The Avengers Remix video toolkit

28/04

This week, Variety ran a story about Disney and Marvel’s partnership with YouTube to create a video remix toolkit, including 32 short clips from the film and excerpts of 4 songs from the film’s soundtrack (each track under a minute long), along with clips of dialogue, and a variety of SFX and transition options.  The title of this article?

“Disney, Marvel offer do-it-yourself ‘Avengers’ vids: YouTube software allows fans to craft legit remixes from pic”

There are myriad problems with both the toolkit and Variety‘s legitimization discourse that I’d like to get into, but first let me say this: Generally, I love the idea of giving fans HD raw materials to create their own remix videos.  I love that these tools might allow some fans who tend to think of themselves as consumers rather than creators an entry point into other forms of fan production.  I love that these “authorized” remix contests/tools at least begin to acknowledge both the creative and promotional value of fans to the success of media franchises.

Here’s what I don’t love:

– Of the 32 clips provided to me to work with (and they appear to be changing daily), here’s generally how they break down in terms of visual content, with the Misc. category composed of things like the obligatory group shot, Loki looking menacing/sexy, etc.:

Clip content breakdown for Disney/Marvel's Avengers remix video toolkit

I get it.  I do.  They wanted to stick with images from the trailer (hence, no spoilers for fans to get testy about), and the trailer is designed to sell the generic action of a superhero blockbuster.  These are clips of promotional materials from which fan-produced promotional materials are designed to be generated.  As the Variety piece championing the move by Disney and Marvel tellingly notes:

“[This] marketing move is seen as the latest way to make moviegoers, especially younger ones, feel as if they’re part of a film’s campaign.”

Not part of the film, or a community surrounding the film, but part of the campaign.  Thus far, many of the remixes made with this tool are quite impressive in terms of their professional polish and their ability to mimic the aesthetic language of promotional paratexts, but the lack of any character interactions provided as raw material inherently limits what’s produced. More diverse clips would inevitably lead to more diverse creative uses, and while the diversity of explosions offered here is laudable (Jets!  Buildings!  A Cafe!  Taxis!  More Taxis!  And hell, why not make a taxi explosion clip trilogy while we’re at it!), it also feels like a none-too-subtle attempt to overdetermine what “narratives” people use the tool to tell.  At its core, The Avengers is about relationships, but you wouldn’t know it from the range of clips provided.  Save for a pair of nano-second long clips of various male members of the team exchanging blows (not enough to construct anything slashy, trust me, I made a valiant effort), there are virtually no shots where two characters interact, and the limited character shots that are provided tend to be interrupted immediately by those pesky explosions, making it difficult to create a video that ruminates on the relationships between members of the team.

[NOTE: I just checked back on the site and they seem to have swapped out some of yesterday’s clips with more character clips, so perhaps some of these complaints can be dialed back depending on which stable of clips you’ve been given.]

– The obligatory terms of service stranglehold, which as usual forces the remixer to waive all rights to their creation.  To wit, see the load page for the remix interface, and a selection from the terms of service this main pages links out to:

Remixers, ye be warned...

Mickey seems awfully pleased with himself...

My central concern is one that won’t surprise anyone who has read my work, or Julie Levin Russo’s excellent work on Battlestar Galactica‘s videomaker toolkit.  Not only do these “authorized” efforts fail to meaningfully reach out to pre-existing fan vidding communities, they seem to aggressively dissuade the forms of remix that have been historically created by women.  This isn’t to say that many female fans aren’t using (or enjoying using) this new Avengers remix platform, simply that if this is a model towards “legit” fan remix video that implies that this is a potential effort to displace or dissuade those “illegitimate” forms.  Those that stage an argument or a counter-reading, ruminate on the dynamics between characters or queer them, or take the narrative in a new, unexpected (e.g. unsanctioned) direction.

There is also something to be said here about the fallaciously gendered construction of both comic book readers and the audience for franchise films.  In both cases, women continue to be treated as surplus audiences, and perhaps are considered surplus remixers here as well.  Efforts like these from Disney and Marvel are tend to be discursively framed as a decisive break from the industry’s prior prohibitionist response to fan production (commonly manifesting in the form of cease and desist letters and other methods of legal censure), taking a more collaborationist approach to fan culture and fan production.  While this might mark a step in the right direction, we need to continue to be critical of what modes of creative censure come attached to these collaborationist gestures, and which audiences they court.  The big issues here: industrial cooptation of fan labor, ownership/authorship within copyright culture, ideological censure, seem to recur with the release of each new video toolkit, and to my mind mark an ongoing need to consider how prohibitionist efforts evolve, become more covert, or create legitimizing discourses around “sanctioned” modes of fan engagement.

The Avengers video remix toolkit ultimately speaks to the growing popularity of remix culture, and the shifting cultural and technological landscape that is facilitating it, without meaningfully engaging with those communities of practice.

