Monthly Archives: July 2013

Imagining Urbanity: Settling the 21st-Century City

An imagined South Africa depicted in Livingston's 1899 Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

An imagined South Africa depicted in Livingston’s 1899 Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

In 1843 English settler George Nicholson arrived in South Africa’s Algoa Bay having only “read some of the glowing descriptions given of this part of the country . . . It is true that I had not believed the El-Dorado stories which are so current of this and other colonies, but my expectations had been raised sufficiently high to make the disappointment at the really desolate appearance of the place, perfect.”  Nicholson painted a picture of South Africa that was a decidedly unappealing place in which “Two-thirds of the colony . . . are unfit for the reception of Europeans,” but his 1848 study The Cape and its Colonists was not a travelogue as much as it was a narrative on the European imagination of the colonial world.  Nicholson’s hyperbolic announcement of the challenges he surmounted was a ham-fisted show of imperial might.  Such traveler’s accounts were complicated ideological ruminations on empire, race, and frontier for readers unlikely to ever venture to imperial outposts.

Nicholson’s dehumanization of indigenous peoples lamented the end of enslavement, suggesting that “Ever since the philanthropical humanity of Great Britain conferred upon them complete liberty, these child-like people have been rapidly diminishing in numbers. They have expended the boon in a most lavish way; and, having no one to care for them, and not knowing how to care for themselves, the drambottle of the white man has done its work, and they have perished. . . None of the frightful horrors of the much talked of `middle passage’ could surpass those endured by these hastily made freemen, on their transition from the state of well-cared-for slaves, to that of unprepared, neglected, and dissipated free vagabonds.”

The rhetorical mechanisms Nicholson and many more scribes used to examine Others and empires takes quite different forms in the 21st century, but a thread of comparably moralistic imagination persists in discourses across lines of difference.  The downfall of Detroit and its descent into bankruptcy this week has been an especially powerful symbol of the collapsing inner-city.  However, nearly every American city has borrowed from urban narratives that reach into the 19th century and revolve around the imagination of the urban Other.  Many Americans appear to have become fearful of cities, whose meanings are an inseparable web of objective material and demographic realities as well as contested representations whose distortions have themselves become “real” in their effects on how we see cities and residents. Read the rest of this entry

Hoodies, Color Lines, and Black Visibility

A March, 2012 Hoodie protest in New York (images Pamela Drew).

A March, 2012 Hoodie protest in New York (images Pamela Drew).

For more than a year Americans have aspired to rationally explain what moved George Zimmerman to kill his teenaged neighbor Trayvon Martin.  Americans are constantly inundated with murder narratives that we blithely tolerate as the fabric of contemporary life, but Martin’s death evokes a deep anxiety over how we view others across the color line.   Much of our collective anxiety reflects our apprehension that Zimmerman’s irrationality was fueled by the mere sight of an anonymous Black teen, perceiving a caricature of Blackness rather than a teenager out for Skittles.

Observers concerned with Zimmerman’s gaze have persistently fixed on Martin’s mundane hoodie.  This week the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen painted a chillingly sympathetic portrait of Zimmerman:  Cohen sympathizes with Zimmerman’s anxiety over an anonymous Black teen marked by a hoodie, and he rationalizes Zimmerman’s apprehensions with the reasoning that “the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime.”  The Post contributor concludes that he “can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.”

The link between hoodies and Black criminality has been echoed by the likes of Pat Robertson and Geraldo Rivera.  In March 2012 Rivera concluded that “the hoodie is as responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman.”  Rivera eventually apologized for arguing that “Trayvon Martin, you know God bless him, he was an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”  In contrast to Rivera’s atonement, this week Pat Robertson weighed in defending Zimmerman’s apprehension of a stranger in a hoodie, saying that “There had been some crime in the area, and the criminals were wearing these hoods, and so, it’s one of those things.” Read the rest of this entry

Material Culture and Absent Histories: Digging the Atari Dump

The sign to the former Alamagordo dump today (image KPBS)

The sign to the former Alamogordo dump today (image KPBS)

In September 1983 a phalanx of tractor trailers reportedly arrived in Alamogordo New Mexico and dumped a load of Atari games, of which the most infamous was rumored to be the ET: The Extraterrestrial game.  The story of the “Atari Dump” has assumed mythic dimensions in gaming lore, symbolizing the near-fatal misstep of Pong creators Atari, capturing the primal moments of the industry, and according ET a symbolic if not formal burial rarely accorded to commodities.  The likelihood that Atari or any other manufacturer might discard loads of equipment seems not at all noteworthy, but gamers have long been fascinated by the tale (or urban legend) that Atari discarded perhaps 3.5 million copies of the licensed game that is often considered perhaps the worst video game of all time.

