September 27, 2007
Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seventeen, Part One): Melissa Click and Joshua Green

This is part of the Gender and Fan Studies series that is running over on Henry Jenkins' blog.

MC: Hi, I'm Melissa Click and I'm completing my dissertation on Martha Stewart fans (at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), teaching at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and am just catching up on my sleep after the wonderfully overwhelming experience of having my first child. Having one foot in the East Coast and the other foot in the Mid-West, being in the midst of completing my Ph.D. while developing my professional identity as a scholar, and trying to figure out how to balance my work life and newly changed homelife, means that I'm still catching up on my TV viewing (I heart Tivo), I don't usually blog, and I'm a bit more behind on academic reading than I'd prefer.

As a scholar writing about Martha Stewart fans, I have argued that the women and men I interviewed were not simply audience members, they are fans (and anti-fans, for that matter). However, the types of fandom they demonstrated were different than many of the types of fandom discussed here: they didn't write Martha fan-fic, create Martha fan-vids, etc. My interest in their fandom overlapped with my own interest in/repulsion by Stewart's texts, and my allegiance with their behaviors as fans--my expressions of fandom mirror the behaviors gendered "masculine" in this discussion.

JG: Hello all, my name is Joshua Green. I'm a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT where I also run the Convergence Culture Consortium. At the Consortium we do a lot of work about the changing patterns of relationships between media producers - big and small, professional and amateur - media content and various audience formulations. We work with some "big media" companies (though not exclusively) to come to understand the changing environment in which their content circulates and the changing logics of the media space when you factor in participatory culture and the changing constitution of the audience experience.

Before I transplanted from Australia to the States, I was working on the recent history Australian television, particularly looking at the way the Australian television system resolved the presence of international, and specifically American, programming with discourses of nationalism. My (I suppose still recently completed) dissertation looked at the way Dawson's Creek was nationalized by industrial promotional strategies and received by a range of Australian viewers. I'm currently really, very interested in the ways we can understand the constitution and composition of television audiences as they're imagined more and more as media producers, or at least, as the role of media production is increasingly prescribed for those we used to understand as audiences.

MC: I'm not convinced that folks have really addressed one of the key issues that began this conversation: the perception that male interests and approaches are structuring publishing, conference participation, and the field in general. I'd like to pull us back to the pre-detente discussions that created the discussion in which we're now participating. Specifically, how can we begin to encourage ties between male and female scholars, and create more of a community in the field of fan studies? Everyone seems to agree that we can benefit from each other's work--but how can we begin to encourage that cross-pollination (or what Derek Johnson called "broad citation?").

JG: I think returning to this question is important, though I would like to point out that one of the things I have enjoyed most about this discussion on the whole is the diversity of ways people have responded to the "provocation." Some of the discussions around this topic have brought to the fore a range of important questions affecting not only fan studies but media and cultural studies practice itself. Prominent in this regard is the fervor with which this discussion has interrogated how we understand fandom itself. This diversity of topics is particularly appealing as I don't consider myself someone working 'in' fan studies. I'm not sure I've ever been a 'fan' of any distinct media property, certainly not in the productive way that has been defended by some discussants as signaling something unique about particular patterns of engagement or structures of feeling towards media properties. Likewise, while perhaps daily I come into contact with some of the practices, strategies, or politics of fandom, I don't consider myself necessarily studying fandom. That said, one of the strengths of this discussion is the role those of us who don't fall into the 'fan studies' camp have played in contributing to the debate. At a somewhat crude level then, perhaps this practice of pairing respondents has at least gestured toward a way to achieve this cross-pollination.

MC: Agreed. I think that a lot of good stuff has come out of this dialogue--making much more complex a lot of the issues that initially provoked the discussion. However, one of the really important points that I think the Busse camp (sorry, I can't do the boy/girl thing, though I'm not convinced the shorthand I'm introducing is much better) made in the pre-detente conversation had to do with how male and female fan scholars seemed to attend different conference sessions, use a different language, and adopt different methods. To me, this is where I do feel the gendered divide in the field (though I'll complicate that in a minute). This point has been alluded to numerous times in this discussion; many folks have expressed that they feel left out, or misunderstood, and I'm sure many more have felt this without expressing it (I have)--so *something's* going on here that I think we need to address.

