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Gender and Fan Studies looks at Firefly

Monday 25 June 2007, by Webmaster

Gender and Fan Studies (Round Four, Part Two):Will Brooker and Ksenia Prasolova Gender and Cult Texts

[KP] Nina suggests that even when men and women (or would that be fanboys and fangirls) watch the same show, they may focus on different aspects. So I will speak of the shows I know... When I watched Firefly I vaguely wondered what slash pairing Mal/Simon would make, but honestly, I stopped looking for clues pretty early into the show and kept enjoying the adventures and witty banter just like the next guy. I certainly want more of this content, but I can’t really bring myself to look into fandom (apart from mildly tapping into it), because I really am pretty satisfied with the source. Moreover, I would rather re-watch the series in a company of friends laughing at jokes we know are there than read a steaming fanfic featuring one of the likely pairings. Does it make me a fanboy of Firefly?

Because I definitely display more stereotypically fangirlish behavior in my reaction to Heroes (even before I finished watching it I already started seeking out lj-based communities, fan sites with fannish content and so on.) My Harry Potter experience started with me being a ’fanboy’, went through my reluctance to even admit I was one of the ’fangirls’, and ended up with my engaging more with ’fangirl’ practices.

[WB] I like Firefly and Serenity too... someone can tell me if that is a "boy" or a "girl" text, and whether having a man-crush on Nathan Fillion makes me some kind of subversive!

[KP] Well, Firefly (and Serenity) is a Sci-Fi western and adventure story, so as a source text is very male-oriented (I am only saying this because it is supposed that boys like guns and adventures, while girls like romance and amassing Barbie merchandise). However, the hints of romance (mostly unresolved) and very engaging male characters portrayed by exceptionally cute actors make it very easy prey for female fans, stereotypically speaking.

[WB] Let’s not fall into the trap (as you suggest, it’s stereotypical) of thinking that the only women who like Firefly and Serenity are "fans", and more specifically, fan-slashers. What about the women who watch the show but don’t have any interest in or knowledge of slash? I think we should resist any assumption (again, I think it is becoming a stereotype in fan-academia) that women’s only entry into cult texts, or cult texts that are generically male-coded (Western, Science Fiction) is through trying to pair up the main male characters.

[KP] Actually, I didn’t say a word in my previous passage about any male/male pairings or writing slash back into the story.

[WB] Good point - looks like it was me who fell into that trap! I automatically jumped from "female-fans-fancying-cute-actors" to "slash"... my bad. Maybe it says something about how accustomed we are to talking about this visible tip of the fan iceberg - that we only really tend to study the active, creative fans like slashers, not the millions of men and women who just sit there admiring cute actors, maybe discussing it with their friends, but not recording any of it in a concrete form: the watercooler fans, not the Livejournal ones. The advantage of online fandom, for scholars, is that conversation about cult texts becomes so easy to quote, analyse and discuss; ephemeral talk becomes solid text. But there are, again, millions of conversations going on in workplaces and homes about cult texts that never attain that more permanent status, and never enter our radar - because if they don’t take place on the internet, they rarely cross that line between the personal and the public.

That’s one of the striking things about sites like Livejournal for me - the way it places personal thoughts and conversation into a semi-public, semi-permanent arena - and the accessibility of blogs and discussion boards is obviously a gift for fan-scholars. But obviously, if we rely on those easily-accessible forms of fan discourse, we’re also overlooking all the more elusive discussion that goes on every day in the living room or the staff canteen, and perhaps we risk taking the part as representative of the whole. Again, let’s bear in mind that there are a lot of people, male and female, like myself - who enjoyed Serenity and Firefly but don’t create anything about it or engage in any communities about it. A lot of people who value a specific cultural text and for whom that text is an important part of their lives don’t engage in easily-recognisable, visible, traditional fan behaviour.

Stereotypes vs. Prototypes

[KP] I definitely agree that taking the part as representative of the whole is one of the risks we take when we engage in studying fandom - it is so much more interesting to report on what is creative! Besides, for many years it has been a huge part of our agenda as fan academics to change the societal view of fans as of good-for-nothing infantile obsessive misfits, and in our noble... quest against pathologizing we became very eager in bringing out what’s creative and playing down what’s mundane and ’goes without saying’.

