Four Conversations We Can Have About Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is, to use a technical term, “Bat Shit Crazy,” and that’s what makes it such a generative text for thinking about some of the discursive struggles in America today around race, nation, family and religion/mythology.

Like most American television series, it is a grand example of improvization — they are making a lot of this up as they go and it shows. As a consequence, it feels like Sleepy Hollow is emerging in conversation with its audience — especially when you factor in the very active social media presence of Orlando Jones, who has actively engaged with the program’s fans through many different means. Where race is concerned, there is some sense, especially this season, of one step forward and one step backwards and so there are no shortage of contradictions and compromises in the characters and storylines that emerge. So, there are moments when the minority characters seem to draw on older racial stereotypes, and then, the next moment they are challenging or shattering those stereotypes.

So, there are moments where Orlando Jones as Frank Irving starts to pop his eyes with fear like Stepin Fetchit in a haunted house (“feets do your stuff”) and then the next moment, he’s standing firm and strong, very much in control of the wild and crazy situations he is confronting. He is a black man struggling to hold onto his family; he is a black man in authority who commands the respect of his people and yet is ready to put all of that at risk to do what he thinks must be done; he is a skeptic who is struggling with issues of faith, all of which makes  him much more complicated than the remains of the stereotype might suggest.

How could it be otherwise? Keep in mind that Scandal made news just a few years back for offering us the first black woman in the lead of a drama series that survived more than a season in something like 30 years. Sleepy Hollow was the next step towards a more diverse kind of television drama: a series with a white man and a black woman, as non-romantically linked partners, in the lead. And the social media buzz and ratings success of these two series may have paved the way for more diverse casting in this year’s television slate, although as even the network executives are acknowledging at this point, not nearly as much diversity as America deserves and seems ready to accept.

But, that history means that there has not been a diversity of different kinds of characters to draw upon: certainly there have been one or two minority cast members on a range of ensemble based dramas and reality television programs, but there has still been real limits to what kinds of characters, how complex their motives are, what kinds of story arcs they are allowed to explore, what kinds of relationships they are involved with, and so, we are now at a moment of transition in how television deals with America’s evolving racial politics.

When everything is said and done, Sleepy Hollow will be seen as a key transitional text through which networks and audiences negotiated those changes, all the more important because it wraps itself up so fully in a particular conception of the American nation state and bridges so often between past and present, history and the speculative future. There were moments in the first season where, much as America would soon be, the majority of the cast were people of color, as the white protagonist was pushed to the sidelines of his own story. So far, this season, there has been a resurgence of white characters — especially Katrina and the newly introduced Hawley — which has resulted in less screen time for the Mills Sisters or Frank Irving and his family, but this could change at any moment.

I have been thinking about Sleepy Hollow a lot of late, since I was asked to be part of an extensive panel discussion of the show at the conference of the American Academy of Religion, held in San Diego last weekend. My fellow panelists were Sheila Briggs, University of Southern California; Diane Winston, University of Southern California; and Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania. Getting ready for the conference led me to watch all of the episodes to date with computer on hand to take detailed notes, and I thought I would share a few of my thoughts with you, knowing that I am far from the only Sleepy-Head who reads this blog. Please be warned that there should be Spoiler Warnings on everything that follows since I do flag many specific moments and episodes to illustrate my points.

I focused my presentation around four key themes:

Rewriting the American Revolution –

One of my fellow panelist was sharply critical of the series for reconstructing the idea of “manifest destiny” I can see where she is coming from — this series aligns the American founding fathers with the forces of good and the Redcoats (and especially the Hessians) with the forces of evil. But, I would also argue that the show is making a specific set of interventions to question or challenge the ways that the American Revolution has been constructed in popular memory. The Revolution and its figures have been evoked in various ways through the years: as a force for progressive politics in the popular front (1930s) with the Jefferson and Lincoln Brigades or evoked by Abby Hoffman during the Chicago 7 Trial (“I was there when Paul Revere road his motorcyle up the hill, shouting ‘the pigs were coming’ — paraphrased by me) and more recently as a reactionary force in relation to the Tea Party.

Again and again, we see Sleepy Hollow engage with the encrusted meaning of the revolution, often through the way Ichabod’s memories contrasted with today’s beliefs. See, for example, his challenging of the docent who tries to explain Paul Revere in “The Midnight Ride” and his commentary on the Revolutionary War re-enactors he encounters in “Bad Blood” (though by second season he seems to himself have made a nostalgic return and sought friendship amongst those same re-enactors).  Much has been made of Crane’s fish out of water responses to the modern age, which might involve his struggles with child proof tops or his confusion over the proliferation of Starbucks across the land. But often, the show uses Crane’s confused questioning to depict the revolution in more progressive and diverse terms than the Tea Party version: so we see references to the alliance between revolutionaries and the Mohawks and Crane’s outrage over the genocide against Native Americans in “For the Triumph of Evil”, his concern over the rights of women in “Necromancer”, we see him question the obsession with the right to bear arms in “The Vessel” or his acknowledgement that Jefferson and other founding fathers were questioning of basic Christian beliefs in “The Indispensible Man”, We see him more open to issues of homosexuality than we might have anticipated in “Root of All Evil.” Beyond this, I would point us towards several scenes where the African-American characters question Crane about the inequalities of his time: Abby and Irving challenge him about Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and his affair with Sally Hemming in “The Midnight Ride” and this season, we also saw Abby challenge who had the franchise in early America as Crane sputters over not being allowed to vote because he could not produce a proper ID, itself a reference to current voter suppression efforts, in “Deliverance.”

And as the casting of people of color in the present day timeline has increased, there has also been an acknowledgement of the role of black freemen in the historical flashbacks. Keep in mind that the first question Crane asks Abbie is whether she has been “emancipated,” though he seems more than prepared to adapt to a world where she has police authority. We meet the black revolutionary and martyr Arthur Bernard in “The Sin Eater,” the man who helps to convert Crane from a red coat to a revolutionary spy, and we see the construction of a haven for black freemen in “Sanctuary,” which also introduces us to Grace Dixon, Abbie’s ancestor, the midwife who delivers Ichabod and Katrina’s child. All of this, however, can be questioned in terms of the ways that the black characters are often depicted in roles where they are seeking to protect the white characters, often at the cost of their own lives – a classic trope in contemporary popular fictions.



This brings us to the second key point I might want to make about the series – the role that Sleepy Hollow is playing as television is negotiating a slow, overdue transition towards greater diversity in casting.  Throughout the first season,  we saw the cast’s composition shift towards characters of color, who play central roles in the narrative. If we apply the Bechdel test, we see many examples of scenes that feature women (the sisters) talking with each other about topics other than the men in their lives and we see similarly powerful moments where the black characters (especially in relation to Irving and his family or his priest) are talking with each other about issues important in their lives. This would seem to be a modest step forward in terms of representations of race, but it is remarkable how few shows meet this criteria. As much as I love that series, ask yourself how many scenes we seen on Scandal, say, when Olivia Pope has had a meaningful conversation with another black woman.  Here, We get full character arcs centering around these relationships, as well as the kind of close (non-romantic) friendship that exists between Abbie and Ichabod.  We might throw in the roles played by John Cho’s Andy Brooks, by Abbie’s ex Detective Luke Morales, and by Leena Reyes, the officer introduced this season. Several times now, we’ve seen glimpses into contemporary and historical Native American cultures, suggesting each time that there is much more that we can learn.

All of this has been brought to focus to me by Orlando Jones’ engagement via social media with the fan community which is being held up as a model example of a performer who creates a new relationship with his fan base. These interactions create a reading formation that sees the Irving character as more central to the series than he might be otherwise. The series does not always call attention to the race of its protagonists but does consistently cast many roles with minority actors that  in other contexts would most likely have been cast white. As Hollywood likes to put it, the characters “happen to be black.”

Season two has been somewhat less commendable in this regard: the expansion of Katrina’s role, the introduction of Nick Hawley, the marginalization of Frank Irving and his family, and the stronger focus on Henry Parish and Abraham Van Brunt in their human incarnations, has resulted in a stronger focus on white characters, though we could argue that the central focus here has been on the ways that these characters may be less than fully reliable and in some cases, represent the monstrous side of whiteness (see especially Joe Corbin in “”And the Abyss Gazes Back” for example). This same season, though, has seen a strong emphasis on strengthening the bonds between Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills, suggesting the complex ways that the history of White and African-America have been intertwined, and the ways we can come to see those connections as a source of strength. (See Maureen Ryan’s smart critique of the Second Season at the Huffington Post).

Normality and Monstrosity

I have always valued Robin Wood’s analysis of the horror film genre, which starts with the formulation, “normality is threatened by the monstrous,” and attempts to define each of these terms in relation to the others. The tendency, Wood tells us, is to focus on the monstrous, which is where the most exotic elements are, but it is really helpful to start with normality. So, strip away the monsters for a moment and we see again and again the ways that acts of violence disrupt families, the ways we betray those we love, and often the violation of the innocence of children. We have Abbie and Jenny’s encounter with a stranger in the woods and the refusal of the legal establishment to believe Jenny’s account of what happened to them: without monsters, this becomes a representation of child predators and the failure of the law to take accounts of child victims seriously. We see Abbie break with her sister denying what she experienced where-as Jenny speaks the truth and ends up in and out of mental institutions. We learn something along the way about how the two girls have been treated by foster homes (“For the Triumph of Evil”) and also as the second season continues, about their mother’s mental breakdown and suicide. We also learn about the collapse of Irving’s marriage following the accident that cripples his daughter as a key motivation for his actions across the series. When he attempts to act to protect her, he also finds himself in  the prison-mental health –industrial complex. And then we have Henry’s story – the way he must be put up for adoption by his mother and how this leaves him vulnerable to darker forces. We might also mention Joe Corbin’s jealousy over the relationships his father has with the Mills Sisters or we might think about the ways that Crane’s father disinherits him when he sides with the revolutionaries. So, in each case, what is “normal” here are children at risk, with their problems amplified by the supernatural forces.

