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Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans

Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans

by Mel Stanfill

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As more and more fans rush online to share their thoughts on their favorite shows or video games, they might feel like the process of providing feedback is empowering. However, as fan studies scholar Mel Stanfill argues, these industry invitations for fan participation indicate not greater fan power but rather greater fan usefulness. Stanfill’s argument, controversial to some in the field, compares the “domestication of fandom” to the domestication of livestock, contending that, just as livestock are bred bigger and more docile as they are domesticated, so, too, are fans as the entertainment industry seeks to cultivate a fan base that is both more useful and more controllable.

By bringing industry studies and fan studies into the conversation, Stanfill looks closely at just who exactly the industry considers “proper fans” in terms of race, gender, age, and sexuality, and interrogates how digital media have influenced consumption, ultimately finding that the invitation to participate is really an incitement to consume in circumscribed, industry-useful ways.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609386245
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 02/15/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 262
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Mel Stanfill is assistant professor with appointments in texts and technology and games and interactive media at the University of Central Florida.

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Assuming and Recruiting the Socially Dominant Fan Subject

Fans, the triumphalist narrative goes, are the new ideal audience. Fans have, after long suffering from undeserved stigma, been mainstreamed, and everything is now wonderful. But of course all is not wonderful. In August 2014, the internet exploded with what came to be known as Gamergate. This online campaign took the premise that gaming had become too mainstream and that inclusion of women as game players and makers was the result of a vast conspiracy to take over and shove out gaming's traditional fans: young white men. A similar public conflict arose in early 2015 around science fiction's Hugo awards, when two interrelated groups who called themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies, feeling that the genre had become too inclusive and was harming straight white men by pushing their work and experiences aside for fiction with social justice themes, attempted to stack the awards in favor of a collection of nominees whose wins would return science fiction to its supposed rightful owners.

These panics — that fandoms of various speculative genres are becoming too inclusive, and that straight white men are consequently excluded (when in fact rightfully they should be central) — seem to suggest speculative media fandom is a paradise for white women, people of color, and queer folks. The members of the latter groups who were subjected to online rape and death threats (some of which met criteria to involve police), the posting of their personal information online (known as doxing), and other large-scale, coordinated online harassment when they opposed these reactionary campaigns would probably beg to differ. In fact, violent mob action to defend being a fan from heretical outsiders made these moral-panicking fans resemble neither downtrodden, stigmatized fans nor newly empowered ideal consumers but instead something more like football hooligans, fans notorious for acting to assert white heterosexual men's authority on the Other (Müller, van Zoonen, and de Roode 2007; Nielsen 2013).

This tension drives contemporary beliefs about fans as people. In contrast to the powerful stigma cataloged by early fan studies scholars (Jenkins 1992; Jensen 1992; Lewis 1992a), many believe being a fan is now seen as something regular people do, but the mainstream fan is tightly linked to culturally powerful categories. It is certainly true that positioning fans as ideal media users differs substantially from their traditional associations with danger, violence, and pathology or just loneliness, alienation, and loserdom, as well as the greatest hits of dysfunctional and murderous fans that formerly seemed almost required any time fans came up — Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's fan and killer; John Hinckley, a fan of Jodie Foster's, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan to impress her; and Robert Bardo, the fan who killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer. Compared to these images, more recent ideas of being a fan as a reasonable or even expected pastime for a socially powerful group like white men suggests that being a fan is normative in contemporary culture.

Yet normativity relies on fans occupying socially valued positions like masculinity and whiteness, as well as on connecting fans to the high social valuation of family and children. This is the counterpart to Kristen J. Warner's (2015a, 36) point that it is strange to contend "fandom wholesale operates as Other — especially when considering the fact that many fans are part of dominant identity groups — White, cis-gendered, and heterosexual." If fans, because of their whiteness, cisness, or straightness — and, I would add, because they are popularly understood as men — are not really as marginal as is sometimes claimed, the obverse is that these characteristics are central to how, when, and why they are granted normative status. In this chapter, I examine how race, gender, and age appear across representation, web design, and industry interviews. Through combining source types, the larger beliefs animating any given instance become visible. In particular, it become clear that what makes a socially valued fan is largely the same across sports and speculative media despite the differing lived experiences involved. Ultimately, the supposed embrace or normalization of fans remains selective.


I both begin from and emphasize race in this chapter and the next. One key reason is to counterbalance the under-examination of race in fan studies so far. From time to time, race does appear in lists of characteristics fans have; scholars note that media industries segment their audiences by gender and race, or that white people and men are privileged as audiences, or that populations of fans are diverse by race, age, and class, or that populations of fans are substantially white, middle class, and women. However, analysis rarely moves beyond this mention to a serious consideration. In recent years, awareness of fan studies' gaps around race has emerged, with criticism of how generalizations about media fans often disregard race as a relevant structure (Pande 2016; Wanzo 2015; Warner 2015a). Fan studies, Rebecca Wanzo (2015) charges, has focused on people who reject the mainstream, not those rejected by it, putting disproportionate emphasis on those who have the choice. Accordingly, she argues, "one of the primary ways in which attentiveness to race can transform fan studies is by destabilizing the idea that fans choose outsider status" (Wanzo 2015, 2.1). Making a similar argument from another direction, Christine Scodari (2012) is critical of studying white women fans and then acting as if findings apply to all women fans. However, it might be more exact to say the implicit assumption is that white women are all women because, as Warner (2015a, 48) notes, there is little awareness of women of color's participation as fans, leaving gaps in our understanding because these fans "go about fan labor in ways that speak to specific cultural experiences that traditional fan studies has yet to consider." While these discussions are not yet numerous, they make important moves toward examining how race matters to being a fan.

