By Isaac Butler
This political "ad" is worth watching in its entirety. It just gets stranger and stranger.
By Isaac Butler
This political "ad" is worth watching in its entirety. It just gets stranger and stranger.
by 99 Seats
I've been thinking a lot about the future. On a lot of different axes. And I've been thinking about theatre. One of the reasons I've been largely radio-silent lately is that I was very busy. I got pretty lucky and had a nice run of readings, workshop presentations, commissions and whatnot to keep me on my toes. It also kept me out of theatres, mostly, at rehearsals or facing looming writing deadlines. So, to be honest, most of my theatre experience of late has been second-hand: reading invites on Facebook, hearing reports from folks who've seen shows, etc. I'm not proud of it. In fact, in many ways, I feel rather embarrassed by it. This is my chosen field, after all, and most of these shows involve friends and colleagues. I should show up to them, if only to insure that they'll show up to see my work. Plus...this is a tough business and we should all be there for each other. So, to everyone, I apologize.
That's part of why I haven't been writing about theatre much here lately. The other part is...what would I write about? Seriously. What's going on that requires comment, discussion, dissection? There was the Guthrie contretemps, but that seems to have resolved itself nicely. The NY theatre season announcements have actually been fairly delightful, intriguing and interesting. My bugaboo of diversity seems to be satisfied for the large part, really. We're in award season and I've been quite pleased to see some good friends and colleagues win awards and accolades. The Tonys, as indicated by Isaac's post here and the New York magazine articles he links to here and here, seem to have caused some consternation about musical theatre...but the unspoken word there seems to be "Broadway." As far as I can see, musical theatre is doing pretty well: some very exciting playwrights are creating musicals, a lot of the major Off-Broadway houses have new musicals in their next seasons, people are still making them. Honestly, the same goes for new plays. It seems like, for the time being, we've hit some sort of equillibrium: there are new plays by exciting new writers planned, the indie scene here in the city feels really coalesced and connected in many ways, and lots of communities are coming together and connecting. Again, this is just a cursory glance, as I pull my head out of my own, um, trench, and look out over the field. I'm sure I'm missing things, or ignoring things, or failing in various ways that will rapidly be brought to my attention.
So the question that comes to me is: what if this is it? A lot of us invest a lot of time in being semi-professionally upset about things. We want change! We want it now! What if, though, there won't be any significant changes? What if the new movement in theatre is here, it's now established and this is it? We've landed at Steady State: Broadway is a place for mass entertainments at a price set for tourists, Off-Broadway and the regionals will continue to cater to an aging, upper-middle class audience with the occasional feint in the direction of diversity, the indie scene will remain largely segregated by class, race, gender and sexuality with occasional cross-pollination, and theatre will, in general, continue to hover in this place, this narrow, wobbly space between being a luxury good for cultural elites and something that connects to a wider audience. What if that's what we can expect for the duration? It does seem fairly resistant to change. Oh, we have our little flare-ups, dust-ups, scandals, donnybrooks, but pretty quickly, order is restored. The natural order of things re-asserts itself and the whole system spins on.
So. What if this is it? What do we do then?
by 99 Seats
"I'm recording our history on the bedroom wall / And when we leave, the landlord will come and paint over it all..." - Ani DiFranco
"Of all my enthusiasms over the years, the one I am the most mortified about is my (it turns out not) undying love for Phish from Freshman year of High School until roughly Senior year of college. And here I want to already insert qualifications. How starting in Sophomore year at Vassar I had stopped liking them, or anyway had my suspicions that they weren’t actually worth the love I had poured into (over?) them and was largely forcing myself to like them. How you probably have some other band or artist (for most of my friends, its Ani Difranco) in your past who is equally embarrassing (and save it, Ani fans, it is equally embarrassing)."
I'll be honest; when I read that, I had to choke back my automatic defense response. Someone said something bad about Ani and all of a sudden, my late teenage years were back with a vengenance. They're never really that far away, I suppose. That shouldn't be much of a surprise to any regular readers. But, this time, before I wrote anything in response, I took a deep breath and took it in. And found...I kind of agreed. Ani DiFranco is kind of embarrassing. It was actually something I'd already accepted, a while back.
If someone asks me for my favorite singer or songwriter, Ani doesn't even make the list. I own fifteen of her albums. FIFTEEN. Since, for a long while, she was putting out a record a year, that represents a decade of running out and getting her new record. I've seen her live at least four times. I'm not much of a concertgoer, so that's a lot. Springsteen is one of my favorite artists ever and I've only seen him once. And yet...when I'm having a party or something and someone is looking at my music for something to play, I pray that they'll just gloss over the Ani DiFranco section. I've been friends with Isaac for five years now, we communicate daily about a wide variety of subjects, often about music and I bet I've never mentioned it to him. It's my dirty little secret.
A mutual friend of Isaac and mine emailed us both today, though, asking a pretty simple question: why? Why is Ani so embarrassing? She is a very good songwriter, a proud, blatantly political feminist, she taped her fingers with electrical tape instead of using a pick, she started her own record label and completely circumvented the music industry establishment. She was openly bisexual, and not in a titillating, male-centric way, but at the same time, she refused to be hemmed in any way and wasn't afraid of standing up to fans and followers who wanted her to be or behave in a certain way. For me, she was the perfect intersection of the music I loved as I barrelled into my 20s: the folk of my hippie-ish youth and the punk that would propel me into adulthood. She was my age and so fucking cool. And now I'm utterly embarrassed by her. Why? What's so embarrassing?
In a way, really, I'm embarrassed of me. I hear Ani's music and a little window opens and there I am: 20 years old, the last bits of a nice, comfortable suburban life stuck to my cheeks, wrapping up my liberal arts degree in a college town of bars and pizza shops, saddled with a doomed crush on my friendly neighborhood feminist. Armed with half a survey course in feminism and years of listening to the Indigo Girls, I thought I'd figured this whole sexism thing out. Ani was the soundtrack to that. Hell, it was like she was singing my journal entries. New York City is dirty but SO cool! Those big glass high-rises ARE full of assholes! Anti-abortion protestors ARE the worst! The coffee IS just water dressed in brown! Any tool IS a weapon if you hold it right! (Actually, I still love that quote; I have a concert t-shirt that says that on the back. I never wear it.)
I don't mean to belittle Ani's politics, or the politics of any of her fans. I believe in the equality of men and women and that long-term sexism and misogyny have done horrible damage to our society and our world. It's just that it's so earnest and so forthright and, in some ways, simplified and smoothed out, so lacking in nuance. The '90s wasn't really a time of nuance, though. There was a great resurgence in political songwriting that was welcome and exciting...in 1992. Listening to old Ani now is kind of like reading editorials in a college newspaper from 25 years ago. You kind of want to sit her down and say, "Chill, okay? You're doing too much."
There's that reading series where you pull out your journal from your middle-school years and read it in public and feel shame. Ani is like that for me. Nothing really against her. I mean, she was practically my age. But there is an undeniable immaturity to her early work, to the music I loved. And an undeniable immaturity in the way I loved it. And her. Ani herself, all white-girl-dreadlocked, ripped jeans, nose-ringed, she herself was like that cool girl from high school or college that you just want to impress. You want her to think you're as cool as she is. She's from the City (always with the capital letters, no matter what city it actually is) and she knows how life really is, man. She knows the cool places to go, that awesome spot in the East Village or the Lower East Side where her ex is the bouncer...and another ex is the bartender. You're never really going to ever feel cool enough for her, but, God, you are going to try. And I know I tried. But, eventually, you move to the city and get a job in one of those big, glass buildings and realize they're not full of assholes. Next you hear of her, she's moved to a yurt or something. And that's cool. But that's not where you were going. Maybe she was really hardcore and you weren't. Maybe it is just a pose and then next time you run into her, she'll have a couple of kids and live in a gated community. Either way, it really wasn't meant to be.
Ani and I weren't really meant to be. Not for life. I wasn't meant for Pearl Jam or Dag (Does anyone remember them at all? Anyone?) or The X-Files or Dana Carvey or Natural Born Killers for life, either. I don't think I stopped talking about Forrest Gump for a month after I saw it. Seriously. Forrest Gump. Now I'd rather spend a lazy Sunday afternoon watching Ghost Rider than Forrest Gump. (That is an actual choice that I made. I am not proud.) Obviously, Ani is better than Forrest Gump. But she's something that I outgrew in a way. I think a lot of people outgrew her. That's not a bad thing. It is, in some ways, a sad thing. But that's growing up, right?
I'll tell you a little secret, though: I have three Ani albums on my MP3 player right now. And there are a couple of tracks from those albums that, when they come up on shuffle, I don't skip them, I sing along (I know all the words by heart) and some of them, I play again. Old crushes die hard.
Television gets a bad rap as an “escapist” medium. Especially on network television, the people are prettier than we are, the stories are easily wrapped up after 44 minutes, there’s a kind of moral clarity (usually conservative) that’s missing from the real world. One reason to watch Law & Order or CSI, for instance, is for the opportunity to visit a world where the line between good and bad guys can be clearly drawn and the good guys almost always win. As a result, TV (especially genre TV) is often criticized as formulaic, uncomplicated, “easy.”
And maybe so, but I don’t think that’s a reason to dismiss these shows. One of my favorite explanations for how we experience stories is the idea of a “narrative world” into which we are transported. Every time we read a story or see a film or a play, we take a trip into this imagined space. The “escapism” of television isn’t then something we need to be ashamed of—it’s exactly the point. A show (or a novel or a play), when it works, offers up a universe unto itself: one that’s like this world, but not-quite.
At a conference this spring, I heard a brilliant paper that explored the relationship between science fiction and depression. Basically the argument was that films (her examples were Melancholia and The Future) use the tropes of science fiction, especially that of Armageddon, to literalize the emotional experience of depression, especially the way that the end of the world might not be so bad after all.
Pretty bleak stuff, all told—but the thing I was left thinking about is the way that depression and narrative can work in similar ways, especially in their ability to create coherent worlds and all-encompassing explanations. After all, who is more convincing than a depressive? Part of the experience of depression is its impenetrability—if you’ve ever experienced The Pit, or tried to talk a friend up and out of it, you know what I’m talking about. Inside the experience of depression, everything you see, everything you experience is just more evidence leading to the inescapable conclusion that you’re a complete turd and that there’s no way out of your current misery. It’s a fully functioning narrative universe, with its own (awful) logic and rules.
Perhaps this is why, in my experience, stories are so much more engrossing when I’m depressed. Since I was a kid, narratives have worked in this way for me—imaginative play also works really well as a dissociative tool, it turns out. I don’t remember many details of my dad’s crazy alcoholic behavior, but I remember writing stories in school (much to my parents’ chagrin) about a drunk driver. When I was 22, and getting sober myself, I was so obsessed with Buffy that I would dream about Sunnydale. Part of the experience of being in the oppressively convincing closed system of depression is having another closed system into which you might be transported.
Which brings me to the late, lamented Awake. The pilot of this show was among the best I’ve ever seen, rivaling BSG’s “33,” and without BSG’s advantage of having already done the heavy expository lifting in a preceding miniseries. Lots of critics loved the pilot but doubted (rightfully, it turns out) whether the show would be able to sustain its premise for a single season, not to mention longer. And they have a point. The show’s hook is this: after experiencing a near-fatal car crash, detective Michael Britten awakens to find his reality bifurcated by grief, his son surviving in one world and his wife in the other, unsure which is reality and which is a dream. Each world has its own slightly different story logic: different partners, different cases, a different visual style (a green filter for Son World, red for Wife World).
At the same time that the show plays with this psychic switcheroo, it also tries to work as a much more standard genre cop show, complete with cases-of-the-week and an overarching conspiracy around the car crash that begins the series. As Britten goes about his daily routine as a homicide detective, clues from one reality give him insight into the case he’s working in the other, and he becomes a Superdetective, with unexplainable but unerring hunches that lead him to solve case after case. This veering back and forth between a visually and thematically daring structure and radically commonplace (if that’s possible) genre plots was ultimately the strangest element of the show, and was, in my opinion, what kept it from gaining the audience that would allow it to extend beyond a single season.
In a scene between Britten and one of his therapists at the end of the pilot, for instance, Britten explains that he’s uninterested in deciphering which reality is “real,” since choosing would be tantamount to killing either his wife or son. This was the moment in the pilot when I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears, identifying so strongly with this literalized representation of the denial that accompanies grief. But then, the episode immediately veers away from the suggestion that the show’s premise is all in Britten’s head, showing a shadowy meeting between higher-ups in the police department talking in cloak-and-dagger clichés about how Britten “knows too much” and might have to be “taken care of.”
Throughout the series, these shifts in tone gave me a serious case of the bends. Is the show a thinky psychological science fiction riff in the tradition of films like Donnie Darko, or a procedural cop show? Shows like Fringe and The X-Files have been able to achieve a balance between serialized and episodic storylines, but there is always clear thematic resonance between the two—something Awake never achieved. The cases and the conspiracy were consistently background noise to the much more interesting stuff about Britten’s grip on reality and his attempt to bridge his increasingly disparate roles as father and husband.
But here’s the thing: maybe what Awake is really about is the fantasy of the depressive. Retreating into a fully constructed reality won’t just save you, it will save everyone. The finale ends with a scene that at first appears to be the hackiest move of all, suggesting, Dallas-style, that the entire premise has been an elaborate dream, that the car crash never happened at all and that Britten’s wife and son are both alive and well. After some consideration, however, it is clear (and creator Kyle Killen has confirmed that this was his intention) that this third world is Britten’s fantasy, suggesting at least to my mind that both the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and the hacky conspiracy and procedural plots are both signs of Britten’s deteriorating psyche. This is why it’s so interesting to me that the procedural element is so uninventive and that this is where Britten’s detective “superpowers” show up—when we’re trying to make sense of something that can’t be made sense of, don’t we often retreat to well-trod turf? If a story makes the most sense or feels truest, that often has more to do with its familiarity than its accuracy. Britten’s (and the show’s) investment in generically familiar cop drama is both a sign of his depression and his way out of it.
