Throughout this year, I am showcasing work about fandom at a time when the field of fandom studies is once again reinventing itself, often in very dramatic ways.
People often ask me where I go to learn about contemporary developments in fandom and fandom studies. Much of the time, I don't have to go anywhere, because being who I am, many people come to me to seek advice on their projects in this space. I also might go to some of the academic journals, such as Transformative Works and Cultures or The Journal of Fandom Studies, or the great folks at the Fan Studies Network. But I also listen most weeks to the Fansplaining Podcast, which is one of the very best way to keep on top of new developments in this space.
Its hosts Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel get so much right with this podcast. It is, as they note in this interview, not the place you go to get fan theories about Game of Thrones, not that there's anything wrong with that. They are doing what fans call Meta, asking big questions about how fandom works, who gets included or excluded from fandom, how fans intersect with the industry or journalism, why fans do what they do -- in other words, it is about fandom culture and its practices, not about the shows fans love. They may have Orlando Jones as a guest one week and an academic studying race and fandom the next. They work hard to insure a diverse and inclusive representation of fandom, week by week, and in the process, they often help me to discover new and emerging perspectives in the field who had not crossed my radar in any other way. I do not know how they do it -- stay some far ahead on the trends and consistently call attention to new voices and new ideas. They often allow room for graduate students and junior scholars who are not yet being heard elsewhere, and in the process, they are helping to define the next generation of researchers in this space.
I've wanted for a LONG time to feature Flourish Klink (my former student) and Elizabeth Minkel on my blog and I could not be happier to finally be able to do so.
Tell us something of your background in fandom and how it relates to your professional life. How did you come to start Fansplaining and what have been your goals for the podcast?
Flourish: I’m a long-time Harry Potter fan with a lot of involvement in the fan community—with fanfic archives, conventions, all of the things that require you to get off the internet and physically interact with lots of strangers. In my professional life, I work in audience research, basically combining the “big data” that's produced out of sales, website traffic, and social media tracking with qualitative research into individual fandoms. Another way to put it would be “explaining fandom to Hollywood,” and I got the job in fact because of fandom—Henry, you know this, but I got my start through studying fandom with you at MIT.
Elizabeth: I’ve been in fandom about as long as Flourish, but I’ve only been speaking up for the past half-decade: I was a lurker for my first decade-plus (most of which was also spent in HP fandom). I started talking in 2012: I was a book journalist—working both as a critic and writing about the industry and culture around books—and 50 Shades of Grey came out and book journalism did...a very bad job talking about its fanfiction-al origins. I had been warned against talking about fandom in my professional work, but I was too annoyed to stay silent (ha). I wrote a few explicitly fandomy pieces over the next few years, but it wasn’t until the third season of Sherlock aired and, once again, people had a lot of bad takes on the fannish reactions, that I felt compelled to speak up (there’s a pattern here). I started writing a regular column on fan culture not long after, both explaining fandom practices to a mainstream audience and standing up for fans as they clashed with both the media and content creators.
The podcast grew out of a panel at San Diego Comic-Con in 2015. Flourish and I had never met but we wound up on the same (too-large) panel of people who straddled the intersection between creators and fans. Our go-to line is that everyone on the panel was having a different conversation—but Flourish and I were having the same one. Afterwards she approached me about starting a podcast; I laughed and said sure, why not, assuming this was the sort of throwaway suggestion you make at a party. But Flourish was not kidding: a few days after we flew back from San Diego, we were having a long and very business-like call where we were setting up the whole thing
Flourish: I suggested the idea to Elizabeth because I felt like, in my professional life, I’d seen people working and talking in a register that was somewhere triangulated between academic discourse, fannish discourse, and journalistic discourse. But I didn’t know of any forum that used that kind of tone. Most places seemed to lean one way or another, or seemed to be very focused on a particular fandom, not on the phenomenon of fannishness.
