The Critical Fan Toolkit

About Critical Fan Pedagogy

Introduction

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 experiences...an 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 and positionalities. 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 dominant ideologies. 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, feminism, 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 students' critical consciousness, focusing specifically on Black feminist practices and Black women.

Critical Fan Pedagogy Pillars

Freire and hooks’ pedagogies value several actions: dialogue, love, community-building, and representation. The goal embedded with all of these approaches is to develop critical consciousness, whether that criticism is of larger tyrannical government (Freire) or the more insidious racism and misogyny that enacts violence upon marginalized folks (hooks). However, each of these actions can be directly translated to critical fan practices.

Dialogue

Every fan is familiar with the role of dialogue in fandoms. Dialogue may be everything from Twitter conversations, to reposting something on Tumblr, to conversations in a hall at a convention, to discussions between friends. Dialogue centralizes a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, and how this exchange builds extensive fandom knowledge and analysis. Discussions, as pointed out by several of the fans interviewed for this dissertation, often analyze the cultural material. Forms of analysis will differ depending on the community the fan is a part of. For example, Kittya shares the tensions in the Supergirl fandom around Kara and Lena’s potential romance; Kittya says she and other like-minded, critical fans recognize their potential budding, queer relationship, while other fans argue that this is a glaring misinterpretation. While these dialogues can be difficult to happen, especially when anger and frustration is involved, they need to happen. Dialoguing, of course, is not enough; a critical dialogue requires listening and attempting to understand another point of view. The question then becomes how can critical fans dialogue?

Love in Action

What does love in action look like? As a student once asked me, “who the heck would spend so much time writing 100,000 words based on a cartoon?” First, I would and have — well, 80,000 words. Second, it was a fair question. Taking the time to write 100,000 words is not easy, especially if there is no financial compensation. So why do fanfiction writers do it? How can they do it? This, I argue, is love in action. hooks’ focus on love prioritizes feminist praxis, specifically an ethics of care, into her pedagogy; she teaches, writes, and leads with compassion, and hopes her students and readers do the same. As hooks (2003) argues, “Love will always move us away from domination in all its forms” (p. 137).

One of the running theories in fan studies is the importance of love in fandoms. Joanna Russ’ 1985 essay, one of the earliest fan studies essays, emphasizes the acts of love taken in fanfiction and fan zine composition. These labors of love, often uncompensated, drive fan communities and motivate fans to compose. Fans not only love the characters and stories from the source text, but love the different genres in fandoms. Fanfiction is not necessarily about the cultural materials, but the actual practices of writing fanfiction and connecting with others. In several of the interviews, critical fans gushed over their love for the cultural material, how they related to the stories, and also the ways in which they connected with their friends through their mutual love. It is through the action of love that critical fans may also be able to bridge anger and resentment, such as the tensions mentioned above in the Supergirl fandom. Love in action is one of the most difficult pillars of critical fan pedagogy, though, as it requires patience, forgiveness, and listening, even when the other party may be purposefully uncritical.

Community-Building

Attempting to define fan communities is an almost impossible job. The notion of community, itself, is already difficult to define, especially in writing studies. In their piece on intervening in how writing and literacy studies defines community, DeCamp and Cushman (2020) advocate for the notion of “intersectional community thinking,” which “can focus instead on ideas like intra-group difference and power dynamics, the roles of individuals in community formation, and the experiences of the multiply marginalized within communities that do not share their multiple marginalization” (p. 93). The notion of intersectional community thinking applies to fandoms in that fandoms are all about “intra-group difference,” especially since there are members that belong to multiple communities and these communities constantly cross over.

