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Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part Three)

October 25, 2016 - 9:09am

You make an interesting point that R. Crumb has been at a disadvantage in contemporary value judgements because he produced short stories rather than graphic novels. In literature, we can think of authors such as Edgar Allen Poe or Flannery O’Connor who have entered the canon as short story writers, and certainly playwrights can enter the literary canon and not simply novelists. So what might this suggest about the ways that the canon may be limiting our understandings of the range of options within comics as a medium?

To me, the Crumb example shows how much more narrow the comics studies canon is than the literary canon, because I don’t think that there are as many opportunities for Crumb as there are for Poe or O’Connor. The primacy of the novel in literature departments is a late arriving phenomenon – literature departments focused on poetry and drama for decades prior to the turn towards the novel, so there are obvious spaces for writers in other forms.

Comics studies has championed the graphic novel nearly to the total exclusion of all other types of comics (consider how little comics studies focusses on comic strips, despite their much longer lineage and higher general cultural visibility). So Crumb risks being left out of a lot of current discussions simply because he does not fit the norm of what we do. That to me is a real problem with how we approach the study of the field because it writes out almost all of the work that was produced in the first fifty years of the comic book format, and, frankly, the majority of it in the second fifty years as well.

Jack Kirby poses a different set of issues in your account, as do other superhero creators, because his reputation is grounded in popular and commercial criteria more than in the art world. Thinking about comics in terms of canon formation raises issues about the relationship between academic judgements and those constructed by fans or other more populist institutions.  How might we describe the criteria fans have used to identify the most important artists and how do they differ from academic criteria? One could argue that a similar split exists between novels that are taught in literature classes and “classics” that generations read and like but do not get much respect from literature professors — Anne of Green Gables, Treasure Island, the Wizard of Oz, etc. Or we might think of the role which westerns and their directors played in the early emergence of film studies (or later, melodramas) seeing an exploration of the tension between genres and authors as a central issue defining the field.

There is a really big gulf growing between comics scholars and comics fans, or at least between certain types of scholars and certain types of fans, and I do wonder how much of that will close over time. While we’ve been talking a lot about graphic novels, the fact is, as we point out in The Greatest Comic Book, there is a really substantial emphasis on superhero comic books in contemporary comics scholarship.

It too can be somewhat narrow in its interest. I’ve heard or read maybe a dozen papers on Ms Marvel, for example, a very recent comic book with a Muslim teenager as the protagonist. There are a lot of scholars who want to talk about this title and the way it addresses important cultural debates, and that seems very natural and very relevant. For the most part, the vast bulk of superhero comics goes unremarked upon by superhero scholars and the scholars set up their own canon, and Jack Kirby occupies the top space there.

What is interesting to me about superhero artists is that each generation will develop their own favourites and the turn-over is extremely rapid. It is a very star-driven industry, and stars can fade quickly. John Byrne and Frank Miller were the most popular comic book artists when I was a teen, but by the time I was twenty it was Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld – artists that I personally felt little connection to. The change was quick.

Kirby has endured better than most others, partly because he has a large cadre of supporters proclaiming him the “King of Comics” and who explain his importance to later generations of fans. The criteria that seem to most drive Kirby to the top is the sense that he generated all of these incredible characters who are still popular to this day, and that he completely revolutionized comic book storytelling.

That latter is striking for me, because it is the type of thing that becomes less self-evident to readers over time. Kirby’s dynamism is most striking in contrast to the staid comics that DC was producing in the 1960s, just as Godard’s cutting was shocking in comparison to the traditions of French cinema of his day. In an era, half a century later, where those advances have been internalized by everyone that followed they become harder to see. I think this is one of the great losses that occurs when we focus only on a very small canon – the breakthroughs are less evident and need to be accepted on faith. Many of my students, who weren’t even born when Jack Kirby died, have a lot of trouble seeing what is so different about his Fantastic Four because they have no exposure to anything else from that period to compare it to.

You write about avant garde comics, comics which are understood within an “aesthetic of difficulty”, a standard they inherited from the modernist tradition in film and literature. What does it mean to read comics through an avant garde lens when so many people conceive of it almost exclusively as a popular art form?  How are artists and readers negotiating those contradictions?

When I was writing Unpopular Culture, which is about this tension, several of the cartoonists that I write about in that book got angry with me when I referred to their work as “avant grade” or “unpopular”. I mean, really viscerally angry with me. I thought one was going to hit me.

It seems to me that comics is one of the few art forms that modernism forgot. Yes, there was George Herriman, but there were very few other examples of cartoonists drawing on modernist traditions. Certainly in the American comic book modernism seems to have had almost no influence at all. Meanwhile, film, painting, literature, music, drama – all of these forms went through a modernist phase. I think that this is one of the reasons that comics were looked down upon – there was almost no one working in the field who sought to cultivate a serious readership. When Michael Chabon writes about comics and modernism in Kavalier and Clay it really does seem like a fantastical element.

Nonetheless, there are a small but growing number of cartoonists who are interested in these issues. In the US we might go back to Raw as the beginning of that, and you can see this level of difficulty in the work of an artist like Gary Panter. That tradition has continued through Paper Rad, the artists involved in Kramer’s Ergot, and so on. To a large degree this is the fringe of the alternative comics scene. A lot of it is that rare form of comics that is highly influenced by contemporary art practices, and a lot of it seems more at home in a gallery than in a bookstore.

I think that there is still some resistance to this tendency – some people get their backs up about it because what they like is the idea that comics is a less judgemental space, one that is more open and accommodating. When Kramer’s Ergot did their issue that had the retail price of about $100 a lot of readers got upset about that; they argued that it was exclusionary to produce a huge oversized and expensive limited edition comic book. Avant gardes have always put some part of the audience on edge and they are genuinely exclusionary and that sits poorly in the comics world because it is relatively small.  I don’t think that the average cinema-goer gets angry about the films of Jonas Mekas – they simply ignore them. In the smaller and more insular comics world it may be more difficult to ignore these kinds of provocations and interventions.


Some of the sharpest critics of the literary or art world or cinematic canons have been women and minorities who argue that their contributions have systematically been dismissed or marginalized within existing practices of canon formation. And, sure enough, your research shows that their contributions have been undervalued within comics studies as well. So, what’s the best path forward towards a more inclusive and diverse understanding of comics? Are we better off rethinking the criteria by which canons are formed or rejecting the idea of canons altogether?


There is a part of me that believes that comics studies does a little bit better than some other domains in thinking about gender and racial difference simply by virtue of the fact that it is so focussed on the past thirty years, which has been a time of greater – but insufficient – inclusiveness in the field. In this way the historical myopia of comics studies can actually be reconfigured as a feature rather than as a flaw.

Moreover, there is a clear push in these areas. I could cite Hillary Chute’s book about women who do autobiographical comics, the anthology The Blacker the Ink, Carolyn Cocca’s new book on gender and the superhero, and Cinema Journal’s roundtable on diversity and comics studies to name but a few. If one is inclined to be positive of canons and canonicity in comics you can note that, because the field is still so relatively new, that there is a great deal of flux and that it is still easy to make space. Marajane Satrapi is an excellent example of this. Persepolis was one of the most taught and most studied comics within only a few years of its translation into English.

The flip side would be that we still have an awful long way to go on the diversity front, and we risk arriving at a very constricted sense of diversity that simply tries to integrate difference into the existing structures without actually stopping to reflect on how practices of exclusion have historically operated in the comics industry and within comics studies.


You talk about the concept of “world comics” as a way of developing a more encompassing understanding of the medium. How might we define a “world’s comics” approach? What kinds of works would this allow us to discuss that are excluded from current understandings of the medium? Are world comics necessary understood as the graphic novel equivalent of the international arts cinema or is there a way to create such a category that would include works from both avant garde and popular culture traditions?

One of the things that I find most frustrating about comics studies is the geographical and cultural blinkers that exist on all sides. I think that the easiest way to be an unread comics scholar is to write about foreign language works. If you write about works that haven’t been translated yet, you can really expect few people to read you. I think that one of the best recent monographs on a single cartoonists is Fabrice Leroy’s Sfar So Far, but because it is written in English and Sfar is best known in France I’m not sure that it has been widely read (even though Sfar’s comics have been reasonably well translated into English).

I’m right now working on an article about two books that are unlikely to ever appear in English (one of them is by Sfar, ironically) and part of me wonders if anyone will ever read the piece. The same is true about work on certain forms of manga, and even more true about comics from the global south. We can be extremely parochial. Of course, this is a complaint that is common across the board. My colleagues in Comp Lit will make the same observation about world literature.

Today I think that comics studies lacks a strong comparative tradition, and one of the reasons for this is that I think a lot of us worry about lacking the competency to do that work. One of my favourite cartoonists is Jiro Taniguchi – I have dozens of his books in French and English that I’ve read multiple times. If you asked me to write a book simply to express my admiration for a cartoonist, I would pick him. I am somewhat reluctant to write about him in depth, however, because I am acutely aware that I lack the cultural understanding to talk about him in the context of Japanese cartooning.

A lot of the writing on Satrapi that I don’t like is the writing that misses obvious connections between her work and that of many of her French contemporaries, and I am keenly aware that that is likely the type of work that I would produce about Taniguchi. So I wind up saying nothing, and, unfortunately, for the most part nothing gets said about him.

I really don’t think that “world comics”, if we can call it that, mirrors the art house, however, because it is often some of the most popular foreign language comics that wind up translated. Manga is a great example of this, where blockbuster after blockbuster have arrived in English but far fewer indy-style comics have been translated.

That said, certain blockbusters are unknown. I think few Americans would have any idea about how unbelievably popular Zep and his character Titeuf are in French-speaking Europe. Those books have sold more than 16 million copies but have never appeared here. I mean, Titeuf has an asteroid named after him, and the character is almost completely unknown here.

The logic of translation is incredibly hit and miss in comics, and it makes comics studies tricky. When I translated Groensteen’s The System of Comics I was acutely aware that a lot of readers of my edition of that book were going to be lost by the casual way he drops in references to works that are exceptionally well-known in France and completely unknown here. When I worked later with Ann Miller on The French Comics Theory Reader we were much more attentive to footnoting those kinds of things.

The other project that I’m working on at the moment is really addressed to a lot of these questions. With Frederik Køhlert I have a grant to research the trans-national reception and discussion of Charlie Hebdo. That magazine is an example that raises all kinds of questions and issues about cross-cultural competencies. There are literally moments where Frederik and I would sit in my office reading old issues of Charlie Hebdo and ask ourselves “what does that even mean? Who is that?”. I mean, at the basic denotative level we don’t know the references to French politicians in the 1970s, let alone what the specifics of the jokes might be. So far it has been some tough slogging, but it’s also the kind of work that both agree needs to get done in comics studies.


Categories: Blog

Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part Two)

October 20, 2016 - 8:32am

Archie would probably end up on nobody’s list of the “greatest comics,” but it may well be one of the most pervasive comics in that many comics readers pass through an Archie phase at one time or another, at least those who start reading comics in their childhood.  Is Archie a “plausible text” in the sense you are discussing here and if not, why not?

I chose to work on Archie Comics precisely because I thought it was “implausible”. Indeed, I thought it might be the most implausible text that I could have suggested, and that was the reason that I suggested it!

The series that Twelve-Cent Archie appears in from Rutgers is focused on each volume highlighting an important text. It is an avowedly canon-building publishing program. When I was invited to contribute one of the first books to that series I was quite reluctant to do so, because I really didn’t want to help build that kind of enterprise for many of the reasons that we lay out in Greatest Comic Book (which is a bit of a deliberate expansion of Archie, and a comment on the series). I quite clearly remember saying, “A series like this would never include a book on something like Archie Comics”. To his eternal credit, the series editor, Corey Creekmur, immediately responded that it would and that he wanted me to write it. So my big mouth got me in trouble.

The problem then was obvious: how do I make Archie plausible? I knew that I wanted at least one of the arguments of the book to be a critique of notions of greatness, of importance, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to stretch that out to 80,000 words. The fact is that Archie Comics are very standardized – that is a huge part of their appeal for their readers – but that made them a challenge to approach. So much of that book was determining how to talk about innovation within standardization and the subtle differences that become apparent only in routines.

Twelve-Cent Archie is very much a book that only a full professor would write. If one of my own graduate students had suggested it to me I would have counselled them against it. I have chaired a lot of hiring committees and I have seen how tough it can be for scholars working on non-traditional topics to get past the initial screening; this would have been a career killer for an early career academic. I think it’s notably also the only book that I have written that I didn’t receive research funding for – I didn’t even ask, really, because I could see that writing on the wall.

Why might such a work be worthy of serious study and what can it tell us about value judgements in comics more generally?

After the Archie book came out, it was widely reviewed – particularly here in Canada. I wound up winning my university’s research prize for it and I still recall sitting on the side of the stage with my university’s senior leadership sitting in the front row of the auditorium as my dean talked about my book about Archie. The other recipients were all trying to cure cancer, or end homelessness, and there I was getting the same award for a semiotic analysis of Betty Cooper’s hair. It seemed to me that I had taken the idea that is so common in the natural sciences – that humanities scholars are frivolous – and turned up the dial all the way to eleven.

That said, I get almost an email a week about that book, almost all of them from people who have never read any other scholarly work. Archie Comics have a profound resonance for millions of readers, and they are amazed to see someone take it seriously. Of course, I also get weekly emails from people accusing me of being an obvious drain on the public purse…


You noted in Comics vs. Art that comics have not necessarily benefited from a general tendency in the arts to think about hybrid forms as “particularly complex works that unite disparate elements, thereby accruing values attached to each.”  Perhaps comics have, instead, been evaluated according to somewhat older arguments about medium specificity which distrusted hybridity. See, for example, Rudolph Arnheim’s critique of talking films as “unnatural” and “mongrel” because “two media are fighting with each other” and no consistent set of aesthetic standards can apply. Artistic distaste for comics dates back to the early 20th century where these ideas about artistic purity were dominant and they have been hard to escape. In many ways, the attempt to read graphic novels through a post-modernist frame would seem to be an attempt to rethink those judgements, with mixed results. So, how might we think about the aesthetic value of comics in relation to this older tradition of seeking medium specificity?

More than any other question I think that this is an issue that my work has always been grappling with. From the beginning, some of the most important and influential comics scholarship has been interested in this question: what do comics do that other media don’t? And how do they operate? We can think of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics as key exemplars here, but there is really a whole host of scholars who turned to this question very early on in the history of comics studies. This isn’t surprising: medium specificity was the subject of a lot of early film criticism as well, from Eisenstein to Bazin and so on. It seems to be a stage that most fields go through.

One of the books that I had hoped to write would have taken this topic head on. I tentatively called it “Comics Off the Page” and I was interested in examples where cartoonists worked in non-comics media. I was inspired by seeing “Happy Hooligan is Still Moving”, the dance that Art Spiegelman choreographed with Pilobolus Dance Theatre in New York. I thought I could shed some interesting light on how comics work by examining how they interact with things that people don’t think of as comics. Unfortunately, that project really bogged down. I couldn’t find an interesting way to talk about it without simply getting into long descriptive passages of the works, most of which aren’t available to readers. I think that it works well as a lecture – I’ve had a lot of success presenting some of the preliminary thoughts – but it falls apart on the page. Ironic, given my proposed title.

My new project, with Ben Woo and Nick Sousanis, seems to be working better. It’s called What Were Comics?, and last year we received a really sizeable grant from the Canadian government to do the work. We’re interested in looking at the history of what comic book were over time. This has helped lift the discussion out of abstraction. Instead of thinking “comics could be this or they could be that”, which is an area where Nick particularly excels, we’re a lot more focused on dealing concrete shifts and showing what actually did happen.

One of the things that I’ve learned in talking about these projects is that most people view comics in a more restricted way than I do. A lot of people seem to regard comics as what you draw on bristol board and then publish in comic books. Webcomics has shifted this a bit, but it hasn’t shifted it to the point that comics are seen to be really in dialogue with other art forms. Painters borrow freely from comics, much more it seems than cartoonists borrow from contemporary painters. I think some of this has to do with the way that MFA programs teach (or, more accurately, don’t teach) comics, but it is striking how isolated comics can still be in the world of arts.

Across several of your books, you note a number of attempts by authors and artists — most directly in terms of Art Spiegelman —  to promote their own legacy. What strategies do you think have been successful for comics creators as they have sought to demonstrate their status as auteurs worthy of entry into the canon of graphic storytelling? How do these approaches resemble or differ from those deployed by artists working in other media — painting, cinema, literature?

I think that the institutions of the comics world are much weaker than they are in other art worlds. The steps towards becoming an important painter seem to be really clearly laid out: get a degree, get a gallery, and so on. There are so few examples of cartoonists becoming successful that it is not so clear what the route is.

Once upon a time it was clearly: get a commercially successful daily strip. All of the “greats” from the first half of the twentieth-century, in the United States, were strip cartoonists. Many were beloved, and many were household names – real superstars in the culture. Obviously that route is vanishing quickly.

Spiegelman showed a very different path, which was create “one great work”, and a number of people have successfully followed that model. It’s a model that is very akin to literature.

The flip side would be Lynda Barry, who struggled in semi-obscurity for a long time to the point that she considered quitting before Drawn and Quarterly shone a new spotlight on her amazing body of work. That’s also very akin to literature, unfortunately. A critical hit will provide a foundation for future work, and then the issue becomes follow-up.

Interestingly, in the more mainstream area of comics production reputation building seems to be more similar to contemporary filmmaking. The ideal trajectory might be to self-publish and build a reputation, get hired to write or draw a low-level superhero title, turn that into a success and do higher profile work until your name is more important than the characters you write. Then you jump to Image, launch your own title and cash in, I guess.

I think that there remains a bifurcation that we used to refer to as mainstream and alternative, and the collaborative and (generally) solitary approaches that are favoured by each indicates different pathways to longevity.


Categories: Blog

Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part One)

October 18, 2016 - 7:35am

Comic Studies is one of the areas of research which have really captured my attention and imagination in recent years.  We are seeing comic studies panels included in more and more academic conferences, ranging from the Modern Language Association to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, not to mention comic studies panels as a featured element at San Diego Comic-Con (and other such gatherings around the country). Comic Studies has been the focus on special issues of many established journals as well as several journals focused fully on this topic. There has been a record number of new publications about comics over the past few years coming from many of the most distinguished university presses.  There are distinguished research facilities such as the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, which is a mecca for anyone wanting to research this topic. There are a growing number of college courses focused around comics and graphic novels, including my own here at the University of Southern California.

