“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

Miranda, performance and online audiences

I am currently working on a study of online audience engagement with screen comedy, and have just completed three case studies that examine evaluations of sitcoms. One of these case studies focused on discussions of Miranda (BBC2/1, 2009-2015) on the discussion board of a popular British media and entertainment site.

 

Miranda is written by comedian Miranda Hart, who also stars as title character. Miranda is an uncommonly tall and clumsy single woman in her thirties. The show is mostly set in her joke shop, which she runs with her friend Stevie. Interestingly, Miranda bucks the current trend for single-camera sitcoms. It is shot using the traditional three-headed monster in front of a live studio audience, and so it also includes a laugh track.

Why_Miranda_should_write_a_fourth_series___

This device is designed to give viewers the sense of being part of a communal viewing experience, where they are laughing along with the rest of the audience. However, the laugh track has been contentious since the early days of television, with critics constructing it as noisy, intrusive, annoying, fake and as a manipulative strategy to tell viewers when they should laugh. Recently, it has become quite rare in British sitcoms, to the point where critics and audiences seem slightly surprised when a new show does use this device. As Brett Mills (2009) notes in his book The Sitcom, not using a laugh track has become seen as a marker of quality in itself, and so Miranda seems to stubbornly position itself against the form that is currently favoured by critics.

 

It is not an entirely conventional sitcom, though. Prior to the opening credits we get the title character´s brief, introductory monologues, which resemble stand up segments, while each episode also combines traditional slapstick and broad humour with Miranda´s self-reflexive asides to the camera.

 

My analysis of the message board discussions examined debates around performance and quality. I´d here like to concentrate on talk about Miranda Hart´s performance style, which one poster described (positively) as “non-acting”. Some contributors clearly enjoyed her performances, praising her comic timing and her pratfalls, while others described her as “fake” and a “bad” actor.

 

I think these negative responses can be linked, in part, to the show´s self-reflexivity. Viewers are frequently reminded that they are watching a show because Miranda looks at the camera or addresses the audience at home. These asides transgress the boundaries of the story world, and can be seen as attempts to cement our focus on Miranda as both central character and comedian. Sometimes she draws our attention to her joke-telling (for example to demonstrate her awareness that a joke was highly conventional), while, at other times, she uses asides to reveal secrets or share her feelings about situations she finds herself in. This address to an extradiegetic audience is also used in Netflix drama House of Cards, where it works to demonstrate the ways in which Frank Underwood deceives other characters (Klarer 2014), but Miranda´s asides always set up comic incongruities while positioning the viewer as a privileged confidante.

 

This invitation to be Miranda´s understanding friend was embraced by many posters, who described their affection for the character or the comedian, and sometimes explained that they related to her clumsiness or dating disasters. In contrast, some of the posters who disliked the sitcom described the character as “hyperactive” or complained that she was “posh”. “Jolly hockey sticks” was a recurring phrase that the Internet tells me refers to an annoyingly enthusiastic posh girl/woman.

 

Miranda Hart´s performance style breaks with conventional sitcom acting, but also with the more naturalistic performance styles associated with more recent sitcom trends. Writing about The Trip, Walters (2013: 114) notes that shooting “on location breaks from comedy performance as a rehearsed and choreographed theatrical event”. In contrast, Miranda Hart draws attention to this theatricality, uses it for comic effect, and blurs the boundary between character and comedian. So I wonder if Miranda Hart fans might be enjoying her performance of her persona, while some other viewers see an unconvincing performance of an annoying character.

Yukata!Batch Goes Global

In December 2012, Benedict Cumberbatch arrived in Japan from the UK several hours after filmmaker J.J. Abrams and actor Chris Pine had arrived from Los Angeles to take part in a preliminary press junket for the summer 2013 release of Star Trek Into Darkness. Apparently unbeknownst to Cumberbatch, as well as to a Japanese mass media always on the lookout for the next big thing, roughly 500 fans – overwhelmingly female – were waiting for him on his arrival at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, the information about his flight number and arrival funneled through Sherlock and Cumberbatch-related websites that had, in turn, received it from Paramount Japan. Where Chris Pine had garnered some fleeting recognition from the many fans who had already begun gathering earlier in the day to see Cumberbatch, Cumberbatch himself received an enthusiastic welcome and attempted to respond in kind, shaking hands and acknowledging as many of his fans as possible as he was ushered to the door.