Often, in many of the best episodes, the monster of the week plot is also linked to this theme of children at risk within the system, such as “John Doe”, “The Golem”, and especially “Go Where I Send Thee.” In this last case, a mother is ready to sacrifice her young daughter to Moloch in fulfillment of a family curse and to save the rest of her family.  As Diane Winston noted during the panel discussion, one of the ways that Moloch was worshipped historically was through child sacrifice, making him an apt embodiment of the disrupted family.

At the same time, we see the series embrace the idea of families of choice — that is groups of people who forge family-like units for their self-protection — as occurs when Sheriff Corbin “adopts” both Abbie and Jenny at different times as the beneficiaries of his mentorship or the ways that all of these characters come together, learn to trust and care for each other, across the series as a whole. The series takes literally the idea that we struggle with “demons” in our personal lives, perhaps most powerfully in “Mama,” which aired last week, where we learn that Abbie and Jenny’s mother made all kinds of self-sacrifice to try to protect her daughters from the dark forces swirling around them.

Acts of Faith

There’s so much to discuss in terms of the depictions of religion in the series. There’s plenty here about Bibles and encrypted information, about prophecy and revelation, about purgatory as a space between worlds, about the place of rituals in contemporary society. I am perhaps most interested in the ways that the rationalist characters must negotiate a space in their lives where they can consider spiritual questions and take action based on faith. So, there is the moment of redemption that occurs when Abbie first meets Corbin in “Blood Moon” – the whole scene around the hot pie a la mode – or the moment where Irving talks about the two things you try to protect as long as you can because once they are lost, they do not come back (virginity and skepticism) in “The Sin Eater”. I am perhaps most interested in two church-based scenes in the first season – the one in “John Doe” where Abbie goes to the hospital chapel and searches for a sign of the way forward and experiences something she takes as a miracle and then the one in “The Golem” where Irving goes to talk to the priest and describes his own crisis of faith and questions whose interests are being served by “God’s plan” for him.

This series cobbles together a mythology from many different sources — fairy tales from old Europe, including the Jewish concept of the Golem; bits of Native American mythology; Freemasons and Quakers; Wiccan practices and other forms of esoteric knowledge; a dab of Catholicism, and much much more. And the protagonists, especially those who are called to be “witnesses” or “apostles,” are at best seekers, more often skeptics, who struggle to reconcile their experience of the divine and the demonic with their understanding of the modern world. People have talked about contemporary romantic comedies as “nervous romances” since, in an age of frequent divorce,  they have to rework the genre to satisfy the skepticism of viewers about “a happily ever after” resolution. We might see Sleepy Hollow as a “nervous mythological saga” because it tries to reconcile premodern beliefs with a very contemporary style of rationalism and skepticism. In that sense, we need to read Abbie and Ichabod’s relationship alongside Scully and Mulder in The X-Files: neither is simply a believer or a skeptic but both struggle to reconcile conflicting pulls on their beliefs.

There’s so much more to say. I haven’t tried to reproduce the insights of the other panelists here, each of whom had their own frames to make sense of a series which I started this post describing as “bat shit crazy.” My point, though, is that Sleepy Hollow is exemplary in the ways it is negotiating with the contradictions of our current social attitudes towards the nation state and its history, racial and ethnic diversity, the state of the family, and the nature of faith in a rationalist society.


Introducing the Critical Media Project: An Interview with USC’s Alison Trope


As always, this blog is deeply committed to media literacy education — in all of its many formats and approaches. I started the fall with my exchange with Tessa Jolls about the ways networked communication has or has not changed how we understand media literacy. Next week, I am going to share an interview with Belinha De Abreau and Paul Mihailidis, the editors of  Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedogogical Perspectives. This week, I want to share with you a vital new resource for critical media literacy instruction, a data base of several hundred segments from all kinds of media, which can be used in teaching critical perspectives on race, gender, sexuality, and identity.

The Critical Media Project has been developed by Alison Trope, a cherished colleague in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, working with a team of our graduate and undergraduate students. There’s more about the process by which the project emerged in the interview which follows. As Trope explained recently in another interview with Diana Lee for the USC News Office, ““If we can understand how our own race, gender, sexuality and class are being represented in the media, it can help us understand how these messages feed into how we live our lives and how we interact with each other. If we can learn to decode the messages, we can be better equipped to dismiss them or challenge what we’re being fed. The more active we are as consumers of media, the better.”

The archive’s selection of materials is diverse — ranging from commercials to comedy segments to news reports to clips from reality television programs. To illustrate the wealth of the collection, I am going to scatter some segments across the interview, most of which come up under the heading, “Mixed Race” or in honor of Obama’s decision last week, reflect the politics of immigration.  I have thoroughly enjoyed browsing through the collection in pulling together this post: they are well curated, carefully selected  by people who are deeply informed about issues of identity construction within contemporary culture and who has an eye towards what kinds of clips might constitute “teachable moments” in the classroom. If you go to the site itself, Her team’s commentary is designed to spark but not exhaust critical discussion around these media elements.

In the interview which follows, Trope takes us behind the scenes, sharing how the project emerged, what she seeks to achieve, and how you and your students might get involved.


What motivated you to create the Critical Media Project? How do you see it as contributing to the larger movement towards media literacy in American education?


I’ve been interested in media literacy since I was in graduate school. I primarily studied cinema and television, but was particularly drawn to the ways media studies could productively intersect with museum studies—specifically how media was and could be exhibited in the context of museums. I wrote a book (Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood) that examines the way Hollywood (via films, characters, studios, stars, etc.) has been imagined and put on display in a range of exhibition contexts, including museums, theme parks, DVD box sets and Internet sites. In my teaching, I want my students to understand the relationship of the text to the context, whether that be exhibition context, industrial context, or socio-cultural context. We can look at media or any cultural object on its own, but the broader context provides relevant meaning and resonance.

The Critical Media Project was loosely inspired by my regular use of media as a subject and object of teaching. It was more directly inspired by an invited talk I gave on mixed messages about gender, sexuality and representations of women in the media. After the talk, which was attended largely by parents and supporters of a local Planned Parenthood chapter, a few attendees asked whether the type of instruction I offered was available in high schools. It was not only the content they were interested in; it was the presentation—media rich and full of examples that were imbricated in everyday popular culture. At the time, I suggested it was likely up to the individual instructor, and surmised it might be difficult for many instructors to spend the time to find and scaffold media-rich lessons, given the curricular structure and testing standards most high school teachers must adhere to.

The question nagged at me. What kind of barriers did teachers face with regard to implementing media and media literacy in the classroom, and what kind of resources could help them? The presentation I gave that day could easily fit into a social studies class discussion of feminism and women’s rights, or a human development class on gender norms and expectations. The Critical Media Project was inspired by those questions. I wanted to create a site that didn’t simply “school” teachers in how to “do” media literacy. Rather, I wanted to provide them with the texts and resources—the actual media—that could be put in the context of their own curriculum and further framed by discussion questions designed to elicit critical analysis among their students.

This site differs from many other media literacy sites in two key ways. First, it is media-rich—with over 250 media artifacts embedded into the site and ready for teachers to use. Second, the site tackles a specific topic—identity—and asks us to think about the way all facets of identity (for example, race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class) are shaped by the media. Rather than taking media representation at face value and accepting what has been internalized or normalized through media conventions, the site asks us, through each media artifact, to question those representations and their broader social, cultural and political implications.

Such questioning is particularly important in the media saturated environment in which we all live. Students are coming into classrooms having engaged for years in exhaustive and casual media practices. They consume traditional and digital media across a multitude of platforms, and produce content using a variety of media production tools. It’s worth noting that much of the content they consume and produce is about identity. It’s about figuring out who they are, who their friends are, what they like to do, what their tastes are, etc. For young people, in particular, a critical perspective on identity is crucial during key developmental stages when they are gaining new life experiences and learning to define, navigate, and negotiate their online and offline identities.

What criteria did you use for the selection of materials for the archive?


Much of the material comes from my own “library”—media I’ve collected over several years of teaching. Other media comes from USC Annenberg PhD students, who suggested media as well as contributed annotations to the site. (I’m lucky to have such generous students, who follow a variety of blogs and sites, and regularly send me new things to look at and incorporate into my classes). The other contributors were undergraduate students in a 2012 class I used as a lab space to brainstorm and develop the site. The class was divided into different identity groups and tasked with gathering media and developing skeleton curriculum for each assigned category.

As my project manager, Garrett Broad, and I narrowed the selections for the site, we had a few criteria in mind. We strove to choose media that could stand on its own (without a lot of contextualizing). We also wanted to use media that clearly said something about at least one of the identity categories featured on the site, thereby facilitating its incorporation into a broader curricular context. (An offhand or oblique comment by a character or a judge on a reality show might not make the cut).

We did not shy away from media that was challenging or might be uncomfortable for users/viewers. In fact, we embraced nuanced and complicated texts, knowing that we provide scaffolding through the brief annotated descriptions. In some cases, we also provide “critiques” of media examples.

The critiques are used to call attention to social or political issues that might have been left out of the actual media example, but are nonetheless relevant to its interpretation. For example, a clip from America’s Next Top Model features a photo shoot in a Hawaiian sugar cane field in which the contestants are asked to transform themselves to embody two distinct racial groups. The critique for this clip comments on the way that Tyra and Jay gloss over Hawaii’s history of colonialism and cultural domination and the way in which the racial transformations via hair and makeup could be read as blackface. The critiques are designed, therefore, to highlight the complicated ways in which a media example can be interpreted, and to provoke further discussion about broader issues it may invoke.

Your central project here seems to be to focus on the roles which media play in shaping our — collective and personal — sense of identity. What theoretical models have informed your perspective on identity?

