Episode 7: The Dark Fantastic
In this episode, we interview Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, faculty at the Penn Graduate School of Education (and longtime fangirl). Topics covered include Anne of Green Gables, suspension of disbelief, RaceFail, and the catharsis of Gossip Girl fanfiction. We also discuss Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On and Stephenie Meyer’s Life and Death.
[00:00:00] As always, our intro music is “Awel,” by Stefsax, used under a CC BY 2.5 license. The cover image is by Albert Robida, and it’s in the public domain.
[00:00:47] Ebony’s actual page about being a professor is here.
[00:02:15] The book is Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.
[00:05:13] This is the article Elizabeth wrote after the podcast came out. Obviously Flourish is very helpful! 😜
[00:05:14] Flourish started livetweeting Life and Death and sort of petered out, though not before having some great conversations.
[00:07:03] Aja Romano’s article about Carry On.
[00:11:33] “That Article About The Weird Slashes.”
[00:13:21] The music is “Indie: Hopeful” by Paul Tyan (now offline), used under a CC BY 3.0 license.
[00:15:10] “The Pleasures of Dreaming” is the title of Ebony’s essay.
[00:26:14] “Why is Rue a Little Black Girl?”
[00:30:27] Every Single Word & Elizabeth’s article about it.
[00:30:39] Racefail ‘09 at Fanlore.
[00:37:46] The Meg Rosoff situation, as presented by The Mary Sue
[00:45:12] The Fourth Turning
Flourish Klink: Hi, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish! [long pause] Yep, that’s it.
FK: Welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom.
ELM: This is episode 7, entitled “The Dark Fantastic,” which is the name of the forthcoming book from today’s guest, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, who I know is a professor, kind of an aca-fan, maybe, or…?
ELM: Yeah. An aca-fan, for anyone who doesn’t know, is an academic who has something to do with fans.
FK: That’s certainly true.
ELM: It’s a big tent.
FK: It’s a big tent.
ELM: And I know you guys go way back, right?
FK: Yeah, we go back to when I was but a wee beastie, back to 2001 when we were in the same corner of the Harry Potter fandom. And since then we’ve both done some other things—Ebony wrote some great fic back then, she’s I guess also been writing a bunch of fic in different fandoms since—but mostly she’s been studying literacy and teaching.
ELM: And I think a lot of her focus is about race and racial diversity and the way that is reflected or not reflected in YA in particular.
FK: Yeah. Specifically fantastical stories.
ELM: But also in audiences, in readers, not just what’s in the text but what’s then reflected after the texts.
FK: And how we think of those readers. It all sort of becomes a big loop.
ELM: Yeah. This is just what I’ve gathered from reading some amazing chapters that she sent along in advance. So I’m excited to talk to her!
FK: Me too!
ELM: But first… maybe, because we were talking about YA… we should talk about the book that I delivered to you yesterday and you somehow managed to finish in approximately 12 hours.
FK: [wailing] Ugh, yeah, I did that!
ELM: Wait, 24 hours. We had lunch 24 hours ago to the minute. And the book?
FK: Carry On.
ELM: By Rainbow Rowell.
ELM: And by the time this comes out the book will have been out for two weeks so I’m presuming that literally every person listening will have read it and maybe read it three or four times and already drawn some fanart and written some fanfic.
FK: ALL THE FANART. ALL OF IT. But the thing is I think, I’m afraid that it’s the kind of book that I don’t want to write fanfic about because it’s already perfect.
ELM: Uh, I don’t know. I think that no text is perfect, and I really love it, but I could interrogate it further.
FK: I don’t—I mean, maybe I’ll feel differently, I just finished it like an hour ago. So I might feel differently after—
ELM: Anyone who doesn’t know, I think this is something actually really interesting and I wrote an article about it and I’m working on another one right now cause I can’t get enough of this topic, but the context of Carry On: Rainbow Rowell is I think most famous for Eleanor and Park, which in comparison is somewhat straightforward YA romance.
ELM: And that same year that Eleanor and Park came out, she wrote Fangirl, which I’m sure a lot of our listeners are familiar with since this is a fandom podcast, but it’s about a college student who writes fanfiction, which is essentially—Simon Snow is the name of the book series, and it’s essentially… It’s not just Harry Potter, but it really looks to evoke Harry Potter.
FK: Absolutely. And I think that almost everybody who read Fangirl read it as being about Harry Potter fandom. Harry Potter fanfic.
ELM: Right. She’s drawing from different sources within what happens within the story in Simon Snow, which you see glimpses of throughout Fangirl, but there’s like a Wikipedia article talking about the hundreds of millions of books sold and the boycotts by Christians and things like that. And the timeline of it where the final book’s about to come out and she’s racing to finish her fanfiction first.
FK: It’s even more than the Magicians series, right, which is Harry Potter sort of crossed with Chronicles of Narnia. It’s even more clearly, like, it is about Harry Potter, crypto Harry Potter. That’s what it is.
ELM: So anyway, in that book there are excerpts from the canonical series Simon Snow, and then there are excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction—Cath is the protagonist—and she ships the main character Simon with his evil-ish roommate Baz.
ELM: And so two years later Rainbow Rowell wrote another book with those characters, which was just the most fascinating thing. [FK makes a wail of delight] And so it’s just, it’s a Simon Snow book! Before it was a plot device, and now it is an entire book.
FK: It’s charming.
ELM: It’s so charming.
FK: It’s SO charming.
ELM: So it’s super interesting, and the reason I bring it up by the way is not just to have you flail and squee about it, although I’m really into that. I kind of wanna use this opportunity to have you help me figure out what I’m gonna write in my article.
FK: Isn’t this what we do every week? “Gee, Brain, why don’t we do what we do every week?”
