The Critical Fan Toolkit

Implications: Critical Uptakes and “Familiarity with the Borders of the World”

Just as fandoms are everywhere, so, too, are critical fans. Anyone can be a critical fan. Fan community writing processes are ever-changing, often prompted by politics that circulate within and across communities as well as the politics that individual fans bring to their communities. Because fandoms are community-defined and community-driven, fans have an epistemological understanding for how their communities operate and, often, how they want to transform their communities. Fans’ critical uptakes of both the source text and specific fan genres are a place where this transformation happens. These critical uptakes include implementing and practicing content moderation guidelines in fan spaces; tweeting about source texts with particular hashtags to reach particular parts of the fandom (such as #DemThrones with Black GOT fans); responding to another fan on a discussion board to critique their explicit misogyny; and of course, writing fanfiction that critiques and reimagines dominant ideologies and how these ideologies are interwoven within systems of power.

As the “Fandoms by Numbers” portion shows, dominant ideologies are interwoven within fandom practices. Notions of which characters are more interesting or which characters are more desirable align with race, gender, and ability. Fandoms also uptake politics within the source text as they write fanfiction, valuing the characters which the source text also values. We see this with both GOT and TLOK in that the patterns across both fandoms often replicate the ideologies embedded within each text. TLOK, through its valuing of queer love, inspires fans to engage more with stories about queer politics and love. GOT, through its valuing of whiteness, leads to fans valuing White characters over characters of color. No fandom is perfect in its politics, just as no fan is perfect in their politics. What matters are our everyday interactions and intra-actions within fandoms.

Because fandoms are a collection of fans with diverse investments, backgrounds, and politics, it is important to center individual fans’ interpretations of their own communities and their descriptions of their uptakes. The fan authors who I interviewed are not perfect in their politics, as no fan is perfect in their politics. However, they each demonstrate a meta-awareness of community expectations and politics that impact their own fan practices. For instance, when fans examined the “Fandoms by Numbers” results, each provide explanations for results and share their own experience in the fandom that relate to those results. More importantly, they each express a desire to do better, to be a better writer, to be a better ally, or to be a better activist. The fanfictions they wrote, the ones I interviewed them about, are just instances of steps in their journey as lifetime learners and thinkers. There will always be another show, another fandom, another fanfiction. And each individual fan has the power to inspire other fans.

Fandoms are not separate from systems of power, like white supremacy and heteronormativity. However, because fandom communities are also more democratic spaces, fans constantly dialogue with each other and transform their own communities. There is a circulation of information, ideas, conventions, joy, and interpretations that is almost impossible to trace. Fans constantly move between communal spaces, crossing from YouTube comments to AO3 comments. Fan generic conventions and politics are constantly transforming because of this heightened circulation. What makes using uptake an importance lens for fanfiction is that there are community-defined expectations for how fans respond to particular genres, from the source texts to fan genres. These expectations, however, change based on the physical or digital space, the source text, and the tags used. To attempt to perfectly define these genres does a disservice to the fan genres. Tracing fans’ uptake — from the genres that prompted them, to their uptake enactments, to examining the final uptake artifacts — demystifies the process of writing fanfiction and provides a layout for critical uptakes in all contexts.

The first step of a critical uptakes is to recognize and critique dominant ideologies that are interwoven in every aspect of our lives, from the systems of power that drive our institutions to the individual actions we and others take. Fans often critique the source texts they love, pointing out whose stories are ignored and why. They also often critique writers, producers, production companies, and even actors, pointing out where they fail. For fans whose lived experiences are marginalized by systems of power—women, queer people, people of color, disabled people — these critiques are even more important. As Kittya Cullen says, “it takes a special kind of familiarity with the borders of the world to imagine a world that is different from what is presented to you.” Developing a “familiarity with the borders” — the systems of power that feel impossible to challenge and the dominant ideologies that can poison every interaction and space — is the first step in enacting a critical uptake. The second step, then, is to recognize how these dominant ideologies are embedded within discourse communities and genres. Fans demonstrate meta-awareness of their communities; they can each define genres, community expectations, and fan politics as well as how these intersect with “the borders” of the external world.

The third step is recognizing the genres that prompt uptakes are much more complicated than a linear causality. In some cases, like in classrooms, uptake is easier to trace as student’s uptake the assignments given by teachers. Even then, the design of assignments are impacted by teachers’ own lived experiences, institutional factors, the texts being assigned and read, and the teachers’ communities and expectations. The same messiness of genres that prompt uptakes is found in fan uptakes. Fandoms can be found across different physical and digital spaces; there are different genres in each space that may prompt responses somewhere else. The genre may be the source text, itself, but there are other genres that prompt fan uptakes, such as community writing prompts, discussion board posts, fan art, or even reading another person’s fanfiction that you fall in love with. To explicitly lock down the genre that prompts a fanfiction uptake is almost impossible, unless there is a specific writing prompt the fan author is working from, as in the case of Dialux’s and Gillywulf’s fanfictions. However, to understand uptake as a response to a multitude of genres, from multiple communities, all with multiple politics and values allows for a much more complex set of expectations and conventions that each writer works within. This, then, provides writers space to develop, reimagine, and resist dominant ideologies.

The final step is the critical uptake enactment, itself, or the actual act of composing. As Aria says, fans — especially fans invested in queer readings and politics — are “going to tell the story” that was not told. The act of telling these stories — as restorying, counterstorytelling, postcolonial retellings, queering, however you choose to define this process — is the critical uptake. Turning back to the example of the teacher’s assignment, each student responds to the writing prompt based on their own lived experiences, the things happening to them in their lives at that moment, their different interpretations of the text, and even their feelings towards the professor and the classroom. Some students may be “familiar…with the borders of the world,” as Kittya would say, where they recognize what or who may be missing in the assignment’s expectations. Inviting critical uptakes not only invites students to critique the “borders of the world,” but also invites students to challenge the institutional expectations, of whose voices, knowledges, and stories matter. The action of a critical uptake can be scary. Pressing the “submit” button can be even more terrifying, whether you’re a student reimagining the research article genre or a fanfiction author critiquing your own fandom.

What happens when we make room for these critical uptakes in our classes and in all communities in which we participate? Many of us, even those within more rigid institutions where critique is not welcome, can enact critical uptakes. However, it is also important to recognize when enacting critical uptakes may be harmful for particular people. Here, I think specifically about the Inuit social workers who Anthony Paré writes about; these Inuit women must follow a strict set of conventions in their uptakes or they could lose their jobs. Who gets to enact critical uptakes and where? Specifically, who has the power and privilege to enact critical uptakes? For instance, will a Black woman scholar be penalized for enacting a critical uptake, while her White woman colleague may not receive the same kind of punishment? In fan communities, how do Black and White fans’ experiences of critiquing fandom racism differ? What can every fan invested in resisting systems of power do to invite critical uptakes in general, invite critical uptakes of the fandom, and practice care for fans — especially fans of color — who are already doing this work?

I want to invite all those invested in transforming institutions and systems of power to think through how they enact and prompt change, especially those in positions of power. In what ways do the expectations around our composing practices reinscribe dominant ideologies? How can those in positions of power — administrators, teachers, supervisors, investigators — prompt and invite critical uptakes? How can we foster communities where next generations not only critique these dominant ideologies, but transform systems of power? How can we continue to mirror and learn from the critical fans — those who write thousands upon thousands of words for no pay, those who transform how digital platforms work, and those who sometimes receive blowback from their own communities — to both inspire and enact critical uptakes in our everyday practices?