'What Do You Mean "Pleasure," White Man?:'
Complicating Empathic Identification and Self-Insertion in Online Fan Fiction
This presentation is based on the premise that that all fan created productions create complex relationships between creators and audiences that center on various pleasures relating to empathetic identification, the desire to identify with and enter into the world of a text(s) (whether book, film, television, game, or graphic novel). As a result, all fan created productions rely to different degrees upon some form of self-insertion.
While I focus on fan fiction, I would argue this discussion could apply to fan vids, art, cosplay, and filk. However, empathetic identification and self-insertion are complicated when the fans being considered are not positioned as privileged within the dominant system of race. My work is based upon the social constructions of race current in the United States, and I focus of the fans (who are probably not all American) of two American shows.
In this presentation, I start to explore how the question of how fans of color might experience the pleasures and pains of empathetic identification and of self-insertion in a capitalist, corporate media culture which has a history of excluding, marginalizing, whitewashing, and stereotyping people of color. My focus is primarily on online media fandoms which consist of more diverse populations than offline/con and 'zine based fandom or academics doing fan scholarship have acknowledged. The perception that sff readers and fans are primarily white is as flawed as were earlier stereotype of sff readers and fans as primarily male. Similar work needs to be done along the axes of gender, class, sexuality, and ability, but due to time constraints, I am unable to do so in this project.
I use queer and critical race theory to begin to create an intersectional approach to explore communities in online fandoms constructed around two currently running television shows: Psych (USA, about to begin Season Five in July 2010) and House, M.D. (Fox, beginning seventh season in 2010). Both are popular shows; both have a significant fandom presence on the internet; both fit the pattern established by the 1970s shows from which slash originated. Shows such as Star Trek, Blakes 7, The Professionals, the Man form Uncle, Starsky and Hutch) (Pugh) predominantly featured male protagonists, often partners, in action genres. While House is medical show, it is widely known to be based on Sherlock Holmes, and the action is dramatically presented medical diagnostics. While the show has a larger cast than Psych and, arguably, more than two protagonists, House interacts with other individual characters to create different story arcs and conflicts.
While fanfiction studies has been immediately and centrally concerned with questions of gender from the start because of the dominance of white women writing fan fiction, constructions of sexuality, race and ethnicity, and class have not yet become as important a focus. With few exceptions, such as Sarah L. Gatson and Abigail De Kosnik, fan scholars fail to deal critically with race as well as gender in their work on fan productions.[i] I do not expect this paper to be the definitive or final word on the topic(s); rather, I am hoping to encourage more scholarship by beginning a dialogue in academic spaces about the work already being done in fan spaces.
I agree with Helen Merrick's argument in The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms concerning the important work being done on critical race theories and sf by women of color in fan spaces: in her last chapter, Merrick argues that the "twenty-first century sf feminisms" will incorporate the 20th century feminism with queer theory and postcolonial feminisms. My work draws on those traditions to point to the work done in online media fandom by fans of color who are in Ika Willis' terms "reorienting" and supplementing (in Brecht's meaning of the word) canonical texts as well as "negotiating the 'painful gaps' left in the encounter between a reader's 'felt desire' and the read text" (155; 158; 166) in multiple ways online. In the context of my project, "the read text" must be understood as applying not only to the source texts (television shows) but also the fan fiction produced by fans in the fandoms. So the "gaps" become multiplied: there are the readers of the (source) text, the writers of the (fan) text, the readers of the fan (text) who may also be writers. There can even be readers of the (fan) text who did not read the (source) text. Many fan texts are written to fill in gaps that the writer perceives in the source text, but of course the fan texts can have, must have, their own gaps. One of the most predominant gaps in texts concerns constructions of race (beyond whiteness).
Chun, Wendy. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. MIT Press, 2006.
Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. New York: Routledge.
Pugh, Sheenagh. The Democratic Genre: Fanfiction in a Literary Context. Seren Press, 2005.
Willis, Ika. "Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Space (for Mary Sue) at Hogwarts" In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, ed. Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, 153-70. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.
[i] Some scholarship on race and the internet/online communities does exist, primarily from sociological, psychological, media studies. Lena Karlsson, "Desperately Seeking Sameness: The processes and pleasures of identification in women's diary blog reading," from Feminist Media Studies. Two articles on "nerdness" and race are of interest because of the extent to which fans self-identify as nerds (with gender differences acknowledged between male and female nerds): "Race, Sex and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian-American hipsters," Dr. Ron Eglash in Social Text (sociology? check) analyzes the cultural intersections of race and "nerd," to critique "reversing" stereotypes. Eglash incorporates gender analysis. Mary Bucholz, a linguistic anthropologist, presents patterns of self-identification around race and language among self-identified nerds in one high school: "The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness," Journal of Linguistic Anthropology: case study, students self-identify, defines nerdness as language and other practices, not essential identity. No gender analysis though not all the nerds were male.