Theory

"Emotions-Only" versus "Special People": Genre in fan discourse

Louisa Ellen Stein

San Diego State University, San Diego, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This essay looks at genre as a complex set of discursive threads running unevenly through production, TV text, and fan reception. Through a case study of the reception of fan favorite Roswell, this essay interrogates the role of genre in spectatorship. In its mixing of teen and science fiction elements, Roswell trod upon contested generic spaces, eliciting strong reaction from its viewers. Connections between genre and gender came to the fore, as producer commentary linked science fiction with male audiences and teen romance with female audiences. Fans responded with analyses that greatly complicated and at times overtly rejected industrial suppositions regarding the gendered work of genre. Through these fan conversations, we can witness the complexity of genre as discursive thread moving through not only TV texts but also multivariant fan responses. I intend this essay to work at two levels. My analysis of fan responses to Roswell models the possibilities of a close study of genre discourse. At the same time, my case study probes the nature of genre in fan engagement, as genre discourses intersect with other fan concerns such as character identification, perceptions of textual quality, and questions of gender representation. While we cannot necessarily look to fan accounts for proof of how viewers engage with genre, they do tell us how fans frame their engagement with genre, how they incorporate genre into their performance of fannishness, and how they perform and thus enact genre itself as a shared cultural process.

[0.2] Keywords—Audience analysis; Fan analysis; Gender; Genre; Online fandom; TV

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2008. "Emotions-Only" versus "Special People": Genre in fan discourse. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/43.

doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0043

[0.3] Anything but ordinary…a cosmic blend of high school angst and otherworldly intrigue.

Daily Variety, as quoted on the Roswell season 2 DVDs

1. Introduction

[1.1] The current TV mediascape is replete with programs that profess to shake up familiar generic territory, combining diverse generic elements, from science fiction to teen romance, horror, family melodrama, the western, and film noir. Over the past decade, genre mixing has manifested as an industrial branding strategy for narrowcast networks like the WB, UPN, the CW, and ABC Family, with programs including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004), Roswell (1999–2002), Smallville (2001–present), Veronica Mars (2004–7), Reaper (2007–present), Supernatural (2005–present), and Kyle XY (2006–present). In turn, broadcast networks are following suit with programs such as Heroes (2006–present), Journeyman (2007), Lost (2004–present), and Moonlight (2007–8). And these are only the more obvious examples. We can see genre mixing in everything from Days of Our Lives (1965–present) to HBO's The Wire (2002–8). Such mixing is nothing new, but its prevalence in our contemporary media moment does speak to the centrality of genre as a force in both production and reception cultures.

[1.2] Over the past decade, media scholars such as Rick Altman (1999), Jason Mittell (2004), and James Naremore (2008) have sought to reinvigorate genre theory, transforming it from its formalist tradition of scholarly categorization to a study of a dynamic cultural process. This essay builds on their work as it looks at genre as a complex set of intertwined discursive threads that run unevenly through production, media text, and fan reception. Through a case study of the reception of teen/fantasy fan favorite Roswell, this essay interrogates the role of genre in media spectatorship. In its mixing and remixing of teen and science fiction elements, Roswell trod on contested and impassioned generic spaces, eliciting strong reaction from its viewers. Connections between genre and gender came to the fore, as producer commentary linked science fiction with male audiences and teen romance with female audiences. Fans responded with analyses that greatly complicated and at times overtly rejected industrial suppositions regarding the gendered work of genre. Through these fan conversations, we can witness the complexity of genre discourses as they move through not only TV texts but also multivariant fan responses.

2. Genres: Pure or mixed? Category or discourse?

[2.1] Until recently, most theories of genre have considered genres as categories with discernible borders. Some scholars approach genres as inclusive systems of organization and categorization, so that a wide range of media texts could fall within the rubric of a given genre, provided each text meets certain criteria. Others develop canonizations of ideal genre films, concentrating exclusively on films that are the purest or best example of their genre (note 1). More recently, media historians have begun to look at genre differently, considering genres as ideas or cultural categories, tracing industrial histories of genre mixing, and exploring the role of a range of players—from producers to audience—in the creation, definition, and circulation of genres. In his study of film noir, James Naremore (2008) posits noir as an idea that encompasses not only classic noir films themselves but also the metatexts that surround them, such as fashion and advertising. Along the same lines, Jason Mittell (2004) looks at televisual genre as a process of cultural categorization, created at the intersection of text and metatext, through audience, press, and producer discourse. Mittell argues that part of understanding genre as cultural category means decentering the initial televisual text as the focus of generic definition. He posits that genre categories are constituted by cultural discursive practices of definition, interpretation, and evaluation, suggesting that these practices "define genres, delimit their meanings, and posit their cultural value" (16). He thus considers genres as culturally constructed, constantly shifting categories that gather hollow "clusters" of meaning and association (17). This approach moves beyond simply analyzing a media text to also exploring components of the metatext, including producer, network, and audience discourse.

