Whoosh! Issue 25 - October 1998

IAXS project #345
By Leila Armstrong
Copyright © 1998 held by author
6051 words

Editor's Note: Contained in this article are short excerpts from fiction which portray a physical/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If this type of material offends you, then we suggest that you either skip this article or skip specifically the "Lesbian Fan Fiction" section of this article.

"Faux Crap" (01-03)
Lesbian Visibility (04-06)
Media Analysis (07-09)
Production and Reception (10-13)
Interpretation and Appropriation (14-19)
Understanding Personal and Cultural Identities (20-21)
Lesbian Fan Fiction (22-24)
"A Shared Notion of Desire" (25-36)
Empowerment (37-41)

The Zeal For Xena: Appropriation, Discursive Elaboration, And Identity Production In Lesbian Fan Fiction

"Faux Crap"

The lesbian vampire books are good too!

Victoria Brownworth has several titles currently in print and available.

[1] In the March 1997 issue of Curve, a lesbian entertainment magazine, Victoria A. Brownworth asserts that the visibility of certain lesbian stars and perceived-to-be lesbian characters is not "true lesbian visibility" [Note 01]. Brownworth's editorial, "Still Invisible After All These Queers", insists that there are authentic lesbians, living authentically lesbian lives, and that these lesbians are represented by "more than [mere] tokenism" [Note 02]. Specifically, she advocates "[r]eal lesbian visibility, not the faux crap that is supposed to placate us for another millennium..." [Note 03] . Appalled by lesbians worshipping what she deems false idols, Brownworth states that "[o]ur lesbian icons aren't real lesbians, but celebrities or celebrity wannabes" [Note 04]. As an example, she holds up Xena: Warrior Princess and its star Lucy Lawless [Note 05] , who she points out is not "a lesbian on TV or in real life" [Note 06].

[2] Brownworth's distinction between real lesbians and celebrity lesbians, and real lesbian visibility and that "faux crap" we watch on TV, is, to say the least, problematic. Besides the alarming repeated use of the term "real lesbians" (which only makes this author wonder who the false lesbians are), also disturbing is Brownworth's apparent attack on the choice of media texts and personas individual lesbians choose to engage with or embrace as their media icons.

[3] The point of this paper, however, is not to attack Brownworth's position. In fact, the strength of Brownworth's article was her unflinching conviction that "visibility remains [a] pivotal issue for lesbians" [Note 07] . Unfortunately, she is equally convinced that "We [lesbians] are not visible" [Note 08] . This latter view erases decades of mainstream representations of lesbians and lesbianism as well as responses by lesbians to these representations. [Note 09]. Brownworth's approach ignores the complexity of debates about visibility and representation, leaving lesbian readers stuck at the level of: Are we visible?/Aren't we visible? I argue that a more productive question would be: What role do mainstream representations play in both individual and cultural identity production for lesbians?

Lesbian Visibility

[4] Without a doubt, the '90s phenomenon of increased lesbian visibility is paradoxical. In 1993, the year American mainstream media proclaimed the arrival of lesbians into the realm of popular culture, even going so far as deem lesbians "chic", hate crimes against gays and lesbians in the U.S. surpassed racially motivated attacks [Note 10]. If lesbians were not visible, as Brownworth suggests, then how did bigots identify them as targets for these crimes? The correspondence of an increase in violence against lesbians and gays and an increase in mainstream representations of lesbians and gays seems to suggest that, rather than being invisible, lesbian and gay visibility is a source of fascination for some and irritation for others.

[5] It is striking that during an era in which every other situation comedy or drama has, has had, or soon will have, a lesbian "bit character", Xena was considered by Brownworth to be a threat to the shared political project of increased visibility for lesbians. Brownworth's argument very much plays into the construction of fans as cultural dupes, misguided by a simplistic relationship to mainstream representations. The implication seems to be that there are lesbians who do real political work, and then there are those who could not see the proverbial forest through the trees and naively derive pleasure from mainstream media texts and the visibility of lesbians and lesbian-friendly personas.

