Quick Reflections on FSN 2015

Having just returned from UEA outside Norwich, I thought I’d reflect on a fantastic weekend. For a conference virgin like myself, I could think of no better conference to be ‘my first’ than FSN. As a both a field and a community it is welcoming to all.

Not only was I attending the conference, but thanks to some gentle encouragement I was also participating in the ‘speed-geeking’ session towards the end of the first day, in which I got to share my interests and initial research into sitcom fans. Again, major props to the FSN for delivering a format that is flexible and far less intimidating for individuals like myself, who are not part of the academy proper.

This blog is more of a personal reminder of themes and topics I’d lie to look at further, but will also (more than likely) feature some rambling commentary about my experiences of the weekend.

Key Notes on the Keynotes

The odd things is about my approach to fan studies is that I don’t think I share too many common aspects to a lot of FS scholars – I don’t particularly have a ‘fandom’ I’m part of, I’m in no way a ‘prosumer’, creating content. My own experience of fandom is more closely associated with the ‘ordinary’ fandom (Sandvoss and Kearns 2014) write about. It is that type of fandom – defined in the basest terms as affective consumption – that I find myself and my work more closely aligned with.

It is not as if I am unaware of fan fiction and the like but it was great to understand it and the issues surrounding those practices.

To reflect on the two keynotes – both of which I thought were A+ – briefly. Suzanne Scott delivered a talk on fannish privilege, expressly highlighting ongoing gendered tensions and ‘spreadable misogyny’ of fandom, particularly in internet and media discourses. By name-checking ‘spreadable misogyny’ Scott, I felt, was arguing that we might better consider the darker (yet clearly visible) parts of the internet in which the ‘war on women’  is a common feature of fan cultures. In fact, by referencing the early-years fan studies scholars again (‘Fandom is ugly, not beautiful’), I think Scott’s deliberately polemical stance was vindicated, delivering a – I think damning? – verdict on the field’s (dis)engagement with the gendered boundaries in fan cultures.

Lincoln Geraghty’s keynote addressed the importance of pilgrimage to fan studies. Through his own documented adventures, Geraghty theorised how fans respond and react to the physical spaces of fandom. One element of Geraghty’s talk that resonated with me was how some people may ‘pass as’ fans in specific fan places. The example he drew up for this himself was of visiting the stadium of a rival hockey team, where Lincoln was still compelled to take photos of landmarks and partake in the fannish practices. Similarly, he adopted the persona and practices of an Elvis fan on a tour to Graceland, again despite not immediately identifying himself as an Elvis fan. For me, these speak to ideas of genre/medium literacy, where a base understanding of something – the sport of hockey and the team and landmark’s significance, for example – allows for a flexible physical space where one may adopt a fannish identity. To have no knowledge at all of the significance may impair one’s ability to successfully ‘pass as’ a fan. Lincoln’s idea of understanding ‘Fan Histories’ is too an important point to consider, and one I have reflected on in the past as being central to my own theories surrounding fandom.

Bullet Points

> Because I’m generally rubbish at networking, I never met Sam Fleming at the conference but our brief twitter conversation regarding football fandom through the generations and ‘passing as’ a fan at rival matches is instantly compelling. I have before blogged about my ‘Fan History’ regarding Arsenal and fandom through family generations I think is a particularly interesting (and so far under-explored) angle on fandom. For one, I think the ‘becoming a fan’ or ‘transcendent’ moment of becoming a fan is complicated when fandom is specifically ‘passed down’ through the family. Interesting stuff! [Also I blame those delicious cheese straws for my lack of networking, because no-one really wants to approach the guy sat holding a plate of 20 of them]. 

> One aspect of feeling intimidated in a room of great minds is accidentally over-praising another academic on meeting them rather than ‘playing it cool’. I had the pleasure of meeting Paul Booth – whose two books on digital fandom I think represent an exciting path into considering online practices – but could only articulate complimentary phrases instead of anything of substance. Luckily Paul is a pleasant enough chap to not just roll his eyes at such an inept conversationalist, however I wish I had got myself into a position to better discuss his paper on SuperWhoLock. Paul was challenged in the Q+A on the impact and novelty of the SuperWhoLock phenomenon, and I couldn’t help but think that maybe his chapter on Inspector Spacetime fandom (from this year’s ‘Playing Fans’) may have better articulated the importance of this ‘progress in works’ type of fan activity.

> I said it above, but I really have little interest in fan fiction myself (as leisure) or little knowledge about it (scholarly). But Eva Wijman’s paper on the concept of the Mary-Sue in Hunger Games fan fiction was compelling and rightly well received. Eva’s main point – the Mary-Sue character is used in fan fiction to include a strong female into the story, yet Katniss in HG is criticised for portraying such a persona – was a really interesting ‘entry point’ into the conversations surrounding fan fiction.

