About Bertha Chin

Lecturer of Social Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology's international campus in Malaysian Borneo and contributor to On/Off Screen blog. Lifelong fan of The X-Files and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Current (TV) faves include Arrow, The Handmaid's Tale, Game of Thrones and American Gods.

Crazy Rich Asians: the startling revelation of homogeneity in diversity and multiculturalism

In the days leading up to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, I was fascinated by how the reviews were framing the film. There was plenty that remarked on how historically monumental it was, given its contemporary setting and all-Asian cast. Indeed it was. And yet, there were some that mused on the fantastical aspects of the film (ie. the opulent wealth), as if it’s odd to see Asians surrounded by so much money they could afford to buy jewellery worn by royalty, or on a whim, take a private jet to a private island. Would it be fantastical if those characters were white? I think not.

Closer to home, it’s with a bit more critical lens; chief of which is its lack of diversity and how it doesn’t really represent the “real”, everyday Singapore. Given the film’s title and its subject matter, what is considered authentic here though? The food courts and HDB flats (the equivalent of council flats for those of us who are more British-inclined) or the high-flying lifestyles of the private school, overseas educated trust fund heirs to conglomerates? We chide at the film’s embrace of abundant post-colonialism: the British accents, the ties to England — yet, isn’t it a reflection of Southeast Asia’s colonial history? In the East-meets-West culture we promote, our command of English, and the colonial buildings we fight to preserve as part of our heritage. And yet, when Henry Golding (the Sarawak-born, mixed race lead actor) was cast, many question his identity, critical of his “Asian-ness”, or for some, it’s yet another “Eurasian” face on the screen; but none, however, seemed to want to acknowledge his indigenous identity, one the actor seemed to be proud to proclaim.

When faced with seeming homogeneity in our so-called proclamation of diversity and multiculturalism, we seemed to be very uncomfortable with this representation; preferring instead to impose what we deemed to be ‘authentic’ in a film featuring an all-Asian cast, except it’s a cast that’s unlike that of Joy Luck Club, released 25 years ago to cinema-viewers. I remember Joy Luck Club — it was quintessentially “Asian”: dire; serious; as if to be Asian, one needs to let go of all joys in life and just be miserable. And suddenly, faced with the opulence and the flashiness that the Asian 1% lives (fast cars, loud parties) in Crazy Rich Asians, the dire seriousness of being Asian is under threat.

On a personal note, I loved the film. Not because it finally represented me per se, but it’s finally an Asia that’s truly familiar, if not reminiscent of people and scenarios I’ve encountered or heard about. While living in the UK, (East) Asian culture was pretty much Chinese, with Hong Kong being the closest and most familiar. Since moving back to Borneo, the assumption has pretty much been that I must partake in the pan-Asian (or perhaps I should say global now) fascination with anything K-related (pop, drama, fashion, etc.). But Constance Wu’s character of Rachel Chu, described as being a “banana” was somewhat more familiar (case in point of a lost-in-translation conversation surrounding some of the actors in the film who were popular in Singaporean sitcoms, of whom I have no knowledge of — so again, it’s that assumption of so-called collective knowledge; as if by being ‘Asian’, or by moving back to Asia, I must be immediately attuned to whoever was/is popular).

Wu’s character is reminiscent of how easily people are judged within their own ethnicities. She looked Chinese, but she’s not Chinese “enough”. She’s educated (an NYU economics professor in gamification theory) but it’s the ‘wrong’ education because it’s American, not British. It’s interesting. It’s also very much familiar to a Southeast Asia that’s still negotiating its complicated post-colonial past. And for the uber rich depicted in the film, the old world (boarding schools, Oxbridge, British accents) still holds the ultimate social status even if a Chinese matriarch holds the family together. The British have left, but the English sensibilities haven’t.

