In Defense of Moe: An Interview With Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Three)

To what degree is moe a collective as opposed to a personal experience?

That’s a great question! Responding to fictional characters seems like a very personal thing. Insofar as one is describing what he or she responds to as moe, everyone has his or her own definition. However, I would say that it is more collective than we might at first appreciate.

Characters come from somewhere, right? Someone has to first imagine the character, which might be in textual or visual form. So, for example, a storywriter comes up with a character, or an artist sketches a design. Then, if it’s animation, someone voices the character. A voice actress described her job to me as “imaging” (imēji suru) the character and “matching” (macchingu suru) the image of others involved in the project, which is quite telling. I think that this imaging and matching is actually quite common throughout the creative industries of manga, anime and games, as well as figurines, merchandise and so on.

Ian Condry’s book, The Soul of Anime, describes something like this. People are collaboratively creating the character, which both moves and is moved by those interacting with it. It’s a kind of shared imaginary, maybe. We could take this further and consider how people draw on existing characters when imagining a new character. It is not a coincidence that many manga and anime characters look alike, because they are assemblages of affective elements – I’m thinking of Azuma Hiroki, who is interviewed in the book – which both precede and exceed the work in question. What creators respond to, and design others to respond to, that is, “moe characters,” are not really contained in any one form or possessed by any one person.

The response is similarly collective. Writing about otaku, Thomas LaMarre refers to a “collective force of desire,” which could be taken to mean the shared movements around moe characters, which are then “otaku” (movement). What LaMarre refers to as otaku movement resonates with moe, or that which moves, collectively. More simply, it is said that affect is contagious, so the movement of one quickly becomes the movement of many. I’d say that even fan activities that appear to be the most personal, for example writing fanzines about a favorite character or costuming as him or her, are also about sharing the character’s movements.

What is cosplay if not imaging the character and matching that image to those of others? In this way, cosplay resonates with what the voice actress I mentioned earlier says that she does. In a similar way, fanzine authors work with characters and worlds provided by manga and anime, which, as Ian Condry points out, is not so different from what professionals do when creating anime episodes using characters in a world developed by others. It maters that the characters used in fanzines are known to others, because they are then shared objects of affection, making personal imaging of them part of a collective articulation.

The question is does the image match or not, which means that another image must already exist in the minds of those responding to the fanzine. As Condry points out, there is a “dark energy” or “intensely inward-focused energy” of anime, which fuels its spread, because fans wish to share their moe with others and have it recognized. The shared production of moe characters contributes to shared expressions of affection for them.

Along the way, you give us some glimpses into the role which moe plays in shaping the Japanese creative industries. We’ve seen in recent years an emphasis by the national government and others on the concept of “Cool Japan” as a source of “soft power.” How comfortable are these government groups to some of the more intense forms of “moe” culture you describe in the book?

This is something that I’m looking into as part of a new research project in Akihabara, but what I can say now is that some people in the government are very concerned about certain forms of manga, anime and games circulating abroad and coloring perceptions of Japan. They are fine with celebrating Tezuka Osamu as the father of contemporary manga and anime, or the critically acclaimed and almost universally loved films of Miyazaki Hayao, but they are less excited about the prospect of being associated with fanzines centering on sexual parodies of Tezuka or Miyazaki characters or computer games that simulate relationships and even sex with cute girl characters.

I have heard this expressed in many ways, but one of the most memorable was when members of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) organized a symposium in Akihabara in March 2012. A local business owner, who I probably shouldn’t name, asked representatives of METI straight out what their intensions were in using Akihabara to promote Cool Japan. To this middle-aged gentleman, who runs an electronics store with a storied history, Akihabara needed to be cleaned up or tourists flocking to the area would leave not with fond memoires of Cool Japan, but rather stories about “Porno Japan.” Those are his words, not mine! Very provocative stuff, but I think it touches on serious tension.

The dynamic is as follows: The increasing visibility of otaku brings to light things that are generally considered to be niche. Axiomatically: The normalization of otaku proceeds with the discovery of new abnormality. We all know a story or two – or fifty – about “weird Japan,” or that story that makes us stake our heads and say, “Only in Japan!” In fact, the recurring story about the male Japanese otaku who marries his fictional girlfriend, is in a committed relationship with a body pillow, is building a sex robot or doll in the likeness of an anime characters – all of these could be lumped together into sensationalist reporting that contributes to an image of Japan, male otaku and moe as perverse. This one man’s charge to METI that the government is promoting “Porno Japan” reminds us that not all forms of manga, anime and games are considered “cool” in Japan, and not all of them necessarily reflect “Japan,” and certainly not in the ways that some people wish.

Even one does not have a problem with hoards of men and women, young and old, reading One Piece or watching Ghibli films – such an interest is normal, after all – there are always things that will shock and challenge. For better or worse, many of these things are on display in stores in Akihabara. So when the government comes into this neighborhood and starts talking about manga, anime and even otaku as components of a branded national culture, as representative of “Japan,” that is when the subcultural and countercultural elements are going to generate some friction.

It was really interesting for me to see in summer 2014, right around the time when The Moe Manifesto was published, how Akihabara figured into international news reports that Japan was not cracking down on manga, anime and games as “child abuse materials.” CNN, for example, went to a shop in Akihabara specializing in fanzines and filed a video charging that this material is “fueling the darkest desires of criminals.” Hyperbole and questionable claims aside, this report does not just accuse Japan and otaku of being weird or perverted, which can still lead to some laughs, but rather Japan as a empire of child porn and the people in Akihabara, the “Mecca of Otaku” (otaku no seichi), as straight out sex criminals.

What is the evidence for this claim? Drawings. The reporter takes a manga book in his hand and condemns those who draw and are drawn to it as “criminals” harboring the “darkest [of] desires.” This then feeds back into reactionary and conservative discourses in Japan, where there are calls to regulate manga and anime more strictly to avoid “unhealthy” thoughts and desires. One such Diet member, a proper bureaucrat, appeared on an episode of TV Takkuru in September 2014, where he was told that Japan is being treated like an “empire of child porn.” When asked, “Should violence and underage sex in manga and anime be regulated,” his answer was, predictably, “Yes.” The show then sent a reporter to follow a group of otaku around Akihabara. While the tone of this “reporting” is significantly lighter than CNN, it shares the impulse to look at otaku in Akihabara and their relationships with fictional characters and ask whether or not regulation is necessary. This tension within the discourse between “Cool Japan” and “weird Japan,” between “good” and “bad” manga, anime and otaku, will not be resolved anytime soon. Rather, as we approach the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, it seems likely that the debate will heat up around Akihabara, moe and global norms versus community standards.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Two)

The youthfulness of the manga and anime characters is something that struck me in the images you included in the book. Is that a cause for concern?

If you take a character like Usagi, she’s a girl, which is a difference from Wonder Woman, but I don’t think that we need to be concerned about it. In his work, which is foundational to manga and anime, Tezuka did not insist on his characters being adults. Tezuka was writing for children, and often had children play major roles in his work. And even though he was writing for children, Tezuka was introducing ideas from film, theater and literature into his manga. So, he didn’t speak down to children as an audience, but rather respected them enough to believe that they do not need to be sheltered from life, from stories about a range of human experiences.

This approach contributed to the formation of manga and anime as forms of entertainment where the age of characters depicted and the age of the target audience does not limit the type of story that can be told. This not only contributes to children getting more deeply involved with stories that challenge them and expose them to new ideas, but also what Matt Hills calls “double-coding,” where the same work can be enjoyed by both children and adults, and which sustains long-term engagement with works that change as audiences mature into new understandings. This is one of the keys to the formation of fan cultures, right?

There is no question that Tezuka’s works piqued the interest of a generation of young people, who then went on to produce their own manga and anime, which took things even further down the path that Tezuka had charted. While there have been rashes of panic about manga and anime in Japan, up to and including deeming Tezuka’s works to be “harmful” to children, there wasn’t really a response to manga in Japan that led to anything like the Comics Code in the United States, which in the 1950s effectively killed forms of comics containing “unwholesome” expressions, which were thought to contribute to juvenile delinquency. There was a movement against “harmful manga” in Japan in the 1990s, but people did not widely support it.

The industry imposed limits on itself, but they were nowhere near as reactionary as the United States in the 1950s. For example, rather than agreeing to not allow certain types of content, publishers marked some manga as “adult” and placed them into “adult” sections of stores. In Japan, in theory, you can draw and publish whatever you want, so long as the material is not obscene and access to it is controlled.

Of course, anime is televised, requires a larger budget and has sponsors, which is more constricting, but consider that Neon Genesis Evangelion – a story about “angels” attacking earth, giant robots engaging them in brutal hand-to-hand combat and the psychological damage caused to the children forced to pilot these robots – aired at 6:30pm on Wednesday nights. We aren’t talking about cable here, but rather basic television that everyone can access, and 6:30pm is a time when general audiences, including children, might be watching. Cowboy Bebop – a story about bounty hunters that encounter terrorism, crime, cults, suicide, murder, human experimentation, drug use and more – was aired at 6:00pm, a timeslot previously occupied by an anime based on a story serialized in a shōjo manga magazine.

As these examples show, there is not as much of a compartmentalization of content in Japan, or a notion that children should not see or be involved in stories about the adult world, or that any exposure to depictions of violence or sexuality will irreparably scar them. The truly “adult” content is labeled and zoned properly. While not “adult” in the sense of pornographic, many of the TV shows associated with the moe boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s were shown late at night, when children would not be watching. This hands-off approach to regulation has contributed to manga and anime becoming some of the most interesting media in the world.

In turn, it makes sense that people growing up with manga and anime never “grow out of it,” because it isn’t something just for kids or somehow below real literature, film or TV. If you grow up surrounded by and relating to the fictional characters of manga and anime, it makes sense that you might be attracted to them. They are part of life, or growing up and everyday routines.

