Gender and Fan Studies (Round One, Part One): Karen Hellekson and Jason Mittell

As promised, we are going to be running a mega-event through my blog this summer -- an ongoing conversation among some of the leading scholars of fan cultures and cult media. This conversation has grown out of a perceived disconnect in the ways that male and female scholars are writing about this phenomenon, though I hope that it will evolve into something else -- a discussion of fan studies as a field, its theoretical groundings, its methodologies, and its most important insights. There has been an explosion in recent years of exciting new work on fan culture which is coming from an emerging generation of scholars -- male and female. I am hoping that this event will help introduce this work to a larger public and that this discussion can be seen as a sign that fan studies is really coming of age. Here's how it will work: Every Thursday and Friday, we will introduce a new pair of scholars, who will continue the discussion, seeking to explore commonalities and differences in the ways they approach the work. Jason Mittell and Karen Hellekson have gotten things rolling here with some thoughts about the nature of fannish and academic authority.

Our hope is that this discussion will spill over into other blogs as well and I will try to post as many links to these other discussions as possible. So far, for example, Kristina Busse and Will Brooker have started a public discussion in anticipation of the series which Kristina is running over at her blog.

I am also encouraging other participants to add their thoughts and comments here whenever something in the public discussion sparks their interests. Karen and Jason suggested the use of numbered units to make it easier for people to refer to parts of the exchange.

So, let the fun begin.


by Karen Hellekson & Jason Mittell

1. Academic authority

[1.1] KLH: It seems that every discussion about fan studies somehow has something to do with authority - not only with establishing who has it (apparently not the fans, unless they appropriate it), but indicating the closeness of the relationship with the subject matter (apparently being an academic means you're inauthentic if you're a fan, and being a fan means you can't be a properly dispassionate, disinterested academic). My problem with this led to my coediting, with Kristina Busse, a recent volume of new essFays about fan studies, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, all by academics who are also fans, because I think that this connection is a useful and good thing.

[1.2] Interestingly for this discussion, the academy does not employ me. I'm employed full-time as a copyeditor in the scientific, technical, and medical market - a good fit for me, because I prefer not to teach. My academic credentials include a PhD in English, with an emphasis in science fiction, and I've published some books and articles, some of which happen to be about fan studies. I write book reviews about SF titles for Publishers Weekly. However, I've found that a lack of an academic connection is terribly disenfranching. The simplest research project is fraught with annoyance and pain as roadblocks are thrown in front of me: it's ridiculously difficult to get the books and articles I need, thanks to all the limits placed on me by the library; and I don't have an affiliation to put on my abstract submissions, which results in their being kicked back to me for "completion."

[1.3] My work in fan studies includes literary and historical readings of fan texts and/or the bits of the Internet given over to fan community. I'm currently interested in notions of authorship; of truth-claims, authority, and analysis; and ideas about constructing and editing reality (as, for example, editing blog posts to alter the historical trace). I've also done some work on the idea of fandom as a gift culture. I blog occasionally about my academic-type thoughts.

[1.4] JM: My aca-identity is comparatively traditional - I teach Media Studies at Middlebury College, writing about television primarily in the forms of books (author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture [Routledge, 2004] and a textbook in-the-works called Television & American Culture), articles (essays on TV narrative, genre, discourses about television as a medium), and blog (JustTV, where links to many of my other writings can be found as well). I'm primarily interested in the intersections between television programming, industrial strategies, and viewer practices, and have recently been focusing these interests on the development of new forms of television storytelling emerging in the past decade or so in the United States.

[1.5] Importantly for this discussion, I do not consider myself a scholar of fandom; although occasionally my research does peer into fan practices, such as a new essay on spoiler fans of Lost, my motivating question in such research is not focused on understanding fandom as a distinct set of practices - I'm not the least bit hostile to such scholarship, but it's just not my primary interest.

2. Fannish authority

[2.1] JM: My fan-identity is a bit more muddy. While I'm an eager consumer of many types of media & popular culture (including TV like Lost, Veronica Mars, BSG, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, etc.; a lot of animation; much music; and a fair number of videogames), I would not self-identify as a fan per se. And to me, this cuts to the heart of the debate framing this discussion - what are the boundaries of being a "fan" and who is invested in the label as an identity? I'm interested in fans as part of my pedagogy, regularly teaching academic work about fandom and showing examples of fan creativity & engagement. I read fan studies, even blurbing the excellent new volume Fandom.

