Gender and Fan Studies (Round Four, Part One): Will Brooker and Ksenia Prasolova

Fan and Academic Identities

Will Brooker [WB] wrote three books between 1999 and 2004, on stuff he loved as a kid: Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon; Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans; and Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture. He is currently head of the Film and Television degree programmes at Kingston University, London. His most recent articles include "A Sort of Homecoming: Fan Viewing and Symbolic Pilgrimage" in Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and Lee Harrington's edited collection Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (New York University Press, 2007), "Everywhere and Nowhere: Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary" (forthcoming in the International Journal of Cultural Studies) and "Television Out of Time: Watching Cult Shows On Download", scheduled to appear in an edited collection on Lost. His interests include cities, superheroes, online communities and television overflow; he also writes fiction.

Ksenia Prasolova [KP] is a visiting student researcher from Immanuel Kant State University of Russia (Kaliningrad). With financial support of the Fulbright Program she was able to come to MIT and use Henry Jenkins' vast expertise (and, to somewhat larger extent, Hayden Library's and CMS's vast collection of resources) to concentrate on writing her Ph.D. thesis on Harry Potter fan fiction as a literary phenomenon. Apart from Harry Potter, Ksenia is also interested in translation and interpretation, Heroes, and arguing with Kristina Busse. As to her fannish engagement, until very recently Ksenia has been a champion lurker in Harry Potter, Heroes, Firefly and The Sims 2 fandoms.

Finally, Kristina (Nina) Busse was our invisible third interlocutor in the debate, at times performing the curious role of Greek Chorus. She was already talking with both Will and Ksenia when they started talking to one another and somehow she became both conduit and the representative of gender constructions they'd both argue against. In a way, then, the conversation is clearly a continuation of the discussion Will and Kristina had as well as the continuation of many debates Ksenia and Kristina have had about how fan fiction should or should not be studied (literature or cultural artifact), what role gender plays in fan studies (none or a huge role), all the way to the exemplarity or exceptionality of Harry Potter (and luckily the discussion below stayed away from that).

Gender Infiltration

[WB] Just for starters, I should say now that I have some issues with this whole idea of "there's a war between boys and girls, let's try to dialog from opposing sides!" I find the notion of a conflict between "boys" and "girls" quite saddening and reductive. I also have reservations about calling any adult a boy or a girl, and the whole stereotypical pink (or red) vs blue color-coding is also kind of problematic to me.

However, from my conversation with Kristina, I'm finding I tend to identify more with the "girl" side of this gendered approach to fandom -- if that side means an interest in creativity, confession, autoethnography, autobiography and community -- with a particular focus on slash, genfic and films. Those are the things I'm most interested in, in terms of fandom. So if that's the "girl" angle, it's fine by me but I think a lot of my work, in that case, challenges the perceived gender boundaries that are supposedly dividing aca-fandom.

[KP] As it was already mentioned in discussion to the related post in Kristina's blog, 'fanboys' and 'fangirls', 'blue' and 'pink' etc. are signifiers of the going-ons in fandom - it is a fact that males tend to side with 'collecting', as it is a fact that females tend to side with 'creative' in fandom. I am not sure 'fanboys' and 'fangirls' are the most suitable terms in this case, but those are certainly the most handy ones to refer to a whole set of gendered assumptions and practices that are still very firmly in place. Or are they?

You say that you identify more with the 'fangirl' side of approach to fannish scholarship despite being a male, and I would argue that no matter which side you identify with as an individual, it is the fact that you are able to see these sides more or less clearly and label them as gendered that is relevant. I am sure both of us can give examples from our fannish and academic experience of what I would mockingly call 'gender infiltration' , but by providing these examples and thus challenging the rigidity of gender divide, wouldn't we reinforce the very same divide by acknowledging it?

[WB] I identified with what I was being *told* in these ongoing discussions was the "fangirl" side. When I talked about it with Kristina, I was actually quite surprised that the things central to my work on fandom - communities, discussion, slash, films, the way a text bonds people and provides them with a shared culture - are being grouped on the "pink" side. I've never thought of myself as being interested in "fangirl" stuff before. I felt it was ironic and amusing that on the evidence of my research, that seems to be the side of the divide I'm on - *according to the terms and territories I'm now being presented with*.

[KP] Somehow the *terms* that are in place, the structure of society, the dominant discourse or something else brought about the curious statistical fact - more women like the 'creative' aspect of fandom than men do, more men like the 'collecting' aspect of fandom, and both genders are more or less equally involved in canon debates. It would stand to reason that the academics who come from within a certain practice (more likely, female scholars when it comes to fanvids, or male scholars when it comes to comic books) would feel comfortable using autoethnography to discuss the practice, and would probably occupy the stance of 'impartial observer' (who cannot help but objectify the study subject-matter) when they need to discuss practices they are not personally engaged in.

[WB] It's true that you'd probably have to be a long-term comics fan to write reflectively and personally about them, and that as such, you'd probably be male. However, my own experiments with autoethnography (I am using this grand term for it... really I saw it as a kind of personal and reflective creative writing) can be found in my work on Blade Runner's city locations, Lewis Carroll's grave and Vancouver's streets, as well as the more obviously male-oriented Batman comics and Star Wars films.

Also, though slash seems still to be a predominantly-female activity, before I wrote my chapter about slash, I wrote some slash. I wrote it anonymously and had it discussed on a slash community. It's not impossible to at least try to seek some experience of and personal engagement with the thing you're writing about, although this won't compensate for years of committed immersion. You don't have to be obliged into an "impartial observer" role about certain topics -- you can choose to become more of a participant. But maybe that was a kind of gender infiltration again. I didn't intend it that way.

