On Thirsty Audiences

Dramatic literature and theatre is my first field: though I was a fan before I was anything else, I wasn’t a fan studies scholar till later in my career.  But, like many academics, my interest in the subjects I’ve studied borders on fannish interest, and so theatre is one of my fandoms.

Kirsty Sedgwick is a major figure in audience studies, and she’s recently crossed over from academia into more general public intellectual spaces with her latest book, On Being Unreasonable: Breaking the Rules and Making Things Better (Faber & Faber, 2023.)  There’s always been an overlap between fan studies and audience studies, and Sedgwick is a scholar of theatre audiences. Her work frequently questions the rules (explicit and implicit) of being an audience member and asks who those rules exclude: for instance, mothers with small children. In her 2018 book, The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience, Sedwick talks about the ways in which behavior standards can be sexist, racist, ableist, and otherwise exclusionary of the very diversity of audience members that theatre-makers claim that they want to attract.

I thought that I would highlight a different essay from Sedgwick’s oeuvre: 2018’s “How can we talk about ‘thirst’ in theatre?” written for Exeunt magazine.  In it, Sedgwick talks about the ways in which women are seen to enjoy theatre for the “wrong” reasons, stinking up lobbies with their love of Benedict Cumberbatch or Hugh Jackman or Tom Hiddleston or Kit Harrington. Sedgwick describes how  “the fear of female audiences reached its peak recently in the handsome-celebrities-onstage trend – like when the theatresphere nervously anticipated how swarms of Benedict Cumberbatch fans might ruin the star’s 2015 Hamlet with their tardiness and addiction to instagram, or when Tom Hiddleston’s fans were criticized for “colonizing the pavement” after Coriolanus.  Sedgwick argues that “the real mystery is how theatres have been able to get away for so long with using the desires of girls to fill their seats while simultaneously shaming them for it.“ 

Sedgwick also argues that not all forms of thirst are equal, and that while male thirst can be dangerous because of how it keeps women down, “female thirst almost always operates to build men up.” In particular, she cites the ways in which fans work to “give underappreciated actors of colour the attention they deserve.” She quotes Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins of the Thirst Aid Kit podcast talking about John Cho.  The podcasters explain that:

“every time we saw him, we’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s so amazing, he’s so hot.’ We really wanted to give him some shine. We see you–not just because you’re beautiful, but because we see what you’re doing on and off screen, and we want to amplify that.”

Sedgwick concludes that “If male thirst simplifies women to bits of flesh, then female thirst tends to be all about fleshing out the person inside,” and concludes that thirst can be radical. The whole article is worth a read, as is much of Sedgwick’s other work.

–Francesca Coppa, Fanhackers volunteer

The representation of eating disorder in a fanfiction

One of the first ideas the reader of fandom discourses will get familiar with is that fanfiction will provide what canon lacks. This can explain fanfiction written from the point of view of a side character, queer romances for non-romance fandoms and the abundance of emotional plots to action-packed canons. Neugarten discovers this idea further in her paper on disordered eating

in the strange and magical fictional world of Supernatural (…)

Neugarten, J.L. (2021). Brittle. Re-thinking Narratives of Disordered Eating through Fanfiction. Frame Journal of Literary Studies, 34 (2), 87.

Strange, magical and fictional all matter in this description because

(while) many readers may recognize Sam’s feelings of helplessness and even his disordered eating, the plot element of demon hunting is so far removed from real life that Sam’s suffering always remains somewhat distant from readers. This defamiliarization of an eating disorder can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand, fanfiction can help inform people about taboo topics such as eating disorders by mixing these difficult topics with beloved characters and settings thereby making them more accessible. On the other hand, this combination arguably reduces or obscures some of the complexity of the topic. (…) Many people with eating disorders struggle with an ideal of physical fitness. However, the fact that Sam is a hunter makes his struggle more extreme. While this makes his eating disorder more foreign and unfamiliar, it makes it more specific and thus recognizable as well.

Neugarten, J.L. (2021). Brittle. Re-thinking Narratives of Disordered Eating through Fanfiction. Frame Journal of Literary Studies, 34 (2), 87.

In Neugarten’s description, the unfamiliarity of canon setting is also what makes it more recognizable to the readers.

