Currently an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at UT Austin, Dr. Suzanne Scott is a scholar focused on fan cultures, gender studies, popular culture, and the various ways they intersect. She has recently published a fantastic analysis of gender and fandom titled Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry. Wanting to learn more about her career as well as Fake Geek Girls, I was able to interview Dr. Scott for Sequart.
You can learn more about Dr. Scott by following her on Twitter at @iheartfatapollo.
Nicholas Yanes: Working toward becoming a professor of media is the mental equivalent of climbing a mountain. What inspired you to pursue this interest in popular culture and media? Was there a moment in which you knew this was the right path for you?
Suzanne Scott: I graduated with a degree in media studies from NYU and was very fortunate to transition an internship I had with Lionsgate Films into a position as the Assistant to the VP of Publicity immediately upon graduating. So, I moved to LA, and while I thoroughly enjoyed working for Lionsgate, it became apparent to me very quickly that I wasn’t going to be content in the long term just thinking about how to best promote media properties to consumers. My time working in the industry unquestionably had a major impact on many of the core critical concerns of my work today, but I’ve been invested in fan studies since I discovered as an undergrad in the late ‘90s that the fanfiction I was writing in my dorm room into the wee hours of the morning was also a legitimate field of academic study. The moment I knew this was the right path was a bit of a dramatic one, to be honest. My mom injured her neck in a car accident (fear not, she recovered and is fine now), but I realized in taking care of her that I didn’t want to help sell movies to audiences or mobilize fan bases for the rest of my life, but rather think about why audiences and fans invest emotionally in popular media, and how the industry attempts to contain and / or monetize these investments.
Yanes: Studies of popular culture are often dismissed by those outside of this field. How do you approach defending pop-culture studies?
Scott: Media both reflects and refracts the culture it emerges from and the culture that receives it. To better understand our cultural values and norms, and challenges to both, it’s essential that we take pop culture seriously. For example, in Fake Geeks Girls I gesture to the fact that things that microcosmically played out within fan culture over the past decade functioned as a cultural bellwether for our current political climate, and also have weaponized that climate to bolster some of the more isolationist or xenophobic dimensions of fan culture (as well as progressive pushback to these efforts). In short, if pop culture is our lingua franca, and I believe it is, it is thus not only vital to build literacies in both readings and writing (or remixing), but also acknowledge the many different tongues and cultural contexts in play.
Yanes: You are currently a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and I ask everyone who lives in the Austin area this question: Given that Austin has some amazing restaurants and food trucks, what some of your favorite places to eat at?
Scott: I could easily write a book on this topic, as it is one of my favorites. I will attempt to restrain myself and keep this list to the essential Austin food groups:
- Breakfast tacos: Veracruz All Natural (migas poblanas)
- Queso: Torchy’s (yes, a chain restaurant, I was surprised too, but this wins hands down)
- BBQ: Micklethwait Craft Meats
- Coffee Shops to work at (that also have great food): Thunderbird Coffee, Batch
- Places to eat and drink under string lights: Schoolhouse Pub, Butterfly Bar, Sour Duck Market
- Breweries: Southern Heights, Vista Brewing (technically in Driftwood, but worth the drive)
- Fancy schmancy dinner spots you can still wear jeans to: Odd Duck, Dai Due, Kemuri Tatsuya
- Desserts: Cop Stop from Amy’s (coffee ice cream with donuts in it…enough said)
Yanes: You recently published an amazing analysis of how women are represented and treated in fan cultures and by Hollywood studios. What was the inspiration behind writing Fake Geek Girls?
Scott: This is a topic I’ve been orbiting around for well over a decade now. My dissertation was also focused on how male fans benefit more actively from the mainstreaming of geek culture, though it was in the early years of that trend, and the project has evolved and changed considerably since then. Misogyny within fan and geek culture was only beginning to become a more visible and discussed problem as I was writing in 2009, and the issues I identify in the book regarding the standardization of fan identities were only beginning to coalesce and weren’t yet being weaponized by small collectives of fans to the extent they are now.
