copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
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, [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. 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.
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 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).
Jenkins describes this process as “textual poaching”:
“Because popular narratives often fail to satisfy, fans must struggle with them, to try to articulate themselves and other unrealised possibilities within the original works… far from sycophantic, fans actively assert their mastery over the mass-produced texts which provide the raw materials for their own cultural productions and the basis for their social interactions. In the process, fans cease to be simply an audience for popular texts; instead, they become active participants in the construction and circulation of meanings. “(Jenkins 23-4)
In an analysis of girls’ zine making, Mary Celeste Kearney argues,
“many female adolescents employ practices of detournment—[the process of] appropriating and reconfiguring mass produced cultural artefacts into personalised and politicised creations—in the subversion and resistance of privileged notions of gender, generation, race, class and sexuality” (298).
This process is particularly evident in the phenomenon known as “fan art.” Fan art can consist of fan produced video, drawings, paintings, desktops, icons, and fan fiction. Danielle Riendeau notes that in the past, the creation of fan art was something that only small groups of dedicated fans enjoyed as a hobby (1). However, in 2009, fan art has become “as much a part of mainstream fandom as episode analyses and debates about characters” (Riendeau 1). Contemporary fan sites are now as much “creative communities as they are "just” groups of fans” (Riendeau 1). While television producers and studios have reacted to fan art in varying ways—“some embrace the concept as a good way to keep fans happy, while others shut down fan efforts”—Riendeau argues that fan art has become an important way for the queer community to create personal stories (1-3).
It is interesting to note that fandoms constantly reinterpret the popular culture that they love (Hill 173). One particular new phenomenon arising out of fandom in the past few years is “vidding.” Vidder’s are fans of film and television (visual media) who make their own music videos and then upload them online for feedback from other fans.
“Using the latest computer technology and resources of the Internet, they splice together moments from the show, utilizing special effects such as altering film speed, colour and lighting manipulations, cross-fades and double exposures. Topics for vidding are limited only by the imagination of the fans, but tend to fall within certain themes: serious and/or humorous commentaries on storyline; action vids; character portraits; romantic relationship studies or “shipper” vids; “recruiter’ vids designed in the style of television promotions to attract new fans; and alternate reality or “experimental’ vids. Arguably the most common type of vids are “slash’ vids- romantic and/or pornographic explorations of same sex pairings… these visual montages are co-ordinated to music and appropriate lyrics.” (Hill 173-4)
Often requiring many hundreds of hours of work, the resulting vids are a conglomeration of visual media and popular music, and as such involve a great deal of cross-referencing with other popular cultural texts. One of the implications of such vids as Hill interestingly argues is that vidders are “perhaps unintentionally creating commentaries on… youth culture and society in general” (Hill 177). This is because the music and imagery that vidders use in their clips contain “a wealth of cultural and social information” (Hill 178).
“By choosing certain pieces of music, vidders are offering their personal views on everything from current trends within contemporary pop culture to psychological profiles of contemporary teenagers and young adults.” (Hill 178-9)
However, as vids often involve illegal use of copyrighted material, they constantly face the threat of removal from internet sites such as YouTube. In this sense, fan vids could be described as transient explorations of popular youth culture. But South of Nowhere was a media savvy series that understood the need to encourage online fandom, vids in particular, and its website contained a link to a device called “The Video Masher.” The device (it is still functioning) acts as a platform through which fans can splice scenes and stills from the series with a number of songs. However, the material given to fans is limited. Currently they may choose from only 31 short clips from the three seasons of South of Nowhere (40 episodes) and splice them together one of 5 different songs to make up to 60 seconds of vid footage. It is interesting to compare vids produced in this officially sanctioned manner with vids produced unofficially and illegally.
