Vidding and the perversity of critical pleasure: Sex, violence, and voyeurism in "Closer" and "On the Prowl"

Sarah Fiona Winters

Nipissing University, North Bay, Ontario, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Analysis of two fan vids ("Closer" by Killa and T. Jonesy, and "On the Prowl" by Sisabet and Sweetestdrain) in the context of theories of vidding reveals that vids have a unique ability to combine analytic detachment and pleasurable investment. I analyze these two vids through Roland Barthes's provocative suggestion that reading criticism demands from the reader a perverse voyeurism of the critic's pleasure in the text to argue that they are examples of the ways in which many vids function as pleasurable criticism that invites viewers of such vids to enter voyeuristically into that pleasure. Both vids use tropes of sexual violence to characterize not only the mass media they respond to, but also the nature of fandom and of transformative fan readings. "On the Prowl" criticizes and celebrates the fan through constructing different audiences for a series of self-portraits; "Closer" does the same thing by constructing Spock as a portrait of the fan. The narratives of sadism and rape constructed by the vids both disturb and seduce the viewer, thus forming perverse texts that that problematize pleasure while simultaneously reinscribing it.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan vid; Roland Barthes

Winters, Sarah Fiona. 2012. "Vidding and the Perversity of Critical Pleasure: Sex, Violence, and Voyeurism in 'Closer' and 'On the Prowl.'" In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0292.

1. Introduction

[1.1] "Where is our line?" the makers of "On the Prowl" ask viewers in their vid summary. The pronoun our is ambiguous, inviting the viewer both to analyze the two vidders from a critical distance and to collapse that distance by turning the question on herself. The vid's destabilization and shifting of the lines between sex and violence, voyeurism and sadism, perversity and pathology work also to foreground the unstable lines in fandom between reading and writing, consumption and production, the deconstruction and reinscription of pleasure. This instability of textual pleasure is the central subject of Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text, in which he asks, "How can we take pleasure in a reported pleasure…How can we read criticism?" (1975, 17). Barthes could not have known that one answer to his question arose the same year that he asked it, in Kandy Fong's first Star Trek slide show. Five years later, she made "Both Sides Now" (Fanlore 2011), a work that indicates in its very title the two sides of fannish viewing that many fan vids inscribe: the critical analysis of pleasure in a fan text and the simultaneous reinscription of that pleasure. Indeed, Barthes's own answer to his question describes perfectly the relationship between the vidding fan and the fan of vids, the latter of whom takes the position of the "I" in his scheme:

[1.2] Only one way: since I am here a second-degree reader, I must shift my position: instead of agreeing to be the confidant of this critical pleasure—a sure way to miss it—I can make myself its voyeur: I observe clandestinely the pleasure of others, I enter perversion; the commentary then becomes in my eyes a text, a fiction, a fissured envelope. The writer's perversity (his pleasure in writing is without function), the doubled, the trebled, the infinite perversity of the critic and of his reader. (1975, 17)

[1.3] The viewer of fan vids (the reader) makes herself the voyeur of the critical pleasure experienced by the vidder (the critic). She or he enters into the vidder's pleasure, forming what Barthes characterizes as a "trebled" perversity (perversity in this context defined both as the erotic pleasure taken in anything other than potentially procreative heterosexual intercourse, and therefore, metaphorically, as pleasure "without function"): the perversity of the fan text (the source), the perversity of the fan work (the vid), and the perversity of the fan (the viewer of source and vid) (note 1).

[1.4] The Pleasure of the Text is very much about writing, about the language of written texts. To apply its ideas to fan vids rather than fan fiction, I turn to the deliberate ambiguity of Barthes's diction in passages such as the following: "What pleasure wants is the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss" (1975, 7). Barthes is writing here about the literary text, but the words cut and dissolve do suggest the filmic. Although Armine Mortimer argues that "dissolve…has a Lacanian meaning, not a cinematic one," she nevertheless admits that in Barthes, "everything is significant, including ambiguities" (1989, 29). Chad Bennett seizes upon the ambiguity in this passage to argue that Barthes provides "a distinctly cinematic vocabulary for the erotically charged moment" (2010, 30) in his analysis of the representation of fandom (specifically queer fandom) in Velvet Goldmine (1998). But to read Barthes as providing a cinematic vocabulary in this way is to read Barthes against himself since Barthes distrusted the cinematic, "arguing that the cinematic signifier is by nature always 'smooth,' whatever the rhetoric of shot and montage, and that the acute joys of fragmentation are impossible because the viewer is obliged to receive and read a continuum of images" (Williams 1998, 47). Indeed, Barthes claims in "The Third Meaning" that the film still is more truly filmic than the film from which it comes because its "obtuse meaning" (1970, 56) "disturbs" critical metalanguage (61). But vids employ neither the continuum nor the still, but, in a linguistic paradox that would surely have delighted Barthes, the moving still, the continuous fragment, and even while they form a critical metalanguage, they do so through an excess of pleasure, thus reinscribing pleasure ("the acute joys of fragmentation") into the critique of pleasure, and disturbing that critique.

[1.5] In order to avoid becoming lost among the proliferating pleasures of The Pleasure of the Text, I do not attempt to distinguish in Barthesian terms between vids of pleasure and vids of bliss (jouissance), although I think such a distinction could be made and the results of such an attempt would be fascinating. I use the words text and work in their fandom meanings (text is the mass-media source; work is the fan fiction or fan vid that responds to the source) and not their Barthesian meanings.

[1.6] My argument that Barthes's concept of reading as critical voyeurism provides an exciting and pleasurable way to theorize the reading of fan vids forms part of what Kristina Busse calls "one of the most important shifts in fan studies," the movement away from a quasi-ethnographic focus on fan communities to close readings of the texts those communities produce: "Recent scholarship on media fandom in particular has attempted to take into account the ever-growing diversity of fans and fan works, often focusing on a particular fandom or even a single fan work. In fact, legitimizing fan works as objects of study in their own right rather than merely products of an interesting subculture, may be one of the most important shifts in fan studies" (2009, 105).

