Posts Tagged ‘fan activism’

ARIN6902: Fan Activism – It’s much more than you might think

May 3, 2010

Fan activism is one of the areas I have chosen to write about in my quest to put the magnifying glass over cultural protest for this blog.

If someone said to you “what is fan activism?”, what thoughts would jump into your mind? Would you think of hordes of Friends fans bombarding producers with requests for a particular storyline or for the rebirth of a character killed off? Would you think of Justin Beiber fans threatening a riot at the Channel 7 Sunrise studios? Or would you think of the possibility that long-held taboos, race discrimination and governmental oppression could be challenged in a unique and creative way? Well, you’d be right on all counts.

The most prominent scholar of fan activism is Henry Jenkins who actually coined the term to define purely cultural protests. Henry identifies a notable shift that has occurred alongside the emergence of fan activism: a change in the position of both cultural consumers from passive to active whereby many of the producers of content are the audience or consumer. [i]

Fan activism has quite a curious history and spans all forms of culture. In a detailed journal article on this very topic as it relates to the Internet, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport outline the history of fan activism from 1960s protests by Star Trek and soap opera fans and note that as a social movement, it didn’t catch the attention of social movement scholars.[ii] In more recent times, an examination of the petitions on has found that the vast majority are in relation to entertainment products. [iii] Earl and Kimport note that most scholars identify a dramatic rise in fan activism in the Internet age, though there is no direct causal link identified to explain why this might be.

As an area of study, Jenkins continues his work today and has set up a team at MIT and USC universities in the United States to focus on the continuum from participatory cultures (including fan cultures) to public participation in civic and political activities.

With this in mind, let’s have a look at some of the more interesting forms of fan activism and how they work to make serious social change.

The Harry Potter Alliance

Perhaps one of the most astounding and unique examples of fan activism is the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), dubbed “Dumbledore’s Army for the real world”, drawing on story arcs and themes from the Harry Potter series and consisting of over 30 different chapters in the US. They aim to make global change by “creating the blueprint for a new kind of civic engagement that combines pop culture, social change, and new media that amplifies each voice hundreds of thousands of times.” [iv]

Some examples of notable actions and stances of the HPA include action against genocide or repressive regimes (raising funds and organising an online petition protesting the war in Darfur, producing a podcast viewed 120,000 times), poverty (donating 14,000 books to a village in Rwanda) and equal rights (helping MASS EQUALITY to contact Maine voters to protect marriage equality).

The HPA effectively uses Twitter, Facebook groups, a dedicated Ning site, a “Common Room” (a fan forum with the tagline “A Place for Wizard Activists”) and works directly with many NGO partners around the world.  Rather than simply focussing on the actual creative product itself (ie. the Harry Potter series of books and films) the HPA are extending the concept of fan activism, out of the realms of a fantasy series into hard reality.

Interviewed for Time magazine, JK Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter series, had this to say about the HPA: “It’s incredible, it’s humbling, and it’s uplifting to see people going out there and doing that in the name of your character. What did my books preach against throughout? Bigotry, violence, struggles for power, no matter what. All of these things are happening in Darfur. So they really couldn’t have chosen a better cause.”[v]


Racebending: Challenging racial discrimination in film casting

Racebending started out as the “Aang Ain’t White” movement in response to the casting of Caucasian actors to play the four main Asian characters in a film adaptation of Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar the Last Airbender.

Fans have said that the original show, based on thorough research by the producers into East Asian, Japanese and Chinese cultures, allowed them to explore their own cultural identities with the interplay between fantasy and reality. When Paramount Pictures decided to cast Caucasian actors in these roles, the movement was formed by some of these fans.

The activists started by using LiveJournal as an online hub and then set up a sister Facebook group. Two of the activists, Loraine Sammy and Marissa Minna Lee, then broadened “Aang Ain’t White” into the broader Racebending movement.

Racebending as a movement is considered a creative source. Members have produced over 130 videos posted on YouTube (including response videos to other members), have developed a sketchbook with artists contributing for the 2009 San Diego Comic Con, produced a comic and much more.

Similar to the Harry Potter Alliance, the Racebending movement has made strategic alliances with movements that have not emerged from fan activism. The most significant alliance is with Media Action Network for Asian Americans (or MANAA), an activist organization which stands for “balanced, sensitive and positive portrayals of Asian Americans” in American media[vi]. Racebending’s mission is now “We want Paramount Pictures – and all Hollywood studios – to know that supporting and hiring actors of color in prominent roles will help build passionate, devoted audiences. The appeal of Hollywood’s films will expand with greater attention to the face of modern America.”[vii]

Video of fans at Comic Con interviewed about the race furore:

Credit: Racebending


Image of the Racebending Facebook group which was temporarily banned:

Racebender Facebook

Racebender's Facebook page

Credit: Racebending


Heresies Comic

Heresies ComicCredit:


[i] Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press.

[ii] Earl,J. and Kimport, K. (2009) Movement Societies and Digital Protest: Fan Activism and Other Nonpolitical Protest Online Sociological Theory 27:3 September 2009

[iii] Earl, J. and A. Schussman. (2003). “The New Site of Activism: On-Line Organizations, Movement Entrepreneurs,and the Changing Location of Social Movement Decision-Making.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 24:155–87.