Talking about Hate & Fandom at Flow 2012

Hello all! So I have arrived in Austin, Texas, for one of my very favorite conferences–the Flow Conference on Television and Media Culture. I love the structure of this conference; (a little background for newbies to Flow) the original idea of the conference was to bring the energetic conversations that always happen in the hallways of the conference to the center, and so the conference is organized around roundtables rather than panels. We’ve all already shared short pieces we wrote on the subject at hand. That way, when we come together the focus can be on free-flowing conversation.

I’m on a roundtable about hate-watching and negative affect in antifandom, or the relationship of fandom and antifandom. Hmm, to summarize it best, I’ll post the prompt for the roundtable:

#IHateThisShow!”: Anti-Fandom in the Digital Age
In the twenty years since publication of Jenkins’
 Textual Poachers, fan studies (and the cultural value of fandom) has come a long way. One of fan studies’ enduring strengths is its focus on and valuation of affect, particularly its emphasis on fans’ positive feelings of like and love (however conflicted those feelings may be). Examined less frequently are the equally intense, yet opposite feelings of dislike and hatred. Are anti-fans fans? What do anti-fans reveal about a text’s construction, appeal, and success?

Popular television criticism, in this Internet era, often involves “hate watching” certain shows. Websites like The A.V. Club and Television Without Pity often provide an anti-fan’s perspective on popular shows and their comment sections are often full of anti-fan reactions and criticisms. How can we understand this mode of television criticism? How can we understand the role of social networking in the anti-fan experience? How does the gathering of anti-fans on websites like Twitter affect the anti-fan experience? What can the study of anti-fans contribute to fan studies? How can and should we study dislike and hate? What can the study of negative affect offer to television studies?”

Now, I’m fascinated by the way negative affect (including but not limited to hate) works in fandom, intertwined with positive affect, so that was the spin of my response. Our position papers were due right before that wonderful moment in Glee where Kurt and Blaine skype hate watch Treme (I could write a whole essay on that! My first response was… who hate watches Treme? Impossible!) So while there’s no discussion of representations of hate-watching (an interesting question in itself), here’s my 1000 word-ish first thoughts on the role of negative affect in fandom, fandom history, and fan studies, with a bit of a focus on Glee. I’m looking forward to our roundtable today, and I would also love to extend the conversation online.

“Single/Taken/ In an Abusive Relationship With Ryan Murphy’s Writing”: Love, Hate, and Ambivalence in Fandom

The question framing this roundtable asks whether we can consider “anti-fans fans,” but I’d like to flip this question on its head to consider whether we can consider fans anti-fans. In other words, I’d like to dig deeper at the notion that fans’ “positive feelings of like and love” may be “conflicted.” I’d argue that fan love is almost always in constant interplay with a spectrum of negative emotions, from ambivalence to frustration to fear to dissatisfaction to hate. Academic and popular conversations often equate fandom with uncritical celebration and love, but hate, frustration, and negative affect play key roles in fan experience. Fan studies has from its origins posited that fan engagement is born out of the need to change, fix, and add—in Henry Jenkins’ words, to “scribble in the margins.” Scribbling in the margins is not just a process of celebratory addition; it is also a way of speaking back, speaking out, critiquing, revising, and even revolting.

Much like the antifans who tear apart Twilight on anti-Twilight boards, fans can be deeply critical of a media text’s narrative construction and its attendant ideological work. Arguably, it is precisely fans who have the vested interest and thus reason to hate dimensions of a television show or the whole show itself. I think there’s a real danger of slipping into an oversimplified dichotomy, associating negative affect only with anti-fans and positive affect only with fans. I’m not suggesting that there is no use for the two terms, but I want us to consider how these categories may blur and intersect, and I’d argue that there’s insight to be found in probing these intersections. For example, do fans “hate-watch” or at least “anger-watch”? Can “hate-watch” be a temporary mode of viewing driven by larger fan investment in a media text?

