The Last Airbender or The Last Straw?, or How Loraine Became a Fan Activist

This is another installment in our ongoing series about fan-activism and the ways certain kinds of groups are bridging between our experiences with interest-driven networks in participatory culture and public participation. This chapter tells the story of Loraine Sammy and the Racebender campaign, which challenged the white-washed casting of the feature film version of The Last Airbender. Thanks to the production chops of Anna Van Someren, we are able to share much of Sammy’s story in her own words, so do take time to watch the video segments attached to this piece.

As I have been working with Van Someren and Shesthova, two members of our research team, to prepare this piece for publication, I am reminded of work I did more than a decade ago around the Gaylaxians, a gay-lesbian-bi-trans science fiction fan group which made a concerted effort to get a sympathetic queer character on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The campaign failed in the short run in that the producers ultimately deflected or misdirected their requests, continually rephrasing them into how Star Trek might deal with the “issue” of gay rights, while the group wanted to show a future where being gay was not an issue. I am struck now by the growing number of science fiction series, British and American, which have matter of fact portrayals of same sex relationships, including Battlestar Galactica (whose show runner Ron Moore cut his teeth working on the Star Trek franchise.) I’ve never seen any one directly trace these shifts in the representation of sexuality in science fiction back to the Gaylaxians, but I have a sense that in the end, the campaign had some impact on our culture, even when its initial goal was lost. I hope the same can be said for the efforts of the Racebending efforts — they have lost the battle but will they win the war? (For more on the Gaylaxians, see Science Fiction Audiences or Fans, Bloggers and Gamers.)

Our connection to Racebending and Loraine Sammy came through a member of the research group Lori Kido Lopez, a doctoral student at Annenberg…. who is including Racebending in her Ph.D. research.

Loraine and The Last Airbender

by Anna Van Someren and Sangita Shresthova

Loraine Sammy grew up in Vancouver, Canada reading and collecting comic books. It was her love of comics that drew her to “this new thing called the internet”, where she hoped to connect with others who liked comics too. She became involved with many fandoms, including those of Star Trek and Harry Potter, and participated in several forums, mostly online. She is now conscious of the ways in which her own race, or rather its invisibility online, played out in these spaces. She also recalls how the online debates now referred to as Racefail’09, the issues surrounding race in science fiction worlds brought out by these discussions, and the people she met through this raised her awareness of racism within fantasy spaces and its impact on every day life.

Although she was a quiet observer during the Racefail discussions, Loraine’s personal investment in and commitment to the fantasy worlds she loved eventually led her to take action on issues of race and representation. Like many other fans, she was captivated by the world portrayed in Avatar the Last Airbender. Nickelodeon’s production of the cartoon drew heavily from Asian cultures throughout history and around the world. The meticulous research informing the characters, clothing, and practices of the tribes and characters has resulted in a show so rich and accurate in detail that teachers have been known to use it for school projects.

For some fans, the show provided the excitement of recognizing familiar cultural symbols; for others, it offered an invitation to identify, explore, and trace East Asian, Chinese, and Japanese cultural identities woven between real life and fantasy. When Paramount Pictures cast the live-action movie version of the epic, and chose white actors to play the four main characters, Loraine and many others were galvanized to take action.

“Narratives that people put faith in”

What is the role of an engaged citizen? What would a high school civics teacher most hope her students learn? Typical lists of civic competencies prioritize content knowledge about the workings of government, but are more and more likely to include intellectual skills such as “critical thinking”, “perspective-taking” and dispositions such as “personal efficacy” and “desire for community involvement”. Loraine is thinking about the ways in which market forces control how culture and identity get represented in society. She feels empowered enough to voice her opinion and – as we will see – transform the monologue that is the Hollywood apparatus into an open conversation across dispersed networks. How is it that a cartoon on television can motivate this kind of engagement? In our research, we’re particularly interested in exactly how and why stories – often fictional – launch, support, and frame social and political movements.

At Futures of Entertainment, we recorded a conversation between Henry Jenkins and Stephen Duncombe, NYU Professor and author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. Their discussion, about how we interact with narratives in ways that can motivate participation, illuminates Loraine’s trajectory from a rather private engagement with popular culture to a more public engagement with society:

Democracy as Communal Creation

Fans of The Last Airbender initially organized under the slogan Aang Ain’t White, using a Live Journal account to explain their argument, offer resources for joining the effort, and track their own visibility in the news. Live Journal worked well as an online headquarters, as many of the fans already had accounts at the site. Loraine herself had “a good amount of people” following her on LiveJournal, so in that way she was “able to be a trumpet for the cause”.

The main strategy of Aang Ain’t White was a letter-writing campaign, alerting Paramount Pictures about fans’ disappointment in the casting process, and asking for the film to be re-cast. Fans also created a sister Facebook group to protest the casting.

Along with fan activist Marissa Minna Lee, Loraine worked to evolve this first campaign into the broader “Racebending” movement, and became one of the movement’s primary leaders as it grew and drew in more supporters.

The existence of the Racebending campaign is “an act of communal creation” itself, and boasts an abundance of enthusiastic, active and creative production efforts. A search of the word “racebending” on Youtube yields over eighty videos, including videos like “Fighting Casting Racism”, personal pledges to boycott the movie, and a slideshow called “A Brief History of Yellowface in Pictures“.

airbender 2.jpg

A visual essay posted on the Aang Ain’t White LiveJournal account inspired Youtube user chaobunny12 to produce the video essays, including Asian Culture in the Avatar World, juxtaposing images from the Airbender cartoon with images showing the Asian architecture, dress, and practices which inform and style the story world. Chaobunny’s work in turn roused doldolfijntje to create a response video, similar in construction but focused specifically on comparing images of Airbender‘s water tribe to images depicting Inuit culture.

Pooling their skills in illustration and design, fanartists have created a compelling campaign of smart taglines paired with a simple representation of Aang, powerful in its recollection of street-art stenciling techniques. This collectively produced work has been distributed via postcards, banners, stickers, buttons, a visual guide to the controversy, and t-shirts.

airbender 1.jpg

[Read the fascinating story of the campaign’s copyright battle with Viacom and Zazzle here and here].

At the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, Racebending organizers Mike Le and Dariane Nabor invited artists to collaborate on a sketchbook, which they’ve now shared online. Response from the larger fan network included more creative endeavors: a comic titled “Heresies” at, blog posts at, and more, and “a brief and incomplete history…of white actors taking strong Asian roles”, featuring 10 video clips with commentary on Hyphen Magazine’s blog.

Partnerships and Alliances

These actions encouraged The Last Airbender protest – specifically Racebending – to towards a network of alliances with other groups, many of which did not grow out of popular culture fandom. In particular, the Racebending’s alliance with the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (or MANAA), a activist organization which advocates “balanced, sensitive and positive portrayals of Asian Americans” in American media. The collaboration with MANAA moved Racebending into a new space and group’s website now indicates that they view The Last Airbender within the larger context of a systematic mis-and-under representation of minorities in media. In many ways, the alliance between Aang Ain’t White and MANAA becomes a productive meeting place for two communities that mobilize and work in very different ways. Aang Ain’t White emerged quickly, in response to a particular problem and is now on the cusp of more sustained political action. More established and broader in scope, MANAA also plays a watchdog role, although it relies more on actions based in protest, rather than creative production.

Through its interaction with organizations like MANAA, the Racebending movement in general and Loraine specifically now align themselves with activism around race representation. Racebending now defines it’s mission as follows:

“We want Paramount Pictures – and all Hollywood studios – to know that supporting and hiring actors of color in prominent roles will help build passionate, devoted audiences. The appeal of Hollywood’s films will expand with greater attention to the face of modern America.” (source: Racebending)

Mobilization around The Last Airbender became a first step towards a deeper, sustained and overtly political engagement with race in popular media.

From Fandom to Activism: A “thick” politics

For Loraine, The Last Airbender became a point of entry into a growing and sustained mobilization around race in popular media. Through her deepening involvement in Racebending, Loraine journeyed from participatory culture towards an active engagement with participatory democracy. In thinking about her personal trajectory, we recall Henry Jenkins’ discussion of the Digital Youth Project in “‘Geeking Out’ for Democracy” published in Threshold magazine:

“In a recent report, documenting a multi-year, multi-site ethnographic study of young people’s lives on and off line, the Digital Youth Project suggests three potential modes of engagement which shape young people’s participation in these online communities. First, many young people go on line to “hang out” with friends they already know from schools and their neighborhoods. Second, they may “mess around” with programs, tools, and platforms, just to see what they can do. And third, they may “geek out” as fans, bloggers, and gamers, digging deep into an area of intense interest to them, moving beyond their local community to connect with others who share their passions…. For the past few decades, we’ve increasingly talked about those people who have been most invested in public policy as “wonks,” a term implying that our civic and political life has increasingly been left to the experts, something to be discussed in specialized language. When a policy wonk speaks, most of us come away very impressed by how much the wonk knows but also a little bit depressed about how little we know. It’s a language which encourages us to entrust more control over our lives to Big Brother and Sister, but which has turned many of us off to the idea of getting involved. But what if more of us had the chance to “geek out” about politics?”

For Loraine “geeking out” as a fan of Avatar the Last Airbender was a key and crucial step towards “geeking out” on politics. Throughout this journey, her perspectives, approaches and motivations remain rooted in participatory culture, moving us towards a richer definition what Stephen Duncombe calls “thick politics”:

In this conversation, Henry Jenkins speaks to the “changing the norms of your society rather than changing the rules of your society”, and Racebending is an effort to do just that, by “advocating just and equal opportunity in film and television.” For Loraine, Racebending has become journey from fandom to activism; from participatory culture to civic engagement.

Announcing Transmedia, Hollywood:S/Telling the Story

Conference Overview:

Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story is a one-day public symposium exploring the role of transmedia franchises in today’s entertainment industries. The event brings together top creators, producers, and executives from the entertainment industry and places their critical perspectives in dialogue with scholars pursuing the most current academic research on transmedia studies.

Co-hosted by Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins, from UCLA and USC, two of the most prominent film schools and research centers in Los Angeles, Transmedia, Hollywood will take place on the eve of the annual Society of Cinema & Media Studies conference, the field’s most distinguished gathering of film and media scholars and academics, which will be held this year in Los Angeles from March 17 to 21, 2010.

By coinciding with SCMS, Transmedia, Hollywood hopes to reach the widest possible scholarly audience and thus create a lasting impact in the field. It will give cinema and media scholars from around the world unprecedented access to top industry professionals and insight into their thinking and practices.


USC Cinematic Arts Complex, Los Angeles

Conference Summary:

Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story

As audiences followed stories as diverse as Heroes, Lost, Harry Potter, and Matrix, from one format to another–from traditional television series or films into comics, the Web, alternate reality or video games, toys and other merchandise–Hollywood quickly adopted the academic term “transmedia” and began plastering it above office doors to describe this latest cultural phenomenon. This is not to say that convergent culture and transmedia storytelling are new concepts; instead, the emergence of convergence can be traced to the 19th century when a Barnum and Bailey-style mode of entertainment first took hold, maturing in the mid-1950s with Walt Disney’s visionary multi-platform, cross-promotional, merchandising extravaganza known as Disneyland.

Since then, Hollywood has created countless new transmedia titles, everything from Batman to Star Wars – an evolution only accelerated by the advent of digital convergence. While transmedia, in one way, vindicates the logic of the integrated media conglomerate and activates the synergies long hoped for by the captains of industry in charge of Hollywood’s six big media groups, it may also prove to be more than they bargained for. Engaged, “lean-forward” consumers–coveted by advertisers and entertainers alike–are not content simply to watch traditional media but rather, they produce their own videos, remix other people’s work, seek out those who share their interests, forging concordances and wiki’s, fan fiction, and various forms of interactivity that are still in their infancy and that corporate Hollywood is just beginning to explore. Copyright law, guild rules, and the conventions of audience quantification are frequently operating at cross-purposes with these new, expansive sets of cultural-industrial practices. As the demise of the music industry shows, active audiences and technological advances can create an explosive combination, powerful enough to bring down an entire industry. The entertainment industry wants to embrace this new, active consumer while ensuring its own survival by seeking to recreate familiar rules of what is considered “valuable” and “entertainment” within traditional business models.

Transmedia, Hollywood turns the spotlight on media creators, producers and executives and places them in critical dialogue with top researchers from across a wide spectrum of film, media and cultural studies to provide an interdisciplinary summit for the free interchange of insights about how transmedia works and what it means.

Conference Panels

Topic: Reconfiguring Entertainment

Henry Jenkins, USC, Moderator

The recent news that Disney is buying Marvel Comics has sent shock waves through the entertainment industries as two companies, which have built their fortunes on transmedia experiences but for very different groups of consumers, are being brought together under single ownership. What implications does this merger have for the kinds of entertainment experiences we will be consuming in the next decade? This panel brings together visionaries, people who think deeply about our experiences of play, fun, and entertainment, people whose expertise is rooted in a range of media (games, comics, film, television) to think about the future of entertainment as a concept. Transmedia designers often use the term, “mythologies,” to describe the kinds of information rich environment they seek to build up around media franchise and deploy the term, “Bibles,” to describe the accumulated plans for the unfolding of that serial narrative. Both of these terms link contemporary entertainment back to a much older tradition. So, are we simply talking about a largely timeless practice of storytelling as it gets relayed through new channels and platforms? Or are we seeing the emergence of new modes of expression, new kinds of experiences, which are only possible within a converged media landscape? What does it mean to have “fun” in the early 21st century and will this concept mean something different a decade from now? In what ways will the desire to produce and consume such experiences reconfigure the entertainment industry or conversely, how will the consolidation of media ownership generate or constrain new forms of popular culture? What models of media production, distribution, and consumption are implied by these future visions of entertainment?

Topic: ARG: This is Not a Game…. But is it Always a Promotion?

