A Black 1967 Chevy Impala: Fan Shibboleths as Cultural Password
Mark Stewart / University of Auckland
In season 2, episode 8 of The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlett is faced with the difficulty of needing to establish the veracity of religious asylum claims from a group of Chinese asylum seekers. Bartlett mentions a piece of arcane biblical history, where Israelites were able to discern the true nature of their allies by the ability to pronounce the word “shibboleth”. The leader of this group of asylum seekers, Jhin Wei, is able to prove his faith, not by pronouncing shibboleth correctly as such, but by demonstrating his knowledge of biblical lore by mentioning the term. A shibboleth has become a form of passphrase, something which allows an ally to identify you as like-minded, to discern a true believer from an impostor. Within fandom, I argue that select elements of a text become utilised as ‘fan shibboleths’: specific turns of phrase or elements of the chosen text that, when dropped into conversation, identify one fan to another without necessarily ‘outing’ oneself to the broader audience.
Utilisation by fans of detailed knowledge of their chosen texts in order to develop cultural capital has previously been highlighted in the literature of fandom. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, John Fiske has noted that cultural capital operates as a shadow economy1 , which provides payoffs in “the pleasures and esteem of one’s peers in a community of taste”2 , suggesting that its use is primarily in the development of internal social hierarchies. Similarly, Matt Hills, reading Bourdieu by way of Henry Jenkins, notes the reading of cultural capital as “a source of cultural legitimation”3 , although he subsequently problematizes the automatic assumption of the breadth of its value. Mark Duffett sums up these approaches, highlighting the idea that these forms of cultural capital might only have value to fans within their already established fan communities4 . These uses tend to privilege this cultural capital as methods of developing and codifying internal hierarchies within the specific fandom, but I believe that this knowledge can also be utilised to identify like-minded individuals who share a fandom.
Many of these discussions (as well as the numerous other interpretations of Bourdieu’s work catalogued by Hills and Duffett) assume that these fan communities are already assembled. Some fan groups self-assemble with relative ease, utilizing online message boards or social media groups, or in physical spaces at fan conventions or meet ups. But ‘outing’ oneself as a fan outside of these spaces often can be a confronting experience, especially if the object of one’s fandom is a form of media that is culturally demeaned, such as science fiction. I believe that some fans utilise particular elements of their selected text to subtly identify themselves to other fans in order to establish an initial connection. These moments demonstrate to a fellow fan that the speaker has more than a passing familiarity with the text; that they have a certain depth of fandom.
By way of example, I find it best to refer to personal experience. There have been times, while teaching, that I’ve raised the TV series Supernatural in discussion. Inevitably, if I am providing a brief context of the series to students, I describe the two brothers, the Winchesters, who travel across the country fighting demons in their black 1967 Chevy Impala. It is when I mention the colour, make, and model of the car that I see eyes begin to light up within the room. The specific details of this vehicle, which has become almost a character in the series, identify me to fans in the class as someone who is also a fan, who follows the series enough to be able to produce a very specific detail; one which, to an outsider, would seem insignificant, but which holds importance to those involved in the fandom. I have had several students approach me after classes to discuss Supernatural, but they always begin these discussions aware of my own fandom, even if I have not specifically mentioned it in the class. What seems to be crucial about this particular textual element is not its relevance to the plot, but instead that it will be apparent to those who have watched the series in entirety, but less obvious to more casual fans.
These specific elements of the text presented without comment to a broad audience become a ‘fan shibboleth’, a passphrase that fans can use to identify themselves to other fans as ‘authentic’5 . By having a shorthand for this, fans can demonstrate their fandom to each other in ways that might not be apparent to an outsider. While there might be other non-verbal ways of self-presenting as a fan, such as wearing merchandised clothing or paraphernalia, these are often less subtle, and may serve to cache the individual into a singular fandom, when they may have broader tastes and move between multiple fandoms. Shibboleths serve as a more understated form of broadcast, allowing fans to simultaneously broadcast their fandom in a way which is only apparent to fans, and remains hidden from non-fans.
