Gender and Fan Culture (Wrapping Up, Part One)

Last May, I announced my plan to host an ongoing conversation between male and female scholars around the topic of gender and fan culture. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I made that announcement. I felt like the moment was right to celebrate a generation of younger scholars — male and female — who were doing groundbreaking work in the areas of fan studies and cult media. I was hoping that the series would give me a chance to get to know these researchers and their work better. While I had read some of the recent scholarship, it had been hard to sort out the emerging players on the basis of one or two essays. I knew, however, that the field was now more methodologically and theoretically diverse than any one had yet acknowledged and I also knew that many of these people, working in different disciplines and operating with different social networks, did not know each other.

I had been distressed by suggestions that there was a growing disconnect between the work male and female scholars were doing in this space and concerned that the roots of fan studies in feminist scholarship and female cultural practice might get lost. I was interested in the ways that the entertainment industry was embracing new models of audience participation but often with unequal and differential treatment of forms of participation that were historically coded as masculine or feminine (an issue I raised in Convergence Culture in relation to the Star Wars fan cinema competitions.) I felt then that the best way to break down some of the walls was to pair up male and female scholars, who shared similar interests but who might not have known each other, for the purpose of a public conversation. My hope had been that if we chose a sufficiently diverse set of scholars, we would complicate existing assumptions about how gender impacted fan culture, suggesting some overlap as well as some differences in cultural preferences, interpretive practices, cultural activities, and social communities.

I also wanted to explore how a blog might be used in a community building activity, creating a space of dialog rather than monolog, enabling a different kind of exchange among scholars than might occur in the more structured and familiar space of an academic convention, and at the same time, I wanted to push others to embrace a new mode of scholarly discourse which engaged with the general public rather than remaining within a purely academic space.

Those were my hopes for this series. Each participant brought their own hopes to this project and that accounts, in part, for some of the mixed signals which have always circulated around this project. Some saw the discussion as centrally about breaking down walls between individual scholars or perhaps of building a new social network around this topic which would include both male and female researchers. My hope was that if we got to know each other better, we’d be more likely to hang out together at conferences, more likely to construct anthologies or conference panels that were more inclusive and diverse. Some hoped that the project might offer new theoretical perspectives in the field — helping to revise the language of feminist scholarship to reflect emerging media and cultural practices or more generally, raising new questions which we might address through our scholarship. Some hoped that the project might provide support for younger researchers who needed to demonstrate to their advisors or tenure committees that fan studies was a legitimate field of research, one which was generating scholarly interest around the world. Still others hoped that the project might call attention to structural factors and systemic discrimination which resulted in the unequal treatment of women in the academia.

Perhaps the project’s biggest success was its most mundane. We’ve just had a project in which 44 academics from all over the world all met their deadlines. A few posts have been late by a day or so. But the vast majority got their work in on time — an act which is almost without precedence in my experience.

Thanks to everyone involved for their hard work, their personal engagement, their intellectual honesty, and their willingness to stage these exchanges in public. I realize that all of you were playing without a net — taking professional and emotional risks, trusting your partners and the others involved in these exchange, to respect your thinking as a work in progress.

There have certainly been times when I have been frustrated by one or another side of the exchange, fearing that our project would not be allowed to succeed, worrying that one or another of us would fall into gender traps, but I have to say that in the end, I have felt encouraged by the quality of your contributions and encouraged by the recognition of the overlap between these different intellectual projects.

There is still a lot of work to be done — no doubt.Most if not all of the women included very clearly saw themselves as part of a shared intellectual field called fan studies and most of them saw themselves also as actively connected to the social network of fandom. For many of the men involved, neither was necessarily true. They would have described their work in some other category of research — transmedia storytelling, consumer research, cult media, creative industries, audience studies, global studies — within which the study of fandom mattered but might not be the central focus of their interests. The stakes for the two groups in this conversation were different, accordingly. Some have suggested the conversation would have looked different if I had reached out as broadly to bring in female scholars who were not working on fandom per se but were working on other related areas. But I had wanted to include everyone who asked to participate and there were just more women lined up at the start of this than men. I consider it a major victory under the circumstances that I was able to find a male counterpart for every female participant.

My hope is that these exchange has helped all of us to think more clearly about what fan studies contributes to and draws from these other fields of inquiry, but it may also indicate some of the challenges we face if we want to bridge between the genders in terms of our social and professional networks.

The other thing that we’ve struggled with in this discussion series has been the different modes of communication within the existing social networks of male and female scholars. I have been struck by the number of female participants who have expressed discomfort with blogs or the number of male participants who have said that they didn’t feel at home on Live Journal. The result has often been parallel conversations along similar tracks, compounded by misunderstandings about the style and tone of the exchanges which emerge from discursive practices in the two spaces.

Again, this points to work which still remains to be done if we are going to learn to listen and respect each other’s points of view. And more interestingly, I am finding myself pondering the correct way of interfacing between the two worlds. Male scholars, for example, often write to me to tell me that they are creating a blog and I have used this space to publicize their efforts. Female scholars are more likely to start a Live Journal page than to start a blog. Live Journal seems a much more personal and private space so sending large numbers of readers of this blog trampling through some one’s Live Journal seems inappropriate. Or for that matter, it doesn’t always feel right to take something which is being discussed in LJland and bring it into the blogosphere.

So, what’s the solution? Do these two different modes of communication represent a kind of gender segregation? If more and more important conversations impacting our research take place within these online spaces, then how does this impact the scholarship which we produce?

The nature of this exchange, the challenges of writing as aca-fen, is that we have personal and professional stakes within this conversation and where misunderstandings occurred, it has often struck me that they emerged from a confusion between different orders of discourse.

And in some cases, I fear that structuring the discussion around male and female “teams” may have solidified gender borders even as the project here was to break down such rigid categories. I am reminded of the work of Barrie Thorne who has described the kind of “gender work” which occurs within schools where the easy classification of children into “girls and boys” plays itself out in the playground culture as well: even when many boys and girls play together in their own neighborhoods, they tend to gender stratify in the school space, because those categories are ever present in the way they think of themselves.

I know that I have found myself feeling protective at times when one or another male scholar has been “under attack” or uncomfortably implicated when they said something that was ill-considered or inappropriate, even though in my own work in fandom I have always felt comfortable interacting with female fans and often more at home working with female scholars. So, in some ways, the pairings served our various causes and in some ways, they provoked the very behaviors and attitudes they were meant to resolve. But, even this may be instructive if they forced us to confront some of the factors which divide us and if we learn from each other in the process.

This work isn’t done. It has only begun. I hope to continue to find ways to use this blog to host important conversations within our emerging field. I hope to use my role as a conference organizer to create other contexts which bring together scholars of diverse backgrounds and interests to share work with each other. I have always found myself recommending participants here to other editors and conference organizers, including people who were not on my radar when the project began. I have already found myself making more extensive reference to participants in my own writing and speaking. My early work on fandom had centrally been about gender and sexuality issues, my more recent work less so, and so I am finding myself struggling to build stronger and more visible connections between the two bodies of work as I look towards the next phases of my research.

Let me close my comments by thanking everyone who participated and especially Kristina Busse who has been my partner in crime making this whole thing possible.

Starting on Friday I will run comments from others who participated in the exchange. I haven’t heard back from everyone and I still welcome further comments on the process — either posted here as comments on the blog or if necessary, I will devote another set of posts to wrapping up the series. I want to make sure that everyone who wants to be heard gets a chance to speak.