Symposium

Fitting Glee in your mailbox

wordplay

Washington, DC, United States

[0.1] Abstract—A Glee fan's personal fannish odyssey from the Archive of Our Own, LiveJournal, and Tumblr to the creation of physical objects.

[0.2] Keywords—Fandom; Fan practice; Material fandom

Wordplay. 2014. "Finding Glee in Your Mailbox." In "Material Fan Culture," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0522.

[1] In 2009, Glee premiered on Fox Network in the United States to much fanfare and initial hesitant critical acclaim. The show presented a high school glee club, a band of misfits brought together by their love of performance in a stifling Ohio town, and featured ridiculous musical numbers and the kind of broadly satirical take on high school that left older audiences grinning. The quality of the satire dropped off after the first hot rush of the new episodes, and the love affair with the show didn't last for long. Long after it was fashionable, I spent most of 2011 obsessed with it. I can't fully explain it; even then, I had given up trying to defend the show and my ardent interest in it. Part of it was certainly because Kurt Hummel, the character on the show I felt most like I understood, was growing increasingly more important and (contrary to the usual trend of the show, which continues to operate in broad strokes of characterization), more human and complex, away from the original sketch of his character as the sarcastic, bitter gay kid and toward something more complicated and layered, more grounded in everyday pathos. And then, of course, there was his adorable new boyfriend, Blaine.

[2] Even as Kurt's world was expanding past the halls of McKinley High School and his beleaguered and slushied glee club, a big part of Kurt's story that year was about his relationship with his family. And what a family it was—in season 2, his father, Burt (the blue-collar business owner most deserving of his World's Greatest Dad coffee mug), survived a heart attack, sent his son to prep school to make sure he stayed safe from bullying, gave his son a sex talk that has since become the gold standard for such conversations on television, and married another single parent to create a blended family. Because Glee is about kids in high school, the snippets we got of this family were incomplete, just the tiniest glimpses into their life at home, but they became the beating heart of the show. For me, as Kurt grew as a character and his life beyond the worries of the glee club expanded, the show became less about the glories of becoming a performer and more about the victories of becoming a person, and I found that appealing.

[3] As the year drew to a close, I had written a few hundred thousand words of fan fiction, much of it featuring the blended Hummel family, which had only made the characters more real to me. I spent hours thinking about their lives, about the layout of their house, about what it might be like to live with them. I wrote them making weeknight dinners, going grocery shopping, and hanging out around the house. I wrote short stories where I made the new stepmother, Carole, teach Kurt how to knit, and I had Burt giving his son's boyfriend a talk over a can of pop at the kitchen table. These stories were well received because I wasn't the only Glee fan who latched on to the Hummel family and household for a central emotional connection to the narrative. There was no level of the comfort of their house that I hadn't imagined, no room or object that I hadn't considered with warm feelings and made real in my mind and my stories, and no shot of their home that fans didn't screen shot and analyze obsessively for the objects within them. I had created a cosy domestic center to my experience of Glee, that most broad and brittle of narratives, but it lacked any material connection. The busy home and complicated family life I had created wasn't something I could really experience outside of my imagination because the producers of Glee never had any interest in making that family or home more real or manifest in the narrative or the associated official merchandising; it was something that fandom made, inspired by Burt Hummel, his relationship with his son, and his steadfast warmth and good sense. I made a flip comment to a friend about how sad I would be when I didn't receive a holiday letter from this family I knew so well—and then was thrilled when I realized I could make one.

[4] I pitched the idea to my trusted beta, the person who helped me wrestle my ideas into stories between tasks at her day job as a graphic designer, and she loved it and agreed to help. We spent days crafting the language and putting together drafts of what their holiday photo collage should look like. The idea was that Kurt, who was a high school junior and a budding aesthete, would have designed it, and so she had some fun making it look appropriately amateurish (figures 1 and 2).

Happy New Year!
From the Hudson and Hummel Household
It's been an incredible year for us and 2012 is shaping up to be even more so, and those of you in Western Ohio might have some idea of just why that is.
Mr. Hummel is going to Washington.
I've been dying to write that sentence for a while now – I've been saving it up since he threw his hat in the ring. Burt is no Jimmy Stewart. He's better, because he's real.
It's such a long story, but Burt's just been elected the US Representative to the House for Ohio's 4th Congressional District. He ran because he was so frustrated at what he saw happening for our boys in the schools here, but also because my husband hates to see a problem unsolved and the economy here is no better than it is anywhere else. Last year's letter was about how happy I was to be married to him, and this year that is more true than ever.
We leave for DC on New Year's Day, so please think of us while you're eating your cabbage and wish us the best of luck! The boys and I will be coming back here soon after he gets sworn in, and he'll be home whenever they're not in session. Burt's old friend Jim is going to be holding down the shop, and Finn has said he wants to learn more about it. I guess we'll just see how it goes.
That wrapped up the year in pretty spectacular style, but so much happened before then. The boys are in their senior year right now, so they're thinking a lot about what happens next. Kurt is still determined to head to New York and Finn seems to be just taking things as they come, and I think they both sometimes wish it were over already, so at least they would know what happens next. I remember feeling like that, but I'm in no hurry for it to be over.
I know that a lot of us remember high school as the greatest time in our lives. Watching the boys go through it has brought back so many memories of so many of you – good times, sure, but also the bad things and the things that were hard and scary. It's so much harder than I remember it being, and I hope that when they are older they'll only remember the good things. Like how much fun they always have with their friends, and how great it is to hear a crowd of people cheer for you, and how special it is to really date somebody seriously for the first time. I hope they remember 2011 like I already remember it for them – going to Nationals with their Glee Club, making us a special dinner for our first anniversary, that time we ended up with royalty in our family thanks to everyone who was at their junior prom. Memories are what make us who we are, and I hope theirs are good ones. 
I hope 2011 has been full of memories for you. Here's hoping 2012 will help you make some new ones. 
With love and luck from our house to yours, 
Carole, Burt, Kurt, Finn

Figure 1. Fan-created Christmas 2011 Hummel family Christmas letter. [View larger image.]

Collage of photos of the Hummel family.

Figure 2. Fan-created Christmas 2011 Hummel family photo collage. [View larger image.]

[5] Then the idea took on a life of its own; our artist decided that she wanted to make something else, a little gift to include in the envelope. She designed a bumper sticker that would have been appropriate for Burt Hummel's congressional campaign. (Did I mention that he ran for and won a seat in Congress in season 3? Burt Hummel is a man of many talents.) Suddenly we were in the middle of a complicated multistate campaign of mailings—parts came together in Ohio from Washington, DC, New York, and Vancouver. There a friend stuffed and sealed envelopes and dropped them in the mail in Westerville so that they would have a postmark that matched the return address (scraped up from freeze-frames of the front of the Hummel house) and was appropriate to their purported provenance.

[6] Over the next 2 weeks, my fandom network was filled with excitement. As the letters started showing up in people's mailboxes, the contents were photographed, posted online, and recirculated. Fans were excited, touched, and happy to receive something in the mail, something that they could touch and hang on their refrigerators or bulletin boards. One fan put the Burt Hummel for Congress bumper sticker on her car next to her Obama reelection sticker, and her giddy photograph of the collision of her fandom loves and her real life politics was reblogged by the Obama campaign's Tumblr (http://barackobama.tumblr.com/post/32740556638/hedgerose-sometimes-a-girl-has-to-put-her). A year and a half later, I still see reports of these stickers and questions about where one could buy them. The tiny project that had begun as a joke, as something to make myself feel connected to a fannish property that frequently seemed too big for real life, became real and tangible and somehow seen by others, and it continues to make me smile.

[7] This was my first adventure in shrinking fandom down just enough to fit it in a mailbox, but it didn't end there. After Blaine gave Kurt a promise ring made of gum wrappers (in excised material from season 3—material the Klaine part of Glee fandom donated thousands of dollars just to get a chance to see, and that is now available on YouTube), I wrote tiny snippets of stories on gum wrappers that I then packaged in a pretty box and raffled off on Tumblr, sending it off to a Glee fan in the UK. I went on to write a triplet of short stories themed around chalk and the colors red, white, and blue, printed the lot of them, taped them to a box of chalk, and sent them around the world just in time for Independence Day in the United States. I'm planning another project now around pencil boxes (something small, simple, and thoroughly mundane) that I hope will be appropriate for the launch of season 5 of Glee.

[8] If the usual urge of fandom is to take simple stories we've been given and blow them up, to take the limits of the original characters and narratives and bump them out over and over until all that remains is the barest sketch of how they originated, this kind of fandom habit has to be doing something a little different. Glee is a property where the characters come to us enormous and self-parodying; Kurt and his friends are messy, sprawling masses of ego, theatricality, hurt, and lampooned teenaged earnestness. The scenarios that are central to the show's underwritten plots are frequently cartoonish, and even as it drifted from the satire that characterized the first half of the first season, the show has maintained a singular mix of earnest mawkishness and distracted, half-hearted satire; the phrase "tonal shift" shows up in so many reviews and critiques of Glee in part because there's a perceived shift over time, but even within single episodes it's almost impossible to predict how single events will be framed. The characters are what keep us coming back, and centered around this beautifully drawn, odd little family, they've pulled me away from bigger frontiers and larger frames and into smaller, more intimate pieces of their imagined lives.

[9] Kurt Hummel will never not be larger than life; it's in the character's DNA. In order to better understand him, then, I have focused on framing him within the context of the everyday, the environment of his relationships with his family and his friends and that same adorable boyfriend. In this case, an engagement with fandom beyond my laptop and my television screen has served to bring him closer and round him out by translating him into the kind of everyday objects that make up daily living—a holiday letter, a pack of gum, a cheap box of chalk, a plastic pencil box. These projects are shared among fandom because they're fun, because everybody likes getting silly mail, because by giving them away I'm still participating in the fannish gift culture that runs through all of our interactions, which drove me to write fic and post it for others to read. They're shared because that's what fandom does, even when it's something small and silly, and because this kind of participation (real names and addresses, tangible objects) draws us closer together over jokes and ridiculousness.

[10] I'm still on Tumblr. I still publish my fan stories on the Archive of Our Own, and sometimes I'm even still on LiveJournal. But my fannish experience has taken a step into the world of material objects now, to my own great joy, and I'm always looking for the next way to take something imagined and turn it into something I can hold in my hands and then send to 100 of my closest fannish friends. In this way, not only have I solidified my understanding of this connection to this most beloved character, but I have also used this kind of material fannish engagement to connect more with other fans. It's become simply another way to carry out the social exercise of fandom itself. It begins with a connection to a story, that most abstract of human loves, but it frequently yields real social connections with other people. The only difference is that now I have all of their mailing addresses.





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