ELM: I only agreed to do this podcast because I wanted it to be a space to live-workshop my article ideas. There’s literally no other reason.
FK: Uh-huh. None. So, OK, is your article going to be about how Carry On is not fanfic? Because it’s not fanfic. I will fight people.
ELM: When I just wrote about Carry On, I wrote about Carry On as a text for the Guardian, and part of that is that the audience there is meant to be a little less familiar with the kind of issues at hand. I kind of said it in passing. I was like “Well, this is what fanfiction is and this is not fanfiction, a writer can’t write fanfiction of her own books.” I mean, you could. You could go into… Uh, not really.
FK: No, not really! I will go so far as to say that there’s a better argument that James Joyce’s Ulysses is Odyssey fanfic than there is that Carry On is fanfic. FIGHT ME, BROS. Fight me.
ELM: Wow, she’s kind of aggressively waving her arms right now. [Flourish laughs] It’s like the chest, it’s like the “come and get me” hands up in the air? It’s so… Jesus Christ, stop, that’s scary! I’m the only one who can see that!
FK: Yeah, and you’re not gonna fight me cause you agree with me, I think.
ELM: Yeah, no! I felt the day this came out we were both like tag-teaming, fighting people on Twitter about this.
FK: It was basically Lucha Libre except with angry Twitter comments.
ELM: Yeah, it was just like that. Part of the problem too, and this is more what I’m writing about in this article, that I haven’t written yet, which is for my column and so I can go a little deeper—it’s meant to kind of skip the explaining step of “what is fanfiction?” which I, you know, still can do… Carry On came out the same day as Stephenie Meyer’s new book, which I know you’ve also read.
ELM: Perhaps not with as much enthusiasm as you’ve devoured Carry On in the last day.
FK: No. I wasn’t as enthusiastic. I was enthusiastic, but not as enthusiastic.
ELM: I kinda think those two books are like candles and Supernatural. [over Flourish’s gales of laughter] I’ve been waiting for some reason to say that!
FK: One of them is in the other?
ELM: Yeah! There’s references to Twilight in Fangirl!
FK: Yeah, that’s true.
ELM: That’s one thing I loved about it! And there’s references to Harry Potter too, in Fangirl. Harry Potter exists in their world.
FK: Yeah. Along with Simon Snow.
ELM: I think Harry Potter and Twilight probably exist in the world of Carry On too because there’s no weird division from the real world.
FK: Led Zeppelin exists, so…
ELM: There’s multiple Stevie Nicks references.
ELM: So good. But yeah, so a lot of people were saying that Stephenie Meyer’s new book, which is a rewriting of the first Twilight book with the genders of the protagonists reversed, is fanfiction, which—
FK: ALSO NOT FANFICTION.
ELM: Yeah! So I think some people are making this argument cause they want to lift fanfiction up…
FK: …and some are making it because they wanna tear fanfiction down.
ELM: Right! So I guess I’m gonna argue with the people who are trying to lift it up, because the people who are trying to tear it down can go fuck themselves. Like, I don’t care about them.
FK: Yeah, I agree.
ELM: OK, great.
FK: Well, the thing is I think the people who are trying to tear fanfiction down don’t have anything good or useful to say and to contribute to this conversation. Because if they’re saying that Stephenie Meyer’s—I’ll say it: I think Stephenie Meyer’s new book is a better book than Twilight, and I think it’s mostly interesting because Twilight already exists, and I think that it’s totally useful and worthwhile and I would like to see more books like it exist in the world. It’s interesting to read the two together. They sort of interrogate each other and they do a lot of the same things that fanfiction is often interested in doing, but they do it within Stephenie Meyer’s own view of the world, which is interesting in a different way than fanfiction is, right?
FK: I think it’s a super valuable book. And I think that Carry On is maybe not valuable in the same way. I love it, obviously—
ELM: Do you mean more valuable, because it’s more magical?
FK: [laughs] No, I mean I think I enjoy it more, I think that in certain ways it’s—it doesn’t reflect on Fangirl the way that Life and Death reflects on Twilight.
ELM: No, but it reflects on other texts, like Harry Potter.
FK: Other texts. It certainly—I can’t even imagine what it would be like to read this book without being very familiar with Harry/Draco fanfic, because it would just, like—I don’t know what sense it would make to anybody.
ELM: I don’t know, I feel like I’ve talked to a lot of friends since it’s come out who I don’t think ever read any Harry/Draco or slash who just were really into Harry Potter. —You’re making a face like “who are these people?!”
FK: No, no, no, I wanna know what their experience was! Because when I said that I don’t know what that would be like, we should find them and make them talk to us!
ELM: They’re not, like not familiar—they’re familiar with Harry Potter. But they’re like, or they’re very close to Harry Potter. But they’re not close to that ship. That was my first slash ship… One article that I really liked was Aja Romano’s article, because you know I used to read her fic like fifteen years ago, which is so weird! And now we’re professional colleagues and friends. And she wrote about it [Carry On]. She kind of really foregrounded her experience with Harry/Draco, and I thought that was a really interesting lens for anyone who’s also had that lens.
ELM: Yeah, I don’t know, there’s so many other things far beyond the love story in this book that are engaging with Harry Potter.
ELM: THE MAGE.
FK: Fuckin’ Mage. Fuckin’ Dumbledore, fuckin’ Mage.
ELM: Stupid Mage.
FK: Anyway, but they’re not the same, right? I think that more than anything it seemed to me when I was reading it, I was like “This is not about Harry Potter. This is about arguments that people have made about Harry Potter.” And so that was one of the things that made me extra feel like it wasn’t fanfiction, because… One of the things I was gonna say was, I think you were far, far more into Harry/Draco than I ever was. Like, far far far far far more.
ELM: Cause you weren’t at all, and it was a pairing that I read?