This outpouring of interest in the heretofore all-but-unknown Cumberbatch generated considerable attention within the Japanese mass media. Prior to his arrival in Japan, Cumberbatch had only been featured in one Japanese publication, Hayakawa Mystery, in a special issue focusing on BBC’s Sherlock in preparation for a New Year’s broadcast of series 2. However, the enthusiastic turnout at the airport caught the attention of magazine editors who were then faced with slowly declining interest in, and not insignificant backlash against, South Korean stars and shows – the fandom of which had sustained them for nearly a decade. In Cumberbatch they had a non-Asian star – one of the only outside a Hollywood context to generate this degree of popularity in nearly twenty years – who brought with him that nation-based pedigree that has been a constant of foreign star promotion since at least the late 1980s and the first ‘heritage film’-fuelled British star boom. Soon, magazine articles based on the interviews Cumberbatch conducted during his visit proliferated in the Japanese press, each proclaiming him a quintessential ‘English gentleman’ and, in turn, helping to spur what would, by the latter half of 2013, become a full-blown British male star boom.

By the time of Cumberbatch’s second Japanese junket, conducted a month before the Japanese August premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness, he had become a full-fledged phenomenon, less on the basis of his anticipated role in the reboot of an American TV show that, in Japan, had little more than niche popularity, than on his starring turn in BBC’s Sherlock, which had only begun airing in Japan in late 2011, and then in a late-night slot on national broadcaster NHK’s premium satellite channel. Which is to say, Cumberbatch’s Japanese fandom was itself quite niche, but it was also part of a broader global fandom that enjoyed momentum primarily online, and it was for this reason that on this second trip, spearheaded by the careful dissemination of information by Paramount Japan, Cumberbatch was greeted by 1000 fans. The degree of ‘fan service’ he provided at the airport, which after his December junket had been favorably compared to that of such fan service luminaries as Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, was scaled back somewhat; however, he did take the time to stop and talk to the gathered crowd, satisfying even those who had been waiting in place since as early as 3 am that morning.

Moreover, in anticipation of broad interest in Cumberbatch’s visit to Japan, his arrival was streamed live online on a feed available not only to Japanese fans unable to be at the airport, but to overseas fans as well. Indeed, the entire junket played out online in real time over the course of the next four days, ultimately giving global fans insight into the ways that celebrity fandom plays out in Japan and influencing fannish activity spurred by the visit in ways that reveal the increased porousness – both cultural and fannish – of transcultural fandom in the age of social media. Continue reading

Tweeting The West Wing: Improvised character simulation

Together with my Birmingham City University colleague Jon Hickman I’ve been working on a project that explores a Twitter-based community of The West Wing fans. The fans are using Twitter accounts to represent TWW characters, so that Jed Bartlet, Josh Lyman, Donna Moss and many of their colleagues appear to have continued their lives in politics, even though Aaron Sorkin’s show was cancelled in 2006. Like so many other Twitter users, the characters tweet about their work, current affairs, pop culture and mundane everyday stuff, while having conversations with each other and with non-character accounts.

Our research is based on our observation of this output as well as interviews with nine fans who kindly gave up their time to answer our (many) questions. We are very grateful for their participation in our project, and for their willingness to reflect on their experiences. Over at The Plan, Jon has previously blogged about different aspects of the research process, including methodological issues and our musings on how this fan activity compares to practices like fan fiction writing and fan role play. In this post, I want to focus on how the fans can be seen to negotiate the structures of Twitter, and what implications that seems to have for their performances.

As a social networking system, Twitter has a dual emphasis on brief, individual utterances and dialogue between different accounts. This facilitates both the development of individual character performances and participation in the fan community through conversations between different characters. Unlike a fan message board or a fan role playing game, for example, this fan community does not have a set of explicit rules or guidelines, but they have developed certain norms and values.

Two key, interlinked norms require participants to stay in character while tweeting and to aim for performances that are considered ‘authentic’ character representations. This demonstrates the salience of TWW canon within this community, and such performances give participants the opportunity to demonstrate extensive knowledge of the show as well as the creative skills they need to adapt characters for Twitter.

We can think of such ‘authentic’ performances as (largely) improvised character simulation. The tweets follow established Twitter conventions and characters appear to be ‘regular’ Twitter users. As a result, readers who are unfamiliar with the show might not recognise straight away that these accounts don’t represent ‘real’ people, but fictional characters. Within TWW fandom, on the other hand, the performances offer Twitter users the chance to partake in the illusion that the characters exist beyond the boundaries of the show itself.

