Interview With A Fan Girl

I recently wrote about how fan culture can be hostile and exclusionary to women.  While this unfortunate aspect of fan culture needs to be addressed and eliminated, I hoped to also address some of the positive ways in which women experience fandom.  Recently, the following video has been featured on sites like The Mary Sue and Jezebel, and presents a funny, sweet, and light-heartedly satirical look at “fan girls”.
It was immediately clear that for all of the jokes at fans’ expense in the video, the creator loves the fictional characters represented in the video and understands fan mentality.  (I definitely could relate to the plight of the Firefly Girls.)  I contacted Leigh Lahav, the video’s creator, to talk with her about her experiences as a “fan girl,” and what fandom meant to her, and her responses were quite intriguing.  (Note: This interview was conducted via email, rather than as a natural conversation.  The questions and responses are edited into a more traditional Q&A format, but answers may not lead directly into the next question.)

Sexy Feminist: The thing that really made me want to talk to you is that I noticed in the Fan Girl video that most, if not all, of the franchises depicted either had male title characters or were ensembles led by men. Is this a result of most media being about men, and thus there is more male-centered franchises to choose from, or is part of being a fan girl about showing appreciation for good-looking men?  (I thought it was the former, but a close friend of mine and self-professed fan girl thinks it’s the latter.)

Leigh Lahav: It’s no coincidence.  I deliberately chose these franchises.  I’m aware that there are women fans in EVERY fandom, but there’s something about these shows/movies in particular that have an interestingly large female fan base, and they do present a majority of leading men.
In an unavoidable way it IS a result of a “patriarch” media.  Female audiences got used to this and as a result are able to relate very strongly to both female and male characters.  It’s very male oriented even nowadays and that needs to be changed – we need more interesting female characters!  And I think that’s in progress.  A slow, frustrating one, but a progress nonetheless.  Having that basic fact, I’ll continue to elaborate on WHY I think the man-centered-fandoms I chose happen to have such an impact on ladies.

Yes, I can’t deny, it does have to do with the, quite bluntly put – usual “man candy” factor, but there’s more to it than that, in my opinion.  Most of these shows share alternative looks on masculinity, and present male characters and relationships that uniquely challenge social boundaries of gender and sex.  If it’s unusually passive, temperamental, and sensitive men, strong emotional male bonds and friendships that are mostly attributed to female relationships, and interesting gender role takes.  Take “Hannibal” for example.  Will Graham is the embodiment of the “damsel in distress” trope.  He is sensitive, passive, has qualities we perceive in society’s gender role perception as feminine.  Hannibal is very feline-like, seductive, sort of a male version of a Femme Fatale.  And not to mention their undeclared shared parenthood on Abigail.  You can also see a similar “married couple type” relationship with Sherlock and Watson.  These elements of “new masculinity” are very exciting and appealing.  It’s kind of how we wish to see our society – versatile and diverse in gender roles.  In a way, a world we as women can feel safer at, in terms of sex and gender.

I used this role-play also in how the characters looked – most of them wear gender-bendered cosplay – a feminine take on a male costume. A character we’d like to be, but in our own terms.
But at the end of day – these fandom are just GOOD. And attract women and men all the same.

SF: To you, what separates being a “fan” from being a “fan girl”? Is it the level of adoration? Writing fan fics? Something else? Do you see a separation at all?

LL: “Fangirl” is a term I used quite ironically.  It was and is mostly used as a degrading word, to diminish, to distinguish “true fans” from “fake, silly fans that are only here for the hotties.  “Notice also the use of the word “girl” and not “woman.”  It’s there to lessen the fan.  Some fans are offended and wish to distance themselves from that term because of these things (same goes with the word “fanboy,” but not as extreme).  I wished to reclaim that word and empower it in a playful, funny way.  Yes, we are fangirls.  Some of us are here for the pretty boys, some of us are here because of an undying love and appreciation for the fandom – and both of those things are okay.  Anything that makes us adore a franchise is welcomed and celebrated.  Whether you identify yourself as a fan, fangirl, fan-woman, or just a very enthusiastic pop culture geek.

