Estrogen Brigades and "Big Tits" Threads: Media fandom on-line and off

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Academic Commentary
Title: Estrogen Brigades and "Big Tits" Threads: Media fandom on-line and off
Commentator: Susan Clerc
Date(s): 2000
Medium: print
External Links:
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Estrogen Brigades and "Big Tits" Threads: Media fandom on-line and off is a 2000 academic article by Susan Clerc. It is a chapter in a book called "The Cybercultures Reader."

Some Topics Discussed


What are all these women doing here?

Almost fan fiction is written by women, which leads to a very important point about off-line fandom: the majority of media fans are women. Women write and read almost all of the fan fiction, make the music videos, create the artwork, organize and attend conventions, run APAs and letterzines and belong to fan groups -- they are actively involved, in greater numbers than men, in every facet of media fandom. Media fandom wouldn't exist without women because more women than men do the communication work necessary to forge and sustain the community. The public impression that males dominate fan activities is largely the result of outsiders' emphasis on Star Trek fandom, which does seem to consist of more males than females. But this emphasis misses the nature of the fannish subculture as a whole. The misconception that males dominate media fandom is also on-line fostered; there are simply more men than women on-line. My composite friend, Mary Sue, illustrates why women play a much less prominent role in on-line fandom than they do in fandom off-line.

Like many other series that fans have taken a shine to, RoS lives on in fandom thanks to the extensive network of videotape sharing within the larger fan community. Tape sharing is, the way fans pimp for their favourite series, especially the ones that are no longer on the air; they send friends they want to lure into fandom episodes they hope will hit their kink buttons. ("this one guy is such a bitch, you'll love it", "it has story arcs and the characters really develop over time", "the relationship between the two male leads is intense").' The more people hooked on the series, the greater the chance that stories and art will be generated. And of course, the more people to discuss the show with, the better.

To pimp for her current favourite series and to create music videos and gather information for discussion or fan fiction writing, Mary Sue has two VCRs and a TV. These machines are a vital part of her fannish life. She also has a computer she uses to write fan fiction and letters to her numerous fan friends, and perhaps even to produce a fanzine. Like the TV and VCRs, the home computer is a tool that lets her participate fully in the community. What Mary Sue didn't have when I met her was a connection to the Internet. But she didn't think she needed one: of her dozens of acquaintances, only a handful were on-line and they were still reachable by 'snail mail' and telephone.

Like most of Mary Sue's friends with Net access, I got my account through work and it was free (I just had to avoid my snooping employer); We all learned about how fast email was compared to regular mail, how lively the big mailing lists and newsgroups were, how easily pictures and sound files and transcripts of episodes and other goodies were available through FTP, and we all urged Mary Sue to get a modem and join America Online, Genie, CompuServe or one of the other commercial services...

... her husband tinkered with their computer and installed a modem. When Mary Sue asked how it worked, though, he didn't have time to help her. Like many fan women in her position, Mary Sue finally turned to friends who were already wired for help. The informal support network fandom provides for its members came to the rescue as friends offered advice about freenets, on-line editors and subscribing to mailing lists, and even camped over for weekend tutorials on using the new medium.

The point of this scenario is that fan women, although mechanically proficient and technologically savvy compared to the mainstream population, suffer from the same societal attitudes about gender and technology as everyone else. Women are also at an economic disadvantage: with less disposable income, they are not as likely as men to experiment with modems and software they aren't familiar with. Fan women may have an additional deterrent in that they are already extremely well-connected off-line to a large number of other fans; for them, there is little benefit to Net access unless many of their friends have it. When that critical mass is reached and it becomes beneficial to go on-line, fan women will likely turn to other female fans as an informal support network who can give in-person tutorials rather than to distance male technicians.

Most fan women enter the Net through work, because a male relative has set up the equipment at home or because their friends have access and encourage and help them. Their delayed entry (compared to males, into cyberspace is reflected in statistics about time on-line and age. [included is much about a 1993 survey this writer administered]

Once on-line, fan women participate in public mailing lists and newsgroups less than one would expect for such a communicative bunch, although women who have been active in fandom off-line may have an edge over those coming into the community through the Net. Those who are already fans have a tradition of female participation behind them and are likely to find familiar names waiting for them on-line, factors that may Increase their confidence about posting. Yet they still post to public groups less often than men do. Women, regardless of their previous fannish experience, just don't talk as much in public as men.

If a newly on-online: fan does pop her cherry and post, reaction to her maiden messages will affect her future posting rate. If everyone ignores the post, the newcomer may interpret the lack of response as a sign that she is not welcome. However, not responding shouldn't necessarily be construed as a conscious attempt to bar women from discussion; it is often, rather, a sign of reluctance by members of both sexes to waste time on people who may not be in for the long haul. But getting no response does tend to happen more often to women than men.

A direct ploy for dissuading women from posting is to send them offensive email. Women's magazines and other popular media have widely disseminated the idea that women are routinely hit on or subjected to crude insults on the Net. These exaggerated accounts many deter women from initially posting as much, as flame mail may silence them once they have spoken up. I've never received a "wanna fuck" (a name I've seen used on one of the newsgroups for this sort of obscene mail) in the time I've been on-line... From what others have told me, offensive email to women happens more often on the pay services than on the Internet and Usenet.