[1.7] In this essay I analyze not fandom, but the ways in which two fan works characterize fandom, and the type of investment they invite viewers to make in both the fan text and the fan work. Theorists of vidding have repeatedly made the point that vids blend criticism and pleasure. Francesca Coppa's claim that "a vid is a visual essay that stages an argument" (2008, ¶1.1) points to the critical function of transformative fandom (note 2). Cathy Cupitt's statement that "a songvid can be a feminist discourse in addition to an ode to male beauty, or an expression of joy as well as a snapshot of a subculture's politics; that a story can be critique, erotica, and/or history; and that one person can simultaneously be an author, academic, filmmaker, and fan" (2008, ¶3.11) suggests that pleasure is inseparable from that critical function. Tisha Turk argues that while many vids are "literary/cultural critiques," a vid like Luminosity's "Vogue" ( also invites the viewer to "adopt the female gaze, to re-imagine the bodies before her as objects displayed for her pleasure, to claim the privilege of looking" (Turk 2010, 101). Kristina Busse (2010) pays tribute to vids as a "merging of love and inquiry, affect and analysis, celebration and criticism." In my close reading of the two vids through the figure of Barthes's perverse "second-degree reader," the voyeur, I focus on how this merging is achieved.

[1.8] "Closer" and "On the Prowl" both brilliantly demonstrate how vids simultaneously critique cultural perversity, reinscribe that perversity, and invite the viewer to enjoy the pleasure of both the critique and the reinscription in the way suggested by Barthes. "Closer" by T. Jonesy and Killa is a Star Trek vid that was premiered at a Star Trek convention, Shore Leave, in 2004 ( It was posted to YouTube without the vidders' consent by eetstomoch on August 1, 2006, and alexanderadb on September 8, 2006. The vid's title is taken from the song that forms its soundtrack, "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails (1994). "On the Prowl" by Sisabet and Sweetestdrain is a multifandom vid premiered in August 2010 at VividCon (an annual vidding convention held in Chicago since 2002). Sisabet posted it to both LiveJournal and YouTube on August 10, 2010. Sweetestdrain posted an entry on "The Making of 'On the Prowl'" to LiveJournal on August 12, listing the 63 sources used in the vid. The 2003 song that gives the vid its title is by the underground artist Lydia Lunch. I analyze these two vids in particular because although both construct the viewer as a Barthesian perverse voyeur, "Closer" does so primarily when ripped from its particular fannish context, while "On the Prowl" does so primarily when embedded within its particular fannish context. As a result, "Closer" implies what "On the Prowl" foregrounds and makes explicit: While "Closer" hints at a perverse and voyeuristic side to fandom, "On the Prowl" screams about it.

2. "Closer"

Vid 1. "Closer."

[2.1] The portrait "Closer" paints of fandom anticipates in many ways the argument of "On the Prowl," but unlike the later vid, it is a portrait more clearly seen when the vid is viewed outside its original fannish context. "Closer" ( is based on an episode from the original series of Star Trek, "Amok Time" that tells the story of pon farr, the Vulcan mating imperative. In the episode, Spock must return to his home planet in time for this ritual or he will die. The vid begins with the question "what if they hadn't made it to Vulcan in time?" and knowledge of the episode is essential to understanding the narrative the vid constructs as the answer to the question. That answer, that Spock would rape Kirk, takes place in a sequence lasting from 2:25 to 3:00. Only knowledge that Spock is suffering from pon farr allows the viewer to identify both men as victims of a lack of control. The vid was made for those with such knowledge: It was first shown at a Star Trek convention.

[2.2] But it was not made for all fans of Star Trek: "Closer" is a slash vid. Slash, the romantic or sexual pairing of two same-sex characters who are not canonically a couple, began with Kirk/Spock stories; much K/S slash uses pon farr both for plot and characterization. Moreover, the vidders' intent in "Closer" was to react to a trend in K/S that used pon farr to cause Spock to become not Kirk's lover but his rapist, and then go on to make Kirk respond by easily forgiving Spock and even romanticizing the rape (T. Jonesy, pers. comm.). Knowledge of this context allows the viewer to read the last sequence of "Closer" as the argument of the vid: From 3:01 to 3:24, Spock grimaces with pain and remorse and leaves the Enterprise, while Kirk stumbles about the ship wounded, traumatized, and alone. Neither the characters nor their relationship recover from the rape. Ironically, "Closer," which creates meaning by ripping images out of context, loses this meaning when ripped out of its own context and placed on YouTube without the consent of its makers. The vid creates pleasure rather than distress at the narrative; that is, it becomes pleasure without the ethical and political function of challenging the romanticizing of rape—in Barthesian terms, it allows for the infinite perversity of the viewer.

[2.3] In "Closer," the vidders take on the avatar of Spock in order to enact violence upon the fictional body of Kirk. The fan is visually one step removed from the violence, but the lyrics of the song invite her to enter the perversity of Spock. For while those lyrics work for Spock's relationship to Kirk, they also serve as a commentary on the fan's relationship with the fan text. (Indeed, "Closer" vids can be found now in almost every fandom.) The first four lines of the song speak to the erotic relationship between fan and text: The singer desires to "violate," "desecrate," "penetrate," and "complicate," all of which the vidders do to the footage. What Spock wants to do to Kirk, the vid wants to do to Star Trek. Slash vids in particular desire to "violate" and "desecrate" the cultural norms of heterosexual masculinity constructed in fan texts by manipulating images of the male actors into montages of desire. But this desire transcends slash and gender; it stems from the critical impulse to "penetrate" the subtext of canon and "complicate" the superficial text.

