Thursday, March 20, 2008

fandom: it is all coming together in my head.

Though I'm still only grasping at its corners.

These are my thoughts on yaoi, and a few other things.

Clear divides mess things up, so I'm trying to write this down without them, and leave it as the big tangle of story, sex and society which it is. See, I read comments like this from Henry Jenkins, about why he thinks fandom is the wonderful thing it is:

I've had several people ask me about what I meant when I suggested that the amount of energy and creativity that surrounds fan culture might be understood, at least in part, in the context of a culture which fails to tap the full intelligence and creative energies of its citizens. I suggested that many of the women I had met in the fan fiction writing community, for example, held jobs, such as those of a librarian, school teacher, nurse, or nanny, which require high level of education for entry but often do not tap that knowledge as regularly as might be ideal. Many of these women use fan fiction as an outlet for their surplus creative energies, as a way of getting recognition for their accomplishments outside of the workplace, and as a means of forming community with others who share the same frustrations and fantasies. The same is true for fans of many other types: they are able to do much more outside of the workplace than they are allowed to do in their jobs. Someone asked me if I had meant women. Well, women are certainly as a group devalued and under-utilized in our society and this may account for why such a large number of them are participating in online communities of all kinds and accomplishing extraordinary things. But the same would be true of many other groups, including a larger number of young men. The point is that we look in the wrong direction when we pathologize fans for finding creative outlets through participatory culture rather than asking why America is not more actively cultivating that intelligence and creativity through every aspect of our society. (None of this is to suggest that fan activities are meaningless in their own right or need to be justified by appealing to more 'serious' values. As I also said during my remarks, humans do not engage in activities that are meaningless. If you think you see people doing things you find meaningless, look again and try to understand what the activities mean for them.)

...I don't think he's in the right territory at all. None of his theories chime with my feelings about participating in fandom - hell, I still consider myself to be fen even though it's years since I last read and wrote fan culture in serious volume. My mental and creative faculties are elsewhere, but I am fen, and can step back inside at any moment. Not all stifled people are fen; many fen are not in the least frustrated or unchallenged by life, but are still fen.

He's asking the right questions - why is fandom happening, why is it so huge, why is it pathologised and made legally suspect by the mainstream, and why is it women? But his answers are sat firmly within the lines; fandom, to him, is about creating and about intelligence. Maybe he's dealt with the rest of fandom elsewhere, and I've just not read it, but I don't see how you can answer these questions without saying that fandom is about sex and fandom is about being part of a society where sex is explored in ways that are wildly un-mainstream.

Look, how can you even start to talk about why women have made fandom if you're not talking about sex?

Step back from fandom and look here, where Bitchy Jones has delivered again:

The vagina accommodates what’s offered

The reason this makes me froth isn’t because of the whole thing where of course size matters. Different cocks feel different. Different shapes and sizes work better than others. But it’s way more complicated than what your ruler tells you.

I’m crosser even than usual, because this statement - viewed as a kind of meta - just it feels like such a perfect encapsulation of the way female sexuality is viewed by everyone from Freud up. The vagina accommodates what’s offered! Yeah, right. Female sexuality will basically adjust itself to meet the needs of whatever is being asked of it.

‘Cause as we all know female sexuality is all fluid and undefined.

Thus a sexually liberated woman will simply be open to anything. Any sexual experience at all. Being whatever is convenient. In a way that men are simply not expected to be.

In fandom the opposite is true. Endless wanks about OOC aside, it is not only cool but celebrated for women who make fandom to assume men are open to any sexual experience that piques the author's interest. This is way more important than the original canon story - I've even been part of two different anime fandoms (WeiƟ Kreuz and Digimon) where many active readers and writers (me included) had not seen the canon, and were just in it for the porn and because the characters are fun to play in your head with.

And fandom porn isn't just sexual. Fandom is full of emotional pornography. A male character is open to any emotional experience that is convenient (and pleasurable) to the writer. When people talk about fandom aesthetics, or slash aesthetics, it's emotional porn rather than sexual porn that's the litmus test. Fandom takes the idea of arousal and pulls it past the line marked sex, and drags sex along with it. I'm mad about Alis Dee's current Batman/Superman thing which she totally needs to write more of; it hasn't sprouted a name yet, last I heard, so she calls it 'untitled identity porn'. Identity porn! Superhero fandoms are made of it.