I really appreciate Derek Johnson's acknowledgement that at conferences he'd attended panels in many of the ways Busse suggested (and I'm sure many folks had this realization--I did, too). I believe Derek when he says he'll try to rethink that in the future--and think we all should. But I'd like to see us be consciously pro-active before we get to conferences to try to make our panels relevant for a number of different camps--and to promote cross-pollination.

JG: If we're going to go back to the beginning, I'm going to be especially (and perhaps foolishly) honest here, and acknowledge my own implication in some of the catalytic events of this discussion. I have a fairly certain sense I was a direct participant in some of the panels (and one in particular) that prompted some of the comments that initially brought this issue to the fore. I'm not sure if I would say I was shocked, but I certainly want to own up to being surprised by the responses some of these panels prompted. Perhaps I'm not as alive to the gendered distinctions that do exist within the field (and there subsequent implications in terms of power), and I think the first discussion in this series between Karen Hellekson and Jason Mittell usefully laid out some of the ways in which "the field" might replicate larger gendered distinctions with regards to topics of discussion, modes of practice, academic and market activities. That said, I have to admit a sense of disappointment with the sometimes pessimistic tone present in some of the discussions featured as part of this series. I accept that there are substantial and entrenched issues of both equality and practice that need to be addressed, but more than once in the course of this debate I've been left with the sense these issues are intractable.

I wonder, then, if the response to some of these questions regarding exclusion has been to argue for the specificity of certain (gendered? topic determined?) fields of inquiry. Specificity brings with it its own form of exclusion, and the criteria upon which this specificity is patrolled is central to the questions under consideration. I'll admit I'm thinking out loud here, and I may well disagree with this proposition further down the track, but there is a part of me that thinks that some degree of specificity and exclusion is inherent to the art. I'm not sure, all up, whether I necessarily disagree with this proposition, as I'm not sure I have a problem with specificity, particularly in terms of academic practice, when it results from issues of subject knowledge. That said, I agree there are substantial matters that need to be addressed with regard to how we, as academics working from a range of different positions and working within a "field" that seems in some ways both pre-destined and necessarily "inter-disciplinary", interact in order to ensure "subject specificity" or "topic knowledge" doesn't privilege certain biases. All of which seems to bring us back to the germinal difficulties that led us down this path. A useful response, then, and perhaps the only one that seems tenable, is for us to regularly interrogate the way the forms of knowledge we produce, and the ways we communicate such, result in regimes of privilege.

MC: I agree that the specificity in our work does create a certain kind of exclusion (that I would agree is not necessarily a bad thing), and I agree that we should regularly interrogate our work and the way it's communicated. But how do we make sure we don't forget to do that?

I think that's what was going on a bit at Flow, especially at the Watching Television Off-Television roundtable (including Jonathan Gray, Henry Jenkins, Jason Mittell, Will Brooker, Joel Greenberg, Kevin Sandler, Derek Johnson, Daniel Chamberlain). I think feminist (and mostly female) scholars in the audience expressed frustration that approaches and conclusions were perceived to lack fruitful overlap with work women do and have done--and I think there was also a frustration that the panel (obviously full of fabulous scholars) drew a large audience due to the perceived importance of the scholars and topics while panels that were mostly women drew smaller audiences. I do think we need to talk about that.... But I also want to say that during and after my panel of mostly women at Flow, I felt excluded because my work was not on fans proper (in fact, it could have been that I still in the baby haze that has just recently lifted, by no means would I suggest that was my best work). So, I think that exclusion does cross gender boundaries--and like Jonathan and Kristina have both said, when panels end, we do tend to hang out with our friends.

That said, I think there's a pattern in which women seem to be the ones continually reminding folks that gender should be one of the foundations of all work--not just women's scholarship. So, much like my fabulous partner who does his best to split evenly our household chores often has to be reminded by me to do x, y, or z (reifiying that I'm charge of everything household), I think there's a way in which the burden of bringing up these issues has fallen on women's shoulders (perhaps in part because many of us feel regularly structured by gender divides) because they are perceived as women's issues. Hopefully that makes sense...?

