Considering Fandom: A Review of Fandom, Now in Color: A Collection of Voices edited by Rukmini Pande
Maria K. Alberto
Fandom, Now in Color: A Collection of Voices. Edited by Rukmini Pande. University of Iowa Press, 2020.
In familiar fandom fashion, let me begin with the tl;dr, or the “too long, didn’t read” – i.e., a succinct summary of what you’ll encounter below, so that you know exactly where I stand up front.
Tl;dr: the 2020 collection Fandom, Now in Color: A Collection of Voices is a must-read book. For media and fan studies scholars, for popular culture writers, and indeed, for fans themselves.
In this collection, editor Dr. Rukmini Pande and sixteen contributors discuss several diverse instances and questions of how race, racial identity, and racism intersect with fandom. This is a tremendously timely and complex project for a number of reasons. As authors here note, the discipline of fan studies has historically focused on white fans from the Global North and texts in English as both the default and the norm of fandom communities and practices. Meanwhile, fans who discuss texts’ depictions of race, bringing up lived experience, and/or create works that depart from a focus on white characters are often targeted and harassed for doing so – circumstances that are not only relegated to highly visible incidents, such as the 2009 RaceFail, but also occur in everyday instances of online abuse, microaggressions, and more.
Notably, Pande acknowledges that no one collection or approach could adequately identify and answer all questions relevant to race and fandom. Just to exemplify the complexities that this collection deals with, some of the questions at play here include “In what context are race and racial identity being discussed? Are Western-centric, generalized, and essentialized categorizations such as white and nonwhite being taken as the default?” (1) and “Can the operations of a category as slippery and controversial as racial identity be mapped with any degree of accuracy in today’s transnational and globalized world? What about the intersections of race with other aspects of identity like gender, sexuality, class, religion, and disability?” (1). As Pande notes immediately afterward, questions such as these lack single, definitive answers, and the various chapters of Fandom, Now in Color each offer their own two cents in ways that “[push] the boundaries of the original questions significantly” (1) rather than thinking in terms of static “solutions.”
Fandom, Now In Color is conscientious and highly deliberate about framing its various limitations, while also noting – and correctly so – that much of the scholarship in fan studies as a field cannot say the same, where instead race is usually deemed “relevant to an analysis of fandom only when controversy entails overt and identifiable racist behavior… or when the fans or fandoms under analysis are explicitly framed as nonwhite” (4).
From the get go, then, Fandom, Now In Color gets right to the heart of big questions that lack easy answers. I reiterate this because, if the introduction’s discussion of topics such as hierarchies of global power, shifting geopolitical landscapes, and increasing border militarization makes a reader wonder what any of these issues have to do with fandom – which is where we usually go to have fun, right? – then this is precisely the reader who should be taking in, and reflecting on, the work included here. As Pande and collection contributors aptly demonstrate here, no text or fan-object that forms the nexus of a fandom is free from the logics surrounding its production – even if those logics and their consequences are more visible and detrimental to some audiences than others – and far too many harmful behaviors and beliefs get a pass precisely because fandom is often imagined to be “just fun,” ignoring the fact that this is neither a uniform nor a universal experience.
As it proceeds, Fandom, Now In Color does not shy away from identifying the issues that fandom can accommodate or exacerbate. This includes naming white supremacist ideals for what they are, whether these occur in femslash (writing about queer relationships between two female characters) or omegaverse (fanfiction trope that categorizes characters in secondary genders drawn from animal characteristics), among others. Here is another place where white readers may be required to push past their own knee-jerk reactions, and rightfully and productively so. As I read, the comparison struck me anew thus – if hearing about these logics and issues in a beloved form of fandom or fanwork is difficult to take in for certain readers, then consider how much more difficult it is to see, to internalize, to report, and to be demanded to live with those same things in the spaces that are billed as being “just fun” ones. Hearing about and pausing to take in what will be, to some, new and admittedly sometimes-difficult perspectives, is a much less onerous work compared to the alternatives too often lived by fans, acafans, and scholars of color, as is identified again and again throughout this collection.
In the meantime, another tremendous point in this collection’s favor is its sheer breadth. Fandom, Now In Color offers four sections, each with an interesting and thought-provoking selection of subjects and approaches. In the first such section, “Methodologies,” Elizabeth R. Hornsby discusses critical methods that she has used while researching race and fandom (Ch. 1), Sam Pack presents two case studies on deconstructing positionality and reception (Ch. 2), and Katherine Anderson Howell reviews how teaching practices can either challenge or reify teachers’ own privilege(s), often beginning with whiteness (Ch. 3). As Pande explains this grouping of essays, their authors “seek to continue the critical interventions by previous scholars that have exposed the undeclared whiteness of fan studies genealogies” (5), whether by utilizing new and more nuanced theoretical frameworks or by exposing the limitations of certain frameworks that are generally expected in the field.
Next, in the section on “Otherness,” Joan Miller examines “raceplay” in cosplay, particularly when white fans “put on” characters of color in their cosplaying choices (Ch. 4), and Miranda Ruth Larsen discusses the complexity of Otherness in the Kpop scene in Japan, particularly given this country’s fraught history with South Korea (Ch. 5). Then in the third section on “Affirmative/Transformative” fandom practices, Angie Fazekas examines how the omegaverse or A/B/O trope often appropriates and whitewashes narratives that involve race (Ch. 6), Indira Neill Hoch investigates how whiteness becomes an unspoken default of character customization in videogame fandoms (Ch. 7), Samira Nadkarni and Deepa Sivajaran dive into the limitations of racebending, particularly as seen in the musical Hamilton (Ch. 8), and Carina Lapointe looks at “racial bonuses” and the primary-world effects of fantasy essentialism long propagated by the game system of Dungeons & Dragons (Ch. 9).
Then, in the fourth and final section on “Identity/Authenticity,” contributors look to spaces, texts, and examples that articulate questions and anxieties “around fan identity, notions of belonging and communities, ownership of media texts, and ideas of representations” (Pande “Introduction” 11). First Pande and Swati Moitra explore debates regarding femslash fanfiction and which characters become popular/visible in this way as a means of deconstructing the phrase “representation matters” (Ch. 10), and Jenni M. Lehtinen considers how Latino identity and Spanish fluency become contested markers in Jane the Virgin fandom spaces (Ch. 11). Then McKenna James Boeckner, Monica Flegel, and Judith Leggatt revisit the concept of racebending in the context of white panic about diverse characters in Marvel Comics fandom (Ch. 12), and finally, Al Valentín discusses “authenticity” as a form of capital in Let’s Play videos, where this concept also becomes a gatekeeping tool wielded against particular gamers (Ch. 13).
In addition to its timeliness and its breadth, another aspect of this collection that I appreciated very much was Pande’s ongoing framing of the work it undertakes. Most notably, Pande anticipates several potential concerns that white fan studies scholars might have about discussing race in relation to fandom and fanworks, which include a fear of “getting it wrong” and thus facing criticism (5) – a concern that does not actually make discussions of race any less relevant to this kind of scholarship or relieve scholars of color from facing criticism from all sides when undertaking the same work.
This was a powerful assertion to see, as this very question had been my main concern when picking up this book with the knowledge that I would be writing this review. However, Pande addresses this concern eloquently and thoroughly, leaving white readers and scholars with the question: why is such work placed squarely upon certain people’s shoulders? In fact, it seems tremendously generous here that Pande mainly points out the criticism that scholars of color face from peers within their own communities (5), when in reality, these scholars also face criticism from white peers insisting that the work they do is too divisive, too space-consuming, too serious, and more – a process that, sadly, holds just as true, if not truer, within fandom itself. Anyone familiar with the work of pop culture journalist and acafan Stitch, for example, will have seen how much of their work – both on personal blogs and for major media outlets such as Teen Vogue – draws intense harassment in response to reasonable, well-researched points. With such examples in mind, the potential of “becoming a target of criticism” that white fan studies scholars may feel that they face for thoughtful engagement with questions of race is not at all comparable.
(In a brief aside – it was witnessing an example of this conduct on social media, taking place almost stroke for stroke as Pande describes it here, that actually led me to pick up this book in the first place, seeking to learn better.)
Here, then, I will just reiterate the “tl;dr” that opened this review: Fandom, Now in Color is a tremendous and important read for anyone looking to better understand and write about contemporary forms of fandom.
Maria Alberto is a PhD candidate in literature and cultural studies in the Department of English at the University of Utah, where she is currently working on her dissertation. Her research interests include new media, digital storytelling, and transformative fanworks in addition to genre literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her recent work has included essays on platform-based methodologies and digital-born queer romance, among others. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah in December 2020 from a hard pitch emailed directly to the editor; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. This review was copyedited by Arina Nabais. A review copy was arranged by ARB from the University of Iowa Press.