[META] MTV’s The Hills as parasocial fandom

MTV’s The Hills is rapidly approaching its series finale, going out with more of a whimper than a bang. The reality show hit its cultural high-water mark in series 3, when the feud between Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag jumped from the screen to tabloids and gossip sites to daytime and late-night talk shows. Suddenly the show and its cast were everywhere, objects of fascination, derision, adoration, and parody in seemingly equal measures, while spawning endless discussion deconstructing the status of the “real” in reality TV and celebrity culture. But The Hills‘ zeitgeist moment has long since passed, even before being usurped by Jersey Shore last year as the latest unscripted jewel in MTV’s crown.

I’m (still) a fan of The Hills, even though I’ve transferred the bulk of my affection and investment to its spin-off, The City. Rather than a typical end-of-series post-mortem, I want to talk about The Hills in terms of its fan cultures. From what I’ve seen, The Hills was almost entirely ignored in my circles of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth-based media fandom, and especially within what damned_colonial (adopting obsession_inc’s coinage) has recently described as ‘transformational fandom’ — that is, predominantly female fan communities centered around fan fiction and other fanworks. Transformational fandom is used in contrast to ‘affirmational fandom’, conceived of as focusing more on exploring and celebrating the source material and its creators. Damned_colonial notes that ‘affirmational’ and ‘transformational’ represent not so much two separate camps, but rather two alternate modes of fannishness that can co-exist in a given fan and a particular community.

In this framework, The Hills would seem to skew heavily towards the affirmational fandom mode, if only because of the relative lack of broad engagement through fanworks, but I think something else is going on that neither concept covers. For a lot of the show’s primary audience, the pleasures of being a fan of The Hills was partly identificatory and partly aspirational. Comments in forums would talk about the cast as if they were part of their extended virtual social network, chiding them, offering support, giving advice, taking sides in fights. These dynamics aren’t uncommon in soap opera fandoms or among celebrity/gossip fans, but for fans of The Hills, there was a special implied proximity and intimacy — that the cast was more accessible to them, or that it was easier to imagine themselves transposed into the world of The Hills.

In social science, this style of virtual sociality is called parasocial relationships. Fans are often mocked for talking about a celebrity or soap opera character as though they were a close friend or family member (for example, in the U.S. version of The Office, there’s a scene when Jim returns to the Scranton branch after being away and asks Kelly what’s new with her, and she replies with a breathless update on Brad and Angelina’s relationship). But those jokes rely on the assumed conflation between fantasy and reality in the minds of fans presumed unable to make those distinctions. In contrast, a hallmark of The Hills’ success and the discourse about the show among fans rested upon mobilizing the tension and blurred edges in the fiction/reality divide. Fans of The Hills had their own version of a Lost-style forensic fandom, scouring DVD extras, gossip blogs, and cast interviews to untangle a ‘true’ story from the constructed narratives of reality show editing and promotional spin. Fantasy vs. reality becomes another game, fodder for discussion and a source of pleasure in itself. Fans’ parasocial relationships with Lauren, Heidi, and company are less a sign of delusion than a space of imaginative play and a locus for social relationships between fans.

One of MTV’s innovations was to channel and frame this fannish mode of virtual sociality through The Hills After Show, a live talk show immediately following The Hills. Events from the latest episode were debated, dissected, and dished over by the hosts and a panel of fan-surrogates in front of a vocal audience, with cutaways to comments from fans in viewer parties linked by webcam. Finally a cast member would come on the After Show for an interview/interrogation about what really happened and what it all meant, bringing the “characters” themselves directly into fannish space and discussion.

I don’t think this style of fandom rests comfortably within the affirmational vs. transformational framework. Perhaps it straddles both to some extent, but I’m more inclined to see it as a third mode of fandom. Until a better name comes along, let’s call it parasocial fandom, to reclaim the term and celebrate its emphasis on relational play and pleasures.

[META] A look at “Supernatural”

The most recent issue of Transformative Works and Cultures (the link is at your right) was a special issue about the show Supernatural. Many of the articles examine the way that show has “broken the fourth wall.” The idea of the “fourth wall” comes from live theater — the action of a play happens inside a sort of cube that is the stage, except the front wall of the cube doesn’t exist, so that the audience can see the action. But the wall is undeniably there, separating the actors and their imaginary world of story from the audience, which exists in the real world of time and matter. Supernatural reached out through that wall and, in a very self-aware way, involved the audience in its narrative. From what I could see at the time in various online communities, fan opinions were mixed as to whether, on the whole, this was a good thing or a bad thing. Melissa Gray writes about this phenomenon in her TWC article ”From Canon to Fanon and Back Again”. She starts out by noting that to be part of the audience for a storyteller (in any medium) is to extend trust, and to willingly suspend disbelief, to enter the imaginary world, as long as the story lasts. She goes on to describe the elements of Supernatural, what is familiar about the show and what is fantastic, and how the writers have cemented the audience’s involvement by creating emotionally compelling characters, especially the Winchester brothers. She also describes how the things fans love about the show can help them negotiate its problematic aspects — the gender politics, the separation of the brothers and their conflict, and the racism. And she also presents what to me was a fascinating description of why, in her opinion, Supernatural has changed from being classifiable as horror, to classifiable as fantasy. She writes, “Layered revelations are created [and] they are important in integrating the horror and fantasy episodes and forming them into a seamless myth arc.” And, fans who love the show have actively engaged with its material and added to it, creating, as she notes, “print, vids, comics, dolls, and other media.” She spends some time explaining what an active, engaged, creative fandom looks like — and Supernatural has this in spades. Fan-produced material, and the fan interpretations known as fanon, enrich the viewing experience while often skewing that experience away from the writers’ intentions. Unlike some shows that preserve the wall between audience and story, the show runners of Supernatural have introduced characters who are fans of Sam and Dean. Gray describes the fan characters who are featured, and evaluates them in terms of what the writers might have been trying to say about their perceived audience as well as how the fans received them. In her judgment, the plotlines that featured fan characters were not gratuitous and were well integrated into the main story. She says three of the four fan characters received a positive response from the audience. Also, the show writers included a reference to the thousands of fan stories about an incestuous relationship between Sam and Dean, and Gray says, “Many slash fans were happy to be immersed in their own world away from the mainstream [audience] and really did not want have to discuss the concept of slash fan fiction, especially incestuous slash, with their ‘mundane’ friends and family.” In short, they felt outed. Gray explains the mass media’s reporting on this turn in the Supernatural narrative: “With male/male romance being the next big thing on the romance novel front, along with the lure of the forbidden and the thrill of reporting sensational news, the media attention is not surprising.” I was disappointed that her consideration of the mass media reports on this show included a link to an L.A. Weekly article on gay romance novels. That article was poorly researched, poorly reported, shallow, and completely inadequate. It was basically very bad journalism and was not a good basis for any sort of evaluation of the market category of gay romance novels. Gray’s article was one of several in this issue that explored the breaking of the fourth wall by the writers of Supernatural, and fan reaction to those events. It was definitely a major topic of interest among the acafans who contributed to the special issue. Other Supernatural topics featured included examinations of the religious themes and icons in the show, as well as the range of plots and themes of its fan fiction.

