Narrative-Inspired Fans Serve Their Communities

Photo credit: Steve Nazario

Tanya R. Cochran, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her interests include composition, rhetoric, narratology, fandom, gender studies, and the intersection of faith and learning. An editorial board member for Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association and its undergraduate partner Watcher Junior, she is also the president of the Whedon Studies Association (2012-2014) and one of its founders. Her publications include Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier (2008), coedited with Rhonda V. Wilcox; essays in multiple anthologies; and articles for journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures. Most recently, she joined the editorial board for the Journal of Fandom Studies.

Check out the soon-to-be-released Reading Joss Whedon, coedited with Wilcox, Cynthea Masson, and David Lavery!

What fan community or communities do you identify with?

I am a fan of many texts—print and visual, classic and contemporary—but I identify most closely with the fans of Joss Whedon’s works and have sustained relationships with other fans, particularly scholar-fans, in that community. Actually, it’s inaccurate to say “that community,” as if there is only one. Some people love Firefly more than any other text, or they only love Firefly. Some prefer Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So it would be more accurate to say that there are multiple communities. Still, those are the fans I identify with most. In some ways, I’m a fan of fandom!

Past articles on Capeless Crusader have discussed literacy education through comics. But even for people who gain or regain a connection to reading through a medium like comics, how common is it for them to join a larger fan community? What prevents readers from seeking or entering such groups?

Regarding the first question, I’d say it’s pretty common, though I don’t know of any hard data to support my hunch.

I’m not sure I can answer the follow-up question with any certainty either. But I can speak from experience. There are several reasons I (and maybe someone else) might not seek out or actively join a particular fandom. For instance, I sometimes simply want the solitary pleasure I get from being in a narrative world all by myself, not sharing the experience with anyone else. Though it is very typical for us fans to desire connection with others who share our passion, that’s not the case every time. Other times, I enjoy being social—for example, when I watch the BBC’s Sherlock—yet I have no desire to join a group of fans online or join any formal group. I watch Arrow almost entirely because I like to talk to one other friend about it, and she keeps me updated on the online chatter and fan fiction surrounding the show. My guess is that I am not alone in having a variety of reasons both to join and not join a larger group of admirers. In some cases, I might try to join a group but not feel welcome right away—or ever, which could drive me away as well as make me shy about approaching other groups. Or I might leave a group because I’m shunned or ridiculed for my ideas. That kind of experience can make anyone want to swear off of fandoms altogether. I think a key point to remember is that humans are humans no matter what type of community one joins or avoids. And fans are humans, so . . .

From your Marquette University workshop (2013), here’s a handout quote: “If transubstantiation works as a metaphor in relation to fans and fannish practices, it has the potential to move theories of fandom beyond the belief that fans merely pretend, aspire, resemble, and copy. Rather than being devotees or worshippers or pretenders, fans become their own narratives in the world—stories in the flesh.” Once fans (within a network of other fans) experience that relationship to their texts, what factors seem to determine whether the next step is community service?

I’m still figuring out how to answer this question, but from research and personal experience, it seems that some of us are more deeply impacted by story in general and certain stories in particular. This simple concept makes sense. For example, a female reader may be especially drawn to novels or television series or video games that feature complex (some might say “strong”) female characters. Thus, the popularity of The Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen. (This is not to say a male reader won’t be drawn to Katniss too.) Scholarship on “matched models” shows that young people are especially influenced by adults who are the same sex and race, for instance. That’s why it’s so important for print and visual texts to depict the diversity of humanity. So a deep attachment to a story or character has the potential to move a person in the direction of community service or activism. Obviously, a fan’s personal context has some influence as well. On the weblog Whedonesque, I’ve seen women who themselves have been victims of abuse or who work with abused women express a strong connection to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Buffy herself. So out of a real-world context and then a connection to a text, a commitment to social justice is, if not sparked, certainly stoked. Other times, it seems a story can bring about awareness that in turn motivates us to seek not only an intellectual but also an action-based outlet. Other fans on Whedonesque have talked about discovering feminism because of Buffy. The show piqued their curiosity about feminism, which led to their own research. Their research led them to action—volunteerism, choice of major in college, decision about a career. Honestly, though, I’m not entirely sure what determines every step towards activism. I suppose the answer will always be a complex one, one that depends on a constellation of factors for every individual. Through some of my own ongoing research, I hope to someday have a clearer answer, though.

