OTW Guest Post: Annalise Ophelian

From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.

Annalise Ophelian (@dr_ophelian) is a documentary filmmaker, clinical psychotherapist, and consultant based in San Francisco. She’s the creator of Looking for Leia (LookingForLeia) a docuseries about girls and women in Star Wars fandom.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

My first contact with fandom was definitely through participating in it. I saw Star Wars in the theater in 1977, loved sci fi and fantasy genre throughout my childhood and adolescence, became a big ST:The Next Generation fan during the “dark period” in the early 90s when we didn’t have new Star Wars, attended conventions, did some low grade collecting. So the landscape of fandom has always been personally familiar to me.

And fanworks have always been a part of that, although in the 90s and in the pre-internet days we found visual art at cons and in comic book shops, and fanfic in paper zines. I always experienced a gender divide in fandom. Comic shops felt like decidedly male domains and I always felt an extra level of scrutiny or testing stepping into those space, although that has happily diminished somewhat over the past few years. The language of fandom and fanworks is largely new to me, and something I’ve learned about in my research for Looking for Leia.

And I love this process, there’s something wonderful about realizing your personal, private experience that you’ve had in relative isolation for most of your life actually has a codified descriptive language and a community of others who share your interests. So in many ways learning more about the history of women’s fan spaces and fanworks has also been about learning about my fan foremothers and understanding what was going on around me in the 80s, 90s and early aughts that I wasn’t aware of.

Your upcoming docu-series, Looking for Leia, focuses the perspective of “fangirls” in a fandom that is often depicted as a boy’s club. Could you tell us a little bit about the history of women in the Star Wars community, and what inspired you to make a documentary about them?

I conceptualized Looking for Leia after attending Star Wars Celebration Anaheim in 2015. It was my first Celebration, and I went there with the same expectations I had of most cons, which was of being sort of adrift in a sea of fanboys. And there were so many more women there than I expected, and so many different kinds of women occupying different spaces than I’d typically seen at other cons. And it left me wondering, who are all these women? Because intellectually of course I knew I wasn’t an anomaly in terms of Star Wars fandom or genre fandom, but emotionally I wasn’t prepared to see anyone else like me. I left that Celebration with a deeper feeling of connection, of finding my people, than I’d had at any other time in my adult life — it was on par with coming out as queer in 1987 and finding my community for the first time.

So I embarked on Looking for Leia out of this initial curiosity, who are some of these women and what is their experience of fandom. And from that it developed into a more historical inquiry and a phenomenological inquiry. Early in my research Tricia Barr (of Fangirlblog.com and Fangirls Going Rogue) did a pre-interview with me and suggested I contact Maggie Nowakowska, who was active in fanzine communities in the 1970s and came to Star Wars fandom from Trek fandom, as many many women did at that time. Maggie had me and the crew over to her house and spoke with me for hours, showed me around her incredible fanzine archive, and that is where I first learned about the breadth and depth of women’s fanwork contributions.

The idea that between 1977 – 1983 there were hundreds, upwards of a thousand fanzines in print, and that 95% of these were edited by and written by women, was mind boggling to me. This is a huge, historic body of work, and it’s such content rich work. These stories show incredible immersion in and devotion to story, the writing is incredibly strong, and it’s prolific stuff. I’m just old enough to have done zines and flyers on mimeograph machines and xerox machines, so the technology of these zines also resonated with me. This is a history that, for the women who were part of it, was hugely significant, it defined women’s communities, relationships, senses of self, it generated a massive amount of creative and critical content, and I was unaware of it until I began research on this project.

Most people I speak with who are outside of communities producing fanworks are shocked when they hear about this body of work, it’s a huge cultural contribution. And of course listening to the stories from early conventions, filk groups, hall costumes, these were spaces where women were actively involved, so it’s ironic and odd that public face of fandom and the popular conception of fandom is being homogeneously white, cisgender, straight men. Our histories are much more diverse than this.

Cosplay is a huge part of the Star Wars fandom. What is the importance of cosplaying to the fangirls you interviewed?

I’ve loved getting to talk with both cosplayers and costumers, and like so much of fandom, there’s really a spectrum of involvement, it’s not just one thing. So I’ve interviewed women who are costumiers and do costuming professionally, who were very much influenced into their careers by their love of Star Wars. And I’ve talked with folks from the charitable costuming organizations. And I’ve spoken with cosplayers who spend incredible amounts of time and money creating epic set pieces, and women who cut up yoga mats and use found items and a hot glue gun to create amazing cosplays.

Across it all, women who’ve done costuming and cosplay have all talked about the role of aesthetic expression, how creating and sharing their work is a unique hybrid of their self-expression and of honoring a character. And of course, I think cosplay and costuming are very forward facing expressions of fandom, they’re bold and visible and recognizable, but also it’s not like the majority of women are out there cosplaying. There are barriers to access and people’s personal comfort level with being hypervisible.

But I love hearing the range of stories. Women talking about the emotional significance of wearing Leia, of interacting with fans, especially children, in convention settings, or in hospital settings for the charitable orgs. And I love hearing costumers talk about how they crack especially difficult costumes, especially in the animation where there aren’t real life seams and zippers, making that leap from a cartoon to reality. I’ve loved hearing the stories of how cosplay has represented an edge, particularly for folks who are race bending or doing cross race and cross gender cosplay, what it means to say “I’m entitled to this character, I have the right to occupy this space in the story and make it fully my own.”

