Academics and fans: never the twain shall meet?

One of my perpetual irritations as a scholar of anime and manga is the disdain that some academics hold for fans. I’m not talking about those scholars who just think all popular culture is trash. No, I’m talking about a subtler form of disrespect. I’ve been reading some old issues of the Journal of Asian Studies – going through the book reviews for things I ought to have read – and came across a review of Japan Pop! that brought it to mind. I should note that the author of the review isn’t blatantly disdainful, it’s just that the introduction to the review brought it to mind. She tries to briefly summarize the reason why Japan Pop! was put together (to bring together fans and academics) by casting fans as pleasure-seeking consumers and academics as critical analysts. This is a false dichotomy.

This particular dichotomy pops up a lot, so I’ll unpack it a bit. The review’s author does note that some academics are fans, but says that even so they want to analyze. The problem is that “analysis” is a very vague term that suggests intelligent/thoughtful action. If you sit down and think for a second, you can probably remember sitting down with someone at some point and going over a character’s motivations; that’s analysis! People do it every day. Pop culture fans in particular are known for incessantly going over what character did what in what series, why, what things in the real world might have nudged an artist toward making this, that or the other creative decision… Given the zounds of hard-core fans (to say nothing of casual movie-goers) out there and the relative paucity of culture-focused academics, fans analyze popular culture far more than academics.

Well, hey, now, how many fans reference Foucault, you might be thinking. I will grant not a ton, but more than you might think. How many students try to write papers on their favorite movie or TV show for their Intro Whatever course? In my experience, rather a lot. (And that’s not even counting all the other aspects of pop culture.) However, let’s leave aside how often – and critically – fans think about series. What about the academics?

This is where the disdain issue bugs me. Okay, irritates the heck out of me. One of the earliest academic books about anime is often favorably mentioned to me by academics who don’t really know their popular culture. (I won’t mention it, but if you know anime you most likely know the one I’m talking about.) Now, this book has gotten rather good reviews from various academics, and is looked down on by fans. Some of these academics know that fans look down on the book and take that to mean that the fans are silly widgins who just don’t care about critical thinking.

The book in question is full of factual inaccuracies. I’m talking everything from getting references wrong to getting plot/character details wrong. Admittedly, messing up a reference happens to everyone at some point, but this book is a particularly egregious example. The plot issue, however, undermines the whole book for me. A lot of the author’s arguments are based on the plots and characters of a handful of main anime – and s/he gets them wrong! Throughout the book!

I’ve heard academics who purport to study anime and manga argue that getting those plot details wrong doesn’t really matter. Really? Getting the facts that you’re basing your argument on wrong doesn’t undermine your argument? Seriously?

Let’s be honest: if I wrote a book about women in the Tale of Genji and I confused all of Genji’s paramours I would get jumped on faster than lightning. I would probably never get a job in academia again.

I’m not writing this to say that ye random anime of the week is of equal quality and academic interest to the first novel ever written. The thing is, anyone who is seriously trying to study popular culture needs to treat it with the same respect that other academics treat whatever they focus on.

Back to the fans=fun-loving lack of thought, academics=Serious Inquiry dichotomy, when a fan reads an academic book on their topic, they may not know the obscure scholar whose works are briefly mentioned on page 13 (and yes, most of the scholars referenced in academic work are obscure). They will know the series under discussion, and possibly have extensive knowledge of production details, including things like whether the studio pushed for sex scenes that the director never wanted, whether the series had to be ended early because the magazine it was published in was folding, assertions of plagiarism and so on. All of this affects the final product, and fans know it. Academics writing on popular culture are talking to a well informed audience – that happens not to know as much about critical theory as we do. Sloppy research will be caught quickly, and why would fans respect an academic who proves, on every page, that s/he does not know what s/he is talking about?

I’ll give another, similar example. Japan Pop! is a bit different than the unnamed book above. It’s meant to bring together academics and fans, and it came from a conference aimed at the same. It ends up being a bit uneven as some of the authors focus more on fans or more on academics, but that’s to be expected. Still, I remember wondering why a Canadian girl’s Sailor Moon doujinshi was included. Fans already know about doujinshi, and if the idea was to show academics who didn’t know anything about Japanese popular culture about the vibrancy of the doujinshi industry, why not include a Japanese one? Another article in the book argued that a shoujo manga showed great gender equality in Japanese culture – but looked at that one manga alone, without comparing to a sea of cookie-cutter manga that all show female characters being almost – but not quite – as smart as the boys. Taken as a group, the issues become clear, but the author missed the larger themes.

When I write, I try to assume what I’ll call a high level of uninformed intelligence. My imaginary reader may not have seen the movie or book in question and may not have learned the theories I’m using, but she has the ability to understand all of the above. That approach has, generally, worked for me. Even if an author assumes that I know five series and seventeen theories that I’ve never heard of, though, it’s fine with me so long as it’s clear that they know what they’re talking about. When you are blatantly uninformed about the topic that you chose to write about, however, I will have little interest in your work.

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Race fail

First I must apologize; I thought I had posted waaaaay more recently than I had. I’ve actually been planning this post for days, so I could have cut the wait awhile very easily. Anyway.

Panasonic has a new TV out called the Viera, which they are advertising in concert with the new movie Avatar. You can see one of the commercials (I think there’s more than one) here. I imagine Panasonic’s advertising group has no resident geeks with awareness of common social issues. If they did, someone would have pointed out that they were associating their TV with two media properties – Avatar and Final Fantasy XII – that have races/species that clearly stand in for Africans. Oppressed, stereotypical Africans.

Avatar sounds wonderful, and I don’t mean to suggest racism within the property itself. But you clearly have the blue-skinned natives of the world Pandora standing in for Africans during the colonial period. The humans come with their superior technology to raid Pandora (and no, I’m not even going to touch the world’s name) of her natural resources, and the natives fight back with spears and such. You could even argue that using a native woman as the romantic interest of the invader-hero replicates the sexualization of black women that goes into movies today. I don’t particularly want to, given that I haven’t yet seen the movie and many romantic interests are treated equally (if not worse – Cameron’s female characters generally rock).

Then we have Final Fantasy XII‘s Viera. Let’s see, brown skin, buxom, scantily-clad rabbit-girls… Yeah, that doesn’t replicate stereotypes of African women as sexually rapacious at all. There are, by the way, no male Viera. Presumably the females replicate asexually. If, of course, you presume the designers put any thought into it.

I don’t think Panasonic did it on purpose, but they did, in one fell swoop, tie their new product to the least-attractive aspects of two different, but wildly popular, products. It comes across badly.

The craziest part, for me at least, is that I had/have a perfectly fine view of Avatar. That is, I think you can do a story that references the complicated history between the West and Africa without being racist, I think science fiction is a good way to do that, and I think James Cameron is a skilled director who takes the time and makes the effort to present more realistic, less stereotypical characters in general. It was only when the commercial linked Avatar to the Viera of Final Fantasy XII – which I find problematic on many levels – that I even thought of race as a potential stumbling point for the film. Weird.