Re-posted From Tumblr: Princess Tutu, Media Analysis and Feminism

This is an entry from my old Tumblr (the one I deleted about a month ago). I was requested to make this available again, so I dug it out of my archives and reposted it. I first wrote this on February 5, 2014.


I’ve thought a lot about what frustrates me about social justice conversations about media on Tumblr, and something that Gabbo articulated in response to a post I made about FMA (of course) keeps coming back to me. It’s not just that the social-justice conversations push out every other way of analyzing media – though that’s part of it – but the way people are talking about it. They’re making representation arguments, and not thematic arguments.

Representation and “strong female characters” are important, but it’s frequently a very…surface-y way of looking at a narrative. It’s also primarily a systematic problem, rather than an issue with one particular narrative. Even one or two “badass” female/POC/LGBTQ characters doesn’t necessarily mean a show is overall progressive, which usually has far more to do with its themes. So, you see people using the “representation” argument to completely miss the real point of the story with regard to social-justice narratives…in both directions. There’s plenty of using it to beat up on a fairly progressive story, and using it to applaud a more reactionary one.

But perhaps what’s most frustrating is when those things line up, and there is a good feminist reading to be had but… people won’t talk about other than “it has badass ladies!” Like with anime, I think the only ones where I’ve seen a lot of discussion on how it promotes feminism through its themes are ones where it’s really obvious, like Revolutionary Girl Utena or Sailor Moon. Otherwise, it’s all about “this has great ladies you should watch it because ladies!” which is just the tip of the iceberg.

One such example of this is Princess Tutu. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I consider it a “feminist” anime, since for me, that definition requires actually focusing on issues related to gender roles and sexism, not merely having good female characters. Ahiru and Rue are great, don’t get me wrong, but writing women well and focusing on their stories seems like something we should expect from media, not something that gets you a gold star. But as I’ve delved more into the themes of Princess Tutu in working on my thesis, I’ve discovered there is a lot there to qualify it for a feminist reading. It’s not as explicit as it is with something like Utena, but it’s there.

(ETA: SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES)

For example, there’s the issue of “agency” and how it’s denied to women by a patriarchal society that dictates our choices. I’m not a fan of how the concept gets distorted on Tumblr, as you know, but it is an important issue. Princess Tutu is all about the characters in the story regaining it from the writer who controls them from beyond the grave. Drosselmeyer could easily be read as a patriarchal figure and so the characters’ struggle against him, to be allowed to design their own fates rather than fit into his boxes, is a feminist one. I don’t know if that’s what would argue, since two of those four main characters are male (including the one with the overall least amount of agency throughout the story, Mytho), but then again… someone could counter that saying that Mytho’s and Fakir’s arcs show how patriarchy can hurt men, too.

More of what I’d say would be from the “weaponized femininity” angle: again, another idea that gets distorted a lot on Tumblr, but which I think is pretty awesome when that’s really what’s going on… and I strongly believe that is the case with Princess Tutu. This anime is a truly genuine case of a feminine-coded “compassionate” value system triumphing over masculine-coded “aggressive” one. Ahiru heals people through the Power of Love, expressed through dance. Rue’s crowning moment is about compassion and sacrifice, and about learning what genuine love is and that she is both deserving of it and capable of giving it to others. But it doesn’t end there. Because the thing that makes Princess Tutu really and truly feminist in my mind, and that makes it a shining example of “weaponized femininity” is that this – get this – isn’t limited to the girls!

A lot of what bothers me about how (distortion of) the “weaponized femininity” concept is used on Tumblr is that it is gender-essentialism (so, a type of sexism) dressed up in a progressive veneer. People are so quick to talk about how awesome it is that this or that female character is admirable and courageous but still girly, but still a non-combatant… and ignore that the boys are still being praised and held up as role models for their masculine combativeness. The boys are still marching off to battle while the girls stay home. They’re not praising femininity, they’re praising fitting within your gender role. And that’s not progressive and it’s certainly not feminist, no matter how you slice it.

