The Magic of Back-Story: Further Reflections on the Mainstreaming of Fan Culture

The airing last Monday of the Heroes episode, “Six Months Ago,” seems an appropriate occasion to reflect upon the centrality of back story in fan friendly television — and by extension to explore a bit more fully some of the gender dimensions of the mainstreaming of fan culture. I first wrote about Heroes last summer when I got a chance to watch an advanced copy of the series pilot and I fell hard. Heroes has turned out to be one of the most successful new television series to debut this year and is, if the comments posted here on Pimp My Show, certainly a favorite among readers of the blog.

For those not watching the series, “Six Months Ago” takes place, as the title indicates, six months before the events in the pilot episode. Hiro, salary man by day, Otaku by night, “Superhiro” in his spare time, travels back in time six months to try to stop the death of the woman fans have been calling “Google Girl,” a hash house waitress with a phenomenal capacity to absorb and deploy information. Time travel plots are cool enough — I’ve always been a sucker for them — but in this case, the series used turning back the clock to dump a massive amount of really interesting, character-focused back-story on the viewers. Half way through the episode, I turned to my wife and mumbled, “the magic of back story.”

SPOILER WARNING FOR THOSE WHO AREN’T CAUGHT UP ON HEROES

Just setting a story six months earlier already opens up all kinds of great insights into the characters. We find out, for example, a great deal about Nikki, her relationship with her apparently abusive father, the death of her sister, and through this, for the first time, we get some real clues into what is motivating the doppelganger which emerges and takes possession of her body during moments of key stress. We learn a great deal about the accident that crippled Nathan’s wife and the context in which it occurred, including more information about the death of Nathan and Peter’s mob-tied father, the rise of Nathan’s political career, the reasons why he is being blackmailed, and the circumstances under which he first discovered his capacity to fly. In the case of Claire, we learned a great deal more about her relations with her father and how she discovered her capacity for instant regeneration. Along the way, we finally met Skylar; we encounter Chandra Suresh, Mohinder’s father, and learn more about his work in New York City, and much much more.

END OF SPOILERS

It is hard to imagine an episode offering more “answers” to the character enigmas that had been introduced across the series to date or opening up more new questions in such a short period of time. At the same time, it was clear that the series had been structured from the pilot forward to prepare us for the information rush that comes of having all of this back-story dumped on us in such a short period of time.

How simple the device is! Let’s turn back the clock six months and show you how everyone got into their current situations. In theory, we could keep turning back the clock again and again and find out even more about what made these characters into the people they are today. Yet, the series is structured so this is the crucial time period for so many of these characters. I am reminded of the thrill I felt as a gamer the first time I encountered a game which allowed one to move right to left as well as left to right across the scroll: in effect, all the game had done was start us in the middle screen, but suddenly, one had the feeling of a more immersive world, of the ability to travel in any direction. The lesson here is obvious: start your story in the middle and work in both directions at once.


Heroes is not the first television series to try this trick: there’s a great episode at the start of the third season of The Shield which took us back only a few days before the pilot episode of the series but again, showed how a memorable chain of events started and gave us new insights into the relationships between the core characters.

Back-story is a key aspect of the storyteller’s toolkit in any medium but television until very recently was reluctant to play around too much with back-story because it was assumed that audiences would not carry much information about the characters around with them. Episodes needed to be self contained. It had to be possible to watch them in any order. The episode as a result had to end more or less in the same place where it began. It could deploy very little in terms of outside knowledge or program history less it confuse, frustrate, or leave behind more casual viewers.

Yet, fans, as a community, set themselves up as the protectors and promoters of back story. They wanted to pull together every scrap of information they could find about these characters and where they came from — every long lost friend who showed up for one episode, every passing reference to former girl friends or what happened when they were at the Academy or… Indeed, this was a primary function of fan fiction from its earliest days — fleshing out the implicit back story of these characters, filling in the “missing scenes”.

Serialization was also part of the fan aesthetic from before the beginning. In Textual Poachers, I describe Star Trek fans as turning space opera into soap opera — by which I meant both a focus on the emotional lives of characters (still unusual in many forms of science fiction) and a desire to create a serial structure even around series that were composed of relatively self contained and isolated episodes. But men and women were assumed early on to have a different relationship to serialization and to have different degrees of investment in back story.

