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Gender and Fan Studies (Round Six, Part Two): C. Lee Harrington and Sam Ford


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This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on July 12, 2007.

See the first post in this series here.

Sam Ford: I know that a lot of the people following this debate might not be that interested in soaps in particular, but I am interested in the differences in discussing fan culture when it shifts from being a conversation primarily about fan fiction, which many of the back-and-forths have so far. How do we measure creativity in relation to fan communities? My understanding is that most people would agree that fan fiction only retains its full meaning and resonance within the community that it is produced in, and the social specificity of creative output is no different in the soap opera fan communities we have been discussing, but the output is often much different--criticism, debate, parody, discussion, continuity-maintenance, historical perspective...these are very creative processes that seem to be the prevalent forms of fan output for soap opera fandom.

To move toward your discussion of sports and media fans, I think the question you pose is one relevant to this series as a whole and one which various contributors have touched on in one way or another. Are we looking at the difference in male and female fan responses or in the responses of scholarship on fans, or can you really separate the two? As you imply in your question, there is some difficulty in separating the two, and perhaps the body of academic work on soap opera fandom, television fandom, fan fiction communities, sports fandom, and so on are shaped greatly by the gendered perspectives, and the respective genders, of those who have been most prevalent in those fields. It is important to realize this may be the case, while not making that the totalizing explanation for differences in sports fandom and sports fan studies, when compared to media fandom.

My work on pro wrestling goes between the two, in that it is sports entertainment, a blending of media fandom and sports fandom, and a blending between male-gendered sports and female-gendered soap opera. In wrestling, I have found that there at least seems to be a significant amount of fan fiction compared to soaps, even though the WWE likewise has five hours of weekly television content, perhaps because wrestling does provide a lot of negative capability, to steal a term from Geoff Long's posts two weeks ago, for fans to fill in, because it does not provide the off-stage relationships among characters and/or their portrayers. As Sue Clerc has written about, wrestling fan fiction plays an interesting blend between concentrating on the characters and the "real people" who play their parts, just as wrestling blurs those distinctions itself.

Of course, it's important to note that the fan fiction of wrestling is a very largely driven by females, while male fan expression in online fan community form has often
manifested itself in a blend of role-playing and fantasy sports in which wrestling fans enter fantasy leagues and role-play various wrestlers to compete with one another. These e-mail federations, or fantasy leagues, involve quite a bit of creativity, but it manifests itself much differently than in the off- screen relationships so often portrayed in the more explicit fan fiction. These, of course, are very gendered responses to the program, and there is very little formal overlap between the two wrestling fan fiction communities.

You raise some interesting questions about celebrity in relation to sports as well. I don't particularly know that "celebrification" is necessarily gendered female, although there is often more talk of "role models" when it comes to male celebrity. But I do think that you are right that the particular pleasures or draws of sports may be seen as different. In the wrestling world, John Cena would be a particularly good example.
Because some more traditional fans view him as lacking the technical skills of some
other wrestling stars, he is actively disliked be a particular portion of the crowd, his
"haters." To another very large portion of the audience, often identified as primarily female adults and younger fans, he is greatly loved and admired, and the theory has
often been an emphasis on skill among the active adult male fan base and an emphasis on star image and charisma among female fans, children, and more casual wrestling fans. I'm not saying it breaks that easily into those binaries, but it is intriguing in relation to the question you pose.

C. Lee Harrington: One of the dimensions of creativity often left out of discussions is fan fantasies -- here I mean those that take place only in the confines of one's brain, not shared with others via discussion, fiction, debate, research interview, etc. We all know fantasizing exists but unless it manifests itself in some representational form visible to others we tend to overlook it (in recent research particularly).

Most studies of fandom tend to rely on at least some form of visible expression. I wonder sometimes about the (in)accessibility of fans who experience and express their fandom only to their own selves......and I'm one of those people, mostly. I'd rather watch my favorite TV programs alone than with others, I don't talk about them online and rarely with friends (though our office staff and faculty have regular Wed morning discussions about Dancing with the Stars and American Idol, perhaps my proudest accomplishment as department chair), and I don't participate in most other creative activities that tend to be the hallmarks of fandom. I wonder if my own research design approach would capture me as a fan :-) Auto- ethnography, anyone...?

To go back to the gender question, yes, the gender of scholars vs. gender of fans vs. gendered nature of texts etc. raise all sorts of complicated questions, and the discussions these past few weeks have been really illuminating. I guess I was thinking with celebrification (in the context of sport) that once we're down the road of transforming athletes into stars, we somehow move them from the world of sport to the world of celebrity, a gendered shift in many people's eyes.

I'm remembering the Olympics a few rounds back (I'm forgetting the year) when the network (NBC?) for the first time did "behind the scenes" of athletes' lives to draw in female viewership. Novel at the time but it's obviously become standard because it altered demos exactly how producers wanted. Not hard to speculate how Emmitt Smith's appearance (and well-deserved win!) on Dancing altered his public perception and fan base. Obviously some of our readers out there know much more about celebrification in the sport context than I do.....

Sam Ford: Lee, I know you share my hope our back- and-forth has been useful for those involved in the discussion this summer and those following the discussion. Since soap opera fandom, sports fandom, and pro wrestling fandom are quite different than many of the fan activities and genres that have been discussed here in the past few weeks, I at least hope that we have emphasized that there is some great work on fandom in the body of work on soap operas and pro wrestling, and that there is a whole other world of sports fandom out there that speak to many of these issues and that would be of great interest.

When the precursor to this series started after the Media in Transition conference and through Kristina Busse's site, we started discussing how my own focus on soap opera

fandom provided a much different perspective on many of the media-related questions posed in this discussion about fandom. I have taken a Convergence Culture approach to what is primarily a female genre, soap opera, which would seem to some a male bent on a female fandom. However, as your work pointed out over a decade ago, a producer/consumer perspective is quite different in the fan world of soaps. While it is quite true that fans often set themselves against TPTB in soaps for not respecting a show's history, this relationship also manifests itself in relation to soap opera's marginality, just as pro wrestling fandom does. Even as producers and consumers bicker about one another from time-to-time, they may very well be the first to defend the others to outsiders. That produces that "family reunion" atmosphere and that much different dynamic.

Soaps also have a larger proportion of female creators in executive and high creative position to correspond with the large female fan base, so gendered discussions of producers and consumers and the power dynamics of their interaction is quite different than in a variety of fandoms in which examining interpersonal relationships in greater detail is reading against the text. Further, the volume of soaps text mitigates the need for fan fiction to fill in the gaps, so fan creativity manifests itself in so many other ways.

Sports and pro wrestling provide the other side of this coin, but as Henry's work points out, wrestling marries a predominantly male fan base and cast to a feminine serialized drama form. And I think it's important to realize that there are a significant portion of soap opera fans who are male, just as there are a large portion of female wrestling fans. These surplus audiences, in the eyes of those worried about target demographics, are still important parts of the fan community and must be included in these discussions, rather than stereotyping the audience as somehow monolithic.

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