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[QUOTE] From What we talk about when we talk about bronies | Anne Gilbert | Transformative Works and Cultures

(My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) is feminized for adhering to (feminine) tropes, and for doing so with bright pastel colors and chipper voices talking about friendship, but it was deliberately created to be both girly and good.

Bronies’ praise, however, frequently separates FiM from its association with its feminist possibility and young, gendered target audience. They contend that the series “has a higher quality writing style than other children’s shows, with varied themes, and the plot and characters develop over the seasons” (Angel 2012). Bronies discuss how they were not expecting to like and watch such a program. One recounts, “First we can’t believe this show is so good. Then we can’t believe we’ve become fans for life” (Watercutter 2011). Another notes, “If you asked me three years ago if I would be running pony stuff and watching My Little Pony, I would be like ‘What? No, that’s girl stuff’” (Peters 2013). The aspects of the show lauded by bronies, including its animation style and clever references to geek and pop culture, are associated with masculine genre and aesthetics, and their praise thus reframes it as something more suited to an adult male viewership.

What we talk about when we talk about bronies | Anne Gilbert | Transformative Works and Cultures ift.tt/2b1VNZd

Call For Collaboration-Textual Analysis of Supernatural

Posted on request from Liorah Golomb:

I am looking for a collaborator with computational linguistic skills for a project mining the dialogue of the U.S. television program Supernatural (CW Network, 2005-present). My goal is to demonstrate, through textual analysis, the originality of the dialogue, the breadth of words and phrases used by the writers, the way language is used to distinguish characters and reveal character traits, etc.The product of this project will be an article for publication in a peer-reviewed venue. Presentation at an appropriate conference is also a possibility.

A chapter that I’ve written about my exploration of this project thus far is forthcoming in Digital Humanities in the Library: Challenges and Opportunities for Subject Specialists (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, March 2015). That chapter documents my process of creating the corpora from fan-created transcripts, testing and selecting concordance tools, and examples of the type of results these efforts will produce. It also discusses the limitations of examining only the dialogue in a visual medium and my own limitations as a non-linguist.

My hope is that a partner with the skills I lack will be able to help me with linguistic concepts as well as determine (1) whether there is a way to codify non-verbal action and communication for analysis and (2) whether it would be useful to encode the text for analysis. Interest in or familiarity with Supernatural is a plus.

I am an academic librarian and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma with a long history of publishing scholarly work. My CV can be found at ou.academia.edu/LiorahGolomb.

Please contact me to discuss this project further: liorah.golomb@gmail.com.

[META] Worldcon, Not Just Literature

This is the second in a series of posts by Emma England on fannish issues surrounding Worldcon, the longest running science fiction and fantasy convention in the world. Emma is the 2014 Worldcon academic track organizer and is currently researching the history of conventions. The first post introduced Worldcon; this post debunks the myth that “traditional” conventions are only about literature.

Fan history is a disparate venture, with fans and scholars often limiting their explorations to that which interests them, as everyone does. A result of this is that many (but by no means all) people believe that media fans have never been welcome at Worldcon and that media was never a part of it as a traditional con. There may be a predominance of literature Guests of Honor, but the historical records prove that film and TV are part of Worldcon history (with comics getting their first dedicated panel in 1966). Worldcon is part of media fandom history. Some significant examples demonstrate this:

  • There was a screening of The Lost World followed by a Masquerade Party (costuming, early cosplay) at Denvention I, the 3rd Worldcon, in Denver, 1941.
  • The Day The Earth Stood Still had an advanced screening for attendees of Nolacon I, the 9th Worldcon in New Orleans, 1951.
  • Star Trek screenings were included on the Tricon program at the 24th Worldcon in Cleveland, 1966.
  • Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, gave a talk entitled “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before” at Baycon, the 26th Worldcon in Oakland, 1968. In the program book there is a full-page ad “from Roddenberry” thanking Worldcon attendees for their support of Star Trek. Amusingly, there is also a quarter-page ad claiming “SPOCK is a bad lay.” With the words: “This ad was sponsored by the committee to nominate Patrick McGoohan and ‘The Prisoner’ for a HUGO.”
  • Ray Harryhausen, the groundbreaking Visual Effects Designer, was a Guest of Honor at Conspiracy ’87, the 45th Worldcon at Brighton, England, 1987.
  • Roger Corman, the famous horror movie director, was a Guest of Honor at L.A. Con III, Anaheim, 1996.
  • J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, was Special Guest at Bucconeer, the 56th Worldcon in Baltimore, 1998 and the following Worldcon, Aussiecon Three in 1999 in Melbourne, Australia.
  • Frankie Thomas, the actor in the early science fiction series Space Cadet, was Special Guest at L.A. Con IV, Anaheim 2006.

Additionally, the Hugo Awards have given awards for Best Dramatic Presentation, in various formats, every year since 1958 (except 1964 and 1966). Winners have included episodes of The Twilight Zone, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica (reimagining) and movies such as A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, and Inception.

It is also worth noting that Worldcon has, in most programs throughout its history, included plays, ballets, bands, and numerous other art forms based around science fiction and fantasy.

If Worldcon has historically included media, why is there an apparent separation in contemporary fandoms and fan analysis? Why did Star Trek fans start their own conventions, with many claiming that they no longer felt welcome at Worldcon and other traditional cons and club meetings? A common answer is “gender and snobbery,” but there are alternative answers, although these are not mutually exclusive. Reasons for the separation may include the idea that types of fannish activities are valued differently; a critical mass of fans for one specific show/author/medium leads to a separation (as well as Star Trek conventions, Tolkien, comics etc had their own meetings and events) to maintain pre-existing diversity of the original event while enabling more focused activities around the new fandom; and some fans are more interested in going to conventions only of their specific subject.

Whatever the reasons are for the seeming separation of fandoms, it is true today that it is possible to be in a fandom for one specific TV show, book series, comics franchise, and so on without having much, if anything, to do with other fandoms. In reality, however, it is rare that fans only enjoy one text, or even type of work. Few fans are only interested in reading books or watching movies.

A challenge for Worldcon today is what direction to take the convention in: should organizers expand and overtly reach out to fans who would not normally attend a traditional con and who may bring their own “non-traditional” fan practices and (fan-)demographics; should Worldcon stick with the current attendees and format, thereby maintaining traditions; or is there a middle way that encourages media fan attendance by acknowledging the traditions of Worldcon and, perhaps, media’s place within it?