[2.2] Building on Mittell, I suggest that we not only decenter the media text as the site of genre work, but also decenter the importance of category, cultural or otherwise, in our understanding of genre. My research indicates that categorization is but one of many ways in which generic discourses circulate across media text and metatext. Producers and fans alike use generic codes to associate media texts, characters, and narratives, to draw on already established meanings, and to make texts personally meaningful. Furthermore, fan discourses reveal an understanding of generic meanings as naturally multiple and layered, with generic discourse used to associate and suggest expectations and meanings, as well as—or, in many cases, rather than—to categorize. Thus it is imperative that we look beyond genre as categorization in order to understand the essential and multidimensional role genre discourse plays in media production and reception.

[2.3] In this light, I suggest a reorientation: rather than look at genre as category, I consider genres as multilayered sets of discursive threads. These shifting, serial clusters of associated meaning (to repurpose Mittell's term) move through text and metatext, without necessarily deferring to a final purpose of categorization. Such a perspective enables us to see the multiple ways in which generic discourse plays out in our media culture. Indeed, the genre discourse generated by fan engagement with TV programs like Roswell reminds us that genre is not only a formalist tradition belonging to the history of the academy and movie reviewers, but also a web of ideas and associations that links producers and viewers across media texts and metatexts. These generic webs are dynamically on display in our contemporary context of cultural convergence, where media fans can in turn produce and share their own texts replete with generic signifiers.

[2.4] For the remainder of this essay, I will turn to the case study of Roswell to look at how fans engaged generic discourse in response to the program's genre mixing. I have considered fan discussions on bulletin boards, program-dedicated Web sites, and larger sites such as Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/) and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/). Roswell fans enact genre in multiple ways, sometimes making overt generic declarations, and sometimes drawing on genre more subtly. Specific modes of genre discourse are often shaped by fans' specific writing spaces and their respective audiences. At times, fans name genres directly, categorizing texts or viewers; at times, they label genres by association, connecting programs together based on perceived generic similarities. They also evoke the texture or themes of genre in their analyses and creative works, and in some instances, they self-reflexively consider the role of genre in industrial processes and in their own engagement. Finally, they use generic codes as points of identification with story and character, making fictional narratives and characters personally meaningful or resonant through processes of genre personalization.

[2.5] I intend this essay to work at two levels. My analysis of fan responses to Roswell models the possibilities of a close study of genre discourse. At the same time, my case study interrogates the nature of genre in fan engagement as genre discourses intersect with other fan concerns such as character identification, perceptions of textual quality, and questions of gender representation. For evidence of the complexity of genre discourse, I turn to the many instances of generic reference in fan conversations online. Matt Hills (2002) and Kurt Lancaster (2001) have both rightfully warned against taking fan reports of their own reception at face value, noting the important dimension of performance in fan utterances. Nevertheless, although fan accounts cannot necessarily be looked to for proof of how viewers engage with genre, they do tell us how fans frame their engagement with genre, how they incorporate genre into their performance of fannishness, and how they perform and thus enact genre itself as a shared cultural process.

3. Transgenericism and fan engagement: Roswell as case study

[3.1] Roswell self-consciously blends science fiction and teen romance as it tells the story of a group of alien teens and their friends living in Roswell, New Mexico, the site of the famous supposed 1947 UFO crash (note 2). Like its more famous WB companion, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Roswell mixes teen and fantasy generic elements, dwelling simultaneously on the mysteries of the universe and the characters' coming-of-age battles with feeling alienated, literally and metaphorically. The pilot synthesizes romance and science fiction, as alien teen Max heals human teen Liz's bullet wound. Max's actions force him to expose his alien identity to Liz, which then triggers the teen romance plot: as a result of Max's revelation, Liz and Max become romantically involved, and the aliens' secret soon spreads to a tight-knit teen community, within which blossoms multiple human/alien teen romances. Together, the new friends face fantastic adversity as they simultaneously struggle through the normal trials of adolescence. Through its combination of teen and fantasy, Roswell casts its main teen characters as star-crossed lovers, using fantasy to accentuate teen experience and metaphor to depict teen concerns. Roswell merges the ordinary with the exotic, depicting teen crushes as otherworldly loves and literalizing teen alienation in the plight of the alien teen. Thus, Roswell does not simply sew together science fiction and teen romance in a loose hybrid, but rather melds them, creating new meaning through metaphor, a generic mixing that I refer to as transgenericism (note 3).

[3.2] Roswell's transgenericism finds its place in a long history of genre mixing in film and in TV. According to film historians Rick Altman (1999) and Steve Neale (2000), genre mixing has been a consistent strategy throughout the history of American film production. In his seminal work, Film/Genre (1999), Altman challenges notions of genres as unified and singular, arguing that commercial considerations have historically ensured the mixing of generic codes within individual films. From this perspective, genre mixing functions as an industrial strategy designed to appeal to diverse audiences with varying generic interests. We can follow these industrial logics regarding genre deployment from film to television, albeit allowing for differences in medium specificity and industry formation. In its attempt to find an audience first on the struggling WB network and then on the equally struggling UPN network, Roswell's genre mixing can certainly be understood as stemming from a long-standing industrial tradition (note 4).

