Posts Tagged ‘gender’

On Defrosting: What Marvel’s Thor Announcement Means for Women in Comics Culture

23/07

In 2013, I published an article titled “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (In)Visibility in Comic Book Culture,” detailing the erasure of women from scholarly work on comic book culture, and growing efforts by fangirls to challenge the notion that women don’t read comics and speak back to the sexism that pervades both comic book representations and comics fan culture.  Examining transformative interventions such as the Kickstarter funded Womanthology and genderswap fan art sites like The Hawkeye Initiative, I (somewhat optimistically), suggested that:

we are currently witnessing a transformative moment within the comic book industry, comic book fandom, and comic book scholarship, in which gender is one of the primary axes of change.

Well, it’s a year later, and Marvel just announced that, come October 2014, the comic iteration of Thor will now be female.  Mission accomplished? Misogyny thwarted by the mighty Mjölnir? Not exactly.

The inevitable press release touting Marvel’s “ever-growing and long list of female-centric titles that continues to invite new readers into the Marvel Universe” quotes creator Jason Aaron, who emphatically notes:

This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.

Concept art for Marvel’s new Thor

Marvel is making a concerted effort to distance this character from oft-critiqued female “spinoff” superheroes. So far, so good, right? But scroll down to the comments section of that press release, or peruse the response to the announcement on your preferred social media platform, and the entrenched sexism of comic book culture quickly emerges.

If my 2013 article argued that “female fans of comic books have long felt ‘fridged,’ an audience segment kept on ice and out of view,” Marvel’s Thor announcement (especially when coupled with Marvel’s synchronized announcement that African American character Sam Wilson/The Falcon will be picking up Captain America’s shield), suggests that we might be entering to a defrosting period towards minority comic readers.  However, until this “defrosting” moves from characters to comic book creative teams and cinematic franchises, I’m hesitant to call this a win.

It’s heartening to see Marvel brass like Ryan Penagos reply to a raging geek chorus of “WTF?!” on Twitter about the Thor announcement with a curt “WTF is that we’re doing it and it’s awesome,” but it would be more heartening if Marvel would show equal commitment to hiring women or African Americans to the creative teams for their new “diversified” heroes. Because of this, and some fannish quibbling aside (the inevitable design critique of Thor’s “boob plate” armor, disappointment that Marvel didn’t instead create and invest in an original female superhero character, etc.), the Thor response from female comics fans has mostly fallen into the “hopeful, but wary” category.

This wariness, at least in part, stems from questions around how this might impact the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Chris Hemsworth, as the cinematic incarnation of the character, is contractually tied to one more Thor sequel and two more Avengers films, and has been vocal about his desire to continue playing the character).  Another key issue is that, rhetorically, these initiatives are still presented as part of an effort to “bring women” to comics, reinforcing the faulty demographic suggestion that women aren’t already reading comics or contributing to the MCU’s opening weekend box office.

There’s a cognitive dissonance emerging in comics culture: Superhero screenwriters like David S. Goyer (Batman BeginsMan of Steel) belittle She-Hulk as “a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could f–k,” while Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s stellar current run of She-Hulk comics reads like a superheroine-infused The Good Wife, focused wholly on Jennifer Walters’ law career.  We’re witnessing a moment in which a solo Wonder Woman movie remains stuck in perpetual development hell, while Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel fan club, the Carol Corps, grows ever stronger.

Per Mjölnir’s inscription, Marvel may have decided that a woman is “worthy” of Thor’s mantle, but the empowerment of female comics creators and consumers is still a long ways off.  Unfortunately, until systemic changes are made to reflect a commitment to female fans, their “worthiness” will remain a source of debate within comics culture.

