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

Many of us have a strong sense that gender differences are enforced in Japanese culture. I had the experience of crossing to the wrong section of a manga shop in Akihabara and seeming to create some consternation amongst the other patrons. Yet, in many ways, moe itself involves various kinds of transgressions of gender barriers – men consuming texts created initially for a market of young girls. Can you share with us a bit more about the ways gender is reinforced or transgressed in the moe culture you are describing? What does moe masculinity look like?

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that moe is somehow limited to male fans of media featuring or originally targeting young girls. For one of my first major research projects in Japan, I spent a year with female fans of manga and anime, who referred to themselves as fujoshi, which means “rotten girls.” Why rotten? Well, because they enjoyed watching manga and anime featuring charismatic male characters, who they then would imagine sexual relationships between. They drew fanzines about these imagined romantic and sexual relationships, which they called “couplings,” and then sold these fanzines at conventions or published them online.

Their activities are not really that different from the writers of slash fiction that you wrote about in Textual Poachers, except that they typically were interested in characters from manga, anime and games rather than live-action TV shows and film. This is simply a reflection of the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, which provides charismatic male characters. Also in line with the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, these fujoshi tended to draw their fanzines instead of writing textual stories. But aside from growing up in manga and anime culture, fujoshi are not so different from slashers. Indeed, male-male romantic fan-fiction, which is called yaoi in Japan, got started in the late 1970s, which is around the same time that it did in North America and Europe.

The presence of these female fans in Japan in the 1970s is also interesting because they were there in the early days of “otaku culture,” when manga and anime were beginning to attract mature and intense fans. Too often we ignore the presence of these female fans, despite the fact that some of the earliest records of anime fan clubs date back to Umi no Toriton (Triton of the Sea), which was dominated by female fans, including Kotani Mari. The critic Sasakibara Gō goes so far as to say that it is women, not men, who first recognized, celebrated and shared their love of fictional characters. That is, and Sasakibara is quite clear on this, female fans responding to fictional male characters like Triton are the origin of moe culture.

It is perhaps not a surprise that women dominated early attendance of the Comic Market, a central gathering for fanzine buyers and sellers since its founding in 1975, or that women led the charge in drawing sexual parodies of manga and anime characters.

Men were always behind, late to party and responding to what women were already doing. Indeed, just as women consumed across gender/genre lines to find charismatic male characters to slash in their fan works, men then did the same, but in the other direction. The bishōjo or cute girl character, which is now so prevalent in manga and anime, is actually a hybrid of Tezuka Osamu’s manga and shōjo manga, and was developed as a result of women producing manga for boys and men and men producing their own manga in a style inspired by shōjo manga. This is why, in the late 1970s, even as women were pioneering sexual parody fanzines, adult men began to read Ribon, a manga magazine originally intended for young girls.

This gender/genre crossing goes both ways – male to female and female to male. Indeed, Weekly Shōnen Jump, a magazine ostensibly for boys, is not only read by adult men but also a significant number of women. Eventually, the lines blur to the extent that it’s hard to locate the gender/genre boundary. Take for example Sailor Moon, originally a manga for young girls written by a female artist and serialized in the magazine Nakayoshi. It is hard not to notice that Sailor Moon draws on cultural touchpoints that might be categorized as “boys’ culture,” for example a team of young people who transform into color-coded rangers to fight evil. Sailor Moon simply has young women transform into color-coded sailor soldiers to fight evil. It adds a strong dose of melodrama, but its not really so different. Once transformed, the young women wear modified school uniforms with shortened skirts. Is it any wonder that Sailor Moon attracted male fans when it was adapted into a TV anime in the 1990s?The crossing seems calculated at this point.

So, there is certainly a strong tendency to carve the manga and anime market up into target gender and age groups, but there is also a great deal of movement across the boundaries. This typically doesn’t bother anyone, expect perhaps the when adult men come into close proximity with young girls around a shared object of affection, which is to say bishōjo or cute girl characters. The presence of adult men at events surrounding the Sailor Moon anime, which is at least ostensibly for young girls, caused some commotion in the 1990s. Legend has it that when one child began to cry at such an event, one of the women who voices a character in the show defused the situation by referring to the adult males in the room as “big friends” (ōkii otomodachi). It’s a cute story, but my suspicion is that this scene probably makes many people uncomfortable.

Indeed, Mizuko Ito notes a similar discomfort when adults and children came together in the unsupervised environments that sprung up around the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game. There seems to be a general anxiety about adult men being near children, especially adult men interested in fictional girl characters. Even in Japan, when there is a violent crime involving a child, admittedly rare, it is not uncommon for commentators to point out that the perpetrator was a manga or anime fan. As if that explains anything. I have seen politicians in Japan do this, even pointing to cases where the police have not yet revealed if the media that the suspect consumed was in fact manga and anime or not. That is, these politicians have said to me, without a trace of irony, that they can assume the connection to manga and anime because the criminal in question was an adult male who harmed a girl child.

By this point, it’s a foredrawn conclusion – except that it’s tenuous at best and asinine in any case. These men, we are told, spend too much time with manga and anime and are socially isolated and sexually immature. They become warped and cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality. Their desire is suspect, as at any moment their benign perversion might transform into predatory sexuality. That is, by virtue of their interest in cute girl characters in manga and anime, these men become suspected sex criminals.

We are starting to see this all over the world, with arrests and prosecutions for the possession of pornographic (and sometimes not) manga and anime as “child abuse material” in Canada, Australia, the United States and beyond. Men with no record of ever consuming actual or even “pseudo” child pornography, let alone abusing a child, are arrested, convicted and jailed for possessing drawings of purely fictional characters. As these stories circulate in the news, Japan is set up as the perverse sexual “other” of the West, with manga and anime on the whole characterized as child abuse material and anyone who touches it suspected of harboring the darkest of desires.

With all of this negative press, conservative forces in Japan are emboldened to attack manga and anime and argue for stricter regulation. Sometimes the conservative agenda is obvious, as when a library was raked across the coals for making boys’ love manga, which is commercially published and widely available, accessible. The criticism was that young people would be sexually “confused” by this material, though this has not happened since such manga first appeared in Japan in the 1970s. The same logic seems to be at work in saying that manga and anime more generally will lead to “cognitive distortions” about children, though this has not happened in Japan, where manga and anime are widely available.

The conservative and criminalizing discourse about manga and anime is exactly why it’s important to remember the basic definition of moe as a positive response to fictional characters and representations of them. To return to the Sailor Moon scene that might have made us uncomfortable, the adult male fans in the room are not there for the children, but rather for the characters of Sailor Moon. Surrounded by children, they are there to see the drawings, hear the voices and get the merchandise. To conflate desire for the fictional characters with actual children is a gross misunderstanding of Sailor Moon fandom, which potentially makes innocent people suspected criminals. It also ignores that moe is a response in relation to fictional characters, which are kept intentionally separate from reality. Such a critique completely misses the point of the word moe.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

I hope that the interviews will introduce people unfamiliar with manga and anime to the faces of the men and women, both real and fictional, who are so often talked about rather than talked to. This talking over and around Japan, Japanese fans and criticism in Japanese has led to a seriously biased view of otaku, especially Japanese men who are attracted to fictional girls.

There is a lot of room for more nuance. For example, Kotani Mari talks about “otaku” as those who feel alienated by hegemonic masculinity, as “strange men” who struggle for alternatives. We can certainly see that in people like Itō Kimio, though this male reader of shōjo manga is not among those identified or identifying as an “otaku.” But when it’s Honda Tōru talking about his love for fictional girls, for cute characters, this guru of moe seems like a walking otaku stereotype. We tend to point and laugh rather than listen to what he’s saying, which reveals his own deep discomfort with hegemonic masculinity. Until we actually begin to see the faces and hear the voices, it is difficult to even entertain Honda Tōru’s ideas about “moe men.”

At its worst, its most poisonous, the bias against male otaku in Japan makes it seem as if merely hearing them out and letting them speak is apologia for “perversion” and “pornography” that endangers real children. It’s a gothic narrative, and this iteration of otaku are the bad guys. If you don’t stand against the bad guys, then you stand against the good guys and are one of the bad guys.

There is no way to raise questions about moe in such an environment. It is in this impossible environment that I decided to focus my interviews on male otaku in Japan. It was a purely strategic decision meant as a response to and intervention into the most reactionary discourses that demonize and criminalize manga and anime fans.

In the future, I hope to do another book focusing on female fans, male characters and moe. Or, better yet, an expanded edition that is not segregated based on the sex/gender of fans and characters. As we can see from the fact that Itō Noizi, a female artist, is one of the most popular illustrators of these characters, bishōjo should not be reduced to “male fetishes” of “sex objects.” I tend to agree with Momoi Halko, who is incidentally also a female artist, when she describes interactions with manga and anime characters as potentially taking us beyond a bodily, binary understanding of male/female into imaginative dimensions of sex/gender.

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).

 

There’s Ain’t No Moe!

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

You also give us a glimpse into the emergence of a generation of Japanese academics who regularly write about moe and otaku culture more generally. Most of this work remains in Japanese, though small samples are starting to get translated into English and have become part of conversations about the global dimensions of fandom. Who do you see as some of the most important thinkers to emerge from this strand of research and what arguments there do you think are pertinent to western researchers trying to address questions of fandom and media consumption more generally?

