Performing Fan Culture: The Material Experience of Fandom and Conventions
This weekend 5000 people have crowded a Chicago hotel to celebrate anime at the Anime Midwest Convention: Sailor Moon, Naruto, and Vampire Knights wander hallways amidst reflective conversations about Ghost in the Shell and shared contempt for most of what is playing the local cinema. The crowd in Chicago is among numerous such fan conventions gathering circles of the most committed followers united in their passion for manga, gaming, sci-fi, comics, cosplay, and assorted other fandom niches. These conventions bring together collectives crafting a community united by like-minded passions for genres (e.g., anime), popular forms (e.g., comics), or certain franchises (e.g., Stargate). Such 21st-century fan communities are increasingly well-networked in cyberspace, so perhaps all conventions really do is push such communities momentarily into physical space. Yet those gatherings have in many ways been absolutely critical to the explosion of fandom and geek subculture and cannot be separated from the fan communities that have emerged online. These convention gatherings expand conventional notions of fandom, social collectivity, and even culture; they illuminate precisely how contemporary fandom is shaped by the rise of conventions; and they underscore the often-misunderstood social consequence of the material gathering of fans.
In anthropological terms it is not completely clear what we should call the new social collectives that are intimately linked to digital media, mass cultural products, and broadly defined fan-generated creativity. In some ways these fan communities are cut from what some scholars have called “participatory cultures,” which establish cyber-social connections in which audiences actively reinscribe the dominant meanings of mass cultural products; in this model, we watch shows like Doctor Who, but we actively interpret the episodes, reflectively link the show to a master narrative, and expand, complicate, and contest those themes in participatory collectives. Much of society is wired into various types of participatory networks—stamp collectors, kennel clubs, environmentalists–but fans have been especially active crafting creative interpretive collectives that are reflected in fan fiction, wiki’s, cosplay, blogs, and films that interpret, revise, and sometimes reject popular texts: Doctor Who fans, for instance, write their own Who tales, dress up as various characters, dissect the show’s infinite details, assess the intentions of its stewards like Russell T. Davies, and patrol interpretations that somehow violate the master narrative in either fact or philosophy.
Henry Jenkins’ rich work on fandom argues for something he calls a “convergence culture” that describes “a moment when fans are central to how culture operates.” Jenkins’ model acknowledges that mass cultural products are commodities with dominant meanings that always hazard reproducing existing social inequalities, but these messages exist across numerous media platforms that ideologues cannot utterly control: for instance, if we are unhappy with the Walking Dead’s televised interpretation of the comic’s master narrative, we can register our discontent in cyberspace. The internet has accelerated the growth of such fan communities, and today we can tweet ongoing commentary as a movie unfolds; anybody can post a blog; and fan art can be found in every corner of the internet and in every expressive form.
Some scholars are wary that a focus on fans’ apparent impact on mass media risks hyperbolizing the sway of everyday, transgressive agency. However, convergence is not simply a theory of resistance that opposes active audiences/consumers to bureaucratic dominant producers. Rather, for Jenkins fandom implies a creative imagination of social possibilities; that is, fans are self-organized social groups that seize on particular popular forms that provide them mechanisms to rethink how the social world could be. Everyone in a fan community knows something and shares an imaginative passion that encompasses rational reflection as well as emotion. Mass-produced storylines get distributed across a vast range of media from blogs to conventions that re-imagine official narratives: a series like Sherlock, for instance, borrows from a late 19th - and early 20th-century canon, revolves around the 21st-century official narrative of Holmes as millennial digital whiz (the new Holmes has a web page and Watson has a blog), and is then imagined by myriad fans across cyberspace.
Anime is a good example of a fan form that has secured an increasingly broader worldwide following in cyberspace. Japanese animation had appeared in the US by the 1970’s, and the introduction of the VCR allowed fans to exchange tapes and forge the primal anime fan communities. The first American “fansubs” (that is, fans’ English-subtitled anime) appeared in the late-1980’s and early 1990’s and were mostly confined to anime fans who simply copied tapes for other fans. Some of these movies were screened at the earliest anime conventions in the US at Project A-Kon in 1990, AnimeCon in 1991, and AnimeFest and Anime Expo in 1992. Sean Leonard’s study of the earliest American anime fans notes that the 1991 San Jose convention screened a series of anime films in Japanese without sub-titles, leaving the curious absolutely mystified by films like Wings of Honneamise.
