- Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture by Mark Duffett
Colleagues ask me with some regularity for reading suggestions to introduce fan studies into courses on media, culture, or communication. Although fandom is an effective way to introduce a range of relevant topics, I often find myself at a loss for appropriate readings to suggest in these situations. There are, of course, excellent in-depth analyses of fandom, but as in other disciplines, scholarship in fan studies can frequently take the basics for granted and skip over definitions of fan practices or discussions of the significance of the field in favor of more complex arguments.
Mark Duffett’s Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture is therefore quite valuable as a primer; his book uses [End Page 160] fans and fan studies as a means to give context to key terms, theoretical frameworks, theorists, and methodologies of media and culture studies. Geared toward a wide audience, Understanding Fandom brings together descriptions and coverage of fan history with the work that has been done to critically engage those practices and works to explain each. Duffett ultimately aims to provide an overview of existing approaches to fan studies, contextualize the discipline, and explore the challenges within it. The result is an accessible, comprehensive analysis of fan studies that distills fan history, practices, and research into a series of key questions.
To formulate his overview of the field, Duffett treads some familiar ground: the book frequently revisits, unsurprisingly, Henry Jenkins’s 1992 Textual Poachers and Matt Hills’s 2002 Fan Cultures, key works that provide much of the foundation for thinking in the field today.1 But Duffett draws just as much from Daniel Cavicchi’s Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning among Springsteen Fans, an insightful but often-overlooked work that examines the practices of devoted music fans and celebrity culture.2
Duffett’s choice of starting points has critical consequences for his introduction: for one, drawing so heavily from the accepted names in fan scholarship effectively reinforces existing privilege in fandom and fan studies. Revisiting great texts of fandom means that fans covered in the foundational texts—of Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Elvis, and Bruce Springsteen—get cultural and academic play, whereas feminized, derided, or undervalued fandoms continue to be marginalized. Further, synthesizing great scholars of the field means that new, critical questions being posed in emerging research are similarly not part of the introductory approach. As a result, as an introduction for the classroom, Understanding Fandom is most effective with supplemental instruction that points to the still-underserved elements of the discipline. Without this context, this book provides a gateway to the field that may perpetuate existing limitations and biases toward individual practices, texts, and participants.
The foundation Duffett lays out in his approach to fan studies has other consequences as well. Jenkins and Cavicchi, for example, are quite celebratory in their perspectives on fans, and Understanding Fandom therefore begins with the assumption that fans are a valuable commodity. Throughout the text, Duffett focuses on the boundary separating fans from ordinary consumers, and he does so from the position that fans “are always more than consumers. … Fans are networkers, collectors, tourists, archivists, curators, producers, and more.”3
In addition to a positive perspective, Duffett synthesizes a significant range of fan practice and therefore takes a broad look at fans. Jenkins and Hills largely concentrate on products and practices of media fandom for science-fiction and fantasy film and television, and Cavicchi’s focus is on music and celebrity fandom; Duffett brings these together, along with work on fans of soap operas, horror, and other areas. Commonalities pervade many forms of media fandom, and Duffett highlights the roles of [End Page 161] community, resistance, consumption, and critique across fan practice, which provides the means to investigate what fandom is and how it has been researched thus far. However, distinctions among manifestations of fan cultures are significant, and Duffett’s all-encompassing approach...