Much of my own background in film and television studies was informed by cultural studies. To that end, the work of Raymond Williams, and the notion that “culture is ordinary,” frame much of my teaching and is the foundation of the Critical Media Project. I urge my own students to consider the value and resonance of everyday popular culture, particularly media. And, I hope the Critical Media Project, through its very existence, highlights the value of such texts in the context of broader identity issues.

The site’s focus on identity and identity politics is also firmly rooted in a cultural studies perspective, which asks us to not only consider the social and cultural construction of identities, but also how those constructions are imbricated in ideologies and structures of power. Our gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and class can play a critical role in determining the kind of social, political and economic power we have, how we attain that power, and how we use it. In the context of media, much power comes from visibility and agency (in the media product as well as behind-the-scenes). Such analyses of power lead to productive discussions of inequity and prejudice, ultimately raising important social justice issues.

Do you have a particular pedagogical model in mind as you think about how these materials might be used in the classroom?

The site’s approach draws theoretically from critical pedagogy (and its connections to cultural studies), which works to frame critical thinking, and the learning that comes out of it, in the context of social change. The primary goal is to change students’ perspective on media and its role in shaping their own identities as well as the meanings they ascribe to identities more broadly. Following the lead of writers such as Henry Giroux and Douglas Kellner, the site focuses on critical media literacy—interpretation as well as production and dissemination of content that can challenge dominant ideologies and play a pivotal role in fostering a multicultural, democratic society. The Critical Media Project’s focus on identity and the politics of identity speaks to social justice issues and the larger historical, sociological and political context revolving around them. The site is further designed to spark discussion and to engage students in critical praxis, thereby underscoring the participatory and communal ways in which meanings are made and, further, can make change in the classroom and beyond.

We often hear of the rigid nature of much public school curriculum and the difficulty teachers have introducing innovative materials while adhering to standards. The Critical Media Project is designed to work in the context of pre-existing curriculum and the general principles set forth by the Common Core as they broadly relate to applied critical thinking. The media on this site can be viewed as texts—akin to, if not worthy of comparison with, traditional texts read in an English Language Arts curriculum. It can be used to illustrate a lesson in social studies or history tied to civil rights, or to highlight and make sense of the racialized narratives or sexual politics tied to a particular current event. It can be used in the context of health and human development classes to foster discussion around lines between sex, gender, and transgender identification. Ultimately, the site is designed to be flexible and to work with teacher and student interest and curricular requirements.


How might readers who want to contribute to the project get involved? 

The site is a work in progress and we’d like to continue to build and expand on the catalogued media, in large part by crowdsourcing from potential contributors. We aim to regularly post current and relevant examples on Facebook and Twitter (@critmedpro), where we have recently included media tied to the events in Ferguson, MO as well as this summer’s viral “#Like a Girl” campaign distributed by the feminine hygiene brand, Always.


Potential contributors can email media to We also welcome full annotated contributions, following the format on the website (with description and discussion questions). In the “class activities” section of The Critical Media Project, there is an assignment that educators can use to solicit contributions from their students. We also would be interested in piloting the site in a classroom or school, working with individual or groups of teachers, their curriculum, and students to facilitate using The Critical Media Project.

We are always looking for current and fresh examples! Please share this resource with others and send feedback.

Alison Trope, Clinical Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, teaches a range of classes on media, popular and visual culture and is the author of Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood. She directs The Critical Media Project (, a web resource that facilitates the teaching and understanding of identity in the media. 


Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Three)

Your definition of fan culture emphasizes “a specific amateur infrastructure for its creation, distribution and reception,” yet this infrastructure is part of what may be shifting in an age of Kindle Worlds and Wattpad. How should the study of fan fiction respond to those shifts? You seem ready to deal with the shift from printed zines to online distribution, not to mention a range of different kinds of online distribution practices (of the kind that Gail De Kosnik discusses in her forthcoming book). Are there some changes that would be so dramatic that they would fundamentally alter our understanding of what fan fiction is?

KB: Louisa Stein’s and my “Limit Play” (2009) discussed the vital importance of interfaces to the actual fan works themselves. One of the examples is LiveJournal role-playing games, a form of fan fiction but also an interactive performance. Recently I’ve been looking at Storium, a storytelling RPG that doesn’t come from the media fan perspective but rather a gaming approach, where the storytelling is basically how you play and succeed.

Likewise, Francesca Coppa’s (2006) argument about fan fiction as a type of performance effectively argues that we write fic in part because we can’t make films. Since then, however, vidders have begun using digital tools to manipulate footage into creating their own images (just like constructed reality vids have done for a while now). In other words, fan fiction is already interactive and multimedia and collaborative and all these things. As long as fans create texts about their favorite characters and universes and plot lines, we’ll probably continue to call it fan fiction and will continue to study it.

The issue with commercial platforms is actually less one of interfaces and technology as it is of profit and community. Karen and I have always foregrounded the role of community for fan fiction—while we obviously wouldn’t exclude, say, drawer fic from fan fiction, we’d consider it more an exception than the norm. We instead believe that our approach to fan fiction should include the community that produces, disseminates, and receives these artifacts. Given the social community structure of fandom, we cannot simply divorce fan fiction from its context and equate it with other forms of derivative creativity. Karen, in fact, has argued in regard to Kindle Worlds that “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that”. Interestingly, Jamison (2012) argues that Fifty Shades loses something when taken out of the context of mutually influential Twilight human AUs (and human BDSM AUs), an observation that reflects Woledge’s close textual study of fan turned pro fic (“From Slash to Mainstream,” in Fan Fictions and Fan Communities). The lines are obviously murky, but again, however interesting the border cases are, the fact remains that they only gain importance because we endeavor to properly define fan fiction.

KH: In a word, no. Fan fiction—the thing itself—connotes written texts, regardless of platform (zine, LiveJournal post, Tumblr entry, Wattpad post). I imagine there will be some Next Big Technological Interface Thing that fandom will rush toward, just the way that Tumblr caused much of fandom to leave LiveJournal, but the platform is independent of the writing, and the writing won’t stop. Further, technological considerations don’t seem to be adding all that much to what we’ve been seeing. It’s less sheer novelty and more old wine in new bottles.

When the Internet came along, everyone thought threaded stories, sort of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, would be a Thing, but they never caught on. Likewise, it’s easy to embed illustrations, but to my eye, they evoke the hard-copy zines of yore to me, albeit with more color—occasional images, often by an artist who is not the same person as the text’s author.

The things I like best about technological tools are, first, the ability to comment, which basically takes the old SF zines’ Letters of Comment section and appends it to the item in question, which really helps build the fan community; and second, indexing, categorizing, and tagging, which makes it far easier to find texts of interest.

I’ve been doing work on World War II–era SF zines, which involves a lot of cross-zine discourse among relatively few players, and it’s amazing how little has changed. I could thread these in a LiveJournal-hotlinked post with dates and everything. I am always excited to see what new toys technology comes up with; but I would not be surprised if the shiny new toy was used to create a new mode of expression for an existing activity. Wattpad’s great innovation, for instance, is to have text in little short bursts that are ideal for reading on phones. That resulted in (created? self-selected to?) a particular kind of writer and writer.

Kristina cites my blog post about Kindle Worlds. I like the definition of fan fiction that I make there. The element of “community” is the most important. (We can argue about “free.” Suffice it to say that if it isn’t, it had better be a solution created by and for the community.) If I write a story for Kindle Worlds, then it would be work for hire (under monetary terms that most freelance writers would not accept), not a gift written for my fandom.

Kindle Worlds used the term fan fiction in its initial marketing (it no longer seems to use this term) as a shorthand for marketing purposes that targeted potential writers and readers, but the texts are derivative stories written as work for hire, with great limitations placed on what can be written—no overt sex, no crossovers, no death of major characters, that kind of thing. These limitations are no fun for lots of fan writers.

Kindle Worlds also seems to be struggling. The Daily Dot, for example, notes that Kindle Worlds seeded one World by commissioning a pro writer, Neal Pollack, to write for it, which hints at quantity and quality issues; and a post at Bustle addresses Kindle Worlds’ failure to catch on. The Bustle directs us to Rebecca Tushnet’s legal article about Kindle Worlds and fair use, which is a must read.

What could be changing is the meaning of the term fan fiction. I’m seeing a linguistic shift whereby the term’s connotation is broadening to mean “any derivative work,” not “a derivative work written by a self-identified fan within the context of a fan community, often as an item of exchange, and often for free.” I object to this broadened definition because the division conflates fan activity within a specialist community with nonfan commercial activity, and I personally value the distinction.

The study of fan fiction (used in its classical limited sense) will continue to address the ways that the interface affects the classic rhetorical situation of author–text–reader, as criticism always does; it will address concerns of power, gender, race, and class, as it always had; and it will continue to apply to fan fiction theories from various disciplines. Thus work on fan fiction will be ultimately evolutionary, not game-changingly disruptive. I’d personally like to see the focus on fan text rather than fan fiction, because it connotes a far wider range of fan expression: vids, artwork, comics, poetry, whatever.

Feminist and queer studies perspectives were key in defining the field of fan fiction studies, and rightly so, for many reasons your book does a good job of describing. Yet, there was from the start a serious neglect of what fandom studies might learn from critical race theory. Today, there is still a remarkable shortage of work which deals with racial politics in and through fandom. I know as editors you have been actively concerned about some of the silences around race, so I wanted to get your perspective on how those structuring absences have impacted our field and what might represent some generative approaches for re-engaging with those topics today.

KH: TWC published a special issue in 2011 guest edited by Robin Reid and Sarah N. Gatson on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom . I’d direct you particularly to the editorial and to Mel Stanfill’s essay. Fans are also intensely concerned with issues surrounding race. The huge Racefail imbroglio in 2009 is a good example. But I’m not seeing a lot of scholarly work being done on the topic in fan studies, and we’ve had bad luck with TWC when we’ve tried to solicit contributions in that arena, including a poor showing under open calls for submissions, an inability to directly solicit, and a guest editor of a proposed issue related to the topic of critical race theory pulling out. Right now I’m liking work on the topic done by fans, particularly for race in comic book depictions and race-based film-casting issues. I would love to see some of that formally theorized in an academic setting, but until then, check out Racalicious.