Yet it is so difficult for me to remember about those fans who don’t create anything or engage in any communities when I write/talk/think about fandom and being fannish! This made me think about Rosch’s prototype theory and its possible applications to this particular problem. If asked, I’d say that creativity and community engagement are central to what I have in mind when I think about the concept of ’fan’, and when I encounter a fan who is passionate about their source text, but doesn’t do anything or does very little about their passion, I have trouble calling them ’fan’, and would go for ’admirer’ instead. If we think back to Rosch’s classic example: as ’robin’ is closer to prototypical notion of ’bird’ and ’ostrich’ is further from it, a person who is involved in what you call ’easily-recognisable, visible, traditional fan behavior’ is closer to my prototype of ’fan’ than a person who does not display this type of behavior.

[WB] What’s the distinction between prototypical and stereotypical, then? I might not be everyone’s prototypical Star Wars fan because I don’t live in my mother’s basement, wear a Stormtrooper costume at weekends and speak fluent Huttese to my geeky friends (I can recite all of Greedo’s dialogue, but that’s it). Maybe I don’t fit easily recognizable, visible, traditional fan behaviour.

But if we just concentrated on those people who fit the type of "fan" - and where does this type come from? Who constructed it? - we might just end up studying an unrepresentative group at the margins of a broad range of behaviour, much of which is less recognizable, less immediately visible, less striking, perhaps less exciting. But maybe our duty is not just to report on exciting, quirky, sexy fandom.

[KP] In reply to your question about distinction between stereotypical and prototypical: using stereotypes will not lead us anywhere; stereotype here is a pre-conceived notion of something, it comes ’as a package’, and is either ignored or acknowledged. Prototype, however, shows where one’s priorities are and allows to see how a phenomenon is constructed. To use your example, a statement ’a Star Wars fan is somebody who lives in their mother’s basement, wears Stormtrooper’s costume at weekends and speaks fluent Huttese’ is a stereotype. Prototype is an analyzed stereotype: you can single out specific features (a. living in the parents’ basement; b.wearing Stormtrooper’s costume and c.speaking Huttese) and account for their relative importance in establishing whether and HOW a given sample ’fits’ the prototype.

And here comes the interesting part: while stereotypes are normally shared, the construction of prototypes (’points of reference’, if you wish) is less... collective. Even in this discussion, I am leaning to consider those who are ’creative’ to be fans more readily that those who are what you call ’water coolers’, while you keep reminding about ’those others’, which means that in my prototype of ’fan’ I place the notion of creativity higher than the notion of fascination with source text, while both notions are present in the stereotype we share.

Now, my understanding of fans and being fannish was shaped by lurking in Harry Potter fandom and by reading academic accounts of fannish activity. I wonder if a definite lean towards studying creativity of fans in major writings on fandom is partly accountable for the fact that many would agree - yes, ’real’ fans are creative in their responses to the source text. It seems as if fannish creativity comes as a given, a default assumption that one has to struggle against when one accounts a fan who does not fit this prototype? And now that you have pointed out several times that creativity is not, in fact, a sine qua non condition, it would be interesting to see if this notion of ’creative’ fan is only shared by women fans/fan scholars. For me, a non-creative fan is more of an ’ostrich’ than a ’robin’, but am I the only one?

Or is my assumption is informed by the fact that I hang around ’other girls’ in my corner of fandom?

[WB] Where does the evidence come from about what boys and girls, (using these terms with gritted teeth), fans and scholars of different genders, are supposedly into?

[KP] Again, what are they into? So far the discussion in Henry’s blog is very mild and not gender-charged at all. The way it was framed, however, one would expect sparks fly. They didn’t - well, not about the gender issue. I guess that proves there are more misfits around, and certainly the categories - as many other expectations - are flawed and represent extreme cases of overgeneralization. I’d love to see them abandoned altogether, but that is probably just me and Will?

The Infantilization of Fan Discourse

[WB] The discussion so far has been mild and reasonable, but some of the comments on the Round 2 pairing have riled me with their ready assumptions about gendered behaviour - there seems to be a lot of "boys do this, girls do that." To pick out an individual post:

if you read gender communication theorists you know that men like to stick to the rules; women are far more situational. This is true in childhood play as well. Boys play on teams; they’re into competition and hierarchy. Girls are far more likely to ’free play’ and create cooperatively with their Barbie dolls and such...as in the childhood playground, male fandom is far more likely to play by the rules and not try to color outside the lines.

