Gender and Fan Culture (Round Ten, Part One): Jonathan Gray and Roberta Pearson

PART ONE

“Why We’re Not ‘Fans’”

JG: Roberta and I agreed to work together for this “Détente” since we’re both in the peculiar position of being considered by many to be “in” fan studies, yet neither of us are really fans. Or, rather, we’re not fans in the sense of the word as it is often used within fan studies, and so we thought it might be provocative to discuss why this is, and what sort of fans – if at all – we are. This discussion led to some testing of the boundaries of fan studies, and to discussion of some of its governing binaries.

Fans vs. Non-Fans

JG: To “out” myself, I’ve never written fanfic, I don’t make fanvids or machinimaa, I have only posted on fansites a few times, I haven’t been to a convention, I am not a member of any discernible fan group, I’ve told people that I would wear a proper Boba Fett costume if they got one for me, but otherwise I don’t have fan-related clothing (save for a Simpsons tie bought for me by my parents), and I suck at most fan trivia games. As a kid, I played with Star Wars toys a lot, and was definitely a fan of Star Wars and The Muppet Show, but these days I don’t conform to a common definition of “fan” within fan studies, since I’m not a member of a fan community per se. I don’t have problems with those types of fandom (“some of my best friends are fans”), but that’s just not me.

But I do have strong engagements with texts, and these fuel much of my more involved conversations with people, and a fair bit of my daily “thought time.” So I want to call myself a fan. But I’m often made aware of a hard perimeter around “community-based” fandom that isn’t so keen on letting the likes of me in. The problem is, though, that I don’t just “like” Lost, Buffy, The Simpsons, The West Wing, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Michael Ondaatje, and William Shakespeare. I like other texts, like CSI, for instance, or Harry Potter: if they’re there and I’m there, I’ll bite. If I miss them, I don’t mind. But mere affect or terms such as “follower” don’t cut it for my fandoms. And some of my own work into audiences is driven by an interest in this big gap that often exists in ethnographic work between “audiences” (often pulled in at random, or the researcher’s students) and “fans” in the community-based, “creative” sense that fan studies often dictates. Fan studies at times monopolizes both audience studies (in the media/cultural studies tradition, that is, not the alligator-clips-and-magic-dials sense) and affect, but that leaves a lot of us unrepresented. And we’ll get to this in due time, but I’m not convinced that the “us” in that sentence is gendered.

RP: Since you’ve begun by ‘outing’ yourself as a non-fan, I should probably do the same. I suspect that on the fandom continuum I’m closer to being a fan than you are, but might not be considered as such by some within fan studies, who insist on community and production as paramount markers of the true fan. My longest standing fandom is Sherlock Holmes, which began when I was in early adolescence, peaked when I lived in New York City and became actively involved in local Sherlockian scion societies, and lapsed when I moved to my first job in Pennsylvania. When I moved to New York to do my doctorate at NYU, I became a member of the national female Sherlockian society, the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. I’m still in touch with a core group of Sherlockians whom I count amongst my closest and dearest friends – my life would be immeasurably poorer without them. I was probably then a ‘real’ fan by any definition: I attended meetings, wore my scion badge and even wrote Sherlockian scholarship and pastiches (fanfic to the rest of you). I’ve even been published in the premiere Sherlockian publication, the Baker Street Journal, in an article that claimed that Holmes was Jewish. I delighted in the companionship of fellow enthusiasts but even then felt a bit uneasy about some of the over-enthusiasts. For whatever reason, however, I ceased any active affiliation with local groups after leaving New York.

Of course, I’m also by some definitions a Star Trek fan. I’ve been watching the show since TOS premiered in 1966 and it’s been a constant thread in my life both in terms of consumption of texts and of my social life – many of my closest friends share an interest in Trek. One of these close friends is Maire Messenger-Davies with whom I’m now co-authoring my Star Trek book. Maire adamantly resists being called a fan and to some extent I share her reservations because I’m doing research on Trek within an academic context which I see as somewhat different from doing research as a fan (and I know there’s a whole long debate there that we don’t have time to get into). My resistance to the fan label probably stems from the fact that Trek is both the most high-profile and the most demonized of all fandoms, and it’s still difficult in some circles to have academic credibility if you’re working on it. I’ve been teased by numerous colleagues about this research.