In May the Alamogordo Daily News reported that the city has approved an “excavation” of the dump by the Canadian “digital branded entertainment company” FuelFuel’s six-month “dig” apparently will revolve around the production of a documentary at the now-closed landfill, so this is not an archaeological project as much as a digital marketing campaign.  ET game designer Howard Scott Warshaw is skeptical of the game dumping story and the likelihood that there is even anything to find; Alamogordo’s warm welcome for the dig appears to be focused more on public exposure than any interest in Atari or archaeology; and the shallow “archaeological” purpose of the project may be simply to prove or disprove the legend that tons of Atari products were discarded in the dump and sealed beneath concrete.

The ET game rumored to be amongst the Atari dump remains in Alamogordo (image from Wikipedia)

The ET game rumored to be amongst the Atari dump remains in Alamogordo (image from Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, there is something archaeologically telling in the popular allure of the project, and it is almost certainly that 30-year narrative about the ET game that a digital marketer would recognize as compelling.  The public fascination in the assemblage rests on the literal absence of the Atari games and the burial and potential recovery of their material remains.  In those respects, the Atari dump captures much of the allure of archaeological material culture as well that has relatively little to do with the antiquity of material things.  Paul Benzon acknowledges that the fascination with the Atari dump reflects some “hipster nostalgia for the 8-bit culture of early video gaming”:  yet Benzon recognizes that beyond this romanticism, the mythology of the Atari assemblage rests on its potential materialization of a manifestly “archaic” 1983 digital technology and style.  Benzon points to the 2006 Wintergreen music video of an excavation of the ET dump (see video director Keith Schofield’s thoughts) as a now-telling indication of the power of the absent games, suggesting that much of the power of the mythical ET cartridges lies in their literal absence.

An ad for the infamous ET game.

An ad for the infamous ET game.

The Atari assemblage is more symbolically powerful as an absent, imagined symbol embedded in mythology than as tangible excavated things in a parched New Mexico desert.  In a digital culture in general and gaming in particular—both revolving around transience and intentional obsolescence–, the desire for the detritus of long-lost gaming systems, video game cartridges, and experimental technologies may perhaps be exaggerated.  Yet this fascination for absence is more complex than simply musing over a lack of particular Atari things, instead reflecting how our imagination is charged by the absence of things that do (or did) conceivably exist (as opposed to Sasquatch, which a few people are simply trying to prove exists at all).  For instance, abandonment art is energized by the implied absences of people and things in ruined spaces, and archaeology itself acknowledges that it always interprets contexts characterized by absences of some things and people.

Reese's pieces are sprinkled about between Elliott and ET in this screen capture (image from Wikipedia)

Reese’s pieces are sprinkled about between Elliott and ET in this screen capture (image from Wikipedia)

An excavation of the Atari dump does not promise an especially compelling material analysis as much as it plumbs the complexities of memory and dissects the intersection of popular imagination and materiality.  Some of that memory for Atari games is inevitably a romanticization of technologically retro games that celebrates their playability, relives gamers’ childhood memories, provides downwardly mobile kitsch style, or even secures the status of art objects.  It seems unlikely that the recovery of any discarded ET games or Atari gaming systems will radically rewrite our understanding of Atari or the broader industry in the early 1980s, so it would be reasonable for scholars to resist calling this excavation an archaeological project.  Yet the process of digging the dump—the literal theater of an excavation—is what Fuel is leveraging when observers invoke the project as “archaeology.”  In fact much of public archaeological scholarship uses that same excavation site stage, but archaeologists normally champion critical pedagogical ends over a dig site as entertainment.  Fuel’s actual goals for the project remain unclear, but a reflective analysis of the memory for Atari games, the mythology of a mass Atari dumping, and the material detritus of early 1980’s game industry could actually provide some genuine scholarly insights without descending into insular theory or forsaking the emotional depth invested in games.