Gender/Genre (or why I’m about to Hulk out on Moviefone)

02/05

We have a new, vile example of the marginalization of fangirls (or the general treatment of women as a surplus audience), courtesy of Moviefone.  I have written about the “Princess Naked” and/or “Dr. Girlfriend” gendered Comic-Con stereotypes forwarded by the popular press on this blog in the past, but articles like this one are part of a more persistent and pervasive trend.  Written by Jessie Heyman, “A Girls’ Guide to The Avengers” (since retitled “One Girl’s Guide to The Avengers,” which makes it all better, except that it doesn’t), begins with “As your boyfriend probably told you, ‘The Avengers’ is hitting theaters this Friday…” and somehow manages to go downhill from there.

In addition to reifying the generic pink ghetto (“But you hate action movies and you’ve never even read a comic book,” followed quickly by a Bridget Jones/romcom reference to make us womenfolk feel more comfortable), and offering swoony heteronormative incentives to attend (both of the “Thor’s hammer” and “feign interest to please your boyfriend” variety), the article offers the following helpful advice:

What NOT to say:
“Do you think Scarlett Johansson is pretty?”
“Oh, so it’s like the ‘New Years Eve’ of superhero movies?”
“Who could concentrate on the story with all those biceps?”
“Boys are so weird.”

What to say:
“Thank GOD someone did the Hulk correctly.”
“I can’t wait for ‘Thor 2.'”
“Joss Whedon is the man.”
“Yeah, you’re definitely Iron Man. If he were buffer.”

Now, I’m not going to quibble with the fact that the author of this article failed to decode the acronym S.H.I.E.L.D. correctly, or mistakenly identified Pepper Potts as Tony Stark’s assistant (that’s *former* assistant, thankyouverymuch).  What I will quibble with is the fact that I read one of these articles almost every damn day.  True, they’re not all as blood-boilingly heinous as this one is, but as a point of comparison, let’s go back to a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times titled “The Girls’ Guide to Comic-Con.”

Featuring a collection of blurbs from online journalists claiming that SDCC was “not just for nerdy guys anymore,” but rather a “smorgasbord for female fandemonium,” the article details 22 lures for female attendees, based on predictions about SDCC’s then-yet-to-be-released programming schedule.  Of these 22 supposed draws for female attendees, 15 (68%) revolved around the promise of “eye candy” in the form of male celebrities, 3 (14%) focused on historically “feminine” genres such as soap operas and weepies, 3 (14%) focused on television series or films featuring strong female characters, and there was 1 (4%) token example of demographic and gender neutral programming (Toy Story 3).  In the rare instances that the article acknowledged a desire for fangirls to see themselves depicted as strong women by the media industry, this “strength” was defined exclusively in terms of fashion sense (regarding the television reboot of The Witches of Eastwick…remember that?!  Of course you don’t.), and empty celebrations of “girl power” (literally empty, as Echo on Dollhouse was described as “airheady”).

Here are a few choice quotes from that article (and trust me, they’re all deeply offensive, and written by male and female journalists alike):

This is all to say that fangirls (and female audiences generally) deal with this marginalization on a daily basis, the Moviefone article is just one example of a pervasive discursive trend that has accompanied the celebration of fanboys as an emergent power demographic.  Newspaper stories put on gasping/fainting airs when it was revealed that women comprised 48% of the opening weekend audience for The Dark Knight (2008).  The articles that emerged didn’t recognize that fangirls were always already part of the “fanboy” demographic.  Rather, they framed The Dark Knight’s large female audience as an anomaly and attempted to deconstruct the film’s appeal for women.  The film’s executive producer, Thomas Tull, cited the “female appeal” and the acting pedigree of stars Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Other journalists simply wrote off the large female audience as a manifestation of “rubberneck curiosity” to see Ledger’s posthumous performance as the Joker.  The notion that fangirls had long circulated around Batman as a property was never broached as a potential explanation for the film’s success.

We wouldn’t stand for articles detailing “appropriate” careers for women, and so it’s unsurprising over the outcry over the Moviefone article, which suggests “appropriate” genres for men and women to circulate around.  Derek Johnson has done some excellent work on gendered franchising discourses, a “complex and contradictorily gendered phenomenon in which the feminized narratives of seriality [are] revalued through the economic logics of industrial rationality.”[1]  If franchises aim to position themselves as  “seemingly gender-neutral,”[2] the popular press’ coverage of them is anything but.