[6] While lesbian activists should question how and why mainstream media continue to find lesbians and lesbianism so marketable in the '90s, one should not overlook or deny the role of mainstream media in terms of individual and cultural identity production for lesbians. Through an investigation of lesbian fan fiction based on Xena, this identity production can be addressed, drawing on various theoretical approaches to reception as a form of production.

Media Analysis

The Gab-Drag cover was considered, but they went with the Statue
of Liberty instead

John Thomspon also has several titles out.

[7] In The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, John B. Thompson briefly addresses "Communication, Appropriation and Everyday Life" [Note 11] . In a sub-section of his chapter titled "Communication and Social Context", Thompson outlines the theoretical implications of addressing reception of mass communication as a routine practice [Note 12] . Approaching reception as a routine practice entails situating one's analysis of media production and reception within its social and historical context. It is here that Thompson warns us of the limitations of two methods of media analysis: 1) textual analysis, and 2) analysis based on empirical research.

[8] First, he points out that the limitation of 'pure' textual analysis is that it was seldom socially and historically situated. For instance, a look at lesbian fan fiction around Xena must be situated within an analysis of the '90s phenomenon of the commodification of lesbian culture for a predominantly heterosexual audience. Specifically, one must address both the marketing strategies of MCA/Universal and the show's producers, who purposefully incorporate lesbian subtext into the show's content [Note 13].

[9] Second, Thompson writes that quantitative or empirical methods often fail to address "the mundane character of receptive activity" [Note 14]. He stresses the need to understand reception as a "routine, practical activity which individuals carry out as an integral part of their everyday lives" [Note 15] . The mundane quality of this activity in no way implies that it is simplistic or banal, but, rather, that it is a part of the day-to-day, the customary, and the familiar. Indeed, Thompson argues that reception was a "skilled accomplishment" [Note 16] . For the purposes of this argument, we will expand on two elements of Thompson's approach to reception: 1) reception is "a kind of practice in which individuals take hold of and work over the symbolic materials they receive", and 2) reception is "fundamentally a hermeneutic process" [Note 17].

Production and Reception

[10] Early in the book, Thompson outlines several characteristics of "mass" or "mediated" communication. He states that his overall approach to communication is "cultural" in the sense of being concerned with both symbolic forms and social context [Note 18]. Thompson asks us to remember that

the development of communication media is, in a fundamental sense, a reworking of the symbolic character of social life, a reorganization of the ways in which information and symbolic content are produced and exchanged in the social world and a restructuring of the ways in which individuals relate to one another and to themselves [Note 19].

[11] When symbolic content is (re)produced by a technical medium for transmission and subsequent reception, it becomes fixed. The degree of fixing varies depending on the medium. In the case of fan fiction, symbolic content becomes words, which are sometimes accompanied by images and/or sounds, displayed on a web page which may then be down-loaded onto a disc or printed onto paper as a hard copy. This fixing of symbolic content produces texts which, as stated above, must then be understood in terms of the context(s) of both their production and their reception. Thompson emphasizes that "The context of production is not also (or not to the same extent) a context of reception, nor are the contexts of reception also (or to the same extent) contexts of production" [Note 20].

[12] Whereas production fixed symbolic content, Thompson contends that reception "unfixed" it. He writes,

the uses that recipients make of symbolic materials may diverge considerably from the uses (if any) that the producers of these materials had in mind. Even if individuals may have relatively little control over the content of the symbolic materials made available to them, they can use these materials, rework them and elaborate them in ways that are quite alien to the aims and intentions of the producers [Note 21].

