Race and Ethnicity in Fandom: Praxis

Fandom as industrial response: Producing identity in an independent Web series

Aymar Jean Christian

Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

[0.1] Abstract—I frame the development, production, and distribution of a Web series, The Real Girl's Guide to Everything Else, as a fan-driven response to an industrial product, Sex and the City. As intermittent participants in the Hollywood industry, the series creators, a diverse group of lesbian, bisexual, and straight women of various ethnicities, positioned their series as a market-oriented product intended to reform the industry from its margins and participate in a growing new media economy. Expanded notions of fan production and industry are needed, as are fresh frameworks for analyzing the effects of digital distribution, especially for communities of color, of women, and of sexual minorities.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan production; Gender; Industry; Race; The Real Girl's Guide to Everything Else; Sex and the City; Sexuality

Christian, Aymar Jean. 2011. "Fandom as Industrial Response: Producing Identity in an Independent Web Series." In "Race and Ethnicity in Fandom," edited by Robin Anne Reid and Sarah Gatson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0250.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The opening scenes of the Web series The Real Girl's Guide to Everything Else reflect what has become a convention in woman-centered television and film: four young girlfriends sitting chatting casually at brunch. "There were definitely some overt nods we wanted to make to Sex and the City, from a script perspective and from a style perspective," the series' writer and executive producer told me in an interview. Yet the scene almost immediately deviates from HBO's titan of women's programming. The camera first focuses on each woman's shoes, a diverse assortment including a pair of dowdy doctor sneakers, strappy heels, work boots, and bare feet. The first girl we see, Vanna, is black, and her friends are discussing not relationships or sex, but a professional disagreement the lead character, Rasha, is having with her publisher. Rasha, a Lebanese lesbian, is being forced by her publisher to write a straight, mass-market, chick-lit book instead of a political work on women's rights in Afghanistan. The story revolves around Rasha's venture into (presumably white) heterosexuality as she sacrifices her political ideals to get the story she wants. Real Girl's Guide establishes itself as an intervention in race and women's genres, television, gender, and sexuality in a specific political and industrial moment. I interviewed the creators—six total, including the writer, the director, two actors, and the associate and executive producers—to theorize Real Girl's Guide as a case study in how industry workers, driven, as many producers are, by fandom, respond to mainstream texts and practices in ways that are both political and industrial in nature.

[1.2] The story of Real Girl's Guide illuminates the possibilities and challenges opened up by convergence culture, by Web series as a form, and by independent production as a fan practice. The producers of Real Girl's Guide, simultaneously fans and antifans of products like Sex and the City and occasional participants in Hollywood (mostly as actors), brought to their project an attempt to reinvent production practices and representation toward more "democratic" ends, making them more attuned to race and sexuality, the diversity within the women's market, and the affective sensibilities of fans of women's genres. In this attempt, they were partially successful, but the scale of their project raises questions about to what extent the market can absorb such work. In the end, Real Girl's Guide demonstrates how Web series are offering new ways of producing content and new avenues to explore and challenge representations, but also how they bring to light the limits on how revolutionary new media and fan practices can be.

[1.3] As will be discussed, Real Girl's Guide and its creators are not fan studies scholars' traditional objects of study. The show's creators used their love of a particular media property, Sex and the City, to market their own series not to a community of fans devoted to it, but to a broader group of women, in order to put forth a progressive agenda about race, gender, and sexuality in televisual representations. The urge to produce that is visible here is not new—fan studies in general and studies of fandom in marginalized groups in particular have offered countless examples of independent production, broadly conceived. What marks Real Girl's Guide as a slight departure from the transformative works more often studied is that it is pitched not only to a community of like-minded fans but also to the industry of Hollywood, (potential) advertisers, and the media as a product created by a group of marginalized workers leveraging convergence culture for their purposes.

[1.4] Real Girl's Guide is just one example of hundreds of Web series being produced by independent filmmakers, who work on the margins of Hollywood as fans of the industry but also its harshest critics. These series are as diverse and varied as anything on television or in film and include newer genres specific to digital media. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Real Girl's Guide is necessarily representative of the broader, as yet undeveloped market for episodic Web programming. There are not many Web series made by GLBTQ people or by people of color, though there are at least a hundred. Interviews with these producers suggest that many of them create shows both for commercial reasons (though few make money or get sponsors) and, more importantly, to correct mainstream representations and of the industry in general. Sex and the City is a common object of love and dissent (Christian 2010b).