Throughout the series, the procedural and conspiracy plots often felt like (and probably were) ways to expand viewership—attract a “cable” audience with the high-concept stuff, and a “network” audience with the standard cop show stuff. But what it ends up illuminating is the way that familiar generic myths form their own kind of language, one that can both cocoon us from unwelcome realities but also offer a space in which those realities insist on expression, however indirectly. Weirdly, then, in the end Awake works as a kind of mirror image to The Wire. While The Wire exposes the institutional costs of thinking that the law works “like it does on TV,” Awake focuses on the individual psychic price of that belief. Instead of showing us how the stories are a lie, Awake seems more interested in why we might remain invested in those stories even when they don’t line up with reality.
By Isaac Butler
In the wake of the last Broadway season, New York Magainze's Vulture is doing a big ole roundtable on the future of the musical and what can be done to save it that includes two pieces by Scott Brown (one from the magazine on song writing, one from the website on what can be done. The latter piece also includes a slide show where several big players in the musical theater realm, including Michael Friedman, Jason Robert Brown and Gabe Kahan, talk about the challenges of the form. Well worth checking out.
My knee-jerk thing here is to think about how musical theater songwriting reconciles with changes in popular songwriting. But at the same time, a lot of great musicals-- I'm thinking here of Harnick and Bock's Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Sunday In The Park With George, Bill Finn's Falsettos to pick a few at random-- have little relationship to popular songwriting, so this seems like not the only direction to take this conversaiton. And also it seems to me that schmaltz artists like Webber and Wildhorn are in fact engaging with changes in popular music, they just happen to be changes in a form of popular music that we find distasteful.
Scott Brown's article talks about needing to risk being distasteful, of doing something grand and messy and abusrd:
Musicals today—mindful of long odds, high costs, and the general precariousness of the form—are, I think, resisting their inner madness, and that’s a little like hating one’s own flesh. What basis besides madness can there possibly be for a form that’s as shapeless, idiosyncratic, and painstakingly artisanal as the novel yet as vastly collaborative and consensus-dependent as a Hollywood film? How do we reconcile these things? We do not. We embrace the schizoid totality of it. A true musical is the fissile power of internal contradiction gone critical. It’s the disciplined, rigorous release of madness from the molten core of the human soul, apportioned in meter, disciplined (barely) in song.
Oddly, Brown then segues to talking about subject matter, the story being told rather than the insane telling of it that he desires. Perhaps what' sbeing hinted at here is that one must start with a story ready-made for insanity before one can get to the crazy.
By Ben Owen
Isaac asked me to contribute something to the blog while he’s away. Confronted with the problem of writing original material, I decided to cheat, and to write a little about the work I’ve been doing in grad school. I realize reproducing academic work on a blog runs the risk of seeming dull, tendentious, or obscurantist, and so rather than presenting condensed versions of my papers, I’ve tried to describe some of the more interesting ideas I’ve encountered in my recent work, and also to talk about Mario Kart 64, because I don’t do that enough.
A few weeks ago I finished a draft of a paper about the 1931 jungle movie Trader Horn. The film is a weird racist fantasia, remembered, as far as it is remembered at all, because it was the first talkie shot primarily on location in Africa, or possibly because some of the unused footage from the shoot ended up director WS Van Dyke’s other more popular racist fantasia, Tarzan the Ape Man.
I got interested in Trader Horn because I was fascinated by the idea, proposed by some film scholars, that filmmakers rely on racial stereotypes as a way of compensating for the unsettling qualities of technological innovation, whether it be the emergence of film itself or the transition to sound. In the case of Trader Horn this meant that while location sound recording was still a dicey proposition in the late 1920s and very early 30s, leading to the sense that synched dialogue wasn’t actually coming from the actors’ mouths, you could to some extent fool an audience invested in the logic of white supremacy into believing that a generically African sound (drumming and chanting) was coming from the stereotyped Africans on screen, whether or not it was technically synched. So a racist expectation of what Africans should sound like on the part of the audience would, up to a point, do the synchronization work for the filmmakers.
My mnemonic for understanding this idea that a voice might emanate from an undifferentiated notion of Africa, whether or not any actual on-screen African appeared to speak, was—of course—the DK’s Jungle Parkway course in Mario Kart 64. When you drive off course “restless natives” pelt you with stones (the Super Mario Wiki confirms that that is actually the language used in the instruction booklet for the game), which slow you down or, if you have been shrunk by a competitor’s lightning bolt, flatten you. Except of course the “restless natives” never appear. They are entirely notional; the only sign of their existence is the stones that arc from the edges of the track. The game relies on the player to assume the “natives’” presence without any justification beyond the stones and the jungle setting, just as Trader Horn relied on viewers to assume that a sound could naturally come from Africa, even without any sign of an African making it. Over the six-year period in which I played Mario Kart 64 obsessively, I occasionally found the absence of these “natives” disturbing. A fan of the game, I didn’t criticize it on the basis of its racist, colonialist assumptions, even though—as a student at a lefty liberal arts college in the late 90s—I had the language to do so. Instead, I think the absence disturbed me because it suggested how incredibly empty the game world was, and I translated that feeling of emptiness not into politics, but rather into of the sensation of luxuriant loneliness that, as a young adult, I loved so well.
But what to do with the paper now? In my more feverish moments I would obviously like to make it primarily about Mario Kart 64 and the softcore Trader Horn parody Trader Hornee (1970, tagline: "The film that breaks the law of the jungle!"). One slightly calmer idea, however, more a book proposal than a paper, would be to trace the history of the jungle movie forward in time, accounting for other technological shifts—so starting with Trader Horn and sync sound, and moving to Bwana Devil (1951) and 3D. It could be fun to write about Bwana Devil, a profoundly shitty movie in profoundly shitty 3D, which, in its fervent desire to get back to cinema’s earliest racial fantasies, even includes a black-baby-washing scene, a staple of cinema in the 1890s. My hook would be that in times of technological change Hollywood can be relied upon to make a jungle movie, smoothing over the spatially disorientating properties of the new form with a reassuring primitivist fantasy. The next stop would obviously be Avatar.
By isaac Butler
The Fandom Issue got featured on Metafilter this week and in wading through the comments I found this one from Tubalcain that I wanted to share with ya'll because I thought it offered some food for thought:
What's kind of curious to me is the idea of the "rise" of the female fan. I've been reading Textual Poachers, a sociological look at late zine and early internet fandom from the Eighties and Nineties, and I got the feeling that fandom (and especially fanworks) had a strong female showing already. There were some fandoms mentioned as being heavily male (Twin Peaks, for example) but then there was everything from Star Trek(relatively gender neutral) and Beauty and the Beast (heavily female and apparently romantic in a way not unlike Twilight fandom). It's interesting to hear about different methods of fandom, but sometimes I wonder if we end up erasing the existence of women there by positing this as a continually new development rather than an ongoing thing.
It's also kind of funny that non-creative (in the literal "creating things" sense) fandom is stereotypically feminine, while fans who consume or memorize culture are stereotyped as masculine, especially because that's the exact opposite of how those things tend to be gendered in other places. Of course, I think that's also because we've sort of moved some fanwork into "creative crossover" Pride and Prejudice and Zombiescategories, where it's seen as art in its own right rather than a derivative, while focusing on the worst of stereotypically feminine fanfiction.
I was watching a PBS video on fanworks, for example, and a (male) artist and fanfic writer was talking about his own stuff, which he described as kind of absurdist. Then he mentioned Sherlock fandom, which as far as I can tell is relatively woman-heavy and has a lot of crossover with Doctor Who. He ended up talking about how he had no idea how these people got these ideas, how he had no idea if they were serious or what, and generally seeming shocked by the weirder ideas (in this case, a fanart showing the main characters as a corgi and a llama, trying to kiss, iirc.) What was strange, though, was that he seemed to completely disregard the possibility that they were, like him, doing self-consciously weird takes on a show. It was like the presence of romantic elements totally shut down the option that they weren't being 100 percent squee and serious, which is not at all my experience in most "girl fandoms."
By Isaac Butler
(1) Why Fandom Is So Gay by Anne Moore, exploring themes of shame, queerness and the author-audience relationship in fandom in general and Battlestar Galactica in particular.
(2) Fans on Film by Danny Bowes in which the writer looks at depictions of superfans in the world of mainstream US cinema.
(3) Marvelous by Freddie DeBoer, an examination of fan victim culture, the victory of fan culture over popular culture in general and the end of cultural elitism.
(4) Me And The Doctor by Mac Rogers, which explores Rogers' love of Doctor Who and how it has influenced his own writing as a playwright.
(5) My Boyfriend the Fan by Jaime Green, an annotated gchat between Green and her boyfriend Tanner Ringerud, in which they talk about their own enthusiasms, what it means to be both a fan and an adult and how fandom brought them together in the first place.
(7) A Death in the Family by Isaac Butler, where I talk about actual death vs. cancellation and what they tell us about each other.
This issue has been an absolute blast. Thanks to all of the contributors for their wonderful work. I will be out of town and posting infrequiently over the next two weeks. 99Seats, Anne Moore, Ben Owen and maybe a couple of other folks will be holding down the fort in my absense.
One thing that's struck me through The Fandom Issue, which I guess I'll leave as a closing thought, is that the process of being a Fan is very similar to the process of being an artist, or (especially) a critic. You do a lot of outside research on whatever you're fixated on. You have long conversations with other people about it. You game out scenarios and alternate versions of the things you're talking about. With Fans, of course, it's with an object of adoration, a sports team (or athlete), a music group, a series of books or films, a television show. With artists it's whatever is the subject matter of their current project. And with critics it's whatever is assigned to them, regardless of whether or not they like it, regardless of whether or not it holds their interest. This is an odd position to be in, to say the least, to have to mimic a super-fans level of engagement with something you don't love.
I hope you've enjoyed the fandom issue. When I return we'll have a call for submissions for the next one. If there's any particualr topic you'd like us to explore, leave it in the comments!
By Isaac Butler
UPDATE: Hey all. Apparently, this post has recently gotten linked to at TV W/o Pity and a couple of other places including Dan Harmon's twitter feed, and so I just wanted to say that while I standby this piece as it captures how I felt about all of this in May of 2012, I feel very differently now than I did then.
I've recently been rewatchign the entire show from the beginning in big marathony gulps and I find that my feelings about have changed in pretty big ways from the more complicated feelings I discuss below to unabashed adulation. Obivously, I loved the show in May when I wrote this, but my feelings about it were complicated. They are less so now.
I want to write more about it and my changing feelings when I've finished the rewatch (I'm halfway through season 2 right now). So while I'm in a different place w/r/t everything I discuss below, I still felt this way then and hope you enjoy or find some meaning in it.
Here's the original post:
I was on my way to a funeral when I found out that Dan Harmon got fired. My wife’s Uncle, dead of heart failure, fifty-one years old. Calling this “sad” seems like the grossest violation of the English language, and of the demand I place on my students that they use specific words. Rather than come up with some kind of metaphor, let me just say that he was going to start a new job after a lengthy, recession-induced unemployment less than a week after he died. His life had just started looking up, and then it was taken away from him.
Dan Harmon was fired as the show runner on Community, the ambitious, expensive, low-rated show he created just after that show received a last minute reprieve and fourth season. I don’t imagine there’s a single person reading this who doesn’t already know that. Increasingly here in the United States, shows are identified with their creators who, in the artier end of the spectrum, stay on and oversee the programs they’ve created. The Wire is David Simon. The Sopranos is David Chase. Mad Men is Matt Weiner. Even The Killing, which is an adaptation of another TV show, is heavily identified with Veena Sud, its adapter and show runner.
Over the weekend, I got to watch and participate in two different grieving processes, and found them to be almost exactly the same. One happened in person, the other over twitter and blogs. One was religious, one was secular. But the emotional content was the same. Dan Harmon being fired was a kind of death, a man being cut down in his prime and people mourned it as such. At the same time, Uncle Bill’s death was a disruption in the planned narrative of our lives, provoking the kind of rage and grief people—including myself—hurled at NBC and Sony.
If this sounds callous, it’s not meant to be. I’m trying to highlight how absurd our anger over a wealthy television writer being paid to do nothing for a year is. Even Harmon himself recognized this, tweeting out a reminder to his followers (and let’s just put a pin on that word followers shall we?) that he bought a house with his Community earnings and we shouldn’t feel bad for him.
But feel bad for him we do. Or at least I do. Even if—and this is the confession I feel strangest about making—I think Community should probably have ended, and that the third season was routinely kind of a drag to watch. And now I notice that all of the language I was about to use here—idioms like “life support” or “putting it down”—refer us back to treating this show as a living thing, and not just a living thing, a person, and not just a person but a friend.
Dan Harmon also encouraged this. Anne Moore wrote earlier in the fandom issue that part of the problem with being a fan is that creators are ultimately unavailable, can never know our names. This is untrue for Harmon, who named an off-screen character after a troll on twitter and took the phrase “streets ahead”—originally used to insult him by a random viewer online—and made it briefly into Pierce Hawthorne’s catchphrase. The season finale this year ended with a full-out homage to The Wire… and then a twitter hashtag for fans. Harmon’s loveably TMI blog posts were like mini-feasts between shows. While Community was written by a cadre of writers, as an audience watching it, it felt like all of one sensibility, even when each episode was radically different from the last.
Community was the most ambitious show on television during Dan Harmon’s reign. He seemed determined to see just how many ways he could stretch the fundamental concept of the show, how many different genres they could attempt, how many different complicated running gags they could pull off, how many different ways they could get the Greendale Seven into trouble. In this way, Community was very much like The Simpsons during its golden age of seasons 3-9. Every week we tuned in not knowing what to expect, and they gave us everything from quite dark straightforward realism to two bogus clips episodes.
The part of this that’s hard to write is this next paragraph. For it seems that the main thing that sets Community and Golden Age Simpsons apart is that the latter was consistently brilliant and the former had one truly amazing season (that would be 2) with two uneven seasons bookending it. This should not be hard to write. Hell, this shouldn’t even be necessary to write. But in the wake of the show’s brief mid-season cancellation, the overestimation of Community took off to the point where it now feels, well, like speaking ill of the dead.
