Fansplaining: Shipping and Activism

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Podcast Episode
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Episode Title: Fansplaining: Shipping and Activism
Length: 1:22:40
Featured: Rukmini Pande and Dr. Lori Morimoto
Date: August 24 2016
External Links: Episode at

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Fansplaining: Shipping and Activism is a podcast by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel.

For others in the series, see Fansplaining


"Flourish and Elizabeth talk to fan studies scholars Rukmini Pande and Dr. Lori Morimoto about what happens when peoples’ ships become emblems of political positions. The conversation covers the history of shipping-as-politics, the changing nature of the fan/creator divide, and the intersections of race and queerness. They also discuss a listener’s response to episode 27, “Fanart Insights,” and debate the monetization of fanworks."


Topics Discussed


ELM: So that’s an interesting and I think that kind of speaks to some of the tension that we’re seeing now. So the reason that we wanted to talk about shipping and activism is because over the years, and this has gotten stronger and stronger, you’ll see people kind of pegging their—can I say “pegging” like an adult too? [all laugh] Pegging their ships to political activism. It’s particularly, I see this a lot because I’ve been in slash ships and slash fandom so that’s mostly male/male romances, for more than 15 years I guess at this point. And you know, you increasingly see people saying things like “Well, my ship is a gay ship, so it is inherently progressive. And it is a form of activism. And if you deny my ship, whether you’re someone who ships something else or you’re the creator of the show where these characters are, you’re homophobic, and my shipping this is activism.”

FK: Right and it also works the other way too, right, like Rey and Kylo Ren being shipped together is sort of a thing that a lot of people vilify and say this ship is evil and it’s anti-progressive and if you like that you’re wrong. So political positions get pegged to ships in different ways.

ELM: Excellent. So we’ll just be eavesdropping on your regular conversations. OK. Is shipping activism? Go. [all laugh]

RP: Uh, well. No! I don’t think shipping is activism. I think shipping can be very very meaningful, and I think shipping can be incredibly important to push for representation, but once it becomes conflated, I think that is when both aspects of actual conversations about the importance of representation and what that means get mixed up in highly individual and subjective interactions. And while I think shipping and being invested in certain pairings is absolutely a powerful act, and a meaningful act, I think that once it becomes a campaign in the sense that it overwhelms everything else about a text, that’s when things get hairy for me.

LM: Yeah, Rukmini and I tend to be on the same page about a lot of things, but in particular this as well. I’ve been in fandom I guess for, gosh, since 2000, so 16 years. I've noticed since I had this long hiatus from about 2001 to 2011, so a lot of things changed. Not just LiveJournal to Tumblr, things like that, but the ways that we were talking about or we do talk about our own shipping has really changed, and as I was telling Elizabeth the other day, to my mind one of the things we’re seeing is the sort of…I don’t want to say trickle-down, but trickle-down effect of early fan studies. And especially the emphasis in early fan studies that was very much centered on women's slash fiction and the communities that rise around that, the emphasis on sort of resistance and things like that that were at the time that scholarship was being written, those were the ways to get into a cultural studies conversation. They were really strategic, I think, in terms of bringing fan studies to academic attention. And I see sort of the arguments that were made early on being codified in fandom now, and if you’re on Tumblr occasionally once in a blue moon a quote from Henry Jenkins will sort of come by my dashboard. I notice that almost no other fan scholars get cited, you know, on Tumblr, besides Henry Jenkins.

FK: Camille Bacon-Smith might as well never have written.

LM: Yeah, yeah. And we’re a really growing field now, I think within fandom it’s a flattering sort of way of thinking about fandom. It says that “Yeah, we’re fighting the Man, we’re fighting the patriarchy,” and as Rukmini can talk to much better than I can, not only is that very much about white women fighting the patriarchy, but I think we can’t really, we don’t talk about fandom in those terms necessarily quite as much as we used to in fan studies. I think fandom as well, it’s increasingly insufficient to talk about what we see these days.

RP:So it’s the centering of whiteness in every space, and so you have things like “Oh, Finn/Rey is boring het, and you straights don’t understand how important queer relationships are,” where a lot of the people in het spaces are queer women. Most of the people I follow who are deeply, deeply invested in het relationships are primarily invested in them because of non-white women in those roles. Those are the kind of intersections, those are the kind of I suppose, they cut through spaces and a lot of the times I get really annoyed at fan studies because slash people just keep talking about slash, and gen people keep talking about gen, and het people keep talking about het, and there’s this weird correlation that keeps happening about, you know, oh they’re straight women. Oh they’re queer women. But nobody seems to go beyond the queer and the straight and the women. And I think that once you place the whiteness as a common factor between all these spaces, it suddenly becomes a lot less, there’s this whole thing of “Oh, there’s so many shifting shoals, there’s so much different stuff happening in different fandoms.” But once you put whiteness at the heart of it, it stops becoming so shifting, to me. The patterns become very clear. A lot of non-white fans have been talking about the patterns across these spaces.

