Episode 68: Stephanie Burt: Part 2
In Episode 68, “Stephanie Burt: Part 2,” Elizabeth and Flourish wrap up their conversation with poet, professor, and X-fan Stephanie Burt, covering topics from transitioning in public view to allegorical versus literal representation to queer themes in superhero comics. They also discuss a pair of listener letters: one on fandom, capitalism, and ethical behavior, and one on fanfiction’s prominence on both the podcast and within the sphere of fandom commentary at large.
[00:01:36] The ask refers to Episode 65, “Fandom and Capitalism,” in which Elizabeth makes excessive fun of Flourish for being too #biz.
[00:30:00] Our interstitial and outro music are by Jahzzar.
[00:31:20] This Times Literary Supplement article is a great example of the way Stephanie’s transition has influenced her criticism.
[00:32:46] Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men!
[00:33:18] Jay’s TED talk:
[00:46:40] Dreadnought by April Daniels is the trans superhero YA book for you!
[Intro music: “Awel” by Stefsax]
Flourish Klink: Hi, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish.
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: This is the second of our two-part conversation with Stephanie Burt, so it's called "Stephanie Burt Part 2."
FK: So descriptive.
ELM: Yeah, that's right. I feel like everyone listening to this will have listened to Part 1 so I'm not sure we need to do a lot of explanation.
FK: Right, and if you haven't listened to it, now's a good time to go back and listen to it, but actually you can wait a second, cause we're gonna do some business before we roll the second half of the interview.
ELM: I think business is a weird way to describe it.
FK: We're going to read some letters that we've received before we get to the second half of the interview.
FK: That's business.
ELM: You know that meme, "BUSINESS"? [FK laughs] You know that one?
FK: I'm not sure I do, but the way that you're saying it is so funny!
ELM: [laughs] OK I will send it to you. We'll put it in the show notes. BUSINESS. It's like a picture of a white guy smiling in a biz way.
FK: Doing business.
ELM: Yeah, oh yeah, he's really doing business.
ELM: Yeah. Great. I'm now Know Your Meme. Alright, business time.
FK: I guess I'll read the first one if that's alright.
ELM: Yeah we've got two letters, one is about our Fandom and Capitalism episode and one is about the podcast in general.
FK: OK. First letter. "Hi hello so this is about your fandom and capitalism episode! Y'all were talking about the possibility that participating in a problematic fandom causes harm because the thing is never going to change so you're just at some point pouring more resources into a thing that already has a lot of resources whereas properties by marginalized creators continue to have way fewer resources. I have thoughts!
"I am almost certain there's an ethical way to participate in a fandom for an unethical property (God I hope so because all the properties are problematic). Ethical behavior arises I thinkmainly if two conditions are met:
"1) you have a structure that permits an ethical choice (your municipality has a recycling program!)
"2) you have people around you who care about acting ethically (your closest friends all separate their glasses and plastics faithfully and expect you to do so also)
"And what I suspect is that achieving the second one (which is individual) gives you a greater capacity to impact the first one (which is structural and by and large cannot be achieved just by you, an individual). So a problematic fandom is just one among many environments that gives an individual the opportunity to surround herself with cool ethical people together with whom she is able to be more than her own single self.
"Or like—I love SF and the professional SF world has a lot of problems which I have not much power to correct aside from buying one kind of books and not buying a different kind of books. But! By following lots of cool people in SF who want the same structural changes I want (more ladies! more queer stuff! more people of color! down with Sad Puppies!), I am more likely to learn about places where I have power to contribute to bringing about those structural changes (what Flourish calls knowing where the levers are).
"So I think it is okay to stay in Harry Potter fandom, is what I am saying. Sorry this is long. Love the podcast! Jenny."
ELM: Jenny at Reading the End, that's Jenny's Twitter.
ELM: I don't think bullied is the right word but I strongly suggested that Jenny write in because she said she had thoughts and she does and I think they're great thoughts.
FK: I agree, to the extent that I almost don't have anything else to say about Jenny's thoughts [ELM laughs] because they are great!
ELM: I said, I mean, when she said this and I responded and I said I think I agree with this but I'm still not, like...something in the heart of me is still not...the thing is, it's not, I'm not like oh don't participate in a fandom that...and exactly, everything has problematic elements, some are worse than others. But I think the thing that's still tripping me up is the idea, that breaking of the feedback loop. And I don't know how to reconcile that, I really don't.
FK: I think one of the things about this is when she says participating in science fiction fantasy fandom lets me see where the levers are, I agree, I agree also that potentially participating in media fandom lets you see where the levers in media in general are, but that's different than a single property, right? So it's tough to say, here are the levers that's gonna change Harry Potter, because there aren't any. Or there may be some but they are not...
ELM: I don't think there are.
FK: I don't know what they are, right?
ELM: Genuinely not.
FK: So I think that's a little tough. It's one thing to say I'm gonna participate in fandom in general and some of that will be problematic and I'm gonna learn things that I can apply in future to other properties or to whatever, that, great, I'm into that.
ELM: Yeah. I don't know, now I'm thinking about even the example. Those two conditions. I don't know. I kinda like to think that you can still make ethical decisions...this is moving aside from fandom but I do think #2 helps, #2 was...so #1 was you have a structure that permits an ethical choice. Right? So it's not just, yeah, if there's no recycling in your town, what are you gonna do. You gonna drive it to another town? Then you're kinda canceling out any good you're doing.
And #2 if people around you who care about acting ethically, I think that's an interesting condition to add because I think that that helps but I...I don't know. I think it kinda varies. I think I make a lot of my decisions about what I think is ethically right and wrong, I make those independently, obviously they're formed by my life and my surroundings, my ethical choices... like a Chidi Anagonye and all of the other moral philosophers...but I also, I don't necessarily think that I need the people around me to be making those choices. Obviously peer pressure exists.
FK: So that's interesting cause I feel like one of the big themes in The Good Place is that we all get better together. Right?
ELM: What we owe to each other.
FK: Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure...I don't entirely disagree with you, I think of course people can make ethical decisions on their own and can make ethical decisions separate from what other people around them are doing, but I do think it makes it a lot easier and I think that it's possible that you may be a person, and I say this in general and it's a good thing, who is more...who has more of a tendency to make decisions and be certain about things within yourself, than most people.