Aris Anagnostopoulos

2013 Archaeological Ethnographies of Absence.  Seminar Proposal.

Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup, and Tim Flohr Soerensen (editors)

2010 An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss.  Springer, New York.  (subscription access)

James Newman

2012 Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence.  Routledge, New York.

Jaakko Suominen

2008 The Past as the Future? Nostalgia and Retrogaming in Digital Culture.  Fibreculture 11.

Melanie Swalwell

2007 The Remembering and the Forgetting of Early Digital Games: From Novelty to Detritus and Back Again.  Journal of Visual Culture 6(2):255-273. (subscription access)

Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg

2012 Atari Inc.: Business Is Fun.  Syzygy Carmel, New York.

John Wills

2008 Pixel Cowboys and Silicon Gold Mines: Videogames of the American WestPacific Historical Review 77(2):273-303. (subscription access)


ET video game cover and screen shot from Wikipedia

Alamogordo dump image from KPBS

The Soliloquy of Bumper Sticker Politics

Some people cannot limit themselves to simply one bumper declaration (image Robert Couse-Baker)

Some people cannot limit themselves to simply one bumper declaration (image Robert Couse-Baker)

American political sentiments are routinely considered to be utterly shallow, and perhaps no material thing risks confirming this more than the prosaic bumper sticker.  Bumper stickers now signify nearly every dimension of identity and politicized interests:  a driver can signal their sports fan affiliation, express contempt for other auto makers, embrace their faith (or resistance to it), underscore their geekery, and display their university attachment.  The stand-by political bumper sticker still graces many cars, but now cars are personally crafted billboards displaying nearly any identity niche or political sentiment that can be distilled to a few words or a single symbol.  Those symbols and sentiments are necessarily put in the most straightforward if not simplistic terms, and observers tend to see bumper stickers as clumsy communicative displays of social identity and broadly defined political interests.  Nevertheless, the increased consumption of bumper stickers may reveal far more complex politics than merely supporting a partisan cause, and the “dialogue” of bumper stickers is perhaps most accurately described as a “soliloquy”: that is, rather than instrumentally communicate political positioning and identity to others, stickers are instead a driver imagining themselves and how they are seen by others.

Bumper stickers rarely are subtle messages (image from captaincinema)

Bumper stickers rarely are subtle messages (image from captaincinema)

Bumper stickers emerged around World War II, with most sources suggesting that the first bumper stickers were made by Kansas City silk-screener Forest Gill.  Stickers were used in the Eisenhower campaigns in 1952 and 1956 and heralded various travel destinations (e.g., South of the Border stickers apparently were plastered onto a vast number of American bumpers after it opened in 1949).  Stickers appear to have been produced consistently in the following half-century, but there is not any especially systematic inventory of the quantities of stickers, range of messages, or changes in their consumption over time.  In 1992 Charles E. Case conducted one of the few systematic studies of bumper stickers when he inventoried 2160 vehicles in Riverside, California.  Case found that 39% of the cars had one or more messages in the form of window decals, license plate frames or bumper stickers (217 had bumper stickers).  Political messages were not especially common, with school and university affiliations the most common theme emblazoned on the Riverside cars, and more stickers were found on older and less valuable cars than more recently purchased ones.

Not surprisingly, politicians are often ridiculed from rear bumpers (image News Fedora)

Not surprisingly, politicians are often ridiculed from rear bumpers (image News Fedora)

Twenty years later a vast range of marketers are producing bumper and vinyl window stickers in every conceivable motif, and nearly anybody with a decent printer can make their own individual stickers.  The result is a cacophony of messages adorning American bumpers and windows that may well instrumentally communicate our endless divisions and insular allegiances as we zip by each other.  However, perhaps those stickers are less about a concrete message and cause (e.g., “Vote for Obama”) than a driver’s effort to evoke imagined personality attributes and individuality; that is, bumper messages aspire to imagine individual personality through novelty, creativity, or an embrace of marginality and self-perceived difference.   Bumper stickers are not necessarily efforts to forge relationships with like-minded people or alienate others while we sit at the stoplight; rather, the dialogue is with ourselves and how we fancy those symbolic messages portraying us.  A bumper sticker can nearly never be a communication with others as much as it is a soliloquy in which we imagine how our bumper messages are perceived and portray us.

