Fan Studies at the Crossroads: An Interview with Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen (Part Four)

Hurt/Comfort, which is a major focus of this book, has gotten far less attention than slash in recent fan scholarship, despite Bacon-Smith's assertion that it is at the heart of fandom. Why has this genre been neglected and what do you see when you examine it?


Lynn: H/C seems like the last subgenre to remain determinedly in the closet. Slash has been written about. BDSM has come out of the closet with a flourish thanks to 50 Shades of Grey. Hurt/comfort remains less discussed and more hidden – perhaps because it is less displaced and therefore more vulnerable to shaming. In some ways, H/C is a more primitive drive than even sex. We are all, at some level, still helpless and frightened little children, dependent on others for comfort and, quite literally, survival. H/C fic taps into those primal needs, expresses the depths of pain and fear, and then rewrites the ending of the story to include the healing that may never have happened in ‘real life’ but is continually wished for. The increased ability to comfort and heal oneself seems to result from the unfolding of the narrative, and especially from the willingness to accept the support and comfort of the group after the telling.


While H/C fanfiction carries the built-in displacement of using recognized fictional characters instead of being autobiographical, the genre seems less displaced than slash. In the Supernatural storyfinders community on Live Journal, posters commonly request fanfic about their own physical and emotional afflictions, explicitly seeking mastery through reading H/C fic about their own challenges. Writers in the genre are less likely to tie their topics to their own experience, maintaining the distance that displacement offers, but some do discuss their motivations as the same drive for mastery.  This tendency to consciously recognize the individual writer or reader’s motivation may be part of the need to keep H/C secret.


H/C fic tackles themes that cultural norms strongly discourage us from expressing openly – namely vulnerability and rage/revenge. Acknowledging vulnerability only makes one feel more vulnerable. For women especially, rage is disallowed and unacknowledged, the human desire for revenge something nobody wants to accept. Incorporating all of these themes into H/C fic is both subversive and personally dangerous, but the drive to do so is powerful. Bacon-Smith recognized the role of emotional expression as integral to coping and healing twenty years ago when she identified hurt/comfort as the heart of fandom, but she also recognized her own negative reaction as one of the reasons that heart remained so hidden.


I think the genre’s secrecy has made it less visible to researchers. It seems, at least at first inspection, to be a smaller genre than slash, but that may just be a reflection of the layers of protection that have grown up around it and the fact that fanfiction which tackles H/C themes may not be labeled H/C. It may be labeled slash, het, or gen, yet essentially be hurt/comfort.


Kathy: It’s another one of those things that seems to reflect badly on women – the desire to see our men bloody. It’s a real turn on for (some) women to see men vulnerable, exposing aspects of themselves that are normally so closely guarded.  H/C knocks down those barriers, and it’s sexy as hell. It’s another glimpse into female sexuality.

You talk throughout the book about the "fourth wall" that many fans feel needs to exist between the producers/stars and the fans. What do you see as the value of this "fourth wall" and in what ways has Supernatural threatened the "safe space" of fandom as it has sought to reconfigure the relations between the industry and the audience?


Kathy: I should preface this by saying that I’m all for fourth wall breaking.  Fan practices serve as critical engagement with the text and breaking that fourth wall encourages dialog which enriches both sides.  That said, it can be done well or poorly and I think Supernatural in particular has done it both ways. “The Monster at the End of This Book” acknowledged fan practices (detailed knowledge, writing fan fiction, factions within fandom, criticism of story lines) and allowed the characters to playfully respond.  Where it erred, in my opinion, was in choosing to portray a particular fan “Becky” who is over invested, inappropriate, and eventually crosses the line into plain creepiness.  She eventually becomes a sad figure of derision and all playfulness is lost, all dialog suspended.


As far as protecting the “safe space” of fandom, I don’t think it was ever really in jeopardy.  The actors don’t have the time or the inclination to hang out in fan spaces (with a few notable exceptions – Joss Whedon commenting on a fan video or members of various bands acknowledging that they’ve regularly read fan fiction about themselves) and showrunners are more interested in what fans think about particular episodes – what works and what doesn’t. There was some anxiety in the SPN fandom when Becky was portrayed writing slash, but this anxiety was more over “outing” fans and exposing their fan practices to non-fans (among them family, friends, co-workers).  Given the levels of shame that surround being a fan this was certainly understandable.


Lynn: Fans see the value of the fourth wall as keeping their valued (and yet shamed) practices secret – and thus safe – from outsiders, including the actors who might be starring in their fanworks. As recently as Comic Con in July, someone asked Supernatural actor JaredPadalecki, “What do you think of this?” and showed him (and the entire gigantic Hall A audience) a piece of fanart depicting him and his costar Jensen Ackles in a slashy embrace, both shirtless in only low-slung jeans. Padalecki, ever the diplomat, replied dryly, “I never wear jeans without a belt.”  Fan response (directed toward the fan who crossed the line)  was predictably scathing.


