Fans and Fandom



"RESISTANT" AND CONSUMERIST FANDOM

Fandom is, in part, about acquiring and displaying forms of expertise. Rather like scholarly "readings" of films, fandom's favored mode of interpretation involves very close examination wherein films and their surrounding secondary texts are scrutinized for every detail and nuance. This interpretive practice is very much opposed to "casual" film viewing, which is assumed by fans to constitute a less knowledgeable and less discriminating type of viewing characteristic of those who operate outside of fandom.

Sanjek's depiction of fanzines also stresses the anti-commercial nature of film fandom, and the manner in which it can be opposed to mechanisms of promotion and publicity. This resonates both with the "underground" and anticommercial/antimainstream value systems of many fan cultures, and with other scholarly work on film fandom that has viewed fans as "resistant" to capitalism and consumerism. For Greg Taylor, "fans are not true cultists unless they pose their fandom as a resistant activity," a position that keeps fan-cultists "one step ahead of those forces which would try to market their resistant taste back to them" in what seems to amount to an ongoing struggle between fandom and the forces of film commerce (p. 161).

However, given this confluence of fan and academic values—where both groups may seek to keep their distance from "the commercial"—it is possible that fandom's "resistant" qualities may be overstated. Many film fans are in fact dedicated fans of blockbuster films, and may fully embrace the commerciality of Hollywood "product" even while reading texts closely and analyzing them in a community of like-minded spectators. It cannot be assumed that fans are necessarily "outside" mechanisms of film promotion, publicity, and commerce, nor that their distinctive fan practices are inherently transgressive or resistant to film commerce. Indeed, fans are of great value to media conglomerates as "reliable consumers" for their product lines, and that subcultures do indeed have a place within capitalism (Meehan, pp. 85–89). This means taking a more complex approach than that of contrasting fan "culture" and the "commerce" of media conglomerates. While Sanjek is certainly right to argue that mainstream magazines are dependent on good will and supplies of material from the film industry, it does not follow that fandom is wholly "independent" of commercial forces, pressures, and interests.

If much work in film and cultural studies from Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers (1992) onwards has tended to take an overly celebratory stance on the participatory and productive cultures of film fandom, some writers have been excessively negative and dismissive of fandom. For example, Barbara Klinger has suggested that a crucial part of how contemporary films work as commodities, and so are sold to audiences, is their "fragmentation into a series of specialized or 'starred' elements" (p. 126), referring to the way films are promoted by focusing on elements extracted from their overall narrative, production, and mise-en-scène. Publicity texts can then focus on specific saleable items such as the star, the director, state-of-the-art special effects, or controversial issues or themes raised in the narrative. This means that any given film can be sold to different audiences by stressing different elements, whether matters of romance, special effects, or directorial "art." Klinger argues that fans' expertise is therefore not at all independent of promotional and publicity mechanisms, since their behind-the-scenes knowledge, far from testifying to fans' autonomy, instead frequently indicates "the achieved strategies" of commercial, publicity material (p. 132).

However, just as the argument that film fans are wholly opposed to, or outside of, capitalist forces seems strained, so too does the alternative viewpoint representing fans wholly as the dupes or slaves of the Hollywood dream factory. This debate over the "resistant" or commercially "incorporated" nature of fandom has underpinned an entire paradigm of study, but recent approaches to fandom have begun to pose new questions. Film historian Janet Staiger has pointed out that many studies of fandom have emphasized the positive social aspects of fans' community-building activities, arguing for approaches to fandom that do not singularly celebrate or decry it (2000, p. 54).

Indeed, it also may be difficult to "balance" representations of fans as "good" (resistant) and "bad" (incorporated into the industry). Matt Hills argues that any such balanced or "multiperspectival" approach to fandom is fraught with problems insofar as it seeks to resolve what may be inherent contradictions within fandom and audience identities. Against such attempts to resolve fandoms into clearly definable binaries, a more general, dialectical model of fandom is called for, one capable of dealing with actual contradictions within cultural phenomena (see Hills, pp. 27–45). Fans may be simultaneously inside and outside market forces, resisting economic pressures in some ways and behaving as "reliable consumers" in others. In defense of media studies' work seeking to ascertain fans' resistance to commercial forces, it could be argued that such resistance can still be clearly identified, whether it is resistance to the commodification of film culture via a kind of "underground" film appreciation, or whether it is a reaction against specific types of film such as the blockbuster. But this assertion relies on a zero-sum view of power as something that fans either do or do not possess, as well as assuming that resistance can be critically isolated by scholars. Such an academic approach returns us to a type of fan studies premised on identifying "good" and "bad" objects, thereby claiming the moral authority to label fan practices as either "progressive" or "reactionary" (see Fan Cultures ).



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