fandebate_mod (fandebate_mod) wrote in fandebate,

Fandebate Revisited: Gendered Fan Labor in New Media and Old

Last summer's Gender and Fan Studies debate not only raiseda number of issues that all of us are still discussing but also connected a number of scholars for the first time. In its wake, Bob Rehak suggested a follow-up panel to make use of many of these contacts, revisiting the initial questions and all that had come since. The workshop "Gendered Fan Labor in New Media and Old" will be held April 25th at Console-ing Passions, and the five presenters decided to share their brief papers here with one another, potential conference goers, and everyone at fandebate.

Vidding as Cultural Narrative

(Louisa Stein)


In my conversation with Robert Jones (hosted last summer as part of the Gender Fan debates at Henry Jenkins'  blog), we compared machinima—the manipulating of videogame engines resulting in digitally animated videos--with fan vids. I had hoped that we would find moments of resonance—interconnections between these two realms of creativity that would complicate the gendered divide that is assumed to characterize each. But at the conclusion of our conversation, it seemed as if our comparison was more fracturing than not. Indeed, in the conversations on Livejournal afterward, some commenters posed the possibility that we were we were comparing apples and oranges, that machinima and fan vids/fiction etc. emerge out of different communities with different aesthetics, different value systems, and different goals, and to attempt to equate or compare them was somehow missing the point.

The conversations facilitated at Henry’s blog offered us an opportunity to complicate gendered dichotomies, to locate points of continuity that were being overlooked—or rather, missed—at conferences and in virtual and print sites of academic discourse. So, while we might do well to recognize that we can’t ignore the specific contexts for the modes of production like fan vids and machinima, I also wouldn’t want us to simply stop there. I’m glad that we have can push these questions further at Console-ing Passions.

I had originally thought to discuss a specific mode of creative production that seems to explode the divide: fanvids—made with a pairing-oriented, romantically inclined aesthetic which we can clearly link to traditions of fan community vidding—but made through games like The Sims and Final Fantasy. But I’ve decided it might be more useful, rather than look at what some might consider an exception, to more broadly address the role played by community-specific aesthetics and value systems in our impulse to analyze, draw attention to, and in some ways canonize an entire mode of creativity—fan vidding as a whole. So while I return then to the predominantly female-authorship space of vidding, I do so informed by a larger contextualizing of vidding in the contemporary moment of user-end digital media production.

My conversation with Robert was rife with questions of transformation and hints of notions of originality and active engagement. Machinima is at least partially defined by the fact that Machinima-makers may alter the game engine itself in order to produce their films. Thus we have an emphasis on (and tacit endorsement of) transformation as active engagement; Machinima artists transform the game engine itself, to tailor it to their production needs.

Since the gender fan debates, transformation has been a term/notion brought to the fore by the Organization for Transformative Works, the new non-profit organization designed to document, archive, and fight legal battles on behalf of modes of fan creativity. While OTW is an important step forward for fans, it is definitely worth noting that—for legal reasons and beyond—fan works are now being celebrated also because of their transformative value. This aligns neatly with academic uses of fandom in the past, which saw fans as examples of negotiative or resistive viewers of popular culture who could rework commercial media in unexpected and creative—transformative—ways.
Thus, in many vids and in much of vidding culture we can find evidence of a value set (or value sets) that resonates well with academic/critical concerns; we can recognize this affinity especially in vids and vidding meta that emphasizes transformation via slash such as "Closer", and via creative uses of interface such as in Lim’s “Us” and other vids like it that use interfaces like Premiere and Final Cut Pro in unexpected ways.

But other values within vidding culture are not necessarily so transformative—of dominant hegemonic cultural values or of the source text. Indeed, within vidding culture (meaning here the community fans that are as much fans of vidding as an art form as they are of any given commercial media text) there are aesthetic values that aren’t about transformation or transgression, such as careful editing to rhythms, movement continuity, etc. And the vidding community also celebrates an auteurism that is to a degree out of fashion in academia (at least in critical thought—not so much in publication and marketing of books and courses.) Indeed, vidding cultures’ canonization of certain vidders and vids is tied up in notions of transformation, originality, and individual/auterist creativity.