The absences have left a vacuum in the field that skews perceptions of fans as comprising primarily middle-class white girls and women (if media) or as middle-class white boys and men (if gaming or comics). Nonwhite concerns are perceived as outliers.

Further, I worry that white scholars don’t want to address the issue, in part because they have no lived experience and thus they feel inauthentic, and in part because they don’t want to be attacked. Yet of course scholars of color ought not shoulder the topic solely themselves. One important thing to do to generate more criticism and thought may be to reconfigure the Other oppositional binary: if a fan is an Other and not-white is an Other, than the fan of color is doubly Othered. How can this potential estrangement be turned? How is it useful? I’m also a big fan of cutting to the chase in any topic by assessing the power dynamics, what I call following the money. Why is it important to the white majority for it to retain and apportion their authority? What is at stake? How can that authority be usefully challenged?

KB: One of the more amusing things for me as an interdisciplinary scholar is the way different departments canonize different pieces by the same writer. Mention Deleuze in media studies, you get Cinema I and II. In English you’ll see a lot of references to Anti-Oedipus and Mille Plateaux, whereas in philosophy Difference and Repetition or even his books on Kant and on Nietzsche would be considered his central work.

Likewise, we have embraced “Encoding/Decoding” in fan studies without ever fully engaging with the fact that Stuart Hall, in fact, was not only a founder of the British Cultural Studies but also of BLACK British Cultural Studies (that was the name of the 1996 reader where I consciously read Hall for the first time). This is a really long way of saying that mostly US, mostly white, mostly middle-class fan scholars have done much better at addressing concerns of gender rather than race or class in the notorious trifecta. Given the overlaps between gender and queer studies (and possibly the larger number of GLTB acafans), we have done much better with queer issues than with race. Maybe a generative mode would be overlapping/applying critical race theory with gender or queer studies.

A fan review called the Fan Fiction Studies Reader “whitewashing” and commented that they’d like to see bell hooks write on fandom. Anyone’s response would be: ME TOO! bell hooks may have other things she wants to write about, but it behooves us to address this huge gap, both as a topic in our own essays and by creating an infrastructure that invites a focus on race as a dominant framework. I hope, though, that an increasing diversification, more awareness, and an (ever so slowly) changing media landscape may allow us to address these issues more. As always, acafans who are teaching the next generation of students must give them the context, background, and tools to help fill these gaps.

As you note, there have been significant shifts in the politics around gender and sexuality since the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been factors which have made fans and fan cultural production much more visible in the mainstream of the culture. In this context, what is still transgressive about fan fiction? In what senses might we still see its production as a kind of resistance to dominant values and institutions? Or is resistance still a useful frame for thinking about what fans do?

KH: The resistance paradigm is definitely falling among scholars, although it’s still useful. Much work has been done on how fan fiction is not subversive but actually reinforcing of dominant values and institutions. Fan-written mpreg and curtain fic, for example, may be read not as critiques of traditional marriage, setting up house, and having children (even if it’s the man getting pregnant) as they are genderswapped or all-male reproductions of the trappings of middle-class life.

However, if the content of fan fiction isn’t necessarily truly subversive and resistant but rather affirmational of traditional institutions, its locus of power may be: unauthorized, in conflict with The Powers That Be. One reason that Kindle Worlds is interesting to discuss right now is that Amazon is attempting to get rid of resistance by providing a paid, controlled, circumscribed outlet—one with a built-in community and fan base to drive sales.

This isn’t to argue that all fan fiction is ultimately nontransgressive or can be read as such. Of course that isn’t the case. But the unequal power relations reside less in the text than in the opposition between a minority gift culture and a majority commerce culture.

KB: Fan fiction scholars (all of us included) have probably done the practice—if not the field—a disservice by focusing so much on resistance, opposition, and transgression. Obviously there are real political, cultural, and academic reasons for picking one example over another, for foregrounding the more literate pieces of fan fic or the more transgressive ones, but generalizing is thus often problematic, because we picked the text for its exceptional rather than representative value. But the question is whether that minimizes these stories’ value.

There always are a huge number of stories that make us feel good and happy, and that may not all be that progressive. (In fact, if one only knows fan fiction through the lens of academic discourse, reading the examples described by Lamb and Veith’s essay in our reader may indeed sound strange.) But I’d argue that if you go to any fandom tag on AO3  or, you will find that many of the stories with the most kudos and comments are exactly like that—comfort fic. On the other hand, the stories that often get discussed or cause controversy are those that transgress, whether thematically or politically. Coppa wrote about asexuality fic in Sherlock (2012), for example—a subgenre that fandoms don’t really have.

Conversations on Tumblr are often politically transgressive, questioning cultural values and challenging cultural norms. Not all of it translates directly into fic, but some of it does. Head canons for most characters may include characters who are intersex, asexual and/or a-romantic, disabled, aneurotypical, DFAB or DMAB, genderqueer, or mixed race. All of these are identities not previously well articulated or represented in fan fic, and clearly it is important—and, we’d argue, transgressive—if not to culture than at least to the text to explore them.

If the value is as much in the process of production as it is in the end result, if the transgressions are in the conversations surrounding it as much as they are in the fic itself, then the continued critical engagement with media texts remains as important as ever. Thus, while fan fiction may not be as resistant in terms of cultural values any more as it may have been, it becomes ever more important as a form of resistance in terms of economic and labor issues. Given that we’ve already talked about Kindle Worlds, fan fiction is transgressive now more than ever.

Whether it’s E. L. James publishing “pornography for women by women, with love” and topping best seller lists everywhere, or hundreds of OTW and AO3 volunteers providing a free not ad supported interface to share ALL THE FANFICS (RPF, explicit and all!)–fandom remains a way for people who are not mainstream and center to write back to the text. If their version becomes popular, all the better. Ideally, at some point, there may be no more need for oppositional readings anymore on a larger culture scale. But just looking at the debates surrounding a potential Black Widow movie, it is clear that day hasn’t come yet.

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson ( is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Two)

With your new book, your focus is looking backwards, tracing some of the earliest works to address fan fiction, as well as their impact on today’s scholars. What led you to this focus on forming a canon of sorts around the study of fan fiction? Why the focus on fan fiction as opposed to a more inclusive notion of fan cultural production? After all, you have also been involved in promoting more scholarship around fan vids, for example.

KB: Both of us are really traditionalists. We were both trained in English literature. Karen is now a copyeditor and I teach in a philosophy department. All of these fields relate to sources, quotations, terms, and ideas. We are heavily diachronic in an age where both culture itself (and with it fandom) and academia (and with it fan studies) often focus on the synchronic. It seemed important to us to share where we are all started. Really, we’d have loved to include Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Rat Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) in our slash section, but clearly we had to pick and choose. The fascinating thing about going back to the original texts is how very different they are from how they get represented now in hindsight.

We had made a few decisions early on: (1) We would stay with fan fiction, because even though other fan works were discussed here and there early on, the nexus of different approaches and disciplines and the majority of academic work was on fan fiction. (2) We would stay with “media fandom,” because, again, that was where a lot of the early work was focused on and that was our own background. We felt that we would do better to strive for comprehensiveness rather than inclusion where one essay or two would stick out and not be representative of anything. (3) We would keep it in the early years and represent more recent essays with a very inclusive bibliography. That last one was basically a numbers game. For every current essay, we’d have to drop one of the more foundational texts, but those were the ones we wanted to share. Moreover, as we said above, fan studies exploded in the mid-2000s, and deciding on one particular text out of the many on a given topic with a given approach would have become even more impossible.

KH: Part of the impetus was to create a single text that would collect the things that we wish people had read. As editors of TWC, we see essays that don’t engage with the literature—that don’t seem aware that they are in dialogue with something, or that cite your Textual Poachers but don’t seem aware of the stuff that came after that critiqued and expanded those ideas (including your own work!). In addition, we’d heard from college-level teachers that they would like such a book. When we ran the draft table of contents by scholars in the field for their feedback, we got several “I would assign this right now!” comments. I am hopeful that master’s and PhD students coming up in the field will find it a good resource. I’m actually not uncomfortable with being in on some canon formation: I figure I have invested a lot of time learning about the field, and what I have to say is perfectly valid. Plus the good thing about canon is that someone will come along and bust it. (Yes!)

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader brings together foundational essays while also pointing to trending ideas. We worked hard on the headnote contextualizing essays that precede each of the reader’s sections, but of course the essays could be swapped around and reconfigured at will to form new topic blocks. Our choices were forced on us because of the difficulty in getting reprints; some were shockingly expensive, others too long. As editors of reprint anthologies everywhere know, “best of” doesn’t mean “best of.” It means “what we could get that we could afford and that was the right length, with certain key authors represented.” It’s not the ideal table of contents that we pitched to the press! However, that may be a feature, not a bug. We had to think outside our “best of” box. The press insisted on the Fan Fiction part of the title, in part because we couldn’t fit in everything we wanted to for it to be truly representative of the field in its broadest sense. However, although the words fan fiction are in the title, it could easily be used as a more general reader. Fan fiction is one kind of text and vids are another, yet the strategies for reading/assessing them are the same. I encourage teachers who assign the book to broaden “fan fiction” to mean “fan-created texts in general,” and to mess with the blocks we created to find new connections.

You reproduce in the introduction an increasingly widespread distinction between affirmative and transformative fans: “Affirmative fans tend to collect, view, and play, to discuss, analyze, and critique. Transformative fans, however, take a creative step to make the words and characters their own, be it by telling stories, cosplaying the characters, creating artworks, or engaging in any of the many other forms active fan participation can take.” I’ve also used this distinction—in Spreadable Media for example—but I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with it, going back to an earlier formulation which talked about all fandom as born of a mixture of fascination and frustration, and suggesting we look case by case at the different ways any kind of fan cultural production moves between these two polls. There are no forms of fan production by definition that are purely resistant, but they may also be none that reflect uncritical fascination without other factors entering the picture. You can make an argument that many forms of fan speculation and critique are also already transformational in that they encourage new ways of thinking about the fictional world and in the case, say, of a mystery series, they often construct quite elaborate explanations for why something is occurring which may, in their own right, be deeply transformational. Thoughts?

