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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Though theoretically this blog is a place to preview things I’m working on, it hasn’t ever been so far. However, in a week when no current events or pop culture topics stand out to me (though as Bradley Manning’s Gender Identity Disorder defense broke this morning, too late to blog, I was nevertheless tempted), and I’m going to be traveling on Blog Thursday anyway, I thought I’d give it a go.

I’ve recently finished reading two very smart dissertations, Julie Levin Russo‘s Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities and Suzanne Scott‘s Revenge of the Fanboy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.

These are scholars I personally know and respect and thinkers after my own heart. So much after my own heart, in fact, that my reading of their dissertations was punctuated by bouts of fear that one or the other of them—or both!—had already written what I wanted to say in mine.

Both are interested in the interface of fandom and industry, like me. They are wary, rather than uncritically enthusiastic, about the impact of digital technology, like me. They are concerned about the role of capital in contemporary fandom, especially as labor—like me. Among the objects in all three dissertations is Battlestar Galactica’s website and video maker. That’s a lot in common.

And, I suppose I could look at it as: If three dissertations, produced across the country (East Coast, West Coast, Midwest), with no more than minimal collegial interaction (like, I had already planned to look at certain issues before I got around to doing this reading, and we haven’t really discussed it—maybe Julie and Suzanne were in closer touch), are doing this work, then maybe that means it’s just time for these questions to be asked.

But I don’t entirely have the luxury of just celebrating the fact that other people have noticed the things I care about. The scholarly project, as currently defined in the U.S. anyway, is to produce something new, that no one has said, and differentiate it from what people have said before. For my dissertation to be seen as valid, then, it has to be different from Julie and Suzanne, so when those moments of “OMG, she wrote my dissertation!” came over me, I would take a moment to figure out how I differed.

Here’s what I came up with.

I am, first, way more of a Foucaultian than either of them. What I find interesting about contemporary practices of “embracing” fandom (or, at least, how I frame it) is the way that the waning of repressive power—saying “no” through cease-and-desists, say—looks like no power at all. But of course it still is power. It’s just productive power—inciting and normalizing certain behaviors and practices, and in so doing producing fandom.

To those whose behavior is incited and within the norm, it looks like a free-for-all, but at the margins—often produced through gender (Scott) and sexuality (Russo)—the seams show. We scholars can see around the edges, then (and so can some fans, to provisionally accept a standpoint, “the oppressed can see the system better” argument that I’m not sure I totally buy).

Recognizing, then, that what’s in that middle, normative space is constructed and partial and benefits industry/capital way more than fans, if the cultural status of fandom has shifted in the internet era, what is it now? How does mainstream American culture make sense of this concept “fan”?

When we see fans on our television or cinema screens, who are they and what do they do? If they’re no longer automatically murderers (which I’ll be the first to admit is an improvement), that doesn’t mean that what they are now doesn’t matter—so what’s the meaning of this concept that we see representationally constructed?

When industry extends a hand to fans, who do they reach out to? What do they invite them to do? What do they think a fan is? And, with the much-vaunted capacity of the internet to make things possible, what actually becomes a possibility? When industry invites fans to come play, what does that consist of? What do official websites afford or not afford, and how is that implicitly an argument about who fans are and what they do?

Rather than looking at specific texts or cultures of fandom, as Russo and Scott do (exceedingly well), my aim is to assess the cultural field of meaning surrounding the idea “fan” by tracing how it gets deployed across the mediascape in fictional and nonfictional representation and by industry in web design and their own conceptualization of the term.

And rather than asking how industry practice matches up (or doesn’t) to existing fandoms, I turn the question a different direction: With this productive power, what is “fan” being produced as?

And that seems different enough, and to produce enough of a different set of knowledge, to be worth doing despite the great things that have already been done.

On Wednesday, December 6, 2012, at 5:44am, a white guy leapt on a South Asian man in the train station in Champaign, IL, shouting something about this being his (the white guy’s) country—exact verbiage hasn’t been clear.

The white guy, identified by local news outlet the News-Gazette as 23-year-old Joshua Scaggs of Fithian, IL, then proceeded to choke the non-white guy, identified as University of Illinois law professor Dhammika Dharmapala, and cut him with a utility knife, opening a “six-inch cut on his throat which bled profusely.”

Scaggs was arrested for a hate crime, but ultimately charged with “attempted murder and two counts of aggravated battery”; the prosecuting attorney “opted not to file it [the hate crime charge] because the other charges carry heavier penalties and he’s confident he can prove the aggravated battery based on the information he has.”