How does this impact what vids we as academics study--what vids we choose to show, to analyze, to herald? And what about how we frame those vids, what dimensions we choose to highlight and interrogate? The past few months have seen vidding recognized and lauded in academic and mainstream culture, with celebratory focus around certain vids and vidders. Sisabet and Luminosity’s vid, "Women’s Work," has been heralded for the critical eye it brings to gendered politics in Supernatural, and Luminosity was praised by New York Magazine, for her “meticulously crafted videos.” The article’s subtitle proclaimed “Luminosity upgrades fan videos.”

Now, I myself am long time fan of Luminosity—indeed, she provided my original introduction to the world of vidding. But, as I’ve written about in my blog, I find myself concerned about the impact of such auteurist discourse and the unspoken value assumptions that go with it (a celebration of meticulous crafting, or the notion that fan videos need to be upgraded to be worthy of public attention). Similarly, the necessary emphasis on “transformation” by OTW delineates and potentially limits what modes of fan creativity can be highlighted for celebration, archiving, and protection. Ironically (but not coincidentally), the history of vidding that emerges celebrates originality and auterist authorship, thus mirroring the celebratory (masculinist?) discourses surrounding Machinima.

What may we miss as we mainstream vidding only in prescribed ways, in ways resonant with popular perceptions of quality and originality, or with academic perceptions of transgression and resistance? What about the vids that come out of less studied communities, communities less concerned with professionalism, in which other values reign?

When I show vids to my students, I find myself facing these issues of representation by selection. If I show a wide range of vids, students wonder why we’re looking at “unprofessional” productions. Indeed, students are so startled by the concept of vidding, and often so resistive to the very notion, that in order to win them over, I find myself wanting to show the most polished and progressive vids, rather than a full spectrum of the types of vids that emerge from diverse fan communities. And when I write about vids for a conference paper, I face similar choices: do I spend time with the vids that illustrate the dimensions of vidding most validated within an academic sphere, for example complexity and self-reflexivity?

The attention being brought to fan production is past due, and OTW will play a vital role in defending fan aesthetics and fan creations from legal battles and from falling into the silences of ephemeral, unrecorded cultural history. But—as fans and as academics—as we publicize and as we teach fan communities and fan production, the strategic choices that we make, the carefully focused lens we bring to bear on the diversity of fan production, may influence not only the public perception of fan culture, but possibly, to some degree at least, fan culture itself. I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this paradox, but I’d caution us to be mindful of the narratives that we strategically create in our roles as teachers and cultural ambassadors.


The L Word: Labors of Love

(Julie Levin Russo)


One of the most prevalent and persistent critiques raised throughout the Gender and Fan Culture series was of the self-fulfilling reification of its founding binary: fangirls vs. fanboys. This opposition frames both fan and acafan activity in monolithic terms that make it more difficult to keep in view the nuances of a highly diverse and dynamic field. In practice, the labels function as an inconsistent and overdetermined shorthand for an array of continuums that diagnose variations in fan participation:
corporate economy <---> gift economy
consuming <---> producing
derivative <---> transformative
"as is" <---> "creative" (Anne Kustritz)
closure <---> openness
knowledge <---> relationships
heteronormative <---> queer
mainstream <---> subcultural
semi-public <---> semi-private
individual <---> community
casual/watercooler <---> fanatical
These dimensions are all gendered to differing degrees, ideologically and/or empirically, and are also raced, classed, nationalized, etc. in a tangled web that underlines the need to model fandom in terms of multiple axes of engagement rather than a singular binary. In the case of the acafan contributors to the project, the oppositional framework reduced our differences quite literally to men vs. women, when our relative privilege may be as much affected by age, race, disciplinary focus, institutional background, and online footprint.

Nonetheless, I want to register a defense of the fangirl/fanboy terminology on the grounds that we have, as yet, no updated taxonomy to supplant it. It's true that mobilizing this idiom in relation to the heterogeneity of fan activity risks imprecision and oversimplification. However, it is irreplaceable as an abbreviation for disparities that we have collectively come to recognize as infused with gendered inequality. My concern is that the impulse to "move beyond" this binary could lead us away from this attention to power and into a more insidiously "neutral" map of our diverse fannish and academic pursuits.

