Camille Bacon-Smith and Henry Jenkins at Gaylaxicon 1992 (Part Two)

Transcript of a panel discussion between Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith, moderated by Shoshanna, at Gaylaxicon 92, a science fiction convention by and for gay fandom and its friends, on 18 July 1992. At that time Henry was about to publish Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Routledge, 1992); Camille had published Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and Popular Culture (U. of Penn. Press, 1992). Shoshanna is a fan. All fans identified here are identified with the name/pseud they requested.

Shoshanna: I wanted to ask you guys to bring this back to media fandom a bit, and talk about the ways that you see media fans doing something different, and what–since the title of this is “The sociology of media fandom”–how do fans behave that’s not the way Lucasfilm behaves? If you find that interesting. And where do you think that comes from?

Camille: Well, first… I don’t do sociology, I do anthropology. It’s a little bit different. But that’s okay, because that’s what we called this panel anyway. So if there’s any sociologists out there who are sitting there saying, “That’s not sociology,” I know that.

NB: That’s another territorial battle in itself.

Camille: Yes, it is.

Henry: I’d say we poach right across that one and keep going…

Shoshanna: And we’re not going to fight that one.

Camille: It’s hard for me to say because one of the things that I really feel strongly about is that media fans are doing something, in a particular way, that is a folk process that goes on in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of things, everywhere all around the world. The problem we have is that we tend to think that what happens in straight white male America is the norm. In fact, it is the exception. And what women in media fandom, what the guys who come into media fandom, are doing is what everybody else all over the world is doing. They are taking the items of their culture, they are recombining them, remanufacturing them… The notion of originality has to do with how well you can represent the norm, what you can bring to the aesthetic conventions of what you already hold dear. The important thing is not to write a slash story that’s completely different from every other slash story. This would be a total waste of effort. No one would want to read it. The point is, you want to write the slash story that is the best slash story because it does what everybody else does, better. It does the same theme, but does it with a little more insight. Or even with the same amount of insight as this other story you liked. Or you’re recombining this element instead of that element. But this whole notion that you have to be different to be good is different from–it’s what we think of as high art, but it’s different from the way most of the world conducts its art.

Henry: If I could follow up on that… The other thing that I think is radically different is the economic relations involved in fandom. What excites me is the degree to which fandom is really based on the communal notion that you have something that you want to share with the community, not you have something you want to make a profit off of. And fandom at its best is when fans… The circuit is a good example of this. Things are distributed at cost. Ideally, zine publishing as it started was a matter of, I will charge you what it cost to produce the zine, with maybe enough more to let me start up the next zine. You’re not profiteering off of zine publishing. The fan filk clubs trade tapes back and forth. The fan video artists make, you know, “Send me a tape and I’ll give you a copy of my videos.” I see some danger of that changing, and I’m a little concerned at the advent of semi-pro filk organizations that publish conglomerate filk, or at some of the new conglomerates of zine publishing that are just sucking in zines and selling them, and there’s now a middleman between the writer and the reader. What I like about fandom is that, unlike in professional publishing, the writer and the reader actually have something to say to each other. I write a letter to a zine editor and say, “I’d like to read your zine.” She sends it back to me. I write back and say, “That was a great story. I really liked this, this, and this.” That creates a channel in which the reader can become a writer, the writer is always a reader, the roles are not as rigidly bound up apart from each other, and that sense of possessiveness and profiteering is absent, in favor of a sense of community, of sharing, of giving back. You write your stories to be read by your friends, you don’t write them to be read by your customers, and I think that that is something that’s really important about fandom, and very different from the notions of intellectual properties that we’ve been talking about, in corporate America.

Camille: And again, much like the rest of the world has conducted its art since time began.

Henry: Absolutely.

BT: [mostly unintelligible; then:] …having their [i.e. fans'] own community, partly because no one else wants to be in it [Laughter] and partly because it’s something that’s theirs and they don’t want other people in it. So fans become possessive about some of the academic interest in the community.