Then there's fanthings which are so huge and absorbing, but rarely if ever stray into explicit sexuality. What would either Jenkins or Freud make of Bridlewood Manor? [If you're a fen of any stripe and have nothing to do this weekend, I strongly advise you to lose your mind to those 650,000 words of pure win. I did so myself on Easter weekend five years ago. The first chapter has some awkward dialogue but the other 93 are perfect.] How do you want to frame Mitsugi's diligence, endurance and talent, and the fact that she's channelled it into fanfic? I am happy to call it epic porn.

Livejournal has helpfully exploded again, which has a way of prodding these things along. The thing about all new accounts being either paid for or smothered in advertising doesn't concern me directly. What was more interesting was the filtering of the Popular Interests list (now thankfully reversed).

There, sexually explicit terms - 'bondage', 'porn', 'hardcore' - were edited out; so were queer terms - 'bisexuality' and 'faeries'; and so were references to fandom - 'fanfiction' and 'yaoi'. That's a pretty clear line between content that is welcomed and content that is not. Look at how it winds.

Every time fandom falls out with particular websites, it's about sex. And the people on the other side of the argument - many staff, seemingly all the site owners - are almost all men. Six years ago it was Xing Li over at ff.n, wanting all explicit fandom off his site because it was that which generated the lion's share of work for the complaints team. Fandom didn't want to draw a hard line between sex and not sex, so migrated - sure, people still use it, but I for one haven't met anyone on ff.n since the sex went, haven't felt like there's anything happening there. And so, Livejournal. (The Fanlib debacle punctuates here - it's the only row I can think of that was about ownership and revenues, not sex. Here the female writers vs male site-owner thing was brought to the limelight). Livejournal has no intention of eliminating sex entirely - they're not that stupid - but the succession of site owners that have antagonised fandom - first Six Apart, now SUP - have picked sex as their sticking point with fen society. Write about sex, sure, but not in public - we can't let sex and fandom show up on the Popular Interests page. Write about sex, but not any sex - only sex that won't make us uncomfortable, only sex that would be okay if it was more than just a fantasy. (I still don't get how writing or drawing an imaginary sex act is ever going to harm anyone, ever, no matter how suspect or harmful said sex act would be IRL. One thing the women in fandom seem to know, and their detractors do not, is that there's a difference between fantasy and reality).

You know, I keep talking about the women of fandom, but I think it's time to talk about the men. They're certainly around; the first fandom group I was ever part of, on a videogames site, was about half male (doubtless due to the gamer demographic), and while it was often about sex (more so when women wrote than when men wrote, too), the community didn't enourage explicit sex. Even then, this half-female group soon came to blows with the male admin and an all-male group of trolls who happened to be his friends, not about sex but about the way we communicated, the way we gave each other verbal rewards and criticisms. So men are there, especially in gaming fandoms. But I'd like to point out two differences:

a) I've seen fanporn written by men, but I've never seen straight men joining the gleeful subculture fandom has made on the far side of what's culturally normal wrt sex. I've also never seen them hold their writing about sex as being an important part of their survival in this world the way, say, Ponderosa and Chalcedony Cross do. Female homosociality is a crucial part of the porny environment.

b) Many popular parodists and humourists in fandom are men. There's Neil Cicierega, Brian Clevinger, Chris at Gigaville, Jack Bullions (whose site is no longer online, gah). Note that none of these four use prose or illustration, which are the most common mediums for fanworks, especially fanworks about sex (though vidding has gained a lot of ground in the last five years). Instead they're doing animation, webcomics or script-form humour.

Note that parody is, I think it's safe to say, the only socially mainstream - and legally clean - form of fanworking. Clevinger even sells t-shirts which feature his canon characters spouting his words, and that's more or less okay.

Do men do parody because it is acceptable, or is parody acceptable because it's consistently men who make the social rules, and who decide what goes on the largest fen-infested websites? (In both the internets and in wider society men get to decide what fictions are acceptable and who they are acceptable for). Here I have to link to How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor, one socialist feminist's view of the whole situation.