I was interested in the exploration of this duality. Fanfiction can showed me that sometimes what is a foreign language makes us able to speak of the unspeakable. What did fanfiction show you about something foreign yet very, very familiar?

Anne Kustritz’s Identity, Community, and Sexuality in Slash Fan Fiction

Anne Kustritz’s new book, Identity, Community, and Sexuality in Slash Fan Fiction: Pocket Publics has just been released by Routledge (2024).  You might know Kustritz, a scholar of fan cultures and transmedia storytelling, from her early essay “Slashing the Romance Narrative,” in the Journal of American Culture (2003) or maybe from some of her more recent work on transmedia and serial storytelling. But this new book is an exciting addition to the fan studies canon, and Fanhackers readers might be particularly interested, because the book “explores slash fan fiction communities during the pivotal years of the late 1990s and the early 2000s as the practice transitioned from print to digital circulation,”–which is the era that a lot of the fans involved in the creation of the OTW came from. As I noted in my book blurb, “​​While there has been an explosion of fan studies scholarship in the last two decades, we haven’t had an ethnography of fan fiction communities since the early 1990s. Kustritz’s Pocket Publics rectifies that, documenting the generation of slash fans who built much of fandom’s infrastructure and many of its community spaces, both on and off the internet. This generation has had an outsized impact on contemporary fan cultures, and Kustritz shows how these fans created an alternative and subcultural public sphere: a world of their own.”

Kustritz doesn’t just analyze and contextualize fandom, she also describes her own experiences as a participant-observer, and these might resonate with a lot of fans (especially Fanhackers-reading fans!)  Early on in the book, Kustritz describes her how her own early interest in fandom blurred between the personal and the academic:

Because I began studying slash only a year after discovering fandom on-line, my interest has always been an intricate tangle of pleasure in the texts themselves, connection to brilliantly creative women, and fascination with intersections between fan activities and academic theory.  I may now disclaim my academic identity as an interdisciplinary scholar with concentrations in media anthropology and cultural studies and begin to pinpoint my fan identity as a bifictional multifandom media fan; however, I only gradually became aware of and personally invested in these categories as I grew into them.  This section defines the scope of the online observation period that preceded the active interview phase of this research.  In so doing it also examines the messy interconnections between my academic and fannish interests and identities. Trying to pick apart what portion of my choices derived from fannish pleasure and which from academic interest helps to identify the basic internal tensions and categories that slash fan fiction communities relied upon to define themselves, the pressures exerted upon these systems by the digital migration, and complications in academic translation of fannish social structures.

Later in the book, Kustritz discusses how fans have organized and advocated for themselves as a public; in particular, there’s a fascinating chapter about the ways in which fandom has adopted and transformed the figure of the pirate to forge new ways of thinking about copyright and authorship.  If the OTW was formed to argue that making fanworks is a legitimate activity, the figure of the pirate signifies a protest against the law and a refusal to be shamed by it: 

[F]ans also use the figure of the pirate to make arguments that validate some fan activities and consign others to illegitimacy.   At the urging of several friends involved with slash, I attended my first non-slash focused science fiction and fantasy convention in the summer of 2004.  The program schedule announced a Sunday morning panel discussion provocatively titled “Avast, Matey: The Ethics of Pirating Movies, Music, and Software” with the subheading “Computers today can distribute [more] intellectual property than ever before–not always legally. Is it ever okay to copy, download, and/or distribute media? Sorry, ladies, none of us will be dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow.”  The panel’s subheading, which obliquely warned away both lusty women and pirates, led a small contingent of slash fans to shake off Saturday night’s convention revelries unreasonably early and implement a plan of their own for Sunday’s panel.  As many fan conventions encourage costumes, known as “cosplay,” one of my friends and research participants happened to have been dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean that weekend, so I entered the piracy panel with Captain Jack and a motley crew of slashers, some of them intent upon commandeering the discussion.

The clash that followed exemplifies a structural fault line between various types of fan communities regarding their shared norms and beliefs about copyright law, the relationship between fans and producers, and appropriate fan behavior.

If you want to find out how this clash played out–well, you’ll just have to read the book. 😀

Fans attitudes toward AI-generated works

Irissa Cisternino, a PhD candidate of Stony Brook University, is writing their research on topics related to technology, art and fandom. You can participate by filling out a survey and additionally, signing up for an interview. The survey is expected to last until at least the end of April, those, who signed up for the interview, will be contacted later. You need to be at least 18 years old to participate in either, be able to understand and speak English and identify as a fan.

