Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy


Over the next few weeks, I am going to share several projects produced recently by my amazing USC students! Today, I am showcasing the work of Emilia Yang, who is a PhD candidate in the Media Arts = + Practice program in the USC Cinema School. Students in this program have to demonstrate cutting edge skills as media producers but also the capacity to think and write theoretically. My role in this program is to teach a course which combines media theory and history and is organized around issues of medium specificity. Yang chose to write her final paper exploring some of the issues raised by one of her own recent media projects, and I felt the paper was a great illustration of what is emerging from this innovative program. I was also interested, given last week's conference at MIT revisiting the original From Barbie to Mortal Kombat event, that she was engaging so productively with Marsha Kinder's Runaways and Brenda Laurel's Purple Moon games, both of which featured heavily at that event.  


Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy

By Emilia Yang

The context of this work is the United States of America. 2016, the year in which Donald Trump ran for the presidency of the United States under a white supremacist, nationalist, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic campaign, and won. White supremacy and patriarchy have always been around, displaying racism and gender specific violence in all aspects of the US society, but the main focus of this essay is media. We are aware that these attitudes have characterized Hollywood ideologies since DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). Various scholars have described, named and deconstructed the portrayal of women in film and various form of stereotyping of minorities in films¹. Recently, this imminent ideology has been made visible  and contested in Internet popular culture under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, calling attention to the lack of representation on screen and behind the camera as well as the quality of the stories represented². Other forms of media such as television and videogames also show a systematic over-representation of males, white and adults and a systematic under-representation of other groups (Williams et all 2009).

Even though there have been valuable efforts to diversify Hollywood and other forms of media, as an academic, media creator, advocate for social justice,  anti-discrimination and diversity (for lack of a better word), and latinx woman with an intersectional identity, I have tried to author media and media criticism about the things I want the most and experience the least, a type of media and analysis that centers marginalized minority groups and their experiences, questions dominant narratives through alternative voices, and sees the World with a historicized memory, informed by inequalities of power and knowledge.

For these reasons I allied with a team of radical women of color from various backgrounds and creative practices (game design, gaming, tactical media, documentary, social criticism) based in Los Angeles to produce an interactive series called Downtown Browns, winner of the “Diversity Challenge” organized by Tribeca Film Festival, Interlude and Games for Change. The three episodes series highlight the decisions faced by women of color in Los Angeles. Our themes were directly drawn from issues discussed during the presidential campaign. They are an homage to the families separated by deportations, to those vilified by islamophobia and to those who hit glass ceilings because of the color of the skin, highlighting their achievements (see section where we review some events that motivated each episode theme).  Each episode follows a different storyline, showcasing a bright woman of color making their way through a unique situation as presented in the log line:

“Interactive decisions, mini-games, and perspective shifts are utilized to build an intimate understanding of the complex dynamics at play in city life”.

We took care of casting and writing diverse characters, and perhaps more importantly, we also made an active decision to try and build an all-women-of-color-crew, knowing that our collective sensibilities and experiences would strengthen the diversity of perspectives represented in the series.


The main goal of the series was to produce a thoughtful interactive film experience that promotes intimacy and understanding with women of color. In this article I am interested in using the series as a way to discuss the potential of interactivity as a medium to accomplish this goal, and our thought process while crafting fictional representations of women of color. In order to accomplish that, I have set out in this paper to consider how to elaborate a critical analysis of interactive films that will simultaneously pay attention to what is represented in them, how they operate, and what they are intended to do. To develop this approach, I follow Gonzalo Frasca’s approach in Videogames of the Oppressed in which he states that simulation authors (game and toy designers) - and as I argue in this case interactive film makers - are ideologically responsible for the creation of three levels of evaluation. The ludus creator not only has to design the rules that make the simulation work (paidea rules), but also defines what is the ultimate goal of the game (ludus rules)³.

The first level is representational and Ludus incorporates two extra ideological levels. Level 1 - It is related to scripted actions, descriptions and settings and is shared with traditional storytellers.

Level 2 - It has to do with the rules of paidea, the rules that model the simulated system.

Level 3 - The third level is the ludus rule. It states what is the goal of the ludus and defines a winning, and therefore a desirable, condition (Frasca 2004:47).

Fig. 2

Frasca uses these categories as a framework to analyze The Sims. In order to elaborate a critical analysis of Downtown Browns, framed as an interactive film series that shares characteristics with videogames, I will divide my analysis in these three levels, considering what the project represents, simulates and is intended to do. The first section discusses the motivations and implications of the use of the identity marker of ‘Brown’ as an overarching identity of women of color. I ask: What does it mean to use interactive media to explore the lives of women of color? How do you represent this complex association in a responsible way?

The second section discusses the simulations enabled by the medium. Here, I will attend to classic debates in game studies between agency and structure, focusing on how limiting the agency in the player achieves a double function in our case: to do a spatial exploration of the characters’ environment and to build an argument about structural issues. The third section discusses the desired condition (our goal), framed as the fostering of intimacy to construct an alliance with women of color.  I articulate an argument on the role of ‘intimacy’, instead of the commonly deployed ‘empathy’ in media for social change, as a form of relationality that could foster consciousness raising with equal footing in the midst of antagonistic relations among races, classes, and genders. I sketch here a theory of intimacy as a form of proximity that requires identification, acknowledgment and allyship. Framed as a political gesture, I draw from political theorists to talk about this move. In a revised version of this essay, a fully historicized account of the emergence of the discourses of empathy around interactive media and intimacy in sociopolitical contexts discussed in the paper would be necessary. The purpose here is merely to outline what are potential fields of inquiry, and the potential benefits of thinking across them. Before I proceed, I will state the relationship between interactive film and videogames, as a justification for using video games theorizations to approach interactive film analysis.

