If you are interested in Lost, The Simpsons, The Daily Show, Star Wars, Fan Studies, or Transmedia Entertainment and you are not reading the work of Jonathan Gray, then you aren’t doing it right! And let’s face it, if you weren’t interested in at least one of the above, then you probably have simply stumbled onto my blog by mistake.
Given that I am interested in all of the above, I keep stumbling onto Gray’s work and each time I do, I come away a little better educated than I did before. Gray has got to be one of the most productive — and provocative — writers working in media studies today. This guy really is an extratextual! And he’s someone I’m finding myself working with more and more. He’s a member of the Convergence Culture Consortium network of scholars; he’s edited several books where my essays have appeared; and he’s been working behind the scenes to help pull together our Transmedia, Hollywood events this month. And he’s now teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I did my PhD.
So, it’s a pleasure to share this interview with you. The first installment covers everything from his recent work on parody, popular culture, and politics to his long-standing interest in fans and anti-fans. Mostly, Part Two focuses around his significant new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010). I wrote a blurb for this book, so I got to read it months ago, but it is just now hitting the shelves and starting to have a real impact on how we theorize and criticize everything from movie trailers to action figures.
Jonathan, you are a highly prolific writer who has published books on a broad range of topics. What do you see as the unifying theme(s) running through your work?
One of my key interests lies in how audiences operationalize media, or, in simpler terms, how meaning is created between items of media and their audiences. More specifically, I’m intrigued with how meaning for something can be created outside of that thing itself. Thus my first book was about how parody aims to “hijack” the meanings of various other genres, recontextualizing how we make sense of them. And the recent book, Show Sold Separately, is about how all those things that surround a film or television show, from DVD bonus materials to ad campaigns, merchandise to fan-created texts, actually play a key role in creating meaning. Satire TV, meanwhile, was in one sense a book about how politics and the news come to make sense in entertainment television. Television Entertainment was a little different, but is most clearly indicative of another central and intersecting strand of my work, which involves exploring the social, cultural, and political uses of media entertainment.
One of your primary contributions to the space of fan studies has been to focus attention on “nonfans” and “antifans.” Why have these groups been neglected in audience research for so long? How do they relate to older categories like negotiated and oppositional readers? And what do they add to our understanding of fan culture?
Functionally, fans tend to be easier to study, at least from a cultural studies, qualitative perspective. When one is going to spend a portion of one’s life sitting down and chatting with people about their media consumption, or reading their postings online, it’s understandable that one would gravitate towards those audiences who are most literate about their subject, and most excited. “Snowball” sampling tends to pick up more fans too, since they can often be keen to be interviewed. Theoretically, a lot of qualitative audience research was motivated in part by a desire to show media consumers as not so hopelessly lost in the system as some suggest, and thus it was rhetorically important to make that case with fans.
But along the way, the risk has developed that fans stand in for audiences in general, when many audiences aren’t fans, or define their fandom in very different terms. A particular danger here is that fans tend to know the whole object, and they tend to be very close to it. But what about those audiences who, for instance, know they hate something, even though they haven’t ever watched it, or have only seen bits? They also have a relationship to the text, and it’s created meaning for them, but it’s a relationship that we’ve not studied too closely. Hence my interest in anti-fans. And then somewhere in the middle are those people who might watch semi-regularly, who have opinions on a show, and to whom the show means something, but who miss episodes and who have poor knowledge of background information. Surely much media consumption is casual and “meh”-ish: non-fans. But what is the show to them, and how do they construct it?
I’d see fandom, non-fandom, and anti-fandom as a completely different dimension from oppositional, dominant, or negotiated readings. After all, as fan studies have shown, some fan readings are deeply oppositional, some are dominant. Similarly with anti-fans and non-fans. As to your final question about what studying such viewers would add, they’ll allow us to understand how affect works more clearly. Fandom involves anti-fandom (think of the Star Wars fan who hates Trek, since his galaxy isn’t big enough for both franchises, or of X-Philes who hated the addition of the Terminator in the final seasons), and vice-versa (many haters are performing a love for something else). So just as we can’t truly understand a concept like gender without interrogating both “masculinity” and “femininity,” we won’t truly get how affect works generally, or even how fandom works specifically, till we explore anti-fandom a little more.
Some critics have argued that news parody programs cheapen political discourse, trivializing important matters, and represent the further shift away from hard news and towards “news entertainment.” Your Satire TV book takes a different perspective. What impact do you think such programs have on civic engagement and democratic participation?
