Race and Ethnicity in Fandom: Theory

Doing fandom, (mis)doing whiteness: Heteronormativity, racialization, and the discursive construction of fandom

Mel Stanfill

University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The fans depicted in mainstream media representation are unrelentingly white in a way that constructs fandom—from Star Trek to baseball to Elvis—as the property of white bodies. Though whiteness is typically understood in contemporary American culture as a position of privilege, represented fans seem to contradict this conventional wisdom; they are conceptualized in television shows, fictional films, and documentaries as white people deviating from the constructed-as-white norm of heterosexuality and employment through a "childish" fixation on the object of their fandom. Dominant culture produces an idea of fandom as a sort of failed nonheteronormative whiteness that serves a regulatory function, positioning the supposed inadequacy of fans as the result of bad—but correctable—decisions, reinforcing rather than challenging privilege as a natural property of white, heterosexual masculinity as it produces fandom as a racialized construct.

[0.2] Keywords—Discourse; Representation

Stanfill, Mel. 2011. "Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom." In "Race and Ethnicity in Fandom," edited by Robin Anne Reid and Sarah Gatson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0256 .

1. Introduction

[1.1] If, as many have argued, fans are increasingly central to the contemporary mediascape (Coppa 2006; Jones 2000; Sandvoss 2005), they are becoming so within the constraints of cultural common sense, making it incumbent on fan scholars to analyze what fandom means culturally (note 1). In examining the discourse of fandom circulating in contemporary culture, it quickly becomes apparent that, in addition to being constructed as losers, as other scholars have noted (note 2), fans are culturally understood to be white people, particularly white men. This discourse both runs counter to the conventional fan studies wisdom that fans are substantially or even primarily women (Bacon-Smith 1991; Coppa 2006, 2008; Jenkins 1992) and erases racial difference within fandom, which raises the question of just who is newly fundamental to media systems.

[1.2] More particularly, fans are not just constructed as white but more specifically as what Richard Dyer (1997) calls "skin" white rather than "symbolically" white. Though the physical appearance of the fans represented in mainstream cultural artifacts is phenotypically white, these images of fandom do not fit comfortably within the positive valuation usually attached to whiteness in dominant American culture. This disjuncture is produced, I argue, through the ways in which fans are constructed as nonheteronormative, for, as Roderick Ferguson (2003) notes, heteronormativity is racialized as white, and deviance is racialized as nonwhite. Ultimately, this articulation of white bodies, fandom, and nonheteronormativity in the mainstream media constructs fandom as a nonheteronormative variety of whiteness, positioning the supposed inadequacy of fans as the result of substandard—but standardizable—self-control. This works both to reinforce the cultural commonsense that privilege is a natural property of white, heterosexual masculinity and to produce fandom as white.

2. Fandom and whiteness as discourse

[2.1] I begin from the premise that both whiteness and fandom are discourses. Discourse is understood here, following Michel Foucault (1972, 80), as either "an individualizable group of statements" that have a common theme and therefore effectiveness, or "a regulated practice that accounts for a certain number of statements." This latter framing points to the fact that discourse is not just regulated but itself works to regulate the possibilities from which statements (understood as encompassing both literal utterances and things like practices) are formulated. It is through this accounting for statements that discourse constitutes cultural common sense. What we say, think, or do is produced within the constraints of what it makes sense to us to say, think, or do; Ruth Frankenberg (1993, 78) points out that the "discursive environment" we inhabit is as much a concrete and difficult-to-change factor in how we go about our lives as is the material environment. These discursive environments are important because the statements formulated within them, though not necessarily addressing the question of how the phenomena they describe "really are," are nevertheless "one of the prime means by which we have any knowledge of reality," as "how anything is represented is the means by which we think and feel about that thing, by which we apprehend it" (Dyer 1997, xiii). Discourse, this is to say, produces what gets to stand as reality: it is performative, such that when a statement, broadly construed, is produced from within that regulated and authoritative space of the possible, the act of saying something makes it true. These are, then, "practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak" (Foucault 1972, 49).

[2.2] Moreover, the discourses available to us from culture serve to produce not just reality in general but subject positions in particular (Foucault 1972). Discourse effectively brings us into existence by constructing the categories that make us intelligible to ourselves and others as subjects. We then come to inhabit those categories through what Louis Althusser (1971) terms interpellation; individuals become subjects through hearing someone called and recognizing that the call is meant for them; in so doing, they occupy the position that is being hailed. This process does not, of course, require that we actually be hailed by a police officer, as in Althusser's example, or even that we literally be called; as Jillian Sandell (1997, 218) argues, "interpellation works when an individual hears and recognizes a cultural story and understands his or her place in it." By these means, discourse not only constructs a concept of fan and a concept of white, which are socially real, but also—through that moment of call and recognition—produces subjects to occupy those positions.