Sports studies, in contrast, has relatively consistently analyzed race, largely because of the history of overt racism that makes sports fans "a much less likely and indeed likeable subject of study" compared to media fans, who are traditionally seen as underdogs (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007, 5). In Wanzo's (2015, 1.4) more sharply worded summary, "One of the reasons race may be neglected is because it troubles some of the claims — and desires — at the heart of fan studies scholars and their scholarship," namely that fandom is marginalized and/or progressive. Sports studies finds that being a sports fan privileges whiteness and alienates fans of color (Crawford 2004; Newman 2007; Ruddock 2005). Against this baseline of whiteness, fans' engagement with particular practices or sports reflects their sense of racial, ethnic, and/or national belonging (Gibbons 2011; Rommel 2011; Burdsey 2006). Sports studies scholarship also shows that numerically and structurally dominant white fans are frequently either passively or actively racist (Müller, van Zoonen, and de Roode 2007; Newman 2007; Carey 2013).

Failing to consider race has the effect of whitening being a fan. Whiteness is the unmarked category (marking others), the unexamined category (subjecting others to examination), and the norm (making others abnormal), and the cumulative effect is privilege (and disadvantage for others). Ross Chambers (1997, 189) adds, "There are plenty of unmarked categories (maleness, heterosexuality, and middle classness being obvious ones), but whiteness is perhaps the primary unmarked and so unexamined — let's say 'blank'— category." Because whiteness is unmarked, "race" is often taken as a synonym for "people of color," and if people of color are who "have" race, whiteness becomes race free, or, crucially, race neutral. As Chambers (1997, 192) argues, "In contrast to those whose identity is defined by their classificatory status as members of a given group, whites are perceived as individual historical agents." This difference makes the category "white" what he calls "the unexamined." That is, whiteness is not perceived as relevant because white people are "just people," whereas others are both classified as hyphenated Americans and always imagined to represent their group.

Although whiteness is constructed as blank and nothing in particular, it clearly is something. It is the norm-defining something (Frankenberg 1993). It is the kind of person meant when something is framed as universal. Disappearing the racialized character of whiteness is therefore a distinctly white perspective (although often not explicitly or consciously). Additionally, to ignore race is to support the "racial status quo," also an implicitly white position relying on benefiting from current racial systems (Bonilla-Silva 2003, 8). Simply declaring race irrelevant, without undoing its social impacts, is consequently troublesome, making current inequalities harder to recognize, let alone disrupt (Bonilla-Silva 2003; Warner 2015b). This means racism is not simply overt "'resentment' or 'hostility' toward minorities" (Bonilla-Silva 2003, 8), as it is often defined. It is also a refusal to examine or even acknowledge existing racial inequality. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) terms this color-blind racism and notes that it supports white supremacy. Similarly, Warner (2015b, 5) calls color blindness "a means of progress that did not significantly threaten white privilege."

In light of this, following Kyle Kusz's (2001, 393) insistence that it is necessary to "read Whiteness into texts that are not explicitly about race if one is to disrupt Whiteness as the unchallenged racial norm," this chapter and the next insist on recognizing and analyzing whiteness in fan norms. As Warner (2015a, 2015c) notes, the normative, universal, or unmarked fan identity is implicitly a white one, against which fans of color must struggle for recognition or form their own fan groups. Corresponding to Wanzo's (2015) argument that fan studies would look different if African Americans were taken into account as fans, that the default notion of "fan" is racialized as white must be recognized. The whiteness of fans is not neutral or inevitable but rather the product of power relations. We must name and examine it as the result of a process reproducing racial inequality.

Attending to the absence and not just presence of discussion about race, then, the loud silences in the discourse of the fan need to be named. The whiteness of being a fan often emerges indirectly through race being unmarked. In five of my six interviews with marketing workers at Campfire and BMU (all of whom are white), race was never mentioned as a characteristic they thought about in relation to who fans are, unlike gender, age, and class. The single worker who did mention race was James of BMU, who was somewhat differently positioned from the other interviewees as both a practitioner and an academic — although as I will explain, James's consideration of race, like other exceptions to overall color blindness about fans, tends to reinforce whiteness as central. Industry workers also ignore race in public statements like DVD features and news stories.

