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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Hats off to fans; they get stuff done. The latest evidence of this is the ways in which shippers (Vocabulary lesson for the unfamiliar: Shipper, n.: short for relationship-er; people who advocate for particular couples in media objects)—and particularly shippers of non-canon (i.e. not officially existing in the text of the media object itself) couples completely took over E! Online’s 2012 TV’s Top Couple Tournament.

The site’s “weeks-long bracket-style tournament” started with 64 couples, many of which were “real” on the show and therefore might be considered to be more legitimate than those existing only in the slash goggles of the beholder(s).

Slash Goggles, n.: A prosthesis enabling one to see desire where it might otherwise be invisible; though the “slash” part indicates specifically same-sex desire, there are surely heterogoggles as well, though less often required. For a great rundown—and the place where I first heard the term—see Julie Levin Russo’s Hera Has Six Mommies (A Transmedia Love Story). Because apparently I can’t blog without Julie.

Despite the potential for legitimacy deficit, as the voting went on, many of the goggle-authorized pairings advanced through round after round, handily defeating couples for which there was explicit textual evidence. By the final four, there was just one canon pairing, which was same-sex: Brittany and Santana from Glee. And there was just one heterosexual pairing, which was non-canon: Castle and Beckett from Castle.

When the voting came down to the final two, lo and behold, both couples were same-sex and non-canon: Faberry (Quinn and Rachel, played by Dianna Agron and Lea Michele from Glee) and Destiel (Castiel and Dean, played by Misha Collins and Jensen Ackles from Supernatural).

The surviving pairs weren’t, however, incestuous, which was a real possibility given the popularity of Wincest in Supernatural fandom. See Catherine Tosenberger’s 2008. piece “‘The Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean’: ‘Supernatural,’ Queer Readings, and the Romance of Incestuous Fan Fiction.”

E! staffers seem to have been pretty surprised by how the tournament went. In round two’s post:

Wow. Just when you think you know which couples have the biggest fan bases… Lots of shockers in the first round of our annual TV Couple’s Tournament! A Glee favorite knocked out, unconventional pairings triumphing over long-established love affairs, and a very normal married couple taking down a supernatural romance. These are all reasons we so thoroughly enjoy our TV Couple’s tournament, because no win is guaranteed.

The tone became surprised and condescending by round five: “Don’t go changing, shippers. Especially now that we’re down to only four in our TV’s Top Couples tournament and we need your crazy Internet ways more than ever.” Then, in the last voting post: “Holy fandemonium. You Glee and Supernatural fans are passionate when it comes to this final round of our TV’s Top Couple tournament. How passionate? Well, let’s just say you nearly crashed the entire site yesterday!”

E! found the intensity to be surprising and indeed suspicious enough to warrant verification:

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) from Glee have won our TV’s Top Couple megapoll! Now, when we say “mega” that is, in this case, apparently an understatement. The fans for “Faberry” (Fabray/Berry) as they call themselves, set a new record high for page turns on E! Online for any single post in the entire history of the website. Umm…yeah, we are just as stunned as you. Also, we did an investigation into this voting and it showed no signs of false play among “Faberry” fans: Just a group of hardcore, dedicated shippers who organized mass-voting times (all hours of the night), and obviously took this thing very seriously.

But it’s perhaps a sign of the times that the non-canon nature of the outcome seems to have been more distressing to them than the same-sex aspect. Or, rather, the same-sex aspect was distressing because non-canon:

Now, I know what many of you who casually watch Glee are thinking: What the what?! Are Rachel and Quinn even a couple? And wait a minute, aren’t they straight? Why yes, yes they are, as far as we know. But the “Faberry” fans believe these two belong together. And from the very first step of this Top Couple tournament, they represented, making sure that the pair received a nomination. As you may or may not recall, we left the nominations solely up to you. And after starting with 64 couples, we are left with the winners, Rachel and Quinn.

However, for all of E!’s shock and awe, the incident didn’t surprise me. (Well, I was somewhat surprised by the scale—almost 400,000 votes in the final–but not the outcome). People who are denied official acknowledgement of their desire already have to be more affectively attached and put in more work to make it happen.

Moreover, the poll as a chance to make extremely visible to the people making Glee that this desire exists probably had something to do with it. Certainly, one fan site had it that the winning couple would have an interview—which I can’t find substantiated at E! anywhere, but was probably inspiring even if untrue.

It just goes to show that shippers and slashers, for all their supposed “resistance” to the text, would ultimately really love for their couple of choice to be legitimized by appearing explicitly in the text—even if they would reserve the right to critique the execution—and this sort of entertainment-website poll is one way toward that goal.

