Episode 12 - Insider Interview transcript
Guest: Dr. Henry Jenkins
Emma: Welcome to the Slashcast Insider Interview. I'm Emma Grant, and this episode's interview segment is the second part of my interview with Dr. Henry Jenkins. In this part, Dr. Jenkins talks about gender issues in fandom, slash as a medium that allows people of different sexual orientations to talk to each other about sex and sexuality, and the extent to which slash is going mainstream as a genre. You can listen to the first part of this interview in episode 11 of Slashcast.
In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, you write that even though academia has traditionally viewed slash as a, quote, "a heterosexual perforation of queerness", end quote, that it's actually a place where people of different sexual orientations come together and re-imagine issues related to sex and sexuality. And I have to say that really reflects my own experience in fandom. In fact, in this podcast, we have a recurring segment that covers glbt news because it's an issue that's important to the slash community. We also, though, occasionally hear some rumblings from the gay community that slash is sexually exploiting gay men. What's your take on that?
Dr. Jenkins: Well, let's start with this notion, this sort of theory of shared bodies that I'm talking about. I think, when first academic writing about slash came out, everyone was so shocked that women were interested in male bodies making love to each other that, almost immediately, everyone fell into a heterosexual assumption and just wrote about, all of the early articles, mine included, were written as if this was straight women who wrote it. Now, at the time, to be fair, a lot of the people were trying to bury the presence of lesbians or other sexual orientations within the slash community. They were really reluctant to, and a lot of the slash writers that are out now, of that generation, were not out at the time we were doing that writing. Gradually, over time, it became abundantly clear that it was much more complex. That this was, this fantasy is a highly fluid thing, that what one imagines in fantasy and desires in fantasies may have very little of what you might actually want to act on in your own sexual- sexual practice. That even our notions of what one's sexual identity are more fluid and more complex and multi-layered than I think the simple language of straight women writing about gay men would suggest. So I've become very interested in the ways in which having bodies in common allows people to communicate across sexualities; that is, having straight people and gay people and bi and so forth write about the same men that they saw on television allows them to communicate in subtle and interesting ways the differences and similarities in their sexual desires and fantasies, it gives a common ground.
At a time over the same time period, the gay- you know, the queer community has fragmented more and more over identity politic issues, and it's difficult even among queer people to talk- between bis, lesbians, straights, uh, you know, trans, and so forth, that conversation's really difficult to have and slash allows them to have it. You know, I don't see it as exploitative of gay men. Part- most of the slash fans I talked to were not at all certain whether gayness, as a category, really accounts for what goes on in the slash relationship. And secondly, I think we all live in a world where different groups exploit each other's bodies for the purposes of their own sexual fantasies. Um, I don't think we lay claim to other people's sexual fantasies, I think we can't police people's sexual fantasies, and I think, uh, identity politics doesn't belong in that space. I think it's also, as your example of using, sort of covering gay politics in a podcast about slash suggests, many, many people have been politicized by slash to be aware of gay identity politics movements, to be more committed to see slash fans walk gay pride parades, to see them rally, you know, and write letters to the editor about gay marriage issues, and so forth, that it becomes a political identity in which they feel a commonality with the gay community politically because of their shared- the shared basis of their erotic fantasies. And I think to simply read it as exploitative is not to recognize how much it's given back and how important it is at the present time for there to be real communication across sexual- sexual groups.
Emma: Politics of gay rights issues, of glbt issues, is something that's become really important, it seems to me, in the last few years in the slash community. There's a lot of people who talk about coming into slash as being something that really opened their eyes to those issues and made them, you know, more tolerant and more open minded, and even gave them an opportunity to express and explore their own sexuality in ways they hadn't before. But on the other side of that, there's perceived to be this slash versus het divide in fandom where you have people who identify as being a slash fan or as being a het fan. So you have slash fans who are straight women who refuse to read fiction with male and female characters in a romantic relationship. Do you think that that's sort of the other extreme?
