Posts Tagged ‘fandom’

#sixseasonsandamovie (and a documentary)

28/11

A few months ago, I was contacted by Andulka Wilkes and Evan Koehne about appearing in a documentary about a (fan) art show celebrating NBC’s cult comedy Community.  I am thrilled to be a part of this project, and its release fills some of the void left by NBC pulling the season 4 premiere of Community.  All Wingeresque shameless promotion aside, if you’re similarly sad about the “indefinite delay” (or, February 2013, close enough…) I’d encourage you to watch this doc, it’s a real testament to the fan culture surrounding the show, and the creators’ embrace of fannish textual production:

I find it somewhat amusing that Dan Harmon opens the documentary by remarking that Community began as “a crass, non-creative effort to make money.”  The remainder of the documentary understandably dismantles that idea, celebrating the fans and artists that have coalesced around the show, and exploring the increasingly fluid boundaries between the cultural labels of “artist” and “fan.”  But, because I was brought in specifically to offer some scholarly background on fan studies, I thought I might use this space to express some of my remarks that didn’t make the cut.  Nothing against the filmmakers, I think they did a bang-up job, and anyone who knows me knows I can be a bit skeptical about monetizing fan production and sensitive to hierarchically privileging some forms of fan expression over others.  That wasn’t the story the filmmakers set out to tell, and accordingly this blog post strives to reclaim some comments from the cutting room floor and pose some broader questions about the trend towards “fan art” gallery shows.

First, a confession: I am an avid collector of art (originals and prints) from Gallery 1988, Los Angeles galleries that specialize in thematic collections around particular (cult) media properties and genres.  The “Six Seasons and A Movie” art show at PixelDrip was similar to Gallery 1988 shows, in fannish scope and audience, but further played up the “art show by/for fans” angle by including a costume contest and more interactive offerings (a playable version of the video game from the episode “Digital Estate Planning,” for example).  I don’t have exact numbers, but the show appeared the feature a mix of professional artists who are fans of Community, and Community fan artists.  What’s the difference?  Increasingly, it’s difficult to gauge, but this doesn’t mean the hierarchies that underpin this distinction (both between “artist” and “fan artist,” and within the category of “fan artist” in terms of who was selected to participate in the gallery show) evaporate.

Fan art is, of course, nothing new, nor is the intersection between art and popular culture (see: Lichtenstein, Warhol, Banksy et. al.).  What is novel is the legitimizing discourse that occurs when “fan art” moves into the gallery space, and begin to be sold.  I often return to the dialogue created by Karen Hellekson’s and Abigail De Kosnik in the In Focus section of Cinema Journal 48, No. 4 (Summer 2009).  Hellekson’s article, “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture,” argues for both the legal and social necessity of fan works being exchanged within a gift economy. Meanwhile, De Kosnik’s essay, “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?,” makes a compelling case for why fans, and female fans in particular, might find it empowering (or, simply preferable) to profit from their fannish labor.  Both Hellekson and DeKosnik are concerned with the media industries’ encroachment on fan culture and practices, and their attempts to commercialize fan fiction.

So, my central question is, can we neatly apply these same concerns to fan art?  Does its designation as “art,” and the growing popularity of liminal spaces like deviantART, facilitate a smoother transition for these forms of fan production into more “professional” spheres, or allow it to be monetized without the same blowback within fan communities?  My own experience within fandom is that, while I would balk if someone charged me to read their fan fiction, I wouldn’t blink if I saw a fan selling their art (particularly if it was commissioned).  While I am absolutely giddy that shows like “Six Seasons and A Movie,” or gallery spaces like Gallery 1988, acknowledge the immense talent of fans, I wonder if they truly acknowledge the lineage of fan art, or adequately reflect its sensibilities.    What are the implications of call this a fan art show, when primarily professional artists are participating?

Generally, I feel there’s some important work to be done on the disconnects between contemporary fan culture (or the interpellation of fan culture into industry, high art, etc.) and histories of fandom and fan studies.  Fan art has always been under-theorized (to my mind), despite the fact that, second to vidding, it has perhaps benefitted the most from digital tools and platforms.  I would also suggest that fan artists have historically presented the most slippage between “amateur” and “professional.”  So, do we call these “fan art” shows?  Is it important (or even possible) to demarcate between artist/fan and fan/artist?  I’m still working through my take on this…with Grant Searcey’s “Raiding Ft. Tusken” on canvas and Bruce White’s “Wet Hot Velvet Coop” looking down on me…

[Side note on the above video: I admittedly stumbled in the moment I was asked about my favorite Community quote.  In a panic, I fell back on my dual loves, The Warriors and “Modern Warfare.” Here’s my actual favorite…from Abed, obviously: “We’ve lost our Cliff Clavin. Our George Costanza. Our Turtle…or Johnny Drama…or E.  Man, that show is sloppy.”]

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)?

Taking fandom out of the box

07/07

For the past two years I taught a course on Fandom and Geek Culture in the Film and Digital Media department at UC Santa Cruz.  You can check out the syllabus above, but generally the class was designed to grapple with many of the tensions outlined in my dissertation, which focuses on the demographic, representational, and authorial “revenge” of the fanboy within convergence culture, and the marginalizing effect this potentially has on fangirls.  Centrally, the course is designed to offer some context for the evolving field of fan studies, and get students thinking about the politics of participation in our contemporary mediascape.  We begin the course reading Joli Jensen’s 1992 essay “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization,” and discussing which modes of fan participation have been incorporated, and which remain stigmatized.  Throughout the quarter, I came back to this quote from Francesca Coppa, which is worth repeating here, as it eloquently summarizes many of the course concerns:

“What’s been striking to me over the course of this debate is the extent to which the gender issues reflect general problems of convergence culture–that is, the mainstreaming of fannish practice as well as the as growing respectability of ‘fandom studies’. Fandom is a subculture well on its way to becoming culture, and while that has many benefits, it also raises the risk of re-marginalizing the groups that the subculture once represented.  I worry about women becoming, yet again, a minority voice in a mixed gender fannish culture in which the makers of Chad Vader get a movie deal and the makers of the K/S vid Closer flee the internet when their vids go viral. The media–especially the genre media which has been the center of so much fannish activity–has typically courted a male demographic, despite (or perhaps because of) their female-dominated audiences. And female fans have typically made lemonade from these lemons; it’s no accident that so much ‘remix’ culture happens in the context of minority communities: women, blacks, and the disabled. But in the end, my lovingly crafted fanwork is not your marketing team’s ‘user-generated content.'”

In our final class of the term, while discussing Matt Hills’ conception of “new hegemonic fandom,” my students got into a rousing debate around which modes of fandom are more/less stigmatized today, and where certain fan practices might be placed on a subculture-culture continuum.  Below is a picture of the end result, hastily scribbled by yours truly, and a few thoughts on what this might tell us about the state of the fandom (as seen through the eyes of about 40 college students, in March 2011):

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