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

Bob Rehak: *tapping mic* is this thing on? OK, I’ll kick things off with the usual self-disclosure: I’m an assistant professor in the Film and Media Studies Program at Swarthmore College, where I’m starting my second year teaching classes in introductory media studies, animation, television and new media, video production, and fan culture. I’ve published here and there on videogames and special effects (reflecting my M.A. and Ph.D. interests respectively), but the most relevant bit of textual cred is probably my article “Lara Croft and New Media Fandom,” which appeared in Information, Communication and Society in 2003 and is being reprinted in the upcoming second edition of The Cybercultures Reader.

In terms of fandom, I’m one of those who stands on the sidelines, self-identifying as a fan even though I don’t really “do” fan things, create fannishly, or consort with other fans (except in online fora of questionable pedigree such as Aint-it-cool.com). There are several ways to read this – as another kick at the dead horse of disengaged “man-style” fandom, or maybe more productively as part of the aca-fan trend in which scholarly activity substitutes for, augments, or mutates traditional fan engagement – positions my preliminary chats with Suzanne suggest might well come up later in this conversation. For now, let me just fan the deck of my media passions (Stars Trek and Wars, Battlestar Galactica, the many paneled and animated incarnations of Superman, computer games ranging from the Apple II era to id’s first-person shooters) and signal that my preferred mode of engagement with these things tends toward the solitary, obsessive, and archival. I’m the guy who builds model kits and wonders who would win in a fight, the T-800 or a Cylon Centurion.

In terms of where this dialogue might go, of course that’s up to us and the Brownian motion of the discourse. My sense, though, is that Henry put us together because we share an interest in how fandom is being reconfigured by the dynamics of new media, especially “transmedia” and “collective intelligence.” In this online plasma of spoiler-swarming, social networking, and long-tailing, lots of venerable signposts are dissolving, among them binaries central to the debates on this blog: expert/amateur, author/reader, text/context, official/illicit. To this upending of oppositions we now add the pairing female/male. Now I’m a closet structural linguist, so all of these terms seem to me to exist primarily in negation of each other: we recognize each for not being its partner. But that stance only gets us halfway, to the kind of dull essentialist standoff that many of this summer’s conversations have worked at unraveling. I think the place to go from here is to ask how new forms of difference (since I believe we can’t make sense of things without difference) are nowadays coalescing and coming into being; what traditions of power are being broken with or inherited; and to what degree – since I’m also a closet “ideologist” – these transactions are themselves disavowed and softpedaled, even by, yes, we well-meaning critics who purport to see and speak clearly and honestly.

Suzanne Scott: Clearly, there’s something pressing that needs to be addressed before I make my official introductions…the T-800 would probably win the fight, but would undoubtedly suffer from endoskeleton envy. In short, style points go to the Centurion. Now that we’ve settled that, down to business: I’m currently a doctoral candidate in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California, working on a dissertation exploring Harry Potter fandom and new media narratives. More specifically, I’m interested in the shifting cultural significance of canonization, how a literary fan community embraces or rejects the openness of new media texts, and what this might say more broadly about our shifting relationship to media texts. My involvement in the HP fan community led me to serve as Chair of Programming for Phoenix Rising, a Harry Potter symposium designed to encourage dialogue between academics, professionals, and fans. As even I need a break from JKR on occasion, I recently completed a chapter for the upcoming collection Cylons In America on the potential effects of the Battlestar Galactica‘s webisodes and podcasts on fan production.

Given the definitions of “fanboy” and “fangirl” that are being used, I find that my alignment with one title or the other tends to be fandom-specific. In terms of Star Wars, or various horror properties such as Army of Darkness, my engagement skews blue, whereas my involvement with Buffy, BSG and Harry Potter has been far more communal/creative in nature. I’d be needlessly shooting a few rounds into the aforementioned dead horse to say that these poles don’t function neatly for me. My growing consumption/critical interest in comic books and video games should be noted, as should my lack of interest in slash (though I find studies of it fascinating), but I primarily find my thoughts turning towards what I might cynically call the corporate appropriation of fan practice, and its effects.


Fanification, Complexification, and Categorization

SS: Bob, you tossed out a few reasons why were paired up, and I have one to add: we’re both in the privileged position of coming up through the ranks of academia in an age where aca-fen aren’t experiencing the derision they once did. I think this is intricately bound with the current critical fascination with new media’s dissolution of the binaries you’ve noted above. I’m certainly not alone in perceiving fans as spearheading these cultural shifts, and perhaps the fact that fan studies troubled these binaries long before we were all talking excitedly about user-generated content has made them a more acceptable scholarly pursuit. Granted, I have yet to experience the perils of the job hunt. Maybe my n00b aca-fan romanticism will be dashed, but I think there’s something to be said here about fans as early adopters and our own abundant inheritance as new fan scholars.

Taking this idea about the increased popularity/reputability of fan studies one step further, something that stuck with me after our phone conversation was your comment about the current “fanification” of the audience. As so many of the conversations here on the blog this summer have been invested defining who has the creative/communal/consumptive credibility to take on the mantle of “fan,” I think you and I might agree on a more flexible definition. This isn’t to say demarcations shouldn’t be debated (they should, and have been eloquently all summer), or that a hierarchical model of fannish activity is pointless (quoth Buffy, it’s entirely pointy), but that the general “fanification” of contemporary media users means that we need to drop some of the baggage about how “active” a consumer must be to be equated with a “good” consumer/fan. What do you make of the fact that activity and creativity/fan production are still being conflated, given how even casual consumers are engaging with texts in broader, more “fannish” terms? To my mind, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to neatly delineate between, say, the creator of a Star Wars: Legacy discussion board, a poster on that discussion board, someone who lurks on that discussion board, and someone who just avidly reads the comics.

BR: Well, as someone who did recently jump through the multiple hoops of the job search, I can testify to the apparent lack of friction/hostility triggered by the more fannish elements of my research profile. If anything, building my job talks about Star Trek and Star Wars seemed to win warm approval from most of the audience, some of whom were familiar with the literature and already took aca-fandom seriously, others of whom seemed simply to enjoy having their inner fan validated. (If I had a brick of gold-pressed latinum for every person who came up afterward and said, “I’m a Trekkie too!” …) Of course, the friendly reception likely had other ingredients, including the selection process I’d already gone through – they knew what they were getting when they invited me to campus – and, more troublingly, the unearned authority a deep-voiced white man with a beard presumably brings to whatever he’s babbling about.

I do think that the majority audience has undergone fanification in the past 10-20 years, and that this transformation feeds into both positive and negative aspects of the contemporary mediascape. On the plus side, the level of intensity, focus, and sheer memory we now bring to media texts has been matched by an increasing complexification of those texts. Serial dramas and comedies, as well as multi-sequel media franchises and transmedia storytelling systems, just wouldn’t work unless we had all grown very good at collectively paying attention in the way that fans do. Ah, but who is this “we”? Well, the “we” doesn’t really matter – which is the problematic part of the equation. Instead of the good old days in which small tribes of readerly hunters-and-gatherers stumbled across rich groves of cult texts and absorbed them into a way of life, texts now come fandom-ready, dense with continuity, haloed with enigmatic online tie-ins, and packed with casts of characters varied enough to ensure that somewhere, someone will find a point of identificatory purchase. Mass texts, in short, have learned to present themselves as anything but, enjoying a prefab and illusory fringe-ness.

An edge seems to have crept into my voice here. I suppose that’s because I’m enough of a purist at heart to resent the cooptation of fannish affect and modes of reading/writing by culture industries all too eager to sell us anything we’ll buy. Fans used to put money into the system, sure, but there was always a kind of grass-roots perversity to it, like voting for Nader in 2000. As much as I love Heroes or BSG or Doctor Who, to be a “fan” of these shows means constantly pretending that I’m in a much smaller and more elite group than I really am.

So my mood at this point in the conversation is rather grim: I see the breakdown of categories like those in your Star Wars: Legacy discussion board example as evidence that those categories nowadays don’t make much sense – or else make sense only in terms of an older, now obsolete formation of fandom which we now resurrect as contrarian myth in order to disavow our always-already complicit role.

But before I disappear into my Frankfurt-School navel-gazing, let me ask you for a reality check on my pessimism. Does your work on the openness of new media texts point in a more optimistic direction than what I’ve outlined here?

SS: Well, you’ve hit directly on the catch-22, and my increasingly conflicted feelings towards our contemporary fan-savvy mediascape. I’m all for increased narrative complexity, as it provides fans with a plethora of analytic and creative ways to play with the text. Of the mass-masquerading-as-fringe trend you’re noting, Lost might be the ultimate prefab creation (having taken a page or two out of the Twin Peaks playbook), but I think that the critical acclaim is warranted despite how calculated or contradictory its positioning as a “populist cult” program might be. As a big proponent of the Everything Bad is Good For You school of thought, I think that a widespread cultural acknowledgement of media texts as cognitively challenging (particularly videogames, and I’d offer Bioshock as evidence) has yet to occur, and these shows are fueling productive conversations. Because of this, I’m less pessimistic about how these texts tout their diversity as a selling tool, and more interested in fan culture’s increasingly niche approach to theses prefab texts.

Admittedly, this is a chicken/egg dialectic, but I think it relates to your response to my Star Wars: Legacy model. While such categorization might be a nostalgic attempt to cling to the “contrarian myth” (love that, btw) of analog fandom, it also seems to be a direct response to the vast, ephemeral nature of online fan culture. Defining a space of one’s own through (often highly specific) textual affiliations in an overwhelmingly populated online fan community such as Harry Potter, for example, makes participation in the larger community more manageable. The Hogwarts house model functions similarly (and is a key tool in how the HP fan community functions and its members shape their identity): creating micro-communities within the macro school community. While I wholeheartedly agree with you that fandom can never return to its elitist “secret clubhouse” model, I see the desire to keep that illusion intact as a coping mechanism for the modern fan rather than mass disavowal of our complicity. A sense of participation and community is a strong draw for fanboys and fangirls alike, and being a generalist fan in this day and age poses problems on both fronts. In short, the categories may no longer make sense or be relevant, but to garner a localized sense of stability within a fan community, categorization still serves a vital purpose.

Though I’d paint myself fairly utopian, I’m growing less celebratory of the openness of new media texts, especially when it comes to the powers that be. The increased textual flexibility and agency consumers have come to expect means that producers are finding new ways to concurrently indulge (or appear to indulge) these cultural shifts and still retain a sense of authority and control. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the relative openness of the texts you describe above is illusory, I do worry about how the narrative territory we frequently affiliate with encouraging fan creativity is being steadily encroached on by producers and transmedia storytelling systems (which, if they’re aiming for consistency of vision, are more about delegation than collective creation to my mind). So I’ll see your pessimism regarding the corporate cooptation of fannish affect and raise you a paranoid theory on the culture industry’s plot to quell fan production through increased consumption of their own “authorized” fannish texts.

Again, as with the case of increased narrative complexity, the abundance of ancillary online content being aimed at fans would superficially seem to be a positive thing: more “direct” contact with the show’s creators though online Q&As and podcasts, a more detailed look at the creative process through blogs and streaming video, supplementary narrative content in the form of free online comics and webisodes, etc. Ultimately though, I wonder about motive. Sure, it’s unabashedly promotional, but I also can’t help but feel this is the new media-savvy equivalent of sending covert cease and desist letters. The fangirl in me, knowing that the author-god behind this content is male in most cases, chafes at this reinscription and dispersal of canonic masculine authority over the “open” aspects of the text as questions that would have prompted discussion are answered definitively, as narrative ambiguities are resolved concretely. And, since it seems that gen fic is being read as a team blue trait, the fanboy in me is wary that “downloading” has started to replace “doing” when we talk about DIY fan culture.

I don’t want to fall into the activity=productivity trap I rallied against earlier in my call for a looser definition of “fan.” So it’s my turn to ask you for a reality check- should I be focusing on how this producer-approved content enriches and expands how the average fan experiences the narrative? Or is this guise of “access” just another prime example of fans trying to feel like they’re part of an inner circle?

PART TWO WILL RUN ON MONDAY.