Interactive film and games

Interactive media encompasses various forms of information display and storytelling, and usually refers to artifacts on digital systems that respond to users actions by presenting linked content such as text, moving image, animation, video, and audio. Interactive media has been theorized as a family of evolving forms of narrative media with previous mediums such as literature (Aarseth 1997) and theatre (Laurel 2014). Meadows defines interactive narrative as a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose or change the plot (Meadows 2002). Commonly known forms of interactive media are interactive narratives, websites, films, documentaries, video games, and virtual reality experiences.

Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) describes the computer as a medium that allows the expansion of storytelling towards new expressive possibilities. Her analysis covers video games along with other digital artifacts such as hypertext, web series and interactive chat characters. Even though many game critics are against the notion of lumping interactive films and games together (Adams 1995) since the hard rails of the plotting can overly constrain the ‘freedom, power, and self-expression’ associated with interactivity (Adams 1999 cited in Jenkins 2004) (Jenkins 2004), others state that the insistence on both similarities and differences between games and movies is growing shriller, in both popular press and cultural theory, as the convergence between these two forms increasingly appears inevitable (Kinder 2002:119).

The idea of interacting with media content, could be traced to the 1966’s Francois Truffo’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which Linda interacts with the Family Theater, a TV program. We see her invited to participate with the prompt “Would you come play with us?”. Her answers to the questions the characters on the screen pose to her become part of their conversation. Even though this interaction is staged, it proves how the idea of interacting with the content we watch was already taking place at the time.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

The increase in the availability and use of video online in recent years has made it easier for creators to develop interactive films. An example of this is Eko, the platform in which Downtown Browns was developed. The company website describes their labor as “pioneering a new medium where viewers shape the story as it unfolds. The result is streaming digital interactive video that allows our viewers to affect, control, and influence narrative live-action entertainment.” As the description of Eko’s platform evokes, interactive film, in a choose-your-own-adventure film style, claim to give the audience an active role in the construction of the plot. I will further discuss this notion, and our use of agency, in the section on simulation. In the following section, I discuss why and how we are centering women of color in the series.

Level 1: Representing an intersectional approach of Brown articulation

Downtown Browns is part of a recent movement of media made by women of color of intersectional identities that have emerged in United States’ popular culture as diverse creators have had more access to tools and audiences. As Viola Davis stated, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” (Viola Davis, 2015). An inspiration to Downtown Browns and a common reference is The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and Insecure, comedy web series created by and starring Issa Rae as J. Another similar series is Brown Girls, a web-series centered on the friendship between two women of color. In order to consider what it means to explore the lives of women of color through an interactive film, this section discusses what women of color theorists have said about the particularities of a shared subjectivity. It also considers the complexity and challenges we faced when trying to represent that subjectivity, highlighting bell hooks’ problematization of racial representations, a concern of being dressed up and dumbed down for mainstream consumption.

The articulation of a women of color subjectivity traces back the response to essentialism in white feminism, articulated by various of feminists of color delineated by Chela Sandoval, in her landmark essay “Third World Feminism in the US” (1991). Even though I believe most our team would call ourselves postcolonial feminists, in our current context we identify as women of color because the “peculiar brand of U.S. racism” (Alexander and Mohanty 1997) that characterizes our experience in this country. Sandoval sees women of color as embodying a type of ‘differential consciousness’ that engages other oppositional ideologies selectively and weaves “between and among them” in a tactical way (Sandoval 1991). Anzaldua identified this coalition as one of women who do not have the same culture, language, race or ideology, but are capable of having a collective struggle. She argued that the recognition, visibilization and mobilization of this tactical subjectivity, through writing and media creation, is a form of political work that inverts cultural norms.

Acting in similar fashion of both weaving, presenting and mediating the women of color subjectivity, the series presents itself as a collection of multiple intersectional consciousness: women, queer, Latinx, Middle Eastern and Black. This process is represented in the multi-diverse composition of our crew and through the development of our characters, Miranda, Fati and Yetunde as you get to know each character, their motivations in life, and their relationship with others and their cultural differences. Miranda, the  protagonist of the first episode, is a smart Chicana who is accomplished in school. While exploring Miranda’s world you see many traces of latinx, and specifically Mexican-American (Xicana) culture. She talks about her economic struggle, her side job, her “quinces dreams and the role of her family.

Fig. 3

Fati is the protagonist of the second episode and she is a Middle Eastern Muslim nurse student who wears a headscarf, speaks Farsi, and loves music.  Both of them speak in other languages sporadically, which we decided to use to place the viewer in a discomforting position.

Fig. 4

Yetunde, our third protagonist,  is a pop culture enthusiast, certified nerd, and young black queer woman who advocates for a social media safe space for WOC. Yetunde’s project is an app made specifically for women of color that both Miranda and Fati use in Episode 1 and 2.

Fig. 5

This intersectionality allowed us to represent multiple levels of oppressions: state, cultural, professional and social (discriminatory encounters interactions between white and brown characters, and brown and brown characters across both genders). For example, Fati in episode two encounters a recent feminist (Trish) who is discerning how to help her because she considers she is “oppressed” by wearing her headscarf. We hear Trish comment: “I would love to talk to her about feminism, but where?” (See Fig. 6) Hearing Trish assume Fati is not a feminist, and has no choice but to follow traditions that are against her interests as a woman, demonstrates how an intersectional representation of women of color is required, since not all violence comes from men, but also from white women.


Furthermore, the series does not negate the violence that also exists within interactions between women of color, since Fati encounters another women of color, Tay, and Tay judges her (Fig 7).  Anzaldúa has discussed solidarity within Xicana culture “To be close to other chicana is like looking on the mirror” (1987), as well as Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider in which she expresses that “the harshness and cruelty that may be present in black female interaction so that we can regard one another differently, an expression of that regard would be recognition, without hatred or envy” (1984).

Fig. 7

In episode three, we also show how complicated relationships can be among people of color of different genders. When Yetunde talks to Darren, the other black person in the office, he thinks Yetunde “blames everything on being black,” which we characterize as "Mansplaining" 4 (See Fig. 8).