I mistrust this kind of absolute laying down of rules about what girls, boys, and by extension men and women "do" and "are". The comparison of grown men and women to kids in a playground also seems unhelpful - it seems part of this infantilisation of fan behaviour that leads us to Team Pink and Team Blue, and the labeling of academics as boys and girls.

[KP] As somebody with a background in cognitive linguistics I can’t help but wonder how this infantilization came to be. I don’t think it only applies to fans/ fan scholars - it certainly does in this case, but what if it is a manifestation of a more general ADULTS ARE CHILDREN conceptual metaphor (men and gadgets would often be described in terms of ’boys playing with toys’; adult women would often collectively refer to themselves as ’girls’; people who don’t follow the pre-established and agreed upon pattern are usually described as ’not playing by the rules’; plus the examples you gave above). If we successfully establish that the metaphor is in place and working - that is, shaping the way we verbalize our experiences - the fact that grown men and women are compared to kids and academics are labeled ’boys’ and ’girls’ is not that surprising.

I honestly do think that infantilization of fans and Team Blue/TeamPink are two unrelated phenomena, the former being a trace of popular derogatory image of fans as social misfits stuck in their pre-teens and teens, while the latter is the verbalization of one of the conceptual metaphors that govern our perception of the world around us (other conceptual metaphors would be, for instance, TIME IS A COMMODITY, PEOPLE ARE ANIMALS, LIFE IS A GAME etc.).

The real problem in the passage that you quoted above, as I see it, is not the infantilization of adults, but the pre-conceived assumption about who does what. This assumption is so firmly in place that nobody even questions its credibility, but all evidence backing it up is more or less anecdotal. Even though we do have some statistics, we tend to forget, which corner of fandom those statistical findings apply to: I daresay that if one and the same quantitative study had been carried out on two platforms - Harry Potter Lexicon forums and a Livejournal-based Harry/Draco community - the results wouldn’t be similar. And I wouldn’t say that to collectively build a site like HP Lexicon is less creative (or one has to be less of a fan) than to write smut and post it on Livejournal. Speaking of statistics, here’s a curious quote from Science Fiction Audiences (Tulloch and Jenkins, 1995): "One survey, cited on a television documentary about the programme’s anniversary, showed that 53 per cent of the American public classified themselves as ’Star Trek fans’". How many of them were ’water coolers’ and how many of them were ’creative’? How many of them were women? How many of them were men?..

The Primacy of Gender?

[WB] This stark division of the world into people who do one set of things because of their gender, and people who do another because of their opposite gender, made me wonder why we’re focusing so much on this single aspect of identity as a shaping force in both fandom and in academic approaches to fandom. Are our interests in fandom (as fans, as academics, as fan-academics) really molded primarily by our gender? More so than our class, our education, our ethnicity and nation?

The standard objection that Nina offers in response is the one that "the emphasis on ’everyone’s different’ is one that’s been used to counter any type of movement, and the focus on exceptions does the same." But I thought we hadn’t agreed that those exceptions are definitely exceptional... I’ve not been convinced that men who are into creative use of the cult text are in some sort of minority. And why does it imply a position of privilege to be cautious of generalisations about "men do this, women do this"?

Nina brings up the history of early media fandom to show extreme gender imbalance and asks " Can you honestly say that the movement that shifted Sci-Fi zines into narrative explorations wasn’t women driven? Likewise, can you really say that men are not more likely to do parodies?" And I can’t say one way or the other, because I haven’t enough evidence to judge... how do I know whether men are more likely to do parodies? How do you know, how does anyone know? Why should we want to generalise without sufficient proof? I haven’t done sufficient research into male parody writing, and haven’t read any research on it. Maybe I’m just under-informed, but I’d want to see quite a bit of evidence before I accepted a general rule about a whole gender. And I’m not even saying we should address race here, just that it’s worth pointing out there are a lot of other factors what might define fan identity.

