Most fans know how it feels to contemplate sharing their fandom with the outside world. You dwell, you ponder, you cogitate and you finally decide that you are not gonna hide, dammit! You are gonna fly your geek flag, because this is important to you and you have nothing to be ashamed of. (Or maybe you decide for very good reasons not to reveal yourself, but let’s assume otherwise for the purposes of the moment).
So you “come out” to someone. You tell them about your love. You explain all the ways that you express your love and you brace yourself for judgment. You are ready with your arguments: You do know the difference between fantasy and reality. You do have a life. You are a contributing member of society and it isn’t just a tv show/movie/book/game, it brings you meaning and pleasure and friendship. It allows you to express parts of yourself that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise.
Except, to your surprise, the judgment doesn’t come. You get vague, puzzled expressions and shrugs but little more, and you leave the encounter feeling oddly disappointed and maybe just a tad uncomfortable, as though you just tried to write a really cracky crossover fic and the characters just refused to exist in each other’s worlds.
Bringing fandom into the classroom is a lot like this – except entirely different.
I write on this topic today in the genuine hope that other acafen might have wisdom to impart. You see, I just finished teaching an introductory level course called Media and Society. On the whole, it was a great experience. The students were engaged and talkative. They were full of opinions, so I imagined that when we got to the section on fandom there would be a plethora of exciting conversation. Some might react, others would challenge the reactions…. or if not, I would intervene gently but firmly. Perhaps some would admit to being fans themselves, even talk about their own transformative works. We would debate whether or not fans are harmless, folksy innovators or the dupes of capitalism. If nothings else, we would have fun. I brought to class some great examples of fan vids, fan films, machinima, fan art. I told them about slash, yaoi, hurt/comfort, and I waited for the questions.
The party was a bust. Just as with my more generic revelation fantasies, I got silence and blank faces. There were the occasional giggles and expressions of shock but otherwise the galvanizing encounter that I had expected did not materialize. (I did have a bunch of athletes in the class who quite willingly owned up to being sports fans, but in this sport-centric society who would feel the need to hide it?) At the very least I expected the subject of slash to inspire curiosity or outrage – but no. The void I that I contemplated in response to slash was particularly gaping.
The way I see it, there are four possible explanations for this.
One: I was too obvious and the students didn’t want to risk getting on my bad side. Now, I did not make a secret of the fact that I am myself a fan, but I did not name outright my fandom, nor did I tell them that I have written fanfic and slash. Still, they may have been able to figure it out. I did show an excerpt from an episode of Supernatural and followed it up later with a Supernatural fanvid. But this only made sense, didn’t it? I had discovered early on that I could make no assumptions about them having seen any show or film, regardless of its popularity, and if I was going to show a vid then they ideally needed some context for it. It’s not like it was all-Supernatural-all-the-time. In fact, I thought I had done a good job of being not-too-overly-enthusiastic when I mentioned the show, using it as just one (very apt) example of what Sharon Marie Ross has called “participatory viewing”.
However, it is entirely possible that I was not as inscrutable as I had hoped.
Two: I was not obvious enough. In my desire to not seem too partial, to have a balanced dialogue about fandom, perhaps I undersold fandom. I did not express how I adore the unquenchable, idiosyncratic, joyful creativity of fans. I did not manage to make my students understand the depth of feeling that we fans invest in our loved objects, how strange yet ordinary that emotion, how necessary and yet how secret. And even though I touched on the gender divide in fandom, I did not adequately convey my wonder at women all over the world turning media to our own purposes the way that we do. I did not advance any arguments about slash being more than just gay sex. Perhaps I should have told them how slash is so much more than dirty stories, how it is an entire woman’s genre built from our desires and fantasies – exciting, mundane, cute, sentimental, passionate, sometime violent.
Maybe I failed in all this because still, after everything, there is something about fandom that is embarrassing to me. I don’t care if people know that I read and write sexy man-on-man stories but I do mind people knowing about all the sentiment. There is something squirmful about the fact that I need a fix of emotional goop every day. Even if I know cognitively that there is nothing wrong with it, I still find it hard to face the discomfited sniggers when displaying a piece of fan art that depicts excessive tenderness between two naked male characters.
Third: Fandom is no big deal. Maybe these kids are just too accustomed to the idea that people are entitled to their pleasure as some inalienable right. Maybe they secretly think “Yeah, total geek…but hey, to each his own” along with “I like my shows/games/movies too. I’m not going to wear a costume though…I’m not a fan like that.” Maybe they figure there’s nothing much to argue about and that, again, would be my failure.
Fourth: Now I’m going to make a confession. I’m exaggerating a bit. My students did ask some questions. There was even a group of four or so who stayed after class one day (I had just shown the first 30 minutes of Trekkies), to argue about the meaningfulness of fandom relationships and the ethical implications of spending thousands of dollars on collectibles. It was an energetic, intellectually satisfying discussion that we never had the chance to resume. I had hoped to pick it up in class but the same students didn’t seem interested anymore. So I was disappointed, and that just may be my problem. It is possible that the “fan” in “acafan” will never be able to find the experience of teaching fandom satisfying, either because her students are not fans and don’t quite get it, or because her students are fans and they do get it but, like her, they aren’t willing to expose their quivering, emotional, fannish self. Perhaps there must always be a limit on how much of the fannish experience she can reveal, not because there is anything inherently wrong about what she does and feels and believes but because it will simply never translate into the classroom.
Am I once again being the idealist, comparing my imagined experience with reality and finding reality wanting? And wouldn’t that just be typical of me.