Fan studies 101

This originally appeared in SFRA Review No. 287 (Winter 2009) as part of the “101” series, which seeks to provide a broad contextual overview to various fields of interest to SF scholars. The complete issue is available for download here.

The recent explosion on the Internet of fanlike activity has given fans and fan studies a higher profile. When journalists and media studies scholars speak about fans engaging on the Internet, high school students spending their time on, or fans of soap operas gathering at an online forum to discuss their favorite plotlines, they are engaging in fan studies, even if they don’t seem to know it. Web 2.0—that is, an interactive, networked Web, not a static, read-only Web—lends itself well to visible fan participation, and thanks to an explosion of copyright-ignoring, music-downloading, remix-happy Gen N–ers, interactivity of fans within and outside communities has generated a lot of journalism and scholarship. Fan studies as a field is still scrambling to catch up. It’s done relevant work on fan-created works and fan communities over the years that is being ignored by current scholars, and those in other fields who tangentially run across fans seem unaware that an entire body of scholarship already exists to study fans and fan artifacts. In a parallel activity, women-dominated, old-style active fans and their contributions are now in the process of being erased by studies of (male) online fandom, although recuperative work is underway to write histories of these fans and preserve their artworks.

To define fan is a fraught activity, but generally, a fan is taken to be someone who engages within a subculture organized around a specific object of study, be it Star Trek, science fiction literature, Sherlock Holmes, anime, comics, gaming, or sports. Fans engage in a range of activities related to their passion: they write derivative literature called fan fiction, they create artworks, they write what’s known as meta (analyses of fandom itself, or analysis of analysis), they play role-playing games, they blog, they make fan vids, and they organize and attend conventions. Not least, they create and pass along a culture, with its attendant rules of behavior and acceptability. Although the study of, say, avid coin collectors may fit the definition of fan, most of the work done in fan studies has focused on media fans and the derivative artworks they create. The two earliest active media fandoms were Star Trek and Man from U.N.C.L.E., thereby cementing fan studies as at least tangentially related to SF, and marking the fan base as primarily comprising women.

Because studies of fan-created artifacts or of fans themselves range so widely, fan studies is a truly interdisciplinary field. The disciplines of English and communication study and interpret fan artifacts, their creation, and the rhetorical strategies they use to make meaning; ethnography analyzes the fan subculture; media, film, and television studies assess the integration of media into fan practice and artworks; psychology studies fans’ pleasure and motivation; and law analyzes the underlying problems related to the derivative nature of the artworks, including concerns related to copyright, parody, and fair use. But fan studies can be usefully divided into two major approaches: study of fans themselves and fan culture, and study of the artifacts fans create.

Foundational fan studies

Important early fan studies texts date from the 1980s into the early 1990s, before the Internet changed the face of the fan world. Constance Penley’s relevant work, published in 1991 and 1992, focuses on feminism and the integration of technology into fan culture. Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1992) reports on fan practice in a study discussing her ethnographic fieldwork, conducted within a Star Trek fan community. Joanna Russ discusses her uneasy relationship with slash (homoerotic fan fiction) in her 1985 essay, “Pornography by Women, for Women, with Love.” A work well known outside the field of fan studies is Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), which analyzes a subculture of women romance readers. Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diane Veith’s 1986 “Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines,” like Russ’s essay, attempts to understand why straight women write gay porn—a topic of particular fascination in early fan studies scholarship that deals with fan fiction. The valuable essays collected in Lisa A. Lewis’s edited volume, The Adoring Audience (1992), focus on fans and fandom and range widely in topic.

But the single most important early text contributing to the field now known as fan studies is Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Partcipatory Culture (1992). In this crucial work, Jenkins, himself a fan as well as an academic, engages with fans and explicates fan culture as a response to mass media. Fans, he argues, are not passive consumers. Rather, they are active creators. He uses De Certeau’s notion of textual poaching to inform fans’ cultural production: “Fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media” (23). Jenkins thus places fans in opposition to TPTB (The Powers That Be), the owners of the copyrighted text being poached—or, fan studies scholars would argue, being repurposed to fulfill particular cultural needs.

So useful is Jenkins’s study, and so resonant is it with fan experience, that most fan studies scholarship takes Jenkins’s thesis as read. Many published studies apply Jenkins’s theory to a particular fan experience, or they explicate fan practice by studying its inflection. Jenkins has since broadened his research base to participatory culture more generally in two books published in 2006, Convergence Culture and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. His Weblog ( is a must-read for media scholars, and he remains friendly to fans.

