Policing the Lines

“We love you, Dylan!”

The shout rings out, multiple times, from multiple sections of the audience which fills in every seat in Ballroom 20—sometimes a lone voice, sometimes a choreographed chorus.

On stage at the panel table, Dylan O’Brian, who plays Stiles Stilinski on MTV’s Teen Wolf and is the subject of the adoration, blushes and gives a grin, responding, “Love you, too! I don’t know you, but I love you!”

The girl sitting next to me rolls her eyes as the crowd goes wild. When someone asks if Dylan would ever want Stiles to have a super power, and he says no, but he’d like him to have sex, the crowd goes wild again.

“You people,” I hear muttered beside me.

It is one comment in a long refrain that has been going on since the panel started. Someone asks a question, and I wait as much to see how she will react as I do for the answer. If she approves, she screams and bounces and cheers and grabs at my arm, too gleeful to contain herself. If she doesn’t, she mutters and curses and then yells out things—at the panel, at the fans, at God—like, “No, no, no! That’s fanfic territory!” or “Never go on Tumblr! Never!”

I’m pretty sure my arm might have bruises from how many times she’s slammed into it in her jumping and grabbing.

One fan gets up to ask a question and has a meltdown at the microphone, bursting into tears because she’s too worked up to get the words out. The girl next to me sighs, leans over to me and says, “These Teen Wolf fans. They are so crazy.”

 

“What are you in line for?”

 

Conventions are a major part of fan culture, allowing fans from all over the world to gather in a physical place to talk to each other; buy and sell merchandise related to their favorite comic, book, show or movie; get advice from professionals in the industries; and learn more about their favorite media (Pustz, Introduction, ¶ 12). The exhibit halls and dealer rooms with their overflowing displays and wares to sell and trade are a major draw for a lot of people to comic book and fantasy/sci-fi conventions. However, others come for the chance to attend panels with their favorite authors, artists and stars.  While panels can run the gamut from academic or otherwise educational (such as how to break into the business or write your first draft of a graphic novel) to stars chatting about their latest projects, most panels have a Q & A section at the end of them. This gives the audience a chance to interact, from however far a distance, with the panelists, asking questions ranging from as broad as a panelist’s oeuvre to as needlepoint sharp as being focused on a single exchange or look in a single scene of a single episode. These Q & A sessions often turn the emphasis from the media under discussion to the “fans’ ‘personal’ relationship with the star” (Chin, Ch. 15, ¶ 12).

While speaking directly about academic fans of Theory rather than broader media fans, Alan McKee argued that fans go to panels or the thrill of being in the physical presence of their heroes, but most do not want to actually speak to them. Those that do, McKee contends, are not allowed to engage in any truly creative way because the event is structured in a circumscribed way and the questions asked very formulaically (McKee, Ch. 6, ¶ 6). For the most part, these contentions seem to hold true about media fans at conventions, as well. The interaction with panelists is not freeform by any means. There is a moderator. However, the ways in which the restrictions are circumvented in order to create a meaningful experience for the fan asking the question, and perhaps the panelist and the others in the audience, is worthy of attention for its own sake.

 

“Do you think they’ll reveal any major spoilers?”

 

This interaction between fans, panelists and other fans is precisely what I investigated at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con. I went to the convention intending to observe the intersections of cosplay, gender and the interaction between cosplayers and others. However, as I attended panels, I began noticing what seemed to be patterns in both questions and reactions to those questions. Shelving the question of cosplay for another day, I realigned my focus on the Q & A sessions of panels, asking: how do fans interact with panelists—especially stars and creators in their fandom—during panel interactions? Based on previous research in fandom group behavior, I was specifically interested in discovering if and how fandom, as a collective, a group, a culture, with its behavioral borders policed, enforces cultural norms in individual interactions in convention panels.


“Did those people just jump the line?”