When I go see The Avengers this weekend (with a bunch of female friends with varying interests in comics and action films, I should note), even my soda selection at the snack bar has an opinion on whether or not I’m the intended audience:

The Dr. Pepper 10 ads have been (justifiably) criticized to death, but the “intended” audience for Marvel properties is also implicit in the majority of the partnered ads between Marvel films and Dr. Pepper.  Hey, check it out, Black Widow has been reduced to Stan Lee’s hot secretary!

A few more things:

– Go read The Discriminating Fangirl’s excellent response to the Moviefone article debacle.

– Keep getting outraged when these articles appear.  They’re not satirical, they reflect the pervasive and persistent devaluation of female spectators by media industries.  Keep tweeting and blogging and commenting (a big “Excelsior!” those commenting at Moviefone, you are all articulate, hilarious people.) and let the popular press know that this discourse is unacceptable.

– Go buy/support Womanthology, or GeekGirlCon, or go read any number of kickass blogs that deal with fan culture in a thoughtful way (I’m looking at you, The Mary Sue!)

– Congratulations, Moviefone, you’ve just made it into my book revisions (hint, it ain’t gonna be pretty…and I know that will disappoint you, because that’s how you like your ladies, pretty and silent and complacent).  Also, on behalf of female comic book fans everywhere, maybe you should stop telling us what to say and what not to say, and hold yourself accountable for what YOU do and don’t say, and stop hiding behind your crappy cardboard Capt. America shield of “satire.”


[1] Derek Johnson, “Devaluing and Revaluing Seriality: The Gendered Discourses of Media Franchising,” Media, Culture, & Society 33.7, 1080.

[2] Ibid., 1091.

“More Cowbell”: My Avengers Remix Video

30/04

You know what this toolkit needs?  More explosions.

As I noted in my prior post about Disney/Marvel’s partnership with YouTube to facilitate the creation of Avengers remix videos, it appears the available clips are changing daily, thankfully offering more character-driven clips.  When I made the video below  (full disclosure, I made this in about 5-10 min, not my finest or most contemplative work), a solid 37.5% of the available clips were all explosions, and another 40% featured men doing things to cause explosions and/or attempting to evade said explosions.  It immediately gave me flashbacks to the Battlestar Galactica videomaker toolkit, which also heavily favored things exploding/careening through space:

I’m always interested in how the clips included these “authorized” video remix toolkits suggest appropriate uses/creative directions, or which sorts of fan narratives they pointedly constrict.  My aim with this video was to reflect on those decisions:

I fully intended to go back in and spend some time making a proper video, as opposed to this dashed-off, knee-jerk response.  I hope others do the same, prodding at the boundaries of what can or can’t be created, the argumentative capacity of the toolkit, and which strains of remix culture are encouraged or elided (fan vids? parodies?  slash?  fake trailers? etc.),

To give you a sense of the editing/remixing interface:

I didn’t take full advantage off the capabilities here, as the goal was to create something quick-and-dirty that might still be contemplative about my gut response to this gesture from Marvel and Disney.  The song I selected, “Shake the Ground” by Cherri Bomb, was notably the only offering performed by women, but more importantly it struck the tone that I wanted.  Lyrically, I think it actually works fairly well as a commentary on how these “legit” fan video initiatives have a tendency to leave pre-existing vidding practices unacknowledged, or shift the form’s logics back towards the promotional visual language that the industry is comfortable with. Quoth the chorus:

I won’t do what I’m told

I will wear you break you down, take you down

Shake the ground

Your dark sun leaves me cold

I will burn it out, wear you down

Shake the ground 

The image I kept coming back to, and loop repeatedly at one point, is that of a woman being hurled against a cafe table.  The image is quite clearly about the impact of the explosion on this woman’s body, and I suppose I wanted to ruminate on the “impact” of these video remix outreach efforts on female fans and vidders in particular.  The shots of Black Widow at the end hopefully also speak to this, moving from a look of horror, to fighting back, and ultimately a reclamation of the explosion.