[2.4] "Closer" tells a story of the fannish experience of taking control of the text while simultaneously feeling in thrall to that text. In many pon farr rape stories, Spock is characterized as not morally guilty of rape because he does not consent to it with his conscious self; he is out of control and as helpless as Kirk in avoiding the rape. The entry on rapefic at Fanlore contextualizes this trend, or trope: "Many of the first K/S stories used pon farr to begin their relationship, often leading to a variant of rapefic where one partner doesn't want to hurt the other, but is driven to by his own alien metabolism." Fans often joke about helplessness in the face of overwhelming desire to do creative violence to the fan text (violence of course is metaphorical; texts are not persons and cannot be hurt or damaged), and indeed, vidders use the construction vid farr to refer to creative obsession. Spock stands in for the fan who forces canonical characters to submit to her desires and to the vidder who rips, cuts, and slashes footage out of its context to create a new text of pleasure for the viewer to enter into.

[2.5] The technical brilliance of "Closer" coupled with the dance beat of the song seduces the viewer into pleasure; the aesthetic overwhelms the ethic, transforming Spock's desire from violence to eros. Barthes's famous passage on intermittence in textual pleasure works even better for the visual pleasure of "Closer":

[2.6] Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no "erogenous zones" (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve): it is this flash which itself seduces; or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance. (1975, 10)

[2.7] "Closer" creates its eros through gaping and intermittence, through the flashing of images. It begins with some almost hidden images of the pon farr ritual on Vulcan, at 0.06, 0.07, and 0.09. These images flash by so quickly that the casual viewer of the vid is likely to miss them on first viewing. However, the fetishist, the lover of detail, sees them in the flashes. Here is the canonical story of the episode, flashing out in tiny glimpses between two edges of the credits for the vid, sepia-toned writing on black background. This effect of intermittence never ceases: The quick cutting combined with the flashes of light and dark, the vertical lines, the blurring of focus, and the encroaching darkness at the edges of some shots, all to the dance beat of the song, create a Barthesian erotic. And the seductive flash is literalized and foregrounded in the three flashes of pornography at 0:49, 1:28, and 2:18–20. Here both the flash and what it contains are sexual; form embodies content. "Closer" also turns violence erotic by editing its rape sequence to music without sung lyrics (2:30–3:01). Not all viewers of the vid will react to this sequence identically, but it seems likely the dance beat gives pleasure to many bodies in chairs in front of computer terminals watching the rape play out, even those bodies belonging to viewers who position themselves as ethically and politically opposed to sexual violence. As Barthes puts it, "the pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do" (1975, 17).

[2.8] Moreover, this sequence begins with Spock breaking his bounds and then, tellingly, pushing Nurse Chapel aside as he sets off in search of Kirk (2:28–2:30). Chapel is played by Majel Barrett, who, in the pilot episode of Star Trek, had played the role of Number One, only to be replaced by Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Francesca Coppa (2008) argues that vidders are drawn to Spock partly as a reaction to this textual history:

[2.9] Mr. Spock is a ghost, the shadow of a missing woman. This visual substitution of the alien man for the rational woman is at the heart of much of the art produced in response to Star Trek, though it is among the least-discussed aspects of the show. Mr. Spock has been read in many ways…but the original Spock shape in the Star Trek canon is female. Spock is a kind of visual marker, a scar indicating a series of conflicts meaningful to the scientifically minded, technologically oriented women likely to become vidders, especially in the early years of vidding. (¶2.15)

[2.10] Majel Barrett was relegated to the two minor roles of nurse and the voice of the ship's computer, and Coppa's reading of these two roles invites a Barthesian analysis of the moment in "Closer" when Spock pushes Chapel out of the way:

[2.11] In these two guises—Nurse Chapel and the Enterprise computer—the displaced character of Number One serves as the model for two archetypical fan positions: the woman who embodies visible desire, and the disembodied but all-controlling voice. The former is often presented as a negative fan stereotype: the groupie, the stalker, the shrieking Beatlemaniac, the "Mary Sue" who dreams herself into the story, the girl with the embarrassing public crush on a movie star. The latter, I would argue, is the voice of the vidder: the woman behind the camera, slide projector, VCR, or computer, the technological woman who controls the machine. The disembodied voice is also the voice of the slash writer (who writes about bodies not her own) or the omniscient and controlling fan artist who takes control of the protagonists' images and bends them to her will. But most fan works seek to unite the analytical mind and the desiring body in order to create a total female subjectivity. (¶2.19)

[2.12] Spock rejects Barrett as fan (Nurse Chapel) in the rape sequence, and of course the only voice heard in the vid is the male one of Trent Reznor. While the vidders may have sought pleasure with function—that is, to make an argument attacking the romanticization of rape in fandom—the vid, ripped from its context, seduces the viewer into pleasure without function, into perversity, into reinscribing the same pleasure in sexual violence that it critiques: The vidders embody themselves as Spock, not Chapel. In Coppa's words, the vid "unite[s] the analytical mind and the desiring body" (as does the song in the juxtaposition of "You get me closer to God" with "I wanna fuck you like an animal") but this union is achieved by the body of the analytical Spock pushing aside the woman who wants to stop the violence, and (in the rape sequence that follows) the pleasurable music pushing away the language of criticism. The male textual pleasure in sexual violence overcomes the female critical resistance to it. The viewer of the vid, then, becomes voyeur, entering the perversion of culture.

[2.13] Neither fandom in general nor vidding in particular can be reduced to Barthesian practices of pleasure for pleasure's sake, because fandom embodies and embraces conflicting ways of experiencing mass media culture. For example, Transformative Works and Cultures' forthcoming issue on "Transformative Works and Fan Activism" includes in its call for papers a request for "discussions of how fiction and fantasy can captivate us on an emotional level, providing a narrative structure that can motivate us to seek change in the real world." But "Closer" demonstrates how the ripping of images from their context, whether that context is the original source or the original fannish community, may result in perversity, whether the sexual perversity of slash (pleasure without procreation) or the ethical/political perversity of pleasure in sexual violence (pleasure without "seek[ing] change in the real world").

3. "On the Prowl"

Vid 2. "On the Prowl."