[KP] I do agree with Nina that the questions of class/education/ethnicity are mostly important in terms of access to fandom. Once a person is ’in’, it seems that practices they engage mostly divide along the gender axis. From this point of view, language and culture would play more of a role in defining the practices one engages in (for instance, there seems to be more hostility and somewhat wary attitude towards slash among women in Russian fandom, for example, although there is a fair number of slashers there; men do write fan fiction, which is not only parody; for historical reason live action and on-line role playing games are central to almost any fandom...).

So far, most of the studies have been carried out on the basis of English-language fandom, I’d love to see what new perspectives the study of national fandoms would bring. I am currently working on my own piece about Russian fandom, which will be posted here in this blog, and it’s a journey of discovery in itself - for all similarities (well, fandom as a concept is pretty much borrowed as is), there are striking differences in the way fandom is constructed and works. True, a lot of studies have been carried out on Japanese material, but it’s more like the other end of the scale compared to English-speaking fandom. I’m more interested in not-so-subtle differences between seemingly similar phenomena. But I really don’t think ethnicity plays any more of a role in construction of fannish behavior than, say, race within a given national fandom. Gender, however, is more of a global factor.

As is taste and preference, apparently: it is really interesting (and that’s the other thing I noticed in my study of Russian fandom) how, for all cultural differences, we seem to like same books and shows. Harry Potter has been increasingly popular since 2000, but now Lost has taken Russian fandom by storm, and even Heroes has its own community of fans around several fan-sites (the show has not yet been aired/translated, so the sites also run their own translation projects).

Holding Out for Heroes

[WB] I would certainly like to move on to discuss Lost and Heroes, which Nina implied in her blog were "male" shows (or the focus of male fan-scholars) - this surprised me so I’d like to think about if this is true, and why, and what female fan-scholars are looking at in 2006-7 instead of two of the best TV shows of the decade.

[KP] I’d love to hear why Heroes is a male show, actually, since it is less stereotypically male-oriented than, say, Firefly, in my opinion, but I might be looking at wrong indicators (genre, the possibilities of romance etc). I personally find the show extremely engaging for a variety of reasons. The whole postmodernity of comicbook! Hiro’s arc - his name, his having a side-kick, even the fact that when they speak Japanese the translation is not subtitles, but captions (which is really unusual - subtitles can jump, too, but it’s normally in the lower part of the screen, in this case the lines appear right next to Hiro’s and Ando’s heads!).

I like the appreciation of geek culture in this, and the fact that the villain is a geek himself. He also has a purpose, which is a pleasant development and the fact that he sort of tried to step back and not blow up innocent people was really refreshing as far as villains and their behavioral stereotypes are concerned. The characters are clever and multi-dimensional and Claire is so much more engaging to me than Buffy! I could go on and on and on... But I think, in the end of the day, it’s the clever play with stereotypes, homage to the geekdom and believable character, as well as the irony and very tongue-in-cheek construction of slogans ("Save the cheerleader, save the world?" Honestly...) that make me fall for this one head over heels.

Will, you said you thought it was one of the best texts in the last two years, what did you find attractive? Same things? Are we, to use Nina’s turn of phrase, watching the show the same way?

[WB] I mostly connect with Claire Bennet, the cheerleader. As a lifelong reader of superhero comics, I like the play with those conventions and the often quite striking visualization of standard tropes like flight, phasing, regeneration and time travel. But I think Claire has provided the heart and in some ways the narrative backbone of the show - as the youngest main character, she’s gone on the most dramatic emotional journey, and I think Hayden Panettiere’s performance has convincingly sold some incredibly powerful, painful moments along that journey. I don’t think I would dig the show nearly so much without her - she has provided the main point of identification for me.

Here’s a bit of auto-ethnography for you by the way - look how careful I am to avoid saying Claire/Panettiere is an attractive woman, and to suggest that her attractiveness forms any part of my viewing pleasure. (Matt Hills illustrates this dilemma with admirable frankness in his own auto-ethnography, during Fan Cultures - he delays for about ten pages before blushingly admitting he watched X-Files partly because of Gillian Anderson). For a male fan or scholar to explain his fandom of a cult text in terms of "Claire Bennet is hot!" (even jokingly) would conjure up all kinds of negative connotations and sad stereotypes of a guy in a dark room with a screen full of cheerleader pics and a floor scattered with Kleenex. But it’s not unusual for a female fan or female fan-scholar to add, perhaps lightheartedly, "and it doesn’t hurt that the main characters are totally cute guys!" or admit that she writes slash because she’s turned on by the idea of those cute guys getting it on. I wonder how it would sound if I said I wrote stories about Claire and her hot cheerleader friends romping in the locker room. I don’t think it would be celebrated as an example of resistant fan creativity.