Here, for example, is a passage from an essay I wrote about Twin Peaks fans in the late 1980s at a time when internet fandom was perceived as primarily a masculine space:

The female Star Trek fans focus their interest on the elaboration of paradigmatic relationships, reading plot actions as shedding light on character psychology and motivations. The largely male fans in the Twin Peaks computer group essentially reversed this process, focusing on moments of character interaction as clues that might help to resolve plot questions. The male fans’ fascination with solving the mystery justified their intense scrutiny and speculation about father-daughter relations, sexual scandals, psychological and emotional problems, and romantic entanglements. Sherry Turkle suggests that the Hacker culture’s focus on technological complexity and formal virtuosity stands in stark contrast to the group’s discomfort regarding the ambiguities and unpredictability of personal relations. Here, Twin Peaks complex mixture of soap opera and mystery provided the alt.tv.twinpeaks participants a space to examine the confusions of human interactions by translating them into technical problems requiring decoding.

In Textual Poachers, written a decade and a half ago, I discussed the ways that networks regarded women as “surplus viewers” of action-adventure series that were primarily targeted at men and suggested that women had to work harder, had to write around the edges of the episodes, because most of what interested them was marginalized in the actual unfolding of these series. Looking at Heroes suggests just how much progress has been made to transform television into a more fan friendly medium. Minimally, one has to say that Heroes is one of a growing number of action-adventure series which factor in the tastes and interests of its female fan following from its conception. Like Smallville and Lois and Clark, two previous favorites among female television fans, the series uses the superhero genre as a starting point but remains far more interested in character reactions and motivations than in plot actions. Male fans have sometimes expressed frustration with the slow unfolding of plot which has characterized Heroes so far, yet its rhythms owes a lot to the soap opera tradition: we are watching these characters discover their powers and trying to make sense of how they impact their lives rather than watching them deploy their powers in defense of truth, justice, and the American way. We are examining how possessing special abilities impacts their marriages, their friendships, their relations with siblings, their personal turmoil, their unresolved feelings towards their parents, and their popularity in high school, all classic issues in more melodramatic forms of television and all basic building blocks of fan fiction.

We can read this one of two ways: the series is giving fans that much more to play around with when they sit down to write or the series is generating its own fan fiction foreclosing space that was once part of the fan imagination. How we respond to this depends very much on whether we are invested in fandom as a taste culture which wants to reshape the content of American television (in which case fans today are getting more of the kind of television they have historically wanted to watch) or as a subversive activity (in which case the willingness of the companies to give us more of what we want is potentially co-opting, encouraging us to work within rather than outside its systems of production and distribution). I fear sometimes that a decade plus of cultural studies writing about audience resistance may lead us astray, making us forget that resistance is a survival mechanism while the real goal is surely to transform the contents of our culture.

If we understand fandom as a taste culture, we can see plenty of signs that female fan tastes are reshaping popular television. To continue with the idea of back-story, consider a highly successful series like Lost. Lost, as I have suggested here before, would seem to offer a range of different kinds of viewing pleasures — some focused backwards in terms of fleshing out character back-story (a central concern of every episode), some focused forward in terms of watching the unfolding relations between these characters on the island (still well within the territory of melodrama), and some focused on solving the various puzzles (which may be the most classically masculine aspect of its content, though keep in mind how many women like to solve puzzles or read mystery novels and you will be hard press to dismiss this simply as aimed at fanboys.) So, Lost balances devices once thought to appeal primarily to female viewers with those once classically assumed to appeal to men. You can read Lost against the earlier quote about how Twin Peaks allowed male fans to show an issue in character relations by turning them into clues towards a puzzle they wanted to solve. Or consider how much more central relationships (and the companion’s role) are on the new Doctor Who compared to where that series was a decade ago.

And of course, all of this is to hold onto a gender division of fan interpretive practices as it was understood more than a decade ago rather than to revise it to reflect some pretty significant shifts in audience behavior over that period of time. Television isn’t the only thing that is changing. As these once marginal aspects of action adventure series are making it onto the screen more and more, then male viewers of these series are discovering that they like them and are themselves demanding more of this kind of thing. There are dramatic increases in the number of women playing computer games or reading comics. And the online world is bringing together once separate fan communities and creating a common space where they sometimes fight like demons and sometimes pool knowledge, combining their different interests and reading practices for a common cause.

Laura wants to argue that gender is as present in Convergence Culture as it was in Textual Poachers but remains unmarked because the masculine is the norm in our culture. I’ve spent a fair chunk of time pondering this argument over the weekend. To some degree, I buy that, but on other levels, I don’t. Working through the book, women are very central to the Survivor spoiling community which depends heavily upon skills at social networking (and curiously, much of the fan fiction there has been written by men including Mario Lanza who figures strongly in that chapter) and which values the different expertise that different kinds of people bring to the table; the culture around American Idol is probably disproportionately female and women are clearly a primary target audience for that series; the culture around The Matrix is probably classically masculine but does include some women; the Star Wars chapter talks explicitly about the gender divide between male filmmakers and female vidders but it says less about the fact that Star Wars Galaxies attracted a higher than average number of women into a multiplayer game world; and of course, the Harry Potter chapter is very much about the traditional world of female fan writing, although one hat now includes a higher number of male participants than a decade ago. Each of these chapters, then, represents an interesting case study of the different kinds of gender balances which emerge within different kinds of fan communities and activities. I don’t think we can reduce this simply to women having to adopt masculine norms in order to participate in these more public fan cultures, though I wouldn’t argue that some of this does occur. So, as aca-fen, we probably need to spend more time thinking about which spaces within fan culture do remain gender segregated at the present time and why or for that matter, what has allowed some forms of fan activity to achieve a greater degree of gender balance.

