Sunday, July 6, 2014

Asieybarbie's "I Am Beautiful" Campaign & Sleepy Hollow's Orlando Jones: Visual Representation Matters

It has been a pleasure witnessing the response to my blog launch -- thank you!  Since I last posted, I have been to South Carolina for Children's Literature Association 2014 and back again, which was a wonderful experience.  (If you are a scholar or critic of children's or young adult literature, media, or culture, you should plan to join us next year in Virginia.)

Over the past few weeks, I've been hard at work finishing the first four chapters of The Dark Fantastic, revising two research articles, drafting two more (with others in various stages), and was invited to participate in a recent New York Times Room for Debate forum on reading instruction in urban schools.  I've also been preparing for an upcoming project facilitating cross-urban conversations between teachers in Detroit and Philadelphia, trying to read a #bookaday although I'm far behind on my Goodreads reviews, and making plans to attend New York Comic Con in the fall.

My next essay post will be about race and innocence in the fantastic. I intend to touch upon some of the major concepts of my dark fantastic theory-in-progress on this blog over time.  But as we like to say in the multiverse, "fandom was being fandom," so I decided to alter my schedule a bit to talk about something that has happened recently.


I first met Asia Kendrick-Horton (@asieybarbie) as a fellow new fan of the FOX television series Sleepy HollowTelevision fandom is something new for me. I am a books-and-comics girl to the core, and never really watched much TV growing up or as a young adult.  Then came the age of DVDs, Netflix, Hulu... and frankly, better and more interesting writing for television.  The episodic nature of TV was also something I never liked, but today, I find that marathoning a good television show is much like reading a multimodal novel.  I have my YA Lit students at Wayne State University to thank for imploring me to give teen TV a try; it is because of them that I presented on a teen television show (The Vampire Diaries) for the first time last month at ChLA14.

In the social media age, the digital fandom multiverse cross-pollinates in interesting ways. (Media theorist Henry Jenkins has characterized the cultural moment as convergence culture.)  What may not be apparent to casual observers is that fans converge around some of the same identity factors that people do in the analog world.  I have begun thinking about the ways that fans of color find each other, communicate, and traverse the margins of fan culture as -- to borrow a term from Kevin Young's important 2012 book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness -- "underground railroads of meaning." Black fangirls have a rich social network on Tumblr, featuring characters like Olivia Pope on Scandal, Michonne from The Walking Dead, Guinevere from Merlin, and Bonnie from The Vampire DiariesTo this list, we added a special character in the fall of 2013: Sleepy Hollow's amazing Abbie Mills, played to perfection by Julliard alumna Nicole Beharie.

Sleepy Hollow is unique among major network shows. It features a cast that's predominantly people of color, but the storyline is speculative fiction. Episodes during the first season combined genre elements of horror, time travel, and fantasy. And while the show isn't really about race, the characters don't shy away from talking about race, either.  I was cautiously excited when one of my friends told me that some of Sleepy's writers had worked on Fringe, which I thoroughly enjoyed. One of my favorite Black women screenwriters of all time, Felicia D. Henderson (!!!) had worked as a writer and producer on Fringe. The Sleepy writers seemed to be friends and associates of the amazing J.J. Abrams, one of the few sci-fi guys working in cinema and TV who's not totally clueless when it comes to race.

One year later, I'm not surprised that @sleepywriters have managed to strike a great balance.  Although some fangirls of color are understandably worried about the direction of future seasons, I trust this team.

Even before the pilot's premiere, Sleepy fandom had fanwork circulating on social media and lively conversations on Twitter and Tumblr.  One of the very best fanartists who captured the show and its world to perfection was Asia.  Here's a sampling of her work. She comes from anime fandom and much of her artwork is in that tradition.  However, Asia is also very unapologetic about elevating Black and Brown women in her fanwork as well as in her original art. On Tumblr and Twitter, where we mutually follow each other's fan accounts, I have often reblogged her celebratory posts and reblogs of Black female celebrities, models, as well as everyday women posting pictures of their hair, fashion and accessories. She is responsible for some of the best and most creative fanart for fans clamoring for a relationship between the two leads of Sleepy Hollow, Lieutenant Abbie Mills and time-traveling Ichabod Crane, known in the fandom as Ichabbie.  For this and her general artwork featuring the show's characters, Asia has been acknowledged by the show's producers, writers, and actors.

Recently, during the hiatus, Asia launched a new initiative celebrating diverse beauty, the "I Am Beautiful" campaign.  Her initial post on Tumblr has gained over 65,000 reblogs since she initially posted it on June 28. 

