Gender and Fan Culture (Wrapping Up, Part Four)

Cynthia Walker:

This conversation series has been very enjoyable and interesting and even, at times, fascinating, and I would like to thank everyone who participated and Henry Jenkins for hosting it.

It felt very much like a virtual conference and, as with most academic conferences I attend, I came away feeling both exhilarated but also overwhelmed. Indeed, I’ve been spending the last few days reviewing each of the conversations and making notes so I can remember the participants and their areas of expertise for future reference.

Although the conversations were organized around the question of gender, they ranged across a wide variety of subjects including fan fiction, fan vidding, machinima, gaming, horror, graphic novels and more. Still, there were common themes running through the discussions, particularly the relationships between individual fans and fan communities, between and among academics, and between audiences and producers.

What has become clear to me is that what we’re seeing in fan studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field and as such, we should be moving toward establishing our own conferences, our own forums (such as this one) and our own journals. Unlike the folks in other fields who sometimes seem to be talking just to each other, we have the opposite problem: we have to comb academic conferences just to find one another. I know I often search the programs of conferences I attend in Communication, popular culture, media literacy and media ecology, just to find panels on fan-related topics. Sometimes, there’s just one. Sometimes, there are none at all. This needs to change.

Another point that struck me in reading these conversations was how much we depend upon impressions, anecdotes, and personal conversations and experiences in discussing fan identity and fan practice. Perhaps because, originally, I came into academia through Communication and media studies rather than cultural and literary studies, I think I would like to see more quantitative and qualitative research, more surveys and focus groups, exploring just how fans see themselves, what they do, how they do it, and why. In this, I have felt encouraged to pursue my own research in that direction because I would really like to get a sense of the lay of the land of fandom — a map as it were. What exactly is this phenomenon called Fandom (with a capital F)? Does it have boundaries, and if so, what are they?

Since the relationship of media producers and fan audiences is also a subject that keeps cropping up, I would like to see more research in this area, research that is not conducted only by mainstream Communication and media studies scholars, but by those of us who also have some knowledge and acquaintance with fan communities. This is especially important because more and more of those working as media professionals either come from, or self-identify, as fans, and, particularly on the Internet, commercial and fan spaces are encroaching upon one another.

Finally, because gender apparently does influence, at least to some extent, fan identity, community, practices, interests, and interpretation, I hope these conversations will inform our work in this new field of fan studies so that certain topics, practices and approaches are not privileged over others. We have more in common than not, and as fan studies scholars, I believe it’s in our collective interest to find those areas where our identities and interests overlap and pursue them.

Will Brooker:

If this was a superhero summer crossover event, I guess I was Animal Man, or the Blue Beetle, or Booster Gold& one of those third-string DC characters (barely even superheroes, more a normal guy with a bit of a gimmick) who appears for a few issues then vanishes between the frames, leaving only his most die-hard fans to wonder where he went.

My little narrative involved a team-up with Kristine Busse and Ksenia Prassolova, across a series of messy personal emails that we then group-edited down into a neater conversation. I enjoyed those emails; I felt we found some common ground, disagreed respectfully and had a few laughs. It was a positive experience for me, especially given that the last time I’d seen Kristine in real life, in the bizarre setting of the Dog and Duck English pub, Austin Texas, we had the kind of mildly-drunken debate about gender privilege that may have prompted this whole event.

My feelings about that mini-narrative entering the bigger debate of Henry’s blog and the LiveJournal mirror are closely tied into my feelings about internet forums in general. I was deeply involved in maybe half a dozen discussion groups between 2001 and 2006, and while that’s late in the day by some people’s standards, about a third of my life seemed to be lived online during that period. So I’m familiar with the sniping, the cross-board politics, the elaborate insults, the wounded egos – the dynamics that occur when normal people meet online as larger-than-life textual persona, often with a few different codenames, a hardcore group of followers and an established reputation – maybe the closest we get in academia to a clash of superheroes. I know a handful of the participants in real life, and I often didn’t recognise the way they were being constructed and responded to; sometimes it did seem as though the debate demanded a few villains to knock up against and tear down.