ELM: Than most people?!
FK: Yeah than most people. I really do.
FK: I think that that...if someone were to ask me about your character I would say that that's one thing about you.
ELM: You know that really, that takes me far away from Chidi actually.
FK: It does take you far away from Chidi. You are not like Chidi.
ELM: Chidi and I both like to think about ethics, but then I also am fine making a decision. That's where we part ways.
FK: It's true, but that does not, let me note, necessarily make you bound for the Good Place. I don't think that's the only thing! [laughter]
ELM: No no obviously it's about good actions, too, right.
FK: Right. I think that you're good. You're totally fine.
ELM: Thank you. I don't think either of us would get into the good place to be honest.
ELM: No it's like you literally have to be a candidate for sainthood, based on the way that they...I mean who knows what's real....
FK: I was gonna say, we don't know that! We don't know anything based on the...
ELM: LOL. Let's just talk about the Good Place for the rest of the podcast.
FK: I think that we actually have to read the other letter possibly.
ELM: Yeah. OK. So just to wrap up I think this is really interesting and like I said, I don't necessarily...I agree with it but I'm also, it doesn't make me feel like "oh ok fine." You know?
FK: [laughs] Yes I do know.
ELM: And I think that's also fine. I think maybe learning to live with that discomfort is part of this.
FK: Just like it is in every part of life, to be honest.
ELM: Looking at it...I was just, the idea that, I don't know, I wrote in one of our responses to this episode on Tumblr, the one where the person was saying that maybe this was creating our headcanons and our more progressive fanfiction, though progressive up to a point obviously as we've discussed at length, could push the cultural needle or whatever. And it was kind of ambiguous what they were saying and I was like, if you mean the current and next generation of creators are gonna actually create the worlds we wanna see in new media, then I agree. But if you've, I don't think that this is gonna change Harry Potter. I don't think this is gonna change the MCU beyond, you know what I mean.
FK: I do know what you mean. I do think that we're at moment where we're seeing some change, but on the other hand it's limited...and it goes forward in fits and starts.
ELM: For the MCU in particular I am specifically thinking of queer characters.
FK: Yes, because SHOUT OUT can I just say that the Reddit film tracking, the film tracking subreddit where everybody was dunking on the idea that Black Panther was going to even make as much as Deadpool, SUCK IT. [ELM laughs] Sorry I shouldn't say that, I'm going to the Bad Place, but for whatever reason I went to that subreddit and I was watching as all these bros were like "it's never gonna do even a quarter as good as Deadpool." HA!
ELM: That's like, that's just...you look at the presales and the amount of social media chatter about Black Panther from a month ago! That's fine. Yes. I do feel like your shoutout and suck it were very Eleanor Shellstrop like and I love Eleanor too so don't worry. But yeah I think that even thinking about Black Panther, incredible and I can't wait I'm gonna see it I guess between when we record this and when this comes out.
FK: Yeah probably.
ELM: And I'm so excited...oh no I'm seeing it tomorrow. But I also, the story about how there was a queer, once again, a gay moment or a queer moment, quote unquote, which is still...
ELM: These moments are... [sighs] Just so tiring.
FK: Like the one in Beauty and the Beast that was so, so...groundbreaking in a Disney film. Ha! It's a gay joke! Hooray! About LeFou!
ELM: [laughing] Right. Exactly. And they said it was cut and all this stuff. That was a really hard intersectional conversation I saw people having too especially black queer fans in particular feeling like...but the point is I was saying all this in this ask and then I said, I wanna clarify, and I wanna clarify this here too, because the person in the ask used the phrase "it's better to be a fan of more progressive media created by X group, Y group, whatever.' and I said I really wanna clarify here. If I ever used the word "better" I take it back because I'm not saying there's a better way to be a fan and there are better ways you should be. I think this is kind of reductive. Everything is going to have problematic elements. And it's a losing game to try to, you know? To try to you know. I'm very eloquent right now.
FK: The idea that anybody is going to have a pure and perfect set of things they like is wrong and probably in ways that we don't even know or recognize and there's no such thing.
ELM: Absolutely and just in the sheer fact that people's experiences are different, so what you may think is really great representation for something may be hard for someone else, or etc etc. So I said, I just wanna make sure that I'm not saying the word better and I really feel like just like with the conversation about understanding systemic bias within fandom, in particular our conversations with fans of color about racism, step 1 is obviously just acknowledging it and not looking away. And then I said LOL I don't know what step 2 is. So we got to step 1 and I think that's where we are with this too, and just sitting with that. So I just wanna clarify that for anyone who doesn't religiously read all our asks on Tumblr.
FK: Who wouldn't read our asks on Tumblr religiously?
ELM: I think we do fun answers. I actually think we do some OK answers!
FK: I think we're alright.
FK: Do you wanna read the next one or should I?
ELM: I can do it. So this email had the subject line "General feedback." That'll become relevant in one second. So. "Hi Fansplaining. I am a loyal listener of the show, and I enjoy it immensely. However, (you knew it was coming)," that's where it was relevant! "I wanted to politely raise an issue about the show, as it is one I feel not only relates to your podcast, but to the larger meta fandom commentary community of which you are both very much a part."
"A lot of the discussions you have on fansplaining (and a lot of the conversations I see amongst meta fandom commentators) seem to implicitly prioritize fic as the quintessential and paradigmatic form of fanwork through which transformative fandom can be historicized, analyzed, understood, even critiqued.
"I understand that fic is central to a lot of people's experience of (particularly) entertainment transformative fandom. However, I do think there is an excessive prioritization of it by acafans and commentators such as yourselves as a lens through which we can tell fandom history, discern overall fandom patterns and even contend with the politics surrounding fanworks (racial bias, sexism/misogyny, etc.) I think this prioritization of fic is potentially a problem, and elides the experiences of a significant number of transformative fans.
