Fandom Meets The Powers That Be
CW: You make a couple of interesting points, Derek, some of which I’ve been pondering myself. The first is the need to get away from the idea of a rigid binary. TPTB have never been a single entity. We know there are conflicts between the producers and the various levels of the big corporations that distribute their work. Indeed, that’s how all of this began. Roddenberry needed allies against Paramount and enlisted SF fans for support. He wasn’t the first producer to make that effort (a similar alliance occurred in MFU) nor certainly the last. You mention Joss Whedon who has “fannish” credentials and attitudes. I’m sure most Buffy fans will remember when, in the wake of Columbine, the WB network delayed the airing of an episode involving a would-be student sniper in the U.S. In response, Whedon famously recommended that Canadian fans “bootleg the puppy.”
Other producers (Chris Carter and J. Michael Straczynski and yes, Ron Moore, come to mind) have also represented themselves as underdog producers battling the “suits.” Personally, I find these alliances between various creative professionals and the fans (which can be complicated and angst-ridden for all parties involved) quite fascinating and, with the internet, more and more common. I used to feel encouraged by them. Lately, though, I’ve become more pessimistic.
DK: I’m more ambivalent and skeptical than pessimistic, I suppose. My default position is that TPTB will probably screw things up (to wit, Star Trek), so ambivalence must be an improvement, right? This is a rapidly changing media environment, after all, so there’s much here that is legitimately “new,” particularly as far as the networks and distributors are concerned. I was encouraged by the deals worked out for Battlestar Galactica and Lost, for example, which essentially protect each series from future exploitation by networks/studios, but still leave doors open for fannish creativity. Still, it’s a very open question as to whether that creativity will be constrained under various rules and (God forbid) EULAs, or just left alone.
CW: Marketing is certainly a factor now that TPTB have realized that fandom can be utilized for viral marketing efforts. I don’t think fans mind all that much being used to promote their favorite source texts. Heck, we ourselves proudly admit to “pimping.” The real issues are power and control. Producers and marketers are accustomed to seeking control over audiences or, at least, being able to predict their behavior. By comparison, fandom must seem very scary in its diversity and unpredictability. Although one can probably argue that there are some similarities between fandom and Hollywood in that they are relatively small, highly networked communities, ultimately, they don’t operate in quite the same way.
The incursion of Hollywood into fandom reminds me of the European explorers encountering the indigenous population in the New World for the first time. We’re talking about a clash of civilizations here with very different economies and value systems. We might get past the first exchanges of beads for land use, but eventually, inevitably, there are going to be serious tensions as interests conflict.
Linking this to gender, my experience is that, in general, male fans have been much more open —even welcoming —to these incursions into Media Fandom than (again, in general) female fans. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I have some theories. Prime among them is that the kinds of activities that guy fans are involved with — collecting memorabilia, assembling non-fiction information websites — are more likely to be approved by TPTB than some of the activities, like writing fan fiction, that are dominated by women. Also, at least in my experience, I find my guy fan friends are much more competitive with each other in vying for the attention of TPTB, are more likely to have connections to the professional and/or Hollywood communities, and seem to have a stronger desire to see their passion for the source text legitimized.
For example, because of my dissertation work and my professional ties to Norman Felton (we’ve both been involved in promoting media literacy), I’m often one of the folks that TBTB will seek out when they’re looking for a representative of MFU fandom. There are other fans who fill this role as well, but they are nearly all male. I’m often the lone female voice, which is odd considering that our fandom is mostly run by women fans and is majority female.
Fanboys/Fan Girls Revisited
DK: I think you’re right about the broad differences of gender within and between fandoms. Lots of quantitative and qualitative work (including yours) has pretty much borne this out, after all. Still, there will always be exceptions, in almost every fandom. Unfortunately, my experiences (and those of my fan friends) inside and outside fandom have shown how gender is often policed from within. “Fanboys” at comic cons alienate female fans by drooling after scantily clad cosplayers, or mounting loud, pedantic arguments about canon. “Fangirls” at fic cons alienate male fans by talking in code or banning them from slashvid rooms (as one of my female fan friends reported witnessing at MediaWest
back in the 90s).
Here’s where, I hope, the emergence of female writers and writer-producers in the industry might help change things. Not in an essentialist sense, but in a sense of maybe projecting a kind of “fangirlness” (or at least not presenting “fanboyness”) as a distinct, viable category for broader dissemination. We have a few prominent women writers on key popular and cult shows as it is (e.g., Jane Espenson, Carol Mendelsohn, Marni Noxon, Shonda Rhimes, Amy Sherman-Palladino), but they’re very much the minority in Hollywood (and every other TV-producing community in the world, for that matter, unfortunately). I don’t think more women producers would necessarily change the fairly fundamental split between men and women over who wants access to TPTB, but it might at least present some other possibilities for engagement, within the source texts and in publicity.