There are many really fascinating thinkers who in some way or another intersect with otaku culture! Ōtsuka Eiji is one that immediately comes to mind. Parts of Ōtsuka’s work on media mix have been translated by Marc Steinberg, and his arguments about the origins of manga and anime under fascism have been translated by Thomas LaMarre. As both Steinberg and LaMarre point out, Ōtsuka changes our perspective on old questions. For example, his world-and-variation thesis, which was originally published in 1989, brings up the idea of the active and productive fan, which resonates with work coming out of cultural studies, but Ōtsuka is coming at this from the perspective of the corporation. He worked at Kadokawa and Dentsu, a publisher and ad agency, respectively.

This is a broader point that I probably shouldn’t get into here, but I like the way that there is not such an insistence on resistance to, or a critique of, capitalism in Japanese discussions of manga and anime “subculture,” which means something very different in Japan. In Fan Cultures, Matt Hills talks about the need to get beyond the binary approach to fans that can be crudely divided into Frankfurt and non-Frankfurt, production side and consumer side, passive and active, bad and good. I remember reading that and thinking, “Japanese critics are already inhabiting that contradiction!”

Among the results of this, at least in Ōtsuka’s work, is, on the one hand, a discussion of fans gaining access to the mode of production and producing culture by and for themselves. On the other hand, because of his position as a content provider for fans, Ōtsuka also argues that fan activities and productions can be integrated into a system of corporate ownership and profit, which is very interesting. The “world” that is owed by the corporation and provided to fans is expanded and invigorated by the variation that fans produce within it.

To me, this sounds like an immanent critique of immaterial labor. Fans are active and productive, sure, but for whom does their productive activity generate value? That is not a simple question. As Ōtsuka points out, fan labor – and let’s call it that, because many fans work hard at what they love – is very meaningful for fans, even transformative, but it also contributes to corporate profits. How do we work through these entanglements? I don’t know, but it is unlikely to be a heroic refusal of the corporation or capitalism. Dick Hebidge said a long time ago that “subcultures” depend on commodities, and this is even clearer for fan cultures, but I think that he might have overstated the resistance of these cultures, which he thought would eventually lose their edge and be naturalized and trivialized through their own commoditization as styles.

In contrast to Hebdige, Tiziana Terranova has long said that “free labor” is fundamental to capitalism, and it is not the case that someone is outside the system and then gets reintegrated into it. The same is true for subcultures that generate “styles” or fan cultures that generate “content.” This is not to say that there is no meaning to what fans do, because there is, but Ōtsuka seems to be encouraging us to consider how people work and live within consumer capitalist society, how they use media and commodities and how these activities are valued and valorized.

There are many other thinkers in Japan doing similarly interesting work. Okada Toshio, for example, has a lot to say about the differences between “subculture,” “counter culture” and “otaku culture.” He also provocatively suggests that for Japan, and perhaps many other nations, there is not such a clear distinction between “child” and “adult,” which complicates narratives of resistance to the “parent culture.” For me, Okada also raises questions about how we define “child” and “adult,” and what the “youth” in “youth culture” refers to.

While Okada can seem a little narrow and at times even sexist, he is not the only one writing about “subculture” in Japan. Indeed, Kotani Mari’s Tekuno goshikku (Techno Gothic) is a great example of some of the work being done on “feminine subculture,” and it addresses some of the blindspots on sex and gender in Okada and others.

Getting back to what’s exciting about Okada, though! From the position of a content producer, Okada seems to be arguing for education and literacy with the aim of people better understanding and more effectively engaging media. Okada’s discussion of how fans themselves can evaluate media and commodities sounds a lot like Stuart Hall’s “popular discrimination,” but I think a more generous read would be the suggestion of intervening into the contested terrain of culture and taking a position, which is a form of politics that resonates with the later Hall. Perhaps you might call this “culture jamming?”

On the topic of culture jamming, I think it would be helpful to translate Ōtsuka’s book on otaku, ‘Otaku’ no seishinshi (The Intellectual History of ‘Otaku’), and Okada’s Otakugaku nyūmon (Introduction to Otakuology), simply because they are so different in their approach from the ways that I typically see “otaku” talked about in English-language publications. I think that the introduction of these texts into English would really help to shake things up! Two chapters by Okada are included in Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, a volume I co-edited that will be out next year, but that is only the beginning.

Another way to push things forward would be to translate the very first book on “otaku,” aptly titled Otaku no hon (The Book of Otaku), which is a collection of short articles on “otaku” by the likes of Nakamori Akio, who created the label “otaku,” Yonezawa Yoshihiro, one of the founders of the Comic Market, Ueno Chizuko, a well-known feminist scholar, and more. The collection was published the same year as Ōtsuka’s world-and-variation thesis, 1989, and is just untimely enough to raise some interesting questions about what is meant by “otaku” and how a discussion of “otaku” might lead to insights for scholars beyond Japan.

A little outside of studies of “otaku,” I personally find Hamano Satoshi and Uno Tsunehiro to be exciting new thinkers, especially their work on digital media, networks and politics. To my mind, Hamano and Uno could very easily be brought into dialogue with thinkers from elsewhere in the world, for example on issues of nationalism and sexism online. One area that I think Japan really excels at is the study of manga, because comics are such a prevalent media form in Japan. Fujimoto Yukari and Ueno Chizuko’s work on shōjo manga offers some fascinating insights into girls reading comics and pornography. The specific genre of “boys’ love” manga has attracted much critical attention outside of Japan, and I think this scholarly discourse could benefit from translating the work of young scholars such as Kaneda Junko, Nagakubo Yōko and Azuma Sonoko. There is much to be said about the sexual politics of this kind of manga and what people do with it.

On that point, I personally have found Nagayama Kaoru’s Ero manga sutadīzu (Erotic Manga Studies) to be extremely helpful in laying out some of the most salient issues in an almost entirely self-regulated and relatively free creative market, which I think could break through some of the stumbling blocks to progress in discussions so far, for example the idea that pornography is made by and for men, harms or endangers women and children and has a generally negative impact on producers, consumers and society. Calling manga characters “male fetish objects” or assuming that otaku are socially and sexually immature men is based on an extremely shortsighted and biased view of manga, anime and games, which I think Nagayama, though concrete examples, challenges quite effectively.

The potential benefits of translation go the other way, too. Manga studies can be a little insular, for example not even building bridging with comic studies elsewhere in the world, let alone impacting disciplinary discussions on consumption, media and fans. We could say the same thing about otaku studies and fan studies, though there has been progress. In addition to translating more Japanese thinkers, we might want to try to get a dialogue going whereby critical traditions that are widely accepted in the North American and European academy might invigorate scholarly work in Japan.

 

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 Four)

Your interviewees suggest that initially, at least, manga and anime producers had little awareness of the adult consumers of their property and that when they discovered moe enthusiasts, they still sought to ignore them for the most part to focus on their targets – children. Is there a point at which this changes? Is there now content produced specifically for this niche, or does it remain a kind of “surplus” audience?

It’s a bit complicated, but manga “grew up” in the 1960s, when gekiga striving for realism and social commentary drew in adolescent and then young adult audiences. Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s works read like a critique of capitalism and the “economic miracle” in Japan that left marginalized people behind in the gutter. Shirato Sanpei’s stories about ninja who fight for the people against corrupt officials electrified a generation of young radicals, even as Tsuge Yoshiharu’s psychological explorations of dreams earned him artistic credibility. By the time Chiba Tetsuya’s Tomorrow’s Joe came out in Weekly Shōnen Magazine (from 1968-1973), it was possible for members of the student movement to say things like, “In our left hand we have Weekly Shōnen Magazine,” and for members of the Red Army, a far-left terrorist group, to claim, “We are Tomorrow’s Joe.”

Given that gekiga was incorporated into the mainstream, and even Tezuka Osamu had adapted to its challenge, it wasn’t really a surprise that adults were reading manga. In the 1970s, shōjo manga underwent a renaissance, the Comic Market was founded in 1975 male fans of shōjo manga and, by the end of the decade, there were news stories about students at the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, reading manga magazines intended for little girls.

The gap between the audience and the content might have been a surprise, but by this point it was clear that manga was not something just for children. In the case of anime, in the 1960s, it was still really for kids, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that it “grew up.” Some point to Umi no Toriton (Triton of the Sea, 1972) as a benchmark, in that it in the end undermines the hero’s righteous fight against “evil,” attracted adolescent viewers and inspired the formation of fan clubs. It is likely that Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975) attracted more mature viewers, but it wasn’t until the TV show was reedited into a film in 1977 that the full extent of the fandom was understood. In June 1977, Gekkan Out ran a special issue on Space Battleship Yamato, which quickly sold out, thus demonstrating the existence of the mature or fan audience. This in turn led to the founding of numerous specialty magazines for manga and anime fans.

By the time Tomino Yoshiyuki, who directed Umi no Toriton, released his Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-1980), it was clear that anime fans were here to stay. Famously, the series was far too dark and complex for children, who were alienated from the show and did not buy the toys released by its sponsor, which then pulled the plug on the series. However, the realistic depictions of politics, war and psychological suffering earned Gundam devoted adult fans, who turned out in droves to buy scaled model kits of the robots featured in the story.

This fan activity revived the franchise, which was then released theatrically as three films. At the release of one of these films in February 1981, Tomino gave a speech to 15,000 fans about the “new age of anime.” There is no question that there was wide awareness of adult fans of anime at this time, and indeed groups of anime fans began to produce anime for other anime fans, for example Gainax’ Daicon films (1981 and 1983) and Studio Nue’s Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982-1983).

