Whoosh! Issue 25 - October 1998


The Zeal For Xena: Appropriation, Discursive Elaboration, And Identity Production In Lesbian Fan Fiction




"A Shared Notion of Desire"

Hey, just like WHOOSH!


The Washington Post is available online as well.


[25] In her article "Woman of Steel: Television's Warrior Xena Is A Superheroine With Broad Appeal," Washington Post writer Elizabeth Kastor discusses Xena's lesbian cult status. Kastor quotes Heather Findley, editor of Girlfriends, an entertainment magazine for lesbians, as saying:

Now that it is - for some women - okay to be a lesbian, there's a little more playfulness built into our identity... Twenty years ago, lesbians bonded with one another on explicitly political terms. Now, in the '90s, we're in a much better position to say that as lesbians we sexually desire other women. A figure like Xena can come along with great cleavage and beautiful legs, and we can enjoy lusting after her on TV [Note 34].

[26] Findley points to the issue of personal and cultural identity formation through engagement with mainstream media texts. Whereas lesbian cultural identity emerged out of political alliances in the '70s, in the '90s lesbian identity came out of a shared notion of desire. While the experience of desire was personal, it was also cultural in the sense that it was constantly being interpreted and re-interpreted, shared and cultivated, through discursive elaboration of mainstream texts.

[27] In "Consumption and Resistance - The Problem of Pleasure", Mary Ellen Brown points out that the treatment of women in popular narrative forms was difficult to reconcile with the obvious pleasure that women culled from these texts. In other words, women frequently engaged with and derived enjoyment from problematic or potentially oppressive representations of other women. Instead of pursuing a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee approach to this often contradictory relationship between reader and text, Brown asks "what can be the political significance of the fact that women derive pleasure from commercial television programs...which are designed both to play upon their emotions and to make them consume?" [Note 35]. Brown theorizes the possibility of political uses of pleasure by women, using the "discursive networks centered around soap opera viewing" [Note 36].

[28] Similarly, this paper takes the position that there is a specific use of pleasure by lesbian fans of Xena, centered around their reading practices as well as their response to what they read: in this case, their response being the production of romantic and erotic fan fiction. Furthermore, I argue that this use is not misguided nor simplistic, but, rather, that it is a political practice of identity production, community building, and resistance to prevailing discourses on lesbian sexuality.

[30] In order to discuss the political uses of pleasure by lesbians, we need to investigate possible approaches for theorizing the production of lesbian fan fiction about Xena. One of the concepts deployed is that of feminine discourse, which Brown describes as "a way of talking and acting among feminine subjects...in which they acknowledge their position of subordination within patriarchal society" [Note 37]. It can be further argued that lesbians engage in ways of talking and acting amongst lesbian subjects that acknowledge the ambiguities of their position within a dominantly heterosexual society.

[31] This is not to say that lesbians exist outside of society. Rather, they understand that their position within society is often defined as, and represented as, subordinate. Furthermore, they recognize the paradoxical relationship to mainstream culture; i.e., they are aware that representations of them in mainstream media are more often than not contradictory to their own perception of their position in the world. Yet, at the same time, some aspects of these representations resonate with their perceptions of themselves and other lesbians.

[32] Brown refers to this recognition of the differences between lesbian's lived experiences and prevalent versions of their position in society as a balancing act. As a lesbian, I know I am being positioned as subordinate or subaltern, and this knowledge carries with it a set of assumptions. In other words, I have a pre-conceived notion of how the world works and of how I must act in relation to the rules of society. Because of this balancing act, Brown argues, feminine discourse is often parodic and makes fun of dominant practices and discursive notions. "By playing in this way with the conventions of the dominant discourse, feminine discourse constitutes itself as 'other' to it, and displays a potential resistance" [Note 38].

[33] Another approach to fandom can be found in Henry Jenkins' Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing As Textual Poaching and Constance Penley's Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics And Technology. Both Jenkins and Penley examine fan reading and writing practices around Star Trek and draw on Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life to argue that consumption is itself a form of production.

