Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Women's Art and "Women's Work"

Nothing else I have to say here is as important as this request: Watch this.


What you watched--if you watched--is a vid, a fan-made music video which sets edited clips from a live-action source like a film or a TV series to music. Vids explore characters, make arguments, illustrate themes, explore fictional worlds, tell jokes, or evoke emotions -- that is, they do all the things that stories can do, in all the media we use to tell them. What makes vidding of particular interest to Aqueduct readers is that it is an almost entirely female art form: it was invented by women and continues to be dominated by women artists. Vividcon, an annual convention for vidders founded in 2002, has around 110 members attending each year; the largest number of men ever to attend in a single year has been five. Laura Shapiro, the vidding curator for the DIY Video Summit, reports that no other involved community has a similarly gendered tradition: "[A]s a community of women media makers, we are startlingly rare, maybe even unique."

Vidding was invented in 1975 by a woman named Kandy Fong at a Star Trek convention: She put production stills from the show into a slide carousel and played them on a screen to music to demonstrate just how much Kirk and Spock were meant for each other. Slash--fan-written homosexual relationships between characters who are usually not canonically romantically involved--is still one of the main vidding subgenres, inspiring both delight and technical innovation in vidders and vidfans. If you're not involved with vidding but have heard of the practice before, it's probably because you've seen one of the slash vids distributed on YouTube to fifteen minutes of fame. This re-distribution is often without the vidder's desire or consent, because vidding, even more than other fan creative activities, takes place in a legal grey space; vidders fear, often with good reason, that wide exposure and attention from the television, film, or music owners will mean cease-and-desist orders. A lot of recent debate among the vidding community has focused on the conflict between the desire for greater recognition and the fear of the dangers that recognition might bring.

The dangers aren't simply legal. Vidding, like a lot of women's art, exists in the chinks of the world-machine; and the world-machine will crush it out of indifference as much as malice. Recent academic work on fan films has left out the history of female vidding: at the Harvard Signal to Noise Conference at the Birkman Center, a machinima paper claimed that fans had been making videos since 1996, only missing the date by two decades; at a Buffy conference, where vidders gave a vid presentation and panel, academics in the audience dismissed the form as unworthy of attention without male participants. More typically, the minimizing and misrepresentation of vidding is exemplified by the outsider obsession with slash as the only and omnipresent form of vidding and fanfiction, vidding's older, better-established relative. Both academics and journalists tend to cast this expression of female desire as a pathology or a joke, at the same time erasing desires that don't fit into the easily fashioned and very comfortable story of women indulging in an excess of heteronormativity ("the normal female interest in men boinking"): you will not find, in most of these discussions of slash, even the favorable ones, any acknowledgement that not all slash is male/male -or pornographic, or that not all fiction or vidding is slash, or that not all fan writers or vidders are straight, even among m/m slashers.

Erasure, legal threats, and misrepresentation are one set of of dangers; another is co-option. Vids' closest aesthetic kin are probably anime music videos, a tradition and community which grew up slightly later and almost entirely separately. AMV-making is as male-dominated as other forms of DIY video-making. Unlike vidding, it's accepted and to some extent controlled by the professional animation production companies in Japan and the US, who run contests at conventions and frequently pick up new editing/animating talent from them. The benefits of this cooperation for the fan community are obvious; what's less obvious is the extent to which the contest guidelines constrain and limit fannish activity, or indeed the extent to which they reward and reinforce comfortably mainstream readings of the source.

What I'd like to talk about today are fan videos whose readings are anything but comfortable, videos whose resistant readings of the source material--and in some ways of our culture at large--offer a profound feminist critique of popular culture.


Did you watch this yet?


