Meenakshy asked me a question on Monday about fans, and then I gave a way way too long answer in response, because that was what my Masters Thesis was on! Fandom and how Hindi film inspires a different kind of fan. Anyway, I thought I might as well take my answer and turn it into a post. (my thesis is here if you want more details and and original research related to this)
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of fans, “male” fans and “female” fans. Male fans focus on plot, on mystery, on memorizing trivia. They claim an intellectual connection to the material rather than emotional. Female fans own their emotional connection. They talk about how something makes them “feel” rather than how it makes them “think”. And when they discuss a work, they are more likely to talk about characters and relationships than central mysteries.
If you look at the works that tend to inspire the most devoted fans in the West, they tend to be ones that are 70% male and more like 30% female. Think of things like Star Trek, or Star Wars, or Dr. Who, or Game of Thrones. The fan discussion revolves around central mysteries, around memorizing bits of trivia (like learning the Klingon language), or around competitions, which episode is “best” who is the “best” doctor.
But within those discussions, the “female” element is still present. Star Trek is a story of a three way relationship, Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk and Bones McCoy. Star Wars is about Luke and Leia and Han Solo. Dr. Who is about The Doctor and his Companion. Game of Thrones is about the characters you care about (the many many characters) and therefore keep you interested in the complicated story, make you care about what happens.
(Can you imagine having a conversation about whether Shahrukh is better as “Raj” or “Rahul” that did not immediately descend into more interesting discussion of themes, relationships, costumes, and everything else? It’s not about simple ratings of better and worse, it’s about a lot more complexity than that for female fans)
For a work to find dedicated passionate fans, in the Western version of fandom, it needs both. The original Star Wars sequels failed because they did not create characters and relationships that the audience cared about. Dr. Who reached it’s current massive international success when it started focusing even more than before on the “companion” relationship. The many many Game of Thrones imitations have failed because they focused on the sex and violence and missed the characters at the heart of it.
In the West, “fandom” means something very specific. It means going to fan conventions, dressing in perfectly representative costumes, collecting memorabilia, and of course having lengthy discussions, online or off, about all the various data surrounding your fandom. And if you do not fit in that definition, you are not a “true” fan.
(This guy, with the Sanju tattoo, would not be considered a “true” fan if he didn’t also attend conventions and dress up like Munna Bhai and generally fit a very specific definition)
Which is what has happened to many people who wish to participate in “female” style fandom in the West. If they try to start a conversation revolving around the 30% of a product that is relationship and character based, they will be shut down, told they are watching it “wrong”. And as fandom for media products has become more and more mainstream in the West, “female” voices are progressively being shut out.
Two things I should clarify. First, “female” is not the same as “woman”. “Female” means the general kind of behavior that is associated with that gender. “Woman” means biologically female. Fan communities and other groups are quicker to identify and dismiss “female” behavior if it comes from an actual woman, but they will behave the same way if that behavior comes from a man. The boy who suddenly breaks into the middle of a Star Wars discussion to say “why do you think Leia and Han broke up?” or the man at the fan convention who brings up the question of whether or not Spock was in love with Kirk. They will be told they aren’t “true” fans, they are focusing on the wrong things in the work, they are stupid and shallow and, well, “girly”.
Second thing to clarify is that much of this is new behavior. Fandom of media products has always been present, but it became taken over by “male” behavior an communities as recently as the 1920s and 30s with the rise of science fiction magazines and their thriving editorial and letter writing community. Which just grew bigger and bigger with the introduction of television, and then the internet.
Before that, fandom was a loose mixture of male and female behavior. You had young women dreaming over handsome stage actors, and young man discussing their favorite books, and mostly you had everyone just sort of mixed in together, male and female together, and every fandom together as well. It was as communication and connection became more possible that these vast nets of fan communities developed and hardened into divisions.
(Farah and Shahrukh here, no division)
But by the 1970s, it was set. A “fan” was a nerdy boy with glasses who talked about Star Trek. And on the other hand a “fangirl” was a ditzy idiot who screamed at The Beatles. Male and female, separate and definitely NOT equal.
