The BBC's Sherlock is just one show that has a complicated relationship between fans and creators. Photo: BBC
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Mutually Assured Destruction: the shifting dynamics between creators and fans

The hypothetical direct channel to the writers and actors in our favourite TV shows fosters a false sense of intimacy. But it's all an illusion – television isn't a democracy.

If you have ever been devoted to a television show, you might know that for fans, it’s often a strange mash-up of fury and love. To hear this play out in real time, I’d recommend listening to a recent exchange between Dan Harmon, the creator of NBC’s Community, and one of the show’s biggest fans. Harmon is known for putting his foot in his mouth, and the fan had tweeted that he needed to “stop talking”, presumably to save him from himself. When Harmon realised she was at one of his events, she was brought, somewhat reluctantly, onstage to have it out.

What followed is an uncomfortable and ultimately unsatisfying dialogue, one founded on a fundamental imbalance of power, because while I’m sure both Harmon and the fan would be as likely as the other to say, “Well, this is my show,” in the end, only one of them is penning the scripts and collecting the cheques. The conversation is enlightening, and awkward, and sad. And it’s Harmon who has the best line, one that underpins so many debates in so many fandoms: “Some of you guys love a television show so much that the guy that created it is an obstacle in its path. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, but it’s an obstacle that’s not going to go away.”

Henry Jenkins’s seminal Convergence Culture sums it up best: “Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.” “Rewrite” doesn’t necessarily mean fanfiction and fanart, though for millions, it does; the kind of surgical dissection of shows, often called “meta” in fandom or just plain criticism elsewhere, is another kind of fan work.    

The job of the critic has always been a bit easy, in a way: a safe distance from the object of criticism gives you free rein to let loose. And perhaps things used to be a bit easier for creators, too – no instant feedback, no hate trending on Twitter, no peek into the permutations people are imagining for your characters in fan fiction. But these two groups can now see each other so much more clearly than they could in the past – or, at least, they think they can. The Harmon/frustrated fan incident is a fantastic illustration of the sorts of dynamics that are complicating the way television gets made today. It’s yet another chapter in all of the recent talk about the increasingly blurry barriers between creators and their fans, particularly their “superfans”, as nebulous as that term might be.

Interaction between fans and creators on a mass scale isn’t particularly new – it’s as old as the internet, certainly. The early days online saw Joss Whedon and his team popping up on Buffy message boards, toeing these tricky divisions to get a sense of fan reaction (and then working hard to not let it influence their writing). Eulogies for the recently deceased “Television Without Pity” website have dredged up Aaron Sorkin’s unfortunate attempt to wade into the discussion – he was so irate afterwards that he wrote a subplot into an episode of The West Wing about a fan site for one of the main characters, suggesting that people who frequented that site’s forums were “women in muu-muus smoking Parliaments,” which is a beautifully incoherent insult.

But social media has transformed this landscape dramatically. People who create television – and all media, for that matter – have to navigate a sometimes awkward public/private balance when they go online. Many of them are present, and visible, and sometimes they do engage with fans, but just because you can tweet at someone doesn’t mean that it’s a dialogue. It’s the illusion of unfettered access that regularly leads to dissatisfaction, even anger, on both sides. People who create things want to hear what fans think of their work – but they don’t! Or maybe they do! For the fans, the hypothetical direct channel to writers and actors fosters a false sense of intimacy, and the nature of the internet leaves everyone feeling entitled to offer up their opinions on all things ever. But these channels are rarely free and open to begin with – and there is, of course, that total imbalance of power in any exchange, the mismatch that was so clearly on display when Harmon took on his fan up on that stage. However fluid the once-impermeable fan-creator barriers may appear, television is not actually a democracy.