The accounts all have profile pictures featuring their chosen characters as embodied by the TWW actors, while profile descriptions vary between performances of ‘authenticity’ and playful negotiations of the boundary between the TWW diegesis and the ‘real’ world.

Matt Santos

CJ CreggParticipants’ Twitter styles also contribute to the construction of their characters’ identities. As @Pres_Bartlet noted in our interview, developing a performance strategy includes figuring out how to adapt character representations to 140 character tweets, and how to find ‘a balance between the witty retort and the one liner and the twitter speech or something much deeper’. Some adopt a ‘professional’ Twitter style, focusing mainly on political issues and work, while others also include tweets about their personal lives and create a much stronger sense of intimacy.

 Toby ZieglerJosh Lyman

Several interviewees said that they drew on their readings of performances within the source text. For example, @donnatella_moss said she pictured how Donna would say a line and what her mannerisms would be, while @LeoMcGarry said his rule was to ask himself ‘WWLD – What would Leo Do?’

However, ‘authentic’ simulation was also sometimes problematised by perceived differences between the fan’s ‘real world’ identity and their interpretation of the character’s identity. This included different moral values and ideological perspectives, and while one interviewee explained that they avoided tweeting on one such thorny issue, another felt that the fan community’s expectations of ‘authenticity’ required that they set aside their personal beliefs. This highlights the significance of the TWW canon within this fan community, and the process of self-policing that participants maintain in order to comply with established community norms. More overt policing can also be seen in the way participants choose to tweet or ignore other character accounts.

However, the emphasis on staying in character largely prevents participants from having a joint conversation about the community’s norms and values, and this seems to have produced some flexibility in their normative framework. For example, some participants pretend that @PresidentSantos is the ‘real world’ US president, and his character account often tweets about events that map onto those involving Obama.

Matt SantosIn contrast, other participants have disrupted the show’s diegesis and engage explicitly with ‘real world’ current affairs. All our interviewees identified political participation as a vital aspect of the character simulation, which reflects the genre discourses of the source text as a political drama, as well as the emphasis on political engagement within TWW fandom more broadly, and the extensive presence of political debate on Twitter.

‘Authentic’ character simulation, then, seems to involve both improvisation and planning; an interplay between individual performances and collective role play; the negotiation of different aims and textual interpretations within the fan community; considerations of the wider Twitter audience; and the necessity of negotiating the structures of Twitter as a performance space.

“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

Flashback: Television horror and BBC1’s Ghostwatch (1992)

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Presenters Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene

In the course of researching for a recent piece on Whitechapel and representations of horror and place, I necessarily ended up reading a huge amount of work on television horror. In tandem with this, I found my Twitter feed exploding with Tweets from people posting about the BBC one-off drama Ghostwatch, which was aired in 1992. Many of these were being retweeted and shared by the @ghostwatch Twitter feed and included responses from viewers watching the programme for the first time, those who were re-watching it, and people sharing their other thoughts and opinions on the controversial drama. Why, I began to wonder, was Ghostwatch still prompting such discussion over twenty years after it was aired? How does it still have the power to provoke such vivid memories or feelings in those who watched it back in 1992 or who are discovering it for the first time now?

For the uninitiated, Ghostwatch was screened on BBC1 in a slot called Screen One, which broadcast drama shows on Saturday nights. Ghostwatch was shown on Halloween in 1992 in its first and only BBC broadcast. Written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning, Ghostwatch occupies a unique and interesting place within TV history for a number of reasons.

The show was advertised and trailed as a live broadcast investigating nationwide claims of paranormal phenomena. The programme was, in fact, an elaborately staged drama, written by horror specialist Stephen Volk and pre-recorded months earlier. Ghostwatch was presented by Michael Parkinson and real-life husband and wife television presenters Mike Smith and Sarah Greene appearing as themselves in a completely scripted horror drama in which one of them apparently dies at the end. This added to a sense of authenticity and realism for the viewer who was encouraged at all turns to believe that the show was real and was happening in real-time. Whilst Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were on location, interviewing locals about spooky goings-on and observing strange phenomena, Parkinson and Smith remained in the studio, interviewing experts and appealing for the public to phone in to report unusual events or sightings. Events become increasingly more intense, with apparent sightings of the ghostly Mr. Pipes in the house where Sarah Greene is with the family as well as other strange experiences whilst the story of the ghost’s origins (hanging himself in the space under the stairs and subsequently being eaten by his cats) is pieced together from ‘viewer phone calls’ and the events in the house. The show ends with Sarah Greene entering the haunted space under the stairs and presumed dead, the television studio destroyed by poltergeist activity, and Michael Parkinson turning to the camera, apparently possessed.

