The Critical Fan Toolkit

Dissertation Framework

Everyone is a fan of something, but I don’t need to tell you that. Fan communities can be found everywhere, from online forums, to conventions like ComicCon or RuPaul's DragCon, to the parking lot of a baseball game, to a concert hall. Fans have shaped our culture and how texts are consumed; they speak, and production companies and textual creators listen. Fan communities develop and implement particular practices, and often these practices shift depending on the context. This project explores particular practices in fanfiction–specifically fanfiction written about The Legend of Korra and Game of Thrones–that resist white supremacy, racism, misogyny, and ableism. In a sense, everyday fan practices can challenge normative, harmful narratives to instead celebrate all types of bodies, knowledge, and identities that are often ignored, erased, or have violence enacted upon in the texts we consume and how we choose to respond to these texts.

This project believes deeply in fanfiction as a form of resistance, and this resistance can change the world as we all implement ethical and justice-centered practices into our everyday work. That is why this disseration is a public, digital dissertation available to all fans with internet access who are interested in or committed to critical practices and perspectives in their work.

Visit this project's ongoing bibligraphy page for citation information

Fan Studies Meets Writing Studies

Fan studies scholars have studied sites like Archive of Our Own (AO3) for various purposes, including the democratic approach to its creation in which volunteer fans come together, the structure of its information system, and its relationship with academic scholarship through the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW); in fact, several members on the current OTW board are academics–such as Kristina Busse–who write fan scholarship.

Since the 1980s, fan studies scholars have celebrated the modes of resistance fan writers take up as they produce and read fan texts as well as create publics in which these texts circulate (Russ, 1985; Lamb & Veith, 1986; Jenkins, 1992). Scholars in Writing and Rhetoric have studied fan communities to explore writing development (Roozen, 2009), fans’ negotiations of their politics and the politics represented in the cultural texts they love (Summers, 2010), fanfiction as a remix literacy (Stedman, 2012), and the ways in which fans’ produce and contribute to reimagining the original cultural materials (Potts, 2015; DeLuca, 2018). Yet, the pedagogical implications, literacies, and genres of fanfiction and fan communities as well as the intersection of these in terms of writers’ identities and knowledge-making practices are still understudied.

Fanfiction literacies exist in Gutiérrez’s (2008) Third Space, as their writing, reading, and performative activities always-already focus on transformative ends. Black women write fanfiction about their favorite texts that have often erased them, such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, as ways to challenge cultural norms that have done violence upon them (Thomas & Stornaiuolo, 2016; Adewunmi, 2016). Queer people explore moments of queerbaiting in cultural texts. “Queerbaiting” is a moment in a cultural text in which two characters of the same gender seem to be inching towards a blossoming romance; however, this romance is never made canon and often the sexual tension/experience is mocked by the original cultural material. I mention Sherlock Holmes because there is a famous moment in Season 3 when Sherlock and Moriarty almost kiss–it turns out, though, that this was another character’s fantasy and never “happened” in the Sherlock canon. Fans write stories about the what if: what if Sherlock and Moriarty kissed? Fan writers re-imagine characters as transgender or gender non-conforming (Dym, Brubaker, & Fiesler, 2018) and multilingual writers’ use fanfiction genres to develop their own understanding of and ownership over their non-native languages (Black, 2009).

Critical Fans

In Thomas and Stornaiuolo’s (2016) article “Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice,” Thomas and Stornaiuolo create a taxonomy of the different restorying methods used in fan-produced texts, such as fanfiction or fan art; restorying is the “reshaping narratives to better reflect a diversity of perspectives and experiences” (p. 314). Thomas and Stornaiuolo focus specifically on fans of color who race-bend beloved characters, such as Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, in their restories. The “restorying” framework and taxonomy they create based on their data analysis and collection demonstrates the content and formal methods writers use to re-write the texts they love. Thomas and Stornaiuolo’s restorying framework explores the content and forms of fanfiction and fan art, showing how Black writers–particularly young Black women–seize ownership over the stories and narratives that erase or mis-represent them.

This restorying framework resonates with the notion of “critical fandoms.” As Paulo Freire advocates in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, critical consciousness is the exploration of and resistance to systems of power and oppression that permeate social and political norms. The definition of “critical fandom” carries Freire’s ideas to fanfiction and fan genres, particularly when thinking about the exclusive cultural ideologies reinforced and embedded in original cultural materials. In 2013, andré carrington argues that fan fiction is “critical reception,” or how fans challenge hegemonic and harmful mainstream narratives in their practices; his work centers fans of color, as the recent Transformative Works and Cultures special issue titled "Fans of color, fandoms of color he co-edited with Abigail De Kosnik demonstrates.

Alexis Lothian’s definition of “critical fandom” continues carrington’s work by defining how fan practices can be critical (or not): “critical fandoms [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). Lothian’s definition partially comes from Paul Booth’s (2012) call for academics to both “listen to fandom; and it is our responsibility as fans to promote critical fandom in all our work” (emphasis mine). Similarly to how restorying views representation as mirroring and resisting systemic oppression, “critical fandom” focuses on fan practices that actively challenging white supremacy, gender inequality, abelism, and homo/transphobia. These practices, however, are not always “restorying” original texts, but rather a collective of all the fan genres, from fanfiction to online discussion board conversations.

Rhetorical Genre Studies: Identifying Critical Fan Practices

Despite this work in critical fandom and fan studies scholarship, there has not been a naming of genres as a social action. Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) defines genre as a “social action”, stemming from Carolyn Miller's (1984) definition that argues genres are "typified rhetorical actions." Particular ideologies are embedded within these social actions; genres are not merely categories, but rather a complex system of conventions, expectations, contexts, and ideologies that people take up as they participate in genres. Fanfiction as an overarching genre–as there are a multitude of fanfiction subgenres–is the practice of taking a cultural material and reimagining it in some way. Ideologies in this genre shift based on context, but these ideologies can be explored by viewing fanfiction as an uptake. Uptake is the interdependent relationships between genres, specifically the anticipated responses to a genre in particular contexts that have been deemed appropriate based on place, time, frame, and function (Freadman, 1994 & 2002). In fanfiction, fans’ uptake both the original cultural material as well as the conventions and expectations in fanfiction genres and publishing platforms.

A Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) perspective could offer a new lens to study fanfiction, particularly fan uptakes. Moreover, fan communities as a site to research genre could enrich RGS scholarship. While RGS scholars have traced generic uptakes, conventions, and ideologies, they have been less interested in talking to individual writers about their choices when participating in genres; most RGS studies use textual analysis methods. Anthony Parés’s (2002) seminal work on Inuit social worker women provides an example of working with writers along with reading the texts they produce, but his is one of the only. Fan studies, however, have always centered individual fans and the writers’ practices by conducting interviews or exploring online spaces and texts (Black, 2008, 2009; Roozen, 2009; Summers, 2010).

How this Project Incorporates These Frameworks

This project builds off “restorying” and “critical fandom” to trace how fans resist or reinforce cultural ideologies in their uptakes of the original cultural materials and fanfiction genres. I refer to “critical fan” practices as the ways in which fans resist harmful and exclusive cultural ideologies in their uptakes; specifically, critical fandom practices are the thoughtful integrations the politics of power, gender, sexuality, disability, and race in their fans’ participations in fan genres in order to combat homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, and ableism.

Research Questions