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Pedagogies of Audiencing, Pedagogies of Assent: Emerging Norms of Popular Culture Engagement in the Digital Era

Fri, November 10, 4:00 to 5:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Columbian, Concourse Level West Tower


As public engagement with media texts and production staff has become routine in the social media era, practices of close attention to popular culture, talking back to cultural industry workers, and promotion of favorite cultural objects--practices that were formerly considered excessive and even unhealthy (Jenkins 1992, Jensen 1992, Lewis 1992)--have increasingly been encouraged and incorporated into cultural industry business models. Consequently, some have argued that because these practices, historically associated with the subculture of media fandom, have been normalized, fandom is now considered a normative orientation toward cultural texts rather than an excessive one (Jenkins 2006, Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013).

However, there has recently been a proliferation of entertainment news stories and blog posts with titles like “Fandom is Broken” or that decry “fan entitlement.” These articles and essays, I argue, are pedagogical in nature, teaching “good” fandom both directly and through castigation of “bad” fandom, and defining the proper relationship to media content as compliance, while dissent is out of bounds. This is fundamentally an argument against fan desires, discussion, and complaints expressed through social media channels, because they’re seen as threatening to the media system, as can be seen from the ways any and all fan pushback is collapsed into the single term “fan entitlement”--the most dramatic example might be the common “fan entitlement” framing of both the racist and sexist July 2016 Twitter harassment of actor Leslie Jones and the May 2016 backlash to making Captain America, an anti-fascist character created by Jewish authors, into a Nazi.

Drawing on a corpus of approximately 1,000 news articles referencing fan entitlement, this paper uses a method called Big Reading to read back the discursive formation that drives these arguments through the accumulation of individual data at scale. Big Reading zooms in and out between what Franco Moretti (2005) has called distant reading and the more familiar close reading, asking not just whether or with what frequency the terms “fan” and “entitle” appear in the archive but how they appear, aggregating many analyses at the level of the sentence or image to get a big picture made up of those small, specific interpretations, like tiles in a mosaic.

I argue that these texts conflate fan criticism of inequality with death threats over inclusivity because they reflect a desire from media gatekeepers for a pedagogy of audiencing that produces compliant fans, allowing the benefits of engaged fan bases--the free labor of promotion and loyal consumption (Andrejevic 2009, Postigo 2016)--without any responsibility to serve those fans in return, such that any demand for something more or different (no matter what it may be) threatens the one-way relationship they seek to cultivate. Ultimately, this project provides insight into contemporary anxieties about gender, race, and sexuality in media; diminishing control over messaging on the part of the culture industries; and the media’s shifting economic models.