Episode 6: Alfred L. Martin


Transcript

LM: Hi, and welcome to “It’s a Thing!”, the podcast where we talk about fan studies and how it’s a thing. I’m your host, Lori Morimoto.

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LM: On this last episode of “It’s a Thing!” for 2019, I’m talking with Dr. Alfred L. Martin, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Iowa. So, stick around!

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LM: Al, it’s really nice to have you with me today. 

AM: I thank you for having me today. 

LM: I’m really excited to talk to you. I usually start off these conversations by asking people about how did they get into fan studies, and in your case you seem to have made a bit of a lateral move into fan studies. And so, I’m curious if your experience of finding out about fan studies, of doing work in fan studies, has any similarities with quote unquote “acafans” – although not everybody would consider themselves that – or if you came about it from a different direction? The usual gateway, if you will, is Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers. So, how about you? How did you find fan studies? 

AM: So, I come to audience studies broadly because I am trained at the University of Texas Austin, and in one of the last classes that I took, it was a media reception class with, media reception studies rather, class with Janet Staiger, and part of that class does include a segment on fandom. But at least at the time, I was really interested in the work that I was doing for the dissertation, which is now the book [forthcoming]. And so broadly then, what I’m dealing with in the book is this idea, and theorizing this idea, of the generic closet as a way that the black cast sitcom, as a genre, imagines its audience and, as such, the imagination of the audience structures the ways that it can engage with gayness, or black gayness in particular. And so, I was interested in looking at the ways that that shakes out through production practices. I was looking at the ways that it shakes out in terms of industry and industrial analysis, but I was also interested in the ways that black gay men themselves understood these images and if they understood it, in some sort of very loose way, understood it within the context of what I was theorizing as the generic closet. 

So, I had- was always interested in audience work, and part of that was really a response to a lot of the work that I was not only seeing but also reading, that was making these kinds of assumptions about what audiences were doing with particular media. And so, I was always kind of like well, like I don’t know that that’s necessarily … like if we can make that kind of conclusion based on the available information. So, I was always interested then in audiences. But the turn for me in some ways happened in reading a lot of the sort of seminal fan studies work. You mentioned, obviously, Textual Poachers, which was on Janet’s syllabus, as well as some of the work, early work, by folks like John Fiske. And what was really fascinating to me was this way in which fandom – and I’m, here I’m sort of borrowing from Kristen Warner‘s argument from one of her essays – but you know fandom studies really sort of took up this idea of otherness, but it never actually dealt with like for real-for real otherness. 

LM: Right.

AM: So, it was like, hey, we’re talking about white male geeks, and so that’s our otherness. And then Jenkins and Fiske both were, on one hand, acknowledged the idea that they were not studying race, but they were just like, hey, we’re not studying race. And so, we said it. And, yeah, I can’t find this stuff. And so, my own interest in race, gender, sexuality was really sort of in some ways natural for me to go to these spaces and think about and talk about the fandoms of black folks. 

LM: Yeah, one of the things that I noticed, actually, reading a couple of your essays was that you do a nice job of contextualizing very specific audiences, so that it’s not one unified Black Audience in capital letters, but people coming from very specific social contexts that seems to inform roughly generalizable experiences of different kinds of media, and I really like that micro detail to who exactly you’re talking about.

AM: Yeah. Well part of that is also my general disdain for the idea of talking about bodies that are either raced or belong to particular sexual orientation categories, and sort of flattening them out as if you know there is such a thing as a black audience, or if there is a thing as a queer audience. And so, I really, in my work, wanted to be very clear about the idea that I’m speaking about a very specific kind of blackness, and that I’m also not necessarily trying to say that this, the experience of these folks who I talked to, stand in for any other kind of experience. 

LM: Right, right. So, I did want to ask, and this especially kept coming up in my mind as I was reading your work, are you a fan of anything? What are you a fan of?

AM: I am a fan of … so, most of the things that I study I am not a fan of, or at least I have an ambivalent relationship to it. But I am a fan of the 1978 film The Wiz, which I actually am writing about. So, I’m very much a fan of The Wiz. I’m, in some ways. I’m a reluctant fan of the TV show The Voice because, I mean, I see everything on that show coming a mile way, but like somehow it’s still actually give- it gives me so much pleasure. So, I, yeah. I’m a huge fan of that. I’m a ballet fan, or as we call them in the industry a “balletomane.” 

