Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seventeen, Part Two): Melissa Click and Joshua Green

MC: How do we proceed in fan studies–what do we agree belongs in this category, and what should be left out? There seems to be an agreement (if only a reluctant one) among folks in this discussion on the idea that the category “fan” should be broadened. Concern has been expressed, however, that if we make it too broad, it will lose its meaning. Could we begin to try to nail it down by suggesting the ways “audience” and “fans” might be different?

JG: I’m really interested in this question as I think complicating the term “fan”, and its use, can help us to start to understand how ideas about the audience itself is being transformed by the participatory moment that has arisen. This discussion has offered up a good range of ways to account for fandom that run the gamut from structures of feeling to productive consumption via a spectrum of viewing intensity (and the comments even offered up “fanatic” at one point). Theoretically pragmatic personally, I drew a lot from Anne Kustritz and Derek Johnson’s deconstruction of fans as an object of study that can be generalized about, challenging the notion of the fan as necessarily determined by community, socialization, productivity, consumption, engagement, or outsider status. Their ultimate conclusion seemed to be that the fan as an object of study needs to be understood as a multiplicitous social construction and contextualized within historical and cultural specificity. That said, they also draw upon the notion of the fan as a sort of cultural logic used to describe particular categories of consumption for the purposes of patrolling ‘normal’ behavior. This is a classic position for the fan, historically positioned as atypical or anomalous in ways that permit the delimitation of acceptable media consumption and engagement habits.

In the current moment, however, where non-fan audiences (apologies for the clunky language) are bring increasingly described if not constructed through discourses of production, the fan seems to have been drawn back in somewhat from the edge. As the television industry, especially, attempts to make sense of the impact of inviting viewers to participate, losing control over the contexts of consumption, and realigns itself in an environment that seems likely to privilege multiple separate opportunities to view content, certain elements of the fandom look very tantalizing as models of audience practice worth encouraging. Of course, this is not unproblematic, and the industry seems mostly interested in promoting the depth of engagement and what I would characterize as the structures of feeling of fan engagement and hopefully not having to deal with the politics of ownership and production that emerge from fandom. But the fan as a model of a passionate consumer, a loyal consumer, a willing participant, a word-of-mouth marketer (or what Sam Ford regularly refers to as a proselytizer), an active participant in expansive storyworlds, and even a producer of additional textual elements (whatever sanctioned or tolerated form they might take), seems to be having an impact on the model of ‘regular’ audienceship, particularly as the behaviors once considered anomalous (such as archiving content, to pick up on Derek’s own example) are wrapped into revenue models or normalized through cultural practice.

MC: I should confess (in case it’s not yet obvious) that I’m in agreement with the folks who keep saying that they think there’s something useful in studying audience members who do not behave as fans have typically been defined–as communal producers of materials that “rewrite” media texts. I support this perspective because it speaks to my experiences as a fan–and I find it useful in terms of understanding the activity I have seen in my study of Martha Stewart fans.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seventeen, Part One): Melissa Click and Joshua Green

MC: Hi, I’m Melissa Click and I’m completing my dissertation on Martha Stewart fans (at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), teaching at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and am just catching up on my sleep after the wonderfully overwhelming experience of having my first child. Having one foot in the East Coast and the other foot in the Mid-West, being in the midst of completing my Ph.D. while developing my professional identity as a scholar, and trying to figure out how to balance my work life and newly changed homelife, means that I’m still catching up on my TV viewing (I heart Tivo), I don’t usually blog, and I’m a bit more behind on academic reading than I’d prefer.

As a scholar writing about Martha Stewart fans, I have argued that the women and men I interviewed were not simply audience members, they are fans (and anti-fans, for that matter). However, the types of fandom they demonstrated were different than many of the types of fandom discussed here: they didn’t write Martha fan-fic, create Martha fan-vids, etc. My interest in their fandom overlapped with my own interest in/repulsion by Stewart’s texts, and my allegiance with their behaviors as fans–my expressions of fandom mirror the behaviors gendered “masculine” in this discussion.

JG: Hello all, my name is Joshua Green. I’m a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT where I also run the Convergence Culture Consortium. At the Consortium we do a lot of work about the changing patterns of relationships between media producers – big and small, professional and amateur – media content and various audience formulations. We work with some “big media” companies (though not exclusively) to come to understand the changing environment in which their content circulates and the changing logics of the media space when you factor in participatory culture and the changing constitution of the audience experience.

Before I transplanted from Australia to the States, I was working on the recent history Australian television, particularly looking at the way the Australian television system resolved the presence of international, and specifically American, programming with discourses of nationalism. My (I suppose still recently completed) dissertation looked at the way Dawson’s Creek was nationalized by industrial promotional strategies and received by a range of Australian viewers. I’m currently really, very interested in the ways we can understand the constitution and composition of television audiences as they’re imagined more and more as media producers, or at least, as the role of media production is increasingly prescribed for those we used to understand as audiences.

MC: I’m not convinced that folks have really addressed one of the key issues that began this conversation: the perception that male interests and approaches are structuring publishing, conference participation, and the field in general. I’d like to pull us back to the pre-détente discussions that created the discussion in which we’re now participating. Specifically, how can we begin to encourage ties between male and female scholars, and create more of a community in the field of fan studies? Everyone seems to agree that we can benefit from each other’s work–but how can we begin to encourage that cross-pollination (or what Derek Johnson called “broad citation?”).

JG: I think returning to this question is important, though I would like to point out that one of the things I have enjoyed most about this discussion on the whole is the diversity of ways people have responded to the “provocation.” Some of the discussions around this topic have brought to the fore a range of important questions affecting not only fan studies but media and cultural studies practice itself. Prominent in this regard is the fervor with which this discussion has interrogated how we understand fandom itself. This diversity of topics is particularly appealing as I don’t consider myself someone working ‘in’ fan studies. I’m not sure I’ve ever been a ‘fan’ of any distinct media property, certainly not in the productive way that has been defended by some discussants as signaling something unique about particular patterns of engagement or structures of feeling towards media properties. Likewise, while perhaps daily I come into contact with some of the practices, strategies, or politics of fandom, I don’t consider myself necessarily studying fandom. That said, one of the strengths of this discussion is the role those of us who don’t fall into the ‘fan studies’ camp have played in contributing to the debate. At a somewhat crude level then, perhaps this practice of pairing respondents has at least gestured toward a way to achieve this cross-pollination.

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The Fall Season Approaches: Pimp Your New Favorites

Last Fall, I asked readers of this blog to “pimp their favorite television show,” and we had a truly inspiring set of responses. Indeed, I discovered Supernatural through a groundswell of responses I received here and it has emerged as one of my very favorite programs and belatedly, this summer, I finally have started to catch up with Battlestar Galactica (I’m now half way through Season 2), another series which was a favorite among readers of this blog.

Well, this year, I want to start the process earlier. Many of us are checking out the new fall line-up which is starting in earnest this week. So I thought I’d invite you to share with other blog readers your impressions of the new series.

There are a lot of fannish shows on this year, no doubt influenced by the success of Heroes, but most of them look very much like fannish shows we’ve seen before: the return of Highlander (New Amsterdam), Forever Night (Moonlight), Quantum Leap (Journeyman), and Alias (Bionic Woman). I’ve been hearing great things about Pushing Daisies but I haven’t managed to get my hands on the pilot for it yet.

So far, I’ve seen about 20 of the series that will be introduced this season, including some which will not reach the air until mid-season. There are a number of series which I liked well enough to set up my Tivo to record and some that I will watch again if the word of mouth picks up. Of the new series, by far, the favorite in my household is Journeyman, a series which isn’t getting much buzz yet. Of course my wife, son, and I are died in the wool Quantum Leap fans so it makes sense we’d want to give this series a close look but I’ve seen lots of other time travel series which lack the character focus that made Leap so successful in years past. Journeyman is probably my top bet on which new series will be a favorite with the fan community — though I’m not making any bets on how it will fare with the general viewership. It falls right after Heroes which may help it but the tone is so different even if from a network executive’s perspective it probably looks like it falls in the same genre. It has a nice balance between long-term serial developments and self-contained episodic narratives, more like Supernatural than Heroes in that regard. And the performances are good enough that I didn’t think about who the actor was until later, even though I’ve really enjoyed watching Rome in the past. Give it a look!

To help set this discussion in motion and to give a shout out to some fellow Aca-Fen, I wanted to let you know about The Extratextuals, a new blog started by Ivan Askwith, Jonathan Gray, and Derek Johnson — are teaming up to produce a new blog called The Extratextuals. All three of these guys have made guest appearance in this blog from time to time so they should be no stranger to my readers.

Here’s how Askwith, a former CMS student now working for Big Space Ship in NYC, describes the blog’s goals:

Our blog will focus primarily on the extratextuals that surround the media. By this, we mean everything but the show itself: previews, merchandising, industry buzz, branding, interviews, posters, spatial context, temporal context, related websites, ARGs, spinoffs, spoilers, schedules, bonus materials, transmedia extras, games, YouTube clips, etc. But we’re interested in these things not to be arcane or eccentric; rather, we believe that the extratextuals often make the show what it is. Hence this blog is about the mediation of media.

Gray had a chance to see previews of the new fall series, screened at the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio) in New York City, and offers his views about them at the blog. Since I’ve had a chance to see the pilots of many of these same series, I figured this would give me a good chance to share some of my own responses as well. So, here are some of Gray’s thoughts followed by my reactions.

First, here’s what Gray has to say about Journeyman:

How it was probably pitched: The Littlest Hobo meets The Time-Traveler’s Wife

Okay, so he’s not a German Shepherd, as was Canadian TV’s The Littlest Hobo (non-Canadians: imagine a roaming Lassie), but our hero’s task, as he learns throughout the episode, is to go through time and ensure that the cosmic order works the way it would like to. Kind of Quantum Leapy, in that he often doesn’t know what he’s meant to do, and must simply follow instinct. Yet no entering of other people’s bodies occurs; indeed, this pilot episode keeps him in a San Francisco in which his earlier self is living out his life, so if you’re a Kevin McKidd fan (from Rome), you get two of him… It’s gimmicky in premise, but smartly done, with nice dramatic elements, and a fine performance by McKidd (though his American accent needs a little work). The neat twist is that his former girlfriend, who he believes to have died in a plane crash, turns out to be a Journey(wo)man too. By the end of the pilot, he has no knowledge of why he is a Journeyman, who chose him, who directs his jumps, and so forth, so though a mystery-a-week program, the pilot builds in prospects for serial development and revelation. If it goes that way, I’ll be interested. As it is, it’s nothing super special, but still good television…. McKidd’s character’s confusion is effectively evoked, and in general the show was more demanding of its viewer’s attention than I might’ve expected. Smart stuff.

Another series which has started to generate interest amongst my friends and acquaintances is K-Ville. Check out what Grant McCracken wrote about K-Ville the other day.

