From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.
Lynn Zubernis, PhD, West Chester University and Katherine Larsen, PhD, George Washington University are authors of the books ‘Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls’ ‘Fan Phenomena: Supernatural’ ‘Fandom at the Crossroads’ and Fan Culture: ‘Theory/Practice’. They also run the blog Fangasm The Book
What was your first brush with fandom?
Kathy: John Kennedy. I was four! I think like most people who call themselves fans, I’ve had a long fannish history -– music, teenage heartthrobs, ballet, television, dead poets. I’ve almost always been involved in some fandom, in some way, but I only really became a participatory fan beginning in the late 1990’s.
Lynn: I have always been fannish, in the sense of being an enthusiastic viewer of Star Trek as a kid, right through X Files and Buffy –- but I didn’t discover organized fandom until I fell for Supernatural in 2007. I went online to share my infatuation and was immediately drawn into the fandom community on the predominant platform of that time, Live Journal. As a writer, LJ in 2007 was a glorious place to be if you were a Supernatural fan. I read lots and lots of fanfic, and then wrote lots and lots of fanfic.
Kathy and I fell in love with the show simultaneously, so we shared the giddy experience of finding this supportive community with such different norms for self expression, emotionality and sexuality. We became so fascinated by the life changing experience of finding fandom that we both altered the trajectory of our academic careers. As a psychologist, I wanted to know more about what being a fan offered in terms of identity development, self expression, and the healing power of community support and validation. Earlier psychological theories about fandom were pathologizing, and that had not been my experience at all! Hence, Fandom At The Crossroads and Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls.
During your research for your books, was there anything that was particularly surprising or interesting to you?
Kathy: The most surprising thing to me was the way we were treated when we identified ourselves as academics rather than fans. Doors opened for us that would have remained closed had we just identified ourselves as fans. In hindsight I realize this wasn’t all that surprising, but at the time the power of an academic title was unexpected.
The other thing that surprised me, and still surprises me is the level of shame and derision leveled at fans. I just don’t get why passion – for anything – brings out that response in people. Or rather I do, but understanding it doesn’t mean that I understand it.
Lynn: The most surprising thing was the level of shame and secrecy that existed in fandom at the time. Certainly I was not immune, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising, but the pervasiveness of that internalized shame was unexpected.
Kathy often admonished me for viewing fandom through rose-colored glasses as a utopian community in those first years of research, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the other thing that was unexpected was the intra-group fighting in that seemingly utopian community. As someone who has studied group dynamics, that also should not have been surprising –- but I think I didn’t want to see it at first. Fandom wank and fan-on-fan attacks and policing have not diminished; in fact, there may be more opportunities in the multiple online spaces offering a degree of anonymity. There is jockeying for position and influence in any group, and fandom is no exception. The fact that fans passionately love what they love (and want what they want) means that the in-fighting will be…well, passionate.
The recent flurry of articles following Devin Faraci’s piece about Fandom being ‘broken’ saw some fans protesting his conclusions, but others attacking segments of fandom they perceived as ‘other’ (different ships, different canon wishes, etc.) as indeed broken. Some of this is classic in-group/out-group behavior, but it still makes me yearn for those rose-colored glasses sometimes.
Were any of your books more difficult to write than others?
Lynn: Fangasm was the most difficult book to write. Our first two books, Fan Culture: Theory/Practice and Fandom At The Crossroads, were both academic books, published by an academic press. While we specifically wrote Crossroads to be accessible to fans as well, Kathy and I were able to stay comfortably in ‘academic mode’ in these books. There was little personal risk, as there was limited personal information included.
Fangasm was a completely different experience – instead of an academic text, Fangasm was a memoir. It was OUR story of being fangirls -– uncensored, and sometimes downright embarrassing. (That pesky fan shame wasn’t entirely worked through yet, after all). We didn’t just talk about how much we loved Supernatural (though there’s a lot of that), we also talked about our own emotions and passions and desires. We fessed up to objectifying and fantasizing and scrimping and scheming and saving to fly to fan conventions. We sold our souls to The Powers That Be to get the book written, and only found our way back to telling the real story when they balked at just what that real story was. We were kicked off filming locations long before we were invited back for set visits and chats with Jensen and Jared in their trailers. There’s a lot in Fangasm that’s so personal that it’s hard to read even now, especially the toll on our relationships with children and partners. Even if it did have a happy ending!
Kathy: Fangasm was the hardest since it was about us and our families and silly things that we did but also some emotionally wrenching times. It was difficult to balance how much to say, what to leave in, how much we could get away with omitting and still be able to tell our story. Purely academic writing doesn’t involve that level of self-revelation and doesn’t involve writing about family members.
Have your interactions with fandom changed as your books have come out?
Lynn: Depends on where those interactions take place. On twitter, tumblr, and Instagram, my fannish presence is as Fangasm (@FangasmSPN). I interact with other fans as both a fangirl and as someone who researches and writes books on fandom, and everyone I’m interacting with knows that those identities co-exist. In real-life space, at conventions, the expectations are the same, especially when I’m selling the books in the vendor’s room or signing books. I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t let myself be muted in my fangirl passion because I’m also an academic, and I haven’t found that difficult to do. (Come find me after Jensen Ackles takes the stage at the Saturday Night Special to belt out ‘Whipping Post’ and you’ll find a very NOT composed, very emotional, passionate fangirl, I guarantee!)
