Category Archives: Audience/Reception Studies

Avatars, Audiences and Interactive Television

This presentation was given at the 100th National Communication Association Conference in Chicago on November 21, 2014. This presentation reflects the work I have done with Pooky Amsterdam to understand the nature and potential of virtual world television as reported in the Journal of Virtual World Research. This presentation was awarded one of the Top Paper Awards for the Communication of the Future Division.

The current state of affairs brings what is “television” into question. Amongst the various layers of activity and discourse that surround it, “television” can, and perhaps should, be deconstructed into at least two primary components: the content it relays, “television-as-content,” versus the technical interface it is, “television-as-technology”. There may soon come a time when the idea of watching television does not involve the use of a television set. Instead, television content will be increasingly divorced from the medium for which it was developed: over-the-air broadcasting of audiovisual content. At that time, television-as-content will become another aspect of the Internet.

These challenges to what is “television” are also challenges to the traditional models of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption that have for so long defined it. These challenges are also implicated in the move toward higher interactivity. The traditional models are predicated on transmission and passivity, whereas the interactive models require dialogue and activity. Concepts and technologies like video on demand, time-shifting, and social television are all part of these challenges. This paper explores yet another, virtual world television or VWTV. With VWTV, we are seeing another possible location for the evolution of television.

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In Defense of Fans via Fractured Fandom

In defense of fans and fandom, I want to make clear that I would not argue that fractured fandom happens all the time or involves a majority of the population of any particular fandom. What I would say about fractured fandom is that it reflects a larger social and cultural issue, in the United States at least. An issue that involves a problem of an increasing inability to “listen first, talk second” when people interact with one another — especially with someone to whom they are opposed for some reason, be it ideological, value, or behavior. An issue that involves the collapsing of traditional identities and identity boundaries, which can be seen by some as an opportunity while others will see it as causing confusion and uncertainty and even fear. These are very real, very serious issues about the human condition in our post-modern, 21st century world, and they are issues reflected in our very human interactions in our fandoms.

So, to me, as a fan of many things for as long as I can remember — I must remember to tell you my stuffed Ewok toy story — I am not saying that the presence of fractured fandom means a fandom, and its fans, are wrong in some way, that they are poor reflections of the human condition. Indeed, they are just human, just as much flawed and wonderful as everyone.

But the issue of fractured fandom is about a need to be aware of such issues and problems at work within a fandom, amongst fans. Only with awareness can we work out what we are doing good, what we are doing poorly, and what we could do to make things better. Only with awareness of the fractures within a fandom, and what is happening to create and/or perpetuate them, can fans work together to address the problems they experience.

And I do think this has to be about fans working together within a fandom to address their own fractures. It cannot be about people outside of the fandom trying to impose new values, codes, and behaviors within the fandom. I do believe that fans may be more likely to listen to other fans than to anyone else. Because I believe that, it means we need to start a focus on dialogue, on communication, on respectful listening there. We as fans need to improve our social literacy skills and focus first on understanding a situation, on understanding others, and from there work together to address problems.

Hopefully, by doing so within any fandom, what is learned about addressing a fractured fandom could be applied to other areas of life. Hopefully by addressing fractured fandom, we could better address how these issues and problems are impacting the various public arenas of U.S. society and culture.

Women self-identifying as digital game addicts: Their interpretations of power

[This paper comes from 2007 and was completed for a qualitative methodology course at Ohio State University under the amazing Patti Lather. She encouraged us to try different methods of communication research results; so I did a comic book, which you can see here.]

What is digital game addiction?

A number of approaches, theories, and entire discourse communities have arisen in the past century to understand this thing called “addiction” (West, 2001; Bailey, 2005). According to West (2001), beginning with a behavioral psychology perspective, addiction “typically involves initial exposure to a stimulus followed by behaviors seeking to repeat the experience. After a number of repetitions of the behaviour-stimulus sequence, the addiction becomes established.” (p. 3). All the approaches, theories and discourses have attempted to explain this process of addiction. What leads to the initial exposure? What about the stimulus or the engaging with it leads to a desire to repeatedly seek it out? How does this repetition become so ingrained that it is hard, if not physically impossible, to stop using it?

Medical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, economical, theological — all have weighed in on what causes this repeating behavior that is seen as ultimately deleterious to the person, even to the point of being perverse and sociopathic. Addiction is seen by all as a loss of control, only the reason for this being lack of control changes depending upon one’s metatheoretical viewpoint. However, while many have used qualitative, phenomenological methods, such as in-depth interviewing, to understand the perspective and experiences of the addict, there has been no systematic attempt to theorize addiction from an interpretive or constructivist viewpoint (Davies, 1998; Hirschman, 1992; Larkin & Griffiths, 2002). That is, a common approach has been an a priori application of some theory developed from someone looking at the addict and not a grounded theorizing approach of looking at addiction as an addict.

