Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Two)

Many of the shows you write about as Millennial programs are also shows with strong female leads and targeted at female consumers — Friday Night Lights would be a notable exception on your list. So, what happens to the gendering of fandom as we move towards Millennial fan culture? 

Issues of gender permeate millennial culture, fan culture, and the relationship between the two. Masculinizing—or feminizing—fan culture has been one way industry interests tame fandom’s perceived unruliness. Seemingly masculine forms of fandom (and I would emphasize that these areas, like gender itself, are social constructs) have already been categorized as industrially legible and profit friendly. The fanboy stereotype has its share of taboo associations, going all the way back to the “Get a Life” bit on Saturday Night Live that Textual Poachers opens with; but the fanboy position has since been spun into industry heralded narratives of superfans and fanboy auteurs (see Scott, Kohnen), with the lines toward brand support and profit already clearly delineated.[i]

Obsession_inc (and many others citing her) have termed this divide “affirmational fandom,” versus “transformative fandom,” with the latter perceived as more the practice of female consumers who transform media texts into art and fiction, often in so doing significantly changing their meaning. In Millennial Fandom, I actually argue that transformational and affirmational fandom are more deeply intertwined than we might at first assume, but nevertheless, at a discursive level, the distinction helps us to see why and how transformative (perceived “feminine”) practices have been and continue to be treated as suspect, marked as taboo, and policed.

 

But we know this is beginning to change, as various attempts by industry interests invite fan transformative authorship, if on industrial terms. So we have industry efforts to coopt fan transformational practices like Amazon Kindle Worlds and FanLib; we also see hash tags emblazoned on episodes designed to elicit and shape fan discourses and twitter authorship; likewise, we see TV source text mimicking the form of fan videos. We also see producers (especially digital producers of web series) naming “ships” and their associated fandoms, reposting fan art, and participating in fandom themselves. What this means is that industry interests are now courting and celebrating modes of fan engagement perceived as feminine, and, as a result, new and more nuanced games of co-creation and control begin to play out.

But it goes further than a grudging acceptance that feminine modes of fan production might be woven into profit too. Perceived feminine excesses are also being celebrated for their creative energy as representative of what is new and different about contemporary youth audiences. It’s part of the millennial discursive construct: all seeming threats can be recast as positives.

The potential unruliness of the millennial generation—especially the seemingly more illegible, excessive, feminine practices—are themselves being celebrated and marketed in millennial-directed texts and paratexts, and this means we are given lead female characters like Blair Waldorf, Veronica Mars, Charlie Bradbury (sob) and all five Pretty Little Liars leads, or most recently Clary Fray from Shadowhunters, whose transgressions and excesses are celebrated as strengths. This then means we have a dialogue between fan cultures that celebrate affective transgressions and series/characters (and especially female leads) that do the same.

You describe in some details how ABC Family developed its image as a network, but we’ve recently learned that the network is rebranding itself. Has the moment of millennial television already started to pass, and if so, what will take its place?

Thanks to a timely coincidence I am writing this response on January 12th, the day that ABC Family officially became Freeform. This rebranding not only changes the network’s name, but also its professed target audience. Freeform labels its intended imagined audience not millennials but “Becomers,” what they term a “life stage” rather than a specific generation.

According to various press materials, Becomers span life experience from “first kiss to first kid,” age range 14-34. But just as the millennial category did for ABC family in 2007, Becomers offer an expansive category seeking to unite teens and young adults, this time linking them by their shared processes of “finding themselves” rather than by a shared generational ethos.

ABC Family had to walk a fine line in its 2007 rebranding—it strove to maintain its family friendly and even conservative leaning Disney roots and while also positioning itself as fresh, cutting edge, and tapped into the concerns of contemporary young people. The discourses of social conservatism (what I talk about as “millennial hope”) surrounding millennials became a useful tool in this branding dance. But since then, ABC family has contributed significantly to the alternate depictions of millennials as transgressive, risk taking, and independently-minded (what I call discourses of “millennial noir.”)

The new Freeform/Becomers rebrand sheds the limiting generational discourse and the conservative associations that go with it. According to a press release announcing the rebranding in April 2015, current Becomers (or at least the younger ones) “live on the cutting edge of technology… have never experienced content without a smart phone, streaming, or social media.” In turn, according to another press release in Fall of 2015, Freeform will reach Becomers by encouraging audience interactivity: “Freeform is inspired by the interconnection between content and audience, media and technology, interactive and linear, life stage and life style and the way Becomers interact with all of them.”

Many of these strategies were already in place with ABC Family’s prior address to millennials. The moving away from the term millennials distances ABC Family from both the dated and more conservative dimensions of the brand. The hyped new programming on Freeform leans toward fan-friendly and female-centric representations of diverse experience, such as in The Fosters, Becoming Us, and Shadowhunters.

So all of this is to say that the label millennials has indeed begun to shift and pass (new articles describe millennials parenting tendencies!) and perhaps generational discourse itself is falling temporarily out of fashion, but many of the strategies put in place during the reign of the millennials will persist, if rebranded and somewhat reshaped.

Throughout, you suggest ways that the book, Millennials Rising, has informed industry practice and discourse as it relates to this particular generational cohort. What factors account for the impact this particular book had? Why was it so widely embraced? What have been some of the consequences of this book’s influence?

Millennials Rising not accidentally depicted a vision and definition of millennials that was advertiser and industry friendly and that helped ease concerns and anxieties about the impact of digital technologies and cultural change on media marketing models. Authors of Millennials Rising, William Strauss and Neil Howe were founding partners of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting, publishing and speaking company that “serve(s) companies, government agencies, and non-profit.” This reach across profit and non profit sectors has been felt, as reports from the Pew Research Centers and media companies like ABC Family reified the vision of millennials originally constructed by Strauss and Howe, limited and contradictory as it might have been.

In other words, Strauss and Howe defined the millennial generation in part with industry concerns in mind, and then industry interests glommed on, reified, and reproduced this definition, a self-fulfilling generational prophecy with far reaching impact. To return again to the Freeform example, the impact is still felt, even as ABC Family sheds the term millennial, it still constructs its expansive collapse of teen and young adult markets and spins a hopeful narrative about the power of community built on digital authorship communicating individual experience.

[i] Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership?: The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” The Routledge Handbook on Participatory Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2013), 43-52; Melanie Kohnen ‘The power of geek’: fandom as gendered commodity at Comic-Con,” Creative Industries Journal, 7:1 (2014), 75-78, DOI: 10.1080/17510694.2014.892295

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at http://www.millennialfandom.tumblr.com/.