There is a certain meme that made the rounds not too long ago that featured a rather telling image: around a dozen people clad in colorful costumes, were standing in a row and posing for the camera in a very public location- possibly at a convention but it could have been anywhere. And the caption added to the image by an editor read “Don’t worry Ma’am, we’re from the internet.”
While this image was created specifically to entertain (or at least draw a chuckle from someone viewing it), it draws from one of the major issues facing all fandom cultures, one that has been a part of them since the beginning, and one that members seem eager to throw off- the stereotype of the fan as obsessed, socially awkward (if not outright deviant), with strange/other/outsider natures that can only fit into a society centered around either fandom or, in this case, the internet that sprung up around them.
Stereotyping is nothing new in the world of fandom. Over the course of years, this stereotype came to be written as follows: fans were typically male, typically socially deviant in some way or form, often lacking basic skills in both social discourse and frequently hygiene. It was often insinuated that these fans were outcasts. The myth of the “Basement Dweller” began to circulate. This myth “states” plainly that fans lived in basements, usually with their parents, and were members of a fantasy world, either figuratively (as in the case of media fans) or literally (as it was often applied to fans of fantasy roleplaying gaming like Dungeons and Dragons). Depictions of this stereotype run the gamut- Saturday Night Live poked fun at Trekkies in their infamous “Get a Life” sketch in the late 1970s; the indie rock band Flashlight Brown wrote a song “glorifying” gaming in early 2003 (“Ready to Roll”), and the television show King of the Hill dedicated an entire episode of their 7th season to fantasy enthusiasts (entitled “The Witches of East Arlen”).
Now, to people who have grown up within a fandom, this characterization might seem not just flawed, but deliberately skewed to make them seem deviant. Are there these types of participants within a fandom? Yes, of course there are. But one of the criticisms made by fans of this type of assessment is that these fans are part of a more "fringe fan culture,” ultimately not indicative of fandom as a whole. Along the same line, there are members of this sort in ANY fan community, who often receive the same type of ridicule, but rarely on the same degree as media fans. This is coupled with the idea that media-centric fans lack basic faculties, or even the ability to distinguish fantast from reality at times.
For example, take a look at the parody presented in the infamous “Get A Life” sketch from Saturday Night Live. The devotion with which the “Trekkies” professed their love and knowledge of Star Trek on SNL, and later how they were “fooled” into believing that the rant William Shatner made was just a “character reenactment,” trivializes the real devotion that many fans feel. In “The Witches of East Arlen,” the “coven of Artemis” is maligned because they are shown as having troubles differentiating between fantasy and reality, to the point where they truly believe they have “unequaled power,” and suffer socially at the hands of people whom they claim fear them, but in reality simply think they’re weird. This plays into the notion that fans cannot, or do not, see a difference between the actual world and the world of their fandom. Finally, “Ready to Roll” contains a number of telltale lyrics that allude to the inability of fans (in this case, fantasy role-playing gamers) to form relationships or have social lives outside of the game (“We may not know any girls/But we got graph paper guiding our way/We’ve got confusion/Delusion/And all of a Friday night to kill” and later on “Half orc/Full dork- the myth and reality”). All three of these examples also make one final assertion- the idea that the fan is an outsider, unworthy of sympathy, and unable to fit into a “normal life.” But is this idea accurate to fandom as a whole, or just a small collective within the fandom?
Henry Jenkins sums up the ideas behind the stereotypical fan as follows: “Significantly, the comic fan and the psychotic fan are usually portrayed as masculine, although frequently as de-gendered, asexual or impotent.” (1992) He later defines a different sort of fan, one that is also highly visible (especially where the word “yaoi” is included): “the eroticized fan is almost always female: the feminine side of fandom is manifested in screaming teenage girls who try to tear clothes or faint at a touch” (1992). Actually, when discussing female participation within fandom, there are very stark differences among the images of the female fan. Be it the “Beatlemania” crowds crying for a piece of Paul or John, or the “slash” fans who delight in crafting emotionally (and sometimes sexually) charged fictions of their favorite characters, females are often shown as being the more creative of the fans. If males are happy to debate, discuss and argue, females are more inclined to read, write and contribute to the massive, mounting “expanded universe” that springs up around such fandoms.
So how does the stereotype referred to throughout this discussion relate to anime fandom in particular? After all, I’ve often made an argument that anime fandom is unlike other fandoms in its practices and social policies, and that the average anime fan has little resemblance to the generalized description.
Both the ‘classical’ stereotype of the fan and the one embodied in the use of the term “otaku” stem from similar causes and shared histories. Hideki Ono, editor of the online magazine Anime Style, says that the initial idea of the otaku originated in the Star Trek fandoms of the United States, where participation, cosplay and organized events first began to be noticed by the mainstream culture. This notion of a fan who is “an obsessive collector and a dead serious hobbyist,” has been introduced with great effect on both sides of the Pacific, though the connotations attached to the word vary greatly between the US and Japan.
Roland Kelts defines “otaku” as “an individual obsessed with manga and anime, a collector...whose interest...ranges well beyond the casual. It is another Japanamerican word that has undergone a dramatic evolution, both before and after it whizzed back and forth across the pacific” (2006). Obsession plays a large part in defining what exactly an otaku is. Of theI spoke to during my field work, 25% defined otaku as someone with a certain degree of obsession, beyond simple interest or love of anime. Hideki Ono furthers this notion when he says “I’m not one of the core otaku, they are more pure at heart” (2006)
This seems to be a trend that shows up frequently when otaku are asked to describe and identify what an otaku is. Says Kelts of Hideki Ono, he is “...a classic otaku, a dedicated and obsessive fan...since early childhood, with a thorough knowledge of their histories, titles and backgrounds...but when I mention he might be an otaku, he bristles.” (2006) This notion that an otaku is always “somebody else” is not unusual within the con community. Given the negative connotations otakudom has faced both in Japan and the United States, it is little surprise that fans are often unwilling to take the step towards identifying with the community label, despite conforming to most other’s standards of what an otaku is.
Another opinion when it comes to what exactly defines “otaku” comes courtesy of Daryl Surat. A prominent member of the fan community, Surat writes articles for the magazine “OtakuUSA” and is a popular lecturer on anime fandom and otaku culture in the US. Surat mentions that, in American fan culture, we have many words to represent degrees of fandom participation. ““geek," "nerd," "dork," "dweeb," "fan," and so on, the common knowledge is that "otaku" roughly means "obsessed geek" in Japanese, so the general consensus on the matter is that "otaku" means "someone who is a geek/nerd/etc for Japanese pop culture.”
He goes on to mention that he does not care for this particular definition, citing that, while it might define a fan of Japanese animation and culture, it lacks the same degree of obsession that the Japanese ascribe to the word itself. Enthusiasm notwithstanding, in Japan an otaku is truly obsessed beyond what we might consider a healthy point, and their devotion might pale ours by comparison.
“I think the easiest consideration to keep in mind when contemplating the usage of the word "otaku" is reflected within the FUNimation slogan for Fullmetal Alchemist, the biggest hit of the 2000s decade: "what are you willing to sacrifice?" I wouldn't call the person who inherited a fortune from their parents and decked out their living space floor to ceiling with figurines an "otaku" necessarily; they didn't give up anything of their own to acquire that save for free time and unused space. The person with a massive DVD, manga, toy, and to a somewhat lesser extent model kit collection is also primarily displaying their willingness to spend money more than anything else. The real thing to wonder is "what did they forsake for the sake of this? But it gets trickier.
"Because I believe--and this is a divisive topic even in Japan--that raw enthusiasm isn't enough. Otaku should know something about the thing they purport to be obsessed with. Not "think they know," but "know." It's not really that way anymore though, not in America or even Japan. As otaku specialist Tomohiro Machiyama noted (among other things): "...otaku fandom was founded by many amateur academics. It used to be that you could not be an otaku in Japan unless you were an intelligent person. It was actually a very elite world full of specialists. But the moe phenomenon changed everything. All you have to do now is say the word 'moe' and you can be an otaku . . . Today, people in Tokyo's district of Akihabara love to call themselves 'otaku,'but actually they are not so knowledgeable." Others disagree, but this is in line with my thoughts."
Given this definition, then, it would be challenging for those currently involved in anime fandom to actually be “otaku.” When attendees were asked about “what denotes otaku?” 25% cited the degree of obsession when considering otaku vs a “regular” congoer. When asked further, “Are congoers otaku themselves?”, more than half stated that yes. They gave a variety of reasons for this reasons, the most popular being related to community and cosplay. Some went so far as to mention that being otaku is important to even attending cons, but there was an equal amount of “dissenting opinion” to the same idea.
The connotations in the word otaku in the US are varied. While it is true that, within the US experience, otaku has far fewer negative connotations than in Japan, it is not wholly free of them. Indeed, while being “otaku” is not as “reviled” as some other fandoms--- the reasons for this are many. From the identification with international culture being seen as a good thing, to the depth with which anime fans create and communicate their passions, to the “family style” the community seems to exude--- this does not mean that being “American Otaku” is free of all stereotypes.
Lauren Orsini, geek culture writer for the “Daily Dot” and Press Liason for the convention Anime USA, maintains an alter ego within the community, that of the “Otaku Journalist.” In an article on her website, www.otakujournalist.com, she decried the often negative perception she has encountered in recent months of job hunting towards people like her.
“When my anime and video game experience is listed right there on my resume, it allows my interviewer to shortcut to a negative portrayal. Even in 2010, many people still have negative connotations about American otaku. And like pink hair or cat ears, these parts of my resume especially stand out. They always lead to a conversation and to awkward mispronunciations of the word “Kotaku.” I worry that while discussing my experiences at these work environments, I’ll appear too passionate about fandom to the interviewer, and less passionate about the job at hand. It’s only natural — if you’re a movie buff but you work as an plumber, it’s normal that you’d talk more expressively about The Seven Samurai than about kitchen sinks.”
Based on her experiences related to her job hunting, she has now elected to remove her previous work at both the websites and as Marketing Director for a long-running, convention in Washington DC- normally two instances of experience and management responsibilities that should distinguish her for a girl still in her mid-20s.
Given the preceding example, is it really so surprising then, that fans shy away from mentioning who they are or what they do? Is it truly surprising that they seem always to describe themselves, as one respondent put it, as “dedicated fans and enthusiasts of anime, but not otaku. Those guys are hard core.” Is this fear, creeping into their views of their own community, that they love taking part in the activities and experience of fandom, but refuse to take the step and define themselves as such? Are their motivations brought on by some strict definition of “otaku,” or are they simply unwilling to label themselves?
This in itself has become a stereotype of some congoers, held in turn by other congoers: the idea that the otaku is always “the other guy” but not themselves. They spend money, attend conventions, participate in the community and consume the media, but they’re just fans. Normal people, but with a fun hobby. They aren’t blinded or obsessed. They aren’t socially lacking, nor do they “eat, sleep and breathe anime.” They come to the community and leave it when the con is done. Obsession? No, that’s the otaku. They’re not otaku at all.