Tumblr, Fandom, Private Spaces

My earliest experience with fandom was, by and large,  through private spaces.

In large part, at the time, this was a matter of simple logistics: in the late 90s fandom, like most of the internet, was a glaring unknown to studios, a shape-shifter that seemed to resist all attempts at reigning in, silencing, or slowing down.  Cease & desists were the order of the day and could spell certain doom for websites and webmasters great and small: no fan, nameless or BNF, was safe.

The easiest way to avoid the dreaded “C&D” was fairly obvious.  Early fan sites inserted script to keep themselves off search engines’ radar; early message boards and archives were password-protected, the webmaster serving as dual archivist and virtual bouncer.  My earliest interactions came through closed email groups and listservs, private conversations that arrived directly in my inbox, sometimes in bursts of five to ten at a time.  Like the ping of a Google hangout or the automatic refresh of a Facebook thread, each of these emails marked another line in an ongoing conversation: between two people, between fifteen.  It didn’t matter.  The broader point was the comradery.   The privacy of these spaces offered a certain amount of assurance, that these were fans invested enough to have dug down far enough into the internet to find each other.  Unity in absurdity.  I’m not mad, said Alice.  You must be, said the cat.  Or else you wouldn’t have come here.


Fast-forward to 2016.  “Fandom” is big business.

Fandom, it seems, is everywhere.  The term is showing up in discussions about everything from the Chicago Cubs to The Great British Bake Off.  Can pastries have a fandom?

(Dean Winchester says, “yes.”)

At its most literal, “fandom” can be broken down into a portmanteau: “fan” + “kingdom.”  And increasingly, as ‘geek culture’ goes mainstream, we find the term “fandom” used to denote exactly that.  For instance, 2016 marked the first year that Time, Inc.’s “Fansided” released its “Fandom 250:” a website that “ranks” fandoms based on “longevity, size, worth, and the quality of the fandom, (1)” — a list resulting in “fandoms” for interests ranging from HBO’s hit series Westworld, to yoga (2).  Undoubtedly, the entries on “Fandom 250” all enjoy a cadre of loyal followers: but it would certainly be unlikely to find examples of “transformative” work within the Sephora (#166) or FOX News (#126) “fandoms” – creative output which opposes or negotiates with the culture industry in which these institutions are steeped.  Rather, the emphasis on this conception of fandom is on exactly that: being, above all, a fan.

The term “fan” has a history in and of itself.  First appearing in the 1920s as a shortened version of “fanatic,” the term was initially employed affectionately by sports writers to refer to their teams’ (male) fans.  It wasn’t long after, however, that the word became a pejorative in context: specifically, in the context of female theater-goers, who critics decried as shallow and vapid, only coming to performances for the appearance of the actors themselves (3).  In this context, the label of “fan” asserted authority.  Fanaticism is irrational and subjective.  It requires authority to counter its hysteria.  The fanatic needs the guiding hand of the critic, the writer, “the powers that be.”  Above all, the fanatic wants more.

And “more” is what legitimization of fandom has to offer.  As fandom has worked its way into the mainstream, so too has the chance to monetize it.  After-shows for popular programs like This is Us, Teen Wolf and The Walking Dead encourage network-sanctioned, ad-revenue-ready fan investment.  Amazon’s Kindle Worlds offers fan authors seeking a wider audience the chance to “publish” their fan fiction to a mainstream audience: in exchange, of course, for the rights to your story.  As a potential consumer base “fandom” has attracted the attention of marketing departments in even unexpected places — the personal lubricant company Astroglide, for instance, has become popular among Supernatural fans for its cheeky interactions with fans of the CW series.


All of this, somehow, brings us to Tumblr.  Founded in 2007 by David Karp, Tumblr gradually rose to prominence as panfandom’s (4) de-facto “home” in the years following Livejournal’s sale to Six Apart, and ultimately to Russian company SUP Media.  In a marked contrast to the often text-heavy mailing lists, message boards, and ‘journal’ entries that previously dominated fandom discourse, Tumblr is not designed for conversation: indeed, it was only in 2015 that Tumblr added a “real” instant messaging service, finally allowing its users to connect with and converse with one another in real-time.  But even with the addition of messaging capabilities, with its lack of threaded comments, rapid-reblog posts and difficulty in tracking ongoing discussions, Tumblr is poorly suited for ongoing discourse.  Rather, Tumblr is a kind of aggregate, an odd combination of bite-sized insight, pretty pictures, moving images, & promotion.  Tumblr encourages rapid-fire consumption & dissemination: with interactive options limited to “like” and “reblog,” users are encouraged to turn favorite posts viral, while the website’s clean format and mobile accessibility make it easy for users to consume material rapidly and passively, scrolling quickly through hundreds of posts in a matter of seconds.

