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[QUOTE] From Rukmini Pande, Episode 29 of @fansplaining, “Shipping and Activism.” There are so many things I want to quote from this episode, but this segment in particular was extraordinary in helping me frame my thinking about conflict between fanon, canon, queerness, and race. (via elizabethminkel)

I’ve been trying to think through this kind of canon versus fanon kind of thing, and for the longest time I was a “who needs canon” kind of person. We have our archetypes, we have our narratives, and we’ll run with it. And those are the stories I want, and I don’t care whether they are the same stories I’ve read a hundred times, those are the stories I want. But as those stories themselves, as those characters have changed, I’ve realized that it’s not that simple. That I can go and find versions of queerness, but those versions of queerness in fandom will mostly be white queerness. They’re not going to be brown queerness, they’re not going to be black queerness. And that’s something that I’m going to have to rely on canon to center those characters to the point that they cannot be ignored. And that is very very rare.

We’ve now kind of come to the tipping point where how much primacy can a character of color get and still be marginalized in fandom? And you know, it seems like we’ve come to the end of that rope! I don’t think you could have—this is a question I think that a lot of people have kind of been thinking about at the back of their minds. Surely some text will come along where there’s no other option. And we’ve seen that fandom will make the option and it still won’t be black or brown queerness.

Rukmini Pande, Episode 29 of @fansplaining, “Shipping and Activism.” There are so many things I want to quote from this episode, but this segment in particular was extraordinary in helping me frame my thinking about conflict between fanon, canon, queerness, and race.
(via elizabethminkel)

[META] Canon Ships, Fanon Ships, and What Readers Want

Last week, Henry Jenkins posted a compelling rant about the lack of “committed relationships,” especially functional marriages, depicted in contemporary television. Jenkins speculated that this could be partly because many writers “are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup,” and partly because there is a perception in the industry and among some critics that sexual tension ought to remain unresolved for as long as possible in order to sustain viewers’ interest. However, he claims that viewers only lose interest when, as he argues is the case for the current season of a show I don’t watch, and therefore won’t spoil for anyone who might care, the coupling comes at the expense of previously possible depths of “emotional maturity, any kind of psychological depth, and any kind of personal growth.” That is, this correlation between resolving sexual tension between significant characters and the waning of affective resonance of the show itself is unreasonably strong, and therefore, the question Jenkins asks is why, although they have the resources in terms of talented actors and narrative possibilities, many writers are unable to develop good storylines for committed couples.

As a proud shipper, who has devoted countless hours and weeks to pondering the complexity of Mulder/Scully, Daria/Sandi, and Spuffy (note the varying degrees of accordance with canon), I was excited to encounter Jenkins’s caveat that, in contrast to the shortcomings of television writers, “fandom is all about the relationships between characters, and fans are capable of pulling out insights into those relationships from the most subtle touch, the most nuanced reaction shots, and stitch them together through their stories and videos into stories which show how relationships can grow and unfold over time.” I share this understanding of the intellectual work of shipping, based on every fandom I’ve had the fortune to encounter. I wondered why, then, it mattered if indeed there was a lack of a certain kind of relationship on television today. After all, I know plenty of shippers in various fandoms who write epic marriage fic, which never lacks for emotional maturity, psychological depth, or personal growth. These serve as the cornerstone of many fanworks, even those produced by twenty-somethings (*cough*), and it seems to me that fans are not simply fantasizing about marriage and making it happen to characters who are portrayed in canon as being inadequate to the task. But even on that point, what I see is that there are complex, adult marriages nearly everywhere in contemporary television (or at least, everywhere enough when we consider how few non-marriage relationships, which face social hurdles beyond UST, are portrayed) — but rather, as in real life, these are often represented in the background of a broad social tapestry. Fans can focus on these relationships, and derive real satisfaction from drawing out the subtleties already present in the sourcetext that some of us may not have noticed initially, having been distracted by the soapier love plots played up by the promos. But the marriages are there — I’m wary of listing endgame couples, for fear of spoiling my favorite shows for the uninitiated, but they are there.

