[Reading] Enterprising Women

Bacon-Smith, C. (1992) Enterprising women: Television fandom and the creation of popular myth, University of Pennsylvania Press

Camille Bacon-Smith’s book is a highly ambitious project, setting out to produce a comprehensive ethnography of the media fandom community. It covers research conducted mostly in the 1980s and is in many ways a useful time capsule of what fandom looked like before the Cambrian explosion that was the adoption by the community of digital communications. The book is split into three parts, each seeking to take us deeper into fandom until we reach what Bacon-Smith terms “the heart of the community”. A high-level introduction to media fandom, fanzines, fanfiction and material art is followed by a more in-depth look into community initiation practices, different forms of cultural output and the different ways of reading and constructing meaning that fans engage in. The final part looks at risk and identity in the context of what Bacon-Smith identifies as two key subgenres of fanfiction: slash and hurt/comfort.

A few things strike me about this book. After spending half my life with at least one foot in fandom and a significant chunk of that hiding from both rightsholders and the attention of the public, the discovery that there are at least a handful of academics out there who take fandom seriously is somewhat exhilarating; at the same time, being studied by someone who firmly takes an outsider position is a strange feeling. Bacon-Smith has been criticised for her positioning as “the ethnographer”, both by other academics and by the fandom community. There are passages where she comes dangerously close to passing judgement on the community she is studying, and the backlash against that is understandable. Her clear and visible identification throughout her field work as an outsider has almost certainly also had an effect on the levels of trust the participants in her study were willing to extend her and therefore the quality of the data she was able to get. I can understand this approach from a research ethics point of view, but arguably it hasn’t produced either the most ethical or most accurate finished product.

For me, this raises questions about the right and ethical approach to my own research. There are other approaches to fan studies which I am hoping to explore over the coming weeks and months. I feel a strong sense of accountability to a community which has given me so much insight and support over the years, and at the same time a desire to produce high-quality original research. It is still early days, but this has been a concern at the forefront of my mind since the inception of this project and a thread which I hope will continue to guide me over the next three years.

I think it is partly Bacon-Smith’s outsider position and partly her expectation to find a single “heart” that has led her down the wrong path in that endeavour. She identifies hurt/comfort stories as the heart of fandom, dismissing slash as a curve ball participants threw at her to misdirect her away from a more vulnerable, painful place. She sees, incorrectly I believe, slash and hurt/comfort stories as completely separate and independent of each other and, correctly, identifies that many h/c stories originate in the deep personal pain of the author. Here is where her analysis falls down:

But why do women write about the very things they fear? What benefit can be gained from stories that graphically describe pain and suffering, that offer comfort after the fact but do not postulate, do not reconstruct, a society free of deliberate torture? (p. 278)

Bacon-Smith comes close to partial answers to some of these questions but never really finds a complete and satisfactory one. She does, in her own way, explain that writing about our pain gives us power over it. What I think she misses is the crucial role that slash (and other subgenres) play as the flip side of writing about pain. In her haste to dismiss slash writers as single, celibate, divorced or never having experienced a relationship with a man, and extremely obese (p. 247, I kid you not), what Bacon-Smith misses is that slash often is precisely that reconstructed world free of pain, where relationships are between equals.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book is the persistent denial that there is anything political about fandom. This is especially baffling given the language Bacon-Smith uses to describe fans and our activities. She consistently uses references to oppression and resistance, to power and silencing, and even once (quoting a fan) to terrorism. Through all that, however, runs the refrain of “fandom is not political”. I am not going to speculate on the reasons why she reaches this conclusion, and I’m going to leave in-depth counterarguments for my thesis, but I will say that giving a name to your oppression and imagining a world without it are deeply political acts.

The analysis in Enterprising Women that I found most compelling was that of the Mary Sue phenomenon. Bacon-Smith sees the Mary Sue as an attempt by writers to reconcile the many impossible demands that social expectations of womanhood and femininity put on them, while at the same time retaining an element of agency for themselves.

For the fan woman of any age, her Mary Sue story is her attempt, if only in print, to experience that rite of passage from the active child to the passive woman who sacrifices her selfhood to win the prince. (p. 101)

On the general absence of female characters in fanfiction, Bacon-Smith theorises that writing about women does not give fan writers sufficient distance from which to examine and reimagine their own condition. I would add to this that the dearth of well-written women in commercial fiction and media, and particularly of relationships between women, is another significant factor, on which I plan to expand in another post.

A final aspect of the book which I found fascinating was the time capsule effect. The community Bacon-Smith describes is one of predominantly middle-class, white American women over the age of 25 or 30. With fanzines costing up to $25 each, the expensive video equipment needed to even just access the source materials, and the travel required to meet and get to know other fans, these were the people who could afford fandom in the 1970s and 80s. Digital distribution has driven the cost of access to both source and fan materials to virtually zero, made source products available instantaneously and simultaneously anywhere in the world, and made finding fandom and a global community only a Google search away. The contrast is striking.

I had, briefly, one foot in the pre-digital fandom world. The first time I watched Season 4 of Babylon 5 was on tapes which were the copy of a copy of a copy of an NTSC to PAL conversion. They were black and white, with chunks of static across the bottom which meant I never knew what Marcus said to Ivanova in Minbari. My first exposure to fanfiction (and to delicious, delicious slash!) was through the anthologies Marion Zimmer Bradley edited for her Darkover universe. But as a teenager in a small Austrian town I would never have been able to get involved in fandom had I not been saved by the modem, and reading Enterprising Women has been a useful reminder of that.

Quotes, notable passages, further reading

Results of the AO3 demographic survey (2013/14)

Fanlore page about Enterprising Women

Further reading:

Gilligan, C. (1982) In a different voice, Harvard University Press. Psychological development of women; arguing against notion that women reached a lower level of moral development than men.

Russ, J. (1983) How to suppress women’s writing, University of Texas Press.

Lichtenberg, J., Marshak, S., Winston, J. (1975) Star Trek Lives! Bantam Books. Early fan history effort documenting Star Trek fandom.

Three  early-ish Star Trek het stories exploring power, relationships and consent:

Lorrah, J. (1976) Night of the Twin Moons

Wenk, B. (1980) One Way Mirror

Welling, L. (1978) The Displaced

And finally, my favourite quote from Enterprising Women, simply because it captures the nature of fandom so beautifully:

To speak of the commercial arm of the fan community is rather like discussing the dog subgroup of a particularly impressive tail. From the outside the comparison sounds inappropriate, but to insiders, only a few aspects of the commercial empire surrounding their favourite source products have any relevance. (p.31)

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