The Fantasy Theme of Knowing: Insiders, Outsiders, Power, and Authority



In the other two nodes in this sector on Fandom Culture in the Xenaverse, I plot out how the fantasy theme of collecting in order to get closer to the show and its stars leads to a theme of access to The Powers That Be (TPTB) that ultimately supports the fantasy type of the feedback loop between TPTB and the Hardcore Nutballs (HCNBs). In this node I want to go underneath these themes and types and explore what may be the locus of power and authority in fandom culture, knowing, in order to examine the terms in which these fantasy themes of power and authority are negotiated. Then I will situate these themes and types in terms of the rhetorical visions they support, visions that carry over into the rhetoric of community and fan fiction as well.


Ultimately I believe a fantasy theme of "knowing" underlies the motivations in Xenaverse fandom culture, which places at its center the show, its actors, and TPTB. Collecting gives a person tangible reminders of the show, but it does not satisfy the need for the hottest commodities that flash around the online Xenaverse at lightning speed. These commodiities include knowledge about the show, its actors and the characters they play, its future episodes, its writing, its conflicts and resolutions. On the Internet, within the fandom obsession, this knowing is an unquenchable thirst; no matter how much a fan can know, she always wants to know more. There is always another article to be transcribed or a new interview with one of the producers or actors. Every small clue is treasured and put together with other puzzle pieces. Rumors of upcoming plots literally turn the Xenaverse upside down. Gabrielle is getting married?! Dear God, No! Xena in a beauty pageant? A potential sellout to turn the show into "leather Barbie and her witless, boy-crazy sidekick," or "Baywatch BC?" Oh, Please. Gabrielle has a child?! How, and what does it mean for the subtext? Every new episode is an unknown and carries with it a deep anxiety for those who have been let down by the media so many times before: Will TPTB cave in to the Mainstream? Will they mishandle our show?!







Then Gabrielle does get married; Xena stands devastated at the altar in one of the most heartbreaking subtext moments so far, until Gabrielle's new husband is killed by one of Xena's enemies within one day. Xena enters a beauty contest only to do a hilarious skewering of everything beauty pageants stand for. A drag queen ends up winning the contest. Faith in TPTB is restored and the HCNBs go on to worry obsessively another day.


As we can see in the rhetoric of TPTB in the mainstream media I discuss on the path of Xena's Sword, TPTB have encouraged the fans to think of "Xena:WP" as their show. They support multiple and diverse readings of the storylines, implying that they want the show to be all things to all people. As Lucy Lawless said in the Mr. Showbiz interview,

LUCY LAWLESS -- Ah! You mean do we play up to it [the lesbian subtext]? What are you asking here? We do have fun with that aspect, but I never want to shove it down people's throats because it can also be alienating and we don't want to do that to any sector of our audience. But we don't want to alienate our lesbian following. We love 'em all! We love 'em all equally, whether they're on the edge or not.


This play of possible interpretations puts into motion a fantasy theme of ownership. Fans take this ownership of the show as a kind of vested interest, which may help to explain why the Xenaverse goes through such emotional roller coasters with certain plot turns and rumors of plot turns. While it may seem to be a stretch, I believe this makes the beginnings of a conflict of ownership of the show, a conflict which technically is a moot point. Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal clearly own the rights to the show, control the production, and make all decisions concerning it. The HCNBs are not going to be flown to New Zealand any time soon to begin directing episodes. In that respect, it is not the HCNBs' show. If they feel some kind of ownership of the show, even at the encouragement of TPTB, it is an ownership that represents a different kind of control. They feel ownership because at some level the HCNB fans helped to make "Xena" a hit, and a very different kind of hit than "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." In an interview on WPIX-TV 11 (WB) during her run on Broadway as Rizzo in the musical Grease in September and October of 1998, Lucy Lawless publicly thanked her lesbian fans for "almost single-handedly" making her show "hip," evidently putting it out on the edge of the lesbian "chic." Lawless backed up her remarks with action. On several occasions she visited Meow Mix, a New York City lesbian bar, which had been hosting regular "Xena Nights" for the past year, showing subtext-oriented episodes and having mock sword fights and costume contests.








The fantasy themes of knowing and the conflict of ownership of the show came to a head in the rumors that flew over the nets before Season 3 about Gabrielle's child and how it would be conceived. This was the lead-up to what would become a factionalizing of the Xenaverse during Season 3 into two major camps, Anti-Rift and Pro-Rift. Kym Masera Taborn summarizes the rumors that threw the Xenaverse into a turmoil during the Xena Withdrawal Syndrome (XWS) in the summer of 1997 in her July Whoosh! editorial, "Common Knowledge," which came out before the events of the Rift were aired on television. In response to Taborn's article, producer Steven Sears, known online as "Tyldus," wrote an editorial, "Tyldus Interviews Himself" in the August issue of Whoosh! to attempt to calm down the rumor mill before the "Rift" hit. It is important to note that TPTB had officially let fans know that the friendship between Xena and Gabrielle would be tested, that the "rift" would occur. However, as Tyldus makes clear, the rumor that Gabrielle would have a child, and that the child would be the product of a rape, was leaked by an independent gossip columnist, Marilyn Beck. The volatile issue centered around the word "rape," and the reactions it set off in the strongly feminist Xenaverse community. TPTB felt justifiably disturbed because, according to Tyldus, "rape" is a word they never would have been used. However whether the word was intended to be used or not, it became the center of the controversy.





As Taborn wrote of the turmoil on the nets, she focused on how Renaissance Pictures was handling the out-of-control situation online, charges that Tyldus later responded to in his editorial. In hindsight, at the time of this writing, the details of who did what and when matter less than the picture painted of Internet life in the Xenaverse in the summer of 1997. I was online at this time, and I would say Taborn gives an accurate portrayal of the fantasy themes that were chaining out around the volatility of the "rape" issue. The gossip columnist had unleashed a monster, and it was not going to go away. Taborn wrote,

"...Then after the uproar on the 'Net, they [Renaissance Pictures] started denying it more ambiguously and more publicly. When it was apparent that they were being understood in contradictory ways, they appeared to have retreated and were ignoring it. In retrospect, they should have jumped in and straightened everything out before that point. But when they did jump in, they again started with the ambiguous statements which actually added to the confusion -- alienating their "apologists" and giving ammunition to the Internet trolls. By the time it was mid-June, there were so many rumors about a rape, a child, homophobia, and deceit on the part of RP [Renaissance Pictures] that it was hard to form a clear opinion about anything."







Several points deserve emphasis here. One is that the situation on the Net could not be ignored. That in itself gives the net culture a kind of ownership of the show. A rumor mill out of control had the power to seriously damage the show. The Xenaverse fandom culture online had a power that TPTB could disregard only at their peril. In some ways that power is still being played out, as the Anti-Rift and Pro-Rift camps were formed in reaction to finally seeing the episodes in question. Some still saw a rape, while TPTB strongly denied that Gabrielle's suspension over tongues of fire constituted a rape. However it is possible that if the fantasy theme of the rape had not chained out over the Internet the summer before Season 3, it might have never have been called a "rape" in the first place. That seems to be the claim Steven Sears (Tyldus) is making in a July 1998 interview in Whoosh! Some viewers who were not online during the summer, or who were religiously avoiding "spoilers" of Season 3, reported that they didn't even know Gabrielle was pregnant until the following episode.








Some fans give voice to their feelings of ownership in very strong language, typical of how discourse easily becomes polemical online. As Taborn said, "The online fan community is very diverse, but it is also very cohesive. It is volatile and dynamic. It is great to have the power of the Internet on your side, but a living hell to have it against you." Still the fantasy themes are present even in the polemicized rhetoric, as these examples from Taborn's article show:

One of my opinions is that RP thought they had the Internetties eating out of their hands. The *can do no wrong* factor. This isn't the case. At ALL. RP is and should be held accountable for their actions. They expect our *unconditional* support and need to realize that they can have it -- if they support us. Treat us with respect and we'll treat them with respect. This whole situation showed a tremendous lack of respect for the net fans. It IS harsh...but if RP truly wants to have a give and take relationship with the Internetties, they need to hear it. They can only *tease* us so much, before they start to p*** us off -- bigtime.

...RP may *make* Xena -- but WE watch it, WE keep them on the air, WE care deeply about these characters, WE have invested ourselves in them. Yes, XWP is *just* a TV Show. But it IS so much more to a lot of us. I know rape and incest survivors who find Xena to be an amazingly healing experience. Who take courage and strength from the characters of Xena and Gabrielle. To hear that one of these people was going to be raped, was a true shock. RP's lack of sensitivity to this is very upsetting. Not that RP should censor themselves....but they should be *aware* that everything they do will have a consequence.






Diane Silver put the issue of fan ownership and power very succinctly in her Xena Media Review article on "XenaStaff, Fans and Fairness" when she said,

Sometimes online Xenadom feels to me like a delightful toy that will never get boring. On other days, though, it just feels like one, big tangled mess of misunderstandings, miscommunication and incredibly hurt feelings. And, I'm not even talking about the flame wars between fans. I'm talking about the venom that some fans sometimes direct at XenaStaff. XenaStaff also have to remember that internetties are an incredibly important part of their fan base. We are not only a world-wide network, but we are in nearly instant communication with each other. Because of this, we can organize and take action quickly. We may not represent every XWP fan in the world, but we have an incredible impact on the publicity for the show.



