Gender and Fan Culture (Round Twelve, Part Two): Catherine Driscoll and Matt Hills

And Matt’s Half-dozen Questions:

1. To what extent are other cultural differences as significant as gender when thinking about the forces that act on fandom and fan studies? Should we be debating class identities and fandom here, for example?

CD: It seems clear to me that the significance of gender as a factor in fan experiences, fan identities, fan practices and fan communities depends a great deal on what we’re discussing. For example, gender is crucial to a HPslash fan’s experiences, identities, practices and communities in a way that’s not necessarily true for a YouTube/MySpace-member who’s a fan of The Decemberists. I’m not saying gender is ever irrelevant or even unimportant, but there are clearly degrees of importance. Or intensities, if you like. I think when we talk about “fandom” without acknowledging those differences we do it a disservice. Moreover, identity categories are far from the only factors that affect fandom. Taste, education and various types of literacy, for example, might be more important terms for thinking about what intensities matter to being part of some fandoms or fan communities than gender or class (and no I don’t think taste, education and literacy can be reduced to class any more than to gender).

So I’m for being careful about what sort of fan practice we’re talking about before we set up gender as the/a prime structuring principle. But even when gender is obviously crucial I still worry about being too structuralist about it. Let’s say I belong to a particular HPslash-centric fan subcommunity – what and how gender matters to me, to what I produce, to that subcommunity, to its place in that fandom and relation to other fandoms is still a slippery and changeable thing. Gender will always be important, but not always in the same way, even just for me. Moreover, gender won’t be important as something produced in “the world” and then responded to by me, my subcommunity, my fandom, but will be something we are helping to produce in not at all homogenous ways. If someone called me to account for exactly why I think gender is such an interesting way to approach fan communities it would be for the shifting slippery ways gender is produced by fan communities – sometimes as the grounds for their existence in the first place but in many other ways too. I could use the word dialectic here, as long as I get to mess with what it means.

When it comes to “fan studies” I think the question of how gender matters is very different and I think it’s a serious mistake to confuse the two. Of course gender is a factor in all academic hierarchies, but I don’t think the gendering of the academic hierarchy within fan studies is noticeably different than in most other areas of cultural/media studies. There are areas of “fan studies” where being a woman or being invested in gender as a conceptual tool are an advantage, and areas where they are not. I’m inclined to think it matters most as a methodological issue. Just trying to imagine how different my experience would be as a researcher if I presented myself as a man in any fandom I’ve studied is a little mind-boggling, not because of any enormous difference in how my work would be received – though I don’t doubt there would be some difference, most of which would also come down to questions of method – but because of how I would be interacting with those fans. The fandoms I’ve studied have been dominated by women and intensely aware of and reflective on that dominance, so my being and presenting myself as a woman is a crucial element of how my research proceeds.

I think certain tendencies for women studying fan cultures may be becoming entrenched as primarily of interest to women and primarily about women, but I don’t actually think those were shaped by the state of academic life per se but by the way the existing scholarship on fandoms/fans has been circulated. It seems almost a default now that working with fanfiction is to work in a particular type of “women’s studies” that has always been perceived as academic work primarily done by women, and always positioned as slightly marginal because overly invested in its own identity politics. It’s interesting to see the old debates about “women’s studies” being played out in fan studies along lines that aren’t all that radically different to how they used to be played out in “literary studies”. I think that debate can still be interesting, but if we let the line between that discussion and the one about how gender matters to fans become too blurred then I think we lose the value of both.

MH: I agree that it remains important to think carefully and to an extent separately about the gendering in/of specific fandoms and the gendering in/of ‘fan studies’, insofar as this exists (since, as you point out, some of the work being done about fandom may often occur within or in relation to different academic subcommunities). And I feel that it would be (is?) a very real problem if certain types of work are becoming identified as primarily about, or primarily of interest to, women. Fanfic, whether it is slash or not, is something that has historically been of interest to those studying types of media fandom. My sense from lecturing and teaching on the subject is that actually, despite some mainstreaming of fan practices, the activity of creating fanfic – and most especially slash – is still viewed as somehow ‘odd’ or disreputable by both right-leaning and left-leaning students. It remains, in cultural common-sense or the cultural imaginary, something that students typically view with disdain, even those who are active fans in a variety of other ways. And this devaluing of fanfic is partly linked to gender lines – to the disparaging of feminised cultural sites and spaces – but it is also linked to what might be termed reactionary views on intellectual property, and to possibly even more ingrained concepts of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’ (as well as reactionary views of sexuality in some instances). To assume that any and all of these issues are primarily of interest only to women seems peculiar in the extreme. These are surely feminist-inflected (though not only that) concerns for any version of cultural studies and theory that remains interested in issues of cultural power – and for me, even if this is a ‘game of greys’ – I really liked your phrase to encapsulate that – then it’s still a serious game, and it’s still important to try to ascertain the different shades of grey involved.