But Community, particularly in Season 3, had serious problems. Jim Rash and Ken Jeong were almost never funny, and they got less so as the characters' importance to the show's story grew. The depiction of the Dean was often tinged with a kind of latent homophobia that completely poisoned the third season’s mean-spirited Christmas episode. Many of the shows this season—including the heist episode in this week’s 3-ep burn off—were impressive without being particularly funny. And in the third season, the characters started losing the nuance they had gained in the second, with Shirley and Annie reduced to vocal tics and Troy becoming more dumb than endearingly innocent.
In the midst of this, the season still pulled off two stone classics (Remedial Chaos Theory and Curriculum Unavailable) and had a run of episodes towards the end that reduced me to tears. Because the truth of the matter is—notice how easy it is to slip into Jeff’s cadences—that Community really was something special, flaws and all, and both its positives and negatives were part of it speaking with one voice, and that voice was Harmon’s.
And so yes, it feels like speaking ill of the dead to say that perhaps the show was bogging down, that perhaps they’d said all they had come to say, perhaps three seasons, one pretty good, one brilliant and one mixed-to-meh were enough.
We don’t like to see things end. Relationships, people, television shows. We want to keep them around indefinitely. But does anyone actually think Six Seasons And A Movie would be good for Community as a work of art? That it wouldn’t just become a series of twitter-generated shibboleths, retreads of past genre parodies and Troy-Abed bromance ?
Soon we’ll get to see if keeping a television show on well past its prime is a good idea when Arrested Development returns. Like Community, AD was a fan-beloved, low-rated, absurdly ambitious half hour comedy. And like Community, it hit its stride with a near perfect second season only to collapse in its third. Arrested Development’s third season is even weaker than Community’s, sporting only one good episode (for the record, that’d be S.O.B.’s). I am, to put it mildly, skeptical of the show’s return.
The question I have always had is why we demand more quantity from the things that we love and why we are so unwilling to speak critically—or accept others speaking critically—of them. Why I feel actually slightly scared saying that Community wasn’t that good this season, and that fan and critical discourse around it had a kind of CLAP LOUDER quality to it. Or that I’m not looking forward to a new season of Arrested Development and might not even watch it.
It seems to me that death—and our fear of it—and mortality—and our desire to conquer it—is at work here. We form relationships with the art we love that mimic our human relationships, particularly when there’s a strong creator behind the work who we can form a quasi-relationship with as well. As with our loved ones, we don’t want this thing to die. And as in the US healthcare system, we come to prize quantity of years over quality of life.
As I’ve just relearned this weekend, saying goodbye when there’s no possibility of another hello is amongst the most difficult things we humans do. We have to learn how to do it over and over again, and we almost never get it right. We idolize people and turn them into saints. We invent elaborate mythologies to protect our hearts. Having no one to blame but the Universe, we blame we each other. This is what it is to be human, to get most things at least somewhat wrong most of the time and to keep going.
Most of all, when something we love dies, we find ourselves wishing for more time, as if time were the problem. As if more were the solution, the always for everything American solution for problems. More. Just give me more. If I just had more this would all be okay.
In Uncle Bill’s case, that’s true. He was in his early fifties. Seemingly healthy until he abruptly wasn’t. Loved by his family and neighbors and friends. About to start a new job. More really would be a good solution in his case. I’d love to have some more. Some more odd jokes over e-mail. Some more arguments about politics. Some more geeking out about his favorite guitarists.
To give one example: An e-mail debate broke out amongst Anne’s family members about who their favorite Sherlock Holmes was. Who is your favorite Holmes? Was it Basil Rathbone? Benedict Cumberbatch? Peter Cushing? Robert Downey Junior? Bill replied with an e-mail titled “here’s my favorite Holmes” with a picture of Katie Holmes. A lame joke, perhaps, but as we told it and retold it, it got funnier and funnier.
I look at the Dan Harmon era of Community—and most other shows that have been cancelled—and it feels monstrous to mourn in the same way. To ask for More. More time. To equate this thing, this show, this collection of stories with a person. It feels completely out of balance with a healthy attitude towards the world. Of course, Community knew that, and in giving us Abed, explored that idea over and over again.
I know it’s neither healthy nor mature, and yet I can’t stop doing it. This kind of love is, it seems, hardwired into me. I want to have disdain for fans. I really do. But—as is often the case in these matters—that’s because I recognize myself in them. The impulses they celebrate are ones I’m ashamed of, but we still both possess them. And so I’m left crying at a funeral, and then crying the next day when I watch the show’s season finale, and mixing them both up in my head so that perhaps it’s Uncle Bill that got fired and Dan Harmon who died suddenly and then unraveling these associations and thinking myself a monster for even having them in the first place.
By Isaac Butler
(Below, we continue our coversation with Salon's Laura Miller, touching on Battlestar Galactica, love triangles, the impossibility of endings, the rise of the female fan and Miller's infamous pan of Chuck Palahniuk's "Diary." There is a minor spoiler about the second book/season of Game of Thrones in this interview. I've tagged it below so you can avoid it.)
What Makes a Fan And The Impossibility Of Endings
IB: I feel like in a way that I don’t always see with other critics, you’re very open about how your own enthusiasms. Like The Magician’s Book and some of your other work. But I don’t think you use the word fan to self-identify about much. So I was interested in how you see your enthusiasms affecting your criticism and where the border between enthusiast and fan lies.
LM: I’m definitely a fan of some things. I’d describe myself as a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m a fan of Battlestar Galactica. I was a fan of Lost for a while. And the reason why I would say I’m a fan of those is because I would partake of the fan culture in a “nonprofessional” way.
IB: So the community makes it a fan activity?
LM: The fact that I’m willing to do that signals I have an interest that goes beyond the cultural consumption that I do. I used to listen to a Lost podcast where these guys in Texas would try to track down all the clues. If my interest overflows from the simple experience of consuming that culture to wanting to know more about it and think about it and see what other people were saying about it, than I think of myself as a fan.
I have noticed that a lot of fandom—if women are involved—seems to revolve around romantic triangles. With The Hunger Games, there’s lots of people who are in it for the action, but it also has room for Endless-Romantic-Triangle-Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking. I’m not very interested in that but I do argue with my friend Sasha because my feeling is that Sookie Stackhouse does not belong with Eric Northman! (laughter) She does not! That’s one of the few. I’m so invested in that character I will get into that discussion. Usually I’m not going to argue about whether Buffy should’ve been with Spike or Angel. I love Buffy but I don’t care for who her boyfriend is.
With Battlestar, something would happen and I’d wonder WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?! So I’d listen to Ronald Moore’s podcast to find out what’s the secret of this or that? I loved that show. Loved it! That’s fandom to me, when I seek out those extras.
IB: I was heavily invested in Battlestar as well. Did the ending of that show and maybe your own maybe reactions to it—which I’m going to guess were negative—did that give you any window into the abject rage that can grip fans? It seems that there’s a difference between saying “Gosh, I don’t’ think that ending was very good”—
LM: And feeling betrayed!—
IB: Yes! “Ronald D. Moore personally betrayed me!” Which is, you know, I try to be a reasonable guy but that’s how I feel about it sometimes. Is that how you felt about it?
LM: I feel often at war with other fans because my first serious TV fandom was around Twin Peaks. The thing that I loved about Twin Peaks was how unresolved it was. I don’t want all the questions answered. I think 90% of fandom wants that. I feel like the finale of Battlestar was made for that 90% that wants it all tied up.
I’m not so big on the “Oh fuck you, it’s all so meaningless” Sopranos ending, but I feel like endings are impossible because people want something impossible. They expect the finale to complete the intensity of their involvement. But it’s the involvement along the way that’s the core of the fan experience. There is no ending that would complete that. If I said, “I’m going for a walk in the woods,” does it ruin the walk in the woods if, when I get to my destination, it’s not the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen?
I’ve spent my entire professional life reading novels. I know how hard it is to end them effectively. Often it doesn’t matter if they end effectively. People complain about Neil Stephenson endings. People complain about the end of Infinite Jest! I think there’s a relationship between the intensity of fandom and the disappointment in the ending. The bigger a fan you are, the less likely you are to like the ending.
I’m sure George will have the same problem with The Song of Ice and Fire.
IB: I have a friend who rereads the old Martin books when the new ones come out and tracks the prophecies and I can’t imagine there’s a way she’ll be okay with whatever happens in book nine.
LM: I think that he’ll really try, though. And it will probably kill him. As much as I don’t go, “Wow, that was a great ending” to The Sopranos, David Chase was absolutely right that that’s just how you end it. You couldn’t win. There’s no way to win that one.
With TV, though, they’re making it up as they go along. What made Lost so frustrating was that they told us they weren’t. And then at the end you realize “They lied to me! They were making it up as they went along!” (laughter)
IB: My favorite acknowledgement of that is in Battlestar when they took “They have a plan” out of the opening credits of the final season. It was this tacit admission, this “neither the Cylons nor we had a plan.”
LM: There is no plan!
IB: It’s funny because the Martin example is a great one. There’s now like six people who could be the reincarnation of R’hllor. He could also choose the option that the prophecy is wrong. But none of that is going to satisfy everyone. If it’s John Snow, some people are going to be happy, some not. If it’s Davos Seaworthy—
LM: Davos? It would never be Davos would it?
IB: Well Davos—you know what, this might be a conversation for later—but R’hllor has to be reborn out of smoke and salt and Davos is in that shipwreck.
LM: Well I hope so. Davos is my favorite character.
(SPOILERY PART OVER)
George RR Martin, Chuck Palahniuk and The Emasculation of Fans
IB: One of the reasons why I really wanted to interview you is that I could think of two notable examples of where you professionally had these interactions with fan communities. One is, obviously, the George RR Martin profile for The New Yorker but the other one is what I consider your heroic pan of Chuck Palahniuk’s Diary—
LM: (long laughter) Thank you for calling it that.
IB: I used to work at Book Court and I’m an MFA candidate now and teach literature and writing and the intensity of Chuck Palahniuk’s fans is shocking to me. I try to use it to get people to read things that are similar but actually good like early Martin Amis or AM Homes or even Mary Gaitskill. There’s this intense and intensely male and frightening Palahniuk fandom. What was writing that like?
LM: I’m different from most book critics in that while I love David Foster Wallace and I like Sebald— I like things that are more “highbrow” or “difficult.”—but I also try to have a sense of what people are actually reading. So I’ll read The Da Vinci Code or Twilight or I even read The Shack. I still haven’t read that porno novel yet so I have to get cracking on that. I’m curious as to what readers like. I’m interested in readers. I know why people like Twilight or The DaVinci Code or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I do not know why people like Chuck Palahniuk.
That piece is so fiery because I kept going back and I could not understand it. Obviously, it’s a particular kind of taste that I don’t have. I read the first three three Twilight novels with some interest because I knew I was going to write about them and I got it. Not enough that I wanted to read the fourth one, but I understood it. I really like the character is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and I would read anything with her in it. Even The DaVinci Code, which is so stupid, I know why people like it.
I read three Chuck Palahniuk novels and I just couldn’t figure it out, and he gets worse as he goes along. At least with the first few, they sort of hung together. But eventually it just seemed really cavalier. With Dan Brown, I really believe he writes the best books he can; with Palahniuk, it just seems cynical to me. So I became very irritated.
IB: Wasn’t the response to that kind of extreme?
LM: Yeah, I got a lot of crazy hate mail. I still get crazy hate mail. But I’ve been an internet journalist since the nineties, so it’s just par for the course. I deal with idiots all the time. It’s just part of my job. By now I know which ones I should respond to and which ones I shouldn’t. Some people write me because they get really mad over negative reviews and people get really mad over positive ones too. It has nothing to do with me. I’m just the object that their rage settled on today.
I wrote the Palahniuk review around the time that lit blogs were really taking off. Some of those people became somewhat obsessed with disliking me. The Palahniuk thing exacerbated that. I had to decide that I wasn’t going to look at lit blogs. Once you are well known enough to be bad mouthed in the blogosphere, you have to show a particular kind of self-control that’s really hard to develop.
IB: Even in the insular theater blogger world I travel in, I am somewhat familiar with what you’re talking about.
LM: Yeah. You just have to ignore everything. You know that Tina Fey acceptance speech where she was responding to anonymous trolls?
IB: (laughing) Yeah.
LM: So anyway, I had to stop reading lit blogs. That was the downside of that. But other than that, I still get hate mail from Chuck Palahniuk fans. And Chuck Palahniuk really, really hates me.
IB: You also wrote that article on George RR Martin, which is somewhat about his antagonists on the internet. Didn’t you interview them?
LM: One. The main ones are all anonymous.
IB: Right. I guess I was wondering what through that experience you learned through fans and fan communities.
LM: The main thing I would say—and I think this is a truism of both detractors and fans—is that they are driven into communities online through their overarching admiration or disgust. But they stay in these communities because of the relationships they form with each other.
The strange thing about the detractors is it’s such a creative fandom. They felt they needed to come up with a counter narrative. So they wrote an entire book together! Which I think is amazing. It’s a negative form of fan fiction, which is, to me, the most fascinating aspect of fandom. It’s the point at which fandom because an actual creative activity. Although a lot of it is bad, the people are empowered, which is good.
I think that fandom is troubling for certain types of men because it puts them in a position where they feel effeminate. They need to assert some kind of masculinized mastery to give themselves a feeling that they have the right amount of power for a man to have in a relationship. For example, some fandoms take the form of obsessive knowledge and classification, kind of like a science. Take comics fans. They assert their mastery over their fannish admiration by becoming an authority. That’s a particular, very male type of fandom.
With Martin’s detractors, I think that part of what bothered them about George is that he drove home their vulnerabilities. No matter how robust the fandom, no matter how much fan fiction is there, only George can complete the story for them. They are just abject in relationship to George. He’s like the captain of the football team and only taking them to the prom is going to really satisfy them and so they’re helpless. This enrages them because he withholds in a way that makes them feel even more feminized.
I think that’s why the rhetoric they use is so sexualized. They’re obsessed with sexual insults and with taunts and speculations about George’s sex life and the way sex is portrayed in the book. It’s a way of casting George into this emasculated position because they feel castrated—if I might use an old Freudian term— by the power that he has.
Only George can give them emotional satisfaction and this makes them feel like a woman. In the traditional gender dynamic, a woman can withhold sex from a man but women are also interchangeable whereas the woman’s problem is that only one man can give her what she really wants.
LM: So that’s why they feel feminized by it. They keep talking about how they’re just going to go to another fantasy writer. They’ll say “Joe Abercrombie is a good fantasy writer because he does this and this and this and he serves his fan base.” It’s very funny. “He understands that he needs to please me.” Whereas they feel George doesn’t care and that’s emasculating.
That little book they wrote together, it features them as these super macho, swaggering male characters. The narratives all involve them being the really awful mercenary band from Game of Thrones. They’ve embraced the amoral mercenary powerful figures; that’s how they portray themselves.
The Rise Of The Female Fan
IB: So here’s I suppose my final question. One of the things that’s happened because of the internet is that fan communities are easier to form and keep in touch with. You’ve been monitoring American arts and letters over the same time period. Is fandom changing the art we produced?
LM: Yes. If you’re talking about something that’s serialized, definitely, more than if you’re talking about something that’s a completed work. Because with series—like Twilight or Sookie Stackhouse—they give the fans something to talk about in between installments and that creates a community that continues to exist after the series is completed. It becomes a huge thing once we’re talking about the commercial success of a project. One of the reasons why The Hunger Games is such a juggernaut is because of Twilight.
Twilight is a seminal cultural phenomenon. The people who are Twilight fans came up with Harry Potter, even if they weren’t Harry Potter fans. It created a kind of female fandom that is profoundly different from the male forms of fandom, which are largely based on that mastery thing where you’re trying to assert control over this uncontrollable experience.
The female fans just don’t have that issue. People who are really into Twilight will go onto forums and say, “Oh my God, I’m so into Twilight I haven’t done laundry in ages!” because they’re not battling to be the most, to outdo each other. No one is going to scorn you as a newbie. Willingness to participate, be social, be friendly, interact, that’s what matters. It becomes a socially cemented thing and then this network exists and all they need is new books to be excited about.
This is why 50 Shades of Grey is so huge. There’s nothing new about it. It just got plugged into this insane network of Twilight fandom. Which might not even think of itself as Twilight fandom anymore. If you can get your work—and it has some kind of legs—into that amazing network of people you’ll be a millionaire! (Laughter) It’s the most powerful word of mouth machine ever created.
The Hunger Games proved that this new kind of fandom is going to rule our culture the way that comic book fandom used to. And it’s a girl thing, not a guy thing because the sociality is totally different.
By Isaac Butler
It's good of the Guthrie to add more women and people of color into their season in the wake of the earlier outcry. That was the right thing to do. Details on the new announcement here. Hopefully next season they'll preempt this stuff by programming more works be people of color and women and more works helmed by people of color and women.
Things sometimes do get better. And pressure does, sometimes, work. This is good news.
By Isaac Butler
(Editor's Note: It's weird to write one of these before my own piece. Laura Miller has long been one of my favorite critics of any medium. In this interview, we roam what it means to be a fan, her specific fandoms, rising trends in the fan univerise, gender and all sorts of other things. Enjoy!
Laura Miller is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a co-founder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian and other publications, and she wrote "The Last Word," a column, for the New York Times Book Review for two years. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of the "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" (Penguin, 2000).)
The Unending Shitstrom
LAURA MILLER: With fan communities like science fiction, there are these bigger issues where the outside world addresses the fandom in a way they—well, they never like it. Margaret Atwood is a really big thing because she’s a literary author who sometimes writes science fiction. But they’re mad if she calls it science fiction and they’re mad if she doesn’t call it science fiction and get all worked up about it. They have the biggest chip on their shoulder about this whole “mainstream vs. SF” thing.
Part of it is that they’re both aggrieved at being marginalized and really invested in being marginalized. So they don’t really want to be accepted. They want to be angry and self-righteous about not being accepted.
ISAAC BUTLER: That totally makes sense. We actually have a piece in the issue that mentions how the Tea Party and Fan Communities mirror each other. There is something—and I don’t think it’s specific about fan culture but rather about American culture—about binding yourself to other people through a position of unbreachable perpetual victimhood. No matter what the exterior reality is. Comic book fans and video game fans see themselves as aggrieved even though the major industry event is comic con in San Diego.
LM: For them I think it’s less about actual cultural power and more about prestige.
IB: Yeah, I agree.
LM: And prestige is so immaterial. There’s no way to measure it. You can measure how much money The Avengers makes but you can’t measure the respect that it got. I know what you mean about the comics people. Here’s an example of an interaction I've had with comics people.
I did a roundup for Salon of graphic novels. Basically, it was ten graphic novels from that year. The first time I did it, it was ten graphic novels that I was recommending for people who don’t really follow the comics genre at all. I mentioned in the column a few things that wouldn’t be in the list. And one of the things was “No Superheroes.”
I just felt the superhero mythos is taxed out. I don’t want to see another superhero movie, it’s just the same thing over and over again. But I didn’t say that, I just said “No superheroes.” I got this very angry letter from one guy. It was only one guy. I don’t want to misrepresent this. But he wrote something like, “How can you say that there’s nothing worthwhile in superheroes.”
Look, I like a lot of pop things that I feel don’t actually have that much substance. And that’s fine! But with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I want to say “This is just a superhero movie!” It’s better than most of them, but still, this superhero thing? It’s juvenile! Of course it’s juvenile! And we should be able to say that without people yelling at you. The argument against it is simply that you shouldn’t say that. It’s not about evidence that it’s not a callow thing. The argument is always that it’s not fair that you said that.
IB: As someone who likes superheroes and has read and enjoyed superhero movies and comics, I think you can say, “Well, you know there are ways through that juvenilia that you can explore some interesting thematic material. You can say some interesting things. You can ask some interesting questions.” But I don’t think that that argument contradicts that we’re talking about people dressing up in tights and beating other people up.
LM: Yes. The things that I don’t like about superhero comics are shared by a lot of other popular culture that maybe gets more respect because it doesn’t involve men in tights. But I still roll my eyes at the whole “With great power comes great responsibility for self-pity,” thing.
IB: So you didn’t feel that Spider-Man single handedly healed the wounds of 9/11?
LM: (Laughter) There’s this attempt to deny a serious effort to look at the human condition. These are fantasies of mastery. That’s a big thing that makes me not that interested in shooter video games. The fantasy of mastery it’s selling seems like a cheap lie to me. But there’s action movies that do the same thing. It’s just that that particular pandering is something that I kind of roll my eyes over.
I’m not the biggest romantic comedy fan in the world because they tend to be bad, and it’s the same kind of bad. I feel it’s just pandering. Or it’s peddling a myth that people find comforting. Romantic love is supposed to make all these problems go away. You’re left thinking “This couple is together and so all of the conflict they had earlier in this story is cured because they’re fucking now?! COME ON!” (laughter) That’s bullshit!
The Romance Novel: Most Despised Fandom?
IB: One thing that you said earlier that I wanted to return to is this thing that’s happened with some fan communities where there’s this idea that what people really wanted social and cultural capital to accrue to things that they loved. And instead what happened is financial capital accrued to their interest. But social and cultural capital rely on scarcity. So if they’re popular enough to make money, then they can’t by definition generate the kind of social and cultural capital that people want.
LM: With a lot of fans, I think the chip they have on their shoulder is someone that they actually know—their girlfriend, their parents, their friends—gives them a hard time for being into something that’s a bit goofy.
And it seems to me the parallel to all of this is the world of Romance and being a romance novel fan. Because they're the most despised fandom of all! Nothing that these comic book people can say can even begin to measure up to the kind of ridicule that people are subjected to if they like romance. You’ll see people like epic fantasy fans are pissing all over romance fans.
IB: Is that a gender thing do you think?
LM: Oh yeah, it’s totally a gender thing.
IB: It’s interesting because you cover, occasionally, sci-fi and comic books and things like that and high fantasy with that George RR Martin article—
LM: You should bear in mind that I’ve read George RR Martin. And I love Tolkein. But I don’t know that much about epic fantasy. I liked George RR Martin, but I wouldn’t even call myself a fan of that.
IB: Right. But do you write about the romance world as well?
LM: Not really. I have the same issues with romances I do with super heroes. Romance does have some problems that are innate to the form that keeps it from being accepted.
I’ve never seen a super hero thing where I felt, “Wow, I was moved and that really made me think and there was something aesthetically daring” the way I have in certain kinds of science fiction, because science fiction is such a huge tent. There’s a lot of beautifully written, psychologically realistic, daring science fiction out there. I’ve read more science fiction because it has the expansive boundaries of literature.
With romance, I try to follow that world and know something of what’s going on in that world as part of my beat. My first contact with them as a contemporary genre was when I was writing about vampires. This was three or our years ago. For the Wall Street Journal. I was asking “Why are vampires so popular?” I read a lot of them and discovered that most vampire novels are really romance novels.
IB: They’re sort of gothic romances, right?
LM: Well, no! There’s this genre called “Paranormal Romance.” Twilight is sort of a romance and sort of a paranormal. There’s this thing called “Urban Fantasy” and this thing called “Paranormal Romance” and there’s a blurry line between them. Urban Fantasy is basically a detective genre that has all of these fantasy elements in it. So the detective or the hero will be an exorcist and there’s this cosmology where they live in the recognizable world but there are demons. Did you ever watch The Dresden Files?
IB: I know what it is. But I haven’t seen it.
LM: Well, he’s a wizard. But he’s also a private eye. So you can hire him. That was a cross-genre thing that started up in the 90s. But so paranormal romance—(laughter) I feel like a naturalist with these things—paranormal romances are all set in the same world but in each novel in the series, a different couple get together. Whereas Urban Fantasy will often have the same character who is, say, a bounty hunter and she—usually she, sometimes he—has a series of adventures with the same characters. Sookie Stackhouse is a classic example.
LM: Each one of those True Blood books is a little mystery. It’s a serial monogamy story. I quite like the Sookie Stackhouse books because they seem weirdly realistic. She’s like a 26 year old girl and she’s trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. And she gets with this guy who is sexy and dangerous and she also has friends and she’s torn between different subcultures and communities and so this is an example of one that I have actually liked.
But in terms of romance-romance, where a couple meet and at the end they’re in love and it’s happy ever after? That I find to be really false. The subject matter is human relationships but it’s a completely dishonest depiction of human relationships.
I do like the more urban fantasy ones because Sookie falls in love with a guy and then he turns out to not be what she thought, and then she’s attracted to a more alpha male kinda guy but she’s never going to be a priority for him. No matter how ridiculous the whole vampire thing is, that feels real, that feels like a real thing that happens to people. It’s my idea of good popular entertainment because the things she has to deal with are things that the readers have to deal with in their everyday lives.
IB: Like needing to get her driveway repaved!
LM: Yes! Or cleaning out her attic or trying to hang on to her family identity.
By Jaime Green
(Editor's Note: But what of those who love us, the fans? And what of their fandoms? Below, theater blogging OG and current writer extraordinaire Jaime Green delivers a gchat with annotations with her boyfriend, Buzzfeed's Tanner Ringerud.
Jaime Green writes essays and true stories about vegetables, theatre, science, museums, and everything else. She is working on a book about the possibility of life elsewhere the universe.)
I was raised a Mets fan. My dad's a Mets fan, so that's the baseball we went to see. In college I lived with a Yankees fan; the games were always on, and I got to know those players, while the last Met I had any attachment to was pre-Piazza pitcher Mike Hundley. I wouldn't say I was a Yankees fan – couldn't, if I didn't want to be disowned – but that was the team that I followed for a few years. When I stopped living with that roommate, I stopped following the Yankees. I would've picked up with the Mets if my boyfriend had been a fan, or with whatever team he watched, but baseball isn't really his thing.
He is, though, a fan. Of many things, and maybe the first person in my life engaged with things in a truly fannish way, at least since I found my way to fellow theatre nerds in high school and however many cast parties we spent singing along to the entire cast recording of RENT. (More fondly: the car rides around the suburbs singing along to Ragtime. My friend Liisa had a gorgeous voice, so she sang Mother, and I ended up with Tateh.) But Tanner, my boyfriend, is a devoted fan of some things that a person could think were silly for a grown man. Tanner sometimes thinks so, and that tension, between loving a thing and being self-conscious of that love, between being a fan and suspicion of hardcore devoted fandom, is why I decided to conduct an oddly formal g-chat interview with my boyfriend about fandom.
Jaime: so, i wanted to talk to you about fandom for two reasons. one, i think— Wait, I should probably use capital letters— One, I think you have an interesting relationship with fandom.
Jaime: I think you have some mixed feelings about it.
Jaime: Should we start with the good or bad first?
Jaime: What would you consider yourself a fan of?
Tanner: Lots of stuff. Comic books (my favorites are Green Lantern, Batman, and Wolverine), Dr. Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Fantasy Novels (Game of Thrones, specifically), video games. There's probably a lot more stuff I'm forgetting.
Jaime: Is being a fan of these things different from just plain liking them?
Tanner: Yeah. I like a lot of stuff, but I wouldn't consider myself a fan of many of them. I like Superman comics, I like Euro board games, I like How I Met Your Mother… but I'm not a "fan" of them.
This is where I realize a difference. I love How I Met Your Mother. I know Tanner does, too. It has some dumb, easy sit-com episodes, but then sometimes it is brilliant. It warms my heart, makes me feel good, has made many nights after long, horrible days much better. I love it the way I have loved other TV shows – Alias, Doctor Who, The West Wing – which is to say, I love them hard. Maybe because they have such lovable characters, maybe because they make bad days so much better. But other than some repeat watchings of the Alias season 3 bloopers reel [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_wyxYK88JA], I haven't been moved to the sorts of outside engagement Tanner will go on to associate with fandom.
Tanner: I guess it comes down to engagement. With Superman, for instance, I consume media about Superman, but that's where the engagement ends. I don't read about Superman on the side, I don't follow the Superman tag on tumblr, I'd never consider getting a Superman tattoo to show my devotion.
Jaime: I was like, "Is he thinking about a Green Lantern tattoo??" Which you obviously are, but I forgot for a second that you have a Game of Thrones tattoo already.
Jaime: Which, to be fair, was free.
Jaime: And you also have a Maruchan Ramen Noodle guy tattoo.
(Tanner isn't a fan of Maruchan Ramen Noodles. He just liked the design, and was in college and I'm pretty sure trying to impress a girl.)
