“Orlando Jones needs to GTFO of our fandom”: Supernatural conventions and gate-keeping

*This paper was presented at the 6th Annual Conference of the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand, held at Massey University, Wellington from 29 June – 1 July, 2015.*

OJ announcementOn 21st March 2015, Rogue Events, the event company that organises Supernatural conventions in the UK announced the inclusion of actor, writer and producer Orlando Jones as a special guest to an already-packed convention featuring the show’s main and popular recurring cast members for an event celebrating the 10 years Supernatural has been on the air.

Jones has never appeared on an episode of the show; rather, at the time of announcement, he was still attached as one of the main cast of Sleepy Hollow on Fox, a rival American network to CW, which airs Supernatural. Jones is, however, a fan. Or as he prefers to identify himself: a fangirl. He frequently live-tweets when Supernatural is airing; openly declares himself a shipper, which some fans see as an endorsement of the pairing he ships, while others find it problematic; collaborated with fans in Gishwhes (an annual charity scavenger hunt organised by Supernatural actor Misha Collins, which invites participation from fans, and last year, featured Jones competing in a team against William Shatner); Jones also banters on Twitter with Supernatural producer Robbie Thompson where they teased fans on the possibilities of a crossover between the two shows called SuperSleepy (with Thompson even writing out a teaser script, which he tweeted to fans).

At the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference earlier this year, Suzanne Scott called Jones a “celebacafan” – Jones’s engagement with fans, as well as with fan studies and media scholars makes him an anomaly in the industry (for example, he appeared as a guest of Henry Jenkins in the Transforming Hollywood conference in UCLA, participated in a live chat with other fans and academics organised by the Organization of Transformative Works to discuss fan works, and Skyped into the Fan Studies Network conference held at Regents University, London last year).

His “star text of convergence”, Scott argues, opens a space in which the intersectional construction of the fan identity, usually centred around gender and race, can be addressed; something which, Scott reminds, fan studies has yet to critically engage with. As such, Jones’s intersectionality, including the intersection of his role as both industry insider and fan, calls for a way to think and talk about notions of “plus/and” rather than “either/or”. Paul Booth, in his new book, Playing Fans, also called for considerations of fluidity in examining fan practices and identities; in that rather than trying to define boundaries of fandom – or fandoms, as is the case – and industry, or even defining fan and indusry relations, we should, Booth argues, instead investigate sites and moments of interaction, of intersectionality, even if fans are themselves constantly drawing these boundaries. Identifying it as the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,” it “updates, develops, augments, and nurtures alternative views, practices, identities, and meanings with the commonly understood (but underinterpreted) relationship between media fans and the media industries” (Booth, 2015: 5).

OJ tshirtIn this paper however, I want to make use of Scott’s notion of Jones’s intersectionality, particularly his identity as creator/industry insider and fan to look at fandom policing, and how this intersectionality and Jones’s emphasis to insert the notion of play and pleasure back into fandom may have created an Orlando Jones anti-fandom within the Supernatural fandom.

Rogue Events’ announcement initially drew confusion from some fans about Jones’s presence at a Supernatural convention, even though it wasn’t uncommon for the organiser to invite guests who are only marginally connected to the convention’s main focus. For example, at a recent convention for the CW show, Arrow, guests consist of actors from the show itself, its spin-off The Flash, as well as actors in other TV shows and films associated with DC Entertainment (where with the exception of The Flash, none were set in the same universe or related to Arrow beyond being properties of DC Entertainment).

However, over the course of Supernatural‘s 10-year history, the show has collected a long list of guest actors, a large number of whom have become regulars at, and become popular among fans at the North American convention circuit [1]. As it is, some fans were already voicing their dissatisfaction at the exclusion of some, especially female, cast members to an event billed as the European celebration of the show’s 10th year anniversary.

Fans’ general confusion soon turned to anger (which can also be exemplified in the title of this paper, taken from a tweet, which has since been deleted), and this was probably most evident on Tumblr, where, as Jones himself highlighted, the ‘anti-Orlando Jones’ tag came into existence.

A lot of fans’ frustrations and anger stemmed from Jones’s apparent support for one of the major ship pairings (Destiel) in Supernatural [2]– which some fans view as a form of endorsement for the pairing – and his friendship with Misha Collins. As one fan writes on a Tumblr post:

“So he was invited to a Supernatural convention and no one knows why. He’s not on the show, so why would he be a part of a panel? I think a lot of people are assuming that because he’s this big Destiel shipper, he’s going to be talking about Destiel and feeding the shippers everything they want to hear. Which would then make tumblr all the more unbearable since Destiel shippers like to think they run this fandom…because they think they’re so entitled or something”.