Another point in this controversy has to do with the power of the fantasy themes themselves. TPTB could not control the rumor mill, although Tyldus's editorial did restore the faith of many fans in TPTB. But the fandom culture itself could not control the rumor mill either, as Taborn points out below:

Compounding all this, of course, is the speed of the Internet. RP and associates perhaps do not appreciate this. Do they understand that when they (whether intentionally or inadvertently) release little things here and there, that the pieces will be put together eventually? If the pieces do not add up, then fans will become polarized and, faster than one would expect, rumors are created and factions spring to life, just as quickly and focused as in LIFE OF BRIAN with the sects of the sandal and the gourd. In this case it is the "The rumors aren't true" and the "The rumors are only the tip of the iceberg" sects! ("Common Knowledge")

Taborn's comments illustrate the strength of the fantasy theme of knowing online. To know is a driving, motivating force. To have inside information, even just a small piece, means that a fan is closer to putting the puzzle together. Not all fans read episode "spoilers," but even beyond information about plotlines, there are more things to know. Who would put limits on this knowing?





That is where the fantasy themes about the boundaries between the HCNBs and TPTB become emphasized. TPTB deliberately blur the boundaries by creating situations in which fans have unprecedented access to them, access which is further emphasized as fantasy themes of that access are chained out into the Xenaverse rhetoric. The fans reach out to TPTB as well, some of them forming friendships across those boundaries. The boundary between the producers of the show and the viewers is thinner and more permeable than one usually finds in the mass communication models that appear to govern the entertainment industry. The boundaries still remain, however. Can business still be conducted as usual, or has the tentative sharing of power with a highly active and interactive group of fans created a new power/knowledge/communication ratio that cannot be ignored? As the polemicist above says, "RP thought they had the Internetties eating out of their hands." Tyldus answers back in his rebuttal that TPTB never thought that fans "were willing sheep," never played "cat and mouse," never deliberately created an information leak to "jerk off the fans and flame the fire" ("Tyldus Interviews Himself"). He adds,

Why are people so quick to believe "a source"? Is it the air of conspiracy and mystery that makes it more believable? Face it, I am a source. And what I say doesn't come to you second, third, fourth or fifth hand. There are people out there who quote "sources" because they get their jollies by driving people crazy. ...Nobody should trust blindly. But that's what you do when you give credibility to unsubstantiated "things" and rumors on the net.










Themes of knowing emerge from Tyldus's rhetoric through the conflict of access and boundaries. Tyldus, as one of the most open and accessible members of Xenastaff, hands out information and access privileges to online fans. He essentially says, "Believe me, I give you access to TPTB." At the same time, he reasserts the strength of the boundaries by banking on his own position of authority on the "inside." He effectively says, "I am a source, I KNOW. You are on the outside of the boundaries, you do not KNOW." In another section of the same interview, Tyldus reiterates his position of knowing as evidence of the strength of the boundaries, no matter how much they have become blurred:

Q: Are the fans guilty of making assumptions?

A: Yes. Sorry, folks, but that's the case. Not one of you out there has definitive knowledge of what you are talking about. You are being assumptive and reactive. And, if any of you actually has figured it out, it's only by accident. (emphasis added)







There is currently no clear resolution to this conflict of access and boundaries. "Xena:WP" is not yet in a format that permits viewers to "choose their own adventure" (although new technology might enable such interaction in the future). TPTB are in the paradoxical position of releasing information while holding information back. Tyldus discusses the difficulties of the unquenchable need to know across this boundary:

Understand, people, there are too many of you out there to answer individually. I am not in the business of interpreting words for anyone. To satisfy everyone we would have to, again, explain the plot in detail. Better yet, let you read the script. Even better, allow you to watch the episode. Which is what we plan to do. And I can bet you that, even then, some people will then discuss our motives for doing things. Like we were coerced or are responding to merchandising/studio execs/Christian Right/Liberal Left/whatever. It will be something.






Who would put limits on this knowing? Interestingly enough, there has been a movement online which has gained widespread assent and acclaim, even to the point of enforcing this position in social norms online. I have tracked threads on the listservs through fantasy themes I call "Fans vs Stalkers," "The Lucy/Xena Distinction," and "Privacy." The zeitgeist of this combined movement was expressed in Kit Wilson's seminal email originally posted to the "Xenaverse listserv" but eventually reposted all over the Xenaverse. The excerpt below captures the gist of its rhetoric:

No matter how much Lucy gives us, we want more. Why? I believe the answer is that, whatever it is we want, she doesn't have it to give us. She's an actor. She is, I believe, one of those rare actors who brings a character to life in such a unique and powerful way that we may mistake the actor for the character she plays. We love Xena as Lucy brings her to us on the screen, but Lucy isn't Xena, and whatever it is that we take from Lucy's portrayal of Xena, we're not going to get the same thing from Lucy, and we're mistaken to try. We will find Xena on TV and within ourselves. That's where we should be looking.






