Fan Girls and Fangbangers: gender and the Gothic audience

Posted by Evan Hayles Gledhill on February 07, 2015 in Blog, Evan Hayles Gledhill tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Catherine Morland examining a documentGothic became a self-parodying genre very quickly: Jane Austen wrote the self-reflexive Northanger Abbey in 1798, though it did not see publication for nearly twenty years after that. Two hundred years later, the gothic has expanded and adapted, and a mocking inter-textual awareness is a key quality for the popularity of the genre. The audience for this fiction has long been perceived as skewing feminine, as is recognized and critiqued in Austen’s work. The modern southern gothic of True Blood (2007-2014), and American gothic Supernatural (2005-ongoing), also recognize a majority female fanbase. Despite the very different eras of their generation, these fictions have much in common in their engagement with their audience and with their historical antecedents as gothic genre fictions. Though the genre has always been self-reflexive and its heroes and heroines highly self-aware, the analytic capacity of the female audience is still denied and denigrated.

From fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine

The characters in a gothic text often are highly aware of their own genre, and deliberately make choices based on their knowledge. This, in effect, is the whole plot of Northanger Abbey, in which gothic fan Catherine Morland visits friends who live in an old abbey and expects intrigue and horror around every corner. Catherine is described by the narrator has having been ‘in training’ to be a heroine, as a consumer of fiction. Sookie Stackhouse’s ‘training’ as a heroine in True Blood is very like Catherine’s; Sookie (Anna Paquin) declares she has seen enough haunted house horror films to know that you never split up your team when exploring an abandoned asylum at night.(S05E05) Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester of Supernatural are characters raised to be gothic heroes; after their mother’s death at the hand of a demon, their father spends his entire life shaping them to battle the supernatural. They long to leave their own genre; the unbelievability of their continued survival is a self-reflexive running joke on the show. Austen likewise mocks the unrealistic nature of gothic plotting, whilst recognizing the escapist excitement it provides Catherine and her community of readers. However, Catherine’s training often hinders rather than helps; her unexciting discoveries, such as laundry lists in place of old documents, arise from her misreading her own genre. Catherine is, in fact, in a straightforward Austen novel concerning the gendered social dynamics of Regency England.

Sookie and the Winchester brothers identify their genre correctly; there really is something nasty in the old asylum when they go to visit. For Sookie it’s a mad vampire and his pet werewolves, for the Winchesters a vengeful ghost. The Winchesters training and success as ‘hunters’ relies in part on their success as readers of the gothic; as they research, they must sift legends, myth, deliberate fiction, and histories, in search of an element of truth. The audience is initially encouraged to become a part of this process; in early broadcast seasons, the telephone number for Dean’s cellphone actually worked, and fans could dial to listen to the character’s answerphone message. Websites featured in the show were set up, and real texts and legends used as plot points, so that fans could read the ‘source material’ they saw on screen – just as Austen’s audience could seek out the ‘horrid novels’ Isabella recommends to Catherine. The audience is invited to participate in actively suspending their disbelief, to join their favoured characters in a shared fictional space.

The reflexivity of the gothic text performs a dialectical function in the work; it draws the reader in to the genre as community space, with references that the seasoned consumer of genre texts will recognize and enjoy, but also distances the reader from the fictional world, by recognizing its ‘constructed-ness’ as formulaic. Yet this positioning of the characters as culturally aware also heightens an aspect of realism; audiences are increasingly unsympathetic to characters too stupid to avoid their own generic fate post Scream (1995). It has become a marker of a quality genre fiction that it knowingly references its origins, and this trend is not solely a gothic trope. The CW superhero series Arrow (2012-ongoing) has its characters reference the series Lost (2004-2010), among other cultural markers, to position its constructed reality within a ‘real’ era recognizable to its audience, and to acknowledge the unbelievable nature of its fantastic elements. In the first season of True Blood when other residents of Louisiana town Bon Temps are excited about Starbuck’s opening in the area, Sam Merlotte (Sam Hammell) wishes  Buffy or Blade or ‘another badass vampire killer’ would come instead. By season four, the show’s creators take this intertextuality a stage further, depicting Sookie reading a novel by her own creator Charlaine Harris. Starling City and Bon Temps are not real American locations, but the America in which they exist has the same cable shows and books as the one that their audience knows. This technique exemplifies the dialectic between disenchantment and enchantment explored in Michael Saler’s recent work on virtual realities and imaginary worlds, As If…(2013).

