Gender and Fan Culture (Round Nineteen, Part One): Lori Hitchcock Morimoto and David Surman

Introduction

LHM: I’m Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, and my academically sanctioned biography states that I’m a PhD candidate at Indiana University, working on a dissertation that examines Japanese female fans of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. Normally, I would not include the information that I just now plopped my daughter in front of an episode of Dora the Explorer in order to buy some time to write, but that information – as well as the fact that I’m presently seven months pregnant – turns out to be relevant to the ways in which I’m thinking about female fandom in my dissertation, as well as the ways I’m thinking about academia in my own life. In essence, I’m interested in unruly fans (and unruly academics).

My own fan experiences, like those of the women about whom I’m writing, are very much a product of personal transnationalism. I spent my formative years living in Hong Kong; there, I was a fan of Hollywood blockbusters and took every opportunity to fill Chinese embroidered scrapbooks with movie stills culled from the Japanese movie magazines Screen and Roadshow. Later, I paradoxically ‘discovered’ the unique pleasures of Hong Kong cinema in Japan, and, as a fan, I’ve invested my fair share of hard-earned cash in star and movie memorabilia, quaked with excitement upon realizing that the Hong Kong restaurant I happened to visit was the backdrop of a favorite scene in Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, and shaken Leslie Cheung’s hand at a concert in Osaka. This is all by way of saying that fandom, for me, has been – first and foremost – a very personal and highly affective experience. As with many of the female fans I’ve talked with over the years, it stems from passion – for a narrative, for a genre, for a star. The fans with whom I identify are messy – to borrow from Martti Lahti and Melanie Nash, we’re “those girls”: the ones who exceed predetermined parameters of fan/star interaction, who allow our lives and our fandom to commingle to an unseemly degree.

DS: My name is David Surman, and I am founding Senior Lecturer in Computer Games Design at the University of Wales, Newport. Fandom brought me to university, where I studied animation, with a view to working in the games industry. I was chaperoned through childhood by a Sega Mega Drive, and as a teenager I was consumed by an expanded passion for Japanese animation, games and popular culture; I guess I would qualify as one of the first wave of UK game otaku. I was caught up in the cloud of excitement around anime and manga generated by Jonathan Clements and Helen MacCarthy in magazines like Manga Max and Manga Mania, at a time when British and American animation was a dust bowl. Even though retailers sold the limited number of titles available at mercenary prices, over the years I acquired numerous videos with my meager allowance. I came to them knowing something of the controversy but nothing of the pedigree in anime.

My own media mixing put Kaneda and Tetsuo headlong along the same highway as the Gunstar Heroes and Joe Musashi on horseback. Videogames, manga and anime became the counterpoint to boredom at school, and university provided me with an opportunity to deepen those interests in an almost-legitimate way. No sooner had I got there, my interests began to broaden, through a patchwork exposure to film studies and classic film and animation. I found a passion for European experimental and North American limited animation, and these in turn deepened my appreciation of anime. My masters and PhD work followed the path set during the degree; I have sought to bring film studies methods to bear on transnational videogame and animation cultures. I guess, in this process, I have been examining my own fandom. I don’t think that my experience is in many ways idiosyncratic; it always amazes me how many of my students share biographical details, motivations, dreams and desires, having spent their childhood committed to the same mediums as me.

In several recent essays I have vainly vindicated my own abstruse feelings about games fandom. My film studies prejudices come to the fore in the essays on Fable in the Animated Worlds anthology, and on StreetFighter in Videogame/Player/Text. Until relatively recently game studies have tended to focus on matching the sociology of play to the dynamics of gameplay. Along with a few other guilty parties, some of whom have contributed to this gender and fandom series, I am interested in the relationship between game aesthetics and fandom, though I suspect aesthetics is sometimes too weighty a term. Game art, images, advertisements and merchandise fascinate me, in particular when they betray particular cultural and generic assumptions about gender and games.

The ‘Messiness’ of Transnational Fan Culture

Whenever I think, “what am I doing?,” I remind myself of what I consider one of the great fan studies texts, Barthes’ The Language of Fashion. His summary exclamation, ‘The most seemingly utilitarian of objects – food, clothes, shelter – and especially those based on language such as literature (whether good or bad literature), press stories, advertising etc., invite semiological analysis.’

I have tended to work with an emphasis on close analysis within the systems of games representation. Like Barthes I guess, the sum of my interests in games, animation and fandom pass through another lens, sexuality, which shapes my thinking, and my consumption of images and play experiences. I think I qualify as one of your messy fans, Lori. In my recent work I have become interested in female transnational/transmedia character archetypes (phew!), as loci for fan investment, authorial refinement, and cultural commentary.

LHM: Actually, I’m intrigued by your parenthetical “phew!” there at the end of your self-introduction, since it really is a mouthful but, at the same time, something that’s part and parcel of contemporary globalized (or transnational or transcultural), gendered fandom. Since we’ve both written on media fandoms in a transnational context, I think this is something we might be able to talk to in addition to issues of gender. In my own work, I’ve found that the sheer amount of exposition necessary to bring a more general audience up to speed in terms of the specific culture(s) I’m talking about often acts as a barrier to discussing those cultures in terms of broader issues of fandom. In an English-speaking Western conference setting, for example, comparatively little background information is needed for speakers and audience members alike to engage in fairly high-level theoretical discussions of, say, Doctor Who or Lord of the Rings fandom. But in the case of characters like Kaneda and Tetsuo (who I was pleased – and mortified, but only because it dates me – to recognize), theoretical discussion often seems to take a back seat to exposition. My feeling is that, as a result, such discussion tends to get ghettoized or relegated to ‘specialties’ within academic discourse on fan cultures.

DS: Specialties indeed; your description of the challenge facing new territories of media research chimes exactly with my experience over the past 5 years or so, as games in particular have entered the mainstream as a object worthy of intense scrutiny. The stellar growth of the games and animation research fields has not been matched by moderate methodology, and there is still a substantial problem regarding the sensitivity with which scholars and critics figure transnational relations, and even the principle of national identity, in their research questions.

For me, one of the crucial issues in fan critique is the discrepancy between the needs of industry, journalistic, academic and general fan opinion, in relation to the expression their views on subjects, for instance national identity, and oriental/occidental constructions. I recently commented on this issue on the DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association) listserv. Distinctions between East and West require sensitive disentangling in academic thought, and such demands aren’t generally expected of those in other domains.

I think it is absolutely crucial in this sort of comparative discussion that the category of the ‘West’ is not positioned as a coherent singularity, where narrative/generic/ideological operations can be thought relative to opposing and equally pejorative notions of ‘Japan’, which is somehow taken out of its Asia-Pacific context. The conceit of ‘Japan’ juxtaposed against a singular ‘West’ depends on outmoded assumptions about the dynamic topography of transnational media relations. It seems essential to figure into aca-fan thinking the internal complexities within Western media culture, and to further measure those against a similarly nuanced discussion of Asia-Pacific media culture, within which Japan is placed. The uncomplicated singular construction of ‘Japan’ as a media producer recurs time and again in animation and game scholarship, and it’s not useful, especially when justified in relation to an equally mythic West. Woeful industry, journo and fan conceptualizations of East and West should be left for them to ruminate. A discussion of transnational media relations needs to proceed from a more nuanced set of assumptions, am I right? You wouldn’t get away with it in any other field…

LHM: It’s the challenge of articulating heretofore discrete fields of inquiry – area studies, in particular – with disciplines that have only just begun to confront your “dynamic topography of transnational media relations.” These days, it’s become more difficult to talk about fandoms within the American television mediascape without at least a passing knowledge of shows such as Torchwood or Naruto (or even Are You Being Served? - and I’d love to see a paper that really delved into the apparently bottomless popularity of that dinosaur in the U.S.!), yet because of those persisting notions of national coherence that you describe above, we seem to have a hard time breaking out of a framework that emphasizes cross-cultural exchange at the broadest national (or regional) level. At the risk of appearing sycophantic, given the forum for this conversation, I would mention that recent work by Matt Hills and Henry Jenkins emphasizing “semiotic solidarity” and “pop cosmopolitanism,” respectively, offers a means of making sense of transnational fan networks that takes us outside traditional notions of the individual and the nation.

Of course, once gender enters the conversation, we’re confronted with an even more complex nexus of identity construction. These days, we’re relatively comfortable talking about ‘otaku’ in the context of transnational fan cultures centering on anime, but it’s generally a foregone conclusion that, in the Japanese case, ‘otaku’ are men and, thus, comfortably “Japanese.” When the discursive construct “Japanese woman” is introduced to the conversation – along with centuries’ worth of baggage about her ostensible subservience and cultural/political disenfranchisement – discussion about what role Japanese female fans might play in furthering our understanding of how fan cultures work across national borders gets shelved in favor of trying to understand the women themselves. Scholars such as Brian Larkin have written exceptional work introducing non-Western media fans to discussions of how transnational media are consumed across borders, but these fans are almost exclusively male; the conversation about non-Western women and media consumption seems to be stalled in debates about resistance and subversion – debates that the mainstream of fandom studies has called into question. And given the contested value of any kind of “cosmopolitanism” in fostering mutual empathy among media consumers within a framework that privileges resistance and, in particular, cultural authenticity, it becomes all the more difficult to break out of old models of national identity in attempting to make sense of globalized patterns of media consumption on the part of non-Western female fans.

Performing the National

DS: I remember reading Volker Grassmuck’s early work on otaku culture, and being amazed when his first interviewee was a female game otaku. I think problems associated with women’s fandom emerge from a complex historical construction of women’s work, play, recreation and entertainment. Early games culture was profoundly male dominated, with only a few women of exceptional resilience able to stand the grunts and smells of the old arcades! I guess a comparative analysis of women’s recreation between different cultural spaces would no doubt shed new light on how we conceive the operations of fandom. Like Lawrence Grossberg suggested, I think we need to bring it these sorts of issues closer to home if we are to see rich new avenues opening up. William Gibson has drawn some interesting parallels between British and Japanese culture, mutually juxtaposed against American culture, he writes that ‘…the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than of objects, seems a natural crossover figure in today’s interface of British and Japanese cultures.’ Gibson has certainly contributed to the conceited picture of ‘Japan’ through his science fiction novels, but his statements in the Guardian are useful for illustrating the point that comparative analysis is best researched in discussions taking place closer to home than antiquated notions of East and West.

Making the effort to proceed from complicated beginnings might mean that, in the long run, we say much more sustainable and durable things about the subject in question, in this case gender and fandom. Work like Andrew Higson’s early essay ‘The Concept of National Cinema’ in Screen from 1989 give a really sound explanation of why we can’t permit brutish and uncomplicated discourse on the scale of transnational relations. A few lines are pretty useful:

‘To claim a national cinema is first of all to specify a coherence and a unity; it is to proclaim a unique identity and a stable set of meanings. The process of identification is thus invariably a hegemonising, mythologising process, involved both in the production and assignation of a particular set of meanings, and an attempt to prevent the potential proliferation of other meanings.’

My question would be, to what extend does English-speaking fan film/animation/game criticism need a represented Japanese mode of production to perform a particular set of codes (and by extension narrative and ideological functions), against which it can define itself within a particular set of its own traditions? In increasingly globalised and mutually intelligible film/animation/games production cultures, where different production traditions rub shoulders in elective spaces such as the Tokyo Game Show or cable television channels, are such national/occidental/oriental discourses evoked out of ‘fear of cultural contamination’, as Iwabuchi would suggest?

Does the need for a coherent Western fan tradition (see responses to Dr Who, LOTR) arise from the new transparency of transnational games culture? Is that need for coherence the driver rather than the cause? In this case, do differing national fan subjectivities exist as a textuality of sorts in themselves, which compete within commodified fan culture as a form of generic reconciliation (the fight for shelf space in retail comic book stores for instance).

LHM: This last question is very intriguing, and it gets me thinking about the ways in which fans perform both their own, as well as target, national identities within the context of, for lack of a better term, non-native fandoms. For example, one female writer of Torchwood and Doctor Who fanfiction who I know from my own X-Files fanfiction writing days assumes what might be described as a stereotypically British personae when talking about these particular shows on LiveJournal: exclamations of “La!” and observations that “I’m so knackered” seem to express a kind of delight in – rather than fear of – cultural difference. The beauty of one of her exclamations – “He’s lovely!” – is especially nice insofar as it refers to a Japanese anime character; this isn’t the rigid Anglophilia of the PBS crowd but, rather, a messy and decidedly incoherent revelery in transnational fandom.

Equally, this kind of playfulness is at work in the Japanese female fandom of Hong Kong cinema, again manifesting itself in language. In this case, similarities between written Japanese and Chinese, which have typically been used to demonstrate discrete cultural affinities (often in the aid of arguments for the cultural “Asianization” of East Asia), become a site of excessive intra-fandom communication. For example, stars are referred to not only by their Anglicized stage names (ie: Jacky Cheung), but also by their Chinese given names (Cheung Hok-yau) and – most notably – Japanized versions of their Chinese names (Cho Gakuyu), which, in spoken Japanese, are intelligible only to other Japanese fans of Chinese stars. Japanese fans of East Asian popular culture have been used to illustrate Japan’s rediscovered Asian belonging on the part of political and cultural elites, but such arguments are grounded in the maintenance of coherent borders between Japan and its East Asian neighbors. In contrast, this kind of play exceeds conventional understandings of linguistic and cultural coherence, and it emerges not from a perceived need to communicate across borders, but from the sheer pleasure and intimacy it fosters between both fellow fans and those fans and the stars they admire.

Given that this kind of transcultural play is especially evident in recent role-playing fanfiction (eg: Milliways bar on LiveJournal – http://community.livejournal.com/milliways_bar/), I wonder if this sort of thing is at work in transnational gaming culture, as well?