Q&A: Fandom expert talks about Brony culture and what drives us to devotion

May 14, 2013 - 6:30am

Tanya Cochran is an associate professor of English, college writing coordinator and director of the Studio for Writing and Speaking at Union College in Lincoln, Neb. She's also an expert on fandoms and fan culture - think Trekkies or Twihards. Here, she answers some questions from NET News reporter Hilary Stohs-Krause as part of her report on Bronies, or young adult males who are fans of the cartoon show "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic."

NET NEWS: What’s your background as it relates to fan cultures? When and why did you start studying them?

COCHRAN: My professional expertise is rooted in the field of rhetoric and composition. In other words, I study and teach the uses and effects of language. Such a field is simultaneously narrow and broad. In essence, I can potentially study any situation or act that involves the use of language—whether spoken, written, scripted, composed, acted, filmed, etc.

My interest in the rhetoric of fan cultures developed about a decade and a half ago while I was studying at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga for my master’s degree. At that time, I became especially intrigued by female fans of Chris Carter’s television series’ "The X-Files." That intrigue was piqued by a newspaper article I stumbled across, a piece in which a young devotee credited the series and particularly the main character FBI Agent Dana Scully with inspiring her, the college-bound fan, to choose forensic science as a major. I remember that moment as the catalyst for the scholarship I’ve been working on ever since.

While I have asked and explored many research questions related to fan culture over the years, if I had to state my curiosity in only one central question it would be this one: Why do narratives move us so profoundly? Of course, a necessary follow-up question would be: So what—what is the significance of narrative’s power?

NET NEWS: What are some of the reasons people join fandoms, and what does it really mean to be a member of those communities, generally speaking? For example, what makes a Whovian different than a regular "Doctor Who" fan? What separates a Browncoat from someone who simply enjoys "Firefly"?

COCHRAN: We join fandoms for many reasons—some unique, some not. Sociologically, humans naturally gravitate toward social groups whose members express common interests, whether those interests relate to our tastes in music, our religions, our preferred sports or sporting events, our love of nature, and more. We join such groups to share our passions, to form friendships, to seek and offer expertise, to have fun. Generally speaking, then, a typical fan is a typical human being. Generally speaking, that is.

Certainly, there are distinctions among fans, non-fans, and anti-fans. From my own research as well as the research of other fandom scholars, narratolgists, and cognitive psychologists, it appears that what distinguishes one fandom from another is the narrative—including setting, plots, characters—around which a devoted audience forms. For example, Tim Minear, co-executive producer with Joss Whedon of the television series "Firefly," noted in one interview that many followers of that show often contact him to express their appreciation for the libertarian politics of the storyline and characters. I think it would be a stretch to argue that Whedon and Minear had libertarian intentions for "Firefly." Yet clearly some of the fanbase reads the narrative in that way, and that reading is why they like the show, why they considered themselves fans.

So what is the difference between a person who simply enjoys a book series, a musical album, a television show, or a video game and a person who considers herself or himself a fan? The answer is actually quite complex, but on the surface, the main difference is the amount of time and emotional investment one devotes to engagement with and extension of the central narrative.

For instance, the casual viewer may never rewatch an episode of a regularly followed teen drama, whereas a fan of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" may own the complete DVD set and rewatch many times over. Such a practice requires a significant amount of time. The casual reader of Harry Potter series may enjoy the books and films but quickly move on to another interesting narrative, whereas a Potterhead (or Potterphile, Harryhead, etc.) may extend the canonized text through fan activism (see The Harry Potter Alliance); fan creations, such as costumes or cookbooks ("Star Trek," The Twilight Saga, and "The Hunger Games" all have related recipes); fan fiction; and many other activities—all of which speak to both time and emotional investments.

NET NEWS: What kind of relationship with or reaction to fandoms do producers usually have? For example, the Brony fandom has led to some fairly substantial interactions on the show, such as the fleshing out of background characters based on fan creations.

COCHRAN: The internet/social media age has significantly increased the ability of fans and media producers to communicate with each other. Some of these relationships are invited, some are not; some of them are cordial and even playful, some are not.

Much of what makes most if not all of these relationships tenuous relates to legal issues (rights and ownership of ideas) as well as, some artists might argue, authorial vision or creative freedom. Producers can put themselves in very tense spots if they allow fans to contribute too much to a narrative. At the same time, producers risk alienating the very ones who are deeply invested in a narrative’s direction and ultimate outcome.

Some producers talk openly about these tensions, but even talking openly can be tricky. Suffice it to say that producers do not have easy jobs.

NET NEWS: I think fandoms are often seen as homogenous groups, but you mentioned the concept of “fan-tagonisms.” Can you elaborate on that?

COCHRAN: As I’ve mentioned, in many ways a typical fan is a typical human being. As such, we humans have a tendency to value and devalue each other using a plethora of criteria. For instance, we create hierarchies related to, among other things, academic achievement, family connections, celebrity status, physical appearance, or even lawn maintenance.

It is not uncommon, then, to find within a particular fandom similar kinds of (de)valuing practices. If I cannot remember the name and number of each episode of Fringe, a fan who can do so may be suspicious of me, of my level of devotion to the series. Or if I say I love ‘N Sync but cannot name all of the band members or recall their birthdays and favorite colors, I am likely to be consider a “poser” rather than a true devotee. These examples are simplified types of internal “fan-tagonisms,” to use media and culture studies scholar Derek Johnson’s word.

Of course, there are external fan-tagonisms as well. Think rival fandoms—e.g., almost any fan of the vampire genre versus Twihards or fans of "The Twilight Saga." Another example can be seen in the other-ing or negative stereotyping of one fandom by another: Husker fans who plan to be buried in a team-themed casket yet snicker at Star Wars enthusiasts who collect action figures. It does not take a scholar to observe how social power and cultural capital are related to fandom and fan identity.

NET NEWS: What do you think sets the Brony fandom apart from others?

COCHRAN: Bronies set themselves apart in variety of ways, but most obviously they distinguish themselves by never being intended as a target audience. "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" has all the characteristics of a show presumably made for a very young, American female audience. When I recently defined Bronies to a colleague, she exclaimed, “Ewww.” With no information other than a definition to go on, her response was an expected and fair one.

However, this fandom offers non-fans an opportunity to investigate why Bronies defy our expectations. They challenge us to look deeper into the animated text’s content and meaning: What it is about this specific story that draws Bronies in? They nudge us to question dominant beliefs about sexual identity, age, and taste: Why can’t straight adult men enjoy a cartoon about little ponies that go on adventures together and build close friendships along the way?

Ultimately, Brony fandom by its very existence invites us to practice the disciplines of listening and of avoiding, in Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s words, “the danger of a single story.” It is for reasons like these that I fell in love with studying fandom and exploring my own fan identity and practices. In essence, all fandoms have much to tell us about what it means to be human.



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