What does happen with disheartening frequency on Usenet is the "big tits" thread. Depending on the specific newsgroup, readers are assaulted from time to time by posts from sexually and emotionally immature boys about Scully's big tits, Deanna's big tits, Beverly's big tits, Peri's big tits, Janeway's lack of big tits, and so on. Many women are put off by the obsession boys on-line seem to have with actresses' breasts and their compulsion for discussing them in public. Fortunately, big tits are not the dominant matter of discussion on any of the fan-related boards. [...] Unfortunately, a large number of juvenile "big tits" posts can make women feel unwelcome and/or threatened. [...] Women themselves drool over the actors and characters, of course, but their posts are rarely of the "I want to assfuck Ro Laren" variety which fanboys like to post.

The only newsgroup where women seem to account for half or more of the posts is, and that series doesn't have a public mailing list. On several mailing lists, however, women are the majority of posters or a very vocal minority: The Blake's 7 and X Files mailing lists seem to have more female than male contributors, and the Star Trek, Highlander and Dr Who lists have a plethora of outspoken women contributors. Some series that attract primarily female fans do not have on-line discussion groups: neither Beauty and the Beast (the TV series) nor The Professionals, two series more popular with women than men, has a public list or group devoted to it even though both generate a lot of fan fiction and discussion off-line.

It is interesting to note that the last three times the question of creating a newsgroup was raised on the Blake's 7 mailing list, it was raised by a male and contested primarily by women, which indicates a tension between male and female goals in communication. To grossly generalize, men communicate for status, and women communicate to maintain relationships.

Whether they choose newsgroups or mailing lists as their main Net neighborhood, women who post may run into an unexpected response: off-line, the presence of women in media fandom for any series is taken for granted; on-line, where there are large numbers of males unfamiliar with this tradition, the presence of women raises virtual eyebrows: Any public speech by women seems to stand out and often leads to the perception that women are talking more than men when, statistically, this is not the case. When women appear to be in the majority on-line, someone is bound to ask, 'What are all these women doing here?' The question is usually accompanied by a statement like, 'I thought this series appealed mostly to guys, but most of the posts so far have been from the fair sex." During one week, in fact, versions of this question appeared simultaneously on both the X Files and Dr Who mailing lists, and it appeared on the Highlander newsgroup while this essay was being written. Regardless of the poster's intent, the message behind the message is that 'this show is a guy thing; there's something wrong with you for liking it'. The question may intimidate some women but usually leads to a barrage of posts along the lines of 'What is it you think women don't like: well-written scripts, witty dialogue, great characters?' and other rebuttals.

Sparks can fly when sex becomes an issue, as when women lust after actors or lament the dearth of good female roles in the series.

When women begin sharing lustful thoughts about the actors, the response is somewhat hypocritical. A common, if mild, masculine response is "How would you ladies like it if US guys started slobbering on about the actresses?' a remark that blatantly ignores the rampant slobbering in the perennial 'big tits' threads. It also overlooks the fact that many of the posts about actors come from women who have contributed a lot to the group and who usually post more substantial messages, and that their comments are considerably more friendly toward the lust object than the men's posts tend to be.

Slash [is] the genre of fan fiction based on homoerotic relationships between male characters. Slash, even more than other kinds of fan fiction is written almost exclusively by and for women. It is not gay porn, although there are some similarities. It is written with an eye to feminine sensibilities -- lots of touching and talking along with the fucking -- and sometimes it's so inexplicit you wouldn't know it was slash except for the label.

The majority of fans on-line participate in at least one fan activity aside from Net groups (82 per cent of women, 57 per cent of men) and many of them started fan activities before getting on-line. Con-going is the most popular for old-timers and newbies alike. The second most popular - and the one that brings men and women fans into conflict with each other and fandom into conflict with the out-side world — is fan fiction.

Fan fiction on-line has mushroomed in the last few years. There are at least four newsgroups dedicated to story posting, and at least three mailing lists. In addition, stories occasionally appear on discussion-oriented mailing lists when members decide to do a round robin (list members take turns writing sections of a story), and FTP sites around the world archive stories from lists and groups. Anonymous FTP sites allow people who cannot access the groups to recover the stories, as well as pictures, sounds and other goodies (some archives have transcripts of episodes and lists of fanzine editors, for instance).

[Regarding the statements by women in this author's survey that they dislike or skip over on-line fiction written by men is] the tendency of men to include themselves in their stories. Women who write fan fiction have long held this practice in disdain, sometimes criticizing any strong original female character as being nothing more than a stand-in for the author. Telling stories about themselves seems to the part of a male aesthetic, though, since it often happens in the male-dominated field of minicomics as well and is reflected in storytelling practices among men; in general when asked to tell a story, men talk about themselves and women talk about other people.

The other characteristic about 'Boys' Own Stories' that turns off many female readers is an excessive interest in hardware, violence and convoluted plots that go nowhere. Fan fiction written by and for women has always focused primarily on the characters' relationships. Of course plots are important, but they are used to explore the nature of the characters (what would Spock do in this situation?) not just for the sake of creating something cool to blow up. I'm exaggerating here, of course. Yes, many men do write stories that deal sensitively and perceptively with the characters, and many women write stories about destroying horribly be-weaponed aliens; but with limited time on-line to choose what to read, many fans fall back on the reality that a great deal of fan fiction can be divided along gender lines.

One of many things many fans, especially men, like about Net fandom is that writers, actors and others involved in the series are also on-line. It's exciting to have discussions with someone who is responsible, for creating a TV series, to hear his opinions and churn around with him. On the other hand, it can also have a chilling effect on the basic nature of fan debate discussing interpretations of the series. J. Michael Straczynski (aka Joe or JMS), the creator of Babylon 5, is a regular participant on The condition for his staying on the newsgroup is that no story ideas appear there because it would open him up for lawsuits and the lawyers tor PTEN (Prime Time).

Aside from the PTEN/JMS ban, Paramount demanded that America Online and Prodigy pull Star Trek fan fiction from its databases and prohibit their customers from posting any more. But since there are still several Usenet newsgroups, internet mailing lists (including one for Babylon 5 fan fiction), private mailing lists that distribute fan fiction, and publicly accessible FTP sites where fans can find stories, it's tempting to think outside forces have no influence on fans at all.

But that isn't true. There is a depressing amount of sucking up to JMS, for example. Just the fact that the 'don't post story ideas or Joe will leave' thread seems to be going on in perpetuity shows that his presence means a lot to many of the people on the newsgroup. If that weren't enough, the kiss-up 'great flame, JMS' posts following some of his messages and the huge number of posts flagged 'ATTN:JMS' should clue any reader to the fact that he wields a lot of influence.

For fans, the unprecedented access to The Powers That Be on their favourite series tends to create a sense of connection and participation with the series. Just knowing that a key writer or other behind-the-scenes figure is aware of fans on-line is enough to create the strong feelings that one's voice might be heard. That's a potent brew for most fans and it is nothing compared to the good vibrations that rock the Net after someone behind the scenes acknowledges on-line fans by mentioning the Net in an off-line interview or dropping into an on-line chat on a pay service. While this much recognition is becoming fairly routine as the Net spreads to more and more of the population, the love affair between 'X Philes' (as X Files fans on-line call themselves) and and the series production team is still rare. The series has at least twice given an open nod to its on-line fans: in the second season premiere the names of several X Philes appeared in a passenger list and an early third season episode was dedicated to a fan who had n a discussion group in America Online.

On the other hand, the sheer volume of fan talk and its high visibility on the Net has led to some misunderstandings and hurt feelings. In a magazine interview, David Duchovny expressed somewhat negative feelings towards the activities of female fans on-line. When the remarks were relayed on the newsgroup, a long conversation ensued out the relationship between actors and fans and how appreciation should be expressed.

Actors are sex symbols and their livelihoods do rather rely on their physical attributes. At the same time, like most fans I can sympathize with an actor's dismay, and perhaps fear, at being confronted with large-scale drooling over his appearance in a bathing suit. All the more reason, in my opinion, for actors and others who aren't in the community to restrict their interaction with fans. They can go to conventions or the pay service chat sessions where it's safe and controlled, but they should not wander into fan groups and imagine scrolling one screen gives them a real idea of the community. And fans should understand that the actors' interests as professionals doing a job and our interests as fans are often at odds; they should not be expected to approve or even understand the ways we play with the toys they've given us.

Many discussions on public groups, like discussions on homosexuality in a series universe, have been known to lead to flame wars. They don't have to; people are quite capable of having rational discussions in which everyone disagrees on even thing except their right to disagree, and all of the combatants remain civil. The first time slash surfaced as a topic on the Blake's 7 list, in fact, we had a great time talking about why we liked or disliked it. The next three times, the conversations became decidedly more heated and less informative. The arguments for and against became so repetitive that one of the women on the list devised a General Slash Defense Form Letter listing all of the oft-recycled objections with the best of the rebuttals. It is kept in the list archives with plans to send it to the next person who expresses his outrage that 'such a disgusting thing as slash' exists. Notice I said his outrage. As a slash fan, I'd like to categorize all anti-slashers as sexually insecure adolescent males, but that is not the case. There are women who don't like slash, too. Nevertheless, the worst of the anti-slash posts and the highest level of intolerance do seem to come from young males.

At the beginning of this chapter I said that Net random was only part of fandom.

One of the key differences between on- and off-line fandom is the role women play in each. Attitudes toward technology and communication have delayed some women's access to the Net and prevented others from participating as actively on-line as they do off-line, with the result that women fans are not as prominent on the Net as they are in real-life fandom. But, women fans have dealt with the disadvantages creatively and ingeniously, adapting the new medium to their own needs as well as adapting off-line famish customs to the Net. Whatever roadblocks are thrown across the Information Superhighway in the future, I know the women of fandom will find a way to overcome them if not slash right through them.