Gender and Fan Culture (Round Fourteen, Part One): Francesca Coppa and Robert Kozinets


Robert Kozinets: I’m not a cultural studies scholar, or at least not one who works in the field of cultural studies. My field is Marketing, so I work in business schools, but my tools and theories do come mainly from anthropology and cultural studies. I came to fan studies early in my academic career, during my thesis dissertation, when I decided that media fans, Star Trek fans in particular, would be an interesting thesis topic for a marketing dissertation. I’ve been working in fan communities ever since, and finding increasingly that the boundaries between fan communities and brand communities, or product communities are blurred and indistinct. So, for example, I published an article a little while ago in the Journal of Marketing where I studied Star Wars fans alongside “fans” of cars like the Volkwagen Beetle. In related work, I looked at coffee connoisseurs and breakfast cereal aficionados and I found that they engaged in very fannish kinds of behaviors, and acted collectively on the internet in communities that were very reminiscent of fandoms. So for about ten years I’ve been busy blurring the distinctions between media fans and other types of loyal consumers. A big part of the orientation for that is that we live in a highly mediated society. So you don’t really have many things that are “just” a freestanding product or service without their mediated representational components. Starbucks is a superbrand, not merely a cup of coffee. Lucky Charms is a mythological creation, not simply a box of sugary wheat bits and colored marshmallows.

Francesca Coppa: I’m Director of Film Studies and Associate Professor of English at Muhlenberg College, where I teach dramatic literature and performance studies. I’ve written articles on fandom for Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet and the Women’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. More recently, I have been writing and presenting on live action media vidding. But I come to fandom studies primarily as a fan; I started writing about it because I didn’t like how other people were doing it. Given my druthers, I’d rather be in fandom than writing about fandom.

Affect and Gender

Robert Kozinets: I hear what you’re saying about fandom, and also was originally attracted to the field and the research by the participative element. In fact, one of my big gripes about ethnography in general in my field (marketing and “consumer behavior”) has been the affective distance that business school researchers have had from their topics. People would write about extremely interesting topics like advertising, the media, addictive consumption or ethnic consumption, but so often they would write from such distance that their own emotional investments were completely invisible. As I later learned, a good part of the reason for this was the academic journal review process, that tended to excise all introspection from ethnography in my field. Fortunately, we had some pioneers in our field that broke through those barriers, people like Beth Hirschman, Morris Holbrook, Stephen Gould, and of course my poetic friend John Sherry.

Francesca Coppa: I would argue that erasure you’re talking about is gendered and actually worse both for women fans and for women critics. What many women want from narrative is often framed as embarrassing or shameful: we’re told that we shouldn’t value what we value in stories (high emotions, deep friendships and strong relationships, expressions of sexuality, as well as the intricate plotting and big ideas of SFF) and that our critiques of mainstream culture therefore aren’t valid. And worse yet, some people would argue that our critiques aren’t explicitly protected; not the way parody or other more distanced forms of criticism are protected. A fanfiction story or a fanvid may not be read as an obvious critique of its source the way an essay or a parodic film does, but it is. Many female fans critique the mainstream media for its lack of nuance and emotional depth, and we create stories and vids that rectify that; we add feelings to the text, we add personal attachments and sustained relationships; we add sex, tears and put in what I would say are appropriate emotional responses to the kinds of stories we like. You get to cry when your planet blows up. You might fall in love with the person you’ve been fighting aliens with.