This post is a classic example of the small contribution of a single rhetor creating a fantasy theme which immediately chained out into the fandom culture at large. In the crowds gathered around the stage door at Grease or in the audiences at Lawless's talk show appearances, if a fan were to gush, "I love you Xena!" there was a good chance an "Internettie" fan would turn and dress her down, saying, "She's Lucy, not Xena!" Lawless herself commented quite often on how wonderful her lesbian and lesbian-friendly fans were because they were not "blurred" into thinking that "Lucy" was "Xena." This is just one example, from an Australian lesbian magazine:

...The women there [at Meow Mix]," she [Lawless] says, are "just great" and gay women are some of her favorite fans. "They're not confused about a character. They don't demand that I be the character. They're not blurred, that's all. I feel easy in their company, funnily enough.

***Sections of Article Excerpted***

Fame is a dance with the Devil, at best. Level-headed and sound, there are still too many instances beyond her control. Those are the ones she says she doesn't handle too well. Her cult figure standing, for instance, that has spawned some rather unsavory admirers. "There are," says Lucy without a hint of her trademark humor, "a lot of wackos out there. Some sections of fandom are a little confused. They think Xena is me. Gay women, on the other hand, are so loyal because Xena is the first strong, kick-ass woman on TV. They're just thankful to me for my part of the show. I'm the public face.








Social norms of the Xenaverse impose boundaries on most Internet fans to keep them from violating Lucy Lawless's privacy. A dramatic example of this occurred in the spring of 1998, when somehow the date of Lawless and Rob Tapert's wedding found its way online. The details of the wedding, and times and places for the ceremony and honeymoon, were a carefully guarded secret among TPTB to avoid having the day marred by out-of-control fans, but online Xenites have their sources. Once the date got out online, several alternative dates were deliberately leaked to the mainstream press, to muddy the water. But more significantly, a short, tersely worded note from Lucy Lawless was posted online through Sharon Delaney at Creation, her official relay. It said that Lucy would prefer that fans not seek out information on her wedding.


This note in some respects confirmed the initial rumor, which turned out to be the true date of the wedding. However the effect of the note was dramatic. From the time of the note's posting until the date of the wedding, the "W" word was not spoken online, at least not that I could detect. If it had been, I have no doubt the offender would have been privately flamed most vigorously. After the wedding, Sharon reported that she had told Lucy about how effective the self-imposed silence online had been, and said that Lucy was amazed and pleased with her Internet fans. Was it the authority of Lawless's terse rhetorical action that led to this result? Or had the fantasy themes of "Fans vs Stalkers," "The Lucy/Xena Distinction," and "Privacy" created a rhetorical climate where Lawless's request for silence was immediately acted upon? No doubt it is a combination of the factors. As loved as the fantasy theme character of Lucy Lawless is in the Xenaverse, it is very likely fans want nothing more than to please her. But the prevailing ethos of the fandom culture already existed and was ready to pull any out-of-control and obsessed fans into line.


In this sector of rhetorical analysis, we have looked at fantasy themes of collecting and knowing as primary activities in the Xenaverse fandom culture. We have also seen how the fantasy type of the feedback loop between HCNBs and TPTB has created supporting dramatizations of themes of access to TPTB, friendship with TPTB, and victory for the Subtexters. Finally, in examining the boundaries between TPTB and the HCNBs as they affect the fantasy theme of knowing, we begin to see how power and authority are distributed and contested even in a space that unabashedly places the show, its actors, and TPTB in the center of its universe, its Xenaverse. In the sections of "Community" and "Fan Fiction" we look further at the power of rebellion, and what happens when TPTB are deposed from their central position in the Xenaverse.


On the icon of Xena's Sword, I look to "The Feedback Loop: Fantasy Themes of How Online Fans Changed the Direction of the Television Show Itself." The icon of Gabrielle's Staff takes you to "Collecting Themes: Primary Activities in Xenaverse Fandom Culture." Continuing on the path of Xena's Breastplate takes you into the shifting perspective of "Community," where TPTB are to some extent deposed from their central position. As always, the round Chakram takes you back to the Navigational Map.



The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

Copyright © 1998-2021 Christine Boese, All Rights Reserved
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