Eaton/SFRA 2013: my talk on critical fandom

I had a wonderful and inspiring time at the Eaton/Science Fiction Research Association conference in Riverside last weekend.

I want to start by posting my own paper, though, which I gave at a morning panel on the first day of the conference. Roxanne Samer, Amanda Phillips, and I put together a panel on feminist fan cultures, where Roxanne talked about the historical context and queer and trans resonances of James Tiptree, Jr’s “great sex muddle” and Amanda explored fan-created imagery of FemShep from Mass Effect 3.

My talk was titled “Media Love or Media Justice? Toward a Genealogy of Critical Fandom” and was an attempt to work through some conversations about gender, desire, and violence in creative fan cultures that I think will be important to the larger project on critical fan production that I am slowly developing.

The abstract:

Media Love or Media Justice? Toward a Genealogy of Critical Fandom

“Fandom” is usually taken to denote an uncritically positive relationship to a text, genre, or cultural form. To be a fan is to be in a position of emotional excess, invested in a text, genre, or cultural form to the point of identifying oneself with it. When we talk about being a fan, we are talking about love as part of the machinery that keeps us invested in whatever we happen to be a fan of. For fans of popular media, more often than not, this means keeping us invested not just in corporate capital but in white supremacy, heteronormativity,  US imperialism, neoliberalism, and other structures embedded in the representation and production of popular culture. And if fannish love turns sour, it is more likely to turn to crushing disappointment or vitriolic hate than to objectivity or indifference. “Critical fandom,” then, would seem to be an oxymoron, whether the “critical” in question is the counterhegemonic rigor of critical theory or the academic requirement of critical distance. In this paper I will draw on the recent history of science fiction media fan cultures to argue that critical fandom is, in fact, a vibrant set of intersecting on and offline cultures of transmedia creativity and grassroots critique. In fact, scholars may have something to learn from its navigation of contradictions and ambivalences around affect and politics.

My talk will draw primarily on feminist interventions within the subcultural artform of fannish vidding to unpack and trace the development of critical fandom as a mode of knowledge production. Much feminist and queer scholarship has centered on the interrelationship of gender, politics, and the erotic; emergent practices of critical fan production have had their own versions of these debates, and I will discuss the production and reception of three videos that profoundly shaped them. Luminosity and Sisabet’s 2007 vid “Women’s Work” critiqued the eroticization of violence against women in the horror TV show Supernatural and, by extension, all media. The vid became comparatively well known beyond fan communities, perhaps because its critique seems straightforwardly to repudiate the affective ties of fandom.

Sisabet and Sweetestdrain’s “On the Prowl” (2010) also highlights violence, with a different critical impetus. Directed at the eroticization of injured male bodies that are a particular point of interest and desire among mostly-female communities creating homoerotic slash fan fiction, the vid asked fans to face and explore the violence within their desire, and it become the center for intense debate over gender, pornography, and BDSM in fan culture.

Finally, Thingswithwings’s “The Price” (2011) focused on the gendering of emotion in genre film and television, using comic effects to critical ends to highlight the contradictory practices of feminist fandom. In the differences between these vids and the ways in which they wrestle, with increasing sophistication, to hold the figures of feminist critic and appreciative fan together within the same gaze, I suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of new media lexicons for critical affect and affective critique.


I have made the text of the talk as I gave it available in PDF format at this link.
Bear in mind that this is work in its early stages –– and please do read in conjunction with the visuals if you can.

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