Geekerella (2017) is a young adult novel written by Ashley Poston that depicts fan culture through the eyes of teen protagonists Elle and Darien. Out of the many factors mediating fandom that are highlighted in the book, two particularly stand out: online platforms and conventions. Through their inclusion, Poston has managed to demonstrate how fan culture plays an important part in the formation of the characters’ identities. By extension, she also succeeds in validating youth fan culture, a phenomenon that has long been pathologized in mainstream media and journalism.
It is true that the ending ties up neatly with a bow, but at the crux of this retelling lies a very realistic portrayal of what it means to be a teenage fan today.
To arrive at this conclusion, I want to align myself with the first wave of fan studies that found its root in academia. I believe that Poston’s work can be analysed under this first wave. Exemplified in the introductory chapter “Why Still Study Fans?” by Sandvoss, Gay and Harrington (2017) the first wave of fandom studies ‘derived its legitimacy from fans’ assumed disempowered social position and their problematic representation in both public and academic discourses’ (p.3). The problematic representation has stemmed from the belief that fans are obessive, and that this kind of obsession is "abnormal" behaviour - hence fan practices have a tendency to be pathologized.
While Geekerella has a fairy-tale like quality with its retelling of Cinderella in a contemporary fan culture context, it is far from fantasy. It is true that the ending ties up neatly with a bow, but at the crux of this retelling lies a very realistic portrayal of what it means to be a teenage fan today. To explore this fact, I will be focusing on Elle’s characterization and not Darien’s, because she is more relatable as a protagonist than the latter, who, albeit being a fan, is a young celebrity.
The stigmatization of fan culture
In the first wave mentioned above, fan practices which were once thought of as pathological are now considered to be thoughtful and creative, and important for identity politics. These fan practices include making costumes for cosplay, going to fan conventions, writing fanfiction, and other participatory behaviour that define fandom. Such interests, according to Peeples et al (2017), were ones which were formerly stigmatized and form the basis of fan communities. These communities arise from particular subcultures and are today typically found online. Developments in digital technologies have made it easier to form online spaces by fans and for fans. These spaces, in turn, have contributed in the creation of a more positive outlook on fan culture.
The shift from the stigmatization of these fan practices to their acceptance was accomplished by scholars who wanted to speak back to the critics who pathologized fans (Click and Scott, 2017). I find that Poston, even as an author and not a scholar, uses Geekerella to talk back to such critics. The stigma may be lower now, but it is has not completely vanished. Characters like Catherine and Chloe are representative of the negative outlook on fan practices.
Fan practices which were once thought of as pathological are now considered to be thoughtful and creative, and important for identity politics.
Catherine, the stepmother, relentlessly looks down on Elle for what she views as an obsession with Starfield. Like Cinderella’s stepmother, Catherine commands Elle to do housework, fix leaking pipes, clean the attic, prepare breakfast for her and the twins and so on. Along with Catherine’s constant monitoring of Elle, her dislike for Starfield is palpable. When she catches Elle returning from the convention, she accuses her of dragging her stepsister into ‘nonsense’ (Poston, 2017, p.275). This reaction can be seen as an outsider’s perspective on not understanding the behaviour of a subculture. Moreover, it is also a projection. Elle’s late father was also a fan of Starfield, and Catherine believes that the love for the show is what made him distant from herself and her daughters, and closer to Elle. Catherine insinuates that his obsession was unhealthy, and that he was always trapped in a fantasy land, much like a child. This is reminiscent of a Diggit Magazine article that comments on the prevalence of micro-hegemonies and how there are certain rules and assumptions within each micro-hegemony. Catherine’s micro-hegemony, lying outside the Starfield subculture, looks at the practices of the fandom as nonsensical, and even assumes that older fans (like Elle’s dad) are too old to like content grounded on ‘make-believe’ (Poston, 2017, p.276).
Geek interests have always carried social stigma.
Throughout Geekerella, Chloe addresses Elle as a ‘geek’. Historically, the word geek was used as a term of derision, and much like other slurs, it has been reappropriated by the community (Peeples et al, 2017). Geek interests have always carried social stigma. For example, cosplay, or costume play, is viewed by many as just “dress-up.” Chloe embodies much of that mindset, and echoes Catherine when she tells Elle that her father was a ‘loser geek who liked weird space crap more than his family’ (Poston, 2017, p.256).
Embracing the Geekerella in everybody
Today, the word geek is used with pride and for self-identification (Peeples et al, 2017). By asserting her love for Starfield till the very end, Elle reclaims the word and fights back against the negative portrayal of fans by characters like Catherine and Chloe. Poston seems to situate Elle as an everyman fan and Starfield as a stand-in for any fandom.