"I have been part of transformative fan communities since I was a young teenager (13 ish); I am now 32. I spend multiple hours a day on Tumblr, mostly to engage about fandom. I also work professionally as a research analyst studying -- among other things -- fandom for major entertainment clients. All of this is to say, I am deeply interred in fandom both professionally and personally. And fic just has never been particularly formative or important to my overall fandom experience on a personal level.
"I understand that it is very hard to equally represent every fan's experience of fandom. However, I do think it is worth calling into question the hegemony of fanfic as THE mode of transformative fandom, particularly in an era where fanworks are so dramatically expanding and evolving due to the developments of digital technology.
"Apologies for writing you a novella. Like I said, I am a loyal listener of the show, and enjoy your commentary a great deal. This is just one area that I feel might need a little more explicit reflexivity amongst the larger meta-fandom commentator community.
"Thank you for your time and would love to hear some of your thoughts on this issue at some point on the podcast! Rachel Aparicio." Apologies if that is not the right pronunciation of your last name, Rachel.
ELM: And thank you so much for that. I think this is a wonderful and very thoughtful email.
FK: I agree and by the way, I completely agree with it. I mean, in my...the thing is that fanfiction, and one of the reasons why I think people tend to get into it more, is that that tends to be in a lot of ways easier to talk about. There's just a lot in it and there's a lot of stuff written about it.
ELM: I think it's easier to, one thing is that's easier is to quantitatively talk about it. Because there's text you can analyze.
FK: And analyze computationally, yeah. In my day job, which I think that Rachel we probably do something similar and you are probably very familiar with this, if I want to analyze fan art I have to plan on having a human categorize it if I want to get data out of that. With fanfic I can just shove all of that into a computer and run textual analysis on it and I learn things. Right?
ELM: This is interesting though. I think it's a really great email and I appreciate it and I definitely take it to heart but I also am not 100% sure I agree and I would be curious to know if fan studies people would agree, keeping an eye on what comes out of various fan studies publications and a lot of acafans and I should go to more Fan Studies Network conferences cause I can't wholly rely on the one that I went to a few years back, but the majority of it wasn't about fanfiction. And honestly, a good portion of it wasn't about transformative fandom. There was actually a lot...
FK: A lot about non transformative fandom.
ELM: And there were definitely people there who were from the more affirmational side, I know we think there's not an incredible binary and there's many other elements. But there were people there who, I remember one in particular, I think I've mentioned him or mentioned this story cause it was really striking to me, he was talking about some fan reactions to the Jossing of the Extended...Extended or Expanded?
FK: Star Wars Extended Universe. [sic - it's Expanded]
ELM: The EU. The way he was talking about it it just seemed like he had no familiarity with transformative fandom in any way. The way he was describing, and I think that's totally possible. I think there are probably media studies people who don't spend any time around transformative fandom at all and the other thing I would say is there's a lot of publications, commentators, people who work on pop culture, people who are critics, I would say the vast majority literally never ever talk about fanfiction. And I doubt anyone sends them emails telling them that they should.
And there are people who talk about transformative fandom, or the murkiness that is shipping culture, right? Where people who are in romance and the shipping world, I have so many people I follow on my feed who don't engage with fanfiction at all who when it comes up they seem a little uncomfortable but who definitely ship and are definitely in the general romance world. Are they transformational fans? What does that mean? They don't talk about fanfiction at all and so it's kind of hard for me to say that...this is far and away the primary mode of my fannish engagement, so on one level I might say "for this particular instance this is my podcast," or 50% of it is me.
FK: [laughs] Yes.
ELM: So yeah, I am gonna be focused on that and I don't mean to say that defensively but it's true.
FK: And I will say that sometime it's hard to, because you are so focused on that sometimes I'm struggling to put into words why something else is cool? And you get it instantly with fanfic and it's hard to explain it with other things. Which probably means that I need to explain it better, when we're having this conversation I'm not saying this is a bad thing, it probably shouldn't be on the podcast if ya can't say why, but...it means it's easier to cover fanfic.
ELM: Are you talking about how you still want to do an episode about filk?
FK: It's funny I did a lot of talking and thinking today about filk and how to frame it and I still don't think I've gotten a magic bullet about how but yeah, a little bit.
ELM: Yeah I think that's not the greatest example but I do think, you know, when we got this email we were talking and somehow we got on the subject of roleplay and this is just not something that appeals to me on a personal level but I would totally do an episode about it.
FK: Yeah yeah, something like the Battlestar Galactica LARP on a submarine or something, right?
ELM: Yeah obviously anyone who's listened to the podcast for any significant period of time knows we don't necessarily... I mean I guess we do to some degree, that is true, we'll do, we have had one episode with a cosplayer, right, or limited people talking about, a few people talking about fanart, right. So it is true I guess sometimes we do center on a medium or a practice.
FK: Yeah. I think that also one thing to note is that I think you can learn different kinds of things sometimes, or the culture is a little different around different things...for fanart, fanart obviously is transformative work, but it's also often more in the context of purely appreciative fandom. Right? A lot of fanart is made in the context of that and so while I find that very useful for instance to look at if I'm studying a fandom for a client, and I'm saying "OK this character appears in fanart way more often than they appear on screen, people really like this person and I can prove it to you by showing how many times they're being depicted, and here's some ideas of why," that's not that interesting for us to talk about on our podcast even though I love looking at the fanart and I love people making it. I just don't know what else to say about that beyond...
ELM: Yeah I think the one thing that fanart is great for in a way that maybe even fic is not as good at is showing racebending and genderbending and queer representation via shipping...that's a somewhat problematic phrase I know but you know what I mean. So that, I think, it's much easier to see in fanfiction than, or sorry, much easier to see in fanart than in fanfiction. But I also don't know, so you just unearthed this quote that I had from the very first episode where I was talking about how fanfiction is a network of texts that talk to each other and sometimes talk to each other more than the source material. And I think that there are common practices and trends throughout other forms of transformative fandom, and obviously I love consuming all of them and I love fanart and you would not believe the number...it's embarrassing the number of gifsets I have in my Tumblr drafts.
FK: You are way bigger into gifsets than I am. For sure.
ELM: Look, I can't help it if the show that I love has people that I love to just stare at their faces. [FK laughing] And their gentle sad eyes as they slowly make eye contact. Right.
