Slashcast Insider Interview with Dr. Henry Jenkins

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Slashcast Insider Interview with Dr. Henry Jenkins
Interviewer: emmagrant01
Interviewee: Dr. Henry Jenkins
Date(s): November 4, 2006 (part one). December 2, 2006 (part two)
Medium: online
Fandom(s): Harry Potter
External Links: part one online here as a transcript; WebCite, part one
part two online here as a transcript; WebCite, part two
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Slashcast Insider Interview with Dr. Henry Jenkins is a podcast created by and posted to Slashcast in two parts as "Episode 11" and "Episode 12"." Slashcast includes an transcript.

The interviewer is emmagrant01, the interviewee is Henry Jenkins. The interview is very long and very meaty with content.

The Interview Series

See Slashcast Insider Interview Series.

Excerpts from Part One

"Emma: Welcome to the Slashcast Insider Interview. I'm Emma Grant and my guest today is someone who hardly needs an introduction in fandom circles, Dr. Henry Jenkins. His work in media studies and fan culture is known around the world and many of our listeners have read his books and follow his blog. He's the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and he's the director of the Comparative Media Studies program there. He's written or edited many books and articles, most recently Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture."

Well, I think two things happened [to get me into media studies] . One was that I had been a fan myself and had been involved in fan cultures. The woman I ended up marrying was someone who was very interested in fanzines and fanfiction, and helped introduce me to the very different way she read television from the way that I, as a typical fanboy, had read television, and that process was, I think, part of our courtship because we got to know each other better, we got to know each other's ways of reading and ways of relating to media content, and being a fan became very important to our relationship. Then, when I started grad school, I was shocked to see the kinds of writing about media audiences that were- that sort of, in part of the academic discourse, that people were tending to write about fans as if they were inarticulate, as if they had no way of explaining what the shows- why shows appeal to them, as if their behavior was strange and exotic, and I just got very frustrated by that kind of writing. What I saw in fandom was a community that's very actively engaged in popular culture, doing things that were critical, that were creative, that were socially motivated, you know, talking passionately about why shows matter to them and how they interpreted them, having great explanations for their own practices, and really not needing to justify what they were doing, but simply needing to explain to the outside world, um, why what they were doing mattered. So I think it was process- that mixture of having my own passion and engagement with fan- fanfiction and fan communities and my sense that academic writers were missing the boat and really not talking about this in very intelligent ways, it pushed me to do my very first writing about fanfiction.
I've been- I've been a fan at large for twenty-five, thirty years of my life, so I think it started with Star Trek, more than anything else. Now I have less and less time to be fully committed as a member of a fan community, but I would certainly see myself as engaged in, say, the world around Lost. I love reality television right now, and that's a fan community I'm very engaged with. I certainly have read passionately the Harry Potter books - they're very important to me. You know, but- part of what my own research has suggested is that the idea that people are fans of particular shows may be the wrong way to think about it. I see fandom as a subculture, you know, so in the same way that one wouldn't say to a punk rocker, "What are you a punk about?" Uh, maybe I don't want to say, "What are you a fan of?" Because, in a sense, I- what I love is the whole world that fans have created around television as a way of engaging with reading and writing, as a way of watching television, as a way of understanding television in a social context, is what I love about fandom, and I flit across a large, like many fans I know, flit across a large number of shows over time, but what I remain loyal to is the community of fellow fans who are part of, you know, the circle that grows up around popular culture.
I'm sure it was through my wife. Um, you know, I'd certainly heard rumors about slash going back to sometime in the late 60s. I think I must have first encountered it some time in the- in the mid-70s, as I first started really reading fanzine stories. Um, and, you know, the first few stories I read, I was kind of squicked by. It was not something that I took to naturally; I suspect that's not unusual for men in our culture. That we- one certainly struggles with one's own homophobia when you first encounter slash. But the more I read, the more fascinated I became with these stories and the richer- the more interested I was in their construction of gender and sexuality that- I'd been part of a male consciousness raising discussions in high school and early college, getting men to think about the emotional issues in their lives, the issues of emotional intimacy and sexual trust, and so forth, had been part of what really- part of what I was deeply committed to; feeling that men lack an outlet to talk about their emotional lives. And as I suddenly stumbled into these stories