Anime and manga come with a variety of appeals, but perhaps the fundamental allure for Americans is that they are patently distinctive: for their many American followers, anime and manga are obviously not American in style, narrative, or content. Jenkins suggests that this is a form of what he calls “pop cosmopolitanism” in which consumers seize upon global popular culture to manufacture distinction. Anime and manga come with visual cues, narrative mechanisms, and themes that are clear breaks from mainstream American rhetorical and aesthetic forms.
On the one hand, anime fandom defined as exotic fascination risks appearing to be shallow escapism. Put in such terms, anime and manga fandom hazard being portrayed simply as American suburbanites and bored college students hungering for a contrived imperial experience. On the other hand, though, anime runs counter to the homogenization many of us experience in global consumer culture. Koichi Iwabuchi argues that some mass cultural products have no “cultural odor”; that is, we cannot identify their origin culture, or at least a commodity does not somehow materialize consumers’ stereotypes of something like “Japanese-ness” or difference. Many mass-produced things intentionally conceal any evocation of race or culture, but anime and manga have clear distinctions as well as evocative familiarities with some American narratives.
In 1994, Annalee Newitz championed the novel thesis that much of anime played on American popular cultural themes, so “watching anime gives Americans a chance to reflect on their own culture, but it also lets them deny that they are doing so.” Newitz sees this as a rejection of American nationalism, but it is probably simplistic to label such fandoms simply as a repudiation of “American values.” Many different fandoms that fancy themselves marginalized react against what they imagine to be “mainstream values,” but framing this as a reaction against (or within) nationalism may not capture the heart of anime fandom’s politics. Anime fandom seems instead to fasten on anime as a transnational product that melds familiar and novel narrative conventions alike but is not reducible to an American versus Japanese polarization. Susan Napier argues a similar point that the essential “Japanese-ness” of anime is probably less significant for most fans than its non-mainstream dimensions; that is, anime has a fundamental “otherness” that celebrates alien aesthetics and story-telling conventions that clearly depart from familiar Western conventions. This “otherness” comes with a distinctive vision of self by fans. For instance, Napier stresses that anime fans develop a unique self-consciously aware way of viewing an anime film that consciously acknowledges anime as a novel genre, recognizes its distinctive animation and aesthetic form, and reflectively experiences the viewing as something that is not “mainstream.”
Many of the first wave of American anime fans simply saw themselves as advocates for the medium, and their subtitled tapes, informal clubs, and modest conventions were essential to anime’s foothold in contemporary American fandom. Manga sales in the US and Canada reached $200 million in 2007, and anime DVD sales were $375 million in 2006; in comparison, US sales for comic books in 2012 were $475 million. Yet where comics have captured the heart of popular culture, anime and manga fandom appears to hold much less clear sway over mainstream popular culture. On the one hand, some fans remain committed to championing the art form and introducing new fans to anime. These advocates often point to all the corners of popular culture (e.g., gaming, cartoons) that bear the fingerprints of anime sensibilities that pass unrecognized by most Americans. On the other hand, some fans value the exclusivity of anime fandom, and they seem convinced that anime’s complexity cannot be made accessible beyond the most devoted and reflective fans. The tension between these positions is typical of geek fandoms that are wary their passion will be misunderstood or belittled when it is shared beyond the confines of fellow travelers.
Conventions are performance spaces defined in the broadest possible terms. Anime conventions inevitably have a few rooms in which films are screening, including some classics as well as some fresh films or newly released ones. Some of these performances are genuine theatricality of actors/actresses and audiences like cosplay, with nearly every convention now including some version of the masquerade contest and many more cosplayers wandering convention hallways in impromptu stagecraft. But increasingly more conventions include performances like karaoke and a wide variety of crafts and arts that underscore the creativity of fandom.
Some of this performance is formally judged—characters dress and move in particular ways fans do evaluate–, but geek conventioneers tend to respect the act of creativity more than the product. In this deference to fellow fans’ shared passions, conventions are often cast by insiders as supportive and friendly environments, but what this obliquely refers to is their distinction from everyday public spaces that are hostile and indifferent to fans’ passions. The essential respect for individual experience and knowledge and the willingness to socially share knowledge and interpretations may be what fans are attempting to evoke when they suggest that fan communities are “egalitarian.”
