July 11, 2007
Gender and Fan Studies (Round Six, Part One): C. Lee Harrington and Sam Ford

This is the first of a two-part series being posted on Henry Jenkins' blog and discussed through a LiveJournal community site, the latest in the rounds of posts featuring a male and female fan studies scholar looking at issues of gender in relation to the study of fan communities. This round features my discussion with C. Lee Harrington, who has been a key scholar in the history of the study of soap opera fandom. Both parts will be posted here on the C3 blog as well.

C. Lee Harrington: Hi everyone. This has been an interesting set of discussions thus far -- Sam and I are happy to contribute. We'll follow the general norm by beginning with introductions. I've been engaged in audience/fan studies since the early 1990s, with most of my work co-authored with Denise Bielby.

Our interest in fan studies grew out of our long term soap opera-watching habit. I don't remember how long Denise has been watching, but I started watching soaps in the late 1970s and have been an enthusiastic follower ever since (mostly ABC soaps, with some years watching DOOL).

When I was in grad school at UCSB in the late 1980s (Denise is on the faculty there), we went to a General Hospital fan club luncheon, were fascinated by the entire experience, and decided to study the soap fan culture. Our book Soap Fans was published a few years after Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers and Camille Bacon- Smith's Enterprising Women, among other important work of the late 80s/early 90s, which heavily influenced the way I thought about audience/fans.

We wrote the book in the pre-widespread-Internet-use era (some soap fans were on BBSs but not many), and soap fandom has changed a lot since then (as you write about, Sam). Since Soap Fans, I've done work on the Bianca coming-out storyline on All My Children and have recently worked on aspects of global fandom (with Denise and Kim Schimmel), among other projects. Inspired by Chris Scodari's work, I've also become interested in gerontological issues in soap operas, though my project is in the very early stages.

I have to say that Denise and I are of the generation of scholars who did NOT identify ourselves as soap fans in our work....I think we may have mentioned our own love of soaps to people we interviewed for our various projects (memory is hazy) but I don't think we've ever declared our own fandom in print (memory is hazy here as well, unfortunately). In part this is simply a generational issue, as Henry and others have written/spoken about, in part (for me at least) it's how I construct my own fan identity (as private, rather than publicly experienced/expressed). Denise and I DO have a picture of ourselves in our book though we don't identify who we are in the caption (it amused us at the time, I recall, though it seems less amusing now for some reason).

I also have to say, as Sean Griffin mentioned several weeks ago, that I have not personally encountered the gender issues that launched this discussion series. I'm not quite sure why....maybe because most of my work is based on soap opera, maybe because the gender neutrality of my name leads lots of people to assume I'm male rather than female (a gender issue in its own right, obviously, and one I've dealt with all my life), maybe because I keep a very low profile at conferences and am a miserable networker, so don't end up engaged in some of the firestorms of academia.

Sam Ford: I'm honored to be contributing to this conversation with Lee, who was among the scholars whose work I encountered regularly while working on my Master's thesis. I am a 2007 graduate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies here at MIT, and I think my personal background is important in positioning me in this discussion of fan studies, since I have a much shorter duration as a fan studies scholar.

I graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2005 with a Bachelor's degree and four intersecting majors--English, mass communication, communication studies, and news/editorial journalism-- and a minor in film studies, in three separate departments (Department of English, Department of Communication, and School of Journalism and Broadcasting). As part of my undergraduate honors thesis, I was interested in tackling my own personal interest in professional wrestling as a self-professed fan through each of the three lenses that had been presented to me in these three departments.

My final project was primarily a collection of three essays on pro wrestling, each written through an advisor in a different department, and each with a different citation style and theoretical lens. One was a textual analysis of masculinity in relation to pro wrestling character/performer Mick Foley; another was an industry analysis of World Wrestling Entertainment and how the company diversified its output through multiple media platforms; and the third was a primarily qualitative ethnography of pro wrestling fans, gathered from interview 50 fans at five live wrestling events of various sizes. Each of those projects have been in various stages of publication during my time at MIT, since I came straight from undergraduate to graduate school.

When I came here, I decided to tackle another of my "lovemarks," so to speak, and the other side of perhaps the same gendered coin: soap operas. As those who follow the blog I run for the Convergence Culture Consortium or my guest posts here on Henry's blog in the past, I've found a variety of correlations between soap opera fandom and pro wrestling fandom, and the place of both in relation to both fan studies and questions of cultural taste.

I first encountered the CMS program here at MIT and Henry Jenkins' work through his essays on pro wrestling, which introduced me to Textual Poachers and the fan studies perspective from there. Henry served as a member of my thesis committee, and Convergence Culture was admittedly the major inspiration for my Master's thesis on the soap opera As the World Turns and soap opera fans, along with Nancy Baym's Tune In, Log On.