CW: No, I don’t either. I don’t see evidence that women producers and writers are necessarily more open to engagement with fandom than male producers. Those who are most open to interactions with fans seem to be those who, regardless of gender, have some experience with and/or strong ties to the SF community. This makes sense since the SF community has a long history, dating back to the early 1930s, of pros and fans interacting together and even folks exchanging roles at various times. I understand something similar happens in the Romance community.
But getting back to the fanboy/fangirl dichotomy, I’d like to see us get past this binary as well, although I’m not sure we ever will entirely. Despite the fact that women and guys (in general) favor different fan activities and do appear to have different experiences, I think it’s in their (our?) common interest to forge some sort of alliance. In the end, as fans/users/consumers/audiences, we’re all in the same boat.
I made this point when the discussions in this forum touched on machinima, which struck me, despite its reliance on images rather than words, as a reworking activity very similar to writing fanfic. At the media conference I attended in New York in May, one of the machinima panelists explained to me how the gaming companies, which are relatively small, are really open to their players altering the games and offer open source code. I then asked him what would happen if the gamers created a message which was critical of the gaming company or which was contrary to what the company would really enjoy or approve. He admitted that this doesn’t happen much. But one would expect that, inevitably, a machinima artist will come along who will create a more radical piece that’s not something the gaming companies can approve or ignore. What happens then?
The conversation I had that day also made me wonder if male fans seem more content than women fans to ‘color within the lines’ because most popular culture is created by guys for guys and women have to alter it more severely for their own pleasure. Are women fans more radical in their approach or does it just appear that way?
For example, I notice that machinima features a lot of violence, shooting and blowing up stuff, which frankly, seemed to embarrass the panelists who felt a need to warn the audience about it. It seemed to me the equivalent to how we have to prepare mundane audiences to accept and understand the existence and use of sexuality (both in slash and het) in female-dominated fanfic. Of course, at least in American popular culture, violence is more acceptable than sex and how feature films are rated reflects this.
DK: I think you’re absolutely right that particular media forms and genres have a kind of gendered existence not because there’s anything intrinsically “male” about blowing stuff up, but because “blowing stuff up” has become a prominent signifier of a culturally promoted masculinity. When the economics of the gaming industry are factored in, as well as the design history of gaming software (i.e., variations on controlling visual space), and the culture of computer science education, it all favors particular codes and possibilities, and marginalizes others.
Still, does this make these men any less “creative”? I’m not sure. I keep thinking of those guys in Trek fandom in the 70s and 80s who would create these elaborate technical blueprints of Trek technology, some of which might never have actually been seen on-screen. Not my cup of tea, but pretty impressive nonetheless, and categorically not all that different from women writing fanfic. Now, once you get into the actual content of the creativity, and its relationships to the source texts and wider culture, then substantial differences emerge. But still, blueprints or fanfic or machinima or vidding are all creative acts inspired by particular sourcetexts and supported by fan communities.
A big question going forward is this: do we (as fans, or acafans) want to crash the gates? Do we want to affect change in the way media is conceived, produced, and distributed? Do we want our cultures and perspectives to be represented in the source texts themselves? Or would we rather keep them to ourselves, build our own communities, and keep them exclusive? Setting aside the issue of fear of the copyright police for a second, do we still want to maintain boundaries between fandom and the mainstream?
As you pointed out earlier, the gates are being crashed anyway, to an extent, by TPTB arriving on the shores of fandom, and producers (benevolently) shouting-out to the fans. Accordingly, as academics and fans, I think we need to keep picking at all of these categories, “men,” “women,” “fans,” and “producers,” and learn better to think in other terms as well (most notably class, race, generation, and culture). We can learn an awful lot from the histories of these categories and interactions (as our scholarly work has shown), but we should also attend carefully to their flux at this moment, and look for opportunities, such as the FanLib debate, or these great discussions, to build new identities and relationships and/or defend old ones.
CW: You said: “But still, blueprints or fanfic or machinima or vidding are all creative acts inspired by particular source texts and supported by fan communities.” Yes, they are, and personally, I’d like to see folks stop privileging one over the other. Like you, a lot of my academic interest and work is in media studies and also in the related areas of media literacy and media ecology. I’m a big fan of Marshall McLuhan.
And one thing we understand in media studies is that each medium has its virtues and limitations. Film is different from television, and television is different from radio — but not necessarily better. We choose a medium depending upon the message and the intended audience. One of the first exercises I assign my students is to talk about the class to three different audiences in three different ways. They can write a letter, send an email, text a message, make a phone call, have a face-to-face conversation, whatever — and then report back. They are always amazed at how the choice of medium shapes, influences, enhances or limits the message. Some media, they discover, are more effective with some audiences than others.