Bart Beaty, a professor at the University of Calgary, has been a major force behind many of these efforts. To date, Beaty has published 13 books on comics and graphic storytelling, including major translations of French comics theory and original research in comics history, theory, and criticism. He has been one of the most thoughtful writers about the cultural debates around comics (UnPopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1980s; Frederic Wetham and the Critique of Mass Culture; Comics Versus Art). His most recent books include Twelve Cent Archie and with Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books.  Here, Beaty and Woo share their thoughts about the emergence of a canon in comic studies and specifically about how faculty decide which books to study and teach, given the emergence of a new academic field around what was once seen as a highly disreputable medium. The authors offer compelling case studies of a range of different candidates for consideration as the best or most important work to emerge from graphic storytelling, using each to illustrate different principles around which canon-formation might occur, but also raising questions about what’s being left out, what’s not being given the consideration it is due. This is an important book for anyone who wants to understand how cultural hierarchies emerge and shape our relations with media.

This interview can be seen as a continuation of that project, as Bart and I circle back through some of the key exemplars from that book, and ask some further questions about cultural capital and the value of studying comics within an academic setting.

Some have worried that a core canon (Spiegelman, Ware, Bechdel, Satrapi, Gaiman, Crumb, Moore, Sacco) has emerged in comics studies prematurely — that too much of the early writing defining the field circles around a small number of writers and works and as a consequence, we are constraining our methodologies and theories to reflect that limited sample. Would you agree?


This is the subject of so much of what Benjamin Woo and I wrote about  in our book The Greatest Comic Book of All Time!, and I absolutely do agree. In our first chapter we attempted to put some data behind what seems to be a pretty common understanding about comics studies: that it has been thoroughly concerned with a small handful of creators and works published over the past thirty years. In the book we surveyed the field of scholarly publishing on comics in order to demonstrate just how narrow the work being done can be. What we found is that comics studies is disproportionately concerned with a very small handful of creators and texts in comparison to cognate fields. So, yes, I absolutely agree with that.

I also think that you touch on something more important here, though, which is the theoretical and methodological restriction that are currently being applied to comics. I think I would first say that to my mind there is a much greater theoretical diversity within the field at present than a methodological diversity. Consider empirical approaches to comics. While there is an increasing amount of work being done using empirical methods it is notable that most of the key players in that area can be brought together at a single conference next year in Bremen. To take another example, if we consider how much work is being done on comics that would require an ethics application because it relies on human subjects, I think the number of projects would be extremely small.

The vast majority of comics studies work being done in the English-speaking academy stems from faculty and students trained in literature departments, and it relies on the kind of interpretive close-readings that are still so paramount within those departments. That seems to have had a tremendous impact on the shaping of the canon: it is much easier for a graduate student to convince a committee that the work of Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware is “sophisticated” enough to be akin to contemporary literary fiction that it would be a credible subject for a dissertation.

How might we encourage comics scholars to move beyond such a canon?

For me that is the million dollar question. When I was asked to give the keynote address at the International Comics Arts Forum in Columbus two years ago part of me wanted to call my talk “Comics Studies: You’re All Doing It Wrong”. Needless to say, I didn’t do that, but I’m sure that subtext was picked up by many in my audience.

One of the things I argued in that talk was a paraphrase of Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I quipped that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the dominance of literary methods in comics studies.

Given that the vast bulk of comics studies occurs in departments of literature, and faced with the reality that a literary canon exists and that it structures the way that those departments teach and research, we really are faced with two choices. The first is to simply accede to the logics of canonization while pushing the boundaries. We can argue that Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi are every bit as deserving of serious study as Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith and try to force those authors into the discussion.

In a lot of ways, this is what film studies scholars did in the 1960s – they demonstrated that Bergman, Godard, and Kurosawa could be studied in a manner that was akin to the study of literature. This is a perfectly valid approach and it has gained us, as comics scholars, quite a bit. I think that to the extent that courses in comics studies even exist today in many universities is a testament to the work that was done to advance this particular way of thinking.

The other option is the much more difficult one – possibly an impossible one. When we argue that our understanding of notions of inherent quality are simply ideological constructs that have obscured our understanding of how culture operates is more vexed, and to suggest that we fundamentally reshape our curricula, indeed the very basis of our disciplines, is just a non-starter for most people. It is an almost impossible task. In my own department the suggestion that there are not certain writers who “have to be” taught makes people think that you’re completely naive.

Your own work has been expansive in its choices of objects for study — ranging from a strong focus on Eurocomics to a book centered around Archie. How do you personally decide which comics are worthy of your scholarly attention?

It’s my sense from talking to my colleagues and working with my students that many of them come to the work that they want to talk about first and foremost. So many of the Honours students that I supervise come to me and say “I want to write my thesis about Blankets” or “I want to write about Jessica Jones”. It’s only after some discussion that they step back and arrive at the theory that might structure their analysis, or the method that they might best use to illuminate these works. The concern I’ve always had with this approach is that I think it tells me more about the critic than the text under discussion.

Personally, I’ve not yet written a book because I was interested in the comics themselves. With Unpopular Culture, which was about European comics in the 1990s, I wanted to talk about the way I saw the comics cultures of Western Europe evolving in real time. I thought that there was a remarkable transformation taking place, and that was what interested me. I wound up talking about certain comics because of the way that they highlighted certain tendencies. Some readers have suggested to me that I must really like the work of Lewis Trondheim because he is the only artist who gets his own chapter in that book, but the reality is that he is just so unbelievably prolific that he made the easiest case study with which to summarize the themes of the book (though I do enjoy a great deal of his work, if I’m being honest).

Twelve-Cent Archie is really the only one where I picked the topic before figuring out what I would say about it. Indeed, I was really worried that when I sat down to do the research I wouldn’t find sufficient material to proceed. Generally, though, I’m not that interested in promoting certain comics with my work. I don’t read the work of Rob Liefeld much (though I did read some Deadpool around the time the film was released), but Ben and I thought he was the best example of the a certain type of commercial comics, so we wrote about him in Greatest Comic Book. I will say, also, that that chapter shocked some people. Two of our anonymous referees thought it was self-evidently pointless to include a chapter on such an “insignificant” creator, which is a perfect example of how ideologies of quality obscure the field and the kinds of questions that we allow ourselves to research.

Art Spiegelman has talked about the process of reading comics as graphic novels as “a Faustian deal because the medium gets tainted by its aspirations towards legitimacy.” Would you agree with that assessment? What is gained or lost when comics are read through such a strong literary lens?

I absolutely agree. When I moved to an English department in 2010 (I had previously taught in a Media Studies department) I indicated that I could teach courses on “Comics” and my department chair wanted me to teach on “Graphic Novels” instead. I objected that that wouldn’t permit me to teach, for instance, comic strips and I was met with some departmental resistance. We settled on “Comics and Graphic Novels”, which strikes me a bit as “Ice and Frozen Water”, but the concession got the course on the books. Six years later I was able to get “and Graphic Novels” dropped.

The central gain of the graphic novel for cartoonists has been the ability to get them into bookstores and before a broader public, and, really importantly, to get them reviewed in The New York Times and The Guardian and The New Yorker. I do agree that without the success of Maus, and the creation of the graphic novel as a publishing category, that comics would be in a much weaker space reputationally. The graphic novel allowed us, as comics scholars, to shoehorn our work into the curriculum over time. That is a huge advantage.

When I began working on comics as a graduate student in the mid-1990s there were literally no peer-refereed journals in the field. There was a single scholarly conference (ICAF). No professional organization. Few courses. No programs. Moreover, we had active resistance from groups like the MLA and SCS. If my memory is correct, the first SCMS comics panel didn’t occur until the one that you were on in London. That was in the early-2000s.

In the late-1990s the MLA routinely rejected proposals for comics panels out of hand. Today, both of those organizations, and others, have growing comics studies areas and interest groups. So much of that is because of the graphic novel as a gentrifying idea. No matter how problematic the term can be, it has allowed us to win a number of tactical battles and advance our cause. At this point I’m very much in favour of winning any tactical battles that we can.


Categories: Blog

Why Study Fan Archives?: An Interview with Gail DeKosnik (Part Three)

October 11, 2016 - 5:59am

As we think about the challenges of developing a more diverse and inclusive media culture, you suggest that some archives do not simply collect existing works but are generative, actively shaping the culture that they collect, through various mechanisms. So, what role do you think fan archives have played in encouraging more cultural production by and about people of color?

Fan fiction archives are not merely repositories for works that already exist in the world; rather they are what Wolfgang Ernst calls “dynarchives” ­­ archives that change and expand with the proliferation of the cultural genres that the archives are built to store.

I go a step further than Ernst and argue that fan fiction archives are generative ­­ they incentivize fans to produce more of what is being archived ­­ and when archives host writing festivals, events, “ficathons,” and fic “exchanges” like Yuletide, they explicitly call upon a community to write more and more of a certain subgenre or category of fanfic.

In Chapter 4 of the book, I discuss a number of fan writing challenges, most of them staged by the group “dark_agenda,” that called upon fans to write stories about characters of color. These “archive events” seek to challenge the dominance of white characters in the larger Western Mediascape, the Western Media Archive as a whole (by which I mean the entirety of U.S.­ and European­produced audiovisual media texts, which all too frequently feature white leading characters, with non­white characters often supporting, propping up, or “pedestaling” them).

These writing challenges invite fans to reflect upon the ways that fandom, which is motivated by deep interior and individualized feelings, can be very heavily influenced and even structured by the biases and prejudices of the media industries. I view these challenges as challenging fans to try to link their politics (for example, a belief in racial equality) to their fannish practices, and to bring into being, if only in fan fiction, a mediascape that has more equal representation of races and ethnicities ­­ to help imagine and create the kind of mediascape that they think should exist in the world.

You were part of a generation of fan scholars who were, in many cases, introduced to the field through Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. One shared trait among many of you was the application of performance theory approaches to thinking about fan cultural production. What do we learn if we think about fan productions as performances rather than or in addition to being read as texts?

Francesca Coppa’s great essay in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, which I teach at least once every year, is really the basis for much of my thinking around how performance studies and fan studies intersect. As I write in the book, I consider Coppa’s “Writing Bodies in Space” and Kurt Lancaster’s book Interacting with Babylon 5 to be the foundational texts of a line of scholarship that merges performance studies and fan studies.

Building on their work, I argue in Rogue Archives that fans’ desire to perform and re­perform, and differently perform, stories and characters that many people know and have in common, which is a fundamental drive in both theater making and fan fiction writing, has led to the rise of a different imperative in cultural preservation than any that existed before.

In other words, because digital culture makes constant re­performance possible to produce and share very widely, digital archiving has had to develop to account for that highly active performance culture. And digital archiving itself is not static, it evolves, and makes its own repertoires, and has had to alter and refine its own performance technique and its own technical levels of performance (as in “high ­performance”) as it has tried to preserve the explosion of creative output from Internet users.

If you attended a festival of plays where every play was being performed as many ways as different people could think to stage them, and where there was an infinite capacity for new stages to be built right away, and for new versions of each one of those plays to be staged, and if you tried to somehow preserve all of those, every iteration and variant of every play in that ever­ expanding festival ­­ that’s what Internet fan fiction archivists have been trying to do.

The prevailing logics of digital networked cultural production are quite different than those of print culture: digital culture is a performance culture, while print culture thought of itself as a text culture, a static culture, where works were “locked” into place and they were either “official” or “unofficial.” Everyone knows that it’s much easier to archive texts than performances. Well, now, digital archivists have to be in the business of archiving performances, not texts.

You dig back deep enough into fan history to describe the moment of transition towards digital fan culture and the resistances some fans had to moving away from a print­-based and face-­to-­face conception of fandom. What can we learn by understanding those resistances more fully? And how might we connect them to issues about digital equity and access more generally? What role did fandom have in overcoming the digital divide between male and female users and what might this suggest in terms of strategies for confronting other kinds of digital divides and participation gaps?

As you (Henry ­­ and also Cynthia Jenkins) told me in your interview for the book, fans who were active in real­world spaces, in face­to­face fan groups, meetings, and cons, at the time that the Internet was initially becoming a site of fandom, were quite attentive to issues of unequal access, to the “digital divide” between fans who had routine access to computers and the Internet (say, at their jobs) and fans who did not.

You and many others recalled that many fans whose fannish world had been defined wholly by print zines and in­ person interaction felt shut out, excluded, from this other world of fandom that arose in this virtual, online space. The temporalities of those fan worlds were dramatically different: fan conventions like Escapade took place once every year, new zine issues were published maybe twice a year or maybe monthly, but on the Internet, fan discussion took place daily.

So fans who had computer access printed out fan discussion threads and took those pages to meetings and passed them around, and they organized donations of computers to fans who couldn’t afford them, and there were cons at which some fans would set up a few computers in a room and demo Internet fan sites for fans who had never been online, and show them what participation in that world looked like.

Fans of that period, the early-­to-­mid­’90s, seemed to do a great job at outreach and onboarding, organizing tutoring events and equipment donations ­­ people who are working on issues of the digital divide and new literacies today can really learn a lot from that era of fan history.

At the same time, as I write in the book, there was a ton of strife between “print fans” and “net fans,” for many many reasons, because they experienced and defined and practiced fandom so differently (though, I note, many fans straddled both worlds and both identities).

In the past, researchers have thrown up their hands when asked how expansive fan archives really are given the difficulty of accurately counting these dispersed and partially underground collections. Yet you and your team have been using new tools and techniques to give us some more accurate data in response to this question. Can you give us a progress report on what you are finding?

I was fortunate enough to apply for, and receive, a $50,000 grant from the Hellman Fellows Fund, as well as some smaller grants from the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the UC Berkeley Senate Faculty Committee on Research which allowed me to fund a research team composed of myself, my colleague Prof. Laurent El Ghaoui (a statistician on Berkeley’s

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty), computer science Ph.D. and undergraduate students, and Ph.D. and undergrad students from humanities disciplines as well. I called that team “Fan Data,” and we worked for more than a year to build data scrapers that could “count” Internet fan fiction archives. I wanted to ascertain how large fan fiction archives are in terms of number of stories, number of authors, number of reviewers, etc., and I wanted to graph their growth over time, and I wanted to quantify their rates of productivity ­­ how many new stories were uploaded to each archive per month.

We scraped Fanfiction.net and the Archive of Our Own, mostly, but also did some interesting analysis of a Usenet X ­Files fan fiction community, the Gossamer archive (the largest repository of X­Files fanfic and the largest single­fandom fic archive, to my knowledge), and several H arry Potter LiveJournal communities. All of our visualizations can be found in the Conclusion to R ogue Archives.

Unfortunately, those scrapers aren’t available to the public, and I’m not sure that they should be, as we don’t want loads of people running scrapers on active websites all the time. (Apologies to FF.net and AO3 if our team caused any of the archives we scraped any inconvenience or interruptions of service!!!!).

I would love to conceive of some way that maybe my team could one day launch a service that would periodically measure these archives, ideally with their administrators’ permission (we did get the Gossamer archivists’ permission), and release that data to the public on a website. Perhaps we could ask scholars to pay us a nominal fee for conducting similar scrapes and creating visualizations of other websites with vast amounts of user­generated content.

Those are dreams I have for the future, but given that I can only pay researchers to work on such projects with grant monies, and grant applications take incredible amounts of time and don’t always (or often) meet with success, I have to weigh the costs and benefits of furthering my data science/digital humanities (DS/DH) research against doing more traditional scholarship (i.e., reading books and journal articles, studying cultural texts/objects/performances, perhaps conducting interviews and transcribing them, and writing essays or chapters). Because grant applications for DS/DH take SO much time, I do a lot more traditional humanities scholarship than DS/DH scholarship.

That said, I am committed to advancing DS/DH. I will be publishing another DS/DH article soon, in which I share the results of using a topic modeling tool on Twitter, for the controversial hashtag #CancelColbert. I like to work with graduate students interested in DS/DH methods, and a colleague of mine, Prof. Keith Feldman in Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department, and I are collaborating with a number of grad students in our working group, The Color of New Media (which focuses on scholarship at the intersection of critical race studies, gender and women’s studies, transnational studies, and new media studies), on a book project called # identity: Hashtagging Race, Gender, Sex, and Nation, which will feature DS/DH research in some capacity ­­ potentially on a dedicated website that accompanies the publication of a print book.

I also got some teaching grants to support a seminar that I’m leading this fall, called “Making Sense of Cultural Data,” that brings together what I call “Data Science Professionals” or “DS Pros” and undergraduate and graduate students, to help students conduct their own original research projects, both individual and group projects, using leading­edge data science tools.

My goal with that course is to envision a new kind of curriculum that invites technical and non­technical faculty and students to collaborate and teach one another and learn from one another.

I think that the worlds of data science (text analytics including topic modeling, network analysis, geospatial mapping, new forms of image search, etc.) and the worlds of the arts, design, and humanities really need to come much closer together. We can’t have data science only ask and answer questions that matter to corporations and government bodies ­­ it has to ask and answer humanistic, social scientific, artistic, and design questions, too. And we can’t have arts/humanities/social science/design scholars ignore the potentials of data science; we have to get these scholars to embrace and love what data tools and computational approaches can offer them.

At least some students need to have a foot in both worlds, going forward, so that the “two cultures,” as C.P. Snow would say, can speak to one another and conduct new, original, and important research.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM, bcnm.berkeley.edu) and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (TDPS, tdps.berkeley.edu).  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

Categories: Blog

Why Study Fan Archives?: An Interview with Abigail De Kosnik (Part Two)

October 6, 2016 - 8:10am

Given the sheer volume of fan works produced, it is perhaps not realistic to imagine every text will be saved, so what are some of the ways the community has sought to determine which texts are worth preserving for future generations? Is what you call “the selective tradition” an inevitable development given the sheer expansion of cultural production or are there alternative ways of thinking about the value of assembling and preserving cultural works?

Actually the way that data storage is developing, more and more storage is becoming available at lower and lower prices. As long as digital networked preservation is a going concern, I think that fan archives can actually be comprehensive ­­ I think that potentially everything that takes the form of digital data can be saved! At least from a technical perspective.

What I emphasize in the book is that actually, labor is a far scarcer resource than technology. So, while it will be technically feasible to preserve many fandoms’ output in their entirety, what if there comes a day when people cease to care about saving digital cultural production? I think that it’s possible that even now, many people believe (falsely) that everything they do online is preserved somewhere, by the companies that run the social media platforms on which they participate, and don’t really sense a need to do anything to save their posts or their fan works, or others’ fan works.

But only fan labor has made possible the multi­fandom archive Archive of Our Own (AO3) and the great single ­fandom archives that preceded it, such as Gossamer and Trekiverse. These archives are all non­profit fan­ owned and fan­ operated sites.

Fanfiction.net is for­ profit and definitely does not operate as an archive ­­ it has freely deleted fan works several times in its history. Tumblr is not an archive for fan works. YouTube is not an archive for fan works. For ­profit corporate­ owned sites have no commitment to the long­  term preservation of fans’ cultural productions.

Only when fans own their own servers, as the famous AO3 rallying cry goes ­­ and only as long as fans are willing to do the work of building and maintaining the archives that live on those servers, and interfacing with their users and with the press, and putting redundancy measures in place, and making policy decisions and recruiting fellow volunteers and all of the other responsibilities involved with running an archive ­­ will fan archives exist.