Currently, site-selection is in progress for Worldcon 2015 and the three options could be seen as representing different approaches to the challenge of identity and the marketing of Worldcon. This challenge will be discussed in the next post in this series.

[QUOTE] From Bertha Chin, The Veronica Mars Movie: crowdfunding – or fan-funding – at its best?

This also brings to light some people’s uneasiness and concern that money raised through this (Veronica Mars) Kickstarter project is not going towards an indie project, but instead towards a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance. It obviously brings up question of fan labour and the monetisation of fans, which big conglomerates (such as the Disney-backed Fanlib years ago) have been trying to tap into. And it’s precisely why this post is being written.

While I think it’s a valid point to bring up the issue of fan labour (or investment in this case?), and whether the success of this funding campaign [1] might prompt other media conglomerates to start seeking funding for other ventures this way, we must not forget at the very core of this, is the fans. EW is currently running a poll asking fans which other TV series they would fund for a film, while X-Files fans are asking if 20th Century Fox is paying attention to this campaign, and if a similar thing can be done to get a 3rd film green-lighted. Ultimately, fans choose to fund this project, and this is the voice that’s missing in some of the concerns raised; that somehow fans need to be educated that they’re financing a studio film, so they’re not actually doing anything for the so-called greater good.

(…)

Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purports concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.

onoffscreen.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/the-veronica-mars-movie-crowdfunding-or-fan-funding-at-its-best/

[QUOTE] From Hye-Kyung Lee, Cultural consumer and copyright: a case study of anime fansubbing

Similarly, fansubbing has been regarded as an equivalent for TV. In the anime industry context, the role of TV is crucial in nurturing consumer demand for DVDs. For example, the Japanese anime industry witnesses fans normally testing the anime via TV viewing and then deciding on their purchase of DVDs and Blu-ray DVDs (my interview with two commentators from the Japanese anime industry). Hence, Japanese anime producers have traditionally treated TV broadcasting as a form of advertising. While lamenting the lack of TV coverage of anime in the United States, English fansubbers see their activity as serving as free promotion. Interestingly, this aspect of fansubbing was widely acknowledged by the US anime industry. Until recently, the industry was generally nonchalant towards fansubbing but tended to agree on its viral marketing and market tester aspects.

(…)

Witnessing the expansion of digital fansubbing and the ubiquity of fansubbed anime on the Internet, the industry has broken its silence and begun challenging fansubbing’s legitimacy. It now defines fansubbing as piracy, and asks fans to stop making and using fansubs (Smith 2007).

Crosspost: fanhackers.tumblr.com/post/44211750695/similarly-fansubbing-has-been-regarded-as-an

[META] Tabletop, on Geek and Sundry: Improv Meets Instructional Video

It’s hard for me to explain just what I find so entertaining about the Geek and Sundry Network’s webshow Tabletop. It’s not a huge transmedia playground like The Guild, and it’s not a zany talk show like The Flog, but rather a half-hour (by TV time) webshow, in which a rotating cast of three geeky New Media creators get together with Wil Wheaton to play a tabletop game. I knew that that Wheaton, who co-created the series with Geek and Sundry founder Felicia Day, would shine in this environment by the sheer enthusiasm with which he related the rules to the game he played in the first episode. However, I remained suspicious that he could reliably recruit actors who would take so readily to the concept. From my own limited experiences with tabletop gaming, I feared that, even with significant editing, some games and some sets of people simply wouldn’t have it in them to create an entertaining half hour of television. Fortunately, I was completely wrong, which I conceded when I watched the June 29th episode, in which Buffy‘s Amber Benson, The Guild‘s Michele Boyd, and YouTube’s Meghan Camarena teamed up with Wheaton to play the hilarious card game Gloom.

Before the Gloom episode, I felt like I was watching instructional videos — incredibly well-made instructional videos, populated by highly-likeable New Media celebrities — but still instructional videos. However, the Gloom episode changed all that, and, for the first time, invited me to relax and enjoy improvisational comedy and storytelling, with the game resembling a series of thoughtful prompts, and a loose structure, rather than constraining the players’ in-game actions to the point of first-timer confusion. I say this not to critique highly complex games — I am a huge fan of long-arc commitments to any storyworld, be it a game, a television series, or, my favorite, a transmedia universe populated by fictional gamers — but rather to suggest that the show realized one of its creator’s major goals in the Gloom episode. Wheaton summarized his two-part mission in a May blog post about Tabletop, in which he said, “I want to inspire people to try hobby games, and I want to remove the stigma associated with gaming and gamers.” In order to inspire the broadest range of viewers to try out new games, I think that the decision to feature a different game in every episode is wise, and I think that offering games that allow a diversity of skill sets to be showcased is important. For example, any opportunity to highlight Amber Benson’s macabre sense of humor is an opportunity for a fine moment in webshow history, and I’m glad that this show took it.

The second part of Wheaton’s mission, the removal of stigma, is harder to assess. Those who absolutely reject gaming and geek culture because of its stigma are unlikely to watch the show long enough to realize the error in their own thinking, and those who stigmatize from within, for example, those who hate on women gamers, apparently need someone like Felicia Day to do even more than found an entire network devoted to their interests before she can prove herself. However, for someone like me, who is primarily a television fan, and only somewhat curious about expanding my horizons into games, I think that the show makes an excellent case for me to try out some of what’s newly available. (Gloom, for example, was designed in 2004, long after my lazy high school summer afternoons of rejecting Settlers of Catan had been taken over by other obligations.) I love storytelling, and I love experimental storytelling, and Tabletop provides a bridge between my love for Michele Boyd’s New Media celebrity persona and my love for creative approaches to communal storytelling. Like compulsively refreshing a ficathon, watching an episode of Tabletop gives me the sense that people can easily help each other to articulate their surprising and creative observations about the world, and that the end result will be worth preserving.

