Television and the Civil Rights Movement: An Interview with Aniko Bodroghkozy (Part Three)

Today’s civil rights movements, such as the struggles over the DREAM act, are more likely to play out in digital media than through broadcast media, and once again, the debates seem to want to focus on digital media as technology, rather than as a set of social, cultural, and political practices. What lessons might we take from your work on 1960s television to help us understand the role of new media in contemporary political resistance movements?


Let’s remember that television news in the early 1960s was the era’s “new media,” as digital media like Twitter and Facebook are today.  Any successful social change movement is going to want to exploit and make use of the newest communication tools of its era.  Today it’s social media.

These forms of media obviously do somewhat different things than “old media” like television – the form of communication and contact is different, appeal to audiences is different.  I hear the term “Twitter Revolution” and it puts my teeth on edge.  Twitter no more caused the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement than television caused the civil rights movement or the anti-Vietnam war movement.  In both cases, social change movements used the communication tools of the day and certainly the tools have an impact on how one can communicate, who one can reach, how quickly we can organize, and all the rest.

What concerns me is the centering on the technology as technology and the utopian discourses that surround it all.  As far as digital media, I think Morozov’s The Net Delusion is a useful corrective to the notion that new social media are inherently liberatory.  Social change movements create the impetus for social change – and that requires the hard work of organizing.  Television coverage and social media tools help, but they don’t substitute for organizing and getting lots of people together in real time and space pressing a change agenda and dialoguing with others and confronting others about it.  Some of this can occur in virtual spaces (I think Facebook and Twitter can be great organizing tools – mostly because they are fast and efficient), but I still would argue that social change activists do have to get into the streets and into public spaces as Occupy did – and as the civil rights movement did. 

One of the most important contributions of your book is your focus on reception, specifically the ways that different groups (not simply black vs. white or north vs. south, but different groups of white southerners, say) used television content to stage debates about what forms of social change were or were not acceptable. Too often, we end up with pretty univocal accounts of how southerners responded to the civil rights movement. What were some of the core points of difference that surface when you look at audience response to these broadcasts?

It’s pretty easy to stereotype white Southerners in the civil rights era: either benighted, evil or buffoonish racists or latter-day Atticus Finches taking on the good fight for victimized blacks.  I was interested in really trying to understand how white Southerners responded to the fundamental challenge to their segregationist world view when national media, network television in particular, throws a nationwide spotlight onto race relations in their locales, in particular Birmingham and Selma.

Working with the very large number of letters to the editor I found in Alabama newspapers, along with editorials and commentary that directly addressed media coverage I wanted to analyze and provide interpretive readings of these responses.  One thing I found was a significant degree of media awareness and savvy among white Southerners – they were far more aware of the workings of the media than were non-Southerners or African American commentary in the black press.

In fact, during the key civil rights years (early-mid 1960s) I was struck by how little discussion of the media I found in the black press.  It was like, since the media wasn’t a “problem” for the black empowerment movement, the medium as medium tended to disappear.  The media was telling the truth, “reflecting” what was really happening in the South, so there wasn’t the felt need to interrogate how the media was operating.  At least, that’s my attempt to hypothesize about the dearth of discourse about media in the black press during this period.

The situation is very different in the Alabama press.  Lots of attention to the role played by national media and particularly the “new media”: television.   And since most of these Southerners didn’t want to believe that what they were seeing on their TVs was true, they had to explain what was going on.  There were a lot of accusations that King and the movement merely wanted “publicity.”  Publicity for what?  Well, King was power mad or wanted to curry influence in Washington.  The movement’s stated reasons for the publicity campaigns couldn’t be grappled with.

These Southerners were, of course, correct that King and the movement staged marches and demonstrations to get media attention: they needed publicity on a national scale.  The movement, on the other hand, could never admit that they were staging “media events.”  White Southerners could see this, but for the most part had to stop right there.  To engage the next question: why do these marchers want this national attention, what are they marching for and against, would lead to scary answers.

If the Southern white worldview is founded, as it was, on the premise that segregation works for everyone and that blacks are just as content with the situation as whites, then to really engage the fundamental question profoundly threatens that worldview.  So many white Southerners had to evade and look for other things to focus on: the “Northern-ness” of network television, for instance.  Or media bias: why the focus on bad race relations in Selma when blacks and whites are killing each other in New York subways?  Why doesn’t the media focus on racism in the North?  Valid questions, but they do help to evade the big issue about Jim Crow and voter disenfranchisement.

Occasionally with some letter writers and editorialists, the media images broke through: especially during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign, particularly when white volunteers got murdered.  In a number of cases, there were anguished concerns about the “image” of Alabama that the rest of the country is getting: what does this say about Alabama?  Who are we?  How are we going to have to change?  I see these as cracks in the hegemonic segregationist armour and clues to how a previously naturalized worldview starts slowly to disintegrate.

As a historian of reception practices, the one thing I wanted to try to do was avoid taking a condescending attitude to these segregationist discourses and the people who were producing this discourse.  It’s easy to feel superior and know that these folks were on the wrong side of history.  They didn’t know that.  I

n some ways I found Northerners, particularly those who responded to the East Side/West Side episodes that explored race relations topics in Northern locales, as equally blinkered.  Even though these episodes were clearly marked as occurring in New York City and its environs, numerous letter writers would discursively locate the problem back to the South.  The real race problem was there; Southerners were the ones who should be watching these shows to learn about the plight of black people.   “Dumb” white Southerners were the problem, no matter where blacks faced oppression and discrimination.

One of the surprising discoveries you made was that while the networks did cover aspects of the March on Washington “live,” they cut away from what we now see as the key moments in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. What do you think motivated that decision?

All three networks carried significant amounts of live coverage of the March on Washington which occurred, by the way, on a Wednesday.  Nowadays it’s no spectacular feat to get masses of people to Washington for a march, but they always happen on the weekend.  Try to get a quarter of a million people to the national Mall on a weekday!

Along with the live coverage during the day, CBS that evening provided a prime time news programme that both recapped the events of the day and provided background about the March.  For people interested in the March, CBS’s prime time coverage is probably where they first got their sense of what happened.  Now this is the pre-sound bite era.  The news special provided long excerpts for quite a number of the speeches that preceded King’s.

Finally we get to King who provided the final speech of the day.  King’s speech can be divided into two halves: the first part provides some rationale for why people are massed at the Mall and why blacks are not satisfied with the racial status quo or the pace of change.  The second part of the speech is the one we all know: the soaring oratory of “I have a dream” and King’s vision of an America redeemed.  So, when CBS news personnel make their decision of what to excerpt from the speech, what do they go with?

Believe it or not, they cut away just as King launches into “I have a dream.”  When I first saw this news programme at the CBS News Archive, my jaw just about hit the floor when I realized that the most important words of the most important speech of the 20th century ended up on the cutting room floor.  It’s a pretty major journalistic gaffe.  But why?

I suggest that in 1963, reporters and news personnel didn’t know what to do with “I have a dream.”  King isn’t speaking politically any more; he isn’t given a list of grievances.  He is preaching.  Drew Hansen in his book about the speech really helped me to understand what the journalistic decision-making must have been.  King was no longer a political leader, he was now a visionary prophet, akin to Isaiah in the Bible.  This wasn’t a King that journalists were familiar with – outside of black churches, no one had really heard King speaking like this.

Aniko Bodroghkozy  is Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Prof. Bodroghkozy received her PhD in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin/Madison’s Department of Communication Arts where she worked with John Fiske and Lynn Spigel. She received an MFA in Film from Columbia University in New York, and a BA High Honours from the Department of Film Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
Prof. Bodroghkozy’s first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. She has published numerous articles on American cinema and television and the social change movements of the postwar era. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals such as Cinema Journal, Screen, Television and New Media, and the online TV Studies journal Flow. Her current book project, Black Weekend: Television News and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a narrative history exploring the four days of network coverage surrounding the death of JFK.  She is also editing the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the History of American Broadcasting.

Television and the Civil Rights Movement: An Interview with Aniko Bodroghkozy (Part Two)

You suggest that the news media made “common cause” with the civil rights movement in bringing some of their concerns to the American public. What motivated the national news media to embrace this story? What were the limits of their commitment to the cause?


It was a limited common cause. Around issues such as integration of schools and public spaces, along with voting rights, the media was largely supportive.  But Presidents Kennedy and Johnson also embraced those goals.  The news media, television in particular, tended to be very positively inclined to JFK and was as well to LBJ in the early period of his administration when he appeared to be trying to carry out the Kennedy agenda, particularly the Civil Rights Act that passes in 1964.  The legislative goals of the movement were “legitimated” by the fact that there was significant support among both Democratic and Republican officials outside the South. These were somewhat less partisan times, certainly in media coverage.  Television news deferred quite a bit to the president.

But one thing surprised me as I examined TV news coverage.  Reporters tended to become far more critical of civil rights activists and civil rights campaigns when things turned violent.  In reading transcripts of NBC coverage of the sit-in movement, I was surprised to discover that the reporter refused to identify who was being violent.  The reporter kept using the passive voice so it wasn’t clear that white segregationists were the ones pummeling sit-in demonstrators.

At other times, however, when the violence was so clearly marked between victim and aggressor, there was less criticism of the civil rights activists.  When voting rights marchers in Selma were brutally gassed and beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in full view of a battery of cameras, there was no attempt to suggest that the marchers were participating in creating the mayhem.  However, in another news story from Selma that I viewed, the CBS reporter was somewhat critical of very youthful demonstrators who, unlike their elders, did not present docile bodies, but ranged around the streets and back alleys during their march.  In general, there appeared to be more anxiety about the activities and potential threat of black youths (who were, of course, fundamentally important to the success of civil rights campaigns, particularly those of direct action and civil disobedience).

It’s a weird paradox: TV news was drawn to the civil rights story to some extent because it provided dramatic visuals of violence and a powerful good versus evil narrative, but reporters tended to criticize the violence that drew them to the story in the first place.

You write in the book about “a moment [in the 1960s] of non-stereotypical, respectable middle-class blacks” on fictional television. What factors gave rise to this moment and which led to its decline? How do these fictional black characters relate to the idealized civil rights subject that you suggest was constructed through the evening news?

It seems that every era of media representation of African Americans is attempting to respond differently to the era that precedes it.  I open the book with a consideration of The Beulah Show and Amos ‘n’ Andy, the early 1950s shows featuring blacks in starring roles.  We tend to consider them to be stereotyped and degrading images of blacks.  At the time, however, the thinking about these representations was somewhat more complicated.  Beulah, the black housekeeper to a white family, was seen by some (including some in the black press) as equal to her employers, middle-class in deportment, not using dialect, and in general a good role model.  In developing Amos ‘n’ Andy for television, CBS very deliberately elevated them and the Kingfish to middle class status presumably to make them appear less disrespectable and buffoonish.  Nevertheless, both shows, and especially Amos ‘n’ Andy, were subject to high profile protest by the NAACP, and were off the air by 1953.

Prime time becomes a very “white-washed” world from then on till the early-mid 1960s.  Network programming philosophy was: appeal to the most, offend the least.  Black performers tended to cause controversy – witness the case of Nat King Cole and his 1957 variety show which couldn’t secure a sponsor.  The “integrating” of prime time entertainment programming is, of course, a direct result of the civil rights movement.  It was becoming more of a problem to not show at least occasional black performers or black characters.

Herman Gray came up with the concept “civil rights subject” when he was writing about how television tended to remember civil rights.  The civil rights subject in his original formulation is the latter-day beneficiary of the movement: an exemplary figure signified by hard work, individualism, middle-class status.  The Huxtable family of The Cosby Show is the quintessential example of this concept.  What I argue in my book is that this “civil rights subject” is also evident in television representations (both in news coverage and in prime time entertainment) during the civil rights era.  The most notable early example in prime time drama is Bill Cosby again!  In 1965 he’s paired with a white partner in the Cold War espionage series, I Spy.  Cosby’s character can’t just be a spy, though: he’s a Rhodes scholar who speaks eleven languages and is clearly superior to everyone around him (except that his white buddy gets all the girls).  I Spy gives us a colour-blind, post-integrationist world where our two heroes can range around the world to Cold War hot spots (typically in Asian countries that look “exotic”) and represent a black-and-white America that doesn’t have anything to do with racism.


Bill Cosby’s character is the opposite of a victim, but another form of early 1960s programming did focus on blacks-as-victims – the “social problem” dramas that appeared in direct response to both the idealism of the Kennedy New Frontier and also industry anxiety about tougher regulation by the new FCC chairman, Newton Minow who castigated television as “a vast wasteland.”  One show I look at, East Side/West Side, focuses on the crusades of an idealistic white social worker in New York City.  One very high profile episode examines the plight of a young Harlem couple dealing with the lack of jobs for black men and horrendous ghetto housing conditions (their baby dies after begin bitten by a rat).  Even though the couple is obviously poor and living in degraded conditions, they are presented to us as middle-class seeming, dignified, hard-working, eminently respectable – although James Earl Jones, as the husband, portrays a barely contained rage against his oppression.  The characters, nevertheless, are presented to white viewers as ones deserving of help – the only thing standing in the way of their achieving middle-class status and integration into the white world is employment discrimination and slum housing.  So there’s that similar appeal that we see in news and photojournalism coverage: helpless but worthy blacks, enlightened, caring whites as potential rescuers.


But shows like East Side/West Side were a bit grim for prime time Nielsen families.  The quintessential civil rights subject after Bill Cosby in I Spy was Diahann Carroll in Julia, which came on air in 1968 and was the first TV series to star an African American since the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah.  Julia was colour-blind integration fully achieved.  She’s a nurse with white co-workers and she lives in a LA apartment building with white neighbours.  Except for mostly humourous instances of “prejudice,” Julia and her adorable young son personify a world of interracial harmony.  The show was controversial because as network television’s first high profile attempt to center a show around African Americans, it ran up against the rapid shifts in the black empowerment movement and what was going on with race in the US at that point.  By 1968 with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts having passed, the attention shifted North and there’s more of a focus on economic oppression and “de facto” segregation and the situation with black inner city “ghettos.”  The movement also shifts into more confrontational directions that are more discomforting to liberal and moderate whites.  Julia was a popular show but arguments swirled around it suggesting that the show was out of touch with what was really going on: the show wasn’t “telling it like it is.”


You see the book as seeking to correct some common misunderstandings about the role of television during the civil rights era. What do you see as the most widespread misinterpretations of this period?


I think it’s similar to the misunderstanding about television and the Vietnam War.  Television did not embrace the cause of the anti-war movement and thereby lead the US population to demand the war’s end.  (See Daniel Hallin’s The “Uncensored War.”)  Similarly television didn’t cause the success of the civil rights movement.  Television was not a mouthpiece for the movement; news coverage did not transmit or reflect the positions, perspectives, and arguments of the movement in some simple, one-directional sort of way.  I see this over and over again in histories of the civil rights era: the nation saw it on television and the nation acted.  This reifies the medium, gives us television as a neutral mirror reflecting what’s in front of the camera.   No attention to television as an institution and industry, or to textual construction, or to reception practices – all the issues that we as media scholars explore.  This is preaching to the choir when I say this to fellow media studies folks, but I’m hoping my book gets read by non-media scholars, too!

Was network television in general sympathetic to the legislative goals of the movement?  Yes.  But as I’ve already noted, so were powerful political players.  Was the movement sympathetic to many of the movement’s strategies, including demonstrations, direct action, civil disobedience?  In general, no.  For instance, in the run-up to the March on Washington, the media (and not just television) was very critical of the prospect of a hundred thousand and more black people converging on the nation’s capital.  The recurring news peg was “violence is inevitable” and “mass marches won’t sway congressional votes anyway.”  When violence didn’t occur on the day of the march, the live coverage became largely celebratory with images mostly focused on dignified, middle-class-looking marchers – ideal “civil rights subjects” – who presented docile, smiling, and unthreatening images.  But newsmen covering the event continued to insist that the quarter of a million marchers wouldn’t sway votes, so what was the point of the march.

So I really want to undercut and question a certain amount of technological utopianism and determinism that I see in civil rights historiography and also in popular memory.  Television coverage was crucial to the movement, of course; the movement did not, however, fundamentally control either the medium or its messages.  The medium and the movement were not one and the same; that fact tends to get lost.

Aniko Bodroghkozy  is Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Prof. Bodroghkozy received her PhD in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin/Madison’s Department of Communication Arts where she worked with John Fiske and Lynn Spigel. She received an MFA in Film from Columbia University in New York, and a BA High Honours from the Department of Film Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Prof. Bodroghkozy’s first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. She has published numerous articles on American cinema and television and the social change movements of the postwar era. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals such as Cinema Journal, Screen, Televisionand New Media, and the online TV Studies journal Flow. Her current book project, Black Weekend: Television News and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a narrative history exploring the four days of network coverage surrounding the death of JFK.  She is also editing the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the History of American Broadcasting.



Television and the Civil Rights Movement: An Interview with Aniko Bodroghkozy (Part One)

Many of us may think we know the history of the role which American broadcast television played in fostering public awareness and rallying support behind Martin Luther King and his 1960s era Civil Rights struggle. We can all picture in our heads the black and white fuzzy images of King’s powerful remarks in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, for example, and we know that people across the country must have watched those amazing words in their living rooms.

Not so fast, argues Aniko Bodroghkozy, the author of a new book, Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement.  Bodroghkozy certainly argues that television played important roles in sparking the consciences of viewers around the country as the networks and the activists made reluctant, tentative, highly compromised “common cause” with each other to transform the civil rights struggles into a prime time spectacle. But, some of what you believe happened — starting with how the networks covered the March on Washington — turns out to be a bit more complex than popular memory and imagination might suggest.

I have had the joy of watching Bodroghkozy develop from a young graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying under John Fiske and Lynn Spigel, to the author of an important first book about the ways the student protests of the 1960s engaged with television, through to the publication of this masterful new book, which represents the culmination of more than a decade’s work in the archives. Bodroghkozy has already written the definitive accounts of the controversy surrounding The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the reception of Julia by black and white viewers, both essays often assigned in television history classes around the country. Her work moves back and forth between news and entertainment programming, showing the ways that they were sometimes aligned, sometimes contradictory, in their depictions of the current state of race relations in the 1960s. Her work is surprisingly nuanced in dealing with the diversity of perspectives within the network journalists, within the civil rights movement, and with white southerners, as the country sought to resolve deep rooted conflicts around segregation. She offers rich readings of key programs and broadcasts which are contextualized by contemporary responses from newspapers and letters housed in archives, combining insights from social and political history alongside those she brings to the table as a gifted broadcast historian.

The book’s consideration of media and political change is well timed, offering a rich historical counter to current debates about the role of new media in informing recent struggles, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement. For me, it especially resonates with the work that my Civic Paths team at USC has been doing on the DREAMers, undocumented youth whose current civil rights struggles are informed by their saavy use of YouTube and various social media platforms. But, as the country’s first black president seeks re-election,  Equal Time offers us some great resources for placing into perspective various attempts to mobilize popular memories of the Civil Rights era.

The following interview demonstrates Bodroghkozy’s careful, nuanced, yet engaged mind at work, describing some of the ways that Equal Rights helps to revise our understanding of this important era both in the history of American politics and in the evolution of television as a medium.

You can also follow this link for an interview with the author on public radio.

You begin the book with a powerful quote from Martin Luther King: “We are here to say to the white men that we are not going to let them use clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.” To what degree were the tactics King brought to the civil rights movement designed to encourage and shape television attention? What did King and the other civil rights leaders hope to accomplish by getting access to broadcast media?


King’s quote is really noteworthy because he and civil rights leaders of the era so very rarely talked openly about their strategies to elicit television coverage.  To be open about their “media campaign” would have appeared manipulative, anathema for a movement that was attempting to appeal to the moral conscience of the nation.  King and the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, his organization) understood the power of strong visual images and the need to communicate a stark message of moral clarity – and to communicate that message and those images to a national audience that could put pressure on congressmen, senators, and the president to pass federal legislation around civil rights and voting rights.  Accessing a national audience was key.

You have to remember that in the early 1960s, there were few truly national media outlets.  There were the picture magazines, Life and Look, which reached a huge readership, and to a lesser extent the newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek.  None, of course, had the reach of network television, which by the early 1960s had over ninety percent penetration in U.S. households.  This time period is also when the networks finally begin to invest significantly in their news divisions (CBS and NBC inaugurate their half hour nightly news shows in the fall of 1963 and throughout the early/mid 1960s large numbers of prime time news documentaries, special reports, bulletins and the like).  So you’ve got network news becoming a serious journalistic venue reaching unprecedented numbers of citizens.

King and the SCLC in particular appeared to intuitively understand the nature of television news and the need for dramatic pictures.  They knew to schedule marches no later than about 2:00 in the afternoon in order to work with the demands of the TV news room: film had to be flown to New York, printed, edited, and readied for broadcast for the nightly news.  And they knew that the news cameras would stick around only if the marches and demonstrations led to confrontation and even violence.  The movement did need to create situations in which white racists would beat and brutalize civil rights activists.

On the one hand, one could say that the movement was manipulating the media as well as Southern white police officials like Birmingham’s Bull Connor or Selma’s Jim Clark by creating a setting for confrontation (and certainly segregationists argued that these were all publicity stunts).  On the other hand, blacks had been beaten, lynched, and brutalized “in the dark corners” for decades and decades.  Staging this brutality out in public and inviting new forms of national media to witness it was a novel and clearly powerful tactic that both assisted the movement in making its larger arguments about Jim Crow and black disempowerment, but also played to the strengths of television as “new media.”


Was the goal to reach white viewers, black viewers, or some kind of community which included people of multiple races?


The goal clearly was primarily to reach white viewers, particularly outside the South.  Frequently network news stories about civil rights would be “blacked out” on Deep South TV stations.  Steven Classen has written superbly in his book, Watching Jim Crow, about the case of Jackson, Mississippi’s WLBT-TV which systematically censored network news stories about civil rights or race relations and eventually, after long legal struggles by civil rights activists, finally had its broadcast license revoked by the Justice Department in 1969.  King would frequently appeal to “the conscience of the nation.”  He was obviously referring to the mass audiences produced by media like network television and to nationally distributed magazines.

The movement really didn’t need television to appeal to African Americans (either in the South or the North).  There was a very robust black press that was very effectively distributed to black communities.  News weeklies like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier had national reach with black train porters often working as an informal distribution system to get these newspapers to black communities around the country, and especially into the Deep South.  The movement needed to reach and impact whites outside the South in order to make the case that segregation in Birmingham, Alabama or Albany, Georgia or voter disenfranchisement in Selma, Alabama weren’t regional issues to be solved at the state level, but rather national problems of concern to all Americans to be dealt with in Washington.  And Washington politicians would only care if they were hearing from constituents en masse.

It’s also important to remember this was the Cold War era and to some extent the movement was aware of the global audience. We aren’t really in the satellite era yet (although the Telstar communications satellite goes up in 1962 and live satellite transmission is possible).  The 1963 March on Washington coverage is transmitted live to most European countries.  Nevertheless images are traveling more quickly in this era and there’s lots of concern about how global audiences are making sense of the “leader of the Free World” oppressing its black citizens.


Does television mean something different in the context of this movement than newspapers and print based media?


I think the distinction is more “visual media” versus “print media.”  My book was going to press just as Martin Berger Seeing Through Race came out.  He examines the photojournalism around the civil rights movement and comes to some similar conclusions to mine about network news coverage.  In both cases, the emphasis is on dramatic images of moral clarity: good versus evil, clearly marked.  It calls to mind Peter Brooks’ arguments about “the melodramatic imagination” and the moral occult: in a secular era, we need narratives to give us that clarity that used to be presumably provided by the church in the pre-modern era.

Both television news and photojournalism assumed a white viewer.  The preferred images are of helpless, supplicating or brutalized black bodies that need assistance.  The white viewer is hailed into the position as saviour or rescuer.  The white viewer, whose conscience is being appealed to, is called on to do something, respond in some way to come to the aid of the helpless black victim.  Berger very usefully traces this trope back to abolitionist iconography with the widely circulated image of the kneeling, supplicant slave holding up his chained arms.  In television news coverage, black civil rights activists are almost always mute; only King is authorized to speak.  Preferred images include docile marchers, praying bodies, and, of course, tear-gassed, whipped, beaten bodies.  Print media had a significant role to play as well and Richard Lentz in his (terribly titled!) book Symbols, the News Magazines, and Martin Luther King does a great comparative analysis of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report in their coverage of King and the movement.

But ultimately I think the power of the civil right movement comes from its visuality and the movement’s intuitive grasp of how to communicate via imagery.  Print media, I think, functioned in an ancillary role providing background, context, and information to the images.



Aniko Bodroghkozy  is Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Prof. Bodroghkozy received her PhD in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin/Madison’s Department of Communication Arts where she worked with John Fiske and Lynn Spigel. She received an MFA in Film from Columbia University in New York, and a BA High Honours from the Department of Film Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
Prof. Bodroghkozy’s first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. She has published numerous articles on American cinema and television and the social change movements of the postwar era. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals such as Cinema Journal, Screen, Television and New Media, and the online TV Studies journal Flow. Her current book project, Black Weekend: Television News and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a narrative history exploring the four days of network coverage surrounding the death of JFK.  She is also editing the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the History of American Broadcasting.

Batman and Beyond: An Interview with Will Brooker (Part Three)


As you note, there has always been space within the Batman canon for some kinds of alternative interpretations of the character, for “What If?” or Elseworld stories, for alternative histories and authorial differences. Do you see the space for multiplicity within the superhero comics narrowing as Hollywood interests exert greater control over the future of these characters? If so, why?

I don’t, because I think comics are currently and will probably remain a niche interest.

That Morrison’s run on Batman — an extended, fannish love letter to the character’s seventy-year continuity, including obscure, one-panel references to specific archival stories and reworkings of previously-repressed comic narratives – took place at exactly the time Nolan was helming his own separate and distinctly authored Batman franchise, demonstrates that comic book continuity remains relatively independent from the Hollywood version.

There are overlaps and crossovers – Nolan’s franchise borrowed from specific graphic novels, and Morrison incorporated references to the Nolan Batman into his own story –  but comics run on a parallel track, for a different (and far smaller) audience than movies, and no doubt also far smaller than the video game market.

It is certainly possible to identify a Nolan influence within Batman comics of the last seven years. Lucius Fox is now both regularly written and drawn to evoke Morgan Freeman. Joker is now commonly depicted with knife scars up both cheeks.  A rougher, more cockney Alfred, clearly inspired by Michael Caine, features in one recent graphic novel. Batman regularly appears as a more armoured character, and the Tumbler, his tanklike Batmobile from Nolan’s movies, has frequently appeared on the pages of comics. Characters like Riddler, Penguin and Killer Croc have been re-imagined, within certain titles at least, in a more ‘Nolanised’ style. A new title called simply The Dark Knight was launched in 2010.

However, I would characterise this as ‘influence’ rather than ‘control’. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman and his world has joined the matrix of Batman texts and images, as Adam West’s did in the late 1960s, and facets of the ‘Nolanverse’ will inevitably appear within other Batman stories, just as the comic books became more flat, Pop and cartoonish during the TV show’s successful run. That was a fad, and it faded, and I think the influence of Nolan’s specific Batman will also fade in time, though it will remain part of the broader kaleidoscopic matrix, or mosaic, of what Batman is, and will continue to crop up now and then.

One of the underlying arguments of my book is that meanings occupy places on a spectrum, rather than binary oppositional positions, and that they flow, change places and cross over like energy running around a circuit, rather than like light switches that are either on or off.

So there are constant overlaps and internal contradictions throughout Batman’s history that undermine any sense of clear boundaries and definitions.

The Dark Knight Returns, which is held up as one of the key texts of the ‘purist’, dark, military Batman, and also regarded as ‘faithful’ in tone to Kane’s original, is itself an Elseworlds story and a possible future. The 1970s Batman of O’Neil and Adams is believed to have rebooted the character from the sillier, more playful aesthetic of the 1960s, but it is surprisingly easy to find elements of camp and queerness in those supposedly ‘gritty’ adventures of the ‘Darknight Detective’ and Robin, the Teen Wonder.

And while the New 52 of October 2011 ostensibly reboots Batman into a more contained storyline and space after the complexity and ambiguity of Morrison’s previous run – we are told now that Batman has only been active for five years, which clearly rules much of his history out of continuity – it retains the official line that there are 52 multiple universes, including several in-continuity alternate versions of Batman. So while the New 52 reboot seems to be a move towards control and ‘straightness’, in every sense, at the same time it embraces multiplicity and a sense of possibility.

The dynamic between multiplicity and control in Batman’s universe is not a matter of off/on, then, but push-pull; a constant tension between energies in different directions, rather than a binary which clicks all the way to one extreme, then all the way back to the other

As someone who has written a lot about the meanings of the Joker, especially in relation to Nolan’s film, I wanted to get you to reflect a bit about the Joker/Obama phenomenon. What do these images suggest about the connections you draw between the Joker and folk cultural logics and practices?


I would be tempted to see the Joker/Obama images as an example of the state of contemporary folk culture epitomised by the Joker in modern comics – a distorted, limited, unfunny version of the older folk culture Bakhtin describes, which genuinely belonged to the people and the marketplace, and roamed freely, generously, with healthy mockery of official rituals and structures.

The posters of Obama in the guise of Ledger’s Joker do not strike me as witty or even meaningful. They seem to have no particular conviction behind them; no clear message or purpose.

The first instance of the Jokerised Obama was defended by the Republican students who designed it as simply a pop culture image to get attention, rather than a political statement.

The creator of the most famous Joker/Obama image, Firas Alkhateeb, also claims no political purpose and has said he simply produced it because he was bored. The ‘socialism’ caption was added by someone else, who downloaded Alkhateeb’s image from Flickr. Even with this addition, the poster strikes me as having very little focused meaning. The combination of Ledger’s Joker, Obama’s portrait from the cover of Time and the word ‘socialism’ do not seem to cohere into any resonant message. The racial connotations of the image also seem to be accidental, rather than intended by Alkhateeb, who claims he was simply experimenting with a photoshop technique.

So I would associate this image with the expression of closed-down, contained carnival that Bakhtin tells us evolved from the seventeenth century onwards; a reduced carnival-grotesque, an ‘individual carnival, marked by a vivid sense of isolation… laughter was cut down to cold humour, irony, sarcasm. It ceased to be a joyful and triumphant hilarity. Its positive regenerating power was reduced to a minimum.’

Mockery and foolishness have a useful social purpose, whether we agree with their political aims or not, but to my mind, the Jokerised Obama says nothing positive or helpful, whether for the left or the right; it only offers sneering, empty sarcasm and ugliness. ‘The result,’ as Bakhtin says, ‘is a broken grotesque figure.’

This is very much the Joker of recent, ‘dark’ Batman comics, whose jokes trail off without punchlines, who seems lonely, cold and barren, rather than a joyful, ‘gay devil’, who wants to spread his playful energies across the city.

If it does have a value is, it is perhaps that – like Ledger’s Joker – it destabilises meaning and questions oppositions.

Arguably, the Jokerised Obama image problematises our expectations of political propaganda posters– that they should have a clear intention and carry a coherent message – and works to question and interrogate political oppositions based around personality, celebrity and iconic individuality, through the creator’s stated indifference and lack of any motivation beyond playful experiment. We assume that the combination Joker + Obama must be meant as either celebration or criticism; inherently, though, as far as the creator’s intentions go, it is neither.

The slippery refusal of this image to carry any obvious meaning – its refusal to make sense, its obstinate unwillingness to be readily decoded, despite the fact that it fits the conventional icon + slogan pattern that we are so used to understanding immediately and reading competently in advertising and propaganda – does perhaps have a certain subversive power.

Nolan’s Joker claims to be an agent of chaos, empty of any political agenda or intention, rather than a ‘schemer’, but the fact that his terrorism is clearly carefully planned subverts even this idea of meaningless, motiveless crime. He denies the forces of order the opportunity to classify him as ‘chaotic’; that would be a category in itself.

The Jokerised Obama, by contrast, is assumed to have an agenda and political intention, but in fact, in its original form, was created genuinely without motive, for the sake of appearance alone – an exercise in photoshop that could presumably have been applied to any photograph of any face – rather than parody or propaganda.

As such, the Joker/Obama image, like the other artefacts that swarm and circulate around the film, from news stories to viral marketing to fan-made Bane memes, adds an interesting intertextual echo to the network of meanings that make up The Dark Knight, and the broader Dark Knight trilogy as a whole.

Will Brooker is currently Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and incoming editor of Cinema Journal. His books include Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice’s Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, the BFI Film Classics volumeStar Wars, and Hunting the Dark Knight (I B Tauris, 2012).

Batman and Beyond: An Interview with Will Brooker (Part Two)

Your book seems to be as much focused on working through some core theoretical debates in media studies using Nolan and the Dark Knight as it is on using theory to explicate this particular franchise. What makes this film series such a good vehicle for asking these kinds of theoretical questions?


The longevity of Batman as a cultural icon and his visible role in popular culture for several decades, across various media, means that recent articulations of Batman are particularly rich examples for considering the role of authorship and the nature of adaptation. I draw various comparisons in the book’s first two chapters, which focus on these questions, between Batman and other popular texts, to demonstrate the extent to which Batman is a broader and more diverse archive of images, interpretations and variants than other stories and franchises.

Batman has been circulating for fifty-eight years longer than Harry Potter, for instance. Unlike other pulp heroes such as Tarzan and the Shadow, he has remained popular throughout every decade since 1939, by changing and adapting to fit the cultural concerns, the audience and the new media of each period. Unlike, say, George Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air, which was published at around the same time as Batman’s first appearance, Batman cannot be pinned down to a single primary text or definitive version, but exists as a shifting, fluid, multiple figure (within a fixed template of identifiable features).

So the idea of adapting ‘Batman’, this seventy-three year-old archive of stories across various media forms into a feature film, raises more questions than usual about the role of the author and the nature of translation.

It challenges the notion of the director as author, and suggests instead that Nolan’s creativity lies in his role as editor or ‘scriptor’, collaging and compiling existing Batman stories and imagery into a new form.

It also problematises the straightforward, one-to-one relationship that is often assumed between primary text and adapted text, as Nolan’s trilogy adapts from several graphic novels, is shaped by previous Batman films and TV series, and in turn influences Batman in other media such as comics and video games.

I am not treating Nolan’s franchise as exceptional though, but suggesting that it provides a particularly visible and vivid example of the way all texts operate within a ‘matrix’, and offers us a way of seeing, with particular clarity, the dialogic process of  authorship and adaptation.


As you note, the core comic book readership is too small to successfully open a major Hollywood film (witness what happened to Scott Pilgrim) so the producers need to  expand the market to more casual viewers, some of whom may be anxious that they lack the basic background knowledge to fully understand a film about a character with a long history in other media. Do concepts like fidelity, continuity, and consistency have any negative consequences for expanding the viewership?


Not in this case, because the ‘fidelity’ of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to the existing mythos of Batman was extremely selective, and therefore easy for producers to manage and for a broader audience to understand.

Grant Morrison’s run on the main Batman titles from 2006-2011 is more ‘faithful’ to Batman in that it engages with, interrogates and re-incorporates every key articulation and incarnation of Batman from 1939 to the present day. Morrison’s Batman RIP does capture a mosaic cultural icon, and it’s a complex, fragmented narrative that I think would be difficult for a broader, non-fan readership to understand.

By contrast, Nolan’s Batman was ‘faithful’ to a small group of titles from a relatively narrow period, within a specific aesthetic and approach. His films are directly informed and shaped by Denny O’Neil’s short origin story ‘The Man Who Falls’ and his Ra’s al Ghul tales from the 1970s, by Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One from the mid-to-late 1980s, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, and by a handful of other 1990s storylines such as No Man’s Land and Knightfall.

A movie adaptation that was truly faithful to ‘Batman’, even in terms of his diverse depiction in comics alone, would result in a kaleidoscopic, encyclopaedic film that might be extremely interesting but would be more of an art project – and perhaps more suited to another medium rather than cinema.

The discourse of ‘fidelity’ at work around Nolan’s movies, particularly Batman Begins – which needed to establish his approach – was more about stressing a distinction between this reboot and the previous Schumacher films, and using ‘fidelity’ as an anchor to a certain tradition within Batman comics. This tradition – dark, tough, masculine, ‘realistic’ – is only a specific strand of what Batman is and has been.

The Dark Knight series had to initially overcome negative perceptions of some earlier media versions of the character, especially the 1960s Batman television series and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. The problem in both cases had to do with their camp aesthetic and thus anxieties surrounding homosexuality in relation to the character. So, what are some of the ways the filmmakers signaled a new approach?

The widespread use of the term ‘reboot’ alone helped to signal that Batman Begins was a new approach. ‘Reboot’ is a complex term, and one that media scholar Billy Proctor has been working to define and explore in a series of recent articles, but there is a general understanding that it implies a new, clean start within the existing system. The essential Batman template remains, but the previous characterisation and story are overwritten (though I argue that the older content always shows through).

The producers circulated the distinction between Nolan’s Batman Begins and the late-1990s Joel Schumacher movies (which in turn were broadly associated with the 1960s TV series) in a variety of ways, through publicity materials, interviews, previews and trailers; and these meanings were embraced and confirmed by journalists and fans, creating a powerful discourse that separated Nolan’s project from the previous Batman films.

My book discusses in detail the way this forceful, coherent message of a new, ‘dark’ Batman was articulated – through the visual materials such as shadowy poster designs and a logo based on a rust-coloured throwing-knife, through leaked details such as Bale’s rigorous physical training regime and the focus on actual hardware and stunts rather than CGI, through specific disavowals of the Schumacher approach in interviews with Nolan and his colleagues, and through the tough, no-nonsense tone and language used in reviews and features.

The producers were aided in this approach by the fact that this ‘dark’ Batman was an already-established construction – within fandom, certainly, and to an extent in the broader popular consciousness –  and was already set up in opposition to what I call the ‘Rainbow Batman’, an incarnation of the character associated with play, camp, queerness and colour.

The filmmakers were not creating a new set of meanings but rearticulating an existing distinction between ‘dark’ and ‘camp’ which had been played out between the 1960s TV show and the 1970s Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams Batman, and then the 1960s TV show (again) and the 1986 Frank Miller Batman.

As such, then, the producers could harness the idea of ‘fidelity’ (to the 1970s O’Neil and 1986 Miller Batman, which in turn claimed fidelity to Bob Kane’s 1939 Batman) to insist that they were going back to the ‘original’ and that their version had the benefit of authenticity.

My own view is that the ‘Rainbow Batman’ is equally authentic, ‘pure’ and valid, and that it can equally be evidenced as ‘faithful’ to the comic book texts –  albeit of a different period, and by different creators.

Indeed, I argue that the ‘dark Batman’ consistently defines itself in relation to the camp version, and always brings that brighter, Day-Glo variant back to light when it tries to bury it – in repressing it, it makes it visible again – and further, that every version of Batman exhibits a dynamic struggle between these tendencies towards camp and control, play and seriousness, queerness and containment.

Will Brooker is currently Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and incoming editor of Cinema Journal. His books include Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice’s Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, the BFI Film Classics volumeStar Wars, and Hunting the Dark Knight (I B Tauris, 2012).

Batman and Beyond: An Interview with Will Brooker (Part One)

Since 2001, Will Brooker has emerged as one of Great Britain’s top thinkers about cult media, having tackled Star Wars (Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans), Alice in Wonderland (Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture), Bladerunner (The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic) , and Batman (Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon).

Brooker’s work starts where Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott’s Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987) or Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio’s The Many Lives of the Batman (1991) left off. Both of these earlier works sought to explore difference and continuity in the ways “popular heroes” or “migratory characters” evolve over time, across media, and across media audiences. Brooker’s work has pushed this tradition to a whole new level — his writing moves fluidly between history, textual analysis, media theory, and audience ethnography, tracing the ways media franchises (old and new) have left their traces upon popular culture. Such an approach is interested in issues of authorship and fandom, in both how formulas emerge and how elastic they are in responding to shifting tastes and interests. For me, this represents one powerful model for how we can take a comparative media studies approach towards the texts which matter most in our lives.

This summer, I ran into Will Brooker in London where we were both speaking at the Symposium on Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines, which was being hosted by the Center for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth and by Forbidden Planet, London’s best known comic book shop. Brooker shared some reflections on the construction of Christopher Nolan as an author around the then impending release of The Dark Knight Rises. Anticipating the cultural significance of the film, I asked him if he’d be willing to conduct an interview around the release of his new book, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman, and he agreed. Will being Will has been tweeting to the world about the difficulty of my questions, so now you have a chance to see for yourself what I asked him and how he has risen to the challenge.

What neither of us could know at the time we started this process was the degree to which the opening of this new film would be linked to an act of unspeakable violence. So, this first part of the interview offers some of his thoughts about the tragedy, while subsequent parts will dig deeper into the theoretical issues around multiplicity and seriality in the Dark Knight series.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. In what ways did the Aurora shooting impact the meaning of the Dark Knight film franchise? Conversely, how did the intertextual construction you discuss in the book play into the ways that this news story was covered?  


It’s hard to say, a month after the shooting (at the time of writing), how that event has affected the way Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is framed and discussed. The intertextual nature of Batman, as a ‘mosaic’, did shape the news response to the Colorado events, in that reporters dug back through the archive of Batman texts to find any possible echoes or precursors that could be foregrounded as ‘causes’ of the violence. So a single page from Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns, depicting a shooting in a cinema, was identified as a possible influence.

It’s ironic and unfortunate, I think, that it takes a violent tragedy to prompt reporters to treat comics seriously and study them so closely.

My sense is that the Colorado shootings are currently seen as a footnote to discussion of the third and most recent movie, and that this news story serves as a kind of tag or hypertext link, a postscript that is still pulled into view when we talk about Dark Knight Rises.

It would be impossible not to acknowledge that the shooting is now part of the broader intertextual matrix of meanings that both surrounds and constitutes the Dark Knight trilogy.

That trilogy is essentially a construction and circulation of texts, including the feature films themselves, the stories about Ledger’s death and the ‘Jokerised Obama’ images, the comic book adaptations and the DVD extras. The Colorado shootings, on one level, join that cluster of meanings around the three films.

I think the question is how closely this story will stick and how significant it will seem, over time: whether it will drift to the wider outskirts of what Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy signifies, as a more distant footnote, or whether it will play a more major, longer-term role in shaping how the film is discussed and remembered.

I’m hoping for the former, for a range of reasons.

Firstly because I would rather not see a criminal given the notoriety he seeks; second, because the discussion around the shootings and the film seems to fall into a ‘media effects’ category, which I don’t find especially useful; and third, because I think those involved in the Colorado event, and their families, would probably rather not have their loss trivialised as a ‘Batman shooting’, and have their own personal tragedy permanently associated with a movie.

The shootings were not the first tragedy associated with these films. In what ways did the death of Heath Ledger become part of the meaning of the Dark Knight franchise and how have the producers sought to manage the morbid associations with Ledger’s death in handling this current situation?


My impression is that these two tragedies were managed by the film’s producers in very different ways. Ledger’s death can be understood within the already-established context of Brandon Lee’s accidental death during The Crow and Oliver Reed’s during Gladiator, and if anything I think it was seen as adding poignancy and mystery to Ledger’s performance and his role as Joker, and in turn, did the film’s publicity no harm.

I don’t believe any connection was explicitly made in reviews and production materials, but the rumour (circulated by fans and journalists) that Ledger’s intense preparation for and immersion in the role led him to emotional torment, drug abuse and possible suicide echoes the movie’s association with brutal ‘realism’ that was articulated in production discourses through foregrounding of Bale’s physical training regime, the dangerous stunts, the avoidance of CGI, and the military hardware.

I don’t think there was any attempt on the part of the producers to exploit Ledger’s death, but I equally don’t recall any obvious attempt to contain or limit the stories surrounding it, whereas my sense is that the producers aimed to disassociate the film text from the Colorado shootings, and to short-circuit the interpretations of negative cause-and-effect between the two, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The idea that The Dark Knight could have been so ‘realistic’ and absorbing that it consumed and possessed one of its lead actors was, I think, allowed to circulate because of its exceptional, isolated nature and because of the way we perceive Hollywood stars as unique and distinct from ourselves.

That it could have influenced a previously unknown individual to murder other ‘regular’ people in a suburban cinema carries quite a different meaning, because it is too close to the everyday lives of the average viewer and comes across as a reproducible event, rather than an isolated exception.

Will Brooker is currently Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and incoming editor of Cinema Journal. His books include Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice’s Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, the BFI Film Classics volumeStar Wars, and Hunting the Dark Knight (I B Tauris, 2012).

Designing with Teachers: Participatory Approaches to Professional Development in Education

Today, the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab released Designing with Teachers: Participatory Approaches to Professional Development in Education.A PDF of the full report is attached below/

This report represents the collaboration of a working group composed of “a mixture of researchers, teachers and school administrators from a variety of disciplines, schools, and states,” who wanted to better understand how we might best prepare educators in order to incorporate “participatory learning” models into their classroom practices. This working group emerged as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

The report includes case studies of innovative professional development initiatives ( Vital Signs, PLAY, Scratch, Ask Ansai, the Participatory Assessment Project) with a larger exploration of what it might mean to adopt a more participatory model for working with teachers. These “best practices” are shared in a robust multi-media format, which allows you to see media materials produced by these programs and their participants, and in some cases, here educators describe their own experiences.

Ioana Literat, an Annenberg PhD candidate who helped to coordinate the working group’s activities, summarized their key goals and findings in the report’s introduction:

The principal goals of this working group were to:

  • Provide a common forum for professional development conversations centered around participatory learning
  • Foster interdisciplinary dialogue among vested audiences in participatory learning
  • Identify synergy among members and facilitate learning from each other
  • Construct a common framework for participatory models of professional development
  • Extract best practices and lingering challenges in the field
  • Build a collection of case studies exemplifying these best practices and share them with the larger community of stakeholders in participatory learningOur collective experiences in the realm of professional development and our dialogues within the context of this working group led to the identification and explication of four core values that we consider key to effective participa- tory PD programs. We believe that these four values, along with the design principles that they inform in practice, are an essential take-away from this multi-stakeholder conversation.Thus, in our view, the values that shape the design of participatory PD are:
  1. Participation, not indoctrinationThere is a critical need, in the field of education, to transition from professional development for teachers to professional development with teachers. Participatory learning relies on a model of “distributed expertise”, which assumes that knowledge, including in an educational context, is distributed across a diffuse network of people and tools. We believe that professional development for teachers should similarly be conceived and implemented in a non-hierarchical, inclusive and partic- ipatory manner, thus modeling the type of dynamic pedagogy that characterizes participatory learning.
  2. Exploration, not prescriptionIn order to inspire this sense of ownership and co-design in the participants, PD initiatives must allow ample room for personal and professional exploration. Attention must also be paid to what teachers want from a professional development experience, rather than just what is required of them. By allowing teachers to explore who they are and what their professional goals are, the PD program can provide educators with an opportunity to connect to the content and to display their own individuality in the process.
  3.  Contextualization, not abstraction:  PD programs should be tailored to the specific questions and particu- lar career goals of the participants. We acknowledge the tension between the desire to create scalable and flexible initiatives, and the need to cater most effectively to specific disciplines and levels of instruction; this challenge is all the more acute when it comes to sharing strategies for integrating media and digital technologies into the classroom. However, we believe that there is a way to reconcile this tension. By addressing the common core standards teachers need to fulfill, while in the same time accounting for the various disciplines and grade levels, program designers can craft versatile PD initiatives that represent – and feel like – a genuine investment in professional growth.
  4.  Iteration, not repetition:In order to sustain ongoing learning, the design of successful PD programs must provide opportunities for constant improvement, trou- bleshooting, and evaluation. In this sense, assessment emerges as a problematic yet nevertheless vital topic in the realm of professional development implementation. We hope that assessment practices in professional development will increasingly mirror the participatory shift in program design and reflection.
    These values offer a blueprint for an innovative type of professional devel- opment. By incorporating these values into the design of professional development programs, researchers and practitioners can efficiently craft initiatives that are participatory, non-hierarchical, personally and profession- ally meaningful, relevant, flexible and sustainable.

If you’d like to learn more about participatory learning, let me also recommend you check out the current issue of Knowledge Quest: The Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, which is focused on “Participatory Culture and Learning,” which includes a essay asking “Can Public Education Coexist with Participatory Culture?,” which I wrote with Elizabeth Losh. Other contributors include Allison Druin, Buffy Hamilton. Antero Garcia, Howard Rheingold, James Paul Gee, and Kristin Fontichiaro.

Fan Studies at the Crossroads: An Interview with Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen (Part Four)

Hurt/Comfort, which is a major focus of this book, has gotten far less attention than slash in recent fan scholarship, despite Bacon-Smith’s assertion that it is at the heart of fandom. Why has this genre been neglected and what do you see when you examine it?


Lynn: H/C seems like the last subgenre to remain determinedly in the closet. Slash has been written about. BDSM has come out of the closet with a flourish thanks to 50 Shades of Grey. Hurt/comfort remains less discussed and more hidden – perhaps because it is less displaced and therefore more vulnerable to shaming. In some ways, H/C is a more primitive drive than even sex. We are all, at some level, still helpless and frightened little children, dependent on others for comfort and, quite literally, survival. H/C fic taps into those primal needs, expresses the depths of pain and fear, and then rewrites the ending of the story to include the healing that may never have happened in ‘real life’ but is continually wished for. The increased ability to comfort and heal oneself seems to result from the unfolding of the narrative, and especially from the willingness to accept the support and comfort of the group after the telling.


While H/C fanfiction carries the built-in displacement of using recognized fictional characters instead of being autobiographical, the genre seems less displaced than slash. In the Supernatural storyfinders community on Live Journal, posters commonly request fanfic about their own physical and emotional afflictions, explicitly seeking mastery through reading H/C fic about their own challenges. Writers in the genre are less likely to tie their topics to their own experience, maintaining the distance that displacement offers, but some do discuss their motivations as the same drive for mastery.  This tendency to consciously recognize the individual writer or reader’s motivation may be part of the need to keep H/C secret.


H/C fic tackles themes that cultural norms strongly discourage us from expressing openly – namely vulnerability and rage/revenge. Acknowledging vulnerability only makes one feel more vulnerable. For women especially, rage is disallowed and unacknowledged, the human desire for revenge something nobody wants to accept. Incorporating all of these themes into H/C fic is both subversive and personally dangerous, but the drive to do so is powerful. Bacon-Smith recognized the role of emotional expression as integral to coping and healing twenty years ago when she identified hurt/comfort as the heart of fandom, but she also recognized her own negative reaction as one of the reasons that heart remained so hidden.


I think the genre’s secrecy has made it less visible to researchers. It seems, at least at first inspection, to be a smaller genre than slash, but that may just be a reflection of the layers of protection that have grown up around it and the fact that fanfiction which tackles H/C themes may not be labeled H/C. It may be labeled slash, het, or gen, yet essentially be hurt/comfort.


Kathy: It’s another one of those things that seems to reflect badly on women – the desire to see our men bloody. It’s a real turn on for (some) women to see men vulnerable, exposing aspects of themselves that are normally so closely guarded.  H/C knocks down those barriers, and it’s sexy as hell. It’s another glimpse into female sexuality.

You talk throughout the book about the “fourth wall” that many fans feel needs to exist between the producers/stars and the fans. What do you see as the value of this “fourth wall” and in what ways has Supernatural threatened the “safe space” of fandom as it has sought to reconfigure the relations between the industry and the audience?


Kathy: I should preface this by saying that I’m all for fourth wall breaking.  Fan practices serve as critical engagement with the text and breaking that fourth wall encourages dialog which enriches both sides.  That said, it can be done well or poorly and I think Supernatural in particular has done it both ways. “The Monster at the End of This Book” acknowledged fan practices (detailed knowledge, writing fan fiction, factions within fandom, criticism of story lines) and allowed the characters to playfully respond.  Where it erred, in my opinion, was in choosing to portray a particular fan “Becky” who is over invested, inappropriate, and eventually crosses the line into plain creepiness.  She eventually becomes a sad figure of derision and all playfulness is lost, all dialog suspended.


As far as protecting the “safe space” of fandom, I don’t think it was ever really in jeopardy.  The actors don’t have the time or the inclination to hang out in fan spaces (with a few notable exceptions – Joss Whedon commenting on a fan video or members of various bands acknowledging that they’ve regularly read fan fiction about themselves) and showrunners are more interested in what fans think about particular episodes – what works and what doesn’t. There was some anxiety in the SPN fandom when Becky was portrayed writing slash, but this anxiety was more over “outing” fans and exposing their fan practices to non-fans (among them family, friends, co-workers).  Given the levels of shame that surround being a fan this was certainly understandable.


Lynn: Fans see the value of the fourth wall as keeping their valued (and yet shamed) practices secret – and thus safe – from outsiders, including the actors who might be starring in their fanworks. As recently as Comic Con in July, someone asked Supernatural actor JaredPadalecki, “What do you think of this?” and showed him (and the entire gigantic Hall A audience) a piece of fanart depicting him and his costar Jensen Ackles in a slashy embrace, both shirtless in only low-slung jeans. Padalecki, ever the diplomat, replied dryly, “I never wear jeans without a belt.”  Fan response (directed toward the fan who crossed the line)  was predictably scathing.


