I can’t profess to having delved extensively into the fantasy genre. Aside from recognising some of its dominant tropes – which include magic, sword battles, supernatural creatures and sorcerers – my knowledge is relatively limited.
There are fantasy texts widely considered to be classics. The first that come to mind, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, are originally book series that have subsequently been adapted into films. Loved for their elaborate plot lines, fantastical settings and iconic characters, both have a loyal fan following*.
Originally a term reserved for sports and theatre, “fandom” was adopted by science fiction literature enthusiasts (Coppa, 2006, p.42). It was only in the 1960s, upon the arrival of Star Trek, that it became commonplace to talk of “fans” of TV shows.
It is hard to define exactly what it means to be a fan, because there are so many different levels of engagement. An in-class brainstorm during the week six lecture on “Matters of Taste” resulted in a number of common themes:
- Fans are passionate and care deeply about the object of their fannish attention.
- Fans often document their thoughts in some form.
- Fans are actively engaged – possibly even producing fan fiction.
- Fans often have their own interpretations.
In the same session, lecturer Brian Morris touched on the importance of the internet in modern television fan culture. Online, fans can undertake a range of activities, from interpreting storylines and alternative readings on forums, to extending a show’s storytelling world by creating fan fiction (Morris, 2012).
Loyal is perhaps the understatement of the century when it comes to fantasy fans, but they are not the only “fanstremists” in the television world. To name but some of the die-hard fan communities connected to specific TV programs (courtesy TV Tropes, 2012):
- “Trekkies” (Star Trek 1966-1969])
- “Gleeks” (Glee [2009-])
- “Robot Skeleton Army” (Craig Ferguson and The Late Late Show [2005-)
- “Babblers” or “Fivers” (Babylon 5 [1994-1998])
- “Wingnuts” (The West Wing [1999-2006])
- “Browncoats” or “Flans” (Firefly [2002-2003])
- “X-Philes” (The X-Files [1993-2002])
- “Whovians” or “Wholigans” (Doctor Who [1963-1989 & 2005-])
- “Dwarfers” and “Smegheads” (Red Dwarf [1988-]
There are even individual actors who have devoted followings with colourful names: “Cumberbitches” or “Cucumbers” (Benedict Cumberbatch [Sherlock]), “Smilers” (Miley Cyrus [Hannah Montana]), and my personal favourite – “Fillionaires” (Nathan Fillion [Firefly, Castle]).
If recent talk is anything to go by, Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-) is destined to earn the “classic” tag. Because the series is relatively new, a name for its fans is yet to be decided.
This indecision manifests as an amiable “broken base” situation (a term for when a division exists between two schools of fan thought) on the pages of well-known television discussion website Television Without Pity. Here, Game of Thrones fans identify as being in one of two categories: those that have read the books by George R. R. Martin upon which the series is based (“Bookwalkers”), or those that haven’t (the “Unsullied”). It’s curious that, unlike in a typical broken base environment, these groups do not infight with one another (given time, I predict dissent in the ranks). The one exception, so I’m told, is when a Bookwalker drops a spoiler.
Broken base is just one of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions), of terms used in the fan world. You’d have to be a genius to keep track of even half of these often obscure, usually very specific words. Cue the emergence of fan culture and fandom as a legitimate field of academic inquiry.
Possibly the best known fan culture academic is Henry Jenkins, a current MIT communications professor fascinated by the relationship between “text” and reader. His well-trafficked blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan is a good place to start if, like me, you are new to the concept of fandom. “Aca-fan”, you may ask? Media studies academic Matt Hills is credited with coining the term, also referred to as “scholar-fan” (Hills, 2002, p.41), in his 2002 book Fan Cultures. On his blog, Jenkins supplies this definition: “…a hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic” (Jenkins, 2012). I read the following sentence as a tidy mission statement for all of Jenkins’ life’s work: “The goal of my work has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds” (Jenkins, 2012).
Not everyone is in favour of “aca-fandom”. Jenkins sees it as a means of affirming the importance of the consumer point-of-view in academia. Some academics consider the term to be rather problematic. Jenkins has published a series of blog posts that invite various academics to have their say in an aca-fandom “debate” of sorts.
Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley Abigail De Kosnik had this to say: “I conceive of “acafan” [sic] as a term that designates a certain professionalism, a certain demeanor (a “seeming”) of critical distance, a certain coolness and calmness in discussing all the many facets and valences of fandom” (De Kosnik in Jenkins, 2012).
De Kosnik’s connection of aca-fandom with “critical distance” is one of the issues at the heart of the debate. It implies “objectivity”.
Media and Cultural Studies professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison Jonathan Gray questions this aca-fan assumption: “I don’t believe anyone who tries to tell me that their choice of what to study and how to study isn’t deeply informed by their own personal likes and dislikes” (Gray in Jenkins, 2012).
To put it bluntly, Gray doesn’t see how aca-fans can claim to be able to separate their own fannish tendencies from their academic work. This brings the “superiority”/”authority” of aca-fans over “regular” fans into serious question.
By way of moving on, a truism: academic or otherwise, fans know what they do and do not like. If the material on the abundance of fan websites is anything to go by, they don’t mind telling everyone all about it either.
The screening of the Game of Thrones pilot in week six was my first look at television’s latest craze. As you have probably ascertained by now, I am one of the Unsullied.
“Dude, have you seen Game of Thrones?”
That’s a question I’m often asked, both inside and outside the context of this subject. Usually I answer truthfully with a cautious: “No, but I’m planning on it.” Which I am. Not since the emergence of a certain boy wizard have I felt this much pressure to be more than just familiar with a cultural product.
For me, reading the early reviews Game of Thrones was thus akin to examining the thoughts of The Age‘s Philippa Hawker or Jake Wilson before going to see a newly released movie. I not only found myself using reviewers’ words to build my knowledge of the show’s premise, but also to gain an idea of its likely audience. One thing was immediately apparent – some loved it and some hated it. But it didn’t stop there. The fans came out to play.
Yes. Reviewing can be a dangerous game.
As Myles McNutt points out in his blog post ‘Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews’, things get even dicier when reviews start getting reviewed. The spat that broke out within the reviewing world regarding Game of Thrones was enough to rival any showdown between the Fellowship and the orcs. At its proverbial heart is Ginia Bellafante’s New York Times piece, ‘A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms’.
The key point of contention is Bellafante’s assertion that overt eroticism is included in the show as “…something for ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” I’m quite new to media studies, but that sounds like a wild generalisation to me. However, I can see how Bellafante arrived at this point of view…
As David Barnett says in his Guardian article “Game of Thrones: Girls want to play too”, it is common, but wrong to assume that the fantasy genre is nothing more than “boy fiction”.
Critics of Bellafante’s piece accuse her of ignoring the existence of female fantasy fans, patronising her female readers and blatant inaccuracy. Her proclamation that illicitness is something that has been “…tossed in” implies that it is unfounded and removed from, or even irrelevant to narrative. This is simply not the case according to Barnett, who enthusiastically reports that “…the source material has plenty of bonking”.
Maybe it’s my RMIT-induced tendency to “question everything”, but while watching the pilot I cringed at the portrayal of women – the submissive wife, the daughter with only marriage on her mind, the “wenches” and forced marriages.
Admittedly, I have only seen one episode and am expecting one or two woman-to-warrior scenarios. It must also be said that the show’s “mediaeval-esque” setting demands a patriarchal setup.
Having heard what seems like hundreds of positive testimonies about Game of Thrones from friends and family, I’m wondering how many of them even knew this “review war” was going on. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say no. Even if they did, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make, if any, to their experience and enjoyment of the show.
This is a sign of the times.
We are constantly bombarded by the opinions of every Tom, Dick and Harriet via social media. In a recent talk at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the aforementioned Philippa Hawker voiced her uncertainty about the future of her profession. The opinions of even the most influential and respected reviewers now carry almost equal weight to those of, for example, my mate Geoff on Facebook who says: “GAME OF THRONES ROCKS! SO ADDICTED!!”. Are the readers of professional reviews the same people who are likely to want to check out a given show? I’m not so sure anymore.