From a Cyberspace of Their Own to Television 2.0: An Interview with Rhianon Bury (Part Two)

You closed A Cyberspace of Their Own with a call for more research which dealt with issues of race and class as they relate to fan practices. While some such work has been done, this still remains largely unexplored territory. Why do you think it has been so hard to deal with race in fandom as compared to issues of gender and sexuality?

I think it’s because fandom is predominately white as are the scholars that study it. This is not to say that people of colour are not fans! But I suspect that they are a minority in many of the participatory cultures that are being studied. Moreover, many do not mark themselves out in terms of their racial identity and therefore are assumed to be white by the other participants.

In contrast, there is a solid body of literature dealing with race and ethnicity in media and film as well as in cyberspace and digital culture. In general, critical discussions of race are started by scholars of colour who have investments in a politics of social transformation much the way that critical discussions of gender were started by feminists (most of whom are women). I chose to work with female X-Files fans, in part, to underscore both their experiences of marginalization in public cyberspace and their strategies of resistance. The subtitle of my book is an intentional reference to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, “A Room of One’s Own.”

Your book discussed the function of humor in the female-centered fandoms around The X-Files and Due South. There is still relatively little writing on fan humor as compared to the more romantic, erotic, and melodramatic aspects of fan production. Why? What has Fan Studies missed by not focusing more on fan humor?

I haven’t a clue why so little is written about humor. Having a background in sociolinguistics, I have a particular interest in language practices and in how things get said, not just in what gets said. Humor plays such an important role in the community making process, cutting across fan interactions and practices, including romantic and erotic talk. As I argued in Cyberspaces, humor is bound up with class, gender and by extension race and ethnicity and nationality. I looked specifically at the repartee, the plays on words and witty exchanges by white, middle-class educated “elite” fans. I’d be very interested to learn about the role of humor in other contexts.

Your discussion of Due South explored the ways that fans did or did not connect with its “Canadian” origins. We are seeing ever more international content develop American fan followings, increasingly based on its accessibility on the internet. Does this process of acquiring the content change how fans think about its national origins?

When I look back, I’m struck by how ahead of their time the American Due South fans were. Many of the MRKS members I worked with in 2000 had never seen the series when its first two seasons were originally broadcast on CBS (Due South was a Canadian-US coproduction at that time.) They either picked it up in syndication or heard about it from fans in other fandoms. There were no opportunities to even rent or buy commercial DVDs.

Due South with its American fan base was part of what Chris Barker calls reverse flow. In his 1999 book, Television, Globalization and Cultural Identities, he challenged the notion that the one-way flow of American programming to the rest of the world would lead to the homogenization of culture and the erasure of local and national identities. The more likely outcomes, he argued, were fragmentation and hybridization. You’re certainly correct to suggest that online accessibility is providing more opportunities for Americans to become fans of series from other countries.

Whether this changes their sense of national identity (and there are differing notions of what constitutes being American) remains to be seen. I think that will depend on the type of content being viewed, the viewer’s other identifications (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender) and the context of viewing. My sense is that the majority of non-US programming with large American fan followings is British–Dr Who and now Sherlock come to mind. The Anglo-American flow is hardly new although the ability to download episodes almost immediately after they are broadcast in the UK instead of waiting months for the series to be broadcast in North America does offer the opportunity for American fans to hang out in fan spaces dominated by British fans. Considering that most Americans and Canadians outside of Quebec are monolingual, their opportunities to consume a range of international media content and participate in discussions are rather limited.

In your more recent work on Six Feet Under, you have questioned some of the founding assumptions of fan studies. In particular, you have challenged a tendency to equate fan resistance with progressive politics. What do you find in your work on HBO discussion boards which led you towards a different understanding of fan politics?

I was a huge fan of Six Feet Under but only occasionally perused the HBO boards until I watched the fourth season episode, “That’s my Dog.” As some folks may recall, this episode focused almost exclusively on the psychological and physical violence inflicted on David Fisher by a young man whom David had stopped to help after his car broke down. I had strong but very mixed emotions: on one hand, I was horrified by what had happened to a character I was emotionally attached to; on the other, I felt manipulated by the writers.

So off I went to the HBO boards, where I discovered a number of posts containing vitriolic homophobic comments, blaming David for his victimization (a fantasy scene indicated his initial sexual attraction to the young man). I was shocked that such comments were made by fans of a show with a central gay character.

My later analysis of the posts for the episodes of Season 4 revealed a remarkable pattern of interaction around every storyline in which David expressed explicit gay desire (e.g., giving a blowjob to a plumber in the funeral home; having sex with Sarge, a man he and Keith had picked up and played with after a paintball tournament). First the man-on-man sex scenes were flagged as “excessive,” with negative references made to Queer as Folk. These were followed by complaints that David’s expression of desire was out of character or morally questionable, and finally by complaints that there was too much “gayness” on television in general.

Of course not all fans responded this way but even the well-meaning comments made in defense of David’s actions served to erase his identity as a gay man. I described these fans as textual gamekeepers. Unlike the slash fiction writers who poach by queering the characters that have been written by the producers as straight, these fans “straightened out” the gay storylines. I bet there’s a whole lot more textual gamekeeping going on in fandom that has yet to be uncovered.

While your earlier research seemed to focus on relations within the fan community and on interpretive and evaluative responses of fans to the series texts, this new research seems to focus much more on the technologies we deploy in accessing content. Will these strands ultimately come together? What relation exists between whether fans consume content on Hulu and the kinds of social and meaning-making practices that evolve around that content?

It’s true that in my previous work I did not pay attention to modes of viewing or the accessing of content. Until recently, fan scholars just assumed that fans as committed viewers watched the original broadcast or a home recording shortly thereafter if they had to miss it. Even the technologies that enabled the creation of fan cyberspaces I studied were in the background. These new modes of consumption, production and interaction are unlikely to change the ways in which fans make meaning out of texts or the community-making process.

However, they certainly have the potential to change what it means to be a fan, how one becomes a fan, what one does as a fan and the kinds of relationships one has with other fans. These are the types of questions that I hope to begin to answer with the survey and interview data.

Let me close by saying that Web 2.0 technologies are changing the way I disseminate research on fandom. The norm in academia is to analyze our data behind closed doors and not report on it until we have a finished “product” in the form of a conference paper, a journal article, a book chapter, etc. With the use of blogging and microblogging technologies, I plan to informally report on findings as I work my way through the data in the coming months. I hope this will provide opportunities for dialogue with fans and fan scholars, and in turn provide feedback to inform my analysis.

Rhiannon Bury is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University, Canada’s Open University. Her research interests include communication technologies, identity and community, and media fan culture. Her book, Cyberspaces of Their Own, was published by Peter Lang in 2005. She is currently collecting data for her Television 2.0 project. To take the survey, visit here. Check out her blog.

Comments

  1. queergeektheory.wordpress.com says:

    Thanks for this great interview!

    I just wanted to call attention to an element that I suspect Rhiannon is well aware of but that readers may not be: the extent to which race, ethnicity, and social justice issues beyond gender have become greater and greater talking points within certain segments of online fandom in recent years, to the extent that I would argue fan activists have developed their own critical language to talk about it. There’s a discussion between some of the major participants in fannish race theory hosted at the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures (for full disclosure, I edited that piece), and the wiki article at Fanlore has links to some major fannish projects that address race.

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