As with Wheton, so much of what Felicia Day creates and oversees is an inspiration to others to tell their own stories and to do so in innovative ways. Her Vaginal Fantasy book club, for example, has inspired women who may not have felt hailed by previous book club cultures to form their own, specifically devoted to genres that appeal to to them and their sexuality. And perhaps that is the stigma that is most flexible and removable — the stigma that people can internalize about their own desires, which they then miss the opportunity to express to like-minded friends. Within New Media culture, women who don’t feel particularly spoken to by The View or The Talk can instead watch Vaginal Fantasy, and thus perhaps be inspired to expand their fannish engagement in new directions, or simply find peace in the fact that there is such visible interest in women’s responses to literature written with them in mind.

The Geek and Sundry lineup lives, in terms of accessibility, somewhere between this weekend’s Comic-Con, and online fanfiction. Hosted on YouTube, the shows do come with advertisements, which, understandably, might frustrate people. However, the content is all original, and I am excited to see what will come of the experiment, as well as from other experimental networks, such as Pharrell’s i am OTHER, which is now showing the second season of Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. While there is still a crucial distinction to be made between fandom proper and fandom as industrial response, I do think that experimental and independent media about which one is fannish merits a different kind of consideration than the mainstream, especially when its creators are specifically trying to reach an audience of which certain segments of fandom are a central component. The Geek and Sundry channel is far from representative of the incredible diversity of fandom at large, but its structure invites a great variety of possible responses, ranging from affirmation to imitation, and from transformation to critique. Ideally, these networks will take advantage of one another’s talent and ingenuity, as, for example, The Guild‘s Amy Okuda settles into her new role as Sam in BFF’s, a series appearing on Justin Lin’s YOMYOMF Network, thus bringing her old fanbase to a new set of creators. As this particular segment of the media landscape takes shape, inevitably fans will respond just as creatively as they always have, sometimes through industrial response, and sometimes through their own networks, which may include their own unrecorded evening of storytelling with the assistance of a card game.

[META] On regional releases and disrupting international fandoms

Since a few weeks back, some blogosphere hand-wringing has been going on about how Game of Thrones is the most pirated show of 2012. The second season has been downloaded via torrents about 25 million times.

Many people in the discussion are balking at HBO’s refusal to offer legal streaming or downloading options for a wildly popular show that everybody and their dog wants to see. Especially because the news about Game of Thrones‘ “top” position in the torrenting charts comes after months of reports about how HBO thinks digital-only TV viewing is a temporary phenomenon and is determined to keep its content accessible only to cable subscribers. Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal made a much-tweeted comic about he tried to pay to download Game of Thrones through all imaginable means, then gave up and found a torrent.

I had a similar experience, and many of the options Inman mentions aren’t even available to me because I don’t live in the US. As Forbes and a bunch of honest people on Reddit also pointed out, it’s incredibly hard to see Game of Thrones legally if you live in a country where getting hold of HBO is impossible or prohibitively expensive. I haven’t managed to figure out which it is over here in Japan; this provider claims to offer HBO in its $65-a-month cable package, but the channel isn’t in the actual lineup. Since TV was out, my only hope were Amazon or iTunes. Amazon doesn’t have digital downloads of Game of Thrones at all. iTunes teased me with the possibility of buying the first season, until I got to the last step in the purchasing process and was told that my Belgian iTunes account wasn’t allowed to buy this show. At that point, I felt like I was being quite thoroughly mocked.

Now, I haven’t gone on to get Game of Thrones via a torrent. I love the books and what little I’ve seen of the series, but I’m not so fannish about it that I feel a desperate need to watch it together with my US friends. The same goes for The Avengers. About three quarters of all the people I know online are going wild about it. I want to see it, very much, but it won’t be in Japanese cinemas until August.* Maybe I’ll still be fired up about it enough to want to see it on the big screen then, but maybe I’ll just wait until it shows up in iTunes, because my enthusiasm will probably have dampened quite a bit by then.

But while I’m just lukewarm enough about Game of Thrones and The Avengers to wait until they reach me in a legal way, I have used less than legal means to get my hands on certain other shows. I was in the fandoms of those other shows, and not watching the new canon content with my fellows would have made it incredibly hard for me to continue participating in those fandoms. Fans who are really, deeply invested in a show that’s broadcast only overseas aren’t going to get off the internet, let all the initial excitement pass them by, and wait for the DVD to come out in their country months later. That’s not how it works anymore. In my academic writing, I constantly have to remind myself to talk about “English-speaking fans” or “Japanese-speaking fans” when discussing online fandom, because it’s often impossible to draw any national lines. Limiting releases to certain regions of the world at certain times may have been doable in the past. But now that very many fans are on the internet, that sort of commercial strategy is seen as an annoyance that must be dealt with, lest it disrupt the smooth and happy functioning of the fandom. When a new piece of canon comes out, the first order of business is often to get everybody up to speed by spreading around downloads or streams of the new episode for those fans who couldn’t access the “main” broadcast for whatever reason. The content must flow, or the squee can’t commence.

I see just that happening with The Legend of Korra, which I wrote about before. Nickelodeon tries hard to interact closely with Korra fans: there’s an official Tumblr, there was a contest before the premiere that allowed fans to see the first two episodes early, and the network puts up a high-quality stream of every episode a day or so after it’s broadcast. However, those streams are region-locked, as were the contest reward episodes. Non-US fans can participate in the contests, but the fact that they have to be in the US to actually see their prizes is buried somewhere in the rulebook. For all its laudable efforts to connect with fans, Nickelodeon still ignores that many of the truly enthusiastic Korra fans it’s talking to via Facebook and Tumblr are not actually in the US, and that for them, too, the very point of watching media is to watch it together with others and share in the excitement. To be there when “it” happens.

Are people being too demanding? It’s certainly asking a lot for media companies to adapt to a “give everybody everywhere everything now” landscape. This environment is wildly different from what companies are used to, and it’s not surprising that it takes them a long time to find their place in it.

But fans who have those high expectations aren’t spoiled brats or entitled freetards. They just expect their commercial media to behave like the rest of the internet. It takes me only minutes to put a video online in a place where the whole world can see it and share it around. There are reasons why HBO or Nickelodeon don’t do the same, some of them very good reasons, but those reasons simply don’t make sense for internet users who notice that everything except their commercial media content is easily accessible.