When Supernatural first changed the rules by depicting fanfiction – and even Wincest – in canon, fan response was mixed, but the ever-present fear of being “outed” as a kinky, slash-writing fangirl prompted many meta posts and some powerful fanart, including a widely-circulated comic expressing a fan’s fear of her husband’s disapproval of her fannish community and interaction after seeing the episode. Most of Supernatural’s forays into fourth wall breaking have been affectionate insider portrayals of fans, poking fun but also affirming fans, and often giving them the role of hero or heroine at the end of the day – or even having them end up in bed with the creator of the show himself (or at least the character who was not-so-loosely portraying him). That changed with a much reviled episode in Season 7, “Time For a Wedding.”  Becky the fangirl somehow morphed from an overly amorous but ultimately heroic Wincest-writing fangirl to a scheming, manipulative stalker, who drugged Sam Winchester and tied him to a bed ala Misery. Fandom was not divided this time – gone was the affectionate poking fun, and in its place was a mean-spirited, seemingly misogynistic and shaming censure. That episode is how not to do fourth wall breaking – at least not if you want to keep your fans.


You spent considerable time interviewing the production team around Supernatural about how they perceive their fans. What surprised you the most about their response?


Kathy: Given the continuing tone of most mass media coverage of fans and fan practices (crazy, needy, cranky, a force to be courted but not necessarily embraced) what we found most surprising was how appreciative the production side was of the fans and how normalizing the encounters were between fans and producers at every level, and how willing they were to understand fan practices.  In many cases we’d get just as many questions about the fans from the production side as we asked.  The actors would often ask us to clarify something – the level of investment, a particular fan practice.


Lynn: What surprised me most was the level of appreciation and respect. Fans continually step up to the microphone at conventions and ask the actors “What’s the craziest thing a fan has ever done?” Actors continually shake their heads and say “Actually our fans are really cool.” That’s not to say that we haven’t heard cautionary tales about fans being outed to actors as ‘slash-writing perverts,’ with very real repercussions. Bacon-Smith writes about the Professionals actor who became close to many of the female fans writing fanfiction about his character, but was so disgusted by his discovery that some of them were writing slash that he banned those fans from his ‘inner circle’ and attempted to get them banned from fandom itself. He didn’t succeed, but that and other cautionary tales have been passed down through the decades and continue to inspire fear in fans of all genres. We heard similar – and more recent – stories from several fans we interviewed for this book, but none of these occurred within the Supernatural fandom.


In our own experience interviewing the Supernatural production team, we never heard a negative reaction. Surprise, even shock – but not censure or judgment. Most of the people on the creative side had worked out where the boundary should be between them and fans. They had been able to locate areas of commonality and connection, but also maintain a distance, especially from fan activities that they understood were intended as fan-only spaces. The vast majority self-identified as fans themselves, and could empathize with fannish passion, even if it seemed jarring when directed at them. They tended to code fans as same instead of different, and thus to avoid too much stereotyping.

What might the back and forth between Supernatural fans and creatives suggest about the future of fandom, given the increasingly personal exchanges facilitated by social media as opposed to the more controlled, regulated access fans historically had in an autograph line?


Kathy: I would caution against reading too much into the “personal exchanges” or the power of Twitter and Facebook.  The technology is quicker, more immediate, and gives the illusion of intimacy,  but by and large these are still anonymous exchanges – the 21st century version of the snail mail fan letter.  It allows producers to have a better idea of what appeals to fans (and what they will absolutely hate), but I don’t think it influences the actual product all that much.  Fan service is just that – in many cases merely a marketing tool. (A fantastic example of this would be the MTV sponsored video asking fans to vote for Teen Wolf as favorite summer show.  The video plays up the slashy relationship between the two main characters.)  Which is not to say that actors who tweet birthday greetings are doing it simply to further their careers, or that meaningful relationships don’t occasionally occur, they certainly do.  I just think too much has been attributed to social media exchanges between fans and producers.


Lynn: It’s a mixed blessing. While the lines of communication are more open than ever, they are also filtered and constricted and misunderstood on both sides. Many of the actors have confided their struggles with how to use Twitter and Facebook effectively – they’ve found out how easily one sentence can be misconstrued, and how sensitive fans can be about what the celebrities they fan are saying to them (and might think of them). If a celebrity tweets you back, it’s too important to dismiss – if it’s received positively, the fan is euphoric. If it’s received as a negative, the fan is crushed – and in turn may lash back at the celebrity to save face and self esteem.However, the new expectations for communication are not going away, and are likely to expand as platforms proliferate. Both sides are likely to continue struggling to accommodate as technology and associated cultural norms change faster than any of us can keep up with them!


Lynn Zubernis is a clinical psychologist and teaches in the Counselor Education program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Katherine Larsen teaches courses on fame, celebrity and fandom in the University Writing Program at George Washington University. She is the principal editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies.

Dr Zubernis and Dr Larsen are co-editors of the forthcoming Fan Culture: Theory and Practice. They have also published four articles in Supernatural Magazine.

Fan Studies at the Crossroads: An Interview with Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen (Part Three)


Before we continue with our regularly scheduled interview, I wanted to share with my readers this very interesting segment of PBS’s Off Book series, which explores many different dimensions of fandom and fan studies, featuring among others, Francesca Coppa and Whitney Phillips.


Now, back to Zubernis and Larsen…

I am struck by the ways you use collages of fan macros and juxtapositions of fan meta to comment throughout the text on your key themes. In a sense, the voices of fans function as a Greek chorus to comment upon and challenge academic claims. What do you see the value of these kinds of insertions of fan voices into your analysis?


Lynn: As we struggled mightily with the aca-fan boundaries in ourselves and our writing, we wanted to find a way to bring fan voices into the book as they were actually expressed, whether posted online or told to us directly, in the hopes of conveying the messages the fans intended to convey.  We included fan interviews, in the same way that many fan studies researchers have, with full disclosure that the interviews would be part of an academic text. However, as many have acknowledged, fans who are talking to an interviewer are always speaking to an outsider, and what they say is limited and modified by that knowledge. So we alsosampled from fan meta discussions that had been publicly posted, wanting to bring the fan voices over without interpretation before adding our own analysis. Including fan voices from discussions within the community, even though these were public posts and accessible to outsiders, we hoped would provide a less censored and more genuine expression of fan opinion, thoughts and emotions.


We also felt that much academic analysis had focused on fanfiction – our own included. (The recent issue of TWC on vidding is a delicious exception). Yet fandom is such a visual medium, and so much is conveyed in photos and art and vids, instead of in text. We wanted to incorporate icons and photo/art posts to bring some of that visual language to the printed book. And again, we felt this was a way to bring fan voices into the book in a “pure” form, uncensored and unedited. We had become fascinated with the use of icons as a language all its own, especially in the early days of LJ, when fans changed their icons on a daily basis to comment on fandom current events – and now on Tumblr, as fans comment visually on a minute-by-minute basis to do the same. Our incorporation of this visual language into the book, we hoped, would allow fans to do the same, essentially ‘commenting’ on what we were saying in the text.



You deal explicitly here with the idea that fan practices operate as a kind of therapy. I have to admit to feeling some discomfort with this move, given how much fans pushed back on Camille Bacon-Smith’s use of a similar analysis twenty years ago, suggesting that discussing fandom as a site of therapy was necessarily pathologizing to fans, since, minimally, it implied that fans were somehow in special need of therapy. How does your analysis differ from Bacon-Smiths? What has shifted about fandom or about the discourse of therapy which makes a re-engagement with this model productive at the present moment?


Lynn: Several things have shifted, and our hope is that these shifts are reflected in our analysis of fandom as a site of individual change. The first shift is simply the passage of time. We’ve had twenty years since Bacon-Smith’s ethnography of fandom in Enterprising Women, and since Joli Jensen challenged ‘fandom as pathology’. Much has been written since that time in an attempt to carry on Jensen’s defense of fandom as not inherently pathological. I think aca-fans (and perhaps fans as well) are slightly less defensive at this point in time, allowing a more open exploration of the therapeutic elements of fandom – hopefully without engaging a defensive reaction that wants to discount the possibility of anything therapeutic for fear of lumping all of fandom into the ‘needs therapy right the hell now’ category.


The second shift is perspective. The fan studies field has moved toward a more auto-ethnographic approach, and we wanted to continue that movement.  One of the reasons it was important to us to write from an insider (or at least a hybrid) position, was to minimize the knee-jerk defensive reaction of both fans and academics to the suggestion that fandom can be therapeutic, at least long enough to consider the possibility. We weren’t standing on the outside looking in, examining a community of fan women under a microscope and trying to figure out what makes ‘them’ tick. (Otherwise, we’d have been standing in line behind Ogi Ogas and company and incurring fandom’s defensive – and quite justified – response).  Because of the strong sense of internalized shame around fan practices like slash and hurt/comfort fanfiction, the assumption of negative judgment by outsiders is quickly made.


Bacon-Smith’s account of fandom is consistently even-handed and non-judgmental, but even seemingly insignificant comments can appear otherwise when it’s clear they are made by someone who is an outsider. When Bacon-Smith recounts her discoveries – of fanfiction, of slash, of hurt/comfort – she does so from an explicitly articulated motivation of “curiosity”. Even this can raise the hackles of someone who knows the value of secrecy and the risk inherent in being different. We are rarely curious about something we understand, and just the fact of non-understanding can be threatening, and thus perceived as coming from a position of aggression, or at the very least of unintended threat. In keeping with the ethical position of an ethnographer, Bacon-Smith rightly maintains the outsider position, periodically reminding her subjects that she is not, in fact, one of them. Thus, when she analyzes fans’ motivations, there is at times a subtle “fly under the microscope” dynamic that is created. Bacon-Smith, to her credit, is candid about her own struggle with some types of fannish participation – her emotional reaction to discovering hurt/comfort, for example, is one of extreme discomfort. She remarks at one point that she wanted to close her eyes and cover her ears, so she could shut out the material. She recognized h/c as the “heart of fandom”, but her personal feeling was that she did not want it to be.  Her reaction is perfectly understandable to anyone who’s ever been overcome by their own empathy, but because it was an outsider’s reaction, it takes on a tone of judgment: this thing you do is something I don’t want to see or hear or know about.  This carries the risk of shaming, which is perceived as a threat to the women who are already feeling ashamed of what they’re motivated to create and express.


