Using pop culture authentically

Janae Phillips

Harry Potter Alliance

Katie Bowers

Harry Potter Alliance

[0.1] Abstract—Fan activism continues to broaden in use as an organizing method, but care must be given to ensure campaigns are authentic and not pandering. Understanding of source material, mapping of fan communities and major players, and structuring of narrative can help to achieve a more effective, authentic fan activism campaign.

[0.2] Keywords—Campaigns; Fan activism; Organizing

Phillips, Janae, and Katie Bowers. 2020. "Using Pop Culture Authentically." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In the last few years, fan activism has become more widely utilized than ever before. Supernatural (2005–) fan group Wayward Daughters, organized by fans Riley Keshner and Betty Days, and later gathering support and participation from show actresses Kim Rhodes and Briana Buckmaster, sought to highlight the comparative lack of consistent women characters on the show and was so successful it spawned a spinoff pilot, Wayward Sisters. Color of Change successfully lobbied Disney to reedit Princess Tiana in Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) after first looks showed the princess had been all but whitewashed. The Movement for Black Lives organized #WakandatheVote to register voters at Black Panther (2018) screenings.

[1.2] What makes a fan activism campaign most effective? Fan activism is all about connecting action to story, but it's not enough to brand a campaign with pop culture references. Just like any other community, fans don't enjoy feeling pandered to; a strong fan activism campaign builds an authentic connection to the beloved story, one that shows an understanding of the material and engagement with core fans. By being intentional about how connections are built with source material, understanding how and where to recruit fans, and selecting a campaign structure that serves the story, organizers can build an authentic fan activism campaign that puts them in a position for greater buy-in and, hopefully, success.

2. Connecting with source materials

[2.1] Fans are experts. When approaching source material, it's important to understand what references are mainstream enough to be widely understood even by casual consumers—think Hogwarts houses or Imperial stormtroopers—and which are important to the deeper fandom community, like ships (relationships between characters, canon or not) or droid theories. Being able to balance mainstream clarity with deep cuts that show understanding of the in-group is critical for effectively communicating with different subsets of fans. An organization with a large base likely does not want to alienate or confuse its followers by using deep cuts to talk generally about a fandom campaign, but a deeper reference here and there signals to core fans that the organization is part of the in-group. For example, a Harry Potter campaign might use a Hogwarts house pride message but include a reference to Ravenclaw's bronze versus silver (it is bronze in the books but changed to silver in the films, a fact many Ravenclaw fans are still annoyed about). In this way, a campaign can effectively communicate its purpose to a broad audience while maintaining buy-in from core fans who are mostly likely to be a campaign's movers and shakers.

[2.2] This kind of balance in understanding not only earns a campaign fandom credibility but will also help build a solid connection between the themes of the source material and the goals for social change. Sometimes a broader understanding of a material may make a good connection at first glance but begin to fall apart when put under the scrutiny of fans; for example, a casual viewer may think the Fantastic Beasts films are the perfect connection to addressing the climate crisis, but the more deeply this material is examined the more it becomes clear that there's less to work with than imagined, as the magical creatures in question serve as more of a device for other themes. In such a case, a Fantastic Beasts climate campaign might capture some initial attention from a broad audience and even some more hardcore fans but fail to hold long-term organizing power with those fans. Plus, on a practical level for organizers, the stronger the connection, the easier their job becomes. Some stories are just better suited than others to talk about particular social topics (in the case of the climate crisis, Doctor Who is likely a better fit). In short, don't try to make a connection where there isn't one, or a campaign begins to feel contrived.

[2.3] That said, the key truly is balance, as not enough mainstream understanding and current fandom energy will result in a campaign too niche to mobilize both fans and casual viewers. The Lord of the Rings has broad cultural understanding, but there's little current activity in its fan base, or at least not enough to harness for widespread action. If a more niche campaign is the goal, success can certainly be found with a more dormant fandom—fans of Firefly (2002–3) often engage in charity projects with the Browncoats, for example—but generally speaking, something with lots of current activity that an average person would recognize and remember is most ideal. That said, media outside of an organizer's immediate circle of understanding should not be overlooked—organizers should talk to people of varying age groups and cultural bubbles to better understand fandom communities they may not be personally familiar with.