Stickers often subvert recognizable text and aesthetics (image from ObamaStickers)

Stickers often subvert recognizable text and aesthetics (image from ObamaStickers)

Much of American bumper symbolism subverts recognizable aesthetics and messages. The power of evocative symbols and aesthetics like the Obama campaign’s blue and red palette and fonts is reflected in the vast number of stickers that appropriate the same aesthetics for anti-Obama messages that are variously funny, profane, and in some cases brazenly racist.  Popular cultural motifs are routinely evoked on bumper stickers, such as a Joker sticker that puts the President in maniacal Heath Ledger whiteface emblazoned with “Socialist”; Confederate flags; Calvin urinating on the Commander-in-Chief; or stickers suggesting Obama was born in Kenya.  The volume of anti-Obama stickers hawked online seems to out-weigh those championing the President, but we might well have said the same thing for his predecessor (George W. Bush was subjected to stickers that likened him and Vice-President Cheney to Nazis; displayed a noose with his name; or compared him to Nero).  This may reflect that the bumper sticker is often the refuge of those frustrated with public discourse and their failure to prevail at the ballot box: demoralized with partisan politics and seeking political expression with efficacy, a sticker broadcasts frustration, anger, and disillusion.  The bumper sticker is not a political strategy winning others over to our perspective; it is simply a tactical rant broadcast into open space using one of the few mediums—a car on public roadways—that virtually all of us share.

An Ichthys "Jesus fish" adorns this car alongside two conservative declarations (image davidwilson1949)

An Ichthys “Jesus fish” adorns this car alongside two conservative declarations (image davidwilson1949)

The Ichthys symbol (sometimes referred to as a “Jesus fish”) is an interpretation of an early Christian symbol that became popular in the 1970’s and was soon appearing on car bumpers as well as jewelry and clothing.   What offended many of the people whose cars displayed Ichthys fish was that the expression of faith was greeted by a critical response subverting that symbol.  The “Darwin fish” was developed in 1983 with the fish turned in the opposite direction and sporting feet, sometimes with Darwin’s name in the center of the fish symbol; in some hands it is an atheist symbol, and others claim it as an evolutionary (or anti-creationist) marker.  Plastic Darwin fish car ornaments were first sold in 1988, and numerous variations have since emerged including Gene Roddenberry’s Trek Fish, T-Rex eating Ichthys fish, Yoda fish, and Cthulhu fish, while Christians have replied with Truth fish eating Darwin fish and a Star Spangled fish.

A Darwin fish graces this car (image from Lee J Haywood)

A Darwin fish graces this car (image from Lee J Haywood)

In 1998 The Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell argued that the subversion of the Ichthys symbol breaks an unspoken truce on public expressions of identity.  Caldwell argued that “once it is acknowledged that we are talking about identity politics, we are talking about something on which — in this country at least — a clear-cut decorum has developed. Namely: It’s acceptable to assert identity and abhorrent to attack it.”  As a privileged symbol of faith and selfhood, Caldwell argues that the Ichthys car ornaments should be outside civil critique, but casting some symbols as inviolate is infeasible.  Essentially, the identity being imagined by the Ichthys fish driver was disrupted by an audience that viewed the fish as a proselytizing dialogue that violated the silence of bumper sticker communication.

A Star Trek fish adapts the Ichthys fish (image from goodevilgenius)

A Star Trek fish adapts the Ichthys fish (image from goodevilgenius)

In 2008 conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg’s rant against the Darwin fish captured an interesting dimension of bumper sticker communication when he acknowledged that “the most annoying aspect of the Darwin fish is the false bravado it represents.  It’s a courageous pose without consequence.  Like so much other Christian-baiting in American popular culture, sporting your Darwin fish is a way to speak truth to power on the cheap.”  Bumper stickers are perhaps “false bravado” in the sense that they are political statements that do not subject themselves to the rules of civil discourse, delivered by an anonymous driver and providing no opportunity for response; his allusion that these prosaic bumper ornaments “speak truth to power on the cheap” reveals his frustration that such guerilla tactics attack his cherished symbols of selfhood on the new public square—that is, the public roadways–without any opportunity to respond.