So I bowed out of participating in the spin-off discussions because I’ve had enough of internet arguments for the time being, and it looked to be going a way I’ve seen before. I think the anonymous, text-based nature of an online forum encourages people to see each other as cartoonish, stylised opponents, encourages the sense of a grand battle complete with allies and cheerleaders, and encourages individuals to carefully craft poisonous barbs and rhetorical missiles, and fling them at each other trying to cause maximum damage. When really, if they sat down face to face, they’d just be normal men and women with a bit of a gimmick. But I’ve probably been reading too many comics.

Francesca Coppa:

What’s been striking to me over the course of this debate is the extent to which the gender issues reflect general problems of convergence culture–that is, the mainstreaming of fannish practice as well as the as growing respectability of “fandom studies”. Fandom is a subculture well on its way to becoming culture, and while that has many benefits, it also raises the risk of re-marginalizing the groups that the subculture once represented. The Enterprising Women of 1992 are now only a small, not terribly profitable, subdivision of Fandom, Inc. The line between “fans” and “consumers,” once fairly distinct, is blurring as we talk of Apple fans, Dr. Pepper fans, Hummer fans, etc.

I worry about women becoming, yet again, a minority voice in a mixed gender fannish culture in which the makers of Chad Vader get a movie deal and the makers of the K/S vid Closer flee the internet when their vids go viral. The media–especially the genre media which has been the center of so much fannish activity–has typically courted a male demographic, despite (or perhaps because of) their female-dominated audiences. And female fans have typically made lemonade from these lemons; it’s no accident that so much “remix” culture happens in the context of minority communities: women, blacks, and the disabled. But in the end, my lovingly crafted fanwork is not your marketing team’s “user-generated content.”

I think this is why there was such a strong reaction to the gender composition of the panel audiences at MiT5: it reflected our larger cultural fears about the way media is marketed and which consumers matter. In a world where fanboys get development deals, many female fannish interests–and the scholarly works about them–can look comparatively non-mainstream; with their longstanding (and culturally determined) commitment to the local, the handmade, the non-profit, female fans can seem small time, of limited interest, insufficiently “universal.” In fandom studies female-created artifacts were a priority because media fandom was so heavily female. Now, as this summer’s debate proved, the field has expanded to include all sorts of new arts, practices, and communities.

This is a good thing; I think fandom studies is exciting right now because of its diversity of subject, and also because it has a lot more than its share of “public intellectuals”: we’re not simply nattering to ourselves, locked in our own esoteric disciplines. We’re talking to media producers, legislators, teachers, public advocacy organizations, and we’re making connections across fannish communities. But it’s important that we keep talking to each other, too, because there’s a danger that minority communities (and somehow women in a mixed-gender groups end up as “minority communities,” no matter how many of us there are in the room) might be marginalized in the transition from subculture to culture.

Robin Anne Reid

Now I must admit up front that there are gaps. During the first rounds, I was in summer mode, with more time to read and comments. Later on, as we started a new term in a department with major new program and curriculum initiatives taking place, I fell back on skimming, without being able to take the time to read carefully enough to respond. I hope to spend some more time reading over the winter break (and of course I’ll respond in the LJ community then!), but take what is below as based on a partial reading (and if you want to point me at great rounds I missed, feel free to do so).

I learned :

That while there are still some important issues regarding gender in the area of fan studies, one of the more serious gaps that needs to be addressed are disciplinary differences. I have a much stronger sense than before of all the current academic disciplines that fan studies is developing in, and a sense that we need to talk more. That being said, I was disappointed to

see so little representation by people trained in the social sciences [remember, point me to stuff I might have missed].

I was glad to see so much work being done along such a wide spectrum of fan productions and communities, and in fandoms such as sports, soap opera, etc. I learned a lot from reading postings by people active in those areas.