Certainly, the actors involved in the couples in question felt a need to respond to this desire on the part of the fans. E! posted

a little message we got from Misha Collins (who is in the final two) after his pairing (Dean and Castiel) beat out Community’s Jeff and Annie in the second-to-last round: “So often Hollywood and pop culture portray relationships that don’t reflect real life and relationships that lack a moral compass. I think it’s nice to see a stable couple with grounded values getting this attention over that perverse relationship between Joel McHale and that girl on that other show. I mean, look how they’re kissing. It’s disgusting—you can tell they’re not even using tongue.”

Quipping, “Just when you thought you couldn’t love him more.”

And then Agron tweeted this picture of herself and Michele,

captioned: “In honor of the voters! @luanarama: @DiannaAgron @msleamichele Faberry won the best couple on E!

So, you know, here’s another way in which fans may be powerful, though I say that with a sizeable grain of salt (perhaps even a salt-crystal boulder). By sheer dedication and time put in, they got to see what they wanted, even if only for a minute, and even if the (platonic) Faberry scene that appeared in promos was ultimately cut from February 21st‘s episode over their #DontCutFaberry trending topic objection.

And, if we’re thinking about the power of fan desire, it may be a total coincidence, but I’m quite suspicious about the timing of Agron publicly smooching the guy she supposedly broke up with in December the day those results came out. Maybe even straight girls need beards if people think they’ve got the gay. (Commenter Phil at this thread had the same suspicion)

When I first proposed my dissertation, I wanted to focus on how fandom is produced and consumed in the U.S.

I had that inclination not because I’m a nationalist or it I thought it would be easy, but because that was the national context in which I had observed the phenomena that interested me. That was where it was happening. It might also be happening elsewhere, of course, but one can’t look at everything, and my dissertation was already complex enough (spectulative media and sports, fiction andnonfiction, representation andweb design) without doing comparative work in different national contexts.

My committee insisted, however, and I conceded the point that nations are pretty porous these days, so the contemporary conceptualization of the fan may not include being located in the territory of the nation. But I wasn’t happy about it.

However, a couple of pieces that I’ve read in the last couple of weeks have really reoriented my thought on this and made me see now how thinking transnationally is actually vital to what I want to do.

Oh, that uncomfortable feeling when you realize your committee was right. Though, in my own defense, I don’t think they were thinking about a transnational perspective in the same way I am. But they were, nevertheless, right.

You see, capital is transnational. That’s no revelation, to be sure, but I hadn’t thought about it quite that way until reading first Aphra Kerr‘s great post The Politics of Cultural Production over at Culture Digitally and second some pieces in preparation for a visit to my campus this week by sociologist Saskia Sassen.

Mindful of my own complaints last week about Academic Telephone, I want to note that both of these scholars touched on many issues and what caught my attention in relation to my own work was only a subset of this. Nevertheless, these pieces got me thinking, first, about how the work of production is dispersed across locations.

(This possibly also cemented me as a one-trick pony, cuz LABOR! Though, being a labor pony may not be so bad, if we take Julie Levin Russo’s excellent work on queer labor in My Little Pony fandomas the baseline)

Corporate media production work, both Kerr and Sassen mention (albeit somewhat briefly), travels around the globe to the places where there’s the right combination of high enough skills and low enough standards of living to maximize profit. Depending on the type of work—mining minerals, soldering chips, routine programming, or “creative” work (design)—that means different places.

If one of the things that interests me is the ways that contemporary fan-friendliness often takes the role of encouraging them to produce user-generated content, and I’m conceptualizing this as unpaid labor, the outsourcing (or, perhaps, global-sourcing if we’re not going to identify them as inherently “American jobs”) and casualization of official, paid labor has a lot to do with this as the background that makes this possible—and makes it make sense.

Moreover, if paid labor travels around until it finds a population with the right characteristics to exploit, unpaid labor would surely do the same—this, then, may be why these fan processes felt so American to me. Perhaps fans in the U.S. have a particular combination of skills, access to technology, leisure, and cultural inclinations toward individualism that makes them the right population for this sort of invitation to participate—but I can’t see that unless I work through to get to their American-ness at the end rather than starting there.

Kerr and Sassen also got me thinking, more directly in line with their respective foci, on transnational corporate action on the nation-state—in the context of my interests, I’m thinking specifically about intellectual property and antipiracy law.

