Gender and Fan Studies (Round Six, Part Two): Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington

Sam Ford: I know that a lot of the people following this debate might not be that interested in soaps in particular, but I am interested in the differences in discussing fan culture when it shifts from being a conversation primarily about fan fiction, which many of the back-and-forths have so far. How do we measure creativity in relation to fan communities? My understanding is that most people would agree that fan fiction only retains its full meaning and resonance within the community that it is produced in, and the social specificity of creative output is no different in the soap opera fan communities we have been discussing, but the output is often much different–criticism, debate, parody, discussion, continuity-maintenance, historical perspective…these are very creative processes that seem to be the prevalent forms of fan output for soap opera fandom.

To move toward your discussion of sports and media fans, I think the question you pose is one relevant to this series as a whole and one which various contributors have touched on in one way or another. Are we looking at the difference in male and female fan responses or in the responses of scholarship on fans, or can you really separate the two? As you imply in your question, there is some difficulty in separating the two, and perhaps the body of academic work on soap opera fandom, television fandom, fan fiction communities, sports fandom, and so on are shaped greatly by the gendered perspectives, and the respective genders, of those who have been most prevalent in those fields. It is important to realize this may be the case, while not making that the totalizing explanation for differences in sports fandom and sports fan studies, when compared to media fandom.

My work on pro wrestling goes between the two, in that it is sports entertainment, a blending of media fandom and sports fandom, and a blending between male-gendered sports and female-gendered soap opera. In wrestling, I have found that there at least seems to be a significant amount of fan fiction compared to soaps, even though the WWE likewise has five hours of weekly television content, perhaps because wrestling does provide a lot of negative capability, to steal a term from Geoff Long’s posts two weeks ago, for fans to fill in, because it does not provide the off-stage relationships among characters and/or their portrayers. As Sue Clerc has written about, wrestling fan fiction plays an interesting blend between concentrating on the characters and the “real people” who play their parts, just as wrestling blurs those distinctions itself.

Of course, it’s important to note that the fan fiction of wrestling is a very largely driven by females, while male fan expression in online fan community form has often

manifested itself in a blend of role-playing and fantasy sports in which wrestling fans enter fantasy leagues and role-play various wrestlers to compete with one another. These e-mail federations, or fantasy leagues, involve quite a bit of creativity, but it manifests itself much differently than in the off- screen relationships so often portrayed in the more explicit fan fiction. These, of course, are very gendered responses to the program, and there is very little formal overlap between the two wrestling fan fiction communities.

You raise some interesting questions about celebrity in relation to sports as well. I don’t particularly know that “celebrification” is necessarily gendered female, although there is often more talk of “role models” when it comes to male celebrity. But I do think that you are right that the particular pleasures or draws of sports may be seen as different. In the wrestling world, John Cena would be a particularly good example.

Because some more traditional fans view him as lacking the technical skills of some

other wrestling stars, he is actively disliked be a particular portion of the crowd, his

“haters.” To another very large portion of the audience, often identified as primarily female adults and younger fans, he is greatly loved and admired, and the theory has

often been an emphasis on skill among the active adult male fan base and an emphasis on star image and charisma among female fans, children, and more casual wrestling fans. I’m not saying it breaks that easily into those binaries, but it is intriguing in relation to the question you pose.

C. Lee Harrington: One of the dimensions of creativity often left out of discussions is fan fantasies — here I mean those that take place only in the confines of one’s brain, not shared with others via discussion, fiction, debate, research interview, etc. We all know fantasizing exists but unless it manifests itself in some

representational form visible to others we tend to overlook it (in recent research particularly).

Most studies of fandom tend to rely on at least some form of visible expression. I wonder sometimes about the (in)accessibility of fans who experience and express their fandom only to their own selves……and I’m one of those people, mostly. I’d rather watch my favorite TV programs alone than with others, I don’t talk about them online and rarely with friends (though our office staff and faculty have regular Wed morning discussions about Dancing with the Stars and American Idol, perhaps my proudest accomplishment as department chair), and I don’t participate in most other creative activities that tend to be the hallmarks of fandom. I wonder if my own research design approach would capture me as a fan :-) Auto- ethnography, anyone…?

To go back to the gender question, yes, the gender of scholars vs. gender of fans vs. gendered nature of texts etc. raise all sorts of complicated questions, and the discussions these past few weeks have been really illuminating. I guess I was thinking with celebrification (in the context of sport) that once we’re down the road of transforming athletes into stars, we somehow move them from the world of sport to the world of celebrity, a gendered shift in many people’s eyes.

I’m remembering the Olympics a few rounds back (I’m forgetting the year) when the network (NBC?) for the first time did “behind the scenes” of athletes’ lives to draw in female viewership. Novel at the time but it’s obviously become standard because it altered demos exactly how producers wanted. Not hard to speculate how Emmitt Smith’s appearance (and well-deserved win!) on Dancing altered his public perception and fan base. Obviously some of our readers out there know much more about celebrification in the sport context than I do…..

Sam Ford: Lee, I know you share my hope our back- and-forth has been useful for those involved in the discussion this summer and those following the discussion. Since soap opera fandom, sports fandom, and pro wrestling fandom are quite different than many of the fan activities and genres that have been discussed here in the past few weeks, I at least hope that we have emphasized that there is some great work on fandom in the body of work on soap operas and pro wrestling, and that there is a whole other world of sports fandom out there that speak to many of these issues and that would be of great interest.

