Friday, 20 September 2013

Heroes of Animation: Manga

Last month I was interviewed for an episode of HuHa 2's "Heroes of Animation" series, which was dedicated to anime and manga. Apparently I'm a superfan! The episode is on YouTube now and can be viewed here:

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Geek Mythology: The "Othering" of Fans in Mainstream Media and the Internet as a Platform for Protest

Talk to anyone who identifies as a geek (or nerd - I consider the terms interchangeable for the purpose of this topic) about their experiences as a fan, and you will soon be told tales of mockery, exclusion or outright bullying as a result of this self-identification. Many will also point out that their fandom is looked down upon, while those of more mainstream pastimes like sports or TV talent shows are accepted as "normal" despite being no less obsessive or involved. Apparently, although the word "fan" derives from "fanatic", it only brings negative connotations with it when it's applied to interests like sci-fi, fantasy, gaming or anime.

This is a norm which has long been perpetuated by the mainstream media. In entertainment media, geeks are inevitably figures of fun, portrayed as awkward, weird and (of course) unpopular. Whenever geek culture is addressed by the news media, meanwhile, it is usually treated with an overall tone of "look at these strange people". The agenda is clear - the target audience is generally not the geeks themselves, so the readers are positioned so that they are not only looking in at geeks, but looking down on them as well. This attitude persists despite a few developments that seem encouraging, most notably the fact that geek properties like Doctor Who, Marvel/DC, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings have recently attained enormous success in non-geek arenas and helped to give rise to the phenomenon of "geek chic". We remain targets to be mocked, even in properties that are meant to either appeal to, or to celebrate, geeks and geek culture. We are, inescapably, Others.

In Shouting Into The Void's deconstruction of The Big Bang Theory1, the author points out that "The humour [...] relies on the audience siding with and relating to Penny, the character coded as 'normal' in comparison to the main four guys. It also relies on the audience having a sense of superiority over Leonard, Raj, Sheldon and Howard. We’re supposed to feel like we’re cooler than them and that we’re better than them. This then prompts us to laugh at the things which make them nerdy, which stop them being cool, which make them lesser." This is exactly how geeks are handled in most mainstream media. When the Sunday Telegraph published a report on Aya Revolution in 20102, the reporter spent the entirety of the article expressing befuddlement at cosplayers' choice of hobby, while simultaneously denigrating them for it (a man cosplaying as Kon from Bleach is described as "tall and fat, and he is sitting alone in the convention hall, looking like something Sesame Street spat out [...] he is in the worst shape of any man dressed as a teddy I have ever met"; another cosplayer, Xae, is characterised with "by day he works in a supermarket, stacking shelves; by night, however - and at Aya - he is a Robocop"). It was a similar story in 2011 when RT America ran a story on that year's San Diego Comic Con3, although this time the agenda was even more clearly set out - the reporter began by asking "couldn't their energy be put to better use?", then proceeded to grill a cosplayer on how much money she had spent to attend the convention, and why she was spending it there instead of "coming to Washington to protest the economy". When the interviewee pointed out that spending money at Comic Con did boost the local economy, she was abruptly cut off by the reporter. It's a hugely contradictory environment for those of us on the inside, where we are on the one hand acutely aware of how much more visible and acceptable in the mainstream geek culture is compared to a decade ago, while also having to feel guarded about expressing our fandom and suspicious of any non-geeky outlets that show an interest in exploring cosplay, gaming or conventions, lest they turn out to want easy fodder to rehash a lazy and tired stereotype - that we are somehow arrested in our development, shutting ourselves away from reality by indulging in the fantastical, and deserving of mockery from the "well-adjusted", "mature", "normal" segments of society.

Geeks have naturally resented this stereotype, and all the fallacies and inconsistencies it brings with it, for as long as the stereotype itself has existed. But where geeks previously only had other geek-run platforms to express their resentment, places where that resentment would only be shared with other geeks, thus rendering them effectively voiceless, the growth of the internet and rise of social media has relocated geek protest to a more widely visible, and thus more widely accessible, open forum. Anyone can own a blog, and internet users without Facebook or Twitter accounts are a distinct minority. It's easier than ever to protest about something, in a truly public arena, and rally support for your cause.