Jones has repeatedly stated that anything he says, or the support he shows for particular pairings, in public forums does not hold any bearings on the writers, but fans continue to assume that his words equals endorsement because of his role as a media industry insider.

This can also be read as what Nick Couldry identifies as the “symbolic hierarchy of the media frame” (2000: 20), in which Jones, as an actor – a media industry insider – is considered a representative of the media who maintains symbolic power over fans, even when he has identified himself as one of us. The symbolic power of the media is constantly naturalised through the relationship between people and the media, in the way that the media (or representations of the media) is always assumed to be reporting and representing facts. Couldry argues that, “The media’s status as a reporter of ‘the facts’ about social reality (a strategy he identifies as naming) helps naturalise their status more generally as the ‘frame’ through which we obtain access to social reality. This helps reinforce the symbolic hierarchy between ‘media’ and ‘ordinary worlds’ which in turn helps reinforce the status of media material (whether fact or fiction) as social ‘reality’ or ‘actuality’” (2000: 52).

This is constantly evident in the ways in which fans frame Orlando Jones in the context of the Supernatural fandom, and it’s often to the point of policing how he expresses his fandom, and who he supports. In this open letter to Jones from a fan on Tumblr, for example, the fan writes:

I watched Sleepy Hollow in part because I liked you. Then you started pandering to a very small and controversial faction of the Supernatural fandom and I suddenly stopped liking you. Since you seem to spend so much of your time on the internet, you may have a very skewed idea of the make-up of this fandom. Contrary to popular belief, most SPN fans do not ship Destiel. We don’t want it to be canon – most of us don’t want any ship to be canon because it would mess up the show…The ship itself is not the problem. It’s just a small portion of the shippers who are toxic.

A look at the original Tumblr post (which, at the time of writing, has 986 posts) suggests that the original poster holds another pairing on the show as their OTP (one true pairing), and a declaration that the fan’s OTP is “canon” as far as he/she is concerned. In light of this, one has to wonder why Jones is held to a different standard. Does his intersectionality as industry insider and fan prohibits him from showing public support over something he likes because it’ll almost certainly become endorsement? Is this similar to the ways in which some fans expect their favourite celebrities to remain quiet and ambivalent about their politics, because in silence and ambivalence, the celebrity can remain as the fan’s idealised version?

Jones has also continually stated that he’s fascinated with social media, as well as the policing that comes with being active on various social media platforms like he is. The vitriol and hate he receives, particularly in light of this convention appearance in the UK also says something about anti-fandom, and how we construct perceptions of anti-fandom. Jonathan Gray positioned anti-fans as fans’ ‘Other’, an under-studied section of the audience who openly dislike a text but would passionately engage with it through other paratextual means such as trailers, parodies and reviews. Anti-fans of a particular media text or genre impose conditions of morality, value and quality, arguing that audiences should go for, and have access to better-produced material (see, for example, the oft-cited reasons for shunning texts like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey).

However, fans’ turn against Jones is more similar to Vivi Theodoropoulou’s definition of sports anti-fandom, where she argues that “fandom is a precondition of anti-fandom … [whereby] a fan becomes an anti-fan of the object that ‘threatens’ his/her own, and of that object’s fans” (2007: 316), suggesting that emotions of love and hate govern (if you will) media fans more intricately, and while notions of anti-fandom might not be as clear cut for media fans as they do sports fans, that division between love and hate is constantly blurred. Furthermore, with the advent of social media, these emotions can be expressed in a more public manner (as is the case with the open letter to Jones, where fans declare that they will stop watching Sleepy Hollow because of his support of a pairing on another show).

To sum up, what is this telling us? Fan studies often skew to the defense of fans as productive individuals, of the importance of community and camaraderie due to shared love, and of late, there’s even a call to return to the premise of fandom as, or fandom is, beautiful. While these are valid observations, there’s a danger that we often look at fandom(s) through rose-tinted glasses, that in order to prove that fans are productive individuals because so much of what we do and love are often denigrated by the media and culture at large, we run the risks of ignoring other, equally important but not always positive, fan practices. As such, we need to problematise the assumption that fandom is beautiful, for it allows for other stories – such as stories about intersectionality – to come through, and acknowledges that fandom is indeed, not homogenous.