So while I don’t think that fan fiction is too large a genre to completely archive, I do fear that at some point, the preponderance of corporate ­owned social media may lull fans into thinking that they don’t have to appoint themselves archivists of their communities’ material. If fans stop volunteering to fulfill this important cultural role, then fan works will cease to be archived in a reliable way.


You’ve written much here and elsewhere about issues of fan labor. Who does the work of producing and maintaining these archives? What kinds of rewards do they receive for their efforts? What are alternative ways of thinking about how to compensate for this labor?

In my interviews with fan archivists, I was struck by how passionately they felt about digital preservation of fan works, how important they thought it was, how deeply they thought about how the structure and functions of their archives. All of the fan archivists that I spoke to had strong technical skills ­­ that’s one reason that I call them “techno­volunteers,” they volunteer because they have an intuitive sense for how technology could be used to make enduring cultural archives, if only a volunteer stepped in to make that happen ­­ but not all, or even many, of them were professional programmers.

The reward of archiving, it seems, is largely the endurance of the archive itself, because what all archivists talked about was how appalled they have been at seeing fan works, or even large fan archives, disappear. Another reward that many interviewees spoke of was the relationships they got to build because of their archival activities, and also what archiving had taught them about the diversity of fandom.

As for compensation, well, almost every archivist said that their fan archives cost them money, because they have to pay for server space or simply because they have to pour time and effort into these non­income-­generating projects. But the compensation that I would like to see for fan archivists is simply greater recognition. I wish that fans valorized their archivists the way they valorize their favorite fan artists and authors and vidders.

Techno­volunteers tend to be invisible because many users assume that online archives are automated to the point that nobody in particular needs to actually own and operate the archives, and make regular decisions and oversee them and steer and guide and maintain them, and that simply isn’t the case. Even a highly automated archive has at least one person, and usually more, working hard behind ­the­ scenes, at the “back end.”

In other words, I argue that digital archive users tend to confuse the “servers” (the people who volunteer to serve them by building them working archives) and “servers” (the hardware that serves up fan works on demand). Fan archivists are humans, not machines. They deserve as much respect and admiration as prominent fan creators.

Can you say something about your own archiving practices in relation to the production of this book ­­ for example, you’ve conducted a large number of oral histories that are potential resources for constructing the history of fandom as a community quite apart from your specific uses of this material. What do you see as your obligations as a researcher in terms of the material you have collected?

I’m very happy to report that we donated both the audio files and the transcripts of all of our interviews ­­ under the title “Fan Fiction and Internet Memory,” which was the official title of our oral history project ­­ to the University of Iowa Libraries, because those Libraries have a special collection of “Fandom­Related Collections”: http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/sc/resources/FandomResources/. (When I say “our” oral history project, I want to credit my fellow interviewers, Andrea Horbinski and Lisa Cronin, as well as Adam Hutz, Kelsey Wong, and all of our transcribers ­­ all of my team members were UC Berkeley graduate or undergraduate students at the time we conducted the interviews and got them transcribed.) While our interview archive hasn’t yet been ingested, I hope to see it listed on that page soon! And eventually, I would love to work with U. of Iowa to get our transcripts available online for other researchers to use.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM, bcnm.berkeley.edu) and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (TDPS, tdps.berkeley.edu).  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

Categories: Blog

Why Study Fan Archives: An Interview with Abigail De Kosnik (Part One)

October 4, 2016 - 8:36am


Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet Age introduced a new generation of fan scholars and their work: as a cohort, these women were deeply embedded in the fan communities about which they wrote (“aca-fans”), they had come of age with digital media, they combined ethnographic and textual modes of analysis, they were as interested in how fan fiction was produced as they were in why it was produced, and they introduced a range of new theoretical paradigms.

Abigail De Kosnik wrote one of the essays from that collection that I return to most often in my own writing and teaching, and I’ve been lucky enough to get to know her as a friend and thinking partner in the years since the book appeared.

While other fans (academic and otherwise) had suggested connections between fan fiction and various literary texts that appropriate and remix characters from existing works, De Kosnik’s “Archontic Literature” framing was the first to systematically explore those connections, linking the study of fandom to larger conversations about how writers relate to cultural and historical archives, a topic she returns to in her current book to stunning effect. While other writers have explored a range of fannish practices, including, most influentially, fan fiction writing, fan video practices, and now, in recent years, fan activism, Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom, which MIT Press published this week,  focuses on fan archiving practices as central to the evolution of digital cultural practices more generally.

Here, she combines oral history, recovering some key chapters in the evolution of online fandom, with a rich theoretical exploration, one that is particularly drawn to metaphors from performance studies.  I can only describe Rogue Archives as a tour de force. The book dramatically expands the range of theoretical texts and traditions that fandom studies might draw on for contextualizing the production, circulation, archiving, and consumption of fan fiction; De Kosnik makes understanding fandom’s labor in preserving its cultural memory central to many core debates about digital culture.

She writes here, among other things, about the archive and the repertoire, the instability and ephemerality of digital memory, ongoing debates about canons and alternative ways of constructing cultural traditions, the performative and bodily dimensions of fan fiction, different kinds of fan performances, debates about free and immaterial labor, fandom’s transition from print-based to digital practices, alternative temporalities of media consumption, and notions of authorship in fandom. She yokes these various strands  via the two different meanings of archive she proposes – in terms of the material practices through which fan fiction is preserved and rendered accessible to a larger group of readers and the archive as the set of previous texts which readers and writers draw upon in processing new stories. This is going to be a very important book, not simply for fandom studies, but across a range of other disciplines that she draws reconceptualizes in the pursuit of her project.

What follows is the first of three installments of an interview with De Kosnik about the book and its contributions to our understanding of fandom, archives, digital culture, and popular memory.

Through the years, fandom studies has investigated a wide range of fan practices ­­ fan fiction, fan vidding, Wizard Rock, Cosplay, Memes, etc. but there has been relatively little focus on fan archiving practices, which to some may seem like a largely technical issue. So, why study fan archives? What do these practices tell us about fandom? What might the study of fan archiving practices contribute to information science more generally? In what ways are fan archives illustrative of other memory practices within digital culture?

Fan fiction archives were among the first high ­volume, high­ traffic Internet archives to be built. Plenty of people were using the nascent Internet and World Wide Web (in the early ’90s) to construct enormous archives of information that were free and open online, but fan fiction archives were, as far as I can te ll, the most active of these early digital archives ­­ because fan fiction was being written and uploaded (or sent in to archive administrators) at a fast and furious rate.

Fan fiction archives can teach information science about what it means to try to preserve culture in the moment of its unfolding, cultural forms at their peak production levels. Information science understands a lot about preserving cultural objects that are old, that have taken on great significance in the time since their release, but preserving digital culture means archiving texts, images, video, and motion graphics a s they are circulating, when they’re the most relevant, not when they are already relegated to “the past.”

Fan fiction archives led the way in the effort to try to effectively store, and make available, digital cultural works as they were being generated. What archivists of both physical and digital objects share is a need to keep and maintain those objects because they are important, and they are in constant threat of being lost. And digital objects are even more prone to sudden disappearance than physical ones ­­ a hosting company can decide not to host your fan fiction works anymore, or an archivist can “flounce” from their archive and simply shut it down, or a social media platform can opt to delete fanfic stories without notifying anyone, or servers can simply crash.

Fan fiction archivists got into the digital preservation game so early that they definitely encountered all of these dangers and more, and have collectively created many defenses against digital loss and disappearance that all archivists can and should learn from.

You open the book with a compelling statement, “memory has gone rogue.” In what sense are the practices you describe throughout the book “rogue”? For example, the recent Paramount/CBS Guidelines for Star Trek fan films have specific stipulations about how fan films can be stored and transmitted (streaming but not in a material format such as video or dvd). What’s at stake in this effort by the studio to dictate fan archiving practices?

I argue that cultural memory has “gone rogue” because so many digital cultural preservation projects are run, not by large state­sponsored museums, libraries, and archives and trained Library and Information Science professionals, but by amateurs, hackers, volunteers, pirates, and fans.

People who have no formal training or professional experience as archivists, but who have some understanding of how networked technology can be used to store digital works and keep them available over long periods of time and are passionate about actualizing this potential, have taken it upon themselves to design, build, and maintain online repositories.

I’m thinking of people like Brewster Kahle, who founded the massive Internet Archive, anonymous pirates who have created some of the most robust, most accessible film libraries in the world (though they are illicit), and media fans, who have sought to preserve their own communities’ vast amounts of cultural production. People like these are leading the fight to preserve culture digitally; their discoveries and best practices are paving the way for future online archival efforts.

Unfortunately, the very media corporations that have the most to gain from digital media being archived and made widely available to future generations (for example: Paramount depends on the Star Trek fandom continuing on forever, which means that it depends on fans being able to access as many Trek texts as possible, both official and fan­made) seem to often be hostile to preservation projects and do not seem to prioritize long­term storage and circulation at all (as in the example that you gave).

Towards the end of my book, I discuss the fact that fans have basically “taken license” with media texts for a long time ­­ in other words, fans aren’t waiting, and never were waiting, for corporations to finally see the wisdom in appending Creative Commons licenses to their products so that finally fans could be “authorized” to transform with attribution and circulate noncommercially. Rather, fans have simply taken whatever license they wished with media products ­­ they’ve remixed them however they’ve wanted, shared them as widely as they wanted to, safeguarded them however they’ve deemed necessary.

Fan creativity only promotes media commodities and keeps interest in them alive, so far from fan archivists doing any harm to media companies by flouting their rules regarding fan works, I think that these volunteer archivists are working hard for the benefit and profit of these companies by inventing effective archival techniques for their fellow fans’ output.

Fan fiction has often been described as transient, disposable, and perhaps most damningly, only of interest within a particular social circle of friends. Even many fans would argue that most of what gets produced is not especially good by traditional standards. So why should we care whether the archive of previous fan works is preserved or not?

I think that it’s likely that every reader of fan fiction has very strong opinions about what makes a fan fiction story “good” or “bad.” But in my view, one of the greatest ethical lessons to be learned from participating in fandom is that one can’t judge the quality of fan works for others. What strikes one reader as a terrible, trope ­ridden, immature fan story may strike another as just the kind of story that they want to read at a given moment in time. Even a story that is full of misspellings and bad grammar can offer a compelling version of characters and their dynamics, or a fascinating plot line, or really lively dialogue.

And I don’t mean to suggest that plot lines have to be fascinating, or dialogue has to be lively ­­ actually, I very much enjoy fanfics that work like mood pieces, or tone poems, in which very little happens and very little is said, and we just get some insight into a character’s state of mind.

In other words, fan fiction archives specifically work to offer fans the greatest possible multiplicity of approaches to, and versions of, media universes, so that every fan may choose which fan stories “work” for them (and different types of stories may “work” at very different points in a fan’s life). Fan fiction archives promote this ethos of acceptance that there is tremendous diversity in cultural tastes and preferences.

Fan fiction archives’ mission is to preserve all fan works for all fans, not to judge which are “worth” saving and which are not worthy. Fan critics can debate which fan works, in any given universe, are the “best,” but fan archivists strive to preserve all of the works, as much as they can ­­ because they value their fandoms as important and significant living cultural communities, and they feel that every corner of their cultures is worth safeguarding.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies.  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

Categories: Blog

What Fan Media Makers Should Know About Transformative Use: A Conversation with Rebecca Tushnet (Part Two)

September 29, 2016 - 8:39am

You make what some will find to be a provocative statement above: “The Star Trek works have also been published for a very long time, and have had many chances to earn a return already, which can favor a finding of fair use.” So, let’s be clear about what you are saying here. Are you saying that if an IP holder has made more than enough money, it suddenly starts to lose some of its copyright protections?

The courts’ reasoning here is not that the copyright owner has made “enough” money—in some of these cases (and subsequent cases relying on them), the works were previously very successful, in others not so much—but rather that the copyright owner has had a fair chance to economically exploit the work, and also that its wide availability is more likely to justify responses and reworkings. See, e.g., Seltzer v. Green Day, Inc., 725 F.3d 1170, 1178 (9th Cir. 2013) (“Scream Icon was widely disseminated, both on the internet and on the streets of Los Angeles before Green Day used it in their concerts. Accordingly, Seltzer controlled the ‘first public appearance’ of his work. This tends to weigh in favor of the fair use of that work.”) (citations omitted); Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp., 336 F.3d 811, 820 (9th Cir. 2002) (“Published works are more likely to qualify as fair use because the first appearance of the artist’s expression has already occurred.”); Arica Inst. v. Palmer, 970 F.2d 1067, 1078 (2d Cir. 1992) (plaintiff’s work was “a published work available to the general public,” and the second factor thus favored the defendant); see also National Center for Jewish Film v. Riverside Films LLC, 2012 WL 4052111 (C.D. Cal. 2012) (finding that factor two “slightly” favored fair use because copied films were old and had been available for a long time).

 Yet, to play devil’s advocate here, some of those who have come out in support of the fan film guideline argue that some of the current fan productions, because of their substantial similarities with the original texts, because of their improved technical polish, do run the risk of confusing consumers and damaging the market for commercial produced films.

Confusion isn’t really part of the copyright infringement test; I definitely agree that fan films should be clearly unofficial, but technical polish in itself doesn’t signal official production, especially in this day and age. And fans are generally practiced in distinguishing fanworks from official works—if you label something an “unofficial fan film,” confusion is unlikely. As for damaging the market, that’s the explicit concern of the last factor of the fair use test. The key question for factor four is whether the accused work substitutes for part of the copyright owner’s legitimate market. See, e.g., Authors’ Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrust, 755 F.3d 87, 99 (2d Cir. 2014) (“any economic ‘harm’ caused by transformative uses does not count because such uses, by definition, do not serve as substitutes for the original work”) To weigh in favor of a copyright owner, the fourth factor requires a “meaningful or significant effect” on the market for the copyright owner’s work via substitution. Authors Guild v. Google, 804 F.3d 202, 224 (2d Cir. 2015).

Thus, though I do believe that fanworks help sustain the franchise, that isn’t even required for fair use—if a work is transformative and otherwise fair, it’s ok if it harms the market for the original (for example, by convincing people that the original is dumb), as long as that harm doesn’t come by means of substituting for the original.

Many of the cases which the Organization for Transformative Works has dealt with are self-consciously transformational: fan fiction or fan videos are produced in part with the goal of critiquing or rewriting aspects of the original to more fully satisfy the interests of those fans, who, as I’ve noted, are often surplus viewers in the minds of the producers, that is, outside what they initially imagined their market to be. Yet, many of the fan films are affirmational (in that they see themselves more closely aligned with the themes of the series) and aspirational (in that they are often produced with the goal of breaking into the media industry). The standards there often encourage more fidelity to the original story, characters, and worlds as a display of mastery over the program content. They also stress technical mastery as the producers seek to duplicate the original special effects, settings, costumes, and performances. The goal is often to produce something that would “pass” as a Star Trek episode. So, without judging what would or would not be protected, which as has been noted would ultimately be up to the courts to decide, is it worth asking what would constitute the minimum degree of transformation necessary to be protected? Does it matter whether or not the creator of the work meant for the film to be transformative? Does the effort to match the original ultimately undermine some claims to be transformative?

 You ask, “is it worth asking what would constitute the minimum degree of transformation necessary to be protected?” Now I have to give the annoying law professor answer: Definitely worth asking, but not easy to answer. The courts have looked for new meaning or message. That’s easier to find when the new meaning is in some way critical of the original, or even when it’s orthogonal to the original. For the latter, I’m thinking of the great Information Society song What’s On Your Mind and its McCoy/Spock quotes. It may not really comment on the original, but it’s also doing something so different that its meaning/message is very far from that of Star Trek. The very odd IRS training film might also fall into this category.

You ask, “Does it matter whether or not the creator of the work meant for the film to be transformative?” The influential Second Circuit Court of Appeals has said that the answer to this question is no. Richard Prince, provocateur/appropriation artist, copied some photographs and was sued; in his deposition, he denied any intent at all, much less transformative intent. Probably he considered his statements part of his art. The court of appeals said that his work was still transformative because of the way that people reacted to it.

Finally, you ask, “Does the effort to match the original ultimately undermine some claims to be transformative?” Yes, though it would depend very much on what exactly was going on—filming David Gerrold’s original script for Blood and Fire with its overt homosexuality (which was, not for nothing, more overt than the nod to Sulu’s family life in the reboot) to show the contrast between what was and wasn’t acceptable to network TV at the relevant time would probably still be transformative, even if it was otherwise highly faithful in terms of character, setting, etc. That faithfulness might well highlight just how different—or not different—a Star Trek that was more diverse would have been. I would say that transformativeness in plot/character is probably the most important thing. While lack of fidelity in costumes, sets, etc. could be an important signal that a production isn’t going to compete with the market for the original (the other highly important fair use factor), fidelity in those elements probably doesn’t matter nearly as much as transformativeness in what actually happens on the set.

We’ve already discussed the fact that courts do not always make clear distinctions between commercial competitors and fannish labors of love. Yet, there’s a street sense that companies should have the right to protect themselves from unlicensed commercial products that seek to profit from their intellectual properties. Again, to play devil’s advocate, one defense of the new fan guidelines is that they seek to provide insight into what distinctions Paramount and CBS are making between amateur and commercial productions. If the law does not make such distinctions, it would seem that in this case, Paramount and CBS are trying to map some of its own.

You talk about the fan guidelines as indicating what distinctions Paramount/CBS make, even if the courts aren’t clear on what constitutes commerciality. I agree that the guidelines are helpful on what they won’t object to in terms of finances. But they’re very vague on what you can actually have in terms of plot/character, which means that people who want to be sure they’re within the guidelines are likely to end up making pretty anodyne fan films. (The restrictions on involvement of people who’ve worked on official Star Trek seems to me to be needless, and also overreaching in terms of the deals struck with those people—if Paramount/CBS wanted them to refuse such involvement, there was plenty of opportunity to put a specific noncompetition clause in their contracts.)

If Paramount/CBS want to say they’re not objecting to fan films at a certain level of investment, that would make sense to me, but content guidelines beyond “be very clear that this isn’t official,” like rule #2, really limit the usefulness of the guidelines for people who want to experiment. Content must be “family friendly and suitable for public presentation,” and must not include “offensive, fraudulent, … disparaging [does disparaging Ferengi count, especially given the ethnic analogies some critics have made?], … threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content.” How certain could anyone be that their script didn’t have any of that in it, especially if it had an actual conflict in it? Is there a single ST:TOS episode that couldn’t be dinged for having some un-family friendly, offensive or inappropriate content by someone who just didn’t like it? I know that I have to explain a lot about sexual mores of the 1960s to my kids when we watch ST:TOS. And the ban on depictions of drugs and alcohol is, in some ways, as funny as it is sad. What are we going to do with McCoy and Scotty, and all those pleasure planets? Or maybe it’s just a way to keep fan films out of character …

Another easy improvement to the guidelines would be to do what the Creative Commons license does: the CC license allows various uses without further contact with the copyright owner, and then the license also makes clear that fair use exists and that the license does not try to limit what you can do under fair use. Clear recognition by Paramount/CBS that fair use exists and that they don’t want to crush it would be one key element of a fair balance.