[2.3] The discourse of fandom in circulation in mainstream media representations has consequences for what fans are understood to be, both by nonfans and by fans themselves. This discourse—as it was described by scholars in the early 1990s and as it, regrettably, remains in the present—constructs fan as a stigmatized category (Brower 1992; Jenkins 1992; Lewis 1992a). Fans are associated in the popular imaginary with danger, violence, and pathology or just loneliness, alienation, and loserdom (Jenkins 1992; Jensen 1992; Johnson 2007; Lewis 1992a). Fans have traditionally been depicted as people who "are brainless consumers who will buy anything associated with the program or its cast" (Jenkins 1992, 10; see also Johnson 2007). In this discourse, fans are understood to "devote their lives to the cultivation of worthless knowledge" (Jenkins 1992, 10; see also Johnson 2007; Lewis 1992a). They "place inappropriate importance on devalued cultural material" (Jenkins, 1992, 10). They're "social misfits" and "feminized or desexualized" (Jenkins, 1992, 10). They're "infantile, emotionally and intellectually immature" (Jenkins 1992, 10) (note 3). Perhaps most dramatically, fans are constructed as "unable to separate fantasy from reality" (Jenkins 1992, 10; see also Jensen 1992; Lewis 1992a).

[2.4] This cultural construction of fandom would seem to be exactly opposite to the cultural construction of whiteness. Whiteness, scholars inform us, is the unmarked category (marking others), the unexamined category (subjecting others to examination), and the norm (making others insufficient), the cumulative effect of which is privilege (and disadvantage for others) (note 4). Ross Chambers (1997, 189) adds that although "there are plenty of unmarked categories (maleness, heterosexuality, and middle classness being obvious ones)," it can be argued that "whiteness is perhaps the primary unmarked and so unexamined—let's say 'blank'—category."

[2.5] Not all representations of whiteness equally accept this cultural windfall of privilege, however, which scholars have generally explained in one of two ways. Some argue that such constructions demonstrate, as a backlash against the perceived destabilization of white male privilege, a belief that white men are now victims of discrimination (note 5). Alternatively, other authors contend that such representations of white male nonprivilege disrupt the naturalness of our culture's equation of whiteness with superiority and thus represent an opportunity to rework and undo white privilege (Hill 1997a; Newitz and Wray 1997a, 1997b). Though the former point of view argues that nonnormative whitenesses obscure a continuing white privilege and the latter argues that white privilege is actually undone, both are based in the premise that whiteness is the master category controlling the meaning of these representations, and that it can only have one meaning at a time. However, both of these views miss the insight of intersectionality: subject positions are complex and produced by the confluence of a wide variety of factors, such that as things play out on real bodies no one is purely dominant or purely subordinated (note 6). As a result of intersectional complexity, as Chambers (1997, 91) argues, "in the end, identity becomes a bit like a poker hand, in which the value of the ace (whiteness) can be enhanced, if one holds a couple of face cards or another ace (masculinity, heterosexuality, middle classnesss) or, alternatively depreciated by association with cards of lower value (ethnicity, lack of education, working classness)." Fandom, I contend here, is represented by mainstream media as one of those cards of lower value.

[2.6] In particular, the point at which fandom and normative whiteness come into conflict in these representations—and fandom becomes constructed as an insufficient whiteness—is around the issue of self-control. Indeed, the construction of the category "white" has traditionally been in some sense predicated on an equation of whiteness with self-control and blackness with the lack thereof (Dyer 1997; Floyd 2009; Roediger 1991; Savran 1998). As David Roediger (1991, 100) has argued, the historical invention of whiteness came out of a move to "displace anxieties within the white population onto blacks"; in particular, slurs used against whites perceived as lazy became ways of stereotyping people of African descent, and the lack of work ethic these insults implied became understood as a black trait, a constitutive Other to a whiteness thus constructed as hardworking. This was a "notion of whiteness having to do with rightness, with tightness, with self-control, self consciousness, mind over body" (Dyer 1997, 6). Whiteness, that is, was invented as part of larger historical trends that worked to "eliminate holidays, divorce the worker from contact with nature, bridle working class sexuality, separate work from the rest of life and encourage the postponing of gratification" (Roediger 1991, 96).