I was glad to see some sense of the international nature of fan studies, although I look forward to seeing more work in future by academics working with fan communities and cultures in other national languages.

However, I also learned:

My initial skepticism about the tendency of the majority of male academics to show little to no interest in any serious discussion about gender disparity in scholarship, status, texts, professional places, etc., was confirmed. Perhaps the existence of some women academics saying they had not faced discrimination indicates that in some academic environments things

are changing, or in some disciplines, but the lack of acknowledgment of other women’s experiences was problematic.

I am concerned at the extent to which, even in discussions where feminism was identified as an important part of a field or discourse, many of the participants seemed to insist on locating sexism as individual intentional acts as opposed to acknowledging the systemic and institutionalized nature of organized and restrictive hierarchies. Being marginalized in one academic discipline because you study X subject being consistently equated with being

marginalized in the whole academic culture because of gender and field or study and perhaps sexual identity reduces the whole debate to accusations of some individuals lack of character

I learned that if it was this hard, after thirty some years of feminist discussions in mainstream culture and academia, to discuss gender disparity, that serious discussion of class and race are probably not going to happen any time soon among the aca-fen (despite happening more in fandom). I saw only one round where a participant seriously discussed race and class.

I learned that it is very rare for male academics even in this more informal forum to talk at all about how children might affect their careers in any way whatsoever. Whether there is little or no effect, or whether men are simply trained never to talk about their children in professional

spaces, or some combination of both, I am not sure. From research done about women’s marginalization in the academy, I suspect that the gaps showing up between childfree women and women who choose to have children will consider to be a problem for some time.

I learned that identification of male privilege, a common concept for decades among feminists, is still perceived as an attack on individuals by some.

I learned that there are always male allies who are appreciated.

I have been glad to meet those men who I will consider from now on as part of the (numerically mostly) female networks where I prefer to spend most of my networking energies.

On the whole, however, I do not think that new and evolving disciplines are necessarily move egalitarian than existing/traditional ones, and that without careful and on-going self-evaluation, a new discipline can easily ossify into old patterns, even if there are a few more white, middle-class women active in it.

Jonathan Gray

One of my original responses to Kristina when she and I discussed fandom, fan studies, and academia’s gender divides in Austin was that a lot of the divisions were “just” because of friendship groups. I’ve since come around to seeing many structuring divides that determine those friendship groups in the first place. And since knowing each other’s work and ideas are the best “in” towards establishing better social networks, which will in turn determine more balanced panel constituency, audience constituency, collaborations, etc. in the future, I’m cautiously optimistic that the discussions that have taken place here have formed something of a community (The Fan Détente Summer Camp?) that wasn’t there before, and that is now considerably more gender diverse. I know many more people’s work, and I feel I know the field much better now.

That said, I don’t want to make it sound like the work’s done, since I think this Détente has pointed out how much work is required to try and fight the subtler forms of gendered privilege. In particular, clearly more effort is required of us guys to be feminist fan studies (or fan studies-ish) scholars than just smugly knowing we’re not the overtly sexist bastards we see elsewhere, and than reading, teaching, and writing with feminist theory.

In moving forward, part of what interests me is how representative or not this group is. For instance, there’ve been numerous “fandom-lite” males at the Détente, but few fandom-lite females. I know they exist en masse, though, because I meet many of them at conferences, in dept corridors, etc. I’d like to hear how streamlined the experiences of the “fangirls” are with those of the “non-fangirls,” as this might tell us what’s unique and what’s not to fan studies’ gender divides. I worry somewhat that at times in this discussion the small group of scholars here, along with their fandoms and fan practices, have been asked to stand in for female or male fandom and female or male consumption more generally. So I’m keen to continue these discussions, both with the Summer Camp and with other fan and non-fan studies men and women.

All along, though, I wish we could’ve had this whole thing take place in a pub. With Henry buying. Nevertheless, thanks go out to Henry and Kristina for getting the ball rolling on this, and here’s to some pub trips in the future.

