Author Comments: This essay came about during a post graduate course called "Digital Media in Social Context" which I completed at the University of Technology, Sydney in mid 2002. It was a dream course for me - we had the choice to write about basically anything we wanted and I chose Transformers fanfic. Having run a Transformers fanfic site since 1996, I thought I'd have plenty to write about and that was certainly the case. Forgive me if this essay seems choppy or lacking in flow - the first draft was over 9000 words long and I had to cut it to death to get under the 3000 word limit. I may go back and rewrite my first draft eventually, but meanwhile, this essay is what I handed in. My lecturer very kindly gave me a high distinction for it! :-) If I manage to track down her comments, I'll include them in a later version.
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Human beings have created and shared popular culture for many thousands of years. Once, mythical, popular heroes could be created by anyone, their stories altered at the whim of myriad storytellers. But this situation appears to have changed with the introduction of television and movies.
"In the 20th century…folk culture has been privatized. The characters we share today are TV icons and movie heroes [and] these characters don't belong to the public. They are literally owned by studios and producers, who run the character's 'life' for us and expect us to accept their decisions gratefully" (Plotz 2000).
Once active participants in culture, human beings have become passive consumers, pure receivers. Or have they? Ang (1996, p.186) has noted that the television industry has a kind of calculated ignorance about the tactics by which consumers at home constantly subvert predetermined and imposed conceptions of 'watching television'. Media corporations do not want viewers who "make demands, second guess creative decisions and assert opinions; they want regular viewers who accept what they are given and buy what they are sold" (Jenkins 1992, p. 279). But despite the preferences of media corporations, the "very forces that transform many of the television audience into spectators are providing the resources for creating a more participatory culture" (Jenkins 1992, p. 284).
Transformers fandom is "a subculture that exists in the 'borderlands' between mass culture and everyday life and that constructs its own identity from resources borrowed from already circulating texts" (Jenkins 1992, p. 3). Participants in the Transformers fandom are a subculture intent on creating meaning from materials that other may dismiss as trivial and worthless - Transformers cartoons, comics, toys, and various other artifacts. Transformers fandom, like other fandoms, blur "the boundaries between producers and consumers, spectators and participants, the commercial and the homecrafted, to construct an image of fandom as a social and cultural network that spans the globe. Fandom here becomes participatory culture which transforms the experience of media consumption into the production of new texts" (Jenkins 1992, p. 45-46). These new texts include kitbashing (new Transformers toys sculpted from other toys), artwork, and even a Transformers Internet radio station. But the most common new text created from Transformers primary material, and the one that will be explored in this essay, is fan fiction ('fanfic' for short).
Transformers fanfic has undergone many changes in the way it is disseminated over the past decade, the most important being it has gone 'digital'. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Transformers fanfic was disseminated via zines, which are homemade, desktop published magazines. The rise of the World Wide Web and the Transfan online community during the 1990s resulted in an explosion in the number of Transformers fanfic readers and writers. While Jenkins (1992, p. 159) was able to say that "most zine editors struggle to find enough acceptable material to fill their zines", by the late 1990s the Transformers fanfic archive now known as Lexicon (www.lexicon.tf) was so inundated with submissions that it had to be temporarily closed and recreated as a fully database-driven website to reduce the amount of manual HTML coding required by the admin staff. Once Lexicon was fully database driven, it grew from 768 submissions on the 5th of January 2002, to 1297 submissions by the end of May 2002, an average of 3 submissions per day. Lexicon's database was accidentally erased by its web hosting company in late May 2002, and was replaced by a backup over 6 months old and missing hundreds of submissions. Authors continued to submit (and resubmit) their work and by 23rd December 2002, Lexicon had 1363 submissions in a database over 40 megabytes in size - so large that the automatic caching system on the home page could no longer read through the database without timing out.
Many Transformers zines still exist, although Lexicon remains one of only two database-driven Transformers fanfic sites. This may be related to start up costs, as "anyone who has access to a word processor, a copy centre, an a few hundred dollars start-up cash can publish their own zine" (Jenkins 1992, p. 158). But the expense (both time and money) of maintaining a large website, coupled with the fact no ready made fanfic site web applications exist, make the creation of a fanfic website very difficult. However, fanfic websites and zines have many things in common. Fanfic website admin and zine staff editors are both torn between "competing impulses towards 'professionalism' (the development of high technical standards and the showcasing of remarkable accomplishments) and 'acceptance' (openness and accessibility for new and inexperienced writers). Push comes to shove, professionalism gives way to acceptance; even the most polished zines [and fanfic sites!] occasionally include work that falls outside their overall standard but represents the fledgling efforts of new fans" (Jenkins 1992, p. 159).
When Ang (1996, p.184) stated that the television business…is basically a 'consumer delivery enterprise' for advertisers, she probably was referring to the advertisements between the programs. However, the Transformers primary material (cartoons and comics) has gone far beyond being an attraction to keep viewers watching so they could see advertisements. The Transformers primary material is advertising material itself, promoting characters that can be purchased in toy form. It hasn't always been legal for toy companies to promote their product in this way. The Transformers cartoon, which began in the early 1980s, was made possible by a change of United States law. "In the 1960's the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] ruled that it was unethical for any company to produce a children's show based on a toy line. This decision was reached because they thought that the children's show would just end up being a half-hour commercial for the toy line. And this law stayed in effect until late 1982 when the FCC rescinded the rule and opened the doors for children's programming based on toys" (Watkinson 1998). Transformers were only one of the many cartoons rushed to production to cash in on this change of law.
When a Transformers fan writes fanfic, they filter the characters and scenes from the primary material through their own perceptions, toning down some areas and emphasizing others.
"Though many fans claim absolute fidelity to the original characterizations and program concepts, their creative interpretations often generate very different results" (Jenkins 1992, p. 176).
Unlike producers, who are restrained by censorship laws, copyright laws and the expected audience and advertiser preferences of their program, fanfic writers are free to:
"Actively expand textural boundaries, constructing histories or futures for the characters that go beyond the range of stories that could be told on television; others rework the program ideology (foregrounding marginalized characters, inverting or complicating codes of good and evil, introducing alternative sexualities) in order to make the text speak to different perspectives; still, others playfully manipulate generic boundaries, defamiliarizing stock conventions so that the same narrative may yield many different retellings, often, multiple forms of rewriting may occur within a single story" (Jenkins 1992, p. 176).
The next few paragraphs will deal with the ten ways in which Transformers fanfic writers expand on and interpret the primary text.
This occurs when fans fill in the gaps in broadcast materials by writing 'missing scenes'. These missing scenes give examples of off-screen conduct and discussion that might explain the character's on-screen behavior. Recontextualization connects "program events into a more coherent and satisfying whole [and it can] also create a history and a future for the characters" (Jenkins 1992, p. 163). The fanfic "A Chance In A Million" (Raksha 1998) creates a past for the Decepticon leader, Megatron, and seeks to explain his forceful and determined attitude by positing that he escaped from enslavement in his youth.
2. Expanding the series timeline:
"The primary texts often provide hints or suggestions about the characters' backgrounds not fully explored within the episodes. Fan writers take such tantalizing tidbits as openings for their own stories, writing about events preceding the series' opening" (Jenkins 1992, p. 163).
For instance, "Guiding Hand: A Tale Of The Far Future" (Raksha 1999) explores both the distant past and the far future of the Decepticon Empire, starting from millions of years before present, when the Decepticons were fighting the Quintesson army and ending hundreds of years in the future, when their Autobots enemies have been eliminated and the Decepticon Empire is spreading through the galaxy.
"While much of fan fiction still centres on the series protagonists, some writers shift attention away from the programs' central figures and onto secondary characters, often women and minorities, who receive limited screen time" (Jenkins 1992, p. 165).
The Autobot Femme Fatales are a group of female vigilantes who only appeared in two cartoon episodes, but that hasn't prevented them from starring in a great many fanfics. For instance, 'The Underground Trilogy' by Ivy Bohnlein (1998) centres on the Femme Fatales and their determination to live without male Transformers (who made up most of the primary material). Arcee, a pink, female Autobot, also gets a starring role in many fanfics, and though she was only a minor character on-screen, she is a major character in Bobbi Carother's 'The Spring Cycle' (Carothers 2001). The shift of attention onto female Transformers in fanfic is particularly important, because much of the primary material denies female Transformers even exist.
4. Moral realignment:
"Perhaps the most extreme form of refocalization, some fan stories invert or question the moral universe of the primary text" (Jenkins 1992, p. 168).