[3.1] "On the Prowl" makes explicit what "Closer" leaves implicit: it is a self-portrait of fandom in general and the vidders in particular, and it deliberately reinscribes the cultural pleasure in sexual violence that it exposes. As noted above, "On the Prowl" can be found on the Web in two different contexts: Sisabet's LiveJournal ( and YouTube ( The YouTube version has no description available and the variant title, "prowlweb1," is cryptic, leaving viewers without context or guidance in understanding what they are seeing. Sisabet's journal, by contrast, introduces the vid with the words "New Vid! VVC Challenge: Self Portrait." Clearly the LiveJournal audience is expected to know that VVC stands for VividCon and that the 2010 VividCon included a self-portrait challenge; that is, this audience is constructed as a knowledgeable one. Only when the vid is viewed embedded in its fannish context, then, is the viewer invited to read what she sees as a self-portrait. The casual YouTube viewer may read the vid as a portrait of mass media rather than as a portrait of the fan.

[3.2] The first of the 161 comments in response to the vid on Sisabet's page (as of November 16, 2010), however, indicates a disagreement over the exact meaning of "self-portrait": "Yikes! I am very disturbed (and I mean that in all ways). Can't exactly say you're wrong" (Gianduja Kiss), to which Sisabet responds, "Hey, is it possible to be wrong in a self portrait?" Clearly Gianduja Kiss understands the term self-portrait as referring to fandom—on her own LiveJournal page (, she says of the vid that it is "another look at fandom"—while Sisabet responds with a perhaps disingenuous implication that the self-portrait applies only to the two makers of the vid. This disagreement highlights the complexity of the vid: Much of the meaning of "On the Prowl" lies in its construction of multiple selves being portrayed and the different perverse pleasures available to those selves.

[3.3] The first and smallest group of selves portrayed in this self-portrait are the two people who made the vid, Sisabet and Sweetestdrain. In her post on the making of the vid, Sweetestdrain insists upon the emotional and visceral reactions she and Sisabet had to the clips they used: "There isn't a single source used in the vid that doesn't come from a 'this really gets/got to me' place for either or both of us. It's a self-portrait for sure, and we found a surprising amount of overlap in the things that made us go '…yeah, that's going in the vid,' even if one of us wasn't previously familiar with the clips in question" (August 12, 2010).

[3.4] Of course, since this vid is a collaboration, the self-portrait is a selves-portrait, and as such is perhaps more open to multiple selves seeing their own reflection in it than a single-authored vid would be. Like the two vidders, many viewers may find "a surprising amount of overlap" between the vidders and themselves. Nevertheless, Sisabet responds to some of the feedback on the vid by restricting the selves being portrayed to two: When Wemblee compliments "On the Prowl" by commenting, "I'm not sure if I agree with your thesis—basically, we live in a patriarchy, and they're fictional dudes, so, when it comes to morality, I'm not bothered about 'the line'—but I think this is fantastically done," Sisabet responds,

[3.5] Thank you so much! As far as agreeing with our thesis—I don't know if that is even what we are attempting to do. I mean, I am FASCINATED by all the differing readings the vid is getting and kinda love how everyone brings their own interpretation but at the end of the day it is a self portrait. We went in search of our line. What that line is and what it means is kinda open to interpretation I am sure.

[3.6] Whereas many viewers experience the vid as a mirror of themselves, Sisabet argues that it is a mirror of the vidders only, and primarily a window for other viewers into the fannish experience of herself and Sweetestdrain.

[3.7] Yet Sisabet later repudiates the intentional fallacy of "I suspect authorial intent does not matter, at least not in the model I use," thus accepting her audience's widening of the concept of self-portrait to include more than two selves. I argue that the second smallest group of viewers for whom "On the Prowl" is a self-portrait consists of vidders, and read this way, "On the Prowl" paints the portrait of the vidder as sadist. If Lydia Lunch stands in for the vidder in particular, and not just the fan in general, the lyrics of the song point to the vidding practice of cutting scenes of male suffering out of context to erotic effect. (For example, scores of Harry Potter vids take the scene of Harry suffering a nightmare at the beginning of Goblet of Fire [2005] and place it in a context that suggests he is experiencing an orgasm from masturbation or fellatio; many of the same vids do likewise with the scene of Draco writhing theatrically in pain from Buckbeak's attack in Prisoner of Azkhaban [2004].) "On the Prowl" takes this vidding trope and twists it so that the men's expressions of pain remain as pain, so that the characters' suffering is not transformed into the characters' enjoyment, but allows instead for the viewer's enjoyment. In so doing, it makes the point that most vids that decontextualize male pain do so in order to celebrate and enjoy it, that most vids cut male bodies for pleasure.

[3.8] The vidder as sadist complements Francesca Coppa's figure of the vidder as fetishist: "Vidding, as an art form made through editing, also complicates the familiar symbolic characterization of women sewing and men cutting. Vidding women cut, slicing visual texts into pieces before putting them together again, fetishizing not only body parts and visual tropes, but the frame, the filmic moment, that they pull out of otherwise coherent wholes" (2009, 107). The fetishist is one of four types of readers of pleasure that Barthes proposes in The Pleasure of the Text, the others being the obsessive, the paranoiac, and the hysteric. While this typology could provide a fascinating point of entry into mapping out the different pleasures of fandom, Barthes's characterization of the fetishist as the reader who "would be matched with the divided-up text, the singling out of quotations, formulae, turns of phrase, with the pleasure of the word" (1975, 63) lines up perfectly if "word" is replaced by "image" with Coppa's vidder. "On the Prowl," however, suggests that vidders cut not only visual texts but the bodies inside those texts, that they divide not only texts but the men in those texts, that they are not just fetishists, but sadists.

[3.9] The third group of viewers for whom "On the Prowl" is a self-portrait constitutes the largest knowledgeable group of readers for the vid: fandom. The juxtaposition of lyrics and images challenge any fan to accept or reject the vid's characterization of what she does as a viewer and reader of source texts and what fandom as a whole does to canon. For example, the first line of the song, "I was thinking about picking up some young boys," characterizes fandom as privileging the female subject's gaze at the male object, an assertion most certainly open to debate. Less controversially, the first lyric after the repeated "on the prowl" is "and then I wanted more." The very existence of fandom is predicated on this desire, although the lyric here contains a fascinating ambiguity; Sheenagh Pugh quotes an unnamed fan fiction writer as theorizing that "people wrote fanfic because they wanted either 'more of' their source material or 'more from' it" (2005, 19). This distinction between "more of" and "more from" is blurred in "On the Prowl," where a literal reading of the escalating images suggests the fan watches television and film because she wants more of the suffering that source texts give her, but a metaphorical reading implies that the reason she reads or writes fan fiction, or makes or views fan vids, is that she wants more from—she wants something the text did not give her.