 

I approached answering the question solely through ethnography. While I chatted with other panel attendees about the panels themselves, the lines we were in, the panels they wanted to attend and their general convention experience, I did not conduct any formal interviews, nor did I use any surveys. Post-panel interviews would have been helpful, to get feedback from other attendees on
what their impressions were of the Q & A sections, but I did not want others’ impressions clouding my own at this early stage in research.

Since my primary interest was in learning how media fans interact with creators and stars, ethnography was a solid starting point for my research. Ethnography examines the shared culture of communities, and fandoms of all kinds create their own distinct cultures (Galman 12; Pustz, Introduction, ¶ 1). Galman states that culture “can be embodied in practices and beliefs. It’s easy to see practices. Beliefs need to be expressed to be ‘seen’ by the researcher” (12). For purposes of starting this project and my work at Comic-Con, I took an interpretivist approach, participating in the panels and documenting my own reactions to questions asked and answered, as well as those of the people around me. Because of the limited time involved, discussing the meaning behind my observations with other participants was something I chose to hold off for another phase, focusing more on the practices of fans in these panels and the beliefs which they expressed either explicitly or implicitly (but seemingly clearly through consistent visual and audible cues).

I attended panels along the range of those offered at Comic-Con—academic panels, how-to panels, fan culture panels, and large popular television panels. I made note both of the questions asked and the audience reaction to them, as well as the panelist reaction to them, and how those reactions fed back into those of the audience. Then I sorted through the data I had recorded, discovering and documenting patterns in both question type and reaction to the question until I saw three distinct categories emerge. Since fan reaction is rarely a quiet one, these categories were fairly distinct, although occasionally factions within the fandom would show—with some vociferous approval of questions from some, while others loudly disapproved. Since these question types still fell within one category, I placed them together, but it should be noted that the approval for each individual question was hardly ever unanimous.


“What happened in the panel?”  

 

While the question types were actually fairly similar in all panels, the audience reaction to them was far more engaged in the large television panels and creator panels I observed and participated in than in the smaller panels. The patterns which I saw developing, and how I chose to code them, dealt with audience and panel reaction: positive, neutral and negative. The same types of questions seemed to elicit the same types of reactions across panel types which led to an almost predictability in response (if not information) by the final day.


“You need to dish—we all want to know!”

 

The first category of questions I saw develop were those which got the best reactions. From the audience, a good reaction could be anything from clapping to spontaneous cries begging the actors or writers to answer. Sometimes there was laughter, but kind laughter, the delighted kind that comes with applause and cheers. These questions seemed to have several characteristics in common: they showed knowledge of the work under discussion; they were specific, but not too specific; they were unique and not repetitive of information easily available elsewhere; they were not too personal; they did not contain elements of oversharing; they were not directly embarrassing (this latter element does not apply to the question that always seemed well received by audience and panelists both about practical jokes or most embarrassing bloopers on set, which the panelists seem to love to tell to share a laugh). The following are some examples of these well-received questions from the various panels I attended.

In the Teen Wolf panel, questions to the actors playing the evil twins and the writer about redemption arcs and character development elicited both specific discussion about the lives and choices of the characters and about human nature in general when it comes to change. Likewise, questions about what the actors would like to see most for their characters got serious answers from the panelists—along with some humor. Tyler Hoechlin, who plays a very brooding character noted for very rarely smiling, shared that he was incredibly excited about his character’s arc this season because we get to see him falling in love and softer and more vulnerable, which is fantastic to play to get to stretch and get out of a rut and because “I get to use more than one facial expression.”  Other questions along these lines (“If you had a full blown conversation with your character, what would you tell them?”) also elicited lighter responses, but ones which called on the fans to have knowledge about the characters to appreciate the humor.

In the “Bravest Warriors” panel, which featured actors from several different popular shows (Grimm, Teen Wolf, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who), similar questions received great response: “What part of your character do you see most in yourself” “Which monster the Doctor has encountered is scariest to you?” “What do you think the most defining moment has been for your character?”

