The Magic of Back-Story: Further Reflections on the Mainstreaming of Fan Culture

The airing last Monday of the Heroes episode, "Six Months Ago," seems an appropriate occasion to reflect upon the centrality of back story in fan friendly television -- and by extension to explore a bit more fully some of the gender dimensions of the mainstreaming of fan culture. I first wrote about Heroes last summer when I got a chance to watch an advanced copy of the series pilot and I fell hard. Heroes has turned out to be one of the most successful new television series to debut this year and is, if the comments posted here on Pimp My Show, certainly a favorite among readers of the blog. For those not watching the series, "Six Months Ago" takes place, as the title indicates, six months before the events in the pilot episode. Hiro, salary man by day, Otaku by night, "Superhiro" in his spare time, travels back in time six months to try to stop the death of the woman fans have been calling "Google Girl," a hash house waitress with a phenomenal capacity to absorb and deploy information. Time travel plots are cool enough -- I've always been a sucker for them -- but in this case, the series used turning back the clock to dump a massive amount of really interesting, character-focused back-story on the viewers. Half way through the episode, I turned to my wife and mumbled, "the magic of back story."


Just setting a story six months earlier already opens up all kinds of great insights into the characters. We find out, for example, a great deal about Nikki, her relationship with her apparently abusive father, the death of her sister, and through this, for the first time, we get some real clues into what is motivating the doppelganger which emerges and takes possession of her body during moments of key stress. We learn a great deal about the accident that crippled Nathan's wife and the context in which it occurred, including more information about the death of Nathan and Peter's mob-tied father, the rise of Nathan's political career, the reasons why he is being blackmailed, and the circumstances under which he first discovered his capacity to fly. In the case of Claire, we learned a great deal more about her relations with her father and how she discovered her capacity for instant regeneration. Along the way, we finally met Skylar; we encounter Chandra Suresh, Mohinder's father, and learn more about his work in New York City, and much much more.


It is hard to imagine an episode offering more "answers" to the character enigmas that had been introduced across the series to date or opening up more new questions in such a short period of time. At the same time, it was clear that the series had been structured from the pilot forward to prepare us for the information rush that comes of having all of this back-story dumped on us in such a short period of time.

How simple the device is! Let's turn back the clock six months and show you how everyone got into their current situations. In theory, we could keep turning back the clock again and again and find out even more about what made these characters into the people they are today. Yet, the series is structured so this is the crucial time period for so many of these characters. I am reminded of the thrill I felt as a gamer the first time I encountered a game which allowed one to move right to left as well as left to right across the scroll: in effect, all the game had done was start us in the middle screen, but suddenly, one had the feeling of a more immersive world, of the ability to travel in any direction. The lesson here is obvious: start your story in the middle and work in both directions at once.

Heroes is not the first television series to try this trick: there's a great episode at the start of the third season of The Shield which took us back only a few days before the pilot episode of the series but again, showed how a memorable chain of events started and gave us new insights into the relationships between the core characters.

Back-story is a key aspect of the storyteller's toolkit in any medium but television until very recently was reluctant to play around too much with back-story because it was assumed that audiences would not carry much information about the characters around with them. Episodes needed to be self contained. It had to be possible to watch them in any order. The episode as a result had to end more or less in the same place where it began. It could deploy very little in terms of outside knowledge or program history less it confuse, frustrate, or leave behind more casual viewers.

Yet, fans, as a community, set themselves up as the protectors and promoters of back story. They wanted to pull together every scrap of information they could find about these characters and where they came from -- every long lost friend who showed up for one episode, every passing reference to former girl friends or what happened when they were at the Academy or... Indeed, this was a primary function of fan fiction from its earliest days -- fleshing out the implicit back story of these characters, filling in the "missing scenes".

Serialization was also part of the fan aesthetic from before the beginning. In Textual Poachers, I describe Star Trek fans as turning space opera into soap opera -- by which I meant both a focus on the emotional lives of characters (still unusual in many forms of science fiction) and a desire to create a serial structure even around series that were composed of relatively self contained and isolated episodes. But men and women were assumed early on to have a different relationship to serialization and to have different degrees of investment in back story.

Here, for example, is a passage from an essay I wrote about Twin Peaks fans in the late 1980s at a time when internet fandom was perceived as primarily a masculine space:

The female Star Trek fans focus their interest on the elaboration of paradigmatic relationships, reading plot actions as shedding light on character psychology and motivations. The largely male fans in the Twin Peaks computer group essentially reversed this process, focusing on moments of character interaction as clues that might help to resolve plot questions. The male fans' fascination with solving the mystery justified their intense scrutiny and speculation about father-daughter relations, sexual scandals, psychological and emotional problems, and romantic entanglements. Sherry Turkle suggests that the Hacker culture's focus on technological complexity and formal virtuosity stands in stark contrast to the group's discomfort regarding the ambiguities and unpredictability of personal relations. Here, Twin Peaks complex mixture of soap opera and mystery provided the participants a space to examine the confusions of human interactions by translating them into technical problems requiring decoding.

In Textual Poachers, written a decade and a half ago, I discussed the ways that networks regarded women as "surplus viewers" of action-adventure series that were primarily targeted at men and suggested that women had to work harder, had to write around the edges of the episodes, because most of what interested them was marginalized in the actual unfolding of these series. Looking at Heroes suggests just how much progress has been made to transform television into a more fan friendly medium. Minimally, one has to say that Heroes is one of a growing number of action-adventure series which factor in the tastes and interests of its female fan following from its conception. Like Smallville and Lois and Clark, two previous favorites among female television fans, the series uses the superhero genre as a starting point but remains far more interested in character reactions and motivations than in plot actions. Male fans have sometimes expressed frustration with the slow unfolding of plot which has characterized Heroes so far, yet its rhythms owes a lot to the soap opera tradition: we are watching these characters discover their powers and trying to make sense of how they impact their lives rather than watching them deploy their powers in defense of truth, justice, and the American way. We are examining how possessing special abilities impacts their marriages, their friendships, their relations with siblings, their personal turmoil, their unresolved feelings towards their parents, and their popularity in high school, all classic issues in more melodramatic forms of television and all basic building blocks of fan fiction.