After years of waiting for media companies to catch on and get used to YouTube, their failure to distribute things in a way that fits with how the rest of the internet works becomes more and more incomprehensible to their international customers. As Techdirt noted when Fox let “Touch” premiere in about 100 countries at the same time earlier this year, it’s rather mind-boggling that a show (one show!) being released simultaneously across much of the globe is cause for excitement in the year 2012. I understand what’s behind the decision to region-lock online Korra episodes, but that action still seems utterly daft to me. I can’t imagine that anyone at Nickelodeon honestly expected that fans wouldn’t unlock those episodes by any means necessary, so the fact that they locked them in the first place seems just annoying and pointless. People see that fansub groups can make and distribute a high-quality translation of an anime episode only days after it airs in Japan, and on a certain level, it makes no sense to them that commercial overseas anime distributors can’t provide the same speed and quality as a handful of amateurs. Yes, there are some good reasons for those delays, reasons that many internet users often don’t seem to get. But the reason they don’t get it is because they can’t imagine anymore where the problem might possibly lie. No amount of public education of the kind that copyright enforcement-oriented agencies keep clamoring for is going to make this situation look any less absurd to regular people on the internet.

Many have argued that in this day and age, it’s nonsense to release media with any sort of locks on them – among other reasons, because people will easily dodge those locks and learn nothing except that media companies like to annoy them. In the case of media companies trying to connect with international fans and persuade them to watch content legally, it may help if they kept in mind that people on the internet aren’t just a mass of individuals who each might decide start pirating at unpredictable moments for their own personal nefarious reasons. When and why an individual wants to watch a show enough to torrent it has a great deal to do with who they’re watching it with. Today, keeping a show inaccessible to parts of the world often means throwing a wrench (an easily removable but irritating wrench) into the social interactions of the very fans one is trying to court. It seems unrealistic to expect that people will have no problem with international release schedules that disrupt their most important socializing times, for no good reason they can discern.

(*Hollywood movies often seem to come many months late to Japan. I’m not an expert on the Japanese film or cinema business, so I don’t know why this is. My film-oriented colleages at university didn’t know either. Any information would be much appreciated.)

[ADMIN] The joy of loopholes

Last year, Andrea Horbinski wrote a self-introduction post here that started out like this: There’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in an apartment in Kyoto, Japan, as I write this post. Three and a half years ago, on a Fulbright Fellowship to Doshisha University in Kyoto, faced with a lot of free time and nothing in particular with which to fill it other than reading manga, biking around the city, and searching for interesting things on the internet, I fell (back) into fandom, and thence into the Organization for Transformative Works. I didn’t know it then, but that was a transformative moment for me. I suppose there’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in a graduate student office at Doshisha University in Kyoto as I write my own self-introduction post. My road to Doshisha, and into the OTW, was completely separate from and unrelated to Andrea’s, but unfolded so similarly that I almost feel like I can point at her post and just skip my own introduction. She even likes the same titles I do. But I’ll take this opportunity to assert my individuality. I’m Nele Noppe, a Japanologist by trade, currently in the middle of a PhD fellowship at a Belgian university but spending a few years in Japan to learn about doujin culture (doujinshi and related fanworks). My research compares how English-language and Japanese-language fandoms exchange works. More precisely, I’m interested in the architectures and circumstances of those exchanges: what technology is used, what the legal limitations are, what languages are used, what the involvement of non-fans is like, and how all that influences what sort of works are made. I’m endlessly intrigued by what happens when technology, law, and large groups of very determined and enthusiastic people collide. As for the fannish side of things, I grew up on Franco-Belgian comics, but the American Elfquest was my first really active fandom. After buying a Zetsuai 1989/BRONZE mook at a con, I tumbled into yaoi and never looked back. I spent my last years of high school poring over dearly-bought Japanese-language BRONZE and Kizuna tankobon with a tattered kanji dictionary in hand, and enrolled in a Japapanese Studies program as soon as I could. More than half of my fannish life was spent memorizing everything on Aestheticism, roving around the old Anime Web Turnpike, and chatting on Yahoo! mailing lists. LiveJournal, fanfiction.net, and other big fannish hubs only came onto my radar after I wandered into Harry Potter fandom sometime around 2006. Right now, I write, read and draw mostly about Avatar: the Last Airbender, and lurk in a variety of manga fandoms. Avatar is a good fandom to be in right now, and not just because the new series The Legend of Korra rocks and I found a bunch of people who share my tiny OTP. As mentioned above, the clash of technology, fans, and law fascinates me no end, and parts of Avatar fandom have been getting into some pretty interesting clashes lately. Take the neverending string of online leaks from the new series, from clips to whole episodes. At first it seems to have been an insider who was smuggling out clips, but once they stopped, others took over and started tricking Nickelodeon’s website into giving up upcoming episodes early. Unless I’m mistaken, last week’s episode 5 was the first one that managed to air without being preceded by any leaks whatsoever. And of course everything that was leaked or uploaded to the official site was immediately re-uploaded elsewhere so fans outside the US could access it as well. Leaving aside the dubious legality of everything that’s been going on around Korra, what strikes me the most about this ongoing situation is how utterly unprepared Nickelodeon turned out to be to keep the leaks from happening, and people from sharing them around. (Viewer numbers for Korra were fantastic, leaks or no leaks.) Amazon met with a similar fate. The first part of the Avatar tie-in comic The Promise was supposed to be published only this January, but it was circulating online by November last year. Amazon made the issue available for pre-order and enabled the “look inside” feature, which shows every visitor a couple of pages from any book. A bunch of Avatar fans descended on the site, saved the handful of pages each of them could see, and started putting their puzzle pieces together. Nearly the whole comic had been reconstructed on Tumblr before Amazon realized what was going on and put some brakes on “look inside”. (Sales for The Promise were fantastic as well.) This is the sort of creative loophole-exploiting that, to me, is typical of the interesting times we live in. Individuals have technologies at their fingertips that even large companies couldn’t dream of just a few decades ago – and apparently can’t really grasp the significance of even now. The laws that govern the use of those technologies are completely out of sync with what people can actually do, or think they should be allowed to do. And there are a lot of people working together all around the world in order to communicate better and route around whatever hurdles are in their fannish paths. I expect that I’ll spend most of my Symposium posts talking about those things, and often from a transcultural perspective, given my focus on doujin. I’m thrilled to be here and get a chance to learn from you all.