Do fans often make that step on their own, or do you find more examples within institutions that support such activities (e.g., book shops, colleges and universities, and conventions)?

Yes, I certainly see institutions taking opportunities to encourage activism. And that’s nothing new, really. Star Trek fan clubs have for decades and decades organized community service in their small groups. At national and international conventions such as Dragon*Con in Atlanta, GA, there are many opportunities to give blood, donate books to local schools, or support environmental organizations. Colleges and universities organize film screenings that have “get involved” components, and non-profit organizations such as the Harry Potter Alliance use social media to encourage and support activism. So yes, institutions absolutely have a role and impact on fan activism.

What is an example of fan activism that really stands out for you?

Honestly, there are a lot of examples to choose from, many of which are notable. However, for its level of organization, its use of social media, and its reach, the Harry Potter Alliance certainly stands out. They have recently teamed with Hunger Games fans as well, widening their influence through their successful strategies for raising awareness and getting people involved in campaigns to, for example, end hunger. They’ve also worked on fair labor practices, voter registration, anti-bullying, and marriage equality, among other issues.

I am not as familiar with the comic book world, but quite a bit of political activism has been linked to V for Vendetta. But social justice? I’m not really sure.

Rather than discussing myth in terms of ideology and control, you seem to have a more empowering approach to contemporary myth-making. Is the potential of myth—how one uses it—like that of rhetoric generally?

First of all, it might be useful to define what I mean when I say myth. I like this definition because it is simple on the surface yet has layers of complexity underneath: Myths are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. If that definition works, myths can obviously be used to shape our ideologies and even control us—for good or for ill. (In regard to “ill,” I’m thinking of the Aryan mythology, for instance.)

Ideology, of course, isn’t inherently bad or wrong or evil. Neither is control. What we believe and, therefore, how we behave, though, can certainly be bad or wrong or evil. Who has control and how control is exerted can also be bad or wrong or evil. But ideology and control can also be good and right and benevolent. (For the moment, forgive me for speaking in binaries or either/or language.)

Back to your question. Yes, I do hold an empowering approach to contemporary myth-making. While not all myths are equally empowering (and certainly, it can be argued that some are disempowering), I am committed to the idea that if we teach ourselves how myths or grand narratives work, we can choose to be empowered by the best of them. Because an example would be helpful here, I’ll use Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its fandom, again, to demonstrate what I mean.

As many Buffy fans already know, Joss Whedon intentionally created the main character and the series to say to the world that women are strong—in every sense of the word. He wanted Buffy to be a feminist icon, and the arch of the series fleshes out that intention. (Yes, I am aware that some people disagree with the premise that Buffy is a feminist icon. Just bear with me.) As I have said earlier, you can easily find examples of the way Buffy, as a contemporary myth, is used by certain (not necessarily all) fans to empower themselves: female survivors of abuse claiming the show gave them the courage to heal, other viewers claiming the show and Whedon’s own commitment to organizations such as Equality Now prompted them to get involved in local non-profit organizations, or still other viewers claiming the show inspired them to choose women’s studies as a major in college or to leave one job for another one. One of the most powerful pieces of evidence that Buffy as a myth matters comes from QuoterGal in a post on Whedonesque:

I will be a feminist until the day I die . . . a fiercely protective person to anyone and anything abused by power. But surely one must understand that this gender inequity persists in humanity, and that it expresses itself from the subtlest joke to . . . murder . . . Not coincidentally, one of the things that has given me the greatest hope has been the creation and popularity of Buffy. I know it’s fiction—which is, by the way, part of our crucial and defining mythologies—and I know it was limited in its reach—but it was popular culture and it has clearly had an important impact . . . Nothing has ever hit me quite . . . the way ‘Are you ready to be strong?’ [Buffy, ‘Chosen’ 7.22] and the young girl [raising] her hand to stop her father hitting her—that was me, thirty-five years ago, actually raising my hand against my own father, and that was the first time I had seen my face on TV.