The major inspiration, honestly, has been both my own experience of shifts in fan culture over the past decade, and my myriad conversations with other women in geek culture who are experiencing the same. We all have the same stories: being repeatedly tested in order to authenticate our fan identities, being asked if a male friend or partner was the reason we were at the opening night of a Star Wars movie, not seeing ourselves represented in media, news articles, or on panels at conventions. The corresponding rise of the alt right, men’s rights movements, and the anti-feminist and white supremacist nostalgia that helped elect Trump was, if not an “inspiration,” certainly key to shaping my thinking about how similar tensions have been playing out in geek and fan culture over the past decade, albeit on a microcosmic level.
Yanes: While researching Fake Geek Girls, what was some information you came across that took you by surprise?
Scott: This will inevitably read like I’m trying to dodge your question, but I think the thing that was most surprising to me was how deeply unsurprising many of the details I uncovered were. Moreover, because I’ve been so embedded within digital fan culture from its inception, I’m consistently surprised by how surprising these stories about sexism within geek culture are to those I share my research with who are less intimately familiar with these spaces. For example, I teach courses in video game studies and my undergrad students (who are very enmeshed in gamer culture) don’t have a clear sense what Gamergate was about or vaguely remember the events a scant few years after it occurred. The reality is, it wasn’t difficult to find a horrible and disheartening new case study for me to add to my pile, on an almost daily basis, as I was writing. So much of what I’m describing in the book is about the potential cumulative effect of incidents that might appear isolated at first glance, that I’m less interesting in any one incident than in tracking patterns and power dynamics over time.
Yanes: It is firmly established that Ghostbusters (2016) underperformed at the box office. In contrast, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel were films that both dealt with sexist criticism but were still financially profitable. Why do you think some movies are able to overcome sexist attacks? On this note, do you think consumers who embody toxic masculinity actually have substantial consumer power or are they more of a vocal minority?
Scott: We live in an era in which vocal minorities can have outsized power and impact, for good or for ill. My concern stems from the fact that the small collectives of predominantly white, cishet, male fans you seem to be describing here have decades of evidence that their voices will be listened to more closely by industry, and the attendant sense of entitlement and privilege that comes with it. That said, I think there’s a false equivalency in the aforementioned example: taking nothing away from their incredible popularity and success, Wonder Woman was given a sort of backdoor pilot outing with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Likewise, it’s virtually impossible at this point to totally separate the success of Captain Marvel from the box office juggernaut that is the MCU. Certainly, these films performed well beyond expectations (which, in itself, says something about how skittish the industry remains about female-driven superhero properties, even with a growing roster of examples of their economic returns). If anything, I think sexist attacks might have a counterintuitive effect, driving fans to “vote with their wallet” and ensure that a clear message is sent to media conglomerates that this diversity is valued, precisely by making these properties valuable for industry.
Moreover, there’s something to be said for the burden that any female-driven blockbuster or tentpole film bears regarding box office success. With Ghostbusters, the issue was far more the outsized production and marketing budget, which essentially set it up to fail well before a handful of dudes started complaining and calling “boycott” in YouTube videos. The bottom line is that female-driven films have to overperform in order to be deemed a success, and breaking even often designates them as “flops” and potentially has a chilling effect on more of these stories being produced. In all of these cases, I think these films took these sexist attacks in stride, the broader issue is how the goalposts tend to be moved for any media property that challenges nostalgic ideas about a media property OR its imagined audience.
Yanes: With discussions about gender inequality and institutionalized sexism becoming more prevalent, there does seem to be more entertainment content being made with feminist ideals in mind. So, what are some movies and shows you think embody and help promote feminism?