FK: Can't help that!
ELM: Via gifs! No you do not understand how many gifsets I have in my drafts...
FK: I only know the ones that you have posted and even then I'm like woah.
ELM: You think I post a lot of gifsets?!
FK: No not compared to some people but compared to me who never posts anything!
ELM: I literally have probably 500 gifsets just sitting in my drafts.
FK: God bless.
ELM: I post a couple a week cause I'm like this is too embarrassing I can't do that many. ANYWAY. I think that is, on some level I think that's a transformative work. I think doing a really, a gifset, you know, obviously some of them are just straight up this is a moment from the show. But some of them are definitely a kind of form of fanart, right? You're choosing very specific shots, sometimes it seems very trendy right now to put some words on them, not necessarily a huge fan of those...or those moodboards?
FK: Gifs can also be sort of a form of mini vidding, right? Where you're putting stuff together. And vidding obviously had a huge, I do think vidding had a vastly disproportionate amount of academic words spilled about it compared to how many fanvids actually were out there at the point that some of those words were being spilled. So here's my takeaway from this: I think that we should both, myself by far included, work to not assume fanfic when it's something that doesn't need fanfic to be assumed, do you know what I mean? Sometimes I feel like I say things about fic, but I really mean a lot more than just fic.
ELM: I definitely know, and it would take too long to actually look through the transcripts, but I know there have been multiple times when I've said "I hate to compare everything to fanfiction but that's my point of reference." And the fact that I know it as I'm saying it, but...that is my point of reference! And for me and not you that will continue to be my point of reference. Always.
FK: To be honest it's...
ELM: Cause I fuckin love fanfiction.
FK: It's still more my point of reference than other things, you know? I don't think it's quite as much as you, but I did run fanfiction archives, this is how I got into fandom so...I don't think that's ever gonna change.
ELM: I'm not saying that I'm a bigger fan of fanfiction than you!
FK: You are!
ELM: I wanted to make this clear...ok I'm just saying that you have more diverse interests in a fannish way!
FK: OK, OK.
ELM: You enjoy going to concerts, you...I'm trying to think of some other things. [FK giggles] You love roleplaying.
FK: I do love roleplaying. I like how this is now just listing all the fannish things that I do.
ELM: I'm just trying to think. You clearly love filk. I'm just trying to think about you! I'm thinkin' about you right now.
FK: Well...that's good...
ELM: Today I did fannish tourism!
FK: Excellent! Where did you go?
ELM: No let me tell you, let me tell you. I am in London right now and my dear friend Veronica, shoutout, she hasn't seen Black Sails but she is an incredibly knowledgeable historian. So she has been teaching me all about the period of the show that is set in London in the flashback sequences.
FK: Good friend!
ELM: She's the greatest. So she took me today, last time I was here she took me and Gav actually and a few other people on a tour of naval London, Greenwich and Deptford and that area, where the Royal Shipyards were and things. And today just me, she took me to where my beloved Thomas Hamilton would have hung out. Quite fancy.
FK: I am so glad.
ELM: And then we went to dinner in this restaurant that is from the exact period and had all these Queen Anne era cartoons, you know like early 18th century and Georgian cartoons? All over! Candle lights everywhere, oh it was so god.
FK: And meanwhile I was talking to a bunch of filkers.
ELM: We were both doing things that were not fanfiction but were fandom related. Maybe I should just dedicate this whole podcast to my fannish tourism.
FK: Actually I think fannish tourism in general would be an interesting topic for a podcast. So we should put that into a pin for future reference.
ELM: Sure, and actually the different forms of it too, because previously I knew of it via Setlock or things like that. When I was living here last, for anyone who doesn't know for Sherlock fandom Setlock was when people actually...that's not even really tourism...I mean, it's people traveling to...
FK: It's kinda tourism, I would call it that, when the X-files was on people would go to Vancouver and like do the same thing...
ELM: People do this with Supernatural, right, they go to the place where it's filming. But then also when I was in Sherlock fandom I was living in London and people I met for the fandom would pass through and I would take them on a little tour of some of the locations from the show and things like that.
FK: OK we're totally gonna do a whole episode about this! Let's not waste, let's not blow all of our ideas on this right now cause we're gonna do it otherwise.
ELM: I have more ideas.
FK: OK. Hold on to them.
ELM: I just wanna talk about Thomas Hamilton's house.
FK: We'll talk about that in a future episode. [ELM laughs] I think we'll probably get to that in a future episode. For now, thank you so much Rachel for this excellent comment.
ELM: Do you think, I don't wanna sound like...I feel like I sounded defensive in this. "Thanks for your email, but DISAGREE." I don't, I really wanna clarify a million times that is not how I meant it but on some level I'm like...you know what I mean though?
FK: I know what you mean but I think that Rachel will understand fully from what we just said.
ELM: Wow, that's a lot of assumptions. Rachel, I hope you understand.
FK: OK. I think that we are now getting to the point in the episode where we need to roll the rest of Stephanie's interview.
ELM: So just as a reminder if you listened to the last one you know that as we were recording we were like "we're going way long and this is really really interesting," and basically what happened is by the time where we got to the bit where we stopped the last one we hadn't even gotten to Stephanie's trans identity and transition and how that was all intertwined with fannish feelings. So it was like, let's pause right there and then in Part 2 we'll pick that up. And so that's where we will start, and it's, this bit's a bit shorter but that's the second half of the interview, so yeah! After the break let's play it!
FK: Let's do it.
[Interstitial music by Jahzzar]
ELM: So can we transition a little...and I just made a terrible pun. [FK moans] Did not mean it! I'm really sorry! [continued moaning] Before we were talking about what we were gonna discuss, we said we were gonna talk a bit about trans stuff, so I'm wondering...
Stephanie Burt: Yeah!
ELM: I don't know what, where can we start, actually? It's kind of up to you to talk about...cause obviously all within the lens of your fannish experience.
FK: I think here's a good lead-off: your transition has been really really public for people and one of the things you've been really clear about is how fan culture has played a role in that, I feel like you've talked about that a lot over the course of the past year or two. Especially X-men.