Denise Mann (UCLA) moderator

Using a collective intelligence model disguised as play, Alternate reality games, or ARGs, give any individual with a computer a means of problem-solving anything from global warming to the true meaning of the Dharma Institute conspiracy. ARGs also give instant “geek cred” to marketers from stuffy firms like Microsoft and McDonalds tasked with selling consumer goods to the Millennials. Are these elaborate scavenger hunts, which send players down an endless series of rabbit-holes in search of clues, teaching them how to think collectively or are they simply the latest in a long series of promotional tools designed to sell products to tech-savvy consumers? Unlike regular computer games, ARGS engage a multitude of players using a multitude of new technologies and social media formats–sending clues via Web sites, email, or just as likely, by means of an old-fashioned phone booth in some dusty, small town in Texas. For ARG creators, the new entertainment format represents rich, new storytelling opportunities, according to Joe DiNunzio, CEO of 42 Entertainment (AI, Halo 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). However, for the big six media groups, the primary purpose of ARGs is promotional–a new-fangled way of selling Spielberg’s AI (The Beast), WB’s Dark Knight, Microsoft’s Halo 2 (ilovebee’s), or ABC’s Lost (The Lost Experience). In other words, are ARGs simply a novel new way for the big six media groups to prompt several million avid fans to start beating the promotional drum on behalf of their favorite movie, TV series, or computer game or do they represent a new way of harnessing revolutionary thinking? In this panel, ARG creators, entertainment think-tank consultants, and media scholars will debate the social vs. commercial utilities associated with this latest form of social engagement.

Topic: Designing Transmedia Worlds

Henry Jenkins (USC) moderator

Transmedia entertainment relies as much on world-building as it does on traditional storytelling. Transmedia practices use the audience’s fascination with exploring its richly detailed world (and its attendant mythology) to motivate their activities as they seek out and engage with content which has been dispersed across the media landscape. Recent projects, such as Cloverfield, True Blood, and District 9, have relied on transmedia strategies to generate audience interest in previously unknown fictional universes, often combining promotional and expositional functions. Derek Johnson has argued that these fictional worlds are “over-designed,” involving much greater details in their conceptual phase than can be exploited through a single film or television series. This “overdesign” emergences through new kinds of collaborations between artists working both for the “mother ship,” the primary franchise, and those working on media extensions, whether games, websites, “viral” videos, even park benches. In this new system, art directors and script writers end up working together in new ways as they build up credible worlds and manage complex continuities of information. What does it mean to talk about fictional worlds? How has this altered the processes behind conceptualizing, producing, and promoting media texts? What new skills are emerging as production people learn to introduce, refine, and expand these worlds through each installment of serial media texts? And how do they manage audience expectations that they will continue to learn something more about the world in each new text they consume? What does each media platform contribute to the exploration and elaboration of such worlds?

Topic: Who Let the Fans In?: “Next-Gen Digi-Marketing”

Moderator: Denise Mann (UCLA)

Most Hollywood marketing campaigns remain overly reliant on expensive broadcast television commercials to reach a large cross-section of the audience despite growing evidence that avid fans are capable of generating powerful word of mouth. In the decade since The Blair Witch Project‘s website became a model for engaging a core audience by creating awareness online, a new generation of marketing executives has emerged, challenging the effectiveness of top-down strategies and advocating “bottom-up,” social media marketing. By fusing storytelling and marketing–ranging from ABC’s low-tech, user-generated aesthetic in “Lost Untangled” to Crispin, Porter + Bogusky’s polished, eye-candy approach to selling Sprite in its “sublymonal advertising” campaign–this next generation of web marketers has upended previous notions about where content ends and the ad begins. Having grown up reading Watchman comics, playing Sims, and surfing the Web for like-minded members of their consumer tribe, these new media professionals come armed with the knowledge of what it means to be a fan; as a result, they are refashioning the processes and structures that inform the relationship between audience members and the culture industry–forcing today’s media conglomerates to adapt to the new realities of the cultural-industrial complex while also ensuring their own survival. Gen-Y consumers’ sophisticated understanding of, but less contentious relationship with brand marketing, invites today’s media marketers to embrace a revolutionary mode of selling that may impact copyright law, guild agreements, professional standards, and the global labor market. What is the future of entertainment? Will the Internet be run by top-down mid-media corporate owners or bottom-up Web-bloggers or some yet to be realized combination of both?

Speakers include:

Ivan Askwith, Director of Strategy, Big Spaceship (recent projects include work for NBC, A&E, HBO, EPIX, Second Life and Wrigley).

Danny Bilson, THQ (The Rocketeer, Medal of Honor, The Flash, The Sentinel)

Emmanuelle Borde, Senior Vice-President, Digital Marketing, Sony Imageworks Interactive (her award-winning team of marketers, designers, producers and technologists have developed thousands of websites and digital campaigns for Sony Worldwide products, including Spider-man, 2012, Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, etc.)

David Bisbin, Art Director/Production Designer (Twilight, New Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Drug Store Cowboy)

Will Brooker, Associate Professor, Kingston University, UK. (selected publications: Star Wars [2009]; Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture [2005]; The Bladerunner Experience [2006];Using the Force [2003]; Batman Unmasked [2001]

John Caldwell, Professor, UCLA Department of Film, TV, Digital Media (selected publications: Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Film/Television Work Worlds [ 2009]; Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film/Television [2008]; New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, [ 2003]; Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television, (1995)

Alan Friel, Partner, Wildman Harrold & Associates

John Hegeman, Chief Marketing Office, New Regency Productions (spearheaded marketing campaigns for: Saw 1 & 2, Crash at Lionsgate; The Blair Witch Project at Artisan, etc.)

Mimi Ito, Associate Researcher, University of California Humanities Research Institute (Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software; Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media; Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life)

Derek Johnson, Assistant Professor, University of North Texas

Laeta Kalogridis, Screenwriter (Shutter Island, Night Watch, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Battle Angel; Executive Producer, Birds of Prey and Bionic Woman)

Richard Lemarchand, Lead Designer, Naughty Dog Software (Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune; Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)

R. Eric Lieb, Partner in BlackLight Media; Former Editor-in-Chief, Atomic Comics; Former Director of Development, Fox Atomic (Jennifer’s Body; I Love You Beth Cooper; 28 Weeks Later)

Marti Noxon, Producer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Prison Break; Gray’s Anatomy; Mad Men)

Roberta Pearson, Professor, University of Nottingham (selected publications: Reading Lost [2009]; Cult Television [2004]; The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches [1991], etc.)

Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh, Founding Partners, No Mimes Media (recent credits include: Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Nine Inch Nails, Pirates of the Caribbean II)

Nils Peyron, Executive Vice President and Managing Partner, Blind Winks Productions

Louisa Stein, Head of TV/Film Critical Studies Program, San Diego State University (Limits: New Media, Genre and Fan Texts; Watching Teen TV: Text and Culture)

Jonathan Taplin, Professor, Annenberg School For Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California; CEO, Intertainer.

John Underkoffler , Oblong, G-Speak (technical advisor for Iron Man, Aeon Flux, Hulk, “Taken”, and Minority Report).

Steve Wax, Managing Partner, Campfire (Northern Lights, The Little Sister, Unmade Beds)

Jordan Weisman, Founder, Smith & Tinker (Credits include: The Beast, I Love Bees, Year Zero)

Admission is free to Students and Academics, $25 for general public.

Register now at:

Watch this space for more information.


Will New Law Block Many Slash, Anime, Manga Sites in Australia?

The following guest blog post came about as a result of some e-mail correspondence with Australian researcher Mark McLelland, who described to me some significant shifts in media policy in his home country, Australia, which we both felt should be better understood not only by fans there but around the world. Certainly, the issues around this new internet filter policy have cropped up in many other parts of the world and serve as a helpful reminder that fans need to understand how local, national, and international laws may impact their fan writing practices — especially those writing and circulating controversial or risky stories. The issues raised here are important ones, especially in the context of an increasingly globalized fan culture.

Australia Set to Introduce Internet Filter that Could Block Access to Thousands of Anime, Comics, Gaming (ACG) and Slash Fan Sites

Mark McLelland, University of Wollongong

In December 2009 the Australian government announced that it would be proceeding with legislation to introduce an ISP-level internet filter aimed at blocking access to material that would be ‘refused classification’ (RC) under the National Classification Scheme. ‘Such material includes child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act’.1

A report by three leading Australian media studies scholars also released in December 2009 pointed out a large number of gray areas which might lead to censorship creep and vastly increase the number of sites that could end up on the government’s blacklist. These include sites debating the merits of euthanasia, sites set up by community organizations promoting safe drug use, sites for LGBT youth where some participants detail their sexual experiences and sites discussing the geo-political causes of terrorism that cite actual material published by terrorist groups.2

However, so far in the debate, no-one has taken into consideration how Australia’s anti- ‘child abuse publications’ legislation might massively increase the scale of sites requiring blacklisting. How so? Because in both federal and state legislation in Australia ‘child abuse publications’ refer not just to pictures (whether real or digitally altered) of actual children, but to any ‘representation of a person’, fictional or otherwise, ‘in a sexual context’ or ‘as the victim of torture, cruelty or physical abuse’. The definition of ‘person’ is very broad and covers depictions in a computer game, animation, comics, art work and even text.3

Different State legislatures have exhaustively detailed the nature of prohibited representations. In New South Wales (Australia’s most populous state and home to Sydney), the Crimes Act 1900 SECT 91FA, states that ‘”material” includes any film, printed matter, electronic data or any other thing of any kind (including any computer image or other depiction)’ (italics mine). The reference to ‘any other thing of any clearly leaves no scope whatsoever for imagination and fantasy outside the law.

This legislation has been tested in the courts. In 2008 an appeal against a conviction on the charge of possession of child pornography (in this case digitally manipulated images of The Simpsons children, Bart and Lisa) was launched on the basis that cartoon characters could not reasonably be described as ‘persons’. In his interpretation of the legislation, Justice Adams disagreed, and upheld the judgement of the original magistrate, commenting:

In my view, the Magistrate was correct in determining that, in respect of both the Commonwealth and the New South Wales offences, the word ‘person’ included fictional or imaginary characters and the mere fact that the figure depicted departed from a realistic representation in some respects of a human being did not mean that such a figure was not a ‘person’.4

This ruling is of great importance for Australia-based ACG and slash fans, since it clarifies that in Australia child pornography legislation applies equally to ‘fictional or imaginary characters’, even in instances when such characters ‘depart[..] from a realistic representation’. Given the ubiquity of such representations on both ACG and slash fan sites, it is easy for fans to stumble across material that would put them at the risk of prosecution. As the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995 makes clear, an individual is guilty of an offense if said individual, among other things, ‘uses a carriage service’ to access child-pornography material, cause the material to be transmitted, distribute, publish or otherwise make the material available.5

Hence Australian fans of ACG and slash who routinely access sites that may contain or link to representations of under-age characters in sexual or violent scenarios run the risk of arrest, prosecution and entry into the sex-offenders’ list. This material is already illegal to create, posses, access or share in Australia, but once the filtering legislation is enacted it will become difficult if not impossible to access these fan sites from Australia.

But surely this is the price we must pay as a society to fully protect our children? Is it not the case that allowing even fantasy representations of child sex creates a ‘climate of acceptance’ that encourages the acting out of the real thing? This is certainly the government line and those who have spoken out against the censorship creep endemic in the filter proposal have been criticized for failing to ‘think of the children’. However, if we look at some scenarios of content that may be blacklisted this naïve media effects argument makes little sense.

Take for example, the massively popular ‘Boys Love’ (BL) fandom, a genre of anime, manga and illustrated novels originating in Japan in the early 1970s which imagines sexual interactions between ‘beautiful boys’ (in this context adolescents). In Japan, Boys Love novels are sold in high-street stores, circulated at fan conventions and shelved in public libraries. This fandom went global in the late 1990s and now has a massive fan base in China, Korea and North America – the US even hosts a Boys Love convention – Yaoi-con ‘A Celebration of Male Beauty and Passion in Anime and Manga’.

There are over 52,000 Google hits for “Boys Love manga” in English alone. These stories are overwhelmingly authored by women for an audience of young women and schoolgirls – but don’t imagine these to be manga versions of Harlequin romances, for as fan scholar Kazumi Nagaike points out, ‘BL narratives include all kinds of sexual acts, such as hand jobs, fellatio, digital penetration of the anus and S/M’.6 If Japanese schoolgirls can handle fantasy depictions of boy-on-boy sex without turning into raging pedophiles, you’d think that Australian adults would be able to look at these depictions without going off the rails? Apparently not.

Let’s take as another example, ‘Wincest’, that is, imagined sexual scenarios between the two Winchester brothers in the hit TV show Supernatural. ‘Wincest slash’ turns up 109,000 Google hits – a lot to filter out. But surely Wincest is OK because the brothers are adults? Not so, because under the existing classification system ‘incest fantasies’ are refused classification. Hence, although it is not currently illegal to read Wincest in Australia, since incest merits an RC category, Wincest is eligible to be placed on the blacklist to be filtered out. Again, I would be interested to see research into the Wincest fandom that could establish links between these fantasy narratives and the increase of actual incestual relations among the fandom.

But maybe these concerns are just a storm in a tea cup? After all, the proposed filter blacklist is to be compiled on a complaints-based system. The government is not proposing to recruit an army of censors to track this stuff down (and given the scale it would require an army) but has instead entrusted the Australian Media and Communication Authority (ACMA) to investigate and make referrals to the list on the basis of complaints. Surely no-one in their right mind would waste ACMA’s time referring BL stories of boys bonking or Sam and Dean Winchester getting it on to ACMA?

Sadly, this is not so, as we saw just a few years ago in the ‘Great LiveJournal StrikeThrough of 2007’. This saw the mass deletion of fanfic blogs containing, among other things, Harry Potter slash (because of its underage content) and Supernatural slash (because of the incest). The take down was prompted by threat of legal action against the site’s administrators launched by a right-wing Christian group, Warriors for Innocence, who accused the site of harbouring material that promoted ‘rape, incest and pedophilia’. The administrators suspended a large number of journals based only on key words listed in their profiles and without checking for the context. The majority were fan sites but others included support sites for sexual abuse survivors.7

Although an instantaneous and massive backlash by fans saw the administration reverse their policy and reinstate most of the deleted material, such a balanced approach could not eventuate in Australia. As outlined, the law in Australia is clear, the material discussed above would be refused classification because of its content and as such would be eligible for the blacklist. Australia has no First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. End of story. This makes Australian fans and the academics who study fandom extraordinarily vulnerable to right-wing pressure groups.