——

[1] Creation Entertainment organises and runs, on average, about 12-14 Supernatural conventions in major cities across the US and Canada per year. In comparison, Rogue Events’ Supernatural conventions run twice a year, and remains one of the major fan conventions in Europe related to the show (the other being Jus in Bello in Italy).

[2] Fans’ support of their favourite pairings are often contentious, and with Supernatural, this is no exception. The two major slash pairings that fans support are Dean/Castiel (known as Destiel), and Sam/Dean (Wincest). Relationship between the two groups of fans are antagonistic, with both competing for recognition and popularity among producers.

References:

Booth, P. 2015. Playing fans: negotiating fandom and media in the digital age, University of Iowa Press, Iowa.

Couldry, N. 2000. The place of media power : pilgrims and witnesses of the media age. London: Routledge.

Scott, S. 2015. “The Powers that Squee: The Intersectional Significance of Orlando Jones”, paper presented at Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference, Montreal, Canada, 25th-29th March, 2015.

Theodoropoulou, V. 2007. The Anti-Fan within the Fan: Awe and Envy in Sport Fandom. In: Sandvoss, C. et al. eds. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. NYU Press, pp. 316–327

 

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Fandom and genre: Comic distance and emotional attachment in Parks and Recreation fandom

I presented this paper at the Fan Studies Conference at UEA (4-5 July, 2015). The conference was excellent. Fellow On/Off Screen contributors Bertha Chin and Rebecca Williams are on the FSN board, and both Rebecca and Lori Morimoto presented papers at the conference. My attendance was funded by the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, where I´m part of the Body Genres research cluster (formerly Screen Cultures).

Kamikaze

I´m currently working on a larger multi-text and multi-sited study of online audience engagement with screen comedy, and in this paper I´d like to focus on one of the issues I´m exploring, which is the role of comic distance. This concept informs a lot of academic work on comedy and it´s about how comedic texts use various strategies to distance audiences from the portrayed events, so that we can laugh when things go wrong, rather than just feel sorry for characters or worry about them. To me, there seems to be a tension between this idea of distance and the attachments that fans develop to their fan objects, and so I´m interested in exploring how comedic texts also invite audience investment and how online fan responses to comedy might negotiate this push/pull dynamic. So what I want to do here is to try to unpack the notion of comic distance and to use the case study of the Tumblr-based fandom of mockdocumentary sitcom Parks and Recreation to explore how these Tumblr posts articulate different affective registers.

Theoretical framework

To clarify my own approach to understanding comedy, I think of the experience of humour as embodied and performative. This draws on Ahmed´s (2004) theory of emotions, which argues that we inscribe objects or others with certain attributes through our affective encounters. So, when I perceive a sitcom as being funny, my performance of amusement constructs the show as having the essential quality of being funny, while also constructing my own identity as a comedy viewer with particular experiences and tastes. My individual encounters with comedy are situated within a wider “affective economy” (8) of cultural discourses around what is funny and what isn´t, and within this environment my repetitive performances of amusement reinforce cultural norms (194).

But amusement is of course not the only possible feeling in responses to comedy. Screen comedy can adopt different strategies to encourage viewers to read moments as exciting, sad or romantic, for example, and I think the semiotic concept of “modality” offers a useful way in for thinking about how that happens. I´m using the definition of modality provided by Hodge and Tripp (1986), which describes it as concerning “the reality attributed to a message” by a speaker and a listener (104).

A weaker modality is signalled by excessive performances, for example, or unlikely events, and it offers comic distance by reminding us that what we are seeing is not “real”. This encourages us to relax and laugh at characters´ failures and mishaps. In contrast, a stronger modality can invite us to care about characters and get invested in their relationships. Many narrative-driven comedies, including Parks and Recreation, will use subtle and more marked modality shifts to offer viewers comic pleasures while also including moments that are positioned closer to reality in different ways, to encourage other affective responses, to follow the narrative, care about what happens, and develop emotional attachments to the show.

 Data

So how were these shifts in comic distance negotiated through the fan responses on Tumblr? I collected and coded the 100 top posts tagged #Parks and Recreation about a week after the show´s final episode was shown in the US and then examined some of the blogs that were dedicated to specific characters and comedians on the show. Those of you who are familiar with Tumblr will be unsurprised to hear that the majority of posts in my sample were screenshots and animated GIFs and GIF sets, mostly with captions quoting the dialogue from those depicted moments.