Robert Kozinets: Well, it’s an interesting argument. But speaking as a male academic who likes to write about my entire lived experience, and is very interested in representational issues in scholarly activities, I have to say that I think this bias cuts both ways. Male academics and female academics in my field have been taken to task for expressing an introspective, emotional perspective. In fact, in one of the most famous incidents in my field, a male academic, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote a classic and I think brilliant introduction to introspection as a methodology. His illustration was all about how he, as a consumer, uses his consumption in a way that moves energy around. Now, Stephen is a spiritual guy and he practices tantric methods that are a bit spicy and that probably don’t represent the mainstream. But I thought his piece was right on target, and certainly it had lots in common with Larry Grossberg’s ideas of mood modulation and mattering maps. Shortly after that publication had supposedly opened the gates to a flood of “non-scientific” introspective pieces in the economics-psychology dominated scientific field of marketing, two female scholars, Melanie Wallendorf and Merrie Brucks, stepped up with a very detailed and precise refutation of Stephen’s methodology. They showed how idiosyncratic, unrepresentative, and unscientific that method could be, especially in the hands of literate folk. In effect, females in our field shut down the male voice (and I’d argue male and female both, as Morris Holbrook was also doing some similar stuff and so was Beth Hirschman) that was bringing in a far more emotional, evocative, resonant, sexualized voice into our little corner of academia. Now, maybe you and I are comparing apples and oranges with these discussions of academic versus fannish writing. But I think the point that women suffer more for presenting their feelings is stretching it. I think female and male representational characteristics (if I can call them that without valorizing one over the other) show up in the writing of both males and females, and that they are suppressed, quashed and acted upon by both males and females.

Francesca Coppa: Well, it depends; I mean, I’m not really surprised that it was men who were able to step out in public with this new and exciting emotive methodology, in the same way that I think that it’s not a surprise that Henry Jenkins is currently the dominant voice in fan studies. It’s not that they’re not brilliant and talented men–they are!–but it’s also safer for them to risk bringing an emotive voice into the public arena without being dismissed or marginalized. Similarly, I’m not surprised that two female economists took a policing role there; they may well have had something to prove in this arena.

But there is some truth to gender clichés. There’s a great story about the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark; Lucas and Spielberg were watching the rough cut, which ended, as you remember, with Indiana Jones meeting with the government people and the ark being squirreled away into a warehouse. Well, Marcia Lucas–George Lucas’s first wife, and also a film editor who won the Oscar for editing Star Wars, noticed that Marion was nowhere to be seen; the last we’d seen her, she was standing around with a bunch of melted Nazis. Marcia Lucas argued that there was no emotional closure for the film, and so at the last minute, Lucas and Spielberg shot an additional scene where Jones comes out of his meeting and Marion is there waiting for him, and they go off arm in arm. Put it this way: most genre television and film isn’t lucky enough to have a Marcia Lucas. Something else worth noting: she and Lucas were divorced shortly thereafter, and he really hasn’t made a decent film since.

Robert Kozinets: Again, I like the example, but I’m confused about the takeaway. Are there no talented, sensitive, male screenwriters who could have handled that scene as well? I’ve known lots of sensitive, expressive males, and lots of insensitive, emotionally stunted females. I’m not sure gender assignment is a sure bet for the way people are going to act–or write.

Francesca Coppa: Sure, absolutely; in fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Star Trek fandom is the broad female identification with the emotionally-constricted Spock (partly, I would argue, as an expression of how it feels to be a cerebral, often scientific and/or technically minded woman; which is to say, an “abnormal” woman, at least historically.) And of course there are talented, sensitive male screenwriters. But where are the blockbuster female directors?

I mean, I agree with your larger point: that people are complex and don’t act narrowly according to gender stereotypes. Nowhere is that truer than in science fiction media fandom, which is full of proud female geeks. But there are ways in which what can be expressed (and be successful and respected) in the marketplace (either of culture or of ideas) is structured by the context of gender.

I gave a paper at MIT5 that seemed to be a bit of a flashpoint for this debate: it was on the history of fannish vidding as it derived from 1975, and I wrote it at least partly in response to seeing Paul Marino give a presentation at the Berkman Center’s “Signal To Noise” conference in 2006. Marino showed a Sims music video (“Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas) and discussed it as a music video with no reference to the longer, female filmmaking tradition of fannish music vidding (in which female video editors recut extant footage to music to make arguments and tell stories.) Instead, Marino said, “people have been doing this since 1996,” and yes, I understand he meant “machinima,”–or, at least, I think he did–but it really bothered me that that this kind of visual creativity was being spoken about as if it were the recent invention of men, rather then the long standing practice of women. Women have always had a harder time getting into the film industry as creators, and so it makes sense that this kind of filmic editing, mashing-up and sampling–which is arduous and was historically done using home equipment like VCRs–would be a female practice, just like blacks engage in sampling partly as an compensation for other kinds of creative resource scarcities. (Abigail Derecho made a more detailed version of this argument in her conversation on this blog three weeks ago, here.) I’m not claiming that women are predisposed to vid because of biological gender; I’m claiming that historically, structurally, women were more likely to act as bricoleurs, to cobble together what they want to see.

Poetics and Power

Robert Kozinets: I have to admit that I was a bit surprised about the gender balance upon entering fandom and starting to read about fandom. Like a lot of people, I had assumed that Star Trek fans were mainly a bunch of keener, somewhat brainy and socially disconsolate young guys. But when I entered the fandom scene by joining a fan club, it had a female Captain and much of the command crew was female. It’s kind of a funny story, but my key informant was an American civil servant who was very active in the fandom scene, writing and filking. This person had an androgynous name, and all through our correspondence I assumed that “he” was a male. It turned out that she was female, and she was good enough to laugh about my mistake and to comment on it as a function of the nature of email communication. But I went back and missed a number of subtle hints that, in retrospect I think I should have picked up. It attuned me to my own biases, but I can see how they would be all around with male academics. Yet, again, I think what we are talking about is minority status more than gender. Your drawing on African-American sampling as an example proves that point. Jewish creativity would be another case in point.

Francesca Coppa: Well, but the gender thing makes sense: if, as Henry rightly pointed out, being a fan is at least partly about being a critic, who’d want to be criticizing SFF? Women, certainly. The fact that male critics haven’t properly seen this (Henry notwithstanding) really has to do with the failure of men to be bilingual; as so many of the commentators here have noted, it’s the “girls read books written for boys, but boys don’t read ‘girl’ books” thing. And you know what, I get that, that’s what power is: less powerful people learn the dominant language. But it means that male academics miss things if they aren’t paying attention, and worse yet: the danger is that it won’t even matter if they miss it, because their version will become the norm: that’s what power is, too. Or else, there’s the danger that they’ll see you but mistake you, not understand the significance of what you’re doing, or the art you’re making: dismiss it, belittle it. A lot of female fans avoid attention because they’re sure it will be the wrong kind of attention: the kind that describes fanvids as (true story) “your little movies,” or thinks your slash story is perverse or hilarious while completely failing to understand the context in which it’s working, the intellectual moves it’s making. However, there are some pluses: for instance, the fact that men have not historically been interested in fan fiction and fan vidding has meant that an exclusively female tradition has been allowed to develop and take root: fan fiction and fan vidding are like the Seven Sisters of the fan world. I personally find women’s media fandom profoundly moving; it’s one of the few places where I let down my cultural defenses, because the art is made for me, as if I ruled the world. It’s like what television and film might look like if Mary Pickford and other women filmmakers had continued to dominate the industry.

Robert Kozinets: Back to my field for a second. There are big debates that have gone on for twenty years, originally raging in open, and now continued more behind closed doors, about the legitimacy of cultural methods and modes of interpretation to study and understand consumers and markets. Most of those battles have already been won intellectually, and yet institutionally we who practice “Consumer Culture Theory” find that our students have far fewer jobs to choose from than our colleagues who use Greek letters in their equations do, and our tenure standards are completely different from our economics-driven colleagues, and that entire schools have locked us out. We are the minorities in our field, and behind our backs (and even to our faces at time) we are dismissed as atheoretical or irrelevant, and belittled as “merely journalism.” That’s power at work. We’re supposed to know their theories, they don’t have to know our theories. They critique us using terms and concepts from their paradigm, but don’t see how our critiques make sense when applied to them. This is exactly the same tale being told, except that instead of male and female fans, it’s quantitative and qualitative research scholars.

