Semaphore without flags

A great deal has already been written and argued about and yelled about the use fan as an identity; how fans connect with texts and express that connection. I want to use this as a jumping off point, largely due to the fact that I already have a shelf of acafan books, to talk about the use of witty t-shirts in fandom.

While flicking through Fan Cultures by Matt Hills, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I found the sheer number of “words” used in “inverted commas” left me with something of a headache. I do understand the desire to qualify what we say, to ensure that it can be understood in it’s appropriate context, “but” “it” “can” “go” “too” “far”. In academic fandom this can be particularly problematic as we are often writing in several dialects, so to speak, and in an effort to avoid that particular style of prose here I will have to be general and subjective (and therefore in some cases, wrong).

Witty t-shirts, buttons, slogans and icons have been prevalent throughout my time in fandom (starting in 2000ish, the internet rather than classic BSFF zines-and-conventions) and frequently act as an online and real world flag of membership. They are frequently ironic or self referential, my favourite example is from Threadless “I supplement my personality with witty shirts” which says it all really.  At the same time as marking the wearer as belonging to a subculture, these sorts of statements use irony to claim a kind of detachment from the risk entailed by caring enough to belong. They are multilayered messages of affiliation to texts and ideas and frequently show how the wearer wishes to be thought of by others. If you understand this then we have something in common.

It seems as though we are coming back round to the idea of identity as something constructed rather than innate and we know, or at least strongly suspect, that we will be judged on what we leave public. In media fandom as in politics (remember the fixation over Nick Clegg’s many ties after the 2010 election) people don’t wear clothes as much as they wear costumes, each one understood to be sending a message. Given the amount of time that we spend analyzing texts for clues it’s not terribly difficult to start turning that perception inwards. Witty t-shirts can be a way of claiming the right to judge yourself first on your passions.

Then, of course, there’s class to take in to account; this is Britain after all. Some fandoms are considered more respectable than others. While science fiction and fantasy are still questing for credibility, although we’re closer than we used to be, you can have what is for all intents and purposes Sherlock Holmes fanfiction taken very seriously as part of the British literary tradition even if it’s not exactly high culture. In “Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies, and Sherlockians” Roberta Pearson comments on the tension between the paraphernalia she owns which link to her interest in high culture as well as popular fandom

“a tiny cut-out Bard’s head floating above a blank and white picture of Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Just the thing for a postmodern academic Bardie who wants to declare an allegiance without committing a class faux pas.” (Pearson:2007)

It’s an interesting and self-deprecating example of the tension exhibited by the knowledge that what you do, even what you love, will be judged and therefore becomes a performance in and of itself. The irony is there as a nod to a judgment which has not yet been made by an imaginary audience; a way to protect yourself from any of the all-too-easy accusations that you risk whenever you wear your heart on your sleeve.

But back to those t-shirts, in two authors known to be affiliated with fandom, HP in particular, these crop up as markers for how we are to read the characters. In Valiant (Black:2005) Ruth wears a badge with a slogan from a well known piece of fandom parody and in Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon trilogy(2009,2010,2011) each slogan is as lovingly recorded as the one liners lobbed by the relevant characters. They are aimed at a culture where it is understood that what we wear is linked to who we are.

Not Quite Standard Bibliography : [online] [Accessed 21st September 2013]

Black, Holly (2005) Valiant : A Modern Tale of Faerie, New York: Simon & Schuster

Brennan, Sarah Rees (2009, 2010, 2011) The Demons Lexicon, Covenant and Surrender, New York: Simon & Schuster

Hills, Matt (2002) Fan Cultures. Wiltshire: Routlage (best read in small doses.)

Pearson, Roberta (2007) “Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies, and Sherlockians”. In Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington eds. Fandom : Identities and Communities in a Mediated World New York: New York University Press, 103-104


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