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Category Archives: youth culture

There has been a ton of writing about all the wildly awful things about the Steubenville sexual assault case: the slut-shaming and victim-blaming; marksdubbsthe focus on the boys’ “ruined lives” at the expense of any mention of the impact on the person who experienced the assault; CNNCNN’s bizarre coverage (which prompted petitions to land in my inbox from three separate progressive organizations); and all the awful things that got said on social media (brought to my attention by @AmandaAnnKlein). Also, there was a truly odd use of the word “alleged”–its purpose is for the perpetrator, to preserve “innocent until proven guilty,” not for the victim, to imply nothing ever happened, mmkay?

All of those things have been critiqued, I think, extraordinarily well, and I don’t think I can improve on that.

What I want to talk about is the ways this may be a turning point for electronically networked youth culture.

This is not to suggest, as some journalists have, that somehow the events are a product of electronic networks, as with Susanna Schrobsdorff’s statement in Time: “Joking about rape, referencing sexual acts and girls making fun of girls perceived as ‘sluts’ is just part of teen online culture now.”

This is not part of teen online culture. It’s part of teen culture, full stop. And it’s not “now”; as someone who presumably went to high school more recently than Schrobsdorff, I can vouch that saying these kinds of awful things is not new. What’s new is the visibility, the leaving of traces.

I’m a scholar of gender and sexuality and media; lots of people in my circle account themselves feminists. And as a result, an interesting juxtaposition occurred on my Twitter feed during the week of March 18: Veronica Mars and Steubenville. (I was late on Veronica Mars because of SCMS, and now I’m late on Steubenville because Veronica Mars broke first. A day may come when a news event will coincide with my blog production cycle, but it is not this day.)

But watching the last couple episodes of Season 1 of Veronica Mars the other weekend (in which, spoiler alert, Veronica finally pieces together what happened the night she was drugged and raped) in conjunction with the verdict in the Steubenville case coming down, there were both such similarities between the fictional case and the real one and such crucial differences that it got me thinking.

In VM, as in Steubenville, lots of people witnessed sexual things happening to a drugged girl who everyone assumed was drunk and slutty.  All of those witnesses (with the exception of the ex-boyfriend in the VM case), did not act to stop the events from occurring, which makes them morally responsible even if legal codes often don’t have a way to make such bystanders criminally responsible. (Though, you know, bystander effect is a real thing that happens.)

When Veronica could not remember what happened, and knew only that something had, it took her a year of piecing together disparate sources to figure it out. In Steubenville, electronically networked youth culture recorded everything, and though the local authorities were not inclined to intervene until prodded by national outrage and Anonymous, those (prosecutable) traces made the difference. As Richard Oppel wrote in the New York Times, “because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence” in the trial.

The fictional bystanding and the subsequent harassment of Veronica as slutty took place in meatspace, was ephemeral, left no traces. The parallel with the real-life crime is that “the trial also exposed the behavior of other teenagers, who wasted no time spreading photos and text messages with what many in the community felt was callousness or cruelty” (Oppel).

At SCMS a few weeks ago, I attended a paper on bullying in Nickelodeon TV show iCarly, given by my colleague Martina Baldwin. One thing that came up in the Q&A after the session was that, while there’s a long tradition of young people being awful to each other, the difference is in the traces. Things that used to be said in hallways and heard by only a few people now last longer because they are written down; by comparison to the nasty note written on paper, the text message or Facebook posting is exponentially more transmissible and harder to destroy. (Of course, this is the paradox of the Internet: things you want to get rid of last forever; things you want to preserve disappear.)

Indeed, the moral panic around “cyberbullying,” while technologically deterministic in suggesting that such things never occurred before the Internet, may not be totally off base. First, there’s the increased nastiness that comes with not bullying someone in person (this is not just true of youth; see the comments on any news story with a controversial topic, many if not most of which are written by adults). Second, there’s the intensification that comes with the seeming permanence and “everybody knows” aspect of these modes of harassment.

But now, the people who did not assault the girl physically but did do so emotionally and socially may also face consequences. The Ohio attorney general has announced that he “might consider offenses thatsteubenville1 include obstruction of justice, failure to report a felony and failure to report child abuse” (Oppel). This is an interesting turn of events, and not for the reason suggested by what the judge apparently said:

(Which sounds a bit like “you would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”) While it may indeed serve as a lesson to kids to keep their torture of each other more private, it also has another potential:steubenville2

Youth culture is, more or less, what it has been—if not always, at least as long as I’ve been aware of it. It was already highly networked and skilled at the transmission of information, particularly in ways that harass and harm others.

