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

SG: I very much like how you have critiqued the emphasis in academia on fan-fiction supposedly stressing equality within relationships. I have always found that to be far too myopic–that a lot of fan-fiction, and fan-interest is often in exploring power dynamics, rather than trying to eliminate them. I know a lot of fans of the old Dark Shadows soap of the 60s that write slash fiction tend to focus on S/M-type sexual attraction rather than hurt/comfort stories. (Here’s a plug for work done by my husband, Harry Benshoff, who got me to watch Dark Shadows and is in the process of writing a monograph on the series.)

SG:And, while a number of fans of daytime soaps often talk about enjoying a good romance, most of the interactions and energy is expended discussing when a villain pulls a great scheme, or when the tables are turned, etc. So, I think Foucault needs to be applied much more to fan dynamics than I’ve ever seen.

RAR:I used Foucault in my dissertation (constructions of “race,” gender, sexuality in North American feminist theory and fictions), so I’m all for bringing his ideas to bear, especially because, as fans know very well, what often drives conflicts in fanfictions are inequalities of power, not just gender, but along a numbers of other axes of identity: age, class, nationality, ethnicity, planetary origin (have to toss that in!), experience, etc.

SG:That said, I think we can also talk about definitions of “fan fiction” and how that might apply to gendered roles–obviously LOTR and other fantasy/sci-fi texts have engendered substantial economies of fan-fiction production. Daytime (and domestic prime-time) soaps do not seem to have inspired anywhere near that level. I think it’s partly due to the ever-expanding, without-pause narrative of daytime soaps, unlike the (relatively) completed texts of Tolkien’s original novels (to take one example)–that makes it hard for fans to have time or space to rework or intervene. In place of that, though, I would argue that fan letters to the show (network execs, producers, writers, performers), as well as the wealth of internet chat could be regarded as a level of fan-fiction (granted, Henry and others has discussed this in a somewhat similar manner), in the soap text itself is often about characters gossiping about each other, so fans get into the conversation as well. (And from that more “classically defined” fan fiction sometimes results–of which I myself have been involved in at least two occasions!) Whether or not such levels are gender based is another potential source of discussion.

RAR: Again, we can completely agree on this focus: some of my scholarship focuses on texts other than fictions (I did a stylistic analysis of the “About Us” pages at two LOTR fic archives, one selective and one open, in terms of gendered discourse). Since I think of fanfiction as part of a range of interpretive moves, of reader responses (which range from attempts to mimic the source text, especially prevalent in book fandoms, to resistant readings against the grain of the text), I’m quite open to considering how fan letters and fan gossip work in similar ways (as feminist linguists have pointed out, that term is gendered–with the talk men do about themselves, their friends, colleagues, etc. being considered “not-gossip” by virtue of the speakers being male). I not only write queer academic papers on Éowyn, I am starting to write fanfiction about her, and her relationship with Arwen. I’m interested in bisexual erotics in fanfiction, so in one long WIP (not currently active, I’m working toward a foursome group marriage with Aragorn, Arwen, Boromir, and Éowyn–I write Alternate Universe fic in which Boromir lives). Éowyn was always one of my two favorite characters from the time I first read the novel (age ten, the other being Frodo). I’d also bring up for consideration the intense relationships between readers who comment and writers in fandom: the essay I collaborated upon with Barb and Eden was about the queer interactions between readers of their long, collaborative LOTRipS story, Words/Silence/Flesh (a hybrid fic that includes emails, gossip columns, diary entries, florist’s order forms, rather than standard third-person narrative).

SG: I agree that the term “gossip” carries diminutive and gendered connotations, and I have worked to level the playing field in the classroom by discussing sports talk as gossip, and spectator sports themselves as a form of soap opera (emphasizing memory, ongoing narratives, etc.–my one claim to sports fandom is being a Cubs fan…so I know all about delayed gratification!), which usually causes delight in female students and chagrin in male students.