[1.5] What we call a "Web series" is a peculiar invention. It exists variously as amateur and independent media and as corporate and advertising product. Short form and low budget, it is not quite television but is still filmed and episodic. Originating in the 1990s but picking up in the mid-2000s, Web series developed primarily as a vehicle for independent filmmakers and production companies to tell stories and grow audiences in ways previously unavailable to them: in ways more sustained than YouTube-based viral videos, higher in audience scale than most low-budget film, with a lower cost and fewer barriers to entry than mainstream television, but also with the smallest potential for revenue from advertising and sponsorship. Web series, then, exist between the conflicting and shifting currents in the new media economy. They represent the desire among many working in media for a new kind of television, as mainstream television industries face uncertainties about their business models. They suggest the maturation of online video from one-off amateur content to more rigorous—and expensive—production (Christian 2011).

[1.6] Independent Web series, therefore, move discussions of fandom from affective, cultural, and moral economies to the industrial economy, where the values of alterative narratives of race, gender, and sexuality are brutally negotiated in a market for stories and viewers. Confronted with this market, producers, as fans, poach from the industry its narrative formulas and some marketing practices, but offer up more loose and flexible means of production along with more open and diverse forms of representation.

[1.7] Real Girl's Guide is a tiny show by film and TV standards and is a small, lean operation. The series produced six episodes, each between 5 and 10 minutes in length, making about 40 minutes total. The producers also filmed some auxiliary (fan) content: about 25 minutes of vlogs from potential dates for its lead characters (in the show Rasha goes on a series of Match.com-like dates with men). Season 1's total budget neared $10,000, slightly more than that of many independent Web series but far below that of mainstream or corporate Web content. Across multiple distribution sites, the series has amassed a total of 200,000 views as of this writing, fewer than a typical viral video and many of the top Web series, but a respectable number for a low-budget niche Web show; the vast majority of indie series fail to make such a mark. Most of the series' fans were young women, and the producers assume a large number of them were racial minorities.

2. Economies of fandom: Toward fandom as industrial practice

[2.1] I attempt here to marry independent production in convergence culture to broader discussions of fandom. While this joint consideration of independents producing for both communities and markets may seem peculiar, it borrows heavily from theories of users (fans) feeling compelled to produce their own material to fill in narrative holes within mainstream media texts (Jenkins 2006).

[2.2] For marginalized groups, the need to produce is greater, and while fan studies has been relatively silent on issues of race, it has provided a robust literature on the interpretive work women have done as fans. Jenkins notes that the media's structural blindness to women as readers causes them to "find ways to remake those narratives, at least imaginatively" (2006, 117). Fan studies of women have traditionally examined how they collectively imagine and produce robust alternative worlds; these studies include Sarah Wakefield's (2001) work on how Scully fans created alternative communities in opposition to other groups devoted to The X-Files, Nancy Baym's (2000) studies of soap opera fan communities, Helen Taylor's (1989) work on Gone with the Wind, and Camille Bacon-Smith's (1992, 228–54) work on slash. The women in these studies do the work of interpretation, from "small acts of personal power and assertiveness" such as naming pets and children after favorite characters (Taylor 1989, 31) to selecting what novels within a genre to read and endorse (Radway 1984). "Production" becomes a natural extension of a practice of radical personalization that female fans undertake as subjects excluded from mainstream narratives. Like Bacon-Smith's writers of slash and Francesca Coppa's (2008) Star Trek vidders, the Real Girl's Guide creators have taken notions of play and personalization from producing for communities to producing both for communities and—potentially—for the market: "All imaginative play…requires at least an underlying assumption of narrative, a 'what if' carried out to its structural completion" (Bacon-Smith 1992, 291). The question raised by Real Girl's Guide is, what if Sex and the City reflected the racial and sexual diversity of "real" women, and what if our production used the franchise to show the market this imaginative possibility?

[2.3] Why focus on independent production by marginalized individuals? One could argue that fan studies has always been concerned with marginality, as preoccupied with its implications as are scholars of identity—race, gender, class, and sexuality—in post-Marxist cultural studies. With its now lengthy intellectual history, fan studies continues to grapple with the marginality of fan activity, even as—or perhaps because—fan production has become so valuable to the industry. Fan production ought to be seen as an industrial practice, an attempt to speak to and reform the industry within a marketplace not only of ideas, but also of capital. For those historically excluded from mainstream production—as the multiracial, sexually diverse producers of Real Girl's Guide are—such a vision is crucial to understanding why and how fans produce responses to mainstream texts such as Sex and the City.