I have chosen in all my work to make my own fandom an explicit part of my writing, but that very much has to do with generational differences and the work that came before me. I struggled for a long time myself with notions of an "objective" and detached academic voice and my own need for expressing my fandom and my personal motivations for these studies. However, to be fair, Lee, in Soap Fans, you and Denise do admit to your own fandom in the introduction, even if it does not become infused in your writing as a whole.

Lee, in Soap Fans, you and Denise write, "Soaps are at the absolute bottom of the television hierarchy, lumped with game shows and professional wrestling in terms of their perceived moral worth" (5). You also write that you have not personally encountered the gender issues being raised in discussion here. I hope we will address these two issues, which I feel are quite related in greater detail, because I find that studies of pro wrestling fandom (and there are quite a few) and of soaps fandom have existed outside of the "mainstream" of fan studies research, and perhaps the gendered focus of both have colored their place in the history of fan studies.

Wrestling is at an interesting place between sports fan studies and media fandom, while being a male scholar studying soap opera fan communities has been illuminating. Of course, it's a farce that there is not a sizable female audience for pro wrestling, as well as a significant portion of male soap opera fans, but they are both quite gendered in terms of industry focus and the predominant fan base.

Finally, you mention your own lack of experience with many of the gender issues in fan studies that launched this series. I feel much the same way. Perhaps it's because I spent a significant portion of the past two years working within and looking at a predominantly female fan community and an industry in which women hold a number of key industry positions.

But I was fascinated, as I delved into these discussion of fan fiction and fan communities versus user-generated content and producer/consumer interaction that, in some ways, studying producer/ consumer interaction was considered by many to be a male perspective on fandom, as opposed to fan activities that are further removed from the commercial contexts of media production. Lee, I know that your book with Denise focuses on soap fans and their relationship with the industry and soap texts in a largely pre-Internet world, so I was curious about your thoughts on the gendered-ness of commercial and non-commercial examples of fan expression within fan studies.

C. Lee Harrington: Ah, so Denise and I *do* mention our fandom in the introduction of our book -- good! I guess I could have walked four steps and plucked the book off the bookshelves, but....thanks Sam. I think you're absolutely correct that studies of pro wrestling fandom and soap fandom have existed outside the mainstream of fan studies, and their gendered focus is an interesting question.

I've been intrigued by the various debates in recent fan studies about whether (or to what extent) genre continues to matter. I understand and agree that the fan experience (subjectively at least) can transcend the fan object but I also think genre still matters in shaping fandom. Twenty years into researching soaps, I'm still fascinated by how unique they are as texts (which you write about, Sam) and the kind of challenges that uniqueness presents both to the industry and to scholars (not to mention to fans).

To get to your question in a roundabout way, one of the unique aspects of open-ended serials is the relentless flow of the text, and I think soap fan expression has been constrained by that. The types of activities Henry and Camille and others were writing about in early 1990s -- fanfic, fan art etc. -- simply were not being practiced by soap fans. There was just no need. A new episode of the text was coming every day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. There was less need to "fill in the gaps," so to speak, so fans were engaging in other types of expression -- private fantasizing, gossiping with friends, reading mags, etc. The industry is in trouble in part because of this relentlessness.....Making time for a new episode every day (day after day etc.) is exhausting for people, even longterm fans like me. You do a wonderful job with this topic in your thesis....The point being that in the early 1990s at least, soap fans' expressions had more to do with genre than gender (not to say the genre isn't gendered, of course). Has that changed, do you think?

I also wanted to comment on your observation that many in fan studies consider studying producer/consumer interaction to be a male perspective on fandom. One of the things Denise and I were fascinated by at the first GH fan club luncheon we went to was the level of intimacy between actors and fans -- some of it contrived, but not all of it.

I had just finished reading Josh Gamson's book on celebrity culture in which he uses a metaphor of the "hunt," which seemed entirely appropriate to the entertainment realm he was writing about and wholly inappropriate to the soap realm, where decades spent acting on soaps and decades spent watching the same soap lends to a different relationship between the production team and fans/audiences (with actors being in a weird middle realm). Producers have a different type of engagement with longterm Guiding Light viewers than they do with Lost viewers.....Perhaps the presumed gendered-ness of studying production/consumption relations is based on presumptions about the producer/consumer relationship, which might also be shaped by genre (gendered though it is)....?

And having typed this, I'm not entirely sure I addressed the question you actually asked.....

Sam Ford: Lee, I think the frequency and duration of soap opera texts certainly alters the fan experience significantly. Several of these debates about fan studies have centered on fan fiction in one form or another, but as you point out, fan fiction is not one of the predominant forms of expression within soap opera fandom. That's not to say that soap opera fan fiction does not exist at all, but most of the creative output of the fan community is centered on criticism, alternate storyline suggestions, parodies, speculation, nostalgia for prior storylines, contextualizing current events based on the collective memory of the fandom, etc. These are all creative activities, to be sure, but they predominate soaps fandom much more than fan fiction.