Because of this risk, we wanted to make it clear that we were part of the community we were studying, not just as observers, but as participants. We read – and wrote – gen and slash and het and hurt/comfort. We went on fan pilgrimages and attended conventions and stood in line for photo ops and autographs. Our hope was that by sharing our own often-shamed fan practices, we could analyze the therapeutic aspects – as well as all the other aspects – of fandom with less risk of judgment. (And possibly less objectivity, which we saw as a trade-off). Bacon-Smith says she was pushing back against what she perceived as Joanna Russ’ over-valuation and over-estimation of the importance of slash in fandom, and against what she perceived as Jenkins’ under-estimation (at the time) of the importance of slash and sexuality. She consciously attempted to cast a wider net and use a larger sample, trying to show the diversity and variety of fan practices and motivations. We wanted to cast a wider net still, enabled by the way online fandom has expanded fan participation and provided numerous fan spaces — which are all accessible if you’re already a fan. Like Bacon-Smith, we didn’t attempt to write until we’d been immersed for years, since even from the inside, fandom reveals itself slowly, like the peeling of an onion.


Part of the shift in perspective, and thus the return to a consideration of fandom as therapeutic, is also the greater incorporation of fans’ actual voices in the text. Fans talk openly within their own communities about the therapeutic value of fandom, in a million different idiosyncratic ways. “Fandom saved my life” is a phrase repeated so often that it’s a mantra of sorts; almost every fan can identify some way in which this is true. That does not, however, mean that all – or even most – of those ways are literal. It’s not that fans are more often suicidal, or more often depressed, or lonely, or isolated, or socially awkward, or unattractive, or any of the other stereotypes hurled our way. Some fans are, because some humans are. Some fans have dealt with trauma with a capital “T”, just like many non-fans. Some fans have been impacted by trauma with a small “t” – the seemingly small, relatively ordinary, bad things that befall all of us over the course of all lives, and sometimes have a seemingly out-of-proportion impact on sense of self, identity, mood, etc. Outside of fandom, people work through their “stuff” by talking to a close friend, finding a hobby, seeing a rabbi, taking up a sport, writing in a journal, joining a book club, finding a therapist. They look for a sense of community and acceptance and belongingness; they seek validation, searching for that sense of “I’m okay.”  We all do this – we all need this.  Within fandom, the motivation is the same. Fans look for acceptance and validation and a sense of belonging, and find it within the fandom community. They work through their “stuff” by sharing their experience with other fans, sometimes in autobiographical posts and sometimes in more displaced form in fanworks. We looked mostly at fanfiction, because that is how we happened to participate in fandom ourselves, but other fan spaces and types of fanworks offer similar means to change. The difference between fans and non-fans is not in the need for therapeutic change, but the means employed to accomplish it.


The third shift is also of perspective. Kathy comes from a background of literary analysis. I come from a psychodynamic theoretical background, which is often the psychological lens used in fan studied, but I was trained as a clinician as well as a researcher, so a wide range of theories colors both — cognitive behavioral therapy, group dynamics, narrative therapy, positive psychology. My background influences the way I conceptualize ‘therapy’ and what constitutes a ‘therapeutic’ modality –  like Seligman, I tend to view therapeutic change as normative, a developmental process that allows all of us to grow and change over time – not as something focused solely on pathology.  My work as a therapist also influenced my perspective. Fifteen years of clinical practice working with clients taught me more than grad school about how people hurt and how people change. I saw firsthand the power of reworking life scripts through narrative change and expressive writing, so the parallel process that played out for fans through fanfiction was striking. I’m indebted to the anonymous reviewers from TWC who gave me constructive criticism on an early iteration of these ideas and helped me recognize the glaring omission of hurt/comfort fic in my analysis (which focused mostly on slash).


I hope we made it clear that we recognize that fans write fanfiction and make fanvids and create fanart and do everything else fannish for a thousand different reasons. Many of them have nothing to do with a dictionary definition of therapeutic change and everything to do with having fun and being creative. At the same time, having fun and being creative and expressing oneself is, in the broadest sense, therapeutic. So is belonging to a group, and exploring sexuality, and consolidating identity, and expressing emotions.


Kathy: I’m just going to add to this that I think that we’re all in special need of therapy. Don’t we all do things that could be characterized as therapeutic? Some people exercise, or throw themselves into work, rescue animals, travel, knit, whatever.  We bristle at the idea that fandom is therapeutic only because we spend so much time pathologizing it.  Lose that shame and I don’t think this suggestion remains that bothersome.  I used to spin wool and I found every step in that process enormously therapeutic,from getting the fleece off the sheep to knitting the final product.  It was soothing, it connected me back to the land and linked me to (female) traditions, and it was empowering – taking back the means of production and making something that I wanted rather than having to settle for what was available to me in stores (not unlike fan practices, when you get down to it). I don’t think anyone in my spinning group would have disagreed if I had said that I found it therapeutic.   In all likelihood they would have just said “Of course!”



While my generation of fan scholars sought to downplay conflict within fandom, you devote considerable space here to the consideration of “fan wank.” How are you defining “wank”? What role does it play within fandom? And what does a close consideration of this phenomenon contribute to our understanding of fan practices as a whole?


Kathy: Wank, as we’re using it, is simply the same kind of contentiousness that occurs in any group. I think the first wave of fan studies needed, for good reasons, to see fandom as a united front, a powerless group seizing power.  The “us against them” construction of fandom served a purpose, but it also set up a utopian view of fandom as a safe haven for those othered by mainstream culture – what  Sandvoss, Gray, and Harrington characterized as the “fandom is beautiful” phase of fan studies. I think it’s important to acknowledge that fandom is not one homogenous whole, otherwise we run the risk of doing to fans the very thing many have gotten into fandom to challenge – the notion that we all consume things in the same way and that we are all comfortable in the one size fits all garment we’ve been handed by our culture.  This was initially a problem for us, the tendency to see fandom as a uniformly happy place –  because we were limiting ourselves to certain corners of fandom based on our own interests. We repeatedly overlooked all the other fan spaces that didn’t like the things we liked or weren’t engaging in the practices we were engaging in.  It’s easier to overlook the fact that there are people strenuously disagreeing with what you are doing in fandom if you limit yourself to certain Live Journal orTumblr communities.  One of the great things about fandom’s migration to the internet is that it allows for niche communities, but it also means that as researchers we need to cast a wider net if we want to understand a fandom – including its contentiousness. I became fascinated eventually with Fandom Secrets because it was a space where disagreement was voiced. And since all posts are anonymous, it was also a place where the performance  of  disagreement highlighted  how difficult it is for all of us – both fans and academics – to acknowledge it.


Lynn: When we first encountered the fandom mantra “You can’t stop fandom from wanking,” we were honestly a bit surprised. We were still, at the time, in our fandom honeymoon phase, with the corresponding tendency to view fandom through rose-colored glasses as a place of inclusion and mutual support. The level of fan-on-fan aggression that periodically broke out was striking to us, simply because it seemed to fly in the face of those norms. We felt it was important to include an acknowledgment of fan wank in the book because it is present in all fandoms, and impacts the way the fandom as a whole functions, and how fandom is perceived by those outside the community as well.


Fandom is, by definition, a group. And group theory tells us that whenever humans are in a group (which we are constantly motivated to be, lest we succumb to our evolutionarily ingrained fear of being rejected and thus eaten by a saber tooth tiger), there will be intra-group aggression. Hierarchies develop, as people define themselves and their place through shoring up in-group and attacking out-group behaviors. When shame is added to the mix, it serves as fuel to the fire. Fans are on the lookout for outside criticism, and will censure their own if a fan is perceived as behaving in a way that invites that outside censure.  The constant accusations of “You’re doing fandom wrong” are an example of this type of censure, which attempts to shore up the safety of the group by policing fans who are too “extreme” or who do something that attracts outside shaming.

Many of the fan-actor encounters you discuss throughout the book occur at the professionally run Creation Cons. I wouldhave said previous fan scholars have had some bias towards focusing on the activities which occur at fan-run gatherings. What have we missed in not dealing with Creation Cons as a space for fan engagement and participation?


Lynn: Our experience at fan-run conventions and for-profit conventions has been vastly different, with each space offering something unique to fans. The fan-run gatherings have been intimate, in many ways duplicating the feeling of a ‘safe space’ which online fandom offers. Since our experience is limited to Supernatural cons, the fan-run conventions were almost entirely female gatherings, reiterating the online female fan space. Fan-only gatherings allow the same kind of genuine communication that online fandom offers, with the added benefit of face-to-face and physical interaction. We can squee together, commiserate, read badfic out loud and laugh together, or put our plastic Winchester dolls into compromising positions for each other’s amusement and titillation. Fan-run cons are validating, the sense of acceptance and belongingness heady.

For-profit cons are organized to bring fans face-to-face with their fannish objects in the form of actors, writers, musicians, etc.  This interaction mirrors the newer forms of online interaction between fans and celebrities on Twitter and Facebook, but with the added intensity of “personal” and physical interaction. This interaction, of course, is not really personal at all, but highly structured and boundaried. Fans, however, find and savor moments of connection, however brief. What surprised us about the for-profit cons is how much of the experience is not about the celebrities – much like the fan-run gatherings, these cons are as much about fans coming together as they are about meeting actors. The celebrity moments are emotionally satisfying but fleeting; the rest of the three-day weekend is spent meeting up with other fans, sharing stories and squee and support.

Kathy: I think a significant part of the equation has been left out by excluding the actors and creators.   There still seems to be a strong bias toward looking only at fan behavior among fans, and fan practices as enacted in the enclosed world of fandom, but if we’re going to talk about the increasingly intimate relationship between fans and producers, we need to talk to the producers directly.

One of the things that’s missed goes back to the idea of fan shame. You see it enacted at fan conventions where the actors are present – fans policing other fans, voicing their disapproval when certain fan practices are mentioned to actors.  The fan fiction questions, for instance, are almost always booed. At one convention we attended someone had posted rules of behavior in the women’s room on all the stall doors.  Fans want to get close, but they also want that gaze to work in only one direction for the most part. This isn’t something you’ll necessarily see if you’re only looking at fan interactions with other fans – or even fan reaction to fan/producer encounters posted online.

You argue that some early accounts of slash, which were focused on the reconfiguration of male identity, missed the degree to which it also involves the reconfiguration of female identity. In what senses? Explain.


Lynn: Some early theorizing of slash focused on the transgressive potential – the desire of women writers to reconfigure males in a way that would challenge cultural stereotypes of masculinity and allow males to express emotions and experience greater levels of intimacy than the culture allowed (and which women might have wished for in the men in their own lives). These motives probably remain true, but seemed to us to tell only part of the story. Women want men to feel, to emote, to allow intimacy – but women also want to be able to feel themselves, to express their genuine emotions and desires, to achieve the intimacy which only comes from being real with someone. Perhaps, we thought, women were telling and reworking their own stories in slash, displaced enough to allow open expression, and told over two male bodies who were, simply because they were male, freed from certain cultural expectations. Bacon-Smith identified similar motivations twenty years ago, but did not analyze these individual motivations extensively, instead emphasizing the cultural change which might result from women reconfiguring the discourse of power and desire. We wanted to build on what Bacon-Smith said about fanfiction being a displaced way of expressing fans’ real life fear, rage, desire, etc – and about slash providing an additional degree of distance for safe exploration of their own identities and life narratives.