In many ways, the site itself is wonderfully built.  The layout is well-designed to showcase fanart, and the rapid dissemination of visual media has provided visibility to artists who would have once had to rely on text links and outside hosting.  But fan culture is not consumer culture.

There’s a common understanding in panfandom that fan culture is based on a gift economy: transformative works are offered to the community with no expectation of anything in return.  I would counter, however, that fan culture instead operates loosely on a kind of exchange economy: not one rooted in expectations of transactional parity, but one dependent on communal participation.  “Participation,” of course, takes on many forms, from writing fanfiction to leaving feedback on transformative work, to signal boosting and encouraging new projects.  A multi-fandom project like the holiday fic-and-art exchange Yuletide, for instance, works within this economy on two separate levels: on the one hand, producers of fic and art sign up to create and receive personally-tailored gifts on a 1:1 basis.  On a second level, however, the broader panfandom community participates in Yuletide’s exchange economy as well: as the challenge entries are released, readers and viewers (ideally) ‘exchange’ enjoyment of the fanwork for feedback in the form of recognition that the work was consumed and enjoyed.  The focus of this economy in any case is community: to participate in “fandom” is not only to consume fanwork, but to encourage its continued production.

But an exchange economy is by its very nature self-limiting.  It requires a community small enough to have an implicit understanding of a set of complex social rules, and invested enough to both understand the consequences of breaking those rules, and invested enough to care.  This is where panfandom has run into trouble.  Because Tumblr is not a listserv; it is not a dedicated message board.  It isn’t even Livejournal, where fan communities developed largely through webs of interconnected friends, communities, and circles of familiars.  Tumblr marks perhaps the first time that panfandom has found itself on one of the internet’s most popular social platforms at the height of its popularity.  Moreover, Tumblr is built for ease of access: type in a word, and you’re privy to every post tagged with or featuring that subject, from the casual to the deeply invested.  A search for “Dean Winchester” seeking a gifset from last week’s episode of Supernatural is as likely to offer the casual viewer links to Archive of Our Own as it is the images they were looking for in the first place.  And while there are benefits to fandom’s newfound accessibility, particularly for young fans drawn to the representation offered by transformative work, the collapse of striation between “being a fan” and “being in fandom” has produced a much larger audience for transformative fanwork, in the form of a casual consumer.

Certainly, lurkers have always been part of the panfandom community.  But Tumblr’s structure, post turnover rate, and massive cross-section of users pose a particular set of problems for fan culture.  Fanworks are often time-consuming and labor-intensive productions.  Beyond fanfiction and fanart, infrastructure-focused projects like community challenges and exchanges are designed to foster interaction between fans and to offer increased visibility for producers of fanwork, an opportunity for a wider audience and, possibly, greater participation in fandom’s exchange economy of reaction in exchange for creative output.  But both Tumblr’s structure and culture are poorly suited for this kind of transaction.  The repetitive “reblogging” format of the website discourages alterations to posts that are seen as ‘unsubstantial.’  The websites’s visually-focused nature is poorly suited for heavy text; a resulting cultural emphasis on “aesthetic” often leads to written work being ‘liked’ rather than shared, dampening the chances of it going viral.  Tumblr’s poor handling of text has also necessitated a full dependence on the fanfiction archive, Archive of Our Own – which, while well-designed and user friendly, often reduces feedback to the click of a heart-shaped “kudos” button.

But perhaps Tumblr’s biggest problem when it comes to fan culture is simply a question of consumerism.  When panfandom exists in the same ecosphere as officially-sanctioned transmedia marketing, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell a massive, incredibly varied cross-section of “fans” (for whatever the value of “fan” may be) what is and isn’t ‘good’ fandom.   Because however blurry the definition of “fandom” is becoming, its sources, and audience, is hazier still.  The official Supernatural Tumblr has a fanart tag; MTV sponsored a “Teen Wolf fanfiction contest,” with the prize being a trip to the series’ writer’s room.  It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Tumblr has become a particularly outspoken site of prescriptivism regarding “appropriate” practices in transformative work, with popular posts and ‘watchdog’ communities dedicated to condemning fanwork and creators whose work includes particular pairings, themes, kinks, or otherwise ‘taboo’ topics.

I want to be clear of course that prescriptivism towards fanwork is nothing new.  Fanlore is filled with terms for handling it: “kinkshaming;” “YKINMKATO” (“Your Kink is Not My Kink And That’s Okay”).  And there’s a very real likelihood that a portion of the casual consumers, the “fans” on Tumblr, don’t fully understand fanwork: nor should we expect them to, frankly, when ‘official’ marketing often goes out of its way to look like fandom, and fandom is many times better thought-out and organized than its text of interest. (5)  But coupled with Tumblr’s otherwise failure to adhere to the social contract of fandom’s exchange economy, and the sheer (apparent) size of “fandom” on the site itself, the transition to Tumblr upended the structure on which fan culture is based.  Creators of fan work were being expected to produce for nothing.  A genuine gift economy, with the gifts going one-way.


Fans are nomads.   Right now, we seem to be on the move again.

Fandoms will never leave Tumblr.  As long as it stays an influential social media platform there will remain a large fan community on the website, particularly emphasizing visual art and images.  With loosened restrictions on fandom and an increasing desire to court, rather than quash, fan artists in particular have had luck replacing a strangled gift economy with a real one, turning Tumblr’s consumer culture into genuine profit.

But “fans-in-a-group” and “fandom-as-a-subculture” are not the same thing.  NASCAR would be very different if they were.  And the panfandom corners of the website are slowing down gradually.  Posts have become links to outside sites, have eventually become Twitter handles and dark pages.  Conversations once had across awkward public messages have moved to whatsapp and google hangout.  As I write this, I realize I no longer know anyone who uses their Tumblr as more than an aggregate.

Instead, I experience fandom in a way strangely parallel to how I used to, when it was 1998 and getting online involved listening for hellhounds: privately.  The IM and messaging apps that were once supplemental to my fandom experience are now its primary location.  My thoroughly unscientific survey of those around me reveals this has become fairly common.  Did we all choose to jump ship without land in sight?  Are we the last of the truly Bitter Old Fandom Queens, falling to a new version of fan culture, or does the oppositional nature of transformational work make it inherently recoil from the obscene attempts to monetize it?

Is Tumblr just the absolute worst?

I doubt that last part, if only because I had a MySpace.  But I have no answers for the rest of it.  I do know that regardless, right now, we’re still missing the best part of fan culture: the watering hole.  The public conversations.  The chats that we’re all having privately, that message boards let us share, that Livejournal took across years and fandoms, that made us people to each other.  It’s entirely likely the days of having those conversations in public, in the internet’s equivalent of broad daylight are gone.  But there has to be some equivalent of a fandom living room.

(1) https://www.nhl.com/penguins/news/times-fandom-250-list-penguins/c-284462292

(2) http://fansided.com/fandom250/page/2/?view=list

(3) Rihannon Bury, Cyberspaces of Their Own, 35

(4) I use my own term here, “panfandom,” to broadly describe the loosely-interlocked community of various media, text and multi-form fans whose online involvement includes not only that text, but also an awareness of an engagement with the idea of “fandom” as a subculture, and an investment in the community thereof.

(5) One example of this odd conflation of the subculture of fandom and for-profit entertainment that always stands out to me is the accusation that linking to fic being referenced by the Tumblr “AO3tags” is somehow “too commercial.”

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[spn] Charlie Brown’s Football; or, About That Car Scene

A while back, I wrote a post about this most recent season of Supernatural: more specifically, about my skepticism regarding the show’s repeated tendency to use Dean and Castiel to engage in romantic tropes to move the narrative drama forward, then pull back at the end of a season to retain the how’s carefully heteronormative status quo.  With the airing of the finale this week, Alpha and Omega, I was unsurprised to see SPN fall back on more of the same, as Dean took Castiel on a drive to, as Jensen Ackles described, “explain” why Dean has been so particularly upset at Castiel’s giving himself up to Lucifer this season.  Unsurprisingly, the conversation was more or less as expected, with Dean telling Castiel that he’s he and Sam’s “best friend” — moreover, that he’s their “brother.”

Ignoring for a moment that this scene does nothing to explain why Dean in particular had such a crushing reaction (or why his response differed so completely from Sam, who spent the body of the season far more worried about werewolves, banshees, and square planets than he did his angel-brother from another mother), I find myself reacting with far more frustration than I expected.  As we all know by now, Alpha and Omega marked a kind of major ending: a quasi-series finale, if you will, as current show runner Jeremy Carver has left Supernatural to helm a new show for the CW, and left Andrew Dabb, long-time staff writer, to take over.   And perhaps this is the core of my ire.  Because just as Swan Song set up Sera Gamble’s narrative arc for seasons 6 and 7 by hinting at a Sam who had returned from Hell, Not Quite Right; just as Survival of the Fittest prepped Carver’s era by shuttling Dean and Castiel to purgatory, and leaving Sam panicked, afraid, and utterly alone; Alpha and Omega serves to offer us our first glimpse into Dabb’s vision for the show’s future.

