For the last five years, I’ve been making the argument that fan culture is rhetorically significant because of its potential to create fan-based civic engagement. Fan culture is the community, practices, and histories that are developed by fans of popular culture, like sports, TV, movies, and comics. While fan culture is obviously central to disciplines like media studies, I argue that fan culture is important for rhetoricians when fans participate in fan-based civic engagement. In these instances, rhetors invite fans to volunteer, protest, and vote because of their fan identifications: they vote for Obama because that’s what Harry Potter would do. But this weekend,two groups of fan bloggers pushed me to see the ways in which fan culture is relevant for all rhetoricians—not just rhetoricians like me who study fan-specific rhetoric.
On Saturday, May 24, 2014, Kate Lansky, Jennifer Cross, Renee Ismail, Lauren Jankowski, Jessamyn, and Isabel Schechter led a panel at WisCon (a feminist science-fiction conference) titled “The Problem of Women and Perceived Authenticity.” The panelists discussed the ways in which they have their authenticity questioned in professional, personal, and fan settings and how they respond to or combat those accusations (you can find a storify of their twitter feed here). The “fake geek girl” discourse is central to this discussion. Widely circulated, this discourse asserts that women are not real gamers because they don’t play the right games, women are not real fans because they dress up as characters only for male attention, and women are not real fans because they haven’t read every comic book. For a brief introduction to the fake geek girl discourse, see the idiot nerd girl meme here, John Scalzi’s well-known blog response here, and a great video from feminist fan-leaders here. This panel asked us to see fake geek girl discourse as related and interlocking with other discourses that question women’s authenticity as a way to discipline and restrict power.
According to the panel abstract, women routinely face attacks like: “Women don’t write ‘real scifi.’ Women who say they’re gamers but don’t play ‘the right games’ are posers. Women exaggerate or lie about rape and harassment. Women can’t be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies. Women wear clothes and make-up to ‘trick’ men into thinking they’re pretty. Men don’t listen to women as the authorities on their own experiences but listen to other men if they say the same thing.”
This panel asked us to see how discourses that frame women as inauthentic, fake, and untrustworthy extend across many contexts. That means that the “fake geek girl” discourse strengthens and maintains other discourses about women in science, law, and tech culture. Accepting the discourse that women fans are “fake geek girls” strengthens the discourse that women are inauthentic decision makers who, for example, need doctors and politicians to make decisions about their abortions for them. In other words, the fake geek girl discourse isn’t only relevant to fan scholars: it’s relevant to rhetoricians studying topics like abortion discourses, feminist social movements, and more.
On May 25, 2014, Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast published a blog post titled “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.” Although Elliot Rodgers, the man who shot and killed eight women at UCSB, did not seem to identify as a geek or fan, Chu argues that Rodger’s manifestos sounded a lot like the “standard frustrated angry geeky guy manifesto, except for the part about mass murder.” Chu argues that male nerds are taught that women reject you, but if you try hard enough someday you’ll get the attractive, non-nerd woman to date you. Chu points largely to media depictions of nerds, but I think many feminist fan bloggers would argue that it is embedded in the social practices and community values of fan culture as well. The point here for rhetoricians isn’t whether Chu (or others) are right or wrong about Rodgers. The point is that Chu articulates the ways in which fan culture contributes to, strengthens, and maintains discourses of misogyny and male entitlement. If we want to critique and disrupt discourses of male entitlement, we need to also disrupt discourses of misogyny in fan cultures.
Part of the lesson here is that fan culture does not perfectly reflect our US larger society nor does it set up impervious boundaries. If it did, rhetoricians could safely ignore it in most instances. But we cannot assume that discourses circulating broadly are circulated and articulated in the same way in fan cultures, nor can we assume that discourses circulating in fan cultures do not strengthen, maintain, shift, or contest larger discourses.
What does this mean for rhetoric scholars? It means that we simply cannot ignore fan cultures and the discourses they circulate. Fan cultures are relevant to the rhetorical research questions we pose. As a result, we must seek out fan texts that constitute the discourses we are studying and we must theorize fan identities, fan cultures, and fan discourses. Doing so will make our analysis richer and our theorizing more complex.