Book review

Cyberspaces of their own: Female fandoms online, by Rhiannon Bury

Katarina Maria Hjärpe

Lund, Sweden

[0.1] Keywords—Class; Fan fiction; Gender; Mailing list; TV

Hjärpe, Katarina Maria. 2008. Cyberspaces of their own: Female fandoms online, by Rhiannon Bury [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.

Rhiannon Bury. Cyberspaces of their own: Female fandoms online. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. Paperback, $29.95 (242p) ISBN 978-0-8204-7118-6.

[1] Cyberspaces of Their Own is an ambitious look at social structures in online fandom. The author has studied two groups of female fans. The first is the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade (DDEB), a women-only group of X-Files fans divided into three different mailing lists, whom Bury invited onto a mailing list specifically created for her research: the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade Research Project (DDEBRP). On this list, fans discussed the show, their experiences as (female) fans, and several other topics. Bury's research with this group started in 1996 and ended in 1997. The other group of fans is the Militant Ray Kowalski Separatists (MRKS), a group of Due South fans focused on the writing of slash fiction, that is to say, gay romance about the show's leading characters. Bury joined this list in 2002 and kept research going for 4 months.

[2] In the five chapters of her book, Bury examines these two groups of fans from different perspectives. The first chapter, exclusively about the DDEB members, examines the way these female fans interpret The X-Files, as well as how they see themselves as female fans in a non-female-centered, nonfannish world. The second chapter focuses on the MRKS members and their experience both with slash fiction and with real-life GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise "queer") issues. In the third and fourth chapters, the groups are taken together as Bury analyzes the ways these fans use language to position themselves as good writers and as polite fans. The final chapter discusses fandom as heterotopia, an alternative to the traditionally acknowledged spaces. This chapter takes into consideration both female spaces in history and online and the geographic heterotopia created by American fans submerging themselves into the Canadianness of Due South.

[3] The main problem with the book is nearly impossible to avoid when researching Internet phenomena: what happened in 1997 is already ancient history in Internet terms, and even 2002 is old news. When the author, in the final paragraph of the book, asks whether the LiveJournal blogosphere is the next destination for online fandom, the question is unintentionally amusing—in 2008, or even in 2005 when the book was published, the affirmative answer to that is so obvious to the savvy fan as to make the question trite.

[4] Keeping this in mind, however, and looking at the book primarily as a historical document, it has some very interesting interpretations. The main focus, as stated in the title, is on gender. Gender analysis of female fan spaces is nothing new, but Bury grounds her theories well in the specific situations she examines and reaches conclusions that are credible, though not necessarily groundbreaking. Her class analysis is of greater interest, as in chapters 3 and 4 she examines how her subjects position themselves in the bourgeois middle class through matters of taste. Nearly all her subjects have a college degree and work white- or pink-collar jobs. The author shows in detail how vital it is to them to appear intelligent, articulate, and polite. They put great weight on making their fellow fans feel comfortable, voicing any dissent in terms such as "I think" and "maybe" to soften the blow. E-mails are expressed in grammatical English, except in the case of typos or intentional, tongue-in-cheek dumbing down. The fans even gently correct their own and other fans' typos. When they discuss their appreciation of the actors in their chosen shows, they express themselves in calm, moderate terms, with the exceptions again being tongue in cheek. Through these measures and others, they position themselves against other groups of fans, such as squealing teenyboppers (who show enthusiasm in an inappropriate way), fan fiction writers who care only for the "fun" and not for the quality of the final product, and fans who express themselves in an aggressive manner and engage in flame wars (online quarrels).

[5] Bury's analysis of this positioning provides fresh perspectives and is highly interesting, though it might have reached even better heights if the author had researched yet another group of fans with a different perspective. It's clear from the book that she knows where to find such derided groups, yet she seems to make no effort to engage with them. The impression received is that she is too pleased to be able to show civilization in the fandom jungle to want to risk this pleasant image by delving deeper into the wilderness. This gives the book an air of apology, perhaps based in the circumstance that the author, by her own admission, has a background in high culture and only started enjoying television a few years before starting her research. Whatever the reason, it is a pity, because if any part of female fandom can be said to have a voice, it's this section of white, well-educated thirtysomethings with good taste. The flamers and teenyboppers may fit the public image of insane fans, but a firsthand perspective is rare and would have added another dimension to the book. Even with this caveat, however, the chapters in question provide food for thought.

[6] Bury has previously presented part of her work as separate articles, which might be the reason why some elements do not seem to fit naturally into their context. Having the chapter on the DDEB's discussions of The X-Files followed by a chapter on the slash fiction writers of the MRKS invites her readers to make comparisons that the research doesn't support. While large parts of the DDEB chapter are devoted to the fans' view of the show, how their identity as women affects their viewing, and so forth, the MRKS chapter barely even mentions elements of Due South as a show. The subjects were asked why they liked slash fiction, what their relationship was to the GLBTQ movement, and similar questions, but not what about the show itself made them want to write slash. This is all the more remarkable because fans consider Due South to be exceptionally heavy with (intentional and unintentional) homoerotic subtext.

[7] Likewise, slash is the only form of fan art examined. Other forms of fan fiction, as well as drawings and computer graphics, are mentioned only in passing, while some creative methods of expression, such as fan videos, are not mentioned at all. The DDEB fans may or may not produce creative content—the question is raised in the questionnaire but never answered in the main text. It's also noticeable that the questionnaire asks specifically if the fans write slash fiction, despite The X-Files being a show in which the main potential romance is heterosexual. This limitation on the spectrum of fan creativity wouldn't be a problem if slash were the primary focus of the book; because it's not, the lack of context becomes remarkable. Slash hangs in the air, unexplained by connections either to the show or to fannish forms of expression as a whole.

[8] The chapter on heterotopia provides some interesting views on what it means to create a space of one's own, with rules different from those of the main society. When the focus is on how interaction is changed by the limitations and freedoms of cyberspace, as well as how female-only or female-focused groups create their norms, the chapter serves its purpose well. The section on how Due South as a Canadian show has attracted American fans, and how they react to things Canadian within and outside the show, is more questionable—not in its content per se, but in its relevance. Perhaps it is, again, an example of how time has left Bury's research behind. In a time when the British Harry Potter series is one of the largest fandoms online, with several Japanese anime and manga series also well represented (and indeed, a large fandom for the Canadian TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation), the fact that fans like a show from a different country seems less than remarkable. The rise of Internet downloads, legal or illegal, may also have affected the change in fandom structure—it is no longer rare for fans all over the globe to see the same show almost simultaneously and participate in fandom together. As well as noting the date of her research, I suspect that the author's stance here is affected by the fact that she herself is Canadian and is interested in outsiders' perspectives on her culture. It should also be acknowledged that the Canadian aspects of Due South are deliberately exotic, with its overly polite, red-clad Mountie traveling from the snowy north to urban Chicago. It is to Canada what Crocodile Dundee is to Australia, and thus is not entirely comparable to more mundane shows such as Degrassi.

[9] All in all, Cyberspaces of Their Own is a welcome contribution to the history of media fandom, though it tends to fall slightly between chairs—it provides more questions than answers to someone not yet familiar with various aspects of fandom, and it plays it a tad too safe for the fan scholar to find any revolutionary insights within it.