“Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” ~ Albus Dumbledore
It’s no secret that fandom has always been a site of political resistance. Fan activism is a natural byproduct of fandom, whether it is writing “genderfuck” fanfiction, organizing letter-writing campaigns to save a show from cancellation, or creating fan activist organizations. However, at a point in history when fan communities are moving from more marginalized spaces (zines, listservs, chatrooms) into the mainstream (social media, Comic-Con, late night talk shows), an increasing number of fans are also mobilizing around political issues that extend beyond fandom itself and into everyday life. This is of particular importance during “dark times,” when racist reality television stars occupy the most powerful political office in the world.
According to Henry Jenkins, fans’ participation in “the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships” is what makes them particularly adept at mobilizing for political causes. One way fans enact their political agency is by using pop culture iconography to bring awareness to grassroots social movements that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. In his 2012 article, “Cultural Acupuncture: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,” Jenkins argues:
A striking feature of postmillennial politics is the ways that pop culture references are shaping political rhetoric and movement practices, while at the same time, […] the characteristics of social and political movements are “perpetual” and “ubiquitous” features of everyday lives. Accordingly, fan activism has moved from a crisis response to, for example, program cancellations into a consistent, ongoing engagement with real-world concerns.
Probably the most notable example of fan activism is what Henry Jenkins refers to as “Avatar Activism.” In 2010, five Palestinian, Israeli and international activists painted their bodies blue and dressed themselves up as the Na’vi from James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. The protesters marched through the Palestinian village of Bil’in in the West Bank to protest the illegal occupation of the area by Israeli forces. The activists’ fictional Na’vi garb was interwoven with traditional keffiyehs, the black and white chequered scarves that have become a symbol of Palestinian liberation and solidarity.
By using recognizable pop culture iconography, in this case from Avatar, the protesters created effective visual links between the Sky People’s oppression of the indigenous Na’vi and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Not only does the use of pop culture iconography help translate real world political activism into instantly recognizable fictional battles, but it also increases the chance that images and video of the protest will go viral and draw global attention to the movement. Many would not have heard about the occupied village of Bil’in if it hadn’t been for the protesters’ use of Avatar iconography.
Similarly, in 2015, a Facebook post written by a Palestinian Harry Potter fan named Mia Oudeh went viral. In the post, Mia expressed her disappointment with J.K. Rowling’s decision to sign a petition indicating her refusal to support government sanctions against Israel. To explain why the petition was problematic, Mia drew parallels between Rowling’s Death Eaters and Israel’s Zionists:
Your books have been the very source of all hope I have for peace and justice in my homeland someday. You see, my Battle of Hogwarts dreams have always had the Death Eaters as Zionists and Harry and his peers as Palestinians. Knowing that the idea for your epic novels was from World War II and the Nazis, I naturally drew parallels between the books and Zionist Israel and Palestine.
This letter prompted an immediate response from Rowling entitled “Why Dumbledore Went to the Hilltop,” in which she tried (and failed) to excuse her refusal to accept a cultural boycott of Israel on the grounds that, like Dumbledore meeting Snape on the hilltop, “certain channels of communication should always remain open.” Mia responded to Rowling’s gross mischaracterization of the political situation in the West Bank by highlighting the inequality of the battle and how an equal channel of communication was not possible. Mia argues that while the Israeli government makes use of the equivalent of “Unforgivable Curses” (Avada Kedavra), the Palestinian people, like those in Dumbledore’s Army, can only fight back with Disarming Charms (Expelliarmus). Again, because Mia’s letter used imagery from the Harry Potter series, people were better able to envision what government control and oppression looks like from a Palestinian’s perspective.
In another instance of fan activism, Thai protesters used the three-finger salute from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as a symbol of resistance against the 2014 military takeover of Thailand’s civilian government. This symbol effectively linked the anti-coup activists’ cause to the poverty-stricken districts’ rebellion (inspired and led by Katniss Everdeen) against the opulent and repressive Capitol. Although the Thai activists were arrested for their protest, the images went viral through social media channels, prompting mainstream news coverage in The New York Times and The Atlantic.
Fan activism was also at work during the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. To protest the tyrannical, fascist measures taken by Predator-in-Chief Donald Trump, women from all classes, races, and abilities used the iconic Princess Leia as a powerful symbol of the resistance. More specifically, the mantra “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance” became a unifying and universal symbol of rebellion against fascist elites. Posters, T-shirts, and cosplayers circulated the image of the rebel princess across the world and Photoshopped her likeness onto Rosie the Riveter signs. The use of Star Wars battle imagery (the Rebel Alliance vs. the Empire) as symbols of resistance was further augmented by female protagonist Jyn Erso’s role in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, where she asserts her now famous line, “Rebellions are built on hope.”
As we have seen, fans are rebelling. They are using their skills making fan art, manips, and costumes to appropriate pop culture iconography for political purposes. Fan activists help to bridge the gap between ordinary people’s lives and the larger social injustices of the world. And they do so through a language we all share: pop culture.
So, resist. Because the odds are ever in our favour.
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