To my eyes, moe can be very meaningful to and good for people. In fact, over the course of researching and compiling this book, many people told me that manga and anime had saved their lives by giving them something to hold onto in difficult times. Take a look at the interviews with Honda Tōru, Maeda Jun and Sōda Mitsuru. Unless the response to fictional characters is harming others living creatures, unless the response is violence, I do not think that we should be at all concerned with moe, beyond curiosity about other human beings, their interests and ways of life.

Worse still would be to say that “moe media,” whatever that means, should be regulated. To ask Japan to more strictly regulate manga and anime, when there is no one harmed in the production of such media and no evidence of a statistical link to crime of any kind, is to say that there need be no demonstrable harm, because your thoughts and feelings in relation to fictional characters are “perverse” and therefore should not be allowed. If moe means a positive response to fictional characters or representations of them, then the reaction against it is a negative response to the response to those fictional characters. “It’s gross, I don’t like it.” So what? What that person responds to as moe may not be your thing, but regulating based on taste is as absurd as it is untenable.

You write in your introduction about a march involving the Revolutionary Moe Alliance in 2007. Why is such an alliance necessary and in what sense, real or playful, can we see moe as a revolutionary force in contemporary culture?

There were many groups like the Revolutionary Moe Alliance marching in Tokyo in the mid-to-late 2000s. Most were inspired by or shared the thesis of Honda Tōru, who argues that there is a system of “love capitalism” (ren’ai shihonshugi) that engenders unreasonable expectations for men.

Depending on the group, they come at the perceived problem from a variety of directions. For example, some argue that the stereotypical middleclass family ideal posits a gainfully employed company man, who supports and is supported by a stay-at-home wife, who will also raise their children. Given the dissolution of fulltime, longterm employment at large companies since the 1990s, the model of (re)productive maturity, the so-called “salaryman,” is increasingly unachievable for men, who appear immature or as failures. The man without “regular” employment, the “irregular” man, is thought to have less of a chance of attracting women. Such men are among those called himote, which means unpopular with the opposite sex. There are certainly other reasons to be in that category, including physical appearance, communication skills, hobbies and so on. The himote is a man who fails in the marketplace of love, and thus protests “love capitalism.” For himote, there is an unbridgeable “love gap” (ren’ai kakusa) between “winners” (kachigumi) and “losers” (makegumi), they are on the wrong side and their numbers are swelling.

In some particularly pedantic and indeed sexist veins, women’s motives for dating and marriage are reduced to economic ones, and one’s lack of appeal to others is blamed on an unfair system, a line of argumentation that makes those indulging in it seem like altogether unappealing human beings. The rhetoric is somewhat familiar from men’s rights movements in the United States, but the barely concealed violence of the American counterpart seems absent from himote in Japan.

Most of their marches are comprised of a small number of men enjoying one another’s company and making a spectacle of themselves. They almost seem to relish being “failures,” but not quite, because they still seem to maintain goals for success, namely getting paid and laid, that are recognizable to hegemonic masculinity. These men want things on their terms, which can come off as somewhat entitled.

A distinct break from this comes in the form of otaku, who also march against expectations of men, but celebrate being dropouts of love capitalism. For these men, and Honda Tōru states it most clearly, a system of commoditized romance that forces people onto expensive dates to fashionable places is not only out of reach for most men, but also entirely unappealing. This love capitalism, or love on the terms of a capitalist imaginary, does not seem “real” to them, but more like a fantasy sold through trendy TV dramas, which combine romance and consumption. Men like Honda Tōru argue that otaku dropped out of love capitalism and instead pursue their interests and hobbies. So, these men are interested in manga and anime instead of going on dates and “getting the girl,” but this is not a failure so much as an alternative, though which they, too, can live happily ever after.

This refusal of love capitalism makes otaku appear to be socially and sexually immature, but in this they have found alternatives ways of living and loving in the world. I was personally quite touched reading Honda Tōru’s response to a young man who, feeling like a failure without friends or romantic prospects, decided to murder seven people on the streets of Akihabara. It was a horrific event, but Honda’s message was one of empathy. Honda Tōru acknowledged that they were both very similar in terms of personal history, but he had something to hold onto that this young man did not: anime. To Honda Tōru’s eyes, this was a young man who felt pressured to become a “regular” man, with all the attendant responsibilities, rights and respect that come with achieving that middleclass ideal, but he could not do so, felt like a failure and lashed out at the world. Honda writes that he wished he could have told this young man to take it easy, hold on a little longer and wait for things to improve. Honda, who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts as a young man, suggests that anyone who is considering doing violence to themselves or others instead withdraw from society and its pressures for a time. He advocates not seeking revenge for perceived wrongs, or ending life through violence, but rather seeking something to hold onto, for example hobbies and people to share them with, and living life with a different set of values that don’t make you feel like a loser or failure.

This otaku position is a politics of survival for those who have somehow failed or have been made to feel like failures, which is a shared condition. In addition to himote and otaku, the last group that was marching in Akihabara is associated with moe. These are people who actively seek alternatives to expectations of men, which is to say assigned sex/gender roles, in relationships with fictional characters. This can take the form of “marriage” to a fictional character, belonging to a community of shared interest around a character, and so on. Manga, anime and games do not necessarily get us out of hegemonic sex/gender roles, as we have seen from Gamer Gate, but some certainly see that potential. Again, there is Honda Tōru, who argues for a “moe masculinity” that embraces both the masculine and feminine sides of one’s self, which can be nurtured and accessed in interactions with fictional characters outside of the expectations of society.

Moe men can at least imagine sex/gender differently, which then might impact the ways that they understand themselves and interact with others. This is very much the message that Momoi Halko, a female idol, voice actress and producer gave in her interview for the book, where she describes moe as contributing to a space of a “third gender/sex” (daisan no sei). Statements like this one are surprisingly common, and actually have been made even by feminist thinkers such as Ueno Chizuko as early as 1989. It is interesting that many female critics and creators note this of moe, which seems to suggest that they see something different in “moe men,” who actually are not so recognizable as “men” anymore.

This potential for change in sex/gender roles through thought experiments involving fictional characters and in interactions with fictional characters is some of the most exciting revolutionary potential in contemporary Japan, and while it is very much playful and parodic, that does not mean that it is not real.

A word of caution in all of this: Potential for change in sex/gender does not mean that moe is not without its sexism. In all three broad and overlapping groupings – himote, otaku and moe men – there is a shared danger of not only reproducing and reinforcing sex/gender stereotypes – Honda Tōru, a man, is married to a fictional girl character, which sounds all too familiar – but also rejecting women to create a space of autonomous sexuality. To take an easy example, Honda Tōru’s book is titled Moe Man (Moeru otoko), which has “man” right in the title. To the extent that one must reject women to reform one’s self as a man, this is a sexist position.

In response to the success of Densha otoko, a live-action film and TV drama about an otaku who falls in love with a real woman and reforms himself to earn her love, which Honda Tōru has rightly criticized as a didactic message, I remember seeing signs in Akihabara reading, “Real otaku are not aroused by three-dimensional women.” The real or three-dimensional woman has to be rejected by the “real” otaku, who is implicitly male.

Falling into this reactionary stance is certainly a danger, but what really struck me about the march that the Revolutionary Moe Alliance participated in was that it was not only “men.” The march, which was titled Akihabara Liberation Demonstration (Akihabara kaihō demo), took place in Akihabara in June 2007, and there were men, women, women costuming as male characters, men costuming as female characters – all these people together on the street.

Akihabara is an area usually associated with male otaku, which colored perceptions of the moe boom centered on media reports about Akihabara, but what I saw on the street was not exclusively or even necessarily “male.” Rather, the liberation of Akihabara, where affection for fictional characters is shown without shame, was more about flexible, shifting and relational sex/gender roles, which could be disrupted or shifted by interacting with fictional characters and costuming as them, by performing sex/gender differently. That is why the image of the Akihabara march remains so vivid in my mind. It seemed to me that Akihabara and moe were offering a platform for the articulation and expression of sex/gender politics beginning not with autonomy from women, but rather from the “regular” or “normal.” Indeed, the direct impetus for the march was a sort of creeping conservatism in policing otaku performances on the streets of Akihabara, as well as plans to clean up the “public sex culture” – with respect to Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant – there.

In the 2000s, Akihabara was being reimagined as a showcase for what the government was calling “Cool Japan,” which focuses on promoting wholesome manga and anime, which was somewhat at odds with the openly sexual content – erotic simulation games, pornographic fanzines, sexually posed figurines of cute girl characters, maid cafés – on open display in the area. The demonstration to liberate Akihabara seemed, to me at least, to be about keeping the space open and unsanitized so that people could freely explore and share relationships, even sexual ones, which fictional characters.

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

 

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part One)

Japan has one of the most vibrant and generative popular culture in the world with Japanese media being one of that country’s major national exports and with the forms of fan culture that emerge in the streets of Tokyo exerting an influence on participatory culture world-wide. There is also not surprisingly a growing number of scholars in Japan who are producing insightful research on these phenomena, only a small selection of which has been translated and made available to readers in the west. We are seeing some important work emerge that seeks to bridge between Japanese and American researchers working on topics such as “media mix”/transmedia or “Otaku”/fandom, including books showcased here in the past by Mimi Ito, Ian Condry, and Marc Steinberg, as well as the recently launched summer workshop program on “media mix” which Sternberg and Condry run along with Otsuka Eiji and other colleagues there.

