Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eight, Part One): Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea


Abigail Derecho: I am currently completing a dissertation at Northwestern University in the Comparative Literary Studies department. I am a media studies scholar, specializing in digital culture, and therefore, while most Comp Lit grad students at NU have a home department in a national language/lit (German, French, Slavic, etc.), my home department is Radio/Television/Film. My dissertation is called “Illegitimate Media: Race, Gender, and Censorship in Early Digital Remix,” and it focuses on two of the earliest remix genres and their origins in minority discourse. Digital sampling was innovated by African Americans, and online fan fiction was pioneered by women, between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. I examine how both remix genres were subjected to a great deal of censorship, both external and internal, very soon after they appeared, and I tie the censorship of remix to censorship discourses that circulated in U.S. culture and society at the same time that remix was being invented (the crack/gangs/guns panic that fueled anti-rap and other anti-music campaigns, the anti-pornography movement whose arguments were echoed in flame wars around explicitly sexual fan fiction). I will begin a tenure-track position at Columbia College Chicago, in the Cultural Studies program, this fall.

In addition to being an active fan and fan fiction author for many years, for the past two years I have been working on something called “Media Theater.” I have written and produced two multimedia plays that are attempts to combine live performance with new media in ways that foreground how intricately multiple media are incorporated into the everyday lives of millions of people – how we perceive reality, how we form memories, how we learn to love and despise each other. Some of my fan fiction is accessible here. Some of my academic work, and information about my media theater productions, is accessible here. Also, I was fortunate enough to have an essay of mine, “Archontic Literature” (very kindly referenced in an earlier Round of this discussion by Catherine Tosenberger [Catherine, please e-mail me about your theory of “recursive” literature]) included in the terrific collection edited by K. Hellekson and K. Busse, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. I’d like to express my gratitude to Kristina Busse and Henry Jenkins for organizing this important discussion, and for inviting me to take part, and thanks also to all the participants in this discussion (past and future), including those who have posted or will post comments, for making this such a productive and valuable exchange.

Christian McCrea: You may know me from such films as “Virtual Murder” (probably co-starring Micheal Nouri) and “The Second Life of Christian Lefebvre”….ahem. I am also in the twilight phase of a PhD dissertation, duly supervised by the very patient Angela Ndalianis in the Screen Studies department of the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. My PhD is called “Playland: The Sensory Materialism of Computer and Videogames”, which undertakes to form a critical account for the sometimes invisible but always vital relationship between the aesthetics of technologies and the cultural traces left by people using them. Using games as a point of first contact between the two, I am also deeply interested and invested in the cultures of technology, research into fan cultures, the poetics of technology, opportunities afforded by digital art and pranksterism, piracy and information control pressures, etc.

I have recently taken a position at Swinburne University of Technology here in Melbourne Australia, as a Lecturer In Games and Interactivity. The Swinburne Games program is the country’s leading games school, and I will be working to expand the types of work students do into serious and critical games. I have published work on games and other media in a variety of academic fora, and also work as an writer and essayist for sites such as The Escapist, curatorial writer for the Australian Centre of the Moving Image and maintain a website, Wolves Evolve.

Issue One: Covering Women

Derecho: I’d like to address gender bias in the media industry, in “mainstream fan” writing about media, and in academic writing about media. I’ll give an example of bias in each of these fields:

1) I saw Live Free or Die Hard recently. As a “die hard” fan of the first film in the series, I thought LFoDH was a thoughtful and exciting return to the elements that made Die Hard a classic. Leaving the theater, though, I realized that one of the key aspects of the film that made it pleasurable for me was the character Lucy – John McClane’s now-grown daughter – who, whlie serving as a key plot point (the usual “damsel in distress”), did not have very much screen time. Another part of the film I liked was the new character Matt Farrell, the hacker-geek who becomes McClane’s sidekick. And I read several critics’ reviews pointing out that Matt is basically the fans’ stand-in. Matt expresses the awe, fear, and affection for McClane that the audience feels, and for the most part he is “tagging along for the ride,” just like the audience does. Matt also gets to have a little hint of a romantic spark with Lucy McClane, who is basically a younger female version of her father. So I thought, Huh, Matt is a stand-in for all fans, male and female, b/c both men and women fans are techies, like Matt (much of fandom taking place on the Internet), and both men and women fans love McClane and want to go along for the ride. But only male fans get to see themselves up on that screen in the persona/avatar of Matt Farrell, and they get to see their stand-in “get” (romantically) a McClane of his own (we women used to have Holly, John’s wife, to identify with, but since Die Hard 3, she’s been literally out of the picture). Women fans, otoh, have to do the usual queer identification, seeing our desires acted out by a young male character. And/or, we can see ourselves in Lucy, whose persona and story we would have to greatly develop/augment using our own imaginations (by ourselves, in conversation with other fans, or in fanfic) due to her underdevelopment in the film. Either way, women fans don’t get very much consideration in this, or most, action films. It’s clear that our dollars, our attention, and our interest are being courted, and that Lucy, Matt, and their incipient romantic involvement, are, at least in part, aimed at us. But while male audience members get huge chunks of meaty text thrown at them, stuff they can relate to and easily identify with, stuff that reminds them of their own libidinal desires and fantasies and offers them vicarious fulfillment of these wants and needs, women in the audience get scraps. We make the most out of these scraps — that’s what imagination and fan productions are for — but the studios, for the most part, doesn’t think to throw us more than these.

What troubles me about this long-standing situation is that women definitely go to, and love, action movies. Have we had an alternative in any given summer since Jaws and Star Wars? Either we love action blockbusters, or we don’t go to the movies. So when I think about how women make the most of the few female characters and their supporting-role status in action films, I think we’re doing a lot of work, and doing a great job creating a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of very little. All the female fan concentration on Arwen and Eowyn in the LoTR films, on Linda Hamilton’s buff and awesome (but still supporting) character Sarah Connor in T2, on Rogue and Mystique and other X-Women, on Trinity in The Matrix, is about making the most of the tiny shout-outs to female audiences that big action movies – the biggest-grossing, and thus most important (for the industry) products generated by the motion picture industry today – give to their women and girl fans. Of course, lots of women don’t care about whether there are well-written and significant women characters in a movie, they don’t need that to have fun at a film. They are the lucky ones, since the movie industry is therefore giving them what they want and all they need. But the rest of us are grateful for the Alien series, for Keira Knightley’s character in the PoTC movies, for Princess Leia, who is central to the plot of SW and always proactive (unlike her wimpy mother). If Disney, of all studios, knows enough about girl and women audience members to allow a character like Elizabeth Swann to develop and mature over the course of a trilogy, if Disney can allow a black woman to be a powerful goddess and can stand to have two women pirate captains (and one of them Chinese) in the council of pirates, then other studios and other producers can try just as hard. Jason Mittell, in Round One, Part One of this discussion, summarized what he called “the old saw about children’s programming”: “girls will consume work pitched at both genders, while the boys only concern themselves with boy-stuff.” If this is true, then girls are by far the more valuable consumers of media (since they will be good customers of twice the volume of stuff as boys), and media corporations should take the wishes, proclivities, taste cultures, and interests of their best consumers into account.