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[mcu][meta] Bucky, Steve, and Emotional Distance in Civil War

I’ve been meaning to post about this for what feels like ever, which in reality likely means, “the last week or so.”  But nonetheless.  There seems to be a lot of discussion surrounding the decision made in Civil War to have Bucky stay away from Steve over the last two years: responses ranging from confusion to betrayal, to feelings that its out of character, or perhaps speaks to a version of Bucky that may not in fact have as many memories back as he’s led Steve to believe.  Admittedly, on first (couple of) viewings, this was something I struggled with.  Not so much Bucky’s decision to stay away – I’d expected as much, given his actions in the comics are very similar – but rather, his choice to continue to lie to Steve after he’s been found out, choosing to downplay his memories of Steve, what they mean, and how he came upon them.  Bucky repeatedly tells Steve that he “doesn’t know” his history with Steve: that he recognizes Steve “from the museum;” that he “doesn’t know” why he pulled Steve from the river.  He pulls away during their only real chance at a ‘moment,’ on the quinjet, shutting down as Steve attempts to recall a memory from their youth, even as Bucky was the one to bring it up in the first place.

lying01But the thing is, on repeat viewings, Bucky’s behavior stops feeling odd, out of place, or deliberately avoidant on the part of the narrative.  Rather, I’d argue it’s deliberately avoidant on Bucky’s part — and purposeful, on the part of the narrative.  Bucky’s reluctance to see Steve again, and his refusal to easily acknowledge the intimacy of their shared history, are a natural reaction for someone coping with the things Bucky is dealing with.  Moreover, they make complete sense within the context of a Bucky who remembers everything – good and bad, James Barnes and Winter Soldier.  Within the context of Steve and Bucky’s relationship in the MCU, Bucky’s decisions towards Steve speak to just how closely he holds his relationship with Steve — not just for what it was, but as a marker of his identity.

lying02One of the first things that comes up when discussing the ‘coolness’ of Steve and Bucky’s relationship in this movie is their reunion.  Steve finds Bucky’s apartment – shockingly fast; was he listed? What was the listing: Sad Trash Assassin?  – and soon after, finds Bucky, who promptly pretends not to have any idea who Steve is beyond what he’s read at the Smithsonian exhibit.  Moreover, he insists he has no idea why he pulled Steve from the river: an assertion Steve demands is a lie.lying03

Bucky Barnes – before his “death,” before the Winter Soldier – defined himself, to a likely unhealthy extent, by his ability to protect Steve Rogers.  There’s a whole lot to unpack there, far more than this particular piece of meta has the space for, but this isn’t just Stucky goggles talking – this is the repeated canon of Markus and McFeely, the Russo Brothers, Sebastian Stan.   Bucky’s sense of purpose is wrapped up in Steve: it drives his decision to go back into the European theater; it’s responsible for his less-than-enthusiastic response to the serum.  And in return, as is made repeatedly and explicitly clear in the films, Steve Rogers adored him.  You can read this love as romantic, familial, transcendent, whatever: Steve Rogers loves Bucky Barnes with an intensity that very clearly defined their lives — this relationship was powerful enough that it’s still capable of acting as a weapon against Steve, as Rumlow demonstrates when he nearly blows Steve and half of that Lagos courtyard to hell just by evoking Bucky’s name.

My point here: we’re led to believe that Bucky has all of his memories back: both those of his own, and those belonging to the Winter Soldier.  He remembers it “all.”  Which means he’s been struck — violently, suddenly, all at once — with two incredibly, almost hilariously competing identities.  One: the memories of an assassin, something cold and unfeeling wearing his skin, responsible for who knows how many high-profile assassinations over the last hundred years.  He’s done horrific things against people who didn’t deserve their fates, and he remembers their deaths in first-hand, even as he had no control over what his body was doing.

And then there’ a second set of memories.  One that tells him he loved, and was loved: intensely; purely; without motive or intent.  He’s seen the exhibit, he’s read the material lauding “Captain America” as a hero, an icon, a living representation of goodness and right.   But his memories are of this man so much smaller; so much more fragile.  Someone he needed to protect.  And his memories are of this man loving him — of him being someone worth this man’s love.  Scarier still, the immediate memory of this man in the present-day, bleeding, shot, and looking up at him insisting he won’t fight him, that he’d rather die; that he’s with him “’til the end of the line.”

Bucky comes out of The Winter Soldier seeing himself as a time bomb.  He has no idea what’s happened to his programming, or his handlers.  While he’s no doubt by now read about SHIELD’s fall, he’s been in the hands of so many organizations under so many names that Hydra likely means nothing to him: they were one more cover, and someone will come and take him to a new one.  If we take this farther, and assume any piece of comics canon to supplement the MCU, Bucky has likely already broken his conditioning at least once, and lived on his own, a “free” man, for some period of time.  Bucky has been here before.  “Freedom,” for him, is a temporary state.  Eventually someone will say the right set of words, will come after him with a tranquilizer or a kill switch and he’ll be turned back, taken in.  For the last two years, Bucky has been desperately putting everything into writing — likely because he expects it will be taken from him all over again.

Which makes the fact that the journal Steve finds is his own fairly significant.

For all Bucky’s insistence that he “doesn’t know” Steve intimately, we’re immediately given physical proof that Bucky is likely a liar.  He has a well-used, marked and dogeared journal (left out while the others have been hidden under the floorboards) filled with information on Steve himself; presumably, given it appears to have the Smithsonian exhibit’s flyer in it, this particular journal is at least somewhat old.  It suggests he returns to it — at the very least, that he has more need for it than he does those hidden, other documents.

But maybe Bucky’s greatest tell is in the very beginning, when he first addresses Steve at all.  Because when Steve asks Bucky if he knows him, Bucky’s response gives him away:

“You’re Steve, right?  I read about you in a museum.”

A pretty good cover, sure…except, when was the last time a museum – indeed, when was the last time anyone in the 21st century at all — thought to acknowledge “Captain America,” as “Steve?”

newspapers01 newspapers02 newspapers03

In contrast, the brief scene following Zemo’s triggering of Bucky back into the Winter Soldier marks what is almost certainly the most intimate moment between Steve and Bucky during the movie proper.  But there are two things here that make this scene particularly telling.  The first, and one that I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to, is that Bucky is still pretty clearly dazed here — his mannerisms and speech are fairly hazy and perhaps even a little disoriented until Sam steps in, still angry, at which point the fog clears and he realizes what’s actually happened, how much Steve isn’t telling him and how he likely got in the can-opener in the first place.  But this brief conversation takes place before then.  As such, this is the only time in the entire movie that Bucky talks to Steve while his guard is down.  And his immediate response, upon seeing Steve without being on the defense, in perpetual fight-or-flight?

Adoration.  Plain and simple.  He remembers Steve, but he remembers his Steve: he remembers Sarah Rogers; he remembers the little guy who stuffed his shoes with newspapers.  It’s hardly surprising that Steve looks like he’s going to cry here, particularly when you juxtapose it with his last attempt to get Bucky to admit to knowing him, in which he kept insisting Steve was “that guy from the museum:” deflecting back to the impersonal; back to Captain America.  Steve tells him he’s lying, then; he repeats a similar statement here, effectively calling Bucky’s bluff with, “you can’t read about that in a museum.”

But then, this is Bucky’s internal struggle – and very likely what kept him hiding from Steve for the last two years.  In the comics, he needed the time to come to terms with what he’d done; to feel like himself was “worthy” of Steve’s love for him.  While Steve and Bucky’s relationship in the MCU is far different in that it lacks the hints of paternalism that sometimes creep into comics canon, I’d argue that MCU Bucky is nonetheless struggling with a version of this.  For the last two years, he’s been unable to think of anything but what he’s done: it’s front and center, in violent, screaming color; his most recent memories, the man he’s been for the majority of his very long life.  But he also has memories of Steve: of having a family, of being a person who loved, and was loved.  Of being loved – fiercely; completely.  By someone who would put their own life on the line to keep him safe.  By someone who he knows he would do the same for, for whom the instinct to do so is carved into him so deep not even HYDRA could take it out.  Those memories sound wonderful on the surface – why wouldn’t you run like hell towards them, after decades of abuse? – but you have to remember, this is Bucky.  This is also the Winter Soldier.  And he’s stumbled across a part of himself that HYDRA hasn’t been able to take.  Keeping in mind that he’s spent the last two years waiting for “something like” Zemo to happen…is it surprising that he would bury those memories down deep to keep them safe?

More than that, there’s the incredible cognitive dissonance.  Bucky’s memories of Steve are of safety, of love and affection and of this person that both history and his memories have told him is good, the embodiment of good, adoring him unconditionally.  The man on the bridge was willing to give up his life for Bucky, and now he’s showed up again, willing to take him at his word (“I don’t do that anymore,” despite all evidence to the contrary) and risk his own life, again, to save Bucky’s.  We as an audience know that Steve knows damn well who he’s doing this for: he’s under no illusions as to who Bucky is now, and what he’s been through.  But Bucky doesn’t know that.

cw02 cw01\

Bucky’s personal narrative in this movie is an anxious split between the person he was and the thing he fears still lives in his head — the assassin he still sees himself as, the one who’s only retired, who “[doesn’t] do that anymore.”  It’s significant that Bucky still considers the Soldier a seamless part of himself, when the film begins — he’s innocent by distance, not by dint of the fact he’s simply not that man.  Bucky remembers everything, but it’s clear the Winter Soldier’s memories are recent, are immediate — that these are the memories that structure who he is at this particular minute.  His memories of Steve are very clearly powerful to him.  He’s afforded them a lot of significance, as we see when he insists to Zemo his name is “Bucky,” taking on not just a given name but an affectionate moniker he’s not used before himself, in this lifetime; that indeed, no one but Steve considers “his” name.   But while he wraps his former identity around himself like a blanket in a time that he’s scared (and indeed, Zemo seems to recognize what he’s doing, given how quickly he strips him of it – “let’s talk about your home: not Austria, certainly not Brooklyn, no”), he appears anxious to use it around Steve himself, as though he’s afraid he’ll be somehow “found out” – that Steve will realize he’s lacking; that he isn’t good enough; that he’s broken; that the version of him that came out of the last quarter of a century is too bloody, too violent, too hardened to be the “Bucky” that Steve Rogers could love enough to sacrifice literally everything for.


It isn’t until that final fight, when Steve watches the video of “Bucky,” murdering the Starks in cold blood, and still chooses Bucky over everything and everyone, that Bucky seems to genuinely let his guard down.  The mid-credits scene, while frustrating, is also possibly the most unguarded we see Bucky towards Steve in the movie.  He tells Steve the truth: what he’s afraid of, and why he wants this.  He trusts Steve to take him somewhere safe, despite the fact his only experience with T’Challa has been repeated attempts on his life.  And he trusts that Steve will come back for him — that this isn’t recapture; this isn’t a loss of autonomy or freedom.  For Bucky, going under again in this set of circumstances is relief; it’s handing over two years’ worth of fear to someone he knows he can trust.  And it’s being able to acknowledge that trust as authentic, as directed at him, Winter Soldier and all.myfriend

There’s certainly room for criticism in how Steve and Bucky were handled, in Civil War.  Absolutely, material should have been included to help explain these characters’ difficulties communicating — hell, material should have been included to explain Bucky’s damned backpack, too.  But thinking back on the Russos’ comments about Civil War as it was being made, I keep coming back to one of their earlier interviews:

Is he innocent by reason of insanity or the equivalent of it because he’s been mind controlled or is he irredeemable? Is he ever going to be acceptable to Cap again as the friend that he used to be before he was the Winter Soldier? (x)

At the time, I remember a bit of disappointment over the idea that the Russos thought this way — that they’d even consider Bucky “irredeemable” for what Hydra had done to him.  But with the movie out, and very clearly offering a narrative that treats Bucky as a victim – a point T’Challa himself even makes – I pose another suggestion, regarding the Russos’ earlier statements:

What if this is the way Bucky has been thinking?  Doesn’t his behavior make a lot more sense, then?

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[mcu][meta] Where the Hell is Bucky (Merch)?

Because I am a Grown Adult who does respectable, Grown Adult things (TM), today I went into Hot Topic to see if they had any of the new (read: not Iron Man or Cap) Funko Mopeez for Civil War.   I picked up Natasha and T’Challa, but like the rest of the internet, I found myself holding Vision and Crossbones and thinking, really?!  This, over Bucky Barnes?

The internet is not, apparently, alone in this.  The clerk who rang me up commiserated.  With the resigned air of someone who has answered Too Many Phone Calls, she told me they were getting “a lot of questions” about Bucky merchandise — none of which they could answer, obviously.  Not even Hot Topic can find products that don’t exist.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is exactly about the lack of Bucky merchandise that makes me so specifically uncomfortable.  After all, it’s hardly that Marvel is lacking in Merch Featuring Tragic White Dudes.  But in contrast to other characters whose presence was notably missing from early franchise material (Hawkeye, Black Widow, most noticeably), Bucky’s presence seems to have actually shrunk, despite his extreme popularity with Marvel’s online fans.  As Marvel expands its merchandising into a broader spectrum of toys, dolls and figurines, Bucky remains conspicuously absent, even when the merchandise would be seemingly ideal: would anyone, for instance, have asked for a Vision Mopeez?

Even the argument that the character is “too dark” for the merchandising demographic falls apart when you consider how much money Disney poured into The Force Awakens on the (losing) assumption that children – specifically, little boys – everywhere would want to act out their fondest Kylo Ren fantasies, presumably those not involving patricide and/or Jedi-cide.  Clearly the idea that morality will play a role when explosions, fight scenes and cool weapons are involved is not a question  at hand, here — and in terms of cool weapons, I struggle to imagine anything cooler than a gleaming metal arm.  Certainly, it has more curb appeal than Hawkeye’s sleeve and bow, a piece of merchandise you can in fact purchase as a tie-in to this movie.  So…what gives, then?  Why completely shut out a character for whom there is very clearly a market?

As others have talked about in far more detail than I have the space for here, Bucky occupies a strange position in the Captain America franchise.  As the driving force behind most, if not all of Steve’s actions in the trilogy, Bucky takes on a role generally ascribed to female characters in this kind of hypermasculine action-fantasy — more specifically, a role generally ascribed to the female love interest.  To the point, he is acted on, rather than acting; his body is a site of conflict, and control over that body becomes representative of the larger power plays that make up the hero’s quest and conflict: Steve acts; Bucky is acted upon.  It’s a subversion of a very traditional action-hero romance, and it’s resonated particularly powerfully with Marvel’s online fandom — specifically, its female-identfying fandom, who (consciously or not) quickly read these cues surrounding Bucky and identified with him, and latched onto him.  Bucky has become a break-out character…but he’s become a break-out character to a very specific portion of the audience.

Therein lies the problem.  As Forbes reminded us last year, Disney is actively uninterested in courting Marvel’s female audience:

According to a former Marvel employee quoting her supervisor, the company’s desired demographic has no girls because “that’s not why Disney bought us. They already have the girls’ market on lock down.” The piece goes on to explain, “Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm because they wanted to access the male market. To achieve this goal, they allocate less to Marvel’s female demo, and even less to a unisex one.”

With this in mind, Bucky’s absence feels far more pointed — and far more frustrating, as it becomes less an oversight and more part of a larger pattern, as Disney insists upon the invisibility of its female audience.  Suddenly, Bucky’s absence from the Mopeez line makes far more sense: while the line is sold in stores aimed at young adults and collectors, it’s clearly geared towards children; there’s no benefit, in inserting a “niche market” character when an audience of 6 to 10 year olds can be made to buy any brightly-colored hero.  His absence from figurine sets is irrelevant, as the film was marketed as “Cap v. Iron Man,” and all of the packaging reflects this focus.  Merchandising is easiest, and most lucrative, when it can be centered around the fewest number of characters — in this case, Civil War has planted its focus around Iron Man, Cap, and Spider-man, the three best-known and cross-platform characters to a young audience.  As with Natasha, who was practically invisible on the Avengers roster until the fandom criticism forced Marvel’s hand, there’s simply no monetary benefit to Marvel/Disney emphasizing Bucky: he’s the darling of an audience they aren’t interested in courting, to whom increased attention only serves as a reminder that narratively, the Captain America franchise has attracted so much attention at least in part for the subversiveness of the relationships it portrays between its characters.

We all know what happens when you google “Steve Bucky,” after all.



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[mcu][meta] Did Civil War really “sink” Steve/Bucky?

I woke up this morning to see Vanity Fair’s article, “Is This The One Flaw in the Otherwise Great Captain America: Civil War?,” splashed across my Twitter feed as though it had paid to get there.  Clearly, this is a topic that has struck a nerve with fans of the Cap franchise, both in fandom and for “casual” audiences alike.  VF’s article, no doubt, is getting quite a bit of play because it represents the latter: a well-respected, mainstream entertainment outlet, criticizing Civil War for a seemingly-pointed assertion of heteronormativity in a franchise that, frankly, has hung its cap (so to speak) on the deeply intimate connection between two men:

But despite what Joe Russo said, doesn’t Captain America: Civil War go out of its way to “define” Bucky and Steve’s relationship when Cap smooches Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) while Bucky looks on approvingly? Where’s the room for interpretation in that moment? And, leaving aside the vague creepiness of Steve making a move on Peggy’s (very willing) niece, the moment itself wasn’t necessary to the flow of the movie at all.

Vanity Fair touches on what seems to be one of the most common disappointments I’ve seen with Civil War: that the film goes out of its way to “sink” Steve & Bucky as a viable romantic pairing by awkwardly insisting on Steve’s heterosexuality, via a character who ultimately serves no real purpose to the film but that of a willing and interchangeable signifier of said heterosexuality.  That Sharon Carter – indeed, the inclusion of both Carters, including Peggy’s effective “fridging” – exists for the sole purpose of breaking up a subtextual ship that, frankly, had been the only real well-developed romance in the Captain America franchise (and, as VF suggests, likely the only working romance in the MCU, outside of the now-defunct relationship between Tony and Pepper).

But while Marvel’s fumbling, failed attempts at kick-starting Steve/Sharon are unquestionably, and visibly, evidence of their still-pervasive insistence that a superhero simply isn’t a superhero until he has the appropriate masculine fantasy of the Empowered Woman hanging off his words, were they really as successful as to put the “final nail in the coffin” of Stucky as a pairing?  Are we really ready to give such a poorly-written scene, so clearly out of place that an outlet like Vanity Fair is commenting on its compulsory heterosexuality, that much power?  Both in terms of its capacity to undo a fandom, & its ability to outplay the hand offered by the rest of the film itself?

That, I would argue, is giving Marvel far too much credit.

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[review] Captain America: Civil War


Civil War is a hard movie for me to get my thoughts together on, and I’ve come to the conclusion that a large part of it is that, for me at least, the movie exposes what has come to be either a weakness or (more likely) an inevitability of a comic film franchise becoming as large as the Marvel Cinematic Universe: sooner or later, you will find that you only care about certain aspects of that fictional world.   Of course, the trouble with this fissure is unlike comics, where multiple individual and group titles come out on a monthly basis, with movies – even in an oversaturated franchise like this – you do only get a small amount of time with these characters per year.  Less, if you’re waiting for solo films.  And if you’re a Captain America fan, like I am, there’s a chance you’ve been following the progression of Civil War with some amount of anxiety, watching the cast list fill up and wondering, as I did, what that meant for the characters you cared about.  How much of them would you get?  How much of Other Nonsense would fill up the screen?  What would it all add up to, and how much just wouldn’t fit?