And, yes, as we suggested last week, we need to closely examine what television is providing us as fans and whether its fantasies really do align with our own. We need to be attentive to those aspects of fan culture which prove challenging for the media producers to assimilate. Slash usually gets cited as a prime example here, but keep in mind that Joss Whedon found a way to introduce a queer relationship for Willow within Buffy, that Xena was able to include more and more “subtext” scenes which winked at their slash viewers, or that a growing number of American television series do now include explicitly gay characters, so I don’t think it is impossible to imagine slash being incorporated even more into the explicit content of the series.

We can argue that commercial producers are adopting the wrong premises or deploying the wrong models as they court female consumers, but we have to read such projects as the new games focused on Desperate Housewives or the virtual world for Laguna Beach as projects which were explicitly launched with the goal of extending the experience of female fans. We also might read projects, such as blogs and journals in character (from Dawson’s Desktop to Hiro’s blog) or the comics produced around Heroes, to be attempts to expand back-story and character motivations, precisely the kinds of changes in narrative structures that female fans would have been begging for a decade plus ago.

Let’s be clear: I am not arguing that there aren’t gender issues to be studied in and between fan cultures, simply that we need to adopt more complicated terms for talking about them than the tools we had when fan studies first emerged. I am hoping that the current generation of fan theorists (inside and outside the academy) can lead the way towards a more sophisticated account of the role gender plays in the mainstreaming of fan culture. I am sure we will all be talking about this issue more here in the future.

Comments

  1. Interesting rebuttal! I will have to put some time into considering your post (beyond the “Yay, Heroes!” squee I feel compelled to interject), but for now, I will direct you to an essay I just wrote on the increasing visibility of vidding, and its advantages and disadvantages to vidders. It’s a new post, so there aren’t a lot of comments yet, but I expect to see things blossom over the next couple of days. Thought you might find it interesting.

  2. In many ways, the casting of “Heroes” could be looked at as meta commentary on SF/F and superhero stories in general. After all, most of the powers and abilities in “Heroes” are also owned by characters in the “X-Men” franchise (possibly with the exception of Eden, who is a nod to Herbert’s Bene Gesserits), but with the gender reversed. Wolverine is now a girl. Kitty Pryde is now a black man. Rogue is a male nurse. Read this way, “Heroes” gets to play with gender in a slightly different way: Claire’s powers are metaphoric of teenage self-destruction, Nikki/Jessica is a model of the duality many women feel forced into, and perhaps most telling of all, Peter is a nurse with a healing touch…that sucks out one’s power. He’s one of the gentlest characters on the show, but he can also be, well, explosive. In short, I think that the gender reversal in “Heroes” has opened up the series to the kind of discussion that has been going on about superheroes for a long time–such as what they do in their free time, what motivates them, what their inner lives are like–and has done so by giving the “coolest” powers to a teenage girl. (It seems NBC is taking a note from anime, no?)

  3. I also thought the “6 Mos. Earlier” episode was pretty brilliant, though I didn’t think about its appeal specifically to fan communities. What occured to me was that mainstream media is in such a moment of “origin story” saturation, and the episode was almost absurdly symptomatic of that. “Heroes” is already taking its time drawing out that aspect of comic book narrative convention I’ve always found most appealing: the story of the hero’s beckoming. In an earlier time, a TV show like “Heroes” might have established the powers of each of the characters and crystallized their relationships by the end of the pilot episode. The subsequent episodes would then merely excercise and push the boundaries of their powers and organization. “Heroes” is playing off an assumption that it’s moving towards a superhero superteam-like structure, something like the X-Men or The Avengers, but it’s really revelling in that origin story, and drawing what could have been the material for a pilot into an entire season’s worth of shows. It’s going to be a difficult transition for the show’s writers and fans if they actually do ever all come together and begin operating more like a traditional superteam. I suspect they’ll draw out that moment as long as possible, and transform the relationships of the characters continually (another stroke of genius is the use of “meta-powers” in the show, people who don’t so much have their own powers as manipulate the powers of others, which is a helpful mechanic to have if you don’t want things to get stale). This is, in a way, similar to the difficulty teen shows have had when their characters graduate from high school. The becoming story is just very compelling, and something about it seems to have hit a nerve in popular culture lately, what with some of the biggest media franchises “reloading” to great success, such as “Batman Begins” and “Casino Royale.” But how does something that is already a prolonged origin story like “Heroes” capitalize? Can you have an origin story to an origin story? Apparently so.