[3.3] Altman extends the industrial logics of viewer address to imagine the role of genre in the viewing experience. In a sense, he accepts the industrial rationale behind genre mixing, suggesting that viewing processes do indeed follow industrial expectations. As he presents it, studios incorporate various generic elements in hopes of attracting more than one core audience, and in turn, viewers choose what film to see on the basis of their affinity for a specific genre. Taking this trajectory even further, Altman posits that these separate audiences respond to a given film primarily from the generic framework that drew them in the first place. He envisions audience members separate in space but united in generic orientation, with each viewer imagining a community of viewers that share his or her generic interpretation.

[3.4] Inasmuch as we can unearth engagement with genre from online fan discourse, fan accounts line up at most only partially with Altman's multifaceted yet monogeneric reception scenario. In recounting how they became fans of Roswell, some viewers said that they were originally attracted to it because of advertising that suggested that it was a science fiction show. Others said that they gave Roswell a try because of its affiliation with the teen genre, which they gathered from the position of its time slot (after teen soap operas Dawson's Creek and Felicity). Many fans indicated that they watched despite suggestions that Roswell might also have elements of a genre other than the one that raised their interest in the first place. "Tonight was great…I got together with some friends to watch Dawson's Creek & to check out the new series Roswell. I wasn't really expecting to like this show, mainly because it's about aliens, but surprisingly I loved it!" ("I really enjoyed it," IMDb user comments, October 6, 1999) (note 5). Specific generic preferences may differ, but the underlying reasoning remains the same: viewers say they chose Roswell on the basis of singular generic taste.

[3.5] These examples suggest that singular generic preference may influence what a viewer chooses to watch (fan accounts also highlight other factors such as favored actors, networks, or fandom growth). Yet this does not mean that singular generic preferences continue to play such a crucial role as viewers actually watch a media text. Roswell fan discourse offers a more nuanced scenario of genre in viewer engagement: in speaking of their appreciation of Roswell, some viewers lauded it not simply for its science fiction, but for its personalization of alien experience via teen generic elements, or for its hyperbolizing of teen issues via science fiction, as in the following examples from fans in IMDb user comments: "When Roswell first started being broadcast around 2000, I deliberately boycotted it, dismissing it as the usual Buffy/Dawson's Creep garb, but that it ain't. It takes the subject matter that was in every good X-Files ep—Aliens and flips the entire perspective" ("Better than Buffy—A diamond show—Too few seasons," March 14, 2004). "People afraid of the sci-fi part should know the aliens are just like humans no green skin or big eyes. They just simply can do things normal humans can't…The alien part of the show is what causes a lot of problems that are impossible to have on other teenage dramas, which is why it's unique" ("One of the best TV series, so buy it on DVD," June 23, 2004).

[3.6] These viewer assessments may hint at preference for one generic strain, but they do not necessarily discount the presence and import of other genres in the viewing experience. In an extension of this acceptance of generic multiplicity (and in contrast to Altman's [1999] hypotheses of genre-specific viewing), many Roswell viewers indicate that they do not favor one set of generic codes over another at all, but rather appreciate all of Roswell's diverse generic codes as they function together. Indeed, viewers often explain their investment in Roswell as bound up in its use of multiple genres, as these IMDb user comments show: "The Roswell recipe is a unique combination of romance, teen angst and a dash of humor, but before becoming a clone of Dawson's Creek, is spiked with a full twist of good old-fashioned science fiction, and occasionally horror" ("Yay, Roswell!," May 20, 2002). "I love the way the show melds the alien aspect and human emotion" ("Intriguing Show," April 23, 2002). "Roswell is so intriguing, I can't wait to see the next episode every week. The lead characters are, of course, beautiful and their dilemma is genuine: she's a small town girl…he's an alien. But this all makes great tension. It's a wonderfully original show without becoming cheesy (an alien in high school?)" ("Try My So-Called Life meets X-Files," October 26, 1999).

[3.7] These reviews emphasize Roswell's mix of generic elements without singling out any one strain as more important than the others. Along these lines, much viewer discourse suggests that the potency of Roswell's transgeneric synthesis is an important part of its appeal.

[3.8] Even more critical reviews foregrounded Roswell's multigeneric appeal, lauding transgenericism as an ideal momentarily held and then lost. Some viewers expressed outrage over what they perceived as a misguided, ratings-driven increase in the science fiction quotient in Roswell's second season. Fans speculated about the cause of the perceived generic shift, blaming writers, producers, or the network at large for upsetting Roswell's ideal transgeneric balance. In entreating viewers not to watch the second season, one user on IMDb attributes Roswell's generic mistakes to its writers, whom the reviewer believes were reacting to the threat of cancellation by overemphasizing the show's science fiction elements: "The first season of Roswell was a magical experience. It was about love, about alienation, about self-discovery and learning to trust people. Unfortunately, when the show was faced with cancellation at the end of its first season, the writers took what was a mystical show and made it into a hackneyed and badly written science fiction rip off" ("Stick with the first season," February 14, 2002).

