My brain was dancing around some thoughts about The Mary Sue complaint
over a NY Times article which argued that fandom and politics have merged
which I definitely don't agree with, even while I'm reading the latest interview
on Henry Jenkins blog and wondering why Hess has not discussed this with him since he (and many other media scholars) have been studying fan activism for over a decade now. (Especially since she does quote from a piece he published in the OTW's TWC journal, and namechecks him).
In short, the Mary Sue piece makes a valid point about how what the Times is looking at isn't fandom at all, but rather particular activities being engaged with which are part of fandom but also
part of many other communities and can probably be fairly called "Internet culture." I would, myself, prefer that it be called "social media culture" because the Internet is nothing but a form of transmission and it's used for a lot of things, only one of which is people talking in communities and on communication platforms. And many of these things, such as memes, existed not only pre-social media but pre-Internet, even though they were certainly popularized and expanded thanks to the aggregation of millions of people on a few centralized platforms.
However, I think that what both pieces don't mention is how the tools and habits and experience gained by people in fandom communities, as well as the more general interaction around popular culture by a significant portion of the population, is often melded together as if they were the same thing. And I agree with The Mary Sue writer that this is a mistake. There is a difference between someone being a fan of something and reading fan-related things and someone being a part of fandom. I wouldn't go as far as she does and say that it's because you have to specifically create something, or even take part in conversations. But I think there is a difference between, say, a regular lurker, and someone who just browses fandom stuff from time to time across locations.
In short, I would be more surprised these days to see a conversation about anything
taking place online that does not use custom emojis, memes or gifs, or some reference to a well known pop culture product. My phone text platform includes a button for Gif use which I can search for something as broad as Marvel and turn up dozens of options. (It also has one for "Stickers" which are, I don't know, more custom style emojis? Not photographs but drawings? I imagine someone can explain it to me).
Anyway, the other part of The Mary Sue argument is that just because these more lighthearted ways of engaging with politics exist does not mean that more serious and longform ways are not also happening even by the same people. And in comments people pointed out that this is no different from politics of past generations with leaflets and bulletin board flyers, plus it's a bit rich of the major media to be talking about the shallowness of political discourse when everything for them has to be reduced to a sound bite or a horse race instead of discussing things like policy differences between presidential candidates.
And while I can't condemn the Times article for not looking at the reverse view of this issue, it does exist and is raised in the Jenkins post, which is that people don't just bring their fandom into their politics but their politics into their fandom.
"What follows is that each interpretation is personal and different and shaped by our history, identity and worldview. This resonates with me. I don’t think there is one formal close-reading possible of any text. Fans see very different things in texts. When I went to the Lion King with friends, some of us were impressed and nostalgic, while others were disgusted by the style, aesthetics and Disney’s business model of constantly remixing their own products. We see different things in texts that are shaped by our culture, political views, and personal taste. That’s also where a fandom can clash heavily, which we have seen in the reception of films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi. "
But what's really relevant about that discussion to me is that it focuses on issues of emotional response, which is something that continues to haunt fandom, for whom emotion is its centerpiece, because it continues to be something that people feel very uncomfortable exploring publicly (or in many cases, privately).
"I worked at some departments where my concern with affect and emotional reception was mocked. Depending on what university you work at, you will still see an interest that gravitates towards formal readings and “proper” criticism. Affective reading has been seen as a fallacy in literary studies for a long time. The ideal reader maintains his distance and thereby his critical disposition. Fans themselves however show that affective reading does not exclude criticism. They discuss and evaluate texts, remix, socialize, and immerse themselves in the text deeply. All these practices go hand in hand for them, why should we be any different as academics?
That being said, these ideas of “emotional fans” are sticky ones, also in fandom. Male fans are quite prone to casting themselves in the role of a critic. For instance, when I asked a few male fans about shipping during an interview, I was mocked: ‘Shipping is such a stupid word, and we don’t care about romance.’ … Fans are not stigmatized, emotions are, women are."
The Times article says the following: "Frantic online cultural production swarms around Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whenever she experiences a health scare, as if memes alone could sustain the octogenarian’s life."
That is such a puzzling statement to me. Surely the writer doesn't think anyone sharing a meme on this topic really thinks that it has anything to do with maintaining her health. Without even seeing examples I feel comfortable in saying it's being done to express shared concern and emotion over what many think would be a seriously damaging event to the country (as well as, in some cases, a particular affection for RBG personally). This could even be done just to feel a sense of community, to express one's own understanding of the issue, or perhaps to maintain a sense of distance over something that an individual is anxious about.
Prose is often not that good at expressing emotion, which is one reason why I find that media fandom tends to boom in the film and TV formats over book ones. Part of it is just a broader reach, part of it physical attraction to actors, but part, I think, is that the audiovisual plays more strongly to people's emotions.
And it's been shown time and again that while platforms and political stances do matter to voters, people vote more on emotion than logic. The emotion might be negative or positive, but this is what leads us to a lot of choices in our lives. So why should it even be surprising when people try to find an outlet for this beyond "deep thoughts"?
Lastly, while this was not the focus of the NY Times article, I do wish I saw an article about the increasing encroachment on fandom by commercial entities, not just trying to sell it things but also trying to co-opt its language in the same way we've seen many times whenever there is a grass roots cultural development that hits the mainstream (the counter culture of the 1960s comes to mind). Recently I saw SyFy advertising itself as "a fan thing".
It's a wobbly example because a genre-centered network like that really is
rather a fan thing, so it's a lot more fair than, say, USA doing so. Yet this is the same network
that rebranded itself as SyFy from SciFi exactly to get away from
the fannish nerdy element only a handful of years ago, fearing that it was seen as too uncool to attract a broad audience. So it not only grates to me to see SyFy use this tagline but it's only one of many, along with Dairy Queen calling its menu "fan food" that are trying to use the mainstream emergence of fandom language to sidle up to what they simply see as a new marketing term.