This “otaku market” has steadily grown in Japan, even as the number of children has decreased. With piracy and illegal digital distribution eating into DVD sales overseas, many say that anime is becoming more and more insular, as otaku produce for otaku, who will buy DVDs, merchandise, attend events and so on. So, adult fans are no longer really a surplus market.

What is clear in the history of moe, however, is that male fans responding to cute girl characters in anime was not an entirely expected or welcome development. Miyazaki Hayao’s debut film as an anime director, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), was not really a commercial success, but it earned him a lot of adult fans. It seems that Miyazaki was a bit taken aback, and perhaps even angry, when these fans began to produce fanzines about Clarisse, the princess who is saved by Lupin, the master thief. Indeed, when this character, and by extension Miyazaki, was linked to what was being called a “Lolita complex boom” (lolicon būmu) in the early 1980s, Miyazaki responded that, while he, too, had once fallen in love with a fictional character, he nevertheless “hates” (kirai) those who dare to utter the word “Lolita complex.” This actually sounds a lot like contemporary critiques of moe!

Over the years, Miyazaki has distanced himself more and more from otaku, which Saitō Tamaki claims is a reflection of a struggle with his own legacy and contribution to moe culture. Unlike Miyazaki, others, for example the female artist Takahashi Rumiko, were obviously aiming at the market of adolescent men with works like Urusei Yatsura, a smash-hit manga (1978-1987) adapted into an anime (1981-1986), which features Lum, an alien bombshell in a tigerskin bikini who is impossibly in love with a young male loser.

But fans were also attracted to series that were not intended for them, for example Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982-1983), which was supposed to be an extended TV commercial for toys sold to young girls. The producer of that show, Satō Toshihiko, admitted to me that he was shocked, even a little weirded out, by adult men who approached him to form a fan club. In contrast to this, Nunokawa Yūji, who worked at Pierrot, the company the animated Urusei Yatsura, was surprised, but not as upset, by the presence of adult male fans at events for Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel (1983-1984). Given that Minky Momo and Creamy Mami are similar series with similar target demographics, this shift in perception seems significant. After all, as Nunokawa states, more people supporting the show means greater sales, which is certainly a welcome development.

A decade later, in the early 1990s, it seemed like the crossover viewership of young girls and adult men in Sailor Moon (1992-1997) was entirely intentional. These days, shows ostensibly for young girls such as Pretty Cure (2004-present) and Aikatsu! (2012-present) predictably attract an adult male audience with their charismatic female characters, and magical girl shows like Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (2004-2005, 2007) and Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) are produced by and for men! This again has to do with shifting demographics and market concerns in Japan, but what’s striking is that the magical girl, originally intended for young girls, is now a moe character for male otaku.

The magical girl is almost a piece of nostalgia, idiosyncratically kept alive, animated, by the investments of male fans. Itō Noizi, a female artist with a fascinating perspective on male fans of magical girls, pointed this out to me in an interview. Anyway, while some would say that the prevalence of the magical girl is a sign of the closed or insular otaku market dedicated to the reproduction of moe, which they say is killing new ideas and alienating newcomers, I would simply point out that Madoka is to magical girls what Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) is to giant robots – an extremely creative commentary on the genre that took us to a place that animation had not gone before. It would be a shame to miss such innovative anime by dismissing it for being a “magical girl” series focusing on “cute girl characters.”

What impact has “moe” had on the genres of production and consumption that operate in the contemporary manga and anime industries? What relationship might we posit between moe consumption practices and the emergence of media mix strategies?

Many people are talking about the role of the character in media mix strategies. Ian Condry, for example, suggests that affection for characters, the response called moe, is crucial for the spread of media. That is, for Condry, it is the human social interactions with anime that give it its “soul.” You have said that if media does not spread, then it is dead, and it seems to me that Condry is suggesting that media spreads and is alive because of human social interactions with it. I think that it’s fair to say that interaction begins with a response to media.

A response to what? Well, for many, to fictional characters, which takes us into the realm of moe. Azuma Hiroki and others have pointed out that characters are constructed and placed into stories with the express purpose of triggering an affective response, or moe. This leads to the construction of moe characters, which have been collectively articulated from affective elements as an assemblage that is likely to get a response from viewers.

While I think that Azuma at times drifts into a sort of naïve behavioralism to posit a trained response, I think that he is pointing to something very important in fictional characters that are meant to attract, hold attention and affect. To put it somewhat simply, earlier I discussed the manga/anime aesthetic as “cute,” and the Chinese characters making up the word for cute in Japanese, kawaii, care “potential” (ka) and “love” (ai). Characters that are cute can be loved – they are constructed to be loved. This is the secret of moe characters.

In our interview, Honda Tōru said that nowhere in the world are their cuter characters in greater numbers than in Japan, which he attributes to growing collective interest in manga and anime in the postwar period. Growing up in such an environment, as Saitō Tamaki points out, it is not only possible, but in fact likely that you will fall in love with fictional characters.

This point is very much related to the media mix. If you will indulge me, following Honda Tōru, I will mention Tezuka Osamu once again. Now, as I’ve said, Tezuka did much to establish the manga/anime style in the postwar period. He also, incidentally, produced the first weekly serialized anime series, Astro Boy (from 1963-1966). Famously, Tezuka drastically undersold the series to a TV station in order to get it on the air, essentially ensuring that he would be losing money by producing the anime series. However, Tezuka was not only thinking about the anime, but also how this would invigorate sales of his already popular Astro Boy manga, which provided the characters and world for the anime. Further, there would be Astro Boy toys and merchandise to profit from, and Tezuka actively pursued overseas distribution.

As Marc Steinberg points out, what Tezuka established with Astro Boy was nothing if not a media mix strategy. He was forging cross-media alliances to spread the media, enlist fans and invigorate the franchise. Fans were making connections across media forms, which resonated with one another to intensify consumption. Steinberg insightfully points out how Tezuka tied the anime to a sponsor, Meiji Seika, which then gave away Astro Boy stickers with proof of purchase of Marble Chocolates. Millions of requests came in for these stickers. As Steinberg sees it, children were sticking these stickers on their school supplies and so on to create “merchandise,” which grounded and expanded their points of access into the Astro Boy world. In all of these ways, Astro Boy became ubiquitous – the manga was already popular, 30 percent of households watched the weekly broadcast, children stickered everyday objects, toys and merchandise appeared – and children interacted with media, commodities and one another in an Astro Boy environment. The character of Astro Boy is what crossed over into different media forms, and it is Astro Boy that attracted, held attention and affected. The Astro Boy media mix depended, at least in part, on an affective relationship with the character that encouraged connections to be made across media forms. In this way, as Steinberg notes, it was not just that the Astro Boy media mix spread to externally “colonize” space, but it also spread internally to capture the hearts and minds of children. Children were made productive by cultivating them to do the cognitive labor necessary to follow and make connections across media. What holds the media mix together is the same thing that attracts, holds and affects the child – the character.

Even as the media mix strategy spread beyond manga/anime and children to include games/novels and fans, it was still based on the idea of capturing hearts and minds and making people productive through the character, which Steinberg provocatively calls a “regulatory mechanism.” We could further apply Steinberg’s insights to Condry, who points out that the existing fan base of manga is a sort of “surplus” that can be capitalized on by anime adaptations. To me, it sounds like existing fan attachments and interest are part of the social energy or “soul” of anime, and, to borrow a turn of phrase from Bifo Berardi, that soul is put to work!

This all sounds very dystopian, but it is not necessarily so. As Condry points out, anime fans are often the one’s who evaluate their own activities and contributions, which are not always productive for corporations. The response to the character, moe, cannot fully be captured, and the ongoing personal and collective benefits of interacting with characters should not be reduced to a simple narrative of exploitation. The media mix multiplies the points of entry into the world and media and material forms of interaction with the fictional character, which is what fans want. Likewise, creators such as Maeda Jun see their job as not only providing characters and stories that encourage people to fall in love with them, but also as supporting life, which is a collective project.

 

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 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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Conversations We Can Have About Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is, to use a technical term, “Bat Shit Crazy,” and that’s what makes it such a generative text for thinking about some of the discursive struggles in America today around race, nation, family and religion/mythology.

Like most American television series, it is a grand example of improvization — they are making a lot of this up as they go and it shows. As a consequence, it feels like Sleepy Hollow is emerging in conversation with its audience — especially when you factor in the very active social media presence of Orlando Jones, who has actively engaged with the program’s fans through many different means. Where race is concerned, there is some sense, especially this season, of one step forward and one step backwards and so there are no shortage of contradictions and compromises in the characters and storylines that emerge. So, there are moments when the minority characters seem to draw on older racial stereotypes, and then, the next moment they are challenging or shattering those stereotypes.

So, there are moments where Orlando Jones as Frank Irving starts to pop his eyes with fear like Stepin Fetchit in a haunted house (“feets do your stuff”) and then the next moment, he’s standing firm and strong, very much in control of the wild and crazy situations he is confronting. He is a black man struggling to hold onto his family; he is a black man in authority who commands the respect of his people and yet is ready to put all of that at risk to do what he thinks must be done; he is a skeptic who is struggling with issues of faith, all of which makes  him much more complicated than the remains of the stereotype might suggest.