[3.9] Through a mix of thematic description and generic naming, this review blames Roswell writers for transforming the show from a program that focuses on synthesizing teen and science fiction themes (love, alienation, self-discovery, and learning trust) into a "badly written science fiction rip off." Thus, as did many others, this review mourns Roswell's fall from transgeneric grace, upholding transgenericism as an ideal, in opposition to the repetitiveness of genre, which is reduced to the morally problematic position of the rip-off. Although those involved in production may see individual genres as routes to specific audiences, many fans embrace generic mixing as a marker of quality and taste (note 6).

[3.10] But even with this celebrating of transgenericism, fans still use generic language to separate themselves from other fans and to separate their show from other shows. A close look at the generic discourse running through the Roswell fan discourse demonstrates how fans may be simultaneously invested in innovative reworking of some generic rules and the maintaining of others. Thus, overall, Roswell fan discourse presents a far less linear picture of genre engagement than that envisioned by Altman (1999). Instead of embracing only one genre, many fans celebrate Roswell's mixing of genres, separating the show and its viewers from other, monogeneric programs, which they portray as less innovative because of their fulfillment of singular generic expectations. Generic discourse becomes a means of defending televisual taste and investment that might otherwise be culturally devalued.

4. Genre with a mission: Fans as generic experts

[4.1] Roswell fans also used genre as a tool for influencing production, as a common language shared by fans and producers alike, and as an arena in which fans wielded expertise even beyond that of Roswell's producers. Fans framed their (multi)generic expertise as a corrective that could bolster program quality and ratings. Some warded against science fiction and/or teen romance's association with devalued, extreme fannishness (note 7); other fans embraced Roswell's science fiction elements, arguing that through its reworking of a rich tradition of science fiction, Roswell could transcend its presumed status as "just a teen show." Roswell fans thus used genre not only to negotiate between seemingly contradictory otherings of audience investment, but also to lobby for their program's creative and ratings success (note 8).

[4.2] Like those who critiqued the increase in science fiction in Roswell's second season, a vocal group of fans lamented the shift in focus from science fiction to relationships and romance in Roswell's third season. As they strategized about how to spread the Roswell word, some fans expressed concern that prejudgments based on generic preference (or generic dislike) would keep the program from gathering viewers. Looking closely at these discussions further complicates our understanding of the ways in which fans draw on and debate genre within the larger currents of fan concerns. These viewers did not celebrate trangenericism or mourn generic balance lost, but rather pointed to Roswell's genre mixing as a problem in itself. In turn, they mobilized generic discourse to help campaign for changes that they felt would aid Roswell in its pursuit of quality and rating, which many fans saw coming hand in hand. Driven by Roswell's precarious ratings position, fans framed themselves as crusaders for its popularity, and they drew on generic analyses as part of their arsenal.

[4.3] One such conversation opened with an extensive post by one fan of the program, M, who posited that "at the most simplistic level there are essentially two types of successful TV series," what she termed "Special People" and "Emotions-Only" (note 9). According to M's definition, Special People programs focus on talented individuals who face conflict from without, whereas Emotions-Only programs feature "normal" characters whose conflicts come from within themselves and from their relationships with each other. M suggested that Roswell started out as a Special People show and eventually strayed into Emotions-Only territory, and in so doing, it lost its resonance and in turn viewer and network support.

[4.4] In sharing her analysis with other fans, M entreated fans to apply pressure on the producers to make Roswell successful, to "fix" it so that it would attract an audience on its own merits. She argued that Roswell would be best served by a change in formula, specifically a return to the more compelling Special People approach from which it had unwisely departed. Positioning fans as wielders of (generic) expertise, M's words painted a picture of possible fan power over the official televisual text itself, continually reminding participants that her Special People campaign was not only intended to keep Roswell on the air but to affect the direction of the program itself.