Dr. Jenkins: It is another extreme, although I would argue that it's probably less extreme now than it was a decade ago, where it really was- at least there is an acknowledgment that there are people who read slash or that one can be friends with someone who reads slash, even if you don't. It used to be such a sharp divide, and I think it still is to a large degree. But it's also a form of the shipwars. You know, the degree to which, even within- among slashers, there's heated disagreement about which couples are appropriate and which ones are not. And it's rather, really interesting. You know, there's a lot of work in queer theory about how we, as a society, construct good sex and bad sex, and that how relatively arbitrary those distinctions are, whether which acts appear in which category, and it's fascinating, as you move into sexual minorities, they still construct good and bad sex. They still have things that are appropriate and things that are inappropriate, and slashers, I think, are caught up in that same bind themselves, defining what's appropriate and what's an inappropriate erotic fantasy. Not saying this is something that appeals to me or doesn’t' appeal to me, but in a sense stepping over that line and imagine looking down on someone because they find something erotically charged or intellectually interesting or emotionally revealing that you simply don't want to- you know, you don't want to be near.
So it's a thousand ways in which our culture always erects walls around the good and bad forms of sexual desire, how shame works in our society to police what sexual fantasies are acceptable. I think fandom really needs to, speaking as a fan now, not as an academic, but I think fans should be the first people to be tolerant of other people's fantasies, whatever form they take, and should be open to creative experimentation and rewriting whatever form it takes. That doesn't mean you have to read someone else's stories if they follow something that you're spooked by, although I sometimes think it's a good idea to try it and find out, but it does mean you've got to tolerate their existence and fight for their right to write and circulate those stories, because we're all in a struggle over whether we're going to have a participatory culture or not and whether we're going- our erotic feelings and fantasies are going to be buried under shame or whether we're going to be free to acknowledge the importance of eroticism to human experience.
Emma: So sometimes fans say that slash just gets rougher and rougher in the sense that there's more fics that are explicit, that there's more kink- the kinks are going further, or even in a fandom like Harry Potter, where as you pointed out before, there's a lot of under aged characters involved, that slash- a lot of slash fans feel like the boundaries are being pushed more and more, and that this is something that didn't happen, say, ten, fifteen years ago. Do you think that's true, in your experience?
Dr. Jenkins: You know, I think- if it's true, and I haven't read enough systematically lately to make a claim one way or another, but if it's true, it's because pornography in general is caught up in this process, that pornography is about the emotional charge that's created around a moment of transgression. And so pornography itself has to set up norms and then cross over them, and as it's crossed over norms, they become- that process becomes habitualized. It becomes desensitized; it doesn't carry the same emotional shock, it doesn't carry the same erotic charge that it once did. And so you're- as a genre, pornography is always about advancing onto some new taboo space and then normalizing it, treating it as equal.
In some ways, that's what's progressive about pornography, that forms a sexuality that once would have been unthinkable, become acceptable and you begin to understand and tolerate sexual diversity within your culture as you go down that process. But it also means slash, or porn in general, always pushes towards the outer limits. For some writers of slash, I think it's about crossing their own emotional barriers, taking a risk as a writer, and if you write stories that fit squarely in the mainstream of slash, you haven't put yourself through that rite of passage, that ritual of violating the taboos you were raised with and entering into that space, and I think that's a very important part of it.
The other think that I think happened, it fifteen years ago at least, was that slash fan writers discovered some of the right queer theory and queer discourse, began to think about things like S&M in a very different way, and in a sense, slash became politized at that point and this attempt to desire- to explore alternative sexualities through slash, took a deep, deep root. And it started with really good writers, but as that stuff goes along, as it becomes less risky to write it, more and more mediocre writers and bad writers step into it, so that you end up with stories that are purely shocking rather than stories that are exploring the crossing of sexual taboos for the purpose of getting deeper inside the characters.
Emma: You made a post on your blog in September about a Kirk/Spock fanvid called Closer and that has really created a sensation in the corner of fandom that I'm in. In addition to that, you've also written about the difference between vidding and fan films, and you're particularly focusing on the gender gap there, and I think that it's not just an issue of slash versus het. For example, in the Buffy fandom, there are a lot of very shippy fanvids that are both het and slash, and almost all of them are created by women.
