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 Scifi.com 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!

Comments

  1. “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”

    I’d be interested to hear more about what you’re referring to here? As someone who was fairly involved in the early days of Machinima, I’m not entirely sure what you’re discussing, and it sounds interesting!

  2. Hugh: Suzanne is referring to earlier installments in this series — you might want to check out Louisa and Robert and Francesca and Robert in particular.

    [the below xposted from fandebate]

    YOU TALKED ABOUT RON AND MRS. RON! I am all a-flail with ACASQUEE!!! In my course last semester, I used BSG’s ancillary materials as a case study for the ways that increasingly diffuse and “networked” media intensify the instability of textual meaning and author/ownership. There, and in my own work, I’ve suggested that this intensification enables excesses of (queer) interpretation and desire that are not so easily contained and reappropriated by the industry’s attempts at control (usually by legal fiat). I understand and sympathize with your misgivings, but I also TPTB are incurring serious risks by trying to have their fan-engaged and user-generated cake and eat it too. And I have the opposite interpretation of the podcasts: to me what’s fascinating is how they FAIL to assert the Name of the Author, instead highlighting the fragmentation of the text and leaving gaps for fans to further fracture it. PARTICULARLY (female) slash fans (especially telling given RDM’s personall difficulties wrestling with queer representation and the lack thereof on our show); my pet example is the cut subplot for Tory that RDM talks about in “Collaborators” which, when reconstructed in its splintered form onscreen, materialized as a lesbian romance. I’ve also been talking and writing about the limitations and contradictions of the BSG Videomaker contest. I hope this doesn’t come across as shameless self-promotion — it’s just that this is a topic that I’m very passionate about, both fannishly and academically. Suzanne, I’d LOVE to read your paper about the online tie-ins (and hear your take on how that anthology turned out). and yes, fans are *totally* Cylons ;).

    In sum, I think this is all beautifully put, and was nodding along with you throughout.

  3. Suzanne Scott says:

    Hey Julie, I’m so happy that Mrs. Ron fills you with acasquee! I’m currently fiddling around with an analysis of her role in the podcasts and the BSG fan community, so clearly I am aflail as well. One of the things I find most fascinating about the “networked” media you’re addressing, and BSG in particular, is that these systems really can be read in both utopian and cynical terms in terms of their ability to inspire or shut down fan production. When RDM makes an offhand remark such as “we originally had Roslin do X, Y, or Z in this scene, but ultimately decided to have her airlock Baltar,” it does complicate our consumption by offering us alternate narrative trajectories to explore (cognitively, conversationally, or creatively). Perhaps our differing readings of the podcasts’ reinscription of, or dissolution of, textual authority depends on the types of fan production we’re interested in. RDM has encouraged slash fic in a number of interviews (and in the podcasts, as you noted in your post), and I think that’s commendable. But a nagging part of me wonders why he frames slash as a sort of ideal genre of fan production, as my own interests (as both a fan creator and consumer of fan texts) tend to veer towards fan narratives that actively engage with the unfolding canon narrative. I’ve always gotten the impression that (given his fannish history) RDM understands that slash narratives are outside of his authorial control, and thus something he’s less invested in controlling. I’d agree there’s a conspicuous lack of queer representation on the show (don’t get me started on Gaeta), and I think RDM’s perfectly fine with letting the fans provide that through their own production. I think the podcasts are far less encouraging of genfic (or alterative readings of events in canon), given the near-defensive tone they strike about the creative/narrative decisions that were ultimately made.