Academia Explores the Final Frontier: A look at fandom theses and dissertations

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Creator: Karen Ann Yost
Date(s): June/July 1994
Medium: online
External Links: Academia Explores the Final Frontier: A look at fandom theses and dissertations; WebCite
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Academia Explores the Final Frontier: A look at fandom theses and dissertations is a 1994 essay by Karen Ann Yost. It was published in the 14th issue of

The author thanks "Sue Clerc and Agnes Tomorrow for their generous help with this article."

The essay was written about two years after two high-profile, accessible academic books, Textual Poachers and Enterprising Women, were published. The spotlight shown on fans, both in mainstream press and fannish spaces in these books, fostered a lot of discussion about visibility.

Some Topics Discussed

  • the academic study of fandom
  • different approaches to interviews, differing conclusions
  • Enterprising Women (contained "distaste" and disrespect) and Textual Poachers and the "strange tribe approach"
  • role playing games
  • slash
  • "slash [is] a covert, feminist action to decry the lack of believable female heroes on television"
  • fandom is more than the source material; it is about community
  • fear that fans have of being misrepresented and turned into oddities


Science-fiction and media fans participate in role-playing games like the one [described in the previous paragraph] above every weekend at conventions around the world. These games are just one aspect of media fandom that has been studied by the academic community.

But what’s there to study? Anyone who watched William Shatner on Saturday Night Live can tell you what media fans look like. Male fans are skinny, wear glasses, and are virgins. The girls are overweight, wear glasses, and are virgins. Star Trek fans can give you the stardate of every original episode, but can’t remember a dentist appointment. All fans need to get a life.

The above stereotypes do exist. Most fans are able to laugh them off and continue to enjoy their "Weekend Only World."

I’m a media fan and I’ll admit to being strange. What else do you call someone who will spend $25.00 on a mediazine, but have kittens because bananas are 49 cents a pound? But am I worthy of serious academic study? Apparently so and fans have mixed feelings about it.

Some researchers are also fans and their publications seem less distanced than other studies. Other academics use a "strange tribe" approach of observing fans at conventions. Fans tend to view these studies as incomplete because of the fandom community that exists outside the formal structure of a convention that is rarely discussed. One such informal gathering may be fans getting together at someone’s house to watch five straight episodes of Blake’s 7 one night a month.

One published fan-academic is Henry Jenkins, author of Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. Jenkins attended late night viewing marathons, mediazine collating parties, and conventions for over ten years before he published his book. Some of these informal gatherings may have influenced his findings of fandom as a participatory culture; that media fandom is an ACTIVE forum, not just the passivity of watching a television series.

Jenkins sees fans as participating in a large, diverse community and accepting an identity which is belittled or criticized by institutional authorities. He also observed that a significant number of media fans are women, have college degrees and are employed in occupations where they are underpaid and their creative skills are not utilized.

Amen! The above description fits me, as well as friends in my little fan posse: one bookkeeper, one free-lance researcher, three librarians, one nurse, one secretary, and a teacher!

In his book, Jenkins examines the end products of fan interactions: fan fiction, mediazines, fan art, fan music videos, and filk music. Psychological and ethnographic conclusions are kept to a minimum.

Other studies have not been as kind. Some researchers do not network with fans due to the fear that a known act of observation will change that which is being observed. As a result, some reports are incomplete or inaccurate due to the researcher’s attempt to place fans and fandom within established scientific theories.

Many female fans rolled their eyes in frustration with the publication of Camille Bacon-Smith’s book, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. First, Bacon-Smith referred to some of her sources as informants, essentially giving fandom an underground, cult status. She also attempted to explain particular genres of fan fiction.

Hurt/comfort is a type of fan story where the writer develops a plot where one character becomes injured (either physically or mentally) and the other character offers comfort. Women writers are notorious for producing this type of story where the male characters are cast in the traditional female role of nurturer.

Bacon-Smith couldn’t mask her distaste for this genre in her book. She chalked up these literary efforts to personal turmoil in the writers’ lives. Pain is so pervasive in these women’s lives that it effects their creative efforts; that women are either casting themselves as heroes in their stories or are wishing for rescue in their lives.

The slash genre didn’t fare much better in [Enterprising Women]. Slash stories feature explicit, male homosexual material using media characters. Kirk/Spock (K/S) is an example of a slash pairing. Some of Bacon-Smith’s theories concerning slash writing include: 1) that the male characters are actually surrogate women and, 2) that slash writers are afraid to write about heterosexual sex because they’re afraid they’ve been doing "it" wrong all these years; that women aren’t really expected to know the mechanics of gay, male sex so essentially anything is allowed and accepted.

I cannot say that Bacon-Smith’s conclusions are wrong, but I do suggest that the conclusions are incomplete. She did attend conventions, read mediazines, and interviewed fans for her book. On the other hand, I "speak" with fans practically everyday due to the wonder of the e-mail system on the Internet. Never, has any writer told me that their hurt/comfort masterpiece was based in part on personal experience or the "working out" of tragedy or unhappiness in their lives.

Some writers do a great deal of research to write a realistic hurt/comfort story. Some fan writers study books on weapons and poisons. Others consult fellow fans who are health care professionals in order to find out how patients respond to certain types of injuries.

The slash writers I know simply love men! They love Kirk and Spock, Starsky and Hutch, Blake and Avon, Bodie and Doyle, and Illya and Napoleon. Slash is erotica for women, by women. Many slash writers use pseudonyms only because they DO have lives outside of fandom where any type of erotica would be met with distaste. Those in the fan community know who the slash writers are; quite frankly, fans openly discuss slash all the time. It’s hardly necessary that parents and coworkers be made aware of a element of fandom that is openly debated within the fandom community itself. In no way is slash a covert, feminist action to decry the lack of believable female heroes on television.

TV Fans versus the University Researchers - Us vs Them

So why do I have one impression of fan fiction while a serious researcher has another? Well, fans probably view me differently and are willing to give me more information or insight. When I approach fans with an idea for a Strange New Worlds article, I tell them that I’m a fan. When I’m at a convention, I don’t need to identify myself as a fan; I have a stack of zines in my arms and wear a button that says: Hello, I’m from the American Association for the Abolition of Acronym Abuse, Regional Group Headquarters (AAAAARGH!). From the title of the publication, fans can tell that the audience of Strange New Worlds is other media fans. As a result, I may get more information than a ethnographic anthropologist who approaches fandom as simply a curiosity to be studied.

An "us against them" attitude will always exist in fandom. This is not fan snobbery, but fan fear. Fans have created a unique community with valid forms of expression: fan art, fan fiction, filk music, and fan music videos. The possible results of academic studies of fandom include an influx of people who come to conventions in search of a world they’ve only read about.

They really don’t want to be a member of the fan community. They have no interest in the shows, nor the fans who enjoy them. Disinterested or uninvolved people may change the very nature of the community that Star Trek fans began to build over twenty years ago.

Fandom isn’t about Spock and space ships, Vincent and Catherine in the Tunnel World under New York City, or Dr. Sam Beckett leaping through time. One does not become a fan merely by watching a television show. As any true fan can tell you, fandom has become as much about the friends we make, the ties that we establish, than just about the shows we love.