim depends on arguments about taste or pleasure: "If nonwhite characters are still getting sidelined in terms of fan work produced within such a [favorable] scenario, then it becomes clear that the seemingly value-neutral axioms or fandom algorithms are far from neutral" (135). Seen once or twice, as isolated incidents, perhaps one could consider Pande's case studies outliers. Seen in close succession, through Nakamura's formulation of the glitch, Pande's diagnosis of a repeating pattern gains considerable strength.

[7] Pande's last chapter is a methodological demonstration of her proposed approach. Pande opens a comparative overview of pornography and romance studies to produce a discussion of what the kink meme already knows: that sexual scripts are raced as well as gendered. In this last chapter, Pande seemingly leaves behind the raced for the sexualized body, then merges both analyses in the discussion of the kink meme's parameters for sexiness, illustrating how race is constructed through visibility and exclusion in explicitly sexual online play. Pande presents Kink Bingo (168) as an attempt at diversification still in the glitch, but reparative in intent nonetheless.

[8] Fan studies' struggle to establish its academic genealogies and bona fides also emerge in the silences of Pande's text. These omissions are certainly comprehensible in terms of Pande's overall challenge to fan studies: the gaps reflect the dynamics of its focus on Anglo-American cultural texts and the privileging of specific voices and experiences that has been its inadvertent result. But in construing entire fields of work as irrelevant to her central questions, Pande also reproduces a strange elision between the overtly imperialist histories of area studies disciplines, specifically Asian studies, and the significant contributions its publications have already made to Pande's fields of study.

[9] For instance, in chapter 4, Pande claims that there is "no sustained or book-length consideration of the role of racial identity in media fandom spaces" (112). While Squee from the Margins correctly questions whether an emphasis on national identity obscures racial categories, it does not pursue the theoretical issues surrounding its simultaneous deployment of intersectional and transnational analyses. These can be briefly summarized by noting that racial categories are built by and help sustain the national project; thus, the use of one category set in another national context can create artificial dissonance. The responses of fans outside the United States to being called "fans of color" (93–94) become sharper when considered through this dual interpellation. Their analysis requires a subtle address of race and racialization as constitutive national projects, and previous publications have pursued these ideas through sustained analysis of popular media. Combined with Pande's work, the books I have in mind make powerful interventions into fan studies.

[10] The first two books discuss the imbrication of race in national identity, through racialized nationality's strategic deployment as marketing tactic or diasporic shorthand. Another set of texts usefully destabilizes the nation, advancing arguments for linguistically based formations that bring dialect and diaspora to the fore. Sun Jung's 2011 monograph on the cultural hybridity of Korean masculinities is a sustained engagement with how East and Southeast Asian fans structure inter-Asia cultural circulation. Jung's work depends on the concept of inter-Asia cultural flows troubling fixed political or national centers, which together rearticulate geographically clustered identities as occurring between nationalizing frameworks. Ito, Okabe, and Tsuji's 2012 coedited volume on the otaku as genre tracks cultural flows within several transpacific participatory communities, as well as discussing how specific fan identities can trouble cultural or national belonging. This volume usefully reframes participatory communities as a querying of national boundaries through forms of practice, deftly reframing the stakes of splits in fannish identities across the Pacific Ocean. These lenses overtly implicate popular media into the national project, giving strength to Pande's claim for the necessity of postcolonial analysis of fan response.

[11] Earlier contributions of theory, such as Shu-mei Shih's 2007 monograph on the Sinophone as analytic mode, circumvent the foreclosure of the concept nation as a simple political and geographic claim (note 4). By disarticulating language and national belonging and focusing on the Sinophone instead of Chineseness, Shih gestures directly toward the postcolonial, diasporic, and fluently polyglot interventions that Pande claims still need to be made. Kuan-Hsing Chen's Asia as Method (2010) lays out another crucial methodological intervention, a decolonial reformulation of supposedly universal historical and cultural benchmarks away from Anglo-American norms through specific attention to postcolonial splits in national discourse in Taiwan's twentieth-century histories (note 5). Any of these works would have been useful referents for Pande's analyses, especially in chapter 1's too-brief discussion of the work of anime and manga fandoms in the formation of the diasporic fan and in chapter 3's call for a postcolonial theorization of online communities. These texts could only enrich and further nuance Pande's methodological imperatives to the field. They still can, especially if read and taught in tandem.

[12] I make no claims to widening the remit of fan studies to include more disciplinary homes nor require that fan scholars possess linguistic and cultural competencies at the level required for ethnography in someone else's field. Instead, I join in the spirit of Pande's call to action in promoting the recognition and inclusion of these valuable skills, and the work they produce, as foundations for fandom scholarship. Teaching texts by Chen, Jung, Shih, and Ito, Okabe, and Tsuji alongside Jenkins, Penley, and Pande produces the possibilities of a genuinely transnational fan studies (pace Morimoto 2017), sourced in the work of scholars whose linguistic, social, and scholarly affiliations cut and stitch unexpected affinities back together.

[13] With Squee from the Margins, Pande successfully levies the call for a reorientation of fan studies that establishes its baselines through fans of color around the world and that acknowledges its foundational scholarship as both incredibly profound and frustratingly incomplete. Pande's text is simultaneously a strong ethnographic record of fans who process their racial, ethnic, and national belongings through their fandom activities and an important call for fan studies to openly address the whiteness structuring its academic establishment. While the omission of discipline-specific work from Pande's constructed histories weakens the force of some points, its central calls to the work of fan studies remain both clear and urgent.


[14] This review was written based on an electronic advance reader's copy of the book. Thanks to University of Iowa Press for providing the ARC.


1. A similarly urgent argument about the ideological whiteness of fandom is visible across the work of Benjamin Woo, among several others, in the discussion of fandom and race in Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott's 2017 Routledge Companion to Media Fandom.

2. Pande discusses the tricky dynamics of simultaneous disaffection and adherence, somewhat indexed to awareness and identification with US American identity categories, surrounding this term in more detail in the second and third chapters of the book; see especially the diversity of responses in pages 93–94.

3. This is quite close to Peggy McIntosh's 1989 description of the knapsack of white privilege: the ability to turn away is itself an indicator of privilege.

4. Rey Chow's 2001 edited volume, which troubles Chineseness as an analytic category through disarticulation of national, linguistic, and cultural valuations of the term, would also be useful here.

5. I am grateful to Nishant Shah for recommending Chen's book to me.


Ahmed, Sara. 2010. "Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)." Scholar and Feminist Online 8 (3).

Chen, Kuan-Hsing. 2010. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Chow, Rey, ed. 2001. Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1993. "Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection." Race, Sex and Class 1 (1): 25–45.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge.

Ito, Mizuko, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, eds. 2012. Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jones, Sara Gwenllian. 2002. "The Sex Lives of Cult Television Characters." Screen 43:79–90.

Jung, Sun. 2011. Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-pop Idols. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1989. "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August 1989, 10–12.

Morimoto, Lori. 2017. "Transnational Media Fan Studies." In The Routledge Companion to Media Fandoms, edited by Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott, 280–88. New York: Routledge.

Nakamura, Lisa. 2013. "Glitch Racism: Networks as Actors within Vernacular Internet Theory." Culture Digitally, December 10, 2013.

Shih, Shu-mei. 2007. Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Woo, Benjamin. 2017. "The Invisible Bag of Holding: Whiteness and Media Fandom." In The Routledge Companion to Media Fandoms, edited by Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott, 245–52. New York: Routledge.