Gender and Fan Culture (Round Twenty Two, Part One): Eden Lee Lackner and Jes Battis

INTRODUCTIONS

ELL: My name is Eden Lee Lackner. I’m currently an Independent Scholar, and I have a Master of Arts in English Literature with a focus in Victorian Literature from The University of Calgary (Calgary, Alberta, Canada). While my Masters was particularly concerned with the sanctification of execution in Nineteenth Century novels (an interesting, if ghoulish topic), a lot of the narratives and theories I encountered helped elucidate some of my thoughts on the body as text, and further into the erotics of that written-upon body, which then links up quite beautifully with the erotics of fans writing upon a textual body with and for other fans.

To that end, I recently collaborated on an article titled “Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh” with Barbara Lucas and Robin Reid, which is currently available in Busse and Hellekson’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. We discuss, in detail, this erotic exchange between writer, co-writer and reader, with an eye to complicating earlier, more homogeneous notions of “fan” as well as the straight/gay binary of the slash writer/reader. I’m particularly interested in the oversimplification of such binaries, especially as present in Fan/Media Studies and related areas. One of the assumptions that seems to remain largely unchallenged to date is the representation of internet-based fans as almost exclusively culturally American (a label which carries more problematic homogeneity, of course), when in fact the internet allows for cross- and multi-cultural contact, often without explicitly drawn/acknowledged boundaries. In line with these notions of boundaries, more recently I’ve been considering how gatekeeping works within both academia and fandom, and how in many cases the behaviours performed in the process of blocking/restricting access in either realm mirror each another.

For going on six years now, I’ve presented papers, as well as moderated and participated in panels and theory roundtables dealing with Fan Studies at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, held annually in Florida (and still accepting proposals in a variety of disciplines for the upcoming year). I was actually (one of) the first to present on fan texts at the conference, which was a pleasure and a privilege, as the conference has begun to attract quite a number of academics interested in the area in the years following.

On a more personal level, I come from a family of fans. My mother, a hard-core science fiction fan (and an academic), introduced me to the world of speculative fiction at a very early age; in fact, Star Wars: A New Hope was the very first movie I ever saw in theatres. Granted, I was not quite two and it was a Drive-In, but nevertheless… She and I have a long history of shared fantasy worlds, and she encouraged me to devour those universes without apology. My father, on the other hand, is a dedicated golfer, and can very easily discuss and debate professional stats, amateur up-and-comers, and potential career-impacting issues for hours on end, preferably while on the greens himself. Thus fannishness has always been normative behaviour for me, and it’s often a bit unsettling to interact with people who claim no fan status of any kind.

When I was eleven I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time (after a few years of repeated annual readings of The Hobbit), and was hopelessly and forever lost as, for lack of a better term, I found my “home fandom.” I continued on for years as a feral fan, consuming all sorts of fantasy, science fiction, horror and mystery texts on my own, until I encountered an anime club that was just starting up at my university during the first years of my Masters. From there I became much more involved in communal fannish activities, including taking part in a number of shared creative endeavours and organization of Province-wide events. Although I was already peripherally aware of the existence of fan fiction, it was around this time that I was introduced to shounen-ai/yaoi/shoujo-ai/yuri, and very shortly after, in 1999 (once I had seen Qui-Gon’s death scene in The Phantom Menace and teased out the homoerotic subtext underneath), I became interested in slash fiction as a reader and writer. In 2001, with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, I returned to my home fandom as a more active participant, where I continue to participate in the surrounding fiction-writing community today.

JB: I did my PhD at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, focusing on melancholy within LGBT fantasy texts. I covered a lot of writers who had never been given academic attention before, including Mercedes Lackey, Tanya Huff, Fiona Patton, Lynn Flewelling, and Chaz Brenchley. While I was writing the diss, I actually got in touch with Lynn and Chaz, and they offered me lots of great advice and encouraged me with fiction writing. Earlier this year, I got a contract from Ace for my first novel, Night Child , as well as a sequel. The first will be out in Spring/08, and the second will be released the following year.

