I’m on a Podcast! (Plus fanfiction, strong female characters, and other randomness)

11 Sep

This summer I was asked to join a university friend (from my undergrad) on his podcast to talk about fanfiction. This was a new and pretty fun experience for me. I love being able to talk about my research and my interests in any situation, but this was also fun because I was able to catch up with a friend in preparation for the actual conversation. I also really enjoy any speaking situation where I can assume an audience understands a lot of what I’m saying without added explanation. Fan conventions are great for this, for example, because I can use fan terminology without censoring myself. Additionally, I had just completed my MA and it was wonderful to speak to that research without the stress of an oral examination and in anticipation of my upcoming PhD research. I will say that Luke and I obviously don’t share as many similar fandoms or viewing interests outside of Whedon products, but the Firefly (2002-2003) connection is enough for a large chunk of conversation. I’d also like to credit Luke with being the person who introduced me to Firefly, so it makes sense that we would discuss it throughout the podcast. I wanted to link to the podcast here, but also comment on it a little bit more. It is difficult to have this kind of a conversation and still keep the timeframe close to an hour and I always have more to say about pretty much everything.

First of all: the podcast is “Episode 38: Jessica Bay” on Luke Annand‘s Ramblings of a Guy From Regina podcast. Luke has been doing this since 2010 and he regularly gets former students and other friends and colleagues to join him for interesting conversations. I’m fairly certain I’m the only one of those friends that chose to pursue film studies over film production, and I’m also the only one, as far as I know, who has continued on with the hopes of a career in academia.

So, the first thing I have to say is that I made a couple mistakes (probably more than I noticed), so I apologize for those missteps (for example, the episode I reference on Supernatural is “Meta Fiction,” not “Meta Writing.”). That’s one of the problems with recording a conversation that’s not scripted, particularly first thing in the morning, but I stand by my comments generally. I’d also like to apologize for most of the background noise. The timeline required I was visiting with my brother’s family during the recording so my niece and their dog make audio appearances for parts of the conversation. Beyond that, I think we had an interesting conversation about a lot of things.

I really liked the discussion of young adult adaptations, but feel like it could have gone a lot further. This is an area that I’m going to be writing about for the next four years with my current research so I’m sure I will flesh it out a lot more with time, but I think that some of the studios are doing a great job of adapting YA novels for the screen. Unfortunately, other studios are falling short of spectacular. I think the biggest problem in those cases is a lack of understanding of the audience and, therefore, tone of the film. My example in the podcast is The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) because I was disappointed in this film. I have another blog planned that will delve into this issue more, but the biggest problem in my mind is that the creators of this film chose to remove almost all of the main female character’s agency. Other films though, have done a great job of adapting the material for filmic consumption. As much as I tend to rally behind fangirls and fans in general, I am not saying that the poor examples of adaptations failed to listen to the fans, or that the great adaptations did what the fans wanted. In fact, I think part of the problem with City of Bones is a reliance on the fan (and author) voice. I think there definitely has to be a balance between what the fans want and what will make a good film and/or sell the story to others. Including little Easter Eggs for the fans of the source material is a great way to accomplish this. DC/Warner Bros/The CW are doing a great job of this with Arrow (2012-), as are Marvel/ABC with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D(2013-). Not only have these shows gained strong followings of both existing and non-comic book fans, they have also spawned a rebirth in comic book television. Adding little-known existing comic book characters or naming streets after comic creators or even returning to a beloved version of a character’s costume are all nods to the comic book fans that let them know they are being recognized, while not becoming a love letter to the fans or the source material. Regardless, I am excited for more successful YA adaptations that continue to feature strong female characters.

The Rule

From Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (c.1985)

On the subject of strong female characters, I think it is important to note that I really do think it is necessary to have diversity … of all kinds. Strong characters are not all physically, mentally, or emotionally strong, but they are real representations. This does not mean that Wonder Woman can’t be a strong character because she is not a realistic representation of any woman as superheroes do not exist. It does mean that Wonder Woman can be a real representation of a woman who just happens to have super human abilities. The character should come before the abilities or the necessities of plot or any other story element that removes personality from female characters. We have more than enough representations of how this can be achieved in traditionally male-dominated genres to prove that women as attractive accessories or plot devices are no longer necessary. I’d also like to reiterate here that the Bechdel Test is not a real test and it is not, by any means, a marker of quality.  This test really is the lowest standard that we who want diversity in our media are asking of creators when it comes to female characters. Women and girls in movies should be able to have a conversation together about something other than a man. Male characters regularly have conversations together about something other than women — often the actual plot of the film, in fact. The Bechdel Test doesn’t even begin to cover other elements of diversity such as race, class, sexuality, or genders other than female, for example, and Hollywood still has a difficult time passing the test. Why does this matter? Well, women are half of the population, they should represent more of the media we consume. Likewise, women contribute an increasing amount of the profit for such media in almost all genres. Finally, women and girls should be able to see themselves onscreen in roles other than mute love interest so that they can see themselves in more diverse roles in reality.

On a lighter note, I will mention that I’m not embarrassed by my high school Shakespeare fanfiction. I do not think it is necessarily well-written, though I haven’t looked at it in ages, but I am not embarrassed I wrote it. Our teacher gave us an assignment and I decided to challenge myself by writing a sequel to MacBeth in period verse. My issue with it is that my understanding of the dialect and rhyming scheme were not well-researched (I was 16 years old and it was the early 1990s, before the Internet could answer every question I could ever have), and it was common for me to complete assignments at the last minute so my plot suffered from time constraints. I would probably do it again given the chance — and am bolstered, in fact, by the currently popular Shakespearean adaptations of pop culture icons such as Star Wars or Doctor Whonot that I would suggest my abilities are at this level, but I would consider them in my own reimaginings — though I may want to spend more time on its completion. I think that the act of creating any fan work is worth the time and effort put into it, and that we should not be afraid to claim this work as our own. In fact, the movement within fandom (as within visual arts in general) is to give and claim credit appropriately to recognize the work that fans do as valid and as having value. By disowning or ignoring our fan products, we suggest that they are “less than.” Less than “valid” works by paid creators. Less than “original” work. I do not begrudge people who choose to remain anonymous, but I do think that we should not disown works because the genre itself is seen as inherently poor.

I have so many feelings about all of the shows we discussed on the podcast that I may have to write blogs on all of them. I have proposed a paper on Sleepy Hollow (2013-), a show I love, and I will probably write it even if our panel is not accepted. I think the podcast shows I have an interest in a few shows, even if it does focus on Supernatural (2005-). I think this focus comes from the fact that Luke and I are Facebook friends and I was posting a fair amount of Supernatural-related images earlier in the year. This is my fandom for fun. I am interested in what is happening with the show, but I am really just there to enjoy it and the fandom. There are a number of fan studies scholars working on this fandom and the show itself already so I don’t feel a need to develop a project surrounding it, but I also think that I really just want to be allowed to completely fangirl over something. The two most prominent scholars on the Supernatural fandom (Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen) discuss their own difficulties crossing the line from academic to fan and back again in their first works related to the show (Fandom at the Crossroads is the book aimed at the academic audience and begins by discussing their reservations and difficulties with their dual status — a problem that many acafans struggle with — while Fangasm is accessible to the fans themselves). This, of course, doesn’t mean I don’t think critically about the show or the fan works I enjoy, but most fans engage critically with their favourite products. In the podcast Luke complains about digging deeply into franchises and developing debates that can last decades (as I said, I am definitely in the “Han shot first” camp), but it is this kind of engagement that most resembles media criticism (an argument made by Paul Booth in his Digital Fandom: New Media Studies) and makes the case for active rather than passive viewers of content.

As I read back through this, I realize that it rambles quite a bit and has become a collection of thoughts and ideas loosely related to the podcast. I am only slightly sorry for that. Please listen to the podcast and let me know what you think. As I mentioned in a previous blog on the public humanities, I think engagement outside of academia is important to the dissemination of research and content. For that reason, I am open to the possibility of doing this kind of thing again.

[Edited: I originally stated that Luke has been doing his podcast since we were in university, but he started it in 2010.]

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