SF: What sorts of ideas do you hope people will take from your videos (other than “hey, maybe I should check out this Doctor Who show I’ve been hearing so much about”)?

LL: If ONE person starts watching Doctor Who because of my “Fangirls” I’d be thrilled!!  I read viewers (mainly girls) were touched by my video and identified with it, and that made me very happy, because that’s the main thing I wanted to bring: a feeling of community and shared loves.  All the more so when it comes to lady-fans, who don’t get much appreciation and creations about their experience – I wanted to do so, in a light hearted poking fun (mostly harmless) way.  I hope it inspires geeky women to stand out and create themselves. And of course, never stop geeking out passionately if that what makes you happy, no matter what people might think or what changes you go through in life.

SF: In the course of your email, you both set up and then started to answer where I wanted to go next: when you mentioned that the term “fangirl” was created to diminish the people it was applied to, my mind immediately went to the idea of “fanboys,” which, as you said, is also somewhat of a derogatory term. But yes, I feel like both have been reclaimed to a degree (I’ve definitely called myself a Whedon fanboy in the past, and I have two friends who gleefully call themselves fangirls). However, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this if you feel differently, I’ve felt that “fanboy” was used more by people outside of fandom to make fun of all men who are into science fiction and fantasy, whereas “fangirl” is used to describe a certain type of female fan, the ones who vocally express their adoration for the good-looking men in their preferred stories. Which again shows a divide because how often do you hear guys being put down or shamed or seen as “not true fans” for expressing adoration for the beautiful women who act in films/shows?

LL: The word “fangirl” does try to stereotype a certain kind of fan – a screaming, silly, fanfic-writing, slash-shipping fanatic girl, a type of fan that has no true respect or knowledge of the fandom and simply likes it for the pretty boys, sexy slash fantasies and possible revealing cosplay.  For me it’s a new form of sexual oppression – as a woman you’re not allowed to have these sexual thoughts and desires.  If you do you’re a slut, an attention whore (think of reactions some men have towards revealing cosplay, i.e. the Tony Harris vs. cosplay incident).  ”Not only are your fantasies about “MY” favorite character/actor, but sometimes they’re with other men also!  How humiliating and castrating!”  Regardless of the fact it’s a horrible generalization, this not only hurts women, but the whole concept of sexual and gender fluidity.  This distancing bothers me for several reasons, and one of them being the “ownership” people (men and women alike) try to have of terms like “fan,” of fandoms, or characters.  They forget it doesn’t belong to them, and anyone can interpret them anyway they want.  There are different forms of adoration, and that’s a beautiful thing, when you think about it.  Why deprive it from anyone?

“Fanboy” in my opinion is more of a degrading nickname that’s unlike suggesting the person isn’t a true fan, it hints he’s an immature man-child and stuck in a playing-with-action-figures-living-in-his-parent’s-basement phase.  It’s different, because whereas “fangirl” is a “swear word” in the fan/geek community, “fanboy” is more a term of distance from “normal” society.  From the un-geeky world.

In both cases, as I said before, my opinion is we should claim those names and wear them with pride.  That’s the best way to make the difference between “fangirl” and “fan” as meaningless as possible, in terms of dedication to the fandom.

SF: Your explanation of the fluidity of gender roles in these fandoms is very intriguing to me. I love Sherlock, and the show itself certainly plays up the homoeroticism between Sherlock and John, but it also shows that John is definitely straight (and a bit of a player), while Sherlock falls somewhere between heterosexual and asexual. But the fandom loves to ship them, and ignores the parts of their characterization that shows they are straight. Same withSupernatural‘s Sam and Dean (which also requires ignoring the fact that the two of them are brothers). It’s interesting to think that these shows are pushing the boundaries of society as far as they can, making sure viewers know that their male heroes are straight while using them to subtly explore gender roles and non-heterosexual desires. (One of my editors recently wrote a book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which she writes about how that show would push social boundaries through unspoken, implicit suggestion; the show could not outright state that lead character Mary Richards used birth control or had premarital sex, but by placing enough hints, viewers could read between the lines and use their imaginations to fill in the details. It sounds like the same thing is happening now, only with gender role and sexuality.) Also, I’m hoping the Twelfth Doctor will be played by a woman; the show has now confirmed that Time Lords can regenerate to other genders. (Imagine how Rose would have reacted if the Ninth Doctor had regenerated not into David Tennant but into Helen Mirren.)