As an experiment in how our familiar opposition could serve as a touchstone within complexity, I'd like to discuss The L Word fandom. I cannot avoid this artifact in my work on femslash in the context of convergence, but it is largely distinct from the LiveJournal-based creative communities that we most often reference as fangirl territory. The show's official partner site OurChart.com succeeds in stimulating participation that far exceeds the phenomenon's LJ presence. OurChart, which features staff-produced blogs and video that front-load a rudimentary social network, courts its users primarily via its insiderish tone and promise of interaction with the creators of this sponsored content. The texture of fan activity here is thus in some ways closer to what we would identify as a fanboy mode in its emphasis on access to authoritative voices and on commentary over creativity. The theme of these voices and commentary, though, is a quintessentially fangirlish obsession: the soap operatic web of intimate relationships spanning both sides of the screen (the very "chart" that OurChart materializes to frame its own mission).

Moreover, the venture bills itself as a "site where women can connect," disputing whether we can question the fangirl status of a female practice while simultaneously effacing the importance of male viewers to The L Word's relative success as a franchise. Finally, while L Word fandom is undoubtedly gay-focused, its rendition of same-sex relationships rests on homonormative constructions of fixed lesbian identity and of correspondence between characters' and viewers' gender and sexuality. Thus, as a queer formation, it may be far more different from slash fandom than their shared nucleus of gay romance might suggest, raising the question of what possibilities and/or limits come with textual vs. subtextual systems of representation. Precisely because of the evident complexity of this multidimensional artifact, I fear that without some taxonomy in the guise of fangirl and fanboy formulas we lose any comparative purchase for situating it within the gendered landscape of fan activity.

With this landscape in view, I'd like to explore one of its vectors in particular: the tension between capitalist and anti-capitalist models of production within and around fandom. In the course of the Gender and Fan Culture series, concerns surfaced about the gendered ramifications of a system that too often recognizes money as the sole benchmark of legitimacy, exalting historically male-dominated genres that are more easily defensible as "original" or "transformative" rather than "derivative" works, and assuming professionalization as the implied goal of amateur creativity. Abigail Derecho also crucially pointed out the articulation between sexism and racism in the suspicion and suppression of remix art, encouraging us to appreciate the privilege necessary to support a gift economy where labor is leisure. Fangirldom's defining commitment to a non-commercial regime of value and recognition here butts up against its converse feminist utopia: the "old girls network," wherein the skills developed through female mentorship can be parleyed into financial success within the media industry.

It is the latter fantasy that The L Word plays on with its fan-written script contests, coordinated by the much-reviled company FanLib. The first round of this ongoing initiative featured in an important 2006 Wall Street Journal article about pathways from fan to pro authorship (tellingly, it profiles the only man among eight winners). In the introduction to the resulting "fanisode," a season-bridging virtual episode presented as a slick PDF zine, L Word showrunner and OurChart CEO Ilene Chaikin celebrated the involvement of the program's fans, who "came at us enthusiastically with your reactions, your objections, your ideas, passions, preferences and opinions as to whether or not we were adequately and authentically representing the way that we live"; certainly this ideology of "authentic representation" is at least part of what motivates TPTB to develop a platform for fan community and creativity that fosters expanding engagement with industrial media production. That is, I presume that the forces behind OurChart genuinely believe that a corporate framework is not only compatible with but necessary to the political project of lesbian visibility. However, the price of this brand of visibility is to render lesbian identity as a reified commodity that can be packaged and sold, not only by the industry but by each contest participant and each OurChart member. This is perhaps the inverse of the concern expressed by Kristina Busse that the queerer aspects of fan culture will become increasingly marginalized and vulnerable in the course of its "mainstreaming": what if, on the contrary, slash or its ilk turns out to be commodifiable after all? What generates and sustains the moral economy of non-commercial fan production and, given the unavoidable intimacy of fandom with corporate media, what is the logic and value of this anti-capitalist stance?

Such issues surrounding the shifting articulation between fandom and commerce also resonate for acafandom itself. Paralleling the internet-savvy and fan-positive architects of OurChart, some scholars hold that the most effective fan advocacy lies in working with the industry to devise opportunities for participation that can cultivate both fan creativity and corporate profits. Others, myself included, would counter that there are irreconcilable differences between corporate and fan economies that it is vital to foreground and preserve. These divergent perspectives intersect the hierarchies of academia, since possibilities for institutional recognition and advancement depend on the allocation of limited funding, which can echo the same money model of legitimacy with which fans must contend. Keeping in view the variance between fanboys and fangirls, however impure and imprecise, along with the other axes of inequality that crisscross this terrain, can remind us that we are engaged in a process of struggle over media futures whose outcome is not yet determined.


