The relationship between slash fan fiction and comics fandom is problematic not only because of the shift of medium from source text to fan text but also because of the shift of fan community. Comics fandom is often viewed as consisting of heterosexual white men and comics are often explicitly marketed to them, excluding and othering the rest of the audience. Comics fandom online subverts this expectation of audience because the majority of fan authors and creators are women. While canon plots privilege action and conflict, and the problematic depiction of women characters in them is so obvious it hardly need be discussed, comics fan fiction reverses these trends: stories privilege emotional arcs, and female characters are depicted as more recognizably human even when they are secondary to the male characters.
Comics fan works thus become completely transformative because of the shift in both fan space and fan audience: texts that are homophobic become homophiliac, authors and readers who are male become female, and that which had previously been other becomes the new norm. For these reasons, the fans are not just aware but indeed hyperaware of their own identity as subaltern and subversive practitioners.
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I had the pleasure of participating in the Mutated Text workshop, celebrating “informal informalities, strange writing, and eclectic ties,” yesterday at Berkeley. As usual, going as a historian to anything even vaguely non-traditional — even as a historian whose heart is firmly in the nontraditional — and going as a fan to anything academic is always a bit of a dissonant experience for me, but my fellow participants were an eclectic bunch of brilliant people who instantly put me at ease, at least as an academic uncomfortable with, in the words of co-convener Martha Kenney, how the norms of academic writing “force self-severing and ignore our personal entanglements with our research.”
As I’ve learned just since my last post, part of the constraints I sometimes feel in academic writing are assuredly unique to my chosen discipline, and perhaps even to my own subfield — certainly my colleagues in Chinese history express a positive paranoia about using the “I” in text that, thankfully, my department head (a professor of premodern Japan) has never felt. English and critical theory, a friend of mine assured me after last time (“I agree with your general argument but I disagree with you on every particular!”), are perfectly comfortable with the personal interpolating into the scholarly. More power to you, my friends!
Part of what we talked about at the workshop yesterday, however — and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a practicing feminist sff writer (Naamen Tilahun, in this case) try to explain the concept of “meta” to a roomful of academics and casual genre readers — put me in the mind of Alex Jenkins’ last post, and her thoughts on the place of love for one’s work, and enthusiasm, in work. I commiserated with enough people at the workshop to know that the constraints people feel in academic work are real enough, even as we see more and more academic works that, as Mel Chen put it later in the day, “resist those constraints.”
Possibly even more than on the question of enthusiasm and being personal, however, I left convinced that one vital feature of fandom, and part of why, as Alex Jenkins argues, it is such an important alternative sphere of pop culture criticism and enjoyment, is that fandom is much more process-oriented than academia may ever be. From the question of works in progress [WIPs] to vidders trading tips and gripes about software and vidding workflow, fandom offers an extraordinarily transparent view on the way the creative process works. I mean “creative” here in its broadest sense, because anyone who doesn’t think that scholarly writing is creative has clearly never cudgeled their brains to pull out the better sentence, thesis, structure, conclusion that you just know is in there somewhere, if you could only find it. Whereas academics frequently feel alienated from each other while working (especially, I daresay, during that dreaded period of time in which one writes a dissertation), fandom has a lot of mechanisms to make people feel that they’re not alone — indeed, I think part of why we as fans love fandom is that it shows us that we’re not alone in our improper informalities and eclectic enthusiasms. Even if no one else has ever heard of your tiny fandom, just about everyone can understand your undying love for it.
I think the other thing is that fandom is also much better at tolerating failure. Your WIP may break off mid-chapter, and people will still read and even recommend it. Your vid or your AMV may not be all that it was in your head, but people will watch it and love it anyway. Dead ends and loops and wandering pathways are a part of what it’s about — iteration and reiteration and obsessive reworking and rereading of trope, character, plot elements. We as fans eat it up with a spoon, whereas as scholars we’re supposed to get it right, right out of the gate, every time.
Co-organizer Margaret Rhee, in her opening remarks, expressed the hope that the workshop could offer participants a supportive space for experimental writing, and it certainly did that; for that alone, to know that I’m the only one who’s willing to follow her passion where it leads, both in terms of form as much as of content, Mutated Text was awesome. And it’s that aspect of fandom, ultimately, that the academy could most stand to emulate.
“But with it–” began Will.
Iorek didn’t let him finish, but went on, “With it you can do strange things. What you don’t know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions, too.”
“How can that be?” said Will.
“The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing. Can you see the sharpest edge of that knife?”