[34] Penley specifically addresses female fandom and the production of homoerotic pornography centered on the characters Kirk and Spock. This production is commonly referred to as K/S or "slash" writing. Obviously, Penley's topic differs from this paper. The genre of science fiction is not the same as that of fantasy. As well, the fans who engage in K/S writing are predominantly heterosexual women and as such have a different relationship to desire and identity formation through their production of same-sex erotica than would lesbians producing lesbian fan fiction. What these Star Trek fans do share with lesbian fans of Xena is their connection of personal desire to mainstream media products and the sharing of this relation with other fans. Despite the differences between science fiction and fantasy, and heterosexual desire and homosexual desire, what is critical is Penley's use of de Certeau's concept of "Brownian Motion". According to Penley, "Brownian Motion" is a term which describes "the tactical manoeuvres of the relatively powerless when attempting to resist, negotiate, or transform the system and products of the relatively powerful" [Note 39].

[35] A key point of de Certeau's work is his definition of a tactic as "an art of the weak" and as

a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus... The space of the tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power... It takes advantage of 'opportunities' and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep... a tactic is determined by the absence of power... [Note 40].

[36] de Certeau's approach has certain attractiveness. As Jenkins points out, "Far from viewing consumption as imposing meanings upon the public, de Certeau suggests, consumption involves reclaiming textual material, 'making it one's own, appropriating or reappropriating it'" [Note 41]. However, rarely does one see the resilience of a resistance described as an art of the weak, or a manoeuvre in which one cannot keep what one wins. Neither is it seen that fandom and fan production is a tactic determined by the absence of power. As Thompson points out, being on an unequal footing with producers did not mean that recipients were completely powerlessness.


Empowerment

It ain't like the old days when Kirk had sex with all the aliens he met


One of several Constance Penley books available.


[37] In fact, the production of romantic and erotic fan fiction is a means through which lesbians get to keep what they have won because it is not merely pilfered or poached from an imposed system. As Penley points out, writers of fan fiction are doing more than producing "intermittent, cobbled-together acts". They are also making "real products... that (admiringly) mimic and mock those of the industry they are borrowing from" [Note 42]. Beyond mimicry and mocking, one could argue that these fans are engaged in a process of unfixing symbolic content and re-arranging it to fit within, enhance, or help form, their sense of what being a lesbian is all about: namely, desire. Furthermore, they are more than willing to share the products that result from their symbolic unfixings and discursive elaborations with others. The stacks of XenaRotica on many a desk not only attest to the bounty of this production, but also indicate in whose possession such treasure troves can be found.

[38] It can be emphasized not only that consumption is itself a form of production, but also that the production of lesbian fan fiction is a form of resistance, that returns to Mary Ellen Brown's use of feminine discourse. Brown's description of feminine discourse requires that the lesbian writers and readers of romantic and erotic fan fiction understand their subordinate or subaltern position, but it also entails empowerment. The lesbians who write these stories continue to speak out in spite of their subordination because, as Brown explains, feminine subjects do not assume that the status quo "is a natural, preordained condition" [Note 43]. This ability to see things differently and to argue the validity of different views or positions can be found in "A FAQ For Subtext Fans and the Loyal Opposition" [Note 44]. At this site, lesbian fans of Xena explain why they are frequently angered during debates with heterosexuals about the nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship. One fan writes,

After watching the debates for some time, watching the reactions of friends and watching my own reactions, I've come to the conclusion that we are not angry because our opinion of Xena and Gabrielle is being questioned. Instead, we tend to get angry when people argue that the subtext interpretation cannot possibly be valid and that the platonic friendship view is the only truth. We get angry when our opinion is ridiculed or belittled. We also get angry when we hear arguments that appear based on homophobia, bigotry or stereotypes.