I can only speak for myself, and others with whom I’ve had this conversation with after watching the film. Crazy Rich Asians speaks about a particular class of Asians in a national context that is often extremely uncomfortable about class, where the national propaganda speaks of multiculturalism and diversity but in a superficial manner that reflects their homogeneity more. And I’m not merely talking about Singapore, even if recent studies have shown that it is becoming more segregated by class, with people who go to private schools being less likely to mix across the class divide. In Malaysia itself, the race card trumps political discourse for as long as the country has claimed independence, and the narrative of the formation of Malaysia is itself rooted in divisions of ethnicity and class. Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the casual discriminatory remark thrown around without anyone batting an eyelid; where even among different Chinese ‘ethnicities’ (e.g. Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese), division reign.

My point being, when I watch a Southeast Asian film made supposedly for me, a fellow Southeast Asian, I feel even more isolated and excluded. Malaysian films are essentially that: Malay; whereby diversity is represented through food and language. So when I watch a Malaysian film that is supposed to be quintessentially ‘Malaysian’, it isn’t about or for me, it actually makes me feel less affinity to this place that has embraced its Malaysian-ness, whereas for some, if not many, home is Sarawak, with a radically different historical trajectory. And Like Joy Luck Club and countless other Asian films that have made it big in the West, these films are always grim, serious drama. If it was a comedy, it referred very specifically to in-jokes, languages in, and cultures of Malaya.

This lack of in-betweenness was revealing, as if telling those of us not specifically Malay or Chinese educated that we don’t belong because we’re never authentic enough. Much as Henry Golding was always criticised for not being “Asian enough”; as if others deemed more authentic — and yes, more homogenous — have attained the rights to decide who we are. The fact of the matter is, Crazy Rich Asians was generic in its storyline. Strip away the Asian cast, it can be about anyone. It just so happens that the film is set in Singapore, with an all-Asian cast. It normalises the Asian-ness, and honestly, do you really believe the real crazy rich Asians aren’t mingling within their own kind? But this normalisation, as skewed as it may be for some, is what matters to me: I don’t need to be exoticised further than the Malaysian or the Sarawak government has already exoticised the place I come from. Asians aren’t grim and serious all the time. And for me, that’s why this was more relatable: it’s easy on the eyes, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it has gorgeous sets and colours, and riveting music.

Yes, it’s about a privileged class of Asians. Don’t pretend they don’t exist beyond the minuscule 1%. Many of us had a Western education because we were ‘privileged’ enough to attend the right schools, to be at the right place, to find our own identity — pathways forged by parents who worked hard, who still have a complicated relationship with postcolonialism. Many still have close ties to England, be it through family, or that postgraduate education in Oxford/Cambridge.

It was also interesting, from a media studies perspective, that many commentators failed to explore the mechanics of the Hollywood film industry, an industry where numerous studies have shown is scant on minority representation. Someone like Golding — a complete newcomer with no professional acting credentials to his name (hosting doesn’t really count) — would not have been cast as a lead in a mainstream Hollywood film. Many dismissed his Eurasian looks as another form of whitewashing, but none wanted to acknowledge his indigenous identity. It harks back to how easily we assign labels on people based on what we want to see, rather than what we hear. But in a Southeast Asia that is so easily defensive about race, ethnicity, language, accents, gender, sex, many can barely look beyond the British accent.

For me, Crazy Rich Asians broke another milestone which were swallowed by the criticisms on diversity. Jon Chu’s direction lingered on the male bodies numerous times throughout the film. In one specific scene used in the film’s promotional materials, Rachel is seen openly admiring Nick’s body. It’s clear their relationship was also sexual in nature, breaking this Victorian notion of shame surrounding sex, and the enjoyment of sex, within the Asian context. On the big screen, the pairing of Rachel and Nick is enabling the world (the film retained its top spot at the box office for the third week at the time of writing) to see an unmarried Asian couple enjoying themselves; it is allowing the audience’s gaze to linger on the (Southeast) Asian male body.