A recent example of this is the case of Zoe Burgess4, who appeared on the first episode of Gok's Style Secrets on Channel 45. The format of the programme involved taking a woman who had trouble with relationships, giving her both a fashion and lifestyle makeover, and putting her through various exercises to improve her confidence and flirting skills. In Zoe's case, this included an insistence from Wan that she remove her various posters from her bedroom, and that she had to move away from geeky interests like vampires and cosplay in order to find a man. The episode itself played out like a typical "ugly duckling" romcom - a geeky (but not physically unattractive - by heavy implication, it is her geekiness which renders her "unattractive") girl is taken by a well-meaning helper, stripped of all that signifies her as a geek, and dressed up in sexy new outfits that make her feel like a different, new (and implicitly better) woman. To Wan's credit, Zoe did appear to be delighted with the new looks he gave her, and the date she went on at the end of the show seemed to go well. The episode appeared to have been a huge success in its intent, but on Twitter, a completely different story was emerging.

Zoe herself tweeted about the show as it was airing and revealed some unseen details (which have now been removed). It was briefly touched upon that she lacked confidence regarding her weight; what was not fully explored, but revealed on Twitter, was that she had suffered from an eating disorder and tried several diets over the years which had taken a physical toll on her. She also revealed that she was grieving for the loss of her father, a fact which had apparently come up during filming but which was completely removed from the final cut. The editing team instead focused on her identity as a geek, or as a goth, as being the true source of all her problems, and thus the main factor that needed to be dealt with. The man Zoe went on a date with at the end of the show, Jon, also commented on the date on his Twitter feed, revealing that "they kept stopping us every time we discussed anything geeky. Which made conversation a bit awkward, as that was the main thing we had in common." It's clear that the programme, right down to the very basics of its construction, intended to paint geekdom in an archetypically negative, undesirable light, not only conflating "geek" with "childish", but also - as Wan described the pre-makeover Zoe as "androgynous" - "unfeminine".

A few years ago, any protest about the show's treatment of either Zoe as a person, or geekdom as a wider culture, would have been restricted to private grumblings among Zoe, her friends, and geek communities. Zoe would have had the option of complaining to Ofcom about misrepresentation, but this would still have amounted to a relatively private protest - if the ombudsman upheld her complaint, the programme-makers would have had to issue a public apology, but how many people this apology would have reached is something of an unknown quantity. In the age of Twitter, however, things played out rather differently. Although Zoe's own comments were removed from her feed, it was clear that the rest of the Twitterverse was not falling for it. Even from non-geeks, there came the observation that Wan's advice flew in the face of the long-held conventional wisdom of "be yourself". Without the knowledge of Zoe's rather more serious concerns that were ignored by the programme-makers - her history of disordered eating and grief for her father - viewers easily identified that claiming that Zoe's problems all stemmed from being a geek, and thus that all the solutions could be found in stripping her of all her geek trappings, was not only overly simplistic, but also counter-productive - her love for films, anime and cosplay were the main sources of joy in her life, after all. As further evidence that her geek identity didn't render her unattractive, there were several male geeks on Twitter who openly asked where they "could meet a girl like Zoe", and Zoe has recently revealed that she now has a boyfriend, who is "watching the same things as me and not judging me for it. [...] I'm dating someone I met at an anime convention, [who] is an epic geek, and on our first date we played computer games and Magic: The Gathering, which to me was [the] best date ever. [...] Gok Wan was wrong about everything."6 Similar protests have come from the cosplay community, both in response to the aforementioned Sunday Telegraph article7, and in the way that Endemol, the company behind Big Brother, explicitly targeted cosplayers at London MCM Expo as potential sources of "good TV" for their 2011 series8. Fans have also starting giving each other advance warning about such media tactics - a discussion arising from a post in which a cosplayer reports receiving another email from Endemol, this time with regard to BBC Three's show Snog, Marry, Avoid?, had posters mostly agreeing that "It would be a safe bet they'd insinuate you wear full costume every day, to work/school etc.", and "If I could I'd stop every cosplayer from attending this show, but I know they're going to grab a new kid that doesn't know any better and use them for a few laughs."9