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My Philosophy of Media Reception Studies

Along with my thoughts on the encoding-decoding-recoding model, what follows comes from my dissertation on gendered media engagings and describes how I consider the fundamental elements of media reception and audience studies.

What are media products?      

Media products are the technologies, channels and contents that constitute our understanding of what is ‘the media’. They are the items produced for the purposes of disseminating meaning in the form of information, whether or not it is deemed to be entertaining, from one person to other(s). All three aspects are necessary in order to transmit meaning from sender to receiver; that is, a media product exists as some combination of the three. Thus, for example, the media product Orange is the New Black is a specific content that exists only in the Netflix channel which utilizes online technology. When these three aspects converge, we can analyze them as ‘texts’ in that they are created by human beings to serve human beings and are thus imprinted with the meaning-making processes of human beings that can be decoded.

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An Encoding-Decoding-Recoding Model of Media Studies

This blog posts continues the dissection of my dissertation that I began by introducing the topic of gendered media engagings earlier this year. This post focuses on a model I used in my dissertation to understand the array of media studies conducted to investigate the ways in which gender is involved in how people engage with media products. As with so many interested in understanding audience reception of the media, I have been highly influenced by the late, great Stuart Hall’s work on what has become known as the “encoding/decoding model” in media studies. Now, I, with much humility, wonder if this classic model could be improved with one more step: recoding.

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An Autoethnography of Collegium – Day Two

Day 2: Sunday, June 22nd

On the topic of mass…

I am still uncomfortable joining in on the spiritual sessions and Catholic Eucharist ceremonies that are scheduled for this colloquium.  I feel like an intruder, an interloper, a negative presence.  There is nothing that anyone here has said or done that has made me feel this way.  In fact, I appreciate their willingness and desire to offer a blessing to those who beseech it, such as those other other religious affiliations who would like to experience the ritual.  And they offer many different spiritual discussions that I am sure can be seen as less denomination than the sacramental rituals.  But I would feel disingenuous in being blessed, as it would have no impact on me.  I do not believe, that is the simple truth of it all.  Perhaps before the end of this week, I will venture into one session, just to listen, which appears to be my main goal here, as I cannot partake in conversations about religion.

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Comics Adaptations Causing Fractured Fandom

We are now full swing into the summer blockbuster season for Hollywood, and let’s take a tally of movies that are currently out or soon to arrive that originate from the pages of comic books.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Hercules.  Guardians of the Galaxy.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Big Hero 6. 

I am so looking forward to this one.

I am so looking forward to this one.

All of this, without mentioning the big hitters coming soon, such as the second Avengers movie, or the one that finally brings Wonder Woman to the screen while pitting Batman v. Superman.  All of this, a range of titles for the young to the mature.  And these are only Hollywood films.  Consider all of the movies made from comic books around the world, and the numbers are staggering.  The top ten comic book adaptation movies have grossed around $4.05 billion dollars in just over a decade, proving their dominance at the box office in the United States and around the world.

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Genre Mashing in Professional Wrestling

After the event of this weekend, where normally we are only needing to remember our veterans but must now also remember those young men and women who died at the whim of a terrorist — of a misogynist extremist — I need to take a break from discussing fractured fandom and the sexist, and misogynist, tensions in geekdom to talk about something else.

We could argue that professional wrestling does its part to reflect and affirm the sexism of the world.  Many have written about this topic, from the way the female wrestlers are portrayed to the overtly dominating and violent masculinities that are presented as ideal, as role models for young boys to emulate.  And while it is hard to see a lingerie match and not think about this problem, or to watch the painful submissions wrestlers force each other into and wonder if the fans believe such is the way of life — while those are the very reasons I avoided and even derided professional wrestling for most of my life — I am not here to discuss such matters.

I am here because last year I saw the documentary For All Mankind: The Life and Career of Mick Foley and I decided I needed to get off my judgmental high horse and give this sports entertainment a chance.  I decided to watch this documentary because I had seen Mick Foley on The Daily Show with John Stewart (such as here) and found him to be far more articulate and sensitive than I had considered possible of professional wrestlers, having grown up during the Hulk Hogan era.  In the documentary, I was amazed to learn how much charity work Foley has done, and I further felt that he possessed the type of soul that I had not thought likely in those of his profession.  Going further, learning about how he supports and advocates for women’s rights, gays’ rights, and a whole slew of causes important to me, just further endeared him to me.  So much so that the highlight of my recent C2E2 convention was to have my picture taken with him.