[4.5] The ensuing discussion drew on generic discourse in a range of ways. Most obviously, the opening post clearly functioned to categorize; M established Special People and Emotions-Only as her own generic categories. Members of the Roswell fan community then discussed and debated the resonance of these two categories, drawing on a broad range of generic language. They frequently invoked direct generic naming, aligning Special People with science fiction and Emotions-Only with soap opera. They also drew on associative naming, listing Dawson's Creek (1998–2003) and Felicity (1998–2002) as Emotions-Only shows and Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001) and The X-Files (1993–2002) as Special People shows. Beyond naming and categorizing, these analyses draw extensively on thematic and textural description to discuss subtle transitions in the show's purpose and resulting effectiveness. The following response to M's opening post discussed the generic shifts from season 1 to seasons 2 and 3 through a nuanced overview of the thematic and textural generic elements in each season:

[4.6] I loved how s1 [season 1] was written:

  • Aliens feeling alienated because of their secret
  • Once they let the human's friendship in, they all worked together as a "team"…
  • Unconditional love by all to their prospective partners
  • Sacrifices—would do this for each other

[4.7] Now I move on to S2 (shudders at the thought)

  • The "team" lost the "togetherness"
  • Evil aliens are amongst the "team" now
  • Noble people, doing noble things, still
  • We did get one eppie of friends helping friends, saving each other
  • The "team" started questioning each other and themselves…

[4.8] We have s3:

  • Not so perfect King of all things, rears ugly head
  • Friendships still broke but might mend
  • You try to love who you want but you don't feel it back
  • A one night stand will haunt you for life

[4.9] There is a new member of the "team" or is there?

[4.10] There is no generic naming at all in this response, nor any apparent desire to clearly categorize. However, through textural and thematic generic description, the commenter traces out complex transitions from season to season, assumedly from Special People to Emotions-Only, or some combination of the two.

[4.11] Many participants in the Special People thread addressed the changes in Max's characterization over the series' run. Participants argued that because Roswell started out as a Special People show, Max was initially presented as a hero, but the later transition to Emotions-Only compromised his characterization. From this perspective, with the turn to Emotions-Only, Max began to make poor decisions (having unprotected sex with someone other than Liz, for one) and became a less compelling hero. According to the these fans, these changes turned viewers away because the program had betrayed rules of good writing, transforming Max from a sympathetic hero into a character with whom fans could no longer identify:

[4.12] I've been having a discussion elsewhere with a bunch of other fanfic writers about where it all went wrong in S2. Our writer's discussion centered around motivation and character development. Max was introduced as this larger than life, heroic figure. He maintained that throughout S1 and for the first part of S2 as well. But what happened after that was almost total character destruction and there was NO set up for it…that is SLOPPY, SLOPPY writing…the fact of the matter is that Max is supposed to be the hero of the show. Now, admittedly heroes can and do fall. However, when they fall there are RULES that the writer is supposed to follow. Number one is that he cannot fall so far as to be unredeemable…The hero needs to be able to still be seen as the hero, no matter what he's done…A Special People show needs a hero.

[4.13] From this perspective, the writers of Roswell ignored the necessary rules of a Special People show—what we could read as generic rules—that must be kept in place to hold viewer engagement; in the case of Max, they compromised the rule that a hero must remain redeemable by having him betray his commitment to Liz. Because the Roswell producers did not follow this generic rule, Max became a problematic central character. In making this argument, these fans drew on their authority as producers of generic texts in their own right—as fan fiction authors as well as adept media readers. Indeed, they presented themselves as more skilled than the official Roswell writers, whom they argued betrayed essential generic rules by tainting Max's heroism. Thus genre became a knowledge set that placed authority, if not power, in the hands of fans.

[4.14] M reiterated throughout the thread that her Special People theory was not intended for the pleasure of analysis itself, nor just to get others to agree with her, but rather as a call to action. She entreated fans to participate in her campaign, in which fans would communicate to the producers what (generic) changes needed to be executed to fix Roswell: "I think it is hugely important that not only is the show renewed but also that it is changed. Because a renewal without change is only a postponement of the inevitable cancellation."

[4.15] M urged fans to write letters to the network explaining why Roswell needed to shift to the Special People generic format. Through this carefully envisioned campaign, we can clearly see that these fans perceived genre as a tool they could use to potentially communicate with the producers and possibly effect change. Through genre they envisioned a viewer/text/producer network of which they were a part, and in which they had the possibility for influence. Whether or not this influence was real or imagined, fans saw genre as a thread running through fan, text, and producer discourse. In instances such as these, genre emerges as an arena in which fans consider themselves critical experts, be they arguing for generic mixing, the proper following of codes, or even the recognition of basic and essential generic categories.

5. Gender and genre

[5.1] Various associations of social identity underlie generic discourse, not least of which are questions of gender. As part of their deep engagement with characters and plot developments, fans of Roswell reformulated generic codes, at times critiquing the program's presentation of gendered generic roles. In part through the generic discourse evoked in these conversations, fans contributed to a conversation on gender roles in our shared cultural imagination. Looking closely at fan discussions of Roswell through the critical lens of genre illuminates crucial audience investments such as gender identification; conversely, discussions of gender in fan conversations reveal the centrality of genre as shared repository for meaning making.

[5.2] Gender is an especially relevant subtext for the case of Roswell because the show brings together two highly gendered generic cultural sets: science fiction, with its association with male fans, and teen romance, with its commonplace association with young female viewers/consumers. Despite the instrumental involvement of women in science fiction media fandom from its inception, these gender/genre associations appear entrenched; indeed, they emerge repeatedly in press discourse regarding Roswell's struggle for survival (note 10). However, fan engagements with gender and genre often venture into less expected directions, overtly or more subtly reworking gender/genre binaries.