LM: What was it? 

AM: A balletomane.

LM: Oh. A balle- could you spell it?

AM: Yeah, so it’s ballet and then O, the letter O, and then MANE.

LM: Huh.

AM: Yes.

LM: Balletomane. That’s the first time I’ve heard that.

AM: Yes. So um, so yeah, so um, yeah, so I’m a fan-

LM: But not Misty Copeland.

AM: Not necessarily Misty Copeland. I think, well I mean, part of what we do as academics is we like to have nuanced conversations when the broader culture is not necessarily into or interested in nuanced conversations. So, I actually, I think that Misty Copeland is extraordinarily talented, but I think she has the wrong job. Like I think she, I think she’s actually just simply in the wrong ballet company. 

LM: Oh, interesting. 

AM: Yeah.

LM: Where would you put her?

AM: I would put her in a company- so part of, and part of what I actually talked about in the, in the essay is that – “Fandom while black” that is – is that she is in American Ballet Theater, which is a company that is a traditional, or a broadly traditional ballet company, in that they are usually doing evening-length ballet. So, GiselleSleeping Beauty. Well actually, Giselle isn’t evening-length but, you know, Sleeping BeautySwan Lake and those kinds of ballets. And they require a certain, a certain level of technique that I do not believe Misty Copeland, for as good as she is, that she possesses. 

And in particular it’s this thing that all ballerinas in most classical ballets, at the end of the ballet a ballerina has to do what are called a Fouettés turn. And so they’re these turns on one leg with the leg whipping, and generally speaking you have to do roughly 32 of them, and I think she’d perhaps – and I only say this half-facetiously – is that I think perhaps she needs to like go to a hypnotist or something, because I think she’s actually just afraid of them and so they freak, they freak her out so she can’t actually do them. And so, every time I’ve seen her live in a classical ballet and she’s had to do the Fouettés, she either A) doesn’t do them or B) they actually re-choreograph it so that she doesn’t have to.

LM: Oh interesting. 

AM: Yeah. So, like I think she, she would thrive in a company that hewed more toward contemporary ballet. 

LM: Uh-huh.

AM: And those companies actually certainly have difficult choreography nonetheless, like the New York City Ballet, for instance. I think she would, she would thrive in that company, because while Balanchine’s choreography is certainly difficult. I think she can, she could tackle that difficulty better than she can tackle the difficulty at American Ballet Theater. 

LM: I wonder, you know, listening to you and in the essay where you – in International Journal of Cultural Studies that just recently came out, where you talk about her fans, her black fans who come to the performances in part for what she stands for as much as the ballet itself, do you think that, for her fans, were she to go to, say, New York City Ballet, do you think that would change in any way? 

AM: You know, I think based on a lot of the things that she has discursively said, I think that she, she is very much aware of and takes on the idea of being a role model. She often talks about how she, you know, she wants to be an inspiration for other folks in ballet, you know, and also she sort of talks about the ways that she wants her body to be rooted in and wrapped within a politics of visibility. So, I mean, I think she’s very, very aware of how, how that all shakes out.

LM: Mm-hmm.

AM: So, what I found, and I honestly at this point, I can’t remember if I found a place for it in this essay, because I’m- essentially this is part of a project in which I wanted to kind of do something that felt a little more theoretical and, and now the next piece of it is to parse out these individual fandoms into their own essays. But what is interesting about Misty Copeland and being in American Ballet Theater is that there is something about the phraseology “American Ballet Theater” that resonates with her fans in a way that “New York City Ballet” does not. So even as I would at least argue that New York City Ballet is a superior ballet company, there is something about, like, New York City Ballet or Los Angeles Ballet Theater or Pacific Northwest ballet or Denver, or Colorado, Ballet. Those belong to the area, the state, the city. American Ballet Theater, for her fandoms, means like her ballet is for everybody and that company is for like the whole country. And so, there’s a kind of representational politics, particularly because many of her fans are not ballet fans. And so, the idea of New York City Ballet is just like, oh like that’s just like, that’s just a city company. But American Ballet Theater is the ballet theater, or the ballet company, of the entire country.

