This past week, I received in the mail my author’s copy of my book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. This book, my first, is now twenty years old (meaning that it is old enough to drink and vote) and that means that I am old enough to… (well, never mind that part!) When I wrote this book as a first year assistant professor, I would never have anticipated the impact it would have and I certainly would not have imagined that Routledge would be willing to reissue it to mark the twentieth anniversary of its publication.
One of the challenges of producing this edition was the struggle to come up with the right approach to the cover design. To be honest, it was very hard for me to let go of the original cover, which was constructed around a wonderful piece of Star Trek fan art by Jean Kluge, which my wife, Cynthia, had bought for me as a gift at MediaWest and which had been close at hand throughout the process of drafting the book.
But, in the end, we were able to produce a cover I am really very proud of — in collaboration with a contemporary fan artist who has chosen to go here by the name of GLM:
Here’s part of the explanation for the cover design I wrote for the book:
My hopes for the new cover were that it should represent, as the original did, the work of a fan artist and it should employ an aesthetic that grows out of the fan community’s own modes of cultural production; that it should represent a transformative use of existing source material; and that it should suggest the dynamic nature of fandom, which has absorbed new content and embraced new forms of production since the original book was published….
This cover embodies the new aesthetic of photo-manipulation, which remains controversial among some fans but which has also represented a clear demonstration of the way that fans turn borrowed materials into resource for their own collective expression. While the original cover was based on a pre-existing fan work, this new cover was commissioned from and developed in conceptual collaboration with the artist. As with the original, we wanted to suggest the play with alternative universes, which is a staple of fan fiction. We chose four characters — Spock, Darth Vader, Buffy and Xena — who represented four key fantoms that span the past two decades, and we positioned them in an alternative reality fantasy that allowed us the chance to imagine interactions between them. Keep in mind that Jean Kluge’s original was an alternative universe version of Star Trek: The Next Generation read through the lens of Arthurian romance. These characters are meant to stand in for the hundreds of fictional figures who have inspired fan devotion and creativity since Textual Poachers first appeared.
The selection of these figures was a challenge: we needed characters that were likely to be recognized by non-fan readers but which also had a rich role in the history of fan culture, and the press was a little nervous about certain rights holders who had a reputation for being a bit litigious in going after infringers (so no Disney, no Harry Potter…). So this is what we came up with.
It has occurred to me that there is probably more than one fan story to be written to explain the configuration of characters and settings presented here. So, let me throw out my own fan challenge: I will happily send along one autographed copy of the new edition of Textual Poachers to any fan author who wants to write the story to accompany this picture (especially if you will let us publish the story through my blog.) Send it to me at email@example.com.
The book also includes a detailed artist’s statement in which GLM explains the process of photographic manipulation through which she generated the core image. The finish image, she tells us, involved 200 layers and 242MB of data.
For the reissue of the book, Suzanne Scott, a rising young fan scholar, did an extensive interview with me, in which she posed challenging questions about what has happened to fandom and fan studies over the past twenty years. Here’s a small excerpt from that exchange:
Like many first wave fan studies, Textual Poachers spoke back to dominant representations of fans as “brainless consumers”(10). Fans have moved from the margins to the mainstream within convergence culture, and echoing this shift we’ve seen a proliferation of fan and geek characters within popular culture. Many of these representations still trade in stereotypes, suggesting that fans “get a life” (e.g. The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Big Bang Theory), and the etymological ties between “fandom” and “fanaticism” continue to be reinforced by the popular press (e.g. coverage of Twilight fangirls), but there are notable exceptions. Do you think the trend towards recasting fanboys as superheroes (Heroes, Kick-Ass) or action heroes (Chuck, Ready Player One) has dulled the dominant representation of fans as feminized through their ties to mass culture? Has hegemonic masculinity shifted to tentatively incorporate the fanboy, as a character archetype as well as a consumer identity?
Suzanne, you’ve spent more time looking at this question than I have, but I was struck rereading Chapter One by how much these contemporary representations continue to play around with the same themes as earlier fan stereotypes rather than offering us an alternative conception of what it might mean to be a fan. So, in 40 Year Old Virgin, a key step into heterosexual normality comes when the protagonist sells his action figure collection; we can see Virgin as a prototype for a whole cycle of comedies which celebrate “arrested development” as a masculine virtue/priviledge, but the more manly the characters are, the more likely their interests are in sports or rock, rather than in science fiction and comics. Fan boys have been, by and large, better served by literary representations by authors such as Nick Hornby (1996), Michael Chabon (2000), Jonathem Letham (2004), or Junot Diaz (2008), than in media depictions.
The Big Bang Theory is a much more complex text than the “Get a Life” sketch for a number of reasons, but it starts with the same core cliches: Leonard has been given a love life, but despite a sort of romantic entanglement with Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon is still depicted as asexual; Howard still lives in his mother’s basement, even as he is engaged to be married; there are running jokes which queer the relations between Howard and Rajesh (not that there’s anything wrong with it); we have had episodes which hinged on the value of Leonard Nimoy’s autograph and the boy’s collecting impulses are sometimes depicted as bordering on the irrational. At the same time, though, we are encouraged to see the world from the fan characters’ perspectives, we value their friendship and intellectual mastery, and over multiple seasons, they have become more complex than the stereotypes upon which they were based. Most significantly, the show insures that it gets its geek references right, anticipated that the show is being watched by people who will know what “frak” and “grok” mean, who have opinions about the comics or video games the characters are buying, who might actually play “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock,” and who will appreciate cameo appearances by Wil Wheaton, Brent Spiner, Katee Sackoff, and Summer Glau.