Clearly, the hate crime law is not written in a useful way here. It’s not an add-on that increases the severity of any crime, but a separate charge. Somewhere, in an article I can’t find now, somebody involved on the prosecutorial side of this said that usually the hate crime gets prosecuted with misdemeanors like vandalism or theft, indicating that the penalty attached to a hate crime is worse than that but less than aggravated battery.

This was surprising to me, because I feel like most hate crime laws are written as the tack-on variety—”Now, with 15% more sentencing!” And, I don’t know how I feel about that.

I mean, on one hand, the things one is doing while committing a hate crime are generally already illegal. And, as the prosecutor noted in the quote above, it’s often hard to prove intent enough to get a conviction.

Therefore, I’m not totally on board with hate crime legislation. I certainly don’t think that attempts to put it on the books should be the be-all and end-all of activism (you hear me, LGBT nonprofits?), not least because I’m wary of constructing such positions as inherently, unlivably vulnerable to violence in the process.

Though of course, this case seems pretty clear cut. It’s quite evident that “this is my country” meant “it’s not yours” or “you don’t belong here”—and that it was racially motivated. Dhammapala was visibly different from Scaggs’ idea of “his country.” It’s not plain xenophobia, that is, because a German-born person, say, wouldn’t have produced that same visual trigger. And neither would a person of African descent, whether first generation or eighteenth (Slavery in America estimates 12 generations from the first Africans to the end of slavery; says there have been 6 generations since).

So, even though a racist imaginary would think of the default “American” as white, it would also readily identify a black person as American in a way that East Asians, South Asians, Arabs, and Latinos don’t get—as my Asian-American friends who get drunk fratboys ching-chong-ing in their faces or assuming they don’t speak English can attest. So, race is more complex than the usual American reduction to black and white, but it’s still pretty relevant and this was still an attack motivated by racial hatred.

Moreover, the fact that juries apparently don’t buy it when prosecutors argue that crimes were prejudice-based deserves critique as an instance where attempts to redress structural inequalities become figured as “special rights.”

This, then, brings me to the other hand, which is that it is structural inequality that makes hate crime possible. Some people are seen as less important, less worthy, and indeed less human than others, and—when you get somebody crazy enough—members of certain groups make more cultural sense as targets. Given that, a structural solution seems reasonable.

That is, though I’m not sure anyone has ever shown that increased hate-crime penalties serve as a deterrent for people who for whatever reason translate social devaluation into a hunting license, it does make a statement that, as a society, we don’t find such hunting acceptable.

In this way, hate-crime legislation, simply by existing, perhaps lessens the devaluation that starts the cycle. The challenge, then, is to prevent that devaluation from being replaced by a pervasive, uninhabitably-terror-inducing sense of vulnerability. We also have to not let the framing of a group in the law as not-attackable be framed as “special rights” rather than as a corrective to actual special rights already enjoyed by other groups.

And we certainly have to contest the response to such incidents in platitudes—the email from University of Illinois President Michael Hogan to the so-called campus community ways called for a renewal of “our commitment to tolerance” and requested that “we all take a moment to remember that compassion is our greatest virtue and that we are united together in a wish for healing and understanding in the wake of such a tragic incident.”

This is real. This is serious. It demands more of a response than this. “We,” whoever we are, are quite evidently not “united” and don’t have “understanding.” It’s not an” incident” but the product of a system. And don’t even get me started on the implicit superiority of the tolerate-r over the tolerate-d (because I know I go on about it all the time; just check out Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion).

With vapid and condescending responses like this, hate crime laws start to look better and better.

I’m a little behind on watching Glee. Really, I’m perpetually behind on all TV; I don’t think there’s been a time since Star Trek: Voyager went off the air that I tuned in to watch something in a regularly scheduled time slot—not least because that was the point when I stopped having regular access to TV.

No TV, plus a number of other factors, mean that I am late to the party on discussing Glee‘s “The First Time” episode, which aired on November 8, 2011. But it annoyed me enough that I’m going to write about it anyway.

The episode has gotten some positive press because it depicts gay teens making the same virginity-losing decisions as heterosexual ones, rah-rah once again Ryan Murphy makes the world safe for people like him.

Though, in their defense, I think that the decision to be really vague about both the heterosexual and homosexual sex scene avoided the whole problem of the double standard whereby a much lower bar for what’s offensive exists for gay sex than heterosex, so yay for that.

