Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.
Jennifer Duggan is Associate Professor of English at the University of South-Eastern Norway, a Harry Potter fan, and author or co-author of numerous articles and book chapters on children’s and youth literature and media, fandom, multilinguality, multiliteracies, and social difference. Today, Jennifer talks about researching fan demographics in the Harry Potter fandom.
How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?
I suppose that depends on how you define both terms!
When I was a kid, I has a string of obsessions. At my youngest, I identified heavily with a string of male characters (Peter Pan, Cody from The Rescuers Down Under, Luke from Star Wars), often dressing as them and/or refusing to answer to my own name. I reread and rewatched favourite books and films so many times that I had to purchase new copies, because the old ones would fall apart or stop working. Whenever I was given money to buy practical things, like clothing, I would spend the least possible on what I was supposed to purchase (usually at second-hand stores) and use the rest on books.
I also used to collect objects, trading cards, and images related to favourite series, like Sailor Moon. Later, with some books/films/shows, including Harriet the Spy, The X-Files, and Anastasia (the animated film), my sister, one of our best friends, and I would do extensive background research. We’d write each other newsletters, write sequels/prequels/episodes, and draw or print out fan art and images, all of which we kept in binders that we took with us whenever we visited each other. (We still pull them out sometimes and read our works to each other, which inevitably ends in hysterics.) I suppose in some way, we knew of organized fandom even then, because we used fan sites as sources for images, but I don’t think we realized that we could actually participate. But we didn’t need to, because we had our own tiny fandom, and it was perfect.
It was later, and through a different friend, that I discovered online fan fiction. I was somewhere between 12 and 14, and I cannot actually recall if it was the Lord of the Rings “Very Secret Diaries” or a Harry Potter story that came first, but it was the Harry Potter fandom that really drew me in. I used to stay up late reading fan fiction most nights, and when I inevitably got kicked off the computer, would read books in bed, sometimes until the wee hours (a habit I have had all my life and often regret when I have to teach an early class).
I have a very talented friend who used to draw pictures for me that plastered my walls. I also painstakingly made my own Harry Potter doujinshi (but they were not as good and were not displayed). The inside of my locker and my agenda book were covered with fan art I had printed out. While there were no conventions I could afford to go to, I dressed up to get the latest books and for Harry Potter-themed birthdays. It was the first time that so many people I knew were as excited about reading as I was all the time, and it was utterly paradisical. (I watched the films, but they were not nearly as captivating to me as the books.)
Your study looked at AO3 profiles and author notes to gather demographics. Aside from the data you gathered, were there things that struck you personally as you read them?
I think what struck me most was how fandom is so often used as a space of escape and solace for those who are oppressed or ostracized in other arenas. So many authors shared deeply personal stories about why they were drawn to write certain stories. Sometimes it was due to their own trauma or mental health struggles given that their own family was punishing them in some way for their gender identity or sexuality (up to and including having kicked them out). Or it was because they had lost a sibling and felt that working through the loss of Fred Weasley helped them cope (the notes on one story in particular made me weep like a baby).
What surprised you the most in your findings? What about your process do you wish had been different?
That is a good (and tough) question!
I was both surprised and unsurprised that so few fans shared information about their race/ethnicity (including white fans). Race has, rather unfortunately, been a fraught topic in the Harry Potter fandom (see, e.g., Fowler’s 2019 article or read Ebony E. Thomas’s 2019 The Dark Fantastic). I like to think this is something that is changing, though: there was a clear and increasing trend towards racebending Harry and Hermione, in particular, even prior to the re-emergence of Black Lives Matters protests this past spring. (And may I just say, it has been SO refreshing to read fan stories that do not ignore Britain’s violent colonial history and how that has shaped the country’s current population!)
I was similarly (un)surprised by the absolute dominance of the English language, which is likely influenced both by AO3’s history and the original language of publication of the Harry Potter books themselves, as well as by a widespread trend both inside and outside fandom towards using English as a lingua franca in international online settings.
As to what I wish could have been different — I don’t think I do wish that the process were different, although it might have been nice to have more time to devote to this study so that I could look at more stories and profiles. Although there are gaps in my study that could perhaps be filled by looking at a wider range of stories (there are certainly enough out there) or using a different approach to gathering data, the data I gathered showed valuable patterns.
And all methods of gathering data have their limitations and affordances. As I state in the article, I see this piece as one of many that contribute to our overall understanding of fandom. No single study can stand alone: widespread studies leave out or flatten important details but provide us with a bigger picture in which to situate close, intimate studies; surveys and interviews provide valuable data, but the questions used may leave certain things unsaid and unnoticed; my study’s gaps were determined by blank profile pages and a lack of details in those that were not blank.
Your article speculated that older writers might be less likely to share personal information openly online. Were there other differences you noted between younger writers and the older ones you were able to identify?
The main difference was certainly the range of terms used to describe sexualities and gender identities. Whether this is due to fan communities’ moving online and a concomitant watering down of gatekeeping practices, generational differences in articulating gender and sexual fluidities, or other factors, I cannot say. However, I think the recent increase in autoethnographic and theoretical work by scholars such as Ika Willis, Charlie Ledbetter, and Jonathan Rose, as well as empirical studies like centreoftheselights’ census, my study, and McInroy and Craig’s survey, all suggest that fandom is both attractive to and meaningful for LGBTQ+ young people, that fandom is a valuable learning resource for those who are questioning or consider themselves to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and that the gender and sexual diversity of fans is increasing over time.
How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?
I have known about AO3 pretty much since it started up, because I lived through the purges on Fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, but when I was a teenager, I didn’t really realize it was part of a wider organization. It was when I became aware of fan studies as an academic field that I realized that it was a wider organization.
I see the OTW as having multiple roles: agitating for fans’ legal rights is a big one, as is bridging the gap between fans and acafans. But for me, AO3 itself will always be the most meaningful — a safe haven for and archive of fan fiction through the years.
What fandom things have inspired you the most?
That it seems always to try to be more inclusive and a force for good in this world, a safe haven for the downtrodden, a place in which we can bridge our differences through a shared love of a particular book, film, band, artist, or series.
I know that many of us have not only had good experiences in fandom — there certainly are fans who ostracize others (something I have experienced). But overall, I do feel the majority of fans in the fan communities of which I have been a part try their best to make everyone feel welcome. Fan fiction, too, continues to evolve as we learn and grow as a transnational community. I don’t think I have experienced any other space that I would truly consider a successful, intergenerational, transnational, organic cooperative for critical thinking and learning.
To put it simply, and paraphrase Francesca Coppa, “Fuck yeah, fandom is beautiful.”