[39] Unlike many heterosexual fans, lesbian fans do not assume that the status quo "is a natural, preordained condition". Instead, they are aware of the possibility of more than one perspective. The FAQ fan does not assert that Xena is a lesbian text, but argues against the position that Xena is never a lesbian text. In other words, the FAQ fan is able to recognize and accept different interpretations, and this recognition is a means of empowerment. As Brown writes, "Empowerment...involves the ability to see things differently" [Note 45]. Resistance involves speaking or writing that difference, not only between the lines offered us in mainstream representations, but also over top of those lines.

[40] To conclude, I argue that authors of lesbian fan fiction do not lack a "proper locus". The writers of XenaRotica use their own subjectivity, and their knowledge of other lesbians' subjectivities, as their locus. They tell and retell, interpret and re-interpret, comment on and critique. They write for each other, share their fantasies and enjoy other writers' fantasies. Most importantly, they fashion something out of this process: a sense of self. I personally enjoy my stack of XenaRotica and fan fiction from the web on many different levels. Yes, it is entertaining and enticing, and it augments my enjoyment of the TV program. Yet, it also reminds me that other dykes are "getting it" too. For example, at the opening of fan fiction on the web, writers usually include a disclaimer. One such disclaimer by Patricia L. Ennis reads:

Xena is a registered trademark of MCA. The characters Xena and Gabrielle are the sole property of MCA. They are borrowed here in an attempt to write something vaguely entertaining for all of us that know how things should really be. Everything else in this story is mine. [Note 46]

[41] Rather than fan fiction being an art of the weak, it is a form of empowerment that comes from interpreting, re-interpreting, and elaborating to produce something for all of us who know how things should really be.