SB: Yeah! Yeah, no, I'm definitely...public identity as someone who cares about X-men and writes about X-men and everybody who cares about narrative or representational or verbal media cares about finding ways to understand ourselves. Representations that are sort of representations of ourselves. That's not the only reason I hope, but it's a reason, and it's a reason why people are in certain fan spaces. You learn something about yourself, you see mirrors in addition to wow, I never...alien characters.
So we look for ourselves and when we see characters and voices and situations that reflect back to our experience of emotion, of embodiment, of love, of hate, of caring, of wanting things, we ask why. And if we don't know why, we keep asking. Sometimes the answers are literal and sometimes the answers are interestingly figurative, and I've been looking for trans girls in media and in poetry and in fiction and in comic books since I've been consuming and reading all of those things. And I haven't found trans girls, or trans girls who were like me, literally, until quite recently. And now there are some and it's happening mostly in YA fiction. And we can get back to that, because what's happening in YA right now is really amazing. There's multiple authors, multiple reasons, multiple things going on that are hugely important for everybody who's trans or gender nonconforming that are not happening in literary fiction and sort of happening in SF that's written for adults. But we'll get back to that.
So I've been looking for these representations of me and I didn't know why and then I didn't know why and then I was thinking what do we do about this, and I didn't come out once, I came out four times. I came out by telling people I cared about that I felt like a girl inside, and then I came out by presenting as a girl or as a woman in certain custom designed social situations in the 90s, and then those social situation went away, and then I came out again when I had what if you're a tabletop roleplayer you have what you know as a public identity, and went from having a secret identity which if you play the tabletop roleplaying game I'm thinking of gives you ten extra points to use on your powers, you give up your secret identity and you have a public identity and you get I think it's five points. I haven't really played this game for awhile.
But I have a public identity now. What I told people is I got sick of being like Spider-man and now I'm like Iron Man, which means everybody knows but there are lots of demands on my time and it's better than keeping a secret, and before you do that you look at the people you love and the people you're close to and you say is this gonna hurt them? And if the answer is yeah it's really gonna hurt them then maybe you don't do it. But I looked and the answer was no it's not gonna hurt them, they care about me, they're adults, and they'll be fine, there are kids who are great. So I came out a third time, and because I was already somebody who wrote about literature and culture people started asking me and I started volunteering. Cause this was part of me coming out, to talk about trans stuff and to write about trans representation in poetry and to write about LGBTQ as we still say, LGBTQI+, LGBTQIA+, representation in the other things that I care about 2/3 as much as I care about poetry, like superhero comics and non-realist fiction and pop music.
And so I wrote about those things. And I got to a point last year, almost exactly a year ago, when I realized I didn't have two genders that were guy and girl, I had two genders that were girl and convenience cause I'm scared of transitioning. And I looked again and the people I love and trust most including my partner of course were like "no, do this. We're ready, you should do this." So I'm a woman all the time now. And my name is Stephanie, and hormones, and stuff. And it's great, I'm really really glad that I did this, and it's also become something that I write about, it's become something that's a more visible part of my public identity as a writer and so it's affected what editors ask me to write about and what I'm asked to speak about and what I want to write about as well as what I get to write about and I am the trans lady poet and critic Stephanie Burt.
And this gets back to Flourish, you asked me about X-fandom. This journey, as we say, looks weirdly in certain ways though not in other ways like the journey of my favorite comics critic, Jay Edidin, who is one half of the great podcast Jay and Miles X-plain The X-men, which was called something else when it started, who's written a number of terrific pieces of comics criticism and who was part of someimportant investigative reporting in the comics world this year, who came out in print as a trans guy after I came out as a public critic who was trans but before I transitioned and sort of went full time, who has now given a TED talk that you can see online about seeing yourself in fictional characters and asking why and having the answers be part of how you learned that the gender that you were assigned at birth really didn't match the gender that you were, and this is something that for...this is someone I've, I think never been in the same zip code with, so it feels weird even calling him by his first name, for Jay Edidin this has been mediated by a lot of things including television shows that I don't watch and it also has a lot to do with autism spectrum stuff, he's autistic, he talks about that, he's really good about that, I am not.
But it's been mediated also by X-fandom. And X-men fandom as you may know, whether or not you're in it, maybe not compared to all the other fandoms in the world, but compared to the other mainstream comic book fandoms, compared to other superhero fandoms, there's some of this in Batman fandom for people younger than me too, I'm not a bat-person, I don't even know, but there's a trans woman in Batman now, I don't even know, I just read about it. But X-fandom has been really queer and sort of trans since X-men became significant on its own rather than as just another part of Marvel universe, since the late 70s relaunch of X-men.
And this was by design. Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson and people around them seemed to have known what they were doing in building queer subtext and sometimes kink subtext into a lot of the stories in this comic that was about members of a subordinated group who find a community and are adolescents anyway. If you are looking for them, you can find many many mutants whose powers and arcs are very good allegories for different ways of being trans and for different ways of being queer. As you may know, there are two Wolverines, right? The Wolverine who is Logan...
ELM: I didn't know this.
SB: Oh. So there are multiple Wolverines. [ELM laughs] The Wolverine who is Logan, who is the Wolverine Hugh Jackman plays in the movies, which I have a lot of feelings about the movies and I'm talking about the comics, the comics are what I care about, so Logan...no one really knows how old he is, he's kind of short for a guy in the comics, and it's really important to him to have serious facial hair. And he's really macho, he really does guy things. He smokes cigars, he drinks beer, he likes fighting, he's literally full of testosterone. He has a set of chemicals inside him that give him a healing factor that most people don't have, so that he can really work out. And at the same time, when he's well-written, he has a kind of unusually good sense of boundaries, of how to not sexualize a situation that shouldn't be sexualized, a kind of sense of feminism that is kind of unusual for guys who are that macho.
You see where I'm coming from, right?
SB: If you are looking for trans guys, and you're reading comics and it's the 80s, or now, Logan is a pretty good person to follow. Laura, who's the other Wolverine, is someone who had the worst possible childhood. She was cloned from Logan to be a superweapon and raised by scientists who kept trying to program her to be a perfect assassin and escaped and had to live on the streets and has Logan's power set with healing and claws and wasn't allowed to be sexual at all and at the same time was treated as an adult when she was a kid. And she's getting to have a kind of normal, a kind of wonderful young adulthood where she in turn takes care of vulnerable others right now in the comics.
