Fandom and politics

Ashley Hinck

Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Amber Davisson

Keene State College, Keene, New Hampshire, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Editorial for guest-edited issue, "Fandom and Politics," Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32 (March 15, 2020).

[0.2] Keywords—Activism; Civic identity; Fan cultures

Hinck, Ashley, and Amber Davisson. 2020. "Fandom and Politics" [editorial]. In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1973.

1. Introduction

[1.1] This special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures explores the increasingly intersecting worlds of fandom and politics. We have entered an historical moment in which political communication is filled with fandom. Grassroots fan communities mobilize to influence elections. Political candidates perform fandom on the campaign trail. And of course rallies on both sides of the aisle are filled with bursts of fannish excitement. Examples include the Princess Leia "We are the resistance" posters used during the 2017 Women's March and Elizabeth Warren's Harry Potter references to the strong attachment Trump fans felt for their candidate.

[1.2] While fandom has never been an apolitical activity, research in fan studies has mostly focused on political activities that take place outside of what one traditionally thinks of as political communication. Indeed, fan studies scholars have examined fan activism, including letter-writing campaigns and boycotts that sought to influence media decisions like cancellation and casting calls (Jenkins 1992; Lopez 2012), fan activism that affected public issues deploying charity fund raisers, boycotts, and protests (Hinck 2019; Jenkins and Shresthova 2012), and political fandom around public figures (Davisson 2016; De Kosnik 2008). This special issue specifically expands the academic conversation about the role of fandom in political discourse, both in terms of political organizations attempting to reach out to fans and fans attempting to mobilize to participate in political discussion.

[1.3] The essays in this issue contribute not only to fan studies but also to our understanding of the current political-communication climate. The affective nature of fandom is often treated as being at odds with the rational discourse of the political sphere, and the relationship between fandom and politics is often dismissed or ignored. The articles in this special issue build on fan studies' strong foundation to rebut that claim. They offer extensive evidence that fandom and politics are compatible—indeed, perhaps even natural fits. The essays suggest the wide variety of ways fandom and politics come together, be it across election campaigns, via activist resistance, around voter registration, and by charity work.

[1.4] The essays in this special issue persuasively demonstrate that the intersection of fandom and politics is not an unusual exception that happens only in a handful of fandoms and in a handful of cases. Rather, fan-citizens are doing politics across all kinds of fan communities, including One Direction, Taylor Swift, Supernatural, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, the Wolfenstein II video game, and the Humans of New York Facebook group. Doubtless fan studies will be essential to understanding civic practices in the coming years.

2. Theory and Praxis

[2.1] In the Theory section, Tibor Dessewffy and Mikes Mezei's "Fans and Politics in an Illiberal State" uses the case study of Hungarian fans of Harry Potter (1997–) on Facebook to demonstrate the impact that the values of a fandom can have on a citizen's political allegiances. The research shows that fans of Harry Potter in a country with a staunchly right-wing government espouse views that are far to the left of other Hungarian citizens. Their analysis indicates that this is the result of a combination of the extreme popularity of Harry Potter creating an active community where people feel engaged, and a translation of the values of the text into the activities of day-to-day life. Fandom can be used in politics to activate fans' civic identities; this study demonstrates that the simple act of being a fan affects civic life.

[2.2] In "The Role of Popular Media in 2016 US Presidential Election Memes," Kyra Osten Hunting shows how fan culture affects meme culture, making fan studies essential to understanding how memes are deployed in election season. She examines face-swap memes, in which popular culture characters are merged with real-life politicians like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. Examining memes that invoke Harry Potter, Star Wars (1977–), and Disney princesses and witches, among others, Hunting argues that these popular culture texts offer a limited lexicon for talking about politics. These media texts offer numerous male characters that may be deployed to make arguments for favored candidates (Bernie as Dumbledore), but they offer far fewer older woman characters with which to make similar arguments (Clinton as Leia). Hunting points out how gender operates across political framing and popular culture media texts through the creation and circulation of memes.

[2.3] Viktor Chagas and Vivian Luiz Fonseca's study of sports fan activism during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games highlights the political protests against then-acting Brazilian president Michel Temer. The International Olympic Committee has a directive prohibiting political and religious demonstrations during the games, and protesters were arrested. The essay highlights media treatment of activists, as sports media outlets have tried to avoid or downplay the politicization of major sporting events. Chagas and Fonseca's work expands the conversation in fan studies to include rooters, the spectators at sporting events who engage in a variety of fan activities such as waving signs, dressing up, or painting their bodies. Political activists take the traditional activity of rooting for a player or team and expand it to incorporate social and political commentary. Fans thus have been able to get around efforts by official organizations and sports media outlets to stop the politicization of events through demonstrations.