Fig. 8

The representations of the three characters shows the nuances and the experiences that divide them from each other according to their own culture and gender specific intersectional identities; examining the incidents of intolerance, prejudice and denial of differences. We also expand and recognize their shared experience as social and systemic, trying to reframe experiences that are often perceived as isolated and individual. By doing this type of media, we are trying to bridge between the spaces we inhabit, while centering women of color, similar to the move made by this bridge we call home radical vision of transformation, in which Anzaldúa and Keating (2002) envision new forms of communities and practices inviting both women of color and white people to discuss their collective visions.

Remarkedly, we highlight  bell hooks’ questioning the move to represent difference in mass culture. She states that if the desire for contact with the other -which she sees as rooted in the longing for pleasure from white culture- can act as a critical intervention that challenges and subverts racist domination is still an unrealised political possibility:

I talked to folks from various locations about whether they thought the focus on race, otherness, and difference in mass culture was challenging racism. There was an overall agreement that the message that acknowledgement and exploration of racial difference can be pleasurable represents a breakthrough, a challenge to white supremacy, to various systems of domination. The overriding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate- that the other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten (1992).

hooks states that we cannot take these representations uncritically and I agree with her. We further attempt to address this by limiting the degree of agency we enable the users to have, which I will discuss in the next section.

Level 2: Simulating agency and structure

“A long time ago there were no toys and everyone was bored. Then they had TV, but they were bored again. They wanted control. So they invented video games”

(Kinder 2000).

It is a common misstatement that videogames are about user control. Janet Murray, talks about the agency granted by interactive media as the capacity of the medium to allow the user to perform actions that affect the represented characters, “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (1997:24). For her, one of the main pleasures of digital artifacts is discovering the possibilities of the system through manipulation. Similarly,  Laurel has stated that computers’ “interesting potential lay not in its ability to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent action in which the humans could participate” (Laurel 1993).  Frasca (2004:38) cites Aarseth (1997) explaining that the manipulation of the system is not trivial since it requires that the player get engaged into a process of decision-making that will affect her experience of the system. For Frasca the process of manipulation is what renders possible the interpretation of the multiple facets of a simulation. The participative gamey aspect of the series, the rules of paideia allows for the user to simulate of agency via emotional choices,  explore intersubjectivity through perspective switches, and the exploration of the main characters’ environments as spatialized storytelling. As I will develop in this section, it is only to demonstrate how little choice WOC have in most situations.

Simulating agency

A common reference for our series, with similar interactive decisions, were Brenda Laurel’s Purple Moon games, built based on gender difference and self-construction. These charming experiences were part of the Games for Girls Movement that started more than 20 years ago and brought to the game studies discussions by Jenkins in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: gender and computer games (2000). Tonia, our uniting force and co-creator, mentioned them in an interview as an inspiration and her first “girl game”. Purple Moon games portrayed a suburban white junior high girl’s experience that allowed players to choose the emotional states that Rockett, the main character would make in order to relate with others, framed as a friendship adventure (See Fig 9).


Similar to Purple Moon, episodes one and three of our series invite people who might not be familiar with the realities of women of color to participate in helping the character decide the emotional reactions they will have in the face of adversity as well as more mundane situations as they move through the day. In this sense, the series is pedagogical in that it was designed to be inviting for non women of color to approach our perspective and experiences. However, we are sensitive to how women of color are often expected to act as bridges and translators, bearing the responsibility of educating white America about systemic racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression. The series gives protagonists the choice to refuse bearing this burden at all times. As Donna Kate Rushin’s Bridge poem eloquently states “I'm sick of seeing and touching. Both sides of things. Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody” (1981). In episode three, Yetunde must decide at times whether to let things slide or to correct or confront people and their micro-agressions. At times, refusing to explain why something might be racist is the only way she can sustain her energy and focus on her goals.

Intersubjective experiences

Marsha Kinder’s Runaways project is another relevant example, since it gave users the ability to select the identity of its avatar, which determined how other characters respond to it based on ethnic difference. The developers of this experience saw it as an opportunity to deal with the social consequences of these choices and the issue of stereotypes and gender play. The game placed you in the uncomfortable role of being treated as a stereotype and having other characters make all sorts of false assumptions about you (Kinder 2000) (See Fig. 10).

Fig. 10

Downtown Browns does not allow user to customize their avatar, since for us an accurate representation of women of color is eminently needed, as represented in level one of this analysis, but we make use of switch of parallel perspectives in episode two (See Fig. 11) in order for people to understand how stereotyping weighs into discrimination in daily life. In this episode the user gets to hear what others are thinking of Fati, while they can also hear what Fati is thinking about them. There is almost no dialogue in Episode 2, but the internal dialogues show how some of the bystanders exotify, some sympathize, and others fear Fati, while she is missing her family or documenting her experience. Users choose which perspective prevails by curating their own personal experience of the film.

Fig. 11

Spatialized storytelling

The series is also meant to be pleasurable experience for people of color who play them. Some of the interactive decisions allow POC to identify aspects of life as a women of color by exploring their space with things we find interesting, cool, necessary and aspirational (See Fig. 12). The interactive decisions in which the user gets to explore content in a spatialized way are a form of “environmental storytelling”, as described by Jenkins, “game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces… and they fit within a much older tradition of spatial stories, which have often taken the form of hero’s odysseys, quest myths, or travel narratives” (2004). In this case the sheroes are women of color and you explore their closest intimate environments and you are able to identify specific things of their culture. Ian Bogost refers to this as “emotional vignettes” that characterize an experience and is often used to inspire empathy rather than advancing the narrative (2011). Later in the essay I will take issue with empathy.

Fig. 12

Adding to the interactive decisions, the narrative branching structure offers multiple endings in each episode, but Downtown Browns refuses to offer happy endings in which characters singlehandedly make their own destinies. Instead, we are confronted with how, despite character’s reactions and decisions, the things that happen to them are mostly beyond their control as they respond to broader systemic problems in our society. This tackles issues like blaming WOC for their impossibility of advancing, “she is not working hard enough” or “why didn’t she just do this?” and focuses on understanding both their underlying motivations of WOC, the constant quickness needed to react in the different systems of discrimination that take place and whose role is it to call out racism.

Sherry Turkle, as cited by Frasca (2004), identifies three attitudes towards simulations: “simulation denial” which is a rejection of simulations because they offer a simplified view of the source system and “simulation resignation”, that accepts them because the system does not allow to modify them. However, Turkle imagines another possible kind of relationship, “it would take as its goal the development of simulations that actually help players challenge the model’s built-in assumptions. This new criticism would try to use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. (Turkle 1995). Even though one is left with a feeling of impotence, by acknowledging that the system is unfair to each one of the characters we use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. We tried to show the system whose core assumptions are not visible if you do not experience them as a WOC. Turkle states that understanding the assumptions that underlie simulation is a key element of political power.  When simulations are sufficiently transparent, they open a space for questioning their assumptions.

Level 3: Desiring intimacy against empathy

“Flush yrself down the toilet if you think you’ve ‘learned empathy for trans women’ by playing dys4ia.”

Ann Anthropy on Twitter

Since our goal was to promote intimacy and understanding with women of color as a means of conscious rising (ludus rule), through accurate and positive representations as well as simulation by showing the system of oppression, I will make an argument for the reasoning behind our use of intimacy instead of empathy. First, I will define empathy and trace some of its philosophical underpinnings, then I will present how it has been used in games and how intersectional creators have challenged this notion. Finally, I will discuss how intimacy, as a process of feeling-with rather than feeling-for, serves as the purpose of conscious raising and bridging of cultures that we entail to do in the series.

Commonly understood, empathy “refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain” (Bloom 2014).  Empathy as part of identification traces back to Adam’s Smith and David Hume’s (1896) use of sympathy as a necessary mode of identification between people, predicated upon our ‘natural’ ability to read the signs of the other’s affect, in which they base many of their ideas of liberal governance. Others have elaborated in it’s role in the construction of various forms of power-relations, as a “technology of race and gender,” and its role in new evangelical social movements such as abolitionism and missionizing (Rai 2002). Some researchers see it as a physiological endeavour, ‘seeing like others’, others see it as an emotional one, ‘feeling like others’, and others see it as cognitive process, that entails ‘thinking like others’. Michael Bloom states that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side. He also states that empathy it is not the only force that motivates kindness, and people naturally have less or more empathetic abilities, and that does not conflict with their sense of justice. He makes an argument for rational thinking instead of empathy since for him empathy is narrowed, biased and individual.

In the gaming world, the term “empathy game” refers to a speedily expanding genre of games “designed to inspire empathy in players” (D’Anastasio 2015), which in turn are part of a broader genre identified as “serious games” or “games for change”. News outlets and game conferences have covered their arrival on the market with enthusiasm and optimism (D’Anastasio 2015). This new category of games ranges different forms of interactive experiences, and supposedly are intended to make allies out of gamers, since they mostly focus on developers’ personal experiences, placing the player through the developers’ more difficult life milestones. D’Anastasio cites as examples of this are dys4ia an 8-bit flash game that Ann Anthropy made to evoke her experience with hormone therapy, and other such as Depression Quest. Anthropy, as stated in her tweet and blog posts, is now challenging the idea that a digital game can confer an understanding of her lived experience, marginalization, and personal struggle. She states that being an ally takes long work. Other game developers, such as Colleen Macklin, have discussed the perils of trying to convey empathy through games; because some games have shown through their mechanic that agency is all is needed for people to change their circumstances (Parkin 2016). Ian Bogost in How to do things with videogames devotes a chapter to empathy stating “one of the unique properties of videogames is their ability to put us in someone else’s shoes” (2011).

Bringing back hooks’ fear of “eating the other;” Downtown Browns seeks to promote another way of relating with us women of color, which requires the work of both groups’ people of color and white people, not just emotional tourism or empathetic arousal, nor calling again for centering the white dominant. Samia Nehrez (1991) as cited by hooks (1992) talks about how decolonization can only be complete when it is understood as a complex process that involves both the colonizer and the colonized. This reframing requires another type of labor, one that is not constituted in further displacement, and one that does not remove the body and consciousness of women of color of the frame, but bridges between our experience and others’ while acknowledging this bridging needs both sides.  

Creating Downtown Browns allowed us to think, what would be a good form of encounter?  We required to frame it as another form of identification and recognition that entails a more equal grounds. Empathy gives priority to the viewer, assuming that the other is in disadvantage. Even though in the series we share vulnerable situations and emotions, we do it with the acknowledgement that is under our own terms. Multiple times we have heard after people play the series, that they want to know what happens to the characters. Lauren Berlant states that intimacy “involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way” (1998).  In an intimate environment I am acknowledging you and allowing you to know me, but you have to do an active decision to value me, not talking for me, not try to think you have solutions for me. Only in those instances we can negotiate a shared space and shared life. Even though we are aware this might not always be the case.

As outlined in the introduction, I focused this essay on the potentials of interactive film as a critical medium and to craft an analysis that simultaneously pays attention to what is represented, simulated and hopefully accomplished. I trace historical references of brown articulation from radical women of color in the United States that inspired us, as well as historical uses of computer simulation for demonstrating experiences of others crafted by female creators as highlighted by De Laurel’s and Kinder’s work. Going back to the graphic I presented earlier of Frasca’s model, I map the relationship the series represent between form and content, simulation and experience, as well as the implicit theories about ideology, representation, identification, and interactivity that shaped the choices we made as creators.