So if you are someone who's a lot of different kinds of gender nonconforming or trans and you had a really super terrible abusive early life, and then had to go and create a chosen family or find a chosen family that was like all queer people for yourself that was as distant from your birth family as possible, maybe you really want to read comics about Laura Kinney, who do not call her X-23 that was the name they used for her in the facility, call her Wolverine. Or Laura if you know her well.
These are just two examples, and if you know me you know that I'm picking examples where I really don't see myself in them, but they're two examples of many, one of whom was a Claremont-era creation and one of whom came later, and if you read a lot of X-books honestly if you like superheroes and you're looking for trans or queer mirrors, this is where you go. And so being, and to some extent rediscovering, X-fandom, at a time when some of the comics are good...cause in the 90s, most of them were unreadably bad and I was not in superhero comics at all in the 90s, I was just reading all of WH Auden, which I also recommend! Auden's great! [ELM laughs]
FK: I think we've discussed, when I discovered you were really into the X-men, I was like "really?" and you were like "Oh, you were starting to read comics in the 90s" and I was like "yeah they're all awful" and you were like "NO!"
SB: Yeah, no, I mean, they were! I had this moment when I was like 16, when I discovered that I liked superhero comics way less, and I liked print based science fiction kind of less, and I liked poetry way more, because I was just discovering how much I liked poetry. Comics were getting, starting to get worse. And I was discovering that poetry was a thing I really wanted to write, which is still true. But I kind of came, I was in and out of comics fandom in the early 2000s and wrote about it and wrote poems about it and there's actually a, I think all of my books of poems have at least one superhero comics poem in them. But it's interesting now, it's good now, there's really a trans and queer community around X-fandom. There's this critic I like who I've never met whose coming out and whose work as a critic has been weirdly this alternate universe wow that reminds me of me and to get more meta, one of the things that he writes about and talks about isthe experience as a trans person who's still figuring things out of reading something and saying, "that reminds me of me." And it's not a coincidence that this is someone whose work I found through X-fandom.
ELM: So this is interesting. Can I ask kind of a hard question?
SB: Yeah, if it's too hard I won't answer it but yeah, please!
ELM: Well it's a less positive question about exactly what you're talking about, and I don't wanna bring it down because I...and I think it's really interesting in particular too, it seems like there's a lot of people who are, gen X queer people in particular who seem to have particularly connected with...and I'm not sure if that was just the timing of what was happening.
SB: I was born in 1971. Am I gen X?
ELM: Yes you are.
FK: Yes you are.
ELM: You are gen X. People who are in their 40s now, definitely.
SB: I am that!
ELM: As we're recording this it's a day after the delightful Harry Potter news where I don't know if you followed this yesterday... [FK sighs heavily]
SB: I follow Harry Potter news, but not the way either of you would, so...
ELM: This was...
SB: I did not see what dropped yesterday. I was following the actual national politics news which was terrible and the poetry news which is not terrible.
ELM: So the...Flourish! [laughing]
FK: That was the white flag of defeat.
ELM: The very short story is Dumbledore, as you know, she said in a very off the cuff fashion at an event that he is gay and she always thought about him as gay.
SB: Years ago, yeah.
ELM: She's never, nothing else but that. That's it.
ELM: And the Fantastic Beasts movies which are problematic for other reasons are about the relationship between him and the person he supposedly had feelings for though she has said in the past that it's unrequited. And yesterday they came out with a statement that said that they weren't gonna touch any of this in the movies and everyone knew he was gay so don't worry about it. And everyone's like, [inarticulate noise] So I say this as a preface because I think that Harry Potter has really done a fantastic job showing us the limits of the allegory when it comes to representation. That kind of hard wall. I say this as someone who is, you know, really value the allegorical and especially characters that exist in liminal space and allow for personal interpretations along lines of gender and sexuality, prefacing all that by saying - and I've often historically been the one to be like, why? You need it spelled out for you?! Right? That kinda thing. But, I think we are reaching a point where it's great to have universes full of great analogies, but when there isn't any actual non-analogy based diversity, I think people are like, there's a limit. I basically would say.
SB: That is correct, that is absolutely correct. So I'm gonna give you a two part answer.
ELM: I love your two part answers. Every single one of these. It's great!
SB: Everything has two parts.
ELM: That's why it's a two part episode, cause you keep giving double the answers [laughter] to every question.
SB: So part one is you're right. Allegorical diversity and allegorical representation is great, but when that's the only kind you get that's really frustrating. I just got paid for, so I hope it runs, a piece about this problem and its current solution in current X-comics where Bobby Drake, Iceman, there are two of him, both of them are gay, both of them are now out as gay, the older one is dealing with coming out as gay when you already have a public identity and it's a great comic and if you listen to this podcast you're not really an X-person but you kinda like superheroes and that sounds good do go read Iceman. It's out in trade paperback now. The magazine I wrote this for paid me for it so I assume they're gonna run it, and part of this piece would be agreeing with you and everyone sensible in criticism agrees with you I hope that allegorical diversity is not a substitute for literal diversity and it's good to have literal diversity of identities and backgrounds and experiences in non-realist narrative as well.
So that's part one and that applies to all identities. To various kinds of disabilities, to various kinds of ethnic and racial identities, to various kinds of LGBTQIA identities. But trans identity is special. Because if you're Croatian American, you might be interested in ways in which you're kind of like Albanian Americans and you're kind of really not and you're like other Southern European immigrants but you're Croatian American, right? And if you're a gay man and that's how you're defining yourself right now, you're a gay man, and that's who you are and it's great to see allegories but you'd also like to see other guys who are erotically or romantically into guys. But being, and it is very possible that for at least some trans people who identify as genderqueer or third gender or outside the gender system, it's also like that too. The binary's terrible, you're not binary, you're outside it, you've always been outside it, it would be good to see more literal representations of people who are outside the binary.