If the filter proposal becomes law, it could shut down Australian fans’ engagement with broad and well-established international fandoms. The filter will also make it impossible for Australian academics to study ACG and slash fandoms, at least while they are resident in Australia. This would result in the absurd situation that academic inquiry carried out routinely in the US would become impossible in Australia. Critics of the proposal have highlighted how introducing this level of internet filtering will place Australia in a similar category to states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Where fan activities and fan studies are concerned, this is no hyperbole.

To take action against the Australian government’s proposed filter, go to

1. Consultation Paper, 2009, ‘Mandatory Internet Service Provider (ISP) Filtering: Measures to Increase Accountability and Transparency for Refused Classification Material’, December, available online, (accessed 16 January 2010).

2. Catherine Lumby, L. Green and J. Hartley, 2009, ‘Untangling the Net: The Scope of Content Caught by Mandatory Internet Filtering‘, online, (accessed 19 January 2010).

3. Criminal Code Act 1995 (Commonwealth) s.473.1, available online, (accessed 6 December 2009).

4. McEWEN v SIMMONS & ANOR [2008] NSWSC 1292, 2008, online, (accessed 7 December 2009), para 41.

5. Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995, 474.19, online: (accessed 6 December 2009).

6. Kazumi Nagaike, 2003, ‘Perverse Sexualities, Perverse Desires: Representations of Female Fantasies and Yaoi Manga as Pornography Directed at Women’, U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, 25, 76-103. For a description of the globalisation of the fandom see the essays in Mark McLelland, ed., 2009, Japanese Transnational Fandoms and Female Consumers, Intersections, issue 20, (accessed 7 December 2009).

7. John Casteele, ‘LiveJournal StrikeThrough ’07’, online:

Mark McLelland is an Associate Professor in the Sociology program at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He has published extensively about Japanese popular culture and was the 2007/08 Toyota Visiting Professor of Japanese at the University of Michigan. His paper ‘Australia’s Proposed Internet Filtering System and its Implications for Animation, Comics and Gaming (ACG) and Slash Fan Communities’ is forthcoming in issue 134 of Media International Australia, in February 2010.

Film Studies PhD Program at Iowa Endangered

When I was an undergraduate at Georgia State University studying journalism and political science, I skipped more classes than I attended. I spent much of my time writing for the student newspaper, sitting in the school cafe debating the current writings of film critics like Pauline Kael, Robin Woods, and Andrew Sarris, and attending screenings of the student film society.

One day, my political science mentor, William Thomas, called me into his office and said, “No offense, Henry, but it seems your real passion is film and not political science. Maybe you should think about going to graduate school to study cinema.” This was a revelation to me on two levels. First, I’d never really thought about going to graduate school before. No one in my family had a graduate degree. And Second, I never knew you could study film at an advanced level. Georgia State offered only a few film classes at that point — and then, only as electives. You always had the vague sense you were getting away with something when you took them. If I knew of advanced film studies, it was through the discourse of the “movie brats” who came through production programs at USC, UCLA, and NYU.

Once I started looking into it, I couldn’t stop thinking about going off to study film. I spent more time in the university library reading through the books there, trying to figure out where the authors were based. (I should have noticed when the books were published since the library was then a decade plus out of date and we missed out on most of the real energy that had turned film studies into a full academic discipline during that time.) I ended up writing a several hundred page undergraduate thesis on American films of the Depression era, a project which took over my life and further insured that my teachers didn’t see me in the classroom. (Well, that and dating the woman who would eventually become my wife.)

The larger problem was that I didn’t have the financial resources to go to graduate school and wasn’t sure how I would pay for it. I wasted two years trying to save up money when someone finally said just apply and see if they offer you financial aid. As I was filling in where to send my GRE scores, I had one empty slot and something in the back of my head told me to choose University of Iowa. In the end, I got accepted every place I applied but the University of Iowa was the only place which offered me full financial support. I will always be grateful that the faculty at Iowa took a chance on me, because otherwise I don’t know how I would ever have been able to get a graduate education and enter the profession which has dominated my life for several decades now.

I had no idea what to expect when I came to Iowa. What I found was a program which was then arguably one of the top few programs in the field of Cinema Studies. I was woefully under-prepared for the classes I took there and much flew over my head in those early years.

For example, right off the boat, so to speak, I had a chance to take a seminar with Dudley Andrew on the film theory of Christian Metz which culminated with Metz’s appearance at Iowa and a chance to spend one on one consultation with this key international film theorist. I took a seminar that first semester from Edward Branigan, who was one of an amazing area of key film critics and theorists who came as visiting scholars during the time I was with the program, and he adopted me as a pet project, helping me to find my bearings in film theory. I ended up taking a range of courses with him and we’ve remained close friends down to the present day. I soon had a chance to take a class on narrative theory from Rick Altman, who similarly helped to shape not only my thinking about genre and narrative but modeled for me what a graduate seminar that straddled multiple disciplines might look like and I still channel some of Altman’s approaches in my own teaching down to the present day. I had a chance to study Japanese and French cinemas with Dudley Andrew, a leading authority in this space. I had great conversations with Richard Dyer McCann, who had covered the glory days of Hollywood and had vivid stories to tell about his own front line perspective on the history of American movies. I met John Fiske there, when he was a visting scholar, and was introduced to the work of British Cultural Studies, which would become a key methodological and theoretical underpinning of my work down to the present day. Through the visits of former Iowa students, I got connected to a network of people doing cutting edge thinking about popular entertainment — who had in many ways mapped our modern conception of film genres. I will always be proud that I was one of the graduate students asked to speak at the opening of the new Communication Studies Building and one of the last to have much of my graduate experience through the Old Armory which had been the base for Cinema at Iowa for many years.

Ultimately, I decided to leave Iowa at the end of my masters to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my PhD. I have always felt some of my strengths as a scholar came from being able to combine these two great traditions, to have studied under a much broader array of faculty than I would have worked with at either place. These days, I am much more closely associated with Madison than with Iowa, but I remain deeply proud that I had those years in Iowa City. The faculty and students at Iowa helped me to make the transition from someone with a passion for film but little knowledge of film theory into someone who could hold his own at some of the top film programs in the country and helped to lay the foundations for my career down to the present day.

It is hard to imagine contemporary Film Studies without a strong Iowa tradition. The school trained many key figures who helped to establish the field, hosted many more as visiting scholars, and organized and hosted key conferences which transformed the fields of both film and television studies. I recall not only gatherings of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies but also the first Console-ing Passions conference, an earlier Television Studies event which may have helped consolidate that field, and an important gathering which explored the value of cognitive science to film theory, each of which represented important turning points in my own research and teaching.

I was stunned, therefore, when I received a letter from Cory Creekmur, currently the Director of the Film Studies Program at Iowa, to describe the current plight of the program. I will share some of the news in his own words:

Dear Alumni and Friends,

An ad hoc entity called the Provost’s Task Force on Graduate Education and Selective Excellence has just recommended the elimination of the PhD program in Film Studies at the University of Iowa, along with the MA and PhD programs in Comparative Literature. It has also recommended that the MFA in Film and Video Production be moved to a newly proposed Division of Communications (with Journalism and Communication Studies), and that the MFA

in Translation be moved to a newly proposed Division of World Languages and Cultures (with the foreign languages). These undesirable and illogical moves would in effect dismember the current Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature. Ours are not the only programs under threat, but ours is the only department that would be obliterated if the committee’s recommendations

were to be followed.

The committee was made up of mostly non-Humanists, and it did its work mostly on the basis of statistics like time to degree, GRE scores of applicants, and years of support offered to grad students. It identified the placement of Iowa Film Studies graduates as “good,” but did not note

that our graduates can be found at many of the world’s finest universities, including Yale, Brown, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, among many others. It did not employ any outside evaluators. It did not collect information on the work of faculty. It did not collect information on

program costs (the members of the committee know very well that Humanities grad degrees are dirt cheap by comparison with degrees in lab sciences). In short, the excellence of our programs was not something the committee had any basis for evaluating. We are preparing a response — due very soon — and would like your help, in part because you are in the position to offer an evaluation.

Clearly, the impressive legacy and ongoing vitality of the Film Studies program at Iowa were ignored in this decision. We are enormously proud of the accomplishments of our graduates, who have been crucial to the development and continued growth of Film Studies as a scholarly discipline in North America and beyond. Our current students promise to continue that legacy into the future. Former Iowa students are among the most productive scholars and influential teachers in the field, and while we do our best to continually inform the administration of this fact, we would now greatly appreciate your helping us to clearly and forcefully articulate the

importance of the excellence of our programs to those who will be deciding on the future of our programs.

Please send me a brief testimonial – a few lines would do it – about the importance of the program/s, Iowa’s place as a leader in X (your choice), how study here helped you, etc. While the MFA in Film and Video Production is not currently threatened, the committee did not consider the MFA as connected to Film Studies, although the programs have always benefited

enormously from close cooperation and linked interests. Its recommendations suggest in fact that it saw all the programs as separate entities that can be shoved around without affecting the program health of the others. If they do this, I think it will destroy not only Film Studies and Comp Lit but harm Film and Video Production and Translation as well.

Corey Creekmur

Director of Film Studies

Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature

The University of Iowa

I know many in the Film and Media Studies field read this blog. I am hoping that you will join me in expressing your dismay and concern over these developments and lending our support to Corey and the other faculty and students at Iowa. Destroying the Film Studies PhD at Iowa would be a tragic mistake!

“Going Bonkers” (Revisited): A Father-Son Conversation About Pee-Wee (Part Two)

Henry 3: Parents at the time were nervous about the show and the influence it might have on young people because they were “spooked” by the Pee-Wee personality. Mr. Rogers seems much more contained in his effeminacy while Pee-Wee was flamboyant and in your face, yet they are drawing on the same cultural reservoir, where men who spend too much time and show too much interest in children as seen as, well, a little abnormal. Yet, children always felt a strong kinship with Pee-Wee, embraced his innocence and playfulness, and that may be why the character is receiving such an out-pouring of love and affection from young adults right now.

Where adults some ambiguities about gender and sexuality, kids saw a “mystery” about how an adult could act like a kid or how a kid could look like an adult. Here’s what I wrote in “Going Bonkers” about the appeal of the show to you and your kindergarten classmates: “What makes Pee-Wee’s Playhouse ‘fun’ for the preschoolers, then, is the way that it operates as a kind of anti-kindergarten where playful ‘misbehavior’ takes precedence over ‘good conduct,’ children are urged to ‘scream real loud’ at the slightest provocations, making a mess is an acknowledged source of pleasure, ‘grown-ups’ act like children and parental strictures no longer apply.”

So, it sounds like I may have gotten it right if you imagine yourself seeing Pee-Wee’s campy moments in terms of “getting wacky…being snotty…going cuckoo” as the title song for the old series put it or “going bonkers” as you described it to me so many years ago. The point I made was that you and the other kids used the phrase, “going bonkers” to refer to what they found amusing about Pee-Wee and what embarrased them about the behavior of their classmates at school. Pee-Wee somehow created a space where it was OK to “go bonkers” and it may also have been a space where sexually charged jokes can never-the-less come across as sexually innocent.

Pee-Wee always surrounds such jokes with an air of plausible deniability. That’s why one of the most striking moments in the stage performance for me was when the show does an overt shout out to the progress towards gay marriage in response to a “why don’t you marry her” joke between Pee-Wee and Chairy. It’s impossible to imagine such a joke on the original show, where the gay references were a matter of coding — the use of iconic gay figures like the black cowboy or the fireman, use of sexually ambiguous figures like Reba the Mail-Lady or the drag queen like persona of Miss Yvonne, campy re-readings of vintage educational films (like the manners film so ripe in subtext shown during the play), and prissy gestures (especially around Pee-Wee and Jambi) and campy jokes (like the Sham-Wow or other infomercial themed gags running through the show) — but this gag rests on a shared understanding between the performers and the audience that the show is actively promoting gay marriage.

We can think of this as the moment Pee-Wee comes out of the closet, only to close the door again. By comparison, characters spend half of the play coming in and out of the bathroom and Pee-Wee could joke about “playing with himself” on the original series while taping up his face in front of the bathroom mirror. The networks famously prohibited the show from depicting Pee-Wee exiting the bathroom with tissue stuck to the bottom of his shoe, a joke that nevertheless made it on the air during the first season.

So, yes, adults and children watch different shows — and that’s always been part of the fun. The original stage production had both late night shows with all-adult audiences and early matinees just for kids, but they met happily in the middle, laughing at the same gags, often for very different reasons.

Henry 4: One of the best discoveries for me in reading you article was your fairly deep psychological analysis of the ways kids distance themselves from Pee Wee, even as they identify with him. You’re certainly right that I cringed when classmates ran around knocking things over and screeching because I wanted to feel more grown up than they were. I was an only child, and I wanted to feel special. In a family of graduate students that meant being serious all the time. But watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse did give me a safe time to be a kid, if only vicariously.

One of the kids you interviewed, Kate, described her dream of opening a construction company – a surprisingly practical goal for a five year old girl. But when you asked her if she would build a playhouse for Pee-Wee she said, “I would tell them that I saw that show that they wanted, but I have a lot of work to do and I can’t do it… And I don’t like, when I go home home, you see, my boss, he likes me to work and not go home and watch TV all the time.” Kate’s story makes me really sad. She’s trying so hard to earn respect that she can’t allow herself to be five. It starts that young.

I could be way off, but I’m guessing Kate’s father worked for a construction company, and that she was basically modeling her ideal future self after him.

You, of course, spent a lot of your time writing; so one of the ways I learned to feel grown up and earn approval was to write. Perhaps partially because you studied fan cultures, and partially because I had such a mismatched pile of action figures, I found it natural to write crossover stories about TV characters. As you accurately describe one of my typical plots, “Batman and Dr. Who can join forces to combat Count Dracula and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.” (That’s The Doctor, by the way. Not Dr. Who.)

Anyway, I may not have put myself in a room with Pee-Wee either, but I liked the idea that I could control what happened next in the story. I came up with hypotheses – “What if…?” or “What would Pee-Wee say if…?”

I therefore find it all the more revealing that I ended up following such a similar path when I grew up.

For a while after college I became a screenwriter for a regional professional wrestling company. As it happens, wrestlers, like Pee-Wee, tend to go bonkers and act like children in grown up bodies. Every Saturday night we held another show – another installment of the story – and I had a definite role in deciding what happened next. In learning to write for the characters, I often tried to capture the voice of particular WWF and WWE wrestlers who represented similar archteypes.

I thought of my job in very practical terms. I was trying to build my resume, collect a portfolio, make industry contacts. But turn the picture around just slightly and you see a very different picture. In a sense, I was able to make my childhood idols act out stories like giant action figures and use the crowd the way a child would use teddy bears at a tea party. They were there to enjoy my presentation.

Currently I am a TV critic and entertainment reporter at BuddyTV, a Seattle dot com. Last week I attended a party at CBS to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Survivor. 250 of the 301 former contestants were there, dancing and talking all around me. Since I have seen every episode of the show’s 19 seasons to date, that was a hair-raisingly exciting opportunity for me as a fan, let alone a reporter. To add to the crossover feel, I was especially excited to run into former WWE wrestler and Survivor contestant Ashley Massaro, who I had previously only encountered from the stands of 70,000 seat stadiums.

As it happens, I had already been friends with past contestants, and had known a few before they became TV “characters.” I have a far more nuanced sense than most of the line between the people and their on-screen counterparts, the real life events and the TV storylines. But none the less, blogging could legitimately be seen as another opportunity for me to tell stories surrounding my favorite TV characters. Since I have no control over what they say or do, the only thing left to dream up are the questions. It may sound like a loss but it doesn’t feel like one. There are no action figures here. You don’t have to pull anyone’s red bow tie to make them talk. I can just ask them questions and they’ll tell me things.

My original goal had been to set up a face to face interview with Paul Reubens (or, if he preferred, Pee-Wee Herman.) It would have been a surreal and awesome moment of life coming full circle. Lots of people had childhood dreams. I guess, in a way, that was mine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ascertain who his agent is, or how to contact them, as we normally rely heavily on long standing relationships with network laisons. Perhaps I’ll work that one out eventually.

I would like to see these career directions as a very happy ending to the dilemmas you pose about children feeling pressured to become practical and to deny their impulse to play. I play for a living, and then I do improv theater and compete on a co-ed kickball team with other young professionals for fun.

Still, I do have to admit that the fact I can’t remember Pee Wee’s Playhouse very well – or that reading about my five year old self feels like reading a fictional story – is disconcerting. Did I, at some point, divorce this other, playful personality in order to join the adult world? Are they gone? Or did I simply incorporate them?

Henry 3: When we were packing up our stuff at Senior House to get ready to move from Cambridge to Los Angeles, we stumbled upon your old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse action set in the basement. It had already survived multiple moves since Madison, but we’ve never wanted to be the parents who could be accused of tossing out our son’s old collectibles and besides, if you didn’t want it, I sure as hell did, so even though it was a bit musty and mal-shapen at this point, we packed it for another move and it remains in our new storage unit. I don’t know what it says that I can still tell you where the toy resides, more or less, while you may well have forgotten you had it.

What does this say about how childhood experiences inform parent’s cultural memory as much or more than they inform children’s recollections?

For me, there was something breathtaking when the curtains opened for the first time and we saw the playhouse there on stage (redesigned slightly by Gary Panther but more or less as we remembered it) and when we saw Pee-Wee being cradled in the loving and anthropomorphic arms of Chairy once again. The Playhouse itself was a magical place — whether as a small scale play set or as a full sized set in front of us in the theater. I felt a similar sense of breaking down the walls between fantasy and reality when I visited the Hollywood Museum recently and discovered that Pee-Wee’s legendary missing bicycle was on display there. No wonder he couldn’t find it in the basement of the Alamo, I thought; it’s been on the third floor of the old Max Factor factory all along.

In the essay, I wrote about how central the playhouse itself was in the kids drawings and the stories. Certainly they were fascinated by Pee-Wee but the Playhouse was a space “where anything could happen” and that incited their own interactions with the story. They might imagine themselves playing with Pee-Wee or not (as in Kate’s story above, where Pee-Wee could only exist as a character on a television show or another classmates where Pee-Wee lived “once upon a time in a place called Pee-Wee Land where everyone looked and acted like Pee-Wee”) but the playhouse was a space where they, too, could come and play — if only in their fantasies.

And part of what I described in the essay was the ways they interacted with and around the television show, how they “played” with its content, activity that often looked very different from adult expectations about what it meant to watch the show. Indeed, it’s content was being integrated into their everyday life and as your action figure reference above suggests, mixed up with other stories. Here’s part of how I described the party: “A large stuffed He-Man doll was used alternately as a ‘seat belt,’ lying across the lap of several children or as an imaginary playmate, addressed as a ‘naughty’ child and even spanked to the objection of some participants who felt he was not being ‘bad.’ One girl watched part of the episode through the eyes of a Man-At-Arms mask….A Silverhawks doll, with a telescopic eye, was passed around the circle so that all could get a chance to look at the ‘tiny tiny tiny TV set’ with its distorting lens.” In another words, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse had become the site of play (and provided the soundtrack for play with other television content), with kids drawing each other’s attention back to the screen when something silly or interesting happened.

A very different mode of engagement takes place when these 5 year olds, now in their late 20, go to see Pee-Wee on stage now. The Pee-Wee Herman Show is one of the most richly interactive experiences I’ve ever had in the theater. Some of it starts with Pee-Wee’s invitation to “shout real loud” whenever he says the secret word and thus the encouragement to make ourselves part of the experience of the show — an act which breaks down the fourth wall and gives us a much more immediate access to what’s happening in the playhouse. Often, interactive theater crashes and burns, producing displeasure, because the audience doesn’t know what’s expected of it, and here, we know the rules, we know what our role is, and participating is a way of returning to a more child-like state of enjoyment.

Of course, this level of passionate engagement starts well before we are invited to join — with the opening ovation we talked about earlier — and extends beyond the requested participation — the audience ended up singing along with an opening segment that incorporates familiar television jingles or in response to Magic Screen’s “connect the dots” jingle. Here, as with the Playhouse Play Set, we are invited not just to watch the show but to join the play. And for me, that was an experience I faced with uninhibited delight.

Of course, I’m still trying to adjust to a world where I can shout loud enough that Pee-Wee actually hears me. Last week, when I sent out a tweet expressing my enthusiasm about the show, Pee-Wee Herman retweeted the message to his followers with the simple addition, “fun!!” I certainly hope Pee-Wee’s having the time of his life up there. He deserves it.

Welcome back, Pee-Wee. We love you and we’ve missed you.

“Going Bonkers” (Revisited): A Father-Son Conversation About Pee-Wee (Part One)

This conversation contains mild spoilers about The Pee-Wee Herman Show.

Photo of actor Paul Reubens as "Pee-Wee H...

Image via Wikipedia

Henry 3:In the late 1980s, when Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was in its prime, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and you were in Kindergarten and we were each in our own ways huge fans of the series. My essay, “‘Going Bonkers’: Children, Play and Pee-Wee,” was one of my first academic publications, appearing in Camera Obscura in 1988, and subsequently reprinted in Constance Penley and Sharon Willis’s Male Trouble and in my own The Wow Climax.

In the process of writing the article, we hosted a Pee-Wee Party at our apartment and you played a central role in the research process, identifying who to invite and why, discussing with me what you observed about the experience. At the party, your kindergarten classmate watched and commented on episodes, made up stories, drew pictures, and play games around the Pee-Wee characters, though as you noted, they were often “going bonkers” and not totally focused on the series.

The essay is still taught today and I often encounter people who still imagine that you are in kindergarten, since you are such a vivid voice in the piece, forgetting that several decades have past since “that crazy show” (as one of your friends called it) was on the air. Paul Reubens, who played Pee-Wee Herman, is now 57 years old, after all, though still extraordinarily nimble. He’s bringing back The Pee-Wee Herman Show after all of this time, reconstructing something approximating the sets of the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and giving live performances at Club Nokia here in Los Angeles.

Your mother, you, and I were lucky enough to get sixth row tickets to the opening performance of the show. I thought we could use this blog post to reflect on that experience and at the same time, reflect back on what Pee-Wee meant in our lives several decades ago.

I don’t know about you but I felt positively misty-eyed when Pee-Wee walked back on the stage in character for the first time in several decades, only to be met with an extended, impassioned standing ovation from the audience.

When I was young, I remember reading about a stage revival of The Howdy Dowdy Show, where Buffalo Bill and Clarabell took to the road to visit college campuses and reconnect with members of the Peanut Gallery who had grown up watching the series. I’m sure the experience must have been very similar for you and others of your generation.

Henry 4: 24 years have passed since our Pee-Wee Party.

This morning I read “Going Bonkers” for the first time as an adult. It was a great read, but sort of unsettling. The Henry in the story – the 5 year old me – feels like a stranger. There are some similarities. We’re both fans, and as storytellers we steal heavily from TV. We have playful sides, but we’re irked by classmates whose behavior seems age-inappropriate. We’re both close with our dads.

Really, though, I’m tempted to say I’ve never met this Henry kid. I don’t remember what it was like to be him.

I do remember a few details of the party. I know that I was excited to be the center of attention, and to enjoy the show with my friends from school. But I was worried they wouldn’t have seen Pee-Wee’s Playhouse before. I didn’t know some of them as well as I wanted to, and even at the age of 5 I was afraid they would think it was strange that I was so excited about the show.

I also remember that I insisted on inviting a pretty little girl from my kindergarten class named Stephanie. I had met her on the first day of school and proceeded to break down sobbing in front of her when my mom left. Awkward! I was intensely curious about her story and her crayon drawing. Some things never change.

I almost feel guilty telling you, my memories of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse were very vague before I saw the play. I couldn’t have told you that Conky was a robot or that Jambi The Genie was a disembodied head. The moment when the curtain lifted and everyone sang was something of a revelation for me because so many memories came rushing back at once.

Perhaps it speaks to the disconnected way kids watch television that the stage and puppets reminded me of the toy replicas I used to play with more so than the TV show originals. Ask me to describe the plot of even one episode of the series and I still couldn’t do it. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse has become, for me, a set of props, sets, catch phrases, funny voices and mannerisms, rather than a story. Judging from your article, it always was.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is an ordered narrative I could quote scene for scene, and at moments line for line. I have watched that movie around once every other year since I was in kindergarten. But it’s that Pee-Wee I remember far better than the Pee-Wee from television.

None the less, like you, I was thrilled to see Pee Wee step on stage, and it was emotional to see him get such an exceptional standing ovation. I know what a long road this has been for him because it stretches back before most of my memories formed. To me, Paul Reubens’ appearance in Batman Returns had seemed like a long-awaited comeback. That was 18 years ago.

He really did look exactly the same with all that makeup on. His voices and body language seemed so displaced from time that they almost shouldn’t have been possible today. We were seeing the past come to life. But your experience was sure to have been different from mine because you saw Pee-Wee originally as a parent.

Henry 3: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse always had a double address. Pee-Wee told an interviewer at the time, “The most fun we had writing the show was when we could come up with stuff we knew was going to kill the five-year-olds.” yet it was also clear that he was fully aware of addressing a large adult population — some of whom were parents watching the show with their children, but many of whom were young single, often queer adults, watching the show for their own entertainment. How could it be otherwise? The character and some of his friends emerged through The Groundlings, one of the legendary improv comedy groups; The original Pee-Wee Herman Show, on stage and then as an HBO special, was intended as an adults-only spoof of traditional kiddie show. Only gradually was the project reconceived as an actual Saturday morning program for children, one cast mostly with veterans of experimental theater. The great underground comics creator Gary Panther was a key contributor to the set design. The music for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure came from Danny Elfman who at the time was crossing over from Oingo Boingo and the Negative Zone to become a more mainstream composer. And of course, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was directed by Tim Burton who was crossing over from doing animated shorts into live action feature.

At the time, most of the adult discussion centered around the “queerness” of Pee-Wee at a moment of increased gay visibility in American culture and on the eve of the gays in the military debate which would shape the early years of the Clinton administration. So, the show adults saw was radically different from the show that kids saw. Even so, before you can say there was nothing like it on television before, keep in mind it was also evoking memories, also very faint in my case, of earlier children shows with almost equally surreal hosts and characters — specifically those associated with Soupy Sales (who passed away last year) and Pinky Lee.

On a more personal level, I also have some difficulty recovering who I was when I watched the show. I was a young graduate student still trying to find my voice as a scholar, doing some of my first explicitly ethnographic research. I remember writing the essay sitting in a walk in closset in our apartment which we had converted into a home office. It was incredible narrow and there was still a coat bar hanging over my desk. The computer cord stretched down the hall and into the bathroom. On the day I was writing this essay, I wrote in a burst of inspiration for several hours without thinking to hit the save key. All of a sudden, young Henry came racing down the hall in desperation for the john, tripped over the cord, and I watched with sputtering rage as all of that writing — the better part of the essay — disappeared in a flash. That moment came to mind when Pee-Wee did an extended bit in the stage show centering around an out of date computer and the sputtering sounds it made when trying to go online. So, for me, too, there is something unnerving about seeing the Pee-Wee character, seemingly unchanged, a figure of eternal youth, which allows me to reflect on the changes in my own life and which embodies a new beginning at the same time.

Your point about remembering Pee-Wee as a series of fragmented impressions is a key one. Lynn Spigel and I did an essay on the Adam West Batman series which found something similar. When we interviewed people who had grown up watching the series, some 25-30 years earlier, they recalled isolated elements, mostly recurring details, from the show, but had difficulty reconstructing whole storylines. They were much better at connecting elements of the show to aspects of their own personal identity, using it to explain who they were, who they had become, and how they had gotten there, than they were at discussing the show as a series of episodic narratives.

I do think this is consistent with the distracted, interactive, ways that the children in our study watched the show, but it may also tell us something bigger about how our memories of popular culture work. I am finding myself thinking about how many recurring elements from the show Pee-Wee included in this performance — not simply reconnecting the character to popular memory but also the Playhouse world. After all, he’s talking about making a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse movie and not simply a Pee-Wee movie. And that may be why both of us felt flashes of recognition as we recovered things we once knew and had forgotten as we watched the show. To some degree, the producers are shrewdly reigniting smoldering memories, even as they are playing on our more generalized affection for the host’s persona and as they are tapping a pent up anger many felt that Pee-Wee was prematurely and unjustly removed from circulation. The new show seems very much aimed at adults who happened to be the same five year olds who Pee-Wee enjoyed entertaining two decades ago and for many of them, it is all about rediscovering a place which is at once faintly remembered and beloved. In a way, it is an experience of re-remembering things that are on the threshold of our consciousness and bringing it back to a more central place in the popular imagination.

Henry 4: Maybe you shouldn’t have put the computer cord in the bathroom. I’d trip over that now.

I do feel dreadful, though, and all the more impressed by your essay, knowing it was a repeat. There’s nothing worse than losing a work of perfect self-expression and then needing to mechanically repeat yourself. When I was in college I used to write these long, meticulous posts on a message board that would automatically log you off if you weren’t active within an hour. Then if you tried to hit the back button to reclaim your message you just got a blank form. There was nothing that topped off a frustrating day quite like losing one of those posts. I had some long walks home knowing I’d spent all evening without anyone even being able to enjoy my geeky insights.

I think as a five year old I was fairly unaware of the queerness in Pee-Wee. Rewatching some of my childhood favorites as an adult was very eye opening. The Ghostbusters swilled liquor, swore and had one night stands? Danny Zucko in Grease sings about female orgasms? And don’t even get me started on Roger and Jessica Rabbit. Where was I during this? ‘Going bonkers’ on the Hoppity Hop apparently.

I do remember thinking there was something amusing about the scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee offers Francis’ father a choice of gum – fruit or licorice. You could just tell from Pee-Wee’s tone of voice that fruit was a peculiar answer, though really, when was the last time you saw licorice gum? That’s why I’m convinced that kids must watch all movies the way I watch foreign movies. They know they won’t understand more than every other line, but they can still get the drift.

I was very struck during the new Pee Wee Herman Show by how the audience would laugh uproariously when Pee Wee did the old bits I remember but go quiet when he made jokes that seemed out of place. When he tells Chairy how glad he is he doesn’t have to deal with all that mushy girl stuff, she asks him how he avoids it and he holds up his left hand. The audience blanched and then, at the perfect moment, he explained. “Abstinence ring! Haha!” If I’d been five I would have vaguely wondered what an abstinence ring was and just enjoyed his laugh. Now, there was no doubt in my mind what he was talking about but it sort of took my breath away. For viewers who haven’t seen him since they were kids, those jokes ran the risk of being pop culture blasphemy in the middle of this sentimental journey. I actually don’t think the audience liked some of those jokes.

On the other hand, the jokes where a mute man in a giant bear costume plays charades to explain he’s got gas from eating chili were almost inexplicably hilarious to me. They relied on a five year old’s sense of humor. I’m telling you: Even though I can’t remember the plots of the old episodes, I still sense that I was watching the new play from a kid’s point of view as much as an adult’s.

It sort of points to the old philosophical question: Is perception reality? If most kids perceived the Pee-Wee Herman Show to be sarcastic, rebellious, gross, but basically clean, then wasn’t that show as real as the one about queerness that you saw?

(More To Come)

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Never Mind the Bollocks: Shepard Fairey’s Fight for Appropriation, Fair Use, and Free Cultre (Part Two)

This is the second part of an essay written by cultural report and USC Annenberg student Evelyn McDonnell, being reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Barack Obama "Hope" poster, original...

Image via Wikipedia


It was into this battleground that Fairey wandered with seemingly noble intentions. Since the mysterious and ambiguous days of the Andre stickers, Faireyʼs work had become increasingly political. Influenced by punk and Constructivism, he unabashedly referred to his work as propaganda. He made a series of posters attacking George W. Bush and the war on Iraq during the 2004 election. He also created posters for the campaign of Ralph Nader.

For the 2008 election, he decided to take a different tack.

“Iʼd spent a lot of time criticizing the Bush administration, the war in Iraq — things unfortunately didnʼt have enough power to prevent but I could at least try to dissuade people from mistaking the same mistakes again,” he says. “A lot of people really respond to negative images because venting is cathartic. I had started to think about why my anti-Bush images and other peopleʼs anti-Bush images had not kept Bush from being reelected in 2004. Maybe it makes more sense to support rather than oppose. And I looked at Obama as the unique opportunity to endorse a mainstream candidate… The ceiling to a lot of the rebel culture and the real activism and quasi-activism was these people are glad to talk but donʼt do anything to engage in this process enough to make an actual difference. I said Iʼm going to engage in this process. One of the most compelling things was having a two and a half year old and being about to have another baby. And thinking itʼs far more important to have them not growing up under McCain as for me to maintain my brand as anti mainstream.”

So in January 2008, as Obama was emerging as a front runner in the Democratic race but before the Super Tuesday primaries, Fairey made the Progress poster. “I made the Obama poster just like I made any other poster. The week before it was a ballot box with a speaker on the front saying ʻEngage in democracy, vote.ʼ To me it was just another political image … I had no idea it was going to be such a hit.” Fairey purposefully created a piece that showed him reaching beyond the grassroots cultures that had been his comfortable home.

“I did purposefully try to make it something that I thought could cross over that would have enough appeal to my fan base to stylistically work for them and also not be quite as edgy or threatening. And not in any way to be ironic, to be sincere. And patriotic. My feeling was that all my friends are already going to vote for Obama. The people that hopefully this image will appeal to is the person whoʼs on the fence. It needs to be something thatʼs nonthreatening. Something — this sounds really corny — but something that would maybe be hopeful and inspirational.”

Fairey originally did with the “Progress” poster what he had done with its predecessors: Made a limited print run of 3-400 that he sold, then used the money to make more posters to distribute for free. Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama held a rally at the University of California, Los Angeles, at which he gave away 10,000 copies. In the meantime, Fairey had been in contact with people inside the Obama campaign, who liked the artwork but preferred it carry a different textual message. “Hope” and “Change” were the keywords they were trying to promote, Fairey says. So he made a new version for the campaign. “I chose ʻhopeʼ because I think a lot of people are complacent and apathetic because they feel powerless,” he says. “The first thing to motivate people to action is a level of optimism that their actions will make a difference. Hope is important because so many people feel hopeless.”

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Faireyʼs artful yet simple, dramatically chromatic message struck a chord. He made the poster available as a free download on his website, with the condition that any proceeds from sales go to the Obama campaign. Soon, “Hope” was everywhere, a powerful illustration of the way in which the Internet enables fast and direct communication. Fairey received a letter of thanks from the presidential candidate on February 22, 2008, that said in part: “The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can help change the status-quo.”25

On January 17, 2009, the Smithsonian unveiled a mural based on “Hope.”For the artʼs maker, the experience, at that point, was a positive lesson in civic engagement.

“Iʼm proud of the image. I put all the money from it back into making more posters, giving money to the campaign, organizing the Manifest Hope art shows. It was all related to supporting Obama. There was no goal for personal gain. Of course publicity wise, it was great for me. Iʼm very fortunate that Iʼm doing that well in my career that I can dedicate that much time to supporting a candidate and not have to have an ulterior motive, like the ambassadorship to Puerto Rico. It was something that was really heartfelt and Iʼm really glad Obamaʼs President.”


No good deed goes unpunished. “Hope” catapulted the already successful Fairey to a level of notoriety enjoyed by few contemporary artists. He was the subject of numerous articles and was commissioned by Leviʼs to design a line of jeans. He was hired to draw covers of Time and Rolling Stone. The style of the “Hope” poster was itself widely appropriated and parodied (more on that later). But with fame comes friction.

In February 2009, the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston debuted an exhibition of Faireyʼs work. The show had been planned before “Hope,” the artist says. But of course, the opening got a lot more attention as a result of Faireyʼs heightened profile. Not all of this attention was positive. The night of the opening, Fairey was arrested by Boston police for acts of vandalism related to Faireyʼs public admission that he had performed numerous acts of street art during his lifetime, including when he lived in nearby Providence.

“The Boston arrest was a lot of different things converging,” he says. “I made the

mistake of being very candid about my practice as a street artist. The Boston police said

thatʼs an affront to the Commonwealth.”

Fairey had been arrested for vandalism before. But he had never been sued by a large corporation for copyright infringement. Actually, it was the artist who, in response to letters and phone calls from AP lawyers, threw down the formal legal gauntlet; on Feb. 9, 2009, with the Stanford University Fair Use Project as his legal team, he filed suit in US District Court in New York to vindicate his rights to the image. AP, saying in a statement that they were disappointed that Fairey had broken off negotiations over the Garcia image, filed a countersuit.

Faireyʼs case centers on fair use. The suit argues that Fairey “altered the original with new meaning, new expression, and new messages,” and did not create the art for commercial gain; that he “used only a portion of the Garcia Photograph, and the portion he used was reasonable in light of Faireyʼs expressive purpose”; and that his use “imposed no significant or cognizable harm to the value of the Garcia Photograph or any market for it or any derivatives; on the contrary, Fairey has enhanced the value of the Garcia photograph beyond measure.”26

The AP argues that Faireyʼs use of the photograph was substantial and not transformative: “The Infringing Works copy all the distinctive and unequivocally recognizable elements of the Obama Photo in their entire detail, retaining the heart and essence of The APʼs photo, including but not limited to its patriotic theme.”27 It also charges that as of September 2008, Fairey had made $400,000 off the image. In a statement available on the website, AP spokesman Paul Colford said the organization was itself acting in defense of creators: “AP believes it is crucial to protect

photographers, who are creators and artists. Their work should not be misappropriated by others.”28!

In October 2009, there was a significant, but troubling, development in the case. Fairey admitted that he had misstated which Garcia photo he had originally used for the poster. Instead of a photo in which Obama was shown next to actor George Clooney, he used a photo of Garciaʼs face alone. He also admitted that he had altered evidence to cover up his misstatement.Faireyʼs lawyers have resigned from the case; he has replaced them with new counsel. He also faces possible legal censure.

Fairey says he was initially mistaken about the source and then, embarrassed, tried to hide his mistake.29 The change in source affects one tenet of his fair use argument: that he “used only a portion of the Garcia Photograph, and the portion he used was reasonable in light of Faireyʼs expressive purpose.”

“I made some poor decisions that I can only blame myself for,” Fairey says.

Does Shepard Have a Posse?

Even before Faireyʼs admitted lie, he had a credibility issue. The Internet is full of Shepard-haters. Diehard punks and radical left-wingers accuse Fairey of selling out not just because of his Leviʼs and Sakʼs Fifth Avenue campaigns, but because of the Obama posters. Thereʼs a whole website devoted to listing the artists and works Fairey has copied. Undoubtedly some attacks are from artists who are jealous of his success. Others have fairly well-thought-out critiques. When I wrote an article on Fairey for The Miami Herald in November 2009, it quickly accrued comments both from kneejerk radicals and reasoned liberals troubled by Faireyʼs questionable integrity (a fan posted first). Sometimes, it seems as if Fairey has a posse — one thatʼs out to hang him.

Most disturbing are allegations that while Fairey unapologetically appropriates, he has been litigious toward people who have in turn appropriated his work. In 2008 he sent a cease and desist letter to Baxter Orr, an Austin artist and art dealer who had made a version of Faireyʼs Andre image with a surgical mask on it (this was during the SARS crisis). Orr told The Austin Chronicle, “It’s ridiculous for someone who built their empire on appropriating other people’s images. Obey Giant has become like Tide and Coca-Cola.”30

Fairey says he was upset because Orr had been profiting off the artistʼs work by buying posters cheaply from Faireyʼs website — in true punk rock fashion, Fairey keeps prices for his work low — then flipping them for a substantial profit. Since this practice is only unethical, not illegal, Fairey went after the “parasite” over IP infringement instead. Orr, who later made the disturbing “Dope” poster parodies of Obama as a cokehead, had publicly bragged about his actions and needled Fairey. Fairey now says the letter was a mistake. “I didnʼt think about how it looked hypocritical. I was operating out of anger and frustration.”

One could argue that Faireyʼs admitted “mistakes” make him human. Or the artist could just be caught up in the tangle of sometimes competing, sometimes converging editorial and market logics that drive contemporary media work, as defined by scholar Mark Deuze.31 My personal assessment is that as a white kid from South Carolina, Fairey will always be an outsider in the outsider worlds of punk and hip-hop. This makes him both vulnerable to attacks from those who consider themselves insider purists (like Orr) and insecure. I think Fairey considers the current, constrictive rules of copyright law a burdensome and unreasonable hindrance to the cultural practices to which he, and increasingly many new media workers, are accustomed, and that he felt therefore above the law when it came to admitting the source of the Obama image. His

hypocritical defense of his own IP against an intruder both reveals his ego and shows just how complicated copyright can be. Even those who see it as being intrusive may see it as also necessary, especially when it comes to their own works.

Fairey is not against IP. DJ Diabeticʼs views of copyright are influenced by his love of hip-hop.

“I completely believe in the concept of intellectual property. I just think itʼs got such broad latitude for interpretation that when someone wants to make someoneʼs life hell over some sort of creative transformation of something, itʼs far too easy. What I think IP is about is when someone makes something that directly impairs the market of the creator, thatʼs a problem. When something builds its own new market and may enhance the creatorʼs market, thatʼs a good thing. I think most hip-hop that uses samples should be fair use. I think itʼs completely unfortunate for that art form that the laws have gone the way they have, and thatʼs due to lawyers.”

Fairey is much more careful about attribution and appropriation these days. He has begun a project on American pioneers in art, music, and culture, starting with Rauschenberg associate Jasper Johns — thus saluting some of the figures others have accused him of stealing from. On his website, he carefully notes the Johns image is by photographer Michael Tighe.32

“Iʼm not trying to steal peopleʼs images and exploit them,” Fairey says. “I feel like anything I make, Iʼm adding new value that doesnʼt usurp the value of the original. At the same time I donʼt want people to feel taken advantage of, so if I can make it be mutually beneficial, I will. This has never been about me trying to be selfish or greedy about the art I make. I try to use my art for good causes. Almost every print I do has some philanthropic element.”

Free Speech + Free Culture = Democracy

Lessig and Litman have both described at length how the companies who are able to buy the most lawyers and legislators are currently winning the copyright wars. AP says it is out to defend the rights of creators, but the creator of the Obama photo has both contested the organizationʼs ownership of the image and said he thought Faireyʼs use of it had been a mostly positive experience:

“I donʼt condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet. But in this case I think itʼs a very unique situation … If you put all the legal stuff away, Iʼm so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect itʼs had.”33

The Recording Industry Association of Americaʼs cynical deployment of the band Metallica aside, copyright wars are not being waged by creators against users: They are being waged by the companies who have purchased the rights from the creators and are now cynically fighting to control creativity. Copyright law was invented precisely to counter such monopolization, when England passed the Statute of Anne to break the stranglehold booksellers had on literature. Todayʼs mediacracy is every bit as powerful as those 18th century word lords.

In terms of legal precedent, Fairey may have a tough battle. You can read lawyersʼ own mixed takes on the case, if you want a bit of a head spin. But many scholars who are closely studying the way new media is redefining cultural practices see the case as an important landmark. Jenkins argues that images of public figures should be particularly seen as fair game, as the art practices of Reid and Prince have already put into practice.

“Artists — whether professional or amateur — need to be able to depict the country’s political leadership and in almost every case, they are going to need to draw on images of those figures which come to them through other media rather than having direct access…”

“The question, then, boils down to what relationship should exist between the finished work and the source material. And my sense is that Fairey’s art was transformative in that it significantly shifted the tone and meaning of the original image. The photograph as taken has nowhere near the power that Fairey’s deployment of it had. The photograph was quicklyforgotten amid the flood of such images. And many other photographers captured essentially the same shot. Fairey’s poster, on the other hand, is so iconic that it is likely to be reproduced in American History textbooks decades from now. The mythic power comes from what Fairey added to the image — not from any essential property of the original, which was workmanlike photojournalism.”34

The most disturbing ramification of the case against “Hope,” should Fairey lose, may be not just its possibly deleterious effect on free culture, but its impact on free speech and civic engagement, the backbones of democracy. If Fairey were less of a punk-steeped radical and were to consider making the Obama poster now, he might not simply license the fee; he might remain silent all together. “I still donʼt regret it, though Iʼm a lot closer to regretting it than I ever thought I would be,” he says. “Itʼs such a nightmare that Iʼm going through. Itʼs been really hard on my family.”

Not just to punks, rappers, and appropriation artists, but to a large, growing segment of the population that is finding in the frontier world of the Internet a thriving creative environment, Faireyʼs actions make sense. Appropriation is part of how they create and communicate every day. “[Fairey] embodies this new dispersed, grassroots, participatory culture about as well as any contemporary figure,” says Jenkins. “The battle between AP and Fairey is an epic struggle between the old media and new-media paradigms, a dramatization of one of the core issues of our times.”35

In Free Culture, Lessig argues that the divergence between copyright law and

public practice is turning regular citizens into outlaws, and thus undermining the rule of law. Fairey probably didnʼt exactly mean to launch a grenade into this battleground when he created the most populist, crossover work of his life. But since his entire ouevre was rooted in practices attacking mediacracy, perhaps he couldnʼt help but be a guerrilla.

The “Hope” poster won its first objective: Barack Obama was elected president on Nov. 4, 2008. It made Shepard Fairey a celebrity. And it could just change the way we think about, and litigate, cultural creation.

1 Henry Jenkins, et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Chicago: MacArthur Foundation, 2006,

2 Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York: New York University Press, 2006, location 188-192, ebook version.

3 Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, New York: Penguin, 2005, page 11.

4 This and all subsequent quotes from Fairey that are not footnoted are from an in-person interview conducted by Evelyn McDonnell Nov. 18, 2009.

5 Shepard Fairey, talk given at University of Southern California, Nov. 4, 2009.

6 “Sex Pistols Artwork,”

7 Shepard Fairey, et al, Obey: Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey, Berkeley: Gingko Press, 2009.


Richard Whittaker, “Artist Cage Match: Fairey vs. Orr,” The Austin Chronicle, May 16, 2008.

9 Peter Shapiro, The Rough Guide to Hip-Hop, London: Penguin, 2005, pages 160-61.

10 Fairey et al, page 18.

11 Randy Kennedy, “If the Copy Is an Artwork, Whatʼs the Original?”, The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2007.

12 Jason Rubell, phone interview with Evelyn McDonnell, Oct. 28, 2009.

13 Rene Morales, email to Evelyn McDonnell, Nov. 23, 2009.

14 Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, New York: Faber and Faber, 2009, page 302.

15 Lessig, pages 129-30.

16 Lessig, page 9.

17 Jenkins et al, page 32.

18 Jenkins et al, page 33.

19 Jessica Litman, Digital Copyright, Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006, page 13.

20 Paul Goldstein, Copyrightʼs Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003, page 15.

21 Goldstein, page 27.

22 See Nas, Hip-Hop Is Dead, Def Jam Records recording, 2006. Also Sasha Frere-Jones, “Wrapping Up: A Genre Ages Out,” The New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2009, and Simon Reynolds, “Notes on the Noughties: When Will Hip-Hop Up and Die?”,, Nov. 26, 2009.

23 Lessig, page 181.

24 Litman, page 14.

25 Fairey et al, page. 273.



28 Paul Colford, AP Statement on Shepard Fairey Lawsuit, Feb. 9, 2009.

29 Fairey, Nov. 4, 2009.

30 Whittaker.

31 Mark Deuze, “Media Work & Institutional Logics,” Deuzeblog, July 18, 2006.

32 “Jasper Johns,” Obey website, Dec. 10, 2009,

33 Randy Kennedy, “Artist Sues the A.P. Over Obama Image,” The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2009.

34 Jenkins, email to Evelyn McDonnell, Nov. 22, 2009.

35 Jenkins, Nov. 22, 2009.

Evelyn McDonnell is doing life backwards: After more than two decades of writing about popular culture and society, she’s getting her Master’s in arts journalism as an Annenberg Fellow at the University of Southern California. She is the author of three books: Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock ‘n’ Roll; Army of She: Icelandic, Iconoclastic, Irrepressible Bjork; and Rent by Jonathan Larson. She coedited the anthologies Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap and Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. She has been the editorial director of, pop culture writer at The Miami Herald, senior editor at The Village Voice, and associate editor at SF Weekly. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Spin, Travel & Leisure, Interview, and the LA Times. She codirected the conference Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York in 1998. She has won several fellowships and awards. “Nevermind the Bollocks” is part of a larger project Evelyn is researching on artists in the age of content. You can contact Evelyn at

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Never Mind The Bollocks: Shepard Fairey’s Fight for Appropriation, Fair Use and Free Culture (Part One)

One of the many highlights of my first semester in LA was the chance to see and meet Shepard Fairey. who I regard as one of the most significant visual artists of our times and a focal point for debates about the politics/poetics of appropriation and fair use. Fairey spoke on stage with my new colleague, Sarah Banet-Weiser.

I have been following Fairey for some time since he was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design and “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers started to appear on lamp posts and underpasses around Boston. At first, I envisioned the stickers as a new kind of fan art — since I was deeply into the World Wrestling Federation at the time — and only gradually came to understand them as a form of culture jamming. Now, having seen and talked with the guy, I suspect they were an odd blurring between the two — a bold experiment in tapping the power of participatory culture to spread images across the planet and relying on local contexts to shape what those images meant to participants. Pretty cool.

One of the students in my New Media Literacies class last term, Evelyn McDonnell took advantage of Fairey’s visit to USC to interview him for the Miami Herald. McDonnell is a cultural reporter of the highest order — the kind of student you hope you will get at a place where journalism and communications students co-mingle. She’s already written three books and edited two more, mostly dealing with rock music, and she’s now working on a project dealing with the shifting relationship between artists (popular and high) and their publics. She really dug deep for the Herald story and found out much more than could make it into a newspaper piece, so she asked if she could expand this work as her final paper for the class.

I was certainly intrigued to learn more about her thoughts on Fairey and especially on the current legal struggles he is engulfed in. But what she gave me was so much more — an exploration of artistic and musical appropriation since the Punk era, how they have shaped Fairey’s aesthetic project and how they have impacted the current state of law around Fair Use. Her interest in rock is very visible in the opening which shows how the album design for the Sex Pistal’s Never Mind the Bollocks helped to inspire Fairey.

I timidly asked her if she’d be willing to share it via my blogs, knowing that the topics would be relevant to some many different readers, and I was grateful she agreed. I am running the essay in two installments — today’s part takes the long view situating Fairey’s work in the larger trajectory of artistic appropriation; the second part, which will run on Friday, deals specifically with the Obama Hope poster, how and why it was created, and the legal battle that now surrounds it. Enjoy!

Never Mind The Bollocks: Shepard Fairey’s Fight for Appropriation, Fair Use and Free Culture

By Evelyn McDonnell

Every sk8ter boi with a Clash album and a can of spray paint wants to change the world. In late January 2008, Shepard Fairey may have done just that. Thatʼs when he decided to create something he had never, in some 20 years of producing stickers, T-shirts, prints, stencils, tags, and canvases, made before: a poster endorsing a popular political candidate.

Since Barack Obama was not exactly available to pose for some grassroots graphic artist, Fairey found a photo of the senator online. With a couple mouse clicks, he copied a shot taken by Mannie Garcia in 2006 for the Associated Press. Then he turned a news photo into a propagandist art statement.

Fairey replaced the natural tones of the photo with the strong lines and bold colors — in this case, red, white, and blue — of Russian Constructivist art. He added oversized cartoon hatch-mark shadings in the style of Roy Lichtenstein. Across the bottom, he wrote: “Progress.” In later iterations, he changed “Progress” to “Hope.”

Faireyʼs Obama “Hope” poster is the most iconic, widely seen art work in recent history. Its dignified profile telegraphed both patriotism and change better than any other single image in a mediagenic campaign. “Hope” both captured and helped enable a historic moment.

And it got its maker into a heap of trouble. In ʼ09 Fairey and the AP sued each other over the artistʼs use of Garciaʼs photo. “Hope” may not have merely helped the United States elect its first African-American president. It could set new legal precedents for one of the most important issues of the digital age: intellectual property.

Faireyʼs lawsuits with the Associated Press are a test case for the changing rules of IP and a case study in what media studies scholar Henry Jenkins et al have described as the new media literacy of appropriation.1 The meeting of an underground artist with mainstream and commercial ideology is also an example of what Jenkins calls convergence culture: “a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.”2 The story of the “Hope” poster is the story of divergence as well: of increasingly closed copyright law deviating from increasingly open-sourced public practice. In this case, the law and mainstream media are working at odds to both market capitalism and anarchist street culture.

A close analysis of the Fairey/AP battle — or what could be called the case against “Hope” — provides key insights into the status of appropriation, fair use, free culture, and engaged citizenry as we enter the final year of the first decade of the 21st century. The battle could be a strategic turning point in what Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig has called the war against free culture. “There is no good reason for the current struggle around Internet technologies to continue,” he writes. “There will be great harm to our tradition and culture if it is allowed to continue unchecked. We must come to understand the source of this war. We must resolve it soon.”3 By studying Faireyʼs employment of appropriation, we take another step toward understanding that war. Lessig may be optimistic in saying understanding can lead to resolution, but it can certainly inform further activism and creativity.

Anarchy in the Public Domain

Faireyʼs use of Garciaʼs image, and the entire NML conception of appropriation, have historical precedents in the cultural traditions in which the artist was steeped: punk, collage, street art, and Pop art. Frank Shepard Fairey grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. He discovered punk rock and its connected skateboard subculture as a teenager. “The Sex Pistols changed my life,” he says. “That was the gateway band for me.”4

The English band the Pistols, who sang about “Anarchy in the UK” in a music driven by over-amped guitars and Johnny Rottenʼs sarcastic snarl, were Faireyʼs gateway out of conservative Southern culture and into a global youth subculture characterized by rebellion against mainstream and corporate values. “Thereʼs not a lot of progressive culture there,” he has said of his hometown. “I got into the skateboarding and punk life. That opened my eyes to political and social critique: How art could work with things that are political.”5

The cover of Nevermind the Bollocks, Hereʼs the Sex Pistols, the bandʼs 1977 debut album, was designed by an English artist named Jamie Reid. Reid did for punk music what Fairey did for the Obama campaign, providing a distinctive iconography of cut-up, Xeroxed images and ransom-note-style lettering. In one famous piece, he put a safety pin through the lip of a reproduction of a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, providing a visual complement to the Pistols song “God Save the Queen.” As far as I can tell, Reid was not sued by royal photographer Peter Grugeon — though there was certainly intense uproar over the song and artwork.6

There was a purpose to this playfulness. Do-It-Yourself — the notion that culture should actively

be in the creative hands of the people, not just something produced by corporations and consumed by a passive audience — is a guiding ethos of punk. In reaction to the showy musicianship of art-rock, such bands as the Clash advocated that music be simplified and demystified, so that anyone could play it. Cut-up art is similarly a way of claiming images that permeate public spaces (the queenʼs face was omnipresent in ʼ77 England, the year of the Silver Jubilee), asserting individual expression over them (the safety pin), and making them public domain (Reidʼs image was stickered around town). Through media bricolage, Reid and other punk ʻzine creators asserted individualsʼ right to exploit and manipulate commercial imagery, since commercial imagery exploits and manipulates the public. They were appropriating, creating visual remixes and mashups — long before those were digital-culture buzzwords.

The graphic creation that first made Fairey famous in underground circles was also a punk sticker, one that looks strikingly like “God Save the Queen.” Fairey went to the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration. In 1989, he made a stencil of Andre the Giant and added the words “Andre the Giant Has a Posse,” plus the wrestler/actorʼs height and weight. He plastered the stickers around Providence enough that a local weekly, The Nice Paper, took note. Soon, the Andre campaign spread to nearby Boston and New York. Fairey sent stickers to friends who put them up wherever they lived. He advertised in punk magazines and sold the stickers by mail order for five cents each.

