How do you categorize Enterpising Women?

November 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today, I took on Camille Bacon-Smith’s 1992 ethnography, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. My favorite part of my experience with this book was finding it in the company of all these “women’s business books” in the university library — somewhere along the categorizing chain of commands, someone didn’t get the joke of the title. The book is mostly about Star Trek fandom, of course, which is something I know almost nothing about. I think of classic Trek fans the same way I think about the Canadian lesbians in Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives. Of course, that documentary came out a year after Bacon-Smith’s book, so perhaps it’s less of a coincidence than I’m suggesting. Indeed, the subtitle of Enterprising Women could certainly be “The Unashamed Stories of Slasher Lives”, although slash proper is not her major focus. Instead of lesbians, Bacon-Smith compares the female fans who are her objects of study more than once to “Moscow poets,” thus emphasizing their status as literary producers under the strange but whimsically enforced tyranny of copyright.

In any case, the comparison merits further discussion. Just as the women in Forbidden Love used popular culture narratives, specifically Ann Bannon’s The Beebo Brinker Chronicles (about which I wrote quote a stranger Master’s Thesis, for reference), in order to find each other and author their own lives, the fic-writers and zine-makers in Bacon-Smith’s study used the characters in Star Trek to do the same. And indeed, I like the welcoming gesture that defines work on these communities — although both have had something of a reputation for being secretive or suspicious of outsiders at various historical moments, the early 90’s seem to have been a time in documentary filmmaking and ethnographic research where the camera eye was particularly open to understanding the meaning underlying social hierarchies and barriers to entrance into subcultural spaces. It’s perhaps worth noting that, a year before the publication of Enterprising Women, Lilian Faderman’s still-unparalleled history of lesbian life, named after the first installment of The Beebo Brinker Chronciles, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, was published. This kind of comprehensive social history of the social location of the fan would be a massive, but worthy undertaking: due to the ethnographic tendencies of even scholars like Hills, however, I’m not sure what kind of scholar will be up to the task. Perhaps one would need to narrow the category further than fan, to “fan who writes” or “fan who draws” or “fan who lurkes” or, and I think this would be pretty cool, “fan couples.” If one went this last direction, I think it would be a nice corrective to stereotypes Bacon-Smith (I think) unwittingly supports: that female fans pre-Trek inevitably got into fandom due to a male romantic partner, which fundamentally challenges their authentic fan status.

I mean, I’ll readily admit that I got into Everquest in order to spend more time with my high school boyfriend, but I think that’s beside the point, and it certainly isn’t my fan origin story in any case. That would involve summer camp, pajamas, flashlights, and a group of female X-Philes who I thought were pretty much the coolest people I’d ever met. In any case, it’s sad that even in Bacon-Smith’s fannish adoration of this female community of writers, she replicates this sexist history, but I understand that these early works in fan studies simply had a lot of ground to cover, and no time to re-write our understanding of everything according synthetic feminine aesthetic. (I’m trying to come up with a word to describe this 21st century critical mode, embodied in thinkers like Jacqueline Goldsby, Michael Davidson, Georgina Kleege, who are able to, as it were, address everything at once with amazing critical rigor and without ever making social history seem like it doesn’t fit the time constraints. Let me know if you know a good term for it!)

In any case, when it comes to Bacon-Smith’s book, I would say that the parts that age best are the photographs, which are truly beautiful, both in the way that they capture early 90s fan fashions, and in their reproductions of fan art, and the spirit of re-thinking our idea of the literary. The actual schema she draws out, of various kinds of fic and whatnot, are fine but kind of insufficient to the awe-inspiring 21st century fic archive. She does a really nice job interrogating the sexism underlying the threat of the Mary Sue, but one might be better off going to a more contemporary debate to think about how that figure has evolved over the past decades.

There’s more I want to think about here, like the connection between ethnography and documentary (there I go, accidentally syllabus planning again), the history of women’s writing, and the Russian connection. I’m serious about that last part — the other day I watched this interview with Elif Batuman, who I totally love, and I was really fascinated by what she had to say about the draw of Russian Literature in her childhood. Batuman talks about how she liked it because it seemed opposed to the “tyranny of leisure” she faced growing up in the US — she felt like in Tolstoy, leisure activities always advanced the plot and were beautiful. They were “serious” in a way that playing frisbee was definitely not. And I would certainly describe her 2010 book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them is something of a fan autoethnography, and so I guess I’m just trying to see if these things really all come together — lesbians using pulp fiction to guide them toward the right bars in the 1950s, Trek fans gradually inviting the ethnographer to more and more specialized events, and Russian literature enthusiasts taking dangerous bus rides to Tolstoy’s snake-inhabited estate. And why does this history of passionate reading feel so important to document?

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