Rebecca Tushnet is a professor of law at Georgetown. Her work focuses on copyright, trademark, and false advertising law.  She previously clerked for Associate Justice David Souter and worked in private practice.  Her publications include “Worth a Thousand Words: The Images of Copyright Law” (Harvard L. Rev.); “Running the Gamut from A to B: Federal Trademark and False Advertising Law” (U. Penn. L. Rev.); and “Copy This Essay: How Fair Use Doctrine Harms Free Speech and How Copying Serves It” (Yale L.J.).  She helped found the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and promoting fanworks.


Categories: Blog

What Fans Need to Know about Transformative Use: A Conversation with Rebecca Tushnet (Part One)

September 27, 2016 - 7:18am

Seeking more insights into the legal implications of the Star Trek fan film guidelines, I sought out  Georgetown Law Professor Rebecca Tushnet, who has extensively studied the legal implications of fan culture. The following is edited down from a larger exchange.

I’m a professor of law at Georgetown and a fan of Star Trek since I first saw reruns in the late 1970s, as a child. My first experience of organized fandom came from reading Star Trek Lives! by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak and Joan Winston, and my first fan fiction was from a Star Trek zine. My fandom drove me, in law school, to start researching whether fan fiction was legal—diverting me from what I expected to be a career in reproductive rights to a very different kind of reproduction-with-a-difference. I helped found the Organization for Transformative Works, and still serve on its legal committee. You can read the OTW’s post about the new Star Trek fan film guidelines, which points out that Paramount/CBS don’t have the right to bar fair uses; I’m going to offer some more general thoughts about the current legal status of transformative works.

Under U.S. law, whether a fanwork is fair use depends on four factors—(1) the purpose of the use, (2) the nature of the original work, (3) the amount of the original work used, and (4) the effect of the use on the market for the original or its licensed derivatives. Factor (1), the purpose of the use, is often the most important. The more new meaning and message is in the new work, the more “transformative” it is likely to be, and fair use favors transformative uses. Factor (1) also considers whether the use is commercial. Unfortunately for fan filmmakers, courts have had very little occasion to consider what “commercial” means here. It really shouldn’t mean that the creators paid for the inputs to their works, such as the sets or actors; courts haven’t in the past found works commercial because creators paid for the paper on which they were printed or the computers on which they were composed. However, the status of things such as Kickstarter campaigns, or the idea that covering production costs but seeking no profit might be acceptable, are simply untested in the courts. Fan films are clearly not “commercial” in the sense of being ads for separate products, but copyright law has historically had a far more expansive idea of what’s “commercial” than just ads. Thus, where there are Kickstarter campaigns or the like, transformativeness is likely to play a vital role in determining fair use: the more “commercial” a fanwork is, the more transformative and even critical it is likely to need to be.


Factors (2) and (3) turn out to be unimportant in most cases of transformative use. Nature of the original work: Although the Star Trek works are fictional (rather than factual, like an encyclopedia) and thus get “thicker” copyright protection than highly factual works, transformative uses are usually about fictional works, so that isn’t usually important. The Star Trek works have also been published for a very long time, and have had many chances to earn a return already, which can favor a finding of fair use. Amount used: The more of the original is used, the more likely it is to be nontransformative; conversely, transformative uses are likely to need only parts of the original in order to launch their new meanings or messages. Again, courts don’t have a lot of experience figuring out how “much” of a fictional universe has been copied; they are likely to ask whether the amount taken in a fanwork is reasonable in light of the fanwork’s purpose.


Factor (4), the effect of the use on the market, has tricky interactions with factor (1). Courts have said that transformative uses are unlikely to affect markets in which the copyright owner has legitimate rights. (The copyright owner can’t create an effect on the market by saying “I am willing to license critical commentary, parodies, or other transformative uses as long as you pay me, and therefore your transformative use still harms me financially.”) So, in transformative use cases, the result on factor (4) often depends on the result in factor (1). But courts might also ask questions like: is this fanwork likely to substitute for purchases of authorized works? If this fanwork is more an extension of the Star Trek universe than a critical reflection on some component of it, such as IDIC or the portrayal of Klingons or sexuality (especially in ST:TOS), then is it enough like something that Paramount/CBS would authorize that copyright law should give them rights over this type of work?


A generation of experience shows that Star Trek fanworks promote the market for the original, and even sustained the franchise through many dry years and perhaps ill-advised versions. Thus, the “substitution” argument hasn’t been supported by actual experience. But the more normative question—is this just the kind of thing that the copyright owner should be able to control, even if it’s not costing the copyright owner money?—remains very much a live issue.

Even some fan filmmakers and fan advocates have argued that Axanar went too far both in terms of its use of original copyrighted materials and in terms of business practices, which raised massive amounts of money, without real evidence of accountability or signs of progress towards a completed production. Some of us worry that if the Axanar case had moved forward, it would have been a very bad test case for defining the limits of fair use protections of fan culture. Would some of the commercial dimensions of this project have undercut some of its claims to constitute transformative use of copyrighted materials? Many fan projects are clearly labors of love, with little or no chance of making any return on the energies and resources invested in their production. It is hard to describe Axanar in those terms, given that the producers clearly see the film as paving the way for new models of commercial film production, and this is why the case created such a crisis in terms of how the studios think about the amateur status of fan filmmaking.

 I should start by foregrounding something that law students often find quite frustrating: For many legal questions, the absolute best answer is, “It depends.” Many fair use questions are easy. Some are not. I haven’t reviewed the Axanar script; I have no opinions about how transformative it is. If it is highly transformative, it is likely to be a fair use no matter how commercial it is. Unsurprisingly, most of the litigated fair use cases—including many significant victories—involve for-profit uses, because those are the defendants who are more likely to be able to afford a defense. However, questions about commerciality are difficult, and the law doesn’t necessarily have the right categories for what people do today.

If people are paying for copies of/access to the challenged use, then I would expect any court to find the use to be commercial, regardless of whether the recipient started a new company with the income, put it in the bank, or set the cash on fire. One problem created by new forms of creator-audience interaction online is that, when we’re not talking about a money-for-copies transaction, binary labels don’t work as well. I personally think Kickstarter campaigns are on the commercial side of the commercial/noncommercial spectrum, but unfortunately very few fair use cases recognize that it is a spectrum.

By contrast, nonlegal discourse is much more able to accommodate the idea of being noncommercial-ish, enough to favor fairness.   Many people are likely to think that fan websites that run Google Ads to offset hosting costs are very different from Axanar, and I agree that there are important differences. But copyright plaintiffs don’t think so: they think that ad-supported sites are exactly as “commercial” for purposes of disfavoring fair use as direct sales of books. “Offseting hosting costs” does mean “getting money,” and that’s pretty much what most courts have interpreted “commercial” to mean—it certainly doesn’t require turning a profit. Even Creative Commons has faced this difficulty—it turns out that people who use its “noncommercial” license have a wide range of opinions on what counts as noncommercial, although this divergence has generated few actual disputes.

All this variation is part of why I generally say that noncommerciality heavily favors fair use, while commerciality means that other factors, like transformativeness, will be more important.   Compare Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417, 449 (1984) (a presumption of fair use “is appropriate here … because the District Court’s findings plainly establish that time-shifting for private home use must be characterized as a noncommercial, nonprofit activity.”), with Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 584 (1994) (“If, indeed, commerciality carried presumptive force against a finding of fairness, the presumption would swallow nearly all of the illustrative uses listed in the preamble paragraph of § 107, including news reporting, comment, criticism, teaching, scholarship, and research, since these activities ‘are generally conducted for profit in this country.’ Congress could not have intended such a rule ….’”) (citation omitted).

Rebecca Tushnet is a professor of law at Georgetown. Her work focuses on copyright, trademark, and false advertising law.  She previously clerked for Associate Justice David Souter and worked in private practice.  Her publications include “Worth a Thousand Words: The Images of Copyright Law” (Harvard L. Rev.); “Running the Gamut from A to B: Federal Trademark and False Advertising Law” (U. Penn. L. Rev.); and “Copy This Essay: How Fair Use Doctrine Harms Free Speech and How Copying Serves It” (Yale L.J.).  She helped found the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and promoting fanworks.


Categories: Blog

How the New Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines May Change Fandom

September 22, 2016 - 9:38am

The following post was commissioned by a leading website in Star Trek fandom in July, but because it was never used, I’ve decided to pass it along to the readers of my blog to spark discussion around developments that have the potential to dramatically impact media fandom. My own post will be followed on subsequent days by a conversation with Rebecca Tushnet, a Georgetown law professor who has become one of the leading thinkers about fan cultural production and transformative use of copyrighted materials.

This summer, just a few months before the science fiction series would celebrate its 50th anniversary of production, Paramount and CBS collectively issued a series of guidelines for Star Trek fan filmmakers, seeking to clarify where they might draw the line between fan creativity and copyright infringement and suggesting what distinctions they might make between amateur and professional work in the Star Trek universe. They begin their document by proclaiming themselves “big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek.”

The issuing of these guidelines for “avoiding objections” was motivated primarily by the corporations’ ongoing legal battles with the producers of one particular fan film — Star Trek: Axanar, which had been the subject of extensive coverage for months. Star Trek: Axanar represented the culmination of trends shaping the relations between fans and producers in recent years. Axanar brought to the breaking point trends that sooner or later would have resulted in backlash from commercial rights holders. Technical advances have placed greater production capacities in the hands of everyday people, including the ability to generate digital special effects approaching industry standards. Digital distribution brought all forms of fan productions greater public visibility. Crowdfunding has allowed fans to back productions that matter to them, but in this case, that resulted here in massive amounts of money entering the system and some questionable business practices that even many other fan filmmakers found exploitative.

Let’s stipulate that CBS and Paramount have legitimate reasons to protect a top media franchise from being appropriated for commercial purposes, and we can understand why the studios felt a need to clarify where they might draw the line. That said, the new guidelines for Star Trek fan films also over-reach, going beyond what was needed to resolve ambiguities, doing damage to the fan community’s good will, and potentially violating the public’s fair use rights. While the producers insist that these guidelines apply only to fan films, they could have a chilling effect on all forms of grassroots fan culture and are apt to be mimicked by other franchise producers.

Keep in mind that fan works emerge from a place of appreciation in two senses — they are created from a love of the original materials and they may actually increase their value in three distinct ways:

1, Fan films represent particularly active “engagement”. As I documented in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, the media industry has learned to value fan engagment as a social currency at a moment of increased media options and declining consumer commitment. Fans are the most loyal audience segment, they are more likely to recognize and reward sponsors, they are most apt to watch regularly watch, they are most apt to search out new and additional content, and they are most likely to promote the series to their social network. One of the first series to embrace the value of audience engagement, Star Trek’s producers have rallied their fans at crucial points in the franchise’s history, as when Gene Roddenberry worked with fans to launch the first letter writing campaign to keep the series on the air. In that sense, Star Trek was ahead of the curve in thinking about the value of audience engagement.

2 Fan films can be understood as a site of innovation. USC’s Robert Kozinets has researched the Star Trek fan film community from a marketing perspective, drawing comparison to what MIT’s Eric Von Hippel has identified as the value of “lead users” in the manufacturing sector. Lead users are early adopters who also need to adapt the product to satisfy their own particular needs; lead users innovate in ways that are low risk for the original producer but may provide a wealth of insights about market demand. At a time when Star Trek has largely been out of production, fan films have been one of many ways to keep the franchise alive (even if they reach relatively small audiences). Allowing multiple low-cost and low-risk experiments, fan films modeled multiple strategies for how to make a Star Trek series in the 21st century. And fan filmmakers, much like other lead users, may be recruited by the company, bringing their insights about different genre strategies and audience interests with them. Historically, most professional science fiction writers, editors, artists, etc. got their start within fandom and both Doctor Who and Star Wars have raided fandom aggressively seeking new talent as they rebooted their franchises. These are among the reasons why CBS and Paramount have offered a high degree of latitude to fan filmmakers in recent years, including collaborations and cooperations between cast members, technical and writing staff, and amateur producers.

None of us want to return to the early days of the web when Hollywood threatened to sue their most dedicated fans. This earlier period was especially marked by over-reach as studios claimed much more extensive rights over any and all use of their materials than they were granted within current law and fans often felt powerless to confront corporate attorneys with many more resources than they had. Over time, the creative industry came to see fan productions (again not just fan films) as creating more value than doing damage.

3 Fan cultural productions represent transformative works. Without getting too deep into the legal weeds, U.S. copyright law balances the rights of authors to profit from their creative output and the rights of the public to benefit from their fair use of those materials in order to inspire other creative production. Despite the metaphor of intellectual property, culture can not be reduced to property nor exclusively controlled by a single group or individual. Rather, cultural producers always build upon what has come before. In a world where mass culture has such a dominant role, the public has a strong interest in being able to engage with, comment upon, reference, critique and reimagine commercially produced materials.

American University’s Peter Jaszi and Patricia Aufderheide worked with a team of the country’s top legal scholars to develop some guidelines which DIY media producers can use for determining whether their remixing practices might be legally protected. They concluded that many fan productions do fall under fair use because they are transformative—they do not substitute for the original market, or simply copy, or duplicate the original. , Rather, fan films take that original material and do something different with it, including “parody, satire, criticism, commentary, admiration, celebration, mourning, etc.” In the case of Star Trek fan films, critical commentary includes advocacy for alternative perspectives (such as Hidden Frontier’s strong focus on GLBT characters given the contentious history of Star Trek’s representations of sexuality, or, for that matter, the ways Michael Dorn and other cast-members worked with the producers of Renegades to advocate for a stronger role in the future of the franchise).

The Organization for Transformative Works, a fan advocacy group, made the case to the U.S. Copyright Office, which is asked to oversee copyright policy, that fan vids (which re-edit footage from the original set to music for the purposes of promoting their interpretations of the material) should be recognized as Transformative Use; they argued that fan vidders should be exempt, alongside, for example, documentary producers or media educators, from being charged with violating the law by removing DVD copy protection software in the pursuit of their work. And the U.S. Copyright office agreed, a decision that many think indicates how courts would be apt to rule in a similar case (though, to date, there is no case law which specifically addresses the legality of fan cultural production).

Fan Vids are an interesting test case, since on the one hand, they do edit and remix existing footage (unlike most Star Trek fan films) and on the other, they often make more overt critical commentary. The prevailing ethos amongst Star Trek fan filmmakers has been focused on fan mastery as demonstrated by improving technical qualities and strong fidelity to the source material, which brings these films closer to being “derivative works” subject to greater legal restrictions. In short, the more fan films are made as calling cards for the industry, the more they undercut the case for their amateur status. And the more fan films look like “continuing adventures” rather than alternative perspectives, the harder it may be to make the case for transformative use.

So, this brings us back, at long last, to the recently released guidelines for Star Trek fan films. As the Organization for Transformative Works has argued, “all the guidelines really signal is what Paramount and CBS would prefer from fan films—not what the law would allow.” They offer fan filmmakers no protection nor do they indicate how courts might rule on individual cases. Yet they do signal what fan practices CBS and Paramount are apt to tolerate. While the guidelines begin with statements sympathetic to fan culture, they systematically reign in all forms of fan filmmaking, not simply those projects like Axanar that arguably which bleed over into the commercial sphere. Thankfully CBS and Paramount are “grandfathering” in existing fan films, because almost none of them could have been produced under these guidelines.

Some of the guidelines seem reasonable, such as a call to be even more explicit in distinguishing fan films from the official property. Fan filmmakers have historically been conscientious in signaling their unauthorized status; fans often make strong distinctions between canon (official texts) and fanon (grassroots responses). Everyone will be well served by lowering the ambiguity about what the rights holders see as commercial uses of their materials. We can debate what is or is not a reasonable policy towards the crowdfunding of production costs.

But many other provisions are apt to have a chilling effect on all forms of fan production or will if fan artists read them as superseding fair use protections. For example, a provision against the use of clips seemingly targets fanvids and restrictions on the use of recreated costumes and props have implications for the maker culture and cosplay communities. The guidelines block the collaborations between professionals and amateurs that have been a hallmark of earlier Star Trek fan films, there are restrictions on how fan films can be distributed (streaming rather than DVD) that have implications for how these materials will be archived. There are new format restrictions that mean that fans can no longer produce continuing series. Constraints on the film’s content designed to keep Star Trek “family friendly” amount to censorship over many forms of critical commentary (slash for example) that would fall squarely under transformative use.

If copyright law rests on a balancing of interests, we can all agree that current factors are out of whack. From the perspective of the rights holders, we are dealing here with a crisis in copyright as it becomes hard to distinguish amateur and commercial productions. As amateur works are reaching wider and wider audiences and impact public perceptions of their franchises, the studios may perceive them as commercial competitors. From the perspective of the public, we are dealing with there is a crisis in fair use, since forms of cultural expression commonplace in the past are now endangered by a legal culture that puts many advantages in the hands of media corporations.   Under these circumstances, copyright enforcement can and does sometimes constitute a form of censorship. For a while, informal policies have created a space where Star Trek’s producers and fans could play and work together, producing films intended to pay tribute to the original, that are and valuable as forms of engagement, innovation, and transformative use. My fear is that the new guidelines back away from those collaborative practices and towards policies more antagonistic to fan participation and expression. As such, the guidelines can have a chilling effect on forms of cultural production that are a uniquely valuable aspect of contemporary culture.

To Learn More:

Henry Jenkins, “Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary” http://henryjenkins.org/2006/09/fan_fiction_as_critical_commen.html

Henry Jenkins, “Quentin Tarentino’s Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture” http://web.mit.edu/21fms/People/henry3/starwars.html

Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi, “Recut, Reframe, Recycle: Quoting Copyright Materials in User-Generated Video” http://archive.cmsimpact.org/sites/default/files/CSM_Recut_Reframe_Recycle_report.pdf

“OTW Secures DMCA Exemption from U.S. Copyright Office,” http://www.transformativeworks.org/otw-secures-dmca-exemption-us-copyright-office/

“OTW Legal on Paramount/CBS Fan Film ‘Guidelines’” http://www.transformativeworks.org/otw-legal-on-paramountcbs-fan-film-guidelines/

“Fan Fiction vs. Copyright — A Q & A with Rebecca Tushnet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g4c57qf_9Q

Kozinets, Robert V. (2007), “Inno-tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia” in Consumer Tribes, Bernard Cova, Robert V. Kozinets, and Avi Shankar, eds., Oxford and Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 194-211.

Erin Riley, “Fan Favorites,” Strategy + Business, http://www.strategy-business.com/article/Fan-Favorites?gko=f977d

Paula Dupont, “Fanworks, Transformative Fandom, and Copyright,” https://medium.com/@heypaula/fanworks-transformative-fandom-and-copyright-9a78142020fd#.pswf3gkou

Categories: Blog

Connected Youth and Digital Futures: The Conversation Continues

September 20, 2016 - 7:45am

As part of the launch of our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (which I co-authored with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman), I’ve found myself engaged in several conversations with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton Green. They are both faculty at the London School of Economics and co-authors of a new book, The Class: Living and Learning in a Digital Age, which might be described as our sister project.

Both By Any Media Necessary and The Class are the launch titles of a new New York University Press book series, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and focused around the ideas that emerged from their Connected Learning and Youth and Participatory Politics research networks. I ran an online exchange with Livingstone and Green on this blog in the spring (Part One; Part Two).

In June, I traveled to London to participate in a launch event for the series, moderated by Nick Couldry, and featuring myself, Livingstone, and Green, in conversation about our respective projects. I was especially pleased by some of the insights that emerged as we talk across the two books, looking at the ways that school culture does or does not encourage young people to find their voices as citizens and what alternative infrastructures surfaced in our interviews with more than 200 young activists.

Thanks to the technical support team at LSE for capturing and sharing with us a video of the event.

Thanks to all of the smart people who attended and asked questions, either in public or private, that helped push my own thinking.

And above all, thanks to Sonia, Julian, and Nick for their hospitality during my stay.

Categories: Blog

Asian-American Media Activism and Cultural Citizenship: An Interview with Lori Kido Lopez (Part Two)

September 15, 2016 - 9:31am

Some have argued that Asian-Americans might gain greater clout in the industry through demonstrating their buying power and by focusing collective attention via social media on companies that seem eager to court their community. What does your research suggest about the value of such interventions?  Where does advocacy as radical critique end and where does such advocacy become simply a tool for consumer demand within an industry structured around neoliberal logics?


This is a really important point. I want to recognize the way that Asian American advertising agencies are participating in media activism by doing just this—demonstrating to media industries that Asian Americans have buying power, and that their communities should be courted. I think this work is absolutely vital in contributing to media change, for a number of reasons.

SNL – Asian-American Doll by disnmad

First, as you mention, we have to recognize the neoliberal logics that (unfortunately) govern media industries, and advertising agencies are in the perfect position to speak that language. Their job is to know their own audience intimately—researching their actual demographics, how they identify, their likes/dislikes, what motivates and inspires them. They have the financial support to conduct this kind of research only because corporations want to sell things, but the end result is that advertisers become very socially attuned content producers. When they produce images of Asian Americans, they’re not going to rely on tired stereotypes or guesses about what will seem authentic—they will create images and messages that push representation forward, because they are responsive to actual Asian American audiences. We can see the impact of these agencies every time we turn on the television, because if you look closely, you’ll see that there are a lot more Asian Americans featured in advertisements than other forms of media.


Of course this all seems a bit rosy—after all, commercials offer limited space for telling sophisticated stories, and are unabashedly market-driven rather than artistic. But I point this out because I think this kind of “good cop” activism (for instance, working alongside corporations) provides a necessary counterpart to the “bad cop” activism of traditional media advocacy organizations, who often speak loudest when they are criticizing and protesting. Rather than worrying about radical critique becoming totally subsumed by neoliberal logics, it’s important to recognize that varying and even contradictory activist strategies actually depend upon one another for overall success. Each activist strategy contributes a vital piece of the bigger puzzle—speaking to different audiences, accomplishing different tasks, understanding the problem in different ways. Given that the issues facing Asian Americans in the media world are complex and multifaceted, our strategies for engaging with them must be as well, even if that means taking up assimilationist or revisionist politics alongside more radical critiques.


Much has been made in recent years of the fact that the top performers on YouTube are more racially diverse than the top stars on network television. How do you explain these developments? What do you see as their significance? How do these YouTube celebrities understand their relationship with the Asian-American community?


I think there are a couple of factors that led to Asian Americans becoming so successful on YouTube. First, many Asian Americans are already at the forefront of adopting digital technologies and using them to communicate with one another. I certainly remember the excitement of developing my own profile on the early social networking site AsianAvenue.com in 1997—years before Friendster or Facebook hit the scene. YouTube itself was created by an Asian American. When you couple that with an eagerness and passion for creating stories that couldn’t be found in the mainstream, it seems clear that this platform would appeal to minorities. Now we see that many of the most famous YouTubers are Asian American, such as Kevjumba, Nigahiga, and Michelle Phan.

Unfortunately this has not necessarily meant that any Asian American can flip on his or her webcam and instantly acquire the huge fan bases. On the contrary, it is still exceedingly difficult to become a top performer on YouTube. But I think it’s important to look at the ways that Asian American YouTubers are participating in media activism from their position as powerful celebrities—and it might not be in the ways we would assume! For instance, YouTube celebrities do not often use their platform to talk about their own Asian American identities, the problems facing Asian American communities, or intersectional oppression such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. In fact, many activists have criticized Asian American YouTubers for not participating enough in social change efforts.


But I think what YouTubers are doing that is politically important is coming together to create a powerful and durable network of celebrities who can create and mobilize audiences. Rather than looking at YouTube as separate from more traditional media industries, for Asian Americans, it’s important to consider the relationship YouTubers form with mainstream media and independent media celebrities and professionals. They very frequently collaborate on transmedia projects such as blogs, group YouTube channels, live performances, video competitions, and other new forms of storytelling. In linking popular YouTubers to this wider body of performers and media professionals, they are able to mobilize audiences to follow them across these differently mediated spaces and increase the visibility of even more Asian American media. This is a pretty important political accomplishment that stems from their YouTube popularity, but expands to impact the larger goals of Asian American media activism.


You end the book by exploring some of the contradictions surrounding fan activism and the “race-bending” movement. Race-bending now seems to have been extended to include a range of fan cultural production, from fan fiction to fan art to “fan casting”, which seeks to advocate for more diverse casting and storytelling within popular media.  What role do you think fan culture can play in re-imagining diversity in popular entertainment?


This question brings me back to our early days starting up the Civic Paths research group at USC, which I remember very fondly! We started from the question of how fans were playing a role in activism, and my interest in the activists protesting the racist casting of The Last Airbender provided one of our earliest case studies. It was a great example of fan activism because it showed the way that passionate engagement with a media franchise could transition into a complex and long-term activist undertaking. Fans of the original Last Airbender cartoon were frustrated when the live action movie cast white actors to play roles they had long believed to be Asian. They took it upon themselves to learn all about the racial politics of representation and casting, and then encouraged a boycott of the movie using a lot of the skills they had developed as fans—connecting with digital communities, participating in online debates, creating original artwork and videos, staying current through research and scouring the internet for information.

These specific skills translated well from fandom to activism, but I think that passionate engagement with media franchises is important in bolstering all forms of media activism, not only those surrounding a famously beloved text. All Asian American media activism starts from the foundational belief that media images matter deeply—they shape knowledge about the world, as well as how you see yourself, your community, your culture. Activism is difficult and fraught with failure, so it is only sustainable when it is built from the same kinds of deep passion and frustration that fans feel too.


As race continues to be inserted into conversations about media, I do think that passionate and engaged viewers will continue to lead the way in shaping those conversations. This can be dangerous too—we saw with misogynist fans of the Star Wars and Ghostbusters franchises that not all fannish love leads to social progress. As with fans of The Last Airbender, sometimes fandom can promote a kind of essentialism or conservatism that is antithetical to experimentation, reimagining, or transformation. But I’m an optimist—I think the more that Asian Americans get involved with media production, and the more that Asian American audiences are able to find new texts to love and connect with, we’ll eventually be able to shift our media landscape for the better.

Register here for Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment. Lori Kido Lopez is an Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship and a co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media.
Categories: Blog

Asian-American Media Activism and Cultural Citizenship: An Interview with Lori Kido Lopez (Part One)

September 13, 2016 - 6:19am

I recently announced the line-up of speakers for our Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment conference to be held at USC on October 21 (You can still register here).

When we were putting together the conference, one of the first people who I considered was Lori Kido Lopez, a young faculty member in the Communication Arts Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a recent graduate from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Lopez had been an original member of my Civic Paths research group and her work on the race-bending movement which grew up in protest of the white-casting of the feature film based on The Last Airbender was a key influence on our work around fan activism. She entered that project through her interest in the collaboration between these fans and veteran Asian-American media activists who had for decades been struggling with issues of representational diversity and industry inclusion.

When I was asked to serve on her dissertation committee, I came to see her work on fan activism in a much larger context, which included everything from struggles over hateful stereotypes and racist jokes, to the efforts of Asian-Americans to use consumer power to put pressure on the advertising industry, to the emergence of YouTube as a space often more receptive to Asian-American performers. And earlier this year, she published her first book, Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship, which is a first-rate contribution to our understanding of the current and historic struggles around diversity and inclusion in the media.

Unfortunately, Lopez can’t join us for the USC event, having commitments to speak at another conference on the East Coast that same weekend, so I reached out to see if she would be willing to provide me with an interview as part of the lead-up to our conference. We cover a lot of territory in the interview which follows, yet it gives us glimpses into only a few of the richly documented and carefully interpreted case studies that run throughout her book. It is essential reading for anyone who is trying to follow these issues, and there’s no question that the struggles over diversity and inclusion are one of the most powerful forces shaping the entertainment industry right now.

You begin the book with considerations of recent struggles over inclusion and representation within network television, focusing specifically on mixed responses from Asian-American audiences to Fresh Off the Boat and The Mindy Project.  Many in the television industry are watching responses to these programs, and others, such as Master of None, closely to see if they can figure out strategies for more diverse and inclusive programing that may nevertheless attract a “broader” audience. What insights would you like to see television executives take from the debates surrounding these and other recent programs?


Some of my biggest goals for this book are to broaden our view of what should be done to improve representation of Asian Americans in the media, and to explain what makes media activism challenging. At this point, Asian Americans are still lagging far behind other minorities in nearly every area. There are no hour-long shows focusing on Asian American communities, Asian Americans are never nominated for acting awards, and movies routinely whitewash Asian leading roles and leave Asian actors the sidekick roles. I watched the movie Pitch Perfect 2 recently and was not surprised at all to see that Asian cultures were the butt of far too many jokes, and the one Asian American character is a soft-spoken weirdo. But listing problems is the easy part—what’s harder is saying what we want the solution to be.

We are currently in a moment when we have more Asian American sitcoms than ever before, more Asian Americans in writers rooms and other production roles, more Asian American talent featured across alternative media platforms. Yet we still hear a lot of complaints and contradictory responses coming from Asian Americans. In this book I reveal the different stakeholders and participants engaged in the project of fixing these problems—including volunteer media activists, regulatory and advisory boards, advertisers, YouTubers, fans, and other online participants. Once we recognize who all is working for this cause, we can start to see why their responses end up differing. That’s a pretty diverse group of people, they’re not going to agree about every little detail!


After explicating all of the different forms of media activism currently being undertaken, I would hope that what emerges for television executives is a clarity and sense of urgency about how dire the problem is and how they should be doing all they can to hire more Asian Americans at every level. They should then feel at peace with the fact that all of the media activists identified here will continue to criticize and ask for more, because they are tapping into a vibrant, long-neglected, politically engaged core of viewers who know better than to be satisfied with any one role, episode, or movie focusing on them—the battle will always continue as long as representations continue to be made, because racism persists and is at the heart of media inequalities and injustices. So I would hope that television executives can be sensitive to how complicated this situation is, while certainly affirming that every step they make in advancing the representations of Asian Americans is vitally important and desperately needed.


You argue that differences between Asian-American media activists have to do with different models of cultural citizenship. Explain this concept and outline some of the underlying models of cultural citizenship which have shaped debates around these programs.


We usually think of citizenship in legal terms, focusing on who is legally recognized as a member of a nation. But the idea of who belongs is also deeply cultural, and “cultural citizenship” is the idea that we also feel more or less like we belong within a nation depending on how we are treated, and how our identities and cultural practices are recognized. Asian Americans often are searching for a sense of belonging in the U.S. because they are always seen as outsiders, even though they were born here or lived here most of their lives. I connect this to media activism, because I think that when we are arguing about what kinds of representations we want to see of Asian Americans, we are really saying that we want the media to play a stronger role in contributing to Asian Americans feeling like they are cultural citizens.


But the concept of Asian American cultural citizenship means different things to different communities, and that causes disagreements even among activists. Some think that if we are cultural citizens then we will be treated “just like everyone else,” not seen as different in any way. Others want to be recognized as a powerful group that deserves attention, particularly in terms of being able to wield economic and spending power. Others want to be able to control their own representations and make media on their own terms, no matter what that might look like. These different views on how cultural citizenship should be realized lead to different strategies when it comes to media activism.


You make the point in the introduction that a key difference between producers and activist is that activists see representation as a collective issue, whereas most of the mechanisms for thinking about media audiences within the entertainment industry stress individual consumer choices. Can these two perspectives be reconciled? Why or why not?


One way that the entertainment industry stresses individual consumer choices is through the idea that we have such a diverse range of media available, every individual can pick and choose a media diet that is particularly suited to their tastes. But at a very basic level, discourses of individualism are at odds with the fight for social justice. We have to be able to think beyond ourselves and our own desires in order to identify those who are being systematically disenfranchised, and do something to rectify that inequality at a broader level. This applies to Asian Americans media activists too—they recognize that there is a widespread problem when it comes to representations of Asian Americans, and that we will have to work together in order to combat it. This often comes in two forms: encouraging media industries to cast more Asian Americans, and encouraging audiences to support works that represent Asian Americans well. If this is all there is, then the focus on individuals could be deployed by convincing individual producers it’s in their best interest to shift their casting practices, and convincing individual viewers it’s in their best interest to support Asian American media.


But one of the things that I work to reveal in the book is that there are a lot more ways we can impact change than just those two things, and there are a lot more people involved in media activism than just media producers and media consumers. For instance, we also need to consider the policies that are encouraging or discouraging media industries to shift their practices, the advertising agencies who work with corporations to identify consumer audiences and their needs, the wide array of producer-consumers who participate in the online arena. Once we expand our view of media activism to include these other sites, it becomes even clearer that media activism needs to take place at the level of the collective, rather than the individual. If we focus too much on the individual, we lose sight of the collective politics that have always animated antiracism on the part of Asian Americans.


What are some of the factors that led to the earliest forms of Asian-American media advocacy? How do these campaigns relate to the larger history of politics around race and representation in American media, going back to The Birth of a Nation, if not before? To what degree are the issues today the same as they were in the 1970s? What has shifted in terms of the models of change activists deploy to lobby for their cause? What has shifted in the industry’s responses to such campaigns?


The history of Asian American media advocacy aligns with the rise of the Asian American identity itself. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, different Asian ethnic communities started coming together to protest the routine discrimination they collectively faced. In an act of self-determination, they called themselves “Asian American” (marking “Oriental” as pejorative) and fought racism alongside Black, Chicano, and Native American activists. Issues of representation were always foundational to the Asian American Movement, in relation to both media and theater. In the 1970s we saw the birth of Asian American cinema, with independent filmmakers collectively documenting stories in Asian American communities and screening them at the very first Asian American film festivals. This was also the time when Asian American actors came together to fight against “yellow face” and gain more roles in plays and movies, to resist harmful stereotypes, and to remove the use of slurs like “chink.”

So we can see that as long as there have been “Asian Americans,” there has been activism surrounding representations and media images. But if we look at the activist strategies deployed in these early days, we can trace a precedent all the way back to the African Americans who protested the racism of Birth of a Nation in 1915. And as you allude to, the general shape of media activism has remained the same since then: activists target the image’s creators, funders, or audiences. Sometimes they can push for legal repercussions. These are the same things that activists do today, largely because the same issues still exist, such as whitewashing, stereotypes, harmful depictions, a failure to hire minorities. But hopefully my book shows the way that even though this exact same form of activism is still around—and plays a vital role in shaping media industries—there are also other forms of media activism available, and we need to recognize those as well.


Lori Kido Lopez is an Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship and a co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media.


Categories: Blog

In a World Without Star Trek…?

September 9, 2016 - 5:33am

In case you’ve been living under a rock, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek on American television, and as fans used to say back in the day, “Star Trek Lives!” A few weeks ago, I got contacted by Charlie Jane Anders from Wired, who asked me to contribute my thoughts for an article he was writing that asked the question, “What if Star Trek Had Never Existed?” I thought of it as a chance to do some speculative fiction about the alternative history of speculative fiction. Since his article has now appeared, I thought it would be interesting to share my full response with my readers. One always says more to reporters than ends up in the article, but in this case, I got more than a little carried away in true Trekker fashion.

First, I may be one of the few people who has seen multiple episodes of The Lieutenant, the television series which Gene Roddenberry made prior to Star Trek, and this series gives us some clue of what would have happened in his career if he did not produce Star Trek. Roddenberry always claimed that Star Trek was a way to inject serious ideas into network television and reflected his frustrations with what he couldn’t do in a more realistic format. But in fact, The Lieutenant dealt consistently with the social issues of the time in the context of a serviceman drama in a more direct, less allegorical fashion. Roddenberry first worked with several members of the Star Trek cast on this series. Nicole Nichols, for example, was the guest star on an episode which dealt with racial discrimination and black frustration, getting more lines in that one episode than she got in Star Trek as a whole, and developing a much more complex character than Uhura.

So, we can imagine a cop series by Roddenberry as continuing along that same line, dealing with some of the controversial topics of his times, in much the same way that slightly later series such as Police Story and The Bold Ones did. I see Roddenberry as someone who took the “ideas” focused television drama of the 1950s anthology series (represented by someone like Rod Serling) and integrated them into genre television formulas at a time when the episodic series was becoming the dominant format on the medium. To me, this suggests that he might have been a significant television author even in the absence of Star Trek, where-as Roddenberry spent the rest of his career trying out other science fiction formats, trying to reinvent Star Trek. As much as I love Trek, it would have been interesting to see what Roddenberry was able to do in other genres.

Think about the state of science fiction as a genre in the 1960s. You are right that the Space Race was intensifying across this period, and there was a growing interest in science and technology, which would have been expressed via popular culture one way or another. Without Trek, these impulses were entering television in three ways. First, through the fantastic sitcoms — ranging from the justly obscure It’s About Time to the ever-rerun I Dream of Jeannie (both of which have astronaut protagonists) and extending out to things like The Munsters, The Adams Family, My Mother the Car, My Favorite Martian, etc. Second, through the Irwin Allen series — which were also campy and spectacle-focused rather than ideas-focused: Lost in Space but also Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And third, through anthology based series, such as Outer Limits and later Night Gallery, both of which are off-shoots of the ground-breaking Twilight Zone. None of these take us where Star Trek took science fiction on television — adventures involving recurring characters which take us to new worlds that become vehicles for asking core questions about the nature of humanity.

We might also think about what science fiction in literature was during this period. Painting with broad strokes, the decade saw the emergence of social science fiction as a dominant subgenre (moving away from hard SF’s focus on technological change) and with this shift, we are seeing a large number of works by feminist science fiction writers like Joanna Russ and Ursula LeGuin. More women are pouring into Science Fiction fandom which is why Star Trek fandom drew so many women in its foundational years (more on this in a moment). Part of what drew them was the social focus of many of the best Star Trek episodes, including recurring interests in accepting difference and some half-hearted representations of women in professional roles.

A second major trend in science fiction is represented by Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology — a generation of writers experimenting with the language of science fiction in highly reflexive ways, pushing for more literary respectability, and often exploring themes of alien sexuality. If we look at the science fiction writers Gene Roddenberry drew upon to write Star Trek, many of them come from this second group, including Ellison himself (“City on the Edge of Forever”) but also Theodore Sturgeon (“Amok Time,” “Shore Leave”) and Norman Spinrad (“The Doomsday Machine “). So part of what Trek did was bring these developments in SF literature onto television and it is not clear which other producer of that period would have been able to bridge between these realms. Part of what made this work, though, was Roddenberry was also keeping the peace with older SF conventions — especially a kind of technological utopianism, where improvements in communication, transportation, and manufacturing technologies have helped to resolve many of Earth’s current problems. We can think about the communicator, the transporter, and the Replicator as magic devices which embody the possibility of technological enhancement as overcoming scarcity.

The 1960s is a more fertile period for science fiction in the cinema than many people recall, suggesting that we would have gotten to Star Wars and the improvements of special effects one way or another. But the trend there was towards a darker vision of the future, one which sees Earth’s problems as deepening rather than being resolved through technological change. Some touchpoints here would include Panic in Year Zero, The Last Man on Earth, Crack in the World, Fairenheit 451, Fantastic Voyage, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Marooned, and especially The Planet of the Apes franchise. Extend this list just a few more years into the 1970s and you get The Adromeda Strain, A Clockwork Orange, The Omega Man, THX 1138, Silent Running, Soylent Green, and West World. Of these, Planet of the Apes was the most commercially successful and one that has only recently been relaunched to some critical or commercial success.

So, what if Planet of the Apes would have been the template for future SF rather than Star Trek? It would have been a bit goofy and larger-than-life though much less campy than Lost in Space at its worst Carrot people moments; it would still have dealt with core social issues, including racism and nuclear war, in an allegorical manner; it would have been a darker vision of what humans had become (including apocalyptic destruction) rather than the promise of a better world that Star Trek offered us. It seems a bit more far fetched but what if 2001: A Space Odyssey had become the template — we might have ended up with something closer to Space: 1999, which was television’s attempt to duplicate Kubrick’s critical success without his artistic vision. It is cold, lifeless, and ponderous.

A final line of thought. Star Trek proved to be a watershed event in the development of modern fandom. Star Trek was the first media property to get a critical mass of fans, and thus, became the platform around which fan fiction and fan vidding developed. Star Trek drew in significant number of female fans who developed a distinctively different relationship to the genre than could be found in male-centered literary SF fandom. A particular set of ideas about gender and sexuality emerge there which were shaped both by feminist SF and Roddenberry’s particular mix of genre elements and social causes. Roddenberry worked closely with those fans from the start — previewing the pilot at World-Con and collaborating with them to develop the letter writing campaign that helped promote the visibility of the series and keep it on the air. In many ways, we can see this as the very start of the media industry’s current fascination with “fan engagement.” So, for both fans and producers, Star Trek shaped what fandom looks like. The other series which generate this intense fan following during the late 1960s was Man From UNCLE. What would San Diego Comic-Con look like today if it had been organized around spies, cops, and detectives, as opposed to space operas and super-heroes? That really would have been an alternative universe.

Would most of these trends have developed one way or another? Sure, I don’t think one series determines the evolution of popular media, but we would have a branching effect. Science fiction emerges as a popular genre, but perhaps with a different mix of genre elements, perhaps with a more pessimistic world view or a more campy tone, perhaps with a less active and creative fan community.

Categories: Blog

Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Daniel Hassler-Forest (Part Three)

September 8, 2016 - 11:21am

HJ: You write in your chapter on Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones: “Fantastical capitalism instead expresses a worldview in which there is no outside, no future, no alternative. Its storyworlds aren’t utopian, because they lack the ability to imagine a future that is fundamentally different, let alone better. But they also aren’t traditionally dystopian, because their dark worlds aren’t warnings of what is yet to come. Instead, they constantly reiterate what is considered a basic truth of neoliberal capitalism: it’s a harsh world, in which nice guys finish last.” Can you explain a bit more how and where this philosophy surfaces in these two series? In what ways might the focus on world-building and transmedia extension serve this function of closing off alternatives rather than simply expanding the scope of the story?


DHF: The reason I picked those two storyworlds as illustrations of “fantastical capitalism,” which is my term for the kind of “post-ideological” storytelling we seem to be seeing so much of in the age of global capitalism, is that they both function as contemporary transformations of Tolkien and Star Trek. The ways in which they both foreground a kind of gritty visual realism, and feature plots full of abrupt narrative U-turns and surprise deaths, gives them what Raymond Williams would call a structure of feeling that resonates with the cultural logic of global capitalism.

On the one hand, we recognize and respond to the residual characteristics of the genres’ iconography and narrative patterns; but on the other, they have also attracted massive new audiences because of the uncanny ways in which they seem to reflect the social and political dynamics of our own increasingly precarious and unstable world. I think those elements are very obvious in both those franchises, and they seemed to me helpful lenses through which one might approach some of the ways in which fantastic fiction has come to absorb and reflect the cultural logic of global capitalism.

While there are of course big differences of tone, style, and genre between Game of Thrones and BSG, they both have a similar dynamic, at least in the sense that their popularity seemed to derive on the one hand from having richly drawn and appealing characters in a fantastic but very “realistic” storyworld, and on the other from their thrilling ability to constantly upset audience expectations. Ned Stark’s beheading at the end of the first book/season of Game of Thrones served a very similar function as Adama being shot in the chest at the end of BSG’s first season: it radically undermines the sense of safety and stability that is so often grounded in patriarchal power as a signifier of continuity. Therefore, as fantastic transmedia storyworlds, I think they resonate so strongly with post-9/11 global capitalism because they reflect a social and economic context that is similarly unpredictable, crisis-prone, and precarious.

In terms of closing off alternatives, I think BSG is a very illuminating example of the paradoxical way in which transmedia world-building both opens up expansive imaginary empires while simultaneously diminishing fans’ meaningful participation: first, showrunner Ronald D. Moore ended up producing such an onslaught of supplemental material for the franchise that precious little time or space was left for fans to create their own expansions. (Suzanne Scott has very cleverly described this as fan culture’s transformation from “Do It Yourself” to “Download It Yourself.”) And then of course they ended the series’ narrative with a finale that, again, seemed designed to seal off the storyworld from further expansion and interference. And thirdly, the show also appeared in a context of what Matt Hills has called “just-in-time fandom,” where release and broadcasting schedules, the creation of transmedia supplements, and the constant tsunami of media news imposes severe limits on our ability to participate meaningfully, because we have to work so hard to keep up with everything.

HJ: In some ways this closing down of alternatives is ironically part of what allows people to describe such genre programs as “quality television”: that is, it gets expressed through the moral ambiguities, fatalistic plots, and ensemble casts that often are what gets added to the mix to appeal to elite audiences. You provocatively describe this process as a kind of “gentrification.” Do other possibilities open up if we look at more “low-brow” or even “trashy” programs? Your example here is Spartacus.

DHF: I do think so – or at least I really hope they do. After nearly two decades of ubiquitous “quality TV,” I certainly find myself growing increasingly skeptical and disenchanted with broadcasters’ transparent attempts to appeal very directly to the most privileged viewers. So whenever I hear someone saying that we live in a Golden Age of television, I hear in this the structural privileging of elitist notions of style, narrative forms, and media hierarchies. So in the same way that some of the most radical and subversive genre fiction was either produced outside of the cultural mainstream or appropriated by subcultural communities, I wanted to explore what a radical political perspective on less “tasteful” genre fiction might yield.

I then became fascinated by the Spartacus TV show in the first place because it rejects the usual ways in which boutique cable dramas now give us sex and violence couched within an atmosphere of cultural and artistic legitimacy. So on The Sopranos or Deadwood or Game of Thrones, you’re guaranteed to get lots of boobs and blood, but it’s never presented as gratuitous.

Spartacus takes the opposite approach and really revels in elaborate images of sex and violence, but also always stages this in ways that comment on how the show shamelessly sells this back to you as entertainment. It really works in the same way as the best kind of pulp fiction: providing visceral and “trashy” thrills, while at the same time being very smart and political about it. So even though Spartacus clearly wasn’t made as a political text, its low-brow cultural status gives it a lot more opportunities for subversion because it’s sort of flying under the radar.

But then I also realized that this is also a limitation when you start looking at how fantastic fiction and popular culture can translate to political participation and anticapitalist activism. When you look at what’s going on within organized Spartacus fandom, it’s really all about those superficial elements of the show: the big fights, the romance, the costumes, etc. So while it’s a very interesting example of a certain kind of radical politics at work in a TV show, it’s also not something that’s being picked up outside of a certain very small circle.

HJ: You write, “The storyworlds inhabited by zombies and cyborgs are post-historical in the sense that they lie not only beyond capitalism, but beyond traditional conceptions of human agency.” So, can we imagine a politics without agency? Are these stories too abstracted from our current reality to enable us to imagine viable alternatives to them? Why do the human characters so often revert back to older, more patriarchal or tribal forms of social structure in response to the threat posed by these nonhuman agents?

DHF: I didn’t mean to suggest with this sentence that we can have political thought or action without agency, though I can see how it can be understood in this way. What I emphasize in this chapter on radical posthumanism is that the models of human identity and agency that we’re most familiar with tend to be embedded in the traditions of liberal humanism. Posthuman theory seeks to break away from those humanist traditions because of the oppressive binary structures they entail. In the book’s last chapter, I use the zombie and the cyborg not so much as actual alternatives to our social reality, but as fantastic ways of understanding and negotiating the posthuman turn.

Both those tropes offer very different but complementary perspectives on the concept of the posthuman. The zombie gives us the contradictory figure of the undead: animated flesh devoid of reason, and organized as a threatening horde that also represents a paranoid fear of (proletarian) collectives. Capitalist culture has a long history of vilifying and demonizing collective social forms and celebrating the individual, from Robinson Crusoe to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Walking Dead.

As a vital form of anticapitalist theory, posthumanism breaks away from the Cartesian subject and capitalism’s entrepreneurial individualism, and explores forms of agency and subjectivity that are multiple, diverse, contradictory, and collective. So the zombie presents both our anxiety about a posthuman future, as we see human survivors clinging desperately to older forms of social relations, while also sometimes exploring new alternatives and “zombie consciousness.”

Still, I would say the zombie isn’t a very attractive role model if we want to think through the more positive implications of radical posthumanism. The cyborg, as an “impure” hybrid of the organic and the mechanical, the “authentic” and the “artificial,” the human and the Other, is therefore probably a more relatable trope. Of course the cyborg is a familiar figure in queer and feminist theory, thanks mainly to Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking work.

But I also found it a particularly helpful example of radical political theory in the context of fantastic world-building, and drew in this chapter on Janelle Monáe’s series of sf concept albums, in which she is constantly in an in-between state, both as a human artist and performer and as her alter ego, a time-traveling android from the twenty-eighth century. In her work, you don’t see the constant retreat into older, more comfortable or even “primitive” human forms, but an embrace of technology, otherness, and posthuman multiplicity that I find very helpful and tremendously inspiring.

HJ: You correctly note that much writing on transmedia world-building — including my own earliest definitions — stress “continuity” or system building. But you end the book with appeals to hetroglossia and multiplicity as providing better models for realizing the potentials you identify in these series for social change. So, what models do we have for opening up more space for exploring alternatives? You talked about the “muddled” nature of many of these series, which some fans would argue comes about from the lack of attention to continuity and coherence. So, does the “muddle” make the contradictions visible? Do various forms of appropriation and remixing offer ways to more fully realize and engage with those alternatives?

DHF: That’s a great question – and a very difficult one! The process of writing this book actually began with an article that I wrote about Janelle Monáe and the Bakhtinian “heteroglossia” of her Afrofuturist storyworld. So one of my starting points was the idea that there is something fundamentally political about the creation of mappable, “rationally” organized, complex storyworlds with their various canons, narratives, characters, etc.

What I found so appealing about Monáe’s work was that all of it is profoundly multiple, always frustrating our desire to see order, structure, and reason. Studying her work, the cultural legacy of Afrofuturism, and alternative approaches to world-building helped me understand the political and ideological aspects of fantastic storyworlds a lot better, and provide a provocative and endlessly enjoyable puzzle without a solution.

But I also don’t’ want to suggest that this more radical type of world-building, which I relate back to Philip K. Dick’s famous essay about worlds that are constantly falling apart, is the only model for exploring alternatives. Some of my favorite sf authors, like for instance Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Nnedi Okorafor, have created elaborate fantastic storyworlds that are politically radical in many ways, without necessarily becoming muddled or totally “centrifugal.” And as I try to make clear in the other chapters, most (if not all!) fantastic fiction is ultimately driven by a creative and imaginative desire to imagine social and political alternatives, which is hugely important cultural work irrespective of any individual storyworld’s politics.

So even though I think there’s something very interesting about those “muddled” storyworlds that refuse to make sense, either because authors like Dick or Monáe have designed them that way, or because of fandom’s uncontrollable participation, I don’t think that other forms therefore lack that kind of political potential.

What I’ve tried to do with the different case studies in the book is to show how these storyworlds are grounded in contradictions, and that our interaction with them creates a dialectical movement that can be enormously productive. And even though I do think that fan culture currently seems to heading in a direction that is more collaborative than resistant, it is still up to us to correct that movement and find new ways to break free from Empire’s gravity. Like Hardt and Negri’s work on global capitalism, my book is also intended not so much as a critique, but as a call to arms – and I hope it will be read and interpreted in that way.

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.

Categories: Blog

Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Daniel Hassler-Forest (Part Two)

September 6, 2016 - 7:20am


HJ: Can you say something about the role that genre plays in your work, given you are writing here about texts that might variously be described as fantasy, science fiction, and horror? Do different genres raise different possibilities for thinking about these ideological concerns? You, for example, talk about pre-capitalism in terms of The Lord of the Rings, postcapitalism in the case of Star Trek, and even post-humanism in the case of The Walking Dead.          


DHF: I’m fascinated by the different and sometimes contradictory roles that genre plays in our current media landscape. On the one hand, you might say our popular media have become very “post-genre,” at least in the sense that media producers tend to assume a very high degree of media literacy among the audience, and mix up often highly diverse genre elements into a franchise or even a single text. And on the other hand, genre fiction of the kind that has been described as “popular fantasy” seems more visible and more dominant than ever.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good example of both those aspects: we think of it as a superhero franchise, which is certainly perceived as a specific kind of genre with its own register, audience, industrial practices, et cetera. But at the same time, we see very clearly that the producers go out of their way to diversify the brand and include a wide variety of genre elements and registers. So if you compare Captain America: The First Avenger to the Netflix series Daredevil, we see huge tonal, aesthetic, and structural differences that we associate with very different genre traditions. Therefore, even though all these texts take place within a single storyworld and share a single brand identity, the franchise now incorporates elements from war films, film noir, martial arts movies, romantic comedy, action-adventure, conspiracy thrillers, and many more.

In this context it doesn’t make much sense to me to foreground the differences between traditional fantastic genres too much. Within Marxist criticism, which is largely the tradition I’m working from, there has been a tendency to privilege some popular genres over others because of certain assumptions about their respective political and ideological implications. So for instance, sf is still generally favored over fantasy because sf has been associated with reason and progress, while fantasy has suggested magic and conservatism.

While I can see where those distinctions come from, I’ve never felt comfortable with them, and I think that the ease with which both media creators and audiences mix and match elements from across genres now makes it irrelevant, at least as a basic formal distinction. Therefore, I’ve tried to show in the book that there are similar tensions that inform those different genre traditions across fantastic world-building.

When it comes to using terms like precapitalism, postcapitalism, and posthumanism, I can certainly see how we can intuitively associate them, respectively, with sf, fantasy, and horror in a sort of superficial way. But I also think it tends to break down once you start looking beyond the most obvious and easy examples. And even then, you have to ignore a lot of detail to hold on to that reading.

I do make that generalization in the book, associating Tolkien with a precapitalist fantasy and Star Trek with postcapitalism, just to get that ball rolling and establish what seems like an obvious relationship between these fantastic storyworlds and capitalism as a set of social relations.

But if you think about it, Star Trek is also obsessed with exploring “primitive,” precapitalist societies and comparing their possible developmental paths to their own, so it’s really much more layered and diverse than some might assume. And figures like Data and the Borg are obvious and complex ways of opening up discussions about posthumanism and organic-technological hybrids.

So I prefer to treat those assumptions about the political potential of specific genres as expectations that have accumulated over time, and therefore as flexible and contingent rather than as stable, transhistorical definitions. I therefore try throughout the book to approach fantastic world-building as something like a fuzzy set, with a variety of (sometimes overlapping) ways in which various genres, franchises, and brands deal with political and ideological questions.

HJ: You write early in the book: “The triumph of geek culture and its “everything is awesome” mantra has in recent years created the seductive illusion that fans have graduated from consumerism to full participation in media production. But their actual degree of agency all too often resembles the quite limited movements available to a single player within a videogame: while experiencing the sensation of directing an avatar freely through an immersive and richly detailed environment, the player’s control is in fact limited by the design of the game to encourage and reward certain forms of behavior, while discouraging and even actively precluding others.” Can you break this down for us? What roles are fans invited to play? What factors do you see as limiting and discouraging forms of viewer participation? What possibilities do you see as “precluded” altogether? You certainly describe the way San Diego Comic-Con has become, in effect, an extension of the entertainment industry rather than a grassroots alternative to it, and I would agree, but you also point to examples of fan activism that have built upon the political themes of, for example, The Hunger Games as the basis for political mobilization and there are still many examples out there of fans writing counter-cultural alternatives to the mainstream depiction of gender, sexuality, and race.


DHF: I wanted to establish early on that I was approaching fandom from a critical perspective that presents them in the first place as participants in a political economy. It’s certainly a very polarizing way of introducing the nature of fandom, and probably one that will piss off a lot of readers!