In terms of outing, I have to admit that I don’t really feel comfortable with the ‘aca-fan’ designation; it seems a too easy conflation of separate spheres of activity designed to get us off the guilt hook. At any rate, while for awhile I happily attended Sherlockian gatherings, I never went to Trek cons or to any SF cons. But, having started on the Trek book, I did go to an SF con in Cardiff. It was there that I saw for the first time grown-ups dressed in Starfleet uniforms, which made me quite uneasy. The next time I saw grown-ups in these uniforms was when I spent a few days wandering around the Paramount lot doing interviews and had the privilege of spending a night on the set of Star Trek: Nemesis. Didn’t have a problem with that (other than discovering that the comm badges just velcro on and that Captain Picard’s phaser is plastic), but that’s probably because I’m personally more interested in producers than in fans. Having read the previous entries in the debate, that interest in producers seems to be one of the complaints of the ‘fan-girl’ contingent, who see it as a betrayal. That might be an issue we could take up. If I wanted to be polemical about it, I might say that it’s a lot easier to study fans than it is to study producers, and that the focus on fandom has kept the field from really interrogating the processes of production, in the way that Henry and others are now beginning to. Obviously however, these areas aren’t mutually exclusive.


Aca-Fans vs. Non-Aca-Fans

RP: Like you, I’d consider myself a fan of lots of things; some sport, some television, and lots of high culture – Bach, Mozart, Shakespeare, etc. My most staunchly non-fan friend, William Uricchio, Henry’s MIT colleague and staunch non-fan, thinks I’m a real fan. I have a ‘fannish’ disposition, he says, by which he means that I have a strong and continuing affective relationship to lots of stuff. So here I am betwixt and between – non-fan to fans and fan to non-fans. I don’t think that anybody within the fan studies community would want to study me. That’s fine because I don’t like being studied – that’s why I resist the conflation of academic and fan because it gives up the distance that academic implies. Perhaps we should call my part of this dialogue ‘confessions of a non-aca-fan’. My position may be offensive to some but it certainly raises issues of the psychology of the individual (as Jeeves would say) which should perhaps be of greater import in fan studies.

This takes us back to where you started, Jonathan, raising definitions of fandom. My above reflections are all quite personal, but between us we can offer two ‘auto-ethnographies’ which are in some ways very similar and in others quite different — a useful starting point for our interrogation. For example, you told me on the phone that you’ve never gotten any stick for researching The Simpsons. Why do think this is the case? What does this reflect about the ‘mundane’ world’s perception of fandom, particularly amongst academics? And why don’t you call yourself a Simpsons fan? And if you would call yourself one, how do you handle being a fan and a scholar? Are you an ‘aca-fan’?

JG: I’d say, yes I’m a Simpsons fan, and yes I’m an aca-fan … and as with you, the non-fans out there call me a fan too. And the aca-fan label in particular intrigues me because I’m part of a generation that grew up saturated in media, and while many of media studies’ founders didn’t watch much television or film [announcement: Roberta is blissfully not one of these people], writing books about things that in effect they didn’t know enough about, I think that we need to insist on the acceptability of studying the mediasphere from inside, in part to normalize affective relationships. Someone very close to Neil Postman told me that he secretly loved some television (The Simpsons), and you can see occasional lapses in others’ media-hating that are presented guiltily, and I’d like us to be able to move beyond the guilt into honesty.

That said, maybe if I’m not allowed to be a fan, I can’t be an aca-fan either?

As for studying The Simpsons, I found it amusing how it was the exception for so many academics. But I’m also somewhat bothered by how it got let off the hook – yes, it’s great stuff, but why should it and The Daily Show be the only fandoms to get a pass? (And let me interject that I’m not at all convinced that this is gendered: there are many many female fans of The Simpsons. Lisa is, after all, one of the best female characters in television history). I’m sure its non-serial structure allows many to see its fandom as less stereotypically “lost in the other world,” and Simpsons fan groups are quite different in kind from other fan groups, given its non-seriality. Again, I doubt they’d be considered real fans by some in fan studies. But this points again (to me) to the exclusivity of the term “fan”: I worry that we in media studies, and certainly society as a whole, aren’t getting a full picture of what either fandom is or what it means to engage with television when Trek, Lost, and All My Children fans become metonymic of fandom as a whole. Of course, though, you’ve studied Star Trek (and Batman), so I’m interested in how you see the aca-fan/fan/non-fan rubric play out from that side of the barbed wire fencing.

RP: I absolutely agree with you about studying media from the inside and share your distaste for the Neil Postmans of this world. There’s a whole American tradition of studying media, primarily television, in which you have to hate it to analyse it. That’s the basic assumption of the very influential field of cultivation studies in mass comm., spearheaded by the very important, but ultimately unsatisfactory work of George Gerbner. The basic assumption of this approach is that television is bad for you – makes you stupid, makes you fearful. That’s why the pioneering work of the first generation of fan studies, by people like Henry, is so important. It made it okay to like media content, and even to champion it. As many have subsequently pointed out, this polemical approach became a bit too celebratory and the pendulum has begun to swing back in the other direction. But we can’t gainsay the accomplishments here. Nor can we so easily dismiss the concept of the ‘aca-fan’ as I am guilty of doing above. But my uneasiness stems from some lingering attachment to the concept of objectivity – is it possible to step far enough away from the object of study to be critical as well as analytical? You mention Batman above. I felt capable of studying this object because, aside from some nostalgia for my misspent youth, I no longer had a strong affective relationship with it. Star Trek is different, since it has been an important part of my identity for so long and I still worry that my book will end up as a paean to the industry.