Of course, our goals have evolved over the course of 60 episodes. Today it’s especially important to us that we feature a diversity of voices in terms of race, gender, sexuality etc., and partially as a result of so doing, to include a wide range of types of fannishness. There’s always more to do in these directions.
Elizabeth: I can think of two major themes that have emerged over the course of these 60 episodes. One is striking a balance between loving and critical—the same line that many fans walk as they talk about their favorite thing. We get messages from people, they leave reviews, etc, saying how grateful they are that we’re critical of fandom and fannish practices; I always feel like there’s a little bit of surprise in there, which is interesting, because I think a lot of meta-fandom posts within fandom are pretty critical. One thing I always feel frustrated by in my work for mainstream outlets is I when I stand up for fandom in my pieces, I feel like there isn’t a ton of space to critique while I defend. The podcast lets me do both.
The other major thing is what Flourish has already touched on—we’re talking about behaviors and ideas, not about the cultural products that fandom focuses on. We actually get a ton of requests like this—“Talk to my friend in X fandom!”—from people who don’t seem to be familiar with our work: at this point, it should be pretty clear that we’re talking about fannish practices, not about objects of fandom. We often lean on specific fandoms for examples—we worry sometimes we bring up Harry Potter too much, but it’s our only real shared point of reference, and, to be fair, it’s the place where we both have spent the most time in fandom. But we’re not interested in deconstructing Harry Potter itself, even through a fannish lens. (We save this for our patrons-only episodes, of which we’ve done a handful so far.) I think the fannish podcast landscape is only growing more crowded, but the vast majority of the podcasts out there are about specific fannish objects or fannish projects (watching every episode of a show, for example). Which is awesome! But it’s just not us.
You focused some of your early podcasts on the relations between fans and the media industries, in part because of Flourish's involvement there, so let's use that as a starting point. What do you see as some of the core ways that people in the entertainment industry misunderstand or mistreat their fans? What are some of the things fans misperceive about the way the contemporary media industry operates?
Flourish: These two questions are very interrelated. In both cases, the problem is often oversimplification. Fans don’t know all the roles or understand the power plays that go into making even the simplest decisions on a TV show (for example), so they often end up advocating for outcomes they want in ways that aren't going to ever succeed. (And, by the way, why should they know all the roles? The entertainment industry is purposely opaque. It’s a club you have to fight to get into and you can't really see what's going on except from the inside.)
Similarly, not every person who works on a TV show has the mental space or the inclination to immerse themselves in complex fan cultures (and the plural is important: it’s not like there’s a single fan culture, even for one property!), so they'll form simple “good-enough” ideas about what fans are into: “Trekkies are dudes who care about the blueprints of the Enterprise,” "Fans freak out with joy when the two male characters almost kiss so let's do more of that even though the characters aren't gay." These are simple assumptions that aren't completely unsupported, but they miss important aspects of the fandoms in question!
And those assumptions are the good assumptions, the ones that get made when people are invested in and trying to understand what their fans are saying. When you get into the upper echelons of the industry, many people don’t even try, because they don’t see hardcore fans as being a significant impact on their bottom line. Those people are the ones who say, “I can make Two and a Half Men and make money hand over fist without any ‘fan culture’ to speak of. Why should I bother?” When you mix someone like that with a property with a strong fan culture, it’s never pretty. But the core of it is that people with that attitude do not believe that fans are important to their bottom line (and fans are absolutely not the only group they feel that way about—not that that’s any comfort).
You have come back to some of these issues recently with some discussions of shipping and showrunners. How has the awareness of fan response started to shape the choices showrunners make, for better or worse? Is there such a thing as too much fan service and if so, can you point to some good examples?
Flourish: I’m not entirely sure how to answer this, because it can be very hard to know what decisions are shaped by fan input, what decisions were always planned (people prevaricate about this sort of thing all the time) and even what decisions aren’t decisions at all but are shaped by the paratext that marketing provides—for example, an official social media account run by a show’s marketing team may really push a particular pairing or reading that’s never been planned as “endgame.” Marketing departments are incentivized to do this because they notice particular keywords, often ships, getting traction, and their metric of success is clicks, shares, eyeballs. They’ll usually jump on any bandwagon quickly, no matter what the showrunner’s opinion or plan is, and not worry about the long term impact that might have on the way fans read a text. As a result of this stew, I’m hesitant to call out particular examples. I don’t know enough details about what goes on behind the scenes of any particular show.
