“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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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.