And here’s what Gray has to say:


How it was probably pitched: NYPD Blue in New Orleans.

Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, it’s a procedural, starring, as the FOX exec who introduced the shows offered, an “in your face” cop, and another who is “a guy looking for a new start, like the city itself.” Sounds cliché, right? And it begins that way, as my notes to myself include the words “preachy” and “patronizing.” But it softens up along the way. It also started to grab me a bit. This is a sad show at times; for instance, when Anderson’s wife explains that she moved to Houston for their daughter’s sake because the daughter still cries every time it rains, there’s a degree of poignancy and power to the line….At a macro level, the show has a lot that it wants to achieve, some of that important and valuable. How it balances this with the day-to-day procedural is where it will live or die; the pilot concentrated its energies on the macro, thereby letting the procedural fall by the wayside, but whether the show continues to botch its procedural element once it’s set the scene will be telling… The Wire it is not, and at the moment a good procedural it is not, but it has some small potential.

From my perspective, the pilot suffers from a split personality as if the producers and the networks are still at war over the series indentity. What I wanted to see, as Gray’s last bit suggests, was The Wire set in Post-Katrina New Orleans or maybe Hill Street Blues. At times, the series comes close to achieving this — filmed on location, deploying many location-specific details, showing us some of the devastation you experience if you drive outside the tourist areas in the city, and sharing some of the reality as it is being experienced on the ground. These images were particularly powerful to me because I had a chance to drive through some of the devastated areas when I was in New Orleans earlier this summer for Phoenix Rising. It was the closest thing to a suburban ghost town I ever expected to see. I haven’t been able to put the experience into words which is why I haven’t really written about it here. At places, this series brought me back to what I saw and felt when I visited some of these communities, including driving past the headquarters for the production, which really is in one of the gutted areas. Unfortunately, the series seems to also be pulled towards larger-than-life Buddy cop show cliches — something closer to the recent remake of Miami Vice than to The Wire — and I fear that’s where the networks are going to force it to go. I will give it a second look but I haven’t made up my mind about it yet.

Gray writes about Big Shots:

How it was probably pitched: Desperate Housewives for men

I’m not sure Big Shots‘ creators really thought through what they wanted the show to do. On one hand, it’s about guys. Not just guys, but guys: the references to penises, checking out women, and the number of scenes involving golf announce the show’s raw guyness. On the other hand, its generic format is that of the tawdry evening soap. Granted, I don’t see the Nielsen data that ABC does, but I’d presume we have two different demos in tawdry evening soap watchers and penis-&-golf worshippers? Yet its lead-in is Grey’s Anatomy, so someone’s giving it the sweetheart treatment, and perhaps they think Grey’s young female audience want more golf in their lives? I’m dubious. Anyways, all four guys play golf, talk about penises, watch women a lot, and talk about how hard life is being millionaire CEOs.

Again, Gray hits on some of my core concerns with this series. This is the season of social network series — if we include Big Shots, The Cashmere Mafia, Gossip Girl, The Women’s Murder Club, Carpoolers — each of which deal with groups of friends whose lives are hopelessly intertwined and who connect to each other through a variety of different hardware interfaces, not to mention regular face-to-face communications. Of these, I liked The Cashmere Mafia the best (though my wife thinks I just have a thing for Lucy Liu). And The Women’s Murder Club has possibilities — good cast, not the most inspiring pilot. The men in my family — my son and I — squirmed through Big Shots, finding it uncomfortable to watch even though we’d liked many of the cast members in other things, where-as my wife found it amusing. Talking to the students taking our class on network television this term, the gender divide seems pretty consistent: even though it’s a series about men, it seems to appeal much more to women. So, that may be the way it is resolving the contradictions that Jonathan identifies here.

Here’s what Gray had to say about Big Bang Theory

How it was probably pitched: Beauty and the Geek, the sitcom

If Judd Apatow and a few others have ushered in an era of Geek Chic, nobody seems to have told the writers of this show. In a bizarre way, the show’s pathologization of geeks is actually quite impressive, though, and to prove it, try this exercise: try to write a 22 minute script, filling it with as many stereotypes of geeks as possible. Get someone else to count the references. Then get them to watch the pilot of Big Bang Theory, and compare the counts. I bet you’ll lose the competition. Important to this exercise, though, is that you should not watch the show yourself, and that you should probably dislike the person required to watch it… N Ultimately, I predict the writers’ eagerness to spew stereotypes will get the best of them: surely the Trekker jokes, endless references to MIT (I counted 4 this time), and jokes about math will run out fast.

Okay, I expected to hate Big Bang Theory. I have a very high level of sensitivity to fan stereotypes. But this struck me as much closer to Galaxy Quest than to Trekkies — that is, the humor comes from the inside rather than the outside. They certainly got all of their science fiction references right and best I can tell from consulting with local experts here, they got their math and science references right too. I frankly laughed harder at this sitcom than any I’ve seen since Friends. Yes, the stereotypes are broad — not unusual for a pilot — and yes, there are plenty of cliches, but there’s also a real affection for the characters and a real wit in the ways they deploy the stereotypes which leaves me with some hope for the series. Of course, last year, I thought that Studio 60 on Sunset Strip had a great pilot and then it fell apart almost immediately thereafter. For what it’s worth, MIT students who have seen the pilot didn’t find it as funny as I did.

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Was Herman Melville a Proto-Fan?

Earlier this year, I proclaimed my ambitions to re-read (perhaps more accurately, read) Moby Dick this summer, having done a rather poor job of tackling this novel as a high school student. I am now a hundred pages from the end.

What had inspired my own personal pursuit of the Great White Whale was my involvement through Project nml with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the artistic director of The Mixed Magic Theater based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Ricardo has been working to get young people more engaged in Melville’s classic story by encouraging them to rewrite it in a more contemporary setting. The result was Moby Dick: Then and Now, a remarkable stage performance which our team (especially Deb Liu) has been documenting. This fall, we will be working to create a teacher’s guide for Moby Dick based on the idea of learning through remixing.

In anticipation of work this fall with Wyn Kelly, my colleague from the MIT Literature Section and a leading Melville expert, I returned to the scene of the crime — reading the novel in the battered Bantam classics edition that I had failed to complete in high school. I must say that reading Moby Dick through the lens of remix culture has taught me a new way to experience this remarkable and idiosyncratic work: rather than cursing the various digressions from the core adventure saga, I have found myself reading them with renewed attention.

Moby Dick, I am discovering, absorbs all of the genres of writing and speaking of its own times, sucking up stories and cultures, juxtaposing them with each other in fresh and unanticipated ways. The abrupt shifts in language, the desire to record every detail of life on board the ship, to catalog every piece of equipment, to dissect the whale from skin to bones, to trace stories across every possible mode of representation and to question all existing accounts of the Whale, these all become part of the work’s encyclopedic drive.

Somewhere around page 400, I came to another realization. We might see Melville as adopting a range of interpretive strategies and modes of reading which would be recognizable to contemporary fan culture. What if we looked at Melville as a fan of whales and whaling lore. After all, only a true fan would be so obsessed with every detail and would chase the damned “fish” all around the planet the way Melville does.


Here is one of the many passages in the book where Melville examines the story of Jonah:

One old Sag-Harbor whaleman’s chief reason for questioning the Hebrew story was this:- He had one of those quaint old-fashioned Bibles, embellished with curious, unscientific plates; one of which represented Jonah’s whale with two spouts in his head- a peculiarity only true with respect to a species of the Leviathan (the Right Whale, and the varieties of that order), concerning which the fishermen have this saying, “A penny roll would choke him”; his swallow is so very small. But, to this, Bishop Jebb’s anticipative answer is ready. It is not necessary, hints the Bishop, that we consider Jonah as tombed in the whale’s belly, but as temporarily lodged in some part of his mouth. And this seems reasonable enough in the good Bishop. For truly, the Right Whale’s mouth would accommodate a couple of whist-tables, and comfortably seat all the players. Possibly, too, Jonah might have ensconced himself in a hollow tooth; but, on second thoughts, the Right Whale is toothless

.– Moby Dick, Chapter 83

In this case, he is describing a process of speculation through which his fellow whaling fans — the old sag-Harbor whalesman and Bishop Jebb — try to make sense of contradictions in the source text, extending beyond the information given in order to try to reconcile what they know of whales in the real world with what the story tells them about Jonah’s encounter with the Leviathan. Any one who has been in fandom for very long recognizes this conversation — you take an element which doesn’t quite work and rather than discarding it, you keep speculating around it trying to figure out under what circumstances it might make sense. Fans often describe such creative work as “repairing the damage” created by a distracted artist who didn’t think through all of the implications of their own story and such speculation clearly leads step by step towards a whole scale rewriting of the narrative to better satisfy the fan’s own fantasies and interests. What emerges is a kind of proto-fan fiction.

What if we imagined Jonah inside the Whale’s mouth rather than fully swallowed — maybe even inside his tooth? Ah, but we’ve already figured out that the Leviathan must have been a Right Whale, and not wanting to discard all of that earlier fannish labor, we want to preserve that theory and so we have to discard this new layer of speculation.

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“I’m So Hot My Husband Can’t Get Fire Insurance”: Interview with Grant Hayter-Menzies (Part Two)

Last week, I shared with you my enthusiasm for the opening sequence of So Long Letty, the film through which I first became aware of the remarkable stage, screen, and radio performer, Charlotte Greenwood. My feelings towards the film’s conclusion was more ambivalent. Most of the comedian comedies of the period, those featuring male performers, end on moments of maximum disruption — on a final anarchistic burst of energy that sometimes literally brings the house down. Think about the final moments from some of the Marx Brothers vehicles of this period. So Long Letty, on the other hand, ends on a moment of over-stated domesticity. Here’s what I wrote about it in What Made Pistachio Nuts?:

So Long Letty ends with a dinner party, one contrasting sharply in its formality and sobriety to the wild party Letty threw just a few scenes before. The entire cast has gathered around the table with Uncle Claude seated at its head, smiling benevolently at his gathered relatives and friends. The prune-faced patriarch has at last been shown proper respect by the once-terrible woman. The young granddaughters announce their engagement to two men they met only a few scenes before; the uncle looks upon it all with approval. He even invites his now much-beloved niece to act as a chaperon for his granddaughter’s impending trip to Europe, though she refuses in order to remain at her husband’s side. All lift glasses and join in a reprise of “So Long Letty,” a slow sentimental ballad strikingly different from the more jazzy numbers associated with Greenwood. Letty has accommodated herself to the demands of her husband and her uncle, having learned quite literally to sing a different tune.