[2.7] As Dyer's and Roediger's formulations begin to suggest, whiteness is heavily predicated on sexual self-control in particular; indeed, Mike Hill (1997b, 157) argues that "although more obviously connected to race and class issues, whiteness sustains itself ultimately on sexual grounds." The foundational status of this can be seen from how sexuality is racialized: "sexual stereotypes commonly depict 'us' as sexually vigorous (usually our men) and pure (usually our women) and depict 'them' as sexually depraved (usually their men) and promiscuous (usually their women)" (Nagel 2003, 10). Under this construction, white male sexuality is "vigor" without "depravity," and is modulated and controlled. This is grounded in the construction of whiteness as affiliated with civilization and rationality as opposed to sexuality (note 7). The counterexamples reinforce this: a failure of the normative expectation of sexual self-control is central to the failure of whiteness built into the category of "white trash," a group typically constructed as having a propensity for incest and rape (Newitz and Wray 1997a, 1997b; Sandell, 1997), and the production of white men as victims quite specifically includes a sense of an inability to keep not just a job but, crucially, a girlfriend (Ching 1997; Dyer 1997).

[2.8] There is a similar failure of—or deviance from—sexual normativity built into popular cultural images of fans, working to undermine the position of privilege their whiteness would otherwise provide. Following Kyle Kusz's (2001, 393) call to "read whiteness into texts that are not explicitly about race if one is to disrupt Whiteness as the unchallenged racial norm," I contend that it is vital to figure out what the whiteness of fandom does when fandom is constructed as nonnormative in the ways elaborated above. Importantly, while the whiteness of white trash is well acknowledged—it's even in the name!—the whiteness of the culturally constituted category of "fan" has yet to be considered in depth; scholars consider whiteness and fandom in the context of sports (Crawford 2004; Müller, van Zoonen, and de Roode 2007; Newman 2007; Ruddock 2005) or music (Bannister 2006; Brown and Schulze 1990; Ching 1997; Yousman 2003), but virtually never with fans of television or film beyond an acknowledgment that the population is white (i.e., Jenkins, 1992), nor in considerations of the category "fan" across objects of fandom.

[2.9] The latter is precisely what I wish to do, using an expansive definition of fandom that includes not just the groups that fan studies, as a field, traditionally looks at such, as science fiction/fantasy and cult film fans, but also music and sports fans. The juxtaposition of different types of fans may strike the reader as odd, given the tendency for fan scholarship to focus on one type of fan and to not engage with work that has been done on any other sorts of fans (Schimmel, Harrington, and Bielby 2007). However, in examining fandom as a discourse, I begin from the premise that the use of the same word (fan) to delineate these various cultural practices, though perhaps arbitrary in the Saussurean sense, nevertheless does cultural work. Like Matt Hills's (2002, 121) argument that "from a Bakhtinian perspective, we need to consider how cult discourses circulate across and between these different contexts of use," it is important to consider the ways in which there is intertextuality between all deployments of the word fan, such that any use inflects the others.

[2.10] In examining fandom and whiteness as discourses that are in some sense antithetical, the prevalence of white-embodied people as the bearers of fandom in dominant cultural representations reveals the ways in which whiteness is less the outcome of pigmentation than behavior. Beginning from the insight that gender is constituted through enactment (Butler 1990; West and Zimmerman 1987), and extending this insight to other social categories, both fandom and whiteness are something "done." The need to repeatedly perform one's whiteness in order to construct and reaffirm it opens up the possibility that a white-skinned person can fail at whiteness (Ahmed 2006; Dyer 1997), and fandom is one of the ways of doing whiteness incorrectly. Much like white trash is "a naming practice that helps define stereotypes of what is or is not acceptable or normal for whites in the U.S." (Newitz and Wray 1997a, 4), so too is "fan": the discursive construction of fans as white in popular culture works to produce a notion of appropriate fandom through whiteness and appropriate whiteness through fandom.

[2.11] To investigate this mutual production, I not only consider several types of fans, but I also mix televisual representations of fandom with filmic ones, and fictional film with documentary film; after all, as David Savran (1998, 37) points out, mixing genres lets one see "how, within a given culture, hegemony necessarily works itself out on many different levels." My argument here is based in analysis of 12 films and seven television episodes centering on or prominently featuring fans that were released in the United States between 1995 and 2008. The fictional films are The Fan (1996), a baseball thriller; Fanboys (2008), a comedy about Star Wars fans; Fever Pitch (2005), a romantic comedy about a baseball fan; Galaxy Quest (1999), a comedy about science fiction fans; and Looking for Kitty (2004), a comedy about a baseball fan trying to track down his runaway wife. The documentaries examined are Almost Elvis (2001), about Elvis impersonators (indicated to also be fans); Fanalysis (2002), a documentary short about a variety of cult media fans; Horror Fans (2006), which is what the title indicates; Mathematically Alive (2007), about fans of the New York Mets; and Trekkies (1997) and Trekkies II (2004), which chronicle the practices of Star Trek fans. Television is represented by four episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, a historical fantasy series that ran from 1995 to 2001; two episodes of political drama The West Wing (1999–2006), and a 1998 episode of the animated sitcom The Simpsons (1989–present). In all of these representations, fiction, documentary, and television alike, the overwhelming tendency is for fans to be white, and indeed, as I'll discuss below, the exceptions serve to reinforce that white norm.

3. God hates fans: (Non)normative masculinity and fandom as a sexual orientation

[3.1] The lens used here to make sense of representations of fandom, that of heteronormativity, is a complex notion. In addition to its being racialized as white, it is a norm demarcating a socially correct instantiation of not only sexuality, but also gender and class. Judith Butler (1993, 238) gestures toward part of this inextricability when she notes that "homophobia often operates through the attribution of a damaged, failed, or otherwise abject gender to homosexuals," and the equation can easily run the other way, with "damaged, failed or otherwise abject gender" suggesting a corresponding "failure" of heterosexuality. Elsewhere in Bodies That Matter, Butler points out the ways in which race operates differently on bodies differentiated by sexuality or class as well as how gender is racialized and race is gendered, indicating (somewhat obliquely) the complex interconnections between these categories. Ferguson (2003, 1) pulls together these threads much more explicitly, arguing that "racial difference," "sexual incongruity," "gender eccentricity," and "class marginality" cannot actually be disentangled from one another as demarcations of deviance from the norm.

[3.2] In the encounter with this complex of norms, much like their phenotypic whiteness, fans seem to get gender and sexuality right in that they visually indicate maleness and are constructed as having a heterosexual disposition, but when it comes to behaving in a way consistent with constructed-as-white normative, middle-class, heterosexual masculinity, fans are constructed as falling down on the job. Fans are, first, men who are questionably masculine, and, particularly, not virile or athletic. This is particularly interesting given that sports fandom, at least, would commonly be understood to be integral to normative masculinity. This points to the way in which masculinity is precisely something that must be enacted; these fans may be oriented toward a masculinizing object, but, at least as constructed in dominant cultural representations, they don't act very manly about it, namely, through their exhibition of excessive, uncontrolled affect (note 8). Sometimes the marking of fans as insufficiently masculine is direct, as when the white-skinned characters of Fanboys are insulted as "ladies," "Spice Girls," or the perennial favorite, "pussies," or question whether each other has "the nut sack to go through with" their plan to steal a copy of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace before its theatrical release. Though accusations of nonmasculinity may be a common weapon in the male insult arsenal, there is a way in which being open to such accusations in the first place suggests that the manliness of the target is vulnerable to a challenge, and this is reinforced by having a woman use these insults toward the fans on several occasions in the film. A similar fannish emasculation is demonstrated by fan character Guy in Galaxy Quest, who is hysterical and cowardly in the face of danger: "I'm the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I've gotta get outta here!"

[3.3] Fans are also constructed as insufficiently manly when they're shown as overweight or unathletic. This is typified when a friend of the fans in Fanboys comments that "this is, like, the most exercise you guys have had all year" as they all run across the grounds at Star Wars creator George Lucas's production facility, Skywalker Ranch, in the course of their heist. Similarly, when the parents of one teenage fan in Galaxy Quest shrug at his strange pronouncement that he needs to use fireworks to help land a spaceship, they comment that "at least he's outside." The implication is that he does not go out often, which suggests that he is not physically active (though he is thin), and the blatant suburbanness of the family's home codes fandom even more heavily as white than their visual markers alone.

[3.4] Perhaps the most dramatic departure from standard masculinity is a costumed, overweight, pasty-white fan who is focused on for an extended scene in Trekkies. At the time he is interviewed, this man is attending a convention dressed not as a major character from Star Trek, nor even as a minor character, but as the (extrapolated) wife of a minor character. The connection to the show is so tenuous that it almost seems as if he chose to dress in drag and then retroactively sought a convoluted justification. This choice is also visually marked as disconcerting through zooming so close that viewers can see his makeup running from his sweat, adding failure at femininity through bad drag to his transgressions. In an exaggerated form, this single fan encapsulates the lack of masculinity attributed to fans as a group, making it clear that having a body both male and white is not sufficient to guarantee normativity as he, like other fans in these constructions, conspicuously "does" normative masculinity and whiteness incorrectly.