It can, of course, be argued that on a larger scale, these protests have not amounted to much beyond an increased awareness among geeks that the mainstream press cannot be trusted to represent their subculture fairly, and therefore are best avoided outright. Certainly there have been no apologies from the media corporations that have perpetuated these stereotypes, nor has there been much evidence of a change in the way such corporations approach geekdom. But perhaps that's not really the point, just yet. Attitudes are slow to change, especially with regard to subcultural or other niche interests and behaviours, so it's unrealistic to expect a fairer treatment for geeks in the media overnight, off the backs of some online protests. What's more important is the capacity for protest itself. The internet levels the playing field considerably, as individuals no longer need to contend with gatekeepers exercising editorial caprice in order to make their voices heard. Change may come, and if it does, it will be a slow process. But while we may continue to be perpetually cast as Others, we certainly don't have to take it lying down any more.

1. "The Problem With The Big Bang Theory", Shouting Into The Void, 7 September 2012
2. "Cosplay: Meet the Toon Army", Tanya Gold, The Sunday Telegraph, 9 May 2010
3. "Crazy Comic-Con Fever: $175 for a Ticket", RT America on Youtube, 25 July 2011
4. In the interests of full disclosure, I will confirm that I know Zoe Burgess on a personal basis (she and I co-presented the panel "The Counter-Culture of Anime Fandom" at Minamicon in March 2013). To maintain as much objectivity as possible, I have only referred to information that Zoe has given publicly (even if it no longer exists in a public forum), and not to any information she has given me privately.
5. Gok's Style Secrets, series 1 episode 1, Ricochet TV, Channel 4, 2 January 2013
6.  "LZSY Long Overdue Update Part 2", LetZoeSpoilYou on Youtube, 11 April 2013
7. "Ayacon report in Sunday Telegraph today", Cosplay Island forum, 9 May 2010
8. "Cant believe this.", Cosplay Island forum, 30 May 2011
9. "BBC Three looking for cosplayers", Cosplay Island forum, 3 August 2010

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Counter-Culture of Anime Fandom - Minamicon 19

At Minamicon 19, this past weekend, I co-presented a panel with the title "The Counter-Culture of Anime Fandom", along with Zoe Burgess of Let Zoe Spoil You. I'm working on an essay which expands on some of the themes we discussed in this panel, which will hopefully be up soon (I'm still recovering from con flu), but enjoy the panel for now!

Video courtesy of Batale on Youtube.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

From Weird To Wired: The Internet and "Fourth Generation" Anime Fandom

Finally up! The video is low quality because Youtube was unable to process the high-quality version for some reason. I may see if I can reupload it at a later date if the audio/video quality is problematic.

This is my paper as presented at the Manga Movies Project symposium, held at UEA in September 2012.

Between the discussion among anime fans at my Amecon panel, and that among my fellow academics who attended the symposium and spoke to me afterwards, I am aware that I have some expanding and exploration to do within this topic - expect that in a future blog post!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Now on Twitter

As part of the ongoing effort to keep myself from losing momentum in my study, I now have a Twitter account. The pressure of having more places to keep updated will hopefully prompt me to keep working on things!

I can be found on Twitter as @leahmholmes.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Manga UK Podcast #7

A bit of a shameless plug here (albeit an indirectly shameless one)! Last week the latest Manga UK Podcast went live and featured plenty of interesting discussion, most notably (from my perspective) about the ways in which Manga Entertainment and anime fandom - and anime itself - have changed over the years. Here's the shameless plug: I get a name check for the paper I presented at the Contemporary Japanese Media Cultures symposium at UEA a couple of weeks ago. Hooray!

Go check the podcast out, for it is quite excellent.

A video of my paper from UEA should hopefully be online soon.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Changing Face of British Anime Fandom panel - Amecon 2012

Here's a video of my panel from Amecon 2012, held at Keele University from 10-12 August 2012. the title was "The Changing Face of British Anime Fandom" and included lots of discussion from the audience!

Video courtesy of Tom and Kelly at Team Neko UK.