I’ve made many friends in fandom since the books came out, which is interesting because those people invariably know a lot more about me than I know about them, just by virtue of reading Fangasm. Mostly that’s been a way to kickstart the friendships, but it does start them off unevenly. I still maintain a presence on Live Journal that is 100% fangirl. While I’ve made a great deal of progress in fighting internalized shame, I still value that space as a place of unfettered personal expression and the anonymity there allows me to be more adventurous with my fanfiction writing. I wish I had time to do more of that!
Kathy: Yes, but I don’t think that was necessarily a product of the books coming out. We spent a long time researching Supernatural and we were completely immersed in the fandom because we were fans ourselves. Since then, my investment in the series has cooled a bit. I’m still a fan, but I’m not participatory in the way I was five years ago. I put that down to the passage of time to some extent, but perhaps it does have something to do with having looked at the series and the fandom through an academic lens. It changed the way I saw things. And I suppose this isn’t all that surprising. There are certain books I will never teach simply because I have such an emotional connection to them and I know that approaching them as “texts” rather than as moments in my own life would change them, perhaps even ruin them for me. Having approached Supernatural and its fandom as a text has probably distanced me from it a bit. So I think I’ve just contradicted myself!
Has being academics in fandom changed either your perspective on fandom or academia? Or how you approach either?
Lynn: My perspective on fandom has changed – evolved – since I first became fascinated with the topic almost a decade ago. At the time, I knew nothing at all about fan studies, including that the field even existed. I threw myself into the research by getting my hands on everything I could find that was published so far (which was doable at the time, amazingly) and gave myself a crash course in fandom. Interacting with others in the field and reading their interpretations of fandom has challenged me to look at fandom differently and perhaps more realistically. However, I think anyone who reads the Fangasm blog regularly would say that I’ve managed to hang onto my relentless optimism about fandom as well as my passion for Supernatural.
My perspective on academia has not changed nearly as much, largely because I don’t teach courses in fan studies at my university. My dean and colleagues are 100% supportive of my research (even if they sometimes still go “huh?”) but the classes I teach are in psychology and counseling, not fan studies. That said, fandom is one of my two major research lines, and I credit that research and those publications and presentations with getting that all-important tenure and promotion. In fact, the second people I thanked (after family) were Supernatural actors Jensen, Jared and Misha, whose support and accessibility made much of that research possible!
Kathy: Several people have already pointed out the similarities between academics and fans -– we collect things; we immerse ourselves in a topic and make it our business to learn everything we can; we participate by writing. Maybe that’s why there are so many fans in academia –- the approach is the same. And maybe that’s why I feel so comfortable in both worlds. So my perspective hasn’t changed all that much. My approach, however, has been colored by the ongoing conversation surrounding ethical practices in the field and thinking about texts vs. people. My own position is still evolving, and it’s very much wrapped up in my resistance to shame and my rejection of the idea that fans need to be protected. But I certainly understand the counter-arguments here, which is why I’m still working this one out.
How do you draw your lines between your personal fandom and academia? Do you need to separate them or can they coexist when you approach fandom academically?
Lynn: One of the things we argued in Fandom At The Crossroads (and lived in Fangasm) was that being immersed in a fandom gives you a very different perspective on those fans than looking in from the outside. We argued that closeness was a good thing, because only if you were part of the community could you truly understand the ways in which that community functions and avoid the Hawthorne effect (people behave differently when they think someone is watching). On the other hand, there’s always that possibility of being too close to be objective (or keeping your rose colored glasses on too long).
I have found a relatively comfortable space for myself in fandom right now, both online and at cons. Luckily, there is no pressure from my university to deny my fangirl enthusiasm in the name of ‘serious research’, perhaps because psychology is a discipline that understands the value of play and creativity and self expression, and all of those can be found in fandom.
Kathy: When we were writing about Supernatural I thought I could move fluidly back and forth between participating in the fandom I loved and then writing about it objectively, dispassionately. I think I’ve come to realize that I need to keep them separate or, at the very least, that it’s hardly an easy movement between the two. I’d say it’s analogous to a novelist writing the review for his own book. There might be some fantastic insights there, but it’s obviously not going to be the most balanced piece of criticism.
What’s next for you?
Kathy: I’ve become really interested in older fandoms –- really old fandoms from the 18th and 19th centuries. I think my next project will involve looking at some of those proto-fandoms, especially the ones surrounding early novels like Pamela and The Wild Irish Girl and the Gothic novel craze.
Lynn: I have a new book coming out this fall that I’m very excited about. It’s called Family Don’t End With Blood: How A Television Show Changed Lives. Ten Supernatural fans and ten actors on the show wrote powerful personal essays about how the experience of being in the fandom and loving the show – or making the show and interacting with the fandom – has been life changing. In some cases, life saving. I’ve written a chapter on my own experience as well. Over the past ten years, I had heard so many amazing stories of the impact a television show (or film or book or band) can have on a fan’s life, and I wanted to showcase some of those -– I was honestly not expecting to find that the experience has been equally powerful for the cast!
We’re all excited that the publisher (BenBella’s SmartPop Books) has agreed to donate a portion of proceeds from the book to a charity, which will be announced soon. The whole point of the book is that fans and actors have taken seriously the show’s message to ‘Always keep fighting’, and this will allow the book to make a difference not only by delivering that message, but by direct contributions.
I also was co-writer and producer on an inspiring film that celebrates fandom and fangirls –- Squee! The Fangirl Documentary. We’re in post production right now, and hope to take the film on the convention and film festival circuit later this year.
And of course I’ll be posting con reports, fandom commentary, photos, interviews and Supernatural episode reviews on the Fangasm blog.