My experience of fan culture, my conception of fan studies as a field, and my own fan scholarly identity are intimately bound up with feminism. It was foregrounded in my initial encounters with fan studies, sitting in Anna McCarthy's television studies course and reading Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers (1992) as an NYU undergraduate.1 It enveloped me as a graduate student through the support of my fellow fan scholars, echoing both the communal support networks of fandom as well as the self-reflexivity of feminist scholarship. It has haunted me over the past decade, as I've witnessed growing strains of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in geek and fan culture. And it has heartened me to see fans respond to growing antifeminist sentiments with their trademark activism, organization, and transformative creativity. I would wholeheartedly agree with Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse's characterization of female fan culture as a “project of working against the patriarchal grain and imagining a utopian, truly equal world.”2 However, the feminist valences of fan culture, as a female-dominated sphere of cultural production embodying qualities of both collective action and individual resistance to the hegemonic power of media industries and texts, are increasingly inferred but not explicitly explored.
In composing this brief and painfully incomplete genealogy, one provocation I wish to consider is if feminism is in danger of becoming a recessive gene as the field undergoes rapid expansion and diversification alongside the mainstreaming of fan culture. From the inception of fan studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, media fan scholars such as Camille Bacon-Smith, Henry Jenkins, and Constance Penley all focused on female fan communities, and the political valences of the transformative works (fanfiction, fanvids, et cetera) produced and circulated within those communities.3 In particular, early scholarly emphasis on “slash” fanfiction, which explores homoerotic relationships between canonically straight male characters, was framed as reflecting a feminist “desire for true equality with men and reciprocity in their intimate relationships,” in which “questions about who is the man and who is the woman, who's active and who's passive, even who's who, cannot even be asked.”4 It could be argued that scholarly conceptions of fan culture as a feminist space were an inevitable by-product of this emphasis on female fans’ “resistant” reading practices and reworkings of heterosexist media representations, coupled with scholars’ disproportionate emphasis on Star Trek fan culture, with its utopian representational promise of gender and racial equality. This work has been expanded upon and complicated over the past two decades by fan scholars focusing on how the work of female fan communities is textually, legally, and culturally “transformative.”
Beginning with formative work by Constance Penley, one issue that arises immediately is that scholars are often forced to reconcile the feminist dimensions of fan culture and female fans’ transformative textual production with the reticence of many female fans to self-identify as feminists.5 Thus, although the field has overwhelmingly focused on female fan communities of practice, the conception of fan studies as a feminist discipline (or, by extension, fan culture as an inherently feminist space) is too frequently taken for granted. There are, of course, myriad exceptions. To name just a few: Louisa Ellen Stein's analysis of millennial fan cultures makes explicit connections between “third wave” fan studies’ (circa 2000 onward) insistence “on locating fandom within the fabric of the everyday” and third wave feminism's “unsettling of divides between the personal and the political.”6 Work on cosplay and crossplay (crafting and dressing up as a character of the opposite sex at fan conventions) as a fan practice routinely draws on Judith Butler's work on gender performativity.7 Abigail De Kosnik productively expands on Lauren Berlant's concept of “the archive of women's culture” to characterize the complex intertextuality of fanfiction as a mode of feminist media production.8 Emerging bodies of work on digital fan labor frequently draw on theories of gendered care work to describe the “labors of love” produced by fans and to debate the affordances of women monetizing their fanworks.9
Studies of female fan communities and practices, and attendant critical frameworks of identity politics and power, remain central to the field even as fan scholars respond to the mainstreaming of participatory culture and increased industrial imperatives to facilitate and monetize fan engagement within convergence culture. Specifically, fan scholars have spent much of the past decade debating the imperative to diversify scholars’ definitional understanding of “fandom” and “fan engagement” through a strictly transformative lens. This has resulted in a much-needed boom in scholarly work on historically male-dominated forms of fan participation, such as material fan production and collecting, but also a movement away from the more politicized or subversive facets of female fan culture. Many self-identified feminist fan scholars like myself, who are deeply invested in the field's continued focus on transformative female fan practices and communities, have expressed concerns that the rapid growth and diversification of the field over the past decade might move us inexorably toward a postfeminist fan studies.10
Just as some feminist scholars have suggested that rhetorics of “choice” are repurposed within postfeminism to reinforce conservatism and a return to traditional gender roles, there are palpable anxieties within some corners of fan studies that the growing scope of the field might function similarly, “choosing” to center more industrially valued (and, thus, historically male-dominated or inherently more conservative) modes of fan participation going forward.11 However unfounded, anxieties about the perceived “pastness” of feminism to the growing field, coupled with more celebratory views of fan consumption as a site of “empowerment,” all neatly resonate with the core critiques of postfeminist culture.12 If, in a sense, fan studies offered a feminist corrective to the bulk of the subcultural scholarship that emerged from the Birmingham School in the 1960s and 1970s, and the erasure of women within those subcultures, there is a perceived threat that the field might swing in the opposite direction as it understandably begins to expand its focus to historically masculine or decidedly less politicized or more “casual” forms of fan participation.13
These concerns are unquestionably fed by the ways in which gendered subcultural gatekeeping practices dovetail with broader political movements, from men's rights activism to the alt-right. To see the intersections between contemporary feminisms, feminist politics, and fan culture, we needn't look further than the sheer scope and scale of fannish protests signs at the Women's March on Washington in January 2017. But this brings us to an equally significant point, namely that fan studies has historically operated from a privileged white feminist perspective. So, perhaps a better question is, for an “undisciplined discipline” that emerged out of an interdisciplinary and diverse genetic makeup that drew on (sub)cultural studies, television studies, and queer theory, among others, how might we ensure that feminism remains a dominant gene within the field?14 And in retaining it as a dominant gene, how can we ensure that this isn't deployed to the detriment of its broader political objectives, to entrench a particular brand of feminist fan studies that fails to inclusively consider the genderqueer and genderfluid facets of fan culture and identity?
Genealogies such as this one are part of the issue. As Rebecca Wanzo has noted, the citational practice of Western fan studies “has largely been organized around white bodies” at the expense of exploring intersections between transformative fan cultures and other remix cultures whose participants operate from similar “positions of cultural disenfranchisement and weakness.”15 To consider how fan studies might undergo gene therapy to adapt to more intersectional imaginings of feminist work, we need only look to scholars like Dayna Chatman, Lori Kido Lopez, Rukmini Pande, Mel Stanfill, Kristen J. Warner, and Benjamin Woo (among others), whose work interrogates the whiteness of fan culture/studies and centers fans of color.16 In addition to the recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures devoted to queer female fandom, there are growing bodies of work on age, ability, and transcultural fandom that suggest that fan studies’ feminist future will be an intersectional one.17