Karen Helleckson:

Although these fan debates have been valuable, for me, they were less valuable as an explication of gender disparity than as an examination of current scholarship in a huge variety of arenas. I liked the biography parts the best: I found myself looking for others like me, like Deborah Kaplan (#16) and Kristina Busse (#7)–those of us who are unaffiliated. I read everybody’s bio with interest. This situating of the self helped me construct their theoretical framework for reading their texts. These constructions of self credential, but they also illuminate. With “my published books include” laid next to “my primary fandom is,” it’s clear that the academic and the fan must coexist, else how to entwine the interests?

The explications of the entwining that followed ranged from practice (eg, #21, Lucas and Santo) to theory (eg, #18, Russo and Postigo). I found myself enjoying the latter just a little bit more: I have my own practice, my own ways of engagement, which seems unlikely to change anytime soon, but my mind grabs onto these theoretical elements and then begins free-associating. I read about affect and gender (#14, Coppa and Kozinets) and was seized with a desire to revisit the poetics of pleasure; or I read about Japanese cinema fandom (#19 Morimoto and Surman) and it struck me that I have not seen much Japanese cinema, and certainly that must be rectified immediately. The sheer range of interests makes me dizzy, and everywhere I look, I see potential for good, fruitful, interesting work–work that I would like to do, and in that regard, the fan debates have inspired me to begin writing again, after a long time away.

I wrote my dialogue with Jason Mittel using Google Documents, where each could go in and edit the work of the other–a collaboration I very much enjoyed and have used since then with others. I began writing down my own thoughts at my WordPress blog, a process I enjoy despite the lack of dialogue inherent in the fan debates. So the fan debates have certainly helped make me engage better, and they’ve drawn my attention to the work of many people I didn’t know anything about–as well as taught me things about people I do know.

Instead of he said/she said, the fan debates have become we said. The dialogues, taken together, have created a kind of metadialogue. True, it doesn’t come to any kind of grand conclusion. The gender-based feelings of exclusion that inspired the project are still in evidence (I witnessed much the same thing at the recent 21st annual SLSA meeting). The same notions of power and authority still apply, even as we discuss them. But the connections made, interlocutor to interlocutor, pairing to pairing, strike me as worthy things in and of themselves. I would consider e-mailing someone I don’t really know to ask for advice or an opinion, rather than staying close to my own network. I spend too much time in a small group, and it’s time to widen my circle of acquaintances.

Thanks for that opportunity.

Anne Kustritz:

In reviewing these past few months of blog posts, I find I’m left with tentative optimism and a few areas of future concern. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to speak publicly in this company, and particularly to raise the visibility of gender as an axis of oppression and a lens for analysis within fan studies. When time permitted, I greatly enjoyed reading the contributions posted here for the glimpse that they provide into such a wide range of approaches to fan studies. However, I must also recall moments of shock and dismay as the discussion repeatedly revealed the enormous amount of work yet to be done on gender issues within our field, and in the academy more generally.

Overall, I remain unconvinced that a discussion series between individual scholars adequately responds to the institutional problems which prompted this debate. The issues of sex/gender related disparities in graduate student admissions, hiring, tenure decisions, wage levels, publishing, and conference organization require broad, institutional interventions far beyond the scale of our conversations here, and I hope that the détente will inspire those larger acts of intervention.

In addition, this series of exchanges magnified some of the difficulties which always plague interdisciplinary work and communication within an interdisciplinary field. Crossing disciplinary boundaries is incredibly exciting and necessary to the study of fan activities. Yet, such hybrid methodologies also involve increased risk. As fan studies adopts the tools of many disciplines, I think that we must take a very serious look at how those tools developed, and what kind of theoretical, socio-cultural, and historical baggage they carry with them. Further, if we are committed to being able to talk with each other, the task of translation across disciplines also deserves attention as the language of fan studies moves to embrace the jargon of an ever expanding number of fields. This détente included scholars from a promising array of disciplines, theoretical backgrounds, and methodological hybridities, but that very richness demands that in the future fan studies scholars work together to understand each other’s theoretical languages, and work to fully engage with the literatures associated with our interdisciplinary methodological choices.