Many of these fandoms see themselves as marginalized in mainstream society, so they romanticize the convention as a space in which they can acknowledge their passions and “be themselves.” Many conventions have labored to reproduce that ethic of equity and fairness, with nearly every convention now including a code of conduct. Increasingly more of them are focused on sexual harassment and at least indirectly addressing the sexism that often surfaces among some sci-fi, comics, and anime fans (the Con Anti-Harassment Project inventories some conventions’ policies). Increasingly more conventions have events for LGBT members (and Gaylaxicon is a series of LGBT sci-fi conventions); Anime Midwest includes a workshop on plus-size cosplay (though it also includes “Dante’s guide on how to pick up women” hosted by Dante from Devil May Cry). The vast majority of anime and geek fans are sociopolitically progressive men; in Susan Nappier’s demographic analysis of anime fans, somewhere between 76% and 85% of anime fans are men, and most are young and liberal. Nevertheless, mediums like anime spend much of their focus imagining transgressive experiences of gender and sexuality that may be performed in a variety of forms on the convention floor.
The popular cry that conventions are “safe spaces” inelegantly dodges that convention floors, fandom, and “real world” ideologies cannot be utterly separated. The convention floor is itself a bodily display governed by implicit codes of “open-ness” that hazard condoning anti-social behaviors: some are prosaic (insufficient deodorant), and others are more problematic (sexual harassment). This week Dustin Kurtz assessed a harassment charge made at WisCon and mused that perhaps the convention and fandom assumption of equality and convention safety has condoned persistent sexual inequalities. In a discussion of sci-fi fandom and conventions, Kurtz suggests that “outsiderdom predicated on other criteria—transgendered fans, for instance—is welcome within the community, even when that might be less true in society generally. But some, particularly men of an older generation, seem to mistake a spirit of permissiveness for individual permission. Whatever the reasons, harassment is rife at these things.” Kurtz’s conclusion that such sexism is primarily an artifact of an “older generation” risks under-estimating the depth of sexism, but conventions’ sense of equity provides a few people a sense of plausible deniability for behaviors that are clearly not acceptable in public space.
Some of the material performance is more oblique: fans’ t-shirts jockey to stake a claim to novelty; piles of stuff in sales’ booths display the distinction of anime and manga aesthetics; and even cars in the parking deck display geek stickers staking the driver’s claim to subcultural status. Contemporary conventions are consumer spaces, of course, but virtually everything at even the most massive conventions can be secured online. Nevertheless, fans will rarely encounter so many of the material trappings of their passion; much of the convention experience has been reduced to consistent circling of the dealers’ room digging through boxes of things, patiently waiting for discounted prices, and deliberating over purchases. This dealers’ room hunt is in some ways a reflection of the magnetic attraction fans feel for the rich range of things—commodities, cosplayers, fans–at a convention.
Observers rarely capture the emotional passions that are materialized and expressed at conventions. In a digital fandom, fan passion certainly is clearly registered, but it takes a more idiosyncratic, experienced, and emotionally familiar form at a convention. Much of the passion of fandom is registered most clearly in niche groups like cosplayers, followers of particular anime series, or fans of particular “official authors.” The official authors of convention texts are the people who somehow control the key fan texts, such as artists, acting talent, or industry figures, and these figures are nearly always one of the features of a convention. The people who hold sway over storylines and performances are privileged as having unique insight into and control over the master narrative: some like George Lucas, for instance, hold enormous sway over geek franchises, and acting talent is closely associated with the most visible television and movie fandoms. Yet increasingly even authors like Lucas do not have complete control over popular cultural forms, and acting talent is an interpreter of a text much as fans themselves. Anime fandom tends to focus on the medium itself—that is, anime films as opposed to Star Wars itself—and it is perhaps less about stardom than other popular mediums like comics, television, and movies. For instance, the nation’s largest Anime convention, Anime Expo, is hosting about 50,000 fans in Los Angeles this weekend, and its guests feature mostly voice actors and actresses and producers.
In a moment when digital fandom has shifted how we view fan communities, conventions bond fan communities in meaningful ways even as they commodify their fan passions. The degree of participatory agency fans actually have over their fan passion is inevitably circumscribed, but conventions erase facile distinctions between producers and audiences. Conventions and fandom in general are shopping opportunities, and conventions are of course ways to meet artists and other fans, but they also are ways fans perform their passions and establish some agency over the social world and imagine new possibilities.
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Anime Central image from metaxin
Anime Expo image from sklathill
Anime Expo Hall image from radagast
FanimeCon image from Cliff Nordman
FanimeCon 2013 image from coolmikeol