I also wanted to use the toolkit in an unintended or unexpected way (cutting to black before the song concludes, rhythmic repetition of images, and so on).  Given more time, I think that making metavids about the limitations of various remix video toolkits offered by the industry could function as a wonderful running commentary on how these sanctioned initiatives are (or aren’t) slowly beginning to engaging with pre-existing fan video practices and aesthetics.  Likewise, I like the idea of speaking back to those developing these spaces through the form itself.

Finally, I must point everyone to the wonderful current issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, on Fan/Remix Video.  It’s a great starting point for thinking through these industrial efforts towards authorized forms of remixing.  In particular, I had Kathleen Ann Williams’ article, “Fake and fan film trailers as incarnations of audience anticipation and desire,” in mind while playing around with the Avengers toolkit.  To pull from her conclusion:

“Although trailers are often thought of as advertising an end product, these [fan] trailers function beyond the realm of the advertisement and instead suggest that the trailer lasts beyond the release of the feature, not only as an artifact but as a cultural object that can be integrated into new spaces and as a form in which to enact desires for future texts.”

I’ll be curious to see how I respond to the aural and visual elements of my video when I see the film theatrically this weekend- I somehow doubt I’ll look at that women hitting the cafe table the same way.  The temporal experience of creating the video from promotional materials prior to being granted their narrative context is also interesting, as the videos fans are creating this week are inevitably about the the expectations and desires that have been strategically cultivated by promotional paratexts, inverting the conventional production and reception process for fan vids.

Are you planning on making anything with the Avengers video remix toolkit?  If so, please let me know, I’d be curious to hear about others’ experiences.

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.

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)

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

(more…)

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)?

San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Recap (Episode II: Attack of the Princess Naked)

27/07

Whew.  I know I promised to post this yesterday, but as you can see it got a bit…epic.  Bear with me gang, I’ll get to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel, but first a little context:

Having devoted an entire chapter of my dissertation to the “Twilight ruined Comic-Con” protests that occurred in 2009, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about SDCC as a gendered space, analyzing how gendered tensions are manifested in that space, and considering how the popular press reinforces a (false) conception of comic-con as an inherently masculine space.  In this chapter, and in various conference presentations I’ve since given on “Twihate” generally, I spend some time analyzing the implications of an illustrated sidebar from a July 25, 2008 Entertainment Weekly article that attempted to humorously outline SDCC’s consistent “Faces in the Crowd.”

The majority of the “usual suspects” here are (perhaps unsurprisingly) men, from the “Campers,” who “arrive at the convention ballrooms each morning, burrow in, and remain in their seats all day as panel after panel parades in front of them,” to the “Family Man,” an aging fan who hasn’t yet realized that “fandom isn’t genetic.”  Female SDCC attendees, meanwhile, can apparently be divided into two camps: “Princess Nakeds” (defined as a “young woman wearing nothing more than skillfully placed electrical tape”) and “Dr. Girlfriends” (defined as “friends/lover/wives of the Con faithful who have no interest in the convention but attend solely to show their support”).

