The “Race and Ethnicity” issue of the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures is live! The subject of race represents a critical yet still under-developed area within fan studies, so kudos to the editors of the Journal for bringing us this issue.
Perhaps a part of the reason for the neglect is that fans are more or less seen as white – a situation discussed in a really wonderful essay from the Journal titled “Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization and the Discursive Construction of Fandom”. As its author Mel Stanfill points out, fans tend to be constructed as a failed kind of whiteness. This in turn reinforces the centrality (or “hegemonic” nature, to get academic) of whiteness as a symbolic category. If “whiteness” (which has just recently begun to receive critical attention itself) holds within itself assumptions about maturity, rationality and heteronormativity then fans, at least in popular discourses, fail to achieve it. They are whiteness gone wrong — out of control, dysfunctional, sexually deviant and usually single. Just think about every stereotypical fan you’ve ever seen on TV or in the movies – The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy, the main characters of Big Bang Theory, the dueling Trekkers and Star Wars fans of Fanboys… and who could forget Barbara Adams in the documentary Trekkies, who wore her Star Trek uniform to jury duty and called herself “The Commander”? (My students certainly won’t let that go any time soon).
Stanfill’s is an essay about representation… but what about fans in reality? Granted, it is unlikely that we will ever have a complete grasp on who, where and what fans are. I think I can say, though, just from having been in fan gatherings, both on-line and in real time, that, in reality, fans are a reasonably diverse bunch. In reality, we are of different colours and from different countries. In reality, many are invested in marriages and families; many do identify as heterosexual. Many have girlfriends, boyfriends, lovers. Still others are single and looking for the right person.
To that extent, it might be said that many fans are invested in heteronormativity. But there is a question on my mind, especially as my first time teaching a course on fan cultures draws to a close. If you want to see the discourses of normality at work, try teaching a bunch of 18-to-20-year olds about fans. The pressure of “normal” is intense and maddening, which is why Stanfill’s section on fandom as a kind of queerness or sexual deviance resonated so powerfully for me. Supposedly fandom is becoming increasingly accepted by the mainstream yet, in many contexts, it remains a dirty little secret. It is a kind of closet, even for some who are in long-term relationships with persons of the opposite sex. It is a fetish, an interest that draws energy away from the heteronormative ideal of relationships and reproduction. And don’t get me wrong: to me this queerness is a wonderful thing. I celebrate it, because it tells the truth that no one is normal, that normal is a lie and a scary one at that. No one really wants to be “normal”, do they?
More than ever, I feel that fandom, even when not explicitly having anything to do with anything sexual, is queer. I know I can get into trouble for saying this, but after watching a bunch of teenagers leaping to reassure themselves and each other that they are “not like that bunch” [of fans], that “those people” [fans] are dangerous and unbalanced; and after having a few students confess to me privately that they are fans but who aren’t ready to talk about it in front of their peers… I think that the notion of fandom as queer might have some potential.
Of course, this is not really the point of Stanfill’s article. Indeed, because fans are represented as white, they are, in Stanfill’s words, “still recuperable”. They can still reclaim their privilege as white folks. Perhaps by trying to argue for the queerness of fans, I am turning attention away from the real point of the essay which is that whiteness remains the normative category against which all other categories are measured. If nothing else, fans should be able to understand how such insidious ideas as the “normal” and the “centre” create prejudice and do real harm to people. Fans have every reason to be open, tolerant and accepting of every kind of difference. At our best, we can and have achieved that ideal. But we are not always at our best, and one of the best arguments for studying whiteness is that it can force us to think about what we unconsciously believe to be normal, central and mainstream.