Fig. 13

Reading the graph the other way around from right to left, intimacy is fostered via the simulation of decisions women of color make, that allows others into our space and shows them how the system operates in relationship to our specific race, gender and sexualities, by conceiving a thoughtful representation of women of color’s multiple subjectivities. By opening these experiences and showing these spaces to other groups of people we hope we foster and intimate understanding, a shared story, an initial conversation about the negative and positive things we experience in U.S society. I leave the arrows as a continuum, since I must include the conversations and discourse (such as this) the series have allow us to have as part of its’ work. As Jeff Watson, theorist, maker and friend told me one day, “games and media are just a pretext for context”.

As I stated above, intersectional creators cannot promise and should not be interested in people inhabiting their subjectivities, nor should they try for dominant groups just to empathize, and neither should they take the burden all by themselves. Instead we should try to engage meaningfully with each other’s lives, invite other people of color and white people to walk with us, to be next to us, to be real allies. It is by listening, by working together to change the type of socializations imposed by media, by building solidarity and respecting difference that we will accomplish any progress or social change. I extend special thanks to Henry Jenkins’ thoughtful and constructive comments and to my Downtown Browns squad that with multiple conversations around these topics have challenged my thinking and approach to socio-political and cultural issues.  

About the author

Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. Yang is currently pursuing a PhD in Media Arts + Practice at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She is interested in how transmedia storytelling and postcolonial new media practices can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, documentaries, fictions, games, performances, and urban interventions to engage participants in political action and discussion. She is a HASTAC 2015-2016 Scholar and member of Civic Paths at USC.


  1. (Mulvey, 1989; Hall 1997; hooks 1992, 1996, Kareithi, 2001; Wilson and Gutierrez 1985, Roman, 2000; Chavez, 2013, West, 1990 - the list is extensive).
  2. A 2016 University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study found minorities remain underrepresented in Hollywood on every front (nearly 3 to 1 among film leads and directors) and that audiences are seeking diverse film and television content. McNary, Dave “Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Potentially Costs Industry Billions (Study)”.
  3. As cited by Frasca (2004:6), Caillois (1967) uses the term ludus, the Latin word for game, to describe games which rules are more complex. Paidea and ludus could be associated with the English terms “play” and “game”, respectively.
  4. Mansplaining is a portmanteau of the words man and explaining, defined as "to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing".


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Gender and Fan Culture ( Round Twenty , Part One): James Nadeau and Alicia "Kestrell" Verlager

Kes: I'm Alicia "Kestrell" Verlager, a 2006 graduate of the Comparative Media Studies master's program at MIT. I am a relative newcomer to fan studies, though I have been a lifelong fan of genre media, particularly SF and horror. My writing often explores the intersections of non-normative bodies and identity, with an emphasis on interpretations informed by both disability and queer studies (an intersection often referred to as crip studies). My thesis was on images of disability and technology in science fiction media, and I have also written about the theme of disability in Harry Potter fan fiction. I write about media, disability, and technology at my blog

James and I were grad students together in the CMS program at MIT, but since graduating, we continue to get together and discuss both theory and our favorite media, so our post here will probably convey that sense of this being an ongoing conversation between us.

James: I am James Nadeau, also a 2006 graduate of CMS. My own work is centered in visual art and technological evolution, specifically video and related technologies. My background is in critical studies, psychoanalytic and queer theory with a focus on Queer Cinema. I curate a monthly queer film and performance series at the Brattle Theatre here in Cambridge. On top of that I am a longtime comic book collector and science fiction fan. I am particularly interested in British post-apocalyptic graphic novels, mainly Judge Dredd, as well as Marvel produced superhero comics (pretty much why I landed at CMS). Like Kestrell I am fascinated by the possibilities that looking at horror and science fiction through the lens of queer and disability studies provides. Our conversations have centered on the similarities that both queerness and disability have when placed within the genre of horror and extreme science fiction. By extreme I mean the type of science fiction that operates as both horror and science fiction, be it from a gore or Lovecraft-ian "horror beyond the worlds" nature.


I would like to open the conversation by exploring how genre becomes intertwined with gender through the process of defining what horror is. As a fan and a scholar, I have become increasingly intrigued by the representations of female and queer fans in horror fandom. Specifically, I am curious about what role gender plays in defining the horror genre itself and how deeply gender influences interpretations of horror, its purposes and its effects.

These questions were prompted by a pattern I noticed in how discussions of horror are often framed: In either an online or real-time discussion of horror, a panel of male writers and critics open the discussion by seeking to define "real" horror. One of the first things mentioned, usually with a laugh, is the dismissal of paranormal romance. Aside from the fact that paranormal romance is not a new genre (it can be traced at least as far back as the TV. shows Beauty and the Beast and Dark Shadows, both of which suffered from critical and marketing attitudes which devalued their female audiences), this dismissal is usually followed by adding more subgenres to the list of what isn't horror, with subgenres like gothics, ghost stories and even new horror such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scream, etc. (refer to the work of Mark Jancovich ).

This disavowal of specific subgenres and their female fans isn't limited to books or film, either: in horror comics fandom, the stereotype of a female fan is that of the gothy Sandman fan. No slight to Neil, but the linking of goth fashion and being female is another way in which I see female fans being portrayed as romantic and/or ridiculous, which comes close to reflecting the way the overly-sexualize and ridiculously romanticized has come to be associated with camp, another disavowed form of horror. There are films that are labeled camp which I am not even clear on why they are labeled camp: Bride of Frankenstein, for instance, which a number of horror producers such as Clive Barker, have listed as their favorite horror classic: why is that classified as camp? If,

as one definition of camp claims, camp is equated with being "effeminately homosexual," then I think we are seeing media being disparaged and disavowed not for its content, but for its audience, and that disparaged audience is identified as female and queer.

I can't help but feel that these attempts to restrict the definition of "real" horror are prompted, at least in part, by an inclination to define who the ideal reader/viewer is, and, for a lot of male

critics and scholars, that ideal reader/viewer is someone a lot like him. And yet you have artists like Alan Moore, Clive Barker, Angela Carter, and their works include elements of not just horror, but also fantasy, surrealism, the gothic, and yes, romance.


