Gross encounters: on the way to writing a profile of Paul Gross, the author discovers his fans are the real story. Reflections on celebrity worship, Internet love and Canada as the Holy Land

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Title: Gross encounters: on the way to writing a profile of Paul Gross, the author discovers his fans are the real story. Reflections on celebrity worship, Internet love and Canada as the Holy Land
Commentator:
Date(s): May 2000
Venue: paper, online
Fandom: fandom, literary fandom, due South
External Links: The Author Discovers His Fans Are the Real Story
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Gross encounters: on the way to writing a profile of Paul Gross, the author discovers his fans are the real story. Reflections on celebrity worship, Internet love and Canada as the Holy Land is a 2000 "Toronto Life" article by Cynthia Brouse.

The article won a National Magazine Award in the subject of Personal Journalism/Essays for 2000. [1]

The article highlights Brouse's interest in due South, her attendance at a 1999 con (sponsored by RCW 139), and her observations about fans and fandom.

Brouse self-identifies as a fan and discusses her feelings of shame at being a fan.

Fans most certainly had some strong opinions about this article and Brouse's observations and descriptions. Her descriptions of fans focus on their immaturity ("they watch reruns the way my friends dropped everything to watch Monty Python's Flying Circus when I was in university, "), their physical unattractiveness ("... two round, middle-aged women approach the elevators. Both have short frosted hair and pale plastic-framed glasses and are squeezed into shorts, T-shirts and regulation Mountie hats. One is quite possibly the other's mother. " And "middle-aged women in T-shirts and jeans, many of them on the pudgy side"), their obsessiveness: ("On alt.tv.due-south, people from Texas and New Jersey and Ireland and Saskatchewan discuss curling and the Northern Pikes and the correct way to tie a lanyard."), and touches upon slash fanfic ("masturbation material").

This article about fans and fandom is very likely one reason Bernice, the zine editor for IIBNF Press, specifically printed in several of its zines: "This zine is not to be given to journalists (in particular Cynthia Brouse or Veronica Cusack), actors, producers, or anyone else involved in the entertainment/media industries. Please do not refer to this zine in any public forum without the express permission of the editor." [2]

Referenced in Another Article

Some of the contents of this article was referenced in September 2000 in "The Globe and Daily Mail" in an article called Not about to curl up and call it quits, which in built on opinions and quotes in the 1998 article by Brouse called Internet Authors Put TV Buddies in Unusual Romances.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts

I know I don't really need to take notes or make a tape during Gross's appearance; a transcript will soon show up on the Net. Sure enough, within a day of RCW's conclusion, excited accounts of the convention will pop up on-line, along with photos. Fans from as far away as Bolivia bemoan the fact that they couldn't be in that ballroom at Yonge and Bloor, and they lavish profuse thank yous on the lucky souls who saw Gross and are sharing the details. One American woman begins her missive on the PG-L by explaining that she spent a romantic weekend in Toronto at RCW with her husband, celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary, and goes on to describe Gross's appearance in loving detail that at times sounds like an autopsy report -- "I noticed two small abrasions with scar tissue on his left elbow and another one on his forearm near his wrist (could have been scratched insect bites)....He continuously picked at one in particular on his elbow that was scabbed over."

When I was 10, I bought my first fan magazine for 25 cents, ran home in the rain from the candy store and festooned my walls with photos of the Monkees (my favourite was Mike Nesmith, just as my fave Beatle had been John Lennon -- I always went for the witty married guy). Something bloomed inside me that day, something that never entirely died away. It felt both powerful and just slightly out of control.

In those days, Tiger Beat and 16 magazine regularly posed a question that always puzzled me: "Does Bobby Sherman [or Paul McCartney or Desi Arnaz Jr.] love his fans?" a cover line would often ask. Did it matter? I used to wonder. Why should I care whether David Cassidy liked me, since I didn't even know him? It wasn't until I was a few years older that I understood how important my affection was to him and his livelihood. But somehow I never felt he owed me anything in return beyond a commercial display of his putative talent. I went through, among others, a William Shatner phase, a Bobby Orr phase, an Eric Clapton phase and a Hal Holbrook phase, as well as round two with John Lennon. But only once, when I was 12, did I ever send for an autographed photo. I've written exactly two fan letters in my life -- one of them to Jane Siberry to encourage her then fledgling career. At 21, I once very hesitantly approached a bleary-eyed Kim Mitchell in Smitty's Pancake House to request an autograph for my 14-year-old brother; I mentioned that by coincidence I had some recent concert photos of his band in my purse (my brother had taken them with my camera, and I was about to mail them to him). "You carry pictures of me in your purse?" Mitchell said with something like terror. I wanted the floor to swallow me up.