When I encountered Patrick W. Galbraith’s The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming, I immediately recognized its value in providing a similar glimpse into both Japanese popular culture and the scholarship that has grown up around it. Using the concept of Moe (a particular kind of relationship between fans and fictional characters) as his point of entry, Galbraith interviews creative artists, fans, and scholars, offering an accessible but theoretically provocative glimpse into contemporary developments, with a strong focus on notions of spectatorship and fandom. The book is intended for a general reader — heavy on brightly colored illustrations of both commercial and fan art — yet as a consequence, it offers perhaps the most readable and teachable introduction to these themes and concepts. As someone who is certainly not a specialist on Japanese popular media but who maintains active interest in this space, I read it with enormous interest.

And I am very happy to be presenting an extended six-part interview with the book’s editor, Galbraith, who was very generous and patient in explaining some of the underlying ideas that animated this project. Across this exchange, Galbraith offers insights into the gender and sexual politics of contemporary Otaku culture, including detailed accounts of what draws both male and female fans to these works; he speaks in depth about the ways that Moe fans have challenged conventional notions of masculinity and he discusses some of the backlash against these materials and the fan activities being discussed, especially as Japan wants to lay claim to a “cool Japan” framing of its cultural productions, while avoiding alternative labels that might stress the oddity or perversity of some Japanese media. He also shares with us some of the critical debates in Japan, which he feels sheds light on key concerns in western scholarship, including those surrounding subcultural identities and fan labor. Even if you are not especially interested in anime or manga, there’s much here which can help shake up some of the core debates in our field.

 

A central theme of the book is to push us beyond any surface level understanding of the concept, but we still need a starting point for this discussion, so can you share with me how you would define the concept of moe and what do you see as its relationship to the concept of otaku, which may perhaps be somewhat better known in American culture?

 

To get us started, moe is the noun form of a verb, moeru, which means “to burst into bud” or “to sprout.” This is the actual definition, but, in contemporary Japan, moe is slang and has little to do with bursting into bud or sprouting. The meaning is closer to a homonymous verb, moeru, which means “to burn.” The story goes that among manga, anime and game fans, sometimes called otaku, in online discussions of fictional characters, people were accidentally typing “to burst into bud” when they meant “to burn,” or when they were saying, “I’m so into this or that character,” “I’m fired up.” In this way, moe became slang for what gets the motor running, tugs at the heartstrings or enflames the passions.

At a very basic level, there are three important things to keep in mind. First, moe is a verb, something that occurs, not something that is. Second, what occurs is a response, which is located in a human being. Third, the response is to fictional characters or representations of them. This last part is crucial, because it indicates what makes the word moe distinct and hints at why it’s worth talking about at all. The term moe comes out of growing awareness in Japan of human affection for and attachment to fictional characters.

Why Japan? Simply because manga and anime are such a huge part of growing up; the quality, quantity and diversity of content is such that one does not have to graduate out of these interests; and some, building on basic exposure to and widely available media and material, take interests further, exploring and expanding the worlds of otaku. Because manga and anime are such a massive part of popular culture in Japan – and there is a notable manga/anime aesthetic in certain types of games and novels, too – there is a general appreciation of the fictional character as an object of affection.

Moe gives a name to this, and the people using it are very much aware of their own affection for fictional characters, which trigger a response in them. Such fans are almost the stereotypical otaku, who loves manga and anime, specifically fictional characters, more than is “normal,” even in Japan. Otaku activities – for example the massive Comic Market, an event that attracts 500,000 people, many of whom come to buy and sell fanzines featuring their favorite manga and anime characters – draw attention. Manga and anime fans can hardly be ignored in Japan, which has led to a cottage industry of writing about otaku, as well as the emergence of otaku critics, theories of otaku (otaku ron) and even a pseudo-academic discipline of otaku-ology (otakugaku).

In this robust body of literature, at least since the turn of the new millennium, moe appears as a concept to be discussed and debated in various ways. What attracted me to the concept of moe was not only the recognition of the human response to fictional characters, but also how this then led to questions about society, the economy and politics. So, for example, some fans advocate “marrying” fictional characters, a sort of performance of affection and gambit for social recognition of a relationship that is very real; others take that as a starting point for social critiques of sex/gender, and propose alternatives ways of being in the world in relation to fictional characters and others. Such statements about moe are as provocative as they are political, and I wanted to try to understand where they were coming from.

I’m a fan of manga and anime myself, and have been getting tattoos of my favorite characters since middle school, so moe didn’t seem like such a strange concept to me, but I had not considered it in any serious way. In Japan, among otaku, I was presented with an opportunity for sustained thinking about human relationships with fictional characters, which, let me be clear, are a very real part of life for many people, and not just in Japan.

However, all too often it seems that people are content to point and laugh at the “moe phenomenon,” which is taken to be one of those “only in Japan” or “weird Japan” things. Closing down the dialogue in this way is a real shame, and I wanted to stage an intervention, frankly. By reading and translating Japanese texts, conducting fieldwork and, most importantly, identifying and introducing Japanese thinkers in English, I thought it possible to begin to bridge the gap between the discourse on moe inside and outside Japan. Focusing on interviews allowed me to present a diverse range of un-synthesized perspectives, while also focusing on the face and voice of a given Japanese thinker, who, thus personalized, is harder to brush off. So, definition! Moe is a positive response to fictional characters or representations of them.

 

A key element of moe seems to have to do with notions of “cuteness” or “innocence” and yet there is also a widespread perception that moe constitutes a form of perversity. Why do you think moe generates such strong reactions? Are there forms of moe which should be cause for concern? 

 

A small caveat, first. Moe is a response located in a human being interacting with a fictional character. What a person responds to and in what way differs based on the person, so any general claim that this type of character is “moe” – which is a description of an object, not a human response – often serves to obscure more than it reveals. That said, moe is coming out of discussions of manga and anime characters, as well as game and novel characters drawn in the manga/anime style, so there can appear to be something of a shared aesthetic.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on female characters, because they are the ones that most often get people up in arms about moe. One rarely hears that it’s “perverse” for girls and women to be fans of male characters, or that the designs of those male characters are somehow “perverse.” At the heart of the concern about moe is male fans and female characters, and the relationship between them, so let’s consider the manga/anime style in response to that concern.

The manga/anime style, as popularized by Tezuka Osamu, the “God of Manga,” after WWII, is notable for being “cute.” You see a lot of round shapes and simplified features. In shōjo (for girls) manga, you also see soft lines and large eyes. The styles seen in manga originally intended for children and girls became much more popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when even adult men were consuming these works and developing bishōjo (cute girl) manga and anime in dialogue with female artists.

To give a specific example, Usagi, the main character of Sailor Moon, is a bishōjo character, originally drawn by a female artist for a manga targeting young girls, who became popular with a diverse audience, including adult men, when adapted into anime. Now, compare Sailor Moon to Wonder Woman. The “cute” or manga/anime aesthetic is clear.

What is the significance of this distinction? Historically, it’s seems to be a break with “realism.” After Tezuka’s initial manga revolution in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a style emerged in contradistinction to his work. Called gekiga, these works were something like graphic novels, and focused on a “realistic” style of drawing to capture realistic people and settings and comment on real social issues. Gekiga typically featured more “mature” characters and stories and was intended for a more “mature” audience. These works became extremely popular as part of the counterculture movement in the 1960s, when students and protesters rallied around stories of outcasts and working-class folk rising up against the system. However, after losing steam with the failure of the student movement and the incorporation of artists into the mainstream industry, the gekiga movement died down. After a period of relative obscurity, Tezuka roared back onto the scene, telling mature stories for mature readers, but using his manga/anime style of cute characters.

Further, shōjo manga was undergoing a major renaissance in terms of quality content, which attracted even adult male readers. This is the creative ferment from which the bishōjo emerged in the mid-to-late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Bringing mature content and readers to styles originally intended for children and girls, the result is the manga/anime style we know today. It lasted because both men and women were producing this hybrid style, which appealed to children and adults, men and women. While it may appear strange or, dare I say it, “perverse” to some outside of Japan to express mature themes and stories, which include sex and violence, using cute characters, few in Japan would think of the majority of manga and anime that way. Even pornographic variants, produced by both men and women working in genres for men and women, are not necessarily “perverse.” They are cute, drawn in a familiar style.

We might consider perversity at the level of content, or what characters are depicted as doing to and with one another, but there is such a wide range of content in manga and anime. Perhaps someone thinks it perverse, but for others it’s totally normal. Consider that during the renaissance of shōjo manga in the 1970s, stories of male-male romance, which included sex scenes, where quite popular. As Fujimoto Yukari points out, such “boys’ love” manga, produced primarily by and for women, is by now a taken-for-granted part of the landscape of shōjo manga. The thought of tweens and adolescent girls reading comics about male homosexuality might seem totally perverse in the United States, but it has become a norm in Japan. Indeed, some see in Japanese manga and anime culture an incredible tolerance for diverse content and fantasies, which should be celebrated.

Fiction makes possible and allowable all sorts of diverse characters, interactions and interactions with characters. Indeed, the instance on fiction seems very important to understanding moe. If the gekiga aesthetic was known for realism, then the return to the manga/anime aesthetic implies an embrace of “unrealism,” or the patently fictional, as we can see in the bishōjo character, whose face does not resemble a human one, but takes on its own internal realism within manga/anime. Moe is the recognition and response to the fictional real.

Saitō Tamaki, who is interviewed in the book, goes as far as to talk about an orientation of desire toward fiction. This doesn’t have to go as far as a sexual orientation, though for some it does, but realizing that interactions with fictional characters do not necessarily reflect desired interactions with other human beings is one of the greatest insights of manga/anime culture in Japan. Moe is a word that refers precisely to the response to fictional characters, which is why it is valuable.

Once we begin to say that this fictional character, fictional interaction or interaction with a fictional character is perverse and therefore should not be allowed, we quickly devolve into thought policing, which manga and anime creators, critics and fans actively fight against in Japan. So, for example, I can totally understand why someone might find it perverse that an adult male says Usagi from Sailor Moon is moe. In the story, she begins as a 14-year-old girl, very cute and innocent, though intersecting past and future lives mean that she is also a princess and queen, a wife and mother, and an ass-kicking superhero.