A highly unsatisfying resolution, the exaggerated domesticity of this concluding scene and the abruptness with which it was obtained weakens its ability to restrain Letty’s subversiveness. Letty seems to be robbed of a victory over her husband and uncle that generic conventions suggest she richly deserves… In the film’s final scenes, however, Greenwood’s performance still pushes against domestic containment. It is Letty, not the uncle, who presides over the table, offering toasts and dominating the dinner discourse. When the Uncle urges her to accompany his nieces to Europe, she initially babbles about ‘mud packs in Paris,’ before dutifully rejecting the offer. Her hesitation suggests that she retains the desires that had earlier led to her rebelliousness. When Letty joins in the chorus, she does so with the loud voice and broad gestures that have accompanied the other musical numbers, even as she sings about her own capitulation to male demands,”So Long Letty.” Moreover, Uncle Claude seems looser, more lively here, as if he has been revitalized through his encounters with Letty; the capitulation may not have been entirely one-sided. Finally, it is significant, given the alignment of narrative with masculinity and performance with femininity, that the film ends on a note of performance, the singing of “So Long Letty,” which simultaneously creates a narrative unity between the opposing terms. The song reconciles, if imperfectly, narrative and performance just as it reconciles, if imperfectly, male restraint and female pleasure. Even Uncle Claude, the motor of the narrative action, now joyfully joins the musical performance.

Grant Hayter-Menzies, the author of the recently released Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of The Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio and Film, offers a somewhat different take on the film’s ending, which he repeats in the interview below. (I wish that the sequencewas up on YouTube so I could share it with you to make your own judgment.) To some degree, the differences in our interpretation are ones of emphasis. My analysis of the scene suggests some ways that Letty continues to assert a strong presence on the level of performance even if the narrative shows her seeming acceptance of male demands. I was reading the scene through a focus on genre, while Hayter-Menzies reads it in the larger context of Greenwood’s career. This is one of the ways that his book helped me to place this film inside the body of her work in new ways.

As this interview also suggests, the book sheds light on many other important entertainment personalities. Here, I am especially interested in her work with Eddie Cantor (see this clip from Palmy Days to see how well the chemistry clicked between them).

Pulling this post together, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much Greenwood material is out there on the web — especially on YouTube. Collectors are making obscure clips more readily available to the public. I had to trek to the archives to see some of these performances; you can at least sample them in your own homes. You can also sample performances by some of the other female clowns I wrote about in my book — see for example this segment of Winnie Lightner . Unfortunately, I had no such luck finding any of the comic performances of Lupe Velez, another female clown, whose work I discuss in The Wow Climax.

You and I have some disagreement about the ending of the film version of So Long Letty. I have tended to see it as the capitulation of a powerful, free spirited woman to patriarchal authority, where-as you see Letty as manipulating things to the very end. Can you share your perspective on the film’s ending?

I believe Charlotte’s 1929 Letty is a woman of infinite resourcefulness, who far from being a disturber of the peace, actually is in control of the chaos she creates. This was a characterization Charlotte excelled at and would play, at various strengths, throughout her stage and screen career. The maternal instinct which glows in the role of Aunt Eller was, in Charlotte’s youth, sort of like the Lucy personality from The Peanuts: she was the bossy big girl who in having her way created chaos for other people, but who was herding the sheep in the direction she wanted even as she was scaring them. The scene where Letty tells Uncle Claude that she is actually pregnant–answering his greatest wish–seems to me to be the final charm from Letty’s big bag of tricks. She knows that there is no other way to repair the mess things are in except to meet Uncle Claude on his own terms, in his own language–telling him what he wants to hear, which is not a form of capitulation but of control. And for this reason I believe Letty, who presides over the celebratory dinner at the end of the film, is still very much in charge–a wiser Letty, if you will, but in no way a diminished one.

Greenwood worked with Eddie Cantor several times in the course of her career. What can you tell us about their relationship? What accounts for the chemistry they displayed on screen together?

Charlotte and Eddie Cantor were, as I’ve pointed out, two of the twentieth century’s most popular comedians, but both had originally had no intention of going in the way of comedy. Cantor wanted to be a serious singer, as did Charlotte. Both came to comedy by accident, and both went with comedy because it was what gave them the greatest success. I believe this is part of what made for such a charming screen partnership. Charlotte also loved Cantor’s family life, which was quite normal (he and his wife produced all girls), where he was the father, their children had a home-keeping mother, they ate dinner together every night, and so forth. That totally drew Charlotte’s admiration and respect.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Sixteen, Part Two): Deborah Kaplan and Alan McKee

art, Art, and aesthetics

DK: Other acafen have told me that my fan fiction tastes are highbrow and shaped by external literary standards (see below), and my lack of appreciation for id vortex stories — that is, stories which revel in extreme emotional connections to pain, romance, torment, and the like in ways that can be deeply satisfying to a reader but which we have been taught to despise as over-the-top — is a weakness in understanding, appreciating, or analyzing fan fiction.

AM: This is a good example of my current obsession (as you’ll know from the book) – the forms of discrimination used by non-academic consumers. It fascinates – and appalls – me that so much cultural theory – Left and well as Right leaning – is predicated on the assumption that non-academics consume indiscriminately. It makes me angry to read authors such as Habermas and Adorno claiming that non-academic consumers will take whatever they’re given, and that the level of ‘trash’ in culture is due the producers forcing their wares onto a helpless public. Anthropologist Daniel Miller has analysed everyday purchasing decisions and shown the level of intellectual work that goes into deciding to choose, say, one band of meat pie over another. Fan cultures fascinate me because they provide well documented examples of such decisions, and particularly their aesthetic elements. Because there’s much discussion between members about these decisions, the systems are both complex and accessible. What you’re talking about here is clear example of an aesthetic system generated within fandom – not from within academia, but in direct response to it. Which is interesting. My own fan interests – Doctor Who is the strongest, and the fan culture with which I am most familiar – don’t have anything like the same sense of resentment to ‘traditional’ literary forms of analysis. They don’t really show up much in our aesthetic systems, either as good or bad objects. Although there’s a lot of fun to be had making fun of Tulloch and Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, which is seen to be full of jargon, and to take the program far too seriously …

DK: Nobody has told me that my taste in comics are too highbrow but I have to admit that I’ve been known to be unattractively smug that most of my comics are indies. Even more unattractively, if a trip to the comic book store has me buying only DC/Marvel comics, I’ve been known to pick up an independent comic that was lower on my shopping list just so I wouldn’t be seen buying only mainstream publishers in a shopping trip (I will do the same thing if I realize that all of comics I’ve bought are written by men, and pick up something on my list which was written by a woman). Interestingly, it’s not the act I find unattractive but my rationale. Making sure I’m supporting independent comic book publishers and female creators is admirable, but doing so because I don’t want the cashier of my favorite store to think that I am a lowbrow reader is fairly ugly. (That being said, I’ve also been told that my taste in fantasy and science fiction books is entirely lowbrow. I don’t have much of a taste for the classics, for the grand old wizards of science fiction. If you tell me to read Ursula Le Guin I’ll pick Wizard of Earthsea (lowbrow simply by nature of being written for children, and don’t even get me started on that problematic valuation) over The Dispossessed in a heartbeat. I prefer early David Eddings to Stephen R. Donaldson. I want my books to have happy endings, and can you get more lowbrow than that?)

AM: I often describe what I’m looking for in a film as ‘singing, dancing and a happy ending’. I think that’s one of the main differences between entertainment and art. And given the choice, I’ll always go for the former.

DK: Though I absolutely love it when something is both!

AM: Ah. Here we go. The old definition – ‘What is art’. I mean, I’m happy to say that the Buffy season 5 finale, ‘The Gift’ is art.

DK: Well, duh, she interjects, proving herself intellectually.

AM: A definition which simply means anything that is beautifully done on its own terms. But in the more institutional definition of ‘art’ – ie, that which is taught in Art History courses at University, or for which one can get an Arts Council grant – then I would have to demur. That kind of ‘art’ does everything in its power to make sure that it’s never entertainment. Which is why I hate it so much. (have a look at this for a laugh –

DK: See, I agree with your Flow essay, but not with the way you phrase it here. I think a lot of the art which gets you an Arts Council grant is quite wonderful, and is often entertainment. For all my bragging about how lowbrow I am, I adored ballet as a child, and not just The Nutcracker Suite, but everything from Balanchine to modern dance. Just because The National Endowment for the Arts decided it was worth funding, doesn’t mean it isn’t Entertainment. The focus in your Flow essay is more the inverse, which I do agree with — just because it doesn’t get National Endowment for the Arts funding doesn’t mean it isn’t Art.

AM: But I think that when Art becomes entertaining, the ideological apparatuses that manage the sector swing into play to start stripping it of its status. There’s a great chapter on opera in Jim Collins’s collection High Pop. It points out that when Nessum Dorma was used to sell the soccer World Cup in 1990, and became massively popular, many opera critics despaired. The music had become familiar and unchallenging – in short, entertaining – and was therefore, no longer Art!

DK: There’s this fascinating bit of Walter Benjamin where he makes the usual arts/entertainment division (regarding Germany’s reading habits in the 1920s) — and then goes on to attack criticism for being wholly concerned with the literature of the public sphere. It’s exactly the same dichotomy we have now except with the critical lens focused in the opposite direction.

Kristina Busse and I have had a number of conversations that went something like this (and keep in mind I am paraphrasing her — her end of the conversation is much more intelligent than I am probably making it sound here):

Me: Yadda yadda yadda high quality fan fiction —

Kristina: Hold it right there, buster. What do you mean by “high quality”?

M: [I ramble on about a number of things including technical skill, narrative consistency, character consistency, metaphorical layering, and a whole lot of other value judgments which have led Kristina to name me, much to my horror, a New Critic.]

K: And who decided that was the correct axis on which to measure the quality of fan fiction? What about the Id Vortex?

M: There’s a conversation I could start here about how I think you need to use the master’s tools to get the people who live in the master’s house to pay attention, but that’s not important right now. Why don’t I just rephrase it as “I find it a more enjoyable reading experience to read a story which has both Id Vortex AND the measures that the academy would call quality.”

K: That’s just because you have been trained by the academy to think that way.

M: No it isn’t. It’s my aesthetic sense of what I find enjoyable to read and what I find to be quality.

K: How do you know? Brainwash victim.

M: …

K: *looks victorious, or at least as victorious as a person can look over the phone*

M: Look, a yak!

So in some senses I am insufficiently aligned to the fangirl axis, or I am too brainwashed by the patriarchal academy. (Of course, when I phrase it this way with Kristina she gets rightfully disgruntled because that’s not what she’s accusing me of at all, but I’m speaking hyperbolically. Kristina, I hope you forgive me for any misrepresentations!)