That complaint, that The Daily Show and its colleagues take viewers away from hard news, always seems to forget that very few satiric shows actually compete with the news in timeslot. It also seeks to blame satire for the failings of the news. If people aren’t watching the news, it’s not because Jon Stewart is doing magic tricks in the circus tent down the road: it’s because the news is often a seriously debased entity, reporting in a slack, half-ass way, addressed to an older white male audience, often with little interest in others, in a manner that is often the true circus act. So first off, I’d respond to that criticism by saying that if satire TV is so often being compared to the news, that’s because the news is doing something wrong. And if people are trusting Stewart more than many newscasters, the productive question would be what is the news doing wrong and what is Stewart doing right, not how is Jon Stewart responsible for the fall of democracy.
But if we move away from comparing them, and consider the shows in and of themselves, their contributions are many. On one level, they’re not afraid to be critical or to ruffle feathers. They also speak in a language that many understand, inviting us in, not just using “inside the Beltway” lingo. When successful, they encourage many of us to care about politics in the first place, and they encourage us to be savvy, attentive, critical citizens, watching and listening to politicians and newscasters with our guard up. They are media literacy teachers, while also being voices that empower us to be citizens, rather than cajole us or guilt trip us into caring about politics.
Satire TV mostly focuses on the role such programs played under the Bush administration. We are now a year into the Obama administration. How has his presidency changed the relevance and tone of The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and other such programs? Why are there not shows about Obama in the same way that Lil Bush made fun of his predecessor?
Satirists aren’t going after Obama as much, as you note. Which is a pity, since every person in power needs to be subjected to a satirist’s sting. I’m a big fan of the medieval Fool model. But we’re in a two party system, and therein lies the problem, since too often it requires a binaristic way of looking at politics, whereby criticism of one “side” becomes, whether it wants to be or not, support for the other. On one hand, then, if your job is to make fun of stupid things said and done by people in power, how could you be expected to see the Democrats when at times you need to look through Rush Limbaugh is encouraging people note to donate to Haitian relief since it’ll only embolden Obama, when Rudy Guiliani and Dana Perino are claiming there were no terrorist attacks under Bush, when Glenn Beck is being Glenn Beck, when Jonah Goldberg is saying the Na’vi should’ve been Catholic in Avatar, when Sarah Palin thinks universal healthcare is a secret Nazi “death panel” plot, and when Dick Cheney is doing his best Emperor Palpatine impression? As they did under Bush, the Republicans just give way too much A-grade material to satirists. And on the other hand, if your sympathies lean left, as most satirists’ do, it must prove hard to focus on Obama when it means supporting the Birthers and the Tea Baggers as a result.
I’m not someone who feels it’s impossible to satirize Obama. But satirists go after crazy politics, and until the Republicans find a way to instill a semblance of sanity in their ranks, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and co. will likely continue to focus on the Republicans. While that takes the eye off the presidency – which worries me – it’s still a vital task.
You’ve written about “news fans” and I find myself returning to this concept in trying to think about the cult that currently surrounds Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh. Are we at a moment where reactionary politics is fueled as much by the fan followings of talk show and news personalities as it is by Washington-based leaders?
It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity on the right are all doing pretty well. And I’d bet that more folk on the left identify with Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann than with many politicians. Rumor has it that Lou Dobbs is even planning a presidential run [shudders]. Granted, few other fan objects get the chance to “cover” their fans on a weekly basis, so there is something of an echo chamber effect. But the more that we find political mobilization looking like fandom, the more that we need to think seriously about the connections. Liesbet Van Zoonen has an excellent book called Entertaining the Citizen in which she broaches the topic, Cornel Sandvoss has done some thinking about this, and you have too. But sadly the folk who study fans and the folk who study politics and journalism have been so successfully segregated from one another in most instances that there’s nowhere near enough analysis along those lines.
Jonathan Gray is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he researches and teaches on various aspects of television, film, and convergent media, including satire, comedy, audiences, and textuality. His most recent book is Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), though he has also written Television Entertainment (Routledge, 2008) and Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006), and is co-editor with Jeffrey P. Jones and Ethan Thompson of Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (NYU Press, 2009), with Robin Andersen of Battleground: The Media (Greenwood, 2008), and with Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World</em>. He also blogs at The Extratextuals and Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture.