Opening credits of South of Nowhere.

Opening credits of South of Nowhere. Each character gets introduced individually. Audiences are introduced to Spencer first.

Opening credits of South of Nowhere. Here we are introduced to Ashley.

Spencer and Ashley are the only two characters who appear together in the opening credits of South of Nowhere. This highlights the series’ emphasis on their relationship.

The Carlin family enjoying a wholesome family dinner. The prominence of the cross in the background informs the audience of the family’s Christian values. This eventually forms part of the narrative as Paula (the mother) has issues accepting the relationship between Spencer and Ashley.

Susan Driver notes that not all queer girls enter popular fields of vision equally. Both Spencer and Ashley are mainstream representations of queer girls.

Identity scavengers: queer girl fandom, identity politics, and South of Nowhere

by Whitney Monaghan

“Okay, so I recently discovered that I like girls, and have decided that it is very difficult.”

“On shows like South of Nowhere when Ashley just shows up to expand Spencer's world, or when Spencer begins wondering whether she's straight, Kelly just automatically knows and asks her out... or movies like DEBS, they find out because they end up in love, and it just looks so easy! Or on Greek, I don't know if you guys have seen that show, but when Rebecca thinks she is a lesbian, there is someone there to show her the ropes and help her figure herself out...”

“Real life just doesn't seem like it works that way, and the straight girl I have a crush on will probably stay straight.... right?

“Does anyone else feel this way?” (2BKat3lyn, 2009, South of Nowhere Message Board)

Identity is a slippery and complex notion regardless of whether it is something that is known, created, negotiated, constructed, or as in the above quote, discovered. As a student not too far removed from the days when I myself would post similar pleas for support to online forums, the above quote echoes the intense desire I felt to communicate with others as I tried to figure out who I was, throughout my formative years. However, in my youth, I did not have the TV series’ mentioned above to compare my life to. Instead, I had Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which meant I had Willow. Willow’s lesbian relationship with Tara has widely been regarded as one of the more positive representations of blossoming lesbian romance in television history (See Driver ch.3). For me, Willow was more than a “positive representation”; she was the model with which for some time I explicitly attempted, at least partially, to construct my identity. In a sense, like many other queer youth, I was an “identity scavenger.”

Throughout this paper, I argue that Queer youth are identity scavengers in that their intense longing for self-representation in popular culture often sees them filter through a large range of “media venues and formats of representation” (Driver 236), assimilating pieces of information from here and there in their own personal process of identity negotiation and construction. It may seem simple to argue that popular culture has a straightforwardly pervasive influence on the lives and identities of contemporary youth. However, according to Henry Giroux, popular culture on its own does not influence young people. Rather, it is one mode of many through which young people may “style individual and collective identities and learn to narrate themselves in relation to others” (Giroux 59, cited in Brooks 14). Karen Brooks further argues that popular culture works in tandem with a range of other influential forces—including family, peers and social environments—to mould, seduce, and appeal to young people (14). Popular culture does not create young people, notes Brooks, but it does reflect them and this is why it is so important. This paper will look at one particular manifestation of popular culture, the U.S. teen series South of Nowhere (2005-2008), and the implications for its queer youth audience in terms of potential possibilities for identity formation.

South of Nowhere was a short-lived, ensemble-based teen drama TV series that screened on U.S. television channel The N between 2005 and 2008. The series followed the lives of the members of the Carlin family, parents Paula and Arthur and their children Glen, Clay and Spencer, as they adjust to moving to Los Angeles from Ohio. In the tradition of pedagogically based teen series such as Degrassi High[1], [open endnotes in new window] it explicitly dealt with teen issues such as racism, violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and sexuality. However, the issue of teenage homosexuality gained the most attention with some fans admitting they only watched because of Spashley—an amalgamation of Spencer and Ashley, the lesbian couple in the series. It must be noted that the channel that screened South of Nowhere was marketed to the “tween” audience. Despite the channel attempting to be “the authentic voice for teens to help them figure out their lives” (Ross 61) this restricted much of the content that could be portrayed in South of Nowhere. The significance of South of Nowhere is that it was a mainstream TV series accessible to young teenagers in which queer girls were explicitly represented. They were “included as subjects within media content while also being addressed as viewers and fans” (Driver 17).

Queer girl fandom

Susan Driver is the first in-depth analyst of queer girls and popular culture. In her book Queer Girls and Popular Culture: Reading, Resisting and Creating Media she argues that when queer girls interact with popular culture, their engagement is always fraught with anticipations and excitements, disappointments and frustrations. Driver is one of the few critics to have written about the relation between queer girls and popular culture in such depth, as a result any further examinations of this subject (such as this paper) are likely to heavily rely on her research. Driver challenges the academic desire to seek the “truth” about queer girls and their popular cultures. Instead, she moves

“towards connecting, and reiterating the insights and questions raised by girls, as they variably and inventively queer heteronorms in the process of reading and talking about media texts” (Driver 4).