I think you may be right that genre has quite a lot to do with this, and primarily the frequency of the text. With 250 new hour-long episodes per year (for every soap other than The Bold and the Beautiful), there are much fewer holes to be filled into the text. Plus, while a lot of fan fiction served to humanize or explore the interpersonal relationships that were not the main focuses of many of the primetime shows that drew the most fan fiction, soap operas are explicitly about these relationships among an ensemble cast.

There are still gaps to be filled in, however, and soap operas are such immersive texts that they actively invite fans to do so, since they are what Robert C. Allen calls overcoded narratives. Since there are so many characters and parts of town fleshed out over the course of decades, but no explicit connections are made as to the geography of the town in many cases, fan activity and creativity often comes through group speculation about the fictional world rather than fan fiction or fan art. Fans make a collective effort in online forums to construct, maintain, and critique the writers' job of the most important aspect of soap opera storytelling to many fans--continuity. With such a massive text, the collective discussion of continuity takes up a significant portion of the creative energy of the fandom, much as they do in comic books and other immersive story worlds, to use a term from my thesis work.

You raise an interesting point regarding the producer/consumer relationship both in your book and in your response here, Lee. Perhaps because soaps are considered niche in terms of cultural taste, it helps shape this sense of camaraderie among fans and producers. That's not to say that soaps fans are not often quite critical of "the powers that be," or "the idiots in charge," and this aspect has probably become more pronounced and explicit now that the Internet facilitates discussions of the creative powers among a large group of fans who are more aware than ever not just of the on-air talent but the creative shifts behind-the-scenes.

Still, I have been to fan events in recent years and still agree that there is this sense of respect and familiarity between actors and fans at soaps events that does extend beyond that celebrity craze. Perhaps this is most true with actors, in that the actors on most soaps have been the constants, and fans are more connected to the actors portraying the roles, and the characters, than they are to the particular creative team, since many in the fan community may have been watching the show longer than anyone on the creative team has been involved with the program.

Thus, longtime characters, and their portrayers, share a veteran status with the show that even most of the creative staff does not have in many of these cases. And that probably explains why soap fans spend so much time guarding the continuity of their shows because of a perceived personal ownership of the text based, in part, on their own seniority in following and knowing the text.

But, speaking of these differences between gender and genre, I know that you have been spending a significant amount of time recently comparing media fandom studies with sports fan studies. Do you suppose many of the differences in sports fan studies to be based more on genre--"real" versus fictional, a higher level of cultural respect vis-a-vis soap opera fandom for sports, etc.--or on gender, since sports fandom has traditionally been considered predominantly male, in comparison to soaps fandom being traditionally considered primarily female?

C. Lee Harrington: Sam, I'm glad you brought up Allen's book -- it's such a fabulous exploration of both the literary and industrial aspects of soaps and seems under-cited in soap audience/ fan research these days. His observation that soap narratives are over-coded, and non-watchers assumptions that they're vastly under-coded, is one of the most interesting aspects of the genre, I think. It's always been difficult to explain to non-watchers how utterly complicated soap texts are, and because longstanding stylistic and production codes can make them appear simplistically plot-driven, their complexity often goes unrecognized. I'm a huge fan of serialized primetime shows such as Lost, Heroes, 24, etc., but tend to roll my eyes at journalistic (and sometimes academic) accounts of how textually complicated they are....They are, of course, but multiply that complexity by 50 years and you might begin to approach Guiding Light!! I really like your term immersive story worlds in this context, by the way.

I agree with you that it's primarily actors and fans in concert who protect the continuity and integrity of the characters and communities, since production, directing writing teams change so rapidly.....I wanted to add that one of the interesting intimacies in the world of soaps (compared to other entertainment realms) is the place of academic critique within it. I have been surprised at times how welcoming the soap press is to academic commentary on storylines and issues. In part this helps legitimize the industry, of course, but to continue the metaphor of the family reunion which Denise and I used in our book, it allows academics (especially those sympathetic to the genre) to have a seat at the table.

In terms of your question re: sport/media fans, are we talking about the gendered-ness of sport vs. media fan studies or the gendered-ness of sport vs. media fandom? Or both? I have to say at the outset that I am NOT a sport fan scholar so anything I say here is my educated guess....and hopefully we have some readers here who can help us think this through (my recent work is very much from a media-not- sport perspective). Certainly in the West at least, sport fandom is historically male but contemporary fandom even of traditionally masculine sports no longer is, necessarily. Doesn't the NFL say that close to 50% of its fans are female? And I wonder what the gender breakdown is for fans of NASCAR vs. fans for indivdual NASCAR drivers.....? Maybe this is not so much about genre OR gender, per se, but about the increasing celebrification of sport stars....? Is celebrification generally understood as a feminine process (not in any essential way, of course)....?