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Monthly Archives: November 2011

When I saw the headline “Vodka Tampons & Butt Chugging Growing Trend With Teenagers,” my first thought was that it was a story from satirical newspaper The Onion that had been mistaken for real news.

This has happened before. As the Wikipedia article on The Onion points out, it actually happens with surprising frequency. Most of the examples they have of “The Onion taken seriously” are from international news outlets, the employees of which might be excused for missing the subtleties of satire in second languages. But large-scale U.S-based sources have done it too, like Fox News subsidiary Fox Nation in November 2010 believing, predictably, a piece mocking Barack Obama’s tendency toward the verbose.

Even the Grey Lady herself has been taken in, including a spoofed cover of Tiger Beat among real covers in an April 2011 discussion of the magazine’s trajectory over the years.

So, with something as self-evidently ridiculous as “vodka tampons and butt chugging,” it seemed a foregone conclusion that it was a satirical commentary on the panic we have over youth alcohol use.

Except that it wasn’t. It was just an example of the panic we have over youth alcohol use, delivered with a completely straight face by KPHO in Phoenix and distributed farther by several other news outlets.

The story alleges that teenagers are a) soaking tampons in vodka and then inserting them in their vaginas or rectums and b) undergoing alcohol enemas because, they say, these means of imbibing prevent alcohol breath and get them drunk faster.

Now, the mechanics of this have been debunked by several people. Tiny Cat Pants points out that cardboard tampon applicators would be destroyed, the tampon would swell enough to render plastic applicators unusable, applicator-less tampons would be quite difficult to get in wet, and, well, this is worth quoting in its entirety:

in the interest of science, I then ran one of the tampons against the mucous membrane on the inside of my mouth. It was both very cold and burned, which, I imagine, would be a most unpleasant feeling as whoever was aiding you in the administration of vodka-soaked tampons shoved the limp, soggy, shape-changing, burning, and yet very cold thing inside you, or attempted to. I’m honestly not sure the incredibly cold feeling might not cause some uncontrollable clenching which would then make the insertion or removal of the tampon something of a nightmare.

It has also been debunked, somewhat less colorfully, by the authoritative source on contemporary mythology, This is before we get to the social anxiety that putting anything—even alcohol—up one’s butt would cause to no-homo-ing, “dude, you’re a fag-ing young men.

The moral of the story is that clearly teens aren’t doing this. What’s interesting, then, isn’t the strange new imbibing process—since it doesn’t exist (and isn’t new: Snopes notes that this rumor has been in circulation since at least 1999)—but rather the fact that people found it believable enough that it traveled the way it did.

In order to believe in vodka tampons and butt chugging, you have to not think about the physics of expanding tampons and liquid absorption, the biology of alcohol on mucous membranes and clenching when things are cold, and the social challenges of needing someone to help you put alcohol into your digestive tract in reverse. That’s a lot of obstacles.

So how does it happen?

Well, it turns out that the most powerful force in the universe is American adults’ belief that youths are recklessly, stupidly hedonistic. We think they can’t handle alcohol responsibly, so we forbid it to them way later than in other parts of the world and then spend high school and parts of college policing it.

The trouble is, this is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the argument they get is “no alcohol for you!” it becomes more exciting because it’s forbidden at the same time that we deny them education and supervised practice with using it correctly. This is quite evidently a recipe for disaster—and the problems that kids run into show that it’s a high-yield one.

So, far from being an epidemic of dangerous alcohol use, “vodka tampons and butt chugging” is an opportunity. It’s a textbook case of this panic, first. But second, it’s transparently false enough when approached with any skepticism or with any sort of measured response that it points out the absurdity of other iterations, even those that are more subtle.

And once we recognize this as a myth, it becomes easier to ask what social purpose this myth serves for us, and with what consequences. And then maybe come up with a saner response.