2) In the latest issue of WIRED (July 2007), Optimus Prime, my favorite character from my favorite cartoon ever, Transformers, is on the cover. Here are some excerpts from the article about the new Transformers movie: “They started as toys for boys,” “Boys ages 5 to 11 — and it *was* boys — faithfully tuned in week after week to watch the saga of these doughty bots,” “For nearly two decades…sons of Prime waited for Papa Bot,” “Thus [with Transformers] began the cyber-outsourcing of masculine heroism, a process that would eventually, inextricably, link Y chromosome to Xbox,” “man-children of a certain age look to this Transformers movie…for redemption, as men.” So, I, a hard-core fan of Transformers ever since I was a little girl, am excluded over and over again by this article. It’s not just this one article or writer that concerns me, it’s the way this environment of geeky, technologically-themed, toy-oriented pleasure is often assumed to be a 100% masculine domain. I don’t think the statement “Girls like robot characters” would surprise anyone. Girls like all kinds of characters; they play video games; they watch sci-fi/action/adventure movies and TV, they read comic books. And then they grow up to be women media-studies scholars ;). But the mainstream press, written by non-academic fans, consistently associates certain media – and I don’t just mean films, here, but technology of all sorts, from Blackberries to C++ to robots – with masculinity. What is sad about this is how much potential mass media has for serving as common ground between people of differing genders, races, ages, nationalities, sexual orientations, geographic locations, political affiliations. When I read, in the Transformers WIRED article, the writer’s opinion that “Prime practically step-parented the latchkey kids of the mid-80s,” I related to that. I remember that feeling of being home alone, just me and the TV, and those awesome giant robots, and how Optimus Prime taught me so much about what was right and wrong, what was courage and what was cowardice, when to show mercy and when to be strong. I thought, If I met that writer, he and I would have a lot to talk about, since we have some deep and important childhood experiences in common. But when the writer went on to define Prime as exclusively a role model for young boys, I stopped having that thought of common ground and mutually resonant experiences. Mass media fandom can and should be the grounds for discussions in which many, many people (masses of people, in fact) can participate. But there are gender-based, race-based, nationality-based, and sexuality-based assumptions and stereotypes that permeate media journalism which cuts such possibilities short.

3) Some recent media scholarship also shows these biases. Last year, a well-respected media studies professor from a prestigious U.S. university visited Northwestern, and I heard his paper on how a critically acclaimed television serial drama resembled an intricate and complex game, because certain plot elements repeated every season (though in different guises), and because the viewer had to keep track of everything that had happened in the past in order to fully comprehend each new episode. I asked him how his “game theory” regarding this television show differed from the basic structure of daytime drama (soap opera). He had no answer for me. Why? Because he had not considered that the aspects that he most enjoyed of an Emmy-winning, “quality” primetime cable television program were actually appropriated from cultural productions that have much less cultural capital in the world of media studies: soap operas. I very much agree with C. Lee Harrington’s statement in Round Six, Part One: “I’m a huge fan of serialized primetime shows such as Lost, Heroes, 24, etc., but tend to roll my eyes at journalistic (and sometimes academic) accounts of how textually complicated they are….They are, of course, but multiply that complexity by 50 years and you might begin to approach Guiding Light!!” I would like to see, in accordance with some of Kristina’s arguments in her review of MiT5, more male media studies scholars engaging with media analyses of women’s genres and women’s styles of media consumption/engagement/participation. Of course, many men in media studies do this already. But currently, male scholars can still ignore huge areas of women-oriented media scholarship without thinking or blinking – their ignorance is still very normal.

And to bring this back to the first example of gender bias I gave, that practiced by movie studios and media corporations: Daytime drama has undergone a serious decline in ratings over the past decade, and I attribute this mostly to network executives’ lack of investment in, and lack of knowledge of, the soap genre. As a result, soap fans (of which I am one) have engaged in more heated battles, meaning mail/e-mail campaigns, phone campaigns, and massive flame wars online, over the last 10 years, than I have ever seen in any other fandoms. Soap fans fight TPTB (producers, writers, network execs) for story changes, and they fight with each other because they feel that no one is really getting the quality or kinds of storytelling that they want, so fan groups that have different interests are mutually regarded as “competition” for the networks’ attention. So far, the networks haven’t responded to fans’ demands for improved (i.e., better-written) stories and for more respect for show history. The soaps continue to go down in quality, and viewers continue to tune out. Meanwhile, all of prime time has co-opted the technique of seriality which daytime dramas spent decades developing and enriching – all reality shows are soaps, most prime-time dramas are soaps or have some serial elements, and many prime-time sitcoms (Friends, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother) have multi-episode, sometimes multi-season story arcs. Millions of women fans spent years and years contributing to writers’ knowledge of how to make seriality work. Their input and feedback, manifested in a multitude of activities from their mere viewership to their fannish activities, helped to build up that store of knowledge, helped to program those data banks. Not only do those fans get zero credit, but the soap-y shows that women now watch on prime-time – Prison Break, 24 – are much more geared towards male audiences and male interests than towards women audiences and women interests. Again (see my above point), it isn’t that women can’t or don’t enjoy male-oriented programming. But women fans lost good soap operas, which were dramas dedicated to women’s enjoyment, and we did not gain the equivalent in serial prime time.

McCrea: I’ll expand in turn on the major points you’ve explored, Abigail; I think you’ve traced some of the most interesting elements of media culture for this discussion. First, action cinema, then Transformers and tech culture, then the gendering of media culture in academia and finally, television culture.

Action Cinema: Leading up to the release of Live Free or Die Hard (or bizarrely, Die Hard 4.0 for non-Americans), I was pondering some of the same issues – it was obvious that these younger characters had been supplanted to build a bridge between the necessary elements of Bruce Wills and large things being on fire and a more modern audience for whom things being on fire doesn’t mean what it used to. I wonder if a similar committee process went into Terminator 3; “oh these aging men don’t appeal to anybody anymore, but we need them for the brand – let’s stick in a couple of young people.” It all seems so neat and pat by comparison to the situation presented in the first Die Hard; trashy white-bread American thrashes European chap who has read a book or two. In the new iteration, it barely feels like the same ‘man’ is being pressed into the situations. So I wonder to whom precisely the film is directed, or to who the ‘fan’ is in the discourse of the Die Hard universe. I’m sure that for the marketing boffins involved, for whom the Die Hard IP (I term I want to come back to later), there was a sense of needing to create generational upheaval, and character multiplicity. This may not seem like the most obivous of connections, but I felt a similarity to Blade III: Trinity, where younger, hipper characters stood in for fans of the first films. Nor it is explicity new, as later films in the Death Wish and Dirty Harry series began to expand their fictions beyond the original frame to talk to fans more directly. Robocop 3, Aliens Vs. Predator and a few others are barely readable outside of this rearticulation-through-fandom. I think what you’ve identified is that this gendering – or repurposing of gender – is often the first port of call. In many instances, the role of women in driving narrative is complicated as the primary male characters age and give way to older generations.

Theories of and around action films that consider gender (and I’m thinking of the work of Yvonne Tasker and Robin Wood first but not exclusively) situate the crux of things in the appreciative look of the audience – and as you say, filmgoers looking for female characters in action films often have to make a great deal out of very little. Which is precisely where the most energetic forms of fanwork emerge. I used to call fan-produced media ‘antimedia’ because they act much like an antibody to the processes of the original text, but more interesting is this semiotic chase. Anime fans chase the unarticulated sexuality and imagery; Lord of the Rings fans chase the unexplored world detail – each fandom weaves according to the material its given. Which is why, returning to Die Hard, I almost felt I was watched a ‘fan generation’ film, a post-Tarantino and Peter Jackson – cinema that can never be formed without a knowing wink.(Henry Jenkins’ article on Tarantino and digital cinema got me thinking here) Len Wiseman’s other directorial work being Underworld, and Underworld: Evolution, you can see that he has been there to witness Hollywood’s push to re-gender action cinema. But how successful are Lara Croft, Resident Evil, Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet as new approaches to gender? Since I’m not a fan of leaving rhetorical questions open, I’ll just go right ahead and score them a D minus. And in each case, you can see similar patterns; films with strong female heroes aimed at a fannish audience (some more sexually precise than others), and then, non-existent fan interest. At least Red Sonja got a cult thing going.

