Elizabeth Minkel writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman, and she’s on staff at The Millions.She’s written for The Guardian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New Republic—and she’s written a whole lot of fanfic (self-indulgent time-travel crossovers!) that shamefully languishes in WIP Land, never published. She also has a weekly fandom newsletter, “The Rec Center,” with fellow fandom journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw.
Flourish Klink co-founded FictionAlley.org and helped run the HPEF Harry Potter conferences for years, as well as writing a surprisingly small amount of fanfic. She’s a partner at Chaotic Good, a company that plans and develops storyworlds and franchises for major movie studios, networks, and game companies. She was a transmedia producer for the first three seasons of East Los High, a teen telenovela on Hulu featuring an all-Latino cast.
Can you provide a short description of your podcast fansplaining and explain the importance of discussing fandom seriously? What is fandom to you?
Elizabeth: Flourish and I met IRL at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con: we were on a panel together, and afterwards she approached me about starting a fandom podcast. I said in our first episode that our panel, which was mostly people from different web platforms that fandom uses, were having different conversations—but Flourish and I were having the same conversation. We’ve been in various fandoms for a long time, but with very different experiences. And we’ve both found ourselves in this weird new intersection between industry and fandom—Flourish the entertainment industry, me the media—trying to be realistic about the future while still being super fannish.
We’re working on our 17th episode now—they come out every other Wednesday. We try to mix things up. Some weeks we’ll tackle a general issue surrounding fandom (we’re working hard to make it not too fanfiction-focused), but most of the time we’ll have a guest on, someone who’s in fandom but does something else that relates to it, from lawyers to scholars to activists to artists. For a full list of our episodes: http://fansplaining.tumblr.com/episodes
What is fandom, though? Haha, that’s like, the actual question of the podcast. And we have *not* decided. (See episode 8, “One True Fandom,” which led us to fight and cry and learn and grow).
Did you identify as a feminist when you were younger? How did that impact your relationship with fandom and being a writer growing up?
Flourish: I always identified as a feminist; my mother’s a second-wave feminist. I don’t think it impacted my relationship with fandom or being a writer till I was older, though; I didn’t connect the two things until much later.
As you guys spend a lot of time discussing fan culture with other adults, could you give some advice on how teenagers can explain fandom to their parents? Especially when that community is so important to them, what can they do to communicate effectively?
Flourish: I think it depends a lot on the parents and the parents’ concerns. If they’re achievement focused, find fans who have found success through fandom and prove to them that fandom can help you achieve career goals. If they’re worried about your friendships and making “real life friends,” find local conventions and go to those—at least they’ll “get you out of the house.”
Elizabeth: I actually might push the ‘career skills’ angle. When I was at GeekyCon last year, there was a whole track dedicated to “fan-to-pro” people, and there were a lot of pretty young kids, pre-teens even, in the audience with parents. One thing that struck me was how many parents were asking questions: “How did you get into this? How can my child make this into a career, too?” I mean, of course parents are worried about their kids’ futures, but I saw a lot of awesome parents really embracing their kids’ fannishness. You see all sorts of posts out there about how fandom makes you a better writer, better communicator, maybe develops your technical skills if you want to build or create something. If your parents hate your passion…like, they suck. 🙂
I don’t know if this comes easily, but listening to your podcast, I find it astounding how you can be both bluntly critical and loving of fandom at the same time, even open to foreign things like in your Wattpad episode. How do you remain both objective and understanding when discussing fandom? What is a good tip to remember when approaching different aspects that are unfamiliar?
Flourish: Long, oft-painful experience? It’s hard to give advice on how to do this, because fandom is so close to most of our identities that it’s really mixed up in all sorts of emotional issues. Trying not to take things personally is always hard, but it’s where this starts.
When is it time to move on from a fandom, and when do you decide to stay? Especially when it concerns diversity and representation issues, what constitutes as crossing the line, and how should fans properly react? Should people feel guilty for continuing to watch content that they know has said issues?
Elizabeth: Well I think it partly depends on how you *do* fandom, because the great thing about transformative fans is that we thrive on talking back to our media. A fair portion of fanfiction works as a critique of the source material—particularly around queering heteronormative texts—and like, to a degree that I often find surprises outsiders. That being said, I don’t think, “just write diversity into your fanfic” is an excuse for creators to continue to make incredibly un-diverse media. Our critique should also be in conversation with them—the best creators out there are listening, learning, and trying to do better.
Oftentimes moving on from a fandom doesn’t have as much to do with the source material as it does the fandom itself—in-fighting, ship wars, wank, all the things that can make online communities toxic. You don’t have to have a delightful time every single moment of your fandom life, but if most of the moments are causing you sadness or emotional distress, it’s probably time to take a step back. Fandom is supposed to be fun! It’s hard in practice—maybe you’re still deeply attached to the source material, or to the friends you’ve made there. But it’s worth it in the long run. And if you’re fannishly inclined, you *will* find another fandom.
Going off from the previous question here– Even with people calling for more diversity, why do you think that Hollywood is still trying to hold onto its white, male dominated ways? When there is representation, a lot of the times cisgender actors take trans roles, or like with Stonewall, there is black erasure. Writers such as Steven Moffat misunderstand, creating female characters who are confident, yet that confidence is often hollow and fetishized. Why do you think change is taking so long, and how do we not lose hope?
