Can You Watch a Show Wrong?: What I Learned About Fandom

Invader Zim, if you didn't know.
Invader Zim, if you didn’t know.

I attended Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Scholars Association conference this weekend to speak, and the panel discussion I loved the most was one about modern fandoms. Perhaps it’s because this isn’t an area in which I do a ton of research, or perhaps because the internet has spawned so many new ways to participate in and study fandoms — in any case, it was damn fun to hear about some of this research. I could go on and on about all three panelists, but for now I’ll tell you the three coolest things I learned:

1. There’s this amazing-looking cartoon called Invader Zim, and some people are psychotically passionate about it. The presenter, Tim Jones, actually said fantastically interesting things about this show’s relationship to Barthes’ “Death of the Author” theory — and, in fact, inspired me to use the Death of the Author in another project I’m working on. It seems the creator of Zim, Jhonen Vasquez, actually ranted at a symposium that certain of his fans who were misinterpreting his work from his point of view were “watching the show wrong.” I love that idea, as it speaks to so many hostile TV experiences of late, from the Lost finale on through every other internet freak-out. But mostly, I was excited to learn about this show with very cool illustration and what looks like a kind-of dystopian world view. Best of all, his presentation yielded a sentence that would have been nonsensical to me before I’d learned all of this: “There is a lot of concern about poseurism in the fandom of Zim because of the popularity of Gir shirts at Hot Topic.”

2. I might understand this whole “Brony” thing finally. Two very smart young men, Jason R. Nguyen and Kurt Baer, explored “Ethnographic Methodology and the My Little Pony Fandom.” First of all, they have a great blog where they’re explaining and documenting their efforts. I’d heard about this “brony” phenomenon — mostly straight-identifying men who watch and discuss My Little Pony — in bits and pieces of media coverage/outrage. Naturally, most of the coverage doesn’t have to work that hard to make the idea of grown men watching a little girls’ pony show seem suspicious. But through Nguyen and Baer’s entertaining presentation, I think I understood it much better, and it seems to come down to camaraderie like any other fandom. But the key is that most people may not realize that what they’re fandoming over is a very clever reboot of the My Little Pony franchise that is designed to go above and beyond normal kid fare. What I’m saying is, I think it’s just a good show that isn’t that pervy to enjoy, and we shouldn’t judge straight men for liking something traditionally “girly.” We wouldn’t fret about a group of straight women discussing Transformers.

3. It doesn’t matter whether the endless reboots of beloved franchises are good or not. At least, to Hollywood it doesn’t. They make tons of money whether fans love or hate their newest Superman, Batman, Hulk, or Star Trek vehicle. In fact, a certain segment of cynical fans go to these movies just so they can then get online and tear them apart. Quincy Thomas’ presentation title said it all, with a perfect pun: “These Reboots Were Made for Mockin’.”

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One comment

  1. Terrific post. I think of fandom as a collection of like-minded individuals with a common obsession, directed—in varying degrees—to attributes associated with the person/object. If for example, you say “Ferrari” you’ll get an array of fans, one group rabid about Formula 1 racing, another on their road cars yet know little or nothing about F1 racing and still another group quite Beatles-esque in their interest on the car’s mechanical engineering. In each case, you may say some fans, are indeed watching the “show wrong.”

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