Academic journal article Communication Studies

Creating a Pocket Universe: "Shippers," Fan Fiction, and the X-Files Online

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Creating a Pocket Universe: "Shippers," Fan Fiction, and the X-Files Online

Article excerpt

Increasingly, studies of fan culture have explored Internet activity and/or particular phenomena such as "fanfic" (fan fiction) based on the characters and premises of a given text (see, for examples, Clerc, 1996; Jenkins, 1992; Wooley, 1999). This essay supplements existing analyses by assessing the marginality and opposition of a group of fans who engage in fanfic reading and/or writing and other online interaction--the segment of X-Files enthusiasts known as "Shippers." Through bulletin board exchanges, their own websites, and original stories, Shippers hypothesize and campaign for the series to acknowledge a romance between its protagonists, FBI agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and, hence, resist producers' commercial imperatives, a separate spheres dichotomy, devaluation of the feminine/private sphere, and masculine generic conventions. However, these activities are not sufficient to compensate for their marginalization by the given text.

Audience investigations of the U.S. Cultural Studies perspective associated with Fiske (1987) ascribe considerable agency to readers who interpret and manipulate cultural texts in ways that are pleasurable and empowering (see, for examples, Jenkins, 1992; Brown, 1994). Those focusing on fan fiction (see Penley, 1991; Jenkins, 1992; Green, Jenkins &Jenkins, 1998) laud the resistance evident in fans' re-writing of their favorite texts. However, they rarely undertake concurrent analyses of given text or production imperatives and are often challenged on this basis by political economists and others (see Budd, Entman, & Steinman, 1990; Garnham, 1995; Harms & Dickens, 1996; Cloud, 1997) concerned that unrestrained celebration of the pleasures produced through fan culture precludes or undermines effective critique of capitalist media institutions.

Examination of the interplay among producers, texts, and consumers answers the call to a "multiperspectival" approach (see Kellner, 1992) to Cultural Studies able to survey a more complete and complex dynamic in the struggle for meaning and power than is typical in research which explores audience readings, text, or production/ institutional constituents preferentially. Accordingly, following a methodological discussion, this study assesses the counter-hegemonic stance of Shippers, the debate between Shippers and other fan factions, and the marginalization of Shippers as a result of institutional structures and imperatives. Next, a textual analysis of The X-Files examining narrative structure, generic conventions, character vs. plot orientation(s), and their relation to gender demonstrates how Shippers' readings are invited, if not embraced, by the series' authors. Before concluding, the essay explores Shippers' opposition in terms of fan fiction, key series text, and meta-textual matter.


Ethnographic participant observation in Internet communities and scrutiny of X-Files text, meta-text, and fanfic over a two year period beginning in late 1998 yielded the study's data. Remarks and opinions attributed to X-Files fans emanate from two Usenet newsgroups devoted to the series and the America Online (AOL) X-Files Forum. Newsgroups are open to all Internet users and include the unmoderated (ATXF), characterized by brief, often deliberately provocative comments, and the moderated alt. tv.x-files.analysis (ATXA), typified by deeper, analytical deliberation. The AOL X-Files Forum is open to subscribers and features multiple boards, each designated for a fan faction or topic. Comments posted on the Shipper-friendly "Mulder and Scully" board and those provided for discussion of particular seventh season episodes and "spoilers" are highlighted. Other online bulletin boards and communities were observed for corroborative purposes.

Internet bulletin boards are characterized by transient, anonymous participation (see Lindlof, 1998, pp. …

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