[3.5] Fans are also imagined to be insufficient with respect to classed and raced normative masculinity to the extent that they are constructed as not having successful careers. In a basic way, that the fan has a dead-end job has a certain cultural obviousness. The documentary Horror Fans, to which the employment of fans isn't strictly relevant, nevertheless seems to go out of its way to mention it, including a segment in which a white fan describes himself thus: "I'm a massive horror fanatic. On top of that, I'm a filmmaker. And by day I work at Blockbuster Video." This works to reinforce the cultural association of fans and lack of success, and it does so for no apparent reason (note 9). Similarly, some of the characters in Fanboys work presumably low-wage jobs in a comic book store; one who doesn't, Eric, is held up as the success within the group, but even he doesn't get all the way there: he works as a used car salesman in his father's business. Middle-aged white man Gil Renard, the central character in baseball thriller film The Fan, is established as a failure of normative masculine business success in the film's first 10 minutes when he is called in to the boss's office and told that he is very close to being fired for poor performance. This lack of employment success is dramatically demonstrated in ensuing scenes as the knife salesman humiliates himself in the course of his work: in an effort to increase his sales and keep his job, he goes to potential customer after potential customer, demonstrating the quality of his company's knives by shaving first his arm hair and then his leg hair, eventually getting to the point that he jokes, "any more of these demos and I'm going to have to start shaving the hairs on my ass," which frames his body as exploitable and vulnerable. These are traits associated with femininity rather than masculinity in dominant American culture, and moreover the idea of him potentially dropping his trousers to make the sale frames him as prostituting himself, the homosexual flavor of which is also antithetical to mainstream understandings of normative white masculinity. In this way, fans are represented as in violation of the construction of whiteness as "enterprising" (Dyer 1997, 31).

[3.6] A further departure from heteronormative white masculinity comes from the construction of fans as childish and immature. In a basic sense, Trekkies, Horror Fans, and Fanalysis all include scenes in which fans describe their fan practices as continuous and unchanged since childhood, marking them as in some sense stuck there. Fictional white Boston Red Sox fan Ben in Fever Pitch is more explicitly framed as existing in a state of arrested development: a childhood trauma led to his being a fan, and he likes that baseball is simple, safe, and predictable, unlike "real life." He even asks for relationship advice from a high school student he coaches, which constructs him as less mature and knowledgeable than a teenager. Ben's lack of adulthood is underscored when his girlfriend, Lindsey, goes to help him decide what to wear to meet her parents and discovers that "this is not a man's closet" because Ben's wardrobe consists almost entirely of Red Sox paraphernalia rather than more sober attire; she tells him "you're a man-boy. Half man, half boy." Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, consulted as a Web guru in the documentary Fanalysis, similarly describes the fan as occupying this sort of liminal adulthood: "Someone who has a nine to five job in the real world, and they want to have the wife, but they're still hanging on to being a child." Importantly, the suggestion here is that fans do want "the wife," but their residual attachment to childhood in the form of fandom is incompatible with the achievement of this desire; as Gayle Rubin (1993) points out, heteronormativity is constructed as a domain of sexual activity between two (and only two) mature adults, such that any concurrence of the youthful and the sexual is regarded as impermissible.

[3.7] Perhaps most dramatically, in line with Joli Jensen's (1992, 16) argument that representations frame "fandom as a surrogate relationship, one that inadequately imitates normal relationships," fans are also more specifically marked as failing at heterosexuality (and not just at the broader concept of heteronormativity) as a result of their fandom. The substitution of fandom for partner relationships is played up for comic effect when three of the four fans in Fanboys, in a catalog of their fan practices, acknowledge that they had "named their right hand Leia," which gains force as nonnormative by drawing on the cultural common sense, described by Rubin (1993), that masturbation is inferior to partnered sex. The centering of the fan's romantic and sexual world around the object of fandom is also demonstrated by one white fan in Mathematically Alive, who says of his fandom that "it's almost perhaps too important to me because I will blow off anything, whether it's a date or wearing this jacket on a Saturday night in Manhattan. I couldn't care less. It's Mets first." Though the structure of the comment makes it hard to follow, it seems that he's willing to blow off a date or fashion; the upshot is that his desire for the Mets is greater than his desire for women, which would make it difficult to engage in heterosexual courtship rituals. Certainly, in both the fictional film Fever Pitch and the documentary Trekkies, fans indicate that their fandom has been the cause of breakups with romantic partners in the past.

[3.8] More explicitly (in both of the common senses of the word), the characters in Fanboys are constructed as unfamiliar with information pertaining to sex; when they are caught by the security guards at Skywalker Ranch, the head guard informs them that "Mr. Lucas is touched and mildly flattered by what you have done here" in seeking to steal the film so that their dying friend can see it, explaining that the breaking and entering charges will be dropped if they can prove that they are, in fact, "fanboys" by means of "a simple quiz." The equation of fans with failed heterosexuality is rendered obvious in this scene when said quiz not only consists of Star Wars trivia they're supposed to know, such as, "What is the name of the gunner in Luke's snow speeder?" (which they can indeed answer without hesitation), but sexual trivia they're supposed to not know, such as "Where is a woman's g-spot located?" (which generates head scratching). In this way, the cultural association of whiteness with normativity is broken when it comes to fans, who are constructed as unable to have socially appropriate romantic or sexual relationships.

