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Ethics, Performance, and Identity in Aca-Fan Research by Tom Phillips

by Ethan Tussey

As a researcher of wrestling fandom, my understanding of wrestling fan performance is informed by my own participation in wrestling fan culture. I am a regular attendee at live wrestling events across Britain, and as my own feminist politics have become more pronounced I have become particularly drawn to the feminist product of women’s wrestling promotion Pro-Wrestling: EVE. As a wrestling fan, I am inured to the mores of wrestling fan culture, aware of the “appropriate” behaviour expected of a fan in a live setting. Yet as a cisgender, heterosexual, white, middle class male fan, I embody a high degree of privilege, and as such my aca-fan position in relation to EVE events should be considered within this context.

The above video clip shows my interaction with EVE performer Nina Samuels, who demands I approach the ring before chastising me for my lack of respect, reminding me that she is a media star. Yet my (auto)ethnographic research on fan performance and participation at EVE events leads me to question the extent to which I should also perform as a fan. While I am currently drafting work based on this interaction with Samuels, does my fannish performance here indicate some kind of coercion or manipulation of the research environment? Or am I simply acting as I would as a “normal” fan, to then reflect on it later as a scholar?

My approach to studying EVE must also be informed by my relationship to EVE promoters Dann and Emily Read, and the access that allows. Since beginning to attend EVE events in summer 2017, I have occasionally assisted at shows as part of the stage crew. Able to enter the performance venue before general admission opens, I am able to observe wrestlers devising their matches in the ring, and experience the “real” people behind the wrestling personas before the show starts. This then gives me an ethical decision to make about what I choose to write – when does (or should) the research process begin? More so than another fannish text I care about, here I have a level of privilege in being able to access both the public and private aspects of the text. With wrestling as both a research interest and also a fannish interest, I occupy liminal positions of scholar, fan, and insider.

This is complicated further by how I am known to many people at EVE shows. Though I would characterise myself as little more than a recognisable face to most of the staff and performers, if people are aware of me it is likely they know me as “Dr. Tom”, the (hopefully affectionate!) name given to me by my friends to distinguish me from another friend of the same name. While principally a necessity for distinction (but also a wrestling reference itself), “Dr. Tom” implicitly refers to my professional status: whilst there as a fan, my name alludes to the scholarly identity of the academic whose work on EVE has been covered in mainstream media outlets.

Aca-fandom can often frame the scholar as both the academic and fan expert – that they at once possess the fannish and educational capital required (and desired) of one researching a particular fan culture. Matt Hills has observed that aca-fans often bring specific fan identities with them into their analyses, thus prioritising research on fan cultures with which they are already familiar. I would argue, however, that it is precisely my contextual familiarity with wrestling that allows for an understanding of how the environment operates and can change: EVE events, for example, symbolise the way in which a discourse of popular feminism is beginning to challenge the traditionally hypermasculine environment of pro wrestling.

Rather than my aca-fan position affording me ultimate academic authority and a “final say” over the interpretation of activity in this case study, it instead acts as a vital contextual position; a (feminist) value of affective scholarship and self-reflexive insight.

Pro-Wrestling: EVE Nasty Women

Music Video made to promote EVE Nasty Women with the song "Here" by Alessia Cara.

from Pro-Wrestling: EVE Nasty Women 06-10-17 (2018)
Creator: Tom Phillips
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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