[2.4] Fan scholarship has provided robust theories for understanding the value of fandom outside of traditional political economy in order to validate the activity of people far outside of Hollywood and New York. Among the most prominent of these is John Fiske's "cultural economy of fandom," and his 1992 article bearing that title is a seminal text. Using Bourdieu, Fiske seeks to legitimate a "pop culture economy" that brings industrial texts from capital markets to the realm of culture: "The relationship of popular culture to the culture industries is therefore complex and fascinating, sometimes conflictive, sometimes complicitous or co-operative, but the people are never at the mercy of the industries—they choose to make some of their commodities into popular culture" (48). Fiske's concept was useful for taking fan studies out of the realm of pathology—a very real concern (Jenson 1992, 9–29)—and into that of valid cultural criticism. Fiske framed fan practices as noncommodities or different kinds of commodities: he saw fandom as making "commodities into pop culture" instead of making commodities in itself, a general position echoed in early scholarship (Ang 1985; Katz and Liebes 1993; Jenkins 1992; Radway 1984). Later formulations of the "moral economy" focused on "social expectations, emotional investments, and cultural transactions that create a shared understanding between all participants within an economic exchange" (Green and Jenkins 2009, 214). Such theories appropriately responded to what most fan practices were: the work largely of amateurs or independents working far outside the industry and making mostly noncommercial products.

[2.5] As mainstream industries (particularly television) grew aware of the power of fan engagement, fan studies sought to make sense of the interactions that developed between the industrial economy and alternative economies. Much of the research revolved around mediating the feuds between the industry's quest for money and fans' noncommercial practices, implicitly separating the two in order to legitimate and indicate the importance of fan production. Positioning fan practice as a cultural activity—rather than an industrial activity—reflected how most fans talked about their practice and confirmed it as an important object of scholarly study:

[2.6] One becomes a "fan" not by being a regular viewer of a particular program but by translating that viewing into some kind of cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about the program content with friends, by joining a "community" of other fans who share common interests. For fans consumption naturally sparks production, reading generates writing, until the terms seem logically inseparable. (Jenkins 2006, 41)

[2.7] In the earlier years of fan studies, fans were described as reluctantly poaching from mainstream texts to satisfy and produce nonindustrial demands. But corporations wanted to use fan production to make more money. Controversy erupted when producers failed to heed fan advice about industrial texts (Jenkins 1992, 120–51, for example) or betrayed their trust (Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998, 174–74). As the Web has made it easier to harness user-generated content, numerous scholars have crafted theories of the relationship between fan practices and major media companies, seeing it variously as mutual (Banks and Deuze 2009), conflicted (Jarrett 2008a, 2008b; Burgess and Green 2009), or exploitative (Andrejevic 2008; Terranova 2000).

[2.8] While all of these theories and studies are rich and appropriate for their objects of study, we need to build upon them to incorporate a key and increasingly important part of fan production: fan-inspired Web series as commodities meant to push the industry in one direction or another, works aimed not only at a subculture or fan community but also at the market itself. Real Girl's Guide shows what happens when creators come from marginalized groups with a much more conflicted relationship to mainstream texts, when those creators regularly interact with the industry, and when the Web offers sophisticated distribution platforms, a small but growing economy where fans can, if they want to and if they are lucky, make money. The minority, female, and lesbian and bisexual creators of Real Girl's Guide, who are excluded from the centers of the industry but still participate in it, are not satisfied to create texts solely for cultural or subcultural economies.

[2.9] The writer, director, and producers of Real Girl's Guide are mostly actors who regularly audition and work for traditional media industries, primarily television. They produced their Web series not only to buttress their résumés, but also to resolve the fundamental flaws they see in how television series are made, cast, and marketed. This essay takes from John Caldwell (2008) a more expansive view of production culture, going beyond the most visible "above the line" participants and the less visible "below the line" workers to include the marginal, incidental players: the actors who occasionally get cast, the producers with limited resources, the independent filmmakers who sell a single work to public television. I frame their practices as industrial, as crucial to the state of the industry as are the network television studios. In this effort I contribute to a growing body of literature that sees independent production in the digital age as fundamental to understanding changes in media economies (Mann 2010).

