OTW Guest Post: Constance Penley

Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.

Constance Penley (she/her) is a film and media studies professor at UC Santa Barbara who is a fan of fandom (and Escapade’s No. 1 fan). Two of her proudest affiliations are the Transformative Works and Cultures Editorial Board and the Free Speech Coalition Board of Directors. Today, Constance talks about her affiliation with slash fandom and fandom’s endurance.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

I stumbled into fandom in 1986 when I edited a special issue of the feminist media journal Camera Obscura on “Science Fiction and Sexual Difference.” The editors sought essays that addressed how conventional notions of sexual difference are uniquely displaced or reworked by science fiction film. In looking for other examples of writing on science fiction and sexuality and possible contributors to our special issue, I found Erotic Universe, a rare collection on that topic that had just appeared. I was astonished to discover the underground of women writers radically reimagining sex through science fiction in “Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines” by Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith. That essay drew on Joanna Russ’s insights on K/S in her 1985 essay “Pornography for Women, by Women, with Love.” Though I failed to get Lamb and Veith to contribute to the Camera Obscura issue, their essay and Russ’s sent me down the wondrous slash rabbit hole to a fantastic new take on women and their relation to media.

When we turned the Camera Obscura special issue into a book, Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction (1993), we added a reprint of Henry Jenkins’s “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching” to recognize the importance of fans’ critical approach to remaking media to suit their own sexual and social desires. And I was inspired to write on slash for the first time -–”Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology” -– in the groundbreaking collection Technoculture (1991) that I edited with Andrew Ross.

Lamb and Veith had helpfully included in their essay a citation to Datazine, which I used to order scores of zines denoted by the “/” mark. No gen for me! After two years of blissfully collecting slash zines, I received an invitation in 1988 to IDICon IV in Houston, where I was greeted with, “Oh, one of our academic fans!” After that, it was Koon-ut-CALI-CON in San Diego and the beginning of my 30-year+ involvement in EscapadeCon in Santa Barbara and southern California.

A lot of people discuss the difference between pre- and post-internet fandom, but were there clear eras in the pre-internet period as well?

There were distinctive eras in the pre-Internet period, which have been explicated in Fanlore, other fan-made histories, and the increasing number of academic books on fan culture. But I have been fascinated by how prophetic pre-internet fandom was about the workings of post-internet fandom and the internet itself.

We already saw in pre-internet fandom demands to engage transformatively with mass-produced culture, powerful models of distributed collaborative creation, a prescient queering of popular culture, an early instance of feminist porn, the creation of a space for intergenerational sex talk and sex education, and social media before its time. Henry Jenkins described that moment when everyone went on the internet and tried to figure out what it was for and how to behave–netiquette–as “the fannification of the internet.” I took this to mean that fans had already worked out how to participate in non-market-driven collective creativity, offer constructive criticism (no flaming), and hack technology to make it work for all.

What are some aspects of fandom that have endured which surprised you?

After 35 years of being involved in and thinking about fandom, I learned not to be surprised by fandom’s endurance. I respect the fierceness of that abiding desire to forge communities where women can creatively and safely explore their sexual and social identities. One of my biggest surprises as a fandom scholar was discovering the historical, literary lineage of that desire, which I wrote about in “Future Men,” the concluding section of my book NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America (1997).

I was delighted that Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse included it in The Fan Fiction Studies Reader (2014) as an original research discovery: slash fanfic is an ingenious modern melding of the hugely popular, much maligned women-authored 19c “sentimental” or “sensational” or “domestic” novels that crafted an idiom blending women’s domestic, social, and political concerns and canonical American literature written by men that centered on the “Sacred Marriage of males.”

This creative reworking, the successful queering of the established literary canon, augers well for the future of slash’s cultural work, which Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist and Star Trek: Picard showrunner Michel Chabon calls “the dominant cultural mode of our times.”

What aspects of fandom now do you think will be interesting to watch for changes?

Others can speculate on how fandom will continue to evolve and change or, less likely, devolve and dissipate. I am more interested in how fandom changes us and can help to imaginatively and practically navigate the extraordinary levels of fascism, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia we are experiencing today. We need all the creative imagining, civic engagement, mutual care, and on-the-ground organizing we can muster. Fandom is a critical resource.

