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

Yesterday, we launched my big summer long discussion of fan culture with an exchange between Karen Hellekson and Jason Mittell. Today, I bring you part two of that conversation.

5. Bridging the gender divide?

[5.1] JM: I want to raise some practical questions. What can be done? Overturning the patriarchal systems of the academy and copyright isn't going to happen anytime soon (if ever), so let's put on our Gramscian hats - what ground can be gained to lessen the gender divides within the realms of both fandom and fan studies? What micropractices might we be able to achieve in our tiny corners that could overcome some of the issues that have been raised? As faculty in a teaching-oriented college, my mind turns to pedagogy - what can I teach my students about fandom that would help make the next generation of media consumers & producers more inclusive and accepting?

[5.2] KLH: Teaching your students well is always a good thing, but in a way, this just pushes the problem onto someone else - although just leading discussion may lead to helpful debate that will show students that the field lacks consensus. Particularly since I don't teach, I'm far more likely to just do something myself. Yet my own attempt to create a publishing opportunity for aca-fans got very few submissions from men. Part of the problem is self-selection, or selection from within a gendered network.

[5.3] How desires circle! How little headway has been made in more than 15 years! Here's Donna Haraway, from her Cyborg Manifesto (1991): "We have all been injured, profoundly. We require regeneration, not rebirth, and the possibilities for our reconstitution include the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender" (181). We are at an historical moment of upheaval where we stand united, ready to read new things in new ways, and yet given a creature as fabulous as a cyborg, we return to intractably gendered structures to organize how we do it. It's too easy to exhort everyone to cast them off. Such change is difficult, even with all the new technological tools we have at our disposal, men with joysticks at World of Warcraft and machinima, and women with keyboards at fanfic and songvids.

[5.4] Exhorting people to spread their networks wide, and doing so oneself, is perhaps one step in the right direction. So is this project - the debate in this blog. Conceiving and executing projects, like publishing opportunities, should attempt gender equity when it comes time to craft the contents and call for submissions. Further, I would ask more women to talk loudly, in unlocked forums, and both inside and outside their networks about things that concern them.

[5.5] JM: OK - since we have this open forum across gendered communities and traversing some aspects of the aca/fan divide, here's a set of questions that I grapple with: what is the relationship between the fan viewer and non-fan viewer? When we study fan practices, are we looking at people who consume differently in degree, or in kind? My own sense is that fans (of the creative/community variety) engage in a distinct kind of viewing practice, consuming for different reasons and investments than most viewers; but interestingly my students see it more as a matter of degree - even though few of them self-identify as fans in any significant ways. So what do acafans think of this central issue?

[5.6] KLH: I'm with your students: we engage for so many reasons that only degree can explain it. For things like the creation of fanfic, reasons for engagement may include the following (I'll not cite them, but all these ideas have seen print): Fanfic is written as a way to fill in the gaps of the text. Fandom and fanfic are ways to appropriate media texts and provide power to the consumers, not the producers of the media, so fanfic is written as a form of empowerment. Slash fanfic permits an equal-power relationship because the two principals are of the same sex, thus reinscribing certain gendered cultural concerns about sex and power. Fanfic is a feminine appropriation of masculine power. Fan texts are results of a consumer culture, with the passive consumer turning into an active fan, so fan writing is a way to obtain meaning and pleasure. And fan texts are part of a community-based fan engagement, where the artifact (the fanfic, the vid) may not be the point of the exercise. All of these ideas attempt to provide motivation for the creation of a fan-created artifact, and right there, we're excluding fans who don't engage in these practices but who are, by dint of practice, members of a fan community.

[5.7] JM: While I see all of these motivations as good explanations of what fanfic creators/readers do, I see most of them as atypical & exceptional practices, not extensions of mundane engagements with media. Let me go on a brief theoretical detour: even though I was intellectually forged in the fires of cultural studies, active audiences, and textual polysemy, for me one of the missteps of this facet of the field has been an almost totalizing politicization of everyday life. While we need to be aware that all cultural practices occur within systems of power relations and thus everything is potentially political, the political is not ultimately determinate of all practices - we need to consider more than just power relations to understand practices like media consumption. There is no space outside of politics, but there are many things under the umbrella of everyday life that cannot be reduced to politics - everything may be political, but politics cannot explain everything. In this way, the forces of domination & resistance have taken the structuring place of Marxist economic determinism within the analytic lens of much cultural studies.

[5.8] It seems that power relations matter a great deal within the fanfic community, for both producers & consumers, but I don't think similar forces are as central for most media consumers - most people don't watch TV to appropriate, invert, or mock power relations. So what other elements of cultural consumption might be considered beyond political struggle? I think that emotional engagement, narrative comprehension, interpersonal relationships, and cultural rituals are all key components of how we consume media, and that they are not primarily determined or motivated by politics - I'm not claiming they exist outside of power relations, but that they cannot be explained away as mere manifestations of domination or resistance. These other elements matter for fans as well as mundane viewers, but it seems that the political engagement of fans is an added variable.