That’s also important to acknowledge. As much as the criticisms on the lack of diversity represented are important criticisms to recognise, it is also equally important to remember that diversity and multiculturalism, as much as it exists in tourism promotional materials, people remain segregated within their communities on a macro level in reality. On a micro level, the discrimination and segregation occurs subconsciously on a daily basis. In fact, it says more about inequality than it probably means to. These are important conversations to have, let’s not get defensive about it either.

“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

 

On social media, ‘Mary Sue RPF’ and consent

I have not really touched on fan fiction in my works in any significant ways, but I want to put this in the “work in progress” folder as I think through the realities and practicalities of continuing this vein of thought.

In my academic work, I’ve written a fair bit on fan labour, arguing for value in the labour that fans perform for their favourite celebrities and media producers, be it in indirectly contributing to a crowdfunding campaign, or directly with building websites and going on to maintain (and perhaps even manage) the sites and fan interactions. As someone who also performs fan labour myself, I’ve blogged about the (personal) complications of being in that liminal position: of having access, being the gatekeeper and still maintaining my identity as both a fan and fan studies scholar. This is especially relevant in my observations of one fan who insists on a particular set of behaviours in the process of constructing a narrative, even when she receives no attention whatsoever from the celebrity she’s tweeting.

Is this part of a performance, I frequently ask myself. Or would we discover that it’s some form of (unethical) social media experiment? In truth, that it’s a cruel joke or a performance of some kind would be less troubling than the thought that this fan is violating the unspoken code of interacting with celebrities on social media, that this pattern of behaviour isn’t indicative of something more worrying. The last time I blogged about this, I was talking about some form of ethical guideline for engaging with this in academic terms, especially given my proximity to those involved and my role as gatekeeper. But I was also thinking along in terms of how fans approach and (want to) interact with their favourite celebrities on social media. When I’m on social media, I’m sometimes interacting as a fan (and performing fan labour) as well as a fan studies scholar – those roles interchange very frequently, sometimes without me being entirely conscious about it. I am, however, conscious about the fact that I’m not on social media to judge how fans choose to express their fandom in a public space. We all make use of social media in different ways, after all. Ultimately, those emotions are also expressed via fans’ own personal Twitter accounts. And I think while I’m entitled to privately cringe over some, feeling somewhat aghast and worried was the last thing I expected.

For how do you begin to reconcile the work and the research with the realities when fans deliberately tweet what looks like real person fan fiction to the celebrities – not that there is anything wrong with that. But when the tweets are incessant, and the fan has inserted herself into the – at times, explicit – fantasy, something which Kristina Busse has suggested is a recurring mode of fannish narrative (2006, p. 256), it got me thinking about boundaries, consent, and social reciprocity. Mel Stanfill and I have briefly flirted with the idea of consent in our Twitter and email exchanges – she was, in fact, the one who turned my thoughts in this direction in relation to the tweets I was seeing a lot at one point over the course of several months in early 2014 [1]. If a fan is writing explicit tweets on a public forum and further including the celebrity in their @mentions, is the celebrity being included without their consent? Furthermore, what of the fans tracking his @mentions who are suddenly inundated with these tweets?

Busse (2006, p. 255) argues that fan fiction provides a space whereby fans “literally write out and share their fantasies, they create a social space of communication and interaction that is about the celebrities, the stories, as well as the women writing them”. These are however, shared within the confines of fan communities, often constructed specifically for this very purpose: for fans who share the same readings, or are interested in the production of transformative works. Tweets, on the other hand, are not constructed within fan communities, and at times, fans who see it are not familiar with, nor do they participate in the creative side of fandom. There is further complication when the celebrity in question blocks the fan, suggesting that a boundary has been crossed.

Fan fiction is often produced independent of the knowledge and involvement of actors and media producers (media, tech and fandom-savvy celebrities like Orlando Jones notwithstanding), but when the fan who’s constructing this narrative further tries to convince others that she has an offline relationship with the celebrity, is it then no longer fan fiction? Is it ever fan fiction in the first place?