“No,” said, Will, for it was true: the edge diminished to a thinness so fine that the eye could not reach it.
“Then how can you know everything it does?”
“I can’t. But I must still use it, and do what I can to help good things come about. If I did nothing, I’d be worse than useless. I’d be guilty.”
–Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (181)
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 9, is dedicated to “Fan/Remix Video,” an awkward mashup that does much to delineate the uncomfortable position in which I found myself while reading many of the — invariably quite interesting — articles. For me this discomfort was summed up neatly in particular in Kim Middleton’s article “Remix video and the crisis of the humanities”, in which at one point she notes that
To consume, critique, discuss, produce, circulate, subvert, or comply with corporate control—each of these, and sometimes all at once, comprise remix video’s contribution to the practice of living with and through the digital. In its history of practice, remix culture interrogates the transformation of human experience through a sophisticated approach to the texts that project our cultural desires, assumptions, and expectations. Access to digital technologies—whether via LiveJournal, iMovie, or YouTube—allows fans and amateurs to express and share their analysis of, and investment in, canonical texts. In other words, if Tryon’s analysis holds true, then remix video functions as a particularly popular and powerful engagement with cognitive and cultural work that parallels the formative humanities/digital humanities agenda. (3.3)
Note that the magic word “fans” appears only in the penultimate sentence (and that this quotation is only about half of a longer paragraph). Middleton goes on to note — rightly, I think! — that “as modes of thinking about texts, remix practices quite clearly represent competencies endemic to humanities discourse, and ubiquitous in the parlance of its crisis and loss” (3.8), but I am unconvinced by her ultimate conclusion that “It may well be worth the creative effort, however, to recognize a common set of practices, skills, and values that underpin a spectrum of enthusiastic, sophisticated efforts in these two fields [remix video and the humanities] and begin to imagine activities and texts that provide shared opportunities to promote and engage potential participants in the modes of thinking that bring us pleasure and frame the ideas and processes that matter to us, as a collective investment in the creation of an amenable cultural future” (4.3).
Yes, it may well be worth the effort. I can’t agree, however, that any such effort would succeed, for the simple reason that Middleton (and, I must admit, the vast majority of the academy) can’t quite seem to acknowledge that “vernacular remix” is a product not just of critical sensibility and deep cultural knowledge but also of unbridled, passionate enthusiasm. Fans are fannish, in a way that is frequently deeply embarrassing to non-fans, and in the academy that sort of deep emotional engagement with your subject is, at least in my experience, always just a little bit suspect.
I don’t mean to imply that academics aren’t passionate about what they do, or that self-defined “fans” are the only people who make remix video (if anything, the opposite is true, on both counts). But I do think that the humanities aren’t going to survive the onslaught of neoliberal rationalization and downsizing programs without articulating their value not just in terms of cognitive benefits but also of affect, of emotion and sentiment and what the humanities make people feel about them and why that is deeply valuable, in a non-quantifiable way, too. Similarly, I find the disavowal of emotional engagement on the part of many prominent “remix video” makers, such as Elisa Kreisinger, to be disingenuous at best: in particular, Kreisinger’s sharp distinctions between “remixers” and “fans” seem, from the fannish perspective, totally baseless in that everything she says about “remixers” applies, mutatis mutandis, to fans too. The only real difference between the two groups that I can see is that fans are unabashedly enthusiastic about their subject, and that fans and fan vids are far less mainstream-acceptable.
Middleton rather bluntly declares that “remix culture will not save The Illiad” (4.3), but allow me to suggest that fandom just might–what, after all, is the ancient epic cycle that the Illiad began but a poly-cultural, polyglot, centuries-long shared world fandom? (Even the Odyssey, supposedly a landmark of ancient Greek, “Western” culture, draws on and speaks to a roughly contemporaneous Hittite epic tradition.) But for fandom and the humanities to assist each other against the onslaught of their detractors and critics, each will have to know what the other is, to understand and to acknowledge the real dimensions of the other’s affective engagement and critical sensibility, as well as the limitations and benefits of the same. Denying who we are and why we care to do what we do, as whole people, as academics and as fans, will never lead to anything productive.
Twice this week, the mainstream media has turned its attention to issues I normally encounter only within fandom discussions. In the first instance, the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly features an article about shippers, authored by Jeff Jensen. In the second instance, I was surprised to learn that issue #6 of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 Comics had, within three days of its publication, generated fourteen responses from mainstream media sources, including The Guardian and USA Today. Oddly, the shipper piece focuses mostly on shippers as target market, although the author both gets in his dig about shippers being “TV’s weirdest fans,” and also cites scholars who point to the social subversion that has animated many ship-driven fan cultures. By contrast the Buffy coverage focuses almost entirely on the plot development as a feminist response to the current political climate in the United States, and spends little time justifying its reporters’ attention to the cult television (and now comics) icon.