But the fact that the youth network is now electronic made all the difference in securing justice for that girl in Steubenville. Even more broadly, the use of electronic media traces as evidence in prosecution raises the possibility that the unique ways that these technologies intensify the awfulness of teen culture may begin to recede. In this way, despite all the ridiculousness that has surrounded it (see again the first section of this blog), the verdict is an incredible step forward.

I think most people take some joy in being right. I’ll certainly admit that I’m one of them. But as a critical academic I’m often going around making dire predictions or showing awful intended and unintended consequences of things, so when I’m right about those there’s some disappointment mixed in with the glee (as there is with all glee, Ryan Murphy).

So when Julie Levin Russo, my fan studies buddy, copied me on a tweet about a blog post she’d found, Fangirls, Stay Away From Tumblr,  it was “I am so right!” followed by “I am so right.”

In the post, the author (who @j_l_r informs me is an undergraduate and so I’ll be playing even nicer than usual this week) critiques what she considers the excesses of fangirls who use microblogging platform Tumblr.

The post is in fact quite prescriptive, telling said fangirls how they ought to behave: “they need to change how they fangirl over it. They need to stop focusing on what shoes their favorite actor is wearing, and remember why they became a fan”;  “if you want to run your blog ‘right,’ you need to make your posts about why you’re a fan of so-and-so.”

The author also parses out more specifically what it might look like to not be doin’ it wrong. Thus, she declares, “there’s nothing wrong with listening to the same band for weeks on end, or paying an absurd amount of money for a concert ticket in the nosebleed section.” (Donning the Marxist hat for a second: note that engaging in consumer capitalism is what’s a-ok.)

Moreover, she distinguishes such people from “normal fans,” even insisting that “these fangirls aren’t fans anymore; it’s a race to be the most obsessive, and it isn’t genuine or fair to actual fans on the website.”

Now, @j_l_r quipped “paging Bourdieu?” in the original tweet, and she’s not wrong about that, of course—and maybe my response is because my queer hat just fits me better than my Bourdieu hat—but I want to go a different direction here.

Because the author also noted in the blog post that the Tumblr style of fangirling “makes everyone involved uncomfortable,” and I’d like to argue that this is actually the crux.

This is to say that, as we can see from the definition given—”A fangirl is someone who takes that one thing he or she (usually a she, though) really loves — such as a celebrity, television show, or band — and loves it to the point where their life revolves around it”—fangirling is both highly gendered and an issue of large-scale affect (itself also highly gendered). It’s girls, having extravagant feelings.

But there’s another layer. She says, “Unfortunately, fangirls have taken to blogging their unhealthy obsessions on Tumblr.” Girls have long had feelings deemed extravagant by social standards (ever since rationality became gendered as masculine, in fact), but now they’re doing it in public. And that reminds me vividly of my theorization of fandom as like public sex.

Yes, the blogger’s discomfort (and that of many others) is about what is and isn’t a tasteful way to appreciate cultural objects (obligatory Distinction reference), but engaging in the wrong kind of appreciation shouldn’t produce such a strong reaction. And yet it’s a moral panic. Why? Because such fans become perverts.

The post parses the problem: “It’s a competition — who can post the most pictures, who can get a reaction from a band member or actor via Twitter, who can attend the most concerts or know the most quotes from a show, or who can make the most ridiculous comment professing their undying love,” and complains that such activity is not about the object of fandom.

But here’s the thing you learn about norms and deviants if you can look at it from a certain angle and let go of the panic about contamination: it’s never about the object of fandom.

These girls’ behaviors are scratching some itch they have, providing them some pleasure they desire, and they’re not ashamed to do that even if it does look only tenuously related to the object that is supposedly the point.

Ultimately, love is not rational, and you can write all the essays you want detailing the fine points of a band or TV show and it will always come down to a certain something that produces feelings. What these fangirls are doing openly, everyone does covertly.

And it’s desire, and its excessive feelings, and it’s femininity, and it’s not inside the confines of normative development  (the author identifies it as a “stage”). And it freaks people out.

