My name is Kristina. I am a mother and a fan.
On my blog I have a variety of designators I use to try to articulate my identity–academic, teacher, wife, expatriate–and yet none of these may get as close to the center of my being these days as the two with which I started this essay. And maybe none of the others are as contested and in as much constant turmoil as these two. Oddly enough, I took on both these identities nearly simultaneously–I fell in love with my son Gabriel and with Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) at about the same time over long nights of extended nursing. It wasn’t that I hadn’t behaved fannishly in the past–the fannish gene reveals itself in different ways at different times and my fannish engagements had mostly been both more private and less creatively oriented. But my entry into fandom proper, and media fandom to be exact, coincided with my entry into motherhood.
And I found that both were strange new worlds indeed. Not worlds that can always smoothly coexist, although for me personally each of those realms have allowed me to balance and manage the other. Life with newborns and even toddlers (especially the highly difficult variety that my firstborn turned out to be) can be immensely isolating. Living in a city as I did where I knew no one, the Internet was often my one connection to the larger world. Moreover, the asynchronic conversations of email and blogs as well as the global, multi time-zoned aspect of online fandom allowed me to talk to people when I was able to find the time–be that at three in the morning or three in the afternoon, whenever the kids were asleep or otherwise occupied. This is not an unusual experience and, in fact, many a mommy blog has been created and found an audience for these very reasons.
Online fandom, however, is slightly different. I didn’t follow my fellow solitary and isolated moms as they turned to one another, via blogs or newsgroups or bulletin board, as groups revolving around the ages of their kids, parenting philosophies, or particular challenges. Those moms are sometimes chided for spending time on the computer rather than tending to their kids but they still focus on their children, thinking and talking and writing about them. I however had the gumption to be selfish and occupy my time with things that were for my own pleasure and leisure only–even if my fannish pursuits did give me balance and refuel me to better deal with motherhood.
Janice Radway, in her groundbreaking book Reading the Romance (1987), describes the anxieties and guilt many women romance readers experience for taking time away for their own enjoyment–and the small triumph and moments of resistance that pleasure can bring. Of course reading has long been a contentious issue–whether literacy and access was used to keep minorities in control (be they based on class, race, or gender) or its dangers were sexualized (there’s a long discourse that connects reading, especially among young women to masturbation as Thomas Laqueur suggests in his Solitary Sex ), reading has always been dangerous.
I found that my fascination with fan fiction, and with a culture of other women reading and writing stories about fictional characters, brought together a number of issues that were in direct opposition to my role as a mom: reading to and for myself, connecting to other people on subjects unrelated to motherhood, and at times discussing non child-appropriate topics all raised the stakes in the competition of my hobby competing with my sole socially sanctioned role as wife and mother.
Of course I am in a better position than many fannish mothers. In fact, I have the ultimate get out of jail free card: I am also an academic. More specifically, I study fan works and fan communities, and much can be justified if there’s a publication at the end of the road. But I don’t want to use that excuse. Or rather, I don’t think my specific situation helps to solve the general problem underlying this fannish mom conundrum. Even if I can justify my time spent online as scholarship–why should I? Said differently, what is it about being a fan and being a mom that makes us fear negative judgments and reprisals?
Fans often are focused on their interests to the point of obsession–not unlike how children engage with things they love actually. In fact, many fannish activities, such as live action roleplaying and costume play but also fan fiction and storytelling, are perfectly acceptable when done by children. Fannish parasocial affection is an expected behavior in teens (especially girls) and there are entire teen markets catering to and profiting from these tendencies. Yet while teenage fannish engagements are commercially important, those very teenagers are simultaneously derided both by society and often the very industries who profit from their fannishness. And even as a convergence culture encourages and invited media property holders to create and engage fans, such behavior remains generally perceived as ridiculous, embarrassing, and often hidden–unless it revolves around more masculine exploits such as sports teams, of course. Fantasy football and wearing team colors are acceptable behaviors where fanfic and wearing Hogwarts uniforms are not.
Not only are traditionally female fan objects and fan engagements devalued, the very gender identity of the fan thus becomes problematic: reading done in private by women is a selfish and time-wasting activity, and fannish investment is a selfish and time-wasting squandering of emotion. Mothers, however, are meant to focus their activities and emotions on one target only: their family. Capitalist culture has long been undergirded by domestic ideology: the man’s primary domain is the capitalist world, where selfishness and aggressivity are rewarded, while the woman’s primary domain is home, where she creates social awareness by selflessly volunteering and providing moral guidance for the next generation. I’m taking this directly from my domestic/bourgeois ideology lecture for the British nineteenth century, but frankly, living in a white middle class suburban area with two kids in private school, the ideological structure of my community doesn’t really look all that different.