Elle partakes in common fan practices that are recognizable by any type of fan reading Geekerella. This includes writing fanfiction, having a blog, watching reruns of her favourite show, introducing the show to a friend like Sage and hoping they will like it, going to conventions, and getting involved in discussions about the preferred show (be it explicitly or implicitly). Above all, she demonstrates intense love and knowledge for Starfield. Fans may have varying degrees of participation in any given fandom, but interest is the common denominator. Elle then serves as a representative for fans belonging to a desired fandom.
Elle’s journey echoes every fan’s journey, one which is riddled with anxieties and insecurities because of outsiders’ tendency to pathologize fan practices.
I doubt that Poston’s decision to fashion Starfield as a space-themed television show is a coincidence. Since the conception of fan studies, scholars have realised that science-fiction based visual content, more so those dealing with space, have garnered considerable fan bases. These fandoms are so large and timeless that they can easily be studied to analyse commonalities and differences. Prominent fandom scholars (Brenner 2013; Click and Scott 2017; Coppa 2014; Pearson, 2010; Peeples et al, 2017) often theorize on movies and series like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who. Starfield fits perfectly in this list, and becomes a representation of an attractive fandom. Geekerella also pays homage to these real movies and series by frequently making references pertaining to them.
Elle’s journey echoes every fan’s journey, one which is riddled with anxieties and insecurities because of outsiders’ tendency to pathologize fan practices. Geekerella works to validate youth fan culture in such an environment. It especially showcases the role of online platforms and conventions in creating a sense of community and validation for young fans.
Social media for fans in Geekerella
Geekerella demonstrates the use of social media at every turn. Chloe and her friends are constantly on Snapchat, the twins have a YouTube channel on which they vlog frequently, and Darien’s photos and videos are leaked online by a spy.
Aside from such instances that underline how social media permeates in our daily lives, Poston also focuses on the use of online platforms by fans. The advent of Web 2.0 is one of the biggest causes of the shift in perspective on fan culture. As Peeples et al (2017) note, geek culture thrives on the internet. Social media engagement has offered fans who encounter social difficulties, much like Elle, an opportunity to connect with others more easily. Online engagement also diminishes the fear of being judged for loving a subculture. When Elle starts making the Carmindor costume for the cosplay contest, she looks online for help. She is too ashamed to tell Sage until she is found out. At first, it is only online that she is the most comfortable discussing her love for Starfield.
At first, it is only online that she is the most comfortable discussing her love for Starfield.
This comfort is shown particularly in Elle’s decision to keep a blog named Rebelgunner to jot down her musings as a Starfield fan. Brenner (2013) contends that fan participation, often in the form of fanfiction, fan videos and fan art, allow for creativity. This kind of participation is possible mainly digitally. The affordances of online platforms like fanfiction websites, blog spaces and forums allow for connectivity and shareability. Brenner (2013) further states that teenagers are drawn to fan culture to find community and a safe space for expression. In addition, the output from young fans can be both creative and critical. Rebelgunner exemplifies this in several instances. Elle’s post which went viral was critical of casting Darien as Carmindor. Even as an obsessive Starfield fan, this shows that she is able to be a fan who views content critically and not just blindly. No wonder the post resonates with so many other Starfield fans. At the end of Geekerella, she posts an analysis of the new movie which stars Darien. Although by this time she is his partner, the review is posited both subjectively and objectively. There is no note of bias in its writing; she continues to write as a fan who examines content critically.
Rebelgunner started as an outlet for Elle to unashamedly write on Starfield when she lost the motivation to write fanfiction on the account of her father’s death. With the loss of one creative channel, blogging becomes another. This fact fits Coppa’s (2014) argument that being in a fandom transforms a person. Apart from being a fan, one takes several other identities, which affects their sense of self and their interaction with the world. Elle simultaneously takes on the identity of a fan and a writer. She was no less a writer even when no one was reading her blog. But recognition, thanks to the post which goes viral, culminates in the making of a community, as more and more people provide support for her views and wish to engage with her.
Fan culture, then, becomes a valid practice in the formation of a sense of self and of community, and not just mere uncritical consumerism or pathologized obsession.
Fan forums come to the rescue when Sage needs help with making Carmindor’s crown. Forums are another way for fans to build communities to connect with others more easily online. They stimulate fannish discussions and provide a platform where fans help each other out for fandom-related information. What Brenner (2013) calls the public and shared act of fandom is epitomized by the presence of forums. Without them, it would have been difficult, even impossible, for Sage to finish Carmindor’s costume for Elle.