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The ghostly Pipes caught on camera

The broadcast prompted outraged complaints that the show had frightened viewers and, once the hoax was revealed, more complaints ensured regarding the fact that the BBC had duped the audience. More serious were accusations that the show had contributed to several suicides in young people after its broadcast.

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Reports of teen suicide

The writer Stephen Volk notes,

The reactions ranged from one person who thought it could have been a lot scarier to a woman viewer who demanded recompense from the BBC for a pair of jeans because her husband was so terrified he had soiled himself. None of us could have anticipated the scale or diversity of its impact on its audience.

Having viewed Ghostwatch on its original screening, it is hard now to articulate the response that it provoked in me. As an 11 year old watching at home on Halloween, and being slightly naïve with regard to how the media worked, the sense of fear and dread that the show prompted were very palpable and real. Of course, reviewing it now with the benefit of age and greater knowledge of television convention, makes it easy to laugh at the things which once frightened countless viewers. The ending, for example, makes clear that the show is a work of fiction but, by the time it ends, the viewer has already been left confused and, presumably, scared by what has come before.

Indeed, no critical consensus can be reached regarding the true reasons for the strong audience response to Ghostwatch. Sergio Angelini from the BFI argues that

it is clear that the strong audience response Ghostwatch received at the time was due less to its dubious credibility as a factual broadcast than to the way that it tapped into audiences’ desire to be fooled, to be tickled by even the slightest possibility that a live broadcast could really go out of control.

However, in assigning this reason he overlooks the affective and emotional responses which many viewers had to the show, including those people who are now discussing the show on Twitter. One online fan recalls:

Halloween, 1992: I was 13 years old and staying over at a friend’s house. As devotees of all things supernatural, we were excited because BBC1 was showing a programme called Ghostwatch. […] The show began in an innocuous – if not downright vapid – manner but, over the course of ninety minutes, built to a climax that had my nerves jangling like the Polyphonic Spree’s tambourine section.

Helen Wheatley argues in her book Gothic Television that responses to Ghostwatch were a backlash against trends in the 1980s which saw an increase in representations in the horror genre of horror within everyday life; within the home and in familiar spaces which should be ‘safe’. She also points to the increase in VCRs and the ways in which they allowed potentially offensive or scary material to invade the home. She notes that complaints about Ghostwatch suggest that

the closeness between horror and the familiar could in fact be taken too far for some viewers. Of course, the 1980s was also the decade which saw the introduction of home video, and the domestic reception of horror became more commonplace thanks to this development in film exhibition and distribution (Wheatley 2006:87).

Now, over twenty years on from Ghostwatch its place within TV history and the TV studies canon is relatively marginal. This may be related to a general reluctance to acknowledge the genre of horror television, related to debates about whether true horror can ever be shown on a medium which is associated so closely with family viewing. Indeed, as Matt Hills suggests, when Ghostwatch is discussed it can only be talked about if it is elevated to a position of cultural value which makes the otherwise problematic genre of television horror more culturally acceptable. He points to the show’s DVD release through the BFI’s ‘Archive TV’ label in 200l; “Even Ghostwatch takes on the distancing patina of ‘TV history’, having been commercially released ten years on from its first and only BBC broadcast” (Hills 2005:121).

However, it is only now that interest in the show is really starting to re-emerge. A retrospective documentary (Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains) based on the film’s lasting impact has been in production since late 2007 and released in 2013, and is backed by many of the film’s original cast and crew. On October 31st, 2008 (exactly sixteen years after the original film was originally broadcast), the Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains blog was launched.

In December 2008, a link to the official Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains forum was also added. It is certainly this documentary this has helped to introduce the show to a new audience. Furthermore, the creation of the documentary highlights a willingness by many to return to a programme which had a profound impact upon its viewing audience and which proved so controversial that, not only have the BBC never repeated it, but they have almost refused to discuss or comment on it at all.

I strongly recommend tracking down the show and giving it a watch. You may find the programme has dated – I don’t think it has. The presenters may be less recognizable, some of the fashion styles may look silly, but given the current climate of reality television, generic blurring, and lines between reality and fiction being eroded, Ghostwatch stands as a televisual piece of work which deserves its place in the study and understanding of TV horror.

Writer Stephen Volk discusses Ghostwatch