FK: No, I mean, I read Aja’s fic too, I read—I had friends that were really into it, but I was never like… it was never my ship. You know what I mean? I read it because it was things that my friends wrote.
ELM: To be fair it wasn’t my ship for that long. Then I moved up to my real ship in Harry Potter.
FK: It’s true.
ELM: Oh my God, did you see that a bunch of us were complaining about that article about the “weird slashes”?
FK: [laughs] Yes! Yes.
ELM: So this article was like “The Eleven Weird Things You’ll Find in Harry Potter Fanfiction,” and they were like, one of them was like “genderbending.” They were not weird things! They were like normal fanfiction things and this person wrote one of these stupid “What’s this crazy fanfiction thing?” [articles]. Then one of them was that there were weird, and they said there were weird slashes, which I guess she meant pairings or ships or something?
FK: I like slashes though!
FK: It’s like they’re wounds on the face of the text! I slashed the face of the text!
ELM: OK, so I saw someone took a screenshot of that headline and I retweeted it and I was like “Oh, this is so dumb, ha ha ha,” and then I finally looked at the article like a day later, and below that headline was a picture of Remus and Sirius. And now I’m in jail cause I murdered that woman, so…
FK: Almost the least weird slash pairing, by the way. Like, it’s not even Snarry! Snarry I can get behind seeing as a weird slash pairing, but…
ELM: People criticize me cause it’s too obvious and too vanilla! They’ll be like “Oh, I like my pairings to be weirder.” I’ll be like, “Whatever! I like when it’s just on the cusp of…” you know… I can see it in the shadows. …I think that we probably have to get on to Ebony, unfortunately, though I could talk about this all day.
FK: It’s not unfortunate to get on to Ebony, because Ebony’s also great.
ELM: No! Wait, I take that back. That came out completely wrong. Anyway. So enough about this one book, this one YA book, I’m sure we’re gonna talk about a lot more, so yeah! Should we get Ebony on the line?
FK: Let’s do it!
FK: So, let’s welcome Ebony to the podcast!
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: Thanks for having me!
ELM: Thanks so much for coming on the podcast! Let’s talk about your fannish history, and I’d love to see the whole scope of it, how it connects to your professional work now. It seems like you have these deep roots in Harry Potter fandom, but maybe more than that? So just to give our listeners some background?
EET: So, I think that my fannish roots really began with Anne of Green Gables, the Kevin Sullivan production that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced in the mid to late 1980s that was followed by The Road to Avonlea. I remember one rainy afternoon when I was twelve years old we couldn’t go outside to play, I had read every book in the house, and so I ended up turning on the Disney channel and Anne and Gilbert were on the bridge in Anne of Avonlea, which was the second series. I described this in a 2009 anthologized essay that I wrote during a pretty dark time in my life. I remember hearing Gilbert tell Anne, “Well, I won’t leave you.”
Something within me just resonated with those words, and that was when I sought out the Anne books and became a rereader, and today as a literacy professor I think that one of the roots of fannish obsession is this wanting to get lost in what Michael Benton calls a “secondary world.” At the time I really wanted to get lost in that story world. Avonlea and Prince Edward Island were thousands of miles away, not just in time but in space, from the realities of late-1980s–early-1990s Detroit. As I explained in the essay, it wasn’t that I wanted to be a white girl living in Edwardian Canada, I wanted to get lost in this storyworld!
And I remained obsessed with Anne, although I tried to pretend I wasn’t throughout my teenage years, revived that obsession when I was in undergrad, and my first digital interaction with other fanatics was on the Kindred Spirits listserv in 1998-1999, which is how I got introduced initially to the works of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, because there were people who were reading those books. Then in 2000 I joined the Harry Potter for Grownups listserv the day after I read Goblet of Fire. That’s how I began! I always talk about Harry Potter as being my first traditional science fiction and fantasy fandom, and I was really active for some time, but really my roots are Lucy Maud Montgomery. I think that both roads sprang from my love of all things Maud, both the literary or children’s literature career that I’m building for myself and also the fannish roots and understanding of fan culture and the relationship between fan culture and reader response, which is what I’m trying to really say something about.
ELM: Can I ask you a question going back a little to the beginning of what you said about the “secondary worlds” idea, can you explain that to me? Because I feel like there’s a misconception, a lot of my early fandom stuff was not sci fi or fantasy and I think there’s a misconception. People say to me “Oh, you write about fandom? Do you want to read this vampire book?” And I’m like, “NO! No, not some random vampire book!” Right? And I think it’s interesting if there’s secondary worlds but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a fantastical world.
EET: Absolutely. So currently I’m working on a book that I’m sure you’ll ask me about later, The Dark Fantastic, where I’m really trying to glom all this stuff together in a theory. And in the final body chapter, I’m really trying to think about and theorize what happens when people who obsess about narrative—a narrative or a secondary world, a storyworld—what happens when they enter the waking dream of the imagination? And I’m a little obsessed with it, because in literary theory a lot of this goes back to studies in the phenomenology of reading, which were done by psychologists in the 70s and 80s.
After that work, we sort of moved into reader response theory and then sociocultural theories. And so I’m trying to argue that there’s something about the phenomenology of reading—that means how the reader perceives and is in the world, how the reading shapes consciousness—that we need to understand better in order to understand what happens in a fan’s psychology. Not saying we’re trying to analyze or dissect the fannish experience, but as a scholar and as an aca-fan, I wanted to understand my experience! Because there’s something about me that naturally now fangirls a text, where I not only want the linear narrative, I want the narrative in 3-D or 4-D.
Benton’s secondary worlds is really a commentary on Tolkien, who is the father of modern fantasy, I think everyone would agree. It’s a commentary on Tolkien’s idea of fairy-stories. And so when Tolkien talked about fairy-stories, he said, and I quote—I wanted to pull it up from my book where I’m quoting it—“Children are capable,” and I guess adults, human beings, “are capable of literary belief when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called, and we all know it, willing suspension of disbelief. But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful sub-creator. He makes a secondary world which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is true. It accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken, the magic has failed. You are then back out in the primary world again, looking at the little secondary world from the outside.”
And Todorov, in his great theory of the fantastic—it’s a structuralist theory—talked about the heart of the fantastic not being belief but nearly reaching the point of belief. So it’s like you’re in this fascinating liminal space between waking and dreaming. Tolkien, Todorov, Mendlesohn, all the great fantasy theorists and, you know, practitioners, they all say “you’re not dreaming when you’re reading.” It’s somewhere between sort of existing and reality, and the dream state. So you’re in this weird liminal space.
And I think those of us who traverse in that space, it’s just like any terrain, you get really good at it after awhile, you know? Harry Potter fans who I’ve spoken to, most people have been in multiple other fandoms since our time in the early- to mid-2000s. So I’m just really intrigued by that and by that whole concept of fannish belief and fannish obsession, you know, what some people would call.
FK: Something that strikes me as really interesting talking about this is it seems like a consciously—like, I totally experience it this way, exactly what you’re talking about, it’s like “that’s it, that’s it!” But it seems to me like it’s a very un-, it’s not literary in a certain sense. You know what I mean?
FK: No, really, I mean this, Elizabeth! I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that, you know, people who are very interested in the literary are often doing things that poke at that secondary world, you know? Whether that’s just that it’s a world that you don’t want to inhabit because it’s showing you unfortunate truths about life, or whether that’s a world where they’re purposely traversing the borders and making you think about it. It’s almost against that, so it’s interesting to hear—and refreshing!—to hear somebody talk about this as a desirable state. As, “Yes, we want people to enjoy entering this liminal dream!” It’s really cool.
FK: There wasn’t a question in that. [Elizabeth laughs] I wanted there to be, but there wasn’t. I was just…
EET: Sounded great!
ELM: It was a good statement! I don’t know, I feel like literature is really vast and broad, but there is a huge fashion in the last I-don’t-know-what, more than a decade for realism. And so the point is not to move you into a different realm, but to punch you in the face with the realm that you have to live in. So yeah, it’s true that those books exist and are popular. They’re depressing, though. I don’t know.
EET: Here’s another example. I’m going to actually disclose another fandom that I’ve been in since Harry Potter. I’ve done maybe about 20 to different degrees. When my step-father was declining from cancer, which took his life, I got really involved in the Gossip Girl world. I talked with some of my friends, most of them don’t know—I usually use pseudonyms, I’ve learned since Potter, ugh! [all laugh] I use pseudonyms, I’m very careful, so I do have a fandom sort of pseudonym and I’ll give it to you, Flourish, so you can see, I’ve been writing fanfiction and everything. I wrote a sort of popular fanfiction, post-canon fanfiction there. And I think that as a fantasy fan, or primarily fantasy fan, I had to understand, I said, “Why do I care about little rich White kids on the Upper East Side?” You know? Like, that’s really weird.
But I went back to Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, the famous quote about the line between technology and magic, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is sort of indistinguishable from magic.” Lemme say that again, cause he didn’t say “sort of”! “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And I think because these kids were heirs of billionaire fortunes, I think that I got really into Gossip Girl because at the time I was powerless to stop my stepdad from dying, and I’d already gone through the death of a parent almost 15 years before, cause my dad died when I was quite young.
And I think that part of the reparative work or the cathartic work that fandom gave me at that time or that particular fandom gave me is it did not require a lot of me because the books and the TV show are quite ridiculous. I mean they’re just really, it was just a fun escape. But these kids could make anything happen because they had lots of money with no supervision. I think that instead of technology, in our late-capitalist real world, having a billion dollars might help to maintain someone’s health longer.
EET: So I think that that’s how I glom onto fandoms. Usually there’s something going on in my life so that I can work on that as a fangirl and because my creative writing is not professional, after trying to publish fantastic multicultural fantasy and that didn’t quite work, I was a little ahead of the current wave, I have really used fanfiction to fix not only what I think is incorrect about the author’s narrative, but to sort of fix my life, as Iyanla Vanzant would say on the OWN network.
ELM: Yeah, I think that that’s—I’ve heard that a lot. So it’s interesting because I think it’s like, what’s the difference between that and you writing an original story about someone struggling with the things you’re struggling with at the time?
ELM: I would love to change gears a little and talk to you about your current project that you’re working on and all the work you do with representation in fandom and racial diversity and all that stuff. So, that’s too open an intro I feel like, unless you just wanna go for it…
ELM: Do you have a more directed question, Flourish?
FK: I mean, I was just going to say that you sent us the first couple of chapters of the book you’re working on, The Dark Fantastic, and it sounds like an amazing project, and I think that you should tell our listeners about it!
ELM: Yeah! Oh, totally. It was amazing to read.
FK: There ya go! That’s a directed question right there.
ELM: Yeah, you’re pretty good at that!
EET: [semi-sarcastically] Wow, that was really good. [all laugh] Um…
FK: Aw, shaddap! [laughing embarrassedly] I cover my face in shame. [all laugh]
EET: The book is really not going to be looking at what authors of color do with speculative fiction. I think that’s what people believe the book will be. It is not. I wanted to do some theory-building of fantasy, but when race is a factor. From what I understand, I’m the first to do that. Again, I’m not the first to actually build a taxonomy of Black comics, or multicultural fantasy, or to comment on a little bit, a little corner of that world. I wanted to build a meta-theory of the fantastic.