So, if we are calling this perverse, what exactly do we mean? In many cases, I think that we just assume that this adult male somehow harbors sexual desires for middle-school girls, which is a conflation of Usagi as a fictional character with actual girls, a reduction of this fictional character to a simplified category – why is her age more important than her being a transforming superhero? – and a completely unfair snap judgment about ulterior motives for responding to this fictional character, which not only pathologizes a human being, but also sets the justification for criminal treatment, for treating someone as a criminal.

We really have no idea what the qualitative response of this person is to Usagi, and we should not be speculating about it. I could just as easily speculate that he wants to be Usagi, right? We cannot prove what someone is thinking when he or she responds to a fictional character or utters the word moe, and we really ought not be concerned with it. It is enough to know that our theoretical man is responding to Usagi, a fictional character, which hurts no one and brings joy to his life.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Affective Publics and Social Media: An Interview with Zizi Papacharissi (Part One)

 

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“image by Daydream V.2 by Nonotak Studio”  

Have you ever finished writing a book and then discovered a new work which you wish you had read at the very beginning of the process? A work which makes a bold and original contribution to the field and thus shakes up some of the core of your analysis? A book which opens up new paths forward for you and for many other researchers working in this space?

For me, with Convergence Culture, that book was Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, and my response to that work informed several years of my subsequent writing. With Spreadable Media, that book was Nico Carpentier’s Media and Participation, which has in turn shaped the thinking behind my current book project, By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics. As my co-authors and I were putting the finishing touches on By Any Media Necessary, I was asked to review and blurb Zizi Papacharissi’s new book, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, which is now officially the book I wish I had read before I wrote this book. I immediately reached out to her both to do an interview for this blog and to come to USC to speak with our research group, which she is scheduled to do later this term.

My blurb for the book conveys some of the reasons for my enthusiasm: “I HEART #affectivepublics! Zizi Papacharissi brings enormous insight and much needed clarity to current debates about the role of social media in political life. Rejecting binaries which ascribe social movements to Twitter or Facebook or that dismiss all forms of online participation as ‘Slacktivism,’ she instead acknowledges the ways that social media has provided opportunities for new forms of expression and affiliation, new ‘structures of feeling’ that can in the right circumstances help to inspire and expand political movements. Her approach mixes theoretical sophistication with empirical rigor as it forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy movement.”

You will get a taste for this remarkable book in the interview that follows, which touches on key themes, including a serious reconsideration of the nature of “media events” in an age of social media, the relationship between reason and passion in promoting social change, a fresh new way of thinking about the roles social media does or can play in the process of social change, and the tension between elites and the people, publicity and privacy, within democratic societies.

As I’ve watched events unfold since, especially the various examples of hashtag activism that have emerged in response to recent cases of radicalized police violence, I have found her perspectives enormously helpful in making sense of how such efforts do or do not make a difference in American racial politics. As she notes here, change in any form takes time, whether the kinds of street-based protests so powerfully depicted in Selma or the online movements that have dominated the news in recent months. Rather than being impatient or dismissive towards these more recent efforts, we need to understand how these acts of circulation both generate and sustain popular sentiment in ways that makes social change possible. Here’s where the book intersects key strands of my own current writing around participatory politics — we conclude that cultural and social factors, often operating outside the realm of institutional politics, may empower our participation, may give us a sense of solidarity and collectivity, and may thus represent important first steps towards other kinds of political change.

 

You write early in the book, “We feel for the Egyptian protesters fighting for and then celebrating the downfall of Mubarak first, and then Morsi later. We imagine their feelings of excitement first, and disillusionment later, but we do not always know enough about background, context, or history to have a full appreciation of their circumstances. Still we respond affectively, we invest our emotion to these stories, and we contribute to developing narratives that emerge through our own affectively charged and digitally expressed endorsement, rejection, or views.” So, can you break this passage down for us. What are the consequences of our ability to “feel” but not fully “understand” the political struggles of others? What differences does it make when we become contributors to these narratives rather than simply consumers?

 

There are events, and there are stories that are told about events. Most events we are not able to experience directly, so we have always relied on the storytelling oralities and technologies of an era to learn about them. What happens when we become contributors to these narratives, or stories, rather than simple consumers, is that we become involved in the developing story about an event; how it is presented, how it is framed, how it is internalized, and how it is potentially historicized. But do we become part of the event if we were not physically present to experience it first hand? That is what I am referring to when I say that we imagine what it feels like, but cannot know.

The obvious question that follows then, is, what does it mean to know? Doesn’t the story told about an event also constitute its own event? I believe it does.  So we may think of different events, each sustained by the mediality each storytelling medium affords. For #egypt, there were the events on the streets, the events as they were told and experienced through Twitter and other social media, and the events as remediated through television and print media, and of course these events overlap, because the realities of the storytelling practices and hierarchies of these platforms converge and further re-energize spreadable storytelling structures, as you have been explaining and writing about for some time now.

The point I want to make with the book is that the mediality of each storytelling structure affords a different texture to each story; a unique way for feeling one’s way into the event and thus becoming involved in it, a part of it. In my previous work I have used the term supersurfaces to describe the lightness, the evanescence of planes of civic engagement sustained by several social media platforms. Some have also described the form of engagement that these media invite as being of a rather thin or light nature, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. I wrote about this in A Private Sphere, and Ethan Zuckerman writes extensively about the civic merit behind thin acts of civic engagement.

And so for #egypt, as I found in my own research and wrote about in Affective Publics, Twitter permitted several diasporic and interconnected publics to chime in and produce, through the storytelling conventions of repetition (retweeting) and reinforcement, a collective chant of a revolution in the making, well before the movement itself had resulted in regime reversal (and some would argue that the movement still has not produced the comprehensive regime reversal they were hoping for). These forms of affective involvement can be key in connecting energies and helping reflexively drive movements forward. But they can also entangle publics in ongoing loops of engaged passivity.

 

As you note, there has been classically a tendency to separate out affect and reason and to be suspicious of politics that is motivated by emotion. Yet, even in the heart of the “Age of Reason,” it was possible to write about “the pursuit of happiness” as part of the rationale for democratic governance. So, can we ever fully separate out affect and reason when discussing political movements?

Never. But for some reason we really want to separate affect from reason, perhaps because we think they may be easier to control that way.

There is the tendency to want to separate the two, especially in terms of how we speak about emotion and logic in our everyday lives. But, in reading about affect and reason as I was working on this book, I can’t say that any of the great philosophers who have looked at affect and reason intended for this separation to occur. We may focus on each term separately so as to define it properly, but really, so much philosophical work is consumed with explaining how the two modes of affect and reason connect and are meant to work together and inform each other, especially in attaining inner balance – what we may come to interpret as a state of happiness.

Affect and reason : One cannot exist without the other, and one cannot be defined in the absence of the other. So like we frequently do in such cases, we assume there is a binary distinction of some sort between the modes that renders them opposite forces. We make the same mistake in defining public vs. private, placing them on opposite ends of a continuum, and then falsely assume that to have more of one means giving up some of the other, when that is really not the case.

My hope is to reunite the two in terms of how we use social media to tell stories about ourselves and listen to stories that others share, thus developing emotionally informed literacies that help us understand and connect with the world surrounding us.

Zizi Papacharissi  is professor and head of the Communication Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her work focuses on the social and political consequences of online media. Her books include A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age (Polity Press, 2010),  A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (Routledge, 2010),  and Journalism and Citizenship: New Agendas (Taylor & Francis, 2009). She has also authored over 40 journal articles, book chapters or reviews, and serves on the editorial board of eleven journals, including the Journal of Communication, Human Communication Research, and New Media and Society. Zizi is the editor of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and the new open access and available for free Sage journal Social Media and Society. Her fourth book, titled Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics is out in November 2014 by Oxford University Press.

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Five)

I was struck by a lacuna on p.128 where you start to distinguish your concept of world-building from transmedia storytelling. I wanted to see if I could get you to spell out more fully your distinction here, since you stop rather short in the text. Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on Trek as a television series, even as you discuss the feature films in relation to the television franchise. Yet we might also point at various moments in its history to key roles played by the novels, comics, games, and other extensions of Star Trek, suggesting that while there is a distinction between world-building and transmedia extension, in this case, the Trek world was built up across multiple media. Thoughts?

First, let’s say that, given our focus on Star Trek as television we decided that we simply could not deal with the whole franchise because that would have precluded us from dealing with television Star Trek in the depth that we wanted to. Showing yet again that there’s always more to say about Star Trek, there’s still a book to be written about the franchise and transmedia storytelling (although Derek Johnson does have many interesting thinks to say about this in his book on franchises).

Second, it’s important to recognize that while we tend to associate world building with multiple texts, any fiction, even a short story, has to engage in world building. To draw again on narrative theory, a fiction has to establish its relationship to the ‘real’ world – its proximity to or distance from an historical ‘reality’. It then has to construct a credible world based on this proximity or distance. So for example, in a novel about the Napoleonic wars, like War and Peace, Tolstoi can inject fictional characters into a real historical setting and the presumption is, that with the exception of those characters, everything else will match the ‘historical reality’.

Fantasy fiction, precisely because it’s more distant from the ‘real’ world, has to work harder at world building, establishing the key differences between its world and the world we know. Star Trek began building its distinctive future world in its very first episode, introducing audiences to the military organization of the Enterprise, future technologies and the like. Even had the series ended there a corner of the Star Trek world, albeit a very small one, would nonetheless have been constructed. But in Star Trek’s case the world building continued over more than seven hundred television episodes and over other media.