How could it be otherwise? Keep in mind that Scandal made news just a few years back for offering us the first black woman in the lead of a drama series that survived more than a season in something like 30 years. Sleepy Hollow was the next step towards a more diverse kind of television drama: a series with a white man and a black woman, as non-romantically linked partners, in the lead. And the social media buzz and ratings success of these two series may have paved the way for more diverse casting in this year’s television slate, although as even the network executives are acknowledging at this point, not nearly as much diversity as America deserves and seems ready to accept.

But, that history means that there has not been a diversity of different kinds of characters to draw upon: certainly there have been one or two minority cast members on a range of ensemble based dramas and reality television programs, but there has still been real limits to what kinds of characters, how complex their motives are, what kinds of story arcs they are allowed to explore, what kinds of relationships they are involved with, and so, we are now at a moment of transition in how television deals with America’s evolving racial politics.

When everything is said and done, Sleepy Hollow will be seen as a key transitional text through which networks and audiences negotiated those changes, all the more important because it wraps itself up so fully in a particular conception of the American nation state and bridges so often between past and present, history and the speculative future. There were moments in the first season where, much as America would soon be, the majority of the cast were people of color, as the white protagonist was pushed to the sidelines of his own story. So far, this season, there has been a resurgence of white characters — especially Katrina and the newly introduced Hawley — which has resulted in less screen time for the Mills Sisters or Frank Irving and his family, but this could change at any moment.

I have been thinking about Sleepy Hollow a lot of late, since I was asked to be part of an extensive panel discussion of the show at the conference of the American Academy of Religion, held in San Diego last weekend. My fellow panelists were Sheila Briggs, University of Southern California; Diane Winston, University of Southern California; and Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania. Getting ready for the conference led me to watch all of the episodes to date with computer on hand to take detailed notes, and I thought I would share a few of my thoughts with you, knowing that I am far from the only Sleepy-Head who reads this blog. Please be warned that there should be Spoiler Warnings on everything that follows since I do flag many specific moments and episodes to illustrate my points.

I focused my presentation around four key themes:

Rewriting the American Revolution –

One of my fellow panelist was sharply critical of the series for reconstructing the idea of “manifest destiny” I can see where she is coming from — this series aligns the American founding fathers with the forces of good and the Redcoats (and especially the Hessians) with the forces of evil. But, I would also argue that the show is making a specific set of interventions to question or challenge the ways that the American Revolution has been constructed in popular memory. The Revolution and its figures have been evoked in various ways through the years: as a force for progressive politics in the popular front (1930s) with the Jefferson and Lincoln Brigades or evoked by Abby Hoffman during the Chicago 7 Trial (“I was there when Paul Revere road his motorcyle up the hill, shouting ‘the pigs were coming’ — paraphrased by me) and more recently as a reactionary force in relation to the Tea Party.

Again and again, we see Sleepy Hollow engage with the encrusted meaning of the revolution, often through the way Ichabod’s memories contrasted with today’s beliefs. See, for example, his challenging of the docent who tries to explain Paul Revere in “The Midnight Ride” and his commentary on the Revolutionary War re-enactors he encounters in “Bad Blood” (though by second season he seems to himself have made a nostalgic return and sought friendship amongst those same re-enactors).  Much has been made of Crane’s fish out of water responses to the modern age, which might involve his struggles with child proof tops or his confusion over the proliferation of Starbucks across the land. But often, the show uses Crane’s confused questioning to depict the revolution in more progressive and diverse terms than the Tea Party version: so we see references to the alliance between revolutionaries and the Mohawks and Crane’s outrage over the genocide against Native Americans in “For the Triumph of Evil”, his concern over the rights of women in “Necromancer”, we see him question the obsession with the right to bear arms in “The Vessel” or his acknowledgement that Jefferson and other founding fathers were questioning of basic Christian beliefs in “The Indispensible Man”, We see him more open to issues of homosexuality than we might have anticipated in “Root of All Evil.” Beyond this, I would point us towards several scenes where the African-American characters question Crane about the inequalities of his time: Abby and Irving challenge him about Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and his affair with Sally Hemming in “The Midnight Ride” and this season, we also saw Abby challenge who had the franchise in early America as Crane sputters over not being allowed to vote because he could not produce a proper ID, itself a reference to current voter suppression efforts, in “Deliverance.”

And as the casting of people of color in the present day timeline has increased, there has also been an acknowledgement of the role of black freemen in the historical flashbacks. Keep in mind that the first question Crane asks Abbie is whether she has been “emancipated,” though he seems more than prepared to adapt to a world where she has police authority. We meet the black revolutionary and martyr Arthur Bernard in “The Sin Eater,” the man who helps to convert Crane from a red coat to a revolutionary spy, and we see the construction of a haven for black freemen in “Sanctuary,” which also introduces us to Grace Dixon, Abbie’s ancestor, the midwife who delivers Ichabod and Katrina’s child. All of this, however, can be questioned in terms of the ways that the black characters are often depicted in roles where they are seeking to protect the white characters, often at the cost of their own lives – a classic trope in contemporary popular fictions.

 

Diversity

This brings us to the second key point I might want to make about the series – the role that Sleepy Hollow is playing as television is negotiating a slow, overdue transition towards greater diversity in casting.  Throughout the first season,  we saw the cast’s composition shift towards characters of color, who play central roles in the narrative. If we apply the Bechdel test, we see many examples of scenes that feature women (the sisters) talking with each other about topics other than the men in their lives and we see similarly powerful moments where the black characters (especially in relation to Irving and his family or his priest) are talking with each other about issues important in their lives. This would seem to be a modest step forward in terms of representations of race, but it is remarkable how few shows meet this criteria. As much as I love that series, ask yourself how many scenes we seen on Scandal, say, when Olivia Pope has had a meaningful conversation with another black woman.  Here, We get full character arcs centering around these relationships, as well as the kind of close (non-romantic) friendship that exists between Abbie and Ichabod.  We might throw in the roles played by John Cho’s Andy Brooks, by Abbie’s ex Detective Luke Morales, and by Leena Reyes, the officer introduced this season. Several times now, we’ve seen glimpses into contemporary and historical Native American cultures, suggesting each time that there is much more that we can learn.

All of this has been brought to focus to me by Orlando Jones’ engagement via social media with the fan community which is being held up as a model example of a performer who creates a new relationship with his fan base. These interactions create a reading formation that sees the Irving character as more central to the series than he might be otherwise. The series does not always call attention to the race of its protagonists but does consistently cast many roles with minority actors that  in other contexts would most likely have been cast white. As Hollywood likes to put it, the characters “happen to be black.”

Season two has been somewhat less commendable in this regard: the expansion of Katrina’s role, the introduction of Nick Hawley, the marginalization of Frank Irving and his family, and the stronger focus on Henry Parish and Abraham Van Brunt in their human incarnations, has resulted in a stronger focus on white characters, though we could argue that the central focus here has been on the ways that these characters may be less than fully reliable and in some cases, represent the monstrous side of whiteness (see especially Joe Corbin in “”And the Abyss Gazes Back” for example). This same season, though, has seen a strong emphasis on strengthening the bonds between Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills, suggesting the complex ways that the history of White and African-America have been intertwined, and the ways we can come to see those connections as a source of strength. (See Maureen Ryan’s smart critique of the Second Season at the Huffington Post).

Normality and Monstrosity

I have always valued Robin Wood’s analysis of the horror film genre, which starts with the formulation, “normality is threatened by the monstrous,” and attempts to define each of these terms in relation to the others. The tendency, Wood tells us, is to focus on the monstrous, which is where the most exotic elements are, but it is really helpful to start with normality. So, strip away the monsters for a moment and we see again and again the ways that acts of violence disrupt families, the ways we betray those we love, and often the violation of the innocence of children. We have Abbie and Jenny’s encounter with a stranger in the woods and the refusal of the legal establishment to believe Jenny’s account of what happened to them: without monsters, this becomes a representation of child predators and the failure of the law to take accounts of child victims seriously. We see Abbie break with her sister denying what she experienced where-as Jenny speaks the truth and ends up in and out of mental institutions. We learn something along the way about how the two girls have been treated by foster homes (“For the Triumph of Evil”) and also as the second season continues, about their mother’s mental breakdown and suicide. We also learn about the collapse of Irving’s marriage following the accident that cripples his daughter as a key motivation for his actions across the series. When he attempts to act to protect her, he also finds himself in  the prison-mental health –industrial complex. And then we have Henry’s story – the way he must be put up for adoption by his mother and how this leaves him vulnerable to darker forces. We might also mention Joe Corbin’s jealousy over the relationships his father has with the Mills Sisters or we might think about the ways that Crane’s father disinherits him when he sides with the revolutionaries. So, in each case, what is “normal” here are children at risk, with their problems amplified by the supernatural forces.

Often, in many of the best episodes, the monster of the week plot is also linked to this theme of children at risk within the system, such as “John Doe”, “The Golem”, and especially “Go Where I Send Thee.” In this last case, a mother is ready to sacrifice her young daughter to Moloch in fulfillment of a family curse and to save the rest of her family.  As Diane Winston noted during the panel discussion, one of the ways that Moloch was worshipped historically was through child sacrifice, making him an apt embodiment of the disrupted family.

