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

You describe Glee as “ideologically uneven,” suggesting some of the contradictory pulls in terms of its commitments to equality, diversity, and community. Often, the rough spots in texts, the contradictions and gaps, are what fans have built upon as they have ideologically reconstructed popular television series. Is this the case with Glee or are these ideological unevennesses reproduced within the fan culture that surrounds the series?

 Yes Glee’s ideological unevenness spurred fandom creation, and yes, Glee’s ideological unevenness gets recreated in fan culture. On the one hand, Glee’s ideological unevenness prompted a wealth of fan response, sometimes in the form of virulent critique or media literacy campaigns like the Glee Equality Project, sometimes in the form of somewhat more subtle critiques via long form fan fictions that seek to right Glee’s ideological wrongs (for example, Sugarkane_01’s “Come Here Boy) or to more substantively engage issues of diversity sidestepped by the series (for example, Herostratic’s “No Objects of Lust.”)

But some of the TV series’ unevenness gets reproduced, and new ideological contradictions get introduced. In Millennial Fandom, I talk about the fan fiction series Steal a Heart, which simultaneously makes up for Glee’s lack of depiction of queer sexual intimacy with long passages describing sexual intimacy for multiple non-straight couples, but at the same time the series arguably reifies Glee’s gay white male focus, and also introduces new celebration of consumerist millennial culture with significant emphasis on Disneyworld as millennial fantasy ideal.

What’s important to me for us to take from this is not only that fandom has the capacity for subversion and critique, but that fan cultures contain and author multitudes. Fan culture is, like Glee, at its core spectacularly uneven; it looks different from every vantage point; it’s always multiple, and it’s always changing, and it’s full of dynamic contradictions.

 

Much discussion of transmedia has centered around masculine audiences and male-centered narratives, but as you note, transmedia extensions play important roles in relation to these female-centered franchises. How might our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices shift if we fully incorporated these productions into our understanding of the concept? 

I want to first coopt this question to talk about an example close to my heart at this moment. So rather than thinking about how transmedia aesthetics and practices could shift, I want to dwell for a moment on how TV practices might shift if TV producers took fully into account the potential of the fandoms for female-centered franchises.

I mentioned above the TV series Supernatural’s ambivalent depictions of female fans over the years. Supernatural is a series that has a dynamic and rich transformative fandom, and the majority of those participating in the fandom are women. Supernatural fans, while expressing love for the series and its characters and potential, have long been critics of its gender and racial politics, and have spoken out at times about how they have felt misrepresented and even attacked by the series and its metatexts, for example, in response to a preview that declared the teenage girl the “ultimate monster.”

Having entered into its 11th season, Supernatural has made more than one unsuccessful attempt at creating a “back door spinoff,” introducing characters and scenarios into an episode that the producers hope would be able to carry their own series. Meanwhile, in recent years the series has introduced several compelling female characters, and a few have even been lucky enough to escape the series’ penchant for killing off its supporting female characters to push forward the narrative arcs of its central male characters.

Supernatural fans have used various transmedia channels—Twitter, Tumblr, Change.org, Thunderclap—to campaign for “the spin off fans want to see,” a series concept they have dubbed Wayward Daughters Academy. They’ve coordinated their efforts with the support of and in conversation with the actors playing the characters involved, and rallied fan support at conventions as well as online. While the fans admit that they may not have the power to “create a spin-off,” they argue that “we do have the potential to send The CW and Supernatural producers a message about their treatment of women and female characters.”

As the Wayward Daughters Academy campaign demonstrates, transmedia fandoms can voice their preferences strongly, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in what may seem like cacophony. But there’s power there, even in the cacophony, and a vision of a future politics of media representation that would move us forward into new audiences, new forms, breaking free of old and outdated representational tropes and production systems.

