On Fangirl(ing) and Fan Culture

Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.

-Page 247, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins. 

We, as a culture of readers and academics, like to judge.

Sometimes our instinct of applying elevator-eyes to a book or a genre is backed with “sound” logic, sometimes it isn’t, and in either case the morality behind the act of being judgemental is rather suspect. We do the same kind of short-cut analyzing with real people and existing cultures. It’s why various kinds of bigotry still exist- lazy opinions as a result of sloppy research and a narrow scope. Often we have made up our minds before we have even begun looking things up. (No, really, I have been guilty of doing this myself.)

For the people who contemptuously (or, perhaps, benevolently) disassociate themselves from fandoms, as well as for those people who consider themselves part of the larger fan culture, opinions on fandoms are often a result of this kind of stereotyping. For an outsider, there are the fangirls who are annoyingly trivial and tend to exhibit their hyper-sexuality through queer fan-fiction. For an insider, there are the bullies (because even nerds can be bullies) and then there are the “over-thinking”, probably feminist, killjoys.

I think it says something about our culture of outsider readers/thinkers that assumes a. fans are typically girls or that only girls can exhibit enthusiasm, b. the only kind of fiction is slash and c. that slash is not an interesting, or even intelligent, avenue to explore, or even d. that fan-fiction is a silly endeavour altogether.

I tend to agree with Sam Wolfson:

Fan fiction is making teenagers better writers and better satirists, and allowing them to explore sexuality in a way decided by them rather than dictated by the entertainment industry. A purity ring doesn’t carry much meaning when Ron Weasley is pulling it off with his teeth.

Does that mean there is no such thing as bad fan-fiction? Of course not. There is bad fan-fiction, hurtful fan-fiction, fan-fiction that misrepresents, and fan-fiction that is cruel- just like every other kind of media. However, for one person it is entirely possible that the alternative to fan-fiction is having to agree to a culture’s regulation of one’s sexuality without question, or maybe being intolerant of those who do question why sexuality is to remain unexplored until a certain date or time. Another alternative is a sex education class that often doesn’t even consider issues like rape or how one’s sex, gender, and sexual orientation do not have to align. And if you, like me, have studied in India (or at Indian international schools) you won’t even get a special sex education class- just a brief lesson in biology, taught as part of the curriculum. It will take you until university to notice with a jolt, that every 1 in 10 person is queer, and what that means in a populous place like India where no one (that I have ever met) speaks openly about such issues. (We know now what it means.)

You know what could help**, though? Fandoms.

And that’s where it gets complicated, obviously. Because like any other culture you have the extremists. Look at what happened to Anita Sarkeesian. The anonymity that the internet allows is powerful and near-narcotic, but also note how Anita has not backed down. She is what some fans within this culture fears- an intelligent fan, a fan who cares. As Stephen Fry puts it in The Fry Chronicles (emphasis added by me):

It is possible to be a fan of reality TV, talent shows and bubblegum pop and still have a brain. You will also see that a great many people know perfectly well how silly and camp and trivial their fandom is. They do not check in their minds when they enter a fan site. Judgement is not necessarily fled to brutish beasts, and men have not quite lost their reason. Which is all a way of questioning whether pop-culture hero worship is really so psychically damaging, so erosive of cognitive faculties, so corrupting of the soul of mankind as we are so often told.

Anita is a fan whose drive to make things better is fuelled by her unbridled love for visual media. Why else would you dedicate your time and attention to something? What better reason than love?

And I think that’s where Rainbow Rowell’s book Fangirl come from. A place of love.

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This book is a turning point in YA literature for very many reasons. I almost do not know where to begin. I guess it’s time for a list! Do mind the SPOILERS:

  1. Fangirl refers to an aspect of YA readership that has not been explored before. By merely acknowledging fan culture and the role it has had to play in the way today’s youth a. think critically b. practice writing c. assume viewpoints of Others (that’s right, capital “O” Others) and d. read people, both fictional and real, is exceptional.
  2. It is critical of fan culture but it is balanced in its critique- just look at the struggles Cath faces as she writes for Simon Snow fans and as she writes for her creative writing professor, and look at how it is resolved.
  3. Levi (Cath’s resident annoyance and eventual romantic interest) himself functions as a critique of fan culture because of how different he is from Cath. Rainbow Rowell is especially good at writing such nuances where one would not expect.
  4. The fans around this particular book, at least those that I have encountered, are incredibly talented. Just as Cath gets to explore various aspects of her personality through Simon Snow’s stories, fans of Fangirl do the same.
  5. Which is pretty awesome, given that Rainbow Rowell clearly wanted to explore a part of the Harry Potter fandom while writing this book. Because, as Jenkins said, fandoms are born out of part frustration. And Rainbow Rowell has paid attention to these frustrations and engaged with them. Imagine if the makers of the LOTR films had paid attention to all the racebent fancasts or if the makers of Sherlock felt, as some of the fans do, that in today’s day and age it might actually be okay to give Sherlock Holmes and John Watson a proper relationship. (I mean, we had a animal/mouse version of Sherlock Holmes, so why not a gay one, or a brown one?) I wonder what would fascinate us then? And what would frustrate us? (Well, I can actually imagine. Remind me to do a post on that sometime.)

If you were to read just one more book ever in the year of 2013, I would recommend this one. Not only does it have an unarguably brilliant storytelling structure, but the fact that it promotes a new approach to fandoms- one void of excessive eye-rolling- is encouraging.

Don’t get me wrong. As I mentioned above, like all cultures, fandoms are chaotic and sometimes cruel. But no matter who you are, fandoms open a world of possibilities (even those that run counter to the society one dwells in)- and that is quite a power to yield.

All you would need to access this power is a library*.

And stop rolling your eyes.

*A conversation for another time, perhaps, is how woefully inaccessible libraries are in some places. But I would argue that libraries are still more accessible than higher education, which only makes the reach of fan culture that much wider and almost anti-capitalist.

That said, one of the first things I wanted to do after reading Fangirl was try Levi’s Pumpking Mocha Breve. And try I did, thanks to Connor Park’s lovely suggestions:

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(Yes, it was a very yummy, but I suspect it would taste just as yummy with steamed milk!)

Which, for the record, means I did keep my promise on writing about fandoms as well as food, so there!

EDIT: Since I brought up the amazing Connor Park, I highly recommend reading his piece on Eleanor and Park and escapist fiction.

**Note how I say “help” and not “fix”.