Dr. Jenkins: I think it's very clear that our culture sets different gender expectations about what are appropriate ways of expressing emotion, or even displaying interest in emotion. Um, you know, women in our society are taught to be interested in what people are feeling and to be drawn towards forms of literature whether it's soap opera, melodrama, romance stories, and so forth, which are about the emotional lives of characters. So it's not unexpected that women will produce works that really dig deep inside the psychology and emotional life of characters; that's what they do. Men are taught to be much more anxious about even showing interest in emotion, let alone the emotions they're feeling, so I think fanboy culture tends to be very ironic. It tends to sort of hold the things they like at a greater distance, in particular, to cut themselves off from some of the emotional dynamics of the work. So if you look in, say, Star Wars community, which is what I was writing about at the time I was pointed- I started talking about this difference between female fanvids and male fan writers- fan film makers, the Star Wars community embraced spoof really earlier on, and often very harsh spoof, and you see this in fanfiction writing by men as well. It often - not that women don't do spoof, but that much more men write spoofs in general and write them in ways that are just derogatory to the characters, as if they could only be interested in a form of fan culture by demonstrating they're there to make fun of it. Um, I see it also in reality's fan circles, where "Survivor Sucks" is the name of a, you know, one of the popular sites, or that recapping- the whole phenomena of recapping is a way of being interested, but not interested. Being interested, but not acknowledging that you have an emotional stake in what you're writing. And an awful lot of the male- of the male produced fan videos tend to work along those axes, whereas the female vids tend to get inside the characters' heads, pull the show close, have an interest in the emotional dynamic, the music, whether it's- is revealing, the subtext of emotion in relationship, whether it's a het relationship or a slash relationship, it's about that relationship.
Now, what I suggested about the Star Wars fan festivals, is that they have very clearly defined rules that result in women's work being nye on invisible. That is, the Star Wars fan community you can enter the contest by producing a spoof or a documentary, but not fanfiction. And at first my thought was, well, you know, the spoof- the fanfiction would use, if you're thinking about fanvids that uses a lot of existing footage and so forth, but it turns out that they would not except something that was totally staged, but that added to or expanded the direction of the story in any way, because Lucas is very clear on wanting fans to admire what he's produced, but not to make their own contributions to the mythology. So the effect of that rule is that the Star Wars fan film festivals have almost entirely male contributions. And when I mentioned this to- in an interview on a Star Wars fansite, people said, "Well, women just don't make videos. Fan videos are all made by men. I've never seen a Star Wars fan video made by a woman." And it was sort of an eye opener, because that was exactly the point I was making. That if you have structural rules where one kind of culture production can highly visible in recognition to the film maker and so forth, and the other, for copyright reasons, has to hide below ground, no one's seen it before. So when the Closer thing came out, I was really struck how many people were saying to me, "I've never seen anything like this is really amazing, this is really cool." And it's a really well made video, and I admire, you know, those two authors' work a lot. I think they've done some of the best videos I've seen in recent years, but the reaction was not, "This is a well made video," but that the existence of this video at all was startling to people when it made it's way onto Youtube. And I think it's because this form of film making has been so hidden, so closeted, and I think some of the anxiety about Closer going public was that it went public without the author's permission, that people sort of took it and made it public, and it left the author feeling that they were really at risk, that there was no protection for an author who made a video like that. And part of what I wanted to at least do in my blog post, was to provide a context. If people were going to see this video anyway, if it was making that circulation, to provide a context to at least understand what was going on, what's unique about it, what's part of the larger tradition, what some of the politics around this writing- this video making were. So that's what I tried to do in that particular post. And the response in fandom, and outside of fandom, was very good about that post.
Emma: It's very interesting to me because I think that a lot of us who are in the community don't really think about things being posted and circulated on Youtube as really exposing the community. I mean, we pass things among each other and say, "Oh, oh have you seen this vid?" And it wasn't really until I read your blog post that I thought about what that meant. That if larger societies outside of fandom got a sense of what slash vidders are doing, what that might mean for us.