I’d like to first focus on an explicit expression of fan dislike: the viewers/fans/critics of the FOX series Glee who have launched “The Glee Equality Project,” an ongoing series of campaigns protesting what participants perceive as the series’ ideological failings. Because of Glee’s claim to offer a representation of diverse perspectives and to speak for the “outsider,” the series has come under fire for unevenness in its address of race, dis/ability, gender, and sexuality. The Glee Equality Project (GEP) critiques the lack of intimacy and sexuality in the series’ representation of queer characters. The GEP “Season 3 Kiss Compilation” video tallies the number of straight vs. gay kisses in season three (final count, 51: 6), and uses the language of the series to make its criticism. It closes with Santana, a character who often voices negative emotion within the series, offering a critique within the show itself: “…all I want to be able to do is kiss my girlfriend but I guess no one can see that because there’s such an insane double standard at this school.” This video’s rhetorical strategy—using the series to critique itself, so to speak—demonstrates how investment in a television series fuels fan critique and blurs the line between fan and antifan. Crucially, this video circulates widely within fandom. Fan love for the potential of Glee motivates the video’s critique, and the video is intended both to educate and to lobby for change, to better the show in fans’ eyes.

Indeed, on a daily basis within fandom, negative affect informs the collective experience of television, manifesting not only in campaigns such as the GEP, but also in fan creative works of all sorts. The most obvious examples are fanvids that critique a television series’ ideological work. A quick list might include Women’s Work’s critique of Supernatural’s continued violence against women, On the Prowl and The Price’s critique of fandom’s fascination with abusing male characters and “manpain,” and How Much is that Geisha in the Window’s critique of Firefly’s misogynistic exoticization and racism. This last video ends with an affective attack; a closing voiceover intones, “Fuck you, Joss (Whedon) you racist asshole.” And again, it’s worth emphasizing: these videos are not attacks from the outside, but rather speak from within and to fan communities.

The Glee Equality Project and these meta-critical fanvids serve as examples of fan critique motivated by anger and frustration. But fan engagement doesn’t need to be poised as critique to be shaped by dissatisfaction. Many fan works choose to shift emphasis to story elements marginalized in a given source text. I’ll return here to the example of Glee, but I’d argue that such productive dissatisfaction has always driven much of fan production. Season two of Glee sends fan-beloved (or fan-hated, depending on who you talk to!) character Kurt Hummel to the private school Dalton, where he meets his boyfriend to be, Blaine. Any given episode of Glee in season two includes only one to three scenes at Dalton. Fans expressed their frustration with what they perceived as, at best, a lost narrative opportunity, and at worst a marginalizing of a queer romantic narrative, by setting extended fan-authored stories in Dalton. For example, the fan fiction series “Dalton,” as the title suggests, sets Glee’s narrative at Dalton, never returning Kurt or the central narrative to McKinley High. This fan fiction series has found enormous popularity among fans and indeed has birthed its own multi-authored spinoffs and fan communities. While we could read fan interest in “Dalton” as a celebration of the narrative possibilities of Glee, we can also read it as a creativity born of a negative response to Glee’s maintenance of the status quo (and heteronormative focus) at McKinley. And in a sense this negative affect has formed a new—or newly bounded—fan community.

So, far from being the domain of antifans only, negative affect plays a key role in fan experience. By shifting the narrative focus and ideological work of a given source text, fan-authorship channels negative fan affect into creativity. In reading, commenting on, and spinning off these stories, fans build communities based in part on shared dissatisfaction with the source text that has (assumedly) brought them together in the first place. And this process—this formative presence of negative affect within fandom—is nothing new. Rather, the opposite: these processes of shared fan frustration and re-creation have shaped the contours of fan communities over the many decades of media fandom’s history. Thus, if we are to engage with the complexities of fan experience past and present, it’s especially vital that we don’t assign negative affect to the domain of antifandom only. And moreover, I believe we’ll learn more by exploring the interrelationships between fan and antifan investments than by assuming any clear divides between the two.

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