This car is among many on the road broadcasting its moral commentaries (image jellybeanjean13)

This car is among many on the road broadcasting its moral commentaries (image jellybeanjean13)

Bumper stickers have often broadcast contested moralities, with the recent flurry of bumper sticker activism surrounding same-sex marriage extending a history of stickers disputing women’s rights and domestic ideologies.  The first volley in this domesticity discussion may have come between 1972 and 1982, when the Equal Rights Amendment was being reviewed for ratification by state legislatures.  Anti-Moral Majority stickers began to appear on cars in the early 1980’s, after the conservative Moral Majority formed in 1979 and swung its formidable support behind Ronald Reagan.   The anxiety inspired in progressives by the Moral Majority is underscored by the anti-Moral Majority stickers still being sold more than 20 years after the organization disbanded.  In 1977 Focus on the Family began to advocate a comparably conservative social agenda, and it was greeted in the 1980s by stickers admonishing moral ideologues to “Focus on your own damn family.”

A personalized stick figure family waves back at the road (image from Debbychen)

A personalized stick figure family waves back at the road (image from Debbychen)

An Idaho firm began to produce stick figure family stickers in 2006, a seemingly mundane if over-earnest expression that crafts a car’s occupants in its own eyes as “family,” which may mean many different things in various hands.  This show of family is probably more for the occupants than those of us driving alongside them, but for some observers the aesthetic reduces any domestic unit to interchangeable sticks.  Some stick figure families have been personalized by adding the family members’ names and distinctive physical characteristics (e.g., hair), occupational references, or material details (e.g., golf clubs).  However, the addition of details like cheerleaders’ pom-poms, a cat, and plaid shorts seem to make the anonymous and interchangeable stick figures even more mainstream and advocating at least implicitly for a domestic normality not all of us embrace.

A cat lady stick figure household (image from Clarion Ledger)

A cat lady stick figure household (image from Clarion Ledger)

Now a universe of family stickers have appropriated the conventional stick family to various conservative and subversive ends.  Some borrow from popular cultural franchises, reproducing the same aesthetics of linear stick figure families but in the form of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, Transformers, or Doctor Who.  Yet these hazard simply repeating the original imagination of family within a contrived appearance of pop cool.  The more subversive stick figure families now adorning American cars take aim on the apparent compulsion to broadcast family identity to the world: various aliens, bad drivers, and chainsaw wielding characters proclaim that “nobody cares about your stick family” as they attack fleeing stick figures, while other families are being consumed by T-Rex , zombies, or Honey Boo-Boo.  Other single stick figures proudly pose with “your mom,” display a stick figure family being hanged, feature single cat ladies, include a variety of politically incorrect stick figures (e.g., strippers), re-make the family as guns, or illustrate stick figures “making” their family.

An alternative stick figure domesticity (image from amazon)

An alternative stick figure domesticity (image from amazon)

These stick figure units are not really a critique of the conventional family.  Instead, they are an assault on bumper stickers whose imagination seems like a public advocacy of a particular vision of normality.  In this sense, some stickers violate the unspoken rules of bumper communication as a soliloquy: they may still be statements of how a driver wishes to see themselves—person of faith, progressive, geek—but the symbols sometimes incite a frustrated response that will never be heard as the sticker drives away.  Bumper stickers are simply evocative and imaginative musings that wield the most essential aesthetics and words to ambiguously hint at how a driver wishes to see themselves and be seen by others. In a digital world of rapid and highly individual communication–and in a society in which the car may be one of our most consequential material things and the roadways may be America’s most prominent public spaces– it is perhaps not surprising that our politics and personalities have been boiled down to such bare essence that expresses itself imaginatively without expecting any response.


Charles E. Case

1992 Bumper Stickers and Car Signs: Ideology and Identity. Journal of Popular Culture 26(3): 107-120. (subscription access)

John E. Newhagen and Michael Ancell

1995 The expression of emotion and social status in the language of bumper stickers.  Journal of Language and Social Psychology 14(3):312-323. (subscription access)

Adam Slotnick

2012 Status Symbols in Triathlete Culture.  Master of Arts Thesis, Florida Atlantic University.


California Car image from Robert Couse-Baker

Cat Lady stick figure from Clarion Ledger

Chains sticker image from ObamaStickers

Conservative truck image from captaincinema

Darwin fish image from Lee J Haywood

Florida car image from News Fedora

Illinois Car image from Jellibeanjill13

Me and Your Mom stick figure from amazon

North Carolina car image from Davidwilson1949

Star Trek fish image from goodevilgenius

Performing Fan Culture: The Material Experience of Fandom and Conventions

At Katsucon in Washington (image from Fred Dunn)

At Katsucon in Washington (image from Fred Dunn)

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.