At the same time, we see the series embrace the idea of families of choice — that is groups of people who forge family-like units for their self-protection — as occurs when Sheriff Corbin “adopts” both Abbie and Jenny at different times as the beneficiaries of his mentorship or the ways that all of these characters come together, learn to trust and care for each other, across the series as a whole. The series takes literally the idea that we struggle with “demons” in our personal lives, perhaps most powerfully in “Mama,” which aired last week, where we learn that Abbie and Jenny’s mother made all kinds of self-sacrifice to try to protect her daughters from the dark forces swirling around them.

Acts of Faith

There’s so much to discuss in terms of the depictions of religion in the series. There’s plenty here about Bibles and encrypted information, about prophecy and revelation, about purgatory as a space between worlds, about the place of rituals in contemporary society. I am perhaps most interested in the ways that the rationalist characters must negotiate a space in their lives where they can consider spiritual questions and take action based on faith. So, there is the moment of redemption that occurs when Abbie first meets Corbin in “Blood Moon” – the whole scene around the hot pie a la mode – or the moment where Irving talks about the two things you try to protect as long as you can because once they are lost, they do not come back (virginity and skepticism) in “The Sin Eater”. I am perhaps most interested in two church-based scenes in the first season – the one in “John Doe” where Abbie goes to the hospital chapel and searches for a sign of the way forward and experiences something she takes as a miracle and then the one in “The Golem” where Irving goes to talk to the priest and describes his own crisis of faith and questions whose interests are being served by “God’s plan” for him.

This series cobbles together a mythology from many different sources — fairy tales from old Europe, including the Jewish concept of the Golem; bits of Native American mythology; Freemasons and Quakers; Wiccan practices and other forms of esoteric knowledge; a dab of Catholicism, and much much more. And the protagonists, especially those who are called to be “witnesses” or “apostles,” are at best seekers, more often skeptics, who struggle to reconcile their experience of the divine and the demonic with their understanding of the modern world. People have talked about contemporary romantic comedies as “nervous romances” since, in an age of frequent divorce,  they have to rework the genre to satisfy the skepticism of viewers about “a happily ever after” resolution. We might see Sleepy Hollow as a “nervous mythological saga” because it tries to reconcile premodern beliefs with a very contemporary style of rationalism and skepticism. In that sense, we need to read Abbie and Ichabod’s relationship alongside Scully and Mulder in The X-Files: neither is simply a believer or a skeptic but both struggle to reconcile conflicting pulls on their beliefs.

There’s so much more to say. I haven’t tried to reproduce the insights of the other panelists here, each of whom had their own frames to make sense of a series which I started this post describing as “bat shit crazy.” My point, though, is that Sleepy Hollow is exemplary in the ways it is negotiating with the contradictions of our current social attitudes towards the nation state and its history, racial and ethnic diversity, the state of the family, and the nature of faith in a rationalist society.

 

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Three)

Your definition of fan culture emphasizes “a specific amateur infrastructure for its creation, distribution and reception,” yet this infrastructure is part of what may be shifting in an age of Kindle Worlds and Wattpad. How should the study of fan fiction respond to those shifts? You seem ready to deal with the shift from printed zines to online distribution, not to mention a range of different kinds of online distribution practices (of the kind that Gail De Kosnik discusses in her forthcoming book). Are there some changes that would be so dramatic that they would fundamentally alter our understanding of what fan fiction is?

KB: Louisa Stein’s and my “Limit Play” (2009) discussed the vital importance of interfaces to the actual fan works themselves. One of the examples is LiveJournal role-playing games, a form of fan fiction but also an interactive performance. Recently I’ve been looking at Storium, a storytelling RPG that doesn’t come from the media fan perspective but rather a gaming approach, where the storytelling is basically how you play and succeed.

Likewise, Francesca Coppa’s (2006) argument about fan fiction as a type of performance effectively argues that we write fic in part because we can’t make films. Since then, however, vidders have begun using digital tools to manipulate footage into creating their own images (just like constructed reality vids have done for a while now). In other words, fan fiction is already interactive and multimedia and collaborative and all these things. As long as fans create texts about their favorite characters and universes and plot lines, we’ll probably continue to call it fan fiction and will continue to study it.

The issue with commercial platforms is actually less one of interfaces and technology as it is of profit and community. Karen and I have always foregrounded the role of community for fan fiction—while we obviously wouldn’t exclude, say, drawer fic from fan fiction, we’d consider it more an exception than the norm. We instead believe that our approach to fan fiction should include the community that produces, disseminates, and receives these artifacts. Given the social community structure of fandom, we cannot simply divorce fan fiction from its context and equate it with other forms of derivative creativity. Karen, in fact, has argued in regard to Kindle Worlds that “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that”. Interestingly, Jamison (2012) argues that Fifty Shades loses something when taken out of the context of mutually influential Twilight human AUs (and human BDSM AUs), an observation that reflects Woledge’s close textual study of fan turned pro fic (“From Slash to Mainstream,” in Fan Fictions and Fan Communities). The lines are obviously murky, but again, however interesting the border cases are, the fact remains that they only gain importance because we endeavor to properly define fan fiction.

KH: In a word, no. Fan fiction—the thing itself—connotes written texts, regardless of platform (zine, LiveJournal post, Tumblr entry, Wattpad post). I imagine there will be some Next Big Technological Interface Thing that fandom will rush toward, just the way that Tumblr caused much of fandom to leave LiveJournal, but the platform is independent of the writing, and the writing won’t stop. Further, technological considerations don’t seem to be adding all that much to what we’ve been seeing. It’s less sheer novelty and more old wine in new bottles.

When the Internet came along, everyone thought threaded stories, sort of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, would be a Thing, but they never caught on. Likewise, it’s easy to embed illustrations, but to my eye, they evoke the hard-copy zines of yore to me, albeit with more color—occasional images, often by an artist who is not the same person as the text’s author.

The things I like best about technological tools are, first, the ability to comment, which basically takes the old SF zines’ Letters of Comment section and appends it to the item in question, which really helps build the fan community; and second, indexing, categorizing, and tagging, which makes it far easier to find texts of interest.

I’ve been doing work on World War II–era SF zines, which involves a lot of cross-zine discourse among relatively few players, and it’s amazing how little has changed. I could thread these in a LiveJournal-hotlinked post with dates and everything. I am always excited to see what new toys technology comes up with; but I would not be surprised if the shiny new toy was used to create a new mode of expression for an existing activity. Wattpad’s great innovation, for instance, is to have text in little short bursts that are ideal for reading on phones. That resulted in (created? self-selected to?) a particular kind of writer and writer.

Kristina cites my blog post about Kindle Worlds. I like the definition of fan fiction that I make there. The element of “community” is the most important. (We can argue about “free.” Suffice it to say that if it isn’t, it had better be a solution created by and for the community.) If I write a story for Kindle Worlds, then it would be work for hire (under monetary terms that most freelance writers would not accept), not a gift written for my fandom.

Kindle Worlds used the term fan fiction in its initial marketing (it no longer seems to use this term) as a shorthand for marketing purposes that targeted potential writers and readers, but the texts are derivative stories written as work for hire, with great limitations placed on what can be written—no overt sex, no crossovers, no death of major characters, that kind of thing. These limitations are no fun for lots of fan writers.

Kindle Worlds also seems to be struggling. The Daily Dot, for example, notes that Kindle Worlds seeded one World by commissioning a pro writer, Neal Pollack, to write for it, which hints at quantity and quality issues; and a post at Bustle addresses Kindle Worlds’ failure to catch on. The Bustle directs us to Rebecca Tushnet’s legal article about Kindle Worlds and fair use, which is a must read.

What could be changing is the meaning of the term fan fiction. I’m seeing a linguistic shift whereby the term’s connotation is broadening to mean “any derivative work,” not “a derivative work written by a self-identified fan within the context of a fan community, often as an item of exchange, and often for free.” I object to this broadened definition because the division conflates fan activity within a specialist community with nonfan commercial activity, and I personally value the distinction.

The study of fan fiction (used in its classical limited sense) will continue to address the ways that the interface affects the classic rhetorical situation of author–text–reader, as criticism always does; it will address concerns of power, gender, race, and class, as it always had; and it will continue to apply to fan fiction theories from various disciplines. Thus work on fan fiction will be ultimately evolutionary, not game-changingly disruptive. I’d personally like to see the focus on fan text rather than fan fiction, because it connotes a far wider range of fan expression: vids, artwork, comics, poetry, whatever.

Feminist and queer studies perspectives were key in defining the field of fan fiction studies, and rightly so, for many reasons your book does a good job of describing. Yet, there was from the start a serious neglect of what fandom studies might learn from critical race theory. Today, there is still a remarkable shortage of work which deals with racial politics in and through fandom. I know as editors you have been actively concerned about some of the silences around race, so I wanted to get your perspective on how those structuring absences have impacted our field and what might represent some generative approaches for re-engaging with those topics today.

KH: TWC published a special issue in 2011 guest edited by Robin Reid and Sarah N. Gatson on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom . I’d direct you particularly to the editorial and to Mel Stanfill’s essay. Fans are also intensely concerned with issues surrounding race. The huge Racefail imbroglio in 2009 is a good example. But I’m not seeing a lot of scholarly work being done on the topic in fan studies, and we’ve had bad luck with TWC when we’ve tried to solicit contributions in that arena, including a poor showing under open calls for submissions, an inability to directly solicit, and a guest editor of a proposed issue related to the topic of critical race theory pulling out. Right now I’m liking work on the topic done by fans, particularly for race in comic book depictions and race-based film-casting issues. I would love to see some of that formally theorized in an academic setting, but until then, check out Racalicious.