The life changes inherent in becoming a mother are different from becoming a father in many ways, but in most US two-parent families the most dramatic change seems to be that mothers are hitherto expected to forego any and all selfishness, i.e., a mother is not to be her own first priority. During pregnancy, that’s quite literally true as we can never forget that we have another being with us and within us at all times. But it goes much farther than that: in many cases we are the default parent, the one who jumps up first, the one who stays up and the one who is encouraged and expected to never need nor want anything other than her children and her children’s happiness and well-being. Econonics complicates and reinforces that gendered division of responsibility as many middle class women in particular will choose to stop working, to reduce their employment to part-time work, or at least become the default parent in cases of emergency, which can negatively affect career opportunities.
So what is it then that makes a fannish mom such a threat, such an offense? Fannish practices are a focus away from the children, from a mother’s duty to put her home, husband, and family first rather than to indulge herself, both literally and metaphorically. More particularly, it is a mode of engagement with the world that is itself often considered childish and that is generally feminized to the extreme. But that’s not the end of the fannish mom’s depravity: media fandom in particular often engages women’s sexuality with its erotic writings, explicit imagery, and frank discussion of nonstandard desires. As such, it not only juxtaposes the selfless mom identity against the selfish fan identity, but also juxtaposes the sexless madonna against the perverse whore.
The fannish mom exemplifies everything that a good mother in our culture isn’t supposed to be; yet when I talk to fannish moms, they are better, more emotionally balanced parents for having a hobby they love and a community that supports them. But not one fannish mother I know has not felt the guilt, the shame, the anxiety over their fannish identity. Some completely hide their activities from their families; others hide the intensity of the time they spend on fannish things or their emotional investment. Many more tell their spouse while keeping the subject hidden from other moms or neighbors. Because we all fear the judgment that we know to be false and yet have encountered again and again.
Yesterday I watched the documentary We Are Wizards on Harry Potter wizarding rock on Hulu, and the first comment I saw was “I would just call that ‘lazy parenting.’ I’m surprised that CPS wasn’t called after this documentary aired.” The comment targeted a family with two small boys whose mom shared her own wizard rock compositions and encouraged the boys to make and share their own music. Part of the judgmental comments more than likely were connected to the seemingly anti-authoritarian parenting methods exhibited, but the sense of dismay at the parents’ fannishness clearly pervades this comment (and many others). Not incidentally, the comment begins with “I’ve never seen so many geek bands, bad parents, and morons in one documentary in my entire life,” and ends with “Get a Life.”
This, of course, is probably the most common insult directed at fans and beautifully immortalized in William Shatner’s Saturday Night Life sketch. Sadly, however, this very attitude is pervasive not only outside but inside of fandom, most often directed at other fans who are either more or, more often than not, differently invested than their critics. Within fandom the geek hierarchy is alive and well: who doesn’t like to think of those folks weirder than ourselves–and if noone’s left, we still have the furries! That many fans themselves seem to think of their hobby as the opposite of life is certainly noteworthy, but the insult is often modified into terms of age, becoming “Don’t you have better things to do as a grown up. My parents would never sit and discuss a TV show online.” Likewise, there’s an expectation among many younger fans that they themselves will eventually “grow up” and leave fandom. Adulthood is in this context seen as fandom’s antithesis, and parenthood is often the ultimate marker of adult status.
Given the general cultural concerns surrounding adult fans (and their metonymic representation, the parent), the above commentary on the fan documentary is not unusual. Just like women are often the most aggressive critics of other mothers’ choices, fans often judgmentally police one another, especially when social networking platforms allow so much insight into personal lives. In fact, I experienced an anonymous verbal attack not long after I started interacting online. At the core of the incident was the fact that the person I was online was not the person I was at home, patient, loving, attentive to my family, and responsible. Yet my online persona and interests outside the scope of my family were then extrapolated back into my supposed mothering abilities. In other words, my online community that I’d seen as a place where I could vent and take an albeit ever so brief respite from parenting two active toddler boys in that moment turned out to be as judgmental as my offline environment, expecting me to be mom rather than fan.
I have no pithy conclusions, and I have no advice. The prejudices against fandom are something all fans suffer and that we all try to battle in various ways. My work as a fan scholar is in many ways directly indebted to these battles and I hope they can help as a tool for improving society’s tolerance and understanding of fandom in the future. My membership in the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit advocacy group for fans and the transformative works they create, serves the same goal. Addressing the ways in which moms and dads are still treated and viewed differently is, for me, one of the central goals for feminism. With all the accomplishments women have made in recent years, the buck still often stops when it comes to reproduction and family life. In fact, I believe that part of that problem is that while women have become emancipated, we’ve often not educated and changed the men we live alongside.
So maybe I do have a conclusion: I raise my two boys as fans and feminists. My oldest one is finally old enough to appreciate Buffy and we started watching it together this summer. And it has proved to be an excellent show to not only address his own middle school anxieties but also a wonderful postmodern text to develop media literacy and critical thinking skills. We discuss what he sees and how it’s presented, and the feminism is right there. I may not be able to change my guilt or my anxieties but I hope that their potential partners down the line, should I ever have grandkids, won’t feel guilty for enjoying in things other than their children.