I turn back to bell hooks to better understand how the classroom as a community extends and overlaps with the intersectional community practices within fandoms. Throughout her career, hooks (1994, 2003) advocates that teachers need time away from the classroom, where the pressures of assessments, assignments, and grading can transform classrooms into more hostile spaces, top-down spaces. hooks (1994) advocates for dialogues in the classroom “to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences” (p. 131). The notion of teachers crossing boundaries resonates with how fans cross boundaries, moving from space to space, transforming their own communities and writing practices. She, too, talks about why dialogue is necessary to cross boundaries that are specifically “erected by” different positionalities and identities, all which link to notions of power, pointing back to DeCamp and Cushman’s definition of intersectional community thinking.

Fandoms constantly wrestle with the notion of power, whether this is critical fans critiquing their own fandom communities or fandoms critiquing capitalistic notions of ownership. Paul Booth’s (2015) advocacy for fan researchers and teachers learning from fan communities, as critical thinking is often heralded in these spaces. He points to how fans negotiate between loving a flawed canon while also building their own communities outside of this canon for themselves and others.

To teach fan studies and integrate critical fan pedagogies, then, is to not only teach fan studies scholars and methods for understanding fan communities, but to foster a communal space in which students see themselves as fans, as intersectional thinkers within a critical community.

In fandoms, there are few explicit hierarchies that exist, expect potentially those hierarchies from moderators to casual users or fans who make a living off their fandom practices. Fandoms, however, are not separate from more insidious hierarchies and dominant ideologies. Fandoms can reify white supremacy and other forms of racism — hierarchies that specifically hurt fans of color. Fans who attempt to critique these ideologies are often ignored or receive criticism, themselves, from other fans; fandoms are constantly changing, though, and fans — especially fans of color — often carve out their own spaces. Understanding fan communities as interlinked with systems of power, but also potential spaces for reimagining these systems of power demonstrates a pedagogical intervention in how we talk about writing, reading, and popular culture in the classroom.

Critical Uptake and Representation in Fandoms

As bell hooks and other Black feminists demonstrate in their own work, decentering whiteness and centering the margins is in itself a form of resistance (hooks, 1992; hooks 1994; hooks 2003; Thomas & Stornaiuolo, 2016; Thomas, 2019). Representation is more than just about inclusivity, but a radical reimagining of whose stories are valued. Thomas (2019) argues that the “imagination gap” in mainstream media hurts young Black students. She argues that media representation of Black and other non-White stories is limited, unlike the countless White stories and lived experiences that are represented. This representation, she argues, hurts Black children and young adults as they grow up and imagine the types of lives they may lead.

Representation is not the answer to combating white supremacy, but it is an important step. Whose stories are represented and how? How can teachers reimagine their curricula to not only represent more lived experiences, but de-center whiteness? How can our assignments, readings, assessment practices, in-class activities, and policies de-center whiteness and carve out space for different heuristics and knowledges? Critical fandoms are already spaces where this is happening, where fans can explore critical and radical politics, reimagine whose stories matter, and resist dominant ideologies. It is through the action of critical uptakes that fans re-imagine and restructure systems of power, resisting dominant ideologies through their everyday practices. How can teachers embrace this mode of resistance, demonstrating to students that critical uptakes, specifically critical fan uptakes, can happen everywhere?

Summarizing critical fan pedagogy

Critical fan pedagogy can be multiple types of pedagogy in one. It may be tracing, celebrating, and learning from critical fans; it may be using data to support critical fans’ critiques of mainstream popular culture texts or their own communities; it may be incorporating critical fan intersectional community thinking into the classroom; and it may be having students participate in critical fan uptakes, both defining fan uptakes and trying themselves. In implementing critical fan pedagogies into my own classroom, what I have learned in just how many people identify as fans and have explicitly participated in fan genres, whether writing fanfiction or other forms. Most students, too, are already incorporating critical uptakes in their writing practices if they are engaging in fan communities. Just as Paul Booth argues (2015), so many fandoms are already critical classrooms. So how can we continue to build classrooms to mirror and learn from them? And when do we need to, as hooks (1994) advocates, step outside our own classrooms to reimagine our pedagogy?