> I went along to the ‘Building Communities’ panel over the fan/producer relationship panel because each of the four papers focused on a fandom not frequently spoken about in the field (which is how I feel about comedy fans), so I was interested in the other ways scholars approached these communities. The talk that leap out at me was Valerie Fazel on Shakespeare fan fiction. It was a stimulating paper that in the Q+A was expanded upon further, and two things leap out at me – how useful adaptation theory might be in studying fan practices (all fan practice, not just fan fiction); and how important too cultural capital must surely be to fan adaptions (going back to themes of access, literacy etc). For example, Shakespeare fan fiction writers requires 1) access to such texts in CC terms 2) access to the literary critique of shakespeare and linguistics. Some of the Shakespeare FF writers in the paper were well equipped in writing in the ‘Shakespeare style’, which I think is a point that can be better explored across all sorts of fan practice.

> I felt Daisy Asquith (producer of the C4 documentary ‘Crazy about One Direction’) delivered a great paper about her experiences making the film and the well-covered backlash she received from the fandom. Again it was in the Q+A (a little tense) where a lot of the more interesting points came up, particularly from William Proctor (writer of a forthcoming piece regarding the depiction of 1D fans in the film) and a devout 1D fan herself (sorry, I didn’t see who it was!). However you fall on the issues discussed, I think it was a good decision to include Daisy in the panel, and is one example of how fan studies scholars and industry collide.

> Clearly, the panel from Melanie Williams on Mr. Bloom fandom on mumsnet was the most humorous one of the weekend.

> Kee Lundgvist used the work of psychologist Kenneth Paragment (new to me) on significance and coping, showing how the concepts of ‘maps and goals’ squares up with fan experience of shows and endings. I particularly enjoyed this panel as the work can be used to read fan responses not just at the ending of shows but during the shows run, where the ‘map’ of the show changes but the ‘goals’ of fans stayed the same. This I think works well with the research on Giddens and Ontological security I am looking at, and I am looking forward to following this paper up in particular. (also shout out for the humour here). Really cool paper!

> Man, speed-geeking was exhausting, and I’m pretty sure we only managed to get to six out of the seven groups! But thanks to everyone at conference for lending your ears to those of us that speed-geeked. I was hugely intimidated to be presenting *any* work, let alone work that isn’t quite fully developed, but despite a long and intense day (one keynote and twelve papers already), everyone was great in giving feedback, suggestions and critiques. Speed-geeking wouldn’t work unless everyone was prepared to chip in, so I think it’s great that the FSN community looks to help out junior scholars or in-development projects in this manner.

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Improvisation and ‘New’ Sitcom

Across the last fifteen years the situation comedy has undergone a series of aesthetic and stylistic changes. The move away from the traditional multi-camera set-up – the “three headed monster” – and towards the use of a single-camera style, has allowed for a greater variety of comedic modalities across the sitcom genre. By abandoning the constraints of the multi-camera form (Savorelli 2010) these new comedies fail “to signal [their] comic intent in the traditional manner… [which undermines] the hegemonic criticisms of most sitcoms” (Mills 2005, 62). This comic ambiguity therefore highlights the need for further analysis of sitcom audiences, as fan’s constructions of taste, pleasure and identity become more complex.

Improvisation as a form of creative method in the production of ‘new’ comedy is a recurring feature. Stars such as Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell and Larry David are often praised for their ability to improvise, which in sitcom production means coming up with a new joke on the set of filming. These jokes either add to the existing script or attempt to ‘beat’ the scripted or suggested line. By removing the constraints of shooting in front of a live audience (temporal) and shooting on a theatre-like soundstage (spatial), new comedy encourages improvisation by allowing it’s performers to “bypass [the] limiting and disciplinary structures” (Seham 2001).

Sitcom fans often revere these improvised moments, despite not having full knowledge of the production process in the first viewing of a television episode. In fact, being told that a particular line or joke was improvised on-set often increases the pleasure associated with the actor or show. On learning that Chris Pratt improvised a line in a season three episodes of Parks and Recreation, many fans re-evaluated their sense of enjoyment.

Pratt came up with that fucking line? God bless him.

And it was an ad-lib?? Feeling so much love for Chris Pratt right now.

Never would have thought that one was improv. Brilliant.

Yeah, it blows my mind that Pratt improvised that line.

It’s so perfectly delivered, and that it’s ad-libbed makes that even more awesome.

[Comments on an AV Club Season 3 Walkthrough]

Such positive re-evaluation highlights the importance of improvisation and performance to comedy fans. It also shows how the revelation of an improvised moment immediately elevates the text to a ‘more awesome’ pleasure, and the appreciation of comedic talent lends itself to discourses of ‘quality’ television.

Improvisation can also be used in sitcom production in a more purposeful manner, being a planned part of the process and thus – through paratextual signposts – framing the comedy as a more ‘experimental’ show. The BBC series Outnumbered, about the lives of a middle-class family, did not supply the child actors with written dialogue.

these kids are absolutely brilliant – they are being allowed to express themselves with none of the stiffness a script would bring about.

but its the kids who really should be praised for the most realistic portrayal of children on T.V.

the jokes were funny and realistic.

[the children] deliver their lines with fantastic timing and a real sense of reality.

the observations and statements have clearly come from a child, as opposed to the traditional way of doing things of a 30-something adult trying to think like a 7 year old, and often failing miserably.

[Comments from the British Comedy Guide Forums]

For fans of Outnumbered, improvisation becomes a marker of an authentic cultural experience. They are wary of the “traditional way” of making television, with its emphasis on planning, drafting and commercial interference. Rather than emphasising notions of “funniness”, instead these fans see improvised performance as a better reflection of their own lives and experiences.

