Modeling Imagined Engagement: The Gender and Fan Studies Debate, Three Years Later

November 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today, I decided to re-read the great Gender and Fan Studies Debate, which took place three years ago on Henry Jenkins’s blog, and was mirrored on livejournal. The links I provide below from within the debate will be to the lj mirror pages, because I vastly prefer the interface. Specifically, I prefer lj’s threaded comments, icon capabilities, and female-dominated demographic (and corresponding effeminate feeling) to the capital-b Blog, and thus, I ally myself already to the “fangirl” side of things. But I’m not writing today to take sides in a debate whose terms are still in flux anyway — rather, as part of my “catch up with fan studies” series, I simply want to talk briefly about what’s most important to me about the debates, and how they help me to conceptualize my own project.

First, I’ll talk about the process of reading the debates in November 2010, and how it’s different from the first time I encountered them. For one thing, I was in the middle of my MA program when they first appeared, and I wasn’t planning to define myself as a media studies or fan studies person at the time. A different committee member might have directed my interest in talking about mid-century lesbian pulp fiction and Freudo-Marxism as an indication that I would end up foregrounding fan subjectivity in a future project, but, whether because mine were suspicious of the sociological inclinations of Fan Studies, or because of the simple time/conceptual constraints on an MA thesis, I didn’t end up making the connection. For another thing, I hadn’t re-invigorated my own understanding of myself as a fan — it was not until the next summer, after the blasted MA thesis had been defended, that I watched all of Buffy for the first time in the span of about 5 weeks, and found a happiness I hadn’t known since high school. I’ve always been an avid TV watcher, of course, and in college and my Master’s degree, I experimented with cinephilia, even getting a name drop in Cineaste, but Buffy brought me back to where I belonged: to fandom, TV/comics fandom specifically.

In any case, when I did read the Gender and Fan Studies Debate, then, it stemmed more from my love of internet culture more broadly than from a disciplinary interest in socially situating the fan: I guess I could have defined myselfas an Aca-Web 2.0 Enthusiast. Like Aca-Fan, this formulation is meant to signify my simultaneous interests in the academy and the internet, as well as my draw to hybridized textual spaces that engage with both — perhaps it’s no coincidence that, shortly after watching the series finale of Buffy for the first time, I found myself inexplicably drawn to attending n+1 presents: The Internet, We All Live There Now. And so, I read the Gender and Fan Studies Debate as I would an essay about the phenomenology of the internet, hoping to find the theoretical vocabulary I’d recently mastered (pun intended) usefully deployed to the end of mapping the community I inhabited during the bulk of my day: the internet. And so, I was interested, but I wasn’t interested as a membership-seeking party hoping to join the specific community depicted within.

Now, I find myself at another academic crossroads: the ABD crossroads, where I am proposing a dissertation project about fictional fans in 21st century literature. I came to this project fairly organically after a summer of intensive reading across the archive of 20th and 21st century American Literature and Popular Culture, supplemented by participation in the Twitter Television Studies sphere, my investment in which was ratcheted up during the late summer aca-fan debates inspired by Jason Mittell’s essay On Disliking Mad Men. By following and participating in these debates, I found myself getting to know some of the players in the Gender and Fandom Debate in ways that revealed to me that I might find a scholarly niche in their proximity, especially as the field seemed open to many levels of participation along the aca-fan/institutional embeddedness continuum. This spoke to my general utopianism about the possibilities created by digital communities for intellectual inquiry and so, to make a long story short, it was of the good.

And so, I put together this proposal about fictional fans in the 21st century, because it combined a lot of texts I’m currently obsessed with, as well as providing an exciting space to explore the “real world issues” that drive me craziest — Zuckerbergian perversions of privacy, to provide a salient example, without falling into political rant territory, or worrying about appropriating people’s information in order to prove how appropriated it is. Fiction provides me with this wonderful middle ground, where I can trace the social location of the fan without holding a flesh-and-blood human accountable to the scrutiny to which we hold anyone (especially if said anyone is female, queer, disabled, non-white, etc) inhabiting this position. I could talk about Felicia Day all day, of course, but I couldn’t write a dissertation about her — at least not within my context of trying to talk about the ways in which the figure of the fan elucidates important limits of propriety in/and archival access in the 21st century. Certainly, I will appeal to Felicia Day’s insider status as an author of fan characters, but it’s Codex who reveals the social trajectory up for analysis, not Day herself.

