“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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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