Praxis

"Past the brink of tacit support": Fan activism and the Whedonverses

Tanya R. Cochran

Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

[0.1] Abstract—For decades, the phrase fan activism has referred almost exclusively to television fans' efforts to save their favorite series. These campaigns—dating at least as far back as the original Star Trek (1966–69) to the more recent Farscape (1999–2003), Firefly (2002–3), Jericho (2006–8), and Veronica Mars (2004–7), among others—appear effective at catalyzing fan involvement, yet are largely ineffective at saving series. In other words, while it may achieve some secondary, albeit significant, victories such as tighter-knit relationships among fans, fan crusading rarely seems to end with the supposed primary goal of activist labors: more installments of the texts devotees admire and love. Recently, however, the phenomenon of fan activism has taken on a new dimension, and scholars are beginning to take note by asking several important questions. As Henry Jenkins asks, how does a fan move from "participatory culture to public participation"? And what does this move mean? As one might expect, there are many reasons for and implications that emerge from this reallocation of such devoted attention. To explore some of those reasons and implications, the author considers some of the devotees of television auteur Joss Whedon, their activist efforts, and the distinct ways Whedon inspires a politically participatory fan following. Ultimately, the author contends that through their activism, many enthusiasts of the Whedonverses extend the worlds of Whedon's stories by consciously constructing a sociopolitical, feminist identity.

[0.2] Keywords—Captivity; Du'a Khalil Aswad; Equality Now; Fan activism; Joss Whedon; Roland Joffé; WHEDONesque

Cochran, Tanya R. "'Past the brink of tacit support': Fan Activism and the Whedonverses." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0331.

1. Introduction

[1.1] April 7, 2007. The street in the Northern Iraqi town of Bashiqa fills with men, hundreds of men on a mission, a 17-year-old woman named Du'a Khalil Aswad in tow. Their mission, they tell themselves, involves honor. The young woman's long, dark hair obscures camera phone images and video from capturing her face in any detail. Even though dozens of phones are flipped open to chronicle this crusade, the cameras never frame her face, find her eyes. One wonders if any of the men circling her and frantically waving their phones in search of a good shot ever actually look into her face, see her eyes as she is dragged along the street and finally thrown to her knees, shoved to her belly, and kicked to her side. One wonders if these men—in collared shirts and khakis, sweat pants and tennis shoes, brandishing shiny, high-tech communication devices—are more concerned about the quality of the audio than the actual sounds the woman creates, screams curdling at first but quickly fading to whimpers. Feet fly from every direction. Eventually, her army green skirt is ripped away, undone from the force of the kicks. A man lunges forward to cover her again, as if her immodesty were more worrisome than the cinder block that falls from the top of the cell phone video to finish the mob's self-imposed charge. Thirty minutes have passed. The woman finally lays still, the pool of blood spilling from her temple several shades deeper than her bright red sweater.

[1.2] Nothing but red.

[1.3] May 20, 2007. Joss Whedon posts to the fan-run Web log WHEDONesque. The creator of television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004; cocreator, David Greenwalt), Firefly (2002–3), and Dollhouse (2009–10) titles his entry "Let's Watch a Girl Get Beaten To Death" and begins with an explanation for his visit to this particular virtual location: "This is not my blog, but I don't have a blog, or a space, and I'd like to be heard for a bit." The hyperlinked title does not, as it might appear to do, transport users to video footage of Du'a Khalil Aswad's killing, footage which is still available online today; instead, it takes users to, in Whedon's words, "a place of sanity." In fact, the link sends users to the Web site for Equality Now, a nonprofit organization that "advocates for the human rights of women and girls around the world by raising international visibility of individual cases of abuse, mobilizing public support through our global membership, and wielding strategic political pressure to ensure that governments enact or enforce laws and policies that uphold the rights of women and girls" ("Our Work" 2011). More aptly described as persuasion than pressure, Whedon's blog post does its own kind of work to end violence and discrimination. After explaining what happened to Aswad the month before, Whedon launches into a self-described rant in which he unpacks misogyny, aligns the filming and mass sharing of Aswad's death with the release of Roland Joffé's "torture porn" Captivity (2007), and ultimately calls fans to arms: "All I ask is this: Do something. Try something. Speaking out, showing up, writing a letter, a check, a strongly worded e-mail. Pick a cause—there are few unworthy ones. And nudge yourself past the brink of tacit support to action" (emphasis added). Within moments, fans spring rather than nudge themselves into action.

[1.4] For decades, the phrase fan activism has referred almost exclusively to television fans' efforts to save their favorite series (for examples, see Costello and Moore 2007; Earl and Kimport 2009; Menon 2007; Punathambekar 2007; Scardaville 2005; and Tabron 2004). These campaigns—dating at least as far back as the original Star Trek (1966–69) to the more recent Farscape (1999–2003), Firefly (2002–3), Jericho (2006–8), and Veronica Mars (2004–7), among others—appear effective at catalyzing fan involvement, yet are largely ineffective at saving series. In other words, while it may achieve some secondary, and significant, victories such as tighter-knit relationships among fans, fan crusading rarely seems to end with the supposed primary goal of activist labors: more installments of the texts devotees admire and love. Recently, however, the phenomenon of fan activism has taken on a new dimension, and scholars are beginning to take note by asking several important questions: What causes the shift from save-my-favorite-show rallies to support-my-favorite-charity sociopolitical campaigns? As Henry Jenkins puts it, how does a fan move from "participatory culture to public participation"? (note 1). And what does this move mean? As one might expect, there are many reasons for and implications that emerge from this reallocation of such devoted attention. To explore some of those reasons and implications, I consider some of Whedon's devotees, their activist efforts, and the distinct ways Whedon inspires a politically participatory fan following. Ultimately, I contend that through their activism, many enthusiasts of the Whedonverses extend the worlds of Whedon's stories by consciously constructing a sociopolitical, feminist identity, one that moves them "past the brink of tacit support" (Whedon 2007).