[2.2] But I have no real personal investment in the fan label, or the practices and communities that tend to coalesce around the notion of fandom. For me, fandom centers around three main aspects: fan creativity (paratexts, fanfics, vidding, etc.), fan community (in-person and/or online), and fan self-identification (prominent self-branding through fashion, online profiles, behaviors, etc.). I don't really engage with any of these (save for wearing a Red Sox cap on bad hair days), so that's why I don't conceive of myself as a fan. (I realize that many people would argue that my notion of fandom is too narrow - I invite more discussion about those boundaries as they're crucial to the debate.)

[2.3] KLH: I myself am an active fan, involved in newsgroups and blogs about my few primary fandoms. I write fan fiction under a pseudonym, and occasionally, I go to fan conventions. Although I'm a longtime fan - I was into Doctor Who first, in 1981, with a live-action fan club - I took some time off and got back into it in a big way in 2002, when I turned to fandom basically as a form of social engagement, because I live in an isolated, fairly rural area. I run a fanfic archive in my primary fandom. Within fandom, I do lots of large project type things - things that involve organizing the time and effort of others, because I can get such projects done. I spend fannish time in actor- and fan-specific newsgroups and in the LiveJournal blogsphere.

3. Gendered academic authority

[3.1] KLH: Although I don't think that my lack of an institutional affiliation or a tenure-track job has hurt my chances at publication - although it might if I decided to publish the results of a survey and didn't have an institutional review board to approve my methodology - I can't help but wonder how such a tenuous position affects so many women just like me, like lecturers without offices and freeway fliers without a single institution to call home. The gender split between those in positions of authority (professors, say) versus those in positions of dependency (lecturers) has been well documented by the Modern Language Association, among others, and I'm pretty sure independent scholars, those zany dabblers, aren't even on the list. To my mind, these gendered notions of power and authority tacitly underpin all conversations about acafans, as rank becomes linked to topic, and as texts written by professor scholars are treated more seriously than texts written by independent scholars, lecturers, or graduate students.

[3.2] JM: I agree with Karen's assessment about the gender splits within academia - even in a field like media studies, which is both invested in feminism and new enough that the old boys' network is less old and less boyish, power & authority is male by default. And the field itself is feminized within the larger academy, treated as a weak & flighty discipline compared to more traditional humanities, social sciences, and sciences. I would hope that within media studies, the gender divides would be less structuring than in older & grayer fields, but there's no doubt that divisions between tenure-track and adjunct, affiliated and independent scholars are gendered across the board. Even perusing the lists of Henry's invitees for this forum suggests that more women are in less traditional academic roles.

[3.3] In terms of the broader issue of the divisions within fan studies/fandom communities that stimulated these discussions, here's how I understand the questions & investments that have been articulated (in generalized & oversimplified terms): the technological & industrial shifts that Henry analyzes in Convergence Culture & on this blog are making fannish activities more mainstream and acceptable, but also more commodified and privileging fanboy over fangirl practices. Mirroring that shift, academic interest in fandom has splintered along gendered lines, with prominent male academics emphasizing fanboy & industrial practices, leaving many female academics on the margins to study & defend fangirl practices that have arguably been more important in the history of fandom; and like the old saw about children's programming, the girls will consume work pitched at both genders, while the boys only concern themselves with boy-stuff (be it machinima or G.I. Joe). Whether this reluctance to engage female fandoms & fan scholars from male academics is intentional or truly captures what specifically happened in particular instances is beside the point - the broad-based impression amongst the female acafan community that there is a gender split means that it matters & must be discussed.

[3.4] KLH: I agree with this overview. Part of the gender/authority fault line is simply the result of what people happen to be interested in. But part of it is the deliberate invitation of various groups to perform or create artworks that lie within a gendered sphere. So George Lucas can invite fans to create vids within a certain very structured format by providing clips for mashups, as a kind of advertisement, while simultaneously shutting out derivative works created from sources like the films. Men are far more likely to respond to that kind of prompt than women. This gives the male-gendered activity the gloss of acceptability and pushes women onto the fringes, although I'm happy to say that Lucas has seen the light: he will permit fanfic type stuff in 2007. I see this kind of change of mind as tremendously hopeful, because it places the stamp of official approval on a marginalized fan practice, which will in turn permit more unrestricted free play. I like to think it's the result of the margin being erased. This ought to help with gender equity in responses, too.