After the completion of the research, it will be accessible as the dissertation of the researcher. If you have further questions, you can contact Irissa Cisternino at [email protected] or Lu-Ann Kozlowsky at [email protected].

Help a Researcher

Leigh Ingram, a student at the University of Ottawa, in Canada, is completing a Master of Information Studies. The proposed research for their thesis is on information seeking behaviours in the fanfiction community, with a specific focus on how AO3 users search through the archive and use the embedded search functions on the website.

This study has received ethics approval for an anonymous online survey, followed by a few interviews. The survey will remain open for approximately 6-8 weeks depending on the volume of response. Following completion of the research, the intention is to share the anonymous data collected and potentially submit an article to Transformative Works and Cultures for consideration, so any findings will be shared with OTW/AO3. 

Survey takers must be 18 or older to take part. If you would like to learn more about the study you can review its consent form, which contains the researcher’s contact information.

Immortal fans of Immortality

One example of such a title is the popular web novel Dumb Husky and His White Cat Shizun (2019; originally called Er Ha He Ta De Bai Mao Shi Zun—hereafter, 2ha). (…) The book was later adapted into the TV series Immortality (n.d.; originally called Hao Yi Xing). (…) According to largely unverified rumors, the series was supposedly approved by the Chinese censorship authority in February 2021 and the date of release was then officially announced to be April 15, 2021. However, since then it has been delayed numerous times and as of April 2023, it has yet to be given a release date. 

Wrochna, Agata Ewa. 2023. “Best TV Show You Have Never Seen: Maintaining Collective Identity Among the Twitter Fandom of Chinese Dangai Drama Immortality.” In “Chinese Fandoms,” edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2023.2361.

The trends in posts discussed in this article additionally demonstrate the value assigned to time invested in carrying out creative activities that contribute to the maintenance of fandom unity as well as protection of the cultivated fandom experience.

Wrochna, Agata Ewa. 2023. “Best TV Show You Have Never Seen: Maintaining Collective Identity Among the Twitter Fandom of Chinese Dangai Drama Immortality.” In “Chinese Fandoms,” edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2023.2361.

Despite the current lack of access to their fan object, the participants seem to exhibit characteristics typical of a devoted fandom. Fans strengthen their engagement with the fan object through performing roles of marketers and promoters. In addition, interactions among fans and with competing fandoms allow the participants to further cultivate their loyalty to the fan object. All of these behaviors contribute to uniting the fan community under one collective identity, boosting morale and making the wait for Immortality seem more worthwhile.

Wrochna, Agata Ewa. 2023. “Best TV Show You Have Never Seen: Maintaining Collective Identity Among the Twitter Fandom of Chinese Dangai Drama Immortality.” In “Chinese Fandoms,” edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2023.2361.

Calling all LGBTQIA+ fan fiction readers and writers!

A fourth year student at the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) at Northwestern University is conducting a research project, “LGBTQIA+ Identity Exploration and Expression Through Self-Insert Fanfiction,” which will examine the experiences of queer and trans readers and writers with self-insert fanfiction. This research has received IRB approval and is being supported by Dr. Jolie C. Matthews, associate professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern University.  

If you are interested in taking part, interviewees for this project are being recruited via a screening survey  You must be 18 or older and reside in the U.S. in order to participate. Questions about the study can be directed to Yiyang Liu or to Dr. Jolie C. Matthews.