There’s an odd sort of jujitsu move in how male and female fandom works. According to the male fans, they are smart and sensitive and unique and special, and the world unfairly hates them because of this. And on the other hand, female fans are pretty and mainstream and popular and have everything they want. But the reality is, the male fan is more accepted than the female, they have just spread this version of it. Female fandom is most often treated as a psychological affliction rather than a “reasoned” preference for a certain object. A weakness, rather than a strength. The same is true of male fans, but to a much much much much less degree.
While male fans were being teased through jokes in pop culture for liking Star Trek, female finds were being sent to the psychiatrist for liking The Beatles. Male fans were told that they found a place they could belong through their fandom and fan communities, female fans were told that their fandom was feeding some sort of psychosis within them. Men were fans of Star Trek because they were smarter than their classmates and therefore unable to make friends. Women were fans of The Beatles because of their overwhelming unhealthy sexual desires.
And too often the defense of female fandom is not accepting what they are, but rather arguing that they are in fact “male” fans, “real” fans, not “fangirls”. We see this constantly today, women demanding to be allowed at fan conventions, to be treated with respect on message boards, etc. etc. etc. I’ve even read academic articles talking about how the women were “mistakenly” thought to be not real fans just because they were women rather than appreciated for their true devotion.
(All these screaming women, not “real” fans)
But what is hidden in all of this is the parallel fandom community that has happily created it’s own life under the surface and unnoticed. The first fanfic was written by women, the first fan videos were made by women (as early as the 1960s, a female Star Trek fan put together a slideshow with music), the first fan conventions were female too, only they were for male movie stars so they didn’t “count”. And today there are websites focused on the “female” aspects of media products, safe places to let your “female” interests free. And they don’t need to be labeled “Girls” versus “Boys” like a bathroom, you can find them easily just by reading closely. For example, right now if I want to read about the emotional components of a TV show I will check out Previously.TV and their forums. If I want to read about the cultural place and plot discussion and political message of a TV show, I will check out TheAVclub.com and their comments section.
This is the fan studies as I was taught it in the west. And I realized pretty quickly that it didn’t fit with the fandom I knew from Indian film (not just Hindi, but all languages). There, the division was not “male” versus “female” but rather class based, “educated” let us say versus “uneducated”. With the “educated” rejecting entirely the identity of “fan” or even of people who watched Hindi films. While the vast vast vast majority of the world, the people who watched these films, fell into the “uneducated” category and also came closer to what in the west would be “female” rather than male. In fact, the presence of “male” style fandom was almost unknown in Indian film!
When I did my literature review for my Masters thesis, I read literally every single article that had been written about fans of Indian film at that time. And there was a clear majority and minority view. The “majority” view is that the films were worthless and were serving to “trick” the audience into enjoying them. They were spectacle and emotion and silly stars and were keeping the public from seeing the real problems of the world. They were a weakness.
This is the same argument that, for many years, scholars used for “female” style fandom. Romance novels, for instance, were dismissed as supporting the patriarchy, teaching women to be subservient and support the current system. But the problem with all those scholars is that they never ACTUALLY TALKED TO WOMEN!!!!! They just read the texts, without taking a moment to speak to the audience and find out what they are getting from it. There were similar studies of male fans, but they were much less common and were turned over a lot sooner. Because, well, men were the ones doing the studying and the writing. Which means you were much more likely to have someone writing this article who is also a fan of Star Trek than who also is a fan of Nora Roberts.
It’s the same problem with Indian film studies. If you are in the highest level of abstract humanities academia in India, you are unlikely to actually know someone, or be someone, who is a First Day First Show kind of fan of Indian film. Writing an article on the pathology of classical music fans and how it plays into a need to feel connected to a past that is no longer present and so on and so on would get you a lot of feedback immediately, but you can say anything you want about fans of popular Indian film and few people in your isolated academic world will question you.