My partner and I with former professional wrestler, current comic book author, and all around social activist, Mick Foley. (C2E2 2014)

My partner and I with former professional wrestler, current comic book author, and all around social activist, Mick Foley. (C2E2 2014)

And it is not just Foley who displays these rather progressive stances — especially given the stereotyped nature of the sport and its fans over the years.  Both former superstar (and I am talking mega superstar) Stone Cold Steve Austin and current contender (and soon-to-be Marvel star) Dave “The Animal” Bautista have come out recently in support of gay marriage. Learning these things, learning about the men behind the masks and the hyper-muscularity, helped me turn around my thoughts on professional wrestling, to be willing to give it a chance.  And my partner has been helping me learn the lingo (heels, faces, over, etc) while we discuss the hyperreal and socially constructive nature of the entertainment.  I have found it to be a fun learning experience, and I no longer hold the judgments I once did.

All of that is to say that I come to this world relatively fresh, a wrestling newbie, with perhaps more of a scholarship angle than most wrestling viewers.  And it was with this scholarship angle that I attended a panel at C2E2 featuring my man Foley discussing the overlaps between comic books and professional wrestling.  He was joined on the panel by illustrator Jill Thompson, who has worked with Foley on his children’s books, and publisher Jim Salicrup of Papercutz.

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One of the main overlaps the panel discussed was the focus on hyper-muscular characters in colorful costumes.  This overlap was one my partner and I had repeatedly discussed (one the profession is quick to point out), and wrestlers have even utilized it in their performances, such as ECW’s Raven.  There is the same focus in both media on very muscular — almost to the point of ludicrous – bodies that are covered, primarily, in skin-tight clothes emblazoned with colors and emblems that serve to identify the wrestlers to their fans in the same the way the superhero’s costume identifies the hero to its readers.

Beyond these basic aesthetic similarities, there are also overlaps in the narratives — or, more to the point, in the way narratives are utilized in the serial storytelling of both media.  In essence, Foley and the others remarked how the same storylines happen over and over — that if you wait long enough, the audience will have forgotten a storyline, and it can be recycled.  But as they are recycling storylines, the wrestlers on the one hand and the comic book writers on the other need to find ways to make them seem new, fresh, and compelling.  So stories of sudden betrayal can take on a different feel depending on who is betraying who or what cause — whether it is in the ring or in the panels.

Another overlap includes the centrality of characters to the storytelling and entertainment.  Fans fall in love with characters, have certain wrestlers or heroes that they look up to or despise, and then base much of their reaction to the stories on those characters, what happens to them, and how the characters handle themselves.  Thus, for both wrestling and comics, the introduction or origin story for the characters are tremendously important to form those first impressions in the audience.  And as the story progresses, having the right amount and kind of heat on the character, providing logical and emotional arcs of conflict and resolution, are necessary for sustaining audience interest.  In both media, then, the storylines need to be good at character development.

What was interesting to me was to hear how much the wrestlers themselves have to be good at building and sustaining this character development.  I had assumed, hearing how “wrestling is fake,” that the bouts inside the ring and everything outside of the ring were completely scripted.  But in learning more about this world, you come to learn that the overarching storylines may be determined, and the winners of the bouts are known ahead of time behind the scenes (and sometimes in the online fan discussions).  However, what happens in the ring to get to the end of the bout, and what the wrestlers may have to say and do to further the storyline, can be greatly up to the wrestlers to determine.  This agency was seen dramatized in the film The Wrestler and has been discussed elsewhere, such as in this clip:

Foley grew up as a Hulk fan.  He loved comics growing up and told us how he had a need to create heroes, which may be why he became a professional wrestler, although he did not realize the overlap until later.  For Foley, until 1996, there was no scripting, no writers, that he had to listen to or rely upon to help him develop his characters and his wrestling style.  There was just bookers, who helped him get from match to match.  So he created and developed the characters, these heroes, on his own and always had to think for himself on the spot — and this need to be able to think quick and improvise continues to be a skill that the superstars have to rely upon.  As he said on the panel, if a wrestler is not thinking for himself or herself, then that person will have less of a connection with the audience because he or she will not be good at sustaining characters and performances.  Wrestlers who cannot improvise and perform lack the ability of negotiating and building authenticity with the audience — many of whom are very aware of the scripted aspects of the sport.  Perhaps this ability to quickly think on his feet also explains why Foley currently tours the country with a stand-up comedy show.