'Villains' become the protagonists of the story, with events from the primary material written from their perspective. They may continue to be 'evil' or the author may assert "a world view where the program bad guys may in fact be fighting on the morally superior side" (Jenkins 1992, p. 168).
Moral realignment is common in Transformers fanfic, perhaps due to the fact the 'bad guys', the Decepticons, had a lot of air time, allowing viewers to compare them with the Autobot 'good guys' and form their own opinion on which side was morally superior. Indeed, moral realignment is so prevalent in Transformers fanfic, that a survey conducted on Lexicon in June 2002 (Brogden 2002a) found that only 31.18 percent of Lexicon's audience supported the primary material theme of 'good guy' Autobots and 'bad guy' Decepticons. Most of the comments that users added to the bottom of the survey emphasized the point that good and evil are relative concepts. For instance, the Lexicon user nicknamed Magic argued from a historical viewpoint, quoting Cicero (Verr. II 2-9) a Roman patriot who believed deeply in the legitimacy of bringing Roman 'civilization' to those he considered 'barbarians'. To Cicero, Rome was 'good' while the barbarians were 'bad'. The barbarians, of course, held the opposite viewpoint. In her comments below the survey, Magic argued that this relative viewpoint could also be applied to the 'good' Autobots and the 'bad' Decepticons.
It is common for Transfans to critically reread the primary materials in this way, to analyze cartoons and comics as if they were as worthy of being reread as high cultural text. Jenkins (1992, p. 86) notes that the
"Intimate knowledge and cultural competency of the popular reader…promotes critical evaluation and interpretation, the exercise of a popular 'expertise' that mirrors in interesting ways the knowledge-production that occupies the academy. Fans often display a close attention to the particularity of television narratives that puts academics to shame. Within the realm of popular culture, fans are the true experts; they constitute a competing educational elite, albeit one without official recognition or social power".
However, it could also be argued that much of the richness of Magic's analysis stems from what she brings to the text herself. Very few Transfans have studied Cicero.
5. Genre shifting:
"Genre represents a cluster of interpretive strategies as much as it constitutes a set of textual features, fans often choose to read stories within alternative generic traditions. Minimally, fan stories shift the balance between plot action and characterization, placing primary emphasis upon moments that define the character relationships rather than using such moments as background or motivation for the dominant plot" (Jenkins 1992, p. 169).
As it is aimed at males, Transformers primary material, especially the Generation One episodes, is firmly in the 'action/adventure' genre, with very little in the way of romance. But 'Romance and Adventure' is the second largest genre in the Generation One category on Lexicon, with 126 submissions (Brogden 2000d).
6. Cross overs:
"'Cross-over' stories blur the boundaries between different texts" (Jenkins 1992, p. 170).
Cross over stories explore how characters from other 'universes' would interact. Would the Borg from the television show 'Star Trek' assimilate the Transformers? (Lizard 1998). Many other cartoons, movies and television shows have been crossed over into the Transformers universe. The Lexicon homepage (www.lexicon.tf) shows the full list. Everything from Star Trek, to Star Wars, to cartoons such as Sailor Moon have been crossed over into the Transformers universe. 'Real life' cross overs are also common. Major disasters that touch the emotions of the television audience are frequently followed by a flurry of Transformers fanfic, putting Transformers into the real world of the disaster, sometimes as rescuers, sometimes as fellow mourners. For instance, "Sacrifice of Angels" (Shokaract 2002) features the events of September 11 as seen through the horrified optics (fan-speak for eyes) of the Transformers. It may seem in bad taste to write about real life tragedies in the context of science fiction, but Transfans have frequently used the Transformers primary materials as tools to both discuss and keep a distance from sensitive issues that may be awkward to discuss directly. For instance, the politics of war and terrorism.
"Fandom's very existence represents a critique of conventional forms of consumer culture. Yet fandom also provides a space within which fans may articulate their specific concerns about sexuality, gender, racism, colonialism, militarism, and forced conformity" (Jenkins 1992, p. 283).
7. Character Dislocation:
"An even more radical manipulation of generic boundaries occurs when characters are removed from their original situations and given alternative names and identities. The program characters provide a basis for these new protagonists, yet the fan-constructed figures differ dramatically from the broadcast counterparts" (Jenkins 1992, p. 171).
