Gender and Fan Culture (Round Nineteen, Part One): Lori Hitchcock Morimoto and David Surman


LHM: I’m Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, and my academically sanctioned biography states that I’m a PhD candidate at Indiana University, working on a dissertation that examines Japanese female fans of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. Normally, I would not include the information that I just now plopped my daughter in front of an episode of Dora the Explorer in order to buy some time to write, but that information – as well as the fact that I’m presently seven months pregnant – turns out to be relevant to the ways in which I’m thinking about female fandom in my dissertation, as well as the ways I’m thinking about academia in my own life. In essence, I’m interested in unruly fans (and unruly academics).

My own fan experiences, like those of the women about whom I’m writing, are very much a product of personal transnationalism. I spent my formative years living in Hong Kong; there, I was a fan of Hollywood blockbusters and took every opportunity to fill Chinese embroidered scrapbooks with movie stills culled from the Japanese movie magazines Screen and Roadshow. Later, I paradoxically ‘discovered’ the unique pleasures of Hong Kong cinema in Japan, and, as a fan, I’ve invested my fair share of hard-earned cash in star and movie memorabilia, quaked with excitement upon realizing that the Hong Kong restaurant I happened to visit was the backdrop of a favorite scene in Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, and shaken Leslie Cheung’s hand at a concert in Osaka. This is all by way of saying that fandom, for me, has been – first and foremost – a very personal and highly affective experience. As with many of the female fans I’ve talked with over the years, it stems from passion – for a narrative, for a genre, for a star. The fans with whom I identify are messy – to borrow from Martti Lahti and Melanie Nash, we’re “those girls”: the ones who exceed predetermined parameters of fan/star interaction, who allow our lives and our fandom to commingle to an unseemly degree.

DS: My name is David Surman, and I am founding Senior Lecturer in Computer Games Design at the University of Wales, Newport. Fandom brought me to university, where I studied animation, with a view to working in the games industry. I was chaperoned through childhood by a Sega Mega Drive, and as a teenager I was consumed by an expanded passion for Japanese animation, games and popular culture; I guess I would qualify as one of the first wave of UK game otaku. I was caught up in the cloud of excitement around anime and manga generated by Jonathan Clements and Helen MacCarthy in magazines like Manga Max and Manga Mania, at a time when British and American animation was a dust bowl. Even though retailers sold the limited number of titles available at mercenary prices, over the years I acquired numerous videos with my meager allowance. I came to them knowing something of the controversy but nothing of the pedigree in anime.

My own media mixing put Kaneda and Tetsuo headlong along the same highway as the Gunstar Heroes and Joe Musashi on horseback. Videogames, manga and anime became the counterpoint to boredom at school, and university provided me with an opportunity to deepen those interests in an almost-legitimate way. No sooner had I got there, my interests began to broaden, through a patchwork exposure to film studies and classic film and animation. I found a passion for European experimental and North American limited animation, and these in turn deepened my appreciation of anime. My masters and PhD work followed the path set during the degree; I have sought to bring film studies methods to bear on transnational videogame and animation cultures. I guess, in this process, I have been examining my own fandom. I don’t think that my experience is in many ways idiosyncratic; it always amazes me how many of my students share biographical details, motivations, dreams and desires, having spent their childhood committed to the same mediums as me.

In several recent essays I have vainly vindicated my own abstruse feelings about games fandom. My film studies prejudices come to the fore in the essays on Fable in the Animated Worlds anthology, and on StreetFighter in Videogame/Player/Text. Until relatively recently game studies have tended to focus on matching the sociology of play to the dynamics of gameplay. Along with a few other guilty parties, some of whom have contributed to this gender and fandom series, I am interested in the relationship between game aesthetics and fandom, though I suspect aesthetics is sometimes too weighty a term. Game art, images, advertisements and merchandise fascinate me, in particular when they betray particular cultural and generic assumptions about gender and games.

The ‘Messiness’ of Transnational Fan Culture

Whenever I think, “what am I doing?,” I remind myself of what I consider one of the great fan studies texts, Barthes’ The Language of Fashion. His summary exclamation, ‘The most seemingly utilitarian of objects – food, clothes, shelter – and especially those based on language such as literature (whether good or bad literature), press stories, advertising etc., invite semiological analysis.’

I have tended to work with an emphasis on close analysis within the systems of games representation. Like Barthes I guess, the sum of my interests in games, animation and fandom pass through another lens, sexuality, which shapes my thinking, and my consumption of images and play experiences. I think I qualify as one of your messy fans, Lori. In my recent work I have become interested in female transnational/transmedia character archetypes (phew!), as loci for fan investment, authorial refinement, and cultural commentary.

LHM: Actually, I’m intrigued by your parenthetical “phew!” there at the end of your self-introduction, since it really is a mouthful but, at the same time, something that’s part and parcel of contemporary globalized (or transnational or transcultural), gendered fandom. Since we’ve both written on media fandoms in a transnational context, I think this is something we might be able to talk to in addition to issues of gender. In my own work, I’ve found that the sheer amount of exposition necessary to bring a more general audience up to speed in terms of the specific culture(s) I’m talking about often acts as a barrier to discussing those cultures in terms of broader issues of fandom. In an English-speaking Western conference setting, for example, comparatively little background information is needed for speakers and audience members alike to engage in fairly high-level theoretical discussions of, say, Doctor Who or Lord of the Rings fandom. But in the case of characters like Kaneda and Tetsuo (who I was pleased – and mortified, but only because it dates me – to recognize), theoretical discussion often seems to take a back seat to exposition. My feeling is that, as a result, such discussion tends to get ghettoized or relegated to ‘specialties’ within academic discourse on fan cultures.

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

Technology and Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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