One phenomenon that does not get much attention is the way that today's social media culture reinforces, reifies, and even polices the visual.  It is something that I am grappling with as I write The Dark Fantastic. I am not finding much theory or research on the visual racial politics of television programming intended for children and teens. One casual observation that I have made as a fan is that there's something going on with the preternaturally beautiful teenagers on today's TV shows.  It isn't just that these young actors (usually in their 20s through early 30s) are most often White. It's that many seem to be selected specifically for their physical perfection. As a Generation Xer who came of age with the mantra "keeping it real," I can't really relate to this.  Our teen stars were good looking but didn't look like they'd just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement -- we were more MTV's The Real World, and before that, the United Colors of Benetton. Between that and the selfie discourse of Instagram, it's a pretty difficult time to be a young person insecure about one's looks.

Asia is one of many youth and young adults who are using social media to disseminate art, photography, and videos that challenge traditional Western notions of beauty.  This movement provides a counterpoint to the ways that multinational corporate capitalism has packaged and commodified beauty, desire, and visual appeal for the masses.  But it is for that very reason that iconoclastic responses by bloggers, artists, and activist of color get contested.

Within a few thousand Tumblr notes, Asia's "I Am Beautiful" art was reblogged with critical comments. Soon, there was a war in the comments between those who felt excluded by not being included in Asia's artwork, and those who were defending her choices.

Soon, Asia herself spoke up.

so about my “I AM BEAUTIFUL" post:
"but men can be beautiful too!" "but where is the normal white girl?" and "that feel when none of them look like you (all from straight white male and female Tumblr users)”
these are real, actual responses I’ve seen, but I’m honestly not even surprised...
and as far as the comment of there not being a “normal white girl”? how about this: you’re already everywhere and regarded as the standard of what is beauty. so stop feeling the need to be inserted into every single thing that centers around the matter if it exclusively involves women of color. none of them look like you because plenty of that already exists for ya’ll. there is never enough representation that reminds us that we are beautiful. the fact a mindset exists that being white equates to “normal” is severely problematic in itself…SO JUST STOP.

I was thrilled to see her response to the criticism. Frankly, one of the downsides of social media and fan cultures is that the relative anonymity of the Internet leads to what social psychologists have called the online disinhibition effect. This means that individuals are free to criticize, attack, and even threaten others with impunity. In my first fandom 10-15 years ago, I used my real name and identity, a choice that I later regretted. I never made this mistake again online outside of my professional personae. In today's social media environment, anyone making a stand for social justice risks not only critical public commentary, but also cyberstalking, abusive private comments, and violent threats. Asia's response took real courage.

What was even more heartening was that one of the actors from the show, Orlando Jones, also supported Asia's work and defended it.  Orlando has been active in Sleepy Hollow fandom almost since its inception, a move that I have always found fascinating.  To my knowledge, he is one of the first actors that has actively participated in the fandom of a show he's working on.  (Later this month at San Diego Comic Con, he will be a speaker on a panel with MIT media scholar Henry Jenkins and two people that I have known since my Harry Potter fandom days, Heidi Tandy and Madeline "Flourish" Klink.)

Here's what Orlando had to say about Asia's detractors on Tumblr:

Please won't someone think of the white folks? #So Done With POC #Denying Representation #To Our Pigment Challenged Brethren #Y’All Need To STAHP

In 15+ years of digital age fandom, I have never seen a famous person defend a fan of color who was experiencing racist attacks while minding her own business. (When I ran into trouble in my first fandom, I had some wonderful support from a few famous children's lit writers, but it was behind closed doors.) Orlando's satirical response was amazing. In carefully selected words and mostly tags, using the lexis and syntax of digital fandom, he took apart the ridiculousness of critics' arguments. 

I was so touched that I had to Tweet from my public account.


In response, both Asia and Orlando Tweeted me back. The one thing I must say about being a Sleepy Hollow fan is that it's the very first fandom where I've received responses to my Tweets from producers, the network, the writers, several cast members, etc. When the fandom live Tweeted the cast's panel at the PaleyFest, the actors and showrunners Tweeted right along with us. Being a Sleepyhead means being a participant in a truly incredible interactive experience. (It's also the reason why I'm a little too nervous to write fanfiction for the show. I am so used to authors & screenwriters politely ignoring fans that I'm not sure I can get over the idea that official types, including the show's creators and writers and actors, could potentially read my stuff! I'm also pretty busy these days. So I've been having a blast as a fandom lurker.)

Seeing Orlando Jones defend Asieybarbie was a watershed moment for me as an acafan -- really, 2014 has been filled with those, and the year's only half over. When I was a younger fan in the early 2000s, I often felt as if my lifeworlds as a fan online and my lived experiences as a woman of color rarely intersected.  Today, with the ubiquity of social media transforming fandom from a niche hobby for nerds to one facet of general participatory culture, I'm grateful that things are changing.

If we're truly interested in closing the imagination gap and liberating the dark fantastic, visual representation matters -- in comics, on television, on the big screen, in fandom, and in participatory culture.  Kudos to Asia and Orlando for taking a courageous stand.

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