I also agree that the importance of gender can’t just be taken for granted, or assumed in advance, and hence that this remains an empirical question for fandoms and practitioners of fan studies. I guess my question was really trying to put a whole set of other cultural differences on the agenda, because one of my feelings about this debate has been, and still is, that where academic communities are potentially divided by a form of cultural difference (i.e. gender) then that difference can tend to become highly visible. Hence this whole ‘boy’/'girl’ thing. But at the same time, where other cultural differences may not be as prevalent as lines of division or tension within academia (I’d hazard the guess – and this is purely speculation – that the vast majority of those writing ‘fan studies’ are broadly “middle-class”) then this academic sameness produces analytical silence. Why aren’t we all up in arms about issues linked to class? That’s really my question. Is it because we live in classless societies? Is it hell. And I’m still reading texts on fandom which mutter about a lack of work on ethnicity and fandom too – why? Relative cultural sameness in the academy producing yet more silence? Probably. Getting worked up about one specific axis of cultural difference – and I am absolutely not denying the importance of thinking about gendered differences – may nevertheless be an indirect and unintended outcome of the cultural identities at stake for those taking part in the debate. May be Henry and others will organise blog debates on ‘fandom and class’ or ‘fandom and ethnicity’ next time out, who knows. My sense is that along with the variant intensities (nice word!) of gender, we still need to dwell with equal time, energy, and intellect on other axes of difference and cultural identity.


2. Is the term ‘fan’ now more or less useful than it once was? Should we be studying specific types of self-identified ‘fan communities’, or groups of dedicated, passionate media users and consumers who may not even deploy the term ‘fan’ within their self understandings?

CD: Well I think “fan” still does mean, or at least it should still mean, “groups of dedicated, passionate media users and consumers”. I don’t know why the internal deployment of the label “fan” needs to be a criteria for understanding someone or some group or some site as “fans” in scholarly terms. If I try to think of reasons for jettisoning it I only come up with ones that reinforce some hierarchy of cultural activities whereby fan is popularly understood as undiscriminating and uninteresting.

There certainly are important distinctions to be made between fans who assemble in only loosely organised ways – occasionally exchanging value judgements over the latest bootlegged The Decemberists audiofile in the background of P2P sharing, for example – and those that participate in much more structured forms of assembly and identify themselves as forming a community. But I see no reason why the term fan isn’t useful for the former: why it isn’t still a term which identifies a history of relevant scholarship; why it doesn’t work analytically to emphasise the significant difference of media use/consumption that is dedicated and passionate.

Clearly at least one of my questions is also trying to get to this issue. I think it does matter when people want to avoid calling such passionate and dedicated users/consumers/communities “fans”. I want to know what’s at stake in that disavowal for them.

MH: With this question, I was trying to get at the extent to which the cultural life and career of the term ‘fan’ may be ever more fragmentary at present. And it certainly appears to be a discourse which is structurally absent in some cultural arenas, and used with great variance across others. Plus numbers of scholars seem to have concluded that the term is highly problematic and thus requires careful contextualisation as a ‘shifter’ or a performative. It does also worry me that the term may be used to reinforce, within analysis, pro-fan cultural hierarchies – i.e. some types of dedicated and socially-organised communities are somehow more ‘deserving’ of the label “fan”, whereas other, more loosely-organised ‘consumers’ may not be ‘proper’ fans, or may not be analysed as such. So with that in mind, I agree with you that the term may be useful across many different types of fan experience – and would add that, for me, not all of them would necessarily be communal or even group-oriented.

I also wonder if there is a industry question lurking here as well, given the sense that ‘fans’ – and not just fan communities – have increasingly become a target market for, say, TV producers, who have been carefully checking the buzz surrounding shows even before their launch, as well as monitoring the interpretations and responses of specific fan groups. ‘Fandom’ has become a cultural identity that is now self-reflexively engaged with by producers just as much as scholars. And this engagement (I’m tempted to say ‘co-option’) has also, I think, contributed to specific images and representations of fandom, whether it has been within the Star Trek franchise, or Buffy, or Doctor Who. Types of fandom remain ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects for producers, meaning that specific forms of informational economy (and info-war) are being generated in the spaces between producers – duty-bound to protect the commercial value of ‘their’ product – and fans who frequently want ‘spoilers’ and behind-the-scenes information which could actually reduce or threaten (in the short-term) the commercial value of a programme ‘brand’.

Fans may be specifically targeted, but they are also at one and the same time conceptualised by some producers as a specific type of threat to wider-scale commercial viability. These power struggles aren’t so much about poaching (how the finished article of the show is ‘read’), as about the temporality of information flows (who knows what and when about forthcoming series or episodes). So to the degree that media fandom has become something intently monitored by specific producers, it has also, in turn, become increasingly about the intense and almost real-time monitoring of production processes – the uncovering of information, the use of Agents’ websites to uncover casting news, or writers’ blogs to glean clues, or more generalised rumour-mongering. All of this can be the activity of a type of communal fandom, but it can also be fandom which focuses on sometimes-oppositional textual agency rather than textual poaching: on doing things with ‘the text’ (finding out about it in advance/speculating/learning minuscule details about its production), rather than reading it oppositionally. In fact, the final text may even be relatively and counter-intuitively unimportant: I’ve encountered Doctor Who fans who were greatly enthused by watching filming on the streets of Cardiff, and gleaning information about forthcoming episodes, but who then were far less interested in and about ‘the text’ by the time of its transmission. The fan ‘excitement’ or engagement surrounded the production process, and a sense of getting unusual access to the ‘media world’ (c.f. Nick Couldry’s work in this area). So these might be other ways in which fandom is fragmenting and conceptually multiplying or moving in interesting directions which we can’t always anticipate merely by thinking about community per se or somehow less-dedicated consumers.

Perhaps the crucial thing emerging here, for me, is that if the term ‘fan’ is still useful, it is now often useful in relation to a wider or longer-scale temporality of media production than previously. ‘Fans’ don’t just arrive after a text/product is commercially ‘out there’; they can pre-date, in a variety of complex ways, the official ‘existence’ of a text, and can inhabit a range of critical-oppositional and anticipatory-unfolding temporalities of ‘fandom’, even to the extent of not seeming to behave “like a fan” upon actual or eventual broadcast. Tulloch and Alvarado wrote about one of my beloved programmes as an “unfolding text” back in 1983 – “unfolding fandoms”, with different hermeneutic and temporal horizons, now seem to have caught up with those sorts of production processes.

3. Why am I currently writing about Russell T Davies in a book about Doctor Who? Should I not be exploring a wider range of fandoms rather than writing as a scholar-fan who combines these hybrid identities, but only in line with specific taste cultures and gendered fan histories?

CD: As a general rule people don’t ask specialists in other fields to shake off their taste cultures and gendered histories and field-specific knowledge and move on to, say, the Marquis de Sade rather than Jane Austen or the life cycle of fairy penguins rather than that of emperor penguins.

As long as your work is aware of that cultural and historical placement – and as long as you’re not endlessly saying the same thing – then I don’t see why changing to other objects where you will necessarily have less knowledge of the field is automatically a good thing. I think feeling compelled to move on to other examples is of a piece with other forms of accepting that fan studies are not valuable precisely because they give too much attention to things that lack some perceived innate value.

In fan studies, on the side of the supposed object and on the side of the tools and interlocutors we choose, we’re just as subject to fashion as every other scholarly area of inquiry. It’s fair to say that media and cultural studies–especially when it deals with popular culture–is perhaps more subject to fashion than other fields because fashion is part of its field. So there’s also a certain need, I think, for there to be people in fan studies willing to take on longer projects, slower projects, and recurring projects.

MH: Yes, here lies the problem and the possibility of fashion-led scholarship. Just as temporalities of fandom may have shifted partly as a result of new media developments, so too have the temporalities of academia, certainly in my ‘home’ territory of the UK, shifted in response to practices of governmentality. Above all, the Research Assessment Exercise has led to a requirement to publish in a timely manner, but I’d say that academic publishers are also much more market-savvy than previously, and are happier to publish on ‘hit’ shows and ‘buzzy’ texts of the moments when they can see a fashion-led market, and a quick publishing hit which may not then be sustained. What is the life cycle of the typical academic book now, for example?

So the benefits of ‘slow academia’, like ‘slow food’, may need extolling. The US system seems to allow for this once tenure has been achieved, though the cost and pressure for younger scholars seems to almost entirely offset the gains that can be made once tenure has been acquired. And along with ‘slow’ academia would come, of course, not just “recurring” projects but more longitudinal projects on media fandom/communities/texts and so on.

My own current work on Doctor Who is partly a product of all these sorts of institutional and publishing forces and contexts. I may have lived all my life as a fan of the series, but I’m still required to actually, physically write the book in a space of eighteen months or so, so it can’t really be ‘slow academia’. And I’ve read of Russell T. Davies being described as the new ‘poster-boy’ for fan studies, so I’m certainly writing in a ‘fashionable’ area – a slightly strange experience for a Doctor Who scholar-fan, it has to be said! All of these things do bother me. Not that I lie awake at night often, but I do ponder (with a disorienting element of distaste stemming from my cult fan habitus, I suspect) the strangeness of being/becoming part of a TV SF academic ‘bandwagon to the stars’.

And I do feel that by being part of this ‘fashion’ I may be contributing to the canonisation of some texts and some producers over others, hence failing to be more adequately inclusive. It’s not the case that I therefore won’t write about my own fan objects at all, but instead, I would very much argue for the value of moving on to other objects as well where I would have less investment. I don’t see this as being an acceptance “that fan studies are not valuable” per se – merely that my studying one object over and above others, because it happens to be fashionable and to fit with my white-middle-class-Southern-England cultural identity, may be part of a problem. Or that this may be limited and limiting for fan studies, at the very least, if such work participates in a wider pattern of canon-formation. So I think we’re probably in disagreement on the specifics of this, but hopefully you can see from this answer (and from my earlier answers to your questions) what I’m getting at here.