Glee tends to do an ok job representing white gay men—Kurt is a little stereotypical, but to some extent that’s because they cast Chris Colfer and that’s how he is, so I’m ok with it—but a pretty horrendous job with everybody else.

In particular, in this episode, the character of Rachel is done a disservice–and through her, so are teen girls.

Rachel has very clear plans for herself, such as moving to New York City, attending the fictional New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts, starring on Broadway, etc. One of these plans, the series has established, is not to have sex until she’s 25. In “Grilled Cheesus” (2.02), Rachel and Finn have this exchange:

Rachel:I need to know that when I’m 25, and have won a bunch of Tonys, and I’m ready to have intercourse and babies, that those babies will be raised in a certain way.

Finn: You’re really not going to have sex until you’re 25?

The show has enough continuity that this is referenced again in “The First Time” (3.05)

Finn:Why now? The last time we talked about this you said you wanted to wait until you won a Tony.

Rachel: Or any other major award. Emmy, Golden Globe. People’s Choice would’ve gotten you to third base.

Now, I’m not claiming that this is a good plan, necessarily. It’s indicative of someone who underestimates the power of social norms on them and overestimates their own control of their life to be able to plan so far out. It is, that is, the plan of someone quite young, as Rachel is.

But Rachel, over and over in the show, is someone who sticks to her guns. She decides what she thinks is right and she goes for it wholeheartedly. And, especially if it has to do with her career, god help you if you get in her way. This person would totally believably have sex to further her acting ability, despite Brett Berk’s contention in Vanity Fair’s “Gay Guide to Glee entry that

as desperate, conniving, and monomaniacal as Rachel is about advancing her acting career, it is neither believable nor even amusing to imagine that she might be “convinced” to try out intercourse in order to better her portrayal of a character like Maria in the high-school production of West Side Story. (It is, in fact, grotesque.)

Grotesque it may be, or “supremely stupid, even considering ‘Glee’s’ tenuous tether to reality,” as Mark A. Perigard described it at, but it is actually pretty believable because it’s congruent with the Rachel who sent exchange student Sunshine Corazon to a crack house because she felt threatened by her talent.

However, for all her selfishness, Rachel can be selfless too. In 1.13, after telling Finn that Quinn had misled him to think that her pregnancy was his child (for selfish reasons), she was genuinely sorry and offered to let Quinn hit her if it made her feel better. Rachel organized interfaith prayer with one glee club member who tolerates her (Mercedes) and one who verges on hatred (Quinn) when Kurt’s dad Burt had a heart attack in 2.02.

She arranged with Finn to throw the duets competition in 2.04—unexpected from the super-competitive, rival-sabotaging Rachel—so that new member Sam could win and feel welcomed to the team. In 3.06, Rachel withdrew from the class president election in order to help Kurt’s chances at winning and thus help him get into NYADA.

This Rachel might well have been selfless enough to offer her virginity to Finn as a consolation prize for losing out on his football dreams.

But the writers shouldn’t have gone through with it. Not like that. Because, at least under our culture’s odd relationship to sex (which the show seems to share), the first time is supposed to be a special event for Rachel, but in this episode it wasn’t even about her.

And, like, I’ll admit that as a Faberry shipper (Rachel and Quinn) Finchel (Rachel and Finn) is objectionable all by itself, but I have a more specific critique of Finn here. Even in this episode when we’d imagine Finn will be set up as a good boyfriend so that he “deserves” the ending, he feeds Rachel, a vegan, actual meat. And then doesn’t confess. And then takes advantage of Rachel’s sympathy for him.

That’s pretty horrifying, and that fact has gotten missed in the discussion about the show, at times glaringly so, as when Jerome Wetzel of Examiner.comconcludes that there’s nothing more to critique after the have-sex-for-acting plot is resolved, commenting that “once Rachel and Blaine stop trying so hard and enjoy being in their respective relationships, sex does happen for each.” Blaine and Kurt do indeed “do the deed” out of enjoying being with each other, but not Rachel.

And, you know, I get it. Kids make bad decisions. I know I made some. And they make the decision to have sex for worse reasons than wanting to comfort their partner. As Vanity Fair’s Berk reminds us, “an overwhelming physical desire for Finn, or some socially motivated goal of impressing her friends” would have been more in line with “the two core incentives for teens.” And like Berk, “I appreciated that she, as the girl, was the instigator” rather than the usual storyline of “boy pressures girl.”