Elizabeth: If I can jump in here with a little fan perspective, or maybe more like, perspectives on fandom: I think that many fans believe they are far more influential than they actually are, even in an era of heightened visibility on both sides of the fan/creator divide. My favorite example was after episode 3.1 of Sherlock, “The Empty Hearse,” a meta-textual commentary on fannish/viewer conversations on how Sherlock survived the fall at the end of the second season. In the two-year hiatus between seasons, this was a major topic of conversation in all sorts of fannish corners and amongst millions of casual fans in Britain—British newspapers published articles speculating how he did it, that sort of thing. The actual episode offered up a bunch of theories, some jokey, some serious, and the punchline of it all was that no solution would be as satisfying as the act of speculation itself.
On Tumblr after the episode aired there was a ton of commentary along the lines of, “OMG they are totally looking at Tumblr for their ideas!” And people dredged up headcanons, fics, metas, that shared themes or concepts with what wound up in the episode. This frustrated me; this isn’t rocket science. The idea that TV writers would need to mine Tumblr for ideas seems like a fairly egocentric way for fans to position themselves? Finally someone wrote a post that expressed exactly what I was thinking: I could never find it now, but to paraphrase, it was something like, “Folks, there are thousands of us generating ideas in exponential combinations; the odds that, amongst all those combinations, we will hit on the same ideas as the writers are fairly good.”
I thought about this, too, when I saw people discussing Korrasami, the f/f ship from the Legend of Korra, becoming canon in the show’s finale. “It was because fans shipped it!” I saw flying across my dash. “They listened to us and made it happen.” A quick Google led to an interview with the creator saying he’d planned it from the start, long before there were any fans to ship these characters. I think this sort of underscores the trend of shipping fandom thinking of themselves as detectives solving a case: when a writer is planning on bringing characters together, they likely leave some subtextual clues and build-up along the way.
Again, this is not rocket science: if you pick up on subtext that then becomes text, it’s likely because the writer did a decent job? And these are exceptions—most of the time, fans want something, and are even picking up on very real subtext, but it will never become text. What can feel like secret clues to a master plan often don’t amount to anything more than that. A lot of the biggest dust-ups in fan/creator interaction in the past few years have been over ships (not) becoming canon; I do think creators are seeing fans talking about this stuff—but that doesn’t mean they’re following fans’ wishes. If anything, I can mostly think of examples where the opposite is true.
Flourish: I always tell fans to assume that the Powers That Be are half as together and aware of fandom as you think they are. That’s not an insult directed at any individual writer or showrunner; it’s just that when you get a lot of people working on a TV show together, things get lost the cracks, and collective intelligence doesn’t always function as smoothly as one would hope.
Now, let's slide this over to Elizabeth's expertise—how would you assess the current state of reporting on fans and fan related issues? Have we made progress over some of the stereotypical and dismissive representations in the past? What role have fan blogs and podcasts played, if any, in challenging dominant media narratives about fans?
Elizabeth: It’s funny—I’ve been a fan culture journalist for five years now, and I’d have given you a wildly different answer at the end of each of the past five years, from everyone’s favorite trend of talk show hosts mocking fanworks to the misunderstandings on all sides as fandom became more mainstream. But at the close of 2017, here’s what I’m observing:
A few weeks ago I gave a “fandom 101” talk at a conference largely for professional content creators. To take the temperature of the room, I asked the crowd of about 150 people a series of questions. “How many of you consider yourselves in fandom?” Only a couple of hands went up. (It was at this moment when I realized that I needed to make things far more 101 than I thought I would!) I continued: “How many of you know the term ‘transformative work?’” Roughly the same hands—just a few. But when I asked, “How many of you know what ‘fanfiction’ is?” the majority of people in the room raised their hands. “And finally, the term ‘shipping?’” The same: most people in the room said they knew it.