[META] Writing Sandcastles Versus Playing in Sandboxes: The Writing Life in the Twenty-First Century

Rich Juzwiak recently announced on Gawker that he will no longer write recaps of currently-airing television shows. He will continue to write about television, of course, but he will never again be “a recapping machine,” because it is “thankless work” that leads inevitably to fatigue. To illustrate, he cites the fact that recapper extraordinaire Tracie Potochnik has written over 1,350,000 words about America’s Next Top Model. In another place and time, this word count could constitute multiple novels (War and Peace *2), but in the blogosphere, all is lost to the accelerated time scale of popular culture. Because they were funneled through the recap machine, her words, in Juzwiak’s view, lost value as quickly as they acquired it, thus depriving the writer of time for creative development, as well as the audience from engaging, long-form thoughts about the show. Juzwiak suffered similarly from his years of recapping, and, although he concedes that recaps helped him to build his audience, he laments that he expended so much energy and stress-inducing, time-sensitive labor on this ultimately ephemeral genre of writing.

I have a lot of sympathy (at least in comparison to some of the harsher commenters) for Juzwiak’s perspective, but I think that his disappointment offers an opportunity to explore and celebrate why fandom sustains such an important alternative sphere of popular culture criticism, including the transformational as an essential complement to the affirmational. That energy to transform is, as far as I can tell, exactly what Juzwiak is longing for when he laments that recaps are rarely crafted to the point where they can sustain their value for more than the sad few hours in which viewers will hungrily be seeking them out. I read his complaint that Potochnik could have written War and Peace twice over in the words it took her to recap ANTM as a genuine desire for writing to take form and communicate something deeper than sharp observations and topical humor. Writing can mean, and not only when it’s written by Nineteenth-Century Russian men, and, as Juzwiak himself makes clear, not only when it is a novel. He notes that there is high quality long-form television writing, for example, but that recaps, even while experimental and enjoyable, are unlikely to contribute to its flourishing.

So why not just seek out good long-form television writing? For me, it’s because the War and Peace comparison betrays transformational desires, and so, I think it’s worth taking a look at the writing landscape of transformational media fandom, in order to see if its participants offer a way out of Juzwiak’s resentment at his years spent on “sandcastles.” At the beginning of last month, lunabee34 posted a thoughtful essay on her feelings of fatigue in fandom, entitled “Fannish Trajectories: Isolation, a Sense of Disconnection from Fandom, and How We Deal.” Her piece, like Juzwiak’s, speaks of her declining energy to produce a certain kind of writing (here, fanworks) at the pace she once did. Already in the titles, though, a clear difference in focus emerges between the two authors. The Juzwiak piece, “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I’ll Never Recap a TV Show Again,” focuses on an individual “I,” and makes a claim for “never.” In “Fannish Trajectories,” however, the focus is on “we,” we who also sometimes lose steam for articulating our every thought on our favorite television shows, but we who experience this loss as temporary and social, more than we do as evidence that our mode of participation has failed us. (I should make clear that I identify strongly with the “we” of lunabee34′s piece, although it’s just as likely that any given fan will not.)

Juzwiak’s claim gains strength from its definitive refusal: Recaps are not a shortcut to serious engagement with popular culture. lunabee34′s claim gains strength rather from its openness to the many different possibilities of engagement with fandom over time. The reality is that, as RL responsibilities take away from the free time required to participate actively in transformational media fandom, one must set individual boundaries in order to maximize one’s time with her fan community. Both Juzwiak and lunabee34 rely on writing IRL. Juzwiak is a professional blogger, and lunabee34 is an English professor. Both write in a variety of genres on what I assume is a daily basis, and therefore, there’s much the two share in their descriptions of writerly fatigue. Writing recaps for a show can get old. Writing conference papers can get old. One of my favorite aspects of the blogosphere and the LJ/DW fandom sphere is the way in which they provide space for reflection on the writing life, both when it’s a narrative of fatigue that leads to a drop-off in a certain kind of production, and when it’s a celebration of inspiration, the kind that leads to War and Peace-length fanfic. (Confession: I have never read a War and Peace-length work of fanfiction.)

But there is a difference, and it’s important. One of the major problems with recaps is that they guarantee page views, which, in the world of for-proft blogging, constitute the difference between profitable and not. In fandom, we have the privilege of saying no to an episode, a show after it kills off the character we were watching for anyway, even a whole medium. We can switch entirely from television to comics without leaving fandom. We can switch from writing drabbles to writing multi-media analyses of individual episodes of television shows from the 1970s. Sure, entertaining and beloved writers will always be burdened by requests for more, but in fandom, they are welcome to change their tune at any moment. It’s simple but true that the machine-like quality that Juzwiak describes as being acquired by the recapper is more threatening in professional writing than in fandom. It doesn’t mean that fandom is low stakes, of course. Every day, people are writing their novels, and many of them, the most talented and serious, inhabiting the most-beloved sourcetexts, can be confident that they will have readers both right away and in the future. But even if they don’t, they knew what they were getting into when they added the “for fun” disclaimer at the top of the page. “Fun” is a broad enough term to account for the incredible range of pleasures fanworks can offer us, but it keeps them free from the thing that will undoubtedly make them not fun at some point — money.

[META] Fannish Moments in the Poetry Classroom

Regular co-blogger Lisa Schmidt has posted two excellent reflections on teaching and fandom, and I thought that today might be the day to share some of my own. The course I taught this quarter was Introduction to Poetry, which sounds much more conventional and less potentially fan-friendly than Lisa’s Media and Society course, or, say, a course in the History of Audiences, or Transmedia Storytelling. But in fact, I find that I can relate better to her experiences this quarter than I was able to while teaching Reading Popular Culture. I have my suspicions about why this is so, and I hope that my reflections will be of interest to anyone who, like me, sees themselves not only at the intersection of academia and fandom, but also at the intersection of literary studies and media studies.

I tried to introduce fandom into my Reading Popular Culture course in several ways. The first time I taught it, I assigned Kim Deitch’s graphic novel, Alias the Cat!, which tells the story of the evolution of the mass media in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century in the United States from the perspective of a hardcore collector. I introduced students to Lostpedia. I assigned blog reviews of Dollhouse episodes alongside academic articles in order to start a conversation about the investments of different kinds of media critics. I got my point across, more often than not, but I was rarely able to feel a fannish energy in my classroom, outside of a few post-class one-on-one interactions. This experience is normal, as commenters on Lisa’s first post suggested, but it’s not satisfying. There was part of me that felt like I was giving away too much for too little reward — part of me that was disappointed that students who came in unimpressed by Twenty-First-Century storytelling left feeling the same, rather than having been called to critical practices that would help them find their rightful place within a more democratic interpretive landscape, one defined by fan practices.