But. If you're trans in the way that I'm trans, which is people thought I was a guy but I'm a girl, right, if you're trans in a familiar binary way, there's something kind of unusual about that identity which is that you see yourself in certain ways in people and characters and bodies that aren't your body and aren't what your body has been. It's very important to you, and in fact it's literally part of who you think you are, that you see yourself in people whose bodies aren't the way your body is right now. And who you've been told are fundamentally unlike you.
So it is and has been important to me, right, to see myself in people who are at once allegorically trans, and actually canonically literally cis girls or cis women. It would be nice to have actual trans superheroes, and now we have them! If you would like to read a really well-done YA novel about trans superheroes, you now have several choices!
ELM: Are you gonna recommend them right now?
SB: Yes! Dreadnought by April Daniels! Go read that!
ELM: I've seen people talking about this book!
SB: Cause they fucking should! [ELM laughs] Dreadnought is interestingly not like me, Dreadnought's story is in some ways more like Laura Kinney's than like mine. That's not my power set, that's not my story exactly. This is a story that's a really good example of why trans narratives fit superhero stories especially well. And it is a literally trans girl, it's a YA novel that center of consciousness, they're all teenagers. It is a literal trans superhero story. And that's great and there should be more like that. And there should be trans Avengers and there should be out canonically trans mutants and there should be, I guess there should be trans Justice League members although honestly I don't care [ELM snorts] and they should bring back the Legion of Superheroes which is the only DC thing I have real feelings for. And there are like 50 freakin' members of that team they could make one of them trans and they should.
And as, honestly, when I was 14, and 12, I was probably more in Legion fandom than I was in X-men fandom, because the Legion of Superheroes which if you don't know is a DC property set a thousand years in the future that has very limited links to the rest of the DC universe. They're all teenagers, they have teen social lives of dating and mating and yeah they're probably having sex but you can't say that cause it's an 80s book about teenagers, and they all can fly and they have spaceships and it's a really good leap from reading print science fiction. And they have all these power sets that are also terrific allegories for being trans.
There's a character called Wildfire who I have written a poem about who is disembodied energy. He's disembodied energy contained by a suit of armor, he dates girls, he has a really active love life, but it can't be literalized cause he's a big ball of energy. Right? There are other characters who can turn insubstantial, who can turn into anything, there's a character who was named Chameleon Boy but who's now named Chameleon and who Mark Wade who wrote the last as far as I know good Legion comic which was about 10 years ago wrote as explicitly third-gender. So if you're wondering if there's an explicitly third-gender, central to a story comic character in mainstream superhero comics: there have been several, Cloud from the Defenders was the first, she's substantial and she's kind of always peripheral and went by she/her/hers till late in the arc when I think the pronouns changed but I can put you in touch with Defenders fans if you care that much...
Chameleon was great, I'm gonna take this out of this fandom in a second but this is fun.
ELM: It's incredible.
SB: So Chameleon who used to be called Chameleon Boy can change into any shape. It wasn't clear, earlier versions, the version I cared about when I cared about Legion most which was awhile ago, was Chameleon Boy and was a boy because superheroes default to boy unless they were marked as girls because patriarchy, but could take any shape and appear to be anything. But also, looked like a funny space alien like funny ha-ha with antennas. He looked canonically like, when he wasn't taking another form, like the kind of alien you would draw if Calvin and Hobbes met space aliens, right?
And he was a Durlan. And Durlans are all shapechangers and people make fun of Durlans. People tell Durlan jokes. Durlans are on the bottom of the social hierarchy in this world. And that was not a coincidence. And so when the very talented superhero writer Mark Waid brought him back, he was still a Durlan and they were nonbinary and people had issues with that. So that's a thing. And that representation is there also. But I'm gonna get to the end of the question, which is if you're binary trans it is foundational to you that you see yourself in people who aren't like you and that means seeing yourself not literally, and this turns into an argument about poetry, because...
ELM: Tying it back!
SB: Yeah! Cause the work that poetry does is often-not-always different poems do different things I'm writing a book about this, a lot of the work poetry does is work saying literal is not all there is. It's work saying literally true stories about things that happened or could happen in the real world are not all there is. Stories, even, are not all there is. Some parts of experience are not best addressed by stories. You can see yourself in someone or some imaginative space that's maybe even abstract, that doesn't have characters in it at all, and you can definitely see yourself in someone who's clearly defined when you first encounter them as not you. Part of discovering that you're binary trans is discovering that at some basic level, you're not who you're supposed to be, you're supposed to be different.
And so that work of seeing yourself in someone who's not you, or who's only allegorically you, is really important too and shouldn't be eclipsed by the legit demand for literal representation of who we are.
ELM: I think that's a great answer.
SB: Thank you!
ELM: I feel sometimes, obviously we all agree that you can't just have allegorical representation, but I do think that [sighs] Maybe it's just because the ratio is so poor right now...
ELM: There's a lot of people just arguing for literal literal literal and it's just, OK! But it could also be multiple things at once! But I do understand why in a world of ONLY allegorical representation, why you would strenuously argue for the other side.
SB: Yeah, yeah. And also, it...the demand for literal representation is legit. But there's a point past which, and we're not at that point in big budget mainstream media at all...
SB: There's a point, I think about this mostly as someone who is a poetry editor for a magazine and puts together books of poetry, you cannot represent every identity. The demand for literal representation, it's important to remember that stories can only have so many characters whereas there are many many kinds of identity. If you're putting together a book of 50 poems or a team of 10 superheroes and they're all American, they're all from the US, and they're all present-day, and none of them are Asian-American, then you've fucked up and you need to do it again. But you can't have one be Filipino and two be Chinese-American and one be Japanese-American and three be South Asian and one be Hmong and one be Vietnamese-American rather than Hmong and you see where this is going, and unless you have a cast of 200, there's always gonna be someone in this case whose ethnic identity is gonna be left out, and the same is true for other kinds of identity and frankly even for other kinds of temperament.
If you're putting together 10 characters or 50 poems, some are gonna be shy and some are gonna be outgoing, some are gonna be angry and some are gonna be kind of calm and accepting. But you can't represent all the kinds of temperaments and you can't represent all the kinds of ethnic identity and you can't represent all the kinds of sex and gender based identity either, and that's why it's important to have lots of fandoms and lots of platforms and lots of opportunities for the creation of new worlds. Cause you can't have every kind of person literally in one story or one space no matter how capacious the space is unless the space is the entire world.
