The Critical Fan Toolkit

About Critical Fan Pedagogy


Critical fan pedagogy centers cultivating and strengthening critical awareness by engaging in fan genres and communities. Through critical social actions, fans can actively resist hegemonic and often oppressive ideologies that appear across mainstream cultural materials as well as the very communities in which they participate. In other words, we look to fan practices to define critical fan pedagogy; we look to the work they are always-already creating to better understand how these practices are, in fact, pedagogical.

As Eric Darnell Prtichard (2018) demonstrates in his book Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy, self pedagogy is an essential method for people—particularly marginalized folks—to learn how to navigate social and political systems, especially when those systems are not designed for them. Pritchard specifically points to "restorative literacies," or literacy development practices that are a form of self-pedagogy. He introduces self-pedagogy as an essential area for himself, and more generally Black queer folks, who navigate and learn to survive in heteronormative, homophobic, and racist institutions. For the folks Pritchard interviewed and in his analysis of archival materials, forms of self-pedagogy were crucial to navigating everyday life, community and identity formation, becoming political and social activists, and understanding the self in relation to a larger culture and society.

Fandoms demonstrate a form of self-pedagogy, or as Paul Booth argues, fandoms are the “classroom of the future.” Fandoms are spaces where fans analyze different media and creatively reimagine or transform aspects of that media. Specifically, Booth refers to fans’ critical thinking practices around hegemonic cultures. Hegemonic cultures refers to the normalized narratives—tropes, people and stories who are represented, and how these representations reflect ideas around gender, race, sexuality, and other aspects of identity and positionality—that permeate cultural materials, specifically mainstream cultural materials. Analyzing hegemonic cultures relies on an understanding of what is mainstream as well as why it may be mainstream. While mainstream trends often change, there are underlying historical, political, and ideological patterns that emerge.

One glaring ideological thread is the role of white supremacy. In most cultural media, white supremacy is the norm: main characters or heroes are usually white, while sidekicks, supportive friend, and even villain roles are filled by actors of color. By recognizing the hegemonic ideologies that dominate these mainstream cultures, fans can begin to resist these ideologies in their own fan composing practices. However, this effort needs to be conscious and decisive. For those who know Game of Thrones well, the white supremacy and glorification of White, Western cultures is glaring; simply looking at who lives, who dies, who the heroes are, and who barely gets screen time demonstrates these racial and ethnic values. White supremacy, however, does not begin or end in the context of the show. The show was created in a larger cultural context, a culture that celebrates whiteness. As the Game of Thrones data analysis results demonstrate, white supremacy in the GoT fandom, or the focus on white characters, mirrors the white supremacy in the show. While fandoms can be the classroom of the future, as Booth argues, fan scholars and fans must acknowledge the ways in which systems of oppression are replicated and entangled in fan communities. How, then, can critical fan pedagogy teach fans and writers to resist these dominant and often violent ideologies, when these ideologies may be present in their own communities and even their own work?

Turning to fan scholars who heavily center critical race theory and racial literacies demonstrates the ways in which fans resist white supremacy as well as other systems of oppression. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Amy Stornaiuolo (2016) construct a taxonomy for “restorying,” which they define as “reshaping narratives to better reflect a diversity of perspectives and act of asserting the importance of one’s experience in a world that tries to silence subaltern voices” (p. 314). They provide six methods of restorying: transforming time, place, perspective, mode, metanarrative, and character identity. For many fan scholars, identity-bending is one of the most heralded forms of critical fan practices. andré carrington (2012) argues that fan composing practices can be critical forms of reception. He specifically looks at racebending, when a fan transforms the race of a character--usually a white character, as a form of criticism.

Forms of identity-bending and restorying are not enough, though. Consider a classroom, where there are a diversity of perspectives. Does a white student racebending a white character demonstrate the same critical prowess as a Black student racebending a white character? When are forms of identity bending empowering, and when can they potentially falter and reify problematic representations of people of color?

In critical fan pedagogy, representation itself is not enough. Critical fans expose themselves to fan theorizing and fan activism, understanding how their own representations can either subvert or reify systems of oppression. Critical fans often are doing this theorizing already, both by reading academic theory and engaging with other critical fans on Twitter, Tumblr, and other fan platforms centered around discussion. Critical fans, as fandoms, thrive in communities that center justice, antiracism, and queerness. This next section will discuss pillars of critical pedagogy and how these pillars may be applied to critical fan pedagogy.

Critical Pedagogy

I turn to critical pedagogy to specify how critical fan pedagogies may develop and the types of theorizing and praxis needed for fans interested in developing their critical practices as well as instructors interested in incorporating critical fan pedagogies. Critical pedagogy stems from Paulo Freire’s term conscientização, or critical consciousness. Brazil’s political landscape radially transformed in the 1960s under the Fifth Brazilian Republic; Freire, a political exile, was teaching adult learners about literacy, heavily focusing on developing their critical consciousness. The goal of conscientização is to empower those who are oppressed to liberate themselves from the constraints imposed by the oppressors; Freire refers to this as prescription:

“Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber's consciousness. Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor” (p. 46).

One of his main methods helping learners develop their critical consciousness was to implement a dialogic, horizontal pedagogy, rather than a top-down education. He did not want to teach learners how to do something, but rather demonstrate how theorizing can transform perspectives and potentially break prescribed behavior. Freire’s radical pedagogy is one that permeates through disciplines like rhetoric, composition, communication, education, and literacy studies.

bell hooks (1994) extends--and critiques--Freire’s work, addressing both the phallocentrism of his language and perspective, while also valuing the power of his work. She acknowledges a connection between the people Freire taught and many Americans, specifically Black Americans. For hooks, Freire not only theorized, but embodied his theories through praxis, or the interdependent relationship between theory and practice. hooks’ Black feminist pedagogy centers theory as a liberatory practice. For hooks, theorizing is not enough; feminist theory, she argues, can be impenetrable or represent only one particular point of view in order to “fit in” with academic elitism and intellectualism. The value of theory, especially for Black women who are often critiqued by elitist cultures, is the liberatory practice of which theory can pave the path. In her pedagogy, hooks prioritizes community development, love, hope, and representation. She hopes to develop critical consciousness, focusing specifically on Black feminist practices and Black women.

More to come!