And if we wanted to do something saner than abstinence only in sex while we’re at it, that’d be good too. Sociologist Amy Schalet has some ideas garnered from a comparative study of the U.S. and the Netherlands.

In his 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins applauds the fact that since he began his research, “I have watched fans move from the invisible margins of popular culture and into the center of current thinking about media production and consumption” (p. 12).

In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture,a volume of collected essays from the same year, Jenkins describes fans being “marginal to the operations of occur culture, ridiculed in the media, shrouded with social stigma, pushed underground by legal threat, and often depicted as brainless and inarticulate” in the past tense, as something that has been superseded in contemporary culture (p. 1).

Nancy Baym’s 2007 article The New Shape of Online Community: The Example of Swedish Independent Music Fandom” makes an even larger assertion that “fandom is a harbinger of cultural phenomena to come” and “online fan communities now sit at the cutting edge of ‘consumer culture.’”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by numerous other scholars, starting in around 2006, but these two authors can stand in for the larger group since they give me good soundbites. And it’s a compelling argument. All kinds of intensive involvement with media objects is now entirely reasonable, if not expected. While I have my own problems with that (hello, unpaid labor! Shameless self promo time: I’m guest editing a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultureson Fandom and/as Labor), it does seem to be a step up from running away screaming from one’s fan base.

But let’s not kid ourselves. “Fan” still means “freak” and “crazy” and “pathological” and often “violent” an awful lot of the time, to an awful lot of people.

You know how I know? These headlines, from November 9, 2011: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 fan threatens to blow up Best Buy and Modern Warfare 3′ Fans Turn to Bomb Threats, Dramatic Heists

We get these stories because this is what we culturally expect of fans. This isn’t to say that people didn’t actually do these things. I don’t doubt that, as the Forbes piece reported, two different shipments of the game in France were actually “robbed at gunpoint.” I’m sure Lomorin Sar of Aurora, Colorado really did go crazy when denied his copy of the game and threaten to kill the store’s employees and blow up the building.

But it is equally true that those shipments contained “thousands of copies of the game worth hundreds of thousands of Euros.” That is, the thieves could have just been out to make a quick buck, but somehow they become fans rather than just some people seeking to appropriate other people’s property for their own gain.

Similarly, Mr. Sar, Slashgear reports, “has had at least six other run-ins with police over traffic violations – apparently memorable enough to have been listed in police records – hot head!” He’s a violent guy. He seems to blow up at the slightest provocation, like a traffic ticket. But the headline didn’t read “Known violent, crazy guy is violent and crazy.” It read “fan threatens to blow up Best Buy.”

In light of this rhetorical equivalence, I have to look at those “fans have been mainstreamed” arguments and say “Cool story, bro.”

And perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “Wait, weren’t you just calling out fans the other week for being racist, and now you’re defending them against being called violent?” (I’m going to interpellate you as a regular reader, mmkay?) This might seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t. I can both call attention to the less savory aspects of fan culture and try to protect them from stigma.

That’s because, like I discussed last week about the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain, there’s a difference between attributing bad behavior to someone solely on the basis of their category membership and not being able to critique bad behavior at all when someone in a less-privileged category engages in it. I both want to protect fans from unfair critique and to speak the truth to or about them when things they do aren’t okay, even if that’s unpleasant.

So, the bomb-threat guy didn’t make those threats because he’s a fan any more than Herman Cain (allegedly) sexually harassed women because he’s a black man. But Cain is still responsible for his (alleged) actions as an individual abusing his power, and the fans who produced the “This is not who I am and this is not okay” poster about the daleks are responsible for their actions trivializing racism.

Those things can all be true at the same time. Life’s complicated like that.

Reports that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain was accused of sexually harassing some women in the mid-1990s, accusations that were settled out of court at the time, have been at the top of Google News for at least a week now.

The headline slid down a little when Andy Rooney died and to make way for election results, but never “below the fold,” not least because the number of women allegedly harassed has continued to grow—four at last count. This has seemingly become the only story in the 2012 campaign.