It’s also obviously not the most nuanced way to describe fan culture, but I thought it was important to make this the starting point, and then try to weave back in more elements that still illustrate fandom’s remaining political potential. My main reason for taking this approach is that so much work within fan studies still seems to be about documenting and celebrating fan culture as a transformative and ideologically subversive set of practices. This is an idea that was of course established in your early work, especially in Textual Poachers but also to a large degree in Convergence Culture, and I can still see its attraction.

But as you have noted yourself in some of your more recent books, we are also becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of fandom and fan culture as a kind of model for social, civic, or democratic participation. In the twentieth century, genre fans had an outsider status that seemed to inspire a lot of creative and collaborative activity. These were so often provocative and subversive because they were reacting against a media industry that was much more monolithic and non-inclusive than our own.

Now that a lot of different factors have contributed to huge changes in media production and distribution, I no longer see those kinds of activities as having the same kind of political and ideological power. Instead, a lot of it seems to boil down to debates over representation and identity politics, which I certainly don’t want to disqualify, but which also align themselves rather easily with the cultural logic of neoliberalism. In other words: while debates about gender, race, and sexual identity in media are important discussions to have, they aren’t necessarily the most vital issues from an anticapitalist point of view – at least not unless you also explicitly see racism, sexism, and homophobia as interconnected aspects of capitalist exploitation.

If you look at what’s going on the big franchises, we see that the producers are only too happy to be more sensitive about questions of representation, and develop more roles for characters who aren’t necessarily white, straight, and male. But as happy as I am to see this happen, and in spite of the fact that there clearly still is a lot of work to be done, I found myself wondering about the endgame: supposing we win this culture war and we get wonderfully diverse casts in these franchises, and maybe even stories that move beyond our Eurocentric and teleological traditions – what then?

We’d be consumers of even better, and ideologically impeccable commodities, but we’d still mainly be consumers, stuck within capitalism’s unsustainable engine of endless accumulation.

This dynamic is also reflected in the digital infrastructure of Web 2.0: I think it’s safe to say that a lot more people are now creating and sharing fannish material about genre fiction than ever before. But it no longer functions as the kind of gift economy that used to typify fan culture. Instead, we’re creating free content for corporate media platforms that profit from our efforts.

So every time I share a meme or an animated GIF or a few snarky lines about the latest episode of The Walking Dead on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, I am creating value for a corporation for which my material attracts other users, while they can also use my data to track my preferences and behavioral patters in order to monetize my online profile. This, I think, is a very scary change that entails not only the commodification of this type of “sharing,” but that also imposes huge limits on the kinds of material that are being produced. The design of these platforms very strongly privileges material that is short, funny, and –to use your own term– highly spreadable.

Finally, one more thing I would mention is the sheer amount of material being produced, and the way in which fans are drawn into the media producers’ news cycle. Details about casting, plot, locations, sequels and franchising plans, reboots, and the strategic release of teasers, trailers, and leaked scenes now totally dominate film blogs and social media. There seems to be such a perfect alignment between media conglomerates’ increasingly canny release schedules and publicity plans and fans’ hunger for new information that it becomes a constant deluge of news that we’re all too eager to share.

So again, I think this really pushes the nature of participation away from creativity, subversion, and collaboration, and makes us willing and absolutely vital collaborators in the media industries’ publicity strategy.

HJ: I was interested in how you characterize your own role as a critic in terms of something close to a form of textual poaching. You write at one point, “I am purposefully seeking out those Tolkienian elements that are worth salvaging from an anticapitalist perspective, while also identifying and critiquing the factors that impede or even contradict such a reading.” Where fan fiction might go further into poaching is that they might construct alternative narratives which show us what might happen if we took the possibilities implicit in these texts further.  For example, you write, “Given Star Trek’s political potential, it is remarkable how rarely it has explored the social, economic, and cultural implications of a world beyond capitalism.’ Yet, there are examples quite early on in ST fan fiction — for example, Leslie Fish’s The Weight, which I discussed in Textual Poachers or Jane Land’s Demeter which I discuss in Science Fiction Audiences — which do explore what alternatives to capitalism and patriarchy might look like. What might the academic equivalent of fan fiction contribute?                        


DHF: My two great passions are fantastic fiction and radical critical theory. And a large part of my inspiration for this book comes from the passionate and joyful ways in which fandom has engaged with and transformed fantastic storyworlds, which is something I’ve known personally my entire life, and have always loved about your work.

But I’ve also always been skeptical about the question whether fan culture really is changing the world for the better: I just can’t help but wonder whether at least some of those staggering amounts of energy, imagination, and creative ability couldn’t be put to better use. I suspect the development of my other great passion besides fantastic fiction derives in part at least from that feeling: what I love so much about radical critical theory is how it is fundamentally a project in which we try to see past the surface and better understand a deeper reality, while at the same time trying to imagine what another, hopefully better world would look like.

Although I therefore think that academic studies of fantastic fiction (and its fandom) has a lot in common with critical theory, they do often seem to run in opposite directions. Radical philosophers and political theorists for instance either ignore fantastic fiction, or only use it rather irresponsibly to illustrate a theoretical point they’re trying to make (as Slavoj Žižek so often does). By the same token, scholars working on fan culture or sf studies are often so invested in the specifics of their objects that they sometimes lose the bigger picture, or simply get carried away by their own enthusiasm for their research.

I also feel that those working in critical theory feel pressured to be critical about everything, using clever readings and complex theory to elevate themselves above the things they’re talking about; while a lot of those in fan studies, for instance, seem to feel the opposite pressure to come up with examples of productive transformation, subversion, and resistance, thus legitimizing both their research objects and their personal and professional interests. And as someone who feels like he’s got one leg in each of those worlds, I could really feel that tension as this project first took shape.

But while my original perspective was completely critical and quite negative about the current state of fandom, I soon realized that I didn’t want to write a book that would amount to little more than a grumpy Marxist’s critique of transmedia world-building as a purely political economy. Besides, I also felt I had already done something like that in my first book Capitalist Superheroes, which performs that kind of ideology critique in what I now tend to think is a fairly one-dimensional way.

So I thought this next book might benefit from a little more contradiction, imagination, and (dare I say it?) optimism. These were all things that I recognized and responded to strongly not only in Hardt and Negri’s work, but also in other huge influences like Jeremy Gilbert, David McNally, Jodi Dean, Steven Shaviro, and Mark Fisher.

In the end I realized that what I liked so much about all of their writing was that it not only helped me understand the world better, but also gave me a real sense of possibility for the future. So even though a book’s critical focus is on explaining some of the biggest problems facing us today, their energy is at the same time directed towards creating a sense of hope, even of infinite possibilities. I tried to let that sense guide my own thinking on this book: not wanting to pull any punches on the one hand, but also finding ways to resist the purely critical mode that feels like the main trap of radical critical theory.

Trying to find the right balance between the two was the hardest thing for me, and I have no idea to what extent I succeeded. But ideally, the book would reflect that wonderful Antonio Gramsci quotation: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.


Categories: Blog

Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Dan Hassler-Forest (Part One)

September 1, 2016 - 9:49am

Most work on transmedia storytelling and world-building to date has come from a formalist perspective, asking how these techniques transform our traditional understanding of how classical Hollywood told stories. Or it comes from an ethnographic direction — how do these techniques reflect the new interplay between media producers and consumers, with these relations often understood through the lens of a Fandom Studies approach. Or they are written from a production perspective — how might a media-maker apply these techniques to his or her own work or how did a particular production evolve new approaches to serve the particulars of its content and market. All of these are important questions to ask about transmedia and all are approaches I’ve featured on my blog in the past.

A few months back, though, I was delighted to get a chance to read an advanced copy of a recently released book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism, which adopts a more ideological perspective. Here’s what I wrote as a blurb for the book:

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics explores the intersection between world-building as practiced in speculative fiction and the desire to imagine (or constrain) alternatives to contemporary capitalism. He writes knowingly, affectionately, yet critically, about franchises as diverse as Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, and The Walking Dead, mapping the ways each embodies contradictions at the heart of neoliberal capitalism — contradictions that surface in terms of their formal properties as transmedia franchises, their commercial contexts, and the consumer practices they inspire.”

I will be honest that this was not always an easy read for me — the book’s author, Dan Hassler-Forest challenges many of the core assumptions that have governed my own work on these topics. I emerged from the experience a tad bruised, perhaps, but also recharged, full of new thoughts and perspectives I would have encountered nowhere else.

As my blurb suggests, this guy knows his stuff: he isn’t sniping from a high altitude above the text, tossing theory in coke bottle down to the masses below, and he isn’t cherry-picking awkward moments to skewer, and he isn’t dealing with sweeping generalizations. He brings his critical apparatus to bear here but he also comes in as someone who has a fan’s care for the nuances and particulars and a deep respect for the core building blocks of the genres he discusses. He knows his stuff and that’s what makes his ideological critiques hard to ignore.

In the interview that follows, you will see us wrestling a bit with some of the core premises of the book. I push back where I feel I must, but in the spirit of trying to pull out his core assumptions. We cover a lot of ground here — intellectually and culturally — and there’s sure to be something in all of this that will provoke you to reconsider some of your own cherished assumptions about  transmedia and world-building.

HJ: Most work in transmedia studies to date has approached world-building from a formal or production studies perspective, whereas your approach might best be described as ideological analysis. What do you see as the value of concepts such as transmedia, franchises, and worlds for understanding contemporary struggles over capitalism?

DHF: I think these concepts are enormously important for understanding both the economic and cultural logic of global capitalism. First, we’ve seen how transmedia franchising and world-building has really surged over the past two decades, to the point where fantastic fiction seems to dominate the media industries and our cultural landscape more and more. For fans of these genres, it’s great in a way, because there is such a wealth of material being developed and produced in popular fantasy, and most of it caters directly to fans’ sensibilities and desires. At the same time, I also think this is ultimately bad for fan culture, because all this stuff is being produced by media conglomerates working in a very competitive environment, and the sheer amount of material seems to impact fans’ ability to participate creatively in any meaningful way.

I think this also illustrates the larger dynamic of global capitalism, where those who can afford it have access to cool technology and a wide variety of awesome entertainment, while we surrender control over these storyworlds to the corporations who claim ownership over properties that should be considered a form of cultural commons.

Second, I see in fantastic world-building a fundamental desire to imagine alternatives to the social and material realities of modernity, and therefore of capitalism. We do this by imagining and expanding complex and immersive fantasies about worlds that are pre-capitalist (as we see in a lot of fantasy) or post-capitalist (which defines a lot of sf), which gives world-building a very fundamental political direction. Even if we’re not necessarily aware of it, engaging in fantastic world-building helps us reflect on so many aspects of our world and how we understand it, and that’s an especially important cultural activity in our current context, where capitalism has become the only game in town. And since fantastic world-building developed historically as a highly participatory and collaborative cultural activity, it has a lot of political potential.

HJ: The central frame running through your book draws on Hardt and Negri’s notion of Empire and the Multitude. Can you explain these concepts for the reader? What is the underlying model of social and political change you are drawing upon across the book?

DHF: The major benefit of Hardt and Negri’s work on globalization and capitalism is that it provides a fairly straightforward and easy-to-understand set of terms for understanding the basic notion of fully global capitalism. Since I’m trying to bridge a gap between radical critical theory on the one hand, and fan studies, science-fiction scholarship, and transmedia storytelling on the other, I thought their work would make a nice fit.

Because even though their major works provide a lacerating critique of global capitalism –which they call “Empire”– they are ultimately also optimists who have great faith in the creative, democratic, and collaborative potential of the people, for which they use the word “multitude.” This term is so much more appropriate to our current era because it isn’t reductive and homogenizing in the way that more traditional Marxist terms like “proletariat” can be. Instead, they emphasize that the multitude is fundamentally plural and radically diverse, both in the larger sense (allowing for an unlimited diversity of identities) and at the individual level (meaning that the individual subject isn’t singular but plural).

For anticapitalist theory and activism, this plurality is obviously both an obstacle and an opportunity: if we all see ourselves as unique snowflakes, preoccupied with our own special interests, it’s that much harder to develop empathy, solidarity, and the kind of collective action that would be necessary to overcome Empire’s hold over us, and develop postcapitalist alternatives.

But at the same time, the cultural, social, and technological changes that have facilitated the rise of global capitalism can’t be controlled by Capital itself: above all, Hardt and Negri see the multitude overcoming Empire not by retreating from digital culture and immaterial labor, but by reclaiming it for its own ends. So again, I see a lot of provocative parallels with transformative fan culture and the way it developed as a set of social and cultural practices that were also about embracing, appropriating, and transforming the products of powerful media corporations.

HJ: You are interested in identifying ways that popular narratives confront the contradictions at the heart of global capitalism, sometimes even introducing what you describe as “anticapitalist elements that can contribute to the important cultural work of imagining viable political alternatives.” How are you identifying what counts as an “anticapitalist element” and how do we think about the paradox of “anticapitalist” elements circulating within texts like The Hunger Games that are themselves generating profits for multinational media conglomerates?

DHF: This is one of the weirdest and most bewildering contradictions of mass media and commodified popular culture. Can culture be anticapitalist if it is produced, distributed, and consumed as a commodity within a capitalist system? Is there such a thing as anticapitalist culture, and, as Jeremy Gilbert asks in his terrific book Anticapitalism and Culture, would we even recognize it if we saw it?

In the twentieth century, before capitalism became truly global, we came to experience mass media as pretty homogenous and formulaic, and Marxist criticism saw in them the constant reproduction of a “dominant ideology.” So in that context, commercial culture was seen by many as a type of propaganda, where subversion and resistance was only really possible in “underground” productions, and of course in fans’ transformative appropriation of these properties.
But in the twenty-first century, we’re seeing a much more diverse media landscape that has fewer restrictions in terms of its ideological contents. Things like Hunger Games and the TV show Mr. Robot are both good examples of popular texts that tap into a certain anticapitalist energy, even if there is also a lot of ambivalence and even contradiction within the texts themselves – as well as a wide range of readings in terms of their reception.


What I was very interested in exploring and ultimately foregrounding was the way in which some pop-cultural icons can suddenly cross over into political activism, like the “Frodo Lives!” slogan used by protestors during the Vietnam War, the Anonymous mask from V for Vendetta, or anti-government activists in Thailand making the three-finger salute from Hunger Games. I think they show that these commercial franchises can also become part of a common cultural vocabulary, not because the texts themselves are necessarily anticapitalist or even entirely political, but because certain communities interpret them that way, and use the iconography in a context that makes those gestures and the texts they come meaningful as political symbols.

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.

Categories: Blog

Break the Election: How to Learn Media Literacy by Remixing Political Advertisements (Part Two)

August 30, 2016 - 8:00am

Many educators may be concerned about the copyright implications of using remix in their classrooms. Some also confused remix and plagiarism. How would you address these concerns?


It’s really too bad when these concerns result in chilling innovative education, which includes using remix and technology in the classroom. Remix and plagiarism are of course not the same thing; plagiarism is trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Any good remix cites sources and/or uses original ideas to back up an argument, just as students are expected to do when they write a paper. A remix is really just a multimedia essay.

We have a LAMPlit resource guide about fair use, written with K-12 teachers in mind, but there are other resources out there too. I especially like Stanford University’s Copyright & Fair Use Center, American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University also has some great research plus a pro-bono cyberlaw clinic.

Some might argue that young people are being taught through many different channels to be cynical about political institutions. Is there a danger that these remix practices might contribute to cynicism? How do we distinguish between skepticism and cynicism?

For me, cynicism entails apathy. Skepticism entails constant curiosity. It’s easy to feel frustrated and bombarded in a media-saturated environment, and sure, confronting those media can potentially feed cynicism. But we try to focus on remix as an active means of critical expression, which is valuable in a way that sitting around and complaining just is not. If you can create an argument and back it up with facts – and, even better, point to a positive way forward – then your skepticism is healthy and useful. We think remix fosters this.

What have emerged as some of the common themes in student remixes and critiques of existing political advertisements?

One is authenticity. Students are aware that candidates are trying to appeal to the masses, and that in order to do that they need to seem likable in media. You can see those themes in this remix on Hillary Clinton and this one on Marco Rubio.

There’s also an interest in pointing out how emotionally manipulative the ads can be, like this one remix about Ted Cruz.

I should say there are a lot of great remixes we haven’t been able to post publicly because they don’t meet fair use standards. What makes them great is that the students are clearly very passionate. Fair use is really hard, and takes a lot of practice. We don’t always have as much time as we’d like in programs to go back and refine videos, but I’ve been so impressed with our students’ ability in general to call out political ads for not being substantial enough. They see that publicity stunts, like dancing on Ellen or cooking bacon on a machine gun, happen at the expense of talking about the real reasons why people should vote for someone.

This campaign has shaped into one of the most negative in American presidential history. What should we be telling students specifically about the impact of negative advertising in the campaign process?

This is a great time for students to be learning the difference between feelings and facts. Negative ads often make us feel angry, but they don’t usually make us think too hard about facts, or think that we should question those facts in any way. I think it’s less about what we should be telling students about the impact of negative ads, and more about what we should be helping them ask and explore. Such as, what’s the difference between negative advertising and bullying? When it comes to negative ads, do you think the facts matter to people? Why would someone engage in, or specifically avoid, negative advertising?

The rhetoric in this campaign has been extremely negative but I think our job as educators is to not let that poison our young people’s interest in civic engagement. It’s getting harder and harder to convince people they should take part in such an imperfect democratic system, but I would never counsel a young person to sit out of voting, knocking on doors or forming and sharing an informed opinion. We’ve already seen how remix can be used to powerful effect in this campaign, by the candidates themselves and by citizens. What I want to see is how it can be used to powerful effect in civic engagement for the future – no matter who winds up winning this election.

D.C. Vito co-founded The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project) in 2007. Since that time, The LAMP has brought media literacy training to over 3,000 youth, parents and educators, transporting equipment and facilitators directly to communities in need of its services. Under Mr. Vito’s leadership as Executive Director, The LAMP’s programming capacity has grown tremendously from serving roughly 75 students in the 2010-2011 school year, to serving over 850 students by the 2011-2012 school year. Mr. Vito worked as a community organizer for many years prior to The LAMP, having served in the Peace Corps in Mali, managing campaigns for City Council, State Senate and Presidential candidates, and spent eight years acting as Chairman of the Youth Services and Education Committee on Brooklyn’s Community Board Six. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE), is a member of the NationSwell Council and was in the 25th cohort at the Coro New York Leadership Center.


Emily Long has been with The LAMP since 2008, managing grant writing, project development, internal and external communications, special events, website and social media, strategic partnerships and The LAMP’s MediaBreaker/Studios video remix platform development project Emily earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbia University in 2006. While at Columbia, she edited and catalogued hundreds of interviews and transcripts for the Oral History Research Office, focusing primarily on their 9/11 Project. She has extensive experience with numerous media through her work with Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript LibraryAtlantic Theater CompanySesame Workshop and others.


Categories: Blog

Break the Election: How to Learn Media Literacy by Remixing Political Advertisements (Part One)

August 26, 2016 - 6:56am

As we start back to school, many of us are going to be looking for new ways to provide our students with the media literacy skills and contextual background needed to make sense of the craziness which is the 2016 Presidential Campaign (“All Bets Are Off”). One of the many groups working to address these needs is LAMP (“Learning About Multimedia Project”) which describes itself as “bringing 21st-century survival skills to all New Yorkers.” They have adopted a hands-on approach where young people are encouraged to develop critical media literacy by breaking down, remixing, and commenting upon campaign commercials released by the various candidates, using their Mediabreaker Critical Remix tool.  I’ve long advocated that appropriation represents a core cultural competency of our times and that schools should be doing more to build critical remixing into their instruction. I was thus delighted to learn of this great example and happy to be sharing it with my readers. What follows is an interview with D.C. Vito and Emily Long, two of the organization’s leaders, as they share a progress report on Break the Election.

Interestingly, we are seeing more and more examples this election cycle where the campaigns or the PACS working on their behalf are actively appropriating and remixing media towards their own ends. Consider, for example, this video which juxtaposes clips of Donald Trump with bullies from 1980s comedies. Or this one which remixes various Republicans talking about Trump’s tax returns.

The first adopts a playful approach to remix, using popular media to comment on real world political concerns, where-as the other raids the media archive, creating a new context for understanding previous statements. But both demonstrate how remix practices are being deployed by the campaign. What do we do now — remix the remixes?


Give us some background on Break the Election. How did this project come about and what are you trying to achieve?


We first started thinking about Break the Election during the 2012 presidential race. Up until that point, we were using video remix in our programs for the purpose of remixing and talking back to commercials. We knew we wanted to develop our own video remix tool – up until that point, we used iMovie, which was too complicated for a lot of our students and teachers to learn quickly – but couldn’t justify doing it if the only media we were going to remix were commercials. We knew there were other applications for remix, and it was like a light bulb for us as we were iterating the new tool amid an environment saturated with political campaign ads.

The new tool, of course, was what is now MediaBreaker/Studios, a free online teaching platform built around our MediaBreaker video editing tool designed specifically for remixing third-party video. We’ve done programming where students remix not just commercials and political ads, but also movie trailers, TV shows, music videos…you name it.

One of our largest goals was to provide pathways for young people to become engaged in the election in a way that we hoped would be authentic to their interests. Break the Election allows our students who are still too young to vote to have a say about the issues, and with just every moment of the campaign trail being caught on video, they have plenty of material to use to make their point. It also challenges them to look at how public opinions are shaped by media, and ask some uneasy questions about the democratic process. Do we elect the candidate who is most capable, or do we elect the candidate with the strongest, best-funded media machine? How well do we really get to know a candidate, when our perspective is shaped by outlets trying to keep up with a 24-hour news cycle? These are tough questions, but they have to be asked in a media literate democracy.

Why do you think remix is an important strategy for developing critical media literacies?

Remix requires people to flex every muscle in the standard definition of media literacy, which is to “access, analyze, evaluate and create” media. You have to source your material, which means you need to be able to access it, but you also have to analyze and evaluate in the process of making critical statements and transforming the message – which happens to also be legally required, if you’re going to stick to fair use guidelines so you can share your work publicly. If you can’t remix, I don’t think you’re media literate. Remix really is the canary in the coal mine for critical media literacy.


Why the focus on political advertisements?

One of the reasons we like remixing commercials in general is because of the form. Commercials are short, tight persuasive messages, and usually they’re entertaining so young people enjoy working with them. Since they’re only about thirty seconds long, they can be unpacked in a relatively short time, which is important for teachers who only have forty or fifty minutes in a class.

Political advertisements are also rich troves of messaging. They’re very challenging from an information literacy perspective, but they’re also designed to solicit really strong emotions about things that matter deeply, like the type of world we want to live in. Part of what we’re doing is teaching young people to not be indifferent to political ads – even though they are too young to cast a vote, they’re still part of a target audience, from now through the rest of their lives. Media literacy is hardly ever more important than when you’re using it to decide who should represent your voice, and you’re never too young to start practicing and applying those skills.
How might educators bring the Break the Election activity into their classrooms?


We have a series of free hands-on resource guides called LAMPlit, and we created one especially for Break the Election. It takes educators step-by-step through the process of teaching students to create critical remixes rooted in political advertisements, and includes a brief history of political campaign ads to help educators contextualize their unique form and purpose. The LAMPlit also has links to other resources to help educators find and select political ads to remix, and prompts from which educators can choose. And of course educators should feel free to adapt the activities in whatever way makes sense for their students and classrooms.


What advice do you have about creating the right atmosphere in the classroom for political remix?


We’ve found it’s very important to emphasize that remixing a political ad isn’t meant to be an act of partisanship. You can, and should, remix ads based on their content, not based on the candidate you happen to support. The point is to be critical, and there is plenty to critique when it comes to political messaging whether you’re Democratic, Republican, Independent or something else. The focus needs to be on facts, not hyperbole, and healthy, respectful debate. If a teacher thinks the current election is too polarizing for a productive learning experience, we suggest he or she try looking at more historical material.

D.C. Vito co-founded The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project) in 2007. Since that time, The LAMP has brought media literacy training to over 3,000 youth, parents and educators, transporting equipment and facilitators directly to communities in need of its services. Under Mr. Vito’s leadership as Executive Director, The LAMP’s programming capacity has grown tremendously from serving roughly 75 students in the 2010-2011 school year, to serving over 850 students by the 2011-2012 school year. Mr. Vito worked as a community organizer for many years prior to The LAMP, having served in the Peace Corps in Mali, managing campaigns for City Council, State Senate and Presidential candidates, and spent eight years acting as Chairman of the Youth Services and Education Committee on Brooklyn’s Community Board Six. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE), is a member of the NationSwell Council and was in the 25th cohort at the Coro New York Leadership Center.

Emily Long has been with The LAMP since 2008, managing grant writing, project development, internal and external communications, special events, website and social media, strategic partnerships and The LAMP’s MediaBreaker/Studios video remix platform development project Emily earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbia University in 2006. While at Columbia, she edited and catalogued hundreds of interviews and transcripts for the Oral History Research Office, focusing primarily on their 9/11 Project. She has extensive experience with numerous media through her work with Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript LibraryAtlantic Theater CompanySesame Workshop and others.


Categories: Blog

Update: Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment, October 21, USC

August 24, 2016 - 7:34am

Earlier this summer, I posted a hold the date announcement of our upcoming conference, Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment, which will be held at USC on Oct. 21. I am now able to announce many of the event’s participants, though we still have some outstanding invitations we hope to resolve over the next few weeks and with luck, we will have some exciting new speakers to announce as we get closer to the event. As always, the Transforming Hollywood events bring together industry leaders, creative artists, academics, journalists, fans, and activists for important conversations about the futures of entertainment. Our panels are designed to dig deep and bridge divides. We hope you will join us for this year’s event.


Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment

October 21 Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

Sustaining Sponsor: AJK Foundation
Event Sponsors: Fusion/Univision, George Foster Peabody Foundation, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Sustaining Organizers: Denise Mann, UCLA; Henry Jenkins, USC
Event Organizer: Stacy Smith, USC

9-9:20 Welcome 

Ernest Wilson, Dean, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Denise Mann, head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program

Henry Jenkins, USC Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education


9:20- 9:50 State of the Field Report 

Stacy Smith, Director, Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, USC


9:45-11 Panel:  Why Does Inclusion Matter?

Moderator: Eric Deggans, Television Critic, National Public Radio; Author, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation

After hearing about the dismal representation of marginalized groups in entertainment, one question remains: what can be done? As the conversation on diversity and inclusion continues to escalate, several voices stand out from the crowd with solutions, strategies, and attempts to address disparities. This session brings together industry members and experts to discuss four essential topics. First, the panel will address why inclusive entertainment matters. Second, individuals will discuss the underlying causes at the heart of why under or skewed representation persists. Third, the group will overview what efforts are underway in Hollywood to effect change. Fourth, panelists will cover the challenges that remain and the work still needed to increase representation on screen and behind the camera.

Bertila Damas— SAG AFTRA National Chair of the Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni —  Pearl Street Productions

Melissa Goodman – director of the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California

Danny WoodburnActor, Chair of Screen Actors Guild, Performers with Disabilities group


11:10-1 Panel 2  What Alternatives Does Social Media Offer?

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA

This panel explores social media as a powerful tool for artists, activists, and influencers to express their voices of diversity and dissent outside the Hollywood mainstream. Social influencers are a new breed of online creator whose ability to thrive in the platform economy depends on their facility with social media connectivity as a means to amass a dedicated following of online users. Fans, who become invested in the ideas conveyed by a favorite artist or musician, can help spread these messages of change across an exponentially wider circle of social media communities. However, the life of an online creator or influencer is not for the faint of heart. Hollywood’s writers, directors, and actors are protected by talent guilds and guided through the byzantine Hollywood system by thousands of development and marketing executives, who give dissenting opinions via an endless series of story notes and marketing positioning statements. While guaranteed a paycheck via “work-for-hire” contracts, Hollywood talent lacks essential power and agency because they don’t control the copyright for their artistic work. In contrast, actor-creator-entrepreneurs like Freddie Wong and Issa Rae are running mini-studios of their own making and retaining part or full ownership of their creations. While building their “brand”—themselves—over weeks, months, and even years, they rely on a variety of resources: crowdsourcing, Adsense revenues, merchandising, branded content deals, and cross-promotional guest appearances in order to keep their voices heard above the din of clickbait and app fatigue. Therefore, online creators need powerful advocates—talent managers who know how to use social media to help under-represented artists escape from obscurity to become chart-topping celebrities. They also need tech startup experts capable of shepherding the engineers and coders who tweak streaming content aggregators, such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, so that they serve artists as well as platform founders. Additionally, online artists need powerful insiders— showrunners, producers, and other allies—who understand what it’s like to struggle against the tide of entitlement that prevails in the studio system, and who will help newcomers with alternative voices navigate the gap between the autonomous spaces of the Web and the heavily bureaucratic and hierarchical spaces of mainstream Hollywood.


Troy Carter, Founder/CEO, Atom Factory Music +Smash’d Labs, Global Head/Creator Services, Spotify

Bambi Haggins, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies, Arizona State University (author of Laughing Mad: The BlackComic Persona in Post-Soul America)

Prentice Penny, Executive Producer/Showrunner, HBO’s Insecure (based on Issa Rae’s webseries, The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl)

Freddie Wong, Founder, Rocket Jump Studios, online video pioneer and VFX artist


1-2 Lunch

2-3:50 Panel 3: How Do We Change the Script?

Moderator: Henry Jenkins, USC

Within the entertainment industry, genre conventions help to shape what stories get told and how productions get promoted and marketed to particular audiences. As we push for greater inclusion, we need to reconsider the ways that these genres encode old assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality, and the ways these scripts need to be reimagined to reflect more diverse perspectives. Many of today’s creators find themselves pushing against taken-for-granted assumptions and long-standing formulas, and as a consequence, often fall back on old tropes and stereotypes. These particulars look somewhat differently whether we are considering realist or fantastical genres but both offer opportunities for “changing the script” but they also bring with them a  lot of historical baggage. The news media likes to focus on the white male backlash in fandom against some of the shifts taking place within genre entertainment, but we also know that many active fans are embracing these changes and indeed, modeling through their creative responses what an even more diverse form of genre entertainment might look like. And activists are holding producers feet to the fire, asking critical questions about the ways even more diverse and inclusive productions may fall short of our hopes and expectations. So, how do we change the script? How do we embrace new stories? How do we tell the old stories differently? And what role can the fantastical or speculative genres perform in imagining alternatives to current racial realities?

Grace Dillon — Professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program, Portland State University; Editor, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction

Javier Grillo-MarxuachWriter/ProducerLost, The Middleman, The 100, Xena: Warrior Princess

Nakul Dev Mahajan — Dancer/Choreographer, So You Think You Can Dance

Ebony Elizabeth ThomasYoung Adult Writer; Assistant Professor,  Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Phil Yu — BloggerAngry Asian Man 


4-6:15 Panel 4 How do We Move from Stereotypes to More Complex Characters?

Moderator: Maureen Ryan, Chief Television Critic, Variety

The challenge of creating more diverse representations often centers on the construction of characters. It is not enough to put diverse faces in front of the camera: we need to depict those characters with nuance and complexity, in ways that audiences will recognize from their own lives, in ways that inspire their imaginations. Where does the responsibility rest for generating compelling characters in contemporary popular entertainment? What roles do producers, writers, and actors play in defining who these people are, what they desire, how they react, what goals they pursue, and what relationships they form? And how should we respond when bad things happen to good characters, when subsequent production decisions undercut or marginalize characters whose presence is particular significant for under-represented segments of the population?

Evelyn Alsultany— Associate Professor; Director of the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program, University of Michigan; Author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11

Effie BrownDirector, Dear White People  

Kathy Le Backes — Vice President, Research and Development, Wise Entertainment

Melissa Silverstein— Blogger, Women and Hollywood 


6:30-7:15 Keynote Conversation

Moderator: TBA

Melissa Rosenbaum —  Executive Producer, Marvel’s Jessica Jones


7:15-  Reception

Registration for the event is now open on a first come, first serve basis. For more information, visit our website. Tickets are $40 for the general public and $10 for students, faculty, and staff of academic institutions.

Categories: Blog

Save the Date — Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment October 21

June 21, 2016 - 9:40pm

Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment
October 21 Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

Sustaining Sponsor: AJK Foundation
Event Sponsors: Fusion/Univision, George Foster Peabody Foundation, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Sustaining Organizers: Denise Mann, UCLA; Henry Jenkins, USC
Event Organizer: Stacy Smith, USC
The past few years in America have been marked by heated debates around issues of diversity (from the politics surrounding racialized police violence to the struggles around immigration reform) which have placed renewed emphasis on who is being represented through popular media and how. Social media — especially the phenomenon of so-called “black twitter” — has created a space where people of color are organizing on-line to advocate for new kinds of new forms of entertainment content which more fully reflects their lived experiences. And new kinds of “social influencers” are emerging online, a group which includes a growing number of people of color amongst the top internet celebrities.

The response from Hollywood has been mixed: on the one hand, overall industry numbers measuring diversity in front and behind the camera has remained surprisingly static over time. Women and people of color remain grossly under-represented. On the other hand, there have been many high-profile efforts to feature mixed-race and minority-centered casts on American television. Scandal’s Kerry Washington was the first black actress to be the lead in a dramatic television series in three decades, and her success has led to other black actresses getting the leads or strongly featured in prime-time serials. We are also seeing minority experiences come to the fore on sitcoms, including Blackish, Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None, and Jane the Virgin. We are watching the major Comics Publishers DC and Marvel embrace more female protagonists, including most dramatically, an American Muslim youth of Pakistani descent becoming Ms. Marvel, and since the comics publishers represent a major pipeline into Hollywood production, some of these shifts are being felt in production decisions The debate around diversity in cinema has come to be short-handed by the hashtag, #oscarsowhite, that stands in for the failure of the film industry not only to expand the range of stories told and the people employed, but also the unwillingness to respect and award accomplishments from those who succeed despite the odds. Rightfully, the quality of these new representations are being hotly debated, again taking advantage of the affordances of new media, such as podcasts, blogs and social media.

As with our previous Transforming Hollywood conferences, we want to focus our attention on where change is taking place, bringing together key thinkers from industry, academia, and the public sphere, who have something to say in helping us to make sense of those changes. Diversifying Entertainment will be a day-long public conversation about diversity, inclusion, representation, and entertainment, one which spans developments in television, film, comics, games, and other popular media.

Tentative Schedule

9-9:20 Welcome
9:20- 9:50 State of the Field Report

9:45-11 Panel Why Does Inclusion Matter?

After hearing about the dismal representation of marginalized groups in entertainment, one question remains: what can be done? As the conversation on diversity and inclusion continues to escalate, several voices stand out from the crowd with solutions, strategies, and attempts to address disparities. This session brings together industry members and experts to discuss four essential topics. First, the panel will address why inclusive entertainment matters. Second, individuals will discuss the underlying causes at the heart of why under or skewed representation persists. Third, the group will overview what efforts are underway in Hollywood to effect change. Fourth, panelists will cover the challenges that remain and the work still needed to increase representation on screen and behind the camera.
11:10-1 Panel 2 What Alternatives Does Social Media Offer?

This panel explores “social influencers”—a new breed of online creator whose web-based productions and facility with social media connectivity has helped them amass a loyal following of fans. The top 1-2% of these creative entrepreneurs, dubbed “millionaire influencers,” are securing huge paydays from advertisers eager to access the hundreds of thousands of fans. Most social influencers seeking fame and big payouts will choose the path of least resistance by endorsing fashion and beauty products or by engaging with popular Hollywood media franchises. Instead, this panel focuses on a small, but passionate group of influencers who have chosen the path of most resistance by promoting diverse, inclusive representations of marginalized cultures using exclusively online transmedia storytelling tactics. By operating largely outside of the Hollywood mainstream, these activist influencers face a unique set of challenges: they must engage in the hard labor of producing weekly webseries while also reformatting this content for a diverse array of digital platforms (YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, etc)–often on their own dime. Paradoxically, if they want to scale their media empires in order to spread their message of hope, they must accept brand endorsement deals if they want to continue to engage, enlighten, and educate fans about the unique challenges of being a marginalized culture in today’s increasingly networked society.

1-2 Lunch

2-3:50 Panel 3 How Do We Change the Script?

Within the entertainment industry, genre conventions help to shape what stories get told and how productions get promoted and marketed to particular audiences. As we push for greater inclusion, we need to reconsider the ways that these genres encode old assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality, and the ways these scripts need to be reimagined to reflect more diverse perspectives. Many of today’s creators find themselves pushing against taken-for-granted assumptions and long-standing formulas, and as a consequence, often fall back on old tropes and stereotypes. These particulars look somewhat differently whether we are considering realist or fantastical genres: both offer opportunities for “changing the script” but they also bring with them a lot of historical baggage. So, how do we change the script? How do we embrace new stories? How do we tell the old stories differently?

4-6:15 Panel 4 How do We Move from Stereotypes to More Complex Characters?

It is not enough to put diverse faces in front of the camera: we need to depict those characters with nuance and complexity, in ways that audiences will recognize from their own lives, in ways that inspire their imaginations. What roles do producers, writers, and actors play in defining who these people are, what they desire, how they react, what goals they pursue, and what relationships they form? And how should we respond when bad things happen to good characters, when subsequent production decisions undercut or marginalize characters whose presence is particular significant for under-represented segments of the population?

6:30-7:15 Keynote: TBD

7:15- Reception

To register to receive more information, go to http://annenberg.usc.edu/events/events/transforming-hollywood-7-diversifying-entertainment

Categories: Blog