AM: A better response would be: ‘No – YOU’RE a brainwash victim’. And she would have said ‘No – YOU are’. And so on, until you fell out and stopped being BFF…

This raises an important point for me, about the different between saying ‘I like this’ or saying ‘This is good’. Again, back to my book – you’ve got the whole history of philosophy of aesthetics (spit!), dealing with this distinction, but not getting very far, because most of the philosophers want to find a way to make the claim of ‘This is good’ into an objective statement of fact – which it never can be. It makes more sense to me to see the desire to go beyond the simple personal response of saying ‘I like this’ to say ‘This is good’ as a desire to open up dialogue – to get other fans into a conversation about what criteria you might use in order to judge your favourite texts, to try to persuade each other … and then it becomes about the conversation, about community formation, and about using the text, and your discussions about it, to form a shared system of making sense, and a community. The discussion itself is the point. And so my question is – was your conversation with Kristina, in itself, pleasurable? And if not, why not?

DK: Oh, of course it is pleasurable! Because the act of coming to terms with definitions and their flaws is itself a joyous part of literary analysis for me. Unsolvable, but so much fun.

AM: Exactly! It provides a space in which it is possible for the two of you to keep on talking about the common object which is one of the things that holds you together. In the conversation you cite, I see two points of possible friction. The first is the use of the term ‘quality’. I’ve been tracing the uses of that word for some time now, and it seems to function quite explicitly as a synonym for ‘highbrow’. And with that comes a simultaneous denigration of its implied opposite – ‘trash’. It’s tricky to try to explain why you think something is good, without denigrating other points of view – but it is possible. I think it involves a playfulness, not taking yourself too seriously. That’s more possible when dealing with lowbrow culture than highbrow culture, simply because we know, as we discuss who is the best gay porn director, that there’s something a bit silly about talking in those terms.

DK: And yet it’s so meaningful, and as you point out in Beautiful Things, everybody does it every day. I could tell you what I think is the best porn, gay or otherwise, without even having to stop and think — and it doesn’t correspond to highbrow artistic style mapped onto the porn genre You’re right, too, that this phrasing — “highest quality porn director” — provokes a double take. This moment of cognitive dissonance makes apparent the disturbing correlation between “quality” and our ideas of “highbrow”.

AM: I think that when you start pulling in the language of the oppressors – which I think ‘quality’ is – it becomes harder to do that playfulness. From an empirical point of view, there’s almost a 100% guarantee that when somebody says that something is ‘quality’ – quality television, quality film, quality writing, quality journalism – I know that I’m not going to like it. Whereas, if it is described as ‘trash’, there’s a high probability it’s going to engage, delight and excite me.

On the other side of your debate with Kristina, the idea that somebody’s pleasures should be denigrated because of ‘false consciousness’ makes me pretty angry. Which is why I suggested the riposte of ‘No, you are’. Cos that’s the problem with false consciousness – it applies to everybody equally. There’s nobody who’s got true consciousness – or at least, who can prove to my satisfaction that their consciousness is true and mine is false …

DK: Definitely. And if in my humorous paraphrase above I represented Kristina as someone who would denigrate someone else’s pleasures, that is about the most extreme misrepresentation of her I can conceive of. But we have different tastes, different aesthetic senses, and it’s valuable to me to be challenged on my definitions of objective quality. It’s always startling to me to discover I have these; on the one hand I’m a relativist and a social constructionist, and on the other hand I’m a book reviewer who makes absolutist statements about the value of a text. I’m telling you, there’s nothing that can shock a good deconstructionist literary theorist into analyzing her own assumptions more than being called a New Critic. *shudders*

AM: Which raises an interesting point. The only place that I make fully absolutist statements about the value of texts is in doing academic book reviews and refereeing journal papers (leaving the marking of student essays to one side – not because it’s not important or relevant, but just because, as they say ‘Don’t get me started on that’. It’s a whole other book about power, authority and knowledge). And even there, I have to admit, I’m getting more and more relativist. I learned a lot from editing an academic journal for eight years. Often I would send a paper off for blind refereeing, and get back one report that said ‘Publish exactly as is’, and one that said ‘Must never be published, this is crap’. Getting that response, over and over again, was an eye opener … so now I tend to say, ‘This is a very good example of its genre …’ or ‘The paper does not have a clear linear argument, but you may not feel that this is important’. On this last point, I’m a huge fan of the clearly made linear argument supported by evidence – but of course, that means that whenever I get a paper of cultural theory to referee, my first response is just to tick the box marked ‘This is a load of nonsense’.

DK: One day I will send you this self-published science-fiction novel I had to review. Just when I think I am getting relativist about the aesthetic quality of texts I get a complete and utter pile of rubbish sent to me for judgment. (On the other hand, I work closely with a teacher who brings many of the young adult novels I review into her seventh grade classroom. Although for the most part I think her students are excellent readers with what I would call in any other conversation “excellent taste”, I do get continuous reports about books I found mediocre which get gobbled up, and books which I found sublime which get ignored. Which brings me back to questioning what it means to be a reviewer, what it means to make objective statements about texts which are really more objective statements about my own taste.)

AM: [‘excellent taste’ = ‘taste just like mine’. In my definition of the term anyway]. My response to this point is an anthropological one with a commitment to conversation. The decisions about what is good and what is bad can be entirely subjective – but if you are the only person who thinks that way, then we call you mad (‘Gigli is the best movie ever made!’). But it gets interesting when you start looking at what communities of people agree are good and bad. And those decisions are never final, and change over time. Criteria alter. Finnegans Wake, for example, fails to be a good book on every criterion that is normally used to make those judgements. But there is a community of people who can make an argument that it is a good book in quite another way. At the moment, there may not be a single person who agrees that the utter pile of rubbish you had to review was anything other than an utter pile of rubbish. But it may be that in fifty years time it will have been rediscovered as a forgotten classic that showed us a completely different way to write such a novel. Or it may remain an utter pile of rubbish. You can’t tell from the text itself. Which isn’t to say that “anything goes”. It depends on what the communities discussing the texts decide, and no individual has control over those. Your job as a reviewer is to play your part in this debate, to offer interesting and insightful and intelligent comments about the texts that other people can then engage with, and thus keep the whole game ongoing – the game of a community making sense of the world. And – importantly – don’t get angry when people disagree with you. Delight in it and take it as an opportunity to make contact with the thinking of another human being. Which brings joy and makes life worth living. For me, at least.

DK: That does it, I’m sending you this book. Trust me, you will agree that there is at least one book in the world about which absolutist statements of quality are true. (Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek; what you are saying is very true. And yet if in fifty years time this particular book has been rediscovered as a forgotten classic, I despair for the future.)

You conclude here with what for me is the most important part of any intellectual debate, conversation, or interaction. Delight, joy, the opportunity to interact with others and learn from them.

Baseball, Doctor Who, and gender

DK: I don’t think there’s anywhere to go with this unrelated thread, but reading the other conversations has gotten me interested in one other fandom with which I identify myself (and possibly the only fandom for which I am a participant but not a scholar): baseball. I am a proud and true citizen of Red Sox Nation, and the fact that it is a fandom I didn’t choose but was born into by virtue of geography doesn’t make it any less real and visceral for me. I think I fall in a place between highbrow (which in baseball fandom I would identify as following statistics, knowing what’s going on off the team, reading all of the sports news and being aware of potential trades) and lowbrow (which I would identify as wearing “Yankees Suck” T-shirts and spilling beer all over a residential street). I’m fanatic about the team but without participating in any of either highbrow or lowbrow activities. Several years ago, when I lost my old blue Red Sox hat, I decided to buy a pink one. I was in the mode of branching out from my youthful “pink and high heels represent all that is evil about women’s fashion” fashion consciousness, and I thought it was fun to have a pink hat. I came to love that hat, which I still have and wear.

And then about three years ago, the Boston sports media went on a rampage about the “pink hat brigade”. The basic argument goes like this: Only women wear pink baseball caps. Women don’t really like baseball, and they are only here because the team is winning and because they think that Jason Varitek has a really nice ass. [Editor’s note: he does. He is also a fantastic catcher.] Fans who are here for the wrong reasons ruin the sport. If a woman says “I wear a pink hat and I have loved the sport and followed it religiously since you were a glint in the postman’s eye, you asshat”, she is required to prove her “real fan” nature by reeling off some statistics about players. At this point, if it is a public conversation and not a newspaper article, somebody else usually burst in with “well, I like the pink hat brigade, because they are eye candy.”

Now, letting aside the fact that I HAVE followed the sport religiously for many, many years, I do find it interesting how gendered the assumptions of what ruins a sport become. Very few people rail against the legions of male fans who didn’t start paying attention to baseball until the Red Sox won the World Series, and then bought up a factory’s worth of “Yankees suck” T-shirts instead of “Red Sox world champions” T-shirts. Which makes me wonder if I looked around the much more female space of livejournal fandom if I would find people attacking practices that they think are particularly male. I don’t think so, actually. Far more of the practices that get attacked based on unwarranted assumptions of the “bad fans” backgrounds assume that the bad fans in question are 16-year-old girls.

AM: So sports and academic cultures both attack feminised fan practices – I think that’s true. Again, the Doctor Who comparison is interesting. I think there are gendered practices here too. I’ve never heard a female Doctor Who fan recite the production story codes for every episode of the program, but I know boys who can do it. And in the latest revamp of the program, the showrunner, Russell T Davies, made a point of introducing more emotional content to the drama as a way of locking in a female audience that previously hadn’t been so interested in the show.[Of course, it’s important to say in relation to this that some of the best known fan work has undermined these general trends, with the two most important fan writers who introduced emotional content to the program being Kate Orman and Paul Cornell, the latter of whom is definitely male – and, surprisingly, a heterosexual one at that].

So there are differences there. But I don’t see the same kinds of attacks on gendered cultures in the DW community. Because of the revamp, we now have a huge number of female fans coming in to the Doctor Who community who weren’t there before – and I haven’t seen much evidence of resistance to that from the men. Indeed, I’d say there’s almost a gratitude. For a long time we’ve been seen as sad, geeky nerds, in this exclusively male hobby whose very maleness seems to show how sad and geeky it is (it’s very different from Star Trek fandom). And so the fact that women are joining the fan community – many of them focussing on the emotional relationships in the program – is seen as something of a relief – we are becoming like normal people rather than geeks.

But what caught my eye about your final comment wasn’t the gender – but the age. 16 year old. Because although I haven’t seen any resistance in the Doctor Who community to women joining, I have seen resistance to young people joining. There was recently a poll for ‘the best Doctor’, which was won by the current incarnation (David Tennant. Also a favourite with female fans for his ‘floppy fringe’). This led to some venomous outbursts from older fans against the (presumed) young fans who had voted for him from a position of (presumed) ignorance. The young fans have become an enemy, without the proper historical knowledge of the program, who haven’t been here for 40 years like we have, watching every story and learning the nuances of the program. (as I’m writing this, I can see that as many of the new fans are female, there could be an overlap between the hatred of young fans, and the hatred of female fans – but I can honestly say I haven’t picked up any of this in the discussions that I’ve seen. The attacks haven’t drawn on language that is gendered either in the imagined bad fan, or in their supposed interests in the series).