It is common for Transformers fanfic authors to change aspects of a particular toy, for instance, colour and personality, and treat them as a new character in their fanfic. For instance, in the fanfic "Sibling Rivalry" (Jazzy 1999) the character 'Jazzy' is a recolour (and regender!) of the Autobot Jazz. Such dislocated characters are frequently put back into the Transformers universe by making them the sibling of the character they so closely resemble, and 'Jazzy' is no exception to this rule, as she is Jazz's 'sister'.
Character dislocation can also take place when familiar characters are put into an alternative universe, for instance, Belinda Kelly's 'Andraxus' series (Kelly 1999), contains Decepticon characters familiar from the Generation One cartoon, but planet Earth has become a frozen wasteland and is no longer even called Earth.
"Fan writers also work to efface the gap that separates the realm of their own experience and the fictional space of their favourite program" (Jenkins 1992, p. 171-173).
An infamous example of personalization are 'Mary Sues', which are fanfics where the author has written themselves (using their real life name or Internet nickname) into their own fanfic. 'Mary Sues' got their name from a Star Trek fanfic author of the same name, who used to write herself into the Star Trek universe, and they are infamous because fanfic authors frequently portray themselves as perfected, fantasy beings - intelligent, beautiful, immensely popular with the characters from the primary material, and frequently, lovers with them!
However, Mary Sue fanfics do not always contain perfected versions of the author, as can be seen from "Batteries Not Included" (Carothers, 1999) where the author keeps an ironical distance from her avatar.
9. Emotional Intensification:
"Because fan reading practices place such importance of issues of character motivation and psychology, fans often emphasize moments of narrative crisis. Fans relish episodes where relationships are examined, especially those where characters respond in a caring fashion to the psychological problems, professional turning points, personality conflicts, and physical hurts of other characters" (Jenkins 1992, p. 174).
Transformers fanfics can be extraordinarily angst-ridden, which allows "fans to express their own compassionate concern for characters" (Jenkins 1992, p. 174). For instance, "How The Mighty Have Fallen" (Phantom 2001) deals with Autobot leader Optimus Prime having a secret nervous breakdown under the pressures of leadership, until his friends in Autobot high command realise what is going on and help him.
"Fan writers, freed of the restraints of network censors, often want to explore the erotic dimensions of the characters' lives. Their stories transform the relatively chaste, though often suggestive, world of popular television into an erogenous zone of sexual experimentation" (Jenkins 1992, p. 175).
Transformers porn does exist, although it is against Lexicon policy to archive any, in case the copyright holder of the Transformers trademark, Hasbro, objects. Lexicon does allow Romance & Adventure fanfics, which, as mentioned before, are only second in number to Drama.
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What kinds of people read and write Transformers fanfic? Jenkins (1992, p.1) states that fans are "largely female, largely middle class…though many would not fit this description. This subculture cuts across traditional geographic and generational boundaries."
It might be expected that fans of a kid's cartoon and comic might be children, but they are not. A survey conducted on Lexicon in May 2002 (Brogden 2002b) found that 39.13 percent of Lexicon's users were aged between 16-20 years. This was the largest group, with the next largest being those aged 21-25 years (28.80 percent) and those aged 26-30 years (10.87 percent). Perhaps the youth cultural preference for images and sound rather than text is reflected in the fact that there were twice as many users aged Over 60 (1.09 percent) than there were aged Under 10 (0.54 percent). In another survey on Lexicon, 71.95 percent of Lexicon users voted the Generation One and Two Transformers universes as their favourite (Brogden 2002c) which may help to explain why so many Lexicon users are in their teens and twenties. These users would have been children when the Generation One cartoon and comics reached the public in the early 1980s. They grew up with Transformers and maintain an interest in them into adulthood.
Camille Bacon-Smith found that 90 percent of all fan fiction is written by women (Jenkins 1992, p.191). It is difficult to determine the gender of the Lexicon authors because Lexicon author accounts only collect the author's nickname and e-mail address, not their gender or real name (unless they choose to reveal it). This makes author gender difficult to determine. However, a Lexicon survey conducted in mid June 2002 found that 63.75 percent of Lexicon users were female (Brogden 2002b).