Another interesting overlap between professional wrestling and comic books are the times when they literally overlap — when comics are made about or feature wrestlers.  We can see this phenomenon going back to the early 1990s, when Valiant and Marvel comics had different deals with the then WWF (now WWE) to feature the WWF wrestlers in established or new series, with some being more successful than others.  Currently, Super Genius, a subset of Papercutz, is releasing WWE Superstarsan alternate universe comic where the wrestlers are all versions of themselves, just not wrestlers (even though they know wrestling moves).  The series is being written by Foley with his writing partner Shane Riches — hence the reason Foley was at C2E2.  Another current title is independently produced Headlocked, which we also picked up at C2E2. Not focusing on any specific WWE superstar but on the art of professional wrestling, the comic does feature stories and art contributed from real wrestlers, such as Jerry “The King” Lawler — we totally got Lawler to autograph our copy.

What’s interesting is how these overlaps between wrestling and comics show not just a blending or crossover of media, but also a mashing of different genres and generic sensibilities.  For example, Foley’s comic utilizes genre conventions from film noir while still showcasing these larger than life characters that are central to professional wrestling.  And, in a sense, this completely works and is completely understandable, because on the basic level, that is what professional wrestling is all about — mashing genres together.

In the documentary released by the WWE for its 50th anniversary, some of the wrestlers and promoters interviewed discussed professional wrestling as combination of comedy, action, and suspense given how the characters and the storylines were constructed and presented — but we could also add superhero and melodrama to this mixture by commenting on the larger than life characters whose stories unfold in serialized, rather overly dramatic fashion in the course of days, months, and even years.  In the special features for the film The Wrestler, there is a roundtable discussion interviewing former superstars like Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, and Diamond Dallas Page.  And while they promoted the film’s ability to show the reality through the construction, they likewise discussed the various genre elements that come into the production not just of a single bout but of an entire, years long feud.

Professional wrestling then is more than a sport — it is an entertainment form that layers onto the sport of wrestling the elements from fictional genres.  Considering it from a reception theory perspective, professional wrestling is perhaps the most polysemic text in modern pop culture.  With so many different layers of meaning due to the mashing of genres, the text offers audience members with highly variable preferences for their entertainment the possibility to find something of value.  Additionally, the fans of the text have a different interaction, a different status, than the fans of “real sports.”

In other professional sports, the interaction between the fans and the athletes is there, but it is rarely seen and rarely important to the progression of the sporting matches except in key moments.  For example, in American football, a home team can have advantage for its defense through crowd noise.  In baseball, the fans can aid their teams by psyching out the umpire and the batter, thereby potentially giving their team an advantage in hits.  However, this is no where near the same amount or type of interaction between individual athletes and fans as seen in WWE, and professional wrestling at large.

From my alma mater - Go Badgers!

From my alma mater – Go Badgers!

As mentioned, the wrestlers’ on the spot performance helps to determine whether or not they can connect with the fan and develop a successful character arc.  If the fans are behind the wrestler — if the wrestler is over with them, in other words — then it can help to secure not only the storyline but the wrestler’s tenure within the industry.  In the documentary on the history of the WWE, Chairman Vince McMahon basically said that they attend to the fans’ reactions to know what to do with a character and a storyline.  In this way, the wrestling fan has input over the sporting and the entertainment aspects — if a wrestler is over with a crowd, then that wrestler may suddenly begin to win more matches, or to switch from heel to face.

All of this is to say that professional wrestling mashes together genres, reaches out to its fans, because it has to.  There is no need to negotiate authenticity and legitimacy in “real sports” given its non-predetermined nature.  Except for the rare cases when a match has been rigged, there is no way to know with 100% certainty what the outcome will be — even a sure win could be suddenly undone by an unforeseen injury.  Such sports do not need to have layers of genre conventions or outreach and empowerment of fans because the main entertainment comes in the not knowing, in the unscripted competition, in the realness.  In such sports, the art of the game or the match is in the athleticism and competition of the players, not in the narrative and aesthetics of the characters.

As mentioned at the C2E2 panel, there is an appreciation of both professional wrestling and comics as an art form in spite of their artifice.  While we know someone writes and illustrates the battles of superheroes and supervillains, we do not base the comic book’s artistic value on its authenticity versus its artifice — there is no authenticity in superpowered beings battling for supremacy, no matter how realistically depicted (sorry, Christopher Nolan).  We negotiate the meaning of such stories through what they do to us — how they make us think and feel — based on how we react to the narrative and aesthetics developed by the writers and the illustrators.

In professional wrestling, we negotiate meaning, and thus authenticity and legitimacy, in the say way.  Once you realize that a match is predetermined, then you need to see the art of the match in terms of its narrative, aesthetics, and athletics.  We come to love certain wrestlers over others through their stories, through their appearance, through their interaction with us, both inside and outside of the ring (many of these superstars are adept at Twitter and Facebook).  Moreso, since these bouts and stories can be comic books brought to life, we can also appreciate the sport as we do other sports, through the athleticism of the wrestlers, which is for the most part very real (except sometimes less so, John Cena).