LM: Right. Yeah that makes a lot of sense. I have to ask, because it just kept coming up in my head every time I read his name, what are your feelings on Tyler Perry?

AM: Absolutely ambivalent. I don’t personally watch any of his … well, I will take that lie back. I don’t watch the vast majority of his content. I’ve seen one of his films, and I watch his television program, “The Haves and the Have Nots.” 

LM: Mm-hmm.

AM: And I used to at least lie to myself and say that I was watching it because I thought it might at some point be research. That still might be true, however, like, I watch it because I like it. Because I mean, it’s yeah, and what I think is – and I was actually having this conversation with a friend of mine – what I think actually works about “The Haves and the Have Nots,” or at least works for me, is that I think that Tyler Perry is a melodramatic writer. 

LM: Mm-hmm.

AM: And so, I think that in the primetime soap genre, that melodramatic address really works well.

LM: Yeah, absolutely.

AM: So, in, so like in that way, in many ways rather, I am super ambivalent about him, but I also, I also think that it is not significant – I’m sorry, insignificant, rather – that he now has this gigantic space for Tyler Perry Studios. It is not insignificant that many of the power players like, you know, Spike Lee and particularly the black public sphere was really like, you know, this stuff is garbage, and now the vast majority of them, inclusive of Spike Lee, had to tuck their tails and go to the grand opening of his, of his studio. And for that, like I think that is just so delicious, to have all of these people who ridiculed your work, and now they’re all in their best attire trying to curry favor with you. And I mean, and I think it’s, what’s also really significant is – and within the context of this essay – is that folks are broadly speaking down on Tyler Perry, and like his stuff is artistic drivel, but then, you know, Black Panther, which is taken up as this, you know, this text that is going to save black representation, it’s going to save the future of black production in Hollywood, most of it was shot at Tyler Perry Studios. 

LM: Is that right? 

AM: Yes.

LM: I did not know that. 

AM: Yeah, and so there’s this really sort of, there’s this weirdness about like, Tyler Perry’s bad, but then like, what do we make of like Tyler Perry’s bad, but like this movie that we love is shot on Tyler Perry’s, at his Studios. 

LM: Wow. That, that would be a really rich project. 

AM: Yes. Yes. What’s really, really important about Tyler Perry is, we could actually, we could argue that his stuff is terrible, we could argue that it’s not particularly well made, we could have all of those kinds of arguments, but the fact is his fandom is largely an affective fandom, and there is no arguing against an affective fandom, because we’re not, because an affective fandom is not looking for, oh like this, you know, there’s a boom in the shot or any of that kind of stuff, or this story has a plot hole. They’re actually thinking about how it makes them feel.

LM: Right, absolutely. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that, when I was reading especially the essay in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, you talked about how work on race, and I would add to a lesser extent transnational fandoms, tends to get sort of ghettoized and shunted off to the side, and you make an exhortation at the end of that essay that the frameworks that you’re building could speak in a lot of ways to other kinds of fandoms. That while you’re looking at a very specific black fandom, the framework is not exclusive to that. And so, I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about, since people may or may not have read your essay, about what you mean by that kind of ability of work that seems to be very specific to a certain context, how that can resonate outside of those contexts?

AM: Well, I think the first thing is for us to also challenge ourselves to see quote-unquote “white fan studies”-

LM: Mm-hmm.

AM: -also as specific as black fan studies is. So, the, so in some ways we allow, and have allowed, and I think not just in media studies or fandom studies or any other studies, but in culture writ large, we have allowed whiteness to be both everything and nothing. So that even when I was interviewing or looking for folks to talk about Misty Copeland, I had a lot of white folks who wanted to talk about it. I’m like, you know what? Nope, I’m not interested in that. Like I’d, that’s not A) not what I’m talking about, and B) I’m not going to participate in this exercise in which white fandom is sort of seen as like, well look this is what white folks do, and like look at what these black folks who are deviant, like look at what they do.

LM: Right.