DK: I’m fascinated to see you say that. Mostly I’ve avoided online Doctor Who fandom since the new series began. I know the quirks of the female fan community which has adopted the show wholeheartedly, and I remember the craziness of rec.arts.drwho, and I was looking forward to watching those two communities meet like matter and antimatter. I know that there have been enough conflicts in my own off-line life between those who are fans of the old show and new show both, and those who discovered the show with the new series. Primarily we argue about ‘shipping, about relationships and whether or not the Doctor can be romantically involved with a human Companion (the Eighth Doctor movie never happened I’ve got my fingers in my ears I can’t hear you la la la la). And I know from tidbits I’ve picked up that our conflicts mirror many of the conflicts between old-school fans and new-school fans of the show in general.

But I have to admit I would have assumed the conflict would be more gendered in tone. After all, you’ve got a fandom that (me notwithstanding) is primarily male, heavily gay. And suddenly it’s interacting with a new group of fans who are primarily female, many of whom eroticize male homosexuality. I guess I would just expect that to turn into a gendered conflict.

I’m also interested in your characterization of the new-school fans as “young”. In the places where I’ve seen new-school Doctor Who fans, they’re not necessarily any younger than the male fans — they are just new to Doctor Who. I admit I see a very small corner of fandom, and like I said, I’m generally avoiding online Doctor Who fandom.

AM: You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a national difference here. The new Doctor Who isn’t huge in Australia, but it’s absolutely massive in the UK – always in the Top Twenty programs for the week on telly, often in the Top Ten, often the number one rating non-soap drama. And it’s marketed as, watched as, and known as, a ‘family’ program – ie, the core audience are kids, with their parents watching alongside. I suspect that this isn’t true in the US? Probably because of its positioning on the Sci Fi Channel – and also because there is a pre-existing community of female SF fans in the US into which Doctor Who can enter?

DK: That makes perfect sense, though I admit it’s an unexamined point. It’s not a “cool” show here, except among geeks, and I’d be surprised if it had a large child audience. But you’re right, in the UK I know it’s very much a family show. So my assumption is that any new fans are adult female media fans — the pink hatters, I suppose, allegedly looking for attractive stars instead of good scripts. I assume, based on my unexamined hypothesis about the audience, and that the new viewers will fall into a certain demographic and any conflicts will follow from that demographic. But if I were in the UK I think I would have a very different set of assumptions.

AM: We have to leave it there. In closing, I’d just like to thank you for a conversation that was exactly what, I think, aesthetic discussions should be like. We don’t agree on everything, but we’ve treated the differences between us as points of interest that we wanted to learn more about. You’ve made me think, you’ve made me laugh, you’ve delighted me by coming up with ideas and jokes that I wouldn’t have seen myself. It’s been a genuine pleasure. Thank you.

DK: And thank you, for exactly the same thing.

Gender and Fan Culture (Round Sixteen, Part One): Deborah Kaplan and Alan McKee


DK: I’m Deborah Kaplan, and I’m not actually working as an academic; for the last several years I’ve been employed in university digital libraries and digital archives. More than most in this conversation, I exemplify the insider/outsider, amateur/professional divide with which Karen opened the first-round and which Kristina later discussed as well. I’m one of the few in this detente without a Ph.D. or on track to get one. I have a Master of Arts from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College (as well as a Master of Science in Library and Information Science from the same institution, but I think of that as a professional degree more than an academic degree). I’ve published and presented on children’s literature, fan studies, and media studies, and I’ve taught children’s literature both to undergraduates and to Ph.D. candidates. Like Karen, I’ve found that not having an affiliation to place on paper submissions has resulted in confusion, and at conferences, I have found that having a name tag which says “independent scholar” leads to other academics being sweetly and patronizingly (and I’m sure well-meaningly) supportive. For this reason, I’ve started putting the names of my university employers as my affiliation, even though, as a librarian, I get no institutional support for my scholarship.

AM: And I’m Alan McKee. I’m a fully traditional academic – PhD, series of tenured academic positions at Universities, publications with University Presses. I’m not proud of that, although I do love having a regular income. And I appreciate exactly what Deborah is talking about – there’s an authority and security that comes with being credentialed, and speaking from a tenured academic position. It means you don’t have to fight so hard to have your voice heard – in the media as much as in intellectual circles. I believe that many very intelligent people don’t work in the university sector, and many stupid people do. My research interests involve popular media, particularly television. The thrust of my work is bringing vernacular thinking into intellectual debates. Although we are finally getting female and Black voices in cultural theory, I’m particularly interested in the way that working class voices are still excluded, by means of a methodological inequality. We approach Art, Literature and Philosophy through the methodology of exegesis – let’s explore the ideas presented here. And we approach soap operas, romance novels and pop music through ideological criticism – what are the hidden relations of power? I’d like to swap those around. Learn useful insights about how culture works from romance novels – and deconstruct Adorno for his hidden, ugly prejudices …

My latest book was Beautiful Things in Popular Culture – a collection of essays by connoisseurs of various areas of popular culture describing ‘the best’ example in their area of expertise, and using that as a way into discussing the vernacular aesthetic systems by which consumers make such judgments – ‘the best Batman comic’; ‘the best basketball player’; ‘the best action console game’, etc.

Lowbrow culture

DK: Reading Beautiful Things shone an interesting light on many of my own experiences with consumption. I consume vast amounts of highly denigrated popular culture: children’s and young adult literature, fan fiction, science fiction and fantasy, chick lit, science fiction television, romance novels, comics. Really, aside from the fact that I don’t watch reality television, my consumption patterns are (like many people’s) heavily lowbrow. With the exception of a few authors, I don’t read highbrow literature for pleasure, and even those highbrow authors I do read are often denigrated by the establishment for writing women’s literature, or are slotted carefully into the multicultural space available on a reading list (Jeanette Winterson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Kazuo Ishiguro). When I was a child I watched PBS and A&E with my parents; now I’m fond of PBS pretty much only as the network that brought me Doctor Who throughout my childhood. I don’t listen to NPR; I listen to folk or classic rock or pop stations.

And yet I am constantly being told my tastes are too highbrow. When I discuss romances academically, I’ve been told by some that because I primarily read romances by a particular group of highly educated, highly literate, occasionally-to-highly subversive romance novelists (Jennie Cruisie, Julia Quinn, Suzanne Robinson), my experiences of the genre are incomplete. As a reviewer and a children’s literature scholar, I’ve been told that the books I recommend (Peeps, Queen of Attolia, Flora Segunda) are highbrow and high-quality but not what children actually read, since they would definitely prefer to read Captain Underpants (this, incidentally, is demonstratably untrue; young readers are extremely discerning about what they read but the measures they used to decide what is, in your words (or your mother’s, in Beautiful Things), “shit” and what is not are their own and cross highbrow/lowbrow boundaries easily).

AM. I don’t get the same comments. My tastes are pretty standard – my favourite Doctor Who stories are usually in the top ten as voted by fans, and my tastes in gay porn are pretty standard (eg, I avoid Genet). This raises an interesting point for me. There’s a useful article by Simon Frith and Jon Savage called, ‘Pearls and swine’ (New Left Review 1993) which chastised academics who did fan studies for pretending to be just like other fans, and called on them to acknowledge that they are different. That never made sense to me. I know that I’m an academic – after many years of resisting the label, I’ve now come out and admitted it to myself and others (although I still don’t put it on my Gaydar profile, as it does put guys off wanting to have sex with you). But for me, the difference this involves from other fans is in terms of the time I am granted to study these issues, the resources I have access to, and the authority my pronouncements are given. I don’t see much evidence that my tastes or my engagements with the texts are that different from those of other people. I don’t like opera, or philosophy, or literary fiction. I don’t have to pretend to like Big Brother. I genuinely embrace it. And I often feel quite inadequate when I look at the amount of work done by non-academic fan scholars, whose knowledge of an area, their understanding of its relationship to wider culture, and the sheer amount of research they do makes my own work look shoddy by comparison.

Fan expertise

DK: As a scholar, I’m also often overwhelmed when I look at the incredibly intelligent responses nonacademic fans give to their favorite source text, whether it’s a television show or a sports event. Certainly there are plenty of responses which aren’t trying to be thoughtful, and I’m not saying every thoughtful post is brilliant. And certainly nonacademic fans often don’t have access to prior discussions about the fields that interest them, but assuming that a fan’s response is going to be less thoughtful than an academic’s is asking for trouble.

AM: Amen to that! I’m always amazed when I hear this argument – ‘But a lot of fan writing is badly researched and badly written and poorly thought out’. Well, yeah. And so is a lot of academic writing (have you ever read any Adorno?). But some academic writing is insightful and full of interesting information and beautifully written. And so is some fan writing. Neither academics nor fans have any monopoly on bad writing about culture.

DK: I remember a couple of years ago a segment of the livejournal fandom (the blog service, in which a female-dominated segment of media fandom has made its home) started asking “is there such a thing as queer heterosexuality” — completely unaware of queer heterosexuality as an emerging, cutting-edge theme in queer theory. Fandom’s thoughts on the topic are often as or more thoughtful than the scholarship I have seen. I’m not saying that every bit of meta-discussion that emerges from fan communities is useful or productive (nor is all of the scholarship which emerges from academic communities, to be fair). But I am saying that at last year’s Popular Culture Association conference, I heard a number of papers on currently popular television shows which were less insightful than many a fannish reaction blog post.

AM: And I recently refereed a paper written by an International Relations scholar about using TV programs to think about politics – interesting and thoughtful, and with no idea that cultural studies had been thinking about this topic for thirty years. And I’m sure that the same is true in reverse of cultural studies scholars who know nothing about the work taking place in other disciplines. Similarly, I think it would do no harm for academics interested in community, identity and politics to have to watch both seasons of the British version of Queer as Folk. If they haven’t seen it I think they’re well behind on thinking about the relationship of ambivalence, passion and love in community formation and politics.

DK: This is reminding me of Peter Walsh’s “Expert Paradigm”. I’m not thinking of it as it’s discussed in Convergence Culture, with traditional expertise held in opposition to the collective intelligence of the Internet — the Wikipedia model, say. Rather, I’m thinking of the Internet’s ability to both expose and hone the expertise of the non-credentialed. Exposure: surely a blog post gives a level of exposure unmatchable by presenting a paper to a room containing 16 overtired academics at an MLA conference. Honing expertise: a community of intelligent, thoughtful individuals sharing their cultural reactions acts like an advanced graduate seminar for the participants. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen teenagers on livejournal posts thoughts on culture or media which I couldn’t have even approximated until graduate school. These communities, these discussion groups comprising teenagers, tenured faculty, professionals, laypeople who just like television — all of their thoughts and responses feed in to this massive intellectual crucible, creating a wonderful, vibrant, dynamic pool of uncredentialed experts.