[3.9] Fans are also sometimes constructed as violating heteronormativity in the most obvious way through being gay. Sometimes this is a momentary appearance of homoeroticism, as when Ben in Fever Pitch is so excited to receive his season tickets that he leaps, half-clothed, onto the delivery man, or a white male fan in Fanalysis exclaims "I love you!" to actor Bruce Campbell and tries to kiss him. Other times, there is a more specific insistence on homosexuality. Fanboys, as with most things, is not subtle about this: "gay" and "fag" are common forms of invective among these characters (and not just the male ones). In particular, they call the Star Trek fans they encounter things like "Kirk-loving Spock-suckers," and their use of the accusation of homosexuality as an insult makes it clear that these men perceive a need to restabilize their own heterosexuality though destabilizing that of other men (Pascoe 2007)—despite the ultimate outcome of this being that all fans are tainted with sexual deviance. Moreover, fan Eric's brother asks whether, while they have been hanging out together, the fans have been "sticking G.I. Joes up your butts," raising the specter of anal eroticism—which mainstream culture assumes is an automatic indication that a man is gay. Finally, Gil in The Fan is consistently and extensively marked as sexually deviant, whether visually, as when he accosts a baseball player in a steam room in a scene that is evocative of a gay bathhouse; musically, as with the consistent use of the Nine Inch Nails song "Closer," with its lines "I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside," in all of the scenes in which he is obsessing over player Bobby Rayburn; or both, as when "Closer" plays with Gil standing in Rayburn's closet among his clothes.

[3.10] The Spock sucking and ballplayer fucking in these representations begins to get at the idea that at least part of what fans get out of fandom is sexual pleasure, and the decision of Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church to picket the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con convention would seem to suggest that the far right, at least, has made the same judgment. Fan scholars, however, have not drawn this conclusion despite their wealth of arguments about the sexual pleasure experienced by fans. This pleasure is noted, though not really examined, by Busse and Hellekson (2006) and Jones (2000). Certainly, the connection of fandom and sex is present but latent in many discussions of fan fiction: fan fiction is an erotic practice (Jenkins 1992; Sandvoss 2005); fiction that includes or centers on sex is widely acknowledged to be a major genre well within the mainstream of fandom (Busse and Hellekson 2006; Driscoll 2006; Jenkins 1992); many of the major organizational practices of fan archives point to the fundamental role of sex in the production of fandom: the genres, at the broadest level are gen (no sex), slash (same-sex sex), and het (opposite-sex sex) (Busse and Hellekson 2006; Driscoll 2006); stories are labeled and archives are searchable by the pairing of characters who have a sexual or romantic relationship in the story (Busse and Hellekson 2006; Driscoll 2006); and fan fiction is rated in a way that usually denotes, like the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings, level of sexual explicitness rather than violence (Busse and Hellekson 2006). Drawing on all of this research as well as the evidence of the constructions examined here, it would seem that other practices than the specific production of erotic creative works should be examined with respect to sexual pleasure—certainly, its construction in media representations appears to demand such analysis.

[3.11] After all, in The Simpsons episode "Das Bus," the white, overweight fan character typically known as Comic Book Guy is shown to be attempting to download a racy picture of Star Trek: Voyager commanding officer Captain Janeway, only to be thwarted by his slow Internet connection. The purpose of the scene is to forward a plot about Homer becoming an Internet service provider, but the way that goal is achieved promulgates the idea that fans eroticize the object of fandom. Similarly, in The West Wing episode "Arctic Radar," White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman asks a staff member wearing a Star Trek pin,

[3.12] Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: "Let's list our ten favorite episodes. Let's list our least favorite episodes. Let's list our favorite galaxies. Let's make a chart to see how often our favorite galaxies appear in our favorite episodes. What Romulan would you most like to see coupled with a Cardassian and why? Let's spend a weekend talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians and then let's do it again." That's not being a fan. That's having a fetish. And I don't have a problem with that, except you can't bring your hobbies in to work, okay?

[3.13] This scene, too, constructs an idea of fandom as deeply, inevitably, involving sexuality, most notably through calling certain fan practices a "fetish" and the way in which Lyman's "And I don't have a problem with that" echoes the Seinfeld "not that there's anything wrong with that" quip about homosexuality. Indeed, fans are constructed as using the object of fandom to add extra erotic charge even in cases where they are engaged in partnered relationships, as when Ben in Fever Pitch finds his girlfriend especially sexy when she wears a Red Sox jacket or Trek fans in Trekkies discuss their sexual role-playing of characters from the show. Through representations such as these, fans are constructed as directing sexual attention toward the object of fandom, and when this is viewed in light of their nonnormative masculinity and failure of heterosexuality, it begins to seem as if fandom itself is a nonnormative sexual orientation.

