On Fanification

A recent conversation on gender and fandom hosted at Henry Jenkins’s blog prompted me to hold forth on the “fanification” of current media — that is, my perception that mainstream television and movies are displaying ever more cultlike and niche-y tendencies even as they remain giant corporate juggernauts. Nothing particularly earthshaking in this claim; after all, the bifurcation and multiplication of TV channels in search of ever more specialized audiences is something that’ s been with us since the hydra of cable lifted its many heads from the sea to do battle with the Big Three networks.

My point is that, after thirty-odd years of this endless subdivision and ramification, texts themselves are evolving to meet and fulfill the kinds of investments and proficiencies that — once upon a time — only the obsessive devotees of Star Trek and soap operas possessed. The robustness and internal density of serialized texts, whether in small-screen installments of Lost or big-screen chapters of Pirates of the Caribbean, anticipates the kind of scrutiny, dissection, and alternate-path-exploring appropriate to what Lizbeth Goodman has called “replay culture.” More troublingly, these textual attributes hide the mass-produced and -marketed commodity behind the artificially-generated underdog status of the cult object: in a kind of adaptive mimicry, the center pretends that it is the fringe. And audiences, without knowing they are doing so, complete the ideological circuit by acting as fans, even though the very notion of “fan” becomes insupportable once it achieves mainstream status. (In other words, to quote The Incredibles, if everyone’s a fan, then no one is.)

As evidence of the fanification of mainstream media, one need look no further than Alessandra Stanley’s piece in this Sunday’s New York Times. In her lead essay for a special section previewing the upcoming fall TV season, Stanley writes of numerous ways in which today’s TV viewer behaves, for all intents and purposes, like the renegade fans of yore — mapping, again, a minority onto a majority. Here are a few quotes:

… Viewers have become proprietary about their choices. Alliances are formed, and so are antipathies. Snobbery takes root. Preferences turn totemic. The mass audience splintered long ago; now viewers are divided into tribes with their own rituals and rites of passage.

A favorite show is a tip-off to personality, taste and sophistication the way music was before it became virtually free and consumed as much by individual song as artist. Dramas have become more complicated; many of the best are serialized and require time and sequential viewing. If anything, television has become closer to literature, inspiring something similar to those fellowships that form over which authors people say they would take to the proverbial desert island.

In this Balkanized media landscape, viewers seek and jealously guard their discoveries wherever they can find them.

Before the Internet, iPhones and flash drives, people jousted over who was into the Pixies when they were still a garage band or who could most lengthily argue the merits of Oasis versus Blur. Now, for all but hardcore rock aficionados, one-upmanship is more likely to center around a television series.

Stanley concludes her essay by suggesting that to not be a fan is to risk social censure — a striking inversion of the cultural coordinates by which geekiness was once measured (and, according to the values of the time, censured). “People who ignore [TV’s] pools and eddies of excellence do so at their own peril,” Stanley writes. “They are missing out on the main topic of conversation at their own table.” Her points are valid. I just wish they came with a little more sense of irony and even alarm. For me, fandom has always been about finding something authentic and wonderful amid the dross. Fandom is, among other things, a kind of reducing valve, a filter for what’s personal and exciting and offbeat. If mass media succeeds in de-massing itself, what alternative — what outside — is left?

2 thoughts on “On Fanification

  1. At the same time, I find the role of procedurals and of reality interesting here. As a genre, procedurals seem much less open to fanification. Yes, I know they *do* have fans, but rarely do things like CSI, Law and Order, and House have the same kind of developed fandoms as do other genres and texts. Meanwhile, reality often calls for and invites fandom, but in an intense 4 month burst before changing the ingredients (hence, for instance, many people I know will follow Amazing Race or Survivor religiously for a season, then give it a break for one or two. Would anyone do that with Heroes or Lost, by comparison?). Maybe these two genres are the islands (along with some sitcoms) in a seas fanification, not only for the non-fans, but also for the fans (certainly, I’ll often pick a procedural over a new show when I know I just don’t have *time* for another fandom) 🙂

  2. I agree, Jonathan — and I didn’t mean to totalize the mediascape quite so sweepingly. (Seems I’m *always* totalizing.) In her Times article, Stanley in fact mentions using reruns of Law & Order (the Jerry Orbach years) as a “palate cleanser” between long draughts of continuity. Like you, I sometimes get worn out from all the narrative universes that beckon for attention: I stalled halfway through the first season of Jericho, choosing instead the self-contained pleasures of House.

    As always, a dialectic is generated: while seriality metastasizes in one part of the televisual corpus, swarms of episodic antibodies provide relief.

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