I'd like to tackle a few of these points. First I think that you are correct in that camp is most often associated with queer culture. However, it is mainly thought of in terms of exaggerated behaviour verging on the ludicrous. To quote John Waters, camp is "the tragically ludicrous and the ludicrously tragic." It has been used on pop culture artifacts in this manner since Susan Sontag published her essay "Notes on Camp" in 1964. For Sontag camp was liberating. It is noteworthy for being both naïve (completely unaware of one's camp-ness is a requirement) but also it's extravagance. Bride of Frankenstein is thought of as camp because it is so over the top. One look at Elsa Lanchester's hairdo as the bride and you know there is something not quite right. As Sontag notes "Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is "too much." I think that what we need to establish here is that for Clive Barker (for example), a gay man, having this as his favourite film is motivated by forces other than those that seek to feminize or demean. I would also say that Bride of Frankenstein is pretty commonly thought of as an example of camp even by those only marginally aware of what camp really is. But I think this is a good starting point to discuss the viewer. For the queer viewer of horror films where does camp fit in or does it even need to? There is a lot of classic (the twenties right through the sixties) Hollywood horror films that could be seen as campy by queer audiences. There is something decidedly fey in Max Schreck's performance in Murnau's Nosferatu. And do we even need to mention the homosocial Lost Boys or the lesbians in The Hunger? The vampire character itself has come to be known for outside normal sexual boundaries. And I agree with you that the vampire character is recognized as a romantic figure and it is consistently associated with the feminine. Is it this "feyness" or implied deviance that pushes it outside of the patriarchy and into deviance? I think that romanticism in horror and science fiction offers up an interesting opportunity to think about alternative identities within these narratives and how they relate to what audiences feel and desire outside of heteronormative paradigms. These films open our eyes to the possibilities that exist outside the hegemony of "the normal."


I think your final sentence is very telling, and there seems to be a lot of evidence to support it around this time of year, when we seem to see a lot of these alternate identities, from the romanticized to the queer and campy, being literally tried on during the Halloween season. It's interesting that the mainstream seems to focus so much on the campy aspects of Halloween, from Elvira costumes to Dracula to drag: if camp is a combination of the overly-sexualized

and the naive, then it's okay to play with identity at Halloween as long as you maintain that element of camp, of emphasizing that it's all pretend, *really*.

Yet these exaggerated campy figures also seem to be a way of shedding the old worn out images of horror and replacing them with something that's still emotionally powerful and socially transgressive. Vampire fashions, or how the vampire is fashioned, may change, but each change seems to say something about the culture at that historical moment. Anne Rice's vampires may have come to be associated with the cliché of the overly romanticized erotic vampire, to such a degree that her stories have become *the* source for the stereotype of the Byronic emo boy which was often parodied in Joss Whedon's "new" vampire mythology of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but looking back there was a lot more going on in Rice's story, such as a preoccupation with the metaphysical, the transcendental, and the historical. There also emerges this theme of families and communities that are based on blood but are oppositional to the nuclear family. At times the erotic seems as much a means for making emotional connections as it is reflective of the strictly sexual.

Perhaps what Rice's vampires did most explicitly, however, and I think this is something which Clive Barker's horror and fantasy has always done very explicitly, is allow the monster a voice. Once upon a time Robin Wood could write the following prohibition:

"...Dracula must never be allowed a voice, a discourse, a point of view: he must remain the unknowable, whom the narrative is about, but of whom it simultaneously

disowns all intimate knowledge..."

That kind of vampire, however, is kind of the old school vampire, and it began to lose its potency at the same time that the women's movement and the gay movement began to really be heard. Unfortunately, a lot of what female and queer artists wanted and needed to express was still considered taboo, is still considered taboo, by many of the critics and gate keepers who get to officially define art and fiction.

Helene Cixous managed to link this feminist and queer art with a kind of monstrous mythmaking in her essay "The Laugh of the Medusa," in which she said

"Where is the...woman who...hasn't been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a ... divine composure), hasn't accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn't thought she was sick?"

What horror of the '70s and '80s did--and I am going to return to my favorite trio of Clive Barker, Alan Moore, and Angela Carter-- what made it so transgressive, was it reclaimed that idea of the non-conforming body as a point of identity. It blurred the subjectivity between the female or male protagonist and the monster and it questioned how authority was physically located in the idea of the "perfect" most masculine, most normal, body. And from Carter's re-imagined Red Riding Hood to Moore's Swamp Thing to Barker's Nightbreed, identity as it related to gender, sexuality, and subjectivity intersected at the nexus of sexual relationships between women and monsters.


There are a few things I want to respond to. To continue with the vampire exposition I agree that there is much more going on in Rice's books than a simple horror romance. She also touches upon the idea of creating a family as opposed to being born into one. This is a metaphor that resonates within the queer community. The notion of choosing one's family based not upon blood but upon social and physical difference in complete opposition to that nuclear family is something that the queer community has always done - out of a need for close social ties that have to replace those severed by identity. And of course the transformation can also be read as a coming out narrative - one that involves the severing of ties with one's former life (something unfortunately that is extremely common). I think these are some of the reasons that her books resonated with the queer community. Not to mention the transformative nature of the bloodletting and drinking. The fact that the vampiric traits are transmitted through the exchange of blood added another layer as her books gained popularity at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US. I think that you are right as well in that the underlying erotic current of these relationships adds to their romantic nature. It also complicates it further with the inclusion of the "incest" or family taboo to these already "outsider" relationships.

Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eighteen, Part Two): Julie Levin Russo and Hector Postigo

Technology and Control HP: One of the things we talked about during our meeting in Providence was how new media technologies, especially the internet, can potentiate changing conditions and relations vis a vis consumers and producers? I've sort of touched on this a bit above with my comments about how the web allows for mass broadcast of previously isolated products. So I think user production and fan contributions and their value (i.e their exploitability) are a function of the medium. Fan fiction for example, has been around for some time and their communities have been able to coalesce and remain together over time thanks to zines and fan cons and other social/communication enterprises. I think that the web adds an element of mass broadcast to fan production such that we are talking about fan products as content; as part of the commoditized information flowing out of the pipe. So I don't think we can any longer ignore the political economy of fandom. One of the interesting points that comes of all this is the question of control. If all this production is entering into some sort of relation with capital how is it controlled? The relations we discussed above are social relations but they happen through a technology so we could ask ourselves to what extent does the technology of the internet shape/is shaped by the productive relationships?

JLR: I'm so glad you asked! Control is a fruitful concept for articulating the economy with technology because, as the story of late capitalism goes, a new configuration of control is now coming to the fore: one which is just as horizontal, localized, and networked as the field of production on which it operates. Rather than enforcing prohibitions, it organizes possibilities and enables free movement within them -- often mobilizing technology to do so. In Protocol, Alex Galloway suggests that today we commonly experience hybrid grids of control, and offers the anatomy of the internet an as example: it combines the top-down architecture of DNS with the distributed architecture of TCP/IP. I often notice an analogous strategy at work in proprietary fan-driven content initiatives, where the confining threat of legal muscle is overlaid on a structured platform for creative license, striking a compromise that (when it's successful) is tolerable to both sides. What's clear is that, at this point, if we're looking out for hierarchical, centralized diagrams of power, we're going to sail right over the terrain of struggle. Web 2.0 is seductive in its user-centric mentality, but in exchange for the convenience and scale of social media we accept (literally, by ticking the box on the TOS) its given parameters, both technological and economic. Recently fandom is beginning to wise up to this dynamic and work towards building an infrastructure that is user designed, owned, and operated.

HP: I like the idea of alternative infrastructures that resist the commercial iterations of things like Web 2.0 driven social enterprises. I wonder to what degree power in this system of sociability/production/distribution is dependent on technological know-how. Will only those that can design infrastructure be able to challenge protocol with a counter-protocol? I would take a lesson from Langdon Winner and say that not all of us have to be technologist but it's in all our best interests to be concerned with the technological structures that consistently arise around us. We walk around in a state of what he calls "technological somnambulism" where before we know it we are moving through systems (social and technological) that were not democratically designed nor designed with the interest of democracy in mind. To what degree is this happening in participatory what degree has protocol taken shape around us without our input and without consideration to the values that users/fans/etc hold dear?

To get to the question of gender and technology it seems that these are not only pressing questions for participatory culture but also questions about how technologies embody gendered/sexist assumptions of what it means to produce in the digital world. Pointing to the troubling trend, when a technologies or professions become populated by women the economic rewards for the work decrease...the idea may be related to class too as for example when we say that a technology "is so easy to use anybody can do it" what we mean is that it's lost its elite status because not only college educated white men can use it but also everyone else of any class, educational background, and gender. In the logic of supply and demand of course this would dictate that the supply is increased and thus the value is decreased but I don't think this maps out in the area of cultural productions where conversations, reconstructions, and networks create these cases the fact that anybody can do actually adds value but the elitist rhetoric holds it back when viewed from a market perspective.

JLR: Interestingly, this gendered revaluation can also move in the opposite direction: some occupations, such as film editing and computer programming, were initially understood as repetitive, detail-oriented labor that was thus feminized and performed primarily by women, and then later masculinized into elite technical skills. And while one sentence isn't much of a corrective to the white- and US-centric slant of this project, I'd like to note that there's a global dimension of inequality here too, as devalued forms of work are often relegated to the world's as well as the nation's "second-class" citizens.

One cause for optimism in the localized case of media fandom is that it's always been full of geeks -- women with highly-developed expertise in digital technologies -- and thus surfed the first wave of innovation throughout its decades-long history (thanks to Francesca Coppa for reminding us of this). Moreover, fandom is collaborative, so it's not necessary for us to be cultivating a counter-protocol on an individual basis when we collectively have a resevoir of competences to share. In any case, these are all good examples of the myriad ways technology intersects and intertwines with power, gesturing toward the merits of exploring, within our academic work, the particularities of its role in fan practice and fan/industry relations.

Ownership and Desire

HP: From the small clip I saw of your work it looks like you are looking at the content produced by fans and how readings of a text (TV show) inform fan production and how that production does or does not mesh with what we assume are the goals of the industry. In my experience with video games, I have not played close attention to content just its volume (i.e. how much of it there actual is). I would posit that the substance of the content (what it is actually is about) is in the aggregate less of a concern to media companies than the whole productive field. Which is to say that so long as the whole of the content has substance that can help meet the demands of selling that product then the media companies do (or should) live with the content that in substance is not "mainstream" that from a bottom line perspective this content does one of two things for the content owners. #1 Nothing or #2 something profitable. #2 is interesting to me because it says that in some way all content is profitable and this is why. Of all the content that is produced by fans some will be quite good, some may even bring some attention to the original work which then helps the media companies, some will be bad (poor quality which does nothing for the company) some will have readings that the company may object to. If the whole field of fan production is seen as a testing ground, a free market-research domain, then companies can't really loose. If they notice that everyone seems to like a particular reading then that is an intimation that perhaps that reading ought to be explored, packaged, resold. I think this claim runs into trouble when there are critical messages in fan created content such that they critique the media company where it would be believed that the content will actually be bad for the bottom line. This is all well and good for content owners but what about the fans. It seems problematic especially if the critical force of some content rests in part on marginal status.

