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

Techspressive Tools

Francesca Coppa: The two other gendered concerns I have are about technology and affect: technology in that it seems to me that there’s a cliché of “men are techie” and women are not, but media fandom in general and vidding in particular go against that: fannish women have always been particularly drawn from the sciences, and vidding was pioneered by women who (by definition) knew how to program a VCR. So the history of vidding is important for exploding some of those stereotypes. However, these technical, filmmaking women didn’t make ironic, distanced parodies; they tended to make emotionally invested music videos, and that’s an affective choice with problematically gendered legal implications. Mocking male distance is explicitly protected by the Constitution, where female identification/emotional investment is not as explicitly protected, although it is certainly transformative. Even in these debates on HJ’s journal, we see a kind of gentle mocking of slash, or trying to come up with “wild” examples, (say, Geoffrey Long’s “a piece of fanfic I might post to my blog tonight featuring Scarlett making out with Darth Vader“); my own experience in fandom actually tells me not to prejudge such a story: the writer might have a reason for writing that. The story might be great: imagine how it might comment on gender and race.

Robert Kozinets: This idea reminds me again of recent developments in my own field, which draws a lot of inspiration from cultural theory and cultural theorists. Regarding technology, I’ve just completed an article on the ideologies that guide technology consumption. It’s a deep tracking of the historical discourses that inform current narratives in the mass media and in consumer’s own speech acts (and their practices/performances with technology). Some of the historical forms are quite familiar, such as the Technological Utopian ideology that associates technology use with progress, or the ideology that associate technology consumption with efficiency, productivity, and economic gains. But I also find a more hidden ideology, one that I think has come to the fore more recently. I call that one the “Techspressive” discourse, and it is about using technology in ways that are playful and self-expressive. Thinking back to when this ideology was really breaking into mass consciousness, in the 1990s, there were a number of female artists and authors who were pushing the boundaries of new digital technologies in very interesting ways, and others who were theorizing these developments. I’m thinking of the top of my head of Laurie Anderson, Pat Cadigan, Donna Haraway, and Kathryn Hayles, but there are many other examples. As groups that have had to function in inventive and underground ways, women have been at the forefront of appropriating new technologies and deploying them in new ways. I think that the positioning of vidding in this wider historical trend is right on target. No question about that.

Francesca Coppa: Oh, I love that word: techspressive! Yes, I think that’s right; and in fact, you know, I wonder if women’s tendency to adopt these technologies early is at all connected to the fact that women have always had a more mediated relationship to public space than men: we were not historically allowed to have an “authentic” or fully “expressive” relationship to public space. Barbara Ehrenreich points out that women were ignored in the first wave of subculture studies because they weren’t visible on the streets the way teddy boys, mods, or rockers were; they were home in their rooms listening to Beatles records on the turntable and spinning fantasies to each other on the telephone. I wrote my first fanfiction longhand and sent it out via snail mail. Now we have irc and AIM and jabber and Skype; we have mailing lists and Livejournal; we make elaborate fannish banners and css design schemes for our webpages; we’ve got wikis and searchable fanfiction archives and iMeem pages for our vids. But we’re not technological or anything.

The Fan Boy Reconsidered

Robert Kozinets: No, of course not. Some of my favorite women are cyborgs. I’ll let you guess the details..;-). The other idea I wanted to raise has to do with maleness. My colleagues Doug Holt and Craig Thompson recently published an interesting article on the ideology of male consumption. Their findings were compelling to me. They found that contemporary American males had to negotiate between two idealized types of masculinity. The first was the solid-but-kinda-boring “breadwinner” model, the guys who is a good provider, solid friend, good husband, and so on. But in order to be attractive and interesting, men also felt a need to tack into a “rebel” model, who was a risk-taker, a hero, an achiever. Doug and Craig called the synthetic model, where men moved between both models of masculinity without ever settling too far into one, a “man-of-action hero model.” Studying fan culture as I do, I’m not sure exactly where fannish expression fits into such a model. Men today work under constraints that are historically new, constraints and expectations that their dads didn’t have (I certainly don’t remember any pressure on my dad to moisturize and exfoliate). Being emotionally invested in texts and characters (particularly male characters) can be genuinely problematic for male fans. I’ve written a bit about the stigmatic side of fannish consumption before. So what have we got now? A social world where traditional maleness is somewhat stigmatized, where softy sensitive maleness is certainly stigmatized, and where fannish investments are stigmatized. What’s a poor fanboy to do?

Francesca Coppa: My first thought when I noticed the rise of fanboy culture was, “oh, you guys are getting alienated from the means of production, too?”

