Being 'Good' fans in 'Bad Times':Irish fans of the US television drama The West Wing and the reflexive negotiation of personal and collective identity at a time of political and social crisis
Scully, Clare Anne
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Much contemporary theory posits a relationship between the consumption of cultural and media artefacts and the construction and negotiation of individual and collective identities. An additional debate concerns whether political understanding and participation can be (re)invigorated by the convergence of political and media spheres. Fans – committed, reflexive consumers who 'invest‘ variously in media texts – represent a significant, yet locally under-explored research population through which to address these matters. Moreover, the current political, economic and social crisis in Ireland renders contemporary Irish fans of political television drama especially suitable for study. This study examines how fandom of political television drama interrelates with 'real life‘, situated political identity. Entailing a small-scale quantitative survey and in-depth interviews with 22 Irish fans of The West Wing, the study makes an original empirical contribution to these debates, extending existing scholarship, but adding a new theoretical perspective to Irish cultural and media studies.The findings demonstrate the significance of the uncertain context - political, economic, social and cultural - in response to which respondents attempted to address ontological anxieties by the consumption of 'good‘ things – such as The West Wing – as a source of intellectual and emotional nourishment and replenishment. Respondents‘ intense connection with the series‘ themes and characters, especially with fictional US Democratic President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), was found to enable an imagined, ideal political sphere in contrast to the perceived inadequacies of Irish politics. Further, an 'object relations‘ psychoanalytic reading of respondents‘ attachment to The West Wing suggests that the fantasy space of fandom and the fan object in question provides a psychic, as well as cultural, means of (imaginarily) transcending the flaws of 'real‘ politics. However, these were found to inter-relate to articulations of an ambiguous 'political self‘. The cultural and psychodynamic dimensions of fan respondent data were interpreted as compensatory for a sense of political powerlessness and lack of political participation. 'Good‘ fandom is concluded to be symptomatic of a cultural logic of reversion, an individualistic, fantasy 'cure‘ that represents a failure or reluctance to engage with structural causation or 'real‘ political action. The emphasis of the thesis, then, is on the affective pleasures and rewards of consumption of The West Wing at a time of political and social crisis and deeply challenged self-identity and integrity.
KeywordsPolitical television drama