It is useful here to reflect on the notion of bliss, or jouissance, an extreme form of pleasure (Barthes 1975). While pleasure is a mundane amusement, which may be felt by consumers of all cultural content, Barthes argues that bliss is a distinctly physical reaction, often hard to describe in words (21). Fiske argues that the mediation of television is “not conducive to that intensity of experience which is necessary for jouissance” (1987, 230).

While Fiske goes on to argue that soap opera is a genre which may be considered to have blissful moments, I feel a more relevant example is reality television. Looking at the show Britain’s Got Talent, the reaction of both studio and home audience to the audition of singer Susan Boyle is more representative of jouissance. The ‘liveness’ of the moment, the risk of failure, and physicality of the reaction better emphasise the Barthesian qualities of bliss.

I argue that the use of improvisation in new comedy is another method to inspire a blissful reaction that is somewhat more authentic and extreme. By acknowledging the ‘liveness’ of the improvised on-set joke, or appreciating authenticity in an improvised creative method, these fans would seem to value ‘new comedy’ as a less intensely mediated experience.

Considering the use of improvisation as creative method thus brings up further questions regarding the relationship between comedy fans and the fan-text. How might improvisation – and the dangers of failure – present a risk to fans ‘ontological security’? How might we understand notions of ‘comfort viewing’ with regard to sitcom form and the intensities of mediation? With the situation comedy continuing to develop, analysis of its fans will play an important part in understanding one of television’s most popular genres.

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, The Pleasures of the Text, (Hill and Wang: USA, 1975)

Fiske, John, Television Culture, (Routledge: USA, 1987)

Mills, Brett, Television Sitcom, (BFI: UK, 2005)

Savorelli, Antonio, Beyond Sitcom: New Directions in American Television Comedy, (McFarland & Co.: USA, 2010)

Seham, Amy E., Whose Improv is it Anyway? Beyond Second City, (University of Mississippi Press: USA 2001)

I Actually Went to University

This week I went to university.

A rather mundane statement, I agree, but quite significant for me as it was my first visit to my academic institution in the eighteen months since I’ve been a BCU student. I’m a distance learner, you see, as well as being part-time. So my time spent on-campus is limited, to say the least.

But I was excited to head up to Brum, not only because it was a city I’d never been to before, but because it reminded me of how it feels to be a student, especially a new student – carrying round a heavy bag, looking desperately lost for some hidden tutorial room was something I hadn’t done for about five years. Usually I just wake up, open up my laptop and watch a lecture over breakfast, in my PJ’s. Or do some reading on my phone at work. Being sat around a table with other people was a little nostalgic for me.

What was great about meeting my tutors and other members of the faculty – and of course some other MA and undergraduate students – was that it gave me a better idea of academic life. With my grand overarching plan to find a PHD opportunity this autumn, I was interested in just getting a feel for being on a campus again. Going out for a few drinks and getting in on some work gossip was fun because it actually made me less intimidated about attempting to join the scholarly ranks – at times we could have been talking about any old job.

I will say thought it did highlight a few disadvantages to being a DL. Firstly, it was great to see that a fellow MA Screen Studies student, Jamie Morris, was involved with some lecturing on an undergrad popular culture course, and that he was presenting the material in a Research Seminar in March. It’s really great to see someone being given these opportunities, and having spoken to Jamie I know it will be a really interesting talk. There was a little frustration that being at a distance I hadn’t had these same opportunities, but I am sure if the idea of presenting my research had occurred to me the staff at BCU would have assisted me. Yet it’s maybe an element of the DL experience I never thought of until having visited campus.

Mixing with other students and academics on a daily basis is probably the biggest difficulty one faces on a DL course, especially when (like me), you don’t live in a place that has its own academic institution(s). Even though I was only there for a handful of hours over Thursday and Friday,  just being able to bump into someone or meet them for coffee is a great way to exchange ideas and plan projects. I think that’s probably something that keeps the energy and interest levels up, and when you’re situated away from that environment it can sometimes feel incredibly difficult to overcome that feeling of isolation. Twitter is no substitute for face to face conversation, I don’t think.

Yet do not let those frustrations belie the fact that I’m hugely enjoying this MA, and pursuing the idea of a career in academia is at once both exciting and scary. Yet having met (now in person!) several of the BCU Media and Cultural studies gang, I’m even more determined to turn it up a notch, not only in my reading and writing but in terms of engaging with the wider academic sphere. So thanks to those that have speculatively added me on Twitter these past few weeks, I hope I can properly introduce myself at FSN2015 and not just be that guy who tweets about sitcoms all the time.

Speaking of sitcom, there’s been some positive work toward my final dissertation thanks to the wonderful Inger-Lise Bore, who keeps prodding me in the right directions. Hopefully the next couple of weeks will see me sharpen my ideas into a research proposal that’s much more theoretically solid. Meeting properly with her and speaking again with Paul Long means I’m also putting energy into thinking ahead to a phd proposal and what that larger research may look like – I’ve got some ideas percolating. I’m being challenged to submit abstracts to conferences, and I agree it’s necessary to get some of my thoughts out there through that form – so something else to work on late into the night!