3. Practicing political representation

[3.1] Producing culture is political, and Real Girl's Guide's origins are explicitly so. The series makes clear how independent artists react to mainstream and corporate content and create new works out of their readings of this content. While the series is superficially at odds with Sex and the City and many other mass-marketed products, interviews with the show's creators revealed a more complicated politics, motivated by discontent and dismissal but animated by respect, love, and eagerness to improve the industry and its texts by reforming practices behind the camera and representations in series content. Because the barriers to distribution and production of Web series are lower, the core of women making Real Girl's Guide were able to channel their disagreements with the industry into a productive, restorative endeavor.

[3.2] But it was irritation, not affection, that initiated the Real Girl's Guide project. Screenwriter Carmen Elena Mitchell, who is white and identifies as bisexual, started writing the script the day after she saw the first Sex and the City movie with Reena Dutt, a straight Indian American woman who became associate producer of Real Girl's Guide and also played Sydney in it. "I was just really appalled by the materialism, the lack of diversity, the superficiality…They're pretty bad movies. But they still got an audience," Mitchell told me. Dutt echoed Mitchell's concerns, noting that the one actor of color in the film, Jennifer Hudson (playing Carrie's personal assistant, Louise), was allotted a stereotypical role. Mitchell made clear that it was the Sex and the City film, not necessarily the TV series, that spurred the production of Real Girl's Guide. The series, she said, addressed real issues. Mitchell interpreted the film's materialism and thin story line as disrespectful to the series' fans, who flocked to it in droves so they could revisit the characters: "I think what's happened is they basically took the success of the series and exploited that, exploited people's attachment to the characters and basically used it as a way to sell shoes…I think both movies are totally product-driven." (The creators of Real Girl's Guide were not the only ones who, after the release of the film, responded to it in this way: writer Elisa Kreisinger developed the Queer Carrie Project after its release [Coppa 2010].)

[3.3] At face value, such statements are clear examples of antifandom and the moral text. "Hate or dislike of a text can," as Jonathan Gray writes, "be just as powerful as can a strong and admiring, affective relationship with a text, and they can produce just as much activity, identification, meaning, and 'effects' or serve just as powerfully to unite and sustain a community or subculture" (2005, 841). Dutt and Mitchell's feelings did initiate production, but not simply to sustain a community or subculture. Their statements above represent a carefully constructed characterization of Hollywood, one eventually aimed at a reformative project to produce an alternative commodity: the Web series. While appearing to criticize the media as a whole, Mitchell's comments are actually directed at specific industry practices and dynamics: the need to extend the profitability of a franchise, the presumed exploitation of female audiences as an underserved market, the casting of mostly white actors in Hollywood films, and the use of product placement to help underwrite large production budgets. Marketing and content were particular concerns of hers—and the large investment required for films, versus the relatively cheaper form of television, heightened her concern. Mitchell remarked on the narrow range of content sold to women:

[3.4] The movies that we see that are marketed towards women, they tend to be white, all this retail therapy: "you're sad so you go out and buy shoes." It's just very consumer-driven. Story tends to be secondary. There are a lot of familiar plots that we see again and again. There's this idea that we're just giving people what they want, but I don't think that's true.

[3.5] Here, Mitchell identifies the areas where current industry practices are limited: race in marketing, ideologies of mass culture (Ang 1985), narrative formulas, and the presumed desires of monolithic minority or female audiences.

[3.6] Aside from criticizing corporate practices—to be addressed in the following section—most of the Web series' creators lamented the limits and flaws of the marketplace for actors, which were made clear by Sex and the City's narrow representation of white women. Dutt, who is primarily an actor, focused on the lack of "fulfilling" roles for women of color within the industry, recalling personal incidents: "Most of the time I'll walk into an audition office, and I'll get into character and they'll say, 'can you do this with an [Indian] accent?'" Nikki Brown, who is black and played Vanna is Real Girl's Guide, said roles deemphasizing race are hard to come by in Hollywood: "You come out here and it's not quite about talent…The representations aren't as positive as I'd like them to be, for my own race." Robin Dalea, who identifies as multiethnic and played Rasha, the lead, said the issue is supply and demand: there are many more actors than there are roles, and race and gender only add to those imbalances.