I’m sure that those readers who are teachers can easily recognize what I’m describing as the standard utopianism of the newish instructor, but fortunately, I’ve finally started to find what I’d been looking for. In order to excite fannish energy, it turns out, one must alter a portion of the work of the course into creative production. Lisa describes in her first post the experience of showing an episode of fan favorite Supernatural, and then later, a Supernatural fanvid, but she remained disappointed until she asked students to create a fanwork for their final project. It doesn’t even have to be anything as significant as a final project, as I’ve learned this quarter, and it doesn’t have to be a fanwork. In Introduction to Poetry, I simply gave students the opportunity to write an imitative exercise once during the quarter, which would be worth 5% of their grade. Initially, I created this assignment because I thought that students who didn’t already love poetry might get into it more if they experienced the challenge of writing for themselves. And indeed, a complex form like a sestina or villanelle almost demands to be imitated — I even remember writing a (very bad) sonnet almost automatically in high school, because it seemed like the only logical way to take notes on Shakespeare. I even thought that students whose talents were in quantitative fields might be impressed by the mathematical demands of rhythm, and then produce poetry in spite of whatever shame is associated with articulating one’s feelings in verse.

However, while a few did take on these pseudo-mathematical tasks, more took on the task of writing in a famous poet’s voice, or drawing from their tactics, especially found poetry. Those who wrote in the voice of a poet revealed to me a depth of critical engagement I might have completely missed out on, had I tried to extrapolate it from their descriptive claims. Those who, inspired by Alice Walker and Hart Seely’s found poetry, proceeded to “find” their own poetry in documents addressed to them, inspired me to think about incorporating a found poetry assignment into any future writing course I teach, because I was so impressed by their clear senses of humor and subtlety. Part of what I’m describing is my own journey from being a lover of essayistic critique and meta first and foremost, and only then the fiction and art that share the same source material, into a more broad-minded thinker and fan. It would, of course, be inappropriate for me to convert an Introduction to Poetry course, whose major goal is to instruct students in tactics for reading poetry, into a creative writing course inadvertently. I am not qualified to teach creative writing courses, and there are plenty of people who are. However, I have been thoroughly convinced that at least part of what I’ve been looking for, in terms of inviting students into an exciting, multi-faceted contemporary reading landscape, can be attended to via targeted imitative exercises.

I’ve heard more and more about literature professors assigning fanfic or fanfic-like work to college students, although perhaps less often than I hear about media studies professors and Digital Composition specialists assigning remix projects that lend themselves to a comparison with fanvids. I think that it’s an exciting development, because, while it turns out that it’s difficult to impress people by just insisting that there is fandom, and it is intellectual and awesome (which it is!), it is easy to excite a certain fannish energy by inviting students to participate in creative tasks that reward their skill at capturing voices and filling gaps, without requiring the accompanying expository justification.

I’m very jealous of people who teach courses on fandom in which both come together somehow — courses in which there is time enough to explore the history and culture of fandom, as well as incorporate fannish critical and creative practices. But until I am given the opportunity to teach such a course, I will happily incorporate assignments that give students, as well as me, the instructor, a glimpse of the reading community that is made momentarily visible by an archive of creative responses to literature, enabled by the course website. It can even make grading momentarily feel like checking out a trusted friend’s latest fanwork recommendations.

[META] Madge, in Thy Orisons…

I’ve been known to have dreams about fictional characters, but it’s not every day that I find myself viewing the most mainstream social event of the United States calendar and thinking, “Wait, I’ve seen this vid!” I’m talking, of course, about Madonna’s Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show, in which her opening performance of “Vogue” was a clear take-off on the classic vid of the same title by Luminosity.

You can view a TV rip of Madonna’s entire performance (which also featured LMFAO, Cee Lo Green, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A.) on YouTube, and Luminosity’s vid on blip.tv, which is a queer feminist critique of the movie 300, which was itself based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Honestly, for most of the halftime show I was mostly just staring open-mouthed at the screen; Madonna is nothing else if not a consummate performer, and she hit this one out of the park.

Watching the halftime show and Luminosity’s vid back to back, however, produces some interesting–and uncomfortable–conjunctions. Namely, both fandom and the larger pop culture which it critiques and draws upon have some similar problems.

In her notes to reposting the vid on blip.tv, Francesca Coppa notes that Luminosity “conflates the battlefield and the dance floor, subjecting the men to a female and queer gaze and setting Madonna up as this world’s reigning pagan goddess.” Very true, and at least one blogger, Obsidian Wings, picked up on the camp aspects of Madonna’s reappropriation of the “Vogue” vid’s aesthetic almost immediately: contrary to the lyrics, it does matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, as the vid makes clear. What I’m interested in, however, are the ways in which song, vid, and halftime show all make similar maneuvers, particularly around those issues of gender and of race.

The original “Vogue” song of course refers to a style of dance invented in Harlem and appropriated by Madonna for the song and its music video. The story of most pop music in the 20th century is of course the story of white musicians appropriating black performers’ styles and innovations and repackaging them for a “mainstream” (read: white) audience, and the tried-and-true strategy only continues in the 21st century, from Justin Bieber to–especially in the third song of the Super Bowl set, “Gimme All Your Luvin’”–Madonna herself, whose performance prominently deployed the more au courant star power of performers of color, including Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., in service to the blonde Queen’s latest reinvention. M.I.A. in particular earned censure–not least from Madonna herself–for giving the middle finger to the national television cameras during her verse.

Similarly, as much as it skewers the hypermasculine gender presentation of the movie 300, Luminosity’s vid doesn’t (can’t?) do much to problematize the exceedingly questionable racialization of the Persian Wars that Frank Miller’s graphic novel exults in–the good guys are the manly Spartans, and the bad guys(?) are the effeminate Persians. (To say nothing of Miller’s extraordinarily biased presentation of history, as David Brin notes in this post.) They may all get down on the dance floor, but unlike what the song says, it does make a difference if you’re black or white.

My point here is not so much that all of this is anything new (it’s not), but rather that viewing the vid and the halftime show together provides a textbook example of the ways in which fandom (and any pop culture critique based in pop culture itself), and vidding in particular, is limited by its working, in some senses, with found objects. Fandom is unquestionably a fascinating space of critique, remixing, and reinvention, but ultimately pure remixing, no matter how creative, makes it very difficult to introduce radically new elements, or to go beyond what you’re given to work with.

Of course, introducing radical new elements, as uncomfortable and difficult as it is and has been for fandom, may not be what strikes a pop cultural chord in the larger sphere at all. Madonna has shown herself constantly willing to reinvent herself over the course of her career, and the idea of infinitely revising a concept around a central core is of course intimately familiar to fans in general and to writers of fanfic especially. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that this performance in particular was Madonna’s latest reintroduction to global pop cultural relevance, after the lackluster performance of her previous album, her divorce from Guy Ritchie, and above all the meteoric rise of Lady Gaga to the pop music firmament had somewhat dented the Queen’s crown. But her new album MDNA hits stores in the States March 26, and concert dates for her upcoming world tour are already selling out. Long live the Queen.

[META] Oprah Winfrey and Joss Whedon: Transformative Works from Within

Typically, I think that this space should be reserved for celebrating the achievements, creative works, and intellectual production of fans themselves, and not those of the incredibly rich owners of the media franchises that give us some of our most important raw material. But I’ve been thinking about Oprah all week, naturally, and I think that her audience-centered finale merits meta-fannish discussion. However, I also know that the Oprah franchise is controversial, perhaps even more so in circles that concern themselves with complex media representations generally than in the broader social world. And so, I thought I’d look at an isolated moment from her address in combination with a similar moment from one of Joss Whedon’s addresses to his fans, in order to draw out some crucial shared tendencies in these two promoters of women-centered media, who in so many other ways speak past each other.

Oprah organized her final show as a love letter to her fans, but she also used the opportunity to construct a narrative of the show’s history, and the way in which it inserted itself into the media landscape, ultimately effecting real changes in many lives. Not coincidentally, early on in this narrative, she explicitly addressed her own transition from passive consumer of the media landscape to creator, who, though still a consumer of others’ stories, took on an increasingly active role in shaping the way in which (and the extent to which) they could be heard by people who needed to hear them. She said,

“When I started this show, it was a revelation to all of us how much dysfunction there was in people’s lives. I grew up with Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith. I thought everybody’s family life was like that, even though I knew mine was not. Well this show, and our guests, began to paint a different picture and allowed us to drop the veil on all the pretense and do exactly what we envisioned in that first show: to let people know that you are not alone.” (transcript of the finale available here)

One of the most common criticisms I encounter about the Oprah franchise is that “it’s all about her.” But in moments like this, it’s most definitely not. Her openness about her life, especially about her own intellectual and personal growth over time, is what has made her show so relevant for so long. Certainly, there were many people who were profoundly aware of how much dysfunction there was “in the world” before Oprah, but there were more who lacked the vocabulary with which to contextualize their own experience of such dysfunction, and of these, some were able to connect with the stories that appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Obviously, it’s not enough. But coalition building has to start somewhere, and the more people who can hear a story of abuse without shutting down or getting defensive, the better.

In the introduction to Fray, his comic series about a future kick-ass slayer, Joss Whedon creates a narrative, not too dissimilar from Oprah’s, of his own transition from passive consumer into big name storyteller. Like Oprah, he starts with his childhood, speaking to the theme of girls and comics:

“Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly other things on my mind in my young adolescence. But almost certainly topping the list were girls and comics. More specifically girls in comics. Because, frustratingly, there weren’t that many. At least in the Marvel universe, where I made my nest, there were very few interesting girls young enough for a twelve year old to crush on. … Until Kitty Pryde… Cut to me grown up — yet somehow not remotely matured. The idea for Buffy the Vampire Slayer came from that same lack I felt as a child. Where are the girls? Girls who can fight, who can stand up for themselves, who have opinions and fears and cute outfits?”

And you say Oprah’s cheesy? No, just kidding. Obviously, I love both of them, cheese and all. This is a story about lack, and two authors’ attempts to fill a lack. There have been mistakes along the way, of course, for Whedon as much as for Oprah, but I think that both offer their stories to their fans with a specific mode of inspiration in mind. They are saying, “Look, when I grew up, I was given a story about what the social world looks like. I was also given a social world, and it didn’t look like that. Now, I actively seek out better stories, by creating them, and by creating space for them when they’re not mine to tell.”

A love letter is a very specific kind of writing, and one of the most beautiful things about it, I think, is that one is in no way obligated to respond, be grateful, reciprocate affection, or, and let me be clear about this, buy any associated paraphernalia. Oprah was very insistent on the idea that we all have a platform, and that, regardless of size, we ought to take advantage of it. With our opinions and fears and…cute outfits? Really? No, I’m sorry. But the opinions and fears part. For sure.

[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] Deaths in Daytime and Transgenerational Fandom

Last month, long-running U.S. daytime soap opera As the World Turns aired its final episode, roughly a year after the cancellation of Guiding Light. I hadn’t been watching either soap, but I still felt a keen sense of loss — these were the soaps that I grew up with, that my mother and my aunt watched, that still featured characters that I remembered from my childhood. The memories persist, but the sense of continuity and endurance — the prospect of dipping back into them, and instantly reconnecting to those memories of not just the soaps, but my own family — has faded. C. Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby discuss how soap opera fans make sense of their fandom and their own lives in a new essay in the latest issue of Transformative Works & Cultures, Autobiographical Reasoning in Long-Term Fandom. They draw upon interviews with nearly three dozen fans who have followed their soap operas for over twenty years to explore the roles that soap operas play in how these fans construct and interpret life narratives — how soaps mediated their relationships with their family, got them through difficult times, and gave them perspective on their own lives. A lot of this resonated for me; even as I grew older, As the World Turns remained a bridge between my mother and myself. On visits home, I’d watch it with her and ask her to fill me in on the storylines, and it was always something I could talk with her about on the phone, even during periods of my adulthood where we struggled to communicate and find common ground. Harrington and Bielby offer a valuable perspective on thinking about long-term fandom — whether it’s for soap operas, sports, or Star Trek. I’m not sure I’d count as a soap opera fan — I’ve never watched any soap long enough or consistently enough for that — but I’m definitely a fan of the genre, and I attribute my early exposure to soaps to my preference for serial narratives. I’ve sampled a few soaps for various lengths of time over the past few years, and the genre still holds a lot of pleasure and promise. The relative decline of daytime soaps in the U.S. gets variously attributed to women entering the workforce in larger numbers, competition from cable television, decreasing cultural relevance and poor management and creative decisions. Some fans and critics point to the relative flourishing of soap opera-style serial narrative in prime time television to argue for the continued viability of the genre; others site the rise of web-based soap operas to argue that online video rather than network television will be the savior of soaps. More on this subject in an upcoming post about a forthcoming book, The Survival of Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era, edited by Harrington, Sam Ford, and Abigail de Kosnik.

[META] Mad Men and Aca-Fen

I wanted to write something about the recent online dust-up (micro-kerfuffle?) in media studies sparked by Ian Bogost’s post, Against Aca-Fandom, which riffed off of Jason Mittell’s essay On Disliking Mad Men and in turn sparked another post from Henry Jenkins, On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism. But the more I tried to disentangle the various threads (in these posts, and the comments to them, and Twitter, and elsewhere) the less clear I became about the substance of Bogost’s critique and its relationship to Mittell’s essay. So I decided to go back to the beginning and look again at what Mittell actually wrote about Mad Men. I should probably caveat that I am a fan of Mad Men, and a semi-fan of Mittell’s work (dude kind of lost me with his posts on the final season of Lost).

So Jason Mittell vs. Mad Men: he starts by saying that on paper, he should like it as a fan of a certain brand of cable-style “quality TV” which falls within the genre of complex serialized narratives that he’s made a name for himself out of analyzing and championing. Moreover, his peer group of critics and academics all seem to love the show. Which leaves him at great pains to try to advance a critique of the show which is not a critique of its fans/his friends — “that I can offer my negative take on the series without implicating its fans in my critique” — by “highlight[ing] [his] own aesthetic response to shed some light on the mechanics of taste and televisual pleasure.” So far, so good, right? (Though I’m not entirely sure what he means by “aesthetic response”, which seems to be a synonym for affect, as he repeatedly links it to pleasure while bracketing off his respect for the caliber of the acting, writing, set design, etc. as objective qualities which fail nevertheless to provide him with pleasure.)

But he chooses an odd strategy to insulate fans from his critique, by articulating his “absence of pleasure” in Mad Men “dialogically, in comparison [with] what the show’s admirers find so enjoyable. In discussing Mad Men with friends and reading celebratory criticism, I believe the three core types of pleasure that they take from the show (and that evade me) are in the visual splendor of its period style, the subtextual commentary on American history and identity, and the emotional resonance to be found with the characters and their dramas.” Spoiler alert: each of these “core types of pleasure” end up eluding Mittell, and he never ends up reconciling his displeasure with his friends’ enjoyment of the show.

Mittell never makes clear the origin or status of the types of pleasure he describes — specifically, whether they’re inherent to the show, cultivated by the fans, or forged in complicity between the fans and the show’s creators. But his displeasure — his inability to find pleasure in Mad Men, to recognize himself amongst his peers as a fan of the show — circles around contradiction and ambivalence. He can’t find pleasure in the contradiction between the glossy veneer of the show’s period style and its cultural critique, in the ambivalent politics of “social critique [which] seems to promote a sense of superiority to the characters and the 1960s milieu, while simultaneously inviting us to return to this unpleasant place each week.” He’s left cold by the narrative’s “emotional distance”, the characters “we are seemingly supposed to find… both appealing and repellent at the same time”: Mittell “ultimately doesn’t care about these people.”

At one point Mittell, discussing Betty Draper in the first season, describes her as the character he found “most off-putting”, with her depiction in the show “making us complicit in her degradation and generating contempt for her frail character.” Yet later on he reserves special contempt (“disgust and disdain”) for the lead character Don Draper, who he deems less sympathetic than “quality TV”‘s murderous rogues gallery of Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, or Vic Mackey. Mittell cites an episode where Don ruins his daughter’s birthday party as cause for singular scorn: “as a father, I found this unmotivated behavior a step too far.”

In a suggestive phrasing, Mittell suggest that “[t]he missing ingredient from Draper and nearly all of Mad Men‘s characters is empathy, as virtually nobody’s behavior or situation invites me to place myself in their shoes. Instead, I watch the characters from an emotional remove….” But surely the lack of empathy that Mittell locates here resides in himself; he eschews complicity with Betty’s plight, and actively disidentifies with Don — a man with “the most agency” and “copious opportunities” who “created his own destiny”, “a charmed life of limitless professional and romantic opportunity.” I can’t speak to Mittell’s love life, but surely some of the phrasing he uses to describe Don’s achievements and capabilities could also apply to a certain degree to his own position as a tenured media studies professor with several publications and a solid reputation in the field — solid enough at least to be invited to contribute to a volume on a show that he doesn’t even watch?

My take on Mad Men is that the show operates in a deeply ironic mode — contradiction and ambivalence are features, not bugs. What Mittell identifies as incongruities and incompatibilities in his three core types of pleasure are in fact irresolvable and a continued source of tension for the viewer that alternately evoke empathy and distancing. The aesthetic of the show thus lies much closer to modernist novels than the “serial fiction of the nineteenth century” to which Mittell has frequently compared recent the complex serialized narratives of shows like The Wire which he favors. For me, the subtext of Mittell’s complaint is his refusal or inability to find pleasure in that ironic mode, to secure a pleasurable place as audience and potential fan within those contradictions and ambivalences that threaten to overwhelm him with complicity and contempt. The pleasures of Mad Men, and the experience of being a fan of the series, thus remain opaque to him as they don’t align with his own.

Yet I think the experiences that he describes, even as he rejects them — complicity, contempt, disidentification — can also function as valuable critical tools for the aca-fan. If aca-fandom is to extend beyond the purely celebratory, the range of affect in question should encompass more than pleasure. Perhaps what we really need is an aca-fandom capable of operating in ironic modes of critique.

[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.