Baiting the Fandom That Feeds You

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Homage wall to Ianto Jones, half of a slash ship made canon

With fandom’s migration online and the rise of Social Media, any hope of hiding fan practices has basically disintegrated. Creators (including performers, writers, directors and producers) are actively encouraged to interact with fans via platforms like Twitter, Facebook and even Tumblr. So while some fans desperately attempt to maintain the illusion of the Fourth Wall – TPTB (the powers that be) seem hell bent on destroying it entirely.

Except that they don’t want to, not really because while they are happy to engage with fandom on their terms they tend to become increasingly uncomfortable when fandom takes control of the conversation. TPTB don’t want to destroy the Fourth Wall, they want to control it. The best example of this is seen when TPTB directly court slash fans – as seen in the Supernatural and Teen Wolf fandoms.

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An emotional moment with Dean and Castiel

Supernatural and Teen Wolf are known for having active fanbases with popular slash ships.  Both shows have courted slash fans in different ways. Supernatural does it through the actual text – including mentions of Wincest (Sam/Dean), having other characters suggest that Dean and Castiel are a couple and employing established romantic tropes. Teen Wolf does this via Social Media – encouraging fans to vote for Teen Wolf with shippy vids and Jeff Davis suggesting that if enough fans demand it he could be persuaded (which should just be no.1 on the list of things showrunners should NEVER say).

For the most part this has yielded positive results. Both shows have won numerous online polls – which does wonders for exposure. Teen Wolf’s viewership is increasing with every season and the Season 9 premiere of Supernatural saw it’s best ratings in 3 years. While directly acknowledging slash fans certainly doesn’t seem to have adverse effects, it’s not without it’s problems, as seen in a couple of recent fandom meltdowns.

Last week an article about slash fandom – basically the same unoriginal drivel we’ve been seeing for the past twenty years – sent the Sterek (Stiles/Derek, Teen Wolf) fandom into a tail spin. Jeff Davis, who has been praised for his acceptance of the potential slash ship, apparently admitted that while Sterek fans definitely boosted popularity, “Fan desire rarely comes into play in the writers room.” Many fans took this as Jeff admitting to deliberately using the Sterek fandom.

This comes in the wake of the drama in the Supernatural fandom a couple of weeks ago when a WB executive, Chad Kennedy, dismissed the popular slash ship Destiel (Dean/Castiel) after a somewhat problematic episode. He then deleted his twitter – although he has since returned – prompting accusations of bullying within fandom, although most of the tweets directed at Kennedy were critical rather than hateful.

As an active member of fandom and an admitted fangirl I accept that fans have a tendency to overreact sometimes and we can take things a little too seriously. I’m also aware there are some awful people within fandom that give the rest of us a bad name and I know that direct interaction via social media is new, so we should cut everyone some slack. But if TPTB choose to openly acknowledge a slash ship – whether it’s within the text or via social media – then they should be prepared to accept the conversation that comes with it. Especially if they plan of reaping the rewards an active slash fandom can provide.

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Derek Hale and Stiles Stilinski

Neither Supernatural nor Teen Wolf have shied away from slash, they are both happy to wink and laugh with the fandom, yet they always seem to be caught off guard when someone asks whether all these hints are actually leading somewhere. When the conversation takes this turn, TPTB tend to become vague and/or defensive, which is frustrating considering they were the ones that started the conversation.

The thing is, once TPTB openly acknowledge something they open the topic up for discussion. Most fans are happy to employ a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude to fan practices, and even if they want to talk about it, they’re not likely to start the conversation themselves. But when TPTB are the ones that bring it up they are essentially giving fandom permission to talk about it. Once they knock down that wall, it’s very hard to put it back up again without making themselves look bad.

To be fair, the mainstream media’s treatment of slash and fandom in general doesn’t help the situation. They do tend to talk about fannish behaviour like it’s something bizarre or deviant that ‘normal’ people don’t engage in, which prevents TPTB from taking us seriously. That said, it’s still a conscious choice to engage with slash or any other aspects of fandom, and if TPTB make this choice they have to be prepared to take the bad with the good.

I’m not suggesting we rebuild the fourth wall, especially considering the fourth wall does not exist, I’m just saying that TPTB should consider the consequences of actively courting a fanbase without taking it seriously. Believe me, fandom WILL take it seriously whether you want them to or not and TPTB need to be prepared for that.

If you can’t stand the tweets, get out of the fandom.

images courtesy of MTV and the CW

Author: Undie Girl

Undie Girl (aka Von) has a BA (Hons) Major in Cultural Studies. The title of her honours thesis was “It’s just gay and porn”: Power, Identity and the Fangirl’s Gaze. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Media Practice at University of Sydney. Von’s a former contributor The Backlot’s column The Shipping News and a current co-host of The Geekiary’s monthly webcast FEELINGS… with The Geekiary.