Gender and Fan Studies (Round Three, Part One): Robin Anne Reid and Sean Griffin

Queering the Discussion

Sean Griffin Faculty Page

Robin Anne Reid Professional LJ, Faculty Page

Introduction

SG: It seems the best way to start is to identify ourselves and our place in the context of the discussion at hand. Probably the most obvious connection between my academic work and fandom has been my work on lesbian/gay (and other queer) fandom towards Disneyana, thus describing how such audiences initially used Disney films and TV in non-prescribed manners…but how modern queer consumers have to deal with a Walt Disney Company that is very aware of their existence (hence, perhaps, falling into marginal readings that have been planned by the corporation).

SG: That said, personally, I feel my strongest investment in fandom comes from an area of which I have only sporadically written academically–I have been watching the ABC daytime drama (look how well I’m trained NOT to call it a soap opera!) All My Children since 1973, when I was in 4th grade. I have given some conference papers (which I sent to Robin for her perusal before the present conversation began), and been interviewed for other people’s work–and I do plan at some point to finally do a more exhaustive examination–but towards soaps I consider myself a fan first and an academic second. Other than gossiping in person with people who watched the show when I was in junior high through my undergraduate years, I learned how to navigate the internet in the early 90s by finding the Usenet bulletin board fan site for ABC soaps, discovering a whole community of like-minded individuals (including lesbian/gay fans)–which developed often into in-person meetings, and now in Dallas a monthly get-together with others in the area.

SG: One of the other reasons I have not written much on soap fandom yet is due to other projects that have taken me away from fan studies–and as such I am jumping into this current foray after not being engaged for a while. As such, I rather feel like the modern Major General in “Pirates of Penzance” who comes into the play blustering “What’s all this, then?” While of course vitally interested in the issues, and empathetic to what seem to be the concerns and worries of those involved, I myself have not encountered the types of experiences that others are expressing (cue male-guilt persona at this juncture).

SG: I have never worried about “coming out” academically–if anything, announcing I was gay in film/TV studies in the early 90s was a potential boost to being hired and/or published! And, while I have not published much on soaps, that was not due to thinking it was “unsavory” or “inappropriate” or “looked down upon.” On the contrary, from the moment I started teaching about cultural studies, students have been able to glory in watching my own fan-produced videotape of me in (bad) drag as Reba McIntyre hosting a retrospective clip show of All My Children! If anything, putting myself up there HELPED me in getting tenure (it certainly made me stand out from the crowd)! Granted, part of this may be tied to the gender disconnect of a MAN invested in SOAP OPERAS–and I don’t discount my white male privilege (thank goodness I can claim some subalternity in being gay).

RAR:I was asked to participate in this project as Dr. Robin Anne Reid, and I agreed. But in the course of thinking about this project in the context of the recent storms which have hit fandom (FanLib especially), I realized that I needed to identify my fan persona. Rather than just talk about generally about what I do in fandom, I decided to come out (and I use the term advisedly!) as Ithiliana. [My original introduction for this piece was far too long–no surprise to people who know me!–so I’ve posted it on my fandom journal here.

RAR:This discussion on gender, academia, and fandom event is not the first time I have come out. I came out in a collaborative essay for our anthology, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet not long after not long after a notorious anti-fanfic writer outed me a couple of summers ago. I’ve always been open about who I am with fans I’ve met. A number of people I’ve met at academic conferences are in LJ and are on my friends list. But posting about being Ithiliana under my professional name, Robin Anne Reid, on a blog that gets the traffic of Henry’s is a different level of exposure all together. However, just as it’s important for me in my work on gender and queerness in sf to acknowledge that I am a queer woman, and in my work on “race” and gender in sf, to acknowledge that I am Anglo, it is important in my fan scholarship to acknowledge who I am as a fan. In most academic essays it’s impossible to write at much length about one’s self, but this sort of hybrid space (“Confessions of an Aca-Fan” blending both academia and fandom, under the rubric “confession” which is a complex and fascinating term) seems to invite it although I also acknowledge that I am able to do write what I do here primarily because I am already tenured and promoted. Were I not, I would not be coming out because of the quite legitimate fear of it affecting my retention, tenure, or promotion prospects.

RAR: I received my doctoral degree from the University of Washington in 1992 and am a professor in Literature and Languages at Texas A&M University-Commerce where I teach composition, creative writing, critical theory, and am developing courses relating to new media literacies. Most of my past publications are not in the area of fan studies. I did feminist scholarship on science fiction for about a decade and then, due to falling in love with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (having been a lifelong Tolkien fan), I found myself “retooling” or re-educating myself in some film theory and methodology and in fan studies because I also found myself writing LOTR fanfiction starting in 2003. I have several essays due out this year on film adaptation (unlike many literature scholars, I *like* the film!) and fandom as a queer female space. The materials I sent Sean included a queer analysis of the character of Éowyn in Tolkien’s novel, an argument about genre reading preferences (in film and original fiction including genre fiction) of female fans who read and write Dark Fic the genre term is unique to fanfiction, but a good definition by can be found here, a presentation on the different constructions of masculinity in fanfictions about the character of Faramir in LOTR, and some recent work on queering the fantastic (including a call for papers for an anthology I’m co-editing with Jes Battis and a proposal for a paper I’ll be reading at Mythcon that argues “slash” elements can exist in original genre fantasy as well as fan fiction).

