Issue Three: Race, Nation, Sexual Orientation, and Fandom
Derecho: In Round Three, Part One, Robin Reid wrote, “nobody’s mentioning ‘race,’ ethnicity, sexuality, not even as an ‘academic’ project or area of analysis.” I’d like to investigate these topics within fandom from an autobiographical perspective, but I hope that you’ll jump in (and others will, too, in the Comments section) and contribute your own analyses, either autobiographical or not, of these issues.
I’m Filipino-American, first generation (though I usually call it Gen 1.5, b/c we moved to the U.S. when I was three years old), and from the start, my media fandom was informed by (inter)nationalism and race. The Philippines was a colony of the U.S. from 1898 through 1946, and U.S. media has long been extraordinarily popular and influential in Filipino culture. My older siblings were avid fans of Star Trek, The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Wild, Wild West, and other syndicated U.S. TV shows for years before they stepped foot in the U.S. Star Trek was singled out by my family as our totem show, and I’m certain that for young Asian children, engaging deeply with an American TV show about long-distance travel, and a U.S.(S.) starship where there was assumed equality not only between races and sexes, but between humans and aliens, plus the fact that one of the featured characters was Asian (Sulu) and another was Asian-esque (Spock), factored into their enthusiasm for emigrating to America. Popular media was the first way that my three brothers and two sisters understood the U.S., and media continued to guide our decisions (we decided to move to L.A. because of Disneyland, of course) and to inform how we navigated U.S. society and culture. I grew up in a very racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood, and pop culture was my go-to resource when encountering difference (when you’re six years old and you eat different foods than the kid next door and you can’t pronounce each other’s last names correctly and you don’t understand the languages that your respective parents speak, all you’ve got is your Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari game, and that counts for a great deal). A lot of recent Filipino and Filipino-American media productions address (directly or indirectly) the huge role that American media plays in Filipino/American life, and U.S. sci-fi/fantasy in particular has deep roots in Fil/Am culture. I am eager to write a substantial piece on how American sci-fi influences the immigrant imaginary, both before and after immigration, because there’s something deeply poetic and simultaneously troubling about how a media text like Star Trek can offer first-generation Americans so much hope and so many advantages, some of which turn out to be real, and some of which turn out to be cruelly illusory.
As for my experiences of race and sexual orientation in fandom: I must say that it’s wonderful to enjoy fanfic that ships non-white/interracial (sometimes non-human/interspecies) pairings, just as it is to enjoy fic about same-sex ships. I’ve never read slash fic (amazing, I know, but true), but I am a fan of some fem-slash, and some of my favorite ships involve non-white characters. And why did I write that “it’s wonderful to enjoy” such fics? Not only because experiencing pleasure from stories (or from anything) is terrific, but because, as a non-white person, I am asked so often to identify with white characters, to feel deeply for them and become attached to their psyches and emotions, that I think it is important for fan producers (whether white or not, whether in fic or vids or any other genre) to play around with diversity, and allow fans ample opportunity to cross-identify, and to find pleasure in those cross-identifications, occasionally in the way that I *have* to all the time. Because fan productions are where marginal characters and marginal or non-canonical pairings can get lots of play, plenty of “airtime,” loads of attention, analysis, interpretation, dissection. And I think when I, a straight woman, find myself identifying with a female character who feels desire for another woman, that (for me) non-normative desire teaches me to be more humane, because I can be more sympathetic with lesbian desire irl. And I think when a white person finds himself or herself identifying with non-white characters, that can teach him or her to be more humane as well. I may be overestimating the power of both desire and identification to change people’s deeply embedded knee-jerk beliefs about people who are not of their race or sexual orientation. But I want to make the point that fan productions are about play and emotional affect, and I think that irrational and subconscious biases about race, gender, nationality, and sexual orientation will more easily dissipated through play and affect than through official channels of education, or through any legal measure that censors speech. Fan productions have the power to liberate people from the prison of their “normal” desires. Fans’ enthusiasm for concentrating on the abnormal and marginalized, their eagerness to develop the minor characters and to explore potential (but as-yet-unrealized) pairings, gives them a special and wonderful power, which I hope more and more fans use. Fan productions will not be sufficient to save the world from irrational prejudice, but they can possibly play a vital role in expanding the worldviews of individual consumers of their works.