"Women's Work" is a fan video for Supernatural, a television series about two ghosthunting brothers. The series makes extensive, loving, sometimes innovative and sometimes cliched use of urban legends and horror movie tropes and conventions. "Women's Work" was made by Sisabet and Luminosity, two vidders whose works are extremely popular and well-respected among the vidding community. Like most vids, "Women's Work" gains power from contextual knowledge; but in this case, the context is not so much the television show Supernatural as Western culture. Knowing Supernatural sure doesn't hurt; one fan finds it particularly instructive to watch the vid in conjunction with the video that won a promo contest sponsered by the show's creators ("I could be wrong, but I think the subtitle of this promo is supposed to be 'Women are scary'"). But both Sisabet and Luminosity have emphasized that "Women's Work" is a meta-critique not limited to Supernatural; in her vid announcement, Sisabet says,

I do want to preface the vid (and I've debated saying even this) that I have a crazy, fierce, total madlove for Supernatural. The shit I deal with every day, the crap we watch every day, the goddamn Captivity trailers/billboards, the fucking torture-porn-a-thon of a new movie every week this spring, the woman of the week on EVERY GODDAMN SHOW I love, the fact that only mommies burn on the ceiling and daddies get to fall down dead, the freaking exploitative crap I have to wade through to read even my *favorite* comic books, and I could go on, but hell, all of it leads to just sitting down and wanting to at least point some of it out. I don't even think it is so much a popular-media thing, or even a cultural thing so much as... just people? Maybe? Even at the Art Institute today, it was rape, rape, rape in almost every other room (but no rape in the gift-shop. I looked) and I am done talking now.

"Women's Work" is a doctoral thesis in the misogyny of basic, unexamined story structures--structures which are more obvious because they are more literal in horror, but which are present in every genre and every variation of style, from pop culture to high art. The vid explicitly and viscerally demonstrates how SO MANY of the stories we know and tell and re-tell depend on the suffering of women, the death or dismemberment or otherwise disposing of; the story depends on the suffering of women, but the suffering of women isn't the story; the suffering of women just propels the story. The suffering of men is the story, and that's one (though not the only) big way suffering is gendered: men suffering are subjects on a quest, but women suffering are objects of pity or desire.

The vid starts off with the eroticization of women's fear, an eroticization instilled very early (rape rape rape, child saying prayers in bed, the particular sexual fear for the girl-child in the opening), an eroticization applied to practically every guest-starring or single-scene female victim of the week: the women's fear isn't the story, it's just the engine that makes the story go. These women are mostly nameless, or even if named we don't see them on the show more than once: they're all the same woman, as far as the story's concerned.

And then we get the section starting at 1:16, sex instead of violence, tits and ass, the cleavage parade, the blonde women taped to the ceiling and set on fire: this is, it's helpful to know, the central image of the television show, the opening and closing image of the pilot episode, the tragic loss that sets the show's protagonists on their heroic quest. Women's deaths aren't important in themselves; they are important for their effect on men. The sequence closes with kisses, with women standing sadly but at least still alive, watching the heroes go: but once again, the woman has no story. She's just an excuse for the story. The story is the men's story.

Women do have a role besides victim or lost happiness, of course: we can also be monsters. We may even get a brief, deceptive rush of invigoration, of joy in choosing power if power or death's the only choice we've got: but this is a hero story and sooner or later, no matter how powerful, the monsters end up dead, dead, dead. The vid closes with a character named Ava, who is significantly paralleled to one of the protagonists in her first and last appearance; in her second and final episode, we learn that she's chosen to cooperate with a demon because it was the only way for her to survive. Before that reveal, she was unexpectedly timid, weak, cowering with feminine helplessness in the arms of one of the show's heroes--until she dropped the mask and revealed that her vulnerability as an act used to trick the men around her into underestimating her. The trick only goes so far, and so does what it hides: in the final clip, she's killed, too.

So far, I've focused on interpretation of the visuals, but of course the audio component is equally important: Hole's feminist rage, Courtney Love parroting women's advice and conventional wisdom with bitterness and loathing and rage: "Once they get what they want, they never want it again," with its definition of sex as something taken from women mapping all too well onto the eroticized violence on the screen; "You should learn how to say 'No'" means as little to the women here as it ever does to any woman overpowered, and it means as little to us, as the female audience of the show. Because the additional, extra layer of the video is its address to an audience of women, of fans, of people who are so used to this story and this kind of story construction that we become complicit to it: "Take everything," Courtney Love screams, and we do, too, deeply in love with stories that depend on our own erasure.

And what if we aren't that lovesick? What if we learn how to say no?

Much good it does us: the stories are everywhere. Contemporary media fandom consists of a profound emotional attachment to sources made by men, usually for men; and women are so used to denying our own subjectivity we don't even notice we're doing it anymore. Much of the fan reaction to "Women's Work" in the comments to the vid announcements has focused on the women's own resistance to the vid's messages:

Part of my head, the part that adores Supernatural and the boys was (is) sputtering, "but there's so much more there!" However, as time passes, the calmer part of my head reminds me -- just because there's more there, doesn't mean that that negates the violent and brutal images and scenes showcased in Women's Work. It doesn't. It can't.

Thank you for reminding me of that. Even if it was a painful reminder.

In one instructive comment thread, Sisabet takes a protesting viewer through example after example of how female victims are routinely sexualized by the camerawork while comparable male ones aren't. Reaction to the vid remains divisive and sharply polarized among the women of vidding fandom.


The ending of "Women's Work" is powerful and troubling--troubling in ways both intentional and not. The vidders clearly intended the despairing rage and shock we feel with the snap of Ava's neck; we end not with female empowerment, however compromised and monstrous, but with more death, death, death. What is unintentional, I believe, is the repercussions of the final image: the man who kills Ava is black, and the clip takes on a disturbing resemblance to the racist imagery used to justify lynchings. I don't mean to suggest that this is in any way a deliberate reference, but the failure to notice it points to one of the major current limitations of vidding as a means for feminist critique.

Like the rest of media and sf fandom, vidding fandom is predominantly white and middle-class. Vividcon, the vidding convention, is not an explicitly feminist space, but in some ways it acts as an enabler and incubator for feminism; Club Vivid, the con's dance party, is the largest and most public female safe space I've encountered outside Take Back the Night marches, and that includes similar events at Wiscon. It is, however, a very white feminism. I'd estimate that of the hundred-odd women attending, somewhere between six and twelve are women of color, though I may be misidentifying women who are not visibly racial minorities.

US television notoriously underrepresents racial minorities, and those characters of color who appear are further underrepresented in vids. Vids like Mimesere's "Jesus Walks" (streaming version), a powerful reclamation of Gunn on Angel (made, unsurprisingly, by a woman of color) or Barkley's character study of Stargate SG-1's Teal'c in "Gortoz A' Ran" (streaming), are still few and far between. An exception to the trend, and an example of vidders' ability to shape new feminist and antiracist stories from profoundly flawed sources, is here's luck's "People Get Ready" (streaming), a re-envisioning of the first season of Heroes that rewrites the show's problematic representation of race and gender. Where the show repeatedly introduced black men as threatening figures, here's luck first presents them as loving and concerned: the (nameless) Haitian is part of an effort for the greater good, the ex-con D.L. is first shown as a loving father. Charles Devaux, on the show a Magical Negro more concerned with the emotional drama of a strange white boy than with his own daughter's death, here is re-figured as more central, more effective, the only parent who looks at children as other parents look away: rather than remaing the mystical adjunct to the young white hero, the middle-aged black man becomes hidden heart of the show. The Petrelli and Sylar storylines are reduced to threads in an ensemble tapestry instead of the climactic struggle between titanic white men, complete with women literally pushed aside into the smaller concerns of family; the conclusion instead becomes focused on the agency and strength achieved by Hiro and Claire, the Asian man and the teenage girl. Nikki doesn't wear hooker clothes; Claire isn't introduced with or defined by sexual assault. Children and the working-class characters like telepathic Matt and nuclear Ted are given a larger role to play; where the show emphasized the heroic agency of individual white men, here's luck emphasizes communal action and the power gained by the formerly powerless working together.


