Affirmation/Transformation: A Fannish Autoethnography Created

A banner of the exhibition using a detail of Mark Heresy's Will to Power painting. It uses the motive of the snake and the apple tree with both the snake and the apple being Spiderman-patterned. The tree's lines are not coloured, the entire image evoking a comic book's style. The background has spiderwebs. Above the detail is the name of the exhibition: Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created.
Mark Heresy, American, b. 1965. Will to Power (detail), 1992, Ink on paper, 28 x 22 in, 2000.11.5, Gift of Peter Norton, Collection of the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University

Putting on an exhibition was the furthest thing from my mind when, through my PhD assistantship, I was placed at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art in the Fall of 2022. To say that I was anxious to talk authoritatively about fine art would be a dramatic understatement. Historically, my visits to art museums included confusion about what was (and wasn’t) considered “good,” and my daily experience with art centered around the fan pieces I saw posted on Tumblr and Instagram. I was, to put it bluntly, terrified.

During the same time period, I was struggling to find the focus of my dissertation. With Master’s degrees in both English and Business Administration, and with a passion for fanfiction, I knew I wanted to talk about fan compensation. I had read plenty of scholarly books and articles that were passionate about promoting fandom as valid, positive, and useful, and plenty more that broke down the unpaid labor that fans engaged in for their fan objects, but I had never seen these two concepts addressed at the same time. Texts considering fan compensation tended to view fan labor in a negative light. At best, fanworks were viewed as a gift from a fan to the fan community at large, with fans knowing they would be repaid when other fans within the community gifted their own fanworks in return. (Nevermind that I myself have a fic on AO3 that is—as of writing this—the only fic belonging to its extremely rare-pairing). At worst, fanwork was viewed as unpaid labor, utilized—often unethically—to prop up the mass-media corporations who profited from it. I wanted to consider the ways in which fans were paid that weren’t specifically monetarily based, and I wanted to address the topic from a position of honoring and respecting fanworks in all their forms. 

Even with this knowledge of what I wanted to discuss, I was struggling in my program. My experience in both of my Master’s programs had not prepared me for the fast pace at which new ideas and theories were disseminated in fan studies and through digital communities. Each time I thought I had found something new and exciting to add to the scholarship, I read a new paper—or more often watched a TikTok—which said my great idea in a better and smarter way than I had considered it. I felt discouraged and lost. I took a step back from my research, deciding to focus my time and energy on my assistantship instead. The museum was showing a portion of Marquette University’s collection of Tolkien manuscripts, and part of my duties included gathering three minute oral histories from fans for The J.R.R. Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection. Inspired by this experience, I began to think about museums and archives, about what gets archived, about what gets displayed, and about who gets to make those decisions.

When the Haggerty Museum’s Curator for Academic Engagement approached me about an exhibition centering my own research, my first thought was to hang fan art on the walls. This, I was quickly told, was not an option for a plethora of reasons. Couldn’t I instead, it was suggested, use fine art pieces to discuss these types of fanworks? I first considered using pieces that could themselves be seen as fanworks—variations on mythology and biblical stories, new ways of considering historical moments and places, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe… but this didn’t feel like enough. Everything is inspired by something. Is that enough to make it a fanwork?  

It was from these thoughts and musings that Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created was born. Fourteen fine art pieces were selected from the Haggerty’s permanent collection—each of which will be used to discuss something that fans create. I categorized fan creations broadly: alternative readings, collections, community and collaboration, emotional responses, histories, identity, meanings, new texts, parasocial relationships, play, political and social movements, rivalry and opposition, rules, and theories.. The 14 fine art  pieces will be hung in the gallery during the exhibition, but are also currently available to view online. In this ongoing project, fans are invited to create fanworks inspired by these 14 pieces, and the fanworks submitted will be displayed digitally alongside the fine art. Think of it like a Prompt Meme challenge, featuring fine art as your prompt!

My experience with fandom is as much about community as it is about the thing I’m a fan of, and this is why it was so important to me to avoid discussing fandom in a vacuum. An exhibition of just my voice explaining what fans created felt cold; it felt disconnected from and disrespectful to the very thing I was trying to celebrate. This is why my dissertation project is collaborative, featuring the voices and creations of fans everywhere. I also feel called to ensure that these fanworks are treated with the respect that they deserve. This doesn’t just apply to the ways in which I will write about them in my final dissertation text; moreso, it is vitally important to me to take advantage of the opportunity I have to archive fanworks in Marquette’s institutional repository. Archiving these fanworks not only preserves them for potential future academic research, but also marks them—and fanworks in general—as being worthy of a place within the academic archive. 
Fan submissions for Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created are being accepted now, and will continue to be accepted through the close of the exhibition (December 22, 2024). In order to be on display in the gallery on opening night (August 23, 2024), fanworks must be submitted by August 1st. All types of fanworks are welcome, as long as they are submitted digitally. Sound will be available to be played in the gallery (fanworks will be displayed on tablets with headphones attached).  For more information, visit https://epublications.marquette.edu/fandom/Affirmationtransformation/, or email Kate Rose at [email protected]

Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created – a chance to see your fanworks on display in a museum

A banner of the exhibition using a detail of Mark Heresy's Will to Power painting. It uses the motive of the snake and the apple tree with both the snake and the apple being Spiderman-patterned. The tree's lines are not coloured, the entire image evoking a comic book's style. The background has spiderwebs. Above the detail is the name of the exhibition: Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created.
Mark Heresy, American, b. 1965. Will to Power (detail), 1992, Ink on paper, 28 x 22 in, 2000.11.5, Gift of Peter Norton, Collection of the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University

Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created, an exhibition of fine art pieces and the fanworks inspired by them, will run from August 23rd through December 22nd, 2024, at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art, as well as online. This exhibition considers “creation” as the line between casual enjoyment and fandom. Fans are not passive; fans create. Fans from any and all fandoms are challenged to create fanworks inspired by both their fandom and one of 14 fine art pieces from the Haggerty’s permanent collection. Visitors to the museum and to the online version of the exhibition will be able to see submitted fanworks displayed digitally alongside the fine art pieces hung in the gallery, and will be asked to consider whether the fan creations are affirmational or transformational—that is, do they affirm the fan object as it is, or transform it into something new? Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created also happens to be the keystone of my dissertation project. 

My research focuses on the kinds of things that fans create, the ways in which fans and academics consider those creations, and the various ways fans are compensated for the work they complete. “The kinds of things that fans create” includes not only tangible creations—like fanfiction, fan art, cosplay, and collections—but also immaterial creations—like rules, rivalries, relationships, political movements, identities, histories, emotional responses, theories, community, meanings, alternative readings, and play. I am hoping fans will submit a plethora of different forms of tangible fanworks; I have already received art, fiction, original music, nail art, cross-stitch, cosplay, and more. Intangible fanworks are more difficult to gather and display; however, once Affirmation/Transformation opens in the fall, I will be conducting ethnographic research with fans regarding their experience with both tangible and intangible fan creations. Through my research, I hope to further break down what I see as an unnatural barrier between affirmational and transformational fandom, and expand on the ways in which all fanworks both affirm and transform their fan objects. Additionally, I will be investigating the various ways fans are compensated for their fannish labor.

In business, the idea of non-monetary compensation is commonly discussed. Things like benefits, time off, employee assistance programs, discounts, and other employer-provided perks are discussed as a part of an employee’s “total compensation package.” Yet, in most fan studies texts, fan labor is referred to as totally unpaid. At best, fanworks are discussed within the context of a gift economy: fans make fanworks as gifts, and are gifted more fanworks in return. I don’t disagree with this assessment of fan compensation—I personally consider each fanwork submitted to Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created to be a gift towards the completion of my dissertation—but it does not seem to go far enough. The “compensation” fans receive extends far beyond the (albeit massive) “gift” of the vast archives of fanfiction and fan art housed on sites like AO3 and Tumblr. Compensation can be social, emotional, communal, psychological, developmental, and beyond. If access to an EAP is considered part of the compensation package offered by a corporation, then should not access to a network of individuals within a fandom—all in possession of their own knowledge and expertise—be considered as similar compensation? Fans provide mutual aid for those in their community in ways often above and beyond what a business might do for an employee facing a period of struggle. Perhaps I am just a “cultural dupe,” but I feel I’ve gotten just as much or more from my fandom as compared to what I’ve put in, and I struggle to be fully convinced that my labor is being exploited for the mass media’s hegemony. 

Through my scholarship, I hope to contribute to ongoing fan studies research through the further analysis of these alternate forms of compensation, as well as through the cataloging and archiving of fanworks as valid, artistic texts worthy of academic consideration. Not only will the fanworks submitted Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created be displayed as a part of the exhibition, but they will also be archived with my dissertation in Marquette University’s institutional repository, preserving them for at least as long as the University exists and making them available for further academic study. 
Fan submissions for Affirmation/Transformation: Fandom Created are being accepted now, and will continue to be accepted through the close of the exhibition (December 22, 2024). In order to be on display in the gallery on opening night (August 23, 2024), fanworks must be submitted by August 1st. All types of fanworks are welcome, as long as they are submitted digitally. Sound will be available to be played in the gallery (fanworks will be displayed on tablets with headphones attached).  For more information, visit https://epublications.marquette.edu/fandom/Affirmationtransformation/, or email Kate Rose at [email protected]

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.