But Princess Tutu doesn’t do that. Its weaponized femininity, its uplifting of feminine-coded values like compassion and sacrifice and that someone can be a lover and accomplish just as much as a fighter, extends to the boys. It’s truly committed to upholding peace and compassion and creativity, all those things that make up feminine-coded “ethics of care”, over masculine-coded aggression. Both its boys have some shades of this – Mytho can only become the heroic prince through gaining his heart back, after all, and through his friends’ compassion – but the big one here is Fakir.

If it’s not obvious, Fakir is my favorite character in Princess Tutu. I’ve joked it’s because his superpower is writing, which is what I do best, but it’s more than that. Fakir’s arc is about him embracing his identity as a lover, not a fighter, and realizing his talents and abilities matter even if they aren’t the ones that he’s been told they should be. His “place” in Drosselmeyer’s story is as the knight, destined to protect the princess (Ahiru) with his sword. (And die in the process, because Drosselmeyer’s an asshole who doesn’t care if he wastes the potential of the best fucking character in the entire damn story.) But Fakir’s not very good at being a knight, and he doesn’t really want to be one except that he’s told that that’s what he’s expected to do. More or less, Fakir can be read as an example of how boys are hemmed-in by gender roles, too, since the patriarchy tries to force him to be a masculine combatant that he’s just not.

Fakir’s arc in the second half of the show is all about embracing his real talents, which are about creativity. It turns out he has a real knack for writing, and a rare gift that he can change the fates of his friends and himself by putting pen to paper. Ah, there’s that classic adage about the limited power of war and aggression: the pen is mightier than the sword! That’s Fakir. And it’s in using this power that he’s ultimately able to help save Gold Crown Town.

(Oh, and we can also go on about how much he, like Rue, realizes his talents through love – realizes it through his love for Ahiru – but I’m not going to turn this essay into gushing about my OTP. I won’t, I won’t!)

So through Fakir, we see that our culture’s bias toward masculinity and masculine-coded types of conflict-resolution hurts everyone, and femininity and feminine-coded values are presented as liberation for everyone. It’s not about fitting in with gender roles, because femininity is valued across the board. And it is only through embracing that femininity that our characters can fight those trying to destroy and control them, so it is truly weaponized.

I’m not a huge fan of “difference feminism” (where this “promote feminine values” stuff comes from) a lot of the time, but I do agree that the bias against the feminine in our society is a reflection of society’s bias against women, and as such, it hurts women even if they’re more masculine. And it hurts men, too, in how it discourages them from understanding the women around them, and forces them to try to be someone they’re not if they have any feminine qualities. Princess Tutu‘s embrace of femininity as a source of power is, thus, subversive and feminist.

But we never get to talk about this when we make issues of social-justice all about representation. It’s important, but the issue of whether a work as a whole is progressive or not should really come down to its ideas, its themes… what it teaches people. And it’s not only because focusing on representation only can give undue credit to not-so-progressive works, but that we rob the ones that are doing it right of what is truly interesting about them, why they are doing it right. And one of those is Princess Tutu.

That said, even Princess Tutu has way more to it than just how it deals with feminism, and those conversations are getting pushed to the wayside, too. But I have to save that shit for my thesis…

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Twelve Days of Anime #1: From Tumblr to ANN–How I “Became” A Critic

dost day 3

This first post in 12 Days of Anime is one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and it’ll probably be one of the longest. I want to keep up my engagement with this neat little aniblogging project, but with so many Ph.D. application deadlines coming up in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got a lot of work to do, so some of the pieces will be shorter. (Knowing me, they will probably still be really long by most people’s standards, though.) I prepared this one for a while beforehand, since it’s kind of a history of where I’ve been as a critic and where I’m going. And the story of my engagement with the anime fandom on Tumblr, since I can’t tell the story of myself as an anime critic without telling that one, too.

