In his 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins applauds the fact that since he began his research, “I have watched fans move from the invisible margins of popular culture and into the center of current thinking about media production and consumption” (p. 12).
In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, a volume of collected essays from the same year, Jenkins describes fans being "marginal to the operations of occur culture, ridiculed in the media, shrouded with social stigma, pushed underground by legal threat, and often depicted as brainless and inarticulate" in the past tense, as something that has been superseded in contemporary culture (p. 1).
Nancy Baym's 2007 article "The New Shape of Online Community: The Example of Swedish Independent Music Fandom" makes an even larger assertion that “fandom is a harbinger of cultural phenomena to come” and “online fan communities now sit at the cutting edge of ‘consumer culture.’”
Similar sentiments have been expressed by numerous other scholars, starting in around 2006, but these two authors can stand in for the larger group since they give me good soundbites. And it's a compelling argument. All kinds of intensive involvement with media objects is now entirely reasonable, if not expected. While I have my own problems with that (hello, unpaid labor! Shameless self promo time: I'm guest editing a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on Fandom and/as Labor), it does seem to be a step up from running away screaming from one's fan base.
But let's not kid ourselves. "Fan" still means "freak" and "crazy" and "pathological" and often "violent" an awful lot of the time, to an awful lot of people.
You know how I know? These headlines, from November 9, 2011: "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 fan threatens to blow up Best Buy" and "'Modern Warfare 3' Fans Turn to Bomb Threats, Dramatic Heists"
We get these stories because this is what we culturally expect of fans. This isn't to say that people didn't actually do these things. I don't doubt that, as the Forbes piece reported, two different shipments of the game in France were actually "robbed at gunpoint." I'm sure Lomorin Sar of Aurora, Colorado really did go crazy when denied his copy of the game and threaten to kill the store's employees and blow up the building.
But it is equally true that those shipments contained "thousands of copies of the game worth hundreds of thousands of Euros." That is, the thieves could have just been out to make a quick buck, but somehow they become fans rather than just some people seeking to appropriate other people's property for their own gain.
Similarly, Mr. Sar, Slashgear reports, "has had at least six other run-ins with police over traffic violations – apparently memorable enough to have been listed in police records – hot head!" He's a violent guy. He seems to blow up at the slightest provocation, like a traffic ticket. But the headline didn't read "Known violent, crazy guy is violent and crazy." It read "fan threatens to blow up Best Buy."
In light of this rhetorical equivalence, I have to look at those "fans have been mainstreamed" arguments and say "Cool story, bro."
And perhaps you're saying to yourself, "Wait, weren't you just calling out fans the other week for being racist, and now you're defending them against being called violent?" (I'm going to interpellate you as a regular reader, mmkay?) This might seem like a contradiction, but it isn't. I can both call attention to the less savory aspects of fan culture and try to protect them from stigma.
That's because, like I discussed last week about the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain, there's a difference between attributing bad behavior to someone solely on the basis of their category membership and not being able to critique bad behavior at all when someone in a less-privileged category engages in it. I both want to protect fans from unfair critique and to speak the truth to or about them when things they do aren't okay, even if that's unpleasant.
So, the bomb-threat guy didn't make those threats because he's a fan any more than Herman Cain (allegedly) sexually harassed women because he's a black man. But Cain is still responsible for his (alleged) actions as an individual abusing his power, and the fans who produced the "This is not who I am and this is not okay" poster about the daleks are responsible for their actions trivializing racism.
Those things can all be true at the same time. Life's complicated like that.