I’m not sure I can say anything as convincing as QuoterGal has about the possibility for myths or grand narratives to empower us. Yet I am pretty sure the process of empowerment isn’t an automatic or passive one. Each of us can choose which myths to consume and which myths we allow to consume us. That’s one reason I strongly support media literacy—and literacy in general. We have to teach ourselves and each other about the structures, functions, and consequences of stories—all kinds of stories.

During your workshop, you mentioned that in certain spaces, like conventions, there’s potential for a disconnect between academics who are fans and some other fans. Three-part question: What are the roots of this tension historically? How does the relationship change as more academics engage texts from popular culture? What are some benefits of increased dialogue?

I’m not sure my answer speaks to the historical roots of the tension between academics/academia and fans/fandom as I’ve not dug deep into that documented past—if it is, in fact, documented. But it seems to me that much of the tension relates to power: who has or assumes or is given the ability to shape definitions of what constitutes art and, therefore, value. Humans seem to have an insatiable desire to value and then rank not only objects but also ideas and people. While I am not saying that we shouldn’t make value judgments, I am saying that we could be more open to a wider array of what could be called art and that we could be a lot kinder to each other’s ideas and to each other in the process of defining it.

I explored this scholar/fan divide in my dissertation and included a kind of manifesto about what benefits I see in both scholars and fans dialoguing with each other as well as listening to each other. As I’ve already mentioned, I myself am a fan. I am also a scholar. I can’t keep those two identities separate. I am both simultaneously. So I questioned and then proposed some ways that I think hybridity is important. Here’s a little bit of what I had to say back in Toward a Rhetoric of Scholar-Fandom (2009):

Slowly but steadily, scholar-fandom can act as one of many catalyzing agents for change in the academy, opening it up, blurring the lines between ‘academic elite’ and ‘Everyperson.’ The scholar who studies the object of his or her fandom does not act alone in this demolition and reconstruction effort, though. The walls that run the circumference of academia are crumbling as all types of information are made more and more public and accessible, especially via the internet. From my stance as a participant in both worlds—an academic and a fan—the academy stands to lose much of its audiences if it refuses to listen and to respond enthusiastically to the changes that are already in motion. Academia can horde its knowledge or can participate in and even influence the democratization of knowledge. As Wikipedia and Citizendium founder Lawrence Sanger argues, experts are still needed. In fact, they may be needed now more than ever as information increases while the skills needed to decipher, sort, and choose reliable information declines. Admittedly, those of us who teach may be fearful, even at an unconscious level, that we will work ourselves out of careers, out of particular jobs if we agree to ‘let down the gate’ between the Ivory Tower and Main Street. Yet what good is the ‘expert’ if he or she is completely removed from the public and unwilling to learn from others as well as invite others into learning? If that happens, if academia cloisters itself rather than fully engaging with popular culture, education will again become a goal for or simply an expectation of only the most privileged in our society. The ideals of democracy demand otherwise: education must be for everyone. That ideal is one reason why the research and writing of most fan-scholars and scholar-fans remains so accessible to a broad audience and may even explain why such academic anthologies that consider popular culture texts move to publication so quickly: being engaging and readily available, such collections and their authors bring deeper meaning, more thoughtful and critically composed meaning to the artifacts of our everyday lives.

As you can see, I am a firm believer in valuing experience and knowledge, practice and theory—and democratizing education. I believe that academics need fans and fans need academics. Ultimately, the labels are not who we are; they merely represent aspects of our identity. I don’t see any reason each of us can’t always already be both: passionate scholars and passionate fans. Most importantly what we gain from listening to and honoring each other (and our hybrid selves) is a stronger grasp on what and how our lives mean. It all goes back to the power of myth, really. Stories matter. The stories we love and the stories we tell ourselves about those stories—all of them matter. We matter. Both the scholarly stories and the fannish stories matter. Together, the many stories give us a clearer picture of who we are as human beings.