Celebrities might take to using the same social media platforms as fans, and with the rising popularity of networks like Twitter, it can be easy to forget that they – nor anyone – are not obligated in any way to respond to fans. Equally, fans who make use of Twitter and who enjoy interacting with their favourite celebrities might feel that they are being misrepresented by other fans. Fandom is so easily disregarded as something trivial and many have portrayed celebrity/fan interactions as para-social, arguing that fans are in need of (medical) help and a healthy/ier social life. On one level, this is a form of fandom policing, where fans want to ensure that they are presenting the best view of fandom to the public so any behaviour or narrative that threatens this image disrupts fans’ construction of the ‘ideal fandom’.

This policing isn’t new, especially when it involves real person fiction. While it is generally accepted in some fandoms, real person fiction is often treated with suspicion. In older media fandoms such as The X-Files, for instance, real person fiction is not only frowned upon but generally banned from the show’s fan fiction archives. A lot of times, however, the stories produced feature the actors, where shipping of characters are extended to the actors, who as celebrities, are seen as performing a public role at the same time. This, then, is different from the insertion fantasy fan fiction inflicted upon celebrities on Twitter. It is one thing to write fan fiction featuring one’s favourite celebrities and submit them to an RPF-friendly archive such as AO3. It is, however, more ‘controversial’ to produce this narrative in public on Twitter and tagging the celebrity in question, as if inviting him to participate in said fantasy.

Ultimately, my question remains: can something like this be considered as a form of real person fiction? Absent any logical way to engage with, and understand this [2], is this the only way we can continue to ask difficult questions of fan practices and their interactions with one another, as well as with their favourite celebrities?

——

[1] While the frequency and suggestiveness of the tweets have lessened, the tweeter has not stopped trying to communicate with the celebrity in question, often going on to create numerous sock puppet accounts even if she is blocked as soon as she is discovered.
[2] The narrative has now expanded to include at least 2 other actors who are all friends in real life, 2 other fans who appears to believe the stories told by the fan in question, as well as others who have expressed their displeasure and disbelief of this, suggesting that there is some form of elaborate world-building happening here that perhaps rivals those of Marvel’s.

Reference:

Busse, Kristina. 2006. ‘I’m Jealous of the Fake Me’: Postmodern Subjectivity and Identity Construction in Boy Band Fan Fiction. In S. Holmes & S. Redmond, eds. Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture, London: Routledge, pgs. 253-267.

REGISTRATI​ON OPEN: Fan Studies Network Conference 2014

The Fan Studies Network

Dear all,

We are delighted to announce that registration for the Fan Studies Network Conference 2014 is now open. The event will take place on 27-28 September at Regent’s University, London. You can register on the conference webpage here:

http://www.regents.ac.uk/events/the-fan-studies-network-conference.aspx

There are very limited spaces for the event, so we urge you to register as soon as possible. Full information about prices and location can be found via the link above.

The current draft schedule is available to view online here:

Any questions, please email us at fsnconference@gmail.com

We think this will be a very exciting conference – we hope to see you there!

The FSN conference team

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Call for Papers: Fan Studies Network 2014 Conference, Regent’s University, London, UK, 27-28th September 2014

The Fan Studies Network

Call for papers:

THE FAN STUDIES NETWORK 2014 CONFERENCE
27-28th September 2014
Regent’s University, London, UK

Keynote Speakers:

Dr Paul Booth (DePaul University)

Dr Rhiannon Bury (Athabasca University)

Mr Orlando Jones (star of Sleepy Hollow, appearing for a virtual Q&A)

For two years the Fan Studies Network has provided a fruitful and enthusiastic space for academics interested in fans and fandom to connect, share resources, and develop their research ideas. Following the success of our first symposium in November 2013, we are delighted to announce the FSN2014 Conference, taking place over two days at Regent’s University London from 27-28th September 2014.