In other words, I have never wanted to reveal my fan status publicly. I do not haunt hotels seeking autographs. I have never snapped photos of celebrities. I have no Paul Gross posters in my house -- well, there's some fairly interesting desktop wallpaper -- and I always said I would rather eat glass than attend a Star Trek convention. (I did once astound my co-workers at a party by singing its theme song -- yes, it has words). I respect a star's right to privacy. After moving to Toronto from a small town just to find anonymity, it's a commodity I prize highly. I'm also embarrassed to reveal that I have a crush on a man I'll never know. But at base, I resent stars a little; I don't resent their wealth and fame and talent, but rather their power over me, and I am loath to grant them any more by letting them see that I care.
Star Trek conventions are big business, though, drowning in cheap merchandise and fake autographs and avaricious collectors. By contrast, RCW has been the only big Due South convention; its attendance figures are infinitesimal compared with those of the Star Trek variety, and nobody appears to be making any money out of it. Another big difference between the two sets of fans is gender. I still remember going to a matinee of the first Star Trek movie, only to find myself virtually the only female in a packed theatre. CBS, which originally tried to pigeonhole Due South as a run-of-the-mill cop show, announced that the series would be targeted to young males when it ordered the first season's worth of episodes. But more than one e-mail survey of Due South fandom I've seen elicited most of its responses from middle-aged women. There's just something about a man in uniform, I suppose, though I'm certain there are other reasons these people have flocked to the Radisson on a warm August weekend.
It's possible I'm more inclined than other fans to keep my little obsessions private because they trouble me. In my teens, as both a John Lennon acolyte and an aspiring writer, I concocted romantic stories about the Beatles, which always featured me in a prominent role. Both seduced by fame and fascinated by it on an intellectual level, I wrote a lurid tale in which an assassin's bullet ended Lennon's life. Having grown up in what seemed like the decade of political assassinations, I reasoned that a celebrity shooting was the next logical manifestation of hero-worship in our culture. When, to my utter horror, the story came true six years later, I concluded that the difference between me and the deranged Mark David Chapman was one only of degree. I resolved never to allow fantasy and idolworship to sidetrack my life.

The last thing many of us want is to get close to the objects of our desire, because they aren't really what we worship -- it's the image of them we cherish, the characters they play, the transcendent qualities they symbolize. Quite a few of us know that Princess Diana or Frank Sinatra or Madonna are (or were) simultaneously real people and myths, and that actually spending time with the real celebrity might be powerfully disillusioning. And yet we still make little forays into the world of the real celeb -- reading about their family struggles in People, watching their weddings on TV -- testing the image in our minds against the reality. Just in case.

How far does one have to go before it's too far? Do the folks at RCW really need to "get a life"? Do I?

The conflict I feel at RCW stems partly from my genuine interest in the world of fan fiction, where fans "publish" stories -- similar to those I wrote in my teens -- that take the plots of TV series in directions their producers may never have imagined. The sub-genre called "slash fiction" goes further still -- it's a curious combination of subversive pornography and conservative, Harlequin-like romance in which the breathless lovers are usually both men. Named for the punctuation that joins such couples (Kirk/Spock, Starsky/Hutch), slash stories also describe every imaginable sexual act between Constable Fraser and his partner, Chicago PD Detective Ray Vecchio, or one of the other men on Due South (sometimes three or four of them at a time) -- even, in at least one case, Fraser and his wolf-dog Diefenbaker. To many people's surprise, most slash fiction is written by women, for women. It's masturbation material, but it adapts television, pornography and male sexuality in a way that's emotionally satisfying to its female readers. In a world in which all three often seem designed to please men, The Women's Guide to Sex on the Web calls slash "an inherently political act."