By examining a number of different media, Driver examines complex interactions between queer girls and popular culture, mapping out responses of girls who articulate their identities in relation to specific media texts. While queer girls are becoming more visible in terms of representation, Driver rightfully notes that not all girls enter popular fields of vision equally. As a result, “only some queer girls find brief glimpses of themselves within mass media images” (Driver 5). In the introduction to her book, Driver posits a number of significant and interesting questions:

“With the expansion of broad-based visible presence, what exactly is becoming intelligible as a queer girl within popular culture? Are queer girls becoming integrated into heteronormative media in ways that normalize and contain their differences? Does this presence intensify surveillance and regulation? Do popularized representations work to privilege a narrow range of gender, sexual, racial, and class ideals? How are images and stories used to create culturally viable and recognisable queer girl selves? What gets left out, devalued, ignored along the way? How are mainstream forms of representation being rejected, taken up, and transformed by queer girls themselves?” (Driver 6)

Although all of these questions need to be considered in any study of queer girls and popular culture, for the purposes of my argument, I will focus on the final question as it best relates to my discussion of South of Nowhere. Rather than look at why queer girls are represented in a particular way in South of Nowhere this paper uses Susan Driver’s methodology of “following the ways girls themselves read, resist and make media cultures” (17).

It is at this level of experience and perception where series such as South of Nowhere have their impact, and where, according to Driver,

“cultural visibility become[s] transformative in specific ways rather than reducible to overarching and normalizing generalisations” (17).

If we want to find examples of instances where mainstream representations of queer youth have a positive inflection, this is where we must look. And, to find examples of queer youth engaging with series such as South of Nowhere in such a manner, we can turn to the Internet. Driver notes that queer youth use online communities as tools for overcoming cultural marginalization, for experimenting with new interpretations of themselves in relation to peers, and for empowering themselves as “active media producers” (23). The role that film and TV have in this is that they provide a point of entry into these online communities.

One significant aspect of queer girls’ engagement with popular cultural texts, according to Driver, is their ability to experience the pleasure of mainstream media “while retaining a shrewd sceptical ambivalence, developing critical ideas in relation to media texts while nevertheless enjoying them” (11). This is particularly evident when exploring the fandom surrounding South of Nowhere. For questioning youth, the ability to see some sort of reflection of their feelings or experiences is powerful. However, many traditional queer representations can result in disappointment as the queer characters often revert to heterosexuality. This is where fandom comes into play, as audiences can unite over a common interest, focus on the aspects they find interesting, and perhaps even rewrite the stories to end how they want them to. Susan Driver writes that the desires of queer youth often steer them in the direction of “alternative local subcultural practices” while also enabling them to

“work around and with commodified representations, inventing ways of seeing and learning as they approach texts from specific locations in personalised and creative ways” (11).

In other words, queer girls often use online spaces to work against media pressures towards normalization by imaginatively approaching media texts from their uniquely queer perspective.

Online communities are also spaces where young queer people can forge their identities without fear of peer and family reactions. Indeed, a proportion of queer youth may choose to come out online before coming out in public and this is evidenced in the large number of forum posts written by teenagers in the process of questioning their sexuality.[2] Queer youth can also use online spaces to debate taboo topics relating to their experiences or desires; topics that are rarely included in portrayals of queerness on film and TV.

“Unlimited by market ratings, adult interventions, and moral regulators, online communication between queer girls forges an extremely important horizon of possibilities for considering not only their relations to existing media but also expressions excluded or rendered unintelligible within the dominant cultural imagination.” (Driver 238)

In her sociologically-based study of online fandom, Mary Kirby Diaz differentiates between “story-oriented” and “series-oriented fans” (63). The community of story-oriented fans, according to Diaz, is supported by the production of culture—“specifically fan fiction and fan vidding, which serve to maintain the mythos of the series” (Diaz 63). The community of series-oriented fans, on the other hand, is supported by “activities that are designed to consume and maintain the series—concerts, fan conventions, videogames, and comic books” (Diaz 63, emphasis added). Put simply, the difference between the two lies in the difference between production and consumption of culture. While there may be a degree of overlap between the two groups—for example, some writers of fan fiction may also attend conventions—Diaz asserts that most fans can be categorized as belonging to one of the two groups.

Audiences can unite over a common interest, focus on aspects they find interesting, and perhaps even rewrite stories to end how they want them to. This particular vid uses slow motion to effectively double the length of a kiss.

According to Diaz, the role of production in the culture of maintaining fandoms has been written about extensively (Jenkins, 1992; Hills, 2002; Bacon-Smith, 1992). However, “for a fandom to survive, it must not only provide for the production of culture but for the consumption of culture” (Diaz 63). It is the synergy of production and consumption that “provides the energy and momentum that keeps the fandom active, alive, and interested in the series” long after it’s ceased to be syndicated” (Diaz 67). Indeed, fans may often take an active role in the maintenance of a series long after cancellation. This has been the case with series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek, but is particularly significant for the discussion of South of Nowhere.

South of Nowhere has had a large online fan base; the members frequently participate in message boards and produce fan art. They enter into dialogue not only with other fans, but also with the series itself. When fans discovered the series had been cancelled, outrage poured onto the fan sites, and a number of fans set up a website to attempt to save their favourite series. The website, called SaveSpashley.com[3] was to act as a rallying point for all fans of South of Nowhere and to protest against its cancellation, fans made Save Spashley banners—images for use as signatures on message boards—and image collages, as well as video and blogs. Unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful and the series ended in 2008, but the intense appeal itself reveals the investment that these fans have in their texts.

Kathryn Hill argues that fan engagement on the Internet involves far more than simply paying homage to the films and television series they enjoy. Fans often use their favourite shows to explore other possibilities that may be implicit in the text itself: “they appropriate it, break it up and then reassemble the pieces to suit their own desires” (Hill 172).

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