FSN2014 will feature three fantastic keynote speakers. The first will be Dr Paul Booth, author of Digital Fandom: New Media Studies (Peter Lang, 2010), Time on TV: Temporal Displacement and Mashup Television (Peter Lang, 2012) and editor of Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who (Intellect, 2013). His newest book,

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“They’re not fans, they’re freaks”: CW’s Cult and how its pathologisation of fans can’t have won them favours in fandom

In the pilot episode of Cult, a midseason show on the CW Network in the US that premiered in February 2013 [1], a disembodied voice of a friend tells the lead female character, Skye, over the phone:

“They’re not fans, they’re freaks”

cultSkye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas, Cloverfield) is a production assistant on a TV show called Cult (featuring Alona Tal of Supernatural and Robert Knepper of Stargate Universe as actors in the show within a show) which has attracted a very large and passionate fanbase. Unfortunately, said fanbase may also have developed into a real cult and may be involved with a range of suspicious disappearances and deaths. An experienced production assistant, Skye was suspicious about the (unsanctioned) activities that the fans get up to in unofficial fansites and forums. In the following clip, she voices her concerns to one of the producers of the show, warning him of the “other”, “scary” fans who do not congregate at the official sites nor consume any of the official materials the producers provide for the “normal” fans.

Her concerns brushed off by the producer, Skye later agrees to help journalist, Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis, The Vampire Diaries) investigate the mysterious disappearance of his estranged brother, Nate, who is, incidentally, a fan of Cult, and have previously communicated to Jeff that fans of the show are “weird” and “dangerous” prior to his disappearance. As the duo delve further into the investigation, they are increasingly drawn into ‘mysterious’ world of Cult’s fandom, whose fans physically gather at an Internet cafe called Fandomain.

I followed the development of Cult ever since it was announced, somewhat mortified but curious by the show’s description and the way that the CW network, home to other popular shows such as Arrow, Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, chose to promote it. I find it hard to reconcile the idea that a show which boasts lead casts from cult-favourite shows such as The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural would alienate the very demographics that they are presumably trying to court. Many TV critics who covered the initial promotion of the show posed the same question to Rockne S. O’Bannon, the show’s creator but O’Bannon continually profess that the producers are in the unique position of putting a “magnifying glass on the idea itself”, on questioning fandom and fans’ passionate attachment to a TV show at a time when the relationship between fans and producers are shifting, no doubt influenced by the proliferation of social media networks like Twitter and the supposed heightened interaction between fans and media industry professionals as a result of it. Indeed, Henry Jenkins (2006) has indicated that media companies “are giving out profoundly mixed signals because they really can’t decide what kind of relationships they want to have with [audiences]. They want us to look at but not touch, buy but not use, media content” (p. 138).  A correlation can be made here between Jenkins’ point about media companies and Cult’s producers, who want to draw audiences – particularly those who will become loyal fans and viewers – into the programme because it is tailor-made to fans’ genre interests, but at the same time, the producers seemingly only want certain types of fan engagement within a managed space like an official site or forum. Continue reading

The Veronica Mars Movie: crowdfunding – or fan-funding – at its best?

While the world’s media agencies have been tuned to the Vatican for news on the papal conclave, my social media feeds – Twitter, especially – have been filled with news of the Veronica Mars Movie project on Kickstarter.


Less than half a day after the project was announced, funding for the film has reached more than $1.5 million (with 30 more days to go to reach their initial $2 million funding goal). Judging from Rob Thomas’s (Veronica Mars’s creator) and Kristen Bell’s (Veronica Mars herself) tweets, they were surprised by fans’ reaction and enormous support for the project. That a cult show that averaged about 2.5 million viewers, which was cancelled in 2007, could still amass such speedy response to a call for action to make a film. Talk about the power of crowdfunding, or more specifically in this case, fan-funding.