ELM: Yeah, and even if it seems on the surface that this person is exactly me, my race, my ethnicity, my sexuality, it's entirely possible...their entire worldview could be completely different from yours. It may not represent you in any way that you feel is meaningful beyond a physical or that kind of...which isn't insignificant, obviously.
SB: And that's happened! The last thing I wanna say on this topic, cause it's important, is that we also come to these kinds of stories and superhero comics are a very good example as are old kinds of mythologies, right, things where people were superhuman but they weren't under copyright which Yeats wrote about. Yeats, there's a set of poetry that has the gender structure of the Dark Phoenix saga but that's a different argument. We come to these stories about people who can do amazing things, who can fly, who are larger than life, we also come there for escape. We come there for a space that's not like the space of oh my God am I overdrawn on the bank account, I have to think of my kids, I am a kid and where is Grandma she's supposed to pick me up. And allegorical representation allows us to see ourselves in these stories while also escaping and that's awesome.
ELM: Well, we're out of time.
FK: Ahhhh no!
ELM: I know!
SB: Get a time machine.
ELM: I know. This should just, you should just join the podcast all the time. [laughter]
SB: I would have to learn a lot of Black Sails really fast.
ELM: We never talk about Black Sails!
FK: I don't know anything about it!
ELM: She literally knows nothing about it including any reason why I like it or anything about...
FK: I torment Elizabeth by telling her that she loves pirates and that's NOT relevant.
SB: OK so first, I love the way that you guys have a model of how to do a friendship and a long distance collaboration that is slightly more conflictual than any of my friendships could ever be. [All laugh] and I love watching that.
FK: We are a conflict-oriented pair, I would say.
SB: And second, if I were in Flourish's position I would be secretly catching up on Black Sails and then I would be unable to keep the secret cause I can't and then it would be noticing what I assume has been the case for the past ten episodes, that there are secret Black Sails references that you would only get if you watch the show laced into what Elizabeth is saying.
ELM: There might be. Sometimes I subtweet.
FK: But I can tell you that I am not secretly catching up on this, it is not the case.
SB: I'm just gonna say that if you have me back on enough I'm gonna start doing the necessary work to catch up.
SB: We'd have to see what often enough means.
ELM: Secretly watch Black Sails and not tell me! [laughs]
SB: Flourish knows this, you would know. You would eventually know.
FK: I hope that we can have you back on, but until then thank you so much for coming. It was so good.
ELM: Yeah, thank you!
SB: Thank you!
FK: Alright bye bye!
[Interstitial music by Jahzzar]
FK: That was the bomb.
ELM: The bomb.
FK: The bomb. The bob-omb.
ELM: Thank you. That's a nice flashback. Yeah. I'm really delighted at how much this is resonating with people, rightly so. It resonates with me!
FK: And me, obviously.
FK: Heart eyes emoji!
ELM: So that's that.
FK: That's that! I think that's just about everything we've got for this time, other than our usual wrapup business.
ELM: Let's do our wrapup business!
FK: OK. As always, we love to get responses from people like the two that we read at the beginning of this episode. You can go to fansplaining.com, that's a Tumblr with an askbox open, anon is on, you can also email firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave us a comment or question in our voicemail, that phone number to call to leave us a voicemail is on our website. You can at us on Twitter, @fansplaining...
ELM: Not our recommended method for like a proper question I would say.
FK: No but you should feel free to do it and we might retweet you, I don't know.
ELM: Yeah. But even in 280 characters, it's kinda hard to get that one in there. Plus, you know, it's an option if you really love Twitter.
FK: And we love responses! On Facebook we have a Facebook page that's fansplaining on Facebook.
ELM: Those are the spots.
FK: Those are the spots. You can always contribute in that way by sending us comments, questions, love notes, whatever else. Or, if you want to give a further contribution, you can review us on iTunes, this helps new people find our podcast. We believe we deserve 5 stars. You may disagree if you like.
ELM: I like that this is leading, this is in the opposite direction of normal. You're leading up to the biggest one.
FK: And finally if you feel like we have given you something great, and you want to support us further, you can donate to our Patreon, that's at patreon.com/fansplaining, there's lots of incredible rewards, fairly soon we'll have a new tiny zine for people who donate $10/month or more...
ELM: Even sooner we'll have a new special episode, so!
FK: Even sooner we're gonna have a new special episode!
ELM: Three dollar a month, can I just say very quickly about Patreon, just to give people a head's up one of my New Year's resolutions for 2018 was to try to publish more people on our Medium, because you know, I've, we published some articles we're really proud of last year but I wanted to really get a whole bunch of new voices up there there this year. So we've reached out to our past guests and gotten kind of an overwhelming response.
FK: In a good way and in a scary way!
ELM: Yes. We have so many smart people who have been on the podcast, who people have loved hearing, who are hopefully gonna write stuff for us. And we're definitely able to pay them right now with the contributions from the Patreon, but honestly if you have a few dollars to spare to support that writing, we can commission even more and that would be great, to be able to pay even more people to write about fandom in a meaningful way.
FK: A virtuous cycle of...
ELM: Content creation?
FK: Yeah! Content creation! There we go. That's fine. Now that I stumbled like that...
ELM: Content creation... Fine. Fine. So yeah, that's just one thing that your money is going towards if you have even a dollar a month to spare it really helps. And actually honestly we don't often talk about it but we do have a Paypal account too if you wanted to make a one-time donation.
FK: Particularly to support this round of content, for lack of a better word, because I think it's gonna be kickass.
ELM: Kickass. God. The bomb and kickass.
FK: It's gonna be the bob-omb and it's gonna be kickass.
ELM: Yes. All these things are true. So I think those are all the wrapup businessy things that we have to do!
FK: Alright! In that case, I'll talk to you later, Elizabeth!
ELM: OK bye Flourish!
FK: [laughs] You sounded so surprised!
ELM: [laughing] OK! Bye!