Barbara Lucas:

While I cannot say that I have faced the same level of institutional sexism that has been discussed in (and was, in part, the impetus for) our debates, mostly because my full-time job is in management at a Fortune 100 company, I am a woman working in a male-dominated industry. My company has women managers in accounting and call center operations, human resources, and client relations, but I am the only female manager in field operations. I believe it is easier for me to compete in my corner of the corporate world than it would be in academia. In my corporate position, I can measure success in terms of goals met and results achieved. Those are the things I am judged on, and they are things that can be documented and verified. However, in academia, I am judged on my ideas, my interpretations and perceptions, and the judgments people make based on such things are definitely more subjective, more likely to be colored with their own biases.

In these debates, we have touched on what it means to be a part of an environment where judgments are made in such a fashion. We’ve also taken care to distance ourselves as individuals from the sort of behavior. I would have liked to have seen this issue discussed in greater detail. It seems critical when we consider that we are called on to specialize and hone a particular area of expertise, only to find that the texts or approaches that speak most strongly to us are the marginalized ones. This makes it all too easy to marginalize the scholars who work with them and the work those scholars produce.

One of the things that our shared field of study encourages and demands is a flexible, interdisciplinary approach to texts. While our critical approaches may reach across disciplines, at times, our focus and application of them can become decidedly myopic. These debates have afforded me the opportunity to see how other scholars approach their own work, and it is this unearthing of the rich veins of possibility that I might not have stumbled across on my own that I found this the most valuable part of our exchanges. I hope that we can continue the dialogues we stared in this forum.

Eden Lee Lackner:

While I think the discussion has been useful in allowing for some limited cross-discipline discussion and for bringing gender, racial and cultural issues to the fore, I do believe that it has also underlined the insidiousness of institutionalized sexism. This may be a function of individualized debates in which participants are far more focussed on person-to-person discourse than larger frameworks, as much of the gendered considerations seemed to whittle down to individual experiences that discard the context in which they take place. That is fairly disheartening as it is a block that requires work from all sides to dissolve, and I do not get the sense that that willingness is in place as of yet.

Additionally, in preparation for these debates I was once again reminded that sexism is not only intergender, but is also — perhaps more insidiously — intragender. Issues around providing childcare are largely ignored by many academics on either side of the gender divide, as are essential caregiver roles for those of us with elderly or ailing parents; while these may be major barriers to traditional notions of “proper” academic compliance, no quarter is given for those of us who have loved ones depending on our support. By and large, it is women who fill the caregiver role, and most often suffer the consequences of it: lack of opportunities to move up the academic ladder/participate in projects, lack of tenure, lack of recognition, lack of support. Although I saw this spectre of intragender sexism raise its head, I did not see it discussed in a frank manner within the scope of the series.

I think the reliance on binaries — fan/academic, female/male, fangirl/fanboy, pink/blue — is damaging, as it polarizes research and researchers, and frankly, most observations and interactions tend to fall somewhere in between regardless. By forcing our work and ourselves into neat categories, we fail to consider a multiplicity of viewpoints and the palimpsests that make up so much of active fanworks.

Regardless, I was pleased to see a number of different facets considered, from sexism to racism to ethnocentrism, and I do hope to see these discussions spin out in other arenas. And of course, while we touched on these things, we have by no means plumbed the depths of any of them. There is much work still to be done in these areas, which will prove fruitful for those who pursue them. I think we missed an all important complicator, however, in terms of class and who has access to the media we study.

