First Principles (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Acafandom)

It famously (within my immediate family, anyway) took me six years to complete my doctoral dissertation on the Japanese female fandom of Hong Kong stars. There are any number of reasons why this was the case, including – but not limited to – the fact that, during the same period of time, I got married and produced not one, but two, children.

Yet, much as I’d like to pin the blame for my rather appalling time-to-completion on my (hell)spawn, that’s not the whole story. When I was in the process of working through the question that motivated my research – namely, why Japanese women became interested in Hong Kong stars in such droves – I kept bumping up against assumptions that underpin research of both female fans and transcultural fandom, yet were incompatible, in the main, with what my research was telling me.

My training had taught me that the first place to look for meaning in female fandom was in its relationship to female subjectivities; specifically, how fandoms either reinforce or resist the heteronormative frameworks within which we live our everyday lives. Indeed, this was a discourse that repeatedly popped up in Japanese reporting on the phenomenon; how these fans were ushering in a new era of female autonomy and, by the by, fostering new avenues of intercultural understanding between Japan and one of its East Asian neighbors. And that was the first clue that something wasn’t. quite. right.

The Japanese popular press has never had much difficulty in scapegoating fans – female or otherwise – in the interest of calming social anxieties, and I wondered what possible use could come of reportage that, instead of pathologising them, lauded these fans for their tastes. And I wasn’t the only one who was skeptical: Koichi Iwabuchi, in his seminal text, Recentering Globalisation: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (2002), conducted his own study of this fandom, concluding that such claims – and, indeed, the fandom itself – reflected nothing so much as a broad national desire for, and objectification of, an exotic East Asian ‘Other’. Yet, while his analysis captures much of what was so contradictory about this fandom, reading as an erstwhile Japan-based (if not actually Japanese) fan of Hong Kong stars myself, it didn’t ring quite true in an affective sense.

Iwabuchi observes, for example, that Japanese female fans seem to privilege fantasy relationships with stars rather than seek out interpersonal relationships with ‘real’ Hong Kong men, and that this is indicative of Japanese national chauvinism vis-a-vis its East Asian counterparts. Which, I suppose, could be true in a world where fans seek out fannish objects for the sake of performing identities, national, gender, or otherwise. And it’s entirely possible that there are such fans out there; but the thing is, I’m not that kind of fan, and neither are the many fans I know and associate with. Neither are we sitting around discussing how our fandom necessarily helps us Fight the Man or otherwise buck patriarchy, but, if Iwabuchi’s critique is anything to go by, that’s what we should be doing, and our failure to do so has wide-reaching implications.

All of which left me and my dissertation high and dry when it came to the work of trying to understand why these women had become fans in the first place – why I had become a fan in the first place. Because, as professorfangirl observed at the end of a heated Tumblr discussion on fandom and feminism, “I write slash to turn myself on. That’s it. That’s the engine, the driving force, getting myself off at the heart and the girlparts.” This is what resonates with me and my relationship with fandom: it’s about what I like – what’s pretty, what’s desirable, what excites me, what gives me pleasure. And there’s simply no room for pleasure in an either/or calculus predicated on fandom’s (apparently) necessary relationship to sociopolitical subjectivities.

Which is to say, the problem, as it turned out, was one of paradigm, and this was a realisation that came, for me, in two parts.

Part One: in which I, Like Clarice, am Schooled by Hannibal Lecter

So there I am, poring over a mountain of fan-produced doujinshi and letters to the editors of Hong Kong VCD supplier-produced newsletters (hereafter known collectively as “the Precious”), and I’m observing that, yeah, there’s some interesting resistance in there: women going to concerts saying, essentially, husband and children be damned; women ending entire marriages on the basis of their husbands’ inability to countenance their extramarital interests, etc. But, as one such woman explained to me in an interview, “it was more a symptom than a reason for my divorce. Our marriage was already in trouble”; which is to say, yeah, it happened and it touched on my fandom, but they weren’t directly related. And then again, for every woman who talked about the place of fandom in her everyday life in this way, there was at least one more who thanked her mother-in-law for watching the kids while she was off concerting in Tokyo – one more who thanked her husband for the extra money to show herself a good time while she was there.

As my then-infant son was discovering around the same time as I was mulling this all over, a square peg simply will not fit into a round hole, no matter how hard you push. All of this ‘resistance’ wasn’t quite as resistant as I needed it to be.

And I’m thinking about this all the time: while I’m dropping my daughter off at preschool at 9:00 am. While I’m changing my son’s diapers and nursing (pretty much 24/7). When I’m picking my daughter up from preschool at 12:00 pm (and let me tell you how little gets done in those scant three hours). Cooking. Doing laundry. Vacuuming. And I simply cannot reconcile what these women have to say, not to mention my own fandom (the one that made me such a familiar face in my local Hong Kong star goods shop that the owners managed to swing first-row seats for me and a friend at Leslie Cheung‘s first Osaka concert, as a result of which he shook my hand) with that resistant and/or complicit one I’m supposed to be talking about.

Now then, I love Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and when I say “love,” I mean that I put it on every time it appears in the TV listings. One night, in a rare, perfect constellation of events, it comes around on TV AND the children happen to be asleep, so I turn it on. And as I’m watching it, this scene comes up:

And that gets my attention. Because all of those “needs” that Clarice lists – “Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir…” – sound suspiciously like the things we read into fandom on a regular basis. And maybe those are part of what Buffalo Bill gets out of his killing, but, as Hannibal Lecter says, they’re not why he kills. He kills because “he covets. That is his nature.”