where woman were writing, you know, writing accounts of men who were closed off from each other and gradually break down the walls and begin to communicate with each other, both sexually and emotionally, I was really moved by them, once I got over the sort of first blush of, you know, concern, sense of discomfort over some of the language. You know, at lot of the discomfort was just the sense that they were describing things that as a man, I don't think I'd like to do - not 'cause they were gay, but just because they didn't sound very comfortable. As I- you know, it's like sex without lubrication was something that sort of bothered me as first, but once I got past that and got to the emotional dynamics of slash, I really resonated with it. It's something that I really enjoyed reading. And I've written a few slash stories myself, through the years. [1]
Yea, to me that glass wall has always been a central metaphor of talking about slash, that is - if you think about the moment in Wrath of Khan, what you've got is a scene of Kirk and Spock thrust up against this glass, and the way it's filmed, they literally show the reflections in the glass over each other, so their faces are overlaid at one point. And that's the moment where Spock is willing to say as close to a statement of affection to Kirk he's ever given. And we see the just- it's tearing Kirk apart that he can't hold Spock at that moment; the glass is standing between them. You just- you want that glass to be scattered. And I've argued that slash is what happens when you take that glass away. I see the glass as all of those things that masculinity does to prevent men from having contact with each other emotionally, physically, spiritually. That it- that we're moving that wall- moving that wall in terms of sexuality opens up the possibility of moving through that wall emotionally and in terms of other forms of intimacy. That shared risk doing taboo sexuality opens them up to new kinds of emotional experiences, and that's why I think slash is such a powerful genre for character insight. It really does open up these men in a way that no other form of writing I can think of does and it does so in a way that, I think, many men could enjoy if they could simply get over the kind of implicit homophobia that charges almost everyone's relationship. I mean, woman as well, when they first read slash, especially if they're not part of a gay community, that their first response is to be put off by this idea of gay sex, and then to realize that it's speaking something fairly deep in their emotional make-up. It becomes erotic the more you become comfortable with it, but for people who haven't been part of, you know, a gay life before, there's a level you have to get through. But I think men have so many emotional barriers built in, that it's very difficult to get them to suspend that fear and anxiety and actually fall in love with slash, whereas I think women have- may have been more open to embracing slash over time. What's interesting, you know, and it's- you can imagine, "Well, it's just the homophobia," but I recently did a piece on men- letters to penthouse and this construction of male/male desire in the letters to penthouse, and it turns out that there are a large number of letters in that magazine, which is clearly one of the arch-typical male magazines in our culture, which are about straight men having sex with each other and that they're often justified by the figure of a woman who wants to see two men have sex. So the slash scenario is in fact part of the eroticism of their stories and what the woman does in those stories is provides a justification, an alibi for straight men to suspend their anxieties about having sex with another man. What they lack, though, totally, is the interior life of characters that slash does so extraordinarily well.
[regarding "slash"]: It's an interesting challenge. I mean, I think, obviously, a term that originates in fandom means whatever fandom collectively wants it to mean. I'm not sure I want to adjudicate a dispute like that, but I am interested. To me, what's interesting about slash is that it reworks the sexualities of characters. Now that can include cases, you know- I can imagine a story where the characters were gay that were portrayed as straight, would be slash. That would be very politically charged in our contemporary culture to write it that way. Um, whether a story where the characters are gay, but don't have sex with each other would constitute as slash, would be an interesting question. Um, and I also think, you know, having read writers like Eve Sedgwick and others that talk about sexuality, we've got to be cautious about defining sexuality only around an axis of gender. There's so many different aspects of our sexuality that you could change. You know, if you have a character that only has sex with total strangers, telling a story in which that character has an intimate relationship with a friend that becomes sexual could be slash in that is changes his sexuality, even if, in fact, it's the same sexual orientation we've written about.

So I wouldn't want to introduce a lot of- a kind of more nuanced language to talk about it, but I think what's clear, as we move toward femslash and as we move toward, you know, people beginning to argue for bisexual and S&M portrayals between men and women as having a slash element to it, we're enlarging what slash originally meant, and it does seem the most reliable way to think about it might be simply to define it as rewriting the sexualities of characters as presented on the show.