[3.10] "And then I wanted more" is matched in "On the Prowl" with the images that escalate from the relatively benign removal of Hercules's shirt, leaving him bare chested (0:28–0:29), to men being struck by lightning, men fighting each other with fists, men stripping off their clothes and ripping off their skin, and a branding, culminating in a final sequence of extreme torture scenes (3:07–3:22). The vid invites us to read these images simultaneously literally and figuratively: Both fan texts and fan works abound with scenes of literal violence where men are stripped, beaten up, wounded, and tortured; but fan works also metaphorically do this to characters whether or not they are physically harmed. The removal of clothing in the vid points to the fan's desire to see the real, "naked" character; the lightning that then strikes the naked bodies could symbolize the attempt of the transformative fan to "illuminate" the character's obscurities and darkness; the breaking of skin could figure the desire of the fan to get under the character's skin; the brand on the skin is the mark she leaves there, maybe changing that character for other fans watching or reading him in canon. The ending of the third verse of the song makes the commentary on transformative fandom even clearer. The singer declares that in her encounter with the "young boy," she "twist[s] the edge just enough to almost / Hurt, to almost hurt," and her motivation for doing so is essentially analytic: "Just testing…oh… / See what he's made of." The images that accompany these lines are of torture and violence until the line "See what he's made of," where the vid gives the viewer four close-ups of a tear falling from a male eye (2:33–35). The popularity of angst as a genre in fan works stems partly from its dual function in constructing both an emotionally affecting story and an analytical piece of literary criticism: Putting a character through pain and suffering is one way to examine exactly what he is made of in terms of emotion as well as of blood and guts; it reveals the emotional and vulnerable dimension to that character that canon insists on hiding or denying. In their analytical function, fan works (to paraphrase Wordsworth) torture to dissect (note 3).

[3.11] "On the Prowl" also confronts the prominence of the hurt/comfort (or h/c) genre in mass media fandom's transformative works. This genre involves one character being hurt and another character comforting her or (far more often) him. A fan watching "On the Prowl" might well expect all the hurt to be followed by comfort at perhaps the halfway point but is confronted with its persistent absence, as several comments in response to the vid point out:

[3.12] It definitely resonates with the slightly disturbing parts of my fandom preferences too. (I like fictional torture and hurt without comfort…). (Ratcreature)

[3.13] OMG. This is absolutely amazing! Somehow seeing it all visual is so much more unsettling than reading hours of h/c (or just hurt!). (Cathexys)

[3.14] I felt this was hurt without comfort, but not necessary without care or love—the connotation for me being that we love to hurt the characters we love. (Kat_lair)

[3.15] I am not so much an h/c fan in fandom, except when the emphasis is on the "c," because if I love a character I generally feel that they're getting enough hurt in canon. As in many of these clips. Which doesn't mean I turn away from the screen, and in a way I feel I'm right there with Marion at the end, because that's kind of why I want the comfort fix from fandom—because it doesn't often come in canon. (Innocentsmith)

[3.16] For the full emotional payoff I desire I need great big dollops of C with my H, so as much as this is a turn on, it leaves me with this kind of empty ache that I have to imagine away with fantasies of all the pretty tortured men being tenderly cared for. (Mswyrr)

[3.17] Anne Kustritz, in her work on BDSM (bondage, discipline/dominance, submission/sadism, masochism) narratives in fan fiction, argues that "even in its most brief, sexually oriented forms, fan fiction BDSM occurs between characters individuated by richly detailed psychological and interpersonal backstories and who exist within a particular cultural and historical context, not between blank social types in a privileged space outside law and society" (2008, ¶2.7). This contextual richness may be true of fiction, and of single-source vids, or even many multifandom vids, but the cramming of 63 sources into the 3 minutes and 38 seconds of "On the Prowl" violently rips context away from image, and the aurally present but visually absent torturer (the fan as Lydia Lunch) does occupy a truly privileged space outside the frame. Until the final clip in which she appears as Marian, we never see her face; unlike the characters in Kustritz's characterization of BDSM fan fiction, she is perverse in that she does not direct her pleasures to any kind of social relationship, to any cultural or historical end, to any function. Moreover, her visual absence for most of the vid allows her to occupy simultaneously the position of two readers: the vidder as sadistic viewer of fan texts, and the vid watcher as voyeur of the vidder's sadistic pleasure.

[3.18] However, as Innocentsmith's comment indicates, the vid does close with a brief moment of comfort: Marian Ravenwood from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) kissing a wounded Indy. The 3-second clip (3:23 to 3:26) shows Marian kissing Indy's face to the last words of the song, "momentary fix," thus transferring the meaning of "fix" from the realm of addiction to the realm of comfort. In the film from which the clip is taken, the scene between the two lasts about two and half minutes: Marian enters the ship's cabin wearing a silk nightgown loaned to her by the captain; Indy calls it "lovely"; she moves to one side of the cheval glass to see if it is indeed lovely while he inspects his wounds on the other side; she cannot see herself through the condensation on the glass and, not knowing that he is on the other side of mirror, she spins it on its frame, hitting him in the face and causing him to howl in agony (figure 1). Marian then moves to his side of the mirror and attempts to dress his wounds, until he tells her that he does not need a nurse, that he wants her to go away, and that she is hurting him in her efforts to comfort him. When she snaps, "Well godammit, Indy, where doesn't it hurt?," he offers her first his elbow, then his forehead, then the corner of his eye, and finally his mouth, all of which she kisses. "On the Prowl" captures the third of these kisses, the one on the corner of his eye. As the only woman in "On the Prowl" (apart from a couple of crowd shots), Marian represents the fan who watches fictional men get hurt in fan texts in order to watch them be comforted, or the vidder or writer who actually hurts them in fan works in order to then comfort them. (Marian works beautifully as a representation of this second type of fan: in her first encounter with Indy in the film, she punches him in the jaw.) But clearly her comfort is superficial and her kisses are more foreplay than medicine because she is not kissing any of the parts of Indiana Jones that actually hurt. Moreover, Karen Allen plays the scene with manic glee rather than solicitous tenderness; she seems more aroused and energized than disturbed by his pain. The viewers of "On the Prowl" are invited to fill the space left by the absence of comfort with sadism, with pleasure in the hurt.