When Supernatural first changed the rules by depicting fanfiction – and even Wincest – in canon, fan response was mixed, but the ever-present fear of being “outed” as a kinky, slash-writing fangirl prompted many meta posts and some powerful fanart, including a widely-circulated comic expressing a fan’s fear of her husband’s disapproval of her fannish community and interaction after seeing the episode. Most of Supernatural’s forays into fourth wall breaking have been affectionate insider portrayals of fans, poking fun but also affirming fans, and often giving them the role of hero or heroine at the end of the day – or even having them end up in bed with the creator of the show himself (or at least the character who was not-so-loosely portraying him). That changed with a much reviled episode in Season 7, “Time For a Wedding.”  Becky the fangirl somehow morphed from an overly amorous but ultimately heroic Wincest-writing fangirl to a scheming, manipulative stalker, who drugged Sam Winchester and tied him to a bed ala Misery. Fandom was not divided this time – gone was the affectionate poking fun, and in its place was a mean-spirited, seemingly misogynistic and shaming censure. That episode is how not to do fourth wall breaking – at least not if you want to keep your fans.


You spent considerable time interviewing the production team around Supernatural about how they perceive their fans. What surprised you the most about their response?


Kathy: Given the continuing tone of most mass media coverage of fans and fan practices (crazy, needy, cranky, a force to be courted but not necessarily embraced) what we found most surprising was how appreciative the production side was of the fans and how normalizing the encounters were between fans and producers at every level, and how willing they were to understand fan practices.  In many cases we'd get just as many questions about the fans from the production side as we asked.  The actors would often ask us to clarify something - the level of investment, a particular fan practice.


Lynn: What surprised me most was the level of appreciation and respect. Fans continually step up to the microphone at conventions and ask the actors “What’s the craziest thing a fan has ever done?” Actors continually shake their heads and say “Actually our fans are really cool.” That’s not to say that we haven’t heard cautionary tales about fans being outed to actors as ‘slash-writing perverts,’ with very real repercussions. Bacon-Smith writes about the Professionals actor who became close to many of the female fans writing fanfiction about his character, but was so disgusted by his discovery that some of them were writing slash that he banned those fans from his ‘inner circle’ and attempted to get them banned from fandom itself. He didn’t succeed, but that and other cautionary tales have been passed down through the decades and continue to inspire fear in fans of all genres. We heard similar – and more recent – stories from several fans we interviewed for this book, but none of these occurred within the Supernatural fandom.


In our own experience interviewing the Supernatural production team, we never heard a negative reaction. Surprise, even shock – but not censure or judgment. Most of the people on the creative side had worked out where the boundary should be between them and fans. They had been able to locate areas of commonality and connection, but also maintain a distance, especially from fan activities that they understood were intended as fan-only spaces. The vast majority self-identified as fans themselves, and could empathize with fannish passion, even if it seemed jarring when directed at them. They tended to code fans as same instead of different, and thus to avoid too much stereotyping.

What might the back and forth between Supernatural fans and creatives suggest about the future of fandom, given the increasingly personal exchanges facilitated by social media as opposed to the more controlled, regulated access fans historically had in an autograph line?


Kathy: I would caution against reading too much into the “personal exchanges” or the power of Twitter and Facebook.  The technology is quicker, more immediate, and gives the illusion of intimacy,  but by and large these are still anonymous exchanges – the 21st century version of the snail mail fan letter.  It allows producers to have a better idea of what appeals to fans (and what they will absolutely hate), but I don’t think it influences the actual product all that much.  Fan service is just that – in many cases merely a marketing tool. (A fantastic example of this would be the MTV sponsored video asking fans to vote for Teen Wolf as favorite summer show.  The video plays up the slashy relationship between the two main characters.)  Which is not to say that actors who tweet birthday greetings are doing it simply to further their careers, or that meaningful relationships don’t occasionally occur, they certainly do.  I just think too much has been attributed to social media exchanges between fans and producers.


Lynn: It’s a mixed blessing. While the lines of communication are more open than ever, they are also filtered and constricted and misunderstood on both sides. Many of the actors have confided their struggles with how to use Twitter and Facebook effectively – they’ve found out how easily one sentence can be misconstrued, and how sensitive fans can be about what the celebrities they fan are saying to them (and might think of them). If a celebrity tweets you back, it’s too important to dismiss – if it’s received positively, the fan is euphoric. If it’s received as a negative, the fan is crushed – and in turn may lash back at the celebrity to save face and self esteem.However, the new expectations for communication are not going away, and are likely to expand as platforms proliferate. Both sides are likely to continue struggling to accommodate as technology and associated cultural norms change faster than any of us can keep up with them!


Lynn Zubernis is a clinical psychologist and teaches in the Counselor Education program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Katherine Larsen teaches courses on fame, celebrity and fandom in the University Writing Program at George Washington University. She is the principal editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies.

Dr Zubernis and Dr Larsen are co-editors of the forthcoming Fan Culture: Theory and Practice. They have also published four articles in Supernatural Magazine.