We can read this one of two ways: the series is giving fans that much more to play around with when they sit down to write or the series is generating its own fan fiction foreclosing space that was once part of the fan imagination. How we respond to this depends very much on whether we are invested in fandom as a taste culture which wants to reshape the content of American television (in which case fans today are getting more of the kind of television they have historically wanted to watch) or as a subversive activity (in which case the willingness of the companies to give us more of what we want is potentially co-opting, encouraging us to work within rather than outside its systems of production and distribution). I fear sometimes that a decade plus of cultural studies writing about audience resistance may lead us astray, making us forget that resistance is a survival mechanism while the real goal is surely to transform the contents of our culture.

If we understand fandom as a taste culture, we can see plenty of signs that female fan tastes are reshaping popular television. To continue with the idea of back-story, consider a highly successful series like Lost. Lost, as I have suggested here before, would seem to offer a range of different kinds of viewing pleasures -- some focused backwards in terms of fleshing out character back-story (a central concern of every episode), some focused forward in terms of watching the unfolding relations between these characters on the island (still well within the territory of melodrama), and some focused on solving the various puzzles (which may be the most classically masculine aspect of its content, though keep in mind how many women like to solve puzzles or read mystery novels and you will be hard press to dismiss this simply as aimed at fanboys.) So, Lost balances devices once thought to appeal primarily to female viewers with those once classically assumed to appeal to men. You can read Lost against the earlier quote about how Twin Peaks allowed male fans to show an issue in character relations by turning them into clues towards a puzzle they wanted to solve. Or consider how much more central relationships (and the companion's role) are on the new Doctor Who compared to where that series was a decade ago.

And of course, all of this is to hold onto a gender division of fan interpretive practices as it was understood more than a decade ago rather than to revise it to reflect some pretty significant shifts in audience behavior over that period of time. Television isn't the only thing that is changing. As these once marginal aspects of action adventure series are making it onto the screen more and more, then male viewers of these series are discovering that they like them and are themselves demanding more of this kind of thing. There are dramatic increases in the number of women playing computer games or reading comics. And the online world is bringing together once separate fan communities and creating a common space where they sometimes fight like demons and sometimes pool knowledge, combining their different interests and reading practices for a common cause.

Laura wants to argue that gender is as present in Convergence Culture as it was in Textual Poachers but remains unmarked because the masculine is the norm in our culture. I've spent a fair chunk of time pondering this argument over the weekend. To some degree, I buy that, but on other levels, I don't. Working through the book, women are very central to the Survivor spoiling community which depends heavily upon skills at social networking (and curiously, much of the fan fiction there has been written by men including Mario Lanza who figures strongly in that chapter) and which values the different expertise that different kinds of people bring to the table; the culture around American Idol is probably disproportionately female and women are clearly a primary target audience for that series; the culture around The Matrix is probably classically masculine but does include some women; the Star Wars chapter talks explicitly about the gender divide between male filmmakers and female vidders but it says less about the fact that Star Wars Galaxies attracted a higher than average number of women into a multiplayer game world; and of course, the Harry Potter chapter is very much about the traditional world of female fan writing, although one hat now includes a higher number of male participants than a decade ago. Each of these chapters, then, represents an interesting case study of the different kinds of gender balances which emerge within different kinds of fan communities and activities. I don't think we can reduce this simply to women having to adopt masculine norms in order to participate in these more public fan cultures, though I wouldn't argue that some of this does occur. So, as aca-fen, we probably need to spend more time thinking about which spaces within fan culture do remain gender segregated at the present time and why or for that matter, what has allowed some forms of fan activity to achieve a greater degree of gender balance.

And, yes, as we suggested last week, we need to closely examine what television is providing us as fans and whether its fantasies really do align with our own. We need to be attentive to those aspects of fan culture which prove challenging for the media producers to assimilate. Slash usually gets cited as a prime example here, but keep in mind that Joss Whedon found a way to introduce a queer relationship for Willow within Buffy, that Xena was able to include more and more "subtext" scenes which winked at their slash viewers, or that a growing number of American television series do now include explicitly gay characters, so I don't think it is impossible to imagine slash being incorporated even more into the explicit content of the series.

We can argue that commercial producers are adopting the wrong premises or deploying the wrong models as they court female consumers, but we have to read such projects as the new games focused on Desperate Housewives or the virtual world for Laguna Beach as projects which were explicitly launched with the goal of extending the experience of female fans. We also might read projects, such as blogs and journals in character (from Dawson's Desktop to Hiro's blog) or the comics produced around Heroes, to be attempts to expand back-story and character motivations, precisely the kinds of changes in narrative structures that female fans would have been begging for a decade plus ago.

Let's be clear: I am not arguing that there aren't gender issues to be studied in and between fan cultures, simply that we need to adopt more complicated terms for talking about them than the tools we had when fan studies first emerged. I am hoping that the current generation of fan theorists (inside and outside the academy) can lead the way towards a more sophisticated account of the role gender plays in the mainstreaming of fan culture. I am sure we will all be talking about this issue more here in the future.