McCrea: I come from a mixed-language background grew up in a number of different places – and I’m very much a subscriber to the notion that media fandom creates cross-cultural forms of communication by which people can inter-relate, as I had to negotiate different languages at an early age. To this day, I find a strange affinity with cartoons in languages I cannot understand; what is left is a supersurface of images, sights and experiences that have to be read physically before they can come in culturally. This has translated with a continuing fascination with say, music videos from the Middle East or European community television. All you have is aesthetics, until the language begins to sink in. So it was through these sliding layers of aesthetics that media gender became a bit unstuck for me early on; there was no one image of men or women by which to grow up around and reflect, but many across different culture and countries; there was the weird obsession of the English with the quasi-mythical Jimmy Somerville, the bizarre fixation of the French on Serge Gainsbourg and the Australian adoration of Paul Hogan. Culture was a costume play; nothing could be truly ‘genuine’ because everything seemed so cultural and staged early on. And so fandom was always underwritten by a search for not so much identity, but citizenship. The idea of a nostalgia without a origin-place (as I’ve talked about with reference to Jiwon Ahn’s article on manga and anime) is very dear to me in that sense. This is not to suggest anything as severe as Brian Benben’s character in the 90s show Dream On, who could only relate to the world through semblences to Gilda, Hogan’s Heroes and Gilligan’s Island. Moreso a deference to the situations of fandom in order to know where you were in the first place. Like many teenagers of the time, something clicked in me when I was first exposed to the hyperviolence of Manga Entertainment’s first wave of video releases in the West – an event which is yet to be unpacked properly – although I have just began to read Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination by Anne Allison which looks spectacular in that regard.
I’ve never delved into the world of fan-fiction much, simply because my chosen fandoms probably don’t inspire people to write – I came into science-fiction too late and the spectre of happening across slash fiction always chased me off the proverbial reserve. I spent some time going along to events such as live callback screenings such as those for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Blues Brothers or more recently, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, and found that this kind of hyperkinetic cross-text fandom was closer to how I saw and felt my way through media. Comic fandom is interesting in this regard, because so many of those who regularly read comics consider themselves able to participate, or are actively participating in the culture by writing, drawing, putting out zines, websites – to a large extent, being a comics fan (or say, RPG player) requires a depth participation model. A marginal but highly pertinent practice is Youtube Poop, which is highly condensed, lowest-common-denominator video mashups using lowest possible grade source material (full-motion video clips from bad video games and television spin-offs) until you’re left with something that chases a notion of zero-sum fandom. A show, a feeling, but little else. Its now a cottage genre on Youtube, populated by a cadre of master poopers and a few dozen more wannabees (myself included). What I like about this type of fandom is that the anarchy of media sensations is immediately registerable.
Derecho: Before I riff on your excellent insights, I just want to clarify something about my earlier post. I’d like to state, for the record, that I am well aware that there is a lot of stereotyping, exoticizing and sexualizing of Otherness in fandom and fan productions; of course, as with all cultural creations, many authors infuse their works with bias and prejudice. And we all know that fan texts are not always resistant (as several participants in this discussion have already mentioned), but often reproduce existing social conditions. However, beyond the “many” and “often” are some very interesting opportunities for cross-identification and perspective-shifting in fandom.
I really enjoy your ideas of “culture as a costume play” and “nostalgia without an origin-place” b/c they are so counter (and complementary) to analyses like Paddy Scannell’s, JesÃºs Martin-Barbero’s, John Ellis’s, and John Hartley’s, which all emphasize mass media as the site of national identity. “Television is one of the prime sites upon which a given nation is constructed for its members,” Hartley wrote 30 years ago, and Martin-Barbero (about 20 years ago) wrote about communication technologies allowing “a space of identification,” providing “the experience of encounter and of solidarity” with fellow citizens. Of course, all of these ideas build on Anderson’s notion of imagined communities (so widely accepted that I think the phrase no longer needs quotation marks). But what do we make of the international, cross-language, queer-identification fandoms? We who know fandom know that the idea that U.S. mass culture permeating other national cultures is not a one-way street; many nations’ media are reaching other nations’ audiences and finding fans. Witness the rise of Latin American telenovelas (Ugly Betty, and more to come next season) and BBC comedies and reality shows (Footballers’ Wives, The Office, Pop Idol) being repackaged and “Americanized” – “glocalized,” as Yeidy Rivero and others say – for U.S. networks. I’m intimidated even by the notion of a project that would attempt to quantify how much influence Japanese media has had on American youth culture in the last 20 years (although that project probably does exist and is being carried out successfully as I type this). Does this mean that media production is a new global currency, that “cultural capital” is rivaling other kinds of capital (and cultural capital definitely translates into financial capital, media products being of supreme importance to national export revenues)? And where does this currency market leave countries that are net-importers of media? It’s interesting that the U.S. is no longer holding the only hypodermic needle, but does that mean we should throw out every aspect of the needle model because of that? India, Japan, China, Britain, and Colombia (and other Latin American nations) are now major exporters of media; are these nations affecting other national cultures in the same way that the U.S. did during its long reign of media supremacy? Are Indian or Japanese “values,” dreamscapes, and hero-types becoming more broadly known and aspired-to? It would be very interesting if this were the case. However, I feel like a stronger argument could be made that the master currency is still American, that just as Hollywood Westerns adapted and translated Japanese samurai films and appropriated the values encoded therein, American media continues to filter in the messages from outside that it finds suitable, leaving American sensibilities for the most part unaffected by its touches with foreign productions. Even as I hypothesize a “filtering” process, however, I am not even sure how the mechanics of such “filtering” work. In the selection of which works get wide distribution? In the fact that the kung-fu and Hong Kong action movies that Americans can buy on DVD are the ones that Harvey Weinstein (as educated by Quentin Tarantino) likes? And if so, is that selectiveness so bad (I personally think Tarantino has excellent taste in kung-fu films)? Of course, the fact that much of the world’s media now exists on pirate networks – and is therefore accessible outside of official mass distribution channels – allows those who become hard-core fans of any one national cinema to bypass any filtering done by their “home” nation, and access the types of texts they love much more directly and quickly, in far greater volume. So, once again, fannish interest – the drive of the collector, what Derrida calls “archive fever” – seems to open up spaces and experiences where more global sensibilities (more than average, anyway) can form.