Transformers: As a latch-key kid myself whose family moved a great deal, the common ground of toys and computer games was the first and most important bridge to building any friendship with other kids. The fact that I had a small number of Transformers with me meant that I could instantly communicate through that common reverie and instant nostalgia. There is a fantastic and little-read article by Jiwon Ahn on anime that uses the phrase “common nostalgia latent across boundaries”. The upshot is that morning cartoons are not (or were not) so neatly divided across gender lines. I’m not sure how to navigate the terminology, but while Transformers is less gendered than some other series of the time (the farcical ultramasculity of Centurions: Power Extreme, GI Joe and M.A.S.K., for example, is stark), the inclusion of Arcee and Elita One in the Transformers universe hardly counts as a even distribution of archetypes. (side note: the “Female Transformers” page on Wikipedia is worth a visit.)

Media Culture and Academia: I was lucky enough to speak at MiT3 in 2003. I landed in Boston without a working credit card and so sat in my hostel’s common room experiecing first-hand the wonders of late-night inner-city television as I pondered my fate. What had been romanticised my entire life, etched marvellously by the “I’d Buy That For A Dollar” guy in the first Robocop, was first and foremost an incredibly gendered experience. The undulation of girls, of both the regular and ‘gone wild’ persuasions, on and around Snoop Dogg, actually took up what seemed like hours for some baroque and indiscernable DVD purchasing scheme being advertised. In between, grimy-mustached salesmen demanded I bring in my used cars for “Caaaaysh!” What struck me about the kind of television being studied by the participants at MiT3 across the river, was that it was, by comparison, very safe. Buffy, Angel, etc were reaching a kind of critical mass and people spoke of them with a kind of reverence and awe – look at the progressive themes these shows offer, look at the kinds of people who invest so much in them. That kind of scholarship is still very very important, but I could not but wonder why the orgiastic hyper-sexualised world of Snoop Dogg didn’t get a mention, or even Jackass for that matter. In the final keynote session, which was stunning and remarkable for many reasons, was a panel between a pair of experienced executives and Toby Miller. Someone asked a question about why the conference was so gendered; why the guests were men, why there was no discussion of gender power in so many of the panels, etc… (I know these questions can bore a lot of people but I always think its great to hear that discussion come up.) While the other panellists demurred a little, Toby Miller did something which I consider extraordinarily brave – he answered the question head on. His response was that, for the most part, televisions are assembled and moulded by women in Southeast Asia. They come to the West, on which all our shows and our fandoms are generated. Then, they are shipped back to the daughters of the women who assembled them, so they can pick diodes from the quarter-mile deep piles of electronic rubbish for just enough money to pay for their parent’s healthcare. In a final session that had some strident questions, this was met with a kind of slow dawning applause – definitely a WWE-style “holy shit!” moment. His point was that way underneath even the most nuanced approach to the content of television, we still have to account for the materiality of culture.

Television Culture: Your analysis of the shifting relationships of producers and fans is absolutely spot-on. I think books like Convergence Culture by our friend Henry do a great job of highlighting all the key movements in these as-yet unformed forces; but its the type of shift in aesthetics that fills in the gaps and the outcomes of those shifts we will see first. I am a fan of 50s-60s-70s television, especially action and mystery serials from the UK like The Prisoner and The Avengers, from which my understanding of modern television is still deeply affected. There was then, and I think its visible again admist the web of ARGs, online polls, semi-official blogs, a deep insecurity on the part of television producers about how to keep an audience interested. Soaps have always been at the cutting-edge of audience relations, because changes can be brought on rapidly, characters changed to suit responses with no disruption to ‘flow’. And soon, the soap model may be all that traditional television has left, now that the DVD virus is infecting so much else. I maintain that one of the most complex and least understood television forms is professional wrestling. Despite its visibility and notoriety, wrestling has garnered very little critical attention with the notable exceptions being thankfully of exceptional clarity and depth. The gendering of wrestling is absurd, carnivalesque, grotesque, implies horrifically regressive roles for women and all non-masculine figures – and is still leagues ahead in terms of sexual reference than the bulk of television. I certainly subscribe to the notion that wrestling constitutes a masculine melodrama – and the deaths of Owen Hart and Chris Benoit are necessarily included here – as the drama of the ‘kayfabe’ stage rotates and wheels in independent ways to the actual televisual frame. Sometimes we are allowed to peer behind the curtain, other times it is reinforced. However, melodrama isn’t merely a gendering type of address, it is a pervasive method for the production of genre itself – under melodramatic sensibilities, all kinds of other spaces can open up. So when you scratch the surface (or the baby oil) of wrestling, you find legion upon legion of female fans, running websites, organising events and working throughout the industry. The type of experience you’re talking about when Bull Nakano almost decapitates her opponent at Summerslam is obviously very different than an intelligently thought out drama series, but no less vital in the articulation of our appreciation of culture.

Derecho: Christian, it’s a pleasure to read your thoughts on these matters. Our opinions overlap on many points, for instance, your (generous) grade of D minus for studios’ attempts to build female-action-hero franchises. In a sense, those films are the exceptions that prove the rule: If *that’s* what the industry produces when it greenlights movies that put female action heroines front-and-center, no wonder they do such a botched, half-assed job with the girl (I use this word purposefully) characters they throw in to male-action-hero films. I’m well aware, though, that female action heroine movies are built to attract male audiences, not to give female viewers opportunities for identification. There is a sense in which the placement of girl characters (love interests, damsels-in-distress) in male-oriented media function in a similar way to product placement. Corporate sponsors get a shot or two of their product; women get a few lines of dialogue from a female character; and the rest of the movie, which is most of the movie (the guy-kicking-ass part) is the “real” fiction, the core, authentic text. You mention T3 and Blade:Trinity, in addition to the new Die Hard, bringing in younger characters in order to create a bridge between older fans and newer audiences. One thing that is striking about all three franchises is that, while one of the younger characters added is a woman, none of the older characters are. In both the Terminator films and in DH, there was, at some point, a leading woman who was a peer or opposite of the leading man. Well, I know it’s no surprise that in mainstream U.S. films, older women no longer even count as viable plot points – this just reinforces the fact that all the younger female characters in T3, B:T, and LFoDH, while I found all of them to be written as “strong,” “tough,” and “capable,” are there specifically because of their hot bods.

It’s interesting what you say about morning cartoons being not as neatly divided across gender lines. We should really ask Justine Cassell more about this, she’s the expert on childhood play, gender, and technology. I know she has co-written on the subject with HJ, and her article (written with Meg Cramer) on “Moral Panics about Girls Online” might be interesting to you. I checked out the Female Transformers page on the main Wiki, and was struck by the fact that someone has tagged it with the infamous “fancruft” label, and therefore the page may be deleted in a couple of days. Of course, tons of stuff gets excoriated for being fancruft, but for some reason I was particularly peeved that this page, which simply lists the female Transformers, when and in which cartoon series they appeared, and their roles in various plotlines, as “not encyclopedic.” The Wiki pages on the male Transformers are less well-organized by far than the Female Transformers page, but the ones about the males count as “encyclopedic”? Luckily, Teletraan-1 (the Transformers Wiki) has no such flags on their several pages regarding Female Transformers (individually and as a “species”). It always amazes me how fan communities have to continually splinter in more and more specifically focused groups, just in order to avoid being censored in some way. Just to enjoy the freedom to like what they like, fans create enclaves for themselves that are narrower and more exclusive all the time. How much can matter be broken down? Into a gazillion quarks? By the time we’re all done, there will be more fandoms than quarks in this universe. I mean, multiverse :).