The problem with that, though, may be that some fans actually argue that characters could well be bi and that's not explicitly present on the show, but isn't contrary to their sexuality as constructed on the show, so we've got to be careful how we word it, that we don't preclude that as a possibility.
Well, I think one [change in perspective]- I think fandom in general has been changed dramatically by the rise of digital media, that digital media's exposed lots of people and lots of communities with slash and other fanfiction practices who were never socialized into fandom though the traditional channels. So people all over the world started reading these stories and started writing them and might not have a stable fan community around them, and so the norms that were part of the early slash community had broken down in that way, but it's also led to new creative innovations. So a norm breaking down would be the real person slash taboo, which was very, very, you know, intensely policed at the time that I wrote Textual Poachers. I certainly knew of real people slash, no one wanted me to talk about it in that book. The idea that it would be as out in the open as it is in the age of the internet would have been a shocker to people at the time. And I think it was largely that moving from television text to rock text to things like Lord of the Rings being people as interested in the private life of the actors as they were in the characters as portrayed on screen, it paved the way for that. But I think it was also, you just had people who didn't know that was a taboo in the community, who simply wrote the stories they wanted to read and they happen to be about real people rather than fictional characters. But that's- created some charge, I think, around how people used to defend slash: It isn't really about the actors, the actors shouldn't really have a personal stake in it, it's really about the characters and the characters are separate from the actors. That breaks down as you start thinking about real person slash.

In some ways, I think Harry Potter has really opened up questions of youth sexuality in a way that's extremely loaded. A lot of people- old time fans feel very strongly that fans who write Harry Potter slash have endangered, you know, are endangering all fans by moving it into a realm that's arguably child pornography. And other fans have sort of made other arguments on that subject, but that debate seems to be one that is stretching the boundaries of what's going on.

The third would be this notion of, you know, new genres, whether it's femslash or mpreg, where part of the culture at the time - I think we could find examples when I wrote Textual Poachers, but neither of those would have been as pronounced a genre as they've immerged in simply a world where so many stories are being written and circulated, and any powerful example, it's built on and reworked so many times that it's- what would have been minor flavors of slash fifteen years ago become fully pronounced and well developed sub-genres by today.
I know as a high school student how I isolated I felt and I'm certain about my own sexuality, that being able to find my way into a slash fandom as a high school student- I might have run like hell away from it, but if I could have found my way into it, I think I would have found it a really refreshing exchange. It would have been an important relationship to me, it would have been a lifeline on a lot of levels, and probably would have shaped how I related to the opposite sex to some degree. It would have formed, you know- so I'm excited to see slash reach younger people and I'm excited to see young men, as well as young women, being to participate in some of these fan communities. You know, obviously, the idea of under aged readers of slash is controversial and I think, you know, there's reasons why the slash world would want to protect itself from being read by teenagers, but it's also one of the few places where teenagers can get a different attitude about sexuality than traditional pornography offers them, and certainly young people have had no trouble getting their hands on pornography before, so if we want to create or maintain a monopoly in which commercially produced porn is available to young people, and without a lot of barriers, then we- they may be better off in a world where amateur produced stuff is available as well.

Excerpts from Part Two

"Welcome to the Slashcast Insider Interview. I'm Emma Grant, and this episode's interview segment is the second part of my interview with Dr. Henry Jenkins. In this part, Dr. Jenkins talks about gender issues in fandom, slash as a medium that allows people of different sexual orientations to talk to each other about sex and sexuality, and the extent to which slash is going mainstream as a genre."

Emma: In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, you write that even though academia has traditionally viewed slash as a, quote, "a heterosexual perforation of queerness", end quote, that it's actually a place where people of different sexual orientations come together and re-imagine issues related to sex and sexuality. And I have to say that really reflects my own experience in fandom. In fact, in this podcast, we have a recurring segment that covers glbt news because it's an issue that's important to the slash community. We also, though, occasionally hear some rumblings from the gay community that slash is sexually exploiting gay men. What's your take on that?

Dr. Jenkins: Well, let's start with this notion, this sort of theory of shared bodies that I'm talking about. I think, when first academic writing about slash came out, everyone was so shocked that women were interested in male bodies making love to each other that, almost immediately, everyone fell into a heterosexual assumption and just wrote about, all of the early articles, mine included, were written as if this was straight women who wrote it. Now, at the time, to be fair, a lot of the people were trying to bury the presence of lesbians or other sexual orientations within the slash community. They were really reluctant to, and a lot of the slash writers that are out now, of that generation, were not out at the time we were doing that writing. Gradually, over time, it became abundantly clear that it was much more complex. That this was, this fantasy is a highly fluid thing, that what one imagines in fantasy and desires in fantasies may have very little of what you might actually want to act on in your own sexual- sexual practice. That even our notions of what one's sexual identity are more fluid and more complex and multi-layered than I think the simple language of straight women writing about gay men would suggest. So I've become very interested in the ways in which having bodies in common allows people to communicate across sexualities; that is, having straight people and gay people and bi and so forth write about the same men that they saw on television allows them to communicate in subtle and interesting ways the differences and similarities in their sexual desires and fantasies, it gives a common ground.