One of my current favorites, "Grandpa Dave."

One of my current favorites, “Grandpa Dave.”

Once we learn and understand how the artifice produces professional wrestling, then we are left to negotiate what is authentic, legitimate, and meaningful about it by making these appraisals on the narrative, aesthetic, and athletic layers.  How we determine what is the art of professional wrestling is a negotiation of the producer’s intention, what is in the text, and how the audience responds.  And given the importance of those three layers, and the variety within each, there are many entry points and many points at which fans can defend professional wrestling as “yeah, it’s fake, but the story/appearance/ability of the wrestlers isn’t”.  Once you have reached that point — once you have found the aspect of professional wrestling that aligns with your preferences for entertainment — then this genre mashing spectacle can be very compelling.

Take it from a new convert, and perhaps a new addict as well.

The Fetishistic Turn in My Little Pony

This blog post originally appeared at Clearance Bin Review almost a year ago, in consideration for the then upcoming release of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic movie Equestria Girls.  Given my research on that topic, I decided to bring it here as well, under the umbrella that is the fractured fandom project.

Almost a year ago, I first discovered that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is an amazing show that is capable of generating a fandom that crosses both gendered and generational lines.  However, crossing and pushing these borders causes consternation about the bronies who organize because of it.  However, bronies appear to welcome their challenge to social and cultural notions about what is appropriate to do with this children’s show.

So, move into the now, and Hasbro is about to release a MLP:FIM movie that kinda highlights some aspects of the brony subculture that not all of the bronies are comfortable with.

On June 15th, Hasbro will have a “purple carpet” premiere for the first MLP:FIM movie, Equestria Girls.  The following day, June 16th, the film will open nationwide in theatres for special showings, with presumably a television premiere on The Hub soon to follow.  The movie focuses on the events at the end of Season Three (SPOILER ALERT), which finds Twilight Sparkle becoming a princess.  The movie’s villain steals Twilight’s crown, which has her Element of Harmony in it, and disappears into an alternate reality.  Twilight must then journey to this alternate reality to save her crown — but, in doing so, she becomes, for all intents and purposes, a human teenage girl who has to deal with the challenges of, gasp!, high school!  According to the trailer, along the way she runs into other humans that appear to be like the pony friends she left behind.

Hasbro has said that they want to expand their MLP brand out of the children’s market and into the more lucrative teenager market.  But, the thing is, the market for the MLP is already pretty much expanded beyond the children’s market.  The brony fandom consists of a large range of ages, and the show crosses both gender and generational boundaries.  Their presence in the market may not be intentional, or perhaps even desirable from Hasbro’s perspective, but they do exist, and they are loyal consumers of both the show and its ancillary merchandise, such as the MLP app game.

And while the movie is clearly targeting a teenage girl audience with the focus on human high school experiences (which aren’t at ALL stereotyped…), the marketing of the movie appears to be targeting a specific subset of the brony fandom: the subset that likes to sexualize and fetishize the ponies.

If you are not new to the Internet, then you have probably heard of Rule 34: if it exists, there is porn of it.  MLP, like so many other cartoons intended for an audience of children, is not exempt from this rule.  A simple search on art sharing site Deviant Art can bring up numerous examples of people reimagining the ponies in an erotic posture, from the head strong Twilight to the soft spoken Fluttershy.  In some of these images, the ponies are anthropomorphized into human representations, resulting in a range of possible depictions from animal to human.  There is even a subset of MLP fanfiction called “clopfic” that is sexually explicit, ranging from tender erotica to hardcore pornography.

Twilight Sparkly by D-Xross at Deviant Art.

All of this exists, and Hasbro cannot be ignorant of it.  A friend, who is a member of the furry community, has told me how the company has sent out cease-and-desist letters to those bronies seeking to — perhaps in some small way — capitalize on this subset of the fandom, such as through conventions.  And I would be amazed if Hasbro had not heard about the Internet dust-up between a brony and a clopfic artist that was even covered by The A.V. Club.

Thus, when Hasbro released news of the upcoming movie with marketing material showing anthropomorphized ponies, it was hard not to see the marketing as targeting this subset.  The following image comes from the NY Times.

Here the ponies are shown half-pony, half-human, at the mid-point of anthropomorphism that had previously only been seen in fan art.  Naturally, there were those who, when I pointed out the apparent attempt at marketing to this subset of bronies, thought this image had to have been created by the newspaper.  They could not believe Hasbro would release something that looked so representative of fanon, of what the fans themselves have created.  And yet, the official website for the movie as well as its poster again show the image of Twlight Sparkle in this fanon form.