From Filk to Wrock: Performance, Professionalism, and Power in Harry Potter Wizard Rock

(Suzanne Scott)


As the debates strived to complicate essentialist constructions of fan labor (e.g. machinima is demarcated as "masculine," while fanfic is "feminine") and gendered presumptions about what motivates this labor, I wanted to shine a critical light on filking, a form of fan production neglected locally in the debates and globally in fan studies. Devoting a chapter to filk in his 1992 book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins framed filk’s collaborative creation and performance of science fiction fandom-inspired folk songs as one of the most textually and demographically diverse and open forms of fan production. Stressing the fact that men and women play "equally prominent roles within filk" (Jenkins 253), Jenkins’ description of the filksing as an environment where there is “no formal separation between performance space and spectator space" (Jenkins 256) would suggest it as a utopian exception to strictly gendered definitions of fan production and an idyllic display of fan community and camaraderie, a reflection of its folk ideology and a precursor to our current fascination with open narratives and remix culture.

Moving from Jenkins’ survey of filking at fan conventions in 1989 to the current Wizard Rock movement in Harry Potter fandom, it’s tempting to view wrock simply as evolved filk for the MySpace age, though a number of factors trouble such a reading. First, wrock is primarily downloaded/purchased and consumed privately. When it is performed publicly, wrock songs mimic a formal performer/audience relationship rather than striving to collapse the binary to establish a democratic, spontaneous creative enterprise. In other words, the practice is returned to a far more passive consumption model than the participatory, "open and fluid" (Jenkins 258) filking model Jenkins described. Second, these reinscribed boundaries between performer and audience have been similarly reinforced along gender lines. The female pop-punk group The Switchblade Kittens was the first to compose a wizard rock song with their "Ode to Harry" in 2000, but Harry and the Potters (founded by brothers Paul and Joe DeGeorge) are cited with officially kicking off the wizard rock movement with their self-titled debut album in 2003. Currently there are hundreds of wizard rock bands producing and distributing Harry Potter-themed music, but the most popular, visible and lucrative wizard rock bands have been founded by white men in their 20s, and their fans are predominantly female. Matt Maggiacomo of The Whomping Willows offers a candid survey of this gender imbalance in his aptly titled wrock song Wizard Rock Heart Throb:
About a year ago I played my first rock show
I was feeling kinda nervous about how it would go
And so I talked to my rock star friend, Draco.
And he said, "Hey man, don’t fret.
Cause wizard rock fans are the sweetest bunch of fans,
And most of them are girls and you’re basically a man.
So get out there killer and rock it like you can,"
And so that’s what I did.
It soon became clear that rocking wasn’t enough
If you’re gonna score with groupies then you gotta be a hunk.
You can’t get by with overwhelming talent alone
And man, that’s all I got. Man, that’s all I got.
What follows is a self-effacing comparison of his "cuteness" to his fellow wrock stars and, while the song aims for a satiric tone, it’s fundamentally true: being "basically a man" is enough to garner a solid fan base. Just as Jenkins expressed concern that the commercialization of filk might force it to become "more hierarchical due to the push towards professional standards," thereby creating a "star system" (Jenkins 275) in lieu of filk’s unique egalitarianism, I worry that wrock functions as a regressive example of the gendered taxonomies the debates sought to debunk. As there’s little discernable difference in terms of musical quality and content between popular male wrockers and their marginalized female counterparts, I’m forced to confront the complicity of female wrock fans (myself included) in perpetuating this imbalance and left with a disconcerting chicken/egg scenario where the fangirl gives birth to the male wrock star, and her agency is tied up solely in helping that star to rise. While we’ve moved beyond the pathologized portrait of hysterical fangirls in the throes of Beatlemania, and the average wrock fan certainly doesn’t embody the writhing cliché of a heavy metal groupie, the fact remains that the small collective of male wrock stars who have attained status and power within the female fan community (most prominently Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, The Remus Lupins, and The Whomping Willows) function as small-scale boy bands: selling CDs and merchandise, embarking on national tours, and performing sold-out concerts at conventions to hundreds of screaming fangirls.

The central issue here is professionalism and the ongoing debates around which fans seek it, which forms of fan labor encourage/discourage it, and why, as Kristina Busse notes, it remains such a loaded word in both fandom and academia. I found the caveat to Francesca Coppa’s concern that convergence culture holds the potential to further marginalize female fans and their textual production especially striking: "In the end, my lovingly crafted fanwork is not your marketing team's 'user-generated content.'" As fandom is mainstreamed and its practices are appropriated for the purposes of viral marketing, our increasingly murky distinctions between the professional and the amateur are defined by visibility (or invisibility, as many of the debate’s female scholars addressed fan production as a form of "women’s work"). Or, to put it another way, visibility is increasingly how fans determine who is granted professional or star status within fan communities and, by extension, who gets studied by acafans and what fan texts gain a degree of mainstream status. In a fandom as overwhelmingly populist and sprawling as Harry Potter’s, or even in this specific case of widespread wizard rock subculture within HP fandom, visibility and the hierarchy of fan texts it encourages is a necessary evil. I’m aware that my limited discussion of male wrock stars today has reinforced their visibility, contributing to this paradigm and obscuring how these popular wrock bands embody the folk ideology outlined by Jenkins, promoting literacy and other philanthropic causes through their formation of the HP Alliance. Surely Matt, who you heard earlier, would root himself firmly in the "fangirl" camp, lovingly constructing his wrock songs as Coppa does her fantexts, vocally touting the DIY ethos of the wrock community and contesting any capitalist agenda. That said, much of the burden rests on the fan community itself, and by extension us as aca-fen, to interrogate how fan texts become visible and how this visibility tends to lead to the commodification of fan production. In the case of wizard rock, we also need to acknowledge that fangirls, rather than fanboys, are the group that constructs these male wrock stars as "professionals" and relegates their female counterparts to "amateur" status.


Boys, Blueprints, and Boundaries

(Bob Rehak)


The recent legal dispute between J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, and Steven Vander Ark, a Michigan librarian who has compiled an internet guide to the Harry Potter “universe,” raises many interesting questions about copyright, authorial power, and what might be called a double standard of contemporary media production in which potentially infringing online publication is tolerated, even welcomed, by copyright holders, while the equivalent publication in print form is energetically resisted. But viewed through the lenses of fandom and gender, the Rowling / Vander Ark case illuminates another and much older conundrum, consisting of a linked pair of problematic binaries. On one hand, there is the contrast between fan-produced materials which creatively transform an original work (like fanfic, slash, vidding, filksongs, and artwork) and those which “merely” document, map, or archive the original work (like concordances, episode guides, blueprints, and technical manuals). On the other hand, there is the apparent gender split between the traditionally female fans who produce work considered to be transformative, and male fans whose productivity tends instead toward the technical and archival. The relationship between male fans and what I will call “blueprint culture” is the subject of this short paper, in which I consider gendered fan labor as it is manifested in fantasy and history; ways of rethinking this labor as creative and transformative; and current trends that reflect the growing impact of blueprint culture in both industrial and academic domains.

As Julie Levin Russo notes in her paper for this workshop, the articulation of “fanboys” to certain fields of activity (like, in this case, map- and blueprint-making) reinscribes tired oppositions that too often pass without critical scrutiny: derivative vs. transformative, consumptive vs. productive, closed vs. open, knowledge-centered vs. relationship-centered, individual vs. communal, and so on. While I am aware of the risk of reifying essentialist notions of male and female fan identities through stereotyped generalizations, it is hard to ignore the gendered binary sketched out over several decades of fan history. Some of this stems from media representations: Vander Ark, a man in his fifties, has been frequently contrasted in news coverage to the younger, female Rowling, in terms that subtly reinscribe the association between a “natural” feminine creativity and a rather creepy and obsessive masculine “collector” of dry facts. In a more positive but equally gender-specific light, one might also consider Brandon (Justin Long), the leader of the fan club in Galaxy Quest (Roger Nygard, 1999), whose room is filled with model kits and action figures based on his beloved science-fiction series, and whose computerized blueprints and prop communicator play a key role in saving the day when they are “brought to life” by being proved relevant – that is, indexically valid – to alien artifacts built to the exacting specifications of a TV show’s diegesis.