What’s striking, though, is that even though Big Bang has added female characters in recent seasons, the women remain largely outside the fannish circle: it’s almost a crisis anytime women venture into the comic shop; Bernadette and Amy are both female scientists, but they do not show much interest in science fiction. Big Bang shows some sympathy to fan boys, but doesn’t share the love with fan girls.
I have spent less time looking at Chuck, so I can’t really comment there, but it seems to me that Kick-Ass and Super, among the new action films, still pathologize their fan characters (seeing them as acting out unfulfilled fantasies or turning personal frustrations into violent rage), even if they have become the protagonists rather than the antagonists (as in, say, King of Comedy or Unbreakable). I tend to like these newer representations better because they often address us as “fans” but we still lack alternative forms of fan identities in popular culture that might reflect several decades of academic research on fans and fandom.
The exception may be in nonfiction. More and more journalists are themselves fans and thus openly display fan expertise and engagement. Commercial blogs, such as io9, Blastr, and the Los Angeles Time’s Hero Complex, take fans seriously as a demographic, and San Diego Comic-Con gets cover stories in Entertainment Weekly, which often assume a fan rather than “mundane” reader. Documentaries like The People vs. George Lucas have taken the side of the fan over the producer (though here, again, with a strong gender bias; the history of female fan complaints about Star Wars get little to no attention). And, as you’ve suggested, more and more show runners and filmmakers have used their blogs, podcasts, and director’s commentary, to construct a “fan boy auteur” identity, to help authenticate their relationship with a more participatory audience (an option which has so far not been open to female showrunners) (Scott, 2012). This is where the mainstreaming of fan culture has taken place (and in turn, this process may make some of the more sympathetic elements in Big Bang, say, more accessible to a general audience.)
Big Bang Theory’s dual address seems to perfectly encapsulate the industry’s conflicted desire to acknowledge fans’ growing cultural influence, while still containing them through sitcom conventions. I agree that the recent influx of fanboy characters reinforce old stereotypes more frequently than they challenge or complicate them, but as you note above the comparative scarcity of fangirl representations – Liz Lemon on 30 Rock aside – suggests that while the industry is beginning to take fanboys seriously as a demographic, fangirls (or women, generally) are still considered a surplus audience. While I’m an avid reader of the Los Angeles Time’s Hero Complex, it’s difficult not to notice the gendered language of their tagline, “for your inner fanboy.”
Some of this, I think, has to do with the particular role of San Diego Comic-Con as the primary point of intersection between Hollywood and the fan community (Jenkins, 2012a). Coming out of comics and science fiction fandom, rather than out of media fandom, Comic-Con has very much been shaped by male-centric fan traditions, norms, and assumptions, and until very recently, the attendees were overwhelmingly male. So, when Hollywood went to talk to the fans, or when the news media did its annual fandom story, they mostly encountered men, and this served a particular push right now within the media industry to try to hold onto the young male demographic, which is the “lost audience segment,” because they have been abandoning television for games and other digital media. So, even as fan studies has suggested the centrality of women to fan culture, the media industry clings to somewhat outmoded understandings of what kind of people are fans. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase of women coming to Comic-Con (partially in response to Twilight and True Blood, but really, across the board), so there may be some hope that the industry might develop a more diverse understanding of the fan audience. Witness a largely sympathetic account of female “shippers” in Entertainment Weekly (Jensen, 2012) which included acknowledgement by industry insiders of their increasing significance in shaping the reception of especially procedural programs like Castle and Bones. Because of its location in San Diego, Comic-Con is more racially and ethnically diverse than most other fan gatherings. As a consequence, it is becoming a key site for minority fans to organize and call out the industry for its often stereotyped representations of people of color.
Another factor that may change this pattern has to do with the growing number of cult television shows produced by women — in many cases, they are produced by husband and wife teams, but there are also a number of female show runners who inherit series from male mentors (such as the relationship between Joss Whedon/Ron Moore and Jane Espensen). It says something positive about the so-called “fan boy auteurs” that so many of them have invested in helping women break into the industry. You can argue that the industry’s address to male fans reflect the male producer’s intuitive understanding of what fans want to see and thus diversifying who produces media can help diversify the kinds of media produced. Of course, it remains to be seen if these women will have the same freedom to proclaim their fan investments their male counterparts now take for granted or whether they are still under a lot of pressure to demonstrate their professionalism and are not “simply fan girls.”
And the book closes with a study guide by Louisa Ellen Stein, exploring what Textual Poachers might contribute in the contemporary classroom, providing questions for discussion, readings for further consideration, and other resources which might help educators in using this work more effectively with their students.
If I was delighted to be working with a next generation fan artist for the cover, I was also very proud to be working with two next generation Aca-fen to help me reflect on the book’s legacy. We all hope that the book’s re-release encourages you to revisit Textual Poachers or perhaps read it for the first time.
The whole process has left me nostalgic about the experience of creating Textual Poachers. At the time, I sent out copies of the manuscript to everyone quoted, and I still have a bulging file of letters I received in response from countless fan women. I know some of you are still reading this blog twenty years later, and I’d love to encourage you to post comments here, sharing your own reflections about what has happened to fandom over the past two decades since this book first appeared. I think our blog response software is working much better than it has sometimes done in the past, but if you have any problems posting your comments, send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org