A theme started to develop in these questions which really probed actor’s and creator’s goals, aspirations, craft and, interestingly, their own deep engagement with the text and their characters. When they ventured outside of the show under discussion, well-received questions still asked panelists for something more of themselves, but in a creative sense: for instance, one fan asked if Joseph Morgan, who started a Twitter book club with his fans, would ever want to write a book of his own. Joss Whedon’s panel began to feel like open mike night, with the intelligent, challenging and witty questions people were asking. The rapport that developed in that room was strong, and, interestingly, no one asked questions that made anyone groan, though the questions ranged from specific moments in a specific text (Q: Why wouldn’t Giles fly back for Xander and Anya’s wedding? A: Let’s be honest, he doesn’t like them very much), to the challenge of adapting other people’s work and making it your own (from Shakespeare to Marvel). Fans challenged Joss on his propensity to kill off loved characters, a question which he answered at length as to the creative necessity, but then also mocked himself for (Q: If you could do another Shakespeare play as a movie, what would it be and why? A: Hamlet. Do I have to tell you why?). Other questions were more existential and challenging (“Is Cabin in the Woods a commentary on the Evangelical concept of substitutional atonement?”), but the fans and Joss both loved them, because the discussion went deeper.

Not all of the questions that were received positively were serious, but most of the ones that got the best responses did work to engage the panelists on a different level and demonstrated the questioners’ knowledge of the text and their critical thinking skills, without sounding too obsessive.

“Why does everyone always ask that?”

 

The second group of questions consisted of the ones which no one seemed to care about except the person asking. The panelists answered them, sometimes trying to make it humorous and more interesting, which reengaged the audience. No one booed the person asking the question, but no one sat up with a lot of interest either. These questions seemed to fall into one of two categories: too specific to a specialized interest of the person asking or something that had been asked and answered before on previous panels and or in interviews. The panelists themselves seemed to enjoy the specific questions, and the person asking them usually seemed satisfied—they had a question they wanted for their own purposes and they did not embarrass themselves, but the audience was visually and audibly checking out. Side conversations arose, phones came out, email was checked, and occasionally eyes were rolled.

The following are some examples of questions in this category:

  • Questions wondering if particular characters would ever get together/get back together. While there was clearly interest in the answer by a contingent of fans in the room, most of these questions had been answered previously, and people in the audience had a “not again” vibe going.
  • Questions which might have been good but which were buried under far too much effusive praise of how much the questioner loved the show/character/writer or what a difference they had made in their lives. While they obviously meant a lot to the person saying them, these comments got incredibly repetitive as the Q & A went on, with some people in the audience begging them (though usually quietly, not calling out so the questioner actually heard) to just ask the question already.
  • Questions about whether actors would rather play a hero or villain. Almost unanimously, every actor on every panel said “villain.” As noted by many sitting around me and in my own experience—almost every actor on every panel at every convention says villain.

These questions ranked as harmless, and seemed to mostly come from first time con-goers or new fans. The veterans in the room, and sometimes the actors, noticeably checked out during them, but no shaming occurred either. It was as if this was an initiation phase everyone must go through. Every panel has these questions at every con, ho hum, let’s check Twitter.


“Shut up and sit the &#$@ down.”

 

The final category of questions was the smallest in the panels I went to in San Diego, though I have been in panels at other conventions where far more questions would have fit in to this category. These are the questions that the fans clearly react negatively to and often the panelists do, as well. Reactions in the audience can range from dead silence to audible disapproving comments or downright booing and shaming shouts. San Diego Comic-Con has policies in place which are meant to greatly reduce these kinds of questions, which was a new experience from my point of view—several of the questions that drew the most disapproval from fans at past conventions were forbidden at Comic-Con.