Anime Expo poster (image from Danny Choo)

Anime Expo poster (image from Danny Choo)

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.

Fans taking pictures of cosplayers at Fanime Con (image from coolmikeol)

Fans taking pictures of cosplayers at Fanime Con (image from coolmikeol)

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.

Cosplayers at Katsucon (image from Fred Dunn)

Cosplayers at Katsucon (image from Fred Dunn)

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.”

At FanimeCon 2013 (image from Cliff Nordman)

At FanimeCon 2013 (image from Cliff Nordman)

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.

Some cosplayers like Angie are sought out by conventions (image form Danny CHoo)

Some cosplayers like Angie are sought out by conventions (image form Danny Choo)

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.”

The dealer room at Anime Expo (image from Radagast)

The dealer room at Anime Expo (image from Radagast)

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.

Artists' exhibits at Anime Expo (image from sklathill)

Artists’ exhibits at Anime Expo (image from sklathill)

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.

Cosplayers in the Anime Central convention lobby (image from metaxin)

Cosplayers in the Anime Central convention lobby (image from metaxin)

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.


Samantha Nicole Inez Chambers

2012 Anime: From Cult Following to Pop Culture PhenomenonThe Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 3(2):94-101.

Anna-Maria Ruth Covich

2012 Alter/Ego: Superhero Comic Book Readers, Gender and Identities. Unpublished Master of Arts Thesis, University of Canterbury.

Laurie Cubbison

2005 Anime Fans, DVDs, and the Authentic Text.  The Velvet Light Trap 56(1): 45-57. (subscription access)

Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (editors)

2012 Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures.  Routledge, New York.

Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson

2012 Introduction: What is Participatory Culture?  In Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures, eds Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, pp.3-9.  Routledge, New York.

Rayna Denison

2011 Anime Fandom and the Liminal Spaces between Fan Creativity and Piracy.  International Journal of Cultural Studies September 2011 14: 449-466.  (subscription access)

Rayna Denison and Woojeong Joo

2011 Transmedia Japanese Franchising Unpublished document, Manga to Movies Project.

2011 Japan’s Contemporary Manga, Anime and Film Industries.  Unpublished document, Manga to Movies Project.

John Fiske

1992 The Cultural Economy of Fandom.  In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, pp. 30-49.  Routledge, New York.

Robert Hamilton

2002 Empire of Kitsch: Japan as Represented in Western Pop Media.  60 Bad Subjects.

Matt Hills

2002 Transcultural otaku: Japanese representations of fandom and representations of Japan in anime/manga fan cultures.  Paper presented at “Media-in-Transition 2: Globalization and Convergence” conference, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, Chris Tokuhama

2012 Experiencing fan activism: Understanding the power of fan activist organizations through members’ narrativesTransformative Works and Cultures 10 <;

Koichi Iwabuchi

2002 Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

Henry Jenkins
2006 Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture.  New York University Press, New York.

2012 Textual Poachers : Television Fans and Participatory Culture.  2nd Edition. Routledge, New York.

Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis

2012 Fandom at The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships. Cambridge Scholars Publishing Newcastle upon Tyne.

Hye-Kyung Lee

2010 Cultural Consumers and Copyright: A Case Study of Anime FansubbingCreative Industries Journal 3(3): 235‐250.

Sean Leonard

2004 Progress Against the Law:  Fan Distribution, Copyright, and the Explosive Growth of Japanese Animation.  Unpublished document.

Susan J. Napier

2001 Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation.  Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Annalee Newitz

1994 Anime Otaku: Japanese Animation Fans Outside Japan.  13 Bad Subjects.

Louisa Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse (editors)

2012 Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series.   McFarland, Jefferson, NC.