Emma: So sometimes fans say that slash just gets rougher and rougher in the sense that there's more fics that are explicit, that there's more kink- the kinks are going further, or even in a fandom like Harry Potter, where as you pointed out before, there's a lot of under aged characters involved, that slash- a lot of slash fans feel like the boundaries are being pushed more and more, and that this is something that didn't happen, say, ten, fifteen years ago. Do you think that's true, in your experience?

Dr. Jenkins: You know, I think- if it's true, and I haven't read enough systematically lately to make a claim one way or another, but if it's true, it's because pornography in general is caught up in this process, that pornography is about the emotional charge that's created around a moment of transgression. And so pornography itself has to set up norms and then cross over them, and as it's crossed over norms, they become- that process becomes habitualized. It becomes desensitized; it doesn't carry the same emotional shock, it doesn't carry the same erotic charge that it once did. And so you're- as a genre, pornography is always about advancing onto some new taboo space and then normalizing it, treating it as equal.

In some ways, that's what's progressive about pornography, that forms a sexuality that once would have been unthinkable, become acceptable and you begin to understand and tolerate sexual diversity within your culture as you go down that process. But it also means slash, or porn in general, always pushes towards the outer limits. For some writers of slash, I think it's about crossing their own emotional barriers, taking a risk as a writer, and if you write stories that fit squarely in the mainstream of slash, you haven't put yourself through that rite of passage, that ritual of violating the taboos you were raised with and entering into that space, and I think that's a very important part of it.

The other think that I think happened, it fifteen years ago at least, was that slash fan writers discovered some of the right queer theory and queer discourse, began to think about things like S&M in a very different way, and in a sense, slash became politized at that point and this attempt to desire- to explore alternative sexualities through slash, took a deep, deep root. And it started with really good writers, but as that stuff goes along, as it becomes less risky to write it, more and more mediocre writers and bad writers step into it, so that you end up with stories that are purely shocking rather than stories that are exploring the crossing of sexual taboos for the purpose of getting deeper inside the characters.

Emma: It's very interesting to me because I think that a lot of us who are in the community don't really think about things being posted and circulated on Youtube as really exposing the community. I mean, we pass things among each other and say, "Oh, oh have you seen this vid?" And it wasn't really until I read your blog post that I thought about what that meant. That if larger societies outside of fandom got a sense of what slash vidders are doing, what that might mean for us.

Dr. Jenkins: Yea, I mean, Youtube is this strange and interesting space right now, where commercially produced content and amateur produced content circulate side by side. That all kinds of sub-cultural communities, which once would have been hidden from view and wouldn't have known each other's existence, are there, again, side by side in space. And you can start to see, something just drops like a pebble in a pond on Youtube, get picked up by different bloggers, you know, get moved further and further into the blogosphere, then get picked up by some place like Salon, then get picked up by maybe one of the television shows. There's certainly been examples of lots of Youtube content that's made it's way onto television and has become part of the public discussion. And then you finally get to the point where you're starting to see films and tv shows make fun of specific pieces of amateur content, like the Backstreet Boys spoof with the Chinese kids, that's made it's way onto some sitcoms this season. So you have this whole cycle where stuff enters in a fairly low key and informal way, and because of the interconnectedness of the digital world and mass media today, just works its way up faster and faster. And Closer was one example where that was taking place. By the time it reaches Boing Boing and Susey Bright and then Salon, it's moved further and further up that chain and the likely hood of the news coverage picking it up, or someone, you know, finding it's way onto television, is fairly high. But when you put something on Youtube, you really have no idea which pieces of that content is going to get picked up. There's such a mass amount of it, the odds of any given piece of content going through that process is low, but the risk of it happening is higher than I think people might imagine.

References

  1. He describes and discusseds Golden Idol.