Hiro vs. Dean–(on gender, academia, fandom, and Heroes vs. Supernatural)

[Author’s note: This is a post from the fall 2006, written shortly after Flow, reposted here from livejournal]

This was written as a response to Henry Jenkins post, also spurred by Kristina’s comment to him.

In the above linked post, Henry Jenkins argues that we need to refine how we think about gender when we consider the role of the gender divide in fandom and acafandom. I absolutely agree. However, I also feel that as the discourse is being shaped (in acafandom, not fandom) by fanboys–and by fangirls working within the constraints and mandates of academic culture—some programs and forms of reception are always seen as more acceptable than others.

I ran into this most clearly when I first tried to work on Roswell (and consumerist fashion discourses in Roswell as creative cultural work) and found myself on the receiving end of intrigued but nervous stares or overt resistance. [My favorite comment, after my first conference talk as a grad student about genre and Roswell–what would become my dissertation topic–was the person who, after a fair amount of engaged discussion about questions of genre within the panel as a whole, came up to me and said “Well, I can see that you really like Roswell.” Needless to say, I was more than frustrated by that response–although, of course, I did/do really love Roswell.] In the end, I found Smallville a better crossover acafan show, because it had the fanboy Superman cred, and yet I could still work on the queerness in the show itself and in fandom, together with the mixing of genres and the seriality that seemed so rich in Roswell. The political implications of female fans queering Superman, combined with the fanboy interest in comics and superheroes, made Smallville a shoe in for the academic circuit. It didn’t hurt that Smallville was the show closest to my heart—it was a happy combination.

But to return to the new generation of acafan and fan favorites: perhaps it’s premature to trace out a Heroes vs. Supernatural aca vs. fan face off. But I think it’s there, lurking under the surface and in the corners. Now let me say, I adore both shows. I think that this season (with Smallville so on and off, Gilmore Girls treading into Aerie Girls treacle land, and Veronica Mars struggling with its new format and attempt to bridge the niche/mainstream divide) both Heroes and Supernatural are the two stand out shows, the two shows that have captured my heart. Hell, Supernatural has even tempted me away from Clark and Lex (which it would appear not even Veronica Mars could do) and so I’ve begun to dig into the amazing wealth of fanfiction that’s out there.

So, they’re both great programs. I think that they both arguably have the makings of fan “activator” programs, as Henry Jenkins has termed it. Different makings—Heroes is more deeply serial, with multiple arcs that slowly build on each other and might lose the non-work-in-progress lover. Supernatural has the slash built in, the angsty boys with chemistry, and each episode is cohesive while being part of a slowly building serial whole.

It might be the slash potential that’s determined that Supernatural has so much more fan fiction than Heroes. Of course, Supernatural also has a year on Heroes. I’m thinking we’ll see some Heroes fan fiction, but likely not the amount that we see of Supernatural because there aren’t core romantic pairings in quite the same way, no matter how much we may all adore Hiro (and who couldn’t adore Hiro?)

But, given that Supernatural has been on the show for a whole year and a half, and has a fandom that’s starting to rival where Smallville was in its second season, why hasn’t it made an appearance in academic contexts? At Flow, nowhere was it mentioned, except in in-between hall conversations (and this was the conference that was supposed to be like one big in-between hall conversation, and in many ways succeeded at that.) Meanwhile, Heroes was all over the place, the new acafan darling.

Is Supernatural remaining in the shadows because much of the impetus of Supernatural fandom is in the slashiness, and its one thing to slash superman with Lex Luthor, but incest is something that sets off a whole other level of taboo? Is it that there is a more libidinal (slash aside) dimension to fan engagement with Supernatural that perhaps feels somehow excessive to acafans, and therefore something that we don’t want to put out there into the academy, given that we’re treading on tricky ground already by simply basing our careers on the study of pop culture and often outing our own investments? Or is it that the valuation of narrative complexity heralds shows like Heroes and Veronica Mars, and Supernatural doesn’t fall within the same excused intellectual umbrella?

Or maybe it’s more something we can see from the flip side—Supernatural acafanwork is bound to emerge, but Heroes fits the mold so well of that which can be so easily celebrated in acafan discourses—it’s got the narrative complexity, it’s not particularly taboo, it attracts male and female fans at once (so you don’t have the sense of a female fan community that from the outside might look a little opaque), and it’s got the superhero comics fanboy cred. I’m of course not saying that Heroes shouldn’t be studied, but I can’t help but look at the forces that push Heroes to the fore while Supernatural stays buried, and think that those dynamics are significant. So, yes, I agree—we do need a more nuanced analysis of the role of gender and the gender divide in contemporary audience and fan communities. We also can’t ignore that these dynamics have an effect on how fan culture gets recorded and publicized, and that the future narratives we tell of the histories of fandom may very well be impacted by our awareness of the role gender plays in not only what shows we view but what shows we write about.



3 thoughts on “Hiro vs. Dean–(on gender, academia, fandom, and Heroes vs. Supernatural)

  1. cofax says:

    How much of the difference might also be due to the fact that Supernatural is on the CW and Heroes is on ABC? The relative success of each show means that Heroes is the culture-critics’ darling, and that might play into whether an academic decides it’s worth investigating.

    Just a thought. Good essay, although I feel obliged to point out that the slash is not the only reason Supernatural is fannishly popular–the show hits the emotional buttons in a way few other shows do, even if those buttons (merely) relate to messed-up family bonds. Even without the slash reading, it’s compelling emotionally.

  2. lstein says:

    How much of the difference might also be due to the fact that Supernatural is on the CW and Heroes is on ABC?

    Definitely, I’m sure this has something to do with it. Programs on the CW (and on the WB in the past…) always seem suspect within academic discourses because they’re seemingly directed at a teen consumerist audience, and the metatexts surrounding them are so entrenched in teen consumerism. And of course a program like Supernatural, with all its eye-candy for girls, is doubly implicated as its directed at a female teen audience… I felt this resistance especially when I was doing work on Roswell and fan engagement with Roswell’s featured fashions.

    Sometimes programs distinguish themselves and rise above, so that they seem to be the exceptions–the CW/WB/UPN shows worthy of extended academic consideration (Buffy, Veronica Mars…) and I don’t mean to make an overly blanket statement regarding academia’s discomfort with these programs. I’ve just coedited a book on Teen TV that includes excellent essays on Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, Buffy, as well as on The OC, Degrassi Next Generation, and other shows associated with teen audiences or networks. But interestingly, many of the authors of those essays are of a younger generation of scholars–so I wonder how much generation and discipline also play a role here.

    As for SPN having appeal beyond slash, I completely agree with you. I think it extends beyond SPN too–het and gen and slash often emerge from a single program that hits fannish buttons that enable a wide range of types of engagement. That’s so true for SPN, with its focus on the messed-up familial, as you say, and on masculinity and coming-of-age. Those are themes that translate into slash and gen alike. (okay, maybe not het, in the case of SPN… but that’s another discussion…)

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