Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Good Fan/Bad Fan Dichotomy

August 13, 2010
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“And then there are always the furries”

Almost twenty years after Henry Jenkins’s discipline defining Textual Poachers, it comes as a surprise to still see fandom being associated with fanatics and obsession, especially from within academic subcultural disciplines (see, for example, the conversations in Ian Bogost’s blog post). And yet it really shouldn’t. We may be several decades removed from the emotional upheavals of the culture debates, but popular studies remains a readily mocked area in mainstream media, especially as universities are often asked to produce efficient and effectual employees rather than well rounded individuals (though I personally would actually like to see a bit more self-reflection amongst ourselves about what ideologies undergird and in turn are supported by such emphases on well rounded liberal arts education).

What interests me here, however, is the gender bias that not so subtly pervades much cultural conversation surrounding fan conversations. And I’m not even talking about the ready truism that enthusiasm among typically male fan objects, such as sport and even music, are generally accepted whereas female fan interests are much more readily mocked. Instead, I want to look at the strong feminizing and infantilizing bias that often goes along with the mockable fan endeavors, whether it be the stereotypical basement dweller (who clearly can’t get a girl, the ultimate evidence of masculinity in a thoroughly heteronormative culture) or the reproach that one should outgrow one’s interest in dolls, games, pop stars, or TV characters. More specifically, I am interested in the specific ways in which fans themselves create good fan/bad fan dichotomies that repeatedly set up community criteria that proscribe certain behaviors and exclude those that don’t abide.

Lore Sjöberg’s geek hierarchy is so popular, because it replicates the stereotypes that popular culture points at fans: wherever one is situated in terms of mockable fannish behavior, there is clearly a fannish subgroup even more extreme than one’s own—unless one is a furry, of course (a fan of a fictionalized anthropomorphic animal character). But the same is true within specific fan groups as well. Some fans try to legislate their portrayal towards outsider: some fans try to wield community pressure against those not following rules like “Don’t show fan works to The Powers That Be” or “Do not make money off fan works”; others try to create moral imperatives against certain types of fan works they consider immoral or reflecting poorly on their fan community in general; others yet try to represent their fan community as intellectual, artistic, and thus appealing to the public. (And I am well aware, that this particular reproach is indeed one that can be directed at acafans in particular!)

What underlies much of this border policing is a clear sense of protecting one’s own sense of fan community and ascribing positive values to it while trying to exclude others. While this is quite understandable behavior, what interests me here is the way fans replicate negative outsider notions of what constitutes fannishness, often using similar feminizing and infantilizing concepts. Accusations of being too attached, too obsessed, too invested get thrown around readily, and all too often such affect is criticized for being too girly or like a teen (see, for example, the In Media Res Celebrity week). Interesting here is the fact that female teens thus embody a category that is simultaneously oversexualized (insofar as their libidinal attachment is clear in their hysterical squee) and undersexualized (insofar as they are not meant to understood as sexually active). So affect is feminized and too much affect is being a bad fan, which makes me wonder how much subcultural capital we as acafans actually wield in fandom and how much we simply replicate in other arenas popular cultural reproaches—and how to overcome this fan-hating fan identity.


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15 Responses to “ Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Good Fan/Bad Fan Dichotomy ”

  1. Jeffrey Jones on August 13, 2010 at 9:27 AM

    Big points for the chart! 🙂

    • Kristina Busse on August 13, 2010 at 10:02 AM

      🙂 Check out the larger one I linked to. It’s even more detailed. But seriously, it’s really fascinating how we often replicate this behavior, both in terms of “I’m a better, i.e., more fannish than you” fan and in terms of “I’m a better, i.e., not as crazy as you” fan…

      In fact, I have a good friend in town who LARPs, and we always can compare our levels of fannish obsession on the geek hierarchy 😀

  2. Rebecca Bley on August 13, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    Kristina, I often see this policing around the “good” and “bad” episodes and seasons of a show. When I meet people who enjoyed Season 6 of Buffy, it’s often said with a blush or defensive “So what?” attitude, because the speaker has already been policed against this view. “Fandom” dislikes Season 6, and if you don’t agree, you’re outside the boundaries.

    • Kristina Busse on August 13, 2010 at 1:05 PM

      Oh, that’s an interesting point. Likewise, there’s starting to be a lot of defensiveness in my corner of fandom about liking problematic shows (or any shows where the main only characters are white straight guys).

      The pride/derision/defensiveness is quite complicated but we see that everywhere, don’t we? I only liked band X when they were still playing in warehouses/before they became big/… There are strange notions of authenticity at work and then the bizarre insider mandates competing with outside acceptance…

      • Laura Shapiro on August 13, 2010 at 2:00 PM

        I would argue that policing of degrees/types of geekiness is not the same as policing political or social justice implications of certain geeky choices.

        • Kristina Busse on August 14, 2010 at 10:59 AM

          Yes, you are certainly correct that the two differ. I do nevertheless find that in both cases we shouldn’t use a good fan/bad fan dichotomy. In a way, I think, the problem is that I find policing (as opposed to critiquing!)counterproductive. I want social justice issues to be discussed but mandating taste tends to bring defensiveness and circling the wagons so to speak rather than opening up dialog-especially when it’s linked with something as complicated and emotionally invested as fan identities.

          • Laura Shapiro on August 14, 2010 at 11:04 PM

            Well, I used “policing” because you used it in your title, but truthfully? I mostly see critique in fandom, not policing. I do see a lot of critique in fandom that gets called policing, and that bothers me.