[3.7] Real Girl's Guide, then, is a product of discontent with the industry, with how it operates both behind the scenes and within its products. It is not, however, a resistant project in the colloquial sense. Mitchell is not anti-industry or anticapitalism. She characterizes Real Girl's Guide as a commodity intended to change "what's seen as marketable for women," and she praises progressive examples in the mass media, citing writer-actor Tina Fey as a positive force. In fact, all of the Web series' creators peppered our conversations with examples of what they see as positive changes in the mainstream media. Reena Dutt cited South Asian actors—The Office's Mindy Kaling and Scrubs's Sonal Shah—and black actors—Jada Pinkett-Smith and Halle Berry—as examples of women who produced their own original material. Jennifer Weaver, an associate producer on Real Girl's Guide who also played Liz (the lead's girlfriend), praised the roles for women on Showtime's Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco) and CBS's The Good Wife (Julianna Marguiles). Nikki Brown cited the diversity on True Blood (the lead's black best friend, Tara, played by Rutina Wesley), and Robin Dalea highlighted roles for women and people of color on Grey's Anatomy, Damages, and Mad Men. But such roles "are rare, and a lot of them are white," she said.

[3.8] The creators turned their disappointment into a project to correct representational imbalances. Aware of what the industry does well and where it needs to be improved, the production team sought to create a different model for media representation. Simply, Real Girl's Guide takes what it wants from the mainstream and leaves out what it disagrees with. Its most obvious differences are its lesbian lead and multicultural cast. For Mitchell, it was important to write scripts that did not force the characters to play up their race or sexuality. "I liked that Carmen wrote diverse characters where that wasn't the focal point," said Brown, who found it "refreshing" that her character, Vanna, "went to Columbia, is bossy, and happens to be African American…You don't get that that often." Heather de Michele, the series director, who is white and identifies as lesbian, liked that race did not drive the story, despite the diversity of the cast. "The characters happen to be of color but it has nothing to do with the story," she said.

[3.9] Despite its issues with Sex and the City, Real Girl's Guide is still a fannish work, aware of which conceits and strategies work well—as noted before, all of the women behind the camera are avid film and television fans and follow industry trends. Like many Web series, Real Girl's Guide borrows from elements of the show that inspired it, both visually and narratively, while adapting it to fit niche communities and personal experiences. This is a more flexible, inclusive way of making a series than is standard in the industry. As she tried to establish the tone of the show, Mitchell imagined how the Sex and the City foursome would fit into her own life, demonstrating an affective (interpretive and personal) relationship with the media text characteristic of most fan practice: "If the Sex and the City women were real women, and they were my friends, who would they be?" Mitchell used her diverse network of friends for inspiration—some of whom, like Dutt and Weaver, were participants in the series—and the conversations in the show loosely mirrored "half-serious" and "crazy" conversations she has had in her own life. Other characters, moreover, are loosely based on the actors playing them. Visually, de Michele, the director, retained some explicit nods to the HBO series: the focus on shoes and the shots of the girls having brunch were deliberately retained and emphasized. "These women would take the time to get together and be together," she said. "That was actually kind of neat about Sex and the City, something that we actually enjoyed."

[3.10] At the same time, the Web series, as a work of antifandom, takes pains to differentiate itself in numerous ways from its inspiration, most obviously, as discussed, in its racially and sexually diverse cast. In addition to these factors of identity, the series seeks to create a world more visually raw and less slick than Sex and the City. "We wanted to sort of strip away the pretense," de Michele said, through the use of natural lighting and handheld camera work, which have become de rigeur in many Web series and independent films. In keeping with her feminist principles, Mitchell used a professional dilemma, not a relationship issue, as the driving force in the plot. She wanted to tell a parable of "what lengths women will go to to get ahead in a field that feels very dominated by men." So Rasha encounters comedic hijinks and tense situations, all of which come into conflict with her own ideals of women's independence. In her zeal to reach a professional and intellectual goal, Rasha finds herself in many Sex and the City–type situations—bad dates, awkward sexual moments, even a run-in with a "Mr. Big." Yet in a departure from the original show, Rasha responds with self-conscious—and, for the audience, humorous—disdain, condescending to do what she has to do and resigning herself to her travails as a professional woman.