[5.3] An October 16, 2000, Entertainment Weekly article by Craig Seymour entitled "Space Case" discussing rumors of the upcoming generic changes in Roswell's second season demonstrates such entrenched notions connecting genre and gender. Seymour reports that generic changes in Roswell were being put into place with a specific intention: to draw more male viewers. According to the article, producers intended to make these changes despite their belief that in so doing, they ran the risk of alienating the program's many female viewers:

[5.4] To lure new viewers, Roswell's producers plan to radically shake up the formula that earned it a vocal—if limited—cadre of fans last season. This includes shifting the focus away from the star-crossed romance…In short, "Roswell" characters will do less sighing, and more sci-fi-ing. But will these changes anger old fans of the series?…it's a risk the struggling "Roswell" is going to have to take, especially if the producers want to build upon their core female viewership. "Sci-fi appeals more to men," says Watson [research director at Media Initiative]. "But if the show does it well, they should be able to keep a lot of their female audience and get men to watch, too." (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,85635,00.html)

[5.5] Seymour here maintains established assumptions linking gender and genre, citing the research director who asserts/assumes that science fiction will appeal more to male viewers while the romance narratives (directly named as "star-crossed romance" and texturally evoked with the wordplay on "sighing" and "sci-fi-ing") will appeal to the female viewers. This quote, however, also suggests the inverse—that female viewers might be turned off by the inclusion of science fiction and stop watching as a result. Such a vision of generic singularity echoes Altman's understanding of genre-based viewing as it could be applied to questions of gendered generic preference: men watch for their singular investment in science fiction, and women watch for their corresponding investment in romance.

[5.6] Although fans rarely discuss their opinions regarding the relationship between generic preference and gender as directly as do producers and the press, if we look closely, we can see that Roswell fan discourse greatly complicates any binary perception of generic reception, including gendered generic reception. Even discussions seeking to divide between fan-created categories—like Special People and Emotions-Only (which could, if painting with broad strokes, be read as a divide between science fiction and melodrama, and gendered accordingly)—still complicate generic and gender binaries. Simplified notions of gender/genre binaries do not fit easily within discussions that slide fluidly between issues of romance and science fiction, as does much of Roswell fan discourse.

[5.7] In its genre mixing, Roswell itself challenges traditional gendered generic roles as it undermines clear dichotomies by positioning aspiring scientist Liz as narrator and as controller of the gaze, while Max, as alien, is placed into the role of spectacle. These reworkings of gendered generic roles emerged as central to Roswell fans who were deeply invested in identifying with the program's characters. As part of what Nancy Baym (2000:71–72) calls "personalization," fans of Roswell embraced the possibility of identifying with the reworked gender roles of the main female characters. Fan discourse thus pushed further at the program's breakdown of gender/genre binaries, locating female characters even more fully in the science fiction plot. For example, the extended analyses by a subcommunity of Roswell fans devoted to "the science fiction of Roswell" stressed the "importance of Liz to Roswell's alien mythology." This bulletin board thread grew to many hundreds of pages over the course of Roswell's three seasons (note 11). An introductory post summarizes the position of this community:

[5.8] First—and foremost—the general consensus is that Liz is important to the alien mythology and the pod squad, and that there is more to the Liz/Max connection than a mere attraction (i.e., a crush). How she is important is where the fun comes in…Liz is also viewed—when the episodes are rewatched—as a critical element to moving the plot along. She is the one who often initiates the actions that help unravel the aliens' mythology…She is a leader that takes action when it is needed, and is the intellect that comes up with the plan. She could possibly be the equivalent to Max—whom we find out in Destiny is the former leader of his people…Could her intelligence mean that she has the potential to obtain some of the "powers" that the pod squad have?

[5.9] This thread argues that Liz is central not only to Roswell's teen romance plot (referenced somewhat derogatorily through the thematic and textural vocabulary "mere attraction" and "crush") but also to its science fiction ("alien mythology") narrative arc. In establishing this argument through textual analysis, the participants point to the ways in which Liz's characterization seems to push at both traditional gender and generic boundaries. They enumerate Liz's leadership qualities, initiative, and intellect, finally concluding that she could be "the equivalent" of alien king Max, both as a leader and as the possessor of "advanced powers"—that is, endowing her with the status of alien. However, although their speculations celebrate and even increase Liz's empowerment, they also reestablish a devalued perception of teen romance, celebrating Liz's move from teen/romance to the realm of science fiction.