Tanner: yeah, but [the Game of Thrones tattoo] is still on my body forever
Tanner: I wouldn't have volunteered to do it if I didn't love the GoT books.
Jaime: Do you think there's something special about the things you're a fan of that makes them more engageable in that way, or are you just a fan of the things you love best?
Jaime: Like, is there more to think/read/explore about Green Lantern than Superman?
Tanner: Yes and no. I think some of the properties to a really good job to encourage fan culture. Dr. Who and Star Wars encourage their fans to get involved and do stuff, and they have full, rich catalogs of information and back stories to explore and engage with. There's a lot for fans to feed off of. Both Superman and Green Lantern have long histories, but Green Lantern's just appealed to me more. I discovered Green Lantern after hearing about the Darkest Night books, and that universe and story really appealed to be, so I ended up getting really into Green Lantern. Superman is just a book I read every month, and even though his universe and story is as big and interesting as Green Lanterns, I don't really get into it.
Jaime: The kind of fan culture you engage with - or the way you're a fan of these things - it seems to me like it's more solitary, right? You don't go to cons or hunt down other Dr Who fans to geek out with, do you?
Tanner: God no.
Jaime: Why not?
Tanner: Because I am an adult man. Dressing up as a Red Lantern for a convention and writing Dr. Who/Sherlock slash fiction is just so much time and effort, and it doesn't really prove that I am a bigger fan than someone who doesn't do those things. It requires so much energy and effort to be a part of fan culture, and I already work in a creative industry, so I don't really need that creative release that I think a lot of people need. I just want to consume the media I enjoy consuming. I don't (generally) disparage the people who like to do those things, but I don't need to go to those lengths to feel like I am a fan of something.
When I was, I don't know, eleven or twelve, my dad took me and my little sister to a traveling Star Trek museum exhibit. This wasn't a convention. I'm not entirely sure what it was. It was somewhere in suburban New Jersey. This would have been in the early- or mid-nineties. I had been watching Star Trek with my dad for years, first on Saturdays with him – he had custody on the weekends – and then later, at my mom's house, running into the kitchen to pick up the ringing phone at every commercial break. (We did this in later years with The X-Files. And then my dad gave me a hard time for being single, and I was like, dude, you brought this on yourself.) We went to this Star Trek exhibit and I remember jewelry from the show, possibly for sale, and a Ferenghi head. Maybe a Klingon head? I'm not sure, now, which it was, and I guess it was a mask and not a head. It was cool. It was something to do. It was something usually contained by the TV box now here in real life, in New Jersey.
In high school I waited with my friends at stage doors for autographs from actors in Broadway shows. There was something powerful about that personal interaction, something about watching from an audience that made me want it. (I only stopped doing this, I think, because I felt self-conscious. And still, when life or work has brought me into the vicinity of an actor or artist I've loved, I've been moved to thank them, but much more for my sake than theirs. To get to talk to them, for a second. The thanking is just an excuse. Beth Leavel, John Cameron Mitchell, I'm sorry I was disingenuous. It's not that I'm not grateful for the awesomeness you've brought into my life, I just used that gratitude as an excuse to get to talk to you.
I don't know that people are going to great lengths to feel like they are fans of things. I think people want to be close to the things they love. And I think people want to find their communities. It's rare to hear sports fans disparaged for devotion to their fan communities. Fans of nerdy things are just less accepted in society. Nerdier. But then they need that community even more.
Jaime: You don't "(generally)" disparage those fans, but you do, if I can paraphrase things you've said while looking at tumblr, "hate Dr Who fandom."
Jaime: Is that an accurate paraphrase?
Tanner: I mean, Doctor Who fandom is a whole other beast. Doctor Who fans (on tumblr, at least) seem to be younger and of a more female persuasion, which leads to a lot of saccharine, emotional garbage. They're also the ones that I was talking about before, who are looking for more outlets for their creativity. I think it sort of drives me crazy sometimes because of what I was saying before about how I can be a fan of somethings, but not a fan of others. I like Sherlock just fine, but when you start jamming it into my Dr. Who, I check out. They also tend to do it with stuff that I actively dislike, like My Little Pony.
Jaime: That's just people wanting to see cute boys from different tv shows make out. People I do not understand definitely not. Martin Freeman and Rory hold no appeal whatsoever.
Tumblr is a weird space for fandom. Or, it's a weird space for me – for both me and Tanner – in that a lot of fandom crosses your path with much less effort on your part than you'd have to exert in almost any other platform. If I want to see Doctor Who fan art in my regular internet, I have to hunt it down, each time. On Tumblr, I decided once to follow the Doctor Who Tumblr, and now, daily, the fan art, the tributes. The mash-ups. The Death Cab for Cutie lyrics superimposed over color-saturated stills. I like that song. I like that episode. But together... On one episode of The West Wing, Sam Seaborne, speechwriter to the president, gets into hot water for disparaging a piece of writing by saying it sounds like it was written by a girl. He says, later, that he has no problem with the way a woman writes, but this was written by a girl. These Tumblr bits of fan art, they seem like they were put together by girls.
It's also worth saying that I think Doctor Who fans “seem to be... of a more female persuasion” because the day dream of the Doctor Who world – the way it lives in your head when you're away from it – fits best for a young woman. It's a lot easier to imagine yourself being a companion than being the Doctor himself.
Jaime: Let me know when you have some more downtime for me to get you to crank about Dr Who fandom more.
Jaime: (I think that British Avengers poster is going to factor in)
Jaime: It's super dumb
Tanner: send it
Jaime: What's even the point of that?
Tanner: So fangirls everywhere can fantasize about it and masturbate
Jaime: There is plenty of that in the *real* Avengers
Jaime: Butts butts butts, etc.
My Tumblr dashboard has lately been full of gifs of the excellent butts of the male cast of The Avengers. I love this, because they have great butts, and also, as the butts preceded my seeing the movie, it made me love the movie more. The butts – and, okay, the other Tumblr noise about the movie – set me up to enter the theatre already with an affection for the movie and its characters (and their butts).
I used to read Neil Gaiman's blog. I had read Sandman and maybe a novel or two. But then I started reading his blog, and Neil Gaiman became more than a writer, he became a real person, with children and dogs and beehives. When his next book came out, I bought it in hardcover. But I also knew that it was coming out.
I follow the Doctor Who Tumblr (a few of them, okay) because I love the show, and when I see a screen shot or a gif of a moment I love, I get a little kick of those feelings all over again. This is sometimes a problem – I once came across a gif set of Old Amy and Rory, and was almost late to work because I started crying.
* * *
Tanner and I met through a kind of fandom. We both listened to a podcast called Too Beautiful To Life, or TBTL. I'd discovered it by way of a story on This American Life – at the end Ira Glass said of the storyteller, “Luke Burbank lives in Seattle and is the host of the radio program, Too Beautiful To Life.” Or something like that. And the name stuck with me, and eventually I tracked it down, and added it to my subway commute listening rotation. I loved it. It's one of those podcasts about nothing – about current events and pop culture, about the friendships and dynamics between the people on it. And TBTL was special because it was also about the listeners. (The Tens, as they were called, from host Luke Burbank's early-days references to “our tens of listeners.”) The Tens were involved by correspondence with Luke and producer Jen Andrews, they called in – TBTL was for a long time an evening radio show in Seattle – and sometimes were brought on as guests for segments. Luke and Jen (with engineer Sean De Torre rounding out the triad) would host parties in Seattle – post-show or pre-event gatherings at Mexican chain restaurants, or karaoke, and soon groups of Tens around the country started doing the same. I first went to a Christmas karaoke party, where I met people I'd talked to on Facebook and sang songs with them. Then I helped organize a New York satellite of the celebration of an anniversary for the show – I honestly can't remember if it was a year anniversary or a number-of-shows milestone. But a group of us met up for drinks in the East Village. I called in around 10:30pm. Jen was so excited to hear from us. And Tanner was at that party.
I loved TBTL because it was funny, and because I felt involved. Podcasts are hugely intimate – listening through headphones makes them sound like they're happening inside your head – and the hosts of TBTL were honest and intimate, too. And I liked being a part of that. I helped organize that East Village party because I liked being a part of it, because I like organizing things, and because of whom I might meet. Fans of a thing have that thing in common – if you join a softball team you are likely to meet people who like sports – but TBTL was so amorphous and all-encompassing that it boiled down not to an activity or product but to a sensibility, a sense of humor, a way of looking at the world. Even if I didn't think this consciously, I recognized that I could find a kindred soul or two through TBTL.
By Isaac Butler
Tomorrow (Friday) will feature a post by Jaime Green. I'm being called out of town for a bit of an emergency until Monday, at which point The Fandom Issue will conclude with a two part interview with Salon.com's co-founder and resident book critic, Laura Miller. So we get a bit of an extended Issue this time around. Huzzah.
By Mac Rogers
(Editor's Note: What we often forget about fandom is that many creators are themselves fans. I'm not talking about fan fiction (although that's it's own rich field) but rather what we think of as "respectable" writers. Jonathan Lethem, for example, was one of the founding members of the Philip K. Dick society prior to writing his first novels. Many young novelists and essayists consider themselves David Foster Wallace fans and while the conferences they attend on him are academic or literary in nature, they're still "cons" with their own social rules, shibboleths, pecking orders etc.
No where is the line between fan and writer thinner than in the worlds of what gets called "genre fiction." Joss Whedon is an obvious example-- as is George RR Martin who emerged from and is heavily a part of the Convention Universe-- but many science fiction, comic book and fantasy writers began as fans before they started creating their own work. Below, playwriting badass Mac Rogers talks about his love of Doctor Who, and how he's learned from it how to create out of his fannish impulses.)
First off, there’s almost nothing you need to know to watch an episode of Doctor Who. Here’s the basic breakdown:
- It’s about a man called the Doctor who travels through time and space in a machine that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. He usually travels with young human (platonic) companions.
- Everywhere in time and space that the Doctor parks his ship, he finds himself having to contend with a pretty high-stakes situation, usually involving extraterrestrials. He seems to fend off scary monsters as much with his wit and compassion as with his vast intelligence.
- The Doctor looks human, but he’s not. He’s a Time Lord. All you need to know about that is that Time Lords live for a really long time (the Doctor’s way older than he looks) and that when they suffer a lethal injury of any kind, the “regenerate” – meaning they transform their body into a new healthy one.
And that’s it. For an almost 50-year-old science fiction series with a vast, intricate mythology. To watch almost any individual story, the bullet-points above are plenty – actually more than enough. You can be a hardcore Doctor Who fan if you want – and I’ve been at least a medium-core fan since I was eight years old – but you don’t really have to be to one enjoy it.
The relationship between Doctor Who and its fans is definitely one of the weirder fandom histories out there. Who fans in the US often forget that in the United Kingdom, the show has nearly always been broadly popular family entertainment. The original series (what is now called “Classic Who”) stayed on the air for 26 years due to a ramshackle hodgepodge of luck and innovation (Raymond Cusick’s design of the hugely popular villains the Daleks, the idea of regeneration keeping the show from being dependent on any one lead actor for example), but a big part if it was just that on Saturday evening, that’s what was on. It was aimed at both adults and children, viewers didn’t have a whole lot of choice (most of Classic Who aired pre-cable), so that’s just what folks sat down and watched. Doctor Who was a tradition, a habit.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Doctor Who fandom grew to a level that it began to actively influence the show itself. Prior to that, the only “continuity” on Who involved recurring popular monsters (the Daleks, the Cybermen) and recurring popular characters (the Brigadier, the Master). Very little effort was expended on making the scattered appearances of these characters sew together into one logical timeline. Indeed, two of the great Who classics of the seventies, “Genesis of the Daleks” and “The Deadly Assassin,” thrived on actively throwing out much of what the series had already established about Daleks and Time Lords. This is probably why active fan influence on the series initially proved to be so disastrous: a long-running show that went through so many creative regimes was already just about the most crowd-sourced thing on television. Adding fan input on top of that toppled the whole thing over.
John Nathan-Turner, who took over running Doctor Who in 1980, was the show’s first producer to spend a lot of time on the fan circuit, and the first to actively solicit input from superfans like Ian Levine. And here’s where the problem comes in: unlike general audiences – who tuned into the show for an enjoyable weekly adventure about a mysterious hero who uses his wits and worldliness to defeat the forces of evil and didn’t much care if the Time Lords of “The Deadly Assassin” were different from the Time Lords of “The War Games” seven years earlier – fans wanted everything to tie together in one logical continuity.
And that’s not Doctor Who. This isn’t one of those tightly controlled franchises, there’s no George Lucas or Roddenberry family overseeing every spinoff. Doctor Who is a baton that’s been handed off again and again for fifty years. It’s an endlessly self-reinventing story about a nameless man who enters stories and gorgeously disrupts them by the force of his personality and brilliance. It’s borderline folk art.
But when you’re a fan (and I include myself in this), that’s hard to accept. As a fan you want an airtight fictional universe. As Philip Sandifer points out frequently in his wonderful Tardis Eruditorium blog (http://tardiseruditorum.blogspot.com/), the rise of Doctor Who fandom coincided with the rise of home video and the release of many older Who episodes on video or in novelization form. When you suddenly have access to more than the story they’re airing in a particular week, your expectations change. Suddenly you want a 1967 Patrick Toughton story about the Cybermen to synch up perfectly to a 1982 Peter Davison story about the Cybermen, and that’s crazy. There’s been fan rage aplenty about continuity failures in Battlestar Galactica and Lost, and those shows only aired a few years each and were run by the same people the whole time.
So as Doctor Who became more nostalgia- and continuity-obsessed in the ‘80s, the scripts plummeted in quality, the audiences dwindled, and eventually the BBC canceled it in 1989. But an interesting thing happened then: the super-fans who are often blamed for killing the show became the ones who kept it alive. These were the fans writing the New Adventures novels and the Big Finish audio adventures that kept the Doctor Who flame alive through sixteen years and one failed American revival (which astonishingly tried to maintain continuity while piling on even more mythology) until Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies properly resurrected the show on the BBC in 2005.