Fans vs. Producers

RP: Speaking of the industry, I must admit that I have some sympathy for producers who are a bit dismissive of fans as a small segment of the audience. Many of the Star Trek producers I interviewed said that they couldn’t cater simply to the fans, but had to think about the larger audience. Those who were fans even said that sometimes, for this reason, their own fandom could get in the way of what they were doing. And this takes us back to your original point about the definition of fandom and what we’re actually studying. I again absolutely agree with you that we need to broaden our focus to include something other than hardcore fans as defined by hardcore fan studies. For this reason, my Star Trek book will have a chapter on audiences but not a chapter on fans (and not only because the world hardly needs any more about that particular fandom!).

JG: To me, an exciting development in recent fan and non-fan studies is the interest in fan relations with producers, since it holds the potential to break both the exclusivity of fandom as singular sphere, and the exclusivity of production as singular sphere. Kristina Busse has expressed concern about this shift, worried that the “fanboys” are getting excited about meeting the stars and producers, so to speak, and leaving the “scribbling women” once more in the margins. This certainly is a potential problem. But perhaps we might also see how fandom and production are much more closely wed. For instance, authorship has long been idealized as starkly new and original expression, when in fact it always begins with some form of fandom. If we could see television creators, for instance, as fans, this would wed production and consumption more convincingly. And if we could see how production requires fandom, at multiple levels (I think here of Terry O’Quinn actively posting on The Fuselage until he needed time away to work out his own idea of his character, an obvious sign that the fans were influencing his construction of John Locke), then fandom can’t be ignored or shunned as much as it continues to be, both inside the academy and outside.

My own vision for fan studies is that it should invade mainstream media studies, exploding silly myths about production, text, and policy as being divorced from affect. Aswin Punathambekar’s chapter in our collection, for instance, makes a great argument that Bollywood studies need to account for fans. Production cultures also need to account for fans, as Derek Kompare’s recent work is saying. And so do legalities, as Rebecca Tushnet’s work argues. I think some are wary of moving fan studies into the center since they’re invested in fan studies being a cool kid’s club on the side (and hey, we are the cool kids, right?), and they’re (rightfully) concerned about who and what will be left behind, but at least a vanguard needs to be sent, since ultimately this is about more than just fans: it’s about media studies as a whole. The field needs a broad, not exclusive fan studies, so let’s give it one. To reintroduce gender to the discussion, if fan studies has always been seen as somewhat feminine and feminized, that’s all the more reason why we need to establish more of a beachhead in the often painfully masculine and masculinized field of media and communication studies.

RP: You’re right that fandom and production are closely wed, just as to some degree fandom and academia are closely wed (after all what are Shakespeare scholars but Bardies?). But closely wed doesn’t mean co-extensive. They still remain different fields of cultural production. Moving from one side of the screen to the other necessarily gives the Brannon Braga’s and Russell T. Davies’s of the world a different perspective. They can’t just indulge their fannish impulses but have to think about the larger audiences of non-fans, followers, enthusiasts, what have you. Both these guys had to recharge long-standing franchises and to do so they necessarily had to appeal to the core fan base through references that newbies wouldn’t get. But they also had to attract the newbies and they couldn’t do this by disappearing up their own metaverses. Braga failed miserably with Enterprise and Davies succeeded magnificently – he’s made Dr. Who mandatory tea-time viewing for a whole new generation that previously didn’t know Gallifrey from gadfly. Another danger of overly blurring these fields of cultural production is that the producers still ultimately have the power. O’Quinn can decide not to read fan posts precisely because he, together with the writers and the other production personnel, is given the final responsibility for deciding how to characterize/play John Locke.

That’s why it’s so important to study production, because without producers there would be no fans. But this does raise the issue of the starstruck fanboy, or perhaps fangirl in my case, even though I’d resist the label. I have to admit that for a life-long Star Trek fan wandering around the Paramount lot and seeing people in Starfleet uniforms was simply amazing and that Maire and I did spend a bit of time behaving like giggling teenagers. On the other hand, we had extensively prepared for each of our interviews and when the time came tried to behave like professional academics, if only out of respect for the very professional production personnel whom we were meeting. We also made it clear that, while we liked, even loved Trek, we weren’t intending to write an uncritical celebration. So I guess I’m saying that it is indeed possible to be both fan and academic. You can have a hybrid identity that involves shifting between the two but you can’t perform both simultaneously. Not sure whether being a boy or a girl makes any difference here.