So, first principles: Why do fans become fans?

Because we like things. The things we like give us pleasure. We don’t seek them out, but see them everyday.

Anything else is incidental; which isn’t to say that it isn’t important. But it has nothing to do with that first ‘why’, and that’s as important – if not more – in thinking about the myriad ways fandoms come into being, both in a broad social and individual sense.

So, fandom arises through pleasure.

Part Two: in which I Belatedly Reread Tania Modleski and Put It All Together

And there’s my problem, first articulated by Tania Modleski in her 1986 essay, “The Terror of Pleasure: Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory.” To wit: women, “denied access to pleasure, while simultaneously being scapegoated for seeming to represent it,” have no recourse within a critical framework but to accept an “adversarial position” towards popular culture (163-4). Female pleasures being, from the outset, specious at best, we cannot talk about them except either to condemn the women who indulge in them or celebrate the women who resist them.

All of which means that, if female fandom is born out of pleasure, then we have no means within the accepted framework of fan studies to talk about what’s most salient to the ways in which it arises, is lived, and – critically for my project – circulates globally. Pleasure, then, becomes the constituent instability of women’s acafannish subjectivity: we cannot talk about that which we cannot talk about, and so we continue to replicate and reinforce a paradigm of resistant/complicit fandoms that bears little resemblance to fandom as experienced by fans.

And to that I want to say,

Fandom is pleasurable and the pleasurable is personal. The sooner we get past our resistance to talking about things that are, first and foremost, personal – the sooner we understand that embracing the personal ≠ jettisoning critical thinking for an orgy of self-indulgence – the sooner we’ll be in a position to really talk about what fandom is and what it does.

8 thoughts on “First Principles (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Acafandom)

  1. In our five year research project on why women (ourselves included) become fans, we came to many of the same conclusions you do here. The book is all about the passion and pleasure of fandom and why, for women, that often brings so much shame and kicks up so many defenses. Actually writing the book, which necessitated ‘confessing’ our own motivations and pleasures as passionate Supernatural fangirls while also writing as academics, was a struggle against that very resistance you’re analyzing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on our book Fandom At The Crossroads!

    • I was so excited to see this comment; I’ve heard such great things about the book (mine is back-ordered on Amazon) and cannot wait to read it. It’s been so hard to articulate the ‘pleasure thing’ for so long, and now with work such as yours coming out, I’m tentatively optimistic that we’re on the cusp of new ways of talking and thinking about fandom as it’s experienced. In the context of transcultural fandom, it’s still very much an uphill battle; Bertha Chin and I have an upcoming essay that maps some of these problems. Thanks for this comment – I’m looking forward to reading the book!

      • Can’t wait to hear your thoughts when you read Crossroads! If you do a blog post or book review, please let us know – I have a feeling you’ll relate to some of the things we talk about 🙂

  2. The idea of fan activity as essentially resistive is strangely ingrained in most acafan work—it’s not how I see it at all, and while it’s been an interesting paradigm to work off of in the past few decades, but I’m glad we’re starting to move away from it! Hm. This is a very interesting post, and it’s left me with quite a bit to mull over. Can’t wait to read what will follow!

    • Thank you so much for this comment. I agree – I think (hope?) that we’re beginning to move away from that paradigm; I know that much good work has come out (or is in progress) in the Anglo-American fandom context, at least, so it’s all very encouraging. I’m a little behind on the follow-up, but I hope to have it posted soon. Thanks again for this.

  3. It’s too late for me to wax eloquent on the (unintentionally) subversive aspects of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, but didn’t someone (Benjamine, Foucault, Lacan?? I’m not up to date on my philosophers) argue that pleasure for its own sake flies in the face of the capitalist demand that everyone is a productive worker? That is, I don’t see how fans engaging in fan activity for the pleasure it brings, even if they don’t see it as resistance, cannot also be considered resistance? Because to seek out pleasure IS a form of resistance, right? At least, it seems like it was for the women you describe, who left kids and husbands behind to pursue the fannish pleasures that interested THEM. They may not have articulated it as a subversive activity, but that articulation is not really necessary.

    BUT — I really do like how you are challenging acafans to focus on what fans are subjectively motivated by (pleasure) and not to get too fixated on what may be the unintended outcomes of their behaviors (resistance). Subjectivity is very good and it is also very telling that it has been heretofore ignored!

    • I’m so sorry to be so late responding to your thoughtful comment!! I am absolutely of the school that says that the pursuit of pleasure, within a capitalist, production/productivity context, can be considered resistance (I wrote a bit on it in the context of yaoi; not sure if you’ve seen it or not, but it’s here: This post – and the part of the essay from which it stems – is more in response to a specific strain of fandom studies that insists on a ‘resistance’ discourse as a prerequisite for the serious consideration of fandom (one that, in research of Anglo-American fandoms, is on the wane as the very issues you raise are considered, but which still has influence in studies of East Asian fandoms; Bertha Chin and I look into this in more detail in our recent essay, “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom” here:

      Which is to say, it’s intended more as a strategic intervention into ways we think about fandom than as a refutation of ‘resistance’ as a possibility within pleasure.

  4. I keep reading this and it keep making me think, review, revise, rethink. So thank you. (Also, have been fangirling over Clarice Starling since 1991; here’s to constituent instability!)

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