I criticize Tumblr and its approach to media a lot, but I wouldn’t be here without that website. It didn’t make me a media critic; I’d tried off-and-on throughout my history of “posting prose on the Internet” to get other people to pay attention to my thoughts on media. I was active in music and nerd-franchise “fandoms” on Xanga as a teenager, and I had various abortive attempts at media blogs throughout college. (One of the highlights was an attempt at a “queer analysis” of Harold and Maude.) And of course, I’m focusing my graduate studies and future career on musicology, which is basically the academic version of doing this with music. My early Internet attempts didn’t really get off the ground: Xanga was a fandom community through and through, and while my followers were content to gush with me about whatever song or band member I liked, they lost interest when I wanted to break that music apart and talk about how it worked. They made me feel like I was just a pretentious band geek showing off how much more I knew about music than they did. (Fun fact: If you become a critic, this attitude will never go away. You just learn to start ignoring it, since it normally boils down to either “I’m not interested in criticism in the first place” or “I’m jealous, because I want to do what you’re doing but don’t know how.”) I wasn’t able to get an audience for my previous blogs without having previously established myself in a community interested in that stuff, and so inevitably I got busy with school or other websites and they withered away. It was only on Tumblr where it stuck—stuck enough that it gradually morphed into getting a regular gig talking about media for a much bigger audience.

(Autostraddle also played a big role in this, obviously, but I was originally picked up by them to write about news and politics. I started writing about anime and other media for them largely because I wanted to and that was because I was having so much fun doing it on Tumblr. So while it was the Autostraddle writing samples that have probably done the most for my career, I still think Tumblr played the bigger role and is the more interesting conversation.)

Tumblr has a lot of issues in how it executes its ideas, but it still sure is nice to have a large social-media community with such a strong focus on social justice, progressivism and especially activism. You probably wouldn’t have so many young people protesting in the streets over Ferguson and Eric Garner right now if not for communities like Tumblr. It’s also nice to see so many people interested in engaging the media they like on how it deals with marginalized groups like women, racial minorities, the LGBT community and people with disabilities. It was a lot of this focus that made me fit into Tumblr’s community so well, since I’ve been looking at media that way for a long time. I took a lot of classes in women’s studies, queer theory and the like in college, and spent a lot of my free time on feminist blogs like Pandagon and Jezebel. Since I was already thinking about media a lot as a music major, it was natural those interests would merge. Tumblr gave me an audience for that. I was talking about the media issues they wanted to hear about—”social justice” and so forth—and I was usually more knowledgeable about stuff like film form than most of the people I was engaging with on there.

JJBA PB Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 2.00.21 AM

But that’s another reason I had to eventually move on from the site. A lot of people like being the “smartest person in the room”; I’m not one of them. I like being someone who feels like I can learn something from the people around me, and when I realized that most of Tumblr and I were dealing with media from such fundamentally different starting points, I knew I was never going to last there. I’ve talked about this on my post about fanfiction culture, the difference between “fiction-as-world” and “fiction-as-message,” and my critical approach (and I think, most critics’) is more about the latter. I also think it has to do with what Film Crit Hulk calls the four levels of media consumption; Tumblr is largely dealing with level 1 and (especially) 2 consumption, and I think most stuff I would truly call “criticism”—and certainly the vast majority of what I personally find useful and enlightening—is level 3 or 4.

So in a sense, where Tumblr stumbles is the same place where sites like TVTropes stumble: there’s too much overlap between the “fandom” part of engaging with media and the “analysis” of it. And those will always be strange bedfellows, because “fandom” is about engaging with media to such a personal level that it becomes a part of your identity—inherent in the name, in fact—and about escapism, about treating media as a separate world you can jump into when life gets you down. Not that critics don’t engage with media like that in their own way sometimes: I certainly have plenty of conversations with fellow critic friends about shipping and headcanons and other fan nonsense, and I think most people become critics or artists because of a strong personal investment in the media they consume. But “analysis” is fundamentally the opposite of that highly-personal, escapist approach, because it’s about taking apart the media to see why it works that way and, if it’s focused on issues like sexism or racism, about looking at how this thing you love might be subconsciously feeding you some awful messages. This is why, as long as Tumblr clings to “fandom” approaches to media, their “feminist media criticism” will always be limited to self-congratulatory back-pats for why they like what they like and weaponizing it against people who like the “wrong” things. Good criticism, though, acknowledges that art can have other redeeming qualities, and in fact this is often how stuff with pretty toxic messages succeeds in seducing people who should know better. Great art has a long history of being weaponized by all sorts of horrible ideologies for a reason. None of us are immune to that, and it says little about how good or bad of feminists or other flavors of progressives we are.

