Move Over Alpha Geeks, Here Come the Fangrrls
Thousands of women gather for a sci-fi convention, and they have a pretty great life, thanks very much.
The stars of the show are tiny. I’ve seen them before, of course, engaged in their weekly adventures with demons and ghosts and other sundry supernatural things. But here, happily posing under a massive banner bearing their likeness, they seem somewhat diminished, especially in the hands of their beaming mistress.
I don’t think they even have genitalia.
Anteka is not the only one at the hotel with Supernatural gear: this is ground zero for the Supernatural fandom this Veterans Day weekend in Chicago. PWT aside, the crowd is peppered with other visual clues: T-shirts bearing images of the show’s stars, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, show-related jewelry, actors and their entourages. And then there are the fans. Thousands of fans. The convention (or ‘con’, as these gatherings are commonly known) is ostensibly for Smallville and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well, but the main event is Supernatural, a show that features two demon-hunting brothers on a never-ending road trip.
Something extraordinary is going on at this con, and it’s not just about the tarted-up Ken dolls.
It's time to face our dark side -- that is, our stereotypes about sci-fi and women.
Say the words “science fiction convention” out loud. Quick, what comes to mind? Maybe an awkward teenage boy with a skin condition blinking rapidly in uncommon daylight, having only hesitatingly surfaced from his parents’ basement? Or the ultra-fans of the movie Galaxy Quest, itself a loving spoof of the weird demimonde of Star Trek cons. Maybe the amusing dichotomy of advertising’s Mac-PC geeks? Or even the continuation of Justin Long’s Mac geek role in the most recent Die Hard installment, which literally had nerdy hacker-heroes emerging from mothers' basements to save the world? Uh, yeah, that was Kevin Smith in that role.
In any case, the image you’ve probably conjured up is male. Hello, perception? Meet reality.
Having a tough time with it? Yeah, me too.
In media theory circles, these guys are sometimes termed alpha geeks, and no sooner have we identified them than we’re catching a glimpse of a shadow culture operating steadily in the margins: that of the fangrrl.
Mainstream culture has suddenly become aware of geek culture, most manifest in phenomena such as the Comic Con, where thousands and thousands of fans and producers alike meet to celebrate their previously underground culture and flog product like there’s no tomorrow. While women have long had a presence at these events and in these cultures, their roles haven’t been adequately explored. Hell, their roles are still largely invisible.
Henry Jenkins of MIT and a self-identified ‘aca-fan’ (an academic who is also a fan of the genre) recently opened the door on the discussion by setting up an online forum for male and female academics to discuss fan culture in gender terms. The results were somewhat unsurprising: holy yaksalot, Batman. Did people ever want to talk! The forum resulted in a staggering twenty-two rounds of back and forth, usually pretty erudite, sometimes dipping into the vitriolic.
The substance of such academic discourse usually centers around the female-generated products of various fandoms: fan fiction and fan videos (more commonly known as fanfic and vids). Take a look at a large fanfic site like Fanfiction.net, or any of the various LJ communities catering to fanfic, and you’ll see plenty of grist for the academic mill: thousands, maybe millions, of stories written mostly by women about the characters they love. The Harry Potter fandom has over 295,000 pieces of fan-generated works posted on Fanfiction.net alone. Estimates about the percentage of female to male production of fanfic abound, some as high as 96 percent women-generated.
As in other fandoms, Supernatural fanfic writers re-imagine scenes, they fill in blanks left by aired episodes, invent backstories for characters, explain otherwise opaque onscreen actions. They take the storylines and characters and fashion them to their liking. The videos are all over YouTube, a creative splicing of scenes re-interpreted to music and text. Fan art, another creative output, is often expressed as vast collections of ‘icons’ used to represent oneself in the online communities. Most of these efforts are famously collaborative, with complex systems of ‘betas’, or second readers, and jointly-produced products. One fan might write the text, another might produce related artwork, still another might read the work as a podcast.
“I was a geek in high school. I was part of the science fiction club. It was all guys. I wrote stories for 'zines. They were only available at the cons, or by mail. It was all very underground.” This is a typical story; the old timers nod their heads in proud recognition. The girls and the boys mixed uneasily, the fanfiction often separating their fannish inclinations. Many fans say that the creative output of the women has always far outpaced that of the men. The nature of the production was different too: much of fanfic was and is overtly sexual, often in ways that subvert the dominant culture.
Take, for example, slash fiction -- the fanfic that puts two male characters in a sexual relationship, denoted by a slash mark (for example: Spock/Kirk). Slash is a large part of the fanfiction phenomenon, and one that has been studied intensely by a variety of university researchers. “It makes for a lively conference presentation,” one sociologist tells me dryly. Researcher Kristina Busse writes regularly and cogently on the often uneasy state of relations between male/female and professional/amateur in fandoms, citing the uniquely collaborative nature of fanfiction creation and consumption as creating a nurturing female space (although she does say that this analysis only tells ‘part of the story’).
On the surface, figuring out the popularity of Supernatural among women is not rocket science: as series regular Samantha Ferris tells me, “Those boys are hot.” But good-looking actors are not the only reason for the show’s popularity.
A quick perusal of a ‘love meme’ on an LJ fan journal gives plenty of additional evidence:
- I love my show because it does family drama like no-one else. I love the fucked-up dynamic of the Winchesters.
- I love it because of the awesome one-liners, the way a family hunts evil because it's the path they've been woven into (not simply 'chosen' like Buffy -- there's a big, wonderful, fucked-up plot behind it all). I love it because it doesn't take itself too seriously. I love that it's aimed at, well, a young audience, but it's not girly, poppish, or dumb.
- I love that family, above all else, is the most important thing there is. Whether it's because they're fucked in the head, broken, whatever -- and I love that too -- or because that's simply how it is... I love it.
- I love that Jared and Jensen are so close in real life. There is no way to fake that kind of friendship and genuine affection.
- How much they need each other/rely on each other/are there for each other.
- I love the acting. I love the interaction of Sam and Dean, the emotional bond that exists, no chick-flick moments necessary. I like that they spend most of their time bickering, but they fight back-to-back. I love the way they look at each other -- like they've known each other their whole lives. That's a remarkable acting achievement.
The fandom’s love of the family dysfunction is set in stark contrast against the purported popularity of Supernatural with American troops serving abroad. The basic premise of the show -- hunters of evil save innocent Americans in the face of public ignorance and even animosity -- is one that, on the surface at least, might appeal to those of a militaristic bent.
The beauty of Supernatural, its fans would argue, is that it’s what the fans want it to be. The female fandom doesn’t seem to care about the fact that it could be read as a product reinforcing hegemonic militaristic culture. For them, it’s about family. I don’t know if this is a particularly female characteristic; my evidence is mostly anecdotal. For example, my toddler daughter, when given a group of trucks, starting calling them daddy truck and mommy truck. My son, when given a family of dolls at the same age, smashed their heads together while making crashing noises.
The father of this progeny, my husband, Aaron Doyle, is also a media sociologist at Carleton University. As you might imagine, between working out groceries and school pick-up schedules, we talk a lot about media and gender. He identifies similar patterns in Internet use: “It's oversimplifying, but men tend more to go online to compete, to play fantasy sports or kill each other in online games; women tend more to go online to create community, to socialize.” Studies by the Pew Trust’s Internet & American Life Project [www.pewinternet.org] regarding gender differences with youth and the Internet bear this out (both groups also go online for porn, it should be noted).
Academics like to study products. It’s the easy route: you find the stuff, you study the stuff. But studying ephemeral community interactions? Like trying to grab that bar of soap in the bathtub. No surprise then that the academics of fan culture tend to focus on the central product (the show), the commercial products (the merchandise), and the fan-created products such as fanfic, vids, and 'zines. But there’s something else going on here, and it’s a powerful thing.
Once side by side with the star, the process is astonishingly fast: it only takes photographer Chris Schmelke three quarters of an hour to shoot the waiting fans with star Jensen Ackles. The fans ponied up $60 for the experience. Schmelke, involved in events like this since he was a teenager, has a lot respect for what’s going on between the fans and the actor. "I appreciate how important this is to the fans...It may be a short period of time, but for that period, time stands still for that person. Afterwards, when fans pick up their photo, many [say] that they don’t even remember having it taken."
Mostly the fans keep it together, some getting a brief hug and a nanosecond of star attention. The flash of the camera is constant. Outside, it’s a different story. Fans, some celebrating friendships that have spanned decades, continents, and different fandoms, console, comfort, and celebrate each other’s elation, many overcome by tears. Some have come from as far away as Japan and Australia. They are experiencing it together, and this is what seems to be the most essential aspect of the whole experience. Years from now, it might be a different show, a different venue, different stars, but the fact that they are together and witnessing each other’s emotional responses is what separates the fangrrl from the alpha geek.
John, however unlikely, is creating a legacy. He says he doesn’t know another soul at the con; I watch him over the course of the weekend, and it seems to be true. John isn’t there to interact. His experience of fandom appears to be about creating a personal happy place, not necessarily to socialize in a community.
In the vendor’s room, where fans can buy T-shirts, photos, and collectible plates, there’s a table set up by Fandom Rocks [www.fandom-rocks.com], a fan-run organization that encourages donations to fan-approved charities. Some of the selected charities refer to series arcana, such as the Lawrence Animal Shelter (in Lawrence, Kansas, home town to Supernatural’s fictitious Winchester family), and explains the otherwise slightly opaque choice of the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund (Papa Winchester was in the Marine Corps).