In my next post, I’ll show you what I created with the Avenger Remix video toolkit, and discuss what I hoped to convey…

Spoiler alert: I didn’t skimp on the explosions.

SCMS 2012 Workshops

13/04

This year, I participated at two teaching workshops at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference (still catching up from the week away, but wanted to share my prezis and some quick reflections):

– The Undergraduate Television Paper [Wednesday, 3/21 from 2-3:45pm]

Participants: Ethan Thompson, Suzanne Scott, Daniel Marcus, Derek Kompare, and Ben Aslinger

The wonderful Christine Becker was nice enough to write up this workshop, along with other teaching workshops she attended (which, one among many who constantly complains about programming conflicts, I was grateful for, along with the other coverage by SCMS bloggers this year!).  It was a small group, due to last minute room changes, losing a few panelists, and general Wednesday-ness, but a lively conversation.  In particular, I appreciated the emphasis from Derek Kompare and others about the benefits of autobiographical assignments.  We also had an interesting exchange (I believe at Heather Hendershot’s prompting) about which essays we assign students that model good writing.  Notably, in many cases this wasn’t academic/scholarly writing, and my own 2 cents on this is that I frequently create thematic pairs of thoughtful blog posts/magazine articles and scholarly journal articles to have students reflect on both forum and form, and how effective each is in conveying their argument.

My sample assignment that I shared with the group was the take-home midterm from my freshman writing class at Occidental this past fall (themed around fandom and participatory culture).  Though it wasn’t explicitly assigned as a “flow” assignment, I would certainly assign something similar in an introductory television studies class.  I wanted to pick a show we hadn’t watched in class, procedural series with an network of ancillary content surrounding it, and settled on Castle (ABC).  I had made a decision at the beginning of the semester to design the paper assignment around an episode that aired within a week of students beginning to write, both in terms of accessibility (available on Hulu and network website), and so that they would be engaging with the rhythms and temporalities of broadcasting and the release of ancillary web content alongside other fans of the show.

For those not familiar with the show, Castle is a police procedural focused on a male mystery writer shadowing a female detective, and this particular episode was focused on a masked vigilante who had taken on the identity of a comic book hero, Lone Vengeance.  There were two primary approaches to take with this assignment, which broadly asked them to analyze the intertextual intersections between the episode and various examples of ancillary web content, and then consider fan engagement, or what this ancillary content offered fans:

  • First, they could examine what this content said about shifts within the television industry, in terms of transmedia branding and horizontal integration.  Most of my students framed this analysis around the Derrick Storm Graphic Novel (Disney/ABC/Marvel ownership), and its not-so-subtle appearance in the episode.  Also, timed to the release of the episode, selections of the graphic novel were released on the official Castle site, and the full graphic novel was released 2 days after this episode aired.
  •  Second approach to this assignment was to consider how television text and paratext inform each other, and what function this relationship serves for audiences through an examination of the blog written by the series’ title character

Though it appears that this is veering into a paper about webcomics, or transmedia storytelling more broadly and abandoning a discussion of television as a result, I think it’s useful to consider the slippages between series and serialized television, and consider what these ancillary texts have to tell us about the valuation of television fans within convergence culture.  These digital extensions also tell us a great deal about shifts within the television industry.

My presentation/provocation was meant to suggest how we might incorporate these new forms of multiplatform flow into our conversations with students about television form history, industry, and audiences.

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– Teaching Comics Studies [Friday, 3/23 from 12:15-2pm]

Participants: Drew Morton, Scott Bukatman, Suzanne Scott, Greg Smith, James Thompson, and Matt Yockey

I have to say, I was thrilled with how this workshop went, and honored to be part of such a rich panel.  Having met with the newly-formed Comic Studies SIG the night before, I was thrilled to see a packed house for this panel.  Clearly, comics are being taught across disciplines, and with different emphases, and I thoroughly enjoyed swapping experiences with both the panelists and participants from the audience.

My own contribution to this conversation was to suggest theory/praxis assignments for students, offering some impressive examples created by students in my Comic Book Culture class at UC Santa Cruz (including a comic created to accompany a term paper focusing on the representation of women in comics, and a short film attempting to replicate with comic book aesthetics), sample assignments by other scholars that I would incorporate into future comic classes (with attribution, naturally!), and tools that might help students create their own comics with limited artistic experience.

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So, enjoy, and feel free to ask me more detailed questions about either of these workshops, or the ideas contained in these prezi presentations.

SCMS=SDCC?

27/03

Here I sit, precisely 48 hours after arriving home from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston…scratchy throat, drinking tea and running through kleenex like it’s going out of style.  Con crud has claimed another victim.  It feels an awful lot like late-July…

During Thursday’s “Gendering Fandom” panel, Paul Booth made a passing remark on the Twitter backchannel that got me thinking: Is there really such a difference between SCMS and SDCC?  Where do we draw the line between conference and convention?