Admittedly, all of the SDCC attendee archetypes outlined above perpetuate crude stereotypes about fans generally, and mock male and female fans equally.  What makes these two “fangirl” representations especially problematic for me is not the fact that they trade in old pathologies, but that they offer no real point of identification for most female SDCC attendees.  The “Princess Nakeds” are constructed as sexualized spectacles rather than fans, offering themselves up for the implied male gaze of SDCC attendees.  As discussed at length in the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel, many fangirls choose to cosplay in sexually explicit garb and claim that choice as empowering, but the fact that the “Princess Naked” is here constructed as a separate category from the “LARPer” is telling.  Even if we assume that the term “Princess Naked” is a reference to the disproportionate number of “Slave Leias” that tend to populate events like SDCC (as the accompanying caricature would suggest), the description divorces the archetype from cosplay and LARPing traditions and makes it difficult to read this (by definition, sexualized) display as a form of fan production.  Wearing her costume of “strategically placed electrical tape” (what character is this supposed to be?!?), the “Princess Naked” under this definition isn’t attempting to embody a specific character, she is simply offering herself up as a sexualized object for the fanboy gaze.  She is, in the parlance of the panel in question, simply “pandering.”

The “Dr. Girlfriend” archetype is, in some sense, far more troubling to me than the implicit alignment of the “Princess Naked” with the sexually objectified “booth babe.”  As I’m sure you’re all well aware, “Dr. Girlfriend” is a reference to a character on the cult Cartoon Network Adult Swim series The Venture Bros. (2003-present). Costumed in the retro style of Jacqueline Kennedy, and voiced by the male co-writer of the show, Doc Hammer, the clash between her hyperfeminine aesthetic and decidedly masculine aural presence has made Dr. Girlfriend one of the show’s most popular characters, and a favorite character for fangirls to cosplay.

Entertainment Weekly’s description of “Dr. Girlfriends” as unwilling attendees, tagging along after their boyfriends or husbands (the presumed “real” attendee), coupled with a caricature of a horrified-looking woman being forced to carry poster tubes and bags of merchandise, goes beyond simply failing to represent female fans.  The characterization of the “Dr. Girlfriend” subtly implies that no woman could possibly enjoy an experience at SDCC…unless, of course, she’s a “Princess Naked” exhibitionist.  Ultimately, both the “Princess Naked” and the “Dr. Girlfriend” archetypes are rooted in a binary view of female sexuality, the former hypersexualized and the latter heteronormatively coupled.  In both cases, importantly, female attendees are constructed through and defined by their male cohort’s gaze and companionship.  They are safely contained.

I do find it amusing that it looks like that sand person is managing this car wash

The “Oh, you Sexy Geek!” panel at SDCC 2011 this past Thursday was designed to take on the “Princess Naked” effect, and speak back to the accusations of “pandering” the so-called “fake fangirls” who wear these sexualized costumes (or post geek-themed pinups online, etc.) endure.  The panelists ranged from notable female geekerati bloggers and video parodists, to former Buffy big bads and reality television stars.  The lone academic presence on the panel was Jennifer Stuller, author of the recent book Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology.  At one point, Stuller joked that she was assured she wouldn’t be the only “humorless feminist” on the panel, but in general my issue wasn’t the lack of second wave feminism (I don’t expect/assume everyone to embody those values, or constantly parrot them if they do), or even the problematic/third-wave feminist definition of “empowerment” through beauty culture that seemed to hang over the panel.  No, my main issue was that this devolved into a postfeminist panel, in which feminism was invoked and then discarded as no longer necessary (or too “old fashioned,” or some form of buzzkillery we need to “get over”).  I don’t think that was the intention, but the rhetoric pointed towards those values more often than not.  In fannish terms, it all got a bit…Mary Sue.

The “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel was, in a word, disappointing.  I appreciate its presence, and credit it for setting out some ambitious conversational goals, but the bulk of the panel was weighed down with play-nice platitudes (“Who are we to judge a girl who chooses to cosplay in a skimpy outfit?”/“Everyone should feel sexy!”) and (genuinely) witty commentary at the expense of any real debate.  Many have already railed against the girl-power brand of “feminism” being touted at the panel, and apparently Bonnie Burton was openly accused of being a “bad feminist” by several disgruntled attendees.  I don’t agree with the accusation, and I definitely don’t agree with the tactic.  Better to discuss the feminisms that have always circulated around girl geek culture than to begin internally creating the same sort of hierarchies that girl geek culture has battled for decades.

Many have also justifiably expressed their disgust for Chris Gore’s “contributions” to the panel.  I’m hoping to cajole Luke Pebler into guest blogging something about the G4ification of geek culture/comic-con down the line, so I’ll save a few choice words on the appearance of Chris Gore midway through the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel for that comment thread.  If you’re looking to see what got everyone so riled up, Jennifer de Guzman and Feminist Fatale have recaps of the panel and Gore’s presence up that you should check out.  Suffice it to say that rolling into a panel that purports to empower female fans, and smarmily opening with “I would stick my penis in every single one of these ladies” is, at worst, Exhibit A of why some women continue to feel objectified and marginalized within geek culture.  At best, it was a severely lame to pander to the fanboys in the room.  Funny, how that sort of pandering never seems to get the same sort of scrutiny that this did:

The “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel was at capacity, so if/when it makes a return to SDCC in 2012, here’s what I’d be interested to see/hear:

– A more focused conversation, to avoid getting mired in generalities.  Focus on one “pandering” controversy, or one costume, and really dig in.  Take a position and argue it, propose change, something to make this a bit more concrete and constructive.

– Encourage a richer twitter backchannel…clearly there were many in the audience who felt strongly about these issues.  Announce the hashtag up front!

– Less about sexy costumes, more about the politics of DIY vs. BIY (buy-it-yourself) costuming at the con (sexy or otherwise…I’m still waiting for some badass woman to actually weld her own gold bikini).

– More from Bonnie Burton on crafting as a fan practice.  Taking a glance at her twitter feed, many a fanboy are out there seem amped to make Chewbacca finger puppets and AT-AT planters.  I think most would assume that crafting falls squarely into the realm of “women’s work,” so the success of her Star Wars Craft book with fanboys and fangirls alike could open up a nice gender neutral space in this discussion.

– More from Katrina Hill on gender/genre bias (or presumptions surrounding gender and genre).  I am a complete gore hound, horror buff, so hearing the Action Chick’s thoughts on, say, the animosity directed towards Twilight’s presence at SDCC would have been fascinating, especially considering all the complaints that Twihards only attend SDCC to ogle and sexually objectify the male stars.

– Get another academic on the panel.  This is in no way a dig at Stuller, who made some great interjections about the need for media literacy and outreach (hear hear!), but it would be useful to also have someone who is studying the gendered mainstreaming of fan/geek culture, fanboy/fangirl identities, or the evolution of SDCC as a space on the panel.  Better yet, get someone doing work on postfeminism in the media to contextualize some of these debates.

– More from the nerdybird, author of the blog “Has Boobs, Reads Comics,” as so much of the conversation seemed to hinge on a Jessica Rabbit “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn this way” defensive strategy.  Or, get a comic book creator/artist on the panel (or someone designing and drawing these costumes we’re discussing).  At the top of my personal wish list would be Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. I’d love to hear them talk about their commentary on female superhero costuming via the character of Starlight in The Boys.

– More panelist diversity in general would have made for a richer conversation.  Hell, bring in someone who has been working as a booth babe at SDCC for the past few years. We need only look to the EA “Sin to Win” controversy to see how this panel’s topic is part of a much larger marketing culture at work.  Or, bring in a girl geek who has attended the con for over a decade to anecdotally discuss how the culture around it has changed. I’d like to hear their stories, and they are absolutely part of this debate.

– Actually dress up as buildings for the next panel (…I guess you had to be there for that one).  As encouragement, check out this killer array of Tardis dresses!

I could go on, but I won’t, and before I close I want to be clear- I’ve got nothing against any of these women.  I avidly read many of their blogs and their twitter feeds, and despite the fact that my “humorless feminist” hackles were raised repeatedly over the course of the panel, the questions of identity and authenticity that the panel consistently poked at are exceedingly complex and difficult to navigate.  Authenticity debates within subculture, and studies of subculture, are nothing new.  The gendering of “authenticity” and authority in those spheres also has a long history that is difficult to cram into a single panel.