It turns out that, although fannish behavior is generally understood in the mainstream media as mere excess, fans do, increasingly, matter in at least two situations: when we distill cultural consumption trends for cultural producers, and thereby constitute a target demographic, and when our beloved source material turns out to bring newly-layered perspectives to real political issues, thus leading commentators to visit, or at least imagine a visit to, our world. The latter version of fandom on the front pages gives us more credit, but it is also more potentially volatile. It’s exciting to be a part of the “comics fans welcoming the development”(link), but it’s scary to know that so much of what one holds dear can simultaneously be presented to a careless and unforgiving public. Could I handle (and here comes the spoiler alert for the current Buffyverse development) a public trashing of the Buffy comics and of a woman’s reproductive rights on the same day? Add to that the reversion of shipping to its earlier meaning, of human labor facilitating the transfer of resources and capital, and it all starts to sound pretty overwhelming.
But, you might counter, that day is every day. It’s not as though the Buffy comics are any kind of critical darling of any mainstream reviewing sphere, and reproductive rights are rarely afforded unqualified support outside feminist-identified media outlets. As Mark Greif has argued in his n+1 piece, On Repressive Sentimentalism, in much of public conversation, “safe medical abortion, a fundamental social good in any sexually egalitarian society, an invention to be celebrated like the polio vaccine, must disguise itself as everything but what it is—the freedom from involuntary motherhood, owed to any woman young or old, to let her shape a life equal in freedom to those of men.” Whether or not one personally agrees with the entirety of Greif’s statement, and it happens that I do without reservations, the fact that the conversation has been forced into sentimental terrain improper to policy discussion is indisputable. Should I, then, be so surprised that the comments section on The Guardian article about Buffy’s hypothetical abortion contains hostility, both to abortion, and to the Buffy comics, as well as a particular contempt for their shared page space in this instance? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean that the intensity of my emotional response is without important context.
Fandom, as the EW article makes clear, is, for many of us, a space in which to explore desire, including its enactments and their concomitant consequences, beyond the constraints of those social worlds we otherwise inhabit, circumscribed as they are by such external factors as geographic location. This is not to deny that fandom itself is volatile, in its own way, already — fandom, too, is a world inhabited by human beings and therefore all the messiness of human communication. However, its volatility is different from the often-predictable kind of the public sphere, the kind that can have so many long, unproductive conversations about reproductive rights. In fandom, however, sentimentality is given its own space, and given the freedom to flourish according to the trajectories of individuals and specific sub-groups of fans, so that it doesn’t (in the best of times) seep into conversations that are actually about something else entirely, without first making its presence known. Abortion is something of a limit case for the roped-off sphere of sentimentality, hence my anticipation of emotional upheaval of unpredictable proportions at this latest development.
As Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffyverse well knows, popular culture has an incredible power to inspire meaningful conversation about important issues, particularly when there is a visible, engaged and savvy fanbase following each new development with a critical but generous sensibility. His choice to go public about his own approval of Buffy’s decision to get an abortion was not made randomly, or, I don’t think, as a cynical attempt to make money. There are much easier ways for him to make money than by temporarily drumming up interest in an installment of the ninth season of a long-arc serial. To be clear, this isn’t to say that I think that the comics belong on the same playing field as fanworks — they are a for-profit enterprise, and they engage regularly in various kinds of sensationalist marketing, and their authors deserve many of the serious criticism they’ve received from fans. However, I think that there is a serious distinction to be made between sensationalist marketing and an incitement to public conversation about a currently-contentious political issue, particularly one which lies at the center of the feminism that has, since the beginning, informed the concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In a moment in which fans are being noticed more and more by the mainstream media, in more and less exploitative ways, I think it’s important that we register these opportunities to take note of the differences between the conversations we’re able to have with one another, and the conversations that happen next to us, and, if only tangentially, about us. I am a Buffy comics fan, and I am excited about this most recent development. I’m so excited about it that I’m reading comments sections in The Guardian that I know will break my heart. But I know that I want the conversation to be happening, and I have hope that even 10% of the joy that is the intersection of Buffy and feminism will somehow seep into it. Shipping, to unite my two threads, might still strike many as akin to a million schoolgirl crushes, transcribed onto a notebook during study hall. But if it is more than that — if it constitutes a veritable reconsideration of how relationships are structured within complex social worlds, then the possibility of abortion starts to look less like a topical news item, and more like a social reality worth incorporating into the unfolding canon of any story that wishes to speak directly to a contemporary audience.