KB: The spread of this terminology is actually a perfect example as to why we should always read the original source. Obsession_inc, the person whose blog post pointed out this dichotomy, actually prefaces the definitions with the following: “I see both sections as celebrational fandom, first and foremost, and that there is a lot of joy and effort and creativity put into both, and that there is a certain amount of crossover.” It is useful to acknowledge the motivations as much as the results—that is, a critical, resistant, frustrated affirmational response is possible, just as a noncritical, fascinated, loving, transformational one is. (Let’s say, the first one is reblogging from the official Tumblr pics of a neglected character, the second one writing a missing scene that completely supports and expands the accepted/intended/TPTB-supported canon interpretation.) The two spectrums are maybe less in competition with one another and more perpendicular, creating a two-dimensional space.

For us, the dichotomy was useful because we wanted to look at resistant/critical/creative transformative fan works, and the essays we included all addressed this. Clearly, other approaches may need different distinctions. Yes, the term has been used a lot recently, but we are already beginning to complicate it—not just you, but also Matt Hills’s recent essay in TWC on “Mimetic Fandom and the Crafting of Replicas“, in which he studies fan works whose very “value” more or less rely on their mimetic accuracy.

The original articulation remains useful, especially when considering when and why Obsessive_inc coined it. The essay is a belated response to Racefail ’09 and other creator/fan conflicts: “in all of my fandoms, there have been battles between creators (backed up by their affirmational fanbase) and their transformational fanbase.” When looked at it from that perspective, the term transformative takes on yet another meaning that is neither fully about being oppositional readers nor about the “purportedly feminine cultural spaces of many media fandoms and fan studies,” as Matt Hills describes it. Instead, it is more closely linked to the notion of transformational works that are implied in the names of OTW and TWC—transformation in the legal sense. For better or worse, we are stuck with US copyright law and fair use exemptions.

You are of course correct that we shouldn’t fall into false binaries, and the sexier a shorthand is, the easier it is to fall into it. I love my “Man Collect; Women Connect,” but I certainly know that fan cultures are much more complicated—as are genders! Likewise, we are increasingly realizing that even generalizations, such as “straight middle-aged women” about the writers and readers of fan fiction zines, may not be as accurate as we used to think. But this is why it is useful to actually go back and reread the early texts—to know our intellectual antecedents, and maybe to realize that their arguments were already more complex and differentiated than we remember.

KH: I find the dichotomy useful, as it handily categorizes two perfectly valid forms of fan activity. More scholars are problematizing it than not, which is all to the good, but we also have to acknowledge how true Obsession_inc’s point feels. The gender issues inherent in her critique show that all the scholarly work in the world may not help the fan on the ground. Her essay is interesting not only for what she says and the impetus that caused her to write (as Kristina describes so well), but for what it reveals about fannish engagement, not to mention the terms of engagement she chooses. Power, appropriation, award, context—all these are inherent in her argument, and it may be useful to spend less time figuring out why the point is wrong and more time about why she made it.

Fifty Shades of Grey gets referenced often in your introduction as a text which has helped to change the public’s perception of fan fiction. Now that the dust has settled a little, what are your thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey? Has its impact been largely positive, negative, or mixed? (As they say in the news, “Good thing or bad thing?”) And has its impact been short-lived or lasting?

KB: If nothing else, Fifty Shades‘s success now allows any fan scholar anywhere to point to it to explain what we do. Even my 90-year-old German grandmother has heard of it. Seriously, though, it feels like the publication was both the culmination of a general mainstreaming and mainstream acceptance of fans and fan fiction, and by its sheer overwhelming success, it is a watershed in ultimately settling whether fan fiction can become a commercial success.

Of course, given this specific text, I take its “success” with some ambivalence when we look at fan fiction communities and at erotic women’s writing in general. The fact that it so clearly is removed from its contextual cultural community ties (as Anne Jamison argues in her great essay in Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, 2012) makes it ultimately less interesting as a work of fan fiction. (The seeming rejection of the fan community, unlike other fan fiction-turned-pro writers, doesn’t help much either.) Its mere existence as an explicit erotic work, as “pornography by women for women, with love” is crucial, but enough ink has been spilled about its problematic feminism and contentious portrayal of BDSM culture.

As for how lasting it will be: Let’s hope a generation from now, the “inner Goddess” will go the way of the “zipless fuck”, an interesting historical footnote rather than a perennial classic.

KH: The whole Fifty Shades thing fills me with weariness that is quickly becoming annoyance. Nonfan friends now have this whole idea about what I read and think and do that doesn’t reflect my lived reality. Something about the “nonnormality” (scare quotes intended!) of BDSM makes fans seem even more fanatic. Many books written by fans have had the serial numbers filed off and then were published professionally; it’s not like she did anything new, and she really did throw her fannish community under the bus, as Bethan Jones argues in an essay in TWC . However, the book has definitely highlighted fan fiction as a literary form and as a cultural phenomenon.

I have no idea if the impact will be lasting. It’s too soon to tell. Certainly many best sellers of yesterday are not remembered today. If Fifty Shades is remembered, I predict it will be cited (by people who do not go back to read any of the books in the series!) as the text that changed the publishing landscape for fan-written texts.


Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson ( is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part One)

Much has been written in recent years about 1991-92 as a kind of moment of birth for Fan Studies, a year in which key texts by Constance Penley, Camille Bacon-Smith, Lisa A. Lewis, and myself, helped to establish the study of fandom as a distinctive research project, emerging from the study of subcultures, readers, or audiences, all paradigms with a longer history in British Cultural Studies and elsewhere. I was flattered that the Journal of Fandom Studies published a special issue recently considering the impact of my book, Textual Poachers, on the field, and you can read my own reflections about the origins and potential futures of fandom studies in the current issue of that same journal.

But today’s post is intended to challenge this framework in two different ways. First, I would make the case that 2006-2007 was an equally important period for the development of the field, marked by the publication of two key anthologies — Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays and Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Herrington’s Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. For there to be a field of Fan/Fandom Studies, there must in fact be not simply a few singular contributions but a large group of people doing original work in that space. While there were certainly new writers (Nancy Baym and Rhianon Bury being key figures) emerging in the decade plus between these two historic moments, there had also been a tendency for many other writers to fill in the broad outlines which had been mapped by the 1991-92 wave of publications. Often, there was still a cycling through of various justifications for studying fans and then a few quotes from our writings coupled with a new set of examples, arriving at more or less the same conclusions.  These 2006-2007 collections represented the arrival of a new generation of scholars who were coloring outside those lines, who represented important new voices and new perspectives, who pushed the field forward, and who established it as an ongoing academic pursuit.

I remember my excitement reading through these two books, my head spinning, and feeling like I was learning something new on every page. The works represented distinctive visions of what this field would look like — one doubling-down on the female-centered fan writing community as the locus of study even as it dealt comparatively with other communities from which transformative works were emerging, and the other expanding the scope of what kinds of fans we studied to bring together global and historical perspectives as well as a conversation between those who studied fans of cult media, popular music, sports, and even news and politics. There’s been some tension between these two approaches ever since. Almost a decade later, Gray, Sandvoss and Herrington are in the process of updating their collection while Hellekson and Busse have released their own second edited anthology, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, which seeks to map key influences on the field of fan fiction studies.

And that brings us to the second thing that the focus on 1991-92 as the birth of fan studies may get wrong. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader is focused in expanding this time line in important ways, calling attention to the kinds of writing on fan fiction that existed prior to Enterprising Women or Textual Poachers, work that often came out of the second wave of feminism and was also embedded in the fan community itself. Many of these essays have been out of print or scattered across obscure journals so there is an enormous contribution in bringing them together again, reframing them for contemporary readers, and reappraising their contributions to the early development of this field.

There’s been an unfortunate tendency, which I have probably contributed to in some later interviews, to dismiss the work of earlier scholars as patronizing and pathologizing. There is certainly much such work to be found. But there was also work that was celebratory, seeking to understand fan fiction as forms of women’s writing, seeking to debate the ways fans were remixing pornography or erotica to reflect female tastes and interests. If you look closely at Textual Poachers, NASA/Trek and Enterprising Women, we cited and engaged with this work, but it has since been largely neglected by later generations of researchers. And this collection shows us that there is much to be regained by reconnecting with this past.

This week, I am interviewing Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson about the two books, their contributions to the field of fan/fandom studies, and their perspective on some of the key issues being debated by fans and fan scholars in 2014. Busse and I have not always agreed about the directions that fan studies should be taking and some of our exchanges have been heated and public but I have always had deep admiration and respect for the leadership that Busse and Helleckson have brought to this field, not only through these two collections, but also through the publication of Transformative Works and Cultures, a scrupulously peer-reviewed and highly influential online journal which has kept alive the project of their first anthology in terms of identifying new authors, new topics, and new approaches to the study of fandom.

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet came out almost a decade ago and looking back on it, it has turned out to be a watershed book in many ways. For one, you helped to bring together a generation of newer writers who represented the next wave of fandom research and we are now starting to see full-length books emerge from many of these scholars. Can you share with us how that book came to be and what brought this particular group of writers together?

KH: I initially pitched the original-essay book myself, without Kristina, to a press that had published a previous book of mine. However, just putting a call for papers out there does absolutely nothing. You have to solicit. I did some of that, but I quickly realized that the book as I had envisioned it wouldn’t come to be unless I brought in a coeditor. Kristina has a wide network, and I have the knowledge and contacts for book production. We’d met at International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2003 and had chatted, and once I asked Kristina to come on board, the project finally took off. That division of work is one we have maintained since: Kristina does front-end stuff, like solicitation, and I do all the scheduling, paperwork, copyediting/proofreading, and back-end stuff related to actually getting it into print.