(The village woman Lara Dutta, feeling pretty and happy and strong from seeing a Shahrukh Khan movie, is not going to have a conversation with a Delhi intellectual any time soon)
It’s also self-perpetuating. Even if you are that one person who might question it, you will likely stay silent because you think you are the only one. I experienced this myself while I was in grad school, the first time in my very first class when the teacher had us read an article on romance novel fandom. During the discussion, she casually said “of course, I wouldn’t know since I’ve never read these” and she put up some slides that were gently poking fun at the covers. It wasn’t anything mean or obvious, but it made me feel uncomfortable enough that I didn’t join in the discussion, or mention that I read romance novels myself, or share any information that I had about them (for instance, that most romance novel authors are highly educated with advanced degrees, which went against he assumption of the discussion). And so that teacher, and the other students, were able to continue with their assumptions.
In my seminar on fan studies, it was a lot more obvious. First, the teacher’s lectures on the history of fandom acknowledged the male/female split, but when discussing examples only used male ones! After a casual mention of the first fan gathering being for Rudolph Valentino, he went on to talk for 5 minutes about the science fiction magazines and their community from the same era. No discussion of movie fan magazines or the growth of movie star fan clubs, that was erased from the history of fandom. Not surprisingly, when I suggested that my final project be on fans of Indian film, his response was “but is there really a fan community for that?”
To him, a “fan community” meant conventions and costumes and rules and websites and on and on. He had no concept of the kind of fandom where a “fan gathering” wasn’t an annual convention, but rather a weekly visitation to Amitabh Bachchan’s gate. Where fan memorabilia wasn’t spending hundreds of dollars on some toy on ebay, but rather a framed photo in your dining room. And most of all where “fandom” wasn’t some intellectual exercise, but an emotional connection that went both ways.
(Not a fan event)
This is what “fan” meant to the Indian scholars, but they saw no value in it. Fans were dismissed as lower classes who went to the theater to escape into dreamland instead of confronting their problems. Movie stars were dismissed as foolish peddlers of dreams with nothing of value to offer to society. The entire massive exchange and relationship between audience and filmmakers was seen as a sickness.
There are a few brave wonderful scholars who have confronted this assumption. It’s a similar pattern to how “female” fandom and media products have been re-assessed in the west. The key is to ACTUALLY TALK TO FANS!!! Instead of theorizing about how they are experiencing media products, just ask them.
In the west, this has lead to the discovery that women are perfectly capable of reading against the grain and taking from products elements that give them strength in their daily life. Romance novels aren’t about upholding the patriarchy through selling romance, they can also be about destroying the patriarchy by showing male heroes who are powerless before their love for the female heroines. Soap operas aren’t about distracting you from the problems of the day, they are about showing you those problems (racism, women’s rights, etc.) in a different way. To use a specific example, Dirty Dancing isn’t an escapist teenage love story, it’s about class and religion and abortion and finding your own inner strength.
In Indian scholarship, talking to fans has lead to the discovery that they gain strength, not weakness, from their fandom. Rajnikanth isn’t just about young boys climbing billboards and dancing in the street, it is about the underclass gaining a sense of dignity and power. Helen isn’t just about sexy songs, she is about bringing sexuality into the public life in a non-judgemental way. And Amitabh is about “Agneepath”, about finding an inspiration and a strength to keep going somehow someway even when you have nothing left. Fans are finding something they need in these products.
You may have noticed that I don’t hide my own particular “fan” feelings in my writing. That is on purpose. The idea that “fandom” is something to be ashamed of, is a weakness, is part of a greater power structure. In the West, male versus female. In India, upper versus lower class. To claim your fandom is, in a small way, upsetting those power structures. Rejecting the lesson that there is something “wrong” something “weak” about you. And claiming something that gives you strength, something that the forces of those in power are trying to cut you off from in order to weaken you because they wish you to be more like them.
If you are reading and commenting on this blog, you are participating in a fan community and you are a “fan” whether or not you want to acknowledge it. Think about how your fandom gives you strength on a day to day basis, how it helps you to see the world differently, and why you may have been made to feel guilty or ashamed of it, and who has made you feel guilty and ashamed. And why they might have done so.