We’d want to make a basic distinction between world building, which can occur in a single medium, either in a short story or over 700 plus episodes of a television show, and transmedia storytelling, which we would argue by definition has to involve two or more media. Maybe if all the worldbuilding is done within one medium we need a new term – we used ‘extended seriality’ to refer to the Star Trek television shows’ worldbuilding.

This is the kind of one-medium world building that takes place in comic books; so, for example, the Batman world has been undergoing construction and refurbishment and some degree of demolishment since 1939. Even though various comics titles contribute to this world building it still takes place in one medium. Anthony Smith has a very good chapter on the Bat-world’s continuity strategies in the reboot of The Many Lives of the Batman, Many More Lives of the Batman, which Roberta co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (it will be out next year with BFI Publishing). Picking up on Bobby Allen’s analysis of soaps, he argues that the writers construct both syntagmatic and paradigmatic seriality as they seek to satisfy dedicated readers and keep casual ones happy, introducing a subtle continuity that the latter will recognize but which won’t baffle the latter.

Transmedia storytelling raises problems of coordination and integration and consumer behaviour that single-medium, and sometimes single-authored, world building doesn’t. One of Roberta’s doctoral student’s, Matthew Freeman, is just finishing a terrific dissertation on the pre-convergence history of trans-media storytelling. He argues that world building is one of the factors, together with characters and authors, that hold transmedia worlds together to a greater or lesser extent. So we would see world building as a necessary condition for, but not coterminous with, trans-media storytelling. But, as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘these are deep waters, Watson’ and we can either stop here or engage in a protracted discussion of media industries and of narrative theory. So we’ll go on to the next question.

Your focus on the future of Star Trek in the conclusion focuses almost entirely on official television production, yet you could argue that Trek does exist in a Post-Network era in the form of various fan-produced web-series on the one hand and the J.J. Abrams produced feature films on the other. How might we extend your arguments if we incorporated these two forms of textual production into the mix?

Yes, once again those are topics that we couldn’t really address within the scope of the book, although they are of course important, since at the moment its only in the Abrams and fan films that Star Trek exists on the screen (other than the endless reruns of the various series all over the channel spectrum that is –and of course in games which should also be given some consideration). Looking at these texts raises very interesting questions about who and what is Star Trek.

Considering the Abrams films and the fan films would require addressing in more detail than we did in the book issues of authorship and branding. It would also require considering issues of canonicity, which we didn’t touch on in the book except somewhat indirectly in terms of Roddenberry’s conception of the Star Trek world. In terms of the feature films, you’d have to think about whether or not these are seen as part of the ‘official’ canon because of the change in perceived authorship. We make an argument in the book concerning the importance of the Roddenberry brand to Star Trek television even years after his death. But has this continued now that Star Trek no longer exists as television?

Roberta’s doctoral student, Leora Hadas, has a forthcoming piece in Cinema Journal (“A New Vision: J. J Abrams, Star Trek and Promotional Authorship”) in which she analyses the tensions between the Roddenberry and Abrams brands in the publicity for the Star Trek films. Her conclusion, as we remember it, is that relatively little attention was paid to Roddenberry and for the most part only in sources specifically directed at the fan base.

The whole point of the reboot was to bring in new viewers, who might not even know about Roddenberry and Paramount doesn’t seem to have had much concern for the core fan base in that regard (even though Roddenberry’s name features prominently on the posters for the first film and in the credits for both). And, if we may be permitted a personal observation, we think that Abrams has gone so far off-brand that he’s turned Star Trek into Star Wars, just another space-opera, spectacle-filled blockbuster. We’d be interested to know whether this is a perception shared by the fans.

Must admit that we’ve only watched snatches of the fan films, but we would suspect that they are much more ‘faithful’ to the established television canon than the Abrams films, as indicated by their efforts to incorporate writers from the original series. So it seems that further commercial exploitation of Star Trek has to be predicated on drawing in new viewers, which means downplaying authorship and canonicity, while the fans have much more of an attachment to the canon. In that sense, it may be the fan films in which for some of us the ‘real’ Star Trek lives on.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

 

SEE YA NEXT YEAR!

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Four)

A key tension on any television series is that directors come and go but actors tend to develop a stronger ownership of their characters over time. To what degree have Star Trek actors been able to shape the characters they play?

In the book we point to this key tension as one of the primary determinants of the actors’ agency. Over the course of a long-running show they tend to take ownership of their characters, partly because no one else, including the writers, really does.

Part of this comes from the natural tendency that actors have toward wanting more screen time, so if they are powerful enough they can lobby for this. But it also comes from professional standards, which gets back to the question about a good script. The actors believe in consistent characterization, having their characters engage in actions and speak dialogue that they believe flows naturally from previous representations of the character.

In the book, we have a long quote from Patrick Stewart about his input in to the last TNG film, Nemesis, in which he says that he changed the script to make it more consistent with his vision of the character. But he also pointed out that not all actors can do that. As we argue, there’s a hierarchy of agency within any ensemble cast with the stars usually having more control over their characters than secondary cast members. And in Star Trek, the captain had more control than anyone which leads on to your next question.

While fans have often been drawn to secondary characters, there are strong television logics which work to insure the centrality of the Captains to our experience of the series. What are some of the ways that these television production logics re-assert themselves?

Herman Zimmerman, production designer on all the post-TOS series told us when we interviewed him that originally the TNG bridge was oval, with “a big oval conference table.” But that didn’t work, because “it didn’t give the captain precedence. And one of the things that Gene was really regretting, but then he realized that he had no other choice, the star of the series had to be the captain. He wanted every one of the crew members to be the star . . . but always the captain has to have the last word, and the captain has to have the bulk of the action or the audience is confused.”

Even in shows with large ensemble casts, like TNG, it seems that, to become a bit theoretical, there has to be a focus of narrative alignment, a character whose perspective guides viewers through the narrative or with whom they can ‘identify’. That’s tricky because, although both Murray Smith and Jason Mittell write about narrative alignment, they do so from a somewhat formalist and cognitive perspective. There’s no empirical audience research that we know of to back up the claim.

However, it certainly seems that television writers believe that there has to be a dominant focus of narrative alignment. One of the beauties of a long running series is that it does have the space to focus occasionally on secondary characters. But we would hypothesise that in any long running show from TNG to ER to Lost to Madmen, many episodes will be ‘star-centric’ with the remaining spread among the secondary characters. The only real exception that we can think of to this rule is The Wire which initially set up McNulty in a way that made it seem he would be the central character and then strayed away from him in the second season. In The Wire Baltimore was the main character in a way but this is the exception that proves the rule and we can’t think of another example of this strategy.

And of course not just the logics of television but the long-established logics of Hollywood centre around the star system, that gives some actors higher billing and more money than others. As we detail in the book, this became a point of contention between William Shatner, who because he was the Captain thought he was the star, and Leonard Nimoy, who very quickly became an audience favourite.

I generally respect your decision to bracket off the study of Star Trek fans from the study of the production process. I was struck, though, reading your chapter on character that this was somewhat problematic, and pleased that you added a brief, but important, discussion here about the ways character operates somewhat differently in fan fiction from on the aired episodes. That said, while it is true that we do not yet have a very conceptually rich way of talking about television characters, much work on Star Trek fandom has argued that it is very much a character-centered approach to understanding the series, hence the charge sometimes made against fan fiction that it is moving from space opera to soap opera. What might we learn if we brought together your production studies approach to how the creative team thought about the Star Trek characters with a more audience-centered approach on how fans conceived of these same characters?

That was another of those pragmatic decisions intended to keep the book from becoming a multi-volume series. Certainly no disrespect was intended to the fans who are such an important part of the Star Trek phenomenon, but you and others have devoted many pages to them and Trekkers are undoubtedly the most studied of all fandoms. And we ourselves talk about how the fans of the original series may have helped to push the networks towards a more nuanced understanding of their audiences.

As we’ve already said, the writers we interviewed very much stressed that they had a character-centred approach to their writing so in that sense they are to some degree aligned with fan fic writers. There are of course fans who take other pleasures from the Star Trek world, enjoying the technologies or the space battles for example, but for the most part they don’t seem to write fan fic although they might produce blueprints of the starships.

We think it would be, in Spock’s word, ‘fascinating’ to do a systematic study of the television writers’ approach to the characters versus fan fic writers. As you say, one of the key distinctions is genre, particularly when it comes to shipping in all its marvelous variations. Television soaps, which are fundamentally about relationships, can spend endless amounts of time on characters’ romantic entanglements, but other genres can’t do this. When Deep Space Nine started to have lots of romantic pairings, some referred to it rather scornfully as DS90210. Shifting genres can alienate audiences, as we saw many years ago when Twin Peaks began as a murder mystery but became supernatural in its second and final season in a shift that seems to have driven viewers away.

Also extensive exploration of characters and their relationships can, as we say in the book in the bit that you’re referring to, potentially undermine the stability of the series format. The example we give is that of the TNG episode ‘Chain of Command’ in which Picard is captured and tortured by the Cardassians. The second episode’s conclusion very quickly deals with Picard’s post-traumatic stress because he has to be back in command of the Enterprise in the next episode. But numerous fan fics deal with his recovery, particularly in terms of his relationship with the doctor, Beverly Crusher. But the television show can’t divert from its basic format of space exploration for several episodes of psychological and romantic drama that removes the Captain from the bridge. The Captain has a narrative function that he must continue to fulfill.

The different treatment of characters in the shows and in fan fic also relates to the point that we made above about an ensemble cast in which secondary characters have always to remain somewhat secondary in terms of their screen time.