Whitening by near omission also occurs with websites. Race does not appear in interfaces at all; websites do not ask this when you register to use them. Although some might object that race is irrelevant to a website, sites collect equally irrelevant data about birthdates (the law would only require affirmation that users are over thirteen, eighteen, or twenty-one, depending on the purpose of registration) and gender. This is part of a larger tendency to downplay race online. Early narratives about the internet took the premise that without immediately visible bodies, since all could (in theory) contribute, racial (and gender) inequality would simply go away. Accordingly, the internet is often perceived to be race free, with evidence to the contrary provoking surprise or even anger (Daniels 2013; Brock 2011). Heather Hensman Kettrey and Whitney Nicole Laster's (2014, 269, 265) research shows that "online spaces are presumed to be nonracial until they are racialized by the presence of users of color," but as this equation of "people of color" with racialization suggests, they also discover that users "assumed white identities, white privilege, and white space to be the default," thus demonstrating a blurring of "nonracial" and "white." In fact, digital technologies are often racialized as white, which can be seen when they are represented using tropes of frontiers and colonial exploitation (Daniels 2013; Noble and Roberts 2016) as well as the ways Black-specific content is perceived as lesser than "an internet where Blackness is (at best) a minor presence in a universe of content supporting a White ideological frame" (Brock 2011, 1101). Indeed, André Brock (2011, 1088) directly contends that "the Western internet, as a social structure, represents and maintains White, masculine, bourgeois, heterosexual and Christian culture through its content" even while this white internet is framed as neutral.

Beyond the ways racial silences tend to be filled with whiteness, fans are most often understood as white people, particularly white men. Fans as directly depicted in media texts, especially primary characters, are overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) white. We should take seriously and examine the sheer overpowering number of white fans in audiovisual sources, particularly against the belief white people have no race. Even if these representations did reflect a fan population that is actually substantially white — which is many people's anecdotal sense, but we do not know because fan demographics have not been systematically studied and the population would be difficult to adequately sample — fandom has often been able to be unaware of its own whiteness. Indeed, even the few prominent discussions like RaceFail '09, a months-long conflict around fandom racism and the exclusion of fans of color, were directly caused by unexamined whiteness (TWC Editor 2009). Such instances demonstrate that "if we see attachments to whiteness and xenophobic or racist affect as frequently central to fan practices, then sports fandom ceases to be an outlier" (Wanzo 2015, 1.4).

In fact, even acknowledging race as a system or that fans of color exist tends to happen in ways that center whiteness. That is, race appears as (and only as) racism and people of color are marginalized as fans. Race appears on websites only in their TOS and only as a source of trouble. SyFy forbids "harassing, offensive, vulgar, abusive, hateful or bashing communications — especially those that put down others' sexual orientation, gender, race, color, religious views, national origin or disability." ESPN tells its users, "You agree that you will not Distribute any Submission that," among other things, "is bigoted, hateful, or racially or otherwise offensive." Website design and policy equating race and racism echo the belief that, the quip goes, only racists notice race. Sites assume that race will only come up as a result of racism. Consequently, platforms only notice race to prohibit racism, which is the cause of noticing race. Equating talking about race with racism blurs injunctions not to be racist and injunctions not to talk about race — or a don't ask, don't tell policy. Like the original DADT, this assumes that the presence of difference causes strife, so we should behave as if there were no difference; "even to suggest that difference might be important would transform them into instigators of racial division" (Warner 2015b, x). The unintended consequence is that, as the military was structurally straightened by DADT, being a fan is whitened by these logics. White people tend to have the luxury of ignoring race; indeed, Jessie Daniels (2013) contends that white people tend to be invested in not having any awareness of race. This is visible in the intense insistence by fans like those of George R. R. Martin (Young 2014) and the Disney film Song of the South (Sperb 2010) that race does not matter in their objects of fandom. Importantly, as Frankenberg (1993, 145) notes, "The idea that noticing a person's 'color' is not a good thing to do, even an offensive thing to do, suggests that 'color,' which here means nonwhiteness, is bad in and of itself." In short, the idea that it is rude to talk about race is rooted in white supremacy.


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction Chapter One. Fandom's Normativity: Assuming and Recruiting the Socially Dominant Fan Subject Chapter Two. The Fandom Menace Straightens Up and Flies White: Failed Normativity to Redemption Chapter Three. Consumption and the Management of Desire Chapter Four. The Long Arm of (Beliefs about) the Law Chapter Five. Fandom and/as Labor Chapter Six. Enclosing Fandom: Labors of Love, Exploitation, and Consent Conclusion: Two Futures of Fandom Appendix: Film and TV Sources Notes Bibliography Index

What People are Saying About This

Derek Johnson

“Stanfill writes with an impressively strong sense of theory, helping the reader to understand how fans are incited to particular identities and practices and what their potential exploitation by industry might actually mean. In this focus on the management of fandom, Stanfill both contributes to critical media industry studies and directs much needed attention to the politics of gender, sexuality, and race at these intersections.”—Derek Johnson, author, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries

Kristina Busse

Exploiting Fandom is a long overdue book that brings together media and sports fandom studies under the lens of fan labor. It is mandatory for anyone working in the field, and its clear argument and extensive and interesting case studies make it accessible to more general audiences as well.”—Kristina Busse, author, Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities (Iowa, 2017)

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