[3.11] What is Real Girl's Guide's ultimate political project, and what does it say about representation? We can find an answer in the story. Real Girl's Guide's central plot is Rasha's quest to write about a serious issue (Afghan women) and sell her work to the publishing industry (which is dominated by chick lit). This quest serves as a loose allegory for producing independent and fan media in a centralized media system. The central tension in Real Girl's Guide is between creating something culturally and politically important (the domain of the fan and marginal) and creating something marketable (the domain of industry and the mainstream). Rasha is writing about Afghan women, who are not marketable, a goal with which the independent writer Mitchell possibly identifies. In the end, though, Rasha compromises on her dream, writing the manuscript she wants but selling the book packaged with free women's products like cosmetics, a clear nod to dominant chick-lit culture. For Mitchell, this was an important compromise, a way to chart a third way in political and grassroots production, to take the cultural economy of marginal works and place it within industrial practice: "[We've] got to continue to write what we want to write and to find the stories that we want to write. And sometimes it's going to have to take some creative packaging to get the stories out there." For de Michele, such compromises are intermediary steps in progress:

[3.12] It's definitely a feminist story, and we're all feminists driving it. But we also recognize that we have to package something so someone will eat it. It's sort of like this stupid compromise that women have to make just to step ahead, but it just comments on the reality, while being smart within that reality.

[3.13] The tension here between reality, progress, and the compromises between them is significant. If there is a political project to the Web series, it is to remake industry practices from the outside in, not forgetting what corporations do well but understanding their limitations. Real Girl's Guide is an unconventional story, but it is packaged in a somewhat familiar way—the Sex and the City conceit—and marketed as a familiar comedic romp. The next section will discuss how the series was made and sold to audiences.

4. Practicing political production and distribution

[4.1] Filming and distributing a Web series is a very specific way of creating visual media. There are few festivals for Web series like those for traditional independent film, even less interest on the part of major film companies, no major TV channel for regular distribution (where independent film has Sundance and IFC), underdeveloped financing practices (neither corporate nor political investors are socialized into funding it), and even more uncertain paths to obtaining revenue. Because the path is unclear, Web series creators borrow from various models and innovate strategies along the way. They are, first and foremost, very invested in the film and television industries but find in the Web a potentially powerful platform for distribution. Most of the people interviewed came to Web series through theater, acting in, directing, or producing independent plays and showcases in New York and Los Angeles. For them, film and television have greater impact than theater. But television has high barriers to entry, and film distribution takes much longer. Mitchell, who had been acting and writing short stories, found her work failed to reach even her close friends. She had worked in traditional independent film but found this genre too limiting:

[4.2] I've been a total gung-ho advocate of the Web because after having my experience with film, [I realized that] it can reach a much broader audience, [but] your audience is still fairly limited to film festivals. But put something online, you can reach people all over the world. And if you're speaking to something that people are interested in or hasn't been talked about that much, then your audience really grows and people start circulating your videos.

[4.3] The team behind Real Girl's Guide found in the Web series a way to connect with audiences (using television's serialized structure), tell an engaging visual story (through film), and reach a wide group of people (through the Web).

[4.4] Yet even as they mixed media formats, the women behind Real Girl's Guide situated their practices within broader debates about the film and television industries and saw their series as an opportunity to propose different pre- and postproduction and distribution practices. They are keenly aware the industry is as flawed behind the scenes as in its representations. One of the most common refrains among the group was their disenchantment with the raced and gendered dynamics of the industry. Most were fluent in contemporary marketing speak, often citing the desirability of young white male viewers, the most coveted group in both film and television. As residents of Los Angeles with numerous ties to filmmakers, they were also intimately aware of the greater representation of white men in positions of power in Hollywood. Mitchell recalled the numerous times she had described her project to colleagues and felt quite marginalized:

[4.5] Even right now, when we go out to plug Real Girl's, it's all guys. It's all white guys in their mid-20s to mid-30s, and as soon as you say something with the word "girl" in the title, it's kind of like they don't hear anything else. They put you in a box: "oh, it's a girl film." I've also got some sort of condescending remarks like, "oh, you didn't shoot it on the RED [a digital camera], well…" as if they're trying to out-tech me, assuming I don't know technically a lot about filmmaking. There's also this understanding in that world that what really sells is work that is marketed to the 18-to-34 male demographic, and [Real Girl's Guide] is deliberately going out of its way to not touch that demographic and basically market to everybody else. It's like, "well, why would you deliberately write something that's not commercially viable?"

