I’ve always been a fan and I’ve always been involved in fandoms. However, I never really thought about the study of fandoms (despite my love of scholarly anything). That is, I never really thought about it until I stumbled across the work of fandom scholars Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen. They run the site Fangasm, edit The Journal of Fandom Studies, and have published several (excellent) books on the Supernatural fandom. Their work is at once utterly engaging while also thought-provoking and deeply concerned with the scholarship behind the phenomenon of fandoms.
I approached them for an interview, hopefully (and hopefully didn’t come off as too much of a fangirl when I did! Although, if anyone would appreciate a fan of fandoms, I think it would be them). They were not only willing to be interviewed but also gave me some incredibly insightful and in-depth answers to my questions. I’m so pleased to be able to share those answers, now, with readers of this column. In order to be able to include all of their excellent views, I have decided to break this into a two-part interview (so, the second half will run for my January column)! Be prepared to quickly form a fandom of these fandom scholars!
How would you describe Fan Studies/Fan Theory to someone unfamiliar with it?
K: The definition I give my students is that it is a multi-disciplinary field that encompasses the study of literature, media, psychology, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, and cultural studies. I see it as the nexus of the panopticon formed by all of these disciplines.
L: I would add that it’s a relatively new field, but expanding rapidly and drawing from more disciplines all the time. One of the things I love about Fan Studies is that everyone is quite open to other perspectives, instead of being stuck in the discipline you came in with.
I was amazed in reading your books, especially Fangasm, how able you both were to keep a kind of academic perspective. You’re both obviously passionate fans and that love comes off in the book, but you also are able to analyze and look critically at various aspects of the fandom. Did that take a lot of work to find that balance?
K: Fans are always looking critically both at the object of their fandom and at fandom itself. That’s one of the things I love about fandom. We do take a look at the water we’re swimming in – all the time, Marshall McLuhan’s fears to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather than being the embodiment of the worst that modern mass culture has to offer (as dedicated fans were so often portrayed) we’re actually the best case scenario. So, from that perspective, pulling back to examine our fandom seemed fairly natural and organic.
L: That said, it wasn’t always easy to do both, especially simultaneously. When we first fell into fandom, it was a love affair, pure and simple. For me especially, I had rose colored glasses on for my first few years in the Supernatural fandom, seeing the fan community as more utopian than it is. Once we decided to write about fandom, I had to take those glasses off and put on some clearer ones, and that wasn’t always pleasant. Ultimately, though, I think the study of fandom has made me cherish it even more. It’s not perfect, but would we want it to be? Seeing its flaws and its mistakes, and also the ways in which the community and the individuals within it struggle to overcome them, is ultimately more inspiring than utopia.
Lynn, as a psychologist, and Kathy, as a scholar of literature, what do you think is one of the most important things about bringing an academic perspective to fans and fandoms? What aspects most crossover from your own field into your study of fans/ fandoms?
K: For me it’s always been about the examination of the text – whether that text is the canon book, film, or television series or the fanworks produced around that text. Literature (and especially literature from my period of interest – the 18th C) is filled with moments of canon and fanon rubbing shoulders (i.e. the response to Pamala, one of the first English novels, which included a whole slew of transformative works including Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding) and even RPF carried out via the social media of its day – the numerous weekly and monthly publications that are the precursors of our tabloid journalism (Jonathan Swift writing about John Partridge if anyone’s interested:) I’m really concerned with putting fan culture as we know it today into its rich historical context. We aren’t doing anything new – we’re just doing it differently.
L: I keep finding elements of psychology that cross over into fan studies constantly. I started out fascinated by the ways in which fans transform canon into whatever fits their own psychological needs/desires – through fanworks or just in their unique reading of a text. Fanfiction in particular sometimes seemed to function in the same way expressive writing does in narrative therapy, letting people explore and express and ultimately rewrite their own narratives. Another point of intersection was the ways in which groups and communities function for people, which I saw play out in the fan community – validation, belonging, a sense of being “okay”. And finally, the importance of passion in being human, and the ways in which we police each other for the emotional expression that is outside the norm. I could go on and on about this actually.
You both belong to the Supernatural fandom. What do you think you’ve gained from this fandom? And from the show itself? Do you belong to other fandoms, as well?
K: As a fan I think I’ve gained all the best things that come one’s way once you find this wonderful world – friends, community, a secure space to be oneself even if oneself is at some times geeky, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes a bit naughty. There’s something liberating, especially for an older woman coming into a fan community, to being given license to be silly and freed of the normal constraints and boundaries of everyday expectations. It’s a place to figuratively throw the corsets off and relax a bit. I’m not sure there are many places for women, and older women especially, to find that. The convention experience has only confirmed for me the sense of being part of a family – something bigger than myself. In many, many ways it’s been a privilege to be a part of it.
As an academic, it’s given me a new career focus, leading me down paths I would never have thought I’d be heading down. And yet these paths feel strangely familiar – I’ve always been interested in popular culture (even if it was the popular culture of another century) and with what readers – especially women – did with texts. So it feels simultaneously very different and very much a natural extension of where I started.
I do follow other fandoms, but I would not say I belong to them in the same way I belong to the Supernatural fandom (and it belongs to me). I watch with interest from the sidelines, but I’m not (yet) a participatory fan in other fandoms – Doctor Who, Sherlock, the Marvel universe (ok – let’s be honest, just Loki:), Slenderman (though I’m not yet sure this is a fandom or merely a fascination).
L: I’m fandom monogamous – Nine years later, I’m still head over heels for Supernatural, invested in the show and happily immersed in the fandom. I’ve met some of my closest friends in this fandom, and have had adventures I never would have undertaken otherwise. I’ve travelled all over, found the inner resources to do things I thought I would never have the courage to do. In so many ways, my participation in fandom has brought me those benefits I talked about in my answer to the last question – validation, a sense of belonging, the feeling of being “okay.”
I agree with what Kathy said about how rare that is, especially for women – of all ages, I think – to find a place where they can be ‘real’ and express genuine emotions (even those we usually hide or that aren’t socially acceptable for women to yell from the rooftops – OMG he’s so hot!) Fandom has been a liberating experience.
As it has for so many fans, the creativity of fandom also inspired my own creativity. Writing fanfiction gave me the confidence to start writing for publication – enough confidence even to persist when that wasn’t such an easy road to follow. Like Kathy’s, my career has gone in a different direction than I ever anticipated, and that’s been exciting and rewarding. So thanks, Supernatural. You’ve been an inspiration.
On that note of Supernatural inspiration (the best kind of inspiration in my opinion), I’ll break here. Next month, the interview continues with questions addressing the negative stereotypes sometimes attached to fans, the devoted fan base of Supernatural, and more. In the meantime, let me know what you’ve thought so far about the interview by tweeting me @PintsNCupcakes or using hashtag #ghostsandfandoms. Also, consider following Lynn and Kathy @FangasmSPN. They are, simply put, the best! Until next month: Keep Fanning On!