The building of community and identity facilitated by the digital engagement – by blogs and forums as shown above – of fans resonates with Coppa’s (2014) view that fandom consists of people and is therefore beautiful. As a result, ‘fandom is more than its economic/revenue potential’ (Coppa, 2014, p.80). Fan culture, then, becomes a valid practice in the formation of a sense of self and of community, and not just mere uncritical consumerism or pathologized obsession.
Conventions and cosplay
Conventions are one of the most explicit manifestations of the fact that fans are responsible for creating communities. Conventions are events, often thematic or pertaining to a specific fandom, where fans can get together and inhabit their fannish selves. The love for a subculture can be completely out on the open in these spaces. Fans have the opportunity to dress up as their favourite characters, attend panels and signings hosted by preferred artists, creators and actors, take part in competitions, and meet other fans in these conventions. They become a celebration of fan communities.
Lamerichs (2018) says that in conventions, fans both admire the spectacle and experience it first-hand, in order to embody fiction itself. Conventions are also spaces where fans can demonstrate their fannish identities through cosplay. Cosplay, like fanfiction or blog writing, is a creative method of fan participation. It enables fans to interpret and perform the text that they consume. Through it, fans create their own version of characters and showcase their own narratives and ideas. In short, they are able to become characters they love, in their own way. The costumes are often handmade by fans themselves.
Cosplay, like fanfiction or blog writing, is a creative method of fan participation. It enables fans to interpret and perform the text that they consume.
Elle spends time trying to get to Excelsicon and make Carmindor’s costume (with Sage’s help) for much of Geekerella. She wishes to enter the cosplay competition for the cash prize, in order to get out of her stepmother’s surveillance. The cosplay competition, promising a masquerade ball at the end of it, fits well with the book’s take on the classic fairy tale. However, there is nothing magical or fictional about such a ball. Competition is a large element of cosplay (Lamerichs, 2018). Masquerade balls do, in fact, take place after competitions. It proves that it is yet another way in which Geekerella demonstrates a realistic portrayal of today’s fan culture.
While Lamerichs (2018) speaks of cosplay in the light of gaming conventions, her theory can also be applied to Geekerella. She believes that participation through cosplay and attending conventions results in affective process for fans. This process is responsible for the range of emotional experiences that leads to an investment in a fictional world through which fans create their identities. The supreme moment of affective process occurs when a costume is worn at a convention.
Through support that is made possible in space of the convention, Elle finally feels validated and secure in her self-image and her identity as a fan.
Elle goes through a myriad of emotions in the process of designing Carmindor’s costume with Sage. Unfortunately, she does not get to wear it and wears her mother’s Princess Amara costume instead. The support of a fan community is clear when different participants of the competition offer a piece of their costume to complete Elle’s look. The costume embodies the Starfield community, and shapes Elle’s view of herself. Finally, this costume offers her the supreme moment of affective process – she feels most like herself, and immensely powerful, when she walks onto the stage and poses as Princess Amara. Through support that is made possible in space of the convention, Elle finally feels validated and secure in her self-image and her identity as a fan.
The shift in perception of fan culture
In her acknowledgements, Poston writes that Geekerella would ‘not have been possible without fandom’ (2017, p.304). She says that when she felt helpless, it was fandom which made her realise that she was not as alone as she thought. The world of Geekerella reflects this idea and seeks to validate youth fan culture. With real world depictions of fan participation, online communities and the nature of conventions, Poston creates a fictional tale that talks back to the negative perceptions of fandom.
Participating in fan culture works like any other valid hobby or pastime that young people experiment with, to find out who they are.
On returning from the convention, Elle, surer of herself than ever before, defends her love for Starfield in an internal monologue. She says that though she knows the characters aren’t real, they have always been there for her. Like Poston, she believes that fandom made her feel less alone. In the process of making a new friend in Sage, interacting with other fans, and understanding Darien as a fan, Elle realises that her obsession is not unhealthy, but a part of her identity. She comes to the same conclusion as Peeples et al (2017) do about geek fandom. They say that fandom is a wonderful way for youth to find where they belong. Participating in fan culture works like any other valid hobby or pastime that young people experiment with, to find out who they are. In the end, even while embracing a subculture, fans are not removed from the social community. Being a fan is as essential to one’s community membership as it is to one’s sense of self (Sandvoss, Gray, and Harrington, 2017). Geekerella incorporates this reality by giving fans representation in young adult fiction.
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