There’s a good episode of Voyager called “Timeless” set fifteen years ahead of the present time line. Chakotay and Harry Kim managed to escape Voyager’s destruction and have spent the intervening years trying to find a way to undo the past. In those fifteen years Chakotay has acquired a girlfriend who helps them in their quest. Although we’ve not checked, we’d bet dollars to donuts that there are lots of fan fics filling in that narrative ellipsis and detailing the romance. But the television writers couldn’t devote time to that story not only because Chakotay is a secondary character, albeit an important one, but also because they would have had to stop telling stories about Voyager’s quest to get back to the Alpha quadrant in order to deal with events in a hypothetical future timeline.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Marie Messenger Davies (Part Three)

You raise some important points about the stability of Star Trek as an ongoing franchise over more than 18 years of production. How did this stability and predictability impact the creative process behind the show — for better or for worse?

Star Trek was very atypical in its 18 year run particularly with regard to the fact that many of the same people, like executive producer Rick Berman, stayed with the show throughout those years. As you imply this stability had its upsides and its downsides.

With regard to the first, one of the most significant upsides was that it gave the producers the chance to create one of the most extended and complex fictional universes of all time, on a scale that, with perhaps the exception of Doctor Who, no other television program has achieved. And, as we discuss in chapters five and six, this led to some very ingenious world building, with producers, many of whom had been fans of the original series, harking back not only to TOS and TNG but in the post-TNG shows to all the previous series. This results in a degree of what’s come to be called fan service that can only be achieved within a vast canon. The creative process was stimulated by this and resulted in some very memorable and for fans emotionally satisfying episodes like TNG’s “Relics” which brings back the beloved Scotty.

But as Ron Moore pointed out to us when we interviewed him, the producers also had to be careful not to cater to fans too much and not to give in completely to their own fannish instincts. Had they done so they would have been writing fan fiction and not a television show aimed at millions of viewers.

Indeed, Stephen Moffat has been criticized for too much fan service in the most recent series of Sherlock, so it can negatively impact a show’s reception and perhaps exclude new viewers. We don’t think this happened with Star Trek, but it did become increasingly difficult for new viewers to enter such a complex universe.

Enterprise was meant to reboot the franchise by being less connected to the complicated backstory, but ironically, it became the most self-referential of all the series. The successful Star Trek reboot, the one that did attract new viewers, took place in cinema not on television and without the involvement of anyone who had made the television series. By contrast Doctor Who has successfully rebooted on television both honouring the backstory and managing to draw in new viewers. But maybe that’s because it did so precisely by drawing on new voices like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. You didn’t ask us about Doctor Who, but one of the reasons that there is always more to say about Star Trek is that as a case study it raises issues that are ongoing in terms of current productions.

Stability also had an upside with regard to the production process, one that we document in the book using interviews with many of the practitioners working on the show. As they constantly told us, the Star Trek production team was a ‘family’ that had worked together so long that they communicated by way of a creative shorthand. This both facilitated the smoothness of the production process and undoubtedly led to some very good episodes.

But that ‘family’ depended on having people at the top who were good managers. Michael Piller, now sadly deceased, joined TNG in its third season, after two seasons of upheaval, turmoil and some pretty bad episodes. He drew together the current writing staff and brought in new voices. But Brannon Braga seemed to be unable to do the same thing for Enterprise, one of the factors that we speculate could have contributed to its failure.

Reflecting in retrospect on the book, we perhaps should have made more of the downside. The producers told us that one of the problems with the failed Enterprise was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write Star Trek. But maybe what they meant was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write the long-established version of Star Trek that they themselves had helped to form.

Many fans and some academics have critised Berman and his fellow executive producer Brannon Braga for exploiting Star Trek simply for profit and not caring about Roddenberry’s vision. Our interviews did not lead us to this conclusion and we strongly refute this opinion in the book. However, in hindsight, perhaps it was not only Braga’s less than excellent management skills but the failure to incorporate new voices and new ideas that made Enterprise for the most part an inferior retread of the previous series.

You write about “Roddenberry’s Box” and the ways that founding concepts about what constitutes a Star Trek story have both enabled and constrained future creative contributions. What are some of the ways creative talent has negotiated in and around that Box through the years?

As we discuss in the introduction of the book, and at a number of points throughout, Roddenberry has become a ‘brand’ – the only name associated with television Trek to be given a credit in the new movie franchise. As such he represents both commercial value, but also something more intangible – what Kerry McCluggage referred to as a ‘vision’, and what writers sometimes referred to, using the more restrictive metatphor of a ‘box’. McCluggage told us:

“You do try to factor that [the Roddenberry vision] in, because that’s part of the appeal of Star Trek. He had an optimistic view of the future. He had a whole notion of how the Federation would evolve, and the Prime Directive, and things that are key elements in the show and values that are inherent in the show. In exploiting this property on a commercial basis, you really do find yourself going back to that, thinking, How does this fit in with the original vision of the show?”

Which is all very well, for the CEO, but for a writer the ‘vision’ and its strict rules could raise practical problems of narrative structure, not to mention a tendency for the ‘vision’, paradoxically, to generate conflict among the production team.

The two writers who specifically referred to the Roddenberry Box were Michael Piller, and Ronald D. Moore and they gave us specific examples of how they worked both within it, and around it. Piller described Roddenberry’s strict insistence that in the 23rd century (the period of TOS), “there wasn’t a lot of conflict between the characters because with the disappearance of want, poverty, disease, people were out pursuing a better quality of life;” this caused arguments among his writing team, who felt that conflict was necessary in a drama.

He described how he got round these strict rules in TNG’s ‘The Bonding’ [3:5] by using Gene’s insistence that in this advanced era of humanity nobody grieved when someone died, as a hook to develop a more interesting story. “The freakiest thing you’ve ever seen . . . a kid that doesn’t cry when his mother dies” enabled Piller and his team to bring forward an underdeveloped character, Counsellor Troi, to “strip down” to the underlying emotions of the bereft child. This was a good example of writers’ resourcefulness in being able to kill different birds with the same stone – giving Marina Sirtis a more satisfying role, which she had wanted, as well as solving a narrative problem arising from the restrictions of the ‘vision.’

Piller described how the Roddenberry Box suited him, and it became, to some extent, “ the Piller box”. Ron Moore, the author of “The Bonding”, also described arguments over the fight between the Picard brothers in a TNG episode he wrote – a two parter called “Family” [4:1 and 4:2]. On this occasion, Piller and Berman were able to prevail over Roddenberry and to leave the fight in – despite the fact that Roddenberry didn’t want it. These discussions are described more fully in Chapter 2 of the book, ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and also in a chapter by Máire: “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of Television Storytellers,” in Quality Television: American Contemporary Television and Beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 171–84.

You describe how the creative talent on the series tends to stress the importance of “good scripts” in triggering the production process. What are some of the traits they associated with a “good” Star Trek script?

First, let’s address this question from a more general perspective. Judgments as to good and bad have been largely dodged by people within media and cultural studies, because of the influence of theories of cultural relativism. As we told you, we did try to come to grips with questions of quality in a chapter that didn’t make it into the book, both because the book was getting too big and because we didn’t manage to resolve the debate to our own satisfaction. But since producers, critics and audiences all continue to make value judgments it’s important that academics address this issue. And in doing so, it’s vital to listen to what practitioners have to say about their own value judgments, even though they might believe in them implicitly and find them hard to articulate.

That being said, in terms of Star Trek, perhaps surprisingly in light of its genre, the writers and others’ evaluation of scripts depended on criteria that were established with 19th century literary and dramatic realism. Perhaps primary among these is what you might call fully developed, rounded or psychologically motivated characters whose motivations contribute to story development. Several of our interviewees, especially Michael Piller, emphasized the importance of character above all.

So a good script might be one that advanced a character’s arc through giving him a dilemma to grapple with and resolve. Piller told us that the fan favourite “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter in which Picard gets assimilated by the Borg is really more about first officer Riker’s decision to take his own command or stay with the Enterprise.

A good script could also explore the ongoing relationship between two characters. Good characterization, consistent with the previous establishment of the character, we think, was the overarching criterion determining whether a script was good or bad. Scripts would also have to be like the proverbial ‘well-made’ play or for that matter, classical Hollywood film, setting up and resolving enigmas and wrapping up everything neatly at the end.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger (Part Two)

You discuss Star Trek as in some ways a transitional text between the models of the mass audience and the least objectionable programming which shaped the early network era and the model of the niche or segmented audience which would inform the multi-network or post-network era. This seems closely connected to your idea that the series is both representative and exceptional to the television practices of its time. So, what was it about Star Trek which encouraged networks and producers to think differently about television audiences?

In our chapter 1, on Star Trek and television history, hopefully we make it clear that during the network era, the networks and producers didn’t really ‘think differently’ about TV audiences, even though there’s obviously evidence that audiences were already ‘niche-ing’ themselves by becoming active fans. Star Trek fans certainly did this, although they didn’t affect the network’s decision to cancel the show. In terms of the industry’s attitudes, it’s only with hindsight that we (and other writers on Star Trek) have been able to see that what saved the show/franchise during this era was the beginnings of a ‘niche’ audience when it was sold to Kaiser Broadcasting for syndication.

In 1967 Kaiser syndicated it at 6 pm against the news on other channels, calculating that this would attract ‘young males.’ We describe the ‘faint signals’ of the future of specialized audience targets on pp 45- 46. Star Trek fans were the elusive 18-25 age group and they were even prepared to ‘march in the street’ to try to save their show. But NBC at that stage cancelled it because success was still primarily measured in mass numbers. To some extent it continued to be and still is – Enterprise failed in 2005 because it didn’t get high ratings, other shows still fail for the same reason.

But as we point out, ‘eras’ don’t neatly stop and give way to the next one; there’s always overlap and even in the fragmentary downloading world of today, the ‘mass’ audience has continued alongside ‘niches’, who are of course, components of the ‘mass’.

We collected a lot of information about audience behavior in 2002; Mike Mellon, the head of audience research at Paramount gave us masses of material, wonderful breakdowns of demographics within the Neilsen ratings, and Paramount’s own qualitative research. But this kind of information tends to be ephemeral and because our book was written over such an extended period of time, anything we said about particular audience figures would have been outdated.