[5.10] The introduction to this extensive discussion, authored by Z, introduces new readers to the subject of Liz's role in the alien mythology, aligning Liz's experience in Roswell with Joseph Campbell's hero's journey myth. Z uses Campbell's ideas to interpret the moment in which Liz is shot and Max heals her as Liz's "Call to Adventure." In so doing, Z inverts expected gendered generic roles, changing hero to heroine without mention of this change:

[5.11] The Hero's Journey is a series of stages that a heroine must go through during her adventure…In our case, we believe that Liz is in the process of the HJ. Following are the HJ stages with references of how it applies to Liz (which I added): 1. Call to Adventure—The heroine must first be forcibly drawn into the adventure, this occurs from a normal occurrence and not something strange or supernatural. Liz's healing after being shot would be such an event.

[5.12] Although the most obvious reading of Roswell's opening would label Liz as victim in need of saving by hero Max, Z draws on Campbell to reorient the opening scene as the beginning of Liz's hero's journey, casting Liz rather than Max as the hero. Z's interpretation seems an especially striking application of Campbell's scenario, as Campbell's hero's journey offers a more obvious gender-bound role in which to cast Liz: the princess. But Z makes no mention of Liz as possible princess, nor is Max discussed as hero, giving consideration only to Liz's hero's journey. Such an analysis complicates established gender/genre associations, reconstituting traditional gendered generic roles such as the male hero and female victim/princess. These shifts may have been put into motion by Roswell's own intervention in genre and gender divides, but examples of fan discourse, such as the "Liz's role in the science fiction mythology" thread, clearly take this project of genre and gender depolarization even further than does the original televisual text.

[5.13] When fans discuss the role of gender in industrial strategy, they rarely posit the singular assumptions of a linear relationship between gender and genre of the sort that industrial discourses address through direct naming (as in the Entertainment Weekly article quoted earlier). Fan discourse commenting directly on the role of gender in production and reception paints a much more complex picture than one of traditional, one-to-one genre/gender associations. For example, in an essay posted to a personal Web page (October 16, 2001, http://theddd.net/), one fan suggests that producers cater to gendered audiences—but through gender-related narratives, not genre-specific content. According to this fan critique, Roswell's third season appealed to male audiences by defending Max's morally questionable choice to have unprotected sex with someone other than Liz. This analysis presents a far more multifaceted picture than that painted by the producers in the Entertainment Weekly article (not to mention by Altman [1999]), one in which genre and gender discourses intersect and compound one another as points of viewer identification and engagement:

[5.14] October 16, 2001—The Day the Ratings Fell…

[5.15] Yes, Max and Liz are back in each other's arms, so what could the problem be? Actually, it seems pretty clear to me. Roswell lost some of its fans. Because the ratings indicate a growth in male demographics—and yet a decrease in overall viewers—this would indicate that Roswell lost mostly female fans…why would female fans NOT watch Roswell? Well maybe it's because despite a loud, long out cry of protest—Jason Katims went right ahead and kicked us all in the gut. Thank you Mr. Katims. I asked back then if perhaps you had miscalculated—on just how much distorted character behavior your diehard fans were willing to deal with—and it seems they've answered. Yep you insisted—baby real, sex real, Max's shallow, clueless, insensitive behavior left open to interpretation. And with that, just whom have you attracted? Male viewers! Not exactly what UPN ordered. But, I can understand why male viewers would find all this attractive. Essentially it is a metaphor (I know how you love that word!) for every male who has ever thoughtlessly slept with someone and then regretted it later. A metaphor for his ability to rationalize a roll in the hay in a way that makes him the victim! And now Max callously revises history, oh wait, bravely admits that he was attracted to one of his own! Way to go Max! Liz should just fall all over herself forgiving you in light of that brave, manly admission!

[5.16] Rather than considering whether Roswell has gone too far in the direction of romance or science fiction, this review critiques changes in Max's characterization within the intertwined romance and science fiction narrative (alluded to through textural and thematic description). The author posits that the shift in Max's characterization is due to the producer's wooing of the desired male audience. The review also argues that Roswell's return to romance in season 3 (referenced through the textural/thematic descriptive "Max and Liz back in each other's arms") did not appease disillusioned female viewers but rather pushed them further away by casting Max's infidelity as sympathetic, making him more appealing to male viewers but less so to female fans. This fan review thus stands in direct contrast to the industrial genre/gender hypothesis that associates men with science fiction and women with romance. Instead, the review is infused with a sense of genre as a vehicle for a social agenda on the part of media producers and as a dimension of fan resistance and critical interpretation. This review is an example of how gender and genre discourses intersect and inform fan responses even when fans are not directly talking about either. Both gender and genre emerge as crucial points of contestation in the relationship between media producer, text, and fan.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Generic discourses house important nodes of meaning that fans care about deeply. The complexity of fan responses to generic offerings often exceeds industrial assumptions and academic theory alike. Roswell offers an example of the cultural weight brought to genre from both the media industries and interpretive contexts. Overall, Roswell fan discourse presents a relatively nonlinear picture of genre engagement. Instead of embracing only one genre, many fans celebrated Roswell's mixing of genres, separating Roswell and its viewers from other, monogeneric programs, which they portrayed as less innovative because of their fulfillment of singular generic expectations. Generic discourse thus became a means of defending televisual taste and investment that might otherwise be culturally devalued. Roswell fans also used genre as a tool for influencing production, as a common language shared by fans and producers, and as an arena in which fans wielded expertise, even beyond that of Roswell's producers. Fans of Roswell framed their (multi)generic expertise as a corrective that could bolster program quality and ratings. Furthermore, as part of their deep engagement with characters and plot developments, fans reformulated generic codes, at times critiquing or reworking the program's presentation of gendered generic roles. In part through the generic discourse evoked in these conversations, fans contributed to a conversation on gender roles in our shared cultural imagination.

[6.2] Fan generic discourse is elusive. If we simply look for instances where viewers name genre or overtly speak of the role played by genre in their viewing, we will only see one layer of generic audience discourse. Fan cultures online offer us a resource to gauge the more transitory, elusive modes of genre discourse. On mailing lists, bulletin boards, and Web sites, fans analyze, debate, and form communities around media. In so doing, they enact genre in many different ways; sometimes they define or describe generic codes, sometimes they question the role played by genre in viewing, and sometimes they associate generic texts with other generic texts or with broader generic concepts. These diverse threads of generic discourse connect networks, producers, and viewers in larger processes of cultural meaning making. Over the decade since Roswell's debut, fan engagement online has become more visible; within this context, we can see genre in process—or rather, genre as process—as generic discourses form, reform, and intersect in the continual production of fan-created metatexts.

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] Thanks to Kristina Busse, Julie Levin Russo, and Catherine Tosenberger for their input on this essay. Thanks also to Joke Hermes, Anna McCarthy, Jason Mittell, and Bill Simon for their valuable insight throughout the evolution of this project.

8. Notes

1. Such canonizations were common in genre studies during the 1980s and the early 1990s in works such as Jane Feuer's The Hollywood Musical (1993) and Thomas Schatz's Hollywood Genres (1981).

2. For a consideration of Roswell as a hybrid of the male melodrama and the woman's picture, see Miranda Banks (2004). Neil Badmington (2004) considers Roswell's reenvisioning of the alien/human divide. For teenage viewership of the Roswell teen aliens, see Richard Campbell and Caitlin Campbell (2001).

3. On transgenericism, see Louisa Ellen Stein (2005, 2006). Jason Mittell (2001:153–95) argues that genre mixing actually functions to affirm individual genres through parody. However, a close look at the Roswell text and fan engagement reveals that parody is only one dimension of genre mixing. The thematic core of programs such as Roswell can be found in the melding of diverse generic elements. On genre mixing, see also Henry Jenkins's discussion of Beauty and the Beast as a hybrid generic televisual text in Textual Poachers (1992:120–51), Mimi White (1985), and Janet Staiger (1997).

4. Medium specificity shapes genre discourse traditions, as enumerated by Mittell (2001:xi–xiii), among others. Discursive notions of genre in convergence, however, bring to the fore the transmedia dimensions of genre, and thus can be usefully informed by theories of genre in film and in television.

5. Throughout this essay, I excerpt online fan discussion. However, I do not provide direct citations of fan conversations or more informal publications; I have made this methodological choice out of concern for protecting the online fannish spaces and authors/reviewers. My approach follows the guide set out by Storm King (1996). For other analyses of the methodological ethics of the study of online discourse, see Nancy Baym (2000), Sharon Polancic Boehlefeld (1996), Amanda D. Lotz (2000), and Michele White (2005).

6. Steve Neale (2000:207–10) discusses the presence of negative perceptions of genre within academia itself and within the history of genre theory. For fan discourses addressing issues of quality, see Petra Kuppers (2004), Matt Hills (2004), and Sue Brower (2004).

7. On negative perceptions of fandom and fan investment, see Matt Hills (2005).

8. Jenkins's case study of fan response to Beauty in the Beast offers another rich example of how genre and gender representation function as sites of struggle between fans and producers, especially in programs that mix diversely gendered generic elements (1992).

9. The thread discussion was called "Is Roswell a 'Special People' show?" and was posted in 2001 on http://www.fanforum.com/; it is no longer available.

10. For a discussion of the association of gendered textual address and social audience, see Annette Kuhn (1987). See also Jenkins's analysis of the intersection between gender, genre, and audience in his discussion of Beauty and the Beast (1992:120–51); and Baym's (2000) discussion of male and female audience address and gendered perceptions of soap opera viewers. As Jenkins points out, science fiction media fandoms have always had a fairly large female constituency. Science fiction media fan communities grew as outlets for female sci-fi enthusiasts who felt alienated from the male-oriented science fiction literature fandom (48).

11. The original "Is Liz More Important to the Aliens/Mythology than we are led to believe?" thread was posted on May 4, 2000, at http://www.fanforum.com/, and the discussion it spawned is archived at http://thesmudge.com/shapeshifter/Roswell/.

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