Farewell to P&R.

Knowing that when I wake up in several hours that Parks and Recreation will have aired its last episode is a pretty brutal truth. So much has been made of the show’s ending for two reasons – NBC’s decision to give it a shortened season (and then burning them off in pairs) – and the fact that unlike so many other modern day, long-running half hour comedies, P&R is very much still an adept and confident piece of television sitcom.

The Office had a near-fatal accident when Steve Carrell left, was kept on life support despite various treatments including James Spader and Greg Daniels being injected towards the end. Modern Family is as unessential now as it was essential in its early seasons. How I Met Your Mother gave the 3-camera format a shot in the arm before delivering a viciously unpleasant parting blow. The Big Bang Theory continues with blockbuster ratings, although it can hardly be said that news of it’s renewal was exactly a fevered announcement. Community has become the show it always should have been, in the place it should probably have started.

Parks and Rec put on a stretch of episodes, through seasons two, three and four, that no sitcom of my era can match. Although the wheels have been spinning for a couple of years as the onus on character’s career progressions became weary, the show still remained pretty hilarious. For most it’s the tone, if anything – the relentless positivity of its stories – and the fact that it was a very funny show without ever feeling cynical, or mean. Modern Family continues to show a group of individuals who love fighting. The League is the I-can-best-your-insult homosocial enclave. But P&R never had that in its DNA.

P&R‘s demise means it’s really time for one of the new comedies to step up to the plate. I haven’t been able to check much of the new US sitcoms out – save for Brooklyn Nine Nine, which is a very NBC-comedy on FOX – and it will be interesting to see if shows such as The Mindy Project and New Girl will begin to grow a bigger bubble. I like both but will I miss them as much as I do Parks and Rec?

Some quick personal highlights from the series:

> The season 4 arc featuring Paul Rudd. I honestly think this was one of the most consistently satisfying runs of any sitcom both emotionally and comedically. I can’t think of any several-episode arcs, let alone full seasons, that match it, from the television I’ve seen before. Perhaps Season 3 of the Office ending on Jim asking out Pam, following a riveting 24-odd half-hours.

> Ben Wyatt being unable to comprehend the fascination of Lil’ Sebastian. Gets me every time how he shakes his head at the camera after feigning enthusiasm.

> The Flu episode is on of the finest sitcom episodes of all time. “Stop. Pooping.”

> There’s an outtake where Leslie goes to Dave’s house, drunk, and Poehler pipes up with the line “I’m fart and I’m smunny”, and Louis just corpses.

> Leslie and Anne’s drunk fight is a spot on piece of observational comedy.

> “Leslie and Ron”. Even in it’s last throes the show spits out one of it’s best ever twenty two minutes.

> Ron Swanson throwing a ball with Andy Dwyer, following their meat tornado.

> Amy Poehler’s improvised jump-cut sequence from the hunting episode, which I wrote about extensively in one of my essays in my MA.

> Chris Pratt morphing from Andy Dwyer to Star-Lord.

> Ben’s accountancy puns.

> Ben and Leslie’s Game of Thrones role playing.

> The trip to food n’ stuff.

> Ron Swanson dancing.

Thanks for the good times, Parks!

Thinking about Fans of TV Narrative Comedies

Fan Studies has become a more central discourse over the past twenty five years, just as fans themselves have become more visible and more important to today’s media, culture and society. Yet while tracking the practices which have moved fans from “the margins of society into the spotlight”, it appears very little research has attempted to tackle fandom’s which were never marginalised to begin with. This short post outlines some initial thoughts on fans of television comedy and sitcoms – genres whose popularity has remained constant throughout decades of television, yet whose fans have never had to endure the type of public deconstruction as Jenkins’ Star Trek fans, and countless others, have gone through.

Genre and Textual Gaps

The most prominent genres across fan studies – science fiction, fantasy, horror – are those which provide fans with greatest opportunity to take part in extending the text, through the sheer amount of textual ‘gaps’ the building of new worlds/universes inherently forms. These shows often include one or more elements that stretch beyond the physical, lived-in reality of life, and thus are in a sense “incomplete”. By this I mean in creating new worlds, producers rarely are able to document each and every element part of it – in fact, it is fandoms that often attempt this documentation.

In comparison to television comedy, telefantasy is thus a more accessible, flexible and malleable text – part of the attraction of the passionate, active fan to engage in creative reappropriation, extension or redefinition of the fantasy world. Television comedy on the other hand, particularly the sitcom, has a history of setting itself within more conservative, open-and-shut worlds. The classical three-camera sitcom rarely ventures from a small number of sets and locations; the “situation” is rarely under threat of permanent change; there are less extant, unstable elements in the narrative. This list can of course be opened up and properly discussed in a longer form of work, of course.

Even the standard element of the sitcom – the joke – is often presented as a completed work. The set-up and punchline nature of much television comedy doesn’t offer itself to much change – to do so might be to ruin the comedy. Characters and location are so inextricably linked in sitcom – especially in the classic form – that very often the text has trouble navigating any external or novel locations, even if they only appear for one sequence or one episode.