LL: Slash [note: “slash” is a term that refers to fan fiction stories that romantically pair two characters of the same gender] is a very interesting thing.  On the surface it looks like a simple unrealistic sexual fantasy (that some people find degrading and disrespectful to the fandom) but it’s a lot more.  It’s gender-games.  Society challenging.  It even gives a certain pleasure in exploring something naughty and unique society-wise, and has a lot of power to it.  In a way, just as a comic commentary to a fandom, slashing and writing about characters in that fashion is also a tribute, and both of them are served to abate a certain tension.  For example – writing a funny comics about the ever-so-serious- Lannister family from Game of Thrones, which makes a tense, dramatic situation into light-hearted comedy.  So does writing slashy fanfiction between Sherlock and Watson, which eases a certain tension in THEIR relationship in a sexual way. For some, their relationship is symbolic of a sexual relationship, just as Dracula is riddled with sexual meanings.

It’s also a form of creating a sexual safe zone – with two men you can be as creative and rough as you want ([eliminating] the way you may cringe at when a lady is involved).  You can role play in your mind and identify with either the dominant one or the passive one.  Just as I said previously, the unusual (in terms what society accepts) gender roles is very appealing.  It’s a whole fascinating philosophy that’s just too big to cover in one paragraph; I warmly recommend reading more about ithere and here.  A female doctor would be AMAZING!  I’d LOVE to see Helen Mirren in that role.  It would be just breathtaking.

SF: Continuing with gender roles and expectations, do you think it’s easier for women to cosplay because they have a larger range of characters available to them? You wrote about how the women in your video used feminine takes on male costumes, and I don’t think that is too hard to pull off because it is socially acceptable for women to wear men’s clothes. The opposite is not true, and seeing a man dressed as Chun-Li or Supergirl stands out more than a woman dressed as the Eleventh Doctor or Loki. I know that there are guys out there who dress as female characters (often done for purposes of humor and or saying “look at me, I’m dressing in a way I’m not supposed to,” rather than or in addition to genuine adoration of the character), but do you think that the fact that it is probably easier for both genders to show appreciation of male characters through cosplay choices than it is to show appreciation of female characters through cosplay choices influences what fandoms get more mainstream attention? (Also, for the record, if I had the time, money, and skill to make these costumes, I would love to make gender-bent Princess Azula/Asami Sato costumes; Azula is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction.)

LL: I mentioned the cosplay the girls in the video use not as a sign of some groundbreaking gender play innovation but rather to emphasize the unique way they see these fandoms.  The girls not only identify with the characters, but interpret them to their means – a way of expressing the flexible gender roles these fandom have.

It IS socially acceptable for women to wear a variety of clothing as opposed to men who are restricted to only manly clothes (which is very unfortunate if you ask me!  I’d LOVE to see more men in skirts!) and that also affects cosplay.  Also, women acting sexy and seductive is considered hot, while men doing so is considered silly and humorous.  (Think about the Old Spice and Zetsy commercials.  Sure the guys over there are handsome and sexual but they are very self aware and silly, and they poke fun at the genre.)  This relates to the conversation above: men are still expected to be the “wanters” with the sexual drive, and women the “givers” with the sexual appearance but no wants of their own.  This is true to how cosplay is seen too.  As a woman you’re either hot/an attention whore/probably trying to seek acceptance as in there’s no way you’re just enjoying the cosplay for yourself.  And as a man, if you’re pulling off a sexy/gender bender costume you’re trying to make people laugh/be silly.

As I said earlier, years of male-oriented media HAS made women more comfortable identifying with both men and women onscreen, and that’s surely another reason it’s easier for girls to pick from a verity of characters.

It may be wishful thinking here, but I have a feeling this is slowly changing.

Special thanks to Leigh Lahav for providing smart, insightful answers.  Her YouTube channel can be found here.