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This official poster generated a quite robust conversation on Facebook of supporters, detractors, and those who were cautiously optimistic; in 6 hours there were 666 comments.  Reaction to the idea of the film, as well as the marketing of it, appeared at The Daily Dot and in a Cracked article, the latter of which brought up the issue of fetishism around MLP:FIM and generated over 1500 comments.  And all of these reactions are coming from the bronies, who are not the audience Hasbro is targeting with the movie.  Whether or not that target audience will dominate the theatre showings on the 16th, or will be crowded out by the bronies, remains to be seen.

However, what is most interesting in this entire event is not who Hasbro is targeting and who is actually turning out for the movie.  Rather, it is the process of anthropomorphizing the ponies in the fanon, which, when carried to a sexually explicit extreme, results in a fetishism of the ponies beyond the consumerism inherent in the toy line.  Within the fandom, there are different opinions as to how the fans should treat the characters in their fanon creations.  When looking at the erotic and pornographic, be they stories or art, there are those who support such production, even suggesting arousal to it — although it can be hard to discern if such sentiment is ironic or honest.  At the other extreme are those who vehemently oppose such creations, citing concerns from bestiality to child pornography.  The one side would argue creative license and Rule 34 (which itself is a philosophy of experimentation, of pushing the boundaries), while the other side would argue common decency and consideration for how those outside of the fandom view bronies.

Overall, there appears to be this concern about fans anthropomorphising the ponies, but technically Hasbro did it first by having them talk, wear clothes and act like humans.  This process of humanizing our animal cousins has been occurring for a long time.  As social creatures, we seek and even crave companionship from our pets, and even our gadgets.  We have long sought the sense that we are not alone in the universe, and have turned the natural world into gods, goddesses and magical spirits to surround ourselves with aspects of ourselves.  The fans are extending this process of humanizing the ponies to other domains of human behavior and appearance: giving them human bodies and/or engaging in human sexual activities.  And with Hasbro putting out marketing for Equestria Girls that seemingly matches what the fans are doing, in some ways it seems that Hasbro is validating the fans’ activities.

Or, if it is not validating, then it is at least highlighting this subset of fandom that those inside and outside of the fandom are not comfortable with.  Without the marketing campaign, the fandom could have kept this fetishization process tucked away, as it is with every other fandom that engages in Rule 34.  What is essentially the hentai of MLP:FIM would have remained in the darker corners of the Internet to be sought out only by those interested in it.  Here now it is brought to all of our attention, and we are forced to deal with its ramifications for what it means about the fandom and ourselves.

Overall, it reminds me of the talk about the uncanny valley and people’s comfort level with non-human entities appropriating human characteristics.  The uncanny valley theorizes that as the appearance and behavior of a non-human entity more closely replicates human appearance and behavior, then we are more uncomfortable when we engage with those entities.  If it remains clearly non-human, having some exaggeration or cartoonish nature, then we feel less threatened by it and thus more friendly towards it.  The ponies on the show, although anthropomorphized, are clearly still cartoons, and thus no threat to us.  But as fans work with these characters, bringing them closer and closer to us, in appearance and behavior, then we start to wonder, if only subconsciously, what is the difference between them and us.

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For the most part, we answer this question by the clear realization that they are fictional characters, and respond in what is deemed an appropriate manner: one cannot be sexually attracted to a fictional character because there is no chance of sex with that character.  While there may be people who have MLP stuffed animals or pillows and claim to be in a relationship with the character, we know it is not true.  We are able to resolve our issues with the uncanny valley, even if we can never truly resolve that uneasy feeling we get because of it.

The fetishization of the ponies is part of the process of fans expressing their creativity and pushing the boundaries of the uncanny valley — to test how far our relationship with non-human entities can go.  Right now, we know how far they can go: they can appear in art work, and in the performances or delusions of some who bring it into the real world.  But all of these ponies have no agency or choice in how they are being treated.  They are merely ways for us to work out the issues of the uncanny valley.

But what happens when we have non-human entities that do have agency?  That are able to make choices that could lead to a consensual relationship?  We are seeing research into companionship robots right now.  What happens if one day a person engages in a consensual, sexual relationship with a robot?  Will the uncanny valley prevent acceptance of such a relationship, or will the valley finally be overcome?

Problems with Perceptions in Fandom

Part of the process of understanding the phenomenon of fractured fandom is to gather stories that thematically reveal its nature, such as my ongoing analysis of how My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans reacted to the feature film Equestria Girls and its soon-to-be sequel Rainbow RocksThe more stories we can gather, then the more we can learn (tweet your stories with #fracturedfandom, whether the fandom is pop culture, sport, literary, religious, political or otherwise). 