<

em>Shoshanna: I would suggest that it’s not just possessive, it’s defensive. Because we’ve seen so many Newsweek magazine articles that begin, “Hang on! You’re being beamed to one of those weirdo Trekkie cons!” And there’s a sense of being made fun of. It’s very exciting for me to be up here sitting on this panel between two academic authors who are not making fun of us. And that’s because they are us.

Camille: Oh, I saw the first review of my book. It was written by a literary scholar, and the funny thing was, several of the people who brought this to my attention laughed and said, it doesn’t look like he even quite knows what anthropology is. But his positive evaluation of the book, and he really thought this was a positive evaluation of the book, was that when he started reading this book he thought these people were really really weird. And I was sufficiently persuasive that by the end he didn’t think they were quite as weird as he had when he started. And it’s like, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Back up. Read it over again. Read my lips, you know? You’re weird.

Henry: I talk in the book some about this policing of boundaries. There are these stereotypes out there. And I’ve had the same sets of experiences, where in the academic community they read it and say, you took a subject that I thought was indefensible, you took a subject that… I thought I could not be made sympathetic with these people at all, and I started to understand where they were coming from. And that to me is powerful praise, because that’s the fight we’re fighting out here. The mundane world does not get it. It simply does not get what fandom’s about, and it needs to be explained to them. Once it’s explained, I think there’s not the hostility, maybe, as much. There’s a certain fear… slash provokes its own anxieties within the homophobia of the culture we live in, there’s a certain fear about women writing their own stories about men–that spooks the daylights out of a lot of men in our society–but the notion of, once you start thinking intelligently about what’s going on here, one can change. But fandom is defensive, for very good reasons.

Camille: But you don’t want those guys poking around in your dresser drawers.

NB: You can answer this question, or not answer this question, because this particular fan convention is a Gay-laxicon, and… I’ve read countless analyses of how the straight mundane community reacts to fandom, or media fandom or what have you, and I’ve gotten varied reactions from people in the–when I say “gay,” I mean gay, lesbian, bisexual, trisexual, whatever–I’ve gotten varied responses from people within the gay community. Depending on which parts… I mean, anything from politically correct lesbian feminists who say, why are you writing about all these men, to again, the breaking up of the notion that it’s all a bunch of heterosexual… I mean, I am a fanzine editor, and I thought I was the only lesbian who liked to read and write male slash stories, until I met a whole bunch of other lesbians, and bisexuals and what have you, and met a couple of gay men. And so you’ve got a significant part of the gay community in this. And then there are gay men, a few, a minority, that like to write slash stories, and then other gay men who sit there and say, this is not realistic, or a man I talked to was saying, “Slash writers aren’t writing about me,” was one reaction I talked to somebody about. So I’d like to see whether you have any comments about, or what you would think about sociological, anthropological, what have you, about how all this impacts on the gay community, and gay fandom.

Camille: What I did when I was working on my book, particularly when I hit slash, was, my field, folklore, is overwhelmingly gay. It’s overwhelmingly gay. So this may be one of the few fields in academia where heterosexual people are in the minority. And so it was very easy for me to just go to any number of my classmates and just, cold, slap a fanzine on their desk and say, tell me what you make of this. Generally speaking, the gay men thought it was hysterically funny, and there was this Professionals story called “Masquerade.” [It's on the circuit.] When they hit “Masquerade,” they would come back to me and they would say, “I’ve seen it.” Not, “I’ve seen this story,” but “I’ve seen this in real life. I have seen this dance,” they would call it, this first-time dance. There were some stories that were totally ludicrous, and in fact one very dear friend, who is a gay man and who does write the stories, and in fact likes the most romantic, just to be authentically slash will deliberately put at least five impossible sexual acts into his stories. [Laughter.] And he called me up one day and he was devastated, because his library had just gotten in a copy of the Joy of Gay Sex and he discovered one of his impossible sexual acts was in fact possible. [Laughter.] So now he had to think up another one. I’m looking for a picture here, I can’t find it… Because one of the things that–yes, I found it. However, one day… [She is getting ready to hold her book up; laughter.] Now this is not a wildly filthy picture I’m going to open this book up to. However, this picture came in one day and I showed it to one of my friends, and first his mouth dropped open. Then a couple of hours later, we were in the archives, he came back with a friend of his, and said, show him the picture. And his mouth dropped open. Now the thing is, that’s the picture. [She holds it up. It's on page 185, for all you folks reading along; it's a TACS portrait of Doyle, shrouded in mist and gazing piercingly out at you, with his shirt and jacket open to show his chest and his trousers unzipped to show pubic hair but no genitalia. It originally appeared in Discovered in a Graveyard.] Now these are people who had no idea who this person was, but it sort of got them. The gay women that I showed it to had no interest in it at all; they thought that this was totally politically incorrectly stupid. And they basically said, you know, if I want to read men together, I’ll read The Deerslayer; I don’t have to read these, you know? And they would say to me, where are the stories about the two women? And I would say, I don’t have any. Or I only have these, and I’d give them copies of this one fanzine that I had, and it would be, like, this thick, and it maybe had two pages [of female slash]. And they would say, well, I’m not interested in this anyway, and they’d put it aside [? unclear].