My first instinct is to be sick to death of sex scandals. Far too often (and ever doing it is too much for me) people’s fitness to hold office is assessed on the basis of having sex other people disapprove of. I get annoyed when substantive issues get shoved aside in favor of tabloid-esque coverage.

Of course, it’s not a greatfirst instinct, since that’s not what’s going on here, as sexual harassment is categorically different from an affair or sexting or gay sex with consensual adult partners—the things other politicians have found to end their careers.

Indeed, some of the coverage, in particular one opinion piece that got me fired up enough to write this blog in the first place, shows why, as much as it shouldn’t be the only story, the accusations against Cain should be a story. Joe Klein of Time argues that “fleeting moments of human frailty, especially of the testosterone-addled kind, are inevitable and should remain private, absent extenuating circumstances (like physical assault). I’m generally opposed to the press setting moral standards that most of us can’t meet”

No, no. No no no. Just, no.

Assuming you have a right of access to other people’s bodies is not “human frailty,” nor is it “inevitable.” Nor is refraining from doing so a “moral standard” that anyone should have trouble meeting as much as what’s required by basic human decency. Having testosterone, however much it might “addle” you, does not give you a free pass. Physical assault is not the only kind of inappropriate behavior for which one should be called out, and keeping abuses of power private does little to discourage them.

Klein adds, “Yes, sexual harassment is different from general poking around since it is a form of aggressive behavior–but it is also more difficult to prove (although the two women in question received cash settlements from the Restaurant Association, which means that we’re probably dealing with some form of industrial-strength obnoxiousness here).”

Seriously, you’re going to defend something you call “general poking around” as not a form of aggressive behavior? See above re: assumption of a right of access.

That’s before we even get to the echo of the old assumption that women tend to make up sexual assault, and the fact that Klein contains this with the mention that there were settlements and “industrial-strength obnoxiousness” doesn’t make up for that suggestion. Yes, of course women might say this happened even if it’s not true, because they are treated so well when they come forward and being violated is so easy to talk about.

All of this points to why it’s vital that this conversation be had, not just with Cain, but with any case where there’s this sort of question of coercion or hostile work environment or power differential. First, if people hear this often enough, they’ll get the idea that it’s not an acceptable way to behave. And second, if it’s true, it’s something people have a right to know before they go electing someone to the highest office in the land.

Because yes, I’ll come out and argue that if Cain is, in fact, a harasser he’s not fit to run the country. Importantly, again, it’s not just because there’s a sex scandal—I am a firm believer in the fact that any kind of sex anybody wants to have with other consenting adults is perfectly acceptable even if I personally find it revolting.

But there aren’t consenting adults here; what makes a sexual harasser unfit for duty is the abuse of power it represents. That’s where the problem lies. That’s why that person shouldn’t be given any more power and should possibly lose the position they had that they decided to abuse in the first place.

Of course, it is totally reasonable to argue against the way in which the news has come to focus on this to the exclusion of all other topics. As Klein points out, “there is far more important business–like Herman’s Cain prohibitive lack of knowledge about almost every relevant issue–to be discussed.” There needs to be more substantive debate about Cain—and someone needs to remember that there are other candidates, two or three of them still serious contenders.

But then there’s the elephant in the room (har, har). This sexual harassment case isn’t just an issue of gender (which isn’t to imply that it ever is, but it sometimes gets treated as such); it’s also bound up in issues of race.

“The notion of black man as sexual predator is a particularly toxic stereotype–and it may intensify the self-righteous satisfaction some Republicans are getting from supporting a conservative black man for President. As in: those liberals pretend to be pro-black, but every time a Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain comes down the pike, they throw sex at him.”

On one hand, I’m deeply uneasy with the ways in which that “toxic stereotype” probably has a whole lot more to do with the wall-to-wall coverage of this Cain story than the journalists and readers want to admit. The story makes sense to run and catches people’s attention because it meshes with this idea.