And so in any case, I went to the Gender and Fan Studies Debate today in order to see what there spoke to this project as I’m formulating it. I’ll focus in particular on three conversations I found especially illuminating.

The first was between Karen Hellekson and Jason Mittell. Theirs was actually one of the friendliest exchanges I’d seen, but I noticed already at the outset an example of precisely what I fear about talking about fan characterization in flesh and blood subjects. When, in a Habermasian spirit, laying their cards out on the table, the two were open about their social location in relation to the academy, Hellekson said: “I’ve found that a lack of an academic connection is terribly disenfranching. The simplest research project is fraught with annoyance and pain as roadblocks are thrown in front of me: it’s ridiculously difficult to get the books and articles I need, thanks to all the limits placed on me by the library; and I don’t have an affiliation to put on my abstract submissions, which results in their being kicked back to me for ‘completion.'” There were many statements like this one uttered throughout the debate, by official participants and commenters alike, and they bolstered the debate’s appeal to the ideologically concerned reader/lurker: this is a space where people are asked to lay bare their privilege and talk about gender and affiliation as they affect them materially. I’m glad that Hellekson was so clear about her position, and that Mittell responded in kind. However, when it came to debating the issues surrounding gendered practices in fandom and the academy, and the way in which aca-fandom, especially Convergence Culture, seemed to be giving disproportionate attention to the practices of fanboys, statements like these seemed to disappear. Participants were placed in the position of having to constantly repeat themselves about the limitations they or people they were close to had faced, meaning they had to singlehandedly prove that there exists gendered oppression where it should be taken as a given. As I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, it is not the job of the minority or subcultural subject to constantly prove that they exist in different conditions than the normative, privileged one. Rather, it is the job of all of us who are engaged in creating, sharing, and reading the narrative of our place and time to ensure that it is respectful of and honest about the lives of the full range of its characters.

At this junction in the debate, one or the other participant would frequently raise the question of how we come to define our object(s) of study. Many of the participants, especially the male ones, would say “but okay, I said specifically that I am only talking about x. I wouldn’t be unsupportive of someone else talking about y, it’s just that it doesn’t fall within my field as I’ve defined it.” And of course, I don’t think any of the participants claimed to have studied all of fandom anything like definitively. That said, it seemed to me that the participants most attuned to the terms of the debate were realizing that there was a real risk that certain types of fanboy practices, especially those that lend themselves best to collaboration with the industry, were not only being over-valued, but were being valued at the expense of continuing the work of fan studies as it was initially set up; that is, as a field working to think about and value a broader range of reading practices, especially some, which had been unfairly maligned by dominant educational and industry cultures alike. That some participants felt that it “wasn’t their job” to think about this side of things seemed only to reinforce that they were in fact trying to hierarchize media studies at large in terms they willfully refused to see as gendered. (I am not accusing any one participant of doing this in particular, or reducing any participant’s engagement to gleeful sexism, but rather trying to speak in broad strokes about the trends I saw emerging in the intentionally antagonistic fanboy/fangirl divide, mirrored in the perhaps less intentionally antagonistic blog comment/lj post divide.)