This brings us to your question about what we might learn from the practices of the transformative fandom for female-oriented franchises. Yes, these transformative fan communities can reveal critical perspectives and activist potential, but more importantly those perspectives exist within a fluid whole that encompasses multiple perspectives and practices, which are at once complementary and contradictory, and which flourish together despite—or even because of—their contradictions.[1]

Much of the previous thought about transmedia production has emphasized the pursuit of harmony, unity, and order, with clear hierarchies for transmedia relationships that wouldn’t threaten narrative coherence, or, more conservatively, that would not threaten the supremacy of the central broadcast media. But in transformative fandom, contradictions thrive and fans thrive on contradictions, or at least on the robustness of the culture that contains and celebrates contradiction.

That is, a culture that celebrates multiplicity and diversity must flourish on the contradictions that will emerge from that multiplicity, and this is a key strength of fandom that could shift, as you put it, our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices. Transmedia doesn’t need to be unified and clean; it can ride the waves of multivocal investment and authorship.

 

You use Misha Collins to illustrate the ways that certain performers are using social media to forge stronger alliances with their transformative audiences, even as they seek to draw them into an even more supportive relationship with the “mother ship” series. Yet, the recent example of Orlando Jones and Sleepy Hollow suggests that the producers and networks do not always value the kinds of relationship building such performers do for a series.  These performer-fans clearly have a different relationship to the core text than the “fan boy auteurs” that Suzanne Scott wrote about a few years ago. Might we also understand them as part of the “powerless elite” as John Tulloch famously described science fiction fans? 

There are echoes of celebrities as a powerless elite in my study of Misha Collins’ on-again-off-again status with the CW, or the fact that Orlando Jones is no longer on Sleepy Hollow. Yet in the bigger picture, I see a shift toward decentered communities of authorship that bridge producer and audience, and celebrity and fan. In these evolving interrelationships there are new forms of power, power to create, to entertain one another, to support one another, to create new media forms, to disrupt, to raise money, to organize, to create new trends, and to chart the directions of future media culture.

Misha Collins is readable as a powerless elite only if we define power as the power of broadcast media. Certainly, part of Collins’ online persona initially involved poking fun at the powerlessness of the perceived elite of celebrity, as he satirically tweeted about his close friendships with various heads of state and referred to his followers as his minions. The humor there lay in the fact that while people saw him as powerful, he was in actuality anything but.

But as Collins’ minions gathered and worked with him and with each other to form the charity organization Random Acts, we saw reflected a truth in fan and celebrity power, a truth that perhaps also lent power and new humor to Collins’ performance. Because together Collins and minions are powerful.

GISHWHES (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen) takes this shared power further. The collectivity there, the collective dedication to creating anarchic art and spreading it in “real life” and online, demonstrates the power of the creative collective. Collins and collaborators Miss Jean Louis and others have created in GISHWHES a frame that fosters multiple communities of creativity and social action, with 14,000 participants in 2014. But the power here is not in celebrities as elite or fans as elite, but both together as expansive and diverse collective.

But there’s yet another dynamic here I would point to, more visible in communities built on the microcelebrity of young professionals working to build their careers as creative producers. I can think of no better example than Team StarKid, the theater troupe famous for A Very Potter Musical and sequels as well as Starship and Twisted (among others). While StarKid founder Darren Criss has arguably shed the “micro” side of microcelebrity, for the most part the various stars of StarKid model their own professional journeys to their fans, all of whom (fans and celebrities together) fall under the banner of Team StarKid.

Likewise, web series producers and stars who participate in fan-favored social media experiment with self branding along side fans, many of whom also position themselves creative producers, commercial or otherwise.[2] What’s key for me here is the larger collaborative picture, where stardom is understood (by fans and stars and star-fans) as one potential element of one’s creative production and participation, constructed, produced and reproduced by visible labor. Fandom offers communities of support for that labor and the challenges that may come with it. The power then is in the shared communities of knowledge, practice, and support fostered by celebrities and fans together. 

[1] Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse describe this shifting contradictory whole of fan authorship as the “fantext,” a concept I’ve found quite compelling and useful over the years. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland, 2006), 7.

[2] On fans who cross over into celebrity, I’d recommend Matt Hills’ “Not Just Another Powerless Elite,” in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond’s edited collection Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture (Routledge, 2006), 101-118.

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/.