May 20, 2008
Lovers and Haters: But What About Ambivalence in Fan Communities?

One of the fan studies scholars I had the pleasure of meeting in person for the first time at Console-ing Passions 2008 in Santa Barbara was Alexis Lothian. I bwecame familiar with Alexis through her many insightful comments in and around the Gender and Fan Studies converastion that I referenced in my previous post, and her presentation at Console-ing Passions was informed in many ways from that conversation.

In short, Alexis posits that we've gotten pretty good at talking about fan enthusiasm in fan studies, as well as the importance of hate, but we haven't developed a significant discourse as of yet for talking as well about fan ambivalence.

Alexis writes that C3 Consulting Researcher Jonathan Gray "recently insisted on the importance of viewers' hate for media productions; but fans' more ambivalent affects toward their objects are rarely foregrounded in academic analysis. When questions not only of taste but also of racism, sexism and homophobia get involved, the textual and discursive spheres active fans build around and from their objects become very complex."

Acording to Alexis, her study:

is an attempt to look at the ambivalences, ambiguities and discomforts engendered by the intersection of the affective and the political in subcultural fandom on LiveJournal. I don't want to talk about whether fan practices are subversive or dominant, oppositional or capitalist--I'll start from the assumption that they are both and neither. Instead I will discuss specific subversions, dominations, and oppositions as I home in on practices that show online fan networks' intersections with feminist, queer and antiracist investments in identity, representation and activist transformation.

Alexis looks in particular at Stargate: Atlantis and the active engagements fans have with the text, even as they recognize and discuss serious issues about racial and gender representations in the show.

In particular, Alexis is interested in how these conversations are linked to larger cultural and political issues. Christine Scodari has asked these questions in her research in the past, for instance, arguing that soap opera fan discussion communities are often so restricted to the discussion of the show's plot that larger social and cultural impliciations are frowned upon. While that is open for debate most certainly, other soap opera scholars--such as C3 Consulting Researchers Lee Harrington and Nancy Baym--have written about the many ways that fans watch on a daily basis, all the while criticizing and discussing how issues should and could be treated differently.

I've certainly written and talked about, and seen other write about, similar issues in terms of fan reaction to World Wrestling Entertainment. And Henry Jenkins has written about ambivalence in terms of reality television viewing, among other media forms.

But I think Alexis has an intriguing point she's making at the paper's introduction, about how we have developed a way to talk about those who dislike shows but not particularly about the ambivalence inherent with being a fan, especially since fan connotes "enthusiast" in a way that indicates unadulterated support for a media product.

Certainly, in revisiting the work that fan studies scholars have done over the past 15 years or more, there is plenty of threads that can be picked up and woven together for a thorough look of the importance of ambivalence in fandom, a perspective that demonstrates how even simply watching and discussing a text is an active and engaged behavior many times, that can lead to important discussions about social and cultural implications of these shows in the wider political landscape.

For those interested in her full draft of the paper presented at the conference, look here.



Thank you for engaging in such depth with my paper!

It's interesting that soap opera fans' discussions have been described as not engaging with social and political issues because they stay focused on the text -- the most interesting place to me (given that my work is more informed by cultural theory than reception studies) is how texts and fan productions get mobilized to deal with social and political concerns and produce what I would argue are activist discourses around questions of privilege, race, gender etc that create their own political landscapes as well as feeding into larger ones.

I think the meaning of "fan" is at stake, too -- in the networks my paper traces and in plenty others besides, "fan" is used in two senses, I think. It doesn't stop carrying the 'uncritical love' assumption but it's also an identity marker, a show of subcultural belonging (Kristina Busse has written about this). So you can be a fan and hate many things about your show, passionately -- but chances are you might still defend it to a non-fan even as you're being accused of not being fannish enough by other fans. Maybe it's the *investment* that defines fandom, rather than the qualitative affect.


Hey Alexis,

For some reason your comment got caught in spam for a while, so I just saw it yesterday. But I think the distinction you make about fan is an important one. If we accept a binary stereotype of one group of textual enthusiasts protecting and mapping the official world and another which resists, challenges, and reappropriates the text, it doesn't deal with the fact that--as you point out--those who map out the text can often also be very resistant to creative directions, because they think they are the gatekeepers/owners; likewise, those who complain, resist, challenge, and protest define themselves in part through their fandom...

I just wrote a post about another interesting soap opera storyline that might be of interest to you, since it ties directly into this conversation. If you get the chance, look here.