All this being said, I do understand Jenkins’s frustration. Perhaps my own perspective is skewed because of the extent to which my interest in shows is that of the shipper. I always have time to look for characters’ compatibilities with one another, and, the greater the depth with which these are explored in canon and fanon, the happier I am. I’m the kind of person for whom the relationships of Six Feet Under, for example, are almost never too melodramatic. That’s a show in which canon does a great deal of the work often performed by fanon, for various reasons related to its writers’ explicit interest in psychology, family, and love relationships, but I wouldn’t want to privilege it over other shows, which prefer to leave a trail of shippable traces, rather than to have their characters articulate every nuance.

But I do think that there’s an important truth in Jenkins’s concern, and it’s one I’ve seen reflected in another arena of recent debate, one judged by the New Yorker‘s Facebook page to be “just for fans.” I note this because I would normally rather talk about television than literature in this space, but I do think that there are some potentially interesting connections to be drawn out between Jenkins’s argument and Jonathan Franzen’s argument, articulated in “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude,” which recently published exclusively on Facebook. On recent responses to Wallace’s fiction, Franzen says:

“The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms. What makes this especially strange is the near-perfect absence, in his fiction, of ordinary love. Close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe. What we get, instead, are characters keeping their heartless compulsions secret from those who love them; characters scheming to appear loving or to prove to themselves that what feels like love is really just disguised self-interest.”

There is a difference, I think, between the specific kind of committed relationships Jenkins was longing to see, and this more general idea of “ordinary love,” but I think that they are intimately connected. Jenkins specifically suggests that his expectations for a complex committed relationship are high, because his show has already demonstrated a rare attention to the dynamics of other kinds of relationships, including friendships, partnerships, mentorships, and family relationships. It’s interesting, then, to compare these two arguments — one being a psychological argument about how a literary writer revealed much about his worldview by systematically thwarting emotional connections of various kinds among his characters, and the second, being about how a broad range of writers in a specific medium, namely television, persistently drop the ball when it comes to transitioning characters from an exciting and unresolved sexual tension into a committed long term relationship. But, perhaps because of my sympathy to the Wallace argument, I can’t help but respond in terms similar to Franzen’s, when he notes:

“how recognized and comforted, how loved, [Wallace's] most devoted readers feel when reading [his fiction]. To the extent that each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island…we gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island which was David.”

I see much of value in this part of his argument, and I think that, despite the author’s own unseemly relationship to fans of contemporary literature, he is on a page here, to which I’m happy to turn. Once again, there’s what’s represented within storyworlds, in terms of the percentage of “ordinary love” relationships versus dysfunctional attachments, and this ratio surely reveals something about a body of work. But on the other hand, in both literature and film, there are readers, passionate readers, and fans, and it’s our job to maximize the possibilities offered to us by the always-finite sourcetext. Sometimes it’s finite due to writerly shortcomings, and other times, it’s finite due to some more specific cultural confusion, as may well be the case in the context of marriage and marriage-like relationships in U.S. culture today.

But in any case, I just wanted to say that fans have told a wider variety of love stories than any other kind of writers. This being the case, I remain excited for the day when every polymorphously perverse and panfannish shipper has the canon moresomes and emotionally mature marriages of their dreams. But until that day arrives, I feel pretty well served by fanworks.

[META] Are we too tough on gay TV teens? Who’s we?

This past weekend, Heather Hogan posted a thought-provoking piece to AfterEllen, which prompted me to reflect on conversations I’ve been having about sexuality in/and fandom. Hogan’s piece, but to an even greater extent, the comments on it, helped me to articulate some of the reasons I am protective of my corner of fandom on LJ/DW, because the conversations I’m able to have there, especially when it comes to emotional questions like character hate, are so much more satisfying than those I encounter in the greater blogosphere, academic and popular media-oriented (in which category I would include AfterEllen). When it comes to these intimate questions about media representations of queer lives, especially the character arcs of out queer characters in long-arc television series, I find a fannish vocabulary to be absolutely fundamental to the conversation.