Anyway, I’m not complaining "girls do it, so why can’t we guys talk about how we get off on fit girls" - I’m just examining my own self-censorship here.

[KP] I find it interesting and somewhat ironic that among the protagonists of the show (Hiro and Claire) each of us would name the one of the opposite gender as the one character we connect with most for reasons that might only marginally be related to our own gender/sexual preference. Claire Bennet is certainly hot, but it is not like she’s the only hot girl in the show, so, as you write, it is mostly Claire’s character and story, as well as the very convincing performance by Panettiere that come first in your assessment of the reasons behind your fondness.

Likewise, I don’t connect with Hiro because I find him physically attractive (although Masi Oka is definitely cute) - there are plenty of attractive males in this show - but it’s the geekiness, cluenessness and at the same time phenomenal strength of character that fascinate me. He certainly matures emotionally as the show unfolds, maybe not quite as dramatically as Claire (on the other hand, there is Future!Hiro to be taken into account), but visibly and convincingly. I identify with him a lot on different levels: being a fan, a geek, valuing friendship over everything else; even the fact that he’s a true foreigner in America (as opposed to Mohinder, for example) and at the same time ’a citizen of the world’ hits very close to where I’m standing.

As to your autoethnography here.... I wonder why you avoided admitting that you find Claire Bennet hot, among other things, while you have so readily admitted to having a male-crush on Nathan Fillion in our previous discussion about Firefly. Is the latter is admission different because it’s somehow framed as subversive, while the former just brings up mainstream pornography (’Claire and her hot cheerleader friends romping in the locker room’)?

[WB] Yes... you’re right, and that’s an interesting point. It was unconscious, but that was the reason, I’m sure. Saying I have a crush on Nathan Fillion frames me within the acceptable, even admirable fan-lust discourses of female Livejournal communities; saying Claire Bennet is hot would place me within a different stereotype of sexist, probably pathetic and lonely male fandom - or perhaps more broadly it would chime with men’s magazine discourse, the sort of magazine that would run a soft-porn pin-up section on Hayden Panettiere with carefully-chosen quotations from her interview like "I often kiss my girlfriends" or "Some nights it’s just too warm to wear pajamas" splashed across the pics.

And you’re also right, her being pretty wouldn’t be enough, at all, for me to be a "fan" (loosely speaking... I don’t do anything active about it) of her character. Niki/Jessica is more conventionally glamorous, but she doesn’t grab me in the same way, in terms of personality and performance.

[KP] On a different note - do you think the fact that Claire spends a fair amount of time running around in her cheerleader outfit is a nod to the similarity of her cheerleader uniform to a superhero uniform or an attempt to play around with the notion of schoolgirl fetish, given that the show has such a strong ’Japanese’ connection? Or both? Or neither?

[WB] It hadn’t crossed my mind, but the idea of cheerleader outfit as superhero uniform is a very clever one - it’s actually not dissimilar to Supergirl’s. And let’s not always conflate being a fan with creativity. By that token, I’m not a fan of Heroes at all. I don’t produce vids or slash about it, I don’t roleplay it, I don’t even imagine sexual pairings from its subtext, let alone write them down. I discuss it online when it’s on, and I’ve written an academic chapter about it because that’s part of my job. But I’m not participating in any of these more obvious and exciting fan behaviours - I haven’t created a vid that shows the Petrelli brothers are secretly in love, I’ve just posted some comments on it every week. I don’t want to assume that someone is only a "fan" if they fit these quite narrow and I think pretty minority categories of creating some kind of fiction between the gaps.