I think it’s the same with the creative activities of fandom. I don’t think we can privilege creating machinima over fanfiction or the reverse. Posting episode guides, creating technical blueprints, putting together a fanvid or writing a story all have their place and contribute to the commonly shared culture of a fandom. Instead of dismissing activities which we don’t understand or in which we don’t participate, I’d like to see more cross-community and cross gender communication. After attending that machinima panel, I, myself, wanted to explore, if only as a viewer, that particular medium. I wanted to hear more from the machinima fans.
I’d like to see more guy fans pursue fanfiction, if not as writers at least as readers. And while slash may make some guys uncomfortable, well, those sexy figures based on comic book characters (remember the recent controversy over the depiction of Mary Jane washing Spidey’s outfit?) make some of the women uncomfortable as well. Maybe, as academics, we can be bold enough to sit on panels together and explore what makes us uncomfortable, gender-wise, as well as what commonalities we share in our fan activities. I think more dialogue —more open but respectful dialogue — is a goal to pursue.
As far as your next bundle of questions — ie: Do we want to affect change in the way media is conceived, produced, and distributed?… Or would we rather keep them to ourselves, build our own communities, and keep them exclusive? etc. —those are tough questions and the answer may be different for each individual fan. Is it possible for fandom to do both? As far as maintaining boundaries, can we somehow interact but still keep a distance? (And am I being too greedy in wanting my cake and eating it too?)
DK: I agree that dialogue in many varieties is necessary, and here I’d hope that people following this discussion would lead the way in doing this (fans, academics, and acafans). If men are uncertain about slash, maybe gen fic is a place to at least start. If women aren’t so sure about Halo, maybe try the Final Fantasy series. The next time you assemble a panel for a conference, try to find a different perspective. Discomfort is part of the process, and can be interesting in itself.
I think greater visibility is important as well, even if it is a double-edged sword. I honestly had no idea that LiveJournal was a vibrant hive of fan activity until the MIT 5 conference in April, and I don’t think it would have come on my radar without people like Kristina Busse pulling me in. If we’re invited to something, or are at least made aware of it within our usual haunts (online or otherwise), then we’re much more likely to check it out. That’s how fandom works, after all!
As Matt Hills wrote, fans are fans of being fans, and migrate between passions and mediums. We all have interests that overlap with what we might consider our “primary” fan identities, but which stoke our passions in different ways. I don’t mean moving from Stargate Atlantis to Smallville or from Amazing Spider-Man to Ultimate Spider-Man, but to gardening, or reggaeton, or college basketball, or whatever. Perhaps we could open up as we migrate, and connect these areas, rather than treat them as islands of engagement.
As for connecting fans and producers, that’s going to be a trickier process, but one that’s already happening in many different ways. Ideally, producers should be free to “walk the walk” of fandom, and not just declare themselves to be fans (Ron Moore’s ecstatic and immediate blog post reaction to the Sopranos finale-his first blog post about anything, in months–was a rare instance of this). Realistically, though contracts and network lawyers will keep them on a leash, and carefully monitor any kind of potential or actual IP exchanges between fans and producers. There are some situations that shouldn’t happen (producers really don’t want to hear your episode pitch in a convention hallway), but there are others that should happen more often (gabbing at the hotel bar about how much you both love a completely different show that the producer never worked on). The latter, thankfully, goes on every year at the Gallifrey con in LA, and it sounds like it works that way in U.N.C.L.E fandom as well, from your description.
At our end, as fans and acafans, we’ll just need to continue to monitor these interactions, critiquing as necessary, but also recognizing possible positive developments. I suppose my ideal situation would be that each “side,” fans and producers, could still continue doing their own things without interruption or aggravation (neither side should be beholden to the other), but could still find some spaces for collaboration or at least sharing their texts and viewpoints.
CW: Well said. To sum up, I’d just like to reiterate four quick points we’ve sort of made already. One is, that in any one of these discussions and/or debates, the “sides” are not a simple dichotomy but multiple and complex, often between and among collective parties. The second is that these parties are composed of real people. For example, both TPTB and Fandom (with a capital F) are made up of individuals with varying perspectives and maybe that’s where dialogues and relationships might begin —between and among individuals who then network with others. Third, that perhaps we aca-fen might provide a bridge to further understanding and cultural negotiation, as critics do between professional artists and their audiences. And finally, this is a good moment in time to develop and advance the dialogue and to support initiatives like Net Neutrality, because the boundaries are becoming more permeable and the shape of the Internet environment is still in flux. Change will come whether we’re ready for them or not. It’s better to be ready.
Thanks for the conversation, Derek. I enjoyed it.
DK: Those four points are an excellent plan moving forward, and they can all happen now. I’d also emphasize your last point, about the future of the Internet. We (as in all of us) have common interests in maintaining and expanding the openness of this resource, so we need to monitor possible changes carefully, and be prepared to mobilize with others in order to preserve and improve it.
It’s been a pleasure, Cynthia, and I look forward to continuing this discussion here and elsewhere.