Vidding’s Grandchildren? Edits, corecore, and other video feels

Thinking about the descendants of vidding, since I was quoted in this recent article on fan edits, “Why Do Fan-Made Trailers Rule the Internet?” by Cat Zhang. The edits of the article, like the fanvids of old, are scenes from television shows and movies set to music.  But while these edits are typically much shorter and more feels-focused than vids, they seem to me clearly a descendant of the form. In my book, Vidding: A History (2018), I talk about the ways in which YouTube and the algorithms of the internet were already affecting the aesthetics of vids back in the 2010s (spoiler alert: they’ve became shorter & more intense) and we can clearly see this trend in the 2020s now that fans are firmly on short-form platforms like Insta and Tiktok.  The edits in Zhang’s article are all about the feels, and a sub-class of edits, corecore (as explained in this Mashable article by Chance Townsend, “Explaining corecore: How TikTok’s newest trend may be a genuine Gen-Z art form”) is often used to express chaotic or overwhelmed feels.  Townsend says that what makes corecore so interesting is that “one’s feelings that couldn’t be expressed through words are instead presented through images. Whether that emotion is happiness, a fear of the future, or the excitement of falling in love, corecore edits, through the use of multimedia, speak to our common experience.”  The idea of expressing emotion by the artistic act of combining disparate clips with music–well, it sounds like vidding, but at the same time it seems a long way away, too. That said, a work like this hip-hop based edit of The Bear, made by an artist at the X/Twitter account “black boy cinematic universe,” seems to be doing the kind of reparative fannish media work vis a vis race that older vids did for gender and sexuality. Zhang quotes the artist as saying: “There’s an energy to the show where it’s being carried by the people of color. So in my edit, I want to make sure there’s a song that represents that.”  That’s a very similar (and familiar) vibe: that urge to make the thing that will Get. It. Right.

An Interview With The Media Fandom Oral History Project

I interviewed the organizers of the Media Fandom Oral History Project, and they shared about the project and what makes it important! The project collects oral histories (interviews) from fans about their fannish experiences. Oral histories help fans define for ourselves what it means to a fan, and they help preserve our histories for future generations. 

The project needs volunteers! Email oralhistoryfandom (at) gmail (dot) com if you want to get involved. 

Q: Can you briefly introduce yourself, the project, and its purpose?

MD: I am Morgan Dawn and have been a slash fanfiction fan since the 1990s. I entered fandom during the last years of paper fanfiction and the beginning era of online fandom. 

The Media Fandom Oral History Project’s goal is to capture our history in our own words and with our own voices. The idea came when I was sitting at our kitchen table with my friend Sandy Herrold. We realized that fans talking to other fans in informal settings was the perfect way to showcase our community and our connections. What could be more fannish than talking about and sharing the things we love? We started interviewing fans at conventions, then moved to phone interviews and have finally switched the project into a Do-It-Yourself Mode with fans taking the lead interviewing their friends and choosing what they want to preserve.

The recordings are submitted to the University of Iowa’s oral history collection and are available online. We are hoping to provide transcripts for all of the interviews. The University of Iowa has one of the world’s largest fanfiction fanzine collections. You can see the list of interviews at Fanlore, one of the OTW’s projects. 

FD: I am Franzeska Dickson and have also been a slash fan since the 90s. In my case, I started as a 13-year-old screaming about Scully on alt.tv.x-files during the first season. (I was a NoRomo, as I recall, mostly because I thought Mulder wasn’t nearly good enough for her.) I remember being floored when I was told about fanfic. I have no memory of being told that slash existed. I guess it didn’t seem like a big deal. I spent the late 90s and early 00s in anime fandom before swinging back to oldschool Media Fandom and later to other Asian fandoms.

I ran into Morgan at a con and informed her that her recording plans were all wrong and she needed the type of voice recorder that linguists use in the field… I ended up with the recorder and the bulk of the early interviewing work.

Q: Speaking as if to someone unfamiliar with oral history and your project, why is the Media Fandom Oral History Project important?

MD: The recordings allow us to speak directly to future generations of fans and control the discussion of what it means to be a ‘fan.’ By having fans talk to other fans we bypass the dominant narrative of how fans interact with the TV, movies, books and comics. It is also an opportunity for marginalized members of our community to talk about their experiences. There has been much scholarship surrounding live action and anime fandoms. Some of it has been done by academics who are fans themselves and it has been wonderful to see the growth of Fandom Studies. But oral history offers every fan the ability to use their own words to talk about the things they remember and what matters to them.

FD: The early zine generation is rapidly dropping dead, and even when they aren’t, I’m always running into younger fans trying to do research who have zero clue who’s still alive or where to find them. If we wait for people to do their secondary academic research, it will be too late. Primary sources now or we won’t have them!

The scope of fans who are interested in fandom history is much wider than the people who can make the right connections to talk to someone older. It’s particularly true for early zines, but it’s even true for something like Livejournal: I could rustle up thirty people in five minutes who’d be able to speak cogently on that fandom history. A lot of would-be history researchers currently in undergrad would not. For the future academics, the meta writers, or merely our curious fellow fans, it behooves us to record our history in our own words.

Q: What has the Media Fandom Oral History Project accomplished so far?

MD: We have completed 57 interviews. The first few years we went to in-person conventions and used a digital recorder to interview anyone who was interested. In 2017, a graduate student named Megan Genovese obtained funding and did 24 interviews over the phone in a single summer. During the pandemic, we moved into a DIY (do it yourself) phase – instead of a single person doing the interviewing, we now invite fans to contact their friends and spend an hour chatting about their fandom history. They can use their smartphones, Zoom/video conference recording or reserve a time slot on our international audio conference system. 

We have recorded the history of some of the earliest slash writers, publishers and artists. We have preserved the memories of the first fan who created the first fanvid using a slide project and cassette audio tape. We have heard from fans who organized conventions and started letter writing campaigns to save shows. The interviews include filk singers, fans whose passion is meta, and fans who created and ran some of the first fiction archives. These fans are creators, organizers, supporters, and devotees and have so many stories to tell.

Q: In what ways do you hope the project will grow in the coming years? Or, what are your hopes for the project’s future?

MD: We’re a small project and it is difficult to scale with our current resources. By shifting to the DIY phase we’re hoping to encourage fans to take the reins of their fandom history and never stop telling their personal fannish stories. The DIY project also allows fandom communities to leverage off our existing “infrastructure” – we can offer permission forms, an international recording platform (if needed), and a place to archive the interviews.

FD: All fandom history resources suffer from a strong predilection for the researcher’s friends or their part of fandom to be the main focus. I hope people from very different parts of fandom will interview their friends about areas other people haven’t found important or accessible enough to record.

Q: What help is needed, and how can people get involved?

MD: We need 2 intake coordinators to answer questions, e-mail and collect permission forms (Participants must sign a permission form allowing their recordings to be archived at the University of Iowa). We also need help with outreach to communities that may not be aware of the project – anime, BL fans, cosplayers, filkers, fans in other countries. This is not just a historical project looking backwards. We want to capture our community as it is today and hear from fans whose experiences differ. The central focus has not changed – fans participating in transformative fandom – reading, writing, creating fanfiction, fanvids, podfic, art, managing discord communities. But it all starts with intake coordinators who can keep track of participants and follow up to get the recordings. Each oral history also has a written transcription, as we want this project to be as accessible to as many people as possible. We’ve tried some automated transcription services, and the results are very uneven. This means there’s another opportunity for volunteers, people to listen to the recordings and to help transcribe the contents. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the Media Fandom Oral History Project?

MD: It’s a way for fans to be heard. They can describe their experiences on their own terms, in their own words, and take back some of the power of storytelling, rather than having others tell their stories for them.

It’s a way to help preserve and honor fan experiences and fan history.

Envision you and your friends, talking about the things you love, your community, and what they mean to you, and describing and preserving these things for history. 

Plus, it’s really fun!

FD: If you don’t want ‘fandom history’ to mean just one kind of fandom history, speak up while you can, whether that’s here or in essays or in your own projects!

The whole world through queer-coloured glasses

Sometimes reading new scholarship coincides perfectly with the discussion I read here, on the blog. You have read discussion about fan perspectives on queer representation and on the fanfic lens and another take on the latter (or in other words, how to be gay).

Frederik Dhaenens writes research about gay representation on television. Their work dicusses both queer stories and queer readings which is what brought these previous posts to my mind. In queer readings, the audience was examined.

(The) regular television viewers seemed to be aware of the strategies of queer deconstruction.

Dhaenens, Frederik. “Reading Gays on the Small Screen.” Javnost – The Public 19, no. 4 (2012): 57–72. https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2012.11009096.

However, these texts only briefly touched on queer readings that were of not explicitly queer stories.

Another example (of the distinction between the focus group with the heterosexual and the homosexual participants) is the way many gay participants stressed the necessity of identification with gay characters or at least the fun of assuming a character being gay.

Dhaenens, Frederik. “Reading Gays on the Small Screen.” Javnost – The Public 19, no. 4 (2012): 57–72. https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2012.11009096.

Audiences are adept at reading into the text but there are also more and more queer stories. However, an analysis of queer reading practices could look at these interpretations less as separate ones as they can co-exist. After all, many of us might have experienced reading everyone else around the canonically queer couple as also queer, haven’t we?