[13] As Thompson points out earlier, the ability of recipients to make use of and rework symbolic content did not imply that recipients were on the same footing as mass communication producers. Rather, recipients are "in a fundamentally unequal position" in terms of the exchange of symbolic goods because we have "relatively little power to determine the topic and content of communication" [Note 22]. For example, Xena is initially conceived of as a "compatible compliment" to Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. As David Tobenkin explains in a May 1995 article in Broadcasting and Cable, Hercules was the most successful action show of the '94-'95 season and MCA believed it needed a companion piece to secure its ratings [Note 23]. Thus, Xena was born out of time-slot marketing strategy rather than as an answer to (at that time) non-existent cries for a feisty, pseudo-feminist, lesbian-friendly, Amazonian superheroine. However, the disparity between producers and recipients, in terms of determining initial content, does not mean that the latter are merely passive spectators immersed in symbolic content supplied by the former; instead, they are engaged in the activity of reception.

Interpretation and Appropriation

[14] In his discussion of reception as a hermeneutic process, Thompson elaborates on what it meant to unfix symbolic content. It is here that he examined the processes of interpretation and appropriation. For Thompson, a hermeneutic process is a technique of interpretation through which recipients of media products made sense of symbolic content. Interpretation requires a certain degree of attentiveness to the media product as well as the application of culturally shared assumptions and expectations situated in a particular context. Although these sets of assumptions and expectations are common to a particular culture, each individual brought their own unique framework to bear on their interpretation. Consequently, interpretation varies from individual to individual or between specific groups [Note 24]. Thompson explains,

As with all symbolic forms, the meaning of a message conveyed by the media is not a static phenomenon, permanently fixed and transparent for all to see. Rather, the meaning or sense of a message should be regarded as a complex, shifting phenomenon that is continuously renewed, and to some extent transformed, by the very process of reception, interpretation, and re-interpretation [Note 25].

[15] The meaning or sense of a message may shift, but this does not mean that the message is open to all interpretations. As stated above, the tools that recipients use for interpretation are representative of their social and historical context and are, therefore, limited.

[16] As well as interpretation, the tradition of hermeneutics allows us to look at another aspect of reception: appropriation. Thompson describes appropriation as the means by which individuals incorporate symbolic content into their understanding of themselves and others. Simply put, "To appropriate a message is to take hold of its meaningful content and make it one's own" [Note 26]. By making it our own, we incorporate the message (or content) into our daily lives, adapting it to the specifics of our social and historical context. The activity of reception does not take place in a vacuum. Individuals usually discuss the media content they receive during both the initial process of reception and during subsequent discussions with others.

[17] The dialogue between recipients is much more than a recounting of the original message. In the course of discussing, original content is transformed through what Thompson describes as "an ongoing process of telling and retelling, interpretation and reinterpretation, commentary, laughter and criticism" [Note 27]. He describes this activity as "discursive elaboration" and argues that it involved a complex system of activities and could take place in a variety of locales.

[18] In the case of Xena, lesbians congregate at lesbian bars to watch, comment on and discuss the program week after week. As well, individual lesbian fans often view episodes at home and then discuss the show's content immediately afterwards in a cyber "chat room" on the web. Hence, discursive elaboration may be a relatively isolated activity or may involve a plurality of participants in varying locales. Whatever the case, Thompson argues that it provides "a narrative framework within which individuals recount their thoughts, feelings and experiences, inter-weaving aspects of their own lives with the re-telling of media messages and with their responses to the messages retold" [Note 28].

[19] Thompson states that through interpretation and appropriation, individuals are also involved in a method of self-formation and self-understanding. He argues that when recipients unfixed symbolic content and incorporated it into their daily lives, "[they were] actively fashioning a self by means of the messages and meaningful content supplied by media products (among other things)" [Note 29].

Understanding Personal and Cultural Identities

[20] We can expand this process of self-formation and self-understanding through discursive elaboration to include identity formation and an understanding of both our personal and cultural identit(ies) through interpretation and appropriation of media messages. This is reminiscent of Stuart Hall's argument for theorizing identity as something constituted within representation, "not as a second-hand mirror held up to reflect what already exists, but as that form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover places from which to speak" [Note 30].