After the talk, multiple people came up to me and said something along the lines of, “I didn’t raise my hand when you asked who was in fandom, but after your talk I realized I totally was in fandom.” This really struck me, as did the disparity between the “who’s in fandom” question and the number of people who said they know about fic and shipping.
I think this reflects the way that fannish practices and terms have only sort of seeped into mainstream culture—lots of people have heard of shipping, or can give a rough definition for it, but they don’t actually understand it, and often fill in the gaps in their understanding with a lot of (bad) assumptions. Tons of people are out there assuming they understand these fandom terms—and maybe gatekeeping themselves out of fannish practices based on poorly-informed assumptions, like those people who didn’t raise their hands during my talk.
The other big trend I’m seeing—which overlaps a bit with the half-formed fandom assumptions—is the conflation of “geek culture” with fandom. This is partly driven by these mainstream conceptions, partly driven by the entertainment industry (take a stroll through SDCC or NYCC and you’ll see “fandom” used as a quick-and-dirty stand-in for a relatively narrow set of cultural products rather than behaviors or communities, specifically SF/F, comics, and superhero media), and partly driven by media outlets: the past few years have seen a proliferation of geeky news outlets that reference fans and fandom constantly without any real connection to or acknowledgment of fannish practices.
This is particularly tricky for me—my personal fannish interests don’t really align with the big pop culture geeky properties, and while it might seem like there’s a proliferation of fannish media out there, it so often falls within these constructs: places for fans of certain types of media to read and write about those types of media. If I had to place bets on the next few years, I’d say associations between “geek culture” and “fandom” will only grow stronger. In a way, with superhero and SF/F blockbusters, this actually helps fight some of the mainstream’s dismissive ideas about fans and fandom—Marvel, Star Wars, they’re all hugely popular, and let very casual fans get super fannish around new installments. But I worry that this doesn’t do much to disabuse mainstream assumptions about the rest of fandom—there’s not a lot of crossover understanding. I might be proven wrong, but this is the way things have been trending, in my view, in my years covering fan culture in the mainstream media.
Oh, and to address your final question: I think that fan blogs and podcasts give more people entry into fandom, but only certain types of fandom, or fannish practices. I remember when Westworld came out, there were like 9,000 fannish podcasts about it, many from mainstream media organizations. “Non-fans” on my timeline—people who don’t self-identify as “being in fandom”—were rushing to figure out which of these podcasts were the best and following along with the show and various accompanying fan theories and analysis in a way that was pretty damn fannish. I think fandom podcasts in particular give people a route into fannishness that they might not otherwise take. But that’s not going to change their knowledge or assumptions about a lot of preexisting fannish practices—I’m thinking specifically of those in female-dominated transformative media fandom. I think there are a lot of female-led pop-culture-oriented podcasts and blogs that kind of skirt up along the edges of fandom, but in my mind, there’s a difference between shared enthusiasm and shared practices. And when it comes to stuff like fic, fanart, meta, shipping conversations, and the other stuff that fills my dash, I still don’t see a ton of crossover in this realm.
Flourish Klink is half of Fansplaining. She is Chief Research Officer and a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, where she develops entertainment franchises and helps companies and brands understand fan culture. She was formerly a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and led fan strategy for the award-winning Hulu Original show East Los High. As a teenager, Flourish helped organize the first ever Harry Potter fan convention and was a co-founder of FictionAlley.org. She holds an MS from MIT and a BA from Reed College.
Elizabeth Minkel is the other half of Fansplaining. She's written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, and more. She's the audience development editor at Storythings, where she helps both foster and study communities of
readers. She's also the co-curator of The Rec Center, a weekly fandom newsletter she writes with fellow fan culture journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. She studied English at Amherst College and has an MA in the digital humanities from University College London.