[3.14] The idea that fandom is a sexual orientation is reinforced by the rhetoric used to discuss fan practices. Ben of Fever Pitch, for example, broaches the subject of his Red Sox fandom to his new girlfriend by saying, "There's something you don't know about me," and "I've been avoiding this," and his admission is framed as a variety of coming out. Indeed, the rhetoric of coming out or of being in the closet about one's fandom is used by two different fans in Trekkies 2. Fans are also associated with other discourses of nonnormative sexuality, as when one fan in Trekkies says, "Fans: we recruit!" and taps into the conservative antigay idea that homosexuals recruit, or a fan in Trekkies 2 deploys a version of Queer Nation's chant, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it," by proudly proclaiming, "I'm here, I'm into Star Trek, get used to it!"

[3.15] In a more theoretical sense, if, following Sara Ahmed (2006, 3), we understand the "orientation" in sexual orientation spatially, it becomes clear that "orientations shape … 'who' or 'what' we direct our energy and attention toward." The directions we so face "make certain things, and not others, available," because in facing one thing we are turning away from other things (14). As a result, by being oriented toward the object of fandom, the fan, though constructed as intending to be heterosexual, is presumed incapable of being oriented toward the opposite sex, or indeed toward any "real" person. Ahmed adds, "The choice of one's object of desire makes a difference to other things that we do. In a way I am suggesting that the object in sexual object choice is sticky: other things 'stick' when we orientate ourselves toward objects, especially if such orientations do not follow the family or social line" (101). In orienting themselves toward the object of fandom, fans aren't following that normative, white line, and what accordingly sticks to them in the cultural imaginary is nonheteronormativity: nonmasculinity, lack of business success, immaturity, the inability to get a girl, even homoerotic attachment.

4. Whiteness, self-control, and hetero ever after

[4.1] If the role whiteness plays in all of this seems a bit fuzzy, consider this: whiteness is predicated on sexual self-control, and fans are constructed as white people sexually out of bounds. The happy ending (for those representations that have one, generally the comedies) is when this tension is resolved and fans are reincorporated into heterosexuality by trading in some of their behaviors that are incompatible with it. Fandom is thus constructed as fully able to be salvaged into normative white, heterosexual, masculine self-control; the deviance of the fan is the product of bad but correctable decisions. Though heterosexual romance coming to fruition is a common trope of happily-ever-after in film, positioning fandom as the specific problem that must be solved to make it possible does a particular kind of cultural work that requires closer examination.

[4.2] In Fever Pitch, Ben loses Lindsey and decides that he needs to grow up and give up his fandom by selling his lifetime season tickets to the Red Sox. Ultimately, Lindsey does not let him make this sacrifice for her, saying, "If you love me enough to sell your tickets, I love you enough not to let you," but it is his willingness to abandon his childish pursuits that proves to her that he is worth it and gets her back. Similarly, Windows in Fanboys finds heterosexual fulfillment when he realizes that his coworker, Zoe, who is somewhat fannish but more restrained in her appreciation (she can, for example, describe the sex act the security guard at Skywalker Ranch quizzes her on), is attracted to him; for this to happen, he has to get over his tendency to be scared of and/or awkward around women—which is constructed, of course, as a fan trait. This narrative of moving past all-consuming fandom to constrained fandom compatible with heterosexuality turns up even in the two Trekkies of documentaries. In Trekkies, we are introduced to fan Gabriel Koerner, who is excessively nerdy and focused on his fandom, but by Trekkies 2, he has grown up, become more calm in his appreciation of Star Trek, and found a girlfriend. In all three cases, although fandom doesn't have to be given up, it does have to be brought under control, and it is this alignment with the white norm that makes these fans eligible for redemption.

[4.3] In some sense, the image of fandom put forth in these mainstream cultural representations is a story about that most neoliberal of buzz phrases, "personal responsibility." That the ways in which fans are constructed as sexually out of control due to bad decisions they personally made frames this deviation from the white norm of self-control as ultimately correctable, and the whiteness self-control defines stays within reach for them. This rests on the extremely individualist argument that people's outcomes are the result of their choices and behaviors rather than structural factors (Brown 2003; Duggan 2004; Smith 2007). Underlying the "salvageability" of fans is the same logic by which "the white trash stereotype often serves as a useful way of blaming the poor for being poor," forestalling any discussion of structural causes of poverty (Newitz and Wray 1997a, 1). It's the argument that individuals are the same underneath a raced candy coating, which results in a "disinclination to think in terms of social and political aggregates" in favor of a focus on the individual (Frankenberg 1993, 148).