Davies is a divisive figure for Who fans, but I just freaking love him. Here you have a hardcore, I mean hardcore fan who was able to set aside his encyclopedic knowledge of the series in order to focus on that core story again: the brilliant, compassionate adventurer who travels time and space with a young human companion. Davies hit on the brilliant idea of reintroducing the Doctor to viewers through the eyes of the companion, Rose Tyler. We never needed to know more about him than Rose did. The storyline unfolded, instead of being info-dumped on us.
Sure, I’ll concede that a lot of Davies’ tactics were crass (the icky Doctor-companion ‘shipping (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipping_(fandom)), awkwardly working “The Weakest Link” into a storyline, etc.), but you know what? It worked. Doctor Who is back on television with a legion of new fans and an unprecedented level of global popularity. If you’re a Who fan, you owe Davies big. And that’s before you even take into account his signature accomplishment with what many people call “Nu Who.” He didn’t completely discard Nathan-Turner’s engagement with fandom. He just replaced the continuity-porn with something subtler and more fascinating: he made Doctor Who, to a large extent, a show about fandom.
In “Rose,” the first episode of the 2005 revival, Rose Tyler tries to learn more about the Doctor after a fleeting initial encounter. She tracks down a chubby, balding man who keeps a scrapbook filled with sightings of the Doctor while his family rolls their eyes indulgently. The scene is unquestionably about a Classic Who fan trying to pass on his interest to a younger generation. Once Season 1 of Nu-Who was a success, an emboldened Davies amped up this theme with Season 2’s startling “Love and Monsters,” which revolved around an eclectic group of ordinary Londoners who had all briefly run into the Doctor at one point or another and haven’t been able to shake their fascination. They find one another over the internet and start meeting up in person. Initially their meetings are all about the Doctor, but gradually they start opening up to one another about their lives and even form a fun, impromptu band.
“Love and Monsters” is rightly criticized for being too inside baseball (the villain is an Ian Levine caricature) and for ending on an unbelievably misguided sex joke (it’s on Netflix Instant if you want to suffer through it), but Davies’ vision of the positive side of fandom here is worth considering. Davies is saying: fandom is a beginning, not an end. If you and several other people love the same TV show, then that must mean you all love certain qualities that the show exemplifies, and that shared love is the basis for a deeper human bond that transcends the original interest.
When Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who in 2010, he took Davies’ fandom metaphor to a new level with the stunning Season 5, which is about a woman named Amy Pond who had a dramatic encounter with the Doctor as a child, and, although she didn’t see him again for twelve years, never forgot him. And it’s Amy’s memories, at the climax of the season, that end up saving the Doctor from obliteration. For a series that is primarily run by and written by former fans, this is a pretty defiant mission statement: The things you cherished most in your childhood are in fact not to be put away when you become an adult. They can in fact be integrated into your adult life.
But it’s Davies I want to return to, when I think about how fandom has affected me as a writer of science fiction plays. Specifically a speech he wrote for an episode of his Doctor Who spinoff series Torchwood. You don’t need to know much context: aliens are menacing the Earth, the Earth’s governments are cow-towing to them in the most craven manner possible, and one of the heroes, Gwen, wonders why the Doctor (who’s never appeared on the show before) hasn’t interceded. Gwen speculates, “All those times in history when there was no sign of him, I wanted to know why not, but I don't need to ask anymore. I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.”
Now on one level this speech is ludicrous. The Doctor’s seen all manner of human misbehavior on the show and never turned away in shame before. This goes beyond continuity, this is kind of series-betraying. But more than that: we don’t need to know why the Doctor didn’t prevent the Holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition. We understand, instinctively that real life is well outside the mandate of Doctor Who. (It reminds me of the hilarious bit in Die Another Day where they make a point of noting that James Bond was locked up in a North Korean prison on 9/11, as if the question on everyone’s lips that day was “Where was Bond?”)
But on another level I love this speech. I love the desolation of it, and the way it takes responsibility in the wake of that desolation. The Doctor, the one who’s better than all of us, the one who swoops in and makes everything all right… well he’s not coming today. It’s just us. The highly fallible humans. The ones who can’t escape in a time machine. The ones who can die. Either we’re going to solve this problem or no one will.
I just finished a rewrite on the final installment of The Honeycomb Trilogy, a science fiction epic for the stage. When you regularly write in a genre of which you are also a fan, there’s always a delicate balance to be struck between the instincts of the fan and the instincts of the storyteller. Fan impulses aren’t usually helpful in the writing process. As a fan I want something I like to expand into perpetuity, but as a writer I need the discipline of established endpoints. As a fan I want to spend scene after scene just hanging out with the characters and getting to know them, but as a writer I need to move the story forward. As a fan I want to prioritize world-building over sticking to the throughline of the drama, but the storyteller in me wants the opposite. The fan wants my characters to do the right thing and be happy. The writer wants them to do whatever makes sense to get what they want, and for the natural consequences to follow.
But rather than repressing the fan side of myself, I prefer to take a page from Davies and react to it instead. I, very consciously, write science fiction set in a world without the Doctor. No mysterious, witty stranger is going to save the day. No character has an ageless, omniscient view of events; everyone can only see through the narrow slats of their own prejudice and desperation. No one regenerates; if they die, they die. And no one gets to fly away in a time machine when it’s over. If they survive, they have to make a life in the aftermath. The Doctor’s not there in The Honeycomb Trilogy, and I never completely forget that. For a fan, the story of adulthood is quite often the story of heartbreak, of the discovery that the beautiful thing you cherished as a child doesn’t really exist.
But that’s really, really okay. If the Doctor materialized outside my house tonight and offered to take me with him, I wouldn’t go, and not just because I’d be afraid. My loved ones are here. My stories are here. I’m happy to stay on the ground and be a fan.
By Isaac Butler
Over at the Hooded Utilitarian, a theatermaker in Florida talks about his experience making the (totally illegal and beloved) "Anne Frank Superstar." You can find his discussion of that show and others that are using collage to create innovative new works here.
By Freddie deBoer
(Editor's Note: A few years ago, I remarked to a novelist friend that our particular geeky obsessions no longer seemed special. Everyone knew about them. "Yeah," he replied, "now that HEROES is on TV, the idea that there's any particular cache to obscure geek knowledge has been totally obliterated." It was a funny moment, a recognition that as financial capital accrued to the things we were interested in, the social and cultural capital of those interests was being dilluted into meaninglessness. After all, for something to make money, it has to be popular, and once its popular, one's expertise is no longer cool. Or interesting. Or charming. In this post, Freddie DeBoer-- one of my favorite bloggers-- discusses how the financial triumph of geekdom hasn't erased the victim-culture that forms its ligature.
The beginning of this year’s summer movie season represented, for comic books and superheroes, a truly record-breaking triumph. The Avengers, long billed as the biggest movie of the summer—in a season featuring a new Batman film, no less—confirmed that status by shattering record after record in ticket sales and grosses. By most lights, Marvel’s superteam recently enjoyed the best opening weekend in the history of the movies, both domestic and foreign. Better, this financial success hasn’t come with the typical critical derision that Hollywood tent poles tend to engender; the reviews have been almost uniformly positive, even fawning, with a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering comfortably about 90%. Metrics to measure audience satisfaction, such as Cinemascore, demonstrate a rapturous reception. It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive success in movies, or indeed in any form of arts and media.
The question is whether those who have followed Marvel and the Avengers the longest— comic book, sci-fi, fantasy, and video game fans—will allow themselves to enjoy it.
The success of the Avengers is only a small part of a broader phenomenon: the rise of “geek culture” as the single most powerful force, commercial and cultural, in the art and media landscape. The major genres and media once consigned to the realm of geek or nerd culture, such as science fiction, high fantasy, comic books, and video games now dominate both in terms of commercial success and popular attention. They are simply unavoidable. Year in and year out, the most highly promoted and widest opening blockbuster films come from broader geek culture. Superhero movies have become so ubiquitous that filmmaker demand is outstripping the supply of comic book characters that could plausibly carry a movie. (Jonah Hexx happened for a reason.) Coverage of video games is now prevalent in general-purpose newspapers and magazines. Television shows like Game of Thrones and Grimm bring Dungeons and Dragons-inflected fantasy—once a bridge too far even for many genre fiction fans— to a large audience. Even the traditionally high-brow cultural media, publications like the New York Times and The New Yorker, devote more attention to sci-fi and superheroes than they do to opera, orchestral music, and ballet.
Yet despite this dominance, there remains a remarkable sensitivity towards perceived slights among these genres’ most dedicated fans.
Samuel L. Jackson generated controversy when he responded angrily to what was, on balance, a positive review from AO Scott in the New York Times. On Twitter, Jackson brought heat onto Scott by using the #Avengers hashtag and suggesting that the critic needed to find a new job. I’m not particularly surprised by the defensiveness of a self-interested creator; movies take years to make and months to promote, and The Avengers has been building for decades. I’m more interested in, and a little disturbed by, the fact that Jackson so easily rallied the troops. Tweeters came after Scott in droves, accusing him of grinding an axe, of pretension, and worst, of being a snob. The question is not just why fans of the movie were so aggravated by a generally positive review, but why that reaction came at the moment of such obvious and enormous triumph.
AO Scott was not alone in having Avengers fans after his job. Andrew O’Hehir, film critic for Salon, provoked the usual calls for termination in the comments on his own review. The review was, to be fair, much less kind than Scott’s. Yet I don’t think that the negative reaction was so much a reaction to the negativity. I think it was a reaction to O’Hehir’s brutally cutting take on a phony pretense that attends so much of our discussion of these issues.
for the love of Christ, at what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient? Those one-time comic-book pariahs are now the dominant force in pop-culture entertainment, and their works are deemed to be not just big but also relevant and important…It’s a neat little postmodern trick, actually, to simultaneously position this movie as the most central pop-culture event of 2012 and insist on some kind of edgy, outsider status that renders any and all detractors as pipe-smoking William F. Buckley squares, defending a nonexistent Establishment.
True. Brutally true, and deeply challenging to a fanbase that has made victimization an inextricable part of its ethos.
I wrote, recently, that fans of geek culture have become like the Tea Party. This is, I’ll admit, deliberately provoking. But I mean it in a simple sense: both are so invested in certain grievances, and have so integrating airing those them into their culture, that they seem completely incapable of judging whether those grievances are rational. The Tea Party, representing an overwhelmingly white, Christian, straight, rural base, has spun out a narrative of overt political oppression and marginalization, despite the fact that the country’s most powerful political bloc has always been white, Christian, straight, and rural. Our legistlative system significantly overrepresents their desires, by awarding equal representation in the Senate to low-population, rural states—overwhelmingly populated by people of the aforementioned demographics—as to high population states like New York and California, which have significantly higher minority populations. Comic books and sci-fi, meanwhile, are endlessly appealing to major studios because they have preexisting fanbases to spread the word and create buzz, as well as ample, lucrative merchandising opportunities. In both cases, what we have is the rage of the enfranchised: an implacable hunger for more recognition for a group that could scarcely be more recognized. And in both cases, feelings of exclusion and marginalization have become so deeply ingrained into the character of the movement that grievance threatens to overwhelm everything else, to define them entirely.
Geek fandom, at least, can plausibly point to a period of disenfranchisement in the recent past. It’s true, although typically exaggerated, that science fiction and fantasy were often regarded as fundamentally unserious genres, and that comic books and video games were marginalized as serious mediums. I am not comfortable using the term “bias” to describe this dynamic, as there is no meaningful place where personal tastes end and where bias begins. But there’s no question that judging genres and mediums in broad strokes is a critical failure, and those cultural arbiters that worked against these genres and mediums did neither themselves nor the general audience for media any favors. With graphic novels, sci-fi, and assorted other aspects of geek culture, our culture is more varied, more creative, and more fun. If the question is simply whether geek media should be given equal critical evaluation and the presumptive respect of any other artwork, the answer is emphatically yes. Aside from the occasional Roger Ebert-style holdout, it’s hard to name prominent people who disagree.
Yet a visit to prominent geek culture websites like io9.com or the SyFy sites or various blogs at Wired and an endless number of special-interest blogs and forums reveals a geek fanbase that is convinced its cherished properties are terribly oppressed. Typically, there is no attempt to contextualize or qualify these claims whatsoever. The holdouts, like Ebert, are represented as speaking to the culture at large, when in fact their resistance represents the last gasps of a hugely unpopular position. (I’m also presumptuous enough to accuse some of these holdouts in engaging in contrarianism and trolling for traffic.) The ratios are overwhelming. The most cursory reality check should disabuse anyone of the notion that these people represent anything like a significant minority. But, yeah, okay: there are some people who still speak of geek culture as unworthy of being taken seriously. Since these holdouts are evidently completely incapable of damaging the commercial dominance of genre fiction, who cares? Do geeks really require literal unanimity in the critical appraisal of their favorites? It’s an indicator of considerable weakness, the inability to accept that not everyone has your tastes or holds your treasured cultural goods in equal esteem.
Context is everything. When I argue with people who continue to bear this grudge, I am often most confused by their references to some such thing as “high society,” to the idea that there is some kind of cultural elite that continues to disparage pop culture despite its total cultural and economic dominance. Here, too, are resonances with revanchist American conservatism: the vague feeling that, somewhere, shadowy elites are mocking you. I think part of this has to be a function of the fact that, for many young adult geeks, the notion of their marginalization is entirely secondhand; they grew up into a cultural world that genuflects to them, but have been told that being a part of geek culture means shaking an angry fist at the squares who sneer at them. Not seeing any squares present, they have to assume some sort of shadowy cabal that huddles in secret enclaves and lobs hand grenades of snobbery their way.
If this world of cultural elites exists, you’d think that they could do a better job at supporting “high culture.” As dissatisfied as fans of comic books and sci-fi may remain at the perceived value of their cultural commitments, surely they can recognize that it’s better than nonexistence. And this is the stark reality for much traditional high art, like ballet, theater, opera, and orchestral music: what is threatened is not just their place in some nebulous hierarchy of tastes but their continued survival. The diminishing prominence of these traditions, no doubt hastened along by the insatiable appetite for analysis and criticism about pop culture, comes along with the collapse of funding for the arts during an economic malaise. You might speak to a fan of avant garde theater and count your blessings; better to be able to get the media you want and be unhappy with its critical reception than to not be able to get your hands on it at all. There is absolutely no chance that superhero movies and analysis of same will disappear in the short term. That is the very bleak possibility for much of traditional high culture, at least as professional enterprises.