[META] Slash does not equal porn

Science fiction author John Scalzi and TV star Wil Wheaton are getting a lot of blogospherical mileage out of their commissioning of a piece of art by painter Jeff Zugale featuring them as cracktastic SF or fantasy characters, and their asking for “fan fiction” based on the painting. You can read about their event on Scalzi’s blog, Whatever.

It’s for a good cause, the Lupus Alliance, and they are going to pay the winner of their fiction contest.

But they made a mistake that a lot of not-inside-fandom people do. They conflated slash (romantic or intimate stories about two male characters) with porn, and then when commenters objected, they realized the mistake and corrected their terminology, and also linked to the Wikipedia entry on slash.

I see this mistake in mainstream culture all the time — anything with a gay or lesbian or queer theme is automatically assumed to be Adults Only. Which is very limiting and also not true.

One antidote to this attitude is, of course, reminders like the ficathon community known as queerlygen on Dreamwidth.org, which features fan fiction about queer characters doing stuff that doesn’t involve an intensely romantic or sexual plot. Characters who happen to be queer, having adventures, being in a relationships, fighting aliens, caring for aging parents, having a bike wreck, whatever.

Its user profile page states, “We want to create a space where people can tap into the rich range of experiences that queer and genderqueer people have, which extend far beyond simply who we fall in love with or who we take to bed. We want to challenge the idea that works featuring people who aren’t heteronormative or cisgendered are automatically ‘adult’ or unsuitable for some audiences.”

Not that erotic fiction isn’t a big part of fandom. Of course it is. But it can be slash or femmeslash and G rated, and not about romance. In 2010, this shouldn’t be news.

[ADMIN] Welcome!

We are delighted to begin offering you weekly posts in a blog affiliated with the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, specifically its Symposium section.

Our goal for this blog is to provide a lively forum for discussion of fan works and fan cultures, one which draws on the modes and traditions of both fannish meta and academic analysis. Above all, we want to offer a bridge between Transformative Works and Cultures and fannish discussions, by covering both fannish meta topics, and fannish perspectives on fan and media studies. Our hope is that the blog spurs greater interest in and engagement with TWC among fandom, and extends the reach of TWC by linking to and discussing ideas and themes presented in the journal.

Your regular bloggers are:

cryptoxin, who is a long-time fan of science fiction TV, comic books, professional wrestling, and anime. He came into online media fandom a few years ago, and his fannish interests include meta and vidding. He maintains personal journals on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.

 Dana Sterling, who was abruptly catapulted into online fandom with the movies of “The Lord of the Rings.” She has loved the books since childhood, and never looked back after plunging into the fan community for the movies. Since then, she’s branched out into several other fandoms while retaining her love of all things Middle-earth. She was trained as a journalist, and after 20 years in newspapers, television, radio and magazines, now teaches a variety of communications classes at Oklahoma State University in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

The two of us intend to gear our posts to a general fannish audience interested in meta discussions and fan studies. The style and tone of the blog will be more informal than TWC articles, and we assume very little prior knowledge of specialized terminology. We will define and cite whenever necessary. We’ll follow the media fandom we know from Livejournal and Dreamwidth, but we anticipate addressing fan topics mentioned in other blogs and mainstream media, as well as the scholarly blogosphere where it intersects with fan studies.

So what can readers expect in the months to come? Weekly posts which will include:

– Reviews and reflections on articles in TWC, including its Symposium section.

– Discussion of trends and developments in fan cultures and fan works, riffing off of the types of posts that are highlighted by the Metafandom community on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth. We always ask permission before citing a fannish journal, and we’ll only cite public posts.

– Critical discussion of external perspectives on fans and fan cultures, including those of journalists and academics.

– Brief interviews with acafen, and a monthly guest blogger.

– Reviews of books or journal articles relevant to fan cultures.

We will moderate and respond to comments, and hope we get a lot of them!

In short, we want to make this blog a bridge between the TWC journal and fandom, by producing a regular stream of content on meta and acafannish topics, content that will be available in a timely fashion, in between the semiannual journal issues.

Plus, we want to have a lot of fun with our friends. :)