So for me it’s not just about, yes, slashtivism annoys me a lot because there’s usually a lot of noise around it, but so do femslash ships, so do het ships. All of them are very much about centering whiteness as acceptable romantic or endgame pairings and every time there is a non-white character it’s either too boring or too heteronormative or too fraught. There’s always an excuse.

RP: To me it’s not about centering characters of color in terms of…that’s the other thing that keeps, that I keep running up against. Which is when people are like, “We need to change things, and we need,” it’s about framing the love for characters of color as an activist stance. Which of course completely others the characters themselves, very fundamentally, because apparently the only time you can care about characters of color is when, you know, you kind of eat your vegetables. That’s not, it’s not, I don’t want to frame characters of color as a problem and as a solution to that problem.


LM: One of the things she said is kind of the key to stuff I’ve been working on in general. Basically it depends, I think part of the problem we face when we’re talking about things like slashtivism or whatever is that we are kind of looking for a one-size-fits-all answer and I think we need a paradigm shift. ... I think we need a case by case basis to understand what’s really going on in any given situation and for me, I keep writing this essay, but for me it’s not a question of whether or not slashtivism is good or slash is progressive or however that’s framed, it’s more a question of what happens when, dot dot dot.

What happens when you get a film with a black actor who is in one of arguably two lead roles in a massive blockbuster and the majority of fic which I looked at yesterday for that fandom is two white guys, one of whom is on camera for maybe five minutes. I think it’s too easy to hide behind this kind of one size fits all approach to slash or whatever fannish thing you want to talk about. But particularly slash. And argue that because it’s non-heteronormative it is therefore progressive, that’s sweeping a lot of stuff, as Rukmini said, that’s sweeping a lot of stuff under the carpet that increasingly we can’t afford to ignore. If that makes any sense?

ELM: ...People privilege their ship and the progressive idea they have of the shows in their head, which often doesn’t actually match the text, over, we were talking about The 100, which has a lot of problems far beyond Clexa and killing Lexa. Especially in terms of race. And I’m not a fan of the show, so I can’t speak to it specifically, but I’ve read a lot and heard a fair amount from fans, and just because you want to see your faves kiss doesn’t mean that…I don’t know, sometimes I feel like people will talk about the things that they’re fans of and then I’ll watch that and be like “There’s nothing progressive about this.” It’s a fantasy version in your head; Steve Rogers on the screen isn’t actually a gay rights activist. He seems like a nice guy, but I don’t see him going to bat for… [sighs]

LM:...Social media, I think, for a generation that is younger than mine and the showrunners’ who are currently at the top of the pile, is a very different thing than it is for people who are younger and who in some cases have grown up with nothing but social media. Or it showed up very early on in their lives. And I think we see a lot of those negotiations on Twitter especially.

But you know, it loosens that line, so I think for a younger generation it feels like I can talk to this person, I should give them my input, it is a good thing to do these things…and it sort of devolves into less productive conversations in ways that we didn’t have when I was a young fan. And so there was a divide between producer and fan that was wider. It wasn’t solid, but it was much wider and so you got the media, and you consumed it and you did what you wanted with it, because who cares? And that was sort of the end of the story.

RP: I think that there’s two different things that I was thinking of from what I heard. I think that there is this lessening of space between producers and fans. And that’s absolutely true, the distance between your interpretation and the right interpretation and being able to tell somebody that, “Oh, this is the right interpretation” has absolutely collapsed. And that in some cases does explode into these kinds of, “This is just the way it is.” And there is something to be said about take the text and do what you want with it.

But my other thing that I’ve kind of been thinking through is of course that canon is important to marginalized characters, and especially to non-white characters. Because really at the end of the day, canon is sometimes all that you have. You’re not going to get the same loving expansions of characters, of relationships, of possible slash interpretations, femslash interpretations, you’re not going to get those in fandom 99% of the time.

RP: ...I’ve been trying to think through this kind of canon versus fanon kind of thing, and for the longest time I was a “who needs canon” kind of person. We have our archetypes, we have our narratives, and we’ll run with it. And those are the stories I want, and I don’t care whether they are the same stories I’ve read a hundred times, those are the stories I want. But as those stories themselves, as those characters have changed, I’ve realized that it’s not that simple. That I can go and find versions of queerness, but those versions of queerness in fandom will mostly be white queerness. They’re not going to be brown queerness, they’re not going to be black queerness. And that’s something that I’m going to have to rely on canon to center those characters to the point that they cannot be ignored. And that is very very rare.

We’ve now kind of come to the tipping point where how much primacy can a character of color get and still be marginalized in fandom? And you know [laughs] it seems like we’ve come to the end of that rope! I don’t think you could have, this is a question I think that a lot of people have kind of been thinking about at the back of their minds. Surely some text will come along where there’s no other option. And we’ve seen that fandom will make the option and it still won’t be black or brown queerness. A lot of people have now suddenly gotten into, I hear a lot of “Oh, well, these things are too edgy, we can’t really write those kinds of stories because we feel so scared,” and I’m like, “Sure, of course, many fans and many people need those kinds of…those very difficult stories that kind of skirt the edge of very difficult topics. And sure, perhaps we can have a conversation about what that means when those kinds of stories are enacted on non-white bodies. But most of the time, we kind of like our fluff.”

So I fail to see how suddenly this whole conversation seems to have kind of been very strategically almost been repositioned so that now we’re talking about darkfic. Massive power differentials. All those things, which are all important, and they’re all valid and they’re all interesting, but they’re not the entirety of why people since the beginning of fan studies have said why people write fic. So I am feeling very uncomfortable with this kind of shifting of the goalposts that’s happening. Just in terms of fan studies that I see sometimes. Because it feels like the minute you started chipping away at the idea that “Oh, we just don’t have the characters, we don’t have the centrality”—we started chipping away at that, and now it’s “Oh, people only like to read problematic stuff, and you guys get really mad when we write problematic stuff, and so we can’t do it,” and that is just a very convenient…

LM: On email when we were talking, I mentioned that one of the things that kind of gets short shrift in fan studies is this issue of pleasure and how things are for fun. In fandom, it’s usually the first thing people throw in the road when somebody criticizes racial representation in media texts and in fanfiction. “Well, it's just for fun, why are you ruining my fun.” And as Rukmini pointed out, and she can probably talk to better than I can, it’s a very white kind of pleasure. I mean, we’re sort of—especially in sort of an Anglo-American context, white women and I’m a white woman aren’t asked or otherwise compelled to even worry about racial representation. We do worry about misogyny, if we’re queer we might worry about representations of queerness, but race is sort of uniformly pushed, again, pushed under the carpet.

And the conversation put me in mind of a really really terrific essay in the open access journal Transformative Works and Cultures. It’s online, it’s free, have a look, by a scholar named Rebecca Wanzo [1]. And in that, and this was something that she mentioned in a talk that she gave a couple years ago and it stuck out so much I tweeted it, she basically said the experience she was talking about, African American audiences, the experience for African American fans is always one of I think she said “anxious waiting.” You’re sitting there basically going, it’s coming, it’s coming, I know it’s coming, and…neither media nor fandom really lets you down in that sense. It’s not a good sort of feeling of expectation, obviously. But for fans of color, that’s always out there. It’s (racism in the text or from fans) always at the very least a possibility, often times a probability, and so there’s never the same kind of carefree innocent pleasure in a mainstream text that white fans have access to.

LM: ... If you’re attracted to two characters and they’re working for you, you want to mush ’em together like Barbie dolls or Ken dolls or whatever, and there’s always gonna be people who are like “No, you’re wrong.” And that’s why I think, to come full circle in a way, that’s why I think we sort of run aground when we begin from the perspective—and again, I think this is at least partly what fan studies has currently bequeathed fandom—when we start from a position of “Slash is automatically progressive.” And if we write slash, we read slash, then we are fighting the man. If we get out of that mindset, and begin to sort of look at individual cases, different things that pop up, are we shipping to the exclusion of whatever. Just the different things that happen surrounding ships. I think we would find very different things than we do when we begin in that position, and it’s too easy a fallback for people who are un-inclined to listen to other kinds of criticism.

Fan Reactions and Responses

baronsamediswife: #this is such a grea episode #it's a great podcast in general but damn this episode goes where it hurts and holds up a great mirror

Anonymous: I have a very difficult time with podcasts (or audiobooks or lecture-heavy classes, or whatever), but I tuned in for your shipping and activism podcast, and I wanted to say thank you. Y'all did a great job, you made me think about things in my own fandom and my ships, and you were wonderfully nonjudgmental about ships in general. Very much appreciated. Thanks.

Fansplaining:Thank you! We’re so glad you enjoyed it. For the future, if you have trouble with audio/aural processing, we have transcripts of every episode! [2]