To give a specific example of the mentality I’m criticizing here, let’s talk about “headcanons”—specifically of the queer/trans/autistic variety that are so popular on Tumblr. (For those who don’t know, a “headcanon” is a personal belief or theory about something in fiction–usually a character–that isn’t “official” canon but may as well be for the person expressing it. Think TVTropes’ Wild Mass Guessing feature, or check out the many Tumblrs devoted to posting these from different people.) Tumblr often frames this as “analysis,” but what does it actually add to the conversation about a piece of media? Well, it’s useful to point out once or twice how “gender-passing” characters can be trans, how characters who show interest in the opposite-sex could also have off-screen same-sex interests. The invisibility of bisexual and trans people in media other than in the most clichéd, stereotypical depictions contributes to our oppression. There’s only so much that can be said about that, though, and it has very little to do with the particular piece of media compared to the larger media climate and conversation around these identities. And when it turns into these really defensive posts about how Asuka is totally a trans girl and if you disagree you’re a cis hetero shitlord, it’s completely ceased being about the media itself, as opposed to your personal investment in it.

As a bisexual person, I understand the impulse for this, especially in media that lacks canonical representation of your sexual orientation/gender identity/etc. But it isn’t analysis, and it plays into some toxic fandom attitudes of overly-personal investment in media that hinders actual analysis. (After all, if you’re convinced this character is basically you, it’s harder to interrogate how well they’re written or how good of a representation of that group they really are.) It doesn’t deserve the defense it so often gets of “Death of the Author,” a philosophy that came about from acknowledging that works take on lives of their own and influence culture and other media beyond what authors originally intend. The life it has in your own individual head, a life it has because you read that into all the media you consume, is only a small part of that if at all. It just ends up privileging your head over the author’s head (aka the person who actually put thought into creating this), and says nothing about that larger climate.

okosan will not allow pudding or himself to be ridiculed

Anime fandom is where I’ve engaged the most on this, and so it’s the most potent example of how seductive, yet ultimately fleeting that engagement with media was for me. I got big into the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom on Tumblr shortly after re-watching the 2003 anime series, and because what people were telling me about the manga and Brotherhood anime looked really interesting. FMA is a fandom that’s filled with drama, even by the standards of most anime fandoms, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a low-fantasy alternate-universe full of cool powers, fun characters and (especially in “Mangahood”) intricate world building, so it’s got the “escapist” appeal down pat. Yet it deals with more serious, fraught real-life issues than most shonen manga, the kinds of issues that lead to fights all on their own. It’s full of well-developed, compelling characters and relationships between them, and there’s not much in the way of canon romance—fertile ground for shipping wars galore. Most importantly, the franchise includes two basic versions of the story that work with the same blueprint, but take the characters, plot, tone and especially themes in wildly divergent directions. And there are few things nerds love arguing about more than which edition of a franchise property is the best.

The original FMA series is my favorite anime, and I have a pretty strong opinion on why I prefer it to the manga and Brotherhood. It was hard not to get sucked into that world where I was encouraged to take someone’s different opinion on this matter personally—and on everything, not just the version wars. I was really lonely, so I also got very invested in fanfiction and shipping, and that included the accompanying “wank” about how “totally canon” my favorite slash ships were (even if deep down I knew I was totally kidding myself). Participating in that was crucial to belonging in that community, and it earned my blog a lot of readers. Yet, it also weakened my abilities as a critic when I couldn’t separate my personal investment in this piece of media, and in its fandom, from a broader critical evaluation of it. I really could only do that when I separated myself from the fandom, largely by getting more involved in the anime fan community on Twitter rather than Tumblr.

(Is it it just me, or does it say something when a medium where you only talk in 140-character spurts has more thoughtful critical engagement than a blog-based website like Tumblr? That’s a topic for another post, but it’s food for thought.)

