Gender and Fan Culture (Round Twenty One, Part One): Barbara Lucas and Avi D. Santo

INTRODUCTIONS

ADS: I am an assistant professor at Old Dominion University. This is my second year out of graduate school. I graduated in 2006 from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Radio-Television-Film. My dissertation focused on corporate authorship practices in managing transmedia brands prior to conglomeration. Basically, I analyzed how cultural icons like Superman, the Lone Ranger and Little Orphan Annie were licensed across media and merchandising sites and how their inter-textual meanings were managed. I also looked at how authorship rights were articulated by corporations over properties whose economic success rested on their seeming authorless and iconic. At ODU, I teach classes on critical race theory and media, international media systems, superheroes and US culture, and authorship and discourse. I am a co-founder of the e-journal Flow (http://www.flowtv.org) and current co-coordinating editor of MediaCommons (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org).

Outside of academics, the first job I ever wanted was to be a soap opera writer (apologies for not using the term “daytime melodrama”, but they were just soap operas when I was a teenager; a term that likely contributed to my eventual embarrassment over truly persuing this vocation). I watched Another World obsessively throughout my teens. I am a huge comic book dork. I primarily read revisionist superhero narratives that play at established conventions of the genre, but my pull list ranges from Fablesto Y The Last Man. Favorite TV of the moment: Battlestar Galactica, The Boondocks, My Name is Earl, Friday Night Lights, Project Runway.

BL: I have an MA in English from Case Western Reserve University with a concentration on British Renaissance literature and am a member of the adjunct faculty and Lakeland Community College. However, I’ve been a fantasy, horror, and (to a lesser extent) science fiction reader since I was a child. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I returned to my passions as a field of study as well as one of pleasure. I have been a regular presenter at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (www.iafa.org), and I’m the Division Head for the new Community and Culture in the Fantastic Division that focuses on fan fiction and culture, video game theory, hypertexts, viral marketing, RPG’s, ARG’s, folkloric and sociological approaches to the fantastic. Basically, my division deals with new and emergent texts, texts that are non-traditional in nature. The deadline for this year’s conference, held in March 2008 is close, and I am still accepting papers. I have calls up at the UPenn website. They can also be accessed at http://community.livejournal.com/ccfantastic/.

Outside of academic and corporate lives, though intersecting with my academic interests, I write fantasy fiction and poetry. I am interested in comics and graphic fiction and tend to be an eclectic reader who can bounce between Sandman (Gaiman’s version),Preacher, Age of Bronze, Gloom Cookie, and A Distant Soil with no problem. The one genre I tend to avoid is “mainstream” superhero comics. I am the sort of gamer geek that feels like she is cheating on her Playstation when she is playing games on her Xbox. My television watch list includes Heroes, Pushing Daisies, 24, Project Runway, Top Chef, Lost, and Dexter (though my hectic schedule often results in my falling behind and catching up once I get the DVD’s).

My primary scholarly focus the last five years or so has been on fan culture and fan fiction, especially slash fiction. My work primarily involves complicating early monolithic assumptions about slash fiction and slash fans, assumptions that have seen it as another sort of romance writing. While that notion does fit a lot of the work that is being produced, it works less well when considering fringe writing such as dark fiction or BDSM fiction, which shatters or explodes traditionally romantic (a la romance novels) notions. Like many aca-fans who work in the fan studies area, I practice what I study. I co-moderate a The Lord of the Rings fan fiction community and write fan fiction myself. My article (co-written with Robin Reid and Eden Lackner) “Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh,” which appeared in Busse and Hellekson’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, looks at the erotics of writer/reader and writer/writer interaction during the composition and circulation of collaboratively written erotic slash fiction. Perhaps we can talk a bit about collaboration processes?

EROTICS OF COLLABORATION

ADS: I’d love to hear more about your findings here. What are the relationships of the authors to the text they are slashing versus one another? Are the characters/stories being reworked the object of erotic fascination or is it the sharing process?