I wanted the book to reflect my wishes for scholarship in the field: something timely, something that reflected changes in consumption of fan-written texts (i.e., the Internet), and particularly something where the writer didn’t have to justify herself. Fan studies was like the field of science fiction literature studies (my original field) all over again: writers were expected to spend time explaining why they were bothering with a low-culture trash genre, and they also had to position themselves in relation to the field—in particular, if they were fans, this needed to be disclosed and scholars had to distance themselves. SF had discarded these conventions, in part because writing about it became more mainstream and in part because SF scholars created venues dedicated to the field, such as academic journals, where background and justification could be dispensed with. I wanted the edited volume to reflect this. It seemed to me that fan studies scholars kept having to have the same conversation over and over again: justification, distance, and then lit review. We needed to create a space where we could dispense with that and use the words to have an actual conversation.

However, we did think that we needed to create a common vocabulary and a common—well, I guess the word would be canon: texts we’d all read and agreed were relevant. Our introduction provided these elements, which were common to all the papers we collected. This allowed us to create a good bibliography, which the press agreed to let me put up on my Web site. The contributors were thus able to use their words for their ideas, not for context or lit review. At the time, this was a major win. I think we moved the field forward in this regard: we just assumed this was all important, and by framing the book as we did, we made it so.

KB: We were at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2005, and we were having these amazing discussions there and on LiveJournal and people were writing amazing essays, and we weren’t seeing any of those folks getting published or any of those ideas explored. I don’t think there was a single essay out yet that had dealt with the change in fannish infrastructures, like the switch from Usenet to mailing lists and archives to blogs and LiveJournal. Most of us—me and Karen and the contributors—had met or knew one another through mailing lists or through LiveJournal.

We were very clear early on that we were tired of essays starting with definition of fan fiction and basically looking at a given text and saying, “Look, there, homoerotic subtext and SLASH!!!!” We agreed that we needed a framing introduction with all the terms and the history so that the essays could start within the discourse rather than spending half the time getting to their argument. But we also wanted the history and a shared resource so that everyone else could look at what had come before and where we were heading now and be on the same page. We were standing in a hotel hallway with Francesca Coppa, debating whether we should do it as two volumes, one with new essays and one a reprint anthology. It took us eight more years to finally get the second half out.

We got the majority of the essays via direct solicitation. Most—nine of the 13—were people I was friends with on LiveJournal. A few essays didn’t work out, which is par for the course; the RPF popslash essay wasn’t supposed to have been mine but we needed to fill a hole. We decided that these were all topical essays, and given that production would take a year, we imposed a deadline of less than a year for essay delivery. From having the idea to having the book in our hands took about two years, which is very fast for academic publishing. But all these acafans were giving papers that they couldn’t find a venue to publish. The ideas were just there to be caught. We had a lot of grad students and unaffiliated folks among the contributors—I think only four of the 13 were tenure-track scholars. But that’s where there often are the most interesting and novel ideas.

The other thing that made this collection different and that we thought was really important was the fact that we all self-identified as fans. You had already brought in the fact in Textual Poachers (1992) that a central part of your identity was being a fan as well as an academic, and Matt Hills did his long autoethnography in Fan Cultures (2002). We decided to take that for granted. A lot of us had been fans and active in media fandom long before we were academics, and many of us came to fan studies through fandom rather than through media studies. We wrote our love into these essays and displayed our fandom affiliation in every sentence. That seemed to be different to a lot of the research that was happening at the time.

Beyond the individuals involved, the book also helped to reframe fan studies, opening up some important new paradigms—such as Francesca Coppa’s focus on fan fiction as performance or Gail De Kosnik’s focus on fan fiction and “the archive”, some reconfiguration of how this research related to gender and sexuality studies, a new focus on the literary dimensions of fan fiction, but also an engagement with the conditions of cultural production within fandom. I still find great value in your reminder that fan fiction is by its nature always a “work in progress” and that it is hard to understand fan fiction outside of the social relationships it helps to facilitate. Looking back, what do you see as the lasting conceptual impact of the book on our field?

KB: One (of the many) things that fandom and academia share is the ability to have many things be true at the same time. Collectively, we write hundreds different versions of what goes through our characters’ minds during a given crucial scene, and we give ever new interpretations of Hamlet during his major soliloquy. We (well, many of us 🙂 can simultaneously ship Tony/Steve, Steve/Bucky, and Bucky/Natasha, and there’s this great Bedford St. Martin’s series that presents a given literary text with about a dozen different theoretical approaches (like Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, queer readings of Heart of Darkness). And even as they are sometimes mutually exclusive, they are also ALL VALID. If our collection has had any conceptual impact, we hope it is that understanding of WIP not only for fandom and academia, but also for fan studies in particular. We are realizing that there are huge gaps in areas we have not paid enough attention to, such as Critical Race Studies, Transculturalism/Transnationalism, and Marxist Labor Theory, to name just a few, and if the collection was ever supposed to be anything, it was a snapshot of that moment.

Maybe the most lasting impact of the book ended up being more logistic than conceptual: we were asked to found and edit the OTW’s academic journal, Transformative Works and Culture, which publishes its 17th issue in September for a collective of around 300 essays. Doing Fan Fiction and Fan Communities together gave us experience, credibility, and an acafannish community. You can see most of the contributors to the collection pop up again as contributors, editors, and peer reviewers. In a way, it is TWC that should be seen as the ever-expanding archive of the book itself. It’s a snapshot on so many levels: in terms of the fandoms that are used, such as Harry Potter, LOTRips, poplash, or even just in terms of interfaces, such as two essays focusing specifically on LiveJournal.

Moreover, as we already said, part of the intention of the collection was to create a text where everyone started from the same fannish and academic point to a degree. Our introduction is quite different from Gray, Sandvoss, and Harringon’s “Why Study Fans?” (2007), but that makes sense, because we start from such a different point and have a slightly different focus. We never really question why we should study fans, because we think we are important 🙂 But also, our focus is somewhat narrower, for better or worse. We clearly don’t subscribe to the large “everyone is a fan” definition, and we are primarily focused on what Coppa has termed in her overview in the book “media fandom,” i.e., creative fan works for Western live-action shows and connected fandoms. That means that we purposefully limited ourselves, but it also means that we can focus on a given field and explore it in all its facet and with all these different approaches. And we can go deep and far, because we don’t need to explain what beta readers are or why Mary Sues are a highly contested genre.

KH: I’m glad the book helped reframe fan studies. I knew the book filled a hole in scholarship, if only for its acknowledgment of new modes of fannish consumption. However, what we did was simply let scholars be free to work in their field, combined with fan studies. Its lasting conceptual impact is merely that fan studies is not an offshoot of media studies. Rather, fan studies is a multidisciplinary field that can easily integrate other -isms and other disciplines: feminism, Marxism, sociology, anthropology, close analysis of a fan-created text, reader-response theory, affect, performativity, deconstruction, posthumanism, queer theory… Further, it’s an interesting site for application of theory, be it Schechner or Derrida.

Another important conceptual impact is that we are unapologetically fans ourselves. I write fan fiction and maintain a fic archive; I have helped create content for a fan-created informational wiki; I ran few multiauthored virtual seasons after my show was canceled. I don’t just read about this stuff; I live this stuff. The connection with the fan community has led us to do certain things, like (as for TWC) not hotlinking directly to spaces that fans perceive as private, or checking with a fan before we publish a link to a story in case the author wants us to hotlink to some other space, or not hotlink at all.

I am not interested in expanding the notion of the fan to include all aspects of what may be termed fannish behavior. Fans of stamp collecting or sports may engage in a sort of fandom, but they don’t tend to call it that. They may also configure their engagement and their passion differently. The word fandom may properly be applied to these activities, but to my ear, the connotation isn’t right. Broadening fan studies to all aspects of “fanatic” behavior merely because the activities match what the term denotes is certainly a valid point of view, but it’s not my point of view because I am interested in what it connotes and how fans work to build that connotation. The term also comes out of SF literature fandom, which I have studied, and in some ways I want to acknowledge fan studies’ outgrowth from SF fandom. Media fans adopted fanzines, apas, and other modes of dissemination from SF fans.


Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson ( is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Digital Youth With Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Three)


You note that the kinds of warnings and labels that describe “age appropriate” media are problematic when talking about children with disabilities. Why? What are some of the ways that parents of children with disabilities are making choices about what kinds of media content to bring into their homes?

This question speaks to a larger pressure that parents in the U.S. are under for their children to keep up or be left behind. Paradoxically, contemporary middle class U.S. parents generally want their children not to grow up too quickly, yet they are increasingly being expected to be develop advanced literacy and math skills as a shield against an uncertain job market. Any discussion of what media is “age appropriate” for a child has to take into account the content of that media, the social context around their media use (e.g. peer group, home life), and also everything else about that child—their gender, race, ethnicity, class, language background, and range of abilities and disabilities.

For example, in one family I spent time with, the mother and father were artists and their 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy was a jazz music aficionado who used his iPad both for augmentative and alternative communication and also as a jukebox through iTunes. And in another family, a 13-year-old autistic boy liked to spend his free time on websites like that were designed with a preschool audience in mind. These interests are outside the norm of that which is “age appropriate,” but they are appropriate for these children.

It is also important to note that in both of these families, parents were not alone in making choices about their child’s media use; the children weighed in as well. Though this sort of dialogue and negotiation process might look different in these families (particularly as neither child regularly communicated through oral speech), it is important for parents of children of all abilities to keep in mind their child’s perspective and agency.

You raise some key concerns about the ways that many of the platforms — YouTube for example — that support the grassroots production and sharing of media may not be able to fully support the needs of people with disabilities. What are the implications of this finding for those of us who care about participatory culture and learning?