Again, we aren’t saying that all slash is about reconfiguring female identity – or male identity. Sometimes, as has been said so perfectly, it’s merely normal female interest in men bonking.


 Kathy:  I agree and I would take that further to say that I’m not sure that it does reconfigure female identity so much as it exhibits what was always there.  It’s just being publically enacted.


Lynn Zubernis is a clinical psychologist and teaches in the Counselor Education program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Katherine Larsen teaches courses on fame, celebrity and fandom in the University Writing Program at George Washington University. She is the principal editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies.

Dr Zubernis and Dr Larsen are co-editors of the forthcoming Fan Culture: Theory and Practice. They have also published four articles in Supernatural Magazine.

Fan Studies at the Crossroads: An Interview with Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen (Part Two)

What you call “fan shame” is a central issue running through the book. What factors make fans feel shame about their passions and what strategies have fans adopted to deal with that shame?

Kathy: I think on one level the factors that excite fan shame in both men and women still stem from our own discomfort with championing anything that smacks of mass culture. I began my career in 18th century studies, looking closely at the beginnings of mass/popular culture as we know it today, so this debate is all too familiar.  And it hasn’t changed all that much.  Mass=crass and we try to distance ourselves or to find some way of rehabilitating our own interests.  We used to do this ourselves, framing discussions of what we were doing – going to fan conventions, interviewing actors, watching the show – as “research”. And I don’t think it’s limited to people who purportedly make their living studying “serious” texts.

I’m often amazed at the pushback I get from students who sign up for a class on fan culture and then spend the better part of the semester denigrating the topic.  I got one particularly harsh comment last semester from a student who complained that she felt ashamed that she was not getting an A in a class whose topic she felt was “not impressive” (The title of the course was Geeks, Fanboys and Stalker Chicks).   It was the topic more that the grade that she felt reflected badly on her.  I was also struck by an article I read recently about the Swedish couple who wrote The Hypnotist.  They each had careers as “serious” authors before teaming up to write crime thrillers under a pseudonym.  Their outing caused something of a scandal in Sweden. As one of them said, “it was like we broke the biggest taboo” by crossing the cultural divide.

On another level there is the explicitly female brand of fan shame that grows out of the cultural push back against women’s pleasures.  This hasn’t changed all that much and I think evidence of this can be found in the resonance a film like Hysteria has with audiences, and the fact that it’s a comedy, as if that is the only way we can even discuss female (sexual) pleasure.  And “deviant” or unchecked sexuality almost inevitably comes into discussions of female fans, still.  An article on the death of a fan at Comic Con   includes a description of the woman as a 53 year old  Twilight fan.  The first comment left on the article describing her death was “It’s a good start.” and many of the others question what a woman her age was doing at Comic Con, and why she wasn’t home with her kids.  I have my doubts whether this would have been the reaction if we were talking about a 53 year old man running to get back on the line to buy playoff tickets.  Combine this with the fact that popular culture has traditionally been coded female and marginalized from its inception in the eighteenth century, and shame becomes the natural reaction. It doesn’t help that mainstream media continues to report on fans in a sniggering, derogatory fashion, and that shame is only reinforced. I’m surprised at how often the media that exists to report on entertainment, as an arm of the industry itself, engages in this sort of rhetoric.  An example would be the piece by Eric McCormack in a recent Entertainment Weekly.  He was asked to write about crazy things fans have said to him over the years.  And right now IMDB has a collection of photos of fans taken at Comic con titled Photos from Comic-Con 2012: The Cute, The Crazy and The Creepy. This is on a website that is read predominantly by fans.

Lynn: I think fan shame is multiply determined, and plays out differently depending on type of fandom (sports, media, literary, sci fi, etc.) and gender. I had an interesting conversation recently with Dan Wann, who researches sports fandom – we’re both psychologists with similar backgrounds, but he researches a fandom that skews male and is probably the least shamed type of fan behavior, while I research a fandom that skews female and seems to encounter shaming at every turn, including a whopping dose of internalized shame. While we both recognized these differences, we were also able to identify many common motivations and challenges across fandoms and genders. Nevertheless, the degree of ridicule that a male sports fan experiences – even if he paints himself half green and half white and goes to an Eagles game half naked – is vastly different than the potential ridicule tossed at a male media fan who paints himself green and white and goes to Comic Con half naked as an alien something-or-other. Eagles fans, no matter how extreme their presentation and participation in their chosen object of affection, are rarely described as “creepy.”

The strategies fans adopt (both consciously and unconsciously) to deal with internalized shame mirror the ways all humans react to shame. Fans sometimes construct impenetrable boundaries around the perceived shameful behavior, thoughts and feelings, attempting to avoid outside ridicule by keeping their fannishness secret and hidden. For female fans, this seems to be a primary strategy – thus the emphasis on the “safe space” of fandom and the stringent policing of those boundaries. The first rule of fandom is “Tell no one about fandom,” after all. Bacon-Smith recognized the ‘conservation of risk’ inherent in female fandom twenty years ago, locating both the risk and the reward in the need to express forbidden emotions (rage, revenge, fear, sexuality) and rewrite cultural scripts that challenge the status quo in a dangerous manner.

Io9 recently ran an article describing the behavior of “self-hating” fans. To what degree do the behaviors described here represent a male counterpart to the kinds of female “fan shame” you discuss throughout the book?

Kathy: Well, you read enough articles like the ones on IMDB and Entertainment Weekly and the logical response is to differentiate yourself from “those” fans.  If you follow the links back through that article you arrive at a New York Times book review that sneers at sci-fi fans throughout, beginning by saying  “Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, Zone One, features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy.”  The sympathy comes from having essentially stupid people reading his work.  Glen Duncan, the author of the review, bemoans the mass market reader: “Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up ‘cathected’or ‘brisant’ isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront.”  He’s at pains to establish himself as an intelligent cultured reader and that is done at the expense of all those he deems as less discerning.  This kind of treatment of fans might be expected from the New York Times (and they certainly live up to the expectation) but it’s everywhere. Even the things that seem to celebrate male fandom/geekdom have to show fans as laughable (I’m thinking here of things like Big Bang Theory, Community, The IT Crowd, etc.). This isn’t male fan shame so much as it’s a response to our rejection of any sort of investment in mass culture.  It’s not deviant female behavior, it’s “just” mass culture.

Lynn: Some of this is the shame that crosses gender boundaries – of liking something popular, because ‘popular’ is still overtly devalued (and covertly consumed voraciously) in our culture. Some of it is the result of being passionate about something, which tends to result in rants and nitpicking and what one commenter to that article calls “snobbishness”. Being an “angry nerd”, as another commenter puts it, is sometimes the corollary of passion. When we love something, we’re invested in keeping it just the way we like it. It’s meeting our needs, so god forbid someone (producers, writers, networks, other fans, etc) changes it – then, we fear, it won’t meet our needs any longer. And that, frankly, is terrifying when you’re passionate about something and invested in the emotional pay-off that it’s providing.


Some of this is the (also cross-gendered) wank that comes from internalized shame – the criticism that others are ‘doing fandom wrong’ is usually a fear that someone else is liking something even ‘more’ shameful, or engaging in a fan practice that’s even ‘more’ embarrassing – often one that reiterates the stereotypes that fans are constantly trying to challenge. “They’re weird, but I’m normal” is the underlying projection.


The part that might be more common for female fans is the desire to keep a particular fandom community small, selective, and insulated – and secret. That secrecy is difficult to maintain if everyone and their brother and sister has suddenly discovered your particular little corner of fandom. This desire intersects with the dislike and mistrust of anything that’s ‘too popular’, so fans often have a love/hate relationship with their fannish object going ‘mainstream’. On the one hand, it keeps the band/show/film/book/whatever on the air or on the shelves or in the concert venues; on the other hand, it expands the audience and makes the fandom less intimate, and perhaps less safe. The desire to be part of something ‘special’ – selective and exclusive – is a basic human one, not unique to fandom certainly. But it plays out in fandom in obvious ways, creating wank when it does.



Early on, you describe the ways that the underground status of fan fiction has provided some protection for the women who participate. What do you see as the consequences of the amount of publicity which 50 Shades of Gray has received as a commercial best-seller which originated as Twilight fanfic?

Kathy: It certainly furthers the image of deviant female behavior, as well as reigniting the criticism of fan productions as bad, poorly executed and lacking in value, pandering to the masses. It’s conjured the worst stereotypes and then been used as proof that all those stereotypes are actually true.

Lynn: Fandom – or at least the fan spaces that I tend to inhabit – has had a relatively strong negative reaction to 50 Shades and its runaway success and mainstream media coverage. A recent post in LiveJournal asked fellow fans the blunt question – “Why do fans hate 50 Shades of Grey?” Fans responded that they don’t like having what is widely reputed to be badly written fiction representing the entire genre of fanfic. The derision and bad-writing ridicule leveled at 50 Shades seems to reiterate the already condescending “oh, it’s fanfic, it’s not real writing” attitude that fans struggle against. Fans also don’t appreciate the glare of mainstream attention focused on the safe (and secret) space of fandom, as non-fans who heasr about 50 Shades’ origins go online to investigate this “new thing” called fanfic.

Much of the media coverage of 50 Shades includes derogatory comments about fanfiction, including this tidbit:“Fan-fiction is the written word equivalent of taking two naked dolls and mashing them together to make what you think sex looks like when you’re 10 years old. And it’s written at that level…..The book has been called “mommy porn,” a label that denotes that grown women can’t enjoy pornography unless it’s poorly written garbage re-purposed as more poorly written garbage. But also it makes us think our mom likes fan-fic, and I respect my mom too much to believe this.”

That article also makes some of the same points that we touched on in Crossroads – that discovering fandom is, for some women, also a discovery of an alternative discourse on sexuality that is freeing and liberating and normalizing.  It may not be well-written, but 50 Shades has provided some of the same for non-fans.

And so it’s no surprise that 50 Shades of Grey has become so wildly popular with women of all ages because we’ve been made to feel repressed and believe that porn is just this primitive, icky thing guys watch. If porn is a cave-drawing and 50 Shades is Monet, I think we need to invent fire already so we can burn this thing down.

Lynn Zubernis is a clinical psychologist and teaches in the Counselor Education program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Katherine Larsen teaches courses on fame, celebrity and fandom in the University Writing Program at George Washington University. She is the principal editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies.

Dr Zubernis and Dr Larsen are co-editors of the forthcoming Fan Culture: Theory and Practice. They have also published four articles in Supernatural Magazine.