AM: And like, and so I wasn’t interested in participating in that. But the flip side of that is also, one of the things that I talked about in this essay is this idea of “must-see blackness.” And I sort of frame it within sort of black fandom as representational duty, but I think that even as I’m calling it “must-see blackness,” there is a must-see-ness for fans about all of their fan objects. So, there is, there is a reason that, and perhaps the reasons might be different, but there’s a reason that on the first day of its release, Star Trek fans are lined up to watch. But we don’t generally talk about that, or we sort of sidestep it as a kind of capital building. 

LM: Mm-hmm.

AM: But what it really is, I would argue, is the same kind of representational duty that says if we don’t show up en masse

LM: Yeah.

AM: -on the first weekend of whatever the Star Trek movie is, or Star Wars movie or Star Trek for that matter, we will not get another Star Wars or Star Trek movie, and there is a way that all gets sort of sidestepped. And we talk about, in some ways, these sort of affective attachments, and like, you know, I love this because like it makes me feel accepted as a geek. But we also don’t … like there’s a way in which fandom can get untethered from industrial consideration. And so, I think that that’s, that is one of the ways that it’s reasonably easy to see how this idea of black fandom can actually be instructive for fandom writ large. 

LM: Yeah, absolutely. Well, to change the subject just a little bit, one of the things I did want to touch on, because it’s a little bit of an elephant in the room in fan studies, particularly in 2019, is this has kind of been the year where the structural whiteness of fan studies has become something that we talk about, with varying degrees of understanding and fluency. And in particular we’ve been talking quite a bit about decolonizing our scholarship and decolonizing our syllabi. Henry Jenkins posted a link to his current participatory culture syllabus that he said he was working to decolonize, and I’m just wondering, given all of this, what are your thoughts on any of it, but particularly as regards this term “decolonization”?

AM: So, part of what I think is really important here is, on one hand, I think that “decolonization” generally can have a, it can invite a kind of back- immediate backlash, that people are like, oh like so, what are we talking about? But I mean, I think what it really, what we’re really trying to get at, and I think, you know one of the great things about Rebecca Wanzo’s acafandom essay is that what she is getting at in that essay is, if we talk about where the beginning of fan studies is, or what counts as fan studies, like does it actually mean like using the word “fan,” or does it actually mean something else? 

LM: Yeah.

AM: And so, in even in this media reception studies class that I took, I didn’t read much work at all about race. And so that’s in reception as well as fan studies. And so, I think that what it is, is that it reifies this idea that white fandom is the fandom that matters, but we’ll never actually call it “white fandom.”

LM: Mm-hmm.

AM: We’ll actually just say “fandom.” And so, I mean, part of the thing that I would love for us to do in all of our work is just nominate whiteness. So, when we’re talking about like, you know, the men in this study, you’re not talking about just random men, you’re talking about the white men in the study. And so, in some ways I am interested in nominating whiteness in our work. And again, I know that word count is precious, but sometimes it’s worth it to do it and to call a thing a thing. 

LM: Absolutely.

AM: Because I could not have done this essay that I did and just use the word “fan.” And so, we want to, you know, we want to sort of extend the same courtesy, but I think in some ways the other piece of it is that we also need to think about our own social circles and our academic social circles. One of the things that I, one of the things that I often will quote is an early, early TLC song, which is called “What About Your Friends?” And so, the idea here is if you are broadly surrounded by a bunch of other academics who are also white folks, then you, you’re going to inevitably have some blind spots. And so, perhaps the work is on you, and to lean on your friends as well, to find the things that you need to find. So, I’m very happy to hear that Henry posted that thing talking about trying to get more work from, presumably, scholars of color onto his syllabi, because that’s part of like what is necessary, is to, to not reproduce the system under which we were all taught, and instead to, to try to break the cycle. 

And there is, there’s a sort of underlying anger in the International Journal of Cultural Studies piece, because it’s really this idea that, for what the, for the work that I’m doing here, some blind peer reviewer might very well say, well like, you know, you need to cite this white dude.

LM: Right.

AM: But nobody ever actually says you need to cite this black person when you’re not talking about blackness. And so, the citations- I think in this essay, the only white folks who I quote who are not talking about race, I think, are Fiske and Jenkins, and that is generally just to say their excuses for not engaging race are kind of raggedy. 

