Chinese Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Transcultural Fandom
Men are often perceived as the primary audience for superhero films. However, data in China tell a different story. In China, nearly half (45 percent) of audiences for superhero films are women; a majority (60 percent) of the consumers of superhero film-related products in China are also women, and women make up almost the entirety (90 percent) of people in China who discuss superhero films on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Xiwen Zhang examines transcultural Marvel fandom through interviews with Chinese Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fans.
The Active Audience and Cultural Imperialism
American films are some of the most popular films in the world and can sometimes eclipse films that are produced in other countries. Critics have argued that Hollywood’s main export is the “American Dream” and that cultural imperialism represented through Hollywood films imperils local values and can contribute to the “Westernization” of values. However, the flow of cultural products is not unidirectional because of global exchanges of culture. Zhang argues that “hybridity” may be a fruitful lens through which to address transcultural exchanges. Zhang also notes that local fans, such as those in China, may interpret media content in different ways, further complicating narratives of cultural imperialism. Audiences may also participate in fan culture in multiple ways, such as through fanfiction narratives.
For the study, the author recruited 29 participants (22 women and 7 men) on Weibo and interviewed them about how they navigate gender within the fan community, their perceptions of global power and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and how their consumption of U.S. content compares with their consumption of other global content.
Gender and Fandom
About one-third of the participants agreed that MCU fans in China were more likely to be women. For example, one participant said, “In the West, the popularity of Marvel comics among male readers constitutes the fan base of Marvel movies. But in China, most fans started to love Marvel when they went into the cinema. Since girls are more likely to be attracted by the charming appearance of superhero characters on the big screen, the number of females far outweighs males in the MCU fandom.” The assumption that physical attraction was the reason for women’s interest in the MCU was common.
However, two-thirds of the participants said that women fans did not outnumber men, with one noting that “male fans are just invisible online, hesitating to participate in our community.” Some participants also said that men were not as free to express their love of the MCU. As a point of comparison, one participant said, “One of my friends is a big fan of Kobe Bryant (an American basketball star), and he saved money for months to see Kobe. But he never identifies himself as a fan because star chasing is what a girl does.” To avoid appearing too passionate about the MCU, one man reported “only post[ing] or repost[ing] ‘neutral’ contents [sic] about Marvel,” such as facts about the narrative. Some women also reported gatekeeping by only inviting other women into online communities.
Zhang also asked participants why they became Marvel fans. Some of the fans reported that they were nostalgic about either superhero movies or Disney content. Others felt a more general nostalgia about Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Lion King or Harry Potter, and other Western media content, such as the BBC’s Doctor Who or Sherlock. For example, one participant reported watching Doctor Strange star Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, which made Cumberbatch’s participation in the MCU particularly thrilling. Some of the participants also expressed that the quality of Hollywood and Western media was appealing; as one participant put it, “[the] Western cultural industry is undoubtedly the benchmark for high quality.”
Cultural Values in the MCU
Although some of the participants recognized that superhero stories convey American values, including individualism, many of the participants dismissed the idea that the MCU is primarily about conveying American values. Instead, these fans spoke of the attractiveness of the MCU’s stars and the technical quality of the special effects. Many participants also recalled growing up as fans of Japanese manga (comics) and animé, which influenced their imagined narratives about MCU characters. Imagined gay relationships between young men characters is common within fanfiction created by the manga and animé fan community. These narratives are called tongren, yaoi, or slash fic. Although the MCU characters differ stylistically from characters within Japanese animé, many participants reported being fans of fanfiction narratives that imagine romantic relationships between leading Marvel characters, such as Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. For these narratives, fans focus on minutiae, such as emotional dialogue between two characters, to develop a different narrative from MCU films.
Zhang writes that the interviews revealed that fan spaces are often dominated by women who are viewed as being “superficial.” Thus, many men avoid these spaces because of their association with femininity. Women may also gatekeep and exclude men from certain spaces to prevent misogynistic attacks. The interviews also revealed a strong association between MCU fandom and appreciation of Western media generally. Zhang argues that the association of Western media with quality may also serve to counter some of the “misogynistic shame attached to the fan identity.” Finally, MCU fandom was also associated with being a childhood fan of yaoi and Japanese media. Zhang concludes that the overlap between MCU fandom and yaoi “can be seen as a hybrid culture.” However, the prevalence of yaoi may also prevent men, particularly homophobic men, from identifying with the MCU fandom because of fears related to feminization and homoerotic narratives.