New comedy – frequently classed as single-camera comedy, lacking the laugh track of the classic form – instantly makes itself more accessible to reappropriation, yet the fandoms of The Mindy Project or Parks and Recreation are still not as visible as those of The Vampire Diaries or Star Trek. Either sitcom fandoms are not as ‘active’ in online spaces or, perhaps, they use online spaces in a different way to fans of science fiction and fantasy.

What do Sitcom Fans Do?

The above may have come out more cynical than I would have liked – in no way am I critiquing the decisions and directions of past and present research. Neither do I believe the lack of attention to television comedy fans has anything to do with the value of the sitcom genre, as I would like to believe we are past the point where we have to argue about the “worth” of sitcom both to society and to its interrogation in academia.

So what do Sitcom fans do, and what do they do online specifically? This is to be a central focus of the second year of my MA course and masters thesis, when I come about to collating the information and writing it. There is a great history to the research of comedy and sitcom audiences, but when it comes to investigating fans of these shows, I have found it hard to come by much work (if I am missing something crucial, please note it in the comments!). Certainly in what we might call the major works of fan studies, comedy fans do not play a major part to the construction of the theoretical frameworks.

Do sitcom fans join in cosplay? Yes. Write fan fiction? Yes. Attend community events? Yes. Mash-up texts, videos and audio? Yes. Fight against network or producer decisions? Yes. Take part in ‘fan activism’? Yes. Are all of the above viable topics of enquiry, and could they teach us something about contemporary identity and gender constructions, politics, and everyday life? Yes. Might our findings offer something different than similar investigations of science fiction fans? Quite possibly. And that’s what I see as exciting going into my second phase of masters work.

Next Steps

I see the start of this type of research as beginning with sitcom texts, and identifying the points of departure for the various fan responses and productivities. What gaps are there in comedy texts that fans can exploit? Do comedy fans read their favoured shows in different ways to science fiction fans? What elements make themselves available to fandom’s?

As ever, this blog post probably comes off a little rushed and ill-thought out. The main line of enquiry I feel needs addressing – what happens when we apply the theories of fan studies, which have been built up mainly from the analysis of telefantasy, to a genre which in both its classical and modern forms provide wildly different starting point for audiences and fans alike.

I’m always interested in any responses to my posts, so feel free to type something in below or contact me on twitter (@JMChadd).

Fan Histories: Arsenal

Fan Histories: Arsenal

In my previous blog on my Pokemon fandom, I reflected on an item of popular culture that was an integral part of my childhood but had grown to be a sort of nostalgic totem, occasionally toyed with but more often than not used as a sort of symbolic reference across my peer network. Most of my memories appear to base themselves on an emotional reaction to Pokemon – to a particular television episode, event or game. This emotionality, I expect, will continue in this current post regarding my fandom of Arsenal Football Club.

Arsenal Inherited

I would not be an Arsenal supported if it wasn’t for my Dad. I’m not sure if I would be a football fan at all – I supposed I would, if only because it’s clearly the most dominant sport in English school grounds. This type of family tie to a football club I believe is fairly common, as is the clear patriarchal state of my football supporting life.

It’s safe to say that Arsenal were a large part of my childhood, an object of fandom I would meet with week-in, week-out. I had the shirts, the videos, the stickers… the beach towels, the portable radios, the plastic cups, the comb sheaths. Every christmas or birthday I would receive a new something with the Arsenal badge emblazoned upon it.

One of the earliest repeat-viewing phenomena I ever owned was my series of Arsenal season reviews. A couple of them 1989-90, 1990-91 – acted like history lessons, an Arsenal side I never really knew. Others were celebratory goods of the Gunners successful 1997-2004 period, bought as a reminder of great years. I would watch them repeatedly, especially those earlier ones I had access to as I was growing up. I can still rattle off the names of a good number of those squads – Anders Limpar being a sort of cult favourite of the lot.

Watching and Playing

I was an odd sort of kid who would play these little football matches with lego men and a ball – sometimes made of blu-tack – a game I carried on for far too long that I care to remember. I would act out fantasy scenarios where Arsenal crushed the opposition – usually lead by the in-form strikers such as retro 1980s astronaut or random construction site worker.

Playing with this plastic critters instead of watching a live game one day, I recall my Dad imploring me to watch the match -“That’s how you learn, by watching”, I distinctly recall him saying. To this day I swear it was this stern lesson that made me into the more observant, research student than a hands-on, practical person. I’ve just been reminded this by my driving instructor so forgive me if this sounds bitter.

I played football in Blandford from the age of about six and left after the last game of the first full season of under-10s football. I tell people I retired – back trouble – but really it was because I was pretty naff at the game. Football, in practical terms at least, was very much neither natural or nurturable.

I do remember continuing to play football in my back garden, however, again a site to act out my fantasies of scoring the winning FA cup goal. I would still commentate to myself in my best BBC style, borrowing classic phrases or hearing the various voices of real-life commentators in my head.

Following Arsenal

The only Arsenal-emblazoned item I have now is a shirt form about four years ago. I’m still a silver-level Arsenal member – I keep forgetting to cancel the direct debit – so get sent a new members kit every year with a DVD and a few nifty gifties.