DK: My first published essay, on the children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, reportedly provoked Jones herself to take the piss for my overly-academic interpretation of her work, and particularly for using the phrase “rooted in fluidity” (which was intentionally self-contradicting, I’ll have you know!). I’m always trying to find a balance in my own scholarship between jargon and accessibility. My bias is towards accessibility but because I write in fields which are heavily denigrated by the academic establishment I always feel an invisible pressure to make my work seem more highbrow. My essay in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet is probably the most jargon-filled essay I’ve ever written, much to its detriment, because while writing I felt a hypersensitive need to prove myself as a serious scholar. Even within fan studies my work is unusual, in that I focus on texts rather than fans. (I’m not sure who I’m trying to prove myself to; one big advantage of being an outsider in academia is that I don’t have to convince a tenure committee of anything.)

AM: I’m going the opposite way. Probably my most jargon-ridden piece of writing was an article I published early in my career in Cultural Studies that drew on Baudrillard’s notions of banality and fatality (everybody who knows the current version of me will be wearing shocked expressions right now – philosophy? Moi?). It was a necessary piece of badging (you can’t get into Cultural Studies unless you ‘do’ jargon, preferably with some literary theory, focussed on a philosophical or art object). Now that I’m tenured Associate Professor, I don’t need to do that any more. Now I work on the assumption that if you can’t express at least the basic outline of an idea to first year students using everyday language then you don’t really understand it.

“I’m So Hot My Husband Can’t Get Fire Insurance”: Interview with Grant Hayter-Menzies (Part One)

While I was doing my dissertation on early sound comedy, I would book time as often as possible at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, which has one of the best film archives in the country. Over the four years I lived in Madison, I was able to work my way through most of the comedies produced by Warner Brothers and RKO in the late 1920s and early 1930s. My goal had been to extend the discussion of early sound comedy beyond the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields to include a range of now largely forgotten performers who had made their way to Hollywood via Vaudeville and the Broadway Revues. One day, I happened to book a film called So Long Letty, knowing nothing about its lead performer, Charlotte Greenwood, other than that she had been a stage performer before appearing briefly on the screen.

By the end of the first sequence, I knew I had made a real discovery. I can share some of what I saw through the magic of YouTube! Someone has kindly posted some segments from this film. So Long Letty and Charlotte Greenwood ended up being a key case study for my book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic.

Earlier this year, I got e-mail from Grant Hayter-Menzies, an art and music critic living in British Columbia, letting me know he was publishing a biography of Greenwood for MacFarland Press. Now that Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of the Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio, and Film has been published, I wanted to share with you some of his perspectives on this remarkable and now largely forgotten female performer. As the title suggests, she was a transmedia personality, probably best known in her own time for her stage performances, but someone who did memorable work on screen and on radio.

Here’s a brief segment from my account of her career and personality:

Claude Gillingwater’s balding head and sunken eyes make his Uncle Claude the very image of a fossilized patriarchal order. His slow, stiff movements and nasal speech contrast sharply with Greenwood’s rapid-fire delivery and rambunctious gestures. With her ear-piercing voice and thrashing movements, her lack of respect for proper authority and her steady stream of slang and wisecracks, Letty is a dreadful negation of everything he regards to be proper and ladylike: ‘Take my advice and don’t become too intimate with that terrible woman,’ he warns his nephew. What is different about So Long Letty is the surprising way in which the film reverses the normal assignment of gender roles in this scenario. We are offered here a sequence in which a spontainous woman liberates two young women from the control of male authority and invites them to pursue their own pleasure. Letty’s engaging performance encourages spectators to judge and ridicule the stiff old man through the eyes of three lively young women in a reversal of the tripartite structure — male jester, female object, male audience — that Freud saw as characteristic of the smut joke. The woman, by becoming the clown and casting the patriarch in the traditional killjoy role, forces the anarchistic scenario to speak for female resistance, offering women utopian possibilities most other comedian comedies reserve for men only….

Letty spends her time at the Ardmore Hotel, earning free beauty treatments by drumming up new customers for the salon. What makes Letty “so hot that my husband can’t get fire insurance,” as she brags at one point, is her willingness to put her own bodily pleasure (and her economic self-sufficiency) over her wifely duties; she abandons her home to “rack and ruin” while she indulges her desires for physical pampering…Ironically those traits that make Letty such a frustration for her husband and a threat to his uncle are precisely those qualities that make her such a delight to the audience — Greenwood’s directness and vitality, her high energy style, her flamboyant gestures and loud voice, her colorful use of language, and especially her unorthodox physicality. Greenwood was a woman who relished her mastery over her own body, frequently challenging local women (and sometimes, men) to footraces as part of the publicity for her vaudeville tours and generally offering women a model for a more fit and limber style of femininity….Alexander Woollcott described Greenwood’s performance style in a 1919 review of Linger Longer Letty, one of a series of Letty plays she performed on Broadway and n tour throughout the 1920s: “The lanky Charlotte sings and romps and bays at the moon. She steps over high walls and walks on all fours and strokes the ceiling.” A publicity flier for one of her stage appearances features a cartoon of Greenwood, her face dominated by enormous eyes and mouth, and her long arms, crossed, dangling limply in front of her thin body. Greenwood herself often bragged that she was ‘the only woman in the world could kick a giraffe in the eye.’ Such representations capture both the illusion of gracelessness and the display of virtuosity that made her such a fascinating performer.

As Letty, Greenwood exploits many of these same qualities. In one scene, Letty, juggling a huge pile of packages that block her vision, steps effortlessly over a white picket fence, a movement underscored by exaggerated creaking sounds and by her bungling husband’s inability to cross this same fence without tripping. Letty slides down the hallway of the Ardmore hotel, using her outstretched leg to spin her around when she comes to the corner. She paces about her house, crossing the room in only a few strides, and when she dances at the party, her arms and legs seem to fly off in all directions. She stands, bowlegged, her knees bent slightly and her arms dangling limp or flung broadly to focus attention on their length. Her gestures and movements are too large-scale to be comfortably contained within the domestic spaces where the men wish her to remain, suggesting a high-spiritedness and spontanaety that will resist all restraint (self-imposed or otherwise). Greenwood’s enthusiastic acceptance of her own odd appearance transforms what could be a pathetic or threatening figure into a celebration of spontaneity and self-confidence. Greenwood is most attractive and engaging in those sequences where she strays the furthest from the norms of traditional feminine behavior and causes the broadest disruption of the patriarchal order (her humiliation of Uncle Claude in the opening scene, her ‘clowning’ in the party sequence.”

As I have learned more about her memorable performances in The Gangs All Here and Oklahoma, I’ve discovered that she maintains some of this same vigor and physicality well into her mature years, offering not just a limber image of femininity but also an alternative image of maturity. Check out this remarkable sequence from The Gangs All Here where an older Greenwood teaches a young man a thing or two about how to do the jitterbug.

In this interview, Grant Hayter-Menzies tells us more about his efforts to focus more attention on a performer who is increasingly being written out of the history of American show business. Enjoy!

Your introduction begins with Charlotte Greenwood’s performance as Aunt Eller in Oklahoma for good reason since I’ve found that if she is recalled at all today, it is for her work in that film. Why do you think this has become her most memorable screen appearance? What place did this film have in the context of her career as a whole?

As I point out in my book, the role of Aunt Eller not only came to Charlotte Greenwood with perfect timing–after a career of fifty years, when she had had as much experience of living, and then some, as the character she played–but also for two other reasons. The role called on everything Charlotte did well: comedy, drama, singing, dancing, which by that point in her career had achieved the ultimate in comic timing, emotional depth, and sheer characterful panache. Charlotte also had by that time many role models in her memories to call on as inspiration: the most powerful of them was her mother, Annabelle Higgins Greenwood, a hard-working woman who heroically brought up this girl abandoned by her father in infancy, a child racked by sicknesses and challenged by constantly interrupted schooling, who bequeathed to Charlotte not just her imposing physical looks but her ramrod strength of character. Charlotte also emulated friends like actress Jobyna Howland, who was tall, not conventionally pretty, often of battering ram aspect, but always warm, wise and witty.

These are all reasons why Charlotte Greenwood is so fondly remembered as Aunt Eller because these are all details of the portrait Charlotte paints of her. Perhaps, though, the most important reason Charlotte is remembered for this role is her compelling skills as an actor. If you can watch this film and not sense Charlotte Greenwood’s presence even in scenes that don’t include her, you aren’t paying attention.

[Read more…]

The Mud-Wrestling Media Maven from MIT and Other Stories

This has been a big few weeks for me and the Comparative Media Studies Program — with lots of media attention.

The title of this post comes from the headline of an article, written by Jeffrey R. Young, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s how the story starts:

My Life: The Transmedia Version

If this profile of Henry Jenkins III were a YouTube video, it would begin with footage of the influential scholar mud-wrestling his wife at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If it were a podcast, the introduction would note that Jenkins has been called the Marshall McLuhan of the 21st century. And if this were an interactive graphic, it would trace the millions of dollars in research grants he has won from foundations, companies, and the government of Singapore.

Any of those media would be a fitting way to tell the story of a scholar who is at the forefront of exploring how digital technologies are reshaping popular culture. But just as Jenkins still reveres words on paper (and online), so too does much of his story lend itself to good old ink on paper.

In fact, the Chronicle‘s online edition uses a variety of digital media to tell my story — including digging up some YouTube footage of my wife and I wrestling as part of a big party our dorm throws every year, not to mention a podcast interview and an interactive chart showing the range of research the Comparative Media Studies program is doing and where our funds come from.

Young spent an extraordinary amount of time preparing this story. We started doing interviews together back in January. He came to campus and spent several days following me around; he interviewed students, colleagues, and a range of others who have touched my life; he flew out to San Francisco to see me participate in a panel discussion at the YPulse conference with danah boyd. (You can listen to the podcast version of a similar conversation I did with danah at South by Southwest last year.)

Actually, it now looks like YPulse has just put up a podcast of the talk the article describes if anyone is interested.

In the end, I personally think the hard work paid off. I was very flattered — if a bit unnerved at times — to have a reporter dig this deeply into my life and work. I winced a few times at some of the descriptive details — my wife is still giving me a hard time about a stain on my shirt which he spotted at a particular speaking gig and I am not sure I accept the idea that my body is “pear-shaped.” I am sure that I wouldn’t hold up to the withering critique of how academics dress offered by Project Runway‘s Tim Gun elsewhere in this issue. 🙂 But he really does capture both the serious and playful sides of my personality. I’m not sure what to make of the split personality of a cover which wants to proclaim me the new Marshall McLuhan and an inside headline which makes me sound more like the new John Nash (A Brilliant Mind).