Was I disappointed that it was Seth Green (interjecting from the audience), and not one of the panelists, who finally unleashed an impressively articulate tirade about what’s been gained and lost in the mainstreaming of geek culture, and the importance of being good fan culture ambassadors (“You can’t be pandering if you’re sincere”)?  Absolutely.  Was it depressing that no one on the panel seemed to be able to muster up an example of an empowered/empowering female character to cosplay that wasn’t at least a decade old (see: Wonder Woman, Buffy)?  Terribly.   But I completely respect these women for getting up on stage and having the conversation (or even for acknowledging that these conversations need to occur more frequently in spaces like SDCC). As far as criticisms of the panel go, I have plenty, but I’m less interested in hating and more in participating in an ongoing dialogue about these issues.

As for my version of sexy cosplay solidarity…

I defy you to find someone who is more of a sexy badass than Malory Archer/Jessica Walter.

So, if you were at the panel (or on the panel), I’d really like to hear your thoughts on what you were expecting, what you walked away with, and what you’d like to see future panels along these lines tackle.  Debates about sexy cosplay, the feminisms of girl geek culture, etc. are also welcome, obviously.

Comic-Con 2011 Recap (Episode I: The Litmus Test)

25/07

This is the official kick off to my San Diego Comic-Con 2011 blogging theme week.  The goal is to post at least 3 short reflection pieces, here’s the tentative schedule:

– Tuesday: Reactions to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel on gendered geek culture, authenticity, and accusations of pandering and “bad feminism” (which, as we all know, really means “bad second wave feminism”)

– Wednesday: Considering the webcomic Axe Cop as transformative work and play

– Thursday: Swag as a signifying practice (or, why the Conan O’Brien potholder is important)

In the meantime, some initial thoughts (filtered through minor adventures in cosplay), but first a list of things I missed.  If you were at one of the following panels and would like to share insights/squees/commentary below in comments, that would be stellar!  We’ll go by day:

-THURSDAY-

11:15am (Hall H): Twilight: Breaking Dawn panel (Rumor was Twihards didn’t fill the hall, which many smugly took as a sign that A. the phenomenon was waning, or B. that Twihards had been successfully bullied out of attending the Con.)

1:00pm (26AB): Panel on digital comics (I would just be curious to hear about strategies and debates re: the turn to digital comics)

5:00pm (32AB): Buffy and LGBT Comics Fandom panel (interested to see if there was any continued debate about Buffy’s sapphic dabbling here, in particular)

-FRIDAY-

10:30am (8): Locke & Key [failed] pilot screening (purely fannish interest here, as a reader of the comic)

2:00pm (26AB): Transmedia, Comics Form, and Contemporary Adaptations

6:00pm (25ABC): Girls Gone Genre

-SATURDAY-

11:30am (Hall H): Twixt with Francis Ford Coppola (twitter lit up with discussions of Coppola editing footage on his iPad during the panel, and multiple remarks about how Coppola’s approach would “revolutionize” distribution…would love to hear accounts or be passed along links to video of this)

2:15pm (Hall H): Knights of Badassdom  (thoughts on the film’s representation of LARPers? I’m fannishly curious about this one)

5:30pm (26AB): Comics in the Classroom

-SUNDAY-

– 11:00am (7AB): Watchmen 25 Years Later

– The TV takeover of Hall H (Glee, SPN, Dr. Who)

– 2:30pm (26AB): The Culture of Comic-Con (DEVASTATED that I missed this)

…and, of course, would love to hear thoughts on other panels not listed above that you enjoyed, found interesting (professionally/academically or personally), trends in panels that you spotted, etc.

By way of introducing the themes that will undoubtedly run through my posts on Comic-Con 2011 this week, I present to you our Saturday costume (I’m saving tales of Archer cosplay for my Tuesday post):

Saturday (quasi) Cosplay: Rob and Don

Admittedly, a lazy rendition, but still evocative of their henchmen namesakes, from Frank Miller’s 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  There was a lengthy discussion about bald caps, but because we were tackling two costumes this year with limited time, we settled for this version, even though I would have loved to thrift hunt the 80s components to do a spot-on characterization:

Then again, I also dream of cutting my hair and dressing as Carrie Kelly/Robin some year...

For better or for worse, I saw this costume as something of a litmus test.

Luke (aka Rob) and I attempted to strike a balance between the canonical (Watchmen and The Killing Joke aside, I find that most who have every picked up a comic or two have at least come into contact with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns), and the obscure (Rob and Don appear in approximately 10 panels of the collected graphic novel, as the only named members of the mutant gang).  Keeping the recurring debates about fannish authenticity, the shifting promotional space and demographics of comic-con, the perils of swag culture, and whether comics are adequately represented at the con in mind, here are the results of said litmus test, by the numbers…

– Number of signs of recognition/knowing snickers from attendees passing us on the floor Saturday: approx. 3-5

– Number of drinks comped at dinner: 2 (I choose to believe that this was due to our waiter being a Frank Miller fan, rather than incompetent.  Either way, this one worked in our favor.)

– Number of conversations and pictures requested: 1

– Number of attendees who chased us down and frantically asked us which booth was giving out out glasses as swag: approx. 80-100

There’s one disheartening way to read these stats (kids these days, no sense of history, rabble rabble, the con’s turned its back on actual comics, the conspicuous consumption swag culture is ruining everything, etc.), but I’d prefer to tell you about the one guy who did recognize us, stopped us to ask for a picture, and chat.

He was late 40s/early 50s, wearing a Superman t-shirt.  He actually used the phrase “lickin chegs” within the first minute of talking to us, which aside from being an excellent fannish reference to the comic, is impressive to just casually drop into a conversation.  Here’s the best bit: the guy’s name was Don.  His best friend growing up was named Rob.  They were both huge fans of the comic and the characters.

Meeting a guy like Don is one of the many reasons I still love the experience of comic-con, despite my reservations and cynicism about particular industrial/promotional evolutions and gender-biased mutations the con has undergone over the past decade (which, I’m sure, will emerge in later posts).  For a few minutes, I got to talk comics with a fan I’ve never met and I’ll likely never see again, got to hear a bit of his story, and felt the sort of immediate kinship that can exist in fannish spaces amongst strangers.

Gearing up for San Diego Comic-Con 2011

11/07

Consider this a primer for the inevitable comic-con wrap-up(s) and reflections coming at the end of the month (I  predict I will be addressing cosplay in some detail, as the 2 different couples costumes we are prepping pose an interesting geek litmus test).  Full disclosure: I have been attending San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) for the past 5 years as a fan, not an academic.  Though I did parlay my experience of the gendered Twihate protests at SDCC 2009 into a dissertation chapter and several conference presentations, and I frequently mull over the idea of working on the shifting promotional/fan space of SDCC as my next major (read: book) project, my attendance thus far and this year is attached more firmly to the “fan” half of my “acafan” identity.  Case in point:

Though debating gains and losses of the “mainstreaming” and “industrial takeover” of SDCC has become something of a hobby for fans and bloggers, and lamenting the ballooning scope and capacity crowds is now a rite of passage, this year’s repeated registration fail seemed (at least to many on twitter) to be the death knell signaling that the “real” fans have been officially edged out by industry types and casual consumers. I finally, luckily, scored tickets from a friend with “professional” status, after spending a sum total of 10 hours on three different days trying to buy tickets through the system, and remarking somewhat melodramatically on twitter that seeing the registration confirmation page for would be like seeing the faces of the final five cylons.

All of this said, the recent release of the SDCC 2011 program suggests some significant shifts and new strategies, and I’ll be interested to see how they pan out, as both a fan and a media scholar:

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