The meta-referent of Galaxy Quest is, of course, Star Trek, particularly the original series aired between 1966 and 1969. If the now forty-year-old-plus franchise has fallen on hard times, it is nonetheless difficult to dispute its importance to the rise of contemporary media fandom, as well as to the stereotypes surrounding it. Indeed, the twin histories of fan stereotypes and fan studies converge in the 1986 Saturday Night Live skit with which Henry Jenkins opens his canonical Textual Poachers (1992): guest star William Shatner addresses a convention of awed Trek fans, whose slavish devotion to fictional minutiae drive Shatner to shout, “Get a life! It’s just a TV show!” While Jenkins uses this joke as a springboard to discuss the marginalization of fandom as a monolithic group, it should not escape our attention that, encoded into the sketch’s very mise-en-scene is evidence of blueprint culture, from layouts of the Enterprise bridge hung on the walls to the pointed Spock ears worn by Jon Lovitz. Importantly, there are few if any female fans in the sketch, and the questions directed at Shatner are entirely of the “What was the combination to Kirk’s safe?” variety. Thus, Jenkins overlooks a paradoxical second erasure of fan identity – the elision of the fic-writing, vid-making, predominantly female fans on whom the rest of Textual Poachers centers – while letting pass without comment a specifically masculinized portrait of fan activity as geekily obsessed with “trivia” such as starship layout and series continuity.

This is not to suggest that blueprint culture or the mindset associated with it is an exclusively male domain. The first unofficial reference guide to Star Trek, a fan publication that appeared in 1968, was the work of a female fan, Dorothy Jones Heydt, and was later adopted into a “Concordance” by Bjo Trimble, a woman central to the first wave of Star Trek fandom in the 1970s. The Concordance contained episode guides as well as fan sketches reproducing ships and characters from the series, and was arguably a different creature, in its documentary intent, than the fanfic written at the same time (although there was certainly crossover between the creative labor pools). The real dawn of blueprint culture, however, was the publication in 1975 of Franz Joseph’s General Plans, a set of twelve blueprints “showing every detail of every deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise.” Along with the Technical Manual published shortly thereafter, Joseph’s books launched a wave of fan-produced blueprints of ships, devices, costumes, and insignia – not just for the Star Trek universe, but for series such as Space: 1999 and films such as Star Wars.

Joseph’s artwork, first privately produced at the request of his daughter Karen, later sold under limited license at conventions, and finally released under the Ballantine Books imprint (a subsidiary of Paramount, Trek’s corporate owner), was a huge best-seller, outstripping the Star Trek novels by James Blish that had theretofore been the only commercial tie-in publication. More importantly, the General Plans and Technical Manual were formatted as industrial designs, dropping all pretense of narrative and character and focused solely on documenting the “future history” provided in pieces by Trek’s 79 episodes. In this sense, they marked the emergence of a movement which treated the world of the fiction as equal in importance (if not more so) than the stories told within it: a dictionary of the langue rather than a record of the parole. Blueprint culture formed the nucleus of mass-market efforts to expand and detail the storyworlds of franchise fictions, with blueprints, technical layouts, star charts and the like proliferating at the paratextual boundaries of the new Trek motion pictures and TV series which sustained the franchise throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The goal of keeping this paper to a brief overview prevents me from delving deeply into the many issues raised by blueprint culture, but I will at least touch on them here. First, as the Harry Potter lawsuit demonstrates, legal consensus around “transformative work” is challenged by activity which reorders, rather than reworks, a mass-produced text. The uncertain legal status of the Harry Potter Lexicon attests to the difficulty of distinguishing between an official, if fragmented, presentation of a storyworld and its comprehensive cataloging in fan publications. Yet when viewed closely, the blueprint culture around Star Trek has frequently extended its parent text, inventing new starships, drafting political documents like the charter of the United Federation of Planets, and hypothesizing refinements to warp field technologies. Nothing in the parent text is rejected – in blueprint culture, canon is law – but embroidery can and should occur in the process of filling out the storyworld’s edges and knitting together its inconsistencies.

Second, we might consider the overtly friendly relationship between the official authors and owners of Trek and the blueprinters. Harry Potter may be a special case because of Rowling’s singular aura of authorship, but Trek has always been something of a foster child, passed among many different writers, designers, and showrunners (under the watchful eye of Gene Roddenberry and his heirs, of course). From the mid-70s onward, it was clear that blueprint culture was tolerated, even encouraged, by Paramount, in much the same way that later Trek TV series maintained an open script-submission policy. Fanfic transgresses, but blueprints comply and collaborate in the construction of diegetic integrity and brand extension. I would suggest that a related effect can be seen in the academy, where the recent reinvention of fan studies in the discourse of “transmedia storytelling” reflects an embrace of fictional worldmaking in tandem with corporate interests. The reworking of official texts so often relegated to marginal practices have again been marginalized, in favor of enhanced visibility for production designers, special-effects artists, videogame makers, and other forms of creative labor co-opted profitably into an ever-expanding landscape of transmedia “extensions.”