But if Glee is trying to do the Very Special Episode shtick, they needed to do better. Because I, too, “wish I could un-see that Endless Love remake these two created in front of the fireplace at the Hudson/Hummels, and un-hear Rachel’s creepy pledge to ‘give Finn something no one else will ever get'” (Berk).

I wish they hadn’t even filmed it. I wish they had written Finn differently so that he wouldn’t take advantage of Rachel’s moment of generosity. I wish they themselves hadn’t taken advantage of the character of Rachel. Because that just replicates in the structure of the episode that story of girls being pressured into sex for reasons that have nothing to do with them that they tried to avoid in the narrative itself.

So, uh, I don’t know if you heard about this, but there’s this Twilight movie thing? With, like, sparkly vampires and stuff? And the latest installment came out recently? People were camping out and everything.

(They didn’t get treated like those other people taking up public space by camping out, though. Apparently, camping out places is a sometimes crime, like cookies are a sometimes food, and, like Occupy Best Buy, waiting to spend money is A-OK!)

But of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have heard of Twilight, and you have been aware of the level of devotion exhibited by fans of the series—exemplified by the camping-out behavior.

Indeed, Twilight fans are routinely the object of ridicule and hatred for the apparent excesses of their love for the books and film series and the personnel involved (actors Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner and author Stephenie Meyer).

For example, when looking for readily available internet commentary on the difference between OWS and Twilight for the aside above, I found a Facebook status message suggesting that the poster was going to “try setting up occupy wall street signs at my local movie theater in hopes that the police will beat and arrest all the twilight nuts camping out,” which is, perhaps regrettably, fairly typical.

Before I go on, full disclosure: I haven’t seen or read Twilight. My exposure to the franchise has consisted of news reports and teaching Buffy vs. Edward every semester (Sometimes twice if I guest lecture. I’ve also been known to show it at parties). I have a group of students making a video about Twilight this semester, though, so perhaps I will soon be educated.

Nevertheless, by means of this indirect consumption of Twilight I have gathered that there’s a lot to critique about the way the franchise frames gender, heterosexual romance, and sexual activity. It is apparent that the text has a lot of problems, but from what I can tell it’s not markedly worse in this respect than other popular teen romances—or, indeed, much of the rest of media.

Okay, so Twilight fans are imagined as hysterical, weeping, teenage, female masses, and this deserves analysis all on its own. That is, though this fits into longstanding traditions identified by Joli Jensen in her now-classic 1992 piece “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization,” the usual story is that stereotyping fans is a thing of the past, as I explained in “Fans Turn to Bomb Threats”: Journalists Turn to Stereotypes, so when these same old narratives crop up again we should take that seriously.

What I find really interesting, however, is not that this happens in general, but something much more particular, something I felt compelled to write about after being retweeted two things:

I have, for a while, been intrigued by the times when fans go around hating other fans, starting with some trends that emerged in my MA Thesis (which apparently has a Google Books entry! Pardon the excessive alliteration. It seemed like a good idea 5 years ago when I named the thing).

But when I got two separate Twilight-disparaging tweets, from two different people, encompassing two other fandoms in the scifi/fantasy speculative fiction spectrum, it seemed like time to take it on.

So, what do these tweets tell us about the cultural meaning of Twilight? People who would attend Breaking Dawn at midnight are women, and they are alone “every other night at midnight”—because they have no family, or no friends, or (most likely given the trope) can’t get a boyfriend. Moreover, Twilight is a scourge on humanity from which we should be saved.

But again, this is standard enough in making sense of things beloved by teenage girls in general and Twilight in particular. What’s really interesting is who we learn it from, and how.

Here we have the humorous Twitter accounts created for a Harry Potter character and a Dr. Who character, the deployment of which involves imagining what these characters might say about current events and writing the tweets they might write. In some sense, this involves inhabiting or becoming the character, if only temporarily. It definitely involves having extensive knowledge of the object of fandom, to conjure the voice of the character accurately.

It is, then, a practice that requires fandom, both in the execution and in the inclination to do such a thing in the first place. Moreover, Harry Potter and Dr. Who are themselves objects whose fans are often subjected to ridicule as losers under the same set of stereotypes about who fans are that they’re deploying against Twilight.

That’s pretty strange. The same people who would surely dispute that Harry Potter and Dr. Who fans are excessively emotional, inappropriately sexual losers are fully willing to not only accept but actively promote the idea that Twilight fans are exactly that.

What this suggests, then, is that not only are anti-fan stereotypes alive and well, but that the very people who are ridiculed by them are complicit in their reproduction. They just think that they apply to someone else.