[5.9] Looking at my own recent research on Lost spoiler fans (which crossed gender lines pretty evenly) - these viewers, unlike Henry's Survivor spoiler fans, are not in battle with producers or actively protesting the hegemony of television or forging communities through assembling spoiler info. They love the show and are trying to extend their experiences via paratextual consumption, not reading against the grain. Many do read spoilers to manage their own narrative experiences in differing ways than network scheduling, but I'm loathe to explain this behavior in the political terms of institutional control versus emergent resisting poachers. In fact, many suggest that spoiler consumption is something that they wish they could stop, but they lack the willpower to refrain from peeking ahead - they are disempowered by the very act of "resistant reading"!

[5.10] Back to my point - if fanfic communities are self-defined in politicized terms (although there might be a chicken-egg question here as to how much of the fandom is using the analytic terms provided by fan scholarship to justify, legitimize, & explain their own practices...), these spoiler fans seem to consume media in comparatively non-politicized ways. And I'd say for most avid consumers of media, political rationales are not centrally determinate in what they watch or how they watch it (again, I'm not suggesting that media is just escapism/entertainment/etc., but rather that politics doesn't necessarily explain why people watch what they watch). So this is why I see the practices of active fan communities as a distinctive and atypical mode of consumption, more explicitly politicized than average viewers. Politics seem to matter more for fans invested in their own practices as tied to media, rather than people whose engagement primarily starts & ends with the primary text.

[5.11] KLH: I don't see us talking at cross-purposes here. I'm not attempting to essentialize the process or the artwork or the fan's engagement to political practices; I'm attempting to create a consistent scaffolding for this conversation so we are talking in the same terms. It's always more interesting for critics to write about resistant readings, but a lot of work has only highlighted how not resistant certain fan activities are: lots of fanfic rehashes the tired romance genre, for example; and we can talk all day long about how subversive the genre of slash is, but its very existence only highlights and reinforces the boundaries it claims to transgress.

[5.12] I would argue that anybody who goes online (or goes to conventions, or subscribes to newsgroups, or buys fanzines, or whatever) and engages in discussion with others about something is pretty much a fan; and many, but by no means all, fans create artworks around it. This brings in a community component. An average viewer watches but doesn't feel the need to engage beyond chitchat at the water cooler at work, where the text is simply a pretext for social engagement unrelated to the pleasure of the text. Why is the latter interesting to study? (Or maybe the text is the interesting thing to study, and you want her reaction to it.) People who follow spoilers go online and get spoiled, but they get spoiled within a community that handily lays it all out for them, and suddenly, with no warning and without their really knowing how it happened, they're engaged in a fannish practice.

[5.13] JM: I actually do think the water cooler viewer is interesting to study. In my study of the talk show in my TV genre book, I surveyed people about their perceptions and practices involving talk shows, regardless of their personal interests & investments in the form. Casual viewers and even non-viewers help foster discourses about genres and programs, working to build cultural assumptions and norms about media. Additionally, I'm interested in understanding how different people can make differing investments in the same texts - the water cooler viewer might feel like they love a show as much as the fanfic writer, but they engage in distinctly different ways. Understanding why such various engagements emerge and what they mean culturally requires us to study & respect not only the hardcore fans, but also the mundane viewers.

[5.14] KLH: At its heart, fan activity attempts to make meaning and create pleasure. The structures used to study it rely on politics, sexual and otherwise; on notions of community; on ideas about creativity versus derivativeness; on genre; on authority; on gift culture; on text and subtext; and on a thousand other different things, some of which, such as authority, happen to provide a vocabulary that is useful for discussing these things. Ethnography, close readings of fan-generated texts, studies of reception and of community, queer studies - all have usefully been brought to bear on fans, whether hardcore or casual. You asked about the political issues of the acceptance of versus the othering of fandom, and I'd turn that around to ask about the political issues of the acceptance of versus the othering of the critic, and of the critical apparatus she uses, because that's the reason we're having this conversation: what's at stake when the critic makes her decisions about what and how to study? Gender is one of those things. Authority and power are others. We've come full circle, therefore: the acafan has been reconstituted and redescribed, just as she constitutes and describes her field of study.

[5.15] Politics, sexual and otherwise, can't possibly inform the totality of fans or the study of fans. We're not assimilating these structures; we're using them to create boundaries around a discussion because those boundaries are useful, and they provide a vocabulary to talk about these things that shorthands and compresses a whole bunch of meaning. I self-consciously chose the word authority to organize my thoughts about this issue because of the word's connotations, and because of everything we all understand goes into authority in our culture. Just uttering the word generates a form of meaning. Each discipline comes with a wonderful history, a fascinating methodology, a differently trained critic, a differently informed fan, someone in media studies and someone in English talking about the same thing but in different terms. Yet I would argue that these boundaries, which aren't set as firmly as the word boundary implies, and which can be manipulated, need to be manipulated in such a way that gender doesn't become a point of exclusion, and the way to do that is simply through critical practice.

[5.16] JM: And I would just add to your last sentence: ...and through dialogue, opportunities to talk across disciplines, genders, fan engagements, and mind-sets. It's been a pleasure!