There is something deeply worrisome about this being the basis on which African-American republicans are undermined. That’s a reason to resist the frenzy—though as stated above I don’t think there’s any reason not to talk about the issue altogether.

On the other hand, there’s a problem when race and gender get pitted against each other like this. Thinking back to Clarence Thomas—an obvious precedent—there was this weird thing where somehow Anita Hill had to either have solidarity with (implicitly white) feminists and call out Thomas’s misconduct or have solidarity with African-Americans and keep quiet so that there could be a black Supreme Court justice.

Here again, there’s some implicit demand to either not critique Cain—what the right is implicitly saying “liberals” ought to do if they are really “pro-black”—or be take a stand against sexual harassment if one is really“pro-woman.”

The problem is that, as many an intersectional theorist and woman of color feminist has argued, you can’t separate out those things. You’re not black plus a woman, so it’s not one or the other. It’s also not one or the other in critiquing the behavior of such an African-American man.

The weight of history makes this tricky to navigate: the “myth of the black rapist” relies on the assumption of black men as less civilized, less controlled, and having outsized sexual urges, and I know that this is bound up, to greater or lesser extent, with the Herman Cain Sexual Harassment Extravaganza of 2011. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth even as I say Cain’s not fit to lead if the accusations are true.

We have to call out the racist logics that make this a “good” story—i.e. exciting—even as we insist that it is still an important story. A pretty tall order, but I think it’s possible.

Tagging the archive of entries made me realize I have a lot fewer blogs about fandom—you know, my primary academic interest—than just about anything else. Now, the fact that I often blog on the basis of current events that catch my attention (next week, Herman Cain and sexual harassment) has something to do with this, of course, but it’s still an unfortunate situation.

And then, just as I was thinking this and wracking my brains for something not only timely but interesting to say about fans, a fan-related blog topic fell into my lap. And that would be awesome if it weren’t for what it was.

To start, I love fans. I am a fan. I’m totally aware that fans are often misrepresented through a focus on the fan practices that are most nonnormative in relation to non-fan culture, and it makes me want to protect them. But sometimes fans do something awful and indefensible—and, in this case, racist—and it makes me feel terrible but I have to call them out on it.

One of the posters, via

It all started when I saw something about the “We’re a culture, not a costume” project. I feel like it was on Twitter, but I can’t find it now so maybe I saw it on Google News. (If I got it from you, tell me so I can give you credit!)

In this campaign, the Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) organization at Ohio University produced a series of posters urging people to rethink their Halloween costume choices. Each had a student who’s a member of a particular racial or ethnic group holding up a picture of a Halloween costume that purports to allow people to pretend to be a member of that group.

Predictably, we see Asian woman = geisha, Middle Eastern or Muslim man = terrorist, and a “gangsta” white girl in blackface (or black-body, as all of her visible skin is brown-ed). The captions say, “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

Bonus: @BobbyBigWheel made a handy flowchart to help you decide whether to wear blackface on Halloween (via the ever-fabulous @Halfrican_One)

The STARS campaign is a really powerful statement about the harm done by stereotyping and reducing an entire group of people to the most offensive denominator. (There is, a typo showed me, revealing wordplay in there somewhere about demon-inator.) I think one of these posters should be made and distributed at my campus to jolt the student body out of their largely unreflexive support of the retired Chief Illiniwek mascot.

And then, some science fiction fans turned around and made a “This is not who I am and this is not okay” poster showing a Dr. Who dalek and some women dressed as “sexy daleks.”

To suggest that “misrepresenting” a fictitious species of villains is equivalent to misrepresenting an actual group that has materially suffered as a result of white supremacy, as tumblr user tarynaria notes, “undermines the impact of the original campaign: namely pointing out racist Halloween costumes (or costume party costumes) as racist.”

