And So It Begins — An Introduction
Hello! Double hello if you understood the LoTR reference in the title. It was only apt that I start my blog on fan cultures with the fandom that I have belonged to for the longest stretch of time. Two sentences in and you already know I am a Ringer. I am also extremely cheesy. Welcome!
My name is Saniya Shaikh. I am from Mumbai, India. I have so far spent 21 years of my life partly being competitive in formal academic institutions and partly being fascinated by popular culture. I discovered the joy of television quite early on in life — from Bollywood remixes to American TV shows, but the joy of talking about them with other people who were just as invested in the storyline, the subtext and the actors was something that I found on new media platforms like Tumblr and Facebook groups. Media consumption was no longer an individual activity, I had found my people.
I can chart out a timeline of my life according to the fandom that I belonged to during different phases. I have been a part of popular fandoms such as the “Potterheads”, the “Whovians”, and the Jonas Brothers fandom (they were HUGE once). I have also been a part of the niche of the niche — a Queen fandom on Tumblr in 2011 and a fandom dedicated to the Hindi soap opera Maharana Pratap in 2014. Through this, I have found myself being part of communities that are vastly diverse, not just in their identities but also in their ideologies, regardless of their mutual agreement over one thing — their fannish interest. This aspect of fandom is what interests me the most, and is something that I will be focusing on to explore the larger themes of global community creation and fan activism.
I recently attended a masterclass by director of MIT Center for Civic Media and founder of Global Voices Ethan Zuckerman at the Godrej India Culture Lab where I work as a a catalyst. One of the key takeaways from his incredibly insightful talk on media activism was the value of attention. He emphasized on how one of the biggest challenges faced by civic media creators across the world is grabbing and retaining attention, which made me think about how different things are within fan cultures. Fans not only invest a large amount of time, thought and even money towards the subject of their fan interest but also cultivate conversations that travel through media platforms and engage the community over specific issues. It is no surprise then that fandoms have been successful in activating change by becoming insurrectionist, with little to no help by mainstream media, and at times without any direct interference by the subject of their fannish interest.
My association with fan activism started when I was a 13 year old fan of the American TV show Glee. I used to watch the show on television, occasionally looking up Wikia pages, but that was it. I had not interacted with anyone else who watched the show until Season 2. Glee dealt with many themes but what I liked the most was their portrayal of LGBTQ characters, especially the romantic storyline between Kurt and Blaine. No queerbaiting of any sort, the development was both exciting and adorable. In fandom terms, I “shipped” them. However, Star World, the channel that telecasted the show in India cut the scene where the couple shared a kiss. This was clearly homophobic as other scenes of heterosexual characters being intimate were never censored. I took to the channel’s promotional Facebook post to leave a comment expressing my anger. A couple of other queer “Gleeks” liked my comment and one of them added me to a group titled Klaine Chat Room. This was my first time being a part of a fan group. Star World never acted upon our complaints and continued to censor kisses between other queer characters, but I ended up finding a group of people who not only were fans of Glee but also people who deeply cared about LGBTQ representation.
It is important to note that fans don’t necessarily identify personally with political issues, but engage with it because the fandom, as a collective, cares about it. An example of this is the involvement of ARMY, fans of K-Pop group BTS in raising awareness during the recent assault on students in Bangladesh. The protests and the police brutality were systemically kept under the rugs by many mainstream media outlets. ARMY decided to share tweets by Bangladeshi students tagging news publications, requesting them to shed light on the issue. The motivation behind this was the fact that many fans were Bangladeshi themselves and that the fans were aware of their impact when it comes to trending hashtags (BTS were the most tweeted about celebrity on Twitter in 2017, exceeding tweets about both Justin Bieber and Donald Trump combined).
Activation and amplification of such scale is worth talking about in media activism, right? However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Fans are often seen as obsessive, brainwashed and passive when it comes to talking about issues that do not concern the subject of their interest. In fact, for a very long time, academic theories read fan behavior as a pathology until scholars like John Fiske and Henry Jenkins started framing a favourable case for audience ethnography and fan cultures respectively. It’s been over two decades since Jenkins published his pioneering work Textual Poachers that revolutionized academic outlook of fans and fan cultures. Many of his later works including the theories of convergence culture and spreadability have been groundbreaking in the world of media studies. Needless to say, he is my foremost inspiration for the kind of work I want to do. I always have his blog Confessions of An Aca-fan opened on a tab on my phone to read while I commute to work. Does that make me an aspiring aca-fan who is a fan of an aca-fan?
There have been many extraordinary fan scholars who have been working on various aspects and intersections of fandom for about three decades all over the world. Yet, there hasn’t been much work done on fan studies in India. I recall a conversation I had with a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the top ranking universities in India. The professor wanted to gain more perspective about a conference she was curating on LGBTQ culture in India. Since it was purely an academic event, I proposed to her the idea of doing research on fan fiction produced in India, since a lot of it deals with themes of sexuality and offers magnanimous insight into how non-canon works are produced by fan writers, problematising the idea of canonical heteronormativity. She immediately dismissed the idea, stating that it was “too casual” for academia. It came as a shock to me because in a country that does not have a lot of LGBTQ literature — academic or otherwise, why would you ignore such a large body of work? Indian academia hasn’t yet produced a good amount of work on fan cultures and continues to overlook it. As an aspiring aca-fan from India, I see that as a big problem.
I have thus taken it upon myself to document Indian fandom experiences. I should make it clear that I don’t have a background in media studies apart from having self-educated myself with works of scholars like Jenkins, Lori Kido Lopez, Kristina Busse, Karen Hellekson, among a few others. I will thus try to refrain from making arguments that I will not have academic evidence for but instead present you with experiences of Indians who belong to various fandoms. This will be done through interviews that I will host on this blog. Not all of the fandoms I feature will be Indian since new media fan cultures are quite a global phenomenon, but all the fans interviewed will be Indian, who are living in India.
I will also be studying global participatory culture in parallel. I take immense interest in K-Pop fan practices and their globalisation. I am in fact a self proclaimed super-fan of BTS and I’m working separately on a case study of their international success. Besides, I have always had a fascination with how global communities interact and intersperse through soft power (you can thank Anthony Bourdain for inciting that curiosity in a young Saniya who would never miss the 2:30PM episode of No Reservations). I will try to locate the Indian context in the theories that I read about hybridity and global communications, and you will see some of that work featured here as well.
So here we go! I hope you enjoy what you read here, I will ensure that I make it worth your time. I am so happy to have you accompany me on this journey!