3. Finding and engaging with fans

[3.1] Fan networks are vast and usually go far beyond the original creator and distributors. While it's unlikely that a campaign will ever engage every corner of fandom, a campaign will feel more true to the fandom if at least some of the community is engaged with it. To better understand the community an organization wants to work with and begin to recruit fans, consider the spaces where fans can meet them on their own turf:

4. Structuring fan activism campaigns

[4.1] In the last decade of fan activism organizing, three primary types of campaigns have emerged: Accountability to Story, Values, and Immersive. In Accountability to Story, fans organize to ask creators and distributors of a story to answer to the same values the story portrays. This is extremely common in campaigns for better representation of diversity (Wayward Sisters, Color of Change's Ralph Breaks the Internet campaign, #StarWarsRepMatters, and racebending) and was the base of the Harry Potter Alliance's Not in Harry's Name campaign, which successfully pressured Warner Brothers to change its Harry Potter chocolate sourcing to fair trade or UTZ certified.

[4.2] In a Values campaign, fans are asked to fight for the values portrayed in the story. #WakandatheVote was a Values campaign, as was The 100 Charity Project asking fans of the show The 100 (2014–) to complete charitable acts as a community. Harry Potter Alliance campaigns, like Protego for trans rights and Accio Books for literacy access, are often Values campaigns.

[4.3] In an Immersive campaign, direct parallels are drawn between the events of the story and real-world events. Because it requires a nuanced understanding of the source material, this is often the most challenging type of fan activism campaign to successfully manage. Harry Potter Alliance campaigns like Odds in Our Favor, which enlisted Hunger Games fans into districts of real-world examples of economic inequity, and Stop the Snatchers, which directly compared Harry Potter's Muggle-born-capturing Snatchers to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are examples of this kind of campaign in action.

[4.4] Does an organizer need to become a superfan of a piece of media in order to run a successful fan activism campaign? Not necessarily, though it certainly helps to at least watch or read the source material they want to work with. A more realistic solution for long-term use is to recruit superfans with an interest in social change to help bridge gaps in knowledge and understanding. Just as an organization may hire consultants to help with marketing, a fandom consultant can provide expertise in building narrative and navigating the fandom community.

[4.5] As with any good story, a campaign should begin by setting the scene: Where are we in the source material? Is the rebellion strong, or are we on the brink of disaster? Have we just discovered Voldemort is back, or are we at the bitter camping part? Are we just stepping into the TARDIS, or are we battling the Daleks for Earth?

[4.6] This setting of the stage will be important in drawing the connection the campaign wants to make to its source material. What emotional cue from the story is it utilizing, or what point of the plot is being replicated, by fans or by the people we want to stop, in our own world? Fan activism is often about providing fans with a script for action that they are more familiar with than traditional organizing. Where they are placed in the narrative will cue them for what action needs to be taken, so choices and communication are important here.

[4.7] Once the stage is set, it's time for a values statement: Why should fans care about this? What is it about this subject that, if their favorite heroes were here now, would send them into action? Why should they, as fans of this story, care about this real-world goal? When a values statement is clear, a call to action can quickly follow: here's what fans need to do about it.

[4.8] Fan activism is a powerful tool for organizing, and one that is continuing to broaden its reach across many different organizing scenarios. In order for that reach to continue to see success, it's critical to remember that the essential root of this methodology is engaging with fans in a way that is authentic to their community and experience. By thinking carefully about source materials, engaging with key fandom leaders and groups from the beginning, and conceptualizing a structure for the campaign that best serves the narrative at hand, fan activism campaigns can be highly effective organizing strategies. For the best results, fandom and fans should be treated as they are: true partners in change making.