Early in Resistance through Rituals, an influential analysis of postwar British youth cultures, British Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his co-editor describe the ways in which subcultures challenge the authority of the mainstream “parent culture” by “seek[ing] to modify, negotiate, resist or even overthrow its reign.” In their conception, cultural production and consumption constituted a battleground in the age-old clash between classes. Approaching the bric-a-brac of popular culture with an intellectual seriousness it had rarely been afforded was itself an affront to what Hall described as authenticated and validated elite culture.
Listen to an audio version of this story
For more Walrus audio, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.
Interpretations of this idea—that choosing to wear a certain style of boot or play guitar a certain way were not merely consumer choices but forms of ideological resistance—informed the academic sphere of cultural studies and shaped a grander conception of what’s sometimes called “cultural politics”: the idea that fashion, film, music, TV, and so forth are latent with political meaning. It’s an appealing idea, in part because it elevates trifling entertainments to the level of political objects, in part because it shifts the work of politics away from the tedious labour of agitating and organizing and toward mulling what, precisely, we are talking about when we talk about Tony Soprano.
In the forty-five years since Resistance through Rituals offered a compelling template for culture-as-politics, such interventions have themselves become reabsorbed by the parent culture, which has successfully defanged any notion of cultural choices constituting a meaningful opposition to what Marx termed “the ruling ideas of the epoch.” Instead of mounting an interrogation of authenticated culture, many current cultural-studies interventions seek to see pop culture authenticated. As Stuart Hall himself lamented later in his life: “I really cannot read another cultural-studies analysis of Madonna or The Sopranos.” In lieu of a more straight-ahead, narrowly orthodox conception of politics, wearing Doc Martens or thinking about Game of Thrones becomes a form of direct action. Culture, and our endless fretting about it, has become not an allegory for or adjunct to politics but a replacement for it.
This confusion currently animates one of popular culture’s most curious sagas: the ongoing effort to revive Anne with an E, the latest small-screen adaptation chronicling the rural adventures of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s spirited, braided orphan. This fictional character, a model of pluck the world over, now finds herself at the centre of a frenzy of fan activity, which offers an opportunity to rethink what exactly we mean by “cultural politics.”
The campaign began last November, when CBC/Radio-Canada president and CEO Catherine Tait announced that the network would not be renewing Anne with an E. A statement announcing the series’ cancellation read: “We hope fans of the show love this final season as much as we do, and that it brings a satisfying conclusion to Anne’s journey.” It was, in the words of Montgomery’s feisty heroine, “another hope gone.”
Within hours of Anne with an E’s cancellation, the partisans across the globe unified. By the end of July, over 1 million fans had lent their enthusiasm and digital signatures to a change.org petition calling for CBC and Netflix to renew the series for a fourth season. “There is so much more we need answers to and want to see!” reads the petition’s call to action. The Anne fans’ last stand would see them fundraising to place flashy (and presumably very expensive) billboards at Manhattan’s Times Square and Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas intersection. The billboards—some of which featured a cartoon version of Anne pulling down a gag from around her mouth, her eyebrow slanted in the fashion of former pro wrestler The Rock, as if resisting censorship while also appearing very wry—asked anyone who gazed upon them if they were “Ready To Fight For What’s Right?”
Fan-led campaigns to revive cancelled TV shows are not without precedent. The exemplar is the original Star Trek. NBC had planned to cancel the series following flagging ratings in the second season. A letter-writing campaign organized by an industrious sci-fi fan named Betty Jo Trimble convinced the network to renew the series for another season. Though Star Trek’s third season would be its last, Trimble’s campaign called attention to the show’s dedicated fan base, which has sustained interest in the franchise for decades. Trimble’s efforts—and, more importantly, the results they yielded—provided something of a template for similar campaigns, in which the peacocking of a fan base proved a franchise’s continued viability.
In this process of resuscitation, another weird transference occurs. Fans come to see themselves not just as the audience for, or patrons of, a given “intellectual property” but (to paraphrase the old WestJet slogan) as owners too. This feeling of ownership is often vindicated by the franchises themselves, which deliberately pander to the hopes and expectations of their core audiences. (See: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or the recent successful push by fans of director Zack Snyder to see a new cut of the maligned 2017 Justice League essentially willed into existence.) Fans are placed in the flattering position of being stakeholders of a franchise. Unlike traditional stakeholders, however, they receive no financial remuneration for such efforts—and, indeed, are responsible for shoring up the franchise’s bottom line.
It’s something of a hack cliché, in the words of American media scholar Henry Jenkins, to lambaste all fans as “brainless consumers who . . . devote their lives to the cultivation of worthless knowledge” and who “place inappropriate importance on devalued cultural material.” But, as pop critic Jack Hamilton noted in a 2019 Slate essay, the “stan” (an obsessional enthusiast named after a psycho-stalker in rapper Eminem’s song of the same name) has become the de facto unit of fandom, “a proud term of self-identification and aspiration.” What’s undeniable, these days, is the devotion, which now seems to occur only at the level of outright zealotry. Fan culture has flattened the relationship between enthusiasts and the people who create the objects of their enthusiasm. Fan conventions, social media, and even online petitions have created new channels of contact between consumers and creators, a levelling effect that is sometimes called democratization. This levelling is itself illusory, however. Cultural power still resides with the same elite brokers, no matter how approachable, relatable, down-to-earth, or “just like us” producers, stars, and even fictional characters like Anne Shirley appear to be.