At Wiscon 31 (2007), vidfans who seized an spontaneous programming block for an impromptu vidshow put up posters advertising "Women invented YouTube!" As with women's contributions to the theater and the novel, it's still all too easy for women's contributions to other artforms to be written out of history, and for fandom to be reduced to simple, uncritical consumption. It's difficult to indicate the scope, richness, and variety of vidding in a short space, but here's a brief list of vids that might be of particular interest to Aqueduct readers:

  • Keely's "Martina" is a powerful critique of the treatment of rape on Veronica Mars, situating rape not simply as an isolated act of violence but as a threat used to control women's behavior and sexuality; it is remarkably sympathetic to the show's central character while being scathing of the show's facile and exploitative treatment of rape's impact and aftereffects.

  • Laura Shapiro specializes in character portraits of female characters, often unpopular ones judged by unfair and misogynist double standards. You can download her vids or watch them streaming. I particularly recommend "I Put You There," a collaboration with Lithium Doll that celebrates one of the most basic impulses behind vidding and media fandom.

  • Charmax's "Boom Boom Ba" (Xena: Warrior Princess) is a gorgeous and sensual exploration of female sexuality, marred by a seductive but troubling Orientalism. (Streaming | Download)

  • SDWolfpup's "Woman-King" (Deadwood) explores the limitations and triumphs of a woman in the 19th-century American West. (Download)

  • Shati's "Boulevard of Broken Songs" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) defines Slayers and sisterhood. (Streaming | Download)

  • Destina's "Want" is instructive in conjunction with "Women's Work": It's a Supernatural vid about the desire of the series nemesis for the heroes, which can also plausibly be read as a metacommentary on media fandom's reaction to the show. Notably, although the series protagonists are here treated as the objects of desire, they are not visually objectified in the same way as the female characters in "Women's Work." (Download)

  • Gwyneth R.'s "No Way Out" is a multifandom vid illustrating similarities between Buffy, Scully, and Nikita (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X Files, La Femme Nikita); despite the clear limitations on even these extraordinary female protagonists, the vid manages to be inspirational rather than disheartening. (Streaming | Download)


Oyceter said...

Oh! Also, one of the major limitations to Heroes that h.l. couldn't work around is the depressingly standard dichotomy of "all the women are white, all the blacks are men," given the notable lack of women of color in the show. I counted two women of color in the show, one of whom is only in two or three eps (Kimiko), and one of whom is in the credits, but got an incredibly small amount of screentime (Simone). I am probably forgetting other WOC, though I don't think I am forgetting any with significant roles.

It's not just Heroes, of course, it's almost every show on TV. I don't think I've seen something like "Jesus Walks" for a female character of color, but that may be because I'm not looking enough.

And of course, this is both a feminist and an anti-racist issue in which WOC are doubly marginalized.

Micole said...

Nikki has at least one scene with D.L.'s mother, who's been baby-sitting Micah, I think, and there's Linderman's Asian assistant. So two more minor WOC characters with one or two scenes each, which is not a significant improvement.

I haven't seen many vids for female characters of color, but then, I haven't been looking. We've discussed Keely's "Sugar," a vid for Smallville's Lana Lang, elsewhere, which sort of fits and sort of doesn't: It fits because it's a wonderful reclamation of a generally unpopular female character played by a biracial woman, but it doesn't fit because the show treats the character as white, down to showing both her parents as white and never discussing adoption as a possibility for the racial disparity.

Anonymous said...

A Zoe vid (Firefly) was posted just before VVC, which had good cutting but, IMO, incredibly poor song choice, so I can't recommend it. It's the only vid I can recall where a WoC is central, apart from my own "Barcelona" and AbsoluteDestiny's "Revenge" (which brings up a whole other round of issues).

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks so much for this post, Micole. Believe it or not, "Women's Work" is my first experience of the art form. (& I've also now watched Gwyneth R.'s "No Way Out.") The images & music in combination produce a powerful affect & are an ideal medium for critique. It's not often that women's rage can take open, public expression without incurring swift, inexorable retribution. I can see what a fine line between public & private women producing work like this must walk. Women are always on sufferance in the public sphere to begin with.