2. Whedon, feminism, and rhetoric

[2.1] Indeed, Whedon fans are not singular in their activist personality. Every year at the fan convention Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia, Robert Heinlein enthusiasts sponsor a blood drive (in 2011, the event collected just under 9,000 units of blood products from 2,944 donors [Koslow 2012]). The film Trekkies (1997) chronicles the many forms of community outreach lovers of Star Trek have engaged in for decades, one being visits to children's hospitals in full Klingon array. Yet the similarities and differences—Browncoats (Firefly) are not Ringers (The Lord of the Rings) are not Twihards (Twilight) are not Potterheads (Harry Potter)—among fan communities are significant and, therefore, worthy of examination. Just as the Harry Potter Alliance, a civic-minded fan organization, possesses the spirit of J. K. Rowling's magical universe, so many Whedon fan activists have cultivated a distinctive character: specifically, a feminist one. Considering the strong female characters populating the narrative universes of Joss Whedon's series, such an assertion might not be surprising (note 2). Whedon's creation of these strong female characters has been recognized not only by fans, journalists, and scholars, but also by organizations such as Equality Now. Even more, in many public forums Whedon regularly and frankly reminds his audiences that he considers himself a feminist. The stoning of Du'a Khalil Aswad did not suddenly prompt Whedon to seize the feminist mantle, though the occasion allowed him to further establish his pro-woman identity. Rather, Whedon's blog post demonstrates his intrinsic understanding of the rhetorical principles exigence (felt need) and kairos (right timing), an understanding also exhibited in a gala speech Whedon delivered a year before Du'a Khalil Aswad was killed and Roland Joffé's Captivity was released.

[2.2] On May 15, 2006, Equality Now honored Whedon at their gala "Men on the Front Lines." In a video recording widely circulated on the Internet, Meryl Streep offers a brief history of Equality Now before introducing Whedon, particularly noting that the organization was cofounded by Jessica Neuwirth, a former high school student of Whedon's mother, Lee Stearns. Streep exclaims that Whedon's mother would be very proud of the man he has become and the powerful, iconic female characters, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he has created during his career. She also alludes to the efforts of Whedon's fans to raise money for the organization (see especially the Web site Can't Stop the Serenity). Though some antifans have read Whedon's speech as insincere, Whedon's self-effacing posturing, his humor, and his ability to capitalize on the shared values of Equality Now and women's rights supporters render both his delivery and content rhetorically effective—persuasive and, as a consequence, inspiring and motivating to many audience members.

[2.3] Upon approaching the microphone, Whedon (2006) begins by both acknowledging and deferring to the audience. He comments that he finds himself in a room full of people with "extraordinary courage," something he says he knows a little bit about since he once read of courage in a book. The audience responds with gentle laughter, and Whedon summarizes that he will stick to writing, a far less difficult task. "The most courageous thing I've ever done," he explains, "is something called a press junket, which is actually pretty courageous, believe me, because they ask you the same questions over and over and over and over and over and over." One of those questions becomes the central, organizing feature of his speech: "Why do you write these strong women characters?" Whedon begins to role-play, putting himself in the position of imaginary reporters and then moving back into his own skin. His first response is sincere and patient with the question: "I think it's because of my mother," he responds. "She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman and that's the kind of woman I've always surrounded myself with…it—it all goes back to my mother."

[2.4] "So why do you write these strong women characters?" queries the next invisible reporter (Whedon 2006). Whedon's strategy reveals itself this early in his speech. He goes on to demonstrate that no answer seems sufficient, so the question continues to be asked, and he continues to answer it. Having a strong mother and other strong women in his life doesn't seem an adequate answer for the press. As a result, Whedon tries angle after angle: "Because of my father [and stepfather]…they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else's power does not diminish your own." Same question. With a little more irritation and a little less patience, Whedon replies, "Because these stories give people strength." Not just women. People. Something about a lead female character, argues Whedon, opens up a different kind of symbolic space, one in which women and men can explore emotions, "hopes and desires," that identifying with a male protagonist does not allow. Same question. The audience clearly receives Whedon's message as they audibly respond—with sympathetic laughter—to the repetition of "So why do you write these strong women characters?" Whedon uses his body to signify a change in his demeanor. He slouches a bit, bounces on his feet, smiles, and rubs the inside of his cheek with his tongue as he answers this fourth time: "'Cause they're hot." The audience laughs, but Whedon gives them little time to complete their reaction. Same question.

[2.5] Whedon (2006) erupts, "Why are you even asking me this?!" Being on the press junket, he explains, often involves doing multiple interviews in a day, sometimes as many as fifty or more. So he intends to capture for the audience his frustration. His frustration, however, does not come from the repetition of the question. After all, he knows the junket well enough to expect repeats. Rather, the nature of the question exasperates him:

[2.6] How is it possible that this is even a question? Honestly, seriously, why are you—why did you write that down? Why do you—Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? [For the first time during the speech, the audience explodes with claps, whoops, and hollers.] I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored, and there are other people doing it. But, seriously, this question is ridiculous and you just gotta stop.