The absences have left a vacuum in the field that skews perceptions of fans as comprising primarily middle-class white girls and women (if media) or as middle-class white boys and men (if gaming or comics). Nonwhite concerns are perceived as outliers.

Further, I worry that white scholars don’t want to address the issue, in part because they have no lived experience and thus they feel inauthentic, and in part because they don’t want to be attacked. Yet of course scholars of color ought not shoulder the topic solely themselves. One important thing to do to generate more criticism and thought may be to reconfigure the Other oppositional binary: if a fan is an Other and not-white is an Other, than the fan of color is doubly Othered. How can this potential estrangement be turned? How is it useful? I’m also a big fan of cutting to the chase in any topic by assessing the power dynamics, what I call following the money. Why is it important to the white majority for it to retain and apportion their authority? What is at stake? How can that authority be usefully challenged?

KB: One of the more amusing things for me as an interdisciplinary scholar is the way different departments canonize different pieces by the same writer. Mention Deleuze in media studies, you get Cinema I and II. In English you’ll see a lot of references to Anti-Oedipus and Mille Plateaux, whereas in philosophy Difference and Repetition or even his books on Kant and on Nietzsche would be considered his central work.

Likewise, we have embraced “Encoding/Decoding” in fan studies without ever fully engaging with the fact that Stuart Hall, in fact, was not only a founder of the British Cultural Studies but also of BLACK British Cultural Studies (that was the name of the 1996 reader where I consciously read Hall for the first time). This is a really long way of saying that mostly US, mostly white, mostly middle-class fan scholars have done much better at addressing concerns of gender rather than race or class in the notorious trifecta. Given the overlaps between gender and queer studies (and possibly the larger number of GLTB acafans), we have done much better with queer issues than with race. Maybe a generative mode would be overlapping/applying critical race theory with gender or queer studies.

A fan review called the Fan Fiction Studies Reader “whitewashing” and commented that they’d like to see bell hooks write on fandom. Anyone’s response would be: ME TOO! bell hooks may have other things she wants to write about, but it behooves us to address this huge gap, both as a topic in our own essays and by creating an infrastructure that invites a focus on race as a dominant framework. I hope, though, that an increasing diversification, more awareness, and an (ever so slowly) changing media landscape may allow us to address these issues more. As always, acafans who are teaching the next generation of students must give them the context, background, and tools to help fill these gaps.

As you note, there have been significant shifts in the politics around gender and sexuality since the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been factors which have made fans and fan cultural production much more visible in the mainstream of the culture. In this context, what is still transgressive about fan fiction? In what senses might we still see its production as a kind of resistance to dominant values and institutions? Or is resistance still a useful frame for thinking about what fans do?

KH: The resistance paradigm is definitely falling among scholars, although it’s still useful. Much work has been done on how fan fiction is not subversive but actually reinforcing of dominant values and institutions. Fan-written mpreg and curtain fic, for example, may be read not as critiques of traditional marriage, setting up house, and having children (even if it’s the man getting pregnant) as they are genderswapped or all-male reproductions of the trappings of middle-class life.

However, if the content of fan fiction isn’t necessarily truly subversive and resistant but rather affirmational of traditional institutions, its locus of power may be: unauthorized, in conflict with The Powers That Be. One reason that Kindle Worlds is interesting to discuss right now is that Amazon is attempting to get rid of resistance by providing a paid, controlled, circumscribed outlet—one with a built-in community and fan base to drive sales.

This isn’t to argue that all fan fiction is ultimately nontransgressive or can be read as such. Of course that isn’t the case. But the unequal power relations reside less in the text than in the opposition between a minority gift culture and a majority commerce culture.

KB: Fan fiction scholars (all of us included) have probably done the practice—if not the field—a disservice by focusing so much on resistance, opposition, and transgression. Obviously there are real political, cultural, and academic reasons for picking one example over another, for foregrounding the more literate pieces of fan fic or the more transgressive ones, but generalizing is thus often problematic, because we picked the text for its exceptional rather than representative value. But the question is whether that minimizes these stories’ value.

There always are a huge number of stories that make us feel good and happy, and that may not all be that progressive. (In fact, if one only knows fan fiction through the lens of academic discourse, reading the examples described by Lamb and Veith’s essay in our reader may indeed sound strange.) But I’d argue that if you go to any fandom tag on AO3  or Fanfiction.net, you will find that many of the stories with the most kudos and comments are exactly like that—comfort fic. On the other hand, the stories that often get discussed or cause controversy are those that transgress, whether thematically or politically. Coppa wrote about asexuality fic in Sherlock (2012), for example—a subgenre that fandoms don’t really have.

Conversations on Tumblr are often politically transgressive, questioning cultural values and challenging cultural norms. Not all of it translates directly into fic, but some of it does. Head canons for most characters may include characters who are intersex, asexual and/or a-romantic, disabled, aneurotypical, DFAB or DMAB, genderqueer, or mixed race. All of these are identities not previously well articulated or represented in fan fic, and clearly it is important—and, we’d argue, transgressive—if not to culture than at least to the text to explore them.

If the value is as much in the process of production as it is in the end result, if the transgressions are in the conversations surrounding it as much as they are in the fic itself, then the continued critical engagement with media texts remains as important as ever. Thus, while fan fiction may not be as resistant in terms of cultural values any more as it may have been, it becomes ever more important as a form of resistance in terms of economic and labor issues. Given that we’ve already talked about Kindle Worlds, fan fiction is transgressive now more than ever.

Whether it’s E. L. James publishing “pornography for women by women, with love” and topping best seller lists everywhere, or hundreds of OTW and AO3 volunteers providing a free not ad supported interface to share ALL THE FANFICS (RPF, explicit and all!)–fandom remains a way for people who are not mainstream and center to write back to the text. If their version becomes popular, all the better. Ideally, at some point, there may be no more need for oppositional readings anymore on a larger culture scale. But just looking at the debates surrounding a potential Black Widow movie, it is clear that day hasn’t come yet.

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Two)

With your new book, your focus is looking backwards, tracing some of the earliest works to address fan fiction, as well as their impact on today’s scholars. What led you to this focus on forming a canon of sorts around the study of fan fiction? Why the focus on fan fiction as opposed to a more inclusive notion of fan cultural production? After all, you have also been involved in promoting more scholarship around fan vids, for example.

KB: Both of us are really traditionalists. We were both trained in English literature. Karen is now a copyeditor and I teach in a philosophy department. All of these fields relate to sources, quotations, terms, and ideas. We are heavily diachronic in an age where both culture itself (and with it fandom) and academia (and with it fan studies) often focus on the synchronic. It seemed important to us to share where we are all started. Really, we’d have loved to include Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Rat Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) in our slash section, but clearly we had to pick and choose. The fascinating thing about going back to the original texts is how very different they are from how they get represented now in hindsight.

We had made a few decisions early on: (1) We would stay with fan fiction, because even though other fan works were discussed here and there early on, the nexus of different approaches and disciplines and the majority of academic work was on fan fiction. (2) We would stay with “media fandom,” because, again, that was where a lot of the early work was focused on and that was our own background. We felt that we would do better to strive for comprehensiveness rather than inclusion where one essay or two would stick out and not be representative of anything. (3) We would keep it in the early years and represent more recent essays with a very inclusive bibliography. That last one was basically a numbers game. For every current essay, we’d have to drop one of the more foundational texts, but those were the ones we wanted to share. Moreover, as we said above, fan studies exploded in the mid-2000s, and deciding on one particular text out of the many on a given topic with a given approach would have become even more impossible.

KH: Part of the impetus was to create a single text that would collect the things that we wish people had read. As editors of TWC, we see essays that don’t engage with the literature—that don’t seem aware that they are in dialogue with something, or that cite your Textual Poachers but don’t seem aware of the stuff that came after that critiqued and expanded those ideas (including your own work!). In addition, we’d heard from college-level teachers that they would like such a book. When we ran the draft table of contents by scholars in the field for their feedback, we got several “I would assign this right now!” comments. I am hopeful that master’s and PhD students coming up in the field will find it a good resource. I’m actually not uncomfortable with being in on some canon formation: I figure I have invested a lot of time learning about the field, and what I have to say is perfectly valid. Plus the good thing about canon is that someone will come along and bust it. (Yes!)

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader brings together foundational essays while also pointing to trending ideas. We worked hard on the headnote contextualizing essays that precede each of the reader’s sections, but of course the essays could be swapped around and reconfigured at will to form new topic blocks. Our choices were forced on us because of the difficulty in getting reprints; some were shockingly expensive, others too long. As editors of reprint anthologies everywhere know, “best of” doesn’t mean “best of.” It means “what we could get that we could afford and that was the right length, with certain key authors represented.” It’s not the ideal table of contents that we pitched to the press! However, that may be a feature, not a bug. We had to think outside our “best of” box. The press insisted on the Fan Fiction part of the title, in part because we couldn’t fit in everything we wanted to for it to be truly representative of the field in its broadest sense. However, although the words fan fiction are in the title, it could easily be used as a more general reader. Fan fiction is one kind of text and vids are another, yet the strategies for reading/assessing them are the same. I encourage teachers who assign the book to broaden “fan fiction” to mean “fan-created texts in general,” and to mess with the blocks we created to find new connections.