Does the Long Tail Include Women?

Francesca Coppa: Agreed; it’s about any two groups with power; gender is not the only category, it’s just a large one. It’s also what makes me suspicious of your field, Marketing. I can’t help but feel that any sensible marketer has to market to the thickest part of the hypothetical Venn diagram: if girls will watch boy TV, and boys will watch boy TV, then clearly: boy TV is what you should make. I’ve heard the various arguments about niche marketing, the long tail, etc, but I’m not convinced, because who will make those niche works? Us; they’ll have to come out of the community, I assume, and so what this really comes down to is us selling our works to each other while big media takes a cut, yes? So for instance, the FanLib debacle. Thousands of women write stories and give them to each other for free, and I can practically hear the marketers salivating: all those eyeballs focused on something other than ads! I worry that the new marketing to fandom is essentially designed to put a toll on the artistic roads we’ve spent years making: and, to continue the metaphor, those roads were carved on the desire lines of all our footsteps, collectively wearing through the grass. No one made those roads for us; the big shiny highways didn’t go where we wanted, didn’t take our route. But now the roads all seem to be converging.

Robert Kozinets: I don’t see anything except perhaps technologies converging in any big way. I see fragmentation. There are no big audiences anymore, Harry Potter excepted. I see marketers at work segmenting into smaller and smaller chunks. I see Divergence Culture. I see marketers thinking for a change about “Aggregation” instead of segmentation. The media audience is becoming smaller and smaller. And I also see fans taking control like never before. Not only are they creating bigger and better stories and sharing them, but some of them want to charge, want to work with the big media corporations, and want to take a cut. Many don’t. And a lot of the debate and ferment is about rights. Who owns what, how can it get properly used. Tolls on roads make sense if the roads are kept up well and public services that benefit the community come out of them (regardless of whose footsteps they are built upon). Tolls for the sake of tolls don’t make sense, and people will find alternative routes.

Francesca Coppa: Sure, but there may be (male) majorities even within that segmentation. My large (and gendered) concern is that this rising new media culture is going to function in the 21st century like the “rise of the novel” did in the 18th–in other words, that the scribbling/vidding women will be erased now that Richardson and Fielding (the fanboy as mogul) are on the horizon and fandom is becoming a serious cultural practice, national economic engine, and academic discipline. Women became so alienated from the novel–which had been a lowbrow female artform–that Virginia Woolf had trouble finding a “female sentence” 150 years later; it seems to me that we, as scholars, have a responsibility not to go through that cycle again: let’s not carelessly erase and/or overwrite the women and rediscover them in twenty years. Let’s just write scholarship that takes time to remember the foremothers and originators, and that recognizes the accomplishments of current female fan writers and artists.

Robert Kozinets: And maybe some of the males, too. Males who are straight and gay, black and Asian, rich and poor, Islamic and Jewish, and all other varieties of maleness and femaleness that deserve voices. But overall I agree and this is a very interesting observation. I wonder if the social and particularly economic conditions have changed enough so that history won’t repeat itself. Business is depending increasingly upon marketing, and marketing is basing itself on, as I mentioned above, segmentation. Segmentation is supposed to be about finding distinct groups of consumers, understanding their needs, and then fashioning products and services that will appeal directly to them. So businesses presumably would be interested in keeping the female “market” happy. In addition, and I think even more importantly, women fans (and all fans) have more of a voice now than they did in the 18th century, because they have access not only to the means of production, but to the means of distribution. Yet as your earlier example points out, we do seem to have an amazingly short historical memory, and also we tend to give credit to the person who last stated an idea at the expense of the person who first developed that idea. I wonder if this is some sort of cultural blindspot that North Americans have, and I wonder if our European and Asian colleagues would find the same sort of ahistorical perspectives in fan cultures on their home turf. But, yes, keeping an eye on past developments and reminding people about our tendency to repeat the past does stand as a very worthwhile academic pursuit. That should apply to males as well as females.