What we talk about when we talk about fandom: Visibility and Invisibility: The Fans

In the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Miranda Bailey breaks out with her mad Star Wars knowledge, both movie canon and the books, prompted by a patient referring to Han Solo. She then turns to her co-workers and declares “What, I’m a fan of sci-fi!” Why should she feel the need to defend her fannishness? Is it because she doesn’t fit the stereotype of who a fan should be — by being an African-American woman?

The possibility of female sci-fi fans seems so obscure to some that Megan McArdle has a blog post on the Atlantic.com about explaining science fiction to women.

She states that

A love for feminine frippery can be, and frequently already is, paired with a love of laser guns.

… talk about it as a fairy tale–only a fairy tale with science instead of magic. The basic emotional space it taps is the same. You might also try to ease her into something with a little more human emotion and a little less space opera.

In response, Iyla Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy concludes that a large part of the explanation is that such female science fiction fans just don’t exist — after all, if there was a market, of course it would be met fully:

If there were a large unment demand for feminist SF or other types of science fiction that may be of special interest to women, publishers and writers would have a strong incentive to meet it. The portrayal of women in science fiction has been debated for at least forty years, and publishers are certainly aware of the issue, and would act on it if they smelled profit. The underlying reality, I think, is that SF has less appeal to women than to men independently of the ideology of the writers and the way they portray female characters.

There are two interrelated assumptions that are made. First, that if female fans require non-misogyny in the fandom that this is the same as expecting these works to be feminist. This is a highly inaccurate assumption; while there are few action movies that would be considered to be feminist, there is a large difference between the non-misogyny of the first The Transporter and Batman Beyond (both movies with barely a female presence, yet with a large female fan following) and the super-sexist Bad Boys. The second assumption is much more insidious — that the only people seeking non-biased materials are those who would have the bias against them. I’d like to think that men would also like to not have their fandom with a side of misogyny.

I also laugh in the face of the idea that all female sci-fi/fantasy needs are being met. For example, if we judged anime based on what is seen on American television it would be as if an entire huge genre, shoujo (shojo), doesn’t even exist (invisibility!) — and according to the above argument, it is because no one would watch. The last shojo anime brought over from Japan, Cardcaptor Sakura, was a complete failure on television — not due to gender-based reasons such as focusing on relationships and costumes or having a large number of female characters, but because the show was plot-ignoringly edited to Cardcaptors.

Yet according to a 2001article, Sailor Moon graphic novels outsold Marvel’s Ultimate X-Men. There is a huge untapped market for this stuff! In response to market forces, some comic bookstores now are selling shojo books and related merch. And lest one think that it is only girls and women interested in these types of “girly” comics, the fact is we don’t know who could potentially be interested because of the ghettoizing of these materials as only “for girls”, often with the signifier of pink; leaving the “real” comics to males.

One of the writers for Sequential Tart, a online zine about comics from the perspective of women, Marissa Sammy writes about the frequent invisibility of women of color fans in a post called Becoming Visible: On Being a Woman of Colour in Fandom

Fandom, by and large, tends to be a white space. And people of colour (PoC) are, by and large, good at negotiating white space. We have to be. We speak the lingo and know the canon, and we do such a good job blending in online that we often … disappear.

I’m tired of being a visible minority in real life and an invisible one in fandom and online; I’m through with accepting the perception that I am never truly the Default.

I’m here. And so are you. Let’s make them see us.

The issue of invisibility for fans of color and women and women of color is of course not limited to science fiction and comics; in Keidra’s Bitch Magazine (and in the book!) article, Sister, Outsider, Headbanger, she writes about the difficulties and joys of being a African-American female metal fan:

if metal fandom is a great big family, I sometimes felt like a second cousin once removed. Though I was drawn to the outsider appeal of the music in the first place, it was difficult for me to forget my double outsider status at concerts, where guys would gawk and point at me and my metalhead clique as if we were Martians instead of black girls and we could count the number of black faces on one hand. But once the lights went down and the band came onstage, we were all headbanging and moshing and howling the words to the songs. The music took over, and we could all share that universal bond of loving the music, if only for a few hours.

Fans that are considered to be “different” or not the right type, can face anything from being leded as the “Unlikeliest Fans” in the case of yeshiva (Jewish religious school) fans of newer-metal band Disturbed — to being beaten for being Mexican emos.