You end with sports and wrestling and female fandom, and it’s great because it’s very close to the point I made earlier about women and “guy” movies. Yes, women watch sports; many women love sports; many women are huge fans of sports. Sports, action films, much of primetime serial TV, and those commercials you saw (Snoop and his “orgiastic hypersexualized world,”), and Jackass (which you mentioned as having a relationship to the commercials – interesting!), all are performances of hypermasculinity. You used the term “carnavalesque.” There is something beyond – in addition to – the repetition inherent in ritual, and the community element of being a fan of these displays, that attracts men and women. The emphatic enactment of hypersexuality is clearly a lure to both men and women. And so I am intrigued by your notion of wrestling as a “masculine melodrama,” because I think there is something in that which could explain so much of how and why women are (learn to be?) fans of male-gendered media texts (which constitute the vast majority of all media texts). Perhaps girls and women learn to play with, and learn to extract pleasure from (it is both play and work), male-oriented media by constructing melodramatic narratives from, in, and around them. Perhaps this is the one “sop” that male-oriented media has learned to give to women: to give women the tools to read maleness and masculinity as equally melodramatic as any soap opera, even while insisting that it must be consistently male/masculine performances that women watch. And perhaps at some level (as you say, “under melodramatic sensibilities, all kinds of other spaces can open up”), women fans appreciate the fact that they can read these texts as yielding a kind of satisfaction classically associated with women (melodrama) at the same moment that the texts hyper-perform, over-perform, masculinity. For some fans, perhaps this is an appreciation of irony; for others, it might just be an appreciation for opposites uniting, the point at which men’s love of violent spectacle and women’s love of psychological and emotional drama touch.

Issue Two: The History of Remix Culture

Derecho: I’ll begin this topic with my “soapbox” speech, a statement of one of the central claims of my dissertation: digital remix culture owes a substantial debt to minority discourse. Three genres of digital remix were pioneered between 1986 and 1996: digital music sampling, video game mods, and online fanfic. Of those three, the first was the invention of African American men (most of them were men, not all) and the third was the invention of white American women (most of them were white, most of them were women, not all). It’s very important to me, and other feminist (male and female) media scholars as well, that the history of women’s new media innovations does not get buried. In Round Two, Part One, Louisa Stein wrote that “female authorship and innovation in fan communities…were always heavily technologically engaged, from the use of multiple VCRs to facilitate the complex process of pre-digital vidding to the extremely belabored process of putting out zines pre-internet…Now that fandom has moved online, technological innovation…w/i the context of female communities continues to expand.” It is vital that we media (especially digital media) scholars depict accurately the history of women media fans as not only highly competent, but inventive in their uses of a wide array of technological platforms and tools. There is nothing “belated” about women fans’ involvement with technology; in fact, as Louisa and I argue, women fans were making good use of the most sophisticated tools at their disposal prior to the advent of digital culture, and as soon as new media became available (and Usenet was not even widely available), women thoroughly exploited its possibilities. For all who might think that posting X-Files fanfic to the ATXC board did not really constitute a technological innovation, I say this: the ATXC and its successor, the Ephemeral/Gossamer archival system, have proven over the last dozen years that a simple open-source PHP archive of HTML documents will outlast a lot of other hypermedia creations. While gamers hunt down emulators, fans of hypertext literature long for a working installation disk of Mac Classic OS, and digital historians cry over numerous broken links and four-year-old Flash animation that just never loads all the way, readers of online fan fiction sit back and enjoy the plain-and-simple HTML, reliably archived and presented in neat rows and columns for their pleasurable consumption for years to come. If that isn’t technical genius, I don’t know what is.


: In the arena of games, the gendering of media is – still – perhaps the most pervasive and least addressed aspect of cultural influence. Just flicking through T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds highlights just how affronted producers of games can be when you point out that loaded imagery limits access. On the flipside, female game fandom has become a corporate product via funded clans such as the Frag Dolls. It is precisely at the point of production, or remix, that new ways of thinking about digital culture open up. There is a sense in Taylor’s book, and I think its quite true, that the gendering of technology is not just particularly male, but more to the point, ‘invisible-male’. For a producer of technology, remixer or otherwise inclined media activator who also happens to be a woman, there is still as of 2007, a persistent cloud of gender surprise. Gender surprise is something we could classify as a news-borne toxin by which part of the undertow of their work will have to be superscribed with ‘its not just for girls anymore.’ If this were limited to publicly-visible news reports or the like, this would be fine, but the toxin still exists across fields of art and academia as well, as I think you’ve highlighted in your earlier discussion of television viewing habits. Being a sort of self-proclaimed intellectual and political carbunkle, I have the inclination to say that part of the position description of a media academic or researcher is the continuing struggle to evolve the discourses in the public sphere – in other words, bring out the hammer when stupid things are said, and make a noise when something substantial arrives. So I really want to underline with a thick pen what you began with: “digital remix culture owes a substantial debt to minority discourse.” Its worth printing out and nailing to the wall of every institution and academic hall that has any investment in technology. The only thing to add is that these aren’t seperate issues – gender positioning, race vocalisation and technology – no matter how hard we may try to dehistoricize them like that; the energy and force by which remixes and all forms of contra-digital experimentation happen simply won’t, can’t, will never come from wealthy people getting wealthier. It’s people that got cut out, cutting their way back in – cheaply, quickly, running across back fences and leaping across borders in ways that seem alien to anybody working within a strict system of cultural distribution. The reason I skipped between games and these thoughts is because its so visible there; when I played artist and curator Rebecca Cannon’s machinima film The Buff and the Brutal to third year students in one of my courses, many of them responded with “well, its clearly just a feminist take on game culture”. The operative word being ‘just’; what an extraordinary position for students to be in; their access to game aesthetics being stitched to an assumption that all non-standard, non-white, non-male referents are protestative, ‘just’ exterior and minor. Talk about there being a lot of work left to do! The male-invisible subject reappears, and I don’t think equipping the discussions of technology as phallocentric is enough; what we’re staring at is the growth of a new generation whose reflections of technology may in fact be less equipped to concieve of equal gender and race access than our own. I think about this a lot, and I hope I’m dreadfully wrong. DJ Spooky’s new essay and song coming out of the Venice Biannale is a great adjunct to this discussion.

Derecho: Word, word, and word to all of that. I appreciate a great deal of DJ Spooky’s work, and thanks so much for the link to The Buff and the Brutal. I wish that Chinese-Austrian video artist Jun Yang’s remix videos were more widely available, they are similar to Spooky’s in that they are essays in which Yang narrates, over all these disparate clips, his experiences as a bicultural migrant consumer of (predominantly U.S.) media. One issue I run into when teaching and writing about digital remix is that often, race and gender are not explicitly foregrounded by the “non-standard, non-white, non-male” producers. I love works by “non-standard” remix artists that *don’t* make the author’s race, gender, or nation of origin immediately apparent, because that’s a different kind of invisibility (maybe one that can even be interpreted as a critique of, or response to, the “invisible-white-male” kind) that disallows a kneejerk reaction like the one your students gave to Cannon’s piece. On the other hand, the reason why I call it an “issue” in teaching and writing, is that with pieces that announce their authors as minorities, the reader can grab hold of something in that text right away – your students know at least to start their brains thinking about feminism. When I teach Shelley Jackson, Anne-Marie Schleiner, or Public Enemy, discussions of race and gender in digital culture spark to life right away. But when I show Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s DAKOTA (a remix of Pound’s Cantos), or DJ Qbert’s Wave Twisters (this is a link to an article in Remix, not to the content from the CD or DVD), or Brian Kim Stefans’ Vaneigem Series (a “detournement” of NYT articles using text from The Revolution of Everyday Life), it’s harder to get learners to think and talk about how those works emerge from a female (in the case of [half of] YHCHI), Asian, or Asian American experience. Of course, it’s way more rewarding, too – but it takes work to prevent the discussion from falling right away into a New Critical approach (“This isn’t about race or gender or nationality, why bring those into it?”).



  1. Interesting discussion, and given that I feel interpellated, I’ll chime in.

    Abigail quoted me from Round 1: “”girls will consume work pitched at both genders, while the boys only concern themselves with boy-stuff.” If this is true, then girls are by far the more valuable consumers of media (since they will be good customers of twice the volume of stuff as boys), and media corporations should take the wishes, proclivities, taste cultures, and interests of their best consumers into account.” Unfortunately, the economic logic is actually reversed – male consumers are typically seen as more valuable because they are more scarce and harder to “hook.” Obviously there are sponsors and channels aimed primarily at female consumers, but the bulk of the media industry is more interested in appealing to the 14-year-old boy and taking the residual girls as bonus – or perhaps more accurately, they are more reluctant to possibly alienate boys, who they see as more likely to be driven away by ‘girl-stuff’. (And I fully admit I’m being horribly oversimplistic and generalizing with my industrial “they” here, but I think the summer action movie sphere of the industry is pretty close to that “they”).

    As for the other point about studying complex narratives & soap operas, I personally try to be upfront about how important soaps are in the history of TV storytelling, and have written about the explicit soap influences in some of the earliest examples of serially experimental shows like Soap and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. However, there are some crucial differences between how soaps tell stories and how primetime serialized programs do – some formal, some contextual, some tied to reception practices. It’s important to understand these differences, but also remember Robert Allen’s classic exploration of soaps where he argued persuasively that people who do not regularly watch soaps cannot truly understand their narrative systems. So how does a non-soap fan talk about serial storytelling without either ignoring or misrepresenting soap strategies? What would be an effective response from the guest lecturer you mention, assuming that he’s not a soap fan? And on a broader context, how can dialogues like this help explain these narrative continuities and differences?

    I look forward to part two…

  2. Scott Ellington says:

    Christian: “…the energy and force by which remixes and all forms of contra-digital experimentation happen simply won’t, can’t, will never come from wealthy people getting wealthier.”

    I think I understand that mythic RegularGuy is the targeted apotheosis of the statistical process that designs entertainment media, but that the blue-white light of the screen upon which his attention is fixated casts shadows; and that the hungry, resourceful (unappreciated and exploited) shadows generate the juices that drive media. So media scholars are obligated to illuminate the darknesses.

    I’m asking you both if any of this simpleminded summary fits.

  3. executrix says:

    The question of the value of girls as consumers reminds me of a point that Dale Spender made about education: schools devote a lot of time to improving boys’ language skills, because by and large girls have better language skills, and not a lot of time to improving girls’ math and science skills, on the theory that the boys are better at this anyway so why waste time teaching the girls?

  4. Lee Harrington says:

    Jason, I’m intrigued by your question: how can non-soap fans talk about soaps if Allen is correct in saying one basically has to be a fan (or regular viewer) to truly understand them, as no one would invest the time otherwise….I think Allen is right, but at the same time I wouldn’t necessarily expect the guest lecturer to have Allen-level understanding to address the question Abigail posed to him, about the basic strcture of soaps. If his response was speechlessness, that indicates an assumption that the soap genre is wholly irrelevant to the primetime serialized drama he’s talking about…

    which ultimately says something about the gendered nature of the genre and its audience. I appreciate the approach you yourself take — acknowledging the history and contributions of the genre in your work. Maybe my frustration is that many of those acknowledgements, to the extent they exist (and I’m not talking about you, Jason), assume that soaps’ contributions are all in the PAST, that it’s a dead genre rather than one evolving in its own right (though without many viewers along for the ride anymore, as Angela points out).

    Maybe we need someone to write a Heroes vs. As the World Turns article….Sam Ford, are you busy?

  5. Bob Rehak says:

    Great discussion, Abigail & Christian! I haven’t even delved into part two yet because part one is so alive with ideas. Abigail, I’m particularly intrigued by your linking of remix culture to minority identity and activity; I plan to pass along your name to a friend of mine at IU who’s writing his diss on hiphop culture and wants to bring new-media perspectives to bear.

    Reading your exchange and the responses left me with a couple of questions. First, I’m intrigued to learn that there *are* female Transformers fans out there — not being much of a follower of the franchise myself, my perception of its appeal is mediated entirely through third-party voices like Wired, Entertainment Weekly, etc. To what degree has academic fan studies considered the construction of fans in the popular imaginary by these glossy publications? I know Henry’s famous example from Textual Poachers of the press characterization of Star Trek geeks, but nowadays that split (between the grinning news anchor’s take and the fannish reality) seems to have metastasized, to the extent that substantial female fan bases are simply ignored. Yet, as Jason and others point out, the industry would be insane to indulge in corresponding cluelessness — even if only behind the scenes, someone’s got to be demographically hyperaware of how many female fans are watching, with what level of commitment. My question here is less about the obliviousness of Entertainment Weekly and more an ideological matter: what’s at stake in maintaining this front that particular franchises have exclusively male fan bases? Jason approaches an answer with this thought:

    the bulk of the media industry is more interested in appealing to the 14-year-old boy and taking the residual girls as bonus – or perhaps more accurately, they are more reluctant to possibly alienate boys, who they see as more likely to be driven away by ‘girl-stuff.’

    … but somehow I don’t think it’s that simple; purchasing power is not solely in the hands of the 14-year-old boys, but extends to their female friends/siblings as well as parents who mediate between the factions; as well, media congloms rarely leave anything profit-related to chance.

    Second, and relatedly, I notice that we’re talking about male fans and female fans as though they choose and consume media in parallel, separate-but-equal universes. It sounds as though female fans watch and discuss their shows *only* with other female fans, create fanfic for the same exclusively female audience, and so on. Male fans *only* consume media in conversation with other men (or, if the stereotype is accurate, alone). But my sense is that the membrane is a little more permeable than this; that a (heterosexual) couple or friend-pair at the video store negotiate their desires, that internet conversation spaces expose and therefore blend male and female passions. I know “classical” models of fandom emphasize the bubbled-off spaces of media engagement (e.g. a group of women gathering to watch together; a LAN party where it’s just the guys bringing over their PCs and Ethernet cards for some hot plug-n-frag action [shades of the homosocial stag parties Linda Williams writes about]). But isn’t this conception of fan practice something that’s due for breakdown and reassessment?

  6. Abigail, the falsehoods of “target demographics” have always fascinated me, and it has driven some of my research on “surplus audiences,” the scores of quite valuable audience members that are marginalized by an often-misguided target on behalf of the main property. As a male fan of soap opera, I put myself into this position; my research on pro wrestling often found a 40 percent female audience. Why do they then call it “soap opera for men, when WWE may be the one of the most popular regular cable program among young adult women many weeks? The falsity of the target demo…

    You write, “But women fans lost good soap operas, which were dramas dedicated to women’s enjoyment, and we did not gain the equivalent in serial prime time.” I just want to point out that a lot of male fans have lost this, too! I felt a little like you did when reading the Transformers article when I hit that line…and I agree that the complexity primetime offers is a much different kind and does not provide the same pleasures of what has been somewhat lost on daytime.

    But I can do nothing but concur with your statements regarding the lack of commitment shown to daytime television. In their effort to try and find quick fixes, TPTB have eroded an audience over time, and many of these issues stem back to these same problems about target demographics and the way to get an audience. Too many people are making decisions about what soap fans want to see who know nothing about soap opera.

    And, Christian, I had a “holy shit” moment of my own when I realized this round of conversation included both a soap fan and a wrestling fan, because there’s no way a Bull Nakano reference can be worked in by a casual observer. 🙂 When teaching my class on pro wrestling at MIT this past term, or when doing my Master’s work on soaps, I was surprised to find that, even among many of those who accepted that you might do work on one of these subjects, there was still the expectation that you wouldn’t take the material itself seriously.

    Jason, I had this conversation with someone over on LJ, I believe, in the previous round, regarding your own admittance to the importance of soaps in your essay on narrative complexity. I think that soaps are so obviously the precursor to so much of what happens to primetime, but they still remain an episodic format and not a completely serialized one. One episode of The Shield or Weeds will almost always be more enjoyable and fulfilling than one episode of One Life to Live, but primetime shows cannot do what daytime shows can do at their best, which is character-based plot with deep emotional complexity. I’m toying with teaching an MIT class on soap opera next spring, and I am facing this problem now…How can you talk about soap opera storytelling through clips, for instance (at least with pro wrestling you can extract particular matches from the performance, even though it pulls it from its serialized ongoing format as well; with soaps, there’s no way to make sense of a singular episode).

    But you hit at a point that my whole round with Lee suffered from. Are soaps, and pro wrestling, and other texts that have been somewhat marginalized by “mainstream” culture and by “mainstream” media studies compatible with a larger conversation, since their artfulness is so hard to fathom without coming “completely inside” the fandom? Perhaps this is one reason Buffy or Lost becomes a stand-in conversation for many media forms, because it provides a common-ground text to have these discussions over. These aren’t easy questions to answer, especially since a great deal of my academic interest centers on texts like soaps, which are so massive that they are quite hard for an “outsider” to understand.

    Lee, I share your frustrations about the presumed nature that soaps are in the past. The problem is that many scholars, many television executives, and even many in the industry are of the same assumptions, yet there are still many people quite dedicated to these texts. Look here for more. Re: the need for some work exploring these questions in detail, I quite agree with you Lee, and appreciate the shout out. 🙂 I do think these would be issues worth exploring in greater detail, if for nothing else to flesh out both the relationship of daytime serial dramas to the development of primetime complexity, as well as the differences that Jason mentions as well.

  7. Abigail Derecho says:

    Sorry to be late to the comments conversation. I’m on the road, and it is great to visit this page and see that some wonderfully provocative questions have been raised. Thank you to everyone for reading and commenting.

    Jason, Lee, and Sam: Jason, your answer about the significant and complex relationship of primetime seriality to soap opera, which includes important differences between the genres, is the answer I would have loved to hear from the visiting scholar. Instead, as Lee points out, his silence was an admission that he did not consider soap opera scholarship of any relevance to his work on the “game structure” of primetime quality TV, and so some of the old binaries – high v. low, quality art with tropes and patterns v. industrial and repetitive mass media, intricate logical game-playing v. emotional overinvestment, and male scholarship focusing on male genres v. female scholarship on female genres – were repeated and reinforced. It is heartening and necessary that there are many male media academics who take female scholarship and (traditionally) female genres into account.

    As for the question of educating students or readers about understudied genres that have a high degree of opaqueness for the non-fan, I am happy to hear that more of us (fan studies scholars) are willing to make that attempt. Linda Williams writes extensively about her approaches to teaching porn studies courses, and having been a T.A. for Jeff Sconce’s Exploitation Films class, I have to say that my conclusion from both Williams and Sconce is that one has to do as much immersion in the genre as possible. As Sam says, clips aren’t enough to get at the “artfulness” and intricacy of these genres. How many episodes of wrestling or soap operas would one have to screen before students really “got” what these narrative structures are really about, I don’t know – but it doesn’t sound impossible to force them (the non-fan students) to sit through 3-5 episodes over the course of a term. And Sam, one thing I really appreciate is your notion that certain shows like Lost serve as “common-ground texts.” It would be great if more people acknowledged (and were aware of) when they were using specific texts as examples and “stand-ins” for larger fields, and when they were doing text-specific readings. I think one thing we all have to recognize is that a great deal of media scholarship originates in an individual’s particular fannish attachments; I’ve seen a number of media studies works out there that are basically very intelligent fan-gushes over one TV show or film or game, which scarcely acknowledge the existence of other, similar texts, either contemporaneous with or preceding the object of their fannish and scholarly interest.

    Scott and executrix: Both of you suggest excellent terms to “think with.” Thanks, Scott, for your metaphor of blue-white light vs. “hungry, resourceful shadows” – generative, productive shadows – that feed the light, and the role of scholars in “illuminating” those patches of darkness. The fact that so many people working in the shadows also have a darker skin color gives your comment even more depth. And executrix, thanks for bringing up that point by Dale Spender about institutional allocation of resources being based in gender-biased assumptions. We all need to be on the lookout for these invisible or obscured manifestations of prejudice that have extremely concrete ramifications.

    Bob:Great comments, and I have one general thought in reaction to your three questions: What is the impact on academic fan studies of glossy mainstream publications’ construction of fans as primarily or only male or female? What’s at stake in maintaining this front that particular fan bases have exclusively male fanbases? Isn’t it untrue that male and female fans communicate in separate-but-equal parallel universes, and isn’t it time we broke down such conceptions? My response to all three is that you have hit on an extremely important point: Fans, scholars, and the general public (as represented by the mainstream press) all still hold onto an idea of separate spheres for the genders. People must still like the idea that there can be boys’ clubs and girls’ clubs, that there exist somewhere certain worlds and objects that are boys-only and girls-only. And that desire for separate spheres must guide some of the establishment of barriers to conversation that inspired this entire ongoing discussion on Henry’s blog. What Kristina sensed at MiT5, I think, was some resistance on the part of fanboys to sharing their toys with fangirls, or to letting girls in the treehouse. Moreover, when I talk about Transformers to my guy friends, I’m definitely aware that I am, in those conversations, “becoming-male” (or, to be more accurate “becoming-boy”) – I am “one of the guys” in those talks. When I bring up the romantic relationship between Optimus Prime and Elita One, the guys often go blank on me – they actually don’t even remember that part of the Transformers canon. So some separation between men and women when it comes to fannish investments seems to be a best-case scenario for many people on a gut level. But what you are getting at is that academic exchanges, academic scholarship, are not the places for that separation to remain sedimented.

    Sam: I really love your concepts of “surplus audiences” being ignored. So true. And my deepest apologies for excluding male fans in my statements about soaps as a genre that women have lost (or are in the midst of losing)! I know several male soap fans, of a broad spectrum of ages and sexual orientations, and they are just as angry as their female peers about the decline of soaps and the fact that, as you say, too many people making decisions about they want in soaps know nothing about the soap genre.

    Btw, I should have made this comment in response to your exchange with Lee, but I am 100% certain that there is a significant amount of fanfic production occurring in soap fandoms. I have often heard that soap fans simply arent’ as interested in fic b/c of the sheer volume of text they consume, but I simply feel this isn’t true. Fic isn’t as prominent a feature of soap fandom, b/c it lives not so much on LJ or as on privately-run and often members-only EZboards or custom-designed websites, but I guarantee you, the fic is there and in full force. I think you are an ATWT viewer; the amount of Lusty (Dusty/Lucy) fic published during that couple’s first run was staggering :).

  8. This discussion, and Sam’s pointer to the LJ one, inspired me to blog about the intersections and distinctions between soaps and primetime narrative complexity – I’d appreciate any comments from interested readers!

    As to comments about pedagogy, this is the toughest element to teaching any sort of long-form storytelling. While there’s a well-established norm for teaching serialized literature compiled into books (see any Dickens or Tolstoy), it’s much more unusual to teach a serialized film/TV text. I did have students watch all of season 2 of Six Feet Under when I taught a course on narrative theory & media, but it was hard to arrange logistically. I’d love to teach a course where we watch the entire series of The Wire, but that’s 60 hours! Daytime soaps would be hard too, as I think it would take more than 3-5 episodes to get a real sense of the text & reception norms, and it’s crucial to watch daily to understand the genre’s rhythms & rituals. I’d be interested to hear of anyone else’s experiences teaching serialized television.

  9. lynn liccardo says:

    Regarding Abigail’s media studies professor’s lapse re soaps, we had a similar incident at the c3 “Futures of Entertainment” last November. Paul Levitz, president of DC Comics, was talking about how “Hill Street Blues” was the first example of complex storytelling in primetime. to his credit, as soon as i mentioned soaps, he acknowledged the omission and pointed it out as one more example of how soaps have been “ghettoized.” the next day, a grad student asked me, rhetorically, I think, if soaps’ invisibility had something to do with the “g word”–gender. I said, “Yeah, I think so:)”

    I have to say though, that I think this focus on parsing the textual and structural differences between daytime and nighttime soaps misses the underlying point. My first article for “Soap Opera Weekly,” back in 1990, was about how nurses were portrayed on soaps. After it was published, a friend said, “You’re such a good writer. Why are you wasting your time writing about soaps?” That she watched soaps made me realize that soaps were marginalized much like nursing, and that there were soap viewers who, like many nurses, had internalized their marginalization. I, of course, have always rejected the premise underlying the question.

    So, that soaps have been historically devalued because of their association with women I take as a given. Those who don’t watch soaps certainly do. What else would account for the frequent news break-ins — because it’s raining?! In fact one station manager actually said they thought it a public service whenever he had the opportunity to interrupt soap. (can’t find the exact quote, but I think it was on Snark Weighs In.) Another poster on Savoring Soaps asked the question that most women deal with at some point in their lives: “Why is it that if you are too vocal as a fan group you get punished and if you are quiet shows will blame lack of interest as to why they are getting rid of particular characters?”

    What I think is far more important to explore understand is how that devaluation has been internalized by those who watch soaps (my friend above), and to some extent, by those who make soaps, and the unexpected ways in which that internalized devaluation manifests itself, because that information is central to understanding how daytime soaps have gotten themselves into their current sorry state, and, she said hopefully, offer some clues as to how to correct the course.

    That said, I do thing there are important insights to be gained from looking at the nighttime soaps. I agree with stinkylulu who responded to Jason’s piece, “Soap Operas and Primetime Seriality”: “I wonder if, by drawing the distinction as almost an opposition, you might be overstating and/or simplifying things.”

    I think that working so hard to differentiate how primetime soaps are different from daytime may well be one more example of how that marginalization has been internalized. And, I’ve always wondered what significance, if any, there is to the fact that at the exact time complex storytelling came to primetime with Hill Street in 1981, daytime was beginning to tell plot-driven “action” stories (yes, I’m taking about Luke and Laura). It’s that shift from character-driven plot, far more that the focus on younger characters, that lies at the heart of the plummeting ratings over the past 25 years.

    And the fact that no network executive back then exploited the fact the gold-plated, prestige television, like Hill Street, was simply a primetime version of daytime to advance the daytime shows is one more example of soaps’ isolation and, i suspect, the internalized marginalization I spoke of above.

    Regarding Abigail’s comment, “Women fans lost good soap operas, which were dramas dedicated to women’s enjoyment, and we did not gain the equivalent in serial prime time:” as I was watching the season finale of Friday Night Lights, I realized that I’ve been getting a lot more emotional payoff and character-driven plot from primetime serials than I’ve been getting from daytime in quite a while.

    I think daytime would do well to understand what is working on primetime soaps, because it’s what used to be working on daytime. Daytime soaps are in so much trouble right now that I don’t think we can afford to be territorial, be it time of the day, or gender, at least when it comes to discussing soaps.

  10. Lee Harrington says:

    Abigail, thanks for your correction re: soap fan fiction. This is fascinating, and a *major* change from soap fan activities in early/mid-1990s. I need to do some looking into this….

    Jason, Sam and I have been chatting via email about the challenges of teaching serialized television. I’ve taught several sections of an honors course on soaps and romance novels, and one solution was to make already-a-soap-watcher a pre-req of the course. Teaching to the choir, at some level, but at least everyone was on the same page at the beginning….

  11. Abigail, I think it’s key to emphasize, as you do, that soaps face both a gendered bias AND a cultural taste bias, that are somewhat interrelated but certainly two separate problems for the genre. Certainly, that soap opera is a term used for people’s emotions going “over the top” indicates that soap actors are known for the worst in their profession rather than the best.

    I agree that it is quite necessary to have consensus texts by which to have a conversation about television, even in an age where the idea of the consensus narrative is a thing of the past. In relation to soaps, the problem–as Lee Harrington points out in her work–is that it takes a guide and a lot of time to really get immersed in a soap opera text. That’s why I think a weekly viewing lab focused on one particular show would be nice, just as my class on wrestling was admittedly overloaded with viewing–but it’s hard to have a conversation otherwise. I had a professor in undergraduate who took a class on soaps in grad school, but I was later to find out they never watched any soaps. Considering that he didn’t come into a soaps fan, I don’t really get the sense that the class served him as well as it should have in understanding soap operas and their appeal.

    Re: surplus audiences, I think knowing who your main audience is serves a point, but the whole industry has become over-reliant on “target demographics.”

    Abigail and Lee, re: soaps fan fiction, I would like to talk with both of you about this more. I have seen what I would consider TYPES of fan fiction on public soap boards, and I know some fan fiction pops up other places as well. It tends to be couples based, either on couples who are together/have been together on the show or who have been teased, and I get a sense that there is a lot less in terms of resistant reading in the fan fiction. Rather than filling in gaps, I assume that these are often “alternate reality” fan fiction pieces.

    Lee, I believe that the confusion lies in the fact that these exist so separately from both soap opera discussion boards and fan fiction communities. I’ve seen a significant amount about fan fiction in pro wrestling, even though it exists outside the view of the predominant fandom; but not so much about soaps fandom, even from more recent work, like Nancy Baym’s. This has been on my mind for a while re: my work on soaps fandom, though, and I would love to see it pursued more explicitly in some form.

    BTW, I put this note in my thesis: “This is not to say that there is no soap opera fan fiction at all but rather that consensus among several scholars and fan community members I have talked with are that fan fiction plays a much less substantial role in soaps fandom than many other media fan communities.” I’m still not sure if that’s completely accurate, though, so I’d be glad to know more.

    Jason and Lee, seems like the film style class that has 3-hour viewing labs one night a week would be the best way to do this, but this would mean watching several episodes a week, of course. Still couldn’t fit in the whole series run of a show like The Wire, unless you gave up a lot of lecture time as well, which is one of the problems of really trying to “get at” complex texts like this.

    I would be interested in hearing more from other folks as well. As I said before, wrestling is serialized, but the form of its build for particular matches make stories that can be extracted from the overall flow of the serial, similar to the way individual episodes can be picked out of an ongoing serial in primetime serial dramas. Your idea of making soaps fandom a prerequisite isn’t a bad idea, but if ratings are an indication of continuing drops in the ratings, it complicates enrollment conisderably, and of course eliminates the chance for the observation of the non-viewer as they immerse themselves in the genre. But I agree that it does eliminate these problems.

    Lynn, good to see my thesis advisor here on Henry’s blog. I think the internalization of marginalization is one of the most dangerous aspects of the current soap opera industry. Since we’ve discussed these points many times, I won’t make much comment here, other than that I plan to put something up on the C3 blog tomorrow in greater detail in relation to this ongoing conversation, and that I agree that there is better character-driven plot on primetime these days than much of daytime, but the nature of primetime versus daytime means that, just as daytime cannot capture the action that is successful in primetime very well, primetime can only fulfill some of that immersion that daytime narratives can when they are at their best. I was reading about Irna Phillips’ early days at ATWT and the sentiment in the first six months of that daily 30-minute show that nothing happened. Instead, you slowly got to know the Hughes and Lowell families so that, when something did happen, you suddenly realized how much you cared.

  12. lynn liccardo says:

    i agree, sam, that “primetime can only fulfill some of the immersion that daytime narratives can when they are at their best” but the operative phrase here is “when they (soaps) are at their best,” which as we all agree is not nearly often enough (although, dare i say that ATWT seems to be back on track. let’s hope i haven’t spooked it). i do think that for many viewers, it’s getting to the point where something is better that nothing. and it’s not that i disagree with analyzing the differences between the two, but i really do believe that fixing daytime lies in daytime execs understanding the similarities, and i don’t want that fact to get lost in the shuffle. in fact, if i were in charge of a soap, or a network’s daytime division, i’d be taking a hard look at what primetime serials my daytime viewers (past and present) were watching, and thinking about the possible implications for my show/network.

  13. Lynn, I think your approach is key. The problem is that primetime has benefitted greatly from daytime by borrowing some elements of its format, but daytime has lost a lot trying to borrow from primetime in the process. What they need to do, though, is see how primetime is doing better than daytime often is at the very things primetime has borrowed from daytime.

    And you are right that there have been some good, character-driven scenes on ATWT lately, and there’s still enough there to give one hope, that’s for sure.

  14. Lee Harrington says:

    In hindsight, it would have been more appropriate for me to say we need a project on As the World Turns AND Heroes rather than VS. Heroes. I do think a thoughtful examination of the similarities and differences between daytime soaps and the current primetime iteration(s) would be useful, and would perhaps redress not only the marginalization of soap scholarship in the academy but be useful to the industry as well. I agree 100% with Lynn’s assessment of the internalized devaluation experienced by soap fans as well as others in the soap world. I also agree that lack of character-driven plots and lack of emotional payoff explains a lot ratings-wise….I would add 1 other key ingredient into the mix — format. I was thrilled with the idea of Port Charles’ chapter/book format and disappointed it didn’t catch on…I was thrilled when ABC originally announced it would strip Ugly Betty 2 or 3 times per week and disappointed when it backed down…I’m rather surprised that SoapNet’s “Night Shift” seems to be a hit with viewers, since as a regular GH watcher myself I see the lack of continuity in storyline as jarring, but a once-per-week format is a good one to experiment with. I agree with Lynn that daytime would be well-served by looking at what is working in primetime and why….and would love to see discussions of format as a bigger part of that discussion, especially since a novela format works so well for most of the globe.

  15. Lee, I think that you make some good points about the distinction of “and” instead of “versus.” I agree that both the industry and the academy could benefit from such a study. I think back to projects like Beautiful Things in Popular Culture and the importance of not saying “X genre is not artistically valuable” but instead talking about how the definition of what is artistic changes by genre. That’s one of the problems scholars and the industry have alike with soaps, in that there are different measures as to what makes it “good.”

    Re: format, I think it’s a great point. I’ve been interested about the inclusion of the “coming up tomorrow” clips every day after a show, as well as “coming up next week.” They even used to have “coming up on the second half” on some of the shows, which I found fascinating. Formatting helps set soaps apart, and it’s not like it’s always been static. GL went from 15 minutes to 30 minutes live, then taped, and then it expanded to an hour…It’s not like the format has always been set in stone…

  16. Lee Harrington says:

    Sam, I’ve always been intrigued by the “coming up” clips as well, especially since they often tell a mini-story that’s *different* than the one that actually airs. I’ve been mulling the idea of writing a paper on it for about 15 years now…doubt I’ll ever get around to it but interesting to play with.

  17. It is interesting that they often edit together the “next week” clips of shows, and this is not partiuclar to soaps, to make it look like something very different is going to happen. Re: spoilers, since that’s a conversation that’s been happening over on our C3 blog and on the blogs of some of our related faculty members (including Henry’s) in relation to Harry Potter, I’m interested in spoilers in the soap space because those “coming up next week” often give away the punchline of a crucial surprise much more crudely than spoilers posted online, and those spoilers are explicitly shown at the end of the main text.

  18. lynn liccardo says:

    a couple of things: i’m getting a little tangled up remembering where who responded to whom about what, but somewhere stinkylulu talked about redundancy as a pivotal soap pleasure. i was reminded of something martha nochimson either wrote in “no end to her,” or told me. don’t remember her exact words, but the gist is that when soaps are being done well (as always, when is the operative word), each time the story is retold, the emotional plot is advanced a tiny bit, a fact unique to daytime, and one that can only be recoginzed and appreciated by regular viewers.

    and i was so glad lee mentioned “ugly betty,” less for the format than how the story’s been structured. this show embodies a classic soap construct: down-to-earth girl from solid, working class family; rich boy from dysfunctional rich family. but it also bridges a gap between what i see as two distinct styles of soap opera i discuss in the helium article linked below.

    “ugly betty” is an extremely ambitious, high-wire act that never crosses the line into farce despite ample opportunities in every episode. it maintains that balance between TPTB never forget every character is a living, breathing person with real emotions. and, no matter how over-the-top a character’s actions may seem, i’ve never found myself saying “what the f…” wish i could say the same for daytime. and i hope they keep it up for season 2.

  19. Abigail Derecho says:

    Jason, Sam, and Lee: Wow, I am impressed at how much soap opera, wrestling, and primetime serial TV you all have been screening for your students. I have to say, Jason’s comment about the utter lack of hesitation in assigning huge volumes of serialized literature from the 19th century has made me re-think my reluctance to assign viewing as “homework.” I might teach Firefly this fall, and when I taught it before, I screened only 1 episode, and non-fans definitely did not understand why it was even worth watching. This semester, perhaps I’ll tell people they can watch it on reserve or they can watch it on iTunes or they can buy or borrow the DVD, but by the time Firefly week comes around, they’d better have watched the whole thing. Sure, there’ll be slackers, but there are slackers in a Dickens class, too. I know that the idea of TV-as-homework runs counter to the current standards of cultural capital, but perhaps the very non-canonicity of the text will make it more appealing, as “work,” than 150-year-old novels.

    Btw, if anyone wants to work with me on a comparative project about serialized fiction in the 19th century and serial film/TV formats in the 20th-21st centuries, let me know :). I’ve been longing to do something longue-duree-ish about seriality as a narrative form.

    Lynn and Sam: Lynn, you make great comments about the internalization of soaps’ marginalization and devaluation, by both viewers and producers. There are stories posted on soap fan boards all the time about soap head writers’ remarks disparaging the genre. I, too, love Friday Night Lights, and think it serves as a great example of what Sam mentioned about primetime aking a better look at the “very things primetime has borrowed from daytime.” I must also agree with Sam that daytime “has lost a lot trying to borrow from primetime.” I am a lifelong General Hospital viewer, and the amount of influence that The Sopranos and The Godfather films have had on that show is horrifying, b/c what makes those mob texts work (hypermasculinity, amorality, dramatic action set-pieces) are far from what makes soap opera texts work. Or maybe it’s just that the GH writing staff sucks, and has for a long time. After all, The Sopranos was a soap opera, and it worked.

    Sam: I have to agree and disagree with you at once: Yes, most soap fanfic is couples-based and alternate-reality, AND much of it is also resistant-reading. In the last five or six years, the soap fic I’ve read has been linked, directly or indirectly, to the huge couples campaigns launched by fans – the e-mail/letter-writing, phone-calls, go-to-fan-events-and-carry-signs, send-couple-themed-gifts-to-the-set kind of campaigning that has exploded as the Internet has made it easier for fans to organize. So, the fanfic is, in large part, another aspect of the campaign, and the most active campaigns are for couples that the show is ignoring or breaking up. In that sense, b/c the couples-based fic defies the canon of the show much of the time, I would say fans are still doing resistant readings via their writings (it’s Henry’s frustration/fascination dynamic in play, yet again).

    Btw (and this goes out to Lee and Lynn as well), if you ever want to collaborate on something about soap opera fan fiction, e-mail me. I’m in :).

    Lee and Sam: I love the idea of analyzing the format of soaps more closely, esp. the evolution of the previews, where they are placed, the “mini-narrative” they form through a different montage than is provided by the actual show. Paratextual analysis is key for any genre, and it’s a shame that most DVD sets don’t include previews or “previouslies.”

  20. Abigail, I think your logic is quite good re: justifying television viewing. If we are arguing about the value of the television show as text, it should be able to be assigned as any other text would. The idea of the show as homework is especially possible with things that are available for purchase in DVD sets, for instance. It’s not like the cost of the average television season (barring HBO shows, for instance) is much worse than the average textbook for most classes. Soaps fan fiction has been my blind spot, simply because it is under the radar of most fan boards, other fan-fic communities, scholars, and the shows/press as well, so I’d love to examine this in greater detail. You can contact me at if you want to talk about it more.