[4.4] It's also a distinctly (though dissimulatedly) white position to take. As Chambers (1997, 192) argues, "In contrast to those whose identity is defined by their classificatory status as members of a given group, whites are perceived as individual historical agents." This, then, is why the category "white" is what he calls "the unexamined"—it's not perceived as relevant, because white people are "just people," whereas others are some of those "hyphenated" Americans. That is, though whiteness is constructed as blank and nothing in particular (Dyer 1997; Frankenberg 1993; Kusz 2001), it clearly is something. It's the norm-defining something (Frankenberg 1993). It's the body that is meant when universality—itself a hegemonic construct (Butler, Laclau, and Žižek 2000)—is invoked. As Ahmed (2006) points out, some bodies are more interpellated than others; correspondingly, it's at best a mistake and at worst bait and switch when only organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan count as instantiations of white supremacy (Wiegman 1999). Simply by having white skin, universality is possible for fans, for "bodies that pass as white, even if they are queer or have other points of deviation, still have access to what follows from certain lines" (Ahmed 2006, 136–37).

[4.5] Indeed, the exceptions to the overall trend of fans as white serve to reinforce that whiteness is the expectation for fans. The fans who appear in these representations who are not white are not the central characters who reform and get their fandom under control. Frequently, they aren't even fans with personalities or fleshed-out characters but rather appear only briefly, such as in Mathematically Alive or the episode "Soul Possession" of the television show Xena: Warrior Princess. In Galaxy Quest and Trekkies 2, nonwhite fans are even less central, appearing only in groups of fans forming the background bodies of convention scenes. The end result is that, generally, finding fans of color in these representations is a bit like finding Waldo. The exclusion of nonwhite bodies from the recuperation narrative of fandom can be understood either as constructing nonwhite fans as incapable of being normalized or as operating within a logic that everyone will identify with and want to emulate the redemption of the white fan. In either case, the marginalized presence of nonwhite fans reinforces the construction of self-control as a characteristic of white people.

[4.6] In the end, much as Robyn Wiegman (1999) argues that Forrest Gump's lack of privilege works to disarticulate the connection between whiteness and privilege, deviant whitenesses—like white trash or queerness, or, I've argued here, fandom—seem to dispute the universality of whiteness. However, the construction of fans as lacking privilege is based on an assumption of whiteness precisely as privileged. As Dyer (1997, 12) points out, "Going against type and not conforming depend upon an implicit norm of whiteness against which to go." It is this norm, then, that makes the fan deviance intelligible as deviance, and it is reinforced by the possibility of fans' recuperation. Privilege is regainable for fans in the happy ending of normativity because their skin whiteness makes them eligible for symbolic whiteness, and in this way, these representations serve to reinforce rather than undermine American culture's essential connection of whiteness and privilege. Kusz (2001, 394) argues that "constructions of Whiteness as unprivileged, victimized, or otherwise disadvantaged—images that seem to contradict the ideology of Whiteness as privileged—can work in particular contexts as a mechanism to resecure the privileged normativity of whiteness in American culture," and it would seem that representations of fandom constitute one of those contexts.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] I thank Lisa Cacho, Robert Mejia, Siobhan Somerville, and Laurel Westbrook for their insights from this piece's early stages.

6. Notes

1. My title owes much to Schilt and Westbrook's (2009) "Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity," which itself riffs on West and Zimmerman's (1987) "Doing Gender."

2. See, for example, Brower (1992), Coppa (2008), Driscoll (2006), Hills (2002), Jenkins (1992), Jensen (1992), Johnson (2007), and Lewis (1992a, 1992b).

3. For similar arguments on the issues of gender/sexuality and maturity in representations of fandom, see Driscoll (2006), Hills (2002), Jensen (1992), Johnson (2007), and Lewis (1992a, 1992b).

4. On these constructions of whiteness, see Chambers (1997), Dyer (1997), Frankenberg (1993), Hill (1997a, 1997b), Kusz (2001, 2007), and Newitz and Wray (1997a).

5. See, for example, Dyer (1997), Frankenberg (1993), Kusz (2001, 2007), Savran (1998), and Wiegman (1999).

6. Ahmed (2006), Collins (2000), Crenshaw (1991), Ferguson (2003), and Frankenberg (1993) all provide excellent explanations and deployments of intersectional thinking.

7. For an elaboration of this construction of whiteness, see Dyer (1997), Ferguson (2003), Floyd (2009), Frankenberg (1993), Nagel (2003), Sandell (1997), and Savran (1998).

8. The distinction that can be made here between sports fandom and other sorts does point to some challenges of looking at "fan" as a broad discursive category; fan type may well be another axis of intersection, with more or less privileged types of fandom positioning one as closer to or farther from heteronormativity. Further research is clearly needed.

9. Though the actors, directors, and other industry experts interviewed in Horror Fans can also in some sense be classified as fans, this is resisted by the film's identification of them in their "expert" roles; accordingly, their success in the industry is not structured as fan success but rather as a given relative to their professional status.

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