We can partially credit the historic Park Place Hotel for allowing this analogy to worm its way into my brain.  After all, anyone who has braved the floor of the Expo Hall at SDCC knew exactly how to navigate those narrow, body-jammed hallways between panels (hint: it’s all about the elbows).  Once I started thinking about it, I noticed some other interesting parallels:

  • Panel overflow and “camping” (No Hall H worthy drama here, but my roommate did storm back into our room around 11:05am on Saturday morning complaining that people had camped out through the early panel.  Substitute “that Warhol paper I needed to see” with “the Dr. Who panel” and you see where I’m going with this…)
  • Underground information exchanges regarding party locations and access.  Arguably, more people have tried to get into the USC party than Flynn’s Arcade over the past few years.
  • Fan art!  (From my workshop on Teaching Comic Studies- thanks, Dan Carino!)

  • Passionate, analytical defenses of Indiana Jones 4: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (courtesy of Janet Staiger)
  • Panel envy.  The grass/exclusive footage/Foucault reference is always greener…
  • Swag from University Presses (?!)

Nina Huntemann rightly noted to me that it won’t really be Comic-Con until someone creates a stunt to promote a book they’re releasing.  So, if your study of race and representation in zombie horror has a 2013 publication date, just let me know.  I’m fully prepared to collect some likeminded scholars for a zombie walk around Chicago on your behalf.

All joking aside, there’s something to be said about how we navigate SCMS as fans (of particular scholars, media texts, disciplines), approach our own work as fans, and/or perform our fannish investments/detachment in that space.  Chime in on parallels I may have missed…I somehow doubt that cosplay was involved (if only!), but I’d be curious to hear from others who have noticed similarities in terms how we do/don’t perform our identities as media consumers (and “fans,” for those who feel comfortable embracing the designation) in the conference space we populate as media scholars.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I love the week after the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, when all my favorite academics blog eloquently written impressions and analyses (some from the official SCMS conference bloggers are already up).  As always, I left SCMS intellectually invigorated, reconnected with old friends and colleagues and introduced to incredible scholars. A serious post about my takeaways from #scms12 and my workshops will follow…after I get rid of the crud.]

Happy #FemShepFriday, everyone!

10/02

Just a quick follow up to my prior post regarding Bioware’s “beauty contest”/marketing fail for their Mass Effect 3 promotional campaign.  Well, the trailer’s finally here, and female gamers everywhere should be breathing a collective sigh of relief:

Of course, just because the trailer isn’t a condescending nightmare doesn’t mean it won’t be analyzed, and I fully intend to collect those posts here.  So, if you come across any commentary (e.g. Why Renegade!Femshep?  What’s the significance of Bioware creating a second round of voting to arrive at this redheaded iteration, after the blonde trumped all in the initial Facebook vote debacle?, etc.), please send it my way in comments. The response on Twitter, which you can follow at  #FemShepFriday, has been overwhelmingly positive, and here are some of the more interesting ones I’ve collected today:

The theme of the majority of the tweets thus far seems to be “My Shep is…,” rather than a response to the trailer, speaking to the fact that ultimately no Shep (be it Fem or Bro) will ever sufficiently capture the game’s best feature:  choice.  I’d be curious to hear if players project their own iteration of Shep onto Bioware’s promotional/marketing materials…

-RESPONSES/ANALYSES-

  • Good overview of the events leading up to today’s trailer launch (via Gamezone)
  • “She Has Arrived: More Love for Mass Effect 3’s Female Shepard” (via Savegame)
  • 2010 analysis of FemShep’s popularity, worth revisiting (via Gamasutra)

Contemplating transmedia scholarship

08/12

Happy grading season to all you academics, and happy pre-holidays to all you students and surfers who have stumbled across my blog in your internet wanderings!

I’ll be spending a good chunk of my holiday collaborating with Chris Hanson to develop a digital “draft” of a submission to a “book” project that emerged out of Database | Narrative | Archive: An International Symposium on Nonlinear Digital Storytelling.  I’m really excited about it, both because I get to co-author the project with a good friend and brilliant scholar, but also because the project will be constructed in Scalar.  Scalar was developed at USC, through the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, and I am looking forward to exploring the platform and thinking through the form and function of multimodal scholarship.

The question our contribution will respond to is:

How might scholars explore interactive and digital technologies as forms of ‘procedural scholarship’?

My immediate gut response to this prompt, which you can explore in more detail in the CFP, was to consider how we might adapt the central principles and qualities of transmedia storytelling to discuss and develop instances of transmedia scholarship.  As our own work begins to travel across media platforms, I think further contemplation of Henry Jenkins’ post on Transmedia Education is warranted, in which Jenkins applies the seven “core principles” detailed below to learning environments.

I can think of plenty of wonderful scholars who are attempting to work these properties into their pedagogy, but are we actively attempting to embody them with our scholarship?  Outside of the seven principles Jenkins outlines here, are you thinking about building migratory cues into your scholarship?  What does collective intelligence look like in this model?  Are the transmedia “extensions” of our own work serving a similar promotional function as the majority of industrial transmedia extensions?

I’m hoping to use Scalar as a platform to grapple with the potentialities and limitations of transmediated scholarly arguments and research.  While many have (rightly) championed transmedia storytelling models for being participatory, non-linear, and co-creative enterprises, my own work on industrial transmedia entertainment argues that these models ultimately tend to reify and reward conventional modes of engagement and exploration.  Through a consideration of how these “core principles” might be adapted to conceptualize multimodal scholarship, I hope to examine how theories of transmedia storytelling might broadly help scholars envision their work traversing various media, platforms, and audiences.

So, here’s where you come in.  If you’re an academic, or know an academic, who is either actively creating transmedia scholarship, or attempting to work in some of the principles of transmedia storytelling into their own work or pedagogy, please contact me at suzannelynscott@gmail.com or leave a comment below.  Alternately, if you are a transmedia scholar and/or have opinions on what transmedia scholarship might look like, the potentialities or limitations (for example, what happens when we ask those “reading” our work to become hunters and gatherers?), I’d also like to hear your thoughts.  I’d really love for this project to include some conversations/images/videos with other scholars (or students, for that matter), so consider this a first attempt to exhibit collective intelligence at work.

I’ve also just set up a new twitter account @acatransmedia, and will be using #transmediascholarship to document the project.  Not sure yet what function this twitter “extension” might serve, but please follow if you’re interested.

Thanks in advance for your contributions, or for passing this along to someone who might be interested!

Framing fandom in The Muppets

27/11

It is safe to say I am a Muppet fan.  Case in point, I had the honor of being the first to get married at the Jim Henson Company (which, it should be noted, was originally Charlie Chaplin’s studio, so I’m going to guess we were also the first couple to play Rock Band in Chaplin’s screening room).

My bedtime used to be determined by The Muppet Show.  One of my last weekends living in New York before I graduated from NYU was spent sitting in a theater watching The Muppets Take Manhattan.  I may or may not have cried about leaving the city and the gang of friends I’d made.  I even repurposed my longstanding fixation with The Dark Crystal into a terrible term paper in grad school.  I vaguely remember it having something to do with religion, or Reaganism.  Mostly, it was an excuse to re-watch the movie and debate Skeksis’ ritual disrobing practices.  The Muppets are a media property that has accompanied every stage of my life, culminating in the warm nostalgic glow of The Muppets this weekend that I’m still basking in.

Needless to say, I was excited when I first heard that Jason Segel was rebooting the franchise.  Most, including myself, took comfort in the fact that the franchise was in the hands of an unabashed fan.  I’ve recently been exploring the “fanboy auteur” as an emerging authorial archetype in my own work, and Segel is a perfect example of how a fanboy auteur’s liminal identity can be effectively deployed to reach out to existing fan bases and mitigate the claims of commercial opportunism these reboots usually provoke.  There’s a great paper to be written about how Segel has paratextually mobilized his identity as a Muppet fan from the announcement of the project through its promotion.  If my own response is any indication, Segel’s sincerity and affect was  key promotional tool, because he so perfectly echoes the ethos of The Muppets.

I saw The Muppets last night, at the very theater that serves as the Muppet Theater in the film (meta alert!), the Disney owned and operated El Capitan.  The fact that the Muppets themselves are now also Disney owned and operated is something that the film brushes up against repeatedly, all the while assuring the audience that the Muppets won’t be sullied by their new corporate context, particularly with a fan at the helm. When the Muppets solicit money, we’re assured they’re doing so to (somewhat paradoxically) save themselves from being forced to “sell out.”

All of this said, what was far more interesting to me was the way that the film frames fandom.  SPOILERS follow, so please refrain from reading until you see the film, which is delightful and deserves to be appreciated. If you’ve already seen the film, read on for some initial thoughts on what it means to construct the newest “Muppet” as a Muppet fan.

Walter, the most recent addition to the Muppet family, a picture of fannish consumption

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The curious dual address of nichestream texts (Chapter I)

26/11

A few months ago, I tore through Ernest Cline’s geektacular novel Ready Player One. I highly recommend it, both because it is wonderfully inventive while still being winkingly evocative of Snow Crash, and because I think it trounces Little Brother as a piece of fiction that deftly engages issues of free culture, surveillance, and virtual identities.

But despite my enjoyment, I was also hyperaware as I read that Ready Player One is yet another prime example of the curious dual address that texts have cultivated as fan/geek culture has moved from the margins to the mainstream.  This dual address simultaneously presumes that consumers are conversant in geek culture references, while hyperconsciously couching those references in archetypes/stereotypes, or otherwise easily decoded framing devices.  Ready Player One might be viewed as a more populist literary descendant of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a text that also encourages a fannish decoding of its many references.  Henry Jenkins has playfully used Diaz’s novel as a geek litmus test, listing the novel’s pop culture references from A:

…to Z:

As this alphabetical bookending suggests, the gap between “normative” fannish interests (e.g. sports) and “excessive” fan subculture (e.g. a scifi/fantasy film in which James Bond wears a red diaper and suspenders with thigh-high boots…hey, it’s the future…) is an ever shrinking one.  Just ask geek culture sage Patton Oswalt.