Carolyn S. Stevens

2010 You Are What You Buy: Postmodern Consumption and Fandom of Japanese Popular Culture.  Japanese Studies 30(2):199-214. (subscription access)

Mark W. MacWilliams (editor)

2008 Japanese Visual Culture : Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime.  M.E. Sharpe, New York.


Anime Central image from metaxin

Anime Expo image from sklathill

Anime Expo Hall image from radagast

Anime Expo poster image and Cosplayer Angie image from Danny Choo

FanimeCon image from Cliff Nordman

FanimeCon 2013 image from coolmikeol

Katsucon Princesses image and Katsucon cosplayer image from Fred Dunn

Gay Cakes: Consumption, Cake Toppers, and the New Wedded Normativity

A custom modeled gay cake topper (image

A custom modeled gay cake topper (image

Many observers point to the Supreme Court’s scuttling of the Defense of Marriage Act last week as a signal of a dramatic shift in American attitudes toward gay rights.  As important as this ruling may be, the most consequential shift may already have come when mass marketers embraced gay marriage, acknowledging the influence and potential profit that can be reaped from gay consumers.  Beyond granting legal rights to same-sex partners (or confirming a couple’s commitment), a wedding is an institution of normativity that places straight and same-sex couples alike squarely within consumer culture, a normativity that comes with literal costs (by one count, the average American wedding costs $25,656, but The Knot puts that figure at $28,427) and does not necessarily deliver civil privileges to same-sex couples.  Yet gay weddings threaten many ideologues because they erode homophobic stereotypes and simultaneously illuminate the fallacy of a white wedding.  Our collective values are often most clearly articulated in mass consumer space, so marketers’ interest in reaching gay consumers—and their willingness to risk the wrath of moral ideologues–may quietly signal that deep-seated discriminatory stereotypes are eroding in the face of potential profit if not moral clarity.

This cake topper includes a couple's dog (image darcyandkat).

This cake topper includes a couple’s dog (image darcyandkat).

The first US state recognition of gay unions was made by Massachusetts in 2003, and 13 nations have now extended legal marriage rights to same-sex couples.  In the 13 states (as well as the District of Columbia and five native American tribes) that now recognize same-sex marriage an industry rapidly emerged extending relatively typical consumer goods to the legally beloved.  Many gay weddings and commitment ceremonies outside those 13 states deploy all the material symbols of conventional straight wedding ceremonies—formal invitations, wedding cakes, stylish formal wear, rings, floral decorations—in ways that imply immersion in consumer culture and, by extension, mainstream values.  For some gay observers, that material ceremony is symptomatic of a troubling accommodation to dominant ideological measures of the heterosexual family that risks undermining queer distinction; likewise, the commercial acceptance of LGBT spending certainly does not signal an embrace of difference.  The material trappings of a wedding cannot be utterly distinguished from the political privileges and citizen rights implied by the ceremony and marriage, so it is worth thinking reflectively about the symbolism of some seemingly prosaic wedding materiality in the context of gay marriage.

The common motif of one spouse carrying the other is reproduced in this topper (image

The common motif of one spouse carrying the other is reproduced in this topper (image

One of the consumer goods that now adorn gay weddings are cake toppers, the terminal ornament on a wedding cake.  Introduced in the 1950’s, cake toppers provide the aesthetic focus for much of a wedding ceremony, and they often function throughout a couple’s life as a material heirloom and vessel of memory.  The conventional cake topper was a blunt confirmation of the normative ideological dimensions of weddings and marriage, since toppers were nearly universally White male and female couples wearing a tuxedo and wedding gown and facing the wedding party in a stiffly disciplined pose.  The traditional cake topper of two staid individuals have now been replaced by an army of toppers that cater to nearly ever couple’s personal construction of themselves as gamers, zombies, cell phone users, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, redneck, manga fans, zombie Spiderman couples, or Star Wars fans, with options including African-American couples, African-American gamers, interracial couples (or couples with distinct skin colors), and a universe of personalized toppers crafted to mirror an individual couple’s likeness.

(image ashleighb77)

A 2009 wedding topper (image ashleighb77)

These toppers deliver notice that a couple fancies themselves as distinctive and are bending conventional wedding rituals even as they accept the normative ideological dimensions of wedded monogamy.  Many gay cake toppers, though, are not at all unlike conventional toppers, featuring restrained, sappy, idiosyncratic, or even conservative aesthetics that we might find at nearly any wedding.  Many same-sex toppers, for instance, display classically dressed men in tuxedos or women in gowns; some cake decorations appear to have been assembled by creative planners who took two men or women from a pair of standard toppers sets to make a single same-sex topper.  The commonplace motif of a husband carrying his wife has likewise found its way onto some gay cakes, or one spouse dragging the other into marriage.