4. Do I actually think of myself as a ‘fanboy’? If not, is my lack of attention to my gender part of a problem in fandom and/or fan studies?

CD: I’m not a fangirl. Calling myself a “fangirl” isn’t just paying attention to gender it’s a certain quite specific identity claim. It means different things in different contexts but in the areas of fan studies where I work to call yourself a fangirl is to identify a particular fan identity linked to quite particular practices. I don’t do enough of the fangirl things in any fan community to lay claim to the term. So, not thinking of yourself as a fanboy is not the same as not paying attention to gender. In fact, calling people who work in fan studies fanboys/girls strikes me as insensitively claiming a kind of subcultural credibility that’s not in the term and should have been long left behind by the scholarly practices of fan studies.

However, let’s say you don’t pay attention to the way gender impacts on your status as a fan. Well, while gender isn’t the only thing to talk about in relation to fans and fandoms etc I would think that never thinking about it would be a shortcoming, simply because you will never have paid attention to one of the key elements of one’s cultural life that might impact on the kinds of practices, identities etc you choose, prefer or do not specialise in. So I think in every cultural studies project one has to raise the question of how and where and in what ways gender matters – it’s just that the answer to that does not always bring gender to the foreground of any project.

As I understand it, part of the inspiration for this series was the opinion of some women scholars in fan studies that the “does gender matter” question was not being asked carefully enough by the most visible figures in the field of fan studies and, in general, by many men working in the area of fan studies. I’m prepared to offer a qualified maybe on that, but that doesn’t mean that I think it would be productive to incorporate a “gender” subheading in every project or publication.

MH: I agree that any such mechanistic approach would hardly be helpful. By asking this question, I was trying to suggest that gender, as it is experienced and discursively re-circulated, can be a fairly fluid and complex matter. So even if I do not claim the identity of a ‘fanboy’ (which in any case feels as if it is slightly more a part of US-centric media fandom discourses than my experiences of UK fandom, but don’t hold me to that!) my fan practices may still be highly gendered in certain ways, as well as being articulated with my sexuality and so on. Not thinking of myself as a ‘fanboy’ may be less a dematerialisation of gender, and more a way of engaging with specific discourses of gender. As a geeky male scholar who has more than his share of obsessive tendencies (they’re vocational, honest), I can hardly claim to adequately align myself with hegemonic masculinity. But at the same time, I do feel at some distance from the discourses of the ‘fanboy’; this is a partial resistance to what has historically been a relatively feminised stereotype of non-hegemonic masculinity. Between the non-existent stereotype and the unattainable hegemony lies all that shiftiness of a problematic engagement with ideologically-loaded gender identities. And even while I am intellectually aware of the issues surrounding hegemonic masculinity, there’s still a fraction of me that wishes I could attain its impossibilities. But then perhaps that’s the most perniciously hegemonic part of gendered identities: that they always seem to be about aspiration, and about striving to be something unhelpfully other.

Not identifying as gendered in particular ways is a way of doing gender. But surely it is not necessarily a ‘reactionary’ way, though it may be. Or, again, it may be part of a ‘game of greys’ of the kind that I characteristically seem to want to see everywhere. So I’d be in favour of more self-reflexive analysis of gender in fan studies which is also counterfactual analysis, i.e. that we should seek to ponder the ways in which we don’t ‘do’ gender, and the ways in which we perhaps seek to disavow certain gender identities in relation to our fandoms and our scholarly selves, in order to better illuminate gendered practices. For instance, it seems striking to me that there is a marked cultural identity for the ‘fanboy’ – i.e. there is something transgressive or at least culturally visible about this as a mode of not-quite-hegemonic but perhaps recuperative ‘knowing’ masculinity – yet there is not quite a comparable ‘scholarboy’. Given that historically and culturally images of ‘the academic’ have been gendered as masculine, why are there not discourses of scholarboys and scholargirls as there are fanboys and fangirls? Because gender has been interrogated more routinely or successfully within fandom than within academia? Or because ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ are infantilising discourses linked to popular culture, and academia’s gendered terms are far less boyish and girlish?

Above all, would I be a ‘scholarboy’ if such a cultural category existed? Or would I be a ‘fanman’ instead of a ‘fanboy’? Language can very quickly be made counterfactually and neologistically strange, of course, but in these strangenesses I think we can see our own cultural ‘reality’ for the specific construction that it is.

5. What’s the most exciting work I’ve read recently in ‘fan studies’, and why?

CD: Actually the best piece of fan studies I’ve read lately was a meta post by LJ user “executrix”. Of course, like all such posts what was great about it was not her post in itself but her post plus the communal conversation it spawned. However, as I’m sure you mean scholarly publishing, I’m far less clear about that. I tend to approach scholarly publishing in fan studies alert to things I don’t agree with as much as things I do, so I can’t think of the last time since NASA/Trek I put down a piece of fan studies and thought, “Wow, that was exciting”. That isn’t because Penley’s stuff is just better than everyone else but because it was the first piece of “fan studies” I ever read.