There are several possible ways to explain the discrepancy between the Lexicon gender results, and Camille Bacon-Smith's results. Perhaps, in the intervening years between the present and 1992 when Camille Bacon-Smith did her research, males have become more 'liberated', and more willing to engage in a 'feminine' practice such as writing. Camille Bacon-Smith's results measure the gender ratio of fanfic writing as a whole, not just Transformers, and it would be expected that a cartoon and comic aimed at boys would attract more male writers than most fanfic universes.
It is not surprising that so many females could be interested in Transformers, a cartoon and comic aimed at males.
"The dominant educational philosophy for the better part of [last century] has assumed that girls could be more readily interested in reading masculine narratives than boys could be coaxed into experimenting with feminine stories…girls were taught…to make sense of male centred narratives while boys were only taught to devalue female centred stories" (Jenkins 1992, p. 114).
This suggests that Camille Bacon-Smith's 90 percent female ratio might be found in fandoms of primary materials that were originally aimed at females, My Little Pony or Gem, for instance.
The participatory culture of Transformers fandom is also a precarious one, with the potential for copyright legal wrangling perpetually hanging over the heads of fans like the Sword of Damocles. Fortunately for Transfans, the Transformers copyright holder, Hasbro, has maintained a 'calculated ignorance' of Transformers fanfic. No Transformers fanfic site has been sent a 'cease and desist' notice, which is an improvement on the Star Wars fandom, whose copyright holder, Lucasarts, issued the following statement about Star Wars fanfic in the early 1990s.
"You don't own these characters and can't publish [Jenkins's italics] anything about them without permission" (Jenkins 1992, p. 31).
This stance has apparently softened over the past decade. Plotz (2000) noted that
"Lucasfilm lit a brushfire…when it offered fans free pages on its cherished http://www.starwars.com site. Fans would be allowed to post all their Star Wars hagiography there, including stories, songs, messages to other fans, and essays. But the small print says that Lucasfilm retains all copyright to anything placed on the site. If I were to write a great story about how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and post it on my starwars.com fan page, George Lucas would own my idea".
How ironic that the owners of copyright could conceivably poach from the same fans that had poached from them in the first place. Will the time come again when mythical popular heroes can be created by anyone, their stories altered at the whim of myriad storytellers? One thing is certain - human beings watching television are far from being pure receivers.
Ang, I. (1996), "New Technologies, Audience Management, and the Tactics of Television Consumption' in Living Room Wars, Routledge, pp. 184
Bohnlein, I. (1998) "Submissions made by Ivy_Bohnlein" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/user.php?op=userinfo&uname=Ivy_Bohnlein (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Brogden, C. (2002a) "Survey: What do you think of the Generation One factions?" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/pollBooth.php?pollID=12 (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Brogden, C. (2002b) "Survey: Are you:" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/pollBooth.php?op=results&pollID=11&mode=&order=0&thold=0 (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Brogden, C. (2002c) "Which Transformers universe do you prefer?" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/pollBooth.php?op=results&pollID=9&mode=&order=0&thold=0 (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Brogden, C. (2002d) "Generation One Categories" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/subs.php?op=viewsub&cid=16 (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Carothers, B. (1999) "Batteries Not Included" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/subs.php?op=visit&lid=941 (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Carothers, B. (2001) "Submissions made by Bobbi_Carothers" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/user.php?op=userinfo&uname=Bobbi_Carothers (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Jenkins, H. (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge, New York.
Kelly, B. (1999) " Submissions made by Belinda_Kelly" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/user.php?op=userinfo&uname=Belinda_Kelly (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Phantom, (2001) "How The Mighty Have Fallen" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/subs.php?op=visit&lid=1690 (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Plotz, D. (Friday, April 14, 2000, at 6:30 PM) "Luke Skywalker Is Gay? Fan fiction is America's literature of obsession" (Slate), Available: http://slate.msn.com/default.aspx?id=80225 (Accessed: 2002, June 6).
Raksha (1999) "Guiding Hand: A Tale Of The Far Future" (Lexicon: Transformers Fanfic, Essays, Author Interviews and More…!), Available: http://www.lexicon.tf/subs.php?op=visit&lid=832 (Accessed: 2002, June 23).
Watkinson, Shawn (1998) "88keyz's Tales of Sword & Sorcery" (88keyz's Movie Den), Available: http://www.geocities.com/shwatkin/fantasy.html (Accessed: 2002, June 24).