What it means to be an Arsenal fan has definitely changed as I have grown up. It is no way like my Pokemon fandom, which is far more nostalgic than anything else. Rather, Arsenal Football Club is something I can check on once or twice a week, almost like a television show. I still have what you might say is a passion, an affect, for the team, but it no way takes up such a central part of my life as it once did as when I was younger.

It might have something to do with time – although it sounds sad – I just don’t have the time to be ‘in’ to football as I once was. You could compare this to my dad who – besides the two nights a week of work and few rounds of golf – almost never misses a broadcast match of football, let alone simply Arsenal ones. I follow Arsenal and football now through the news media – the Guardian and BBC apps on my phone, Youtube for some quick highlights, twitter for instant reaction.

That’s what “following Arsenal” really is nowadays for me. I think in time that’s the word I’ll be attempting to deconstruct and investigate. Can I say I am a fan compared to, say, those season-ticket holders who belt out anthems at both home and away matches every week? What about those who run fan blogs or buy the latest kits or still play football in some form or another?

I’m getting into here some of the more analytical stuff I wanted to save for later. Suffice to say that while my Arsenal fandom has changed over time, it has changed in a far different way to my fandom of, for example, Pokemon. And that’s what’s really the thrust of this blog series.

Fan Histories: Pokemon

Fan Histories: Pokemon

Today was due to be the advent of a youtube series with the above title, but due to limited time to perfect the format, or indeed my hair, I have decided instead to return to the written word for the first few instalments. Perhaps they will make it into the fully fledged low-budget series, but for now I will treat them purely as a chapter-by-chapter event.

I don’t want to write too large an introduction to this series but it does make sense to offer some preliminary context. As a (current) academic with desires to progress a more professional academic role I figured I should be contributing more to the fields in which I am interested in yet. Yet at this current point in time, my knowledge of these fields – fan studies, television comedy – are limited, in a theoretical sense. As much as I am now working hard to get a better grasp on the research, I feel I am still far away from being the “master” I hope to be twelve months from now.

So when I decided to re-start this blog – and decide to include the potential for a video series – I initially put a lot of pressure on myself to ensure every post was making an important, academic contribution. Or at least every post had to make some kind of “look-at-me” signature ‘point’, or conclusion. See some of the below posts for examples.

Look, I have enough time coming up with and figuring out these contributions to the field for my MA course, let alone on a weekly blogs. One step at a time, I figured. So instead, I’ve decided to follow a new path with the majority of these posts. They will be a mixture of reflection on my current readings/projects – you will notice that the last few posts solely consist of fawning over Professor Matt Hills’ contributions to fan studies – but over time, as I (hopefully) begin nudging the line to “master”, these reflective posts will become far more critically engaged.

The other group of postings – and eventually including video, I hope – will be simply entitled “Fan Histories”. These blogs will focus on one item from my life that can be considered a fan-text, and will allow me time for my own personal reflection. While there will be some self-analysis (autoethnographic study, ahem) through these tales of Chaddian history, I shall try and keep this limited to spurious speculation – I don’t want to lay claim to any major insights or theoretical ‘eureka’ moments without yet having read much of the fan studies canonical texts.

Rather I intend to reflect on some of these posts at a later date when I feel I am ready to engage with myself on a higher critical plane. So not only do these Fan Histories allow me to find inspiration for current blog material, they will also provide me something to write about towards the end of the year as well, as I recontextualise my own personal fandoms within the new parameters of the growing body of theory.

This first edition will mostly likely come complete with audible creaks and groans as my ambition is steadily outstripped by my energy levels and competencies. However I will try and form a base structure – which will rely on a narcissistic self-interview framing device – that can be adjusted and improved upon as I go. I have decided to not adopt a purely ‘academic’ tone or agenda in these posts, for several reasons, primarily because I think these histories require a platform more malleable in expression. If you, dear reader, exist, and happen to have shared some of these fandoms or particular fan practices, feel free to comment below or get in touch if you wish to discuss them further.

There’s a version of the future fifteen years from now where a book called “Fan Histories” sits on the shelf in university libraries across the country, and it might begin with this post. So let’s get cracking.

Fan Histories: Pokemon

My first encounter with the world of Pokemon is actually rather distinct. From somewhere – possibly a magazine I was reading at the time – this poster appeared in my possession. It included small ‘thumbnails’ of the original 150 pokemon, with their names and little checkboxes  next to each one. This poster is still rather vivid in my mind – this probably happened around sixteen years ago in 1998.

Pokemon then came to me next as a television show broadcast on ITV through the kid’s variety package that was SM:TV Live. I think at that time both Ant and Dec were as enthusiastic about the show as I was. Oddly, one of the associations I continue to make when anyone mentions Pokemon is the Blink 182 song ‘All the Small Things’, which tended to play either side of the ad-break in the middle of Pokemon. Several years later in the early noughties I would, in the middle of my pop-punk phase, reflect on my Pokemon fandom whenever I listened the same band.

I don’t recall much of the on-screen Pokemon stories. I figure I remember a fair bit of the first episode – Ash watching a Pokemon battle on the television, getting stuck with ‘Pikachu’, those initial encounters with a ‘Pidgey’ (or was it a “Pidgeot”?). One episode I do recall was (apparently the 39th episode of series 1) ‘Pikachu’s Goodbye’, where the cute yellow-belly almost left Ash’s clique to join a group of similar Pikachus. I think the reason this hangs around in the memory banks is because of my own mother’s slight emotional reaction to the episode – I mean, it was kinda sad.