Notes

Note 01:
Victoria Brownworth. "Still Invisible After All These Queers", in Curve, March 1997, vol. 7, no. 1, page 38.
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Note 02:
Brownworth, ibid.
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Note 03:
Brownworth, ibid.
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Note 04:
Brownworth, ibid.
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Note 05:
The character Xena was first introduced in a March 1995 episode of the action/fantasy Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Xena: Warrior Princess, a spin-off of Hercules, premiered as a syndicated series in June 1995(copyright MCA/Universal). Executive producers are Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert.
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Note 06:
Brownworth, ibid.
For histories of representations of lesbians in film see Vito Russo, Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality In The Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1985) and Andrea Weiss, Vampires And Violets: Lesbians In Film (New York: Penguin Books, 1992). For a list of television representations of lesbians from the '70s & '80s, see Dell Richards, Lesbian Lists: A Look At Lesbian Culture, History And Personalities (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990). For an over-view of television representations of lesbians from the early '90s, see Jess Cagle, "America Sees Shades of Gay", Entertainment Weekly: The Gay '90s (September 8, 1995, no. 291), 20-31.
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Note 07:
Brownworth, ibid.
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Note 08:
Brownworth, ibid.
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Note 09:
See William Henry, "Pride and Prejudice", Time (June 27, 1994), 54-9.
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Note 10:
See Cagle, "America Sees Shades of Gay", Entertainment Weekly: The Gay '90s (September 8, 1995, no. 291), 20-31.
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Note 11:
John B. Thompson. The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995. Pages 37-43.
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Note 12:
Thompson, pages 38-39.
Note: In this paper, I will interchange the terms "reception" and "consumption" and the terms "mass communication" and "mainstream media". I will deploy "reception" when addressing, or elaborating on, Thompson's ideas. For the purposes of my own argument, I will use "consumption" to reflect my understanding of media products as commodities. In addition, whereas Thompson addresses mass communication in general, my argument focuses specifically on mainstream media products. Thus, I will use "mass communication" when addressing, or elaborating on, Thompson's ideas and "mainstream media" when addressing the specifics of my argument.
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Note 13:
In her article, "Xena: She's Big, Tall, Strong -- and Popular" (Ms, vol. 7, no. 1, Spring 1997), Donna Minkowitz points out that during an interview with producer Robert Tapert, Tapert "Spontaneously brings up the possibility that Xena also has love relationships with women... Tapert proudly tells [Minkowitz] that the show 'has become a favorite with gay women' and that some lesbian bars have special Xena-viewing night. (So do a number of women's prisons.)" It is also well known that one of the show's producers, Liz Friedman, is an "out" lesbian.
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Note 14:
Thompson, page 38.
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Note 15:
Thompson, ibid.
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Note 16:
Thompson, page 40.
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Note 17:
Thompson, pages 39-40.
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Note 18:
Thompson, page 10.
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Note 19:
Thompson, page 11.
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Note 20:
Thompson, page 29.
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Note 21:
Thompson, page 39.
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Note 22:
Thompson, pages 29-30.
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Note 23:
At that time, Hercules was being aired before another MCA product: Vanishing Son. Vanishing Son, a serious drama, was not as lucrative as Hercules (the former earning a solid 4.5 Neilsen rating compared to the latter's exceptional 6.2). As well, Vanishing Son did not appeal to the same audience as Hercules; i.e., fans of Hercules were not staying on for Vanishing Son.
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Note 24:
Thompson, pages 40-41.
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Note 25:
Thompson, pages 41-42.
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Note 26:
Thompson, page 42.
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Note 27:
Thompson, ibid.
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Note 28:
Thompson, pages 42-43.
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Note 29:
Thompson, page 43.
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Note 30:
Stuart Hall. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora", Identity, Community, Culture, Difference. Jonathan Rutherford, editor. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. Pages 236-7.
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Note 31:
Patricia L. Ennis, "The Labrys", (copyright 1996).
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Note 32:
A labrys is a doubled-edged axe, believed to be the weapon of Amazon warriors. Historically, it is a symbol used to denote lesbians/lesbianism.
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Note 33:
[Name nor cite not furnished by author]
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Note 34:
Elizabeth Kastor, "Woman of Steel: Television's Warrior Xena Is A Superheroine With Broad Appeal," Washington Post, page C1.
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Note 35:
Mary Ellen Brown. "Consumption and Resistance -- The Problem of Pleasure", Television And Women's Culture: The Politics Of The Popular. Mary Ellen Brown, editor. London: Sage Publications, 1990. Pages 201-202.
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Note 36:
Brown, page 202.
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Note 37:
Brown, page 204.
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Note 38:
Brown, ibid.
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Note 39:
Constance Penley. "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology", Technoculture. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross for the Social Text Collective, editors. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. Page 139.
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Note 40:
Michel de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Pages 37-38.
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Note 41:
Henry Jenkins III. "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching", Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, And Science Fiction. Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel and Janet Bergstrom, editors. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. Page 173.
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Note 42:
Penley, page 139.
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Note 43:
Brown, pages 205-206.
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Note 44:
"A FAQ for Subtext Fans & The Loyal Opposition," maintained by Silver.
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Note 45:
Brown, page 206.
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Note 46:
[Neither cite nor url provided by the author]
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Bibliography

Brown, Mary Ellen. "Consumption and Resistance -- The Problem of Pleasure", in Mary Ellen Brown (ed.) Television And Women's Culture: The Politics Of The Popular. London: Sage Publications, 1990.

Brownworth, Victoria. "Still Invisible After All These Queers", in Curve, March 1997, vol. 7, no. 1, 38.

Cagle, "America Sees Shades of Gay", Entertainment Weekly: The Gay '90s (September 8, 1995, no. 291), 20-31.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Ennis, Patricia L, "The Labrys", (copyright 1996).

"A FAQ for Subtext Fans & The Loyal Opposition," maintained by Silver.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora", in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.) Identity, Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990.

Henry, William. "Pride and Prejudice", Time (June 27, 1994), 54-9.

Jenkins III, Henry. "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching," in Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel and Janet Bergstrom (eds.) Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, And Science Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Kastor, Elizabeth, "Woman of Steel: Television's Warrior Xena Is A Superheroine With Broad Appeal," Washington Post, page C1.

Penley, Constance. "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology," in Constance Penley and Andrew Ross for the Social Text Collective (eds.) Technoculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Thompson, John B. The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Tobenkin, David. "MCA hopes Xena has strength of Hercules", in Broadcasting and Cable, May 1995, vol. 125, no. 19, 54.


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