Other examples of fan shibboleths certainly exist in different fandoms, although crucially they are likely to only be identifiable by those who are already within the fandoms; external scholars are unlikely to be able to discern the elements of a text which might be used as fan shibboleth. An additional example might be fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer making reference to leporiphobia, a fear of bunnies, a minor character trait which becomes a running joke throughout the series. As with the Impala, it is the repetition of a minor element which makes this act as a shibboleth, rather than its importance to the central plot. It is possible that the use of “frak” as a swearword, or cursing in Chinese might have similar impacts for fans of Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, respectively.
Further work is still needed to elucidate the consistency of these fan shibboleths: are they the same for many fans, or are they selected individually by each fan? Is the marker of cultural capital actually the ability to identify a moment that will serve as a fan shibboleth? Are there similarities between the ways that fan shibboleths operate, and the ways that producers of film or television adaptations of comic books make subtle references to the source material, identifying themselves to fans of the original material as ‘authentic’? There is certainly more to explore with this concept, and to solidify the boundaries between producer-level intertextual reference, displays of trivial knowledge as development of cultural capital, and the display of knowledge as shibboleth for means of self-presentation as fan.
1. 1967 Chevy Impala
2. TWW Shibboleth
3. Supernatural Impala Cosplay
4. Keep Calm and Swear in Chinese
Please feel free to comment.
- Fiske, John. “The Cultural Economy of Fandom.” The Adoring Audience : Fan Culture and Popular Media. Ed. Lisa A. Lewis. London: Routledge, 1992. 30–49. Print. 30. [↩]
- Fiske 34. [↩]
- Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge, 2002. Print. 49 [↩]
- Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. London: Continuum, 2013. Print. 131. [↩]
- The notion of fan authenticity is a problematic one, and one worthy of further exploration; however, the fact that some fans question and establish the relative ‘authenticity’ of other fans does not appear to be in question. [↩]
Yep, there’s definitely elements that work as a cultural markers in specific fandoms. There’s even different “levels” of involvement that can be informed. Like, there are markers that tell people you know the source (the show, the book), like the model of the Impala, but then there are other markers that tell people you are actually involved in specific niches of fandom, like ship names (johnlock, wincest), inside jokes, quotes (there’s this line I keep quoting every time they play Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, and if you ship wincest, I don’t need to tell you which one it is :P).
You ask if these “shibboleths” are the same for many fans, or if they are selected individually. For me, it’s a a matter of community. As in, they are built by the community, more than by individual readings of the text. Of course, it’s an opinion based on personal experience. I move in fanfiction communities, and more than once I’ve made the connection backwards, I first get acquainted with the fandom and then get to the source text. That means that when I get to the text I already know the shibboleths. In fact, they shape my understanding of the text. Hearing me talk with friends that have been into comics since they learned to read, you’d never guess I picked my first Marvel issue two years ago. I can navigate that (decades old) universe with complete ease thanks to the fandom “insides”. In constrast, I read six Harry Potter books before I got into the HP fandom, and I was lost when I first got there. In fact, I got a whole new reading of the books from fandom interaction. Stuff I hadn’t even noticed suddenly became “the” moment.
I loved your final question: Is the marker of cultural capital actually the ability to identify a moment that will serve as a fan shibboleth? I think the answer is yes. Again, because it’s not so much a matter of knowing the text as a matter of knowing the community. When I picked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was already deep into fandom, and this time, I picked every single “shibboleth”. I was reading, not through the eyes of someone who really liked Harry Potter, but through the eyes of a Harry Potter fan.
Mullu, that’s really interesting about being familiar with the fandom before the source text. Do you find that it in any way diminishes your enjoyment when you get to the source, either by having too-high expectations or from knowing what’s coming? I’m wondering what affect knowing the ‘shibboleths’ in advance has, as opposed to arriving at them more ‘organically’ or linearly.
(Though to that end, can creators expect that their texts will be consumed in a linear fashion? In these days of, as you say, being part of a fandom before knowing the material, or with coming across spoilers online, seeking out fan theories that may turn out correct, etc.?)
Or perhaps it’s the opposite? Knowing the fandom in advance then feels like stepping into something familiar when getting to the source text…?