Yesterday, the New Yorker ran a piece on fandom culture that, while not being particularly offensive, reads like it time traveled from the early 2000s even with references to Game of Thrones and social media. The author, Michael Schulman, doesn’t say that fandom is terrible or condemn it as being a lower form of expression, but his piece still feels like an outsider looking into a subculture rather than a living, breathing examination of something that is very much alive and thriving to this day.
Schulman documents the reaction to a woman being attacked by Twitter stans, tries to explain San Diego Comic Con, and cites a book on fan studies from 1994. No offense, but there have been plenty of other books and scholarly articles written on fan studies since 1994. The study of fan culture has grown in the past two and a half decades, with scholars of color and women weighing in more frequently on a subculture that is supposed to be all inclusive.
Personally, the only part of the article that grated on me was the reference to slash fic being “erotic fantasies.” Yes, there is erotic slash fic, but there are also G-rated AUs featuring Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson and fic where the hottest and heaviest is just a Hollywood kiss between Kirk and Spock at the end.
But therein lies the problem. I hate to assume, but it feels as though Schulman is just observing the facts of fan culture without having an emotional stake in them, which is not a requirement for writing about fandom but it sure helps. Fan culture is a living, breathing organism with odd rules and interesting elements that are hard to explain to an outsider. There’s a reason why pervasive images of fandom—the basement dwelling nerd who knows the Enterprise schematics by heart, the horny fangirl with her “weird” fanfiction—are prevalent in certain comedies. Fan culture is weird to understand.
But nowadays it’s hard to not talk about fan culture when talking about major properties. You can’t discuss the reaction to Game of Thrones or Star Wars or DC without bringing in the fandom around it. Fandom is no longer the fanfiction you hide from your friends, but something that is actively talked about and discussed academically. Fanfiction archive Archive Of Our Own won a Hugo. It’s part of the zeitgeist now, and there’s no going back.
Yes, there is toxicity and problems to be discussed, but those topics are better explored by someone who speaks the fandom language. There’s an empathy for fandom that comes from being part of it that makes the writing less clinical and more personal, which is actually a good thing when discussing something that is personal to each person who has an emotional stake in a big property. There’s also the fact that the study of fan culture by those outside it can trend towards cynicism and irony, while fandom itself should be a joyful personal expression.
Schulman’s article is not offensive. He doesn’t mock the culture. But his article feels dated, and the fact he didn’t interview any female fan studies scholars is a glaring omission. Fandom is best served with a side of understanding and personal experience, and if media is going to continue to discuss fandom, we need to update the ways we talk about it. A little less nature documentary, a little more “let people with experience in this arena discuss it.” That’s the best way to keep these discussions relevant and interesting.
(via The New Yorker, image: Gage Skidmore)
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