In short, I think these debates were a good start. The interdisciplinary nature of them was eye-opening and fascinating, and the various approaches therein provide Fan/Media Studies with a scope that other disciplines lack. It’d be in all our best interests to continue discussing and interacting with one another, and I would hope in doing so we not only strengthen the discipline but also become more open to issues of privilege.

Robert Jones:

When I was first asked by Henry to participate in the Fangirl/Fanboy discussion, I was both honored and unsure of how I would fit in the conversation. Having published a chapter in Nina and Karen’s book on fan cultures, I figured that was what had earned my invitation into the discussion. But as with that volume, I tend to find myself odd man (and I use that intentionally) out among the aca-fan crowd because my fandom extends strictly from gaming. I will always be a lover of the Star Wars sage, but would hardly count myself a fan of the ranks of so many of the other participants in this discussion. And I say this not to alienate gaming fandom from TV/Film fandom because there are certainly crossover elements that many have explored; Bob Rehak and Christian McCrea in particular have illustrated that during this process. However, so many of the aca-fans who primarily come from literary backgrounds and deal mostly with fan fiction seem to share a lack of interest in gaming as a narrative form. Add to that the fact that gaming already carries with it a huge amount of cultural baggage as an area that has so far to come in terms of gender divides, and the fit seems even more difficult. I certainly found the process rewarding and felt I have learned quite a bit about the many tensions at play within the fandom literature.

I would say that the defensive nature in which people were so quick to guard their sacred cows was somewhat surprising. Looking back at my own contribution, I even surprised myself in falling into that same trap. I hardly intended to fetishize gaming technology in regards to the fandom of machinima, but it certainly reads that way in retrospect. My intent was to instead introduce that gender divide that gaming brings with it as it pertains to the technology. Far from essentializing gender as a prescriptive way for understanding why we find so many more men participating in gaming fan culture (i.e. machinima, mods, tournaments), I wanted to suggest cultural discourses and expectations become the motivating factors that make gaming spaces more welcoming to young men. So access becomes the key issue to address here, which is why I really liked it when Robin Reid suggested we expand this to a larger discussion of race/class. Because when we talk about fanboys, we are most often talking about white males with access to these texts and free time to consume them. Unfortunately, the discussion I wound up having tried to situate gaming technology on a different plane than fan-fic and fan-vids. In retrospect, not my best move.

In regards to the split of the discussion that ultimately migrated to Live Journal, I wonder if that is just indicative of this tension/conflict (I hate even using such combative language) that this whole project aimed to overcome. As many had pointed out, the gender divide seemed to carryover into that forum as well, with the women commenting on LJ while the men commented here. Again as an outsider to traditional fan cultures, I found myself only lurking there without the courage to respond to what was certainly a more “spirited” debate than the tamer comments on Henry’s site. So while this experience has been rewarding in many ways, particularly being directed to the work of Hector Postigo, I’m not sure that we get to say that “we did it.” Not that there were ever any hard and fast goals set out to what this was to achieve, but I would be curious how this will ultimately impact practice. Perhaps a good question to ask everyone would be: What do you plan to do differently within your own work now that you have been a part of this ongoing dialog? To be honest, I’m not even sure how I would answer that question. I’d have to give it some more thought.

Comments

  1. Just a really brief note – a number of participants noted some dismay that no male contributors acknowledged how family & parenting obligations impact professional opportunities. Well, to go highly meta, one of the main reasons that I didn’t find time & energy to write up a thoughtful comment to Henry’s request of wrapping up was that most surpluses of my time & energy during the teaching semester are aimed toward parenting 3 young children! And as many of the contributors here know, I recently had to frantically abandon an academic conference to rush home to a family waging war against the stomach flu. Personally, I tend not to publicly acknowledge such family demands because I don’t want to gripe when most parents are far less privileged with resources than I (or appear to overlook the fact that my wife does 80% of the parenting as she works part-time (out of the house, that is)). But if it serves a purpose, consider it public that family matters to structure temporal capital regardless of gender.

    Speaking of, gotta go take my daughter to ballet – how gendered can you get?!