The other day I was catching up with San Diego Comic-Con news and checking out a bit of what happened on the MTV Fandom Awards. I still don’t really get it, but it’s amusing to watch. Every time I remember said award show exists, I marvel that we now live in a world where this is a publicly-acknowledged event run by a major media company. But I’m also not surprised.
I wrote a post in 2010 for TLF called “The Year Fandom Becomes Serious Business”, arguing for the acknowledgement of fan communities’ economic influence by major media companies. I was actually a couple of years off — I personally think that the gangbusters global popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting with The Avengers in 2012 really opened the floodgates of fandom (and more specifically geek culture) as legitimate marketing category for many media companies.
Companies have exercised various levels of tolerance towards fan communities and fan labor in the past few decades. Paramount, for example turned a blind eye to Star Trek fandom for many years while the show was in hibernation in the 70’s, and companies flirted with fan relationships via street teams and guerilla marketing for many years, of course. The 2007 book Unmarketable by Anne Elizabeth Moore talked about the courtship of D.I.Y. zine makers by Lucasfilm to promote the Star Wars prequels, or Sony hiring street artists to “tag” buildings with brand-sanctioned stencils. Such unholy alliances were, in my opinion, simply ways for media companies to “borrow cool” from underground creative communities, while still largely ignoring the opinions and labor of fandom, which existed as a transgressive, oppositional force to media owners.
The push-and-pull between fans and owners was at its most intense before the rise of social media fan communities, and hoo-boy, have things changed now. Geek culture has evolved from a niche audience to a full-fledged mainstream consumer psychographic category (of course still making the assumption that the demographics of this consumer category, at least in the Western world, is still white male, age 18-35.) Even so, I never would imagined the embrace of fan culture on the level that we’re currently seeing, with “geek” as a vertical in mainstream publications, and media companies reporting comic book movie news in tones that used to only be reserved for politics and sports. My blog post back in 2010 argued that media companies and creators didn’t take the time to listen to fans, and rather, saw fandom as a pesky annoyance. Today in the age of Twitter, Tumblr, and one’s fave being problematic, there’s no way a media creator can ignore the input of fandom for a minute.
This evolution has meant an interesting shift in the definition of what it means to call yourself a fan, and especially a “fangirl.” Back when when Raizel and I started The Learned Fangirl back in 2007, the title was seemed arcane, an inside joke that we had to explain. A lot of people didn’t know what a fangirl even was, and if they did, it was seen as a gendered off-shoot term. (“Do fangirls even exist? I remember a guy asking me once at a SXSW party — this was back when you could have an actual audible conversation at SXSW.) The idea of being a “learned fangirl” was poking fun at the idea that fans lacked the capacity to be critical, and that conversations of race, gender, class, economics were verboten.
Of course, that is unheard of now, and conversation online and off proliferates with conversation about representation and diversity in media, in fandom communities, at companies — in part, because social technologies (Facebook in particular) have so strongly advocated a culture of online transparency, that we show our true selves online. As a result, the gender, racial, ethnic diversity of online communities becomes an undeniable reality for those who otherwise would have still clung to the white-and-nerdy assumption.
So to be a “fangirl” today, means to be in the center of these conversations and on the front lines of these battles. It’s become a term that both less stigmatized and more politically loaded. The rise of the fangirl-as-identity has come hand-in-hand with the rise of geek culture/fandom as cash cow, and more insidiously, the identity-as-lifestyle brand trend, where conversations about race and gender become a marketing strategy for companies. (I’m looking directly at companies like FCKH8 here, that exist in that squirrely gray area between “social responsibility” and exploitation.) It’s also apparent in the rise of pop feminism, where everyone from actresses, to singers to fictional female characters are evaluated for their feminist credentials. To be a “fangirl” has evolved from a descriptor of activity to a descriptor of identity.
And of course this all comes at an age in digital media where the conversations and media consumption behaviors of online audiences can been tracked and monitored like never before. It seems suspect to me that fan communities are encouraged to embrace our fannish activity (watch! discuss! share!) at a point where such activity (and labor) is easier to observe, analyze, and used by the media companies that create the shows, movies, and comics we love. Are we, as we fangirls wrap ourselves in fannish love, essentially unpaid marketing shills for companies that would never hire us for actual work? When does listening to a fan community evolve into exploitation of a community? What’s the line between imitation, criticism, homage? I think it’s much more complicated that a simple yes and no, and there’s rich body of work on fan labor that interrogates these very ideas. But along with that is a divide that separates fangirls, or more broadly marginalized fan communities, from the media companies that profit from their labor.
There’s a lot more room for conversation about representation, media creators and ownership. The recent conversation about the Marvel hip-hop variant covers, for example, has evolved into a conversation about the lack of black writers and artists actually employed by Marvel, so it’s happening, the unfortunate thing is that it’s not happening enough by the same mainstream media outlets that so eagerly cover the goings-on at SDCC each year. What’s also happening is a distancing of some fangirls from engagement in traditional fandom activity (fan-fiction, online fan communities, etc.) and a collective move towards creating and promoting original works and creating communities for work by diverse creators to be made and distributed. (Artists like Gail Simone supporting the distribution of woman comic creators, campaigns like Tanya DePass’ #iNeedDiverseGames.)
There are levels of this movement of course, grassroots movements can only go so far without funding and structural support, and supporting the work of creators while also pushing hard against the institutional structures that marginalize us, is hard work for a fangirl, and there should be room to just be a fan! It’s OK to have hobbies! To be a fangirl means something very different than it did even five years ago, but it’s still oppositional, still transgressive and ever-evolving. Get back to me in another five years, and I guarantee you my mind will be blown once again at the places we’ve gone.