Women, people of color, and especially women of color often need to wade through the negative portrayals of those like them or direct hostility to them to get to the tasty meat of fandom. And for some, that level of active filtering just isn’t worth it.

Note: I realize that there are a myriad of other aspects of invisibility in fandom, such as sexuality, disability, and age. We are planning to have at least two more posts in this series, focusing on creators and critics.

NIN on Google Earth

Bless his geeky heart, Uncle Trent is at it again. He’s released download statistics for The Slip on Google Earth. Since my job is about using “emerging media” to engage an audience , and I am also a slobbering NIN fan, the whole approach of using freeware and Open Source (google, flickr, YouTube, blogger, you name it) to communicate with fans is really a case study for me. It’s working, and it’s something for organizations, not just musicians to watch closely. Not to mention this goes back to understanding and trusting your audience. Knowing that NIN fans are notoriously geeky tech savvy and trusting them enough to release this information in a format they’d relate to.

Rebecca Tushnet’s latest article on fan-created works and fair use

Check out Rebecca Tushnet, User-Generated Discontent: Transformation in Practice, 31 COLUM. J.L. & ARTS 110 (2008). [translation: it’s in the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts]

She argues that the non-commercial nature of fan works makes them transformative, an important element in determining whether a use of a copyrighted work was fair use. (She is also the author of the first comprehensive law review article on fanworks, focusing on fan-fiction.)

Unauthorized, unplanned creativity has immense value even at the most instrumental level: beginning with popular sources gives young creators a place to start, heightens their enthusiasm for writing, and provides them with an eager and helpful audience. The social value of hundreds of thousands of unauthorized Harry Potter-inspired stories rests not merely in the stories’ critical potential in challenging the sexual, racial and political assumptions of the original, but also in the skills that fans learn while writing, editing, and discussing them. … The transformation here is mainly of the creators and the audiences, and it should be recognized as a legitimate type of transformation.

Using a work as a building block for an argument, or an expression of the creator’s imagination, should be understood as a transformative purpose, in contrast to consuming a work for its entertainment value.

Noncommercial works display systematic differences in subject matter, aesthetics, accessibility, and other creative features. If we value expressive diversity, as copyright doctrine routinely suggests, we should not attempt to assimilate everything into the profit-seeking sphere, even if it were possible to do so.

My response: Continuing to view fanworks made for the love or the lols in the same light as commercial works doesn’t make sense, considering the vast difference in purpose and in effect on potential consumers. Parody is already considered to be transformative, so expanding the definition to also include the myriad of fanworks made to share not to profit makes complete sense to me. And considering that many fanworks are based on works with cultural resonance, fandom-based creativity often serves as both a way to turn a mirror on cultural phenomena (like parody) and as a way to continue creativity (the mirror on the mirror).

But then again, I view fair use as a flexible tool for expanding cultural use of copyrighted material, especially our present multi-generation copyright terms.

Ownage?: AP tries to decide what is fair use for bloggers

In several recent blog and news stories (including my favorite headline of the bunch: The Associated Press plays role of Metallica in Napster-esque war with bloggers), the AP’s stated fair use policy for bloggers is discussed.

And what is the limits of AP’s version of fair use? If a blogger wants to use more than 5 words, they are expected to pay:

  • 5-25 words: $12.50
  • 26-50 words: $17.50
  • 51-100 words: $25.00
  • 101-250 words: $50.00
  • 251 words and up: $100.00

So what are some of the problems with this plan?

First, the logistics. While the AP is claiming copyright in every word that they have in every article that isn’t accurate. How could the quoted words of McCain or Obama be copyrighted by the AP, for example? What if quotes could be from more than one news source? This policy discourages bloggers to link back to AP stories. (The head of the Media Bloggers Association claims that the whole situation was blown out of proportion by bloggers).

Second, the limits of fair use are fluid on purpose, allowing for use of copyrighted works ranging from quoting poetry to photocopying a book chapter to including incidental music in a documentary. Perhaps if the AP created factors for when licensing was required similar to the copyright fair use factors then this licensing plan would not be so derided (example: charging a fee only if the blog has ads).