RAR: One note: I have always published under my full name, though I go by Robin Reid most of the time, because I found at age fourteen that many people assume anyone named “Robin” is a man.


GENDER ESSENTIALISM

SG: I read the first two conversations in this series, and very much get the sense that a big fulcrum in the current debate is over the hierarchy of fan activity (ie.,machinma is somehow “more” powerful/controlling/primary text/whatever than literary fan-fiction which is more than fan re-edits of videos which is more than fan discussion) and how gender politics factors into this sense of hierarchy. My first sense is trying to figure out who is establishing this hierarchy and who put them in charge? As someone who doesn’t play video games–and as a soap fan that is never going to see “Worlds of Pine Valley” for PlayStation 86 ever come out–I have little connection to this. I’m much more interested in other forms of fan activity, and thus, place things (such as letter-writing campaigns, fan analyses of shows, in-person gatherings, and the somewhat rare activity of fan-fic from soap operas) higher in importance. Perhaps this sense of hierarchy is due to seemingly stronger connections to the “primary” or “official” authors/producers of the texts. If this is so, then such connections also come with the trade-off of being more likely to be fit into hegemonic patterns of capitalism and patriarchy –which is not necessarily something I’d envy.

SG: I grant that such discussions are often structured by how media industries conceptualize gender roles (and the assumed gender percentages of fans of certain texts)–and thus, as academics and fans, we have to react to such perceptions. But, it seems (feel free to tell me I’m way off base) that rather than critiquing such assumptions, many in fan studies deal in gender essentialisms. When I read comments such as (and I’m paraphrasing) “women want to explore the environments and extend the stories” vs. “men are more likely to do parodies,” I don’t know whether to cringe or laugh out loud. While the networks often engage in such blatant sexism about who they think watches soaps (I don’t know how many times hosts at ABC’s Super Soap Weekends at Disney World try to ignore/dismiss/ridicule the men in attendance), I never got that sense of gender division among soap fans in behaviors or opinions (some of the most witty and “snarky” soap fans who’ve been willing to satirize soaps have been female fans, for example).

RAR: I’m reminded of that fact of how many shows my housemate and I watch have commercials that try to sell us Viagra and *really* big trucks trundling over piles of rocks. These shows are basically the Law & Order franchise and sf shows (Lost, Battlestar Galactica). All my life, I’ve enjoyed texts created for a supposedly male audience (science fiction especially) and have not enjoyed *most* romance novels or soap operas (one year, working at home, I did get addicted to General Hospital, specifically falling in love with Emma Samms). However, I’d bet real money that the majority of fan fiction even in many of the male-authored/media fandoms that feature male characters have romance elements as a number of scholars have argued (most notably, Catherine Salmon and Don Symons in their 2001 work, Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality, published by Orion). I also know that soaps have been gathering a large male audience (from popular culture readings I assign my students) in recent years (and have read that soaps are more progressive as a group than nighttime tv in dealing with issues of women and professions, and even inter-racial relationships. The network positioning of both the soap opera audience and the sf audience is very much stereotypical and essentialist.

RAR: I would love to try to break down that essentialism–which nowadays is as likely to be cultural essentialism (women are all socialized to behave this way) as biological, but still as problematic. One of the best known parodies in LOTR fandom (Very Secret Diaries) is by Cassie Clare, female. The equating of males with parody really says more that male-authored parodies become better known/professionalized (Bored of the Rings comes to mind), and that one of the dividing lines here is those fen who wish to become pros vs. those who for whatever reason (often another career) wish to keep the activity as a hobby.

RAR:While I know anybody can be faulted for essentialism for making a generalization, I think that one of the problems is that the focus on gender, nobody’s mentioning “race,” ethnicity, sexuality, not even as an “academic” project or area of analysis (there are many reasons why someone who is not part of the heterosexual majority might not choose to self-reveal in their professional lives). But what I like about the book you co-wrote with Harry Benshoff, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, was the way that the work integrated multiple axes of identity–not just focusing on one. Essentialism includes the (unstated default) of whiteness, straightness, and middle-class status. If instead of saying that technology is gendered male, the defaults were stated, that would acknowledge how ethnic minority and working class males are excluded as well as all females and complicate the binary pairing. I’m aware that for many, this rhetoric is read by some as “blaming poor white straight middle-class males” for all the problems of the world, but it does start to deconstruct that universalist idea of gender.

Your piece you sent me, “All my Gay Children? Soaps, Sexuality and Cyberspace,” does a wonderful job of looking at a single newsgroup and how the emergence of a gay character on the show led to some of the fans coming out and a range of discussions about sexuality, the show, and people’s lives that avoided flame wars between people. I know that there are many debates around identity, queerness, and homophobia occurring in internet spaces (one of the ones that caught my attention–and I’m not in gaming at all–being the debate over a “gay friendly” guild in World of Warcraft.

The interactions that you discuss in your paper, including the existence of a cyber-soap opera created by fans featuring gay characters, reminds me of a fan production I learned about at the last International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, The Hidden Frontier, a fan-created season of Trek episodes featuring gay characters.

Comments

  1. Mostly a rah-rah-rah comment, here, but I wanted to say that I’m especially interested in the unpacking of binaries you’re both engaging in here. I think it’s quite worthwhile (and I know from personal/professional conversations that that’s something you strive towards regardless, Robin), especially given that the tendency towards essentialist definitions of sexuality/gender/class/ethnicity/culture do seem to drag down a great deal of Fan/Media Studies. I’m looking forward to the second part.