A preamble to the introduction
In her 1994 book Lesbian Utopics, Annamarie Jagose writes: “The lesbian then, was at once everywhere and invisible” (1). In comparing lesbianism to the concept of utopia, Jagose highlights the qualities that these two terms have in common – they both exist outside normative systems of thought, while at the same time structuring those same systems because of this exteriority. This dichotomy between invisibility and ubiquity is exemplified by Queen Victoria’s notorious inability to envision lesbian sex, leading her to apply Britain’s anti-homosexuality law only to men and simultaneously writing lesbians out of (legal) history. Jogose’s point, that lesbians are both everywhere and invisible, illustrates that lesbianism has always had a complex relationship to the mainstream, whether it be in Queen Victoria’s time or ours.
Of course, since Jagose wrote the book 25 years ago, and since Queen Victoria made her proclamation two centuries ago, things have changed remarkably. Anti-sodomy laws in America have been replaced by marriage equality, and there are more LGBTQ characters on television and more LGBTQ people in politics than ever before. Nonetheless, queer women’s position within mainstream cultural systems remains uncertain. Within popular culture, queer women still often exist somewhere along the spectrum between invisibility and exploitation. In terms of exploitation, many representations of lesbians and bisexuals in the past (and present) have been produced primarily for male pleasure, and as a result, queer women continue to be associated with pornography. On the other hand, many thriving lesbian spaces of the 20th century – such as lesbian bars and feminist bookstores – no longer exist, thus decreasing the centrality of actual, physical lesbian culture. With this digital scholarly project, which also serves as my master’s thesis, I hope to explore the creation and maintenance of queer female space, particularly as it relates to this paradox of visibility within popular culture.
In what follows I will define my terms, describe the structure of this project, and explore the significance of affirming spaces for queer women across history. Such spaces, what we might also call “safe spaces,” can mitigate these erasures in various ways. Spaces that exist publicly, such as ClexaCon, the focus of Chapter 3, may work to bring visibility to queer women and place importance on our cultural contributions. On the other hand, places meant to be invisible to the outside world, such as early lesbian bars or rural women’s music festivals, provide inhabitants with a sense of safety, while also affirming to queer women that they are not alone in the world. Online spaces, such as Tumblr or YouTube (the focus of Chapter 2), often straddle the boundary between public and private, while still providing this same sense of affirmation. Indeed, all of these spaces (in the many forms they take) interact in interesting ways with the concept of safety, and the distinctions between public/private and visibility/invisibility, and these are some of the terms I will be exploring throughout this project.
The past and present collide
In May of 1974, the first National Women’s Music Festival was held in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Other similar festivals followed, most notably the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which began two years later and ended in 2015 amidst controversy surrounding the festival’s prohibitive policies concerning transgender women. These music festivals, though in name catered to all women, became important cultural spaces for lesbians, who previously had very few spaces, public or private, to call their own. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, lesbian cultural spaces continued to proliferate, leading to an influx of women’s music festivals, women’s bookstores and coffee houses, and lesbian bars.
To young queer women, these spaces feel almost mythical and may be difficult to imagine. Over the last decade, lesbian bars have quietly begun disappearing, with the oldest lesbian bars on both coasts having closed their doors. Queer women today are much more likely to meet one another online than at a bookstore or a bar. Instead of meeting at a Cris Williamson concert or at an Adrienne Rich poetry reading, the queer women of today might connect while looking through the Twitter discussions about popular lesbian couples on television like #Clexa or #Juliantina, or in the comments section of a Hayley Kiyoko music video.
Though these two eras of queer culture may seem to have almost nothing in common, I see a connection, one which we can draw across both time and space. The thread I am interested in exploring here is the creation of queer female spaces, and significantly, the creation of these spaces through the practices of queer female fans. (Queer women in the 1950s traded illicit lesbian pulp novels – now we swap comments on lesbian fanfictions on Archive of Our Own). As both a queer woman and as a fan of queer, I am interested in exploring how queer women of today cope with, and even thrive in these conditions.
For queer women who did not grow up with access to these physical lesbian spaces, the internet, and more specifically online fandom, has been a place to find community, friendship, and even romantic love. As Susan Driver notes in her groundbreaking book Queer Girls and Popular Culture (2007), young queer women use popular culture to “creatively imagine possibilities, forge connections, make meanings, and articulate relations” (14). With this project I hope to build off of Driver’s work and illustrate the contemporary state of queer women’s relationship to popular media, which I will argue is defined by the maintenance of queer fandom and the continued conversations surrounding LGBTQ representation. Two years ago, these conversations resulted in the first-ever multi-fandom fan convention specifically for queer women, a convention called ClexaCon. ClexaCon began in 2016, following the widely-criticized death of a lesbian character named Lexa (see text box below) on a series called The 100 (The CW, 2014-). This event will serve as the starting point for my research.
In order to investigate these phenomena I pose the following question: In the absence of publicly designated spaces for queer women, or even a sense of public lesbian culture, where do queer women turn? Where in, 2019, is queer female community located? Under these circumstances, I also ask how do queer women construct and seek out safe spaces? Additionally, I hope to investigate how present-day spaces created for and by queer women both relate to and differ from lesbian spaces of the past. Cross-generational communication between queer women is something I believe we severely lack, and I hope at the very least this project will encourage discussion.
In order to continue this exploration of queer women, fandom, and space, some definitional work is in order. To begin, I want to discuss my use of language in this project. Throughout this thesis you will see me primarily use the terms queer, queer women, queer female fans, or lesbian. I do not mean for these terms to be wholly interchangeable – specifically, I do not see lesbian as necessarily synonymous with queer. I use the term lesbian to define people or objects that have been specifically defined as such – lesbian bars, lesbian couples, lesbian people, etc. For example, in Chapter 2, both the YouTube couples I discuss identify as lesbians, so I use this term to describe them rather than queer. In Chapter 1 you will see me use the word lesbian more frequently because that was the term used in much of the 20th century to describe women who love other women. Unfortunately, this means that bisexual or pansexual women were left out of these conversation in many ways, as a binary between gay and straight was upheld in many of these spaces. I hope that future work can address this gap in the production of language and research, but this topic is unfortunately not within the scope of my project. Nonetheless, it is important to me to use historically specific language, which is why I employ the term lesbian most frequently in Chapter 1.
Additionally, when I use the word queer or queer women, I want to make it clear that I am including and speaking of the various identities that fall under this umbrella – bisexual women, pansexual women, otherwise queerly-identified women, and trans women (who of course may also use labels such as lesbian or bisexual). Since it is difficult to write out all of these categories in a single sentence, I use queer or queer woman/female as a shorthand to encompass the various identities or positionalities that fall under this label. It is my intention to be as inclusive as I can with this language without speaking for people who’s identities I may not be able to define based on my own knowledge or research.
Next, let us consider the concept of fandom. The word “fandom,” of course, comes from the word “fan,” which in turn is an abbreviation of the word “fanatic,” which stems from the Latin “fanaticus.” As Henry Jenkins puts it in his seminal fan studies book Textual Poachers (1992), “In its most literal sense, “fanaticus” simply meant “Of or belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee” but it quickly assumed more negative connotations, “Of persons inspired by orgiastic rites and enthusiastic frenzy” (Oxford Latin Dictionary)” (12). Jenkins’ primary contribution to the field of fan studies was to debunk this common perception of fans as a pathological group of lunatics. Jenkins instead turned his attention to the ways in which fans integrate media objects into their lives and produce community through shared identification with particular texts.
Fandom, then, is a community or subculture comprised of individuals who identify as fans of one such text. As Mark Duffett (2013) puts it, “One becomes a ‘fan’ not by being a regular viewer of a particular program but by translating that viewing into some kind of cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about program content with friends, by joining a ‘community’ of other fans who share common interests” (63). Duffett argues that fandom is defined by three main concepts: identification, practice, and community. These three concepts are particularly useful for my own study of queer female fandom, as the process of sexual and gender identification is extremely important to this fandom, and in turn, influences the fan practices that maintain and define this community.
As a number of queer scholars have illustrated, queer female fandom often expands beyond the models of fandom that Jenkins and others often study. Moving away from the more generalist work of Jenkins and Duffet, more attention has been focused in recent years on the distinct subcultural fan practices of groups like queer women. (See Transformative Works and Cultures’ special issue on Queer Female Fandom). Kelsey Cameron (2017) notes that queer women “lack both identity reinforcement from mainstream culture” as well as “the embodied sexual spaces that many position as key to the cultural lives of gay men” (1.6). Driver demonstrates the ways in which queer girls use popular media to find belonging and “communicate their differences,” while Stephanie M. Yeung (2014) illustrates the length queer women go to in order to sustain and preserve what she calls “fugitive representations.” Drawing from the insights of scholars such as Jenkins and Duffett as well as queer fan scholars, I will look specifically at the ways in which queer female fans do and do not conform to normative definitions of fandom, highlighting the spaces, practices, and affective communities that define us as a subcultural group.
Next, we must agree on a definition of space. To make matters more complicated, for this project I am looking at both physical and online spaces, meaning the level of embodiment (i.e. the physical presence of the body) will vary from space to space. To begin, spaces, at least as they are constituted by humans or by civilizations, are locations that individuals or groups inhabit. As Katherine Fobear puts it, “space is described as being both a “process and social product” that conditions and is constituted by social relations (G. Visser, 2008, p. 1345)” (723). As such, spaces can be either permanent – like a public library – or fleeting – like the space created between two queer women when a Hayley Kiyoko song plays in the supermarket (See Valentine 1995). In addition, as I highlighted above, spaces can be both physical or virtual – both these types of spaces have the ability to transmit affect through its inhabitants.
The construction of spaces by humans as a “social product” as well as their ability to transmit affect are two essential elements to this working definition of space. Teresa Brennan (2004) defines affect by asking this question: “Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and “felt the atmosphere”?” (1). It is a space’s ability to transmit this sensation – one that travels between individuals and between objects and is often difficult to put into words – that may bind its inhabitants together, or alternatively, tear them apart. In my own study, I will investigate a selection of spaces that have been or are important to queer women, looking at their organization, the emotional or physical experience of being there, as well as their relationship to the concept of safety.
Next up, of course, we must come to an understanding of what exactly is a safe space. The term “safe space” has a long and storied history. It primarily emerged during the feminist movement of the mid-to-late 20th century among activist circles, though it is now most popularly used on college campuses and in classrooms. A simple definition of the term comes from The Roestone Collective (2014), who state that “In feminist, queer, and civil rights movements an understanding of safe space has developed that is associated with keeping marginalized groups free from violence and harassment” (1346). Naturally, however, this term has been utilized in varying ways. The Roestone Collective bring up Take Back the Night protests (a movement to make the streets safe for women) as well as lesbian separatist communities as two examples of how a safe space might manifest.
These two examples bring up the distinction between two types of safe spaces – those that are “inclusive” and those that are “separatist.” Several of the spaces I have explored, namely ClexaCon and women’s music festivals, struggle to maintain themselves as either wholly inclusive or wholly separatist. The concept of a safe space is often paradoxical, as certain spaces may highlight and celebrate some forms of difference (such as gender or sexuality) while obscuring others (such as race or ability). In this respect, a safe space can be described by Rose’s (1993:137, 140, 154) idea of “paradoxical space”—a space that “does not replicate the exclusions of the Same and the Other”, “but is simultaneously safe and unsafe, inside and outside” (The Roestone Collective, 1355).
To conclude, while safe spaces often fall short of their commitments, there are some common expectations among marginalized groups of what a safe space should be. (Most of these expectations were brought up by the participants in my study). First, a safe space should be a space where individuals feel safe from harm, violence, and judgment. Second, a safe space should be a space where individuals are given the freedom to express themselves. And third, a safe space should be a space where inhabitants feel cared for and listened to. The question of inclusivity/exclusivity often threatens these goals, as I discovered in my investigation of women’s music festivals, ClexaCon, and other queer spaces online. I will engage with this concept in my investigation of ClexaCon in order to gauge the complexity of its meaning and the lengths we still have to go to achieve true “inclusivity” in our queer spaces.
Lastly, there are some theoretical concepts that underpin my research that I must briefly mention. The concepts most relevant to my work are grief/melancholia, affect, and futurity. I draw from Judith Butler (2004) who discusses the ways in which queer people are in part constituted by their own vulnerability. Butler argues that grief is not simply a private process, but instead reveals the inherent sociality that defines our existence. Queer people have a unique relationship to grief, and though I am not primarily studying the Bury Your Gays trope nor Lexa’s death, these losses still permeate the minds of many queer female fans and inform many of our relationships to popular media as a whole. José Esteban Muñoz (2009) has also written productively about mourning, suggesting that a potential result of grief, when performed queerly and without pathologization, is an investment in queer futurity and utopia. I will illustrate how for queer fans, the objects used to create this utopia are found in popular media. Similarly, Sarah Ahmed (2010), one of the foremost scholars of affect, writes about the ways in which we orient ourselves toward happiness, and suggests that by orienting ourselves towards objects we associate with happiness, “we are aiming somewhere else: toward a happiness that is presumed to follow” (26). Though I don’t wish to psychoanalyze queer women or queer female fans, I do believe this critical theory is a useful tool for illuminating the social, political, and emotional structures that shape our lives.