McCrea: Great points, and this is the flipside to the piracy debate. Underneath all of this prevaricating about who owns what, there are genuinely massive shifts in media consumption occuring. As recently as last month, there were 40 people seeding a torrent file of Kenneth Anger films taken from various sources, and I wondered to myself who these 40 people were, on one hand sharing some amazing films with the world, on the other causing the legendary struggle of Anger to get recompense for his work to go on.
Media is a nation. I am a big fan of Hartley and Ellis myself and find myself still referring to them for precisely these passages about nationhood for a key point of technological change – the dawning of the VHS era. I’m lucky enough to have a bundle of old Sight and Sound issues from the late 70s and early 80s in which you can witness stories of technology overwhelm the stories of Britishness. A reader’s letter in the first issue of 1979 mentions that film is ‘an American technology built for the American mind’ and as superstitious as that is, I find myself thinking about media technology’s naturalism and own belonging-ness. One book I can highly recommend on this is the somewhat weird but utterly brilliant The Death of Cinema by Paolo Cherchi Usai, which details how cinema comes to chase an ideal image.
Language is still the viral path along which culture travels; here, Australian television is American television with a side-dish of local content. We even have our own public figures like Mark Philipoussis unable to get a show here shipped over there to make a reality television show to ship back to us as late night dross. And yet, locally made shows still dominate ratings if not the schedule, even if they are glocalised formulas.
Finally, with our friend Quentin, you are right – his film taste isn’t so bad. It is however, somewhat concerning that films needs a ‘Quentin Tarantino presents’ sticker in order to be accessible or readable. The process is as you say, Derrida’s archive fever, where his films (and those of Kevin Smith and the other nerd-gen directors) become nodes of references for films which then feed and harvest the cult energy. A re-release of the Sonny Chiba classic The Streetfighter featured a yellow and black background to capitalise on the popularity of Kill Bill, closing the circle of referentiality. Its here that you see fandom cross position descriptions with the curator and all kinds of re-internationalising take place.
Issue Four: The Problem of Intellectual Property
McCrea: I consider the continuing adherence to the term ‘intellectual property’ to be one of the most delirious elements of contemporary media scholarship. Whose property? Is there a deed involved? Why should I respect it; to whose benefit do I curtail the movements of my intellect? Even more disturbing is the subtle shift to use the term ‘IP’, which is not, I would argue, a mere abbreviation. It is the turning of a concept into linguistic voodoo – suddenly Harry Potter is not a universe, a realm, a world or a space – its somebody’s IP. It belongs. It is owned. This runs counter to so much that media scholarship has been pointing to as the open, democratic states of fandom that we’re faced with a media landscape that is so much more open than it was 20 years ago in many sense, but for some reason we have allowed corporate marketing terminology to permeate right through to the membrane of our work.
When Sara Andrews, a player of the online game/life destroyer World of Warcraft advertised for a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in-game, the powers that be at Blizzard Games moved first to censure her (and later relented, it should be said) on the grounds that her discussion thereof breached the bounds of their intellectual property. It was merely shorthand for an unwillingness to accept diversity; play, but don’t really play. Experiment, but only within the frame. Make friends, but only in character. This abuse of the very concept of a cultural product needs to become a discussion again, because it feels that while we have so much more access to so much more media, our ability to intervene in media along the lines of fandom, parody and social interaction may actually be less available than it was a generation ago. The largest tension is, as always, gender and sexuality subversion – read, but don’t read too much. Of course there has been a great body of work since the early days of fandom on how we negotiate with those who produce mainstream culture, the owners of this property – but there is still a great deal left in order that people acting creatively with products that were advertised into their lives are permanently left alone. The freedom of interpretation seems so inalienable, but for a disturbing amount of people, especially those without the benefit of a Bill of Rights, it has to come second to the arcane needs of some nervous legal department whose own grasp of the culture they influence seems so often ill-informed.