4. Gendered textual authority

[4.1] KLH: When I think about a gendered divide, I think about men controlling the publishing outlets. I think about the volume I coedited, when two men, the outside reviewers, critiqued and approved work spearheaded by us, two women - and I think of how happy and grateful I am that they did. And I think about the academic privileging of creative over derivative artworks. "What fanboys do" and "what fangirls do" interests me less than the larger, completely entrenched worldview that privileges the work and authority of men over that of women, and much of this debate strikes me as something within the realm of a sex-divided culture war.

[4.2] For example, the polarizing FanLib debate, part of which is featured in this blog, involves an effort by outsiders (men) to gain financially by using woman-generated content, and there has been a call for (women) fans to take action, to seize control of their own work before someone does it for them. The fact that those who propose a business model such as FanLib think that the time is right to address certain legal and ethical concerns indicates that a change is coming in how derivative works are perceived, so the gender issue takes on a sudden new urgency. The disenfranchising is poised to begin, and the women who generate the content have been prodded into action. Activism is a good thing, but the gender lines here are obvious and troubling.

[4.3] Within the academic realm, part of the gendered split is, I suspect, the result of certain practical copyright concerns that affect publication - concerns that I, as a copyeditor and as coeditor of a volume that reprinted fan artwork, know to worry about. (I'm not going to discuss the whole "copyright and derivative artworks" thing. That can be left to someone in law. I'm speaking purely practically here: imagine simply that somebody wrote an article and she wants to publish it.) If a scholar (probably a man) writes an article about machinima, as one did for the volume I worked on, then he can illustrate it with screen shots. But if another scholar (probably a woman) writes about a vid, she gets hit with the double whammy: reproducing popular song lyrics costs big money, and so does reproducing screen shots [JM: as an aside, screen captures should be considered fair use, but that's another issue]. The prohibitive cost means that she probably can't publish her work intact, and it's hard to write a well-documented article about a songvid without quoting the song or the vid. In fact, it's very difficult in general to write an article about a text that hasn't been published in commercial outlets and can't be easily purchased on - like fanfic, or a vid, or other texts that the scholar may think she wants to talk about.

[4.4] The academic world isn't going to wait for major changes in copyright law or technology to rethink how it grants things like privilege and tenure, and publishing outlets aren't going to change their standards of documentation. Yet I would argue that part of the problem is that men are more likely to work on topics that are easier to publish about, because these topics are free of certain legal encumbrances; and women are more likely to present a paper orally, to give informal papers on texts that trouble those in authority, like production editors, who need to get their pieces of paper from the copyright holders before the article can see print.

[4.5] JM: This highlights how the gender issue is mapped onto the corporate vs. citizen divide as well - fandom has traditionally been outside the power of the industry, and now that media companies are trying to work with (or, less charitably, co-opt) fan practices, the female realm of fandom is having to deal more directly with the more traditional (read male) world of copyrights and licensing than back when fan creativity was via photocopies and conventions. As Jenkins discusses in Convergence Culture, the legal realm of fair use favors (perhaps by coincidence or maybe by deep-seated ideologies, depending on your theoretical stripes) the more masculine practices of parody over female extensions of storyworlds and relationships.

[4.6] KLH: This debate highlights how disenfranchising in general being on the outside is. This kind of split isn't unique to media studies. The discussion has reinforced my annoyance at the inflexibility of the structures currently in place, even as I'm employed in a field that asks me to police them. For example, I'm under orders to delete all popular song lyrics from the texts I edit, because my employers don't want to deal with the cost and hassle. At least copyright rules and the unspoken rules governing the appropriateness of documents meant for publication, no matter how inflexible or troubling, or are the same for everyone, regardless of discipline or sex.

[4.7] All of this comes back to the gendered nature of authority and its place in the governing structures that underlie certain aspects of our culture: the academy; the transmission of knowledge through (print) media; the policed ownership of content. The best thing about the red team/blue team debate is that we're talking about these issues. But it's out of my power to change things like copyright holders' demands, even as our culture lurches on, with mashups and songvids put up on YouTube faster than the YouTube copyright police can take them down. Music, TV, and movie downloads, and peer-to-peer file sharing - all of this permits easy access to copyrighted material that's in a perfect form to be co-opted and used in a new way.