There’s very little of the television version of Pokemon I can recall now. I have better memories of viewing the first Pokemon movie, titled Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back (how complex a title is that for a first instalment? And is that a Star Wars reference?). The primary memory refers again to my parents, this time of my Dad sleeping through much of the film. It was small, dingy little cinema we saw it at – I always believe it was in Yeovil but I can’t vouch for that – and it appeared it was an inducive environment to nap in, should the film not quite provide the requisite adrenaline bursts.

I recall some of the plot, again – the evil Mewtwo pokemon made “dark” copies of the others in an attempt to take over the world in some ‘utopia’ project. Both Ash and Pikachu nearly died, before the famous 151st pokemon, Mew, saved the day. These “dark” pokemon provide me with a link to the next part of my exploration of my Pokemon fandom – the trading card game.

Gotta Get Them All

I think my fascination with stats – through economics A-levels, sports teams, budgeting (I can hear my partner laughing at this last example) – begins with Pokemon, particularly the trading card game. I have distinct memories of my first few packs and learning the rules of the game with my sister and a couple of friends. There was the ‘trading’ scene – a lesser deal than many made it out to be, in my opinion.

My trading card fandom can be articulated best with two short anecdotes. The first relates to the ‘dark’ pokemon copies of The First Movie. At the local market in Blandford there used to be a fella who had two pasting tables full of Pokemon trading cards. As usual on a saturday morning I went into town with my mother while my sister had her dance lessons, and I was perusing the cards again. There were a couple of large folders of the cards as well, and one time I decided to spend 2/3 weeks worth of pocket money on one particular trading card, a shiny ‘Dark Charizard’ that cost me £7.

I always remember this occurring towards the end of the trading card phase, maybe even in the latter stages of my initial Pokemon fandom. There is then a tinge of disappointment – possible of wasted money – in this memory. I don’t recall ever ‘using’ this card, per se, in the game itself. In my mind, therefore, it exists as some kind of totem, some kind of souvenir of being a Pokemon fan – but such analysis will better lend itself to future reflection of this post as a whole.

A second memory of the trading card game is attending an event at Westquay shopping centre in Southampton, Hants. There I attended – with plenty of others – a trading card tournament. This might have been my first meeting with what I guess I would naively term the ‘hardcore’ Pokemon fan. The players I played against weren’t just more knowledgeable about the game mechanics or had spent more collecting the most valuable cards – but they were far more dedicated to Pokemon in general than I ever remember being.

The truest sense of this was the accompanying ‘Pokemon Stadium’ tournament that ran alongside the trading card game. Here players could bring along their cartridge of Pokemon – which included their saved game – and ‘battle’ each other through the Nintendo 64. When asked my one of the tournament runners what ‘level’ my pokemon were – in the mid-sixties – I remember him chuckling. My opponent proceeded to destroy all six of my pokemon with his six level-100 pokemon, much to my dismay. Again, I realised I was not part of this ‘hardcore’ faction.

Despite this apparent thrashing, it was the videogame version of Pokemon that has tended to be preserved in mine – and those of my peers – lives.

Blue Vs. Red

I’m not sure exactly when I purchased Pokemon Blue, or whether it temporally occurred before or after my experiences with the trading card game and television show/movie. However, the game, its characters, locations and mechanics have been a part of my cultural life since its late-90s introduction.

It is not the primary experience of playing Pokemon Blue that I most recall. I have probably experience the whole re-playing of the game several times since, either with that original cartridge and gameboy in the years after its initial explosion, on PC-ran emulators throughout my teenage years, and on a re-purchased gameboy and cartridge just last summer.

The most pervading sense or emotion that I associate with Pokemon is nostalgia for the original game boy game, and I believe this is shared among many of my generation – at least based on my years at university, anyway. My and my girlfriend replayed the game last year in an effort to catch all 150 pokemon between us (we both completed the game but didn’t finish the ‘catch ’em all’ challenge). At university, many of my friends replayed it and Pokemon itself was the constant source of jokes, stories – even specific pub-quiz rounds.

I played several other versions of the game – new editions are still released by Nintendo every so often as Pokemon fans continue to grow – but none compared to that original game for me, in my personal story of fandom.

That’s a rather quick, abridge history of my interaction with the Pokemon franchise – from an alien Japanese poster to nostalgic pastime, and almost ‘icon’ of my generation. As it happens, I’m now coming into contact with Pokemon in an academic sense, as it is often a topic of discussion when considering transmedia properties and children’s media texts.

Once more, I will probably revisit this history at a later date in order to recontextualise my fandom through academic theory – but for now I will leave it as it is. If you have any memories of your own Pokemon fandom – or indeed any comments at all about this article – feel free to leave a message below.

Edit: I notice in the tea-break I had between writing the introduction and the main bulk, I did away with the self-interviewing framing narrative. I’m not sure if the resulting blog had a better structure or not, so will maybe trial the Q&A form next time.