Derecho: This is a huge issue, and Lessig and Boyle, and their articulations of “free culture” and “cultural environmentalism,” have been critical for scholars (of both law and culture) who are interested in fighting media corporations’ extraordinary expansion of the concept of copyright and Intellectual Property over the last 30 years. I’m sure the work of Creative Commons, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse are well-known enough to go without mentioning, but I mention them anyway b/c they offer some of the best resources for fans who receive Cease & Desist letters or just plain want to know what’s already been written and done about incidents like the one you mention, where players/users/readers/viewers/consumers find their media interactions restricted, constrained, and otherwise censored (or at least threatened, as Andrews was, with censorship).
Your plea for fans to be “left permanently alone” summarizes in three words the structure of feeling of most active media users’ discourse. I love your pointing out that the insidiously “subtle shift to use the term ‘IP’” is “linguistic voodoo” – that reminds me of Marx’s critique of words that name money, like “pounds,” “dollars,” “francs,” as “cabbalistic signs,” which gives an incredible power to the signifier (money, or in your example, the term “IP”) and distracting people from thinking about the signified (value, or in your example, rightful possession). I would like to add one plea to yours; mine is directed at all of the terrific media scholars participating in, and reading, this discussion. Even though cultural scholars have written a lot of great arguments regarding, as you say, the “open, democratic states of fandom,” and legal scholars have written a great deal about the necessity of better legal protections for media fans’ “fair use” (or, conversely, less power given over to media corporations by Congressional Acts like the DMCA and the CTEA), media scholars and legal scholars need to talk more to each other. The work of Sida Vaidhyanathan and Andrew Ross has been really useful for demonstrating how “cross-overs” can happen, but more people need to build on their examples. It is absolutely critical that the next time a case as important as Eldred v. Ashcroft comes before the U.S. Supreme Court, the representative of fans/users/consumers is ready with a response to a statement like the one Justice Kennedy made to Lessig, which was basically that he didn’t see how copyright extension “has impeded progress in science and the useful arts.” Lessig has written that he feels that he missed his opportunity to win the Eldred case when he responded to Kennedy. His response was, “Justice, we are not making an empirical claim at all.” Lessig tried to redirect Kennedy’s question, rather than giving (this is a quote from Lessig) “the right answer [which] was instead that there was an obvious and profound harm.” It’s the job of media scholars, much more so than lawyers, to clearly define what is at stake for culture and society when cultural productions are unfairly restricted. I hope that, over the next few years, our field manages to publish so many great and powerful arguments for media users to be “left permanently alone” that any lawyer handling an IP or copyright case will have those arguments on the tip of her tongue when going before a court.
McCrea: That is really the key issue; availability of public discourse. Recently, an Australian man called Hew Griffiths was extridited from his house in country NSW and thrown in an American jail, for the crimes of piracy through his group DrinkorDie. The charges claim that millions of dollars worth of software and media files were served from his computers and no doubt the powers that be will follow the criminal case with a civil one. There is one extraordinary element:
Hew Griffith is not American. He has never been to America. He has no relations in America. Most of the people downloading from his site were Australian. So how is it that the RIAA and MPAA were able to subvert the very notions of citizenry and sovereignty all the way from their star chambers deep underground in the US? How is it that no sane person stood up in the courtroom and pointed out that by alledging illegal downloads to have the same monetary value as a physical object you devour any notion of collective decency attached to the navigation of the media landscape?
The potential space of academics is as you suggest, to be the authority that helps protects fans from these outfits. It would be grand if we turned around to the RIAA and MPAA and quite sternly reminded them that they own and sell cultural products, but that is all. Their unwillingness to even properly recompense artists and producers of the income they illegally press gang out of radio stations through their SoundExchange program is just another recent example of their ghoulish, baroque concept of their rights over the media they sell. We should terrify them, and right now I doubt that any significant figure involved in letting billionaires sue the poor would consider an academic public figure any speedbump to their vampirism. And yet even children could work it out; all use is fair use unless you begin to make money out of it. Then you’re a thief. Not before.
Fandom is a key staging ground for all of this, as its a type of fandom that is being sold and reinterpreted and another type that is being squashed. The type that articulates itself through a thousand official products is exalted while the creative, anarchic, sometimes weird acts of fans is thrown into the pits below. There is nothing subtle about that shift; its an ongoing degeneration of our media landscape – piracy issues and fandom regulation are dovetailing unpleasantly.