To Serve Them All My Days…

Several readers have asked for more details on my experiences as a housemaster at a MIT dorm. The article has a fair amount to say about this aspect of my life:

For all his scholarship, Jenkins has always had a playful side. Just ask his brood at MIT’s Senior House, known as a home for those who might be considered misfits elsewhere. “At Senior House, it isn’t an insult to be called ‘weird’ — it’s a compliment!” says a welcome message on the dorm’s Web site. “Residents are comfortable in their skins. We are straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or poly. … Tolerance is the one virtue we value even more than individuality.”

This is where Henry Jenkins lives — and he’s the one who wrote that message. He and his wife, Cynthia, have served as housemasters here for more than 12 years, and they seem well suited to lead this unusual community.

“Henry is very good at keeping an eye on the pulse of Senior House and stopping things that are particularly dangerous before they get out of hand without crushing all creativity and spirit in the house,” says Laura Boylan, a senior in his program. Jenkins has intervened to stop residents from hijacking a construction crane and from rewiring the dorm’s electronic locks, she says (MIT students are known for their elaborate pranks), but he is “hands-off about things that are going to end up fine.”

The dorm is best known for its springtime Steer Roast party. It starts with a flaming roll of toilet paper zipping down a wire from the roof, igniting fuel-soaked kindling in a pit below. Enormous slabs of meat cook over that flame all night, while rock bands play and students and alumni frolic. Some wear elaborate costumes, or dress only in body paint.

Jenkins is protective of Steer Roast, a 40-plus-year-old tradition. He has fended off administrators who want it toned down, and refused to let an Academic Life reporter or photographer attend, citing a “policy” of not allowing news coverage. But it’s easy to piece together details of the gathering from student blogs, photos posted on Flickr and other photo-sharing Web sites, and videos on YouTube.

One of the main attractions of the two-day festival is mud-wrestling. A homemade ring is set up in the dorm’s courtyard, under the shadow of a giant black banner that reads: “Sport Death: Only Life Can Kill You.” Announcers provide amplified color commentary, as pair after pair of wrestlers face off. Every year one of the first matches is Henry Jenkins vs. Cynthia Jenkins.

Jenkins once published a scholarly paper arguing that professional wrestling was a form of melodrama aimed at men, allowing “a powerful release of repressed male emotion.” He demonstrated a fan’s knowledge of the subculture’s colorful characters, analyzing the moves and costumes of the Mountie, the Million Dollar Man, and the late “Ravishing” Rick Rude, among others.

Jenkins doesn’t wear a cape or costume when he appears at Steer Roast, but last year he scripted his match with the help of one of his students, Sam Ford.

“The game plan we came up with,” Ford says in an interview, was to have Jenkins fake a knee injury early in the match. “Then, when Cynthia turned her back, Henry got up on his knees and held his finger up and said ‘Shh,'” signaling to the crowd that he was unharmed, while a concerned Cynthia turned to look for help. “One of the other grad students comes out of the crowd and jumps up and pushes Cynthia’s shoulder,” and she trips over Henry, who pins her to the mat.

“It was the first win of his mud-wrestling career,” Ford says proudly….

Not long ago, I visited the Jenkinses at home — their spacious apartment is at one end of Senior House.

The living room is decorated in grad-student chic, with beat-up couches and pop-culture artifacts. Jenkins points out a replica of a crescent-shaped Klingon blade weapon, a bat’leth, that was featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation. And there are vast shelves of books, videos, ‘zines, CD’s, and comic books. “This space definitely gives you the sense of the full range of media that we regularly consume here,” he says.

The room is also the emotional heart of Comparative Media Studies. Nearly every Thursday, students in the program are invited over after a colloquium by a visiting speaker in the early evening. Over catered dinners, they often continue conversations well into the night.

Jenkins says he believes in integrating his personal and professional lives: “I think it allows you on some level to give more to both, instead of less to both.” And he likes to stay in motion, according to a post on his blog headlined: “How to Become a Compulsive Workaholic With No Life … Or the Secrets Behind My Success.”

Cynthia Jenkins occasionally works part time grading papers at MIT. These days she is learning glass blowing. But she is in many ways a partner in her husband’s work. She edits most of his writing, and they have co-written articles about fan cultures. It’s hard to say which one of them is the bigger fan. When the latest Harry Potter book came out this summer, the Jenkinses hit the campus bookstore at midnight to pick up their preordered copies. They stayed up all night reading, by flashlight, on a hammock in the dorm courtyard.

We’ve been pushing the university for sometime to get us some new furniture. You can bet that I sent the dean’s office a note saying that even the Chronicle of Higher Education was reporting on the ratty condition of my couches. 🙂

In case you are wondering, our decision to become housemasters was partially inspired by seeing a PBS series years ago, To Serve Them All My Days, about the life of a British boarding school don. We were both taken by the ways the series depicted the integration of his life as a teacher inside the classroom and in the dorm. I have to say that living in Senior House has been everything I have hoped for and more. We’ve been living here for a dozen plus years and I can imagine myself continuing for much much longer. Living with students has not only made me a better teacher but also a better scholar, since the dorm is a lab where I can observe youth interacting with media of all kinds just by walking down the hallway.

I faced an interesting ethical challenge while doing the photo shoot for this article. I was asked if they could take my picture holding the Klingon battle sword which I keep leaning against my fireplace. (This picture appears only in the print edition.) I wondered whether I could pose for such an image and avoid the stereotypes and cliches about fans which I have critiqued in my work. I wasn’t worried about making myself look foolish but I didn’t want to do any damage to the fan community. In the end, I decided that the best way to handle this situation was to be as dignified as possible and act as if there was nothing unusual about being photographed holding a replica of a television show prop. My big fear, now, though, is that hardcore Klingon fans will tell me that I am holding the weapon all wrong. While I was once a card carrying Klingon in a role play game, I have never really been a student of Klingon culture. 🙂

The article focuses heavily on the work I have been doing with media companies, both as an individual and through the Convergence Culture Consortium. If you’d like to know more about the later, you might want to read some recent posts which review key things and topics over the past year. You can start reading with this entry.

Meanwhile… Games and More Games

On other fronts, I was one of several games researchers asked by Gamasutra to share our thoughts about whether there is life after World of Warcraft. More specifically, they wanted us to speculate on when and why players abandon one virtual world and move to another. To be honest, I am one of the few games scholars I know who is not hooked on WOW. So I ended up relying much more on my experience of fan culture than on my games research. Here’s part of what I had to say:

I know less about what happens when multiplayer games start to implode than I know about the migrations of television fans, which is a phenomenon that I’ve had a chance to observe over more than 20 years. In both cases, the holding power has to do with at least two variables: the degree to which individual members value what the franchise is giving them (including both content and corporate/community relations) and the degree to which the members feel attached to the social network which grows up around the franchise.

Typically, a bad decision or decisions by the company compromises, at some point, in the cycle the interests of the community, creating growing dis-satisfaction within the community. Certain key thought leaders in the community move elsewhere, often issuing some final message to the group, which feeds the discontent. Initially, the group may move outward in several different directions, testing new franchises to see if they offer either new pleasures or more of what attracted them to the earlier franchise.

In a networked culture, the word gets out where they went and what they thought and then there’s a larger migration which can, under the right conditions, turn into a stampede. I suspect when this happens to WoW that people will be searching in several directions: some following the genre, looking for other worlds with similar elements; others will follow the game play mechanics, looking for games which either offer features they like about WOW or which fix the things that bugged them about the game; and others will follow the community, wanting to move to where-ever their friends relocate.

This whole process unfolds over several months or longer as the pieces sort themselves out. The key point here is that it is never social to the degree that other elements of the experience don’t matter at all but the choice between equally satisfying experiences will frequently rest on the decisions made by the social network as a whole.

The article also features responses from some better informed sources — Edward Castranova, Aaron Delwiche, Jeff McNeil, and Florence Chee. Check it out.

While we are on the subject of games, there was a nice piece on CNN’s website focused on one of the games we produced through the GAMBIT lab this summer. The game in question, AudiOdyssey, was designed to facilitate play between sighted and visually impaired players. Here’s some of what CNN had to say about the game:

Forget shoot-em-up addicts — video games are reaching out to the rest of us.

The greatest symbol of this is the Wii console from Nintendo. Its innovative wireless control — the Wiimote — has even non-gamers excited as they swing it through the air to control, say, a tennis racket on the screen.


Wii’s Wiimote may play a pivotal role in bringing the visually impaired into the electronic gaming fold.

But not quite everyone has been reached. One group is still largely ignored by video game makers: the blind.

With that in mind, a team of researchers at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in Massachusetts set out this summer to make a music-based video game that’s designed for mainstream players and also accessible to the blind.

Appropriately, perhaps, they incorporated the Wiimote into the game-play, though it’s optional.

The resulting DJ game, designed for the PC, is called AudiOdyssey. In it, players try to lay down different tracks in a song by swinging and waving the Wiimote in time with the beats. Or they can just use keyboard controls.

The game reminded this writer of my lack of any rhythm whatsoever. I used the keyboard version, where you’re instructed to follow the beat by hitting an arrow key. Miss a beat and you get an ugly sound. Things sounded pretty ugly. But I did start to get a little better after 15 minutes and was awarded occasionally by crowd cheers. It’s a fun game. And I got a kick out of it.

So did 41-year-old Alicia Verlager. For her, though, the fun is a bit more significant. She’s visually impaired.

“Play is one of the ways in which people build relationships,” she notes. “It’s fun to take on the challenge of a game and take turns encouraging and laughing at each other’s sillier mistakes. That’s the experience I am really craving in a game — the social aspects.”

AudiOdyssey is presently single-player only, and there’s no scoring system. But a multiplayer online version will be released in a few months. Intriguingly, players in this version won’t necessarily know whether their opponent is blind — and it won’t make a difference in the game.

If you would like to know more about this project, check out the GAMBIT home page where they are starting to post some of the games developed by a team of some 50 Singaporean and MIT students working together this summer. I am going to be sharing the back story behind these titles as the semester runs along but you can download and play some of the titles whenever you want.

Gender and Fan Culture (Round Fifteen , Part Two):Bob Rehak and Suzanne Scott

RDM and Mrs. Ron or: How we can’t seem to stop worrying about textual authority

BR: Hmm – a paragraph or two can make all the difference, and for whatever reason I now find myself feeling more upbeat about fanification, complexification, and all those other n-ifications I was grumbling about earlier. I agree with you that the productive conversations coming out of Lost, and before it Buffy, and before that The X-Files (just to reiterate my own path of entry into acafandom) are to celebrated, not disparaged. Indeed, the work that you and I and our colleagues do is a crucial part of this. (Another dimension of acafans I’d love to address at some point is the function of a fan-oriented pedagogy: surely it’s meaningful for undergraduates that they can now take courses in fan culture, soap opera, or videogame culture, with professors and graduate students who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.)