BL: It is a combination of the two. Not all slash stories are erotic in nature, by that I mean the level of graphic description of the relationships depicted in them; however, writers tend to focus on characters and actors (in media fandoms) that they themselves find attractive or arousing. This explains the tendency for writers to follow characters across films or series, adding new fandoms as their objects of fannish interest add to their resumes.

Fans do play with sexuality through slash and het fiction, expressing their own desires, which they perhaps show more frankly because of the distance they achieve through filtering them through fiction, fiction that is (at least on the surface) about male characters.

There is even a further distancing in that the fictions are not entirely theirs; they are borrowed. I don’t mean to suggest that there is a simple correspondence between the desires expressed in fics and those of the fans. Certainly, some fics reflect nightmares (e.g., rape fics and dark fics) and others simply explore modes of desire the fan may be curious about but would not ordinarily want to engage in. If horror fiction provides its audience with ways to confront fears and terrors while remaining safe and sheltered from them, erotic fiction does the same with desire, and many fans use it as a means of playing with desire in that way.

The sharing process itself is also erotic, something that we talk about in the “Cunning Linguists” article. The more erotic content, sensuality and/or sexuality, a story contains, the more likely the writer is to get feedback that is flirty, passionate, and erotic in nature from her readers. However, I do not believe this is a hallmark of slash fiction so much as it is of erotic fiction. I am on several lists with professional writers of romantic erotica, and the commentary from their fans tends to be similar in nature. They are also similar in that romantic erotica featuring male/male relationships is very popular with female readers. Romance publishers like EllorasCave and Samhain Press, to name a few, have male/male fiction title lines. These are, for the most part, communities that are by and for women.

ADS: Is there less slash fiction written about female characters, or is the erotic relationship between writers and readers different? In the past, I’ve frequented a CSI fan-fic site that featured a lot of different romantic pairings, including lesbian pairings like Sarah-Catherine. These stories ranged from BDSM narratives that either punished one or both characters for their “frigidness” or celebrated their non-traditional femininities to stories that softened one or both characters in ways that conform to very traditional constructions of femininity.

BL: There is going to be a much higher percentage in Xena fandom than there is in Buffy and more in Buffy than in The Lord of the Rings. Within more mainstream publishers of professional romance/erotica, the same trend applies. In fact, while they welcome male/male stories, they specifically state that they are not interested in female/female stories. Again, these are spaces where the creators and audience trend female. While this tendency has been criticized as straight women fetishizing gay men, that reading is far too simplistic.

The percentage of femslash in fandoms definitely varies according to fandom, and the sorts of themes particular to it does as well. Most of the femslash I have read (and I will confess to not having read great quantities of it) tends to focus on friendships between women that deepen as an erotic component is introduced to them, which is, in essence, the most classic and traditional pattern for slash fiction. The feedback I have read on femslash stories tends to follow the same pattern as that for male/male slash, and the works I am familiar with tend to be single-authored rather than collaborative.

Overall, the collaborative writing process tends to be erotic in nature. Not all collaboration is erotic, but long-term collaborations between writers, as many are, that focus on producing erotic texts tends to knit levels intimacy between the writers as those same forces work on their characters.

In the parts of fandom I move in and study, fandom wife relationships develop between two women who are writing fic, especially erotic fic, collaboratively. The women really become “partners,” a perspective that applies to their own relationship and how it is seen from the outside by other fans. While fandom wives can simply be good and fast friends, there are dynamics to the relationship that are not unlike those in a romantic relationship. A certain sense of possessiveness develops between the partners, and jealousies often arise if one partner wants to go on to write with someone outside the relationship. From what I’ve observed, a goodly percentage of fandom wives go on to other fandom wifely relationships when/if their current one ends.