She adds, “it’s rude and disrespectful to those involved in the campaign,” because to make this joke is to “tell them that their voices don’t matter.”This poster, as a response to the STARS set, indicates that its maker doesn’t care about the message the original was trying to get across. It frames the racism of the costumes as either as trivial or as made up by people who are overly sensitive.

(Also, bonus awfulness points for reinforcing the idea that women’s science fiction costuming is always insincere or “pandering” and attempting to be sexy. I don’t think the these things are unrelated.)

Implying that racism is trivial or a product of excessive sensitivity are classic tactics of white dismissal of race as a relevant category. They’re even on the Fantasy and Science Fiction Bingo, No Racism in Fiction edition card! And the fact that this poster as a response to an important argument about racism in costuming made sense not only to produce but to reblog across fandom (it got to me via a tweet by a scifi fan) makes the assumption of default whiteness within fandom glaring.

This, of course, is at odds with the way that fandom is frequently characterized as a space where the culturally downtrodden can make media work for them. Though there have certainly been critiques of the argument and attempts to nuance it, mostly what we hear is that fandom is resistant to norms. Fans are the heroic underdog rebels struggling against the Evil Corporate Empire.

And there’s a certain amount of truth to this. Fans are actually perpetually under threat of legal challenge from corporate media capital.

In addition, the fans who engage in the kind of fandom most often noticed in fan studies are mostly women. Fairly often (at least, out of proportion with the rest of the population), they’re queer, either in the sense of having same-sex desire or by breaking norms of sexuality more generally. Fans do absolutely resist and rework norms of gender and sexuality from a subordinate position in the schema of normativity.

In these ways, yes, fans are underdogs and resistant and available to champion. The problem comes when we have an insufficiently intersectional understanding of what constitutes oppression. Yes, fans are downtrodden in some ways, but that doesn’t excuse them from treading on others by other criteria.

That is, if Glee creator Ryan Murphy has a case of Gay White Man Syndrome, lots of fans and fan scholars have White Fan Syndrome, and we need to call it out.

Here’s where the Myth of Oppressed People Points comes in. There’s a pervasive sense that if a person is her- or himself oppressed in any way, they get a pass for oppressing others. As I put it when discussing Glee, this is like saying “I understand what it’s like to be discriminated against as a woman because I’m gay” or “I can’t be racist, I’m gay!”

Those statements are patently absurd, but so is it absurd to claim “I can’t be racist, I’m downtrodden as a fan!” Because clearly people can.

There’s fairly widespread awareness and critique of the default maleness of fandom in the popular and industrial imaginary and the ways in which that’s exclusionary for women. I raised it in my blog about Comic-Con 2011’s “Sexy Geek” Panel. Suzanne Scott pointed it out when blogging about that incident before me as well as in her excellent dissertation Revenge of the Fanboy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation (especially the conclusion).

You can also see this in Henry Jenkins‘s discussion of fan viding vs. fan films in Convergence Culture and in Julie Levin Russo‘s careful articulation of the specificity of femslash fandom in her Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities. The point (besides a chance to show off that I’ve been reading a lot lately), is that people get that gender is a factor in fandom.

However, race has not received anything like the same attention. I actually had to put down a fan studies article recently lest I fling it across the room because it so totally ignored the obvious role race played in the phenomenon it was discussing.

In fact, so far the only academic attention to this that I’ve seen is a 2009 Symposium section in Transformative Works and Cultures called Pattern Recognition: A Dialogue on Racism in Fan Communities, though I know that there’s a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom coming out later this month because I’m published in it.

The dalek poster reemphasizes why this work is necessary. We can love fans and celebrate the way that they are resistant, sure. What we can’t do is get so caught up in our love and our underdog narrative that we can’t see when they aren’t so lovable or downtrodden. It’s our responsibility to critique fan practices when that’s necessary. There are no Oppressed People Points, just intersecting systems of privilege.