Dr. Jenkins: Yea, I mean, Youtube is this strange and interesting space right now, where commercially produced content and amateur produced content circulate side by side. That all kinds of sub-cultural communities, which once would have been hidden from view and wouldn't have known each other's existence, are there, again, side by side in space. And you can start to see, something just drops like a pebble in a pond on Youtube, get picked up by different bloggers, you know, get moved further and further into the blogosphere, then get picked up by some place like Salon, then get picked up by maybe one of the television shows. There's certainly been examples of lots of Youtube content that's made it's way onto television and has become part of the public discussion. And then you finally get to the point where you're starting to see films and tv shows make fun of specific pieces of amateur content, like the Backstreet Boys spoof with the Chinese kids, that's made it's way onto some sitcoms this season. So you have this whole cycle where stuff enters in a fairly low key and informal way, and because of the interconnectedness of the digital world and mass media today, just works its way up faster and faster. And Closer was one example where that was taking place. By the time it reaches Boing Boing and Susey Bright and then Salon, it's moved further and further up that chain and the likely hood of the news coverage picking it up, or someone, you know, finding it's way onto television, is fairly high. But when you put something on Youtube, you really have no idea which pieces of that content is going to get picked up. There's such a mass amount of it, the odds of any given piece of content going through that process is low, but the risk of it happening is higher than I think people might imagine.
Emma: You know, the Oscars last year featured something that I think most of the people that I know in fandom regarded as a slash fanvid. It was done almost as a spoof of Brokeback Mountain, but you can read either way. It was this montage of images of cowboys from old movies declaring their love for each other. And after that came up, even though I think it was intended to be a spoof, a lot of fans looked at that and said, "You know what? Slash is going mainstream." Do you think that's true? Is there a sense in which slash is going mainstream and is that a good thing?
Dr. Jenkins: Well, Cynthia and I looked at that video at the Oscars and we both said, "That's the slashy thing I've ever seen on American television." It was really an amazing piece of work. And I'm sure it was made by people who had seen slash fanvids; I don't think there's any question in my mind that that was informed by fan practice. I mean, I don't know that for a fact, but just looking at the choices of shots and how they were combined and so forth. And I've seen, you know, I certainly know that there is a lot of that stuff gets seen and talked about in corporate circles. Um, I think we sooner or later will start to see more of it become more mainstream. Is it a good thing? I- in so far as slash is a cultural and political project that changed the ways we think about sexual difference in our society, it's a good thing. In so far as it's about unauthorized appropriation that takes place within a self defined community of users who want to share with each other and want not to be exposed to outside scrutiny, not necessarily a good thing. So I think we've got to decide what we want out of slash. But just as the internet made slash more public than it was before and brought in massive numbers of writers and changed, fundamentally, the nature of the relationship between readers and writers in slash, going mainstream will change slash in some fundamental ways, and we will never be able to anticipate all those ways in which it will change it. Um, I think society would be better off if slash was accepted as one viable way of reading television and if the ideas in slash about male bonding, male friendship and emotional intimacy and so forth, and sexual acceptance were more widely available within society. I don't know whether it would be better for slash fandom, if that was the case.
Emma: So you just said that you were reluctant to even speculate about where all of this might be going, but do you have any thoughts about where- what the future holds for slash fans and how the ways that we participate in fandom might change in the next ten years?
Dr. Jenkins: Oh, I couldn't have predicted where we are now when I write Textual Poachers, I can tell you that much. I don't claim to have any great insight into the future, other than sort of looking at large scale trends that are affecting all media. And that's really what Convergence Culture is trying to get at. Textual Poachers was written at a time when fandom was largely hidden from view and largely seen as exotic or, you know, marginal in the way the culture operated. I talk at one point about fans as rogue readers. Convergence Culture's written in a moment when fans are absolutely central to the way the culture operates. That if you talk- if you look at the logic shaping the media industries today, it's all about tapping the passions and enthusiasms of the most committed users. There’s a new economic value being placed upon the investments we make as fans of television shows. Um, the challenge is no one quite agrees on what the terms of participation is going to be. That's what all the intellectual property debates that are going on right now are about. It's a struggle over terms of participation: what can we do and what can't we do in culture. I think that struggle affects everything in our society right now. It's what people are talking about when they talk about web 2.0, is a world where consumer generated- consumers are shaping the flow of media and redefining media at the point- at the moment they bring it into their lives, and circulating- talking back to television. And that's what fans have been doing for a long period of time. There are going to be fortunes made on the basis of these kinds of fans behaviors, as companies warm to embrace it, and we're starting to see that around Youtube and Flickr and MySpace and so forth. These are all ways of embedding fan practices in technology and then opening those technologies up to larger communities.
