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.
Henry Jenkins is one of the best known media scholars studying fandom. His 1992 book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture has been read all over the world, and is seen as one of the foundational texts of the fan studies field. When we asked if he’d do this month’s guest post for our 10th anniversary, he replied “It’s an honor to be asked to perform this role.” Henry talks with us about fans, students, and fandom.
Textual Poachers continues to be widely read by students and those curious about fans and fandom, but you’ve written a dozen books since and many more articles. What do you think has changed the most about fandom from your early days as both a researcher and as a participant?
In terms of fandom, the impact of digital media has been decisive: expanding the scope of fandom, including greater connections between fans around the world; accelerating the speed of fan response in terms of being able to react in real time to our favorite programs; creating a space where fan works are much more visible to the culture at large (for better and for worse); allowing people to find their way into fandom at a much younger age; and increasing the impact of fan activists in seeking to assert their voice in response to canceled programs. (One has to look no further than the dramatic reversal of fortune for Timeless this past spring).
In terms of the academic study of fandom, we’ve seen the emergence of an entire subfield of research, which has its own conference and professional organization, its own journals (including Transformative Works and Cultures), its own publishing lines, its own courses, etc. In the next year or so, there will be at least four major academic anthologies devoted to mapping the field of fandom studies, reflecting the emergence of a new generation of researchers and representing innovations on so many fronts, but especially in terms of fandom studies finally coming to grips with race issues.
You have been involved in many projects focusing on fans and their interactions with texts and the entertainment industries. What perspectives have you drawn from those experiences that you would most like to share with fans?
Today’s media consumers have expectations of meaningful participation, and the media industries also recognize that they have to create space and place value on the audience’s active participation in the media landscape. But there are widespread disagreements about what we might call the terms of our participation, and those disputes are going to be some of the key battles over the first few decades of the 21st century.
The OTW is on the front lines of those struggles, representing fans as they struggle against the intellectual property regimes of major studios or as they confront various commercial strategies of incorporation. We collectively need to keep asking ourselves “What do we want?” and use our collective power to stand firm against compromises that might do violence to our traditions and practices. Fandom is worth fighting for.
You have also been an educator for decades. What have you found most intriguing about working with students interested in fandom?
When I started teaching about fandom, few if any of my students knew anything about fan fiction or other fan practices. Today, pretty much every entering undergraduate knows something about fandom, many have read fan fiction, most know someone who has written it.
When I teach my graduate seminar specifically on fandom, all of the students are “aca-fans,” finding ways to reconcile their fan identities with their PhD research interests. This last time, the vast majority of my students came from outside the United States, especially from Asia, but also Europe and Latin America, and I love hearing their experiences coming of age as a fan and getting their perspective on core debates within the field.
How did you first hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?
News of the OTW bubbled up from many directions at once, most likely through my associations with Escapade, but also through an academic colleague whose partner at the time was involved. I was so excited to hear about the emergence of this fan advocacy network which brought together fannish lawyers willing to help protect our fair use rights as fans; fan scholars publishing their work through a peer-reviewed journal; fan programmers using their skills in support of the community; and of course, an archive where fans controlled what happened to their own works without the interference of web 2.0 interests. Each of these things is important on its own terms, but taken together, this organization has been a transformative force, in all senses of the words, for fans and their rights to participate.
You are on the editorial board of Transformative Works and Cultures and, along with Sangita Shresthova, guest edited its 10th issue. What was the most rewarding part to you of having edited that issue?
Transformative Works and Cultures has one of the most robust and yet supportive peer-review systems I have ever encountered at an academic journal. I tell my students that it is a great place to get their first publications because they will get so much constructive feedback and will receive so much help in refining their essays for publication. And I love the fact that it is open source and freely accessible to non-academics via the web.
Our work on the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) and other forms of fan activism led us down a path towards investigating the political lives of American youth, which resulted in our most recent book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. We write there about the HPA as a model of fan activism, but we also write about Invisible Children, Dreamers, and American Muslims, and found some similar themes across all of these groups. A key concept for us, “the civic imagination,” was inspired early on by J.K. Rowling’s phrase, “Imagine Better,” which the HPA had picked up on and was using. My collaborators and I are now editing a casebook on popular culture and the civic imagination exploring how activist groups around the world are appropriating and remixing popular culture to help frame their messages. Some of these are fan groups, but many are not, yet I doubt I would have been as attentive of these developments if I was not following fandom as closely as I am.
What fandom things have inspired you the most, either currently or at different points in your life?
I never cease to be amazed by the way that fandom provides a learning space for so many people and in so many different ways. Early on, I had been interested in the ways fandom provided mentorship into writing, video editing, and other creative processes, with beta-reading and fan mentorship held up as a rich example of a peer-to-peer learning system.
Years ago, fandom played a key role in helping more women enter cyberspace, overcoming what policy makers were describing as a gendered digital divide. And fandom provided a safe space for people to work through shifts in gender and sexual politics across the 1980s and 1990s, helping women in particular to express their sexual fantasies and become open to alternatives otherwise closed to them. Fandom in this sense functions as something like a feminist consciousness raising group.
Fandom has also been a leadership academy, helping women to acquire entrepreneurial and activist skills which have expanded their voice and influence within the culture. And fandom is performing these functions at an earlier age as online fandom allows high school students to find their way into the larger community. Fandom doesn’t fit everyone’s needs, and these ideals are not always fully realized in practice, but through the years I’ve known so many people who have grown and learned through their fannish experiences. And for many of them, the OTW is giving them a chance to deploy these personal and professional skills to give something back to their community.
Catch up on earlier guest posts