Fandom Referendum: Fan Cultures and Civic Embodiment

Curator's Note

Pop culture conventions such as Comic-Con International (CCI) facilitate an increasingly frictionless relationship between fans and producers of cultural content. They simultaneously offer fans access to creators and celebrities, while providing industry tradespersons an enthusiastic audience primed as conduits of franchise support. The locus of this dynamic occurs in panels, wherein featured guests and promotional materials are offered to fans, usually culminating in a discourse between fans and panelists. Relations among producers and consumers might be easily conjured by this mix of participants, yet the rituals of Comic-Con also embody forms of democracy practiced in traditional government proceedings. Panelists are introduced, carry out sanctioned discussions, and invite questions from audience members, just as civic bodies take roll, deliberate governmental affairs, and invite feedback from the electorate. At CCI, questions posed by fans to panelists often demonstrate an indebtedness that points towards obligations emblematic of government's responsibility to its citizenry. Asking "when will Thanos show up in the Avengers?" is not merely meant to satisfy a curiosity - it intends to provoke assurances not dissimilar to those expected by a city councilperson faced with the question "when will water usage rates decrease?"

"Article Two," a 2013 episode of the television show Parks and Recreation, extends this concept of the fan as civic actor to a space of official government proceedings. Garth Blunden, a resident of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana, filibusters at a city council meeting to prevent a series of archaic laws from being overturned. The content he chooses for his dialogue is a personal vision for the forthcoming Star Wars sequel. Exasperated, the council board and meeting attendees depart the courthouse, leaving the episode to resolve the matter outside of council affairs.

Embodiment of civic engagement in the context of fan cultures portends questions of its trajectories. Does fan culture provide unique tools for better democratic involvement? Is fan culture able to mobilize its constitutive members towards other political and social arenas? And, if barriers between fans and cultural producers continue to erode, can pop culture fandom provide a sustainable model for reimagining democratic forms?


If fandom can enact democratic engagement then isn't Leslie Knope the ultimate fan? And perhaps her "fandom" for political actors shows what is needed to reimagine a democracy in America where people are as interested in what happens in the White House as their are in who wins The Voice. One of my favorite episodes of Parks & Rec is when Leslie meets Vice President Joe Biden in the hallway. Her reaction is a classic example of what happens when fan-meets-idol in real life.

To take your point a bit further, one could argue that Leslie's workstation is a monument to her political fandom, adorned as it is with books (covers facing outwards) of Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, and others, evoking the way in which pop culture fandom engenders similar presentations of material collections (video games, DVDs, comics, etc.).

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