Let me get this out of the way right now: I once lived in fear of Anglophilia. This fear has had serious consequences, such as, for example, preventing me from reading the Harry Potter books, and, until a few years ago, watching Buffy (which I knew contained prominent British characters played by American actors, inspiring what I feared would be an awkwardly Anglophilic fanbase). My parents are British, you see, but I have lived my entire life in the United States, and therefore have a solidly USAmerican accent, Central Pennsylvanian to be specific. Starting in early childhood, I experienced the social world of strangers as one utterly fascinated by my parents’ accents, and one saddened by my lack of the same. And so, early on, I developed my Linguistics 101 talking points about the connections between accent, affect, perceived credibility, and social class. Aside from the Linguistics 101 situation, I’ve found that these talking points become relevant in two other situations in which I commonly find myself: when I am meeting new colleagues, for example, a new cohort of graduate students in my program, or when an accent meme goes around among a newly-coalescing group of internet friends. The former situation is not relevant here, but I think the latter one is, if only because it offers a way in to a discussion of internet intimacy, and how it connects to the language politics of fandom. I’ve been through three or four “rounds” of accent memes with various online social circles, and some interesting trends have emerged. Here, I’m talking about accent memes that specifically look for likely points of difference (say, the pronunciation of Mary/marry/merry) among English speakers, rather than, say, the dynamics of a wave of podficcing, which are less predictable depending on the variety of fans involved. Within accent memes proper, I’ve noticed that people seem to produce an attitude toward language that values authenticity and rare speech patterns in ways that would stretch the boundaries of etiquette in a different context. To be clear, I am as guilty as anyone else of this exoticizing impulse, particularly when it’s combined with the inevitable excitement of connecting a person’s textual presence with a new sensory element of their presence, their voice. But it does strike me as somehow strange that it’s so much more common to hear “oh, that accent is so cool” than it would be (I hope) to say “oh, that person’s face/name is so cool.” Certainly, when people post pictures of themselves, there’s an expected chorus of “you’re so cute!” but it feels somehow different. That “somehow” is what drew me to the study of linguistics in college. For a few key historical reasons, English speakers in the U.S. are incredibly confused about what one can and cannot say about language. The most important of these, I think, is the institutional equation of Standard Written/White English with “correct grammar,” and its inherent enforcement of the prescriptive approach to language patterns. Armed with an understanding of SWE versus the deviant, many English speakers in the U.S. create a strict division between the language of education and professional advancement on the one side, and the language of emotion, family, and home on the other. (Obviously I’m generalizing to a ridiculous degree here.) Within internet culture, this distinction can become even more deeply entrenched. Hardly the revitalization of communitarian culture some have proclaimed the internet to be, some spheres of internet culture create their hierarchies entirely based on language use, taking prescriptive mandates more seriously than many English teachers. But this attention to detail is not without its own insights for social justice vis a vis judgements of linguistic competence. For example, to accompany the exoticization I’ve seen in accent memes, there’s a counter-phenomenon of the Brit-pick. Here the accuracy of non-British fic authors’ representations of British characters’ voices is put to the test by native speakers of particular varieties of British English. I find Brit-picking (and its cousins, such as Yank-wank, which term I’ll have to admit I’ve never seen used) fascinating, especially as it relates to accent meme authenticity. I assume that in the context of concrit, it’s actually quite helpful, but when, as an outside reader, I encounter a comment that says “no British person would say x,” I find it strange. I’m sure it’s true sometimes, but I can’t think of many statements I’d be confident in saying that no native speaker of American English could ever organically utter. I mean, I know I’ve come up with some pretty odd, non-idiomatic sentences while composing this very piece, but I don’t think any of them disqualifies me from my national identity. These issues are all separate, of course, and I’d like to do a post at some point on my perhaps naive confusion as to why so many actors are asked to play characters with dramatically different accents than their own. (Dollhouse offers something of an in-story explanation of this, but that’s a topic for another day.) I’d also like to think more about the space podfic creates for a discussion of the connection between the aesthetic and narrative effects of accents and accent mimicry, and how conversations surrounding podfic differ from the off-the-cuff accent meme responses. But for today, I hope I’ve raised some questions worth thinking further about, related to language and online fandom.