You Write It! Or, The L Word Is Labor
by Julie Levin Russo — Stanford University
September 20, 2009 – 22:35
This online video promoting The L Word season five features the lucky winner of a fan-written script contest as she claims her prize: a visit to the set to see her scene filmed (you can also watch it at SHO.com). The program launched this marketing series with a complete user-generated "fanisode" in 2006, contracting the start-up FanLib to orchestrate the web-based competition. The successful venture garnered a mention in the Wall Street Journal’s article about the transformation of fan fiction from a "fringe pursuit" into one that "helps unknown authors find mainstream success." The assumption that fans’ labors of love have the same goals, motivations, standards and economies as professional production is shared by FanLib — although in their business model, it’s the corporation rather than the authors who profit from monetizing fan fiction. Because of this attitude and related PR blunders, FanLib’s commercial fic archive (operating May 2007-August 2008, when the company was bought by Disney) was criticized for its lack of respect for the values of predominantly female communities of fan creativity.
In this video — which presents a later installment in the user-generated scripts campaign, titled "You Write It!" — showrunner Ilene Chaiken says the fact that "the fans of The L Word write a lot of fan fiction on their own" inspired the contests. But the majority of fan writers aren’t aspiring professionals like Molly or the Wall Street Journal’s winning interviewee. Chaiken’s equivalence effaces the anti-commercial traditions of fandom’s gift economy, which cultivates alternative modes of sharing the characters and stories that originate in the corporate media. However, Chaiken’s outlook both reflects and promotes The L Word’s strategic branding of "lesbian" identity, work modeled by the characters’ culture industry vocations. Like Jenny, Alice, Tina, Shane, Dana or indeed Chaiken herself, Molly is the exemplar of fans’ lessons in commodifying our passions, a didactic parallel that represents lesbianism as the privileged form of labor on both sides of the screen.
Inviting fan-written scripts may imply a breakdown of the distinction between amateurs and professionals, but the video’s rhetoric more emphatically reasserts the ideological gulf between fans and producers. The comments addressed to Molly, while well-meaning, are starkly condescending, informing her of banal aspects of television production as if she didn’t already have the knowledge to be a screenwriting success. The "You Write It!" contest was a perfect match with season five’s Lez Girls, a movie-within-a-TV-show that campily remixed The L Word’s early seasons. Molly’s scene earned its winning vote tally by enhancing these self-reflexive layers with a Charlie’s Angels mashup, alluding to the history of lesbian viewing. In contrast to the discourses of "we" and "our" that characterize much of The L Word’s marketing, however, the turn to calling fans "you" highlights the limits of this openness to appropriation. Chaiken may profess an interest in "the way interactivity is taking over our lives" that is borne out in The L Word’s cutting-edge online promotions, but this provocation extends only as far as fan labor channels value into the "lesbian" brand — because "you" work for free.