There are a lot of elements of Civil War that feel forced in.  I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the thing that stays with me the most after initial viewing.  The cast could have been whittled down to roughly half of what it was without losing anything, really.  And some of the more egregious elements – the introduction (again) of Doughy White-boy Spider-man 232245 being the utter worst, bringing the movie to an uncomfortable screaming halt so Tony could comment repeatedly on Aunt May’s awkwardly young casting – felt so tacked in I was left to wonder if they had even been part of the original script, or if they’d been shot and added in re shoots.

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[SPN] Won’t Get Fooled Again

Supernatural has put itself in a weird position this season.  By “weird,” of course, I mean not “weird” at all: far too common, in fact, with this television season becoming something of a breaking point regarding the treatment of LGBTQ characters on television.  As a slew of recent deaths on shows like Empire, The Magicians, Jane the Virgin and, perhaps most visibly The 100, has grown into a significant discussion of the toxic “bury your gays” trope, calls have gone out for TV writers and spearheads to sign the “Lexa Pledge,” a promise not to use LGBT characters as fridge fodder, ratings ploys, baiting tactics, or sensation but rather treat these characters, well, as characters.

It’s perhaps because all of this is occurring, and extremely visible, that I find what Supernatural is doing right now to be so peculiar.

I think we all remember the last time Supernatural ran truly afoul of its fans.  No, not Charlie — no no, not those awful sexist episodes all through 9 and 10, either.  No, not the general blathering nonsense that was most of the last two seasons.  Think earlier, back to 9×03 and the nastiness that was Guy Bee and others calling Destiel fans “delusional.”  Season 8 brought us a strange transformation in Dean and Castiel’s relationship to go along with a new series head.  Coming out of purgatory, having lost Cas and presuming him dead, Dean was destitute.  He began to see Castiel in windows and on the side of the road in a direct parallel to Sam and his long-fridged girlfriend, Jessica.  He was moody, staring into middle distance to remember Purgatory and his time with Castiel.  Ultimately, we discover he wanted so badly to believe Castiel wouldn’t leave him that he changed his own memories.  When Castiel returns he’s being controlled by the angels — but Dean is so desperate he refuses to see it until the moment Castiel is standing above him holding a knife, when Dean’s shaky admission that he “needs” Cas breaks the spell and Heaven’s connection over a celestial body.   Later on, we’re shown Dean & Cas in a bar, waiting on a cupid, when a television near them directs and shoots a ‘bow’ at them.  Moments later, the cupid arrives and works her love connection, on the only two other men at the bar.

The point of this is: S8 felt like it was building to something.  And then S9 aired, and Castiel had sex with his angel-sister, and we were told we were deluded for inventing things.  For seeing parallels where there were none.

(It’s the pleats… the pleats in the pants. It’s an optical illusion. I was just about to take them back… to the pants store. Oh this is embarrassing.)

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[SPN] 11×17 “Red Meat:” It’s About Sam, But It’s Not

[discussion of suicide attempt below]

So I wasn’t going to write a full review of this episode – and this isn’t a review, per se.  More, rambling meta.  But I’ve seen quite a bit in the way of mixed emotions about this episode.  For a variety of reasons, but the one concern that I keep coming back to is the idea that the episode was a step back for Sam and Dean — that it reduced their world to the Sam-n-Dean Show again by portraying a world in which the Winchesters don’t know how to exist without each other.  Now, I can’t fully speak to that, because in terms of characterization I remain of the mind that there is a large extent to which Sam and Dean will always be in each others pockets.  But I absolutely did not see this episode as a reaffirmation of Sam and Dean as existing in an insular bubble of two, nor did I see it as a step back in terms of Dean (or Sam) valuing the other relationships in their lives (is anyone alive to have a relationship with?).  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Whereas past episodes that have touched on the theme of “with you or not at all” have treated a World Without Sam as end-game in its own right, Red Meat represented the culmination of weeks’ worth of Dean’s mental and emotional deterioration, largely the result of his own feelings of helplessness in the face of the Darkness and (more significantly, or at least, more immediately pressed on) the loss of Castiel. In many ways, the fact that Dean’s reckless call for Billie/loosely veiled suicide attempt was staged as it was, as the final result of an ongoing build-up rather than the result of a single, fatal action, demonstrates exactly how much Dean has changed — and Sam, whose focus through the entire episode remained Dean and his (physical and emotional) safety.

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