The next conversation I found myself intrigued by was that between Louisa Stein and Robert Jones, about machinima. Essentially, Jones was making a case for gaming as more fundamentally interactive than TV/film spectatorship. He suggested that “machinima is literally a transformation of the source material (not just playing with it). To do that with film or TV you’d have to be there on set, which is what makes the two so fundamentally different in my mind.” I will quote from Stein’s rebuttal of this distinction at length:

“I see the distinction you’re getting at: transforming the actual source text for others to experience differently vs. reworking the source text in the creation of a new text. But I wonder at what level this distinction is significant in terms of how people experience/engage with media and technology. Fans making vids or even just writing fan fiction may not be able to actually change the source text (on set, as you say). But they also don’t necessarily prioritize/centralize the source text above the fantext (that is, the shifting sets of texts that map out the fan understanding of the fictional universe with which they’re engaging). So if fan-authorship transforms the fantext, and the fantext is the primary world-building text, then is that really different from the transformative play of machinima? It feels to me like a matter of perspective. Yes, machinima artists may alter the technology or the code, but fanfic writers alter if not the source text then the shared world of game play. Editing tools used for vids etc. are only the tools of post-production if we’re centered in the official commercial production of the original text. If we’re centered on the shifting production of the fantext, then the editing tools fans use are authorship tools plain and simple, and the productions alter the fantext that constitutes the creative space within which fans interpret and engage both “official” and “unofficial” texts.”

Now, I am someone who greatly admires, although I do not currently participate in, gaming. But! I don’t see any reason to hierarchize them in the way Jones tries to do, for precisely the reasons Stein offers. It’s about valuing the individual‘s contribution to the community at least as highly as the individual‘s engagement with the source text. In other words, the community-authored text is a primary object of study for Fan Studies. No one talks about this with greater clarity than Kristina Busse, who, in her conversation with Cornel Sandvoss, had a lot to say about the reasons to value the community at least as highly as any one individual. Their conversation began with a discussion of why Sandvoss values the individual over the community. Busse quotes him as saying “this focus on communities and tightly networked fans fails to conceptualize important aspects of the relationship between the modern self, identity and popular culture which forms my particular concern here” (5). And while I am sympathetic to Sandvoss’s phrasing here, being as part of my justification for studying not only fictional fans, but fictional fan protagonists, is my interest in seeing how “fandom” intersects with an individual’s whole trajectory, in some cases, their whole life. I think that this question is intensely interesting. But my protagonist fans are in large part unlikely protagonist fans from minor literary and emerging new media traditions: people whose stories have simply not. been. told. And so my investment in telling their whole individual stories has an investment more akin to Busse’s emphasis on the limits of the allowable in 21st century culture than it does on Sandvoss’s crypto-universal interest in “the modern self” (emphasis mine). To quote from Busse’s rebuttal, in which she worries about the muddying of the fan’s position to the point of making him into any invested reader:

“I fear that by expanding the terminology of fan to include virtually everyone (whether by including all sorts of fannish behavior as Jenkins does or by redefining it to focus on individual behavior so that most passionate textual engagements become “fannish”), the danger may be that ‘real’ fans are marginalized yet again. In other words, by focusing on what Rebecca Tushnet has called ‘normal-folks-with-benefits,’ I see my own more involved and more invested community fully overshadowed (as has happened with vidding vis a vis machinima) or be redefined as outcasts yet again. That latter fear is what I tried to describe in my short paper for Flow:
As media texts are more widely disseminated and construct their audiences in ever more fan-like ways at the same time as fannish activities become both more visible and more legitimate, the distinctions between creators and viewers, between casual viewers and fans is changing. It would be easy to see these changes as having the potential to create an idyllic convergence playground. The fannish community, however, would have to disavow those parts that do not please the owners of the media product (J.K. Rowling, George Lucas). Certain groups of fans can become legit if and only if they follow certain ideas, don’t become too rebellious, too pornographic, don’t read the text too much against the grain. That seems a price too high to pay.” (source)

Yes. And this is yet another reason I want to focus on fictional representations of fans, rather than trying to conceptualize the “average” fan or celebrating the limits of fan possibility. (The other, even more utopian Jenkins is already doing a fine job of that.) I think that minor and emerging forms in the 21st century are providing space for the stories of the individual lives of fans in a way that is true to the shape of the community, and manages to acknowledge the shape of things by the numbers (see above re: 13 percented) without having to sacrifice meaningful community-born investments in the name of respectability, academic or otherwise.

Certainly, there’s much to say about the embeddedness of writers within the publishing industry, MFA programs, copyright law, and whatnot, but that’s for me to explore in that dissertation I keep talking about.

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