The endings to such relationships tend to be messy and to be played out in front of the rest of fandom. I have been witness to several spectacular fandom wife marriages and divorces. In one, one partner lived on the East Coast, the other on the West Coast. The East Coast partner actually moved across the country to move in with her fandom wife, and their fandom divorce (spurred on by one’s complaints that the other did not spend enough time with her and spent too much time online) ended up splitting many of their online friends between them.


ADS: This fandom wife dynamic you describe is fascinating, partly because of the gendered terminology fans use (are there no fandom husbands or fandom life-partners?), but also because it sounds so normative, even as it so clearly challenges assumptions about coupling.

BL: I agree. In fact, when it comes to tensions in fandom, some of the more fascinating ones exist between subversion and normativity, between exploding or reinforcing the status quo. Male pregnancy fictions are a good example of this. On one hand, they completely disregard the limitations of biological gender and are in a unique position to question and critique heteronormative assumptions about family. However, few fics actually do this. Instead, they reinforce many of the most pervasive, traditional, and heteronormative ideals, including ones that insist that jointly producing a child is the ultimate validations of a loving relationship.

ADS: My assessment is likely influenced by my own position within the academy, but I tend to read fan collaborations/the building and sharing of community as simultaneously desirable and fraught with tensions. This seems especially true when dealing with particular fan practices like collaboratively writing and sharing slash fiction, especially the more “taboo” kinds like BDSM or dark fiction, which not only refocus attention on particular relationships within media texts but also subvert power hierarchies (or call attention to them in new ways). The subject matter is often sexual and the sharing of fantasies that stretch the boundaries of what the official corporate authors of the text would find permissible (its amazing how lax many corporations are about fan-fiction until it “crosses a line” that has more to do with taste than profits – though these are often conflated in corporate rhetoric) seems to meld with the thrill of challenging cultural assumptions about “good taste”.

For me, I see the conflation of breaking both legal and moral laws as part of the erotics here. Intellectual property law certainly cheats by trying to delimit how the public uses their cultural icons, so there is a thrill in ignoring these rules. Authorship is still largely imagined in official discourses as either a solitary act of creation or a corporate practice (Joss Whedon may be a genius, but we all know he didn’t write every episode of Buffy. He had a writing team that was subject to some sort of rational assembly-line type production practice). Thus, fan collaboration seems to break down those dichotomies as well, making creation a shared experience that obfuscates the production process in favor of focusing on the content being shared. Finally, since cultural icons are often popular heroes in the Bennett and Woolacott sense that they are ever changing figures that embody (and neutralize) shifting cultural anxieties, the ability to play with these figures and tease out one aspect of their personas both unravels their function of preserving the status quo and actively engages the larger meanings of the icon, effectively shifting the tensions they are intended to manage. This seems simultaneously empowering and subversive, even as it confirms the middlebrow pleasures these icons/texts normally prescribe as desirable. The more I write here, the less I feel I know about the erotics of fandom, since I seem to have reduced this down to an instructional manual.

BL: The tensions between desirability and frustration apply to any collaborative endeavor. They are particularly acute for writers because our work is such a solitary labor. Collaboration adds a social element that can be a source of energy or vitality and a source of drama and anger. Naturally, building a community, fannish or otherwise, is also a collaborative venture.

I do not quite agree with your point that more taboo forms of expression necessarily represent tension points in fannish communities. In slash fandom, readers and writers tend to cluster around specific character pairings and specific kinks. For example, there are many slash fans who enjoy male pregnancy (MPREG) fictions. This is an acquired taste, one that has a loyal fanbase. Fans who do not share the same fascination avoid such fictions. Unless they are like me and decide to write papers on them. One of the icons I have on my LiveJournal says, “You have your kinks, and I have mine,” which is often the prevailing attitude among fans. This is not to say that eruptions over personal kinks never happen, but they are not common in my corners of fandom. While we can talk about “slash fandom” as it was a monolithic entity, a more accurate way of looking at it would be as more discrete groups who crystallize around different discourses of desire.

ADS: I agree with you about the acceptance/celebration of different kinks that goes on in fan communities. I was thinking more of tensions that arise in relation to normative ideals. One’s choice of kink is always in some way informed by knowledge of the social rules and the pleasures/ consequences of breaking them.

BL: Those tensions are actually playing out right now around a holiday fic exchange called Yuletide. The exchange cuts across fandoms, and this year includes over 1,200 participants. The first day of signups happened at the end of the Jewish high holidays, and one fan complained about this (even though signups lasted two weeks and there is no incentive for signing up early). The argument spiraled out into a debate about how fans will often organize events on Saturdays and resist the same on Sundays. The same sorts of complaints are voiced over these normative ideals, which tend to see slash fandom as female, heterosexual, white, and American.

ADS: As for how these ideas seem to connect with academic practices for me, the tenure process has made it very clear to me that single authorship is valued over collaboration. The denial of the community except as rational audience sitting in judgment transforms collaboration into a fetish for me, where new modes of academic publishing can reinvigorate community and focus on the processes of creation rather than the final product. Though a stretch, perhaps, I can definitely see these practices as erotic because they are both taboo and because they place emphasis on the act itself (no longer either masturbatory or a peep show where I show my body [of work] to an audience that I cannot see but I know is looking and judging me) rather than the final product (the money/tenure shot). The work I’ve done on MediaCommons and Flow are both informed by a deep sense that current academic publishing practices are limiting, but also that there is a liberating freedom that comes from sharing. Do I imagine fan community practices like slash fiction writing as similar? Somewhat. As media scholars, we typically seek to alter/challenge/tease out a text’s meanings/underlying ideological assumptions/ institutional logics and constraints. Many fans do this as well, but they get to do this in forms that seem more like play (even though a lot of work often goes in to these creations) and sharing. Of course, part of this is the projection of my desires onto fan communities.

I’d imagine this works quite differently for non-tenure track faculty and as these discussions have clearly shown, there is a gendered component to these categories, with more women found in non-tenure track positions. I also know from working in a Comm department where half my colleagues are social sciency types who regularly co-author works that they find nothing erotic or exciting about collaboration. At best it is functional, at worst frustrating. They tend to fetishize the solo authoring process as much as I worship at the alter of community-building.

BL: I agree with the social science folks: collaboration on academic work is, well, it’s work. It lacks the element of play and fun that is so much a part of fannish experience. Fandom can be serious play, but a portion of it, the part that poaches from and tests the canonical source texts, is playful. The relationships and intimacy between community members is often not, and tensions between fans who consider their experience all play and those who take their community and interactions more seriously do crop up.

I think attitudes about academic communication and community are shifting, like all things in academia, they will move slowly. I credit the Internet with this. As more scholars interact online in listservs and blogs and email, the more their interactions include personal and professional discussion and the more we become invested in each other as individuals. We move beyond being collections of ideas and methodologies. I have a personal blog (which is badly in need of updating) linked to my ICFA division blog. When I met one of my presenters on video game theory at the conference last spring, he immediately asked how my mother (who had been having health concerns, something I wrote about in my blog) was faring. It took me aback until I worked through to, “Oh, you read my blog.” At that moment, our sense of community was built on more than our shared ideas, interests, and work.

ADS: This is very encouraging. I hope you are right.

STRETCHING THE CANON VERSUS CANONICAL FIDELITY

ADS: As you can probably tell, I am not a fan scholar per se. My interests are in the collective authoring practices and authoring constraints that accompany popular icons like superheroes. Within this lens, I tend to focus on how contemporary IP companies like Marvel Comics engage with fans and negotiate the various fan iterations of popular heroes in fan fiction, fan art, and various other collective knowledge initiatives. I also look at the ways that fans police the boundaries of authorship as often as they challenge them. I have studied the ways that superhero fan communities will often reject unauthorized stories as unprofessional, non-canonic, and out of continuity, while embracing certain professional writers and artists as part of the fan community (even as these individuals work for the very institutions seeking to police the meanings of popular heroes)

BL: Your experiences with the superhero communities and fan practices is very interesting to me, because there isn’t quite the same sort of border policing in slash fandom. Perhaps it is because slash fans realize they are teasing very submerged meaning that is usually not intended out of the source text. That is, we accept we are going to be stretching canon, which makes it easier to accept some other distortions to or challenges of the source texts. However, there is a constant tension that exists between official canon and fan-defined canon/fanon. This permission to play with canon has its limits, and fans are not usually going to respond well to texts that totally shatter major canonical expectations, unless the work is clearly parody or crackfic.

At the same time, as texts grow more complex, defining what is canonical gets more problematic. In real-person fiction, for example, when the canonical source text is a person’s like and persona, what defines canon? Some would say there is no such thing. I am not one of them. Canon tends to be an amalgamation of facts about an actor (or musician or sports figure), interviews with actors, commentary by colleagues, reading public persona and presentation, and a dose of the persona of fictional characters that actor has played in various roles. It is definitely something that is assembled, ordered, and prioritized by fans (and often contested by them) much more actively than canon in a fictional work is assimilated.

When we look at other texts that spill across media boundaries, the question of defining canon becomes even more complex as levels exist. Fans of Heroes, for example, can produce texts based on the canon of the television series, but they do so without having the benefit of additional information about characters that is revealed online in the Heroes digital graphic novel. If a fan wants to write about a character like Hana Gitelman, the woman who can mentally “hear”/intercept and communicate wirelessly, they have to access the digital graphic novels (soon to be released in a hardcover version), as her character is developed in cyberspace, not in the series. Hana also breaks out of the confines of the canonical television narrative by interacting directly with fans. My sister (who firmly insists she is NOT a fan) prowls the Heroes message boards and has signed up to get text messages from Hana on her cell phone.

ADS: Differences within communities over the rigidity or flexibility of the canon seems a valuable conversation. Of course, this is a question of degree, not an either/or scenario. Comic book/superhero fans definitely write fiction (general and slash) that potentially challenges the official continuity of their hero’s universes, even as they also hotly debate what ought to be counted as canonical. My experience has been that many superhero fans privilege the officially produced stories over fan variations. Of course, this has a lot to do with the particularly close and incestuous relationship the comic book industry has historically cultivated with its fan base since the late 1960s. Henry Jenkins points out how over the past two decades the comic book industry has put out many elseworld-type variations of its own products, essentially creating in-house the narrative multiplicity that many fans otherwise create (with obvious limitations on certain subject matter). Partly, this can be seen as an attempt to reign in fan efforts to stretch the boundaries, but it is also partly an acknowledgement of those fan desires that many other media texts/ properties continue to deny.

Moreover, because the barriers for entry have usually been lower (and are still perceived to be) for the comic book industry, the perceived lines between creators and fans are blurred, so that many comic book writers and artists are not just fan-favorites, but marketed as fans themselves. I think this does two things: One, it reassures fans that their fantasies are being catered to because the people who create these texts are just like them (my point here is not whether this is true or not, but the way that the discourses of authorship and fandom that circulate blur the insider/outsider status so central to other fan community creative practices). Two, they encourage a detailed knowledge of the official continuity (and its official derivatives) because there is still the sense that this type of knowledge might be rewarded with a job or some similar form of cultural access. Thus, fan creations that push too far against the canonical grain are often devalued because there is a sense that this not only alienates the industry but also that there are already fan-insiders challenging that canon with an official stamp of approval. This seems similar to your assertion of the limits of fan openness to texts that shatter canon entirely without coding itself as parody or crackfic.

Of course, I am also massively oversimplifying what is often a very contentious and charged relationship between superhero fans and creators. What I wonder is, as digital authoring tools become more easily accessible, will we see this relationship shift with other media texts, as fans are both actively courted as potential creators by the industry and fan practices become increasingly integral to industry branding strategies? If television series started offering alternate variations of their plots (like those alternate universe episodes that occasionally pop up) would this change fan writing practices? And, of course, given the disparity within the industry in terms of gendered access to creative power, would there be a change along those axes?

BL: I think we are already starting to see the beginnings of a fan/creator convergence. In order to overcome the mid-season hiatus ratings slump, Heroes is set to produce 30 episodes. A number of them will be one-shots, focusing on a new hero not integral to the overall story arc of the series. Fans will get to weigh in on favorites, and the favorite will become a regular part of the cast. This very limited and restrictive sort of collaboration (where the boundaries and control is still rather firmly in the hands of the creators) is something that should fuel fan production, especially if a beloved hero is not renewed and fans want to continue his/her story.

While the new technologies offer fans more creative possibilities, I do not see creators giving much access to their power to fans in significant ways. However, I do see fans offering fellow fans more sophisticated (and competitive) alternatives to the creators’ products. I’m thinking here of shows like Hidden Frontier, a Star Trek fan film series that released their episodes on the web and made the focus on the series the relationships between the characters, some of whom were gay. Of course, creators will likely take note of other popular and visible fan alternatives and popular ideas and themes may work their way into the creators’ works.

Comments

  1. Sam Ford says:

    Avi and Barbara, a lot of good points raised here, especially regarding the way that a different form of discourse meets academia through the blogosphere and other forms of writing. I think this space where media producers, aca/fans (as Henry calls them), and criti/fans (a term that I’ve been using for the many smary people who surround these discussions but who are outside of the academy), is a fantastic one to be studying, and I think some of the most intersting discuourse out of this series on Henry’s blog has been surrounding these issues.

    I also wanted to respond to Avi’s initial note re: Another World. If you all had a chance to read Lee Harrington’s dicussion with me about soaps, you’ll know that I consider myself very much an aca/fan of the genre. I was just curious what led to your eventual embarassment about wanting to write for Another World. If you had written for it, perhaps it might still be on the air! Seriously, I think soaps head writing may be the toughest writing job in television; overseeing scripts for 250 hours of dramatic content a year is so daunting…

    And I will more than forgive you for using the term “soap opera,” Avi, as I think it’s what should be used. “Daytime melodrama” is just a bad idea, especially since there’s great danger in conflating soap opera and melodrama, which are far from the same thing. In fact, soaps are often about degrees of good and evil and relative morality in a way that is quite opposite of what we expect from melodrama.

  2. Robin Reid says:

    I very much enjoyed this installment, even though I am markedly not a fan of many of the texts you mention (gaming, comics, soap operas), but both of you so clearly know and love the texts that you are writing about that your discussion was fascinating.

    I’m also very glad to see some talk of collaboration, both in fandom and academia. I’ve collaborated more with academics (full disclosure: including Barb!) than with other fic writers (either in my original work or fan fiction–though as a playwright, I collaborated with my actors and directors!). I’ve seen the fanwife phenomenon (and think it deserves much more discussion, especially arould the gendered nature of the term–I would so run away from that usages) (why do we have BFF if not to useE), and it’s fascinating.

    Research on collaboration patterns in different parts of fandoms, for different types of product, would be fascinating (and probably best done collaboratively).

    My experience with academics is that a good academic collaboration can be, as I recently said in my LJ, better than sex: it’s so much more fun than some of the solo scholarship I’ve written (though a lot depends on the topic, there).

    Here’s something: I came to fan studies later in my academic life than many, having spent a decade in feminist sf (I think I’m still in feminist sf, but that’s a whole other debate). And I can say that it’s more fun writing scholarship on fan fiction than in other areas.

    Avi, I’m interested to hear that the quantitative/qualitative debate seems to be playing out in a Communications dept (I’ve had friends in sociology and political science who were daught up in that, both of them women, both feminists, and both opposing the exclusively statistical methodology).