Bake Off and Fandom

The Great British Bake Off has undeniably grown a huge following since it first launched several years ago. Now a flagship BBC1 show, it’s popularity in British households is without question.

What might a study of Bake Off fans tell us?

Interestingly, wouldn’t fans of GBBO be one of the clearest “textual poachers”, perhaps? One of the ways in which fans use this particular text is for advice, inspiration and instruction in their own attempts at baking. A fan might copy an exact recipe a contestant uses on screen, and goes onto to share it with their families and friends. 

I would say that this is an example of analysing a fan’s career – through the consumption and use of GBBO as fan-text, the fan may gain the knowledge and skills to advance their own careers, perhaps invade the fan-text by becoming a contestant. GBBO may deliver part of the BBC’s public service remit – it is a classic sort of light entertainment with a taught element – but it is also interesting to view these aspects through the lens of fandom.

GBBO is another show that often suffers from the lazy adjective of being “comfort” television (a pejorative term often thrown at the sitcom). Yet I imagine this does a disservice to the complex ways in which fans interact with the text. Such a description fails to consider the various elements of the show we might actually call the fan-text. GBBO fans may be split into further niche fandoms such as:

> Fans of the judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, both of whom have produced other mediated texts (shows and books) as well as actual baking careers.

> Fans of the presenters, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. Their humorous style has just earned them an afternoon talk show on ITV, opening up this avenue to further investigation.

> Fans of baking, who look to the show for ideas, inspiration and advice.

> Fans of reality television – such fans have an interest in the personalities and relationships that evolve across the series, and have an emotional attachment to those that leave the show or awarded the coveted ‘star baker’, as well as the eventual winner.

> “foodies” – a group who consume a wide variety of mediated texts about food. Such people might also be a reader of food news websites on the internet, or follow food and dining reviews in newspapers. 

> Audience’s who consume the BBC due to the licence fee structure possibly imploring them to ensure they receive value-for-money.

Each fandom subset would claim that GBBO is their favoured fan-text but all would seem to have a different object of fandom. While fan studies consistently remind us to not be to narrow in our analysis of fandoms (i.e. we should be looking to contribute to a “wider theory of fandom”), breaking down a text into its distinct objects of fandom may provide us with more complex discussions regarding the “mirror of consumption” . 

This quickly written post is not meant to be a seminal text (I am sure I will come across just such breakdowns of fan-texts across my research) but is meant to simply “think aloud” my ideas regarding the construction of fandoms. 

Bottom of the Hills

Once I’d put down How to Do Things with Cultural Theory I immediately picked up Matt Hills’ Triumph of a Timelord. Having been nudged towards viewing Doctor Who by my girlfriend – a show I’d never really had an interest in despite a liking for sci-fi – I had at least a vague handle of the subject matter. What interested me most going forward was the chapter regarding the fan-producer relationship. Many of these ideas I think I’ll be reflecting on over the year as I build up my dissertation.

On finishing Triumph of a Timelord I’ve decided to once more pick up Fan Cultures and read it thoroughly. I used several ideas present in Fan Cultures in my essay on Community fandom last year, but I am only now feeling more comfortable with the theoretical arguments presented. I’m only now feeling there’s a chance  I might graduate this MA feeling like the “Master” I should be.

As an aside – am I now a Matt Hills fan? In some definitions I would say so, yet to paraphrase Cornel Sandvoss’ definition – a fan repeatedly consumes the fan-object with an intense emotional affect – I’m not so sure. I don’t quite have the shivers down my spine of an intense emotional affect for Hills quite yet.

Looking ahead to semester one and my negotiated study module – I will likely be outlining my on module as my exercise. To give myself a better chance of building a theoretical base for my dissertation I may go the direction of outlining a module on (television) fandom, yet the question now facing me is how to avoid just making this a six-week long Bibliography assignment.

I’m looking forward to figuring it out.

 

 

Doing things with Cultural Theory

Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures has already become an anchor text across the first year of my MA course, and his book How to Do Things with Cultural Theory is giving me a great sense of impetus heading into my second year. 

Importantly it gives some sound advice – especially on reading and writing cultural theory – without being a simplistic textbook. In fact Hills goes into some excellent discussion on what it means to be a cultural theorist, do research or become an academic. The most crucial chapter for me concerned the argument that students should be prepared not just to note down the most important quotes from a book – there should be a desire to take in the whole text before breaking it down through rigorous investigation. It gives you the tools to do the job while simultaneously arguing what job you should indeed be doing (and reminding you that some tutors may not have your best interests at heart).

What I’m most surprised by is actually how accurate the title is – this isn’t “introduction to cultural theory” or “how to write a cultural theory essay”. It’s actually a detailed account of how one should approach a body of cultural theory in order to eventually produce one’s own contribution. “Do” becomes a much more active word in the tasks “do some research” or “do an assignment” than it ever has before.

Hills is happy to explore some of the criticisms of his own work in his arguments, pointing out that no theory is complete and all theory – no matter how canonical to cultural studies – is open to reappropriation. Nearing the end of this book now, I know the next text I read – incidentally I’ve got Hills’ “Triumph of a Time Lord” ready to go – will be read with a much better sense of “doing” theory, rather than merely “reading” theory.