We also had some audience research of our own – questionnaire and interview data collected at different cultural venues, and we’ve referred to some of it in other writings (see references in the bibliography), but again, we decided it didn’t quite fit the shape of the book in its final version. But we certainly do think that audiences are important and interesting, and Star Trek audiences especially so.

You write at the end of the book, “Without Roddenberry, there may have been no Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Chris Carter, or whoever else may follow in their footsteps.” So, what role did Roddenberry’s self-promotion as a producer/author contribute to the contemporary concept of the show runner?

It’s always hard to make historical connections across time, so not sure that we’d want to argue for direct causality here. What’s needed is an historical study on the rise of the showrunner in US television from about the 1970s onwards, including key figures like Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling. That book would have to account for all the other changes that were going on during those decades, particularly the shift from the classical network era to the multi-channel era that began to put the emphasis on named producers as a way of distinguishing content in a much more competitive environment.

That being said, you’re really asking two different questions here, one about the role of the showrunner within the industry and one about the role of the showrunner as a publicity mechanism.

With regard to the first, that’s something that the book waiting to be written would need to engage with. While Roddenberry functioned like a modern showrunner in that he was both producer and writer (although he actually wrote relatively few of the Star Trek scripts), how many of his peers did the same? And while he seems to have exercised the same degree of overall control and oversight that his successors now have, did his contemporaries have that same degree of control and oversight? In other words, were there producers in the classical network era whom we would want retrospectively to dub showrunners aside from Roddenberry (and probably Rod Serling)?

And we shouldn’t forget of course, that a lot of the people with whom Roddenberry worked, particularly Herb Solow, resent the extent to which Roddenberry attempted to co-opt all the credit for Star Trek. One of the most important arguments in our book is that a good television show requires the input of a lot of talented people. Roddenberry presented himself as Star Trek’s sole auteur but there would have been no Star Trek without Solow, associate producer Robert Justman, and all the others who worked on the show. But, today at least, it also seems to require a named individual to serve Foucault’s author function – to market the show.

We think it’s easier to make an argument for Roddenberry having served to some extent as a template for subsequent showrunners with regard to their publicizing themselves and their shows as opposed to the specific production tasks he undertook. In the classical network era, this self-publicity was most unusual, not really necessary and probably resented to some extent by NBC.

In that era, it was assumed that most shows, let alone their producers, would not really stand out much from the pack. That’s because the three networks were content to divide the mass audience between them, airing ‘least objectionable programming’ the goal of which was to keep people tuned into the same network throughout the evening. Shows were associated with networks, rather than with named individuals, except for their star actors of course.

But Roddenberry showed that it was possible to engage in a discourse of artistry and authorship that distinguished him and his show from the pack. And as you say somewhere, viewers, fans particularly, are culturally inclined toward a belief in auteurism, a single guiding voice that creates meaning throughout a programme’s episodes.

In Roddenberry’s case, as we discuss, that guiding voice became elevated to ‘Roddenberry’s vision’, a utopic notion of the future associated with him and with Star Trek. In that regard, we can’t really think of a single one of today’s showrunners who have had quite the same cultural impact, probably because the field is much more crowded; there’s much more content and many more people producing it. And of course, in the tele-fantasy genre Roddenberry got there first.

Fans may refer to the ‘Whedon-verse’ and critics may characterize aspects of Whedon-produced or directed texts as ‘Whedon-esque’ but that refers to a certain style and tone rather than a complete world, which is what Roddenberry is associated with. The more we think about it, the more we think it might be the case that being in a sense a man out of time, a post-network showrunner in the classical network era, Roddenberry was actually a one-off. But that’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested with empirical research.

One could also argue that Star Trek’s appeal to its intellectual pedigree — from the science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, or Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote for the series, to its ongoing references to Rocket Scientists and Harvard/MIT students in describing its audience, helps to establish the contemporary concept of “quality television.” What qualities were ascribed to Star Trek in its heyday and to what degree do these anticipate or contrast with the “complex narratives” and “novelistic characters” associated with today’s quality dramas?

That’s a whole book in itself. In one of our earlier drafts there was a whole chapter called ‘Is it any good? The quality of Star Trek.’ Looking at this discarded ‘quality’ chapter again, I see we offer a number of definitions of ‘quality’ and address the question of ‘is it any good’? in a number of ways. We look at academic definitions of ‘good’ e.g. Charlotte Brunsdon’s: ‘[it’s good] in terms of its closeness to already-‘legitimate’ cultural forms, such as theatre or literature. Secondly, it is seen to be good because ‘it poses a privileged relation to ‘the real’’. In our discarded chapter we argue that Star Trek meets both of these criteria. We also discuss ideological interpretations of ‘good’ – is it sensitive to minorities, and to the representation of race, gender and general ‘otherness’? – the subjects of a very great deal of writing on Trek. And we particularly quote our production interviewees on their definitions of ‘quality,’ such as Michael Westmore comparing his work on alien makeup with that of Star Wars, which he described as ‘a real cheap job.’

We also discuss a couple of individual episodes that we thought were ‘good.’ Much of this material got lifted and dispersed to other chapters in the final version of the book: the craftworkers and writers’ views on ‘good’ appear in Chapter 2,’ ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and Chapter 3, ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production’. Textual aspects of quality are woven into the textual chapters at the end of the book on worldbuilding and character, where the ideology question is also addressed – here, mainly by arguing for Trek’s ‘heteroglossic’ characteristics. The best of Trek, such as the TNG episode, ‘The High Ground’, offers ambiguity not clarity, enabling diverse interpretation, which again, is a traditional literary criterion of quality.

Because Star Trek has been such an enduring show, it ought to be possible to make comparisons between it and other ‘high quality’ TV shows contemporary with it over the years, for example at Emmy awards. But, as several of the writers pointed out, Trek has never been honoured by its peers in this way. Berman was indignant that Patrick Stewart never got an Emmy for his performance as Captain Picard. Ron Moore told us how he suppressed his Trek work in his resume because he thought it wouldn’t be taken seriously and Patrick Stewart had similar reservations about foregrounding his Trek work, proud as he was of it.

The craft workers, on the other hand, have received multiple awards over the years, thus highlighting the division between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ positions in the creative hierarchy – a division which we argue, in our book, is somewhat artificial in terms of how the final product gets produced. Everyone has to pull together: the line producers Merri Howard and Peter Lauritson, who had to make sure everything ‘gelled’, and came in within budget, were particularly enlightening on this aspect of ‘quality.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies (Part One)

The book recently published by Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies might well have been titled The Making of Star Trek, but that title was already taken, by none other than Gene Roddenberry, who published the book as part of his campaign to promote and protect the series in the 1960s. Instead, they called their book, Star Trek and American Television.

As far as I can tell, no other academic has had the degree of access to the “above the line” and “below the line” workers who helped to create Star Trek as these two did. And, as a result, we have never before had such a rich account of its production process and of the ways that Star Trek fits within larger trends within the television industry. They do not set out to demystify Roddenberry’s original book, precisely, but the effect is to shift the focus away from the notion of Roddenberry’s authorship onto the collaborative process by which television is produced. Roddenberry certainly has a central role here, as will be clear from the frequency with which his name surfaces in the following interview, but they also direct attention onto the many collaborators who helped to shape that original “vision” and onto the many who have carried forward Star Trek‘s legacy to the current day.

Anyone who knows me knows how central Star Trek has been to my life on so many levels. I have myself written two books in which Star Trek plays a key role. But in recent years, I have declined many invitations to say or write more about Star Trek because I was skeptical that there was much more that could be said.

Pearson and Davies proved me wrong: there are new insights and new historical details on every page of this book. Star Trek and American Television is the kind of book that could only be written now — now that we have some historical perspective on the ways that this iconic series fit within the evolution of television as a medium, looking forward in some ways to developments in terms of ideas about franchising, world-building, and audiences, that are only being fully realized today.

As an interviewer, I am bit rude to these authors (both old friends), pushing them to speak about topics that are just on the margins of the book, getting them to revisit the decisions they made about what to include or develop in depth. My bet is that as a reader, you will appreciate some of the insights I got them to scoop up off the cutting room floor here. But at the end of the day, I agree with most of their editorial decisions. This book works because they focus on Star Trek as a television series, not as a cult phenomenon, not as a fandom, not as a transmedia franchise. Dealing with Star Trek as a television series encourages us to look upon it in a new way and at the same time, to use its history to shed light on the possibilities of television as a medium.

This five part interview will constitute my last posts for this blog in 2014. I need some time to refresh myself, to get more interview questions out to authors, to focus on finishing up some of my own writing projects. But, I think you will agree that this exchange ends the year on a highpoint.

I’ve known Pearson for most of my academic career. Our overlapping interests has led to us working together in many ways through the years. And I have a great appreciation for what she has contributed to our understanding of popular heroes (including The Batman and Sherlock Holmes) and cult media. Through her, I’ve also gotten to know her co-author, Davies, who has produced a great deal of important work on children’s television and the notion of quality as it relates to popular media. So, I am delighted to share with you their reflections here on “the Making of Star Trek” and so much more.


Many readers may be skeptical –as I was initially — that the world needs another book on the Star Trek franchise. So, let’s tackle that right away. What are people going to learn from this book that they do not already know?

As we explain in the introduction and opening chapters, of all the myriad books that have been published on Star Trek, we believe that none of them has effectively dealt with its core status as ‘a television show’ (William Shatner’s description of it, to us, in our interview with him.) On p. 9 of our book, we discuss the Star Trek entry in Oxford Bibliographies by Dan Bernardi and Michael Green, which lists the following categories of academic literature on the subject of Star Trek: ‘reference works and bibliographies; anthologies; fandom; popular culture; critical race studies; gender studies; sexuality studies; religion; technoculture; and nationalism and geopolitics’. It doesn’t list television studies.