I’d argue that this trend towards geek culture intertextuality/referentiality differs from simple postmodern pastiche, in that it is centrally preoccupied with recuperation of the fanboy into hegemonic masculinity by framing him as an action and/or romantic hero.  The Big Bang Theory features a (perhaps unintentional) dual address that bifurcates the audience into those who laugh at the shows’ nerd collective, and those conversant enough in geeky jargon and fannish references to laugh with them.  The show’s approach to casting guest stars is a perfect example of this, with Firefly/The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Summer Glau, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s/twitter demigod Wil Wheaton, Marvel Comics’ icon Stan Lee (quoth my Mom “Who is that old man?”), Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff, and astrophysicist and Nobel laureate George Smoot, all appearing as themselves.  These guest “stars” would appear to serve a counterintuitive (or at least an atypical) function, rewarding those conversant in nerd/geek/fan culture and potentially alienating, rather than drawing in, those in the mass audience who aren’t “in” on the reference or joke.

BSG's Katee Sackhoff and ST's George Takei as Howard's sexual subconscious on BBT

Heather Hendershot has argued that The Big Bang Theory’s latent misogyny, the fact that the show views women “strictly as sex objects,” routinely undercuts its representational potential and eradicates all points of identification for female viewers.  Astutely noting that The Big Bang Theory must be understood as a mass show framed as a niche show, and not the reverse, Hendershot frames the show’s effort to “have its cake and eat it too,” as persistently short-changing fangirl viewers or pointedly ignoring them.  Questioning why CBS “pretended to target a geek demographic, when it was really looking for lads all along,” Hendershot exposes who this recent wave of “nerd-friendly” programming is really targeting, but fails to fully explore how interchangeable these “geek” and “lad” demographics have become.  Vitally, Hendershot’s analysis does raise the question of who is being excluded from the “geek demographic” these nichestream texts target.  Penny, the primary “sex object” within Hendershot’s critique, is constantly perplexed by the fannish references the show spouts, and might provide a point of identification for a mass audience more inclined to laugh at, rather than with, the male characters discussions of fannish minutiae.  I would agree with Hendershot that The Big Bang Theory’s representational framework leaves little room for female viewers, much less fangirls, to situate themselves, though this appears to be changing in the most recent seasons.   

Which brings us to Ready Player One…fair warning, there are some (mild) SPOILERS ahead…

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On Autoethnography and Acafandom

15/11

No blogging for me for the past couple of months, as I’ve been teaching my freshman core course on Fandom and Participatory Culture at Occidental College, and generally getting settled in my new corner of #alt-ac in the Center for Digital Learning + Research.  I’ve returned with some interesting tales from that class’ first assignment, and to shamelessly promote my contribution to the Acafandom and Beyond series that’s currently running on Henry Jenkins’ blog (our conversation is continued here).  In a nice moment of blogging synchronicity, both have encouraged me to think about transparency when it comes to how we (and our students) mobilize our fan identities in our scholarly work.

For the first assignment in my class, I asked my students to record a short, auteoethnographic audio file documenting their first fandom, and how that “fandom” was embodied and performed.  I required them to manipulate their audio file in Audacity, in part to maintain their anonymity on our course blog and encourage them to speak candidly, but also to have them consider if a fannish identity is still something to hide, or be ashamed of, in our contemporary participatory culture.  My students’ autoethnographies are archived here, and I’d strongly encourage you to go check a few of them out.  I think they’re really fascinating, both in terms of form and content (e.g. a student sounding like Andre the Giant while discussing a love of The Spice Girls).  The second part of the assignment was a written reflection on their audio file, through an address of the continued relevance (or not) of Joli Jensen’s 1992 essay “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization.”

I created this assignment with a number of goals in mind:

  • To get a better sense of if/how my students self-identify as fans
  • To see how they negotiated, contextualized, and performed those identities
  • To get the class thinking about the culturally and socially constructed lines between “normal” and “excessive” fandom, how they’re maintained or dismantled, and the (often gendered) power dynamics that underpin those distinctions

The written responses were incredibly revealing about evolving understandings of (un)acceptable fan identities.  Many grounded their fan identity in their families, framing media texts as something they coalesced around with parents or siblings to deepen (or in some cases, establish) those relationships.  Some noted that they played down their fannish affect for a particular property in their authoethnography.  Conversely, others exaggerated their fan identity.  In both cases, the knowledge that their peers would be consuming their autoethnography impacted its content.  As a lifelong tomboy who spent her first few weeks at NYU channelling Cordelia on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (hey, it was 1997…I sort of considered it identity cosplay), I completely understand the flexible moment that the first few weeks of college represent, and concerns about codifying one’s identity when people are scrambling to make new friends and suss each other out.  What I had hoped would be a confessional assignment in many cases became an implicit commentary on how we perform our taste for others, and how we deploy our fan identities as a way of sculpting and reinforcing our identities more broadly.

Reading Will Brooker’s provocation in our Acafandom conversation, I couldn’t help but think about my students, and their responses to the autoethnography assignment, specifically what prompts us “shut up.”  I am a huge fan of Will and his work, but as I noted in my response I was put off by some of his remarks, in particular what I felt was an (implicitly gendered) dismissal of the “baby talk and sleepover squealing” quality of some fannish jargon that makes frequently its way into our work (squee, squick, et. al.).

In retrospect, my kneejerk response says a great deal about both my fannish and scholarly identities.  The response itself (which admittedly struck a much larger nerve surrounding the trend towards heralding fanboyish pursuits while devaluing fangirls or, worse yet, remarginalizing them within fan studies as we shift our focus to industrially sanctioned fan practices) was a defensive reflex, but it’s always felt a little performative to me.  As I noted in my response to Will, writing a chapter of my dissertation on Twilight anti-fandom forced me to confront my own biases about certain segments of fan culture that I don’t approve of as viable representatives.  I get Will’s point.  I don’t like being lumped in with the “squealers,” and I distance myself from them even as I defend them.  This is equally rooted in my fan identity (which has always occupied something of a conflicted position between the “fanboy” and “fangirl” camps, as they’re broadly defined), and my scholarly identity (which remains preoccupied with retaining the feminist underpinnings of the first wave of fan studies, and championing female consumers and scholars, even as we engage with fans’ new positions of power within convergence culture).

Not unlike my students, I’m still establishing my professional identity, and perhaps that has led to a heightened awareness of how I frame and present that identity.  My choice to focus on the job market in my provocation about acafandom was, in part, a response to the fact that many of the scholars who have called for the discontinuation of the term (or those, like Will, who make the personal and completely understandable decision to “shut up” about it) tend to be more established scholars.  Louisa Stein eloquently captured most of my feelings on the significance of the term “aca-fan” on her blog, but within my current work at Occidental’s Center for Digital Learning + Research, I see new evidence every single day that this isn’t just a debate within a small corner of media studies over the continued relevance of a term, but one facet of a much broader debate about the growing hybridity and interdisciplinarity that academia now demands.

I’d be curious to hear from others teaching courses on fan studies, media audiences, and/or social media if you’re asking your students to do similar self-reflections.  And, if you broach the topic of acafandom, how do you frame that identity (how it shapes your approach to pedagogy, or your own scholarship, or in terms of framing the articles they read in class)?

Blondes Have More Controversy: A Few Notes on the FemShep Debacle

04/08

Keeping to my proposed schedule of SDCC 2011 recaps clearly fell into the “epic fail” category.  Best laid plans, a gal’s gotta work/eat/finally watch Game of Thrones, etc. etc.  I will eventually roll out those posts as promised, but moving on to something more pressing for today…

It’s been a pretty exciting week for the diversification of geek culture icons.  Twitter has been (justifiably) all a-twitter with the news that the new Ultimate Spider-Man is a half-African American, half-Latino teen by the name of Miles Morales.  Most have celebrated writer Brian Michael Bendis’ decision (with an assist from the “Donald Glover for Spider-Man” campaign), while the Glenn Becks of the world reacted pretty much how everyone expected they would (with a mixture of racism, homophobia, and open disdain for comics and their readership).  I’m beyond thrilled that people are writing thoughtful and thought-provoking posts this week about race, comics, and the significance of this:

…but I’m not writing about it, at least not today.  Today I want to briefly respond to this:

Above is the winner (by popular facebook vote) of Bioware’s heavily critiqued “beauty pageant” to select a representative “FemShep” for Mass Effect 3‘s marketing campaign.  Full disclosure: I didn’t cast a vote, and I’m mostly coming to this story late by sifting through the online commentary/fallout from the contest.  I did wait on line for a couple of hours at Comic-Con so that Luke could get some demo time with Mass Effect 3.  Luke walked out filled with excitement about the narrative snippets he’d gleaned from playing (something about Krogan reproductive rights), and I walked out asking whether or not players could choose to experience the demo as FemShep.  I think…and someone please correct me if I’m wrong…that gender selection wasn’t an option for the demo when customizing your Shepard before gameplay, and all players used the default avatar in the demo.

The word “default” is what’s telling here, and why people are so invested in the representation of FemShep.  Not only has the male Shepard been the default centerpiece of Bioware’s marketing campaign, and serves as the in-game default for players, I would venture a guess that the image of the “default” gamer Bioware is marketing to is male.  So, not only did the promise of marketing materials featuring FemShep acknowledge female gamers in a way the industry rarely does, they also implicitly promised to market FemShep in a way that didn’t pander or play down to girl gamers.