Some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed

Saler’s notion is that a modern fantastic fiction ‘enchants and disenchants simultaneously: a disenchanted enchantment’.[i] The knowing suspension of disbelief is the core of this reflexive modern dialectic of disenchantment/reenchantment, it is what allows the construction of fictional worlds which are scientifically impossible, and yet operate with a consistent internal logic. For Saler, to be modern is to be self-reflexive. We can, by comparing Austen’s representation of the readers of Gothic with the modern Gothic’s self-reflexive story-telling as above, see that this dialectic has been at work in the gothic before it became a staple of the science fiction that Saler makes his focus. Saler reads the ‘New Romances’ of the late nineteenth century as ‘distinctively new’(60), and not simply a refrain of past romances from the gothic tradition. It is essential for his argument that he do so; to suggest that the original gothic fictions were demoted in popularity by the rise of realism and scientific naturalism in the high Victorian period, thus Saler can argue that the new romance could become a distinctive synthesis: ‘jolting (the reader) at every step from the naturalistic to the fantastic and back again’, as he quotes one contemporary reviewer as saying(62).

Whilst I thoroughly agree with his identification of a dialectic of disenchantment and reenchantment at work in modern fantastic worlds, which enabled the rise of shared virtual realities, I think that to exclude the Gothic is a fundamental misreading of an entire genre and the pleasures that it provides its audience. A misreading that is, as many critiques of the genre have been, based on gender. Saler, as have many critics before him, dismisses the original Gothic with hysteria by any other name – what else is a claim of ‘operatic extravagance’?(60) Read alongside his quoting of Adam Robert’s opinion that Mary Shelley adopts ‘ a strained, elevated’ tone of voice when she writes about the fantastic, contrasting this to later male authors’ more ‘matter of fact’ tones, is hard not to read this as simply sexism dressed up as academia (62). The audience for the Gothic overtly adopts the dialectical position Saler identifies, and to deny this is to ignore the contemporary observations of Austen’s sympathetic, witty, parody.

Austen was very aware of contemporary criticisms leveled at authors of novels, and at the audiences for those novels, and of the Gothic in particular. In Northanger Abbey the narrator states that she will not participate in, ‘that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding’. Further, Austen specifically genders this ‘censure’, asking ‘if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?’ Her heroine Catherine reacts with surprise to the idea that men read novels; she had assumed ‘gentlemen read better books’. Austen is at pains to point out that Gothic readers are quite capable of telling reality from fiction and developing their critical tastes. Austen’s parody is defensive, its inter-textual references tell the audience that the reader of gothic fiction is both self-aware, and cognisant of the hypocrisy of contemporary cultural critics.

Vampires are not supposed to say ‘uh oh’

TrueBlood and Supernatural are Gothic of another era, another medium, and set within a different continent’s cultural traditions, but the same knowingness is present in the text. However, the criticism that links this genre to gendered value judgments is very much in evidence. The very first episode of Trueblood opens with a goth faking vampirism to scare kids, and a camouflage-wearing, chubby ginger turns out to be the true vampire, before the award-winning title sequence provides a progression of imagery of death, decay and sexuality including a church sign declaring ‘God hates fangs’. The alignment of the gothic with perversion, sexuality, and danger is explored, whilst the idea that these judgements can be made superficially based on genre conventions are critiqued and parodied cleverly. Gender alignments, though, remain both superficially and inherently the same; the term ‘fangbanger’ is applied mainly to women and gay men, and these characters end up dead or ‘glamoured’ into imbecility.

The fans depicted in Supernatural are similarly slightly delusional, overly-invested, and either female or gay men. Added to this, the physical appearance of these characters emphasises their marginal status; the fangbanger men wear make-up, the women wear very little. To be an uncritical fan of the gothic is dangerous, foolish, laughably un-self-aware, and feminised. While Sookie and Catherine Morland bear much comparison as heroines navigating the gothic, Austen’s heroine represented the gothic fan directly. In True Blood, Sookie’s lifestyle and ignorance of vampires deliberately places her in opposition to a ‘fan’ position, the ‘fan’ community is sleazy and her rejection of it depicted as all too natural. In Supernatural, the heroes are accomplished readers of the Gothic, despite Dean’s anti-intellectualism. The writers depicted on screen (both the shows creators, breaking the 4th wall, and others) mock specifically the poorly written episodes of the show itself. Yet, the fans are still depicted as uncritical, un-nuanced in their own readings.

In developing and identifying the disenchantment/reenchantment dialectic, both creators and critics recognize that there is a huge appetite among audiences for self-reflexive fictions, that take fiction seriously but still recognise its limits. The Gothic should be able to take its place alongside science fiction and fantasy as a key source of self-reflexive, smart social commentary, but its mainstream creators seem to suffer the same analytical and historical ‘blind spot’ as its critics. Though Gothic has developed from a maligned literary genre that was treated as a passing fad, into a genre of the mainstream that sustains multi-million dollar productions on stage and screen, its audience still face the same gendered judgements. The female fan, the feminised reading position, is now too monstrous even for the Gothic.

[i] Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary History of Virtual Reality, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p.12.

The fangbanger image is a t-shirt design from tshirtpusher.

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