Another part of the process is to theorize from these stories the reasons for the fractures.  The session I attended at C2E2 on sexist tensions in geekdom is only one of a multitude of places in which we can have such discussions.  In my post responding to that session, I focused on answering this “why” question by examining what we could consider to be masculine anxieties about their fandom including women and feminine fan activities.  In this post, I want to add upon what was discussed at that session by bringing in a more psychological approach to attempting to answer the “why” question.

Essentially, I want to consider the issue of perceptions — and misperceptions — people have as fans, about fans, about themselves, and how these views of the world can impact how they make sense of it and act within it.

If we consider the idea broadly, then we can think of a perception as a layer between our inner self and the outer world.  We have a range of bodily sensations (i.e. touch, taste, sight, sound, smell) that are our way of knowing what is outside of use (and sometimes what is happening inside of us, such as a growling and rumbling hungry stomach or a sweaty palm of embarrassment).  However, we do not just take in these sensations to know the world unfiltered.  If you were not able to filter out what you were listening to while walking down the street, then you would not be able to listen to music and talk to someone simultaneously.  We can select what we attend to, what we filter out, in order for our sensations to not overwhelm us and thus allow us to cope in the world.

Sometimes we consciously choose what we want to attend to — i.e. your lover’s declaration of love over the football game on the television — while at other times such attention is more unconsciously determined.  I think the only reason I do not bump into more students on campus with their eyes glued to their smart phones is because, unconsciously, they are attentive enough to their surroundings so as to look up mere moments before such a collision would occur.  All of this means is that sometimes we are aware of the reasons we have for directing attention as we do, while at other times that reason may not be directly available for us to recall.  There can be a multitude of reasons for our selective attention (seriously, see all the psychological studies).  And beyond just determining what we may attend to, these reasons can also impact how we attend to them.

That is to say, the reasons can impact how we perceive of these sensations, of what is happening in the world around us or even in our own bodies.  We may perceive a sensation in such a way that it helps us to make sense of ourselves, of others, of the world.  We can interpret this thing we are attending to in a certain way given some way of thinking or feeling — some attitude — we have about that thing.  If we believe the thing to be good, then our perception will be different than if we believe it to be bad.  How we attend, perceive, interpret, make-sense of that thing will impact what we do about it.  If we perceive grilled meat to be a good thing, then the smell of it could make us hungry; if we perceive eating meat as being ethically wrong, then the smell will turn us off.

All of which is to say that, psychologically speaking, how a fan perceives other fans, the fandom, and even the object of affection can impact how they act with other fans, and thus could be implicated in causing fractured fandom.

Not exactly a positive perception of fans at work here.

Not exactly a positive perception of fans at work here.

According to the panel discussion at C2E2, there remains a misperception by those in fandom that the identities of “geek” and “women” are not compatible.  Apparently the perception in fandom, which perhaps reflects the larger social and cultural perception, is that being geeky is unfeminine, or that more feminine you are the less of true geek you are because fandom is a guy thing.  And this is not just occurring within pop culture fandoms — this assumption has long been the perception in sports fandoms, which have been positioned traditionally as areas of masculinity.  So based on this perception of fandoms as masculine, women assume that to fit in they have to diminish their femininity so as to not get shit for participating in it.  And based on this perception of the larger culture/society that fandom is feminine, that might be why we have male nerds/geeks pushing back by asserting their masculinity so as not to feel threatened by the influx of female nerds/geeks (see previous post).

Additionally, perception can come in through this concept that was discussed called “imposter syndrome,” a term to describe the feeling a person will get if he or she does not feel that she is worthy of the position s/he is in.  It is the fear of being “found out” that one is not as smart or as creative or as tough etc etc as the people with whom we are working.  Which means it is a perception about ourselves and about others, and about how others are better than ourselves.  Since we perceive ourselves as not as good as those around us, we may set a higher bar for ourselves to achieve the goal because we feel we are not as worthy as those around us.

How this relates to fandom goes back to the perception that the fandom is intended as a masculine space, and that the texts and activities that constitute the fandom are directed at men.  A women then might perceive that is not like these men, is not part of the target community of the fandom, and thus may feel like an imposter in their midst.  This could mean that she is afraid of doing more in the fandom because she is afraid of being found out as an imposter.  As discussed at the panel, this perception that is the imposter syndrome can also involve and/or lead to internalized sexism, racism, etc, as the perceive perceives the difference and comes to accept it as “normal.”  Overall, this perception results in a potential shutting down of dialogue on the problems that can lead to a fractured fandom, which thereby leads to a perpetuation of the sexism, racism, and other -isms that fracture fandoms.