[21] Hall's approach to identity formation allows us to more fully explore reception as a form of discursive elaboration. If, as Thompson argues, media content is transformed through an on-going process of telling and re-telling and interpretation and re-interpretation, then it can be argued, by extension, both personal identity and cultural identity are similarly transformed. It is precisely the ability to conceive of lesbian identity as something constituted within representation, yes, even mainstream representation, that Brownworth's editorial is lacking. Whether Brownworth likes it or not, through a process of interpretation and appropriation, lesbians are actively fashioning a self by means of the messages and meaningful content supplied by media products (among other things).

Lesbian Fan Fiction

I can't wait to see what I get to eat next season!

On the show, Gabrielle is usually too busy eating in taverns to notice girls (or boys).

[22] One of the more interesting sites where this fashioning of identity takes place is the romantic and erotic fiction of lesbian fans of Xena. Dozens of stories, which cultivate and expand on the TV program's lesbian-erotic subtext, can be found on the world-wide-web. For readers unfamiliar with this particular genre of fan fiction, I would like to offer a sense of XenaRotica. The following is a brief excerpt from Patricia L. Ennis' story "The Labrys" in which Ennis attempts to answer the question "What would happen if Gabrielle [Xena's faithful side-kick] wandered into a lesbian bar?" [Note 31] This passage occurs after Gabrielle has discovered a lesbian bar called The Labrys and has brought Xena there to rent a room for the night [Note 32] . Having earlier witnessed a romantic exchange between an Amazon warrior and her female lover, Gabrielle, for the first time in her life, is considering the possibilities of where her relationship with Xena might lead.

Slowly, Gabrielle turned to face her, her eyes travelling slower still, until they reached the expressive blue that had touched her heart so many times in the past. She didn't think, knowing she would lose her nerve if she gave herself even a few moments to do so. Instead, she laid her palm softly on Xena's tan cheek, feeling the warmth and softness there, wondering if she was as soft everywhere else.

What she was feeling must have shown in her eyes, because she felt the shudder run through Xena's limbs. She felt her heartache as the warrior's eyes closed and her lips parted, her head turning into the warmth of Gabrielle's palm. She raised herself onto her toes and pressed her lips against Xena's, finding them softer than she had imagined. A small sound came from the warrior's throat, a whimper that caused her heart to skip and set her body on fire. Xena tipped her head down and Gabrielle parted her lips, running her tongue across the warrior's lips until she opened them and let her taste her mouth.

Xena broke away with a gasp. "Stop... Stop it Gabrielle".

"Why?" Her whole body ached as Xena moved away.

"Because, you're not ready for this".

"I'm not ready for this?" Gabrielle reached out and grabbed her hand, pressing it against her chest where her heart was doing its best to hammer its way out of her body. "Do you feel that? Do you know that I have never felt this way in my life?" Her cheeks reddened. "If that doesn't convince you, I know somewhere else I can put your hand that might".

[23] Many of the stories are similarly themed and involve Xena and Gabrielle having sex for the first time, usually with an innocent Gabrielle seducing a more experienced Xena. However, occasionally Xena is the seducer. For example, in another story, Xena discovers a scroll written by Gabrielle (who just happens to be a bard) which contains an imagined scene of seduction between the two. However, Gabrielle's writing abruptly ends where the sex would have begun. Initially puzzled, Xena realizes Gabrielle has no idea what sex between two women would entail. Of course Xena promptly remedies this by showing her exactly what it would it entail [Note 33].

[24] Have the writers and readers of this fan fiction merely succumbed to a pretty face (and a pretty amazing body) in a leather skirt and metal bustier? Are they so desperate for representations of "real" lesbians that they will go to any length, even so far as contriving fictional accounts of lesbian desire based on a TV character of questionable orientation played by a heterosexual actress? Far from being a shameful practice borne out of desperation (and likely to give us hairy palms), is it possible to see fandom, particularly lesbian fandom around non-overtly lesbian texts, as a practice borne out of resistance and bespeaking a sophisticated and playful relationship to mainstream media representations?

Table of Contents
Next Section

Return to Top Return to Index