I’ll dive right into the example of YouTube, as I think it is the main battleground right now over which individuals or what entities are responsible for making the internet an accessible and participatory space for cultural engagement and learning. YouTube’s automatic captioning feature is notoriously poor. It also offers no way for Deaf and hard-of-hearing YouTube users to search exclusively for videos with proper captioning. There have been some policy decisions that push online video in a more accessible direction, but there are many hurdles.

The U.S. Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act has mandated that all TV shows broadcast on television and then shown on the internet must have captioning (e.g. series that re-air on Hulu or Amazon Prime). However, the Act did not include programming that is exclusively distributed via the internet (e.g. user generated videos, online videos made by news organizations that never air on broadcast TV). These create huge captioning gaps on the internet. Different volunteer-driven crowdsourcing technologies such as support DIY captioning and video descriptions at little or no cost to content creators and distributors (Ellcessor, 2012).DIY captioning sites though have been met with resistance from the entertainment and news industries, claiming that such practices violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The main issue here is whether or not lack of online captioning options violates citizens’ rights to equally access public spaces, including the internet.

In terms of young people’s learning, there are a number of ramifications for these barriers to YouTube accessibility. First, closed captioning doesn’t just benefit Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It also has demonstrated benefits in formal and informal learning settings, for example, for beginning readers (Linebarger, Piotrowski, & Greenwood, 2010). Second, beyond a U.S. context, closed captioning can also help make YouTube programming accessible in multiple languages, seeing as most views come from outside of the U.S. Also, with poor online captioning, YouTube also sends an implicit signal that it is not a space “for” Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Lastly, adolescents and teenagers with disabilities should have the opportunity to be able to fit in with their peers and participate in the same online communities, especially those as fertile for grassroots production and sharing as YouTube.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at


Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Two)


You hint here that our perceptions of what kinds of media are appropriate for youth with disabilities tends to prioritize educational and assistive technologies over the use of new media for recreational and social purposes. What are some of the implications of these biases?

I get frustrated when talk of children with disabilities and technology drifts into a common trope in which disability is imagined as a problem that needs solving, and technology (in school and therapeutic settings) provides the solution. One implication is that it perpetuates the idea of children with disabilities as “poster children” (Longmore, 2013), defined primarily by their medical needs and deserving of charity. Often—as one of my dissertation committee members, Beth Haller, has written—technology or technologists (usually able-bodied) are emphasized in the popular press for the good they do for people with disabilities. There is far less emphasis on the ways in which individuals with disabilities appropriate and adapt technology, and are active consumers, creators, and circulators of media. For example, Bess Williamson has pointed out ways in which individuals with disabilities were pioneers of maker culture in the post-WWII era.

Another is that digital media researchers are missing opportunities to study and learn from youth with disabilities. For example, there is exciting work being done by a fellow Ph.D. student, Kate Ringland at UC Irvine, on parent and youth participation in a Minecraft server called Autcraft, which is a dedicated space for individuals on the autism spectrum. There is a lot to be learned in Autcraft not just about autism, but also with respect to the methods of digital ethnography and the study of social norms and reciprocity.

Lastly, it is also important to understand the ways in which youth with disabilities figure into what we already know about how kids are “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (or the ways in which they are being excluded) so that they too are able to reap the benefits of a more participatory culture. Most high-tech educational and assistive devices are beyond the financial means of many families without additional financial support from school districts or health insurance. Parents express feeling like the professionals that work with their children lack an understanding of their family media habits (Nally, Houlton, & Ralph, 2000). Without understanding the media ecologies of youth with disabilities more fully, and their use of everyday tools like YouTube or Snapchat, the well-intentioned introduction of these technologies across the settings where children learn may not be as effective.


You spend a large chunk of the book dissecting and critiquing the concept of “screen time.” Why has this been such a problematic way to formulate policies shaping media use within family life? Why is this concept especially inappropriate for thinking about media consumption/participation by youth with disabilities?

For those unfamiliar, over past 15 years, the phrase “screen time” has come to signify how much time children spend with the growing array of screen-based media and technology. It entered the popular vernacular in 2001, as part of a policy statement issued by American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the leading professional group for pediatricians in the U.S. While child development experts (especially psychologists) have weighed in on children’s media use since days of radio, in the 1970s, pediatricians and the AAP began a more concerted effort to make public statements on children and media. In its current incarnation, the AAP’s policy statement on children and media specifically targets “entertainment screen media” (which is still a pretty sweeping category).

The AAP statements make the relationship between media and children seem far more clear and simple than the research actually indicates. In the book chapter, I detail a few ways in which screen time is generally a flawed concept: its oversimplification of the notion of family “time”; its negative characterization of “entertainment screen media” content as something to be avoided; its unproved hypothesis that screen time directly displaces other activities children might otherwise be doing (like homework or playing outside); and its lumping together of all screen-based communication technologies even though they have very different capabilities. I also discuss each of these critiques in relation to children with disabilities.

There also seemed to be an aspect of screen time that was potentially harmful to children with disabilities and their families. I detail in the chapter how screen time presumes a child whose diet and exercise, sleep, and attention would be “normal” were it not for screen media. This standard is implicitly projected as the ideal media-using child and essentially “others” children with disabilities. Thus, screen time is inherently “ableist,” a worldview in which disability is understood as aberrant—something for statisticians to “control for” in their data—and not a natural human difference.

I have an example from my dissertation fieldwork of how screen time can perpetuate ableism in everyday life. I conducted an interview with a mom, Perri, whose preschool-age son, Cory (both pseudonyms), has a developmental disability that impairs his ability to produce embodied oral speech. Cory primarily “talks” using an iPad with an app called Proloquo2Go. The system provides him with text-to-speech features and tools for selecting words, symbols, and images to communicate his thoughts. Perri told me that she was “of course” worried about the negative impact of “screen time,” but “as a special needs parent, you have to block out the rest of the world.” Perri felt guilty for sometimes falling on the wrong side of screen time guidelines; for example, the only thing that helped Cory sit still during difficult 45-minute daily medical treatments was watching a DVD.

She detailed a social situation that required her to shut out dominant cultural messages about screen time. When her and Cory go to the playground, she said, she feels that other parents are judging her. They must be thinking, Perri told me, “‘Look at that parent, giving that child an iPad.’” She assumed that other parents associated letting a child use an iPad on a playground as a poor parenting move. To be fair, from the vantage point of the other parents, they might not know what else Cory could possibly be using the iPad for besides recreation. He does not visibly appear to have a disability from the opposite end of the playground—he is not in a wheelchair, he can walk, and he has a lot of energy. However, the situation for Perri and Cory would be much improved by greater societal awareness about how screen media serves different purposes in the lives of diverse families. Perri should not have to “block out the rest of the world”—those on the opposite ends of the playground should be less quick to judge her and her son. A serious dialogue about screen time and disability is but one starting point to create a more enabling and supportive environment for Perri and her son.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at



Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part One)

Meryl Alper’s new book, Digital Youth with Disabilities, releases shortly via the MacArthur Foundation’s distinguished series of reports on Digital Media and Learning, published by MIT Press. Alper is currently one of my PhD Candidates at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where she is writing a dissertation under my supervision sharing what she’s learned through interviews and observations of the families of youth in Los Angeles who use adaptive technologies to help them deal with speech disabilities.

Alpert came to me a few years ago having already had a distinguished career working in and around children’s media, including having worked with the Sesame Workshop’s Education and Research Department where she had done field work investigating the potential for developing an animated series focused on media literacy, with Northwestern University’s Children’s Digital Media Center where she worked directly with Barbara O’Keefe (a legend in the space of children’s media) and most recently, with the research division of Nick Jr. where again she did work with preschool aged children.

Since coming to USC, she has been part of a team at the Annenberg Innovation Lab which developed a white paper in collaboration with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, T is For Transmedia, which I have featured here before. She has increasingly been focusing her attention onto the roles new media play as adaptive and assistive technologies for families who are living with disabilities. Her work, as you will see, emphasizes the social contexts within which these technologies are situated, a topic she writes about with enormous nuance and empathy; she explores the processes by which youth and their families develop voice and assert control over their lives, while negotiating with powerful institutions, especially schools but also the medical establishment, over access to and control over these technological resources.

I am so proud of what Alper has accomplished during her time at USC and know that she is going to become an outstanding professional as she enters the academic job market this year. I wanted to use this post to call attention to her book.

You begin the book with some of the ways that the concept of disability has been rethought through critical/feminist disability studies. To what degree have these insights been translated into terms that can be understood by educators, policy-makers, and parents? Is there a gap here between theory and practice?

Before diving in, I’ll give a brief overview of some of the key intersections between disability studies and critical studies, before discussing how these theoretical developments translate to the U.S. context of education and learning.

Disability is a constantly evolving concept, and my book partially captures it at one particular moment in history. It is a dimension of human difference, while also containing a multitude of differences. For example, while some disabilities are more visible and permanent (e.g. Down syndrome, paralysis), other conditions are less immediately apparent and fluctuate in severity more frequently (e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities).

Two broad ways of thinking about disability initially grew out of the field of disability studies: a medical model of disability, in which disability is understood as undesirable, individualized, and defined by deficit; and a social model, which distinguishes between impairment (as bodily difference) and disability (as the social and structural environment that disables different bodies).

A critical approach to disability studies challenges both models. While the medical model offers needed medical solutions for pain, discomfort, and fatigue, political and social transformations are also needed to make the world more accessible and safe for individuals with disabilities, their families, and caregivers. The social model does not account for the ways that disability is experienced on an individual level, the ways that impairment and disability mutually shape one another, and how these social constructions shift depending on time and place.

Critical feminist/queer disability studies scholars (including Robert McRuer, Alison Kafer, and David Serlin) offer ways of looking at disability as political that question overlapping status quos of power and privilege. It is important to note that people with disabilities are the largest minoritized group in the U.S.—19% of the population according to the U.S. Census. Critical disability studies is engaged with other disciplinary traditions that also challenge systems and structures of oppression, such as feminist studies, queer studies, ethnicity and race studies, and indigenous studies. To study any form of institutionalized discrimination in 2014 necessitates disentangling interactions between class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, age, and especially disability.

