Sunday, February 14, 2016

Slash Necessity (Core Post 2)

A few months back, I had to quickly familiarize myself with NBC’s Hannibal, an adaptation of characters from the Thomas Harris novel and popularized in films. I had previously seen the first three episodes (which I found to be subpar), but had a general knowledge about the show’s obsessive fans w/r/t the queering of the center relationship between the detective and serial killer. My goal was to watch some clips from the later seasons to get a general rhythm of the show’s beats, but I found it rather impossible. Or rather, I could not find clips from the show that had not been someway morphed. Instead, the majority of YouTube clips were montages like this: 

The queer reading of Hannibal, which never literalizes in the series (but has been more or less endorsed by series creator Bryan Fuller), is not just an off-product of Hannibal’s existence. It seems to be the most popular reading. Henry Jenkins describes fandom as “a vehicle for marginalized subcultural groups to pry open space for their cultural concerns within dominant representations…a fashion that serves different interests” (472). But for Hannibal, the “straight” reading of the text feels rather limited and pointless. The text is tumblr-bound.

Here’s the big question then. Jenkins proposed his alternate reading of fandom as a necessary “challenge to the culture industry” (491), in which the slash fiction and feminist readings could “radically restructure the concerns of the show” (485) if certain dominant readings go against the fan reading. In Hannibal, however, there is no challenge to the culture industry to a point it seems. Hannibal will go as far as it can with its obsessive non-narrative imagery and surrealism, and give the audience everything it needs for the fans to work with, except allow these two men to kiss. It’s essentially an ever-approaching asymptote.

Perhaps Mark Andrejevic provides some of these answers in his exploration of Television Without Pity, in which viewers suggests not having “any illusions about transforming or improving the culture industry” (35), but certainly the unpaid labor can be used in some ways by the networks for good use. “This is one of the defining characteristics of the contemporary deployment of interactivity: the ability to enfold forms of effort and creativity previously relegated to relatively unproductive (economically speaking) realms within the digital embrace of the social factory” (42). Hannibal was notoriously under-advertized and thus had poor viewing numbers, but NBC didn’t necessarily need to use those resources when the fans could do all the advertizing they could possibly need. Can subversive fan readings work in an era where the ability to break outside the culture industry is nearly impossible?

(Ironically, as Hannibal as come to its end, series creator Fuller has been put in charge of a new Star Trek TV series)


  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Peter.

    I think it's momentary success (and ultimate failure) related to the exact asymptote you describe and the fact that the obsessive non-narrative imagery was totally unlike most other shows. I'm not sure these were negative things. To argue with a counterfactual, if the show had been better advertised or had not been so heavy-handed with its subtext, I don't think it would have been successful. It was weird, different, and had the ability to do things most shows, totally bound by live-plus-seven ratings are frequently hesitant to do. It wasn't a safe show.

    What made it appealing for many was that it was being made by (what was still perceived as) a major TV network but felt daring, both thematically and visually/aurally. I would say the the fan response to the show was a challenge to the industry, which normally would have pulled it off the air after a first season with tepid ratings (it didn't hurt that the network was on its ass due to manhandling of its 10 pm-1:30am schedules).

    The audience engagement with the show, either queer or otherwise, gave the network the excuse to keep it around with 2.4 million viewers—a number that would be low for most cable shows. The love the fans had for the show made critics take a second look (after possibly dismissing the first few episodes they screened of the first season) and get them talking about it. While this isn't the same as "traditional" slashing of the work (with Will Graham and Hannibal), I still think the *engagement as engagement* meant a lot.

  2. Thanks for your post, Peter. I am somewhat confused by this reading of slash fiction, however, because as I understand Hannibal the two men's sexual tension is a major component of their relationship (even if never literalized or consummated). In that sense, 'shippers of the Will/Hannibal coupling aren't so much creating slash fiction as they are rooting for the show's central coupling. This is different from the Kirk/Spock fan fiction, because Star Trek does not canonically point to a romantic pairing.

    I would also push back against the notion that there is are beneficent advantages to networks using fan work as free labor. If this fan community exists for other fans, yet the networks presume it to be "free advertising," how does this material reach anyone beyond those already watching the show? Additionally, it raises plenty of ethical concerns for networks to poach web material as free labor in order to increase their own profit margins.