Of course, this isn’t to position transnational capital as all-powerful the way the nation was once imagined to be (even if it feels that way sometimes). As Sassen puts it in her 2008 piece Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights, “corporate actors operating globally have pushed hard for the development of new types of formal instruments, notably intellectual property rights and standardized accounting principles. But they need not only the support, but also the actual work of each individual state where they operate to develop and implement such instruments in the specific context of each country” (p. 65).

So the nation is under a lot of pressure from transnational capital, but it still has to cooperate if those corporations are going to get what they want, and it plays out differently on the ground depending where you are—the different local outcomes of Samsung vs. Apple patent battle being fought out in courts across the globe point to this.

As Kerr puts it in her discussion of the specific case of game production:

As in other media sectors it is clear that a national focus is unhelpful in understanding the production of digital games. In order to understand how transnational corporations operate we need to attend to the ways these corporations act in multiple places. This is not to suggest that the nation-state is no longer important, but rather to state that to understand transnational games production we need to consider how transnational corporations compete, cooperate and lobby in pursuit of their interests and how states and other political entities facilitate, regulate and collude in these actions.

Sassen similarly contends that the processes she describes “does not represent the end of national states, but it does begin to disassemble the national” (p. 62). In these ways, then, it’s clear that the nation may or may not be a great analytic category anymore—at the very least, it can’t be assumed but instead has to be selectively deployed depending on the case. We are, then, witnessing “a partial de-nationalizing of what had been constructed historically as national” (p. 73).

So I guess I’ll be thinking transnationally after all.

You remember the game of Telephone from your childhood: kids whisper a message from ear to ear along a group of people, and when it gets to the end of the chain the last person says it out loud, hilariously garbled.

I had not, until this academic year as I’m starting to be less of an apprentice and more of an academic-proper, appreciated how much being in my line of work is quite a lot like being permanently engaged in Telephone.

I first saw it when I went to the Association of Internet Researchers conference this October. As any good Internet or media conference does in this day and age, AoIR had a hashtag (#ir12) and extensive livetweeting. And, I’ll admit that when I followed that stream, I paid particularly close attention to the tweets about my presentation—don’t pretend y’all don’t do that too.

The result was that, for the first time, I got to see my meaning escape my control as it happened. For someone who operates from somewhere in the Active Audience realm and is very committed to the idea that the author does not decide her own meaning, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was decidedly uncomfortable to have it happen to my own statements.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to record the tweets in their entirety as they happened, but fortunately Fabio Giglietto of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo put together a Storify collection for the conference that features some of the discussion about my talk. It went something like this:

After my clarification, which was retweeted by @drst (whose real identity I know but she seems to not have it attached to her account), this reply came back:

This was, of course, a joking response, but it shows why it is that my statement, reduced to “fans are livestock” rather than “livestock is a useful metaphor,” was odd to people who got it second hand. Fans aren’t really livestock in a lot of senses—nutritional uses being one of them—but when it got retold the way it did people potentially got the idea that I’d said something far wackier than in fact I did.

Something similar happened after my article, Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures in November, though I didn’t see it until I Googled myself on a lark in January.

In TWC’s Symposium blog, Lisa Schmidt wrote an entirely appreciative post responding to my piece (called it “a really wonderful essay” and everything) in which—as in the AoIR example—she picked up on one of my points and did something with it that I didn’t intend.

Schmidt said: “The pressure of ‘normal’ is intense and maddening, which is why Stanfill’s section on fandom as a kind of queerness or sexual deviance resonated so powerfully for me. Supposedly fandom is becoming increasingly accepted by the mainstream yet, in many contexts, it remains a dirty little secret. It is a kind of closet, even for some who are in long-term relationships with persons of the opposite sex.”

Okay—so far that’s fine—”sexual deviance” isn’t that deviant from what I was trying to say, “closet” is right. But then things take a turn for the dead author: “More than ever, I feel that fandom, even when not explicitly having anything to do with anything sexual, is queer.”

This was the alarm-bells or record-scratch moment, because I was actually very careful NOT to say that fans were queer. In earlier drafts I had said so, but by this point I felt like it didn’t really capture what I was after. Instead, the terminology I was using was “nonheteronormative.”

The real trouble for my ability to control what people think I’ve said comes when people responded to Schmidt, for though she says “Of course, this is not really the point of Stanfill’s article,” this still becomes what is picked up on in the comments to her post.

User Havoc replied:

I feel like making everything queer dilutes the problems that actual queer folk can go through. Fans don’t need laws changed to be married to fans of the opposite gender, so long as they meet the gender binary. I feel that to list all fans as queer is appropriative of actual queer identity.