<

Henry: I could address your question. Your question poses a number of possible responses to me, all of which, I think, are important to raise. One is that one of the problems I’ve had with Joanna Russ and other writers who have written about slash–is that the question is often posed as, why do straight women want to write sex about gay men? And it became immediately clear to me, as I was doing this, exactly what you’re saying: there are large numbers of lesbians and bisexual women in the slash community, and there needs to be a way to account for that pleasure. I’m not sure I fully address it, but at least I think it comes up in my book, with accounts that don’t hinge on heterosexual fantasies, which I think some of the earlier accounts did pose a very heterocentrist conception of what is going on when people read and write slash. The second point I’d make, and I’m going three different directions here, is that I’ve shared this with David Halperin, a colleague of mine and a noted gay historian, and he became very excited and has written an essay comparing the myths of Gilgamesh and the Iliad to slash. [Laughter.] Because his work is about Greek sexuality, and his point was, the ancient Greeks went back and reread Homer, and the Greeks had a sexuality which was based on a much broader range of sexual object choices than present-day society–he doesn’t like to use the word “homosexual,” or “gay,” because it’s inappropriate historically–but same-sex relationships were quite regular. When they reread the Iliad , they slashed it, in effect. And there are lots of Greek manuscripts about Achilles and his charioteer, that Homer probably didn’t read those relationships as lovers. But many of the Greeks did, and, in fact, began to rewrite it. So he sees slash as continuing with that, and there’s now a great deal of excitement in the gay and lesbian studies community about it. And the third point I would make is more personal, which grows out of my own experience reading slash, as someone who had thought of himself in primarily heterosexual terms; I’m married, I have a son. But in the process of reading slash, I discovered that I was bi. I discovered something that was very important to me, that I really did take pleasure in this, that this fantasy really appealed to me, it opened me up to a variety of other types of experiences to think about, [to think about] my sexuality in very different terms. And I think that that process is potentially going on more large scale in our society right now. If you look at Penthouse Letters right now, for example, they’ve moved gradually over the ten years of porn reading that I’ve gone through from having ménage à trois scenarios that involved two men and one woman and the two men don’t touch, to having the woman direct the men to suck each other off, to now there are now columns of gay scenarios, first-time stories, published for the predominantly straight readership of Penthouse, which are completely two gay men, or a gay man introducing a straight man to the experience of gay sex is what normally the scenario is. That’s just a broadening of acceptance of this in the straight male community. And I think slash is part of–could potentially be part of that process of changing the homophobia in our society, or at least opening straight men to admit their own bisexuality, and to admit desires that they’re not publicly allowed to express, the very desires that are repressed in the television narratives slash builds on.

Camille: I just wanted to add something that I thought was very interesting. I started my study in 1982. And what I found was that the representation of gay and bisexual women in particular increased dramatically in fandom after 1986, when Joanna Russ’s article came out. [This article was published in two versions. One, aimed at non-fans and entitled "Pornography By Women, For Women, With Love," was in her collection of essays Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts (Crossing Press, 1985); the other, aimed at fans and entitled "Another Addict Raves About K/S," was published in a K/S zine--I think it was Nome 8 but I'm not certain. It has been circulating informally in fandom since.] That article seemed to make– It was not really just a matter of that an audience became aware of this that didn’t know about it, but an audience also was told that it was for them. And I think that was a very important thing for many people, because many people said that that’s where they heard about it.