    1. These are great points, Jon. Just to clarify one thing is that I don't necessarily see NBC's exploitation of fan labor as necessarily a good thing (nor want to claim its inherently wrong). But a great point of whether fan media does increase the market—perhaps it simply solidifies the audience and keep them attached instead of leaving? I'm not entirely sure !

  3. I find it interesting that you don't acknowledge or talk about the use of unpaid labor as a negative and exploitative process of women and women's work. There are deeper implications to your post than you acknowledge, in particular about the lack of value towards women in the domestic space. Specifically you quote Andrejevic and manage to pick the one sentence where he is not deconstructing the space of unpaid labor as exploitative. While he does not necessarily stand entirely by the idea of networks using fan work and fan labor as exploitative, he does acknowledge that this reading and the assumption that networks can utilize "free" fan works as "the social factory, the fact that an increasing variety of activities doubles as value-generating labor thanks to the information gathering capacity of interactive media-- echoes the invisibility of forms of 'female domestic drudgery.' By ignoring the fact that the main proponents of these movements are women, it is easier not to see a gender biases towards the valuable work that women are doing. The value isn't however, in what these audiences and these women can do for the studio/network, the value is, well, valuable in so far that these women can mobilize and shape their media with their communities for themselves. It's no longer about what the networks are doing for the viewers entirely, though I think it is fair to say that since the advent of the Internet that networks and fans have been in a more traceable conversation and there are definite links between the two.

    Moreso, your feeling of the "ever approaching asymptote" might be where we find a fatal flaw in the system that the networks are trying to exploit the free fan labor that they see as "valuable" for them-- having never watched Hannibal and only having come into contact with it via friends who were fans and operated in the "tumblr bound" phenomena that you linked to, perhaps we can consider this show "queer baiting" and one that wants to operate within the dominant hegemony while still giving enough to their fans to tempt them into watching. They know their audience but want to still toe the line of queer leads in network television. This is to say, the network is interacting with fans on the basis that they want to keep this will they or won't they actually give them what they want, so the fan work has a double reaction. In so far that the fans create this 'ship, and the network reacts by creating opportunities for those to be read, rather than audience reading these relationships oppositionally we may need to figure out a way to interact with these pseudo-negotiated readings that seem to fall somewhere between the dominant and the negotiated that Stuart Hall describes in his essay on encoding/decoding. (for reference see Ellen Seiter's article, pg 465). However, in returning to the question of queer audiences/subversive readings and the exploitation of almost indentured servitude that the networks offers these viewers. What does this say about the network that is trying to cater to a more typical "niche" audience while denying that niche audience representation? Is it not exploitative in some sense? It feels more like this show is representational not only of attempting to exploit fan labor to construct these narratives out of historical textual clues of queer characters, but also exploiting an audience and regulating queer characters to the ever perpetual closet with this asymptote. What does it say about contemporary network television if these types of queer baits continue to exist? I'm also thinking about Supernatural on The CW that perpetuates these kinds of fan works themselves, and something that I'll hopefully get to in my own core post this afternoon. (cont'd.)


  4. As for the question at the end of your last paragraph, to reference " Can subversive fan readings work in an era where the ability to break outside the culture industry is nearly impossible?" Subversive readings have always existed, as have their audiences. Just because queer readings are now more open and public, rather than private and non-acknowledged doesn't mean that subversive readings will just disappear. All of these readings (that Stuart Hall describes) have arguably existed since the beginning of any popular media, as audiences always bring something to the media that they encounter and react and interact with it because of personal experience. With the Internet though, these audiences are more present and community is brought closer by and into contact with a public, which is both more inclusive as well as exclusive by the nature of the medium. I'm also a little confused by what you mean by the "ability to break outside the culture industry is nearly impossible." Can you extrapolate further about exactly what you mean by this? I think with more explanation of what you are actually referring to we could get to the heart of your question.

  5. Having seen every episode of Hannibal, I have to concur with Jon on this one. Although the relationship is never physically consummated, the tension (sexual and otherwise) between these two men is an essential component of the narrative of the show (especially in seasons 2 and 3).