[2.7] In this scenario, though, his outburst is met with ignorant resolve: "So why do you write these strong women characters?" (Whedon 2006).

[2.8] Gone is the good son revering his parents. Gone is the teenage fanboy commenting on the "hotness" of his female characters. Gone is the frustrated, tired, even irate writer-director enduring a press junket. Here Whedon (2006) narrows to the thesis. More than just an idea or some goal to work toward, equality is essential for authentic living: "Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it." Consequently, Whedon maintains, we need equality not soon but right now. As he makes a play on words that echoes the name of the organization honoring him, the audience could have easily read this linguistic flourish as a conclusion. But Whedon is not finished; he must accent his central argument. Same question: "So why do you write these strong female characters?"

[2.9] "Because you're still asking me that question" (Whedon 2006). Now he is finished. Complimented with applause, he thanks the audience again and exits the stage.

[2.10] In "Whedon Takes 'the Scary' Out of Feminism," Meghan Winchell (2010) discusses how she uses the video of Whedon's "Men on the Front Lines" speech in the context of her first-year Liberal Arts Seminar, an undergraduate course themed around Buffy the Vampire Slayer that hones students' critical thinking, oral communication, research, and composition skills (78–9). As Winchell explains, she does not begin the class by dropping the whole of feminism in students' laps (75). Instead, she simply starts by treating Buffy (and teaching students to treat Buffy) as seriously as any other culturally significant text. This self-described "back-door approach" allays the threat many students—both women and men—feel when the topic arises. Only after students have developed their own appreciation for the text, a critical respect and even enjoyment of it, does Winchell broach feminism and Buffy as feminist artifact. When she finally does introduce feminism, Winchell first invites students to share their honest reactions to the word, concept, and philosophy. As she expects, most initial responses are typical, mainstream media-driven characterizations: feminists are bra-burning, man-hating single women who are unattractive. Yet a few students inevitably also mention power, a topic perfectly suitable to the trajectory of the class. A historian, Winchell capitalizes on her strengths and expertise, placing Buffy in the context of both history and classic literature. For instance, students view Buffy in light of primary documents from the Salem Witch Trials, looking closely at cases against Sarah Good and Martha Corey. Winchell pairs these historical texts with episode 3.11 "Gingerbread" (note 3), allowing her to address "women's place and value within Puritan society" (76). She then invites students to engage in discussion and analysis of the real-world and Whedon-world events. As students exercise cross-cultural, cross-temporal, and cross-media comparisons, they sharpen their understanding of a variety of personal and communal women's issues.

[2.11] Only after a series of primary and secondary readings, discussions, and projects, does Winchell share Whedon's speech for the Equality Now event, and she shares it for the express purpose of offering a (re)definition of feminism for the first-year seminar students. For many of them, the approach works. As they watch the speech, they record their impressions as well as words Whedon himself uses to define strong women, terms such as sexy, tough, funny, and smart. Winchell (2010) notes that students are especially "moved and fascinated by" Whedon's assertion that equality is as necessary as gravity (79). If nothing else, students come away from the speech and the class having been put on a path toward understanding more deeply and even beginning to identify more positively with feminism. What allows them to do so, posits Winchell, is the fidelity or "emotional realism" of Whedon's text, a realism that resonates, often profoundly, with students' own lives (79). Through Buffy, Whedon wins the young scholars over, making his feminist message as well as feminism itself a whole lot less "scary." Unsolicited and years after taking the course, Alex, a male student, reported to his former professor that the Liberal Arts Seminar on Buffy made the tenets of feminism accessible for him. Even more, he clarifies, Buffy "showed me the truth of feminism: how there is significant inequality and that accepting a woman's strength does not make a man weak… [Additionally,] Whedon's speech showed feminism as logical, moral, and sexy. It essentially showed me how backward, wrong, and ignorant it was not to be a feminist" (Winchell 2010, 80).

[2.12] Independently, Winchell and Whedon seem intent on shaping without dominating the ongoing conversation about equality. Both appear to desire, in educational parlance, active and self-actualized learners, a desire aligned with the tenets of critical pedagogy and liberatory education (see especially Freire 2006; Giroux 1997; and Shor 1992) or what some may even argue constitutes "true" education. For instance, Maria Montessori ([1909] 2006) describes auto-education as the process by which a person, deeply curious and invested in the creation of knowledge, teaches herself or himself through trial and error (169–73). In fact, error provides the vital means for genuine learning. As she insists, humans are not what we are because of the teachers we have had but because of what we have done (172). Through his transmedia texts, Whedon articulates his agreement. In Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon, K. Dale Koontz unwittingly echoes Montessori by asserting, "Whedon reminds us again and again [that] it's not what we carry in our blood that makes us worthwhile. It's what we choose to do" (2008, 189). Who we are, what we do—these themes arrest Whedon's attention and assert themselves in his creative work.

[2.13] Winchell the professor and Whedon the artist inspire independent, critical thinkers—students and viewers—rather than mere receptacles of popular yet logically flawed ideas, faulty notions such as the needlessness of the contemporary feminist movement. I understand this parallel between Winchell and Whedon as embedded feminism. I use embedded to mean lived or embodied feminism—a belief, a value, an ethic that translates into action or activism, however subtle or blatant the form. In biblical terms, "you will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:20, NASB). The rhetorical effect or persuasiveness of this kind of feminism occurs ethically and over time in the form of unfolding classroom/television narratives. As much as he attempts to convince his audience in the Equality Now address, however, Whedon is no more a mere writer than Winchell is a mere professor; both aim at a purpose, fashion rhetorical acts. In fact, since the debut of Buffy on television, Whedon has become more visibly active in and much bolder about politics in general (note 4) and the politics of gender equity in particular.