In San Diego, before each panel, guidelines were given stating that questions must be respectful and could not contain any personal requests. As a further precaution, moderators controlled each microphone in the room and all questions were screened before the fan was allowed to ask them. For this reason, some of what formulated this category is based on fan behavior at Q & A panels at other conventions, though there were questions which still received negative reactions at Comic-Con. Those questions just did not fall into as easy categorization as others I have observed.

From previous experience, the questions likely to draw the most negative reaction from other fans are those which make personal requests—for a hug, a kiss, a dance at the party. While it takes some nerve to ask for something like this, it also sets bad precedent. It violates the boundaries of the stage. It puts the actors on the spot. It makes everyone else in the room resentful that they will not be able to ask it and get the hug, kiss or dance. There is a sense that the Q &A is for everyone and fans using it for their own personal gratification are stepping outside the norms of communal activity.

Fans disapprove even more of question which are disrespectful or negatively embarrass the panelists. These can be questions which are overly controversial, confrontational or hostile (“Why do you think you deserve this role?”) or ones which pry too far into the guest’s personal life (“Why did you and your girlfriend break up?”). Some critical discussion is welcomed (“Why did your character cheat on her significant other?”), as it goes to character motivation and story arcs. However, fans who demonstrate an inability to separate fiction and fact (“How could ‘you’ do that to him? Don’t you think you’re an awful person?” – No. The person you are talking to is an actor playing a scripted role), generally have their questions met with uncomfortable silence, stuttering actors and eventually booing fans. Any over-investment by the fan results in embarrassed shuffling through the auditorium.

At Comic-Con, because of the guidelines, I did not observe any egregious questions asked, although one fan in The Vampire Diaries panel did ask Nina Dobrev how “she” could have done something bad to another character…who she also plays. Mostly there was a sort of small groan through the audience and Nina floundered for a moment, then rallied and answered with her character’s motivation. Other negative reactions came from fans who asked unintelligible questions (one fan in the “Bravest Warriors” panel used “gnarly” after every word in the question to the point that although I have it transcribed exactly I still cannot tell you what the question was. Neither could Tyler Posey to whom it was directed).  However, with questions screened for offensiveness most of the negative reactions came from questions the others in the audience deemed stupid—not just a new fan’s question, but something clearly everyone should know. For instance, one fan asked Joss Whedon why Dr. Horrible’s coat, which is white throughout the show, is red in the final scene. Since the coat is red after the girl he loves dies and he is inducted into the Evil League of Evil (an elite group of super-villains), the symbolic switch to red should be obvious to a fifth grader. Even Joss blinked at the question, and fans in the room visibly winced and muttering started about the stupidity of the question. Joss explained it quickly with an “I thought it was obvious,” but was very polite. Another fan got up and started his question with “Hi, Josh.” The room immediately booed him. Joss was kinder and shushed them, and the fan corrected himself, and turned it around, telling Joss, “It’s okay if you want to beat me to death for that.”

Joss responded, “Is it okay if I don’t? I mean, I set aside the time and all, but now I’m out of the mood.”

The repartee and ability of the fan to laugh at himself calmed the room, somewhat, but since it is a mark of a non-fan (and several media sources who do not check their facts) to call Joss “Josh” (in fact, there is a fan run Twitter account solely devoted to correcting this – @itsJOSSnotJOSH), it was a clear mark against the young man asking the question. Even though his question (about how Joss got some of the Chinese language past the censors in Firefly) was a pretty interesting one, the fans in the room were still watching him with hostility more than paying attention to Joss’s answer.

 “Did you learn anything new at the panel?”

 

Examining these three types, it seems clear that both fans and panelists seemed to favor specific questions about the show or the artist’s work and either character motivation, creator goals or other insight. Some of these were more shallow than others, but others really dug deep, seeking insights into the media material. While some fans reacted favorably to the more shallow, but still character related, questions, these were the ones most divided along fandom factions. For instance, in both The Vampire Diaries panel and the one held for The Originals (a new spinoff of The Vampire Diaries), the same questions were asked about whether two of the characters split by the splitting of the show would ever be reunited. The actors, writers and producers obviously had expected the questions, but the fans invested in that particular relationship were the only ones who really cared. The engagement level, then, was split between those really wanting to know and those who wanted the next questions, but no serious disapproval emerged.

The best received questions were undoubtedly the ones that asked more about the characters or the interpretations of the characters by the actors in the media panels, or which really dug into the process of the writers in making certain decisions in previous story arcs or the creative pursuits of the actors. Not only the audience but the panelists seemed to enjoy these. Ultimately, I think this is because the love of the show is what binds everyone in the room—what the characters do, why they do it, what goes in to creating something that binds a group together in a fandom. This coincides with what actor Joseph Morgan (The Vampire Diaries and The Originals) told me in a conversation at DragonCon last year. Talking about his favorite things to do with fans, he said that he really hates doing autograph signings and photo opportunities because they all blur together and there is no real chance to talk—it’s meaningless to him, though he recognizes that it means something to the fans, so always is as engaged and friendly as he can be at them, even if he is loathing them inside. What he really loves is being able to talk about his work, to discuss where it is going or why he made certain choices with people who love the shows as much as he does. That sentiment was clear in each of the panels.

While the meaning I am drawing from this is something that needs to be probed with further research, what I noticed in the patterns was a focus on representation of the community. The questions which received the most approbation were those which portrayed fans in a positive light—as thinking, critical consumers of the world being created by those on the stage, not obsessed in unhealthy ways, but clearly knowledgeable enough to have a real discussion about points in the show. Intelligent questions got raucous cheers, as did original ones. Anyone who made the panelists perk up and get excited to answer their question got slaps on the back and more cheering. On the converse side, questions which were too stereotypical of fangirl or fanboy behavior, pointless questions, questions which had already been answered either in the formal presentation before the Q & A or countless interviews, or questions which embarrassed the panelists were met with disapproving silence, sometimes even boos. Those questions in the middle—too specific to arouse much interest from the audience or too specific to one particular romantic pairing—were generally met with polite, but unenthusiastic, reactions from the audience.

All of this seems to indicate a way in which fans wish to be viewed. There was a distancing of selves from the fans who went overboard, even some shaming behavior. For instance, the fan who seemed determined to use “gnarly” so many times in one sentence that his question became unintelligible was glared at by the audience and even sort of mocked by the actor to whom the question was addressed, who was clearly trying to be polite but had no idea what to say because of the sheer unintelligibility of the question. When asking the fan to clarify the question did not work, the actor answered something that sounded like it might have been the right one, and the moderators moved on to the next person quickly. Fan concern with image also arose in the less common but still prevalent questions about “creepy” or “embarrassing” fan behavior the stars had encountered. It was like a gauge—tell us about those “other” fans who go too far…so we can make sure to not be like them.

One interesting moment occurred which suggested more sympathy on the part of the panelists than the audience, which I alluded to at the beginning of this paper. In the Teen Wolf panel a girl got up to ask a question of the actors. The question was meant to be whether any of the actors would ever want to be a werewolf in real life. These sorts of questions generally get a good response from the actors who, after all, are in the business of make believe, and they like to chat about how awesome it would be—or horrible it would be in some cases—if their fictional world was “real.” So, even if the questions are somewhat predictable, fans tolerate them, as well, because this sort of speculation (like “who would win—Batman or Spiderman?”) has driven fan discussions from time immemorial.  However, the girl asking the question was so flustered at talking to stars she obviously adored that she stuttered first, and then misspoke and asked if the panelists would want to be vampires, not werewolves. The audience got very dismissive, with some boos, because the werewolf/vampire rivalry can sometimes spill out of the shows where it is encompassed and into the same sort of “who is cooler?” discussions. Vampires, being all the rage, have an occasional bad rap in the underappreciated werewolf community.

The actors laughed at the question—not the girl—and she immediately tried to correct herself, saying that’s not what she meant, but she got so flustered that she burst into tears, sobbing at the microphone. The discomfort in the audience was palpable and some mocking started. This was the very image of a fangirl that no one wanted to embrace. Fans want to look cool in front of their heroes, to have something intelligent to say, to at least pretend to realize that actors are just humans doing a job with real lives and problems just like everyone and be able to chat with them like that. Sobbing because of being in their presence is mortifying, and that mortification was clear on the fans’ side. However, the actors on the panel immediately chastised the audience, telling them “no, no, it’s okay. Leave her alone!” and asked the girl to come back, to finish her question. It took an agonizingly long time for her to manage it between sobs, but she tried and they continued to encourage her and then spent a long time discussing the pros and cons of the question and what being a werewolf would entail and what they would like and dislike about it. Everyone on the panel answered. When they had finished, they called her by name and thanked her, and a couple of them had tears in their eyes as they told her that she had made the entire panel for them—that seeing that kind of love was why they did their jobs, knowing they could actually reach people. On her way back to her seat, the fans who had started to mock her nearly gave her a standing ovation.

This incident cemented the image/representation concerns which seem to underlie reactions to the questions. Being mocked, being seen as someone who takes things too seriously, who cannot function in normal society is a fear of most fans. Breaking down and sobbing just from talking to a group of people is symptomatic of that. But when the actors responded well and beautifully and with tears in their eyes, the audience reaction changed, shifted. Half the people in there knew they would likely get tongue tied at the least—just going up to the microphone was an act of bravery 90% of people in the room did not even attempt. That the girl affected the actors, that they truly appreciated her fangirl love meant that they would and could appreciate the fangirl love of others. It was a validation of them being there and their own love and the mood of everyone seemed elevated afterward.

“Was the line worth it?”

 

How fans identify themselves and others and the way boundaries are policed within the group is an area of research that has been touched upon, but nowhere near thoroughly explored. It happens not just in panels, but in all areas of fandom—online and off, in fanfic archives and role-playing sites, on Tumblr and Twitter, in meta discussions and other commentary. Fans are intensely aware of their representation in the non-fandom community. They know the stereotypes. They have them reflected back at them from their favorite media, be it comic book portrayals of fanboys or Supernatural’s character Becky who is caught writing slash by the characters she writes about (Pustz, Ch. 3; ¶13-17; “Sympathy for the Devil”).

While some fans seem to not care about the image one way or the other, it seems fandom as a whole does—the group concern instead of the individual worry can be seen at play in various situations. There seems to be a high anxiety among fans about being perceived as too crazy, too fanatical, perhaps not by mainstream society, but definitely by those they are fans of. This is an area that I would like to probe more deeply at future conventions and places where fans, creators and stars can gather, conducting in-depth interviews and perhaps developing a survey to reach a wider audience to see if my interpretations of my observations hold weight.  Because of my own involvement with the fandoms, I want to ensure that what I notice myself feeling—embarrassment over some fan behavior, perhaps even the occasional flash of shame—is not something I am reading onto others without merit. Attributing motivation solely from overheard comments and observation of reactions can be problematic, admittedly, but from the comments and reactions I observed, and other work written on fan shame (perhaps, most recently, Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen’s Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships), I think that the interpretations have merit and further study in this particular area of fan participation is definitely warranted.

 

 

Works Cited

Chin, Bertha. “Beyond Kung-Fun and Violence: Locating East Asian Cinema Fandom.” Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Ed. Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Galman, Sally Campbell. Shane, the Lone Ethnographer: A Beginner’s Guide to Ethnography. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007.

McKee, Alan. “The Fans of Cultural Theory.” Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Ed. Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Pustz, Matthew J. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999. Kindle.

“Sympathy for the Devil.” Supernatural. CW. 10 Sept. 2009. Television.