Hoping to better understand how female fans have affected the show itself, I knock back a few beers with Samantha Ferris, who plays roadhouse owner and kick-ass hunter-mother Ellen Harvelle on Supernatural. I note that in terms of fandoms, she’s been around the block; she doesn’t argue it. At 39, she’s been involved in fan-popular shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Stargate-SG 1, The Sentinel, Smallville, and The 4400. Nothing, she says, has prepared her for Supernatural.
“At first, I was just brought on in a small part. The fans, man, what they write sometimes. Poor Alona [Tal, who played Ellen’s daughter Jo, a possible love-interest for one the leads], the stuff that fans wrote about her. It can really get to you. The fans didn’t know what to make of me; I was this mother figure, this strong woman.” Positive fan reaction kept her in the game. “Eric [Kripke, series creator and executive producer] was getting lots of letters, wanting me to stay. He reads all that. He takes it into account.”
Even so, this season new characters -- young, sexy, and female -- are being introduced to the show, and are facing active fan displeasure. Ferris shrugs, a veteran of the business. “[The network] wants more T & A,” she says bluntly. “But you’re only as good as your fans. They’re the ones that make you sink or swim.” So far, plans are afoot to bring Ferris’s character back this season.
Funny how the fans themselves are behind an older woman /younger man pairing. The fans have invented it, explored it online, have rejected the romances otherwise suggested by the show’s producers. It’s the Powers That Be that are against seeing Ellen/Dean onscreen. The PTB are, of course, men.
With a couple of exceptions. One is Sera Gamble, a series producer and writer. She’s known around the Supernatural fandom as the writer from whom you can expect an episode unafraid to explore the emotional underpinnings of the characters. It’s perhaps no coincidence that both Ferris and Gamble keep online blogs to make themselves accessible to fans in a way that other show insiders have resisted. One of the most prominent women who is part of the Supernatural landscape is the CW Network’s Director of Entertainment, Dawn Ostroff. Ostroff has not won over Supernatural fans, who cite her lack of commitment to the show and sometimes credit her with the introduction of the aforementioned ‘T & A’ element, perhaps an effort to appeal to a younger male viewership.
The fandom holds the series to a fairly high standard. Just because they love the show doesn’t mean that fans consume it without question.
In a recent episode, Dean Winchester asked disparagingly of his patently heterosexual brother, “Dude, could you be more gay?” Online, the discussion boards exploded. Most fans felt the term was derogatory and were offended. Earlier this year, vidder Luminosity released ‘Women’s Work’, which compiled images of women in Supernatural. When put together as a montage, the weight of evidence is shocking: most women in the show are murdered or murderers. The violence against women was clearly evident.
Perhaps most telling was that the fandom embraced the vid; it was shared virtually and almost instantaneously via the biggest online discussion groups and through online recommendations in LJ communities. These fans are more than just passive consumers, empty vessels ready for their weekly cargo of the CW Network’s product. They are fangrrls; they are taking the product and making it their own, often in defiance of the messaging that the producers wish to convey. To paraphrase pop culture theorist John Fiske, meaning is made by the consumer, not the producer.
Some mainstream media outlets have suggested that fandoms are fickle and that producers of entertainment product should be wary of listening to fans too closely (see Entertainment Weekly’s article and a discussion thereof in Henry Jenkin’s blog. However, it is the steadfastness of fandom that impresses me, the fact that some fangrrls are still writing fanfic for shows that last aired during the Nixon administration. And they’re still talking to each other about it, with passion. This doesn’t seem remotely fickle to me.
More than risky, it’s expensive. Big cons are commercial ventures; this one is organized by Creation Entertainment. Buying a gold ticket sets fans back -- for a weekend ‘gold pass’, attendees paid close to $400. Online, some fans express their deliberate boycott of such huge economic ventures, opting for cheaper fan-run cons.
But for most the experience pays off. In the LJ postings after the Chicago con, fangrrls write of their experiences, almost all glowing, almost all ending with the sentiment, “OMG, I could sleep for a week.” In her blog, Samantha Ferris summed up her Chicago con experience like this: “I have to mention something that I found very profound. A lot of women had mentioned that they loved Ellen because she was a strong, confident, no B.S. kind of woman...but look at all the people who came to the convention on their own! There were a lot of them. That shows amazing confidence and strength. My hat goes off to them.”
Millions of fanfic stories have been written -- the Supernatural fandom produces at least thirty stories a day -- never mind the icons, the fanart, podcasts, meta (critique), reviews, fiction challenges and recommendations. That’s a lot of creative output, but it’s a crass measure of fandom love. Like the academics, it’s easy for me to slap a number on it because it’s there. And although I’m impressed by this groundswell of creative activity, it’s the image of fans hugging each other at the con that’s going to stay with me longest.
Elizabeth Todd Doyle is a comic book writer and museum curator in Ottawa, Canada. Lizz Sisson is a freelance photographer living and working in Chicago. They are working on a book together about women in male-dominant subcultures. They’ve been watching Supernatural since Season One, and met online in a discussion forum.