So, while I've been tossing around the idea of writing a short profile of Gross, my main reason for attending RCW is that I've been doing research on why women read and write gay male eroticpins they'll be wearing. ("I'd like to be able to identify other slashers," wrote "Anagi," the moderator of one slash mailing list, to her confreres, "without that awkward 'So very nice to meet you, June. That's a lovely shirt you're wearing. Do you think Fraser swallows?'")

[At the con], I laugh at the dialogues; I smile when a woman behind me recites quietly along with the performers and when hands shoot up with the correct answers less than five words into the scenes. But halfway through the quiz, I'm blushing -- I realize that I, too, know most of the answers. Like many in the room, I have all the episodes on tape. When, at the quiz's end, the whole room erupts in an impassioned rendition of "Ride Forever," a sentimental song Paul Gross co-wrote with David Keeley, I cringe. I don't want to "Sweeeeep," and I don't want to sing. I want to get out of here. Because I know all the words to "Ride Forever," too.

It occurs to me that I am in a room packed not so much with loony TV maniacs as with a herd of mainly middleaged American women on vacation with U.S. dollars in their pockets, who may be congenitally uninhibited. The quieter fans turn out to be from Holland, Scotland, Australia -- only a handful are from Canada. I realize I'm a little jealous of these people as, linking arms and swaying from side to side, they belt out one more verse of Gross's song about an aging horseman as though it were their national anthem ("We're gonna tear across these blue Alberta skies!"). They admire Constable Fraser's quaint Canadian reserve and law-abiding politeness. I admire the friendly way they've bonded with people they met over the Internet, and wonder what it would be like to be so sure of my place in the universe that I don't care what anybody thinks of me.

Friday afternoon: I find myself in a hotel room surrounded by at least 10 slash fiction writers and readers. Few will use their real names, and some won't speak on tape. Most of them say their friends and families don't know that they write gay erotica. "I wouldn't dream of telling my husband," exclaims Cheryl, a 42-year-old clerk from Kentucky. Mother of two teenagers, with an owlish face, grandmotherly grey hair and a gentle, wise demeanour, she prefers "relationship" stories, often labelled "high sap content," in which the sex is secondary to the love between Fraser and Ray.

On the other end of the spectrum is Anagi, 31, an attractive and sarcastic blonde credit rep from Seattle who contributes to an Internet list called "duekink" and wrote a story in another fandom that contains a warning about "blood as lube." The women seem tolerant of each other's "squicks" -- what turns one on grosses out another. In fact, Cheryl and Anagi co-wrote a story on-line; in it, Fraser drowns and turns into a strange sea creature, and Ray commits suicide so he can be with his lover forever.

There's a discussion about foreskins and whether Fraser is likely to have one (the consensus is yes, since he was conceived in an igloo and born in a barn). When I tentatively reveal that I once tried my hand at writing a slash story, I receive kudos all around. I slink away feeling both affirmed and slightly guilty. A survey of Due South cyberfans from 17 countries, conducted by two university researchers in Pennsylvania, found that more than half the respondents read fan fiction of some kind. Anagi estimates that about a third of the people attending RCW this year are into slash. Still, in the eyes of the more mainstream convention participants, slashers are the evil stepchildren in fandom. Maybe it's because I'm into slash myself, but to me they seem the most interesting of the fans. Rather than passively consuming prime-time television, they are subverting it, placing their stamp on it, shaping it to their own ends.

But some cultural anthropologists argue that we all do that, whether we're writing porn about a TV series, attending conventions, creating zines or just discussing Ally McBeal around the water cooler. We shape pop culture even as it shapes us. We cut holes in our expensive mass-marketed jeans, make hit tunes out of sampled '60s records, form communities with people we'll never meet -- and rewrite TV series.

After RCW is over, Anagi and I become friends. She tells me about an acquaintance she met on the Net who tried to persuade her to camp out in a car outside a Vancouver hair salon on the chance that one of the lead actors in The Sentinel might be getting his hair cut there. "Honestly, Cynthia," she says, "some of these people are just freaks. They've got too much time on their hands." I remind her that she went to some lengths and expense to purchase a Mountie uniform through eBay. "But that's me!" she laughs. "They're freaks! I have a grip on reality!"

