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!”