Literature Review: History and Context
Fan-based social movements have long existed. For example, historian Nan Enstad (1999) argues that immigrant women workers at the beginning of the twentieth century drew upon fashion, film, and fiction to envision a radical labor politics. Labor organizers at the time envisioned a “white, male, skilled industrial” worker (p. 4). And yet despite being excluded from labor organizing, Enstad argues that “women workers in the early twentieth century went on strike in very large numbers” (p. 5) by developing their own radical politics. To do this, they used fashion, movies, and dime novels to construct a political subjectivity for themselves as workers, ladies, and Americans, and thus as worthy of better working conditions. Enstad finds evidence that these meanings were invoked in their labor rhetoric. For example, in one instance, Enstad explains that Labor leader Clara Lemlich “imbued the right to have hats with a collective meaning for women workers, operating within a class conflict" (p. 11). For women forming a labor movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, popular culture was a key rhetorical resource.
While fan-based social movements have existed historically, they have no doubt exploded within the digital age (Hinck. 2019). The Internet has made it easier than ever for fans of the same popular culture text to find each other. Before the Internet, fan communities relied on unofficial fan-made zines, mailing lists, local clubs, fan conventions, and word of mouth. While these methods of organizing did produce robust fan communities, like the Star Trek fandom (Jenkins, 1992; Penley, 1997), they also required significant resources. Fans had to travel to major cities for fan conventions and spend money to create zines. Further, it took a little bit of luck to get plugged into these networks of fans—these networks spread via word of mouth at clubs and conventions. The Internet has made it significantly easier to organize groups of fans into fan communities. While you might have been one of five people in your small town who loved Star Trek, today you can find millions of people on the Internet who love it just as much as you do. For this reason, fans were often early adopters of new or emerging networked technologies, forming some of the first use-net listservs and joining LiveJournal early on (Baym, 2000; Hellekson and Busse, 2006; Jenkins et al., 2015). Ultimately, fans have come to form the kind of well-developed and robust online communities identified by Internet studies scholars like Howard Rheingold (2000), Robert Glenn Howard (2008), and Felicia Wu Song (2009).
Fan-based social movements have grown out of online fan communities, and as a result have largely taken up digital tools for their organizing work. For many fan-based social movements, their audiences are online: fans gather in communal spaces like discussion boards and hashtags on social media. It makes sense that fan-based social movements would draw on the same tools used to create social structures in their communities to also create political structures for their social movement activism (Jenkins, 2012). Like in the cases of other online social movements, like #BlackLivesMatter, the Arab Spring, etc. (Bennett and Segerberg, 2013; Brunner and DeLuca, 2016; Castells, 2012; Clark, 2016; Harlow and Benbrook, 2019; Jackson, 2016; Rambukkana, 2015; Tufekci, 2017), scholars shouldn’t ignore the use of digital tools, nor should scholars view the digital tools used by fan-based social movements as deterministic, whether utopian or dystopian. Rather, scholars ought to approach digital tools as key affordances, directing action by making some kinds of communicative practices easier or harder than others (Foust and Hoyt, 2018; Tufekci, 2017). In many ways, the Internet forms an important part of the context for the rhetoric of fan-based social movements.1
Within a digital world, fan-based social movements have become increasingly common. Researchers have traced protests, activism, and critique emerging from fandoms across science fiction (like Firefly), comics, (like Wonder Woman), music (like К-Pop), television (like the X-Files), anime (like Dragan Ball Z), celebrities (like Lady Gaga), sports (like football), and videogames (like Wolfenstein), among others (Bennett, 2014; Cochran, 2012; Collister, 2017; Diaz Pino, 2019; Hinck, 2019; Hunting and Hinck, 2017; Jones, 2012; Jung, 2012; Miller, Forthcoming; Yockey, 2012). Across these varying types of popular culture fandom, this fannish approach to social movement rhetoric has been taken up by activists worldwide across South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia (Diaz Pino, 2019; Jones, 2012; Leavitt and Horbinski, 2012; Mehta, 2012; Punathambekar, 2012; Wang and Zhang, 2017; Zhang and Mao, 2013).
Research on fan-based social movements has emerged under a number of terms and from a number of disciplines.2 Henry Jenkins famously defined fan activism as
forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture.
(Jenkins, 2012, p. 1.8)
Writing as a fan studies scholar, Jenkins was most interested in the kinds of political action rising out of well-developed fan cultures—studying fans themselves placed such projects within the realm of fan studies. For rhetorical scholars, that distinction between activism emerging from within grassroots fandom and activism emerging outside of grassroots fandom might be less important. Rhetoricians might be equally interested in the ways Star Wars fandom is invoked by Disney in a charity campaign as the ways grassroots Star Wars fans invoke Star Wars in their own home-grown charity campaigns (Hinck. 2019). Other scholars have used the term media activism to describe activist efforts aimed at media industries. For example, fans may try to prevent their favorite show from being canceled or protest representations within their fan object (Gilliland, 2016; Harris and Alexander, 1998; Jenkins. 1992; Lopez, 2016, 2012). For media scholars, activism that affects media institutions is central to their disciplinary questions about the relationships between audience, industries, representation, and circulation. Rhetoricians might be less interested in the media activism campaigns that try to save a show from being canceled—while these issues are important to fans, they may have little connection to public culture. On the other hand, rhetoricians might be interested in media activism that takes up questions of representation and politics—in doing so, rhetoricians would be recognizing that popular culture is a terrain over which politics and power are often fought, with important implications for public culture.
To try to manage various disciplinary justifications at work in these terms and definitions, in this chapter, I use the term fan-based social movement. I do so in order to center questions of concern to rhetoricians. I use fan-based social movement to mean any social movement that grounds its rhetorical appeals and actions in fan commitments, culture, and practices. In doing so, I hope to center questions of communication—how is popular culture fandom made to be relevant to particular public issues? How do rhetors (whether fans, media institutions, activists, or politicians) mobilize online fan communities? How are appeals grounded in fannish affect? How are the communicative practices of fan communities integrated into social movement actions and structures? How are fan-based social movements contested? All of these questions are well-suited to rhetoricians.
In this chapter, I demonstrate how rhetoricians might go about analyzing the rhetoric of fanbased social movements by focusing on the case of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). Some of the earliest research on fan-based social movements focused on the HPA (Hinck, 2012; Jenkins, 2012; Kligler-Vilenchik et al., 2012). Indeed, in many ways, HPA is a quintessential example of fan-based social movement organizations: it grew out of grassroots fan structures in the Harry Potter community in the mid-2000s, has mobilized millions of fans, has integrated both online activism and face-to-face activism (through its chapters program), and has impacted both political and media institutions. This makes the HPA a particularly clear case to use to illustrate what rhetorical analysis of fan-based social movements might look like and accomplish. Because the HPA is a quintessential case of fan-based social movements, it has been studied from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including fan studies, political communication, psychology, literature, and more (Bird and Maher, 2017; K. Carriere, 2018; K. R. Carriere, 2018; Hinck, 2019, 2012; Jenkins. 2014, 2012, 2009; Jenkins et al., 2016; Karin E. Westman, 2008; Kligler-Vilenchik, 2015, 2013; Terrell, 2014). While these studies take perspectives originating in their home disciplines, in this chapter I aim to illustrate what a rhetorical analysis of fan-based social movements might look like. I argue that theories of affect and ethical frameworks are particularly useful for rhetoricians.