I should, before I say anything else on this subject, admit that I actively avoid industry-connected conversations about series with open canons. One of the more revealing comments on Hogan’s piece admonished AfterEllen’s mission as one of “sucking up to” those in industry, including writers, producers, and actors, because it is owned by Logo, and thus explicitly exists to serve its interests. (Of course, LJ is not free from serving corporate interests, but its fannish content is less explicitly connected to these.) In any case, when I read this comment on AfterEllen, I breathed a sigh of relief, remembering how grateful I am for fandom’s generally accepted etiquette when it comes to a relationship to the industry — particularly in my recent experiences with RPF, I’ve seen how seriously this is taken, but also more generally, there is an enforced and productive distance between fan activities and the creators of sourcetexts, bridged only at specific moments for specific purposes, when desires converge. This is not the case for AfterEllen, or, perhaps not unrelatedly, for the academy (although the academy has a self-deprecating tendency to assume that no one of much importance would be interested, anyway), and therefore, these venues’ critical rhetoric inevitably takes a different shape from the fannish.

Another caveat: I’m glad that the writers at AfterEllen do what they do, and I think that the space they provide for lesbians, bisexuals, and other queer and questioning women (I can’t speak to their record on trans inclusivity, but it’s important to talk about), is incredibly valuable. I admire their interest in actively following as many media franchises as they do, keeping ever-vigilant about the representation of queer identity, sexuality, and experience. This work is very different from the work I most admire in fandom, but the two share much in the way of critical stakes. To put it as plainly as possible, while acknowledging that I’m surely missing a lot of context, what AfterEllen does is critique queer representations as they happen, making sure to take note when established stereotypes have been uncritically put into play, speaking on behalf of an invested queer female audience that longs for complex representations of queer women’s lives in narratives across media. Fandom, as such, does not have this explicit investment. However, (and any kind of statement on fandom as a whole is bound to be controversial, so bear with me), fandom does have a complementary investment in using the most intriguing available sourcetexts from narratives across media to generate critical analysis and artful, transformational fanworks. Because of this investment, fandom is, I think, well-equipped to offer a different angle on the question posed by Hogan’s title, about why we hate on certain fictional characters, and the storyworlds that give them life.

This answer entails a shift in focus best described by Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers: “Fandom celebrates not exceptional texts but rather exceptional readings.” (291) In other words, fandom sees criticism (whether it takes the form of meta, fic, art, vids, whatever) as an active part of the meaning-making process which begins in the sourcetext, and this speaks to the heart of this emotional question about hatred, or, as we might call it, character bashing. Of course, that term is significant (particularly here, where it speaks sharply to other histories of bashing), because it reveals a space where fandom has a somewhat better-established distinction between sourcetext and analysis than non-explicitly fannish media analysis: character bashing is distinct from writer-bashing (although both persist, sadly, in a variety of fandoms), and both of these terms can be strategically deployed or wholeheartedly rejected in favor of the fanwork-creation response mode. In this mode, fanworks can give queer characters the love they deserve, while remaining critical of the under-thought adherence to stereotypes on the part of the writers, which soured our initial readings of the sourcetext.

What I see in fandom, and fandom alone (well, perhaps also in academic feminist and queer criticism, see for example the inimitable Sara Ahmed’s literary analysis in The Promise of Happiness), is an insistence on breathing life into characters insufficiently realized in-story due to an unfortunate fusion of marginal social location and the ignorance of the writers. However, it’s an approach not easily incorporated into more mainstream critical practices. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course — just another reason I’m glad I have a place to go when I want to channel my nerdrage productively.

[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.