So what I did was I tried to read all of fantasy theory, or the major fantasy theorists. So Farah Mendlesohn is huge, she wrote Rhetorics of Fantasy a couple of decades ago; Brian Atterbury and others. I wanted to know what would happen if you threw in a visibly raced character into the narrative, particularly a Black character. Something different happens when you throw in an Asian character, then you get into Said’s idea of Orientalism—certainly happening on Game of Thrones!
But with a Black character, something happens. And so I said “I think it interrupts the cycles that Tolkien, Todorov, Atterbury, Mendlesohn, everyone has mentioned.” I just think that readers can’t suspend their disbelief. So there’s three body chapters in the book, as cases: Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries is a case, she was white in the novels, she was cast as Black in the television series and viewers have reacted accordingly. So in each chapter I look at the print narratives, so the traditional book; I look at the adaptation, so looking at what happens when the character’s transmediated; and then I look at fan and media reaction to that character.
So there’s three parts to each of the stories. The other two characters are Rue from The Hunger Games—and I previewed that chapter a bit in a blog post that went viral titled “Why Is Rue A Little Black Girl?” because we all know and remember that Hunger Games fandom went crazy when they saw Amandla Stendberg in the initial trailers for the first Hunger Games movie, which is ridiculous because she’s Black in the books, but people missed the cues.
FK: That was sort of interesting because in that case, Katniss is also described as certainly, like—
EET: Oh, absolutely!
FK: —ambiguously racial, it’s hard to say what race Katniss is from the way she’s described, if that even has relevance in that world.
EET: It definitely does! My Rue chapter ended up being—this is what’s really held up the book—78 pages long. Because I wrote the viral post last year, when I sat down to write the Rue chapter in January I kept crying, because when I went back through the narrative, looked at the books, looked at the movie, and I conducted analysis of both, so I looked at both of those texts as I would a transcript of discourse. So what kinds of relationships are being constructed between participants?
It’s a really weird way to look at literature, but I really just wanted to look at it because I’m really not looking at authorial intent. I’m looking at the work that the text is doing in the world, and I get to do that because I’m not a literary scholar, I’m on the ed[ucation] side. So I care about, I’m a literacy professor so I care about what meaning readers are making or viewers are making as they take in this text. I found even more scary stuff than in my blog post. And then the final chapter is about Gwen and the BBC’s Merlin. That one is a little different because my proposed Dark Fantastic cycle actually does not fully play itself out.
And I have some reasons why I think it matters. The United States context which I concentrate on, I think things really matter there. British television has a different sort of conceptualization of who gets to be authentically British than we might have as sort of colonials over across the pond. I was over there this summer and saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet, and they had color-blind casting for the play. All those characters were of different sort of British Commonwealth backgrounds. It was unproblematic. I think here in the States things are a little bit more fixed for many different reasons.
FK: What might be interesting would be to talk about the reception of some of these things. Cause I know that Elizabeth has been working on, you know, the, God, I’m blanking on the name of the—
ELM: What are we talking about?
FK: The thing that you just wrote an article about!
ELM: Sorry, I’m like seven articles in the future now. The, um, the what’s it called.
FK: “Every Word.”
ELM: “Every Single Word.” Are you familiar…?
EET: Oh, yes, that Tumblr! Let me pull it up.
FK: And Elizabeth has just—
EET: Oh, that’s awesome.
FK: —has just written an article about the fandom reception of that and the difficulty within, I mean…
EET: So what has the fandom reception been? I sometimes miss things. What has the fandom reception been, Elizabeth?
ELM: Oh, we should say for context, should we say for context for our listeners who aren’t familiar with this project? So Dylan Marron is an actor and he’s a writer and he is editing down major films into every single word spoken by a person of color. And so a lot of it, they’re like thirty seconds long, and they’re really just like, you know, “The senator’s on Line 1, sir!” And you know, that’s it! And you’re like, Oh, god.
FK: And the Harry Potter one was particularly horrifying.
ELM: So this is why—
FK: Especially given Lavender Brown’s disappearance.
ELM: She didn’t, she wasn’t in there! Cause she didn’t have any lines.
FK: She didn’t have any lines!
ELM: So this is why I had an in to write about it, because I write about fandom, because he did Harry Potter and people, like, flipped the fuck out. People got so, so defensive! So then it became a question of, like, I wrote about problematic faves, and how people can get really—do you know Your Fave is Problematic, that tumblr?
ELM: People can get simultaneously so defensive if someone calls anything they like racist or queerbaiting or homophobic or sexist or whatever, but then also the inclination to kind of just say “This is pure human garbage and we should never like Harry Potter because it’s racially problematic” or whatever. So I don’t know. You, but, we’re bringing up this topic, but what is our question, Flourish?
FK: I was—[all laugh] I was just saying that, I was curious about, because Ebony you’ve had such a long experience with fandom’s reactions to this kind of provocation, and I guess I was interested in your perspective on how fandom has reacted to this stuff over seeing many of these ups and downs, you know. Many of the fracases. Has it, have things improved? Is there any hope? Are we continually gonna be fighting the same battles?
ELM: Shakin’ her head right now.
EET: So actually I think things have gotten worse. And this is why: I think in the early days of fandom, there are two factors that I think have changed over time. The first is the sheer numbers of people who are visible minorities in fandom who actually say in a fandom that “hey, I’m Black.”
So I used my real name in Harry Potter fandom because of the level of the technology at the time, which is my second sort of point I’ll get to in a second. You really couldn’t see anyone back in 2000, 2001, unless you were really trying hard. Because we didn’t have smartphones back then, there was no YouTube, it was before the social media turn online. So I could have very well not said what race I was, and I have done that in subsequent fandoms, where I don’t use any pictures, I do other things because I’m not really engaged in the fandom and when people know that you’re a woman of color, particularly a Black woman, they interact with you differently.
I mean, people will say until the cows come home “That’s not true, no, that’s not true”… A lifetime of research, medical studies, even if we plunk people up to MRIs and EEGs, yeah, we know something is happening different when you’re interacting with someone who is a person, a visible minority of color. But back then, I thought because I was interacting online, fandom would be less racist than real life. And I would say the early days of Harry Potter fandom, I really don’t feel as if the people I was hanging out with on Harry Potter for Grownups race was really a factor. I honestly can say that. I was there. I’m quite sensitive to racial matters because I am from Detroit and so I grew up in a very racially polarized context. And it was bliss, because we were all fangirling and fanboying together, and we had other differences, around shipping, around the way we saw canon… [all laugh] and oh my gosh, did we ever!
But I think that what happened is, as the number of people who spoke up and said, or as you began to see pictures of people or their discourse or their name, there were more people of color who were active in fandom, I think what happened is the same thing that Massey talks about when he talks about the dimensions of residential segregation. Racial diversity for modern white people is cool until you hit a 20% threshold. When you hit a 20% threshold, then it can sometimes not be cool. And we see, you know, studies of demography and urban studies, people move out of a neighborhood because it is uncomfortable. So I think it was fine because there were very few of us who were minorities. I mean, I was Black, Msscribe I think was biracial, um, we had several people who—
EET: Yeah, Cleo. We had people who were, and I just don’t know that it was a thing, because there just weren’t enough of us and we didn’t have the technology where you were seeing us all the time. You just saw our words, and people began to like or respect you or hate you on fannish basis, on a fannish basis because of your words.
ELM: But did you feel like in the contrast between now and then, if it was a color-blind space?
ELM: So you never felt like it was that…
EET: Nothing is ever color-blind!
ELM: Well, but so, it’s not for you, but it—it probably was by default color-blind for the majority white people who were there who weren’t thinking about it at all, because, right? I feel like white people just don’t, I don’t know, like a lot of white people don’t think about this stuff, right?
EET: Well, we could get into discussions of white privilege, because it is a privilege, just like I have straight privilege, right? Like, I don’t have to think about my heterosexuality so I would, we think about color-blindness as sort of, in education studies we think of it as a harmful concept. Not saying that you’re doing anything wrong by thinking of yourself as color-blind; like Toni Morrison talks about not noticing race as being sort of this liberal generous gesture when race really does always matter in an exchange.
So I do think it was a more innocent time and space. I think people were bringing their good manners from offline, online. I feel as if today some of the controversies we had in Potter fandom from 2002 to 2006 and beyond, I think that they’re tame compared to controversies of today. Even looking back at RaceFail and at the time I was sort of on the sidelines, I was taking a break from being active out there so I didn’t actively participate but all my fan friends told me what was going on—I even think RaceFail was a time that was more genteel than what’s going on today in fandoms.
ELM: Can we say what that is so people, for context for listeners who might not know?
EET: Yeah. So RaceFail 2009 [laughs] let me sort of, you know, refresh everyone’s memory. It was sort of the first time I think that we had a fandom multiverse discussion. “Discussion” is taken lightly.
FK: It’s a pretty tame word for what that was!
EET: Yeah, about racism in fantasy and science fiction. And there are two views on what happened. So the first view is that it was the first time that fans of color across all these different fandoms, people were more scattered and you were talking more with just your fandom and not talking with fans of color across the fandom multiverse, right? Sort of before then. At least that’s how life was from the late 90s until the mid-00s, you were really talking, you know, I wouldn’t have any reason to talk to a Buffy Black fan, because I would’ve never run into them, there was no Tumblr where you’re seeing different people’s fandoms etc.
But then there were white fans who believed that Elizabeth Bear, who was the author who was sort of piled on, or people feel she was piled on, was being attacked by the people of color who were protesting or fans of color and their white allies. And I feel as if it was a template for how discussions on race have happened in the six years since. I feel as if we just had a big controversy in the young adult literature world with Meg Rosoff who said, yeah, I won’t get into that…
ELM: No, no, you should! I’m sorry, I say that as someone who lives in Book Twitter, but most of our listeners might not, so you don’t have to explain every single controversy, but…
EET: Because I’ve done a lot of reading in theories of race, etc. for my work, for my work as an education professor, we know that there are stages of racial awareness and development for white people. You know, it’s like the seven stages of grief. Oh, no, that sounds horrible, and there will be people who listen to this podcast and get upset, like “Ebony, what?!” But no, really, there are! This has been documented by people who are way smarter than me in sociology and education etc. where when you’re first aware of things you may begin to say things that other POC take for granted.
Now, I’ve been raised by a mom who told me when I’d come home from graduate school for instance and say “Well, people said this, Mom,” she would say and this is going to be potentially offensive, but this is what she would say behind closed doors, “Why would you be mad at white people for being white?” She would just say that. I mean, basically, it was almost like a “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And I think Mom’s point was white people don’t have to—what you said, Elizabeth. White people don’t have to deal with or think about race on a daily basis, and so if they’re otherwise well-meaning, then you should just…
And I know that is not where the zeitgeist is going now, and there’ll be fans of color who listen like “What is she saying?!” But that was how I was raised. And that was sort of a coping mechanism, where if someone was actively trying to perpetuate racial harm, then that was when you would speak up. And I did speak up, even in the early days of fandom. So John Walton always says, from Harry Potter fandom says, “Well, you taught me about affirmative action,” why it’s not just a giveaway for unqualified minorities. We had a whole LiveJournal exchange about it. But as far as some of the in-your-face Millennial thing that’s going on, Meg Rosoff is sort of the latest incarnation of a white writer saying something that is, it sounds egregiously wrong to people of color.
