Gender and Fan Studies (Round Four, Part One): Will Brooker and Ksenia Prasolova

Fan and Academic Identities

Will Brooker [WB] wrote three books between 1999 and 2004, on stuff he loved as a kid: Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon; Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans; and Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture. He is currently head of the Film and Television degree programmes at Kingston University, London. His most recent articles include “A Sort of Homecoming: Fan Viewing and Symbolic Pilgrimage” in Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and Lee Harrington’s edited collection Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (New York University Press, 2007), “Everywhere and Nowhere: Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary” (forthcoming in the International Journal of Cultural Studies) and “Television Out of Time: Watching Cult Shows On Download”, scheduled to appear in an edited collection on Lost. His interests include cities, superheroes, online communities and television overflow; he also writes fiction.

Ksenia Prasolova [KP] is a visiting student researcher from Immanuel Kant State University of Russia (Kaliningrad). With financial support of the Fulbright Program she was able to come to MIT and use Henry Jenkins’ vast expertise (and, to somewhat larger extent, Hayden Library’s and CMS’s vast collection of resources) to concentrate on writing her Ph.D. thesis on Harry Potter fan fiction as a literary phenomenon. Apart from Harry Potter, Ksenia is also interested in translation and interpretation, Heroes, and arguing with Kristina Busse. As to her fannish engagement, until very recently Ksenia has been a champion lurker in Harry Potter, Heroes, Firefly and The Sims 2 fandoms.

Finally, Kristina (Nina) Busse was our invisible third interlocutor in the debate, at times performing the curious role of Greek Chorus. She was already talking with both Will and Ksenia when they started talking to one another and somehow she became both conduit and the representative of gender constructions they’d both argue against. In a way, then, the conversation is clearly a continuation of the discussion Will and Kristina had as well as the continuation of many debates Ksenia and Kristina have had about how fan fiction should or should not be studied (literature or cultural artifact), what role gender plays in fan studies (none or a huge role), all the way to the exemplarity or exceptionality of Harry Potter (and luckily the discussion below stayed away from that).

Gender Infiltration

[WB] Just for starters, I should say now that I have some issues with this whole idea of “there’s a war between boys and girls, let’s try to dialog from opposing sides!” I find the notion of a conflict between “boys” and “girls” quite saddening and reductive. I also have reservations about calling any adult a boy or a girl, and the whole stereotypical pink (or red) vs blue color-coding is also kind of problematic to me.

However, from my conversation with Kristina, I’m finding I tend to identify more with the “girl” side of this gendered approach to fandom — if that side means an interest in creativity, confession, autoethnography, autobiography and community — with a particular focus on slash, genfic and films. Those are the things I’m most interested in, in terms of fandom. So if that’s the “girl” angle, it’s fine by me but I think a lot of my work, in that case, challenges the perceived gender boundaries that are supposedly dividing aca-fandom.

[KP] As it was already mentioned in discussion to the related post in Kristina’s blog, ‘fanboys’ and ‘fangirls’, ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ etc. are signifiers of the going-ons in fandom – it is a fact that males tend to side with ‘collecting’, as it is a fact that females tend to side with ‘creative’ in fandom. I am not sure ‘fanboys’ and ‘fangirls’ are the most suitable terms in this case, but those are certainly the most handy ones to refer to a whole set of gendered assumptions and practices that are still very firmly in place. Or are they?

You say that you identify more with the ‘fangirl’ side of approach to fannish scholarship despite being a male, and I would argue that no matter which side you identify with as an individual, it is the fact that you are able to see these sides more or less clearly and label them as gendered that is relevant. I am sure both of us can give examples from our fannish and academic experience of what I would mockingly call ‘gender infiltration’ , but by providing these examples and thus challenging the rigidity of gender divide, wouldn’t we reinforce the very same divide by acknowledging it?

[WB] I identified with what I was being *told* in these ongoing discussions was the “fangirl” side. When I talked about it with Kristina, I was actually quite surprised that the things central to my work on fandom – communities, discussion, slash, films, the way a text bonds people and provides them with a shared culture – are being grouped on the “pink” side. I’ve never thought of myself as being interested in “fangirl” stuff before. I felt it was ironic and amusing that on the evidence of my research, that seems to be the side of the divide I’m on – *according to the terms and territories I’m now being presented with*.

[KP] Somehow the *terms* that are in place, the structure of society, the dominant discourse or something else brought about the curious statistical fact – more women like the ‘creative’ aspect of fandom than men do, more men like the ‘collecting’ aspect of fandom, and both genders are more or less equally involved in canon debates. It would stand to reason that the academics who come from within a certain practice (more likely, female scholars when it comes to fanvids, or male scholars when it comes to comic books) would feel comfortable using autoethnography to discuss the practice, and would probably occupy the stance of ‘impartial observer’ (who cannot help but objectify the study subject-matter) when they need to discuss practices they are not personally engaged in.

[WB] It’s true that you’d probably have to be a long-term comics fan to write reflectively and personally about them, and that as such, you’d probably be male. However, my own experiments with autoethnography (I am using this grand term for it… really I saw it as a kind of personal and reflective creative writing) can be found in my work on Blade Runner‘s city locations, Lewis Carroll’s grave and Vancouver’s streets, as well as the more obviously male-oriented Batman comics and Star Wars films.

Also, though slash seems still to be a predominantly-female activity, before I wrote my chapter about slash, I wrote some slash. I wrote it anonymously and had it discussed on a slash community. It’s not impossible to at least try to seek some experience of and personal engagement with the thing you’re writing about, although this won’t compensate for years of committed immersion. You don’t have to be obliged into an “impartial observer” role about certain topics — you can choose to become more of a participant. But maybe that was a kind of gender infiltration again. I didn’t intend it that way.

[KP] Likewise, Nina keeps on accusing me of not being a “good” fangirl. I’ve tried bunches of shows and disliked most of the ones that came highly recommended–even the ones that seem to have male and female audience appeal, like Buffy.

[WB] Well… what we have here then is me, not a good representative for fanboys because my work is about creativity and community, and Ksenia, not a good representative for fangirls… doesn’t this question whether the categories are of any use? Are Ksenia and I gender infiltrators, or gender traitors? Are we exceptional?

[KP] I’d like to know, myself. While I can clearly see labels and gendered behavior etc. among fans (myself included), I still fail to see how fan scholars display the gendered behavior in their scholarly activities apart from falling into the obvious ‘traps’ of writing about what they know/like best, while their readers are falling into the obvious traps of thinking that the scholar has presented the situation objectively and in its entire diversity. I wonder if the fact that men were almost absent from the academic accounts of Star Trek fandom means that they were actually that absent from fandom itself.

What I have written above is myself – as an academic – describing my fannish behaviors. It is not myself – as an academic – thinking of how my gender influences my work as a scholar who studies fan fiction (I don’t study fandom, not really). While I can talk about myself being a misfit fandom-wise, I am not sure how that applies to my academic practices apart from the fact that I’d love to avoid using any methods that have to do with ethnography or social science.

For instance, there is a part of my dissertation that is about slash, but I only mention in passing that most of the writers are female and that slash is thus the most studied and controversial topic in fan scholarship. What I concentrate on is the kind of literature slash is and how it relates to other genres in general and specifically to other genres in fan fiction. I think this stance has less to do with my gender than with my academic background, which is firmly in humanities… Academically, I am simply not that interested in the social dimension of the phenomenon, although it does not mean that said dimension is not important.

Gender and Slash

[WB] Getting back to the discussion as it began on Nina’s blog, I think it was being suggested that, in contemporary fan-scholarship, women were studying more localized creativity, and men were more concerned with big economic alliances… and that the former – the fans, the fan-scholars writing about them, and the fan activities in question – were being overlooked or neglected.

[KP] Is that so? Maybe it’s more of a field of study question? Not a gender one? As for overlooked and neglected – well, this comes down to a) who hangs out with whom at conferences; b) who references whose work and c) what’s one’s area of interest. Surely everybody references Penley/Bacon-Smith/Jenkins, but what about more recent stuff, or things that are published by independent scholars? They hardly get noticed, or do they? And I also wonder to which extent the blogosphere serves as a connector between the male and female academic networks now.

[WB] Interestingly, and perhaps depressingly, I got the impression last week with Round 3 of this summer event that Henry’s blog was assumed to be a male space, and Nina’s LJ mirror of it to be far more female-oriented: the comments section included the observation that “given that LJ tends to be not an acafannish male space, I’m not sure Sean will actually respond here. *shrugs*”

[KP] Also, the first studies of fandom that I have seen (mostly regarding Star Trek) tended to concentrate on ‘female’ activities in fandom and it sure looks as if we are given to understand that fannish communication network used to be predominantly female. Most of other studies of fandom also tended to single out female domination and female creativity. Your book on Star Wars is a very visible and interesting exception: and surely Star Wars fans can not be the only ones who watch the films together, for instance, or collect action figures?

Or is it not a fannish practice? Is it too mundane and obvious to document, not as exciting as researching slash, for instance? Is it where autoethnography fails us because we go for depicting what we, as fans and only after that – academics, like and understand and enjoy and find fascinating, and leave behind other bits that we think are not as interesting or controversial?

[WB] I am not under the impression that most academic writing about slash is by slash writers – that is, I don’t think most writing about slash is autoethnographic.

[KP] I suspect my definition of ‘autoethnography’ is wider than yours. I don’t think one has to be a writer of slash in fandom to write about slash in academia; it is positioning self as an insider as opposed to outsider in the academic study, and the increased level of reflection that make a difference. Basically, I’d say that while autoethnography means that the writer is also the subject of research, it does not necessarily follow that the very same writer must also be the doer of all actions that fall under academic scrutiny. Also, I’d argue that anybody who ‘reads’ slash extensively for pleasure is a slasher themselves, and that includes a fair number of academics who write about fandom – I’d call myself a slasher because I am a fan of the genre, but I’d never written as much as a word of a slash story in my entire life in fandom. I have translated one story, but that hardly counts.

[WB] By that logic, maybe someone who reads a lot of novels is a novelist; but OK.

[KP] I’d argue that even by reading slash one makes an effort to accept the often subversive and queer reading of the source text, and thus is participating in the process of creating a slash narrative.

[WB] Well, every reader of a novel is participating in its meanings and arguably helping to create the text, but I’m not going to give them the Booker prize for it.

I suspect slash has been so visible in writing about fans (eg. more than films and genfic) because it’s creative, it’s controversial, it involves issues of censorship, and it’s about sex.

[KP] It is interesting how slash has become a somewhat comfortable ground to talk about fandom and the subversive in its readings and interpretations of source text, and at the same time a showcase for fannish creativity. It is so heavily advertised as ‘The Thing to engage in’ that I’d be really surprised to hear that there are fans in the known (female?) fandom who have been around for a while and haven’t tried reading it. And because it’s so vastly popular and, well, commonplace (and here, again, the popularizing studies have played their role) that many (female?) fans tend to appreciate new source texts through ‘the slash lens’…


  1. Will says: I find the notion of a conflict between “boys” and “girls” quite saddening and reductive.

    While I’d love to agree, I’m afraid this is a bit like saying “I don’t see why we have to talk about race; can’t we all be colorblind?” Terminology issues aside, this whole conversation started because many female acafen were upset that the male acafen weren’t attending our papers at conferences and weren’t citing — or in many cases reading our work — though the reverse was not true. Even now, when some female acafen created a mirrored community for this conversation on livejournal which is more conducive to conversation than the (necessarily) spam-filtered blogspace Henry’s generously sharing with us, and despite Henry having advertised and linked to that community multiple times, almost no male acafen are participating in that discussion.

    Will and Ksenia, you’re both focusing on the terminology used to define some fannish spaces as “male” or “female” and are questioning the validity of these gendered descriptions. But I’d like to point, instead, to the reality. Will, you say:

    Interestingly, and perhaps depressingly, I got the impression last week with Round 3 of this summer event that Henry’s blog was assumed to be a male space, and Nina’s LJ mirror of it to be far more female-oriented: the comments section included the observation that “given that LJ tends to be not an acafannish male space, I’m not sure Sean will actually respond here. *shrugs*”

    Sean, to his credit, showed up and made a few comments. Ksenia is over there commenting on this thread, but if you’re there, you are anonymous or under an identity I don’t recognize.

    I’ll admit, I was initially against the founding of the fandebate community because I wanted to see a place where the male and female acafen would discus things like equal colleagues, and I didn’t suspect that community would become such a place. I was pleasantly surprised to see Sean arrive and comment. However, for the most part the community consists of (mostly female) fans carrying on conversations with (almost entitrely female) acafen.

    In other words, I’d love it if this were just a conversation about gendered terminology, but it’s sadly not.

    (ObDisclaimer: I don’t think there’s any overt sexism happening here, and I’m not accusing anyone of overt sexism. But there’s a clear gender divide, if not in out fannish in scholarly activities, then in who presents together, who attends whose talks, who cites whom, who reads whom, and all those other scholarly activities so important as professionals.)

  2. I never had the impression previously that Livejournal was a predominantly-female community – I had a profile and presence on there from about 2004 -2006, I think, but I have let it lapse. It’s true, with hindsight, that pretty much everyone on my list back then was female. So maybe that’s naive of me. However, I didn’t feel a reluctance to join the LJ conversation about Round 3 because of some perception that it was where women “aca-fen” hung out, and that I’d rather stay in… GUY-SPACE, if that’s what this is. The main obstacle for me in terms of posting on LJ right now is that I’d have to register another account (which isn’t necessary for me on this page) or, by using my existing ID, link back to my own personal LJ profile & pages from an academic discussion, which isn’t something I’m so comfortable with: I think there are stories on there about Brett Anderson getting off with Kylie Minogue.

    Effectively, I *am* participating to some extent in the Livejournal discussion because of Kristina’s mirror, which helpfully places my comments on LJ. In turn, I engaged with the LJ discussion by quoting from it in this Round of the broader debate, and obviously people can respond to my responses as you just have. Nothing’s stopping anyone from pasting what I’m saying here over to LJ, either. The two sites are only a click apart.

    So, clearly, I’ve *read* the LJ discussion; I just chose to comment in my contribution here (and in the next section of our Round) rather than by posting on LJ. At the time I was putting my thoughts and energies, for what they’re worth, into this specific engagement with Ksenia and Nina. It seemed most sensible to feed my observations into our discussion, which was scheduled for the next Round; arguably that provides a direct link between the LJ comments and this space on Henry’s blog, bringing them back to (perhaps) a more public platform, and, again arguably, helping to bridge any gap between “official” and “mirror” site.

    I suppose I could be seen as staying within the privileged and protected space of Henry’s official pairings, choosing to speak from a platform rather than entering into the more democratic conversation of the LJ threaded comments.

    However, I don’t see a huge gulf between the two fora – I wasn’t aware of them as different territories. And having said my piece, right now I’d rather let other people have their say about it, rather than wading back in and pontificating even more. Online debates take it out of me, and I feel I’ve said enough.

  3. Will, if anything I said came across as accusing you (or any other participants in this conversation) as intentionally avoiding debate or female spaces, I apologise. I tried to make it clear that’s not what I’m doing, but that may not have come across.

    My point is not that male acafen are avoiding women. Instead, I’m saying that that there’s not just a problem of temrinology (calling some modes of engagement “male” and others “female”) or a problem of mapping those modes of fannish and academic engagement to real sex and gender identification of particpants. I’m saying that there’s an actual perceived problem among female academics. That is to say, I’m taking issue with the introductory statement I find the notion of a conflict between “boys” and “girls” quite saddening and reductive.

    I wouldn’t presume to tell any scholar how he or she needs to engage with other scholars. Your own choice to avoid online debates is a completely legitimate one; my participation in that (very active!) forum has been spotty at best, simply because of time constraints.

    But at the same time, there was a concern among several female acafen that male and female acafen weren’t communicating, not to each other, but with each other. Your comment “And having said my piece, right now I’d rather let other people have their say about it, rather than wading back in and pontificating even more” is more about communicating to, not communicating with. My choice to comment over in that community only minimally, or Kristina’s to post extensively, or your choice not to comment over there are all individual choices — none of these in and of itself is proof of gender divides. But taken en masse, it seems that female acafen are more actively engaging in dynamic conversation on these issues than male acafen are. I do not dare to hypothesize about why this is (I’m a literary critic not a sociologist, and I’m not a gender essentialist), but only to point out that it’s there.

