I’ve become embroiled in a bit of a to-do over at Brigid’s Robot 6 roundtable on Twilight and the San Diego Con. I thought I’d move my response over here, partly to give readers here a chance to watch me burble, but mostly to avoid hijacking poor Brigid’s thread anymore than I already have.

All right…so for those who haven’t been following the brou-ha-ha… At the con, there’s going to be a showing of the new Twilight movie. That means there will be a lot of tween girls at the con. Some fanboys are concerned that these tweens will ruin things for the “normal” fans. Several female comics bloggers replied hey, screw you fanboy. And who can blame them, really?

Anyway, Brigid, as I said, had a roundtable amongst her cobloggers at Good Comics for Kids to talk about why the fanboys need to buck the fuck up (I don’t think she’d put it that way, but tha’ts the gist). And, as I’ve indicated, I’m with Brigid and co — buck the fuck up fanboys! But I was a bit taken aback to discover that one of the fanboys singled out for chastising was…our own Tom Crippen. As you may or may not remember, Tom expressed reservations about manga and geez, the fangirls do not forgive or forget. Kate Dacey called him on the carpet:(in the original post, and with slightly more detail when pressed in comments) for calling shojo manga “girl’s stuff” and for saying it had a “kindergarden feel”.) In comments, Melinda Beasi added that such language “insulted and belittled” the women who read shojo.

So that’s the state of things. I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent now, but I’ll get back to poor Tom and his belittling, never fear.

One of the more interesting points raised in comments on the roundtable thread is that virtually nobody actually thinks Twilight is all that good. I haven’t read it myself (though I’m hoping to see the movie this week.) But most commenters agreed that it was not especially well written and that the central relationship was creepily abusive and dumb…not necessarily the sort of thing you’d be eager for tween girls to read.

So how do you defend the fans of a crappy piece of art? Several possibilities were floated. Brigid suggested that fans of Twilight don’t necessarily agree with or fall for the book’s message:

But just because people read something doesn’t mean they buy it wholesale or take it as a model for their own relationships. Part of my daughter’s reaction to Twilight was her distaste for the relationships portrayed in the books. They gave her a chance to think about different types of relationships and articulate her own feelings, which I think was a valuable thing.

This is pretty much the cultural studies argument; pop culture is empowering because marginalized groups creatively take what they want from it and leave the rest. I have to say, I find this argument pretty hard to accept. I don’t doubt that some girls do read the novels critically and dislike bits of them. But I don’t think the books and movies have become bestsellers because the fans think they’re dumb. They’ve become bestsellers because fans like them, and their questionable relationship advice too. Or, to put it another way, pin up art wasn’t popular with guys because they liked to deconstruct the male gaze.

Robin B. says “We need to trust in the people that read the books, whatever messages the stories may send, to be smart about what they take away from them and apply to their lives” — but why do we need to do that? People (not excluding me) are often stupid and make horrible choices on a fairly regular basis. People (again, not excluding me) are often quite untrustworthy. I’m willing to accept that young girls aren’t dumber than anyone else…but everyone else is plenty dumb. If, for the sake of argument, we say that these books tend to encourage abusive relationships, why should we assume that the girls who read them are not going to learn some unfortunate lessons from that? Because, you know, and not to blame the Twilight books specifically, but…tween girls in this culture, do, on occasion, find themselves in abusive relationships for real. And sometimes they think those relationships are okay, or their fault. And one could argue that there are media images and cultural products that contribute to that mindset. Which isn’t to say “ban the Twilight books!” But it is to say, if you think they contribute to those images, maybe you don’t need to necessarily make excuses for them either.

In any case, Robin B. goes on to explain a more straightforward method of separating fans and work:

It’s a question of dismissing people, here, not the works themselves, and I think that’s the real problem for me. I can hate Dan Brown’s books (and I do) but I would never dismiss a Dan Brown fan just because they like Dan Brown.

Which sounds reasonable enough; just hate the consumable, not the consumer. Except…well, let’s go back to Tom.

Remember, Tom was accused of calling shojo manga “girl stuff” and of referring to the art as having a “kindergarden feel.”