Yeah, and if I could also sort of add this, it’s part of the reason why I quote unquote “wasted words” by doing that fairly extensive methodology section, because as you know, at Fan Studies North America two years ago, I think, I was actually talking about the idea of both method, but also about us being very creative, and needing to be very creative, about looking for and finding the thing that we want to, that we want to study. So, the idea of like, I can’t devote attention to this, or like I haven’t been able to find it is like, well you could actually go out and find it.

And to be sure, me being a black person looking for black fandoms perhaps might be a little bit easier. However, as I sort of demonstrated particularly with the Misty Copeland case, it actually takes some work. If this is something that you think is worth studying, it’s worth actually doing the work to find the folks. And I mean in a in a sort of social scientific way, what’s the use in us doing a convenient sample? Like what can, for example, you know, the hundreds of thousands of if not millions of studies that are like, I did my research with an undergraduate class at a large public research one university in the Midwest. And it’s like, you know, so what does that even get us? We actually need to just be a little bolder and think about how we can get to these populations that we really want to talk to. 

LM: So usually I end these interviews by asking about, if you were going to say anything about fan studies to somebody who isn’t familiar with it, what would you say? But I also wanted to open that up to you and ask if you have anything that you want to say to fans studies?

AM: All right, so, what I would say to fan studies, and I think that a lot of this is happening because I think that there’s a lot of work that is being done by people of color who are very forcefully inserting race into fan studies. So, I think on one hand that is happening, but I would argue that we can always do more. We can, can and should, always be thinking about intersectionality, and thinking about, on one hand in this piece, I was talking about blackness as in some ways a flat category, but what does that look like if I actually isolate the interviews with black women? And how does that like, how does that differ? In some ways it’s very social scientific, in the sense that, like, manipulate the variables and see what happens. And so that’s part of what I would say.

But those who are interested in fan studies, or at least thinking about it? I think that what is really great about fan studies is that, even though I think we have some, some really wonderful foundational work that, on one hand, is sort of foundational fan studies work, but that we’re also in many ways building on audience studies work as well, is that fan studies is still relatively new. Even as Jonathan Gray and Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington chunk it out into these three waves and suggest that we’re in this third wave that does account for some of the affective stuff. But I think that what’s great about it is that we’re all still trying to figure it out. And so, on one hand, on one hand what’s great is that there isn’t a set of methodologies. 

LM: Yeah.

AM: So, we could, you can do it through interviews. You can do it through surveys. You can scrape Twitter data, you can scrape Facebook data – whatever it is that you want to do, you can do that as long as your research methods and your research question align. And so, I think that that’s what makes it really exciting, is that a lot of folks are doing the work, and a lot of folks are doing the work having come from different areas of media studies and, you know, some folks from English and literary studies, etcetera, etcetera. And so, there is this really great, and I would argue rich, tool box from which to pull from, but then there’s also this wonderful latitude to say, you know what, like this person didn’t quite do this right, or I haven’t quite seen anybody do this thing this way. 

LM: Yeah.

AM: So, this is actually how I’m going to do it.

LM: Yeah.

AM: And that nobody’s actually saying, no, you can’t do that. 

LM: Right, right. We don’t generally get too much of that. 

AM: Yeah.

LM: Well, that is a great note to end on, and I really appreciate you talking with me today. This has been a really interesting and enjoyable conversation. 

AM: Well again, thank you so much for chatting with me. I’m always happy to talk about this essay, and of all the work that I’ve done it’s really fascinating that this is the piece that, that folks are really sort of gravitating toward. 

LM: It’s a great piece of writing. I really enjoyed it. 

AM: Thank you so much.

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LM: That’s it for this episode of “It’s a Thing!” I just want to thank everybody who had tuned in since it began six episodes ago in September, and I hope you’ll be back in 2020 for more talk about fan studies and how it’s a thing. Thanks for listening.


Music: “Neck Pillow,” by Silent Partner

To cite (Chicago): Morimoto, Lori. 2 Dec 2019. “Louisa Stein.” Podcast audio. It’s a Thing! MP3, 1.5. [Accessed date]. https://itsathing.net/2019/12/02/episode-6-alfred-l-martin