How “personal” your engagement with media can be as a critic is its own fascinating discussion. A piece of criticism is, essentially, one person’s individual reaction to a piece of media, and that’s inevitably going to vary from person to person based on their life and media history. Certainly, it’s frustrating and stupid when groups like Gamergate suggest that any approach that isn’t completely universal—like feminist or other “social justice” approaches—don’t belong in general-audience reviews. How women or LGBT characters are treated is so tied in with how I experience media that I can’t just remove them from how I write about it, and I don’t want to anyway. Yet, there’s a difference between experiences and perspectives I share with lots of other people (other women, other LGBT people), and highly idiosyncratic stuff that likely won’t apply to how anyone else experiences that piece of media. Reviewing is, at heart, about giving your audience an idea of what to expect, and they won’t get that if you spend half of it ranting about how “the fandom” ruined some subplot for you, or how you can’t like this character because he looks like your crazy ex, or whatever. What’s more, not being able to separate that out often leads to the overly-personal “my fandom is part of my identity” behavior that’s so common in places like Tumblr, that I think is toxic no matter what you do with it.

I mean, really.

I mean, really.

Getting involved in “Anitwitter” and meeting other people who engaged with anime on the level I do did a lot to help me separate out those feelings, and develop more of a distinct critical voice about anime (and film/television in general). The best thing about it was that, to that community, it didn’t matter what you shipped, what version of a franchise you liked, or how you felt about this-or-that character. What made good criticism was about if it made you think or started a conversation, and I realized that’s always how I’d engaged with it. I slurped up Todd VanDerWerff’s Glee recaps at The A.V. Club every week when I watched that show, even though I often disagreed with him—because he got me thinking critically about it in a way no other critic, and certainly no one in the fandom, did. I also realized that even my friends on Tumblr who shared my opinions on our favorite shows weren’t really engaging with them in ways I found compelling anymore, and so I couldn’t help but leave that community behind.

Getting a job at a website as big as ANN kind of seems like it should be the culmination of my critical journey this past year, but of course I’m still learning. I still have trouble owning my more unpopular opinions, being able to tell which “unusual” approaches might actually interest my audience or not, and so on. And after all that time in Tumblr “fandom” communities, I really have a hard time examining when a more positive opinion is my own and when I’m unconsciously going along with the consensus on it. Writing and criticism are a journey, though, and anyone worth their salt will constantly be reexamining and changing their approaches. The best thing is I’ve finally found a group of people I want to take this journey with, and that makes it all the more rewarding.

Fandom, “Deconstruction” and Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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I’ve seen a lot of posts on Tumblr lately trying to frame various series as “deconstruction”, usually based on the reductive TVTropes “understanding” of the term. A big one seems to be framing Revolutionary Girl Utena and Puella Magi Madoka Magica as somehow both being “deconstructions” of the shojo or “magical girl” genres. Utena can certainly be said to be playing around with and criticizing a lot of shojo conventions (among those of other genres) in a fairly metafictional way, but other than that, this doesn’t really work, as I explained in a pretty strongly-worded post there the other night.

In a follow-up, I expanded a little bit on what I thought deconstruction (in terms of the actual definition of the term, as Derrida and later post-structuralists framed it) in a work of fiction could actually look like:

Deconstruction isn’t at all necessarily about “criticizing” a genre. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with “genre” in the first place. It’s about taking apart an idea by looking at the smaller ideas that go into it and how they build it through relation—and perhaps pointing out some logical inconsistencies and other flaws of it when it’s separated from that broader glue. The reason this is applied to “genre” so often is because the technique of deconstruction has a lot to say about how flimsy our conceptions of these “genres” really are—how much they’re built by association with what we’re told are works of the genre over time, and less the actual definition.

(For example, is there really anything about this music that suggests “the Old West” on its own? No—none of those instruments were actually played much in the late-19th-century western United States—but because it was from an iconic western, one whose soundtrack influenced countless westerns that came after it, we all associate it with that genre. It’s built through relations more than inherent meaning. This is the kind of stuff that fascinates me as a musicologist.)

All that being said, I think it’s pretty hard for a fictional work to be a “deconstruction” of a genre itself unless it’s somewhat actively “metafictional”. So, you could make an argument for something like Princess Tutu, or maaaayyyybbee aspects of Utena, as being deconstructive. But Madoka? Nope. Taking elements of a genre and making them darker is not really the same thing as taking them apart and showing why they don’t make sense on their own. And Madoka doesn’t really have anything to say about the construction of “magical girl”; it just does its own thing with its conventions, to suit its unrelated thematic purposes.*

When people get away from this idea that deconstructions have to be “dark” or “critical”, it actually opens up some other possibilities for what could qualify. I think you could make a good argument for something like Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun being deconstructive. It’s largely about people involved in creating shojo manga, and how ridiculous the genre’s conventions are when taken out of their fictional home and into the real world. It’s an affectionate look at all this, of course, but it’s much more “deconstructive” than a lot of the OMG DARK SUBVERSIVE stuff people try to shove into that label.

I ended up posting another clarification when this, predictably, got launched on out-of-context by the anti-Madoka crowd to confirm their weird idea that the show is anti-feminist and what-have-you. (Oh, Tumblr.) And more when, of course, I got someone else insisting that, “no, it is a deconstruction, and so is Attack on Titan because of my weird fan theory linking them, and language evolves and you’re a snob!” Lots of reminders of why I don’t usually write about this kind of stuff on Tumblr anymore. But anyway, I thought I’d use this as a chance to elaborate more here on why I don’t think Madoka Magica qualifies under the designation, and some other examples of where the Internet is mistaken about this term.

sayaka and soul gem

I would say that “deconstruction” is really about looking at how we assign meaning to things through relation, and taking apart those associations. “Deconstructing” a genre would be more about looking at how it’s constructed in fiction, what the tropes building it up are, than what its real-world corollary would be. So for example, because I’m sure there’s someone who argues this: OITNB isn’t a “deconstruction” because it’s not really engaging at all with the normal clichés of “women in prison” shows. It’s just a show about women, that’s set in prison, but the fiction genre is more than that–it comes with a certain set of expectations that OITNB doesn’t do anything with. It “averts” them, in the TVT terminology, not engaging at all. So it can’t be a deconstruction. It has its own story to tell, that isn’t about genre.

Madoka Magica is a little trickier, since it does have all the normal trappings of magical-girl shows. It takes things like their transformation trinket, the animal familiar and so on, and gives them the darkest possible interpretations. But is this really the same thing as “deconstructing” that genre? Does Madoka Magica really have anything to say about why those are the building blocks of “magical girl” stories, why those elements are compelling and popular? Does it do anything, then, to comment on and criticize these elements, the way that Revolutionary Girl Utena does with fairy-tale and shojo romance tropes, the way Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun even does with a lot of other shojo tropes? Mere presentation–even gritty, “edgy” presentation–isn’t the same thing as commentary, as Anita Sarkeesian reminded us in her most recent Tropes vs. Women video. (Strong trigger warning for graphic violence and sexual assault, and discussion of each, obviously.)

….Yeah, Madoka Magica doesn’t really have anything to say about the genre itself. It isn’t about those tropes and why they do or don’t work, or would or wouldn’t work in a more “realistic” setting. It simply dials them up to maximum darkness levels in service of another thematic purpose. (Well, several–the stuff about the resilience of the human spirit, the limits of utilitarianism, and how we make the best of oppressive systems that show up throughout Urobuchi’s body of work, as Bobduh explains really well here on his blog.) Themes that I really enjoy and get a lot out of, for the record–Madoka is one of my favorite anime. But there’s nothing “deconstructive”, nothing about taking apart meaning and the relations and associations that make it up. And that’s okay!

Honestly, a lot of what frustrates me about these discussions is that I think people on the Internet who frequent places like Tumblr and TV Tropes, have internalized this idea that certain modes of analysis or types of thematic writing are superior to others. Declaring something a “deconstruction” automatically makes it sophisticated, and they’re sophisticated for liking it and trying to “deconstruct” it themselves. Of course, like what Tumblr often does with “feminism”, this gets diluted into the vaguest possible meaning so it applies to as many things they like as possible. Either way, though, there’s really no reason that “taking apart language and meanings” is an inherently more “sophisticated” project than the other stuff these series are doing. Why does that make Madoka Magica a better show than what it actually has to say about utilitarianism? Even with series that could be considered to be doing some deconstruction: why is that element of Revolutionary Girl Utena more important than its feminism? Why is that element of Princess Tutu more important than what it has to say about agency and free will?

And I say this as someone who is really fascinated with deconstruction and how meaning is created through relations, especially with regard to genre.

That, to me, is why this discussion is more than just my academic “nerd rage” at seeing a term I learned about in school used incorrectly in the Internet. I think it’s important for us to take apart a lot of what we implicitly value as consumers of media and, especially, people who attempt to analyze it.  Particularly, nerds really need to get over the idea that something being “dark” and “subversive” (see, we already have a word for what Tumblr thinks “deconstruction” means! Language doesn’t need to “evolve”, as is the response I keep getting) makes it better. And it’s important to take the media we look at on their own terms, rather than attempt to fit them into boxes based on vague suggestions. Yet, even before we figure out if we should put things in a particular box, we should figure out why the labels on those boxes are so important to us, where the value we assign to them came from in the first place.

You might even say we should deconstruct them.

Re-posted From Tumblr: Thoughts on Fandom and Fanfic Culture (and Why I’m Growing Tired Of It)

Every once in a while, I think I’m going to re-post here some of the better posts I’ve made on my Tumblr. I’d like to make this my main place for media-analysis at this point (that I’m not getting paid to do for some other site, of course), but sometimes I write stuff that’s somewhat specific to Tumblr’s community and its issues, but which is still worth showcasing here. Here’s something I wrote a few weeks ago on fanfiction/fandom “culture” and my history of engagement with it. The original post is here.


So I was browsing Tumblr when I came across another post about how “fanfiction is important.” These are all over the place on this site, where people want to coordinate their fun fan activities with more serious discussion of social justice, to mobilize the socially-conscious shipper or whatever. This particular one was about why fanfiction is called “transformative works” (as in the name of the group that runs Archive Of Our Own). Mostly it was the same-ol’, same-ol’, but one line really struck me, and crystallized a lot of what frustrates about me about this discussion, and “fandom culture” in general:

“A transformative work doesn’t actually transform the original media it is based off of (because the original medium exists in a fixed state and cannot be literally changed by fans unless the canon creators allow it to be so)”

Actually, the original media exists in a fixed state regardless of what creators add to it later. You can choose to ignore parts of the “canon” as much as you can stuff the fans create. I can choose to watch the first and third seasons of Black Butler and ignore the second for being shippy, character-derailing, unnecessary garbage. I can enjoy the first season of Glee and ignore how crappy it got after that. People enjoy the original series of Star Wars films while ignoring the prequels, enjoy a lot of adaptations while ignoring the original works, and so on. Fiction is fiction; none of its real, and you’re always free to decide which ones you “accept” (whatever this means) or not.

But I found it interesting that this came up in a post attempting to argue that what the fans contributed was just as good as what the “official creators” contributed. It gets at something that’s long bothered me about “fandom culture” but which I couldn’t articulate until now: as much as fandom likes to pretend it’s “transformative”, it actually puts the creator and “canon” on a pedestal, far far more than most of the “mainstream media analysis” it’s criticizing does.

In every fandom I’ve been in, there’s always an implicit or explicit hierarchy between “canon” and “non-canon”, between “intended” and “not intended”, between “in-character” and “out-of-character” (or OOC). Now, of course, especially with that last one, deviation from the original’s characterization, worldbuilding, etc. is often unintentional, and reflective of poor writing or unfamiliarity with the material. But I think it’s interesting that the people who have the writing talent to take characters/worldbuilding/whatever in their own direction–and do just that in their fanworks–never own it!

When a fan of a “non-canon” ship gets in an argument with a “canon” one, and the latter uses that against them, the response is invariably “Nuh-uh! It totally hints at it! Look at when he stared at him and blushed that one time!” It’s never “Who cares? Sure, they aren’t DTF in the original, but the relationship they do have is interesting enough and I think it would be cool to explore if it were romantic.” Which surprises me, since that latter explanation is much closer to why I like a lot of the “non-canon” pairings I do. I read as much Roy/Ed as I do pretty much entirely due to what fanfic writers have made them out to be; I don’t see anything suggesting that they’re into each other in any version of Fullmetal Alchemist. (Really: my older posts suggesting otherwise were me trying to get myself to believe what everyone in the fandom was telling me.) It’s that “what if?” that keeps me coming back to fanfic. I don’t need something that the original work already gives me.

That’s actually a pretty cool thing. It’s a huge credit to the talented, creative fanfic writers I’ve had the pleasure to read stuff by that they’ve created such believable and dynamic relationships when there wasn’t anything to work with (at least, not in a romantic/sexual sense) in the original text. But rather than take that credit, they continue to pin everything on the original creator, and what they took out of their work–continue to defer to what TVTropes has defined as “Word of God” as though it actually does come from a god (but more on that in a bit). That attitude is so deeply embedded in fan culture–from people pressing actors at convention panels for their opinions on “non-canon” ships to, hell, the use of the word “canon” in the first place (another thing that comes from religion)–that of course it affects fanfiction.

But I think it hinders it, too, because here’s another thing: largely due to this attitude among fanfic writers, I don’t think fanfic is really all that “transformative” or (as I’m seeing increasingly mentioned in these pro-fanfiction posts) “Death of the Author”. And part of that is because the only ways they’ll let themselves defy the Author is in smaller ways that don’t truly create a new thing that can stand on even ground with the original. Let me explain.

When fanfic does attempt to actually create something new and dispense with authorial intent, the thing is I never see them doing anything to truly challenge the original narrative, or to actually transform it in any substantive way. Usually, it just fills in stuff that wasn’t explored in the original narrative (and usually for a reason), or it goes on about the characters’ relationships. At best, it might be “transformative” in the sense of making some white characters into people of color, of making straight cis characters queer–of diversifying the cast. And while that’s certainly a good thing, it doesn’t really engage with the work’s actual message about those issues, with its gender/queer/racial/etc. politics, from what I’ve seen. The themes are generally considered the most important part of a fictional work, and make up the cornerstone of both academics’ and professional critics’ media analyses, but they’re completely absent from “transformative” fanfiction.

For all Death Note fanfic writers may like to pretend that shipping L and Light together is “progressive”, I never see anyone challenging the really toxic attitudes about women coiled around that show like a snake. For all the criticism that Firefly gets for having a Chinese-inspired setting but no Chinese characters, I’ve never seen a fanfic writer attempt to “explore the world” more by telling us about those characters (even though fanfic in particular would be ideal for this project). There’s so much analysis back and forth about what Evangelion means and whether that’s good or bad, but you’d never know that from the fanfic that’s just fluffy romances between Shinji and Kaworu/Asuka/whomever. Fanfic is “exploratory”, but I’ve never seen any of it dig down into the real meat of the show–just skim the surface, and branch that out into other possible surfaces.

Okay, I have, but it wasn’t the stuff that gets published for free on fanfiction.net and AO3. It’s the “literary” fanfic that you see get published in bookstores: Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, John Gardner’s Grendel, etc. And there’s a reason that that stuff is taken more seriously by critics and scholars, as much as fanfic writers like to pretend otherwise. (Note that the stuff that gets published that fits more of what you find on fanfic sites–your Pride and Prejudice sequels, for instance–doesn’t get those serious literary discussions around it.)

The crux of it is that fanfiction–and a lot of fandom culture around it–deals with their favorite fiction as parallel universes, as their own worlds they want to step into and play around in. But those “literary” derivative-works–and most of the literary criticism that “fandom” culture disdains as snobbish–deals with fiction as a text, as a message. And it’s that engagement with fiction-as-text that allows for Death of the Author as a concept, that puts the readers on even keels with the writers, because it recognizes authors as imperfect human beings. Treating their creations as separate worlds, though, by definition raises authors to the level of godlike beings.

And that’s why I think, as much as fanfic likes to phrase itself as being about “Death of the Author”, “fandom” ultimately is more worshipful and mindful of creators than even the stuffiest critics are. Even critics who fundamentally reject Death of the Author don’t put creators on such pedestals, and you really can’t if you want to be as analytical and “transformative” as a lot of fandom culture claims to be.

But that’s all fine if fanfic is primarily about escapism, about letting yourself go into these inviting fictional worlds the authors have created for you. That’s what it is for me–a separate endeavor from the analysis I do in my reviews and my academic work. I still love reading and writing fanfic, I still love roleplaying. But I don’t take it seriously (or at least, no more than I do all my writing), because that kind of engagement with fiction just isn’t as interesting to me.