Ernie and Bert celebrate wedded bliss in this topper (image Mike Leavitt).

Ernie and Bert celebrate wedded bliss in this topper (image Mike Leavitt).

The most distinctive cake topper style may well be Ernie and Bert.  Like popular cultural male couples such as Fred and Barney or Kirk and Spock, Ernie and Bert have often been rumored to be gay, and last week they appeared on The New Yorker cover supporting gay marriage.   Sesame Street announced in 2011 that the lifelong roommates were simply “best friends” without “a sexual orientation,” but a sufficient number of gay fans have embraced the muppets to install them on a series of wedding cakes.  For instance, Mike Leavitt’s models of Ernie and Bert feature the muppets with their arms around each other and holding a rubber duck, with Ernie’s open palm on Bert’s back pocket.  One distinctive cake topper couple of Ernie and Bert places Ernie in drag wearing a white wedding gown.

Nevertheless, there is relatively little about gay wedding cake toppers that stylistically stakes a claim to radical and essential distinction that observers seem to expect across lines of difference.  Increasingly more DIY artists and firms are making same-sex couple toppers, but the general styles are not especially distinct from the broader tendency to see the topper as an expression of a couple’s distinctiveness.  LGBT subcultures are often assumed to be stylistically and aesthetically distinctive, but many gay cake toppers are stylistically circumspect and dodge the spectacular consumption often associated with subcultural materiality.  A commentator on OffBeat Bride argued that the “traditional” gay wedding borrowing conventional style and ritual likely reflects a desire of some couples to “prove to their parents, friends, themselves, and society at large that this is a real wedding.”  At least some gay weddings aspire to stake a claim to “legitimacy” by reproducing prosaic material details like cake toppers and mainstream rituals.  That material similarity to mainstream styles may spark more apprehension among moral ideologues than the radical stereotypical distinction those ideologues expect.

Ernie holds onto Bert (image Mike Leavitt)

Ernie holds onto Bert (image Mike Leavitt)

The anxieties sparked by gay wedding run exceptionally deep, but much of it revolves around the way same-sex unions deliver yet another blow to the idealized wedding.  The traditional white wedding was always a fiction, now replaced by themed weddings like lesbian Portal fans’ ceremony.  For all the normative effects of gay weddings, same-sex marriage secures genuine legal rights.  Reducing same-sex weddings simply to contrived consumer rituals or ideology risks ignoring the that even the most apparently conservative same-sex wedding has political impact and literal visibility, undoing the ideology that everybody present at a wedding is straight.


David Bell and Jon Binnie

2004 Authenticating Queer Space: Citizenship, Urbanism and GovernanceUrban Studies 41(9):1807-1820.  (subscription access)

Jon Binnie and Beverley Skeggs

2004 Cosmopolitan knowledge and the production and consumption of sexualized space: Manchester’s gay village.  The Sociological Review 52(1): 39–61. (subscription access)

Amy Gluckman and Betsy Reed (editors)

1997 Homo Economics: Capitalism, Community, and Lesbian and Gay Life.  Routledge, New York.

Steven M. Kates

2002 The Protean Quality of Subcultural Consumption: An Ethnographic Account of Gay ConsumersJournal of Consumer Research 29(3):383-399.  (subscription access)

Steven M.Kates and Russell W. Belk

2001 The Meanings of Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Resistance through Consumption and Resistance to Consumption.  Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 30(4):392-429. (subscription access)

Ellen Lewin

2001 Weddings Without Marriage: Making Sense of Lesbian and Gay Commitment Rituals.  In Queer Families, Queer Politics: Challenging Culture and the State, eds Mary Bernstein and Renate Reimann, pp.44-52.  Columbia University Press, New York.

Wendy Gay Pearson

2006 Not in the Hardware Aisle, Please: Same-Sex Marriage, Anti-Gay Activism, and My Fabulous Gay Wedding.  Ethnologies 28(2):185-211.

Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth H. Pleck
2003 Cinderella Dreams : The Allure of the Lavish Wedding.  University of California Press, Berkeley.


2009 wedding topper image from ashleighb77

Bert and Ernie topper images from Mike Leavitt

Carrying the Bride cake topper image from

Women with dog image from darcyandkat