[2.14] On May 20, 2007, a year and five days after his speech for the Equality Now event, Whedon posted his entry "Let's Watch A Girl Get Beaten To Death" to WHEDONesque. In the post, Whedon addresses two seemingly disparate events: the "honor killing" of Du'a Khalil Aswad in Bashiqa, Iraq, and the advertising for and theatrical release of director Roland Joffé's Captivity, a movie bearing the generic marks of "torture porn," a gratuitous blend of graphic violence and sexual imagery. Whedon's fiery appeal urges fans to intellectually as well as tangibly oppose violence against women and any other form of gendered oppression; boycotting Captivity, is an action Whedon alludes to but does not directly communicate. I suggest that Whedon continues to flesh out his own feminist identity, in part established by the Equality Now speech, by taking advantage of the kairotic moment created by the unsettling yet rhetorically felicitous juxtaposition of the Aswad murder and the Joffé motion picture.

[2.15] After Whedon (2007) explains that he wishes to be heard, he begins his blog post with a summary and critique of the stoning. He notes facts about the young woman and events surrounding her death that can be confirmed from mining newspaper articles published around the globe and archived on many Web sites: Du'a was seventeen years old; a crowd of men, including some family members, were responsible for her stoning; security forces were present but did not intervene; the "honor killing" was related to a perceived religious and cultural infraction. Whedon claims, as do many journalistic reports, that the young woman was of Yazidi descent (note 5) and had either been seen talking to a Muslim young man or had actually planned to run away with or marry him—which has never been confirmed. There exist some reports that she had actually converted to Islam (note 6). "That she was torturously murdered for this [perceived transgression] is not," states Whedon, "a particularly uncommon story." What is uncommon, he acridly stresses, is how the world learned of the story: multiple men filmed her murder with their cell phone cameras "from the front row" of the mob, footage that made its way to the Internet and then to major news outlets such as CNN. As a result of this global distribution, "now you [too] can watch the action up close." Whedon's choice of words—torturously, front row, action—as well as his indictment of the event as voyeuristic spectacle are foundational to what Whedon accomplishes next in the blog post: a thematic linking of real life (Aswad's stoning) to representational life (Joffé's movie).

[2.16] Whedon (2007) prefaces his juxtaposition of the young woman's stoning and the release of Captivity by stating that he bears "no jingoistic cultural agenda," that he typically believes US citizens have not forgotten what was learned about the bystander effect as a result of the 1964 stabbing death of Kitty Genovese in New York, and that he usually has faith in Americans' adverse response to gendered violence. "We are more evolved [than that]," he hopes. However, just before discovering the video of Aswad, he viewed the trailer for Captivity. Viewing the trailer was not Whedon's first encounter with the summer release, though. In a March 22, 2007, letter to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Whedon had publicly condemned Captivity's billboard campaign. In "Let's Watch a Girl Get Beaten To Death," Whedon calls the billboard a "concise narrative of the kidnapping, torture and murder of a sexy young woman" because the sequence of four images are labeled "Abduction," "Confinement," "Torture," and "Termination" (figure 1). Attempting to give Roland Joffé, the director of the acclaimed film The Killing Fields (1984), the benefit of the doubt, Whedon sought the trailer in hopes it would predict a "more substantial" movie than the billboard promotions. He found otherwise and contends, "The trailer resembles nothing so much as the CNN story on [Du'a Khalil Aswad]. Pretty much all you learn is that Elisha Cuthbert['s character] is beautiful, then kidnapped, inventively, repeatedly and horrifically tortured, and that the first thing she screams is 'I'm sorry.'" At this point in the blog entry, Whedon turns his attention to a concept and practice he claims to be the concept and practice with which he will always wrestle: misogyny, or the hatred of women.

Figure 1. A Los Angeles billboard advertising Roland Joffé's Captivity (Hall 2007). [View larger image.]

[2.17] "What is wrong with women?" Whedon (2007) queries. Though further explanation reveals his sincerity, one could easily (and some WHEDONesque members do) read his response as glib: "Womb Envy," he answers. Yet before he arrives at that conclusion, he first takes another opportunity to connect American media representations of women with parts of the world typically associated with women's oppression, places known for "sporting burkhas." In fact, he argues that in one way or another every culture adheres to the notion that women are not only subordinate to men but also inherently wicked. The evidence for such an idea, Whedon says, he finds all around him—in film and television, in people's jokes, in advertising. That evidence proposes that "women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished… And the logical extension of this line of thinking is that women are, at the very least, expendable." Again, the reason for such beliefs is "Womb Envy." From Whedon's perspective, men require women to procreate, whereas women, once impregnated, do not require men to carry, deliver, raise, or nurture a child. Whedon characterizes men as jealous as well as envious of women's role in the "life cycle" and especially of their ability to "bond in a way no man ever really will." As a reaction to their jealousy, Whedon suggests that men began to consciously or unconsciously devalue women and anything associated with them. He admits that jealousy as a catalyst for misogyny seems too simplistic; nevertheless, he believes it to be true:

[2.18] How else to explain the fact that cultures who would die to eradicate each other have always agreed on one issue? That every popular religion puts restrictions on women's behavior that are practically untenable? That the act of being a free, attractive, self-assertive woman is punishable by torture and death? In the case of this upcoming torture-porn, fictional. In the case of [Du'a Khalil Aswad], mundanely, unthinkably real. And both available for your viewing pleasure.