You reproduce in the introduction an increasingly widespread distinction between affirmative and transformative fans: “Affirmative fans tend to collect, view, and play, to discuss, analyze, and critique. Transformative fans, however, take a creative step to make the words and characters their own, be it by telling stories, cosplaying the characters, creating artworks, or engaging in any of the many other forms active fan participation can take.” I’ve also used this distinction—in Spreadable Media for example—but I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with it, going back to an earlier formulation which talked about all fandom as born of a mixture of fascination and frustration, and suggesting we look case by case at the different ways any kind of fan cultural production moves between these two polls. There are no forms of fan production by definition that are purely resistant, but they may also be none that reflect uncritical fascination without other factors entering the picture. You can make an argument that many forms of fan speculation and critique are also already transformational in that they encourage new ways of thinking about the fictional world and in the case, say, of a mystery series, they often construct quite elaborate explanations for why something is occurring which may, in their own right, be deeply transformational. Thoughts?

KB: The spread of this terminology is actually a perfect example as to why we should always read the original source. Obsession_inc, the person whose blog post pointed out this dichotomy, actually prefaces the definitions with the following: “I see both sections as celebrational fandom, first and foremost, and that there is a lot of joy and effort and creativity put into both, and that there is a certain amount of crossover.” It is useful to acknowledge the motivations as much as the results—that is, a critical, resistant, frustrated affirmational response is possible, just as a noncritical, fascinated, loving, transformational one is. (Let’s say, the first one is reblogging from the official Tumblr pics of a neglected character, the second one writing a missing scene that completely supports and expands the accepted/intended/TPTB-supported canon interpretation.) The two spectrums are maybe less in competition with one another and more perpendicular, creating a two-dimensional space.

For us, the dichotomy was useful because we wanted to look at resistant/critical/creative transformative fan works, and the essays we included all addressed this. Clearly, other approaches may need different distinctions. Yes, the term has been used a lot recently, but we are already beginning to complicate it—not just you, but also Matt Hills’s recent essay in TWC on “Mimetic Fandom and the Crafting of Replicas“, in which he studies fan works whose very “value” more or less rely on their mimetic accuracy.

The original articulation remains useful, especially when considering when and why Obsessive_inc coined it. The essay is a belated response to Racefail ’09 and other creator/fan conflicts: “in all of my fandoms, there have been battles between creators (backed up by their affirmational fanbase) and their transformational fanbase.” When looked at it from that perspective, the term transformative takes on yet another meaning that is neither fully about being oppositional readers nor about the “purportedly feminine cultural spaces of many media fandoms and fan studies,” as Matt Hills describes it. Instead, it is more closely linked to the notion of transformational works that are implied in the names of OTW and TWC—transformation in the legal sense. For better or worse, we are stuck with US copyright law and fair use exemptions.

You are of course correct that we shouldn’t fall into false binaries, and the sexier a shorthand is, the easier it is to fall into it. I love my “Man Collect; Women Connect,” but I certainly know that fan cultures are much more complicated—as are genders! Likewise, we are increasingly realizing that even generalizations, such as “straight middle-aged women” about the writers and readers of fan fiction zines, may not be as accurate as we used to think. But this is why it is useful to actually go back and reread the early texts—to know our intellectual antecedents, and maybe to realize that their arguments were already more complex and differentiated than we remember.

KH: I find the dichotomy useful, as it handily categorizes two perfectly valid forms of fan activity. More scholars are problematizing it than not, which is all to the good, but we also have to acknowledge how true Obsession_inc’s point feels. The gender issues inherent in her critique show that all the scholarly work in the world may not help the fan on the ground. Her essay is interesting not only for what she says and the impetus that caused her to write (as Kristina describes so well), but for what it reveals about fannish engagement, not to mention the terms of engagement she chooses. Power, appropriation, award, context—all these are inherent in her argument, and it may be useful to spend less time figuring out why the point is wrong and more time about why she made it.

Fifty Shades of Grey gets referenced often in your introduction as a text which has helped to change the public’s perception of fan fiction. Now that the dust has settled a little, what are your thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey? Has its impact been largely positive, negative, or mixed? (As they say in the news, “Good thing or bad thing?”) And has its impact been short-lived or lasting?

KB: If nothing else, Fifty Shades‘s success now allows any fan scholar anywhere to point to it to explain what we do. Even my 90-year-old German grandmother has heard of it. Seriously, though, it feels like the publication was both the culmination of a general mainstreaming and mainstream acceptance of fans and fan fiction, and by its sheer overwhelming success, it is a watershed in ultimately settling whether fan fiction can become a commercial success.

Of course, given this specific text, I take its “success” with some ambivalence when we look at fan fiction communities and at erotic women’s writing in general. The fact that it so clearly is removed from its contextual cultural community ties (as Anne Jamison argues in her great essay in Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, 2012) makes it ultimately less interesting as a work of fan fiction. (The seeming rejection of the fan community, unlike other fan fiction-turned-pro writers, doesn’t help much either.) Its mere existence as an explicit erotic work, as “pornography by women for women, with love” is crucial, but enough ink has been spilled about its problematic feminism and contentious portrayal of BDSM culture.

As for how lasting it will be: Let’s hope a generation from now, the “inner Goddess” will go the way of the “zipless fuck”, an interesting historical footnote rather than a perennial classic.

KH: The whole Fifty Shades thing fills me with weariness that is quickly becoming annoyance. Nonfan friends now have this whole idea about what I read and think and do that doesn’t reflect my lived reality. Something about the “nonnormality” (scare quotes intended!) of BDSM makes fans seem even more fanatic. Many books written by fans have had the serial numbers filed off and then were published professionally; it’s not like she did anything new, and she really did throw her fannish community under the bus, as Bethan Jones argues in an essay in TWC . However, the book has definitely highlighted fan fiction as a literary form and as a cultural phenomenon.

I have no idea if the impact will be lasting. It’s too soon to tell. Certainly many best sellers of yesterday are not remembered today. If Fifty Shades is remembered, I predict it will be cited (by people who do not go back to read any of the books in the series!) as the text that changed the publishing landscape for fan-written texts.

 

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part One)

Much has been written in recent years about 1991-92 as a kind of moment of birth for Fan Studies, a year in which key texts by Constance Penley, Camille Bacon-Smith, Lisa A. Lewis, and myself, helped to establish the study of fandom as a distinctive research project, emerging from the study of subcultures, readers, or audiences, all paradigms with a longer history in British Cultural Studies and elsewhere. I was flattered that the Journal of Fandom Studies published a special issue recently considering the impact of my book, Textual Poachers, on the field, and you can read my own reflections about the origins and potential futures of fandom studies in the current issue of that same journal.

But today’s post is intended to challenge this framework in two different ways. First, I would make the case that 2006-2007 was an equally important period for the development of the field, marked by the publication of two key anthologies — Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays and Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Herrington’s Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. For there to be a field of Fan/Fandom Studies, there must in fact be not simply a few singular contributions but a large group of people doing original work in that space. While there were certainly new writers (Nancy Baym and Rhianon Bury being key figures) emerging in the decade plus between these two historic moments, there had also been a tendency for many other writers to fill in the broad outlines which had been mapped by the 1991-92 wave of publications. Often, there was still a cycling through of various justifications for studying fans and then a few quotes from our writings coupled with a new set of examples, arriving at more or less the same conclusions.  These 2006-2007 collections represented the arrival of a new generation of scholars who were coloring outside those lines, who represented important new voices and new perspectives, who pushed the field forward, and who established it as an ongoing academic pursuit.

I remember my excitement reading through these two books, my head spinning, and feeling like I was learning something new on every page. The works represented distinctive visions of what this field would look like — one doubling-down on the female-centered fan writing community as the locus of study even as it dealt comparatively with other communities from which transformative works were emerging, and the other expanding the scope of what kinds of fans we studied to bring together global and historical perspectives as well as a conversation between those who studied fans of cult media, popular music, sports, and even news and politics. There’s been some tension between these two approaches ever since. Almost a decade later, Gray, Sandvoss and Herrington are in the process of updating their collection while Hellekson and Busse have released their own second edited anthology, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, which seeks to map key influences on the field of fan fiction studies.

And that brings us to the second thing that the focus on 1991-92 as the birth of fan studies may get wrong. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader is focused in expanding this time line in important ways, calling attention to the kinds of writing on fan fiction that existed prior to Enterprising Women or Textual Poachers, work that often came out of the second wave of feminism and was also embedded in the fan community itself. Many of these essays have been out of print or scattered across obscure journals so there is an enormous contribution in bringing them together again, reframing them for contemporary readers, and reappraising their contributions to the early development of this field.

There’s been an unfortunate tendency, which I have probably contributed to in some later interviews, to dismiss the work of earlier scholars as patronizing and pathologizing. There is certainly much such work to be found. But there was also work that was celebratory, seeking to understand fan fiction as forms of women’s writing, seeking to debate the ways fans were remixing pornography or erotica to reflect female tastes and interests. If you look closely at Textual Poachers, NASA/Trek and Enterprising Women, we cited and engaged with this work, but it has since been largely neglected by later generations of researchers. And this collection shows us that there is much to be regained by reconnecting with this past.