Scott: While I definitely think there’s a place for programs that brutally and effectively articulate the potential ramifications of our current anti-feminist climate or advocate for the ongoing need for feminism (e.g. The Handmaid’s Tale), these days I am finding myself drawn to lighter fare that casually but nonetheless critically promote feminist ideals, like Brooklyn 99 or One Day at a Time. I absolutely loved the “Mother of All Matches” episode from season 2 of Glow. As far as films go, obviously Black Panther, and while I wouldn’t claim they promote feminism I am also really appreciative of films like The Favorite and TV series like Killing Eve that center dynamic female characters.
Yanes: On this note, are their any shows or films you think have tried to come off as ‘woke’ but have failed to internalize and understand these politics?
Scott: This is a great question, and one I wish I had a good answer for. The closest thing that comes to mind at the moment are examples of satire that don’t stick the landing (or end up reveling in the very tropes they claim to want to deconstruct): something like Big Little Lies, or even The Incredibles 2, comes to mind.
Yanes: When people finish reading Fake Geek Girls, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Scott: I hope that it serves as a document (albeit not an exhaustive or definitive one) of this moment of transition within geek and fan culture. I hope that it serves as a gateway to more granular considerations of how this moment is playing out for an array of fan identities beyond the book’s focus on gender, and that the core argument regarding the issues with industrial efforts to standardize fan identities will be productive to help others think through these issues.
Finally, and perhaps selfishly, I hope readers don’t find it overwhelmingly depressing, or cynical, but rather a call to arms. I note early that there are myriad other books that I might have written about progressive pushback from fans during this same period, and I pointedly pepper those examples throughout the book to gesture to that fact.
Yanes: Additionally, what more do you think consumers can do to demand less toxic fan communities?
Scott: Fandom has always been toxic, or rather many minority fans have experienced the toxic dimensions of fan culture well before it was getting mainstream media coverage, as I discuss in the chapter devoted to instances of “spreadable misogyny,” and accordingly I’m not sure how far demands are going to get us on this front. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t call out or condemn toxic behavior when we see it, but I also believe that to disproportionately focus on it (especially when it makes up such a small minority of fan interactions), might be equally dangerous. So, for example, I think we are on the precipice of a wave of amazing work on various forms of “reactionary fandom,” which gets us away from the word “toxic” (which, itself, has become somewhat slippery and too easily applied as an infectious force rather than dealing with underlying causes such as racism or internet subcultural practices such as trolling). A discussion of “reactionary” fandom not only puts these incidents in conversation with politics broadly, but with pre-existing work on forms of fan activism that have historically focused on progressive fan campaigns. At this point, I think it’s less about attempting to “fix” toxic fandom than to find the most effective ways to intervene in the ways that mainstream social media platforms facilitate it.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Scott: I’m working on a couple of articles right now. One serves as an addendum to Fake Geek Girls’ discussion of Chris Hardwick. Specifically, I’m interested in exploring white women voting for Trump in 2016, white feminism’s positioning within the #metoo movement, and the large number of middle-aged white women who vociferously jumped to Hardwick’s defense in the wake of sexual and emotional abuse allegations from an ex-girlfriend in 2018. I’m doing this through a corpus analysis of a Change.Org petition to reinstate Hardwick as the host of Talking Dead.
I also have two book projects in the works that I’m really excited about: the first is an anthology I’m co-editing with Elizabeth Affuso, Sartorial Fandom: Fashion, Beauty Culture, and Identity. This collection of essays historicize and theorize the rapidly developing intersections between fan culture and fashion and beauty culture. My next monograph, The Fan Body, which I’m just starting work on now, will involve extensive fieldwork, interviews, and surveys, and bring literature from body studies, performance studies, critical race theory, and disability studies into conversation with the field of fan studies. If Fake Geek Girls explores the standardization of fan identities over the past decade, then The Fan Body strives to better understand how marginalized fans are experiencing these dynamics in their daily lives. So, the chapters will thematically focus on fashion, food, fitness, tattoos and make-up, cosplay, and sex. I’m really excited to get going on it, and to be able to feature fan voices much more actively in this project.
Remember, you can learn more about Dr. Scott by following her on Twitter at @iheartfatapollo.