Take it from a fan of experimental fiction, a dicey commercial prospect in the best of times: it’s better to be sold than to be told. Ephemeral notions of artistic superiority are no comfort when you simply can’t purchase the media you love anymore, or find much analysis of it in any mainstream publication.
I want to return to Andrew O’Hehir’s question: at what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient? I don’t ask this rhetorically. Grievance, even imagined or exaggerated grievance, deserves to be redressed. But to be redressed there has to be some definition of what success could mean materially. My frustration and my confusion stem from a genuine inability to divine what, exactly, could constitute success, what could convince these fans to drop their long-cultivated ethos of victimization. I’ve asked that question many times and in many contexts, and have never received a satisfactory answer.
Commercial dominance, at this point, is a given. What critical arbiters would you like? Is it a Best Picture Oscar for one of their movies? Can’t be. Return of the King won it in 2003. (And ten other Academy Awards. And four Golden Globes. And every other major award imaginable.) Recognition from the “literary establishment?” Again, I don’t know what that term could refer to; there are publishers and there are academics and there are book reviewers, but there is no such thing as a literary establishment. Even a cursory look at individual actors dedicated to literature will reveal that glory for sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels has already arrived. Turn of the century “best book” lists made ample room for J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others. Serious book critics fall all over themselves to praise the graphic novels of Allison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman. Respect in the world of contemporary fiction? Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and other “literary fantasists” have earned rapturous reviews from the stuffiest critics. Penetration into university culture and academic literary analysis? English departments are choked with classes on sci-fi and genre fiction, in an effort to attract students. Popular academic conferences are held not just on fantasy or graphic novels but specifically on Joss Whedon and Batman. Peer-reviewed journals host special issues on cyberpunk and video game theory.
To the geeks, I promise: I’m not insulting you. I’m conceding the point that you have worked for so long to prove. Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. It’s time to enjoy it, a little; to turn the critical facility away from the outside world and towards political and artistic problems within the world of geek culture; and if possible, maybe to defend and protect those endangered elements of high culture. They could use the help. It’s time for solidarity.
I don’t doubt that many will resist this message, or that some will insist that I am simply looking for a way to insult fans of these genres and mediums. Self-conceptions of victimhood are not easily rejected. What I want is not any worse or less for geeks, only true equity on the plane of ideas and aesthetics. And true equity means that you don’t get people constantly kissing your ass or bowing down before the supposed superiority of your commitment to the art you treasure. Nobody gets that, and nobody should; it’s a juvenile vision of art, and ultimately a self-contradictory one, as it asks people to take art seriously and then punishes them when they do so by engaging critically.
I think these fans are looking to the stars, for some sort of recognition or respect that simply doesn’t exist, for any of us. That’s a recipe for continued unhappiness, and a petty kind, at that. The doors have been flung upon. There’s no glory in staying in a cramped room. It’s warm and sunny outside.
By Danny Bowes
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Yesterday, Anne Moore discussed figurative depictions of fans within Battlestar Galactica and what that tells us about fandom, queerness and shame. But what about literal fan depictions? Below, the always-badass film critic Danny Bowes tackles three different filmic visions of The Fan-- two fictional, one not-- and tells us what they might have to tell us about loving something out of all proportion.
There's a scene in Robert Siegel's excellent film Big Fan, the exact circumstances and placement of which I won't spoil, where Paul (Patton Oswalt), is at what many would consider a time for great contemplation of matters of life and death. His best friend and partner in all-consuming fandom of the New York football Giants, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), knows exactly the thing to lift his spirits: the upcoming season's Giants schedule. Immediately, Paul's spirits lift and they start discussing their predictions for the season. It's an exhilarating moment, and one that perfectly captures the guileless love of the genuine fan.
Part of what makes that moment work so beautifully is that so much of the rest of the film is given over to a study of some of the darker aspects of being a Big Fan, someone whose identity is determined almost completely by what they love. Paul is a New York Giants fan before he is anything else. His love for the team, and its (fictional) star player Quantrell Bishop, leads—in one of the most awkward ten minutes of film in the history of the medium—to Paul being beaten unconscious by Bishop, whose subsequent suspension sends the Giants into a tailspin. Paul ends up caring more about the fact that the Giants are losing than he does the headaches and vertigo he suffers as a result of the beating; this convinces not only due to the internal logic of the movie's universe, but because fandom that profound, held in greater importance than self, is not at all uncommon.
I am a fan of several different stripes myself. At times over the years I've alarmed, confused, and occasionally bored the pants off people with my passionate devotion to, variously: the New York Knicks and Yankees, the music of Radiohead, Quentin Tarantino movies, the short fiction of Howard Waldrop, and the actress Gina Gershon. That list is hardly complete either; I've risked personal and professional credibility making—and vigorously defending—the claim that Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of his generation's most under-appreciated actors. (Seriously, don't start with me on that.) If backed into a corner, I'll admit what actual shortcomings any or all of the above may have (the Knicks frequently—aas they displayed in their first-round playoff series against Miami—suck, Gina Gershon acts in lots of bad movies, Quentin Tarantino uses the n-word way too much) but I won't be particularly happy about it. I've put enough effort into trying to like late-period Radiohead albums (though In Rainbows was easy, being legitimately excellent) to provide a small city with electricity. I know from fandom.
For the vast majority of fans, in which I include myself, fandom is one aspect of a multifaceted personality. Even some whose fandom has more singular focus and broad scope—a former co-worker of my mother's, for example, was one of the top-ranking officers in the fan club of singer Englebert Humperdinck; while she was a very nice woman, I was warned when I met her to not bring up Englebert lest I have my ear talked off—are perfectly functional human beings who simply like one particular, occasionally esoteric, person or thing a whole lot. There are, though, some for whom the obsessive nature of fandom fuels, or is fueled by, their own psychopathy, creating the dreaded “stalker” archetype.
The handful of fans who, over the years, have stalked and even assassinated the objects of their ardor, have come in the eyes of many to represent fandom as a whole. This is, thankfully, changing of late, but in 1996 when The Fan, the very worst movie Tony Scott ever directed, was released it was still the dominant paradigm. The Fan posits sports fandom as the refuge of delusional psychopathic failures, but one must consider the source; what The Fan has to say about sports fandom deserves to be taken as seriously as what Tommy Wiseau's The Room has to say about football. The fact that it's called The Fan, though, is an insight into a conception of fandom that, badly stated as it is in the movie (I can't reinforce enough how epically awful it is), is still representative of a way in which, particularly within sports fandom, fans are regarded.
The problem in the case of The Fan, is that it deals with an idea of fandom not based in reality, but on paranoia and narcissism. Robert De Niro's character has effortless access to players and their milieu at all times; the sequence in which he gains access to Benicio del Toro in the sauna and (half-hearted spoiler warning) stabs Benicio to death features not a single security person for De Niro to evade. Then, later, when De Niro lurks in the dunes by Wesley Snipes' beach house, waiting for his son to swim too far out into the Pacific (which I guess was predictable, somehow, in some alternate universe in which Unintelligent Design predominates), no one finds it at all suspicious that De Niro was lurking on a private beach. Ridiculous? Extremely, but it does feed a perception that a lot of people in a position to have fans regard those fans: as always there, and possessed of an overwhelming love whose scope and sincerity borders on the sinister.
Even in Robert Siegel's Big Fan, this perspective is given a certain degree of weight. Patton Oswalt portrays Paul as a man whose entire life revolves around the Giants, and who plans his days around the phone calls he makes to a local sports radio talk show, and painstakingly scripts his remarks for when he's allowed on the air. His family regards him as rather less than a functioning adult (he still lives with his mother at 36), but until the Giants start losing and the dreaded Eagles (beloved of his radio show bete noire Philadelphia Phil, played quite brilliantly by Michael Rapaport) start winning, he has everything he, by his standards, needs in life. It's only toward the third act, when the responsibility Paul feels for the Giants demise lead him to descend into the underworld (Philadelphia, large stretches of which do rather resemble Hades), and we see him appear to unravel and debase all that he holds holy, that we get any real, objective sense that Paul is not well. Being a good movie, Big Fan handles this all in a way that makes human sense (and has a truly amazing conclusion) and never loses sight of Paul as a human being. Although Patton Oswalt has subsequently made a few jokes at the character's expense (he is, after all, a comedian) the way he played the character in the movie is free of judgment. As played by Oswalt, Paul is just a guy like any other, if any other happens to be a football-obsessed parking lot attendant who lives with his mother in his mid-30s.
The image of the obsessed fan as slightly older than he (as the prevailing image of such a fan is nearly always male) should be while still living with his parents is one of the most important linkages between Big Fan and non-sports fandom. There is no quicker way to annoy most science-fiction fans, comics fans, or anyone with a blog of any sort than to invoke the “living in his parents' basement” cliché (the additional annoyance for women fans of being assumed reflexively to be male is but icing on the cake). The stereotype irritates, as all do, because it is but one type (albeit one that does, annoyingly, exist, in great enough numbers as to not be an outlier) among many in a given group, and owes more to the individuals in question than it does fandom itself.
A counterpoint to the portrait of fandom in Big Fan (which gets away with skirting “living in his mother's basement” territory by, rather than mocking him, portraying Paul as a kind of holy fool) can be found in Morgan Spurlock's recent documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope. Spurlock's pilgrims to San Diego are a bit better socialized and a lot more ambitious than Paul, but share his guileless love for the object of their fandom. The least successful aspirant profiled in the documentary, a bartender and aspiring comics artist, is nonetheless driven enough to pay his way to Comic-Con, and assured enough of his own talent that it takes almost until the end of Con for him to realize that he may not be as good as he'd initially thought.
As shown in Spurlock's documentary, there is a higher percentage of fans in science-fiction, comics, and other arts-related fandoms who aspire to create their own work then there are sports fans who still think they can make it as professional athletes. This is something occasionally used to taunt sports fans—and seems to function as a motivation for Robert De Niro's psychosis in The Fan, however ridiculous it may be to discuss that picture in terms of psychological realism—and use their devotion to something they'll never themselves do as a means of demeaning their love for it. When one cuts through all the cultural signifiers and stupid military imagery that cling to sports like a lingering fart, though, it's a performing art. There are stories with supernarratives, subplots, heroes, villains, and, as in Big Fan, Paul and Philadelphia Phil are reciprocally those things to each other. There is little, if any, objective difference between someone dressed in full Storm Trooper regalia at Comic-Con and a football fan wearing his/her favorite player's uniform jersey, with face painted in team colors.
If fandom is fandom is fandom, then it stands to reason that it is a good thing until it isn't. It must be tempting for many, as William Shatner famously did, to tell fans to “get a life,” though it begs remembering that there is more than one way to have a life. The point to life, if there is one, is surely to find happiness however and wherever one can. If the way that happens is by loving something other than oneself, and indeed more than one loves oneself, the only person who should really pass judgment on the worth of that love is the lover. That is the central (certainly not only) reason why The Fan, which presumes to judge its fan, fails. And that is why the nearly-identically titled Big Fan, thematically about the exact same thing, succeeds. Paul is allowed to live in his world without bother, with his one true love. That that love is a football team does not make it any less true.
By Anne Moore
(Editor's Note: One of the reasons why I was very, very excited to do an issue centered around fandom is that the topic intersects nicely with the research and work of erstwhile Parabasis contributor Anne Moore. In the post below, Anne tackles fandom, queerness, shame and the fan-creator relationship. I should also warn you that there are Battlestar Galactica spoilers in this post but, honestly, you should read it anyway.
Anne Moore holds a newly minted PhD from Tufts University in English lit, and writes about television and Victorian literature whenever she gets the chance, including here at Parabasis. She lives in Somerville MA with her partner Ariel, their baby Izzy, and their turtle Pedro.)
Fandom Is So Gay
A few months ago, I was at a coffeeshop in Cambridge, MA with a large group of people. After we’d been sitting there for a while, a man walked in whom I recognized but couldn’t quite place, so I figured he was probably part of our group. I gave him a big “hi” smile, only to realize that I didn’t in fact know him at all—it was Jim True-Frost, the actor who plays Lieutenant Pryzbylewski on The Wire. As soon as he returned my smile with blank unrecognition, I felt, for lack of a more precise term, like a total nerd.
I was left wondering why fandom feels so humiliating. My affection for Prez is part of why I love The Wire and a way for me to bond with other fans of the show. Why does this love turn into shame when I’m face-to-face with the actor “behind” the character?
According to the post-Freudian psychoanalyst Silvan Tompkins, shame's origin liesin a broken circuit of recognition between a baby and a parent: the baby looks at the parent (always the mother for Tompkins, but come on…) expecting to find adoring recognition, but the baby’s gaze goes unmet. What better way to describe the relationship between the fan and the object of fannish devotion than as unmet recognition?
In serial narratives, the relationship between the fan and the author is even more fraught. By sheer force of the amount of time it takes to read or watch a serial, especially during its initial release, the author’s voice becomes integrated into the reader’s daily life, occupying the position of a friend’s. However, this “friendship” is strikingly uneven, for both author and reader. At the same time, since serial narratives are produced for mass audiences, the writer’s success depends on his/her ability to sustain the reader’s attention and affection. The writer isn’t producing for some imaginary audience, off in the distant future of the finished book, but for a very real and immediately present fan base, many of whom don’t hesitate to give immediate and vocal feedback when they’re dissatisfied. Although writers and fans both express a great deal of affection for one another, that affection is always counterbalanced by hostility and resentment.
Unsurprisingly, then, figures of fandom are rarely presented as characters with whom a reader might identify. Starting as far back as Dickens’ Silas Wegg from Our Mutual Friend and his imaginary relationship with the residents of the house where he’s set up his peddler’s cart up to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Trio and their pathetic attempts to achieve super-villain status by imitating cult TV shows and comics to The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy’s ineffectual internet scorn expressed in his signature line “Worst. Episode. Ever,” fannish characters are emasculated, effeminate, and emotionally immature. It’s clear: they should be ashamed of themselves.