Robert Kozinets: Oh yeah.

Francesca Coppa: When I teach mass culture, I like to use Richard Ohmann’s definition, part of which of which is “produced at a distance by strangers.” And while we have unparalleled closeness to TPTB, I think that at the same time, the gulf between producers and consumers has never been wider, and that there’s a real underlying hostility to the idea of consumers becoming producers, and thinking like producers.

Robert Kozinets: I see that in action all the time. Despite all the talk about Web2.0, there is genuine misunderstanding, real fear, and as you say, genuine hostility to these ideas of suddenly “active” consumers.

Francesca Coppa: Because the American economy is dependent on consumption, and the mass media seems willing to actually exert force in order to get us to keep consuming at whatever rate they deem appropriate: I mean, I have twice in the last week heard the word “stealing” used to describe a failure to look at ads: once, vis a vis Tivo, and once, vis a vis “adblocker” software. And behind that word, stealing, is the criminalization of the act of keeping our minds ad-free, and behind that criminalization is force. In some economic sense, are we all feminized now?

Robert Kozinets: Bingo. Why are you peasants sleeping when you could be drinking Red Bull, watching TV, and shopping? Get to work!

Francesca Coppa: Absolutely, but to paraphrase Orwell, maybe some of us are more feminized than others. :-) But I do think we’re all of us suffering from a culture that has professionalized, commercialized, and turned spectatorial all the kinds of fun we used to make for ourselves: not just storytelling (written and theatrical) and painting, but sports, singing, and even poker.

Robert Kozinets: Now you’re starting to sound like a Consumer Culture Theorist. Seriously, there’s a whole literature on this coming from the Frankfurt School and descending in crooked lineal lines into consumer behavior theories. My work on Burning Man and among consumer activists chronicles how people feel that their current culture isolates them and tries to render them passive. Movements like culture jamming, doofing and other post-raves, and the rise of major TAZ-like gatherings like the Burning Man project going on this week and the Rainbow Family gatherings all share in this ideological opposition to capitalist culture commercializing our stories and myths, and a sense that they need to be “brought home” again to the people.

Wikimedia and Archontic Literature

Francesca Coppa: I just finished reading your “Inno-tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia,” [in the new Consumer Tribes book] and I really love it; I think this is going to be a really, really useful piece for explaining fannish issues to big media. I especially like your concept of “Wikimedia” (media content that has gone open source and begun spawning new content as a kind of ever-expanding collaborative text), which is similar to Derridean “archontic” literature (I myself use “supplement” to describe the same concept vis a vis theatre in my essay “

“Media Fanfiction as Theatrical Performance”). I think that it’s important to emphasize the connection between Wikimedia and other forms of archontic culture; theatre in particular has been a useful model for me to think about what you’ve called brand “invigoration strategies” and what I’d call a theatrical production *g*. In fact, you nearly quote Alan Sinfield’s essay on Shakespeare and cultural materialism in Cultural Politics-Queer Reading; Sinfield says that Shakespeare is relevant to precisely the degree to which he’s interfered with by directors; leave Shakespeare alone and he dies, and Shakespeare is arguably the most successful brand in history.

Robert Kozinets: What a great, and classical, example. Absolutely. For me, the Bible, the Talmud, and exegesis in general have always been important working models, and the way Shakespeare’s texts are sacralized in our culture is another powerful example. It seems like whenever people invest themselves in text and continue working with it, developing it, making it current and specific and situating it, then we have strong texts, meaningful texts. But somehow this never does seem to sink in at the level of the textual producer. It’s funny, because it’s the same in religion. Don’t tamper with the text. We’ll control the text. We’ll control the interpretation. And then, there it is again at the level of brand management. The exact same tension. We’ll control the brand meanings. Don’t you tamper with them. But without the “tampering” the meaning fades out and dies. Damn those The Powers That Be (and you know who you are!)

Francesca Coppa: Vis a vis the gender argument I’m making, I would say that fandom has produced strategies that have allowed women to consume otherwise terrible (and sexist) mass media stories; we have done TPTB’s work and made this stuff interesting to ourselves (to TPTB’s financial advantage; I promise you, I would never have bought Stargate Atlantis action figures otherwise.) Let me give you links to two recent vids by Luminosity, one of our brightest vidding stars: one is a Supernatural vid called Women’s Work (made in collaboration with Sisabet); the other is called Vogue and is a vid made about Frank Miller’s 300. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble seeing these two vids as critiques of the source material. In the first, Luminosity reminds us that, to enjoy Supernatural (and its charismatic and sexy male leads) each week, we have to ignore the plot’s dependence on suffering or murdered women; in the second, Luminosity punctures the violence of 300 by defiantly aestheticizing both the battlefield and the men on it. She conflates the battlefield and the dance floor, subjecting the men to a female and queer gaze and setting Madonna up as this world’s reigning pagan goddess. Luminosity’s epigraph for this gender bait and switch? “Bite me, Frank Miller.” Together, you might think of these vids as: “This is how mass media looks to us without fandom” and “This is your television on fandom.”

Robert Kozinets: This is great stuff. Thanks for sharing all of this, and for the conversation. As a member of multiple minorities and multiple tribes, expression and representation are all-important to me as well. They matter a lot, and I hope they matter to all thinking people.

Francesca Coppa: Thank you, Robert; like so many fannish activities, this has been both productive and a pleasure.

Comments

  1. executrix says:

    FC When I teach mass culture, I like to use Richard Ohmann’s definition, part of which of which is “produced at a distance by strangers.”

    Reminds me of Fran Lebowitz’ “Original thought, like original sin, was done a long time ago by people you will never meet.”

    One tremendously important reason for the use of Shakespeare plays is that a) even though “The Art of Coarse Acting” puts “playwright” below “theatre cat” in the power hierarchy, it makes rehearsals more pleasant if the writer isn’t there to bitch and moan about your creative concept and b) you won’t get a C&D from the studio to whom Shakespeare sold the rights.

  2. Very interesting stuff.

    The male/female split in how each gender expresses itself is very, very visible in Machinima, which as far as I can tell is about 60/40 male/female as far as the producers go.

    However, the styles of storytelling and games used are very different. The cliche male Machinima producer would be using Halo to make a profane comedy about his video game character, whereas the cliche female would be making a music video of her favourite band using The Sims 2. It’s interesting just how exactly the expression styles the participants in this discussion describe mesh with what we see in Machinima – women tend to make very emotionally invested movies, men tend not to.

    At the top end of one scale you get Red vs Blue. At the top end of the other you get Britannica Dreams and their amazing videos.

    It’s also interesting to note that most of the third kind of Machinima producer, the “outside-in” producer using Machinima as a medium to create very conventional films that don’t reference game or other culture but are intended to stand alone (or at least as alone as any piece of media stands), are male – just as there are very few female directors in Hollywood. I’m not sure why that is – particularly given that work like Jason Choi’s “Edge of Remorse” or even my own “BloodSpell” is definitely emotional in nature.

  3. You do a great job of mapping out the ambivalences central to today’s fannish sea change: As women, are we proud to have built a subcultural community that’s relatively impervious to commodification in the eyes of the entertainment industry, or concerned about being left out of a new mainstream discourse? As cultural laborers, do we cherish our alternative system of non-commercial exchange, or ask who is making money from our devotion and why WE aren’t? I think it’s a testament to how potent these questions are that I have tremendous difficulty answering them, even for myself.

    Don’t tamper with the text. We’ll control the text. We’ll control the interpretation. And then, there it is again at the level of brand management.

    The issue of resistance, particularly a less monolithic model that allows for resistance from *within* a consumer orientation, has been a particular theme of at least the last two rounds of this series. This dynamic captures a pet paradox of mine: by mobilizing “engagement” and “user-generated content” for promotion while cracking down on instances that aren’t so easily contained, capital seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. I wonder how much systems of power are going to allow this contradiction to be held in place by fiat, and how much fan production is going to continue to exceed corporate attempts to harness it and keep it in bounds. This seems tied to the affordances of evolving media technologies themselves, most recently the explosion of internet video (which has certainly increased the possibilities as well as the risks of vidding). I’d be curious to hear the prognosis from someone like Robert who comes at it from a marketing perspective!

    [xposted @ fandebate]

  4. Alicia Gray says:

    Hi! First off, fantastic blog! Very insightful and interesting. I just had a quick question for someone running this site. I am a senior at Emerson College in Boston, MA, who is doing a paper on fandoms/fan videos, which will include a critical look at one I did myself. Our assignment once the paper has concluded is to send the work out to a scholar/academic site for review. Since this blog entails many of the points of fandoms and what have you, can you or someone recommend a place that would accept a student paper on fandoms/fan videos (which looks at ones own work?). I’m having trouble finding a place that would accept papers from students on this topic. Any help at all you or someone could provide would be very much appreciated. Thanks so much. Have a wonderful day and I can’t wait to read the next update!

    Alicia Gray