The ‘Spotlight Effect’ in Media and Fandom

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Title: The ‘Spotlight Effect’ in Media and Fandom
Creator: saathi1013
Date(s): June 20, 2013
Medium: Tumblr
External Links: “The ‘Spotlight Effect’ in Media and Fandom,” by saathi1013, Archived version
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The ‘Spotlight Effect’ in Media and Fandom is a 2014 essay by saathi1013.

It was posted to Tumblr June 20, 2013, and reposted to The Fan Meta Reader October 13, 2014.

Some Topics Discussed

  • a panel called ‘Queering the Text’ at WisCon
  • What if we just want to use slash to ‘play’ with male sexual agency?
  • What if I don’t like the female characters we’re given in popular media?
  • "Female characters are often considered less ‘likable’ than male ones because they aren’t given the ‘spotlight’ in the same way."
  • "Yes, we absolutely do need more representation of minorities in the center of the media spotlight. But fandom is a place tailor-made to reinvent canon at whim – so why do our ‘whims’ all too often reinforce white male supremacy?"


[references some graphics imbedded in the original essay]: Now, imagine that the little people in the center of the spotlight are how media represents people. The little figures in the middle are the focus. They get the most screen time, the most character development and plotlines and nuance and basically are granted a fuller spectrum of humanity in their depiction. Their faults have greater context, and as such, the narrative (and the audience) is more likely to be forgiving of their errors.

With me so far?

The people on the edges of the ‘spotlight’ are usually supporting characters, with less screen time, more two-dimensionality, less sympathy from the narrative unless it serves the overall plotline, less consistency in their portrayal, and so on.

The people you can barely see in the gray area? might as well be cardboard cutouts for all the attention they get within the story. These characters are the most likely to be caricatures, defined by a single characteristic or motive.

In ensemble shows, you’re likely to have more characters in the middle of the ‘spotlight,’ but there are often still ‘leader’-type characters among the group (see: Buffy Summers, Jeff Winger, many of the people surnamed ‘Shepard’/’Sheppard’/’Shepherd’ in a bunch of genre shows like Lost and SGA, and so on).

Now, here’s the tricky bit. From a narrative standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with this structure. It’s useful, it’s easy for writers to create and for audiences to understand, and it’s cheap to produce.

But from a meta standpoint, it must be pointed out that most characters given the ‘spotlight’ are white cis hetero men. Conventionally attractive white cis hetero women are probably the second ring out, and then it goes downhill from there, with people of multipleminority identities often not allowed on the ‘stage’ at all.

Which is total and complete bullshit, let’s all agree.

The products of fandom can turn out to be more interesting and colorful than canon, certainly, but nine times out of ten fandom reflects what it sees. This is not to say that fandom is not valuable: we examine everything before this reflective transformation occurs, and keep what we believe are the ‘best’ parts of canon – or the most necessary, according to our goals – and discard the chaff.

But most of the time fandom reflects the same spotlight that the media does. There is a hyperfocus on white cis het males, and while slash can add ‘queerness’ where there was none in the original text, fandom often seems remarkably uncreative when it comes to ‘shifting the spotlight’ to other characters.

So, this is the tangle: media projects a hierarchy where white cis het men are given primary consideration —> fandom reflects that hierarchy. And in some cases, media with strong feedback relationships with its audience/fanbase will then cater to the fanbase, creating an ‘echo chamber’ effect of white dude importance.

It’s not so surprising, then, that every now and then we’ll hear some douchecanoe spout off some line like “straight white men are the default – they’re more ‘universally relatable.’” What is surprising is how angry people in fandom will get over that sentiment while simultaneously reinforcing that same internalized hierarchy that media feeds us.