Finally, we are left with the question of gender: what to do with the inescapable sense, whether a product of perception or reality, that male fans gravitate toward activities that uphold and extend the essence and ideology of the parent text, rather than divering from it and working “against the grain.” In this discussion I have left aside the question of heteronormative identity and whether blueprint culture can ever be seen as an example of “queering”; I suspect the answer is by definition no. What seems clear to me is that blueprint culture is an important and ongoing strand of fan activity which deserves critical scrutiny as much as any other domain of fan labor, and that it involves gendered positions within, and attitudes toward, the text that urgently need theorizing.

A collection of blueprints both “official” and “unofficial” can be found at the Star Trek LCARS Blueprint Database, http://www.cygnus-x1.net/links/lcars/blueprints-main2.php.


Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps

(Sam Ford)


I came to the Gender and Fan Studies/Culture dialogue on LiveJournal and Henry Jenkins' blog from both ends of the producer/consumer scholarship binaries often posed in the discussion. On the one hand, I work for a group called the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, which converses with media corporations to look at the intersection between media producers and audiences. On the other, my primary areas of research interest have come from studying the ways in which fans reappropriate media texts in their own performances and discussions, often in ways that run counter to the interests, or at least irrelevant of the interests, of bottom-line driven corporate endeavors.

I also felt some kinship to both sides of the gender divisions being discussed in the debate. On the one hand, my work on professional wrestling occupies a place between sports fandom and media fandom--two worlds that have strangely been separated in academic discourse, as Kimberly Schimmel, Lee Harrington, and Denise Bielby have researched recently. Pro wrestling has often been criticized as "hypermasculine," while my other research interest--soap operas--has often been derided and ghettoized in popular culture in many ways because of its rich history of primarily female authorship, a feminine narrative perspective, and a largely female fan base. For me--as a lifelong fan of both professional wrestling and soaps--I saw great connections between the two, connections I have written about as dealing with the immersiveness of the narrative worlds of both texts.

I was interested in participating in last summer's fan studies discussion because I felt the fan communities I study and participate in--two media forms that are perhaps even more explicitly gendered than most--were not only marginalized in part because of that gendered-ness, but also because of a cultural taste hierarchy in class divisions, regionalism, and long-standing cultural biases about how to value of affective aesthetics--especially in terms of the excess of emotion both pro wrestling and soaps are known (and often stereotyped) for.

With this provocation in particular, I am directing my attention at an area of pro wrestling and soap opera fandom that is particularly problematic: the logic of the target demographic. As media scholars, we understand that advertising-supported media producers are in the primary business not of selling content to audiences but rather selling audiences to advertisers; in particular, they are not selling all audience members to advertisers but rather certain audience members who are understood to have particular value. This notion of the target demographic shapes--and often distorts--the relationships among producers and consumers.

The target demographic has a deep history in advertising logic, but the focus on the teenage and young adult demographic in particular can be traced, in part, back to the 1970s tactic of ABC to try and beat out the more popular CBS and NBC with a new bragging right: that it boasted the highest number of the lucrative baby boomer youth market. Ever since, television has focused its advertising model around the 18-34 and, more broadly, 18-49 demographic. Amanda Lotz' most recent research looks at how industry lore often stays in place until something comes along to challenge it, and the logic behind the mid-1970s focus on a young boomer demographic has held its place, even as that boomer population is now moving into 50+ territory, where they often no longer have economic value, according to industry logic. I'm interested in this "valuing fans" discussion inasmuch as it impacts the fans of media franchises and the texts that are created within this industry logic. The industry logic breaks down when looking at immersive story worlds like the WWE or soap operas, developed to be "worlds without end," franchises that are transgenerational in nature.

In the case of pro wrestling, the WWE's popular television shows--Monday Night Raw, ECW, and Friday Night Smackdown target a young adult male and teenage audience. Advertisers expect this audience, and the shows position their texts to presumably appeal to heterosexual U.S. young men in particular, despite the fact that some estimates have WWE audiences at 30 percent to 40 percent female, the average age of the WWE's fan base is older than the target demographic, and WWE's international popularity often helps bolster flagging enthusiasm in this country.

This economic marginalization can lead to great creativity among pro wrestling fans excluded from the debate--see scholarship, for instance, about how Latino-American children interpret the WWE narrative from Ellen Seiter, Sue Clerc and Catherine Salmon's work on pro wrestling slash, and Brian Pronger's writing about pro wrestling from the standpoint of a gay spectator. However, it also leads to great frustration among female fans who want stronger female wrestling characters, older wrestling fans who want "more traditional" wrestling fare, homosexual wrestling fans who want greater diversity in how masculinity is defined, and among transgenerational families who want the WWE product to be "more family-friendly."

After all, the basic storyline of a professional wrestling match is not necessarily suited particularly for young adult males, and the history of pro wrestling emphasizes a diversity of potential audiences for wrestling, such as Chad Dell's work on 1950s female wrestling fan communities. Before the WWE's national expansion in the mid-1980s (with an emphasis on appealing to male children at the time), wrestling television programming was thought of primarily as a way to get fans to come to live events. Since these shows were viewed as the advertisement rather than the product, wrestling promoters had much less necessity to narrow the focus of who their primary audience would be.

However, when it comes to buying pay-per-views, DVD, subscriptions to the WWE 24/7 VOD channel, merchandise, tickets to live events, etc., the age and gender of the consumer is no longer an issue--only their discretionary income. Thus, while the logic of the television industry has altered the way pro wrestling tells its stories, the WWE still exists as much more than only a television text, and this "transmediation" of the narrative means the company has economic reasons to value its "surplus audiences."

Perhaps even more frustrated, then, are soap opera fans. Soap opera producers sell the 18-49 female demographic more broadly, and the 18-34 female demographic in particular, to advertisers. Further, since soap operas primarily only exist as a daily television show, there are few economic forces counterbalancing the pervading "logic" of the target demographic, thus leading "the powers that be" (or "the idiots in charge," as soap opera fans more often refer to them) to constantly try to develop stories, and feature characters most prominently, that they believe will play well to the target demo. Since soap opera ratings have been falling steadily for the past 15-20 years, soaps have responded by trying to even more expressly target the target demo. However, the problem with that logic is that it directly defies the transgenerational nature of the narrative itself.

I have found anecdotally that almost all longtime soap opera fans began their relationship with the text of these shows through relationships with other fans. Often, this has been a transgenerational relationship. A grandmother, a mother, an uncle, or a babysitter watched soaps regularly, and the fan grew up with these same soap operas on. Thus, it is the longtime characters that have remained the glue holding them to the show, and it is the relationships built around the show--or the memories of these relationships, for loved ones who have passed away--that keeps them watching today. For more on this appeal, see Lee Harrington and Denise Brothers-McPhail's latest project on aging in soaps, as well as some of the work from Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata at Project Daytime.

That same logic extends to online fan communities around soap operas, where fan discussion boards are energized by conversations across multiple age and gender demographics that position these shows as "social texts" which help drive ongoing discussion among a group that have formed social bonds over time, based in part because of their common interests in these soaps. With the daily nature of the text, and no off-season, these "worlds without end" then give a continuous supply of "official material" that then drives rich fan interpretation, commentary, analysis, parody, speculation, education, and so on. See Nancy Baym's work on the variety of ways these fan communities interact, for instance.

Many of the current economic problems of the soap opera industry might be explained by adhering too closely to this target demographic audience that gave no economic valuation to female viewers over 50, male viewers, etc., and thus ultimately marginalized their interests, for the sake of appealing only to a certain age group of female viewers. As these texts moved on, however, these shows constantly had to "re-market" themselves to a new set of young adult females, thus alienating the previous group of new fans, creating a cycle of continuously alienating fans once they chose to make a long-term commitment to watching the show.

In the process of trying to garner the right kind of fan to sell to advertisers, then, the industry managed to eliminate the very fan community support system that helped "gain and maintain" lasting fans for these shows, by defying the transgenerational nature of soap opera fandom and by undercutting the value placed on "community" which has long been at the heart of soap opera texts and soap opera fans.

My hope is that, by bringing these particular "masculine" and "feminine" texts--and their fan communities--into the conversation, we can better understand the industrial "logics" that shape and distort the way these texts are understood and gendered and how fans continue to build relationships and define their relationship to the texts and these shows' producers in light of those economic pressures.
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