Key practice: Quotation

A study by Hillman et al (2014) found that GIFs let fans post key scenes for discussion and creative reworking. In my sample, however, there was hardly any evidence of discussion. Most posts were just sharing particular moments from the show, a practice we can term quoting. This absence of analysis reproduces a cultural discourse that distinguishes between appropriate and inappropriate ways of talking about comedy. While analysis is seen to kill the joke or as taking comedy too seriously, quoting comedy stays within “the realm of humour” (Mulkay 1988: 21) and maintains comic distance. This practice is a key pleasure in comedy fandom.

Comedy quotations have traditionally entailed the spoken performance of comedic dialogue, which detaches lines from their visual context and reinforces the cultural privileging of verbal over visual humour. On Tumblr, though, the emphasis was on imagery as the screenshots and GIF sets draw our attention to performances, while also showing us costumes, sets, camera work, and so on. Within this quotation culture, posters are perhaps primarily rewarded for their ability to select textual moments or paratexts that resonate with other fans. Such resonance is indicated by the number of “notes” a post attracts, which comprises “likes” and reblogging by other users. As Abbott (2014) argues, Tumblr´s focus on “microblogging” foregrounds curation, sharing and annotation over longer, original content. And as popular #Parks and Recreation posts are shared with a widening audience, this repetition reinforces the salience of particular textual moments within that fan culture.

Affective resonances

Betz (2014) suggests that fan screenshots and GIFs can be seen as a “continuous flow of affective images” (para. 2) that enable Tumblr users to align themselves with others who have similar affective interpretations of characters. So what kinds of affective resonances were indicated by posts in my sample? Of the 100 posts I examined, 65 clearly articulated amusement, but 25 did not.

Amongst the humorous posts I found an emphasis on moments where Leslie, Andy, April and Ron are behaving in ways that reiterate key comedic character traits: Leslie is being intense, Andy is acting as a fool, April is resisting social conventions and Ron is presenting stern verdicts. However, across these expressions of amusement there also seemed to be articulations of other affective responses, such as admiration for Leslie´s commitment, for April´s rebelliousness, for Andy´s exuberance and for Ron´s snappy authority.

These compound affective responses suggest to me that, while fans might sometimes laugh “at” characters and feel superior to them, this sense of superiority is destabilised because they also inscribe those characters with value and develop attachments to them over the course of the show. And as Mills (2011) has noted, the comedian´s position of power complicates this relationship further. A particularly interesting case here is the contrast between Andy as a chubby, sweet-natured fool and actor Chris Pratt´s persona as a buff, accomplished action star, developed through the blockbusters Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. Chris Pratt´s stardom complicates readings of Andy as a buffoon. This incongruity was a focal point in Tumblr blogs dedicated to the actor, with posts frequently expressing bemusement, admiration and affection.

I think the interest in the comedian / character relationship also highlights a key issue in the push/pull relationship between comedic texts and audiences. While a comedic modality can distance us from a character´s misfortune, for example, the enjoyable sense of amusement might make us feel close to those who “gave” us that jokework or comic situation, which we might consider to be the characters but also the writers, the director or the performers, for example. We might feel a sense of shared understanding, maybe, or a sense of gratitude for the pleasurable experience. And while a comedic modality reminds us that the events we see are fictitious, it also draws attention to the “realness” of the performers and the “authenticity” of their displays of comedic skills in improvisation, comic timing and physical clowning, for example. So, comedy invites viewers to adopt reading strategies that shift between different orientations towards characters and performers (Cook 1982), which results in quite a complex interplay between proximity and distance that opens up for different kinds of emotional attachments.

Newman (2014) emphasises that what is “unquoted” is as important as what is included in quotation culture because the repeated process of selection can help form the meanings of texts. By circulating posts that focus on specific character traits, fans co-create a hierarchy of characters and inscribe certain traits with value. It is notable that Chris, Tom, Donna, and Gerry were peripheral in the #Parks and Recreation posts, despite some of them featuring prominently in the show. In contrast, Ben and Ann were only occasionally the sole focus of humorous posts but more frequently included in posts about their relationships with Leslie. I think this indicates the value placed on “shipping” and what we might call “friendshipping” in this fan culture.