And at Bitchy's place, people are discussing whether women are a feasible market for porn.

Women - not all women, but this large and dedicated group of women - went off and made their own porn with their own rules, porn where women colonise finely defined niches while men - maleness, imaginary men, abstract object men - are used in any way that brings arousal to women, and sites like Livejournal have been quite happy to generate a shittonne of money from this freely provided content.

Did I say imaginary men? Not always. There's RPS - real person slash, where the male 'characters' used are real people; actors, sportsmen, rockstars. Real person fiction is past my emotional squick line - I couldn't even explain why, I just can't read it. Some people want to cross that line, suspend their disbelief regarding the real lives of these men, and make fiction about them because they're beautiful and it's hot, emotionally and sexually and all other kinds of hot.

I'm in three RPS comms because I love the pictures of men, especially the ones where they really should've known about the slashgirls if they were planning on posing with each other like that. And you know what? There are no lines, no conventions to follow about what sort of sexiness is allowed - anything goes. There's no age limit. People write Jose Mourinho / Roman Abramovich fic, and other people call it damn hot. People perve over photos of seventeen-year-old cricket players, sexualising their physical features and wondering who they're going to pair them with in a couple of years' time.

In fandom as a whole, it's pretty much a given that it's okay to write explicit material about 15-year-old characters. Hence the entire Gundam Wing fandom, and the mid-series Potterverse. Iirc these stories are actually illegal in Australia; illustrations featuring underage people having sex may soon be illegal in the UK - though that's about men who view lolicon hentai, not about the women of fandom. There's barely more debate over the teenagers who read and write porn - sometimes about imaginary people close to their own age, sometimes not. Back on ff.n, a porn reader-writer's seventeenth birthday was always heralded with glee that they were finally allowed to read the stuff they'd been reading and writing for the last x years. Many of the best fanworks I've ever read were written by girls aged between 13 and 15 (though now I think about it, that's more often in the realm of emotional fantasies than sexual ones). Livejournal's new age-based content filtering has the outcome that these girls can still write about explicit sex if they want to, but their porn can only be read by members who are over the age of 18. Teenagers can no longer communicate about sex to other teenagers on LJ, because talking about sex is reserved for legal adults, whoever's producing the content. I'm sure they lie about their age, as we all used to back on ff.n, because the truth is not acceptable.

...And in a total other corner of internetland are these poor, sad people who are all put out because they want lesbianism to be something that doesn't involve women doing things to turn on other women. I hope they grow up and climb out of the f/f dating pool, seeing as it's clearly too hot for them. But look, I have to ask, have they met these fandom women at all? Do they have any radical theories to offer about why so many women are putting their time and energy into making and sharing porn - porn that features people and situations that are way off from mainstream pornography? (Oh, look, some of them blame demons for why lesbians find other lesbians stonking hot. You couldn't make this stuff up.).

I owe fandom. I was as messed-up about sex as every other teenager - I knew I wanted it, and my body wanted it, but everything that was supposedly to do with sex was misogynistic, repellent and deathly dull. Until fandom showed me how to go my own way, to not be convenient or accommodating to sexuality as laid down by straight men, but to enjoy and create and dream about male and female bodies, my way. It's sad, but it's true. Ta, fandom.

I've just gone and edited the top of this post because it originally said something that I've not wound up writing about. I'm going to put that something down anyway, in the hope that I'll figure it out later - it's just a model that occurred to me years ago that I can't easily justify but which makes way more sense to me than what Jenkins said.

It is that the nature of fandom is akin to that of religion, and I think it entirely possible that many religions - so often tied to myths, to storytelling - originated as the same sort of social exchange that you find in fandom. Take a story, make a community around it, rebuild the story to bring out what's meaningful - and pleasurable - to you, make your own new rules about what goes wrt sex, and wrt community, identify with the story and communify around the story and the storytelling.