Put aside for the moment that shojo is, in fact, by definition, girl stuff. And further put aside the fact that it is deliberately and extravagantly cutesy — big eyes, flowers, often weird fetishization of infantilized characters (a lot of shojo has extremely weird issues around childhood.) Put aside all of that. The point here is that Tom was doing with manga exactly what everybody says should be done with Twilight fans. He didn’t call anyone a kindergardener; he said the art had a “kindergarden feel.” Further, went out of his way to make it clear that he was expressing his own personal distaste for the material without insulting the readers of it (on the contrary, he was actually saying that he had missed important things, and asking for recommendations.) Tom never once says anything, positive or negative, about manga fans; he confines himself entirely to to talking about the comics. And yet, he’s still being held up as an example of evil intolerant fanboy pilloried for being “unwillingness to try and understand why manga—or, for that matter, Twilight—appeals to girls”. This even though Tom repeatedly throughout the roundtable *asks for manga recommendations* — and even expresses interest in and appreciation for, some shojo art.

So a couple of points here. First, I think this shows fairly clearly that, no matter who you are, there’s a strong urge to circle the wagons when your fandom is assaulted…or even mildly poked. This can play out in various ways, depending on power dynamics, history, and the relative personal vicissitudes of those involved. You can get borderline racism (as with that disco record burning thing in the late 70s). Or you can get unpleasant connotations of misogyny, as with the male fans whining about women at their con. Or you can just have fairly innocuous internet bickering. I don’t think for a moment that these reactions are morally equivalent…but I do think they spring from similar impulses. And it makes me kind of wonder how all those teen girls would respond if you went up to them and said, “You know, Twilight is really sexist and bad…but yeah, you go girl!” Would they really be entirely pleased?

I just want to touch on one other thing before finishing up. Kate Dacy quoted one thing that really irritated her from a male commenter on Valerie D’Orazio’s blog:

“And now, you want to talk about the TWILIGHT fans. Hell, Val they aren’t even fans of the story. They just want the actors. If it was just author Stephanie Meyer there, and no movie, no actors, the turn out would be just about nil.”

Dacy said in response “What bothers me most is the underlying assumption that girls (and women) don’t know how to be proper fans, that they’re only there for the hot guys and couldn’t care less about the books or the creator.”

On the one hand, I absolutely agree with Dacy: the comment is insulting, and also just wrong — I’m sure the fans would be incredibly psyched to meet Meyer. After all, without any doubt, some significant percentage of those fans are *writing Twilight fan fiction themselves.* Quite possibly explicit Twilight fan fiction.

Because you don’t need the hot actors to have a prurient interest in your fandom. There are other erotic levers that can connect you to your obsession. Indeed, I think it’s worth wondering whether there are anything *but* erotic levers. Vampires. Romance. Vampire romance. Hot guys, hot girls. Where exactly is the non-prurient bit? Or, alternately, if you will — manly men in skintight costumes engaged in intense, sweaty mano-a-mano combat. With the occasional preposterously clad, pneumatic heroine thrown in for good measure.

In a consumer society, consumption is a fetish. The fetish is an object you invest with power and worship — but that power is *your* power. It’s not you, but at the same time its the most important part of you. Arguments about fandom get so hot and heavy because they aren’t just about what you like or don’t like; they’re about power, love, gender, self, identity. Respecting people even as you disrespect their consumer choices is a laudable goal in some sense. But people aren’t so easy to locate. They’re not just taking up space at the con. They’re in the books or comics they read, the horrible relationship advice that causes them to swoon, the cheesecake they lasciviously drool over. They’re in their ideas. And some of those ideas (tween girls aren’t normal; abusive relationships are cool) deserve to be mocked.

Update: Over on the other thread, Brigid had an interesting take on the kindergarden thing:

Are we talking about apples and oranges here? Hello Kitty has a kindergarten feel. Fruits Basket, not so much. In fact, I think most shoujo manga is not so much cutesy as hopelessly sentimental. Vampire Knight made me feel like I was back in high school again, so much so that I stopped reading it because I’m done with high school emotions and had no desire to relive them.

If anything, the guy manga has more of a kindergarten feel because a lot of it features girls who look very childish—as I write this, I’m looking at Amefurashi, a shonen manga, which features a girl who looks like she is about 10, holding a whip. I don’t see much of that sort of character design in girls’ manga. The page layouts are often quite complex in shoujo manga, and the characters look and talk like teens/adults.

I should add that I”m grateful for the discussion Brigid and her co-bloggers put together, It gave me a bunch of things to think about, and I enjoyed the chance to kibbitz in comments and here. I’d urge folks to check out their blog, Good Comics For Kids.

Update 2: I talk more about Twilight here/