Third, while only online activity is discussed by both the AP and critics, copyright law is the same in real life as it is online. What is different are the social norms that have been created differently online.

The AP argues that (from a NY Times article):

“Cutting and pasting a lot of content into a blog is not what we want to see,” he said. “It is more consistent with the spirit of the Internet to link to content so people can read the whole thing in context.”

Scott Rosenberg writes:

The “spirit of the Internet” has always been about linking and excerpting. Actually, the “spirit of the Internet” is probably even more about wholesale copying.

Bloggers range in their approaches to linking, quoting, and copying. Perhaps there should be a normative standard for bloggers. But I can’t imagine that through a “best practices” model or through following a more journalistic standard that fair use on blogs will be judged to be no more than four words.

And as a fourth and final point, as stated by Robert Cringley:

“There’s precious little original journalism in blogs; 99% of bloggers are repeaters, not reporters…. Blogs need people who know how to do reporting; the AP needs the kind of viral distribution only the blogosphere can bring. We need to figure out a way we can all get along here, lest we all perish in the copyright wars.”

Or as John Abell states more bluntly on Wired,

The bifurcation of publishing and news-gathering is disrupting the journalism eco-system as never before. …Here is the problem: if nobody pays for news –- or rather, if the people that gather the news aren’t paid -– then there is no business model for journalism.

In a world where physical newspapers are shrinking and staffs are cut, it makes sense that the AP would want their work to be valued. But this is the wrong way to go about it! As Jennifer Leggio states, the snowball / backlash effect could further damage the print journalism industry:

the situation reeks of the same type of censorship concerns debated during the Metallica vs. Napster fan law suit several years back. While Metallica (and the other musical acts behind the suit) likely never intended to create the legal monster that it did, the music industry was never the same. Music sharing permanently moved to a paid model. And, well, Metallica lost a lot of fans.

Lesson: Don’t promote self-ownage through abrasive use of copyright.

From Strawberry Shortcake to Goth Version of Tweety Bird?

The New York Times recently had an article about the recent makeovers of some of your favorite (and least) favorite 80s icons, including Strawberry Shortcake. (International Herald Tribune version here). Another site had a hypothetical breakdown of what the costs of Ms. Shortcake’s makeover would be.

“We’re downplaying characters that were part of Strawberry’s world but who didn’t immediately shout out fruit.”

It was interesting that the NY Times article spent time discussing the marketing “mistake” that was Magic Earring Ken — tiptoeing around discussing the large secondary market for the doll (considering what his “earring” was popularly considered to be) — “he seemed to have come out of the closet — something that Mattel most definitely did not intend.”

These redos / restarts are also an attempt to give a sense of brand loyalty through the ability to morph characters into a closer approximation of self (see Hello Kitty):

“You want a dark, Goth version of Tweety Bird? Have at it,” said Lisa Gregorian, executive vice president for worldwide marketing at Warner Brothers Television.

I wonder what will happen when the line between licensed offshoots and fan-driven images and products becomes increasingly blurred — and the IP owners want to take back control. The U.S. approach to fan appropriation is usually a sharp contrast to Japan (birthplace of Hello Kitty!) where doujinshi (fan-made versions of comics) is part of a above-ground consumer culture — complete with contests and rules for participation.

This issue of control has happened before — when the Simpsons first came out there were a large number of unlicensed shirts marketed / worn by African-American /”urban” audiences. And according to the urban dictionary, tweety is being used as a term for white Americans that wear licensed “urban” (read: BLACK!) Tweety shirts. Is this something Warner Brothers will later try to crack down on?

Of course, many that are familiar with the originals became emotional on blogs when discussing the remodeled version of Strawberry Shortcake — the unrealistic body image/sexuality expectations for girls today, the death of children playing, or simple nostalgia. However, no comments I’ve seen have commented on what every woman of a certain age I’ve talked to has mentioned as Strawberry’s main draw — huffing their chemical hair. Though hardly a gateway drug, at parties little girls would all bring their various dolls together to linger over the highly artificial scents emanating from their hair. And argue about which one was the best — not in terms of cuteness, smartness, or niceness — but in terms of scent. And that’s one to grow on!

Metallica’s Mission: Screwing Over Fans?