JG: I think all of that makes sense, Melissa, and the fact the burden falls the way it does has to do with larger issues that people much smarter than me have discussed elsewhere during this debate. But let's talk about the panel at Flow for a second. I am aware of the concerns regarding the boundaries to participation being regulated along gender lines. Likewise, I can understand the consternation about the fact a "panel of boys" and a "panel of girls," both featuring speakers who in other instances may have sat on panels together, were placed head-to-head at Flow. I'm not convinced, however, that to point to that particular incident as evidence of a marginalization of female academic practice necessarily does anyone a service. While I think some good has come out of that moment, there was a particularly sour taste left all round, I think, with regard to the way the issue was raised which seemed sometimes to suggest an intent to exclude, or if you like tinfoil headwear, marginalize.

MC: Clearly the sour taste is shared by many--and nobody enjoys it. I think we all know we're all good people and that no one would hurt or exclude anyone else on purpose, but the fact remains that there are patterns there. Perhaps everyone is tired of talking about it (and if so, forgive me), but I think we need to make positive things come out of these confrontations and uncomfortable situations. I love Stuart Hall's description of the push to put gender on the table in early cultural studies projects as the CCCS. I'll paraphrase because I lent out my book with that particular article in it, but he suggests that feminists broke in during the night and crapped on the table of cultural studies. I love that because it suggests how shocking and violent the push felt--but look at how the field grew from that push. I'm not trying to compare this current situation to that, but I do want to stress that I've seen lots of great stuff come out of this dialogue, and I feel so much smarter for having read it--and I'm so glad to be a participant in it. I'm not, however, entirely satisfied by how this more direct stuff (that I think has more to do how we do our work and where our work takes place than it does with the content of our work), and in these last few weeks I'd like to see it more directly addressed. But I'll be quiet if no one else wants to talk about it....

My apologies in advance to those folks who will (rightfully) say that conferences privilege academics--they do. They are, however, an important component of the work that many of us do, despite the fact that our annual travel funds rarely cover even the costs of one trip to one conference. So critiquing conferences as a space of privilege shouldn't lead us to say that the work done there isn't useful or relevant (even fans have conventions, right, so something useful must be going on in these spaces?!). So, the deadlines for Console-ing Passions and the International Communication Association are upcoming. I'd happily volunteer to organize some panel proposals that would address some of the topics we've been discussing here--panels that would include male and female scholars and include folks studying fans with traditional and untraditional frameworks. If you're interested, please let me know.

I agree with Deborah Kaplan's suggestion that "surely a blog post gives a level of exposure unmatchable by presenting a paper to a room containing 16 overtired academics at an MLA conference," but it's become increasingly clear to me that while we started out with a robust conversation in this space, there are mainly "regulars" writing and responding, and in the recent weeks, responses have petered out. So maybe picking up the discussion in another forum would be useful?

What else can we do?

JG: I think you touch on a really important issue here, Melissa; that is, how is it that we can ensure we effectively make spaces of academic privilege accessible while preserving the value of these sites. I think this is the other side of your proposition that critiquing these spaces shouldn't result in a devaluing of the work that is done here at the expense of work completed elsewhere. I'm not sure the intention of the debate thus far has necessarily been to critique these spaces as producing knowledge that isn't useful or relevant, but rather to point perhaps to the inadequacies of traditional academic practice to both engage the range of scholars producing knowledge within the discipline of 'fan studies' (or should that be "about fans"?), and to actively capture the diversity of knowledge that is being produced about the topic. Certainly Francesca Coppa's intervention in this debate describes the politics inherent in the perceived necessity to create spaces outside of what has been formally recognized as 'academia'. That these are spaces where useful work is produced that should or could be included in studies published via more formal academic channels does not seem such a controversial contention.

In doing so, I think you point to one of the most practical and apparent responses to this debate - namely, to try and move this debate or at least the issues it has raised, to a range of different sites. In this regard, I think it is important to work via "micropractices" (to invoke Jason Mittell again) to attempt to open up the spaces we can influence to a wider range of content. Again, there is nothing controversial about this proposition, but I raise it to suggest an answer to your "what else can we do" question. I'm not sure the solution is necessarily striving for a gender balance on panels or a flocking to particular publishing sites. While I think these options are useful and important, I think it is equally important to encourage discussion across platforms, to support the development of a range of areas of specialization and to keep these in touch with each other - in short, to attempt to move the discussion beyond this forum and beyond this moment. In doing so, I think the questions Jason poses, "what is the relationship between the fan viewer and non-fan viewer? When we study fan practices, are we looking at people who consume differently in degree, or in kind?", are useful as points not so much of common enquiry but to begin to frame continued discussion.