Now, when I’m excited about fan studies in that scholarly sense it’s usually because I read something not fan studies and come away thinking about its usefulness for fan studies – one from last year would be Chris Hilliard’s book To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain. I left that book thinking that democracy, literacy and community bound together made a fascinating framework for thinking about some of the historical specificity of fandom as a big concept covering a whole lot fields.

I could talk about what I think is still most influential in fan studies, and for good reason, but in the spirit of “recently” I’ll try something else. I can see by your replies to my questions that you’re very keen on Alan McKee’s piece in NYU’s Fandom volume from this year, so let me respond by choosing the piece that I found most interesting in that text and I hope that will do as an answer to this question. I was really interested in Derek Johnson’s piece on “Fan-tagonism” because it was a step away from the continuing emphasis on consensus in fan studies of fan communities/spaces. While it’s still framing fans in terms of producer-consumer relationships I was convinced that that frame was necessary to do the work it was doing and I appreciated careful attention both to a particular fandom with a particular history that’s internally crucial. The fandoms I’ve worked in are defined by spaces for assembly, by webs of voices and interest, and by internal discourses on the fandom or fan community itself as much as on the canon of the source text. Entering Buffy fandom means entering the history of Buffy fans, which is no more consensual or utopic than any other.

MH: I love your answer, because it brings home to me very precisely and very acutely that I did mean scholarly publishing. I’m aware of meta – somebody once forwarded me a meta discussion of Fan Cultures, which was far more insightfully engaged with it as a text than some published academic work I’ve read. There did seem to be some anti-academic sentiments expressed too, mind you – along the lines of “why do academics use twenty words when they could use two” – which didn’t entirely fill me with unalloyed hope and joy, but such is life.

I also have a PhD student at the moment who’s very interested in writing about meta, so no doubt I shall learn more about it through that creative process. But despite having read some very good challenges to the academic/non-academic division from a range of writers, I must confess that I tend to read and cite published academia rather than meta. Nor am I part of any self-consciously meta fan group, though I do participate in some fan communities that discuss academic work, and concepts of fandom, without this being dubbed meta.

I’d actually like to read more meta stuff, but I honestly don’t feel as if I have the time. I hardly have enough time to read the academic work that I’d like to, along with the sorts of novels that I’m appreciating these days (I’ve got the new William Gibson, Spook Country, awaiting my attention, and I’m reading David Peace’s stunning noirish crime fiction too at the moment, which puts me faintly in mind of the famous BBC TV serial Our Friends in the North, only with even more police corruption, and additional bleakness).

As for my own answer to my own question (rather than an apology for the question’s assumptions) – I wanted to get at the emotions and the passions that run through our scholarship in fan studies as much as through our fandoms. Hence my hope that work in the field may be quite literally “exciting” for both of us. I shall certainly take a look at the Hilliard text you mention, and I agree that sometimes an occasional ‘eureka’ moment can be had while reading outside fan studies and hence finding something that can shed new light on a specific object of study.

I’ve read some very energising things ‘in’ fan studies recently such as book proposals for textbooks explicitly on ‘fan studies’ and manuscripts dealing with TV, new media and participatory audiences (both by female scholars) – so I have a sense of things in the pipeline from other writers that I’m looking out for (anticipatory academia?). And in terms of published material, I asked Derek Johnson to contribute to an issue of New Review of Film and TV Studies I was co-guest-editing with Glen Creeber, and I was very impressed with what he came up with – a really careful, critical reading of the newfound proximity between producers and fans, and how fandom is still very much disciplined and managed by producers in particular ways. That kind of work is important, I’d say, as it doesn’t lose sight of the dimensions of cultural power operating on fandom that were absolutely there and theorised in the work of John Fiske and then in Henry’s Textual Poachers. Obviously, there’s also Liesbet Van Zoonen’s work that I’ve referred to in answer to one of your questions, and the collection that Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson edited, which I liked a lot because there’s a sense in which it is both about media fandom ‘now’ (i.e. my undergrad and postgrad students can quite closely relate to it), but yet also covers the history and development of media fandom in a way that surprisingly hadn’t really been analysed as directly before. And, yes, I always find myself appreciating the work of the likes of Alan McKee and Will Brooker (Will’s been doing great work putting what I termed ‘cult geography’ a while ago properly on the map of fan studies, and Alan’s stuff is pretty much always inspiring to me). Also having recently read Fandom, I found Henry’s Afterword to be the most provocative of contributions, as it just makes me want to say “yes, but what about the dimensions of cultural power shaping those particular discourses, and non-discourses, of fandom?” Henry’s work has a lengthy history of provoking me – the best work of all isn’t that about which you can immediately say ‘that’s right, I agree’ or ‘that’s just plain wrong’, but is instead that which stays with you for a long time as you struggle to articulate why it feels incomplete, or why it rubs you up the wrong way, or how and why it’s messed up your own favoured theories, or how it’s said something you wanted to say but hadn’t managed to before. So, in the end, and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I tend to appreciate scholarship in fan studies that genuinely provokes me. Abercrombie and Longhurst’s Audiences had that effect on me when I first read it, too.