To be honest, I don’t see how imagining the Petrelli brothers as an incestuous gay couple enriches the text. I’ve read theories that the two actors are deliberately having fun with the scenes where they hug and stare sincerely at each other, so I can accept that there are cues for that reading - but if it was explicit in the script that these brothers want to jump each other’s bones, I’d say that was a pretty unlikely and implausible character trait, so I feel the same about it being read in there as a subtext. For the record, I don’t feel the same resistance to "Qui/Obi" slash, because I feel that’s more plausible within the story-world: we know Jedi are trained from an early age at an academy, that they form same-sex partnerships and work very closely together under strict discipline, and it doesn’t seem unlikely that a padawan could develop an intimate relationship with his Master. Moreover, and I think this is a crucial point, The Phantom Menace is a pretty weak and unsatisfying story, so slash readings add something more subtle and interesting to flesh out that flimsy framework. Heroes, on the other hand, is a complex and to my mind, satisfying story per se - it doesn’t need brothers fucking each other to make it better.

[KP] See, many would argue that Nathan/Peter is exactly the thing that this story needs to be perfect...

[WB] I guess I don’t understand that notion of a perfect story. I wouldn’t understand someone who thought that Claire must be sleeping with her brother, Lyle, to make the story complete, either. I expect there are some people out there who think the story would be perfect if Mohinder Suresh was secretly having sex with the little girl, Molly Walker, but I don’t know if we’d celebrate them.

[KP] The gaps to fill in, I would say, are designed by fans who are doing the job, and whose choice of ’a gap’ is informed by a number of factors: their education (Can they see all allusions? Can they discard the notion of authorial intent?); their fannish experience (Are they members of any fandom? What fandom? What do they normally do? Are they slashers?); their literary preferences (Do they prefer angsty stories, for example? Would they, then, find angst lacking in a situation where it is apparently not supposed to occur?); their sexual preference; their gender; their real life experiences, etc. - everything is potentially important.

Besides, while filling in the gaps, imagining the going-ons behind the scene and writing things back into original narrative are long-lived and time-honored fannish traditions, I do not think that, fundamentally, those are only the flaws or the original stories that we somehow need to correct by creating suggestive vids or writing fan fiction - large part of what we do comes from the fact that the story is so complex and fascinating, and its characters are ready-made for us to play with them!

[WB] To return to an earlier point, I wonder if anyone’s currently studying that silent majority of fans who don’t go "against the grain" of cult texts like Heroes - asking what pleasures people get from just following the story as the producers intended, without filling in the gaps? It would be harder to study these people, because they don’t make themselves as visible; and they’re maybe not doing anything that’s as easy or fun to write about as slash communities, but I’d guess they constitute most of Heroes’ viewers.

But hey, I’m a man and we’re not risk-takers, apparently - maybe I should have had that schooled into me at kindergarten.

[KP] Here I’d argue that the question of ’what producers have intended’ is the tricky one, especially with Heroes, where problems begin at the stage of finding the ’real producer’. If the actors who portray the Petrelli brothers insert some subtext, can we say that it is ’intended’? Are they the producers, because they are not only part of the production team, but they also create some meaning of their own and insert that into the story as opposed to simply acting out what the script says? And does it matter, in the end of the day? I would also like to see the study of that ’silent majority’, and it is especially interesting if they all would share ’the one true intended meaning’ that, as you imply, exists out there for us to decipher.

[WB] I take your point that if the actors are playing with that subtext, then yes, it’s part of an intended meaning on the part of the "producers" in a broader sense.

[KP] I am not so sure about gaps, though. As Henry puts it, fan creation comes from the mix of frustration and fascination, and certainly frustration is not only fed by gaps in already existing canon, it is to at least similar extent fed by the fact that the canon is in progress. Where else could we attribute the apocalyptic anxieties that ripple through Harry Potter fandom now?

Of course, there is a question of what you are fannish about - about being in a community of fans whatever the source text or about discussing a particular source text in a conveniently existing community of fans? Certainly there are fans of slash as a genre that will be worried about pairing dynamics in the new show, and certainly there are fans - male or female! - who would read fan fiction in one fandom and won’t even care about it in the other, where they would be content with collecting action figures and box sets.

Perhaps we could close with this comment from Wikipedia’s discussion pages:

"This "fanboy" and "fangirl" nonsense... I don’t even know anybody over the age of 17 who uses these words, let alone anyone who would consider them appropriate discussion topics in an encyclopaedia.