NB: [unclear; in Darkover fandom, lesbian slash is written] not only by lesbians, and bisexuals maybe, but by perfectly straight women who maybe are just exploring that tiny bit of bisexuality, and some of them… a couple of the best lesbian slash–I mean, they have that lesbian slash feel that’s been in the professionally published anthologies, have been written by women I know are straight, and some of them by straight men… [something unclear, suggesting that Darkover fandom/fan writing isn't segregated by gender or orientation, unlike media fandom, which] is kind of segregated, you know… I am a writer of lesbian as well as male slash, and I can’t, you know… I just wrote a Thelma and Louise story, and it was published, and the editor called me up and said it’s getting a positive response, and I’d like to think that there are some straight women who are responding positively, as well as gay women and everybody else. One of the big problems with lesbian media slash is the lack of credible women; it probably is the main problem, that tv and movies don’t give us… They are terrified of women in pairs; look at the big brouhaha over Thelma and Louise.

Henry: But I think it’s possible to reclaim those characters in the margin. I’ve read Yar/Troi stories, for example–which are a stretch, and a big one–but there is a way in which you’re playing two different styles of femininity against each other that works on the printed page.

NB: I wrote an Uhura/Saavik story, which will be published in the fall–I mean, that’s a real stretch, but I was just fantasizing…

Henry: Blake’s 7 characters… The treatment of women on Blake’s 7 lends itself to some interesting slash pairings as well.

Male audience member: [unclear; he'd like to bring it back to] the question of appropriating cultural icons for dissemination. I don’t know–how large is the typical circulation for a fanzine? How many fanzines are there? What is the approximate composition of the people who write and read fanzines? [something unclear; then] Part of the question for the art is that people tend, in my knowledge of folk culture, people tend to appropriate, but they produce art for local consumption, a very small community rather than a mass community, which gets back to the difference between Lucasfilm, which is producing a mass amount of stuff [laughter], or now we have the technology for self-publishing large amounts of [unclear; of slash SW stories] for your family, for your friends, for your local club. My real question is, what is the population? I don’t know.

Henry: Maybe you can answer this better than I can, Camille; you have numbers in the book. I swore off counting things in my book.

Camille: Yeah, okay. There’s thousands and thousands and thousands of fanzines. There were over thirty thousand people who had written in them when I stopped counting in 1986. The fanzines that I know that have sold the most are pretty much mainstream genzines–well, not genzines; what that word means has changed its meaning in fandom, in the fan community. The ones that have sold the most are some of the oldest zines, and they’re still selling. Jean Lorrah’s Night of the Twin Moons has sold–each individual fanzine has sold over five thousand copies. DL regularly will sell out her Star Trek, basically PG-rated fanzines with no slash content, and she can sell out fifteen hundred copies regularly, and she comes out with two or three different ones a year. Slash… the most explosively distributed fanzine that I recall in slash was Courts of Honor. It sold six hundred–they printed six hundred copies. And I believe Nome, which is another very big, very well-respected Trek zine, does between six and seven hundred copies. So we’re talking very different numbers for slash. And once you leave Star Trek, the numbers drop dramatically, so that a print run for a minor… less… for what used to be called a “fringe” fandom, but fandom has changed, is between two hundred and a hundred copies. So the numbers really start to drop off pretty sharply when you get into slash, and that’s a major move up in slash. Now what was the other question?

Shoshanna: In terms of number of fans, it’s worth saying that there are fan communities on every English-speaking continent. There are very large ones in the States, obviously; there are very large ones in Great Britain; there’s a good-sized fan community in Australia; there are also smaller fan communities that I know of, because I’ve visited them, in France and in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is really small, the one I know of. But anywhere that these media products are available, there are fans.

