By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant
Dr. Suzanne Scott, Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Radio-Television-Film, shared her work at the February 7 meeting of the 2019 UT Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellow Seminar. Dr. Scott used examples from Harry Potter, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other well-known franchises to explore a phenomenon she calls “transmedia erasure.” Drawing on Henry Jenkins’ conception of “transmedia storytelling,” Scott defined the phenomenon as a “complex yet coherent narrative told across media platforms (e.g. film, comics, webisodes, novels, etc.).” Transmedia franchises like those mentioned above have become “increasingly central to…media production culture and companies,” but the increasing prevalence of transmedia storytelling has revealed a troubling tendency to put characters from “already marginalized or underrepresented” groups on the “periphery” of the complex narratives transmedia franchises create.
Transmedia franchises’ narrative peripheries consist of media platforms that reach smaller audiences and are relatively inexpensive to produce such as comics, by contrast with better known and more lucrative media platforms such as films. Scott also argued that transmedia erasure can be carried out when creators ascribe a marginalized identity to a character in an interview or tweet and then that identity goes unexplored in films. Examples of this include when J.K. Rowling tweeted that Albus Dumbledore is gay or when Solo co-writer Jonathan Kasdan revealed that Lando Calrissian is pansexual and neither Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald nor Solo explicitly acknowledged these characters’ sexuality. According to Scott, where and how media producers decide to represent underrepresented characters in transmedia narratives reveals which demographics media producers are invested in cultivating or maintaining as fans and the extent of the producer’s “commitment to representational diversity.” “Low-risk” peripheral representations of underrepresented characters reveal a disingenuous interest in cultivating fans from marginalized groups and an inadequate commitment to representational diversity.
Scott discussed the “#Wheresrey?” phenomenon as another example of transmedia erasure, an argument laid out more fully in her essay, “#Wheresrey?: Toys, spoilers, and the gender politics of franchise paratexts.” Here Scott argues that the social media campaign criticizing Disney’s decision to exclude Rey from the initial toy release for Star Wars: The Force Awakens revealed Disney’s lack of investment in cultivating fans who identify with a female protagonist. Scott understands toys as a medium that fans (particularly young fans) use to participate in and transform transmedia narratives. For such fans, which toys get produced and how they get marketed can significantly affect their experience of a transmedia narrative’s meanings and implications. Scott’s understanding of toys as tools for narrative creation derives from her definition of narrative as a “circuit of meaning produced between [the industry, audience, and text].” For Scott, fans playing with toys and/or writing fan fiction (which often foregrounds characters with underrepresented identities) are not only narrative consumers but are also narrative producers who shape the meaning of transmedia narratives through their own narrative creation and interpretation.
Faculty fellows responded to Scott’s presentation by questioning the consequences of fan fiction that is racist or misogynist, noting that fan participation in transmedia narratives can also take the form of viciously denigrating marginalized people or groups. Other faculty fellows found ways to apply Scott’s observations about the nature of transmedia narrative and fans to texts from their own fields, including ancient biblical texts and Homer’s Odyssey, indicating that transmedia storytelling, fan fiction, and fans’ desire to participate in the creation of transmedia narratives are by no means recent developments, even if they have historically specific forms and significance.
For more on transmedia storytelling and transmedia erasure see these sources:
“Transmedia Storytelling 101”—(Confessions of an ACA-Fan)