Fan Cultures

Fan Cultures

Fan Cultures

Fan Cultures


Emphasising the contradictions of fandom, Matt Hills outlines how media fans have been conceptualised in cultural theory. Drawing on case studies of specific fan groups, from Elvis impersonators to X-Philes and Trekkers, Hills discusses a range of approaches to fandom, from the Frankfurt School to psychoanalytic readings, and asks whether the development of new media creates the possibility of new forms of fandom. Fan Cultures also explores the notion of "fan cults" or followings, considering how media fans perform the distinctions of 'cult' status.


Everybody knows what a ‘fan’ is. It’s somebody who is obsessed with a particular star, celebrity, film, TV programme, band; somebody who can produce reams of information on their object of fandom, and can quote their favoured lines or lyrics, chapter and verse. Fans are often highly articulate. Fans interpret media texts in a variety of interesting and perhaps unexpected ways. And fans participate in communal activities—they are not ‘socially atomised’ or isolated viewers/readers.

Everybody knows what a ‘fan’ is, of course, but in an academic study dealing with fan cultures and covering the issue of ‘cult’ media, the reader might still expect a ‘theorised’ definition of what ‘fandom’ is, and what constitutes a fan ‘cult’. Surely our common sense notions of fandom cannot be left untouched by the need for academic rigour and conceptual clarity?

So, how have ‘fandom’ and the media ‘cult’ been defined academically?

To date, defining ‘fandom’ has been no easy task, despite (or perhaps because of) the ‘everydayness’ of the term. Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) place the fan, the ‘cultist’ and the ‘enthusiast’ along a spectrum of identities and experiences, distinguishing between them by linking increased specialisation of interest, social organisation of interest and material productivity to the move from ‘fan’ to ‘cultist’ to ‘enthusiast’. Having made these distinctions, Abercrombie and Longhurst then align prior literature on fans with their definition of ‘cultist’: ‘Cultists…are closer to what much of the recent literature has called a fan. There are very explicit attachments to stars or to particular programmes and types of programme’ (1998:138-9). The fan, for Abercrombie and Longhurst, is characterised by a lack of social organisation (they typically discuss young children as ‘fans’). It seems faintly unhelpful to produce a taxonomy in which the definition of ‘fan’ is at odds with the use of this term in almost all other literature in the field. The attempt to separate ‘cultist’ and ‘enthusiast’ identities also causes problems given that, although one key distinction is whether the fan interest is media-derived (=cultist) or not (= enthusiast) (1998:132), Abercrombie and Longhurst nevertheless align Star Trek fans with enthusiasts.

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