            I do see the good fan/bad fan stuff being brought up in both arenas mentioned, but most of the social justice conversations I’ve seen veer quickly away from fandom and fannishness. In contrast, the conversations about furries being weird or fans being “OTT” or whatever stay centered in fannishness.

            • Kristina Busse on August 15, 2010 at 12:19 PM

              Yes, which is why it was wrong of me to even bring them up in the response to Rebecca. my post really was meant to address the fannish hierarchies and internal and external dismissals of fannish engagements.

              The social justice conversations are certainly both a different issue and follow different dynamics, you’re right!

          • Mikhail Koulikov on August 20, 2010 at 7:45 PM

            In a way, I think, the problem is that I find policing (as opposed to critiquing!)counterproductive. I want social justice issues to be discussed but mandating taste tends to bring defensiveness and circling the wagons

            And this (in particular the use of the term ‘policing’) makes me think first of all of how anime conventions very explicitly set up permitted and prohibited conducts. A costume is (generally) OK; a ‘hug me’ sign or a vuvuzela is decidedly not.

            As far as circling the wagons, etc., goes, though, why shouldn’t that exist. There is being a fan, but then there is being a member of a very specific group that defines itself by what it is, but also, by what it does not do. Like that old saying goes, “It’s not about what you’re like, it’s about what you like”, and being a member of a specific fan group allows you to buy into an identity, a group, and a social organization that is not built around your physical qualities or your place and role in the world outside the fan group.

  3. Laura Shapiro on August 13, 2010 at 1:58 PM

    Well said. I really dislike the anti-fandom snobbery that exists outside of our communities, but the geek hierarchy stuff from within our communities drives me absolutely batshit.

    • Kristina Busse on August 14, 2010 at 10:51 AM

      That. I think the two connect, however. We often follow external principles and ideas even though they may not follow our own desires/tastes (i.e., the way we evaluate stories through lit class lenses). I think a lot of fannish uncertainty and discomfort comes from the gap between what we like (genre, affect, …) and what we’re supposed to like (often quite modernist aesthetic principles)…

      • Laura Shapiro on August 14, 2010 at 11:06 PM

        I can’t speak to that — I’ve never had that uncertainty/discomfort around what I like or don’t like. The idea of a “guilty pleasure” makes sense to me intellectually but it’s not something I feel about the shows or fanworks I enjoy or create. Just lucky, I guess?

        • Kristina Busse on August 15, 2010 at 12:16 PM

          I think you are. I do think there’s a lot of people who enjoy things that are not considered OK by others, so that affect and intellect go different ways. It’s then that we get the two guilty pleasure responses, I think: some just repudiate the intellectual aesthetics while others push themselves into the acceptable and dismiss the rest. (A little bit like the two responses to the canon debates now that I think of it : )

  4. allison morris on August 15, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    the way fans replicate negative outsider notions of what constitutes fannishness, often using similar feminizing and infantilizing concepts.

    This is something that interests (and frustrates) me as well — my working theory is that fans are often involved in an ongoing fight, both within their own minds and with the world, to prove that fannishness and fanworks are legitimate (adult) identities and activities. And also that legitimacy is, by necessity, employing the definitions that are reflected back to us most often in the workplace, the media, and in social settings outside of fannish enclaves — legitimacy as enacted within an adult professional-class white male cisgendered able-bodied heterosexual paradigm. As that definition relentlessly rejects the other as illegitimate (and regularly targets teenage girls and their interests in particular as frivolous, transitory, and in need of paternalistic guidance), we borrow that behavior in order to set ourselves on the side of the ‘legitimate’ — attempting validation of our own legitimacy via borrowed behaviors.

    There’s also interplay with the rejection of stereotypes, certainly — but I think we tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater in many cases, there. The stereotypes of the basement-dwelling socially inept male fan, the cat-owning lonely spinster shut-in female fan, and the giddily screaming teen girl fan are all, in pieces, there in real life. But the stereotypes foreground the negative and mockable, and also, in my opinion, reductively propose that the root of all of those negatives is taking illegitimate subjects (unserious, ‘low’ culture, not artistically valued, and unsanctioned by the ‘legitimate’ definition I pose above) too seriously — being too earnest, failing to hold an ironic pose. A ‘cool’ affect is the ‘adult’ approach, and shoves away association with those stereotypes, but the rejection of those 2-dimensional stereotypes wholesale demands constant defense and disclaiming: “I’m a fan, and i own a cat, but I’m not one of those fans“; “I am in popslash fandom, but I’m not one of those annoying teen girls”; “I play D&D, but I go on dates”. This behavior is inherently a losing game, as we validate the stereotypes rather than transcending and redefining; we blame fans who we see as embodying the stereotypes for undercutting our legitimacy as a group, rather than accepting that we are all more than that. A real person who embodies a stereotype is not therefore reduced to two dimensions — they are more, and they are valuable and, I believe, still legitimate. We’re trapped in our defensive poses forever, and that defensiveness divides us, creates a perception of hierarchy within fandom communities that is ageist, misogynist, and ableist. It does us very little good, and a great deal of harm.

    • Kristina Busse on August 17, 2010 at 4:18 PM

      Yes, I think you’ve put your finger on the problem at the center of the hierarchy: there is no way you can ever make yourself acceptable enough, even if you disavow anything beneath you on the hierarchy. Moreover, by accepting this model, you’re perpetuating it.

      Internalized indeed!