To give you a sense of the other contenders for the public face of the female Shepard:

For the record, I'd pick the one with the appropriate military buzzcut.

I had a paradoxical gut response to the outcry over the selection of the blonde “FemShep5” (who, it should be noted, won by a landslide):

  • I understand why people (especially female gamers who love this franchise) are angry.  I’m not exactly thrilled that they felt compelled to put this to a popular vote, creating a stunt out of what should have been a commonsense decision to finally reflect in their promotions that this is (for many) the story of a woman, and I’m not thrilled that the most conventionally attractive/feminine option won in a landslide.
  • Though it wasn’t surprising, I was (as always) instinctively taken aback and a little disappointed by the instantaneous conflation of “blonde” and “bimbo.”  Penny Arcade took on this issue in their comic yesterday, and critiques of the vote have routinely reinforced this age-old connection between signifier/signified.

Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise has routinely been held up by students in my video game studies classes as a progressive example of gender neutral gaming.  They point to the customizable Lieutenant Commander Shepard as a sign that we’re finally moving beyond “girls’ games” and “boys’ games” to be given simply good games, with compelling narratives, and a protagonist designed for a wide range of players to identify with.  Moreover, a protagonist they’re encouraged to collaboratively design to help facilitate that identification.  If I had to venture a guess, the bulk of my students  and the bulk of those who choose to play Mass Effect with a female avatar don’t think about the character as “FemShep.”  She’s just Shepard, full stop.  And that, in and of itself, is heartening.

The default Shepards

That said, the controversy over the blonde Shepard, and the vote, is understandable.  For years, the Mass Effect marketing campaign has been built around the default male avatar, so it immediately prompts the question:  why wasn’t the default female avatar sufficient for this marketing push?  Why, when the female Shepard is finally being actively promoted, does she need a series of redesigns to fall in line with more conventional beauty standards?  And finally, what does this mean for the Mass Effect movie in development, and the scant hope of actual genderblind and colorblind casting policies?

Rawles over at The Border House puts it succinctly in their post on the subject:

Commander Shepard does not need to be a rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy. Bioware has just now taken tiny steps away from the rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy being the single, enduring image of Commander Shepard that they show to the world at large. It seems almost perverse, in light of that, to go charging right back towards that when it comes to something as high profile as a feature film that will introduce Mass Effect to millions of new people.

Right now I’m less concerned about the inevitable movie adaptation (call me cynical, but I think we’re probably stuck with a rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy), and more concerned about the marketing strategy for Mass Effect 3.

I’m hoping it’s this (with the fate of the world resting in HER hands):

And not this…

We only have to look back to the recent “Your mom hates this” campaign for Dead Space 2 to see that, particularly when it comes to the “masculine” genres of science fiction and horror, women continue to be framed as interlopers (at best) and prissy neophytes (at worst).  It’s easy for the video game industry to ghettoize women as “casual” gamers, or claim they’re catering to them by making a pink Nintendo DS, but I hope that Bioware does the smart, rather than the easy thing here.  FemShep is a blonde beauty, there’s not much to be done about that at this point (and speaking as a blonde, I feel compelled to note that this doesn’t necessarily preclude her from kicking ass).  How Bioware deploys her, and if those representations echo the franchise’s claim to promote a protagonist that defies gender typing, remains to be seen.

Stay tuned…and for now, we can all go back to being excited about Spidey.

SDCC 2011 Recap: Expanded Universe Edition

28/07

I’m clearly not sticking to the SDCC posting schedule I set out earlier in the week, but I’ve been spending the last few days reading recaps of the #ohyousexygeek panel, and getting into some good back-and-forth conversations on twitter (with some of the panelists themselves, no less). I used the word “disappointing” to characterize the panel itself, but the blog posts, twitter exchanges, and heated debates in comment threads that have emerged out of that panel are anything but. Divisive at times, maybe, but not disappointing.

So, before we move on, a quick blogroll for those who’d like to read further on this:

Posts from the panelists…

Clare Kramer

Jill Pantozzi

Jennifer K. Stuller

Also, Jennifer de Guzman has been great about collecting responses, blog posts, and apologetic letters from G4 here.

Since I’ve fallen behind on recaps, my better half Luke Pebler is stepping in today as guest blogger to offer his perspective on some of the issues of authenticity raised in the #ohyousexygeek panel (which we attended together, and have been discussing ever since).

*****

Like Suzanne, I was a bit disappointed with the #ohyousexygeek panel at Comic-Con. Basically, the feminist bloggers were seated too far from the fashion models, and consequently no one got their hackles up enough to make it fun. And it must have been doubly frustrating for the ladies to have their debate framed most succinctly and effectively by famous, penis-having audience member Seth Green. Seth’s point was that the Sexy Grrl Geek Debate is actually part of a larger debate about fan authenticity in general, and I couldn’t agree more.