[2.4] In the Praxis section, in a study of Brexit, Trump, and Doctor Who (1963–89, 1996, 2005–) on social media, Hannah Carilyn Gunderman explains how Doctor Who fans use the television show as a tool to deal with emotionally taxing geopolitical events. Fans use particular plot lines from the show to share their anguish with an online community and find support. Gunderman uses the lens of fan geographies to address the way that the global Doctor Who community was able to address similar political situations in geographically disparate locations. Typically, events like Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election might have been discussed globally but were primarily experienced locally. The Doctor Who fan community provides a way to experience these things together. Gunderman's work highlights the way fan communities might create political communities that transcend traditional geopolitical boundaries.

[2.5] Lucy Miller's essay on "Wolfenstein II and MAGA as Fandom" considers fans' reactions to the marketing around Wolfenstein II (2017; MachineGames and Bethesda Softworks), a video game that tasks the player with battling Nazis in an alternate future in which Nazi Germany won World War II. The marketing around the video game calls on players to "Make America Nazi-free again," invoking Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan and drawing connections between the video game and the current political context. Some fans of the game criticized the game developers and their marketing choices. Yet Miller asserts that partisanship alone cannot explain the political discourse that emerged around Wolfenstein II's marketing. She argues that what emerges is a MAGA fandom that enacts a MAGA ethical framework and matching ethical modalities that demand defense of Trump, video games, and the nation. Ultimately, Miller argues that this is a case of "fans looking to emulate their object of interest rather than" a case of "partisans committed to working to improve the nation from different perspectives" (¶ 3.24).

[2.6] In "Fanon Bernie Sanders," Rachel Winter argues that real-person fan fiction functions as one avenue through which candidate branding occurs outside of official PR firms and political campaigns. By examining sixty-nine fan fictions on the Archive of Our Own (https://archiveofourown.org/) featuring Bernie Sanders as a main character, Winter finds that fic authors incorporate aspects of Sanders's persona detailed by journalistic coverage and further build out his persona through description of Sanders, Sanders's actions, and Sanders's dialogue. Winter's article demonstrates how candidate images are built through an interplay among campaign officials, journalists, and fans.

[2.7] The values inherent in a fan community have often become the basis for political action. Paromita Sengupta, in an analysis of the Humans of New York photography project, explores a case where the creator and the fans disagree about what those values look like in action. Sengupta begins by analyzing the value of positivity espoused by Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton. Stanton has often used the value as a basis for policing activities on the social media accounts where he distributes his photos and interviews. Fan communities have actively critiqued both the value of positivity in the project and the way Stanton has applied it. Sengupta's work demonstrates the political power of communities as they take the text into their own hands and make work that is inspired by and responds to the original.

[2.8] Alyson Gross examines fan activism emerging around Harry Styles. By drawing on fourteen interviews with Harry Styles fans, Gross argues that Styles functions as an empty signifier defined by vagueness. This emptiness opens up opportunities for fans to project their own values onto Styles—a significant and interesting departure from typical strategies used in fan activism. Gross focuses on the case of fans' waving Black Lives Matter flags at Harry Styles concerts, arguing that "by bringing BLM signs and flags to concerts, fans not only are attempting to mobilize—reshape, adapt, use—Harry Styles's image for their own representation but are playing a direct role in developing his political meaning" (¶ 5.8). Gross identifies important implications for research on identification, star texts, and celebrity and fan activism.

3. Symposium, Interview, and Review

[3.1] The Symposium section of the issue takes up a wide variety of questions, from large fan activist campaigns to fandom's function in the preparation of citizens. Kate Elizabeth McManus explores how fan fiction helped her (as well as other fans) process the 2016 US presidential election. Rachel O'Leary Carmona argues that One Direction's fandom functions as a decentralized network, preparing fans to engage in politics in similarly decentralized political activities. Alex Xanthoudakis takes up the case of Supernatural (CW, 2005–), examining how Misha Collins encourages fans to participate in Minion Stimulus through framings of family enacted using social media. Simone Driessen explores the tension around Taylor Swift's political transition from a conservative country singer to a progressive pop star, pointing to the limitations and opportunities her celebrity image provides. Mary Ingram-Waters also explores Swift's politics, analyzing how she recruited her fans to register to vote in 2018. Sabrina McMillin examines the cases of the Notorious RBG Tumblr and an urbanist meme Facebook group to explore how fandomization functions as a process. And Michael Reinhard considers the role of social bots in fandom, exploring questions of manufactured and contested popularity as well as attacks on social media.