This emasculation points to the particular queerness of fan shame. The shame of queerness is also based in unrecognition—a queer relationship (real or imagined) is unrecognized by the state, and often by one’s family of origin, the object of affection, and even frequently oneself. And, as queer theory guru and all-around supergenius Michael Warner argues so convincingly in The Trouble with Normal, his takedown of assimilationist queer culture, if recognition does come, it is all too often at the cost of disavowing the queerest parts of oneself and one’s community. It’s this dynamic of identification and disavowal that creates perhaps the greatest parallel between fans and queers—for every fan, there’s some final limit at which things transition from “cool” to “pathetic”: trading cards, costumes, live-action-role-playing. Like the crush on a straight friend that marks so many people’s initial knowledge of their own queer leanings, the fan’s imaginary relationship with the star, text, or author is structurally impossible to fulfill, and humiliating when it’s exposed.
At the same time, fans are central to the economic success of the serial in both the short and the long term. It’s this power on the part of the fan that leads, I think, to the dynamic of disavowal illustrated by characters like Comic Book Guy or Warren Mears. Going back to Tompkins’s description of shame’s origin story, serials (especially cult serials) are littered with moments of fan recognition: references to previous moments in the text or “inside jokes” that only a devoted fan would see.. So, for example, when Joss Whedon scripts this panel of Kitty Pryde for Astonishing X-Men:
he knows that X-Men fans will thrill to his quotation of this iconic Wolverine moment from Uncanny X-Men #132:
This sense of recognition as well as the continued engagement with the text during the long breaks between episodes (reading recaps, writing comments on message boards, etc.) leads the fan to develop an imaginary friendship with the author: after all, any hard-core fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be instantly recognized by her tendency to refer to its creator as “Joss.” The shame of fandom occurs in those moments when the circuit of identification breaks down: when, seeing the ways that fans are represented in the text, we realize that there’s no way “Joss” Whedon knows or cares what our names are.
The relationship between the writer and the fan, then, as much as it’s characterized by affection and love, is also necessarily suffused with the more negative, queerer affects of resentment and shame. Generally, in both GLBT politics and fan communities, that shame is pushed to the side; the rhetoric of pride makes shame into something we are, ironically, ashamed of. But if shame is such a central part of a set of behaviors so associated with pleasure (reading and sex), it’s worth thinking about the ways that very pleasure is intrinsically linked to the experience of shame. What do we get out of texts that punish us for engaging with them in precisely the ways that we’re structurally encouraged to do? If serials encourage us to read excessively but then punish us for doing so, why do we keep coming back?
Battlestar Galactica is a particularly good example of this dynamic, not only because of its divisive final season (and especially its finale) but also because of its representations of fans within the show. From the very beginning, the show had a tortured relationship with its sci-fi fan base: it aired on the SciFi network, but seemed also obsessed with transcending its generic roots, from its cinema-verité style to the casting of film actors in central roles. This commitment to “quality” encourages fans to engage in the kind of distancing that is typical of assimilationist identity politics: sure, BSG fans might be nerds, but we’re not total dorks like those other sci-fi fans. This is art, people! (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that television isn’t art or shouldn’t have aspirations toward high culture, but why do those aspirations always express themselves by shitting on other, less “legit” shows?)
The place where the queer position of the fan (loving something that doesn’t—that can’t love you back) is expressed most clearly is in the representations of fans themselves in the show. Like many shows that are self-conscious about their status as cult objects, (Lost, Buffy, The Simpsons) BSG features characters that work as clear stand-ins for fans, and the show’s stance toward those imaginary fans demonstrates their importance to the narrative’s success but also the writers’ resentment re: that importance, and especially the resistance to fans’ assumption of greater power in the reading/writing exchange.
In BSG, the representations of fans break down like this: Baltar is the fan who is redeemed by his willingness to express his faith in the author/God, while Gaeta is cast out for his unwillingness to do the same. While Baltar passively drifts into Cylon projections and proselytizes for the One True God (which we should also read as “one true author”), Gaeta veers between naïve adulation of celebrity and resentful attempts to redirect the narrative away from its preordained conclusion. The final outcome of each character gives a pretty clear sense of which form of fan behavior is preferred: the passive fan gets to be fruitful and multiply; the unruly fan faces death by firing squad.
What’s more, both of these fans are coded as queer, and never more so than when they’re being “bad fans.” Baltar might be straight, but his sexuality is clearly non-standard: he’s non-monogamous, and consistently plays “sub” to Six’s “dom,” getting pushed around and physically humiliated by her throughout the first two seasons. The same is true for his relationship with D’Anna, which begins with a torture scene and culminates in a three-way. Since his tendency to project into fantasy is so tied up (as it were) with these relationships, this investment in fantasy is also an investment in perversion.
Gaeta, on the other hand, is actually gay, but only revealed as such in a set of webisodes—and webisodes mirror fan fiction in both form and content (they air during a show’s down time, and they usually fill in unexplained gaps in content). Like a closeted rural teenager, Gaeta can only be gay on the internet. Baltar’s sexuality is at its queerest when he’s on the Cylon ship, explicitly at odds with the heterosexual parental dyad of Adama and Roslin, and Gaeta’s queer moment in the sun is also the origin story of the mutiny for which he is executed.
Some queer literary critics argue that it’s all but impossible to think about the ending of a narrative outside the twinned possibilities of heterosexual marriage and death; while I don’t think that’s true of all forms of serial fiction (soap operas, for instance, stave off closure indefinitely with neither marriage nor death offering the force of an ending), it’s clear that Battlestar Galactica’s ending does exhibit the kind of conservative power these critics have in mind. The series ends with a group of images that can only be understood as part of a hackneyed set of “closure tropes”: Baltar and Six are shown literally walking off into the sunset together, and our suddenly imperialist heroes vow to bring the indigenous preverbal African tribes who are literally chucking spears “the best of ourselves.” Since this inscription of a dominant value system is accompanied by a series of vignettes that retrospectively rewrite the characters’ histories, the power of the singular authorial voice gets equated with this larger socio-political understanding of power. If the reader wants to be on “the winning team” by the end of the narrative, she has to see a white, nuclear familial framework as a “happy ending.” Battlestar Galactica’s profoundly heteronormative and imperialist ending only serves to intensify the sense that it’s meant as a kind of punishment for readers who have forgotten their place in the power dynamic of serial reading.
Meanwhile, Gaeta’s expulsion from the narrative results from his attempts to steer it away from this original course. In this way, he showcases the negative feelings that characterize fandom, which are inextricable from the imagined friendship between the reader and writer. Like a fan fiction writer, Gaeta attempts to “correct” the direction of the story, staging a mutiny against not just SpaceMom and SpaceDad, but against the very premise of the show (and its seeming failure to deliver on that premise). Throughout the mutiny, he’s spoken of with open derision by pretty much every other character we’ve come to like and trust. This negative commentary, combined with the mutiny’s underhanded methods (assassinating the members of the Quorum, for instance), makes it increasingly difficult for viewers to identify with Gaeta, even though he was acting out the anger that many fans were publicly expressing after the show had taken so many false narrative directions.
It’s his unwillingness to have faith in the wisdom of the patriarchal authority (Adama, but also God, and by extension authorial figurehead Ronald D. Moore) that leads to his punishment, but his final meal before dying at the hands of a firing squad reveals the nature of his desire most clearly. After his fate has been sealed, thus ensuring that the narrative can proceed safely toward the imperial Eden of the habitable planet they do find, Gaeta finally gets the fannish recognition he’s desired, having tea with Baltar and discussing his childhood dream of becoming a scientist. Baltar’s final phrase to Gaeta, “I know who you are, Felix,” holds out the hope that if fans only have faith that the end of the narrative will deliver on its impossible promise of satisfaction, they will be rewarded with the recognition they desire. The immediate cut from the sound of the gunshot that kills Gaeta to Moore and Eick’s names tells a different story, however, reminding readers who’s in charge.
Baltar’s redemption works as the opposite number to Gaeta’s humiliation and rejection because the defining element for both characters is that queerest feeling, shame. In the podcast commentary for the series finale, Ronald Moore’s wife remarks wistfully while watching Baltar walk off with Six to their future together farming on Earth that Baltar “doesn’t have to be ashamed anymore.” It’s unclear exactly what shame she’s referring to—the character’s drive to conceal his childhood poverty? His history in the show as a self-centered villain? His perverse imaginary sex life now replaced by monogamous heterosexual commitment? Or is she referring to his transformation in this final episode from a stubborn, resistant reader to one whose perspective lines up neatly with that of the authorial figurehead? One thing is clear: Baltar’s newly acquired freedom from shame is intrinsically linked to his capitulation to the heterosexual demands of the marriage-plot ending.
Both Baltar and Gaeta present the reader with versions of herself with whom it becomes structurally impossible to identify. At the same time, the reader can’t help but recognize in herself the very characteristics that mark them as objects of humiliation: their excessive attachment to imagined and impossible objects of desire. The rehabilitation or humiliating expulsion of those characters that most resemble fans reinforces the author’s power and reminds the reader of her proper place in the fictive world.
Fans don’t take the hint, but they don’t retreat from the texts they love, either. The author gets angry because the fan wants an impossible kind of pleasure, responds by creating characters that make fun of those fans, hoping perhaps that fans will react by disavowing that kind of excessive, embarrassing behavior. Instead, they respond with even more excess. In The Trouble with Normal, Warner shares an anecdote about a gay and lesbian magazine from the late 1990s called Hero, which “had one purpose: to give gays and lesbians a magazine without sex.” The editor’s reason for starting the magazine, he said, was that he wanted to be able to show his mother his writing without the danger that she might accidentally run across a phone-sex ad or some other embarrassing signifier of the stigma of gay sex. Throughout The Trouble with Normal, Warner brilliantly lays out the problems of this pandering approach—by cutting themselves off from the more abject, shame-soaked elements of queer culture, mainstream gay and lesbian activism reproduces the very hierarchies it hopes to upend.
When I read this anecdote, though, I’m left wondering about the mother. Is there a way for this writer to connect with his family of origin without reproducing an ethically suspect system of sexual stigmatization? Can he share his creative work with his mother, knowing full well the very real possibility of her shaming rejection?
It is here that we might learn most from the abject position of the fan. Fans have found a way to rally around an abject relationship, while still fully investing themselves in the experience of pleasure and love. Even when an author responds to fans’ excess with humiliating caricatures, they respond by going to see him speak in, for instance, full Klingon regalia. Perhaps most provocatively, they refuse to let the hostility directed toward them from the author deter them from their commitment to reframing the text in their own ways, making vids, writing fan fic, proposing to their girlfriends while they’re dressed as Adama and Roslin during a Q&A with Edward James Olmos (Yes, that is a real thing that happened. The guy in question told me about it at a screening of the miniseries.). Nor do fans hesitate to criticize the text, even as they remain emotionally attached to it, as any regular reader of the comments section of The A.V. Club can tell you. The shame of serial reading is, of course, that Dickens or Joss Whedon or Ron Moore never cared about you the way you cared about him, but the endlessly productive interpretive energy of fans helps us to see the possible pleasures of a love that is always unrequited.
 The name change to SyFy is more of the same—“Don’t worry, you’re only watching Crocasaurus Vs. Mega-Shark because it’s so awesome, not because you’re a dork!”
By Isaac Butler
Of all my enthusiasms over the years, the one I am the most mortified about is my (it turns out not) undying love for Phish from Freshman year of High School until roughly Senior year of college. And here I want to already insert qualifications. How starting in Sophomore year at Vassar I had stopped liking them, or anyway had my suspicions that they weren’t actually worth the love I had poured into (over?) them and was largely forcing myself to like them. How you probably have some other band or artist (for most of my friends, its Ani Difranco) in your past who is equally embarrassing (and save it, Ani fans, it is equally embarrassing).
I’m even having trouble articulating what drew me to them in the first place. Sure, they were all talented musicians. And the goofiness of their lyrics surely had something to do with it, as my love for them flowed out of (and back into) a love of They Might Be Giants who, for all their faults, are vastly superior song writers. And, yes, the live show, that must’ve been part of it. I went to my first live show Freshman year of college and that experience was the one I was addicted to, the one I wanted to keep having and perpetuate with bootleg tapes.
And what was that live experience? What was so great about the largely-interchangeable guitar solos, solos that teased whatever the highest possible note in the dominant key of the song was until finally playing that note and holing it at great length? At the heart, the live experience of Phish was about being in a crowd moved to ecstasy, it was about collective will and joy. It was about losing yourself.
Fan, of course, comes from Fanatic. While its first use shows up in the 17th century (spelled “phan”), it’s first modern usage is in a newspaper article about baseball in the 19th century. The word is then a particularly American invention, like the musical, like jazz. Add the suffix “-dom” on the end—meaning both a condition or quality and belonging to a domain or jurisdiction—and you get Fandom. Fandom is a nation without borders, thanks to the internet it thrives all over the world, it’s boundaries supersede national ones.
It seems that to become a fan is to lose yourself. That we cross the line from audience member to fan when we become part of a community of people who love the same thing we love. And these communities have (as communities do) rules and customs and norms, shibboleths and secret ways. And they can be coercive and destructive and totalitarian, and generous and wonderful and inspiring and creative.
I wonder if this cross from self to group is part of why we find our fandoms so shameful. We live in a culture that places primacy on the individual, after all. Maybe what I’m embarrassed about when I look back on my love of Phish is the tape trading, the internet message board posting, the hanging out with the undesirables, the unwashed (in this case literally) masses. One thing I remember about Phish—or about my fandom of them—is that I never liked other fans. I found them snobby, mean spirited, THC-soaked losers who used their picayune knowledge of obscure songs to make themselves feel better about the fact that their lives were dedicated to a band that sang nonsense songs about tweezers. And yet, although I never liked them, I was one of them. I surrendered a bit of my individuality to a community I had contempt for and found a cure for loneliness, an outlet for passion. Or perhaps I had contempt for them because I needed them.
I am less interested personally in whether the Rise of the Fan is good or bad for our culture, and much more interested in what it means. This week, we assay the Fan from a number of different angles. Who are these fans? And what does it mean to be one? What happens to love when it becomes a communal activity? And what happens to it when the beloved cannot or will not respond?
This week, we're assaying the wild world of fandom from all sorts of angles. I hope you'll stay with us and join the conversation as the week continues.