“Both academics and journalists tend to cast this expression of female desire as a pathology or a joke, at the same time erasing desires that don't fit into the easily fashioned and very comfortable story of women indulging in an excess of heteronormativity”

Yeah. Although most academics will now acknowledge that female desire exists (as only a few years ago they did not), female desire is on sufferance, also.

“The suffering of men is the story, and that's one (though not the only) big way suffering is gendered: men suffering are subjects on a quest, but women suffering are objects of pity or desire.”

“…but once again, the woman has no story. She's just an excuse for the story. The story is the men's story.

“Contemporary media fandom consists of a profound emotional attachment to sources made by men, usually for men; and women are so used to denying our own subjectivity we don't even notice we're doing it anymore.”

If it's not about men, it's an attack on men, a symptom of man-hating: this is an attitude that shows up whenever women artists have the gall to focus on relations among women characters & ignore or marginalize male characters. Here, for instance, is a piece of a rant against one of my novels on Amazon:

“Many women don't want to hear anything about what life is like for men, and especially don't want to hear anything about their own sexist attitudes. The more that women-centered gender material is put out to inform all of us, the more people think we don't need to know about men, because the MOUNTAIN of women's material must surely mean men have, comparatively, nothing to complain about. And that becomes part of the reason nobody has much to say about sexism that harms men. It's considered a small-scale anomaly, and it becomes politically incorrect to assert otherwise. If sexism harms men as much as women, then to fully document that would have the effect of making women's plight seem not so deplorable, by comparison.”

Anonymous said...

I noticed that after that winning SPN vid they ran a list of all the people who entered. It ran by very quickly, but even without pausing it you can see that most of the names are female.

But they picked a male contestant - and one whose vision was "Women Are Evil" - as capturing the spirit of the show best.

It ain't accidental, folks. And they don't care about appealing to our half of the human race, or whether or not we watch, or care about their shows.

We're unpersons to Manstream H'wood.

Anonymous said...

What is unintentional, I believe, is the repercussions of the final image: the man who kills Ava is black, and the clip takes on a disturbing resemblance to the racist imagery used to justify lynchings. I don't mean to suggest that this is in any way a deliberate reference, but the failure to notice it points to one of the major current limitations of vidding as a means for feminist critique.

Oh, God. Don't even get me started on racial representation in Supernatural. It's as bad or worse than the sexism. Current count: Seven black characters with speaking parts, eight if Cassie's daddy talks (it's the one ep I haven't yet seen - I'm fixing that today while I tally surveys). Of 8: 5 dead, 1 incarcerated. 3 out to get Sam and Dean (the protagonists), 3 incidental victims, and the only two both good and standing are female. One of those is a Magical Negro figure. I ... seriously, it's been bothering me for a while, but after the season finale for S2 I broke up with the show. There is NO REASON to perpetuate that kind of racist stereotype in your casting, none, and hence no possible excuse. It's a good show, but as Luminosity says, it's a good show only if you can force yourself not to see or to explain away all these things on which it is predicated.

Anonymous said...

Mmf. Race is so, so tricky on SPN, because you can make the case that the people behind the show are making a genuine effort to cast non-white actors and give them meaty roles, and *at the same time* point out that they are going about it in entirely the wrong way, because of the particular roles in which they are casting non-white actors.

As mmwd says, there are three black male characters who are out to get Sam and Dean. And it's worth noting that one is driven to it, and one is very likely a good guy acting on bad information, and only one is a genuine villain.

But that still leaves you with the fact that every black man with a large role, thus far, has been out to get Sam and Dean. And that's a problem.

The same goes for how the show treats women: there are female characters who get to be smart and competent and necessary to the story-- and there's also all the stuff in "Women's Work," and sometimes those are *the same things*.

It's so fraught, and so hard to untangle.

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