The Chapters to Follow
The primary focus of this project, as well as the reason I began to research this topic, is the annual convention for queer women’s media, ClexaCon. I first heard about ClexaCon while I was writing my undergraduate thesis about the Bury Your Gays Trope and the reverberations of Lexa’s death on The 100 among queer fans and among television culture as a whole. ClexaCon was founded in 2017, a year after Lexa’s death, as a celebration of the fictional couple Clexa, one of the most popular lesbian couples of the century, as well as a call to action for better LGBTQ representation. ClexaCon represents a physical manifestation of the online community building queer fans have been engaged in for years, and thus serves as a fitting focal point for this project. I attended ClexaCon in April of 2019, and while there interviewed attendees about their experiences at the convention and their experiences with queer female fandom and queer female community in general. Chapter Three of this project will explore the concept of ClexaCon as a safe space for queer women and as a space for community building, using my interviews and observations as the basis for this discussion.
Because I want to investigate both contemporary and historical iterations of queer female fandom and community, Chapter One will explore lesbian spaces of the 20th century in order to contextualize the cultural moment we are in today. I will look both at specific spaces, such as women’s music festivals and lesbian bars, as well as popular perspectives about lesbian culture from this era. In this chapter, I will look specifically at the contemporary discourse surrounding the supposed disappearance of lesbian spaces and lesbian culture more broadly, as discussed in Bonnie J. Morris’ book The Disappearing L (2016). Through this exploration, I will consider a number of questions such as: Has lesbian culture disappeared? Where has it gone? And what, exactly, is lesbian culture? Important to this discussion is the practice of naming and the expansion of queerness as a category, which has disrupted some of the more static definitions of womanhood and lesbianism that were popularized in the second half of the 20th century. This chapter will draw connections between queer female cultures of the past and present, as well as illustrate how our cultural spaces have changed – for better or for worse.
Chapter Two, which will explore online fan communities, will focus specifically on YouTube as an archive for queer female content and as a tool for international community building. My primary case study for this chapter will be the fan communities that emerged around several popular “real-life” lesbian couples on YouTube, and the continued dedication of fans even after their breakups. This example usefully illustrates the strength of this online community building as well as the emotional investment many queer women fans have in this content. As a bonus piece for this chapter, I have also included an article I wrote about “Juliantina,” a lesbian couple on the Mexican soap opera Amar a Muerte (Univision, 2018) that has achieved international popularity. This piece illustrates queer women’s use of YouTube as a tool of translation and archiving for these “fugitive representations” (Yeung). Taken together, these two examples illustrate the unique dedication of queer women to their chosen media objects, as well as the lengths queer fans go to preserve and centralize their stories. My hope is that this project, as an open-access academic work that engages heavily with popular culture, will educate and empower those within the queer community as well as those outside it, while also validating the cultural productions and practices of queer women who have not historically received such validation. In what follows I will illustrate the continued importance of safe and affirming spaces for queer women, the centrality of fandom in creating these spaces, as well as the long-standing difficulty of creating spaces that are truly safe for its inhabitants. Though the questions I am asking have no definitive answers, I hope this project serves as a jumping-off point for further discussion and scholarship on these topics.
4 thoughts on “Introduction”
I love, love, love the premise of your thesis. I have been wondering about a lot of the topics you mention in this introduction. I will read on, of course. But I am wondering if further discussion was raised as a result. What kind of response have you received?
I haven’t received that many responses, honestly! It seems to have done pretty well, stats wise, but I don’t get a lot of comments. My undergrad thesis also had some popularity on social media so clearly people are interesting in reading about this king of thing from an academic perspective.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Kira, I might have overlooked, but what was your undergrad thesis about? I would like to read that as well. And I am glad that your work had a lot of interest. It’s important and I don’t see much of it on social media. And that’s ok. I’m not sure why, but the topics you mention in your master fascinate me. I also immediately bought the first books you mentioned. I always say that lesbianism is my hobby 😏. Must be that then. Wilma
Oh, I forgot to ask. Why did you chose these topics?