On the whole, collections like Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006) and Fandom (2007) surely indicate a very healthy state of affairs for ‘fan studies’. And whether or not I get to be involved in it, I’m looking forward to someone publishing the first book explicitly and specifically on ‘Anti-fandom’ after Jon Gray’s great work in that area.

6. What, for me, is the most exciting thing I’ve become a ‘fan’ of recently, and why?

CD: I was stuck on a plane recently with a selection of movies that I’d either seen and not loved or couldn’t stand more than fifteen minutes of and I watched an episode of the most recent Doctor Who series. And I really enjoyed it. It echoed with several elements of the Doctor Who series I watched as a child in really interesting ways and I could predict so many ways in which fans must be responding to the new series and see so many interesting questions to ask about it, and about fans of it, in relation to previous series. I can imagine watching the whole series, and I can imagine going back to watch the series (plural) in order, because the history of that seems kind of fascinating.

None of that makes me a fan of it though. Usually, to become a fan of something I have to stumble over it and kind of fall in love. That’s true for popular culture, for more generally valued cultural forms, and for intellectual/scholarly work. I think my latest fan crush was probably The Colbert Report, and I’d count that because I’ve repeatedly tried to convince other people to give it a try. That apostolic mode is definitely one thing that signals being a fan for me. But then I can think of any amount of academic texts or writers that I’m more apostolic about than Stephen Colbert. I can’t think of the last time I taught a course which didn’t have its getting people past the superficial image of Foucault and seeing why it’s really great moment. Also, sometimes my fandom is not at all apostolic – we definitely do different sorts of things with different types of fandom. I’m also an immense fan of The Decemberists right now, but it’s all about the music and me – I don’t think I’ve ever tried to convince anyone else to listen but I certainly use it to do music obsession as well as any fifteen-year old bedroom culture cliché.

Fandom is, for me, always a social network. I got to The Colbert Report via The Daily Show, but I got there because I had friends who were huge fans and I was excited to be able to watch it “live” with them while I was living in the States the year The Colbert Report began. And I got to The Decemberists via my son, who got there via some online friends and knew I would love them.

Recently I was teaching a course in which a student said to me that they didn’t think “fan” had to have anything to do with a “community” and I think it does. It’s just that community doesn’t mean only one thing and the relationships between fan and community can be formed in many different ways. I don’t go anywhere to be with other fans of The Decemberists, but my circulation of information about work by them is still intensely social and overlaps via things like “Detect Music Now” options with communities which are formed around being a fan. I don’t know that one can actually be a lone fan.

When I was thirteen I was an enormous David Bowie fan. I didn’t have posters on my wall – I wasn’t allowed. I never saw him live – there was never a chance. There were no other Bowie fans in my school. The records were not what made me a fan. It was weekend television and struggling every night to find a radio station in a far away city that might play Bowie. It was social. I was aware of the place of other Bowie fans in my experience of Bowie fandom. The fact that they were out there not only mattered but mediated my experience of it. I think being a “fan” requires not only the mass distribution of culture but also the mass distribution of knowledge of others’ consumption. It’s not the fact of records that allowed for Adorno’s hated Caruso fans, but the fact of records in a network of information about other people’s consumption of Caruso.

MH: I know these last few questions of mine have moved away from directly being ‘about’ gender, but I wanted to try to get access to our fan experiences (whether of fan studies or the media outside scholarly publishing) and then see if gendered issues and debates were thrown up via that entry point.

Your answer here contains yet another beautiful turn of phrase (one for me to add to my ‘game of greys’) – ‘mass distribution of knowledge of others’ consumption’. I like that. Yes, more than ‘mass media’ or the ‘culture industry’, there’s always the matter of what other people are doing with it all, and whether we want to join in.

One of my recent fan objects resonates very strongly with that notion, as I think my initial entry point was a kind of mediation of others’ fandom (and not even a mediation that I can validate or corroborate). Basically, I read a piece of journalism – I very much enjoy reading decent cultural journalism, of the ‘Sunday broadsheet supplements’ variety – which suggested that a specific BBC TV series called simply Bodies had spawned immensely vocal fans, and that audiences who loved this particular show really, really loved it. It wasn’t a programme that I had ever watched, nor had it really been a resounding industry success, nor did it belong to a genre that I’d ever had much interest in (medical/hospital drama). Furthermore, its creator and writer, Jed Mercurio, had previously been responsible for a piece of television science fiction largely felt in certain UK fan circles to be one of the worst efforts in recent decades, Invasion: Earth. (My memory of it was that it was pretty ropey, minus one episode which I think was largely told in flashback black-and-white, and which I remember as standing-out).