Figure 1. Marian hits Indy with the mirror in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). [View larger image.]

[3.19] By ending their vid with this clip, Sisabet and Sweetestdrain conflate narcissism and sadism; just as Marian does in the film, they use a mirror of themselves to hurt men, and they do so in order to both criticize and celebrate the fan as sadist. Cornel Sandvoss argues that fans are drawn to fan texts because they see themselves reflected there: "The relationship between fans and their objects of fandom is based on fans' self-reflective reading and hence narcissistic pleasure, as fans are fascinated by extensions of themselves, which they do not recognize as such" (2005, 121). Sandvoss's characterization of the fan here matches Barthes's type of the hysteric reader, one of his four types of readers of pleasure, the one who "takes the text for ready money, who joins in the bottomless, truthless comedy of language, who is no longer the subject of any critical scrutiny and throws himself across the text (which is quite different from projecting himself into it)" (63). Sisabet and Sweetestdrain, by contrast, do subject themselves to critical scrutiny and do project themselves into their vid through Marian; they are closer to the fetishists of Barthes's typology than his hysterics. If they are narcissists, taking pleasure in their own cruelty, they are critical narcissists, taking pleasure in their own self-criticism. Sandvoss's reduction of fans to one reading type glosses over the variety of reading approaches and dismisses the sophisticated critical intelligence of fandom, as well as overlooking the popularity and long history of self-reflexive meta in fan works: Fans do recognize themselves, and they both question and affirm what they see.

[3.20] "On the Prowl" therefore appears to argue that one of fandom's characteristic modes of reading and viewing is sadistic. But the trope of BDSM in fandom as delineated by Kustritz invites us to consider the fan as masochist as well as sadist, and to align masochism with Barthes's treatment of Desire, sadism with his treatment of Pleasure. Gianduja Kiss's 2006 vid to Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" constructs fan texts as sadistically torturing fans in an ambiguously pleasurable, ambiguously consensual relationship (vid 3).

Vid 3. "A Little Less Conversation."

[3.21] While every fan of a television series has probably wondered why he or she continues to put him or herself through the pain of betrayal by inconsistent characterization and confused storytelling in later seasons of the very show that caught his or her interest in its early seasons, the masochism of "A Little Less Conversation" is specifically sexual. The vid edits scenes in which couples from different television series interact: The couples are all work partners and feature men and women, men and men, and women and women in moments of flirtation, bonding, and conflict set to Elvis's growl of sexual frustration. These relationships were either never consummated in canon or took a long and torturous time to get there, and the vid pays tribute to the disappointment and exasperation not only of some of the characters (Mulder and Scully are shown in scenes of flirtation followed by scenes of frustration), but also of the fans who invest in both the canonically possible (read: heterosexual) and canonically impossible (read: homosexual) pairings. Fans, the vid suggests, are masochistic in their desire to watch a couple with chemistry interact every week without ever kissing each other. "Satisfy me!" the fan demands along with the characters in the vid in several sequences where one of the characters joins Elvis in becoming a figure for the fan's desires: Spock thumping his computer as a fan might wish to do to her television (1:56–1:58); Mulder lying naked in bed pointing his remote at the television (2:09–2:10); Bayliss from Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–99) smashing the interrogation room window as a fan wants to break the television screen (3:05–3:08). The last 20 seconds or so of the vid allow the viewer to indulge in a wish-fulfillment fantasy by presenting couples getting dressed, drinking together and looking satisfied and postcoital, but the vid ends with an audio reminder of the frustrations of the fannish experience:

[3.22] Remington Steele: I think someone's shooting at us!

Laura: Why?

Remington Steele: Because we're kissing! Someone always shoots at us when we're kissing!

[3.23] This exchange works brilliantly as an end to the vid because shooting here carries the second meaning in the context of the vid of shooting television footage with a camera. Because this exchange is audio only, the vid suggests that couples in fan texts do most of their kissing (and other erotic activities) in the dark spaces between and after episodes, seen only in the imagination of the fan who quite possibly has her eyes shut at the time. The fans who write and read fantasies of fulfillment are in fact interrupted in their pleasurable viewing of the characters kissing by the weekly episode that contains those characters shot only in the acts of arguing or flirting. Surely the only fannish pleasure to be had here, the vid suggests, is masochistic. In both "On the Prowl" and "A Little Less Conversation," the characters in the vid suffer (albeit in far different ways), but in the latter, the fan suffers with them—a suffering that is, of course, enjoyable.

[3.24] The differences between these two vids align with Barthes's distinction between Pleasure and Desire as well as Kustritz's distinction between characters who "are blank social types" and those who "exist within a particular cultural and historical context." Barthes argues that hedonism is repressed by Western philosophy, that Pleasure is "continually disappointed, reduced, deflated, in favour of strong, noble values: Truth, Death, Progress, Struggle, Joy, etc," (1975, 57). These are the values that characterize the narratives of mass media fan texts, the "richly detailed psychological and interpersonal backstories" of characters in fan fiction BDSM, and the barriers to sexual fulfillment in "A Little Less Conversation." The narratives that block Pleasure give rise to, in Barthes's words, Pleasure's "victorious rival," Desire. "We are always being told about Desire, never about Pleasure" (1975, 57), he claims, arguing that even "so-called 'erotic' books…represent not so much the erotic scene as the expectation of it, the preparation of it, its ascent; that is what makes them 'exciting'; and when the scene occurs, naturally there is disappointment, deflation. In other words, these are books of Desire, not Pleasure" (1975, 58). The inclusion of Moonlighting (1985–89) (infamous for losing viewers once the characters consummated their relationship) in "A Little Less Conversation" suggests Barthes's commentary on "erotic" books illuminates also the excitement of mass media texts and the nature of much fannish involvement: masochistic Desire, not Pleasure. "On the Prowl" breaks this pattern and cuts mass media texts into the representation of the erotic scene, rather than the preparation for it, into Pleasure, not Desire.