Yes, let’s avoid the idea of whiteness as the norm for fans (and elsewhere). But let’s also try not to appropriate one group’s struggles and make them universal to fandom, because LGBTQ struggles aren’t fandom struggles (unless they’re intersectional and both a fan and LGBTQ), and it’s not fair to those who identify as LGBTQ.

And Dana Sterling added: “I tend to agree with havoc about feeling like using queerness in this way in regard to fandom borders on appropriative.”

It was these responses that really distressed me. First, there was the suggestion that sexuality is only “LGBTQ” people’s problem (the phrase “unless they’re intersectional,” the identification of struggles as the essential property of “actual queer folk”). Then there was the reduction of sexuality-based inequality to the denial of state-sanctioned marriage. Moreover, I am heartily sick of reducing queerness to pain.

However, the biggest source of frustration for me was largely because all of these positions I find so problematic are actually incompatible with what the article is trying to do.

Queer, as an analytical apparatus, doesn’t actually describe the way fans work in culture, and so I didn’t use it. It also carried the danger of exactly the interpretation of fandom-as-oppressed-sexual-minority that these retellings and responses produced, something I would never want to argue because it’s patently absurd—though not because I’m worried about “appropriating” any oppression supposedly endemic to queers.

I suppose I’m going to have to get used to this—I’m going to continue to publish, and I really want to be that bigshot academic everybody talks about. Unlike the Twitter example, I can’t always go rushing in to correct those misperceptions as they occur. So I guess we’ll have to add “telephone distortion” to the occupational hazards of being an academic like eyestrain, carpal tunnel, and atrophy of the social life.

Like most people living in a nerdy-friend bubble, I was surprised to learn—when it was cancelled—that NBC comedy Community, though seemingly adored by everyone I know, was not beloved by the population at large.

In an earlier era—the well-worn tale of Star Trek fans’ write-in campaign notwithstanding—that would have been the end of that. Not enough eyeballs equals not enough show.

But then, a funny thing happened. Community, which once upon a time would have been consigned to the dustbin of history (or, you know, DVD sales and bit-torrent-ing) was picked up for syndication—even though at around 60 episodes it was well short of the magic 100 at which shows have traditionally been considered worth syndicating.And it wasn’t just syndicated to one platform: the show was licensed for re-running by both cable channel Comedy Central and online video provider Hulu.

As the December 31 Los Angeles Times article explained, “‘”Community” has not been a wild ratings success, but it is a show that people really love and they tell 10 other people about it,’ said Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior vice president for content acquisition.” That is, the sheer numbers of people who watched the show was less important in the decision these content providers made to license it than the fact that the ones who did watch it were very dedicated.

At this point, certain optimists would proclaim a victory for fans. Henry Jenkins, for example, has put intensified attention to fan wishes into the long tradition in which:

from time to time, networks reprioritize certain segments of their audience and the result is a shift in program strategies to more fully reflect those tastes—a shift from rural to urban viewers changed television content in the 1960s, a renewed interest in minority viewers lead to more Afrocentric sitcoms throughout the 1990s, and a shift toward an emphasis on loyal viewers has been changing what reaches the air in the early twenty-first century. Fans are seeing more shows reflecting their tastes and interests reaching the air; those shows are being designed to maximize that appeal to fans; and those shows that fans like are apt to remain on the air longer because they are more likely to get renewed in borderline cases” (Convergence Culture, p. 62)

Over time, different groups get recognized and incorporated, this view goes, and it’s just fans’ turn at long last. He adds, “For years, fan groups, seeing to rally support for endangered series, have argued that networks should be focused more on the quality of audience engagement with the series and less on the quantity of viewers. Increasingly, advertisers and networks are coming to more or less the same conclusion” (p. 63).

Imagine the sound of the needle being pulled rapidly off the record here. (For younger readers, that’s what this soundthat you’ve heard throughout media sources actually is.)

Reality check: that word “reprioritize” suggests some sort of shift in who television-making entities found valuable, but the fact is that the priorities didn’t change at all—they wanted as many people as possible to watch their shows (or, really, their ads), and they realized that more people lived in cities now or that there were a lot more black people than they realized such that they were worth pitching shows to. Long story short, the math changed.

So in looking at this shift toward recognition and rewarding of fan-style investment, instead of thinking of this as a “reprioritization of audience segments” or a realization that intense investment is better, the fact is that, like earlier shifts, the math must have changed in some fashion.