While shipping often involves conflicts between groups of fans who support different romantic relationships, here there was a focus on the friendships between Leslie / Ron and Leslie / Ann as well as the two most stable romances in the show, which are April / Andy and Leslie / Ben. Both of these romantic couples meet, date, marry and have children over the course of the sitcom and there was no evidence of fans shipping these characters with alternative partners. This shipping practice, then, should be situated within the stability of the sitcom genre, where viewers tend to expect a happy ending. So while Ann leaves the show in season 6, her return for the show finale cements hers and Leslie´s friendship.

Interestingly, there was no evidence of fans shipping the romance between Ann and Chris, although they date briefly and are later reunited and have a baby. I suspect the marginalisation of this ship in the fan culture is a result of the way it is cued in the show. While the representations of the Andy / April and Ben / Leslie relationships do function as sources of humour, they also encourage viewers to invest in those romances through occasional shifts to more complex modalities (King 2002: 13) that position them closer to reality and invite “[a]ffective implication” (Purdie 1993: 85). The resonance of such moments were indicated by several posts in my sample, which included quotations of Ben´s proposal to Leslie and his suggestion that they start a family, as well as quotations of April expressing her love for Andy and giving him encouragement when he was worried about his job.

In contrast, the romance between Ann and Chris is nearly always cued as comedic in the show. While Ann is usually the “straight” character that we see reacting to the comic behaviour of other characters, Chris is represented through a modality of comic excess. His absurdly exaggerated behaviour invites audiences to feel superior to him, and the disparity between him and Ann constructs their relationship as a comic incongruity. This maintains the comic distance between the couple and the viewers, hindering the intense emotional investment or “feels” that is a key pleasure in shipping (Hillman et al 2014: 7).

Conclusion

So, to sum up, I think the push/pull strategy of comedic texts can be usefully examined through the concept of modality, through the idea of fans inscribing characters with value through affective encounters, and by thinking about how comic distance invites proximity to performers and other creative personnel. Approaching quotation posts on Tumblr as articulations of affective resonance, I found a marked emphasis on the expression of amusement at key character traits, along with feelings of admiration and affection, which complicates the idea that we are laughing at characters because we feel superior to them and indicates fan attachments.

I also identified a focus on the shipping of friendships and romantic relationships that are represented through shifting modalities within the text, and an absence of shipping of a romance that is cued primarily as comedic in the show. Finally, it´s worth noting that even shipping posts were overwhelmingly in the form of quotations, rather than discussion, which suggests that even though comedies can use textual strategies to decrease comic distance and invite audience investment, the notion of comic distance might still inform our understanding of appropriate ways to articulate such investment.

References:

Abbott, Daisy (2014) “Old plays, new narratives: fan production of new media texts from broadcast theatre.” In Huson Moura, Ricardo Sternberg, Regina Cunha, Cecilia Queiroz and Martin Zeilinger (eds) Proceedings of the Interactive Narratives, New Media & Social Engagement International Conference. http://interactiveconference.spanport.utoronto.ca/resources/InteractiveNarratives-proceedings.pdf

Ahmed, Sara (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Betz, Stephanie (2014) “Affective Moorings: The Online Sociality of Fandom”. ASAANZ/AAS Conference, Queenstown, 20-13 November.

Cook, Jim (1982) ‘Narrative, comedy, character and performance’. In J. Cook (ed.) BFI Dossier 17: Television sitcom. London: BFI, pp. 13-18

Hillman, Serena, Procyk, Jason and Neustaedter, Carman (2015) “‘alksjdf;lksfd’: Tumblr and the Fandom User Experience”. DIS ’14 Proceedings of the 2014 conference on Designing interactive systems, pp. 775-784. h

Hodge, Robert and Tripp, David (1986) Children and Television: A Semiotic Approach. Stanford: Stanford University Press

King, Geoff (2002) Film Comedy. London: Wallflower

Mills, Brett (2011) “‘A pleasure working with you’: Humour theory and Joan Rivers”. Comedy Studies 2(1): 151-160

Mulkay, Michael (1988) On Humor: Its Nature and its Place in Modern Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity

Newman, Michael (2014) “Say ‘Pulp Fiction’ One More Goddamn Time: Quotation Culture and an Internet-Age Classic”. New Review of Film and Television Studies 12(2): 125-142

Purdie, Susan (1993) Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf