It is time to revisit the world of audiences, fans and Game of Thrones– a fascinating area of discussion which requires a round two in an attempt to sink deeper into the world of fan culture and its rapid expansion and stretch into normality.
Last time I explored the concept that the world views Game of Thrones as a game changer (excuse the pun) in that it is a fantasy genre television show that has done well in mainstream culture. The premise of my argument was that Game of Thrones is not an incredible feat for a “geeky” genre such as fantasy to become popular in the mainstream because the fantasy genre has been dominating the television and film industry for quite some time. Yet… I can’t help but think there is more to it. Could it be not only the rise of the fantasy genre, but the rise of fan culture too? Is it not only have mainstream audiences accepted a traditionally “geeky” genre but also become apart of the geeky fans and culture that goes with it?
Audiences have changed a great deal, even in only the last decade, and certainly in the last thirty years. Audiences are discerning, picky and challenging to cater for. Who could ignore the enormous amount of attention Channel 10 is receiving currently and it slips out of touch with Australian audiences? It is no longer that easy to please the viewers. Of course, there is the already classic study of the evolution of audiences. The general media consumption study for the last fifty years surrounds the concept that “Readers are not passive sponges that soak up the many messages they come across in the media.” ( Hoynes and Croteau, pg: 24, 2003) The Hypodermic Model theory, or “Magic Bullet” theory, surrounding the idea that audiences passively accept whatever the media feeds them, is a cliché that academics and students constantly call upon to explain how audiences have evolved from passive to active.
(But seriously if I hear one more remark about the hypodermic model I’m going to scream.)
What I find most fascinating about the audiences is not the typical transfer from a passive to an active audience… but the active audience becoming participatory to a whole new level. That’s right, fan culture- people who engage and interpret media far beyond the episode or the segment. Fans are in fact so engaged with their texts that the relationship often borders from love to hate- no one is a bigger critique of a piece of media than its biggest fan. Television shows are constantly trying to keep up with the demands of the fans, making sure they provide substance, backstory, intensity, acting and even more information on their characters and plots. Television has to be careful not to kill off certain characters, or end the series on a particular note, or decline for the original quality of the original episodes or series. All this in order to please the fans. This takes the active audience to a whole new level, a level where audiences now not only interpret media for themselves but demand certain things, desire particular results and are always wanting MORE. I would argue that no one determines a series success these days more than the fans.
However it was not always like this for the world of fans. I want to look at why fans hold so much power now, when in the past fans were almost reviled. Let’s look at this quote to start with:
“Proponents of the active audience theory argue that media cannot tell people what to think or how to behave in any direct way because people are not stupid, gullible or easy to dominate as the media indoctrination perspective would have us believe.”-(Croteau and Hoynes, pg: 226, 2003)
This is how most people today would want to see themselves as media consumers. No one likes to feel like a puppet- no one wants to feel that they are being mindlessly “spoon fed” information. If there is one mind frame that is in vogue it is that the media are liars, the media exaggerate, the media thinks audiences are stupid but were not! To be an active media consumer is appealing, dignified. This why people complain about the poor quality of television, this is why everyone is a critique and this is why people avoid saying they watch would be considered “trashy” television (unless of course they are doing it ironically!) So, if this is so, why then for a very long time is it considered a bad thing to be a FAN of something?
For decades, fans are mocked as they dress up as their favourite television characters at conventions, scoffed at as they have heated debates online about a series final or reviled as they know quotations from every episode of their favourite show and pull them out at every given moment. Fans are essentially the ultimate active audience! If everyone wants to be a fan so badly then why the hate? Matthew Hills sums it up rather well by explaining fans are “Stereotyped and pathologised as cultural “Others”- as obsessive, freakish, hysterical, infantile and regressive social subjects. Pop culture’s take on fandom has typically been one of distaste and critique, with fan’ emotional attachments to media texts and celebrities being viewed as “irrational.”– (M. Hills, 2007) It seems that to be actively engaged with a text is commendable, but it can be taken too far. A fan is too close to the text, the fan cannot separate the television show from reality, the fan cannot objectively step away and academically dissect the show they love. The fan is stupid because they cannot comprehend that their greatest love in life is just a television show! The repugnant status of the fan is described here in avid, disturbing detail:
“The fan has no power over the performer but to destroy… the thin line between love and hate, between free will and fate, gradually disappears for the fan in the attic, lumping around his unacknowledged, unwanted love like an embarrassing erection all stressed up with nowhere to go.”- ( Jenkins, pg: 14, 1992)
Doesn’t that just make your skin crawl? For a long time this has been the situation of a fan when it comes to public perception. Steryotypes have fuelled this like nothing else, such as the classic science fiction television show Star Trek and its mass of fans known as “trekkies” or the obsessive and obese fulltime World of Warcraft computer game players. Below is a trailer for the documentary Trekkies which documents the crazy lives of intense Star Trek fans:
As you can see in this video, at best the fans are treated at best as entertainments, freaks on display for us normal people to gentle mock and prod. The fans are sweaty, pimply, obsessive, creepy virgins who need to get out of their mothers basement, take off the costume and get a REAL life.
Yet oh, ho. How it is changed. People don’t even know it’s changed! With the internet, social media, DVD box-sets and more the world has become one big fan culture. Everyone now engages with their favourite shows way beyond the minimum of watching the show. Everyone has something to say about the most recent episode of whatever it was. FAN CULTURE IS EVERYWHERE. Revenge of the nerds, woo! Even those typical cringe-worthy fan habits have become more acceptable. Those who dress up as their favourite characters are known as “Cosplayers” are everywhere- cosplay is a relatively normal way and even respected way to pay homage to ones favourite character.
Playing video games intensely is now popular and “cool” especially if you’re a girl. It is now considered funky and retro to be a big fan of anything old and nerdy, from Star Trek to Star Wars to Doctor Who. Nerds, fans and retro love is big. This is a generation of nostalgia where talking about kids shows from the 70s is cool and being a big fan of anything nerdy is even cooler!As Matt Hill so eloquently states, “Fan-consumers are no longer viewed as eccentric irritants but rather as loyal consumers to be created, where possible, or otherwise to be courted through scheduling practices.” (Matt Hills, pg: 11, 2002) I believe the key to this dramatic role-change for the fan is simply because there are just more and easier ways to enjoy our favourite television shows. Fans were creepy because the level of engagement they had required enormous amounts of effort- hence the stigma that fans were pathetic and had no lives. Now to be a fan all you need is a computer. People watch webisodes. Talk about their favourite shows in online forums. Watch their favourite moments on YouTube. Write blogs about it. Buy their their Doctor Who and Star Wars clothing online.
Everyone is a fan! Game of Thrones is the most illegally downloaded television show of all time with a string of others behind it. With people able to access any television show anywhere at anytime they can watch it over and over again… just like a fan. And because everyone is doing it, it is now taken more seriously- it is now respectable. Everyone knows that moron who parades around announcing how Mad Men is such a fascinating study of the world in retrospect but Board Walk Empire is far more aesthetically and philosophically superior… Steve Buscemi, what a class act! To be the professor, the master television show watcher, is considered cool and socially acceptable. It creates conversation and makes you look smarter than you actually are. The world has gone from reviling fans to seeking the same title, acting as if they were fans first in far cooler, more sophisticated ways.
The age of fandom has begun.
Word Count: 1,353
Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences 3rd Edition, William Hoynes, David Croteau, Sage Publications California, USA 2003 pgs: 244 and 26
Textual poachers, Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins, Routledge, Great Britain, London 1992
Fan Cultures, Matthew Hills, Routledge, Great Britain, London, 2007/2002