[2.19] Imperative to note is Whedon's conflation of the fictional and nonfictional as well as his use of the second-person pronoun you. In essence, Whedon positions his readers—an audience that begins as the fan-users of WHEDONesque but quickly becomes Internet users all over the world—as voyeurs. The question is whether or not these voyeurs will stay immured in their passivity.

[2.20] Before Whedon (2007) elaborates on the "you" he has identified, he first returns to self-examination and culpability, a choice that might be read as a form of role-modeling for the audience. He admits that the convergence of the real-world stoning and the fantasy-world kidnapping and torture has triggered for him a sort of breakdown: "It's safe to say that I've snapped." At the same time, he refuses to claim righteousness, and even confesses his familiarity with objectifying women (more on this confession later). Still, "there is the staggering imbalance in the world that we all just take for granted." Moving from the pronoun you to I, from I to we, Whedon places his readers in the crowd of men who stoned Aswad to death, then charges himself, and finally unites himself to his readers—many of them his fans. Now he stands ready to make his rallying cry.

[2.21] Whedon (2007) begins his final appeal with praise and follows with self-deprecation before making suggestions for action and ending, again, with praise. An occasional contributor to the Web site, Whedon interacts with WHEDONesque members by soliciting their questions and answering them, posting updates on his current work, and even stopping by to send holiday greetings. In other words, there exists a certain level of familiarity among the WHEDONesque community and the auteur; therefore, Whedon speaks quite intimately to them, calling them "fairly evolved" and noting that "you may be way ahead of me" regarding the death of Aswad and its symbolic relationship to Captivity. Yet he cannot "contain my despair, for [Aswad], for humanity, for the world we're shaping." Consequently, he explains that the Web site he has hyperlinked to the title of his blog entry does not take a person to the scene of a murder. Rather, the link takes a person to "a place of sanity," to Equality Now. This organization, says Whedon, not only continues to question our damaged world but also attempts to correct the damage (note 7). Before asking his audience to be participants instead of observers in that damage control, he provides them with reasons. For example, just being a decent person and feeling bad for Aswad as well as the condition of women in our world does not solve the problem of gendered violence. Ultimately, "true enlightened activism is the only thing that can save humanity from itself," Whedon insists. He continues, reaching the heart of his entreaty:

[2.22] All I ask is this: Do something. Try something. Speaking out, showing up, writing a letter, a check, a strongly worded e-mail. Pick a cause—there are few unworthy ones. And nudge yourself past the brink of tacit support to action. Once a month, once a year, or just once… Even just learning enough about a subject so you can speak against an opponent eloquently makes you an unusual personage. Start with that. Any one of you would have cried out, would have intervened, had you been in that crowd in Bashiqa. Well thanks to digital technology, you're all in it now.

[2.23] In a shrewd rhetorical move, Whedon (2007) punctuates his plea by simultaneously praising his audience for what they would have done had they been among the Bashiqa mob and pointing out that because of cell phone and Internet technology they actually are in the crowd. Accordingly, what they "would have done" can—indeed, must—become what they do. In closing, and contradicting a statement earlier in the blog post, Whedon acknowledges that he has "never had any faith in humanity." Even so, humans have a stunning capacity for growth, for creativity, for innovation. According to Whedon, we humans are "technologically magical, culturally diverse and artistically magnificent," ones who have paradoxically managed to convince ourselves that women deserve to be disparaged and despised, sometimes even destroyed. For that feat also, "we're pretty amazing." As a professional and practiced wielder of language, Whedon recognizes the potential for good and evil inherent in discourse. As rhetorician Krista Ratcliffe (2003) explains, "how we use language and how languages uses us" defines the study of rhetoric. That language use—not to tear down but to build up humanity—is what Whedon calls for in conclusion. If we can knit a myth or grand narrative wherein women are villains, we are just as capable of unraveling that myth and knitting a new one, with new moral fibers.

3. Fan response

[3.1] The volume of responses to Whedon's post is substantial: close to 100,000 words of text from over 200 members of WHEDONesque, responses that represent a wide range of ideas related to issues of gender, social justice, and politics, as well as Whedon's representations of or allusions to these same ideas in his television series, particularly Buffy. Of course, the discussion itself can be understood as a form of education and activism. It constitutes a rich, productive, and catalyzing dialogue sprinkled with both debate and personal narrative and peppered with strong feelings—some harsh, many hopeful—about Aswad's death, about patriarchy and feminism, about Whedon and his television series, about who humans are and what we can and should do to affect change. The comments represent more than constructive chat, though. A sampling of replies provides evidence of action (usernames appear in bold type):

[3.2] luvspike—I know personally how women are made to feel powerless. While I was growing up I was abused regularly by men who were supposed to be my protectors and most of the time I was led to believe it was my own fault… The most important thing I can do is instill a feeling of power in my daughter and make sure she never feels powerless. This is what we have to really thank you for Joss, strong female role models, we need them. I don't know how much I can do to help this cause, but I am giving $25 in the hopes that everyone else will and then maybe we can make a difference, even if it's just a little.

[3.3] Celina—My first impulse is to educate myself on this issue…and I'll probably make a zine.

[3.4] rosebud81—After reading the post a few times, I felt inspired to translate it [into] Turkish…and printed it out to give to my family… Thank you, Joss, for your amazing post.

[3.5] Fallen—If [Aswad's death] matters at all to anyone, at least it inspired me to do something. I'm taking the money that I had budgeted this month to go to the movies and I'm going to donate it and watch Buffy instead.

[3.6] Tonya—Hello all…there are two very thoughtful links I would like to share with you… I just signed [a petition] made possible by the International Campaign against killings and stoning of women in Kurdistan… You can also go to…StopHonourKillings.com, sign up and help out.

[3.7] Willowy—I've written a letter to Barack Obama…another to my Congressman, and one to my Senator.

[3.8] palehorse—I had never heard of Equality Now until I became a member of this community, and I have sent checks to them and proudly wear one of their T-shirts… But, as many have said here, the solution has to do with education, education, education—with showing other possibilities, other possible outcomes… Joss's post is on my office door now, and I hope those students who pause to read it will be inspired to do something, as well, to work toward something better. And it has re-energized me to do more.

[3.9] In another post, RayHill excitedly promotes MicroPlace, a micro-finance organization. Responding to RayHill, OzLady notes that she has bookmarked the Web site, plans to begin saving toward the cause, and will tell her "far-wealthier-than-I-will-ever-be parents and sibling" about MicroPlace. Joining this thread, Syren shares that she previously "made a loan thru Kiva to a female entrepreneur in Mozambique. When the loan comes back in, I'll put it right back into another entrepreneur's account. For $25, you can make a loan that helps to change a life." This cluster of comments demonstrates how members share ideas with each other and anyone else who might be reading.

[3.10] Still other WHEDONesque members discuss what they already do, through their jobs or leisure activities, to help end violence against women. In the process, members raise awareness about available resources and creative outlets. For instance, RazorBlade encourages her fellow fans and provides information to help them act:

[3.11] I just wanted everyone to know there are concrete ways to help women you know who are being abused. I work for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. We are a link to local services such as shelter, counseling and legal assistance. We are open 24/7 and take calls from victims, friends/family and batterers as well. Yes, we even help batterers find appropriate services such as Batterer Intervention. And we also direct people to their local DV agencies when they want to donate or volunteer. Donating clothing or canned goods or some time is a great way to get involved and do something about violence against women. Please give our number out to your friends who need it. It's 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224. The website is www.ndvh.org. We also run the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474 or TTY 1-866-331-8453. Their website is www.loveisrespect.org… We hear from victims all the time and it is surprising how even the small things like supportive listening do so much for them.

[3.12] A range of other activities develop out of the discussion. Some members brainstorm and begin to organize local events; others who live nearby offer professional expertise and connections to help with promotion. Many comment that simply reposting Whedon's appeal on their own blogs or Web sites will help "spread the word" and serve the cause.

[3.13] Others remind the group about "Can't Stop the Serenity"—annual charity screenings of Whedon's film Serenity in honor of his June 23 birthday—and encourage those who haven't been involved in the past to do so now. In the summer of 2006, not long after Whedon's Equality Now gala speech, the first fundraising screening of Serenity occurred in 46 international cities and raised over $65,000. The following year, only a month or so after Whedon's blog post about Aswad, the screenings occurred in 47 international cities and raised approximately $106,000. To date, the fan-led endeavor, begun by The One True B!x, has raised over $550,000 for Equality Now and other charities ("History" 2011).

[3.14] In addition to comments on WHEDONesque, another tangible and notable response to Whedon's blog post on Aswad's death took the form of an anthology of poetry, short stories, creative nonfiction, and art by dozens of contributors from around the world. Organized and edited by Canadian author Skyla Dawn Cameron and her staff of over twenty volunteers, Nothing But Red takes its title directly from Whedon's blog entry. All profits from the collection go to Equality Now.

[3.15] In the foreword, Cameron (2008) explains that she grew apathetic over the year or more it took to assemble the collection. Media attention on Aswad faded, then stopped; no word of justice came. Cameron felt paralyzed, overwhelmed by the gravity and scope of the effort required to change the world. Slowly, though, Cameron changed herself: "I can't change Du'a's fate. I can't punish those responsible for her death. I can't change the world. But I can make damn sure that at least I don't slip into apathy—that I keep trying" (4). Then she asks readers to do the same: "make this fight for equality about you… Start with your apathy. Start with what you are capable of doing to help. Start with your capacity to care" (4). In other words, making the world a better place—for women, for everyone—always already begins with making oneself a better person. As Whedon's character Angel declares, "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do" (Angel, "Epiphany" 2.16).

4. Past the brink of fantastic heroism

[4.1] As this issue of Transformative Works and Cultures demonstrates, Whedon fan activists are not alone. Rather, they represent a growing population of grassroots media, cultural, and even sociopolitical reformers. Why, and what does this shift mean? The same questions I pose at the beginning of this article concerning the essence of fan activism can be used to explore Harry Potter enthusiasts. For example, something about J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has inspired the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a fan community active since 2005 that describes itself in this way:

[4.2] The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) is a 501c3 nonprofit that takes an outside-of-the-box-approach to civic engagement by using parallels from the Harry Potter books to educate and mobilize young people across the world toward issues of literacy, equality, and human rights. Our mission is to empower our members to act like the heroes that they love by acting for a better world. By bringing together fans of blockbuster books, TV shows, movies, and YouTube celebrities we are harnessing the power of popular culture toward making our world a better place. Our goal is to make civic engagement exciting by channeling the entertainment-saturated facets of our culture toward mobilization for deep and lasting social change. ("What We Do" 2010)