When the precursor to this series started after the Media in Transition conference and through Kristina Busse’s site, we started discussing how my own focus on soap opera

fandom provided a much different perspective on many of the media-related questions posed in this discussion about fandom. I have taken a Convergence Culture approach to what is primarily a female genre, soap opera, which would seem to some a male bent on a female fandom. However, as your work pointed out over a decade ago, a producer/consumer perspective is quite different in the fan world of soaps. While it is quite true that fans often set themselves against TPTB in soaps for not respecting a show’s history, this relationship also manifests itself in relation to soap opera’s marginality, just as pro wrestling fandom does. Even as producers and consumers bicker about one another from time-to-time, they may very well be the first to defend the others to outsiders. That produces that “family reunion” atmosphere and that much different dynamic.

Soaps also have a larger proportion of female creators in executive and high creative position to correspond with the large female fan base, so gendered discussions of producers and consumers and the power dynamics of their interaction is quite different than in a variety of fandoms in which examining interpersonal relationships in greater detail is reading against the text. Further, the volume of soaps text mitigates the need for fan fiction to fill in the gaps, so fan creativity manifests itself in so many other ways.

Sports and pro wrestling provide the other side of this coin, but as Henry’s work points out, wrestling marries a predominantly male fan base and cast to a feminine serialized drama form. And I think it’s important to realize that there are a significant portion of soap opera fans who are male, just as there are a large portion of female wrestling fans. These surplus audiences, in the eyes of those worried about target demographics, are still important parts of the fan community and must be included in these discussions, rather than stereotyping the audience as somehow monolithic.

I know that this conversation exists in some ways as an outlier to a fanboy/fangirl discussion, but I hope that will be its strength rather than its weakness. Lee, I know that you are headed out for travels, so we’ll end the conversation at this point, and I’ll continue the conversation through the comments on Henry’s blog and in LiveJournal.

Lee will be joining us in the comments section when she returns from her travels later this month.

Comments

  1. In an odd twist of fate, I sat this week with Brad Maule of General Hospital fame. This is extremely unusual, because I live in Nacogdoches, TX.

    In a 3 hour conversation about an ARG I was producing, we discussed how ARGs (IMS-esque ones) answered some of his desires he had as an actor on GH.

    He wanted them to be more in tune with the desires of the audience. He wanted less long range scripts, and he specifically characterized ANY changes to the creative direction of a soap as a very slow turn of an enormous boat.

    Flexibility. He wanted some flexibility, and as a former comedic actor who has auditioned a few times for Guiding Light, there is NO flexibility in the soap business. As an improviser from 2nd City, I was quickly scolded for deterring from the exact words written in the script.

    Tomorrow morning, I have a shoot with Brad, and I plan on passing on this discussion for him to chim in on directly.

    I sound like a name dropper. meh.

    Jeromy

  2. Jeromy, would love to hear more of Brad’s perspective on some of these issues. ARGs in relation to soaps make for quite an interesting comparison. Both involve textual immersion of some sort, but the industrial realities, and the unending nature of the soap text, makes it quite different.

    Look forward to any further insights you have after the conversation with Brad.

  3. Scott Ellington says:

    And I thought seven years of Buffy-episodes presented a daunting challenge!

    The prospect of immersing myself in a half-century of soaps is utterly debilitating. Although I remember the odd rabid afternoon spent watching Bobo Brazil, Gorgeous George and Haystack Calhoun perform in wrestling “exhibitions”, the very idea of catching myself up on Mick Foley’s career is a great deal more than challenging.

    I do NOT mean to say that this discussion hasn’t been uniquely valuable, it’s rather that soaps and wrestling (as you’ve described these arenas of involvement) seem to call for a level of personal commitment I now find breathtakingly overwhelming. The differences between performative exhibition and athletic competition are entirely fascinating, and the (perhaps unique) facility wrestling affords audience participation (if I remember correctly) is downright riveting. Stand-alone episodic television versus multi-player-situational character arcs is an aspect of contemporary television I’ve barely considered.

    I’ve kept clear of this debate-round, not for want of interest, but simply because your areas of study have revealed to me the enormity of my ignorance. Thank you, tremendously for helping me get started filling in a few important gaps!

  4. Lee Harrington says:

    I’m sorry I was unable to respond when these were first posted, but thank you Jeromy and Scott for your comments. Would be great to hear Brad Maule’s take on this discussion if possible…and Scott, I’m glad we helped fill in some gaps for you!

  5. Hey Lee, good to hear from you! As for Scott, I thought I had responded once, but perhaps that was only in my head, as I don’t see anything here. You are quite right that soaps are a daunting challenge. Passions is the neophyte, because it has “only” been on the air since 1999…How many primetime shows are on the air today that started back in 1999…Discluding The Simpsons, Law & Order, and the news shows, you’d have a hard time making much of a list…

    The complication of these texts at this point, Scott, is that you couldn’t easily catch up by returning to the primary text if you wanted to. While WWE has been using the archives strategically for its VOD channel, there is currently no way to get past episodes of most of the soaps on demand, other than what happens to be on YouTube. Catching yourself up on soaps means buying a book on the history of a particular show, if the book exists, or else tapping into online versions of soaps histories, or most commonly strategically tapping the collective intelligence of a fan community when something happens on a show that refers to past events of which you know little about. It is why it is hard to become a new soaps fan without a guide and why soaps are more often than not inherently communal in reception.

    But thanks for weighing in on these issues, Scott, and I’d love to discuss them further with you, or anyone else who might be interested. Believe me, the commitment is susbstantial. I watch one soap a week (5 hours), WWE programming (5 hours), Daily Show and Colbert Report (4 hours)…These are shows that aren’t going to come out in full on DVD, so keeping up with them week-by-week is a little more pressing than most traditional primetime fare…