To stans, a television show or movie franchise is no longer just a thing that exists to be consumed and enjoyed but something for them. That this process unfolds as actual media ownership is increasingly monopolized may seem like a bitter irony. But I take it as being an actual function of that monopolization: by investing fans with this false sense of ownership, by making them seem like active creators instead of passive consumers, the conditions of corporate hegemony are made to seem more tolerable, even pleasant. Fandom becomes ennobling, a manner of exerting authority, of self-actualizing, of making oneself feel as if they are meaningfully affecting the world. Emotional investment runs high.
It can even seem fully demented, as when Taylor Swift’s fans sent veiled threats, and even “hexes,” to critics who greeted her latest album, Folklore, with anything south of unqualified praise. Like the Anne stans, so-called “Swifties” seem especially remarkable because of the degree of their maniacal obsession. We’re used to sports, arguably pageants of violence, inspiring some chest-puffing posturing. But folky pop singers? Red-headed Maritime girls? When participation in politics is reduced to cultural affiliation, or a series of consumer choices, a given singer or series or franchise is more than a mere entertainment or pleasant distraction. It becomes a nexus of self-knowledge, a form of identity, like gender, race, sexuality, or nationality. And so, cancellation—or even something as benign as a so-so review—is not just a boring matter of business efficiency but a personal grievance. Campaigns to revive these series become a way to redress such injustices.
Stuart Hall famously praised Miles Davis for conjuring, in his music, “the sound of what cannot be.” It’s a neat encapsulation of his view of culture and cultural studies, which conceives of spaces—whether real, physical spaces of congregation or more abstracted, aesthetic spaces of contemplation—where one can redraw relationships to the dominant, commercial culture. The current mess of entitled fandom seeks only to sustain that culture, demanding more and more of the same rote pleasures that tickle the fan’s sense of familiarity. It’s not about exploring what can be but demanding more of what they already like: the sprawling smorgasbord of possibility narrowed to a trough.
The sense of feeling slighted is at the fore of the Anne with an E fandom, which has waged its war against Netflix and the CBC with not only petitions and billboards but online activism and subterfuge as well, engaging in what the Guardian called “a digital, guerilla-style battle against the two companies.” The show’s acolytes have directed millions of tweets at the broadcasters, attempted to hijack a recent public broadcast of Netflix’s earnings by swarming the comments section, and appear in droves should anyone merely tweet the name “Anne with an E.” (I recently tested this theory and was met with hundreds of comments by fans from Canada, Mexico, Turkey, and elsewhere, attempting to conscript me into the campaign to #RenewAnneWithAnE.) For its part, the CBC has claimed that fans were using “bots” (that is, automated social media accounts) to push for Anne’s renewal. (That the CBC’s claim was published on its CBC Kids vertical seemed like a sly diss, presuming that the show’s diehard fans are children.) In April, the broadcaster announced that it would be hiding “Anne-related comments” from its articles in an attempt to “keep our comment threads on their intended topics.” Predictably, fans took this as a form of censorship and silencing.
What is perhaps most compelling about the current Anne fandom is its adoption of explicitly political speech. The program’s fans deploy language around censorship, fighting for what’s right, and (as one tweet from 2019 puts it) “the right to petition and assemble under the first amendment.” This sense of empowerment is now being applied literally and directly to the “cause” of saving the show itself. A common refrain among the more enthusiastic tweeters rallying to renew the series is a belief that “Anne would want us to fight.”
This creative leap between cultural appreciation and political action has long been an element of fandom. Mulling the wild reactions that greeted Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, the astute German poet and writer Heinrich Heine took the ecstasy sweeping European concert halls as “a sign of the want of political liberty” in society at large. Anticipating the work of Stuart Hall and the cultural-studies set, Heine regarded these pageants of excessive ardour—“a delirium unparalleled in the annals of furor!”—as expressions of a deeper need for a greater, more profound freedom.
The countervailing worry, and one that seems to play out in contemporary cultural manias, is that fandom does not only awaken this “furor” but satisfies it, dousing the very spark of passion it ignites. The politicization of fandom becomes, once again, a replacement for actual politics. This seems especially true when that fandom is, as Anne’s is, organized around ideas of political empowerment. I am reminded, as I often am, of a favourite Simpsons gag, in which Marge bakes a fake birthday cake to distract Homer from ruining his daughter’s real cake. Fandom is the fake cake. Qu’ils mangent.
Yet Heine recognized something else in the pan-European “Lisztomania” of the nineteenth century. The combination of the composer’s music, the close quarters of the venues, and the ambience of stages deliberately cultivated an aura of worshipfulness: “The whole enchantment, as it seems to me, is that nobody in the world knows how to organize ‘successes,’ or rather their mise en scènes, so well as our Franz Liszt.” The current, illusory democratization of cultural consumption strikes me as just another purposefully constructed mise en scène, encouraged by movie studios, TV producers, and music PR flacks in order to raise legions of loyal devotees. The present hubbub around Anne with an E may force such cultural stakeholders to reckon with the negative impacts of the same fan overinvestment they worked so diligently to develop.
As for the fans? One can only hope the vanity of their efforts proves, in some way, edifying: whether it be in illuminating the structural differences between those who own culture and those who consume it, or in offering the instructive, if bitter, lesson that, in the words of Anne Shirley, who is wise beyond her years, “life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.”