Having finally finished Amanda Lotz‘s 2007 book The Television Will Be Revolutionized a month or two ago, I can now put my finger on what it is: kinds of media distribution that didn’t used to be possible have become possible, and these shifting technological and economic possibilities is what has made the difference on series like Community.

The first factor here is economic viability beyond a mass audience model. Once upon a time, as Lotz explains, “network programmers knew that the whole family commonly viewed television together, and they consequently selected programs and designed a schedule likely to be acceptable to, although perhaps not most favored by, the widest range of viewers” (p. 11). This model was based in attaching monetary value solely to sheer number of eyeballs.

Later on, as this norm of whole-family viewing went by the wayside, “instead of needing to design programming likely to be least objectionable to the entire family, broadcast networks—and particularly cable channels—increasingly developed programming that might be most satisfying to specific audience members” (p. 14). Value here came from having largest possible numbers of particular kinds of eyeballs parsed out by gender, age, or income.

In the contemporary moment, what Lotz calls the “post-network era,” this process of making content for more specific subgroups has intensified dramatically. This change has “shifted production economics enough to allow audiences that were too small or specific to be commercially viable for broadcast or cable to be able to support niche content” (Lotz, p. 124).

As we’ve moved beyond mass or even large audiences as the only model of financial viability, that is, it becomes possible for a show like Community, which NBC cancelled because it didn’t do the mass audience thing well enough, to survive and thrive in alternative economic frameworks like new-style syndication.

The second feature of the landscape—which is of course intimately tied to the first—is new technological possibilities for distribution. Forssell, the “senior vice president for content acquisition” quoted above, pointed to this when he said that Community is “a good fit for online audiences, and in today’s digital and aggregated universe, shows like that can survive and thrive.” We can think of what’s “online-fitting” about the show in two ways.

On one hand, this is because, in that online distribution is a “pull” medium, where people seek out content they want and “pull” it down, rather than a “push” medium, where people have content “pushed” out to them whether they seek it or not, Community‘s audience dedication suits the way the technology works.

On the other hand, in a pretty basic way, “infinite shelf space and near zero marginal cost [ . . . ] radically shifts much of the operational logic of commercial creative industries” (Lotz, p. 131). These technological possibilities shift television away from a scarcity model and into one of abundance, where there isn’t a requirement to select only the things that sell the best but instead everything can be made available however much or little it sells. As Lotz puts it, “another benefit arising from on-demand distribution is that it allows studios to profit from content that may be pretty obscure or fairly far down [ . . . ] the ‘long tail'” (p. 131).

These sorts of shifts away from determining what kind of TV can be made on the basis of mass-audience economic norms and network-television technological ones are reshaping the landscape in some surprising ways.

Perhaps the biggest coup in this regard is that “Netflix in November announced that it planned to restart production of another cult favorite, Fox’s ‘Arrested Development,’ which won an Emmy for best comedy but lasted just three seasons before being canceled in 2006. Netflix was drawn to the series because of its young, affluent and fervent fan base.”

This isn’t the first time a show has gone back into production on the basis of fan enthusiasm—FOX’s Family Guy, after all, was put back into production in 2004 after the DVD sold well (Lotz, p. 129)—but what’s important in both of these cases is that not only is a show that once would have been dead being distributed (as with Community), but they’re actually making episodes of a show on the basis of the strength and attributes of its fan base.

This is the point at which scholars who cheerlead technological change as empowering fans would probably declare victory. It is, undeniably, the case that fans and intense devotion are now taken much more seriously.

And it’s equally true that “this new participatory culture has its roots in practices that have occurred just below the radar of the media industry throughout the twentieth century,” such that what has in some sense happened is that “the Web has pushed that hidden layer of cultural activity into the foreground, forcing the media industries to confront its implications for their commercial interests” (Jenkins, p. 133).

But to just be glad about this strikes me as at best overly optimistic and at worst naïve. These shifts have happened only because courting this sort of audience can now make not just sense but cents. To look at these shifts in technology and practice with no critique of capital is pretty distressing to me.

Yes: the landscape has changed—a smaller number of people can now be enough to be worth selling to advertisers. What those people want to see is now worth enough revenue that they actually get it. That’s pretty cool compared to the alternative of not getting what you want at all, but it isn’t cool beyond that relative sense

Fans might well be powerful after all. What they want is now taken into account in a way that it never was before because shifts in the mediascape have made them into a viable market. To the extent that that’s generally what constitutes having power in contemporary society, yeah sure, they’ve got it. But I’m not comfortable just accepting that equation of monetary value with value, full-stop.