The insights of critical disability studies are far from fully incorporated into educational practice and policy in the U.S. On a macro level, the U.S. education system is centered on the “normal” student, sorting and measuring ability through the big business of standardized testing. The system is designed to prepare students to make a “productive” contribution to society. However, this model of productivity is based on narrow ideas about what it means to contribute, primarily by adding economic value to the workforce. The ideal graduate of the U.S. educational system is nearly always able-bodied and able-minded. Critical disability scholars push back against a society that seeks to cure, rehabilitate, or make disability go away, and seeks alternative models of community and coalition building.

Another area where a critical disability studies intervention is needed is in addressing disparity among youth with disabilities. Black males are overrepresented in the high-incidence disability categories of intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities (Aud et al., 2013; Ford, 2012). Though youth with disabilities comprise 13% of all U.S. students aged 3-21 (according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), they make up 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 23% of all students getting a school-related arrest, and 19% of expelled students (Lhamon & Samuels, 2014).

If any group has done the most to translate the insights of critical disability studies for parents, policy makers, and educators, it has been students and individuals with disabilities (who may also be parents, policy makers, and educators themselves). Unlike most people in the field of disability studies, I do not currently identify as an individual with a disability, and I am not the parent, sibling, or partner of someone with a disability. I have to work very hard to see things from a point of view that I cannot fully understand. I personally look towards organizations such as the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and disability rights activists such as Lydia Brown for their leadership in bridging theory and practice.


You also were one of the co-authors of T is for Transmedia, which advocated for transmedia play and learning. In what ways would the multimodality associated with transmedia enhance or detract from the media experiences of youth with disabilities?

A small but growing body of research suggests that emerging readers and writers with physical, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities may benefit from expanded opportunities to draw on their experiences with popular culture and leverage their multimodal text-making abilities (Flewitt, Kucirkova, & Messer, 2014; Peppler & Warschauer, 2012). However, the benefits or drawbacks of transmedia play for any one child depends not only on their specific set of abilities and disabilities, but—taking a more ecological approach to human development—also the social, cultural, and political context that underpins the child’s learning experiences in and out of the classroom.

I’ll provide an example from my dissertation research that illustrates these possibilities and limitations. Kevin is a non-speaking, 13-year-old mixed-race autistic boy from a lower-middle income family. While he is unable to articulate his grasp of the English language through embodied oral speech or handwriting, his mother, Rebecca, indicated that he demonstrated strength in print literacy and an array of new literacies including technological fluency and visual literacy.

She drew heavily on instances of her son’s media use to talk about his verbal abilities. For example, Rebecca told me that Kevin used the letter tile game Bananagrams to spell “‘Indiana Jones’ before he could spell his own name.” The Harry Potter DVD menu in particular provided rich seed material. Said Rebecca, “He would spell ‘prologue.’ Prologue was his word. Prologue, prologue, prologue. Then he would spell ‘quidditch pitch.’ He would spell ‘Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.’”

Kevin’s wordplay with the language of DVD menus provided an opportunity for learning. However, clinicians, behavioral therapists, and sometimes parents tend to pathologize repeated viewing of movie credits by autistic youth (Liss, Saulnier, Fein, & Kinsbourne, 2006). Though Rebecca described Kevin’s transmedia play as a positive pathway to spelling, certain kinds of play by disabled children often gets promoted or prevented depending on the various institutions in which their learning is embedded (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2010).


Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at

Scott McCloud Reimagines The Future of Comics

As part of my role as the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, I get to run a series of events we like to call, Geek Speaks, which are designed to bring smart conversations about the current state of popular culture to USC’s campus. I’ve joked that these events function as “geek bait” — that is, the lab has many opportunities for students who are designers, hackers, and entrepreneur to work on projects together, and we use these events, in part, to publicize the Lab to the larger campus community.  In the past, for example, we’ve had conversations with Brian David Johnson and Cory Doctorow on “The Uses and Abuses of Science Fiction” and we’ve hosted two panels showcasing “The Women Who Create Television.” In the Spring, we are going to be hosting a day long celebration of Cyberpunk and Its Legacy in cooperation with The USC Visions and Voices Program, an event I have been developing with Howard Rodman and Scott Fischer.

A few weeks ago, we hosted a really fun evening focused on “The Future of Comics.” The event started with my conversation with Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, Making Comics, The Complete Zot, and the forthcoming graphic novel, The Sculptor. McCloud and I are old friends: I’ve hosted him many times at MIT, not to mention having frequent lunches at San Diego Comic-Con, with Scott and his family, but this was the first time I had brought him to USC. Given the theme, I used the exchange as a chance to drill down on some of the predictions or arguments he made about potential futures for his medium in Reinventing Comics, which came out in 2000. Some claimed he was a cyberutopian, which was at least partially true, but many (though not all) of the arguments he made there have at least partially been realized, including his strong belief that the growth of web comics might help to diversify who read and created comics and what kinds of comics would be produced.

Dan Carino, a comics journalist who has a USC affiliation, drew this picture conveying something of the tone of our exchange.




Geek Speaks: The Future of Comics (Part I) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

The second panel, organized and moderated by Geoff Long, the head technologist at the Lab, featured a range of contemporary comics creators from the Los Angeles area, sharing their own perspectives about the current state and future directions of comics as a medium. The speakers included Dan Burwen(Cognito Comics), Joe LeFavi (Quixotic Transmedia),  Diana Williams(Lucasfilm) Hank Kanalz (DC Entertainment) and Patrick Chappatte (International New York Times).

Geek Speaks: The Future of Comics (Part II) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.


This discussion generated much interest via Twitter when we announced it. We had booked all of the seats for the event in under 24 hours and many wrote to say they wished they could be there. Today, I am happy to be able to share with you videos of the two sessions. Please help me spread the word to anyone you know who is invested in comics.

“I am Handmade”: Crafting in the Age of Computers

The following piece is contributed by Samantha Close, one of my PhD Candidates in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She shares here some work she has been doing about crafting in a networked culture, work which has so far yielded a very compelling short documentary about the people who make the things we like to buy on Etsy, and which she believes will become the focus of her dissertation.

“I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers”  Samantha Close I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with crafting. It was a brisk January in Boston, 2013, and I was at the Modern Language Association annual conference engaged in the serious business of academic talk about comics. But in the breezeway between the official conference hotel and the convention center, where more or less every academic in the United States (and beyond) who does work related to literature was presenting papers, lay the most fortunate Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the world. For the occasion, the store had moved everything related to classic and contemporary highbrow literature to front and center.

As a student of popular culture who had presented on Spider-Man adaptations the year previous, I sighed a bit at the bookstore’s idea of what academics would find interesting. Still, books are books. And sometimes, books are next to knitting magazines featuring fan-written patterns from which to knit items that Jane Austen’s characters might have worn at various points in her novels. As a fan of Jane Austen in general (Pride and Prejudice in specific) and an enthusiastic cosplayer, I was delighted. That I had no idea how to knit was a minor, insignificant detail.

A year and a half (and two shawls, three hats, and innumerable attempts at socks) later, my dissertation research has centered itself around transformations in the communities, economies, and meanings of creative work, with artists and crafters who sell their work on Etsy as my major case study. I made the documentary short “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers” as part of that research.  Throughout the film I’m exploring what it means to be handmade.

For some, it’s all about their hands and their materials. Physically crafting objects tends to involve repetitive motion and immersion in the feel of things, the flow. Others delight in tinkering, working out what merino fiber, silver poly clay, and broken metal sextants can become with some patient trial and error.

In the larger cultural context, I’d argue there’s more similarity than first meets the eye between spinners meeting up in a New York mall food court comparing fibers, techniques for making thread, spindles, and wheels, and athletes converging on the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course comparing training regimens, costumes, course-building techniques, and methods to get through Cannonball Alley. They’re both examples of embodied participatory culture.

However, as regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, access to the materials of participatory culture is often contested. Many of the crafters and artists I spoke with are fans, who create their own patterns, jokes, items, and designs by riffing on and re-mixing popular culture. Fans have gradually won acceptance for this kind of work as legitimately creative and share-able, but the economic systems for exchanging fan crafts are still extremely murky. As Francesca Coppa points out, “In the past few years, the nature of the arguments I have been having as a fandom advocate has changed: In the past, I found myself arguing for the legitimacy of our works; now, I find myself arguing against their exploitation.”

Fans—and crafters more generally—should have the right to keep their work within the gift economy as well as the right to benefit economically from their work if they so choose, without ludicrously high licensing fees. The film’s larger narrative tracks several crafters who do seek to turn their passions into full-time jobs. This is harder than it sounds, and winning the fair use battle isn’t even the half of it.

When what you love to do, you also ought to do, and ought to do for eight-plus hours a day, your body and mind can both rebel. It’s a dilemma that I’m intimately familiar with as an academic. Particularly as one who broke down and bought a ridiculously expensive ergonomic chair set-up when the simple act of sitting at my desk computer to edit this film became overwhelmingly painful. But I’m still glad I made the film. Ultimately, this is the larger meaning of what it is to be “handmade.”

People need different balances of work, play, and overlaps there-between, and we’re going to struggle to find them. We can and should build structures and communities of support, places where people can be real about the difficulties they’re facing and find some answers, and we must respect people who have found the amount and arena of struggle that works for them. You can’t make a silver origami cat without the kiln.

For those local to Southern California, “I Am Handmade” will screen at the CSU Long Beach Human Cinema Film Festival on Thursday, November 13. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Samantha Close.

Samantha Close is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include fan studies, critical theory, theory-practice, new media, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on amateur media production and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her writing has recently appeared in the Sampling Media anthology published by Oxford University Press.  She also likes cats and knits.  A lot.