Many potential solutions to the issues of sexism in fandom were discussed at the panel, from the need to get members of target community, allies, to step in with their voice and power to having these allies help make marginalized voices louder by moderating online spaces to become dialogic discursive places (such as this mentioned example). The idea being that there needs to be improved empathy, identification, and perspective-taking among those of the target community who may be unwittingly perceiving the women as imposters and treating them as such.  At the same time, the panel discussed the need for more and better enforcement of anti-harrassment policies at conventions.

However, as was mentioned, push-back to such policies does exist as people don’t think the policies are necessary — perhaps because do not perceive that there is a problem, or they do not want to perceive there is a problem.  Those pushing back may not not like to think that their favorite spaces need such policing.  Fans do not want to see other fans as problematic because we are all fans, which has been increasingly positioned as a positive, as something to celebrate.  And then there is also a defensiveness as people perceive themselves as the target while they do not perceive themselves that way: “I am not that guy, so why imposing on me?”

Which brings up another perception that could be causing push-back — the perception that proving harassment could be entirely one-sided, “he-said she-said,” meaning that a woman could perceive harassment where none was intended, making the case be one of his word versus her word.  We see the same argument, the same perception, in the public discourse over rape.  And while I would never say it all comes down to misperceptions, it may be possible for such misperceptions to play a role — and if men in particular perceive the role of misperceptions, well, then they could play a big role in the push-back to these policies, and indeed to the way they treat women in fandom in general.

In the paper I heard at PCA on fake geek girls, one reason for why it occurs mentioned the idea of a compulsory heterosexual discourse.  In a sense, men see women engaging, particularly, in cosplay where they wear revealing costumes and perceive these women as wanting sexual attention from men.  The men would then believe the actions of these women allows them to objectify the women and not take their interest in the fandom seriously.  Therefore, the men may be misperceiving the reason the women cosplay, and this misperception could be impacting how the men view female fans and thus how they act towards them.  It is that old standard of “she was asking for it” that permeates and perpetuates rape culture and misogynistic extremism.

Finally, perception can work in a trickier way than what I have already discussed.  In psychology, there is a concept called cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is the idea that sometimes a person will have an attitude — a belief and a feeling — about something but then act in a way that completely contradicts what they believe and feel.  Say you know that eating too much bacon is bad for your health, but you still order bacon every chance that you get.  Well, there is the chance then that you might feel cognitive dissonance — you may feel guilty about ordering and eating so much bacon.  That negative feeling of guilt is the dissonance — it’s the feeling bad that could also manifest in shame, embarrassment, sadness.  It is a negative state of being that we humans do not like being in.

Because cognitive dissonance is not a nice state to be in, we will find ways to alleviate it.  If you keep order and eating that bacon, then you may do an activity to alleviate the guilt, such as going to the gym every day you eat bacon.  Or you might change your beliefs and rationalize how the amount of bacon you eat is not actually all that bad for your health given how young you are.  There are a number of strategies you could employ to help you feel better about your guilt, such as stopping eating pork bacon all together.  All of this is to say that while we do not like feeling bad when our behaviors do not match our attitudes, we humans have developed many ways of changing how we perceive things in order to deal with the dissonance.

And this concept of cognitive dissonance could be applied to explain the sexist tensions in geekdom.

For example, consider how men react to women who cosplay.  The men may be attracted to the women but may think that the women do not want them so the men will objectify and belittle the women.  The contradiction is in wanting to be near the women but then acting in a way that ensures such closeness will not occur.  The resulting dissonance could then be handled by rationalizing the women ultimately do not matter or that the women are asking for such demeaning treatment.

For another example, consider how men react when women, especially, demonstrate the sexist representations of women in the texts of the fandom.  The men may be (one can hope) agreeing that sexualization and sexist representations are bad, but then they also like the sexualization because they find it attractive, meaning they also like the text with the sexualization and want to continue to engage with text.  The contradiction is in how they view the sexualization and how they want to engage with it.  Ultimately, to deal with this dissonance, they may vehemently disagree that the sexualization is bad (that is, change their belief) or they may attack and belittle those arguing it is bad to sexualize (that is, enact a specific behavior) in order to belittle the argument itself, so as to not have to consider it any more.

Overall, I want to reiterate that these are just theories and ideas for how psychology and the science of perception could be causing the types of sexist tensions in geekdom that in some way cause fractures in fandoms.  Whether it is just basic misperceptions or more complicated cognitive dissonance, I do not think the psychological angle is enough to explain everything that is happening.  I think a social and cultural psychological angle could help, as we look to understand how the society and culture in which the fans exist are determining how they are making sense of their fandom.  Because the perceptions we have about ourselves and each other are often informed by what our society and culture says our beliefs and feelings should be.  They are inextricably woven together.  And in order to fully address the “why” question of fractured fandom, we will need to be able to look at this woven tapestry of, for example, cultural and social messages about gender appropriateness and our own sexist perceptions of people.

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