What that does to slash, I think, is going to be an open question. I think we will see more slash-like ideas and more slash content flowing into the mainstream. Whether we- whether the slash fans want it or not, I think it's gonna happen because of the nature of the way our culture's operating right now. I think slash fans will find, you know, slash is going to be more global, in such a world. Already slash fans have certainly found their way to manga and anime, and have become very interested in Japanese content. But I think as media flow has become more global, they're gonna discover fandoms in other parts of the world, whether it's Korea, or India, or Hong Kong, or Nigeria, or Australia. All different parts of the world are generating content that fans will be drawn toward and you will start to see the emergence of slash fandoms around shows that never were commercially available in this market place. That's all long happened for British shows, but I think it's going to happen more generally. You're going to see people in those parts of the world writing and reading slash, and bringing their notions about sexuality to the table. I've certainly done- I've had a student who's done work on same sex identities in India and there's a totally- the word gay would be meaningless to describe anything that takes place in the Indian context, or very little that takes place, except for the most westernized segments of the population. So we're going to discover forms of sexual identity and desire which are totally unknown in the west, but slash may become the ideal vehicle for us to talk about and learn about those people in other parts of the world. The fact that we're attaching them to the same tv shows, but that what comes out are going to be very different sexual fantasies, I think is going to be a really rich and eye opening experience for the slash fan community to deal with. And certainly in the time that I've been reading slash, I've just seen it move from a mostly Anglo-American phenomenon to something that ranges across a much larger geographic sweep, and I think that's just the beginning. That's the biggest change we're going to be looking at in the next decade.
Emma: Do you have any, um, advice or words of wisdom for us in the slash community as we sort of look ahead?
Dr. Jenkins: Well, I- the copyright is the biggest struggle that I think we're all going to face, and what I- and I think part of the problem right now is that there hasn't been a willingness of sort of public law groups to step up and really embrace defending fanfiction, that the electronic frontier foundation was prepared to go to the mat over Napster, but has never taken up a case around fanfiction that I've known of. But I and others are pushing pretty hard right now to get the legal community to pay more attention to this. That Convergence Culture is being discussed on the University of Chicago Law School site, and people are asking really interesting questions about the legal status of fanfiction. Some of the leading lawyers today, Lawrence Lessig, Youchi Binkler, and others, Randy Picker, and others are sort of taking on ownership of this debate about fans, and see it as an important struggle over participation and fair use in the foreseeable future. SO I certainly think if fans find themselves in that legal battle, that I would hope they'd reach out to me and other academics who've been writing about this stuff, and I think we can help get fans into some networks that would help them deal with some of these legal struggles. I think the pieces are in place that if there were to be a test case, we'd actually be able to carry it to court and find out once and for all whether slash is a form of parody, whether it's a form of critical commentary, how it's covered by fair use, and so forth. My hope, though, at the present, you know- my hope is that we don't have to come to that. 'Cause I think what we're seeing is the companies are becoming much more tolerant of fan writing in general. Slash is the last part that they're going to embrace; they're most frightened of slash. But I think they're realizing the value of our investments and are willing to tolerate users taking their content and doing creative things with it, as long as they continue to be consumers and continue to be investors in the properties they produce. So I think we're seeing change on the corporate side, where I'm seeing less and less cease and desist letter, and changes on the legal side; the legal community seems to be more educated about fanfiction and more willing to stand up and defend fans than it's ever been before. So either way, I think fandom stands to win on this, but I think it's still risky times and I can certainly imagine, as slash becomes more publicly visible, that it could spring itself in a collision course with intellectual property owners that are sort of remaining out of fray up to now.
Emma: I think that we need to end it there. You've been really generous with your time and I really appreciate you taking the time to come and talk with me and be on Slashcast. Thank you so much.
Dr. Jenkins: My pleasure. Let me know when it comes up, I want to- I'd love to see the response to it.
Emma: Absolutely, absolutely.
And that concludes my interview with Dr. Henry Jenkins. Please check out the post-show post for links to Dr. Jenkins's blog and published works, and please leave comments and questions about the interview there. There are also two outtakes from the interview that you can find on the post-show post, bits of discussion that had to be cut from the show for time reasons, but are still interesting to listen to. That's all for the Insider Interview for now, and we'll see you next time.
Transcribed by kriken