[3.25] The second-largest group of viewers for whom "On the Prowl" might be a self-portrait is of women consumers of mass media, an audience constructed and portrayed not through the images, but through the song. Any song with the pronoun "I" gives a vid its point of view; in this case, the pronoun is sung by a female voice, and is the first word of the song, in the line "I was thinking about picking up some young boys." The song tells the story of the "I" bringing a man (we are not told his age) back to her apartment and having her way with him. The official video for the song on YouTube (Lunch 2008) shows a dressed-up Lydia Lunch wandering city streets at night. She does not pick anyone up, but she certainly does a lot of looking. Thus the vid can be read as a self-portrait of women in general: The juxtaposition of the song with the footage suggests that it is women who want to see these images of tortured men on screen, although of course it is predominantly men (writers, directors, producers, film and television executives) who give it to them. Some viewers read the vid, therefore, as primarily a comment on power relationships between genders. Themadpoker, for example, comments, "[It] says something about my own double standards since I'm pretty sure my line would've been drawn a whole lot earlier if the genders on this vid were switched," to which Amonitrate replies, "This! Great point that I hadn't immediately considered when watching this, but it's entirely true. I think it says a lot about the amount of violence we just expect dudes to take and get over, that we would never accept for ourselves." Trinity-Clare responds, "Oh my god, even imagining a vid with this much gore and the genders switched is making me sick to my stomach. I did not know that about myself, wow" (note 4). These viewers do not read this vid as necessarily empowering women or as feminist in its aims or effects, and they worry about the possibility of reductive readings of power relations in the straightforward gender swap.

[3.26] Their concerns about the strategies of power available to women echo current theories about fandom. In their introduction to Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2007), Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington identify three waves of fandom studies: the first, associated with the work of Michel de Certeau, John Fiske, and Henry Jenkins, read fandom as consisting of disempowered communities that used strategies of transformative reading to fight back against hegemonic ideologies. The second emphasized not resistance but replication in fandom, analyzing the "replication of social and cultural hierarchies within fan- and subcultures…rather than seeing fandom as a tool of empowerment they suggest that the interpretive communities of fandom (as well as individual acts of fan consumption) are embedded in the existing economic, social and cultural status quo" (2007, 6). The third studies fandom "no longer only as an object of study in and for itself…[but] as part of the fabric of our everyday lives…a taken-for-granted aspect of modern communication of consumption in a mediated world" (9). The commentary surrounding "On the Prowl" includes what can be read as a self-reflexive second-wave reading of female fandom problematizing a first-wave reading as potentially naive and ethically suspect (although perhaps emotionally gratifying): replicating acts of violent domination, these viewers suggest, may not be the best strategy to resist them. Yet these viewers still take pleasure from the vid, and in so doing, they enter perversity.

[3.27] The final and largest group of selves being portrayed in "On the Prowl" is everyone who watches mainstream, commercially successful American (and British) film and television, of any gender, age, race, class, sexual orientation, and level of fannish investment. In its function as a portrait of all viewers, the vid doubles as criticism of its source material because it suggests that mass media gives us something we all want: the eroticization of male suffering. Arguably, the unusually high number of sources in the vid, 63, invites viewers to read it as a vid about the sources rather than one about fandom. Indeed, many of the comments on Sisabet's page construct the vid as an argument about the source material:

[3.28] This vid is amaaaazing, and to get meta, it is really interesting to me that so many people in the comments are so disturbed that they are responding to this kind of eroticized violence and finding it sexy. Because if anything, this vid felt to me like an essay about how deliberately sexual, and also completely ubiquitous and standardized, these scenes of male torture porn really are. They're in so many action/fantasy stories! They have such standard formulas! (Scalesandfins)

[3.29] Viewers who read the vid this way might—and do—turn to another vid by Sisabet, "Women's Work," co-created with Luminosity and premiered at the 2007 VividCon ( A selection of Supernatural clips to the song "Violet" by Hole (1995), "Women's Work" argues that the show is predicated on violence against its (disposable) female characters.

Vid 4. "Women's Work."

[3.30] Responses to "On the Prowl" on Sisabet's journal ( that refer to "Women's Work" include this conversation between three viewers:

[3.31] Something that really strikes me about this is how Sisabet was also involved in "Women's Work," the utterly upsetting and rage-making attack on eroticized violence against women on SPN [Supernatural]. And while I still believe the reverse is more *rare* in media, it's definitely something we also consume (and create), sometimes gleefully, and worth exploring in the same way. So with that background I think this vid is especially interesting. Is this just as bad/disturbing? Can you hate one and justify the other? Or is our violent objectification of men "earned" in an equal-opportunity way? (Nicole_anell)

[3.32] Ethically, I don't think you can justify it. But emotionally, I find it hard to feel guilty. Also, I think you have to consider that most eroticized violence against women is targeted at men. I'm pretty sure the reverse can't be said about fictional violence between men (after all, it's probably most prevalent in genres like action). The fact that women get off on it seems to be more accidental. This vid is so awesome that I want to write cultural studies essays about its subject. (Bagheera_san)

[3.33] We live in a world where…violence by women against men is comparatively rare. So I do tend to think that media portraying sexualized violence against women is more offensive, because it's perpetuating an existing oppression, whereas media containing sexualized violence against men is less offensive because it's a reversal of the dominant paradigm. That said, it also makes me think that if we lived in a matriarchal society instead of a patriarchal one, women would be just as likely to abuse their power as men are. (Rusty-halo)

[3.34] When Rusty-halo refers to the patriarchal society we live in and the media that portrays and contains sexualized violence, she is reading the "self" in "self-portrait" to mean the culture that produces and consumes the texts used in the vid rather than the one that produced the vid. When Nicole_anell suggests that viewers in that culture both consume and create sexualized violence against men "gleefully" and Bagheera_san separates those viewers' ethical responsibilities from their emotional responses, they suggest that Barthesian perversity is just as much a part of the reading practices of culture in general as it is of fandom in particular.