Post-Internet fan studies

As people flock to the Internet and begin contributing content, they become part of a large, geographically dispersed, international community of people doing exactly the same thing. Fan culture used to be transmitted orally and in person. They would share activities like attending conventions, laboriously using VCRs to make fan vids, or publishing zines. Fan culture is still transmitted that way, although sophisticated editing software is used to create fan vids, and zines are likely to have a CD component along with the hard copy. But it’s far more likely that a crew of like-minded people will get together informally, perhaps through a shared blogosphere, bulletin board, or Yahoo! group, many with no understanding that they are engaging in a culture with a relatively long history, or that their behavior may offend or upset people in other fan communities. To that we can add the number of people who would not describe their engagement as within the old-guard fan realm (and I put in parentheses the names of scholars who have written about these topics): posters at Television Without Pity (Marc Andrejevic); contributors to the original producer-run Buffy the Vampire Slayer bulletin board, the Bronze (Stephanie Tuszynski); and aficianados of Lost spoilers (Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell). Further, the experiences of non-American fans may not parallel those abroad. It also doesn’t do to privilege the Internet too much: many fans don’t have access and thus engage differently with their passion. Nor do fans abandon one technological tool when another comes along: listservs and Yahoo! Groups are still sites for fan interaction, even as the blogosphere—particularly LiveJournal, which is the de facto site for fan-specific blogs—has become active. Some fans are even still on Usenet.

Scholarship was slow to follow along as fans took to the Internet. Fan scholarship assumed the existence of physical fan artifacts—artwork, vids created on VCRs, hard-copy fanzines. What about blogs repurposed as fanfic archives, wikis that gather media source facts, Photoshopped manipulations, file-sharing sites to disseminate TV shows, or that relatively new form of fan artwork, avatar icons? Scholarship on these very topics has lagged behind, although work dealing with these topics can be found in books dedicated not to fan studies but to Web 2.0 and collaborative learning. Research not on fans specifically but on collaborative communities provides valuable insight into fan behavior. Two recent examples: Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams’s Wikinomics (rev. ed., 2008) has sections on collaboration and peering that mesh well with fan studies; and Lawrence Lessig’s 2008 volume Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy touches on the problems of megacorporations constraining the activities of fans, even as they attempt to appropriate their work—without compensation, of course.

The volume I coedited with Kristina Busse, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland 2006), has fan-specific essays that run the gamut from close readings of fan fiction to analyses of machinima to a study of reader as author/collaborator, and one reason it’s a valuable book is that it was among the first to talk about online fan activities and attempt to explicate them. Its introduction provides a literature review and an overview of fan studies, and its bibliography is available online (

Even as topics in fan studies became more acceptable to write and publish about, copyright concerns blocked scholars from pursuing their interests. Publishers dislike publishing screen captures or dialogue lifted from a TV show or film without explicit permission from the copyright holder, even though such illustrative content, particularly in the context of a scholarly article, falls within fair use. Meanwhile, similar copyright concerns have kept one important fan activity, vidding, long under wraps: vid creators, fearing cease-and-desist letters from copyright holders, often hid their artworks under eyes-only Web sites and password protection, further lowering the artworks’ profile. The advent of vid-sharing sites like YouTube and Imeem has made it easier to watch and disseminate fan vids, although such vids may be blocked by copyright holders, particularly copyright holders of the music, as opposed to the images. An interview published on November 12, 2007, in New York Magazine profiling talented vidder Luminosity notes that the artist’s real name can’t be used, for fear that she will be sued by the copyright holders ( This respectful article did much to raise the profile of fan vids and vidders. The fear of being sued because one is creating scholarship or transformative artworks can have a chilling effect on creativity, and it also means that important works analyzing our culture might not get written, because book and journal publishers will decline to consider them.

Several projects are underway to recuperate and legitimize fan-created artworks and clear the field to permit forms of criticism—be they creative artworks or scholarly essays—to be created without fear of reprisal. These activities are particularly important because the fan activities being elided tend to be those created by and for women. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed petitions with the U.S. copyright office to permit exemptions for bypassing copyright protection; one suggested exemption is for vidders who rip copyrighted material for fair-use remixes ( The fan advocacy group Organization for Transformative Works (OTW;, which I am a member of, is sponsoring two important historical recuperation projects. One is the Open Doors project (, which seeks to preserve fan works, including hard-copy slash zines. And along with MIT’s Project New Media Literacies, OTW sponsored a video series about vids and vidding, including titles like “Why We Vid” and “What Is Vidding?” ( In addition, OTW sponsors Transformative Works and Cultures (, which I coedit with Kristina Busse, an online-only peer-reviewed fan studies journal that, under its reading of fair use, permits screen captures and embedded video as forms of quotation.

In the field of fan studies, one thing is clear: copyright owners’ hold on their properties is loosening as new forms of technology permit ripping, copying, and remixing, and their frantic attempts to regain their grip are forcing us all to rethink our relationship to popular cultural texts. Cohesive groups of self-identified fans have been analyzing and assessing their relationship to media since at least the 1960s, and their insights have much to offer those interested in the culture wars more generally.

Suggested reading

Abercrombie, Nicholas, and Brian Longhurst. Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination. London: Sage, 1998.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Jenkins, Henry. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins.

———. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

———. Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

———. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Lewis, Lisa A., ed. The Adoring Audience. London: Routledge, 1992.

Porter, David. Internet Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

Organization for Transformative Works.

Sanders, Joseph L., ed. Science Fiction Fandom. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.


Hellekson, Karen. Fan studies 101. SFRA Review 287 (Winter 2009): 5–7.


2 thoughts on “Fan studies 101

  1. Pingback: There’s an academic study for that | New Media Literacy

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