This week, I am interviewing Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson about the two books, their contributions to the field of fan/fandom studies, and their perspective on some of the key issues being debated by fans and fan scholars in 2014. Busse and I have not always agreed about the directions that fan studies should be taking and some of our exchanges have been heated and public but I have always had deep admiration and respect for the leadership that Busse and Helleckson have brought to this field, not only through these two collections, but also through the publication of Transformative Works and Cultures, a scrupulously peer-reviewed and highly influential online journal which has kept alive the project of their first anthology in terms of identifying new authors, new topics, and new approaches to the study of fandom.

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet came out almost a decade ago and looking back on it, it has turned out to be a watershed book in many ways. For one, you helped to bring together a generation of newer writers who represented the next wave of fandom research and we are now starting to see full-length books emerge from many of these scholars. Can you share with us how that book came to be and what brought this particular group of writers together?

KH: I initially pitched the original-essay book myself, without Kristina, to a press that had published a previous book of mine. However, just putting a call for papers out there does absolutely nothing. You have to solicit. I did some of that, but I quickly realized that the book as I had envisioned it wouldn’t come to be unless I brought in a coeditor. Kristina has a wide network, and I have the knowledge and contacts for book production. We’d met at International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2003 and had chatted, and once I asked Kristina to come on board, the project finally took off. That division of work is one we have maintained since: Kristina does front-end stuff, like solicitation, and I do all the scheduling, paperwork, copyediting/proofreading, and back-end stuff related to actually getting it into print.

I wanted the book to reflect my wishes for scholarship in the field: something timely, something that reflected changes in consumption of fan-written texts (i.e., the Internet), and particularly something where the writer didn’t have to justify herself. Fan studies was like the field of science fiction literature studies (my original field) all over again: writers were expected to spend time explaining why they were bothering with a low-culture trash genre, and they also had to position themselves in relation to the field—in particular, if they were fans, this needed to be disclosed and scholars had to distance themselves. SF had discarded these conventions, in part because writing about it became more mainstream and in part because SF scholars created venues dedicated to the field, such as academic journals, where background and justification could be dispensed with. I wanted the edited volume to reflect this. It seemed to me that fan studies scholars kept having to have the same conversation over and over again: justification, distance, and then lit review. We needed to create a space where we could dispense with that and use the words to have an actual conversation.

However, we did think that we needed to create a common vocabulary and a common—well, I guess the word would be canon: texts we’d all read and agreed were relevant. Our introduction provided these elements, which were common to all the papers we collected. This allowed us to create a good bibliography, which the press agreed to let me put up on my Web site. The contributors were thus able to use their words for their ideas, not for context or lit review. At the time, this was a major win. I think we moved the field forward in this regard: we just assumed this was all important, and by framing the book as we did, we made it so.

KB: We were at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2005, and we were having these amazing discussions there and on LiveJournal and people were writing amazing essays, and we weren’t seeing any of those folks getting published or any of those ideas explored. I don’t think there was a single essay out yet that had dealt with the change in fannish infrastructures, like the switch from Usenet to mailing lists and archives to blogs and LiveJournal. Most of us—me and Karen and the contributors—had met or knew one another through mailing lists or through LiveJournal.

We were very clear early on that we were tired of essays starting with definition of fan fiction and basically looking at a given text and saying, “Look, there, homoerotic subtext and SLASH!!!!” We agreed that we needed a framing introduction with all the terms and the history so that the essays could start within the discourse rather than spending half the time getting to their argument. But we also wanted the history and a shared resource so that everyone else could look at what had come before and where we were heading now and be on the same page. We were standing in a hotel hallway with Francesca Coppa, debating whether we should do it as two volumes, one with new essays and one a reprint anthology. It took us eight more years to finally get the second half out.

We got the majority of the essays via direct solicitation. Most—nine of the 13—were people I was friends with on LiveJournal. A few essays didn’t work out, which is par for the course; the RPF popslash essay wasn’t supposed to have been mine but we needed to fill a hole. We decided that these were all topical essays, and given that production would take a year, we imposed a deadline of less than a year for essay delivery. From having the idea to having the book in our hands took about two years, which is very fast for academic publishing. But all these acafans were giving papers that they couldn’t find a venue to publish. The ideas were just there to be caught. We had a lot of grad students and unaffiliated folks among the contributors—I think only four of the 13 were tenure-track scholars. But that’s where there often are the most interesting and novel ideas.

The other thing that made this collection different and that we thought was really important was the fact that we all self-identified as fans. You had already brought in the fact in Textual Poachers (1992) that a central part of your identity was being a fan as well as an academic, and Matt Hills did his long autoethnography in Fan Cultures (2002). We decided to take that for granted. A lot of us had been fans and active in media fandom long before we were academics, and many of us came to fan studies through fandom rather than through media studies. We wrote our love into these essays and displayed our fandom affiliation in every sentence. That seemed to be different to a lot of the research that was happening at the time.

Beyond the individuals involved, the book also helped to reframe fan studies, opening up some important new paradigms—such as Francesca Coppa’s focus on fan fiction as performance or Gail De Kosnik’s focus on fan fiction and “the archive”, some reconfiguration of how this research related to gender and sexuality studies, a new focus on the literary dimensions of fan fiction, but also an engagement with the conditions of cultural production within fandom. I still find great value in your reminder that fan fiction is by its nature always a “work in progress” and that it is hard to understand fan fiction outside of the social relationships it helps to facilitate. Looking back, what do you see as the lasting conceptual impact of the book on our field?

KB: One (of the many) things that fandom and academia share is the ability to have many things be true at the same time. Collectively, we write hundreds different versions of what goes through our characters’ minds during a given crucial scene, and we give ever new interpretations of Hamlet during his major soliloquy. We (well, many of us :) can simultaneously ship Tony/Steve, Steve/Bucky, and Bucky/Natasha, and there’s this great Bedford St. Martin’s series that presents a given literary text with about a dozen different theoretical approaches (like Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, queer readings of Heart of Darkness). And even as they are sometimes mutually exclusive, they are also ALL VALID. If our collection has had any conceptual impact, we hope it is that understanding of WIP not only for fandom and academia, but also for fan studies in particular. We are realizing that there are huge gaps in areas we have not paid enough attention to, such as Critical Race Studies, Transculturalism/Transnationalism, and Marxist Labor Theory, to name just a few, and if the collection was ever supposed to be anything, it was a snapshot of that moment.

Maybe the most lasting impact of the book ended up being more logistic than conceptual: we were asked to found and edit the OTW’s academic journal, Transformative Works and Culture, which publishes its 17th issue in September for a collective of around 300 essays. Doing Fan Fiction and Fan Communities together gave us experience, credibility, and an acafannish community. You can see most of the contributors to the collection pop up again as contributors, editors, and peer reviewers. In a way, it is TWC that should be seen as the ever-expanding archive of the book itself. It’s a snapshot on so many levels: in terms of the fandoms that are used, such as Harry Potter, LOTRips, poplash, or even just in terms of interfaces, such as two essays focusing specifically on LiveJournal.

Moreover, as we already said, part of the intention of the collection was to create a text where everyone started from the same fannish and academic point to a degree. Our introduction is quite different from Gray, Sandvoss, and Harringon’s “Why Study Fans?” (2007), but that makes sense, because we start from such a different point and have a slightly different focus. We never really question why we should study fans, because we think we are important :) But also, our focus is somewhat narrower, for better or worse. We clearly don’t subscribe to the large “everyone is a fan” definition, and we are primarily focused on what Coppa has termed in her overview in the book “media fandom,” i.e., creative fan works for Western live-action shows and connected fandoms. That means that we purposefully limited ourselves, but it also means that we can focus on a given field and explore it in all its facet and with all these different approaches. And we can go deep and far, because we don’t need to explain what beta readers are or why Mary Sues are a highly contested genre.

KH: I’m glad the book helped reframe fan studies. I knew the book filled a hole in scholarship, if only for its acknowledgment of new modes of fannish consumption. However, what we did was simply let scholars be free to work in their field, combined with fan studies. Its lasting conceptual impact is merely that fan studies is not an offshoot of media studies. Rather, fan studies is a multidisciplinary field that can easily integrate other -isms and other disciplines: feminism, Marxism, sociology, anthropology, close analysis of a fan-created text, reader-response theory, affect, performativity, deconstruction, posthumanism, queer theory… Further, it’s an interesting site for application of theory, be it Schechner or Derrida.

Another important conceptual impact is that we are unapologetically fans ourselves. I write fan fiction and maintain a fic archive; I have helped create content for a fan-created informational wiki; I ran few multiauthored virtual seasons after my show was canceled. I don’t just read about this stuff; I live this stuff. The connection with the fan community has led us to do certain things, like (as for TWC) not hotlinking directly to spaces that fans perceive as private, or checking with a fan before we publish a link to a story in case the author wants us to hotlink to some other space, or not hotlink at all.

I am not interested in expanding the notion of the fan to include all aspects of what may be termed fannish behavior. Fans of stamp collecting or sports may engage in a sort of fandom, but they don’t tend to call it that. They may also configure their engagement and their passion differently. The word fandom may properly be applied to these activities, but to my ear, the connotation isn’t right. Broadening fan studies to all aspects of “fanatic” behavior merely because the activities match what the term denotes is certainly a valid point of view, but it’s not my point of view because I am interested in what it connotes and how fans work to build that connotation. The term also comes out of SF literature fandom, which I have studied, and in some ways I want to acknowledge fan studies’ outgrowth from SF fandom. Media fans adopted fanzines, apas, and other modes of dissemination from SF fans.

 

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.