- Fan Labor and Feminism:Capitalizing on the Fannish Labor of Love
In the early 2000s, my three-year-old son wanted a Doctor Who birthday party. He had been watching old 1980s-era PBS recordings on our VHS, and he couldn’t understand why the party stores didn’t have the Fourth Doctor next to Buzz Lightyear and Arthur paraphernalia. Now, ten years later, when I research fannish cakes, I find entire commercial cooking programs dedicated to baking a TARDIS-shaped cake, along with Doctor Who party- and bakeware. One reason for this change is clearly the resurgence of the Doctor Who franchise (BBC, 1963–1989, 1996, 2005–) and its wider popularity than before. Clearly, this amount of fan merchandise for even marginal shows is a recent phenomenon, testifying to both the expansion of media tiein commercialization and the increased popularity of fan and geek cultures. Twenty years ago, our Doctor Who mugs were a special PBS fund-raising gift; today, there is merchandise available not only for the most niche shows but also for specific fans: if you want a T-shirt, tote bag, or iPhone case dedicated to Superwholock (the slashy Doctor Who / Supernatural / Sherlock crossover of “Hunters and Doctors and Boys from Baker Street”), there are dozens of designs and options available on sites that cater directly to this audience.
As an aca-fan, I am of two minds about this phenomenon. The acceptance of fans, geeks, and nerds is theoretically and personally satisfying, as is the increased popularity of geeky media, and consequently the more positive media portrayals. The freaks and geeks of my teenage years have given way to more affectionate and certainly more nuanced portrayals: Anthony Michael Hall’s eternally geeky outcast of [End Page 110] the 1985 film The Breakfast Club (John Hughes) has become the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007– ). Where the stereotypical geek model used to be drawn from Revenge of the Nerds (Jeff Kanew, 1984), it is now written by Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen and played by Michael Cera. Yet even as we witness an increase in positive male geeks on-screen, female media representations remain few and far between. Mayim Bialik’s Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory and Felicia Day’s Charlie Bradbury in Supernatural (WB/CW, 2005– ) are exceptions rather than the rule and are celebrated as such. Day has advocated, in and out of character, for female fans, and she does so in an otherwise not very female fan-friendly show as the young, queer, geeky, and unashamedly fannish Charlie. Any spread in popularity carries with it a danger of further segregating the remaining outsiders: if the mainstream embraces one form of geek, it risks excluding further or even negating the existence of whoever does not fit that new model. Mel Stanfill describes this as “moving the bar” in terms of queer homonormativity, where “the norm gets to congratulate itself on its tolerance” while those not able and willing to assimilate “get forcefully produced as unassimilable and Other.”1 In particular, the widespread embrace of the white middle-class heterosexual male geek in popular culture redefines but does not erase boundaries of exclusion.2
As fandom has entered the mainstream, and as the bar moves to include more diverse groups of fans and more varied forms of fannish engagement, the study of fans and fandom has become ever more important. That increased interest is most apparent when looking at the number of books, articles, conferences, and panels that focus on fan studies more broadly. Yet even here one can recognize a shift toward industry and production. Whereas early work in fan studies looked toward the fan communities and their countercultural productions, many of the field’s recent monographs focus on industry connections.3 Such a shift often celebrates the new industry-fan model, “an emerging hybrid model of circulation, where a mix of top-down and bottom-up forces determine how material is shared across and among cultures in far more participatory (and messier) ways,” in which supposedly everyone wins.4 Within and without such a commercialization of fan spaces, however, many important questions remain...