You say that we need to establish a fan studies beachhead on the masculinised field of media and communications studies, but of course these guys have always studied audiences (cf. Gerbner above). If I can use another spatial metaphor, I think we need to establish a two way bridge between the two fields. Media and communications studies needs to acknowledge the important contributions of fan studies, particularly with regard to affect (and with regard to their own affect toward media texts). But fan studies needs to consider more general audiences. And this brings us back to where we started, seeking a broader definition of fan and fan studies. So over to you!

JG: This seems like a good place to end Part One, actually (though I’d mention quickly that Gerbner wasn’t studying fans – he was pathologizing them). In Part Two, we can talk about high culture.

Comments

  1. Nice discussion thus far. One point you brought out highlights what I see as a misperception embedded in this broader debate – the notion that the study of media producers is the exclusive terrain of fanboys/male scholars seems flat out wrong to me. For instance, Julie D’Acci’s important book on Cagney & Lacey explores production practices with a level of depth still rarely met in media studies (and she integrates that aspect directly with fan studies). Elana Levine’s excellent article about production practices on General Hospital explicitly situates her own fandom on the set, and others like Laura Grindstaff’s work on talk show production and Kristin Thompson’s new book on Lord of the Rings (and undoubtedly Roberta & Maire’s forthcoming book as well) all show substantiative production research by female scholars (and I cannot think of many equivalent works by male media scholars).

    What these works do not attempt to do is supplant fan scholarship with a perspective that “you can’t know anything unless you’ve been on the set,” which some aca-fans seen to view as a threat. I cannot think of any well-respected media studies work by scholars of any gender that asserts such a reductive model of industrial centrality (although I have heard such a declaration at a conference, which was roundly shot down by all genders!). Is this apparent fear of industrially-centered scholarship displacing fan studies just a ghostly strawman? Or is there a strain of production-centered work I’m unaware of that seems poised to undermine the models of fan studies?

    Sorry to hijack the discussion, but it seems like a key question that I haven’t seen addressed head-on.

  2. Excellent discussion. Both of your experiences and discomfort around the terms “fan” and “aca-fan” raise the important issue of identity as, perhaps, the ultimate signifier, and obstacle, in these debates. As we’ve seen throughout, while some wish to maintain its distinctive status, none have precisely agreed on a definition. Is it intense interest? Participating in a community? Not-producing (in the conventional sense, at least)?

    There’s no consensus on this issue, and that’s an opportunity rather than a liability. As you each point out, it allows media studies to analyze texts and practices, and not have to start from a de facto category of “fandom” or “production.” Roberta, your decision (with Maire) to study “audiences” rather than “fans” in your Trek book is very significant in this regard, and I look forward to reading it. You’ve also made me wonder whether the hybridity suggested by “aca-fan” is a useful construction in the long run, or does it risk reifying each of its poles without really challenging them (i.e., in much of the same way, say, the term “citizen-consumer” does).

    With all the spatial metaphors in these discussions (Jonathan talks of “invasion”; Roberta of a “two-way bridge”; Cindy and I of “blurred borders” last week), it seems a fruitful tack (oops; there’s another spatial metaphor) would be to examine these particular spaces. Here I have in mind not so much ethnography (at least in the 80s-90s sense), but what John Caldwell has repeatedly called for, and what Roberta and Maire have done here: study the spaces, and how people (whether “fans,” “producers,” or whatever) make sense of those spaces.

    Of course, as Roberta insightfully points out, it’s a lot easier to study fan spaces than production spaces. I’m working though in my own projects how to do the latter from home (Dallas), as I don’t have ready access to LA, or New York, or London (or Cardiff!).

  3. roberta pearson says:

    Thanks to both Jason and Derek for their supportive comments. I’d feared that some of my remarks might be seen as absolute heresy within the fan studies community. Jason raises the really important question of why production studies might be seen as male oriented. Could other participants in this debate enlighten both of us on this? I’m struck by the list of female scholars who’ve written on production. On the male side, there’s Jostein Gripsrud on Dynasty and John Caldwell’s fortcoming book, plus proably a host of social-sciency guys on news production.

    I’m intrigued by Jason’s ‘you can’t understand anything unless you’ve been on the set’ comment. Having spent a night on the set of Star Trek: Nemesis I’m not actually sure how much it aided my understanding, other than to confirm everything I’d heard about shooting being very boring and tedious. But taking the phrase as metaphor I think there are somethings that you can’t understand unless you’ve been on the set and others that don’t require being on the set. It all depends on the question that you’re asking.

    Re Derek’s comment on identity and my rejection of the aca-fan label, I’d be interested to hear from those who think it’s a workable identity position. Henry, are you there?