But your question brings up one of the most interesting points of our initial conversation: our shared fascination with – and skepticism toward – the “author-gods” who seem increasingly to sit at the center of the textual webs we acafans explore: Tim Kring of Heroes, J. J. Abrams (or really, Cuse and Lindelof) of Lost, Russell T. Davies of Doctor Who, and of course Ronald D. Moore of BSG. We’re both interested in RDM and the way he’s positioned himself as both “the decider” of all things Galactica, and a regular ol’ fan like – I suppose – us. Perhaps the notion of a fan-who-is-also-an-author is not as chimerical as it seems; I seem to recall us starting this chat by swearing that such binaries were a thing of the past. And Moore’s fan/author hybridity might be said to echo the undecidable nature of the vast quilt that is the Galactica text, embroidered as it has been by so many different creators, critics, viewers, debaters, and celebrants over the years. At what point does the canonical give way to something more collaborative and open-ended? I’m not sure, but the diffusion is homologous to RDM’s Janus-faced mode of authorship.

That said, I don’t trust him. He’s got too much power: not just the power to make Lee fat or shuffle Baltar and the Cylons offstage for too much of season three or decree that the inside of a Basestar looks like a disco rec-room, edited like Last Year at Marienbad and accompanied by an endless loop of cheesy piano muzak. I don’t trust him because in those blasted podcasts, to which I am more addicted than I am to Cheetos and Pringles combined, he insists on answering questions to which I kind of want to know the answers but really, on another level that likes to imagine possibilities freely, don’t. Moore’s not just an author-god, but a fan-god; he’s like the friend I ate lunch with in high school who had memorized the complete text of The Lord of the Rings and who therefore possessed Neo-like argumentative skills. That guy’s word was law, because he was acting as an agent for another kind of law, J. R. R. Tolkien’s. RDM collapses the functions of author and interpreter into a single beast, and in so doing gets the final word on what a character was “really” thinking, or what “really” happened after that cutaway.

But as I say: I do listen. I enjoy the sense of intimacy and participation that Moore’s side-industry of authorial commentary gives off like narcotic fumes – I get a kind of contact high from the podcasts’ immediacy, the sense that I too have am puffing on a cigar, sipping whiskey, and interacting with my kids when they walk through the room while I discourse about “my” show. So when you ask, Suzanne, whether you should focus on the enrichment and expansion of fan experience through producer-approved content, versus viewing it as just another guise of “access,” I have to say: let’s do both at the same time! The example of RDM, whose cunning is no less insidious for being so genuinely forthright and self-deprecating, demonstrates that de Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategies needs to be rethought along with everything else. And the class of being that RDM represents – the showrunner – marks a distinct evolution of ancestors like Gene Roddenberry and J. Michael Straczynski. (Does this model make Joss Whedon a missing link?)

SS: Well, it’s no secret that RDM was the author-god (or fan-god) I had in mind in my last post, as I share your addiction to his podcasts and your wariness of his self-positioning as both fan benefactor and textual authoritarian. Hearkening back to Cynthia Walker and Derek Kompare’s discussion of the powers that be, I feel compelled (perhaps by my gender) to point out the boys club you’ve assembled above. Thus far, we haven’t been tackling gender, because we both seem more concerned with the conditions under which contemporary fandom is functioning for everyone than how those conditions stand to effect fanboys and fangirls differently. As we’ve arrived at how TPTB are shaping these conditions, and RDM’s podcasts in particular, I think a number of gender-specific issues need to be addressed.

Our mutual, avid consumption of the podcasts might point towards their gender neutrality (at least in terms of who the intended “audience” is, or who is actually comprising the audience). Likewise, our mutual concerns about how the podcasts’ function to reinscribe authority and restrict our play with the text is something that’s clearly being interrogated by both gendered “teams.” The issue for that might be fangirl-specific, building off of Cynthia’s take on TPTB, is how these authorized/official (and, noting your examples, almost always masculine) texts ultimately bolster fanboyish creativity/production while making fangirlish modes of creativity/production more difficult (or, at the very least, canonically invalidated).

And here’s where we might see a gendered rift forming: with every bit of information RDM passes in those podcasts, he’s further authoring the canon text (resolving its ambiguities), and authorizing a narrow interpretation (namely, his own). I’m glad you invoked de Certeau’s strategies and tactics, as RDM is a both master of collapsing the categories between author and interpreter and often appears to collapse de Certeau’s categories in the process. The discourse surrounding RDM’s webisode battle with NBC Universal is the prime example- by framing NBC Universal as the Empire to his Rebel Alliance, RDM’s positioning within the very strategic system he was fighting began to seem secondary to his tactical struggle. In fandom, I think we tend to associate tactical responses to the text with fangirl-oriented practices, and the more these male creators strive to frame themselves as “one of us” (gooble-gobble), the more they seem to poach our ability to poach.

As you note, the podcasts’ intimacy, their blatantly amateurish aesthetic, makes them attractive to fans (myself included) and makes me question their intent. This intimacy is literally embodied in the many of the podcasts through the vocal presence of RDM’s wife, tellingly referred to as “Mrs. Ron.” Funnily enough, RDM and Mrs. Ron often appear to fall neatly into the essentialist definitions of “fanboy” and “fangirl” we’ve all been striving to complicate and/or debunk. Mrs. Ron is a fixture on the forums (often in the role of running interference between her RDM and the fans), and I find her “role” in the podcasts supports this. She focuses on character development, frequently asks the burning questions you or I might upon an initial viewing, and has enough “insider” awareness of the community to vocally acknowledge when one of RDM’s asides will stir debate or controversy. What we should make of this (potentially performed) binary, and the fact that so many fans express annoyance with her “intrusions” on RDM’s commentary, is something I haven’t quite sussed out yet.

Finally, it’s interesting that you should bring up Joss Whedon, as I’ve spent some time thinking about why I find his breed of masculine authority endearing and Moore’s occasionally condescending, or why I rejoice over “canonized” Buffy season 8 comics but take Moore’s BSG webisodes as a mixed blessing. To use fannish parlance, just as you’ve traced an authorial evolution to Moore (who has collapsed the binary of creator and fan), fans have evolved from being Jossed to being Moored. Fanfic authors don’t just have to contend with the evolving source text, but podcast episode commentaries and creator blog entries and forays into transmedia storytelling. Worst case scenario, this trend could become the equivalent of the “no girls allowed” sign on the clubhouse, as more and more of the ambiguities we fangirls love to, say, write/read fanfic about are elucidated and weighed down by creative/canonic (and, importantly, male) authority.

BR: Brilliant points, and I’m glad that gender is back on the table – I’m aware of my tendency to sideline the more challenging and politically provocative aspects of my chosen objects of study, lest they threaten my fanboy comfort zone. As Lacan pointed out in relation to Freudian parapraxes, multiple discourses are always contesting control of the tongue, and my appetite for digression clearly has its symptomatic side.

Looking more closely at the RDM/Mrs. Ron dynamic, then, is it possible that what makes certain fans uncomfortable is the sense that some basic binary is being liquefied – a binary rightly or wrongly tied to gender difference? We confront with the uneasiness that Derrida observed of the zombie (both dead-and-alive) a entity both male-and-female. If the Moores really do bring together fanboyness and fangirlness at the Galactica text’s point of origin, then this can be seen (fascinatingly, in my opinion) both as a strategy of incorporation (a text that is both male and female) and a tactic of resistance (a text that is always in conflict, or at least negotiation, with itself).

In saying all this, I think it’s important to keep the performative and culturally-constructed definition of gender uppermost: we are not talking about “real” men and women (or what was termed “biobodies” in an earlier post), but conventional understandings of what it means to relate to texts from male and female perspectives. I like to work from Judith Butler’s performative definition of gender because it lets us talk about our fannish affiliations as themselves a kind of performance and identity play: my choice of text enables me to (temporarily) play at being a different kind of fan/boy/girl, as does the way I read the text and the relationships I form around that practice of reading. It’s fandom as a kind of masquerade – of transvestism – with all the polymorphous perversity that dress-up gives us.

So are BSG and the pair-of-Moores at its center emblematic of how gendered difference is being remapped, exploded, and/or reinforced by new media? Thanks to podcasts, webisodes, wikis, and other transformations of the commun(ication)al, Galactica permeates popular culture in a different way than, say, its late 70s prototype was able to. Looking back over our discussion, the image I see is that media evolution may have gotten us to a point where (A) many texts come pre-fitted for fannish investment (whether or not they are successful in seeding those investments is another question – cf. The Nine or Driven); (B) many audiences arrive at these texts already enculturated as fans, already liberated and “out of the closet” (and hence, as some critics have accused the beneficiaries of feminist and gay-rights struggles, no longer quite conscious of themselves as such); and (C) the tools and technologies of new media have both created spaces for the amplification of authorial control and riddled that authority with gaps from within.

Amid these fundamental shifts and reorientations, gender increasingly seems to be up for grabs, even as it persists (for better and worse) as a way of getting our bearings. Speaking as aca-fans of the new millennium, is it presumptuous to compare transformations in gendered fandom to the way in which the chromed robot Cylons of the original series, so reliably identifiable as different, have been transformed in the new series into something much more subversive, omnipresent, and unsettling?

SS: I’m fascinated by this analogy, especially given the cold/masculine force of the centurians on both incarnations of BSG and the current series’ comparatively (and literally, check the sexy LED spinal cord) “warm” female skinjob models, with their alternating emphasis on their predatory sexuality and matriarchal attachment. But that’s a whole other can of worms…

Looking at your summary of our conversation above, I think the general shifts in textual production and consumption we’ve been discussing impact all fans (regardless of gender, degree of “activity,” etc.), but some fan practices more than others (and, thus, perhaps some “gendered” categories of practice more than others). Looking back over the conversations this summer, your final summary point (“the tools and technologies of new media have both created spaces for the amplification of authorial control and riddled that authority with gaps from within”) seems the most charged in terms of gender. The issue of women and fangirls being written out of technological histories has been brought up on a number of occasions (I believe mostly in terms of machinima and its vidding roots, but certainly should be in terms of normalizing girls as gamers as well), and I worry that these oversights only stand to be compounded by the amplification of male authorial control we’ve been discussing. We’re running short on time and space here, and this is clearly an emergent issue we’re both invested in exploring further, so I’ll leave the rest to be debated through comments and responses.

In closing, it’s been a pleasure conversing with you Bob. Hopefully we’ll carry on informally as BSG comes to a close, RDM gets his creative closure, and fans (hopefully) continue to complicate and expand the text on their own terms. Many thanks to Henry for providing the forum, and to all the other contributors this summer (and on into the fall)- it’s been thought-provoking, to say the least!

BR: I second those sentiments wholeheartedly, Suzanne. This was a fun and exciting discussion that pushed me to think in new ways, even as I hauled some of my cherished axes out for a good grinding. And yes, let’s stay in touch: Razor arrives soon, with the riveting Admiral Cain at its center – talk about grist for the gender mill!