The Critical Fan Toolkit

About the Critical Fan Toolkit (CFT)

How can fans invest in antiracist, anti-misogynistic, anti-ableist, and anti-heteronormativity in our everyday fan practices? Even when the texts we love have glaring misrepresentations or complete erasures of people from particular backgrounds, how can we engage and celebrate these texts while still being critical of them? This toolkit seeks to explore and provide guidelines for bettering our everyday practices to be more ethical, critical, and justice-centered fans.

The Critical Fan Toolkit is a dissertation project created by Cara Marta Messina, a Ph.D. candidate in the English department focusing on Writing and Rhetoric at Northeastern University. Read more about her and her positionality here.

Dissertation Exigency: Fandoms, Fanfiction, and Critical Fans

This dissertation continues and contributes to scholarly and public conversations in writing/rhetoric studies and fan studies. Fan studies is an interdisciplinary field that appears in media and new media fields, writing studies, digital humanities, communications, and other fields that examine writer-reader communications and cultural texts. Writing studies is invested in writer-reader relationships, focusing on context, rhetoric, and audience--how can writers successfully convey and develop particular arguments and creative ideas to reach particular audiences in particular times and publics? This toolkit thinks through how fans, specifically critical fans, are always-already rhetorically engaged, engaging in an ever-changing media and social media landscape while simultaneously resisting normative narratives around gender, sexuality, ability status, and race.

Fan communities are created around the enjoyment of particular cultural materials or artifacts–such as a television show, movie, book, or band. Fans are various ages (from elementary school to people who have long been out of school), races, genders, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, and educational backgrounds. Typically fans in fan communities discuss the original cultural materials through forums or other forms of communication, produce materials that reimage the original materials (such as fan art or fanfiction), cosplay (or “costume play”), and other modes of engagement.

One important phenomenon that occurs in fan communities is writing, in particular writing fanfiction. While not all fans write fanfiction, all who write fanfiction participate in fan communities. One of the major goals of fanfiction is to explore, reimagine, and claim democratic ownership over the original cultural materials’ stories, characters, and universes. Reimagining stories has been around as long as stories have. Virgil’s Aeneid (29–19 BC) revolves around the character Aeneas, from Homer’s Iliad. Postcolonial retellings, like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, reimages canonical tales from different perspectives to share erased stories. Before the internet, casual fanfiction writers–writers who are not paid for their labors–used to publish, writer for, and read fan-created zines to share their work (Russ, 1985). Today, there are various online spaces where fanfiction writers publish their work, such as Fanfiction.net, Tumblr, Deviant Art, WattPad, and Archive of Our Own. Whether fanfiction online, in-person, or circulated through snail mail, fanfiction writing publics allow fans to engage in conversations with other fans, provide and receive feedback on writing, and celebrate each other as well as the cultural materials that they love.

This dissertation focuses on a specific faction of fanfiction writers: critical fans. Critical fans are fans of any cultural material or icon(s) who challenge or subvert systems of oppression–such as racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, homophobia, and ableism–through their everyday fan engagements, such as writing/reading fanfiction, posting on forums, and creating fan art. The phrase "critical fans" comes from the works of andré carrington, Paul Booth, Rukmini Pande, Alexis Lothian, and other fan scholars, as these fan scholars point to how fans can resist forms of oppression.

Basic Framework and Research Questions

This dissertation brings together two frameworks: critical fandoms and rhetorical genre studies (rhetorical genre studies). To read more about both frameworks, visit the dissertation frameworks section. I will provide a brief description of each framework before introducing my research questions.

Critical fandoms as defined by Alexis Lothian “[are] the ways that members of fan communities use diverse creative techniques to challenge the structures and representations around which their communities are organized” (Lothian 2018, p. 372). Critical fans are simultaneously critiquing the media they love as well as the communities in which they participate.

Rhetorical genre studies (RGS) defines genres as “typified rhetorical actions in recurrent situations” (Miller, 1984). Genres, then, are not passive labels we search at a bookstore, but rather actions that creators take to participate in particular genres. Genres as actions have several components, including audience, context, conventions, anticipated responses, and ideologies; anticipated responses, ideologies, and conventions are relevant for this dissertation.

Genre conventions are the particular typified, recurrent actions that appear in genres. Fans may understand these conventions as tropes, or recurring narrative devices used in media. Participating in genres are also interwoven with anticipated responses; when we participate in specific genres, we have anticipated responses in mind. These anticipated responses are called uptakes. Uptakes are how writers may respond to a particular genre with another genre based on community and social expectations. Sometimes, these anticipated responses are explicit, but these responses are not always anticipated by the original genre participant, but rather anticipated in other networks. Fanfiction, then, is a form of uptake: in fan communities, writing fanfiction is an anticipated reaction to a cultural material--fanfiction is not always an television or movie writers’ anticipated responses while creating, but within fandom networks, fanfiction is expected.

These conventions and uptakes also have social, cultural, and political ideologies embedded in them, as they became conventional or anticipated for a reason.

The overarching research question in this dissertation is: How and why do fans resist harmful cultural ideologies in their uptakes of fan genres? Based on this question, this dissertation will explore three sub-research questions:

  • How can the resistance to or the reinforcement of cultural ideologies be traced in fanfiction genres?
  • How can critical fandom practices be traced in fans’ uptakes of the original cultural material and fanfiction genres?
  • How can critical fan pedagogies be made useable for instructors and fans alike?

Who Are Critical Fans?

Critical fans are fans of any cultural material or icon(s) who challenge or subvert systems of oppression–such as racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, homophobia, and ableism–through their everyday fan engagements, such as writing/reading fanfiction, posting on forums, and creating fan art. The phrase "critical fans" comes from the works of andré carrington, Paul Booth, Alexis Lothian, and other fan scholars, as these fan scholars point to how fans can resist forms of oppression.

More to come soon!