And people are tired after 20–30 years of dealing with it, and they pile on, and then—well, I shouldn’t say pile on. They protest! If you’re hurt, you say something, like “ouch.” And if you have thousands of people saying “ouch” on Twitter and Tumblr and talking about you, it does feel as if you’re being attacked when you think that you have done nothing wrong. It’s just been a pattern since RaceFail and the first person to be subjected to that cycle was Elizabeth Bear, and it just shows that we need more study of race and whiteness formation in schools, so people will understand it.
FK: I do think, I mean I don’t want to step in and just insert my perspective on it, but having been in Harry Potter fandom with you and experiencing that, and then going into RaceFail, for me I felt like as a white person RaceFail was the first time anyone had really challenged me in that respect. I had grown up in a very diverse school district, where there were certainly more than 20%, and all of this, and yet throughout all of this I think many—and in my experience online, many people had the attitude that your mom taught you, which is basically “Well, if she’s saying that she’s color-blind and she’s just being white…”
EET: Yeah, just let it alone.
FK: Just let it go. And so I totally see what you’re saying about there being something destructive about the cycle, but at the same time…
EET: Oh, it needs to happen.
FK: As a white person experiencing the stages of that, I was like “Holy shit, this is the first time anyone has actually come out and said, stop being like that, you’re hurting people!” Or, I mean, people probably said that to me in a way that I couldn’t hear before. [all laugh]
ELM: You just didn’t wanna listen, Flourish.
FK: But it was the first time that it was like, “No, seriously, stop.” [makes a slap noise]
EET: And it’s actually become amplified with the social media turn, because I feel like Elizabeth Bear and Racefail was the very first fandom multiverse digital conversation about that, which is why it’s significant, but ever since then it’s almost like a weekly or daily cycle where we’re able to capture or amplify what people are saying, so we see this deconstruction of racism, sexism… Really racism and sexism, and to a lesser extent homophobia and the fandom multiverse. And I really think that massive social media platforms are really facilitating that, because bad behavior or a misstatement in one fandom you wouldn’t know about that in 2002 because we were siloed. With LiveJournal you followed who you followed, but now everybody’s on Twitter, everybody’s on Tumblr, and information is moving much more rapidly. Also, the Millennials don’t give a f—I mean, they’re just different than Generation X was.
ELM: Hey, you know we’re Millennials, we both are.
EET: Oh my Gosh, that’s right! You guys are young!
ELM: You’re making fun of us! And our ways! We love the Snapchats!
EET: No, that’s actually, Elizabeth, that’s actually a compliment! [all laugh]
FK: Guys, guys, this is the first time the word “Millennial” has ever been used as a compliment in my hearing under any circumstances!
EET: I love Millennials! I’ve taught you guys ever since you were—I’m a late Generation Xer. So I’m a late 70s baby. So I think what has happened is just as the sheer… So my little, my theory after reading Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning, The Millennial Generation etc., because I’ve taught you guys, you are different from Generation X. We were lazy and kinda laid back, we were! And any Generation Xers listening to this podcast, yes we were. We were very laid back, we’re still a very laid back generation. Whenever a demographic bump of Millennials hits a cultural phenomenon, it changes.
And so by ‘09, in ‘09 I’m 32, you finally have—and I was born in, like I said, the late 70s—you finally have enough Millennials who are in college who are saying “OK, we don’t have to take it.” You keep seeing it in the culture. They’re not willing to take certain things that we just sort of rolled over on, because we were sort of that last vestige. We had Baby Boomer parents, parents who were Greatest Generation, who fought in WWII, we were just… We were a little rebellious, but our rebellion was a little less collective, I would say, and much more personal and individual. Millennials, y’all are like a force to be reckoned with! I have to say that.
ELM: All right, we’ll take it! Yeah, even you talking about what your Mom said about white people, too, it’s like, accepting the world as it is and saying “well, I’ll do what I can within that structure,” as opposed to just people… I don’t know, it’s hard, because I feel like I get a little weary that everyone seems… It is exhausting to just get mad, I get mad about things all the time. You know, and I want the world to change. And it’s tiring. But also, there’s no other way to push the world forward and change.
FK: But I think maybe this relates back to the Dark Fantastic idea, one of the things that really struck me reading, I had never—I mean, I knew that you had liked Anne of Green Gables, but I had never understood fully how much that was part of you till I read this, um, I hope that we can post a link to the piece that you sent us.
FK: About this, but one of the things that I thought was really insightful and really said something to me that I hadn’t heard elsewhere was the idea that it’s not just the exhausting reading about Zora Neale Hurston, this is where you come from, this is the real world—but it’s the need and the desire and the desire that we all have to escape into a better world, a fantastic world, a world in which maybe not everything is perfect but you can lose yourself. It seems like that’s really relevant to the cycle of anger that we’re talking about because I feel like the cycle of anger maybe gets started when something kicks you out of that, when somebody takes away the fantasy for you.
EET: Yeah, Zetta Elliott has a great article I would encourage everybody to look it up, it’s really short, it’s called “Decolonizing the Imagination.” She’s a dear friend of mine now; I met her through Rutgers’ Child Lit listserv about seven years ago and when I moved to the East Coast we really struck up a friendship, and she talks about the need to decolonize the imagination. Without Zetta’s work, I could not have written The Dark Fantastic, because she was the person who validated my experiences. The difficulty of getting publishers to see that yes, there is a market for diverse protagonists in fantasy, because she again was starting to publish around the time that I was in the early 2000s when the fantasy turn was just taking hold and they were looking for the new Harry Potter, or a new Twilight, and not really looking for the character to be diverse because the assumption was that white audiences would not be able to relate to a protagonist of color.