Camille: It is also not true that the appropriation of materials is only done in very small communities for very small distribution. Because what often happens, and has happened since at least the fifteenth century, or actually the twelfth, I suppose, is stories may start in a small community, but they will travel very rapidly. So for example, the story of Cinderella originated in China in the fourth century, traveled all over, all over the world. So these kinds of folk articles have as much globe-trotting capacity as what we’re doing today. It takes a little bit longer; it may take a few hundred years instead of a few hundred milliseconds, but this stuff has always traveled.

Henry: One of the things that interests me is precisely the global circulation of zines. You read zines from England, Australia, Iceland. These zines are read, and people can build a national or even international reputation in fandom that nobody on the street would have even heard of. Artists at cons… I have JK’s artwork on the cover of the book, and that may mean something to media fans, and her name on a painting at MediaWest, say, will up its price six, seven hundred dollars fairly regularly. My publisher, of course, never heard of her. This is, so far as I know, the first commercial book cover that JK has ever done. But I chose it with the confidence that that name recognition would be there for media fans, and it would be a signal that this book, despite its kind of academic title, is addressed to them as well. The notion in our society that women, particularly, have so few outlets for gaining status, that women who are in low-paying jobs, who are in secretarial positions, who are, you know, in service sector jobs, can gain a national and international reputation as an artist, as a writer, as an editor, is a very important aspect of fandom, I think; precisely that it is a larger community that you can become important in. And I think that matters to people on a lot of levels; I think it’s really important that such a space exists.

Camille: It really matters if you travel, because you can travel from house to house all around the world; it’s really great fun.

Henry: And at the same time, the process, like the folk process… I ran into Leslie Fish’s filk songs in the southern cons, for example, where people sang the songs but had no idea that Leslie Fish had written them. They had become so much part of a community and had traveled, like your Cinderella story, across these spaces, often without people knowing, intermediate, where they had come from, and they really had been taken up as a folk text, in a very traditional sense, the same way, presumably, earlier folk songs lost their authors in the process.

Shoshanna: And, circularly enough, there is a filk song–filk music is science fiction folk music–there is a filk song entitled “Look What They’ve Done to My Song,” which is the filk singer who goes to a convention and hears other people singing his song, only they’ve changed it. [Laughter.]

Camille: Yes, and he probably stole the tune anyway.

Shoshanna: We have about three minutes left. Do you guys have wrap-up comments, or does any audience member want to get something in quick? [Pause.] All right, sum your books up in two minutes each.

Henry: Well, rather than summing my book up, I wanted to stress that we’re not unique in this. There are large numbers of graduate students and junior faculty people out there who, like me, came up through fandom, who are part of the fan community and who are now choosing, in whatever discipline they’re in, to write about it. I know of so many projects out there that I think are real important dialogue beginning to take place, at least in media studies and film studies, between fans and the academic way of approaching media. And I think fandom offers the academy new models for criticism, new models of engaging with texts that are going to be very productive. We’re learning from you, and I’m glad to be part of you at the same time.

Camille: Well, I suppose that it’s time to ‘fess up. All the while that I was doing my book, I was an academic, and that’s all I did. And I would actually write stories, and I would go around from group to group, and get them to finish the stories for me, and tell me what to write, so that I’d know what was going on, and what the process was. But when I finished the book and put it all away, I discovered there was this one little set of stories that I couldn’t put away. And so somehow I had gone native in this one little tiny section, and the problem is… It’s not the big section like, you know, Star Trek--If I ever saw Kirk and Spock again…well, you know, I’m here. One of the reasons we don’t have many people here [at the con] is they’re probably all over watching Bill and Len’s Excellent Adventure as we speak, because they’re at the Civic Center, Shatner and Nimoy [at a CreationCon the same weekend]. But there’s this little tiny group called Pros–The Professionals. And it’s a show that you’ve never seen, unless you’re from England, in which case you won’t admit to having seen it because it is total trash. Oh, it is, it is…if it wasn’t trash I wouldn’t like it. [Laughter.] But I couldn’t–some of the stories were really neat and I couldn’t stop. So, if anybody’s got anything that’s been written in the last two years about the Professionals, I want it. And I want it now! [Laughter.]

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