Because I pay close attention to the two cultural tracks of fandom and porn, I see their futures as parallel and intertwined not only in their shared stigma and precarity but also in their queer and female taboo-busting amid rising censoriousness by states, corporations, and moral policers.

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I first heard about the idea that would become the OTW at Escapade in the early to mid-2000s. The desire for a dynamic and inclusive platform run by and for fans emerged organically out of longstanding fan desires to protect and defend fannish creativity, values, history, and community. It was evident that fans could provide the talent to make it happen, including librarians, information technologists, software testers and developers, communications specialists, attorneys and legal scholars, teachers, translators, writers, artists, and media makers, among others. As hard as it is to maintain a nonprofit organization run by volunteers, it has been extraordinarily successful in its mission. It is an honor and a delight to serve on the Editorial Board of Transformative Works and Cultures.

Again, it has been instructive to see the parallels between female fans creating the OTW for organizing, advocacy, creativity, preservation, community, safety, and mutual aid and the female and non-gender conforming sex workers who built hacking//hustling. Hacking//Hustling is a collective of sex workers and allies working at the intersection of technology and social justice issues. As proactive and innovative as OTW, hacking//hustling explodes the definition of technology to include tools to fight stigma and repression: community-based research, mutual aid, organizing, art, and any/all tools sex workers and survivors develop to mitigate state, workplace, and interpersonal violence and thrive.

The hacking//hustling collective believes the internet would be better if sex workers designed it. How about an internet designed by sex workers and slash fen?!

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

My intellectual and political trajectory has been profoundly shaped by fandom. It pushed me as a film scholar to think beyond theories of spectatorship and how film texts and the viewing experience produce our subjective and ideological positions. I was prompted to consider how audiences, in this case, female fans, produce the texts and viewing conditions. This insight inspired a shift in how film and media scholars accounted for female agency and agency in general. The fans’ fierce creativity in reworking mass media forced us to acknowledge the pervasiveness and fluidity of the unconscious and fantasy in every aspect of media consumption and production.

Just as I am now perceived as one of the founders of fan and audience studies because of my early work on slash fandom, I am also seen as a founder of the academic field of porn studies for having taught and researched porn for thirty years. I have never written about how much the emergent fields of fan studies and porn studies were entirely bound up for me, not just because slash fic was the first pornography I responded to. The slash fans inspired me to teach porn in the first place, starting in 1993. From my first interactions with the fans, I was struck by how few of them (at least in the 80s) would call themselves feminists. But in reading their creative work and hearing about their everyday lives, I felt they were down-the-line equality and justice feminists.

Why, then, did the fans not identify with feminism or feel it could speak to their lives? In trying to find the answer, I had to recognize that from the 1970s and for far too long, many people believed that feminism was the same as the anti-porn movement. If you were anti-porn, you were also anti-sex and anti-men. (This perception was fueled by a media that preferred to caricature feminism as a new temperance or moral hygiene movement instead of describing the actual complexity of feminist thought on sexual expression.) The slash fans were proud pornographers who loved sex and loved men, so how could they be feminists? I realized the slash fans were rejecting feminism before feminism had a chance to reject them. But I felt that feminism could learn so much from them and was dismayed that the fans, for whom I had so much respect, shared this negative perception of feminism.

If I have one project in my life, it is to make feminism popular. I believed that the perception of feminists as automatically anti-porn (and anti-sex and anti-men) was one of the biggest obstacles to feminism being popular. I knew there were many more feminists like me–pro-sex, anti-censorship–in the academy and elsewhere. How could I get that representation of a feminist out there circulating more widely? I concluded that if I taught a course on pornography, it would get a lot of attention, and it did.

I like to think that I contributed to helping change that unpopular notion of feminism, so much so that by 2013 I could co-edit The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, published by the venerable Feminist Press, to great acclaim, with few saying that feminist porn was oxymoronic. Of the few criticisms, my favorite was the Reverend Pat Robertson’s denunciation of my course in a special of The 700 Club on “godlessness in public schools.” He first called my course “a new low in humanist excess” (which I am using as a blurb on my book Teaching Pornography) before querulously exclaiming, “A feminist teaching pornography? That’s like Scopes teaching evolution!” Thanks to the slash fen for pushing me toward that productive notoriety, my version of good trouble.

We encourage suggestions from fans for future guest posts, so contact us if you have someone in mind! Or you can visit our Pinboard account to catch up on earlier guest posts.

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