Is it the modern economy that's frustrating to the intellects, creativity and passions of women, or is it the modern religious practices? No, fuck no, I'm not going to ape Jenkins' phrasing because I don't think fandom comes from frustration at all. I think it comes from love and from a desire to honour a story by giving your daydreams and desires into it. I think fandom is worshipful - even fandoms where everyone hates or is ambivalent about the canon, even fandoms where hardly anyone has seen the canon and they're all just there because they followed the BNFs and are up for some mischief. Fandom is what happens to previously religious urges in a post-God, media-saturated world.

I'm stopping here, but tomorrow I'm going to post about fandom cults!, because they're all kinds of fun and freaky.


verte said...

Oooh, fandom cults! I'm going to be writing an essay along these sort of lines, so this essay of yours was a joy.

I even have a book by Henry Jenkins on my shelves! Haven't got around to opening it yet, but when I do I shall let you know...

More later.

thene said...

I want to see your essay! I recall that it was going to have MUSIC and GROUPIES and PILGRIMAGES and stuff.

I've read bugger all of Jenkins - just been linked to his blog by fen whenever there's a good wank on. It's vile of me, but I have some antipathy because he's a man who's been put in a position where he gets to talk about women who are quite capable of talking about themselves. His gender was problematic during the whole Fanlib mess - Chris Williams (the foot-in-mouth site owner who thought he could make money out of women's unpaid labour) was being asked many many awkward questions, and Jenkins offered himself as a neutral party for the purposes of getting answers to those questions, and Williams bit. Cue much railing against both Jenkins and Williams for being fucking clueless about the gendered aspect of all this.

So yeah, he's a bit like That One Guy In The Women's Meeting, in fandom. Good content, sure, but bad vibes.

Anonymous said...

A genuine quote (paraphrased) from Tanith Lee at Orbitcon today - "When men write it, it's parody. When women write it, it's fan fiction." (With the overtone, just as you picked out in this treasurably good post, that parody is acceptable.)

~Z xx

Dee said...

A post so nice I linked it twice. <3

Aishwarya said...

I think I love you. :D

thene said...

Dee - ...are you responsible for the stumbleupon hits I'm getting? (Also, I have a feeling I might want to resurrect my LJ in mid-April, so I could xpost it then).

Aishwarya - you do? Awesome. I propose a threesome with the evil sexy one. :)

queen emily said...

Jenkins did actually talk about sex and fandom in Textual Poachers, his study of slash, in about 1992. He kinda made his reputation on it.

I think he kinda retreated from that, well, man, and his grasp of feminism seems.. basic...

merrilily said...

Hello -- wandered over after clicking a link on my network. I really, really enjoyed this essay of yours. I've always felt a bit weird about the argument that creativity is a reaction against the quotidien experience, and it sits even less well with me when the discussion is about fanwork in particular.

Jenkins lost me as audience during the FanLib bruhaha, specifically when the FanLib guy, during his interview w/ Jenkins, didn't want to talk about the women doing the work/ men making the money problem, and Jenkins said, sure, okay, we don't need to go there, that's not really what the fen were worried about.

It was, of course, a key part of what the fen were worried about, and Jenkins' decision not to address it made me realize that if he was going to shy away from the feminist significance of fanwork, then I probably wasn't all that interested in what he had to say. (Since the sex in fanwork is in that category, too - feminist significance of fanwork, I mean - I feel borne out.)

Anyway. I like your brain. I'm glad you posted this. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

belledame222 said...

Hey, this is full of awesome, she said belatedly, and by the way, may I quote you? I'm going to be trying to explain fanfic (probably with an emphasis on slash) for my Sexuality class on Tuesday...short oral report, was thinking of giving out some handouts--would love to excerpt this if you don't mind...

thene said...

Belle - YES YES YES will email.

belledame222 said...

exxxcellent. thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this, really. I only recently turned eighteen, but I was writing slash since I was fifteen, and it really pretty much saved me.

thene said...

Glad you approve; I've been wondering lately what I'd add if I was doing over this now I'm all fanfapping again, and it amuses me massively that I'm doing so in a fandom so canon-heavy it has its own gravitational field.

...and all that does is make it ripe for cracking, fudging, and headcanon crossovers with every other cult story set in the 20th century, srsly.

Also, this needs a section on anon kink memes, which I think do in themselves disprove every single supposed 'fact' about female sexuality. Fuck, I'll save a link to the master list here.