08 February 2013

identity project


What defines you?

A simple question, no? How do you view yourself? What do you find personally compelling, and important? How do you choose to present yourself to the world around you? All very basic questions we might ask ourselves, with often complicated answers. Are we what we wear, or what we do, or is that merely another face to which we present the world, a “mask” cultivated based on “arbitrary” decisions, and the impressions we make on others? 

A lot of “early” writing and research into fan cultures often highlighted the issues of identity and self-identification. Fans, often viewed as external representations of the fandom they identify with, occasionally constructing “faces” around what they consume, or what they find personally compelling. Fans are the “real world” manifestation of a community concept, giving life to something emotional or intellectual, ambassadors of their ascribed culture and membership. You don’t need to ask them to do it, they’ll do it on their own, fueled by their own passions and voluntarily serving as the “point of contact” for prospective new members and veterans alike. 

And why not? It’s hard not to notice “nerds” or “devoted fans” expressing their passion and devotion through outward means: be it decoration, cosplay, body modification, spending habits, or viewing choices. For the fans, this is a part of the lifestyle, one they willingly accept and undertake. And for a good many of these folk, their fandom is what they elect to indicate as their identity- it is the part of them they have the strongest connection with, and have the greatest urge to put “on display.” I’m not even limiting this to media fandom: fandom itself contains all these trappings, be it for entertainment, sport or something else beyond that. 

Sometimes, this identity is in response to ridicule, or a product of criticism (both from within, and without). Sometimes this identity is another “ego” the fan assumes, one that they feel is closer in line with what they view as important. There are stories online, and spoken at fan gatherings, of fans who prefer their fandom to their real lives, going to the point of viewing the “real world” as fiction, while the “fan world” as the reality they prefer.  (This has been touched upon by both Saturday Night Live and Supernatural recently, you make the call on how appropriate the final product was). They create new personas and “characters” around the desired reality, and for them, this provides the “truth” behind who they really are. Dissatisfied with their actual identity, they create the identity they want to present. 

At the same time, the notion of identity also is a powerful motivator. Rather than re-create who they are, fans also use their fandom to further their “actual” identity: as creatives, writers, speakers and entrepreneurs. Rather than be content to immerse in fandom, they allow the fandom to direct them, incorporating their passions into their careers, hobbies and relationships. Moving beyond consumption, this type of fan uses their identity to contribute back to the fandom they drew inspiration from in the first place. These fans, often called “active fans,” stake a claim in the fandom community, and use that as an “identity” separating themselves from the “passive fans.” 

And then there are the “fandom fans.” While I will not go into detail about them here, those fans have become more and more visible in the past few years. The fans who choose to identify themselves not by a specific fandom, but by their fandom participation itself. Their fandom identity, not rooted in one genre or medium, is tied in with the practice and appreciation of fandom as a whole: rather than focus on one aspect and “promote” it at the “expense” of others, these fans choose to embrace the notion of fandom, and promote membership in the community, as opposed to the advocacy of the medium. 

As fans, we all use our fandom in some way while constructing out personal identities. That’s what The Identity Project is about. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to gather essays and ruminations from bloggers and fans about what fandom means to them. (I’m still accepting them, by the way.) Each one of the writers involved has chosen one aspect of their fandom and written about how it has fused itself into their lives. Hopefully, this will lead to more discussion about the changing nature of fandom, and provide some ideas on where it is going. 

Since this is the beginning of what I hope will be a fascinating journey into the world of personal identity, I suppose I will contribute some of my thoughts first:

***

I have a relatively rough relationship with the term otaku. I went through many different stages while exploring its relationship to who I am today: ZOMG IM AN OTAKUZ when I first discovered anime; disconnect as I grew older and more “jaded”; deprecation as I found my way back into the community, and eventual acceptance now. 

Most of this wild shift was a direct result of how I approached the term over time. I didn’t “know” the word at first, just ran around with the same base assumptions one has when discovering something new. It’s not a big surprise that the word’s initial usage in US fandom was a bit skewed from its origins, but at the same time, I had no idea of those either. I was just a boy with a new toy, and I played with it a lot. 

I used to call myself a professional weeaboo also. Rather than look at my own place within fandom, I was content to embrace a marginalized term, more in the name of setting myself apart than defining myself through it. I was, and still am, an active fan. I have a solid place within the fandom community. I appreciate the community as well, but I was more concerned with defining myself through a “derogatory” term than actually discovering what was important to me. 

Was it a grab for attention? Probably...no, it really was. And at the time, attention and recognition were my main goals, so why not focus on a label many fans abhor, and exploit the hell out of it. More people paying attention wasn’t a bad thing, especially if I could use that attention to further my own “agenda.” Again, the wrong motivation that somehow appeared as the correct one at the time. Completely temporal. It took me a while I understand that.

In a ways, I was more concerned with the perception of my fandom identity, than I was with successfully identifying and incorporating that identity into who I was. Not an uncommon “mistake,” especially in a time rife with “justifications” and “proving your (geek)dom.” The trap here was that defining my fandom label shouldn’t have been my primary goal. Rather, defining my fandom should have taken priority. I was too interested in what to call myself, and not on who I really was. It’s a pitfall for some (perhaps many) in an age when “geek-centric” pursuits are becoming more “mainstream,” and as with many other aspects of mainstream culture, labels need to be firmly affixed or something is “wrong.” The entire point of fandom, at least in my eyes, was to utilize it as another aspect of identity, not to fixate on how to “do it right.” That really is the point, in the end: do it as you will, with uncluttered mindset. 

My challenge, then, was to isolate what about fandom was important to me, and how that importance shaped who I was as both a person and a fan. It took me years to arrive at the “appropriate” conclusion, but I did. I could embrace my otakudom once I understood not just what otaku meant, but what it meant to me, in my “situation.” But that’s the subject for another essay. 

So now I lob the ball into your court. Read what some of your peers have to say. Ask yourself questions about your identity. What motives you? Why did you choose to that aspect in particular. How do you define your place in fandom, as a fan, or as an outsider. 

What’s your identity? 

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