[4.3] Clearly, word choice indicates that the cofounders, Andrew Slack and Paul DeGeorge, planned for action—mobilize, empower, act, harness, channel, change. The emphasis on not just "doing something" but doing something for humanity, I propose, defines the new fan activism across fandoms. Yet the phrase "by using parallels from" suggests distinctions among fandoms as well as distinctions among fans' favored texts. As part of its Deathly Hallows Campaign, for instance, the HPA set out "to destroy seven real world [H]orcruxes" (note 8). Following Harry's example, the HPA chose as one of its own real-world Horcruxes the unfair, inhumane labor practices in the cocoa industry. On November 1, 2010, HPA founder Andrew Slack (2010) sent a letter to Time Warner requesting that all its Harry Potter chocolate products be produced "true to the spirit of the…franchise." Drawing from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), Slack makes the parallel between the wizarding and real world explicit. He notes that when Harry's best friend Hermione Granger discovers that meals at Hogwarts depend on the labor of house elves, whom Slack refers to as "unpaid, indentured servants," she promptly sets out to correct the injustice. Dumbledore supports her efforts, admitting his own wrong: "Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike…we wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long" (quoted in Slack 2010). Slack goes on to entreat, "As an organization that prides itself on bringing the message of Harry Potter into our world, the Harry Potter Alliance feels that it is imperative that there is no 'indifference and neglect' employed in the manufacture of chocolate bearing Harry's name." Largely a letter-writing, petition, and boycotting campaign, the Starvation Wages Horcrux was only one of seven real-world evils the HPA planned to target and destroy. As the slogan of the Deathly Hallows Campaign summarizes, an echo of the HPA's main motto, "We are the weapon" (emphasis added).

[4.4] As the case of Whedon enthusiasts suggests, some fans engage in activism as a way to bring into the real world the ethics of the imaginative texts they love, the ones they engage with in deep and complex ways. As a result of subtle yet significant differences in the nature of those ethics, fans channel their activism differently in the real world. Whereas J. K. Rowling fans may fight for fair labor practices as a real-world extension of Harry and friends' championing of the rights of house elves, Whedon fans may resist forms of gender oppression as a real-world extension of the "strong female characters" Whedon has created (again, usernames appear in bold type):

[4.5] kevingann—I took a Women's Studies class this past semester because of you [Whedon]… Your shows have helped me to accept myself for who I am, to overcome my social problems, and to realize how the culture locks us into gender roles, and that this needs to change…

[4.6] QuoterGal—I will be a feminist until the day I die…a fiercely protective person to anyone and anything abused by power. But surely one must understand that this gender inequity persists in humanity, and that it expresses itself from the subtlest joke to Du'a Khalil's murder… Not coincidentally, one of the things that has given me the greatest hope has been the creation and popularity of Buffy. I know it's fiction—which is, by the way, part of our crucial and defining mythologies—and I know it was limited in its reach—but it was popular culture and it has clearly had an important impact… Nothing has ever hit me quite…the way "Are you ready to be strong?" [Buffy, "Chosen" 7.22] and the young girl [raising] her hand to stop her father hitting her—that was me, thirty-five years ago, actually raising my hand against my own father, and that was the first time I had seen my face on TV.

[4.7] MySerenity—Before I discovered…Joss' work, I was blind to the violence against women… The only thing I was completely convinced of at the age of 14 was that I hated myself because I was a woman. I hated everything about it. As a result of the media-influenced culture I grew up in, I was ashamed of my own sex and desperately wished for a hero to come and save me… And then I found Buffy… And then I found Joss Whedon… And then I found Equality Now… And then I found myself. And I never turned back.

[4.8] Without asking them, I cannot know if kevingann, QuoterGal, and MySerenity consciously extend Whedon's narratives into both personal empowerment and sociopolitical, feminist action. However, other WHEDONesque members make the connection obvious, even citing Henry Jenkins on the topic. Yourlibrarian explains that after reading the thread about Aswad's death, "I also read this post by Henry Jenkins about the recent [Harry Potter] conference in New Orleans." At the end of that post, Jenkins (2007) writes:

[4.9] Many fans just wanted to have a good time this weekend but others were arguing that they should exploit their skills as media producers and distributors and take advantage of their massive numbers to make a difference in society. One could argue that this vision of fandom as a political movement might reflect the ideological construction of the books themselves, which encourage us to stand up for what we believe in, to question authority, and to take strength in our own communities. It would be interesting, indeed, if the Harry Potter books turned out to have shaped the political beliefs of the next generation, much as they have shaped their cultural imaginations. I told the reporter that it was no accident that the success of the Harry Potter books has occurred primarily in a Post-9/11 world and that it has paralleled the success of Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. Both books encourage us to see our lives in a larger context, to seek out and pursue a larger purpose than our own self interests.

[4.10] Another member, gossi, agrees that there is a clear connection between Buffy and sociopolitical action: "Art can help save the world—or at the very least shape the world… The reason I'm here is some little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the international success of that show heartens me." Sunfire joins the refrain, insisting that fan communities absolutely "have a special kind of energy" that, when focused, can effect change for the better. Consequently, Sunfire asks:

[4.11] What specifically can Whedon fans do to fight violence and discrimination against women and girls? The specific mission could continue to be supporting Serenity Now, or it could be a specific mission in support of [Equality Now's] larger mission. A specific mission could focus and energize things we already do as a fandom, in the same vein as Can't Stop the Serenity. Are there other things that can complement it?…[Equality Now] has some interesting ideas about creative ways to support their efforts. A blog could serve as a place to share ideas and find focus, as a start. There's definitely interest here.

[4.12] Those who study narrative confirm that stories powerfully influence us. As psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oately (2008) maintain, "Works of imaginative literature—stories [including film and television texts]—are one means by which we make sense of our history and our current life and by which we make predictions and decisions regarding our future world" (176, emphasis added). Stories help us grow emotionally and particularly develop our empathy for others and Others. In fact, "even if a story depicts social relations that may be unhealthy or not recommended, it is not necessarily the case that all readers will adopt this information thoughtlessly" (186). To some degree, this point speaks to the arguments made by detractors of Dollhouse and Buffy Season 8 (note 9). Thus, do the examples I share represent every person who follows Whedon's work? No. Are there challenges to Whedon's professed feminism and the feminist essence of his texts? Yes. As I argue above, however, Whedon inspires independent, critical thinkers; contentions wrestled with on WHEDONesque alone—only one Web space among many where followers gather—provide plenty of evidence. For this reason, I speculate that Whedon does not expect the very fans he urges to abandon tacit support of gender equality for deliberate action to tacitly support him, or his texts, either (note 10). Though Whedon may be the fanboy and creative director behind the superhero extravaganza The Avengers (2012), it still appears that he desires—and has—admirers who willingly move beyond fantastic or imagined heroism to real-world heroism-in-action. In fact, he directly entreats them to join him on the front lines.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] Early versions of this essay were presented under the following titles at the respective conferences: "'That Makes Us Mighty': Joss Whedon, His Fans, and the Rhetoric of Activism," Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) (2008); "'Past the Brink of Tacit Support': Joss Whedon and the Rhetoric of Fan Activism," Popular/American Culture Association in the South (2010); "'Past the Brink of Tacit Support': Fan Activism and the Whedonverses," PCA/ACA (2011).

6. Notes

1. See particularly Jenkins's book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) and the Web-based collaborative project From Participatory Culture to Public Participation associated with the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

2. A plethora of work explores the feminist nature of Buffy Summers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. See Magoulick (2006) for one of several notable challenges to Whedon's Buffy as a feminist text.

3. On BuffyGuide.com, Fluff (1999) summarizes the episode 3.11 "Gingerbread": "Joyce Summers joins her daughter on a nightly patrol and discovers the bodies of two dead children. After Giles concludes that the children were killed as part of a cult sacrifice, Joyce organizes a group of parents dedicated to ridding Sunnydale of witches and other evil-doers. Their first act is to tie Buffy, Willow, and Amy to stakes and set them on fire, along with as many of Giles' occult books as they could get their hands on. Giles and Cordelia rescue the girls by revealing that the dead children are actually a demon that feeds on communal fear."

4. In 2004, Whedon sponsored a nationwide fan-centric event called "High Stakes" to raise funding for the John Kerry and John Edwards presidential campaign. It is a matter of public record that Whedon himself contributed $4,000 to Kerry and Edwards as well as a substantially larger amount to the Obama Victory Fund, Obama for America, and the Democratic National Committee in 2008.

5. The Yazidi are a Kurdish-speaking yet ethnically and religiously distinct people who reside predominantly in northern Iraq. Neither Kurd nor Arab, they practice Yazidism, a religion composed of many elements absorbed from a variety of faiths, including Islam and Christianity. According to Sandra Marie Phelps, for example, they "believe in an immortal soul, in reincarnation, [and] that they are the descendants of Adam (not Eve)" (2010, 461).

6. For a deeper discussion of the Aswad case, see Phelps's "Spectacles of Horror: Barbarism within Civilized Reactions to Public Killings" (2008) and "The Limits of Admittance and Diversity in Iraqi Kurdistan: Femininity and the Body of Du'a Khalil" (2010).

7. Whedon is a member of Equality Now's Advisory Board ("Board & Staff" 2011).

8. In Rowling's fantastic world, a Horcrux is an object endowed with part of an evil wizard's soul. Hiding these soul-imbued fragments ensures immortality; as long as the Horcruxes exist, the dark wizard lives on. Destroying the objects infused with the soul of archnemesis Valdemort becomes Harry's singular purpose in the final book and film.

9. If Angel—the vampire with a soul—is correct that "all that matters is what we do," the content, the quality of what we do must also matter. Whedon himself insinuates that "tacit support" for gender equality falls short of substantive action to achieve and maintain it. As a result, Whedon opens his texts and himself to the critique of fans, nonfans, and even antifans. Therefore, it seems unbalanced to tell only the story of what many fans, fan-scholars, scholar-fans, and scholars consider Whedon's remarkable rhetorical and narrative accomplishments without also giving voice to thoughtful analyses that find feminist a misnomer for both Whedon and his texts. For instance, to some viewers and critics, Dollhouse and the Buffy Season 8 comics pose considerable challenges to his pro-woman identity. Some of this ire even reveals itself in the WHEDONesque responses to "Let's Watch a Girl Get Beaten To Death" (e.g., see comments by sansmercy and ScrewtheAlliance). Unfortunately, though I am very aware of such challenges, space does not allow me to flesh them out. As a starting point for further inquiry into Whedon as fanboy auteur and Dollhouse as antifeminist spectacle, however, readers may find illuminating the scholarship of Suzanne Scott (2011) and a special issue of Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association devoted to Dollhouse, an issue edited by Cynthea Masson and Rhonda Wilcox (2010). Finally, I believe the following question deserves pursuit: Is a fanboy auteur indivisible from his text?

10. Though for simplicity's sake I consistently refer to "Whedon and his texts" in this article, the texts in question—Buffy the Vampire Slayer et al.—obviously represent an artistic team effort rather than the work of one person.

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