And this blog post is exactly why it matters to bring queer theory to bear on fandom. Because the power of the norm is such that we get female youth hating on feminized youth practices because they know that having that much desire can’t possibly be right.

Posting early because it’s timely and because I’ll be traveling for the next 10 days or so. Look for my next post probably in June.

So, uh, I don’t know if you heard about this, but there’s this Twilight movie thing? With, like, sparkly vampires and stuff? And the latest installment came out recently? People were camping out and everything.

(They didn’t get treated like those other people taking up public space by camping out, though. Apparently, camping out places is a sometimes crime, like cookies are a sometimes food, and, like Occupy Best Buy, waiting to spend money is A-OK!)

But of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have heard of Twilight, and you have been aware of the level of devotion exhibited by fans of the series—exemplified by the camping-out behavior.

Indeed, Twilight fans are routinely the object of ridicule and hatred for the apparent excesses of their love for the books and film series and the personnel involved (actors Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner and author Stephenie Meyer).

For example, when looking for readily available internet commentary on the difference between OWS and Twilight for the aside above, I found a Facebook status message suggesting that the poster was going to “try setting up occupy wall street signs at my local movie theater in hopes that the police will beat and arrest all the twilight nuts camping out,” which is, perhaps regrettably, fairly typical.

Before I go on, full disclosure: I haven’t seen or read Twilight. My exposure to the franchise has consisted of news reports and teaching Buffy vs. Edward every semester (Sometimes twice if I guest lecture. I’ve also been known to show it at parties). I have a group of students making a video about Twilight this semester, though, so perhaps I will soon be educated.

Nevertheless, by means of this indirect consumption of Twilight I have gathered that there’s a lot to critique about the way the franchise frames gender, heterosexual romance, and sexual activity. It is apparent that the text has a lot of problems, but from what I can tell it’s not markedly worse in this respect than other popular teen romances—or, indeed, much of the rest of media.

Okay, so Twilight fans are imagined as hysterical, weeping, teenage, female masses, and this deserves analysis all on its own. That is, though this fits into longstanding traditions identified by Joli Jensen in her now-classic 1992 piece “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization,” the usual story is that stereotyping fans is a thing of the past, as I explained in “Fans Turn to Bomb Threats”: Journalists Turn to Stereotypes, so when these same old narratives crop up again we should take that seriously.

What I find really interesting, however, is not that this happens in general, but something much more particular, something I felt compelled to write about after being retweeted two things:

I have, for a while, been intrigued by the times when fans go around hating other fans, starting with some trends that emerged in my MA Thesis (which apparently has a Google Books entry! Pardon the excessive alliteration. It seemed like a good idea 5 years ago when I named the thing).

But when I got two separate Twilight-disparaging tweets, from two different people, encompassing two other fandoms in the scifi/fantasy speculative fiction spectrum, it seemed like time to take it on.

So, what do these tweets tell us about the cultural meaning of Twilight? People who would attend Breaking Dawn at midnight are women, and they are alone “every other night at midnight”—because they have no family, or no friends, or (most likely given the trope) can’t get a boyfriend. Moreover, Twilight is a scourge on humanity from which we should be saved.

But again, this is standard enough in making sense of things beloved by teenage girls in general and Twilight in particular. What’s really interesting is who we learn it from, and how.

Here we have the humorous Twitter accounts created for a Harry Potter character and a Dr. Who character, the deployment of which involves imagining what these characters might say about current events and writing the tweets they might write. In some sense, this involves inhabiting or becoming the character, if only temporarily. It definitely involves having extensive knowledge of the object of fandom, to conjure the voice of the character accurately.

It is, then, a practice that requires fandom, both in the execution and in the inclination to do such a thing in the first place. Moreover, Harry Potter and Dr. Who are themselves objects whose fans are often subjected to ridicule as losers under the same set of stereotypes about who fans are that they’re deploying against Twilight.

That’s pretty strange. The same people who would surely dispute that Harry Potter and Dr. Who fans are excessively emotional, inappropriately sexual losers are fully willing to not only accept but actively promote the idea that Twilight fans are exactly that.

What this suggests, then, is that not only are anti-fan stereotypes alive and well, but that the very people who are ridiculed by them are complicit in their reproduction. They just think that they apply to someone else.

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.