A typical example of a “Video Masher” vid is simply titled “SPASHLEY” and runs for approximately 45 seconds. The vid opens with quickly edited clips of Spencer and Ashley smiling and laughing at each other over a nondescript instrumental soundtrack featuring guitars and bass guitars. This quickly cuts to an image of the logo of teen television channel The N and then short clips of Spencer and Ashley dancing and kissing. These clips are followed by an image of a South of Nowhere logo and a colourful transition to a number of clips of Spencer and Ashley playing at the beach, Ashley says “I need to process this” and we see further clips of the two running on the beach. The soundtrack stops and the images fade to black. Because the “Video Masher” is operated by the South of Nowhere parent website http://www.teennick.com, to locate such a vid, one must trawl through a number of pages of vids for other teen series. This suggests that the perceived pleasure from the “Video Masher” device—according to the television producers—is in the production of fan vids rather than the consumption.
An example of an unofficially produced vid is titled “Spencer/Ashley vid—Swans’, it runs for 2.5 minutes. The creator of this vid posted a short description of the vid and a disclaimer regarding ownership of content on the video hosting website:
ARTIST: Unkle Bob
PAIRING(S): Spencer/Ashley, some Spencer/Carmen
FANDOM: South of Nowhere (Seasons 1-3)
STORY: After Spencer breaks up with her, Ashley is determined to make things right and prove that she can change for the better
**DISCLAIMER** — I don't own the song or the show. South of Nowhere is property of Viacom"
As mentioned in the description, the vid uses the song “Swans” by Unkle Bob to convey this fan’s storyline in which Ashley proves her worth to Spencer. Using scenes from seasons 1-3, the filmmaker re-edits the material to convey this particular storyline. The employment of special effects such as cross-fades and alterations in colour and lighting emphasise the ability of the filmmaker to mould the initial material into something that suits their own creative desires. In this vid, the song choice is incredibly important as the music and images work in synergy to express the views of the filmmaker. At times, the rhythm of the editing mirrors the rhythm of the music, this coupled with the lyrics of the song serves to emphasise the intensity of the emotional struggle between the two characters.
Although both of these vids are indeed very different, they both valuable as they serve to highlight the innovative ways that fans are interacting with the popular culture that engages them.
Identity politics in the age of the Internet
The ambiguities of queer girls’ cultural investments within mainstream and marginal media are a productive part of the process of growing up queer today. Driver argues that mass cultural texts such as film, television, and music interact dynamically with the inner worlds of girls who challenge normative regimes of feminine heterosexuality. She also suggests media portrayals of queer youth are “partially constitutive of the very ways in which young female selves are named, recognised, regulated, and scrutinised according to binary gender and sexual norms” (Driver 4). Driver argues that queer girls invigorate meanings through their “experientially mediated readings, parodic responses, and thoughtful disidentifications” (11). What strikes me about this are the concepts of “experientially mediated readings” and “thoughtful disidentifications.” The notion of “experientially mediate readings” suggests that queer youth make sense of queer representations in terms of their own experiences. In other words, popular culture is something to be experienced, and something to understand through experience. If we look back to the quote that opened this chapter, this is most certainly the case. However, there are many more examples of this principle in action. One fan questions whether anyone has had a “spashley moment” in real life:
“Has anyone (boy couple, girl couple, or straight couple) ever had a "spashley moment" with someone? Like a moment when you had your first kiss or when you confessed your love to your best friend and they held your hand and smiled or something (or whatever your story would be). What was it? Just pick your favorite if you've had more than one”— Edenstar5, 2008, South of Nowhere Message Board
The numerous responses to this thread highlight the way that these particular fans assimilate images from the series into their understanding of their own lives. The sharing of “Spashley moments,” for example, also encourages a sense of community and friendship amongst the fans.
The concept of disidentification is also interesting to look at in terms of South of Nowhere, Jose Esteban Munoz (1999) theorises the concept of disidentification as
“a process of production and a mode of performance. Disidentification can be understood as a way of shuffling back and forth between reception and production… decoding mass, high, or any other cultural field from the perspective of a minority subject who is disempowered in such a representational hierarchy.” (Munoz, 25)
Driver argues that Munoz’s theorization is significant in relation to queer youth as it opens space to think “about the possibilities for queer youth who do not simply accept or reject, assimilate or repudiate popular images, but engage with what is available in order to imagine themselves otherwise” (11). In terms of its representations of queer girls, South of Nowhere is rather limiting, all of the queer characters are feminine, conventionally beautiful, upper class and white. But this doesn’t stop the fans from engaging with what is available and from scavenging particular images and assimilating them into their identities. And what’s fantastic about South of Nowhere is that it truly emphasises this through its strong ties to online content. This again stresses the fact that fans who do not find exactly what they are looking for in the series can create their own content online or form part of an online community through which they may challenge dominant ideologies.
In Driver’s extensive research, she points to a significant tension between the proliferation of mass marketed images of female youth and “passionate readings by queer girls that work to destabilize heteronormative modes of cultural in/visibility and significance” (234). This tension also arises within mainstream representations of queer stories, as they are both intensely pleasurable as the transmitter of collective stories and community, but also deeply troubling because they continually reproduce normative ideals. However, queer girl audiences work with what they’ve got to create intensely personal meanings in the gaps and excesses of “mainstreamed” queer representations. The character of Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one such example of this. For many queer girls, Driver argues, Willow has evolved to be much more than a secondary character, and has become a locus of desire and potential identification.
“Girls invigorate this text with situated knowledges about themselves connected through close and contextual readings of media. What unfolds with their conversations about Willow’s fictional self are intimate yet collectively shared thoughts about growing up, coming out, and falling in love with girls.” (Driver, 236)
The same could be said with South of Nowhere and this is evident in the numerous fan postings concerning the main relationship of the series between Spencer and Ashley. As in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, South of Nowhere fans in dialogue with other fans question and challenge themes within particular stories, characters, or episodes that inevitably “loop back into personally inflected readings about their own lives as teens.” (Driver, 236). Driver argues that talking through events and relations experienced by characters, such as falling in love, allows girls to share understandings that “refract socially varied readings” (236). With characters acting in this manner, as an open text through which audiences may challenge or contest meaning, South of Nowhere acts as an entry point for young audiences to publicly—via online message boards—discuss questions regarding their own sexuality.
Susan Driver argues that television shows actively inhibit images of queer physical affection and lust and films have the power to go further in depicting “images and narratives that exceed ideologically bound representations of girls (236). However, I argue that lesbian teen TV series such as South of Nowhere and their surrounding fandom complicate this argument. For queer youth, the dynamic synergy between TV and new media allows them to become “identity scavengers” as they push the boundaries of sexual representation, ideology and identity. To reiterate this point it becomes necessary to differentiate between Jenkins’ notion of “textual poaching” (23) and my theorisation of “identity scavenging’. Queer youth audiences are not nomadic poachers at the top of a hierarchy; they are scavengers that make use of what is available. As teenagers, they are fringe dwellers who reside in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood; as queer teenagers, they may find themselves even more marginalised. From the cultural debris scattered between the margin and the mainstream these scavengers construct their identities. The only tools they require are the synergistic combination of teen TV series such as South of Nowhere, new media technologies, and their imaginations.
1. South of Nowhere screened in the timeslot immediately following Degrassi: The Next Generation [return to text]
2. Some examples:
Teen Spot -- forums dedicated to gay, lesbian and bisexual “teen issues"
The Spencer and Ashley Forum—a section dedicated to “advice and real-life" issues
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Driver, Susan. Queer girls and popular culture: Reading, resisting, and creating media. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007.
Hill, Kathryn. ““Easy to Associate Angsty Lyrics with Buffy”: An Introduction to a Participatory Fan Culture: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Vidders, Popular Music and the Internet.” Buffy and Angel Conquer the Internet: Essays on Online Fandom. Ed. Mary Kirby Diaz. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.
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