Sorry, ladies, but you’re not the only nerds whose culture has been hijacked by comely, vapid caricatures.

I have many fond memories of watching the TechTV cable network in the early 2000s. Its content was so unadornedly nerdy, its hosts so charmingly schlubby, that I paradoxically found it thrilling. These people look and talk like my friends and me. Who let them on TV? As a rural teenager, it gave me the first whiff of geek euphoria that would one day explode my brain when I finally attended my first convention (Star Wars Celebration IV in LA, 2007). But even at that naïve young age, I was looking over my shoulder. I thought: This is a mistake. This is too good to be true.

And so it was. In the span of just a year or two, Comcast-backed goons killed and ate my favorite network. G4 ostensibly merged with TechTV in early 2004, but by Feb 2005 G4 had already dropped “TechTV” from its name and expelled nearly all its people and programming. All operations in TechTV’s original Bay-area home were shuttered, and anyone who wouldn’t relocate to LA was canned. The only vestige of TechTV remaining at modern G4 is, unsurprisingly, the show that anticipated its shrill, slick aesthetic.

This tragic assimilation can be summed up perfectly by the metamorphosis of TechTV’s flagship talk show, “The Screen Savers,” to its spiritual G4 successor “Attack of the Show.” Compare this:

to this:

G4 is exactly what you’d expect TechTV to have been in the first place, if you’re an appropriately cynical adult: Hollywood-polished “personalities” contorting themselves into our niche because they couldn’t land that Axe Bodyspray commercial gig and they gotta pay the rent somehow. (It’s telling that even TechTV’s original resident frat broheim, Kevin Rose, proved too endowed with genuine talent and integrity to stay at G4, bailing out of AOTS after barely a year. Also, funny story how they replaced him!)

Looking back, TechTV was an anachronism and perhaps never meant to last. The internet is almost certainly a better way for tech geeks, gadget freaks, and video gamers to get their news and punditry, and many TechTV alumni have re-coalesced into great new-media entities. Leo LaPorte et al remain as adorable as ever, and are presumably still making a living. Given this, maybe I shouldn’t be bothered by the sort of knuckledragger that would still watch television to get his tech/game news. Live and let live, as Seth Green suggests.

But I can’t help it. Every time I happen past the two-story G4 Comic-Con compound, with its slimy air of velvet-rope starfuckery and its halo of howling Halo fans (whipped into a frenzy by PR flaks), it always gets my hackles up. Because I can feel it creeping up on us all. What I will call “douchegeek hegemony.”

It drives me nuts that these guys are now who laypeople picture when they think of a “gamer.” Honestly? I preferred this guy. Jimmy Teenager doesn’t have the luxury that I had, to like computers and then watch a cable show about computers that is literally just two dudes taking apart a computer. He sees all those people screaming behind Kevin Pereira, and maybe he doesn’t stop to think that the crowd’s been manipulated. He just thinks “If I’m a videogamer (which I am), and I want to be popular (which everyone does), this schtick seems to be working for that guy!” This is douchegeek hegemony.

And it doesn’t apply just to G4, frighteningly. I suggest we vet our icons carefully in all media. The conscription of geek culture by filmic douchebags gives us things like Michael Bay Transformers movies which, when they make $400M, begin to breed, and meanwhile Terry Gilliam still can’t scrape together the money to finish La Mancha. Douchegeek hegemony.

I understand that it’s sometimes hard to police your own subculture, especially amid the head rush of actually being catered to by mass media for the first time. Men, especially, seem gleefully willing to overlook problematic underlying implications whenever boobies or swag are flashed in front of them. But the honeymoon should be over by this point, ten years on. It’s time to put down the controller and push back.

I won’t tell you to make use of the glut of great game/nerd journalism that’s all over the web, because I’m sure you already do. But you gotta stop watching G4, and you really have to stop swarming their booth just because some hired babe waves you over. Go cheer in front of Penny Arcade‘s booth instead. Call Chris Gore what he is: reprehensible. Sweet Jesus, STOP GOING TO TRANSFORMERS MOVIES.

(And hey, Chris Hardwick? It’s time to cut the G4 ties, buddy. You’re beyond them.)

No matter how loud the techno, or awesome the free sticker, or big the fake breasts/enthusiasm, ask yourself: shouldn’t the internet and the mainstreaming of geek culture bring us a broader definition of what “cool” can be, for both women and men? Or are we just gonna let the same boring, good-looking people we loathed in high school define our norms again? I’m a better person for having watched TechTV, and I pray the geek youth of today are smart enough to see through G4’s pandering and go find their own Screen Savers.

Luke Pebler works professionally as a television editor while pursuing passion projects in film, online media and speculative fiction. His credits as a writer/director include the award-winning sci-fi short film The Professor’s Daughter and the web series The Last Hand.