In this book we are writing as television scholars, not fan scholars, nor sci-fi scholars, nor national geopolitics scholars, and we are admirers of the television show but we’re not – (and we’re really sorry about this word, I don’t know how it happened, after all our careful proof reading) – ‘Trekkies’ in the sense of being the kinds of fans who attend conventions, write fanfic and the like.

So, as our research proceeded, our question became: why didn’t anyone write about Star Trek as television because the programme is a really terrific case for examining the history of American television.

The project started life as core material for a teaching module on ‘Television, Culture and Society’ on the undergraduate course TV, Film and Journalism at Cardiff University. Because we were both keen on the show, and wanted to teach about it, we decided to adapt the TV, culture & society module to enable us to use Star Trek as a case study about television: the course included lectures on television production; TV history; TV economics; American /British contrasts; aesthetic and narrative aspects; TV audiences. The book went through various incarnations since we began the project in 1999, losing some cherished aspects of our original module on the way (including a big chunk about audiences – not just fans, but audiences, Nielsen data etc.) But we never lost sight of the fact that we wanted to talk about Star Trek as television, and that was our selling point to UC Press back in 2000.

The other unique aspect of it, we believe, is the interview material. We were lucky to be helped by Patrick Stewart to gain access to so many Paramount workers, from executive producers to make-up artists to actors to set builders to writers to craft workers, during our visit to Hollywood in 2002, funded by a grant from the British Academy. We think that the insights these interviewees gave us don’t appear to the same extent in other literature on Star Trek, partly because our research questions focused very specifically on televisual aspects. In particular, because we talked to people who were working together as we met them (on the TV Enterprise and the film Nemesis at the same time), there were constant references to, and plentiful evidence of, their interdependence as a working team. Collaboration and co-operation emerged as key components of how a TV production is put together, which was one of the main questions we were pursuing.

We were privileged to meet these people at work, and it was as industrial workers (very hardworking workers) that they came across, not as showbiz luminaries. This was one of the most illuminating and paradoxical revelations of the Star Trek phenomenon as we observed it. It has been such a valuable financial property within a huge global, capitalistic corporation but what we saw was its socialistic way of working.

One of our most revealing interviewees on this aspect was construction co-ordinator, Tom Arp, head of his Local trade union, who’d been working on the show for 14 years, and told us ‘the people on this show pretty much work together as a family’. (All the Star Trek workers we spoke to were unionized). In one of our discarded passages, we wrote about how interdependence and collaboration, rather than conflict and individual heroism, are essential narrative tropes, particularly in the female-dominated Voyager (see e.g. the episode, ‘One’). If the whole team doesn’t pull together, the ship is doomed – the experiences of the working production team often seemed to be reflected in these kinds of ‘socialistic’ storylines, which we suggest, is one of the enduring aspects of the Roddenberry Utopian ‘vision’ (see more comment about the ‘vision’ below). Interdependence between different levels of above and below the line workers is discussed more fully in our chapter on ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

Paul, you make a case in the book for curation as a “media literacy imperative” in an age of participatory culture. How are you defining curation and what has made it such an urgent skill? And again, how can we think about curation in relation to the ideas of teaching about media and teaching through media you discussed above?

Paul: In a paper I recently published titled, Exploring Curation as a Core Competency in Digital and Media Literacy Education, I contextualized curation as:

The word curate derives from the Latin root Curare, or ‘to cure.’ To curate, historically, has meant to take charge of or organize, to pull together, sift through, select for presentation, to heal and to preserve. Traditionally reserved for those who worked with physical materials in museum or library settings, curation today has evolved to apply to what we are all doing online. The preservation and organization of content online is now largely the responsibility of the individual in highly personalized information spaces. This has created a need to understand how individuals choose to pull together, sift through, organize, and present information within these spaces.

I think there is an urgency to curation, at least now with some semblance of free choice online, largely because young people can design their own engagement with information with more choices and diversity than they ever have in the past. At least in terms of strict content and platform. In an age of filter bubbles, search algorithms, sponsored content, and endless aggregators trying to personal and define our information needs, I think it’s an imperative that we teach ability to organize, sift, sort and continuously recreate the type of content diets that we want and need.

As a result, I think curation becomes a core competency in media education today. From issues of access, values, identity, assessment, sharing and express, we must continue to ask how these are situated in the context of engagement with me, but also use of media. These involve social and informal information sharing and consumption, but also in civic spaces. Curation has been decentralized from the few to the many. Knowing how to effectively navigate, use and create strong media is, I argue, an essential skill for all citizens in digital culture.

Your book offers a survey of the ways media literacy is practiced in a number of distinctive countries and regions. What do you see as the most significant continuities across these various contexts? Where do you see the most significant differences emerging?

Paul: Of course the unique approaches to media literacy pedagogy and practice emerge from different educational, political, cultural and social properties of a specific society. In our book, we tried to find a nice balance of media literacy scholarship and practice to highlight. We sought voices from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, so we could show what’s similar and what’s unique. The similarities all rest on the aim to engage young people in competencies to critically analyze media. The more traditional model of media literacy approaches, if you will. That’s to a large degree because in places like Lebanon and Hong Kong, media literacy is still emerging as a pedagogical concept. As a result, they are still finding their footing in terms of how to implement and build media literacy as a skill set for their youth. Luckily, they have a wealth of information, content, and experience to choose from, so they’ll be scaling up rather quickly.

Most importantly, I think the differences that emerge in this space are embedded in socio-cultural practices that reflect media systems and government control. In places that have arguably less “free” media systems, media literacy is not so much about expression and voice as it is nuanced consumption. In places where political dissent is vibrant, media literacy is embedded in more narratives around corruption, propaganda, and civic inquiry. Interestingly, most forms of media literacy practice and pedagogy around the world are embedded in formal communication practices, and not many about information or participatory spaces. By that I mean that most media literacy approaches from emerging parts of the world focus on more traditional media literacy content (news, political speeches, ads) and less in newer cultural spaces (fan clubs, social networks, and so on).

I think, overall, the trends will continue to move to a more similar place, because a lot of research, pedagogy and practice are now being shared. And more media literacy scholars from around the world are meeting at conferences, publishing together, and doing more work alongside each other in general.

Many ideas about “21st Century Learning” stress the kinds of skills needed for performing well in the classroom and the workplace. Where do notions of civic or citizen-related skills fit into these models? In what ways might media literacy be understood as an effort to bring about social change?

Paul: This is a great question, and one close to my heart. I’ve just published a new book titled Media Literacy & the Emerging Citizen, that explores the role of media literacy in civic life. This is more about social change than formal pedagogy. I would argue, however, that pedagogy is at the center of long term civic engagement and social change, it’s just not explicitly made known. I think media literacy has a lot of growing to do in the social and civic change space, and that’s an area where we need to grow the field. Our book takes this topic on briefly with a chapter on citizenship by Frank Gallagher of Cable in the Classroom, but most of the work is pedagogically centered. I’d personally like to see media literacy be the civic education of the future.

Perhaps that’s the next book 🙂

Some have been skeptical of the need for media literacy education in schools because so many youth are “digital natives” who grew up with the technology and are more adept online than most of the adults around them. The Harvard Good Play project has found that most youth lack mentors who can talk with them about the choices they make as participants in online communities. And, of course, access to technologies and to meaningful experiences online are unevenly distributed across the culture. What roles might formal media literacy education play in addressing the digital divide and the participation gap?

Belinha: As I stated previously, I think the term “digital natives” is loosely used to correlate with “digital savviness,” and that’s a concern because most of the time it isn’t true. Just because we have a generation of students who have grown up with technology does not make them adept at being online. Most students I see in schools working online tend to not go past the first page of any search results, and then turn around to the teacher and say they can’t find anything on their given topic. Just because a teen can find their way through their social network does not mean that they can search for viable, truthful, or accurate information. In fact, that is evenly distributed across the line when we are looking at how youth engage with each other online and they make some major social gaffes. What I mean is that we are looking at two different problems. There is the technology component which drives how students interact with each other. There is also the adolescent maturation point where that part hasn’t caught up with the part of themselves which is engaged in an online community. They need social skills that transcend face-to-face to online. The digital divide isn’t just about technology, it is about interrelations and lack thereof. We have a generation of students who have not learned how to interact as people. They have allowed the computer to be their voice without actually having a history or a background to that voice. The mentorship that they need is in bridging their knowledge of themselves with the knowledge of how they want to be represented. Media literacy education provides them with opportunity to understand representation and what that means on a worldwide scale. It helps them to consider multiple viewpoints and not the singularity of one –themselves.

Given the lack of formal media literacy education in many American schools, media literacy creeps in around the edges, through, for example, the work of librarians or museums and institutions or churches. What roles can these organizations play in ensuring wide access to core media literacy skills?

Belinha: I think these places offer opportunity- creative opportunity for engagement which is not offered in schools as much. Besides being places which are considering the innovators and the creators of educators, museum and libraries are providing resources that would not be accessible elsewhere. They are offering classes and opportunities with new technologies because they are reaching a very public platform. Libraries in particular tend to have an open-door policy when it comes to engaging with students or other patrons. They hold up the ideas that censorship is not acceptable. They provide patrons with books, databases, and the most current materials which may oftentimes not be available in schools. They have become the house for children whose parents can’t afford certain technologies including the basics of infrastructure such as Wifi. They already offer production classes. Why not infuse those classes with media literacy? Asking key questions as students work to get them to think more deeply is important. Helping students to problem solve, consider multiple points of view, or even understanding real-world questions related to money and power. It doesn’t have to formal, but sure put it up on a sign that teaching and learning in the structure of a museum or library is done with through the guide of media literacy education.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.