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You remember the game of Telephone from your childhood: kids whisper a message from ear to ear along a group of people, and when it gets to the end of the chain the last person says it out loud, hilariously garbled.

I had not, until this academic year as I’m starting to be less of an apprentice and more of an academic-proper, appreciated how much being in my line of work is quite a lot like being permanently engaged in Telephone.

I first saw it when I went to the Association of Internet Researchers conference this October. As any good Internet or media conference does in this day and age, AoIR had a hashtag (#ir12) and extensive livetweeting. And, I’ll admit that when I followed that stream, I paid particularly close attention to the tweets about my presentation—don’t pretend y’all don’t do that too.

The result was that, for the first time, I got to see my meaning escape my control as it happened. For someone who operates from somewhere in the Active Audience realm and is very committed to the idea that the author does not decide her own meaning, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was decidedly uncomfortable to have it happen to my own statements.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to record the tweets in their entirety as they happened, but fortunately Fabio Giglietto of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo put together a Storify collection for the conference that features some of the discussion about my talk. It went something like this:

After my clarification, which was retweeted by @drst (whose real identity I know but she seems to not have it attached to her account), this reply came back:

This was, of course, a joking response, but it shows why it is that my statement, reduced to “fans are livestock” rather than “livestock is a useful metaphor,” was odd to people who got it second hand. Fans aren’t really livestock in a lot of senses—nutritional uses being one of them—but when it got retold the way it did people potentially got the idea that I’d said something far wackier than in fact I did.

Something similar happened after my article, Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures in November, though I didn’t see it until I Googled myself on a lark in January.

In TWC’s Symposium blog, Lisa Schmidt wrote an entirely appreciative post responding to my piece (called it “a really wonderful essay” and everything) in which—as in the AoIR example—she picked up on one of my points and did something with it that I didn’t intend.

Schmidt said: “The pressure of ‘normal’ is intense and maddening, which is why Stanfill’s section on fandom as a kind of queerness or sexual deviance resonated so powerfully for me. Supposedly fandom is becoming increasingly accepted by the mainstream yet, in many contexts, it remains a dirty little secret. It is a kind of closet, even for some who are in long-term relationships with persons of the opposite sex.”

Okay—so far that’s fine—”sexual deviance” isn’t that deviant from what I was trying to say, “closet” is right. But then things take a turn for the dead author: “More than ever, I feel that fandom, even when not explicitly having anything to do with anything sexual, is queer.”

This was the alarm-bells or record-scratch moment, because I was actually very careful NOT to say that fans were queer. In earlier drafts I had said so, but by this point I felt like it didn’t really capture what I was after. Instead, the terminology I was using was “nonheteronormative.”

The real trouble for my ability to control what people think I’ve said comes when people responded to Schmidt, for though she says “Of course, this is not really the point of Stanfill’s article,” this still becomes what is picked up on in the comments to her post.

User Havoc replied:

I feel like making everything queer dilutes the problems that actual queer folk can go through. Fans don’t need laws changed to be married to fans of the opposite gender, so long as they meet the gender binary. I feel that to list all fans as queer is appropriative of actual queer identity.

Yes, let’s avoid the idea of whiteness as the norm for fans (and elsewhere). But let’s also try not to appropriate one group’s struggles and make them universal to fandom, because LGBTQ struggles aren’t fandom struggles (unless they’re intersectional and both a fan and LGBTQ), and it’s not fair to those who identify as LGBTQ.

And Dana Sterling added: “I tend to agree with havoc about feeling like using queerness in this way in regard to fandom borders on appropriative.”

It was these responses that really distressed me. First, there was the suggestion that sexuality is only “LGBTQ” people’s problem (the phrase “unless they’re intersectional,” the identification of struggles as the essential property of “actual queer folk”). Then there was the reduction of sexuality-based inequality to the denial of state-sanctioned marriage. Moreover, I am heartily sick of reducing queerness to pain.

However, the biggest source of frustration for me was largely because all of these positions I find so problematic are actually incompatible with what the article is trying to do.

Queer, as an analytical apparatus, doesn’t actually describe the way fans work in culture, and so I didn’t use it. It also carried the danger of exactly the interpretation of fandom-as-oppressed-sexual-minority that these retellings and responses produced, something I would never want to argue because it’s patently absurd—though not because I’m worried about “appropriating” any oppression supposedly endemic to queers.

I suppose I’m going to have to get used to this—I’m going to continue to publish, and I really want to be that bigshot academic everybody talks about. Unlike the Twitter example, I can’t always go rushing in to correct those misperceptions as they occur. So I guess we’ll have to add “telephone distortion” to the occupational hazards of being an academic like eyestrain, carpal tunnel, and atrophy of the social life.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] most vitally, like I insisted in my academic telephone piece, I’m not saying all fans are queer in the sense of having same-sex sex or queer in the […]

  2. […] It’s a great piece that does a great job parsing out the way polygamy (or, as he points out, more accurately polygyny) was the “flashpoint” for British colonial anxieties about their capacity to control “the natives” and the potential for native practices to “contaminate” British “modern” sexuality; he expertly demonstrates the ways this nonnormative (to the settler colonists) practice was seen as dangerous and disruptive (and therefore was queer) (p. 168). (Yay for using “queer” to mean disruptive the way I like!) […]

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