I was recently sent a pair of books by a pair of women who are devoted to the long-running CW show Supernatural, another one I’ve never seen, though I’ve spent enough time on the internet to be familiar with its highly visible fan base. Lynn Zubernis, a psychologist, and Katherine Larsen, an English professor, hoped to write a single book that examined the often thorny relationship between fans and people who make the objects of their affection. In the end, they wound up writing two: an academic (though very accessible) book called Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, and Fan/Producer Relationships, and a memoir of their personal experiences researching the topic, Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls. (They’re grown women with teenage children, but they appropriate the term “fangirl,” which some female fans have seen as pejorative, as a positive indicator of their investment in fan practices. For the record, I’ve done the same in the past.)

Both books spend a good deal of time discussing the unspoken divide between producers and fans, and the sort of policing that occurs when either side attempts to test the strength of this barrier. Interestingly, the main concern isn’t often fans encroaching on creators’ territory, but rather the opposite: the “First Rule of Fandom” is not to ask producers what they think of fan practices, particularly the creation of fan works – a rule that gets regularly broken at Q&A sessions, often to the horror of the other fans. (There is a fair amount of internal shaming within fan communities documented here, much of it gendered, women trying to keep other women from making the group look too passionate, or too sexually interested, or sexual at all.)

Supernatural makes guesses about its fan communities, though: it’s a show that famously looks directly back at its audience. There are episodes that feature fan conventions and obsessive fangirls, that hint at the most popular fanfiction pairing (an incestuous relationship between the main characters, two brothers, which is another complicated issue entirely), and, recently, one in which said brothers travel to an alternate universe in which they are on the set of their own show – as one character, playing himself, tweeted onscreen, the actor tweeted simultaneously in real life. Zubernis and Larsen say that the flipping of the camera’s gaze from fictional characters to fictional versions of their own fans was, understandably, met with very mixed reactions.

They interview people on both sides of the show-making equation, and while it’s clear that both fans and producers are curious about the other group, they’ve already constructed their narratives – “the writers are thinking X when they wrote Y,” or “the fans will probably want to see this character do this”. Most of the time, expectations don’t line up; when they do, it often feels like pure chance. One of the most interesting moments in Fangasm comes during an interview with Jared Padalecki, one of the aforementioned brothers on Supernatural. He’s talking about a specific genre of fanfiction, RPF, or “real person fic”, which is controversial even within fandom (though nothing new; people have been penning fiction about stars for just about forever). In the Supernatural fandom, he’s most often paired with his costar, Jensen Ackles. “It has nothing to do with reality,” Padalecki says. “What they think of our situation is exactly what they want it to be and it always will be. You sort of accept that or you don’t. It’s how I feel about fanfiction…They’re allowing me to do what I want, so I’ll enable them through what they want.” 

It’s a shockingly well-adjusted sentiment considering that someone else in his position – the subject of (often explicit) stories about a fictional version of himself – might not be able to get past the strangeness of it, or the feeling that boundaries were being encroached upon. But it also feels instructive for the whole messy business of the shifting lines between the parties involved in the making and consuming of a show. Those of us active in fandoms with “showrunners”, the big directorial authorities, spend a lot of time railing about their visions of the world. This is fine, possibly even healthy, a great, critical engagement with art and media, but so often, things go too far –  creators start to see their fans as adversaries, and fans start to see the creators as obstacles.

Not to put too bleak a point on it, but maybe it’s best to think of fan/creator relations through the lens of “mutually assured destruction”, in the sense that “they’re allowing me to do what I want, so I’ll enable them through what they want”. Just because we can see each other – and just because we can potentially even talk to each other – doesn’t mean it’s actually a good deal to directly engage with each other. Loving a television show, or a book, or a movie, can be a beautiful thing – and that includes loving a difficult showrunner, or a difficult fan, or a whole fandom of difficult fans. As television funding models and distribution methods shift at an exponentially fast rate and social media continues to transform the way we communicate, it’ll be a good thing to keep in mind: it’s not the historical barriers in place, but perhaps instead the ones we continue to erect, out of mutual respect, that help to keep making television worth getting invested in.

 

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge