Ramzi Fawaz, assistant professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Rebecca Wanzo, associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, represent two important and emerging voices in comic studies. I have been lucky to work with both of them as part of the Postmillenial Pop book series that Karen Tongson and I co-dit for New York University Press. Fawaz's book, The New Mutants, represents a rich account of popular fantasy and progressive politics primarily focused on Marvel comics of the 1960s and 1970s, and Wanzo is completing a groundbreaking book on race and caricature which ranges across American comics in all of their various permutations. We wanted to hear their thoughts on the Black Panther phenomenon. Colin and i sat back as flies on the wall this week and listened to their perspectives, which move back and forth between the film and its comics roots.
What fields of study, specific pieces of scholarship, or even case studies do you think fan scholars should look into to help us better address the issues of Bad Fans?
Although ostensibly defined by its object of analysis, fan studies has always been a little ambiguous about just what it’s really studying. When we say we study fandom, are we referring to individual fans’ subjective feelings of attachment for media goods, to the expressions those feelings take in fan works, or to the sociocultural practices and institutions that unite these people and things together into an intelligible (if not necessarily coherent) whole. All of them have been and remain in the mix.
But, if I haven’t tipped my hand too much already, I think that the version of fan studies that will enable us to tackle the problems you’ve identified – of bad actors within fandoms and of toxic or vicious fandoms – will plant its flag as a broadly social-scientific field, the core questions of which will be about people rather than texts. I’m not calling for naïve empiricism, but for a critically engaged, interpretive and reflexive engagement with the social worlds in which Bad Fans are operating.
For me, Pierre Bourdieu is one of the most productive thinkers to bring to bear here – not for his sociology of taste, which is how he often enters into discussions in fan studies, but for his insights into how every field of social practice is defined by a struggle over its definition and its boundaries. When I look at ComicsGate or the Rabid Puppies, what I see is white men losing the power of definition to the activism and growing market power of other fans, and that seems like textbook Bourdieu to me.
What conceptual resources have you found helpful in trying to think through these cases?
Like many fan scholars out there, I find that I spend a lot of time trying to justify my research field to peers and colleges who work outside of fan and/or media studies. Because of this, I really try to look outside of fan studies to help support the concepts and theories that are already accepted across our field. I believe being truly interdisciplinary not only allows fan theorists to back up our research to people outside of the field, it also provides new entry points for analyzing fan communities and fan work. I've tend to approach fan studies, and in particular the study of bad fans, through a feminist theory and psychological perspective. The rise of the "fake geek girl" phenomenon of the 2010's really pushed me towards looking at how gender politics play out in fan spaces. I started, however, by focusing on trying to understand who fans are, at their core, relying on psychological research to help to understand how humans form their concepts of identity.
One piece of research that really stuck with me was a study by Patricia Obst, Lucy Zinkiewicz, and Sandy G. Smith titled "Sense of Community in Science Fiction Fandom." In the 1990's, Obst, Zinkiewicz, and Smith conducted research on young men with interest in science fiction and found that, unlike the general population who created their strongest community bonds based on their geographic proximity to others, these young men were creating their strongest community bonds with people who shared their interests, regardless of their geographic location. While this news isn't surprising for fans or fan scholars, it provides the empirical evidence of the importance of fandom in community and identity building. From there, I look at why some fan identities are more privileged than others, not only within fan communities, but also in our society as a whole. Here I find I read Judith Butler, Susan Bordo, Herman Gray, Teresa De Lauretis, and other gender, race, and ability theorists. But understanding the fans and the culture they come from is only part of the field of fan studies. I do believe in the importance of understanding and defining fan practices, and while I value the research out there about why and how fans interact with their work, I also believe we haven't, as a field, defined fan work in a way that shows the true impact it can have on society. As passionately as we shout our evidence based and theoretically sound research up to the ivory tower, many in the academy fail to see how slash fiction or meme sharing has any real impact on our greater culture. Enter translation theory. The field of translation studies is just about as old as the field of fan studies, and like fan studies it is an interdisciplinary field that attracts many different types of scholars. The trend in translation studies is towards an examination of how culture plays into the act of translation, and how cultures in turn are shaped through translations. And while some work in the field of translation studies does define translation as the literal act of word for word linguistic interpretation, the field also acknowledges the ideas of adaptation or interpretation as acts of translation. I'm finding this line of research to be very helpful in understanding the human need to interpret and share texts across cultural divides, which I believe is at the heart of why fans create fan work. What is most appealing about translation studies is that it leans towards the high arts, something that brings with it an air of prestige or importance. As someone who is writing a dissertation as part of a rather traditional Humanities PhD program, this high art affiliation is helpful in expressing just how important and impactful research on fans can be. (I can recommend The Translation Studies Reader edited by Larence Venuti and a good primer into the field). I guess to sum things up, I think it is in our best interest, as fan scholars, to continue to be both interdisciplinary and intersectional to try to understand our field from every angle and to prepare ourselves in the event that we need to defend the importance of our field to the academy.
This is a bit of a pained segue, but your comment about how translation studies helps to understand how and why people are motivated to bridge cultural and community divides reminds me of the “aca-fan” identity that has been so central to scholarly practice in fan studies. Since the 1990s, it’s been more or less axiomatic that there’s at least practical advantages and quite likely a kind of epistemic privilege that comes from sharing the fandom of the subjects you study. When particular fan activities seem to be grounded in avowed misogyny, white nationalist sentiments, or other deplorable value sets, we as scholars can no longer lean on our insider status. Many of us—women, people of colour, queer or transgender—might not even be safe approaching them.
I conducted my fieldwork on geek culture in one Canadian city in 2010 and 2011, and while it obviously did not pre-date sexism, homophobia and racism in fan communities, it was before the various major flash points of recent years made these issues inescapable. I could still, at times anyway, take comfort in that rosy, utopian picture of fandom—indeed, I call geek culture a “real utopia” (Wright 2010) in my book! My observations and conversations gave some insight into the struggles over sexism in some fandoms since then, but I wonder if they would have been that candid even a year later. Not that anyone I spoke with was a raving sexist, but how much more guarded would people have been when a PhD student came snooping around asking questions about their community’s demographic make-up at, for instance, the height of GamerGate?
That is an excellent point, and I wish I could answer it with my own research, however I know of some upcoming work that might address this gap. I've sat on a number of panels on fan harassment both in academic circles, as well as at fan conventions with Carrie Lynn Reinhardt of Dominican University and she conducted conversations with Twitter users who were known bullies, particularly those who were involved in GamerGate, in order to come to conclusions about how problems in communication contribute to harassment and what she calls "fractured fandom". She is currently working on a book on the topic that I think would be a very interesting companion to your book.
To your comment about the dangers of being in a demographic group that faces increased harassment in fan spaces, It is a concern that we as fan scholars need to do better about addressing. Fan conventions and websites have stepped up, enacting strict anti-harassment policies, but we know that much of the harassment comes online in one-to-one, avatar-to-avatar situations. These singular stories are not being told. Much of the research coming out about fan harassment (my own work included) tends to look at the high-profile cases, such as Anita Sarkeesian, but we should be attempting to raise the concerns of the everyday fans who are being marginalized from their own fandom due to their identity. Again, I think academic and community outreach are the solution to this issue. Academic outreach in the form of interdisciplinary forums with psychologists, elementary and secondary educators, and coders. I've engaged in a few of these events and found that sociologists, psychologists, and education scholars are particularly intrigued by our field. They see the trend in harassment and even violence in fan circles and are looking for solutions.
But community outreach should also be conducted, to help provide safer spaces for the public to talk about their own experiences. Three years ago at C2E2, Chicago's popular culture convention, I was on a panel talking about fan harassment and while the event began like an academic roundtable, it quickly turned into a cathartic experience for members of the crowd to share their own stories of discrimination. This type of open communication allowed myself and my fellow presenters to establish ourselves as aca-fans in a space that produced case studies and contacts that might otherwise be difficult to acquire because of inability to find that audience or fear as to the motivations behind gathering the information. Sure, the barrier of a IRB still looms, but I do think it helps to break down some of the issues we face in this brave new fan frontier. Moreover, it gave the fans a voice and permission to speak on things that many people are too afraid or too ashamed to share. However, I do think there is a lot that can be gathered from analyzing fan comments, fan work, and fan activities. We can look for trends in the type of fan materials being made to give us insights into experiences that fans are facing. Whether that be protest signs that also display objects of their fandom, morphing fan works to activate political interest, or even the increased media attention around fan reactions to controversial content.
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Wilson, Katie. 2018. “Red Pillers, Sad Puppies, and Gamergaters: The State of Male Privilege in Internet Fan Communities.” In A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies, edited by Paul Booth, 431–45. Oxford: Wiley.
Woo, Benjamin. 2018. Getting a Life: The Social World of Geek Culture. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Wright, Erik Olin. 2010. Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.
The following is a conversation between Benjamin Woo, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism at Carleton University and author of the book Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018) and Katie Wilson, Adjunct Professor of film at Harry S. Truman College, PhD Candidate from University of Louisville, and author of “Red Pillers, Sad Puppies, and Gamergaters: The State of Male Privilege in Internet Fan Communities” from A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies. Benjamin and Katie both have an interest in what they call “bad fans,” particularly fans who are bullies, conduct harassment, and partake in violent activities. After reading selections of each other’s works they exchanged the following.
For those of us raised on a previous generation’s fandom studies, the last few years have been a rude awakening. We were promised utopian communities that create and sustain alternative values and practices that evade and subvert the power of dominant social groups. Instead, as Katie argues in her chapter from the recent Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies (Wilson 2018), online fan communities have become breeding grounds for a particularly virulent anti-feminist backlash and, more recently, for the white supremacist and neo-fascist movements associated with the so-called alt-right.
Although these problems have been clearest in stereotypically male “geek” communities of gamers, comic book fans, and readers of sci-fi literature (rather than viewers of sci-fi television), it would be a mistake to retreat into the comfort of the No True Scotsman fallacy, using normative definitions of fandom to disavow these angry white men as something other than fans or safely quarantine them in the category of merely “affirmational” fandom. This is the kind of hand-waving that got us into trouble in the first place.
I stumbled into fandom studies when I wanted to explore the social contexts of comic-book consumption, which eventually led me to the larger geek media ecosystem. It often feels as though my work falls in between the two fields – too focused on people for comics studies, but interested in the wrong people for fandom studies. Indeed, one of the anonymous readers who reviewed my latest book, Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture, commented that its focus on principally “in real life” spaces like comic book and game stores that are conventionally associated with male fandoms was unusual and novel. The review was, I hasten to add, constructive, and the book benefited from it immensely. Yet the idea that we should be surprised that fan studies theory had something to say about geek culture – or vice versa – is itself surprising.
Suffice it to say that a great deal of fan activity sits uncomfortably with what Cornell Sandvoss (2005) has called fan studies’ “dominant discourse of resistance” and the presumptions it has tended to make about who fans are. For example, my students often find the theoretically derived conceptions of fan and fandom bewildering and alienating because they seem so distant from the universe of media-oriented practices that those words name in ordinary language. Similarly, we can see in Gamergate and Comicsgate, in the “fake geek girl” debacle, and in the packs of Sad and Rabid Puppies hounding the Hugo Awards, other forms of community-making around media, if ones with which many of us are personally uncomfortable for obvious reasons.
Understanding these cases of “bad fans” seems to me the most pressing and immediate task for our community. They represent both a productive challenge to received theories and paradigms and an opportunity to conclusively answer the “so what?” questions that have dogged the field by speaking into a genuine societal crisis. A quarter century of fandom studies have taught us important lessons about people’s relationships with media, but the slippage between certain fan communities and practices and fandom writ large has produced significant exclusions. For instance, as media companies increasingly adopt the surface appearance of progressive politics and celebrities court fan artists’ attention, the reactionary and regressive fans that produced a “de-feminized” cut of The Last Jedi are arguably the ones taking up a transformative posture. So, as Sandvoss (2005, 15) argues, there is a pressing “need to explore under which circumstances, and against whom, fandom constitutes a form of resistance,” a need for – to paraphrase Stuart Hall (1983) – a fandom studies without guarantees.
As fan scholars, we have fought hard over the past decades to make the case that fan activity and fan work is an important field of study. In the 1990’s scholars helped to define the activities and motivations of fan communities (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Jenkins, 1992; Lewis, 1992; Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998). In the 2000’s, the rise of participatory media allowed fan scholars to examine the effect that fan work can have on the media industry and popular culture as a whole (Hills, 2002; Sandvoss, 2005; Booth, 2010; Ito et al., 2012; Hellekson and Busse, 2014). Now, as fan studies enters into adulthood, we look to see how fandom transcends the media it revolves around. Harry Potter fans are famous for taking inspiration from the Harry Potter story and raising money and awareness for charities and causes in line with the ethics of the series (Hamilton and Sefel, 2015). Political demonstrations like the Woman’s March on Washington in 2017 and 2018 are flooded with images of Princess Leia, Hermione Granger, and Wonder Woman linking these fictional characters to larger issues of equality and progress. And while many, many fans are translating the objects of their fandom and fan communities into the real world in order to make the world a better place, there are others who are using the objects of the fandom and their fan communities to bring about discord and hate. As Benjamin said in his opening statement, we can no longer ignore this trend in fan studies.
Over the past 5 years, I’ve noticed that more and more fan scholars are turning their research to the topic of “bad fans.” There is infighting within fan communities that leads to harassment and abuse (see CarrieLynn Reinhard’s work on Fractured Fandom), most notably in the form of the GamerGate controversy and the Sad Puppies of the Hugo Awards. But I believe that fan scholars also need to look outside of fan communities, looking for the places in which fans are being commodified for social or political purposes.
We are familiar with the idea that fans are turned into commodities; Mark Duffett gives examples of that in Understanding Fans:
In an internet age, businesses rely on fans’ social exchanges and amateur production to create the content that attracts audiences for the advertisers who sponsor Websites. Fans also make attempts – sometimes welcome or invited – to directly intervene in the production process of broadcast media. Personally and collectively, they are used as part of many cultural events, for example, as crowds at rock concerts or film premiers, so they have become an essential part of the show” (22).
We’ve tended to look at how fans are being used as commodities to sell a product like a film, video game, television show, sports team, music group, or work of fiction. I believe it is time to look at how fan communities, organized around media products, are now being used as commodities to sell something else: ideology.
By now it is widely reported that right wing talking heads like Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos specifically targeted video game fans in order to gain momentum for their political agendas (Bernstein 2017; Snider, 2017). Monopolizing on the connection and comradery of online fan communities allowed Bannon and Yiannopoulos to spread their ideology quickly and effectively through certain communities, playing on the trust and shared identity of these fans. As a discipline, we celebrate the fact that fans can have an impact on world, that their activities help to create added meaning or interpretation of media texts. Both Benjamin and I seem to share the same belief when it comes to fan works, that they are not necessarily secondary or lesser than the source material that inspires them. As Benjamin said, “it is a relatively short move from imaginatively re-writing to just plain writing” (182).
There is a theory in the field of translation studies that elevates the act of translation from an afterthought to an important and transformative step in the initial production of written text (Simon, 1996). It is my belief that fan activities are a form of translation, a way of interpreting and expressing a text so that it is culturally and linguistically relevant to a specific audience. I believe it is time for fan scholars to start looking at fan works not as their own insular piece of media, but rather as the final step of the writing process, the translation of the original text. Through this translation, fans are able to imbue new meaning into the source material, sometimes changing the original meaning of that material. Take, for instance, the meme Pepe The Frog, once used as a benign reaction meme, shared and repurposed across the internet. However, the image is now listed as a symbol of hate by the Anti-Defamation League thanks to the prolonged use of the image by Alt-Right internet groups. The creator of Pepe, Matt Furie, did not intend for this new meaning to be placed upon his work, and is even suing media companies that help sell this new translated meaning of Pepe. Whatever the outcome, Pepe will never be what it once was, and all because it was translated by a community. To paraphrase Benjamin, it is a relatively short move from Matt Furie’s Pepe to Alex Jones’s Pepe. As fan scholars, we must always remember that as much as fans can use their powers for good, fans also have the power to permanently change the meanings of source material to reflect an unintended ideology of hate.
And just as I believe that we need to start looking at how fans and fan work are being commodified outside of the media field, I also believe we as fan scholars need to move outside of the academic field. I take inspiration from academics like Todd Gitlin and his call in The Intellectuals and the Flag when I say that we as fan scholars need to move beyond just studying “bad fans” and work towards addressing their actions in the real world using our research and our creative brains to attempt to create positive change.
This issue of the politics of transnational (and transcultural) fandom is one that I keep coming back to, particularly for how little it tends to figure in what we might call normative fan studies. The example you give of the uncomfortable clash of fannish and state interests and imperatives in popular culture consumption seems analogous to, in the case of my own experience, the mass media discourse of an almost utopian East Asian regionalism that first arose around Hong Kong film fandom, then continued with the first wave of Korean popular culture fandom in Japan; particularly when the latter dovetailed with the Asian Economic Crisis and growing regional political tensions, provoking a harsh and unequivocally nationalistic backlash towards both South Korean media and its Japanese fans.
Your observation of the complex power dynamics of transnational fandom also puts me in mind of the ways that state and corporate-sponsored nation branding and soft power imperatives intersect with fandom. This is something I’ve been trying to suss out through two theoretical frameworks: Mary Louise Pratt’s theory of ‘contact zones’ and Anthony Giddens’s work on ontological security. Put simply, if we start from the assumption that present-day online fandoms (and, increasingly, offline fandoms as well) are emblematic of contact zones, defined by Pratt as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they lived out in many parts of the world today” (1991: 34), and that our fandoms are one way in which we create and sustain a sense of stability and meaning in our lives through “a shared - but unproven and unprovable - framework of reality, the question of what happens to one’s sense of ontological security when it’s destabilized within the contact zones of transnational and transcultural fandoms is, I think, a potent point from which to both interrogate those ‘highly asymmetrical relations of power’ and - critically - imagine how such clashes might be resolved. (As an aside, I have an essay in Paul Booth’s forthcoming A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies that looks at this in more detail.)
I’ve been frustrated in the past with work on transnational fandoms that identifies power asymmetries but does little to address them beyond warning against complicity with institutional imperatives. Not only does it replicate the moral binary of resistance/complicity we’ve seen in fan studies of the past, but it makes it too easy to overlook where changes - however incremental and incomplete - do take place. This is where I see the value of looking at micro-clashes within transcultural and transnational fandoms with an eye to theories of contact zones and ontological security. If we can recognize a transcultural conflict for what it is - a clash of different and sometimes asymmetrical cultural norms and expectations - it’s easier, I think, to imagine a way out, if we choose to do so.
To give a brief example of what I’m talking about, there was a recent cultural clash in one of my own fandoms over a Japanese fan’s drawing of a popular character in a Nazi uniform that was posted to Twitter. This fan’s general awareness that Twitter knows no national boundaries was implicit in her note that the drawing was not intended as a realistic depiction of Nazis, but was simply focused on the aesthetics of the uniform. However, this note was posted in Japanese, making it only partly effective at best. Moreover, the European fans who objected to the artwork were clear that they understood both that Nazi uniforms are something of a common trope in some East Asian fan art (there’s a new article out about just this thing in the context of cosplay, in fact), and that Japanese fans undoubtedly had a different understanding of Naziism than Europeans. Ultimately, the tweet was taken down by the poster, presumably in response to voiced complaints.
As much as the transcultural politics of the clash, it’s this response that I’m interested in as an example of how we might imagine moving through and beyond such clashes. The calculus here is fairly generalizable: cultural norm A clashes with cultural experience B, in which the ‘norm’ often (but not always) has the upper hand in terms of power over the more specific experience that goes against it. From there, certain choices are possible: ignore the clash and continue as if the norm holds (keep the art posted); withdraw altogether from contact zone (leave the fandom; retreat to a walled community of the like-minded); rationalize the norm (as something ‘we’ do in our culture); argue against the complaint through the norm; and discuss and rethink the norm. In the case of this fan art, the poster publicly performed the last option in heeding criticism and removing the tweet (although it’s difficult to know how strongly complaints were worded, on a spectrum from vehemence to vitriol, which would further shift the power dynamics of this clash). In so doing, she recognized and acquiesced to a cultural claim that she deemed more important or valid than the naturalized cultural context within which she produced the piece - an option not only within the clash of transcultural and transnational fandoms, but in asymmetrical political and cultural clashes writ large.
Returning to the beginning of this round, I wonder what this kind of perspective on transcultural fandoms might tell us about fan studies - where it is now, and where it’s going? If there’s something we might call ‘normative’ fan studies - English language, centered on Anglo-American media and/or fan cultures, overwhelmingly white - what happens when it bumps up against non-normative scholarship in the contact zones of academic conferences and journals? My own experience is that we’ve been far too easy to overlook and ignore, on the (perceived) basis that such work isn’t relevant to the mainstream of fan studies; so I wonder what might happen if fan studies, as an ostensible community, engaged more openly and directly in discussing (and addressing) our own assumptions?
Wow, you gave me a lot to think about. Your use of Giddens’s “ontological zones” and Pratt’s theory of "contact zones” is extremely helpful in peeling back the layers of transnational fandom to reveal how structures of power collide with the affective and interpersonal experiences of being a fan. Given my focus on Bollywood, I have also found applying the work of post-colonial scholars (Edward Said, Partha Chatterjea, Stuart Hall, Franz Fanon in particular) to be also extremely helpful in understanding how the pleasures of content worlds can map onto, but also up end, transnational media flows and how these dynamics yield complicated remappings of power distribution.
In the past, I looked at how Bollywood dance, a dance genre that emerged out a fannish engagement with song-and-dance sequences in Hindi films, became a globally recognizable dance form. I was particularly interested in how dancers used the films as source material in localized contexts and how the meanings created through their performances shifted from site to site.
More recently, I have started to pursue two interconnected strands of research that focus on transnational “clashes” (borrowing your phrasing here) more explicitly. The first strand grapples with how Bollywood flashmobs (created locally for online/transnational circulation) expand my earlier understanding of Bollywood as a localized practice and complicate the meanings and communities supported through such performances. In particular, I am interested in whether the creation performance for circulation through social media supports imagining Bollywood dance communities and if so how this imagination is negotiated.
The second strand engages with, what has long been the “elephant in the room” in my work on transnational Bollywood dance, namely: how the content world of Hindi cinema affect contestation around Bollywood inspired performances as normative and resistant interpretations of song-and-dance sequences collide, particularly as these performances move towards more explicit engagement with civic and political issues.
A case in point was Jennifer Davis’s Bollywood themed performance at the 2018 Miss America Contest. Though she is not ethnically Indian (or South Asian), Davis chose to perform a Bollywood dance during the competition because she saw it as symbolic of her commitment to diversity (an understanding that would be consistent with how Bollywood dance is often performed in spaces celebrating American multiculturalism). Her performance was immediately criticized by viewers who felt her performance was “cultural appropriation” and insulting to Indian traditions. To me the debate that ensued, and the limits it sought to place on what is or isn’t appropriate when it comes to Bollywood dance in performance, drove home how contested Bollywood dance has become in the United States in the current political moment. I feel the discussion we have been having here will actually be very helpful to me as I continue to unpack this, and other similar, instances in Bollywood dance fandom.
In a roundabout way, this brings me back to the questions you raise about fan studies, as an evolving field. As someone who focuses on a fannish practice that is largely performative and rooted in an Indian (through very transnational) content worlds, I have generally felt marginalized within the mainstream of this field, where the conversations always felt relevant, but not fully connected to the work I do. This has been compounded by the fact that the (largely) young people I study do not self identify as fans, they often identify first and foremost as dancers. As such my analysis necessarily has to draw heavily on dance scholarship to understand how meaning is created through inter-cultural choreography and performance. I actually think that performance and dance analysis has a lot to offer when it comes to understanding transnational fandom that is not text based and is not premised on a particular verbal literacy.
I also feel that the questions we have discussed here in the context of transnational fandom have a lot to offer to the mainstream of fan studies, and it is my hope that there will be a broader recognition of this as the field continues to expand and grow.
Reading this, I feel like the questions you're working through intersect with mine in really productive ways; that is, we're circling around certain ideas that might be constitutive of transnational and transcultural fan studies as a sub (sub?) discipline. Your interest the localization (and associated politics) of Bollywood dance overlaps in some ways with the role of what Bertha Chin and I (borrowing from Matt Hills) have talked about as "transcultural homology" (99) in the formation and localization of border-crossing fandoms. It's interesting to me that both our approaches to localization and the various tensions it sometimes provokes or gets implicated in seem almost like a counter-current to long-standing (if evolving) fan studies explorations of fandoms as coherent, discrete, and communal phenomena.
Similarly, I feel like the transdisciplinary approach you take towards Bollywood dance is emblematic of the methodological concerns specific to transnational and transcultural fan studies - one that I'd be interested to see taken up in 'normative' fan studies. When you're talking about practices that don't map neatly onto existing theoretical and methodological paradigms, the researcher herself must assume what we might (probably painfully) call a trans-scholarly perspective. I would tentatively argue that such a perspective eschews linear progression and associations for the more lateral work of seeking out affinities across academic disciplines and practices, as a means of stepping outside existing paradigms and frameworks in trying to make visible what's often relegated to the periphery of fan studies.
I really appreciate being able to read about your experiences as someone who has both lived and conducts research in the liminal cultural spaces of nation and ethnicity, scholarship, and fandom. And thanks so much to Henry for this opportunity to talk about stuff that spends most of its time just rattling around in my head!
I agree. This has been great. I really learned a lot and look forward to continuing to think through this material. I am happy to have met you, Lori!
I’ve been a media fan since I was 11, when – like so many others of my generation – I fell in love with Star Wars (1977 aka “A New Hope”) and gobbled up as much movie merchandise as I could get my hands on. As it happens, that was comparatively little since I saw Star Wars in Hong Kong, where my family had moved six months earlier, and only some goods were available in local toy stores and bookshops (although we had greater access to some wonderful Japanese Star Wars stuff). Looking back on it now, it seems safe to say that this was arguably the formative moment in my evolution as both a fan and, ultimately, a fan studies scholar, as much because of the conditions of being a Star Wars fan in Hong Kong as the film itself.
My PhD dissertation was a study of Japanese women fans of Hong Kong stars in the 1980s and 1990s – a fandom that I participated in, albeit peripherally, throughout this period. The only other person to have written on it at the time was Koichi Iwabuchi, in his book Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism and a related essay in the journal positions: east asia cultures critique, and he once said to me in passing that the one question he never answered to his satisfaction was ‘why women?’; thus was my own project born. It’s a great question, given the overwhelmingly male makeup of (non-diasporic) overseas fans of Hong Kong movies, but the then-existing framework for interrogating it was essentially the media globalization studies version of ‘resistance’ discourse in cultural studies, a ‘moral binary’ (to borrow from Matt Hills) intended to answer the question of whether or not cross-cultural fandom fosters greater understanding across cultural borders.
Given my own experiences of media fandom generally, and Hong Kong star fandom in Japan specifically, this question proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for the first few years of the dissertation process. I could answer it both affirmatively and negatively, depending on the case in question, and at the same time it seemed unrelated to the whys of the fandom as revealed both in my data and my own experiences.
At about the time I was considering throwing in the towel altogether over this conundrum, I was also being daily defeated by a toddler and an infant. All of this contributed to an extended dissertation hiatus, during which I happened to be watching The Silence of the Lambs one night and took bleary-eyed notice of the ‘First Principles’ scene:
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice: simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius, "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women.
Hannibal Lecter: No, that is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does, what needs does he serve by killing?
Clarice Starling: Anger, social acceptance, and, uh, sexual frustration …
Hannibal Lecter: No, he covets. That's his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer, now.
Clarice Starling: No. We just …
Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?
I’m in a kind of sleep-deprived fugue state listening to this, and perhaps because of that something clicked for me. Everything Clarice says here – anger, social acceptance, sexual frustration – sounded eerily similar to how the motivations for becoming fans were sometimes discussed, both popularly and in some scholarship. But that answer – we covet what we see everyday – effectively helped me to step out of the paradigm I was stuck in and got me thinking in another direction.
As it turns out, one key thing that was different in the Japanese women’s fandom from all other overseas fans of Hong Kong films was that Japanese women (for a variety of reasons, detailed here) came into contact with Hong Kong films in their everyday lives in ways that people simply didn’t in other countries. In other words, I ended up arguing that women became fans because 1) they came into contact with Hong Kong stars and movies, and 2) they liked what they saw. And that anything that came from those two conditions, be it a better (or worse) understanding of Hong Kong, fetishizing Hong Kong men, intensified identification as East Asian, or whatever, was incidental to the fundamental condition of fandom – loving something.
I’ve gone on to argue at greater length about what the conditions for cross-cultural love of a thing might be, and from there the politics of that love, but underpinning all of my work is a conviction that all fandom is transcultural. This requires a somewhat expansive understanding of ‘transcultural’ as something that we’re as likely to find in the intersection of cultures of races, classes, genders, and so on as between people from different national cultures. Historically, fan studies research has focused on the definition and discussion of discrete phenomena and objects - MCU fandom, or a kind of monolithic ‘fanfiction’, or ‘fandom’. Today, I find myself arguing a lot, that kind of discreteness is a rapidly vanishing thing. Online women’s fandom, for example, has evolved from closeable communities of mostly monolingual and monocultural fans to a global mélange of interests and the myriad cultural experiences that inflect them. As such, our understanding of what we think we know increasingly is predicated on being able to consider it in its transcultural contexts. Is ‘fandom’ a safe space for affective play? It depends on one’s cultural relationship to the norms of that fandom.
Put simply, I believe we can no longer adequately account for the diversity of fan experiences and expressions – even of seemingly ‘known’ objects – without taking into account the transcultural contexts in which they are performed.
Like you, my journey into being a fan begins early - probably when I was 9 during a particularly dark and lonely moment in my life. At that time, I had been living in Kathmandu for 2 years after our third move between Nepal and what was then Czechoslovakia (and later became the Czech Republic). We didn’t have a TV at home and the only radio available was run by the state. Though I wasn’t aware of it as such, my life at that time was marked a profound sense of isolation, a sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere given my Czech and Nepalese backgrounds. Before leaving for Nepal, I had been ostracized by my Czech classmates for being the daughter of a foreigner (not a good thing under communism). My new classmates at the international school in Kathmandu refused to eat lunch with me because I was from the eastern block (I didn’t even know what that meant at the time). My Nepalese family constantly reminded me that they did not accept my mother, and that though her, I also did not belong. I felt disjointed, disconnected, torn, split between cultures.
I discovered Bollywood (or Hindi films as they were called then) through my (older) cousin who ran an illegal video rental shop. Through the hours and hours of films I encountered as he duplicated VHS tapes on multiple VCRs hooked up in the family living room, I entered the world of Bollywood dance. In the remorseless mixing of dance genres, the diverse costumes, and culturally blended music, I saw hope for my own shattered existence. I saw that there could, maybe someday, be a way for me to reconcile the cultural conflicts that defined my life at that time. I thought that, perhaps, I too could find a way to mix, remix, and blend my, by definition, transnational identity. I felt like I had finally found my home.
I became a dancer, because of this experience with Bollywood dance.
As time went on, Bollywood, in particular an understanding of Bollywood as an uncomfortable blending of cultures, helped me find my people, so to speak, as I connected with other fans, who were drawn to the films (and dances) for the same reasons. In 2001, a small group of us started a Bollywood Film Festival in Prague - a festival that aimed to use Hindi films to support the creation of a space that celebrated diversity. Our initial impulse was very much about celebrating our fandom of Bollywood films and using the festival as a mechanism to invite others to join in. We soon established a strong community of people who were drawn to Bollywood. The initial, unfunded, years were really about that community. We would barely scrape together money to rent a space and cover screening fees and made things happen through broad based volunteer participation. One person brought the projector, another brought a stove so we could cook Indian tea. As we revelled in the shared space created through the films screens, I felt I finally belonged.
While I still recognize the importance of the participatory culture that was supported through the early years of the Bollywood festival, I am now also very cognizant of the ways in which nationalism, politics, corporate interests were also very much part of this nascent transnational community, and how I chose to temporarily ignore these realities. Over time, the pressures created by the Indian Embassy regarding how India was represented, increasingly untenable financial demands placed on us by film distribution companies, and my growing sense of a disturbingly enduring Orientalism (Said) permeating public perceptions of our event (despite our best efforts) became more and more apparent. As the festival organizer (and Director of Programming), I tried to negotiate these challenges with the hope that we could still protect (what I saw) as a thriving fandom based in an understanding of Bollywood as a diverse and truly transnational content world.
After 11 years, I gave up and left the festival frustrated, hurt and disillusioned with how our effort had been stifled by the ideological and institutional powers that sought to moderate, and ultimately control, our fannish experience of Bollywood films. As I look back at it now, I feel that my experience with the Prague Bollywood Festival has much to teach us (and me) about transnational fandom and how its experience is necessarily imbricated in complex power dynamics and am left with the question of how we can begin to productively unpack the experiences of fans given these realities.
Though our experiences of transnational fandom are clearly different, I feel they connect in surprisingly productive ways as we are both grappling with these pervasive questions in our own ways.
This week, Colin and I sat down to talk together about why we were making this podcast, what we hope to accomplish, how we understand the current media environment, and yes, how we like it so far. Check it out. Next week, we begin a series of interviews around Black Panther.
It’s great to hear about your work, Dayna! It’s been about 6 years since we were students together at Annenberg, and when I left I think you were still in coursework so it’s been awesome to see what cool research you’ve taken up since then. I also appreciate that Henry paired us up because our work has so much productive overlap!
The questions you’re asking about how fan communities coalesce on Twitter are so important, particularly since we have seen so many people of color have taken to this platform. There’s been a great deal of conversation about Black Twitter, but I’ve been interested to see how Asian Americans are also using Twitter to engage in all sorts of antiracist fan activism. Some of my most recent research has examined the deployment of hashtags such as #OnlyOnePercent, #MakeMulanRight, #StarringJohnCho, #AAironfist and #WhitewashedOUT and the way that journalists have engaged with Twitter users about these issues. In some ways Twitter provides a boon to research because the community is right there, sharing this really public platform and inviting participation to some degree. But I’d love to hear more from you about what you see as the challenges of studying Twitter. Do you feel like you’ve been able to develop productive ways of accessing and analyzing fan communities on Twitter, and could you explain what are some of the specific challenges of studying marginalized communities on Twitter?
Thanks for your question, Lori. And let me say that I too am glad to have this opportunity to discuss my work with you after some many years away from USC. We both have taken different trajectories in our work, but there is still significant overlap.
Online research of fan communities is always tricky. Individuals don’t post to Twitter with the assumption that it will be seen by anyone other than a targeted audience. In marginalized communities there has always been a distrust of any type of research whether it’s conducted for academic purposes or financial gain by corporations. Twitter is a space where groups of users intersect and companies take that opportunity to conduct market research. Additionally, scholars like myself who are “acafans” who both disseminate research and participate in fan communities on Twitter. Essentially, we navigate between two poles within the space of Twitter, and even if we are well meaning and see ourselves as insiders, not everyone will see us that way. The reality of being an “outsider within” once I stepped into research on Scandal fandom, hit me in an unexpected way when questions about my intent were raised by Black American Twitter users during the process of my study. I learned that even though IRB offices classify most online research as exempt from specific protocols of notification and consent, it’s very important to be forthcoming with your intentions and the process of collecting the artifacts (data) that will be examined. Thus, the biggest challenge for me was grapplying with how best to collect and analyze the “data”—tweets, images, interactions, etc.—in a manner that would not be viewed as taking advantage of the fan community I was attempting to shed light on and make visible in the field of fan/fandom studies. I cannot say that I have completely found the answer that would alleviate the possible concerns of the community I’m focused on in my work, but it is something that remains at the forefront of my thoughts as I consider how to continue my research.
Another challenge relates to analyzing tweets. Identifying specific hashtags, phrases, etc. beforehand helps a lot. Another element that was central to the work I did around Scandal fandom was time. Because my team and I collected tweets while fans live-tweeted during the original broadcast, we were able to locate tweets during specific moments and narrow those down through filtering. When I examined tweets it was for the purpose of constructing a narrative about Black American fans’ engagement and participatory practices online. I did this by organizing data thematically; identifying shared sentiment, interpretations, and word usage; and, assessing the ways blackness and Black cultural experiences are signified during the process of television viewing.
I’m interested to know what your experience has been like exploring Asian American fan communities on Twitter, Lori. Also, in my work so far I haven’t discussed media activism, but I, of course, know it has been central to Black American politics for decades. My question for you is what do you see as the pros and cons to Asian American fan communities’ activism online? I ask this question because there is a frequent dismissal of activism enacted online; “hashtag activism” for instance, is thrown around like a dirty word and often viewed as political noise that has little to no societal impact. In your work, you must have encountered moments where Asian American fans’ activism succeeded and failed. Would you share a few examples?
It is definitely the case that some Asian American fan activism has had serious traction, while others have been less effective. Let me give an example of both. One incident that led to actual change was the casting of the Hellboy reboot. In August 2017, white actor Ed Skrein started tweeting about how excited he was to be cast in a Japanese American role for the film. Fans immediately responded with frustration about the whitewashing, particularly in a year that had been rife with white actors taking roles from Asian Americans. Many used the hashtag #whitewashedOUT, which had been a coordinated hashtag campaign from May 2017 to start a conversation on Twitter about the range of problems facing Asian Americans in Hollywood. In a stunning turn of events, Ed Skrein announced days later that he was dropping out of the project so it could be cast more appropriately, and Daniel Dae Kim later was given the role. This seemed like a clear case where a politicized collective of fans were able to use the affordances of Twitter to directly address the source of a problem (even if the problem centers on a celebrity figure), communicate their concern in an effective way, and help make the argument that change is necessary.
But let’s look at another incident that was far more organized and multifaceted, and had no influence on the media text in question -- the casting of the Netflix series Iron Fist. In this case, fans were once again outraged to find out that white actor Finn Jones had been cast to play Kung Fu master Danny Rand. A fan collective called Nerds of Color immediately set to work organizing around this issue using a wide variety of well-trodden tactics. They wrote long-form news articles explaining their position, allied with the digital activism collective at 18 Million Rising to collect signatures on a petition, hosted a podcast with ComicsAlliance to discuss the issue, shared dozens of pieces of fan art depicting an Asian American Danny Rand, set up interviews with Asian American actors and other professionals about siding with their cause, and provoked a Twitter conversation with over 11,000 tweets using the hashtag #AAironfist.
Despite these efforts, the casting remained unchanged -- an outcome that unfortunately is far more common than what happened with Hellboy. Yet you didn’t ask about representational change, you asked about societal impact. And I think that despite the fact that conversations around Hellboy resulted in the desired casting changes, the conversations around Iron Fist could be said to have a much more profound social resonance. I strive to avoid being overly idealistic about the vague notion that “changing the conversation” or “raising awareness” are acceptable outcomes for activist campaigns, because it is certainly the case that horrific social problems like racist policing and gun violence seem to remain unaffected no matter how much we talk about them. But in the arena of Asian American representation we actually have seen the dial move quite a bit in recent years -- including the successful rise of Asian American sitcoms, Netflix series, films, directors, showrunners, writers, comedians, and more. It’s my contention that we can never look at these incidents in isolation from one another, but we have to consider the way that a “failed” Twitter campaign and the eventual possibilities for the greenlighting Master of None or Crazy Rich Asians are interconnected. Hashtag activism does play a role in contributing to the larger argument that Asian Americans are an important audience and consumer base whose desires should be addressed, regardless of whether or not individual properties end up making the right casting decision.
I would also say that it’s been interesting to see the differences between Black Twitter and what we might call Asian American Twitter. While many participants in Black Twitter have become wary of being exploited because there has been so much scrutiny of their discourse, Asian Americans are so hungry to be noticed that I rarely hear complaints about the particular ways in which they’re being observed. That’s another reason why I think it’s helpful for us to talk to each other about how we are studying Twitter communities and what we are finding, because there are some serious differences across differently racialized fan communities. On that note, I would love to hear more about your future research on hybrid Black-Asian fan communities. Do you think this kind of cross-racial investigations can reshape fan studies of race in necessary ways? What might be productive about expanding beyond these more US-centric conversations to include global perspectives?
I think one of the best ways to have a deeper conversation about fan communities and practices and race is to move beyond US-centric conversations--where appropriate. I recognize that there may be constraints to conducting such research in terms of access and resources, but in some instances it seems necessary. This is particularly the case with my interest in issues that arise globally within K-pop music and fandom, including anti-Black racism, cultural misappropriation, isolation of Black fans.
I first encountered K-pop music in a cafe in Daegu, South Korea in October 2014. The song that played was “Bounce” by Bobby--a South Korean rapper who had won first place on the third season of the hip-hop competition show Show Me the Money. Of course it was no real surprise to hear a rap song in another country; hip-hop has traveled globally for decades. But what did strike me was just how familiar the song felt despite being in another language. I asked a friend and colleague from USC--Kelly Song--about the music scene in South Korea and was introduced to a whole new world of music and, subsequently, fandom.
What resonated with me, first in my encounter with Bobby, and later with Rain’s “30 Sexy” music video, was that sense of familiarity that I could only describe as blackness--significations of Black American aesthetics, music and dance style. With that came a feeling of nostalgia; I was brought back to my days as a fangirl in middle and high school in the late 1990s and 2000s when I loved male bands like Jodeci and Dru Hill. Eventually, while watching fan videos made by Black women and reading comments on social media platforms, I discovered that I wasn’t the only person drawn in by the similarities between contemporary K-pop music and R&B and pop music in American in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. My interest in understanding both the global flow of Black American culture into Korea, and Black American fans’ relationship to K-pop grew from these observations.
Besides the nostalgia and joy that permeated from Black women fans’ discussions of K-pop music is frustration and, sometimes, feelings of anger. As I mentioned earlier, K-pop music has been heavily influenced by Black popular culture. However, South Korea is a country that is currently working through conceptions of race and racial difference as it encounters migrants from non-Asian countries. Moreover, South Korea has a history anti-Black prejudice--in the form of blackface performances--that continues to this day. There have been many instances that have given Black fans’ pause when it comes to their enjoyment of the music including K-pop idols’ demonstrating how to “talk Black” (a.k.a. use African American Vernacular English) on radio shows, wearing dreads, afros and cornrows, using the “N-word” when performing American songs, featuring the Confederate flag in music videos, and occasionally donning blackface. Black fans’ reservations about K-pop music and fandom are often exacerbated by the fact that non-Black fans tend to downplay the significance of these mishaps by presuming that idols have a lack of knowledge about race relations in the U.S. and therefore Black fans shouldn’t be “too sensitive” or offended when idols engaged in racially insensitive behavior.
There is much to be gained within fandom studies in the examination of both race and fandom within the U.S. as well as trans-nationally. I think that sometimes the impetus within fan/fandom studies is to focus on shared practices and enjoyment rather than conflict within fadom and negotiations made by individual fans. While prior scholarship has been keen to focus on gender differences in fandom, issues of racial differences within fadom have not be addressed in meaningful ways. I see this changing, especially as I look at the contributions you, Lori, have made to the field, and those of other scholars such as Kristin Warner, Rukmini Pande, Miranda Larsen, to name a few.
Lori, I’m interested to know what the future you envision for your own research. What new aspects or issues do you plan on exploring or hope that others will explore in this area?
Your work on Black fans of K-Pop is super intriguing to me, because I do think that we often neglect these kinds of complex cross-racial affinities, both in their potential for appropriation and the ways they can produce meaningful hybridities. My current research centers on Hmong Americans and their culturally-specific media cultures, and I noticed that Hmong in the diaspora are also quite active within K-Pop and other Korean-centric fandoms. There are a lot of Facebook groups for Hmong fans who love and celebrate Korean cultural products, but I have also seen some discussion from Hmong Americans who are concerned about the sublimation of Hmong culture to Hallyu. This made me wonder how we can make sense of one culture in diaspora encountering another culture in diaspora, and how those power differences are negotiated in digital spaces.
I would love to see scholars continue to tackle these issues, and have been very happy to see work coming out of some of my graduate students at UW-Madison in this arena. Camilo Diaz Pino has been researching anime fandoms in Mexico City and the way they have been taken up within political protest, while Wan-Jun Lu is studying the way that Taiwanese fans of the online streaming platform Viki become cultural intermediaries who are both consumers and producers of cosmopolitan discourses. These particular projects can add richness and specificity to our understanding of these larger global movements and new cultural formations.
My primary interest in fan studies is its connection to media activism. As a scholar of race/ethnicity and media, my research has centered around the question of how communities of color have used media in the fight for social justice, as well as how entertainment media has been a site of injustice that needs to be remedied. This intersects with studies of race/ethnicity when communities of color are able to deploy their passionate engagement with media or the strength of their fan communities as a mechanism for improving the way they are represented or addressing other manifestations of racism in media.
When I was a doctoral student at USC, Henry was just starting up the Civic Paths research group that developed a research project on fan activism. At that point I was primarily studying Asian American media activists in the Los Angeles area who were fighting to improve their treatment in Hollywood. This included a group of Asian Americans who were fans of The Last Airbender, and were angry that the live action film was set to star white actors even though the source material seemed to clearly depict Asian peoples and cultures. I studied them as they developed into the organization Racebending.com, which took on all sorts of casting issues where people of color were being denied roles in major motion pictures.
I have followed this topic with interest in the years since then, as the intertwined practices of whitewashing and yellowface have continued unabated even amongst a growing chorus of opposition. Indeed, we have seen what Foucault might call a “veritable discursive explosion” surrounding the racist casting practices of movies like Ghost in the Shell (2017), Aloha (2015), Doctor Strange(2016), Dragonball Evolution (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and the Netflix show Iron Fist. These are the kinds of issues that traditional grassroots media advocacy organizations and watchdog groups for Asian Americans in media have worked to address since the early 1970s, using the same language and tactics. Yet we have seen a move away from the centrality of these kinds of organizations to the surfacing of ad hoc fan collectives that use Twitter to coordinate hashtag campaigns in order to make their outrage and their demands visible.
Another aspect of fan studies that has intersected with racial politics has been the engagement of sports fans in the fight to change the mascot of the Washington professional football team, which remains a painfully racist slur to this day. Although there has not been a particularly robust contingent of Washington’s own football fans who have taken up this cause, I noticed that sports fans were still being engaged by name-change activists—specifically, that Native American activist groups had been strategically targeting Washington’s opponents. Deploying what I call “oppositional fandom,” name-change activists were able to gain support for their cause through using the positioning of football fans in opposition to their opponents. That is, those who were already emotionally invested in seeing Washington lose could more easily be convinced that they were also engaged in practices that were harmful to Native Americans. The sports arena may not necessarily be the most productive space for engaging in the kind of political education and building of racial empathy that might actually engender sympathy for changing the team’s name. But I continue to be interested in the way the different strategies and tactics that activists identify and utilize in order to call attention to their cause and work to change hearts and minds. The heightened emotions surrounding fan cultures, objects, and communities can provide a potent opportunity for such work.
Moving forward, I think it will be important for scholars of race and fan studies to continue to interrogate the ethical dimensions of these kinds of thorny issues. Fans of all kinds have always needed to negotiate their fandom alongside their political inclinations, but some of these issues are coming to the foreground in ways that are even more difficult to ignore. For instance, how are fans of football negotiating their endorsement of a sport that is known to cause irreparable physical damage, and where the majority of players are Black men? In the midst of the #MeToo movement, how should Asian American fans of Aziz Ansari respond to stories about his shady behavior? Rather than merely feeling uncomfortable cognitive dissonance about the confluence of these issues, fans must negotiate their affective responses and consumer choices in the face of broad activist movements. I would be excited to see how fan studies scholars would position themselves amidst these debates, and how scholars of media activism are assessing the deployment of fans in these emerging conversations.
My primary areas of interest within fan studies are Black American fans' practices, meaning making, and methods for navigating conflict within fandoms. I did not initially set out to study fans or fandom; instead, my research trajectory grew organically from frustration with conventional approaches used by Black feminist media scholars to explore Black women's representation in media. I found myself limited by interrogating media images from the lens of stereotypes and archetypes, which left little room to speak of the interpretive "gray area"— a space in which meanings are not concrete, are myriad and continuously negotiated. I decided that it was time to shift from my own interpretive readings s to exploration of fans’ grappling with the gray areas of media artifacts.
I immediately discovered that, historically, traditional audience reception research and fandom scholarship has failed to address the diversity of media consumers, thus taking for granted the unique ways non-white audiences and fans make sense of and engage with various media. Inspired by works by Black women scholars, including Jacqueline Bobo (1995), Robin Means Coleman (2000), and Rebecca Wanzo, I embarked on new research for my dissertation project at the University of Southern California.
My dissertation explored the production of and fan engagement around television series with Black women protagonists in the post-broadcasting era, and the drama Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes, was the central case study. As a fan of the program--who often live-tweeted during broadcasts--I was invested in examining Black American fans' conversation around the show. Consequently, I proposed a study of live-tweeting Scandal for the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center's Social Media Impact Project. Through the data collected during the third season of Scandal, I contributed a chapter to the second edition of Fandom: Identities and communities in a mediated world (2017). My essay, titled “Black Twitter and the politics of viewing Scandal,” focuses on fan and anti-fans’ discussion of the program.
One of the aspects I flesh out in my essay is the concept of "politics of viewing," which I pose as a theoretical model for thinking about Black fans' engagement with, reception and discussion of contemporary television in the age of digital and social media. I argue that social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook afford Black fans' spaces they can transform into Black counter-publics. Black counter-publics have been historically constituted within Black institutions such as Black churches, activist organizations, and press and their purpose has been to provide spaces in which to engage in everyday discussion of Black experience outside the purview of out-group members and serves as the foundation for the formation of Black political thought and collective identities. The critical difference between traditional Black counter-publics and the new ones that are facilitated by new media is that they are not hidden from view of non-Blacks. In the context of new media, I contend, Black fans carve out a Black counter-public in which they utilize the written word, images, and audio-visuals to express and make visible their pleasures and to engage in debates about and critiques of specific media texts and their consumers. It is a process whereby Black fans are cognizant of and attempt to negotiate their relationship to a given media text and reconcile that with perceptions of how others can potentially view the media text. The politics of viewing manifests as what Stuart Hall calls a "critical politics" that goes beyond an evaluation of whether a particular image is "positive" or "negative" and therefore either "good" or "bad" for Blacks.
It is my view that because media travels globally, and fans experience and participate in fandom not just locally, fan/fandom studies must emphasize not only race but also cross-cultural/racial encounters. In forthcoming projects, I examine Black women fans' participatory engagement online with fan communities around Korean popular music (K-pop). K-pop music has grown in popularity in the United States over the last decade due to YouTube and social media platforms. K-pop draws influence from Western pop, R&B and hip-hop music, dance, and aesthetics. Founders of the three major K-pop companies--SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment--have explicitly stated that "Black music" during the 1980s and '90s influenced the type of music they wanted to manufacture in South Korea. As a K-pop fan, I have personally observed the popularity of the genre amongst other Black women both at concerts and in various online spaces. My work will address topics such as the global flow of signs of blackness, confrontation and struggle within fandoms, and Black women fans' strategies of resistance in digital spaces.
As you've also gestured to in your opening statement, I find that institutional demands/disciplinary divides (as well as timezones, geographical location etc), often make it impossible to interact/build networks within the field so I was particularly excited for the opportunity of having this exchange. I was nodding along to a most of your observations in the introductory notes but to kick this off the conversation I want to pick out two aspects that I found most intriguing and I hope to bring up some others as we go along.
1) Your thoughts on proper/improper fans and modes of fandom struck me as something very relevant to the current and future conversations in the field. The "female" fan has been consistently theorized as unruly and their consumption practices are largely seen as disruptive to how media corporations wish them to behave in terms of interacting with a text. However, this theorization has concerned mostly white women fans. You've also said in your other work that "African Americans are always already improper subjects; part of their pleasure in a text can thus be about resisting the normativity of whiteness even as they claim their own normativity." How would you see these threads interacting, especially when we look at how pleasure, desire, queerness, etc also interface with these categorizations of proper/improper fandom?
2) The second aspect I was thinking about is the concept of alienation. In my experience, non-white fans often express their experiences of loneliness and alienation from networks of squee and I've talked a little bit about the notion of being a "fandom killjoy" (in line with Sara Ahmed's formulation of feminist killjoys) in that context. I don't think anti-fandom quite covers the complexities of that position so I wondered if you had any further thoughts on that as well.
I think the place of women fans from the corporate perspective is complicated. On the one hand, the fact that women consume is something that corporations know. So they are always selling to them. But they don't consume the same things and at the same price point in some highly valued areas of popular culture. The infamous cancellation of the cartoon Young Justice was because the show had too many girl viewers and girls allegedly did not buy toys (the gender normative societal structures should also be acknowledged here—that one issue is that parents may also not buy these toys for girls). Girls and women play the most computer games, but they buy a smaller percentage of expensive FPS games or other high profile genre games. But then, women have consistently been the backbone of consumer for the publishing industry. In most recent years, Twilight and the most profitable fan fiction in history—Fifty Shades—are appealing to fans of the series. But of course, part of what I object to in some of fan studies is that a lot of people would not read "fandom" in the Fifty Shades consumer.
I think you're completely right to point to the fact that the "fandom killjoy" is completely different from anti-fandom. Part of what Ahmed argues is that the feminist and anti-racist killjoy does is disrupt spaces of pleasure and interactions in places that should be home for them (like the allegedly progressive university). By calling attention to racist or sexist representation in a representation or fan space, they can be isolated from it.
Of course, a huge irony is that people opposed to diversity in traditional fandom spaces like science fiction and superhero comics want to refuse the possibility that any pleasure can be had when people of color and feminism and queerness are at the center of any story. The sad and rabid puppies revolted against narratives about people of color and queerness finally getting mainstream attention. There is irony is in their rage at Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice win, which for all its interesting treatment of gender is a strong space opera in a classic science fiction tradition. But their decision to lock out diversity from the awards ballot arguably produced a commitment in science fiction and fantasy fans to truly look beyond the usual suspects and actually award a radically different kind of epic fantasy in NK Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy, a brilliant contribution to the field and so far from Tolkien that it opens up ideas of what people want and can count as epic fantasy.
And I feel this way about some Star Trek fans too, who are determined to hate Sonequa Martin-Green and be angry at "Social Justice Warriors" invading Trek. But as many people have noted, have these people ever watched Trek? Social justice is in its DNA. That aside, "SJW" is also just code for the idea that a show let a brown or queer person be something non-peripheral.
I'm glad that you see what I mean about the difference between anti-fandom and fandom killjoys because I struggle to articulate it sometimes! Anti-fandom still has an element of community I think—or at least a shared hate for a text...
It's also interesting that there are these conversations happening at multiple levels between different people so that you have the sad puppies et al who are very clearly anti-ALL diversity and against whom "female fandom" or "transformative fandom" is positioned explicitly. But you also have echoes of the same rhetoric very much present in those ‘liberal fandom’ spaces as well. This is especially glaring when it comes to discussions on issues like why characters of color don't get the same amount of creative fan output (fanfiction etc) around them.
I want to follow up on some of your discussion in your opening statement about your use of postcolonial theory in your work. I'm interested in how that overlaps and diverges from histories of black cultural criticism in the U.S., some of which have a relationship to the work done by Hall and Gilroy in the UK but not exclusively. How do you think colonization is being framed in relationship to fan attachments?
I'd say my use of postcolonial theory is mainly in terms of looking at how online fandom is functioning as a transnational/transcultural space where exchanges about representation, authenticity, and identity with regard to popular cultural texts that are often informed by neo-colonial narratives and power dynamics. These dynamics then structure how fans talk about ideas like heroism, queerness, etc. The MCU is one example that comes to mind where, as a fan scholar from the Global South, I am aware that one of the projects of the movies (at least the ones we've seen so far) is to naturalize US-centered imperialist ideas of who has the power to walk into other countries and engage in covert warfare etc. These narratives work alongside how fandom works with individual characters and story arcs and how "SJW" issues are discussed with respect to US white feminism, homonationalism etc. For example, in my work I've found a lot of differing opinions around terms like "fan of color" because of the US-centricity.
I think postcolonial frameworks, particularly those that tackle cyberculture, give a useful tool to talk about these multiple issues and also ask scholars to foreground issues of racial/cultural/ethnic/religious identity along with gender and sexuality when talking about how fan attachments are formed and sometimes come into conflict.
Also of course with practices like racebending I've found Said's work on contrapuntal reading to be very useful when trying to talk about both the possibilities and the limitations of such fan practice.
I totally see how discussions of fandoms can be very U.S.-centric, and also see the how the framing of fans of color can be problematic in that context. The discussion of imperialism is so essential (both content and in terms of understanding media industries). But I am also interested in intra-group framing or regulation or treatment of fandom. In other words, because of varied kinds of limited representations in the Global South and minority populations in non-western nations, do you see a call for certain groups to be fans of something because of the political stakes of doing so?
Yes, I do actually! I was thinking about your work on that aspect where you've talked about instances where identity groups are called on to become fans or support a text as an act of politics. That can be very powerful of course but it also leads to some interesting conflicts around differing intersections of identity. I see this reflected in a lot of conversations around queer ships in fandom where it is often white queerness that is elevated above all other considerations which can lead to feelings of alienation amongst queer fans of color. Do you think that these faultlines also run within the models of interpretation that you've talked about?
As a number of people have argued, one challenge in fan studies and cultural studies criticism as it stands more broadly is the way in which recuperation and recognition can cross the line into uncritical celebration. Thus problematic treatments of identity are acknowledged in a pro forma way but it may not explore how the erasure of race or queer or non-western subjects can be part of what makes the text pleasurable. Scholarship on Twilight fandom is an interesting example of this. On the one hand, it is important to understand why Twilight is so popular with adolescent girls (and many women) in ways that speak to the Janice Radway-inflected discussion of women's consumption as a negotiation with patriarchy and traditional roles while also acknowledging the problematic nature of the texts. At the same time, people understandably will reject a psychoanalytic approach that slightly pathologizes women fans. However, the desire to recuperate fans can slide into lack of critique, and the ways in which a text like Twilight totally depends on whiteness to construct romantic ideals can be elided in the recuperation of the (white) fan girl. This is certainly not the case with all scholarship, but there is an interesting divide, for example, between people who make a case for the books as anti-racist and others who see racism within it. One of the challenges is trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that some of the fans take pleasure in the racial logic of the texts, which might serve to indict some of the fans who are particularly invested in Edward as white Byronic ideal and contrast to literally animalistic Indigenous rival. One of the things the rise in paranormal romance has increased is the frequency that "racism" is discussed in romance fiction, but it is by allowing species to serve as a proxy-for-race. I think we still struggle with how to deal with the non-idealized fan in ways that don't fall into false consciousness arguments. I've been thinking about that recently with the Black Panther debates as well.
I've been reading so much around the movie as well. I think it, along with Thor: Ragnarok, makes for a really interesting intervention into the possibilities and limitations of "representation" within franchises like the MCU. Especially since the burden of being all things AND interrupting the larger neo-colonial/colonizing structures of these franchises is put on individual projects.
I also struggle with the tendency of fan studies to be simultaneously very careful about not pathologizing or infantilizing female-identified fandom but not extending that same care to issues outside of gender and sometimes sexuality. There are, of course, continual media framings of (mainly white) female fans as irrational etc but I feel like we need to do more than continue to combat that cycle because it isn't moving the field forward. I remember I attended a talk once where the presenter stressed that due to their background in anthropology they wanted to be careful about not treating fandom as a terrain to be colonized by researchers. I understood the impulse but I also had to put my hand up and point out that you can't just map out the same logics of colonial exploitation onto spaces that have been dominated by white fans!
I also want to add on to your comment that it is important to recognize that some fans "take pleasure in the racial logic of the texts" because I think that's really key too. The term "pleasure" is thrown around in fandom studies as if it is a neutral descriptor but that's quite misleading. The idea of a "fandom killjoy" also ties into that because when issues of race are raised they are often framed as "ruining the fun" for white fans who "just want to enjoy themselves." This then puts non-white fans in an uncomfortable position of being anti-pleasure, even when they are in many cases pointing out that fandom's insistence on elevating white characters is driven by structural racism. I think that bringing specificity to our descriptions of pleasure and how it functions (taking into account multiple aspects of fan identity) could help with producing better analyses of these negotiations.
I think it is fair to say that people from lots of perspectives feel like people who talk about popular culture kill their joy. I have noted many suggestions that people should stop talking about politics in Black Panther because it is just a movie. At the same time, part of what is so pleasurable for some people is that the articulated politics are so overt that to avoid talking about them is to reduce the film to black people looking beautiful (and admittedly, that’s a huge pleasure of the film)! I think those of us who work on the popular still have so much work to do to convince other scholars and the broader public that the popular is a place where “real world” issues are articulated and fought over. The nature of genre, form, medium, and reception should make us think long and hard over claims about what the work does, but one of the reasons I think fan studies is so interesting as a field is that it helps unpack what gives people joy and why. That joy can’t be mapped simplistically and transparently onto a subject’s desire for anything is a given, but it is a still an interesting site for understanding love in the public sphere.
Busse, Kristina. 2013. “Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Gendering of the Good Fan.” Participations 10 (1): 73–91.
Fernández, María. 1999. “Postcolonial Media Theory.” Art Journal 58 (3): 59–73.
Fiske, John. 1992. “The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media.” In The Cultural Economy of Fandom, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 30–49. London: Routledge.
Nayar, Pramod. 2008. “New Media, Digitexuality, and Public Space: Reading “Cybermohalla.”
Postcolonial Text 4 (1). http://postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/viewArticle/786.
Scott, Suzanne. 2009. “Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content Models.” Transformative Works and Cultures 3.
Stanfill, Mel. 2013. “‘They’re Losers, but I Know Better’: Intra-Fandom Stereotyping and the
Normalization of the Fan Subject.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30 (2): 117–34.
Wanzo, Rebecca. 2015. “African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 19. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2015.0699.
I’m currently an Assistant Professor at O.P. Jindal University in New Delhi, India. In terms of fandom I’ve been a participant since around 2003 and I’ve moved through a lot of different fannish spaces. I’ve been in fandoms for Bollywood, Anime and Manga and USA/UK-based texts and also been fairly active in RPF (Real Person Fiction). I’ve also seen fandom move in terms of medium from platforms like Yahoo groups and Livejournal to Tumblr and Twitter. I’ve been studying fandom as a scholar since 2010 and recently completed my PhD at the University of Western Australia (Perth) on the intersections of racial/cultural/ethnic identity within these spaces. Excitingly, my thesis is being published as a monograph for the University of Iowa Press and I hope that it will be out in late 2018.
My academic work is concerned with the ways in which race/racism structures fandom and fan studies’ architecture itself. As pointed out by scholars such as Rebecca Wanzo and Kirsten Warner, this gap in the field was noted early on in John Fiske’s (1992) highly influential study of fans and their affective economies, and continues to be registered as troubling in overviews, anthologies, and keynotes. However, this acknowledgement often performs the rhetorical gesture of naming the problem only to, once again, set it aside. This strategy is enabled by the continuing conceptualization of racial identity as an additional lens to be applied to the operations of fandom rather than something that structures those operations in a fundamental and foundational manner.
Part of the way forward is for fan scholars to acknowledge that the ‘go-to’ theoretical frameworks of the field when conceptualizing fan identity and its operations actively encourage the erasure of non-white fans while highlighting issues of gender and sexuality. This is, of course, a fallacious division because these categories are never not constituted in relation to race. I argue that because fan studies does not consider whiteness as a racialized identity with specific effects, its operations on fandom structures can be presented as normative.
It is also crucial to note that this footnoting of racial/cultural/ethnic identity must not be seen as an oversight but as a consistent pattern of erasure. Rebecca Wanzo’s (2015) significant intervention into the genealogy of fan studies as a field points to the glaring whiteness of its bibliographies and the excision of the theoretical apparatuses and academic histories that do take into account the influence of race on the experience and interpretation of popular culture. Crucially, she also maintains that that the field remains silent on race/ racism because it disturbs some of its most dearly held truisms.
I want to push back against this practice while also encompassing the complex and shifting identity positions and power relations at work within media fandom’s platforms as well its individual transnational/transcultural exchanges. To accomplish this, my chosen framework is that of postcolonial cybercultural theory. To expand on this approach briefly, postcolonial cybercultural theorists examine the circulation of representational power between the Global North and South—encompassing both resistance and co-optation—within digital networks (Fernández 1999; Nayar 2008).
Looking at media fandom as an example of a postcolonial cyberspace reframes its operations as a transnational/cultural dialogic networked space that interfaces with USA and UK-centric popular cultural texts influenced by neo-liberal capitalism and neo-imperialism. At the same time, this positioning also allows a more nuanced examination of how diverse interstices of identity—racial/cultural/ethnic identity, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc.—impact the way transformative practices are popularized within these communities.
My use of this theoretical approach has several effects. Firstly, it forces a (re)examination of these communities in terms of their relationship to media objects (that are produced under the conditions that can be termed neo/colonial). Secondly, it foregrounds the importance of their demographic makeup. And thirdly, it puts a spotlight on the unevenness of internet-mediated platforms themselves as related to geopolitical issues.
By using postcolonial theory in my work I am able to talk about the complex and often ‘messy’ interactions that non-white fans have with both popular cultural texts and the fandoms that flourish around them. Such a theoretical framework not only centers race/ethnicity/national identity in considerations of gender and sexuality but also offers a whole new set of tools to consider the operations of meaning-making within fan communities. My deployment of postcolonial cyberculture has enabled me to engage with not just individual incidents of racism in fan spaces but rather theorize their underlying enabling mechanisms. It also allows me to talk about the complexity of terms such as “fans of color” or “non-white fans” and how they are often unwieldy and enmeshed in extremely fraught conversations about authenticity and representation, yet at the same time can offer points of solidarity and coalition building within a digital space still structured by whiteness.
That is not to say there is no work being done on the area at all. Indeed, some of the most interesting recent scholarship has emerged in the field of transnational/transcultural fandoms where the source text is non-Western and often in languages other than English. This is very valuable work, especially as it destabilizes the Anglophone focus of the field. However, fan studies scholars should be cautious of this impulse that seeks to displace the workings of racial identity as most relevant and ‘obvious’ to something other than traditional media fandom studies, which is then free to tread largely familiar theoretical pathways.
In my opinion, fandom studies is currently at a crossroads where it must adopt more inclusive theoretical paradigms in order to successfully reflect on the changing nature of fandom communities. Far from being irrelevant or niche audiences, media fandom spaces are more diverse, more mainstream, more vocal, more conflicted, and more articulate about these issues than ever before. While the challenge of encapsulating the complexity of these exchanges is a daunting one, it is far from insurmountable
Along these lines I believe that the most vital issue for emerging research in the field is the insistence on decolonizing our bibliographies and our theoretical frameworks. This is hard work, especially as the burden of it often falls on younger and marginalized scholars in increasingly precarious academic systems. However, I also think that it will result in much more nuanced and valuable research going forward.
To give a concrete example of where such work is particularly necessary, I would cite the need to complicate the simplistic fangirl/boy binary that is currently a common theme in many conceptualizations of fan activity. The view that male fans participate in more easily monetized and acceptable modes of fannishness, whereas female fans are more likely to be seen as transgressive and unmanageable from a producer/marketer point of view, has gained a fair amount of currency within the discipline in recent years (Scott 2009; Stanfill 2013; Busse 2013). While it certainly holds some truth, this binary division also completely elides the differential experience of non-white male fans within these shared spaces whether online or in physical spaces like conventions. Currently, there is almost no research on this area, which I hope will be remedied soon.
Finally, I also want to underline the need to bring specificity into our descriptors when we talk about concepts such as fan ‘pleasure.’ Again, to continually defer a consideration of the ways in which whiteness structures modes of fan pleasure is—at this stage of our knowledge about fan communities—to actively participate in furthering the operations of white privilege. Relatedly, it is vital to stop the practice of using universalizing labels such as ‘transgressive’ or ‘transformative’ pleasure without explicitly naming exactly who these definitions exclude. As I have argued in my work, the meanings of descriptors like heteronormative, heteropatriarchal, escapism, and even sexual fantasy are all extremely context specific and inflected by different historical considerations. As I look forward to more scholarship in these areas, I am eager to see what other theoretical frameworks that can be brought into the conversation about contemporary fan cultures, including those of Afro-futurism, Critical Race Studies, and of course Postcolonialism.
The obligatory biographical narrative about one’s own fandom in fan studies can be made without shame (allegedly), but now may not even be obligatory. Fandom coming of age as a field may now mean that the conventions of “confession” have been eliminated, even as one’s credentials as a fan scholar require fandom. But perhaps I am overstating the disciplining characteristic of fan studies as a field?
Of course, fan studies scholars are not gatekeepers in the way of, for example, quantitative political scientists. But as someone who is at the periphery of every field I am in I recognize that the field does discipline its participants. In the end, that may be the nature of all intellectual work. My marginalization is mostly self-produced by my intellectual promiscuity—as is the case in many sites of life, interpersonal inconstancy can make building and feeling at home a complicated enterprise. But because I am peripheral I recognize how my biographical “confession” could still make me out of place, but not because I am alone in my attachments.
Some of the first fan attachments I can remember were “ships”—I longed for Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to get together with Lyle Waggoner’s bland Steve Trevor (what now seems proof mass media’s ability to push people to desire inexplicable heteronormative couplings). I still resist the idea that Maddie and David having sex killed Moonlighting. I loved Remington Steele and Laura. And above all, I wanted Scarecrow and Mrs. King to be spies together forever.
I begin with the obligatory/non-obligatory statement of these attachments because of the ways in which I think my identity as a little black girl who loved these shows remains undertheorized in the field of fan studies, but that such attachments are also undertheorized in black cultural studies. I loved and watched The Cosby Show and was attached to what I term “proper black love objects,” and black cultural studies wants to account for that. But the fact that my relationship to popular love objects as a black person is undertheorized in fan studies and the idea of fan was rarely engaged in black cultural studies outside of studies of hip hop plays a large role in why my work developed as it did.
Fan Studies’ Proper Objects
As someone who began my career as a literary scholar but discovered in graduate school that popular culture could be my object of study, I came at “fan studies” through non-traditional objects. My first book had a chapter that looked at Oprah Winfrey’s book club and her reading practices, and while Oprah has many “fans” she certainly was not a figure well-integrated into fan studies. I have always taught works in fan studies—not only Henry’s work, Penleys’NASA/Trek, and texts traditionally understood as part of the field, but have wanted to think about the trajectory from Charlotte Temple to Vampire Diaries. The long history of our pleasures and the relationship between genres over time is one of my major sites of intellectual interest and pedagogy.
It wasn’t until Kristen Warner invited me to be part of a panel for SCMS on fan studies that I wrote what has been considered a work properly situated in the field of fan studies. But it was also what made realize that I had been writing and not just teaching about the fan for years. My work on Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, responses to The Princess and the Frog, and anger at white illustrator Mary Engelbreit for her pro-BLM piece of art are all about fan’s textual poaching, desires, and resistance. But the questions and ideas that emerged from this work are not the kinds of ideas traditionally addressed in fan studies as a field.
If I had had a chance earlier in my education to take classes in media studies, perhaps I would have had a different intellectual trajectory. But I don’t regret it, as I think sitting outside of the field has allowed me to see how people are often talking about the same things but not talking to each other. Moreover, part of what has shaped fan studies is imagining fans as having particular objects—scholars such as Jonathan Gray have addressed this. If only certain kinds of people are fans because of the kinds of texts they like and the kinds of activities they participate in, then we miss having a thicker analysis about what attachments to popular texts actually mean in people’s lives.
I am also now working in a field that very few people pursue if they did not grow up as fans—comics studies. A few years ago Bart Beaty asked an audience at the International Comics Art Forum how many people in the audience did not grow up reading comics. I was one of two people who raised a hand. I often write about things I love, but more often I write about work that fills me with rage or ambivalence. Anti-fandom may get at a some percentage of that kind of affective, critical work as a scholar—but there is also something interesting to be said about doing work when you are alienated from a tradition or even other people in your field. It is something people who work in feminist theory, race or ethnic studies, or popular culture often understand. The question of what such alienation can produce in terms of the questions we ask of a work, fans, or a field is worth exploring as we continue to move beyond a binary of political celebration or condemnation and struggle with rich diversity of what popular attachments look like.
I have signaled throughout the past year that I think the field of fandom studies is at a crossroads as three major anthologies appear which are mapping major new directions and introducing a new generation of scholars. These books are:
Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion to Fandom and Fan Studies
Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom
Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington (eds.) Fandom: Identities and Communities in the Mediated World, Second Edition
In addition, we want to acknowledge Kristina Busse’s Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities, which assembles the essays of one of the key figures in the field in recent years.
In recognition of the transformative moment, I have assembled a series of exchanges with contributors to the three collections which will run for almost two months. I have hosted two large scale conversations here in the past -- one in 2007 focused around gender and fan studies, a second in 2011 focused on the aca-fan identity, and now, this one. Contributors to the three books were asked to contribute, with priority given to those who have not participated in the two previous exchanges. I created pairs of writers whose work explores similar themes to both offer overviews of their visions for the field and to engage with dialogue with each other. I will be showcasing two such exchanges per week. (See the schedule below).
I hope that this will offer a chance for all of us to get to know these (mostly) young scholars and their works better and to take some soundings of the state of fandom studies as a field. I believe doing so will provide a rich resource both for students around the world seeking to better understand fandom, as well as future generations, to identify work that speaks to their own needs and interests.
Week Beginning March 5th
Lori Kido Lopez
Week Beginning March 12
W/B March 19
Hilde Van Den Bluck
Edmond Ernest Dit Alban
W/B March 26
W/B April 2
W/B April 9
W/B April 16
W/B April 23
W/B April 30
W/B May 7
The news media has had much to say in the past few months about the ways Star Wars fans have responded to this The Last Jedi. Much of this reporting has depicted Star Wars fans in a monolithic terms -- mostly focusing on the response of white male fans, who, as many have noted, dominate media coverage in an age where geek culture has been mainstreamed. Our two guests this week challenge that construction: William Proctor from the World Star Wars Project because he feels that journalists have misrepresented fan objections of the film (often through amplifying the voices of alt.right fans and even white supremacists) and fan-journalist Lisa Granshaw(Syfy Wire, the Daily Dot, Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, Mashable, Salon.com, Star Trek magazine and Star Wars Insider) because the diverse and highly creative work of female Star Wars fans has commanded little media attention. Keep in mind that there are many more kinds of Star Wars fans than we can discuss here -- that's part of the point -- and that the focus on gender in defining fandom can be as misleading as it is sometimes illuminating
Baby Steps in Machine Code
By Jaroslav Švelch
“Our computer scene is like a theatre stage, where a play consisting mainly of isolated monologues is being played. Around a half-empty town square dominated by the big sign that says NOT AVAILABLE, followed by a long list in small print, there are many doors, behind which one can hear some lively commotion" (Bohuslav Blažek, academic, writer, and a proud owner of a Commodore 64, 1990).
Being a computer fan in Normalisation-era Czechoslovakia wasn't easy. Domestic machines were few and far between, and Western ones were seldom imported. Playing and programming on 8-bit machines had an air of a subculture conspiracy around it, as well as that of a local DIY culture. What was going on behind those doors on that “semi-empty town square” was lots of soldering, programming, playing, and also publishing of club newsletters, which were a substitute for then non-existent computer magazines.
Communist technocrats had an ambiguous attitude towards computers, one which bordered on hypocrisy. On one hand, they loudly proclaimed support for the automation and electrification of industry and, to an extent, also the educational system; on the other hand, they were indifferent to the cries of ordinary consumers for affordable domestic machines. The state apparatus saw computers primarily as a means for speedier and more efficient manufacturing processes. They weren't supposed to be used “for their own sake”, or for the joys and pleasures of individuals, but for the “fulfilling of decisive tasks of the national economy.” Unless one worked in a computing department, they were out of luck in coming into contact with the desired machines. As the local computer guru Eduard Smutný remarked in 1989: “In our country, no one is responsible for the production of personal microcomputers. No one was assigned that task, no one had to complete it, and therefore no microcomputers are available.”
People didn't give up. From the start of the eighties, they brought back (or had brought back) computers from the West, mostly the cheapest 8-bit ones. Sometimes an uncle who emigrated or a friend who travelled abroad on business trips would help out. Fourteen year old David Hertl from Lenešice in Northern Bohemia—future publisher of the ZX Magazín fanzine—had his brought to him by his father, who worked as an electrician in friendly countries in North Africa. When he was returning home via Amsterdam, he purchased the British Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer at the airport.
Soon, the Spectrum in particular became the most popular model among local fans, thanks to its low price and probably also its portability. As one contemporary recalls, an acquaintance smuggled his Spectrum disguised as “a sandwich, hidden in a basket among other sandwiches.” In the second half of the Eighties, tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks would thus own computers. Amongst these were engineers who got a taste for computers at work, enthusiasts eager to own any new piece of technology, or teenagers who persuaded their parents to procure the expensive and fascinating toy for them. All of them bonded over their ownership of almost unobtainable Western products and set out on a mission to overcome the lack of both hardware and information.
Outside and Inside
After users had victoriously gotten their machines home, they were faced with another problem. No software, components, or technical literature was sold in Czechoslovakia. In order to be able to fully utilise their machines, users began to meet and exchange programs and knowledge. During the era of Normalisation, it was necessary to do so with official cover of an umbrella “socialist organisation”, as was the case with almost everything at the time. Computer fans thus began to meet in the clubs of Svazarm (Union for co-operation with the army)—similarly to aviation or hi-fi fans. Svazarm's role was originally the training of youth and civilians for roles in the army; however, during Normalisation it became a de facto civilian organisation that allowed the state to monitor the leisure activities of its citizens.
The task of Svazarm computer clubs was officially to “to increase the number of technical personnel, especially young people, who have good command of computers and will use it for the benefit of our national economy and for the defense of our homeland.” In reality, club-goers only did what they liked. “We didn't mind being under Svazarm and didn't care if it means something for the army and the defence of the homeland and so on. We just unscrupulously took advantage of the regime to get to the things that we were attracted to and that we liked, and that we would otherwise never get”, said one of the organisers of the local computer scene.
The vast majority of the computer clubs' activities were apolitical. Computer fans weren't in direct opposition to the regime, but neither did they support it. The American anthropologist (of Russian origin) Alexei Yurchak describes such activities with the term “vnye”, originally a Russian word that can mean both outside and inside. Such was the case of computer hobbies—they thrived thanks to a military organisation, but at the same time had relative freedom, because they were considered to be a useful contribution to scientific and technical progress.
Similarly to music or science fiction, microcomputers also became a tool for self-liberation and self-realisation. Programmer Viktor Lošťák recalls: “Back then, you were born and there was a path laid out for you. You had to be a Spark, a Pioneer, a Socialist youth, a Communist, then take part in the socialist economy, so that you have a secure life and eventually retire. There were just a few ways to deviate from this path and most of them were state organized. This was a shortcut, something that came out of the clear sky, something that nobody had anticipated. Here, you could realize your potential, you could find your talent.”
This freedom through technological accomplishments was primarily taken advantage of by men—one of the largest Czechoslovak Atari computer clubs had 1,458 members, of which only 37 were women. Even though the ratio between the numbers of men and women was more even among professional programmers, technical hobbies—and hobbies in general—were considered a domain of men.
Necessity, Rather than Choice
In the middle of the eighties, a number of clubs began to release printed newsletters as part of “member services.” These weren't sold publicly, but they were still printed in hundreds or thousands of copies. For most part they resembled “cookbooks” for computer gadgeteers. They published manuals, tricks, and technical descriptions, and were written mostly by other club members. Headlines such as “How to build an Atari joystick”, “The Mirek universal interface”, or “First steps in machine code” betray; they were an expression of cautious hope in “golden Czech hands”, which can keep up with technical progress despite their isolation behind the Iron Curtain.
Favourite topics were “We've read it for you” style columns, in which authors summarised findings from hard to obtain foreign magazines. Walkthroughs for games were also published. “Games are spreading throughout the exchange networks at the speed of light, but – alas – without manuals, it is not only difficult to find out the games' controls – sometimes even their very goal is obscured by impenetrable darkness”, wrote games programmer and collector František Fuka in one newsletter. Computer games of the 8-bit era were often lengthy and unnecessarily difficult.
The newsletter therefore often published so-called “pokes”; that is, modifications to a game in order to obtain a particular gaming advantage, such as infinite lives. These modifications were often made using the POKE command (hence the name), which changed the content of a particular byte in the machine's memory. Newsletter authors presented these as a triumph over malevolent authors by DIY cleverness. “Pokes” were meant to “enable all those who cannot devote all their free time to leisure to experience the sweet taste of victory”, as was stated in one of the newsletters in 1986.
Graphic-wise, in contrast to science fiction or punk fanzines, computer club newsletters were visually and stylistically bare and pragmatic. After all, they were often written by engineers for engineers, so functionality came first. Newsletters were either typewritten of printed with dot matrix printers. Authors rarely contemplated their own mission and the political and social implications of the computer hobby. One exception was the Mikrobáze (Microbasis) newsletter, published by the 602nd division of Svazarm. Mikrobáze was led by Ladislav Zajíček, a former rock drummer and a tireless organiser of public activities, who organised concerts and video projections and published the (also internal) magazine called Kruh (Circle) in the first half of the Eighties as the head of the Young Music Section.
In Mikrobáze, Zajíček wasn't afraid to criticise the state's technological policies and “anachronic barricades laid by bureaucratic supermen.” At the same time, the world of obscure club newsletters was becoming too small for him, so he tried to run Mikrobáze in a professional manner. Starting in 1986, he had Miroslav Barták contribute his existentialist cartoons to Mikrobáze, whose geometrically precise drawings were a perfect match to the magazine's content. From 1988, Mikrobáze had a colour cover and resembled a “real” magazine. This suggests that the majority of club newsletters were published as fanzines rather than magazines out of necessity rather than conviction.
Staple and Send Out
In 1988, a periodical appeared that took pride in its independence. Titled Spektrum, and later renamed to ZX Magazín, it was published in the North Bohemian town of Lenešice by the aforementioned seventeen year old David Hertl with help of his friend Ondřej Kafka. At first, he exchanged information and software with others by mail. Later, he learned of the materials and activities of Svazarm. Their club newsletters didn't impress him: “I saw an issue that had three or four blank pages, and the inscription: ‘This magazine is compiled from contributions by club members.’ That seemed embarrassing. Each editor has to be able to fill the issue himself.”
With this logic, he decided to start his own magazine. He was for the most part inspired by the Polish magazine Bajtek, which he used to get from Prague's Polish cultural centre: “We were fascinated that the Poles could have something at such a high level and we couldn't.” The first issue of the Xeroxed ZX Magazine was published June 1, 1988, and like club newsletters, the magazine was based around contributions from the fan community. People sent in their experiences with games or programs, short articles, or sent programs for review.
Hertl correspondingly thanked them on the magazine's pages: “And of course thanks to all who've sent us a program or manual—you've helped us the most. We hope to see many more of you in the next year. Because we are creating our own magazine; simply said, we're helping one another. And that's the purpose of this magazine.” Today we would call it a DIY (do-it-yourself) operation, but back then it was called “self help”. Community members even helped with the copying of the magazine. “Of absolutely amazing help was Mr. Musil from Český Krumlov, I think. He worked in a cinema where he had access to a photocopier. For about half a year, I sent him materials for the magazine. He would send me parcels with copies back; I stapled them together and sent them out”, Hertl recalls.
Originally, the magazine was sent to postal addresses obtained from other community members. The print runs rose very slowly, as Hertl was afraid of repercussions: “I was seventeen and afraid that some idiot would harass me and I wouldn't be allowed to graduate. So we kept a low profile.” Until November 1989, the print run rose from 10 to 40 copies—even though it's likely that readers reproduced further copies themselves. Publishing of the magazine was fairly risky, even in the thawing atmosphere of the late Eighties. It was effectively samizdat, or unofficial self-published literature, with no state approval or registration; it even boasted a proud sub-title of “Independent magazine of ZX Spectrum owners.”
At first glance, ZX Magazín was similar in many aspects to music or science fiction fanzines. The similarity was however mostly due to the fact that its publishers faced similar technical limitations. They only had at their disposal paper, pencils, a typewriter, glue, and (only in exceptional cases) a dot matrix printer and a Xerox machine. Unlike the editors of computer club newsletters, Hertl and Kafka tried to fit as much content on the smallest number of A4 pages, resulting in playful collages of typewritten and handwritten text and cartoons. The first true Czechoslovak computer fanzine therefore ironically had a very analogue look to it.
Complementing this graphic style, the content was similarly light-hearted, aimed not only at “engineers”, but at all types of users. It was more playful and more interactive than club magazines; the joy of using computers emanated from its pages, which is something that technical descriptions can't capture or translate. More important than the content was the feeling of reciprocity and mutuality on which ZX Magazín was based. “I had a feeling that it was fulfilling exactly the function that I wanted it to”, says Hertl, “people could begin to exchange ideas, explain something to one another, and it was important to me that they were finding one another and communicating.”
ZX Magazín was positioned on the boundary between samizdat publications and fanzines; it filled a gap on a non-existent market and its popularity rose. After the 1989 revolution, Hertl therefore immediately legalised it and started publishing it officially. His original aim of community-building grew larger than he could handle. There was such a huge amount of interest in the magazine that it wasn't possible for him to publish the magazine and study at university at the same time. He therefore handed over the publishing of the magazine in 1991 to the Proxima software company, which published it until 1994.
On the Free Market
The fate of ZX Magazín wasn't an anomaly. After 1989, many of the reasons that drew computer fans to the DIY path and to community-driven efforts had passed; programmers and journalists had professionalised. After leaving Mikrobáze, Ladislav Zajíček led the Czech version of the Amercian Byte magazine, called Bajt in Czech—a serious magazine for programmers and engineers.
On the other hand, new commercial gaming magazines such as Excalibur and later Score were launching. While not direct descendants of newsletters and fanzines, these magazines kept a subculture feel to them until the second half of the Nineties. Their approach was overtly fan-oriented: they wrote about gaming “orgies” and “ecstasies” and abounded in references to contemporary science fiction literature, cult films, and music, primarily in the electronic genres. A number of editors had an almost cult-like air around them: tens of thousands of young readers eagerly devoured each of their articles. Almost overnight, fannish writing about games became a lucrative undertaking.
Amateur computer magazines continued to be published even after November 1989, such as the Slovak Fifo magazine, or the Flop diskette magazine for fans of 8-bit Atari machines, which is still published to this day. More contemporary DIY magazines were a result of enchantment by old technology and a source of retro pleasures. Overall, they never had as large an impact after 1989 as during times of Normalisation, when they were de facto the only source of information for the fan community.
David Hertl's success with ZX Magazín led to him pursuing a journalism career. He finished his studies in history and currently works as a journalist in Czech Radio. He looks back on his DIY computer magazine as his first professional success. “There was a lot of naivete and passion in it, and it was a lot of fun”, he recalls. “I'm glad that we'd made it at eighteen—that even experienced engineers wrote to us, even though we were only young boys whose only tools were typewriters and a mailbox.”
In the field of computer fanzines, I am not an innocent bystander. I co-created one, even though it was historically insignificant. In 1994, with friends from the Sušice high school, we published three issues of the printed “Occasional Computer” (Počítačový občasník), the title of which reflected our problems with meeting our deadlines. I can hardly remember why we started it back then. We were probably inspired by professional and semi-professional magazines like Excalibur that we were avid readers of; maybe we wanted to see our names in print. But most likely we were just eager to write, and computers were our number one theme. We proudly believed that people would be interested in our unfounded and adolescent opinions on which games or compression programs were best. Computers and games were an amazing and infinite world to us, in which there was always something to discover. I believe that this feeling is what also drove our more successful and more sophisticated predecessors.
Jaroslav Švelch (*1981) is a researcher at the University of Bergen, where he is devoted to video game monsters. His home institution is the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Charles University in Prague, where he attained a doctorate in the ﬁeld of media studies. During 20072008, he functioned as guest researcher at the Comparative Media Studies department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; in 2012, he undertook a doctorate internship at Microsoft Research New England. Among his academic interests are digital media history, computer games, and language in an online environment. He published articles in magazines such as Game Studies and New Media & Society. His monograph, Gaming the Iron Curtain: A Social History of Computer Games in Communist Czechoslovakia, is set for publishing in 2018 by MIT Press in the USA.
Troublemaker Girls of the World, Unite!
By Jitka Kolářová
I was involved in publishing feminist fanzines for about ten to twelve years. Some might remember Femidom, a sexuality fanzine, or the radically queer Q_Kvér, but the longest running one was Bloody Mary. For me, it was the female space that I was lacking. This is actually a fundamental part of feminist zines. They're not only printed pieces of paper; they're a community, a network, a safe haven where you can be among similarly fired-up people. That is to say, it's for and by people who aren't afraid to speak about things you wouldn't hear about in the “neutral world”, nor in “neutral zines”. To this day, these things aren't talked about as much as they deserve to be.
That there are and were strong, creative, and inspirational women in the world; be it musicians, weightlifters, scientists, or revolutionaries. The oppression and prejudice that you face as a woman every day–harassment on the street, putting down of your abilities, expecting that it'll be you who washes up the dishes after the party while still looking sexy–these aren't OK, and they need to be changed.
For me, Bloody Mary was a means to vent frustration from everyday sexism. It was a channel in which I could forage for interesting female, feminist, and queer groups or activities and write about them. A friendly group of girls who spent time together far beyond the scope of fanzine production. A link with other people that we sent the zines to be distributed to, or who would play at fundraising gigs or would be connected internationally.
Sweethearts, Intellectuals, Punk Girls
When I asked musician, feminist, and pedagogue Pavla Jonssonová, who was de facto the person who brought me to writing fanzines, what was before Bloody Mary, she spoke of the underground magazine Vokno by Mirek Vodrážka, who, as a feminist, brought this particular theme into the magazine's scope. Apart from this, feminism was practically not discussed at all. There were women amongst dissidents, but they had more of an invisible service role, copying and distributing unofficial self-published documents and creating a supportive family environment for their dissident husbands. It wouldn't have worked without them, but their role and standing wasn't really considered–the exception being the 'Ženy v dissent' (Dissident women) project.
The topic of women's rights, gender, and feminism only began to be talked about after 1989 by writers and scientists such as Eva Hauserová, Carola Biedermannová, Saša Berková or Jiřina Šiklová. I dubbed this “First Wave of Feminist Writings” as “Intellectuals” for my own use–they weren't rebellious youngsters, but sought to engage in discussion and to establish a theoretical base. Thanks to Jiřina Šiklová, the Gender Studies library came into existence, which is the largest of its kind in Central Europe and continues to function to this day. There were also rock girls from the bands Dybbuk, Plyn and Zuby Nehty. According to singer Pavla Jonssonová, they were quite moderate: “They liked us. They called us Sweethearts from the Philosophical Faculty”.
This nascent feminism didn't really have very sharp teeth in those times, and respect for women's activities needed to be fought for. Then, in the Nineties, things started changing at breakneck speed as society newly opened to outside influences sought to soak up Western influences, be it cowboy capitalism or punk or activism. Together with them came squatting, demonstrations, fanzines, and new forms of feminism. It's important to note that our inspiration for Bloody Mary was never samizdat, or unofficial dissident literature. We'd heard about it, we may have seen some at some point in time, but we were mainly interested and influenced by other things–Czech and foreign punk zines, but mainly feminism of young girls inspired by anarchism and DIY ethics, a movement which in the early Nineties spread quickly throughout the world and which called itself riot grrrls.
This girl movement originated in the early Nineties in the rock and punk scene in and around Olympia and Seattle in the United States. It fought against sexism, harassment, sexual violence, and incest, which were topics that feminism of the participants' mothers didn't really touch upon (they wanted to have a “career and family at the same time).” The standing of young girls, let alone their roles in some punk genres, wasn't talked about. The movement arose around bands such as Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, or Sleater Kinney and fanzines Riot Grrrl or Girl Germs. Apart from criticising conservatism, sexism, and capitalism, the movement devoted itself mostly to its own activities.
Girls started bands and fanzines and supported each other at concerts so that “violent macho dancing” in front of the stage wouldn't drive them to the back. Riot grrrls' energy quickly spread throughout the United States and beyond, inspiring many girls and women. They came to identify themselves this way also not only in Europe (the Riot Grrrl network), but in Latin America too. The mainstream's first general reaction was shock, with newspaper articles about naked, men-hating Amazons; later on, the music industry created a tamer variety: “girl power”, as embodied by the Spice Girls.
Bloody Mary #13, 2008
Bloody Mary began publishing in April 2000. At first it was also supposed to have been a girl band, but publishing a fanzine was deemed to be more accessible. Initially, the fanzine consisted of a few pages containing a mix of criticism of everyday sexism, light-hearted information about the standing of women in the world, mythology of strong Czech female personas, and rough humour both in writing and in the accompanying cartoons. Punk aesthetics alternated with cartoons by American feminist cartoonist Jacky Fleming, featuring a rebellious young girl. One front cover featured a depiction of Mona Lisa with the heading “The revolutionary force of women's laughter”.
Before Bloody Mary, a few other feminist fanzine issues were published: these were the Wica (1993-1996) and Esbat (1995-1998) fanzines, and the Brno-based Potměchuť fanzine. The first two originated from the punk scene and had an eco-feminism zest to them, the last-mentioned one was focused on womens' writing. Bloody Mary, whose editorial staff I joined in 2001 with an eager longing to “do something”, shared similarities with punk fanzines. Around the year 2000, things began to stir up somewhat–there was a wave of anti-globalisation sentiment in the Czech Republic at around that time (there were protests against a conference of the International Monetary Fund in Prague in 2000), which inspired many people to become active, which was also true for feminism. Before, the term was deemed a profanity, and it was thought to be inappropriate to step outside the norm of femininity. For example, journalist Ludvík Vaculík stated his aversion to young women in comfortable clothing which he deemed too “unwomanly”, who don't act seductively enough–“almost like men”, in an article titled “Neženy” (“Un-women”), published on 2.2.1999 in the newspaper Lidové noviny.
But it was around that time that things started to change. A new generation of left-wing activists started to identify with feminism and to give it positive connotations. One of the effects was the renewal of public events during International Women's Day in 2001, not as a celebration of women one should buy flowers for but as an opportunity to bring attention to the unequal standing of men and women both in the Czech Republic and in the rest of the world. Until then, International Women's Day celebrations were an unpopular Communist-tinged festivity, while today the day is celebrated by the majority of Czech society. Bloody Mary originated from the same wave of excitement to do something to improve the world for girls and for women.
To be part of the editorial staff was exhilarating. “You were completely new, different. You emanated energy, you were playful and you were dead serious. My dream came true. This is how I wanted it as a young girl at university, this is how it could have been with girls from the band. But it wasn't possible back then, the people weren't there”, Pavla Jonssonová recalled of me.
Lenka Kužvartová, one of the Bloody Mary editors, recollects the first editorial meeting: “Back then in Utopia, Kamila and Blanka really captivated me. They were almost witch-like. They were strong and sharp-witted, they really enchanted me. There was so much energy in Bloody Mary, a rapturous, unrestrained, vibrant desire to move the earth and do something great”.
It was in Utopia, a cafe bordering on the Vinohrady and Nusle districts of Prague where people from radical left-wing circles met, that Bloody Mary editorial meetings took place for a number of years. We thought up article themes, discussed the fanzine's distribution or letters from fans, or even folded the pages of newly copied issues and stapled them together. It wasn't only work on feminist enlightenment, but also fun and a great time spent with girl friends.
Into the Scene
Stephen Duncombe writes in the book, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, that fanzines create a fundamental transformation point from a person being a media consumer to his or her being a media creator (he wrote it in times before online media came about) and that's exactly what we did with Bloody Mary. In the spirit of the riot grrrl slogan, “we don't want to read boy zines about boy things anymore, we want to read our ‘zines about our things”, we grabbed for ourselves a slice of “empowerment”. “Troublemaker girls of the world, unite!”, we proclaimed.
On the skeleton of the fanzine, which we set out to be a combination of playful gutsiness and criticism of issues we've experienced, we added fleshing the form of varying content: from interviews with interesting feminist groups, personas or bands, fact-based articles and personal contemplations, to parodies of psychology tests, life advice, or hoaxes.
We avidly discovered the world. We soaked up information about radical cheerleading, fabric menstrual pads, or the history of the vibrator from incredibly slow-loading English language web pages, and tried to bring all this new or long-forgotten information to light here in the Czech Republic. As time went by we started having theme-based fanzine issues, for example focusing on women fighters, sexuality, fashion, and the beauty myth, queer politics, or entertainment.
Bloody Mary was also starting to gain weight–a few issues had more than 70 pages, which was a lot for the time–and to lose speed. The intervals between issues ended up being one year, which was determined by both the extent of each issue and the inability to keep deadlines. In times of its peak fame, the fanzine was printed in 1,000 copies and was distributed in about 20 locations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia–after we'd have them copied on copiers and assembled and stapled the individual pages together at home by hand. We even started a blog after a few years, where we published individual articles and news which wouldn't wait until print.
Bloody Mary was oriented mainly towards the punk and hardcore scene. This was reflected in the language used (colloquial at times or using swear words, sometimes intentionally nonsensical articles) and the graphic design: copied pages with bad quality photos, scattered design, skulls and leopard skin patterns, chains and pyramids, and lots of collages. We brought attention to sexist articles and commercials in mainstream media, for example with names such as “Bra content betrays intelligence” or “Erotica glazes over the minds of men”.
We often got annoyed with the Esquire lifestyle magazine for men (and later Maxim), which was based on a derogatory and objectivist attitude towards women: it didn't view women as partners, mothers, or friends, but as creatures from another world who lie and have strange quirks, but because they offer hope of sex, are to be subjugated using secret tricks and then gotten rid of as quickly as possible. Such overt sexism isn't taken as matter-of-factly anymore–this has changed.
But the 2000s were still a time when it was uncommon even on the punk scene for a girl to be playing a guitar in a band, have a distro or seek consent in sex. These were all stereotypes that filtered through into punk from mainstream society – that is how we were all brought up. The word feminist was still a swear word, as attractive as an obnoxious illness. We had many hateful comments on our blog, such as “I wouldn't even prop my bike against you”– that was one of the more benign ones. Many of themes, primarily ones dealing with female sexuality and physicality in general, were simply taboo.
To Step out of Subculture
A reaction to this style was the feminist magazine Přímá cesta (Direct Path), which was published by the Anarcha-feminist group in November 2001 in Prague. One of the group's members, Markéta Štěpánová, recalls that for them, a fanzine wasn't a suitable format for spreading anarcha-feminist ideas; moreover, the first issues of Bloody Mary were unacceptable to her from a feminist point of view: “I had to start my own magazine. I said to myself, let's do more serious feminism”.
Even though the editorial staff could be labelled as punks, Přímá cesta contrasted with Bloody Mary because it wanted to step out of subculture and reach a broader audience. This was reflected in the use of a more refined language style, layout, and wider distribution–along with punk distros, it was also distributed through a number of regular bookstores. The themes and viewpoints were radical; however, many of them were revelatory for both the feminist and the anarchist scenes. Themes included parenting and upbringing based on anarchist principles, norms in sexuality, or feminism and mental illness.
The motivation of Přímá cesta to break out of “ghetto” subculture was clear: feminism and gender studies gained respect only very slowly in mainstream society. There were only a few non-profit organisations that concerned themselves with women's rights (Prague Gender Studies or proFem, who were in fact also involved in both Bloody Mary and Přímá cesta, or Nesehnutí in Brno). These were considered too reform-oriented for anarcho-feminists, as they lacked the scope for covering a wider breadth of themes and for getting down to the roots of oppression.
Non-profit organisations also began to concentrate on specific themes: thanks to (not only) proFem, domestic violence became an issue that was brought to public awareness, Gender Studies focused on gender equality in labour markets, Fórum on 50 percent of women in politics. These themes were more or less acceptable to the general public, but this also caused more fundamental issues to be missed. Awareness of some of these was only brought about by current feminist groups: Konsent sought awareness of sexualised violence and consent in sex, Čtvrtá vlna concentrated on sexual harassment and disparagement of women on universities, but also on criticism of consumer society in general.
Looking back, it seems incredible that for eight years, there were two radically feminist magazines, both with fairlylarge print runs, being published in parallel. Besides that, I really do feel that these activities really meant something – they broke down the worst prejudices and sexisms in the scene, and hopefully also in society in general. I ask myself, where are the people who read those magazines and shared these thoughts – what did they do when these magazines stopped being published? Why didn't they take up the glove?
Our reasons for ending the magazine's publishing can be summed up as exhaustion: exhaustion of themes, personal exhaustion, maybe even exhaustion of those friendly and co-operative relationships in groups. And also, it was definitely an exhaustion of the form. Around 2010, you could find everything you wanted to know about feminism on the Internet – why release a printed fanzine once in a blue moon? For me, the girly giddiness of Bloody Mary also became somewhat limiting after I turned 30. For a while afterwards we released the radically queer Q_Kvér zine where we tried to break down gender norms in sexuality and identity and where we experimented with the format and with language: how to fit into the Czech language (which has grammatical gender) the notion that gender identity isn't about two opposing poles, but a varied space, or at least a scale? We also organised a few genderfuck events, but then even that stopped.
Destroy and Build up Differently
For a while it looked like feminist fanzines died out here. And then I saw filmmaker Martina Malinová asking people on Facebook to come up with a name for a new feminist zine. And, a few weeks later (April 2017), I bought it at the Brno zine fest. It's called Drzost (Insolence), it's got a pink cover with a beautiful illustration, it's full of drawings and collages, informative articles, essays, and poetry, exasperation, solidarity and proclamations such as “Rebel girls, welcome”. “I've always loved zines. It's the most natural form of expression for me. When I go to a demo it's OK, when we do a happening it's great, but for me the best thing is to make a written mark somewhere”, Martina says, noting how important cooperation is to her. “I can't say what's more important, whether the fact that the zine's printed or the process of making it. If I was making it alone I wouldn't have as much joy from it.”
She tried to encompass the diversity of people and their feminisms into Drzost: queer activists, mothers, teenage girls, and fifty year olds, people both in worker professions and in academia, men, women. The content is changing like the landscape in the movie Stalker. During my first read of the zine, I had an impression of a little girl's bedroom, where you can talk about favourite books or homemade cosmetics with others; during the second read, I opened the pages at an article about the body and the beauty myth; the third time I started getting into articles about the culture of rape, about inspirational women with migrant past, about peace activists or about criticism of inequality of women in the Czech Republic from the point of view of a male-feminist.
Drzost is printed in colour on glossy paper and isn't stapled but bound, the print run is about 200 copies. In this respect it's similar to other fanzines, as printing technologies are more and more accessible, so fanzines look like professional publications. Moreover, zines today are as much an artefact as a source of information, so the visual side of things has gained importance. Drzost, in contrast to other zines, goes back to cut-and-paste style graphics, with pages created using real collages instead of on a computer. You'll find on them handwritten notes or dried rose leaves. It's very personal in some respects, being reminiscent of a lovingly kept diary. At the same time it's similar to punk feminist zines thanks to its aesthetics, themes, and its roots in DIY culture. Martina is from a world where she read Bloody Mary a few years ago, and for her, Drzost is also a culmination of many activities.
I found another feminist zine shortly afterwards. It's called Obrovská (Huge) and it has been published by journalist and musician Mary C since 2016, so there are now three issues of the zine out, each with 50 printed copies. It's a booklet with a clean black and white design and contains information about interesting women and women pop culture groups and also interviews with a number of women artists (it also exists online). A female network is also in creation on the fanzine pages. As with Bloody Mary, I feel in it an aspiration to bring to light and connect interesting and creative women. Apart from frustration from inequality, prejudice, and violence that happens to women every day, what is also frustrating is that women are often isolated in their frustration. It's great to connect these voices of criticism and make a stronger current, which is also why Mary C plans for the next issue to be conceived as a Huge editorship and plans to invite other interesting people to take part in the zine's creation.
The fanzine's name comes from music composer Jana Obrovská and presents many strengthening connotations which aren't normally associated with the norm of womanhood. For Mary C, the writing of the zine is also connected with strong emotions: the fanzine functions as a kind of diary where she notes what she liked and what made her angry. She deals with the topics of sexism and other forms of oppression, for instance racial oppression, in her writings, but she tries to stay on a creative level.
“I need to be resistant and active–to keep at a certain level of being pissed off, but not so much that it destroys me.” Writing a fanzine effectively means searching for one's expression, a way to find one's voice. The torch of feminist zines is thus now being carried by women artists and activists over 30. Mary C also has a different background that led her to writing fanzines: “I don't come from a punk or anarchist culture. My resistance and self-awareness comes from the Afro-American community. I grew up listening to jazz, blues, and funk music, where there were often strong women characters”. She began to make music, organized women artists' concerts, and is preparing mentoring for girl musicians; a fanzine is another piece of the puzzle.
When we started with Bloody Mary, I was around 20. We asked new questions, spoke with a new tongue, and we had to stomp, shout, and beat our shields to dismantle everything that was here before. Current zines now function in a different world. Feminist issues are already around and being spoken about, but we still don't live in a world without inequality, prejudice, and hate.
At first sight, I don't see continuity between the individual chapters in the history of Czech feminist zines. Like Bloody Mary before them, neither Drzost nor Obrovská were created with what came before in mind. Fanzines are more of a reaction to what's happening around them there and then. With Bloody Mary, we didn't follow up on samizdat literature, but reflected on what was going on in the West at the time. Markéta Štěpánové from Přímá cesta reflects on this: “That's exactly the point of a zine–each generation discovers the world again, in their own way. What came until now, they're trying to destroy and build up again differently."
Jitka Kolářová (*1980) studied humanities and media studies at the Charles University in Prague. She published, alone or in co-operation, the fanzines Bloody Mary, Q_Kvér and Femidom, and co-organised numerous female and feminist band concerts and the radically queer Gender Fuck Fest festival. She worked in the Gender Studies and Jako doma non-proﬁt organisations (helping homeless women).
In the Grey Zone of Science Fiction
By Ivan Adamovič
The Birth of Fanzines Out of Desire and a Spirit of Possibility
Sci-fi literature was usually the domain of young men who were drawn towards exact technical sciences. Within one particular nest of such creatures, the college dorms of the Mathematical-Physical Faculty of the Charles University in Prague named Větrník (Windmill), one of the first and the most well-known Czech science fiction fan clubs was born, named Villoidus. It was established in 1979 by a group of students and centred around Zdeněk Rampas. Three years later, the club began to publish one of the first Czech sci-fi fanzines.
It happened like this: in 1980, the core founding members of the club went into their compulsory military service and leadership of the club was taken over by a second generation of members who were born in 1960: Jiří “Pyvos” Kuřina, Vladimír Wagner and Miloš “Albert” Podpěra. Kuřina and Podpěra shared a dorm room together, where they kept a sci-fi library for club members. According to Miloš Podpěra, it was during one evening meeting of the club that the idea of publishing a club magazine originated. That such a thing exists was learned from the only remaining member of the first generation of the club, Jiří Markus, who avoided military service due to health reasons and who had access to information sources about the outside sci-fi world. He had an excellent knowledge of English, which was uncommon at the time; he was the owner of an extensive English sci-fi book collection, and would sometimes read his translations of sci-fi novels during meetings. Sometimes he would even translate directly while reading the English original.
So, it was that this mathematician-physician Jiří told his friends that in English-speaking countries, fans publish their own “fanzines” (1). Everyone immediately wanted to publish their own fanzine too. From this moment on, and for the next few decades, Czech fandom adopted basic English terminology pertaining to fan activities—that is the terms fan, fandom, fanzine and con (convention—a meeting of fans). They used these expressions for more than10 years, as more specialised terms and acronyms weren't needed.
Other pieces of the puzzle came together quickly. In the autumn of 1981, Petr “Pagi” Holan returned from military service; he was a member of the faculty board of the SSM (Socialist Youth Movement). The leadership of the SSM welcomed any new activity that it could use to demonstrate its own activity, and so became the umbrella organization (2) for the fanzine. As with most things at the time, a combination of both official and unofficial procedures was needed. In April 1982, for the nationwide Parcon con, 150 copies of the first issue of the "Magazine for internal needs of SFK FO SSM UK / FMF" was published.
Just so that things are clear: the first periodical sci-fi fanzine was probably Sci-fi Věstník (newsletter), first published in January 1981 for members of the Teplice Observatory sci-fi club. It originally contained only short stories, which is why the publishers of the mathematical-physical Sci-fi magazine denied it the label “fanzine” in one of their editorial writings. Should we want to try to map even more obscure beginnings, then the first samizdat publication, bordering on a fanzine and an anthology was the Vega publication, which was published in Pilsen in 1977 as a supplement to the newsletter of the Předenice tramp settlement.
But let's get back to Prague mathematicians and physicists. Starting with the second issue, the term “magazine” was changed to “fanzin”. The editors didn't realise at first that a fanzine should have a name; there was a typographic logo “SCI-FI” on the cover, which was thought to be the name of the publication; it was later called by the club name: Villoidus. In 1983, a sub-title appeared: “VědeckoFANtastickýZpravodaj a INformátor” (Science Fiction Bulletin and Informer), which was a Czech backronym that attempted to explain the potentially dangerous Anglicism “fanzine”.
Official support from the authorities was a significant aid in the practical aspects of fanzine production (3). Typed cyclostyle stencils only needed to be taken to the university copying centre, which would then print the “internal periodical” in the desired number of copies. The content was most likely regularly checked for subversiveness, but no restrictions of content had ever taken place.
The fanzine content (4) was a mix of short stories translated mostly from English and Russian, original Czech stories, fandom news, literary competition results, overviews of sci-fi publications abroad, advice to novice authors, and of course, reviews.
Villoidus #1 1985 illustration: Kaja Saudek
Graphic-wise (5), the Sci-fi fanzine was fairly conservative; the cyclostyle copying process had its limitations as to the illustrations and graphics that could be reproduced, so apart from a few exceptions, the content was primarily text. From 1985, however, the fanzine featured an illustrated cover by the famous painter and comic book illustrator Kája Saudek. The drawing always depicted the club mascot in some form, the fictional Green Fleecy, whose Latin name Villoidus gave the club its name. The fanzine cover probably had the best appearance of all Czech fanzines at the time.
Over the course of a few years, the fanzine print run doubled to 300 issues. The fanzine stopped being published in the year 1989 (6). The editors, one by one, had finished their studies, and with the fall of the Communist regime, they now had incomparably wider options for self-realisation. The chief editor of the last two issues was Martin Klíma, who was involved in the student movement Stuha, and who on November 17, 1989 was one of the spokespeople of the student protests in Albertov in Prague at the beginning of the Velvet Revolution.
The first sci-fi fanzine is sometimes considered to be The Comet, published by the “Science correspondence club” in Chicago in 1930; however, The Time Traveller, published from 1932, is a better fit for what we understand a fanzine to be today, as The Comet mostly concerned itself with purely scientific matters. The expression “fanzine” has been use in English speaking countries since the beginning of the 1940s. It seems that it was first used to describe amateur publications specifically in the sci-fi genre. The genre's most significant fan award, Hugo, has been presented annually at the Worldcon convention since 1955 and offers an award for the category of Best Fanzine.
American and British fanzines were printed using similar techniques that would later be used for Czech ones. Initially, fanzines had a more serious tone; later on, their content concentrated more on fandom itself rather than published science fiction literature. This explains the general prevalence for rather cryptic humour and jargon—fanzines were primarily publications for an insider community.
In contrast to Czech fanzines, the fanzines in English speaking countries were often published by a single fan, who could obtain a significant “Egoboo”, (a boost of selfworth) by doing such a thing. Also in contrast to Czech fanzines, these fanzines moved away from publishing short stories; a more common occurrence was fan letter sections, a feature wholly absent in Czech fanzines. In some foreign magazines, the fan letter section was even the majority of content and served as a communication tool before the Internet came into existence. Letters from fans would react to other fan letters or to articles from the last issue, and were often written with the intention of obtaining a free copy of the next issue of given fanzine.
2. Umbrella Organisations
The vast majority of domestic, pre-revolution fanzines were published by science fiction clubs–and these practically always existed under an official organising institution. It was never stated that a club or a group had to have an official organising institution, but to have one's back covered during socialism spared the nerves of fans (in Poland, some science fiction samizdat publishers were investigated by the police for suspicion of economic crimes) and also the umbrella organization aided in the publication and distribution of club fanzines.
Even though they were “samizdat”, fanzines never didn't have content subversive to the regime present in them, nor did anyone feel any need for it. A rare exception was the R. E. Howard short story “Beyond the Black River”, published in the Poutník (Wanderer) fanzine, which had the Socialist Youth Movement organisation of the TOS Hostivař state company as an official organizer. The story was deemed too bloody and harsh to the local commissars. The fanzine then had to find an alternative official organiser institution, which became the Socialist Youth Movement of the Chemical-Technological University. There were also cases of deception being used: fanzine publishers would make up an organising institution, or would use the name of an existing one without this institution being aware of the fact that a club magazine was using their name as political cover.
3. Fanzine Production
Although fanzine production (that is, the printing and binding) wasn't particularly creative work, it was useful in bringing teams together. Some organising institutions had a reproduction section that took care of the printing; that is, unless supplies of blank paper or cyclostyle papers ran out and it was necessary to wait for delivery of new supplies. In other cases, fans had direct access to copying machines. It is worth noting that in the 1980s, copying machines were closely guarded and kept under strict control. This was due to the authorities' fear of politically subversive or generally uncontrolled publications.
An article by Milan Dundr, “Tisknu, tiskneš, tiskneme” (“I print, you print, we print”), published in fanzine Slan issue 2/1988, offers an insight into the intricacies of fanzine production. First, the operators of the process had to be selected. In the above-mentioned article, these were a person who swapped out copying sheets and applied paint onto the printing drums (and gradually got stained by paint himself in the process), a person who turned the printer crank or operated the printer motor, a person who put paper into the printer and tried in vain for the printer to take them up individually, and the very necessary quality controller, who checked the quality of the prints and scolded the aforementioned operators accordingly. After printing, another person sorted the pages into piles and removed any accidentally blank pages. Then everyone present went around the piles and took one paper from each until they had a complete issue in their hands. An especially important function was that of the person who bound the issues together after carefully checking the number and orientation of all pages.
The making of one issue of the Slan fanzine in this way took the fans about three afternoons (the fanzine had about 30 pages, 70 copies were printed). Printing one page 70 times took about 15–20 minutes at a leisurely pace. The fans attempted to speed up this process by setting up a contest for the fastest page print. This was carried out with much physical effort, accompanied by shouts of “Come on!”, “Rolling!”, “More paint!” or "Wipe it clean!". The fastest team was able to print all copies of one page in one and a half minutes. The effort rubbed off on the compilers and binders too, so the first issue of the 1988 Slan fanzine was produced in one evening meeting in three and a half hours.
Cyclostyle was the most common method of copying fanzines in the mid-1980s; however, there were also simpler, if more laborious, methods. Fans from the Karlovy Vary science fiction club Farma zvířat (Animal Farm) described a possible alternative in 1992: "We've found the intersection between our desires and our means in a printing technique which we've dubbed Rollset. Rollset is the cheapest printing method of all; you'll need a wooden frame with a screen, copying stencils, a roller, and paint. You put the inscribed stencil on the frame, apply paint evenly, place this on a blank piece of paper and then roll over it with a roller. If you've got enough stamina, you can print up to a thousand copies this way. (But you won't!)"
4. Fanzine Content
The content of fanzines was dependent on the resourcefulness and skills of individual science fiction club members. There were effectively two kinds of clubs. One was a club that was present in a certain location (a group of active fans in a specific place), the second kind was a club associated with a particular organisation (usually a university). There were exceptions to this, for instance more well-known fanzines such as Interkom, which was primarily a newsletter about goings on within Czechoslovak fandom, or R.U.R., whose club of the same name was considered to be the central Prague science fiction club, which stood above all other clubs.
It was apparent that fanzines were supplanting a non-existent magazine. Few good science fiction books were being published, so foreign short stories translated by club members was popular fanzine content. Clubs had differing capabilities in this respect, so for example the Poutník (Wanderer) fanzine published the first Czech translations of the Conan fantasy stories, translated by Jan Kantůrek; another club member produced shortened translations of complete novels, for example Isaac Asimov's Foundation. In the Villoidus fanzine, Czech readers learned of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series approximately 10 years ahead of others, through extensive reviews with excerpts. Translations were often carried out via a third language, for example English science fiction from Russian or, more often, Polish. Novice Czech authors would sharpen their literary skills on fanzine pages; however, the best stories were usually submitted to the fandom competition for the Karel Čapek Award. Fanzines published practically all work from club members that was at least a little bit readable, so the overall content quality wasn't particularly great, but a few talented writers did appear, for example Jan Hlavička, the original Zdeněk Páv, or the radical Eva Hauserová, who termed her style “biopunk”.
What might seem as very bizarre to today's readers were reviews of contemporary films, some of which described in detail the plot of a film that could only be seen on video, for example, and which were thus completely inaccessible for an average fan. More news-oriented fanzines often published lengthy discussions, primarily about differing views on the running and organising of fandom (Vladimír Veverka, Jiří Karbusický, and Václav Pravda excelled in this), or about fanzines' missions (Láďa Peška). Reading these today, one can get easily the impression that fandom was more akin to a tiring conference than a fun hobby.
Similarly to authors of American fanzines, some of the local fanzine creators would later professionalise—the publisher of the Bene Gesserit fanzine (probably the first fanzine intended to be primarily sold) founded the Winston Smith publishing house, Tomáš Jirkovský turned his Laser fanzine into a notable publishing house of the same name. On the other hand, in terms of original content, there was practically no overlap in authors writing for fanzines and those writing for the general public, even after 1989.
After the first professional magazine Ikarie started publishing in March 1990 and fandom started to fragment into smaller interest groups, there was a shift to more purely fan fanzines and a more laid back approach to content. Ikarie itself was the transmutation of the Ikarie XB fanzine, which was probably the most ambitious project of Czech fandom. It had a group of experienced sf editors (Jaroslav Olša, Pavel Kosatík, Ondřej Neff, and Ivan Adamovič), was printed on quality paper using offset printing technologies (with a handmade template combining text written on an electric typewriter, hand-made, or transfer paper made headlines). The fanzine was inspired by the Polish magazine Fantastyka. When Ikarie began to be mass-published, fans still considered it a fandom magazine, which lead to a sense of disappointment in some who thought the editorship didn't co-operate with fandom much (in reality the magazine had a long-running regular section about fandom).
Since the beginning of the 1990s, fanzines were also being published that were devoted to a particular part of the fantasy genre, for example Terry Pratchett's Discworld (CoriCelesti), hero role-plays and table games (Dechdraka / Dragon's Breath), works of J. R. R. Tolkien (Imladris), the cyberpunk-influenced Poslední dávka (Last Dose; a transmutation of the R. U. R. fanzine), the heroic fantasy oriented Ghul, the Ducháček fanzine devoted to the horror genre, or purely personal fanzines that served only to publish the views and observations of a single author (for example Wild Shaarkah, produced in English by Eva Hauserová). One fanzine that has survived since the 1980s until now and remains probably the most significant fandom publication is the Interkom newsletter, directed by Zdeněk Rampas.
5. Graphic Design
The November 1989 revolution and the sudden liberalisation of information and trade didn't have a significant effect on fanzines at first. This also applies to the graphic aspect of these publications, which still had an amateur look well into the 1990s. The assumption that more and more fanzines would follow the more “professional” graphic style of Ikarie XB proved false. Probably the opposite was true: with the widespread publishing of professional periodicals, fanzine publishers could focus more on the meaning of the word “amateur”, derived in meaning from “lover”. Fanzines remained the domain of lovers of genres.
Some fanzines put to good use their close relationships with professional artists, who would draw cover pages free of charge. Teodor Rotrekl authored the covers of the Slan fanzine, Kája Saudek was the author of the Sci-Fi/Villoidus and Poutník fanzines and also had a special agreement with the Šumperk fanzines Vakukok and Knihovnička Vakukoku (Vakukok Library), which allowed them to publish reprints of his older comics. Comics appeared on fanzine pages only in rare cases; these would be primarily Makropulos (published in Šumperk by Lubomír Hlavsa) and Trifid (published in Liberec by Miroslav Schönberg and Vladimír Hanuš).
In the second half of the 1980s the majority of fanzines switched to offset printing, which allowed for better quality reproductions of illustrations and allowed for higher quality paper to be used. Cases of Xeroxed fanzines also became more common, especially with fanzines that had fewer pages. In the 1990s, many fanzines switched to A5 format and some also transformed into semi-professional magazines. Energy previously used for fanzine publishing was channeled into smaller individual publications, primarily translations of short stories and novels.
6. The End of Fanzines
In 1985, there were about 26 different fanzines being published; in 1990, the number (including ones no longer in publication) was approaching 50. Most of these stopped being published during the 1990s, even though a number of new ones sprung up. The reasons have already been mentioned: the ageing of fans and new possibilities after the revolution, and to a lesser extent the Internet.
“How many of our fanzines would be able to survive competing with one or two officially published sci-fi magazines? Fear the moment when the first Czechoslovak Sci-fi magazine is released! That moment will mark the beginning of the end for Czech fanzines”, wrote Ladislav Peška, the Slan fanzine chief editor, in March 1987.
It was really the emergence of the Ikarie magazine and later on others, rather than the expansion of the Internet, that caused a gradual drop in fanzine numbers, even though not in as straightforward way as Peška had predicted. There were very few Internet fanzines, in the sense of publishing of finished issues; the principal fanzine in 1995 was amber.zine, which wrote about science fiction and new technologies. Other web project like the ambitious Fanzine.cz, Sarden, or Fantasy Planet can be considered more as being portals.
Conclusion: Grey Zone Stalkers
Sci-fi fandom activities were apolitical in nature and its protagonists had very differing political preferences. Politics wasn't written about in fanzines, and if it was discussed in club meetings, it was usually done in a quiet corner of a room on a one-to-one basis. In the most thorough documentation of Czech sci-fi fanzines before November 1989, published by Jaroslav Olša Jr. in the Nemesis magazine (December 1996-January 1997), we can read the following: “Oppression created a bond between Eastern European fandom (not only within their respective countries, but also on an international level), which then became a unique subculture, which, by its existence itself, fought against a totalitarian regime—primarily by mobilising people and giving them what they were lacking—a means of self-realisation”.
Times change, however, and we tend to look at civic activities outside of official structures a bit differently today. The whole fanzine realm would not be possible without the existence of a “grey zone”, in which things are neither permitted nor prohibited, but are quietly tolerated because they aren't considered dangerous. According to recent historians, the most notable of which is Michal Pullmann, the grey zone did not function in opposition to the Communist regime, but in accordance with it. “Having calm conditions for work” and the development of harmless hobbies was one of the staple policies of president Husák era of so-called “normalisation”, put in effect after the Prague Spring of 1968 to quell any rebellious tendencies.
“It was necessary to ask the question whether the indifference of the Czech and Slovak population, fed by a turn of the majority of people towards their own private matters and to ‘calm life’ outside of Communist ideology and power, wasn't in the end a firmer pillar of stability for the regime than secret police and ideological manipulation”, Pullman writes in the 2017 anthology What was normalization? A study of late socialism (Co byla normalizace: Studie o pozdním socialismu): “Society in Communist dictatorship was more than just a passive object of oppression. People (…) used means that were available to them to attaining their non-ideological, "natural" life aims—studies, good work, a decent life, etc”.
The plethora of “hobby activities” that sprang up in the 1980s was such a two-sided contract with the regime. We give to you, you give to us. And so we're back at the onset of the Sci-fi fanzine, which the university Socialist Youth Movement could declare as performing youth-oriented work, while sci-fi youth got a chance to publish a magazine. There are many such examples. In 1985, Prague fans established a fruitful co-operation with the Union of Soviet-Czechoslovak Friendship in the form of audio-visual materials promoting Soviet science fiction. Few fans considered it an act of collaboration, but rather took quiet satisfaction in cases similar to this, considering them to be evidence of how one could outsmart the regime using its own weapons. But this was the public behaviour of the majority of citizens; fans considered themselves to be at least “islands of positive deviation”. A deeper reflection on this dichotomy is, however, something that Czech society is moving towards fairly slowly.
During the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, clubs/fanzines existed for example under:
The local SSM – Socialist Youth Movement Slaný Sci-fi club - Slan fanzine, permission for publishing granted by the People's Committee of the town Kladno
Andromeda club, Pilsen – Andromeda fanzine
District libraries: Karlovy Vary Animal Farm club - Big Bang
Fanzine and other titles: Opava Hepterida club – Labyrint fanzine
Local Youth Clubs:Ostrava Literary fantasy club - Leonardo
Fanzine: Šumperk Makropulos club/fanzine
ROH – Revolutionary Union Movement houses of culture
Möbius club – Mozek (Brain) fanzine, approved by the People's Committee of Jihlava
ROH committees at state companies
club/fanzine AF 167, Brno
Central cultural house of the state railway company
Prague R.U.R. club and fanzine
Base Svazarm – Union for co-operation with the army organisation
Prague Ada club – Ikarie XB fanzine
Associated workers' clubs
Česká Lípa Bonsai club/fanzine
řebíč Třesk club/fanzine
Parks of culture and rest Liberec Trifid club, registered as a hobby and arts club
Ivan Adamovič (*1967) studied scientific information and library science at the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University in Prague. He was one of the founders of the science ﬁction monthly periodical Ikarie, where he served as a journalist and foreign prose editor from the magazine's inception in 1990 until 2007. As a science ﬁction fandom member, he led the Prague R. U. R. club and was the chief editor of the club's fanzine, later named Poslední dávka (Last Dose). In parallel to his work for Ikarie, he also functioned as a cultural editor in several other magazines and led the alternative magazine Živel (Element). He was the co-curator of the Planeta Eden: Svět zítřka v socialistickém Československu (Planet Eden: The World of Tomorrow in Socialist Czechoslovakia) exhibition (2010), and is the author of the Czech Literary Fantasy and Fiction Dictionary (1995). He contributed to the American science ﬁction magazine Locus. He holds a total of twelve Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror (SFHH) Academy awards, four of these as Best Sci-ﬁ Editor, three for Theoretical Writing of the Year. In 2005, he received the award in recognition of his long-term work for the Science Fiction genre. Ivan's Planet Eden project has an English blog here: blog.edenfuture.com. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Today, we release the second episode of our podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, with more responses to The Last Jedi. This time, we check in with Jeff Gomez from Starlight Runner, a leading figure in the world of transmedia storytelling. Gomez has been running a series of blog posts which explore the emergence of what he calls "The Collective Journey" as a new storytelling structure at work in contemporary popular media, a story structure which he sees exemplified by, for example, Game of Thrones.
The original Star Wars trilogy has been credited with inspiring Hollywood's fascination with Joseph Campbell's Monomyth (or The Hero's Journey cycle). George Lucas was strongly influenced by the work of the mythographer and his efforts to distill the basic building blocks of the epic hero cycle. Joseph Campbell in turn paid tribute to Lucas and Star Wars as a modern embodiment of his ideas. And the success of Star Wars led to the Hero's Journey to be seen as the core formula for subsequent Hollywood blockbusters. If contemporary action films are starting to seem tired, it is in part because this formula has been played out across too many stories, and audiences are looking for something different.
More than that, Gomez believes that this story model is badly suited to addressing the demands of a diverse audience, whether defined in relation to changing U.S. demographics or the global markets Hollywood actively courts. And there are negative consequences for the human race in reinforcing this good vs. evil scenario which includes little room for negotiation or even empathy with those who assume different perspectives. Gomez is using his influence within the industry to promote an alternative narrative modality, which we explore in depth in this episode. And he has written an extended discussion of The Last Jedi on his blog to supplement our exchange (https://blog.collectivejourney.com/the-self-disruption-of-star-wars-ae3311bedc08).
As always, we'd love to hear from you -- How do you like it so far? Write me at email@example.com/
Several years ago, I hosted a series of articles on Participatory Poland, curated by Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak from University of Wroclaw. The series touched on the shifts occurring in a Post-Communist country as it embraced forms of consumer culture, developed strong traditions of popular and participatory culture, and reached out to larger transnational networks. I ended my introduction to this series with a call, " hope you will learn as much from the Participatory Poland series as I have, and I hope that it will inspire scholars in other countries to consider producing similar accounts of what participatory culture might mean in their national contexts. I would love to see proposals from elsewhere which might fill similar gaps in our understanding of traditional and contemporary cultural practices." Today, I renew this call, but with a second example of what such a discussion might look like.
I met Miloš Hroch and others in his circle when I was passing through Prague several summers ago and we have an passionate and engaged discussion about various forms of fan and participatory culture. When he released a book in the fall which brought together a range of experts on different subcultures in the Czech Republic, to document the history of zine production in that country, we hatched a plan to feature some of those essays here -- a sample of the greater range of material to be found in the book, I Shout, 'That's Me!": Stories of the Czech Fanzine From the 80s Till Now. Over the next few posts, we will drill deeper into what roles zines about games, science fiction, popular music, Feminism and other topics played in the cultural transitions that the Czech Republic has undergone over the past few decades. As Hiroch writes below, "Civic involvement lost all meaning in an atmosphere of incessant control; people could not express themselves freely at work, so they found an outlet in hobbies." So, these writings, often directed towards other, less political topics, can nevertheless tell us much about how people lived their lives, how they made meaning of their experience, in a world that once seemed so restricted and now seems in so much flux.
Once again, I hope that sharing these accounts here encourages other scholars to consider what participatory culture means in their local contexts. I would welcome proposals from other groups who wanted to use my blog as a platform for sharing their experiences and perspectives. I freely acknowledge that my own ideas about participatory culture have taken shape almost entirely within an American context, reflecting my own experiences as a fan, and growing out of my ethnographic work here. I want to see these ideas tested against political, cultural, economic, and legal contexts very different from those of the United States rather than having these ideas universalized and applied uncritically to these other contexts.
Have You Ever Tried Putting a Mentos into Cola?
By Miloš Hroch
The immune system of some individuals is resistant to it, other succumb to it without hope. Publishing fanzines is an illness, as will confirm anyone who's ever waited in long queues at the post office to send his fanzine to the other side of the country, or who nervously fidgeted at work, waiting to use the office copiers when the boss isn't looking. The symptoms are described in the handbook How to Publish a Fanzine: “You can tell by getting up at 6AM to write a few more lines before you go to work, and end up calling in sick because you can't stop.”
The fanzine fever started among a group of science fiction enthusiasts in the United States in the 1930s, and from where it spread to the rest of the world. In the Seventies, punks would get dizzy reading fanzines, the feeling often being similar to the effects of sniffing paint thinner; the most famous fanzine was incidentally called Sniffin' Glue, and was published by former bank clerk Mark Perry in his London flat. He was the first to let the world know about the Sex Pistols, long before established musical magazines. “Don't like Sniffin' Glue? Start your own!” was Perry's challenge - and a lot of people caught on.
Fascination and Frustration
The epidemic's spread was unstoppable; decades later, literally almost everyone in America published fanzines. Theorist Stephen Duncombe offered the simpliest definition of the medium in his book Notes from Underground, published in 1997: “Fanzines are nonofficial and noncommercial magazines published independently in compliance with the code of DIY ethics and are distributed through underground concerts or by hand-to-hand contact.” Fans of fringe or as of yet unknown music and literary genres or board games would publish them of their own initiative; there were fanzines about motherhood, feminist ones, queer magazines, and also anarchist ones for organising demonstrations.
Contrary to this trend, American Dough Holland's Pathetic Life fanzine was conceived more along the lines of a personal diary, where he would reminisce about his worst part-time jobs or contemplate his being overweight. The Kill Your Television fanzine published about the toxic influence of mass-media, Factsheet Five published reviews of other fanzines exclusively, and one of the most famous fanzines, Dishwasher Pete, was about washing dishes – that is, about a care-free ride through the kitchens of almost all of the United States and about rejecting the consumer dream. The fanzine created a forum for other kitchen helpers, who could connect with one another and share their experiences. The intention of the author, Pete Jordan, was to give a voice to people who would otherwise be overlooked or would not be listened to—and that's the essence of fanzines.
Where else would you want to learn about the Hardcore-Punk scene in Malaysia or in Slovenia than in the influential fanzine Maximum Rocknroll, which has been published for almost 40 years now thanks to an extensive network of volunteers, and where Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame began to draw in the eighties. Maximum Rocknroll sticks firmly to its guns: accepting no funds from corporations and publishing no reviews of big label records.
The drive is, as always, "fascination and frustration." Without the first, fanzine authors wouldn't be so devoted and ready to learn from mistakes; without the second, they wouldn't have the strength to fight for their self-determination and their own small utopias. That was reward enough for them. Amateur magazines were always published and disseminated by determined outsiders with grapho-maniac tendencies—even though some may have later on become members of famous bands, sci-fi writers, poets, music journalists and publicists, cartoon illustrators and photographers, or artists at the forefront of new artistic genres.
At times, the fever would subside or have a less obvious manifestation. Other times, it would break out even more intensively, or disappear completely—the infected would lose their ideals, shift their priorities to work and family; for others, fanzines would lose their meaning with the onset of the Internet. But the bug never disappeared completely, and neither did the symptoms: assorted breaking of grammar rules, ignoring of formal newspaper and magazine rules, crazy drawings and hallucination-inducing cartoons. Even though the letters on the page may begin to disappear due to a weak typewriter stroke or not enough paint in the printer cartridge, the mark of a contagious and obsessive undertaking remains on fanzine pages to this day.
According to Henry Jenkins, fanzine authors formed a digital community even before it was technologically possible—they were a sort of real-world Wikipedia. Based upon his knowledge of fanzines, Jenkins put forward a theory of participatory culture, which describes the behaviour of users in a Web 2.0 environment. The circle hasn't closed yet. The nostalgia that drives today's popular culture doesn't draw us back just to vinyl and cassette tapes, but also to paper. Despite ongoing talk of the extinction of printed media, the microcosm of independent printing is expanding.
Make do without a bottle opener
The Czech fanzine fever that this book portrays through several examples also had (and has) other carriers of the bug. DIY publishing's origin isn't necessarily an expression of enthusiasm; it can also originate from oppression, fear and severe deprivation caused by the cultural and historical conditions that were present in former Czechoslovakia during communism. The hitherto untold stories of Czech fanzines are therefore immensely exciting and adventurous. They're driven by at times obsessive curiosity and quirky DIY approaches, and are also a testament to the prevalent atmosphere in society at the time, the essence of the past regime, and to the strategy of survival within it.
One only need to remember the Czech beer bottle opening trick: it always fascinates friends from the West, who are usually stuck without the appropriate instrument. A beer bottle can be opened using a table, a lighter, teeth, or even paper folded several times over. Domestic DIY zinesters didn't have access to Western music, books, comic books, movies or fanzines; they couldn't publish without censorship. They didn't have their bottle opener, but they managed. They also had something to follow, and sources to learn from.
Formerly communist Central European countries have a special word for self-publishing: “samizdat”, a term originated in the Soviet Union in the 1940s. It is a paraphrase of the word “Gosizdat,” a nickname for large, official state publishing house. Samizdat (“samo” meaning “self”, “izdat” meaning “to publish”) meant to be in opposition to that state publishing house. Before 1989, Czechoslovak dissidents used samizdat to distribute manifestos, foreign magazines, letters, literature of domestically-ostracized authors, and translations of banned books, which volunteers used to hand-type using typewriters and carbon paper and all under threat of interrogation or imprisonment. The more efficient means of printing were under strict control of the regime.
Samizdat didn't necessarily have political content, but it did have political significance simply by virtue of its existence within an oppressive regime. It originated in the fear-infused 1950s and became a tool of intellectuals, dissidents who criticised the regime, and also underground artists. This is the musical and artistic community which Ivan Martin Jirous, the main theoretician of the Czech underground, defined in his “Notice of the third Czech musical awakening.” He described it as a movement which creates its own distinct world aside from established society; a world with its own internal energy and a different aesthetics, and as a result, a different ethics.
In 1976 Vratislav Brabenec the member of the persecuted avant-garde band Plastic People of The Universe (the symbol of the Czech underground movement, their music was inspired by the Velvet Underground and by the artistic group Fluxus as well) was among others arrested and protests against this fact culminated in the formation of the Charter 77—an appeal by dissidents and intellectuals criticized the violation of human and civic rights that Czechoslovakia had sworn to uphold by signing the Helsinki Accords. The regime reacted by a propaganda campaign that depicted members of the underground culture as dangerous elements. Two years later fans of the Plastics began to publish Vokno magazine, a cultural underground bulletin. “The first series was thematic, each issue had a theme—music, literature, art, and others,” recalls František Stárek, its “publisher”.
Vokno was printed on an Ormig grain alcohol copier, which was assembled over a period of several months from parts stolen from an office machine factory. The magazine was the predecessor of domestic music fanzines. One could read about the Velvet Underground or about Czechoslovak experimental bands in it, but no names of authors were present, nor real names of villages where underground concerts took place, unless the concerts were broken up by police and subsequently written about in the official Rudé právo (Red Order) newspaper.
The cultural underground and the activities of samizdat journalists is well documented. This book is more aimed at fanzines, which can be considered as being in the shadows from a historical perspective. All of the underground authors however share a common zeal, even if the forerunners were more closely associated with political opposition and faced interrogations by the secret police or even imprisonment. The passion is evident in an excerpt from a poem from the Grey Dream anthology, written by Pavel Zajíček, a member of the underground band DG307, in a 1980 text: “I was transcribing some lyrics deep into the night; I could feel their birth, and their mirror in sounds. However I don't have strength to involve someone else—I think it's best to do EVERYTHING on my own”.
We'll leave you alone, you leave us alone
Without anyone knowing that it was called DIY, that is, Do It Yourself, all around the world, local fanzine makers had one thing in common with their foreign counterparts: a stubborn conviction that they can do everything on their own, without the money or help of others. In contrast to the rest of the world however, there was one significant difference—desperate deprivation not only in cultural goods, which was reflected into both the content and the methods of fanzines.
All things Western had an aura of forbidden fruit around them—this was the reason why people from Czechoslovakia and other communist countries desired them. If they were to fulfill those desires and ambitions however, they had to be creative and manage on their own. When skateboards were the craze of the young generation in the West, the first such item in Prague was copied by the locals using any available materials: the wheels were made from garden hoses and the iron trucks were cast at home using homemade forms. Rare vinyl records obtained from friends traveling abroad or from street garage sales were used to learn not only English, but also whole musical genres. Foreign magazines were avidly read.
Teenagers imitated English words, Czechoslovak punks used wax to hold their mohawks up and bashed into their guitars. Not only that, but foreign fashion magazines found their way into the country through often complicated paths; those were used to inspire home-made copies of Western fashion styles. The clash of different ideas and desires was epitomised by the Berlin wall, dividing Eastern bloc and the Western one, the world of Marx and the world of Coca-Cola.
The Russian-American historian Alexei Yurchak describes the symbolic overcoming of boundaries in his book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation using the term “Imaginary West”. People lived in an information vacuum, in both real and cultural isolation, and could not travel freely or dress according to trends or like their favorite bands. They couldn't do anything without state supervision—but they desired to so much that they created their own version of the West within limitations set by the state. All of these factors were behind the origin of the first true Czechoslovak fanzine, created at the beginning of the Eighties by a group of science fiction fans at the Mathematical-Physical Faculty in Prague: “We want to publish fanzines like in the West too!”
At this moment, the fanzine virus mutated from the Czechoslovak tradition of samizdat. There was also another agent of the mutation: an ingredient of Real Socialism, the Czech phenomenon of chatarstvi, or cottage-going. This was a phenomenon when whole families would leave large cities during the weekends and travel to the countryside, where they might own a small house or a cottage, and would spend the weekend there rather than in the city.
It was in effect a reaction to the complete control of the Communist regime, the limited options for traveling, and to the development of large prefabricated estate housings. The transformation of original urban housing began in the Fifties, and all across the country, standardized, uniform panel blocks sprang up. The greyness of the times and the cramped living conditions in the “rabbit-hutches” was depicted perfectly in Věra Chytilová's film Panelstory (1981). Cottage-going provided a care-free time in a grey zone that was of no interest to the governing regime – similar to publishing fanzines.
Civic involvement lost all meaning in an atmosphere of incessant control; people could not express themselves freely at work, so they found an outlet in hobbies. Cottage-goers worked on perking up their cottages, others would become members of fishing clubs or would collect stamps or make model airplanes or publish their own magazines and share their enthusiasm for what interested them but what couldn't be found in shops and what wasn't written about.
Fanzines were an ever-changing zone with different ratios of the above-mentioned ingredients. Although something of a reduction, it's possible to separate Czechoslovak fanzine creators into two categories: dissidents and cottage-goers. The first were forced through the content, their stubbornness, and principles to come into conflict with the regime; the second accepted the regime's terms so that they could “only” devote themselves to their hobbies. They had no need to resist. They even had de facto state approval, as the state encouraged and supported “spending quality free time.” It was an unspoken exchange: you leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone.
The stories of fanzines are therefore also stories of our past: in these past zines we read science fiction and metal fans obsessively making up music charts and takes us into the grey (cultural) zone; computer game enthusiasts documenting technology shows the at-the-time technological lag behind the West, and comics book fans show us the desire to create their own superheroes and to domesticate the originally American medium.
Total Ink Madness
The aim of this book isn't to map domestic fanzines in detail, but rather to introduce the topic to a wider audience and to tell the stories of some of those who gave us the fanzine bug. American and British fanzines are fairly well-mapped; the fanzine scene outside of these two countries is perhaps not so well documented, with information being available primarily within a closed circle of scholarly studies. The ever-expanding Archive of Czech and Slovak Subcultures which was established in 2014 is doing a good job and there one can find and browse through most of the fanzines mentioned here. The collection is however not nearly as extensive as the Prague-based samizdat archive Libri Prohibiti.
In documenting Czechoslovak and Czech fanzines within this the scope of this book, it is important to note one more thing. Domestic historians don't agree that even after the November 1989 events, there could be dissidents, people who would have a desire to resist and in a free society. In this book, the term “dissident” is used in a way that most scholars would not agree with: for us, the important factor is that of self-determination and resistance in the most general sense. It doesn't matter if it is resistance against a regime, stereotypes in society, the music industry, or the mechanisms of the art trade.
For the hardcore-punk community, loud guitars were a political statement about how the Velvet Revolution ideals of empathy and solidarity were fading away. Music once again became the language of resistance through which, people voiced their opinions on ecology, anti-racist, or animal rights issues and of course, anti-capitalist sentiments. Feminist fanzines on the other hand made significant contributions to the discussion and thoughts about the standing of women and gender roles in society.
The photographers of the latter years of the first decade of the millennium are dissidents of sorts, authors of one of the latest kind of fanzines. They transform their photos into zine notebooks printed on cheap copiers, and even though many consider this to be a mere fetish, a few authors see their prints as a protest against the superficiality of visual communication in a digital environment, a protest against an art world driven by ego and marketing theories.
Their notebooks, bordering on artist books, are published in minimal numbers and often disappear sooner than they can be taken notice of. You take a few photos, do some typesetting, print, copy, fold over, staple, bind together, crop, and annotate. “Have you ever tried putting a Mentos into Coke, or did you only watch it on Youtube? It's good to experience things for real once in a while”, says photographer Petr Hlaváček, a Czech pioneer of such photo zines. He subscribed to zines from abroad and followed the Tiny Vices photo blog that was active from 2005 until 2012, where one could primarily see snapshots taken from the hip, depicting both bizarre things and the banality of everyday life. This lead Hlaváček to making the collective zine Repetitive Beats around the year 2008. “Total ink madness”, reminisces this inconspicuous man in his thirties with a knit cap on his head.
Cottage-goers and Dissidents
In this respect, it is important to note in this context another specific dimension of Czech, or Eastern European fanzines in general. The inspiration isn't only one-way, from West to East. David Bowie fell in love with Warsaw during a train journey there and named a song after it on his album Low, the first of the Berlin trilogy. Warsaw was also the original name of a four-piece band from Manchester, now better known as Joy Division. The album The Dignity of Labour from Sheffield synth-pop band The Human League was inspired by the Soviet space program. Nick Cave wrote the song "The Thirsty Dog" in a bar of the same name in Prague, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead got the idea for the song "The Tourist" from the breakthrough album OK Computer while watching crowds of tourists in Prague; he went on to include sounds of the Prague underground in the Paranoid Android single. The British band Broadcast wrote a song inspired by the imaginary movie Valerie a Týden divů (Valerie and her Week of Wonders) from 1970 – and that's not the end of fascination by Czechoslovak New Wave in the West.
Polish cultural theoretician Agata Pyzik named her book Poor but Sexy after the slogan that was used after the fall of the Berlin wall to ostentatiously promote Berlin as a city with a rich cultural and historical capital, in spite of lacking the economic one. Pyzik in her book borrows the slogan for the analysis of Polish pre-revolution culture, which has a lot in common with ours.
We were poor and had limited means and resources, but in spite of this, the architecture, music, movies, books, illustrations, and not least fanzines carried a sense of something exotic for the West. Much was lost in the translation, but it was perhaps because of this that a very uncanny culture arose here. “We are still influenced by the geographic logic of East and West,” writes Pyzik with a critical undertone. The story of amateur magazines and their quirks didn't really end in 1989, as many would think. Fanzine makers, cottage-goers and dissidents alike, are still here. And they still carry the DIY spirit and curiosity, formed by cultural and historical context.
Fanzines are still incubators of new artistic directions, and are still detonating fuses of social revolutions. On the periphery of the mainstream media world, off the newsagent stands, lies an underground world of independent, DIY-created magazines. If we choose to disregard these publications that stem from folk creativity, we are losing out not only on adventurous stories about their origins; how media DIY-ers and poachers create in a landscape of popular culture. We not only lose out on knowledge about them, but also about us.
Miloš Hroch (*1989) studied journalism and media studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Charles University in Prague. He continues his doctorate studies there. His research interests are alternative media, fan studies, cultural studies, popular culture and subcultures. Since 2013, he has been a music editor at Radio Wave (Czech Radio). He publishes articles in Respekt weekly magazine, in the A2 cultural fortnightly magazine, in the Hospodářské noviny newspaper, in the Fotograf magazine or in the Živel magazine. He contributed to the Lidové noviny newspaper, Orientace LN, or His Voice magazine. He participated in the making of the book Prkýnka na maso jsme uřízli (We Saw Up a Cutting Board, 2013) about skateboarding before the 1989 revolution, the Kmeny 90 publication (about Czech 90´s subcultures), and the Oáza (Oasis, 2016) book in co-operation with the Text Forma Funkce (Text Form Function) graphic design department of the Art Faculty of the University of Ostrava, which documented the Silesian music scene. He co-founded the Křivák/Crook skateboarding fanzine.
The following conversation with Tessa Jolls about the work of David Bordwell has been developed and cross-posted with CML Connections.
David Bordwell (born July 23, 1947) is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997).
With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger. Several of his more influential articles on theory, narrative, and style were collected in Poetics of Cinema (2007), named in homage after the famous anthology of Russian formalist film theory Poetika Kino, edited by Boris Eikhenbaum in 1927.
Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. ***********
This series of exchanges is inspired by Henry Jenkins’ wish to acknowledge David Bordwell as a leading influence on his own career and thinking. Tessa Jolls joined Henry in a dialogue to understand Bordwell’s impact and to make connections about his work to media literacy education.
Renee Hobbs had asked me to contribute an essay for her recent anthology, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative, where I wrote about my relationship with my mentor, John Fiske, and explained how his work had touched indirectly our project for the Digital Media and Learning initiative. Along the way, I ended up writing about Fiske’s mentor, Raymond Williams, as well as my own grandfather.
But the account felt incomplete to me because I did not write about my other key mentor in graduate scholar, David Bordwell. As I do media literacy work, or indeed, any scholarship, I find myself trying to reconcile the voice of these two intellectuals, who rarely got asked to serve on the same dissertation committees because their focuses were so different from each other. There are really two Bordwells, both of which have something to contribute to this field. The first is a formalist, someone who is interested in mapping how cinema works as a medium and the ways that films reflect the different aesthetic traditions from which they emerged.
This Bordwell co-authored Film Art, one of the most widely used textbooks for introductory film, with his wife and writing partner, Kristen Thompson, and they have continued to update the book, generating rich reflections on contemporary and historical film topics through their blog. The other David Bordwell is a cognitivist — that is, he has drawn insights from cognitive psychology to help us to better understand the mental processes by which we perceive and interpret cinematic images. The cognitive movement was a response to strands of media theory which saw spectators as in the thrawl of media texts, as susceptible to their ideological messages; this work was often informed by psychoanalysis, seeing cinema as reflecting the scopophilic desire (the desire to look and possess others with your eyes.) In some ways, a more grassroots version of these ideas helped to shape the more protectionist side of Media Literacy, and so, for those of us looking for a more empowered view of the spectator, Bordwell’s “A Case for Cognitivism” may be a good place to start.
Here’s a quote from A Case For Cognitivism: “My concern is to show that the cognitivist approach, apart from its propensity for naturalistic explanation, shares with contemporary film theory a commitment to constructivist explanations, in terms of mental representations functioning in the context of social action.” This statement certainly puts an explanation behind much of the work that we’re doing now, individually and collectively.
So, let’s break this down. In educational terms, constructivism is a pedagogical approach which stresses the ways people form mental models of the world through their experiences acting on the physical world. Bordwell is interested in how something similar occurs as we watch movies. We start with some basic mental template -- some model of the world, some understanding of genres as particular kinds of films, some grasp of the mode of production from which the film emerged, some sense of the social world around us and thus how the film fits into current political and social debates.
A cognitivist would call such templates schemata or above, mental representations. The more experienced we are at watching films of a certain kind, the more nuanced our schemata is. But the schemata becomes the starting point for making sense of what takes place on screen. We form speculations about what is going to take place, who the characters are, what motivates their actions, what their goals are, and what might constitute a satisfying resolution of this narrative. We are moving from sometimes limited information presented on the screen towards fuller understandings of the action as the film progresses. This requires a process of going beyond the information given, to use a term from Jerome Bruner, and thus, our suppositions can be frustrated or corrected by whatever passes on the screen next. Our schemata tell us what to pay attention to, but in turn, the film’s information gets added to our ongoing mental models. The key point here is that the process is active — one of hypothesis formation, testing, and refinement which does not stop when the film is over. We draw on these same schemata when we talk with our friends over sodas after the screening. Part of what media educators do is to help students develop more nuanced schemata to better understand and critically engage with the media they consume. In that sense, we might see Bordwell’s work as a formalist as mapping the norms and practices surrounding particular kinds of cinema and his work as a cognitivist in refining our understanding of the spectator’s processing of the cinematic experience.
Thanks, Henry, for bringing David Bordwell’s insightful film theory to informing our media literacy work. I can see where the links to media literacy are strong: Bordwell's ideas about constructivism, about mental representations, and social action — which you explain in more detail — all inform an empowered approach to media literacy education. As I was delving more into Bordwell’s writings, I came across one of his essays called “Studying Cinema” from 2009, and he said,
“…I think that film studies is best defined as a process of posing and trying to answer questions (Bordwell’s emphasis). Most ordinary conversation about films serves other purposes — to share information, to have social exchanges with people, to learn more about others’ tastes. Film studies certainly has these aims, too, but like other academic disciplines, it seeks to answer questions in a systematic way, one that is open to discussion and criticism. So film studies centers on certain sorts of questions: those that require explanations as answer.”
Certainly, this quote also relates to one of the central tenets of media literacy education: that media literacy offers a systematic way of critically analyzing global media systems through a process of inquiry that is rooted in basic principles of how media operate as a system. Using an open process of inquiry — asking questions — is the opposite of a protectionist approach that is directive and that is closed.
You mentioned earlier that some interpretations of cognitive theory spawned some protectionist approaches to media literacy. Do you see protectionism as a continuing presence today, and how do you see that Bordwell has helped us move beyond the limiting nature of protectionism towards empowerment?
In this passage, Bordwell is arguing for a middle ground perspective against two other common approaches to film analysis. The first would take a totalizing approach — for example, seeing all Hollywood films as the product of a capitalist mode of production where the demands of the marketplace over-ride any space for artistic expression or predetermine ideological message. The second would be a more interpretive approach which is interested in what the film means but not how the film works. Bordwell has criticized the limited range of meanings ascribed to films (in Making Meaning) and the tendency to read works as reflecting their zeitgeist rather than being shaped by larger genre traditions (see http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/08/24/zip-zero-zeitgeist/).
Instead, he wants us to take a historical approach which asks questions that require us to move beyond the individual film to look at the system of norms, institutional practices, technological infrastructures, and cultural influences that shaped how movies get made at a particular moment in time. I agree that this approach is a particularly valuable one for media literacy educators. It helps young people acquire a vocabulary they can use to ask analytic questions about a much broader range of media texts without moving too quickly to dismiss them as the work of the culture industries or as attempts to manipulate our minds. So, for sure, I prefer Bordwell’s middle-level approach to the more totalizing view.
I am less certain that I — and perhaps even Bordwell — would argue against the importance of interpretation within media literacy classrooms. We certainly do not want interpretation to be imposed on students by the teacher — although I think teachers can legitimately participate in the process — but we do want students to explore what media texts mean to them. We want them to be able to explain why certain texts are meaningful without being required to justify and defend their tastes in an adversarial context. And we want them to be attentive to the fact that the same work might generate different meanings for different viewers under different circumstances (a move which is very much prefigured by Bordwell’s turn towards a cognitive model of the film experience).
The debates Bordwell faced were between psychoanalytic approaches (which tend to see films as working upon our unconscious) and cognitive approaches (which focus on the conscious and preconscious levels of our engagement with media texts). Cognitive approaches proved particularly compatible with arguments for a more active audience where-as the psychoanalytic model, at least the one that Bordwell was pushing back against, tended to see media spectators as dupes. In both film studies and media literacy, the tide has turned decisively towards a more empowered perspective, but protectionist impulses linger not far beneath the surface.
If we do not keep consciously fighting for a more empowered conception, protectionism becomes the default. In the academic world, protectionism comes hand in hand with the eltism that is the negative undercurrent of intellectualism: a sense that our formal education allows us to see through things to which others are susceptible. In the world of secondary school education, a paternalism is often built into the power differential between adults and youth. For that reason, it remains vital that we keep sharpening our conceptual models to respect and value the cognitive work that goes into the processing of media texts.
Henry, your point about how “if we do not keep consciously fighting for a more empowered conception, protectionism becomes the default" is a caution that we as educators need to constantly heed. Citizens need the skills, the vocabulary and the dispositions to explore and articulate their thinking as well as their feelings — and from my observations in the classrooms, students are often much more adept and practiced at expressing their feelings than their thinking. To be empowered means to be intellectually curious and expressive as well as emotionally available, to be knowledgable yet humble, to be capable of challenging while being respectful, to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, description and inference, and thinking and feelings.
As we’ve been delving into Bordwell’s approach to film analysis, I’ve been seeing that he offers a deeply informed, empowered approach to understanding film. His essay “Common Sense + Film Theory = Common Sense Film Theory?” is a case in point (see: http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/commonsense.php).
He addresses an overview of film integrating many schools of thought: semiology, perceptive research, logical fallacies, heuristics and social intelligence. Yet at the same time, he elucidates ways of teaching practical skills — “thinking skills” — in an accessible way. For example, there is a difference between saying that someone “looks angry” and “his eyebrows were furrowed,” “his gaze was intent,” or “he narrowed his eyes.” In the first case, saying that someone “looks angry,” assumptions and inferences are being made. But what is the evidence? What description can support such a conclusion? Bordwell addresses these distinctions in a direct way that enables a cognitive analysis. Bordwell says:
"Mind-reading requires us to detect, sometimes on very faint cues, what people are expressing or signaling through their behavior. Elsewhere I’ve talked about this in cases involving eye behavior—blinking and eyebrows, in particular. But there’s much more to be done with the ways in which cinema mobilizes our social intelligence in order to track a narrative. Sometimes the narrative eases our task by making things redundant and clear; sometimes the film throws up problems, making it hard to understand characters’ intentions or reactions, as in the enigmatic veteran played by Henry Fonda in Daisy Kenyon.”
One of the qualities I’m appreciating about David Bordwell is that he is both a highly respected theorist and a caring teacher who is committed to help people make meaning from their own lives, using film analysis as a pathway. How do you see Bordwell's empowering approach to education contributing to positive action by individuals and in communities?
This particular essay (above) reflects Bordwell’s ongoing interest in understanding the processes of perception and comprehension. What kinds of skill and knowledge do we need to comprehend a film narrative? Here, his core question may be: “We speak of 'reading' an image, but do certain kinds of images—those that common sense declares 'realistic'—demand anything like the deciphering that printed language does? How much does grasping an image depend on learned conventions of representation?” For us, this might boil down to the question of whether “media literacy” is a “literacy” in the sense that it involves “deciphering” a coded text or whether it constitutes a social skill?
Thinking of media literacy as a social skill might allow us to move from our understanding of everyday communication situations — such as distinguishing between a blink and a wink (an issue the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about in The Interpetation of Cultures) — to the more formalized communication that occurs through various kinds of mass media? Bordwell clearly recognizes complex formal norms that shape the processes of representation (as in his example here of Daisy Kenyon, a Hollywood film which has notably unscrutable characters due to its performance style and visual strategies) but he also recognizes that we often read film characters through the same lens as we read people in our everyday life through bodily signs, gestures, etc. that suggest, but do not tell, what they are thinking. Some acting styles are more naturalistic than others, but all of them depend on certain kinds of social knowledge as a basis for our comprehension.
Bordwell is, for sure, asking “what is the evidence?” and as a teacher, let me tell you, he demands that his student anchor every claim with reference to specific moments in the text: he is a master of close reading. But, he also is pushing back against theories that would isolate cinematic experience from other kinds of real world experiences, which is why he is describing his approach in terms of “common sense.” I was very lucky to have him as my graduate school mentor. While my own work has generally pulled more in a cultural studies rather than a cinema studies direction, I still use the skills in critical analysis he taught me on a regular basis.
My own current book project, Comics and Stuff, takes seriously the idea that we draw on social knowledge to process media representations, looking at the relationships in contemporary graphic novels between characters and their possessions (the ways they make meaning of their lives by way of their stuff). I am interested in representational strategies but I am also interested in reading the background of panels the ways many of us read the objects on someone’s desk or the books on their shelves or the decorations of their living room. This project represents an attempt to meld cultural studies of material culture with a visual studies approach to formal practices, one very much shaped by what I learned from Bordwell.
As for Bordwell’s approach being empowering, I think that is right. I have certainly found it so. By the way, I love your definition of “empowering” above! In Cinema Studies, which has a strong tradition of work critiquing ideology, Bordwell has often been viewed as “apolitical” or even “conservative” because he does not bring his personal political commitments into his work very much.
Yet, the focus here on the active process of comprehension stresses choices made by both filmmakers and filmgoers in ways that paves the way for a more empowered conception of our relationship to media. He does not accept the premise that we simply absorb uncritically what passes across the screen, that we are susceptible to ideological manipulations, but rather, he sees the spectator as always actively making sense of films and thus, potentially at least, critically engaging with the representations being constructed. What we do with those skills is up to us. He has no explicit social change agenda, but his models can be used by media literacy educators in ways that help us to take greater responsibility of the choices we make, what insights we take from media, what accountability we have over our own representational and curatorial choices, etc. And to me, those issues are at the heart of the contemporary media literacy movement.
Readings from David Bordwell’s work:
Voices of Media Literacy
Grandparents of Media Literacy
For the past few years, I have been listening on the sidelines to the explosion of creativity and insights emerging from contemporary podcasts. I am listening to dozens of different podcasts every week, constantly trying out anything recommended to me. Well, sooner or later, it was going to happen – I’ve been hit hard with the urge to develop my own podcasts, which will allow me to interview people in my network that would never have had the time to do the lengthy interviews we run here on the blog.
I have been in conversation with Colin MacClay who currently runs the Annenberg Innovation Lab. Colin and I have a long history going back to when he was at the Berkman Center at Harvard and I was at MIT. And we share a suite in the old Annenberg building.
Over the fall, conversation led to experimentation led to more actionable plans and now, to the launch of our podcast. Our vision is to tap people from our combined network of activists, policy makers, artists, technologists, fans, educators, journalists, and media industry insiders, all of whom have something interesting to say about the relationship between popular culture and politics.
We are calling the podcast, for now, “How Do You Like It So Far,” a title intended to signal that we are still trying to figure out what we are doing and would appreciate your feedback. Our approach – again, for now – is to focus onto some of the hot media properties and franchises of the moment as starting points for exploring the bigger picture developments which are reshaping the media landscape. Think of it as a return, for me, to the structure I used in Convergence Culture – the franchise is a point of entry but our explorations go broader and sometimes leave that starting point behind.
The podcast is going to dig deeper, ask more ambitious questions than most pop culture podcasts out there – we are not doing recaps or just remaining on the level of entertainment coverage. For us, popular culture offers resources for asking questions about who we are and where we are going, questions that can be political, legal, technological, economic, or social, but often cut across all of the above.
So, in the first cluster of episodes, we are turning out attention onto The Last Jedi, which we are coming at from multiple angles. The first episode, which you can access here, is an interview with Ahmed Best, the actor who played the part of Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, perhaps one of the most hated characters in the franchise. But Best could not be a nicer or more thoughtful guy, and he’s spent much of the past decade plus digging deeper into issues of inclusion and representation, so we focused our interview mostly around the racial politics of Star Wars, and in the process, learned more about representational politics in contemporary Hollywood. Check it out here.
If you like what Best has to say, check out his Afrofuturist podcast here.
Coming Up Next Week: transmedia producer Jeff Gomez joins us to talk about how changing storytelling practices in contemporary Hollywood (which involve a rethinking of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey myth for a more diverse culture) may account for the fragmented audience response to The Last Jedi.
And from there, we will be digging into fan reception, taking soundings into what the debate about Last Jedi looks like for both male and female fans, and beyond that, we will zoom out to think about the struggles over inclusion and representation in the entertainment industry more generally.
Watch this space for more updates, while we work out arrangements with iTunes to set up a subscription for the podcast.
Given that this podcast is being hosted by two white dudes who used to work for elite east coast institutions and now work two doors apart at USC, we are committed to insuring a diversity of guests as defined in terms of race, gender, and national perspective.
We welcome your feedback on any aspect of the podcasts, including suggestions of potential guests or questions you would like for us to explore. We have lots to learn but that is going to be half the fun, and we hope you will join us along the way.
I’m truly sorry to hear that Becca. That’s horrible, to say the least, and it makes me so mad (although it’s not a new phenomenon, unfortunately, but that doesn’t excuse such behaviour).
I don’t intend on challenging your lived experience and I think that would be a valuable contribution to scholarship on Star Wars, perhaps even at an auto-ethnographic level. I can certainly understand that women may “fight fire with fire” in such cases. But as an empirical researcher, I’m afraid there are many examples of critics, fan-bloggers and so on — female and male — attacking fans en masse. I’m not talking about racist, misogynists either; I’m talking about attacking men because they’re men, nothing else. Also, as a researcher, it is not up to me to make moral judgements about the way in which people ‘do fandom.’ My provocation was epistemological, not moral. As Mar pointed out, and as Mel Standfill implies, there is a tendency to ignore the “dark side” of fandom, especially when women are involved as violent aggressors. So while I appreciate that women/ men are not ideological equals by any stretch, it is problematic to ignore toxic performances wherever they emanate from or to reframe them as understandable because of masculinity.
I certainly understand where you’re coming from Becca as a fan yourself, and it troubles me a great deal. It’s one of the reasons why my own fandom is kept indoors. I don’t participate in a fan “community,” for example.
However, female fans have also been toxic as Jessica Austin was analysing at the Fan Studies Network conference in 2016 (Mar and I were in the same room!) – and the majority of scholars agree that this needs to be addressed with some urgency. Austin had some powerful examples of fangirl toxicity; in one extreme case, a female fan contingent bullied a fan-artist so much that she tried to take her own life. Mar has already mentioned Swifties, but we could chuck in One Direction fans (“I will pour fucking bleach down your throat,” said one teen), or Supernatural fans, with evidence that a minority literally assaulted Jensen Ackles. That’s not something I think can be ignored by scholars, not least when there’s empirical evidence behind it, nor is it something that I think is worth “protecting” (not that you implied that Becca, I’m speaking more generally).
In addition, crossing over into other disciplines, the research on bullying is so much more frank and less fearful — one study of “mean girls in popular culture” is truly awful, not to mention the cyber-bullying research that claims that women – and girls – are particularly aggressive and hostile to other girls. So while I understand the reason why women may feel as if they need to lash out for the way they’ve been mistreated historically, perhaps in similar ways to your experience, Becca — that is, on the level of lived experience. I’m not interested in either defending or attacking fans — I’m interested in the broader picture. I recognise that I’m putting my head above the parapet, and, in many ways, that’s what I do — confront media “controversies,” and deconstruct myths via empirical methodologies. I’m sorry to say that in my research, some female fans have been quite hostile, venomous and nasty – and not always towards men, but towards women too. I strongly believe that the current state of fan studies, as well as media/ cultural studies, is not only blind to this, but actively works to construct women as victims only and reifies the very gender binaries that scholarship ostensibly aims to dismantle.
I am sure that however hurtful and alarming those comments are to you, Becca, that you did not respond in kind with slurs and insults of your own. So while it is at least understandable why some women also behaviour via the utilisation of toxic fan practices, it doesn’t mean it should be condoned as “fair game,” else we run the risk of infantilizing women all over again (which many scholars do without realising it; same with constructing the gender binaries all over again).
So my intervention is about how to deal with this on an empirical and epistemological level as scholars without making moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of being a fan. And I understand why scholars would be anxious about wading in the toxic filth and sludge of many digital spaces and I feel very ambivalent about how to frame empirical evidence that points in this direction.
I would also cite the many feminists who argue that the concept of 'Patriarchy' as an umbrella concept no longer works. I prefer the concept of Kyriarchy as I feel it allows for more complexity and nuance, not to mention permitting my own ‘white masculine privilege’ to be re-framed in order to consider my working class heritage (I was born in the British council estate ‘projects’, and existed in abject poverty for most of my life) and non-neurotypicality (I am autistic). Power is intersectional. I also think it’s interesting how concepts of ‘class’ has almost been removed from such analyses.
I’m going to jump in here quickly to add that as I don’t participate in any organised fan communities I simply don’t see what is being described by Billy and Mar with regard to the toxicity of women fans, and I don’t know the scholarship on this as I’m a cultural/film historian. However, as fandom exists within patriarchy, I can’t agree that fan toxicity knows no gender. Even the way women fans are being described with regard to toxicity is in gendered language (for example, venomous and nasty are not words I typically hear used to describe men). Surely fan communities, whether positive or negative, are gendered, raced and classed just like the broader cultures from which they emerge?
Anyway, my response was not designed to vindicate bullying behaviour but rather an attempt to explain why women journalists and fans might make sweeping statements about toxic fan cultures being male, which I don’t think is unfair (based on my previous comment, and also Will’s pertinent analysis of gendered power structures), even if it is not always ‘right’. I’m going to leave this here rather than get into a long conversation about radical feminism and/or the design of online architectures that privilege maleness and whiteness, which would be interesting but (sadly) not relevant to the film. I think us responding to Megen’s thoughtful comments will be a much more productive way of developing the conversation.
I think the point I have been trying to make all along has gotten lost and this is what I was afraid of. I completely agree with everything you say, Becca. Of course fan “communities” are gendered, classed, raced etc. I don’t know what gave you the idea that I thought differently. Indeed, fan cultures are splintered and fragmented across class, race and gender — and other axes too. To talk of a fan “community” is problematic, as we all know: there is no such thing as a homogenous and coherent fandom.
I am not talking about women journalists generalising about male fans — I am talking about specific instances whereby individual male fans are attacked without merit. I’m talking (again) about Henry Walsh being accused of being a neo-nazi, a misogynist, a member of the ‘alt right,’ etc., by both female and male journalists across the world – when in reality he is a disabled individual, an anti-Trump demonstrator with progressive, feminist outlook. I completely agree with you about the overarching discourse, Becca. I apologise if I haven’t made that clear in my essays and my comments earlier.
I’m also quite familiar with the history of radical feminism. I’m a comfortable Marxist and trade union activist, but I don’t agree that ideology works quite as bluntly as you suggest: the way you construct women as existing within the yolk of Patriarchy seems to rob them of agency and make victims out of them.
I’m sorry, but the words “venomous and nasty” are not gendered words at all, at least not in the way I use them (although I could be blind to this, naturally). I think it’s unfair to imply that I used sexist language.
I’m sorry you don’t think that part of the conversation isn’t productive, and I’m happy to stop and leave it be. My point way back at the beginning, and in my essays, is that academics tend not to be able to discuss these things frankly and in the spirit of open debate without relying on arguments that shut down discourse.
I’m truly sorry for your lived experience with male fans. It’s quite rife, to be honest. One of my students wanted to start reading comics and I offered advice on where to go, what to read. She told me that her experience of entering a comic shop for the first time was such a negative experience that she’d never return (I believe there’s work on comic stores as “toxic masculine spaces”). I shall leave the topic be for now, unless anyone wants to continue. (I’ll get my coat.)
MEGEN DE-BRUIN MOLÈ
A few points about authorship, textuality, and intertextuality have piqued my interest in the last few comments. Billy, you very usefully mention the issues that arise when too many people try to micromanage a story. Of course, most contemporary texts are engaged in ‘authorship by committee’ to varying degrees. No book, no comic, and certainly no film comes into circulation without the extensive input of many different people, and rather than disparaging Star Wars for foregrounding this process as a central part of their brand strategy, it might actually be to our advantage to consider the ways in which the franchise is just making an existing phenomenon more visible. It might be useful here to reference Jonathan Gray’s concept of 'clusters of authorship', of which Disney/Lucasfilm is a really great example. There are authors all along the Lucasfilm/Disney chain—Kathleen Kennedy, the Story Group, the directors of the films and writers (and translators and editors) of the novels, the advertising department, the makers of the toys, and so on. Of course, each of those authors has a different kind of power, and some of those authors have MORE power, or at least more visibility.
For this reason I also think it’s really interesting what Lincoln has said about the way key worldbuilding and characterisation elements are being shifted from what you consider the ‘main’ platform (the films) to the novels, the TV shows, the comics, etc. Just like we’ve developed clusters of authorship, transmedia storytelling seems to be giving us clusters of characterisation and clusters of worldbuilding—centralised nowhere. So much of these new films involves giving us just enough to go on in terms of characterisation and (more unfortunately) diversity, which are then expanded on in fandom or sub-canon (Stormpilot, for example, or the instance Suzanne mentioned earlier in this roundtable, about Holdo's queerness being relegated to a YA novel).
I’ll be interested to see how the hierarchies between the films and other media develop over the next few years, especially given that it seems like we’ll be inundated with new Star Wars films. This is probably giving Lucasfilm too much credit, but could the long-term strategy actually be what it seems at the moment—to make the films less of a ‘special’ event, and put more emphasis on other media platforms in the franchise? Wouldn’t it (at least on some occasions) be a good thing if fans could choose to skip a film now and then to delve into the universe at another point instead?
A lot of the legwork TLJ does is indeed not in advancing the plot, but in raising questions for other instalments to answer. As one of the ‘core’ texts of the franchise, its job seems to be more in providing a platform where all of those disparate parts of the Star Wars universe can coexist. For example, I actually saw the Canto Bight sequence as quite a vital bit of world-building. Not just in terms of the story TLJ tells—it reminds us that there are billions of people in the universe who are outside the epic Resistance/First Order divide—but also in terms of creating a cohesive world for the franchise as a whole. TLJ even feels like a well-integrated part of ALL of Lucas’s Star Wars films, taking narrative and visual elements from the original trilogy but also from the prequels (and the special editions). We get weird new CGI animal species and our beloved animatronic puppets. Serious philosophical discussion and ridiculous racing sequences. TLJ is the #CantWeAllJustGetAlong of Star Wars movies. Canto Bight does feel tonally different to the rest of the film, but it also feels like a link to parts of the franchise I haven’t dared to venture for a while. It actually made me want to watch the prequels again.
I think you raise a number of interesting points here, Megen. You are quite right that comics, films, TV series and so on have “clusters of authors” — clusters that, in Mark J.P Wolf’s terms, are also hierarchical “circles.” I’m not quite sure if Kathleen Kennedy is a traditional author, nor The Lucasfilm Story Group. To be sure, they’re all involved in decision-making and creative planning — Kennedy is the one who green-lights projects; the Lucasfilm Story Group are a canonical police-force, ensuring that transmedia elements align with the films. That said, despite the revised rules about canonicity, with all texts flattened as equal parts of the overarching hyperdiegesis, it remains evident that the films are “the immovable objects” of the Star Wars “world.” In actual fact, then, a hierarchy still exists between transmedia elements. The films still represent “the mothership,” with transmedia satellites orbiting and feeding off of the cinematic “master narrative.” But as Colin B Harvey explores in Fantastic Transmedia (2016), if we consider vast narrative worlds as having a kind of serial “memory,” then it’s interesting that memory often only goes one way: that is, transmedia texts draw from the mnemonic contents of the film series, but the obverse rarely happens. So while Marvel’s canonical comic series introduces new characters, such as Doctor Aphra — who apparently collaborated with Vader between ANH and ESB — or Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan — it is rare to see new transmedia characters “remembered” in the film series. Rogue One took several steps in including references to the animated TV series, Rebels, so perhaps we’ll see more memory tissue between transmedia instantiations and the cinematic core of the franchise, but we shall have to see how that turns out.
In relation to “authorship-by-committee,” I agree in principle — but prior to the Disney acquisition, Lucas was the committee, or at least the “author-God” (thank the Maker!”). But naturally, this perspective only goes so far from ‘a certain point of view’: there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of creative agents working on Star Wars and the collaborative nature of film-making, comics, novels, video games, and so forth, demonstrate that unequivocally. Yet as far as the film series goes, Lucas was head-honcho and it was his “vision” that provided a solid footing, which, as Will points out in his BFI Star Wars book, was more detrimental to the creative process as Lucas gained ultimate control and became the very thing he originally fought against: a corporation with Lucas as Emperor. So if we are to include figures such as Kennedy, Hidalgo, Chee and other agents in the LSG as “authors,” then we would need to radically shift our understanding of what authorship is. That seems a valuable intervention, Megen.
One final point, if I may: in Jenkins’ seminal definition of transmedia storytelling, which has been examined, extended and expanded by other scholars since, the hyperdiegetic “mothership” shouldn’t ask viewers to head off elsewhere for canonical information. In many ways, we have seen how fan criticism can end up becoming narrative elements themselves: for instance, when Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness featured Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, continuity fans exposed a major fault-line insofar as the parallel (Kelvin) timeline was introduced after Khan Noonen Singh was born. Thus, Caucasian Benedict Cumberbatch could not be Khan in continuity terms — Khan should be Richardo Montalbán, or, at least, a character of Latin descent. In order to address fan criticism, Paramount/ IDW rushed out a comic mini-series (‘Khan’) that rationalised the racial disjoint, aiming to police and contain criticisms centred on racial politics. In doing so, the comic book mini-series functions ostensibly as a palliative narrative. This reminds me of Suzanne’s chapter on BSG (“is fan production frakked?’), whereby the producers worked to plug gaps in hyperdiegetic continuity via various transmedia satellites and thus conducted textual operations that would most usually be a fannish play-park.
Although Snoke’s origins (we could also include the emergence and history of the Knights of Ren) have not yet been addressed transmedially, I agree with Lincoln that this is not only plausible but also inevitable. To return to Rian Johnson, the way he has marshalled a number of defences about The Last Jedi in interview paratexts and on social media perhaps points towards the emergence of explanations in Expanded Universe elements. Recently, news has emerged that Gary Whitta (Rogue One) is penning a comic book adaptation of TLJ but that this will include narrative threads not seen in the film itself. Naturally, we shall have to wait and see how that turns out, but it seems to me that fannish criticisms, especially those anchored onto canonical continuity, can be picked up and addressed elsewhere, “in-text.” That said, I personally think this is a “get-out-of-jail-free card” and signals towards the film’s story as deficient, at least across the axis of narrative.
Seriously though, where are my Knights of Ren, Disney? I’ve been waiting for more than two years for that question to be answered. Why did Ben Solo become Kylo Ren and not Nick Vader? Is he one of those hip solo acts whose stage name looks like a band when they really are not a la Marina and the Diamonds? I’m in jest here, but these and other over-top questions piling up in my mind point me towards the ambitious yet flawed transmedia development of the franchise.
Megen’s suggestion of a de-centralised transmedia system is thought-provoking but I truly wonder if that would work in such a literal transmedia jungle like Star Wars. Retrieving my initial intervention citing Verón, the main problem lays on the reading contract that the franchise has been forging with its consumers (in general, not just fans) over the last 40-years which have created a sort of transmedia baggage in all of them, and consequently, in the producers, too. In the same vein as Billy, and from a financial and branding perspective, I doubt that the producers consider the films as anything but the core of the transmedia system in spite of their transmedia ventures. And, certainly, a great mass of consumers still deem the films as such and don’t dive into ancillary content unless they are truly interested (my young adult brother would fall into this category). This way the encyclopaedia of the Star Wars’ viewers stems from the films, so that the existence of hierarchies in the transmedia narrative universe is reinforced. Drawing again on Jenkins’ original concept of transmedia storytelling, each narrative unit of the system has to be self-contained so that it enables the set up of several entry points for different types of audiences. In a way, the narrative autonomy means that the key questions have to be addressed in the text while it can leave any secondary matters (or “absences” as Eco would put it) for the ancillary contents to answer them. In her PhD dissertation, Christy Dena refers to this as “tiering” which could be applied to the current situation of the Star Wars universe as a contrast to other, perhaps smaller projects who were consciously conceived with a radical transmedia narrative deployment in mind.
In this sense, Carlos Scolari, Manel Jiménez and myself (in Communication and Society, 2012) call this “strategic transmedia” vs “tactic transmedia” which has been developed a posteriori, once the transmedia cat is out the bag, sort of speak. This does not mean that is not planned but the narrative and textual development has its limitations because it was not transmedia in origin. Then, it can be argued that strategic transmedia is tighly connected with what Dena defines as “intracompositional transmedia phenomena”, in other words, a single story told all across different co-dependent media (in principle, the opposite to Jenkin’s seminal concept) whereas tactic transmedia links back to Dena’s “intercompositional transmedia phenomena”: a variety of autonomous compositions (be it one-off works or little intracompositional phenomena) spread through different media and that belong to one narrative world. In sum, Star Wars appears as both tactic and intercompositional transmedia narrative universe. Gray’s concept “clusters of authorship “does speak to these tactic, intercompositional transmedia developments. In other words, every author figure in Star Wars has their little dukedom-inside-the-kingdom to play with. However, whether it is strategic or tactic, the transmedia development it seems recommendable to count on a sort of architect (as Jeff Gomez would defend) to put order in the kingdom which is exactly the function of the Lucas Film Story Group.
The problem comes, in line with what Suzanne has extensively studied before, and Billy now brings up, when the transmedia development is used by producers to keep control of the integrity of the transmedia text. Both concepts of transmedia erasure and transmedia (over)reliance mentioned in here can be understood within the general “trans-transmedia” introduced Matt Hills (2012): “Trans- transmedia is thus not simply about serving fans; it is also about seeking to manage and protect the brand value of a TV series, thus involving a form of discursive “fanagement”. Fan expectations and dissatisfactions are problematically engaged with, and disciplined and contained, at the level of niche paratexts”. If transmedia erasure consists in cutting off the problematic branches in the jungle (as a fan, I still don’t get why they take out Tartakovsky’ Clone Wars supreme animated series out of the canon), (over)reliance provides new trees in the jungle to cover up narrative deficits in light of what I have argued about narrative autonomy within a transmedia narrative world. The amusing side of these narrative patching up takes place when the producers don’t try to fend off criticism by launching more transmedia units but when they resort to “Twitter-pedia” fans as commented by Billy, that’s certainly cheaper than produce a Marvel comic. Rian Johnson’s intervention was based on using now-outlawed Expanded Universe material which paradoxically keeps pervading canonical content as implied in the trailer for the forthcoming Solo film. There so much repackaging, as Suzanne would put it, that a fan can take. And yes, Lincoln, I so need a transmedia detox from Star Wars.
Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé is a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton. She holds a PhD in English Literature, and her research interests include popular culture, adaptation, and contemporary remix. Her article ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, appeared in the 2017 collection Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest). You can follow her (and her research) on Twitter: @MegenJM.
Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.
Dr Rebecca Harrison is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on media technologies and how gender, race and class affect people's experiences of visual culture. Her first book, From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (I B Tauris, 2018) is forthcoming, and she is currently working on her second book, The Star Wars Code, which is due for publication in 2021. In the meantime, you can find information and links to her various Star Wars-related projects, including research, teaching materials, articles - and an accidental controversy about Dr Organa - on Twitter: @beccaeharrison.
Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018).