Fandoms: The (un)dead Audiences

It’s always fascinating to see new, strange ways to tell age-old stories. For instance, most recently one of us found a version of Hamlet that was a ‘choose your own adventure’ book (To Be or Not to Be  by Ryan North) . The reader can choose to go through the story in the ‘same way that William Shakespeare plagiarized it himself’ (the book explains in the introduction that Shakespeare basically stole the whole story from another story) or the reader can choose another way to read Hamlet. This book interested us not only because it is absolutely hilarious, but also because it illustrates the kind of attitude that a modern audience now has regarding to media.

This is because media consumption has become a ‘choose your own adventure’ story as well. As Jack Z. Bratich describes in his article From Audiences to Media Subjectivities: Mutants in the Interregnum(2013), the notion and the role of the audience has changed radically over the years and Bratich even goes as far as to say that this evolution has now reached a point that it’s appropriate to call it the ‘end of the audience’ or the end of audience studies. This has to do with how the audience is playing a role as a receiver of the message that media is sending out.

Bratich sums up a number of ways the audience has functioned in the past. The thing they have in common is that all of them are playing a part of passive receivers. In some cases, like the ‘consumers’ or ‘the public’ they exist to be influenced. It is often heard that for a political campaign to win or lose, the public needs to be persuaded. And of course it is all down to the consumer to be influenced by the many marketing strategies that want the consumer to buy things. To summarize: the audience has always existed as a passive receiver that has to be influenced by strategies and campaigns.

The ‘death’ of the audience, as Bratich calls it, has come because the audience doesn’t fulfill the role of passive receiver anymore. Because of new ways of participation, reaction, and interactivity, the audience gets a big say in how the message is being received. The audience is no longer sitting quietly while watching a television show, the audience is defining for themselves what the message is and how it is received. With new possibilities and communities arising because of the internet, audiences can more easily share their views on media, and make reactions on media that can be seen as media productions on their own. This is where the notion of the fandom comes in: in a fandom the audience is not passively consuming media, they are reacting to it in ways that shape the meaning of the media. In a fandom, how other fans see media is more important than what the suggested reading is.

In the next section, I’m going to talk more about a specific example of how a Fandom assigns its own meaning to media, make clear exactly how this happens and how the media producers react to this.
The first example is from 2012, when the superhero movie The Avengers  came out. The movie puts together heroes from previous movies such as Iron Man, Thor  and Captain America. Another character that has been in those movies is Agent Phil Coulson (played by actor Clark Gregg). Phil Coulson works for the boss of the organisation known as SHIELD (acronym for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). The organisation brings the superheroes together and Phil Coulson is tasked with keeping it all organized. He is perhaps the most ordinary character and therefore serves as a sort of translator of all these supernatural things towards an everyday audience. He is also quite a fan of Captain America of whom he even collects trading cards. This is why, when he died unexpectedly and brutally in Avengers, the fans were not exactly pleased with that.

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One of the most notable forms that this took was the hashtag #Coulsonlives. It was written in public spaces, put on t-shirts and it became a sort of ‘meme’ in the fandom that it wanted to vehemently deny that Coulson had breathed his last breath in The Avengers. Four months went by after the movie came out in which the fans spread the #Coulsonlives message all around. Then, a new TV-show was announced about SHIELD, tying in with the rest of the Avengers universe. It also marked a victory for the fans, because the first actor to be announced to be in the series was Clark Gregg, the actor who plays Agent Coulson. It was clear that the fans had gotten what they wanted. Of course it seems questionable that the fans played a role in this and more reasonable to think that it was set from the start that Coulson was going to come back. But, according to Clark Gregg, the fans really did influence the decision to bring Coulson back:

“It’s fun for me to go to Comic-Con. Because Agent Phil Coulson – now Director Phil Coulson – is a bit of a nerd. He had an awkward man-crush on Captain America. When he died, the nerds brought him back to life with a hastag, #CoulsonLives. The nerds, my people, as a nerd, they have a real connection with Phil Coulson. So when I go there, it’s real fun.” (source

“And even though my friends at Marvel said, “You know, we spent a lot of time talking about how Coulson lives, and we know that there’s a movement out there, and there are t-shirts and people paint on bridges ‘Coulson Lives’, we’re going to bring you back”, and it’s one of the many things people tell you that never ever happens. And then I get this call from Joss (Whedon, co-creator of Agents of SHIELD) saying, “Well…there’s a script. And here’s what we’re thinking, and it’s after The Avengers, and here’s the concept.” By the time Joss finished telling me, I was in.” (source

Here is a very clear example of how a fandom can function as an audience that does not just accept the message of the media, but as an audience that constructs its own meaning of the message, which becomes more powerful than the original message and eventually changes the message of the media itself. So the fandom illustrates Bratich’s point about the ‘death of the audience’ but at the same time it’s very much alive in the sense of being active and producing a new meaning and new media. Metaphorically, the media consumption can be seen as a ‘choose your own adventure’ book: the audience can choose what story they want and actually change the story the media gives them. The connectedness in a fandom plays a vital role in getting these alternative meanings to be noticed. Because a fandom is a collection of like-minded people it’s not hard to find a lot of people who simultaneously want to participate in, for example, the #coulsonlives campaign. If there weren’t any platforms on which these people could not connect with each other and share ideas about media, it would be more difficult for alternative meanings to get big. Fandoms are audiences that are not only watching- but also shaping the media they consume.

Finally, we want to briefly support the views of Fabienne Darling-Wolf who argues that, when studying audiences it is important to take a translocal approach. This means that carefully observing not how the audience functions in one environment, but how it functions in different environments. Another reason why a translocal approach is important is because a fandom does not exist in one environment. A fandom is nearly always a group of people who are not connected physically, but through the internet. Outside of the internet, the people belonging to a fandom are situated all over the world. An example to illustrate this is the Doctor Who World tour which was a tour around the world with the two main actors and the current showrunner. It shows how a show can spread all over the world and how the fans might be spread out and celebrate the thing they love differently, at the end of the day they are still in the same fandom and for a TV-show to play into that like this is an indicator of how important an international fandom is. This also means that when studying audiences, it has to be assumed that the audience can watch anything from all over the world and that this translocal approach is very valuable when researching that.

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-Sjoerd, Sascha, Anouk & Laurie

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