JLR: In terms of content, I think there are some legitimate concerns among fans about the suppression of work that falls at the more extreme end of the continuum of "non-mainstream" readings. In these exceptional cases, there can be a #3: something perceived as detrimental to the value of the property or service. One recent and very visible example is LiveJournal's mass suspension of journals and communities accused of hosting "pornographic" works about underage Harry Potter characters, supposedly in violation of LJ's TOS. I'd argue that this is an instance where the substance of fan creations threatened the ideological underpinnings of the dominant system, albeit an oblique threat filtered through a series of legal and institutional mediations. The specter of such a crackdown hovers over the rich cosmos of derivative smut, the majority of which is currently situated within commercial social media platforms with official bans on "inappropriate content" (which they can interpret and enforce at will).

I wouldn't claim, though, that fan activities resist commodification simply by virtue of being slashy or critical -- the commercial media are becoming ever-more adept at self-reflexively absorbing such orientations. For the most part I agree with you that the salient conditions are structural and largely independent of the content of fanworks. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm saying that femslash challenges capitalism because it's about lesbians! However, I do think we can view queer fan production as form and not just as content. The widespread notion of "subtext" implies an open, plural, and dehierarchized model of textuality wherein diffuse and collective creative labor isn't easily contained by top-down intention and authority. I realize I'm risking a dubious move here, collapsing embodied queer sexuality into metaphorically queer textuality, but I'm committed to making this metaphor work convincingly in my project. Given the centrality of the mechanics of desire to the economic system, I don't think it's a coincidence that the representation of desire becomes particularly unruly. Considering that the value of media properties inheres in the libidinal labor of their consumers, corporate "ownership" is held in place primarily by the external fiat of intellectual property law. I think this is a foundational contradiction that fandom can productively stress.

HP: I find this last paragraph very interesting. It sounds like you are drawing a parallel between the drive to inspire a desire for a given commodity and the "unruly" representations of desire in fan production. ("Given the centrality of the mechanics of desire to the economic system, I don't think it's a coincidence that the representation of desire becomes particularly unruly"). Equally interesting is the claim that desiring the commodity gives it value (actually the interesting part is the consequences you imply). That this desire (wanting) is labor in itself that justifies a claim of ownership by fan communities (You statement that IP is a fiat that holds owners claims in place leads me to this interpretation...correct me if I'm wrong). I like both of these because they really de-center the rhetoric of IP that has governed western rationale for property ownership: the "mixing of labor" argument put forth by Locke. In your interpretation it is the mixing of desire (ironically constructed by capital to drive consumption) with the raw material of popular culture industry products that legitimizes ownership. You don't outright say this but I think you imply it. Also the first sentence I quoted above suggests that consumption driven by desire leads in some instances to re-writings inspired by desire. The link between the two can further be stretched to articulate with Jenkins' recent arguments for a moral economy of fan production and ownership...if we count desire as a valid "mixing of labor" argument (where labor is now desire) then the moral hold on property (which is in part the foundation of IP at least in political philosophical terms) is shaken. NEATO!

To further think about how your thoughts might de-center other lines of rationalizing about how IP gets legitimized through moral/philosophy rhetoric we might consider the notion that creative works are part of the self. Thus in the European tradition authors' rights tend to be stronger in terms of the control authors have over their IP because in a sense it is extension of the self. It would seem that desire as a vehicle for extending the self into the production of fan re-writings, for example, would create competing claims about self. In other words, authors' claims of moral ownership over a particular piece of IP rooted in arguments of the self conflicts with fans' claims of ownership over a re-writing based on the same arguments. In this sense it would seem that the claims of self from fans would be secondary to the claims of self by original authors. However, the scholarship of legal scholars like James Boyle suggests that in a cultural commons the original author is a myth. This has interesting consequences for any totalizing claims over IP.

JLR: First of all, thank you for this elaboration of my ideas! I'm still in the early stages of trying to articulate this thesis, and it's exciting that you can amplify it in ways that make sense. I'm pretty rusty on Locke and much subsequent political and legal theory, but I think you've captured the contradictions I'm getting at here. I love that you come around to the relation between creativity and selfhood -- of course the IP regime depends on a unified and bounded model of subjectivity wherein "original" artistic production emanates ex nihilo from individual interiority (which, as you mentioned in pt. 1, tends to be inflected as male/white/bourgeois). Working psychoanalytically, I'd go beyond competing selves to argue that any of the selves involved is internally conflicting, fragmented, and intertextual, further compromising the claim of "ownership" over expression.

Nonetheless, intellectual property law is held in place by institutional power (the tangible threat of debilitating lawsuits [Fair Use doctrine has been called "the right to be sued"] and the intensifying alliance between legislative and corporate sectors in extensions of copyright), often very successfully despite this conceptual incoherence (which grows ever more insistent as consumption and production blur together). What I find valuable about analyses of concentrated "moral economies," though, is that they can highlight the equally central role of discourse in this process. Copyright, which undergirds the economics of who can make money from what kinds of artistic labor, can't operate only by force -- its legitimacy requires an ongoing ideological negotiation (this should sound Gramscian). This is one example of how work -- both academic work and fan work -- that engages at the level of discourse is crucial. I hope that this series of "debates" can, at best, be an intervention on that very real terrain.

HP: I agree with your last paragraph. It seems that the discourse has been dominated by rhetoric that dominates IP law and policy. Such things as copyright as incentive, the balance between the public and the authors and the construction of users as pirates all tend to skew how we percieve the limits of use. The problem of course is that these are powerful tropes in US society and so alternative discourse is needed to challenge them. Well I think that wraps it up for me. Thanks go out to Henry for giving us the forum and thank you for engaging in these topics with me. Hopefully we can meet for tea again!

JLR: The communities that we work on and within, modders/hackers and fan producers, have certainly been dynamic channels for alternative economies, discursive and otherwise. So my optimism hasn't been disciplined out of me yet! I'd like to thank you, Henry, and the rest of the participants for this opportunity to ruminate and hold forth on some of the issues I'm passionate about. It's been a pleasure conversing with you, and very fruitful for my own process. Look me up when you're next in town!