You mentioned that many of the women you interviewed have been involved in Archive of Our Own (AO3). How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

OK so in the spirit of full disclosure: Prior to working on Looking for Leia the only fanfic I was aware of was Trek slash fiction. And I think it’s fair to say that I associated written fanwork with slash because that was what I was looking at. And there was incredibly utility to those stories, people like to giggle and nudge about slash but for queer people, poly people, kinky people, those stories are often the only place where you’re going to see yourself, I think they’re incredibly important.

But, you know, Looking for Leia is an all ages project and as much as I’d love to do a story just about erotica writers, for this project I needed to broaden my lens and talk with women about writing their own narratives. So OTW and AO3 came up in interviews early on, and was clearly a site where women were able to not just tell stories but connect with audience and build author/audience relationships. As an independent filmmaker, I also really relate to the AO3 model in terms of self-distribution and removing barriers to access. It’s been nice not only to hear from women who are content creators, but also hear from women about what these stories mean to them as readers.

I also think, especially for fans who are historically not represented on screen or in story, fanworks are the place where we can see ourselves and our relationships. While we’re waiting, impatiently, for studios to center QT/W/OC, we’re also actively creating those stories and that representation in our own works.

Have you noticed any “generational” differences – changes in attitude, outlook, etc. – by fans who’ve come of age with the Original Trilogy, the Prequels, or the currently-unfolding sequel trilogy?

I think it’s true that at this point in fandom, every generation has a Star Wars story, and that Star Wars becomes your Star Wars. And there’s a huge sense of pride in this, as we edge up on the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace I love seeing the prequel generation go to bat for their Star Wars, in wonderful podcasts like Skytalkers: This Galactic Life and the Prequel Defense Squad.

I conducted 75% of the interviews before The Last Jedi was released, and spending time with this footage I’m so struck by how open and pluralistic my interview participants were about their fandom. People love what they love, sometimes with a passionate fervor. But folks were just as easily able to lay down the parts of the story that didn’t resonate with them without trashing them or the people who loved them. Women loved Star Wars and Star Trek and a ton of other franchises, sometimes conversations would veer far off into Lord of the Rings or Buffy the Vampire Slayer territory. This stereotypical zero sum game, this fanboy stereotype of “Batman vs. Superman, who will win??” simply wasn’t present in the interviews I conducted. And after The Last Jedi came out, I circled back around to some of the women, especially those who loved Luke, and asked “hey, not that this is what we’re focusing on in the series, but how did y’all feel about his character arc?” And folks had really thoughtful and varied responses, none of which involved calling people names or calling for a boycott.

In my observation, social media spaces have made the greatest generational impact, in ways that are both generative and destructive. Huge amounts of women under 35 talked about the role that Twitter has played in finding and connecting with other Star Wars fans, and particularly creating connection with other women in fandom. Social media frees us from our geographic constraints, which is especially important for folks living at the intersections of marginalized communities where the numbers might just not be there where we live. Queer folks, trans folks, non-binary folks, folks of color, disabled folks, we find each other and build networks necessary for survival in many cases on-line. And the women I spoke with almost all talked about how they curate these on-line spaces, purposefully selecting who they engage with and who they disengage with. Women over 40 have talked with me about the AOL chat rooms and listservs and women of all generations have talked about AO3. I think on-line spaces create sites of engagement where we can find folks with shared interests and feel connected.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

Last night, because clearly I like punishing myself, I was watching an episode of the 4th season of The West Wing, Arctic Radar. And there’s a tiny subplot where a new staffer is wearing a Star Trek pin to work, and Josh goes to tell her to take it off. And in doing so he makes a case against fandom as fetish, it goes like this:

JOSH: I’m a fan. I’m a sports fan, I’m a music fan and I’m a Star Trek fan. All of them. But here’s what I don’t do. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: “Let’s list our ten favorite episodes. Let’s list our least favorite episodes. Let’s list our favorite galaxies. Let’s make a chart to see how often our favorite galaxies appear in our favorite episodes. What Romulan would you most like to see coupled with a Cardassian and why? Let’s spend a weekend talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians and then let’s do it again.” That’s not being a fan. That’s having a fetish. And I don’t have a problem with that, except you can’t bring your hobbies in to work, okay?

And this scene sort of simultaneously acknowledges and permits and makes fun of and stereotypes fandom. Psychologically speaking, we categorize things to help us make sense of our worlds, but also because hierarchy is a method of social control and sometimes when we feel powerless in one domain we seek to compensate by asserting power where we can. We passionately identify with things because the process of identity formation necessitates a mirror, it’s psychologically healthy and creative to seek to see our ideal selves in others, and to exorcise socially unacceptable qualities through identification with villains, and to occupy every shade of grey between these two poles.

Fandom, I think, represents one of the most unique facets of human nature, which is our capacity to love a story, and to utilize story to help us organize and understand ourselves and the world around us. Over the past 14 months I’ve interviewed roughly 100 women about their fandom. These stories are complex and complicated, loving a thing and holding a critical analysis of a thing are in no way mutually exclusive, there’s all sorts of variation and context and texture, but at the heart of all of these stories is a reminder that we are predisposed to connect, with a story, with each other, with ourselves. I think we need this message right now, and I’m grateful to be able to amplify women’s voices in telling it.

Catch up on earlier guest posts.

Guest Post
  1. Jacque Curran commented:

    Loved this interview! So informative and much deeper insight than I imagined. Brava, Annalisa!