Within seven years, he had printed and distributed a million of them. Fairey also made Andre posters and stencils. André René Roussimoff died in 1993, but he and his make- believe posse were ubiquitous on urban street lamps and walls for years afterwards.7

According to one news account, Fairey had to alter the image of Andre, as the owners of World Wrestling Entertainment threatened to sue over it.8 The face evolved into a Constructivist-inspired abstraction, and now the words just said “Obey” or “Giant.” The forced change actually enabled Faireyʼs art to become more sophisticated and distinctive. The style that was to become famous with “Hope” was apparent in the “Obey” series of works of 1995.

In his street-art campaign, Fairey was inspired by another musical culture of the 1970s. Graffiti is considered one of the four main elements of hip-hop (the other three being DJing, breakdancing, and rapping). It, like punk cut-up art, is also an assertion of the individualʼs right to self-expression in the public domain, with the legal concept of public domain meant quite tangibly — on subway cars and abandoned buildings. The art of spray-painting tags (aliases of graffiti artists) and street murals exploded during New Yorkʼs fiscal crisis, as colorful balloon letters and stylized characters proliferated. Such practitioners as Futura 2000, Rammellzee, Lady Pink, Revs, Cost, and Claw became famous for going “all-city.”9 Street artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were also accepted into the world of fine art, becoming celebrities of the Downtown scene of the 1980s.

Fairey saw this work all around him on a 1989 visit to New York, shortly before he launched the Andre sticker. “I saw graffiti in risky places that gave me new respect for the dedication of the writers,” he writes in Obey: Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey. “Stickers and tags coated every surface in New York City. I left the city inspired …”10

Reclamation and transformation of commercial or public images is also an accepted method in the art world of museums and galleries. Marcel Duchamp virtually invented conceptual installation art with his famous urinal sculpture. Robert Rauschenbergʼs combines and collages of the ʻ50s mixed found objects and images. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol made brightly colored silkscreens of Campbellʼs soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley. In the ʻ70s Richard Prince rephotographed commercial shots of Marlboro Men and Brooke Shields.

Such appropriative art has been both highly successful — a Prince work sold for $1.2 million in 2005 — and controversial: He was sued over the Shields shot, and reportedly settled out of court for a small fee.11 Still, appropriation has become largely accepted as an artistic practice. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” Pablo Picasso is reputed to have said. In 2009, Miamiʼs Rubell Family Collection named an exhibit of 74 of its artists engaged in various forms of mimickry, including Mike Kelley, Rashid Johnson, David Hammons, Paul McCarthy, and Sherrie Levine, “Beg Borrow and Steal.” “Artists are acting as cultural curators; through their work theyʼre recurating history and recontextualizing it,” says Jason Rubell, one of the exhibitʼs curators. “Theyʼre appropriating and reassessing imagery that came before.”12

In the same way that Reid and the punks utilized it, appropriation by fine artists may be an effective tool against mass media bombardment. “Thereʼs an enormous difference between imitation and appropriation,” says Rene Morales, a curator at the Miami Art Museum, which co-produced an installation by Fairey in December 2009. “Appropriation is a creative act; itʼs become one of the most effective ways to make art in a media-saturated word.”13

The Pop Art of Rauschenberg, Warhol, Prince, and others influenced Fairey. “My favorite artists are people like Jamie Reid and Rauschenberg and Warhol, who incorporated existing art work in their work but did it in a way that made something that wasnʼt very special incredibly special,” he says.

To those who decry lack of originality in Faireyʼs work, the artist agrees. “The idea of originality is pretty ridiculous. Itʼs virtually impossible to be original. Language is based on reference. To me as a visual artist, I use reference in my work all the time, both images that have a specific

connotation and styles that have a specific connotation.”

For instance, in the Andre artworks, Fairey wrote “Obey” in red capital letters. This was his homage to ʻ90s art star Barbara Kruger, whom he calls “the most political, outspoken artist” of that time. “I liked her work and I thought that if I used that style, people were going to wonder what I was trying to say. I think she understood she should be flattered.”

Russian Constructivism, Reid, Warhol, Kruger: The influences on Faireyʼs work are clear. The artist is as unapologetically derivative in his image choices as in his styles. He doesnʼt draw or paint the central figures of his pieces. He uses images created by others, either by photographers with whom he is collaborating, or images he finds online, or at agencies that sell stock photos, or that are already well known (such as his series on famous musicians). “Thereʼs no shortage of images,” he says with a twinkle of ironic mischief. “Itʼs just that thereʼs an abundance of lawyers as well.”

Prince simply rephotographed some of his most famous images, without modification. Fairey alters, sometimes radically, the works he appropriates, with exacto knives, computer tools, or by hand illustrating them. He defends his methods philosophically.

“Iʼm biased to my own idea that images are abundant but making them special is whatʼs important. Looking at how to distill what will make something iconic is what I think my skill is. Thereʼs some people who have great brush strokes and others who come up with cool color combinations. This is my skill, and whether the law says itʼs okay or not, itʼs what my skill is. …

“Thereʼs a huge debate with new technology about what constitutes legitimate art. Does it have to be done with a paintbrush or with your hands? I enjoy illustrating with my hands. But really, your eyes make the art. You make the decisions by looking at things and transferring what you want to do in any number of ways, whether itʼs with your hands or digitally or with photography. The end result is whatʼs important. You may be Jeff Koons and have fabricators build it and never touch it. That to me is whatʼs art about: Whether that end result, however you got there, affects people and says what you wanted to say.”

Sampling and Appropriation

Digital technology is radically changing the way the arts are made, transmitted, communicated, marketed, taught, learned, and controlled. Nowhere is this clearer than in the development of remixing and sampling. The ability to duplicate audio clips with commercially available technology became the basis for two important musical forms born in the 1970s: Jamaican dub and its descendent, hip-hop. In a Kingston recording studio, engineer King Tubby took preexisting musical tracks brought in by the artists and producers who had recorded them and cut and pasted, electronically tweaking along the way. “The salient point about Tubby is not that he invented the remix (although he did). Itʼs that the concept of the remix reinvented modern music,” writes musical historian Greg Milner.14

A few years later in the Bronx, such DJs as Grandmaster Flash and Koolmaster Herc plugged their sound systems into lampposts and performed for block parties. MCs rapped over instrumental tracks; thus hip-hop was born. DJ/producers mixed hooks and beats from multiple records, obscure or famous, to create whole new songs — the audio counterpart to Rauschenbergʼs combines, or Reidʼs and Faireyʼs collages. The commercial development of cheap samplers made what had been the high-art form of appropriation easy and ubiquitous. It also fueled the most important creative outpouring of music of the last 30 years, as rap artists emerged from ghettos, barrios, suburbs and small towns around the world. Hip-hop is an example of the environment of creativity that law professors James Boyle and Lawrence Lessig both argue is the core context of intellectual property law.15

The art of cutting, pasting, and remixing — whether in word-processing software, Photoshop, iMovie, wherever — is now intrinsic to computer culture. Lessig and many others see this as part of the radically transformative power of digital culture. “For the Internet has unleashed an extraordinary possibility for many to participate in the process of building and cultivating a culture that reaches far beyond local boundaries,” Lessig writes. “That power has changed the marketplace for making and cultivating culture generally, and that change in turn threatens established content industries.”16

Since 2006 the MacArthur Foundation has been funding a $50 million study of digital culture and learning. In a 2006 white paper written under funding from that study, Jenkins et al identify the skills that are enabled by new media and explore how they might be implemented in classrooms. The paper identifies appropriation as one of these main skills. “The digital remixing of media content makes visible the degree to which all cultural expression builds on what has come before,” Jenkins et al write. “Appropriation is understood here as a process by which students learn by taking culture apart and putting it back together.”17

Faireyʼs “Hope” poster is a definitive example of appropriation, as launched by his artistic and musical predecessors (Fairey also spins records under the name DJ Diabetic) and described by the white paper. “Appropriation enters education when learners are encouraged to dissect, transform, sample, or remix existing cultural materials,” Jenkins et al wrote.18 Fairey was engaged in the essential appropriative processes of analysis and commentary when he remixed Garciaʼs photo.

The Clampdown

” Appropriation may be recognized and respected by artists, punks, rappers, scholars, and educational foundations. But it has become the center of a legal battleground. As an artist being sued for copyright infringement, Fairey follows in the footsteps of Richard Prince and rappers 2 Live Crew. But he is the first creative person to be engaged in litigation with a news giant during a time when internet communication technologies have fundamentally unsettled media organizations (or what I like to call the mediacracy).

IP law is complicated, to say the least. As Jessica Litman quips, “Copyright law questions can make delightful cocktail-party small talk, but copyright law answers tend to make eyes glaze over everywhere.”19 Essentially, the law in America historically seeks a balance between the need to guarantee creators and inventors a financial incentive to create and invent, and the right of the public at large to participate in the free exchange of ideas. The overall goal, as stated in the Constitution, is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

!ntrinsic to that progress and free expression, certain uses of copyrighted material are protected as fair use. “The Copyright Act allows the copying of copyrighted material if it is done for a salutary purpose — news reporting, teaching, criticism are examples — and if other statutory factors weigh in its favor,” writes legal scholar Paul Goldstein.20

The Miami bass group 2 Live Crew took their fight for the right to appropriate all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1990 music publishers Acuff-Rose sued the salacious rappers for sampling the Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman,” to which they owed the rights. 2 Live Crewʼs lawyers defended the use as an act of parody and therefore an example of fair use. The Supreme Court agreed. “The goal of copyright, to promote science and the arts, is generally furthered by the creation of transformative works,” Justice David Souter wrote, in a decision that has ramifications for Fairey.21

But other acts who have used samples have not been able to claim the parody fair use defense and lost their cases. Since the rapper Biz Markie was forced to remove a track from his 1991 album I Need a Haircut, musicians have repeatedly been sued over royalties. Now record companies are paranoid about any and all use of samples. What some artists and critics have called the genreʼs current demise could be in part related to the legal crackdown on sampling.22

Indeed, there is something about the digitization of pop music that has caused jurists and legislators to side with multimedia corporations in a clampdown on copying that is changing the rules of intellectual property. The courts shut down music distribution systems Napster and and issued restrictive, expensive licensing rules that effectively silenced Internet radio for a time. Lessig, the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others have documented and argued against this erosion of free culture. “In the middle of the chaos that the Internet has created, an extraordinary land grab is occurring,” Lessig writes. “The law and technology are being shifted to give content holders a kind of control over our culture that they have never had before. And in this extremism, many an opportunity for new innovation and new creativity will be lost.”23

Litman refers to this land grab by the vested interests of media conglomerates as the Copyright Wars. “If current trends continue unabated, however, we are likely to experience a violent collision between our expectations of freedom of expression and the enhanced copyright law,” she writes.24

******************************(MORE TO COME)*******************************************************

Evelyn McDonnell is doing life backwards: After more than two decades of writing about popular culture and society, she’s getting her Master’s in arts journalism as an Annenberg Fellow at the University of Southern California. She is the author of three books: Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock ‘n’ Roll; Army of She: Icelandic, Iconoclastic, Irrepressible Bjork; and Rent by Jonathan Larson. She coedited the anthologies Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap and Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. She has been the editorial director of, pop culture writer at The Miami Herald, senior editor at The Village Voice, and associate editor at SF Weekly. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Spin, Travel & Leisure, Interview, and the LA Times. She codirected the conference Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York in 1998. She has won several fellowships and awards. “Nevermind the Bollocks” is part of a larger project Evelyn is researching on artists in the age of content. You can contact Evelyn at

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Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0 — A Syllabus

I’m back at my desk after what was far too short a break! MIT gave us all of January off to focus on our own research as well as to participate in their Independent Activities Period. USC’s semester starts, gulp, today, so my rhythms felt all wrong through late December and early January. But here we are — once more into the breech.

Today, I am going to be teaching the first session of a graduate seminar on “Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0,” and so I wanted to share the syllabus with my readers here, given the level of unexpected interest I received when I posted my syllabi last fall for the Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment and New Media Literacies classes. I am in a very happy place right now with my teaching — starting over at USC is freeing me to form new kinds of classes which grow more from my own research interests rather than the institutional needs of sustaining an under-staffed program. I am thus developing classes around key concepts in my own work which are allowing me to introduce myself and my thinking to this new community. Surprisingly, given how central the study of fans has been to the trajectory of my research from graduate school forward, this is the first time I have ever taught a full class around this topic.

There are many ways you could conceptualize such a subject. A key choice I faced was between a course on fan culture, which would be centrally about what fans do and think, and a course in fan studies, which would map the emergence of and influence of a new academic field focused on the study of fandom and other forms of participatory culture. On the undergraduate level, I would have taken the first approach but on the graduate level, I opted for the second — trying to map the evolution of a field of research centered around the study of fan communities and showing how it has spoken to a broader range of debates in media and cultural studies over the past two decades. As you will see, teaching a course right now, I found it impossible to separate out the discussion of fan culture from contemporary debates about web 2.0 and so I made that problematic, contradictory, and evolving relationship a key theme for the students to investigate. Do not misunderstand me — I am not assuming an easy match between the three terms in my title. The shifting relations between those three terms is a central concern in the class.

I think it speaks to the richness of the space of fan research that I have included as many works as I have and I still feel inadequate because it is easy to identify gaps and omissions here — key writers (many of them friends, some of them readers of this blog) that I could not include. Some of the topics I am focusing on are over-crowded with research and some are just emerging. I opted to cover a broader range of topics rather than focusing only on works which are canonical to the space of fan studies. All I can say is that I am sorry about the gaps but rest assured that this other work will surface in class discussion and no doubt play key roles in student papers.

I am hoping that in publishing this syllabus here, I can introduce some of the lesser known texts here (as well as the overall framework) to others teaching classes in this area and to researchers around the world who often write me trying to identify work on fan cultures. I’d love to hear from either groups here and happy to share more of what you are doing. Regular readers may anticipate more posts this semester in the fan studies space, just as last term saw more posts on transmedia topics.

COMM 620

Fandom, Participatory Culture and Web 2.0

Speaking at South by Southwest several years ago, I joked that “Web 2.0 was fandom without the stigma.” By this, I meant that sites like YouTube, Flickr, Second Life, and Wikipedia have made visible a set of cultural practices and logics that had been taking root within fandom over the past hundred-plus years, expanding their cultural influence by broadening and diversifying participation. In many ways, these practices have been encoded into the business models shaping so-called Web 2.0 companies, which have in turn made them far more mainstream, have increased their visibility, and have incorporated them into commercial production and marketing practices. The result has been a blurring between the grassroots practices I call participatory culture and the commercial practices being called Web 2.0.

Fans have become some of the sharpest critics of Web 2.0, asking a series of important questions about how these companies operate, how they generate value for their participants, and what expectations participants should have around the content they provide and the social networks they entrust to these companies. Given this trajectory, a familiarity with fandom may provide an important key for understanding many new forms of cultural production and participation and, more generally, the logic through which social networks operate.

So, to define our three terms, at least provisionally, fandom refers to the social structures and cultural practices created by the most passionately engaged consumers of mass media properties; participatory culture refers more broadly to any kind of cultural production which starts at the grassroots level and which is open to broad participation; and Web 2.0 is a business model that sustains many web-based projects that rely on principles such as user-creation and moderation, social networking, and “crowdsourcing.”

That said, the debates about Web 2.0 are only the most recent set of issues in cultural and media studies which have been shaped by the emergence of a field of research focused on fans and fandom. Fan studies:

  • emerged from the Birmingham School’s investigations of subcultures and resistance
  • became quickly entwined with debates in Third Wave Feminism and queer studies
  • has been a key space for understanding how taste and cultural discrimination operates
  • has increasingly been a site of investigation for researchers trying to understand informal learning or emergent conceptions of the citizen/consumer
  • has shaped legal discussions around appropriation, transformative work, and remix culture
  • has become a useful window for understanding how globalization is reshaping our everyday lives.

This course will be structured around an investigation of the contribution of fan studies to cultural theory, framing each class session around a key debate and mixing writing explicitly about fans with other work asking questions about cultural change and the politics of everyday life.

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • trace the history of fandom from the amateur press associations of the 19th Century to its modern manifestations
  • describe the evolution of fan studies from the Birmingham School work on subcultures and media audiences to contemporary work on digital media
  • discuss a range of theoretical framing and methodologies which have been used to explain the cultural, social, political, legal, and economic impact of fandom
  • arbitrate the most common critiques surrounding the Web 2.0 business model
  • situate fan practices in relation to broader trends toward social networks, online communities, and remix culture
  • develop their own distinctive contribution to the field of fan studies, one which reflects their own theoretical and methodological commitments


  • Students will be expected to post regular weekly comments reacting to the readings on the Blackboard site for the class. (20 percent)
  • Students will write a short five-page autoethnography describing their own history as a fan of popular entertainment. You should explore whether or not you think of yourself as a fan, what kinds of fan practices you engage with, how you define a fan, how you became invested in the media franchises that have been part of your life, and how your feelings about being a fan might have adjusted over time. (15 percent) (Due on January 19)
  • Students will develop an annotated bibliography which explores one of the theoretical debates that have been central to the field of fan studies. These might include those which we’ve identified for the class, or they might also include other topics more relevant to the student’s own research. What are the key contributions of fan studies literature to this larger field of inquiry? What models from these theoretical traditions have informed work in fan studies? (20 Percent) (Due on Feb 23)
  • Students will read Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0” [] and Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle, “Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On” [ and write a five-page response which discusses what you see as the most significant similarities and differences between fan practice (as we’ve read about it in the class) and the business model associated with Web 2.0. (15 percent) (Due on April 6)
  • Students will write a 10-15 page essay on a topic of your own choosing (in consultation with the instructor) which you feel grows out of the subjects and issues we’ve been exploring throughout the class. The paper will ideally build on the annotated bibliography created for the earlier assignment. Students will do short 10 minute presentation of their findings during final exam week. (40 percent) (Due on Last Day of the Class.)


Henry Jenkins, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. (New York: New

York UP, 2006)

Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the

Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006)

Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, Fandom: Identities and Communities in A Mediated World. (New York: New York UP, 2007)

Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (New York: Polity, 2009)

Seth, Wimbledon Green (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2005)

Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Data Base Animals (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009)

Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. (New York: New Press, 2007)


From Subculture to Fan Culture, From Fan Culture to Web 2.0

Screening: “Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media” (In-progress by Patricia Lange)

Recommended Reading:

Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, “Why Study Fans?” (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington)

Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, “Introduction: Works in Progress” (Hellekson and Busse)


Fan Studies and Cultural Resistance

Janice Radway “The Readers and Their Romances,” Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984)

John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (New York: Routledge, 1992)

Camille Bacon-Smith, “Identity and Risk” and “Suffering and Solace,” Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992)

Constance Penley, “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture” in Cultural Studies (edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler)

Henry Jenkins, “It’s Not a Fairy Tale Anymore!’: Gender, Genre, Beauty and the Beast,” Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992)

Matt Hills, “Fan Cultures Between Community and ‘Resistance’,” Fan Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2002)

Recommended Reading:

Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, “Scream, Popular Culture, and Feminism’s Third Wave: ‘I’m Not My Mother,” Genders Online Journal 38, 2003

Henry Jenkins, “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching,” (Jenkins)

John Tulloch, “Cult, Talk and Audiences,” Watching Television Audiences: Cultural Theories and Methods (London: Arnold, 2000)


Tracing the History of Participatory Culture

Robert Darnton, “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensibility,” The Great Cat Massacre And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic, 2009)

Paula Petrik. “The Youngest Fourth Estate: The Novelty Toy Printing Press and Adolescence, 1870-1886,” in Elliot West and Paula Petrik (eds.) Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950. (Kansas City: U of Kansas P, 1992)

Andrew Ross, “Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum,” Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits (New York: Verso, 1991).

Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs, “Beatlemania: Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (New York: Routledge, 1992)

Recommended Reading:

Susan J. Douglas, “Popular Culture and Populist Technology: The Amateur Operators, 1906-1912,” Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

UP, 1989)

Chad Dell, “Lookit That Hunk of a Man’: Subversive Pleasures, Female Fandom and

Professional Wrestling,” in Cheryl Harris and Anne Alexander (eds.) Theorizing

Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 1998).


Fans and Online Community

Henry Jenkins, “Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Look Stupid’:, the

Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery” (Jenkins)

Sharon Marie Ross, “Fascinated With Fandom: Cautiously Aware Viewers of Xena and Buffy,” Beyond the Box: Television and The Internet (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

Rebecca Lucy Busker, “LiveJournal and the Shaping of Fan Discourse,” Transformative Works and Cultures 1, 2008

Alan Wexelblat, “An Auteur in the Age of the Internet: JMS, Babylon 5, and The Net” in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc (eds.) Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke UP, 2002).


Fandom and Queer Studies

Kristina Busse, “My Life is a WIP on My LJ: Slashing the Slasher and the Reality of Celebrity and Internet Performances” (Hellekson and Busse)

Eden Lacker, Barbara Lynn Lucas, and Robin Anne Reid, “Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh” (Hellekson and Busse)

Richard Dyer, “Judy Garland and Gay Men,” Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (London: McMillian, 1986)

Henry Jenkins, “Out of the Closet and Into the Universe” and “Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking” (Jenkins)

Recommended Reading:

Erica Rand, “Older Heads on Younger Bodies,” Barbie’s Queer Accessories (Durham: Duke UP, 1995).

Sean Griffin, “‘You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me’: Target Marketing Disney to a Gay

Community,” Tinker Bells and Evil Queens: The Disney Company From Inside Out (New York: New York UP, 2000).


Performing Fandom

Kurt Lancaster, “Welcome Aboard, Ambassador: Creating a Surrogate Performance with the Babylon Project,” Interacting with Babylon 5 (Austin: U of Texas P, 2001)

Francesca Coppa, “Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance” (Hellekson and Busse)

Robert Drew, “Anyone Can Do It’: Forging a Participatory Culture in Karaoke Bars,” in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc (eds.) Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke UP, 2002).

Sharon Mazer, “‘Real’ Wrestling, ‘Real’ Life” in Nicholas Sammond (ed.) Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasures and Pain of Professional Wrestling (Durham: Duke UP, 2005).

Cornel Sandvoss, “A Text Called Home: Fandom Between Performance and Place,” Fans (Cambridge: Polity, 2005)

Recommended Reading:

Nick Couldry, “On the Set of The Sopranos: ‘Inside’ A Fan’s Construction of Nearness” (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington)


Fan Aesthetics; Fan Taste

Abigail Derecho, “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History and Several Theories of Fan Fiction”(Hellekson and Busse)

Catherine Driscoll, “One True Pairing: The Romance of Pornography and the Pornography of Romance” (Hellekson and Busse)

Sheenagh Pugh, “What Else and What If,” The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context (London: Seren, 2006)

Roberta Pearson, “Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies and Sherlockians” (Gray, Sandvoss, and


Jonathan Gray, “Anti-Fandom and the Moral Text: Television Without Pity and Textual

Dislike,” American Behavioral Scientist 48(7), 806-22

Alan McKee, “Which is the Best Doctor Who Story?: A Case Study in Value Judgment Outside the Academies,” Intensities 1, 2001

Recommended Reading:

Mafalda Stasi, “The Toy Soldiers from Leeds: The Slash Palimpsest” (Hellekson and Busse)


Vidders and Fan Filmmakers

Francesca Coppa, “Women, ‘Star Trek‘ and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding,” Transformative Works and Cultures 1, 2008.

Joshua Green and Jean Burgess, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (New York: Polity, 2009)

Louisa Ellen Stein, “This Dratted Thing: Fannish Storytelling Through New Media” (Hellekson and Busse)


Fans or Pirates?

Lawrence Lessig, “Two Economies: Commercial and Sharing,” Remix: Making Art and

Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Ecology (New York: Penquin, 2008)

Andrew Herman, Rosemary J. Coombe and Lewis Kaye, “Your Second Life?: Goodwill and the Performance of Intellectual Property in Online Digital Gaming,” Cultural Studies 20, 2006

J.D. Lasica, “Inside the Movie Underground,” “When Personal and Mass Media Collide,”

“Remixing the Digital Future,” Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons)

Hector Postigo, “Video Game Appropriation through Modifications: Attitudes Concerning

Intellectual Property among Modders and Fan,” Convergence, 2008.

Recommended Reading:

Rebecca Tushnet, “Copyright Law, Fan Practices, and The Rights of the Author” (Gray,

Sandvoss, and Harrington)

DAY 10


John Bloom, “Cardboard Patriarchy: Adult Baseball Card Collecting and the Nostalgia for a Presexual Past,” in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc (eds.) Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke UP, 2002).

Chuck Tyron, “The Rise of the Movie Geek: DVD Culture, Cinematic Knowledge, and The Home Viewer,” Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (Rutgers UP, 2009)

Seth, Wimbledon Green (New York: Drawn and Quarterly, 2005)

Mary DesJardin, “Ephemeral Culture/eBay Culture: Film Collectables and Fan Investments,” Ken Hillis, Michael Petit, and Nathan Scott Epley (eds.), Everyday eBay: Culture, Collecting and Desire (New York: Routledge, 2006)

DAY 11

Fan Labor, Moral Economy, and the Gift Economy

Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins, “The Moral Economy of Web 2.0: Audience Research and Convergence Culture,” in Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren (eds.) Media Industries: History, Theory and Method (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor,” Producing Culture for the Digital Economy (Pluto, 2004)

Suzanne Scott, “Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content

Models,” Transformative Works and Cultures 3, 2009

Lewis Hyde, “The Bond” and “The Gift Community,” The Gift: Creativity and The Artist in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 2008)

Mark Andrejevic, “Exploiting YouTube: Contradictions of User-Generated Labor,” in Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (eds.) The YouTube Reader (Stockholm: National Library of Sweden)

DAY 12

Produsers and Lead Users

John Banks and Mark Deuze, “Co-Creative Labor,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 12(5), 2009

Darren Brabham, “Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases,” Convergence, 2008.

Axel Bruns, “The Key Characteristics of Produsage,” Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (London: Peter Lang, 2008)

Sam Ford, “Fandemonium: A Tag Team Approach to Enabling and Mobilizing Fans,”

Convergence Culture Consortium White Paper, 2007

Recommended Reading:

Stephen Brown, “Harry Potter and the Fandom Menace,” Bernard Cova, Robert Kozinets, and Avi Shankar (eds.) Consumer Tribes (Oxford and Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007)

Eric Von Hippel, “Development of Products by Lead Users,” Democratizing Innovation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006)

DAY 13

Learning Through Fandom

Lauren Lewis, Rebecca Black, and Bill Tomlinson, “Let Everyone Play: An Educational

Perspective on Why Fan Fiction Is, or Should Be, Legal,” International Journal of

Learning and Media 1(1), 2009

Patricia G. Lange and Mizuko Ito, “Creative Production,” Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010)

Erica Rosenfeld Halverson and Richard Halverson, “Fantasy Baseball: The Case for Competitive Fandom,” Games and Culture 3(3-4), 2008

Henry Jenkins, “How Many Star Fleet Officers Does It Take to Screw in a Light Bulb: Star Trek at MIT,” Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr. Who and Star Trek (London: Routledge, 1995)

Jason Mittell, “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and The Case of Lostpedia,” Transformative Works and Cultures 3, 2009

DAY 14

Fan Activism

Steven Duncombe, Dream: Reimaginaing Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New York: New Press, 2007)

Henry Jenkins, “How Dumbledore’s Army is Transforming Our World: An Interview with HP Alliance’s Andrew Slack,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, July 23 2009

Derek Johnson, “Enfranchising the Consumer: Alternate Realities, Institutional Politics, and the Digital Public Sphere,” Franchising Media Worlds: Content Networks and the Collaborative Production of Culture, diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009

Henry Jenkins, “How Slapshot Inspired a Cultural Revolution (Part One): An Interview with the Wu Ming Foundation”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, October 5 2006

DAY 15

Global Fans

Henry Jenkins, “Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in the Age of Media

Convergence” (Jenkins)

Nancy K. Baym and Robert Burnett (2009). “Amateur Experts: International Fan Labor in Swedish Independent Music.” International Journal of Cultural Studies. 12(5): 1-17

Xiaochang Li, “New Contexts, New Audiences,” Dis/Locating Audience: Transnational Media Flows and the Online Circulation of East Asian Television Drama, Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Comparative Media Studies, MIT, 2009

Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Data Base Animals (Mineappolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009)

Aswin Punathambekar, “Between Rowdies and Rasikas: Rethinking Fan Activity in Indian Film Culture” (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington)

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