I’ve been reading a lot of op-eds, and listening to a lot of Twitter conversations, on the case for and against this particular project. One school of thought seems to question why Thomas and Bell do not just fund the project themselves, as the belief appears to be that since they’re “Hollywood types”, forking out $2 million shouldn’t be too difficult. While I don’t claim to know the inside workings of the Hollywood film and television industry, that may be too simplified a view. Warner Bros owns the rights to the show, and it is only with their approval, as Thomas writes in the Kickstarter rationale, that he and Bell launches the campaign on Kickstarter. Furthermore, Entertainment Weekly reports that Warner Bros Digital Distribution has agreed to foot marketing, promotional and distribution costs if the project manages to reach its $2 million goal in 30 days. So, to me, it sounds more likely that Kickstarter is used as a platform by Warner Bros to gauge fan interest in a potential product that they claim (as Thomas reported) does not warrant a studio-sized movie.

This also brings to light some people’s uneasiness and concern that money raised through this Kickstarter project is not going towards an indie project, but instead towards a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance. It obviously brings up question of fan labour and the monetisation of fans, which big conglomerates (such as the Disney-backed Fanlib years ago) have been trying to tap into. And it’s precisely why this post is being written.

While I think it’s a valid point to bring up the issue of fan labour (or investment in this case?), and whether the success of this funding campaign [1] might prompt other media conglomerates to start seeking funding for other ventures this way, we must not forget at the very core of this, is the fans. EW is currently running a poll asking fans which other TV series they would fund for a film, while X-Files fans are asking if 20th Century Fox is paying attention to this campaign, and if a similar thing can be done to get a 3rd film green-lighted. Ultimately, fans choose to fund this project, and this is the voice that’s missing in some of the concerns raised; that somehow fans need to be educated that they’re financing a studio film, so they’re not actually doing anything for the so-called greater good. But, as Jason Mittell rightly argues in a tweet, fans funding this project is no different than pre-ordering merchandise such as DVDs or going to conventions to relive favourite moments of a beloved show. Just as, I’m sure, buying a cinema ticket and helping films like The Hobbit or The Avengers break box office records is a film fan’s indirect investment towards New Line and Marvel’s next projects.

Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purports concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.

And yes, as a fan of Veronica Mars, I would proudly declare that I donated to the campaign, and if the perks offered were not bounded by geography, I would have contributed more.

[1] As I write this, funding for the project has reached over $2 million.

Man of Steel

The terms ‘serious’, ‘edgy’ and ‘realistic’ have been used in describing Man of Steel by the filmmakers, scheduled for a June 2013 release. Indeed, a look at the film trailer suggests a more sombre tale on the origin story of Superman, often touted as the ‘granddaddy of all superheroes’.

Recent controversy surrounding writer David S. Goyer’s comments about “approaching Superman as if it is not a comic book movie, but as it if were real” suggests that some fans are none too pleased about the filmmakers’ decision. However, it is precisely this attempt to take this superhero seriously – and Christopher Nolan’s involvement with Man of Steel – that has me looking forward to the film.

For all his supposed greatness, previous filmic incarnations (and here I’m talking specifically about the Christopher Reeve films and the most recent Bryan Singer 2006 remake, not the various TV and animated versions) have often presented a Superman that is campy and corny. So, for someone who isn’t necessarily a fan of Superman – who actually believes his Clark Kent disguise? – but have grown up in a household surrounded by comic fans (albeit more specifically, Batman and X-Men comics), this seems like a refreshing take on the tale.

Given what Christopher Nolan and his team (including David S. Goyer, who co-wrote the entire Dark Knight trilogy) have done for the Batman franchise, giving it a darker but certainly more realistic feel, I’m curious to see their take on Superman and its universe. Director Zack Snyder’s impressive work on films like 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen makes him an interesting choice to bring Goyer’s vision to life.

I would certainly expect that Man of Steel would be darker in tone, seemingly featuring a Clark Kent who is in conflict with his alien Kal-El identity than the ‘popcorn-movie feel’ that Marvel’s superhero films like Iron Man and The Avengers have taken.