Perhaps the hole inside most TV fans is not any bigger than the one inside somebody who's obsessed with work or golf or gardening, aerobics or model trains or jazz. In any case, I know few people who don't succumb to the pull of pop culture on what Schickel calls our "endlessly distracted, distractable selves." Anagi's husband hates the fact that she doesn't get paid for writing slash fiction while she spends hundreds of dollars on Due South collectibles and zines; his hobbies include PlayStation and fishing ("He's catch and release, so we don't even get to keep the fish!" she says). Each morning, I'm always mildly puzzled as I lie in bed and am forced to listen to a five-minute radio report on some guy's efforts to put a ball into a net for reasons unfathomable to me but clearly of importance to many listeners. Sports, like acting, is made up of equal parts entertainment, hype, big business and the celebration of skill -- but somehow its fandom gets more respect.

[After his Saturday Night Live skit, "Get a Life," William Shatner] went undercover at Star Trek conventions across the U.S., mingling with Trekkers from beneath a mask (apparently a good way to blend in) and interviewing some of the more legendary of the lot. He discovered that, for many, Star Trek fandom was a life -- an odd one, perhaps, but an interesting one. Because of the series' emphasis on diversity, morality and optimism for a world in which a creature's inner worth is more important than his appearance, he wrote, Star Trek events tend to attract a large number of participants with physical or emotional disabilities, or who for some reason have found themselves unable to fit into society. Through fandom, they find belonging. In other words, he discovered that misfits are people, too, and if they have small lives, it turns out they have much bigger hearts. "Talk about 'getting a life,'" he concludes. "Has anyone on the planet gotten more out of Star Trek than me?"

Pop culture theorists would say Shatner's been reading his Henry Jenkins. The head of film and media studies at MIT, Jenkins was among the first to suggest that Trekkers, and media fans in general, are not just pawns of Viacom, Time Warner and Disney, but may be resisting the rigid world view big corporations would have us swallow. He believes they haven't lost their grip on the real world but are trying to create a new one that makes room for the marginalized.
The PG-L members are clearly as interested in Gross's work and his brain as they are in the way he licks his lower lip, though they may, like me, feel the need to hide their hormonal urges behind their intellects. But I think fantasy gets a bad rap. In her research on romance fiction, Janice Radway of Duke University found that fantasy is important, that, for example, women who read romance novels are teaching themselves how to create a better world by trying on all the roles in the typical novel, not just that of the heroine but the hero, too. Other researchers have said the same thing about pornography -- how do we know that men who enjoy watching rape scenes aren't identifying with the woman? It seems to me that shifting role-play fantasy -- what Radway calls "multiple subject positions" -- is true of TV fans as well. One analysis of slash fiction suggests that slashers get to be and have the two men they write about.

I could interview him and those who know him, report back to you that, yes, Paul Gross loves his fans -- or not. But the person who interests me most is not Paul Gross. It's his reflection: in my eyes, on film and TV, in the room with the Estrogen Brigade, in the ether that floats among keyboard and modem and blue screen. I've learned more about that mythical Paul Gross -- and the people who invite that myth into their lives -- than I ever will about him. When I interviewed him briefly by phone in 1998 on the topic of slash fiction, he showed a good-natured willingness to acknowledge that he has no control over his characters after he's finished playing them or over where other people's imaginations take them. Time will tell whether he can control where his most well-known character takes him. It sounds like a postmodernist truism, but Paul Gross both is and isn't Constable Fraser. Perhaps he both loves and hates his fans -- and maybe some of us feel equally ambivalent about him. The bottom line is it's unlikely he'd be playing Hamlet at Stratford if the Mountie hadn't marched into his life.

[snipped]

Five months later, over Christmas and New Year's, I am housebound with the flu. Feeling bored and sorry for myself, I glance at my e-mail in-basket from time to time for messages. Not a single one shows up from any of the PG-L members for at least two weeks. They do, it appears, have a life. But on one Due South list, there's a discussion about the final season's Christmas episode, called "Good for the Soul." It's the one in which Fraser comes to terms with his perpetual, inexplicable loneliness.

References

  1. National Magazine Awards/Prix du magazine canadien
  2. Cohorts #5 is one of those zines.