Despite these misgivings, I resolved to give Bodies a try on DVD, having enjoyed a large number of BBC serials of late such as Funland, Conviction, Sinchronicity and others. My decision to start watching it, and to invest time in it, was based almost solely on this one piece of cultural journalism saying that the series had immensely devoted fans. Not even really properly “mass distribution of knowledge” of others’ consumption activities, then, just an inkling of an intrigue thanks to a suggestive newspaper filler-piece.

Bodies scares me. Its near-hypnotic incidental music becomes a rhythmic and repetitive, integral part of its massively uneasy pleasures; its writing is both deeply idealistic and terrifyingly cynical; all its characters seem fully realised and convincing, and Keith Allen will never, ever play a role as perfectly Allen-esque as this one. It does the whole ‘life and death stakes’ thing that hospital drama tends to do, but without ever flinching and looking away from the darkness that is shown to be at the heart of the UK’s National Health System, with its government-led targets and its management statistics, and its patients who are sometimes, for some, the least important part of the whole process.

Bodies is more meaningfully ‘political’ than most Politics Programmes which feature guest politicians having cosy or ritually-interrogative chats with ‘star’ presenters just as much a part of the establishment as they are.

Bodies is the most intense piece of television I have watched for years. I felt churned up by watching it. The suspense that it generates is astounding, and really puts a fair bit of TV ‘thriller’ programming to shame. There aren’t ticking clocks or crack military units or explosives or sleeper cells or tough-guy gangsters. There’s just couples trying to have children, and people trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Out of this comes black comedy and blacker tragedy. There aren’t quite clear heroes and villains – so tick the box for moral grey areas one last time – but more than that, there are some huge dramatic reversals that really make emotional sense rather than being obviously ‘plotted’.

Something else I’ve started to enjoy is Heroes. But my enjoyment of this is intertextually coloured by having watched Bodies. Heroes does feel ‘plotted’ – terrific twists and cliffhangers arrive bang on schedule, but there seems to be a deep sense of cynicism embedded in its bag of tricks. It feels like a fantasy drama of reassurance, beginning with an iconic ‘falling man’ apparently plummeting to his death from a tall building, and who believes he is special, and who turns out to be special. This time, this falling man lives.

Despite being self-reflexive about its ‘everyone wants to be special’ superhero plotlines, Heroes still seemingly manages to offer this narrative pleasure to a potentially regressive extent. And it courts an international TV market by setting part of its narrative strands in Japan and India, while still being US-centred (cheerleaders weren’t a major part of my cultural life growing up in the UK). Its thriller components feel contrived and, much as I hate to write it, even faintly juvenile when watched through the half-light of Bodies. May be it’s just that I’ve never been a huge fan of superhero narratives and characters, though I very much enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. But nobody is ‘special’ in Bodies; people just want to safely get in and out of hospital, and they want their children to be delivered safely. Nobody has special powers; staff simply try to do the work they are trained to do. And one Doctor who endangers patients through apparent incompetence is neither obviously misguided nor villainous; he too is trying to help, and trying to do his job. People die. Routinely. Their deaths are simply part of the performance statistics of the hospital. Nobody can regenerate.

When I thought long and hard about the opening episode of Heroes, I realised that I wanted it to be a drama where characters believed, in infantile terms, that they were ‘special’, only to be proven wrong. I wanted it to be a drama which didn’t reassure its audience, and where superhero powers might not arrive, as expected, for our identificatory figures. Where nobody could guarantee their elevated status or narrative safety. I wanted a thriller that thrilled me by refusing to play by obvious set rules. Perhaps perversely, I actually wanted a version of Heroes where pretty Peter Petrelli died in episode one as a result of plunging to his doom. That would have been dramatic, scary, risk-taking TV. But may be I’ve got Bodies for that sort of thing. Either that, or I’ve been reading too much David Peace, and it’s seriously disrupted my thought processes.

But still I’m watching Heroes avidly, and piling through the episodes, and I could very well be described as a ‘fan’, and I’ve read online fan discussions, and, oh, just the other day I thought idly to myself “may be I’ll buy that SFX magazine special so I can read the episode guides and see which are the fan favourites.” But I feel as if I’m a culturally-compliant fan, going along for the ride slightly against myself, watching because it’s the sort of cultish genre show I “ought” to love, and because I know friends and family and colleagues will be watching. Part of me doesn’t want to criticise the show, wants to validate it as a lovely bit of sophisticated pop culture, and yet another part of me really does think that it’s deeply ideologically problematic and quite transparently a textual-formal outcome of the political economy of the TV marketplace.

But these tastes, and this wrestling with my own previous patterns of taste and my history as a media fan-consumer, are they gendered? I’m not at all sure that they are, though Bodies is very grisly, bloody stuff, and does perhaps partly appeal to me via my culturally ‘masculinised’ horror-fan-identity. May be my tastes in TV drama are in transition, away from ‘cult’ and genre material and towards more conventional ‘social realist’ and ‘quality’ tastes? Put like that, the change seems a rather tedious cliché: have I just been busy unwittingly internalising the taste formations of the canon-builders of TV Studies these past few years? I’m not sure, as I would still want to champion many versions and instances of cult TV over more obviously canonical TV, and I’m certainly still in love with Doctor Who. But recent UK efforts at self-conscious ‘cult’ status such as Cape Wrath (Meadowlands elsewhere, I think) have also left me cold. Weeks and weeks of ‘eccentric’ drama ending with a nonsensical conclusion, and featuring characters whose ‘motivation’ was telegraphed so baldly it was as if they’d been auto-generated in ‘Screenwriting 101′.

I can think of one TV series I’ve recently enjoyed which did strike me as forcefully gendered, almost as if it had been designed by (a rather reactionary) gender committee: The Unit. I watched this because of its David Mamet pedigree, having enjoyed many of his plays and films, and counting myself as a Mamet fan, despite his work’s sometimes hysterical maschismo. I would not usually bother with a militaristic TV drama, I have to say up front. Like Bodies, I ventured outside my genre comfort zones, this time to follow an acclaimed playwright rather than because I’d read about fan audiences. And though I enjoyed The Unit, especially an occasional episode written and directed by Mamet which became an almost formal exercise in suspense and misdirection, the show as a whole seemed by-the-numbers schizoid, as if purposefully designed to have ‘masculine’ plotlines with army blokes shooting stuff and blowing stuff up, running alongside ‘feminine’ storylines in which The Wives back on the military base occupied themselves having affairs or blowing the family’s savings on bad investments. And it spent its series one finale ranting about how rubbish the French are, which you just couldn’t and wouldn’t get away with now in UK TV, but which seemed entirely acceptable in this apparently neo-con drama powered by little else beside gender stereotypes and national pride.

May be I just don’t want to love texts like Cape Wrath that have been too obviously designed for me to love them, which would fit with the cultural identity of the wary (and ‘masculinised’) cult fan. And perhaps I’m also not quite part of the right national market or age-based demographic for Heroes, my ambivalent fandom of which could be less about gender, and a little more about my academic interests in cultural politics. What exactly are the academically ‘progressive’ and more celebratory readings of Heroes? And I’m certainly not about to uncritically applaud the straight-up gendered binaries of The Unit, which seems to have avoided being reactionary ‘blokes’ TV by being simultaneously reactionary in its depiction of both tough-guy ‘masculine’ and stepford-army-wife ‘feminine’ story strands. If equality means screwing over representations of men and women, then this programme format gets uncannily close to it. Having said all this, thinking about the media texts that I personally love right now, as well as those that I’m ambivalently fannish about, still seems like a useful way into debates over cultural tastes and identities.

There’s no real conclusion here, of course. How could there be? But I would like to say how much I’ve enjoyed thinking and writing about all of this, and responding both to your questions and your elegant formulations. Cheers.

No, I can’t imagine a conclusion either. But thank you. I’ve really enjoyed this and in reading and responding to your answers I’ve found some interesting new questions and inflections of old ones. Thanks very much to Henry too for setting up this series – it’s a very generous use of the speaking position he’s worked so hard on.

Comments

  1. Jonathan Gray says:

    Matt and Catherine — What a wonderful contribution! Alas, by way of explanation should it not receive a vocal audience, for most of the North Americans, this is either the first week of classes, or the last week to finish work before classes begin. Some fantastic comments, observations, and provocations, though.

    And Matt, that anti-fandom book could be a Gray/Hills production if you’re interested?

  2. Doby Fleeman says:

    REF: Gameinformer Interview

    Dear Mr../ Dr. Jenkins:

    Perhaps, I’m a contemporary – Stanford ’72.

    I’m not a gamer and not a methematical genius – but I am a dad (admittedly an older dad).

    So what’s up with our educational industry? Why is it so slow to adapt/adopt the new gaming medium?

    Bill Gates certainly (much less his foundation) certainly doesn’t seem to get it.

    I agree, the new medium is winning the hearts and minds sprecifically because it so compelling and engaging.

    Why don’t our educational institutions get it? I know, they’re in denial. It would require change. It doesn’t lend itself to the traditional brick and mortars model. The rewards go to the most compelling. Tenure counts for nothing.

    So, why I must ask are the corporate leaders of our top gaming companies equally dense? Why don’t the great gaming designers of our time see the convergence. Our son spends countless hours competing to move to the next level (next grade?). Only problem is – at the end of the day he knows nothing more of value than when the day began. He may have mastered some cheats, but what a waste.

    Are they too stupid? Are they too illiterate? Is it too much ask that our games incorporate actual circumstances of history?

    I’m sorry, I’m just having a hard time digesting why neither our MIT’s nor our MICROSOFTS are getting the convergence and the opportunity just waiting to be explored.

    Would appreciate your thoughs.

    Sincerely,

    Doby Fleeman

    Davis, CA