So, I’m one of those weird hybrids: an academic-fan who also writes fantasy fiction. I got to meet Samuel Delany for the first time a few weeks ago! He was giving a talk at CUNY, and I (terrified) introduced myself in a mousey little voice and told (stuttered) him about my first novel. He said it sounded great, and offered to take a look at it. Now I fantasize about him smoking a pipe, surrounded by books in his massive office in Philadelphia, turning the pages of my manuscript. To me, that’s hot.

I started reading fantasy early, although it took me till I was 20 to get through LoTR. I couldn’t really appreciate it when I was younger, since I had such a short attention span. I’m still not good with Victorian novels, although I love Charlotte Bronte (especially Villette), and have a sort of affection for Dickens because he just describes things so fucking well. His desks and drawers seem more real than my characters sometimes. I decided to write the great (Canadian) fantasy novel when I was 11, and I would force all of my friends to read these bad, bad pages printed off on our old dot matrix printer. I still remember the screee–whrrrrr–screee sound of the printer as somehow being the most exciting sound in the world for me, at 11.

I came late to the fanfiction scene. A friend got me hooked on CSI, and convinced me to read some GSR fanfiction. It took me a while to get into it, but then I discovered a lot of slash devoted to Seth/Ryan in The OC, and I was a goner. I was watching The OC at the time, and reading the slash gave me so many ideas (some academic, some dirty, dirty), so I wrote an essay on incest and slash fiction with The OC as the focal point. The essay got rejected by some major journals, which is nothing new for me. It might get picked up by an edited volume, but the writing was so fun that I almost don’t care if it ever gets published. Almost.

After writing the essay, I started experimenting with writing CSI slash, but containing elements of GSR as well. Basically, I enjoyed writing about Grissom and Sarah observing a fledgling relationship developing between Greg and Nick, kind of an older foster-couple giving advice to young foundlings. I want to keep at it, but once I moved to New York, things got really busy really fast. So hopefully I’ll get the chance to return to it soon.

I started blogging as a way to talk about my anxiety around moving away from Canada, and that kind of morphed into a forum for talking about everything else. Recently, my little blog received some unexpected international attention when a reported from the National Post in Canada targeted my research on pop culture as “pointless” and “a drain on tax dollars.” He tried to use my blog to discredit me, but just ended up giving my research more publicity and actually making me sound pretty cool.

CULTURAL HOMOGENIZATION

ELL: I must admit to being rather pleased to be paired up with another Canuck, especially since I’ve been itching to discuss how the globalization the internet affords affects fan exchange and assumptions. Perhaps your experiences have been different than mine, but I’ve found that when operating in multicultural spaces, whether as an academic, a fan, or an acafan (or, really, all three, because who can separate out the distinct strands completely?), there’s a very strange positioning that goes on as a Canadian, living so close to the US (or in your case, in the US itself) and having such easy access to the same (or similar) streams of entertainment and popular culture. Since we often speak the same language, and have shared knowledge of trends, I’ve often run into the assumption on the part of other scholars or fen that “Canadian” is indistinguishable from “American,” which has made me hyperaware of some of the (cultural/gendered/ethnic/linguistic/etc.) homogenization that goes on in fan spaces and the corresponding research. Of course, it’s impossible to not make some generalizations when discussing any topic, but I think cultural assumptions are largely overlooked in Fan Studies at the present time. I note that there are some studies emerging that discuss non-English speaking fan groups, such as Finnish or Russian fans — Irma Hirsjärvi’s work springs to mind most immediately with regard to the former — and their activities within spaces bound by language, but less consideration given to fans participating in fandom via a shared language yet coming from varied cultural backgrounds.

In fact, speaking from an experiential point of view, I’ve met more than one fan who has used fandom as a (fairly successful) way to learn English — a close Italian friend of mine is fond of joking that when people ask her how she’s acquired such impressive English skills she barely manages to suppress the urge to say, “from reading gay porn on the internet” — or who has made a conscious decision to participate in fandom using a second or third language instead of her first.

In this debate series we’ve touched on many complicating spheres, including gender, race, and sexuality, and I think it’s a worthwhile proposition to push for one more factor that perhaps requires a little more attention. Since you mention experiencing anxiety at moving into another culture, I wonder if you have some insight into how cultural assumptions work within academic and fan communities, or if you’ve seen any of this at work.

JB: As a “legal alien” living in New York, I definitely feel a cultural divide. My American colleagues tend to stress Canadian difference, however, rather than emphasizing sameness. This usually takes the form of: “Do you have this in Canada? Is this book distributed? Can you watch this show?” Suggestions that Canada has its own national programming are usually met with blank stares or polite astonishment. Also, I never get to talk about Degrassi Jr High to my students, which is traumatic.

ELL: I can imagine that’s traumatic! (And, oh no, now I’ve got the theme song stuck in my head.)

It’s interesting that you’ve found the cultural differences are emphasized. I wonder if that has to do with the difference between the anonymity the internet affords, and in person and/or communication that comes with background information already provided. I imagine one of the more difficult aspects of considering the diversity of the internet is that just like a myriad of other dimensions, nationality needs to be self-reported, and is often an aspect that is dropped from or left out of research into fanworks, or is simply not reported.

Oddly enough, in my encounters with scholars at international conferences, I’ve found that I need to state my nationality or display it prominently in my own discourse in order to achieve that same level of recognition or risk being folded in with other North Americans. It’s a strange balance, though, isn’t it, finding comfortable ground between being singled out as a stand in for a larger culture or being erroneously decoded?

I think that perhaps this is an issue that extends to cultures that mirror each other in Seymour Martin Lipset’s sense of the concept. I’ve run across some of these same identity issues in conversation with New Zealanders, for instance, who are often folded in with Australians by outsiders despite having a distinctly different sense of themselves. I really do think that just like gender and sexuality, national identity, especially in concert with the global nature of internet fandom, adds an interesting complication to concepts of what “fandom” is.


GATEKEEPING AND GENDER

ELL: I’m absolutely fascinated by the encounter you had with the National Post! Not knowing the whole story, I can’t help but wonder how much that particular reporter’s story was an attempt to gatekeep; one of the perennial issues facing academia in North America seems to be a push towards “practical, hands-on” training over more esoteric pursuits, and of course Fan Studies itself seems to exist in a marginalized area of a larger marginalized specialization. (I’m thinking of Fan Studies as part of Popular Culture or even Speculative Fiction research, here, but of course there are a number of other flagships it often sails under.) It’s interesting how throughout this debate we’ve been discussing potential othering and privileging of one gender over another while at the same time many of us are part of a larger othered discipline.

And here I must note that while I certainly believe that gender often plays a role in status and whose voices are heard — the lack of interest by Chris Williams of FanLib in engaging with the largely female audience that opposed him and his decision to speak to a male academic being a relatively recent and high-profile example — I do believe it’s much more complicated than a simple binary of male vs. female, blue vs. pink would have us believe. Gatekeeping is certainly prevalent in fandom, academia and acafandom, and oftentimes it doesn’t cross gender lines. There are a variety of fannish communities on LiveJournal, for instance, that require certain conditions be met before a fan is allowed to become part of the collective (Resistance is Futile!); often these conditions are some subjectively perceived level of quality or trustworthiness. Some, such as the “stamping” communities, which sort you into Hogwarts’ houses or assign you a specific Star Wars character, go so far as to require others to vouch for you, and/or fill out complicated applications which are reviewed by part or all of the membership before the fan is granted access. And of course some of the most strident gatekeepers I’ve encountered in my own academic pursuits have had no regard for gender, but have, much like your National Post reporter, applied arbitrary standards that have little or nothing to do with “quality” or “worth” and have far more to do with perpetuating a system of (sometimes fairly petty) personal beliefs. I certainly can’t discount the possibility that the intragender gatekeeping has extragender roots; very much a “don’t embarrass me in front of the boys” impulse, of course, which I imagine loops right back around to issues of gender marginalization.

Now, granted, while to a certain extent gatekeeping is required in any group lest chaos reign, the more that control rests in the hands of a single person or small like-minded group, the more it seems to shuffle towards the absurd. I do wonder how much gatekeepers have replaced mentors as the first introduction to fan-writing communities with the increased access the internet allows.