Fandom and Identity/Fandom as identity

by Keidra Chaney

Commentary on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Does racial identity influence fandom?
from Tumblr commentary on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Does racial identity influence fandom?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in fandom circles about diversity, identity and geek culture. There’s been a lot to cover, in the wake of the “diversity and Doctor Who” discussion and the recent facepalm-worthy comments from Todd MacFarlane and Mark Millar about diversity in comics at the Television Critics Association conference.

One of the things that keeps coming up for me is a continuing discussion about fandom ownership: who does fandom “belong” to? Normally on TLF the discussion of fandom ownership is centered around intellectual property and media texts. In this case, I am referring to a presumed ownership of fandom identity.

Fan communities and pop culture conversation becomes more than just a reflection of taste for people, it is a reflection of culture, upbringing. The shared language of pop culture and our pop culture tastes are an easy way to self-identify to the public — how we relate to the world. And in part due to online communications, how we relate to each other through these texts becomes more important to us, more a part of our daily lives. I’m not putting a value judgment on it — for now — I’m just observing.

Fan culture can be more than just a social community, it’s also identity, a tribe of sorts, and often those identities are connected to cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, class distinctions and presumptions. Think of all the online comments from people talking about how diversity dilutes “their” fandom, the presumption that fandom identity is owned by certain demographic subsections of people and that race or gender is a distraction to a story, rather than another element of storytelling. Like these delightful comments below:


So does Doctor Who “belong” to guys? To white guys? To white British guys? Because black people have Lando do we get to “have” Star Wars without being “politically incorrect”? Is that how this works?

But, of course, these distinctions are not just made in geek culture either. Sports fan identity doesn’t “belong” to women, but soaps or reality TV presumably does. In this funny/stereotype laden illustrated breakdown of metal fans, women fans don’t get to have an identity outside of being a woman in metal, because “metalhead identity” is male.

Of course now, many of the fandom conversations that used to be insular, or presumed private to a certain extent are made public via social media communities. The idea that people of color or women are “infiltrating fan culture” is of course a fallacy, we were always there, but an increasingly de-anonymized online culture means we’re no longer hiding in plain sight. And for some fans, being acknowledged within fandom is a priority, if not a prerequisite for participation. A couple of days ago I read the following post on the SexGenderBody tumblr (Warning, the blog itself occasionally has NSFW content if you feel like browsing.)


This was an interesting take for me, because it approaches fandom and identity in a way that I am personally not used to doing. My identity as a black woman will certainly not keep me from enjoying a well-done TV show or movie or album or keep me from participation in a fan community, just because I don’t see anyone like me. (hello, metal) But at the same time, I think it’s absolutely relevant and justified to call out fandom’s usual presumptions of a homogenous audience.

Is fandom a tribal endeavor? Are we, as audiences, attracted to pop culture texts (or more importantly fan communities) based on their reflections of our own lives, our own values? Maybe. The discussion about racial/cultural/gender diversity in fandom is ultimately about representation within those common conversations and stories that ostensibly serve to unite us all.

Comments (5)

Hello, this is my first time I’ve been on blog but I’ve found your very interesting so I will be definitely taking a trip back again!

I do often see fandoms as almost tribalistic (is that a word?) in their often exclusive nature as social groups. When you meet people, sharing an interest in a fandom is a way you can immediately connect with another. I just came back from travelling a few weeks ago and found that even through out mainland Europe, the topic of Game of Thrones was what often divided a large group of travelers who’d just met each other in to two smaller groups of conversation,between those who are fans and those who haven’t seen/read it.

However, I think the 12th Doctor issue is one that is separate to that of that of fandoms being limited to people of a certain race, gender. I know many people who thought that a female Doctor would be terrible but they still firmly held the belief that Doctor Who still “belonged” to women (they are female themself!) I think this was more of an issue of change (which I admit is odd considering the Doctor goes through a regeneration process every few years). People who believed the Doctor should stay male said this on the basis that “I’ve only ever seen him male” and incorporating another sex would just be too much of a change. However, for me, someone who finds change refreshing, I was pushing for a ginger, black, female Doctor!

I do agree with you that the lack of representation on a show will not deter me from watching it. I think relating to a certain character or a TV show successfully reflecting your own life is something that goes beyond race, gender, sexuality, etc. I have often found myself identifying with a character who, on those areas, is completely different to me but beneath this isn’t so much different. So I wouldn’t say diversity is a prerequisite for me enjoying a fandom at all.

Thanks for reading, Helena Hope you’ll visit TLF again soon. I do think DW has become much more of a female fandom since the RTD reboot and it’s interesting how many women seemed to be against the idea of a female doctor! I am definitely of the opinion that great TV/Film/etc has the ability to resonate universally, but I do think fans/audiences get hung up on how much they have in common with a character as a measurement of how “likable” they are.

Funny thing, I used to think that DW had been a male-majority fandom until the reboot with Eccelston, but after having gone to Chicago TARDIS and meeting women fans who have been part of the DW fan scene for so long, as well as reading those stories in the Chicks Dig/Queers Dig Timelords anthologies (I think there are 3 now), I’m not so sure. It does sound like women have been involved in the fandom longer and in greater numbers than is assumed, mostly because of how we’ve been conditioned to equate “nerd/geek” with “boys/men”. I also wonder if those women who loved DW were also active in areas of fandom men tended not to pay attention to, like fanfic.

I’m also somewhat baffled by the women who are against the idea of a female doctor, but women aren’t a hivemind and internalized sexism still plays a large part in how women tend to deal with other women in fandom. You don’t have to be a straight white cis guy to buy into maintaining the status quo.

I’m fascinated more and more by some of the implicit assumptions in discussions about who can relate to characters and why. There’s still a lot of “white characters can be relatable for everyone but PoC characters can only appeal to PoC” and “it’s ok for everyone to look at men as role models but only women/girls will look at other women as role models” attitudes remaining unexamined in those discussions.

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