And I think that could be true to some extent, but I think things are changing because I think that we have again the inevitability of demography. And some of it is race, like you’re getting more people of color in the population with disposable income, but also Millennial whites I think are a little different. I know that studies have said that racial attitudes aren’t changing, and I think that’s true in one way, but without the first cohort of Millennials coming of age we would not have had two terms of Barack Obama as President. It was the Millennials coming of age that really did that. We could not—there weren’t enough of us who were born in the 70s. I don’t know what the hell people were doing in the 70s! [all giggle]
Anyway, going back to decolonizing the imagination and making it a place where everybody can play, I always ask why is it that white consumers are marketed Black sports stars and Black music but for some reason publishing is something that we keep very very white. And of course Lee & Low has those famous book studies, and most fanwork or—not all fanwork, but most fanwork actually has its genesis in popularly commodified books. So I think that if we can get more diversity in the book world, you’ll see the fan world change. But I think you have a lot… I don’t know, I just think change is inevitable, and I’m really excited because I’ve seen things change over the past 15 years.
ELM: I think that we are possibly out of time, unfortunately. But this has been a fascinating discussion and I wanna talk to you for 100,000 more hours, so please come back!
EET: I will! I’d love to come back.
ELM: Yeah, after your book is published! I’m clearly gonna write about it.
FK: Yeah, so we can drive people to the Amazon page where it’s being sold.
ELM: Thank you so much for joining us!
EET: Thank you!
FK: All right, so, what’d you think?
ELM: I thought that was fascinating! And you?
FK: So did I!
ELM: Heh heh, it’s funny that we agree on that! …and most other things.
FK: Basically, well, no, not everything.
ELM: You know, actually we just, we were just talking about how we did our Meyers-Briggs personality tests and we are almost, we have three out of the four letters are the same.
FK: That’s true.
ELM: And it’s that one crucial letter that makes all the difference, and it makes me a cat and Flourish Napoleon. [Flourish laughs] A terrifying, short dictator.
FK: She’s an ENTP, and I’m an ENTJ. Which would shock any of you who have heard Elizabeth talk about anything, because she’s normally the judgy one. But actually it’s me. I’m judging you inside.
ELM: Wow. Wow.
FK: I just insulted both of us together!
ELM: That doesn’t make it hurt any less. That doesn’t take away the sting! Seriously though, seriously, I thought our conversation was fascinating, I really really would love to talk to Ebony more in future so I’m super hopeful that she finishes that book so that I can read it and write about it and have her back on to talk about it!
FK: And those things will be awesome. I thought that one of the things that was important that she brought up was that she talked a little bit about fandom being more than just science fiction and fantasy fandom, and I think that’s going to form the seed for our next episode.
ELM: Yeah, it seems like it’ll be just us next time, delving deep into the issues! Because we always record eighteen hours of just ourselves talking and then we bitterly have to cut it down to fifteen minutes. So this is our big chance to bitterly cut it down to 45 minutes!
FK: It seems like there’s been a theme in our podcasts recently about what are the edges of fandom? What do we want to cover in this podcast? Is it just classic media fandom—fanfiction, fanart? Do we wanna talk about sports fans?
FK: What about music fandom?
FK: What about people on YouTube? Obviously Meredith…
ELM: Awwww, I guess those guys!
FK: …strongly feels like they should be part of this.
ELM: Yeah, I think there’s some anxiety too that we’ve encountered in terms of clashing perspectives. Sometimes people who are in the fanfiction world can make a lot of blanket assumptions about what fandom is, or blanket statements. I think that happens in other places too, but since we’re both coming from the same perspective, we do that.
FK: So we’re gonna talk through this and figure out sort of the direction that this podcast is gonna go. What is our perspective on what our definition of fandom is?
ELM: Exactly. And then I think we’ve got guests lined up for the rest of the year, we’ll be talking to Jackson Bird.
FK: Jackson Bird of the HPA, the Harry Potter Alliance, we should actually spell that out!
ELM: OK, and then we’re gonna be talking to someone who I heard speak in England at the Fan Studies Network conference last year, Evan Hayes Gledhill, gothicbodies on Twitter, who gave this amazing presentation about the 18th and 19th century commonplace book, and kind of women’s—these basically scrapbooks that men would give to the women in their lives, kind of a prescribed place for them to express themselves, that really resonates with the way that a lot of particularly women or not-men engage with say Tumblr or Pinterest or places where you kind of create this composite version of yourself. And so I think to have some historical perspective is gonna be really really interesting!
FK: Yeah! Very excited.
ELM: The thing I’m most excited about is, in December I’m going to be in England, and they’ve agreed to it so we’ll be doing a crossover episode with my editor at the New Statesman and another editor there who have a pop culture podcast called Srsly!
FK: Woo hoo!
ELM: So I will be calling Flourish with these ladies from England and maybe we can talk about transcultural fandom a little bit, the assumptions that people make when they are in the Anglophone world that especially Americans are notorious for and I know a lot of English speakers elsewhere get annoyed about.
FK: So, basically what’s gonna happen is that the three of them are going to bash me around the head with a stop-being-so-culturally-blinkered bat?
ELM: Yeah, even though I’m American!
FK: And I’m gonna enjoy it, so. I’m a bit of a masochist, so if you like watching that sort of thing, just make sure you tune in!
ELM: OK, so that is what we have in store, and as always we would love your feedback, so please please please feel free to leave an ask in our Tumblr!
FK: Yeah, especially if you have any strong feelings about what we should or should not cover in this podcast, like for instance if you feel like candle fandom is a bridge too far.
ELM: If you feel that way, I mean I would like to know, I would like to hear from you if you think that? But also, you better fuckin’ leave candles alone.
FK: [laughs] All right! We’ll see you guys all next time.
ELM: Bye, Flourish!
FK: Bye, Elizabeth.
FK: The opinions expressed in this podcast are not those of Stratus Media Ventures, Chimera Media Group, Chaotic Good, or our clients, or our employers, or anyone’s except our own.