[3.35] As a commentary on its source material, "On the Prowl" shares significant similarities with "A Fannish Taxonomy of Hotness (Hot Hot Hot!)" by the Clucking Belles ( Francesca Coppa analyzes this vid as a commentary on both "how some women watch television" (2009, 107) and on television itself:

[3.36] The vid builds to a narrative and sexual climax. The end of the song features a frenzied call and response ("How you feeling? "Hot, hot, hot!") while we see a montage of characters hung in chains and whipped—a pure erotic spectacle of beaten and bruised men…In each individual storyline, the moment of beating is one of intense drama, but taken together—when the viewer can't help but realize how many mainstream television shows and movies regularly features scenes that look a lot like bondage and domination—the inherent kinkiness of plain old broadcast television becomes evident. (2009, 109)

[3.37] "Taxonomy" submits men to torture for a few seconds only, from 3:20 to 3:31; in "On the Prowl" the full-on torture starts at 1:26 and continues—with some interludes for fistfights and flirtations with suicide—until 3:22. If "Taxonomy" makes this point about mainstream television, "On the Prowl," with its much longer sequence of "beaten and bruised men," hammers it home.

[3.38] "On the Prowl" examines the perversity of sadism both in the source (mass media) and in its transformative viewers (producers and consumers of fan fiction and fan vids). But this examination is both critical and pleasurable; it invites the viewer to look with a critical eye and a voyeur's eye. As Counteragent writes, this conflation is in itself troubling: "I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm really looking forward to watching it again. I'm hoping it means that 'I like meta and respect this vid a lot' vs. 'I'm fascinated and attracted by male suffering' but I think that fact that I'm not entirely sure is the whole damn point." The line between critical respect and erotic attraction has been blurred.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] Barthes's privileging of the perverse pleasures inherent in critical reading and reading of criticism open him up to being characterized as, in Jonathan Culler's words, "the sensitive, self-indulgent man of letters, who writes about his own interests and pleasures without in any way challenging fundamental ways of thinking. Strategic and radical in certain ways, Barthes's hedonism repeatedly exposes him to charges of complacency" (2002, 84). This portrait is one fandom also paints of itself: The commentary on "On the Prowl" consists of fans questioning themselves and their own pleasure in the vid, querying whether it is strategic, radical, or complacent to take pleasure in, as Rusty-halo puts it, a "reversal of the dominant paradigm" of sexualized violence. Of course, many vidders and their viewers simply do not care, but the vidding communities to which the vidders of "Closer" and "On the Prowl" belong tend to present themselves as left wing and feminist, concerned with challenging and transforming those social structures that enable and eroticize sexual violence. Graham Allen writes of Barthes's challenge to political discourse in words that also apply to Killa, T. Jonesy, Sisabet, Sweetestdrain, and their viewers:

[4.2] The body of the writing subject is that, according to Barthes, which seems most scandalous to both bourgeois and petit-bourgeois culture (with its ideas of perversity and sexual deviance) and Marxist-inspired left-wing discourses (with their ban on the personal, the sentimental, that which is pleasurable). Conservative and left-wing discourses seem to conspire together to ban the writing subject from indulging in the pleasures and perversities of the body. (2003, 101)

[4.3] While conservative discourses might attack the pleasures fandom takes in reinscribing the pleasure in the sex represented in mass media, left-wing fandom worries at its own pleasure in reinscribing the pleasure in violence. Yet the tools and vocabulary of transformative fandom are those of violence: Vids rip characters and images from television and film out of context and out of the control of those who made them, and they do this not only to critique and analyze but to create pleasure.

[4.4] Vids are arguments, but arguments that effect an excess of pleasure in the viewer. "On the Prowl" and "Closer" both invite a critical detachment and a pleasurable gaze; they can be read as both critiques and celebrations of the perverse intersections between sex and violence in mass media and in transformative fandom. In casting the relationship between mass media and the viewing and reading public on the one hand, and fan vids and the viewers of fan vids on the other, as perversely conflating critical distance and voyeuristic investment, they illustrate Barthes's contention that the only way to take pleasure in a reported pleasure, the only way to enjoy criticism, the only way to get "closer" and have "more" is to enter perversion.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] My thanks go to Killa and T. Jonesy, Sisabet and Sweetestdrain, and Gianduja Kiss for permission to write about their work. I am particularly grateful to T. Jonesy for her help in understanding the authorial intent behind "Closer."

6. Notes

1. When Barthes writes "I" in the passage above, he also means "you"—that is, the reader who is engaging with The Pleasure of the Text. He invites that reader to become a voyeur of his, Barthes's, pleasure in reading. The vidder, in my argument, therefore occupies the same position as the writer of, and the viewer of the vid the same position as the reader of, The Pleasure of the Text.

2. This reading of vids as arguments can also be found in fandom meta; for example, Here's Luck points to the prevalence of coexisting genres within the same vid: "In thinking about different vid structures, I've noted three broad types, separable but not mutually exclusive: the narrative, the lyric, and the argument." She goes on to define the lyric mode as "a sustained evocation or exploration of mood, images, emotions, or possibly character" (

3. "Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect" (1798, 25–28).

4. A fascinating experiment along these lines is listening to "Women's Work" and "On the Prowl" with switched soundtracks. Watching men suffer to the song "Violet" works rather better (at least for me) than watching women suffer to the song "On the Prowl."

7. Works cited

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Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.

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