[3.2] The book reviews in this issue examine how affect, imagination, and politics interact in fandom. Caitlin McCann reviews Nicolle Lamerich's 2018 book Productive Fandom: Intermediality and Affective Reception in Fan Cultures, which examines fan engagement as a process. Lamerich emphasizes affect and bodies by taking up transmediality across case studies like fan fiction and cosplay. Michelle Cho reviews Jungmin Kwon's 2019 book Straight Korean Female Fans and Their Gay Fantasies. Cho finds Kwon's book offers a glimpse into how "young women's imaginative projections" have impacted and shaped "the national mediascape in contemporary South Korea" (¶ 1), anchoring her analysis in careful social, historical, and cultural contextualization of fan activity in South Korea during the 2000s, with important implications for South Korean media today. Maria Alberto reviews Ashley Hinck's 2019 book Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World. Hinck's book theorizes fan-based citizenship (public engagement that emerges from and is anchored in fandom) and examines the rhetorical strategies used to persuade fans to take up these kinds of actions.

[3.3] In their interview, CarrieLynn D. Reinhard and joan miller model a dialogue between two scholars that aims to uncover theoretical assumptions and new paths for research. They demonstrate the power and necessity of engaging in nontraditional forms of scholarship—or, perhaps more accurately, reenvisioning traditional forms of scholarship (dialogue)—for a digital age (conducted over social media). Through their dialogue, they map out a possible answer to the question this entire issue of TWC aims to address: Why study fandom and politics?

4. Acknowledgments

[4.1] The creation of this special issue would not have been possible without the contributions and hard work of many people. Thanks so much to the authors who took the issue's prompt in so many wonderful and creative directions. We are incredibly grateful for the diligent and meticulous work of Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, whose work as editors taught us much along the way. Thanks to the many peer reviewers and the editorial team. Thanks also to the production team members, who helped make this issue look wonderful. And thanks to the board members of Transformative Works and Cultures, who continue to create a journal that is one of a kind in the field.

[4.2] The following people worked on TWC No. 32 in an editorial capacity: Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson (guest editors); Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (editors); Lori Morimoto (Symposium); and Katie Morrissey and Louisa Ellen Stein (Review).

[4.3] The following people worked on TWC No. 32 in a production capacity: Christine Mains and Rrain Prior (production editors); Jennifer Duggan, Beth Friedman, Christine Mains, and Vickie West (copyeditors); Claire Baker, Christine Mains, Sarah New, and Rebecca Sentance (layout); and Karalyn Dokurno, Rachel P. Kreiter, Christine Mains, and Latina Vidolova (proofreaders).

[4.4] TWC thanks the board of the Organization for Transformative Works. OTW provides financial support and server space to TWC but is not involved in any way in the content of the journal, which is editorially independent.

[4.5] TWC thanks all its board members, whose names appear on TWC's masthead, as well as the following peer reviewers who provided their services for TWC No. 32: Shira Chess, Leisa Clark, Helena Louise Dare-Edwards, Stephen Duncombe, Amy Finn, Katie Gillespie, Aaron Hess, Stefan Lawrence, Linda Levitt, Rukmini Pande, Camilo Díaz Pino, Milena Popova, Emily Sauter, Rachel Winter, and Andrew Zolides.

5. References

Davisson, Amber. 2016. "Mashing Up, Remixing, and Contesting the Popular Memory of Hillary Clinton." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2016.0965.

De Kosnik, Abigail. 2008. "Participatory Democracy and Hillary Clinton's Marginalized Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2008.047.

Hinck, Ashley. 2019. Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry, and Sangita Shresthova. 2012. "Up, Up, and Away! The Power and Potential of Fan Activism" [editorial]. In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2012.0435.

Lopez, Lori Kido. 2012. "Fan-Activists and the Politics of Race in The Last Airbender." International Journal of Cultural Studies 15 (5): 431–45. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877911422862.