[4.6] Mitchell's criticism of the industry is as aware of structural concerns as it is of how those structures affect participants within that world; it is personal, political, and professional. She acknowledges who is producing content, whom the content is made for, and reasons why women might not feel welcome in such a marketplace. She takes this criticism and uses it as a foundation on which to increase Real Girl's Guide's importance. This industry reform project would eventually become a practical sales pitch to potential investors: Real Girl's Guide would be a woman-produced series marketed to women and people of color, and it would be commercially viable: "Guys in the industry, they think about the market first and the content secondly…We kind of went the opposite way, which I think made our series really successful, because we focused on story, and we focused on interesting characters and we focused on going beyond traditional demographics," said Mitchell, clearly trying to formulate a way to think about marketing content as artistic, progressive, and at the same time commercial.

[4.7] How did the creators put these concerns with the industry into practice, in their production and marketing of Real Girl's Guide? In production, the creators operated the way most independent film, especially alternative independent film, has operated for decades: they conceived of their group as variously a family and a collective. Everyone, from actors to producers, shared responsibilities on set. Weaver and Dutt were both actors and associate producers, with responsibilities on the set and before filming began: Dutt managed craft services, and Weaver helped out as a production assistant and with the art department. In preproduction, Weaver helped audition actors and find costumes; after production, she helped Mitchell research the submission deadlines of various festivals. Everyone helped with fundraising. The producers raised money by e-mail and through creative events, such as a karaoke night with a $10 entry fee and raffle. They asked three comedians to be American Idol–type judges but to only give positive feedback, in keeping with the project's progressive thrust. In the end, the team was able to raise half the project's budget, and they put in their own money for the other half.

[4.8] The actors all said they were able to help shape their characters and to follow their instincts. Some participated in the project from its inception and thus had input from the beginning. Others contributed during shooting. Dalea said she was able to change parts of the dialogue that did not feel right to her, and she suggested one of the more memorable lines in the series—when Rasha refuses to go for a wax by saying, "I went to Columbia"—on the set. Such connections between actors and their characters helped them feel connected to the work and the project. Dalea said of her character, "We have the same value system but she has the balls to go out and fight for it." Similarly, Brown said she relates to Vanna's love of fashion and her diverse group of friends. Since Dutt had helped spark the project, her character hews close to Dutt's own off-screen personality as a "crazy, goofy" girl, and she found it a welcome change from her mainstream roles: "My last three auditions were medical practitioners…[but] Indian American girls can be different. They can be your best friend that's zany and not appropriate."

[4.9] This picture of collaborative production fueled by personal investments might call to mind a less commercial project, perhaps nonprofit theater. Yet Real Girl's Guide is, in the end, a product intended to be packaged and sold. As a result of the Web's distribution possibilities—which most independent Web series cannot successfully harness—and the producers' passion for the project, Real Girl's Guide was able to achieve a sizable audience for a low-budget show; as Brown said explicitly, "Because you believe in it, you want to market it…I felt like it was a very collaborative effort." While most of the marketing was handled by Mitchell, some of the actors and producers pitched in, mentioning the show wherever they could, at festivals and among friends. Dalea works in marketing and so offered to write a number of press releases and blog posts for the series. "I offered that up. That's not something they requested of me." Her marketing efforts got them entry into a few festivals and stories on National Public Radio and in Jezebel (Montgomery 2010; Peterson 2010), in addition to mentions in other niche media, such as the lesbian Web site AfterEllen (Kregloe 2010).

[4.10] What really catapulted the series to success, though, was a growing network of distribution sites created for releasing independent and minority Web series—a way to stand out from YouTube's vast ocean of content and mainstream sites like Hulu (Christian 2010a, 2011). The first site Mitchell approached for distribution was StrikeTV, a site created by Hollywood professionals after the Writer's Guild of America strike in order to provide an alternative channel for distribution outside the mainstream networks. The executives at StrikeTV liked the Real Girl's Guide script and told the team to send them the show after it was completed. Once the show went live, other sites started expressing interest: DailyMotion, RowdyOrbit, and Koldcast were video sites, while all-purpose lesbian sites AfterEllen and OneMoreLesbian also distributed the series. Koldcast provides distribution for independent filmmakers, while RowdyOrbit focuses on series by and about people of color and is itself trying to create a viable market for racially diverse programming (Christian 2009). AfterEllen has supported a number of lesbian Web series in an effort to counter the dearth of content within the mainstream media, and OneMoreLesbian has held real-world marketing events for original Web content: "The lesbian sites have been so incredibly supportive. They have gone out of their way to spread the word about us," Mitchell said. Such sites are far from the discourse of subcultures, from the affective and moral economies of fandom; they try to marshal the marketing potential of marginal communities into an independently sustainable commercial market, although they have not yet succeeded. Real Girl's Guide's diverse cast and inclusive story, along with its invocation of a popular franchise, helped widen its distribution options and introduce it to a range of audiences and networks similarly invested in its political and industrial project.

5. Conclusion: Futures of fan production and the growing importance of distribution

[5.1] Real Girl's Guide is a wholly transformative work, in many ways divorced from the "original"—Sex and the City. Yet Sex and the City permeates the project and its marketing. Indeed, much of the coverage of the series references the HBO show. Latoya Peterson's article for Racialicious and Jezebel starts by framing the Web series as a show for a "post–Sex and the City world" (Peterson 2010); both pieces for NPR, a blog by Alicia Montgomery and an interview with the actors by Tony Cox, reference Sex and the City in their headlines (Montgomery 2010; Cox 2010). All this is not accidental; the creators encourage it as a way to grab attention for their series and reflect their inspiration. Upon the release of their NPR interview, conducted in conjunction with the release of Sex and the City 2, the producers e-mailed their media contacts with a release titled "NPR Talks to Real Girls about Sex and the City 2 and More." When Mitchell first reached out me via e-mail, she too framed the series in relation to the HBO franchise.

[5.2] What started as both fandom (for the Sex and the City television series) and antifandom (for the film) here gives rise to marketing, a way for independent producers to enter a broader cultural and economic conversation, a tool to gain a wider audience, media attention, and a potential pitch to marketers. As one of few successful women-centered properties, Sex and the City is a useful symbol for a market in the throes of convergence, even as it signals affective and cultural desires among fans (Christian 2010b).

[5.3] The heart of this essay is a story of what happens when barriers to distribution change. While YouTube is now more than 5 years old and has brought success to numerous amateurs, the story of independent distribution online is still being written, as numerous players enter the market and offer producers more targeted networks. Better and more streamlined channels aimed at underserved niches, primarily people of color, women, and gay people, have created opportunities to shift the discourse of independent production from cultural and affective desire to industrial and market-oriented practice.

[5.4] Such developments could force scholars to reconsider how we frame fan practices. We interpret the problem of post-1960s media as one of access: those without corporate backing lacked any way to distribute their products to mass audiences (Kellner 1990; Gitlin 1983). Television was controlled by an ever-shortening list of corporations, who opted for programming to the least common denominator, often at the expense of those deemed less valuable in the market. This lack of distribution led to crises of representation for numerous groups, particularly racial minorities and gay people (Gray 1995; Gross 2001). After years of exclusion, members of marginalized groups, like fans, felt compelled to produce. Production, though, meant little without an efficient way to deliver the result to the right audiences. The video revolution of the new millennium offered a potential solution to this problem.

[5.5] Some people were no longer satisfied to produce solely for affective communities. Participants within the industry—and fans of its products—saw their skilled friends (cinematographers, actors, directors) intermittently jobless. They saw a television industry consistently refusing to cast marginalized people as leads. So they seized the opportunity to try to correct imbalances through industrial practices, not outside of them. They would craft a marketable narrative, produce it well, and sell it to distributors—the growing number of independent networks—who packaged stories for advertisers and made it easier for viewers to find them.

[5.6] Whether or not these series have made money, which few have, is significant. The market for content created without corporate funding is not yet developed, and may never be, as companies like Google and Hulu seek to dominate the space and push out newcomers (Vaidhyanathan 2011; Christian 2010c; Wu 2010). As of this writing, Real Girl's Guide does not have a sponsor. Yet this does not diminish the importance of a market response to imbalances at a specific moment in history. We should acknowledge shifts in fan and independent production in a period of technological change, seeing it as evidence of how changing social, political, and economic conditions can encourage new models for making and marketing stories through media.

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