RAR: I *always* stage a class discussion comparing the media treatment of “sports fans” and “sf fans” as a way of getting students to think about gender and other issues: because even though science fiction is gendered masculine in many people’s minds, the denigration of sf fans in the mainstream media (and in many of my students’ perceptions) is much different than their attitude toward sports fans. I’ve had students gasp out loud when I revealed that I, their English teachers, was a Trekkie at one time, and am now a LOTR fan.

SG: Something else that I think often goes undiscussed is the evolution of fan communities–people’s relation to texts and to each other are of course not stable, but again discussion often takes on an ahistorical sense. To take a basic example, to think that Star Trek fans consider and appreciate the texts in the same way in a post 9/11 environment as in the early 70s when the first conventions sprung up is ridiculous. In terms of my own research, the community at the Usenet ABC soaps group has very much evolved. People have left, others have come in–and the type of discussion has changed, not just because what’s happening on the show has moved into new stories. As Usenet has diminished in importance and other internet avenues have gained greater accessibility (tied to Foucault and notions of power/knowledge, especially network’s own web sites–, that fan community has evolved. Thus, on multiple levels, fandom is fluid and complex.

RARI agree (no doubt our agreement on so many issues is related to the relative ‘shortness’ of the discussion!) about the fluidity of fandom; even in LJ, there are ongoing discussions of how “fandom” is changing, with generational conflicts, book vs. film conflicts, and debates over where we are (as I discuss here in my LJ, some people were thinking of leaving LJ because of what is now being called strikethrough07, the deletion of a wide range of journals because of distorted accusations of pedophilia). I think all scholars can do is acknowledge the very limited nature of what we call “fandom” in our own work, and keep emphasizing the subjective, partial, and incomplete nature of our scholarship.

SG:I think in terms of queer fandom, we can also talk about rereadings (and maybe camp), and how that interacts and sometimes antagonizes (but sometimes *doesn’t*) straight fans–and the intersection of gender politics and lesbian/gay fans (for example, from a soaps perspective–do lesbian fans feel allied more with straight female fans or gay male fans–or is there any alliance between any of these groups.) My sense is that, while certain individuals might choose to unite together under a shared goal–responding to perceived homophobia is one example–it is usually difficult if not impossible to constitute groups, that (again) fandom is amorphous and diffuse?

RAR:I recall that Camille Bacon-Smith did an interesting analysis of the positioning of gay/lesbian fans in the earlier fandom groups, showing an eventual movement away from the fan identification to the gay/lesbian activist position. I think you’ve raised some incredibly complex and fascinating questions here that (as often happens) need to be developed (and I’m hoping people will chime in on the discussion). There have been a number of debates in LJ fandom, one of which I know Kristina wrote about very effectively in her essay in our anthology: “My Life Is a WIP on My LJ: Slashing the Slasher and the Reality of Celebrity and Internet Performances,” about debates over just that issue–especially “straight” women performing what could be read as “queer” behaviors with other women (for example, the tendency to give not only chocolates, as do the fans on the newsgroup, but hugs, smooches, kisses as well as declarations of love, proposals of marriage, offers to bear one another’s children, all as general signs of approbation. I suspect (and here comes my favorite theory!) that just as offline, the interactions between online fans kaleidoscope, with, at times, the alliances following fandom/love for source text lines, sexual identity, ethnic/racial identity (there are recurring complicated and painful debates over the tendency of majority white fans to write certain characters of color in certain ways, perhaps reflecting the racism in the source texts (all those *white* planets in media sf!)), as well as individuals, sexuality, etc. So I think your question is one that should and could be the basis for more scholarship, and certainly can be developed in comments.

Reminder: If you’d like to add to this discussion, please feel free to leave comments here or over at the special Live Journal site which Kristina Busse created for this purpose. The goal of this series is to provoke community wide discussion of the current state of fan studies.