    Fundamentally my concern is not to take anyone to task for the mode of engagement he or she chooses. As I said before, I am also not participating actively in that comment thread. My point is that it is not mere semantic to point out communication difficulties between male and female scholars in our field. There is a perceived disjoint, a perceived problem, a perceived, to be facetious, war between boys and girls (or at least a failure in communication). Everyone involved in this discussion in Henry”s blog is participating in fixing that problem. Most people participating in the discussion of on LJ are also part of the solution. But while we are all working to make it better, it doesn’t do the problem any credit to say that acknowledgement of the problem is saddening and reductive. I would say, instead, that the existence of the problem is saddening, and the acknowledgement (and the following conversation) is encouraging.

  4. Scott Ellington says:

    Yay, Deborah!

    For seven weeks I’ve struggled to follow and understand this conflict. Returning to the abstract of Kristina’s paper, I see her saying that a significant commitment of time and effort is required by anyone seeking to properly appreciate fan fiction; that the artifacts are intertextually bound to the source material AND the community in which they function as one medium in an ongoing conversation. And anyone who isn’t willing to make that commitment to community should stay away. Apparently, they did. And the expectation of reciprocity was (and continues to be) flouted.

    This venue’s technical difficulties haven’t helped make the ensuing discussion trackable, but the gender of the community and the gender of it’s left-behinds seems less important than the willingness of both to acknowledge that a problem exists.

    As an outsider, I see a continuing failure to communicate. If the technical difficulties have been resolved, I wonder why this long-anticipated conversation isn’t happening here, anymore.

  5. Mary Golden says:

    Has anyone written about fanfic by small children? I imagine that legions of children do what my grandchildren do. Their experience relates to fanfic, transmedia and gender issues.

    By dictating to me, my granddaughter has been writing stories for five years, since the age of two. For a couple of years, she phrased them as she heard books read to her, e.g.:

    “‘Don’t go in there!’ she said loudly. “‘OK,'” Luke answered.”

    The majority of her tales are populated by characters from movies, DVDs and related websites for kids such as Star Wars, Pokemon, Return to Terabitha, The Chronicles of Narnia, et al., or a play we’ve seen such as Aladdin. These characters may appear together in one story. The action may come from these sources, her imagination or real life.

    By “transmedia” I mean that she began by telling stories as she played with small toy figures and moved on. Some were actual toy Star Wars characters but other toys might be pressed into service to represent them in her story.

    As I recorded and transcribed what she said, she was delighted to have her own “books.” One won a prize in kindergarten: attending a pizza luncheon in the school library with children’s book authors, one of whom has become a mentor.

    She also made clay characters from her stories. Last year she began drawing detailed cartoonish storyboards and lost interest in dictating for awhile. The three-dimensional characters and sets might appear in a play, the two-dimensional artwork and text in a handmade book.

    She and her younger brother and sister often combine their own original characters with those from two or three sources. The costumed children might act out a new story in a video, making it up as they go.

    By the age of four, she had identified the gender bias inherent in all children’s literature, e.g., that there are rarely more than one or two female characters, if any, and that these often have narrow, stereotypical roles. (This occurs even in a counting book about animals where gender has nothing to do with the story.) She just shakes her head and rolls her eyes at the “mistakes” made by authors who should know that there are about the same number of males and females in nature. She might read a story and exclaim, “I’ll have to fix this one, too!” before adding new female characters that play diverse roles in her fanfic.

    Once she learned to read as I typed, making up stories seemed to become harder–such stories adhere closer to the originals and are thus less inventive. When I can get her to work again with her toy figures away from the computer, she becomes engrossed in her tale, less self-conscious and more creative.

    Editor’s Note: I wrote an essay some years ago about children’s stories and play around Pee-Wee’s Playhouse which you can find in my book, The Wow Climax. This piece was originally conceived as part of Textual Poachers, my original book on fan culture, but for a variety of reasons, we decided to sharpen the focus of that book onto female centered zine fandom as opposed to being a more general discussion of fans. I don’t know of anyone who has done work exploring the place such stories might have played in the lives of people who go on and write fan-fic. Perhaps my readers know of work in this area.