  4. I think the reason Convergence Culture felt like such a male book to me had less to do with the descriptions of the men engaged in fannish activities (because I did notice in reading it that many women were involved in the fan communities you describe there), but rather that the types of fannish behaviors, engagements, and creations seemed to be more traditionally “fanboy” than “fangirl” activities. And the notion that fannish activities can be/are being mainstreamed again seems to me something that’s happening only to the more “fanboy” ways of engaging.

    I take your point about Heroes, Lost and Doctor Who in terms of a move toward more traditionally fan-friendly (and female fan-friendly) programming, but I think your discussion of slash misses a key point: both the examples you list, on Xena and on Buffy, are instances of lesbian texts/subtexts. I doubt there are many straight men in Hollywood who have a problem with hot girl-on-girl action. Decisionmakers may fear the queasiness of advertisers in response to certain market pressures, but they themselves are far from squicked by a little Willow/Tara tongue action.

    Conversely, the vast majority of slash is male/male, and most men are socialized to be repelled by the very idea of such a thing. Apart from Queer as Folk (yay premium cable), if male homosexuality gets any play on mainstream television, it’s entirely grope-free and Sanitized For Your Protection, such as on Will and Grace.

    And let’s go back to Heroes for a moment and look at the roles for women: a woman operating under the classic good girl/bad girl split, who is totally unable to control her power; a mind-controlling lying manipulator; an indestructible teenaged girl who nevertheless needs “saving” — by a bunch of men. Only Jessica has agency, and she’s a psychopath.

    So while I do think certain television producers are moving to embrace certain types of fannish desires, I still think the desires of women in particular are very far from being addressed.

  5. Kristina Busse says:

    This is an extremely personal response (rather than my usual acafannish attempt to speak more generally). I just spent two days watching all of Heroes…and I’m still not enthralled by it. Trying to figure out what was missing for me (especially read against the overwhelming support for SPN that the post you referenced above generated), I realized that it was emotional involvement and investment.

    Now, clearly I don’t want to simplify into an emotion=female :: action=male dichotomy nor do I think my personal issues with the multiple threads is a “female” thing, but I do think that Heroes might not be as geared towards females as you suggest it is.

    After all, part of what characterizes at least my corner of the fannish universe is complete immersion into a universe and strong identification with central characters. Even as storylines begin to merge, Heroes still has too many balls in the air for me to care for any of the characters too much. In fact, while I’ve seen a lot of squeeing and enjoyment on my flist, I haven’t seen much fic yet (which could, of course, be a function of not searching in the right places *or* a function of the plots and characters being complex enough to not warrant fictional intervention, an argument I tend to believe holds up for many in the case of BSG).

    As for Convergence Culture not being masculine: I tend to agree with Laura insofar as I don’t think it’s about actual men and women as much as ‘male’ and’female’ modes of engagement and ‘male’ and ‘female’ spaces.

    You’re right, of course, that we need to look at new ways to characterize fannish engagements that move beyond male/female divides, but I think your fan film chapter in particular raises some of these issues while at the same time firmly remaining focused on the convergent (male) side. As Laura’s post which she links above indicates, things are changing, but I don’t think we should forget the fact that female fannish activities by definition are viewed more critically (in regards to women’s leisure time, access to disposable income, articulation of female desire etc.). Many fans on my flist disagree, usually younger and firmly post-feminist, and maybe i’m just a second wave dinosaur, but I think there are plenty of gender issues still to be addressed…and slash and vids ought to remain as important as Desperate Housewives games and Survivor collective intelligence communities. [And I loved your post about the difference between collective intelligence and the wisdom of crowds, and wonder whether that might not be gendered to a degree…]

  6. The relationship between Lee & Kara in Battlestar Galactica feels particularly unusual to me when I think about how the shows themselves present gender, especially after the most recent episode (“Unfinished Business”). In some ways, it’s a simple role reversal — to be blunt, Lee is the girl in that relationship, whether you look at the aborted sex between them last season (I think it was in “Scar”) or what happened on New Caprica.

    But in other ways it feels like it goes beyond a simple reversal — if it had been the male character in Kara’s position, it would have been too easy to write him off as a “dog” or a “typical guy” and simply dislike him. Kara’s actions certainly provoked strong feelings of dislike (okay, hate) but there was also sorrow, a kind of innate compassion for her that I wouldn’t have felt for most male characters in her situation, and I’m not sure why that is.