Flourish: Change takes a long time because of two factors: the race and gender of power players in the industry, and perceived business realities (received wisdom like “white people won’t go see movies that star black people,” “men won’t see romantic movies,” etc.) Both things have to change in order for serious systemic change to occur. I don’t know what to say about hope, but I do think that there’s been significant progress on both fronts recently.
Some fans like to go as far as to ship real life people together (RPF). Do you consider this to be crossing a boundary, or something that is acceptable?
Elizabeth: Our last episode was devoted to this very topic! After our Wattpad episode all those months ago, Flourish started writing RPF, which led her to attend a One Direction RPF gallery show a few weeks back. I also have pretty strong feelings about RPF—about how it’s totally fine, it’s not for actors or creators, and about how all celebrity journalism is a fiction to begin with. 🙂 If you haven’t read it, definitely check out the article I wrote about it. That being said, there is an actual line that can be crossed, and that’s a physical one. Stalking, harassment, all the other extreme IRL behaviors that a small fraction of celebrity fans do is never OK. But writing a story about Harry and Louis having a baby? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
Flourish, what is it like working and writing in a film/TV setting? Do you have any advice for young writers and teenagers aspiring to create and be involved in that kind of career?
Flourish: It’s a bit strange. When you see how the sausage gets made, sometimes it’s hard to have the same fannish reaction to it. In some ways, what has been seen can never be unseen, you know?
There are a lot of barriers to people joining the film and TV industries, but if you’re set on breaking into it, I can’t recommend actually moving to Los Angeles enough. Going to school there is a huge leg up. If you can’t do that, then move there after school and find entry level jobs. It’s many, many times more difficult to get into the industry from afar, because everything is done through networking. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is, so plan accordingly.
I really like Erin Claiborne’s quote Elizabeth used in a piece for the New Statesman last year– “I can’t help but think that a lot of women aren’t proud of being fanfic writers because we’re rarely encouraged to take pride in something seen as a woman’s hobby.”– and how in the podcast it is mentioned that not all fanfic is wish fulfillment, but it should be respected either way. You both have frequently discussed how fan culture is commonly being used as easy jokes and punchlines, especially from other celebrities in interviews and talk shows, and how it is a feminist issue. If you had the chance to personally speak to, say, Graham Norton, or one of the other big names that excessively portray fandom negatively, what would you say?
Elizabeth: I mean, I kind of feel like talking to Graham Norton isn’t worth it. There’s a certain type of attitude and personality that wants to treat everything like a joke, even if that joke comes at the expense of marginalized communities—you see this every day with comedians railing against political correctness.
One of my biggest pieces last year was essentially titled, “Why do we mock One Direction fans when Top Gear fans are just the same?” (Zayn had announced he was leaving 1D the same week that Jeremy Clarkson was sacked as host of Top Gear) The whole point was that we were being awful to teenage girls and giving these stupid men a pass—and I got a whole ton of responses that were like, “Why can’t we mock both?” And it’s like…OK, sure. I can’t stop you. But I can take fangirls *very* seriously. And I can let you know that young girls in particular are incredibly vulnerable in this world, but I think for some people, that won’t make a difference. I’ll keep shouting about it, though.
One thing we can do as intelligent, self-confident fans is try not to step on each other. When I started writing about fanfiction, I was worried about seeming serious, and I wrote about how it’s not all porn, and it’s not all written by teenage girls. But I know that fanfiction is interesting and smart and worth taking seriously, so now I say so what if some of it is porn, and so what if some of it is written by teenage girls! (And the porn is interesting and smart in a different way to the non-porn, so that’s worth celebrating, too) We’re all in fandom together, and no one is doing it the *right* way, just a different way.
What are your thoughts on the phrase “your fave is problematic”– is it overused? How should someone judge a celebrity properly without jumping to conclusions but also being critical of the things they should be critical about?
Elizabeth: I wrote about this very topic over the summer! I think we need to take a step back with some of our conversations about problematic faves. Dylan Maron says it better than me in the interview, but we are quick to label something as racist garbage—and on the flip side, if it’s something we really love, we might be quick to defend some stuff that genuinely is problematic. Humans are flawed, and humans learn. Most celebrities and creators are decent people, and they say problematic things, or write problematic storylines—but it’s entirely possible that they are learning, their politics or understanding evolving. We can push back, in a positive way—#diversifyagentcarter is a great example of that. Rather than condemning, we need to give people the space to get better.
Which books and writers did you grow up reading (besides fanfic) and how did those stories come to influence your writing and lifestyle today?
Flourish: Diana Wynne Jones taught me that some of the most satisfying plots seem to be a complete tangle in the middle and require a lot of work to sort out. I still love that sort of book, even if some people think it’s “too confusing.” Life is confusing.
Elizabeth: I read a lot of *men* and Flourish thinks that I am an alien for that reason. A lot of books influenced me in different ways, but one of the most important books I ever read was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando—I named my cat after her. 🙂
What do you enjoy the most about what you do for a living?
Elizabeth: It doesn’t happen with every article, but most of the time when I write a piece, I get messages or tweets that say things like, “Thank you for putting into words something I’ve been trying to express for years.” Or from fanfic writers, or teenage girls (MY FAVORITE GROUPS) thanking me for sticking up for them in a media landscape that exists to put them down. One of my favorite things about fandom is in your real life you might feel a little too weird and a little too obsessive and a little out of sync, but in fandom, it kind of clicks, and you’re surrounded by people like you. The fact that I can be that point of recognition for people, writing in the mainstream media and trying to articulate all this stuff, is really amazing to me. Oh God, my favorite thing about my job is people praising me, I’m the actual worst.