[KP] Likewise, Nina keeps on accusing me of not being a "good" fangirl. I've tried bunches of shows and disliked most of the ones that came highly recommended--even the ones that seem to have male and female audience appeal, like Buffy.

[WB] Well... what we have here then is me, not a good representative for fanboys because my work is about creativity and community, and Ksenia, not a good representative for fangirls... doesn't this question whether the categories are of any use? Are Ksenia and I gender infiltrators, or gender traitors? Are we exceptional?

[KP] I'd like to know, myself. While I can clearly see labels and gendered behavior etc. among fans (myself included), I still fail to see how fan scholars display the gendered behavior in their scholarly activities apart from falling into the obvious 'traps' of writing about what they know/like best, while their readers are falling into the obvious traps of thinking that the scholar has presented the situation objectively and in its entire diversity. I wonder if the fact that men were almost absent from the academic accounts of Star Trek fandom means that they were actually that absent from fandom itself.

What I have written above is myself - as an academic - describing my fannish behaviors. It is not myself - as an academic - thinking of how my gender influences my work as a scholar who studies fan fiction (I don't study fandom, not really). While I can talk about myself being a misfit fandom-wise, I am not sure how that applies to my academic practices apart from the fact that I'd love to avoid using any methods that have to do with ethnography or social science.

For instance, there is a part of my dissertation that is about slash, but I only mention in passing that most of the writers are female and that slash is thus the most studied and controversial topic in fan scholarship. What I concentrate on is the kind of literature slash is and how it relates to other genres in general and specifically to other genres in fan fiction. I think this stance has less to do with my gender than with my academic background, which is firmly in humanities... Academically, I am simply not that interested in the social dimension of the phenomenon, although it does not mean that said dimension is not important.

Gender and Slash

[WB] Getting back to the discussion as it began on Nina's blog, I think it was being suggested that, in contemporary fan-scholarship, women were studying more localized creativity, and men were more concerned with big economic alliances... and that the former - the fans, the fan-scholars writing about them, and the fan activities in question - were being overlooked or neglected.

[KP] Is that so? Maybe it's more of a field of study question? Not a gender one? As for overlooked and neglected - well, this comes down to a) who hangs out with whom at conferences; b) who references whose work and c) what's one's area of interest. Surely everybody references Penley/Bacon-Smith/Jenkins, but what about more recent stuff, or things that are published by independent scholars? They hardly get noticed, or do they? And I also wonder to which extent the blogosphere serves as a connector between the male and female academic networks now.

[WB] Interestingly, and perhaps depressingly, I got the impression last week with Round 3 of this summer event that Henry's blog was assumed to be a male space, and Nina's LJ mirror of it to be far more female-oriented: the comments section included the observation that "given that LJ tends to be not an acafannish male space, I'm not sure Sean will actually respond here. *shrugs*"

[KP] Also, the first studies of fandom that I have seen (mostly regarding Star Trek) tended to concentrate on 'female' activities in fandom and it sure looks as if we are given to understand that fannish communication network used to be predominantly female. Most of other studies of fandom also tended to single out female domination and female creativity. Your book on Star Wars is a very visible and interesting exception: and surely Star Wars fans can not be the only ones who watch the films together, for instance, or collect action figures?

Or is it not a fannish practice? Is it too mundane and obvious to document, not as exciting as researching slash, for instance? Is it where autoethnography fails us because we go for depicting what we, as fans and only after that - academics, like and understand and enjoy and find fascinating, and leave behind other bits that we think are not as interesting or controversial?

[WB] I am not under the impression that most academic writing about slash is by slash writers - that is, I don't think most writing about slash is autoethnographic.

[KP] I suspect my definition of 'autoethnography' is wider than yours. I don't think one has to be a writer of slash in fandom to write about slash in academia; it is positioning self as an insider as opposed to outsider in the academic study, and the increased level of reflection that make a difference. Basically, I'd say that while autoethnography means that the writer is also the subject of research, it does not necessarily follow that the very same writer must also be the doer of all actions that fall under academic scrutiny. Also, I'd argue that anybody who 'reads' slash extensively for pleasure is a slasher themselves, and that includes a fair number of academics who write about fandom - I'd call myself a slasher because I am a fan of the genre, but I'd never written as much as a word of a slash story in my entire life in fandom. I have translated one story, but that hardly counts.

[WB] By that logic, maybe someone who reads a lot of novels is a novelist; but OK.

[KP] I'd argue that even by reading slash one makes an effort to accept the often subversive and queer reading of the source text, and thus is participating in the process of creating a slash narrative.

[WB] Well, every reader of a novel is participating in its meanings and arguably helping to create the text, but I'm not going to give them the Booker prize for it.

I suspect slash has been so visible in writing about fans (eg. more than films and genfic) because it's creative, it's controversial, it involves issues of censorship, and it's about sex.

[KP] It is interesting how slash has become a somewhat comfortable ground to talk about fandom and the subversive in its readings and interpretations of source text, and at the same time a showcase for fannish creativity. It is so heavily advertised as 'The Thing to engage in' that I'd be really surprised to hear that there are fans in the known (female?) fandom who have been around for a while and haven't tried reading it. And because it's so vastly popular and, well, commonplace (and here, again, the popularizing studies have played their role) that many (female?) fans tend to appreciate new source texts through 'the slash lens'...