I have a long history with Metallica, as they were essentially my introduction to the world of metal, along with other young Gen-X metal kids, now grown adults, who watched Headbanger’s Ball on MTV. I was fully devoted all the way up until Load, when suddenly they became a jam band and they never really got me back from that. I’ll still rock out to their pre-Load but I can’t bring myself to say I am a fan in the same way.

The whole Napster thing didn’t harbor any fan goodwill, but another thing that’s kind of bugged is the way Metallica has monetized the fan experience so thoroughly, essentially charging their most hardcore fans for their devotion. A standard fan club membership won’t get you access to a good chunk of the website; gotta shell out a bit more for that. Then their Mission: Metallica website gives fans a chance to download the new album – for $12 bucks, higher than the usual going rate of digital downloads, $9.99. No thanks guys, I think Lars has enough modern art paintings to sell at Christie’s.

Now comes word from Ars Technica that the guys have cracked down on bloggers and journalists who have reviews a leak of the new album, even though the band was the one who invited said bloggers and journalists to a listening party in the first place:

Here’s the scenario: internationally known heavy metal band with long history in the business invites music critics in London to listen to six tracks off the band’s forthcoming album. Those critics then write reviews based on what they’ve heard. Despite the total lack of any non-disclosure agreements and the fact that the band must have known what it was doing, its management then contacted the blogs in question and asked them to take down the reviews.

Actually, “asked” may be a polite way of putting it. The music blog Blinded by the Hype contacted The Quietus, one of the blogs that had run a review, wondering what had happened to the piece. The answer, from editor Luke Turner, was clear. “The Quietus kept our article up the longest and, as no nondisclosure agreement had been signed,” he wrote, “[we were] not prepared to remove it merely due to the demands of Metallica’s management. We only removed the article earlier today to protect the professional interests of the writer concerned.”

I nott makes absolutely no sense to invite the media to preview an album and then put a gag order on it. They are going the Prince route of not only punishing fans for their devotion, but also the media for having interest. Devotion has its limits; I would not be surprised if they get the cold shoulder from the media once the album is done and ready for promotion. It would serve them right, IMO.

Kermit sings Hurt: Uncle Trent (and Johnny Cash) should be proud

This video of Kermit the Frog singing plaintively (about his love for Miss Piggy?) has been making the rounds for at a while and it brings up an interesting discussion of cultural appropriation and copyright — when is it acceptable to use someone else’s work for your own entertainment? This video is simultaneously making a statement about the characters involved (muppets: Kermie and Piggy, Jim Henson), the original version of the song and author (Nine Inch Nails), and the more popular remake (Johnny Cash). An argument can be made that it is a parody (but of what? all its elements?); what it does well is demonstrate is how pervasive cultural elements are in our lives.

Reworking or redoing the culturally significant works of others has been an important part of children’s play for forever; after all, what else are nursery rhymes? Children still sing a song about the Black Plague! However, there are two modern changes from the past — the interference of copyright law and the the increased possibility of permanence via video and video sharing.

Ana Domb on MIT’s Convergence Culture blog writes about the example of kids reshooting Indiana Jones shot-by-shot:

a mission that would last all of their teenage years….Seven years and $5000 later, Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb finished their movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. …. Although they were congratulated by none other than Stephen Spielberg and have received numerous offers for theatrical and home video distribution, the film’s not-quite-legal standing restrains them from any widespread distribution. With current legislature, the filmmakers will be 105 years old when they are officially allowed to release their film. As much fan produced works, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation is both homage and creation. It’s an aim in itself and a gateway for further development and growth. No one work is truly and only dependent on one individual, and it’s a shame to see society limiting it’s possibilities in order to protect individual interests. We don’t know what great works could get lost in the process.

Ana also expounds on how fanworks have become part of Hollywood storytelling:

In response to a question about intellectual property, Michel Gondry told us at the MIT screening of Be Kind Rewind that his ultimate objective was to incite people to create their own work. But the fact is that his movie is a celebration of fan production, a type of exploration that has been around for a very long time, but society still has a hard time validating it.

While the video of “Hurt” Kermit could be seen as parody or satire, most of the fanworks created by kids (like the remade Indiana Jones or the fictional sequel to the Rambo movies in Son of Rambow) are done with extreme reverence to the source material. Oddly enough, reverence doesn’t count for anything when it comes to “fair use”!